The Sugar Quill
Author: Arabella and Zsenya (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: After the End  Chapter: Chapter Twenty-Eight: Homecomings
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Hermione's Homecoming

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Homecomings

Authors’ Notes: Five points to the first person to figure out who wrote what parts of this chapter. Much thanks to all who beta read this chapter, especially Hallie, for helping us to use "proper" English.

~*~

 

Ronald A. Weasley (genius)

Office of Prosecution and Defense

Ministry of Magic

To: Miss Hermione Granger

From: Mr. Ronald Weasley

Regarding: Your Return

Hullo, love. I'm hoping Pig will overcome his natural stupidity and manage to put this in your hand before you leave Cortona. Right before you leave Cortona. Seconds before. Look, just get out of there, would you? I want you home -- but I don't want you getting any shocks to your system when you arrive, so let me tell you how things are around here now:

Sirius works his head off, of course. But he cracks every once in awhile, and it's nice to have a boss you can have a couple of pints with while you're wracking your brains for solutions. I can just hear you. "Perhaps you wouldn't have to wrack your brains quite so hard if you hadn't had quite so many pints." It's nothing to worry about though, is it? You're going to come home and do all my Thinking for me from now on, so I can go ahead and waste myself. Heh.

Remus seems to be doing well. His last transformation was fine, anyway. He teaches Ginny too many things for her own good. But all in all, I think it was a great decision, her staying in Stagsden to take her seventh year. It's been nice, having her to abuse. Reckon we won't send her back just yet. Anyway, she's probably kept in touch with you, and even if she hasn't, she'll have to tell you all her own news.

The rest of my family's fine. The twins' shop is bringing in more Galleons than this family has ever seen, and those two sods are hoarding every single one. Charlie's still crazy. Penelope and Leo still live at the Burrow. Mum and Dad are okay. Mum was a bit sad that you took up Remus’ offer to continue living at Lupin Lodge. Now that I think of it, I am too. I thought you were going to be living at the Notch.

Bill's finished working at Gringotts, but he's hanging about London anyway. He says he promised Dad and Charlie he'd help with the Dementors, and he's not leaving till that's taken care of. I have a feeling he's hanging about for a shorter, blonder reason than Dad or Charlie, but if I say who, you won't like it. So I'd better just say. Remember Fleur Delacour? Well, she's been working up in Diagon Alley too, and Bill's noticed. I've seen her once or twice. From AFAR. And you can take your little nose right out of the air, because I know you and Krum are still "friends". And don't try saying "We only write letters, Ron!" because I've seen the sorts of things you put in your letters. Not that I'm complaining.

Harry's arm is fine - those Cannons mediwizards are as good as Madam Pomfrey. He's back up on the dragons full time. You'd think he'd go back to Quidditch after that ripping debut, but you know how he is. We bachelor it up at night, though, oh yes - chess, tea, passing out at half nine - right couple of madmen, we are. Honestly, you've got to come back and stop us from getting old. It's pathetic. At least Harry isn't, you know, bad though. He's just middling.

Your mum and dad are looking fine. They really are. I put Christmas decorations in their room and it looks cheerful in there. I sorted out the health bills, too - you should've seen me trying to change that bit of paper you sent me into wizard money. Goblins don't trust Muggle money in the first place, and anything without a watermark throws them right off, especially if it's got the names of two people on it, and neither one of them is you. They were asking me for Granger identification as if they'd never seen me. Started muttering about Polyjuice Potion. Good thing Bill was there, or I might've found myself in the interrogation chambers.

That's everything. Everyone's tripping over themselves getting ready to welcome you home. You don't know how strange it is here without you. I can't take it anymore, I had a nightmare the other night that you were Petrified. So get on a Knight Bus, take the Floo Network, Apparate, fly a carpet, ride a broom, hell, ride a hippogriff, just strap on your bags and COME HOME.

And remember, if for some reason you change your mind and decide to stay, I won't be able to keep away. I really couldn't give a dead rat's arse about your meditations at the minute. I'll show you meditation. Or at least, you'll have your eyes shut and you won't be saying much for awhile.

Damn. I love you.

-Ron

P.S. I secretly enjoy Hogwarts: A History, if only because every time I see it anywhere, in a shop, on a shelf, in a library (yes, I go to libraries, shut it) I think of you.

Guess you have to go to a Cannons game now, don't you? AND wave an orange sparkler, don't think you're getting out of it. I bought you a jumper, too, with great big C's on the front. Might be a bit small, come to think of it. Pity, that. Love, Ron

Hermione read the letter again from top to bottom, unable to comprehend that the day of departure had arrived. She had given up hope that it would ever come, and now that it had, she felt strange and detached. Pig had been more excited two days ago than she had ever seen him; he'd zoomed from ceiling to floor and from wall to wall in a hyperactive frenzy of joy. She had kissed his tousled feathers and sent Ron back a very short note, stating when she thought she would arrive. He'd have that note by now. And she would see him in a matter of hours.

Hours.

Hermione looked at her rucksack, which she had magically enlarged in order to fit into it her accumulated Thinking supplies and notes, along with everything that Ron had sent her over the past four months. Letters. Pictures. Books. Quidditch periodicals. The Omnioculars on which he'd saved Harry's match and that fantastic clipping from the Daily Prophet - she'd glowed at Harry's mention of her - to think that he had remembered her in the middle of all that! Even better, Ron had thought of her, even during a Chudley Cannons game with Harry in it. Ron was such a wonderful, great big prat. With wonderful hair and eyes and mouth and hands, and a wonderful, wonderful voice that she would be hearing again by nightfall. Right in her ear. She shivered, and wondered what it would be like for those first five minutes - that first hour. The first night.

She glanced at the mirror and watched her reflection. She knew she looked different. She'd never been so tanned, and yesterday she'd caught the sun across her nose and shoulders, just enough to make her glow. Saltwater and sunshine had done wonders for her hair; she knew its new texture wouldn't last in England but at least for now the old brown mop lay in long, fat tendrils on her back, and glinted with natural highlights no potion could purchase. She surveyed her shoulders and arms, dark against the slim, loose whiteness of her Cortona robes, and considered putting on a cloak but decided against it. She wouldn't be in cold climates for long while she traveled, and she wanted Ron to see her just like this. She wondered when she'd ever been so pretty - or perhaps the mirror and her mind were playing tricks on her. Perhaps it was only the promise of knowing how pretty Ron would find her that made her feel so beautiful.

Hermione turned from the mirror, smoothed her bedcovers one last time, plucked her diary from her pillow and tucked it into the top of her bag. She shut it, buckled it and, after casting a Weightless Enchantment, slung it easily onto her back and ventured into the corridor. It was time to say goodbye.

Delia was waiting on the patio where they had studied, her dark hair a shock against the vibrant blue of her chair's cushion. She looked almost like a stranger to Hermione, who had grown used to her dark features and deep eyes but saw them now as if for the first time. There was a familiar crookedness to the slim nose; an odd pallor to the fine skin, making her look as if she spent more time indoors than out, which made no sense at all. Hermione shook her head. She was making the oddest observations - for the first time it occurred to her that she would miss Delia, who stood as she approached and looked at her with bright eyes.

A windchime sang softly in the distance and the sea crashed beyond the patio, resounding among the marble columns and filling Hermione's ears with its lulling rhythm. She had grown so used to that.

"Time, then?"

"Yes." Hermione wasn't certain what to do. Delia had always been warm and open, but somehow it didn't seem right to hug her. She settled for putting out her hand. "Thank you for everything. I'll do my best to use it, though I don't -"

"Shh." Delia squeezed her hand, and Hermione relaxed. "We will see each other again… I know your reservations where the Orb is concerned, but perhaps you will trust me if I tell you that I have observed that much in its depths."

Hermione smiled. "If you say so then I…" She shook her head. "I'm sure we'll see each other again. I'll write to you."

"I know." Delia's eyes swept Hermione's face, then gazed away to the sea. For a moment, Hermione thought she could see a terrible loneliness in Delia's expression, and then it was gone again. Her eyes returned to Hermione. "Thank you for being my student, and for teaching me."

It was better not to argue. Delia believed that the exchange had been mutual, and though Hermione disagreed, she was glad that her apprenticeship had not seemed a total waste to her instructor. "I'll miss it here," she said quietly. It was the truth.

"You are always welcome." Delia paused. "I… wish you success, child. I know what you intend to try and I do not know if there is a way. But if there is, then you will find it."

Hermione nodded. She felt a prickling sensation behind her eyes. "Thank you," she managed.

Delia released her hand. "We have all suffered our losses," she said, so softly that Hermione hardly heard her. "I hope that yours, at least, may be restored to you."

Hermione stood still, her eyes focused on nothing, her mind a blur. She had never asked after Delia's losses. And now it was too late - but they would see each other again.

"Travel safely," Delia murmured. "Goodbye."

"Goodbye." Hermione turned and walked slowly through the great villa for the last time, taking the twists and turns of the long, cool corridors without seeing them at all. It was not until she reached the Portkey to the world outside Cortona that she began, in spite of her best intentions, to cry.

~*~

Ron rubbed his eyes and squinted at the scratchy handwriting in the ledger on the desk in front of him. Twilight filtered through the skylight in the center of the ceiling of the Ministry Archives, casting a dull grey light over everything in the room. The only brightness came from Ron’s wand, which was suspended in mid-air above the table, illuminating the pages.

A shadow creeping across the table made him jump, and he looked up to see the Ministry archivist standing a few feet away, his face highlighted by the light coming from his own wand, which he was holding up like a lantern. The archivist refused to allow torches or candles inside the reading room, and because of this, everyone else had left with the sun.

"We’re closing in fifteen minutes," said Mr. Doyle. "Do you want copies of anything?"

Breathing an inner sigh of relief, and determined not to stay a moment longer than necessary, Ron closed the ledger, still careful so as not to make Mr. Doyle twitch, and shook his head. "I’ve finished with this year. I’m glad I wasn’t around in 1478 –" he let out a low whistle – "You wouldn’t believe some of the things that are listed in here." He tapped the cover of the book, which read Inventory of Dark Objects Confiscated by the Ministry of Magic, 1478. Appended 1512 to Include Objects in Possession of Known Dark Wizards. A cloud of red dust flew up in his face, and Mr. Doyle sighed before reaching to place the heavy volume on the trolley next to him. Ron moved his hand quickly – he still wasn’t quite sure what he was allowed to touch and what he wasn’t.

"Did you manage to get those books from the German Ministry yet?" Ron asked, standing, and reaching for his wand. Mr. Doyle shook his head. "They say you’ve got to go there to look at them. But that you’re perfectly welcome whenever you want to go."

"Right," said Ron, frowning. He wouldn’t be able to make the trip until after Christmas, and he hoped that would be good enough for Sirius. He didn’t want to exhaust himself in the next few days with long Apparition journeys – he needed all of his energy for Hermione, who would be home… soon. He closed his eyes for a moment and smiled. Hermione would be home in an hour, if all went well with her travels. And all he had to do was drop his notes off with Sirius, retrieve the present he had finally purchased earlier that day in Diagon Alley, and head for Lupin Lodge. His stomach growled and he wondered if Hermione would want to have some tea after all of that traveling. That would be fine. Everyone could do their catching up over tea, and then they could just leave the room so that he and Hermione could finally have some time… alone.

"Mr. Weasley? Mr. Weasley?" Mr. Doyle’s voice brought him back to reality, and he opened his eyes to find that his wand was still lit and shining directly at the archivist.

"Sorry," he said. "Nox. I don’t know if I’ll be back before Christmas. But if you can think of anywhere else that might have listings of Dark objects, families with histories of interest in the Dark Arts, or anything, will you let me know?"

"Actually, I was doing some research on your research this afternoon, and I came up with a few ideas, but they’re a bit roundabout."

"Really?" asked Ron. "What are they?"

Mr. Doyle motioned for Ron to follow him to the main desk, and when they reached it, he pulled a roll of parchment from his robes and spread it across the surface of the table. It was covered in notes.

"We’ve pulled the obvious records – the ledgers from the earlier Ministry law agencies and the more recent records from the M.L.E.S. – you haven’t finished looking through all of those yet. Then there are the items from outside Britain. Really, to do a thorough job, you shouldn’t limit yourself to the German records – you should go to France, Switzerland, and definitely Eastern Europe and Russia. My friend Pavol is an archivist for the Czech Ministry Archives and he owled a list over today of places where you might find information. Now, bear in mind, the documents will be in Czech, but you can probably hire a translator or use a translation charm to do the research there. The chances are slim that you’ll find much account of items of British origin, but you can’t rule it out, and I don’t want to feel I’ve let you down. Now…"

Ron tried to look interested, and crossed his fingers in hope that Mr. Doyle would hand over his notes at the end of his speech, which, once he got going, could take a while. "Er, yes," he said, shifting to stand straighter. "We’re mainly interested in objects that may have been in possession of British wizards and witches. And that book from 1478 was really informative, but I don’t think we need to look at anything that old from other countries. We’re more interested in more recent records, like from the last three hundred years or so." Actually, Ron thought Sirius would probably be interested in everything, but he'd only just started to realize that sometimes it was better to provide Sirius with a summary, rather than too much detailed information. Sirius had a tendency to...fixate.

"Yes, I realized that, and I realize the importance of connecting the objects to the families. So I was thinking, we do have quite a few manuscript collections here, although you may find more at the Library of Magic. Really, they should all be there – it’s our job to maintain the official records of the Ministry of Magic, and not the personal papers of individuals. But, nonetheless, we do have several collections that contain correspondence and diaries, and you never know when someone just might allude to a Dark object in their possession, or Dark magic in general. And sometimes they kept their own family ledgers, especially if they owned a large manor house. Of course, more often than not, they’re quite boring. A lot of people were more interested in recording how many pounds of Floo powder they went through in a month, or how much food their house-elves consumed. But it would be worth a look…"

The sound of the clock chiming four drowned Mr. Doyle’s voice. Ron wanted nothing more than to be out of the room and on his way home. He was starting to fidget, and although Mr. Doyle was only being helpful, Ron felt a sudden urge to hit him with a silencing charm and make a break for it. He willed himself to be patient, although he did walk back to his table and begin to gather his pieces of parchment together. Mr. Doyle followed, and continued talking.

"It might not be a bad idea to look at Muggle records. There are ways to get you into the British Library, or the Public Records Office at Kew, and you can always check the legislation books in Parliament. Of course, that would be a last-ditch effort, but sometimes you find valuable information in those Muggle documents. I was reading a diary of a nineteenth century woman in Bath who reported that she’d dreamt that she’d seen the ghost of a man in ‘bright tights and an oiled beard’ do a dance in front of her bed one night. She nearly drove herself crazy trying to figure out who could be haunting her house. Well, I knew who it was. Old Benjamin Carroll went a bit crazy near the end. Thought it was fun to parade around as a ghost, but he never bothered to actually get the costume correct. It’s a bit of a famous case. He was eventually captured by the folks in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Department, well, it was the ‘Mistreatment of Muggle Relics’ department back then, and a large part of the records in that fond use him as an example of what can happen when we start to lose our minds. Mediresearchers at St. Mungo’s use those records. You wouldn’t think, would you, that the records from the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Department would be useful to mediresearchers, but they are! You see, you never know…"

Ron had lost track of Mr. Doyle’s monologue several sentences back, but he snapped to attention at the mention of his father’s old department. Despite the time, Ron had to ask, "Really? So you think that information in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts records might be of use? That’s a brilliant idea!"

Mr. Doyle looked taken aback. "I… er… I wasn’t saying that, actually." He hit his head with his hand and gave an exasperated sigh. "Although I can’t believe I didn’t think of that." He picked up a quill from the desk, and began to scribble a few more notes on the little bit of white space left on his parchment. "But you know, those records, although very complete, are very difficult to read. That’s one of the challenges, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, with this type of research – you never know when you’ll be at the mercy of some clerk who never bothered to study penmanship. And in recent years, especially, the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Department was scaled down in terms of staffing – never had an official clerk, and whoever was keeping the records had the worst handwriting I’d ever seen."

"I’m sure I wouldn’t have a problem with the handwriting, Mr. Doyle," said Ron, with a snort. His mum hadn’t spoken to his father for a week once when she thought he’d written her a note that said Bye hag! I’ll send someone to kill the kids before bedtime, when, in fact, he’d written Love you! I’ll be home to kiss the kids before bedtime.

"And you’re right," continued Mr. Doyle, getting excited, "sometimes the people from Muggle Artifacts would raid houses suspected of containing Dark objects much the same as the M.L.E.S. Lines were a little blurred, I’d say…"

A thought was creeping its way into Ron’s head, and despite all attempts to suppress it, especially on Hermione’s homecoming day, he had a revelation. This was work-related, he told himself. Sirius had wanted to try to account for the locations of all known Dark objects and their owners, and who was a more well-known owner of Dark items than the Malfoys?

"Mr. Doyle – I think there might have been several Ministry raids in recent years – probably within the last five or six. Can you add the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts records to my list? I’ll look through them next week." And then, before the archivist could waylay him further (it was already almost a quarter past) he made for the door.

Mr. Doyle looked very disappointed, but the moment passed and he smiled. "Of course! I’ll just put these with the other items you’ve got on hold. There are a few catalogs from the turn of the century that might interest you as well, I’ve put those on your trolley, and we can talk about the other things when you come back. If I think of anything else in the meantime, I’ll let you know."

Ron thanked Mr. Doyle, grabbed his own notes, and headed for his office. He really liked the archivist, who had always been helpful, and as he walked down the brightly-decorated Ministry halls, he wondered if Hermione might want to come with him one day and help him do some of the research. Might give her the shock of her life if he suggested going to the library.

"Whatever are you doing in our end of the Ministry, Ron Weasley?" said a familiar female voice. Parvati Patil was standing in the doorway of the Foreign Diplomatic Service, stunning in deep purple robes. Ron whipped his head around to look behind him and realized that he’d been so preoccupied in thinking about Hermione that he’d ended up at the opposite end of the Ministry.

"Er, took a wrong turn," said Ron, feeling flustered. "I’d stay and talk, but I’ve got to drop these off and head home – Hermione’s back today."

Parvati laughed and waved him off. "Go on," she said, and Ron caught a glimpse of something sparkling on her wrist. "Don’t want you to miss your girlfriend. And when you’re done snogging, tell her I said hello."

"Wait a second," said Ron, stepping closer. "Where did you get those … things on your wrist?"

"Ron," said Parvati, rolling her eyes. "Hermione would never, in a million years, wear these. Best off to get her a book from Flourish and Blotts."

"What? How did you…" but Parvati didn’t wait to hear him out, she just laughed again and retreated into her office, muttering something about "boys" and "clueless" under her breath.

"URGH." Ron clenched his fists in frustration and headed back the way he’d come. He had less than an hour to get back to his office and get home to Hermione, and now he began to worry that his gift just wasn’t… right. Mr. Gladrags had been so excited at the Chudley Cannons victory, that he’d immediately arranged an appointment with Ron to put together a set of robes for Hermione. They were lovely, as far as Ron could tell – at least, they’d seemed to fit the model in the Gladrags shop. Gladrags had thrown in a scarf and some bracelets, but seeing several pieces of similar jewelry on Parvati made Ron wonder if he’d made the right choice.

He checked his watch. Maybe he still had time to stop by The Write Answer. He’d spent one lunch break looking at overpriced quills and fancy ink there, but couldn’t make up his mind on a color, and finally remembered that Hermione had scoffed at the brightly-colored green and red inks when they’d shopped in there second year. Or maybe he should just go to Flourish and Blotts. He knew, after all, that Hermione would always welcome a new book, and…

"Get off of me! Get off!" A familiar voice carried from the hallway he had just walked past, and Ron skidded to a halt. Checking his watch again, he cursed, and turned around to investigate the matter.

~*~

"Hurry up! She's going to be here any minute!" Ginny shook her wand at Remus, who was meticulously, and maddeningly slowly, magicking fir branches to hang above the doorway of the sunroom.

"Patience," he said as he levitated and charmed another branch into perfect position. "Or perhaps you'd like to help me."

Ginny pulled a face, and Remus pulled a face in return, which sent her into a fit of giggles. It wasn't like him to be blatantly silly, but the chill in the air seemed to have affected everyone for good. This was nearly as nice as being at Hogwarts for the Christmas holiday, Ginny thought, and she had tried to explain as much to her mother, whose last owl had been plaintive and morose. "You haven't been home to see me in months, dear. I can only assume that you're having a wonderful time, but it would be nice to see my only daughter every once in awhile. Please do try to carve five minutes out of your busy schedule to send an owl." Ginny had sent an owl right away, explaining as patiently as she could that she would be home for Christmas, and that she wouldn't have been coming home for the holiday if she were away at school, so why should she have to come home early now? She didn't want to be at home. She didn't tell her mother that, of course, because her mother owned a disappointed sigh more lethal than most hexes, but it was true. She wanted to be here, where she could study with a teacher who was also a friend. She wanted to live nearly on her own, just up the road from her brother - and from Harry, whose owls were more than daily now; he'd taken to writing them on dragon back, and she'd kept every one. She wanted to be here when Hermione walked in.

It was only the Winter Solstice, but it felt more like Christmas Eve than any Christmas Eve in recent years. Ginny felt just as she had used to when she was little, and the promise of Bill or Charlie was on the horizon. It was always so exciting when an older brother came back from abroad all laden with exotic things, looking like a stranger. And Hermione… well, she was almost an older sister. Ginny smiled to herself. She would be a sister, one day.

Especially if Ron had anything to say about it. He had spent the last two days going fitfully from place to place, unable to concentrate unless shouted at, taking Hermione's final letter from his pocket and looking at it with a hungry expression. "She says she thinks she'll get to Lupin Lodge by the end of the day. What does she mean by 'the day', though - the workday? Is that five, or six? It depends on the job, doesn't it? Or does she mean even later - she's been abroad, who knows what they do over there? Or does she mean the actual day, at sunset or something? When should I be home to meet her? She's a bloody unspecific tease, I swear -"

It surprised Ginny that Ron wasn’t home yet. She glanced at the clock. It was nearly five, and he had been in such a state this morning that Sirius had told him not to go to work. But Ron had insisted that if Sirius didn't give him a stack of hideous research to pore over he'd go mad with anticipation, and so the two of them had gone to Diagon Alley, leaving the other three to do the decorating.

The other three. Harry was in the house, for the first time in months, and Ginny was so aware of it that her skin hadn't stopped tingling all afternoon. He had done an insane double shift at Azkaban, and had arrived at Lupin Lodge at lunchtime with a look on his face that Ginny knew very well: he wasn't going anywhere without a fight. She'd known he would come. She had written to him yesterday and promised that she was ready to be near him without getting ill, and that was all it had taken to bring him to the door. Remus had explained to Harry that he was not allowed inside, but Harry hadn't budged. "I'm staying," he'd said, his eyes on Ginny. "I'm really in the mood to decorate."

Ginny checked over her shoulder now and caught his eye again. He was just beyond the door, standing in the corridor with a basket of holly in his hands and watching her, and the way he was watching her made her heart fly into her throat. But Remus's rule for the afternoon had been that if the two of them were suddenly so hell bent on helping him decorate, they'd have to stay in separate rooms or face the consequences. "Oh no," Harry had said. "Detention in the Forbidden Forest?" But they had obeyed. They knew what the consequences were.

Although… Ginny thought, if the benefits outweigh the consequences…

"All right, Ginny?" Harry's cheeks were ruddy and the toes of his boots were shiny wet. He must have gone outside for the holly; the first snow had fallen the night before, and it had stuck beautifully.

"All right, Harry."

The warmth of Lupin Lodge was making his glasses fog up. He set down the basket, removed the glasses and wiped the lenses on his shirt. Ginny caught her breath. Harry had looked so tired all afternoon - his time at Azkaban was taking a physical toll and Ginny had noticed the lines around his eyes and the thin strands of white hair that were almost, but not quite, buried in among the black. The job was aging him. But without his glasses he looked vulnerable and young, and Ginny turned away before her will started to fail.

"Ron's not here yet," Harry noted, and whistled under his breath. "He'd better hope he's on time."

"I know!" said Ginny, looking back at him. His glasses were in place but it hardly helped; he had leaned against the wall and fixed his eyes on her again. She found she couldn't look away this time, consequences or not.

Just then, there was a soft pop! from the front room, and the clatter of things being dropped to the floor. But it wasn't Hermione - the change in the air was too familiar for that.

Remus seemed to sense the same thing. "Sirius," he called out from his spot near the ceiling, "Could you bring me the wreath greens, they're right --"

There was the sound of something smacking against a wall, and then it came into view. Ginny shrieked and pointed past Harry, who whirled around just in time to see, and duck, a huge amount of flying foliage. The wreath greens shot into the room at high speed, hitting Remus in the stomach.

"Oof!" Remus stumbled from his invisible perch in the air and barely landed on his feet, fists clenched, eyes afire.

From the end of the corridor there erupted a spasm of laughter. "Sorry!" Sirius called cheerfully. "Hope I didn't hit you!"

But Remus was brushing pine needles from his robes and heading for the door. "RUN, if you know what's good for you --" He sprinted past Harry and disappeared into the front room. There was a crash, followed by a string of shouted hexes through which Sirius continued to laugh as merrily as if he were being tickled.

"Is that normal?" Harry asked, squinting down the hall.

"Sort of." Ginny got to her feet. Reason told her to stay where she was, pull her wand and clean up the scattered firs on the carpet. She followed a deeper impulse. With her eyes on the back of Harry's neck, she stepped over the mess and crossed the threshold that separated her from him.

"Hi."

He jumped slightly and turned, and the ruddy patches on his cheeks got brighter. "Hi."

It was closer than they'd been in several weeks, and Ginny's heart began to thump. Even beneath the Cannons stadium in the mediwizarding wing, when she had ached to put her hands on him - help him - she hadn't done it for more than a second, and it hadn't been satisfying. She took a step closer, and lifted her hand to touch him now. "How are you?"

Harry didn't answer. He looked torn. She grazed her fingertips across the top of his healed shoulder and down his arm, and Harry shook his head but he didn't stop her.

"It's all right," she said quietly, bringing her hand to his and taking it. "I'm all right. I promise." She could hear his breath coming faster; she took another small step and felt his chest rise and fall against her own, felt his heart hammer like hers did. She waited for the cold to envelop her, for her sensitivity to make the next step impossible, but the air stayed still and warm. Her head didn't ache and her stomach didn't lurch.

The rest of her body was pounding.

"If Remus --" Harry began, his voice dry.

"I don't care." She could still hear Remus lecturing Sirius on the importance of manners, and she could hear a muffled struggle in reply that meant Sirius was probably body bound and itching to retaliate; they'd be occupied for half an hour. Or at least five minutes. That was all she needed.

Harry pushed his fingers between hers and grasped her hand. His eyes darkened as they focused on her mouth. "Are you sure-"

"Yes -" She knew she was being forward, but it had been too long. Letters were wonderful, but she craved him. She pushed closer to him, reached behind his head and pulled his face to hers. Harry made a noise of surprise; he stumbled forward and Ginny fell back against the wall, loving the crush of his weight against her. He braced himself and laughed so close to her mouth that she felt the soft explosion of air on her lips.

"Sorry." He put his forehead to hers and leaned.

She shut her eyes and grinned. "My fault," she murmured, sliding her fingers into the unruly hair at the nape of his neck. An audible breath escaped him and his hand clenched hers.

This time, she didn't have to pull him to her. He bent his head and searched out her mouth; she felt his free hand brush her waist and shivered when he trailed his fingers up her side and down again.

"Oh, Harry…" She hadn't meant to say it quite like that. She blushed at herself, but apparently he didn't mind; he kissed her with sudden, painful intensity and Ginny slumped against the wall, giving in. This was what she wanted, had always wanted, from Harry. To be claimed. It made sense. She brought her fingers to his temple and dragged them down his jaw, feeling it move. He was tired. Exhausted. She could feel that now. He was also exhilarated and, to her relief, the two emotions seemed to be keeping their balance - she was unreasonably cold and felt herself growing weak, but there was also a soaring sense of joy --

A strange pop! in Ginny's mind made her freeze.

"What is it?" Harry muttered, pulling back. "Are you all right?"

"I don't know." Ginny waited, searching herself for the truth. She had promised Harry in more than one letter that she would never again hide pain from him, where Healing was concerned, and it was a promise she intended to keep.

"Do you hurt?" He touched the side of her face, looking guilty.

"Not really, but -"

Thud! Something had fallen to the floor and the air… Ginny concentrated. The currents in the air were all different. She felt the house grow warmer and cooler all at once with new excitement, new happiness - with a strange new serenity.

Someone was laughing in the sunroom.

Someone was standing in the doorway of the sunroom. Ginny gasped as her peripheral vision grew embarrassingly clear.

"Hermione -" Harry exclaimed. He dropped his hand, straightened up, shot a flustered glance to his left, and pushed up his glasses. "She's, er - back -"

"Hermione!" Ginny extricated herself from her spot between Harry and the wall, her face so hot she feared it would burn right off. She couldn't even look into the sunroom and it appeared that Harry couldn't either; he was gazing at her in a kind of fixed horror.

"Hi! Oh, I'm so glad to see - well -" Hermione burst out laughing again and, after exchanging a rather painful look, Ginny and Harry finally turned their heads. What Ginny saw made her forget her embarrassment and she could tell by the drop of Harry's jaw that he had forgotten too.

Hermione looked wonderful. She was slim and tan and her hair was much lighter - and she wasn't exactly dressed for the current winter weather. A loose, white, sleeveless garment skimmed her figure and she giggled through her fingers, brown eyes bright over the tops of her hands.

"Look at you," Ginny gasped, and went towards her friend. "You look… fantastic."

"Oh stop."

"No, I mean -" Ginny groped for the right words. "Wow. Ron'll have a heart attack."

Hermione's hands came down and her eyes darted over Ginny's shoulder as if she was looking for something, but she didn't dwell on it for long. She grinned and opened her arms, and Ginny hurried to hug her.

Harry hung back until they were done, and Hermione fixed shining eyes on him. Suddenly she looked the way Ginny remembered her in Diagon Alley, after long summers. She shivered with excitement, and looked like she might come right out of her skin.

"Hullo, Harry," she said. "Look at you! I really missed you - oh, it's good to see you - it's been - it's never been this long! You look taller. And that Cannons match! Oh my goodness, Ron sent me the Omnioculars and I watched the whole thing three times - you're just brilliant and it was so sweet of you to say you wished I was - is your arm all right? And is that white in your - oh, Harry, what am I talking about, quick give me a hug -"

He hugged Hermione for a long time. "It's good to have you back," he muttered eventually, and kissed her cheek before letting her go.

Hermione stared at him in obvious surprise and pleasure. Her eyes darted to Ginny, then back to Harry again, and she pressed her mouth shut on what Ginny could have sworn was a giggle. "That's new," was all she said.

"Shut up," said Harry. But he was grinning. He ducked his head and stepped back beside Ginny. "How was traveling?"

"Tiring!" Hermione flopped into the big wicker chair and smiled up at them. "I had to use a fixed Portkey in order to get off the island, and then the nearest international Apparition checkpoint was about a two mile walk uphill, or so it seemed at the time. I had to jump through three stations in order to get to the one at Diagon Alley. And of course, you have to rest when you're Apparating that often, or else you can make mistakes, so I sat in France for two hours before coming to London. It was the worst wait." Tired as she might have been, her words tumbled over each other in a rush, and she glanced past them again. "Where is, er - where are Sirius and Remus?"

Ginny and Harry shared a quick look. "They're here," Ginny said, and called out for them. The two men hurried down the hall, Remus in the lead, fine brown hair falling in his eyes. Sirius right behind him, his face and arms covered with what looked like a mild rash.

"Hermione!" Sirius knocked Remus out of the way, pulled Hermione out of her chair, and grabbed her up in a hug. "Lovely to see you, my dear." He stepped back and Hermione peered up at him.

"Are you ill?" she said anxiously.

"Ah, no. Pay no attention to the itching hex, or to these." Sirius held up his hands, which were swollen to twice their normal size. The knuckles had disappeared and it looked like he had balloons on the ends of his arms.

"What happened?" she gasped.

"He brought it on himself," Remus muttered, but he gave Hermione an easygoing smile and pushed his hair out of his face. He would have looked almost collected, had it not been for the redness in his cheeks, and Ginny could feel that he was still on the ready for a counterattack. He put out his hand and Hermione took it. "You look happy," he observed. "Glad to be home?"

"Oh yes." Hermione looked around the room at all of them, her face alight. "I can't believe I'm here - oh! Well hello!" She crouched down and held out her arms towards a fat, orange creature that had crept up behind all of them. Crookshanks launched himself at Hermione with a pitiful mewling noise that made everyone laugh. "Baby," Hermione said tenderly, and tickled the cat's ears. "I missed you, yes I did." Crookshanks gave a long, deep purr. Hermione stood up with the massive cat clutched to her chest and sent another telltale glance past Ginny and Harry. "I don't suppose there's tea?" she asked. "I'm starving."

Sirius waved his wand and a tray materialized in the air between them, laden with biscuits, cups, and a steaming teapot. "Tea, madam," he announced formally, a grin pulling at one side of his mouth. "And do have a seat. I've got a message for you."

"Oh?" Hermione asked, too casually. She dropped back into her chair and a flush rose in her cheeks. "What message?"

"An employee of mine - you might remember him - tall, hair like this one here," he tousled Ginny's hair with one of his deformed hands and she squealed in disgust. "I believe he's called Ron?"

Hermione kept her eyes on Crookshanks, who had curled up in her lap, and her color continued to rise. "Oh, Ron…yes, it… it does ring a bell."

Harry snickered. "I'll bet it -" he began to tease, then glanced at Ginny, reddened, and shut his mouth. Out of the corner of her eye, Ginny saw that Remus had turned his face to the two of them and was standing with arms crossed and eyes narrowed. She ignored him.

"I understand that this Ron fellow is keen to welcome you home," Sirius continued. "Unfortunately, his duties kept him in the office a bit longer than expected, and he asked me to express his deep regrets, should you arrive early, that… let's see, how did he put it? If Hermione gets there before I do, tell her I'm losing my bloody mind trying to get home? I think that was it."

Hermione laughed through her nose. "But he's on his way?" she asked softly, still concentrating on her cat.

"Yes." Sirius dropped his joking tone. "He's on his way. He won't be a minute later than he has to be."

"I know." Hermione was entirely pink now, and her fingers had disappeared nervously into Crookshanks' coat, but the confidence in her voice made Ginny warm all over. Ginny brushed the back of her hand against the back of Harry's, and he drummed his knuckles against hers in return. "Everyone have tea with me?" Hermione asked. She looked up and her eyes traveled over their faces. "There's so much I want to ask about."

Ginny sat beside Harry on the sofa, hoping that Remus wouldn't say anything about their proximity. He made a noise of disapproval but left it at that, and after Sirius had cleaned the pine needles out of the carpet, the five of them took tea and started talking.

"What did it look like?" "Have you got pictures of Delia?" "Does this mean you're licensed, or is there some sort of exam you have to take?" "Missed pumpkin pasties and butterbeer, didn't you?" "Honestly, you know Mum's going to feed you up the minute she sees you, you've got so thin." "Do you plan to go back?" "Will you apply to the Ministry now?"

Hermione laughed and answered everything, asking them questions in return. She focused longest on Harry, pinpointing him with a thousand questions about the dragons and dragging information from him on everything: the build of his uniform, Norbert's health, Charlie's management techniques, Viktor's new family, Dementors, chocolate, Azkaban and Draco Malfoy. "I have several things to say about those schedules, Harry," she finally said. "You know they're ridiculous and it's simply unethical to have you working those sorts of hours. They have to hire more riders, that's that, and if you won't do something about it then I will."

Harry rolled his eyes, but Ginny felt him relax more completely than he had in a long time. He felt very whole, beside her. "Charlie's been interviewing people," he said. "Ever since that article about Viktor, we've had people applying like mad for the dragon jobs."

"And ever since Eloise's article about you," Ginny added, knowing that Harry wouldn't.

He nudged her. "Anyway, most of the applicants are just insane. Only a few have even made it to the interviewing stage. I doubt any of them will actually get hired."

"Well they'd just better," Hermione said darkly.

Sirius shook his head, looking amazed. "Hermione, I haven't heard that much from Harry in four months put together," he said with a laugh. "Thanks."

"Yeah, thanks," Harry said dryly, but Ginny could tell he was happy. She crept her hand beneath his on the cushion, just behind their touching knees where no one could see, and he curled his fingers around hers.

Hermione's eyes drifted to where their wrists disappeared. She looked right at Ginny and when she smiled, her eyes crinkled at the corners. Ginny grinned back, thrilled to her toes. She hadn't said much about Harry in her letters to Cortona. Words had never been her strong point, and every time she'd tried to explain how she felt, it had come out sounding so much less than it was. Still, it had been so hard not to have a girlfriend to share this with. Hermione knew what it was like to fall in love and have it happen back. All the understanding in the world was in her friend's quiet smile, and Ginny found, to her surprise, that she wanted Harry to go home - not for long, of course, but she needed to talk with Hermione. Alone. Tell her everything ten times over and hear what she had to say in return.

As if she had spoken her wishes aloud, Remus stood up. "I have a few… chores to do," he said. "If you'll excuse me, Hermione - I'll take your bag up for you, if you like." He picked it up off the floor when Hermione didn't protest, and hefted it under his arm. "Glad you're home safely."

"Thank you, Remus."

"Yes, a pleasure catching up with you, Miss Granger," said Sirius, springing to his feet and shooting a deadly look at Remus's retreating back. He rested one still-swollen hand on his wand, and extended the other to Hermione. She wrinkled her nose at it and gave it a very quick pat.

"All right, Sirius."

"If my young employee is much later, you have my permission to flog him."

Hermione giggled. "I might."

Sirius took a step toward the door, stopped short, and looked over his shoulder at Harry. "Still thinking?" he asked abruptly. "Because like I said, I'll be happy to name the terms of the first round if -"

But Harry shook his head. "I have ideas," he said mysteriously. Ginny gave him a questioning look, but he wouldn't meet her eyes.

"All right then. You three have fun catching up." Sirius grinned around the room, and dashed away down the hall.

"What's wrong with them?" Hermione demanded. "Itching hexes and engorgement?"

Ginny and Harry rushed to explain, and soon the three of them were lost in laughter. They tried to fill her in on four months' worth of events in half an hour's time, trading off as new stories came into their minds, their tales uncensored now that Remus and Sirius had disappeared.

When there was no tea left in the pot and all but one pumpkin pasty (saved for Ron) had disappeared, Harry rubbed his thumb over Ginny's fingers and yawned. "I know you just got here, Hermione, but I'm falling asleep. No offense."

"I'm not offended - or surprised," Hermione said archly. "Those schedules, Harry, I mean it -"

"Okay, okay." Harry laughed. "You don't waste time, do you?"

"No." Hermione pursed her lips, but her eyes were soft and smiling. "Go home. I'll talk to you tomorrow." She got up when Harry did, and hugged him again. "I missed you so much."

"You too." He patted her back and left the room, but not before glancing in Ginny's direction.

Ginny gave Hermione a meaningful look, which Hermione returned, and followed Harry to the front door. The house was dark now, except for the glow of the Christmas lights from the tree in the front room, and the light from the sunroom at the end of the corridor. Harry mostly stood in shadow; the waning moon cut through the patterned window at the top of the door, illuminating a streak of his hair and the rims of his glasses.

"You're not Apparating?" she asked, resting her hands on his chest and smoothing the wool of his jumper just for an excuse to touch him.

"I am." Harry hesitated. "But I wanted to say goodnight - if you're still feeling well."

"Yes," Ginny whispered, and turned up her face.

Harry looked quietly at her for a long time before he kissed her. This time his mouth was gentle and slow; his hands touched her hips, then slid around to her lower back and pulled her as close to him as she would fit. Ginny grabbed his shoulders and held on, so dizzy with pleasure that she hardly remembered to kiss him in return. She opened her mouth and let her head fall back, wondering why it only felt amazing. She couldn't have got this good at controlling herself in so short a time -- could she? Even Namita Vibushan had said, in her book, that it had been a year before she had allowed her lover to come to her without fear of pain.

Harry broke away, breathing hard. "How is this all right?" he asked anxiously, as if Vibushan's words had stuck with him, too. He still hadn't returned that book. "Are you really all right? What's this mean, from now on?"

Ginny opened her eyes. He looked dazed, worried - hopeful. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I have been practicing, but I don't… You're so happy tonight that perhaps…" She stopped, not sure how to put it. Even the prospect of Dementors in the morning didn't seem to have an effect on Harry at the moment. "I think Hermione has a lot to do with it."

He was quiet for a long time. "It was weird without her," he finally said. "She's the closest thing I have to - you know. A sister." He said it awkwardly, but Ginny knew it was the truth. She wished Hermione could have heard him say it.

"Well sisterly advice is the best kind, you know." Ginny brushed the hair away from his forehead and pushed his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. "Believe me, I give it all the time."

Harry gave a soft snort of laughter and shut his eyes, seeming to like having his glasses adjusted for him.

"You should go to sleep. I'll keep Hermione busy till Ron gets here, and I'll see you tomorrow if you're not too tired. And we can see if this is really all right. I'll talk to Remus."

Harry opened his eyes. "Are you going to tell Hermione about us?" He sounded strained.

Ginny shrugged. "She already knows."

"I know, but…" He glanced down the hall. "She'll ask questions."

"If I answer her, do you mind?"

"No." Harry went quiet. His hands were still on her back and he drummed his fingers as he studied her eyes. He looked into them as if he were trying to read something that was written there in tiny print, and Ginny had the sudden, distinct impression that he was going to ask her a question himself. He seemed to be struggling against something, and for the first time since Hermione had come home, Ginny felt her head pound. She winced. Something was badly troubling him.

"What is it, Harry?"

"It's nothing, I was only…" He shifted his eyes away and let her go. "It's nothing. I don't want to- never mind."

"No, tell me, what?"

"I'm just tired." He looked away and Ginny knew there was more to it than that. Before she could press him, Harry leaned in and gave her a quick, soft kiss on the corner of her mouth. "But I'm glad we…" he began, and stopped. Ginny could feel the heat from his face. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yes." She touched his shoulder. "Your arm still feels all right?"

"It hasn't bothered me at all."

"Good. Be careful at work." Ginny let him go. "Goodnight." And before she had to watch him Disapparate, she turned and went back down the corridor.

~*~

"So, what’d you end up spending the Knut on?" asked Ron, trying to make conversation with the boy sitting across from him. Several rolls of parchment were stacked between them, and Ron was currently filling out yet another M.L.E.S. form.

The boy, who had told them his name was "Max" while refusing to divulge any other information, sniffed, and answered, "A Knut doesn’t go far these days." He wiped his nose with the sleeve of his dirty robe, which had grown filthier since the last time Ron had seen him, hovering next to the Ministry steps.  So had his hair and skin; still, Ron had recognized him at once.

Amos Diggory walked into the office, a wide smile making the hairs on his beard stand out.

"Well, which one is it?" Diggory asked, turning to Max. "I’ve just spoken with Headmistress McGonagall. Are you Max Franklin, Max Jarvis, or David Mackston? All three were at Hogwarts recently, and we’re checking now to see if any of them can be located."

"I can’t remember," said the boy, flipping some hair out of his eyes. "Max Franklin was in Slytherin, and really, really smart. Max Jarvis was in Ravenclaw and all the girls liked him. David Mackston was in Hufflepuff. Which one do you think I am?"

"I think you’re the obnoxious one," said Ron, waving the last parchment in the air so that it would dry more quickly. "As a matter of fact, is it all right with you, Mr. Diggory, if I just put his last name down as ‘Prat’ on this paperwork? That’s the most accurate description."

Max glared. "Are you really going to send me home with him? I think I’m better off on the streets, quite honestly," he said. Ron was once again reminded of Draco Malfoy by the haughty tone in the boy’s voice.

Mr. Diggory laughed. "You don’t know what you’re saying, boy." He patted Max on the head while Max cringed away as much as his bindings would let him. "Molly Weasley is the best cook I know – even her toast is first class. That’s got to be better than the snakes and snails you’ve been living off of in Knockturn Alley."

"In a cellar," said Ron, standing up and cracking his knuckles. He’d never, ever seen such a pile of paperwork before. After following Mr. Diggory down the corridor to the M.L.E.S. office, and waiting for him to deposit a kicking-and-screaming Max into a secure chair, Ron had stepped in, and tried to find out what had happened.

This time, Max had been caught trying to steal a wand from a wizard shopping for winter cloaks in Diagon Alley. Mr. Diggory had happened by, and, recognizing Max as part of a gang of several children who usually kept to Knockturn Alley, had pulled him in. The M.L.E.S. were reluctant to send Max back to the Children’s Home since he always managed to escape, and Ron had, without thinking, offered to take Max to the Burrow. He’d run down the hall to tell Sirius to go ahead without him, and hurried back to the M.L.E.S. office, hoping to collect Max and drop him off before five. It was after seven, and Hermione was surely at Lupin Lodge by now, and Ron was beginning to have second thoughts about the whole situation.

"Thanks a lot," hissed Max.

Ron shrugged. "You still owe me for running off that time," he said. "Now we’re even." He turned to Mr. Diggory. "Er, how am I supposed to get him home? Can I use a Full Body Bind? Or the Leg Locker Curse?"

"Oh no, no, no, no!" Mr. Diggory looked shocked. "We can’t use those on children. There're rules."

"Yeah," snorted Max. "There’re rules."

"Children, right," said Ron, getting irritated. "What about monsters?"

"We’ve got a fireplace hooked up in the back, here. We can keep him tied up. Got to stop and take a picture real quick though. I’ll send it off to McGonagall to see if any of the Hogwarts staff can identify him. It might be difficult though. They grow so much at this age…" Mr. Diggory trailed off, and Ron wondered if he was thinking of his own son, Cedric. "Anyway," he smiled and continued, "it’s good of you to take him, Ron. Your mum will know of some ways to keep him around the Burrow. Tell her that one of our representatives will be out to check on things tomorrow morning."

Mr. Diggory untied Max from the chair. Max tried to lean forward and bite Mr. Diggory’s arm as they walked down the hall. Ron rolled his eyes. "You’re twelve," he said. "I stopped trying to bite people when I was three."

When they reached the fireplace, Ron stopped, feeling panicked. "How’re we going to get him to pick the right fireplace?" he asked, jerking his head towards Max.

"Ah, right." Mr. Diggory looked uncomfortable. "Well, we either have to put him in something, or you have to carry him."

"That’s child abuse!" said Max, getting ready to kick Mr. Diggory. Ron held out his wand and made the cords extend to Max’s ankles. He might as well have been in a Full Body Bind. He couldn’t walk anywhere; that was for sure.

Feeling somewhat evil, Ron grinned and held out his arms. "Come on then." Mr. Diggory picked up Max and set him to rest in front of Ron. Ron reached for his briefcase, then scooped his arms under Max’s and waited for Mr. Diggory to throw the Floo powder into the fire.

"The Burrow," said Ron, as he stepped into the fireplace.

He’d never known anyone to move so much during a Floo trip. Although he’d traveled by Floo enough for it to feel normal, Ron still liked to stay as still as possible as he sped through the chimneys and past the other fireplaces. Max was struggling, and Ron was afraid more than once that he’d accidentally drop him off at a random location, but he managed to hold on until the end. Within seconds, they tumbled out of the spacious fireplace at the Burrow.

"Arthur! Is that…" Molly Weasley’s voice trailed off as she walked into her kitchen to see her son, a strange child, and an enormous amount of soot on the floor.

"Hi, Mum!" he said brightly, pulling himself and Max off the floor, and sitting Max on one of the benches around the big table. "This is Max."

"Hello, Max," said Mrs. Weasley as though she were talking to any other friend he might have brought home. "I’m very pleased to meet you."

"Sod off," said Max.

Ron felt his ears start to burn. He’d dared to swear once in front of his mother. The punishment had been enough for him to still feel pain when others did so. But to his surprise, his mother just smiled as though he’d told her he was doing very well, thank you.

"Ron," she said sweetly. "Why don’t we show your friend the garage? There are lots of lovely things to look at in there, and he can occupy himself while I finish making the tea."

Tucking Max, who could have used about a month’s worth of cauldron cakes, under an arm, Ron followed his mother to the garage, thinking that it was an odd place for his mother to want to place a guest of any kind. The garage was still very much Mr. Weasley’s hideaway. Devoid of the Ford Anglia for years, the empty space had quickly filled in with an odd assortment of plugs, machinery, and several mysterious large objects covered with blankets. Topping the one window was a multi-colored display of batteries, arranged by size.

"What is this, a Muggle dungeon?" asked Max, taking everything in. "What crazy wizard lives here? You people are crazy. I’m going to complain to the Minister of Magic."

"Untie him, dear," said Mrs. Weasley. When Ron shook his head at her in warning, she just smiled. "It’s all right, you can untie him." She turned to Max. "I’ll arrange for the Minister himself to pay you a visit very soon, how’s that? Tea will be ready in about half an hour." Gently, she guided Ron out of the garage, shot an Unbreakable Charm at one of the larger, shrouded objects, and shut the door on Max.

Once outside, Ron watched as his mother placed a few more charms on the garage itself. "Nothing harmful, dear," she said, as they went back into the house. "All very legal. It will keep him inside." She walked over to the big cauldron and began to stir. "Now, why don’t you tell me who he is and what's going on?"

In a rush, Ron explained his first meeting with Max, and then how he’d come across Mr. Diggory and Max earlier that afternoon. "So, what else could I do? He’d just end up back in Knockturn Alley, and that can’t be good. It's amazing he hasn't been sold for parts by now, down there -"

"Ronald!"

"Well? So I thought I’d just be able to bring him here, but they made me fill out all this paperwork and - would you keep him?"

His mother jumped.  "Keep him?" she echoed. She lowered her voice.  "Ronald Weasley, what are you talking about?  Do you mean for the evening, or -"

"I don't know, I - I thought you might want him," Ron said, but as his mother's expression grew more and more shocked, he began to think that bringing Max here might have been a really stupid idea.  

"Might want him," she said flatly.  "To live here?"  Her eyes narrowed and she gave him a truly scary look.  "For how long, exactly, did you consider this before you decided to do it?"

Ron gulped and took a step back.  That was the voice she used on his dad when there was a serious problem.  "Er… not that long?"

"I see."  His mother pressed her lips together and turned to her cauldron.  "But I suppose," she continued scathingly, "that since you know how simple it is to raise a child, it's perfectly all right for you to drop one in our laps."

"I - Mum, I wasn't trying to - I just thought -"  

"That's exactly what you didn't do!" cried his mother, slapping her spoon on the rim of the cauldron and making stew fly everywhere.  "Think!"

Ron backed out of the kitchen to take a quick look at the clock.  Damn.  Hermione must be ready to kill him by now, and his mother wasn't going to do anything about Max - now he was going to have to take the kid back up to Diagon Alley and spend another two hours trying to put him back -

"Mum please," he begged.  "Let me come back tomorrow and take care of this - just take Max for the night, please, and I'll deal with it later, but Hermione's home today, she's been home for two or three hours by now, and I'm late."  He stood there practically panting, his heart racing.  Please let her say yes, please let her say yes…

His mother stopped stirring. She turned away from the cauldron and stared at him. "Hermione came home today?" she repeated blankly. "She's there now?"

Ron felt a warm, nervous clutch at his heart. It was the sort of feeling he hadn't had about Hermione since fifth year - he felt insecure and violently hormonal. She was there. He was about to see her. Touch her. Hear her voice.

"She should have been there around five," he answered, hardly noticing his mother's eyes widen, "So if you could just hold onto Max - at least for tonight, we can sort it out tomorrow - I want to get home."

His mother made a muffled noise that Ron could not interpret - it might have been indignation.

He threw up his hands. "Look, I'm sorry to just throw him at you without any warning, but please, Mum-"

"Of course I'll look after him!" Now she sounded indignant. Her eyes narrowed and she waved her long-handled spoon like a paddle. "Go home right this instant! I can't believe you've kept Hermione waiting for three hours, she must be exhausted with traveling!"

Ron's stomach churned. "It's not like I wanted to be late," he muttered, "but I couldn't just leave him -" Bang! From the garage there had come an explosive noise followed by the sound of raining metal, and Ron winced. "Though perhaps I should've."

To his surprise, his mother gave a short, close-mouthed laugh. "As if a few explosions in there will make any difference," she said tartly, and turned back to her cooking. "Max will be fine here, go on."

A weight lifted from Ron's chest. He could leave. He could see Hermione in seconds. "Thanks, Mum," he said, and raced over to his briefcase full of papers. He grabbed the handle with one hand and smoothed his hair back with the other, then straightened his robes and yanked his wand out of his belt. "Bye."

"Hug Hermione for me," was the last thing Ron heard before he Disapparated.

The downstairs hallway of Lupin Lodge appeared around him. It was dark, but there was light coming from two of the rooms on the corridor. Hermione had to be in one of those rooms. Ron dropped his bag to the floor and heard the papers spill out, but didn't mind them. "Hermione?" he called out, barely managing the word. His throat was closing with anticipation. "Where are you?"

He didn’t wait for an answer, but strode to the doorway of the front room and looked to see if --

~*~

Ginny returned to the sunroom, her mouth still buzzing from being kissed, and smiled stupidly at Hermione.

"He's erm. Gone."

Hermione took down her hands, which she'd been holding tightly over her mouth, and held out her arms to Ginny with a little shrieking noise and a huge grin.

Ginny hurried forward and threw her arms around her friend. The two girls embraced for a long time, and Hermione talked breathlessly while they hugged. "I can't believe it!" she squealed. "The way he was looking at you - it's so good to see that! You can't imagine how funny it is to see Harry of all people - not that I'm surprised, of course, because if he's managing it with anyone, it ought to be you, but Ginny, he's so different! He's so… mellow. It's wonderful. It's so wonderful. The things he said in the paper! I just can't believe it - I'm so happy for you, Ginny -"

Ginny clung to Hermione and shut her eyes. She needed to hear these things, and there hadn't been anyone around to say them. No one had talked to her about what was happening - not in the way that counted. Not like this.

"Thank you," she whispered, and by the time she pulled away from Hermione, both of them were sniffling. "We're such idiots," she said, laughing. "We've got nothing to cry about. Come on, let's sit by the Christmas tree - it's so nice."

When they were curled up in the front room at either end of the sofa, fairy lights reflecting from their hair and skin, Hermione laced her arms around her knees and asked Ginny to tell her everything.

"Oh there's so much." Ginny imagined Hermione's face when she told her that she was a Healer, and wondered if now was the time. She checked the clock, and was shocked to see that it was nearly seven. "Where's Ron?" she said unthinkingly.

Hermione's face clouded for a moment, but then she took a deep breath and the corners of her mouth lifted in a smile. "Whatever he's doing," she said, "it has to get done. Or he'd be here."

Ginny stared. She'd never seen Hermione so calm about something important. This was precisely the sort of behavior from Ron that had used to send her friend flying off the handle. All that Thinking and meditation must have had quite an effect. "I can't imagine anything keeping him from being here," she said. "It must be something huge. He's been a complete mental case for weeks, Hermione. Honestly."

Hermione's eyes shone. "Okay. Now tell me about you. And Harry." She giggled.

Ginny did. She recounted the beginnings, though Hermione already knew them: how Harry had helped with the first Wolfsbane Potion, and how it had led to the evening in Gryffindor Tower, at Lavender's wedding. She slowly described, as well as she could, the nightmare she'd had on the morning that Harry had first gone to work at Azkaban, and the sensation she'd had of being kissed in her dream. Hermione took an audible breath.

"Oh, Ginny."

Ginny told her about the evening of that same day. She described how she and Harry had just been talking - how there had been no special moment - and how suddenly it had become the only moment.

Hermione nodded. "Isn't it funny? The first time… sneaks up on you. You only feel it coming about a second before it happens, I remember that."

"Yes and then your brain gives out." Ginny sighed and leaned her head on the back of the sofa. It was so good to talk about Harry, now that there was really something to say other than I wish… "What did you feel like the first time?"

"I felt like…" Hermione bit her lip. She shut her eyes for a second, probably to remember it more clearly, and Ginny felt a rush of lovely, tingling air surround the two of them. "It was like I'd had a question bothering me for a long time and I couldn't work it out," Hermione said slowly. "Kissing Ron was like… a very important answer. I felt relieved." Hermione opened her eyes and looked around; there was another rush of emotion in the air, but this time it was empty and wanting. She shook her head, and Ginny saw that her eyes were wet. "He needs to get here."

"He'll be home any minute."

"I know. But I've missed him so much that now it just…"

"Hurts." Ginny moved closer to Hermione and hesitated before holding out her hands and passing them through the air. Perhaps she could help.

"What are you doing?" Hermione asked, frowning.

"Something I'm learning in class," Ginny murmured. "Let me try it, and then I'll - I'll tell you what it is." She suppressed her own excitement at the prospect, and concentrated on Hermione, whose aura was… reluctant to be studied. It surrounded Hermione in a slender, contained, intensely energetic and pensive ellipse that felt smooth and cool against Ginny's fingertips. So different from Ron's. Shot through like marble with fingers of warmth and calm. Ginny dragged her hands along its impenetrable surface until her fingers fell through it into something soft and black and aching. Like a bruise. It extended like a chasm just over Hermione's chest; Ginny pushed her hands further into it and sucked in a breath as pain hit her like a wall.

This wasn't just missing Ron, although that had magnified it - this was Hermione's grief over her parents. It was hot, dark, terrible - it was guilt and anger and anguish and steely resolve, all spiraling in towards her heart. Ginny yanked her fingers away as if from a fire. She wasn't prepared to deal with that just now, and she wasn't stupid enough to try it. She dropped her hands and opened her eyes, trying to keep herself from shaking.

Hermione was looking at her with wide eyes and a half-open mouth. "You're a Healer," she whispered. "Aren't you?"

Ginny jumped. How had Hermione - but then of course, she'd probably read everything there was to read about it, and recognized the techniques.

"Yes," she answered.

Hermione stared a little longer, then brought up the lights in the room with a businesslike flick of her wrist. She knelt up on the sofa and squinted at Ginny. "How did you find out?" she demanded. "When did you know?"

"I found out just after you left," Ginny said, but gave no further explanation of her studies. She knew Hermione didn't need one, and she didn't want to talk about Healing now; instead, the whole story of her strange and limited relationship with Harry came spilling out of her as though someone had pulled the plug from a drain. She told of how she had passed out; she told of their fight, of their understanding now and of their letters. She told her how different Harry had seemed tonight, and how she knew that it was too soon to last. Hermione sat unmoving, listening, her eyes growing wider by the second until Ginny thought they might fall right out of her head.

"We should have known," was all Hermione managed, when Ginny ran out of words. "There were - there were signs. How could I be so stupid? Ginny - this means - perhaps we…" Hermione's fingers flew to her temples, her brow creased, and she was silent for a long time. A painful hope radiated towards Ginny from the other end of the sofa, but Hermione said nothing more.

Into the silence, the clocked chimed once. Quarter till eight.

A quiet pop! sounded in the corridor, followed by the thud of papers on the floor. Hermione's head snapped to the doorway and she was on her feet in a heartbeat, her hands trembling at her sides.

"Hermione?" Ron's voice was thick. "Where are you?"

A ragged half-breath escaped Hermione, but she didn't answer. There were three quick, heavy footsteps, the doorway darkened, and the air was suddenly charged with such intimate emotions that Ginny flinched against them. They weren't hers. She shouldn't be here.

Healing forgotten, she raced upstairs as quietly as she could, leaving Hermione and Ron to their reunion.

~*~

She was there. Ron froze in place and his blood crashed through him. He saw Ginny jump to her feet and run away up the stairs, but it hardly mattered; there was no way to keep his jaw from dropping at the sight of the girl by the Christmas tree.

She'd grown up. He hadn't realized it, but the Hermione who lived in his mind had never aged past fifteen, when they had last spent a summer apart. That Hermione had been round-cheeked and wild-haired, small and pale, with alert brown eyes and a mouth that never stopped moving -- she'd been so young. And this Hermione…

Ron couldn't take his eyes off her face. She was brown and slender, her hair was longer and more golden, and her face was tense with joy; she wasn't smiling but her eyes shone so brightly that she might have had a fever. She was beautiful.

"Ron," she whispered, and took a step away from the sofa.

He hadn't heard Hermione's voice in months, and its vibration seemed to touch him from across the room. "Hermione," he rasped.

She shut her eyes briefly and Ron swept his starved gaze down her body, which was covered in something that barely even qualified as a garment. It was loose, but it somehow touched her everywhere he wanted to touch her, and seemed to be made of something thinner than paper.

When she opened her eyes again, they were bloodshot, and they traveled over him in the same way that he'd just looked at her.

"You look… different," she said shyly, her voice low. "You look… older..."

He couldn't stand still. Half a second later, his face was in her hair. He wasn't sure how he had crossed the room but it didn't matter - she was breathing against him again, these were her hands on his back - she smelled like salt water and travel dust and… Hermione. He got his nose close to her neck and breathed deeply. She was the same. He kissed the side of her throat - her jawline - her chin - working his way towards her lips.

"Oh, Ron -" Her voice was choked and she seemed to be making herself as small as possible, curling up against the front of him as if she'd hide in his robes, nearly making him lose his balance.

It wouldn't do to stand. He bent his knees and cradled her against him, and they fell together onto the sofa. He pulled her onto his lap and slipped his arms beneath hers, rediscovering her back with his hands - tracing shoulder blades and spine and… had she always been so small? She whimpered and lowered her face to his with a soft, urgent little noise that made Ron's temperature shoot into the stratosphere. His whole body stirred in response. She was home - she was on top of him - and he needed to kiss her. Now.

He spread one hand on her lower back and palmed the back of her head with his other hand, sliding his fingers into her hair. He guided her face down to meet his and set his mouth against hers barely, softly, in slow reintroduction. She exhaled into him, and he brushed his lips back and forth on hers for a long, feverish second.

It all happened at once: Hermione's mouth fell open with a soft moan and she sealed it across Ron's - she moved against him, pressed herself to him - he clutched her hair in one hand and gathered the fabric of her robe into the other, twisting it into a bunch so that it pulled tight along the front of her. Slowly, he brought his hand out of her hair and dragged it down the side of her neck to rest on the warm skin of her shoulder.

"Hermione…"

She made a pleading noise and pressed towards him again. Keeping her robes tight in one fist, he let his other, open hand run the length of her bare arm. Gooseflesh rose up on her skin and her breath hitched. Ron brought his hand back to her shoulder and gently traced her collarbone to the hollow in the center - what was she wearing in the middle of winter - he hoped she'd never wear anything else. He thanked Max for a brief second for making him forget the Gladrags package in his office.

"Not here," she managed, when his hand began its necessary descent along her front. She snatched his fingers in her own and took them from her body - he groaned and ravaged her mouth with his tongue, tasting her for the first time in four months, unable to control the hunger he felt. Her free hand moved from his hair to his face to his chest; he felt her fingers fumble to unclasp his cloak and push it back from his shoulders, and then she pulled her mouth away from his with a gasp and leaned back, panting.

She was gorgeous. So bloody gorgeous, sitting astride his knees with her face flushed and her hair full of sunshine and her skin tan against the white. She was ethereal. He opened his mouth to tell her so, but couldn't.

"Missed me, did you?" His voice was hoarse.

She laughed breathlessly and her eyes filled with tears. "Missed you - oh Ron." She opened her mouth and shut it several times, shook her head, and gave up.

It said enough that she was speechless. He put his hands on her hips and stroked her sides with his thumbs, for once not frightened by her tears. She leaned forward and put her face against his neck and he kept hold of her, breathing the scent of her hair. Being with her was everything – it had never occurred to him just how much of his life she occupied, not even while she’d been away. But from the moment he'd seen her standing there, he had felt an amazing fullness where the emptiness had just been. It ached.

"You must be so tired," he managed. "I'm sorry I was late."

She sniffled on his collar. "It's all right."

"One of the kids who keeps running away from the Children's Home got caught again, and I - I sort of know him, I didn't want to leave him - so I dropped him off with my mum after work. They made me fill out papers before I could take him. It took an age."

Hermione lifted her head and sat back again. She looked at him silently for a long time. "You're so good," she mumbled finally, and touched his face with shaking fingers until neither of them could bear it and they were kissing again. Ron felt the shape of her as they kissed, touching as much of her as she would let him. He felt that there was no better way to express his happiness, and he never wanted to be farther from Hermione than he was right now.

"Are you exhausted?" he asked, the next time they broke away from each other.

She nodded, but made no move to go to bed.

"Want to stay up for awhile?" he asked hopefully, resting his hands on her thighs.

She chewed her lip, then shook her head. "I need to sleep," she said, and then yawned as if to prove it.

Ron laughed softly and squeezed her leg. She was so cute, and she had no idea. He had missed that so much. "All right," he said, but had no clue how he was going to separate himself from her. After four months, even one night apart seemed cruel.

"I - I really don't want to leave you tonight," Hermione whispered. She sounded awkward, even embarrassed, but Ron's heart leapt. Yes. Stay with me. "But you can't stay here."

"Come to the Notch," he begged. "I cleaned my room, there's food, I swear it's livable."

Hermione laughed, and shook her head. "What about Harry?"

"He leaves at some evil hour before dawn, he won't even know you were there."

At this, Hermione seemed to wake up again. She sat up straight and pursed her lips. "I hate his work schedule, Ron, you know you really ought to have told your father right away that there was something wrong with doing it like that - I can't believe Charlie actually thinks that sort of thing is decent treatment! Can't you say something to someone, because Harry's got white in his hair, for goodness sake, and that's just not normal! He's looking peaky, and I don't like it, and I'll tell you what I told him - if you don't do something about it then I -"

Ron clapped a hand over her mouth. "Blimey, dear," he said, grinning up at her. "Good to have you back, but would you mind shutting up? I'm trying to sort out where we're going to sleep."

Hermione bit his finger.

"Ow!" Ron yanked his hand away and shook it. "Mental!"

"Serves you right," Hermione said loftily. But she was grinning, and two seconds later, she leaned down and gave him a slow, deliberate kiss that left him paralyzed for nearly a minute. "I really did miss you," she said quietly, when she had finished. "For some odd reason."

Ron seized her around the waist and pressed his face to her bare shoulder. "Come home with me," he muttered, holding onto her for dear life. If he blinked, she would disappear again. "I swear Harry won't notice, and even if he did he wouldn't care. You can Apparate right into my room. I just can't…please…"

"Okay," Hermione said, stroking his hair. "All right. Tell me how to get there and explain where your room is so I don't end up in Harry's."

Ron explained exactly how to get to the Notch. He then drew a shimmering plan of the flat in the air with his wand, and pointed out his bedroom to Hermione, who nodded.

"I'll just get my toothbrush, then. And pyjamas."

Ron frowned and took the shoulder of her Cortona robes between his thumb and index finger. "Can't you just wear this?" he asked, tugging on it. "I like this thing."

Hermione blushed. "I… I'll be right over," she said. She slid off of his lap, and disappeared up the stairs.

Ron stood in the front room for a long time, unable to orient himself. He'd just had Hermione in his arms. He could still feel her. He'd have her in his arms all night. Warm against him. Whole. She'd just been here, with him, in this room - solid and lovely and insane and perfect.

At some point, he collected himself. He picked up his cloak, went into the hallway and gathered up his stack of disorderly papers, and left Lupin Lodge for the Notch. He dropped his things in his bedroom chair, silently thanked Harry for the suggestion that he tidy up his room in case Hermione wanted to see their house, and changed into his own pyjamas, then sat on the edge of his bed and waited.

He waited longer than he thought he should have had to, and then -

"What in the hell - who's in here?"

It was Harry's voice, thick with sleep but alert and afraid. Ron shot to his feet and picked up his wand.

"Her - Hermione?" Harry sounded baffled. "What are you -"

"Oh my goodness-" Hermione squeaked. "I'm sorry, Harry, I didn't mean to startle you - I've been doing this all day over international borders, you'd think I could manage - but - I have the wrong -" She stammered to a stop.

"Er." Harry was apparently at a loss. "You - you probably want the, er - the next door on the right."

Ron shut his eyes and willed himself to contain the shriek of hysterical laughter that was fighting to get out of him. He raced to Harry's room, pulled open the door, grabbed Hermione - who was standing rigid with her arms clamped across her chest - dragged her out, and shut the door. She fled into his bedroom, glowing red right through her tan, and Ron would have followed if he hadn't heard a muffled sniggering behind Harry's door.

Ron threw the door open. "Yes?" he demanded, pointing his wand. "Something funny?" He wanted to laugh - he wanted to laugh - but Hermione was in the next room.

The lump of bedcovers that was Harry continued to shiver with mirth. He gave a random shout of laughter, and one pale fist came out from beneath the duvet to pound against the mattress.

"Shut up, mate, I mean it," Ron warned.

The fist disappeared and the lump of bedcovers curled up in the other direction, still shaking. Harry's cries of glee were almost totally muffled now, and Ron didn't see the point in standing around any longer. He shut the door and went back to his room.

Hermione sat in the middle of his bed with her arms around her legs, looking perfectly horrified.

"Oh no," she moaned. "I thought I concentrated but I must be so tired that – "

"Shh. Don't worry," Ron said quietly, going to her at once and pulling down the covers beside her. "Come on, get in."

Hermione crawled under the bedclothes, still scarlet, and still talking. "It's not that he doesn't know, it's just - I don't want him thinking that we're - because we're not."

"No, I know we're not," Ron said dryly.

"And now he'll think - and I don't want him telling Ginny! Or Sirius, or anyone up at the - not that he would, because he's - but Ron -"

Ron had crawled in beside her by this time. He spooned against her back and sighed, loving every inch of her and how she filled the curve his body made, and how soft she was under his arm. He tucked it around her and she held onto it.

"I cannot believe I just did that," she went on despairingly. "He's going to tease us."

"Probably." Ron shifted closer to her, lulled by the ongoing vibration of her voice, which buzzed in her back and resounded in his chest.

"You don't sound like you care!"

"I don't." He kissed the back of her head. "You know about him and Ginny, right?"

"Well… yes?"

"Throw it back in his face. He never knows what to do. He'll shut right up."

Hermione was quiet. She laced her fingers through his. "All right. If he does, then I will."

Ron grinned. "Good, that'll be fun."

"No it won't." Hermione nudged his shin with her heel. "You're terrible."

"Mmm." He brushed her hair away from her neck and lifted it up, moving it to the pillow above her head. "Hey, you wore the thing," he said happily, noticing her nightdress for the first time.

"It is a chemise, Ron, not a thing, and it's not the same as what I was wearing before. Honestly. This one is for sleeping."

Ron kissed her neck. "Fine," he conceded. "Just wear it a lot."

She craned her neck to glare back at him, but Ron propped himself up on his elbow and dropped a kiss on her mouth before she could think up any scathing reply.

She sighed and snuggled back into him, holding his hand with both of hers. "Goodnight, Ron," she said softly.

"Goodnight, Hermione."

She went quiet and still. She must have been dead tired, Ron reflected. He kept his arm around her and studied every bit of her that he could see. There was her dark shoulder, and here was the mass of her hair, coiling all over the place and touched with blonde. There were her hands on his. Here was the slope of her side and the rise of her hip. Here she was, breathing and falling asleep right where she ought to be.

Ron put out the lights and held fast to Hermione, not quite convinced she wasn't still a dream.

~*~

//
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