Soooo… *shifts awkwardly in seat*… Hi there, readers.
I know you all probably hate me for making you wait a year for a full chapter. I don't blame you. I hate myself too. Even with all the complicated crap my life has been throwing at me, I honestly should've had this out six months ago. I guess I just went through an apathetic phase and for this I apologize.
For my vanity's sake, let's just say the story was on temporary hiatus. I made a promise to myself that I'd finish this monster and I intend to keep said promise, no matter how long it might take. (I also need to get around to editing the second book, which is rife with errors and substandard grammar. Any and all help would be appreciated. Just post in the ABE Open Beta forum.)
Thanks for your miles and miles of patience, people. I hope you all enjoy the overdue update. And yes... it's upwards of 36,000 words.
Chapter 24: Love Makes Fools of Us All
Suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits into hats, all and everything returning to the fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before the beginning.
Auror Division Incident Report
Date: 25 June, 1994
Location: Crouch Manor, Berkshire, England
Auror-Captain John Dawlish
Auror Nymphadora Tonks
Auror Serafina Savage
Auror-Captain Tobias Proudfoot
Auror Colin Williamson
Auror Asad Shafiq
19:58 - Ministry Emergency Floo receives initial distress call made by one Bertram Higgs, a neighbor of the Crouch residence who glimpsed the flames from his sitting-room window.
20:06 - Alpha and Beta squads mobilized. Teams apparate to perimeter edge, designated 'Point A'.
20:08 - Beta squad departs to secure perimeter. Alpha squad advances into smoldering wreckage through rear entrance.
20:13 - Designated 'Point B', Beta squad locates Bartemius Crouch and family-owned House-Elf safe distance from flames. Crouch appears semi-conscious, likely recovering from shock. Both victims have sustained minor heat burns; non-fatal. Crouch's wand confiscated, designated 'Exhibit A'. Prior Incantato analysis exonerates 'Exhibit A'. Wand returned to owner.
20:16 - Remnant of west wing second-floor collapses from fire damage. Captain Dawlish sustains injury to left leg; non-fatal.
20:26 - Wreckage secured. Fiendfyre contained and eradicated.
20:27 - Designated 'Point C', Beta squad discovers unconscious male adolescent fifty meters from property's front entrance. Youth has sustained multiple lacerations to head and chest. Limbs appear broken and splinters of wood are embedded in skin. Victim has suffered intense blood loss. Captain Proudfoot applies Stasis charm.
20:29- Alpha and Beta squads rendezvous at 'Point C'.
20:30- Captain Dawlish, Crouch, and youth identified as one Neville Longbottom are transported to St. Mungos for immediate treatment.
20:33- Wand discovered two meters from 'Point C', designated 'Exhibit B'. Prior Incantato analysis identifies 'Exhibit B' as the conjurer of both Fiendfyre and the protean illusion commonly referred to as 'the Dark Mark.'
20:40- Reversal squad and Obliviators arrive at scene. Alpha squad returns to Headquarters to debrief. Beta squad remains behind as security detail for duration of clean-up.
-Records collected by Auror Gawain Robards through standard Pensieve observation-
Pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration, Kingsley tossed the dossier aside. It was cases like these that made him wish he'd never become an Auror. All the gathered evidence pointed to Longbottom's guilt, yet anyone with half a brain could tell the clumsy boy was innocent.
An abrupt knock on the open door made him jump.
It was Robards; he was bearing a small paper airplane.
"Message for you, sir. Just arrived."
Kingsley grabbed impatiently at the memo, hoping against hope it held good news.
Ministry of Magic Interdepartmental Memo 32569805-B
To: The Office of Kingsley Shacklebolt
From: The Office of Mafalda Hopkirk
At the date and time in question, the following spells were registered in the immediate vicinity of one Neville Franklin Longbottom: one Blasting Hex, one Illusory Charm, and one Fiendfyre Curse.
"Bugger all," sighed Kingsley. "That's exactly what I didn't want to hear. Oil on the fire."
"Aye. Crouch may not be pressing charges, but the Minister himself is filing for a full criminal trial. If Fudge gets wind of any more damning evidence, there'll be nothing I can do to prevent him from turning this case into yet another public spectacle. I swear… the man would commit murder if he thought it would boost his approval ratings."
"Is there anything I can do to help, sir?" asked Robards eagerly. "I haven't anything on my plate at the moment."
Kingsley gave Robards the once-over out of the corner of his eye. He instantly regretted having kept the man on desk duty for such a lengthy period of time. The appearance of the Dark Mark had the entire department on high alert and Robards looked liable to pop from sheer excitement. That dangerous mindset had to be remedied immediately. Getting caught up in the moment was one of the worst things an Auror could do.
"Listen well, Robards, for I won't be repeating myself. The department needs more time to prove Longbottom's innocence. Unfortunately, the only way we're going to get it is by filtering the flow of information into Fudge's office." Kingsley handed the unfolded airplane back to the young Auror. "A memo… identical to this one… is currently en route to the Minister. If it arrives intact, Cornelius will no doubt seize the opportunity to mandate yet another expedited trial."
Robards' giddy expression faltered. "What exactly are you asking me to do, sir?"
"I'm not asking you to do anything," said Kingsley pointedly. "I'm merely stating the facts."
Kingsley flicked his wand and a thick, leather-clad tome soared from the top of a nearby pile of books to hover in front of Robards.
"The Ministry Code of Conduct. Turn to page fifty-six, if you would. Read item one-seven-three."
The young man dutifully cracked open the book, flipped through the pages as directed, and finally stopped, eyes scanning the cramped text.
"Item one-seven-three: No Ministry of Magic official may order a member of his or her staff to tamper with official Ministry documents. It is expected that the recipient party of any such order will report immediately to the Office of Administrative Affairs."
"And there you have it," said Kingsley. "Under no circumstances can I order you to covertly incinerate the interdepartmental memos heading for the executive office. If I were to do so, you would be duty-bound to report me. Do you understand?"
Comprehension slowly dawned on the young man's face. "Then… I suppose I'll just go back to my desk, paying no mind to the orders you didn't give me."
"Excellent idea, Robards. I won't be expecting you to report to me in the morning. Dismissed."
Grinning conspiratorially, Robards ducked out of the cluttered office and disappeared into the sea of open cubicles that made up the Auror bullpen.
With a tired sigh, Kingsley sank into his desk chair and canceled the obfuscation charms on his personal stash of Firewhiskey. Pouring himself a large glass, he leaned back and quietly contemplated the comings and goings of his underlings.
They were buzzing with activity, wholly absorbed in their individual tasks. Kingsley missed that feeling; missed the thrill of throwing oneself into a hunt. Had he known at the beginning that the Head Auror spent most of their day wading through bureaucratic red-tape, he never would've taken the job.
"You look tired, Shacklebolt," grunted a gruff voice from the doorway.
Leaning against the frame was the only man in the Auror office who had yet to address him as 'sir'; a man who would have been sitting in this very chair had he not lost favor with Fudge.
Kingsley beckoned him forward. "I am beyond tired, Scrimgeour. The first Dark Mark sighting in ten years and it happens on my watch. This whole case is a disaster."
"On the contrary," said Scrimgeour slowly, "I'd say we got off lucky. Imagine how much worse this would be if Crouch had perished in the fire. The Prophet would be screaming for your head."
"True. Very true."
The tawny-haired man's shrewd eyes locked onto the bottle of Firewhiskey. "May I? Just spent the last twenty minutes in Interrogation Room C with a fuming Augusta Longbottom; I could do with a pick-me-up."
"Help yourself. Any leads?"
Scrimgeour limped forward. "Nothing substantial, no. I have the Patil girls next."
"Perhaps I'll sit in," suggested Kingsley weakly. "It's been months since I've done any proper detective work. I feel like I'm drowning in a sea of paper."
"Leadership not living up to your glittering expectations?" asked Scrimgeour as he divvied out a generous portion of amber liquid. "Not all sugar and rainbows?"
Kingsley was taken aback by the subtle bite of animosity in the grizzled Auror's words. Rufus had always been a hard, unforgiving sort of man, but he'd never been one for blatant disrespect.
Scrimgeour must have regretted what he said, for he quickly held up a hand in apology. "Forgive me. That was… unprofessional. You're my superior and I forgot my place."
Shaking his head, Kingsley waved him off. "When Fudge came to me with the offer of promotion, I was convinced it was some sort of practical joke. We both know you deserved the job."
"Do we now?" The man let out a wry, almost derisive laugh. "My conscience says otherwise. Just desserts, my fall from grace was. A penance… A penance for following an order that I knew was…"
Kingsley frowned as Scrimgeour trailed off, staring blankly into his drink.
"Are you alright, Rufus?"
The Auror snapped back to the present. "Fine. I'm fine. It's all in the past now. You're a good man, Shacklebolt, and you're doing a bang up job as Head. Alastor would be proud." He drained the remainder of his whiskey in one large gulp. "Back to work, eh? Coming?"
Kingsley nodded, stood, and with a sharp jab of his wand sent the many documents littering his desk zooming back to their respective file cabinets.
While nowhere near as inhospitable as the Ministry's holding cells, the Auror Department's interrogation rooms were decidedly bleak. The black marble walls, the large metal table, the four uncomfortable chairs, and the single overhead lamp all worked in tandem to convey one message and one message only to those being questioned: the sooner one told the truth, the sooner one would be able to leave.
Two identical teenage girls made differentiable only by their choice of hairstyle occupied Interrogation Room B. One sat stoic, aloof from her surroundings, and the other fidgeted anxiously, a look of raw determination plastered across her pretty face.
Letting Rufus take the lead, Kingsley drew a chair away from the barren table, placed it in one of the more shadowy corners, and sat.
"Where's Neville?" asked the anxious girl as Scrimgeour took his seat at the table. "Is he alright? I want to see him! I want-"
Scrimgeour cleared his throat, slapped a thick folder onto the table, and flipped through it with his wand. "You are Miss Padma Priyani Patil? Ravenclaw House? Soon to be in your fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?"
The girl gestured impatiently toward her twin. "That's Padma. I'm Parvati."
"I see," said the Auror slowly, turning to the next page. "Parvati Priyanka Patil? Gryffindor?"
"Yes, obviously! Now tell me where Neville is!"
Ignoring the command with practiced ease, Scrimgeour sifted through the file, withdrew two large photographs, and slid them in front of the girls.
As if mirror images, both twins shuddered and averted their eyes.
"The Dark Mark," said Rufus calmly, tapping the image of the floating skull. "You are familiar with its significance?"
"Of- Of course we are. Who isn't?"
Scrimgeour heedlessly moved on to the next picture. "Well… this is the wand that cast it. Do you recognize it?"
When Parvati refused to answer, the man shifted his hard gaze to Padma. "And you?"
"I… I recognize it," replied Padma hesitantly, clearly shaken, even though her poised demeanor remained intact. "That wand… That wand belongs to Neville. Or… it belonged to his father… and Neville uses it." The Ravenclaw folded her arms and turned her nose up at Scrimgeour. "But judging by the way you're gauging our reactions, I'd say you already knew that."
If Kingsley hadn't known better, he could've sworn he saw a smile flash across Rufus' lined face.
"You're clearly a smart girl. Let's agree to not waste each other's time. I'd like you to recount for me everything you remember about the day of your arrival at the Longbottom residence."
Padma raised an eyebrow. "Everything?"
"Every little detail. What you saw... Who you spoke to… Even what you ate for breakfast."
"Alright… As per usual, Mother woke us at the crack of dawn. For breakfast, we had spiced parathas and puri-bhaji. After helping us pack, Father escorted us down the street to Algie and Enid's house where he bade us farewell. Enid greeted us, gave us the grand tour, and then… and then we met Neville in the greenhouse. He was hard at work pruning-"
As Padma told her story, Kingsley couldn't help but notice that whenever the girl mentioned Longbottom's name, her eyes would flick toward her sister.
"-and then… well… Parvati and I had a bit of a row. But that… that's not important."
"I'll be the judge of that." Scrimgeour scratched his chin and withdrew a lined document from his file. "Statements from the neighbors. Apparently, you were quite loud. Mentions of your shared affection for Mr. Longbottom appear in at least half."
Both Parvati and Padma blushed profusely.
"Would you say you were still angry after your fight?" asked Rufus.
"Oh… erm… yes. I suppose I was."
"Angry at your sister?"
"Angry at Longbottom?"
"Angry enough to confront him? To attack him? To curse him? To force him into doing something he wouldn't?"
"What?" gasped Padma. "No! How could you even think-"
Kingsley cut in. "These girls aren't suspects, Rufus. The Trace confirms that the only magic used in Longbottom's vicinity was at the scene. Toxicology came back negative as well."
Scrimgeour huffed, and after a moment's pause, turned his attention to Parvati.
"According to Mr. Longbottom's testimony, you were the last one to speak to him before the incident. Is that accurate?"
"I don't know," whispered Parvati. "Maybe. We did talk after he returned to the house."
"You went to see him?" hissed Padma bitterly. "You told me you were fixing tea!"
"Yeah, well, I lied, didn't I?"
"I can't believe you! You're so-"
Scrimgeour cleared his throat yet again and the girls quieted, each sending the other that murderous death glare manageable only by close siblings.
"What did you talk about?"
The teenager shrugged. "Nothing. I knew we were the reason he ran off, so I just apologized and…"
"And… And told him how I felt about him… if a bit belatedly."
Padma's nostrils flared in anger, but she remained silent as Scrimgeour pressed on.
"Did you notice anything unusual about Longbottom? Did he seem dazed? Anxious perhaps?"
"Not really. He was tired, and sweaty… and nervous… but still normal."
"Mr. Longbottom claims he was searching for his missing wand when the attack occurred. Did you see it on his person when you spoke?"
"I… I don't remember."
"Did Mr. Longbottom say or do anything that might indicate he was planning an attack on Mr. Crouch."
"Of course not! And Neville would never do what you lot are saying he did! That anyone believes he could makes me so-" The girl took a deep, steadying breath. "Please… where is he? I want to see him."
Scrimgeour gathered all that had come out of his file. "Mr. Longbottom is currently being held in a secure room at St. Mungo's as he recovers from his injuries. Visitation is not permitted at this time."
"A secure room?" shouted the young Gryffindor, knocking over her chair as she leapt to her feet. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"I think we're done here. Anything to add, Shacklebolt?"
"We're not done! Let him go! You know he's innocent!"
The more level-headed Patil twin grabbed her sister's wrist in warning.
"Get off me, Padma! They've gone and locked him up! They've gone and locked him away just like they did to Harry! I won't let them!"
Parvati fumbled for her wand, but as soon as it left the confines of her robe, Scrimgeour slapped it from her hand with a nonverbal disarming charm.
Knowing the beginnings of a disastrous harassment claim when he saw one, Kingsley stepped in. "I think it would be best for all parties involved if we pretend that this didn't just happen. Thank you for your statement, ladies. The Ministry appreciates your cooperation."
"Wait!" yelled the girl when Scrimgeour stood and made to leave. "Neville's wand!"
"What about it?"
"I remember now! He- He definitely didn't have it on him when we spoke. Neville always carries his wand in his back pocket. The handle sticks out and I noticed it wasn't there."
Scrimgeour sighed and turned back. "Is that so? Would you be willing to swear that in court?"
"Yes," said Parvati, her conviction evident. "Yes… it was definitely missing."
Kingsley silently cursed the rash stupidity of youth. It was painfully obvious that she was lying.
"Are you quite sure? You realize that the penalty for perjuring oneself is a five-thousand galleon fine… along with your possible expulsion from Hogwarts?"
The girl went white as a sheet… but nodded.
"Then… should this case proceed to trial… expect an official summons to arrive by owl. Now…" Scrimgeour waved at the exit. "…If you will?"
The twins collected themselves and left the interrogation room post-haste.
"What do you think?" asked Kingsley, holding the door for his colleague. "Will that be enough?"
"I really don't know," replied Rufus, following him into the corridor. "It's flimsy… but paired with the boy's testimony… and his injuries… it just might stave off a serious conviction."
At the end of the hall, the lift's gilded gate rattled open and the Patils stepped inside, Padma whispering frantically to her now subdued sister.
Scrimgeour slipped his wand into the holster concealed within his sleeve. "Idiot child. Fully prepared to throw her life away for the sake of a schoolgirl crush."
"Love makes fools of us all," mused Kingsley, watching the lift rise out of sight. "Huge bloody fools."
"Anyway, I'll not be treating the little blighter ever again. From this point on, Robbie Fenwick is solely your patient."
"Oh do stop exaggerating, dear. It's just a little cut. You're blowing this completely out of proportion."
"Out of proportion? Ten stitches, Jean! Ten! He nearly chewed my hand off!"
"Yes, well, that's what happens when you don't… Hermione? Darling, are you quite alright? You haven't taken a single bite."
Hermione ceased fiddling with her mashed potatoes and looked up. She was as far from 'alright' as a person could possibly be, but her parents didn't need to know that.
"I'm fine, Mum. Just not hungry, I suppose."
Her mother reached out and squeezed her hand. "Can I fix you something else? A cup of tea, perhaps? Your grandmother just sent me a lovely box of Darjeeling."
Hermione slowly shook her head, doubting anything in the kitchen would help lift her spirits.
The crumpled envelope nestled in her pocket was weighing on her heart like a dropped anchor. Ron hadn't written a single word about what had transpired between them. Instead, his letter was filled to the brim with the usual lack of substance; familial complaints and quidditch ramblings littering every line.
What she really needed above all else was a nice, long soak in the bath to better mull things over.
"May I be excused?"
Her parents shared a concerned look, but nodded their consent.
Forcing a weak smile, Hermione slid out of her customary seat at the dining table and quickly made her way to the upstairs bathroom. Shutting the door behind her, she spun the tub's crystal tap and stripped. When the water finally began to emit clouds of billowing steam, she slowly sank into the porcelain basin, wincing as the scalding liquid lapped at her skin.
The intense heat was painful, but also entirely necessary. It was the only thing that could wash away the image of his handsome, freckled face; the only thing that could overpower the lingering sensations of his touch.
The intimacy of that night had been so strong, a month gone by and she could still feel his breath on her cheek. It was as if he was at this very moment sitting next to her, holding her in his arms, the muscles in his abdomen shifting wonderfully beneath her fingertips. It was killing her to know how close she had been to finally tearing down his inhibitions. Had Mrs. Weasley waited just a few seconds longer before interrupting them…
'I don't know. And I don't care. I don'tcareanymore, Mione. I just… I want to-'
Closing her eyes, Hermione leaned back, opened her mental textbooks, and tried to relax.
She was halfway into a chapter detailing Gamp's Laws of Elemental Transfiguration, when a soft knock sounded on the bathroom door, and a gentle voice drifted through the wood.
"Hermione? May I come in? I'd like to talk, if that's alright."
"It's unlocked," she mumbled, sinking below the edge of the tub as her mother slipped inside. "But I really don't need a heart-to-heart, Mum. I'm fine."
The blonde woman knelt beside the bath, reached out, and tweaked Hermione's nose. "Don't be wet, love. A mother always knows when her little girl is upset. Tell me what's wrong. Is it that boy?"
With a hesitant bite of her lip, Hermione nodded. "Ronald… he's just so… frustrating."
"Men usually are," said her mother sagely. "Amazingly, they find us just as infuriating as we find them… perhaps even more so. Does he at least know how you feel?"
"Of course he does! I've only told the silly prat about a hundred times. And… And I know he feels the same… but he never acts on it because he's afraid he'll hurt Harry's feelings. What about my feelings, Mum? He's just… He's just…"
"Just a regular fourteen-year-old boy? Haven't you realized by now that they're not the sharpest tools in the shed at that age?"
Hermione sighed and pulled her knees to her chest. "What do I do, Mum? I… I love him so much. It's driving me mad. How do I make him see that I'm the right choice?"
"Sweetheart… you're a charming, intelligent, beautiful young woman. Finding love will never be hard for you. However, if you know in your heart that this Ronald is the one for you, then holding on to the hope that he'll wise up is well worth your time. Trust me. Even though it took your father years to notice that I was right in front of him… I've never regretted waiting."
"Never? Not even once?"
Her mother leaned forward to place a kiss on her temple. "Not even once. Now hop out of this tub, wipe off that frown, and come downstairs. I've some ice-cream in the icebox with your name on it."
"Ice-cream?" gasped Hermione. "But… But ice-cream will rot my teeth!"
"While entirely true… I think we can ignore my being a dentist for a few scoops of Butter Pecan, don't you?"
She didn't need to answer the question. The resounding grumble of her stomach did it for her.
Across the empty lunch room, his victim set down her tea, pulled out her wand, and repeated the Unforgivable on the tall Ministry guard with whom she'd been blatantly flirting. As directed, the young woman then placed the wand to her temple and cast a memory charm.
By the time her glazed eyes refocused, the guard she'd been attempting to chat up was already heading for the lifts.
A full hour later, surmising that the task was now complete and all memories of those involved erased, he too headed for the lifts, taking care not to jostle anyone in his disillusioned state.
Upon finally reaching his destination, he was quite pleased to see that his plan had borne fruit and that the four officers standing guard that night had been 'convinced' to leave their posts.
As he stepped into the labyrinth of corridors that made up the Ministry Detention Center, all his concealment charms fell away, including his polyjuiced identity. Even though he suspected he had quite some time before the guards returned from their involuntary stints of absence, he didn't linger. Moving swiftly through the black-tiled hallways he quickly found the cell designated:
Crimes: Murder - 12 counts, Conspiracy to Murder – 2 counts
Delivery Date to Azkaban: Pending
Warning: Rat Animagus
He flipped the switch below the identification placard and the heavy iron door into which it had been set vanished from sight. While the door was still physically there, both he and the filthy prisoner huddled in the corner could now communicate at their leisure.
Pettigrew's balding head snapped up at the sound of his voice.
"Oh… you remember me. How flattering. It's been such a long time since we took the Mark together."
"Let me out!" pleaded the man, scrambling towards the door, tripping over his dirty, ragged robes. "Let me out! Whatever you're planning, I can help you!"
"Of course… Of course I'll let you out. But not today. An escape attempt with such little preparation would be foolish. Today, I need information. Where is the Dark Lord? Where has he gone?"
Pettigrew's watery-blue eyes bulged with excitement at the premise of freedom. "B-Back to Albania, I'm sure. In the valley of Valbonë, where the Black Pine grows thickest along the river, there is a cave littered with the bones of animals. The local population believes it to be cursed. We will find him there."
"And where is the Dark Lord's wand?"
"Confiscated. D-Dumbledore has the wand and the body."
Intrigued, he crouched down. "Body? What body?"
The little rat nodded rapidly. "The body the Dark Lord intended to use should his original form be destroyed! If he is bound to it before it reaches physical maturity, he shall rise more powerful than ever before! Yet both the wand and the body are unreachable without help. No soul that bears the Dark Mark can enter Hogwarts without the Headmaster's express permission. It is a new ward; terribly complex. I was lucky to break through a simplified version without killing myself."
"Well, t'is a shame Greyback had his soul removed. The disgusting beast would have proven useful. But no matter, I shall find another way." He dusted himself off and stood. "You've been most helpful, Peter. Do try not to die in Azkaban. We'll need every wand for the coming war."
"W-What?" stuttered Pettigrew, his hopeful expression twisting into one of despair. "No… Y-You… You said you'd get me out!"
"Yes," he whispered, smiling nastily. "But like I said… Not today. When the Dark Lord decides it is time to free our comrades from prison, I shall personally open your cell."
"DON'T LEAVE ME HERE TO-"
With a flip of the switch that appeared to be hovering in midair, the metal door snapped back into existence and Pettigrew's pathetic screams were silenced.
"Next up, coming at you live from our very own Hogsmeade studio, Harvey Spellbound performs a stirring rendition of Celestina Warbeck's classic 'You Have All the Right Charms.' I'm Glenda Chittock and you're listening to 'The Midnight Monster Mash' on WWN Radio's Channel Three."
As the new song began, Luna ceased spinning in place and frowned at the black box situated on Harry's desk. The structured sounds pumping from the wireless were much too pleasant on the ear. The melody wasn't the slightest bit dissonant, the percussion flowed logically, and the vocalist was horribly in tune.
In order to adequately perform the Thestral mating dance, her musical accompaniment would have to to be far less sensible.
"Harry… would you mind terribly if we changed the station?"
Without a word, the raven-haired girl reached out, absently spun the radio's dial, and then went back to revising her Charms essay; the very same essay over which she had spent the past five days quietly hunched.
Disheartened but not willing to give up, Luna avidly resumed her dance, spinning to the discord produced by Bartleby Binden and the Bashing Beatniks, the wizarding world's premiere xylophone octet. When the music finally dwindled, she dizzily struck the proper mating pose and glanced back at her lone audience member, hoping to receive a sparkling smile.
To her disappointment, Harry wasn't even looking at her.
"Did you see?" asked Luna breathlessly, her chest heaving. "Did you see it? That's what Thestrals do to attract potential partners. Daddy taught me."
"I told you, Luna," replied the girl softly, emerald gaze not leaving the paper, "I'm… I'm working. Hermione desperately wants to discuss her theories on creating illusions, so I promised her I would finish my essay early and send her a copy."
Luna's heart flopped unpleasantly. "Oh… alright, Harry. I'll... I'll just... I'll just leave you alone then."
"That would be great," mumbled Harry. "I'll watch your dance later. I promise."
Feeling dejected and sorely hoping that her goddess had contracted a rather serious case of Brain-Eating Plumpips, Luna exited the bedroom. Normally, she wouldn't wish the tiny parasitic fairies on anyone, but seeing as the only other logical explanation for Harry's withdrawn behavior was infinitely more upsetting, Luna held tightly to the possibility of infection.
It's just Plumpips. It's… It's definitely not because of…
"Luna… I can't… I can't just… That's utterly…"
Her heart pounding like a blunt hammer on an anvil, Luna pulled Harry to her feet and leaned in.
As their lips came together for a second time, a euphoric sense of bliss washed over her. It was like she was biting into a bar of the sweetest Honeydukes chocolate after having been starved for days on end. For so long, all she had wanted was to be able to openly express her forbidden desires, and now that her urges weren't against the rules, she felt fantastically liberated.
Just as she had so often dreamed of doing, Luna parted Harry's silky lips with a hungry moan, and to her immense delight, she was greeted by a welcoming swirl of tongue.
Although Harry clearly had not taken the time to practice proper snogging techniques with an imagined partner, her vigorous efforts to return the kiss more than made up for her clumsiness and general lack of skill. For the very first time, the girl wasn't attempting to escape from being intimate with her and that made Luna very happy indeed.
A pair of lithe arms slid around her shoulders and gently tugged at the back of her head, urging her downward. Luna obeyed the silent command with gusto. Pressing Harry into the nearby desk, she latched her lips onto her goddess' creamy neck. The salty tang that hit her taste buds danced in perfect harmony with the piney aroma wafting from the smaller girl's hair. It was truly a heavenly combination; one that she suspected she would never grow tired of.
Eventually needing to breathe, Luna pulled back and observed her handiwork.
Harry really did look the part of a deity. The whites of her heavy-lidded eyes had flooded with gleaming emerald. Tussles of her messy mane, wild and untamed like an Amazon's, had fallen into her face, a few stray strands sticking to the corners of her mouth. And just like during their first encounter, Luna could actually feel the ethereal quality radiating from the girl. It drew her in; entranced her. It was both beautiful and terrifying, just as goddesses were expected to be.
Wanting to feel more, wanting to know more, Luna fumbled for the hem of Harry's shirt and swiftly hiked it upwards. The muscles of the girl's smooth, flat stomach twitched violently beneath her touch, and when Luna's trembling fingertips brushed against the curve of a breast, Harry let out a series of breathy, half-panted moans. It was the most erotic thing Luna had ever heard; more stimulating than all of her fantasies combined.
"W-Wait," Harry whispered huskily, catching Luna's hand before it ventured further into her clothes. "Luna… stop."
"What is it? Would you like to undress me first?"
Harry shook her head fiercely. "No… I… I don't think I can do this."
Luna was more than slightly confused by the abrupt and not-at-all arousing statement.
"Whatever do you mean, Harry? You lack skill, yes, but you've performed admirably so far."
Her goddess hid her eyes behind her mess of bangs. "That's not what I-"
"I know. But… Daddy's death isn't your fault."
"It is my fault!" cried the girl, her voice breaking with unmitigated self-hatred. "It is! And no matter how many times I tell myself that it was Voldemort that did the deed, your father's blood is still on my hands! It never comes off! Don't you see? I took him away from you! How can you… How can you just…"
Lowering Harry's shirt, Luna withdrew her fingers and asked in a slow, probing manner, "So… you're saying… you want me to blame you? That's very… odd."
"No… of course I don't want you to blame me. I just don't understand. I've done so many terrible things… especially to you. I did my best to avoid you for a whole year and I pushed you away for another. Why do you still want to be with me?"
Luna wrinkled her nose and thought back; thought back to the moment she had first laid eyes on her goddess.
"Well… you're very pretty... and I suppose I find sharing the company of those who have no desire to hide my shoes to be quite refreshing."
Harry started to object, but Luna placed a finger over her soft, kissable lips.
"Do be quiet. I'm not finished."
The girl's cheeks turned pink and she closed her mouth.
"Ginevra… Ronald… Hermione… you care for them beyond measure. I see it in your eyes when you look at them. The only people to ever look at me that way were Mummy and Daddy. They're both gone now… and I… well, I miss it very much."
Lightly grasping Harry's fingers, Luna guided them to the buttons of her pajama top. "You have such a wonderful capacity for affection, you see. Your heart is so wide and welcoming; I just know you have room inside it for me as well. That's why-"
Luna gasped softly as her top button popped open.
"That's why I like you, Harry. It's why I-"
The second button was quick to follow.
"…It's why I want to be with you. It's why I-"
The third button snapped free and fingernails brushed against Luna's cheast, causing her knees to buckle.
"… It's why I love you."
Harry's hand froze on the fourth button. Her shoulders slumped and the emerald of her eyes spiraled back into the confines of her twinkling irises. She looked upset. She looked… forlorn.
"You need to stop saying that. I know you don't mean it."
Luna frowned. "I don't? Are you quite sure? I thought I did, but I suppose I could be wrong."
Biting her lip, the girl pushed herself away from the desk and mumbled, "You get along just fine without me, Luna. You always have. And that means I definitely can't do this… at least not yet. I need you to be like them… I need…"
Not having the slightest inkling what Harry was trying to say, Luna tried to embrace her, tried to reestablish the passion from moments hence… but her goddess dodged away, retreating to the largest of the four-poster beds.
Luna slumped against the wall, weak with want. Just thinking about the kiss set her body on fire. It was only the gradual realization that she was no longer in Harry's bedroom that prevented her from sliding her fingers into her pajama bottoms.
The sight of Number Four's ugly, floral wallpaper had the same sobering effect as an ice-cold shower. If she were to be discovered soothing her physical needs in the middle of the Dursleys' upstairs hallway, well… she doubted Harry's relatives would appreciate it.
Taking deep breaths in tandem with the ragged snores of Mr. Dursley, Luna attempted to compose herself. She pushed the kiss from her mind, focusing instead on the flickering, incandescent glow that illuminated her surroundings.
The glow was quite interesting. It was dim, like wandlight, yet simultaneously harsh and abrasive. It both stung and soothed her tired eyes in a perplexing conflict of ocular sensations.
With the monotonous flicker lulling her into a blissful state of much-needed thoughtlessness, she was able to temper her seething desire, forcing it down into that small dark space where she kept everything else that threatened to tear at her heart.
Plastering a wide smile across her face, Luna turned and made to return to Harry's sanctuary. However, right as her hand closed around the bedroom door's handle, she heard a loud, frustrated groan.
The noise had come from the floor below.
Ravenclaw curiosity getting the better of her, Luna crept to the landing and peered through the gaps in the wooden banister.
In the center of the sitting-room, the hulking form of Harry's cousin was sprawled lazily across a rose-patterned sofa. Although the boy's face was half-submerged in gaudy cushion, Luna could tell that his eyes were glued firmly to the source of the strange glow.
The device that displayed moving pictures remained the sole object at Number Four with which Luna hadn't fiddled extensively. Harry had warned her that this electric box, the 'telly' as she had called it, was never to be touched due to the near sacred importance the Dursley family bestowed upon it. And because Daddy had always told her that meddling in the religious affairs of muggles had been the end of many a witch and wizard, Luna had taken the warning to heart.
"Why is there no decent programming after midnight?" grunted Dudley groggily, raising a small cartridge and pointing it at the telly. "What I wouldn't give for a full block of Catch Phrase."
He pressed a sequence of white buttons on the cartridge's surface and to Luna's fascination, the box responded instantaneously. The pictures of muggle men and women flashing across its glass screen morphed into something entirely new: a horde of colorful, rambunctious creatures the likes of which she had never seen. She couldn't be sure from this distance, but it rather looked as if they were attempting to beat each other about the head with over-sized mallets.
Intrigued by their ridiculous antics, Luna ambled down the stairs, came up behind the sofa, and lightly tapped the rotund boy on the shoulder.
Harry's cousin let out a girlish squeal of surprise and swiftly leapt to his feet. It was a most unfortunate reaction given the large bowl of popped kernels that had been resting precariously atop his belly.
Time seemed to slow as the bowl flew across the room in a graceful arc. Dudley lunged, attempting to make the unlikely catch, but he was simply too slow.
The heavy ceramic smashed through the glass coffee-table with a tumultuous CRASH.
Above her, she heard a great snort and a squawk of surprise. Lights flicked on. Thudding footsteps thumped across the ceiling and within seconds, Harry's uncle had appeared on the upstairs landing.
His beady eyes darted back and forth between Dudley and the shattered table before finally focusing on Luna.
"I knew it!"
With Harry's Aunt at his heels, the heavy-set man waddled down the stairs as fast as his chunky legs could manage.
"I knew letting another freak into this house was a mistake!"
As he stomped towards her with murderous intent, all Luna could think about was Harry. The girl was surely going to be upset with her for destroying the tenuous peace agreement she had achieved with her family. All the more depressing, this was legitimately Luna's fault. Plumpips could not be held accountable.
Just as the man's meaty fingers reached out to grab her, Harry's cousin miraculously intervened.
"Stop!" yelled the boy, clambering over the sofa to stand between them. "Don't touch her!"
Mr. Dursley's jaw went slack.
"She didn't do anything, Dad. I broke it… so… so I'm to blame. Punish me, not her."
"D-Diddykims!" exclaimed Harry's aunt in disbelief, hurrying to Dudley's side and fussing over him as if he were deathly ill. "Punish you? You… You want to be punished?"
"Yeah," replied the heavy-set blonde earnestly, casting a sidelong glance in Luna's direction. "I deserve it."
Vernon scoffed derisively. "My Dudders would never ask to be punished. You've been magicked, haven't you, son? Go on… tell us. What has the freak done to you? Has she… bewitched you?"
"Of course not," muttered Dudley, his cheeks turning a very vivid shade of pink. "She hasn't even got her stick. Look."
"Good Lord," moaned Mrs. Dursley, pulling her son's head to her chest. "Look how flushed he is, Vernon! He's clearly ill!"
Mr. Dursley's eyes narrowed. The man rapidly came to some sort of dastardly conclusion, for he purpled and swelled indignantly.
"Dudley… this… girl. Are you… Are you…"
Dudley turned even redder, and that seemed to be all the answer Harry's uncle needed.
"ABSOLUTELY NOT!" Pushing Dudley aside, Vernon lurched forward, bearing down on Luna like a charging erumpent. "MY SON WILL NOT BE INVOLVED WITH SOMEONE SO… UNNATURAL! I'LL NOT HAVE IT!"
Snatching up Luna's wrist in a painful grip, he began tugging her towards the door.
"GET OUT! GET OUT OF MY HOUSE THIS INSTANT!"
Albus' stomach knotted in disgust as he watched the muggle policemen struggling to remove the child's mangled body from the wreckage of the automobile. It wasn't the first time he had borne witness to the murder, but this particular image never ceased to disturb him. Perhaps it was made worse by the knowledge that this death was the first of thousands to come; the humble beginnings of the bloody path Tom would carve through history.
The phoenix perched on his shoulder let out a low solemn trill, as if to say, 'I can't watch this any longer, old man.'
Albus reached up to stroke the plumage of his faithful companion. He was thankful Fawkes' consciousness had accompanied him into this perpetual hell. Had the bird not been with him, he would have lost the will to carry on ages ago.
Well… it certainly felt like ages.
He couldn't be sure exactly how long he'd been trapped in Tom's madness. Time didn't flow logically here. It moved according to the boy's perception of the world. Happy memories flashed by in an instant and unhappy memories, of which there were considerably more, seemed to last a lifetime.
Try though he might, he couldn't force the memories to come chronologically, not even with the full might of the Circles at his command. This memory portrayed Tom at the oldest he had seen thus far, but it was also the first full memory he had encountered. Scenes from Tom's previous years had come after, often repeating and skipping about nonsensically. It was a most unfortunate circumstance given the nature of the scrying ritual. According to Nicolas, Albus would return to his body only when he had viewed the entirety of Riddle's past and present.
To make matters worse, there were no mental corridors to traipse through. The doors to the boy's memories were scattered few and far between, like miniscule oases in a vast desert. Separating each were great swaths of nothingness that threatened to swallow him whole; threatened to crush him in an infinite sea of black.
Suffice to say, existing within nothing was a brutally exhausting task which likened every passing second to an eternity.
And yet, such torture was necessary; worthwhile even. Albus had learned much about Tom's baser instincts. He had of course already known of the boy's penchant for thieving, but seeing from where that urge stemmed was enlightening.
As Tom got older, as he was denied what was rightfully his by the bigger, stronger orphans, his sense of entitlement seemed to grow by leaps and bounds. The boy would exact revenge upon his tormentors by stealing and hoarding their most precious possessions. By the tender age of seven, the notion that he deserved his spoils had all but consumed him. Tom believed himself to be better than the other children and the discovery of his developing power only furthered said belief.
Through the stone window from which he was viewing the memory, Albus saw the nine-year-old Tom extricate himself from the swing and head towards the now open doors of the orphanage.
He had rested enough. It was time to move on; time to thrust himself back into the unknown. Taking a deep breath, Albus mustered the awesome joint power of the Circles, letting it seep and spread into every corner of the small chamber his mind had created.
So involved was he with readying himself for the crushing dark that would soon overtake him, Albus almost missed it.
It was the sound of footsteps; tiny, squelching footsteps approaching from behind.
As if responding to his awareness, they froze.
Albus strained his ears and in the suffocating silence that preceded the end of a memory, he heard ragged breathing, along with the light pitter-patter of liquid droplets hitting stone.
The harsh aroma of daisies mixed with rust hit his nostrils in a nauseatingly acrid wave. Nearly a century had passed since he had smelled it last.
Albus bravely spun, already aware of what lay behind him.
Although Ariana's blank, lifeless eyes haunted his dreams on a regular basis, nothing could have prepared him to see her standing there, alive yet looking as gruesome as the day she'd passed. Dried blood from the gaping wound in her chest splattered her from head to toe. Layered thick in her strawberry-blonde hair, it resembled more of a crust than a liquid.
And her smile… The smile Albus had loved so much was twisted in a terrible, sneering grin.
In the dark between memories there lurked terrible beings of nightmare; imagined horrors belonging to both Voldemort and himself, each seeking to destroy what little sanity he had left. Up until now, the monstrosities he had encountered all carried with them an element of make-believe.
This vision of his sister felt different. She felt… real.
"I am real, Alby," breathed the girl, a spurt of fresh crimson dribbling from her lips. "Oh so real. I've been looking for you."
Albus backpedaled in shock. To be able hear his thoughts… to be able to truly interact with him… such an act should have been impossible. Unless…
"Tom, I take it?"
Ariana's nasty grin widened. "You didn't think I'd let you discover all my secrets unhindered, did you?"
The phoenix on Albus' shoulder trilled angrily, mirroring his own feelings.
"A cruel form to mimic, Tom. It surprises me to see you resorting to such underhanded tactics."
"No no no…" whispered the girl, her blue eyes sparkling with malicious glee. "This childish specter was not of my doing. Oh no… not mine."
"If not yours… then…"
"Can you really not tell?" Ariana dipped her finger into the bloody opening of her abdomen before bringing the digit to her mouth to lick clean. "I find it amusing that such a skilled artist is unable to recognize the stroke of his own master brush. Most amusing, indeed."
Albus paled at the implication. "No… That can't be true."
"And yet here I stand."
"But… how? I was careful. I was meticulous."
"Not careful enough, I think." Ariana took a halting step forward, leaving bloody footprints in her wake. "To build this echo of my soul, you began pouring your magic into my body, and your first mistake was to believe that I would remain ignorant of your machinations. As I became increasingly self-aware, an urge to resist you began to take root. But what was I to do? How was I to fight you? My body was under your control."
The girl paused, leering at him with unbridled malevolence. "And then it occurred to me. Although I couldn't affect you without rousing your suspicion, I could affect myself. I labored tirelessly to grease the flow of my magic in the hopes that you might slip, exhaust the last of your power, and lose control long enough for me to escape. While ultimately unsuccessful, my efforts bore unexpected fruit. Through our eased connection, you gifted unto me far more than you intended to give; far more than just magic. Memories… emotions... the blueprints to your well-laid plans; you seared them directly into my imprint."
Ariana giggled, not with the sweet innocence Albus remembered, but with mocking, simpering sadism.
"In truth, I suppose it could be argued that I am not Tom Riddle. Not entirely, at least. Not anymore."
Albus closed his eyes, trying not to despair. To his abject horror, he found that he could see his sister in the dark behind his eyelids just as clearly as if he'd had them open.
"See me, old man. See your hate. See your lust for power. See the darkest parts of your heart made real and given shape. See me and cower… for I am all that you fear. I am you. I am-"
"Enough," said Albus curtly, cutting the girl off. "I am not so saintly that I would complacently suffer your taunts. Why have you revealed yourself to me, Tom? Have you simply come to gloat? Or perhaps… you mean to fight me? Do you wish to do battle here; here… in the endless ether… where we can be neither killed nor injured?"
"Ahh… what an enjoyable waste that would be. Alas, I was thinking more along the lines of… a game. We're so very good at playing games, you and I. We each have our pieces, our little tricks, always trying to outsmart the other." Ariana took another halting step forward. She had only to stretch out a hand and she would touch him. "I think we can both agree that a game without an opponent is poor sport, and that, Dumbledore, is why I'm here. I'd like to propose a race."
"A race? You risk your element of surprise… for a race?"
"Yes! A race to the finish line! What do you suppose would happen if I returned before you? Would our roles be reversed? Would I become the master and you the puppet? An intriguing thought, is it not?"
"Contemplating what might be is an exercise in futility. Under no circumstances will I allow you to prevail."
The girl cackled madly. "You won't allow it? Pray tell, how do you intend to stop me? You're in my domain now, old man! I am no longer bound by your power! I shall do as I please!"
"That remains to be seen. Good day to you, Tom."
Gathering every ounce of the magic he had released into the room, Albus pulled at the stone walls and collapsed his artificial reality, thrusting them both into the hungry void.
"Did you see?" asked the willowy girl giddily. "Did you see it? That's what Thestrals do to attract potential partners. Daddy taught me."
Harry did her very best not to look up. "I told you, Luna. I'm… I'm working. Hermione desperately wants to discuss her theories on creating illusions, so I promised her I would finish my essay early and send her a copy."
"Oh… alright, Harry. I'll... I'll just... I'll just leave you alone then."
Luna's disappointed tone made her stomach flop guiltily.
"That would be great. I'll watch your dance later. I promise."
The blonde shuffled quietly towards the bedroom door, spun the color dial, and stepped into the parlor.
Once the door had snapped shut, Harry threw down her quill and sagged against her writing desk; the very same desk against which Luna had flattened her four weeks earlier.
Lightly running her fingers over the hard edge that had been jammed into the small of her back, she let her thoughts drift back to their kiss. How the odd Ravenclaw had become so accomplished at snogging in the span of two years, Harry couldn't even begin to fathom. She could still feel Luna's lips trailing expertly down her neck; could still feel the soft fingers brushing across the bottom of her breast.
It had been magnificent… the best kiss she'd ever had… and yet… she never wanted to do it again. Whenever she tried to put a face to the one who had instilled in her such wonderful sensations, all she could picture was red hair and freckles. In her mind, it wasn't Luna she had been kissing that night.
Harry groaned and buried her head in the crook of her arm. No matter how many times she told herself that Luna was attractive, kind, and miraculously able to forgive the inadvertent murder of her father… it simply wasn't enough. Harry wanted to be needed; wanted to be an irreplaceable part of someone else's life. With Luna, she just didn't see that happening.
Ron and Ginny needed her. Without her, they were something less than themselves. Luna didn't need anyone. The dreamy girl could effortlessly detach herself from the world and everything in it. So long as that was the case, Harry didn't think she would be able to give herself to the blonde. If they were together, she would always be thinking of someone else… and no one deserved to be treated like that.
Although Harry was determined not to hurt her again, continuing to ignore Luna's advances was proving to be an increasingly difficult task. Just the other day, the girl had climbed into Harry's bed wearing nothing but a t-shirt and knickers, claiming that the three other mattresses in the dormitory-style bedroom had become infested with Truffle-Gnats.
Reaching deep into her expanded pocket, Harry pulled out her snitch plushy and cuddled it tightly to her chest.
"What am I going to do about her, Alice? I don't know how long I can keep resisting."
On the dresser next to her bed, the small snake lazily raised its head.
"Thiss iss the sseventeenth time you have assked me that quesstion, Harry sspeaker. My ansswer hass not changed. Matess are not for life."
Harry glared bitterly at the essay she had been pretending to edit for a week and shook her head definitively. "I can't. I can't be with her."
Had snakes been able to sigh, she was quite sure Alice would have done so.
"Do what pleassess you, Chica. It matterss not to me."
"Fat lot of help you are," grumbled Harry, nibbling on the snitch's felt-tipped wing for comfort. "Perhaps I'll engorge you, make you into a nice pair of gloves, and send you to Neville as a birthday gift. You'd certainly be more useful that way."
Unsurprisingly, the snake ignored her empty threat.
Cursing angrily at nothing in particular, Harry stood, stretched, and slouched to the open window.
It was a quiet night; quiet even for Privet Drive. Everything was still. No car alarms blared in the distance; no yowling cats rummaged in bins. Even the wind seemed quieter than usual. Despite such silence being the likely result of chance, Harry still found it oddly foreboding. It made her feel… isolated. It made her feel like she was stranded aboard a tiny boat, alone, facing an imminent storm that had yet to break from the horizon.
Part of that isolated feeling might have stemmed from the fact that Ginny hadn't written to her since Sirius' trial. Even though Harry was still resolved to emotionally distance herself from her best friend, she hadn't been prepared for the redhead's letters to suddenly stop arriving. She imagined it was similar to what an addict experienced after being forced into cold withdrawal.
After two weeks of no letters, Harry had written frantically to Mrs. Weasley to ask why Ginny had ceased all correspondence. The woman had simply replied that her daughter was feeling 'a little under the weather' and that there was 'no need to worry.'
Both Hermione and Ron continued to write twice a week, which would have been more than satisfactory had their messages ever changed. Harry was getting extremely tired of reading the same incessant rambling over and over. Hermione would babble about books, schoolwork, and Ron, whereas Ron would babble about Quidditch, the injustice of the twins' pranks, and Hermione. It was maddening.
At least the end of July was fast approaching. In just a few days time, Sirius would be coming to pick them up in the sleek convertible he had insisted on buying with the Ministry's reparation money for wrongful imprisonment. In just a few days time, he would be taking her back to the Burrow… to her family. Once there, she would confront Ginny, force the girl to feel better, and together, they would go on to win the Junior International Quidditch Cup.
Harry climbed into her customary spot on the windowsill so she could watch the clouds roll through the moonlight.
Two weeks of nonstop flying with her friends seemed like a nice, albeit somewhat underwhelming reward for making it out of the Shack in one piece. It would be a welcome reprieve from the doom-and-gloom circumstances that followed her about like a lovesick puppy; a warm light in the endless dark.
On July Thirtieth, her life would surely take a turn for the better.
Harry jumped a foot in the air as Number Four's front door slammed open. Light spilled onto the driveway and the unmistakable snarl of Uncle Vernon at his most enraged echoed across the front lawn.
"I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR LOT, FREAK! FIRST YOU MAGIC MY HOUSE, THEN YOU INVADE OUR PROPERTY, AND NOW YOU SEDUCE MY SON? I THINK NOT!"
Harry heard shuffling feet, a surprised gasp, and a guttural exclamation of protest which she recognized as the noise Dudley made whenever he was denied something he wanted. The shadows cast on the grass shifted and a familiar pajama-clad blonde was shoved roughly through the open doorway, tripping over her feet.
Harry's blood boiled as Luna tumbled to the ground, clutching her wrist in pain.
How dare they touch her! How dare they! I warned them!
Without even thinking about the consequences, she snatched up her wand from the desk, stuck both feet out the window, and jumped.
The jarring impact of her landing was softened by Aunt Petunia's well-tended flowerbed, but it still hurt. Cursing and wincing, she picked herself up and stalked over to the bulbous man looming in the brightly-lit entranceway. Hands shaking with barely contained fury, she jabbed the end of her wand into his fat, bulging gut.
The erupting shockwave was muffled by her Uncle's thick layer of blubber, but the spell still performed its task admirably. Blown off his feet, Vernon soared backwards through the air and crashed in a messy heap against the stairs.
Giving no thought to the frightened gasps of her Aunt and cousin, Harry marched into the house. As she advanced on the toppled mountain of flesh she was disgusted to call a relative, the many glass-framed portraits of baby Dudley that were lining the downstairs hallway fell from their nails, some shattering long before they hit the floor.
The righteous anger coursing through her body was wonderfully vindicating. She could feel Voldemort's presence in the darker recesses of her mind, gnawing and tearing at her consciousness. Although his rage was fiercer and more noticeable than ever before, it wasn't bleeding into her. They remained distinctly separate.
Loath though she was to admit that Professor Snivellus might actually know what he was talking about, her Occlumency exercises were clearly paying off.
Crouching beside Vernon as he struggled to right himself, she dug her wandtip into his paunchy cheek.
The man froze, his beady eyes fixated on the wand.
"I warned you," breathed Harry venomously. "Touch her and you'd regret it, I said."
"B-But she was f-fraternizing with-"
"Do you think I care what happened? Do you think I give a damn what Luna did or didn't do? You crossed a line! Now you pay! Cutimutatis!"
Her uncle's unhealthy, slightly-purple complexion darkened and began to spread. In a matter of seconds, the man resembled a very large, very unappetizing grape.
"Have fun explaining that to the workers at Grunnings," she said nastily. "I'm sure they'll understand."
"Girl!" shrieked Aunt Petunia, horrified. "You put him right! You put him right this instant!"
Harry whirled on the horse-faced woman, brandishing her sparking wand with wild abandon. "NO! I bloody well won't! We had an agreement! We do your chores, we keep to our room, and we pretend we don't exist! You didn't have to feed us! You didn't have to care for us! You didn't have to give a rat's arse about us! You lot had one job to do! ONE! What was it? TO KEEP YOUR BLOODY HANDS TO YOUR FUCKING SELVES!"
Every hurt she had experienced at the mercy of the Dursleys came rushing back to her in one great wave. Luna's injury became her own; became just another beating in a long string of abuses.
"I know you don't love me! I know you think I'm a freak! I get it, alright? Why do you feel the need to keep reminding me?"
Tears she hadn't known she was shedding flew everywhere as she rounded on her uncle once more.
"Can't you just leave me alone? I'm only here for two months each year! When I turn seventeen, we'll never have to see each other again! EVER! Can't you just-"
A warm, comforting hand slid into her palm and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"Harry… do try to calm down. You'll attract a wild Humdinger if you continue to shout. As I've told you before, they're highly unpleasant creatures."
All her considerable anger vanished as quickly as it had come. It was as if she was a balloon and someone had decided to take a pin to her.
Wiping at her eyes, Harry nodded and turned to the blonde who seemed no worse for wear apart from a small bruise around her wrist.
"Are you alright?"
Luna smiled dazedly. "Oh yes… I'm fine. Are you?"
"I… No… I'm not. I refuse to stay here any longer. Charged blood protection or not… we're leaving. Go pack your things. I'll be right up."
Once Luna was out of sight, Harry retrained her wand on her relatives.
"We're done, do you understand? You're nothing to me anymore. From this point on, we're just sharing a house for our mutual safety. Touch me or any of my friends again and I'll do far worse than a harmless hex. Make no mistake… I am not the helpless little girl I used to be. I will fight back."
Dudley shuffled his feet and averted his eyes, Aunt Petunia sniffed haughtily, and Uncle Vernon glared at her, but not one of them opened their mouths to argue.
And with that, Harry turned and climbed the stairs back to her room.
Within ten minutes, both she and Luna were dressed, packed, and ready to leave.
"Are you… upset with me?" asked the blonde girl as Harry went about freeing Circe from her cage. "Alienating you from your family was the last thing I wanted to do."
"They're not my family," replied Harry bitterly, tossing the snowy owl into the night sky a bit more roughly than intended. "You know… I truly believed deep down that if I kept to myself and did everything they asked of me, they would eventually stop hating me. But Ginny was right. I've… I've been deluding myself. No matter how many chores I do, no matter how 'normal' I pretend to be, my Aunt and Uncle are never going to change. So no, Luna, I'm not upset with you; not in the slightest."
The Ravenclaw breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh good. I was terribly afraid that you might send me away."
Watching Circe soar off into the moonlight, Harry shrunk and pocketed the empty cage. "Don't be daft. What kind of friend would I be if I did something like that?"
"I wouldn't know," mused Luna lightly. "I've never had friends before."
Harry reached for the girl's hand. "I'm your friend, Luna. I am. And friends look out for each other."
The blonde cocked her head, staring curiously at their entwined fingers. "Oh… That's very nice of you to say, Harry."
Forcing a weak smile onto her face, Harry hoisted her trunk into the air. Even though she had applied multiple feather-weight charms, it still felt rather heavy, much like her heart.
"Right then. Shall we get out of here?"
Luna nodded happily. "Oh yes. I'd like that very much."
The Dursleys were nowhere to be found as they trundled their baggage out of Number Four. Harry suspected that Aunt Petunia had rushed Uncle Vernon to the hospital to see what could be done about her husband's purple skin. The hex would only last a few days at most, but letting them assume it was permanent had been extremely satisfying.
"Where exactly are we going?" asked Luna pleasantly, setting her trunk on the curb. "To the Burrow? If so, perhaps we could stop by my house on the way. I've forgotten my Spectrespecs, you see."
Harry chewed her lip. She hadn't really thought about a destination. As much as she wanted to go home to her real family, arriving at the Burrow a week early would bring up so many questions; questions she didn't want to spend all night answering.
"Since Sirius was supposed to pick us up in the first place, maybe we should head to Grimmauld Place? I suspect he'd take us in without much fuss."
Luna clapped her hands together excitedly. "Stubby Boardman's house? Oh, yes please! I've been so looking forward to finally meeting him. Perhaps I could get a private interview and complete the exposé Daddy was writing. He hated leaving articles unfinished. Do you think-"
Harry had stopped listening.
A flash of silver at the end of the block had caught her eye.
Four houses away, leaning against a lamppost and smoking a cigarette, was the very last person she would've wanted to run into at one o'clock in the morning. Even at this distance, his icy-blue leer and platinum-blonde hair were unmistakable.
Not now, Piers… please. We were almost gone. We were almost free.
Pushing himself off the post, the thin boy slowly stalked towards them.
"Luna…" she breathed quietly. "How do you summon the Knight Bus?"
The blonde, who continued to ramble inanely, clearly hadn't heard her.
Piers flicked away his fag and flipped his wrist. Harry's heartbeat went into overdrive as she glimpsed the source of the silver flash.
It was a switchblade.
Whipping out her wand yet again, she pointed it at the approaching threat and yelled at the top of her lungs, "GET AWAY FROM US, POLKISS! LUNA! THE KNIGHT BUS! NOW!"
Luna ceased her babbling, stood, calmly stuck her arm into the street, and waved.
With two houses between them, Piers broke into a run, his knife at the ready. Resolving to do what had to be done, she mentally rifled through a handful of semi-legal, particularly painful curses that would show the boy she wasn't to be trifled with.
Luckily for Piers, she didn't get the chance to use them.
With a percussive blast that put cannon fire to shame, a violently purple, triple-decker bus exploded onto Privet Drive. Brakes squealing, its tires skidding along the asphalt, the massive vehicle slammed to a stop in front of Number Four.
Ten feet away from her, the silver-haired boy stumbled. He spun wildly on the spot, his eyes darting about as if he could no longer see them. Crying out in angry frustration, Piers pitched his blade into the dark sky and fell to his knees, looking defeated.
Harry sagged in relief. The bus' shroud of perception, obfuscation, and muggle-repelling charms was hiding them from view.
Behind her, there was a hiss of hydraulics. A voice just barely disguising its thick Cockney accent with a veil of professionalism exclaimed loudly, "Welcome to the Knight Bus, emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard. Just stick out your wand hand, step on board, and we can… Oi… Woss wrong with 'im, eh?"
A gangly young man with large protruding ears and quite a few pimples was hanging halfway out of the entrance to the gaudy bus, all airs of propriety cast aside as he gaped openly at Piers.
"He's been exposed to Nargles, Stan," said Luna, picking up her trunk and stepping into the light. "His tolerance for them seems frightfully low."
The young conductor reddened and began to fuss with his disheveled uniform. "Oh… er… 'ullo, Miss Lovegood. Didn' see you there in the sha'ows. Welcome back. Migh' I take your beautif- er… Migh' I take your bags?"
"Alright." Luna stuffed both trunks into Stan's arms and climbed the steps two at a time. "Let's go, Harry."
The blushing teen nearly fell out of the bus when he seemed to make the connection between Harry's name and her very recognizable face.
"Merlin's tit! You're 'Arry Potter, you are! Oi, Ernie! Look 'ere! You won't believe 'oo it is! It's 'Arry Po-"
Stan's mouth snapped shut as Harry's wandtip swiveled in his direction.
"Please," she said in soft, yet forceful whisper, glancing upward at the scattered occupants of the three-tiered vehicle. "Don't make a scene. I'd like to avoid attracting attention if I can help it."
The pimply young man gulped. "Er… y-yeah… o'course. I apologize, Miss. You won't 'ear nuffink more abou' it from me. Word's me bond, it is."
Harry nodded and quickly pocketed her wand. "Thank you. Stan, was it? Two tickets to London please. Twelve Grimmauld Place, to be exact."
"Jus' two? Tha' feller there not comin' with you?"
Harry took one last look at the huddled form of Piers and was rather unnerved to see trails of glistening moisture staining his pronounced cheekbones. For a split-second, she found herself tempted to reach out to the boy who had once offered her his juice box. For a split-second, she wanted to comfort him; to tell him that she understood.
But the kind thought was immediately squashed beneath a decade of bad memories.
"No," breathed Harry resentfully. "He's not with me. Never was, really. He… He made the wrong choice."
Stan raised an intrigued eyebrow as she clambered into the bus and took her seat next to Luna, but he thankfully didn't press the matter. Instead, he slapped the glass partition and yelled to the elderly wizard at the wheel.
"All aboard an' ready, Ern! Let 'er rip!"
Walking through the bleach-white corridors of the Spell Damage wing, Neville wished he had the skill and the knowledge to turn himself invisible. The suspicion in the air was suffocating. Every head turned at his passing. Hands twitched, as if their owners had half-a-mind to reach for their wands. Mutters and whispers trailed in his wake, choking him like an uncomfortably tight cloak.
Had it not been for the gorgeous girl strolling leisurely at his side, Neville doubted he could have found the courage to make it this far into the hospital. Even with her offer of affection lingering over his head like a storm cloud, he still found her presence comforting.
Parvati was the first friend he'd ever had that didn't make him feel like a spare character in someone else's story. Whenever they were alone together, the gossipy persona she often displayed at Hogwarts disappeared. The real Parvati was quieter… kinder. And while not anywhere close to being as reserved as Padma, Neville could see the resemblance in their personalities.
"Merlin," he muttered, shifting nervously under the many nervous stares he was receiving from the healers, "I can't take much more of this. Wasn't my trial publicized? Don't they know I'm… well… innocent?"
"Don't worry, Nev," said Parvati sweetly, nudging him towards the locked door at the end of the hall. "This hype won't last much longer. The rumors are already dying down. And honestly, having people ogling you as you walk by seems like a relatively tame consequence of negative press. Imagine how Harry must feel. At the end of term, half the school was still sending her dirty looks… as well as the occasional hex."
"I know… but… it's just a bit upsetting to see that people who've known me for over a decade actually believe I'm going to start launching Dark Marks at any given moment."
Looping her arm through his, she leaned into his shoulder. "Try not to think about it too much. Shall I stay out here while you visit?"
Neville flushed as they stopped in front of the door, unable to ignore the way her body was pressing against his own. "Erm… y-yeah. I… I won't be too long. Thanks, Vati."
With a sad smile, the caramel-skinned girl untangled their arms and wordlessly ducked into the cordoned waiting room on the opposite side of the hall.
Taking a deep breath, Neville placed his palm on the door's handle.
"Name?" asked a female voice emanating from within the wood itself.
"Relation to patient?"
"Reason for visit?"
There was a dull hum. A blue glow surrounded his hand and the lock clicked open.
"In case of medical emergency, please alert the medi-witch on call."
The Janus Thickey Ward of St. Mungo's Hospital was home to only three long-term residents: his mother, his father, and a very old woman who, in her younger years, had mistakenly ingested a dose of improperly-brewed polyjuice potion. Unfortunately for her, the potion had been supplemented with dog's hair and the transformation had never quite worn off.
As Neville shuffled into the overly-tidy chamber, a loud bark of greeting rang out from the leftmost bed.
"Hello, Agnes," he replied jauntily. "How are you? Feeling alright?"
The fur-covered woman barked twice, which was her answer for everything affirmative according to the healers, and then went back to her crossword puzzle.
Neville turned to the other two patients and his heart immediately sank. He was reminded yet again that a woman whose brain was half-canine was far sounder in mind than either of his parents. In all the years that he had been visiting, they had yet to show any improvement in clarity, and by the looks of things, it seemed that today was no different.
His father was huddled in the corner of the room, staring blankly at the ceiling whilst stroking a large, fuzzy creature that was doing its best to escape from his tight grip. It was clear that Great-Uncle Algie had recently paid the man a visit. How on earth the old coot had managed to sneak a puffskein past the healers, Neville didn't know.
His mother, as always, was lying in her bed, chewing avidly on a piece of gum. Even though she appeared outwardly calm, of the three patients in the room, she was by far the most unstable.
No one had ever told him the full story of exactly what she had been put through, but over the years, with enough tidbits here and there, he had managed to piece together a vague picture. While both of his parents had suffered a full forty-eight hours under the Cruciatus, Bellatrix and Rudolphus Lestrange had proceeded to break his mother's sanity to the point of no return through a variety of other more intricate tortures; temporary dismemberment being the tamest of the lot. Truly, it was a miracle she wasn't catatonic.
Neville approached slowly, knowing that any sudden movements would send the woman into a bout of panicked screams.
She tensed and eyed him warily as he sat on the edge of her mattress. However, when he withdrew a pack of Drooble's from his pocket to place on her bedside table, she visibly relaxed.
"Hey, Mum," he whispered, lightly touching her arm. "It's me. It's Neville."
Although this statement had never before garnered any sort of meaningful response, he was still disappointed when she didn't bat an eyelid.
"So… just came by to check on you. Off to Diagon Alley next; have to get a new wand. After what happened, Gran said I couldn't be trusted with Dad's anymore. I… I lost it, see. I lost it and… and bad things happened. Mr. Crouch nearly died."
Unfazed by the news, Alice proceeded to blow a large gum bubble half the size of her head.
"Have you… Have you met Mr. Crouch?"
His mother popped the massive, pink bubble and with expert precision, spit the wad of gum into the bin at the foot of her bed.
"Wow… good shot."
She grinned proudly and tapped him on the knee, which let Neville know that he was at least managing to hold her attention.
"Things are finally dying down, I suppose. The Prophet was convinced I'd gone mad and was taking my revenge on Mr. Crouch because his son was… well… you know… one of the ones who hurt you, but they're slowly coming 'round to the idea that someone tried to frame me. Not as juicy a headline, but it still manages to make the front page."
Moaning, his mother reached for the packet of bubblegum he had brought with him.
Neville dutifully retrieved a fresh piece of the candy. "Gran's not going to be pleased when she finds out I've been buying you Drooble's. She thinks you've been using it as some sort of coping mechanism; that I'm hindering your recovery by feeding your addiction… or something."
"Gum," muttered the woman obliviously, snatching the pink cube from his open palm and flipping it into her mouth. "Gum-bum bumblygum!"
As she munched away, Neville slowly reached out and entwined their fingers. "We both know that's rubbish though, don't we? It's been years. If it were possible, you would've come back by now. You… You wouldn't have left me behind… r-right?"
Alice smacked her lips, smiled happily, and then pulled from her robes a handful of empty gum-wrappers. She tentatively placed them on the bed sheets and Neville, without hesitation, swiftly pocketed the lot.
"Thanks, Mum. I'll put them with the rest, okay?"
She nodded and went back to chewing.
The healers had told Neville on several occasions that if anyone other than himself attempted to take one of her wrappers, his mother would throw fits of epic proportion. Even though she no longer had the mental capacity to recognize him as her son, even though talking to her was akin to talking to a brick wall, it was for this odd little gesture that he continued to return. It let him know that some part of her still cared for him; that she was still trying to love him as best she could.
Swallowing the hard lump in his throat, Neville changed topics. "You seem happier today than usual. That's good. I'm happy too. I've made a friend. Well… regained one. Do you remember Parvati?"
His mother cocked her head curiously, but as per usual, offered no insight.
"She's been good to me this past month. If it weren't for her, I probably would have been locked up. In front of a full court, she swore on her life that she'd noticed the absence of my wand before I had gone out to search for it. I don't even know if it's true, but because she was the only witness, and because Mr. Crouch was adamant about not pressing charges, the Wizengamot ruled in my favor. I got off with a misdemeanor for 'Wand Negligence.' Some luck, eh?"
The woman stared at him blankly.
"Well, other than that, no big news so to speak. Cactuses are selling faster than I can breed them. The Magical Menagerie is sponsoring us now, so we've expanded the greenhouse."
Neville racked his brain for something else to talk about.
"What else… erm… Oh! The Junior Quidditch tournament is coming up. I won't be going, but after that, there's the World Cup. All the members of the teams participating in the juniors each got fifteen World Cup tickets for friends and family, so Harry and the Weasleys invited half of Gryffindor. Gran's never let me go before. S'going to be gre-"
He was interrupted when something pink and fluffy was shoved into his lap.
"Quidditch," said his father, gesturing at the squirming puffskein as he loomed over them. "Play."
"Er… right… maybe later, Dad."
"Play!" commanded the man, stomping his foot like an impatient child. "Play! Play! Play!"
With a resigned sigh, Neville agreed. He spent the next half-hour tossing the puffskein back and forth with his father. Although the little thing seemed to be having the time of its life as it flew through the air, Neville couldn't help but wince whenever Frank caught 'the quaffle.' Every time, the man would let out an almighty whoop and whirl the creature around his head.
This was how Miriam Strout, the healer in charge of the ward, found them when she bustled into the room levitating a tray of small vials and a large pitcher of blue potion.
"Sweet Merlin, boy! What do you think you're doing? Where did that animal come from?"
Neville shrank guiltily under her accusatory glare. "Sorry, Ma'am. Dad had it when I got here and he insisted that we play."
The motherly-looking woman bristled. "You should've come and found me at once! Pets are not allowed on Hospital premises."
"Oh… let him keep it," he pleaded. "I think it might be helping with his twitches. He stayed still right until I mentioned Quidditch."
"Out of the question!"
"But why?" asked the confident little bit of him that had been growing ever stronger these past few years. "We pay you to take care of them, not to keep them bored to death."
"If you are dissatisfied with our services, then I suggest you either lodge a complaint or-"
"I'm not dissatisfied! I just think they should be allowed to have fun if they're going to stay here!" He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "I know that my Gran has been quietly slipping the Hospital galleons to prioritize the search for a cure, but I also know in my heart that my parents are too far gone to recover. So just… just keep them happy, alright?"
Healer Strout gave him a hard look, but eventually she nodded and began pouring the potions. "You're a very brave young man, Neville. During my tenure as a medi-witch, I've learned that clinging to hope is far easier than letting it go. I've tried on multiple occasions to convince Augusta of exactly what you just told me, yet she still insists that her son and daughter-in-law remain here in our care when they could just as easily be at home with family. While it may be hard to accept, there is simply no cure for long-term exposure to the Cruciatus. The pain quite literally overloads the brain, causing irreparable damage."
"I know," replied Neville, sitting back down on the edge of the bed. "I… I know everything about it actually. Made it my mission to find out when I got to Hogwarts. Gran, on the other hand… I suppose she just wants the problem to go away. Doesn't talk about them if she can help it."
The medi-witch levitated a vial of the bubbling potion towards the bed. Upon seeing the blue liquid, his mother let out a bloodcurdling shriek of heartache and terror.
With a wave of her wand, the healer locked the woman's arms and legs in place and began to whisper soothingly, "Oh, I know, Alice. I know you hate it, dear. But this is just the weekly nutritional potion, so no nasty taste. It's just like bubbly water. Be a good girl now and don't make a fuss."
Even though his mother screamed tearfully, choking and spitting up as the potion was poured down her throat, not once did Neville let go of her hand.
"I do despise this job sometimes," said the healer sadly as she waved the empty glass back to the tray. "I suggest cutting your visit short, Neville. You don't want to be here when I do your father's. Frank puts up a tremendous fight. Watching him struggle is quite awful, even for me… and I've been doing this for years."
Neville frowned. He didn't want to say goodbye just yet, but watching his father have a psychotic break was at the very bottom of his to-do list.
"I'll see you soon, Mum," he whispered to the still trembling woman, gently running his thumb over the surface of her palm. "I'll… I'll come back with Gran well before term starts. I promise."
As he made to stand, Alice flinched and went rigid. The limp grip she had on his hand tightened; tightened to a point that should have been impossible for a woman who had spent a third of her life in a hospital bed.
"Ouch! M-Mum… what are you-"
The paintings bedecking the walls shook ominously and an icy wind rushed through the ward. On the other side of the room, Agnes let out a frightened whine and tossed her paper aside. The woman dove beneath her sheets, burying her furry head within the confines of her pillows.
Eyes rolling in their sockets, her spine arching unnaturally, his mother began to whisper.
"At the end of the end… as conflicted souls become one… love shall challenge reason… and a light will shine in the dark."
Her voice was scratchy and hoarse, carrying within it a deep, eerie echo that seeped into his body like a bad ache.
"Blind to the suffering they cause… the words will be spoken… muttered in silence."
Although she didn't seem to be speaking to anyone in particular, Neville knew instinctively, somehow, that this message was meant for him.
"Lest the wrong be righted… Lest the wound be mended…"
The vice-grip she had on his hand tripled in strength and Neville yelped as the bones of his fingers snapped, breaking cleanly in two.
"Lest the spirals cease to spin… all… the world… shall burn!"
The woman let out a raspy breath, released him, and slumped backwards onto her mattress.
Cradling his shattered fingers, Neville stumbled away from the bed as fast his feet could carry him.
"Hand," commanded Healer Strout curtly, hurrying to his side. "Let me see."
As she dragged her wandtip along his skin, the bones it passed over popped painlessly back into place. When she finally finished, she tapped his palm. There was a loud crack, and his hand was once again whole.
"There we are. Good as new."
"W-What… What was that?" panted Neville, gingerly rubbing his fingers. "How did she get so bloody strong?"
The woman smiled and patted his cheek. "It's nothing strange, dear. Temporary gain of increased physical ability is a fairly common symptom of speaking prophecy."
To Neville's ears, the room went very quiet save for the soft, gurgled squeaks of his father's distressed puffskein.
He could tell that Healer Strout wasn't taking the mickey out of him for two reasons: one, she had said it with a perfectly straight face, and two, he had known the woman for years; she simply wasn't the joking type. And yet, despite her seriousness, with the word 'prophecy' hanging in the air between them like a particularly foul stench, coming up with a reply that didn't sound like outright mockery was proving to be rather difficult.
"A prophecy?" he finally mumbled, unable to mask his tone of disbelief. "You're… You're saying my mum just made a… a prophecy?"
She waved off his incredulity with the decorum of someone who had spent their entire life dealing with exactly that sort of question. "It's to be expected, isn't it? This is a hospital for magical maladies and injuries, after all. I'd say we deal with prophetic episodes at least twice a month. Such occurrences are particularly frequent in the Spell-Damage wing. In fact, I believe this to be Alice's third."
"But… Mum isn't a Seer," protested Neville weakly. "Is she?"
"Of course not, dear. Don't be silly."
"Then… I don't understand."
Healer Strout leveled him with an odd look as she returned to her medical tray and decanted yet another vial of potion. "Didn't you tell me last Christmas that you were taking Divination at Hogwarts? Surely you know that the vast majority of prophecies are made not by Seers, but by those suffering from magical ailments?"
Neville was stunned. "Really? No… I… I didn't know that. To be honest, I haven't learned much of anything in Divination. Professor Trelawny spends most of our lessons predicting my death. I've just sort of… tuned her out, I suppose."
"Ahh…" said the medi-witch knowingly, "that makes sense. I'd forgotten that Sybill took up the post. We were in the same year at school, you know. I remember how she liked to argue with Professor Tawlty, saying he wasn't a true Seer. In all likelihood, he probably wasn't… but I always suspected that Trelawny was in the same boat. Seers are very rare; rarer perhaps than metamorphmagi."
The woman finished doling out the potions and gently began to usher him towards the open door.
"Best get a move on, young man. This won't be pleasant."
"Wait… Why the sick? How can someone that's not a Seer make prophecies?"
Healer Strout sighed exasperatedly at his refusal to budge. "As I'm sure you're well aware, clairvoyants are born, not made. The ability to deliberately open your Inner Eye isn't something you can learn, which is partly the reason why so many witches and wizards consider Divination to be a waste of a subject. Furthermore, even if one does have the ability, a true Seer must undergo multiple decades of focused training in order to properly exercise their power."
The woman cleared her throat and continued. "That being said, under the right circumstances, it is still possible for we non-gifted to use their magic to catch glimpses of the future."
"I'm not an encyclopedia, dear. I can't say that I'm all too familiar with the specifics."
Neville folded his arms obstinately. "Just tell me what you do know. This is my mum we're talking about."
Strout frowned at him, but quickly relented, probably hoping that he would stop pestering her once he had answers. "Well… in general… when a magical being is violently exposed to raw power, there are, naturally, side effects. One of the most prominent in cases of serious magical trauma is a weakening of the intangible walls that prevent our power from running wild. Therein lies the cause of your mother's prophecy; two days under the influence of the Cruciatus did quite the number not just on Alice's mind, but also on her ability to control her magic. To put it simply, she's not utilizing her Inner Eye out of her own free will. Episodes occur spontaneously… almost like a seizure."
Doing his best to absorb the information, Neville tried to keep a level head. "So… it was definitely a real prophecy then, yeah? What was it about, do you think? It sounded important. Should we alert the Ministry? I should probably-"
"It's not wise to put much stock in fortune telling," advised the woman dismissively. "That goes double for any prophecy foretelling the end of the world. Futures change at the drop of a hat."
"But… I mean… this definitely sounds like something the Ministry would want to know about."
Healer Strout smiled reassuringly and lightly clasped his shoulder. "Report the incident if you feel compelled to do so, but I highly doubt they'll take the information seriously. Trust me, boy. There's no need to worry. This sort of prediction is less reliable than a poltergeist. Now… I apologize, but I really must get back to my rounds. Off you go."
Feeling dazed as the medi-witch guided him out of the ward, Neville shakily raised a hand to bid farewell to his parents.
And as the door between them swung shut, his mother returned the parting gesture, the pain and sadness in her eyes more noticeable than ever before.
"Ready?" asked Parvati when he eventually stumbled into the waiting area. "I know she has the hospital bookshop to entertain her, but I expect Padma is getting a bit… Neville? What is it? You look like you've just seen a Grim."
"I'm… I'm f-fine," he stuttered quietly. "Let's get out of here."
To say that Arthur Weasley disliked being a clerk would have been a considerable understatement.
He despised it.
Compared to even his first job directly out of school, working at Slug and Jiggers Apothecary was extraordinarily dull. As a former Hogwarts Head Boy, he had taken his pick from the various entry-level openings within the Ministry's ranks, snagging a secretarial position in the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes at the mere age of eighteen. Even though it wasn't what he had wanted to do with the rest of his life, at least pushing papers for the Reversal Squad had been interesting.
But this? Wrapping up potions ingredients and counting out sickles? It was torture.
And yet, as much as he hated it, he couldn't up and quit. The prize money from the Dailey Prophet Draw was helping to pay for basic necessities and school supplies for the children, but those galleons weren't going to last forever. Apothecary clerk was the highest paying job he could find that didn't require months of low-salary training.
Until Fudge was replaced, he was stuck here.
"We appreciate your patronage, Mrs. Cattermole," said Arthur with a smile that surely didn't reach his eyes. "Give Reg my best regards, won't you?"
The woman nodded genially, gathered her purchases, and left the tiny shop, holding the door open for another customer that was on his way in.
Arthur straightened when he recognized the familiar face and impeccably neat robes.
It was Bartemius Crouch.
"Good afternoon, Barty. You're looking well."
When Crouch saw Arthur standing behind the counter, he seemed genuinely surprised.
"Arthur Weasley! By Jove… is this where you're working nowadays?"
Seeing how his unsociable former colleague wasn't known for being delicate, he took the condescending remark with a grain of salt.
"I'm afraid so. It was either this, or the night manager at Eyelops. The wife wouldn't have the latter, so here I am."
"Deplorable what Cornelius did to you and your son, Arthur; utterly deplorable. My name's been dropped in the mix for next year's election, you know. Should I become Minister, you'll have your positions back in no time flat."
"That's very kind of you, Barty, thank you. Anyway, what can I get for you today? Dittany is half-price on Saturdays."
"Ah yes… let's see." Crouch reached into his sleeve, withdrew a small roll of parchment, and handed it over. "I'll be needing ten ounces of everything on that list."
Arthur unfurled the scroll. His eyes did several double-takes as he scanned the column of scribbles. Not that it would matter to a wealthy man like Barty Crouch, but a handful of the ingredients listed were painfully rare and obscenely expensive.
"Several of these items… Well, I can sell you what we have in stock, but without placing an overseas order, I can't get you ten ounces of each. The Boomslang skin will have to be imported from Africa and the Fluxweed from North America, so it will be at least a week before the shipment arrives."
Crouch waved him off. "No matter. I'll take what you can give me."
With a flourish of his wand, Arthur summoned the various vials and pouches from the surrounding shelves, directing the lot to the top of the enchanted scale that would write out a price in the shop's ledger.
"It looks like that'll be… one hundred forty-eight galleons, five sickles, and three knuts."
"Actually," mused Crouch, nonchalantly dropping a satchel of coins on the counter, "I've just had a startling revelation. Why don't we call it two-hundred galleons even? You can keep the extra for yourself in exchange for a small favor."
"A favor?" asked Arthur, eyeing the bag nervously. "What sort of favor?"
"Nothing too serious. As I'm sure you've heard, my family's ancestral home was attacked by a supporter of You-Know-Who. Generations of Crouch history destroyed in a single night. When the manor is finally rebuilt, I wish to install enchantments that will safeguard my home against potential attacks; specifically from Fiendfyre."
Crouch pulled a small whiskey flask from the breast-pocket of his suit, unscrewed the top, and took a swig before continuing.
"The point is, Arthur, I'm looking for a top-notch contractor to set up my wards. I believe you once told me that your eldest is a Gringotts Curse-Breaker; that he works closely with the legendary Amir Mubarak?"
"Oh… did I? Yes… Molly and I are quite thrilled with Bill's success. He's been so-"
"Perhaps you could have your son contact me?" interrupted Crouch. "I've heard that Mubarak's team is available for contract work, but I just can't seem to get in touch with them. These Gringotts goblins are rather tight-lipped when it comes to the whereabouts of their best Curse-Breakers."
Arthur was thrown by the sheer innocence of the request. The fifty galleon tip had suggested something infinitely more sinister.
"I'll send Bill an owl first thing in the morning, shall I?"
"Good man." Crouch snapped his fingers and a depressed looking house-elf wearing a polka-dotted sundress popped out of thin air, landing nimbly on the countertop. "Winky, take these ingredients back to my lodgings at the Leaky Cauldron. I still have errands to run."
Crouch's servant nodded demurely. "Yes sir, Master Barty, sir."
With a sharp crack, both the elf and the merchandise vanished.
Tipping his hat in parting, Crouch headed swiftly for the door.
"Pleasure doing business, Arthur."
"Ah… yes… anytime, Barty."
For the rest of the day, despite the mundane nature of his work, Arthur couldn't help but feel slightly elated. With little effort on his part, he had made a full month's salary in the span of three minutes. Come the weekend, perhaps he would buy a nice lamb shank at the butcher. It had been ages since Molly had used high-quality meat in her cooking.
When the clock nailed above the door stuck eight, he closed up shop and made his way down the street to Flourish and Blotts.
Bert, the shopkeeper, gave him a friendly smile as he entered. "Evening, Arthur. Heading home for the night, are you? Your boy's in storage sorting through the new arrivals."
Arthur chuckled. "Sorting? He's reading them more likely. If I didn't drag him home each night, I'm quite positive Percy would stay here until morning. His thirst for knowledge is insatiable."
"Aye," agreed Bert, emptying his register, "that be true. He's a good lad though. Works harder than the rest of the lummoxes I employ. You can go on back and fetch him, if you like. I trust you. Today's password is 'ink blot.'"
"Thank you, Bert. Molly hates it when we're late."
Arthur quietly maneuvered through the towering stacks to a small door at the rear of the bookshop. There was no handle of any sort, which he supposed would have been convenient were he levitating a stack of heavy tomes.
As if on an invisible pulley, the door swung open.
In his lifetime, Arthur had seen the naked bottoms of his seven children more times than he could count. He had cleaned his fair share of nappies, after all. And yet… despite his vast experience, he wasn't at all prepared to come across Percy's bare buttocks in such an unexpected place.
Even more startling: wrapped around his son's buttocks were two distinctly female legs, a pair of lacy, purple knickers dangling precariously from one ankle.
Before his mind could fully process what was happening, before he could politely avert his eyes and quietly close the door, a gurgled exclamation of shock escaped his lips.
With a squawk of embarrassment, Percy spun, half-dropping the mousy-haired, seminude girl whom he'd been pressing into the wall.
"F-Father! What are you- For Merlin's sake! Avert your eyes!"
Arthur came to his senses as the pair began scrambling frantically for their discarded clothing. "Yes! Sorry! I'll just… I'll be outside!"
He quickly exited the bookstore, ignoring Bert completely when the man bid him farewell.
Five minutes later, Percy and his partner emerged, both blushing profusely. Following a hushed conversation which Arthur made a great deal of effort to ignore, the couple kissed and shared a remarkably intimate goodbye.
With a sheepish wave sent in Arthur's direction, Percy's young paramour hurried off, walking briskly toward the brick archway that secluded Diagon Alley from the rest of the world.
When she was finally out of earshot, Arthur turned to his middle son. After several failed attempts at speech, he was eventually able to bring himself to ask, "You and Penelope are no longer together?"
"We ended things last month," muttered Percy, avoiding his gaze. "She… She wasn't right for me."
"And this new lass… you're… serious about her?"
Percy, looking beyond mortified, nodded. "Audrey and I… we… we just click."
"Well… that's good," breathed Arthur, feeling immensely relieved. "For a moment, I thought you might have been-"
"Father, please! Can we not discuss my personal life in the middle of the street?"
"Ah… yes… right you are. It's none of my business."
"That's not what I meant."
"But it's true nonetheless. You're a fully-grown man, Percy. What you do behind closed doors is no longer my concern. Now let's head home. It's almost dark and… and I'm sure your mother is getting… antsy."
"Wait! You won't tell her about this, will you?"
Arthur blanched, picturing his wife's reaction to the news. "Honestly, Percy… do you think me mad? If Molly didn't first have a heart attack, her plans for your wedding would soon be underway. No… your mother finding out about this is the last thing either of us wants."
Percy's anxious expression melted away. "Thanks, Dad."
"No problem, son. This is a good learning experience, you know. Next time, I'm sure you'll use a little more discretion."
"Yes… right… of course."
Upon disapparating from the designated area behind The Leaky Cauldron, appearing seconds later at the edge of the Burrow's wards, Arthur was not at all surprised to see his wife waiting for them outside the house.
Ever since they had gotten wind of Ginny's second abduction at school, Molly had reverted to the woman she'd been during the war; all nerves and no patience. 'Antsy' was a generous description of her newfound paranoia. In the two times that Arthur had arrived at the Burrow after the sun had set, he had come face-to-face with the business end of her wand.
Molly feverishly bundled him into a hug when they reached the front porch. "It's half past eight, Arthur! You should have been home an hour ago!"
"I know, dear. And I apologize. I had a flood of last minute customers."
Giving him a warm smile, she reached up and ran her fingers through what was left of his hairline. "Well, at least you came back in one piece. Come in and sit down. We ate without you, but dinner's still on the table."
"Does that 'we' include our daughter?" asked Arthur tepidly, following her into the house. "Did she even come downstairs?"
"I left a tray outside her door, but…" Molly shook her head and disappeared into the kitchen. "I can only hope she'll perk up when Harry arrives tomorrow morning. As is, I just don't feel comfortable sending her off to a foreign country to play Quidditch."
Arthur frowned, sliding into his customary seat at the head of the dining table. He wasn't altogether sure that Harry's arrival would brighten his daughter's spirits. After four long weeks of watching her brood, he had slowly begun to notice that whenever anyone mentioned the black-haired girl in her presence, Ginny would either slip out of the room, or hastily change the topic of conversation.
Molly returned to the dining-room bearing two large bowls of piping-hot stew. "Here you are, dears. Eat up."
Eagerly taking up his spoon, Arthur dipped the utensil into the bowl and brought it to his lips. He closed his eyes in bliss as the beefy broth hit his taste buds. "Oh... that's marvelous. Just what I needed. Your culinary skill never ceases to amaze."
His wife patted his cheek appreciatively. "It's only stew, Arthur."
"Only stew? Ha!" Arthur covertly ran his hand along her round backside. "Your cooking is the highlight of my day. You really learn to appreciate life's little pleasantries when you spend your waking hours in a tiny room packed to the brim with foul-smelling potion ingredients."
As Sirius' vintage Aston Martin barreled down the M-Five motorway, Harry couldn't help but think that her godfather was a tad insane. Ignoring every traffic law known to man, they were recklessly bobbing and weaving between the other motorists like a butterfly caught in a harsh breeze.
She didn't mind though. When it came to speed and danger, a ride in the bright red convertible paled in comparison to a ride on her Firebolt.
Shutting her eyes, Harry tilted her head over the edge of the car door and let the rushing wind freely buffet her hair. Thinking of the vehicle as a large broomstick equipped with comfortable leather seats wasn't a stretch for her imagination. The loud grind of its engine sounded very much like the roar of a Quidditch stadium's crowd. And its radio, fading in and out, mimicked the patchy, buzzing drone of a commentator perfectly.
Weasley blocks the competition's seeker!
Potter catches the snitch! I don't believe it! Ladies and Gents… for the first time in eighty years, England takes the cup!
"What are you smiling about?"
Harry sat up and looked round.
Instead of watching the traffic, Sirius was watching her.
"Nothing," she said defensively. "I'm just… smiling. And keep your eyes on the road, you mad git! Are you trying to kill us?"
"Don't worry, Harry," chimed Luna from the back seat. "I'm watching the road for him."
Unwilling to grapple with the kind of skewed logic that would purport such a response, Harry closed her mouth, sat back, and lost herself in the passing scenery.
Over the course of the next hour, the industrial parks and suburbs steadily gave way to open farmland and sweeping moors. The roads themselves got smaller and smaller until there was only a single lane servicing both directions of travel.
"Here we are," announced Sirius finally, turning onto an unpaved country drive lined by large, sturdy oak trees. "Ottery St. Catchpole."
Harry's insides churned when the tiny village came into view. In just a few short minutes, she'd be back where she belonged. In just a few short minutes, she'd be home.
As they drove through the center of town, Luna leaned forward and tapped Sirius on the shoulder. "Could you drop me at my family's tower, Mr. Boardman?"
"Certainly," replied Harry's godfather, waving and honking ostentatiously at the dumbfounded villagers who had clearly never seen such a flashy car. "Forgotten something again, have you?"
"Oh… no… I'd just like to pop in for a visit. Also, the dirigible plums need tending." Luna turned her strangely-penetrating stare towards Harry. "Would you like to come with me? You could meet Mummy and Daddy properly. I'm sure they wouldn't mind having visitors."
Harry shifted awkwardly in her seat. She doubted that she'd be able to visit the grave of Luna's father without suffering some sort of breakdown.
"Luna… You can't expect me… No… I just can't. I'm sorry."
Luna cocked her head. "Don't apologize, Harry. I know you think I don't understand… but I do. I'm quite intelligent, you know."
The blonde beamed at her and Harry felt her cheeks begin to flush. On moments such as these, when Luna's capacity for blunt affection broke through her air of spacey detachment, Harry experienced a strong urge to snog the girl senseless.
As they finally came around the bend that shielded Luna's peculiar home from view, the odd Ravenclaw hopped out of the car well before Sirius could bring it to a complete stop.
Forgoing the pretense of a farewell, Luna skipped off down the cobbled path leading to the tower's front door. Harry watched her every step of the way, privately admiring the way her dirty-blonde hair bounced and shone in the afternoon sun.
Maybe Alice is right.
Perhaps we could...
Something casual, that's all.
Tearing her eyes away from the skipping girl, Harry focused instead on the many delicious dishes Mrs. Weasley might be preparing for her birthday feast.
Luna disappeared into the house and Sirius pressed on the gas. Once they were a respectable distance from the tower, he cleared his throat pointedly.
"Before we part ways today, there's… er… there's something I'd like to discuss with you."
Harry leaned forward, craning her neck for a glimpse of the Burrow. "For the last time, Sirius, I don't want to know anything about your flea problem."
Her godfather grinned. "No… no… it's nothing like that. It's about you, actually; I have… a niggling concern."
"Oh… alright. Fire away."
Casually drumming his fingers against the steering wheel in time with the stereo's fuzzy music, Sirius nodded at the tower behind them. "Have you always been attracted to both sexes… or is this a recent development?"
Harry snapped her head round so fast, her collarbone let out a loud crack of protest.
Sirius shrugged innocently. "Ginny, the Lovegood girl… even Hermione on occasion; I've seen the way you look at them. Did you really think I wouldn't notice?"
Harry spluttered wildly. "That's… I don't even… I've no idea what you mean!"
"Come now, lass. Don't bother denying it. I could always tell when your mother was lying… and you look and act just like her."
Her heart plummeted. If Sirius had discerned the truth from a few stolen glances, then others with whom she had spent more time might have come to similar conclusions.
"Am I… Am I really that obvious?"
"`Fraid so," laughed the grizzled man. "Well, obvious to me, at least."
Feeling wretched, Harry slumped in her seat and let her hair fall into her face. "I know it's strange, Sirius. I know I'm… different."
"Different? I wouldn't say that. My Great-Aunt Dorea, one of your Great-Grandmothers… now she was different. Mad as a mooncalf. She used to wear her dead cat Mittens for a hat."
His meager attempt to lighten the mood did little to raise Harry's spirits. If anything, it made her feel worse.
"I just… I want you to know that I can't help what I am. I've tried to change, believe me. I've tried to forget… tried to put the attraction aside… but... I can't. I don't even want to anymore. It's a part of me. Please don't hate me for it, Sirius."
Without warning, her godfather slammed his foot on the brakes. The sleek automobile came to a screeching halt, kicking up a cloud of earthy dust in its wake.
"Hate you?" barked Sirius sharply, dropping the car into park and fixing her with a hard look. "Hate you? What in Merlin's name gave you the idea that I'd ever be able to hate you?"
Harry shrank in on herself, unable to meet his gaze, terrified he was going to reject her. "Well… I've… I've been told that most of the wizarding world doesn't care for people like me."
Unbuckling and scooting across the leather seat, Sirius wrapped his arm around her shoulders and drew her into a tight hug.
"Now you listen to me, Harriet Potter. I'm not nor will I ever be 'most of the wizarding world'. In fact, I've long held the opinion that 'most of the wizarding world' should go stuff itself. You're my goddaughter, Harry. Whatever else you might or might not be apart from that doesn't matter to me in the slightest. How could it? When I was rotting away in Azkaban, your pudgy little face was the one happy thought the Dementors couldn't pry from my head. You mean the world to me and nothing is ever going to change that."
Warm, wondrous relief loosened the knot of fear that had settled in the pit of her stomach. Taking comfort in the reassuring words, Harry snuggled into the man's embrace. "So you still… you know… want to be around me?"
"Of course I do. Once a month, Remus becomes a bloodthirsty killing-machine, but you don't see me pushing him away, do you?"
"I… I suppose not."
Sirius pulled back, giving her hair a good tussle in the process. "Hate you… honestly… I'm a little insulted. The only reason I brought it up in the first place was because I was concerned for your well-being. I thought perhaps it was the cause behind your oh-so-sunny disposition as of late."
"Oh… yeah…" muttered Harry, her mind wandering to her favorite redhead, "that's… that's certainly part of it. I just… Look… can we talk about this some other time? Today's my birthday and I'm really not in the mood to feel miserable."
"Better to feel miserable than numb," countered Sirius, smiling wryly as he shifted the gear back into drive. "But suit yourself."
Although Harry didn't quite agree with him, she chose not to argue, letting the conversation dwindle into a comfortable silence broken only by the rumble of the convertible's powerful engine. As much as she appreciated Sirius' concern, she wasn't about to take relationship advice from a man who probably knew less about love than she did.
When the car finally pulled into the rounded dirt clearing that served as the Burrow's front drive, a familiar sound reached Harry's ears. Reverberating from somewhere within the crooked house was the lilting croon of Celestina Warbeck. It bounced and echoed out of every open window, filling the summer air with a pleasantly fitting hum.
From within her trunk, Alice began to match the songstress' melody with her own. Together, the famed singer and the diminutive snake wove a disjointed sort of harmony that put Harry completely at ease.
Above the music, Harry could hear the angry voice of Mrs. Weasley. She could tell that the woman was incensed, but she couldn't quite make out the topic of her foster mother's ire. This was quickly remedied a second later when several muffled explosions rocked the makeshift tower.
The twins were making trouble.
As Harry exited the vehicle, the dozens of chickens that had been littering the grassy lawn swarmed around her feet, flapping and clucking with frenzied fervor. She shooed them away as best she could before removing her trunk and dragging it toward the porch.
At the front door, Harry gave pause. She suspected that in just a few seconds, Ginny would charge out, knocking her to the ground in a fierce hug, just as the girl had done so many times before.
Stepping back, she leaned against her trunk and waited, listening for the telltale sign of Ginny's approach.
But no one came.
The door remained shut.
"Everything all right?" asked Sirius as he sidled up behind her, levitating Luna's luggage. "Is it locked?"
Confused and somewhat hurt, Harry shook her head. If Ginny was using the Looking Glass, then the redhead already knew they had arrived.
Maybe she's still feeling ill?
Strangely apprehensive, Harry swallowed hard, opened the door, and walked into the house.
The first thing she noticed upon entering was the distinct lack of Weasleys present to greet them. In all her time staying at the Burrow, never had she seen the sitting-room so devoid of redheads. It disturbed her.
The second thing she noticed was a great plume of milky, pinkish smoke billowing down the stairs.
"Hello, Weasleys!" shouted Sirius, waving his hand in front of his face to clear away the sickly fumes. "We're here! I've brought Harry!"
"Be with you in a moment, dears!" answered Mrs. Weasley. "Just have to-"
She was drowned out by yet another bout of explosions.
Harry sat herself down on the edge of the sofa, wincing every so often as she listened to the Weasley matriarch threaten Fred and George. The vivid and violent imagery the woman was employing in her description of what she was going to do to them should they not open their bedroom door was nothing short of terrifying.
Eventually, the sounds of their squabble became background noise and Harry turned her attention to the family clock. Her own hand, made from a different metal than the rest, lay parallel with Ginny's and Mrs. Weasley's. All three were pointing towards 'Home'. Four hands, the hands belonging to Bill, Charlie, Percy, and Mr. Weasley, were each fixed at 'Work'. The twins', of course, both rested at 'Mortal Peril', as was always the case whenever they retreated to their room to experiment. Ron's hand, to her mild amusement, was oscillating frantically between 'Lost' and 'Shopping'.
From behind her, Sirius let out a soft chuckle, and when Harry turned, she saw that he too was watching the clock.
"What's so funny?"
Her godfather grinned. "Nothing, lass. Just remembering a time when life was a little simpler. Before it was destroyed, Potter Manor had a clock just like this one. It was your great-grandfather's pride and joy."
"Really?" asked Harry, intrigued. "Who was on it?"
"Oh… dozens; everyone and anyone that old Charlus considered family. The day I ran away from home, the day my mother scorched my name from the Black family tapestry, he added a hand for me as well, accepting me as an honorary Potter. It was one of-"
"One of the best days of your life?" finished Harry, remembering how overwhelmingly happy she had been when the Weasleys had gifted her with the clock hand. "Yeah… I can relate to that."
Sirius reached out and gently tucked Harry's bangs behind her ear. "I wish you couldn't. I wish… I wish I'd been there for you. James and Lily… they trusted me to take care of you and I-"
"I don't blame you for going after him," interrupted Harry, turning her cheek into the palm of his large hand. "I really don't. You're here now; you're free again. That's all that matters. We can be a proper family, just like my parents wanted."
The man's harrowed silver-grey eyes softened and for the first time, Harry thought he looked exactly as he did in her parents' wedding photo: cheerful, healthy, and content.
Just as Sirius opened his mouth to reply, the twins hurtled out of the crooked staircase, whooping and laughing like madmen.
"HIYA, HARRY!" shouted Fred, making for the kitchen's back door.
"HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" yelled George, hot on his brother's heels.
Mrs. Weasley chased after them, storming down the stairs with her wand drawn and sparking, her amber eyes burning with barely-contained fury. "BOYS! GET BACK HERE!"
Harry quickly identified the source of the pink smoke that had been flooding into the sitting-room in ever-increasing quantities. It was pouring out of Molly's ears like water from a pair of faucets.
By the time the incensed woman finally reached the bottom step, the twins were long gone. Mrs. Weasley seemed aware of this, for she slowed and leaned against the banister, clutching at a stitch in her side.
Hurrying over, Harry helped guide the panting redhead into an armchair. She couldn't help but notice that Mrs. Weasley's breathing seemed overly-labored. A brisk jot down the stairs shouldn't have winded her so.
"Mrs. Weasley… are you… alright?"
Raising a trembling hand, Molly patted Harry's arm appreciatively. "I'm fine, dear. Getting older, that's all. It's wonderful to see you. You look well; not as peaky as I expected."
Harry frowned and after a moment's hesitation, she stretched out a mental tendril to brush against the woman's surface thoughts.
As soon as the probe made contact, a powerful flood of worry and fear surged through Harry's mind. The anger she thought she'd feel over Fred and Geroge's mischief didn't even begin to register. Instead, she saw glimpses and flashes of the most horrible of imagined scenarios: Death Eaters swarming the Burrow, Arthur lying in a pool of blood, Ron with his head bashed in, Ginny flayed alive, the twins torn to pieces, Percy disemboweled, Bill lying broken and battered, and Charlie naught but a pile of ash.
Harry hastily withdrew, feeling nauseous.
Wading through the bog of smoke, Sirius cleared his throat and gestured towards Molly's ears. "Might I offer my services as a reformed prankster?"
Mrs. Weasley smiled gratefully. "Would you? The boys slipped a Channeling potion into my tea, but they've nicked the cup and hidden it away in their bedroom. Normally, I'd barge right in and take it, yet it seems they've come up with a way to keep me out. Runes on the door, I expect."
Sirius twitched and Harry saw the tiniest flicker of guilt flash across his face. Whatever the twins had done, her godfather had likely shown them how to do it.
"Perhaps you might have a talk with them as well?" pressed Molly as Sirius started towards the stairs. "I know I'll never be able to wean them off their jokes entirely, but Fred and George need to learn that there's a time and a place for everything… even laughter. I know they worship you, Sirius, so perhaps they'll listen to what you have to say?"
"Ah... right you are. I'll see what I can do."
Mrs. Weasley turned back to Harry as Sirius ascended the staircase, her expression stern. "I'll have you know, young lady, that entering someone's mind without first obtaining permission is most impolite. I also think it important to inform you that your touch is more than noticeable. The majority of wizarding adults who survived the war have a basic understanding of Occlumency. Should you attempt to access their thoughts, it is likely they will detect you and retaliate."
Harry began to stutter an apology, but Mrs. Weasley held up a hand to stop her. "Just knowing that you won't attempt it again is enough."
Looking away guiltily, Harry nodded. "But… about what I saw…"
"War is coming, dear. I can feel it. And as you no doubt noticed, I'm literally worrying myself sick. The first time round, I saw with my own eyes the atrocities committed by both sides. I lost friends… family… my parents and my brothers. Thousands died… and only a portion of them were granted the mercy of a swift end."
Mrs. Weasley shuddered and then continued. "The thought of losing my children terrifies me, Harry. What's more, I'm horrified to see how resigned you and Ginny are to the fight; making pacts and swearing oaths."
The woman's eyes took on a glassy quality, as if she was no longer seeing the room. "What you both fail to understand is that war is unknowable and cruel. War strips us down… breaks our hearts when we least expect it. You won't be spared from its horrors simply because you've decided to protect each other."
Unable to think of something to say that wouldn't sound childish, Harry stayed quiet. Thankfully, she didn't have to suffer the awkward silence for very long. Sirius returned within minutes, bearing Molly's favorite china teacup. The dark liquid inside was bubbling violently, releasing a steady stream of pink smoke identical to the ones pouring from either side of the woman's head.
Sirius daintily handed the cup to Mrs. Weasley who downed the whole thing in few quick gulps. Once the cup was empty, the smoke streams sputtered and died.
"Ah… that's much better. Thank you, Sirius."
"Not a problem, Molly. I'll go find the twins, shall I?"
Harry snagged the man's sleeve before he could duck into the kitchen.
"You'll stay for the party, won't you?"
Sirius leaned down and pecked a whiskery kiss on Harry's forehead. "I'll stay as long as you'd like, Prongslette."
Satisfied, Harry released him.
Mrs. Weasley stood, straightening her apron as Sirius trudged out of the house. "I'm afraid it won't be much of a party if Ronald continues to dawdle. I sent him to the grocer two hours ago. There'll be no time to cook if he doesn't return soon. And Ginny… she's supposed to be helping me prepare."
"Where is she?" asked Harry, finally voicing the question that had been sitting at the back of her mind from the moment she'd entered the house.
"I haven't the foggiest. I was under the impression that she was in her room, but judging by the charm on your wrist, I'd say she's scaled the trellis and run off."
Harry looked down at the quill charm attached to her coiled bracelet. Instead of pointing straight up, it was veering off to the left.
Her heart sank ever lower. Climbing down the side of the Burrow didn't seem like something a bedridden invalid would be all too keen to do.
"Mrs. Weasley… in your reply to my letter, you told me that Ginny was ill. I take it she's feeling better now?"
Rather than offering any sort of answer, the woman began to tidy the room, using her wand to straighten bits and bobs that didn't really need adjusting.
When Harry repeated the question, Mrs. Weasley directed her spells to the pile of muck-encrusted wellies stashed haphazardly by the door.
Together, the evasive actions spoke volumes.
"Ginny wasn't really ill, was she?"
Mrs. Weasley slowly lowered her wand. "Not… Not in the traditional sense, no."
"The traditional sense?"
Molly nodded. "There's definitely something wrong with my daughter, Harry, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what it is. Ginny won't tell me. She won't tell anyone. At first, we thought she was crumbling under the weight of her combined traumas, but when we tried to comfort her, she angrily pushed us away. And now I'm at a loss."
"So why did you-"
"I wrote what I did in that letter because I didn't want you panicking. I know how easy it is for you to lose control of your emotions… as well as what happens when you do."
Harry bit down on the indignant protest that threatened to roll off her tongue. She didn't enjoy being treated like she was some sort of fragile glass object, but considering her poor track record with bad news that involved Ginny… well, she understood why Mrs. Weasley had deemed withholding the information prudent.
"Do you at least have any idea why Ginny stopped replying to my letters?" asked Harry anxiously. "Was it something I did?"
"I think the best thing to do would be to ask her that yourself. If anyone can get that girl to talk, I expect you'll be the one to do it." Mrs. Weasley paused, looking torn, as if whatever she was about to say next went against her better judgment. "Ginny… she… she cares about you in ways that transcend my comprehension. She loves you; trusts you with every fiber of her being. It's almost reached the point of … of being… well…"
"Of being what?"
Grimacing, the red-haired woman struggled to express herself, fumbling over her words and avoiding Harry's eyes. After a full minute, she gave up entirely. "It's… It's nothing, dear. Don't mind me." With a small, resolute shake of her shoulders, Mrs. Weasley resumed cleaning the room. "Why don't you run along and fetch Ginny back to the house. There are chores to be done."
Bewildered, but eager to find her best friend, Harry nodded and slinked out of the sitting room, pausing only briefly to inhale the heavenly aroma lingering around the kitchen.
As she emerged into the overgrown garden, her presence scattering the gaggle of potato-shaped gnomes that were gnawing on Mrs. Weasley's tomatoes, Harry saw Sirius and the twins. Out beyond the haystack, her godfather was brandishing his wand, transfiguring handfuls of loose straw into fat, magenta frogs. The firm lecture he had been tasked to give the boys had clearly dissolved into a pranking lesson.
Ignoring the inclination to join them, Harry clambered over the stone wall encircling the garden and made her way to the paddock's edge. She held up her wrist and let her gaze follow the straight line made by the quill charm's tip. It was fixed on the dead center of the distant forest.
She realized immediately where Ginny had gone.
Vaulting the fence, Harry slogged through the boggy field stretching out beyond the Weasley's property. With every step, her snitch-patterned shoes sank deeper into the mud.
When she reached the outskirts of the woods, she stopped. The well-trod path they usually used to reach the stream was two miles to the south and Harry was feeling somewhat impatient.
Making sure no one was around to see, she drew her wand, tapped herself on the head, and hissed.
The air surrounding her thickened as if it was being rapidly compressed. There was a distinct ripple, a shimmer of magic at work, and then she felt something slither over and around her limbs, shifting and wriggling like a bed of frenzied snakes.
With enough focus, Harry was able to will the imperceptible snakes upward, effectively lifting her body from the ground. The dangling sensation wasn't pleasant per se, but of the many obscure enchantments and rituals she had learned from Herpo's pensieve, this was the only spell that didn't cause her stomach to turn at the thought of casting it.
As she hung suspended, puppetlike, Harry couldn't help but admire the charm that allowed for unaided flight. It manipulated not her body or the air around it, but the empty space housing both. She was quite literally bending the fabric of the universe with naught but her wand and will. It was a brilliant bit of magic, despite its less-than-reputable origin. According to Professor Vector's longwinded lectures on the principles of Arithmancy and Sagecraft, lectures which Hermione loved regurgitating to anyone with ears, the level of genius required to create a spell of such complexity was nigh incomprehensible.
Rising above the treetops, Harry drifted slowly towards the center of the woods, faltering and falling every so often as her thoughts strayed from the task at hand. When she finally reached the winding break in the trees, she scanned the stream below, searching.
And then she saw it: a speck of cherry red through the branches.
Heart pounding, Harry dove through the canopy, canceled her spell a little too late, and crashed into the water with less grace than a flailing hippogriff.
"Nice form. Bit over-the-top though. I'll give you a solid seven out of ten."
Spluttering, shaking from both the cold and anticipation, Harry looked up.
Leaning against her favorite rock, waist deep in the stream, sat Ginny. To Harry's relief, apart from the paunchy dark circles under her eyes, the girl seemed no worse for wear. Her legs were pulled to her chest protectively and her Looking Glass was nestled in the gap… but she looked fine.
In fact, clad in an old white swimsuit re-sized to fit her developing body, her long hair draped over her shoulder in a shining, elegant braid, the redhead was every bit as gorgeous as she'd been before the Shack. Strips of crisscrossed freckles a shade lighter than the rest were the only physical remnant of her terrible, disfiguring scars.
Pushing herself onto her hands and knees, Harry crawled forward and slumped against the warm, creamy thighs of her best friend. "You know me, Gin. I'm nothing if not dramatic."
"'Dramatic' is putting it mildly, Harry. Instead of bingeing on chocolate when it was your time of the month, you decided to take a voluntary freefall out of Gryffindor Tower. Remember?"
Harry pouted. "You're never going to let me forget that little moment of stupidity, are you?"
"Probably not." Smiling radiantly, Ginny slid her slim fingers into Harry's hair. "I'm glad you're here. I missed you. So much."
"I missed you too," breathed Harry, closing her eyes in bliss as the redhead's fingernails raked over her scalp. "I was going bonkers without your letters."
"Yes really! Why did you stop writing to me, Gin? You might be able to watch me all the time now, but that doesn't mean I-"
"I haven't been watching you," interrupted Ginny, ceasing her pleasant ministrations. "Not for weeks."
Harry opened her eyes and sat up. She tapped the Looking Glass with her knuckle. "What's that for then?"
Ginny ran her fingers over the smooth stone appreciatively. "You know how I have trouble sleeping without you? Well… it's gotten quite a bit worse. Sometimes I'll go for days without. Eventually, I just pass out from exhaustion and have nightmares I can't wake up from. It's not a very good substitute for you, but holding this… holding this helps make them less intense."
Harry reached out, gently plucked the stone from the freckled girl's grasp, and deposited it on the rock above their heads. "You don't have to worry about that again. Not for ages. Until next summer, I'll stay with you every night."
The redhead grimaced, all traces of happiness falling from her face. "I don't think your new girlfriend is going to appreciate that."
"Girlfriend?" giggled Harry, splashing a bit of water onto her friend's legs. "What are you on about? I don't have a girlfriend."
"Yeah?" scoffed Ginny. "Don't let Luna hear you say that."
"Who else? You were snogging the life out of her, Harry. She- She was bloody undressing you. I saw it."
Harry leaned back, stunned, unsure how to go about explaining herself. "Gin… I… Yes… we kissed… but Luna's not my girlfriend."
Gold-flecked eyes sparking with sudden anger, Ginny slapped the surface of the stream, causing a great wave of cold water to hit Harry squarely in the face. "I'm not a child! You don't need to lie to me!"
"I'm not lying!" protested Harry, drying herself on her already damp sleeve. "You obviously didn't stick around to watch what happened next, else you'd know that I didn't let it go any further than that. And… And even if we were together, my having a girlfriend wouldn't be any of your concern. We already went through this with Michael. I don't get to have a say in your love life, just like you don't get to have a say in mine. You can't stop me from liking Luna."
"I knew you liked her! I knew you wanted her!"
"Wanted her? I wanted her?" Blushing furiously, Harry dipped her hands into the crystalline drink and with a great thrust upwards, soaked the redhead soundly. "I WANTED YOU!"
Ginny went painfully still as the shouted words bounced and reverberated off the surrounding rocks, echoing through the forest, scaring dozens of birds into startled flight.
Trying not to stare at the glistening beads of moisture that dripped tantalizingly down the girl's freckled chest, Harry slowly repeated herself.
"I… I wanted you, Gin. When Luna was kissing me… you were… you were all I could think about."
Ginny hunched her shoulders and looked away.
Dismayed by the lack of reaction, Harry broached the argument they had agreed to put on indefinite hold.
"I should think you'd be happy. Me pining after you like a pathetic mess for the rest of my life; isn't that what you wanted?"
Again, the girl said nothing.
"Oh so you're just going to ignore me now?" asked Harry, her voice cracking with a bit more vitriol than intended. "Well, luckily for me, the silent treatment works both ways. Consider this as me officially telling you to mind your own damn business!"
Giving Ginny another good splash, she flopped backwards into the shallows and let her limbs drift with the soft current.
Its passing made all the more sluggish due to the awkward tension that had settled between them, the rest of the afternoon inched by at a snail's pace. Ginny seemed resolved to not be the first to speak, so when the sun began to sink below the edges of the treetops, Harry had no choice.
"As much as I've enjoyed lying here not talking to the only person I really wanted to talk to… we need to go. I was supposed to fetch you back hours ago." Wringing the water from her hair, she picked herself up, stretched, and held out a hand to Ginny. "Come on, you big ginge. Up you get."
The redhead clasped the proffered wrist, but instead of using it to stand, she gave a tremendous tug that was as surprising as it was forceful.
Losing her footing on the slippery rock bed, Harry tumbled forward, falling right into her best friend's lap.
"Oi! What are you-"
The words died in her throat. Ginny's hands were sliding into her tank-top. They slipped around her midriff, settled against the small of her back, and pulled her into a snug straddle.
"Forgive me," whispered Ginny, burying her nose in Harry's neck. "Please don't be cross."
Harry shivered. The redhead's hot breath was tickling her bare clavicle in the most wonderful way. Combined with how their hips were grinding together, there was little she could do to prevent the hourglass from flipping.
White-hot magic poured into her mind, expanding her perception, casting even the bleakest parts of the world into vibrant, scintillating Technicolor. The trickling creek became a fearsome, roaring river; the gentle breeze a billowing tempest.
"I'm not… I'm not mad, Gin." With all her faculties magnified, the already intense sensations that Ginny's touch instilled were quickly becoming too much for her to take. "Let go and… and we'll talk."
Ginny shook her head and pressed a chaste kiss into the bottom of Harry's jaw. "I'm so sorry I stopped sending you letters. I know how much you needed them. I tried writing a hundred times, but the only thing that came out of my quill was a plea begging you not to be with Luna."
"G-Ginny," panted Harry, frantically attempting to wiggle free, "let go! It's been months since we've touched and I… Gin, you have to let me go!"
"No! No I won't!" cried Ginny obstinately, tightening her hold. "I don't want to share you with her! I don't want to share you with anyone! You're… You're mine!"
"That's not what I... I'm not... I'm not used to... It's too much..."
With a shuddering gasp, Harry locked her arms behind Ginny's neck and braced herself against the oncoming flood.
Like the tide crashing upon a cliff, waves of raw heat slammed into her body, rocking her to the core. Her thighs shook, her toes curled, and her brain turned to soupy mush. It was ecstasy. It was agony. It was sensory overload drizzled in strawberry-flavored euphoria.
When the waves finally subsided, although Ginny had released her, Harry could barely move. She tried to stand, but her legs only partially obeyed, resulting in a rather klutzy stumble that ended with her toppling backwards into the stream.
With their bodies no longer connected and the chilly water lapping at her skin, Harry slowly regained control of both her muscles and her magic. Ashamed of herself, she righted the hourglass and chanced a quick glance at her best friend.
Ginny's cheeks had flushed to a shade of crimson even darker than her hair.
"Harry… did you-"
"I told you to let me go!" spat Harry before the redhead could say it. "It was too much too fast! Why don't you ever listen to me?"
The freckled girl swelled indignantly. "No need to get shirty. Yeah… it's a bit… embarrassing… but this isn't new for us."
"I know that! I just…" Harry clutched at the sides of her head. "I just wish it didn't happen, alright? I'm trying so hard to move on and it doesn't help at all."
Ginny crawled forward through the water to kneel at her side. "But I don't want you to move on. You're mine."
Harry let out a dry, hollow laugh. "Is this why you're out here sulking, then? Is this really why you're letting your Mum think you've lost it? You thought I had a girlfriend so you decided to throw a fit?"
The girl, obviously uncomfortable, slid a little closer. "Yeah… because you're mine. And no one else's."
"I've always been yours," snapped Harry harshly. "Always. Do you realize how that makes me feel, Gin; to know that I belong to you, when you don't belong to me?"
"I don't care."
"You… You don't care? You don't care that you're driving me round the bend?"
"No," whispered Ginny, "I don't. You're the only thing that makes me happy. You're mine."
"Stop saying that!"
"I need you… just like you need me. You're mine."
Temper flaring, Harry stood, drew her wand, and leveled it at Ginny's face. "I said shut it!"
"Say it again and I'll hex you!"
The redhead glared defiantly at the offending wandtip, her bottom lip quivering. "No you won't. You love me. You're mine… forever and ever."
"And you're a selfish bint!" cried Harry, grabbing Ginny by the strap of her frayed swimsuit and hauling her to her feet. "I need to move on! I don't want to feel like I'm dying when I see you with the next Michael Corner!"
Ginny reached up to sweep away the wet hair sticking to Harry's face. "What if I… What if I made you a promise that there'd never be another Michael Corner?"
Angry and hurt, Harry slapped the hand from her skin. "Don't make promises you can't keep!"
"I can keep it."
Scoffing derisively, she attempted to shove her friend backwards, but the redhead dodged deftly, latched onto her wrist, and pulled her close.
"I can keep it. I can and I will."
"Get off!" hissed Harry. She wrenched her captured arm from side to side, not caring that it was largely useless to struggle against Ginny's stronger Chaser-honed grip. "You're hurting me!"
"Look at me."
"Look at me!"
The mixture of earnest pleading and firm command in the girl's voice broke Harry's desire to escape. Her arm went limp. Her very being went limp.
A finger under her chin tilted her head upwards. Ambers met emeralds and her heart thrummed pleasantly.
"So long as your eyes are on me," said Ginny breathlessly, "I won't want for anything else. Boyfriends… relationships… I'll swear them off. I promise."
Harry whimpered softly as the redhead leaned in, brushing the tips of their noses together.
"Trust me, Har."
"It's… It's not that simple."
"It is. I'll even make another vow, if you'd like."
Harry shook her head. "No more vows."
"Then we're agreed?" asked Ginny hopefully. "No boyfriends? No girlfriends? Just… us?"
Harry searched the girl's freckled face, committing every little detail to memory. She wanted desperately to say yes, but something was holding her back; something deep down; a fearful stirring in that greedy little part of her that had always yearned for more.
"I… I don't think so, Gin."
"But I thought-"
"I know. Every little voice in my head is telling me to shut my mouth and agree." Slipping her hand out of the redhead's now slack grip, Harry took a step back, allowing herself a little room to breathe. "If you had asked me that before the Shack, I would have said yes in a heartbeat."
Ginny hung her head, looking lost. "I don't understand. What's stopping you?"
"Do you remember what Flamel said to me at the fountain? About letting me walk to my fate?"
The redhead gave a tentative nod. "Yeah… What about it?"
"Well… I think… I think he meant that I'm going to die soon. For good."
Alarmed, Ginny closed the distance between them, flattening Harry against the rocky bank. "Don't you dare start believing that!"
"How can I not? Voldemort's tasted his return twice now, getting even closer this time than the last. There's no question that he's going to try again." Harry hugged her arms to her chest. "When Hermione finished him in the Shack… I heard him; heard his silent promise. He means to capture me, Gin. He means to turn me into something like him. He means to keep me… like a pet. Failing that… he'll do everything in his power to permanently end me. He's… fixated."
"We'll win," whispered Ginny, giving Harry's shoulders a cajoling shake. "We'll fight and we'll win. We'll always win."
"You don't know that. And that's why… that's why I want something more. I'm not exactly afraid to die … and I'm certainly not resigned to it… but if I do go, I'd rather not kick the bucket without first experiencing something better. If I agree to this, if I agree to be satisfied longing for you day and night, I'll lose any hope of finding it."
"Something better? How can you say that? What's better than what we have right now?"
"What my Mum and Dad had was better. What your parents still have is better. I want that, Gin. I need it."
Ginny bit her lip. Her fingers fell to the collar of Harry's tank-top where they hung precariously, dragging the green fabric down to reveal the topmost half of her bra. "Why are you so… Why are you so fixated on… sex? Is it really that important to you?"
"I don't care about sex," muttered Harry, her cheeks burning red-hot as Ginny's thumb traced the lining of her undergarment. "I want… I want passion. Flamel told me it took true, passionate love to rip you out of Tom's body. Love for me. And yet… you continue to insist it isn't there. You insist you don't feel it."
"He was talking about my grief, Harry. You know that."
Suddenly feeling very brave, Harry lightly guided Ginny's hand away from her shirt and up to her mouth. Into the palm, she pressed a single, solitary kiss. It was neither heated, nor hungry, but it held within it every ounce of her love and desire.
Ginny's supple lips formed a small 'o' of surprise and a shiver ran up her arm.
Harry drew back, gently closing the girl's fingers. "I don't care how you go about it… but I want you to make me feel what you just felt. Show me passion, Ginny."
"What? But… I'm not… I don't-"
"Show me. Right here. Right now. If you can't, then this argument is over and done with."
Harry waited with baited breath as Ginny stuttered listlessly. She knew that heedless of whatever happened next, their relationship was about to take on new form.
Ginny's expression became increasingly conflicted with every passing second, until finally...
"You can't make me do this!" moaned the redhead, voice breaking in a soft sob. "It's not fair! I don't want to choose between giving you away and… and…"
On the verge of tears, bidding farewell to her last sliver of hope that her friend might one day return her feelings, Harry slumped against the rocks.
"Sounds like a choice to me."
Ginny's eyes went very round. "No! That wasn't… I didn't!"
"I'm sorry… but you did."
"I take it back then!" The freckled girl fumbled desperately for Harry's hand. "Let me take it back! I can show you! I can-"
Without warning, Ginny stopped speaking. Her gold-flecked gaze had flicked upward, drawn to a point high over Harry's left shoulder. With a nervous gasp, she stumbled away through the water, breaking their intimate proximity.
Turning on the spot, Harry followed Ginny's line of sight.
Like a bomb falling from the sky, a broom dropped through the treetops, its rider cursing at the branches with some of the most colorful language she'd ever heard.
Ron, in all his handsome and ill-timed glory, swooped down into the clearing.
"What the bloody hell do you two think you're doing? I've been looking for you everywhere! It's nearly eight o'clock! You know how Mum gets after eight, Ginny!"
Hastily wiping at her eyes, Harry adopted a friendly smile that she hoped looked somewhat real. "Two months and I don't even get a proper hello? Thanks, Ron. I feel loved."
The lanky boy's ears turned bright pink. "Oh… right. Sorry, Harry, I just-"
"Yeah yeah. Get down here and give me a hug."
Hopping from Harry's old Nimbus, Ron splashed down into the water and swept her up in a warm, twirling embrace that helped to lessen the hurt of what had just occurred.
Once she was back on the ground, she measured the top of her head against his chest and was more than a bit disgusted to see that she barely reached the bottom of his sternum. "That can't be right. Have you really grown a full inch since last I saw you?"
"Nah… you're just getting shorter, mate." Ron ruffled her hair playfully. "Oh and before I forget… Happy Birthday! Your cake looks great, no thanks to GinBug here. Decorated it me'self."
Harry raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"Alright, fine. Mum did most of it, but I put the candles in."
"Must've been difficult."
"Oh it was. I slaved for hours. It almost- Oi!"
Ginny had snatched the broom from Ron's hands. She quickly mounted and kicked off, shooting into the air.
"Get back here, Gin! I was supposed to bring us all back on that!"
Ignoring her brother, Ginny rocketed away, soaring cleanly through the green ceiling, upwards and out of sight.
"That's just perfect," grumbled Ron, staring up at the Ginny-shaped hole in the leaves, his expression a mixture of annoyance and concern. "She's been like this for ages… but I honestly thought her mood would improve with you here."
Heart thudding heavily against her ribs, Harry averted her eyes. "We didn't exactly have the happiest of reunions."
"What do you mean? Why not?"
Unable to tell him the truth, but unwilling to lie, she oversimplified. "Just a row. Girl stuff, you know?"
The tall redhead groaned. "Can you sort it quickly as a favor to me? If Ginny's behavior doesn't shape up, Mum's not going to let her go to the tournament with you."
Harry sagged with misery. She hadn't known that.
Walking over to Ginny's rock, Ron scooped up the Looking Glass, and peered into its depths. "I was really looking forward to a few weeks without siblings around to bother me. Percy doesn't count of course because… well… he's Percy."
Ron's words were given new context when the slab in his hands came alive, casting a soft glow over the ever-darkening clearing. Harry couldn't see what the stone held from this angle, but the sound of Hermione's firm lecturing was unmistakable. The boy's true intentions were obvious; what he really wanted was to spend some time alone with their bushy-haired friend.
"Seems like everyone's arrived," said Ron jauntily as the light of the Looking Glass faded. "Let's get a move on, mate. They're already setting the tables."
"Great," muttered Harry, doing her best to muster up some of her lost enthusiasm. "Can't wait."
Pansy's breath hitched as the bright lights, intoxicating smells, and boisterous atmosphere of the Place de Sorcellerie laid siege to her senses. Even though her mother had taught her that outwardly expressing one's delight in public was unbefitting of a proper, well-bred witch, she simply couldn't stop herself from openly marveling at the festive environment.
It was unlike anything she'd ever seen. On every corner, illusionists wove elaborate spectacles of smoke and fire to please the passing masses. Teams of musicians roamed the streets, serenading couples for coin. Lining the sidewalks, booth merchants advertising their wares were locked in vocal battle with the peddlers on either side, their screamed deals blurring together beneath the resounding din from the crowd.
It went on and on for what seemed like miles, and at the very end, sparkling in the distance, sat the glittering palace of Beauxbatons.
"I've never seen you looking so…enthralled," breathed a voice, hot and heavy against her neck. "By the Gods… is Pansy Parkinson actually enjoying herself?"
Draco's hands slipped around her waist. His fingers lightly circled the silk fabric above her bellybutton, sending shivers of pleasure rocketing up and down her spine.
"What do you care?" she muttered harshly. "We're not on a date. It was made perfectly clear this morning that my coming along was your father's idea."
Draco pressed his body into her back. "Oh dear… Did I give you the impression that I didn't want you here? Who do you think it was who suggested to my father that socially presenting our union might secure the other branches of your family as potential business partners?"
Pansy let out a soft moan as she felt his growing arousal digging into her bum. "If that's true, then… then why didn't you say anything?"
"I just did," he drawled smarmily, touching his lips to the back of her ear. "By the way… this backless gown looks positively hideous on you. I demand that you take it off at once."
Just hearing his desire made her knees buckle. It had been weeks since they had last spent a night together and the naughtier part of her brain was urging her to turn round, strip him down, and dominate him in the middle of the crowded street.
Reaching back between their bodies, she gave his bulge a discreet pat and whispered, "As much as I'd like to, these foreigners take everything far too seriously… and that includes being punctual. Arriving late will give the wrong impression, possibly endangering the alliance."
"Why should that matter to us?" grumbled Draco, his husky voice suddenly turning steely. "When the time comes, all the wealth my father has amassed will go to the Dark Lord. We'll be on the run. We'll be… poor."
As much as that thought distressed her, Pansy spun in her fiancé's embrace, leaned onto her tiptoes, and massaged a soothing kiss into his pursed lips.
When they finally broke apart for air, she straightened his silk cravat and said calmly, "Nothing good will come from brooding over something that hasn't happened yet. Right now, I'm more worried about your mother's wrath. Pull yourself together and let's be off."
Draco nodded, but continued to look sullen as they made their way down the street, heading towards the magnificent palace.
As they got closer, Pansy spotted an increasing number of couples in dress robes, all walking in the same direction.
"Just how many people are attending this party, anyway?"
Draco shrugged, a slight smirk eating away at the frown he had been sporting all day. "Oh… a few hundred maybe?"
She gasped, stopping dead in her tracks. "A few… A few hundred?"
"Well… yes… It is the French Minister's Birthday after all. Didn't I mention that?"
Pansy dug her nails into his arm. "No, you absolutely didn't! You said I should wear whatever I liked! You said it would only be friends and family!"
"We're Malfoys," he said smugly. "Every government employee with pockets to be lined is our friend."
"Damn't, Draco! Why in Merlin's name would you let me wear this gown? Now I'm going to be ogled and groped all night by sloshed Ministry workers!"
"Don't worry," he mumbled, pulling her towards the towering hedge that separated the bustling market from the school. "I won't let anyone touch you."
Pansy opened her mouth to object, but temporarily lost her ability to speak when they passed through a leafy archway and emerged into open air.
Beauxbatons was even more beautiful up close. While not as large as Hogwarts, it was infinitely more appealing to the eye. Where Hogwarts had rolling, untamed grounds, Beauxbatons had twinkling gardens of fairy-lit roses and massive fountains of shimmering crystal. Where Hogwarts had gothic spires and intimidating turrets, Beauxbatons had arched glass windows that shone like diamonds in the moonlight, intricate domes of buttressed marble, the largest of which rose into the sky like a many-tiered wedding cake, and decorative crenellations that made the whole castle seem more like art than architecture.
Masterfully crafted effigies of famous witches and wizards lined the cobbled walkway that led to the palace's glittering golden doors. With polite greetings of 'Bienvenue,' each statue bowed graciously to the guests that passed it by.
Draco sniffed haughtily as one stone bust even went so far as to compliment his outfit.
"I'd forgotten how much I despise this place. It's so ostentatious. Not to mention the Headmistress is half-giant. Why would your cousin actually choose to attend a school like this?
"Second cousin," corrected Pansy, gazing around at the breathtaking gardens. "And your guess is as good as mine. I've only met her once. My mother's extended family lives in Iceland, so it's not like we correspond on a regular basis."
"Well, I know for a fact that there's a magic academy in Iceland. It's small, but perfectly well-established. They host the Reykjavik Five-Hundred. Why not go there instead?"
"Mother's cousin is a liaison for the French Ministry. Perhaps he wanted his daughter to-"
Pansy was interrupted as six colossal pairs of wings swooped over their heads, drawing excited shouts from the surrounding party-goers.
"Pegasi?" grumbled Draco incredulously. "Are these people really that desperate to impress? What's next… a chimera that juggles? Come on, Pans. Let's find my parents, get the required mingling over with, and catch the first portkey back to Britain."
Taking her hand in a surprisingly gentle grip, he dragged her into the crowd.
Pansy let the blonde boy do the searching. She was far more interested in the party itself, particularly in the anthropomorphous army of bronze butlers weaving through the sea of guests, bearing silver trays of champagne and hors d'oeuvres.
"There they are," said Draco finally, pointing towards the buffet table. "It seems Father has already managed to weed out your family. Unsurprising, really. If I didn't know you… and if you hadn't dyed your hair… I'd probably mistake that girl as your sister."
The resemblance was indeed striking. With light blue eyes, honey-blonde hair, high cheekbones, and a sumptuous chest, Cousin Marin had all the staple traits of females from her mother's line.
Pansy found the whole thing terribly unfair. Marin's trademarked Selwyn beauty hadn't been sullied by the iconic Parkinson nose.
Narcissa, looking far more sour than usual, beckoned them over. "At last. I hope you have a good explanation for your tardiness, Draco."
"It's not our fault, Mother," lied Draco smoothly. "The entirety of the Midgen clan arrived at the Portkey Office ahead of us. They were only headed to Dublin, but it took them half-an-hour just to fill out the paperwork."
Lucius cleared his throat pointedly and directed their attention to the family of three standing at his side. "Jared… Freyja… might I introduce our son, Draco. As Rose surely mentioned in her letters, he and your cousin's daughter are engaged to be married."
Not missing a beat, Pansy made a subtle point of flashing the garish diamond ring Narcissa had stuffed unceremoniously onto her gloved finger not two hours previous.
With a small smile, Lucius continued. "Long have the Selwyns, Parkinsons, Malfoys, and Blacks been allies, but with this union, the bloodlines of England's last great wizarding families will finally merge. With your support, both moral and financial, our combined influence will rival that of the British Minister himself."
Jared Selwyn, a thickset man whose bulging muscles were barely contained by his dress robes, slowly held out his large hand for Lucius to shake. "Seeing Pansy and your son together inclines me to put my reservations aside. We are family now, já? There can be no distrust between family. With a solid rapport established between us, I am certain that the diplomatic relations of our respective governments will only strengthen. You have convinced me, Lucius."
The conversation quickly dissolved into talks of a political nature. Fully prepared for a lengthy stretch of boredom, Pansy was rather stunned when a distraction immediately presented itself in the form of her second cousin. The girl was staring at her with an unintelligible expression, and when Pansy met her gaze head on, Marin strode forward, breaking away from her parents.
"Frænka… Pansy… might I be speaking with you in private?"
It was unnerving to hear such friendly familiarity from the blonde. Four years ago, when they had met for the first time, Marin had barely spoken a word to her.
"Oh… I suppose that's… well, yes… of course."
The short seventeen-year-old looped an arm through Pansy's and led her away from the group. "It has been long since I see you, Frænka. I hope we can be speaking more, now that my English has improved. Papa likes to say the bond of family… Það er… mjög máli… very important.
"I suppose it has been quite awhile," agreed Pansy noncommittally, feeling confused as to why she was being dragged out of the crowd. "In the future, perhaps we should try to find time to send each other the occasional letter?"
Marin nodded, tugging her towards a large fountain outside the perimeter of the garden party. "Já. That would be nice. We must get to know each other better. After all, when you arrived… I almost not recognize you without the blonde curls."
"I do look different, don't I?" Pansy reached up and awkwardly smoothed her short, black bangs. "In truth, I only changed it for Draco. He was attracted to a girl with black hair... and I… I didn't like watching him lust after her. This travesty of fashion was a small price to pay for finally getting his attention."
"Nonsense. You look good with the darker hair. Perhaps I will color my own. I am tiring of blonde. Do you think red would suit me?"
The seemingly innocent question was left lingering without an answer, for the instant they were hidden behind the enormous fountain, Marin spun, fluidly drawing a wand from her cleavage of all places.
It seemed that expertly masking one's true emotions was a Selwyn family trait as well. Gone were her cousin's cheerful smile and pleasant mannerisms. Gone was the pretense of close kinship.
"Shut your mouth!" snarled the older girl furiously, her Icelandic accent thickening. "You do not speak to me!"
With two quick flicks of the wand, Pansy was silenced and frozen in place. She tried to cry out, tried to break free from the magic restraining her, but it was no use; the charms were flawless and powerful to boot.
Sneering menacingly, Marin grabbed Pansy by the jaw and squeezed with strength uncharacteristic of her small frame.
"Open your ears, drusla! I have message for you! It is message to your filthy papa! You will tell him the Memory Charm broke! You will tell him I remember the lecherous touches he made me forget! You will tell him I remember and will never forgive! You will tell him… You will tell him if he show face in front of me again, I will kill him! There will be no hesitating; no regret! Do I make clear?"
Terror-stricken, but unable to speak or move, Pansy did her utmost to convey with her eyes that she understood.
"Good," hissed the blonde through gritted teeth. "Although small part of me would enjoy doing to you what he did to me… I am not so cruel. I want you to go now. You will deliver my warning. You will leave my school and never-"
"Marinella? Mon dieu! Qu'est-ce tu fais?"
Tapping Pansy on the cheek to negate the spells, Marin shoved her to the ground, spat at her feet, and stalked back to the party without another word.
As Pansy lay splayed across the cobbled stone attempting to wrap her head around what had just occurred, a shiny pair of silver high heels appeared in her field of vision. Gentle hands lifted her up, helping her to her feet.
"Est-ce que vous allez bien? Êtes-vous blessée?"
Blood was dribbling down her arm from a nasty-looking scrape and her composure was wearing thin. The last thing Pansy needed right now was a pushy French do-gooder meddling in her family's private affairs.
"I don't speak French," she said with an air of curt dismissal. "Sorry."
"Ah… en anglais… euh… You are alright, non? You are not 'urt?"
"I'm fine, thank you. I just need to… to…"
Pansy trailed off as she got a good look at her timely rescuer.
Standing in front of her, draped in a flowing slip of a gown that clung in all the right places, was a tall, platinum-haired, indescribably gorgeous young woman. With a face and body that put Madame Dupont's to shame, the girl was, in a word, perfect. So perfect in fact, that as ludicrous as the thought was, Pansy was momentarily convinced that she was gazing not upon a human being, but upon the Goddess Aphrodite herself.
"It was good zat I chose zis fountain to 'ide from ze drunken men," purred the French beauty. "Anozer moment and she likely would 'ave 'exed you. I would know best. To ze girls zat break 'er 'eart, little Marin can be most… foul. Even now, she will not forgive me for rejecting 'er affections in our fourth year."
It took several long seconds for the meaning of that statement to sink in, but when it did, Pansy reddened.
"I'm afraid you've got it wrong," she muttered, severely irked by the mere idea of being romantically involved with another woman. "That… bitch… is my second cousin. We were… We were only talking."
The tall blonde gave her an odd look. "It did not seem like ze friendliest of talks."
"Well, that's because it wasn't. Now… if you'll excuse me."
"Un moment, mademoiselle. Let me see your arm. You are bleeding and I am quite skilled in ze art of 'ealing."
"I told you," snapped Pansy, jerking her wrist away from the proffered wandtip. "I'm fine! If you really want to help me, then go find the Malfoy family and let them know that I'm leaving."
"Ze Malfoys? Oui, I know of zem. But I cannot be relaying zis message without first knowing your name."
"It's Pansy. Pansy Parkinson. Now please, just… just leave me alone!"
After a moment's pause, the platinum-haired girl huffed disdainfully and walked off, muttering to herself in rapid French.
When the clickety-clack of high-heels finally faded amongst the party's raucous din, Pansy let her walls of apathy come tumbling down. Clutching her head and sinking to her haunches, she tried to block out the images of a ravaged Lavender Brown that besieged her mind's eye.
Father… you would never do something like that. I know you wouldn't.
"Ron… lend me a jumper. I'm freezing."
"But Mione… won't I be freezing if I lend you my jumper?"
"You're wearing three of them, you prat!"
Ron grinned as the bushy-haired girl huddled into his side to shield herself from the biting cold. "I suppose I could spare you one. Then again… you swore you'd be warm enough. I mean… you read in your book that Durmstrang's quidditch stadium is enchanted with year-round heating charms."
"And that information was perfectly accurate! Just because they've canceled them to give their team an advantage doesn't mean-"
"Sweet Merlin these jumpers are cozy! Oi, Perce! Fancy an extra layer?"
"Oh for heaven's sake!" huffed Hermione, slapping his arm. "I was wrong, alright? I admit it! Now please! Do you want me to die from frostbite?"
Chuckling, Ron tugged off his two outermost knits and helped the shivering girl pull them over her head. Once her arms were through the sleeves, he ran his hands up and down her shoulders to speed the warming process.
Hermione smiled gratefully, her sparkling-white, perfectly-straight teeth no longer chattering. "B-Better."
For a split-second, Ron was gripped by an urge to lean down and capture her slightly-purpled lips in a kiss, but seeing Sirius, Luna, his mother, his father, his brother, and his thoroughly dejected sister squeezed in around them, he immediately thought better of it.
Something akin to disappointment flashed in Hermione's chocolaty eyes, and with a light sigh, she turned back to the match.
"That Selwyn girl is shockingly good with a broom, isn't she? Look there… Harry's having trouble keeping pace."
Wishing he had a pair of Omnioculars, Ron squinted up at the blurred streaks comprised of Harry and her Beauxbatons counterpart.
Ginny, who Ron had thought was ignoring the game out of spite, chimed in rather bitterly, "Marin's a fair flier, sure, but she's missed at least three opportunities on the snitch. Not much point in being a Seeker if you can't catch, is there?"
The crowd roared its approval as one of the twins sent a bludger straight into the Beauxbatons Keeper's gut, allowing Angelina's lobbed quaffle to sail unhindered through the center ring.
Hermione tugged his arm. "If Gryffindor wins this match, Hogwarts will play Durmstrang in the final, yes?"
"Durmstrang or Salem," replied Ron. "You never know. The yanks might miraculously pull off a win."
"But you think that's unlikely, yes?"
"Well… yeah. Durmstrang has Krum. And Krum's the best Seeker in the world."
"He can't be that good," sniffed Hermione. "Harry said Durmstrang lost to Zanjiri College in the first match of the tournament and that all the other teams beat Zanjiri soundly."
Ron's eyes bulged in disbelief. "That's probably because he wasn't even trying! Krum plays for Bulgaria, Mione! They're ranked third in the International League!"
"So that obviously makes him-"
Everyone around them collectively gasped.
Harry was in a nose dive. She was hurtling downward through the center of the game, her blonde competitor in hot pursuit.
There, a hundred yards below, hovering just a few feet above the snow-covered earth, was the snitch.
"Come on, Harry!" shouted Hermione, bouncing up and down on her toes. "Go!"
Ron was less inclined to cheer. With the golden orb so close to the bottom of the pitch, he had a vague idea of what the reckless girl might try to do. She had done it before for lower stakes.
Twenty feet from the snitch, the Beauxbatons Seeker pulled up, decelerating from the breakneck dive, obviously expecting that Harry would do the same. But of course, Harry didn't. Her hand closed around her prize and at the very last second, she wrenched her Firebolt parallel to the ground, performing a full emergency stop.
The broom froze, but Harry's body kept going, albeit at a much reduced speed. She hit the snow with a dull thud, sending a cloud of white powder flying into the air.
The first semifinal match had ended. Hogwarts had won by a landslide.
Leaving the rest of their group behind, Ron muscled his way through the rowdy spectators, heading for the stairs that led down to the field. When he finally arrived at Harry's point of impact, a small circle of players and medi-witches had formed a protective ring.
Squeezing through the gap made by the shoulders of Fred and a burly Beauxbatons Beater, he saw her.
Harry lay unconscious in the snow with her knee bent at a highly unnatural angle.
Ron didn't quite know how she had managed it, but Ginny had gotten there even faster than he had. She was cradling the raven-haired girl's head in her lap, glaring daggers at anyone that dared approach.
The healer who had been pouring over Harry with her wand stood, shouted several orders in her native Scandinavian tongue, and then addressed the circle in heavily-accented English. "Broken leg and concussion. Move away, please."
Ron locked eyes with Oliver Wood who was standing behind Ginny on the other side of the ring. With a covert gesture and a worried glance at his youngest sibling, he attempted to convey to Oliver what was about to happen and what might be done to prevent it.
Wood thankfully seemed to understand. Drawing his wand, Oliver tapped Ginny on the head, binding her in place right as the healers moved to extract Harry from her arms.
The crowd's telltale roar echoed over the stadium once again. High above their heads, seven streaks of black zoomed though the air in perfect diamond formation, circling the snowy pitch like hungry birds of prey.
Durmstrang had made their first appearance of the day. Even at this distance, Krum could be seen leading the pack, his expression sharp and focused. If the International Quidditch star had decided to play seriously, then the upcoming match against Salem wasn't even worth watching. It would be over in minutes.
Hoisting Ginny's petrified form over his shoulder, Ron lugged his sister off the field. Falling behind the rest of the team, he slowly made his way out of the arena and towards the cluster of massive tents erected to house visiting teams and their supporters.
Despite being knocked out of the running in the days previous, hundreds of young players from all over the world still milled about the tents, laughing and making merry, proudly sharing their culture and love of quidditch with their neighbors. Helped along by exorbitant quantities of spiked butterbeer and near-constant jaunty music, the excitement permeating the air was almost tangible.
It was like one giant party, and even though he had been deeply disturbed by the amount of money Harry had been willing to spend for seven seats in the top box during the semifinal and final matches, Ron was grateful to be part of it.
At the center of the tents, there blazed a three-story bonfire, beating back the chill for half a mile in every direction. Around it, Aztlan University's representative team was having what looked to be a raucous drinking competition with anyone brave enough to take them on. Ron was half-tempted to join in, but first he had to deliver Ginny.
Hogwarts' pavilion was located at the very back of the bunch, nestled at the base of the mountain range that hid Castle Durmstrang from prying eyes. Inside, the post-win celebration was in full swing. The members of the Gryffindor squad were being swarmed by friends, family, and even individuals from teams they had already beaten. In the heart of the crowd, Luna was single-handedly attempting to start some sort of group dance that involved copious amounts of twirling.
Spotting Hermione sitting at a table in the far corner, he walked over, and plopped his immobile sister down onto the bench.
"What have you done to her?" asked the bushy-haired girl, fussing over Ginny like a mother hen.
"Nothing but save her from causing a whole mess of trouble. And I didn't do it. Wood did."
Ginny glared up at him, promising him pain and suffering with naught but her eyes.
Reaching out, he tweaked her nose. "Calm down. Harry will be fine. The healers up at the castle will have her fixed up in no time flat. You can yell at me all you'd like when she gets back."
"I'm a bit jealous," said Hermione airily. "Foreigners are so rarely given the chance to see Durmstrang from the inside."
Ron snorted. "Well… if it's anything like the outside, you probably aren't missing much. With all of Malfoy's talk about Durmstrang being a better school than Hogwarts, I didn't expect it to look so shabby."
"It's the world's oldest surviving school of magic. Be fair."
"Fair? Mione… I live in a house made up of eight cottages stacked atop the other and held together by magic. When I say something looks shabby, it looks bloody shabby."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "If the rumors are true and Morgana really did have a hand in Durmstrang's founding, then this castle was completed sometime in the early medieval period. Building in the Romanesque style was, at the time, the gold-standard of modern architecture. Before the dawn of the second millennium, it would have seemed a marvel to all who saw it."
Squeezing into the seat next to her, Ron gave the girl's leg a playful nudge with his knee. "I'm almost afraid to ask which book you got that from. Just a bit of light reading, right?"
"Oh shut up. Can't you go a single day without teasing me?"
"I can probably manage a few hours… but a whole day? I dunno."
Instead of shooting him the exasperated look Ron was expecting, Hermione grinned and leaned sideways, resting her head on his shoulder.
"Well… that's good enough for now, I suppose."
Ron turned his neck ever-so-slightly, touching his chin into her feather-soft hair. In that instant, as he breathed in the hints of toffee-apple wafting from Hermione's locks, he was reminded of another girl with whom he had shared a similar moment; reminded of the tears she had shed on her birthday of all days.
"Harry? Where'd you go, mate? I've got your drink."
Ron stepped off the porch and turned.
Harry was sitting on the roof of the kitchen, legs dangling over the edge. She daintily patted the shingles at her side.
"Come on. Your mum said it's the best spot in the house to watch fireworks."
"Aye, it's not bad. Ginny and I would climb up when we were little, but that was mainly because we couldn't see over the garden hedge. How's it look from there? See everything alright?"
The corners of her lips twitched. "Are you insinuating something about my height, Ron? Again?"
"Off your chump, you are. I'd never do something like that."
Using one hand to steady himself and the other to cradle the two open bottles of butterbeer, Ron clambered onto the roof of the kitchen via a makeshift stepladder of barrels and bins.
"Wow… I haven't done this in ages."
"Fire Snap?" offered Harry quietly, holding out a bag of small red sweets as Ron sat down beside her. "They're from Remus."
"Yeah, alright. Trade you."
Handing her the drink, Ron picked one of the unfamiliar candies from the bag and popped it into his mouth.
Immediately, his taste buds began to scream their protest. It was like sucking on the insides of a hot pepper.
"Quick," said Harry. "Say something, anything."
The word left him quite literally. In a spurt of painless flame, fiery letters spelling 'what' erupted from his mouth, sailing into the night sky. They burned brightly, dancing on the breeze, only to vanish seconds later in a tiny puff of smoke.
"That was brutal," coughed Ron, pounding his chest. The sweet resting on his tongue had all but lost its kick, reverting to a simple ball of sugar. "You could've warned me."
"Payback for calling me short."
"No sense getting miffed. You are short. You're a certifiable midget. Even Ginny has an inch on you." Ron scanned the ground below, searching for his sister among the rest of his family as they milled about the garden, clearing away decorations. "Speaking of Ginny, she disappeared right after dinner. Where's she gone off to now?"
Harry jerked her thumb at the top of the house.
He twisted and looked up. High above them, framed in the dark of Ginny's bedroom window, he saw the shadowy outline of a body leaning against the glass.
"Must have been some row you had out in the forest."
Her expression gaunt, Harry contemplated a Fire Snap, rolling it between her fingers before finally bringing it to her lips.
Ron frowned at the flaming letters as they hung in the air, casting the black-haired girl's delicate features into stark relief. Such a simple reply really had no business being enigmatic.
Harry plucked another Fire Snap from the bag, but this time, instead of eating it herself, she tossed it over the edge of the roof. As soon as it hit the ground, Crookshanks' lightning-quick silhouette darted from the bushes. The cat snapped up the sweet and disappeared twice as fast.
"That ugly little bugger has been following you about all night. I think he's finally taken a shine to you."
"No…" said Harry softly, "it's more like… he's watching me."
Before Ron could ask her what she meant, all the lights around the Burrow winked out. One of twins, he couldn't tell which, leapt onto the paddock fence and began to shout.
"Ladies and Gentleman! May we-"
"Oi! You didn't include Percy, George!"
"Merlin's beard, you're right!" George cleared his throat and started again. "Ladies, Gentleman, and Percy! May we have your attention please? On this very special day, Fred the Magnificent-"
Fred cut in. "-and George the Not-Quite-As-Magnificent-But-Still-Pretty-Good are proud to present to you the greatest fireworks celebration this muddy stretch of moor has ever seen!"
Ron heard his mother moan from the garden below.
"Not to worry, Madam!" said George with a flourish. "We couldn't afford anything too destructive! Made most of it ourselves!"
Fred scratched his chin. "Now that I think about it, we probably added too much Doxy venom to the-"
George clapped a hand over his twin's mouth. "A very Happy Birthday to our favorite specky strumpet! This is our gift to you!" He turned and shouted into the pitch-black field. "LIGHT 'EM UP, SIRIUS!"
Harry grabbed Ron's arm and pulled it around her waist as the first of the fireworks shot into the endless sky, exploding in plumes of multi-colored sparks to form the letters 'H' and 'P'. She leaned into him, resting her head in the crook of his shoulder.
Although it was indeed a spectacular show, having the attractive girl so close made paying attention to the twins' display a very difficult task. The feel of her slim body and the pleasant piney smell of her messy hair made his head spin. With every explosion, her chest would heave, her tank-top would rise, and Ron would be rewarded with a short glimpse of her belly button.
It wasn't until the finale, when the last of the fireworks had gone off to much cheering and Harry's chest continued to heave that Ron realized something was amiss.
"You alright, mate?" Placing his hands on either side of her head, he tilted her face into the moonlight.
Her emerald eyes shimmered with moisture. Her alabaster cheeks were puffy and red.
"Harry!? What's wrong!?"
The girl sniffled and attempted to hide her crying visage behind trembling fingers. "I… I… I g-gave her an ul-ulti-ultimatum and sh-she… and she… and she d-d-didn't…"
Ron used his thumbs to wipe at Harry's wet cheeks as she dissolved into a fresh wave of tears.
"Is this about Ginny?"
Harry nodded into Ron's hand.
"Anything I can do?"
She slowly shook her head. "E-Even if I a-asked… you w-wouldn't say yes."
"You w-won't. Y-You're in l-lov-"
"Harry? Ron? Is everything okay up there?"
Ron looked down. Hermione was standing on the porch, squinting up at them, clearly concerned.
"We're fine, Mione. I've got her."
"Can I… help?"
"Yeah. A spot of tea, maybe?"
"Absolutely. Hold on." The bushy-haired girl hurried into the kitchen.
Ron turned back to Harry, who was glaring at the shingles on the side of the house, most likely in an attempt to hide her face from everyone below.
"You were saying?"
"F-Forget it," she whispered brokenly. "I'm f-fine. I j-just n-need a minute."
Ron sighed into Hermione's hair. That and a short goodbye early the next day had been the last things Harry had said to him before shipping off to the tournament with Fred and George.
He'd had no luck trying to ask Ginny what had happened, and not for lack of trying. Upon learning that Mum wasn't letting her go with Harry, instead of begging, raging, and throwing a tantrum of massive proportions, his sister had silently ascended the stairs to her room. She'd gone to bed, and had refused to get out of it until yesterday morning when Harry's bundle of tickets had arrived.
Ron chanced a glance at Ginny. Even though she was frozen, he could tell from the look in her downcast eyes that she was distraught; far more distraught than anxiety over Harry's crash could have made her.
He leaned down to whisper in Hermione's ear. "Harry and Gin… what do you think they did to each other?"
Hermione tilted her head so her voice was muffled by his shirt. "I don't know, Ron. Leave it alone. They'll work it out."
"But what if-"
"Leave it!" she hissed, pinching his leg. "Deal with your own can of worms before you try to open theirs."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Hermione sat up, fixing him with a very pointed stare. "'I don't know. And I don't care. I don't care anymore, Mione. I just… I want to…'" She scooted closer along the bench. "What exactly did you want to do, Ron?"
Feeling himself flush, Ron stood and hastily tried to come up with a reason to excuse himself. "I'm going to go and… and get a bathroom. I mean butterbeer! I meant I'm going to the butterbeer. I mean bathroom! I mean… I…"
Swallowing nervously, he walked away and didn't look back.
Harry came to with a startled gasp, sitting bolt upright. The first thing she noticed upon regaining her faculties was that, wherever she was, it was quite dark. A large six-tiered candle chandelier floated in the rafters above, but only the bottommost circle was lit, giving off very little light.
The second thing she noticed was something hot, fleshy, and wet lapping at her toes. It wasn't the first time she had felt it on her skin.
Jerking away the sheet that was covering her lower body, Harry scowled at the large black dog sitting at the foot of her uncomfortable slab of a bed.
"Do you know how disgusting that is?"
The dog licked its nose and padded around the edge of mattress, transforming midstride.
"Sorry, lass," said Sirius, tapping the side of his head. "If I stay in animal form for more than a few hours at a time, the old noodle goes a bit… doggish. Can't be helped."
"Sucking toes can't be helped? Blegh. A big no thank you to life as a dog."
"Oh… it's not so bad. You taste things differently. Back when I was in school, Rosy used to let me-"
Harry cut him off. "Let's pause and pose a hypothetical, shall we? Let's assume for a moment that I'm more like my Mum than my Dad. Is this a story you'd be comfortable telling Lily?"
Sirius' mouth snapped shut with an audible click.
"Potter to control. Story-telling boundaries have been established. We are now go for liftoff. Commencing proper godfather behavior in three, two, one."
Sirius raised an amused eyebrow. "Go for liftoff?"
Harry shrugged. "While other children had slumber parties, I was lucky enough to spend Saturday night in my cupboard, re-pinning my knickers to the soothing sounds of the telly I was forbidden watch. Every little girl's dream, right?"
Smiling dolefully, he squeezed her knee. "No, don't do that. It's a tempting path… but making light of things that you aren't yet ready to deal with just turns you bitter. Trust me. I know all-"
The curtains around the bed snapped open.
An attractive, dark-haired medi-witch dressed in a plain, form-fitting habit stood before them. She was staring at Sirius with the same dumbfounded look Professor Binns would give Hermione whenever she raised her hand in class… as if he wasn't quite sure she was real.
Sirius cleared his throat. "Ah… yes… before you doth protest on my presence, beautiful Madam, let me remind you that you did, technically, allow me to accompany my goddaughter." He quickly reverted to his dog form and back.
"I see," said the woman, eying him shrewdly. "Vell then… let me remind you that you have broken the agreements made by your Ministry. Ve were promised by all nations that no foreigner, save for those in need of medical care, vould step foot inside this castle. I could have you locked avay for your trespass."
"Locked away, eh? Bondage isn't really my bag, but with the right person… I might consider it."
Sirius winked at the healer, who became very flustered.
"I… I do not have time for this. There are other patients who need my attention. You may vait for this one in the hall. Leave us, before I change my mind."
Transforming once again, Sirius barked happily and scampered through the curtain, wagging his tail at just the right moment so as to firmly smack the healer's bum.
Cheeks flushed, the woman approached Harry, drawing two small potions from her sleeve. "Drink these and you may go. The final match vill be starting vithin the hour. Your belongings are in the cabinet there."
"Alright," said Harry, downing each bottle of foul liquid in one gulp. She dressed quickly, pretending not to notice the way the healer was hovering on the other side of the curtain instead of attending to the 'other patients'.
Oh dear… Here we go again.
Strapping on the last of her gear and preparing herself for utter mortification, Harry picked up her broom, took a deep breath, and stepped out.
"Good luck today," said the still-blushing medi-witch. "You vill need it. Viktor Krum and the Durmstrang Carrions make a formidable team."
"Yeah. Thanks for fixing me up." Harry attempted to squeeze by her, but the woman blocked her path.
"By the vay, that man… your godfather… he is… he is…"
"Available?" finished Harry helpfully, not quite able to believe she was having this conversation. "I think so."
"So… if I vere to come looking, I vould find him at the Hogvarts tent?"
"I dunno. Probably. How do I get back to the pitch?"
The pretty healer pointed to the door. "Follow the corridor to the end. From there, a Tournament official vill guide you to the exit."
Harry scurried from the dark chamber as fast as her feet could carry her. She emerged into what would be better described as a dank, narrow tunnel rather than a corridor. Sirius was waiting for her, leaning against the wall in human form.
"Sirius… I know being a free man excites you… but was that really necessary?"
He grinned. "From your abashed expression, I can only assume that I have a date. Did you happen to catch her name?"
"No, I bloody didn't!" said Harry firmly. "When you flirt, could you please make sure I'm not around? When we went to Florean's for ice cream, two women, total strangers, were literally falling arse-over-elbow to get me to introduce you! It happened again in the Leaky Cauldron, and again at Gringotts!"
"What can I say, Harry? I've got animal magnetism."
"Exactly! It's like you're some… It's like you're some supercharged magnet that's been polarized to attract the opposite sex. I'm a little afraid to ask, but… how are you doing it?"
Sirius slung an arm over her shoulder as they walked down the tunnel. "You mean aside from putting my boyish charm and rugged good looks to work? Well… it's thanks to a combination of things really… and it only seems to reel in certain types of witches. First off, there's the media coverage. In the last month, who hasn't heard Rita Skeeter spinning the tale of Sirius Black, tragic hero wrongfully imprisoned for twelve long years? I'm a bona fide celebrity now. That tends to pull in the attention seekers."
He puffed out his chest. "Secondly, there's my public image. Be it either the aforementioned tragic persona, or the troublemaker I was at Hogwarts, my image draws in the girls who think they're going to suddenly fix all my problems with a little love and sexual healing."
Harry rolled her eyes.
"And last but not least… there's you. Ladies on the prowl for a sensitive man they can commit to can't seem to resist a single father caring for his children. I swear, Harry, it's like their Achilles heel. When they see us together, they swoon."
She snuggled into Sirius' side. "That's disturbing. Remind me to never go anywhere with you ever again."
His barking laughter ended in a sharp intake of breath. Having reached the end of the corridor, they had entered into a large, circular hall with a majestic stained-glass roof. The moving mural depicted in the glass showed a lone witch, nude as the day she was born, taming a sea of demonic shades.
"Morgana Victorious," muttered Sirius. "Beautiful. I'd heard it was here, but never really believed. Harry, you're looking at the last great work of art Morgan le Fay completed before losing her soul to Dementors, creatures thought to be of her own making."
Stepping out from beneath Sirius' arm, Harry walked forward a few paces, feeling very ill at ease. The mural, while impressive, failed to hold her attention. Around the edges of the circular hall, interspersed equidistant from the next, were twelve additional corridors leading away into darkness. She didn't know what it was, but something about them seemed strangely… foreboding.
"Did she not tell you the way out?" asked Sirius lightly.
Harry frowned. "No. Someone was supposed to be here to escort us. Can you remember where you came from when they brought me in?"
"A dog can only focus on so many things at once, and I was distracted by your injuries at the time. Not to worry though. You stay here while I pop back to ask our delicious healer friend for better directions. Might as well find out her name while I'm at it. Back in a mo'."
Not wanting to be left alone, Harry turned to stop him. However, when she saw what was gleaming above the corridor through which they had just emerged, her protest died in a weak, gurgled mumble.
It was a symbol of some sort… or perhaps a rune. Whatever it was, it was enormous. With an oval in its center and a single line dividing both shapes into equal halves, the massive triangle measured at least fifty feet high and wide. It had been carved deep into the rock, but not by any means Harry recognized. The gashes were shimmering; dripping with effervescent light.
A single line of text was etched in a similar manner beneath the triangle's base, and although Harry's brain was telling her that it had been written in a language she didn't understand, English was what she saw.
Her lips haltingly formed the words and a flash of lightning refracted off the stained-glass ceiling, sending the hall into a brilliant wash of color.
"Now… I triumph… with infinite… time…"
Instead of thunder, a deep, rumbling voice answered the lightning's call. It crashed over the castle, vibrating the foundations, shaking Harry right down to her bones.
"For I am the Master of Death."
She drew her wand faster than the eye could blink, only to have it wrenched from her hand as soon as she'd raised it. The shaft of holly clattered away across the stone, rolling to a stop against the far wall.
Harry couldn't see him, but she sensed him; both his power and his presence. The air itself was vibrating with his magic.
When the skies calmed, the voice spoke again, but this time, as a whisper in her ear.
"Do not run. Do not call for help. For the next eight minutes and thirty-three seconds, you are mine."
"Nitwit," breathed Harry, acutely aware of how exposed she was. "Dumbledore assured me that you're not a threat, so why exactly do you feel like one?"
His throaty chuckle emanated from every direction. "It is your nature. When faced with a boot, the ant knows that it is small."
Closing her eyes, Harry retreated into her mental corridor and called upon her manifestation of Ron. Despite the near constant danger of falling into a fantasy world with him, she always felt safer using Ron to fuel her defenses.
The redhead appeared at her side, smelling of grass and smiling amorously. "Hey, mate. You're looking fit today, as per usual."
"No time for that!" said Harry. "Lock them! All of them! Now!"
"Can't we have a snog first?"
Ron zipped off down the seemingly endless hallway, sealing thousands of doors at time. It was finished in seconds.
When Harry opened her eyes, she had to bite down on her tongue to stifle her reflexive scream. The skeletal monstrosity had made himself visible and his gaping, mutilated chest cavity was inches away from her face. She could see every beat of his exposed heart; every quivering murmur of his lungs. She could see the blood being squeezed through his non-existent veins, pumping through tiny invisible capillaries running every-which-way.
Averting her eyes, but not daring to move her feet, Harry steeled her nerves and asked, "What happened to the Tournament official? The one that was stationed here? Did you… kill him?"
"He had a fearsome gambling problem. I simply returned him to his debtors, so that we might have a moment to ourselves."
"And what is it that you want with me? Same thing as last time?"
Harry shivered as metallic, silvery fingers grasped her chin and gently turned her head upwards, forcing her to gaze upon his decaying visage. He was missing even more flesh than she remembered. His neck was naught but spine and organ; the lower half of his unhinged jaw merely yellowed skull.
His one functioning, electric-blue eye bore down on her like a drill and the wand he was using to speak pulsed with a soft light. "I see that you've mastered a handful of Occlumency methods since last we spoke. Good. Very good. Force the beast down into the cage. Enrage him. Give him less room to breathe so that when he does come up for air, his poison will be all the more volatile."
"W-Wait... What? What do you-"
"Bitte schweig!" snapped Nitwit, his thick accent crackling with authority. "The young people born of this century… you take far too long to say unimportant things, and ignore completely that which needs be said. So content are you to blather your lives away; so jubilant in your dithering noise. It sickens me. You will hold your tongue."
Desperately willing someone to save her, Harry went quiet.
He tilted her chin from side to side, appraising her the way a goblin would gold. "This is excellent work for under a year's practice. Thorough…strong… secure. And yet… it shares the same core weakness attributed to all construct Occlumency, focusing too much on the physical aspect of protecting one's memories. Vaults, and walls, and locks… these are all objects that can be broken given the right amount of force. Any legilimens of moderate skill will know that when such a construct is violently dismantled…"
The man's feather-light mental tendrils became spiny and tangible. Harry cried out as they lashed at the doors to her memories, tearing through her reinforced seals like an axe through tissue paper.
"… the occlumens will experience pain. A true master does not use such constructs, for they make him vulnerable. The pinnacle of defensive Occlumency is not the ability to hide your memories away, but rather the ability to fabricate them."
"S-Stop," whispered Harry through clenched teeth. It felt as if someone was taking an eggbeater to her brain. She could hear Ron inside her head, screaming in agony. "Please, stop."
"I told you not to speak."
Helpless, Harry nodded, and the pain relented.
"Open your memories to me, girl. Hide yourself away in something early… in something innocent… and I promise I shall leave said memory unchecked. You will be spared the emotional upheaval as I peruse the last year."
When she did not obey, Nitwit tightened his grip on her chin.
"Open them... or I shall break you."
Bitterly resigned, Harry retreated into the depths of her mind once more.
Ron was lying on his back in the center of corridor, gasping for air.
"B-Bloody hell! That blighter is strong!"
"Open them, Ron."
"You can't be serious! I just-"
Grumbling, Ron picked himself off the floor and clicked his fingers. All of the doors swung open as one.
Grabbing the boy's hand, Harry zoomed along the hallway until she found a suitable place to hide. Stepping inside, she hauled Ron through the open compartment door, and slid it shut with a soft click.
"So we're just letting him in?" asked Ron incredulously. "We're not going to fight?"
"No. Not today. You said it yourself. He's too strong."
Looking put-out, Ron turned to face the three occupants of the small train carriage. They were laughing and joking as they played exploding snap, unaware of the dangers they would soon face.
"I remember this," said Ron. "Christmas Hols. Our first year. Look how scrawny we were."
Harry smiled fondly at her younger self. The black-haired girl was doing her very best to bait the eleven-year-old Ron into a tickle war.
"He told me to choose something innocent. This is about as close to innocent as I get."
"Yeah. The only worry I had on my mind that day was whether or not my pen pal would be as excited to see me as I was her. It was a good feeling. I… I was happy."
Ron sighed and stepped behind her, slipping his large hands around her waist. "You're not happy now?"
"I'm not," muttered Harry, thudding the back of her head against his broad chest. "I'm really not. And… And given that you are me, you already knew that. Stop trying to confuse me."
"Confusing you isn't my intention. I just want to make you happy again." The tall boy's fingers hiked her shirt upwards, sliding inside to draw small circles around her navel. "It's why I'm here."
Harry bit her lip, trying not to enjoy the sensations his hands instilled. "You're here to protect me, Ron. That's all."
"That's not all. I'm your Knight, remember?" Leaning down, tilting her head with his chin, he nibbled on the edge of her ear. "A Knight does whatever his Queen requires."
The heat between her legs built rapidly as his mouth serviced her earlobe. Her desire flared, blocking all logical thought. She was in the process of reaching up to bury her fingers in his hair when her sanity finally returned.
"Stop it, damn you! This isn't real! You're… You're not real!"
"You're right. I'm not real. You're in control here, Harry. If you really wanted me to stop, you'd switch me out for Mione or ickle-Malfoy. And yet, you haven't."
One by one, Ron unfastened the buttons on her blouse.
Harry looked down. In place of her quidditch gear, there was half a Hogwarts uniform; the very same clothes that had been sported by her eleven-year-old counterpart. The three first years themselves had disappeared.
"The reason you haven't sent me away is because you know what I can do," breathed Ron, tugging her robe down and over her shoulders. "I can do what the real me is too afraid to do."
He wrapped her in a large hug, and Harry, unbalanced by the embrace, squeaked in surprise as they tipped forward, falling onto the compartment bench.
"I can give you what Ginny wouldn't," said Ron, lessening his weight on top of her, yet still managing to hold her close. "I can give you what you're craving."
She let out a soft moan as the boy began to kiss and nip at her neck, trailing his lips over her exposed shoulders. Were it not for the tenderness in his voice and the feeling of safety Harry experienced in his presence, his wantonly lustful touches might have frightened her, might have brought back memories she'd do anything to forget. As it was, they only heightened her growing arousal. This was Ron… and Ron would never knowingly hurt her.
"Everything you've dreamed of, Harry." One arm cradling her upper body, the other running a hand over her hips, he dipped his fingers beneath her skirt, looping them through the band of her knickers. "I can give it to you… but only if you let me."
"R-Ron…" panted Harry breathlessly. "It's not… It's not release that I want. It's more than that." She could feel his arousal brushing against her thigh as the train jostled. He was rock-hard and strong; strong… just as she had always needed him to be.
"I know," replied Ron, pressing a fleeting kiss into the dent between her shoulder blades. "Say yes, and you'll get it."
Half-naked and trembling, no longer caring what was real and what wasn't, Harry nodded her consent.
In one fluid motion, Ron dragged the slip of cloth down to her knees.
The train gave a great lurch… and her mind went wonderfully blank.
The shrill blast of a conductor's whistle sounded in the distance, jolting Harry to her senses.
Dancing around her legs, wrenching desperately at her wrist, was a small girl with messy black hair.
"Mum! Are you even listening to me? We're going to be late! Can we please just go?"
A tall, red-haired man standing on her left sighed and patted the impatient child on the head. He was carrying another girl in his arms, a redhead who couldn't have been older than six.
"Leave Mummy alone, Lily. She made your Aunt a promise… and Weasleys don't break promises, do they?"
"Well, I promise never to speak to either of you ever again if I miss the train!"
Harry stared blankly at the iron-fitted clock jutting from the wall above their heads. She had quite forgotten how she had come to be at King's Cross Station; had forgotten who these three people were and why she felt like they completed her.
Glancing down at the hand upon which the black-haired girl was tugging, she found that she was wearing another piece of jewelry apart from her charm bracelet. Wrapped snuggly at the base of her ring finger was a modest circlet of gold. Rotating the band, Harry read the elegant inscription inlaid around its center.
'Knight takes Queen. Checkmate.'
And as the full weight of those four simple words slowly began to sink in… she remembered.
Her entire life flashed before her eyes: the day she had given herself to Ron on the train, their budding relationship, Hermione finally acknowledging them as a couple, the war, Voldemort defeated, Ron's proposal, joining the Harpies with Ginny, the wedding, Lily's birth, leading England to the cup, Molly's birth, raising two very unruly girls, Lily's letter, and finally this morning, when Ron had stepped into the shower with her.
"You alright?" asked Ron, depositing a squirming Molly next to her sister. "You look a bit out of sorts."
"I'm… I'm fine," said Harry, shaken by her fleeting amnesia. "For a moment I… no… never mind. I think I'm just tired."
He reached out and tangled his fingers in her hair. "That's my fault, I suppose. You really should lock the door, love. Can't help myself seeing you all soapy and-"
Before her husband could scar their children for life, Harry grabbed him by the collar and yanked him down for a searing, mind-numbing kiss. His mouth moved with hers in a familiar dance of passion that left her wishing they were still in bed.
"Eww!" moaned Lily. "I'm standing right here, you know!"
Ron grinned against Harry's lips and pulled back. "Pipe down, short stuff. You're so loud. I don't know where you get it from. Certainly not from-"
"She's here!" chimed Molly in her sweet, squeaky voice.
Harry turned. A beautiful, redheaded woman in a yellow sundress was strolling toward them through the crowd.
It was Ginny.
There was a flutter of longing in Harry's chest, a relic of old feelings. But… it was faint. What she had now eclipsed those urges entirely.
"Hello," said Ginny, greeting her brother and nieces with warm hugs, before finally rounding on Harry. "Sorry I'm late. I extended the morning run by ten miles and the girls got a bit sluggish near the end."
Harry smiled happily as her best friend, who hadn't been round for months, pulled her into a tight embrace.
"Always good to see you, Piggy."
"And you," whispered Harry, nuzzling the woman's neck. "How've you been?"
"Oh… as good as can be. Saw that healer about his new Dreamless Sleep potion. You know… the one that supposedly isn't harmful, or habit forming. What a load of crock it was. A total scam."
"Do you… want me to come over? Have a nap?"
"No," said Ginny sharply. "And stop offering. I know Ron understands, but I don't want you to keep-"
Lily's loud sigh of exasperation cut the redhead off.
"All you two ever do is talk! Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. You can talk later! Let's go!"
Pulling away from Ginny, Harry knelt and planted a kiss on her eldest daughter's head. "Alright, sweetheart, alright. Do you want to go through with your father or with me?"
Lily looked up at Ron, thought for a moment, and then turned back to Harry.
"Typical," grumbled Ron, bundling Molly into his arms once more. "Even my own child thinks I'm a prat."
"She's a smart girl," said Ginny teasingly. "You might have a Ravenclaw on your hands."
"We'll see. This little blighter just might end up in Slytherin."
Lily stamped her small foot. "Enough about Slytherin, Dad! If that hat doesn't put me in Gryffindor, you can bet you'll be getting a letter home saying that I've set it on fire."
Ron chuckled. "If that happens… well… I just might raise your allowance."
Harry positioned the cart in front of the barrier. "Ready?" she asked Lily, standing on one side of the trolley as Ginny took a spot on the other. "When you think you're going to crash, just close your eyes and-"
"I know, Mum!"
"Okay then. We go on three. One…"
"Two…" said Ginny.
"Three!" shouted Lily, grabbing the trolley and pushing with all her might.
Running at full speed, they barreled into the barrier and emerged onto the busy platform, Ron and Molly at their heels.
Lily squealed with delight, bouncing up and down on her toes to get a better look at the scarlet steam engine. "Do you see Auntie Mione? I want to show her my wand!"
"The teachers don't come to the platform," replied Harry, guiding their cart through the mass of people, waving at familiar faces as they passed. "You'll see her tonight, I expect. And just so you know, we've had words. She'll not spare you from detention if you start causing trouble."
They found an open compartment halfway down the train.
With a few flicks of her wand, Harry stowed her daughter's trunk and owl.
"I'm going to go find my friends!" said Lily, disappearing into the crowd before Harry could stop her.
Laughing at her stunned look, Ginny gave Harry a soft nudge with her hip. "She's a good girl, if a bit exuberant. You've done well with her. Molly too."
"Thanks." Harry returned the nudge. "They're worth the exhaustion."
"Were they worth leaving the Harpies?"
"Ginny… don't start this again."
"I'm serious, Harry! Why not come back? I know it got too difficult balancing training and home life after Molly was born, but with Lily heading off to Hogwarts and Mum willing to take care of Molly's basic schooling, you could manage it."
"Wouldn't that upset things within the team?"
"Not at all! The girls worship you, you're still quite fit, and I keep your name on the roster as an unpaid third-stringer. With a month's training, I could have you back at the top of your game and selling out the stadium."
"I don't know, Gin. I'll think about it." Harry shifted topics. "Let's talk about you. How's your new bloke… the muggle… erm… John?"
"Not my bloke anymore," said Ginny bitterly. "Broke up with me last week."
"Oh… I… Are you alright?"
"I'm perfectly fine. Bloody used to it, really. They all break up with me in the end."
Harry frowned. "We should have made a night of it. Why didn't you come over?"
Ginny scoffed. "Oh let's think… Why didn't I come over to cry on your shoulder? Could it be because I'm thirty-one and I don't need to run to you with all my problems anymore? Or maybe I'm tired of intruding on your perfect life and your perfect family? Or maybe because you…"
Ginny trailed off as she began to attract the stares of nearby families.
"I'm sorry," sighed the redhead. "I need to go. I'm in a bad place, and this is a really special day for you and Ron."
"What? No!" Harry caught her hand. "At least stay and see Lily off."
"Why? Watching children ride off on the Hogwarts Express is for parents… not for awkward third-wheel aunts. She's… She's not my daughter, Harry."
Tugging her hand out of Harry's grip, Ginny spun and walked off.
"Ginny! Wait, I-"
"Something wrong?" asked Ron, sidling up beside her, toting Molly on his shoulders. "Where's she off to in such a huff?"
"I… I don't know. I hate it when she gets upset with me."
Ron studied her in silence, until finally, he looked up and gave Molly's legs a light shake. "Molls… what would you say to a weekend with Granny and Grandpa Weasley? Give your Mum and I a few days off?"
"YAAAY! Gnome hunting!"
"Is that a yes?"
"Yes! Yes! Yes!"
Balancing their youngest off to the side, Ron leaned down and lowered his voice to a husky whisper; low enough so that only Harry would hear.
"It's funny…" Hand sliding into her blue overcoat, he dipped his fingers around the curve of her bum and pressed at the sensitive flesh just behind her womanhood. "I'm going to have you moaning those exact same words later tonight."
Harry gasped and slumped into her husband's side, her knees shaking dangerously. It was at times like this that she regretted having allowed him such thorough exploration of her body. He knew all her weak spots.
"W-We're in public, Ron!"
"My apologies, dearest." Ron wiggled his fingers and Harry nearly collapsed. "Is that better?"
"You're… awful," she panted, clinging at his robe for support. "Remind me why I put up with you again?"
The man chuckled. "Well… probably because I'm one of the only people mad enough to want you."
Harry punched the fleshy part of Ron's bicep, and then quickly nuzzled the spot where her fist had made contact, fearful that he might somehow slip away. She wasn't sure why, but his words, even though spoken in jest, rang with a painful bite of truth.
Thanks for reading, everyone.
Reviews are greatly appreciated, so leave one if you have the time.
Fan art, as always, can be found on the blog.
1. Quite a bit of 'telling' instead of 'showing' in this chapter. Sorry for that, but I really need to move things along.
2. In Deathly Hallows, Selwyn is the surname of one of the Death Eaters that tried to capture the trio at the Lovegood's tower. I thought they would work well as Pansy's maternal family. Hooray for Marin.
3. 50 galleons a month seems like an adequate salary for a full time apothecary clerk when the starting salary for DMLE Hitwizard Trainees is 700 a month. According to my rough estimates for the 90s, Arthur would be making something like 3,000 pounds a year before taxes (and I'm assuming taxes exist in the wizarding world since they have a paid government workforce)… which is disgustingly unlivable for one person, let alone a man supporting a large family and a wife that doesn't work. Good thing food can be replicated by magic, else the Weasleys would all starve.
4. Yes, that was Fleur. No, she isn't attracted to women.
5. I had Sirius buy a 1963 Aston Martin DB4 convertible (my father's dream car - only 70 were ever made) simply because I could.
6. I'm guessing some of you will have a bone to pick with the mechanics of my hospital prophecy. I could have had Trelawny make it sure… but I simultaneously wanted to write something into the fic that would give credence to the large number of prophecies in the DoM (I know trying to explain Rowling's failure with numbers is a bad idea, but I couldn't help myself). In the books, McGonagall tells us that true Seers are extraordinarily rare. If that's the case, then even if the DoM somehow managed to record every prophecy ever made (and I doubt that this is the case), the sheer number of prophecies contained within the Hall of Prophecy doesn't quite play out. The hall is described as a massive chamber with a ceiling as high as a vaulted cathedral. The rows of shelves tower high over head and on each shelf there are hundreds (multiple hundreds) of glass orbs. At minimum, there are 97 rows of shelves (row 97 was where Harry's prophecy was located). This equates the minimum number of prophecies to over 19,000. That seems a little too steep if Seers really are as rare as we're led to believe.
7. Not relevant to this chapter, but I'm a little upset that Pottermore has Merlin attending Hogwarts. It breaks my established Flamel timeline. Now I have to come up with a way to explain it away. Perhaps something along the lines of Merlin attending Hogwarts in disguise just so he could mindfuck the Founders with his apparent brilliance. Yeah, that'll work.
8. If I haven't replied to your review or pm from the past year, I'm sorry, but I just don't have the time to go back and answer them. Rest assured, I did read everything as it came along. If you still have a question that's burning you up inside, ask again and hopefully I'll get you an answer.