The Sugar Quill
Author: cranston  Story: Armaments  Chapter: Chapter 3: Flight
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Armaments

Armaments

Chapter 3:  Flight

 

Laundry is peaceful.  Clean, dry, fold.  Clean, dry, fold.

 

Early that morning, Molly Weasley had tried to welcome Ron, Harry, and Hermione to the Burrow after their stay with Harry’s Muggle relations.  But the boys rushed Hermione to her as if they were taking her to hospital, and Ron made a beeline to the shelf where her dog-eared copy of The Healer’s Helpmate had been kept since Bill was a baby.  Molly had already known, from all of Harry’s stories over the years, that his relations were horrid.  But it was still difficult to believe that his churl of a cousin would have, could have done that to poor Hermione.  Neither of the boys would even hear of breakfast until Molly had healed that arm, and then Ron had seized the book and perused it so single-mindedly that he’d almost forgotten to eat.

 

Ron engrossed in a book!  Something is up with those three.  And with Ginny, too, come to think of it.

 

Clean, dry, fold.

 

How quickly Ron is becoming a man!  But isn’t that always the way?  Young people go to school, but it’s actually receiving the OWLs and NEWTs  that suddenly makes them skillful and smart.  Couples fall deeper and deeper in love, but it’s marriage that suddenly turns them into families.  And children grow up little by little, but it’s coming of age that suddenly matures them.  It happened with all the boys:  Bill; Charlie; Percy (although maturity wasn’t really such a good thing for him); even the twins, in their own way.  And now Ron ... Bill raved about how bravely he fought the Death Eaters just a few weeks ago.  He certainly has become a courageous young man.  Well, except when it comes to Hermione, but that should sort itself out sooner or later.

 

Clean, dry, fold.

 

And Harry!  Who would have believed that that poor, frightened eleven-year-old whose aunt and uncle had abandoned him at King’s Cross was the living legend of the wizarding world?  And all that’s happened to him since then, it’s just not fair.  It was so lovely to hear that he’d finally found a girlfriend this year, he so deserves a bit of happiness.  And to think that it was Ginny! 

 

Clean, dry, fold.

 

And Ginny’s been so terribly subdued since she came home, what with all the awfulness at the end of term, and then being separated from Harry.  But then he arrived this morning and they barely looked at each other!  I suppose they would be shy around me, but not like that.  Why, she just asked him some cryptic question about how well he was enjoying his own life, and then marched up to her room and hardly came out all day.  Something’s certainly wrong there, poor children!  And knowing how Harry’s life has gone so far, I’d wager my last Knut that somehow it’s all down to You-Know-Who.

 

The robes were all done now, clean, folded, sorted by owner, and stacked.  Molly sighed as she lifted the pile and started toward the stairs.  No, it seems Harry will never really be able to live while You-Know-Who is alive.  It was late, and she didn’t want to wake anyone, so she climbed as quietly as all her years in the Burrow had taught her how to be.

 

Rounding the bend to the landing at Ginny’s room, she was startled to find Ron and Hermione.  They didn’t notice her – with their eyes closed and lips just about to meet, they weren’t likely to notice anything.  Molly stopped in an instant, smiled knowingly, and silently retreated halfway down the stairs, out of sight of the pair – should they open their eyes.

 

So I was right:  Ron did eventually sort it out.  Count to ten, now.   One … two … three … four … five … six – her count was interrupted by the sound of soft voices saying, “Good night.”  She kicked the step she was on, stumbled noisily up the rest of the stairs, and rounded the bend to the landing.

 

“Oh!  Hello!” she exclaimed, convincingly sounding surprised.  “Hermione, be a dear and take these in for Ginny, would you?  And these are yours.”  She handed Hermione two piles of robes.  “Ron, these are yours and Harry’s.  Take them on up now, all right?  Good night, then!”  Somehow neither of them seemed able to reply to anything Molly had said; she carefully concealed her amusement at that.  Then as she turned to go back downstairs, she suddenly stopped to face them again, looking thoughtful.  “Oh, and Hermione?  I’ve been thinking – do you think your parents would like to come to the wedding?”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Preparations for the big day were not yet in full swing, so there was still time for such trivial pursuits as chess.  This was fine with Harry.  As long as he and Ron were hunched over a chessboard in a corner of the lounge, Ginny knew where he was – and could avoid him.  This gave Harry time to try to sort out his thoughts about her.  Unfortunately, it did nothing for his chess game.

 

“Harry, that rook pawn opening wasn’t the best idea you’ve come up with this year.  Not unless you’re trying to set a record for the fastest loss ever!”

 

“Sorry, my mind’s been somewhere else.”  Hermione met Ron’s eyes momentarily before returning to her book.  Harry realized that his thinking about Ginny was going nowhere, so he decided to try paying attention to the game for a while instead.  “And that’s been lucky for you, Weasley.  But this time I’m crushing you to powder.”

 

“Ho, ho!” Ron said with relish.  “So you’ll be playing white, then.  Let’s see what you’ve got, Potter.”

 

The next game really was a good one.  Harry played as well as he had in years, and thirty moves in, he knew he had Ron on the ropes.  Knew, that is, until Ron advanced his rook, looked serenely into Harry’s eyes, and announced, “Mate in three.”

 

“WHAT?”  Harry blanched as he finally saw the trap Ron had led him into.  Mustering all the grace he could find, he played through the final moves to the inevitable checkmate.

 

Harry suddenly found himself wishing that Voldemort could be defeated by just playing chess.  That way he would be able to put it all in Ron’s hands and be done with it.  After all, hadn’t the twelve-year-old Ron beaten McGonagall’s enchanted board, while handicapped by the need to keep his rook and bishop out of danger – with the fate of the wizarding world at stake?  Just imagine what a chess game between Ron and Voldemort would be like!  Or … “Ron, did you ever play Dumbledore?”

 

Ron gave a low whistle.  “Once, yeah.  One hell of a game – sorry, Hermione!  Dumbledore, he must have had three lines of attack going all at once before I noticed any of them.  Lucky for me he said he had a meeting he had to go to and offered me a draw.  I’m not sure I could have fought him to a standstill if he’d had time to finish the game.”

 

“That sure sounds like Dumbledore.  You think you know what he’s up to, and then out of the blue he says ‘Checkmate’ or something, and you realize you never understood what he was doing.  I wonder if he ever played chess with Tom Riddle…”

 

“Of course he did.  That’s what he was doing all along.”

 

“Chess?  Come on, Ron, chess has rules.  Voldemort doesn’t obey any rules.”

 

“Harry, chessmen don’t really follow rules.  They just have different capabilities.”

 

“Okay, then.  But Voldemort’s pieces are capable of things that Dumbledore’s aren’t.”

 

“Right.  Unforgiveables, killing innocent bystanders, that sort of thing.  Dumbledore was playing with a material disadvantage.  He’d have had to play a positional game.”

 

Hermione looked up from her book.  “Perhaps he’s still playing,” she suggested.

 

“What d’you mean?”

 

“I mean, what if he made some sort of sacrifice … somehow to put Harry in position to defeat Voldemort?”

 

“That would be daft,” Ron objected.  “Sacrifice his life?”

 

“Ron, how can you say that?  I seem to remember a game you played first year where you tried to do that very thing.”

 

“But he was Dumbledore!”

 

“Yes, just so.  He was Dumbledore.”

 

Rubbing his eyes, Harry moaned, “And so he’s gone because of me.”

 

“Because of Voldemort!”  Hermione shot back.  “To defeat him.  It’s his fault, not yours.  All of it.”

 

“And still I’m in the middle of it all, and still the people around me get killed!” Harry barked, slapping the sofa by his side.  “My parents.  Sirius.  Dumbledore.  I can’t even get the Dursleys to save themselves!”

 

“Having a hard time keeping people safe, is it?”  All three friends froze at the sound of Ginny’s voice. 

 

Ron was first to recover.  “Actually, I have an idea about the Dursleys.  Let me just finish up a few arrangements.”  He marched toward the kitchen.

 

“What do you have in mind?” asked Hermione, hurrying after him.

 

Harry noticed none of this as he turned to meet Ginny’s gaze.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Hello, Harry,” Ginny continued quietly.  “Sorry I haven’t been very hospitable.”

 

“Can’t blame you.  I’ve given you plenty of reason not to be, haven’t I?”

 

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said.”

 

“Makes two of us then.”

 

“Harry,” she said haltingly, “When you said we couldn’t be together, did you mean … that you didn’t want to–“

 

“NO!  Gin, I meant just what I said.  It’s just that if we’re together, you’re in danger.  If I didn’t want to be with you … Oh, this is daft – if I didn’t want to be with you, then you wouldn’t be in such danger and we could be together, but …”

 

“And you think I’ll be safer if we’re apart?”

 

“Yes.  Well, I mean I think so.  At least I did.  Maybe I still do.”

 

“With my whole family in the Order, and my idiot brothers making jokes about U-No-Poo?  And when I’ve already fought against his Death Eaters twice?”

 

“I don’t want you in even more danger than that.  You heard what I was saying, Gin.  People I get close to keep getting killed, and I can’t have that happen to you, of all people.”

 

“Right, Harry, people close to you get killed.  People close to Susan Bones get killed.  People close to Hannah Abbott get killed.  My uncles got killed, murdered by the same pillock that tried to do in Hermione last year.  And then just look at what Neville has lost!  For Merlin’s sake, even Malfoy’s lost a lot, and he’s on the wrong side.”

 

“Stupid Malfoy.  He could have had everything, but his loser of a father went Dark, and the git followed him.  Threw away everything.”

 

“Harry, we all want to be rid of You-Know-Who, you perhaps more than most of us because he took away your parents.  He might have ruined your whole life – but he didn’t.  You know he didn’t, because you have me, and Ron, and Hermione, and loads of people who care about you.  Or is that the real point?  You want to push us all away so that you can say that he did ruin your life?”

 

Harry was quiet for a long time.  “I just want my life to still be there when I’m done with him.  I want you to be around when I’m done with him.”

 

“Why, Harry?  You said that our being together was like something from somebody else’s life, not yours.  Won’t it still seem like somebody else’s life after he’s gone?”

 

“I don’t know, Gin.  But at least then I won’t have him haunting everything I do.  Maybe then I’ll be able to figure out what my life is, aside from fighting Voldemort.”

 

“Harry, you spent ten years growing up with the Dursleys and learning that being loved isn’t part of your life.  And it’s what You-Know-Who would want you to think, too, because it would mean you’re no different from him.  Well, you’ve had six years now to learn that that’s all wrong.  There are people who love you, and that is part of your life, and you need to get used to it, because we’re not going away.”

 

Harry smiled at his shoes.  He knew that some of the people Ginny was talking about were dead now, but he also knew that she wouldn’t count that as “gone away”.

 

“I know you, Harry.  I know you need to get rid of You-Know-Who.  You need to avenge your parents.  Tell me, would you do it if it would cost you your life?”

 

There was no uncertainty in Harry’s answer:  “Yes.”

 

“Would you do it if it would cost you my life?”

 

Harry turned away from her and looked down at the floor.  “No,” he murmured.

 

“But you would do it if it would cost me your life,” she said quietly, briefly laying her hands on his shoulders before leaving.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Hermione was grateful for Ron’s quick excuse for leaving Harry and Ginny alone, but she was rather disappointed when the “arrangements” he had to make for his “plan” seemed to involve nothing more than going out for a fly.  He insisted that he really did have a plan to deal with the Dursleys, but he refused to elaborate.  “You’ll see, it’ll be splendid,” was all he would tell her.

 

Left to herself as Ron flew off, Hermione decided to walk to the pond, there to soak up the summer warmth and admire the puffy clouds gracing the azure sky, with no risk of accidentally eavesdropping on Harry and Ginny.  Halfway there, she slowed to watch the distant dot in the sky that she knew to be Ron.  He’s frightfully good at flying.  As well he should be, he’s grown up doing it.  The dot grew larger and larger until it was recognizably Ron – or would have been if he hadn’t been moving so fast.  He zoomed by, then swung around in a wide arc and settled next to her, just off the ground.  Amazing, how he can fly fast enough to race a hippogriff, then match my speed so precisely that he can – Oh.  Hold my hand.

 

“Already too tired to walk?” she teased.

 

“Occasionally I remember that you didn’t grow up as a witch,” he replied.  “Hop on, I want to show you something.”

 

Gingerly she sat side-saddle on his broom, one hand gripping the handle behind him, the other forward next to both of his.  “Not too high, please.  You know I don’t like heights.”

 

“Come on, Hermione, heights can’t hurt you.”

 

“No, it’s falling from them that can.”

 

“And you know that I won’t let you do that.”

 

“Ron, perhaps you could join me in the lounge after dinner.  I’ll have a rather large spider with me, but I promise I won’t let it crawl on you.”

 

“All right, I won’t take you too high,” he laughed.  “But we do have to go up a bit for you to see this.”

 

You rogue!  You’ve already taken me up a good forty feet while we were discussing it!  There was a wind blowing up here, and she tentatively leaned back against his arm, glad of something solid to anchor her.

 

“Do Muggle children look for pictures in the clouds?”

 

“Oh, yes.  It’s loads of fun on a day like this.”

 

“So do wizard kids, but they do something else too.  Your children –”  Grammar, Ron, the correct pronoun is “our”.  “– will also look for pictures in the crowns of trees.”  He had been continuing their barely perceptible rise, and they were now well above the treetops.  “For example.  See the rabbit in that one?”  He kept the arm that went behind her firmly on the broom to keep her secure, and pointed with the other.

 

“Oh, yes, just there.”  She scanned the woods below for a minute.  “There!  I see the Man in the Moon over there.”

 

“I see him too.”  He turned the broom to bring another tree into Hermione’s view.  “And over there’s a cottage.  See the smoke coming out of the chimney?  I think Hagrid might live in it.”

 

She bent forward a little and looked back, right past his midsection.  “And I think I see a Pygmy Puff!”

 

Suddenly two stern blue eyes were inches away from hers.  “Granger, it’s a good thing I promised not to let you fall.”  She batted her eyelashes exaggeratedly by way of a reply.  The broom abruptly dropped three feet.  She didn’t even screech.

 

They drifted on for a while, spotting pictures in the trees, the silences in between gradually lengthening.

 

Twelve years I knew nothing of this, all I knew was that I didn’t belong where I was.  I barely know what a normal Muggle childhood is like, and here’s Ron trying to give me a witch’s childhood.  Malfoy & co. call me filthy names for having the temerity to be born to Muggle parents, and Ron shares his whole world with me.

 

“Do you think Malfoy might have shown this to me if I’d given him a chance?” she asked with a smirk.

 

“He’s slime,” Ron replied simply.

 

All the answer the question requires.

 

“They hate me, Ron, and it’s only because of who my parents are, not anything I am or anything I’ve done.  It’s just horrid of them.”

 

“Oh, no,” he replied breezily.  “They hate you for what you’ve done, too.  They hate you for being smarter and more powerful than they are.  They hate you for being respected by everyone who matters.  And they hate you for giving fits to their ruddy Death Eater heroes.”

 

“But if someone from a pureblood family did things like that, they wouldn’t hate him like they hate me.”

 

“They do hate me.  And Neville, and lots of people like us.”

 

“But that’s only because you associate with people like me.”

 

“Oh yes, we’re all ‘blood traitors’, right.  They think everyone’s supposed to bow down to them just because they say they’re superior.  And all the while they’re just marrying among themselves, until there’s only one brain for the lot of them and each one has only a piece of it.  It’s mental, really.”

 

And here’s Ronald Weasley, scion of one of the most ancient wizarding families in Britain, and no one in his  family will care a whit that he’s taken up with a Muggle-born.  Someone that lots of pureblood families would think of as little more than an animal, and begrudge her any more rights than they’d give their wretched house-elves.  Yes, blood traitors, that’s what the Weasleys are.  Traitors to the idea that your ancestry matters more than what you make of yourself.  It almost makes me wish I were a pureblood too, so I could be such a traitor.

 

But there were other such causes to which she could be a traitor.  “And just look how people treat someone like Lupin, and that’s only for something that happened to him.”

 

“Please, don’t remind me,” Ron groaned.  “Remember how I was to him when I first found out?”

 

“In the Shrieking Shack?”

 

“I said something awful, like ‘Get away from me, werewolf,’ as if I hadn’t known him for months by then.”

 

“But you were in pain, and you thought – we all thought – he was in league with a murderer who was trying to kill Harry.  We both know you’re not that kind of person.  Just look at how you are to Hagrid, and how other people treat him.”

 

“Right, Hagrid, who’s part giant … I suppose Fleur, who’s part veela …All those pureblood types automatically treat anybody who’s not all human like dirt.”

 

Oh, no.  Fleur.  I’ve never been kind to her, never seen her as an outcast, too.  But Ron’s right, those people are racists, pure and simple, no better than any of the bigots that plague the Muggle world, and just as destructive of their own.

 

“You know, Ron, there are people like that in the Muggle world as well.”

 

“Of course.  That’s why we have the Statute of Secrecy – because so many Muggles just automatically hate wizards.”

 

“No, I’m talking about Muggles who hate other Muggles, without even meeting them, for the most absurd reasons.”

 

“Like?”

 

“Where they come from.  Ancestry.  Skin colour, especially.”

 

“Skin colour?”  Ron snorted.  “And hair colour too, right?  They hate redheads.”

 

“No,” Hermione replied bemusedly.  “Not hair, just skin.  They would hate Dean, for example, and they would be absolutely scandalized to see him together with Ginny.”

 

“So?  I was scandalized to see Dean together with Ginny.”

 

“But not because his skin was the wrong colour.”

 

“No, because his eyes were the wrong colour.”

 

Hermione chuckled.  “You mean not green?  And because he didn’t have the right kind of scar on his forehead?”

 

“How did you ever guess?”

 

“But seriously, it would be the same with Angelina and Fred.”

 

“Right,” Ron sighed.  “Mental.”  After a few minutes of quiet thought, he said, “Hermione, promise me you won’t tell Dad about this?  It would kill him.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Some days later, Ron convinced his parents to allow him and his friends to visit Diagon Alley with a minimal escort, claiming that they needed to pick up a couple of things for the wedding.  As it happened, the first stop on their expedition was at Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes.

 

“Hullo, Fred, George,” Ron offered as he sauntered in.

 

Fred looked up from arranging a display shelf of Puking Pastilles.  “Hey, little bro! Looking for free stuff again?”

 

“I don’t need anything.  Harry does.”

 

“I do?” asked Harry, looking nonplussed.

 

Fred looked from Harry to Ron and scowled.  “Nice try, Ron.  Nothing doing.”

 

“He does need something from you,” Ron insisted.  “Your, er, expertise.”

 

Behind the counter, George’s face lit up.  “Oh, really?  Tell us more.”

 

“Mind you, our services come at an exorbitant price …” Fred warned, while George vaulted the counter to join them.

 

“…but we’ll entertain reasonable bids.  Now what do you have in mind?’

 

Ron succinctly explained the problem with the Dursleys:  that they refused to recognize the mortal danger they would soon be in, and needed to be persuaded to flee.  Once Harry had corroborated the story, and Ron had been duly cross-examined, Fred turned to his twin. 

 

“Well, well, I must admit to being rather intrigued by this little problem.”

 

“I agree.  For the sake of our reputation, we simply must take this on.”

 

“Now, Ron, about our professional compensation.”

 

“Hey, I told you, this is for Harry.”

 

“Yes, you did say that, but since Harry does not benefit directly …”

 

“… and it was you, not Harry, who brought the matter to us …”

 

“… I don’t see how the Potter discount can apply here.”

 

“On the other hand, since this does, let us say, involve Harry’s beloved relatives …”

 

“… one of whom is already an established customer of ours …”

 

“What do you say, Fred, shall we treat this as an exchange of gifts?”

 

“That sounds right.  Ron’s gift to us is the opportunity …”

 

“… and our gift to him is …”

 

“…the execution,” they finished in unison.

 

Ron and Harry flashed each other a thumbs-up.  Fred and George rounded on them, apparently intent now on further defining their mission.

 

“Just how far away do we want to scare them?”

 

“And do we want them to try to change their identities as well?”

 

“Their appearance?”

 

“Just make sure they’re far from home by my birthday and that they haven’t left anything to say where they’ve gone,” Harry answered seriously.  “They should be all right keeping their names.  But make sure you get all three of them to leave.”

 

“Harry, you can count on us,” Fred promised.  “All three will be gone.  And maybe we should give some special consideration to your cousin.  I got rather fond of him when we met a while back.”

 

George looked wrathful.  “Or maybe we should leave him behind – if there’s any truth to what we hear about him and one young witch of our acquaintance?”

 

Hermione smiled at him gratefully.  Harry’s eyes started to show a mischievous glint as he answered, “Well, let me know if you do leave Dudders behind.  He’ll be easy to scare away –” He pointed his thumbs at Ron and Hermione. “I can just show him these two.”

 

The twins instantly drew closer.  “Oh?  Do I detect an untold story here?”

 

Hermione’s smile vanished as she saw the eager looks on Fred and George’s faces.  As unobtrusively as she could, she shifted behind them, caught Harry’s eye, and wagged her head slightly.  Unfortunately for her, Harry was getting into the spirit of the conversation, and her attempts to cut him off only encouraged him to go on.  He looked past the twins at her, and none-too-comfortingly said, “Relax, Hermione, I won’t tell your little secret.”

 

“My what?”  All eyes were now on her.  Fred and George were obviously trying not to laugh; Ron could all but hear his heart pound.

 

“You know, about … him,” Harry replied, indicating no one.

 

“HARRY!”

 

“Could this ‘… him’ be anyone we know?”

 

“Whatever happened to … him anyway?”

 

“Maybe it was something done by … him?”

 

“Or for … him!”

 

“Even in spite of … him!”

 

Harry glanced at his watch and sighed theatrically.  “I’m sorry, Fred, George, I’m afraid the whole tale will have to wait for a time when I can give it justice.”

 

“You mean, when you can tell it without being murdered?”

 

“For now let’s just say that in the end …”

 

“At long last?”

 

“After much anticipation?”

 

“…  finally …”

 

“YES?”

 

“… they did give Dudley his voice back.”

 

After a long moment, Fred and George looked from Harry to each other, and said in chorus, “Blighter.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

As the wedding approached, preparations began in earnest on many fronts.  Arthur managed to borrow several tents to accommodate guests coming from afar.  Bill took on the job of pitching them, and Ron leapt at the chance to help him while Harry and Hermione set about other tasks.  The brothers laid out the largest tent, the one for Fleur’s immediate family, on a piece of high ground facing toward the garden where the ceremony was to take place.  As they started levitating the main poles into place, Ron ventured, “Bill, can I ask you something?”

 

“No,” Bill replied flatly.  Ron gaped, and Bill could not suppress a laugh.  “Now really, Ron!  What’s on your mind?”

 

“It’s about Hermione.”

 

“Hermione …” Bill looked off into the distance for a moment.  “Well, I’d say the answer is Yes.”

 

“Bill, wouldn’t it help to hear what the question is?”

 

“Probably not, but give it a try anyway.”

 

“Well, you know … I mean, everybody seems to know … that I’ve … rather fancied her for ages now.”

 

“I may have heard something about that from one or two people.”

 

“Well I did something about it last week.”

 

Suddenly serious, Bill turned to his brother.  “And?” he prompted, with concern evident in his voice.  The tent poles, neglected, tumbled to the ground.

 

“She seems all right with it.”  Bill breathed easier, and smiled at Ron’s discomfiture.  “But.”  Ron took a deep breath, looked around, and continued in a near-whisper.  “Listen, Bill, Dumbledore gave Harry a task to do, something that involves fighting You-Know-Who.  I can’t tell you more about it.  But he wanted Hermione and me in on it too, I don’t really know why.”

 

“Yes, that Dumbledore was a strange one.  Gives Harry this job to do, then chooses Harry’s best friends in all the world to help him with it.  I can’t imagine why he’d pick them.  Can you?”

 

“Oh, hush up.  But this is what worries me.  Hermione and I – how can we be a couple when we need to be a team and help Harry?”

 

Bill looked puzzled.  “You mean Harry has a problem with you two being together?”

 

“No, no, he’s good with it.  What I mean is, we need to concentrate on this job we have to do, and I don’t see how we can be, you know, together.  Won’t we just distract each other?”

 

“You think you’ll concentrate better if you’re always frustrated because you’re right there with each other but you’ve decided to stay at arm’s length?”

 

“I don’t know, Bill, I just don’t know.  That’s why I’m asking you.”

 

“Do you have some idea how long this task is likely to take?”

 

“None at all.”

 

“Hm.  Stake this thing out while I put those poles back where they belong, all right?”  Ron sent a stake flying into the ground at the far corner of the tent, then Summoned another corner, stretching out the fabric while he pushed the second stake into the ground by hand.  Bill flicked his wand and the untidy heap of tent poles sorted itself out while Ron drove the remaining stakes.  Once the tent was properly pitched, Bill returned to the real matter at hand.  “So for all you know, you may be talking about the two of you keeping yourselves apart indefinitely.”

 

“Yeah, I guess so.”

 

“You know, Ron, I can almost imagine Dumbledore asking whether that doesn’t amount to letting You-Know-Who win.  But then it’s hard for me to really imagine what Dumbledore would say to you, especially since he actually knew what this task is.”

 

“And I can’t tell you because we’re sworn to secrecy.”

 

“I’ve got no problem with that.  But I may not be your best choice for answering a question like this.”

 

“Who should I ask, then?”

 

“Hermione.  She knows all about this task, and by all accounts she’s really smart.  And seriously, it’s a decision that you can’t make for the two of you.  If you really care for her, you can’t just try to run her life, and if she cares for you, she can’t run yours.  The two of you need to figure it out together.”

 

“That will be one scary talk.”

 

“Yes, but trust me, it’s well worth having.  And relax, I’m sure she doesn’t bite.”

 

“Bill, you’re a wonderful brother but you obviously don’t know Hermione very well.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Fleur, dear,” Molly said as lunch drew to a close, “the boys pitched the tents for your family this morning.  Would you please go and see to the interiors?  You’ll know how your relatives will want things set up.  You can take –”

 

“I’ll go, Mrs. Weasley!” Hermione broke in urgently.  “I’m sure Fleur and I can manage quite well, the two of us.”

 

Fleur eyed her guardedly.  “Certainly, Mrs. Weasley.  I will do zis.  Wis ‘Ermione’s ‘elp, of course.”

 

“Right, then, shall we?”  Hermione’s voice was just a touch higher than normal.  She stood and turned, awkwardly bumping into Ron as she tried to step away from the table.  “Sorry,” she murmured, hastily patting the shoulder she had just run into as she made for the door.

 

Fleur marched across the lawn toward the tents, head and shoulders erect, eyes straight ahead.  To her side, Hermione bit her lip and intently watched the grass pass below her as she walked.  A vast and unwelcome gulf of silence somehow fit into the few feet of space between them.

 

At length, Fleur threw out a challenge.  “You wish to speak wis me, non?”

 

“Yes,” Hermione whispered, nodding and still looking down, but she said nothing more.  Finally, just as Fleur was drawing an impatient breath as if to speak, she blurted, “Fleur, I’m sorry!”

 

“But?”

 

“No, not like that.  It’s just that … I’m dreadfully sorry.”

 

“I do not understand.”

 

Hermione halted in her tracks.  “Fleur, I’ve been absolutely beastly to you ever since … well, since you came to Hogwarts for the Tournament.”  She swallowed, and very quietly added, “Mostly behind your back.”  Her voice strengthened.  “It was wrong, it was horrid of me, and I’m terribly, terribly sorry about it and I’ll not do it again.  I hope you can forgive me … eventually.”

 

Fleur softened somewhat.  “’Ermione, I am used to women ‘ating me.”

 

“But I never thought.  I should have understood, and not been so cruel!”

 

“Understood about women ‘ating me?”

 

“No, about …” She stopped and drew a deep breath.  “Fleur, I’m Muggle-born.”

 

“So?”

 

“I’m Muggle-born.  There are people who hate me just because of that.  Not because of me, just because of who my parents are.  So I should have thought, I should have understood about … about …”

 

In an instant, the haughty, icy Fleur disappeared completely, replaced by a beautiful young woman taking Hermione’s hands in her own.  “About my Memé being veela.  About how women ‘ate me for zat, and men ‘ate me for zat also.”

 

Hermione’s eyes shot up to meet Fleur’s.  “Men?” she asked incredulously.  “But…”  She spread her hands, palms toward Fleur, and moved them up and down a little.

 

Fleur gave an odd laugh, tinged with irony and a little bitterness.  “I am very good-looking, no?  It is not my doing, it comes from my Memé.  Men are attracted to my looks, and women ‘ate me because my looks steal ze men’s eyes.”  Hermione looked away, her cheeks burning.  “And ze men, most of zem ‘ate me, scorn me, because I am not completely ‘uman.  Like people ‘ate you for being Muggle-born.”

 

“Oh.  I see,” Hermione replied, fully aware that she didn’t.  “I’d have thought that good looks would help, though.”

 

“No, ‘Ermione, it is like being rich.  If a woman is rich, she attracts men ‘oo want ‘er riches, not ‘er.  And if she is good-looking, it is only ‘er looks zey want.  Many men want my looks, but I do not matter to zem – zey sink I am like some animal.  If you do not understand zis, you do not realize what a treasure my Bill is.  No, it is a good sing not to be too rich or too good-looking.”

 

“I suppose that’s true.”  Hermione gave a little, rueful snort.  “It’s possible to have too much of a good thing, though.”

 

A subtle smile lit Fleur’s face.  “What do you mean?” she asked gently.

 

“Just look!  My knees are all knobby, my legs look they belong to some bird, my … nothing is shaped right, nothing looks good –”

 

“Viktor Krum never asked me to the Yule Ball.”  Hermione stopped speaking but, uncharacteristically, forgot to close her mouth.  “Do you know why ‘e asked you?”

 

“No, I don’t.  I was only a fourth year, and we’d never really spoken.  I suppose I must have been the only girl at Hogwarts who wasn’t chasing after him, perhaps that had something to do with it?”

 

“’E would ‘ave found zat refreshing, non?  Fascinating?  Attractive?  A challenge, per’aps?”

 

Hermione considered this, but still found herself miserable.  In a tiny voice, she ventured, “Ron asked you.”

 

Fleur looked into the air for a moment.  “Peut être.  Many boys did, only because of my looks, as I said.  Ron may ‘ave been among zem, ‘e was very young.”

 

“He still looks at you quite a lot.  That’s why I’ve been so awful to you, of course.  You’re beautiful.  I’m ugly.  I hate competing when I can’t.”

 

“’Ermione, are you ‘urt when Ron looks at a sunset?  Or a mountain?”  Hermione shook her head.  “Zese are very beautiful, no?  But zey could never steal ‘is ‘eart away from you.  Neizer could I.”  The two smiled at each other.  “Zere is no need for you to compete, you ‘ave no competition.  But do not feel sorry for me,” she laughed.  “I ‘ave a Weasley of my own.”  A twinkle appeared in Fleur’s eye.  “And, ’Ermione, if you sink you are ugly you should ask Ron.”  Hermione gasped as Fleur eyed her appraisingly.  “No?  Ah, even better:  I will tell ‘im ‘ow ugly you are.  But first,” she winked, “I must practice my Shield charms.”

 

Hermione burst out laughing, and sank down onto the grass.  As Fleur joined her, she rolled onto her back and laughed up into the beautiful blue sky that could never steal Ron’s heart away from her.

 

At length Fleur stood and extended a hand to help Hermione up.  Hermione looked at it, then into her eyes.  “Friends, then?” she asked, taking the proffered hand.

 

Mais certainnement, ‘Ermione.  Sisters-in-law should always be friends.”

 

“Let’s deal with these tents, then, shall we?”

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------

A/N:  It was “Brother to Brother”, by Mizaya, that first made me aware that Fleur would be accustomed to women disliking her, and got me thinking about how men would regard her.  Thanks!

//
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