They'd driven down together, singing along to the little car's radio and watching the Mercian green slide into the Wessex countryside on an altogether more scenic route than had initially been intended. Eventually the greens turned to the greys and browns of a city and they became quieter, navigating the crowded streets of the capital. The two girls dropped the car off with an old acquaintance, all curiosity and amusement; Amelia supposed that crossing the city was a good deal easier without the considerable volume of baggage they were carrying, and it was already dusk by the time they arrived outside a series of rundown buildings.
There were fewer people bustling about now; the greengrocer's to the left of them was shutting up shop and many of the windows on the street were already covered. They had stood for a minute before Mel realised that Hermione was watching her expectantly.
"What?" she asked the girl.
"Aren't you going to ask me where we are?" Hermione asked, clearly looking forward to having more information than her cousin. She was to be severely disappointed.
"Well, that sign says 'The Leaky Cauldron' and that's where you said we were headed – don't give me that look 'Mione, you talked about it for months in your first year."
Hermione, still frowning at Amelia's superior observation skills, considered her fairer cousin:
"I take it that you can see the pub, then?"
"Well duh." Amelia had had a long day's travel and wasn't entirely sure why they were still standing outside a building whose interior looked warm and smelled encouragingly of stew.
Hermione shook her head.
"You know, I don't know how we ever missed you before because it's pretty damn' obvious now. You're not even squinting!"
The two girls smiled at one another in a speculative sort of way before as one witch they turned to enter one of the strangest pubs in the world.
After settling in, which, this being the Leaky Cauldron, included a brief interlude where an astonished Amelia discovered that her appearance was thoroughly disapproved of by the room's somewhat petulant mirror and Hermione laughed at her cousin's attempts at fighting her hair, they made their way down into the pub for their dinner.
Most of the occupants of the wizarding hostelry had, by this point, departed for bed, so they spent their evening chatting with Tom, the innkeeper. A distinguished looking wizard who had apparently popped in for a nightcap gave Mel his newspaper as the two of them retreated upstairs; Hermione had to stifle her mirth as he gallantly bowed and kissed her cousin's hand, sweeping out of the pub with a flourish.
She was still blushing slightly as she got ready for bed, a point which Hermione periodically reminded her of from behind the Daily Prophet. Mel paused by the mirror as she caught sight of the cover story; emblazoned across the front page were the words 'Black Still at Large'. She watched the man's hollow looking eyes for a moment before saying, somewhat perplexed:
"Wasn't he on the news the other day?"
"Yes," answered Hermione from deep within the broadsheet "It says here that Fudge, he's the Minister for Magic, has informed the Muggle Prime Minister about Black's escape in the hope that he can be caught more quickly."
Her cousin studied the sunken features of the screaming man on the front page.
"Cheerful sort of bloke," she said, before crossing the room to her bed.
There was quiet for a while as Hermione finished reading the article and turned out the lamp, then:
"What in gods' names did he do to warrant such a security scare?" Mel heard her cousin turn over in the bed next to hers.
"The Prophet said he murdered thirteen people with a single curse and then walked quietly away with the Aurors, laughing."
Amelia gave a low whistle.
"Not much of a one for subtlety then."
It was some time before either witch fell asleep.
Mel awoke to the pleasant smell of bacon and the late summer butterscotch sunshine warm on her skin. Hermione was snoring gently several feet to her left. She dressed quickly, knowing that it was early, and checked her defiant hair in the mirror as she passed; luckily, the mirror appeared to be asleep.
She nodded at Tom, the barkeep, and ordered a simpler breakfast than the man perched on the barstool beside her – she'd turned to him once to ask him to pass the sugar and wasn't about to make that mistake again. She was still unable to decide which part of that particular experience had been the most unnerving: the ochre eyes staring out from behind the balaclava or the rather lively behaviour of the man's (she was fairly sure he was male) breakfast.
She was deep in relieved conversation with Tom when a large family of loud red-headed wizards blustered in. Their father immediately greeted Tom as one would an old friend and he excused himself to organise accommodation. She surveyed these newcomers with considerable interest: there were seven now, five children happily bickering across and around their mother – Mel was reminded of a mother hen with a brood of unruly chicks. She smiled into her tea as the bedlam behind her began to abate; she felt that she already knew this family.
Turning towards the stairs with the intention of waking her cousin, she stood abruptly face to face with the eldest of the brood, a rather stiff looking curly haired specimen of about her height.
"Oh I'm terribly sorry miss," he apologised, somewhat pompously. He puffed out his chest and stepped backward as she waved his apology away. She was almost immediately surrounded by two identical redheads, who had materialised on either side of her and began to mimic their brother's manner and apologised to her furiously. Torn between laughing and escaping, she was rescued by their mother who had hurried up behind them, looking stern.
"Fred, George! Leave the poor young lady alone!"
Amelia hid a grin as the two boys, both easily a head taller than their mother shrank behind her. She had the distinct impression that this scene had been played out many times before; as their mother came forward looking harassed, the two boys ambled off to good-naturedly torture their younger brother.
"I'm really am sorry, my dear," the woman was saying, looking flustered.
"Oh, it's fine, really," smiled Amelia. "They seem like quite the handful."
The woman smiled and nodded apologetically before moving off to scold two of her sons. It occurred to Amelia that she'd never been apologised to so frequently in so short a space of time.
Both Mel and the red-headed family turned towards the stairs as her bushy-haired cousin hurried over to give the youngest boy and his sister warm hugs before being enveloped in a vast hug by their mother.
"Hey Mrs Weasley," she said, emerging once more. "Guys, this is my cousin Amelia."
Amelia gave a cheery wave.
"Mel, this is Ron, Ginny, Fred, George, Percy and Mr and Mrs Weasley."
She shook hands with them all in turn, the twins once again mimicking Percy's stuffy introduction; their parents, clearly somewhere between amused and exasperated at their children's antics, insisted that she call them Molly and Arthur.
As Hermione ran to her room to collect her bag and Arthur marshalled his offspring upstairs, Amelia and Molly sat down for a brief introductory chat.
"Hermione's told me all about your family," Mel said, "You've been so kind to her and Harry."
Molly smiled, warmly, asking: "Are Hermione's parents not joining us this year? Arthur and I did so enjoy meeting them last sum- oh, are you alright?"
Once she'd finished mopping up the pumpkin juice she'd inadvertently spilled, she shook her head "Not this time, though I'm sure they would have loved to. They spoke fondly of you both."
She decided that she'd have to speak to Hermione about certain issues – some pretences were easier to maintain than others. Looking up, she realised that Molly was regarding her in a worried fashion and decided that a partial truth might do the trick; it was a pity, she thought, she hated lying to good people.
"My mother passed away last summer – Hermione's parents, my aunt and uncle, always remind me of her."
"Oh I am sorry Amelia, I didn't mean to –" Amelia waved her off.
"Not your fault Molly, just something I have to deal with."
To her great surprise, Mel was immediately enveloped in a tight hug, smelling of wool and baking.
"If you ever need to talk, I'm only an owl away – or a Muggle letter, if you'd feel more comfortable." Amelia could only nod. Her throat was dry with resurfaced emotion and she thought that if she tried to speak her voice would come out small and strangled.
After the two women had pulled themselves together, Arthur came over to collect his wife for their shopping expedition. Mel noticed that Hermione kept glancing at her with a worried expression; she smiled at her reassuringly.
"Got your booklist?" she asked.
"And yours!" replied her cousin, breaking into an identical beam.
Molly smiled at her new friend as they stood before that infamous brick wall at the back of the pub.
"Confused dear?" Mel had been examining the wall with a puzzled expression on her face.
"A little," she admitted, "but I can sort of see how it works – I assume it's a pressure potential mechanism?"
On the Weasleys' bewildered expressions, and her cousin's embarrassed smile, she continued: "I mean, you need to apply a small amount of energy, in this case magic to…" she returned her gaze to the wall "that brick there."
Hermione was fully beaming now, Amelia realised that her cousin was weirdly proud of her gifts; embarrassed, she began to blush.
"Well, yes, actually," said Arthur, a little baffled "but how did you know?"
"Erm… I take it Muggles aren't supposed to see it?"
Hermione interrupted. "Amelia's always been a little, well… odd. She'll be joining us at Hogwarts this year."
Arthur moved forward and opened the wall with a flick of his wand. As Diagon Alley melted into view, Mel gave a little gasp of delight "Hermione! It's even better than you said!"
She stood for a moment as the Weasleys filed past, simply taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the bustling wizarding market before her eyes fell upon a nearby poster of Sirius Black. In this image he was screaming out at the world in his tortured madness, his dark eyes filled with a burning hate. Mel shuddered a little, feeling cold despite the warm August sunshine and edged closer to Molly, who was stood with Ginny and Hermione, all looking up at his ghastly countenance.
A witch in bright purple robes bumped Molly as she hurried past; as if released from an enchantment, Molly said:
"I've sent the boys off, they're really rather useless when it comes to shopping – we'll meet them in Flourish and Blotts later. I imagine you ladies will be wanting to go to Gringotts." With that she swept off toward the imposing marble front of the wizarding bank, the three young women struggling to keep up amongst the jostling crowd.
Once Mel had exchanged sufficient currency for the coming months and discussed the possibility of postal transfers with the ornery goblin behind the counter, they headed first to the apothecary, where she attempted not to poke the contents of the many pots and jars in the shop.
They went next to Flourish and Blotts where, like Hermione, Amelia would have found it all too easy never to leave if they had been alone. She furnished herself with the books that her letter had indicated would be appropriate, along with several that she and Hermione thought would be useful or interesting. Having promised Hermione that she could borrow any of these when they weren't needed, Mel returned her attention to Molly Weasley. She had been shooting her suspicious looks since her slip with the wall, and as they walked towards Madame Malkin's she caught her new friend actively staring at her. As Hermione and Ginny were being fitted for their new school robes (and being tickled by Mme Malkin's magical tape measures) Molly decided to broach the subject.
"Forgive me my dear, but you seem a little old to be a student – Hermione has never mentioned another witch in the family."
"I told you my mother died last year," Amelia responded, ready for this line of questioning. "Well, when I was going through her stuff I came across a letter informing her that I'd been accepted to Hogwarts… she never told me about it, simply filed it away. I assume she thought it was a wind up."
"It happens. You hear about it from time to time."
"That's what Hermione said. Mum must have realised her mistake when my Aunt told her about 'Mione, but I was in university by then, I guess she figured that there was no point bringing it up.
"I showed Hermione when she got back for the summer and she suggested that I write to Professor Dumbledore and find out what could be done. He asked to meet with me and at the end of our meeting he said the best place for me would be at Hogwarts, but not as a student. He offered me the post of Professor of Muggle Studies – he said I was uniquely qualified to teach it, coming to magic so late I should have more of an understanding of many aspects of muggle culture and technology than his other candidate. I wasn't even aware that I was a candidate.
"So here I am," she finished, lamely, "completely lost and very excited."
Once she too had been fitted for and ordered several sets of robes, a hat and a cloak (and privately winced at the price), they headed out to meet up with the boys at Fortescue's, where Molly and Arthur departed to continue shopping and round up their elusive family members. Amelia, Hermione and Ron decided to relax with fudge sundaes instead. Hermione had bought Amelia a quill for good luck and Mel was getting used to it – taking it for a test drive, as she put it; Ron couldn't help but snigger at that one.
Deciding that she needed to have a wander she handed Hermione an envelope, saying:
"Your mum and dad asked me to give this to you…" she couldn't quite bring herself to meet Ron's eyes "and there's a bit in there from me and Aunty B put some in too. Happy birthday for next week, love," and with that she gave her cousin a brief hug and practically ran to Ollivander's.
The wand shop was just as Hermione had described it: tower upon tower of dusty boxes in a dark and cavernous Victorian shop. After the now familiar 'why are you buying one now' conversation, Ollivander moved around his shop, pulling out boxes here and there and causing great showers of dust to fountain out from the walls. After what seemed like a dozen wands (to Ollivander's mounting enthusiasm) she went to pick up yet another proffered wand and it almost leapt from its velvet cushion into her fingers. All at once she felt a glow of power, tasting pepper in her mouth – it felt like sunshine and rain at the same time.
"That's the one!" cried Ollivander, gleefully, "holly and dragon, 12 inches – an interesting choice, very interesting. Perfect for transfiguration but also good for charms and healing work. Still, the wand chooses the wizard," he glanced at her, "well the witch in your case." He continued in a similar vein for several minutes as he packaged the wand and she handed her money to the oily little man.
Returning to the Leaky Cauldron she wondered whether he was like this every time he sold a wand. She decided to stow her shopping upstairs, waving to the mirror as she hurried back down to the bar ("Good day dear?"). Here she found Arthur Weasley engrossed in the Daily Prophet. They spent a pleasant few minutes discussing Muggle toasters before Hermione and Ron came back, along with another boy with messy black hair and large round glasses. As Arthur went over to greet the boy, Hermione hurried towards Amelia to show her what she'd bought with her birthday money.
"You've bought a carpet?" she asked, puzzled.
The mass of orange hair in her cousin's arms turned to look at her, balefully; "Oh good lord, it's a cat." Amelia reached out to it and scratched its head. The cat purred and nuzzled her hand.
"Oh Hermione, he's adorable."
"He's called Crookshanks."
Amelia could hear Arthur telling Ron that going after mass murderers wasn't a good idea behind her and she turned, smiling.
"Oh, Harry, this is my cousin Amelia, she's the new Muggle Studies Professor." Amelia shook his hand, taking in his startlingly green eyes as she did. "Hermione's told me lots about you – I hear you're quite the Quidditch player."
As the boy smiled at her cousin, Molly Weasley entered the bar, laden with shopping and followed by the twins, Percy and Ginny who upon seeing Harry turned scarlet and muttered "Hello" without looking up.
Amelia and Hermione looked on in amusement as Percy (rather pompously) shook hands with Harry, closely followed by Fred and George in an excellent parody of their brother before turning and continuing their caricature as they greeted their scolding mother.
The two of them followed a rather sulky Percy up the stairs to pack ready for the morning; distantly she could hear George telling Harry how they'd attempted to shut Percy in a pyramid over the summer. Hermione looked mildly embarrassed.
"They're quite… exuberant," she began, apologetically, but Mel grinned, fondly recalling some of her own teenage antics.
"They're great, all of them!"
Dinner that evening was a very enjoyable affair. Tom the innkeeper put three tables together in the parlour and the whole party ate their way through five delicious courses.
"How're we getting to King's Cross tomorrow, Dad?" asked Fred, as they tucked into a sumptuous chocolate pudding.
"The Ministry's providing a couple of cars," said Arthur.
Everyone looked up at him.
"Why?" said Percy curiously.
"It's because of you, Perce," said George seriously. "And there'll be little flags on the bonnets, with HB on them –"
"- for Humungous Bighead," said Fred.
Everyone except Percy and Molly snorted into their pudding.
"Why are the Ministry providing cars, Father?" Percy asked again, in a dignified voice.
"Well, as we haven't got one any more," said Arthur, and as I work there, they're doing me a favour…"
His voice was casual, but Amelia noticed that Arthur's ears were very slowly going red, much like her own did when she was under pressure.
"Good job too," said Molly, briskly. "Do you realise how much luggage you've all got between you? A nice sight you'd be on the Muggle Underground… You are all packed, aren't you?"
"Ron hasn't put all his new things in his trunk yet," said Percy, in a long-suffering voice. "He's dumped them on my bed".
"You'd better go and pack properly, Ron, because we won't have much time in the morning," Molly called down the table. Ron scowled at Percy as Amelia and Hermione caught one another's eyes and had to look away.
After dinner everyone fell very full and sleepy. One by one they made their way upstairs to their rooms to check their things for the next day.
Amelia had sat down with Molly and Arthur as their children departed to the upper regions to pack – she suspected that Hermione and Ginny taking the opportunity to have a girly heart to heart in her room.
They'd quickly taken her into their confidence, telling her that Black may indeed have had a reason for breaking out of Azkaban. Given their topic of discussion it was, perhaps, unsurprising that the conversation dissolved into an argument.
"It just makes no sense not to tell him," Arthur said heatedly. "Harry's got a right to know. I've tried to tell Fudge, but he insists on treating Harry like a child. He's thirteen years old and –"
"Arthur, the truth would terrify him!" said Molly shrilly. "Do you really want to send Harry back to school with that hanging over him? For heaven's sake, he's happy not knowing!"
"I don't want to make him miserable, I want to put him on his guard!" retorted Arthur. "You know what Harry and Ron are like, wandering off by themselves – they've ended up in the Forbidden Forest twice! But Harry mustn't do that this year! When I think what could have happened to him that night he ran away from home! If the Knight Bus hadn't picked him up, I'm prepared to bet he would have been dead before the Ministry found him!"
"But he's not dead, he's fine, so what's the point –"
Despite the serious nature of the debate it was a little like watching a tennis match, Amelia mused. She was rather uncomfortable at being party to a couple's row, but also very interested in the outcome; if Harry and Ron went wandering off then Hermione was bound to be with them.
"Molly, they say Sirius Black's mad, and maybe he is, but he was clever enough to escape from Azkaban, and that's supposed to be impossible. It's been three weeks, and no one's seen hide nor hair of him, and I don't care what Fudge keeps telling the Daily Prophet, we're no nearer to catching Black that inventing self-spelling wands. The only thing we know for sure is what Black's after –"
"But Harry will be perfectly safe at Hogwarts."
"We thought Azkaban was perfectly safe. If Black can break out of Azkaban, he can break into Hogwarts."
"But no one's really sure that Black's after Harry –"
Arthur brought his fist down on the table, hard; if Mel hadn't been hanging onto her tankard at that point it would have gone flying.
"Molly, how many times do I have to tell you? They didn't report it in the press because Fudge wanted it kept quiet, but Fudge went out to Azkaban the night Black escaped. The guards told Fudge that Black's been talking in his sleep for a while now. Always the same words: 'He's at Hogwarts… he's at Hogwarts.' Black is deranged, Molly, and he wants Harry dead. If you ask me, he thinks murdering Harry will bring You-Know-Who back to power. Black lost everything the night Harry stopped You-Know-Who, and he's had twelve years alone in Azkaban to brood on that…"
There was a silence; Amelia let out the breath she didn't realise she'd been holding. What kind of world was she going to?
"Well, Arthur, you must do what you think is right. But you're forgetting Albus Dumbledore. I don't think anything could hurt Harry at Hogwarts while Dumbledore's Headmaster. I suppose he knows about all this?"
"Of course he knows. We had to ask if he minds the Azkaban guards stationing themselves around the entrances to the school grounds. He wasn't happy about it, but he agreed."
"Not happy? Why shouldn't he be happy, if they're there to catch Black?"
"Dumbledore isn't fond of the Azkaban guards," said Arthur, heavily. "Nor am I, if it comes to that… but when you're dealing with a wizard like Black, you sometimes have to join forces with those you'd rather avoid."
"If they save Harry –"
"Then I'll never say another word against them," said Arthur, wearily.
Molly turned to Amelia, "You'll be with them this year, will you keep an eye on them?"
"Of course, Molly, but I can't help agreeing with Arthur here. If it was Hermione, I'd tell her – perhaps not everything," she continued, hurriedly, seeing that Molly was rallying for a second round. "But enough that she'd be wary. The three of them do seem to get into the most bizarre situations."
Molly visibly deflated.
"I suppose so, but there's no use frightening him."
Arthur nodded. "It's late, Molly, we'd better go up. Goodnight Amelia."
She'd just ordered herself a night cap (hot chocolate) and was about to follow her new friends when Harry came downstairs muttering something about Rat Tonic. She tried to give him an encouraging smile, but his expression told her it was probably more like a grimace.
As she turfed Ginny out of her room and settled down to sleep, she glanced at the sleeping Hermione in the bed next to hers. The world that her cousin cheerfully inhabited seemed to conceal so much danger under all its colourful fripperies.
She fell into a fitful sleep full of green light and rubble, and children screaming in the dark.