Author' Notes: Real life can be a monster. Even when you think nothing is really happening, it can still gobble up your free time and leave you little chance to do the things you want to do.

Despite what people might think, I do have a life away from writing fanfiction, and over the last two months, it has gotten the better of me. I haven't had the kind of time I need to sit down and write, and as a result this chapter took forever to get out.

Adding insult to injury, my beta has also been extremely busy, so while the chapter was done a week ago, it wasn't ready to go out until tonight.

I'm not going to lie; I'm not happy with this chapter. I know I say that a lot, but with this one…I just didn't have the time to sit down and concentrate on it, so I would write in spurts; whenever I would get five or ten free minutes I'd sit and bang out a little bit for the chapter…and I think the work suffered because of it. So, if any of you dislike this chapter, well, I can't say as I blame you.

You've waited long enough, and I really want to let you get down to reading, but before you do I want to let you in on a little health and safety tip. Always where a shirt while boiling water…even on the hottest day of the summer…because you never know when you're going to have a Jack Tripperesque* accident and wind up wearing that boiling water. And let me tell you…second degree burns are neither attractive nor painless. And if you happen to be the type of person who can only get comfortable and sleep on your stomach, having second degree burns on your abdomen and lower torso make it pretty much impossible to get any sleep.

Thanks: An amazing thing has happened. In the two months since I last posted, more than 100 new reviews were posted for this story…many of them from new readers who took the time to review every chapter. As a result, even though I haven't posted a damn thing since July, the number of reviews this story has garnered shot up from 700 to 818! That's incredible, and I really, really want to thank those new readers as well as all of my older readers for each and every one of those 800+ reviews.

More Thanks: As usual, I want to thank my beta, CutewithAcapital-Q for her tireless efforts in helping me to try to make my writing better. I want to thank her even more this time around because I know she was extremely busy, and she still took the time out to help me. You're amazing, Cutie. Thanks a bunch!

Disclaimer: Now for the final bit of business before I let you guys read this chapter. All the HP stuff belongs to JKR. I know it…you know it…everybody knows it.

*Jack Tripperesque: For anyone not familiar with the TV show "Three's Company", Jack Tripper was the character played by John Ritter who was well known for his prat falls and clumsy accidents. He was an aspiring chef on the show, so many of those prat falls happened in the kitchen.

*sigh* Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You can do it, but you tend to kill it in the process.


Chapter 27 – "Reflections of Light in the House of Black"

With Dumbledore and Sirius gone, Ron returned to his bedroom. He could smell the heady aroma of one of Molly Weasley's signature breakfasts wafting its way up from the basement kitchen, and he knew it was only a matter of time before the gloomy house became lively with a host of rambunctious Weasleys…and he wanted to make sure he was out of their way.

Yes, four-out-of-six Weasley siblings approved of him, but he didn't know about the other two brothers; he didn't know if Bill and Percy were even staying at Grimmauld Place, but he didn't want to take the chance. Plus, he knew for certain that Molly and Arthur didn't want him around, so in the interests of making things easier for everybody involved, he decided to keep to himself as much as possible.

Besides, thanks to him, as crowded as Sirius' house currently was, it was about to get even more crowded. Ron had no idea whether or not Dumbledore had informed the Weasleys that Hermione and her parents would be arriving soon, but regardless of whether they knew the Grangers were coming or not, having a bunch of strangers in the same house for Christmas was going to be a huge imposition on the Weasleys.

Still, having Hermione around would be nice. He'd become used to being able to spend Christmas with Hermione, having done so since he was twelve. Yes, seeing his family for the holidays was nice, but being able to spend time with Hermione…and Harry…was something else…something special; even if those Christmases spent with Hermione and Harry at Hogwarts were anything but peaceful, what with sneaking around looking for Nicholas Flamel, sneaking around looking for the Heir of Slytherin, not talking to Hermione because she'd gotten Harry's new Firebolt taken away, and, of course, the Yule Ball.

No, Christmas had not been peaceful for Ron since he'd gone off to Hogwarts, and he wondered, with You-Know-Who gathering his army of Azkaban escapees and Dementors with Harry right by his side, if he would ever get to see a peaceful Christmas ever again.

Ron was startled out of his thoughts by the resounding crack of Apparition coming from the foot of his bed. He pulled his wand just in time to see Kreacher hobbling towards him, hunchbacked and ancient-looking, carrying a tray laden with breakfast foods. Suddenly, the conversation he'd overheard last night between Molly and Arthur came back to him.

"He can take his meals in his room and that horrible house elf can bring them to him."

Ron lowered his wand and sighed. At least he wasn't going to go hungry.

"Kreacher has brought your breakfast, young master," Kreacher said in a voice reminiscent of a bullfrog. He bowed low as he presented the tray to Ron, continuing to speak as though he didn't know or care that Ron could hear him. "Perhaps it will choke and there will be one less blood traitor stinking up poor Mistress' house."

"Shut it, you," Ron said, snatching the tray of food from Kreacher and depositing it on the scarred old desk in the corner, "I'm in no mood to deal with you, you dozy little blighter."

"Kreacher said nothing, young master," Kreacher replied, bowing low as he backed away from Ron, "Not even the fat blood traitor cow wants to deal with this one. Perhaps someone will smother it in its sleep."

"Oi!" Ron shouted, aiming his wand at the decrepit old house elf. He was reminded of a time over the summer when he woke up in the middle of the night to find Kreacher prowling around his room. "I'd better not catch you in here at night…understand?"

"Of course, young master; Kreacher wouldn't think of it," the house elf croaked, "Poor Kreacher cannot stomach the smell of these blood traitors and abominations defiling Mistress' house."

"Just get out," Ron said finally. He kept his wand trained on the elf until, with an obnoxiously loud crack, Kreacher disappeared from his room. "Bloody mental little wretch."

Though his appetite had been somewhat diminished by having to deal with Kreacher and the insults and veiled threats spewing from his froglike mouth, it didn't vanish completely; so Ron sat at the old desk and began tucking into the food the elf had brought, trying not to dwell on the fact that he was only forced to deal with Kreacher because he wasn't welcome at the breakfast table with the rest of the occupants of the house.

Ron's forced absence at mealtime was going to become very hard for him to explain once Hermione and her parents showed up; not to mention the way Molly very obviously despised him. The Weasley family was a notoriously close family, and Molly was well-known for being loving and protective of her children, so it wasn't going to take a genius of Hermione's calibre to see that something was clearly wrong with the Weasleys and that Ron was somehow at the center of it.

Even though some of the Weasleys accepted him, Ron still felt like an outcast, and he couldn't help wondering if that was exactly how his brother Percy felt back on the world he'd come from.

"At least that prat deserves it," he muttered to himself, thinking back to the way Percy had insulted their father and broke their mother's heart.

Of course, Percy wasn't an outcast here. According to the twins, Percy was still working in the Department of International Magical Cooperation and spent a great deal of time out of the country, assisting in the development of relations with Wizarding governments in other countries. His star hadn't risen as far and as fast as it had back on that other world, but then, he also wasn't being duped into spying on his own family and, through them, Dumbledore…so Percy had that going for him.

Ron sighed as he finished his breakfast, leaving the tray of empty dishes sit on the old desk as he got up and moved about the room. Grimmauld Place wasn't as grim as he'd remembered it, which was a good thing. The place was a veritable deathtrap when he and his family and Hermione had gone about cleaning it up over the summer.

"Over there," Ron thought, trying to keep the two universes straight. It was difficult, sometimes, as the two worlds seemed to blur together sometimes in his mind. "Over there I'm considered worthless; here I'm just hated."

Flopping down on the bed, Ron glanced at the clock on his bed-stand. He didn't know when Hermione and her parents would be arriving, but as he looked at the wrinkled clothes he'd worn home from Hogwarts and slept in last night, he realized that he definitely needed a shower and a change of clothes before they arrived.

An hour later, Ron had showered and shaved and did his best to make his hair look presentable – though he would deny it if anyone asked him about it. He had put on a set of clean clothes and was just leaving his room to see if Dumbledore had returned yet, when suddenly…


Ron turned his head at the sound of his name being shrieked and was immediately blinded as his vision was completely obscured by a large quantity of very bushy brunette hair. It took him a second to realize that he wasn't being attacked by some creature that had been lurking in the shadows of Grimmauld Place, but by Hermione. She had thrown herself onto him in a hug that nearly knocked him flat.

"RON! Oh, Ron, you're here! I was so worried! Dumbledore showed up as we were finishing our packing for our ski holiday and told us we were in danger…there's been a breakout at Azkaban and there are Death Eaters and Dementors on the loose! I was so scared because he didn't tell me that you were safe at first and when I asked him if he was going to get you and your family, too, he said you had been the one to send him to find us! He said it was all your idea because you were sure we'd be targets because of what we did in the Chamber of Secrets and…Ron! Can you believe the Dementors are working for You-Know-Who now? Those horrible creatures…remember what it was like with them around Hogwarts in Third Year…how dreadful and cold it felt and…oh, I'm just so relieved to see you're alright! But my parents, they're so confused by all this and Dumbledore said there wasn't time to explain everything to them until we got here…and I don't even know where here is…I know it's the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, but the building just sort of appeared out of nowhere…I mean, I'd read about that sort of thing in a book on protective magic but –"

"Breathe, Hermione," Ron said, grinning as he pulled back slightly from the hug and looked down into her very flushed face. The last time he had been this close to her, they had almost kissed; Ron began blushing heavily at the memory and looked away, flustered.

Hermione must have missed the look of embarrassment on Ron's face because she was still beaming up at him happily as she let go of him and stepped back. Before either of them could say another word, something furry brushed past their legs and they turned just in time to see Crookshanks' orange bottle-brush tail disappearing into Ron's bedroom.

Chuckling, Ron was about to tease Hermione about her cat making itself at home in his bedroom when a voice coming from the direction of the stairs made him freeze.

"Well, isn't this cozy!"

He looked up as Hermione whirled around, her mad mane of hair smacking him in the face and threatening to make him sneeze as it tickled his nose. Ron pushed the hair out of the way and saw Sirius leaning against the banister of the stairs smirking at them. It was he that had spoken, but next to him stood an equally smirking Lupin, Tonks, and Charlie.

There was a pile of expensive-looking, matching luggage and a familiar-looking Hogwarts trunk sitting on the floor in front of them, and next to it all stood Hermione's parents. Ron paled a bit at the sight of her parents and took half a step back from their daughter. Mrs. Granger was smiling knowingly at the scene before her, but Mr. Granger seemed to have the makings of a scowl forming on his lips.

"Mum, Dad…you remember Ron," Hermione said, moving towards her parents, fidgeting nervously with her fingers.

"Of course we do, Hermione…we only just met him last night," Mrs. Granger reminded her daughter, "You honestly didn't expect us to forget about your friend that quickly, did you?"

"We remember him, Hermione," Mr. Granger said, narrowing his eyes at Ron, "You just didn't tell us the two of you were so close."

Ron swallowed visibly, glad of two things: that Mr. Granger wasn't a wizard able to cast Avada Cadavra, and that looks could not, in fact kill…because if either of those two things weren't true, Ron was fairly certain he'd be dead where he stood.

"Why don't I show you where you'll be staying," Remus Lupin said to the Grangers, breaking the awkward silence before it could stretch on any longer than a couple of seconds. The haggard-looking werewolf began walking down the hall, motioning for the two Muggle dentists to follow him, "It's just down this way."

"Nice seeing you again, Ron," Mrs. Granger said politely as she passed him.

"Yes, hopefully we'll get a chance to talk very soon," Mr. Granger said pointedly before his wife nudged him with her elbow and grabbed his arm, dragging him along with her.

"Maybe you want to help me with the luggage, Ron," Charlie said as he used his wand to levitate the mass of suitcases in front of him, leaving the trunk sitting on the floor for Ron to handle.

"Err…sure," Ron nodded, walking over towards the older Weasley and picking up Hermione's school trunk. It was heavy, no doubt laden down with books, and Ron had to strain to lift it.

"Don't give yourself a hernia, little brother," Charlie joked as they began moving the Grangers' luggage down the hall, following Remus as he led them to their bedroom. As they walked, Charlie leaned in and lowered his voice so only Ron could hear, "Is that the girl you told me about…the one with the boyfriend?" Charlie asked, motioning towards Hermione with his head.

Ron nodded, keeping his voice low as well. "Yeah…but she's chucked her boyfriend."

"Really?" Charlie replied, looking lost in thought, "Hmm…"

"What?" Ron asked, curious as to what his 'brother' was thinking.

"Nothing," the older Weasley replied, shaking his head, "She's cute…and she likes you, too."

"You think?" Ron wanted to make sure it wasn't just his imagination; that it seemed to other people that Hermione liked him just as he liked her.

Charlie nodded in response before asking a question that made Ron's stomach drop. "Does she know the truth…where you're from and all that?"

"No," Ron said, frowning, "She knows what I'm supposed to be doing, but not…y'know…"

"She doesn't know you'll be leaving," Charlie said, filling in the blanks, "You should tell her. If you're going to try and start something with her, she deserves to know the truth."

"I know," Ron replied, tight-lipped and serious-looking.

He knew that bringing Hermione here would mean she might find out the truth, since everyone else in the house already knew and the Weasleys tended to talk without thinking from time-to-time. They were an emotional bunch, and so often didn't consider the consequences of their words before speaking. It was a family trait.

"This is your room, Doctors Granger," Remus Lupin was saying as Ron and Charlie caught up with the luggage, "And Hermione, you can stay in the room next door…unless you'd prefer to share with Ginny up on the third floor."

"I'll stay down here, if it's all the same, Professor," Hermione said, looking around her a bit nervously, "I'm sure my parents want me nearby."

"Yes, we want to be able to keep a close eye on her," Mr. Granger said, looking straight at Ron as he said it. He then turned to address Remus, "Until we get settled in, of course. This is all very new and confusing for us…you understand."

"Of course," Lupin said, nodding before he turned to the two redheads in the hall, "Charlie, Ron, why don't you put the Grangers' luggage in their rooms."

"Sure thing, Lupin," Charlie nodded, moving into Mr. and Mrs. Granger's room, levitating their luggage in front of him.

Ron nodded towards his former DADA professor and began hauling Hermione's trunk into her room, being careful not to scuff the sides against the doorframe as he struggled to get it through.

"I'll have some tea sent up," Remus continued, once again addressing the Grangers, "And after lunch, someone will give you a tour of the house and answer any of the questions that you no doubt have about what is going on. For now, though, I have a meeting I must attend. If you need anything, I'm sure Ron would be more than happy to help you."

Ron placed Hermione's book-laden Hogwarts trunk at the foot of the bed in her newly assigned room, sighing with relief at finally being divested of the heavy load. He looked up and saw Hermione following him into the room, looking around with scrutiny at the place she'd be spending the next two weeks.

"Thank you for carrying my trunk, Ron," she said, turning her attention to him and smiling at him.

"No worries, Hermione," he replied, wiping his hands, which were suddenly very sweaty, on the legs of his trousers, "I forgot how heavy your trunk can be."

Hermione gave him a curious look. "When have you ever carried my trunk before?"

Images of the last two summers spent together at the Burrow and here at Order headquarters flashed through Ron's brain, only to be tempered by the strange looks he was receiving from the girl standing in front of him.

"Err…it's just…I figured with all the books you probably take with you, your trunk must be heavy."

She nodded, as if accepting his explanation. If she didn't believe him, she certainly didn't press him about it. Hermione began looking around the room again, nervously fidgeting with her fingers. Ron, too, was clearly nervous, and shoved his hands into his trouser pockets to prevent himself from fidgeting the way Hermione was.

The sudden shock of seeing each other again…of being able to see for themselves that the other was safe…had worn off, and now they were back to being uncomfortable around each other; much as they had been the night before at King's Cross.

"This house is a bit…unusual," Hermione said diplomatically as she allowed her eyes to travel over the room's décor…the room's very Slytherin décor.

"It's downright creepy is what it is," Ron replied, "Every time I go to open a door, I'm half-afraid the bloody doorknob is going to bite me."

Hermione laughed nervously, not even bothering to scold him for his language. Her laughter faded and soon the room was cloaked in an uncomfortable silence that seemed to last for ages. Ron gazed at the floor, while Hermione shifted her gaze from walls to ceiling to anything in the room that wasn't Ron. The silence seemed to be crushing them where they stood.

"Ron, we need to talk about the hospital wing…"

"Hermione, there's something I need to tell you…"

Both desperate to end the deafening silence, they had spoken at exactly the same time, their words mashing together in an unintelligible cacophony. Blushing and laughing nervously, they did it again.

"You go first…"

"Go 'head…"

Before the two nervous teens could open their mouths and do it a third time, the sound of throat being cleared drew their attention to Mr. Granger standing in the doorway holding a suitcase.

"This is yours, Poppet," Hermione's father said, entering the room and setting the piece of luggage down on her bed, "That Charlie bloke brought it to our room by mistake." Even though he spoke to Hermione, his eyes were fixed on Ron.

"Oh…thanks, Dad," Hermione replied, nervously looking back-and-forth between her father and Ron.

As awkward and uncomfortable as things had felt for Ron when it was just him and Hermione in the room, the feeling multiplied a thousand-fold the moment her father entered. The way Mr. Granger was looking at him had Ron so nervous that he wished he knew how to Apparate so he could just disappear. The next words out of Mr. Granger's mouth had Ron's stomach plummeting down into his shoes.

"Hermione, why don't you go help your mother unpack, while I have a chat with Ron."

"Dad…" Hermione gave her father a look that said she knew what he was up to and didn't like it one bit.

"I just want to talk to your friend, Poppet," John Granger assured his daughter, "I'll be nice. Now, go help your mother."

Hermione gave Ron an apologetic look before she left the room. When his daughter was gone, Mr. Granger moved over and shut the door behind her. The closing of the door made the softest of clicks, but to Ron it sounded like thunder as he found himself alone with Hermione's father.

"Mr. Granger…" Ron began, not sure what he was going to say, but wanting to say something in his own defense. It was obvious that her father did not like the way Hermione hugged him when she saw him earlier, and Ron was sure he was about to hear about it.

"Relax, Ron," Mr. Granger said calmly, "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to talk. Have a seat."

Mr. Granger motioned towards the bed and Ron reluctantly sat down. Hermione's father then pulled the desk chair over from the corner and sat down on it in front of Ron. He locked gazes with Ron and after several moments, Ron looked away, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. Finally John Granger cleared his throat and began speaking again.

"I couldn't help noticing how fond Hermione is of you. When we came up those steps and she caught sight of you…well…I'd never seen her smile so brightly. And let's not forget that hug."

Ron could already feel his ears turning the color of the jumpers his mother made for him every Christmas. Hermione had nearly knocked him off his feet when she hugged him, and he was definitely not used to that level of physical affection from Hermione. It had been very pleasing to Ron to be on the receiving end of Hermione's flying tackle-hug, but having to discuss it with her father would be torture. He didn't know if he was supposed to provide some sort of explanation or other commentary, so Ron just sat there, blushing.

"I've only ever seen Hermione hug one man that way before, Ron, and that man was me," Mr. Granger continued, obviously not expecting Ron to say anything…at least not yet, "That's the same sort of hug I'd get when I came home from a week-long dental conference. I've never seen her do that with anyone else. She certainly didn't hug Viktor that way when he came to visit…and she hadn't seen him in over a month."

Ron's jaw clenched at the mention of Viktor Krum. He hated that the Bulgarian had gone to visit Hermione over the summer, but he knew it could've been worse…she could've gone to visit him in Bulgaria, and there's no telling what might've happened, then.

"So, tell me, Ron," Mr. Granger went on, seemingly oblivious to the change in Ron's demeanor brought on by the mention of Hermione's ex-boyfriend, "How is that you received the type of hug it took her father a week-long absence to get, and that her boyfriend never got, after only being away from her for a little more than twelve hours?"

"Err…" Ron had no idea how to answer that question, since he had no idea what he'd done. Yes, he and Hermione were friends, and yes, they had almost kissed, but weeks had passed since that awkward moment in the hospital wing without Hermione speaking so much as a single word to him. Until he had a chance to actually sit down and talk to Hermione, there was no way for Ron to know what exactly was going on.

"Let's put a pin in that one for a bit; we'll come back to it," John Granger said after Ron failed to answer him, "Up until last night, Ron, Mrs. Granger and I didn't even know you existed; Hermione had never mentioned you before. On the drive home last night, however, she wouldn't stop talking about you. Apparently, you've made quite an impression on my daughter."

"She's my best friend, sir," Ron said, blushing.

"But there's more to it, judging by that hug," John replied, arching an eyebrow at Ron, "Last night, when I suggested that Hermione try dating someone like you, I had no idea that she already had a similar idea in mind."

"We're not dating, Mr. Granger," Ron said, shaking his head vehemently, "I didn't even know she and Krum had broken up until last night."

"But you were pleased to hear that they had, yes? Just as I was," John said, giving Ron an appraising look, "I wonder why that is."

"I hate that ruddy git," Ron blurted out before he even had a chance to think, "He didn't deserve Hermione."

"I couldn't agree more," Mr. Granger said, nodding, "Of course, I'm biased. She's my little girl…my only little girl…and I'd hate to see her with someone who didn't treat her the way she deserves to be treated."

Ron nodded, looking down at his feet. He was notorious for being thick about many things, especially where girls were concerned, but Ron was fairly certain he was receiving Mr. Granger's message loud and clear.

"Hermione is a smart girl," John continued, "But even smart girls make bad choices. Viktor was one of those choices. From the moment he set foot in our home last summer, I could tell that he did not have Hermione's best interests at heart. I don't want my daughter dating someone like that."

"I understand, sir," Ron said, nodding and looking down at his feet.

"I'd have to be blind not to see that the two of you care for each other, and I'd have to be stupid to believe that nothing was going to happen between you. Let me assure you, Ron, that I am neither blind nor stupid."

"No, sir, I never said –"

"Something tells me that you do have Hermione's best interests at heart, Ron; but know this: I've got my eye on you, Ron…I'll be watching," Mr. Granger said with a very serious look in his eye.

"Yes, sir," Ron said, swallowing nervously.

"Good. Now that I'm done intimidating the new boy in Hermione's life…why don't you explain to me why my family and I are here inside a haunted house that appeared out of thin air, instead of at home getting ready for our ski holiday."

Before he could respond, a sudden shriek of terror from the bedroom next door had Ron and Mr. Granger on their feet and out the door in an instant. Ron was the first one through the door into the Grangers' bedroom, wand drawn and on the lookout for danger.

Hermione and Mrs. Granger were huddled together on the bed in fear, hugging each other tightly. Their frightened gazes where locked on some horror across the room; a horror by the name of Kreacher who was currently setting a tea service and a plate of scones on a disused vanity table.

"What is going on in here?" Mr. Granger bellowed as he burst through the door directly behind Ron.

"That thing just appeared out of nowhere!" Mrs. Granger cried, her voice laced with fear.

"What is it?" Hermione asked, looking at Ron.

Ron sighed, putting away his wand. "Kreacher," he replied, looking at Hermione, "He's the Black family's house elf."

"That's a house elf?" Hermione responded, looking back-and-forth between Ron and Kreacher.

"Hermione…in all the time you've been at Hogwarts, you mean you've never seen a house elf before?"

She shook her head quickly. "No, when would I have?"

Ron nodded in understanding. She wouldn't have seen a house elf before. This Hermione hadn't met Dobby; she hadn't been to the World Cup to see Barty Crouch mistreat his house elf, Winky. She certainly wasn't the type to sneak down to the kitchens after curfew to grab a midnight snack from the overly helpful house elves there. She wasn't the staunch supporter for house elf rights who had begun the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare. This was her first experience with a house elf…what a shame that it had to be with Kreacher.

"What are you doing here, Kreacher?" Ron asked the wrinkled little elf. He couldn't stand the little wretch, and he didn't want the Grangers to have to be a party to the elf's hateful mutterings.

"Master told Kreacher to bring tea for the new visitors," Kreacher croaked, hobbling away from the vanity and bowing in front of Ron. As per usual, the house elf continued to speak as though he didn't think anyone else could hear him. "First it was abominations and blood traitors, and now this Muggle filth. Oh, what disgrace has befallen poor Mistress' house!"

"Quiet, you little bast—"


Ron looked over his shoulder to see Hermione looking cross at him. She was huddled together with her mother on the bed, while her father stood next to it, his arms wrapped tightly around both of them, as if to keep them safe from Kreacher.

"Sorry, Hermione," he at least had the good sense to look contrite as she scolded him for his language. He then turned his attention back to Kreacher, "You just get out of here, Kreacher…and next time, use the door."

"Of course, young master," Kreacher said before disappearing with a loud crack that had all three Grangers jumping.

"I never knew house elves looked like that," Hermione said, disengaging herself from her parents and getting off the bed, moving to stand next to Ron, "Were those house elf heads mounted on the wall by the stairs, then?"

"Kreacher's ancestors," Ron said, nodding, "The nutter hopes to join them someday."

"How horrible," Mrs. Granger said, blanching visibly.

"And I thought the goblins at that bank were strange," Mr. Granger added.

"They're not all like Kreacher," Ron said, "Most are nice and really helpful; the house elves down in the Hogwarts kitchens go out of their way to get you whatever you need."

"And just what are you doing sneaking down to the kitchens, Ronald?" Hermione asked sharply, her hands on her hips.

"A bloke gets hungry sometimes, Hermione," Ron said, defending himself, "It's not like I'm hurting anybody by nicking a bit of food."

"No, but you are breaking the rules; and as a prefect –" Hermione's rant was cut off by the sound of chuckling coming from the bed. She began blushing and quickly dropped her confrontational posture.

Ron, too, was blushing as he turned to face Hermione's parents. Mr. Granger was the one chuckling and had a highly amused glint in his brown eyes. Mrs. Granger, too, seemed amused, but she had the good grace to simply smile at the two of them.

"Err…I should probably leave you to your unpacking," Ron said, looking embarrassedly down at his shoes as he quickly made for the door, "If you need any help with anything, let me know."

Ron exited the room as fast as he could, and hurried down the hall to his own bedroom. Along the way, he noticed for the first time that the second floor was apparently empty except for himself and the Grangers. Sirius, Lupin, Tonks and Charlie were all gone.

"The Order meeting must've started," he muttered to himself as he reached his bedroom door before bitterly adding, "Nice of them to include me."

Ron peered into his bedroom where Crookshanks was curled up comfortably in the middle of his bed. He then looked towards the stairs, at the bottom of which, in the dining room, the Order were having their meeting. He wanted to know what they were discussing in that meeting; he deserved to know what they were discussing.

He looked up. Somewhere up on the third floor was Fred and George's room. If anybody could help him find out what was happening in the meeting, it was those two…and he knew just how they could help.

Ron rushed up the stairs and after several tries found the bedroom the twins were sharing. They were huddled over something that Ron couldn't quite see as their bodies were blocking it from view, but judging by the disgruntled looks on their faces when he barged into their room, they were most likely up to no good.

"Oi! Don't you knock?" Fred shouted.

"We're in the middle of something important here," George replied just as testily.

"Sorry 'bout that," Ron replied, "But I need a favor."

The twins looked at each other for a split second, and then Fred waved his wand at the bedroom door, slamming it shut and locking it.

"What do you need?" Fred and George asked in unison.

"There's an Order meeting going on downstairs and I want to borrow an Extendable Ear," Ron said quickly, wanting to get downstairs to listen in on the meeting as soon as possible.

The twins exchanged another look, before turning back to Ron, looks of confusion written across their faces.

"How'd you know about the Extendable Ear?" Fred asked.

"We've kept it a secret from everybody," George added.

"We used them all summer," Ron explained, "Listening in on Order meetings…at least, we did over there." Ron motioned with his head, indicating the world he'd been Borrowed from, "It's one of your best ideas yet."

Ron's compliment seemed to do the trick, and the twins grinned broadly at him before jumping to their feet and scurrying about the room. Fred moved over to his school trunk and unlocked it, delving into its depths, while George draped a sheet over top of whatever it was they were working on when Ron first entered the room. Moments later, Fred returned with a flesh-colored length of string in his hand.

"This is our prototype for the Extendable Ear," Fred said, handing it gingerly to Ron, "Be careful with it."

"Bloody thing's expensive to produce," George added, "So we've only made the one."

"Only one?" Ron replied, shocked, "But I thought you blokes would've made dozens of them."

"Like George said," Fred answered with a sigh, "They're expensive to make. Once our owl-order business really takes off, we'll have the money to make more…and with any luck they'll be a big seller."

"But you're rolling in galleons," Ron exclaimed, "You're only doing the owl-order business until you're finished school and can buy premises of your own."

Fred and George exchanged yet another look, this time frowning at each other before turning back to face Ron.

"Afraid not, Ron," Fred said, shaking his head, "We used every bit of our life-savings to produce the small bit of inventory we've been selling at school and through owl-order."

"And the money we've made," George continued, "Has gone towards restocking that inventory so we can continue to sell it."

"We've made some profit," Fred admitted, "Enough to invent some new items, like the Extendable Ear…"

"But nowhere near enough to open up our own shop," George continued sadly.

"If your twins are rolling in it, like you said," Fred said sounding disheartened, "Then they had a stroke of luck that we never did."

Ron frowned, trying to imagine just what stroke of luck his brothers might have had that these two didn't. An uncomfortable silence fell over the room, and Ron hated having to be the one to break it, but he really did need to get a move on.

"I'll be careful with the Extendable; and I promise to bring it back as soon as I'm done with it."

"Be sure and tell us what the meeting's about," Fred said, looking hopeful, "Since they won't let us join the Order until we're finished school."

"We'd come down and listen with you," George said, casting a look over his shoulder at the sheet covering whatever the twins were working on when Ron entered, "But we're a little busy."

Ron nodded, looking at the sheet and wondering just what the two mischief-makers could be up to at the moment.

"Try not to blow up the room," Ron quipped as he turned to leave.

"No promises," Fred and George chorused in unison. Fred waved his wand at the door and it unlocked, allowing Ron to leave.

Once out in the hall, Ron raced down the steps eager to find out what the Order were discussing. He slowed as he neared the ground floor, not wanting his thunderous footsteps on the old stairs or Mrs. Black's portrait screeching at the top of her lungs to alert the Order to his presence.

Moving quietly along the ground floor hallway, he stopped outside the closed door to the dining room. Crouching down, he slipped one end of the flesh-colored string under the door and placed the other end up to his ear; it was just lucky that no one had thought to Imperturb the door before the meeting began.

"…Nothing to report, because I have yet to be granted an audience with the Dark Lord," the voice was unmistakably that of Severus Snape, and Ron frowned deeply at the very idea of the former Death Eater being a member of the Order of the Phoenix, "It would seem that Lucius Malfoy currently has the Dark Lord's favor; all of my requests to meet with the Dark Lord since his return have been intercepted by Lucius and promptly rejected."

"What good is having a Death Eater serve as a spy if he can't even get in to see his master?" the angry voice of Sirius snapped, "I always knew you were useless, Snivellus, but thanks ever so much for proving me right!"

"Sirius, that will do!" the commanding voice of Dumbledore spoke up, "We are all on the same side here, so I expect you to behave like it…all of you." Dumbledore waited until the room was silent once more before continuing, "What news of the Azkaban break-out, Kingsley?"

"Fudge is continuing to keep it quiet," the booming voice of Kingsley Shacklebolt replied, "He won't allow any communication between Azkaban and the mainland, which is why it took me so long to inform you of the break-out in the first place."

"I understand, Kingsley," Dumbledore said, "Please, go on."

"Currently, Fudge is looking for someone to blame," Kingsley continued, "He plans to pin the whole thing on Peter Pettigrew because of his former Death Eater connection. The Minister is saying Pettigrew orchestrated the whole thing from his cell inside Azkaban."

"That doesn't sound like Peter," Lupin could be heard saying.

"No," Sirius agreed, "Wormtail always was a little slow."

"He's slower now," Kingsley replied grimly, "They found him in his cell after the break-out. He'd been kissed."

Gasps and shocked murmurs momentarily filled the room as Ron listened in on the final fate of Peter Pettigrew.

"Good riddance," Sirius said, with no hint of compassion or sympathy in his voice.

Kingsley went on once the room settled down. "The story Fudge plans to release…eventually…says that Pettigrew planned the break-out but was kissed when the Dementors tried to stop the prisoners from escaping. That's also how Fudge plans to explain the absence of Dementors at Azkaban now…says they're out trying to capture the escapees."

"That's ridiculous!" exclaimed a voice that sounded like Charlie's, "Fudge can't really think people will believe that."

"When I escaped, hundreds of Dementors were sent to look for me," Sirius reminded them, "It's not as far-fetched a scenario as you think."

"The worst part of it is that I think the Minister wants to believe it's true," Kingsley added, "I think the idea that the Ministry has lost control of the Dementors is too frightening for Fudge to even consider."

"What about when innocent people start losing their souls?" Charlie asked angrily, "Will he consider it then?"

"I'm afraid Cornelius' love of the power his position provides will blind him to the truth until it is too late," Dumbledore said resignedly, "I believe the Minister would need to see Voldemort with his own two eyes before he'd be willing to consider the possibility that he has returned."

"Since not even Severus has been able to see Voldemort," Lupin replied gravely, "I doubt he'll be accommodating enough to show himself to the Minister."

"If no one's seen him, are we even sure You-Know-Who is really back?" Tonks asked.

"There is a Muggle proverb," Dumbledore responded softly, "That says, 'the Devil's greatest trick was convincing the world he did not exist.' Voldemort may not subscribe to Muggle philosophy, but in this case, I fully believe that he has taken a cue from the Devil himself."

Ron could hear the mutterings of assent in the room as most of the Order members present sounded as though they agreed with their leader.

"An army is being gathered," Dumbledore said determinedly, "Hagrid has confirmed that the giants have already been recruited; and now the Dementors have joined as well. Voldemort will continue to bring dark creatures to his side; therefore, we must send delegations to the werewolves, the vampires, and other sentient beings who sided with Voldemort in the past. We must reach out to them before the Dark Lord does."

There was more muttering in the room from the members of the Order, and Dumbledore waited for them to stop before he continued talking.

"We must remain vigilant," Dumbledore said, almost reminding Ron of Mad-Eye Moody for a moment, "Voldemort will not reveal himself until the time is right; by then it may be too late for us to stop him."

Ron could hear chairs scraping across the floor in the dining room, signifying the end of the meeting. He quickly reeled in the Extendable Ear from under the door, stood up and ran up the steps back to the second floor.

He recounted the things he had overheard in the meeting. You-Know-Who was keeping a low profile, so no one truly knew if he was back or not. That wasn't surprising, since that's what he was doing back on Ron's world, too.

You-Know-Who was gathering an army. Again, not a surprise; He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was doing the same thing on both worlds. The thought of that, though, an army of dark creatures – giants, werewolves, vampires, Dementors – it sent a cold shiver down Ron's spine. He wouldn't fancy meeting any of them in a fight.

Ron had learned something he didn't know before: Hagrid had been sent to parley with the giants…and he'd been unsuccessful; that certainly explained the condition of Hagrid's face when he encountered him in his cabin several weeks ago. Even if it didn't explain why he could swear he saw a giant and a dragon in the Forbidden Forest the day he escaped from the Chamber of Secrets.

The other bit of news he'd learned had a bit more personal impact. Peter Pettigrew had been kissed by a Dementor and was now a soulless husk. Ron couldn't help agreeing a little bit with Sirius' sentiment about Pettigrew's fate – good riddance. He didn't know if he'd ever get over the feeling of betrayal and sense of violation he felt when it was revealed that his beloved pet rat was really a full-grown man in his thirties; worse still was the fact that he was the man responsible for the death of his best friend's parents.

Ron continued to ponder what he'd overheard at the meeting as he moved down the second floor hallway into his bedroom. His thoughts of his former pet rat and the negative emotions he now associated with "Scabbers" vanished from his head as he entered his room and found Hermione lying on his bed petting a purring Crookshanks.

"Huh-uh-hi," Ron said nervously, having expected to find his room devoid of anyone except the sleeping ginger cat.

Hermione flashed a slight smile his way. "Can we talk now?"

Author's End Notes: There you have it: Chapter 27. As I said, I wasn't happy with it. With any luck, I'll have more time to put into the next chapter so I won't have to feel like I'm posting something subpar for my faithful readers to enjoy.