The Sugar Quill
Author: Arabella and Zsenya (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: After the End  Chapter: Chapter Four: Meet the Press
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

A/N: Thank you to Hallie, who has generously consented to beta-read our story for breaches of “Britishism”

A/N: Thank you to Hallie, who has generously consented to beta-read our story for breaches of "Britishism". She never lets us say ‘vacation’ when what we really mean is ‘holiday’.

 

Chapter Four

Meet the Press

 

Harry shielded his eyes from the blinding sun and looked over Hermione’s shoulder at the book that she was reading. The first week of summer had passed peacefully, and the peace was very strange. Harry was doing his best to enjoy it, but the quiet was difficult for him. He was used to action – to chaos and quick thinking and high risk. Now that there was little more to do than study and enjoy the sunlight, it left far too much time for dwelling on the past. Without the urgency of war to occupy him, Harry felt something dark and buried beginning to surface at the back of his brain. And whatever it was, it was too painful to acknowledge.

He wasn't really sure what he had expected out of the summer. He hadn't had time to think or dream about it at all in the last days of the war, and now that it had arrived, he knew he ought to be content. Lupin Lodge was cozy and comfortable, and his friends had decided to stay together this summer. And they were all alive, Harry reflected, still stunned by that fact. He knew he ought to be nothing but grateful, just for that.

Still, he couldn’t help a nagging feeling of resentment on one score. For four years, Harry had wished for the freedom to live with his godfather – they’d both been looking forward to it – and now Sirius was hardly around. The Dementor problems at Azkaban had been keeping Sirius away until late in the evenings, and even when he did come home, Harry could see stress and fatigue in his godfather's face. In light of the grave issues that Sirius worked with each day, Harry felt foolish telling Sirius about his own days spent practicing moves on the Firebolt. And yet, he didn't really want to hear what was going on with the Dementors. A part of him knew that he should care, but that wooden, stifled feeling would take over, and he'd tell himself that he really wasn't interested. It left very little room for conversation.

As a result, he was more than willing to study for the Apparition test. At least it was something else to focus on, and though he’d already studied for it far more than was necessary, he had still said yes this morning when Hermione had asked him if he’d wanted to join her outside to go over the manual. Now it was mid-afternoon, and he and Ron had been sitting in the front garden of Lupin Lodge for well over two hours, listening to Hermione read aloud from I’ll Be Right There: Apparition Theory and Practice. The drowsy warmth of the day reminded Harry a little of their Divination classroom, and the sight of Ron, who appeared to be falling asleep, made this comparison even stronger. Ron’s body was stretched out along the blanket and his head lolled gently to one side.

"So," Hermione summed up loudly, "according to the manual, when it comes to distance, concentration is the most important thing and knowing your exact arrival point is crucial." She gave her book a studious little tap with her wand. "It sounds simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The test is going to start out at the Department of Apparition Licensing, with the written portion. If we pass that, they’ll have us Apparate to a point here in England. Then, when we’ve proven we can manage it, we’ll be asked to cross a body of water. And they won’t be giving us a hint beforehand as to where we’ll be asked to go, so we’re really being tested on our knowledge of geography as well."

Instead of looking daunted at the idea of a double exam, Hermione gave Harry a smile. "That should be fun," she said. "We might get to go anywhere – even if it is only for a few minutes. It could be any city that has a D.A.L.: in America, or Australia, or Austria, or Belgium –"

"Are you going to list all the countries for us by alphabet?" Ron interrupted, not opening his eyes. "I hope you are. Because I’d much rather study for another two hours than do oh, say, anything else."

Hermione stopped listing countries, but she shot a look at Ron. "I thought you were asleep."

"Hard to sleep, isn’t it, with you being so fascinating. Tell her, Harry."

But Harry wasn’t about to say anything. He watched Hermione roll her eyes at Ron, watched Ron roll over on his stomach and lay his head unconcernedly on his arms, and only felt sorry that he wasn’t able to laugh at them. It should have been funny. But nothing had struck him as all that funny, this week, and Harry was starting to get angry with himself for his indifference. These were his friends. This was supposed to be a good summer, and all the trouble was supposed to be over. Harry knew that Voldemort’s recent defeat should have left him feeling triumphant. Elated. But instead, it had left him feeling unsettled and vaguely numb, and Harry had no idea how to shake off his strange listlessness.

He didn’t want to think about it. He wouldn’t think about it. He took the book from which Hermione had been reading, opened it randomly, and began to turn the pages without not really looking at them.

Hermione turned to him attentively at once. "Do you need to clarify something, Harry? Can I help you with anything specific?"

Ron snickered loudly, causing Hermione’s eyes to narrow. Harry looked from one to the other of them, wondering whether it was his imagination, or if their bickering today was slightly sharper than it had been in awhile. Ron and Hermione had never stopped fighting each other, but in the last two years or so, their arguments had taken on an obviously affectionate undercurrent. That undercurrent seemed to be missing today.

Hermione chose not to respond to Ron, and merely looked expectantly at Harry. "Question?" she asked briskly.

Harry shrugged and shook his head automatically. He’d been avoiding giving answers to anything lately, if he could help it. But, at the sight of the slightly disappointed look on Hermione’s face, Harry sighed, searched the page he was on, and made an effort to come up with something for her to think about.

"I don’t see how we can leave England while we’re testing," he said, after a moment. "They can’t have us Apparating to other countries without stopping first at the borders. I thought we were barred."

Hermione tilted her head, looking happily thoughtful. "Hmm. We are barred, usually, because it’s impossible to Apparate freely across borders... and after the exam, I’m certain that we’ll always have to stop at wizard customs, if we’re traveling internationally, because if you run into an international border, well then you automatically splinch because there’s no way through. You just smack right up against the shield – it’s been known to cause fatalities. But I think that, during our exam, there are special circumstances. They probably just let the shield down in a targeted area. And then we can just show up in whichever D.A.L. they send us to, the staff at the other end will mark our safe arrival, and we’ll come straight home."

Ron rolled over on his back again, shielded his eyes, and looked at Hermione. "Unless you miss your targeted area and get splinched. In which case, half of you might end up somewhere really interesting, instead of all of you ending up bored stiff in the D.A.L."

Harry frowned a little. He felt quite certain that after everything the three of them had been through, they could manage simple Apparition. "None of us is going to get splinched," he said flatly.

Hermione nodded agreeably. "No, I can’t imagine that we would."

"Unless we try Apparating somewhere off-limits, like Hogwarts." Ron grinned, clearly very satisfied with himself. "Aha. Finally I get that one right."

"Actually no," said Hermione swiftly, "you’re wrong. The enchantments at Hogwarts have mostly been destroyed. They were ruined at graduation – all that Dark magic in one place...." She paused, glanced at Harry, and went on in a lighter voice. "Anyway, Professor McGonagall was telling me right before we were leaving that part of the reason Hogwarts is closed for a year is that it’s going to take that long to set up all of the protective magic again. So if you’d like to Apparate onto the Hogwarts grounds, Ron," she continued loftily, "now’s your chance."

"Our local Apparition expert," Ron muttered. "Can’t wait to see you at the D.A.L. – you know, that’s where you ought to put in another job application. They’d give you a bloody job offer on the spot."

Hermione’s chin came down out of the air and she looked at him. Harry noticed that she was not at all amused, and she wasn’t pretending this time for the sake of provoking Ron. Her expression was honestly hurt.

"Yesterday you said that I don’t need any more bloody job offers," she said quietly. "I thought I was supposed to give it a rest with the letters, and the owls, and the whole business."

Ron sat bolt upright, immediately serious. The sarcasm was wiped from his face. "Hey. Hey. I was joking when I said that."

"It didn’t sound that way."

Ron reached toward Hermione, but after glancing quickly at Harry, he retracted his hand and cleared his throat. Harry looked between them, knowing that he’d missed something. He was, however, keen enough to fill in the blank for himself. In the week that they had been living with Sirius and Remus, Hermione had received another eleven owls, bringing her total to twenty-six replies out of twenty-seven applications. All of them had been letters of glowing praise and acceptance, which had pleased Hermione to no end. Ron, on the other hand, had grown slightly less enthusiastic with every passing owl, and Harry guessed that this was due to fear that Hermione would leave. Most of the positions that Hermione was being offered would require her to Apparate long distances, work long hours, stay away frequently, or even travel out of the country for long stretches of time. And judging from the way that Ron was looking at her now, Harry felt quite sure that his friend didn’t want Hermione going anywhere.

Harry looked away. Ron and Hermione’s relationship didn’t make him uncomfortable – he’d got over the awkwardness of knowing that his two best friends were together romantically– but he had no desire to witness their private moments. The expression on Ron’s face most definitely qualified as private; it was only for Hermione, who was looking back at Ron in much the same way.

To distract himself, Harry allowed his own eyes to wander up the road, settling his gaze on an enormous house – the only one of its size he’d seen in Stagsden. On its grand, third-story deck a heavyset man was preparing to sun himself, obviously enjoying his summer. His blond hair glinted, as did his pale skin, and Harry was reminded of what Dudley looked like in trunks. The idea almost made him crack a smile – partly because of the image, and partly because it was such a relief to be rid of the Dursleys forever. He never had to see his aunt and uncle again, if he didn’t want to, and that fact was amazing to him. The protective magic at number four, Privet Drive, was no longer necessary to Harry now that Voldemort was gone – and though another person might have felt ungrateful for leaving his guardians behind him without a second glance, Harry knew that the Dursleys were perfectly happy to see him go.

Feeling cheered, somewhat, Harry turned his eyes from the man on the deck, and looked back at his friends, thinking that he wouldn’t mind going down to the lake to get some sun, himself. He’d spent the whole week on his Firebolt and thought that swimming might make a nice change of pace – after all, Ron and Hermione always came back from their swims looking happy enough.

Harry smirked, slightly, and leaned back on his elbows, watching them. They weren’t fighting now. Ron had Hermione’s bare feet in his lap and she quizzed him from the practice test at the back of I’ll Be Right There, while he played idly with her toes. Harry thought he might just get up and go to the lake without them while they were distracted. He didn’t mind going down to swim alone – it didn’t matter. He was finished studying. He put his palms down on the blanket to push off from the ground.

"How’s it going, you three?"

A cool shadow fell over Harry. He looked up, felt his face grow hot, and only hoped that he was sun-browned enough by now that it was unnoticeable. Ginny stood there in a bright blue swimsuit and a pair of shorts, with sandals on her feet and her hands on her hips. She wore the cap that he had lent her the week before, and her hair glinted in its ponytail, which was pulled through the gap in the back. On her face there was an expression of mock-horror.

"Don’t tell me you’re still studying?" she demanded, looking around at them. "It’s been hours! You’ll all pass! Doesn’t anyone want to stop and go down to the lake?"

Her swimsuit was modest – Harry knew that – but it didn’t matter. He had never seen anything fit Ginny so well. It was extremely difficult to keep his eyes focused on her face.

"No thanks," he mumbled quickly, fumbling for words. "I think we’ve got – more to read through, first."

The moment that the words were out of his mouth, he kicked himself inwardly. He did want to go down to the lake. It shouldn’t stop him that there were swimsuits involved. But if there was one clear thought that had managed to penetrate the haze around his brain in the past two weeks, it was that Ginny Weasley’s presence made him feel very alert and extremely awkward, and it bothered him enormously.

He’d known about her girlhood crush. It hadn’t been a secret; her brothers had told him about it the first day he’d gone to the Burrow, and Ginny had proved it by being quite clearly taken with him. But as the years had passed at Hogwarts, Ginny’s feelings for him had seemed to turn to friendship. Because of her closeness to Hermione, she had spent more time with the three of them in their latter years at school. She’d stopped blushing every time that Harry walked into the common room, and she’d started chatting to him normally at intervals, and he had assumed it meant that her infatuation with him was gone.

It had been at once a relief to think this... and a disappointment. He couldn’t deny that his stomach felt a bit funny once and again when Ginny smiled. But he hadn’t been about to get close to anyone in the way that Ron was close to Hermione. He remembered with perfect distinctness the look on Cho Chang’s face when Cedric Diggory had been killed, and whether consciously or not, he had decided not to leave anyone looking like that. So, when Ginny had stopped offering him her attention in that way, he hadn’t sought it out again. He’d let it go.

Expecto Sacrificum had come as a terrible shock. When Hermione had told him what the spell would require, Harry had laughed outright. The fourth corner had to be true love? It sounded like something out of one of Lavender Brown’s spellbooks. He remembered his reaction perfectly.

"Well we can’t do it then, can we? There isn’t anybody for that element!"

Hermione had paused, and glanced at Ron. Clearly, there was something that the two of them had already discussed, and Harry remembered a feeling of severe irritation that whatever it was, it must concern him, and yet they hadn’t told him. He’d demanded to know what was happening, and Hermione had finally broken it to him.

"Harry... there is somebody for that element. But I don’t even want to ask her to do this until I know how you feel about it because I... I’m almost positive she’ll say yes."

He’d jumped. There was somebody? He’d stared from Hermione’s carefully calm expression to Ron’s extremely sober face, and felt his throat tightening as his mind offered the only possible answer. There was only one person who had ever felt that way about him that he knew of. But no – it couldn’t really be... because she didn’t still...

Harry had looked to Ron, forcing himself to ask the question very faintly.

"Who?"

Ron’s reply had been equally faint.

"It’s my sister."

Harry had gone still for a moment, and then he’d let out a dry, incredulous laugh. Ginny still liked him. More than that. According to Hermione, she loved him – and Hermione knew it was true, because Ginny had confessed it to her. Harry had felt a bolt of something powerful shoot through his veins, followed closely by a thud of cold dread in his gut. He had to say no – he couldn’t let her do it. It was bad enough that he was allowing Hermione and Ron to do this thing. Bad enough that Sirius and Remus had to be risked for it. How could he possibly let Ginny risk her life for him – especially when he didn’t know what he felt about her? He’d felt incredibly guilty even asking the question.

"And do I... have to... feel the same? For this to work?"

Ron had swallowed hard and looked away. Hermione had sighed, a bit wearily.

"No, Harry," she said quietly. "You don’t have to feel anything."

Still, Harry hadn’t moved to answer. Hermione had sensed his unwillingness to invite Ginny into the spell, and she had slowly coaxed him toward the idea. It was the closest they had come to approaching Voldemort’s defeat, and if the spell could be built, then it had to be. It was for the good of everyone. And Ginny would never forgive herself if she found out that there had been a way to do it, and that they had missed this chance because of her.

So he had said yes. And Ginny had said yes. And the following morning at breakfast he had sought her gaze down the Gryffindor table, and she had turned and faced him without blinking, as if to say that there was no point in hiding her feelings, now that he knew about them again. Something strange and powerful had gone crashing through Harry, looking at her. It was... enormous. It made no sense. Why did she love him? What had he done to deserve it? And what in hell was he supposed to do about it, now that he – and everybody – knew?

These were still his questions, and he struggled with them every time she spoke to him. He knew he ought to say something – anything – to address what she had done. She had risked her life for him, and not just in theory. She had really done it. In the final struggle, moments before Harry had brought down Voldemort with the force of Expecto Sacrificum, Ginny had stepped in the way of a curse to block his back from Lucius Malfoy, and she had very nearly lost her life because of it. She deserved at the very least to have Harry acknowledge what she had risked.

But he couldn’t.

And in the two months since Hermione had asked her to take part in the spell, Ginny had never once spoken of what she had done. She’d never mentioned the way she’d protected him. And though she was often with him, watching him, she didn’t seem to be suffering from any of the same inner turmoil that he felt. Even now, as she stood looking down at him, there was a bit of amusement showing on her face. He struggled to excuse himself from going down for a swim, and Ginny only shrugged at his response.

"All right, then, if you’re all going to be boring." Ginny grinned at him. Harry felt his stomach lurch, a little. "See you at dinner." She turned away and went toward the left of the cottage, and though Harry wished he could think of a way to call her back, he knew he wasn’t going to.

He was relieved when she stopped walking, of her own accord. She had nearly disappeared around the house when something seemed to stop her. She froze, pivoted, and peered down the road as if she heard something approaching. Harry watched as she narrowed her eyes for a moment and then clapped one hand to her mouth in obvious surprise.

"What?" he asked, wary at once, putting his hand to his wand. "What is it?" He turned to the road, and Ron and Hermione’s heads followed, swiveling to stare at whatever it was that Ginny was seeing.

"Isn’t that – yes, it is!" Ginny cried. She ran back to the blanket and pointed down the road excitedly. "It’s Colin!" she exclaimed, her face lighting up.

Harry, Ron and Hermione followed Ginny’s finger, all their necks craning to see what she was talking about. And to Harry’s surprise, she was right – Colin Creevey approached Lupin Lodge, hoisting a large, black bag over his shoulder, waving broadly and grinning at them.

"Hi, Harry!" he hollered out. "Ginny! Ron, Hermione – hi!"

Harry hardly had time to wonder how on earth Ginny had known that someone was coming before she had bolted down the road to embrace her old classmate, whom none of them had seen in over two years.

Colin had been in school with them only through the end of his fourth year. Voldemort's surprise attack on Hogwarts at the very end of Harry's fifth year had ended not only in the death of Albus Dumbledore, but also in the murder of Colin's younger brother, Dennis. Colin's Muggle parents had not allowed him to return to Hogwarts, or even to communicate freely with his school friends – and Colin’s parents were not the only ones. Even Hermione had had to beg and threaten to be allowed to stay in school, and Hogwarts had seemed very empty the following year, for, despite Professor McGonagall's assurances the grounds were more secure than they had ever been, many families had chosen to keep their children with them at home.

There were many students that they’d never seen again, and Harry expected that some of them had accustomed themselves to living in the Muggle world, without their magic. Harry had certainly never expected to see Colin Creevey again, and he got to his feet at once with Ron and Hermione to greet their fellow Gryffindor. All of them stood watching, listening to Colin, who chatted enthusiastically with Ginny as they came close enough to be heard.

"I didn’t know you were living here, too, Ginny – that’s great!"

"All four of us, and it is great, it’s wonderful."

"I’ll bet."

"But where are you living? And are you doing magic again, or are you living as a Muggle? And what are you doing here?" Ginny asked, all her questions coming out in a breathless rush. Harry found he couldn’t help but smile. It had taken him a long time to see the truth in Ron’s avowal that Ginny ‘never shut up’, because Ginny had been so shy with him at first. But in recent years, she’d proven Ron perfectly right. She could talk with the best of them.

"I’m in London right now, I’m doing magic again, and I’m here on an assignment." Colin answered, pegging all her questions in one go, and laughing as he did so.

"An assignment! What for? Oh, Colin, it is good to see you."

Colin walked up to the edge of the blanket, looking much older than Harry remembered him. It had never occurred to him that Colin would grow up along with the rest of them, but it was impossible to ignore the differences in him now. Colin was taller and broader, and his posture was infinitely more relaxed. He was also looking sideways at Ginny with obvious appreciation.

Harry offered his hand at once, forcing Colin to extract his arm from Ginny’s in order to take it.

"Hi, Harry." Even Colin’s voice was different – graver. It didn’t have any of the old hero-worship left in it, and Harry liked it much better that way. Colin shook his hand firmly and smiled. "It’s good to see you."

"You, too." Harry found that he really meant it. It was good to see Colin. So many people had died or disappeared – it was a comfort to put a finger on the ones who were alive and well.

Colin hugged Hermione next, causing Ron to step between them and offer his hand as quickly as he could. Harry held back a snort. It was somehow amusing. He never would have imagined little Colin Creevey causing such a reaction. But when Colin stepped back again to run a hand through his hair and smile at them, Harry realized that the reaction was wholly deserved. Colin really had changed.

"Did you say that you’re in London?" Hermione asked, once Colin had dropped his bag and stretched a little bit.

"Yep. I was just telling Ginny. I moved back into the wizarding world as soon as I heard that Hogwarts was closed, and tried to get a job in Diagon Alley."

"Why’d you wait until Hogwarts closed?" Ron asked.

Colin grinned again. "Well, I never graduated, did I? And I couldn’t do magic outside school. So I had to wait either until I turned seventeen, or until there wasn’t any school left to get me in trouble. Both happened at about the same time."

Hermione laughed. "Did you find a job, then?"

"At the Daily Prophet. Can you believe they hired me?" He smiled proudly. "And without a diploma or anything. But... well, I had to do a number to convince them. Don’t get upset, Harry, but I told them that I know you." He looked a bit sheepish. "They all know how private you like to keep yourself. I think they figured an old schoolmate might stand a better chance of snapping your photograph."

Harry took an instinctive step away from Colin, his smile fading rapidly. "You’re here to take my photograph?" he asked, his voice going hard at once. He looked down at Colin’s black bag, realizing it must hold a camera. "Why? What is it?"

"Why?" Colin laughed. "Surely you’ve heard by now that you’re famous, Harry. Come on, I know you must be sick of it, but it’s the end of the war and everyone wants to hear about what you’re doing, now that you’ve saved the world."

Harry flinched; Colin’s light tone put him even more on edge, especially since Colin was now leaning down to open up his camera-bag. Colin's last comment bothered him. He supposed he should be used to it, but he felt slightly annoyed. After all, he hadn't saved the world all by himself; it had been all of them. Harry looked quickly to Ron and Hermione for support. Colin's comment seemed to have drifted right past them, but they were watching Harry intently, clearly waiting for him to do what he normally did and refuse, point-blank, to submit to an interview.

Harry was about to do just that when he was distracted by a ‘pop’ at the edge of the garden and the arrival of a young witch in dark pink robes. She carried a roll of parchment and a quill, glanced across the garden a bit nervously and smiled at Colin, smoothing her blond curls carefully into place. She was obviously the reporter.

She also happened to be stunning. Her robes set off the flush in her cheeks and her face and figure were like something out of a Gladrags advertisement. Harry couldn’t help staring at her for a moment and Ron gaped as well, his eyebrows up and his jaw dropping slightly even though Hermione was standing right beside him.

Hermione didn’t seem to notice that Ron was engrossed – she peered at the witch for a moment herself until a look of sudden recognition crossed her face. She then turned to Ron quickly, catching his expression, but to Harry’s surprise, this didn’t seem to bother her in the least. In fact, Hermione gave a positively wicked smile.

She crossed the lawn, reached her arms out to the lovely young reporter and embraced her. Harry couldn’t understand why, until Hermione began to speak, quite clearly enough for everyone to hear her. "Eloise! Eloise Midgen, it’s been a whole year, how wonderful to see you!"

Now Ron’s mouth fell open entirely. Hermione turned and came back toward him, bringing Eloise along with her. Eloise’s smile was still tentative, but Hermione grinned at Ron as though Christmas had come early. "Ron, you remember Eloise, I’m sure. Do say hello."

Ron nodded stupidly, stuck out his hand and managed, "Well. Hi there."

"Hi," she replied shyly, looking over at Colin again, who nodded at her in an encouraging manner. "Hi, Ron. And, Harry?" She put out her hand to him and Harry shook it.

"Hi, Eloise," he said, suppressing a laugh at Ron, who was still open-mouthed in shock. Beside him, Hermione was in an ecstasy of entertained satisfaction.

"Eloise is working for the Prophet too," Colin explained. "She’ll be asking you a few questions, all right Harry?" Colin deftly hefted his camera into position and stood behind Eloise.

She, however, was still looking hesitant.

"I’m afraid I’m rather new at this, Harry – I’m sure you’d rather talk to somebody else. They only sent me because I was at Hogwarts with you; the editors seem to think it will make a difference if –"

Colin put a hand on her shoulder. "I already told him about that, El. It’s fine. Go on, ask your questions."

"Well, they’re not really my questions. I mean, I didn’t write them."

"That’s all right, they’re still yours."

Eloise sighed anxiously. "I’m not doing very well with this, am I?"

"Yes you are. Go ahead."

Harry had to smile a little at their exchange. They certainly didn’t behave like any of the reporters he’d come across so far and he was surprised to find himself feeling rather generous toward them, considering how much he’d come to hate attention from the press. "I’m not very good at this myself," he admitted, truthfully.

Eloise looked back at him. "Then you don’t mind if I ask questions?"

Colin sighed, smiling at her. "Even if he minds," he said, in a patient undertone, "you have to ask. It’s the assignment."

"It seems so rude."

"Yes, well... you’re a reporter."

Harry laughed slightly at that and decided it couldn’t hurt to let the interview take place. After all, it was only Colin and Eloise, who were obviously harmless.

"Ask away," he said recklessly, ignoring the stares of disbelief that both Ron and Hermione were directing toward him.

Eloise smiled prettily. "Thanks, Harry. All right, then," she said, checking her parchment and poising her quill. "First question –"

"Is that a Quick Quotes Quill?" asked Ginny suddenly. She had stepped up beside Harry and was pointing to the quill, suspicion written across her face.

"Oh, no!" Eloise shook her curls. "It’s just Self-Inking. Is that all right?"

Ginny considered for a moment, then nodded – but did not step back again. She stayed right next to Harry, her arms crossed over her swimsuit, listening intently. Harry glanced sideways at her.

"Right," Eloise continued. "First question. What do you plan to do, now that You-Know-Who has been defeated?"

"Voldemort," Colin corrected.

Eloise gulped. "Yes – sorry. I’m not used to that. All right – what do you plan to do, now that Voldemort has been defeated? Any job offers, Harry? Career ideas?"

Harry thought, uncomfortably, of the job offer that he had received from the Aurors. If he lied to Eloise about that, Moody would read the paper and know it. On the other hand, if he told the truth, Eloise would surely want to know exactly why Harry had turned down such a significant offer, and Harry didn’t think he could bear to get into it. Normally he would have shut the interview down right then, but knowing Colin and Eloise from their time together at Hogwarts made that difficult. He hated to be outwardly rude to them; he felt a slight panic begin to rise up, as he always did with reporters, and began to gesture awkwardly.

"Well – I don’t –"

He stopped. Ginny had touched him lightly on his side with her fingertips – a quick shock bolted through his center.

"You haven’t made any decisions about your future," she guided, quietly.

Harry blinked. That was a good answer. "That’s true," he said, turning back to Eloise. "I haven’t made any definite plans yet. It’s all up in the air."

Colin grinned. "Well, Harry. You’ve got yourself a press representative," he said, snapping a picture of Harry and Ginny, side by side. Ginny winced visibly and Harry felt queasy, wishing he’d never agreed to this in the first place.

"Up... in the... air..." Eloise muttered, writing furiously. "Oh! Speaking of up in the air, Harry, are you planning to try playing Seeker again?"

Harry started slightly. "What – you mean, professionally?"

Colin clapped Eloise lightly on the back. "Good one," he praised. She flushed a little, which made her even prettier, but Harry hardly noticed. She had just filled his head with visions of professional Quidditch – something he had hardly dared to dream about in the past few years. It had seemed so unlikely, so far away, that he would get to try out for a British team.

"Play Seeker," he repeated, realizing as he spoke that he liked the idea. "Actually, I’d hardly thought about it," he said, honestly.

"But you will, now?" Eloise urged.

Harry shrugged. It wasn’t entirely out of the question. Hadn’t everyone told him that he was even better than Charlie? And Charlie was supposed to have been good enough to play for England. "Maybe," he offered, noncommittally. "I don’t know."

"Well, there hasn’t been a lot of time for you to think about your career, I imagine," said Eloise fairly, poising her quill again and checking her pad. "Which leads me to question two, actually. Did you always believe that you had a future to plan for, or are you surprised to have survived at all?"

Harry felt his stomach go ice-cold at the question. Beside him, Ginny drew in a sharp breath of protest.

"Next question," she said, her voice low and even.

"Oh, come on, Ginny, that’s not so unreasonable – none of us knew if we were going to survive –" Colin began, but Ginny cut him off with a wave of her hand.

"Actually, Eloise, let me see your scroll and quill a minute. I can save you time."

Startled, Eloise held them out to Ginny, who took them and scanned down the list. She made a small sound of impatient anger, and began to cross out questions one after another. Harry watched over her shoulder as she eliminated, "Do you feel your parents are still with you in spirit?" "What is your most difficult memory of the war?" and "Do you think that you will ever recover from your long battle with the Dark side?" Her hand trembled as she put a violent slash through "Your close friends have also suffered terrible losses. How have these affected you?" She glanced up briefly at Harry. He noticed that she hesitated for a split second before looking down again and drawing a line through, "Whom, if anyone, are you currently dating?"

Ginny looked over the roll of parchment once more and then, seemingly satisfied, handed the scroll and quill back again.

Eloise’s face fell, when she saw it. "You’ve left me just two questions!" she objected. But Ginny was adamant – she stood staunchly next to Harry and shook her head. There was nothing for Eloise to do but sigh. "Well... all right. Question five –"

"Three," Colin pointed out quietly.

"No, no, it would have been five. I’m not allowed to ask three and four," Eloise whispered over her shoulder. She passed a hand over her hair and Harry couldn’t help but notice that Colin watched her with both amusement and attraction.

"Fine," he agreed. "Five."

Eloise smiled at him and turned back to Harry. "Question five. Are you enjoying living with Sirius Black?"

Harry glanced sideways at Ginny again, and felt a rush of gratitude towards her and a pang of guilt towards Sirius. Even if the Ministry’s struggle with the Dementors had made it impossible for him to spend much time with Sirius this week, Harry still appreciated that his godfather’s name was clear, and that he was able to live with him at all. He realized suddenly that the whole situation was probably just as new and foreign to Sirius as it was to himself. He also realized that this was a question that he could actually answer.

"Yeah," he responded at once, "I am. I’ve actually been wanting to live with him for a long time," he added openly, feeling the beginnings of a smile. "Sirius is great."

Colin snapped a photograph while the smile still lingered on Harry’s face, and Eloise scribbled furiously.

"That’s fine," she said, when she’d finished. "And question eight. Where do you see yourself, in ten years’ time?"

Eloise looked up expectantly. Harry frowned a little. It was an innocent enough question, but he was the last person who would know how to answer it, because the truth was that Eloise's question had hit the mark. Harry had never considered his life beyond Hogwarts. It had always seemed more than likely that he would die – every time he'd turned around for the past several years, there had seemed to be some threat or other in that direction. It had been pointless to assume a future, and painful to dwell on things that he couldn't realistically imagine coming true. But now that it was over... He was utterly at a loss. Ten years seemed a vast stretch of time.

Harry found himself looking to Ginny, perhaps because she had been able to help him with the interview so far, in the hopes that she would have some idea of what to say. But she wasn’t offering answers now; she merely looked back at him, open curiosity written on her face, waiting for his reply. Not a word passed between them, but Harry thought he knew why she hadn’t eliminated this question. She wanted to know if she would show up anywhere in the answer.

"I don't know," he finally said slowly, turning away from Ginny so that he wouldn’t have to see her, and facing the camera once more. "I know that's not the answer you're looking for..." he continued, when Eloise's face registered some disappointment.

"Well maybe he doesn't know," Ron said suddenly, calling the attention of the reporters to himself, "but I’ve got a few ideas what he might be doing in ten years," Apparently, Ron had sufficiently recovered from goggling at Eloise – over her shoulder, he gave Harry a barely perceptible wink.

Eloise turned to Ron gratefully. "Really? And you’re his best friend, isn’t that right?" she said, scribbling something.

"One of them," Ron said, clapping an arm around Hermione. Colin’s camera snapped in their direction and clicked twice, sending up a small cloud of purple. "Are you ready to take this down?"

Eloise nodded eagerly. "Please."

"He’s going to be sitting around wasting time, living off the proceeds of his biography – which Hermione’ll write – letting his kids play with his Quidditch World Cup trophy and crying in his butterbeer over the fact that nobody’s interested in interviewing him anymore." Ron grinned. "Sound about right, Harry?"

Harry felt a real grin pulling at his mouth for the first time in weeks. Sometimes it still stunned him how well his friends knew him. Ron always knew when to intercede with a joke, and Harry was thankful that his friend had let him off the hook in a difficult moment.

Hermione, who was still laughing at Ron’s description of the future, leaned her head on Ron’s shoulder. Colin snapped another picture of the two of them. Meanwhile, Harry glanced at Ginny again. She was looking at her brother, and Harry noted with surprise that her eyes shone as if tears had sprung into them. She turned her head determinedly away from him before he could be sure, however, and Harry blinked, distracted, as the camera flashed in his direction once more.

"Yeah," Harry agreed finally, nodding slowly at Ron and then letting himself smile just slightly into the camera lens. "Yeah... that actually sounds pretty good."

There was another flash from Colin. Eloise scribbled something else, held her parchment out and looked over it, then nodded and rolled it into a scroll.

"Done?" asked Harry in relief.

"Done," Eloise replied. "I can make something of that. I’ll fill it in with things I know from school – and don’t worry, Harry, I won’t make it horrible." She smiled kindly, and Harry believed her.

"Thanks."

"Come on, El," Colin said, fitting his camera into his bag again and swinging it over his shoulder.

"Oh no!" cried Hermione. "Are you really going already? You can’t leave, we haven’t seen you in so long!"

"We’ve hardly had a chance to catch up," Ginny chimed in, putting out her hands as if she’d stop them.

Colin nodded apologetically. "I know. I wish we could stay. I do want to catch up with everything I missed." He laughed, and there was a touch of bitterness in the sound. "Not that that’s possible. But anyway, before we go..." Colin held out a hand to Ginny. "I wanted to tell you that I heard about your brother and I’m so sorry. I... I know that doesn’t help. But I know what it’s like, and I’m sorry it happened to you."

Harry watched as Ginny gripped Colin’s hand for a moment, then let go and bowed her head slightly. "Thank you." She looked up, after a pause. "I still think about Dennis," she offered, her expression full of sympathy.

Colin bowed his head as well, then recovered and reached his hand out to Ron, who grasped it firmly in his own. "Thanks," Ron managed, a bit hoarsely.

"And your parents," Colin said quietly, offering Hermione a hand as well. She took it very briefly, but let go of it at once, then tucked herself against Ron and said nothing. Harry supposed she couldn’t. Since the attack on her parents, she had never been able to talk much about them, and he hardly blamed her for her reserve. He knew better than anyone what it was like to lose both parents in the war against Voldemort, and it killed him to know that it was because she was his friend that her parents had suffered so badly. Harry looked away from her face, not wanting to see her expression crack. It was too painful to think about.

After a long, tense moment, Eloise let out a little sigh. "Oh, I hate to leave. It’s so wonderful to see old friends. I wish we could stay, honestly. But we’ve got to go interview a warlock in Bristol, and..."

Colin nodded. "And we’re going to be late." He shrugged. "Oh well. Most of our assignments aren’t this high profile anyway. But don’t worry," he laughed, and winked at Harry. "I’m sure you’ll do something or other that forces them to let us bother you again. Make sure you do, all right, Harry?" He grinned, then turned to Eloise. "You’re going to Apparate, and I’m going by Floo powder from the village, so if you want to stay here, you’ve got a half-hour before I’ll be there."

"That’s all right, I don’t have to Apparate," Eloise said, pocketing her quill. "I’ll come with you. Bye, Hermione, it’s so good to see you – bye all of you – see you soon!"

They all said their good-byes, then watched Colin and Eloise disappear together down the road.

The two were barely out of earshot when Hermione, her head still on Ron’s shoulder, murmured, "Goodness, didn’t her nose look nice."

Harry snorted. He knew exactly what Hermione was getting at. He heard Ginny snickering beside him, and realized that she must be in on the joke as well.

Ron, however, had obviously missed Hermione’s point entirely. "Her nose?" he said in disbelief. "Forget about her nose – she’s a stunner."

Hermione raised her head and looked at him mildly. "Oh?"

Ron’s ears went very red. "Well – that’s just, you know, an observation –"

Hermione raised an eyebrow. "I’m sure." She shot a laughing glance at Harry, and then at Ginny, as she stepped away from Ron. "Well, I’m done studying. Ginny, do you still want to go to the lake?"

Ginny looked at the sky. "We still have time. Come on, let’s go." She turned around slightly. "Coming, Harry?"

Harry felt his throat constrict as she looked at him. Ginny always made a point of inviting him to go with her. She always made it clear that she wanted him to be there, and she did it seemingly without a trace of embarrassment. It made it very difficult to meet her gaze.

"Maybe in a minute," he stumbled. He looked away from her to make sure that Ron wasn’t observing him, but Ron was still lost in his own discomfort and noticed nothing except the back of Hermione, as she followed Ginny around the side of the cottage.

As soon as both girls were gone, Ron spun on Harry. "Why did I say that?" he moaned. "Hit me with a Muting Charm next time, would you?"

Harry gave a short laugh. "I don’t think she cared."

Ron shook his head. "She acts like she doesn’t. And then, a year later, she suddenly remembers it at the worst possible moment and it’s ammunition – trust me, it happens all the time."

"Sometimes it even happens four years later, I imagine," Harry replied, his tone even.

"Yeah," Ron agreed, slumping like a condemned man. "She’d probably pull something like that. She’s got a memory on her, that one."

"Yes." Harry had to fight to keep down his laughter – it felt good. Suddenly he was glad that Colin and Eloise had arrived so unexpectedly; even if they’d interviewed him, they’d left him in a better mood.

"I should go down there," Ron was muttering, "just follow her down there and – yeah. Yeah. Are you coming down to the lake?" Ron nodded in the direction of the house and reached down to pick up the blanket they'd been sitting on.

Harry felt himself flush. His momentary good feeling was immediately replaced with something similar to nausea as he contemplated the possible scene at the lake. He was sure that Ron would manage to redeem himself to Hermione pretty quickly, and the idea of being left with Ginny while this took place rattled him. They’d be alone together. In the water. A mental image came to Harry without being called and he tried unsuccessfully to block it.

"Actually I – wanted to try something on the Firebolt," he managed, his throat dry. "I think I’ll go down to the field instead."

Ron looked at him, and Harry could have sworn that his friend’s expression was suspicious. "Well... okay," Ron said, frowning slightly. "I’ll see you at dinner, then?"

Harry nodded without looking in Ron’s eyes, then passed him quickly and went into the house to grab his broomstick. He wasn't going to the lake. He wasn’t going to sit there uncomfortably and try to think up what to say and how to act. Expecto Sacrificum had made it impossible for him to look at Ginny without feeling accountable to her. He owed her an answer that he just didn’t have. If only he didn’t know her feelings... if only she hadn’t been forced into that damned spell... if only she hadn’t touched his face and said "I love you" and sounded so real, then he wouldn’t be looking at her like this. Thinking about her like this.

Would he?

Harry reached the house and ran upstairs for his Firebolt, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he turned to leave the room he shared with Ron. He stopped and looked for a moment. The same untidy dark hair, same green eyes, same glasses, and when he pulled back his hair, the same lightning bolt scar. Even the mirror was usually silent on the subject. Today it had grumbled, "What are you wearing, dear?" and returned to silence. He wasn't anything spectacular. Even being Harry Potter wasn’t anything spectacular – people ought to have been showing up out of the blue to interview Hermione and Ron. They’d ended the war as much as he had, and nobody had died because of them. People had died because of him. His parents. Hagrid. And the Grangers were still in St. Mungo’s. Why in hell didn’t Ginny see him for what he really was?

He shook his head vigorously, turned, and raced back downstairs two steps at a time, slipping silently out the door to avoid speaking to anyone. He ran hard all the way to the field at the other end of Stagsden, his breath nearly bursting in his lungs. He told himself that it was for the sake of practice; that if he was really going to consider Eloise’s suggestion and go out for a British Quidditch team, then he was going to need to get in shape – to get into the sky and brush up on Seeker technique.

In truth, he just needed to do a couple of very steep dives.

 

A/N: We had to put this one at the end, so as not to spoil the surprise. But it was B Bennett who suggested that, as long as we were using dear old Eloise, we ought to make her positively stunning. Thanks, B! This chapter is dedicated to the Colin Creeveys and Eloise Midgens of the world. Everything usually does turn out all right in the end.

***

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