The Sugar Quill
Author: Arabella and Zsenya (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: After the End  Chapter: Chapter Three: Morning News
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Chapter Three

A/N: Thank you to everyone who has given constructive criticism thus far. And thank you especially to Cap'n Kathy aka Elanor Gamgee, who sat over our shoulders this Memorial Day Weekend and gave as much input on this chapter as either of us.

Chapter Three

Morning News

Morning sunlight spilled into the front room and the air was warm, but light and fresh, as it circulated in through Lupin Lodge's open windows. Lupin Lodge was the name that Remusís parents had given it years ago, and it was rather lodge-like with all its wooden walls and floors. It felt entirely different from the Hogwarts stone dormitories, and had nothing like the precarious tumbledown comfort of the Burrow. Still, it felt really natural here. Ron liked it. He stood on the stairs, sleepily surveyed the front room, and grinned for no reason at all.

Ron imagined heíd like Stagsden, too, though he hadnít had a chance to check out the village yet. Heíd only been here a night, after all. But Remus had told them all about it at lunchtime yesterday and it had sounded pretty perfect. This wasnít solely a wizarding settlement - Hogsmeade was the only one of those in Britain - but Remus had assured them all that theyíd be fairly safe using their magic in public, and that they could go ahead and order butterbeers at the pub without getting stared at. Most of the Muggles in town that he knew of, heíd said, were married into wizard families, and there was even a field at the other end of town that locals sometimes used for impromptu Quidditch matches.

Quidditch. Ron grinned to himself again, and padded down the rest of the stairs and through the living room, making his way towards the kitchen. It was shaping up to be an excellent summer if there could be Quidditch. It had been a long time since heíd been able to stay up in the air and play without fear of being attacked - or at least, without fear of an attack on Harry. But that was over now. It was all over now. There would be time for the important things. Like Quidditch.

Like Hermione.

Ron stopped and stood outside the kitchen door. From inside, he could hear a faint muttering and turning of pages, and he smiled, feeling a bit of a flutter in his stomach. Hermione was in there, and she was probably by herself - he hadnít heard anyone else get out of bed yet. He paused for a moment before going through the door and looked down at himself - pajama bottoms, T-shirt, bare feet - and he ran a hand through his hair. It was a mess. He had half-turned back to change clothes before he came to his senses and laughed at himself for being self-conscious. It wasnít as if Hermione hadnít seen him looking terrible. That was part of what made it so amazing. She didnít care.

He pushed open the door and his grin broadened. She was standing with her back to him, still wearing her nightdress and dressing gown, and her brown hair was a big mess on her shoulders. She was holding up her wand and peering at a cooking spellbook that lay open on the counter, talking softly to herself.

"Isnít it...? No, thatís not it. Is it? Index, index..."

She hadnít heard the door. She was utterly absorbed - as she always was when a book was open in front of her. Ron took the opportunity to pad silently up behind her, pause, and lean close to her ear.

"Youíre up early."

Hermione shrieked and spun around with her hand on her heart, holding out her wand.

"Ron! Donít scare me like that!"

"No problem. How díyou want me to scare you next time, then?"

She huffed. He grinned. This was his favorite thing in the world; this was what he was good at. Getting to Hermione. He couldnít think of a better way to start the morning, and he reveled in the fact that they were all alone - not in the Gryffindor common room and not in the Great Hall - but alone and still in their pajamas. Together. First thing in the morning. It was incredibly liberating.

"Seriously, though," he said, stepping up and putting his hands lightly on her waist. It was odd, doing this - he felt very daring. Even though he knew he was allowed to do it, even though they had this trust together, and even though she was putting her own arms up around his neck and looking in his eyes... it was still very new, and very surprising. Especially since he found that it was difficult to make jokes with Hermione looking at him dead-on like this. He couldnít always find his voice. And now, she was playing with the hair at the nape of his neck, as she had done only once or twice before. He shut his eyes and hoped thereíd be more time for it now.

"This is going to be a peaceful summer, for once," she sighed. "Isnít it?"

"Yeah, it is," he answered determinedly. They deserved a peaceful summer. A nice, long break from everything. They could talk about normal things - they could relax, finally. Ron looked over Hermioneís shoulder at her spellbook. "What are you doing in here?" he asked. "Cooking or something?"

Hermione frowned a little. "Well, I was going to make breakfast, and Iím sure itís very simple, but - you know, Ron, itís so strange, I was Petrified when the rest of you did the practical applications of basic Cooking Charms in school, and I thought Iíd practiced on my own, but I was never tested... and I suppose itís because Iím Muggle-born and never saw it all used at home, but.... I donít know how to do any of it."

"Never thought Iíd hear you say anything like that."

"Oh, be quiet."

Ron kept hold of her waist as she raised up on her tiptoes, holding his shoulders for balance. She kissed him quickly. He tried to engage her in a fuller kiss, but she broke away and peered over his shoulder at the door. "Not in the kitchen, Sirius will be down soon - I think I heard him up."

"Where, then?" he said meaningfully.

"Ron."

"Hermione." He raised an eyebrow at her. She bit her lip, and glanced over his shoulder again.

This really was going to be a good summer, and Ron could think of very little that he wanted to do with it, other than find somewhere quiet with Hermione and make up for lost time. There was a lot of lost time. And if she was going to be staunch about the girls sleeping in one room and the boys staying in another... Well. Ron hardly disagreed with that, really. Even if it would be nice to stay in a room with Hermione, it would also be... weird. Especially with everybody knowing all about it. Not to mention that it wouldnít have left Harry and Ginny with much of an option, and although Ron had a funny feeling that the two of them had more going on together than Harry had ever let on....

Well, he reflected, even if they did, he didnít really need to know about it just now. It was better that the rooming arrangements stood as they did.

But that didnít mean he had to stay away from Hermione all day, as well. She was still standing right there, with her lip between her teeth, looking very much as if she couldnít decide whether or not to let him kiss her in the kitchen. He made up her mind for her, bending his head to softly kiss her bitten lip. She made a funny little noise - a noise he loved. And then, seeming to make up her own mind about the situation, she pulled away swiftly and turned in his arms to face her spellbook again.

Ron sighed loudly, but gave up on kissing for the time being, and remained standing behind her, holding her around the waist.

"So itís Fluos..." she continued in a moment. "Oh, of course it is, it has to be - this is ridiculous, this shouldnít be difficult, Iíve done millions of harder Charms on the first try."

"What are you trying to do?"

"Just coffee."

"You drink coffee?"

"No, but..."

Ron felt her lean back against him. He watched as she lowered her wand. When she continued to speak, her voice shook a little. "Itís probably silly. I know itís silly... but I suppose I just wanted the smell of it. My house always smelled like coffee, in the mornings, in the summers..." Her voice grew very small until it disappeared altogether.

Ron tightened his arms around her and put his face in her hair, wishing there was something he could do. Of course Hermione missed her house. He knew how much she missed her parents.

"Theyíre going to be okay," he told her, his voice low and adamant. Heíd told her that a thousand times, but he still didnít know if either of them actually believed it. Thanks to a very deliberate, very particular attack by Lucius Malfoy, the Grangers had been in the same state as Neville Longbottomís parents for the past year and a half. Ever since the Christmas of their sixth year, Mr. and Mrs. Granger had remained incurably insane in the wizard hospital. St. Mungoís was no closer now to finding a remedy for those mentally damaged by the Cruciatus Curse than they had been sixteen years ago, when it had happened to the Longbottoms.

Hermione nodded. "I hope so," she said quietly.

"Díyou want to visit them soon? I know there hasnít been much time these last few months."

"Yes, I do. I do. Of course."

But though Hermioneís words were adamant, her tone was unconvincing. Ron thought that he knew why. Hermione had told him once last year that though she wanted to be with her parents, it felt futile to visit them. It made her angry. Sheíd burst out that it made her feel so helpless to see them frozen in their fear that she never wanted to go back to visit them again. "Of course Iíd never just leave them," sheíd told him rapidly, through tears. "But Ron, I never want to see them like that again."

And all he was ever able to do was stand there and rock her, as he was doing now. Stand there, and rock her Ė and hate the Malfoys with all his heart.

"As soon as we get our Apparition Licenses I want to go," she was saying. "But you donít have to come with me if you donít -"

"Of course Iím coming with you." Heíd gone with her, back and forth, dozens of times last summer. Toward the end of summer, Harry had come along as well. Because of her parentsí condition, Hermione had spent the last summer entirely at the Burrow with the Weasleys, sharing Ginnyís room. Ron had never let her go to the hospital by herself then, and he didnít plan on it now. She was in tears after every visit. "We can go down, stay with Mum, whenever you want. Every week, if you want. Every day. You just let me know. And we donít have to wait for our licenses - if you want to go by Floo powder we can go today."

"Thank you," she said in a muffled voice, turning her head quickly toward him. He leaned over her shoulder and kissed her swiftly, comfortingly. She kissed him back, with as much comfort for him. "But I want to wait. Thereís no... thereís no point in being there. They donít know Iím there. I... I just want to wait." She paused, and pulled his arms more tightly around her. "And Iíll go with you to visit the memorial stone, while weíre in the south. We can do that as often as you need. You just let me know. All right?"

Ron kissed her again softly, in lieu of a thank you, and pressed his face into her neck. The memorial stone was for Percy. After the Death Eaters had murdered Percy in February, his body had gone unrecovered. It was still a shock. Ron had never been close to Percy, but it didnít matter. Percy was his brother. Had been his brother. And it was painful work to put a brother in the past tense every single time he came to mind, especially when Ron could never think of Percy without remembering the way in which heíd died.

Ron shivered. He knew a little something about being in the company of Death Eaters. He knew about fear and torture. Heíd never given Harry or Hermione all the details of his time as the Death Eatersí prisoner Ė theyíd had enough to deal with Ė but he knew precisely what his brotherís last moments had been like. Perhaps that was why he couldnít stop imagining the scene in his mind. Percy, bound and surrounded. Percy, suffering the Cruciatus Curse. Percy, realizing what he had to do and squaring himself to do it. And Percy had stood up bravely; they knew that much. Snape had answered all of the Weasleysí frantic questions and given them every detail that they wanted. Percy had died with his head up, buckling only when hit by the flash of green light that had taken his life.

Ron had damned Pettigrew bitterly in his mind every day since it had happened. It still stunned him that the rat that he had carried around in his pocket for three years and who had lived with his family for twelve had betrayed Harry's parents and been responsible for his own brother's death. And even as satisfying as Pettigrewís death had been, it didnít change the fact that Percy was gone. Not to mention that Percyís death was also one more reason to hate the Malfoys. Because Lucius Malfoy had been there then, too. Snape had told them that. Pettigrew had tortured and murdered Percy while Lucius had looked on.

He shivered again. It could just as easily have ended that way for him, and he knew it, though he tried very hard never to think about it. Heíd just been a hell of a lot luckier than Percy.

He lifted his face from the skin of Hermioneís neck and rested his chin on the top of her head. He had Hermione to thank for his lucky escape. He had Hermione to thank for a lot of things Ė Hermione and Harry. He owed them both his life and he was proud to be able to say that he would give it for either one of them.

But, proud or not, he hoped that none of them would be called on to offer their lives again. Hopefully, they could just recover for awhile. Ron rocked Hermione for another moment in silence, knowing that there was relief in this closeness, for both of them. He was grateful to have this. At least it lent a sort of wholeness to the grief.

"I hope your mum is all right," Hermione murmured finally, lacing her fingers through Ronís. "If we visit anybody, it should really be her. She and Penny could do with company. Penny looked terrible at Percyís service."

Ron started a little, and felt his stomach squirm guiltily. "Yeah. I know."

"Is your mum upset that the four of us came here, instead of going to the Burrow?"

"Yeah."

Hermione craned her head a little to look at him. "She said something about it?"

Ron shifted uncomfortably. "She wrote and said we should do whatever we think is the right thing," he ventured. Ron never knew what his mum meant by that, and it always made him feel terrifically guilty, no matter what he decided.

"And you donít think you are? Why not?"

"I donít know if I am. I donít know who itís right for."

"Well, I think itís right for us all to be together."

"Me too."

"And I think itís right if we stay with Harry right now."

"Mum wanted him at the Burrow."

"Sirius wants him here." Hermione frowned, thoughtfully. "I think itís fair to Harry and Sirius, more than anything. Theyíve been waiting so long for a little time together. And I suppose that they donít need us here Ė you and Ginny and I could all go to your house instead Ė but I just donít want us to separate."

"Well, Ginny could go to be with Mum."

Hermione looked at him severely. "Thatís not fair and you know it, after everything sheís done. And you know she wants to be with Ė"

Ron waited for the inevitable end to her sentence, but Hermione had stopped talking and was looking over Ronís shoulder again. When she continued, it was in quieter tones. "You know she wants to be with us. I want her with us. And I know that all my reasons are selfish, but this is our first summer really together and honestly itís probably our last one Ė "

"What?" Ron turned Hermione around by the shoulders. "What are you talking about, our last one?"

Hermione turned a bit pink. "Nothing," she said quickly. "I just meant that weíll all end up taking jobs and things, by the end of the summer, wonít we? And then weíll be apart for a bit."

"Weíll be able to Apparate to work. We can all still be close together when the summerís over. Itís not like weíre going anywhere."

Hermione shrugged, and turned around again to face her spellbook. "You know," she said briskly, "Iím not much in the mood for learning spells. I guess if I canít work out the coffee, Iíll just make tea. At least I know the Boiling Charm."

Ron raised an eyebrow. Whatever she thought she was hiding, she wasnít doing a very good job of it. Her abrupt subject changes were as old as the hills and there was always something behind them. But he knew her too well to push the subject right now. Heíd have to get it out of her later. And in any case, she was now very busily Summoning tea from the far cupboard, when what she really wanted was the coffee.

He pulled his wand from his waistband. "No, donít bother. Unless you want some tea, that is Ė Fluos Fabas," he said, holding the wand up over the pot and coffee that Hermione had already set out. Coffee began to brew at once, and Ron had to agree that the smell was heavenly. He thought he might even give it a try.

"Ron! You drink coffee? I never saw you drink it at school."

"I never did."

"Then when did you learn to make it?"

"If you knew how many times Iíd heard my mum do that spell," he replied with a laugh. "I can probably actually cook a lot of things, though I hate to admit it."

"You canít!"

"Right, of course I canít. Good looking coffee there, isnít it?" He grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her. "Seems you might need a bit of help, though. Maybe you should go live with Mum. Learn a thing or two."

Hermione broke free of his arms then, wrapped her dressing gown around herself importantly and made a show of stomping across the kitchen to the bread-box. "Ha, ha, ha. Iím sure that I can cook without any trouble, after a bit of practice."

"Sure you can. So, what are you going to do with that bread there?" He leaned back idly against the counter and watched her.

"Toast it, of course."

"How?"

Hermione looked at the bread, and back at Ron, clearly chagrined. "Well, if you would just give me the spellbook, Iím sure I could - "

But Ron was holding it up above his head. This was another game he rather loved. She couldnít reach it. "Sure, come and get it, here it is."

Hermione abandoned her bread on the countertop, stepped up close to Ron and tried to bring his arm down manually, but to no avail. He was much stronger. After struggling for a few seconds in this way, she stepped back, raised her wand, and pointed it at the book.

"Accio!" The spellbook flew expertly into her hands. "Ha! Got it."

"What is going on in here?" The voice in the door was highly amused. Ron looked over Hermioneís head to see Sirius standing there, shaking his head at them and grinning. Ron grinned back; wondering how much Sirius had seen and heard of their sparring. He found he didnít care too much either way.

"Nothing. Hermioneís going to toast something. Come on and watch."

"Ron, I swear..." she was flicking furiously through the book now, finally reaching the page she wanted. She pointed her wand at the two pieces of bread that lay on the counter and muttered something. Nothing happened.

"Are you sure thatís a real spell?" Ron asked innocently.

Hermione glared at him. "Letís see you do it, then, if youíre so clever," she shot back.

Ron knew that the smile on his face was probably insufferable, but it was really too good an opportunity to pass up. In a shake of his wand, the toast was perfect, and the only thing more perfect, in Ronís view, was the look on Hermioneís face. She looked horrified. It was probably the first Charm heíd bested her at in the entire time theyíd known each other.

"Here, Ron," Sirius tossed the rest of the loaf across the kitchen and Ron caught it easily. "Want to do the rest of it up? I heard some noises upstairs; weíll probably have everyone down here hungry in a minute."

"Sure, Iíll do it, no problem - and Hermione, hereís something you can do until you know better: set the table."

He knew sheíd ignore that suggestion in a hurry, and she didnít disappoint him. "Good morning, Sirius," she said graciously. "Would you like a cup of coffee?"

"Would I like one?" Sirius laughed. "I need one. But you donít have to do that."

"Oh, donít worry. She didnít," Ron couldnít resist saying, as he toasted the bread and piled it on a plate. Hermione looked at him as though she wanted to put a hex on him as she went by, carefully carrying a cup of coffee to the table.

Sirius took it. "Is this what it's going to be like? You all cooking and cleaning up and taking care of us old men?"

Ron snorted and looked him over. Sirius was hardly as old as his parents. "What are you? Fifty?"

Sirius spat out some of his coffee. "Not yet forty!" he spluttered. "Do I look that old?" He recovered and took another gulp of coffee, then nodded at Ron, a wry smile twisting at his mouth. "You may be an insulting git, but at least you make strong coffee. Thanks. Remus makes it like tea, itís disgusting."

"Remind me, would you, never to make you anything again?" Remus approached the table, bleary-eyed. "Good morning Hermione. Ron."

"Morning," they chimed in at the same time. Still laughing over Sirius's distress, Ron threw Hermione a grin. She returned it. He flew the toast through the kitchen doors to the table and sat down beside her, holding his own cup of coffee. He tasted it, deciding that coffee wasnít half-bad, though it was rather bitter on its own. Quickly he added a bit of milk and tried again. Finding that more to his taste, he grabbed a piece of toast, then sat back and looked out the window.

"Perfect day."

"What are you going to do with it?" Remus looked at Ron, and then at Hermione. "Any plans, for the summer?"

Ron shook his head. "Nope. No plans, no troubles, no nothing. I mean, Iíll look for a job or something, make a bit of money...but thatís about it."

"What kind of job?" Sirius asked, grabbing toast.

Ron shrugged. "Dunno. Havenít had much time for thinking about that sort of thing." He looked at Hermione. "I know you found the time somehow, but youíre completely mad, so thatís different."

"Have you been putting in applications, Hermione?" Remus looked interested. "Do you know what youíd like to try doing?"

Hermione looked at Ron Ė somewhat timidly, he thought - and when she gave her answer, she did so slowly. "Well... there are a lot of things that interest me..."

Ron nudged her with his elbow. "Go on, tell them how many positions you applied for."

"Ron, no - I donít -" Hermione protested, making one of her modest attempts not to look pleased.

"How many?" Sirius asked keenly.

"Oh, not that many, really, it isnít-"

"Twenty-seven." Ron shook his head and grimaced. "Can you believe that? Fighting Voldemort, making up giant sacrifice spells, getting about a hundred thousand N.E.W.T.ís, and she found time for twenty-seven job applications." He sighed and clapped her on the back affectionately. "Someday, weíre going to get her to take a holiday."

"Proud of her, arenít you?"

Ronís head snapped up. Ginny was in the kitchen, already dressed, pouring herself an orange juice. She smiled at him impishly and he felt his ears getting a bit hot. The truth was, he was proud of Hermione. How could he not be proud of her? Heíd never understood how she made so much time in the day for all the things she wanted to accomplish; her mind and her focus continually impressed him. But he hardly wanted to make a big speech about it in front of everybody else, especially Remus and Sirius, who were now exchanging a knowing glance that made Ron feel a bit stupid.

Hermione, however, was looking at him with a shy little smile on her face. A moment later, under the table, Ron felt her hand briefly on his knee. She didnít mind if he was proud of her, it seemed.

He slipped his hand under the table and covered hers with it, lacing their fingers together. She looked back down at her toast to hide a blush, and Ronís heart leapt to see it. Maybe Ginnyís comment hadnít been such a bad idea, after all.

Still, turnabout was fair play.

"Whereís Harry?" he asked, too casually, raising an eyebrow at his sister. Under the table, Hermione squeezed his fingers hard. She didnít like for him to tease Ginny about Harry, and though Ron knew it, he generally ignored her advice on the subject. Hermione might've known about a lot of things, but sibling raillery wasnít one of them.

"Asleep, I imagine," was Ginnyís cool reply. "Anybody else want juice?"

Before Ron could think up a good retort, there was a swishing sound and a blur of gray feathers in front of his eyes. An owl had come in the window, and it was now hopping up and down next to Hermioneís napkin.

Quickly she untangled her hand from Ronís, untied the letter and read it. When she looked up again, she was shining.

"From one of my applications," she said, her voice shaking a little. "I got it."

"A job? You got a job?" Ginny squealed, running over to read over her shoulder. Ron leaned in and did the same.

"At the Ministry?" he asked, a bit awed upon seeing the letterhead. "Damn, Hermione."

She turned to him, excitement written all over her face. Ron silently added a notch to the tally he was keeping of swear words that he could get past Hermione's notice, as she began talking very rapidly. "I canít believe it. I never thought Iíd get this. I shouldnít have gotten this, I donít have the experience for it - Iíve hardly traveled and I -"

"What, France and Bulgaria donít count?"

Hermione gave Ron an impatient look. "The Assistant to the British Ambassador of Magic has to be really worldly. Not just book-smart." She sighed at the paper. "But I got it."

"Of course you got it!" Ginny dropped into the chair on Hermioneís other side and beamed at her. "Youíre worldly if anyone is, Hermione Ė think of the things youíve done! Do you think youíll take it?"

But Hermione was shaking her head. "I... donít know," she said soberly. "I canít say."

Ron stared at her, disbelieving. "You donít know. The Ministry wants you to work for them and you donít know?"

"Well itís hardly the Ministry right now, is it? Itís in disrepair," she replied, laying down the letter and looking very thoughtful.

"It needs people like you," said Sirius, at once, leaning forward on the table. "How else will it get rebuilt?"

Hermione turned to Ron. "And your dadís practically the Minister of Magic now. Iíd be working for him, ultimately, if I said yes."

Ron felt himself swell with pride. He couldnít get over the fact that his dad Ė his dad Ė was finally where he deserved to be.

"Dad would let you get away with murder," Ginny commented, from Hermioneís other side. "You could put magical creatures in office, if you worked for him. You could make S.P.E.W. into a national organization."

Ron groaned. "Oh right, thatís all we need. Donít give her any more ideas, or this time next year weíll all be celebrating Elf Awareness Day."

Remus and Sirius laughed at that. Hermione did as well, but she poked Ron in the side with her elbow.

Ron nudged her. "Go on, Hermione, youíd love working there. Whoís acting as Ambassador right now, anyhow?"

"I think itís Parvati's mum."

"The Patils? Oh, right. Well, see? Thatís great, itíd even be people you know."

But Hermione didnít look convinced. In fact, she looked as if she was suffering some sort of struggle. "Itís all true, and I know that I should be jumping at the chance, but... My parents."

She didnít have to say anything else. Everyone grew quiet, and nodded. That was a definite consideration, and Ron couldnít believe he hadnít thought of it himself. Of course an ambassadorial position would take her away from Britain, and away from her parents.

And away from him. Ron sucked in his breath quietly as he realized heíd just been encouraging Hermione to go away for weeks at a time. He tightened his grip on her hand. To be separated now was the last thing he wanted.

There was a short silence, which Sirius broke. "Well, wherever you decide to go, Hermione, Iím sure youíll be an asset. The Ministry could use your brains, but so could plenty of other places, Iím sure. Weíve all got a duty to help somewhere." He picked up his coffee cup and glanced at Remus, whom, Ron noticed, was suddenly looking strained. Sirius continued. "Iím going to start work up at the Ministry this morning. Arthur needs all the help he can get Ė he was looking peaked."

"Was he?" Ron looked up. "Iíll bet. Have you talked to him since yesterday?"

"No, but Iím going up there after breakfast." Sirius gulped his coffee again.

"Where to?" Ron asked. "Azkaban?"

"No." The answer came from Remus. His voice was mild, but absolutely adamant, and Ron wasnít surprised to see Sirius shoot another look at him. Sirius looked a little bit irritated.

"Iíll go wherever Arthur needs me," was Siriusís abrupt reply. "Weíve got to relocate all those prisoners. Now. And then weíve got to sort the guilty ones from the innocent."

Hermione was frowning now. "But I thought that the Aurors and the Hit Wizards and the rest of you had only brought in escaped prisoners and Death Eaters - how can any of them be innocent?"

"Itís precisely the same as what happened last time," Sirius said, his eyes dark.

"Theyíre not all saying they were under the Imperius Curse?" Ron asked, incredulous. In their conversation with Sirius at yesterdayís lunch, he had told them only that the Dementors were trying to escape Azkaban, and then heíd moved away from the subject very quickly. It hadnít even crossed Ronís mind that the guilt of the Death Eaters might be a real issue. "They canít possibly think theyíre going to get away with that again!"

Sirius shook his head firmly. "The problem is, Ron, that last time there were a handful of people telling the truth - about that, and about other things. I should know," he said lightly, and smiled. But Ron noticed that it wasnít a real smile at all. It only existed on the surface.

"In any case," Sirius went on, "we have to establish a place for the current prisoners, and then come up with a way to confine them until we can try them properly. Then weíre going to have to collect evidence, investigate claims, test the wands, hold the hearings, all of it. One by one. Itís going to be..." Sirius trailed off and looked at Remus. "Difficult. To say the least."

Ron raised his eyebrows dubiously. It sounded worse than difficult - it sounded impossible. He remembered the years in his childhood, during which his father had been trying to help sort the innocent from the guilty after Voldemortís first go-around. It had been something of a nightmare. No one had been able to determine what was actually true, and Ron had a few doubts as to whether Sirius would really be able to do the things he was talking about doing. But he wasnít about to voice those doubts.

"Good luck, Sirius," Ginny said. But there was audible doubt in her voice, too.

The dining table went quiet for a moment after that. Just as the quiet became a bit uncomfortable, there was another sudden rush of air and feathers past Ronís face Ė and another Ė and another Ė

Within minutes, there were a dozen owls all vying for Hermioneís attention - it was all she could do to untie the letters from their legs before they covered the table entirely with their feathers.

"Hogwarts timing."

Harry had appeared in the door, and Ron turned to look at him. He was dressed, but badly, as if he hadnít cared at all what heíd been pulling on, and he pointed at the owls vaguely, a strained smile on his face. It was exactly like the smile that Sirius had given earlier. Beneath it, Harry looked distant, and disinterested.

Ginny nodded at Harry. Ron watched her. Sheíd treated Harry this week as if he looked perfectly normal, and she always spoke to him as if he were listening, even when he clearly wasnít.

"Well, these are the Hogwarts owls, Harry," she said.

"Are they?" Harry asked absently. He took a seat and stared at the birds, which were positively fighting to get to Hermioneís hands. She thrust one at Ron.

"Help me, would you, please?"

"Theyíre our old school owls, yes," Ginny continued, taking one of the owls along with Ron, and giving Hermione assistance. "A lot of the Ministry and London post owls were injured or killed, you know, in that Diagon Alley blast. Right before the Death Eaters broke open Gringotts." She paused to caress the wing of the owl she was holding. "Poor things. So last week, Professor McGonagall had me send a lot of the school owls up to Dad. After all, Hogwarts wonít need them this year."

Harry put his chin in his hand and began to pick at a piece of toast. He didnít eat any of it. "I canít believe Hogwarts is really going to close."

"Just for a year, Harry."

"It was supposed to be your seventh year, though. Arenít you upset? I would be."

Ginny shrugged. "I guess I just donít want to be upset anymore," she said, handing Hermione the note sheíd untied, and picking up another tiny owl. "Hermione, how many letters does this make?"

Another handful of owls had come in while they had been talking. Hermione finished accumulating her replies, sent all the owls off with a wave and counted the slips of parchment in her hand. "Fifteen," she said, sounding disbelieving. "Thatís more than half of the positions I applied for."

"And what do they say?"

Ron reached over and took the letters, reading them out one by one. "Here we are - ĎDear Miss Granger, we are pleased to inform you thatí... well, you got that one. ĎMs. Hermione Granger, thank you for your interest in our firm, please contact the following office to schedule an interview so that we may determine your post with us. You will begin in Septemberí... you got that one, too. Letís see. Yes... yes... yes... yes..." Ron read through the letters. Each one was an acceptance. Hermioneís face grew pinker and more shocked at each one.

"I didnít really get them all, Ron - youíre having me on."

"Iím not. ĎDear Miss Granger, we are so impressed with your work that we can hardly express our excitement in a letterí..."

"You made that up!"

"Read it."

Hermione did so and her eyes grew round. "Well," was all she said, when she had finished reading the glowing report of her abilities. "Well. I suppose this means that I have... options."

Remus laughed. "Not surprising, is it? Youíre a bright young woman, Hermione. Itís wonderful to see that people appreciate it."

Ron watched Hermione flush even redder, and felt the swell of pride toward her again. She was something, she really was. When a tardy owl flew through the window a moment later, he directed it with his hand. "Over here, this is the girl you want," he said, motioning the owl closer.

This owl, however, had a different agenda. It landed squarely in front of Harry, whose eyes widened slightly.

"What?" He looked at the note and frowned. "Itís mine. I donít know why. Everyone whoís ever written me a letter is sitting here." He paused. "Except Hagrid."

Everyone was silent while Harry untied the note and read it. Hermione looked worriedly at Ron, who shook his head. Harryís tone for the past week had been flat and impenetrable. And the comment about Hagrid Ė well, it was just plain morbid.

Ginny allowed the owl to sip at her juice for a moment, seeming none too upset by Harryís tone. "What does it say?" she asked momentarily, when the owl had flown again.

Harry finished the letter, laughed harshly, looked up, and caught Ronís eyes instead. "See for yourself."

Ron reached out and took the parchment. He and Hermione scanned it together. It was an invitation from the Aurors, for Harry to come and train with them. Ron read it aloud for the benefit of everyone else, and then caught eyes with Harry again, whose face was gravely set. He didnít move.

"Wow, Harry, thatís..." But because of the furious look in his best friendís eyes, he didnít know what to say. "I mean, obviously itís an honor, but, well," he stumbled, coming to a halt.

"Goodness, doesnít it seem a bit, well, soon for this kind of thing?" Hermione said hesitantly. "Unless of course you want to take it, Harry?"

"An honor?" Harryís voice was sharp. "Do I want to take it?" He looked from one to the other of them as if they were mad. "What do you think? Do I want to go up to London and help Mad-Eye with the Death Eaters? Use a lot of curses? Practice constant vigilance?" He laughed bitterly. Ron felt cold at the sound of it. Harry was so walled-off lately that it was almost impossible to tell where he was coming from.

Ginny put a hand out toward him, but Harry leaned back to avoid contact with it. "I think I can pretty safely say," he said, crumpling the letter and tossing it into the center of the table, "that Iíll never do anything like that again as long as I live."

More silence followed this avowal, and the quiet frustrated Ron. It seemed that every other moment since the end of the war had been wordless and strained, and he was tired of the tension. He watched Harry fix his eyes on his plate again and continue the systematic destruction of his toast, and Ron felt at once sympathetic that his friend was so obviously destroyed, and irritated that Harry could so callously reject an offer that most people would have been in raptures over. But then, that was nothing new; Harry had always done that. Ron looked to Hermione, hoping that she might offer some comment to break the uneasy stillness. But Hermione was watching Harry with anxious eyes, and she didn't seem to have any more idea what to say than Ron did.

It was Ginny who ended the quiet. She raised her wand and flicked it toward the side table to turn on the wireless, then sat back and returned her attention to her juice and toast. After a bit of static from the wireless, a female voice began to drone in an affected tone of businesslike concern.

"It's set to the WWN news," Remus commented, raising his wand. "But I'm sure you'd all prefer music?"

"Wait!" Ron held up his hand. He had heard the newscaster say his father's name. Everyone in the room stayed still and listened, as the news report continued.

"... that Arthur Weasley, unofficial and apparently incompetent Minister of Magic -"

"How dare they!" Ginny cried, pushing her chair back from the table. Ron waved a hand at her to make her quiet; he wanted to hear the rest of it.

"- claimed yesterday to have the Dementor problem well in hand. Be advised that this is not the case. Last night, retired Auror Ida Dunnes of Lewis Island, was forced to drive a Dementor from a highly populated residential area in Stornaway."

Sirius was on his feet. He stalked to the side table, his wand out before him, as though sending a Patronus at the wireless might become a need at any moment.

"Tragically, Dunnes received news of the Dementor's presence only moments too late."

Ron watched as Sirius gripped the side table with both hands. "Damn it, Arthur," he muttered, "why didn't you just tell me you needed help." He had gone sheet white, and Ron saw that Remus had now pushed his chair back too, and was watching Sirius carefully.

"Dunnes arrived at the residence of John and Kitty Douglas in time to save the couple's only child, Ewan, upon whom the Dementor was descending. Though Dunnes was able to drive it back, it was too late for the child's mother. Kitty Douglas had already been Kissed and is now beyond rescue; she has been committed to the Post-Dementor Soul Termination ward at St. Mungo's. Six-year-old Ewan has lost his mother and will be raised by his father, a Muggle, who has every intention to quit wizarding society and take his son with him."

Everyone in the room looked at Harry together.

"He has also announced his intention of spreading the word on Dementors to the general populace. At this point, Memory Charms have been employed -"

The newscast cut off abruptly. Harry had shot to his feet, his wand out. His hand trembled and he shook his head slowly from side to side, opening his mouth as if to say something, though nothing came out.

And then he was gone from the kitchen. A moment later, through the front window, Ron could see Harry striding past the house and down the road, his Firebolt in his hand. Ron sighed heavily and looked at Remus.

"This is going to take time, right?"

Remus nodded, though his gaze was still trained on Sirius, who continued staring at the wireless as if in shock. "Just let him burn it off, Ron" he advised absently. "He does need time. Let him go."

Ron was willing to submit to Remus's advice, simply because he didn't know best what to do for Harry, anymore. Ginny, however, did not seem to want to heed it. She had already gotten up quietly and carried her dishes to the sink, and now she was doing her best to slip out of the kitchen without anyone noticing.

Ron stopped her. "Ginny, I donít think -"

"Iím not going to talk to him," she interrupted, resolute. "Iím not going to say anything. But I am going."

And then she was gone as well, out of the house and past the window; where they could all see her walking determinedly after Harry, her ponytail swinging.

"I'm going, too," Sirius said briefly, raking a hand back through his hair. "I'll be back when I can."

"Padfoot -" Remus began, but stopped short at the sound of a soft 'pop'. Sirius had Disapparated.

The three of them left in the room exchanged worried stares. It didn't help Ron to know that Hermione and Remus were clearly at as much a loss for what to do as he was. He was worried for Harry, and sick to his stomach at the idea that his father was being blamed for what had happened to that woman.

"Guess Dad's worse off than we thought," he ventured, and then felt a rush of anger. "Incompetent," he muttered to himself. "Load of rubbish."

"Of course it is," Hermione said at once. "It isn't your dad's fault, what happened to that poor woman. They're just blaming him because he's the one in office."

"It will pass," Remus agreed. "And most people will know it's not the truth. We're all trying to help him however we can."

Ron looked up at Remus. "Are you going up to the Ministry with Sirius, then?"

He saw Remus tense, slightly, and felt Hermione's hand touch his leg under the table.

"There's a law," she reminded him, quietly.

Ron fidgeted. Of course there was a law, he knew that - it prevented classified 'beasts' from being employed at the Ministry of Magic. He shrugged awkwardly, and was about to attempt an apology to Remus when he was interrupted by a loud and very familiar voice from the front room.

"RON? GINNY? ANYBODY AT HOME?"

It was his father, sounding urgent. Forgetting his apology for the moment, Ron raced toward the front room with Hermione close behind him. They skidded to a halt in front of the fireplace.

"Ron." Arthur nodded at him, his face weary. "Hermione. Where's Ginny?"

"She's gone out already - but Dad," Ron burst, unthinkingly, "what in hell were they talking about? What's happening with the Dementors?"

"We were listening to the WWN," Hermione said calmly, stepping up beside him. "Are you all right, Mr. Weasley?"

Arthur sighed angrily. "I meant to get to you before that newscast did, but I got sidetracked by reporters. Again."

"They're saying it's your fault - what's that about?" Ron demanded.

"It is, in a manner of speaking," Arthur replied evenly.

"It isn't." Remus had entered the room. "Don't take that on yourself. Sirius just Disapparated - you can expect him in your office in a few seconds. I imagine he's smashing through security right about now."

Arthur laughed, a little. "Well, I can definitely use him." He turned his eyes on Ron. "I'd better go. I just wanted to let you know not to worry about this. There's going to be a lot of me in the news, and it's not going to be good, and you'll just have to get used to it. I don't want it interfering with your summer."

"But Dad -" Ron began to protest, feeling that he really ought to be of help in some way.

"Get outside, go on," Arthur urged. "I'll be happier if I know you're getting a rest. And look out for your sister."

Ron nodded and, out of the corner of his eye, saw his old professor square himself slightly.

"Is there anything I can do for you, Arthur?" Remus asked quietly.

"Nothing, yet. But Remus, as soon as we've got Azkaban figured out, my next priority is getting rid of a few ridiculous restrictions around here. All right?"

Remus nodded. "I understand. And anything that I can do from here -"

"I'll let you know." Arthur caught Ron's eyes, smiled, and his head disappeared from the fire.

Ron stood still for a moment, staring at the fireplace, trying to absorb the events of the morning. He glanced at Hermione to gauge her reaction. She was looking very seriously into the fire, her shoulders hunched with worry - and though he was feeling pretty serious himself, Ron felt a sudden need to lighten her mood. Regardless of what was going on, it was summer, and they were together. There had been enough pressure this morning. If his father wanted them to get outside and enjoy themselves for a day...well then, he wasn't going to argue.

He reached out and took Hermione's hand, pulling her a bit closer to him, to break her concentration. "Let's get outside then, shall we?" he asked quietly.

She started and looked up at him, then smiled. "Yes, all right."

"What d'you want to do?"

"Well..." Hermione ducked her head. "Actually, I'd hoped to study up for the Apparition Examinations. Theyíre next week, and we have to be ready."

"Oh, come on - thatís nothing, is it?" Ron asked carelessly. "We can just look over the manual in a few days."

"Youíd better study. I donít want you getting splinched, or -"

"Hermione, Iím not going to get splinched!"

She shrugged. "Iím just saying youíd do better to study, thatís all."

Ron pulled her a bit closer, determined to steer her mind away from tests, or any other serious issue. He leaned his forehead to hers and spoke softly. "It's the first day of summer. Donít you dare say you want to study for that exam, or Iíll Full Body-Bind you," he threatened suggestively. "And then what would you do?"

She blushed a little. "Ron, erm..."

Ron followed Hermioneís eyes over toward Remus, who was still standing quietly in the room, watching them. Ron had quite forgotten that he was there. Now, however, Remus walked past them, clearly fighting not to smile, and shook his head. Ron watched him go.

"You're terrible," Hermione whispered up at him, pulling away slightly and pushing her curls back from her face.

Ron didnít really care. He let go of her hand and threw his arm around her. "What do you want to do?" he asked her again, squeezing her shoulder. "Go through your job letters? Go down to the village and see what there is to do around here?"

"No. I really sort of did plan to..."

"Study?" He sighed. "Youíve got to be kidding me - look at the sky outside!"

She didnít look outside, though - she was still regarding him, chewing on her lip. "Well... what if we studied outside? We could pass the exams and get some sun. Didnít Remus say at dinner last night that thereís a bit of lake around here, down that forest path in the back?"

Ron stared at her. Did she mean what he hoped she meant? "So you want to... go and... study... down by the lake?" he ventured, not daring to elaborate further.

"Well, we could bring a blanket to lie on while we... study. And then we could always swim if we got sick of studying Ė couldnít we?"

She wasnít looking at him now. She had fixed her eyes on her fingernails, which must suddenly have grown exceptionally interesting. Ron could hardly believe his luck.

"Yeah," he answered, trying to keep his voice even. "Yeah, we could - do that. All right, then you, er - go get the book and your towel, and, you know, whatever else you need -"

"Mostly I think Iíll need a swimsuit."

"Ah." Ron felt his ears go pink. "Right. And Iíll go up and - well, just - Iíll meet you back down here in five minutes, shall I?"

Hermione turned to him and kissed him before he could think about it. "Five minutes, then," she said, a bit breathlessly, before she raced off down the hall and up the stairs, with Ron following close behind, still in semi-shock. For once, he thought, studying for an exam might actually be seriously enjoyable.

~*~

Ginny sat cross-legged on the grass at the end of the road, picking at the worn knee of her jeans. Hermione had given them to her last summer; they were now her favorite trousers and she planned to wear them out. She didnít care if they were all supposed to wear robes and hats, and be grown-ups about it now that Hogwarts was over with. She wanted to wear Muggle things. It was summer, after all, and sleeveless tops were much more comfortable than heavy long-sleeved robes Ė that was, at least, when the sun was bothering to shine.

It was shining hotly enough today. Ginny squinted up against it and saw a small shadow flying back and forth in the sunís glare. Harry, on his Firebolt. She knew he still loved that Firebolt. And, like Remus had said, Harry was out here now using the Firebolt to burn it off - he was burning off the tension of seven years spent waiting to be killed, burning off the guilt he felt over the people who had lost their lives, when he hadn't.

It would definitely take time.

Time was all right, though, Ginny reflected, stretching out on her back and shutting her eyes. She had time. Plenty of it. A whole year stretched ahead of her, unplanned and unknown. There wouldnít be a final year at Hogwarts, for her. Thanks to the destruction caused on the last day of war, that seventh year, which should have been her finest, had been stolen. But she hadnít been lying to Harry earlier; she really didnít feel horrible about it. It was only school, after all. She had lost worse. She had lost a brother, in the war.

Percy was never coming back. It was still extremely difficult to believe, and Ginny didnít know if it would ever really hit her. She repeated it to herself, sometimes - Percyís dead. Percyís dead. She waited for it to make her cry, or break her down. But it had never hit her all the way through - not even at the memorial service, which had been so beautiful and sad. Sheíd cried there, but only very briefly. She couldnít get rid of the strange, stupid belief that Percy was just on holiday, that he would be home at Christmas, that there were still seven of them. She wondered how Penelope was doing. Penelope, she was quite sure, had felt the hit right away. She had looked a wreck at the memorial service. She opened her eyes quickly, blinking against the sun, and counted herself lucky that Harry was alive.

Ginny had used to wonder what she would do if something ever happened to Harry, during the course of all the fighting. Sheíd sat in her dormitory in Gryffindor on a hundred nights, calmly telling herself that, although everything was being done to prevent his death, of course, the truth was that Harry was in terrible danger - worse than anyone elseís. And then, at the idea of a world without any Harry in it, Ginny had used to break down crying into her pillow. Just at the idea.

Hermione's request, in April, had come as a relief. A surprise, and a relief. Ginny had so wanted to do something for Harry, and Expecto Sacrificum had finally given her that opportunity.

"I need to ask you something. It's about Harry."

Ginny remembered how she had sat up instantly, defensively, expecting to be questioned about her private feelings. But that hadn't been Hermione's objective at all.

"I don't even know how to ask you this. There's a spell. Well, there isn't one yet, but we're going to build it, in Harry. I've been doing research, and in terms of Arithmancy... well, you know the way that spells have their elements. I'm basing this one on the Patronus, and as far as I can tell, for it to really work, we're going to need four corners. Four elements. Am I making any sense?"

Ginny had shaken her head. For once, Hermione hadn't been making much sense at all, but it hadn't mattered. Whatever it was, Ginny had known it was necessary - she'd leaned forward intently.

"Go on."

"It's a... sacrifice spell. Everyone involved will provide the elements of the sacrifice - like Ron and me. We're giving Harry the first corner; that's friendship. The second corner comes from a mentor - it probably would have been Dumbledore if he were alive, but Professor Lupin is going to do it. And then we needed a guardian - that's Sirius, of course."

Hermione had hesitated, then, and Ginny had held her breath, waiting.

"And the fourth element is true love. But Ginny, think about this before you answer - I want you to know what you're agreeing to -"

"Yes. I'll do that."

There had been no pause, no question in her mind. Hermione seemed to have expected this; she had taken Ginny's hand and looked at her gravely.

"You might be giving your life."

"That doesn't matter." She paused. "Does Harry know you're asking me to do this?"

"Yes he does."

"And he said that I could...?"

"Ginny." Hermione had pressed her hand gently. "Who else could it possibly be?"

Ginny looked back into the sky now, and watched Harry take a steep, reckless dive that might have thrown a professional flier off his broom. But Harry merely pulled out of it at the last second, climbed into the sky again in spirals, and dove once more. He didn't even know that she was sitting there watching him.

Yes. Who else could it possibly have been? They'd come to her to complete that spell because her love had never been a hidden thing. Ginny gave a resentful little laugh. It might as well have been hidden. Harry was about as vocal now as he'd been all those times that he'd stayed with them at the Burrow. He talked to her, he was always polite and considerate Ė or at least, he had been back then. But he refused to open up to her - refused to give her any indication that he knew and accepted how she felt. She'd hoped that his allowing her to participate in the spell had meant something. He'd known what she was there for.

Ginny rolled over on her stomach and stared at the grass. She didnít want to look at Harry, for the moment. Perhaps it had only been a week since the end of the war, and perhaps she should keep being patient. But she couldn't help questioning why it was that she still followed wherever he went, and she couldn't help despising herself a little bit for it. Perhaps she should have gone home to the Burrow to be with her mother. It was useless trying to hash through anything with Harry right now. But she knew, somehow, that he was aware of her presence. He needed her company - he wanted her there - she didnít know how she knew it, but she did. It was as clear to her as anything he could have said out loud. If it hadnít been clear, she wouldnít have followed him. It was terribly painful to watch him going through all this.

But if he needed her, she wouldnít go anywhere. That was certain.

It was three hours at least before Harry landed and walked toward her. He didnít seem to notice how long it had been, and frankly, Ginny didnít mind three hours of sun after the last year of war - all the hiding and secrecy and fear had driven everyone indoors and she had missed the light and air. Although, she thought, looking at her uncovered arms, they might have freckled terribly by now. She was too fair for three unprotected hours of midsummer sunshine.

She looked up from her arms as a shadow fell over the place where she sat. Harry was standing there, sweating, exhausted, his hair everywhere, gripping his broom. He didnít say anything.

"I think itís probably lunch time," Ginny murmured, not wanting to make him talk if he didnít want to.

Harry nodded.

"Well," she went on, "I think I might walk back up the road, then - we can eat lunch at Remusís, or go into the village to see what there is. Any preference?"

Harry shrugged.

Ginny tried to smile at him. "Letís just go back then, and see what happens."

Harry nodded again. Ginny pushed herself off the ground and stood next to him, wondering how long Harry would be able to go without saying a single word. If his present mood was any indicator, it would probably be a good, long time before he spoke. He wanted to speak in gestures? That was fine. Ginny didnít mind walking with Harry in silence.

They were halfway up the road, when Ginny realized, out of the corner of her eye, that he was looking at her. She glanced at him, but said nothing. For awhile longer, they walked in silence, and then, to her surprise, Harry broke it.

"Your arms are burnt."

Ginny shivered, in the June heat. Why did everything he said make such a difference to her? Sheíd never understand it.

"Yes, Iím sure theyíre burnt. My nose, too, probably, and Iíll bet all my freckles have come out."

"Your nose is fine."

Ginny couldnít help but be pleased at that. "Still, I should get a hat," she said. "Weíre going to be outside in the sun a lot, I hope, this summer."

"I have a hat you can wear. Iíll bring it down at lunch."

Her stomach tightened. "Thanks."

They walked back to Lupin Lodge, and Harry went off upstairs to shower, leaving Ginny to sit in the living room and wait. She did so willingly, as usual, feeling the bridge of her nose carefully to see if it really was burned or not. She was touched that Harry wanted to give her his hat, but, she reminded herself, she had to try not to let it mean too much to her. She crossed her legs on the sofa and picked at the knees of her jeans again, pulling out the little, frayed, white threads almost meditatively as she listened to the shower run, upstairs.

She would never understand how she could love Harry as much as she did, with as little as she had to go on.

***

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