Disclaimer:The bit at the very end was borrowed and adapted from 40 Days and 40 Nights. I may have forgotten to disclaim a few things throughout the story, but it wasn't intentional.
The next month passed in a flurry of activity. Hermione had been assigned to plan an expedition into the Mirror Realm in mid-November 2002, so they could Apparate out on December fourth, the date of the next total eclipse. Even though Miraculum Weed had taken root quite well in a secluded part of the Concordian Botanical Gardens, it had been the herb master's advice to get more plants, to keep the stock plants from interbreeding and becoming weak.
Even though the expedition was over a year away, Hermione had been busy with some preliminary planning. She'd decided that the expedition required the most powerful wizards and witches to accompany a team of researchers to protect them with wand-less magic, since wands almost never worked in the Mirror Realm. This meant that Wolfe and Harry would probably be drafted when the time came to go… and they'd even convinced Pecos Bill to stick around long enough to be their guide.
The American cowboy wizard, for his part, had been approached by all the members of the Concordian press once his identity had been verified. With Hermione and Harry's help, Padma had got the exclusive interview.
Padma had also frequently visited Galatea for counselling and had been doing slightly better, though it would obviously still take quite some time for her emotional wounds to heal.
Hermione thought Galatea needed some counselling herself, since she still refused to talk to Max after a full month. He'd been taken off the active duty roster, and he'd been forced to relax, but it only made things worse. Max had lost weight, and he had an air of defeat about him. His time off was doing more harm than good, since he couldn't even work to keep his mind off things, like he used to do.
Hermione looked up from her book to see Galatea pacing around. They were in the lavishly decorated top floor chambers of the town house. This was a girls-only area, protected by wards to keep men out. "Honestly, what are you so worried about? You don't care about him anymore, right? Besides, you told Heidi it was okay for her to go out with him."
Galatea bit her fingernails. "But I didn't mean it."
"Well, it's your own fault. I told you that you were in heavy denial. If Max and Heidi hit it off, you can't interfere. You've distanced yourself from Max," Hermione said as she ducked behind her book to hide her smile. There was no way that that would happen, but she enjoyed torturing Galatea anyway. Even though the part-Veela was angry with Max, it was obvious that she still loved him.
"So it's true," Gudrun said, as she came in and launched herself onto a couch. "You actually allowed Heidi to go out with your boyfriend?"
"He is not my boyfriend."
"If you say so." Gudrun shrugged. "So I guess you won't object if I have a go at him in case he manages to resist Heidi's charms."
Hermione peered over her book to see Galatea's reaction. She was nervously twisting a handkerchief.
Hermione caught Gudrun's mischievous glance. While it was no secret that Gudrun would probably try to get Max into bed given half a chance, Hermione knew she wouldn't do so knowing that Galatea was still in love with him. Besides, Max was still angry with Gudrun for having circulated footage of him dropping his trousers around the Citadel. Apparently she'd recorded everything when Commander Ironheart was dressing him down.
"Any news?" Hermione asked Gudrun.
"Actually, I happen to have some very interesting news. Your future sister-in-law was asked to try out for the Order."
Hermione dropped her book in her lap. "Seriously?"
Gudrun nodded. "She's got a lot of talent in the area of Magical Artificing. I took her through the basics myself. She's a really bright kid… reminds me of me when I was her age. Anyway, that, coupled with her medical training, it would make her a very versatile Ranger. She'd be able to maintain equipment as well as Rangers." She grinned. "And she's proven that she can handle herself in a fight… cut down the opposition! She'll start to train with the newest load of recruits."
Hermione smiled. A major point of concern of Harry's had been the time he'd have had to spend away from Ginny. This would make things easier for them to establish a relationship. They'd spent as much time together as possible over the last month, getting reacquainted with one another.
The night before, on Harry's birthday, all the Seventh Class Rangers had been promoted to Sixth Class, with the exception of Harry, whose spectacular actions and growth in skill had made Faust and Ironheart decide to let him skip Sixth Class entirely. Hermione had been happy for him, but she was also concerned, for she knew this meant that Harry would be sent on much more dangerous missions.
Ginny chose that moment to walk in. "Hello, girls!"
"Hi, Ginny. I thought you'd be with Harry."
"They dragged him off to the Quidditch pitch." Ginny sighed. "Couldn't miss their star Seeker."
The heavy front door downstairs slammed shut. And someone stomped up the stairs.
"Heidi?" Hermione called.
"Yes!" the Austrian witch replied.
"How was your date with Max?"
"Depressing! He kept asking about Galatea."
Galatea's face lit up. "I have to go!" she said before hurrying out of the lounge and down the stairs.
They waited for Galatea to leave the house, and Heidi came up the stairs shortly after. "Well girls, did our plan work?"
"Like a charm!" Gudrun grinned. "Nothing more satisfying than using reverse psychology on a psychologist."
"Wait…you three set this up?" Ginny asked, looking baffled.
"We sure did. We got tired of waiting around for Tea to come to her senses, so we gave her a push in the right direction by pretending to be interested in Wolfe ourselves. We appealed to her competitive instincts."
"It a good thing Wolfe rejected me though." Heidi sighed. "I don't know if I could have resisted if he had actually shown interest in me. He's just so…"
"Still craving things you can't have, eh Heidi?" Ginny sneered. "I thought you'd learned your lesson."
Hermione winced. Here we go again. For some odd reason, Ginny and Heidi could not get along. Hermione thought it was a combination of several things. Ginny still hadn't forgiven Heidi for the remark she'd made on the day Hermione left for Concordia. Heidi, for her part, was obviously resentful of Ginny for being the unchallenged object of Harry's affection. Strangely enough, Ginny herself didn't fully believe this, and hence she felt threatened by Heidi, who'd been very friendly with Harry at their joint birthday party the previous evening.
"Funny," Heidi said coolly. "Harry's never complained about my competence. Who knows…Virginia…if you turn out to be a disappointment…"
"Let me remind you ladies that all kitty-cats will be thrown out of the window by yours truly…so cease and desist!" Gudrun warned, nipping the impending catfight in the bud.
Ginny looked just about ready to hex Heidi, but like everybody else, she knew not to cross Gudrun, who was possibly even more of a spitfire.
"Come on, Heidi," Gudrun said, leading Heidi by the arm. "Plenty of willing males out there. They're not as perfect as we are, but we'll have to make do. Later, girls," she called to Hermione and Ginny, leaving them by themselves.
Ginny was still shaking with anger after they'd left. "Oooh! I don't know what Harry saw in her."
"You!" Hermione said simply.
"I'm not sure if that's an insult or a compliment."
Hermione sighed. "You have more in common with Heidi than you think. It's part of the reason you're not getting along."
"I have nothing in common with her…she's a snob!"
"Ginny…I shudder to think how much of a bitch you'd have been if your father had been a rich wizard. I'm sure he would have spoiled you rotten!" Hermione said sternly. "I think you should make more of an effort to get along with Heidi. You know she didn't try to steal Harry away from you. In fact, I'm glad she was there for him when we weren't!"
"She was just using his loneliness."
"You shouldn't vilify Heidi that way. She does care about Harry…" She paused as she saw Ginny's features draw into a scowl. "And she knows she's out of the picture!"
"I hate it when you're right." Ginny pouted, and she eyed Hermione curiously. "You really think I would have been a bitch?"
"Well, I have been wrong before…"
Ginny threw a pillow at her. "Gee, you're such a good friend!"
Hermione blocked the pillow with her book. "So what did Harry and Ron have to say about your becoming a Ranger?"
"Both were happy and worried." Ginny looked at her questioningly. "What about you? Are you worried about me?"
"You're like my own little sister…I'll always worry about you. Just don't do anything foolishly reckless, like Max and Harry, and you'll be fine."
"Your confidence warms my heart!" Ginny said with a mock-scowl, and she threw a pillow at Hermione.
"Good advice never hurt anyone," Hermione said. "Oh, would you like to live here? Ron and I will be moving to the third level in August. We need a place of our own."
"Really, where are you going to live?"
"In the Western Quadrant, right across from Jasmine and Charlie. We've gone down to see it this morning. You can see the Quidditch pitches from our attic." Hermione sighed. "That's why Ron wants the master bedroom in the attic."
"That's Ron for you! Just be sure to put your foot down when it comes to decoration, or you'll be sleeping with the Cannons!"
Hermione gave Ginny a rueful grin. "You're right. But what about you and Harry? I thought you'd be moving in together soon."
"We both have a bunch of things to work out. We'll have rooms in the Citadel… of course, I could come and live here… this place is brilliant."
"If you manage to get along with Heidi."
Ginny blushed. "As I was saying, Harry needs to settle back into normal life. His time in the Mirror Realm left its marks, and people still stare at him in the city. He told me that one of the things he liked best about Concordia was his anonymity. And last week, there was this strange witch who came up to Harry and hugged him. Turns out she was bitten by a werewolf on July fifth, but thanks to Harry she's cured…"
"You're giving him time to get used to all the changes." Hermione nodded. Through Padma and the Concordian Chronicle, the Concordians had learned about the truth. While Harry had been able to live in relative anonymity before, he was a huge celebrity even in Concordia, now.
"That's not all. Harry seems to be… holding back." Ginny bit her lip and looked at Hermione uncertainly. "I guess he really needs the time… but sometimes it makes me think…" She paused, looking for a way to express her feelings. "You'd think that he'd know that I'm always there for him. I don't know why he's holding back."
"Just be there for him. He'll open up when he's ready."
"I guess." Ginny sighed. "Oh, and he asked me to ask you where his Invisibility Cloak is?"
Hermione blushed. She'd forgotten all about that. While Harry had been presumed dead, Hermione had been entrusted with his personal belongings. She'd put everything into storage because she hadn't had the heart to divide it up. A good thing too, in retrospect. But she'd kept his cloak as a memento.
She hoisted herself out of her armchair. "I still have that. Let's return it to him. Maybe we can drag the boys away from the Quidditch pitch to accompany us to the Fairy Light show tonight."
Ginny snorted. "That won't work!"
"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure." Hermione smirked. "We'll just use our feminine wiles to coerce them."
"Coerce?" Ginny frowned.
Hermione took Ginny by the arm and guided her out of the lounge. "Ginny, I think it's time to teach you in the ways of the man, it's time to teach you about The Power. You see…women have The Power…and it's all part of The System…"
A/N:First and foremost I'd like to thank all of my reviewers, especially the ones who reviewed at the very beginning. Your support was crucial.
My betas also deserve credit for most of this story's quality. Ashwinder is sort of my mentor, and Christine…well, lets just say that I'd marry Christine if she weren't a perfect stranger known only through e-mail contact and already had a boyfriend and…But I digress.
A special place in this Oscar speech is also reserved for Imogen and Ruskbyte. Your encouragement meant a lot to me, and I thank you.
Keep a lookout for the sequel to this story…Mind War.