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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.

“Party?”

“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.

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