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Eleven Years Later by JKButcher

Format: Novella
Chapters: 13
Word Count: 50,473
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Contains profanity, Scenes of a mild sexual nature, Spoilers

Genres: Fluff, General, Romance
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, OtherCanon
Pairings: Ron/Hermione, Harry/Ginny

First Published: 07/22/2007
Last Chapter: 09/08/2016
Last Updated: 09/08/2016


Banner by me.

It should have been a simple case of Dragon Pox, but instead it's a window into the daily lives of the characters you know and love. 

This story was started (and nearly finished) nine years ago as an expansion of the DH epilogue.  I needed closure, and I was happy to share my attempt with the world. But nine years of writer's block brings me back, this time seeking a new beginning. 

Chapter 1: The House of Weasley
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Disclaimer:  I do not own any of these characters, nor do I wish that I did.  I could never have produced the masterpiece that JKR has.

Chapter 1: The House of Weasley

“She's got what?” Ron asked. The mashed potatoes on his fork, granted a temporary reprieve when they had paused halfway to his mouth, made a desperate bid for freedom but were unable to achieve any greater triumph than plopping loudly back onto the plate below. Little droplets of gravy splashed up onto his robes. Hugo, who was seated in a high chair across the table from his father, giggled loudly.

“Honestly Ron, you know full well what I said,” Hermione replied from the entrance to the kitchen. She reached around behind her back and untied the bright purple apron that she had been wearing. She tossed it onto a counter out of sight on the other side of the door before entering the dining room, but the outline of the apron was still clearly visible on her black shirt; the area it had covered was the only portion not blanketed in flour. Her normally brown hair also had a dusting of the fine powder, something that Ron was quick to pick up on.

“I like the new look Hermione,” he exclaimed, “much more distinguished. I just hope I look as good as you do when I'm your age.” Hermione fixed Ron in a puzzled glare, then turned and found her reflection in one of the fine silver plates that stood in a hutch beside the entrance to the kitchen. She burst out laughing, and relieved, Ron joined in. He had feared for a moment that he had gone too far.

Hermione pulled her wand out of a pocket in her jeans, and pointed it at herself, still looking at her reflection. “Tergeo,” she said softly. Her hair rustled briefly as though blown by a light breeze, and Ron felt something catch in his throat. He loved it when she did that. She turned to look at her husband with a sly smile and then, much to Ron's surprise and delight, she winked at him. “Much better don't you think?” she asked.

“I- uh-” he stammered, openly gaping at her newly clean tresses. “So- Dragon Pox?” He was desperate to change the subject. If things kept on like they were at the moment, he was likely to do something in front of little Hugo that his young eyes need not be exposed to just yet. Hermione's smile faded slightly as the moment passed, and she walked over to the table and took a seat next to Hugo.

“Rose was feeling very ill this morning, so I took her to see Cho. She said it looks like a classic case.” Hermione had grabbed the bowl of mashed potatoes from the center of the table and was spooning out more onto Ron's plate. “Please finish these off, all right? I don't know if I can stand to eat them as leftovers.”

“Tired of mashed potatoes?”

“Well, we've had them just about every day since we got married,” said Hermione, her face flushed. “One day I'll learn to make something else, I promise you. I'll- I'll take lessons from your Mum if I have to.” Ron chuckled and reached across the table to stroke her arm with his free hand.

“Don't worry about it dear.” He grabbed a forkful of the potatoes – whose fate had now been sealed – and shoveled them into his mouth. Ron couldn't complain, mashed potatoes were one of his favorite foods, and Hermione's were the best he'd ever had. She just couldn't cook anything else. “They're very good,” he said without bothering to swallow, and his wife swatted at him playfully.

“Don't do that in front of Hugo, you'll give him ideas,” Hermione chided. But it was too late. Already the toddler was babbling with his mouth full of mashed potatoes of his own. Gravy leaked down his chin and onto the tray of the high chair. “Oh dear.” Ron laughed heartily.

“Little tyke wants to be just like his dad. And who could blame him?” he asked no one in particular. It hadn't taken long for Ron to adjust to having someone try to emulate him, rather than Harry.

“That's odd,” Hermione retorted, once again pulling out her wand, “it seems to me that you're acting more like Hugo than the other way around. Tergeo,” she said again, and the droplets of gravy disappeared from Ron's robes. Ron's cheeks turned the slightest shade of pink.

“So it's not serious then?” he asked, once again trying to change the subject.

“Not really, you were never that mature to begin with,” Hermione quipped. She reached out a hand to Hugo, and took his hand in hers. She gently pried the spoon he was using away from him, and set it down on the table, out of his reach. “We don't want to grow up to be like Daddy, do we?” she asked while shaking her head. Ron couldn't help but smile, he had no idea how he'd gotten so lucky.

“I meant Rose – the Dragon Pox.”

“Oh no, Cho says she should be fine. It's actually better for kids to get Dragon Pox when they're young. Once you've had it, you can't get it again for the rest of your life, and it's more serious to have it when you're older.”

“But still,” objected Ron, playing with the few mashed potatoes remaining on his plate, “little Rosie all green and covered in boils. I can't imagine it would be too pleasant.” Ron was fiercely protective of his daughter; she looked and acted an almost identical copy of his wife. Hermione stopped dabbing at the struggling Hugo's face with a napkin, and smiled up at Ron.

“Well you don't remember having it, do you?” Ron tried to think back to his own bout with Dragon pox, but found himself unable to do so. He did remember when George had caught it though. Fred had been so devastated that the two of them no longer looked alike, that he had rubbed George's bedsheets all over himself until he had caught it as well. He felt a stab of grief, and blinked back a tear. Thankfully, Hermione had turned her ministrations back upon Hugo and didn't seem to notice.

“No, I don't remember a thing. I suppose it couldn't have been too bad.”

“That's because you were too young to remember. I talked to Mum Weasley earlier, and she told me all about your case of it. Pretty mild by the sound of it. But that brings me to the point-”

“Oh! So there was a point to this then?” Ron asked, smiling. Hermione ignored the bait.

“I'd like to set up a play date with Harry and Ginny and the kids, so that they can hopefully catch it too.”

“Are you nutters?” exclaimed Ron. “Why in the world would Harry or Ginny want three sick kids on their hands?” He was having a hard time just thinking about Rose. Hermione sat up straight, and fixed a glare at her husband.

“I'm not nutters, this is pretty common practice. It was Cho who suggested it actually, and you know she's a Mediwitch.”

“And you didn't think that maybe she just wanted to give Ginny a bit of grief?” Hermione rolled her eyes, but Ron pressed on. “We both know that she's jealous that Ginny got the guy in the end.” Hermione wadded up the napkin she had been using to clean Hugo's face, and threw it at Ron coltishly.

“Don't be silly, Ronald.” Ron swallowed hard. There were only two occasions when Hermione called him that, and half of them he wound up sleeping on the couch. The other half he wound up not sleeping at all.

“I jus-” but he was cut off by a loud wailing coming from the kitchen. Hermione jumped to her feet quickly, and dashed off through the kitchen door. Ron, too, got to his feet, and he reached over the table and plucked Hugo out of the highchair. The toddler had started to cry at the sound of the alarm, and he now clung around Ron's neck tightly. “There there,” Ron whispered as he bounced up and down gently. “Nothing to worry about mate. Your brilliant mum will have everything sorted in no time flat.” True to his word, the alarm stopped only seconds later. Ron continued to bounce and coo to his son until Hermione reappeared in the doorway holding a pan of what appeared to be very black bezoars.

“Care for a biscuit anyone?” she asked with tears in her eyes. Ron stepped forward and kissed his wife on the forehead. He took one of the burnt balls and popped it into his mouth. He instantly regretted it, the taste was unbearable, and it was burning the roof of his mouth, but he continued to chew as if his life depended on it. After finally managing to swallow – it took a good deal of finesse to actually get the hard lump down his throat – he smiled faintly.

“Your best yet,” he said. “Truthfully.” Hermione sobbed and dropped the tray to the floor with a clatter, Hugo opened his mouth and looked to start wailing again, but was surprised to find Hermione's body pressing against his as she kissed Ron with all her heart. He closed his mouth and reveled in the feeling of warmth from their two bodies.

Ron was quite sure that he'd not be on the couch for tonight at least.

A/N:  I do hope that you enjoyed reading that as much as I enjoyed writing it.  If you did (or even if you didn't), please leave a review.  I respond at length to all of my reviews, so if you have any questions or concerns, feel free to bring them up.

The purpose of this fic is not to denegrate J.K. Rowling's masterpiece, but instead to revere it.  I love these characters so much that I could not bear to part with them, and was slightly let down by the epilogue of Deathly Hallows.  Not for what it contained (I'm a huge H/G R/Hr shipper), but for what it didn't.  As such, I want to try and weave in the fates of as many secondary characters as possible to this fic.

UPDATE: Since I've started to write this, JKR has divulged additional information about the fates of Harry and his friends, but this, and any other future such disclosures will not be taken into account for this fic.  It is based entirely off of Deathly Hallows and its epilogue.  Nothing (to the best of my ability) will be changed.

Chapter 2: Out of the Ashes
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Chapter 2: Out of the Ashes

“Hey Ron, do you want to go to the game tonight?” Ron had just gotten into the lift at the end of the hall on level two, and he turned to see Justin Finch-Fletchley bounding after him down the hallway. The door of the lift started to close, but Ron waved his wand at it lazily and it reversed its course. Justin slid through the door and into the nearly empty elevator. Several last minute interdepartmental memos also swooped in.

“What game's that?” asked Ron. He hadn't had as much time for Quidditch since the Aurors had stepped up their surveillance on Azkaban. While he was pleased that the Dementors had all been destroyed, it had left the Ministry in a bit of a tight spot. Robards had offered the services of the Aurors to his old pal Kingsley, at least until a more permanent solution could be found.

“Puddlemere and the Tornados,” Justin replied. “Should be a good match up. Tutshill's been unbeatable for years, but Oliver Wood's been playing over his head lately.” He waved a hand in front of his face to try and clear off a low-flying memo. “Sure is a lot of business going on for a Friday afternoon,” he added, glancing up at the swarm of airplanes above them. Ron looked upwards as well. He could just make out his father's handwriting on several of the folded pieces of paper. No doubt a raid was going to happen over the weekend.

“I think I'll pass on the game,” said Ron. The thought of actually attending a Tutshill Tornados game made him physically ill, but there was no sense in telling Justin that. “I've actually got a play-date for the kids.” Justin smiled ruefully.

“Arthur said no as well. Needs to prepare for the raid, he says. It's all a load of tosh if you ask me.” Ron looked down at his companion and cleared his throat. Justin seemed to remember who he was talking to, and turned a bit red around the ears. “Sorry, but it's just flying carpets. And you'd think that he'd take me with him on one of these raids. It's not like I'd be as useless as Perkins was.” Ron patted the Hufflepuff on the shoulder, but had to work very hard to keep from rolling his eyes.

“I'm sure your time will come. Just hope you don't wind up with lumbago from sitting around all day like Perkins. Then you'd never get out of the office.” The lift slowed to a stop, and a voice informed the two of them that they had reached the Atrium. Ron strode out of the elevator, but looked back at Justin when he realized that he was not coming as well. “I thought you were headed home?” he asked.

“In a minute, I think I'm going to go back up to level five and see if maybe-” He stopped himself short, but Ron knew exactly what he had been about to say. Justin's earlier embarrassment had now turned into a full on blush. It was well known that he had a serious crush on Susan Bones.

“Good luck with that mate,” Ron said with a broad grin, “need a few pointers?” Justin hesitated only a moment before laughing hysterically. Ron glared at him as the door closed, and the lift began it's ascent. It took a good ten seconds before Ron could no longer hear laughing. “Git,” he mumbled, and he turned and walked through the golden gates to the atrium.

The lines for the fireplaces that lined the walls were as long as they usually were on a Friday afternoon, and there was, as always, a crowd around the base of the new fountain. The crying golden phoenix, its tears tumbling down and over the stylized remains of Hogwarts after the final and decisive battle, had become something of a shrine. The base of the fountain once again glittered with gold, silver, and bronze, and a sign floating in mid-air beside the fountain informed onlookers that all proceeds would go to a scholarship fund ensuring that all children – regardless of blood status or wealth – who wished to go to Hogwarts would be able to do so.

Ron stopped next to the fountain and dug around in his pocket. His fingers clasped a hard metallic disk, and withdrew it slowly. Ron looked down at the silver Sickle in his hand, and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger thoughtfully. “For Colin,” he said softly, and he tossed the coin into the fountain. Ron had donated a coin in the name of one of his fallen friends every day for the past five years, though Fred's name had certainly been used most often. Sighing, Ron turned and got into line for a fireplace.

The line moved quickly, and it was mere moments before Ron was grabbing a fistful of Floo powder from the ever-full bowls located on each fireplace's mantle. He climbed into the fireplace, dropped the powder into the fire, which turned a flared a startling green, and said very clearly, “ The Athenaeum!” Ron felt his head start to spin rapidly, and he passed several open grates before finally stumbling out of the fireplace in the sitting room of his and Hermione's home.

The house had certainly been aptly named (it was Ginny who had come up with it), there must have been literally thousands of books just in the sitting room alone. Tall bookcases lined each wall, and they were all filled to bursting with tomes of every shape and size. In the center of the room, a plain long table with four very comfortable chairs around it sat ready for a late night game of Wizard's chess. He glanced fondly at the two bookcases filled entirely with books on Quidditch before setting of into the rest of the house to find his family.

“Hermione?” he called, hoping to find her before too long. He had a feeling that they were already running a bit late. He glanced at the watch he'd gotten so long ago on his seventeenth birthday, and confirmed this.

“We're in here,” came Hermione's voice from the hall. Ron pulled out his wand and turned on the spot. With a very faint pop he apparated into the front hall, and was greeted by the site of Hermione bundling up little Rose in a scarf and hat. He was just able to catch a glimpse of the end of a green nose through the whirlwind of activity.

“How are you feeling Rosie?” Ron asked, bending over and taking the ends of the scarf from Hermione.

“Sick,” muttered Rosie. Ron smiled at her, and pulled her closer using the ends of the scarf.

“How about a kiss?” he asked, puckering his lips comically.

“But you'll get sick too!” exclaimed Rose, trying to keep Ron away with her tiny hands.

“Like that would keep me from kissing my Rosie. Please.” Ron swept the little girl up into his arms and planted a wet kiss on her faintly green cheek. Rosie didn't struggle any longer, and she turned in his arms to position herself so that she could kiss him back. Hermione cleared her throat noisily behind them. Ron looked to see her standing there with her hands on her hips, but a smile on her face.

“When you two are quite finished,” she began, “I'd rather like a kiss of my own.” Ron was only too happy to oblige her.

“So we'll be driving then?” Ron asked after the two lovers had broken apart.

“It's safest for the kids, Ron,” Hermione reminded him. “Anything can happen with side-along apparition. Wouldn't want them to lose an eyebrow or something, would we?” Ron felt a surge of blood rush to his face and his ears heat up substantially.

“You're never going to let me live that down, are you?” he asked quietly. Hermione chuckled good-naturedly and grinned at him.

“I'm sure that one day you'll do much better on your driver's exam, than you did on your apparition exam. But until then-” Hermione withdrew her wand from a pocket and said, “Accio keys.” A loud jangling noise from a hook beside the door indicated that the requested item was now flying towards Hermione swiftly.

“Do you know where we're going?” Ron asked, turning his attention to the soft and squishy Rose in his arms. She was wearing far too much clothing to be appropriate for the weather, but it helped to keep her green tint hidden. She smiled up at her father.

“We're going to see Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny and Al and James and the baby,” she said, and Ron could tell that she was ticking them off of a mental checklist as she named each individual.

“That's right! Very good!” he exclaimed, tweaking her nose.

“Are we all ready?” asked Hermione, keys in hand. She bent over to pick up Hugo's car seat, and Ron nodded at her.

“Let's get going,” he said, “I'm getting hungry.” As if to emphasize the point, his stomach took that moment to let loose a loud growl. Rose leaned into his neck, and he could feel her laughing against him. His heart swelled.

“Looking forward to something other than mashed potatoes?” One of Hermione's eyebrows arched dangerously.

“Well of course, but there'd better be mashed potatoes for dessert.” He was only half-joking. Hermione's eyebrow was mollified, and together the Weasleys set out for the house of their best friends.

A/N: Thanks ever so much to those who have taken the time to review my story, and extra special thanks to those of you who have left a review.  I truly appreciate it.

I think by now you've got a taste for how I'm going to weave in the fates of all these different characters.  It may be only a passing comment (Oliver Wood), but it's more than we got in Deathly Hallows (which I loved, by the way).  If some of these references prove to be a bit too vague for you (Susan Bones is on Level Five for a reason), then let me know in a review (or join me in the forums) and I can elaborate.  In most cases though, you should be able to work out what I mean with a quick look over at the Lexicon.  But I also want to demonstrate how the Wizarding world in general is getting on in these peaceful times.  I'm actually pretty proud of my new statue, and I'd hope you like te idea as much as I did.


Chapter 3: The House of Potter
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Chapter 3: The House of Potter

“They're here!” James Potter had been sitting on the front porch railing of 7 Genista Way for nearly an hour, feet swinging languidly back and forth. His well worn trainers had thumped rhythmically against the whitewashed oak spindles, beating out a tune of tranquility and ease. Now, however, they were propelling him down the path in front of the cottage and out toward the road to meet the Weasleys.

“James! Don't go running out into the street!” Ginny had appeared in the front door, and was now leaning up against its frame, fiddling with a stray strand of her red mane. When James showed no signs of slowing down, she shook her head and laughed. The boy was bound and determined to cause trouble, and Ginny couldn't help but wonder if his middle name – Fred – was the culprit. But there was little to worry about here on the outskirts of Godric's Hollow. Traffic was very light owing to the burgeoning magical population, and children playing in the street were more likely to get hit by a rogue bludger than an automobile.

As the car pulled up to the grass in front of the house, James ran around behind it and directly to the front passenger side door. Ginny saw her brother, who was sitting there, glance sideways at Hermione before pressing his face to the glass. Ginny had no idea what he'd done then, but James howled with laughter. Hermione appeared oblivious to the entire thing, and was waving happily up at Ginny, who returned the gesture apologetically.

“Guess what, Uncchml Fhwom!” James cried, the latter half being smothered by Ron's body. He had exited the car and pulled the five year old into a great bear hug so quickly, that James hadn't even had the chance to get his arms up. “Guess what!” he exclaimed again after the hug was broken. Ron made a great show oh hemming and hawing, complete with head tilting and finger tapping upon his temple.

“Keep tapping Ron, and your brain's going to fall out through your ear.” Ginny had made her way to the car, and was embracing Hermione tightly. She felt her sister-in law's stomach start to contract wildly, and she could tell that Hermione was trying her hardest to keep from laughing.

“Funny,” Ron intoned under his breath, glaring daggers at his sister.

“Thanks, I thought so.” Ginny let go of Hermione, and after exchanging pleasantries, stooped down to hug Rose, who had just climbed down out of the back seat.

“A broom, no way!” she heard Ron enthuse from the other side of the car, and she grinned widely. Harry had gotten James a real beginner's broom just days ago, and he hadn't stopped talking about it since. Hermione, tugging at the straps of Hugo's car seat, looked at Ginny sideways.

“Are you sure that's safe?” she asked quietly.

“No, but who's going to tell him not to fly? Certainly not me. By the time I was his age I'd already borrowed each of my brother's brooms several times.” Ginny closed her eyes and for a brief moment she was back in a field at the Burrow, skimming low over the grass with her shoes off. No. If James wanted to fly, she'd do everything she could to encourage it.

“Quidditch,” grumbled Hermione, and Ginny knew that she was upset that her best female friend was just as avid a fan as the boys were. “And what is wrong with these straps?” she asked her voice rising and the back of her neck starting to turn red.

“Would you like me to-” But Hermione had already withdrawn her wand, and casting a furtive glance at the neighbor's house, proceeded to prod the stubborn straps with its tip. They instantly released, and she scooped Hugo up into her arms. Holding the one year old seemed to calm Hermione instantly, and Ginny smiled, knowing precisely how she felt. Hugo and little Lily had been born only days apart, and the concurrent pregnancies had caused the two good friends to develop something of a special bond.

“Come on Unc, you've got to see it!” James had now taken hold of Ron's hand and was pulling him towards the house. Ron looked back at the two women and the two children, and mouthed an apology.

“Boys,” whispered Hermione into the top of Hugo's head.

“Will be boys,” finished Ginny. The two looked at each other and burst into laughter that lasted until they were well inside the house.

“So where's Harry?” Hermione asked, once Rose had been unwrapped and given a bit of chocolate to help with the itching.

“Well, he was supposed to be setting the table, but I suspect he's probably gone to find Ron and help James brag about the broom.” But to Ginny's great surprise, Harry was right where he was supposed to be, and the table was set and then some.

“You've outdone yourself, Harry,” Ginny commended him, after she and Hermione had entered the dining room. The room did indeed look spectacular. Normally a cozy place more reminiscent of the Burrow, it now looked like an upscale restaurant complete with oversized crystal chandelier, draperies hanging from the walls, and four high back armchairs around the normal table.

“Where did you get these goblets?” Ginny asked, picking up one of the hefty brass cups that were located at each place setting. Harry twirled his wand in his hand and whistled nonchalantly while refusing to look Ginny in the eye. She turned it over in her hands slowly, admiring the fine filigree. She'd had her eyes on a similar set the last time she'd been in Diagon Alley.

“Well they're very nice, it'll be a shame when they get transfigured back into the normal boring glasses.” Ginny sighed; she had known it was too good to be true. Money wasn't exactly tight, but Harry had a habit of spending it on the kids rather than her.

“Transfigured? What, do you think I'm Hermione?” Hermione's cheeks turned pink, and she busied herself with keeping Rose from itching herself. “There's no way I could have transfigured our glasses into these.”

“You mean?” Harry nodded, and Ginny let out an excited squeak and she started towards Harry, fully intending to give him a kiss. However, she only made it halfway before she started to feel a nagging doubt tickling the back of her mind. “What did you do?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Harry replied, putting on an air of innocence. “I can't buy the woman I love a gift?”

“Well of co-”

“Then that's settled. I didn't do anything at all. A little Snidget - all right, not-so-little, I don't think Millicent's ever been called little in her life."

"Would you get to the point already?" Ginny urged.  She could feel the corners of her mouth twitching involuntarily.  Harry put up his hands as if to surrender, but he continued.

"Anyway, she told me that you were looking at these in Diagon Alley.  Of course, she only told me so she could point out how poor your taste was, but I wanted to do something special for you, so I jinxed her.  And then I went and bought the goblets too.  They're an 'I love you gift.'  Nothing more, nothing less, all right?” Ginny could feel a roar of desire building in her stomach, and she was feeling several degrees warmer than she had just moments ago.

“You're a piece of work Harry James Potter,” she closed the distance between them and planted a wet kiss on him.

“Mmm... what?” Ginny's grin spread from ear to ear. She never grew tired of casting her own special brand of magic over the Boy Who Lived. The kiss lasted several seconds longer than was strictly necessary, but Ginny was in no hurry.

The sound of a throat being cleared in the doorway to the rest of the house finally broke the two apart. Ron was standing there with a smirk on his face, and James was standing beside him with his hands over his eyes.

“Is it safe to look yet?” he asked. Everyone laughed.

“Good to see you Ron,” said Harry, once the laughter had died down. “But I wonder if you've noticed that your daughter's gone a bit green?” He smiled kindly at Rose, who scratched in reply.

“I suspect yours will be getting there shortly, so long as everything goes to plan. You sure you can handle three sick kids?”

“What else has an unemployed wizard got to look forward to?” Harry responded. Ginny smiled; Harry's decision to stay at home and raise the kids had been an easy one to make. He did, after all, have a lifetime's worth of family experiences to make up for.

“Speaking of which, where are Al and Lily?” Hermione asked, eying the table set for four people.

“Upstairs with the baby-sitter of course,” Harry answered, “It's not often that I get much adult company, so I thought perhaps it could just be us four in here. Mrs. Figg will look after the kids if that's all right with you?” Hermione smiled and nodded.

“Of course, Harry, I think that's a great idea. I'll just deliver Hugo and Rose, then shall I?”

“James, why don't you show your Aunt Hermione where Mrs. Figg is?” prodded Ginny. James nodded and sprinted out of the room. Hermione took hold of Rose's hand, and still carrying Hugo, followed after him.

“I'll be right back,” she called over her shoulder.

Dinner was a happy affair, with the four friends talking loudly and laughing often, and they remained at the table talking for a long time after the last bite of dessert.

“So how are things at Azkaban?” Harry asked Ron, taking a sip of Butterbeer. Ron shuddered at the question, and the mood immediately grew somber.

“Fenrir Greyback sends his love,” he mumbled, and he put his arm around Hermione protectively. “He's raising something of a werewolf army in there, and there's really not much we can do to stop it.”

“Oh isn't it horrible what's happened to them?” Ginny had been hoping this subject would come up. She had to talk to Hermione about it.

“It certainly is,” said Ron, “but the fact remains that the vast majority of them that are imprisoned are now looking to Greyback for leadership, and he's only too happy to oblige.” Hermione slammed her goblet down on the table – Ginny grimaced briefly, hoping that it wouldn't break – and anyone who knew her as well as the present company did, knew she was going to start a rant.

“Well honestly, they wouldn't be looking to Greyback if they hadn't been put in Azkaban in the first place! Most of these people were just regular folks like Lupin before their incarceration. Tell me Harry, if you were thrown into jail just because of who you were, not because you did anything wrong, wouldn't you rally around someone who promised revenge?” During the course of her speech, Hermione had risen to her feet, and she was gesticulating wildly.

“Yes, yes I suppose I would,” answered Harry, deathly afraid of disagreeing Hermione when she was in a state such as this. She slumped back down into her chair, and crossed her arms over her chest. Ron once again reached out and put his arm around her.

“Kingsley has been great on the whole,” Ginny chipped in, “but I really think he was wrong to cave into the pressure of the rest of the wizarding world on this one. Would we have just sat idly by had Lupin been alive?” The four friends said nothing, and could not look at each other.

“All right,” resolved Hermione after nearly a minute of silence, “I'm on it.”

“Well that's as good as taken care of then,” said Ron with an attempt at humor. “Once the great house-elf liberator is on the case, no injustice stands a chance.” He drew his arm tighter around Hermione, and turned to kiss her temple. She didn't fight him, but didn't respond either. Ginny could see the wheels starting to turn in her head already.

“Hey, Hermione, I've been meaning to ask,” began Harry, “why are you and I immune to Dragon Pox? I've known you your whole wizarding life, and I think I'd remember if you'd turned all green and pock-marked.” Hermione frowned, and she visibly had to change the direction that her train of thought was taking.

“We had Chicken Pox. It's the same exact virus, and it behaves in the same manner. Which one you get all depends on who you catch it from. If you get the virus from a Muggle, you get Chicken Pox. If you catch it from someone with magical blood, it's Dragon Pox.”

“Chicken Pox? What, do you grow feathers and walk around clucking?” asked Ron. “Because I'd quite like to have seen that.”

“No, Ron.” Hermione was clearly getting exasperated, and Ginny felt bad for Harry. He'd picked a bad time to broach the subject. “No feathers. And no clucking for that matter, just a bunch of itchy red spots. And you've already seen me with fur and a tail. That should be enough to last you a lifetime.” Ron smiled and closed his eyes, and Ginny was sure he was picturing the adult Hermione with a tail.

“But I never had Chicken Pox, Hermione,” Harry said quietly. Hermione's fierce mood disappeared suddenly, as she gasped and raised a hand to her mouth.

“Tell me you're joking!”

“I'm not. I never had them. Dudley did, and I remember thinking how lucky I was not to get it too.”

“I'm so sorry!”

“Why, do you think I'll get it now?”

“Probably, you hugged Rose, didn't you?” Harry nodded, slowly. “I tried to check with your family, Harry, I really did. I couldn't seem to find your Aunt and Uncle anywhere.” Harry let out a derisive laugh.

“No, I shouldn't think so,” he spat.

“They're not-” began Ron before Harry cut across him.

“No, but good as. They've had a Fidelius Charm placed on their house. Wherever it might be. They're the secret keepers, and they've set it up so that no one with wizarding blood can get anywhere near them.”

“But how do you know?” asked Ron.

“I ran into Dudley a few years back.”

“Oh, I'm sorry.”

“No, it wasn't that bad to be honest.” Ginny remembered the day Harry had come home and told her about his meeting with Dudley. The two had gone out for a cup of coffee and had got on well enough. “But I'm still going to catch Dragon Pox, aren't I. Anything I can do to prevent it Hermione?” Hermione had tears sliding down her cheeks, and her cheeks were flushed.

“I'm sorry Harry, no. I'm sorry.”

“You can stop apologizing now, it's not like it's going to be that bad. If the kids can do it, so can I.” Ginny took his hand underneath the table, and gave it a squeeze. She leaned over and whispered in his ear.

“You're right, it won't be that bad, because I'll be playing Mediwitch.” Harry was sure he could feel his temperature rise, and he was positive it wasn't due to a fever. Not yet.

A/N:  Wow, just wow.  That's all I have to say about the response I've gotten for this story, which has been nothing short of amazing.  I love you all, each and every one of you.  Readers, reviewers, fans, detractors... you've all made these last few days incredibly special for me, as responding to your reviews has been a blast.

This chapter is not my favorite bit of work, but it is also not the way I originally planned on using it.  It was going to be the last chapter, with a whole bunch of details coming out during the dinner.  But then I got to thinking, isn't it much more fun to show what's going on rather than just tell what's going on?  So I've decided to lengthen this out a little bit, and take a few more sidetrips like we did with the Ministry.  As such, this chapter is a little light on resolutions, as I'm saving them for the next two chapters, which... if everything goes as planned, will end the fic.  But of course I reserve the right to change my mind!

I appreciate your taking the time to read this, and if you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them in a review.  I hope this chapter hasn't been too much of a letdown for those of you eager to see Harry and Ginny.  There's more to Harry's unemployment than Ginny would have you think, and we will find out what Ginny does for a living at some point, so no worries.

Thank you!


Chapter 4: The End is Nigh
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Chapter Four: The End is Nigh

"It's him!” Harry had leaped out of his favorite reading chair at the sound of a tremendous bang from just beyond the walls of the house, and now he was frantically searching for his wand as well as he could with a baby in his arms. Lily, whom he had had on his lap while reading her a bit of Beedle the Bard, made her disapproval at being jostled known by letting out an ear-piercing shriek.

“It's who, Harry?” asked Ginny from the other side of the drawing room, where she sat, as she so often did, writing letters to her friends. She got up and quickly closed the distance to where Harry was still desperately patting his pockets and groping in the cushions of his chair with his free hand. “What's wrong?”

“Voldemort's wrong!” cried Harry, spinning around and thrusting Lily into Ginny's unsuspecting arms. “Take her and run!” Harry finally spied the tip of his wand poking out from beneath the coffee table in front of the sofa, and he hurriedly bent to retrieve it. “Get as far away from here as you can, and I'll catch up with you soon.”

“But Voldemort's dead, Harry.” Ginny, looking on the verge of tears, had placed a hand on Harry's chest. Harry could feel his heart beating against it furiously, but within moments, the only thing he could feel was a searing pain that ripped through his scar. He fell to his knees, all too aware of a sudden wetness on his forehead. Gingerly, he reached up and wiped his brow, only to find that his fingers were drenched in blood. Through the fog of pain, he could just make out Ginny's scream.

With every last ounce of strength he could muster, Harry staggered to his feet, his head swimming with thoughts of this being the end, and trained his wand unsteadily on the door.

“Go!” he groaned towards Ginny, who had turned deathly white, and whose trembling hands were clutching tighter to the screaming Lily's back with every passing moment. But there was no time, and Harry knew it. This was to be the end.

With a great crash, the front door was blown backwards off of its hinges, and Harry, who was now watching the scene play out in slow motion, as if viewed through a high-powered set of Omnioculars, put his arms up to protect his head. After the onrushing door had whistled past – it had barely missed him – Harry dropped his hands and once more pointed his wand at the opening where the door had been.

A fresh wave of pain washed over him, and the flood was starting to be too much to bear. He stumbled forward, right to the feet of his arch-nemesis. He didn't want to look up, didn't want to see those cold red snake's eyes looking right through him, but he had no choice. His body was through taking orders from his brain.

“Lovely to see you again,” Voldemort said quietly. The condescension in his high piercing voice was palpable, and it grated on every last one of Harry's nerves. Harry trembled with rage, and raised his wand. The Dark Lord merely laughed. “Tut tut, Potter. I don't think you'll be wanting to do anything silly.” He nodded down at his own arm, and Harry, dread dawning on him like a burst of Fiendfyre, realized that Voldemort's wand was pointed directly at Lily.

“NO!” Harry shouted, with a strength he would not have believed himself capable of, “NO! TAKE ME! I'M THE ONE YOU WANT!” Voldemort's lipless mouth drew even thinner into something approaching a sneer.

“You honestly believe I'd be willing to take that deal?” Shrill laughter filled every corner of the room, and Ginny shrieked, but remained rooted to the spot.

“She's just a child!” Harry pleaded, hoping to make Voldemort see reason, but knowing it was a wasted effort.

“And so were you. Yet you still managed to defeat me. Not once, not twice, but time after time. No,” here he shook his head slowly, “Why would I take the life of only one Potter on this night, when I can have the whole set?” With a movement so quick that Harry only just caught it, Voldemort switched the direction his wand was pointing, and bellowed, “AVADA KEDAVRA!” The last thing Harry saw was a flash of green light, and then he awoke with a start.

The green glow seemed to linger for half an instant longer than it normally did, but this dream had been more intense than his recent nightmares. Harry could feel the damp sheets twisted around him, and he knew that he was sweating profusely. His entire body ached, but his scar remained pain-free. If the worst that Voldemort could do was haunt his dreams, Harry considered himself a very lucky man.

Harry rolled over in bed so that he was facing Ginny, and propped himself up on his elbow. A wave of dizziness passed over him. The dream had apparently affected him far more than usual. A solitary ray of the morning's sunrise had found its way in through the blinds of the master bedroom, and it fell on Ginny's sleeping form. Harry scarcely blinked, so beautiful was the sight. Harry had never been much of a morning person, but he now made a point of it to wake up early every so often so that his eyes could drink in glorious moments such as this one.

With a sigh, Harry slumped back down on his pillow, and tried to surreptitiously adjust the covers around him without waking Ginny. He really needn't have bother, if she hadn't woken while he had been thrashing during the nightmare, there was little chance of her waking up now. For the briefest of moments, Harry was envious of his wife's ability to sleep so soundly, but he sighed again and closed his eyes to try and fall back asleep.

He sat straight up in bed, and the dizziness hit him ten times harder than before, but he had seen it again. Another flash of green light. Suddenly very worried for the safety of the children, Harry reached a hand over to Ginny's shoulder and shook it. “Ginny, wake up!” he hissed urgently. “Something's wrong!” And there it was again! A flash of green outside the window. Or at least he had been looking at the window before he blinked, but he could clearly see the bright flash through his eyelids. Ginny let out a feline moan and rolled over.

No longer the least bit worried about his dizziness or his aching body, Harry grabbed his wand from the bedside table where he always kept it, and jumped out of bed. He had to get to the kids and make sure that they were all right. He made his way as fast as he could towards the bedroom door, but a voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Oh my sweet Merlin!” Harry froze in place, hand on the doorknob. He knew he had heard that voice before, but he was having trouble thinking clearly. His thoughts seemed oddly clouded. Deliberately and carefully he turned around, making sure to have his wand at the ready. The voice gasped, and with a start Harry realized it was coming from the mirror. “You really need to get that looked at!”

Harry's vision started swimming as he looked at his reflection in the mirror. Great splotches of his skin had turned bright green, and several hideous looking boils oozed a slightly less green puss. Harry blinked at himself, and each time his eyes closed the light that shone through his green eyelids registered as a bright green flash.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, and he crumpled to the floor, unconscious.

When he awoke, Harry could tell without even opening his eyes that he was no longer at number seven, Genista Way. Wherever he was now smelled different, sounded different, and the air even tasted different. But the backs of his eyelids were still the brightest of greens. Harry's mouth was very dry, and he moved his tongue around noisily, trying to find any hidden bits of moisture.

“He's awake!”

“Oh thank Merlin!”

“All right, all right, I really must ask you to stay quiet.”

Harry opened his eyes to find none other than his mother-in-law Molly Weasley leaning over him, relief carved into every one of her face's features. “Mhhh!” he croaked. His dry throat caused it to be nearly unintelligible however. Molly pressed a finger to her lips, and smiled.

“Don't try to speak, dear. You're in St. Mungo's, and it would seem you've caught a rather bad case of Dragon Pox.” Harry tried to move his head so that he could look around the room, but found that his neck was too weak to support his head.

“Mr. Potter, I insist that you lie quite still. You are in no shape whatsoever to be trying to do... whatever it is you are trying to do.” Harry groaned. Ernie Macmillan had apparently never gotten over his great pompousness.

“But he will be all right Ernie?” This voice was Hermione's. And Harry could tell that she had been crying by the timbre of her voice. No doubt she had been feeling very guilty about his illness.

“Yes Ms. Gra- Mrs. Weasley – sorry, I do apologize – I think I have managed to slow the spread of the disease. It will take constant attention on my part, but I think Mr. Potter will make a full recovery. Now, I am going to leave you alone for just a moment. Please try to refrain from touching, talking to, or otherwise interacting with the patient. He is in a very fragile state at the moment.” Harry could hear a stilted set of footsteps retreat into the hall, and a door close behind them. With a stifled cry, Hermione flung herself on him.

“Harry, I'm so sorry! How can you ever forgive me for doing this?” Harry had no choice but to lay still and let Hermione weep on top of him. He was too weak to even raise a hand to pat her back reassuringly.

“Hermione,” prodded Molly gently, “perhaps you could give Harry a bit of room to breathe? After all, the Healer said-”

“That was just Ernie's way of saying don't kill my patient,” squeaked Hermione, rapidly wiping tears off of her cheeks. “He's always been like that, Mum Weasley.” But all the same, Hermione lifted herself off the bed, and Harry could hear her pull a chair up to the side of the bed, its legs making a terrible screeching noise on the floor. “Sorry,” she said again, and she fell silent.

“Whaals Geynnn?” asked Harry, trying to make himself understood despite the dryness of his throat. Mrs. Weasley, seeming to understand his difficulty, used her wand to conjur a glass of water and a bendable straw.

“Here you are, Harry,” she said kindly, and she held the glass in front of him and placed the straw in his mouth. Harry had never tasted anything as sweet. Even butterbeer or firewhiskey hadn't ever revived him so completely.

“Where's Ginny?” he asked, once he had drained the cup of the entirety of its contents.

“She's with the kids,” Hermione answered, then, seeming to anticipate Harry's next question, she continued. “They've all got Dragon Pox too, but nowhere near as bad as you've got. It's far more dangerous for someone our age.”

“I hadn't noticed,” noted Harry, dryly.

“Well I see you've still got your sense of humor then,” Mrs. Weasley said with a chuckle. The door to the room opened, and Ernie's footsteps re-entered.

“All right then, I am going to have to ask the two of you to leave. It is time to pop Mr. Potter's boils, and I assure you that you do not want to be around while I do it.” Harry sincerely hoped that Ernie was making the procedure out to be far worse than it actually was. He could hear the scraping of two chairs as they were pushed out away from the bed, and both Hermione and Mrs. Weasley leaned over him.

“We'll be just outside if you need anything Harry,” said Mrs. Weasley, bending down to give him a kiss on the forehead. Hermione nodded enthusiastically.

“Anything at all! And we'll let Ginny know that you're all right. She's been so worried, but didn't want to leave the kids. She thought they might get a bit scared if both their parents had left in the morning without warning.”

“Tell her that I love her. Please?” Harry wanted to add in a request about the sexy Mediwitch uniform that Ginny had worn for Halloween a few years back, but decided that Mrs. Weasley had no need to hear such things.

“Of course, Harry. We'll send her along as soon as we can.” The two women left the room slowly, and Harry could tell that they really wanted to stay. It was only a moment after the door had closed behind them that Ernie popped into his field of vision with a dour look on his face.

“This is going to be quite painful, Mr. Potter.”

“You can call me Harry, you know.” Harry was certain he saw the briefest of smiles on Ernie's face, but the healer was quickly back to business.

“The smell of the pus is quite pungent Mr. Potter, so I am going to have to cast a Bubble-Head charm on the both of us. You are familiar with the Bubble-Head charm, are you not?” Harry tried to stifle a laugh, but it was painful to do so, and he wound up cringing instead.

“Ouch, don't make me laugh, Ernie!” This time, the smile stayed.

A/N:  All right, all right... I'll yield.  There will be more than one more chapter.  This is more to do with my muse suddenly getting inspired for the already planned chapters than because I've added additional plot.  I still plan to end this in the same way, it will just take a bit longer to get there.  I also think that the shorter chapters are screwing up my estimates.  When I said two chapters, I think I might have been thinking of how much information I can get in my really long chapters.  But I just can't fit as much into these.  Not that I'm complaining, these short chapters are really fun to write.

And speaking of fun to write, the opening of this chapter was a blast.  I am thrilled with how it came out, and I feel it is among the best things I've ever written.  I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

I also hope that you'll agree that this chapter is a return to form for me after a somewhat lackluster chapter 3.  I am much happier with this chapter, and I hope it shows.

And I absolutely MUST thank my wonderful reviewers, who are taking me on one heck of a ride.  Each and every one of you mean the world to me, and I'll continue to respond at length to all of you, even though it takes several hours a night to do so!

Until next time, I remain, your humble author.

Chapter 5: The Chocolate Cure
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Chapter Five: The Chocolate Cure

“Hey look, Al! Daddy's green too!” Harry's first night on the second floor of St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries had not been a pleasant one. In addition to the constant pain and itching he was suffering through, he had been unable to sleep for more than ten minutes at a time due to the staff's repeated frantic searches for the elderly witch from the next room who had contracted a particularly nasty case of vanishing sickness.

But the sight of Ginny, with a green Lily nestled in the crook of her right arm, a green James dragging her forward by her left hand, and a green Albus popping out from behind her to peer at his father, instantly made his heart very nearly overflow.

“Hello, Harry!” Ginny greeted him brightly, doing a bit of a wiggle with her hips to try and get Albus out from behind her. “The healers wanted me to ask you if you've seen Mrs. Smethley. Apparently they think she might be in here?” Ginny feigned a frown, and narrowed her eyes – which, Harry noticed, had very dark circles beneath them – “Is there anything you want to tell me... Dear?”

“That I love you?” he groaned, struggling to sit upright in his bed. Ginny dropped James's hand and rushed to Harry's side, grabbed a pillow, and placed it gently behind his back. “And you can tell the Healer on duty that Mrs. Smethley hasn't been in here since last night.” He smirked and winked at his wife, who picked up another pillow and tossed it at his head.

“Pillow fight!” cried James, and he jumped up onto the bed and crawled on top of Harry before Ginny could grab hold of him. Harry stifled a moan that came unbidden when one of James's knees found a particularly sore boil.

“James!” barked Ginny, looking sternly at her oldest. But the morose spell of St. Mungo's had broken, and Albus, who had looked enviously at James as he jumped onto the bed, followed suit. “Albus...” this time Ginny was less resolute, and her admonition was more of a sigh of defeat. Harry knew as well as she did that once the boys had grabbed hold of an idea, there was no making them let go of it. Well, not unless there was chocolate involved, Harry mused. Thankfully, this being a hospital, there was a healthy supply of it in the nightstand beside the bed.

“Boys!” He hadn't meant to raise his voice, but it had come out far louder than he had intended. Perhaps the medicine that Ernie was making him choke down every few hours was having a positive effect. Albus and James stopped their roughhousing in mid-swing, and turned to look at their dad. Harry almost felt guilty for interrupting their fun. Almost, as he knew what he was going to say next. “Who'd like a chocolate frog?” he inquired, a sly grin on his face. Almost immediately, Harry realized that this was a silly thing to ask a hyperactive child, as the two on his chest started to bounce up and down excitedly.

“I want a fwog!” exclaimed Albus happily, once again swinging the pillow he had somehow managed to obtain.

“I hope I get Agrippa,” James chimed in. “Uncle Ron offered me five galleons for it if I ever found one!” Harry laughed softly – though still painful, it did not hurt as much as it had the day before – but Ginny huffed.

“Harry, I know he's your best mate and all, but he's my brother, and I'll hex him if I want to.” Harry smiled, but just shrugged. He couldn't blame Ginny for being upset, but the Agrippa chocolate frog card was so incredibly rare that there was practically no chance of money ever changing hands.

“Would you like one, Gin?” he asked, trying to gloss over the awkward moment. He reached out to the bedside table pulled open its drawer, and hesitated with his hand poised over it.

“Well, absolutely!” she enthused, nodding her head excitedly. “And James, if you or I get an Agrippa, I'll talk Uncle Ron up to fifty galleons, and we can split it. Agrippa's worth more than five. Lousy skinflint.” Harry nearly choked. Once again he had underestimated his wife's sense of humor. It didn't happen as often as it had when they were first married, but she still managed to surprise him from time to time.

“Well, all right then,” he smiled broadly at Ginny, and for the first moment since he had woken up in St. Mungo's, he felt no pain at all. He reached down into the drawer and when he withdrew it, he was holding three individually wrapped chocolate frogs. He handed one to James, who tore into it immediately. He popped the struggling frog into his mouth and swallowed it whole before turning over the card that was found at the bottom of every package.

“Aww...” he groaned, holding up a Dumbledore. The wizened wizard was looking out at the assembled family and waving happily, and Harry was certain that his mentor's bespectacled eyes were twinkling even more than they normally did.

“Oh! Can I have it James? Pwease?” Al's eyes had lit up at the sight of the Dumbledore card, and now he was practically begging James for it. Harry knew that his youngest son had a hidden stash with several dozen Dumbledore cards hidden back in his bedroom, and he was always trading away rarer cards to get more of his hero.

Ginny walked forward and put a hand gently on James' shoulder, and he immediately held the card out for Albus. “That's a good boy,” Ginny said, and she leaned down to give him a kiss on the cheek. Albus took the card carefully, and looked at it with reverential green eyes. Harry, knowing that Albus was going to be otherwise preoccupied for a few moments, held out a frog to Ginny with his left hand.

“You next,” he prodded. Ginny laughed, and set Lily down on the bed next to Harry. She took the offered package, and finding his left hand empty, used it to pull Lily in closer to his body. She wiggled briefly, trying to find a comfortable spot, then fell back to sleep. Apparently, she had inherited her mother's ability to sleep through anything.

Harry watched Ginny unwrap her chocolate frog with a bemused smile. She pulled it out, then used her other hand to flip over the card. With a gasp, she dropped the frog, which began to hop happily along the floor. James scurried after it, apparently not noticing his mother's distress. Harry, on the other hand, hadn't missed a thing.

“What's wrong!” he demanded. The hand covering Ginny's mouth trembled severely, and she shook her head slightly from side to side, still staring down at the chocolate frog card in her other hand.

“This has got to be somebody's idea of a- a joke,” she whispered, and Harry could hear her voice cracking, “but it's not funny.”

“Ginny, wh-” Harry pressed, but Ginny cut him off.

“I mean who would do such a thing? Chauncey Oldridge?” Harry quickly scanned his memory for the name – he knew it sounded familiar – and came up with an image of a chocolate frog card that had picture of a green wizard covered in boils. It had been a long time since he'd collected the cards, but if he was remembering correctly, it had read:

Chauncey Oldridge
1342 – 1379
First known victim of Dragon Pox

Harry, now acutely aware that the pain that had briefly disappeared was back, also failed to see the humor. But for now, his main goal was to calm Ginny down before some unsuspecting Mediwitch wound up with a cloud of bogeys flapping about her head. Not only was it terrifying, but this was a hospital, and he couldn't think of anything more unsanitary.

“Ginny, no one meant anything by it.” Ginny looked up at him, and he knew he had very little time to say the right thing. Her eyes were aflame with fury. Fortunately, Harry was rescued – as he had so often been in the past – by the arrival an unexpected visitor.

“What's going on in here?” the friendly voice of Neville Longbottom asked from the doorway. Harry, relief rushing over him, beamed at his good friend. Ginny wheeled around, looking determined to pounce, but Harry could see the muscles in her shoulders relax as Neville gave her a happy wave.

“We've lost a frog,” James, who had been on his hands and knees looking underneath the bed, replied. He sprung to his feet, and looked up into Neville's face with interest. “Please, sir, would you help us look for it?” Neville's eyebrows disappeared into his shaggy hairline, and his cheeks tinged slightly pink.

“I'm afraid I've never been very good at finding missing toa- er... frogs, but I suppose I could give it a go.” Neville withdrew his wand from a pocket, and gave it a swish. “Accio frog.” With a tiny thump, the chocolate frog hit him square in the chest, leaving a small blotch of brown on his otherwise spotless robes. The frog fell to the floor, no longer moving. James hurried over to where it had fallen, and scooped it up.

“Don't even think about it, mister.” Ginny had closed the space between the two of them in an instant, and had put a firm hand on his shoulder. “Give it here.” James, his shoulders slumped, placed the chocolate frog in his mother's hand forlornly. Ginny released him, turned back to Neville, and stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. The two old friends started to talk animatedly about the latest news out of Malfoy Manor, and James slunk back off to the bed where Albus had just pocketed the Dumbledore card. Harry, feeling sorry for him, opened the last of the chocolate frogs, bisected it as evenly as he could, and handed a half to each of his sons.

“Thanks Dad,” Albus said softly, and Harry reached out a hand to muss his hair.

“You didn't get Agrippa, did you?” James was trying to peer at the card at the bottom of the now empty package, but Harry held it beyond his reach.

“You've had your shot!” he chided, “this one is my card.” He kept James at bay with his body, and bent over to peek at the card, shielding it with his other hand. His body immediately tensed, and James noticed.

“What is it?” he asked excitedly, “Agrippa?”

“No,” said Harry slowly. He had to be mistaken. He could not have seen what he thought he had, but just in case, he had to pretend nothing was wrong. Thinking quickly, he remembered that Morgana's card was quite common, and decided to pretend that was what he had gotten. Harry absolutely hated lying to his kids, but it was an unfortunate necessity of the decision that he and Ginny – and Ron and Hermione – had come to long ago. “It's just a Morgana,” he said, hoping that James wouldn't press the issue. Thankfully, he didn't.

“Come on boys, let's leave Dad and Mr. Longbottom to talk, all right?” Ginny strode over to where Harry reclined on the bed, and bent down over him. “Don't you die on me Harry James Potter. When I said forever, I meant it.” She puckered her lips and grazed them up against Harry's, sending shivers down the spine of the Boy-who-lived. But it was not enough. Harry had to make her understand that he could never leave her, would never leave her. He grasped the back of her head as she started to pull away, and, using the last of his strength, sat completely upright. The pressure between their lips intensified, Ginny's mouth opened slightly in surprise, and Harry felt, rather than heard, a purr in the back of her throat. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, each second dragging into minutes, into hours, until Harry felt as though he had spent his whole life in this kiss.

When the two finally broke apart, Neville let out a long low whistle from behind them. “Wow,” he said softly.

“Wow is right,” Ginny whispered, gazing hungrily into Harry's eyes. Harry mouthed the words “I love you,” and Ginny did the same. Reluctantly, she scooped up Lily, took hold of Albus's hand, and made a motion with her head to get James to follow her.

“Good-bye Dad! Get better soon!” cried Albus as the four of them reached the door.

“Yeah!” added James, “you promised me you'd teach me how to fly!” Harry chuckled, and waved at them until he could no longer see them. He resolved to get better as quickly as he could. He'd only been out of the house for a day now, and already he missed his children terribly.

“So, Harry...” Harry, who had remained looking at the doorway his family had passed through, realized with a start that Neville had crossed the room to his bedside, and pulled up a chair. “Oh, you dropped this.” He bent over and picked up Harry's chocolate frog card, which had apparently fallen out of the package during his kiss with Ginny. Neville turned the card over in his hands and stared at it blankly for a few moments, and then he began to blush profoundly.

“I take it you've not seen that before?” Harry asked, a smile playing on his lips.

“No,” Neville breathed, “i- it's- this is real?” He turned the card over and Harry took a good long look at it. He had been so surprised when he first peeked at it, that he hadn't been able to take it all in. The picture on the card contained a group of four intimately familiar people, all of whom were smiling happily, and holding objects (a diary, a goblet, a locket and a ruby-encrusted sword) up for inspection. Beneath the picture was written:

The Gryffin-four
Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Weasley (née Granger), and Neville Longbottom
Each responsible for the destruction of one of Voldemort's Horcruxes

“Yes Neville,” Harry sighed, “unfortunately, I think it is.” It had suddenly become much harder to keep his kids from learning the truth about their father. He had really hoped that he might be able to remain 'just Dad' until they reached Hogwarts at least.

“B-but why me?” Neville stammered, and he pressed the card back into Harry's hand quickly, as though expecting it to burst into flames at any moment. “I didn't do much of anything.” Harry frowned, and shook his head slowly.

“Neville, we've been through this how many times now?” Harry could remember nearly a dozen off the top of his head. “You've got to realize that you were just as important that night as any of us were.” Neville opened his mouth to speak, but Harry didn't let him break in. “Without you, we never would have gotten into Hogwarts, the alarm never would have been raised, Voldemort would have triumphed.”

Neville said nothing, but stared down into his lap, and Harry could see that he was fingering a wrapper from a piece of Drooble's Best Blowing Gum. “How are they?” he asked softly, almost hoping that Neville wouldn't hear him. The answer always broke his heart.

“They're good, Harry.” Harry winced. There had been no change in the condition of Frank and Alice Longbottom for nearly thirty years. He slumped back down into his bed, and closed his eyes, hoping against hope that Neville might one day get everything he deserved.

The two sat in strained silence for several minutes before Harry heard Neville give a start. “Oh! I almost forgot why I stopped by,” he said, excitement palpable in his voice. Harry opened his eyes to see that Neville had put the wrapper away, and was looking much more like his normal amiable self.

“Good news?” Harry asked.

“Great news. Professor Sprout's going to be taking over for Professor McGonagall in the fall, and she's asked me to come back and take her position as Herbology professor.”

“That's fantastic!” Harry cried, “you'll be a brilliant teacher!” Neville turned red yet again, but Harry could clearly see him trying to hide a smile.

“Oh I don't know about that Harry, but I- I think I could do all right. You definitely think I should do it though?” Harry looked into Neville's eyes, and he could see hope there that had been absent just minutes before.

“I don't want anyone teaching my kids Herbology but you Neville,” he answered seriously, and Neville breathed a sigh of relief.

“It'll be nice to be up at Hogwarts again, with Hagrid and Professor Sprout- Oh! And you'll have to come visit us in Hogsmeade! I mean, I know you would have normally, what with the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor being your brother-in-law and all.” Harry nodded enthusiastically. It had indeed been nice to visit Bill and Hagrid up in Hogsmeade the past few years, but adding Neville to the list of people he'd be visiting with would make the trip that much sweeter.

“I wouldn't miss it for the world,” he said, a wide grin plastered on his face.

“All right! Visiting hours are over!” The face of Ernie Macmillan had appeared around the doorway, and he was glaring at Neville. “Mr. Potter needs his rest.” He disappeared again, and Harry shrugged his shoulders apologetically.

“Sorry about him, he's a bit of a pain in the arse.”

“Oh, it's all right,” said Neville, getting to his feet, “I really need to get home anyway. Luna and Dean will be wondering where I've run off to. Thank you Harry,” he added, holding out his hand, “for everything.” Harry returned the gesture, and the two shook.

“No Neville, thank you.” He took the chocolate frog card he was still holding, and put it in Neville's hand. Neville looked at it briefly, nodded, and put it into his pocket with the gum wrapper.

A/N:  Thank you very very much to all of my wonderful reviewers, who continue to make every moment I spend working on this story worth it.  Remember, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please don't hesitate to ask.  I like to think that I'm pretty forthright with information, so long as it's nothing to spoilery for the rest of the fic.

Several of you mentioned in your reviews for the last chapter that I should read the interviews JKR's been giving in order to get ideas for what jobs to give the trio, Luna, etc.  While I appreciate the heads-up, I had read the interviews prior to writing last chapter, and I have made a conscious decision not to use any of the information that might come out in them, or in the chat that's to take place on Monday (I can't wait for it, by the way).  The purpose of this story is to provide closure based entirely on the books, and the tantalizing but too short epilogue.  I will continue to use my own ideas, albeit ones based off of JKR's masterpiece.

Many thanks for taking the time to read, even if you don't review (though obviously, I'd prefer you did, especially if there was something you feel could use a bit of work).

Next chapter will probably see us moved to a new location and a new point-of-view, so let's all look forward to that, eh?

Until then, I remain, your humble author.

Chapter 6: The Bookworm's Dilemma
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Chapter Six: The Bookworm's Dilemma

It had not been a good week for Hermione Weasley.  On Tuesday she had awoken to the sounds of a terrified four-year-old crying over the fact that she'd suddenly turned green (begrudgingly, she admitted to herself that the week had not been all bad – Tuesday night had been quite fun. Also, Wednesday morning). Wednesday had seen her cause the savior of the Wizarding world to become violently ill, and so far on Thursday and Friday her nascent campaign for werewolf equality had fallen on deaf ears.
“Mrs. Weasley, I can understand why you'd be upset, given your... unique history with these creatures. Th-” Hermione could not keep herself from interrupting.

“They're not creatures Mr. McNair, they're beings. Human beings at that. You'd think that the head of the Werewolf Support Services would understand the distinction,” she replied scathingly. McNair scoffed and made a flippant gesture with his spindly hands. Hermione's loathing, which she had not believed could accumulate any further, tripled. She'd come here to the Ministry trying to find an ally in the offices of the Werewolf Support Services, but so far, she'd found nothing but the too gangly, too contemptuous, too repugnant Emerson McNair.

“If you'd let me finish, I wa-” Hermione once again opened her mouth to protest, but McNair was too quick for her. “LET ME FINISH!” he nearly shouted. Hermione folded her arms haughtily over her chest, but sat back in her chair and said nothing. McNair puffed out his own chest almost imperceptibly, but Hermione, veteran of countless arguments, noticed immediately. He was getting overconfident, and was bound to make a mistake soon.

“These beings,” he fairly spat the word, but Hermione felt a surge of pride at the minor victory, “are highly dangerous crea-” Hermione's brow furrowed, and McNair quickly backtracked. His shoulders slumped slightly, and it looked as if he was beginning to realize that he was not doing quite so well as he'd thought. “Dangerous i-individuals, and you've just been lucky in your dealings with them to this point.” He flinched noticeably at Hermione's well-timed sharp intake of breath, but she still sat silent.

“Yes, well... as I was saying,” he stammered, coming unglued, “I'll grant that Remus Lupin wasn't half bad, bu-” Hermione, unable to stop herself, flew out of the chair, and jabbed a finger into McNair's bony chest.

“Remus Lupin was ten times the man you are,” she whispered, her voice terrifyingly quiet. She had had just about enough of this idiot, and judging by the way McNair's Adam's apple was bounding about, so had he. Hermione was therefore very surprised when he pressed on.

“Yes... and n-now you're getting a diluted view of L-Lycanthropy in the persons of B-Bill Weasley and T-Ted Lupin... OUCH!” Hermione's finger had jabbed even harder into McNair's chest at the mention of Teddy, and she was not intent on removing it. But as much as she wanted to hex, hit, or otherwise harm Emerson McNair, she knew that she mustn't or it would be another bridge burned this week. And already, her ways forward were growing woefully small in number. Slowly, hoping to inflict as much pain as possible and assuage her rage, she withdrew her finger. McNair followed it with his eyes all the way back to her side.

“Terribly sorry,” Hermione lied, sitting back down. McNair glared at her and rubbed his chest, but did not speak. “Well then,” Hermione began, glancing around the completely barren room, “how exactly do you support werewolves Mr. McNair? I've read that this office is a place where our Lycanthropic brethren can come should they ever feel they need assistance getting back on their feet. I can see it's quite empty at the moment, seeing as all the werewolves are in Azkaban.” Hermione chided herself for being unable to keep the inflection out of her voice as she spoke the name of the prison.

“I'm sorry Mrs. Weasley, I must have misheard you.” A smile played on the corners of McNair's thin lips, and he drummed his fingers together in front of him in amusement. “I could have sworn that you asked how this office helps werewolves.” Hermione pressed her lips together and frowned.

“That is what I-”

“And whatever gave you that notion?” McNair laughed, each wheeze clattering his bony body more than the one before. It took several seconds for him to regain control, and all the while a pit of deep apprehension grew larger in Hermione's abdomen, burning away at both her stomach lining and at her hopes for support. “We were re-commissioned by the Minister a fortnight ago. Now we offer support to the Werewolf Capture Unit, and anyone else who might need support in the attempt to eradicate these beings.” This time, Hermione's intake of breath was not so well timed, and in fact sounded suspiciously like a gasp.

“But surely you can't mean! But the Werewolf charter of 1807! It's all in 'Fantastic Beasts and Were to Find Them'!” Hermione grasped at every straw she could wrap her mind around, but she had not been prepared for this newest twist.

“Fantastic Beasts?” McNair smirked, and Hermione kicked herself. “You need to get your head out of those books, Weasley – out of history – and into the present. But no... you've got your nose either stuck in some book that no one's heard of and no one cares about, or you've got it stuck in other people's business.” McNair's rasping laugh once again filled every corner of the empty room, and Hermione had to get away from it, away from her failure.

She sprang from her chair, head hung low, and moved rapidly to the door, tears swimming in her eyes. “What? No snappy comeback? I was enjoying this!” McNair called after her. Hermione stopped dead in her tracks, turned around, and fixed her adversary with her most withering look - one she had refused to use even on Ron's most doltish of days.

“It must be tough for you McNair,” she hissed, “what with your father being locked up in a minuscule cell with these- these 'monsters'... I'd have thought you'd be the last person to want werewolves in Azkaban.” Emerson's face paled considerably, and the effect was such that Hermione would have sworn she was looking at a skeleton. He raised a trembling finger, and pointed it at the door.

“You misunderstand me, Weasley. I don't want werewolves locked up in Azkaban at all. I want them put down like the dogs they are.” This time there was no mistaking Hermione's gasp. She suddenly felt very faint, and her knees buckled. She quickly threw out a hand to catch herself, and it managed to grab hold of the door's frame, keeping her upright.

The two glared at each other for a long moment while Hermione gathered herself, and then she turned and walked as quickly as she could down the corridor of level four towards the lifts at the end. The fake windows on either side of the hall shone cheerily down on her as she walked, but it did nothing to improve her spirits. Even a brief glimpse of Umbridge, trying to shoo the painted centaurs away from her cowering cats, through the door of the Centaur Liaison Office could not cheer her. No, there was only one thing for this, she needed Ron.

Fortunately, she was able to slide into a lift just as the doors were closing. She kept her head bowed, and prayed that no one would be able to see the tears that were streaming down her face.

“Hermione, is that you?” asked a familiar female voice from behind her. She didn't look up, she didn't speak. She couldn't trust her voice not to betray her. “Hermione?” But the voice pressed no further, and the only other sounds in the crowded lift were the rustles of interdepartmental memos and the shuffling of feet.

“Level Three, Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes including the offices of the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad and the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee,” informed the disembodied female voice so prevalent inside the ministry, as the lift glided smoothly to a halt only moments after it had started its ascent. Hermione felt herself jostled from behind, and several people exited the elevator. She chanced a look up at the backs of those who had gotten off, and realized that Penelope Clearwater, owner of the voice she had recognized earlier, was among them.

With a sigh of relief, Hermione let down her guard slightly and leaned up against the wall of the lift for support. Had it been this difficult before? She certainly couldn't recall ever being so thoroughly humiliated while arguing for House-elf rights, but perhaps she was just looking back at her experiences now and using the rose colored glasses that come with success of that magnitude. She shook her head slowly, and lost herself in thought. When the elevator stopped a second time, she remained where she was standing, not paying any attention to the egress of the majority of the lifts passengers.

She was still deep in thought when the lift stopped for a third time.

“Hermione! What a pleasant sur- wait, what's wrong?” Percy Weasley was standing in front of the opened doors to the lift, and looking at her with concern. “Are the children all right? Ron?” Hermione sighed once more, and pushed herself up off the wall of the lift, which was now empty.

“They're all doing all right. Bit of Dragon pox, but nothing serious.”

“But why are you crying?” asked Percy kindly. He bent over and held a handkerchief under Hermione's face. She took it, and looked up at him.

“Thanks,” she said as she used the purple square of cloth - she noted that it was embroidered with Percy's initials – to temporarily dry her tears. Already she could feel new ones forming to take their place. “I really just need to go see Ron, though. I missed his floor.” She attempted to chuckle, but it was mingled with a sob, and she had to quickly use the handkerchief again. Percy put a kind hand on her shoulder.

“Why don't you come into my office and sit down? I'll run and get Ron, and then the two of you can talk. You'll have more privacy there than you would have in the Auror offices. Besides, I have urgent business with Dawlish. Very important stuff, top secret too, you know.” Even now, in this state, Hermione couldn't help but think that nothing John Dawlish knew was ever top secret. But still, Percy's offer was very tempting.

“Thank you Percy, I really appreciate it. I'm not putting you out, am I?”

“Oh, not at all! 'Anything for family' I always say!” He led Hermione into his office and sat her down in a comfortable chair near the bookcases that held his life's work. Hermione was certain that if she looked hard enough, she'd find his report on cauldron-bottom thicknesses.

“Thanks again, Perce,” she said after being seated. She held out the handkerchief for him to take back, but he simply gestured for her to keep it, and hurried out of the room with a reassuring look back over his shoulder.  While waiting for Ron to arrive, she scanned the family photographs that were placed haphazardly in amongst the files on the bookshelves.  Her eyes lingered longest on those from her own wedding.

But her wait was not a long one. Within a minute, she could hear Ron running pell-mell out of the lift and down the corridor, and she smiled slightly. “Hermione!” he cried, once he was in Percy's office. He glanced around the room trying to find her, and when their eyes met, she burst into tears yet again. Ron was across the room in two strides, and before she knew what was happening, Hermione found that she had been lifted up and was being hugged tightly. The strong embrace helped to calm her down even more than she had anticipated it would. “What's wrong?” Ron whispered. “Percy said it wasn't the kids.”

“No, they're with your Mum for the day. I just- I can't do this anymore.” She felt Ron's face turn very cold, and she could tell that all the blood had drained from his face.

“D-Do what?” he stammered. Hermione instantly regretted her choice of words.

“Oh no, not that! You're absolutely wonderful Ron! I love you with all my heart, and nothing will ever ever change that. I mean werewolf rights. I'm not making any headway at all. It's like I'm... It's like I'm suddenly obtuse.” Ron laughed, and Hermione felt the bursts of hot breath wash over the top of her head as though a disillusionment charm had just been lifted.

“Well, I don't know what obtuse means, but I assure you that you're not it.”

“It means that- oh, never mind.” Hermione had given up on trying to increase Ron's vocabulary ages ago. It seemed destined never to progress beyond 'git,' 'blimey,' and 'arse.' “The situation is worse than I thought, and nobody is taking me seriously. They all think I'm absolutely stark raving mad for thinking that werewolves are people too, and deserve to be treated as such.” Ron loosened his grip around Hermione's back, and his strong hands placed her back into the chair she had been sitting in. He dropped onto his knees beside her, and looked her in the eyes.

“You'll get there. You always do Hermione. You have to remember how long it took S.P.E.W. to get off the ground. Remember how long it took for you to get through to me? But you got me. You. Got. Me.” Hermione couldn't help but smile as she gazed into the fierce eyes of her husband. He always knew just the right thing to say. Except, of course, for when he said completely the wrong thing.

“I don't know if I can face an uphill battle like that again,” she said with a smirk. Ron smiled as well.

“There's the girl I know and love. Come on... let's go grab a bite to eat, and we can talk about a new plan of attack. I have a few ideas for how to make people see sense. Why don't I talk to some of the werewolves next time I pull guard duty. Maybe get a few personal stories to put a human face on what you're trying to accomplish.” Hermione's smile widened until she was positively beaming.

“You'd do that for me? It's a brilliant idea!”

“I haven't yet found the thing that I won't do for you,” said Ron quietly. He offered Hermione his hand, and she took it tenderly. With a surprisingly gently tug, Ron had Hermione back on her feet.

A/N: Thank you all so very much for your continued support... I hope it will continue, even after this chapter :)  The conversation between Hermione and McNair stretched for far longer than it was originally intended to, but I kind of grew attached to the whole thing and just decided to roll with it.  It really does give you a better idea of just what's going on in the Wizarding world at large.

Plus, we get Umbridge, Penelope, McNair (and the rest of the Death Eaters as a consequence), a mention of Teddy and Bill, Percy, and Dawlish, all in one relatively short chapter.

I see Penny working in the Muggle-Worthy Excuse offices.  Being a Muggle-born, I think she'd be well schooled in the sort of things that Muggles would be willing to believe.  And her last name is still Clearwater for a reason.  We can't all marry our high school sweethearts.

This chapter ends only halfway through what it is I wanted it to get through.  But I LOVE the last line.  I wrote it without even thinking about it, and was getting all ready to move onto the next sentence when I went back to read the last paragraph, and bam... it hit me just what I'd actually written.

If you don't find this particular chapter to your liking, I assure you that the next one will be back to something closer to approximating the first five chapters.

Also, just a quick note to let you know that the fic passed 10,000 views this past week.  Truly amazing and very humbling.  Thanks.

Thank you for taking the time to read all of these random ramblings, and I truly hope you enjoyed the chapter!

Chapter 7: Just Desserts
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Chapter Seven: Just Desserts

“And would either of you care for dessert?”

Hermione looked across the table – strewn with the remnants of their hearty lunch – at Ron, who was giving her a hopeful sort of look. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “No Tom, that's quite all right,” she said, turning her head to face the gray barman of The Leaky Cauldron. “We really do need to be going.” Tom nodded curtly with only a hint of disappointment coloring his face. He withdrew a gnarled wand from a pocket in his once-white apron (Hermione realized with dawning revulsion that she recognized a blotch of pea soup that looked rather like a Hippogriff – a similarity she had first noticed months prior), and waved it with a flourish to produce a small bit of parchment.

“Very well, I'll just leave the bi-”

“Now hold on a moment,” interrupted Ron. Hermione, nonplussed, turned her attention back to her husband. In contrast to Tom the barman's, Ron's face looked as though it had been colored with disappointment by an overenthusiastic three-year-old.

“Ron, now is not the time,” she said warningly. Lunch had been lovely, but with Ron's abnormally gallant behavior of late, Hermione hadn't needed Arithmancy to predict that the law of averages would catch up quickly.

“Actually,” Ron began, a frown tugging downwards at the corners of his mouth, “I think this is the perfect time for dessert. You know, right after a meal?” Hermione scowled and narrowed her eyes as she glared at him.

“That's rich, coming from you,” she scoffed, “I've never known you to wait until after a meal to eat your dessert.” Hermione could start to feel the little hairs on her arms stand on end, and the peculiar tingling sensation in her stomach that she felt whenever she and Ron had a quarrel made itself known.

“I'll uh... I'll just uh... come back then?” stammered Tom. He looked as though he was torn between getting out of the line of fire and conjuring up a chair to watch the show. Ron didn't pay him any mind, however, and went right on making his own bed on the couch.

“Well if the rest of the meal was any good, then I'd -” Ron finally managed to stop himself, but too late. Hermione put a hand up to her cheek, and ran her fingers over it. Ron's comment had felt very much like a slap to the face. Moreover, the echo of his voice now rung eerily in the silence that had fallen over the pub's other patrons, most of whom had turned to stare. Each reverberation stung just a bit more than the last. His face ashen, Ron immediately began to apologize. “Wait... n-no, that's not how I meant it! I'm sorry!”

“Just how did you mean it then, Ronald?” asked Hermione, taking great pleasure in the way Ron squirmed uncomfortably at the use of his given name. He slumped down in his chair, looking far smaller than Hermione could remember him looking in some time, and put his head in his hands.

“I meant that you're -” But he stopped again in mid-sentence. Despite her annoyance, Hermione couldn't help but feel the tiniest bit sorry for him. He really knew how to talk himself into a corner. “Forgive me. Please, Hermione, I was just... I was being obtuse.” Let loose from the very depths of her soul, a single burst of air escaped from her pursed lips, and Hermione was forced to camouflage the odd sounding laugh in a fit of coughing.

“Are you all right?” Ron asked, lifting his head from his hands. Hermione nodded and took a drink of Butterbeer which immediately put an end to the mysterious bout of coughs.

“I think we'll take that bill now, Tom,” she said, after putting the glass down. She held out her hand to him to retrieve the bit of parchment, but it seemed that Tom had other ideas. He took the bill he had conjured only a minute before, and stuffed it into the front of Ron's robes.

“No ma'am, this one's on him.” Ron opened his mouth to protest, but then closed it again looking sheepish. Tom stalked off mumbling something incomprehensible (though Hermione though she could make out the word idiot), and the two found themselves alone at the table. Even the other customers started to return to their own conversations, though most of them still looked to have an ear out in case of further Whiz-bangs. Ron took the opportunity to try and apologize again.

“Hermione, I'm really very sorry,” he said softly, looking straight into her eyes. She felt a pang of guilt looking into those shining baby-blues – if she had just let him get dessert after all – wait, no. This was his fault, and his fault alone. Still, Hermione had to hand it to him, his apologies had gotten far better through the years.

“You should be sorry. What you said really hurt, and I'm not sure I'm quite ready to forgive you just yet,” she responded, averting her eyes from Ron's. The flash of pain that passed over her husband's face as she spoke was nearly unbearable to look at.

“Fair enough,” said Ron, now looking down at the table. “But you need to let me know what it is I have to do to make this up to you. I feel terrible about all this.” Hermione, feeling guiltier by the minute, did some quick thinking.

“Well... why don't you start by paying the bill.” Ron nodded and put a hand down the neck of his robes. Hermione could see the outline of his hand as it groped towards the wadded up bit of parchment. “And then, I think you owe me a walk in Diagon Alley, and maybe some ice cream at Dedalus Diggle's.”

“You know,” Ron began with a smirk, “I could go for some dessert.” And with that, the suffocating shroud of spite that had lain like a blanket over husband and wife was lifted. The two, laughing quietly, made their way up to the bar, where Ron paid the bill – and tipped Tom very handsomely indeed – and then out the back door and into the small alleyway that served as the entrance for Diagon Alley.

Hermione put her hand in her pocket to withdraw her wand so she could open the passageway through the brick wall, but she felt a hand on her arm. She stopped and looked up at Ron, who was grinning at her. “What, I can't even open doors for you anymore?” Hermione rolled her eyes playfully, and shook her head.

“Well go on then, I suppose there has to be a first time for everything.” Ron chuckled, withdrew his own wand, and tapped the appropriate brick. With a great grinding, the solid wall rearranged itself into an archway, through which the bustling and colorful Diagon Alley could be seen. Ron's hand, which had stayed on Hermione's wand arm throughout the process, now slipped downwards and took hold of her hand. Hermione smiled as she felt Ron's fingers intertwine with hers. As always, she was reminded of the night the two had fallen asleep on the floor of number twelve, Grimmauld Place – the night she had discovered how perfectly their hands fit together.

“And they say chivalry is dead,” she said, turning to Ron and standing on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek.

Ron said nothing, but grinned and nodded his head toward the open archway. Hermione returned the gesture, and the two set off. Diagon Alley was, as always, alive with the sights and sounds of the Wizarding world. A large contingent of owls swooped from pillar to post, most of them carrying parcels of varying size. Street vendors hawking their wares pushed carts overflowing with liquids of every imaginable color (or unimaginable in the case of one very interesting looking potion that caught Hermione's eye), all sorts of candy and snacks piled high in mountains of tooth-rotting goodness (Ron groaned audibly as they passed a cart containing the largest selection of Honeyduke's finest that Hermione had seen anywhere outside of Hogsmeade), and one rather intriguing cart that appeared to have nothing on it at all – though the wizard pushing it insisted that once he had told you the secret of what it contained (only ten Galleons!) the cart would hold the greatest riches known to mankind (Hermione rolled her eyes when she recognized that the wizard was Harold Dingle, and she wished she still had the authority to stop him from snookering his customers as he had tried to do with his powdered Dragon's Claw so many years before).

“Goodness, that's quite a crowd,” Ron remarked casually. Hermione followed his gaze and her eyes came to rest on a long line of harried looking parents with children just shy of Hogwarts age lined up outside of Flourish and Blotts. All the children were excitedly flipping through the pages of a short book that appeared to be colorfully illustrated, and the adults were gathered together in small groups lazily talking to one another while keeping an eye on their children.

“Oh look, there's Fleur!” Hermione cried, waving at the stunning fair-haired quarter-Veela excitedly. At Fleur's feet, Victoire Weasley was sitting cross-legged and was thoroughly engrossed in the same book as all the other children. Victoire's long blond hair was nearly to the ground as she sat in this position, and Hermione noticed that several of the boys in the line were surreptitiously staring at her under the guise of reading their copies of the unknown book. There could be no doubt that she had inherited her mother's charms.

“Let's go say hi!” Hermione tugged at Ron's hand, and she felt him follow after her reluctantly. To be fair though, she thought his hesitation probably had more to do with increasing the amount of time he'd have to wait for his ice cream. The two quickly crossed the narrow and crowded street, and Victoire sprang to her feet when she saw the two of them approaching.

“Aunt Hermione! Uncle Ron!” she cried, closing the book. “What a surprise!” She took several quick steps towards Ron and Hermione, closing the gap between them, and then proceeded to give them both very dainty hugs. Hermione couldn't help but observe that Ron was much less physical with his niece than he had been with James a few days ago.

“Hello Ron. Hello Hermione,” greeted Fleur, from her spot in the line. It had taken years for her accent to finally disappear, but now Hermione noted that she could have passed for a native Londoner. “How lovely to see the two of you.”

Victoire had placed herself in between Ron and Hermione, taken the hand of each, and was now pulling the two of them towards the line and Fleur. “So what's the line for?” asked Hermione, always interested in what was going on in the world of books. The question had been addressed at Victoire, but the girl just blushed and sat back down on the ground beside her mother. Fleur patted her gently on the head.

“Why don't you show Hermione your book?” she prodded. Victoire nodded, and Hermione bent over to look at the book that had all the children so engrossed. Above her, Hermione could hear Ron and Fleur strike up a conversation about how difficult it was on the family for Bill to be at Hogwarts all the time.

“Would you like to read it?” asked Victoire, when Hermione had finally reached ground level. Hermione nodded, and the girl passed the slender volume to her.

“Thank you Vicky,” she said kindly as she took the book. She turned it over several times in her hands feeling the weight and dimensions of it, a ritual she undertook whenever she was about to open a new book for the first time. That accomplished, she looked at the front cover and gasped.

Moon Frogs and You:
a Practical Guide to Caring for Lunar Leapers
by Luna Lovegood
Illustrated by Dean Thomas

The cover itself had a picture of a colorful frog-like creature hopping back and forth as a girl of about ten chased after it. Hermione, who had seen many of Dean's drawings in the past, immediately recognized his work. She opened the book carefully, and read the dedication.

For friends lost.
For friends found.
For friends to come.
For friends.

Hermione continued to flip through the pages of the book, and found that the vast majority of them contained brilliant drawings of moon frogs (Hermione had to forcefully remind herself that such things didn't exist), being looked after by the same girl from the cover. Accompanying the pictures was a wealth of text detailing the diet (moon flies and green cheese, Hermione noted with amusement), habits (they were, of course, nocturnal), and magical properties (it was believed that they could cure Lycanthropy) of the imaginary creatures.

Victoire sat across from Hermione and watched the pages turn the whole time Hermione was flipping through the book. The spell it had cast on the kids seemed to be a powerful one indeed, and even Hermione, who had no illusions about the reality of moon frogs, found herself having a hard time putting the book down. It was therefore quite surprising to be pulled up off of the ground by Ron.

“The line's moving dear,” he said softly, “and I really need to be getting back to work.” Hermione felt her face flush. Just how long had she been reading?

“But- But what about the ice cream?” she asked, dumbly. “You were so set on dessert.”

“We can have dessert later, all right?” The sparkle in Ron's eyes indicated that this particular idea of dessert included a rather sloppy serving method. Hermione swatted his arm a bit harder than she normally would have.

“I've still not forgiven you just yet, you still owe me a walk.” Ron looking slightly crestfallen simply nodded before leaning in to kiss her. “But after that,” she added after the kiss, her voice so low that no one else could hear, “it's order up.” Grinning in a decidedly mischievous manner, Ron took out his wand and twirled on the spot. He disappeared with a faint pop.

“He's so sweet,” sighed Fleur, from where she stood, a few paces ahead. The line was indeed moving, and there was now a space between Fleur and where Hermione and Victoire had sat reading. Hermione could hear annoyed murmurs from behind her. She took Victoire's hand and pulled her to her feet. She gave the book back, and the two hurried to catch up to Fleur.

“He's a giant prat,” Hermione corrected her. “But yes, he is terribly sweet, isn't he?” Fleur flashed her dazzlingly white teeth in a wide smile, and Hermione found herself reciprocating.

“Are you coming in with us Aunt Hermione?” asked Victoire, once more flipping through the pages of Luna's book.

“In?” It took Hermione a moment to realize that she still did not know why the people had queued outside the bookstore. A quick glance towards the front doors answered her question. There, a large banner hung over the entrance.

Meet world famous children's author Luna Lovegood and her illustrator Dean Thomas.
The creators of such titles as Help! a Wrackspurt is Feeding on my Brain! and
Dirigible Plums have Feelings too will be on hand to sign copies of their new book:
Moon Frogs and You!

“Well of course I'm coming in!” Hermione cried excitedly. It had been ages since she'd seen Luna, and it would be nice to get a chance to catch up with her and congratulate her on what apparently was massive success. Thankfully, the line was moving quite quickly, and it wasn't long before the group of three females found themselves inside.

Luna, her wide eyes shining brightly as she signed book after book, was sitting next to Dean, who was also signing many copies of Moon Frogs and You. It was Dean who noticed Hermione first, and he waved to her happily. He tapped Luna on the shoulder with his other hand, and when Luna looked up at him, he pointed to where Hermione was standing. Luna's abnormally wide eyes nearly popped out of her head. She stood up quickly, and beckoned Hermione forward.

“Go on,” said Fleur quickly, when Hermione turned to her. “We'll be fine,” she added with a smile, when Hermione opened her mouth to protest.

“You're sure?” she asked. She had come in with Fleur and Victoire, and it didn't feel quite right to abandon them just now.

“Certain, now go!” Fleur gave Hermione a little push on the shoulder, but Hermione didn't need the encouragement, she was already making her way up to the table at the head of the line.

“Hermione, it's a nice surprise to see you here,” Luna greeted her when she was within an arm's length of the table. “I didn't think you were a believer.” She beckoned Hermione over to her side of the table, and when she got there, the two embraced warmly.

“A believer?” Hermione asked, confused.

“Have a seat, have a seat!” insisted Luna, not paying any attention to Hermione's query. She picked up her quill, sat back down in her chair, and resumed signing books. Hermione cast her eyes about for a chair and found one sitting near the staircase up to the upper level of the shops. She made it weightless with a quick levitation charm, then summoned it to her, careful to not upset any of the great piles of books that littered the store. By the time she had settled in, Luna was deep in conversation with one of her fans.

“And which is your favorite?” she asked the boy of about eight who stood before her, quivering slightly with excitement. His mother had a hand on his shoulder, and she was rubbing it reassuringly.

“Go ahead dear, tell Ms. Lovegood what you told me earlier.” The kindly looking woman (who looked vaguely familiar to Hermione) looked up at Luna and smiled apologetically. “I'm really sorry Luna, normally he can't stop talking about Crumple-Horned Snorkacks and Blibbering Humdingers. I've never seen him like this before.”

“It's all right Lisa,” said Luna in her sing-song voice, “It's clear to me he's just having a bit of an episode with Wrackspurts just at the moment.” She reached down below the table, and pulled a long thin horn from beneath her robes. “Remember what it says in the book about Wrackspurts?” The boy nodded, and he took the horn from Luna when she offered it to him. He held it up to his right ear, and his mother looked from her son to Luna in alarm.

“He's not going to put that in his ear, is he?” she asked hurriedly.

“Oh, but he must!” exclaimed Luna, “the Wrackspurt siphon is the only way to rid oneself of these nasty pests.”

“But these are just children's books!” the mother cried (Hermione had just remembered where she recognized her from – it was Lisa Turpin, a Ravenclaw who'd been sorted the same year she had). “Surely this is not hygienic!”

“Children's books?” Luna was looking at Lisa now with an odd mix of pity and amusement. The Butterbeer cap necklace she still wore around her neck jangled slightly as she tilted her head to one side. “I'm sorry you see them that way.”

“You can't mean you're still on about this stuff, then?” Lisa had grabbed the Wrackspurt siphon away from her son before he'd had an opportunity to fit it into his ear, and was pointing it accusingly at Luna. “I knew I was right to be hesitant when Terry brought home your first book for Mitchell, but I thought you'd gotten over your crazy phase, and decided to make something useful of it.” Luna smiled serenely back at Lisa, and held out her hand for the siphon.

“I'm sorry that you can't see the truth,” she said, and Hermione could tell from the inflection of Luna's voice that she was truly sorry. “I do not intend these books to be read by children alone. I write them for anyone who is willing to open their minds to the possibilities of the world. Thankfully, children seem to be able to keep an open mind, and I have great hope that one day soon we'll all see the truth about Wrackspurts and Nargles.” Luna used the hand she had held out for the siphon – Lisa was still brandishing it as a weapon – to motion Mitchell closer to her. She leaned over the table and whispered something into the ear of the wide-eyed boy. Mitchell turned around to look at his mother, then burst out into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

“What did you say to him?” Lisa demanded, but Luna once again just smiled placidly. “Come on, out with it! I will not have you turning my son against me! What did you tell him?”

“I told him the truth.” Mitchell continued to laugh, and now he was starting to wheeze in between fits of giggles, apparently beginning to run out of breath. Lisa slammed the Wrackspurt siphon down on the table, and grabbed her son by the arm.

“Come on!” she fairly yelled at him, as she began to drag him back towards the entrance to the store. “Loony Lovegood, I knew you would never grow up!” she spat over her shoulder. Luna shrugged, and turned her attention to the next eager child in line.

“So really, what did you say to him?” asked Dean under his breath. He had leaned in close to Luna and put his arm around her. Luna looked over at him with an amused look on her face.

“Why, I thought it was obvious,” she said simply. “I just said 'your mother once snogged a Slytherin.'” Both Hermione and Dean burst out laughing. “What? It's true!”

The next several minutes passed in comfortable silence between the three friends as Hermione watched Luna and Dean interact with their adoring fans. Thankfully, none of them seemed as willing to suggest that the books were intended for children after seeing what had happened to Lisa. As the line began to shorten, Hermione found her opportunity to ask Luna a question that had just popped into her head a few minutes ago.

“Say, Luna, how would you feel about writing a book about werewolves?” Both Luna and Dean turned to face her, and Hermione could feel her face heating up slightly.

“Werewolves?” mused Luna, taking her wand out from behind her ear and tapping it on her chin.

“I don't think it would sell, Hermione,” Dean responded, almost apologetically. “I can't see parents buying a book for their children that glorifies werewolves. I mean, they'll buy the rest of our books because they're just flights of fantasy.” Luna turned from Hermione to face Dean, and he quickly backtracked. “I-I mean, they b-believe them to be flights of fantasy, of c-course,” he stammered. Luna nodded curtly, and returned her attention to Hermione.

“I'm afraid I don't know nearly enough about werewolves. I'd have to do a bit of research.”

“Oh!” Hermione exclaimed, “research isn't a problem at all. You can just stop by my office any time at all and I'll let you use any of my books that you need.”

“Your office?” asked Dean, looking at Hermione quizzically.

“Obscurus Books,” Hermione replied, unconsciously sitting up a little straighter. She was terribly proud of the book shop and publishing house that she had been left in a will years before. The previous owner had been a very large supporter of S.P.E.W.

“That little hole in the wall, with the posters all over it?” Dean was having trouble keeping the disdain out of his voice, and Hermione frowned at him.

“Well, I'll think about it Hermione,” Luna said with an air of finality. Hermione sighed. She supposed that it was the best she could hope for at the moment. She stood up, shook Dean's hand, and embraced Luna.

“I hope to see you soon,” she whispered to Luna as the two hugged. Luna winked at her, and then went back to signing books for the stragglers who had just shown up. Hermione positively beamed at the top of Luna's head, and for the first time all week she felt as though something was finally going her way.

A/N:  The amazing support of the many and varied readers of this fic continues to overwhelm me.  The very idea that there are such wonderful people out there in the world who are willing to take the time to spread a little love with just a few kind words really and truly warms my soul.  All of you who read and review have my heartfelt thanks, as your ideas, compliments, and suggestions have been instrumental in keeping the momentum for this story going.  Not once have I lost my motivation to write this, and that is quite an accomplishment.  Please give yourselves a pat on the back.

This chapter is one that I envisioned right from the very start of writing this story, and thus it is a fate that I had picked out for Luna and Dean well before JKR let us know about the mysterious Rolf Scamander and Luna's globe-hopping ways.  As I have said many times now, I appreciate the extra information from Ms. Rowling, but will not be using it in this fic.

I do hope that you enjoy reading this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it, as I really did have a blast.  I think this chapter may just be my favorite of the lot so far.  If, as ever, you have any comments or suggestions (or questions!) please feel free to bring them up either in a review or on my author page on the forums.

I am not entirely certain where the next chapter will see us... I half think we could still be with Hermione in Diagon Alley, but there's still Harry in St. Mungo's, Ron trying to get information out of Werewolves at Azkaban, and Ginny dealing with three sick children on her own, while also juggling her job.  I do hope, that no matter which I choose, you'll be joining me to discover the answer :)

Until then, I remain... your humble author.

Chapter 8: Under the Stairs
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Chapter Eight: Under the Stairs

The Potter residence at number seven, Genista Way, held more than its fair share of secrets, especially for those who weren't aware that its occupants were wizards. The driveway contained a massive motorbike that no one seemed to recall ever being ridden, though had they looked to the skies, they might have seen it soaring past once in a blue moon. The garden gnome statues that dotted the landscaping were actually well placed traps that were charmed to lure actual gnomes away from the honking daffodils. The cupboard underneath the stairs appeared quite tiny from the outside, but upon entering, one would find that it seemed far more spacious than it had any right being, and indeed a sizable and fully furnished playroom could be found therein. And had anyone attempted to use the brooms in the broom closet for actual cleaning, they would have found themselves hexed to within an inch of their life.

But in no spot was the concentration of secrets higher than on the mantel above the stone fireplace in the living room. Any Muggles who looked at the clock to the right of the chimney would instantly know what time it was, but it was quite useless for telling time for those with magic flowing through their veins. Indeed, all that they would have been able to determine was that Ginny Potter and her three children were at home, and that Harry Potter was currently in the hospital. The urn to the left of the chimney contained not the ashes of Great Aunt Muriel (who was actually still alive and just as acerbic as ever), but several fistfuls of Floo Powder. The great landscape of a castle nestled up against a Scottish loch appeared to be a normal oil painting at first glance, but would in fact change to reflect the time of year and the weather, and at the moment, minute leaves of orange and yellow could be seen fluttering to the ground in a vast expanse of forest to the castle's west. But the most intriguing secret was what lay behind this particular painting.

Econtra” With a flip of her wand, Ginny Potter caused the picture to fly off of the nail in the stone where it hung, turn over in mid air, and then re-attach itself to the fireplace. In place of the painting of Hogwarts, there was now just a blank piece of parchment attached lovingly to the underside of the canvas. “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

With increasing speed, an inkblot resembling a Rorschach test bloomed from the center of the parchment where Ginny's wand had touched it, and her eyes traced the outlines of shapes and words as they formed on the Marauder's Map. Hundreds of tiny dots wandered about the parchment now, down corridors, in classrooms, on the grounds – on a whim, she began looking for Bill, her older brother. As she had expected, he was standing at the front of the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, which was full of unfamiliar names. As she watched, two of the dots made their way to the front of the room. Bill moved around these students slowly, and then they retreated to their desks. Two more students took their place at the front. Ginny watched Bill's dot admiringly; apparently he was a far more hands-on teacher than several she had had during her time at Hogwarts.

Tearing herself away from Bill's teaching, Ginny turned her attention to finding Teddy Lupin, the real reason she had activated the map. Harry had been checking up on his Godson almost daily since he had made his first trip aboard the Hogwarts Express about a month ago. But now that he was in St. Mungo's, Harry had asked Ginny to keep him updated. Ginny glanced at her watch – this timepiece actually did tell time, albeit with far more hands than seemed strictly necessary – and realized that Teddy would be enjoying a free period at the moment.

Ginny flicked her eyes back and forth across the parchment, allowing them to linger briefly on each of the locations she herself had frequented while a first year. The Great Hall... no. By the lake... no. The library... no. The Chamber of Secrets... no, and that wasn't on the map anyway, Ginny realized. Finally, she found the dot bearing Teddy's name in the Hufflepuff common room. Ginny smiled happily as she remembered the very first letter Teddy had sent the Potters from Hogwarts.

I'm in Hufflepuff, and it's brilliant! Do you think Mum would be proud? I know that you and Dad were in Gryffindor, and I don't doubt it's great, but all of my dorm mates are incredibly nice, and the common room is so comfortable I doubt I'll ever leave. Please write often, as it will be nice to keep up with how things are going with James, Al, and Lily. Please tell them I said hello, and give Lily a kiss for me. I'll see you at Christmas!

“Mischief managed.” Still smiling, Ginny once again touched her wand to the parchment, and the blossom of ink wilted away into nothingness. Yes, Ginny was sure that Tonks (and Professor Lupin as well) would have been immensely proud of Teddy, who at the young age of eleven had seen more love and affection than perhaps any other orphan in history. But he was not spoiled by it, and in fact seemed to take it all into himself and radiate it back to others even stronger. If ever there was a child destined for greatness in Hufflepuff, it was Teddy.

Ginny absentmindedly raised her wand and pointed it at the back of the painting of Hogwarts, intending to flip it back over so that its secret would remain hidden, but she stopped herself just shy of casting the spell. She had nearly forgotten that this weekend was to be the first Hogsmeade weekend of the year at Hogwarts, and that meant that her business with the Marauder's map was only half complete. With all due diligence, she peeled the map off of the back of the canvas, folded it along careworn creases, and slipped it into the back pocket of her jeans. She once again raised her wand to flip the Hogwarts landscape over, but before she could get the spell out, she was interrupted by a great burst of green flame from the fireplace. Ginny, who had been only half a meter away from the opening, jumped backwards instinctively. When the flames died down, the head of Ernie Macmillan was looking up at her with an amused look on his face.

“Mrs. Potter? I assure you that there is no need to be pointing that at me.” Ginny felt her cheeks flush, but she didn't lower her wand.

“I'll be the judge of that Healer Macmillan,” she said with a grin. “You haven't killed Harry, have you?”

“Oh no, Ma'am, quite the opposite.”

“Well then...” Ginny lowered her wand and put it into the front pocket of her jeans. “Mind, if you call me Ma'am again, I may just have to use it.” Ernie's face, already pale in the green glow from the magical flames, blanched even further.

“Terribly sorry Ma... My what a lovely home you have,” he finished feebly. He made a great show of looking around as much as his field of vision would allow, and Ginny humored him.

“Thank you Healer, but you mentioned something about Harry?”

“Oh yes, quite. I just wanted to let you know that I have managed to get him to the point where he is no longer contagious.” Ernie looked very smug, and Ginny could tell that he had puffed his chest out back in whatever room he was Flooing from. The effect, which she was sure was quite laughable in person, was downright hilarious when the rest of Ernie's body wasn't visible, and she had to hold back a fit of sniggers.

“So does that mean he's coming home?” she asked hopefully. But a quick glance at the mantel clock to the right showed that Harry was still in the hospital. Ginny loved the clock – her mother's standard wedding present for all of her children – but couldn't help but feel that always knowing where someone was took a bit of fun out of the anticipation that they might surprise you.

“Not just yet,” Ernie replied, “but we are going to be moving him to a public ward. He's probably going to be just fine, I just want to keep him under observation for one more day to make sure he'll come out of it all right.”

“So he'll be coming home on Sunday?” Ginny groaned; now she'd have to ask her brother to let her have the day off – not just any day, the first Hogsmeade weekend of the year, and the day the Hogsmeade branch of Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes did their biggest business all year. But she could worry about that when she took him the map.

“That's right Mrs. Potter, probably sometime in the afternoon. Release forms and all. Mere formalities, I assure you.” Ginny very much wanted to let Ernie know where he could put his formalities, but she bit her tongue.

“All right, thank you Healer. I'll probably come and visit Harry at some point before his release, but I'm rather busy at the moment, so if you wouldn't mind...”

“Say no more, Ma'am,” The last thing Ginny saw of Ernie's head was a pair of very frightened looking eyes as his head sank back down into the fireplace grate. The flames died down almost as soon as his head had disappeared. Ginny shook her head, and set off to find the kids. If she was going to deliver this map to George, she'd have to drop them off at the Burrow for a little while. It was no good starting a mass panic in Diagon Alley – two green spotty children running wild would surely inspire a stampede.

“Al! James!” she called, hoping that they were in earshot.

“Under the stairs Mum!” was James's muffled reply. Ginny strode to the door to the cupboard under the stairs, and took a deep breath. She never knew quite what to expect when she opened this particular door, as James and Albus had a habit of playing some very interesting – and dirty – games. But today, she needn't have worried. James sat in a chair in the corner, holding his treasured broomstick. He had flown on it only once, the day that Harry had brought it home for him, and now Ginny knew that he was waiting for his father to return so that he could fly once more. Likewise, Albus, whose mood so often depended on that of his brother, was listlessly scratching at a scabbed over boil and attempting to build a house out of exploding snap cards. Much to Ginny's dismay, the carpet hadn't been scorched even once.

“When's Dad coming home?” James asked, not looking up from the broom he was stroking. His fingers played along the golden writing on the handle. Ginny could feel an anticipatory grin forming on her lips before she even answered the question.

“Well, I just talked with his Healer, and he told me that he'd be coming home on Sunday.” James's face lit up immediately, but Albus took a little while longer to figure out just how good the news was.

“Sunday...” he repeated, looking as though he was thinking very hard. “That's two days?” Ginny beamed with pride and pounced on her youngest son. Al was an easy target, he never tried to get away from one of Ginny's hugs.

“Wow, that's fantastic Al!” she cried, “when did you learn the days of the week?”

“Dad taught me before we got sick. He wanted to supwise you. Sorry.” Al looked down at the table where his house of cards had once again succumbed to the pull of gravity. Feeble pops accompanied its destruction.

“Why are you sorry?” asked Ginny. “I'm still surprised!”

“You are?”

“Well of course! And in fact, I think we ought to try and surprise your father right back. How does that sound?” Al's face was now quickly regaining the youthful exuberance that seemed most at home there.

“Yeah!” Al answered, nodding enthusiastically. James jumped out of the chair he was sitting in, eager, as always, to get in on the fun.

“Let's throw him a party! A surprise welcome home party!” Al was now jumping up and down and tugging on the sleeve of Ginny's jumper.

“Can we? Can we, Mum?” The exploding snap cards on the floor let off little bursts of sparks with every one of Al's jumps, and the carpet was dangerously close to smoldering. Despite this, Ginny smiled. The Potter boys were back to themselves.

“Of course we can. And we can start planning as soon as I deliver something to your Uncle George at his store. I'm going to have to drop you two and your sister off at your Grandma and Grandpa's house for a few minutes so you don't burn the house down. Ginny pulled out her wand from her front pocket and used a quick “aguamenti” to douse the embers now glowing on the carpet. James laughed, but Al once again seemed pensive.

“Mum...” he said softly, looking down at his feet. Ginny put her wand away and then used her now free hand to lift Al's chin up so she could see his startlingly green eyes. The eyes she loved so much. “Mum, why do we only have one Gwandma and Gwandpa?” Ginny's heart sank down into her stomach. Al mistook her silence for confusion, and tried to elaborate. “Rosie and Hugo have two of each.” The good cheer of just moments before had been sucked out of the room as though a Dementor had managed to gain entrance to the cupboard under the stairs. Ginny felt tears form in her eyes.

“That's- that's not an easy question to answer Al, but it's a very good one to have asked,” she insisted when it looked like Albus was going to apologize yet again. “I'll tell you what, I can go to the store later. Let's go get Lily from her crib, and then the four of us will go and visit your dad. We'll all talk about it together, all right?” Albus had once again cheered up noticeably at the mention of Harry, but he still appeared somber.

“All wight,” he agreed. Ginny took his hand, mussed James's hair, and led them out of the cupboard.

A/N: Wow... I am completely speechless... this little story, once envisioned as a quick catharsis to help myself deal with the end of Harry Potter, tonight went over 15,000 views.  That is phenomenal, awe-inspiring, and very very humbling.  I do hope that all of you who have read and/or reviewed feel a little proud knowing that you have helped to make this fic what it is.

What this chapter is... is a bit short.  It was originally planned to contain all of Ginny's visit to St. Mungo's, as well as her trip to see George in Diagon Alley.  But, if all of that had happened in this chapter, it would have gotten terribly bloated, and may not have seen the light of day until next week.  So, I made an executive decision to end this chapter here.  I feel there was still plenty of things to like (or dislike, you can make up your own mind :) ) in this chapter, and while I would have liked to stick to the original plan, deviating from the plan has worked very well for me so far.

I do hope that you like the chapter, though I can certainly see why you might not.  It is a bit verbose at the onset, and doesn't really start in the action as most of my chapters do.  But I got to describing the Potter house, and couldn't stop.  Now I'd quite like to live there.  As for Teddy, I do hope you aren't upset that he's in Hufflepuff.  He takes after his mother in being a Metamorphmagus, so I can certainly see him taking after her in which house he was sorted into as well.  I don't think this is the last we've seen of him either.

For those of you who may not have gotten as much enjoyment out of this chapter, I only ask that you bear with me.  Next chapter should be much more akin to what you're used to, with a bit of Harry backstory, a bit of Ginny backstory, surprise appearances by at least 3 characters, probably George and just why he needs the Marauder's Map, and maybe a bit of Hermione thrown in as well.  But even just looking at this list, I may have to pare some of that down for use in a later chapter, as again I don't want any of these turning into 8000-10000 word monsters.

So I hope to see you back next time, when any or all of the above could be addressed.  Until then, I remain, your humble author.

Chapter 9: Disarming
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Chapter Nine: Disarming

The lobby of St. Mungo's was abnormally crowded for a sunny Friday in late September, and as Ginny stepped from the great white-tiled fireplace that allowed visitors to arrive via the Floo Network, she realized that nearly every pair of eyes was looking at her expectantly. Ginny's first thought was that James and Al, who had arrived just seconds prior to her and Lily, had somehow managed to break their own record for how quickly they could get into trouble. However, a quick glance at her two sons let her know that they were just as confused as she was.

“It's not them,” one of the people sitting in the long line of overstuffed waiting chairs, a witch with three arms, groaned. A collective sigh rose from the assembled group, and the woman waved a fist – the one at the end of the arm that rose from the center of her ribcage – in the air, and accosted a harried looking Mediwitch who happened to be hurrying past. “What's it take to get some treatment in this place?” she asked angrily. There were several nods and murmurs of assent from around the large room.

“Mrs.-” the Mediwitch glanced down at a clipboard she was carrying and rifled through the thick stack of papers it held. “Agnit, is it?” She had apparently found the paper she was looking for, and was now tracing her fingers along it. “I'm sure you can understand that we're shorthan-” a glare from Mrs. Agnit cut the Mediwitch off. “Short-staffed then. No one can find the Healers Fitzpatrick or Kline, and-”

“Always with the excuses,” shouted Agnit, cutting across the Mediwitch, who looked as though she secretly wished it was herself who couldn't be found.

“Mrs. Agnit,” she replied huffily, “you're in no fit state to be getting angry, and you know your limbic system can't handle any more stress.”

“If I hadn't been sitting here unattended to for the last three hours, I wouldn't be in this state, would I?” As Ginny watched, Mrs. Agnit's hands – all three of them – began trembling and her face turned a hideous shade of magenta.

“Look out! She's limbering!” called a second Mediwitch that Ginny hadn't noticed previously. The first Mediwitch stepped backwards quickly, attempting to get away from Mrs. Agnit, who's whole body was now shaking. An elderly wizard, a biting teacup clamped tightly down on his nose, who had been seated in the chair next to the spasming witch, seemed to suddenly realize that he was in danger, and he made a move to jump out of his chair.

But it was too late. With a sickening crack, a fourth arm exploded out of Mrs. Agnit's right side, and it landed a solid roundhouse directly to the elderly wizard's face. The teacup shattered and crashed to the floor, but so did its ex-victim. The first Mediwitch hurried to help him up, but he leaped to his feet unassisted with surprising agility.

“Oh thank you!” he cried, and he extended a hand to Mrs. Agnit, but then, looking confused as to just which hand to shake, he thought better of it. “I'd have been here all night otherwise.”

“Well at least one of us got cured,” muttered Mrs. Agnit irritably. “I'll probably be a bloody arachnid before I even so much as see a Healer. Without warning, she began to tremble again, and a wide circle parted around her. This time, however, it was not an arm that sprouted from her left shoulder blade, but a leg.

“Brilliant,” whispered James from his spot beside Ginny. “Can I get another arm?”

“Maybe when you're older,” Ginny replied, and having decided that her impressionable sons had seen enough, led them towards the double doors that would take them from the lobby and to the hospital proper. The uproar behind them continued to swell.

“She's gone bottoms up!”

“I'll run and get the loppers!”

Ginny felt her blood run cold and she shuddered as the doors swung closed behind her. It was not the less than pleasant mental image of the loppers that made her shiver, but the highly grating voice of none other than Cho Chang. The Potters came to a stop in front of the lift to the upper floors, and she pressed the call button. Thankfully the doors opened immediately. Unfortunately, so did the double doors at the end of the sterile white hallway.

“Ginny? Hold the lift!” Cho called out, and her rapid footsteps could be heard echoing down the hall. If the situation had been different, Ginny may very well have turned and started to duel Cho right then and there, but with Lily in her arms, James and Albus at her feet, and a rapidly limbering witch in need of lopping, there was nothing for it but to hold the lift.

“Cho,” she said as amicably as she could, as her oldest rival, looking worried and frazzled in her Mediwitch's uniform, ducked inside the lift. Ginny hoped that her eyes didn't betray her animosity, but Cho wasn't looking at Ginny. Instead she was surveying the three green children.

“I see that Hermione took my advice and brought little Rose over to your house.” Ginny wasn't sure if she was imagining it, but she thought she could see a trace of a smirk on Cho's lips.

“Yep, great idea you had too. Nearly killed Harry. Imagine the headlines... 'Boy-Who-Lived Done In by Ex-Girlfriend's Jealous Plot.' You'd be Rita Skeeter's personal hero.” Ginny took pleasure in the look of horror that came over Cho's face.

“You don't mean!” Ginny nodded, and reached up to brush her hair out of her eyes; a carefully plotted tactic to try and keep a smirk of her own from showing. “But I never intended for that to happen!” cried Cho, who looked very close to tears indeed. James and Albus had inched closer to Ginny throughout the ride on the lift, and now Al ducked behind his mother's legs and out of site. “Please tell me he's all right!”

“He'll be fine, my husband is notoriously tough to kill, you see.” Cho clutched at her chest, and let out a slow sigh of relief. She looked up, the motion of her head causing a single tear to run down her cheek. She quickly reached up and wiped it away with the back of her hand. She avoided looking at Ginny or the other Potters, and instead turned to the door of the lift and put a hand on it for support.

“I was just trying to help you. It's very difficult to have Dragon Pox later in life, and I thought you'd be happy to have it out of the way. I'm really sorry about Harry. Please tell him that I'm sorry.”

“Maybe,” Ginny allowed, suddenly feeling a bit sorry for the Cho who now appeared so diminished before them. Cho inclined her head slightly, and stood up straight. The lift slowed to a halt, and a chime sounded.

“Second Floor, Magical Bugs,” a thoroughly bored sounding voice announced, as the door opened. Ginny held her hand out to Albus, who was still pressed up against the backs of her legs. He took it eagerly, and she led him and James out of the lift.

“Good luck with disarming Mrs. Agnit,” she said to Cho, not unkindly, as they passed her. Cho looked confused momentarily, but then jerked violently.

“Oh!” She punched the door close button on the lift, and Ginny and her children found themselves standing alone in another long white hallway.

“Mum, who was that woman?” asked James, still looking at the closed door of the lift.

“Ms. Chang,” Ginny answered unthinkingly. She was still busy trying to decide if it was all right to continue to hold a grudge against Harry's first – and only – ex-girlfriend.

“I don't like her,” James stated categorically. Ginny felt a tug both at the corners of her lips and at her hand. Albus was giving it a yank, trying to get her to look down at him. She obliged.

“She was scawy,” he whispered.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you two,” Ginny said, feeling a rush of affection for the two boys. Lily babbled from the bundle in her arms, and Ginny bent down to kiss her on the forehead. “What's that? You didn't like her either? Well then it's unanimous. Let's go and find your father.”

After a brief stop at the level's information desk, the Potters set off for the public ward Harry had been placed in, a large room right next to the one he had been in before. However, just two doors away from reaching their ultimate destination, they were waylaid by none other than Gilderoy Lockhart, who was sneaking out of a door to a private room rather guiltily. The handsome wizard was smiling cheekily, his bright white teeth and flowing golden-gray hair reflecting the harsh light fluorescent candlelight. He eyed the Potters inquiringly for a moment, then swooped down on James and grabbed him with both hands.

“A Clabbert!” he cried, turning James this way and that as if to inspect him thoroughly. Ginny let go of Al's hand and moved closer to James and Lockhart so she could intervene if the need arose, but the last time they had met like this, Lockhart had been harmless enough. “Mottled green skin, looks like a monkey, pustules... but no, they're not red and pulsating, I wonder...” Lockhart grabbed a hold of James's hand, and pulled it towards his face. “No, not webbed. What are you!” he demanded.

“A Potter!” answered James proudly, looking curiously at the man before him. “What are you?” Lockhart looked taken aback at the question, and let James go. Ginny bent down and put a reassuring hand on her son's shoulder.

“Good answer,” she whispered in his ear. When she stood back up, she found that Gilderoy had turned around and was now examining his reflection in the glare of the glass of the windowed door he'd been sneaking out of.

“Hmm...” he mused, turning his head first one way and then the other. He used a hand to prod at his facial features, and winced when he stuck a finger in his eye. He turned back around, blinked rapidly several times, and smiled brightly. “I have no idea what I am,” he pronounced, “but I'm gorgeous!” Ginny snorted, and Lockhart noticed her standing there for the first time. His face darkened, and his eyes appeared to be searching her face. “Do I know you?”

“About as well as you know yourself, I'd reckon,” Ginny answered. “You were my professor at one point, and we've met here in St. Mungo's as well, but that was many years ago now.” Lockhart's clouded look brightened instantly, and he withdrew a peacock feather quill from his right sleeve with an over-exaggerated flourish.

“I suppose you've come back for another autograph have you? Can't get enough of the author of such famous books as Voyages with Vampires and Travels with Trolls?”

“Wait,” said Ginny suddenly drawing closer still to James. If Lockhart was regaining his memory, he wasn't as harmless as she had thought. “You actually remember writing those books?” Lockhart laughed heartily.

“Oh Merlin no! I was just meeting with this most delightful woman- Veronica I think her name was.” Lockhart cupped his mouth with his free hand, and leaned towards Ginny. “I think she fancies me,” he whispered softly, his grin widening. Ginny had to keep herself from rolling her eyes. “So, what do you say? Autographs all around? Who should I make them out to then?” Much to Ginny's dismay, James and Albus both seemed keen to get an autograph.

“Not now boys, maybe we can come see Mr. Lockhart again later, but now we need to go see Daddy, all right?”

“Would he like an autograph do you think?” called Gilderoy after Ginny and the children as she dragged them two doors down. When she arrived at the door however, she paused long enough to see through the window in the door that Harry already had company, and looked to be enjoying it, although somewhat uncomfortably.

“You know what, boys? Maybe now's a good time to get an autograph from Mr. Lockhart after all,” she said, looking down at James and Albus. The two of them didn't have to be told twice, and they sprinted down the hallway to where Lockhart had resumed examining himself in the mirror.

“Did you really meet a vampire?” asked James excitedly.

“And twolls?” Lockhart turned around and beamed at the two Potters fawning over him.

“Oho! Couldn't resist the overwhelming charms of Gilderoy Lockhart? Well then, I suppose I shall have to tell you everything I know about these most vile creatures.” He hitched up the front of his plum colored dressing gown, and sank to one knee. James and Albus drew even nearer, and Ginny couldn't help but smile. Professor Lockhart was actually quite sweet – incredibly vain – but sweet. She wondered what awful tragedy had to have befallen him in his earlier years to make him the monster he'd become before losing his memory.

Keeping an eye on the boys, she took an Extendable Ear out of her pocket, and unraveled the bit of flesh colored string, placing one end under the door to the public ward. She knew she had promised Harry that she'd not bring her work home, but it was always good to have an Extendable Ear on hand in case of emergencies. Not that this was an emergency of course, but still. Ginny smirked a bit guiltily as she put the other end of the string in her ear. The conversation Harry was having on the other side of the door became crystal clear, and she watched him gesticulating through the window.

“It was really nothing, Stan!” he insisted, shrugging his shoulders.

“Nothin'? Nothin'! 'e says's i' was nothin', Ern, can you believe 'im?” Stan Shunpike, his pimples now just scars, sat on the edge of the bed, chewing a piece of gum over-enthusiastically. Ginny was certain she'd seen it nearly fall out of his mouth as he spoke.

“Not a word,” replied Ernie Prang lazily.

“You 'ear that 'Arry? We don' believe you. It was a 'uge deal! When's the las' time that England'd won the cup, Ern?”

“Eighty-eight years.”

“Eigh- no, that can' be right Ern, that long?” Ernie nodded glumly, and resumed staring down at his hands through his thick glasses. “Well then,” Stan continued, “firs' Quidditch Worl' Cup in eighty-eigh' years. All thanks ta 'Arry Potter. Don' say that ain't nothin'!”

“It was a team effort,” insisted Harry, but Ginny could see that he was smiling in spite of himself. She knew that his capture of the Snitch in such a fantastic manner had been one of the proudest – and most embarrassing – moments of his life.

“Team!” cried Stan, the piece of gum flopping out of his mouth and down his front. His left hand caught the gum before it had reached the bed, and then Stan popped it back into his mouth without so much as a second thought. He kept right on. “Team ain't nothin'! They didn' take on no Viktor Krum, did they, Ern?” But Ernie didn't respond, and from the slow rise and fall of his shoulders, Ginny thought he'd fallen asleep. “Ern?” Stan tried again, but there was no response. Stan elbowed Ernie in the ribs, and the older wizard awoke with a start.

“That's right Stan, absolutely Stan, Couldn't have said it better myself Stan,” he rambled off. Stan looked mollified, and turned his attention back to Harry.

“Best Seeker battle o' our lifetime! The way you two was flyin', I though' the only way one of you'd catch th' Snitch is if the other'd died!”

“Well Viktor is a very good Seeker,” Harry allowed, his smile growing somewhat. “Were you at the match, then?” he asked, looking at Stan. Stan burst out laughing.

“Sweet Merlin's ov'rgrown beard, no. At the match? D'you 'ear that Ern?” Even Ernie was chuckling slightly. “Fastest sellout in 'ist'ry that was, all the tickets gone in forty-six seconds! Oh no, we was on the Knight Bus at th' time. No chance o' gettin' tickets.” Here, Stan leaned in closer to Harry and whispered loudly, “we watched on the tefflepigeon.”

“You mean television?” asked Harry, his grin becoming ever larger.

“First match ever seen on the Muggle contraption,” Ernie added, looking slightly more interested in the conversation. “Watched it in a bar on Charing Cross Road, we did. Muggles thought we were a bit odd though.”

“Well all they saw was one o' those... wha' d'you call them things... bloke tryin' to sell somethin'.”

“An infomercial?” offered Harry. Stan tapped his nose.

“Though' we were cheerin' the announcemen' of a new feature or somethin' I s'pose. Odd lot, them Muggles. But anyway, we saw th' 'ole match, all eighteen hours, from Quaffle up, ter the brilliant Potter Fall at the end. O'course, it wasn' known as a Potter Fall yet, just a fall, but you still caught the Snitch, eh Ern?” Ernie nodded so vigorously that his glasses slid down his nose.

“That's right, Stan. Brilliant move to fall off your broom like that, how'd you think to do it Harry?” Ernie asked, pushing his glasses back up.

“Believe me when I say that I'd had plenty of practice. Kind of a specialty of mine.” Ginny thought back to the match's spectacular finish, with Harry free-falling through the air towards the Snitch, and shuddered. It had been one of the most frightening moments of her life. But she couldn't stay lost in her recollections for long, as a high-pitched tone sounded down the corridor and a magically amplified voice followed soon thereafter.

“Would the Healers Fitzpatrick and Kline please report to the lobby. Please!

“Hey, Ern?”

“Yes, Stan?”

“Do either of those names sound familiar to you?” Stan asked, and Ginny could see through the window that he was thinking hard. Apparently it was causing him considerable pain, as his eyes were scrunched up. On the whole, Ginny thought it looked like he'd downed an entire bottle of U-No-Poo.

“Sound like regular passengers, they do.” Ernie and Stan looked each other, and in a move so quick that Ginny almost missed it, sprang to their feet and ran for the door. With a yank, Ginny withdrew the Extendable Ear, and backed away from the door. And just in time, as it exploded outward into the hall with great force.

“Sweet Merlin, it's Ginny Weasley!” cried Stan upon seeing Ginny. He screeched to a stop, and reached around to his back pocket and withdrew a battered and overfull dragon skin wallet.

“It's Pot-” Ginny started to correct, but Ernie interrupted her.

“Now's not the time Stan, we've got to go pick up the Healers or we'll be in a load of trouble.” He reached back to grab Stan's arm, but it was shrugged off.

“I've been in loads o' trouble b'fore, and 'Arry always got me off,” Stan insisted, his chest inflating with pride. “And 'sides, this's the two time winner o' Quidditch's Sexiest Witch award. I know I've got a picture o' you in me wallet somewhere that you coul' sign.” Ginny was at once both flattered and revolted. But Ernie had once again grabbed hold of Stan, and was pulling his arm irritably.

“I don't know if Harry would be so keen to get you out of trouble if you keep hitting on his wife,” he hissed. Stan seemed to consider this for a second, then turned and fled with Ernie.

“We'll talk!” he cried over his shoulder as he ran down the hall towards the lift. Ginny shook her head slowly, and waved after them.

“Ginny, is that you?” This voice was Harry's, and Ginny moved into the doorway, completely forgetting that she still had the flesh-colored string from the Extendable Ear trailing away from her free hand. Harry noticed it immediately. “Eavesdropping on someone?” he asked, an eyebrow raised inquisitively. Ginny blushed, and bundled the string up in her hand before stuffing it in a pocket.

“Sorry,” she said softly, “just wanted to know what had you in such a good mood. Should have known it was Quidditch.” Ginny smiled, and Harry did likewise.

“Well, don't just stand out in the hall, come on in!” Harry beckoned his wife and child forward eagerly, and Ginny was only too happy to oblige. “So what brings you to St. Mungo's?” he asked, once he'd given his two favorite females a kiss hello. Ginny could tell already that he was feeling far better than he had been just a few short days ago. “Not that it isn't a charming place,” he added, “I'll be sorry to leave it on Sunday.” The sarcasm dripping from his voice made Ginny smirk.

“We could leave you here then, if that's what you'd like.” Harry's face darkened, and he pointed a finger at his wife.

“You wouldn't dare,” he whispered, “then who would-” he looked down at Lily and broke off suddenly. He leaned forward and whispered something in Ginny's ear that made her turn very red indeed.

“Mmm... I'd quite like that,” she mused, mental images leaping at her unbidden – but not at all unwelcome. “But first,” she said with a shiver – a chill had just ran down her spine, “we need to take care of something.”

“Oh?” Harry looked at his wife with a look that was planted firmly in between desire and curiosity.

“Al has started asking some tough questions-”

“Oh.” Harry looked rather disappointed that what needed taking care of didn't involve Ginny.

“I think it's time that you gave him the talk,” Ginny concluded.

“The t-talk?” Harry spluttered, his face turning bright red. “He's only three for Merlin's sake! And wouldn't you be better at that sort of thing? I've never actually received 'the talk.'” Ginny grinned impishly, and swatted at Harry with her free hand.

“No silly, not that talk,” Harry looked relieved, and Ginny felt sorry for what she knew she had to tell him. Steeling her resolve, she took a deep breath. “It's about your parents. He wants to know why they aren't alive.”

“Oh...” Harry's face fell, and Ginny felt terrible. Life had been full of difficult questions for Harry, and she didn't see it getting any easier. “And where are the boys, at the Burrow?” he asked, quietly.

“No, they're...” Ginny glanced around the room, and gasped. “Oh Merlin,” she groaned, and she jumped off of the bed, placed Lily hurriedly in Harry's arms, and sprinted for the door. “I've only left them with Lockhart,” she called over her shoulder.

“Wait... WHAT!” was Harry's predictable response. Out in the hallway, James and Albus were standing next to the wall as a large security wizard was trying to take Gilderoy away. They were both holding scraps of parchment with big loopy writing on them, and looking a bit frightened of the big wizard, who Ginny now realized was none other than Marcus Flint.

“Mr. Lockhart, you've got to come with me!” insisted Flint, grabbing hold of the sleeve of the older wizard's purple dressing gown, and giving it a yank.

“But I've been having such a nice time with these Potters,” insisted Gilderoy, looking at his two newest fans adoringly. “And then there was Veronica! Oh yes, we mustn't forget her! She's just through the door there,” he added, motioning in the direction of the door he'd snuck out of minutes earlier. “Go on,” insisted Lockhart, pushing Flint towards the door. “She'll tell you all about me! Requested my presence, that's why I'm here. Yes! That's it! Requested my presence she did!” Skeptically, Marcus let go of the ex-professor, and walked over to the door. He opened it slowly, and peered around the door.

“Hello?” he called into the room, but there was no answer. “Mr. Lockhart, I'm afraid that there's nobody there. You're going to have to come with me.” He closed the door softly, and returned to Lockhart and once again took hold of his sleeve.

“But- but she was there just a minute ago,” insisted Lockhart, stubbornly. “She can't have just disappeared!” But the news that his beloved Veronica had vanished seemed to break Gilderoy Lockhart's will. He succumbed to the pressure that his robe was exerting on him, and he walked sullenly after Flint, who was leading him to the elevators.

“Boys, I'm so sorry,” Ginny cried, running to her two sons. She bent over and scooped them both up into a big hug.

“Mo-om...” whined James, trying to squirm away. “What's that for?”

“No reason,” Ginny lied, and she stood up and wiped a tear from her eye. “Let's go talk to Daddy, all right?” She took each boy by the hand and led them into the Public ward. The boys faces lit up when they saw there father, and both ran to give him a giant simultaneous hug. Harry only just managed to lift Lily out of the way in the nick of time.

“It's nice to see you too!” he said, as the hugs died down. “How are you feeling? Still itchy?”

“Only a little,” replied Albus, trying to scratch his arm on the chair he'd sat down in. Harry raised an eyebrow at him, but said nothing.

“Al, why don't you ask Dad the question you asked me earlier?” prodded Ginny. She went over to sit on the bed next to her husband, and she put her arms around him tenderly, willing him to know that he wasn't going to be answering alone. Al looked puzzled.

“What question?” he asked. Ginny chuckled, and nuzzled her chin into Harry's neck; she could feel his heart beating through the skin. Leave it to a three-year-old to forget the entire reason for coming to the hospital in the first place. Though, to be fair, he'd certainly had his fair share of excitement getting to this point.

“Remember? We were in the playroom, and you wanted to know why Rose and Hugo have two grandmothers and two grandfathers?” She nodded at her youngest son encouragingly, and Albus's face turned downcast.

“Oh yeah,” he mumbled, staring at his shoes, which were swinging back and forth as he kicked the legs of the chair. “Why do we onwy have one, Daddy?” Ginny could feel Harry inhale deeply, and the increased pressure against her own body as he did so reassured her greatly.

“Albus,” Harry held out the arm that wasn't holding Lily, and beckoned for Al to join the family up on the bed, “James,” he added, turning to his oldest and making the same motion. Within moments, the entirety of the Potter blood line was being embraced in Harry's arms.

“My mother and father... your grandparents,” began Harry slowly, “were great, great wizards, but even better people.” He paused briefly, and Ginny looked up at him. She saw him looking to her for encouragement, and she was only to happy to oblige with a smile. “They loved- no they still do - they love me very much, and they love the three of you as well,” he added, giving the children a squeeze.

“But why can't we go and visit them?” asked James. Until now, Ginny had thought that perhaps he had already known the answer to Albus's first question, but now she realized that she was mistaken.

“Well,” said Harry with a sigh, “there's something I need you boys to understand. I had hoped that I'd be able to wait forever before telling you this, but I can see that you are far too smart.” He smiled wryly at his sons. “Not every person in this world is good. Most of them are, and so far you have been lucky to have such a great number of people around you who love you very, very much. But one day, hopefully far in the future, someone is going to try and take all of that away from you.”

“But why?” James asked again.

“Because they'll want what it is that you have. They'll just want to be loved.” Harry sniffed, and Ginny could see a lonely tear running down his cheek. She reached up and brushed it away tenderly. “When my parents encountered such a person, they stood up to him. They didn't want to just give up everything that they had worked so hard for. They didn't want to give up on me, on you, on your children, and all those who'll come after. And when I meet such a person I, and your mother, will do precisely the same thing. We will not give up what we love. Not without a fight.”

“What happened to them?” asked Albus, a scared look on his face.

“They were murdered by an evil wizard called Voldemort. They knew that they were going to be, but they fought anyway.”

“But why?” asked James yet again, puzzlement etched on his features. Ginny wondered for a moment if the boys were too young to understand all of this. She'd hate to have to go through it again. “Why would they fight if they knew they were going to die?”

“Because we're Potters,” said Harry simply, and a surge of pride welled within the depths of Ginny's soul. “To die for someone you love is a brave and glorious death. To not fight at all is...”

Not an option,” finished Ginny fiercely.

“So where are they?” Albus had pulled his knees up to his chest, and was hugging them to his body tightly.

“Every time you hear a bird singing outside your window, that's your grandmother saying hello, and when the wind blows through your hair, that's your grandfather wanting to play.” Albus reached a hand up to his head and ran it through his hair slowly. “But if you really want to meet them, I will take you to them once I get home,” added Harry, smiling at Albus and James. “They aren't far away at all.”

“After the party?” James was looking excitedly at his dad, and Ginny rolled her eyes.

“Shhh...” she chided him, putting a finger to her mouth, “that was supposed to be a secret!”

“Wait, what's a secret? Did I miss something?” Harry looked from James to Ginny with a look of consternation on his face, but he winked at his wife, and she felt her heart swell. He was easily the sweetest man she knew.

“Would you tell us a stowy?” asked Albus, also looking much happier than he had just a few moments ago.

“I'd like that very much,” said Harry with a smile. “How'd you like to hear about the Chamber of Secrets?”

“That doesn't sound very interesting,” James mumbled, feigning disinterest.

“Well, it's about how the evil wizard Voldemort, the very same one who killed your grandparents, was defeated by Neville Longbottom.” Harry had been using Neville as a stand-in for himself in stories such as this one for years.

“Neville Longbottom, no way!” shouted James, no longer pretending to have no interest. “The same wizard who found the Philosopher's Stone?”

“And won the Twi-wizard townament?” chimed in Albus, also looking very excited.

“There's no way one person could do all of that!” Both Harry and Ginny burst out laughing at James's statement.

“Oh, but there is!” insisted Harry. “And you've met him, you just didn't realize it at the time.”

“Would you like it if we invited him to the party?” asked Ginny, a wide smile plastered on her face.

“Mum! Shhh! That was supposed to be a secret!” James looked at his mother with wide eyes, and she and Harry broke into laughter once again.

“So sorry,” she finally managed once the laughter had died down. “You have fun with the story boys. Harry, I have to run to Diagon Alley.” She stood up and took the Marauder's Map out of her back pocket, and waved it in front of Harry. “Hogsmeade weekend, you know.”

“Right,” said Harry. “Make sure you tell George to be careful – and to have fun.”

“Come on Harry, this is George we're talking about here,” Ginny replied with a smirk.

“All right, so leave out the bit about having fun then. I'll see you later?”

“Yes, I'll be back to pick up the kids in a bit. Hopefully I'll be back in time to hear the end of the story. I always like to hear about the beautiful princess who-”

“Don't ruin it, Mum!” whispered Albus urgently, pulling on her hand. Ginny bent down, pulled her son into a hug, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. After saying goodbye similarly to her other children, and giving Harry a lingering kiss, she gave a wave and headed for the door as Harry started the story.

“There once was a very beautiful princess, the most beautiful princess in all the world...”

Anyone who saw Ginny as she was leaving St. Mungo's, would have thought she was there to have a cheering charm removed.

A/N:  Oh my goodness, I do hope that you like this chapter.  It is easily my favorite, and I am very proud of it.  The very act of writing it was a huge relief to me, and I am thrilled with how well everything gets pulled together into a tight little package.  I realize that some of you might find this chapter a little long, but I owed it both to myself and the readers after ending the last chapter abruptly.

Once again, I really need to thank the readers of this story, and especially those who review.  I've never had so much fun writing, and that's all down to you.  And honestly, having fun is what is making this story so good.  Each and every one of you are truly special individuals, and if I could give each one of you a big hug, I would.  If you're ever in Syracuse, look me up and I'll be more than happy to pay up.

All right... I know a lot of you won't like to hear this, but the fic is nearing its natural conclusion.  I always have envisioned Harry's homecoming party as the end of this particular story, and we'll probably be upon it in two chapters or so.  This does not mean that I will stop writing this particular time period, or these characters.  I do want to revisit the fight for werewolf equality in its entirety, and that honestly has enough material to possibly write an entire sequel. 

Or, alternatively, I could move backwards in time and write about the immediate aftermath of Voldemort's downfall.  The courtship and weddings of the two couples, Harry and Ginny's adventures in Quidditch, Ron's ascent up the Ministry ladder, Hermione's fight for House elf rights and the story behind Obscurus books...  Both time periods hold a lot of material.  If you have any ideas towards which you'd prefer seeing next, feel free to drop by my author's page in the forums and discuss it.  I of course will have the final say, but your suggestions have obviously helped to make this fic what it is, and so I value them highly.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in your reviews!  I'm a very patient person, and I always give very thorough responses to all of my reviews, often to the point where I spend hours at a time on them.  Don't be afraid to ask, please.

So, to wrap things up... thank you so much for everything that you've done for me, and I do hope that you'll be back for the next chapter, where I will as forever be... your humble author.

Chapter 10: Cry W.O.L.F.
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Chapter Ten: Cry W.O.L.F!

The last time that Hermione had put up new banners on the facade of Obscurus Books, she hadn't had a customer for a week. People would come into the store, to be sure, but they were not there to inquire after a rare and dangerous book, or ask how much it would cost to publish their manuscript. Instead, they came ridicule, belittle, and berate the woman who would have them pay their house-elves a prevailing wage, or boycott the Daily Prophet until they hired a fact checker, or, if it happened to be the first of April, to stop reading so many books and get out and play a little, perhaps with something new from Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. This last, a nifty bit of spellwork by her brother-in-law George, had prompted Hermione to send him an owl with a lovely birthday card peppered by several of Ron's favorite words.

But this was the first time she'd ever received complaints before putting up a new set of banners.

“Please don't do it Hermione,” pleaded Madam Malkin, who, wringing her hands, had emerged from her robe shop – located directly across the alley from Obscurus Books – the moment Hermione had walked outside holding a very large piece of rolled up parchment.

“Hello Madam Malkin,” greeted Hermione warily. She'd had enough experience with protesters in the past to know one when she saw one. “You know that I've got every right to p-”

“Yes, yes of course,” interrupted Madam Malkin dismissively. She was now prying at the edges of the rolled up banner in Hermione's hand with chubby pinpricked fingers, and was leaning over the roll to peer down its center. “But you must understand how it ruins my business!”

“I don't see ho-” Hermione began, gently prying the parchment away from Madam Malkin, but she was cut across yet again.

“Yes well, you wouldn't,” chided Malkin, crossing her arms tightly. Hermione opened her mouth to object, but was not given the opportunity. “Some of us actually want customers! But no one walking past my store looks in my windows to see the latest trends in fashion.” Hermione let her eyes wander over Madam Malkin's shoulder, to the plate glass window on the front of Robes for Every Occasion, and shuddered at the frilly multi-colored dress robes that were on display there. One of the mannequins made a very rude hand gesture at her.

“No!” continued Malkin, not noticing any of this, or the crowd that was gathering to see what all the fuss was about, “all they're interested in is what ridiculous harebrained cause Hermione Weasley is supporting this week! It's already hard enough for me to compete with Twilfitt and Tatting's, especially with that new scantily clad hussy they've got working there. Mauve Sienna or whatever her name is.”

“Lavender Brown?” offered Hermione, happy to finally be able to get a word in edgewise. She also mentally added 'robe shopping' to the list of things that Ron shouldn't be allowed to do alone.

“Yes, that's the one,” confirmed Madam Malkin with a scowl. She put a hand up to her mouth, and whispered conspiratorially, “Do you know if she's had work done? I'd be willing to bet the shop that she's had several permanent glamor charms put on her. Hey! Don't change the subject!” Hermione desperately wanted to point out that Madam Malkin needed very little in the way of assistance when it came to changing subjects, but managed to hold her tongue.

“I'm sorry Madam Malkin, but I assure you that it's for a good cause,” she insisted, slowly unfurling the rolled banner so that the print was still hidden against her body.

“What, did you only get forty-nine Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans in your last box instead of fifty? Did someone step on a flobberworm? Shall we throw them into Azkaban then?” Madam Malkin's hysterics had begun to affect the burgeoning crowd, and several people were now cheering her on.

“No,” said Hermione quietly, glaring at the throng, “no, I doubt there'd be enough room for them there, what with all of the werewolves.” She flipped over the banner and winced as a collective cry of disbelief rose from the crowd as they read the words printed on it.

Cry W.O.L.F!
Equal Opportunities for Werewolves
It's Not Their Fault!

Madam Malkin edged away quickly, her eyes alight with fear. “You've gone completely mad!” she cried, and she broke into a run that carried her back inside her store. The door slammed shut behind her, and the sign on the door that had read 'open,' flickered briefly before settling on 'closed.'

“Well then...” huffed Hermione, laying the banner on the ground and putting her hands on her hips. “I don't suppose any of the rest of you would like a badge?” Several people jumped backwards at Hermione's scathing tone, and when she reached into her robes to withdraw a handful of bright yellow buttons that flashed the words “Cry W.O.L.F,” a number of loud cracks could be heard as people disapparated hastily.

“Come on Weasley,” scoffed a voice that was nearly as unpleasant as a Mandrake's cries. Hermione scanned the ever-dwindling gathering for the speaker, and was unsurprised when her eyes found the over-large frame of Millicent Bullstrode. “If you think some silly button's going to change people's minds, you've got another thing coming.” Millicent was striding forward now, and Hermione remembered all too clearly their encounter in the one and only meeting of Lockhart's dueling club. But surely Millicent wouldn't try anything like that in the middle of broad daylight in Diagon Alley, and it had been a while since she had won an argument against anyone but Ron (and that was hardly fighting fair, she reminded herself with a grin).

“I seem to remember you and your Slytherin friends putting lots of stock into buttons and badges back at Hogwarts,” she rejoined, her grin growing into a smirk. “Let's see... there was 'Potter Stinks,' 'Weasley is our King,' the Inquisitorial Squad... My, you certainly do have an astounding record of picking the proper side to support!” Millicent's moon shaped face turned a brighter shade of red than normal, and she began spluttering. “What's your secret Bullstrode? Care to share with us?”

“All right Granger, that will be enough.” The slow, cold drawl sent shivers down Hermione's spine. She knew that voice. She pivoted quickly where she stood, so that she could keep an eye on both Millicent, who was quickly regaining her composure, and the new arrival.

“Draco!” cried Millicent, clearly relieved at having been saved from the embarrassment of a thorough tongue-lashing. She was beaming at her savior, but her face fell slightly when he didn't so much as acknowledge her presence. Instead, he turned and looked at Hermione with eyes that appeared far deeper than she could remember them – she convinced herself it was a trick of the light, or a symptom of the heavy dark circles beneath his eyes. He was also unshaven, a few days worth of facial hair softening his pointy face.

“Granger,” he said again, nodding to her. The way the name loitered about the corners of his mouth made it feel like an insult. Hermione felt her spine tingle once again, and she shuddered against her will.

“It's Weasley, if you please,” she reminded Draco, crossing her arms over her chest, partly to help her express her annoyance, and partly to help stay warm. Unfortunately, the sneer that materialized on Malfoy's face at the mention of her new last name did nothing to help with the shivers.

“Yes, I know. Which makes it all the more surprising that you actually went through with the marriage.”

“Just what is that supposed to mean?” asked Hermione indignantly. But rather than press his advantage, Draco's eyes flashed a worried look, and his gaze traveled down to the ground. “Malfoy?” This latest turn of events was so unexpected, that Hermione forgot for a moment that she was supposed to be upset. She took a step towards Draco, turning her back wholly on Millicent.

“Nothing,” said Malfoy quietly. He looked back up, and whatever it was that had clouded his features appeared to have passed. “It meant nothing.”

“Are you sure you're a-” Draco held up a hand to stop Hermione short of finishing her question, and with a warning look, he walked to where she was standing.

“May I?” he asked, looking down at the hand that Hermione was using to hold the W.O.L.F. badges.

“May you what?” asked Hermione, confused. This had to be the oddest encounter she'd ever had with Malfoy.

“Have a badge.” Hermione gave a start, her muscles involuntarily contracting, and she felt one of the badge's pins stick deeply into the palm of her hand. She gasped in pain, and dropped the badges on the ground with a clatter. She brought the hand up to her face to look at it, and could see a few drops of blood starting to run in rivulets along her love line. For a brief second, she amused herself by trying to imagine how Trelawney would read such a palm, but she was pulled back to reality by Draco, who had bent over and retrieved the badges.

“W.O.L.F?” he asked, holding one of the badges up to his eyes and turning it over as if expecting it to sprout fangs and attack him.

“Wizards for Obtaining Lycanthropist Freedoms,” Hermione responded, glad to finally be back on firmer footing. If there was one thing she was prepared to talk about, it was the injustices that werewolves were facing.

“Catchy,” allowed Malfoy, half a smirk on his face. “Your acronyms have gotten better.” Hermione felt her face get very red, and she looked away from Malfoy, hoping he wouldn't look at her until she managed to stop blushing. She had just wanted to use S.P.E.W. again (Society for the Promotion of Equality for Werewolves), but Ron, in one of his (seemingly increasing) moments of brilliance, had convinced her to use the far better W.O.L.F. It hadn't taken much convincing.

“The acronym isn't what's important, it's the message,” insisted Hermione, holding out her hands so Draco could return the badges. “How would you feel if your son was attacked and bitten by a werewolf? Would you be willing to ship him off to Azkaban? Or would you fight for him.”

“With all of the werewolves in Azkaban, I don't necessarily have to worry about that, do I?” Draco's response was one that Hermione had not prepared for, and she gaped at him stupidly.

“But that's not- you can't-”

“It was a fair answer to an unfair question,” Malfoy said. He leaned in towards Hermione, and held up the badge he'd been inspecting. “But let's try and drum up some support.” He straightened up and shouted, “Here, make yourself useful Bullstrode,” over Hermione's shoulder, and he tossed the badge up into the air towards Millicent. Hermione didn't turn around, but she heard it clatter to the ground uncaught. The sound was very reminiscent of a dream being shattered.

“I don't think so Malfoy,” spat Millicent, surprising Hermione, who thought that Draco still commanded a bit of respect amongst his fellow ex-Slytherins. “You no longer have the right to tell me what to do. You lost that long ago.” The sound of heavy retreating footsteps could be heard, and Draco chuckled to himself.

“Nice to see you too,” he shouted after Millicent, but there was no response. Hermione looked back over her shoulder to find that they were completely alone. She hadn't seen Diagon Alley this empty since the days when Voldemort was still in power. Only the owls still appeared willing to venture out into the open. The shivers returned twice as strong as before, and the pain in her palm intensified.

“Do you need help hanging that up?” asked Draco, pointing to the banner that was still lying on the ground. Hermione looked down at it and then back up at Draco, a confused look on her face.

“All right, what's the joke. Why are you being... civil?” she asked, drawing out her wand. Thankfully, her wand hand was not the one that was injured.

“You don't like it?” Draco raised an eyebrow, and pulled out his own wand. Hermione recognized it immediately as the one Harry had used to defeat Voldemort. She had argued vehemently against giving it back to Draco, but Harry had been insistent.

“Honestly, no. It's very... disconcerting.” Hermione pointed her wand at the banner, and without a word, she had it levitating towards the front of her store.

“Your honesty is annoying,” said Draco, with a magnificent imitation of his own sneer. “There, is that better?” Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Not really, you have to mean it. What's wrong with you Draco? You show up looking like that, then you act... well, not like the Draco I know. I'm starting to think that you're in need of a favor.”

Draco trained his wand at the set of posters already on the building, and gave his wand a sharp tug. The posters didn't move. “You really are as clever as they say,” he said, his face darkening. “All right, I do need a favor. A rather large one, and I'd appreciate it if we talked about this someplace more private.” He once again tried to pull the existing posters off the wall, but they merely fluttered a little at the edges.

“Permanent Sticking Charm,” said Hermione softly, positioning the new W.O.L.F. banner directly above the doorway. “I've lost too many banners through the years to leave it to chance. Proprius Suggero!” With a sucking sound, the poster attached itself to the thick layer of parchment already papering the front of Obscurus Books. “That should ensure our privacy, at least,” she added, almost to herself. There had been a time when being alone with Draco Malfoy would have been the very last thing in the world she wanted, but now... well, it was still towards the bottom of the list.

“Let's get this over with then,” mumbled Draco, and he headed for the door to the shop. Hermione was hesitant to follow, but her curiosity finally got the better of her. If Draco was asking her, of all people, for help, he must truly be desperate.

The interior of Obscurus books was small and cramped. Mountains of slumbering volumes were stacked on every flat surface, leaving just enough room for people to pass in amongst them. Two hard straight-backed chairs (both with sizable stacks of books on them) were crowded around a small coffee table, on which, Hermione noted, her list of books she needed to find for Luna was still sitting. “Have a seat,” she instructed Draco, motioning him toward one of the chairs. “Would you like something to drink?”

“With all do respect, Granger, I'd really rather just get on with it.” Draco's face was unreadable as he stooped to remove the books from the seat of one of the chairs. He withdrew his hand almost immediately after making contact with the top book, however, and let out a yelp. “It burned me! Bloody book burned me!” Hermione rolled her eyes, and picked up a pair of dragonhide gloves that were on top of yet another pile of books on the counter.

“How terribly forgetful of me,” she said, feigning regret and pulling on the gloves. “That's Newt Scamander's newest manuscript. Just sent it back from Brazil. How to Walk Through Fire Slugs and Not Get Burned. I need to try and figure out how to mass produce it without burning the printing press. I'm nearly there, I think.” She had arrived at the chair, and very lovingly she picked up the book and set it on the stack of books on the coffee table. She then moved the remaining books from both chairs onto the floor.

“I think it's probably more important to figure out how to prevent its readers from bursting into flames,” griped Draco, rubbing his red and blistered fingers.

“I can have Winky bring you some paste for that if you'd like,” Hermione said, glancing at Draco's fingers. She felt a sympathy pang from where the pin had stuck her earlier. She glanced down at her own hand and saw that the blood had dried on her palm.

“That would be the house-elf who you force to call you 'Mistress,' and pay a mere pittance?” asked Draco, his sneer reforming. It was so often upon his features, that it seemed Draco was beginning to develop sneer lines rather than laugh lines.

“You can't believe everything Rita Skeeter writes,” groaned Hermione, before letting out a great sigh. “There's a reason she doesn't write for the Daily Prophet anymore, you know. Can't get her articles past the fact checker.” She smiled bitterly at the thought of one of her more personally satisfying victories. Unfortunately, Rita's quill was just as bitter and caustic as ever, especially towards Hermione. She had not taken her outing as an unregistered Animagus and subsequent stint in Azkaban well.

“I'll pass on the paste, but I'd appreciate it if you could have the elf leave for a bit. I don't want to be overheard.” Hermione shrugged and tilted her head sideways to look at Draco. He certainly was being very secretive.

“Winky!” she called, and a scuffling sound could be heard in the upstairs apartment. Then, with a faint pop, the floppy-eared house-elf appeared before them wearing a green sundress with white lace ruffles.

“Yes, Mistress? Winky is here, Mistress.” The house-elf looked up expectantly at Hermione. Draco's sneer grew several sizes too large – it now approximated an actual smile – and Hermione groaned as her face flushed.

“Winky, how many times must I ask you not to call me mistress?”

“Winky is needing to be asked once more at least, Mistress,” the elf answered, bowing low. Hermione groaned again. She had almost preferred Winky when she'd been too intoxicated to be much use around the shop.

“All right, fine,” she said in exasperation. She dug in a pocket and withdrew a Galleon. Winky shrank away in fear from the sight of it. “Don't worry, I'm not going to give you a bonus again,” Hermione assured her. The last time she'd tried to use that tactic as a punishment, Winky had cried for three weeks straight, nearly as long as she had when she'd found out that Dobby had died.

“Oh thank you Mis- Mrs. Weasley! I is not be needing any extra money, already I is being too rich.”

“Yes, yes... now would you take this to Scribbulus Everchanging Inks and pick up the paper order that we made last week? The flame-retardant pages, remember?”

“Yes,” agreed Winky excitedly, nodding her head. Her ears flopped about wildly. “I is remembering the order, Mis- Mrs. Weasley was asking Winky to place it herself!”

“That's right. Now, I'm going to want a receipt and exact change back, all right? Don't try and slip some of your wages back in with the change, or I will have to give it back to you. Do I make myself clear?” Winky nodded, though with less enthusiasm this time, and took the Galleon. She held it out away from her body as though it was poisonous. In a blink, she was gone.

“Interesting house-elf you've got there,” said Draco from the chair he'd sat down in.

“It's a long story,” mumbled Hermione, “and I was under the impression that you'd 'really rather just get on with it.'” Draco nodded seriously, and leaned forward.

“What I am about to tell you does not leave this room, do you understand?” Hermione said nothing, but made a motion with her hands for Draco to proceed. If he was really as desperate as he seemed, he was going to ask for her help even without her assurance of privacy. “It's Australis.” Hermione's face lit up at the mention of Draco's wife. Even though they had not done more than send each other Christmas cards over the years, she still loved to hear about the woman that she owed so much.

“She's quite sick,” whispered Draco, hanging his head and bringing his hands up to hold it. Hermione gasped audibly, and she fell back into the chair opposite Draco.

“Will she be all right?” she asked, frantically. Draco didn't say anything for nearly a minute, and Hermione was left to imagine any number of horrid diseases that Australis might have.

“We don't know,” said Draco suddenly, looking up from his hands. His eyes were red, and Hermione noted with amazement that he was trying very hard not to cry. She had had her doubts about whether he was human enough to cry. “It's... a difficult situation.” Hermione looked around for a handkerchief, but finding nothing, resorted to using her wand to summon one.

“Here,” she said simply, handing Draco the handkerchief. He took it, but did not use it.

“It's an autoimmune disease, a kind of lupus. Apropos, I know,” Draco scoffed.

“Oh don't,” pleaded Hermione, “don't joke.”

“I have to. It's too sadistic not to joke. There are different types of lupus, see... this one, it attacks...” Draco put his head in his hands again, and Hermione could see him surreptitiously use the handkerchief.

“Take your time,” she said, trying to sound calm when her insides were anything but.

“It attacks the blood, but not just at random. It targets the cells responsible for magic.” Hermione gasped again in spite of herself. Fate, it seemed, had one wicked sense of justice. The one thing Draco took pride in more than anything else was slowly being taken away from him.

“So she's...” The question didn't need to be finished. Draco nodded miserably.

“Pretty soon, too. She's already having trouble controlling her spells, and they are getting weaker and weaker. Please, you have to promise that you won't tell anyone about this Hermione, I don't think she could... I don't think I could...”

“Not a word,” promised Hermione, moved by Draco's use of her given name for the first time. “But what is it that you need me to do? I'm no Healer.”

“I know, it's just... you're the smartest person I know, and you've got access to all of these books. I know it's probably too late to help Australis, but... it's genetic.” Hermione's heart sank even farther into her stomach.

“You don't think that-”

“I do.”

“Oh Draco, I'm so sorry,” Hermione whispered. “You don't deserve this.” Draco looked up again, and there was a ghost of a smile on his face.

“Yes, I do. I deserve it. But not Scorpius. He's done nothing wrong. He's such a sweet boy, just like his mother. I couldn't live knowing that I hadn't done everything I could to protect him.” Hermione felt a sob catch at the back of her throat, and tears were starting to form in her eyes. The fact that Draco was so devoted to his son moved her to get out of her chair and stride around the coffee table. He looked up at her in confusion, but she bent over and wrapped her arms around him in a hug anyway.

“I'll do what I can,” she pledged before breaking away.

“What was that, Granger?” asked Draco, standing up so quickly that the chair toppled over backwards. Or would have, had it not merely tipped into a stack of the omnipresent books. “You've not gone soft on me?” Hermione threw her hands up in frustration.

“You're infuriating, do you know that?” she asked, wiping tears on the sleeve of her robes.

“I don't much care for you either,” replied Draco, holding out the handkerchief and reaching into the pocket of his robes. He withdrew his hand, and Hermione could see the remainder of the W.O.L.F. badges in it. She took the handkerchief, and the badges, and turned to put them on the coffee table. She could hear Draco shuffling towards the front door, and her shoulders slumped when the bell over the door rang, indicating that it had been opened.

“Oh, and Granger?” She spun around, to find Draco still standing in the doorway with a badge in his hand. “I'd fight.” He carefully pinned the badge onto the lapel of his jacket, and turned to walk out into the Diagon Alley afternoon.

A/N: This chapter did not write itself as all of the previous chapters have.  I had to actually work for this one, and that led to the slight delay in getting it posted.  Also contributing was the fact that all of my good ideas are now coming in for the last chapter of the story, rather than the chapter I was trying to write.  That got a bit frustrating.  Hopefully the next chapter will be easier.

This chapter has a bit of a different feel to it.  I know that several people have stated in their reviews that they like my story because it's so happy.  I'm sorry if they don't care for this chapter, but it's a story i really wanted to tell.  Draco's appearance has always changed the mood in the books as well, and we all know how I feel about the books.  For those of you looking for a silver lining, we can deduce that Scorpius is still able to do magic eight years later when he goes off to Hogwarts.  Whether this was because of Hermione, or simply because he did not contract the disease (it is rare in males after all), remains to be seen.

This was another "half-chapter," just like the last four chapters have been.  There are several more things that need to happen in this particular set piece, not least among which is the Marauder's map.  No, I didn't forget about it.  On the bright side, this also means that there will be at least one additional chapter.

Once again I need to be very adamant in my praise and thanks of my fantastic readers and reviewers.  You've been far too kind in your praise, but I must admit that it helped me to get through some tough times for this particular chapter.  I very nearly succumbed to a bout of writer's block, and I hope it will not rear its ugly head in the future.  I also need to add a special note of thanks to JulesofDenial for helping me out with this chapter.  Well, she helps with all of them, but in particular on this one.

So, that about wraps up this chapter... I just have to say that until we meet again, remember to Cry W.O.L.F!

Chapter 11: Earthy
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Chapter Eleven: Earthy

“Was that Malfoy I just saw leaving?” Hermione had barely had a chance to sit down and compose herself when the bell above the front door of Obscurus Books had rung again. Ginny had walked through the door blindly, her head had been turned to look back over her shoulder, and now she was striding towards Hermione with a puzzled look on her face.

“Unfortunately,” mumbled Hermione, hastily busying herself with adjusting the pile of books on the coffee table in front of her in an attempt to look unconcerned. She was so distracted, however, that she forgot entirely that the book on the top of the pile was none other than Newt Scamander's manuscript. She let out a yelp when she tried to pick it up, and she quickly withdrew her hand and put her burned finger in her mouth.

“Are you all right?” asked Ginny, increasing the speed with which she was approaching Hermione's chair. She wore a look of concern so intense that it very nearly prompted Hermione to admit that no, she was not at all, 'all right.' Draco Malfoy (Draco Malfoy!) had asked her for assistance, she had hugged him in a moment of weakness (she shuddered just thinking about it), the majority of Diagon Alley was avoiding her as if she had Scrofungulus, and Australis, without whose help she might still be looking for her parents, was rapidly losing her magical ability.
“Never better,” lied Hermione, but even as she said it, she flinched at how utterly unconvincing she sounded. Ginny froze in place, and looked Hermione up and down with a frown.

“Right, and I'm the ruddy Minister for Magic,” scoffed Ginny, her assessment complete. “There's obviously something bothering you. It's not at all like you to mishandle a book.” Ginny resumed moving towards Hermione, and she grabbed hold of the second chair and pulled it closer to the coffee table before having a seat. “Come on, we're sisters, and while I may not have a whole lot more experience than you at this sort of relationship, I'm pretty sure that we're meant to talk to one another.”

“Funny, I've not seen you having too many heart to hearts with Fleur,” Hermione joked, desperately trying to change the subject. The truth was of the matter was, she really wanted to tell someone what she'd just found out, and Ginny was the ideal candidate. As much as she loved Ron, she knew that the moment she mentioned the name Draco Malfoy, nothing else she had to say would get through to him. But, she had promised, and to break that promise would mean letting Australis down as well.

“Is it Malfoy that's bothering you?” asked Ginny, not falling at all for Hermione's attempt at baiting her. “I'd be more than happy to go after him. I've got a wand you know, and I know how to use it.” In spite of herself, Hermione chuckled. Perhaps Ron and Ginny weren't so different after all.

“No, no, that won't be necessary,” insisted Hermione with a grin. “Trust me, if the bouncing ferret had climbed up the wrong pant leg, he wouldn't have been walking.”

“No, I think it more likely he'd be all laid up,” Ginny replied, an impish gleam in her eyes.

“Too right, he would!” agreed Hermione, but Ginny burst into a fit of giggles, causing her older sister to look at her curiously. “What's so funny?” But Ginny was too far gone to give a coherent response, and instead mimed an act that made Hermione shudder violently, blush profusely, and feel rather ill, all at once.

“Ginny Potter, how could you even suggest such a thing?” she cried, the aftertaste from the bile she'd just swallowed making her cringe. Ginny held up her hands to make peace, but was still laughing too hard to get out a proper apology.

“Sorry,” she finally managed, gasping for breath. “The look... the look on your face... was brilliant.” Hermione scowled and glared at Ginny. “Oh! There it is again!” Ginny exclaimed, before cracking up once more.

“If you ever insinuate... that... again, so help me, it won't matter that you're my sister,” warned Hermione. But she smiled as she said it, and was still smiling when Ginny finally managed to regain her composure nearly a minute later.

“Are you quite done?” Hermione asked, as Ginny wiped away tears of mirth. Ginny nodded and raised an eyebrow.

“So what's bothering you, really?” Hermione groaned and got up out of her chair.

“I thought you were done.” She walked towards the counter, picking her way expertly through the stacks of books, intent on getting a bit of burn paste for her finger, which had taken to throbbing dully. To the untrained eye, Obscurus Books was just a ramshackle collection with very little rhyme or reason to why books were located where they were. And in this particular case, the untrained eye would be right. Hermione had tried for years to get the books to accept a logical new classification system, but whenever she'd tried to enforce it, they had always wound up right back they were in the first place. So Hermione had instead carefully cataloged the exact location of every volume, and could now find her way about the shop in her sleep. Or distracted, as the case may be.

“Is it Ron? Is he being a prat again?” Hermione rummaged through a drawer behind the corner, and let Ginny wait for a moment. She considered simply summoning the burn paste, but dismissed the notion quickly. As so often happened, she was more interested in the search than in the destination. At last she found it, placed in such a way that the Silver Sickles it was sitting on top of were hidden from view. She hadn't remembered putting the money there, and realized that it had to have been Winky. She sighed, and closed the drawer after removing the paste and the Sickles. She needed to have a talk with that elf.

“Ron's been great actually. Not that he isn't normally, of course, but lately, I don't know. He's been-” Hermione broke off and worked the top off of the tube of burn paste, hoping that the hair that now hung down in front of her face hid her reddened cheeks.

“He's been what?” prodded Ginny. Hermione didn't have to see her face to know that there was a smirk splayed across it. “Charming? Frisky? Sensual?” Hermione's grip on the tube tightened in surprise, and a gob of the viscous preparation squirted out onto the counter, miraculously missing the cover of a first edition copy of Hairy Snout, Human Heart that she had pulled from the stacks for Luna to look at. Hermione risked a glance at Ginny, but she was thankfully unaware of what had transpired.

“No,” replied Hermione softly, pulling out her wand to clean up the mess, and then, wondering why she hadn't done it earlier, vanishing the dried blood from her palm as well. “Well yes... but he's been... more than that... earthy.” She put her wand away, and squeezed the tube again, albeit more gently, and sighed as it immediately cooled her burned finger. The sensation was not unlike a long hug with Ron. Feeling far better, for reasons she couldn't quite explain, she looked up to see Ginny beaming at her. “What? What is it?” she asked, puzzled.

“Earthy?” Ginny shook her head slowly. “Of all the words that you, Queen Bookworm, know, you choose earthy?” Hermione recapped the tube, and slid it back in the drawer.

“Sometimes simple words say it best,” she said with a shrug. “But enough about me, what brings you to our fine establishment? Can I interest you in a mint condition ra-” But Hermione got no farther. Ginny had stood up and reached around to her back pocket, and the Marauder's Map was now grasped in her hand. “Oh! Hogsmeade Weekend? Is it Ron's turn?” Ginny nodded, and returned the map to her pocket.

“Yes, Ron's up. You'll let him know tonight?”

“I suppose I have to, don't I?” Hermione said with another shrug. “I don't necessarily think it's a good idea for him and George to go traipsing through Hogwarts uninvited, but it's not like I can tell him no.”

“They'll be fine, Hermione. George has never been caught before, and the Marauder's Map makes it unlikely he ever will be. Plus, it's George we're talking about. He knows the school like the back of his hand.”

“Plus, you know, it's not like Ron's a really good Auror or anything,” added Hermione with a frown. She was very proud of her husband's hard work, and didn't like it when people underestimated him. “But that doesn't mean I'm not going to worry about them.”

“Well, here,” said Ginny, moving closer to the counter now, “I've got something for you to do that will help take your mind off of it. Have you got a quill and a bit of spare parchment?” Hermione opened a second drawer behind the counter, and more coins rattled up at her, and she muttered under her breath as she withdrew the requested items. She put them on the counter for Ginny, then opened the remaining drawers to see if Winky had socked away anything else.

By the time she had closed the last drawer, Ginny had finished writing on the parchment, and Hermione's pockets were considerably heavier. “I'll tell you what's bothering me,” began Hermione, before realizing it probably wasn't a good idea to bring up the forgotten subject, “it's almost as if Winky's doing this just to make me upset. Why else would she hide money in a place she knows I'm going to look?”

“You could always suggest to her that she donate the money to a worthwhile cause, rather than stuffing it in drawers,” suggested Ginny, turning the paper over so that Hermione could read it. The words 'Guest List' were written at the top in a long smooth script, and below that was written '1: Neville Longbottom.'

“That's not a bad idea actually,” allowed Hermione, kicking herself for not thinking of it on her own. But with her luck, Winky would just ignore the prudent advice. “And what's the guest list for?”

“For a party of course,” answered Ginny brightly, sliding the bit of parchment over the smooth glossy finish of the ash countertop towards Hermione.


“Harry's getting out of St. Mungo's tomorrow, and the boys would like to give him a homecoming party.”

“Wait... Harry's better?” Despite her relief at the news, Hermione was actually feeling guiltier now than she had been before, because she hadn't asked about his health immediately.

“I just visited him actually,” Ginny responded, answering Hermione with a nod of her head. “He seems to be in exceptionally high spirits, everything considered. The kids are there with him now, listening to a story.”

“Look, Ginny,” began Hermione, finding a particularly interesting knot in the countertop to study, “I'm really sorry about all of this. If I'd been thorough en-”

“Would you please stop apologizing?” insisted Ginny. “Nobody blames you but yourself.”

“But still, I could have killed-”

“No buts. He's not dead, and on the whole, I think I owe you a thank you.” This statement seemed so utterly illogical to Hermione, that she stopped scrutinizing the knot, and looked up at Ginny to try and figure out the joke. However, she was surprised to find that her sister-in-law looked very serious. “First,” began Ginny, “now we don't need to worry about Dragon Pox anymore. With three young children running around the house, Harry was bound to get it at some point.”

“Well, that makes some sense,” allowed Hermione, “but that's not worth thanking me for.”

“No, perhaps not. But second...” Ginny paused, and it was her turn to cast her eyes downward. “You remember how how you said that Ron had been... acting differently lately?” Hermione nodded, but then realized that Ginny couldn't see her.

“I do,” she affirmed, “but I don't see-”

“Harry too,” Ginny said softly, as she lifted her head. The far off look in Ginny's eyes told Hermione everything she needed to know. An immense weight that she did not even realize she had been carrying around with her was lifted off of her shoulders, and she could feel her spirits rising accordingly. She took the quill that Ginny had placed back on the counter, and wrote her name down on the guest list under Neville's. The act appeared to snap Ginny out of her reverie.

“I think you misunderstood the point of that,” she said with a wan smile. She pointed at the guest list, and Hermione looked down at it, half expecting to find some new rune or a hidden bit of text in one of the corners. But no, it was just a piece of parchment.

“Am I not invited then?” she asked, poising the quill's point above her name so she could strike it out if need be.

“Don't be ridiculous, of course you and Ron are invited. And the kids too of course,” she added hastily. “But I want you too organize the party and invite the guests. I think it'll do you good, and hopefully get your mind off of whatever it is that's bothering you.” Ginny had apparently not yet noticed that Hermione's mood had improved substantially.

“All right, I'd be happy to do it,” Hermione replied without hesitation. She picked up the parchment and rolled it up tightly before pocketing it.

“Well, that was easier than I thought it would be,” Ginny admitted, looking relieved that Hermione had agreed so quickly. “I thought I'd have to... persuade you.” Hermione could see Ginny fingering her wand inside her jeans, and started to laugh.

“Don't be silly. I'll do anything I can to help out. Besides, I owe the two of you for making this week so difficult on you.” Ginny opened her mouth to protest, but Hermione tutted at her. “We just got through all of that, let's not rehash it.” Ginny nodded amiably, and a smile curled the corners of her lips.

“You do remember me saying that Harry is going to be getting released tomorrow, right?” Hermione had, in fact, forgotten that little tidbit – she'd been too relieved to hear that he was better – but she did a remarkable job of not showing it.

“Late afternoon?” she asked, hoping for a few extra hours to work with. Ginny nodded. “And just how big would you like the party to be?”

“I trust you Hermione, just don't pull something like you did at that Christmas party two years ago.” But as soon as she finished her sentence, one of Ginny's hands flew to her mouth as though trying to force the words back in. Hermione felt her left eyebrow rise slightly, and she pressed her lips together into a thin line.

“You told me that you couldn't remember anything about that night.” Her voice was dangerously quiet. “And if you'll recall, you were just a-” but Hermione broke off when Ginny pointed an accusatory finger at her.

“I thought you didn't remember anything either,” she spluttered, her eyes going wide. Both witches were silent for a moment as they thought back to the night in question and considered just what they did or did not remember.

“Oh dear,” whispered Hermione finally. She caught Ginny's eyes with her own, but they quickly turned away from one another, each with a face more scarlet than the walls of the Gryffindor common room. I assure you that the nothing like that will happen ever, let alone tomorrow. And that was just the four of us,” she reminded Ginny. She looked back at her sister-in-law, and was surprised to see her grinning, though her cheeks were still quite pink.

“Just so you know, I don't regret it. Everybody got something out of that night.”

“You figured it out too, then?” asked Hermione, who was amazed at how easily they could stand there and talk about this rationally. It felt good to have the secret out in the open finally.

“It wasn't that difficult – just subtract nine months from Hugo and Lily's birthdays, and you wind up centered on Christmas.” Hermione nodded.

“I'd do it again,” she said, remembering what it had felt like to hold Hugo in her arms for the first time and the look of joy on Ron's face. No, she didn't regret it at all.

“Are you offering?” asked Ginny, her eyebrows raised and a smirk playing on her lips.

“You're terrible!” cried Hermione, with a voice an octave higher than normal.

“I know.” The impish gleam had returned to Ginny's eyes, and Hermione had to laugh. “Look, I've got to get going. I still need to drop off the you-know-what with George, and Harry's probably had to move on to a second story by now. Not that he'll mind.” Ginny looked at her watch before adding, “plus, visiting hours are nearly over, and I don't want to think about what Ernie would do to the kids if he finds them still there.

“I'll come with you to see George,” said Hermione, grabbing a small box from farther down the counter. “I need to remind him just what will happen to him if he doesn't get Ron back in one piece tomorrow.” She withdrew a W.O.L.F. badge from the box, and held it out for Ginny to take. “And I'd like to get at least a few new members of W.O.L.F. before I go home for the night.” Ginny examined the badge briefly and pinned it on the front of her jumper.

“One down then,” she said with a smile. “This is what was bothering you, wasn't it?” Ginny looked as though she'd just had a light bulb flicker on over her head, and in fact she had. Hermione looked up at the culprit with a feeble smile.

“Oh bravo, very funny. What have I told you about doing that?” Ginny gave Hermione a confused and slightly put out look, but Hermione pointed over her head. “Sorry, I was talking to the light bulb. Always getting bright ideas, that one.”

“Is that...” Ginny's gaze had followed Hermione's finger, and she was now looking at the floating light bulb, which seemed to be shining a bit brighter, perhaps enjoying the attention.

“Yes, your Dad's housewarming gift. The charm on it has got a lot stronger since way back then, though. The thing nearly thinks it's human,” Hermione said as she walked around the counter and towards the front door carrying the box of badges.

“You should let him know, he'd probably be thrilled with the results,” replied Ginny, joining her sister in walking towards the door.

“I'd rather not encourage him,” Hermione said with a frown. “Your mother might disown me.” She withdrew her wand from her robes with her free hand, and used it to change the sign that hung on the door so that it read 'closed,' and locked the door after them after both she and Ginny had exited the shop.

“Wouldn't Winky look after the shop?” asked Ginny, puzzled. The two had started to walk down the alley, which had regained some of its usual bustle. Oddly, the group of people who usually grouped around Obscurus Books to discuss whatever banner was hanging there was conspicuously absent. Hermione tried hard not to think about what that might mean.

“She usually would, but I have a feeling that she's off at the Leaky Cauldron spending as much of her money on Butterbeer as she can.”

“But I thought -”

“Oh no, she doesn't drink anymore,” confirmed Hermione, anticipating Ginny's question, “she just sits at the bar on a stack of plates and looks at the bottles, then pours it all down the sink in the water closet. I think Tom's actually started to keep her empty bottles to use the next time she shows up. Fills them with a bit of colored water I'd expect.”

“I always thought Tom was a bit smarter than he let on, most barmen are,” Ginny mumbled, mainly to herself. Hermione was reminded of Aberforth, and she agreed internally with Ginny's assessment.

The walk to Weasley's Wizard Wheezes was longer than most on Diagon Alley, as it was located very nearly at the opposite end from Obscurus Books. While the gaggle of people that usually stood around the latter was absent, the crowd around the former was just as large and raucous as ever. Hermione looked up at the familiar faces looking down at her from either side of the shop's name, and had to smile. George was holding an Extendable Ear up to the hole in the side of his head, and the bit of string extended out beneath the writing, underlining it. Fred, on the other hand, was desperately trying to get rid of the halo that kept popping up over his head. Hermione remembered eating lunch outside the shop for several weeks after the sign had first been put up, just so she could watch Fred's antics. She felt another stab of remorse that the picture was just charmed to move, not a proper wizarding portrait.

Ginny took the lead in pushing through the sea of young children and their parents, all of whom were gazing longingly into the window of colorfully displayed candy and other assorted joke products.

“What do you suppose a 'Cataclysmic Coiffer' is?” Hermione heard a tiny bald wizard ask the much taller witch standing next to him, as the two stood looking in at a display of round objects that had varying amounts of fuzz sticking out of them – they looked something like tennis balls, Hermione realized. She hurried past before the witch could respond.

When the two friends and sisters finally managed to get inside, the noise level increased ten fold, and various whizzes and bangs could be heard occuring at odd intervals throughout the shop. George stood in the center of the chaos, presiding over his kingdom from atop a small platform on which he was demonstrating several of his latest inventions.

“Look out!” cried Ginny, and Hermione felt a tug at her arm that lurched her forward and into a display of Canned Laughter, which toppled over with a racket loud enough to draw George's attention. Of course, this racket was nothing to the cacophony of different laughs that echoed through the store. Hermione was certain she could hear at least six of the thirty-two distinct varieties that George offered.

“Hey Sis!” he shouted, his head reappearing as he took off the Headless Hat he'd been using to enhance the presentation of a head shrinking candy. Several of the children around him were pointing and laughing at one another's greatly shrunken nobs. “Nice to see you and all, but would you mind not destroying the shop? We really like to keep it as organized as possible,” he said with a wink. Hermione looked around her at the utter anarchy that was happening in every corner of the store, and was forced to laugh. She looked back at George to respond, but his head had already gone missing, and he was handing out a new set of candy to delighted onlookers.

“Sorry about that,” said Ginny from behind her, “You were about to get hit by a Coiffer, and I'm sorry, but I don't think the world would be safe were Hermione Weasley to have even more hair.” Hermione laughed even harder. There was a magic about the shop that made it entirely impossible to feel insulted or even unhappy. Ginny withdrew her wand, and with an expert flick of her wrist, the display of Canned Laughter was back upright and its contents were organized by variety and size. Hermione looked at her appreciatively, but Ginny just shrugged. “Happens a lot in Hogsmeade,” she said, before taking off at a run across the store. “HEY! You there! Just where are you going young woman!”

Hermione, not knowing what else to do while they were waiting for George, followed Ginny, albeit at a slower pace intended to allow her to dodge incoming Wheezes. She had to sidestep a miniature Wildfire Whizz-Bang shaped like a dragon, and a second Coiffer before she finally caught up near the door to the back room where the twins had so long ago sold defense items. There, Ginny was giving a not-so-stern talking-to to a girl of about eight who had sprouted a long white beard and was twirling it excitedly, and not paying Ginny the least bit of mind.

“The age line is there for a reason, do you understand? Little boys and girls aren't allowed into the adult section. Maybe when you're a bit older you can go in.” The girl finally looked up at Ginny, and laughed loudly.

“I don't want to go into the stupid adult section,” disdain evident in her voice. “There's nothing cool in there. I just wanted the beard.” She ran off away from Ginny and Hermione, and rejoined a group of girls her own age who all stared at her new facial hair with a mix of reverence and jealousy.

“Adult section?” asked Hermione, after watching the girl and her friends run off towards another display. She hadn't remembered George mentioning anything about such a thing in the past.

“It's pretty new,” responded Ginny, peeking her head around the corner and into the room. A shimmering line on the floor glowed briefly as she passed, but when Ginny withdrew her head she didn't have a beard. “I've not been in there myself. The shop in Hogsmeade doesn't have one. Part of the deal with Hogwarts. But I've heard about a few of the things in there. And can I just say... George is a bloody genius.” Hermione felt her eyebrows jump up towards her hairline yet again, and she too bent around the door frame to look into the adult section.

This space was far more orderly than the rest of the shop, and it was also far less colorful. Boxes were drab, with very few pictures, and Hermione understood why the girl from before hadn't thought there was anything interesting inside. A tall skinny wizard at the back of the room – the only person in the adult section – turned around with a small box in his hand, and looked to be heading towards the door, when he spotted Hermione's head. Hermione couldn't believe her eyes.

“You!” she cried, recognizing the lean face of Emerson McNair. McNair's pale face showed the slightest hint of pink, and he quickly turned back around and deposited the box back on the shelf.

“Come to spy on me have you?” he asked as he turned back around. Hermione could see that he was visibly shaken, and had he not been such a magnificent git, she might have felt sorry for him. As it was, she couldn't wait for him to leave so she could go and see what it was he'd wanted to purchase. At this distance she could only make out the word 'Extension' on the box, but what that referred to, she had no idea. Unfortunately, a second tug on her sleeve forced her to pull her head out of the adult section. George was standing next to Ginny, and he was grinning at her.

“Welcome, welcome! To what do I owe this great honor?” he asked, stooping into a low bow. Hermione rolled her eyes.

“Oh, knock it off,” she said, swatting him on the arm playfully. “I came to tell you to take it easy with Ron tomorrow. Be safe, and you'll have no trouble sitting down for the rest of the month. On the other hand, if you wind up getting in trouble...” Hermione let her half-joking threat linger in the air, and George looked her up and down appraisingly.

“Nope, don't want to get on her bad side,” he stage whispered to Ginny, who was standing beside him grinning. “Psst... what's tomorrow, and why am I doing it with Ron?” It was Ginny's turn to roll her eyes, and she reached around to her back pocket and withdrew the Marauder's Map. George's mood instantly changed, but Hermione couldn't quite put her finger on just how. He took the map gingerly, and unfolded it it with great care.

“Good to see you boys,” he breathed, before refolding the map and tucking it under his arm. “So Ron's coming with me then?” Hermione nodded. “Excellent, have him at the Hogsmeade shop at ten in the morning. Good luck having him awake and dressed by then, I know that Ickle-Ronnie has a bit of rough go of it in the mornings. Don't keep him up too late tonight either. I saw you eyeing up the adult section,” remarked George with a sparkle in his eye and a wide smile. “Pick anything on me. I owe it to you, after all.”

“What? Why?” asked Hermione, thoroughly baffled.

“For allowing me the use of your husband tomorrow,” George answered, a bit too quickly. “But never mind that, let's go get something to eat. I could go for some ice cream.”

“I'm afraid I can't,” responded Ginny, checking her watch again. “I've really got to get to the hospital. Harry's probably starting to get worried about me.”

“Harry, worried about you? Now that's a laugh,” chuckled George. “Must be nice to have the shoe on the other foot for a change.” Ginny reached up and hugged her brother, and whispered something in his ear that Hermione couldn't quite make out. George nodded at her with a kindly smile, and she turned to Hermione. The hug was repeated, but without the whisper, and Ginny disappeared into the colorful mess that was Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.

“And then there were two,” quipped George, looking at Hermione. “How about it, ice cream?”

“Sorry George,” she said, wincing slightly at the brief flash of George's eyes at the rejection. “How about Trixie? Why don't you get some ice cream with her?”

“Trix's got an appointment with a doctor. That's why the shop is a bit more out of control today than usual. Things tend to go downhill fast without her.” Hermione knew that George was not being intentionally profound while talking about his wife, but his words were true on a lot of levels.

“Is she all right?” Asked Hermione, hoping that the answer was a yes. She'd seen George destroyed once, and seeing it again might just destroy her as well.

“Yeah, she's fine,” said George, with a weak smile. “I wish she'd go to a Healer instead of her old Muggle doctor, but I guess she's more comfortable with him. Nothing to worry about, I'm sure. Just been feeling a bit off, that's all.”

“Well I'm sure everything will work out all right,” Hermione said reassuringly. “In the meantime, how'd you like to come to Harry's homecoming party tomorrow?” George immediately cheered up at the mention of the party, and he laughed loudly.

“You're joking, right? You're asking me if I want to come to a party?”

“All right, fine, I'll add you to the list. Can we expect Trixie to be there?”

“Oh come on, that's nearly as silly a question as asking me!” Hermione had to laugh herself this time. There was no doubt that together George and Trixie were the life of any party.

“All right, I'll add her too. I've got to run George, but it was great seeing you. And who knows, maybe I'll swing by sometime and pick up a little something.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder towards the door to the adult section, and George beamed at her. “Oh! And before I forget, would you be willing to wear a W.O.L.F. button?” She took a badge out of the box she was still carrying, and extended it towards her brother-in-law.

“It clashes horribly with my robes,” he said as he took it from her grasp. “So absolutely.”

“Thanks,” said Hermione softly. She knew that the first few badges were going to be the easiest, as she was asking only those that she knew would support her. It was after that that everything got more difficult.

“Actually, could I have a few more?” asked George, stretching out his hand. “I'll be heading over to Quality Quidditch Supplies later, and I'll see if I can't get Angelina to wear one. And you know full well that Trixie will wear one proudly.” Hermione beamed at George. She'd never had a brother growing up, but now she didn't know how she had lived without them.

“You can have the box,” she said brightly, pushing it into George's hands. I've got hundreds of badges back at the shop. “I really appreciate the help.” She pushed up against George and hugged him tightly. A loud bang from the other side of the shop caused George to break away and, with a quick wave over his shoulder, he too disappeared into the crowd.

Suddenly alone, and very tired, Hermione decided to go home for the night. She'd managed to distribute four badges, and possibly a fifth, and she had the party to start planning. She picked her way carefully out of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, knowing that it had anti-apparition charms set up around it to prevent an easy escape for thieves – actually, George had once told her about the extensive anti-burglar traps that he and Fred had devised, and Hermione doubted that any potential thief would make it far enough into a robbery to get to the point of disapparating. Once out in the open air, Hermione withdrew her wand, and turned on the spot, the familiar feeling of compression washing over her quickly. As much as she disliked traveling this way with the kids, she had to admit that there was no beating it for convenience.

With a nearly silent pop, she appeared in the back garden of the Athenaeum; she always liked to come in the back way just in case a Muggle happened to be watching the front of the house. The sun was beginning to set, and the orange sky visible through the Oak trees at the edge of the property reminded Hermione of Ron for some reason. She was really looking forward to settling in for the night with him and the kids. She opened the back door, and stepped into the kitchen. With a dawning dread, she realized that she still needed to make dinner, and she had a feeling that they were out of potatoes.

“Hermione, is that you?” Ron's voice rang through the house. It sounded as if he'd magically amplified it.

“Yes, it's me. Are you hungry?” she asked, before realizing how utterly pointless the question was. There wasn't a minute of the day that Ron Weasley wasn't capable of eating a full meal.

“Sure am, that's why we ordered pizza. Why don't you come on into the family room, and we'll have dinner.” Smiling broadly, Hermione walked through the kitchen, grabbed some napkins, which she was absolutely certain Ron would have forgotten, and made her way out through the dining room and into the family room. The sight that greeted her took her breath away. On the white wall opposite the doorway where she now stood was a giant crayon mural, that Rose was working on even now.

“What. is. that?” moaned Hermione, temporarily forgetting that she could just magic the drawing off of the wall.

“WE'VE BE-” Ron looked startled, and raised his wand up to his throat “Quietus,he said, and when he resumed talking, it was in his normal voice. “Sorry. Rose was drawing you pictures at Mum's house when I picked her up after work, and she didn't want to stop. I didn't know where we kept the construction paper, so I figured I'd just let her use the wall. It'll come right off, won't it?” he added uncertainly.

“Yes, it will,” Hermione reassured him, realizing that she'd been silly to be upset. Being a witch certainly had its advantages. She moved over to Rose, and bent down beside her. “What are you working on there?” she asked.

“Sniffler,” she said simply, coloring in a brown shaped blob that was surrounded by yellow and gray circles. Hermione laughed. She had gotten Ron the pet Niffler for his birthday several years ago, and he was very fond of it, even though it wasn't particularly good at turning up anything valuable. She moved down the wall, and found more of the family represented in front of a house that vaguely resembled the Athenaeum.

“And this is Daddy and I?” she asked, pointing to two skinny figures that were holding hands. One had a wild frizz of brown hair, and the other a pancake of shocking red.

“Yep, and there's Hugo and me,” said Rose, pointing at a spot a little further to the left. Rose's crayon self was flying a kite in the garden, and Hugo looked like he was sitting in a chair of some sort. The kite looked very much like a Hippogriff, and Hermione turned to Ron with a quizzical look on her face. She pointed at the Hippogriff, and cocked an eyebrow.

“All right, so I helped with the higher parts,” he admitted, his ears turning red. “Would you like us to clean it up?” he asked, taking out his wand.

Hermione hurried towards him shaking her head. “Merlin no!” she said quickly, getting in between Ron's wand and the wall. “I love it. I'd like to keep it up there for a good long while.” She looked back at the wall towards Ron's Hippogriff kite, and noticed that it was flying close to a cloud that had 'HA HA HA!' written next to it. She felt her eyes well up at the sight, and she quickly moved towards where the pizza was sitting on the coffee table in front of the couch. “Let's eat,” she said, her voice cracking. She felt Ron move close in behind her.

“Is everything all right?” He asked, putting a tender hand on her shoulder. She turned around and looked him in his deep blue eyes.

“Everything's perfect,” she said quietly. She leaned in and kissed him, taking him by surprise. It was a second or two before he started to respond to the kiss, but later, Hermione would definitely remember it as having been worth the wait. Yes, Ron Weasley even tasted earthy.

A/N: I do hope that the wait for this chapter was worth it.  I've put just about everything I've got into this chapter.  This past week has been incredibly busy for me... I won't bore you with the details, but for three days in a row I was literally not able to work on the story at all.  During this time, I started to go through withdrawal... actual physical withdrawal...

But your wonderful reviews helped to get me through the week.  I'm sorry that it took a little bit longer than usual to respond to them, but like i said, I've been terribly busy.  Rest assured that I will continue responding to all of my reviews.  They mean far too much to me to ignore.

As for specific things in this chapter... I'm sure you're all wondering just what Hermione and Ginny did at that Christmas party two years ago.  Well, can I just remind you that Ginny and Ron are brother and sister, so it's probably not as bad as you're thinking it is. (Seriously... get your mind out of the gutter :) )  There is definitely a story there, and those of you who read really close might be able to pick up on another bit of it here in this chapter.

I also added the bit about Australis and how she helped Hermione at the beginning of the chapter, as so many people had asked about this.  You weren't really meant to know how she helped until the prequel gets written, but I assure you that this is only the smallest bit of the entire story.  I'm really enjoying these instances of backshadowing as I've taken to calling them, but I'm still trying to get used to just how much information to give out.  It's a delicate balance between satisfying the current reader, and satisfying the future reader.  (Hopefully, you who are reading this now will be both!)

I don't want to be too terribly long winded in my author's note (too late!), so I'll leave it here.  Just know that if you have any questions, feel free to ask them here or in my meet the author thread on the forums.  Also, it being very late at night (I need to wake up for work in two hours), I haven't proof-read this as well as I normally do.  If you notice any glaring errors, do not hesitate to point them out.  I'll happily fix them :)

Your continued support and encouragement mean the world to me.  This humble author thanks you from the bottom of his heart.

Chapter 12: Lighter than Air
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Chapter Twelve: Lighter than Air

The crisp early morning air of autumn stirred outside the window of the Athenaeum's master bedroom, briefly breathing life into the limbs of the great oak that stood sentry over the house. With a drawn out moan from ancient joints, its branches began to sway intricately – moving in, out, and about each other with a deftness acquired only after centuries of experience. Here and there, bright yellow leaves gave one last sigh, and with a shudder, began their glorious journey to terra firma below. The remaining leaves rustled a heartfelt 'bon voyage' to the departed, as the breeze gave one final flourish before moving on to spread the news that all was well.

On the other side of the window – which had been left slightly ajar – Ron Weasley brought the bedclothes higher up towards his ear with a well-practiced shrug of his shoulder, and he drew his arms tighter around Hermione, who was nestled snugly in the nook his body created. They had quarreled, as they always did, about whether or not to leave the window open, and she had relented, as she always did, when he had promised to keep her warm. Even though he was asleep, Ron's facial features had relaxed in such a way that he appeared to be smiling.

Without so much as a warning, a small box on the nightstand beside Hermione started to emit a loud wail. Ron awoke with a start, and he could feel Hermione's body stirring against his own. He tried to swear, but was surprised to find that no sound came out of his mouth. He frowned and reached his topmost arm over Hermione's body to try and silence the box, completely ruining the careful arrangement of the bedclothes. He felt along the top of the contraption for the seemingly magic button that would afford them a few more minutes peace, but resorted to banging it with an open palm when he couldn't find it.

“Ron,” groaned Hermione, who had removed herself from the nook and was now lost in the expanse of the bed, “the alarm's on your side. That's the baby monitor.” Ron stopped pounding the top of the box, which, he was now embarrassed to realize, sounded just like Hugo. Instead, he picked up the monitor and deposited it on the swell of Hermione's chest.

“It's your turn, Ron,” she reprimanded him, and she took the monitor – which still relayed Hugo's cries – and gave it back to her husband. “I took care of it last time.” Ron tried to object, but was once again stymied when his voice seemed to fail him. Hermione propped herself up on her elbows and turned to face him. “What? No argument? You used to have all sorts of excuses to get out of changing a diaper. Remember, 'but Hermione, I'm allergic to poo?'” she asked, lowering her voice into a very good imitation of one of Ron's most embarrassing moments.

Ron certainly did remember. Hermione's response – 'then you must have one awful rash in your mouth' – had caused him to laugh so hard that he'd nearly choked to death on the sandwich he'd been eating at the time. Now, however, the best he could do was roll his eyes and point at his mouth. Hermione looked at him in confusion for a moment – Ron could see the sparkle of her eyes in the gray early morning light from the window – and then she ducked her head, smiling sheepishly.

“Sorry,” she began, reaching a hand out to her nightstand and grabbing hold of the wand she kept there at all times, “you were snoring again.” She pointed the wand at Ron's head, and with a quick “Finite Incantatem,” Ron found he could speak again.

“You know I don't like it when you do that,” he snapped, surprised at how severe he sounded.

“I do,” answered Hermione, “but could it wait until you've taken care of Hugo?” she asked, pointing at the monitor in Ron's hands. Hugo had stopped his screaming, but there were still unmistakable signs of distress coming from his room. “Or are you going to try and get out of this one too?” Ron said nothing, but swung his bare feet out of the bed and onto the cold wood floor. The sensation made him breathe in sharply and say a word that made him grateful that the monitor he was holding apparently only worked in one direction. He'd never quite got the hang of it, or the other Muggle curiosities that Hermione had insisted on using for the kids' safety. “What was that?” Hermione breathed, her voice a good deal higher than normal.

“Do you really want me to repeat it?” Ron asked, getting to his feet. The bed groaned in protest as his weight left it, and Ron was inclined to agree. It was far too early to be up and about.

“No, no, I suppose not,” said Hermione softly behind him. Ron could tell that she was slightly put out by the way he was behaving, and he felt he should apologize. Unfortunately, his mind didn't work properly at this time of morning, and the best he could manage was to toss the monitor back into the bed behind him before he stepped into his bright orange slippers and plodded out of the master bedroom and into the hall. The bright lights of the hall temporarily blinded him – Rose insisted on sleeping with the hall light on and the door to her room open – and Ron had to squint at the dozens of pictures that adorned the walls of the hall, trying to get his eyes to adjust. Slowly, the blotches of familiar red came into focus, and Weasleys of all ages waved out at him. However, there was one Weasley in the hall that was not confined to a picture. Rose was waiting for him.

“Is Hugo all right?” she asked, wide-eyed. Ron marveled that she could seem so awake this early in the morning. He shaded his own eyes from the far-too-bright sconces, and looked at his daughter. She stood outside the door to her room in her favorite blue nightgown, her flyaway auburn hair stood nearly on end in certain spots, and she was biting her bottom lip. Her arms clutched tightly at her stuffed sphinx, Enigma. “I heard him crying,” she added, giving Enigma an extra squeeze. The toy's mouth began to move, and Ron could just make out its riddle, despite it being muffled up against Rose's body.

I've seen eyes by the dozen,
And skins of all sorts.
I have helped to cure many
A bad case of warts.
But be I made of copper,
Or pewter, or gold;
Make certain to stir rightly
The contents I hold.

The look of concern on Rose's face deepened into one of concentration instead, as she looked down at her stuffed sphinx. Ron's sour mood wasn't strong enough to stand up to this onslaught, and he bent down next to Rose and kissed her on the forehead. “Have it figured out yet, Rosie?” he asked, already knowing that she didn't. Though Rose loved her Uncle Bill's gift immensely, she was still a bit young to be able to figure out the riddles on her own. However, that didn't stop her from trying.

“What does pewter mean?” she asked, her face scrunched up in concentration. Ron stood up straight with a chuckle, and used a hand to guide Rose towards the door to the master bedroom.

“Why don't you go ask your mother? She's much smarter than I am, and I have a feeling she'd like some company just about now.”

“But you're smart too!” Rose protested, looking up at her father over her shoulder. “Remember? You showed me how to -” Ron hurriedly held a finger up to his lips to stop her from finishing the thought.

“Shh... that's our little secret, all right?” he reminded his daughter with a wink. Rose nodded enthusiastically and tried to wink back, but she still hadn't worked out the maneuver's finer points and wound up blinking both eyes instead. Ron grinned at her affectionately, and with a final push towards the door, she scurried into the master bedroom.

Now, alone in the hallway, Ron made his way to the door of the nursery. This door was a paneled oak affair, just like the rest of the doors throughout the house, but while the rest of the doors retained their natural dark wood grain, this one had been painted to look like the sky. Fluffy white clouds drifted back and forth through the field of blue, and Ron thought he could just make out the bright flash of the Golden Snitch that was forever circling the nursery. But then again, it might just have been a flash from the bronze doorknob as he turned it to open the door.

The door's paint scheme carried on into the nursery itself, and upon entering it, Ron always felt as he had so many years before when he'd ridden a Thestral for the first time. The effect was very much like floating in midair with nothing visible below you for support. But, as it always did, this train of thought led to sadness over the fact that nearly an entire generation of witches and wizards had gone to Hogwarts and never been innocent enough to think that the carriages from Hogsmeade station moved on their own.

With a sigh, Ron walked towards Hugo's cot with a heavy heart, but significantly lighter feet. Hugo was laying in the bottom of the cot, with his little hands wrapped around two of the bars. He was wriggling agitatedly, and his blanket had become wrapped around his body in an odd fashion. Ron bent down over the cot, gently extricated Hugo from his blanket, and pried his hands off of the bars.

“Da!” sniffled Hugo, holding his arms up towards Ron. His face was very red, and wet as well from the tears he'd apparently been shedding. Ron picked Hugo up and held him close to his body as he gingerly patted his son's bottom to determine if he needed changing. Ron was surprised to find that he didn't.

“Well, what's wrong then?” he asked tenderly, holding Hugo up above his head and turning him around rapidly. Not only was this a particularly good way of making sure that there was nothing wrong, but it was one of Hugo's favorite activities. The tears and sniffling stopped almost immediately, and were replaced by laughter and babbling. Ron breathed a sigh of relief. It appeared that whatever was bothering Hugo wasn't terribly serious. He lowered his arms, and cradled the toddler in them, looking him square in the face. “Are you all right?” he asked, trying to read the dark brown eyes. “Did you have a nightmare? Is that what this is all about?” Ron bounced up and down from one foot to the next on the balls of his feet, trying to get Hugo to fall back asleep, but the toddler was much more interested in playing with his father's nose.

Finally deciding that he was getting nowhere with getting Hugo back to bed, Ron tried to put the child into his cot, only to have Hugo resume his screaming as soon as his body touched the blanket. “What is it?” asked Ron, starting to get frustrated. The first rays of sunlight were beginning to peek through the branches of the trees outside the window, and if he didn't get Hugo to bed soon, there would be no point in going back to bed himself. And there was nothing Ron wanted more in the world than to curl back up with Hermione. It was time for desperate measures.

Ron took the blanket out of the cot with the arm he wasn't using to hold Hugo, then wrapped it around his son, who put up only a minor struggle. Apparently, the blanket was much more frightening when he was lying down on it. “There you are, the blanket isn't that scary, is it?” cooed Ron, softly. He pulled the blanket tighter still, and brought Hugo right up in front of his face. He looked into the eyes of his son once again, and whispered, “you're not going to tell anyone about this when you get older are you?”

“Da!” was Hugo's only reply. Ron shook his head playfully, and brought his nose in closer to Hugo's face, allowing it to rub against the delicate features there.

“That's what I thought. Now, I apologize in advance for what you're about to hear, and if you start to cry – well, I won't blame you,” added Ron with a grin. He took a deep breath, and broke into a lullaby that his own mother had sung to him when he was little. “Though leaves have changed, and summer's gone,” he began, in an unsteady soft voice. He had sung this very song to Rose a few times over the years, but only as a last resort – he knew he wasn't much of a singer. It appeared Hugo agreed with him, as the toddler had stuck out his tongue and started to blow raspberries.

“Yes, yes, very funny,” said Ron, rolling his eyes. He resumed his bouncing, and he began to stroll about the room as he continued to sing. “My love for you will still live on.”  As he reached the window, Ron stopped for a moment to gaze at the sun as it rose above the tree line. The sky to the east was a brilliant shade of orange, and the light that was flooding in through the window fell on Ron's slippers, making them blaze with color, as though aflame. “Now rest your head my precious one. Again we'll have our day in sun.”

Ron was so rarely awake when the sun rose that he hadn't seen a proper one in ages. He felt slightly ashamed that he'd not seen more of them in his life. They really were quite spectacular if this one was anything to go by. He glanced down at Hugo, only to find that his son had closed his eyes and was breathing regularly. Ron pulled the curtains shut tighter at the window, and the room once more descended into grayness. “But until then, bask in the glow,” he sung, his voice a bit stronger now that he knew he wasn't being listened to. He returned to the cot, and gave Hugo one last warm nuzzle before lowering him down to the mattress. “Of love that bears life's ebb and flow.

Ron backed away from the cot slowly, barely daring to breathe. One wrong move now, and all of that would have been for naught. Thankfully, Hugo did not stir, even when the nursery door creaked ever so slightly when Ron let himself out. He made a mental note to ask Reg Cattermole if he knew any good charms for squeaky doors the next time he saw him at the ministry. The walk back to the master bedroom was uninterrupted, but when he entered it, it was to find Hermione looking up at him from the bed with a look on her face that Ron couldn't quite identify. It almost looked as though she wanted to – but no, that wouldn't make any sense, as Rose was lying where he usually did, and Enigma was sprawled at the foot of the bed haphazardly, it's hind paws dangling over the end.

Hermione pointed to the baby monitor on the nightstand beside her, and then at Rose. Ron understood immediately what she was trying to say, and he felt his face burn as though it were undergoing a sunrise of its very own. How could he have been so stupid as to forget that Hermione would be able to hear everything that occurred in the nursery. He was quite sure that she had never heard him sing before – in fact, he was certain of it – and he was mortified to think that her first time had been when he'd been singing such a silly little song. Why couldn't it have been something cool like a Blaise of Glory song?

“All right,” he whispered, trying not to wake Rose, “just how bad was it?” The look on Hermione's face – whatever it had been – turned into a wide smile, but she said nothing. Ron was sure she was just biding her time. There was no way she'd let him live this one down. “Well, sorry you had to suffer through it. Rest assured it won't happen again,” he said, dejectedly. Hermione's smile faded quickly, and she put a finger to her lips. She inclined her head towards Rose, and Ron shrugged apologetically.

“Sorry,” he mouthed. He continued to hesitate near the bedroom's door, trying to decide whether or not to join his two favorite ladies in bed. Climbing back beneath the warm sheets had been his only goal from the moment he'd awoken, but he'd have to disturb Rose to do it, and she looked so peaceful that he'd hate for her to have to wake on his behalf. Hermione made the decision more difficult by patting a sliver of open mattress beside her, and giving Ron a fetching look. Ron's hesitation melted away; there was no way he could resist such an invitation.

He slipped off his slippers, which had a tendency to make a slight thwapping noise as he walked on the hardwood floor, and padded softly towards Hermione's side of the bed. He eyed Rose enviously, but decided against waking her. Instead, he knelt down beside the bed, and placed his head on Hermione's shoulder. He could vaguely smell the lilac scented shampoo she used, and he inhaled deeply, letting the scent fill him.

“It wasn't that bad,” whispered Hermione, turning her head to face Ron. They were so close that his eyes had a hard time focusing on her own. “Better than I could do.”

“I don't think I've ever heard you sing,” Ron responded, also whispering. “I can't imagine you'd do poorly. You're brilliant at just about everything else.”

“Just about?” Ron could feel movement against his forehead, and he knew that Hermione had just cocked an eyebrow.

“Well, I am a substantially better chess player than you are,” he teased, exploring the divide between them with his lips. It was far narrower than he had expected, and he tensed as they made contact with soft skin. Miraculously, the skin parted and kissed back.

“Weasley is my king,” breathed Hermione, each of the words causing her lips to flutter against Ron's. “Queen to d4.”

“Mate in three,” Ron mumbled, his left hand unwrapping itself from Hermione and traveling slowly up to her face. There, it assisted his mouth in its caresses.

“Ron, not with Rose in the bed,” protested Hermione, under her breath. But her argument was undermined by the hand tracing lazy circles on Ron's back.

“Two,” muttered Ron, ignoring Hermione's logical objection. When it came to chess, he never played to a draw. Unfortunately for his record, Ron's endgame was interrupted by another loud wailing. Hermione's hand on his back clenched, and one of her nails scratched him deeply.

“Oh, sorry!” she yelped, withdrawing her hand as though it had been burned. Ron, muttering about how unlucky his day was starting out, quickly raised his head and looked to the baby monitor. But this time the sound was coming from the other side of the bed. A quick glance across the mattress and past Rose's stretching form, informed Ron that it was seven o'clock, and that the alarm had started to go off. He looked longingly at the snooze button on top of the device, but it was far too distant to reach.

But as he looked at the small strip of plastic, it appeared to depress all on its own, and the alarm fell silent. He looked at it curiously for a moment, trying to decide whether it was possible to have seen what he just saw. He turned to look at Hermione, and saw that she too was staring at the alarm clock. “Did you-” he asked, trusting that she would know what he meant to ask.

“I saw it, but I didn't do it,” Hermione answered, pointing a thumb over her shoulder at her own bedside table where her wand still lay. Rose groaned, finished stretching, and curled up into a little ball. Looking at her, a light suddenly came on in Ron's head.

“Hey, do you think that Rose-” he prompted, once again whispering. Hermione bit her bottom lip, and Ron was reminded of how Rose had looked earlier when trying to piece together the riddle. After just a moment of silence, Hermione's face lit up.

“I do!” she whispered excitedly. “It's her first time! Oh Ron, this is fantastic!” She threw herself into Ron's arms, and he had no choice but to hug her. Not that he wanted to be doing anything else at the moment. Their daughter had just inadvertently used magic for the first time, and Ron felt as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Though he'd never told Hermione, nagging doubts had made him very afraid that Rose and Hugo would be Squibs. He looked over at Rose as she slept, and felt a surge of pride well up within him. He had made this perfect little person with Hermione. It wasn't a miracle when their lips had touched earlier, no, Rose was the miracle.

“I guess she takes after me a little bit,” he breathed, grinning from ear to ear. “I'd been thinking about pressing that bloody button.” Hermione stifled a laugh by pressing her face into Ron's chest.

“I suppose we have one more thing to celebrate today,” she said, once she'd regained control. She let go of Ron, and swung her legs carefully out of the bed. “Add it to the list of things on the cake at the party.” She glanced over her shoulder at the time on the alarm, before standing up. The nightgown she was wearing cascaded down to her knees, and Ron watched the hem sway back and forth for a moment. “Speaking of the party, I need to get a move on. There's still so much to do. And so do you. Remember, you need to be in Hogsmeade by ten. George would... well, I don't know what George'd do to you, but I can't imagine it would be pleasant.”

“You have no idea what he's capable of, you didn't grow up with him,” Ron responded, as Hermione made her way towards the adjoining bathroom. She stopped in the doorway and turned back to Ron.

“Come on,” she whispered, beckoning to him with a finger, “I know a way we can save time getting ready.

“Only if there's no singing involved,” Ron joked. But he was already through the bathroom door.

A/N:  Well then...

This chapter will remain an officially numbered chapter for the time being, but in the long run it might just be jettisoned to stand alone as a companion one-shot.  It wound up being nowhere near what I had originally intended for the chapter, which is certainly a good thing.  I really like this chapter in general, it just has very little to do with moving the story forward.

So let's see... what needs a bit of an explanation... Blaise of Glory.  Pretty self-explanatory, but before you start to point out that Ron would never think that any musical group w/ a Slytherin frontman was cool, rest assured that I agree with you.  Ron's just a bit thick, and hasn't realized that's why they spell their name that way.

Other than that, I think the chapter pretty much speaks for itself.  I wrote the lullaby without a particular tune in mind, but now that I can sing it, I do so to one of two different tunes... 1) Kingdom Come by Johnny Cash, by way of Coldplay, or 2) And so it Goes by Billy Joel.  But really, any simple song with four syllable lines will do the trick.

And now on to my favorite part of each chapter... thanking the reviewers.  You guys are completely and utterly awesome.  25,000 views.  600 reviews.  Favorite story of 250.  Gah... I don't even know what to say.  I just... thank you.  You've changed my life, and while i realize that I've not changed yours with a silly little bit of fanfiction, I do hope that I've at least managed to make a few of your days brighter.  Goodness knows that your reviews do all that and more for me.  I'll get to the reviews still outstanding for last chapter tomorrow after work (and after I get my marriage license...  one month... ONE MONTH)

Next time, I think I won't be able to avoid the trip to Hogwarts any longer (not that I was trying to avoid it this time), so look out for that.  I had originally intended a heart to heart between Ron and Harry for late in this particular chapter, but that never happened obviously, so that'll get puched to the party.  Additionally, there was going to be a newspaper article about the unveiling of W.O.L.F. but that's been pushed too, and may not show up until the sequel. 

But whenever the time comes to write it, I promise I'll be just as humble in doing so as I've been all along.  I'm not the attraction here, nor is my writing.  It's all the characters, and they aren't mine :)

Thanks once again for all of your support.  It means the world to me.

Chapter 13: Brand Loyalty
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Chapter 13

Brand Loyalty

“Brand loyalty!” shouted George Weasley as he paced back and forth atop the counter that ran the length of one side of the Hogsmeade branch of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. “This morning we have the opportunity to earn the first galleons that this crop of third years has ever spent in Hogsmeade.” As he moved from one end of the counter to the other and back, George had to hop over glass jars filled with an assortment of brightly colored candies, two gleaming old-fashioned brass tills and pile after pile of the drabbest brown paper bags and wrapping paper – the only items in the entire shop not designed to draw attention. In addition to making him look like a slightly manic participant in a game of hopscotch, the little jumps served to punctuate and emphasize the speech he was currently giving to a nervous bunch of employees spread out haphazardly in front of the counter.

 “But we have to earn those galleons!” Hop. “Every sickle.” Hop. “Every knut.” Hop. “Believe in the product, sure, but that's just half of it.” George added a bit of a flourish to his next jump, narrowly avoiding knocking over a small pyramid of canned laughter as he whirled to face his employees. He bent forward at the waist and brought his left hand up alongside his face allowing him to whisper conspiratorially: “Hell, even that doddering old fool Zonko has some top shelf product.”

Here, George reached a hand into one of the many pockets of his canary yellow and lime green pinstriped robes and made a show of rummaging about for something. What he withdrew resembled nothing so much as a clear glass egg within which swirled a shockingly red gas. Ron, who had been standing just inside the front door to the shop after arriving just as George commenced his pep talk, was reminded very much of Neville's old Remembrall.

“The Secret Keeper,” pronounced George, tossing it back and forth between his hands. “ I really wish that I'd come up with this one. Just speak your secret into the egg and seal it up.” He mimed the process as he described it, giving the top and bottom of the egg an exaggerated twist. “And then my secret is safe. I won't be able to tell it to anyone else unless I give someone the Secret Keeper.” George grinned impishly as he contemplated the egg. “I wonder if it could be used to overcome Veritaserum,” he mused.

“You're getting sidetracked, Weasley,” said Angelina Johnson. Ron knew that George had asked her to help out on this, the busiest of all days for Weasley's Wizard Wheezes is Hogsmeade. Ron also spotted Lee Jordan and Dennis Creevey among those he knew to be temporary help. George hadn't seemed to hear Angelina, and now his grin was starting to fade.

 “What would happen if I lost it?” he asked quietly, seemingly to the room at large. “Would I be doomed to take the secret to the grave?” George shuddered a bit, then scanned the room. His eyes came to rest upon Trixie, who, Ron had noted, was paying very little mind to George's antics up on the counter. She was sorting boxes of Skiving Snackboxes by hand as she pulled them out of large storage crates. “Trixie!” George shouted, sounding relieved to find her there.

The plump blonde woman looked up from her work with a smile, though to Ron's eyes it was not the room-lightening smile that had made her such a welcome addition to George's life. This smile seemed to wane out of existence somewhere in the vicinity of her cheeks and never reached her eyes. So unusual was this, that Ron immediately appraised her appearance using his auror's intuition. Nothing appeared outwardly wrong, though her eyes were wearing the dark circles of a long sleepless night, and, though he couldn't be sure, she looked to have the slightest green tinge. Not the garish and obvious hue of Dragon Pox, but the approximate color of Hermione's face after being forced to travel by broomstick for more than five minutes.

 “George!” she shouted back, imitating his slightly manic tone. George looked one last time at the Secret Keeper in his hand, then tossed it underhanded to Trixie, who plucked it out of the air.

“Please open that Trix,” he said in a small voice. “It's not really a secret, and I – I certainly don't want to lose the ability to say -” George looked like he was searching for the right words, but he raised his arms exasperatedly when they didn't appear to come.

Trixie gave a coy smile as she lifted the egg up to eye level, then gave it a bit of a shake, watching as the gas held within it began to swirl faster. “So you can't open it up yourself?” she asked. “Seems like a bit of an oversight.”

“Indeed,” agreed George, “First generation product. Always some kinks to work out in those. “You remember four years ago when you had just -”

“Oh! The New-U Shampoo. That was a rather fun disaster.” Trixie gazed off into the middle distance apparently reminiscing. “All of those howlers. I'd just found out about all of this, and I think I'd convinced myself that all witches were really angry all the time.”

“Yes, well, with a bit of re-branding, Where's-My-Hair Instant Depilatory is our best selling Wonder Witch product. Are you going to open that? Please?” Relenting at last, Trixie unscrewed the Secret Keeper and everyone in the shop was treated to George's voice bellowing “I love you Trixie!” as the gas dispelled.

“Aww, Ditto,” Trixie replied, smiling once again. Ron was happy to see that this one did in fact reach her eyes. The effect on George was immediate. He let out a quick sigh of relief, though Ron wasn't sure if it was because he had regained the ability to tell Trixie how he felt or because of the seeming improvement in her mood.

“Right then, where was I?” George popped a finger in the to cut short an employee's response. “Rhetorical question, sorry.” He resumed his travels along the top of the counter, hopping this way and that. “So yes, sell the product, but much more importantly sell the experience. We want every trip to Weasley's Wizard Wheezes to be an event! We provide, free of charge, to every boy, girl, or otherwise that passes through that door,” George twirled to face the entrance and pointed at the plate glass door next to which Ron was standing. “Except for that ugly git there. He has to pay extra, “ he added with a grin. All of George's employees turned to look at who George had meant, and were treated to Ron's rather rude non-verbal response to his brother's ribbing.

Angelina and Lee called out more civilized greetings to Ron, which he returned in kind. He slowly started to wend his way to the counter as George resumed his speech.

“As I was trying to say, before I was so rudely interrupted - “ Ron blew a raspberry against the back of his hand that was welcomed by a stifled titter from the gathered employees. George ignored this. “This place needs to be alive with excitement and chaos. Encourage students to touch, try, fling, dodge, et cetera et cetera.. I want everyone to leave with a smile on their lips and a laugh in their heart – no purchase necessary.” Ron glanced at Trixie as George finished his monologue, and he was surprised to find that she had a worried look on her face as she continued to gaze up at where George had started giving individual employees their marching orders.

Deciding that George would be busy for a few more moments, Ron changed directions. “Good morning Trixie,” he greeted her a moment later after crossing the space between them. She gave a violent start and her left hand flew up to her chest. Ron saw a glint of light flash off the simple gold wedding band she wore there.

“Goodness Ron, you gave me quite a start!” She rose up on tiptoe and reached both her arms high around Ron's neck in a friendly hug. “I never heard you coming!”

“Sorry, it must have been my auror training,” Ron returned the hug weakly as he mentally kicked himself for both frightening Trixie and then casually bragging about it.

“Perhaps it was, at that,” Trixie said, warmly, as she broke the embrace and lowered herself down to a normal standing position. “I'm sure it'll come in handy in a few minutes anyway.”

“Sorry?” Ron was sure his confusion was plainly evident on his face. “I'm not sh-”

“Your stealthiness, silly! Up at Hogwarts!” Trixie chuckled as Ron felt his face flush.

“Well clearly I'm not here for my deductive reasoning.”

“That's all right, we all have our blind spots.”

“It's too early in the morning for a-”

“It's nearly ten o'clock!” protested Trixie with feigned indignation.

“Like I said, it's too early.” Ron rubbed his temples. That morning had been great, what with Rose's first magic and the shower, but it would have been great to get an extra twenty minutes sleep too.

“I suppose you're also -” Trixie raised her hands and punctuated her next sentence with air quotes - “too old for this shit.”

“I – what?” Ron was certain that he was having the piss taken out of him, but he decided it was worth it given how brightly Trixie's face was shining.

“Oh that's right. Sorry. I forget all the time that we have different pop culture backgrounds. It's a quote made by a policeman in muggle movie I'm quite fond of.”

“Muggle movies, eh?” Hermione's been trying to get me to watch one of her old childhood favorites.” Ron fumbled around the back of his mind to come up with the title. She'd been talking about it just the other day. “The Princess Bride I think it's called. Something overly girly, anyway.”

“I knew there was a reason I liked her. She's got excellent taste, that wife of yours.” Ron opened his mouth to agree with Trixie's assessment, but quickly closed it again as she added: “despite her marrying you of course.”

“As you said, we all have our blind spots,” Ron said with a grin. “Hey,” he added, just remembering why he'd come over in the first place, “is everything all right? If you'll forgive my saying so, you don't look too good.. And I saw the way you were looking at George just now.”

“I don't look too good? It's no wonder it took you seven years to win over Hermione.” Trixie's statement was still lighthearted, but Ron could sense that he'd touched upon some nerve or another as her smile was rapidly fading.

“Honestly, looking back on it, it was more a question of winning myself over, but don't deflect the question.” A taut moment of silence stretched out between them as Ron watched Trixie glance over at George who had gotten down off of the counter and was huddled with Dennis Creevey next to the fake wand display. As Ron watched, George looked up at Trixie, caught her eye, and grinned broadly before returning to his instructions for Dennis. Trixie sighed deeply and turned back to face Ron.

“I appreciate your concern – No, I do!” she hastily added to cut Ron off. “And it's – not – misplaced.”

“So there is something wrong then?” Ron asked hurriedly in a hushed voice. “How can I help? Please let me help!” Trixie appeared to think for a moment, then pulled the Secret Keeper from a pocket and looked at it. Without George's secret occupying it, it was completely clear. She twisted the two halves apart.

“Cover your ears and hum a tune,” she said softly.

“But -”

“You wanted to help.” Rather curious, Ron shrugged and did as he was asked. He placed his fingers in his ears and began to hum the Chudley Cannons fight song. As he watched, Trixie put the egg up to her mouth, which she covered so that Ron was not able to make out the words she was saying by reading her lips. In just a moment, she was twisting the egg shut, locking in a freshly swirling bright red secret.

“What did you do that for?” asked Ron as he removed his fingers from his ears. Trixie fiddled absently with the object in her hand, then placed it back into her robes.

“Because I really want to tell you what's going on, but I can't. That removes the temptation.” Ron stared into her bright, and, he realized, slightly damp eyes.

“You're all right? Nothing to worry about?”

“Nothing for you to worry about,” agreed Trixie, adding a pronoun that wasn't lost on Ron.

“If you need my help, please ask. Even if it's only for George's sake. You've been such a great influence on him. And I'd hate to see something happen to cause him to fall back into that downward spiral he was in. Talk to him.”

“I will. Eventually. It's just – complicated. That's all.”

“All right. You know him best at this point. I'll trust you.”

“Thank you, Ron.”

“And what do we have here?” This time it was Ron's turn to be startled as George had approached the two of them during the last of their conversation. George held out his hand to Ron, and Ron shook it firmly before pulling George into a one-armed hug. “I sense a plot. You two were thick as thieves just then.”

“Just making some movie recommendations, Dear,” said Trixie as she gave Ron a conspicuous wink.

“Muggle movies? I rather like that one where the kid winds up stuck as an adult. Seems relatable, somehow.” George smirked as Trixie nodded her agreement and a look of understanding spread across her face. Ron just looked on in confusion.

“Don't all kids wind up stuck as adults eventually?” he asked.

“Well sure, but not everyone grows up,” said Trixie. She once again got up on her tiptoes and she gave George a quick kiss. “Don't the two of you have somewhere to be right about now?”

“Yes!” cried George, slapping his forehead theatrically. He turned to Ron. “All set to get going?” Ron removed his wand from inside of his robes and waggled it in front of George. “Excellent!”

“What do you reckon?” asked Ron. “Honeydukes or the Shrieking Shack?” He had accompanied George on these expeditions several times in the past, but had never been able to figure out his older brother's reasoning for choosing one point of departure over the other. George glanced down at his watch, then out the front windows of the shop to where the still empty streets of Hogsmeade were waiting for the inevitable flood of Hogwarts students.

“Honeydukes this time, I think. We're a bit behind schedule already. Probably best to get directly into the castle.” He tucked the map into his own robes, then hurried to the front doors. He picked up a large burlap sack that was sitting on the floor next to the exit, then turned to face his shop. “I'm off, everyone. I'll be back in a bit. Trixie is in charge until I get back.”

“Have fun storming the castle!” his wife shouted after him, as he and Ron exited the shop and made their way out into the brisk autumn morning.

As they made their way down the Hogsmeade High Street towards Honeydukes, George exchanged cheerful greetings with several fellow shopkeepers as they made their final preparations for the upcoming surge in business. Outside Dervish and Banges, a spritely witch waved as she hung a poster advertising a sale on orreries. At Gladrags, a tall thin wizard with a length of measuring tape draped over his shoulders nodded to them as he adjusted the petticoat underneath a set of olive green dress robes on display in his shop's window. But Scrivenshaft, dressed, as ever, in ostentatious black robes, turned up his nose at them as they passed.

“What's his problem?” asked Ron, once they had walked far enough past the quill shop so as to be out of earshot.

“He's harbouring a bit of a grudge against me,” answered George. He chuckled slightly and shook his head. “Probably even has reason to. A few years back, before we opened the Hogsmeade branch, he contacted me about stocking our line of joke quills. I think he was ready to try and compete with Honeydukes and Zonko's.”

“Well, you have to admit that his shop was always a bit dull. I don't think I ever saw anyone go in there except Hermione, and maybe a few Ravenclaws.” Ron tried to remember ever entering the quill shop himself, but the longer he thought about it, the more he realized that he had just spent six years borrowing ink from Hermione. He made a mental note to pop into Scrivenshaft's after he and George had finished up at Hogwarts.

“I couldn't agree more. And I told him that I thought associating our products with his stodgy old image wasn't how I wanted to increase out presence in Hogsmeade.”

“And he took offense?”

“I may have used a word other than stodgy, if I'm being completely honest,” admitted George. They were very nearly to Honeydukes now. Ron ducked as an owl took off from one of the many perches located outside the owl post office located directly across the street from it.

“Bloody bird nearly decapitated me,” he grumbled, as George opened the door of Honeydukes and ushered Ron inside.

Despite everything that had changed in the fifteen years since Ron had first set foot inside Hogsmeade's most famous confectionery, the explosion of colour that assaulted his eyes upon entry remained every bit as impressive as it had been all those years ago. Ron let out a low whistle and looked appreciatively at the stack of chocolate frogs on a stand off to his right. It was nearly as tall as he was. “What do you reckon are the chances I'd get a Ptolemy?” he asked George, taking a step toward the towering display.

“I'm starting to remember why I usually opt for the Shrieking Shack with you,” groaned George. “Come on, we need to split up. You go that way. I'll go this way. Meet in the cellar. If either of us isn't there in two minutes, create a diversion.” George abruptly turned left a few steps into the store, leaving Ron standing in front of the chocolate frogs. He watched as George's lurid robes dissolved into the kaleidoscopic heart of Honeydukes.

“Sure George. Whatever you say George,” Ron muttered under his breath. He had hoped - vainly, he now realized - that becoming an auror would have given him a bit of authority in his dealings with those who had long controlled him. But, he supposed, family was family. At least Hermione had finally realized that bossily making demands would only lead to bickering.

Ron sighed and pushed forward into the store. Turning right where George had turned left, he skirted the outer edge of the establishment, trying to walk with a purpose so as to not look suspicious. Past the Drooble's Best Blowing Gum, Dragon's Breath Red Hots, and licorice wands he strode, drawing ever nearer to the door at the back of the shop that he knew held the stairs down to the basement where the secret passageway to Hogwarts lay.

“Ron? Ron Weasley?” Shit. Ron turned left immediately and pretended that he hadn't heard the voice calling after him. All the same, he knew that he couldn't continue to the door right now with someone watching him. He'd have to wait for George's diversion in a minute or two.

Without paying attention, he stopped in front of a display and picked up a package. “Ron! I knew it was you!” Ron turned around and found himself face to face with a devastatingly gorgeous witch wearing sleek silver robes. Ron found that, against his will, his chest was tightening and his breathing was getting shallower.

“Do I – Have we -” he stammered. The witch's mouth parted in a dazzling smile and Ron couldn't help but stare at those perfect teeth.

“Eloise Midgen! We went to Hogwarts together, silly!” She reached up an immaculately manicured hand and laid it on the side of his cheek. Ron could feel every heartbeat as his blood scorched through his veins underneath her touch. “Oh my goodness, you're so hot!” cooed Eloise. “Are you feeling all right?”

“I – I'm, Ron Weasley,” sputtered Ron, stupidly. He was having an incredibly difficult time parsing the situation. The Eloise Midgen he remembered looked absolutely nothing like this – this goddess.

“Of course you are,” giggled Eloise. “Like I could forget you; I had such a huge crush on you.” As she spoke, she drew in closer to Ron, so close that they were nearly touching. “So what brings you into the shop today, Ron?” Ron could feel her hot breath on his face, smell her glossy auburn hair. “Craving something sweet? Maybe a little something the wife doesn't let you have?” Impossibly, Eloise was now even closer, though Ron couldn't have told anyone when or how it had happened.

“W-wife,” he stammered. He staggered backward a step, his brain screaming at him to get away before he did something that he might later regret, but Eloise reached out and grabbed his arm to pull him back towards her.

“Oh don't you worry about her.” Eloise's voice was low and dangerous – intoxicating. “She's not here now. It's just you. And me. And your -” she slid her hand teasingly down Ron's arm and plucked from his hand the box of candy he'd picked up, “Cock – Cockroach Clusters?” As Eloise's voice raised in surprise at Ron's choice of candy, the thrall she'd had him under lifted.

“Lots of protein,” murmured Ron, backing away now. There was a crash and a shout from the front of the shop where a big barrel of Fizzing Whizbees had been knocked over. Eloise swore, pulled out her wand, and turned toward the commotion.

“Don't you go anywhere Ron Weasley,” she called over her shoulder as she walked away. “I haven't quite finished with you yet.” Ron watched her leave, admiring the swish with which she walked, then realized that this must have been the distraction. He bent his head low – lower than the tops of the surrounding shelves - and made a break for the basement door. It was open a crack, and he squeezed through and closed it behind him. George stood there grinning at him.

“I see you met Eloise,” he managed to get out before dissolving into great fits of laughter.

“You great prat! You did that on purpose, didn't you?” Ron demanded. “And there's no way that was Eloise Midgen! Her nose was dead center of her face!”

“As Trixie would say, 'milk did that body good.'” George snorted. “But no. I didn't do that on purpose, though I may have let it go on a bit longer than was strictly necessary.” Ron punched George rather hard on the shoulder. “I may have deserved that,” George admitted, rubbing the spot.

“What was she playing at, anyway?” asked Ron, of no one in particular. His breathing was starting to slow down, and he could no longer hear his heart beating in his ears.

“Don't get too worked up about it,” advised George. “She does it to all of her old schoolmates when she sees them for the first time. I think she's trying to make them regret picking on her when she was the ugly duckling.”

“Everyone? She did it to you?”

“She did,” allowed George.

“And how did that go?” demanded Ron.

“I respectfully told her that I had eyes only for Trixie, and that - “


“I did. And then I sat her down and we had tea and discussed her life choices.”

“Complete and utter tosh,” insisted Ron. As they argued, they descended the steps into the dimly lit basement, and soon they found themselves standing in front of the imperceptibly hidden panel in the floor, below which was the tunnel. “Wingardium Leviosa.” With a simple swish and flick, Ron levitated the panel up and off the trap door, and they both climbed down onto the stairway below. Gingerly, Ron let the panel fall back into place, leaving them in total darkness.

“Lumos.” George lit his wand tip, and Ron followed suit as they descended the more than 200 steps into the tunnel proper. Their argument petered out and they traveled in silence for a while, using the bulk of their concentration to avoid low spots on the ceiling or crumbling steps. After they reached the bottom of the staircase they were forced onto their hands and knees to continue through the earthen tunnel. They took turns dragging the burlap sack behind them, switching whenever the tunnel widened out enough to allow them to reposition it.

“Is she all right?” asked George following what seemed to have been at least twenty minutes of near silence.

“Who? Rose? She's fine, the - “

“No, not Rose.” Up ahead of him, Ron could see George's shoulders slump in the wandlight. “Trixie. I just – you two were talking, and I'd hoped - “ his voice trailed off, losing itself in the blackness of the tunnel up ahead. Ron waited for a while before responding. He'd told Trixie that he'd trust her to talk to George when she was ready, but his brother clearly needed some reassuring in the here and now.

“I asked her what was wrong,” Ron admitted finally. George grunted up ahead, but said nothing. “She wouldn't tell me of course.”

“Of course.”

“But she did seem – sincere - when she told me that I needn't worry. I also made her promise to talk to you.”

“Thanks,” muttered George.

At last they came to the small stone slide that led up into Hogwarts. They both stood up and removed the dirt from their robes with a scouring spell, then George removed the Marauders' Map from within his robes. “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.” The map's detailed layout of Hogwarts blossomed outward from the center of the parchment, and George studied it for a moment before passing it to Ron.

“Looks like the coast is clear,” said Ron a moment later. There was no one in the corridor on the other side of the one-eyed witch statue that guarded this end of the tunnel.

“Yes,” agreed George, “and Peeves is waiting for us right where he should be. Might be everything goes smoothly this time.”



Author's Notes:  Well.  I'm sorry.  I let you down.  I let myself down.  Now let's get on with it.  I've got a story to tell for the first time in 9 years.  So let's get it told.