Harry scratched the back of his neck as he paced back and forth before the enchanted window that stood by the lifts on the first level of the Ministry of Magic. Magical Maintenance had a gentle snow falling outside the Minister's office, today. Ron was tilted back on two legs of a visitor's chair near in this antechamber, alternately tossing a crumpled ball of parchment towards the nearest wastebasket and flicking his wand to Summon it back.
The tenth or eleventh time he threw it, the parchment ball actually tumbled into the basket. Ron jumped up, holding his arms aloft. "Ten points!"
"You're a prat," Harry chuckled, folding his arms.
"Off for the holidays, gentlemen?" asked a deep voice, startling Harry. They both looked around to see Kingsley Shacklebolt. He grinned at them, briefcase in hand, in the act of locking his office door.
"Yes, sir, we're—er—going to my parents' for Christmas," Ron told him, lowering his arms and going scarlet around his ears.
"I know, I was invited," Kingsley replied as he walked towards the lifts. Harry and Ron hurried after him, snatching their cloaks off the hooks along the wall. "I'm afraid I can't make it—"
"Plans, Minister?" Harry asked with a smirk, and Kingsley winked.
Harry and Ron made amused eye contact; it was no secret that Kingsley and Hestia Jones had been seeing quite a lot of each other since she had returned from Cokeworth, where the Dursleys had been hidden. Now that they no longer needed protection, Hestia had returned to temporarily take over the job as Head of the Auror Department, until Kingsley could step down as Minister. Then Hestia would return to active duty as an Auror.
"How did your midterm evaluations go?" Kingsley asked, pressing the button to call the lift. The waiting area was only half full; most people had gone home by this hour, especially now that the Christmas holiday was getting underway.
Harry and Ron shared another quick look. "Er," said Harry, "We were…um, wondering the same thing, sir." Ron nodded earnestly.
Kingsley laughed. "Well, it's not really part of my job to go through the Auror Office's recruitment files anymore, is it? I'm sure you'll hear back on the first of January, with your classmates."
"Oh," said Harry, and he knew that his own disappointment was mirrored on Ron's face. "Right. Well, we just thought, since, you know, if you're coming back soon, maybe you had—but it's no problem."
Kingsley gave an amused laugh as the lift doors jangled open, and all three of them entered. Kingsley pressed the button for the Atrium. "I must say, Harry, I never thought you'd be one for pulling strings."
Harry stared at him. "N-no," he said quickly. "No, Kingsley—Minister, I didn't mean—" But then he saw that Kingsley was still smiling, and Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh, great—"
"Bloody hell," Ron hissed, elbowing Harry in the ribs and Kingsley reached into his briefcase.
"You both performed admirably," he said, beaming as he presented each of them with a violet-ribboned scroll, "but you didn't hear it from me, understand?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said, grinning.
Ron had already torn open his scroll and was scanning it hungrily. "Blimey," he murmured, as the elevator clunked to a halt in the Atrium.
"Happy Christmas, gentlemen," said Kingsley, giving them both another wink and stepping out of the lift.
"You too, Minister!" Harry called, prodding Ron—but he was too busy gaping at his marks.
"What? What's wrong?" Harry tore open his scroll.
FIRST TERM AUROR TRAINING
Marks out of 120
Harry James Potter
Concealment and Disguise 100
Stealth and Tracking 90
Basic Potions 90
Evasion Technique 110
Basic Duels 120
Just like Ron's, Harry's marks also had a note from Hestia taped on the parchment: Great work, Harry!
"Did you—?" Ron asked excitedly. He gave a jubilant yell, startling a few of the Ministry workers queuing by the fireplaces to Floo home. "Ha! Perfect scores in Duels! Wait'll Hermione hears!" Ron continued, already neatly sealing his scroll with his wand. "We've passed into the second half of the term!"
"This is…this is great," Harry said, still gazing down at his parchment in shock.
"C'mon, let's get a drink and celebrate," Ron said, steering Harry towards a queue for the nearest fireplace.
The Leaky Cauldron seemed to be making up for the gloom of the last few years. The tiny pub was bedecked outlandishly in red, gold, and green, its ceiling glittering with golden lanterns while faint Christmas music played from the pine trees that stood in each corner and the clusters of mistletoe that dangled over every doorway. Percy hurried inside and looked around the half-empty pub eagerly.
A young witch with long, curly blonde hair was bent over a piece of parchment by the nearest Christmas tree, smiling widely in a way that made Percy's heart ache, just a little bit.
"What are you grinning at?" he asked, coming up to the table where she sat. Penelope Clearwater looked up from her letter, startled, and smiled at him.
"Percy!" she said happily, setting the note aside and getting up, holding her arms open for a hug. "I finished my training with the Healers early, I wasn't expecting you for half an hour—"
"And I thought I'd be the early one for a change," Percy smiled awkwardly. "Erm— I hope I'm not interrupting?"
Penelope waved a hand; Percy had only seen her a small handful of times since they had left Hogwarts four years ago. As far as he could tell, she had spent all that time growing more beautiful with every day. Ever since she'd sent him a note over the summer, after Fred's funeral, and they had started to correspond once more—by letter only, of course, and a few chance meetings—he'd wondered more and more often why he'd ever let her end things between them.
Now, Penelope blushed, seeing Percy look at her letter. "Just a note from my Mum," she said hastily, folding it and tucking it into her pocket. "I'm so glad to see you," she added, smiling. "I—I was worried I was going to get a note from the barman telling me you were busy at work, or something."
Percy felt his ears grow hot. "Er—I've tried to be—a bit better about that, actually," he said. "Not spending so much time in the office, I mean."
"Oh, of course, I didn't mean—" Penelope bit her lip, looking away. "Won't—why don't you sit down?" she asked, gesturing to the table. "Oh, and, erm—just while we're talking of work—" She stuck both hands in her pockets, fishing for something, and then produced a violet card with silver writing on it.
"What's this?" Percy asked, frowning.
"My cousin's name, and her new job title," said Penelope. "She's going to start work in the Minister's office in January. She's called Audrey, I think you'd really like—"
"Oh," Percy said, feeling his smile fade. "Right. Well, that's great."
She frowned slightly. "Are you all right?"
He nodded quickly and pocketed the card. "I'll keep an eye out for her, then."
At that moment, a diversion arrived in the form of a waitress. "Can I get you something?" she asked, setting a pot of tea and a cup in front of Penelope.
"Er—a coffee, please, and—would you like something to eat?" he asked Penelope.
"Nothing for me, thanks," she said.
The waitress nodded and walked back to the bar, disappearing for a few minutes. Penelope and Percy sat in awkward, uncomfortable silence for several moments; somehow, this was not how Percy had imagined this moment happening. He cleared his throat several times and looked up at the ceiling.
"Decorations are nice," he said finally, and Penelope set down her tea.
"Oh—er, the decorations—"
The waitress was back, setting a second cup and saucer on the table. "One coffee. Let me know if you'd like something else," she smiled, before walking away again.
Grateful, Percy seized the sugar and milk and began stirring far too much of both into his cup. He took a too-hot gulp of coffee and choked, his eyes watering as he pretended to look around the room, admiring the Christmas trees.
"So," Penelope said softly after a few minutes, "what's your family doing for Christmas?"
Percy cleared his throat. "Well, we'll have dinner at my parents' house." Penelope watched him closely without speaking. "Probably nothing too special. My sister will be home from school, and maybe some of my brothers' friends…my sister-in-law…that sort of thing."
"But it's going to be your first one," Penelope said softly, and Percy looked away. "Your first holiday without your brother." He said nothing but stared at another witch a few tables away, who was drinking something that was smoking faintly. "Percy, don't be like that," she said. "Percy."
He looked at her, suddenly irritated; he wished he hadn't ever suggested this meeting.
"If you think I'm annoying, you should wait until you meet Audrey," Penelope quipped, accurately reading his expression in an instant. "All I'm saying is that I know it hurts, and I know it probably won't be fun for you—"
"That's putting it rather mildly—"
"Oh, for goodness' sake, Percy!" Penelope snapped, drawing the curious attention of several people in the bar. "I know! I know it all, all right? You were the last one to see him alive—he was with you, he was your responsibility. I know everything you've been saying about it for six months." She lowered her voice, taking his hand gently. Percy did not pull away, but only because he knew it would hurt her feelings. "You weren't the only one to see awful things—to have awful things happen to you. I can tell you that much after being at St. Mungo's all this time. And at a certain point, you've got to accept that you had nothing to do with his death. It's terrible—but I think you've spent more time talking about all this with me than you have with your own family, Percy, and that's not right—"
"I'm your ex-girlfriend from school," Penelope interrupted gently. "Meanwhile, your family is about to have a really difficult holiday, a time when they should be happy, and they're going to want you there to make it even that much better."
Percy looked away again, but nodded. Penelope smiled, and they both spent a few minutes finishing their drinks in silence. "I have some Christmas shopping I need to do," Percy said at last. "Do you want to come along?"
Penelope tilted her head to one side, as if she was considering it carefully. "Okay, Perce."
"And where've you been?" George barked at Ron irritably as he rang up purchases for an impatient-looking customer.
"Stopped for a drink with Harry, mate," Ron said, squeezing in the door of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, which was overcrowded with Christmastime shoppers, "I lost track of the time. I got my scores back on—"
"Get your robes on and start restocking the shelves," muttered George, waving a hand.
Ron hurried to the back room, which doubled as an employee area and stockroom, and changed quickly. As he did so, another recently hired employee called Deirdre came back to pull a box of trick wands off the shelf. She raised her eyebrows at Ron as she left and panted, "He's in rare form today."
Ron grit his teeth, unable to answer her sharply before the door swung shut. Though it had been a very difficult summer for George, the presence of Angelina Johnson in his life had improved his demeanor exponentially. Deirdre, Ron thought, had no idea what she was talking about, nor how much she should appreciate having even a sour-tempered George for a boss. He thought with a shudder of the empty shell that had existed only a few months earlier, and, not for the first time, was grateful for Angelina.
Ron tied his shoelace and hurried out into the main store with armfuls of boxes, prepared to fill the shelves with Skiving Snackboxes and a wide variety of Decoy Detonators. When he had done so, and it seemed that the stores would hold, Ron hurried up to the second level, where George was explaining the effects of a Wonderwitch product to an older witch. It sounded like she was thinking of buying it for her daughter.
"They're perfectly safe, ma'am, I test all the products myself—"
"Er—sorry," Ron said, stepping forward and giving the witch a smile. "Where d'you want me, George?"
"I'd try the register," George said briskly without looking at him.
Ron, a little put off, went downstairs again and encountered a full queue of customers, clamoring to finish their day's shopping. "All right!" he shouted, squeezing his way past them to the register. The grumpy-looking witch at the front of the line had an array of products laid out on the counter, and Ron gave her what he hoped was a winning smile. "How can I help you?"
It took the better part of four hours to assist all of the customers who came in, even this late in the day, and so it was not until almost a half hour after closing time that Ron was able to lower the blinds in the window displays with a wave of his wand and breathe a sigh of relief.
"Good night, Ron," said a voice, and he looked up just in time to see Deirdre smile at him from the doorway. "Have a nice evening."
"You too," Ron said, and she slipped past him, out the front door. He turned the lock behind her and rubbed the back of his neck. Then he yawned widely and stretched, reaching into his pocket for his Deluminator. He clicked it once, and the lights throughout the shop went out, shooting directly into the device. He then flicked his wand again, straightening everything on the shelves, and headed for the back staircase that led to George's flat. He got up to the door and knocked; it was locked. "George?" he called, listening for a response. "George, I'm locking up!"
"Fine. Night," called George's voice from within. He sounded stuffed-up, as though he had a cold.
Ron frowned. "I'm on my way to pick up food from the Leaky Cauldron. We'll eat at Grimmauld Place—d'you want to come along?"
"Damn," he muttered. He raised a fist and pounded on the door. "George. George, open up."
"You've got three seconds, and then I'm blasting this door in."
Ron raised his wand. "One."
The door swung open, and George, looking positively furious, his eyes rimmed with red, stood glaring up at Ron, who, over the last summer, had grown taller than him. Ron recoiled at the smell of stale firewhisky.
"Ah, George," he groaned. "C'mon, mate, is this why you were being such a—"
"Go'way," George snapped. "Go to Grimmauld Place. M'fine." He marched over to the table, where a bottle of firewhisky sat beside piles of parchment, and sat down to pour himself a fresh glass. "I've got work to do."
"No, I won't," Ron said, though he wasn't entirely sure where this resolve was coming from. He stepped inside the flat, and he could see into the only bedroom, where two unmade beds were just visible through the doorway. George never slept in there. A blanket and a lumpy pillow lay in a heap on the sofa. "Come on—you said you were over this. What about Angelina? What's she going to say if I let you down that bottle?" He had said the wrong thing. George buried his face in his hands for a moment, clearly trying very hard to keep a hold on his temper. Ron stammered, "I didn't mean you were over—not—I mean, come on, none of us—"
"I know that, you stupid git," he snapped. "Angelina and I had a fight," said George, so quietly that Ron fell immediately silent.
He nodded, still not removing his hands from his face. "Bloody wonderful time for it."
"I—look, George," Ron said, feeling that the danger had passed and sitting down beside him at the table. "How bad could it have been? I mean, you two argue a lot—"
George snorted and looked at Ron at last. "Sort of the point, isn't it?" he asked. "We fight too much. We called it off. No problem."
"'Called it off?'" Ron repeated. "What are you talking about?"
"I ditched her," George said with a shrug, staring fiercely down at a bill and making a note on it.
"You ditched her?"
"Will you quit repeating everything I say?" George retorted, slamming his empty glass down on the table. "I ditched her. She ditched me. It doesn't matter. She had every right to not want me around anymore."
"Wait—you ditched her or she ditched you?" Ron asked. "Because that matters, George, it—"
"No, Ron, it doesn't," he snapped. "Now will you just get going so I can get these bills done before the shipments come tomorrow? I have to get up at four to meet them."
There was a ringing finality in these words. Ron, his insides twisting painfully, stared at his brother's profile as he gazed down at the parchment.
"All right. You know where I am, though, if—"
Ron left, feeling thoroughly disconcerted. When he arrived home, he talked Harry into having a game of chess over dinner in the extremely clean parlor of number twelve, Grimmauld Place (Kreacher lived in the house during the summer, and spent the occasional weekend on a cleaning visit from Hogwarts, where there was more work for him to do). As they ate, Ron told Harry about his conversation with George, starting with his foul mood and then continuing on to his words about Angelina.
"I mean…that's weird, right?" Ron asked, as Harry prodded his knight forward and it began beating up one of Ron's pawns. "I'm not mad?"
"Well, like you said," Harry told him, "they fight a lot. Maybe they haven't ditched each other just for that, maybe—" He broke off, looking uncomfortable, and Ron knew why. Fred's absence seemed more powerful when they—Harry, Hermione, Ron's own family, and anybody else who happened to stumble across the topic—were actively avoiding it.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to say to Deirdre and Verity and the others," he mumbled, frowning at the chessboard. "He hasn't been like this in a while…and I'm not sure how much of it does have to do with Fred."
Harry's expression hardened, and he looked seriously up at Ron, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "You don't owe them any explanations. None of you do," he said firmly.
Ron was quiet for a minute, and he pushed his queen forward; she decapitated Harry's knight. "I just want it to make sense to me."
Bill was reading the Daily Prophet, or trying to. He kept glancing at his watch, which sat on the bedside table, and then listening for noise on the staircase, the indication of Fleur's return from her parents' house. She had been feeling off-color all week, and did not trust the English Healers at St. Mungo's—at least not in this instance. She had Apparated to France immediately after dinner, insisting that she go alone, and Bill had been waiting for almost two hours for her to come home again.
At last, he heard her soft footfall on the landing. The door creaked open just as Bill sat up. Fleur, wrapped in her silvery-gray traveling cloak, looked exhausted. She walked in, removed the cloak, and sat down on the bed, taking his hands.
Bill's mouth felt dry as he watched her. "So…?"
She blinked once, her lip trembling only slightly, and shook her head. "No. Not zis time."
"Oh, Fleur," he said, pulling her into his arms. "I'm so sorry."
He felt her nod, and she drew a shuddering breath. "Eet is not your fault. Eet is no one's fault."
Bill hugged her tighter; he couldn't help himself— "Pretty girl, maybe it's time I saw a Healer…"
Fleur pulled back. Her eyes were full of tears, but she had narrowed them fiercely. "No. Zere is nothing wrong wiz us. Not me—or you, you understand?"
Bill swallowed hard. "I just don't want…"
"What?" Fleur asked.
"Remus…he always said there were going to be…differences…"
"Bill," she said sharply. "Do you know what Maman always tells 'er patients?"
Bill shook his head.
"When zey come to 'er and say, 'we are so anxious, we are so worried, we 'ave not yet 'ad a child,'" said Fleur. "And right away, she knows. She says ze problem is right before zem—zey are anxious."
"Bill, we 'ave 'ad…I do not know for certain, per'aps, but it 'as been ze most stressful first year of marriage zat anyone can 'ave, non?" she asked. "After all zat 'appened…Remus, and Tonks, and—" she paused and blinked hard. Then she leaned in and kissed him, very softly. "I am not worried. I am sad, yes, but I am not worried. And I do not want you to be worried, ma chére."
Bill wiped his eyes quickly and sniffed. "Okay. I'll try."
Fleur rested her forehead against his. "Good."
Arthur yawned widely as he walked through the garden gate, happy to be home at last. It had been a long night. The department had conducted their first raid in months, only to find that it was based on a piece of faulty information. Glad though he was for his promotion to a Head of Department, Arthur had not enjoyed putting Memory Charms on some very startled Muggles who had been confused by the presence of a team of oddly-dressed men and women making a racket in their neighborhood.
He stretched, wondering, as he reached the kitchen door, why on earth Molly was still awake; the lights were all on. Then, an echoing clang rang out from within the house, and Arthur bolted forward, drawing his wand as he did so and banging the door open. Molly, who was bent over something by the hearth, gave a yelp of fright at the noise and spun on the spot—then she slipped in something and disappeared beneath the counter with a thud.
"Oh, Molly!" Arthur cried, hurrying to her aid. "Molly, I'm so sorry! Are you hurt?"
"What on earth are you thinking, scaring me like that?" she demanded, as he helped her sit up. There was stew seeping all across the kitchen floor, and Molly had landed in it. A cooking pot lay on its side, which explained the noise he had heard. "I could've broken my neck!" Molly told him.
"I—I thought you might have been in trouble," Arthur said lamely, feeling foolish.
"How gallant," Molly snapped. She made a face. "Ouch. Oh—I think I put my back out, Arthur…"
"Do you need to go to St. Mungo's?" Arthur asked. "Maybe we—"
"Don't be ridiculous, Arthur, I'm fine," she replied. "Just help me get up."
"Do you want to sit down, or lie on the sofa?"
"Lie down," she said, as she got delicately to her feet. Arthur helped her limp into the sitting room and got her settled on the couch.
"I'm so sorry, Molly," he said meekly, placing a pillow beneath her head. "I just—I was worried—"
"I know, dear, I know," she answered, her eyes closed as she took a deep breath and patted his hand.
It was true; Arthur knew that in the last six months, he had become increasingly nervous, particularly where Molly was concerned. He was not sure it had anything to do with her behavior, which had resumed something like normalcy, if not the thing itself, but more with his own anxiety about his family. Nowadays, he went out of his way to run into Ron, Percy, and Harry at the Ministry. He ventured out to Diagon Alley several times a week just to glance in the window of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. He currently had a large portion of his bank account in his pocket from all of his trips to Gringotts to visit Bill. He found himself Apparating home in the middle of the day, with excuses about a forgotten something or other, just to see Molly.
And Molly knew. She would always be ready to tell him about Fleur dropping by, or to show him Ginny's latest letter from school, or to greet him at the door with the scarf he had, of course, just been coming back to get.
"Do you want me to see about a Healer?" Arthur asked her gently, smoothing her hair back. "Maybe someone can make a house call."
She chuckled and smiled at him. "And tell them what? It's just my back, Arthur, I'll be fine by the morning. Besides, it was my fault, too. I wasn't paying attention when I dropped that pot."
Arthur tightened his hold on her hand. "Have you eaten anything today, Molly?"
She opened her eyes at last. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I forgot. And then…well, your note said you'd be home late, so I just…I put it off."
"Molly, you can't do that," he said, trying hard to disguise his exasperation; after all, he had just injured her, albeit accidentally. "It's not good for you."
"Oh, believe me, I know," she said, wincing as she pulled herself up into a sitting position. She laid a hand over her eyes. "I've got a dreadful headache. Stupid thing for me to do."
Arthur leaned forward and kissed her temple gently. "I'm sorry, Mollywobbles." She smiled at him, her thin face lighting up in a way that made him grin, too. "Why don't I clean up the kitchen and find us something to eat?"
"I think I need to lie down properly," Molly said, wincing as she sat up. "How would you feel about dinner in bed?"
Arthur grinned; even when she was in pain, Molly loved to tease him. "I'll bring up a tray and a potion for your back."
"Aren't you lovely?" she beamed, and they kissed.