It was late afternoon when Harry finally led his friends up the sloping black corridors over the fiendfyre grid. They found that Kingsley's men had dismantled the silver gates so their passage was uninterrupted. Harry had insisted that the bodies of Professor Anthea Bingley and Miss Cassandra Vablatsky should accompany them. He was surprised to find that when Harry Potter insisted on something that more people were now paying attention. The deceased had been laid in state coffins of white with silver and gold trim and each in a slender white carriage drawn by a single thestral: Darklight and Fostar.
If Harry's team had expected to quietly slip away to their portkey they were in for a surprise. As they emerged into the cool air of a December evening a tremendous roar went up from a crowd of witches and wizards who packed the Dark Manse courtyard right up to and on the rooftops. There were delegations from several countries including from the British and Chinese Ministries of Magic. The applause became more subdued as the eyes of the great gathering took in the grim and haggard faces of the survivors and the crowd fell silent as the coffins emerged.
It was at this stage that three witches and a wizard broke free and came forward carrying armfuls of flowers. Harry knew who they must be but he wasn't prepared. He had expected to visit them after Christmas. How could he face relatives now? But Luna took his arm and pulled him along to meet and escort them to the coffins. Tepps the dog accompanied Luna everywhere now. Kingsley arranged for the small carriages to be led to one side so they did not obstruct the freed captives who were walking out from the shelter.
One of the women was the grandniece of Cassandra Vablatsky. She was the only surviving blood relative of the seer but she had been very fond of her eccentric 'Great-aunt Cassie.' Luna chatted with her and told her of how the old lady had helped them and how bravely she had died. She told her that Miss Vablatsky did not die alone but Luna held her hand at the end as she found her peace and the woman tearfully thanked her.
The others were the married daughters and the son of Professor Bingley. All were upset at seeing the physical casket but very thankful to Harry for ensuring the return of their mother's body. Harry struggled emotionally to describe in detail how the teacher had thought of her own safety last and paid with her life. It was impossible without distress. They passively accepted what he said and he in turn suffered their praise and their thanks as graciously as he could but he wanted desperately to be anywhere but where he was. They seemed to be intimidated by Harry's reputation whereas he thought they should grab him by the shoulders and interrogate him. Their mother was dead. How could it happen? He was relieved when an advising minister joined them and diverted attention away from him; perhaps Kingsley had sent him.
The crowd remained rather subdued as the released prisoners filed out of the shelter blinking in the fading daylight. They were led by the centaurs; other creatures followed and then the human witches and wizards. Some stumbled and looked disorientated but others were gazing around in wonder. They had not seen so much colour in a long time: the intensely blue sky; the fierce orange glow of the sun sinking lower; the greens and browns of the trees at the courtyard entrance; the flags and banners and bright clothing all in motion. Lastly came the seemingly endless columns of house-elves. Though physically in bad shape they were not so disorientated as had been feared and passively followed the instructions of their guides without alarm.
A host of wizards and witches were busy producing portkeys; others were instructing the house-elves as to where they should apparate. Temporary shelters had been provided in halls and houses in various countries to receive them but inevitably there were delays and difficulties with such a large number and relatively little time to prepare. There were pockets of confusion, others of despair, and yet others of excitement and delight. The throng with its mixed groups swayed back and forth and around with no obvious order.
After seeing Professor Bingley's children portkey away with their mother's remains, Harry looked around. Kingsley had arranged for magical barriers to be cast to help control and direct and guide the crowds. Many of the visitors also had tasks to perform so there came a moment when there was no immediate press of bodies jostling to get close to Harry and he managed to slip away down an avenue of hospital tents to try to find Ginny and the others. He saw Kingsley having an argument with the Chinese Minister for Magic and Rolf was tentatively moving towards Luna with Feya in tow. He seemed as reluctant as Harry had been to get involved with mourning relatives.
There they were! It seemed as if the entire Weasley family had arrived and were chatting away nineteen to the dozen with Ron and Ginny and Hermione. Hermione's parents did not seem to be there but Professor McGonagall was and Neville was talking animatedly - no doubt keeping them all enthralled with tales of their adventures. Kingsley soon joined them and even from a distance, Harry could see he was telling Mr. Weasley something he was very annoyed about. Harry thought he would wait a while before going over; he'd seen enough conflict recently.
Fire braziers were now being lit to keep out the growing chill and there were open food stands providing soups and pies and other hot snacks for those that wanted them. Hermione was handing something to Kingsley; probably a Christmas present from the delight on his face. Hermione always planned ahead. Harry did not even want to think about the rest of Christmas week; he just wanted a few days' rest first.
Harry had a sudden urge to be alone so he slipped behind a tent and put on his invisibility cloak and headed for the courtyard exit. There were a couple of guards posted there but they were gazing inwards. After he had passed them he took off his cloak and strolled about just outside away from most of the crowd noise and gazed at the trees as the sun lowered in the sky to the west. He sent his patronus discretely to Ginny to reassure her he was safe and to tell her where he was. He still felt empty inside from his failed experience with Seraphina and he sighed at what might have been. It did not help that he had no idea what it was that might have been - only that he had come very close to something worthwhile and meaningful in a world of shifting values and too many sorrows.
A flock of birds scattered above some distant trees and even further, Harry thought he saw the silhouette of a hippogriff or perhaps a thestral in the air. On his left the distant volcano was coloured by the setting sun and as he turned to the east he could faintly see the wooded slopes they had passed through from the mountain pass. He became aware of the scent of cedar mingled with that of the many evening flowers as they tempted the softly buzzing insects to their pollen.
"Beautiful isn't it?" It was Rolf. He had come up to Harry's side, silently as usual, and stood with him looking at the jungle.
"I see the attraction of the outdoor life," said Harry. "I considered myself lucky if I even got to see the park when I was young." He glanced behind himself.
"Luna's still chattering away to Miss Vablatsky's granddaughter," said Rolf. "They seem to have hit it off."
"What will you two do now - You and Luna?" asked Harry.
"Oh... I have my work to get back to and Luna will continue her education at Hogwarts then she'll be finding work that will keep us apart. We won't-"
"But you'll be owling regularly and visit when... Apparating makes it..."
"Not really. It won't be easy anyway," said Rolf. "I'll be out on a field trip just after Christmas for several months."
"Christmas. I'm not ready to think about it just yet," said Harry, shrugging his shoulders.
"Christmas eve is tomorrow."
"Tomorrow! I've got lots to... I don't even know..." Harry was turning around in alarm and Rolf went with him back into the courtyard.
"You'll always be welcome at the House of Scamander, Harry," said Rolf.
"That'll be great, Rolf, thanks," said Harry, "Easter at the latest - we must see each other. After all we've been through."
Ginny was coming towards them, coming to find Harry for herself.
"If you're talking Christmas, Mum says to insist you come to the Burrow," she called as she approached.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," said Harry, "It will be the first-"
Ginny laughed. "Good job we took care of the world already then isn't it!"
"Can we get away soon do you think?" asked Harry.
"Dad's already fixing it. We've done our bit, come on," said Ginny and she turned with them and they headed towards the rest of the Weasleys. "What did you mean anyway, 'first' what?"
"Eh? Oh yeah - first Christmas while we've been engaged I was going to say."
"Me too," said Rolf. "Luna and her father are coming over to stay. I've not met him yet."
Ginny and Harry exchanged glances. Harry answered. "Xeno's a very... interesting person. Should be quite a Christmas."
"What's up with Ron?" said Harry. He could see Ron in a heated exchange with his parents.
"Where's Hermione?" said Ginny.
"Listen," said Rolf, looking anxiously at the Weasley quarrel, "I was hoping to say my goodbyes but I really want to get away... Can you..."
"Rolf..." said Ginny. She had the sudden shock of realizing the group which had been together through so much was now breaking up.
"I'll be in touch immediately after Christmas - before I go on my trip, I promise."
Harry and Rolf shook hands warmly but Ginny embraced him rather awkwardly then it seemed he was abruptly gone and striding towards Luna.
"This is horrible. This is not a proper goodbye," said Ginny. "He seemed upset about something..."
"It's because he'll be split up from Luna for a long time," said Harry. "It's just sinking in."
"What? What do you mean? They'll be able to meet and floo and..."
"Not much. After Christmas, Luna will be back at Hogwarts. Rolf will be away for months. Then Luna will be seeking employment. She'll likely finish up in some exotic career similar to Rolf's; she could be on the other side of the world from him."
Ginny stopped and stared over towards Rolf and Luna. Luna was waving madly back at her and Harry to say goodbye then she and Rolf turned to a portkey stall and were soon gone taking Tepps and Feya with them.
Ginny felt empty and turned to Harry who moved his eyebrows as if to indicate, "That's that, then. It's over." He didn't know what to say to Ginny. He still felt empty himself.
"She's gone!" It was Ron coming towards them. "Hermione's-"
"What happened? What's up?" challenged Ginny.
"She's portkeyed off to her parents. She's not coming for Christmas..."
"What!" said Ginny. "What did you say to her?"
"Nothing! Well..." Ron looked anxiously back at his parents who couldn't understand what was going on. Ron turned to Harry and Ginny and started to whisper.
"I used a spell on her."
"What!" cried Ginny.
"I... She was talking about handing herself in to the Aurors..." whispered Ron hoarsely
"What! What for?" cried Ginny. She glanced sideways at Harry who looked almost as perplexed as she was though he had some idea.
"Shush! keep it down," said Ron in a loud whisper. "Don't tell anyone. She said she used an unforgivable curse..."
"Oh Ron..." said Ginny.
"No she didn't," said Harry. "I was there. It never happened."
"Harry, this is me, Ron," said Ron flatly. "Hermione told me what she did-"
"She was beside herself with worry and grief for you, Ron-" said Harry. "She was in a battle... just after... In a fury... You can't think straight."
"I know!" said Ron.
"I've done it myself!" said Harry. "I tried it on Bella at the ministry when she killed Sirius. I did it on Carrow for spitting on McGonagall."
"You used an unforgiveable for spitting?" said Ginny, wide-eyed.
"Yes, well... Anyway, using an unforgiveable is not automatically... unforgiveable. It's just an expression. Depends on the situation. They don't throw you into prison for life if you can show justification-"
"What I'm trying to say is... I used Obliviate on her..." said Ron.
"Ron, you didn't!" said Ginny.
"We were in a drinks tent - it was empty. I obliviated her," said Ron mournfully. "She didn't know what I'd done but she knew she'd been obliviated of something and I wouldn't tell her why. She was furious at me... She demanded her memory back no matter what it was. I refused."
"But you asked her permission first? Before you did it?" asked Ginny.
"Oh Ron," said Ginny. "So where's she..."
"She's gone. She's left me..." said Ron. He stared at the ground. "I couldn't let her go to Azkaban..."
"She'll come back, Ron," said Ginny. Harry was nodding his head in agreement as Ginny continued, "She loves you, you daft bat. She's probably owling you right now."
"She was really going to give herself up?" asked Harry.
"Yeah... It's not just that... Not just the... Azkaban. It's been preying on her mind. Unforgiveable. She hates herself, Harry. She hates herself."
Harry just sagged. He was shaking his head. It all seemed so unfair. Ginny took his arm; she felt his despair and she was upset too.
"And you obliviated it, Ron? You did it good?" asked Ginny quietly.
"Yeah. She had no idea what we'd been talking about really. She was just... She sort of saw me finishing off the spell and knew immediately I'd done something to her. She's clever. You know how clever she is."
"I think you did the right thing, Ron," said Harry, knuckling him on the arm.
"I'd go to Azkaban for her, Harry... If it would help," said Ron. "I couldn't bear it if she was in there. Couldn't..."
"She'll come round, Ron," said Harry. "She fought Death Eaters and defeated Voldemort good as for you so I'm damned if she's going to stay away for long..."
"Yeah... You think?"
They walked slowly back to the Weasleys who could see something had happened but were looking passive. Possibly Mr. Weasley had had a word to warn his family off for now - to give Ron some space. They looked ready with an old bicycle wheel which Harry presumed was their portkey.
"I just want to say goodbye to Nev before we go," said Harry.
"He's gone," said Ginny. "Thought you knew. He'd been hoping Hannah would be here when he saw us lot but Professor McGonagall said she'd gone home to her dad. She hinted that Hannah... There was a story going round Hogwarts about Neville and Luna..."
"Oh for crying out loud!" cried Harry, "Not Neville and Hannah surely?"
"No, no - they're alright. Neville's going over to see her... to explain," said Ginny then added doubtfully, "I think they'll be... I think they'll work it out."
Harry looked at Ron and shook his head. "Not the fortune and glory finish to our expedition I was expecting. Maybe our world really is coming to an end."
He turned suddenly and grabbed Ginny's arm. "I'm not letting go of you so don't try anything like jumping on a broomstick and flying off on your own."
"Don't worry about me," giggled Ginny, cheering up a little, "- we've already had enough separation to last a lifetime."
"Over there is somebody I'm glad to be separated from," snarled Ron.
Harry looked around in the direction that Ron was facing. The captured Death Eaters were being led out, among them Lestraithe and Draco.
"What you going to do about him, Harry?" asked Ginny.
"He did help us - and he did save Professor Bingley for whatever reason," said Harry.
"He's a complete git and deserves what he gets," said Ron.
"But Bingley did a deal; he surrendered to us willingly. She said she'd speak on his behalf," said Harry. "I have to honour her promise. I have to speak for him."
"You're joking, Harry!" cried Ron. He turned to his sister. "Is he serious, Ginny?"
"But not yet," continued Harry with a malicious smile. "Let him sweat till the New Year."
"Make it the Chinese New Year then, Harry," grumbled Ron then added, "Make it the Year of the Rat."
"Owl!" declared Harry, quickly opening the steamed-up window he'd been rubbing with his sleeve in the Weasley's kitchen.
"More Christmas cards? Can't they wait? Turkey's ready," said a flush-faced Mrs. Weasley as she bustled across with the carving set for Mr. Weasley. He was busy magically extending the dining table to make room for everyone.
"Think it's Nev's." Ginny took off the attachment and handed it to Hermione. "You read it, Hermione. You read good."
Hermione unrolled the parchment and read it out loud, watched carefully by an anxious Ron Weasley.
"Best Christmas ever! Me and Hannah and Gran been here all morning. Mum and dad - you should see them now! Mum knows my name! She knows me I think! Not properly, not fully, but she knows me a bit. Dad's not sure. He thinks I'm familiar! Haha! But I think he knows Gran better. He knows she's special for him; not sure if he really knows she's his mum.
"They've got quite a few words. And they listen to me! Properly I mean. I know it's not much. I mean it doesn't sound much to you but you should see them! It means a lot to us. It's just wonderful.
"They're learning about Hannah as well. Say Hello, Hannah! Hannah says Hi! I think it's to do with Hannah. Ever since she first saw them they've got better bit by bit.
"Anyway, we're staying here all day. Have a great Christmas all of you - Oh and Harry, if you get any more missions to save the world or something don't hesitate to NOT tell me about it! Haha!
"Love and a Very Merry Christmas to Everybody!
Hermione pinned the parchment up on the wall with the cards above the already loaded side dresser and sent the owl back with a greeting.
"Told you, told you they'd make it up." said Ginny, her pendant glowing gold, "Hermione, show me your ring again!"
Hermione held up her hand for the umpteenth time and pulled Ron's party hat down over his eyes. "Sneaky trick - getting me a ring just to get me to forgive him whatever he did."
"Worked though didn't it," said Ron but he wasn't feeling smug - he had had a scare and was just grateful it was over.
"And you're never going to tell me?" asked Hermione.
"Never - except, trust me," said Ron, "I did it for you."
"What did you buy Kingsley, Hermione?" asked Harry, trying to change the subject.
"What? I've not..."
"I saw you... in the Manse courtyard," said Harry.
"Oh that!" laughed Hermione. "Kingsley was furious that the Chinese had commandeered all the magizoa. Said it was on their territory. There was enough there for years and years - worth a fortune to healers and potion makers."
"You smuggled some out?" asked Harry, raising his eyebrows a fraction.
"No, something better."
Harry waited in growing suspense watching Hermione's smug expression for a clue.
"Tell the man then, Hermione," said Ron.
"Lestraithe's log book," said Hermione triumphantly.
"It's got the erm... recipe?" said Harry.
"Sort of. The method for cultivating them - for attracting the magizoa into large herds; it's all there. The Chinese' supply will eventually run out..."
"But we'll be able to produce an endless supply for the world!" said Harry. "Well, something good came out of it all then! A gift for the world." He paused for a moment then rummaged in his carry bag.
"I bought you something extra too, Hermione. It's nothing really," said Harry as he handed over a small cube-shaped present, nicely gift-wrapped and tied with a ribbon with a little bow on top.
"Why, thanks Harry!" said Hermione, taking the gift and inspecting it carefully.
"Hurry up, you lot, I'm serving!" wailed Mrs. Weasley. "Don't let it get cold!"
Hermione read the attached card out loud. "To Hermione, It's the thought that counts."
Hermione weighed the gift in her hands, shook it then she shook her head. She balanced the gift on the edge of the dresser and removed the wrapping to reveal a fist-sized polished mahogony box with a little brass catch on the lid.
"Miniature jack-in-the-box, Harry?" said Hermione. She glanced across at George who had been sent over to drag them to the dinner table.
"You need to open it and think about what's inside." answered Harry.
Hermione leaned back just in case there might be a nasty surprise and opened the lid at arm's length. When nothing happened she peered inside.
"I'm pouring drinks! Come on!" shrieked Mrs. Weasley. "We're toasting Fred first! Tell 'em to get over here, Arthur!"
"It's empty. Or is there something invisible?" said Hermione, not at all distracted by Ron's mum glaring at them. She rummaged around inside with her fingers but found nothing. Then it dawned on her.
"Oh, Harry. It's a box right?"
"Yes. Promise me you'll think outside it before you go storming off next time."
Hermione grinned with embarrassment but Ron said as they gradually moved towards the table and a relieved-looking Molly Weasley, "What's next then, Harry?"
"Next? Next is Hogwarts," said Harry. "After the hols we go back for a normal, Voldemort-free, couple of terms for once."
They all exchanged glances.
"I wonder," said Ron. "I wonder."
(12 April 2012 - Note: a bonus short story prologue
has been inserted at the very start of Chapter 1.)
Woohoo! Done and dusted!
I stirred things up a bit in this final chapter with a bit of conflict first because the story was in danger of just ending too smoothly 'they all lived happily ever after' The main story plot really ended with the freeing of the elves in the previous chapter so this extra chapter, though necessary to tidy up the loose ends, could have just ended up as waffle that readers skim over. As it is, I think it worked very well. I'm pleased with it and pleased with the whole story. ;)
Thanks to everyone who has encouraged me with comments. Readers can still continue to post comments of course - I get an email so I will read it. Thank you all. :)