The Sugar Quill
Author: Arabella and Zsenya (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: After the End  Chapter: Chapter One: Through the Fireplace
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Chapter One

A/N: Thanks to all those who reviewed and never fear; the concerns you
expressed will all be addressed as the story continues to unfold! And thanks
also to our lovely List Aurors, B Bennett, Cap'n Kathy and Moey. We can't
believe you've really set up a Yahoo list (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AftertheEnd) for this story and we hope we'll
prove worthy of discussion

Chapter One

Through the Fireplace

Sirius Black flipped the last egg onto the platter filled with beans and sausage and, with a tight flick of his wand, sent the platter zooming to the table. It landed before the half-asleep eyes of Remus Lupin, where it spun dizzily, revolving at least half a dozen times before coming to a impressive halt.

"Ta da. Eat up, Moony! Iíll get the paper Ė"

Remus opened his mouth to answer, but Sirius had already cleared the kitchen in a bound, and burst outside into the warm June air.

"You can Summon the paper, you know," Remus croaked after him, pushing the eggs gingerly toward the center of the table, where he wouldnít have to smell them. He wasnít awake enough for this exchange.

"I like going outside for it."

Sirius was already back. Truly, Remus thought, the man was hyperactive Ė he tossed the paper into the air and cast a quick spell on it, causing it to flap its pages, birdlike, toward the table. It landed next to the breakfast platter and crowed loudly once, before settling. Remus groaned.

"Please," he muttered, "Enough with the early morning fireworks." But he didnít really mean it. He knew why Sirius was excited. And when he was awake enough, he knew that heíd join in.

Sirius wasnít a bit offended Ė he laughed and stuffed an entire sausage into his wide grin.

"Iím a free man, Moony," he said radiantly, once heíd swallowed. Remus couldnít help cracking a grin, weary as he felt. Siriusís freedom meant almost as much to him as it did to Sirius. "A free man with a godson. And itís summer. And the bloody war is over Ė " Sirius screwed his face into a deliberately tortured grimace and began to jerk his head around wildly. "And ĎOh my, ainít it good to be free Ė in a world where your Curses can take my liberty-y-yí..."

Remus looked on, half-amused, half-worried. "Youíre singing."

"I am indeed. ĎOh, oh, ohí..." still swinging his head and muttering lyrics, Sirius raised his wand to make coffee.

"What is that? Itís awful. Itís not music."

"Get with it, you old man, thatís the Weird Sisters. Theyíre in." Sirius grinned over his shoulder. "Better brush up, now weíve got teenagers coming." He jumped up to sit on the countertop while the coffee brewed itself, and he grinned through the kitchen door toward Remus, who remained at the table, bemused.

"Yes. You should get along with them nicely."

"Youíre just jealous because youíre tone deaf. Go on, admit it."

"Ah." Remus nodded. "Well, musical ability aside, Padfoot, youíre totally unprepared for Harry to get here. I realize itís not as if weíve had time to think about it this week, but there are things that still need to get Ė"

"Not prepared! Iíve been ready and willing to live with Harry since he was a year old, and Iíve had to wait this long for it." Siriusís smile faded slightly and his eyes began to lose their glow. "Iíd say thatís enough time to get prepared."

Remus shook his head apologetically and held up a hand Ė this wasnít the moment to think back. Forge ahead, he reminded himself. Thatís what theyíd sworn to try. Harry was coming, and he deserved to move on from the things that had happened, which would be hard going with a volatile Sirius getting angry on the very first day. He would have to keep calm, and redirect the focus of the conversation.

"That wasnít what I meant, Padfoot. I meant in the house. Beds, groceries Ė"

"Weíve got beds, what are you talking about?"

"Sheets, pillows Ė itís a good thing my parents took such good care of everything. Weíve got dishes enough, and silverware, and they had a cat so the old litter box is still around here somewhere for Crookshanks Ė but we havenít got enough towels in this place for six people, soĖ"

"Fuss, fuss, fuss." Sirius, looking happy again, poured a cup of coffee and strode out into the small dining area to sit across from Remus at the table. "Do you think theyíre going to care about all that? Towels and sheets? Theyíre teenagers."

Remus raised an eyebrow at Sirius, who continually amazed him. How the same man could have aged so much and so little at the same time, was beyond him. "This is what Iím telling you. Those girls are going to care about clean towels. The animals have to be accounted for Ė itís going to be a menagerie in here with the owls and the cat. And if you havenít any food in the house, youíll have two very restless seventeen-year-old boys on your hands in Ė" Remus checked his watch. "Four hours."

"Plenty of time!" Sirius leaned back and stretched out his legs. "And Ronís eighteen, I believe. Eighteen!" He stopped and shook his head, pale blue eyes glinting with a memory. "Remember eighteen?"

Remus smiled. Sirius grinned. They remembered eighteen, quite, quite well. And this was a different kind of thinking back. This was allowable.

"We were living in that three bedroom thing Ė "

"Ho Ė remember the fireplace?"

"How could I forget it."

"Cramped old spot, I think I still have bruises."

"James loved it Ė well, but that was due to Lilyís painting all around it."

"Please. That was all flattery Ė he just wanted to get in her room and he thought sheíd fall for that line."

"Sirius!"

"Oh come on, you know it. But Lily was no fool Ė she wouldnít let James inside her room ever."

"Well. Yes. Drove him rather wild."

"It certainly did." Sirius sighed. "I canít believe Harryís really coming here."

Remus nodded. "I canít believe how much seeing his face is like..."

"Having Prongs. I know."

"You think you know, but just wait. Youíve known Harry in war, in crisis Ė but that year I had him in class, I swear to you, sometimes I had to remind myself who he was. Itís uncanny."

"God, I hope so."

They were quiet a moment. Sirius went to the kitchen, poured himself a second cup of coffee and returned. When he had settled himself again, he frowned and pointed to the window.

"Whoís the man, there?"

Remus followed Siriusís finger and peered out the front window of the cottage, across the small road, where a large, impressive gray house stood far back on a manicured lawn, making all the cottages on the street around it look terribly shabby, by comparison. On its wide upper balcony a man sat, reading the newspaper.

"Martin Lewis," Remus replied.

"Know him?"

"Well, his familyís always been there, but we missed him in school by a few years Ė heís got about a decade on you and me."

"Ah." Sirius looked gravely at his coffee. Remus knew that there had to be something to it.

"Why are you asking?"

Sirius shook his head. "Nothing. I should have expected it."

"What?" Remus was not about to give this up, not when whatever it was had brought Sirius down so quickly.

Sirius sighed and bent more deeply over the coffee cup in his hands. "Itís honestly nothing, Moony. Itís just that I shouted hello to him out there, when I grabbed the paper." His eyes clouded.

"And?"

"He ran inside."

Remus reached a hand across the table instinctively, but Sirius waved it off.

"No, I should have expected it." He laughed. "Although youíd think since Iíd been pardoned by the Ministry, people wouldnít be quite so terrified Ė"

"Sirius..."

"I mean, if I were a murdering traitor, wouldnít I have had his head by now?" Sirius looked out of the window bitterly. "Iíve been pardoned for nine months. Iíve lived here all that time."

"Heís run away from you before this, hasnít he?" Sirius didnít answer him, but Remus knew that it had happened and his heart ached. "You didnít tell me."

"Well, there hasnít been a lot of time for whining, has there? Anyway, whatís the point?"

"I could have told you not to mind him, Sirius. He does the same thing to me."

Sirius looked up at Remus in surprise. "You mean he knows about you?"

Remus smiled wryly. "Somehow, yes he does. Iím not quite certain how, but people find out about these things, and whether youíre actually dangerous or not doesnít seem to matter. Most people live in fear regardless of the truth."

Sirius laughed darkly. "We just won a war, and people are still behaving exactly the way they did before. I canít believe it. Iím telling you, Moony, it makes me want to..." He cut himself off, drank a deep, scalding gulp of coffee, and exhaled. His voice was definitely bitter now; it had the Azkaban edge, and Remus flinched to hear it. He had known that Siriusís new, blinding good mood would come and go. After all, there had been very little to be happy about for a long time. Even if there was joy coming to them now, history couldnít be helped. All they could do was try to move through it, try to salvage what was left.

"Burned my bloody tongue," Sirius muttered, glaring into his cup.

Remus knew his cue. This was the opportunity to turn the conversation. "Youíre going to have to take it easy with the swearing," he said mildly. "Youíve got to set an example."

Like a shot, Siriusís head was up again, and he pulled a face. "What, in front of the teenagers? As if Harry and Ron have never heard the word bloody!"

"Thatís hardly your worst offender."

Sirius grinned broadly. "True."

"In any case, Ron and Harry arenít coming alone."

"Oh, what? Iím to watch my mouth in front of little Ginny?"

Remus laughed. "No, sheís probably worse than you are. I had to ask her to calm down once in a Defense Against the Dark Arts class of mine. She couldnít figure out how to get a dervish to quit whirling, and she let out quite a Ďdamní."

"In class?" Sirius looked delighted.

"Her second year."

"I like her." He raised an eyebrow. "So itís Hermione weíre worried about then. All right, Iíll hold my tongue if I can, although from what weíve heard out of Ronís mouth, the poor girlís already got her work cut out for her."

"Yes. Well." Remus suppressed a smile, as something occurred to him. "Oh yes, I meant to ask you Ė what did you end up telling them all about the rooming arrangements?"

Siriusís smile went unrepressed. He grinned wickedly. "I told them that two would have to share each room."

"Yes, but did you make it clear which two, to each room?"

"Thought Iíd let them battle that one out for themselves. Iím sure theyíre old enough to figure it out."

"You donít mean youíd consider..."

"I do."

"Absolutely not! We canít. The Weasleys would kill us, Padfoot."

"Ah, Moony. And I thought you remembered eighteen." Sirius kicked his feet up onto the table and shut his eyes, apparently remembering.

Remus gave him a disapproving stare to which he was oblivious, reached out and plucked the newspaper from the table, settling back to take in the news of the wizarding world.

"HELLO! HELLO? ARE EITHER OF YOU THERE? SIRIUS? REMUS?"

The voice came from the living room Ė loud, urgent and extremely startling. At the first sound of it, both Sirius and Remus had dropped to the floor on instinct and gone for their wands. Remus felt his breath coming in gasps and his heart racing. Beside him, he could hear Sirius gasping, too.

It took them a moment to remember that the Death Eaters had been defeated. They looked at each other under the table and shook their heads, exhaling hard.

Shell shock, Remus reflected, was not a pleasant state of being. Wondering how long heíd react like that to everyday visitors, he got to his feet, dusted his robes, and walked down the hall into the room where the largest fireplace stood. In it, among the flames, a familiar head was shouting mightily.

"IF EITHER OF YOU ARE AT HOME, I NEED TO SPEAK TO YOU. ITíS ARTHUR Ė Oh! Remus. Youíre at home."

Arthur Weasley smiled from the fire, but it didnít do anything to conceal the fatigue in his eyes. Heíd aged ten years in the past three, and it showed in every line of his face. The red hair he had left was tinged with gray.

"Hello, Arthur. You startled us a little, Iím afraid."

Arthur nodded. He understood. "I wouldnít have hollered quite like that, but itís urgent. Have you seen the paper?"

"I was just about to read it. No, why, whatís happened?"

"Is Sirius there? Iíd rather just say it all once."

"Iím here." Sirius had apparently recovered himself. He entered the room and crouched by the fire. "What is it, Arthur?"

"Youíre not going to like this one, Sirius. Itís the Dementors." Arthur looked grimly apologetic. No one liked to bring up Dementors to Sirius; it brought that hardened look into his eyes. Remus watched Siriusís face set like stone into jagged lines as he braced himself for the conversation.

"Itís fine," Sirius said evenly, though Remus knew it wasnít. "Whatís happening with the Dementors?"

Arthur sighed and his head shook slowly side to side in the fire. "Weíre having one hell of a time keeping them at Azkaban. I thought weíd done the hardest bit already this week, what with throwing all the Death Eaters back in prison, but itís not going to do much good if we donít have guards, is it?"

"Why? Wonít the Dementors guard the island?" Remus asked at once, feeling his heart sink. Since the battle that had taken place at Hogwarts a week ago, it had been all that the Order could do to round up Voldemortís remaining supporters and make sure that they werenít going to cause further damage. Everyone remembered what had happened to the Longbottoms last time. Just when it had seemed they were safe, theyíd been brutally attacked.

"The Dementors wonít sit still," Arthur informed them, and though his voice was steady, his eyes were anxious. "Theyíre trying to get off the island. The free rein they had in the Dark army has gone to their heads, I think. They were encouraged to perform the Kiss at random for so long, that now..."

"Donít tell me." Siriusís face was flat white.

"No Ė they havenít done any damage to anyone innocent. Not yet. But thereís a strong worry. If they donít want to stay on the island, thereís nothing much to hold them off the streets. I donít know how we can hope to reestablish Azkaban if the Dementors wonít take to it anymore."

Remus stepped up behind Siriusís crouched form and put a light hand on his shoulder. "Where are the Death Eaters now, then?"

Arthur gritted his teeth. "Mad-Eyeís on that. Theyíre not going anywhere for a time. Theyíre sitting in Azkaban. But he can only do so much, and there arenít enough Aurors anymore to make it easy on him Ė" He stopped and shook his head again.

"How are you, Arthur?" asked Remus, gently.

The head in the fireplace gave an odd laugh. "As well as I can be, under the circumstances. Iíve got help. Fletcherís taking the M.L.E.S, Mad-Eyeís got the Aurors, Diggoryís here and the Patils... and some of the others have come back...." He gave a heaving sigh. "But Iíve got two problems. First, I donít want the Dementors going near anyone Ė I donít even trust them with the prisoners. Not everybody in Azkaban deserves to be in there and I donít want them all getting Kissed when we havenít got a clue whoís really guilty. Theyíre all pulling that old line on us again."

"Pretending to have been Curse-controlled." Sirius stood, and paced across the room quickly. When he turned back, his eyes were livid. "Arthur, some of them are probably telling the truth."

"I know it. But what can I do? Iíve got no way to hold prisoners in Azkaban without the Dementors, and I canít just let Death Eaters go free. I havenít got enough manpower to investigate all their claims, let alone give them proper trials. The Ministryís hardly up to anything of that magnitude yet; half the old officials are dead or wonít come back Ė"

"Itís a wreck. Yes, I know. But you canít leave people in Azkaban, you canít ArthurĖ not unless you know for absolute certain what they've done. We've got to kill the Dementors Ė it's time they were destroyed."

"Sirius." Remusís voice was very quiet. "Arthur, what do you want us to do?"

"Anything you can." His face was drawn. "I know youíre tired. You deserve a rest more than anyone, the both of you. I wouldnít ask if I didnít need the help."

Sirius was rocking back and forth on his feet, his hands in his hair. "You know youíve got our help. But Iím going to have to think. Iím just going to have to think Ė because those prisoners Ė if any of them are telling the truth, Arthur, even one of them Ė"

"Sirius."

"Believe me, Sirius, I want them all sorted out. But we had to get them in, first. Mad-Eye and Fletcheríve rounded up everyone we have reason to believe is guilty. Iíd prefer to relocate them to another prison, but where? And even if we could relocate them, how would we keep them contained? Weíre all drawing a blank. So before anything else, Iíve got to do is keep those Dementors back away from the mainland Ė Remus, you donít know of anything I can do to hold them at Azkaban?"

"Just the Patronus."

"Thatís all Iíve got, too." He sighed. "Iíll tell you, itís tearing the life out of Mad-Eye and the others, performing that spell twenty-five times a day."

"I believe it. Itís exhausting." Remus paused, knowing what the answer to his next question would be. "Do you want me up there?"

"No." Arthur finally smiled, and this time it reached his eyes, as he looked back at Remus. "You absolutely cannot come up here. I want you both to stay right where you are. Give my children a hug for me, when they get there, would you?"

Remus nodded, smiling back at him. "I will if they let me."

"Harry and Hermione are included in that." Arthur grinned and raised his eyebrows ruefully. "Youíre both insane, you know. Theyíll run your house down. Canít believe youíre taking on four teenagers for a summer."

Sirius laughed Ė sharply, but a laugh, all the same Ė and seemed to come out of his preoccupation for a moment. "Youíre one to talk! You took on seven of them for a lifetime."

Arthur flinched, Remus flinched, and Sirius immediately went pale. He opened his mouth to speak, as if there was anything to say.

But it was only a moment before Arthur recovered. "I did, at that," he murmured, to no one in particular. And then he blinked and continued, the urgency coming back into his face as he muttered on about Azkaban. "We need to think in new ways. Replace the Dementors. Penelopeís been working on that Imprisonment Charm for a long time, now Ė that might be the ticket, if we could harness something like that."

"How near is the spell to being ready?" Remus asked at once.

"Nowhere near. If there were only anything else..." Arthur looked as if he were nearing the end of his rope. "Just think on what Iíve said, would you both? And get back to me if you come up with anything you think might work. Even if itís a long shot, I want to hear about it."

Sirius was still unable to speak, so Remus nodded briefly. "Weíll get right on it."

"Thank you." Arthurís head turned slightly and he seemed to be looking at something. "Bloody hell," he muttered momentarily, "Not again. Damned reporters Ė just here yesterday, wanted a statement about what we plan to do about Azkaban. What do they think has changed in twenty-four hours? Iím tempted to tell them weíre shutting it down and turning it into a tourist attraction for Muggles."

Remus grinned. "Do you think the Muggles would go for that?"

"Maybe not, but the Prophet would. Iím telling you, itís a mad world. The Ministry falls apart, Gringotts is down, Hogwarts has to shut Ė but not the Daily Prophet. No, the media just keeps on running." He chortled slightly. "I guess thereís hope somewhere in that, eh? Well." He turned serious again. "Get back to me when you can, all right?"

"Of course we will. Goodbye, Arthur Ė hello to Molly for us."

With a smile, a nod, and a Ďpopí, Arthur Weasley disappeared.

Sirius wasted no time. He turned on the wall and kicked it, so fiercely that it must have injured his foot, though he didnít seem to notice it. He was in a rage.

"Stupid. Careless. How could I have brought up his children?"

"You didnít mean Ė"

"Hardly matters what I meant. Thereís Arthur, asking for our help, his hands full trying to put that Ministry back together Ė and I go on callously bringing that up."

"You were hardly callous."

But Sirius wasnít listening. "I was busy thinking about Azkaban. One word about Dementors and itís all over for me Ė nice and selfish Ė didnít even think about what heís still going through Ė he lost a son Ė"

"Sirius. Stop it. Now."

Sirius did stop. He dropped into a chair and put his face in his hands. "Why?" he asked through his fingers. "Why? Why does it feel like thereís still a war on? What am I supposed to tell Harry about everything thatís happened? Iím still losing it Ė James shouldnít have left him to me Ė how can I help him get through all of this when Iím..."

Remus was crouched in front of him in an instant; he took Siriusís hands down from his face and kept them in his own. "What? When youíre what? Sirius, youíre alive. And you want him here. Thatís what counts to Harry, I promise you Ė thatís all he needs. You donít have to worry about explaining everything. He was there for it, he was part of it Ė he knows."

He waited. And momentarily, Sirius looked up at him. It was painful to look in his eyes, but Remus kept steady contact.

"I just want to know him, Remus."

"I know."

"I donít want either of us to lose any more time."

"I know."

Sirius also obviously didnít want to cry. His face was a struggle of emotion. Abruptly, he pulled his hands away, shot out of the chair and strode into the hallway with sudden, manic energy.

"Where are you going?" Remus called after him.

"To get groceries."

The door slammed, shaking the cottage walls slightly. Remus sighed, got to his feet, and went upstairs to see that the bedrooms were ready. Things were so much better than they had been, he told himself, shaking pillows into their pillowcases. And they would only continue to improve. But that didnít mean that this summer was going to be easy. Not at all.

~*~

"Where in hell are they?"

"Calm down."

"They said noon. Itís twelve-oh-two. Do you think somethingís happened to them?"

"No, I donít."

"Well, how am I supposed to know that?" Sirius was irate, excited, practically hitting the walls. "Twelve-oh-three."

"You tell time extremely well, have I ever told you that?"

"Oh, shut it, Moony."

"No, actually this gives me a moment to discuss something with you Ė I suppose it could wait another two weeks, but Ė"

"No, tell me now."

Remus smiled. It was so easy to distract Sirius, when he was like this. "I just wanted to make sure we were clear on what Iíll be doing every month," he said calmly. "Iíll Apparate to Badenoch every morning leading up to the full moon, for the Wolfsbane. Iíll stay the night at the apothecaryís habitat there for the actual transformation, and Iíll be back the following morning."

Sirius had stopped pacing and his face had fallen. "I wish you didnít have to do that. If I felt comfortable making that potion..."

"Then you'd do it. I know." They had been over and over this. It was an incredibly complex recipe that neither of them felt perfectly at ease with. So Remus simply preferred to go elsewhere for a proper Wolfsbane Potion if he could, and do his transforming quietly, without any risk of violence to himself, or others. But Sirius still felt guilty that he wasnít more an expert at the process.

Remus, however, ignored the guilt completely. "I just donít want the transformation to be an issue. Not with us, and not with our houseguests." He smiled slightly. "So if they ask, weíll just tell them that Iíll be gone for twenty-four hours, once a month. It's quite simple. And if they donít ask, then Sirius, Iíd just rather we didnít bring it up."

Sirius looked at him intently for a moment, and then nodded. "Fair enough." And then, as if they hadnít even had the conversation, he checked his watch, glanced at the flue and yelled, "Twelve-oh-bloody-six! Do they not know how to use Floo powder?! Should I go on over to Hogwarts and see ifĖ"

He got no further. There was a flash of green flame, a blast of air and the thud of a large trunk.

"Ow, Crookshanks!" Hermione Granger stood in the large fireplace, clasping a large, ginger cat close to her body with both arms. Crookshanks had obviously taken very badly to traveling by Floo powder Ė Hermione was struggling to pull her robes free from the catís sharp claws. When Crookshanks finally leapt from her arms, she looked up, beamed, and walked straight toward Remus and Sirius, who were standing in the center of the room, beaming back.

"I donít know whom to hug first," she laughed, looking from one to the other and clapping her hands together happily. She didnít have to choose. Sirius was so overexcited by that time that he grabbed her up and squeezed her tightly, making her gasp over his shoulder at Remus. He grinned at her.

"Hello, Hermione."

"Hermione, itís wonderful to see you," Sirius bellowed, letting her loose. "What on earth took you so long?"

Hermione looked immediately chastised as she moved to embrace Remus. "Long?" she inquired anxiously. "Are we very late? Oh, Iím sorry to worry you, I told Harry... but we didnít want him to feel hurried."

Sirius stepped back and frowned. "No, no, good, of course not. So tell me, how is Harry? How have you all been?"

Remus shook his head. "Sirius, heís going to be here any second Ė Hermione, could you step aside for a moment, please?" He raised his wand. "Weíll want to get your trunk out of the fireplace before Ė"

It was too late. There was another swirl of green flame, a great crash and a deep voice yelling, "BLIMEY!"

Ron Weasley was wedged behind Hermioneís trunk Ė his own had fallen sideways on top of hers, blocking him from view. All that was visible was a shock of red hair and a long arm, groping out from the side, holding an owl cage. Within it, Pigwidgeon was swinging from side to side and hooting happily.

Quickly, Remus magicked both trunks out of the way, revealing Ron, cramped back against the bricks.

"Hermione," he gasped, dropping Pigís cage to the floor unceremoniously and stepping forward, "could you take a little longer about your trunk next time, please? I wouldnít want to rush you, or anything. Hey, Sirius. Hey, Professor Lupin."

"Remus, Ron."

"I know, I know, but I canít help it. It still sounds funny to me." He shook Siriusís hand firmly, and then Remusís, grinning widely at them both. "Damn good to be here," he sighed, looking around the cozy living room with an air of deep satisfaction.

"Ron!"

He raised an eyebrow at Hermione. "What? You donít like it here?" She glared at him, but not for long, as he hobbled gingerly to a chair and began to rub one of his ankles, rotating it gently and grimacing.

"Oh, did you hurt yourself on the trunk?"

"Just a bit."

"Well donít do it that way Ė here, let me have a look at it."

Hermione dropped to her knees and busied herself for a moment, turning Ronís foot from side to side in her hands, while Ron stared at the top of her head.

Remus looked at Sirius. They grinned.

"So," Sirius began, his tone highly mischievous, "whatever have you two done this week, while the rest of us were slaving away? Having fun were you?"

Remus cleared his throat and gave Sirius a subtle, sideways look. It wouldnít do to tease them too obviously in adult company.

But Remus was forgetting that they were nearly adults themselves. They certainly didnít seem terribly uncomfortable. Hermione gave Ronís ankle a gentle little pat. "I think youíll be fine," she muttered, before standing quickly and smoothing her robes. "Oh, we worked too," she answered Sirius airily, "We helped Professor McGonagall to clear things out for the rebuilding. And we talked a lot about whatís happened. About what weíre going to do now that..." she trailed off and sighed. "Honestly, this has been the oddest week of my life, and I donít..."

"Mine too," Ron agreed, fixing his shoe on his foot once more. "I mean, what are you supposed to do with yourself after..."

They looked at each other, each having run out of words, and shrugged a little. Remus didnít blame them. Theyíd spent the last few years of what should have been their adolescence fighting in a war. To live a normal life would take some getting used to.

But Sirius wasnít having any of it. "Oh, Iíll tell you what youíre going to do," he said hotly, pacing through the room to them and banging his fist in his hand for emphasis. "Youíre all going to have a damned good summer, for once Ė"

"Sirius!" Hermione looked scandalized.

"Ah," he said, with a sheepish glance at Remus. "Sorry."

Ron, however, laughed wickedly. "Finally, Iíve got help," he said, standing up and ruffling Hermioneís hair. "This is going to be a great summer. Weíre going to drive you mad."

Hermione pursed her lips and tried to look angry. She failed.

"I wonder whatís keeping Ginny?" she mused after a moment. And then, "I hope Harryís all right."

The room fell into a serious silence as each of them contemplated that statement. It was very unlikely that Harry was all right. He was alive, to be certain. But as for being all right... well, Remus reflected again, that was going to take a lot of time.

There was a small flicker, a whirl of green, and Ginny Weasley was in the fireplace.

"Oh good!" cried Hermione. "Come out of there, we need get your trunk cleared before Harry Ė"

But Ginny wasnít moving and she looked a little shaken. She pushed her long hair out of her eyes and shook her head.

"What is it, Ginny?" Remus said, crossing the room quickly. "Are you all right?"

"Itís not me, Iím fine," she said quickly. "And hello, by the way." She smiled at Remus, and waved to Sirius behind him.

Sirius was at the fireplace in one long stride. "Is something wrong with Harry?" he demanded.

"No Ė here, let me out and Iíll tell you, we should move my trunk. He might come."

"He might come?"

"Sirius," said Remus gently, "could you move, please, and let Ginny out of the fireplace?"

Sirius reluctantly stepped back and Ginny moved into the room. Remus moved her trunk through the air toward Ronís and Hermioneís.

"I donít mean to scare you or anything, Sirius," Ginny said, finding a chair and dropping into it, as if exhausted. Remus noticed that her eyes were slightly bloodshot. "Thereís nothing actually wrong with Harry Ė well, thereís nothing wrong with him physically Ė well." She stopped, her face faintly pink. "You know what Iím trying to say."

"Yes," said Remus kindly. "Heís not in any danger."

Ginny looked up at him gratefully. "Right. But he doesnít want to get in the fireplace."

They all looked at each other, and then back at Ginny.

"What?" said Ron, getting up. "Why wonít he get in the fireplace?"

Ginny sighed and looked at Ron as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "He doesnít want to leave Hogwarts," she said patiently. "He just doesnít want to let it go Ė itís not that he doesnít want to be here," she said quickly, turning to Sirius and smiling. "He canít wait to see you. Heís been carrying that letter you sent him all around with him for a week."

Sirius looked touched.

"Itís just that," Ginny continued, looking to Hermione now for help, "heís... he just..."

"He doesnít want it all to be over," Hermione said softly. "Not school Ė" she paused. "And, in a way, not the war."

Ron turned on Hermione right away, his eyes flashing. "Doesnít want the war to be over? Of course he does! It was terrible! Weíve wanted all that over with for Ė well Ė forever! Ever since weíve known him! And now itís done, and weíve got a chance to have a life and he doesnít want to get in the bloody fireplace? Well, thatís it. Iím going back there," he said determinedly, "and making him."

Ron moved to the fireplace, and Remus moved to stop him but Ginny was quicker. She cut him off in a flash. "No, donít," she pleaded. "Canít we let him have a minute? And then, if he doesnít come in half an hour or so, somebody can go and get him?"

"I will." Sirius had a hand on Ronís shoulder. For the first time at all that day, Sirius looked perfectly calm and rational, and Remus marveled at him. "Let him have a little while, Ron. This isnít going to happen all at once. The letting go Ė well, it happens by degrees." Sirius sighed. "Trust me."

Clearly, Ron did trust him. He backed away from the fireplace and sat down again heavily. Hermione put a hand on his shoulder. Ginny stared into the fireplace. "Heíll come," she said quietly.

The living room was silent, except for the sound of Pigwidgeon, hooting every so often as Crookshanks prowled the perimeter of his cage.

"Hermione," Ron muttered warily, pointing to the scene.

"Theyíre just playing," she replied, in a tone that left no room for argument. Ron raised his eyebrows doubtfully, but said nothing.

Sirius crouched down next to the fireplace and began to distract Crookshanks. Remus watched them, smiling inwardly Ė he had forgotten that Padfoot and Crookshanks had once been quite good friends.

"Wonderful old beast," Sirius muttered, smiling as he stroked Crookshanks from head to tail. And then it was silent again, except for Crookshanksís purring. When another quarter of an hour had passed, Sirius stood up and looked at Remus tensely.

"Do you think I should go and check on him?"

"It might be a good idea."

"Then Iím off. You all eat lunch and get settled Ė donít bother waiting for me."

They all nodded, and Sirius pinched a bit of Floo powder from the box on the mantle. He was just about to throw it when a rush of air and light arrested him, and he dropped the powder into the carpet, forgotten.

Harry Potter stood in the fireplace, his glasses askew and his black hair sticking up in every direction.

"Hi, Sirius," he said smilingly, though his eyes were solemn. He stepped out of the fireplace and stood before his godfather, setting down Hedwigís cage gently and putting his hand out. "Sorry to make you wait like that."

But Sirius didnít care. He grasped Harryís hand and pulled him without warning into a tight embrace.

"Welcome home," he said, barely managing to get the words out. "Welcome home, Harry."

Over Siriusís shoulder, all of them could see Harryís face. His eyes were shut and his face so tense that the muscles in his jaw were clenched. But he reached around Sirius and hugged him firmly back.

Remus couldnít help the tears that were rising. It was so like seeing James. He saw that Hermione was looking rather misty as well, and that Ron, though smiling, was somewhat suspiciously red-eyed. Ginny wasnít crying, but her eyes were fixed on Harryís face.

"Thanks," Harry muttered after a long moment. He opened his eyes and pulled away. Sirius put hands on his shoulders and looked at him.

"God, youíre tall."

"You just saw me a week ago."

"I didnít have a chance to notice."

Harry nodded, and so did Remus, watching him. There were plenty of things that had gone unnoticed in the past few years, and there was time to make up for. He turned and magicked his own trunk out of the fireplace, and sent it toward the others. "Hi, Remus," he said, stepping past Sirius to shake his old professorís hand.

Remus hoped his tears were not still showing. He was fairly certain that Harry had had enough of them. "Hello, Harry. Good to have you here." He gestured around the room to all of them. "Now that youíre all together, shall I give you the tour?"

"Oh, yes, Iíd love to see everythĖ" but Hermione was not allowed to finish.

"What was that bit earlier, about the lunch?" Ron queried abruptly. "Couldnít we do that first, and then settle?"

Remus laughed. "Absolutely. And while weíre eating Ė" he shot a look at Sirius and smiled Ė "perhaps you all can decide what the sleeping arrangements ought to be."

"Ah yes." Sirius grinned back at him. "Two to each room and the rest is up to you."

The mouths of all four teenagers dropped slightly open. Laughing, Remus and Sirius left them staring at each other, and walked away down the hall toward the kitchen to begin making lunch.

***

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