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Harry Potter and the Chinese Book by Bill Mullens

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 49
Word Count: 226,820
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature

Genres: Romance, Action/Adventure, Young Adult
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Arthur, Molly, Ginny, OC
Pairings: Harry/Ginny, Arthur/Molly, Ron/Hermione

First Published: 01/26/2011
Last Chapter: 12/01/2014
Last Updated: 12/01/2014

Summary:
Voldemort is dead; the fate of the Deathly Hallows decided. Amidst the pain of mourning and the thrill of survival, Harry and Ginny reunite with a kiss. Like all who survive their wars, they're thrilled to be alive but uncertain of the future their deadly struggle has won. Yet, the war isn't truly over. To bring Hermione's parents home they must travel to Australia disguised as Muggles.  Their greatest challenge isn't the terrifying duels but their struggles of mind and emotion.

Thanks for 192,000+ reads & helpful reviews.


Chapter 1: Chapter 1: Tears of Sorrow - Tears of Joy
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Author's note.


The people here at HPFF have been fantastic, making presenting this story consistent fun and learning. Along with the encouragement of reviews, people have taken their time to teach me about British English and slang, everything from what a sweet pea is in England to how beer drinking goes in Australia. While I am sure I'm still terribly far from your native English, I hope I have at least fixed the most jarring Americanisms and used slang sparingly enough to fit the characters without challenging my understanding of native use.

With the validation of the last updated chapter, “Finding the Future," I have completed my try at applying your advice and it is time that I decide on what to do next. I will continue to respond to reviews and I have a file of typos that I will correct time-on-time. Although I will be sad to see the story sink to the back pages of the archives, rather than continue to edit “Harry Potter and The Chinese Book”, I'd like to try something new.

Thank you to all of you who have been so helpful and encouraging.


Bill 

Chapter One

Tears of Sorrow - Tears of Joy


Harry placed the Elder Wand in the mokeskin bag that was still hanging beneath his shirt. Ron and Hermione looked at each other and then at Harry. All three were silent for a moment; with these decisions made they became intensely aware of how tired they were.

Harry said, “Thank you professor.”

Dumbledore, leaning back against the chair of his portrait, nodded, smiling at the three friends as they turned to go. They walked quietly past the spindle-legged tables with their collection of magical instruments, the pensive where only hours ago Snape's memories had revealed Harry's duty and fate, until reaching the office door. There, Hermione turned again to Dumbledore's portrait.

“Professor, we have a future, a future we've not even thought about, a future that didn't exist just minutes ago. We don't even know what decisions we need to make. . .” She stopped, catching herself thinking aloud, and got on to her request. “Could we please come back to visit, to. . . to, well. . . talk about things?”

Dumbledore's smile widened, the blue of his eyes flashed bright as he replied, “Of course! You're always welcome here.”

The other headmasters and headmistresses had listened intently throughout the interview, so they too promised welcome, amidst bows and dignified applause. When the three friends shut the door behind them closing off the many portraits' continuing regards, the silence of the castle so recently reverberating with the sounds of battle, their tiredness and uncertainty weighed heavily upon them. Descending the stair they each felt strangely depressed. If they were no longer pursuing Voldemort's undoing, what were they to do?

Yet, when they reached the injured gargoyle, the weight lifted from Harry, vanished without a trace by the realization of his freedom. He could do what he wanted and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He stopped, looked at Ron and Hermione almost laughing, the brightness of his rising emotion too wonderful to be contained by merely a smile.

“I've got to see Ginny.”

He turned quickly back toward the Great Hall leaving Ron and Hermione exchanging knowing looks, looks that quickly turned to mutual smiles as they too fully felt the joy of their freedom, moved by Harry's excitement.

“Blimey, I've got to see this,” said Ron.

“Ron, there's no reason they can't be together now!”

Ron, took Hermione's hand, laughed and assured her, “Hermione, I know, but our whole family's there. This is gonna be somethin' to see. We should be there!”

“OK,” Hermione agreed, not mentioning or even quite questioning the lightness she felt when Ron said “our family.”

Harry was too tried to run. Even as the imperative of seeing Ginny urged him forward, he was profoundly tired. He ached.  The spot where the Killing Curse hit felt like a huge bruise, but when Hermione had spoken of the future, the reality of his freedom had infused his heart. He was free; at last he could be with Ginny. The excitement of it, his recognition of a freedom he had never really known in the years since he had learned of his entanglement with Voldemort, erased the pains, the exhaustion, and quenched the intensity of the decisions just made. Everything but his desire to be with Ginny was as if it had never been.

Harry stopped as he turned into the Great Hall. The scene had changed. Kingsley Shacklebolt had taken charge and was directing a small but growing crowd of ministry workers – blue robed maintenance people the most numerous – and the fighters and their families were gathering in groups near the doors. Harry looked for Ginny among the Weasleys who were huddling together, quietly talking. But, as if he had been announced by a chorus, Ginny was already stepping quickly toward him. They both tried not to run. They met; they took each others hands.

“Ginny,” Harry said, his feelings released by her smile, “I love you.” She was close to him, smiling. The joy of it was overwhelming. “I- I never want to be apart again.”

Ginny answered with a kiss. Not a secret passageway snog, nor even a Quidditch victory snog, but a kiss like Molly Weasley welcoming her husband home at the kitchen door. A kiss that spoke everything that needed to be said. They were alive. They were together holding one another, Ginny’s hands and arms over Harry's shoulders, his hands holding her close within his arms. Both cried silent tears, tears for the loss of Fred, Tonks, Remus and little Colin, and tears for the future together they had won today.

It was a quiet kiss and their tears were private but their feelings called to Molly Weasley as if carried on a Sonorus Charm. She took Arthur's hand and said, “Arthur, look.”

He didn't need to be told where. His gaze turned to Harry and Ginny, and without taking his eyes from them he asked his wife, “She's known all along they'd be together hasn't she?”

“Yes,” Molly replied, “I think she knew the first day she saw Harry.”

The Great Hall was becoming much fuller, with a steady stream of wizards arriving through the door behind the platform where the teachers' table had been. The fire in the room where the Tri-Wizard Champions had gathered after their names rose from the Goblet of Fire must have been re-connected to the floo network. Along with the navy blue-robed magical maintenance people, there were Aurors, Curse-breakers and others whose skills Kingsley had called upon to set Hogwarts to rights again.

Minerva McGonagall was moving among the clusters of people. After she spoke to each, they began to move toward the entrance. Molly and Arthur left the rest of their family to join Harry and Ginny, embracing both, Mr. Weasley's hands on Harry's shoulders, Molly wrapping her arms around her daughter.

Harry started to explain, “Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, I . . .”

Mr. Weasley cut across him, “We know Harry. There's nothing you need to say. Molly and I love you both very much and we couldn't be happier.”

As Mr. Weasley spoke, Ron and Hermione arrived at the entrance to the Great Hall. They stood holding hands, their joy watching Harry and Ginny's reunion evident in the breadth of their smiles. Hermione beamed, thrilled by her best friends' happiness. Ron was just realizing what Hermione had known all along; Harry and Ginny had never really left one another, had never given-up on being together.

Mrs. Weasley, who was facing the entrance, saw them and said, addressing no one in particular, “Not the only ones I think.” Then, after a silent moment, “. . . If we hadn't lost Fred, I'd be the happiest witch in the world.”

Ron and Hermione joined them as Professor McGonagall ushered the Weasley family together and told them that Kingsley was organizing what needed to be done and that the house elves had fixed the Gryffindor dormitory so they could all get a little rest. There were sandwiches and refreshments in the common room.

“Go on up. Get some rest. We'll meet for dinner and talk about what must be done.”

All agreed and they moved as a group up the damaged marble stairs on toward Gryffindor Tower. It was a subdued group. Everyone was aware of a profound change, a change they'd not quite fully absorbed but which had begun to join with their feelings for those they had lost. In part, it was certainty that their losses – as painful as they still were – had paid for a future they could not yet see but was even now opening to them. In part, it was wonder that each had survived when others had died, a sense that whatever good might come from the war against Voldemort, it still escaped them.

Arriving at the portrait hole they were joined by Neville and the other Gryffindor fighters. When the Fat Lady swung open without a password, they all passed through and settled down for a bite to eat.

Percy kept on up the stairs to the boy’s dormitory only to return almost immediately and announce to his family, “Dad, you'll stay with the boys tonight. Mum, you're with the girls. Kreacher will meet Dad, Harry, Ron, and Neville in their old room. Dad, you get Dean's bed, he's already gone. His mother and sister haven't seen him since he left for Hogwarts last year. Mum, they've put together a room for you, Fleur, Ginny and Hermione. Charlie, Bill, you're with me.”

Arthur and Molly joked to one another about always having wanted to go back to school. Molly and Fleur, moving between Hermione and Ginny, took them by the arms and lead them up the stairs to the girl’s dormitory.

On the boy’s side, Kreacher met them at Ron, Neville and Harry's old room. The four posters were made and there was a tray of drinks by the window. Neville's trunk was there but since Harry and Ron had not returned to school, theirs were not.

Kreacher greeted them as they entered the room, “Master, we have prepared as best we could.”

“Thank you Kreacher, we could use a little rest.” Then, after a pause, “Kreacher, what you did during the battle in the Great Hall was very brave. Were any of the house elves . . . ah . . . hurt?”

“Three killed, many with injuries and two with serious spell damage.”

Ron asked, “Anything we can do?”

“Professor McGonagall sent us St. Mungo's healers. All are being treated in a room off the kitchen. The wounds have already been healed but the curses will take longer.”

Mr. Weasley, already down to his underwear and pulling back the covers of Dean's four poster, suggested that everyone get some sleep, including Kreacher. All agreed, the house elf disappearing with a loud crack. Arthur, Neville, Ron and Harry were asleep almost before the sound was absorbed by the castle's walls.

It seemed only minutes later when Kreacher woke them with the news that there would be dinner in the Great Hall. As they reluctantly crawled out of bed, Harry asked Kreacher if he would mind telling Mrs. Weasley, Fleur, Hermione and Ginny that it was time to get up.

“Yes Master.”

Wondering if Kreacher's feelings had changed, Harry asked him before he left, “Kreacher we need to talk about Grimmauld Place. We've made no plans, so I'd like to know what you prefer. I don't think we'll be returning there, at least not right away, or all the time.”

“Master ordered Kreacher to Hogwarts and Kreacher will remain here if it is his Master's wish.”

“Good,” said Harry, “we'll talk when it's time to make plans.” The elf bowed and disapparated.

They met Molly, Ginny and Hermione in the common room and after a brief exchange of “how are you's” set out though the portrait hole, downstairs to the Great Hall. There, they found several of the fighters already seated, with more arriving in small groups. The four house tables had returned. Everyone had settled toward the front to be nearer the head of the hall where Professors Flitwick, Sprout, and Slughorn were seated.

They joined the ministry wizards, students and families at table. Professor, now Headmistress, McGonagall sat were Albus Dumbledore had sat throughout the friends' years at school. Like all the wizards in the hall had heard hundreds of times in their school years, she clinked the side of her glass with her spoon. The sound had an effect greater than it was loud and the Great Hall quickly became less full of sound and motion. She rose and stood before the podium. The last arrivals found seats and turned expectantly toward her, listening carefully.

“I have some announcements. Acting Minister of Magic Kingsley Shacklebolt has organized a systematic clearing and repair of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As acting Headmistress until a permanent head is named by the Governors, I have asked the Ministry to assist the teachers of Hogwarts in assuring witches and wizards everywhere that Hogwarts will open this coming first of September.” A general murmur that might have been a cheer had their mourning passed quickly quieted when she continued. “I have also offered the families of those who died defending Hogwarts to choose a site on our grounds to bury their loved ones should they wish. These funerals will take place tomorrow morning and everyone is invited to offer their respects.”

Conversation blended into a muted din like those that accompany any student dinner at Hogwarts but quieter. Young wizards and witches have appetites and the kitchen elves prided themselves on excess. The end of a war proved no exception and the fighters, their families and the ministry wizards ate heartily.

Harry sat next to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Bill, Fleur and George on one side of the table across from Ron Ginny, Hermione, Charlie and Percy on the other. Mrs. Weasley explained the arrangements for Fred. He would be buried just below the foot of the castle a few strides from the path that lead to Hagrid's.

Ginny responded to her mother's plan, “It's right that Fred be buried here. Fred and George's defiance of that sadist Umbridge will be Hogwarts legend forever and, besides, he'd like being where everyone can see him.”

The group, recognizing Fred in Ginny's description, signaled their assent with their first laughter since Harry had turned away from Voldemort's lifeless shell. The meal continued with renewed appetite as his family retold their favorite anecdotes about Fred.

Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, were now easily recognizable as couples by those who had known them in school, those at the head table not excepted. A long-standing, sensitive couple like Arthur and Molly could see that they quite clearly moved and interacted two by two. Now, with the meal finished and people starting off on their ways, they could see it in how they positioned themselves to converse at the Gryffindor side of the doors to the Great Hall. Harry and Ginny, holding hands, side-by-side as close as they could be, faced Ron who was standing beside Hermione, hands on her shoulders. The configuration of four friends was obvious too in how they stood facing inward, the lines of conversation passing smoothly between them.

Professor McGonagall watched them wondering what would become of these bonds, forged in the danger and drudgery of war. She knew that battles many years past still returned to her. How much more so would it be for them, so many years and so many battles younger?

“We have to put the wand back tonight if we're going to do it Harry,” said Hermione, who was clearly writing a list in her head.

“Wand?” said Ginny quizzically.

“Yes, his tomb shouldn't be open during the funerals tomorrow. We should be thinking of the people we lost, their courage, not what a desperate Tom Riddle did to Dumbledore's tomb.”

WAND?” queried Ginny.

“We can talk about it on the way down, let's get going so we don't draw a lot of attention and can get it done without answering questions.”

They exited the Great Hall and then the castle entrance, heading at an easy walking pace down the oft-traveled hill as they talked. Ron asked Ginny, “Do you remember the story of the three brothers, you know, in the Tales of Beadle the Bard?”

“Of course, everyone's read those when they're little.”

“Well, they're real, the cloak, the stone and the wand. They exist and Harry had all three. He still has two and one of those, the Elder Wand, is with him now.”

Hermione didn't wait for Ginny to reply, “The Resurrection Stone's gone and we're taking the Elder Wand back to Dumbledore.”

“The 'Death Stick' tales that Prof. Bins talks about?” asked Ginny.

Harry and Ron answered almost in unison, “You listened to his lectures?”

Ginny gave them a teasing sneer and brought the conversation back to what she wanted to know. “The wand we're taking back to Dumbledore's tomb and the cloak you've used to have your run of the castle are the actual objects in the story of the three brothers?”

“Yes,” each replied.

Harry confirmed, “They're the actual Deathly Hallows. Riddle wanted the Elder Wand because he wanted to be certain he'd win his inevitable confrontation with me. He was obsessed by it after he discovered that Dumbledore had won it from Gellert Grindelwald. So, he chased after the death stick. He figured that he had won the wand, that he was its master, because Snape killed Dumbledore and he killed Snape.”

That Voldemort killed Snape gave Ginny a start but Ron and Hermione's looks said to let Harry's narration continue, as it did.

“His death fear and obsession made him interpret the legend as the wand giving allegiance to anyone who killed the previous owner. But, the wand chooses the wizard.  It recognizes that it has or has not been won; it knows magic. So, Malfoy won the wand when he disarmed Dumbledore at the top of the Astronomy Tower last year.”

Recognizing the need for an explanation by his friends' puzzled expressions, he quickly filled in, “Dumbledore was body-binding me beneath the cloak to keep me safe instead of defending himself. Then, I disarmed Draco when Dobby saved us at Malfoy Manor and the wand transferred its allegiance to me. It retained that allegiance even after Riddle took the wand from Dumbledore's tomb because he had stolen it, not won it. Snape was never its master.”

Of course, there was more to the story than that but the crux of it would do for now. The fact that Dumbledore had his own frailties could be a source of reflection later.

They arrived at their old headmaster’s tomb; it was split open, revealing the empty visage of Albus Dumbledore. As eleven year old first years Dumbledore had impressed each of them. He had a fatherly attraction that would change over the years as their relationships became more complex, along with their lives. Yet, the feeling of power and integrity Dumbledore projected would never fully vanish from their memories, any more than being a first year is forgotten by the witches or wizards they become. Even the gray face amidst the silk of his brightly-decorated robes reminded them of their Headmaster's importance to their lives. Harry knew that he owed the life and freedom he now so happily anticipated to Dumbledore's wisdom, skill and courage.

Harry took the Elder Wand from his mokeskin pouch and placed it between the shrunken hands folded over Dumbledore's chest. He stood back from the tomb, standing as if formally addressing it, and spoke “Reparo” in a voice that expressed authority. With an almost-painful sound, the tomb re-sealed, whole again, another reminder of a terrible time now past.

Their walk back up to the castle was meandering. While they took their time, Ginny continued questioning, “What about the stone?”

“It was in the Snitch that Dumbledore gave Harry in his will, you remember, Rufus Scrimgeour came when we were having Harry’s seventeenth birthday,” said Ron.

Hermione filled in the detail, “Snitches have flesh memory. That's why he used it.”

“Yes, when I had to meet Riddle . . .” When the three heard the name this time they realized that Harry had stopped saying “Voldemort” and was deliberately naming him Riddle. “. . . in the forest, it was necessary to kill the part of his soul, the Horcrux that attached itself to me, when my mother's sacrifice turned his curse back upon him.”

“So,” asked Ginny, “that's how you ended-up in Hagrid's arms with . . .” She paused, almost shivering as she restrained the memory of that moment's pain, “. . . Riddle announcing that you'd been killed trying to escape?”

“I had to let him hit me with the Killing Curse without fighting back. On the way there, I was scared, unsure I'd have the courage to go through with it – it's like your body won't listen to your mind, like it refuses to die. Then, I realized the 'I open at the close' message meant then, the close for me.”

All three were silent, they wondered, as anyone would wonder, whether they could have done what Harry did.

“So, I asked the Snitch to open and it did. The Resurrection Stone was inside. I turned it over three times and my father, mother, Sirius and Remus appeared, walking beside me. They gave me the strength I didn't have on my own.”

They were already half way back to the castle where Harry's narrative would likely need to end so Ron and Hermione did not interject or ask questions. Harry's need to tell Ginny was obvious.

Only Ginny spoke, “You passed me on the grounds beneath the cloak didn't you?”

“Yes, you were helping a wounded girl. If I'd stopped, I couldn't have gone on. But, oh, oh how I wanted to. I dropped the stone somewhere in the forest when I saw the light ahead where Riddle and the Death Eaters were waiting. After the battle we talked to Dumbledore's portrait and decided that the stone should stay lost, that I would keep the cloak and pass it on as it came to me through generations of my father's family. I want my own wand but I am still master of the Elder Wand.  If I die undefeated, its power and the evil it has inspired will end forever. So, except for the cloak, the Deathly Hallows will be only a fable.”

Already walking close to him, Ginny slipped her arm through his as they climbed the final steps to the castle, “Well, I guess I'll just have to keep you out of trouble!”

Harry laughed, “Great idea, I can't think of anything better than a boring life.”

Ginny, Ron and Hermione's laughter suggested that they too could appreciate routine. When they entered the castle Professor McGonagall, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Arthur and Molly Weasley, and two ministry wizards they did not recognize called them over.

Kingsley started, “We're discussing how to deal with Voldemort's body. Is there anything you'd like to add to our deliberations?”

Ron spoke first, “Bury him with his Muggle family in the cemetery where he killed Cedric, where he bloody well couldn't kill Harry. It's like a cycle from there and back again.”

“With just the perfect touch of irony because he couldn't stand that he wasn't Pure-blood,” added Hermione with more than a hint of satisfaction in her voice.

“Brilliant!” said Harry.

Ginny, bemused by her brother's obvious delight in his best friend's praise, gave her agreement with a wave of her hand.

Kingsley asked if there were any other ideas and there being none, he asked his last question, “Do you want to be there?”

The four friends each spoke their assent. Kingsley signaled the two wizards who were standing somewhat to the side and they departed. He told the group that there would be a Portkey for those who would attend, that they would do it very early tomorrow morning and to meet in the Entrance Hall.

Mrs. Weasley told Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione, “Go on up. In a little bit we'll meet you in the common room and say goodnight. It'll be an early start in the morning.”

When they arrived in the common room, they settled by the fire, Ron and Hermione in two overstuffed arm chairs; Harry and Ginny on the couch facing the fire. They began asking each other to fill-in the details of their stories but by the time Arthur and Molly climbed through the portrait hole they had fallen asleep.

“Over here Arthur,” said Molly as she headed directly from the portrait hole to the fire.

Her husband followed. Ginny and Harry were lying together on the couch. Harry's left arm embraced Ginny. Ginny's head lay next to Harry's on his left shoulder. Their heads touched, her long red hair cascading over her shoulder and his arm. She held his right hand between both of hers. Hermione and Ron were curled-up in each of their armchairs, their legs tucked beneath them, so that Hermione's head leaned on Ron's shoulder and they held hands on the arm of her chair.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley seated themselves in the armchairs directly across from Ron and Hermione. Mrs. Weasley's wand moved and she whispered “Muffliato.”

“Haven't heard that for a while!”

“Not since we had to talk about running out of gold without a pack of kids knowing.”

They enjoyed the shared memory for a moment, and then Mr. Weasley observed, “They're like us in our seventh year.”

“Yes, except they've spent the last year in mortal danger, working toward a terrifying confrontation with that vile thing Voldemort.”

“Harry left Ginny thinking that our family would be safer,” said Arthur. “But neither of them really left the other, did they? If she couldn't fight by his side, she fought where she could. They fought a war to be together.”

“Yes, it's already a powerful bond and the more intimate they become the stronger it will be.”

They sat in silence for a little while. It was clear to both of them, who had been marriage partners and lovers for forty years, seven children, and two wizarding wars, that Harry and Ginny would marry. The strength of their bond could be satisfied by nothing less than the lovers-best friends-partners life. Both Arthur and Molly wondered whether the attraction had already led to intimacy, a question given voice by Mr. Weasley, “Do you think they're lovers already?”

“I don't think so. Not yet . . .” replied Mrs. Weasley, “. . . no opportunity, no chance, no time to be young. When did we first make love Arthur?” Molly knew the answer but she liked to hear her husband tell the story.

“Toward the end of our seventh year, you remember of course, we visited your family for April vacation and they put us in rooms across the little hall on the third floor.”

Molly smiled and grasped his hand, “I hope they wait, it'd do them good to be young for a while. They should have the great school memories to tell their kids, to look back on – snogging, sunny afternoons beneath that lovely beech on the grounds.  Remember that Arthur -- mischief, dancing in each others arms. Oh Arthur! If they'd just take a year, a last chance to be young.”

After Molly's thought faded away, their attention turned to Ron and Hermione, happily asleep. “She's brilliant, likely the brightest witch of her generation. She's brave as a Hippogriff and stayed with Harry despite immense hardship and, to hear Harry tell it, he'd have died a hundred times without her.”

Unspoken but understood by his parents was the fact that their son Ron had held up less well to the stresses of pursuing Voldemort's Horcruxes. “I think Hermione understands. Coming between Fred, George and Ginny, Ron always felt himself less than his siblings,” said Mrs. Weasley. “I mean Fred and George, for heaven's sake. He let it wear on his confidence. But, she brightens from his support and praise. There's no doubt they're in love.”

“I wonder what they'll all become Molly? They've already lived more than most wizards will. Ginny is realizing her dream. Harry finally has a family – and it's ours – Ron will find his niche with Hermione's love and Hermione will be family too.” He paused, “If only Fred were here.”

Molly echoed, “If only Fred were here.”

They sat in silence for a minute then Mr. Weasley said, “I was glad you ended it. I was about mad from tension, but I think Ginny and Hermione might have finished Bellatrix on their own. They're all so powerful for their age.”

Molly replied, “All the more reason they should get some sleep.”

Arthur stood and offered his hand to his wife, who took it, rose from her chair and ended the Muffliato spell. He walked over and placed his hands on Ron and Hermione's shoulders, softly whispering, “Ron, Hermione, time to wake-up and go to bed,” gently squeezing their shoulders as he did.

Likewise, Molly had sat on the edge of the couch and leaned down to whisper, “Time to get up. Come on you two, wake up and let's get some sleep.”

The irony that they were being wakened so they could get some sleep was lost on both couples. They came to a kind of almost wakefulness, enough to murmur greetings to the senior Weasleys and be lead uncomplainingly to their beds in the dormitory.

 


Chapter 2: Chapter 2: Closing the Circle
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Chpater 2

Closing the Circle

The morning of the funerals dawned clear. Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny missed sunrise by only the slimmest margin. They wandered down from their dormitories and greeted each other, still rubbing sleep from their eyes. The castle had the night feeling about it, as if they were out-of-bed on one of their rule-breaking expeditions. The Order members they met in the Entrance Hall seemed more awake than they, although hardly boisterous in their greeting. Several of the surviving Order of the Phoenix were there – Arthur and Molly, George, Bill and Fleur, Charlie and Kingsley.

Kingsley left the group and entered a side room off the Entrance Hall. When he returned, he raised his arms to his side as he walked toward them, as if to sweep everyone into his path. It had that effect. All gathered to hear what he had to say.

“Alright, I've sent two Aurors with the body.”

Reaching inside his robes he pulled-out a small ball of what Harry thought looked like the clothesline Petunia Dursley used to hang carpets so she could vigorously beat them with a broom handle, raising clouds of dust. Kingsley led the group down the stairs and a short way onto the grounds where he unwound the clothesline saying, “Pass this end around.  Everyone take hold; it's a Portkey. We leave in two minutes.”

Clothesline worked well as a Portkey for a group. This time the four knew to simply expand out of the vortex and settle to the ground. The minute he saw the cemetery, Harry felt everything aroused by this place where Cedric was murdered; where Voldemort returned; where they fought a duel that neither expected to end as it did. How ironic that Voldemort's body lay next to his family's graves. In death he was surrounded by the Order of the Phoenix where he once menacingly pranced among his Death Eaters.

The two Aurors had been surveying the area for any curses that might have been left. They declared themselves satisfied that the immediate grounds were safe and empty.

“Good then, let's begin,” said Kingsley.

The group formed a semi-circle around the body and Kingsley introduced the Aurors who had brought it here. “This is Bill Weems and Nicholas Lossky. They're on their first assignment with me, having just finished Auror training. Bill and Nick were in the last class to study with Mad-Eye.”

The two men were quite young. They couldn't be that much older than Bill, or maybe even Charlie. Kingsley introduced them. “This is Harry Potter, Ginny Weasley, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.”

Both the young Aurors replied, “Honored to meet you.”

Kingsley continued, “Arthur and Molly Weasley, their children Charlie, Percy, George, Bill and his wife Fleur. Everyone here fought Voldemort and has come to achieve some finality, to see the end of it, so we can get back to our lives, back to our loved ones, and hopefully contribute toward healing the wounds his evil forced upon us and our world.” Then, looking at each of the assembled group he asked, “Shall we?”

Their agreement was murmured but several spoke more or less at once asking, “Just what should we do?” They had only spoken of “burying Voldemort,” not of particularly what that meant. Grave? Headstone? Ceremony?

“Transfigure him to a bone and bury him in a garden like old Barty Crouch?”

Some mummers of ascent.

“Do what they did with Moody?”

“We could reduce him to ashes and spread them around the way the Muggles do?”

“Oh no!” exclaimed Ginny, “That's a sign of respect. Muggles do it as a ceremonial representation of the deceased's spirit. You know, like spreading a sailor's ashes on the sea.”

Harry, Ron and Hermione looked quizzically at Ginny, who knew the meaning of their look. “We were hiding in the Room of Requirement. Except when we were planning something, we followed our textbooks, practiced spells, and talked about what we read. I wanted to know as much as I could about Muggles because Alecto was teaching such lies, so I read books on what Muggles call 'anthropology'.”

Hermione, intently interested, asked, “How did you get the books?”

“It's the Room of Requirement. I just asked for the books Muggles study to learn about themselves. Lots of what appeared was about human bodies and how they work but I was mostly interested in what they know about themselves.”

Harry knew Ginny was right. Wizards needed to know what Muggles knew. The war proved that. For now though, it was time to bury Riddle. “Look, Tom Riddle styled himself the Dark Lord, Voldemort, because he couldn't accept being human, accept the human lot of death. So he sought power to overcome what he was. We should bury him here with his Muggle family. We should do for him what he couldn't do for himself, accept who he was, Tom Riddle.”

Hermione lead the chorus of ascent. Kingsley made an almost imperceptible movement with his wand and a grave opened at the side of the monument to the Riddles. In death, Riddle's body was pitiable, emaciated, only barely human, his face nearly transparently pale, his snake's eyes open, dull, colorless and empty. The Aurors magicked it into the grave and set the dirt over it. Nicholas stepped forward and faced the Riddle monument with his wand out and turned to look at Harry with a nod.

Harry gathered his meaning, “Just add, 'Tom Riddle, Grandson and Son, 1926 - 1998'.” 

When the young Auror's magic completed, the newly-carved inscription matched those of his family.  Riddle joined them in death.

None spoke until Bill asked, “So, is this where you dueled him, the first time, after he killed Cedric Diggory?”

Harry's first response, his instinct, was to not respond, to let the question pass unanswered. Besides, he had been remembering the flayed, tormented thing in King's Cross Station and was bemused to find himself pitying Riddle. He understood that people were curious, that his friends knew only what they had seen, his departure into the maze and his return with Cedric's body. In retrospect, knowing now what he had not known then, wasn't that why Cho suffered so from Cedric's death? He was there, then he wasn't. She had only Harry's reluctant, stark and – he had to admit – short of sympathetic story. His jealousy over her attachment to Cedric as well as his desire to put Cedric's murder out of mind had rendered Harry unable to assuage her pain. Yet, neither had he told Ginny, Ron or Hermione the story with any detail.

He overcame his reticence by talking to Ginny. His desire to tell her everything took the chill from his memories. “Cedric and I realized that the trick to the maze was overcoming how it manipulated your thoughts and feelings. We’d helped each other so we decided to tie, to take the cup together. It was a Portkey.” Pointing slightly away he continued, “The Tri-Wizard Cup landed there, Cedric and I were sprawled on the ground there,” pointing to the base of the monument next to the disturbed ground that covered Riddle's body.

Harry paused, remembering the feeling that something was terribly wrong, that they had been caught in a magical trap, until Ron asked, “Was he waiting here?”

“Over there, by that monument. Wormtail – Peter Pettigrew,” he added for the Aurors, “was carrying him. He was the size of a young child but pale, mere skin and bone.” Ginny, sensing that Harry found the reminiscence difficult rested her hand on his shoulder and leaned close. He continued, saying to himself, “Kill the spare,” then he explained the ritual, Riddle's return and triumphant oration.

“When he was done, he came for me. Unknown to us both, our wands shared a core.  When our spells connected his wand emitted magical echoes of those he killed: Cedric, an old man, my parents. My Mum and Dad told me that they could give me a little time if I broke the connection.  Cedric asked me to bring his body back to his father.”

He heard the Aurors say, “Priori Incantatem,” and nodded toward them.

Then he finished as quickly as he could. “I broke the connection, grabbed Cedric's body, summoned the cup and it returned us to school.”

Standing where it had occurred two years ago each of them searched their feelings. The event itself was clear, a dark magical ritual returned Voldemort to human form with his magical powers intact. What was difficult to grasp was how Harry, at this moment of Voldemort's apparent victory over death, again stymied his quest to prove – essentially to himself – that he could vanquish his prophesied enemy. Harry knew that he had survived not because of his skill but because of Riddle's ignorance, his inability to see beyond the fear that had so twisted and diminished his soul. He said nothing and let himself get lost in the warmth of Ginny's hand and the flowery essence that always told him she was near.

There was silence except for Molly Weasley's barely audible “. . . and only fourteen.”

Kingsley took charge saying that it was time to be back at Hogwarts. He passed the clothesline Portkey to the group. In moments they were back on the lawn beneath the castle entrance. Here and there around the grounds they could see a few small groups of people standing beside white biers that held the bodies of their loved ones. Next to each stood an honor guard, two Aurors in dress robes.

Just across the grounds beneath the castle wall the Weasley family had begun to gather. Aunt Muriel was already there, along with cousins on both Arthur and Molly's sides. They put the just-finished funderal out of mind while they crossed the grass to join them.  Hagrid too joined the mourners. Fred's pale face, its ghostly smile, and the attention-grabbing suit he had worn to Bill and Fleur's wedding, contrasted sharply with the formal robes and somber expressions of the Aurors and mourners.

George insisted that Fred would not want a ceremony so, one-by-one, his siblings retold their cherished stories for the extended family. Charlie spoke of how a very young Fred, of course along with George, had tried to trick him with a spell that would fill his socks with jelly. Bill, George and Ron laughed at their own tales of two-on-two Quidditch and garden de-gnoming. Ginny recalled how Fred and George had spent every day with her after her ordeal in the Chamber of Secrets. Percy, obviously holding his emotions tightly in check, could only say that it was his honor to have fought alongside Fred. Other stories followed. Tales of magical fireworks and the swampy climax of Fred and George's dramatic exit from Hogwarts produced a hearty, Fred-like laughter that would have seemed out of place for any but Fred's family.

Harry and Hermione did not speak. Both admired this family that had been so kind and open to them, and to which they now belonged through Ginny and Ron. The Weasley's knew how to artfully express their feelings.

Finally, Mr. Weasley spoke, Molly, tears streaming, at his side. “Today we say farewell to Fred but we are also mourning another loss. Fred and George have been so inseparable that we cannot speak of one without naming the other, even as we honor Fred for his vivacious humor, his love of life, and for how he gave his life defending what we Weasleys honor. Yet, George,” he said facing his son directly, “you'll be on your own now and will carry on for you both. Your family is here to help in any way we can.”

The Aurors, sensing this was the propitious moment, moved their wands together and softly spoke a spell. The bier on which Fred lay magically enveloped his body. When the magic completed, Fred's tomb lay beneath the castle wall, surrounded by his family.

As they began to leave, George could be heard saying, “I asked for it to be at that height.  Some day students will sit on your monument . . . that's just the sort of thing you and I would do.”

Molly and Arthur were consoled by their relatives as they walked back toward the castle entrance. Hermione left the path to look down the hill to where other groups of mourners were gathered around monuments to those they had lost. When Harry, Ginny and Ron joined her she said, “We should offer our condolences to Colin's family and Mrs. Tonks.  No one else is there.”

They covered the distance past Hagrid's to a small clearing near the lake at a kind of trot, not a run, not a walk. There, Colin Creevey's mother, father and brother Dennis stood next to a flat tombstone set in the ground. After they introduced themselves to the Creeveys Harry said, “If we'd've known, we'd've sent him home. We tried to get everyone underage out of the castle.”

Mrs. Creevey was worn from crying but spoke to assure Harry, “We know Mr. Potter, we know.”

“I'm just Harry”

Mrs. Creevey continued, “Colin thought the world of you. Harry, you were a hero to him, Voldemort's nemesis who treated him like a friend. Hermione, the smartest witch of her age who always helped him when he asked. Ron, who saved everything in the famous Quidditch match against Slytherin; Ginny who protected the younger Gryffindors and fought the Carrows.”  Her voice broke, “H - h - he was so proud, s- so p-proud to be a Gryffindor.”

Ginny was unable to hold back her tears, “We're proud in our grief.  He was everything Godric Gryffindor admired. He died fighting with us and we don't know how to say how very, very sorry we are. It's Colin who's the hero, the true Gryffindor who wouldn't leave to save himself when his friends were in danger.”

Mr. Creevey, silent until then, stepped forward and took Ginny in his arms. Having absorbed Harry's ordeal in the graveyard and buried her brother, Colin's loss, while still so much a child, had moved her beyond restraint. Indeed, there were no dry eyes. Wasn't this truly the price of war -- mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers lost?

When everyone was composed again, Mr. Creevey reached into the inside pocket of his dark coat and removed a photo album. “You know, Colin was crazy about his picture-taking.”

They all smiled, remembering how they sometimes wished Colin would put his camera away. Remembering Colin as a pesky under year lightened their mood.

“He was keeping this for you Harry.” Mr. Creevey handed him the album.

It was leather-bound like the one Hargid gave him at the end of his first year.  He held it open so that all could see. When they turned each page, picture after picture of their years at Hogwarts awakened their memories. There were Harry and Ron laughing, amazed at the broomstick Sirius sent Harry. Here were the three friends at the Gryffindor table, Ginny and Hermione in close conversation, Harry holding the Mere People Egg after escaping the Hungarian Horntail and – bringing smiles to all – Ginny and Harry heartily kisssing at the center of the Gryffindor common room. Their first open expression of their feelings for each other.

They left the Creeveys with condolences and thanks and started back up the hill to the castle. The path was fuller now as members of the Order, families, friends and relatives had finished their individual ceremonies and were returning to the Great Hall. The four branched off this stream of mourners to where Mrs. Tonks was holding Dora and Lupin’s son Teddy next to a monument of speckled granite that changed color as clouds drifted over the sun.

She acknowledged their arrival with a slight bow of her head.  They all stood silent next to Dora and Remus' grave until Harry spoke. “Mrs. Tonks we’re so sorry. Professor Lupin was our friend and teacher, and Dora. . . ”

Ginny cut across him, “Nymphadora was an inspiration to us, a woman Auror, not too much older than us, Mad-Eye’s protégé. She made us laugh with her metamorph tricks. We laughed and laughed with her at The Burrow – we admired her so.”

Ron, perhaps feeling a little guilty that he had once said that no one would look at Tonks when Fleur was around, nodded, looking sad. Mrs. Tonks fleetingly smiled at their remembrances and switching infant Teddy to her opposite hip, turned to walk back up the hill, Harry and Ron following, Ginny and Hermione at her side.

Mrs. Tonks paused, turned back toward the monument for a moment and said, “I’ve lost them all. Ted's gone, Dora's gone, Remus gone, all I have is little Teddy.” Starting back to the castle she stumbled when the hem of her robe caught in the thick ground cover that grew at the site she had chosen, just above the Whomping Willow overlooking the forest. Ginny quickly reached out, taking the child onto her hip as Ron and Harry stepped forward taking Mrs. Tonks' arms in theirs. They walked with her toward the path and the thinning group of mourners heading to the Great Hall. Ginny and Hermione played with little Ted, rubbing noses, cooing to him, playfully passing him between them as they walked.

Mrs. Tonks, seeing the bemused looks on Ron and Harry’s faces as they surveyed this new image of their girlfriends, continued walking toward the path, almost whispering, “That time will come boys, soon enough, that time will come.”

Arriving at the top of the hill they joined the Weasleys. Mrs. Weasley took Ted from Ginny and spoke to Mrs. Tonks with tears in her eyes. “You know we Weasleys have a lot of experience with little boys and it looks like you've a couple of babysitting volunteers.”

Ginny and Hermione added, “Anytime Mrs. Tonks, anytime.”

“So, don’t be a stranger at The Burrow and send a Patronus whenever you want someone to take Teddy for a while.”

When they arrived at the castle wall, Hermione looked around and mused, "Strange isn't it?  She's Draco's aunt, Bellatrix's sister.  Where's Ron?”

Puzzled, Harry looked forward and backward thinking Ron had gotten ahead or behind.

Ginny found him, “There he is, over by Fred’s tomb.”

Hermione started toward Ron, “I’ll get him, Fred's funeral has hit him pretty hard.”

While Hermione crossed the lush spring grass beneath the castle wall she watched Ron. He was standing very still and straight, his wand pointed forward, rapidly moving in tiny strokes. When she came to his side he stood back a step, putting his wand inside his robe and looking intently at the side of Fred’s monument. Hermione followed his gaze and what she saw left her momentarily speechless. Precisely etched into the he far left side of the tomb was the Gryffindor Lion. Beneath, in finely-hewn block letters was “Fred Weasley, 1978 – 1998,” also very finely carved in the stone. But when she took in the whole, she gasped. It was a carving of Fred, his laughing face clearly rendered. He was seated on his broom. From his raised right hand came the tail of a fireworks dragon. It spiraled around to the right side of the monument, its fiery head and wings carved in intricate detail.

Before she spoke, she slid her arm through Ron’s and drew him to her. “Ron, that's magnificent. I had no idea you could carve so beautifully.”

“Blimey, me either!” exclaimed Ron. “I was saying goodbye to Fred and as soon as I thought this is the memory that should last forever, it came to me, complete. All I had to do was magic it into the stone and just thinking that made it happen. I have no bloody idea what I did.”

They stood silently together admiring Fred’s tomb for another moment then, at a brisk walk, caught-up with Harry and Ginny on the steps to the castle. While everyone else headed on to the Great Hall, Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny turned, walking to the wall overlooking the grounds and the forest beyond. So much had happened here that there was hardly anywhere they could look and not remember some moment of their lives. Hagrid’s cabin, the lake with its memories of the Tri-Wizard contest and brilliant sixth year afternoons spent together along its shore. The Whomping Willow with its tunnel to the Shrieking Shack where they had learned the truth about Sirius, where Snape had been so horribly murdered. Hedwig’s lovely soaring flights among the castle towers, and Malfoy running from Hermione's punch.  Memories and more memories merged with the memories of generations of students before them.

While they stood silently pursuing these imaginings, they heard Molly Weasley’s voice, nearly a shout, from the castle entrance, “Com'on you lot, time to go home!”

Home! For Ron and Ginny home had always been The Burrow. Hermione too had a home but for Harry, home had always been Hogwarts and leaving always felt a little sad. Now, his home would be The Burrow too, with the Weasleys, with Ginny, his friends, his family.

The four walked up the castle stairs where they joined Mrs. Weasley and turned into the entrance of the Great Hall. They passed between the house tables pausing to say farewell to their friends, thanking those who had fought to defend Hogwarts. With the sense of loss from the morning's funerals, from leaving Hogwarts, settling upon them, they ascended the stage and walked at a somber pace past the head table to where Mr. Weasley was motioning from the side door.

Following his gesture they entered the room where Cedric, Viktor, and Fleur had waited as the Goblet of Fire ominously disgorged Harry’s name. The artifacts of Hogwart’s many centuries reflected green flame as each of the Weasleys – Charlie, Bill and Fleur, Percy, George, Molly and Arthur – stepped inside the huge fireplace and sprinkled Floo Powder as they distinctly spoke “The Burrow.” With each green flash one of the Weasleys vanished until only Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione stood holding hands before the fire.

From behind them Headmistress McGonagall spoke, “I know that Kingsley has offered all the Hogwarts fighters admission to the Auror program. I know too that there are no N.E.W.T.s for saving the wizarding world, or defending Hogwarts. But there are for my seventh year Transfiguration Class, so I hope I will be seeing the four of you this fall.”

“We’ve hardly had a moment to think Professor,” answered Hermione, “and I think we need a little time to decide how we should go on with our lives.”

Minerva McGonagall replied with a decidedly non-professorial grin, “Just remember, that help is always given at Hogwarts to those who ask it.”

To which Ron replied, “At least it wasn’t ‘follow the spiders’!”

 


Chapter 3: Chapter 3: A War Not Quite Over
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Chapter Three

A War Not Quite Over

Bill left almost at once, returning to Shell Cottage with Fleur. Next, Charlie headed to Romania to work with his dragons. Percy, admitting that he was seeing a witch from the Hogwarts class behind his, left promising to visit more often once he settled into work at the Ministry. He intended to fix up an apartment he was renting from a wizard he had met at the Department of Magical Sports and Games. Mr. Weasley left with him to check in at the Ministry on the second morning.

The family, the three couples living at The Burrow, filled their first days home with the chores of resettling. The ghoul was untransformed. Mr. Weasley, saying that it was long overdue, sent it to live in an abandoned house that was rife with other ghouls. Ron’s room was scourgified. Harry and Ron moved back in as did Hermione and Ginny to Fred and George's room, once the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes stock had been magically transported to the Diagon Alley joke shop when George returned to reopen it.

Hermione, reversing the process begun last year, unpacked her charm-enlarged bag so that the clothes and books it had so effectively carried were once again stacked in their rooms. Harry’s trunk was still at the Dursleys but it held nothing he wanted, just old quills and too-small socks. Hermione, Ron and Ginny’s trunks were there, although nothing fit anymore. None of them had failed to grow in the year they had spent escaping and fighting. Except for Ron and Harry’s too short jeans and a couple of Ginny and Hermione’s skirts and sweaters, they had little that would even make do.

Mrs. Weasley kept the four friends busy, although not at a forced pace like before Bill and Fleur’s wedding. By the third day life at The Burrow was pretty close to what might be called “normal.” That is, if it was normal to turn a corner carrying laundry and come face to face with Ginny, to realize that this wasn't a dream, that this was real.

After many months on the run, domestic chores were so far from routine that even Ron was happy to lend a hand. For both couples the realizations of their changed lives and expanding futures were still new, still unsettled. The joy of their freedom and the marvel of their survival encouraged gratitude for even the mundane.

In fact, Burrow life became an unexciting and oddly wonderful routine. Everyone – even Mrs. Weasley – began to decompress. When she found Ron and Hermione wrapped around one another snogging in the corner of the garden set aside for planting instead of getting it ready, she just tilted her head and waved her hand as if to say, “Well, I suppose it can wait.”  She even managed to successfully pretend she didn't see Ginny arrive at breakfast, seat herself on Harry's lap and greet him with a considerably more than sisterly kiss.  Arthur and Molly had always been easily affectionate in front of their children and it was thus unsurprising that their children behaved the same way. Yet, the passion of their affections was clear, whether or not Molly was ready to acknowledge them.

Friends dropped by.  Hagrid was first, still looking bruised and bitten from his attempt to save the spiders. He was concerned that he had missed their goodbye. “Grawpy,” as if this diminutive name fit a sixteen foot giant, was recovering at Hogwarts. He had been badly beaten by two of the Death Eater’s giants until the Weasley men, fighting as a team, Stunned the much bigger ones.   It fell and was then fallen upon by the other who, being from another tribe, found it more prudent to fight an old, familiar and unconsious enemy than to pursue an injured but still-dangerous Grawp.

When Hagrid left, he handed Harry the key to his Gringotts vault saying that, “Yer likely ter need som'a gold,” adding in a voice that was meant to be casual and almost was, “ter get ready fer school.”

Dean and Luna apparated right to the front gate, the war-time protections having been removed.   Dean was visiting friends and accompanied Luna to help her express her concern for how Xenophilius tried to turn Harry over to the Death Eaters. Harry – almost completely truthfully – assured her that he understood and that he held no grudge.

“Any father would do the same.”

Kingsley Shacklebolt, now permanent Minister of Magic, came to Saturday dinner with two of Mr. Weasley’s ministry colleagues and the young Aurors Bill and Nicholas who had managed Riddle’s funeral.  George arrived for dinner on Sunday with tales of how Diagon Alley was recovering with shops re-opening and people returning to exchange war stories and condolences at the Leaky Cauldron. Wizarding life was recovering the pace of its many centuries.

Florean Fortestcue had been killed so his ice cream parlor would likely not re-open unless a willing relative or a new owner could be found.  Madam Malkin was back in business, swamped with orders for robes.  Even Ollivander, still pale and spare, occasionally opened his horribly damaged shop.  There were so many Muggle-borns whose wands had been confiscated.

It was Ginny who got the four moving, “We need clothes that fit, Harry and Ron look like their pants are hand-me-ups from younger brothers and Ron’s shirt is about to bust its buttons.”

It was true.  Harry and Ron were both showing a lot of leg and sock. The buttons on Ron’s shirt, whose chest was becoming more like Charlie's, were stretched to near parting, showing his undershirt beneath.  Harry was still slim but stronger; his best pullover barely fit his chest and shoulders.

“And,” Ginny continued, “if there’s to be any more snogging around here, they'd better buy razors while they're at it!”

Ginny gave her parents a quick look after her snogging comment but neither looked as if they had particularly noticed. Ron was already eighteen and Harry would be eighteen soon.  Both wore the unmistakable shadows of flourishing beards.  Magic and maturity are strongly linked.  Magic matures young witches and wizards faster than their Muggle age mates and physical maturity empoweres their magic. They were neither fully grown nor fully empowered but they had passed into adulthood, even though they were in too much peril to notice.

Hermione added with considerable emphasis, “I need new everything and I absolutely must see what's arrived at Flourish and Blotts.”

Harry had his list as well, “We need new brooms. I've no gold and no Muggle money.”

But silence followed when Ron said, “And, we need to find out how to bring Hermione’s parents home.”

No one knew what to say.  Each felt they should have remembered this but – for all but Hermione and Ron – it had been forgotten in the excitement of new lives.

Mr. Weasley broke the silence, “Where are they Hermione? We thought you arranged to hide them from Voldemort.”

“I did. I used memory charms. They were always on about Australia, so all I had to do was hide what kept them here, me, their work. I'm not sure when they left; they had no memory of me, so I came here the minute I charmed them.  I’m afraid I've no idea where they are.”

“Exactly what did you do?” asked Ginny.

“Well, I needed to get them out of the country because the Death Eaters were sure to go after them when I didn't turn up at school. I knew they didn't want to leave because they wanted to protect me. They're Muggles.  It's not been that long since my trace was off, so they'd not seen that much magic and had no idea just how powerless they'd be against Death Eaters and dark magic. So, I hid their memories of me, their work, and everything related to magic.  I changed their documents to fit the name “Wilkins” that I attached to their memories.”

Ron interjected, “It's really advanced magic. Amazing really, she layered the charms so she can restore their memories and bring them back.”

“I had to be sure that I preserved their life here so they could return when the war was over. So, I rearranged their personal affairs.”

Everyone waited for her to continue.

“It's complicated, because of the way Muggles do things. In our world it's magic that makes something belong to you.  Remember how Dumbledore knew that Grimmauld Place had actually become Harry's because Kreacher had to follow his orders? I mean, what would happen if someone tried to inhabit The Burrow?”

“Well,” answered Mr. Weasley almost laughing, “it'd probably fall down. The spells that built The Burrow were cast by Weasleys for Weasleys and might not even work for someone else. We don't build the way Muggles do. The spell work is more important than the materials.”

“It's not that way in the Muggle world,” Hermione continued. “Things belong to you because you hold certain papers and those papers are confirmed by records held by the government and sometimes banks.”

“Can't you magic the change you need?” asked Ginny. “Spells to change documents are pretty simple.”

“Not really,” Harry affirmed. “You can change the papers you have but unless you change the ones stored in government offices, it’d only work until someone looked at the government records, which are required for a lot of things.”

“So, what did you do?” asked Mrs. Weasley.

“After I knew they were gone, I used Polyjuice, impersonated my mother, and signed a contract with a rental agency.   I hired a storage company, packed all our belongings and paid for a year's storage, which reminds me, I have to check if its time to send them another payment.”

“You packed your whole house?” exclaimed Mrs. Weasley.

“Well, the trace was off.  I used magic of course.”

So, as far as anyone knows,” offered Mr. Weasley, “your parents are somewhere attending to their own business?”

“Yes,” answered Hermione, “we aren't speaking to any of the couple of relatives we do have. Everything goes to a post office box that I enchanted to work like the Vanishing Cabinet Malfoy used to get Death Eaters into Hogwarts. Whatever gets put in the post box comes here; that is, into my beaded bag. Their Passports and Drivers Licenses don't expire for two more years. I changed the names on those and made sure they had plenty of cash and a bank check for the money in their checking account. It seemed like a good amount. So, at least for going to Australia they're OK, for now anyway, as Wendell and Monica Wilkins.”

Mr. Weasley, scratching his balding head as he thought, reassured her. “Hermione, hard decision, but the right one. He had the whole Ministry for most of the year. I can't think of what you could've done that they couldn't undo. You saw how they controlled Xenophilius by kidnapping Luna. Catching Harry was their obsession. There's no doubt they'd have tortured your parents. I'm sure they looked. I know Selwyn saw you with Harry during your escape from Lovegoods' place . . . it caused a real ruckus at the Ministry.”

Harry jumped in, “Hermione, Muggles keep records of everything.  If they went to Australia, it had to be on a boat or a plane.   They can't apparate and . . .”

Mr. Wesley cautioned, “I'm not sure even wizards can apparate to Australia Harry.”

“. . . and there's a record of their arrival somewhere. They had to enter Australia on their Passports and surely that was recorded. What we have to do is get to Australia and start looking from where they entered the country.” He might have added, “And that's easier said than done!” but this was understood.

“We could talk to Percy,” said Mr. Weasley. “He worked at Magical Sports and Games when they were arranging the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Maybe he can tell us who to talk to about going to Australia and whether there are wizarding folk who might help.”

“Well,” said Ginny, “we'd better start by getting some clothes that fit, especially Muggle clothes, and finding some books about Australia.”

Hermione remembered, "I did leave 500 pounds in Muggle money in our garden shed to cover anything unexpected.  We can use that to buy Muggle stuff!."

After a little more back and forth, everyone agreed that Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione would leave in the morning to Hermione's house and meet the Weasleys that evening at the Leaky Cauldron, where they would have dinner, spend the night, and do their Diagon Alley shopping the next day. Harry insisted that they deserved a night out after getting The Burrow back in shape and that it would be his treat. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley argued.  Mrs. Weasley was quite proud of Arthur's new job as head of the Muggle Relations Department and asserted that it should be their treat.  They acceded to Ginny's spoken-with-finality assertion that Harry was of age and could decide for himself.

“Anyway,” Harry said, “you take care of me all the time.”


Chapter 4: Shopping With Muggles
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Chapter Four

Shopping With Muggles

When Mr. Wesley left for work the next morning, the four – having donned what clothes fit best and hurriedly breakfasted – apparated to behind the Granger's garden shed. Ginny wouldn't be seventeen until August but Hermione had to ferry all three anyway.  It was their first visit. Their magical arrival was hidden from the house by the shed and from the houses behind by a large pine (the Granger's Christmas tree for Hermione's first year, now a healthy twelve feet tall). After peering around the corner and seeing no one, Ginny followed Hermione into the musty shed. Harry and Ron kept watch.

Hermione opened an old wood cabinet with peeling paint that hung on the rear wall and removed an old coffee can. She spilled the contents onto an old work tablef and banged the inverted can hard several times. The circle of metal that had been the lid and now formed a false bottom clanked onto the shelf. Beneath it was a plastic bag with tenners inside. Hermione unwrapped, then stuck half the bills into each of her front pockets, replaced the lid and contents, an put the can back where it had been.

“OK,” she said, “we've got the money, let's go.”

Everything was still quiet when they closed the door to the shed. Ron asked, “Wanna go inside?”

Hermione hesitated and then withdrew her wand, “Homenum Revelio.” Nothing happened. “It's empty,” she said as she lead the way.

The four walked along the side of an overgrown patch of small, hard berries as yet too unformed to identify, using the garden shed to screen them from anyone who might look out their window. Hermione lead them to a side door on a small porch wildly over-grown with vines. It was locked but opened instantly for Alohomora. They entered the kitchen quietly even though the revealing spell had shown the house to be empty.

“Oh no!” Hermione gasped. “They’ve painted the kitchen yellow. Mum will have a fit. And, they've sure let the garden go to the gnomes.”

“We could redo it,” said Ron laughing, “that would be fun; we could come back and make it a different color every time they painted it yellow.”

Harry was ready to go after a brief tour, “OK, now what? We've a full day ahead.”

Hermione had an idea, “We can apparate to the alley where we hid to intercept Malfia and Reg Cattermole. We scouted it thoroughly and there's never anyone there except workers who had to flush themselves in. Now that the fires are reconnected and everyone's already at work, it's likely to be empty.”

"Then what?" asked Ron as he gestured to Harry and Hermione,  "You two were raised by Muggles.  How do we get around?  How do we behave?  Blimey, what about Muggle shops, money?"

"Well Ron, I know how to use the tube.  Basically, you just pay and get on.  But, I don't know much more than that.  I was early in school.  They teach you to stay in line, to keep quiet, and to memorize what the textbooks say.  None of it is all that useful."

"Harry's right, we were eleven," added Hermione.  "My folks like teaching me things, so I'm pretty sure I know more than Harry because the Durselys never taught him a thing if they could help it.   How much did you know of your world at eleven?"

"So?"  Ron queried again, shrugging his shoulders and raising his eyebrows.

"So," answered Harry, "We go out and get a look about.  If something feels OK, we do it.  Otherwise, not.  What's the worst?"  Harry turned his palms upward and his arms outward as if asking for an answer.  He answered himself, "It goes so badly we have to disapparate out of it?  We're not taking that much risk, the Obliviators come and we get a lecture."

Ginny laughed, "Not much risk except Molly killing me for taking it.  Come on, let's go, there's no sense in worrying it to death."

“OK, I'll apparate under the cloak.  If I don't return in a minute or two; you'll know it's empty.”  One by one he caught his friends eyes, "We've been in a lot worse spots."

A few minutes later they were walking from the Ministry alley toward a nearby commercial street, Arcade Street. The no-longer-isolated section where the Ministry had located centuries ago had become a young part of London. The stores catered to university students and those of similar ages. The four easily fit in. They certainly weren't the only ones with out-grown jeans.

Hermione bought them a soup and salad lunch at one of the many restaurants, chosen because it was immediately next door to a bookshop. The restaraunt was easy to manage and they enjoyed the large portions, young wizards and witches had no monopoly on youthful appetites.  Next, they browsed the bookstore. Harry followed Ginny to a section on self-help while Hermione and Ron perused the selection of travel books. After a little more than an hour, they departed with a sack of books. Ginny stopped at the doorway and filled it further with free student newspapers and fliers.

They were only two of many couples, small groups and individuals, walking in both directions, tending to their various errands, food, books, sundries and clothes. The four had walked only a short way when huge “SALE” signs caught their eyes from across the street, catty-corner from the bookstore. Without discussion they followed the “walk” signs at the intersection and then examined the big window. It was full of somewhat silly displays. Two of the female clothes dummies, one in a skirt, the other in jeans, were topless. A male dummy wore only underwear. The whole window area was a cheeky display of shirts, coats, sweaters and various cuts of jeans interspersed with objects that seemed to relate to the Muggle sport football. At least, it contained several black and white checkered balls.

Ginny laughed, “We've got to go here.”

Hermione was busy looking at the prices on the little tags that hung from each item. She questioned no one in particular, “What's a Galleon worth in pounds?”

None knew but Ron remembered something. “My dad told Percy that a Galleon is an ounce of gold and that Muggles pay a lot for gold. I think he said that if you sold a Galleon for its gold it would be worth more in Muggle money than it was worth in wizarding stores. I think he said that a descent broom in Galleons would buy a Muggle car.”

At that, Hermione decided, “Let's get our jeans and stuff here; we won't need Muggle money until we travel and we'll need more by then anyway.”

“OK,” Harry said, “I'll get Galleons at Gringotts tomorrow; we'll have enough for Diagon Alley.”

When they entered the store, music surrounded them. There were speakers in many places, all apparently connected to a Muggle radio. As they walked toward the “Guy's Stuff” sign the radio voice loudly and enthusiastically announced, “Now oldies fans, here's a number from California U.S.A., 'California Girls', by that great 70's band The Beach Boys.”

As if the tune's rhythm were a magical spell, all around the store the young people sorting through piles of clothes, looking at themselves in one of the many mirrors, or just walking from display to display, began to move in time with the music.

One couple was actually dancing and another girl danced for her boyfriend holding a skirt at her waist. But most were just slightly moving to the beat of the song as they went about their shopping, or – as seemed to be the norm – boys followed their shopping girlfriends around.

The dancing couple stopped and went back to sorting through the display of sweaters stacked on a table near the center of the store. The four arrived at “Guy's Stuff” where they found a large table with jeans stacked by size. The sign said, “Blue Jeans 9₤”

Ginny said, “I think that's cheap!”

Hermione, looking at Ron, asked, “What's your size?”

Ron shrugged. Looking puzzled, he answered with a question, “Size?”

“Your pants size silly.” Hooking her fingers in a belt loop, she turned him around to read the tag partially hidden by his belt on the back of his jeans. “32 -36, let's see, yes, take a look over here.” She lead him to the table.

Ginny followed suit and lead Harry to a stack of jeans noting that if “26-29” was this small on Harry both boys would need at least size larger and a couple inches more in length. Ron and Harry both picked up the first two pair of jeans labeled as larger sizes and stood back as if they were ready to move on.

Ginny told Harry, “Try 'em on, let's see how they fit.”

Surprised, Harry said, “I'm not changing in the middle of the store.”

Ginny titled her head toward the “Dressing Room, one item at a time please” sign. Harry, getting the idea, handed one pair of jeans to Ginny and headed for the dressing room with another. Ron followed. After a couple of trips to the dressing room, Hermione and Ginny decided on the appropriate sizes, selected a style without boot bottoms in the lighter shade they preferred, and handed the boys two pair each saying, “Let’s find some shirts that fit.”

The radio played on.

A sales girl, walking the aisle to the beat of the song, stopped and asked if there was anything she could help them with. “Shirts for these blokes,” answered Ginny.

“Over there,” she said pointing to a corner of the store where two long racks were set against the wall. Smiling, she continuing her rhythmic walk along the aisle.

The shirts – “Men's Sizes, 20% off” – were on hangers hung on a long rack. At this point, Hermione and Ginny simply took over, making a selection, holding it in front of their respective partner, putting it back on the rack or setting it aside for further consideration. The music had captured them both. They quietly sang along as they learned the chorus:

Two shirts, some new socks and underwear later, they were all whisper-singing along with a band called, oddly enough, “The Beatles”

The “Women's Sizes, 30% off” section was larger than the men's. It covered almost all of one wall with racks of skirts, slacks, various styles of blouses and tops arranged in racks standing perpendicular to the wall. Unlike the two dressing rooms in the men's section, there were six on the wall next to the racks of women's clothes. Toward the middle of the store there were two large tables with jeans, sweaters, and several cardboard displays with pictures of smiling, young, slender women wearing matching bras and panties.

The sales girl was standing at the jeans display, still singing quietly along with the music as she folded jeans customers had tossed back on the table in disorderly piles. Across from the dressing rooms there were a half dozen rather worn over-stuffed arm chairs, two of which Ron and Harry occupied while Hermione and Ginny began a leisurely perusal of the clothes, going in and out of the dressing room with various combinations and sizes.

While their girlfriends sorted through the racks of clothes, Harry and Ron began a carefully quiet discussion of brooms and how it would be fun to fly two-a-side Quidditch in the soon-to-be summer – if Hermione would agree to play. Harry was sure that Ginny would not want to miss flying, especially if they got good brooms tomorrow.

They were just starting to whisper about how to make a practice goal in the orchard when a hearty voice behind them enthused, “Wow!  She's hot in that!'

Harry looked up to see Hermione more or less dance out of the dressing room in time to the music.

She was barefoot, her trainers not a suitable match for the grey-ish pants she wore with a matching, light, V-neck sweater.  Harry was not entirely sure he should be paying such close attention because it nicely emphasized that she was a very pretty young woman, which is what “hot” clearly seemed to mean. Hermione was that for sure.  Harry distracted himself with the thought that being hot must be cool. Muggles knew how to have fun with words.

Harry turned in his chair to see where the voice had come from and saw the sales girl, her arm over the shoulder of a dark-haired bloke who looked to be somewhat older than the four. He smiled at Harry, his arm around the sales girl's waist, both of them nodding and tapping their feet in time with the music. Harry returned the smile but seeing the couple's gaze turn away, turned to see Ginny half-way to where he sat.  She wore a green skirt that came to above her knees with a matching green top held by two thin straps. The green of her outfit set-off her long red hair, which was swaying as she walked in time with the music. Her athletic figure, the grace with which she moved, the lightness of her freckled skin fit perfectly with Harry's notion of “hot.”

Harry didn't know quite what to say so he just stammered-out, “Y- y- you’re beautiful.”

Ginny, giggled, took both of his hands in hers and asked, “Do you dance Harry Potter?” They too began to dance.

When the music stopped, the watching couple clapped a couple of times and the whole group laughed companionably. The sales girl told them, “I'm about off but I can ring you out if you're ready.”

Hermione and Ginny went back to the dressing room to change as the sales girl carried the clothes they had laid out to a cash register at the front of the store.

Her boyfriend asked, “Where ya from?”

“Ottery St. Catchpole,” said Ginny returning from the dressing room in her old jeans with the green outfit hung over her arm.

“I'm Bill,” he said Then, pointing over his shoulder toward the front of the store, “Ellen and I live up the street. Do you go to school around here?”

“Not yet,” said Ginny, “we've only just finished the lower sixth and have the summer off. We're thinking about what to do after next year, maybe get a job, university, whatever.”

Ron asked in turn, “Are you in school?”

Bill replied that he and Ellen both worked in local shops to pay their living but that Ellen was studying dance two days a week; they were working for a non-profit and looking for a gallery that would show his paintings.

“Wow, that's cool,” said Harry, confident that he had the Muggle slang right.

Before they reached the front of the store Hermione had slipped each enough Muggle money to pay for their clothes. When Ellen finished with her purchases, Ginny started filling her shopping bag with more free brochures and local newspapers.

When all had paid, Ellen shouted over to a young woman at another register, “Fran, I'm off.”

All six left the store together. Ron and Harry, loaded with shopping bags, trudged along shifting the bags around to better balance their load as Ginny and Hermione traded their bags back and forth to consolidate the just-purchased clothes.

Bill suggested, “Thirsty work shopping! We're off to the local for a bite an' a pint, wanna come?”

Hermione, Muggle-raised, knew that there was something about pubs and age but she was unsure exactly what it was or whether the others would know this, so she answered first. “Thanks, but we've got to meet Ginny's folks in about fifteen minutes and it's all the way over by King's Cross.”

“Better take a taxi if you're gonna even get close to making it!” warned Bill. “There's usually a couple by the pub.”

They said goodbye to Bill and Ellen at the pub and after loading packages up front with the driver, squeezed into the back seat and gave him the name of a theater a few doors down from the Leaky Cauldron. On arriving they paid the taxi, trotted their packages to and through the door where they were greeted by Molly Wesley's unmistakable voice.

“Ah, there you are, we're beginning to worry. Come, sit, dinner's almost on the table.”

Tom helped them set their bags on an empty table, boy's stuff here, girl's stuff there, so that the bell boy could take theim up to their rooms. Mr. Weasley had arranged three, one for himself and Mrs. Weasley, one for the girls, and one for the boys. Arthur and Molly, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Bill Mullens, who the four had not met before, Percy and George were already seated. After being introduced to Bill Mullens as someone who had spent a lot of time with Muggles, Harry and Ginny sat next to Arthur and Molly, Ron and Hermione next to Percy and George.

The four had apparently kept everyone waiting. Their mugs of butter beer and a bowl of peanuts were empty. Shortly though, Tom arrived with three bread boards full of rolls and plates of butter, followed before they could butter a second roll by a stack of bowls, utensils and a big cauldron of seafood bouillabaisse in a somewhat ragged line guided by Tom's wand. Then, more butter beer all around.

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny took turns telling of their day out in the Muggle world, answering questions about the clothing store that seemed to attract Mrs. Weasley and the taxi meter, which like most Muggle machines, fascinated Mr. Weasley. Soon, the cauldron of bouillabaisse emptied and the bread boards were reduced to crumbs and empty butter dishes. Only then did the conversation turn to Hermione's parents.

Kingsley started, “So, Hermione, as I understand from Arthur, you hid your parents from Voldemort by modifying their memories, changing their identities and instilling an ambition to move to Australia.”

“Right,” answered Hermione, “but they were always fascinated by Australia so I didn't need to implant that. Just hiding that they were dentists with a daughter was enough to release it. They're who they were when they were young before all that.  The problem is I couldn't think how to trace them in a way that the Death Eaters couldn't follow.”

“You couldn't find a way because there wasn't one; they controlled the Ministry.”

Bill noted that it was probably impossible anyway and doubted that there were many wizards – none that he knew – with a working knowledge of what would it would take to magic a trace only one person could find. He concluded that to find Mr. and Mrs. Granger, “You'll actually have to go there and that's something of a problem.”

“What's the problem?” asked Harry.

Mullens replied, “Transport – Australia by broom would be at least several days at high altitude, it's the only way to stay hidden, mostly over water with nowhere to rest. That's suicidal. You wouldn't survive the cold. Even as fit and young as you are, you'd succumb to fatigue. Human bodies, magical or not, aren't up to that kind of punishment.”

“Apparition's a problem too,” added Kingsley.

“Why's that?” asked Ron. “We're able to apparate all over the country with no problem, well, I did splinch once, but we routinely went the length of the country.”

“Well,” Kingsley explained, “theoretically, distance is no barrier for an apparating wizard. But, inter-continental apparition is only rarely tried and then only by the most highly trained and practiced wizards. You know it's 'Destination, Determination, and Deliberation;' it's a mind skill. It takes practice. Also, most apparitions are essentially local and over almost instantly. So, there's not much time to lose focus, which is what leads to a splinch. Practically, though, with a trip of 11,000 miles, there'll be a lag. If there's even the slightest dimming of your determination or deliberation, you could end up terribly splinched, even to death. It's essentially impossible if you've never been to your destination. Without knowing the place, your mind imagines details and that's all the distraction it takes.”

Percy elaborated, “Magical Sports and Games sticks with Europe pretty much. Remember, when Durmstrang and Beauxbatons made the trip to Hogwarts, they didn't apparate, they took their magical conveyances. We don't know much about witches and wizards in Australia. Certainly they're there because they participate in Quidditch. They probably have something like Beauxbatons or Durmstrang does. I can ask around at work, someone might know more.”

"How about a Porkey," suggested Ron.

Mullens replied, "Possible, have you ever used Portus?"

"No, we saw Dumbldore use it once, he just spoke the spell."

"Well, Portus wants you to imagine where you want it to go.  No worries if it's familiar, but if it's not, where will it take you?"

Ginny gave up on Portkeys, “How about flying the way Riddle did? He flew as a kind of smoke.”

Bill Mullens answered again, “I don't doubt you're powerful enough to learn that magic but he traveled in Europe, not to Australia, and the same problem of focus applies. I mean, you'd still feel fatigue, because it takes a great deal of magical power to hold a disassembled form. Fatigue alone would weaken the spell. You can probably learn anything you want to learn so I don't doubt that you could learn to apparate huge distances, or to fly like smoke on the wind, but how much time do you have? These things take training and practice. You're certainly not going to be doing any of these things in a month, or even a few. What sort of time pressure are you under?”

“So, we fly,” said Harry as if it were obvious.

Mr. Weasley cautioned him emphatically, “Harry, it's just too risky.”

“No, not by broom, by airplane.  We go as Muggles. If Hermione's parents got to Australia with the Passports Hermione altered, so can we. “George,” Harry continued, “if someone can make the Marauders Map, it must be a piece of cake to conjure a Passport.”

“No problem,” said George, “but wouldn't it be better to get a real one? You never know how handy it might be to go anywhere that Muggles can.  What if someone checks against Muggle records? They might decide you're some sort of criminal and hold you. That'd spoil the whole venture and you could find yourself in Muggle prison, not that they could keep you.”

Kingsley and Arthur gave one another a knowing look but said nothing. No one seemed to catch that they had shared an understanding. Arthur spoke to say only, “Yes, I think a real one's the best option.”

The conversation dragged along for another few minutes but with no further ideas or advice about how to get to Australia or find Hermione's parents. Ginny made a nod toward the stairs with a lift of her eyebrow that said “time to go.”

Harry started to stand, “We've got an early start tomorrow if we're to get everything done. So, we're off to bed.”

The other three stood. Mrs. Weasley reached beneath the table and came out with two bags, one each of which she handed to Ron and Ginny, saying, “Pajamas, clean underwear, and your tooth brushes, we'll be up in a bit.”

When they started to leave, Kingsley asked Harry, “A moment Harry?” and followed him to the bottom of the stair. As Hermione and Ron continued on, Harry and Ginny stopped and faced Kingsley.

“Harry, Bill Mullens know a lot about magic and I think visiting with him as you plans develop is likely to be worthwhile. So, I'll set up a meeting with Bill, but we'd really appreciate it if you could talk to the people at the Ministry when you come.” Seeing Harry's expression Kingsley added, “No, Harry, not like Fudge or Scrimgeour, just tell the people your story.”

Harry demurred, “I know Minister; it's just . . .  I'm not very comfortable . . . well, the hero thing, you know. . . I don't want people to think that it was about me. And, really, it's been nice not thinking about it.”

Ginny locked arms with Harry and pulled him to her, “Harry, not long ago they went to work not knowing if they'd come home to their families, or if their loved ones would be punished for something they did, or if their Muggle-born friends had been given to the Dementors. They're confused and unsure.”

“I know Ginny; you're right, but . . .”

Before he finished Ginny cut across him, her voice and expression firm, “Why not invite everyone, the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore's Army, the Hogwarts teachers and student fighters? That way everyone will know things have changed and they'll see for themselves the brave witches and wizards who risked everything for us!”

Kingsley took to Ginny's idea at once and Harry, mollified and relieved, agreed, “Brilliant!”

“I'll work out a time.” said Kingsley. “Goodnight and goodbye, I'll be off in a minute or two.”

When Harry and Ginny reached the top of the stairs, Ron and Hermione gestured to them from the doors to their rooms. Ron was at room eight, near the end of the hallway and Hermione at room three, on the opposite side of the hallway near the top of the stair.

“Com'on,” said Ron, “I'm stuffed and sleepy.”

Laughting, Hermione and Ginny closed the door to their room and Harry joined Ron, stuffed and sleepy himself.

When Ginny and Hermione entered the Leaky Cauldron's spare but quite large room they found all their goods stacked on a table by a window that overlooked Diagon Alley, now empty, its stores closed and its lanterns dark. Living together like sisters, they were no sooner changing into their pajamas than they settled into their habit of sorting through the various currents of their day.

Hermione, sitting on the edge of her bed, her legs tucked beneath her, asked Ginny, “Do you and Harry ever talk about getting married?”

“No, at Hogwarts we were mourning Fred and the friends we lost. It didn't seem right to emphasize how we felt, how good it was to be together again. You were right you know, I had fun with Michael and Dean, but I've always known I'd marry Harry.” Then, laughing, “It just took him a while to realize that Ron's sister's a girl. Now that we're together, we're so excited and relieved we can't imagine it'll every change. Do you talk about it with Ron?”

“No, like you, not directly. The other day we were snogging in the garden, your Mum saw us but didn't seem to mind.  He all at once stopped and said that he couldn't imagine life without me. He said he was sorry he took so long to show how he really felt.”

“What did you say?” asked Ginny, smiling broadly.

“I kissed him and told him that I loved him too. It's like we're married already, well, not everything, but our hearts bonded before our heads knew.”

Ginny laughed, “Ron's really sweet. He tries to hide it because he's been the target of Fred and George's pranks forever, and being Harry's best mate, always being behind Harry, well, that can't have been easy.” Then, she swung her legs off her bed saying, “We should kiss those boys goodnight!”

Barefoot in their pajamas, they stepped quickly down the hallway and knocked on the door to number eight.

“Who's there?” answered Ron.

“Are you decent?” asked Hermione.

“Well, we're in bed,” came Harry's reply.

The girls opened the door, closed it behind them and skipped over to their boyfriend's bed, both of whom were sitting-up looking surprised. Hermione took Ron in her arms, mussed his red hair and kissed him. Ginny sat next to Harry's legs, hers dangling over the side of his bed. She took his glasses off his nose, set them on the bedside table, and they too embraced and kissed. Smiling, Ginny jumped off the bed and headed for the door, Hermione following.  There they turned and said, “Good night boys,” and closed the door.

“What was that about?” said Ron, laying down and turning toward Harry.

“I don't know but they can do that anytime they like!”

The girls quick-stepped down the hall to room three as Mr. And Mrs. Weasley arrived at the top of the stair. Ginny kissed her mother on the cheek, then her father, and stepped through the door to their room, “Good night, I love you.”

Hermione hugged Mrs. Weasley, kissed Mr. Weasley on the cheek and said, “Me too, goodnight,” as she tfollwed Ginny into their room and closed the door.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, looked at the closed door, looked at one another, shrugged and entered room four.


Chapter 5: Back to Diagon Alley
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Chapter Five

Back to Diagon Alley

Early the next morning Arthur knocked on their doors and woke them with the news that there would be breakfast downstairs in ten minutes.  They were making coffee with a new device Fleur's family sent from France. Harry and Ron, dressed in the new jeans and shirts they'd bought the day before, waited at the top of the stairs for Ginny and Hermione, who appeared in their new jeans and light sweaters.

Coffee was a fascination Fluer brought to the family.  George ground the beans in a mortar and poured them into the conical device. When Tom arrived with a pot of boiling water, Mr. Weasley slowly and carefully poured it into the cone, leaning down to watch the dark, aromatic fluid collect in the glass flagon. The four sat around George and Arthur expectantly watching.   No wonder the French love coffee, the aroma's wonderful. When the flagon was full, George removed the cone, lifted the flagon and poured six cups.

The coffee was good, the cups were warm in their hands and the aroma was strong and pleasing. While they sipped, Mrs. Weasley arrived with Tom who was levitating a big tray of scrambled eggs, sausages and a tower of toast leaning at an improbable angle. Ron was first to help himself but soon everyone was busy with breakfast. Ron was the also last to finish, scrapping the remnants onto his plate with his fork. When all were done, George brewed another round of coffee and they planned their day, cups in hand.

Harry began, “I've got to go to Gringotts first but then I think we should start with Madame Malkin," he paused mid-senterence to ask Hermione what had just occurred to him, "Do we need more Muggle money while I'm there?"

The mention of Muggle money clued a memory for her.  "Mr. Weasley, if you're right about how Muggles value gold, there's huge discrepancy.  My folks got Galleons for something like eight pounds.  Harry, that means you'll get eight pounds for your Galleons.  It dosen't make sense.  Between what's left from closing my account last year and from yesterday's shopping, there's enough for everyone to have pocket money.  Let's forget about it until we learn more."

Arthur answered, "Well, I may be off about the price, but it's sure a lot more than eight pounds."

"Fine."  Harry continuing composing a plan, "Well need brooms no matter what we do."

Hermione added, “Flourish and Blotts, we should check if they have anything about wizards in Australia.”

“Then,” said Ron, “Weasleys Wizard Wheezes to see how you're getting along George”

George, occupied with his coffee, acknowledged his brother with a tip of his cup. "I've got to get one of these gizmos at the shop.  It's getting harder to go back to tea."

"There's lots of Muggle things for coffee."  Hermione pointed to the glass flagon, "Like that, others with little presses, electric . . ."

Mr. Weasley was so curious he cut accross her, "Electric you say?"

Mrs. Weasley quickly stood, took Arthur by the arm and announced, "Arthur needs to be at work. I'll go to the Ministry with him and see his new office, then I'll take a Ministry fire back to The Burrow.  We'll see you this evening.”

Ginny was already standing.  "So much for electric coffee pots.  I do like it though, there's something about the bitter flavour that really gets you."

She could have said, "really gets you going," because everyone set off.  After Ron tapped the three bricks with his wand, the wall onto Diagon Alley opened and the four started walking toward Gringotts. It was still early so the stores were just opening and there were few witches and wizards out and about. Ollivander, looking better than he had the last time they saw him, but still terribly thin and pale, acknowledged them with a smile and a wave from the front door of his shop. Two middle-aged witches were already waiting.

“Probably Muggle-borns who lost their wands to Umbridge's inquisition,” guessed Ron.

Harry reminded him, “it's a lot nicer than the last time we were here."

“I hated it!” said Hermione emphatically. “Just looking like her made me feel sick, dirty.”

Harry explained to Ginny that when they went to steal the Horcrux, Hufflepuff's Cup, from Gringotts, Hermione had Polyjuice masqueraded as Beatrix Lestrange.  Ron – his features transfigured by Hermione – was disguised as a foreign wizard and Harry, with Griphook on his back, was hidden beneath the Invisibility Cloak.

Ginny in turn told them how excited everyone at school was about the rumor that Harry, Ron and Hermione had broken into Gringotts and escaped on a dragon. “There were some really wild stories. The Patil twins were telling everyone they saw that you'd blasted a tunnel through the rock.”

“Well, the tunnel was already there, we did widen it a little” said Harry with a chuckle.

There was something about the familiarity of the shops and sights that was relieving, or  maybe, it was the lack of dred.  What ever it was, talking about the past came easier when everything around them recalled delightful comforts and fascinations.  They talked on until they reached Gringotts.  There, they stopped to read the warning to thieves.

Hermione thought aloud. “Do you suppose this is a good idea.  We did a lot of damage.”

“If they still had the Probity Probes they would know we're just here to get some of Harry's gold,” mused Ron. “But we Confunded them anyway, so I don't suppose it makes a difference.”

“We could split-up,” suggested Harry, “if I get into trouble you could back my escape.”

“Ginny imitated Arthur's voice and gestures. “Four wands are better than one,” and started up the stairs.

When they passed through the doors into the magnificent main hall their entrance exploded through it as silence. A dozen conversations ended when heads turned to regard the four friends.

Out of the silence boomed a familiar voice, “You back to rob the place?”

A heartily smiling Bill Weasley was coming toward them from around a counter to the side. “Mum told me you'd be here this morning.  Sorry I missed dinner last night, we've been working on some very nastily cursed gold in the Selwyn vault. A right nasty bugger, Selyn was. His cousin is in St. Mungo’s and all he did was pick-up a Galleon.”

“So, you here to keep the goblins off?” asked Ron.

“No,” answered Bill as he came to a stop near the center of the hall. “I'm here to clue you in. They're not happy that you got away but they'll mever admit that anyone got treasure out of their vaults. Under the Death Eaters there's no question they would’ve lost control. So, the goblins know they're in your debt. They know what side of the Knut is up.”  Bill lead them toward the tunnel side of the hall. “They'll do what goblins do very well and pretend it never happened. You won't mention it. They won't mention it and you'll get the very, very important wizard treatment from now on.”

They walked further past the high counters where most people came to transact their business until Bill showed them into a well-appointed room on the same side of the hall as the tunnel entrances. He told them to take a seat, or help themselves to any of the drinks and snacks on the side board.

“A head goblin will be here momentarily,” he said. Then speaking to Ginny and Harry with a wink and a huge grin, “So, when's the wedding?” and then looking toward Ron and Hermione, “Or, is 'wedding' plural?”

Ginny responded immediately, “Bill Weasley, it's none of your business who or when I marry!”

Bill laughed impishly as if he had gotten away with something.  He clasped Harry on the shoulder, “I knew she'd say that. I just wanted you to know what you're getting yourself into with little sister here.” Wrapping his arm around Ginny's shoulders and giving her a brotherly squeeze, he continued, smiling affectionately, “We can't let poor Harry think you're just another pretty redhead.”

“I think I figured that out for myself Bill,” answered Harry, while Ginny took a pretend swipe at his shin with her left foot.

Ginny was a little sister.  Bill's affection warmed her still.  The teasing and laughter only ended when an older goblin and his younger assistant came through the door from the main hall. “Ahh,” he said, “I will call for another cart; we did not expect four.”

Ron and Hermione looked at one another and agreed. “No need,” said Hermione, “We'll get started at Madame Malkin’s and you can meet us there.”

“Right,” said Harry, “don't you want to come? The ride’s pretty exciting.”

Ron quickly declined.  He didn't add that he could get along perfectly well without a stomach-churning spin through Gringotts' depths.

When Bill, Ron and Hermione departed, the younger goblin bowed Ginny and Harry through a door to a cart. Like all Gringotts carts it rode on tracks with seats front and back. But this one had four lanterns on posts over each wheel and plush seats. Harry and Ginny sat themselves in the rear, the younger goblin took the attendant's seat and the older goblin sat next to him. The cart began to roll fast almost immediately. It careened around the corners, dropping into the tunnels.   Soon, though, the cart came to a rapid stop, everyone was thrown forward.

The senior goblin asked his assistant, “Lantern please,” and Harry, “Your key please Mr. Potter.”

Harry gave the goblin his key as he and Ginny exited the cart. The junior goblin held the lantern while the senior goblin inserted the key, turned it, and then stood back as the magical lock clicked and whirled until the door swung partially open. The senior goblin opened it the rest of the way indicating with a bow that Harry and Ginny should step inside. His assistant passed the lantern to Harry.

When they entered the vault, Harry put his key back in his pocket and set the lantern to the side on a waist high wall-like stack of gold bars that ran along the vault's four sides. Its light gleamed in reflection off a mound of Galleons in the center of the vault. He asked Ginny, “So, how much do you think we'll need, I didn't remember to bring a bag or anything, so I suppose we'll just have to fill our pockets.”

Ginny was not prepared for the sight of so much gold, “Harry, do you have any idea how rich you are?”

Whispering so that the goblins couldn't hear, Harry explained, “Oh no, not really, this is nothing like what we saw in the Lestrange's vault. The piles were huge and there were suits of armor, all sorts of cups and vases, and everything was cursed to make dozens of worthless copies that burned when touched.”

“Your ancestors probably didn't want trophies Harry because this is the vault of a very wealthy family. You inherited the Black family's gold too, right? So, this is the wealth of two old families. She pointed to the gold bars laid crisscross in orderly rows like the stone walls at the edges of country lanes. “Those are 'Mothers of Galleons,' the gold from which Galleons are made. Each of those will make enough Galleons for any normal wizarding family to live on for quite a while.”

Harry, reached to pick-up one of the bars; he used two hands because it was heavy and wider than he could grasp with one. At the top on one side of the bar was the familiar icon, a circle bisected by a line within a triangle. “The Deathly Hallows,” he said almost to himself. Then, tracing the lines with his index finger, he showed Ginny – the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Cloak of Invisibility.

Ginny, also traced the lines of the symbol with her finger. “The cloak you inherited from you father, the wand we returned to Dumbledore's tomb, and the stone you used to recall your parents, Lupin and Sirius.” Ginny looked up from the bar to Harry. “I was surprised to learn that Beadle's story is true. Most wizards think it's just a morality tale. You know, don't brag, accept your lot, keep your head down and you'll be fine. Lovegood is, well, Lovegood.”

“Dumbledore thought the part about meeting Death on the road was to obscure the fact that three powerful wizards made these magical objects.”

“But, you united the Hallows. You're Master of Death?”

Harry knew she wanted an answer from his heart. The relief they felt talking about the past on the alley above remained in the deep rock below.  “I never actually held all three at once and I never meant to master death. We were just chasing Horcruxes and trying to stay alive. So, is there some magic in having possessed all three at one time or another?  I don't know.  I'm not sure I even know what it could possibly mean. But, the Elder Wand, I understand that magic. It's a wand like any other, just. . . well. . . bloody well exaggerated, extreme. But, not just spell casting powerful, it's attachment to the wizard it chooses is extreme too. Once it's chosen, it dies if the wizard dies and it has no new master. If I die undefeated, the wand will lose its power. That was Dumbledore's plan when he won it from Grindelwald.”

Ginny knew that he didn't want to look back but she sensed this was the time to draw him out, to let him feel anything he didn't want to feel and be done with it. “And the other Hallows?”

“The Resurrection Stone should stay lost; nothing can bring back the dead and using it can only lead to death. The cloak I will pass on to our son, just as it came to me.”

“Then, you're descended from the youngest brother?”

“It seems that way.  IIgnotus Peverell is buried in the cemetery at Godric's Hollow. The Peverell name must have gone extinct but the bloodline ran on to my farther and my ancestors have kept the symbol, which is why it's on their gold.”

They stood absorbing this for a moment when Harry said, “Ginny, nothing changes, we go on, make our decisions, and . . .”

“Rescue Hermione's parents. We'll need a lot of gold Harry.”

So, they set to work. Ginny made four piles of Galleons saying, “This should cover robes, brooms, and whatever shopping we need to do for now.” She added twice again more to each pile. As they stuffed the Galleons into the pockets of their jeans she asked, “More room in yours?”

“I can take some more in my front pockets.”

“Good,” she said, “We still don't know what we'll need to plan for Australia. It'll be good to have some extra.”

When the cart rushed back to the main floor it took one curve so quickly that Harry was pushed over against Ginny. He whispered, “At least it's not as wild a ride as the last time!”

Back on Diagon Alley, which was now much fuller, many witches and wizards were window shopping, greeting friends, coming and going from stores with boxes and bags of goods. Ginny and Harry hurried toward Madame Malkin's. Harry had to tighten his belt to keep the weighty Galleons from dropping his pants to his ankles. To them the bulges in their pockets seemed rather obvious but they made it to Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions having attracted no attention. Ron, apparently already fitted, was sitting, watching Madame Malkin pin the hem of Hermione's robe when Harry and Ginny arrived.

Madam Malkin welcomed them, “It's a pleasure to see you again Mr. Potter, Miss Weasley.   I'll be with you just as soon as I fix this hem.”

“Any trouble?” asked Hermione.

“No,” both replied, “uneventful.”

When Madam Malkin left to finish Hermione's robe, Ginny gave Hermione a pocket full of Galleons and redistributed hers.

Ron eyed the pile Harry was handing him with amazement. “You're barmy, that's got to be a dozen Galleons.”

“More,” replied Harry, “don't think about it; let's get done here and go find what's new in brooms.”

It was close to two hours before they were through. As soon as they stepped onto the alley Ron said, “I'm famished, let's eat!”

Hermione was on this immediately. “How can you be hungry? You had a huge breakfast and at least three cups of coffee.”

“I don't know. I'm just hungry. How am I supposed to know why I'm hungry? I just am.”

While Ron and Hermione continued their argument about Ron’s appetite, Harry and Ginny held hands and let them walk ahead. They'd been arguing for seven years, it was unlikely they'd stop now.

Ginny added, “They love to make-up with a snog fest.”

“Oh, should we argue too?” enthused Harry.

Ginny gave him an elbow in the ribs.  “You not had enough snogging lately Harry Potter?”

“Never!”

By the time they arrived by the door of Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlor, Ron and Hermione had finished bickering and were surveying the interior through the front window.

When Harry and Ginny caught up, Hermione told them, “Look, Honeydukes has taken Fortescues as a branch.”

“Ice cream now, dinner later?” suggested Harry. None of the others answered because they were already going through the door.

Ron ordered a double scoop of “wizard's whirl” a chocolate with a swirl of black cherry. Ginny and Hermione got single scoops of “lemon bliss,” a lemon sherbet that fizzed on the tongue. Harry, realizing that he too was hungry, went for a double “very berry,” with raspberry, blackberry and strawberry flavors in different bites. While they ate, they watched a steady stream of witches and wizards bring their youngsters in for a treat. At last, Hermione, having relished the last fizz of her lemon bliss, suggested that since things were taking a bit longer than they expected, she and Ginny should go to Flourish and Blotts while Harry and Ron shopped for brooms.

“What do we need?” asked Ron, “I'm sure my Cleansweep is back at The Burrow, I saw it sitting with Mum and Dad's. What about yours Ginny?”

Ginny replied that the Carrows had confiscated hers along with most of her things. “They were so angry that Snape sent us to the Forbidden Forest with Hagrid instead of turning us over, they went on a rampage. They took all of Neville's stuff too and I don't want to think about what they did with Arnold and Trevor. Snape – he was protecting us wasn't he?”

“Yea,” said Harry, “Dumbledore made him promise to protect the students.”

“So, Harry needs a broom, Ginny needs a broom, how about you Hermione?”

“You know I don't like flying much so why don't you, Ginny and Harry get new brooms and I'll use your Cleansweep, if we play two-on-two Quidditch at The Burrow.”

“Let's wear these robes though,” said Ginny as she rummaged in their bags trying to further consolidate their purchases. “We'll lose a couple of these bags.”

That decided, the four pulled on their robes, left Honeydukes, Harry and Ron turning left to Quality Quidditch Supplies, Ginny and Hermione right to Flourish and Blotts.

When Harry and Ron arrived at Quality Quidditch Supplies, they found the usual crowd of young wizards, noses pressed against the window, excitedly commenting about the new Firebolt sitting on a polished brass stand. This was the first real Quidditch excitement since the war ended. Ron and Harry were so much taller than the first and second years gathered around the window that they could read the sign posted beneath the broom while standing at the rear of the crowd.

The new Firebolt is the fastest broom in the wizarding world, this model features a strong, lightweight broomstick of English Oak in satin varnish for better grip during high speed maneuvers. The brass foot rest provides support in tight turns and comfort during long flights. Only the finest oat straw has been used in the Firebolt's construction and, as a new feature in this model, it is protected by a fire-proofing spell.

“Great, if you're chased by a dragon,” Harry joked to Ron, “Let's get these!”

The walls inside were covered with posters of different Quidditch teams. Puddlemere United in blue and gold flew in tight loops. The Holyhead Harpies in their gold talon on green uniforms zoomed in a V-wing formation above a stadium neither Ron nor Harry recognized. There were also posters of individual stars. Viktor Krum astride a broom with his fist raised in triumph prominent among them. There were displays of gloves, Quidditch robes with the Hufflepuff, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Gryffindor crests, and against an inside wall on racks, older Firebolts, Nimbuses and every other make of broom, stubby baby brooms for toddlers, training brooms for learners, like the ones for flying class at Hogwarts.

“May I help you gentlemen?” asked a clerk.

Harry answered, “We need three of the new Firebolts but I don't want to create a fuss with the kids out front, so could you wrap 'em up and send 'em to Tom at the Leaky Cauldron for us to pick up later?”

The clerk replied as he left for the storeroom, “Le'me check with the boss.”

“Blimey, that’ll cost a small fortune! We can do two-on-two with any broom. There's not enough room in the orchard to get really going anyway and, Merlin's socks, I’ll never be able to pay you back for a Firebolt.”

“Forget it Ron. I've got Galleons. It's been forever since we've had any fun and it's time we did. So, just forget about the gold, OK?”

At the back counter they met the clerk accompanied by the owner, Avril Huntsman, a former Beater for the Chudley Cannons. Huntsman recognized Harry and Ron immediately. “Three Firebolts is it Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley?” He slipped a scrap of parchment across the counter. “Please note that we have shaved a bit off the number for the honor of serving the Gryffindor Seeker and Keeper.” Harry started counted out the Galleons and Ron joined in laying down the golden coins.

“Gryffindor Seeker and Keeper. . .” Ron mused as they left the store “. . . that was nice but that broom is still more than I can afford.”

“Ron, don't think like that. I've been living at your place every chance I get; your folks take care of me like I was your brother. . .”

Before he finished his sentence Ron cut-in, “Well, you practically are, and if you marry Ginny you will be.”

“When I marry Ginny! So, don't argue with your brother.”

“You mean my little brother,” laughed Ron giving Harry a quick slap on the shoulder. It was good to be mates, on their own, out with the girls in a wizard's world the way they wanted it to be.

They spotted Ginny and Hermione coming down the opposite side of the alley and crossed to meet them, “Any luck?”

“One book, World Wide Wizarding.  It's a bit old and has only one chapter on Australia,  Apparently witches and wizards have not settled there in any numbers and the local aboriginals can do some magic but haven't discovered wands,” reported Hermione.

“We got you these,” said Ginny, waving two magical razors in her left hand. “You got brooms?”

“Yes,” answered Ron as he checked his watch, “we had them sent to the Leaky Cauldron so we didn't have to haul them around. What else do we need, it's . . . blimey. . . past three already.”

“We should get something for your Mum and Dad,” said Harry, “but I can't think of what it should be.”

“Mum's soup cauldron is pretty old,” offered Ginny, “but she fixes that herself and if we're going to get them something, let's get what they would never buy themselves, a real present.” Then, an idea came to her, “A new owl! Errol can't take anything bigger than a tiny roll of parchment – poor little thing must be as old as Bill – how about a new owl?”

They all agreed that would be a great idea and turned up the alley toward Eeylops Owl Emporium.

There wasn't much of a selection at Eeylops. The Death Eater War had taken its toll on people's owls and snatchers kept the Owl Masters from the forests where the magical owls were selected. Seeing the owls on their perches reminded Harry of Hedwig and for a moment he was tempted to look for a snowy owl but, if they were going to Australia, now was not the time.

“What about Crookshanks?” he asked Hermione.

“He's at school. Professor McGonagall is taking care of him. I thought maybe it would be best if he stayed there until we know what we're doing.”

Ginny called to them from behind a floor-to-ceiling set of shelves full of cages, many empty. When they joined her, they immediately saw the large, powerful eagle owl that had caught her eye.

“Now, I'm sure they'd never buy him for themselves but don't you think it makes sense, with us in the house and who knows what we'll need to locate Hermione's parents.  A powerful owl will be handy.”

All agreed.  Ginny selected a large wicker cage from a shelf near the counter.  "We'd better get this too.  It's a present and if anything this big flies through the window unannounced, it'll give Molly collewobbles."

The old witch that ran the shop said she'd take it to the Leaky Cauldron.

“Look!” said Ron, somewhat incongruously holding up his arm to show his watch, which was still beneath the sleeve of his robe. “It's late. If we're going to have any time to visit with Fr. . . .” Catching himself about say “Fred and George,” he adapted “. . . the joke shop, we'd better get a move on.”

His point was well taken and the four headed toward Weasley's Wizard Wheezes with no further discussion. When they arrived, it was packed with customers. The two clerks were looking a little harried as they tried to answer questions, give directions and make change.

Ron asked, “Where's George?”

The clerk gestured up, meaning on the floor above the shop where the living and work spaces were. Passing through the curtains at the back of the shop, they climbed the stairs and entered the upstairs workroom where they found George. That is, they saw most of George's legs. He was standing on a step stool inside a large closet stuffed with boxes, jugs and canisters.

“What're you doin' in there?” asked Ron.

“Hid'n the love potions.”

“Why?” asked Harry. “You're gonna need more downstairs by the look of the shelves.”

George answered as he stepped down from the stool and turned toward them. “Well, when I heard that Hermione Granger was snogging Ron in the garden, I knew that the only thing that could addle a smart, good lookin' girl like Hermione was our super-strength, long-lasting Resist Me Not Potion.”

Ron and Hermione joined the laughter, enjoying George's tease

“As for you Harry,” George said, turning to where Harry stood. “There's nothing I can do. Once the Ginger Demon has you in her clutches, there's no escape!”

Not a second later he jumped and screeched “Ouch!” while he rubbed his left buttock.

Ginny teased, “Must've been a bee. I hear there's lots of 'em around this time of year.”

Hermione looked at Ron and asked, “Do you Weasleys ever talk or do you just tease each other?” Ron shrugged and grinned. “So business is good?” she asked George.

George replied, “It's good, Harry killed the shield lines when he got rid of whozi-whats-it, but now people are shopping again, kids are talking about going back to school and it's not even summer. With two we could keep up, but on my own, I'm way behind.”

Fred's absence was like a hole in the world where he should be.  But they were close to Fred here.  To do for the shop was to do for Fred.

“What can we do?” asked Harry.

Hermione jumped-in, “Aren't those fake Galleons for the Protean Charm, for messages?”

“Sure, we got that from you; you could finish those if you've the time.”

“What else?” asked Ginny.

There was a great deal else, and all four were soon at work helping George prepare his stock in trade.   Ginny was brewing potions, Harry making comical shield hats, Hermione creating piles of secret message Galleons and Ron had crossed to another upstairs room to do the packages and labels.

At 7:00PM George wondered out loud whether, “Mum and Dad might worry.” He sent a Patronus to The Burrow telling them that everyone was helping out at the shop but that they'd finish by eight or maybe eight-thirty.

With a good bit of the back-log recovered, George, Harry, Ginny and Hermione checked on Ron across the hall where he was labeling and boxing the stock to go downstairs. George, seeing some of the labels and packages, started to say “Those aren't our labels.” He took a longer look, “Ron, these are great. They're much better than ours. The colors look really good. I like how you've given different lines different colors and matched them with the interlinked three W's. Where'd you learn to do this?”

“Don't know.” said Ron. “The images just came to me and once I see something I like, it's easy. It just happens.”

While everyone was complimenting Ron on his designs, Hermione looked lost in thought, but said nothing beyond joining the praise.

After helping George magic the stock downstairs, the four set off for the Leaky Cauldron at a quick pace; they were already late. When they arrived, Tom told them that Mr. Weasley had sent a Patronus asking if they could use the inn's fireplace. He had already stacked the purchases from their rooms and the deliveries from Diagon Alley next to the fire. Harry paid Tom from the Galleons in his pocket. While thanking him for the kind service, he added another, “For the gracious treatment.”

The Floo Powder was in a glass bowl on a metal stand like those in the main room wizards used to clean their pipes. Ginny went first saying, “I'll talk to Mum, I'm sure she's fussing.” Then, with a bag on each arm, she stepped into the fire, flicked the Floo Powder saying “The Burrow” and was gone, spinning away in emerald green flames.

It took a trip by everyone and another by Mr. Weasley to bring back the eagle owl in his wicker cage. The dinning table was stacked with bags and the huge, wrapped package containing their brooms. The owl cage was hung on one of the hooks Mrs. Weasley used to hang her kitchen pots. She asked if it had been fed.

“Oh!” Hermione gasped, “We forgot owl treats.”

“Make a list for when you next go to Diagon Alley, but I'll feed – what's his name?” asked Mrs. Weasley.

“That's up to you,” answered Ginny and Hermione together.

Mrs. Weasley looked puzzled, so Harry explained. “We thought that you should have a house present, after all, The Burrow's been our haven.”

“Oh my,” said Mr. Weasley, “you didn't need to do that, we've got Errol.”

“We know we didn't have to, we just wanted to,” said Ginny.

“We'll have to keep Errol though, if we send that magnificent owl to Aunt Muriel, she'll be sure we've unearthed a family treasure!”

They sorted all the clothes into piles depending on who they were for. Then, Ron and Ginny took the boy's and girl's piles up to their rooms. Harry and Mr. Weasley fed the owl walnuts that Mrs. Weasley shelled with her wand and discussed whether the eagle owl should have a name from mythology, something heroic, or something more like the familiar names they call one another – Arthur, Harry, Ginny, Molly, Hermione, Ron and such. The question went unanswered because when Ron and Ginny returned they turned everyone's attention to the single large package now dominating the table.

“Harry!” called Ron. When Harry turned toward him, Ron pointed at the package, “Brooms, Harry, brooms!”

Ginny added, “Flying Harry!”

Mr. Weasley joined them at the table and all went to work removing the wrappings until three, new, magnificent Firebolts lay side-by-side. They family stood in what could only be called a kind of respectful silence.

That silence was broken by Ginny who handed Harry a broom and said, “Wanna go for a little ride; it’s dark; no one will see.”

Mrs. Weasley objected. “It's late, it's dark, you haven't eaten . . .” Before she finished her sentence she realized it was hopeless. Her husband too was heading out the door, so she followed.

Harry and Ginny mounted side-by-side and kicked-off. The ascent was so powerful that both gave slight gasps and gripped their broomsticks tighter. They ascended, then Ginny turned  right and Harry left, individually working into their maneuvers. They quickly fell into rhythm with their brooms, learning their characteristics as they flew. Then they came together, flying side-by-side. As if dancing, the two flew together, closer and closer, Ginny leading, then Harry, going nowhere, relishing the pleasure of flight. When they flew a long inside turn, Harry gazed at Ginny in the starlight. She was magnificent. The beauty of her hair streaming behind, the exhilaration of their flying, the happiness of being together was beyond words.

He wondered, is this what it's like for everyone in love? Did my parents feel like this? Is this how Arthur and Molly feel, connected, whole?

Ron gave the “up” command. Standing next to his broom hovering at mounting height he watched Harry and Ginny shoot upward. He turned to Hermione saying, “Come'on, we can watch them while we take a turn around The Burrow and the orchard.”

Hermione replied that Ron should just go follow Harry and Ginny that she was not all that excited about flying and he'd want to speed around. Ron left his Firebolt and took Hermione by the hand, leading her to where it hovered. Ron mounted, turning to give Hermione a hand. When she was settled behind him, her hands firmly gripped around his waist, he flew the broom gently upward, turning to circle The Burrow as he pointed out Harry and Ginny's acrobatics in the sky.

After another sweeping turn together, Ginny shot ahead pointing downward. Harry saw where she was going and moved alongside her, slowing as they approached the ground. Side-by-side they slowed and stopped at mounting height. Ginny dismounted first, Harry followed. She took her mother by the elbow and gave her a tug toward the waiting broom. “Com'on, have a ride.”

Harry bowed Mr. Weasley toward his broom, “It's fast and very responsive, just shift a little and it acts like it knows where to go.”

Molly's objections were quickly overcome, as they were meant to be. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley mounted, kicked-off rather gently, and took a rising turn upward, ascending and ascending until they were indistinguishable except as shadows crossing the stars.

Ron and Hermione landed softly next to Harry and Ginny. Much relaxed Hermione had loosened her grip and instead laid her head against Ron's back, her hands resting on his shoulders. They dismounted and returned to the house. The two couples made sandwiches and tea while they waited for Molly and Arthur to finish flying.


Chapter 6: A Real Non Sequiter
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Author Note:  I though some of the reviews got to the point of the problem with this chapter so I re-wrote it, 9/23/2014.  Thanks, Bill.


Chapter Six

A Real Non Sequitur

Arthur and Molly knew they'd need to wait breakfast because the younger family members made something of an evening of it after they flew their new Firebolts. Molly magicked a pot of tea. She handed a cup to Arthur as they sat at the end of the big kitchen table. They too had talked last evening, although neither as late nor long as the young couples. Seeing them so relaxed, happy and in love, had stirred Molly's worries.

Molly took up where she left off. “Arthur, you've got to do it, it's important they go back to school. You saw them last night; they're so in love.” She was a bit agitated, as she usually was when worried.

Arthur knew the signs, so he didn't beat around the Flutterby, “Dear, I agree, you know what Kingsley hopes, I do too; they're so ready to learn, going to The Ministry now would be such a waste. They'd end up cleaning curses out of broom closets.”

Molly wagged her finger at him, “Do you really think your daughter, Ginevra Molly Weasley, is going back to living in a dorm after she and Harry start making love? And just how long do you think that's gonna be?” She paused, tilted her head a bit toward her husband and looked him straight in the eye, “a day, fifteen minutes, last night?”

“Your daughter” was her way of letting him know that whatever bit of parenting was to be done, was to be done by him, so he was smiling at the assignment when he answered. “No, no more that Ron. No more than us, we only made it through the last couple of months because the exams were on us.”

Molly smiled a little but carried on, “All the more reason Arthur.”

“I get it Molly, I get it, they're kids only as long as they're not having kids of their own. I don't disagree with you, but I don't see what options we have, besides pleading I suppose. As soon as Ginny comes of age, they can do anything they want.”

Molly ignored that, “Well, we're pretty sure where they go to bed, who knows where they spend the night. I don't think we've got much longer, so . . . we've got to hop to Arthur

“Have you taught them the spell?”

“If they don't go back to Hogwarts, well, I tell'em, but Arthur, don't you think that's like telling them to be getting on with it?

Arthur never answered. When Ginny and Hermione came through the kitchen door, Molly bounced up and lead the girls off to magic breakfast leaving Arthur to sip his tea and contemplate how he was to get the four to agree to a final year at Hogwarts. Harry joined him at the stove end of the table.

Hermione had called Ron over to show him a tiny jar of coffee beans she then poured into a larger glass canister. With a circular wave of her wand and Planto Ebertas, the beans filled the canister. She explained while reserving a small jar, “It’s the five laws. You can't make food, but if you've some, you can make more. Remember? If we'd've learned this in school, no hungry nights eating toadstools!”

“Blimey, blimey, if we'd known that, I'd've always kept a bit of my favorites with me. Mum should teach at Hogwarts.” He took the beans and poured them into an old hand grinder and began turning the crank with a repetition spell, “It always smells so good to grind them.”

It was a leisurely breakfast. While they ate, Ginny sorted through the pile of papers she gathered on Arcade Street, segregating the interesting from the not so that she magicked into the firebox of the big kitchen stove. Molly read The Prophet while Hermione paged through World Wide Wizarding. Harry and Ron surprised Arthur with a copy of How things Work and moved up the table so they could read together.

Hermione almost seemed to interrupt herself, “I'm afraid it'll be hard to find help in Australia.”

Everyone stopped what they were doing and started to stand so they could look at the book but Hermione suggested, “How about I read out loud?”

When they sat back down, she began, “Chapter Twelve, Australia, Outback of the Wizarding World.” She paused for a moment to arrange the book, took a deep breath and began.

To understand wizarding in Australia it is necessary to understand how Australia was settled. Australia's original inhabitants are aboriginals who, greatly reduced in number through disease, dislocation and policies based in racial prejudice, are now living in Australian cities as well as the rural outback. Some aboriginals are magical, although limited to ritual magic, never having developed the use of wands. Using ceremony, and in the case of some shaman, chants, fasting and ingesting particular plants, they are known to achieve trance states in which they can communicate over distances, divine the location of food, and heal, sometimes remotely.

Europeans did not become aware of Australia until a century after wizarding secrecy. It was not until 1770 that the eastern coast, the area attractive to settlement, was explored by Captain Cook of the Royal Navy. Between 1788 and 1868 an estimated 150,000 convicts were forcibly settled through the policy of transportation whereby those sentenced for crimes, including death penalty crimes, were transported to Australia. There, under colonial authority, they were employed for their trade skills or, lacking such, as labor for the construction of roads and other infrastructure.

This was not an environment that attracted wizarding peoples. Given wizards' post-secrecy tendency to settle in the smaller, out-of-the-way places of the English and European countryside, their independence from the non-magical economy, and – as must be acknowledged – the superior ability of wizard miscreants to escape detection or capture by non-magicals, wizards did not fall afoul of the English justice system and were not among those transported to Australia. Thus, wizard immigration to Australia was essentially non-existent until the “Second World War” of the non-magical peoples. The destruction of some wizarding communities was so complete that the surviving magical people immigrated to Australia.

This trend accelerated in 1947 with an Australian immigration program that resulted in one in five Australians having been born overseas. As entire wizarding families moved to Australia, enticed by reports of greater opportunity, affordable land, and the passing of the war-time threat of invasion, the community expanded, created its own institutions, and encouraged the immigration of those with particular skills such as the fabrication of objects necessary to wizarding life, brooms, cauldrons and wands. By the late 1950's magical peoples were located throughout Australia. An unplottable central authority and a Diagon-Alley-like commercial district begun in the 19th century were completed. The entrance is in a wall behind a statue in front of a colonial era building, The Hyde Park Barracks, in the heart of old Sydney.

When Hermione finished reading, Harry noted, “Well, it's still possible. At least there are wizards there and we know where to go. Although, there's loads it doesn't say.”

“Like how to get into their Diagon Alley,” added Ron, “or what they use for money. Look at this though.” Ron turned a student newspaper around to face the others:

Youth International Peace Initiative Conference in Sydney Australia December 19th to January 1st, 1998. Join fellow students and youth from around the world in Sydney Australia for the Y.I.P.I conference. Learn how student activists are organizing youth efforts in their country, meet government representatives and leading peace workers; learn what you can do to advance the cause of world peace, environmental awareness and youth-to-youth cooperation. Fly to Sydney and room with fellow conferees on the Sydney University campus, spend free time exploring Sydney Australia on your own or as part of our organized tours. ₤1,200 per person, inclusive. Register on-line at www.YIPI.org or by mail to Y.I.P.I. Box 12457 London, England, EC1.”

“Where's on-line?” asked Molly.

Hermione explained, “I think places you can find on a computer are called 'on-line'.”

Ron asked his father if he knew any place at the Ministry where they could learn about computers. Mr. Weasley reminded them that the person who knew the most about the Muggle world was Bill Mullens, who they'd met at the Leaky Cauldron.

“I'm sure Kingsley is arranging a meeting and, anyway, being who you are, everyone will be happy to help.” Mr. Weasley took his time finishing the last of his coffee. Then, thinking he knew a way to start the conversation they wanted, he asked Harry, “Did you see Ginny, Hermione, and Luna duel Bellatrix?”

Harry answered, “I saw Avada Kedavra miss Ginny by a hair.”

“Did you see Ginny's feint to the right that drew it?”

Harry wondered where Mr. Weasley was going with this, “No.”

Harry wasn't alone. This was a real non-sequitur. Hadn't they been talking about computers? When Mr. Weasley saw their confusion, he lead them where he intended to go. “Here's the point, you're about to set a course for your lives with the decisions you make. Right?”

“Right” answered Ginny while the others nodded in agreement.

Arthur carried on, “Those are big decisions. Think about this. Witches and wizards gain strength three ways. First, growing. Coming of age doesn't mean your growth has finished and I don't mean just growing out of your robes. As you mature, your magic increases. Bellatrix was at the height of her powers, yet spell-against-spell, Ginny, Hermione and Luna were holding their own.”

Ginny objected, “Dad, it was three against one!”

He dismissed her objection, “Think about it, the more you use a spell, the more concentrated it becomes. Practice increases focus, focus increases power. I'd be surprised if you had much practice with those spells before you were in combat. Yet, fighting for her life, Bellatrix couldn't get past your defenses.”

He didn't stop to let them question or comment. “Now, keep this in mind too, the bond between two magical people is like a magnifier for magic. Because your bonds came at the price of courage and patience, they're strong already, but nothing like they could one day be.”

Ginny knew his style, “Dad! You're going somewhere with this. Where? What's it you want us to do?”

“Yea, Dad,” jumped in Ron, “What's on your mind?”

“Your magical powers are developing so fast no one can guess what the limits of your potentials are. Whatever they are, you're nowhere near them. Go to school. Get another year of training you'll get nowhere else, have a little fun and forget the war.”

Molly Weasley restrained herself no longer. “It's been hard times for a long time. Arthur and I think you should post-pone getting married until you've finished school. In fact, we think you shouldn't make any big decisions until you've done N.E.W.T.s.”

Arthur quickly added, “Harry, Hermione, please understand, we couldn't be happier that you're part of our family. We love and admire you both but spending next year at school would be best for you too.”

“But Mum. . .” objected Ginny, her voice full of determination.

Molly cut-her-off, “Ginevra Molly Weasley, your father and I are neither blind nor senile, nor have we forgotten what it's like to be young. When, Ginevra, before today, was the last time you volunteered to be in the kitchen with me?”

“Well, a while ago. . .” replied Ginny, who started to say more but her mother again interrupted.

“You were nine. You decided that you were going to be my helper and – sneaking off with my wand – you turned all of dinner and a good part of the kitchen into a heap of smoldering noodles.”

“Got ya there sis,” teased Ron, who quickly wished he had shut it when his mother's attention turned to him.

“Ah yes, what do you suppose it means that Ronald Bilius Weasley, our youngest son and dedicated Quidditch fanatic, decides that a leisurely fly around The Burrow with Hermione is more exciting than shooting through the sky with his best mate on a brand new Firebolt? Just where'd that come from?”

Ron looked sheepish and only managed, “M- m- mum . . . Hermione doesn't like fast flying.”

Mrs. Weasley, once started, was hard to stop. “We've lived with the four of you for a month now. Do your really think that we can't see that four friends are really two couples? We must go carefully around corners and what-all to be sure we don't stumble on a snogging session. You hold hands every chance you get, kiss good morning like you were parted for years and good night like you were leaving for the ends of the wizarding world.”

Both couples were holding hands beneath the table. They had the sense of it now. They could hear the conviction in her voice.

“You're bonding so strongly that we can almost see the bonds between you. That's wonderful, like Arthur said, we couldn't be happier. But, if those bonds are to be everything they can be, you should give yourselves a chance to be young. Go back to school. Get your N.E.W.T.s. Enjoy a year being together.” She'd become quite animated, her cheeks were rosy and her hands reached toward them in a pleading motion, “Then, weddings after school the way of our kind. And, if weddings aren’t what you want, fine, live together, whatever you want.”

Hermione responded to Mrs. Weasley's heart-felt plea, “About the bond, you're right, but we've not even talked about getting married. I think it's obvious we will. I can't imagine life another way, but the war's not over for us. We need to find my parents; we need to settle some things before we can put our war to an end.”

“Malfoys!” said Harry.

“Kreacher,” offered Ginny, “Harry has to decide what to do about Grimmauld Place and we'll need to decide what we want to do, you know, a job or . . .what?”

“So,” Mrs. Weasley started, “go back to school then. Hold off on big decisions until you've had some fun. Go, be young, be happy,” she was unashamedly pleading.

The four were silently contemplating what 'big decisions' she might mean when Ginny looked at Hermione, laughed and made it plain. “We're to stay out of the boy's beds – no baby-making. I guess Mum's not ready to be grand-mum.”

Mrs. Weasley turned toward Ginny with an expression that suggested she was about to chastise her. She didn't, “I'm ready. Are you?”

Ginny didn't speak but Molly knew the answer so she kept on. “You've never had a year where you were just at school. Have it, enjoy it, be together, snog your hearts out.”

Ginny replied, “What's it Mum? Do you think we'll change our minds, that it's just that we clung to each other during the war? That we'll be different in a year?”

“No, the opposite, but that's all the more reason you should have the memories for when you raise your kids. Voldemort stole your youth. You should be young while you still can."

Arthur said, “Believe me, marriage occupies the mind.”

None of the four actually understood what Arthur meant. It must relate to being married and going back to school. But, none of them had thought of anything beyond being together. Recognizing that they belonged together was so joyful, so exciting, that they had yet to look beyond the wonder of going to bed each night believing they would be alive and together in the morning. For them, knowing they would marry didn't mean having set a date, having made a plan. It just seemed inevitable, the obvious outcome of how they felt, how they were. It was something that fit an only barely-imagined future.

What Molly meant by “having memories” wasn't clear either. Yet, the firmness of her conviction and the depth of her love was. They were sub-consciously acceding to her not because they fully understood, or had consciously agreed, or because the idea wasn't unappealing. They were being honest with themselves. They had no plan, not even an inkling. Arthur and Molly's certainty that they should return to school was answering a question they'd yet to ask.

Ginny had doubts, “We've got a lot to do; we don't know how to get to Australia; we don't know how to find Mr. and Mrs. Granger, and . . .”

Harry explained when Ginny paused, “We've been on a sort of vacation from our future, just enjoying our freedom and, well, just being alive and together. Being happy with friends.”

Arthur gave the four an impish grin. “Yes, yes, that's the best of being young, isn't it, being happy with friends. You'll live long lives; you'll be wonderful parents but there's no hurry.”

Hermione said with some emphasis, “They're right! We have no idea what we're doing, or how long it'll take, and there's no reason we couldn't be back in school. I'm pretty sure the Hogwarts teachers could help.”

Ron, looked at Harry and Ginny in turn, “There's Quidditch."

“There's that,” enthused Harry, “but Kingsley said we could start Auror training and we did say we wanted to.”

Mr. Weasley answered, “Harry, the Ministry's a horror show. They were so intent on taking over they never got around to actually running it. The Auror Office was especially hard hit. Kingsley's got enough on his hands just keeping the place from collapsing.” Then, he passed The Prophet across the table, “Take a look at this.”

They turned the paper around and crowded around it with their knees on the bench and their elbows on the table. The title of the article was “Hogwarts Classes to Start on Time for the 1998-1999 School Year.” There was a picture of Professor McGonagall in her office, the portrait of Dumbledore above her, her quill moving across parchment. The text beneath read:

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry will open Monday the first of September. Students who missed schooling during the recent upheaval are encouraged to return. Minerva McGonagall, recently confirmed as headmistress by the Board of Governors, told The Prophet that not only had all the damage done to the castle in the recent war been repaired but that many exciting educational changes were also under way. Professor Sprout will be continuing in the Herbology post as will Professor Flitwick at Charms, Professor Bins at Wizarding History, and Professor Slughorn at Potions. Professors Firenze and Trelawney will share instructional hours in Divination. Following the tragic loss of Charity Burbage, Muggle Studies will be taught by Professor Mullens, a scholar from the Ministry of Magic. Professor Sandberg, a senior Auror, will be filling the posts of Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts and Head of Gryffindor House. Rubeus Hargid will return as Professor for Care of Magical Creatures and Headmistress McGonagall will also teach Transfiguration.

The article produced a flurry of asides.

“Slughorn's back.”

“Mullens, we met him at the Leaky Caldron.”

“Hargid's back too.”

“Trelawney won't be happy, Firenze's teaching.”

“Yea, but we're done with Divination.”

“What about Muggle Studies, I wonder what the new curriculum will be?” asked Hermione.

Ron had The Prophet in hand, “Get this:”

Arthur Weasley, head of the Muggle Relations Office at the Ministry of Magic told The Prophet that Professor Mullens is “probably has more experience with Muggle life than anyone in the wizarding world today. Professor Mullens is developing a curriculum that will provide young witches and wizards a better idea of how Muggles solve the problems common to magical and non-magical peoples.”

“Dad, you didn't tell us,” exclaimed Ginny.

“Kingsley just announced it. You know, we talked about it; how dangerous it is to be ignorant of Muggle ways, how damaging a dark wizard can be to Muggles who have no idea of magic. And, the implicit threat to secrecy is a huge risk.”

Harry nodded in agreement but returned to the topic of big decisions. “Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, if it means that much to you, you mean too much to us to refuse. I don't see why we can't talk to Professor McGonagall and think about going back to school. As for getting married . . .”

Ginny finished his sentence, “and making love, we'll work that out for ourselves.”

Mr. Weasley laughed, “Molly and I found there's a delightful territory between snogging and making babies. Didn't we Molly?"

Mrs. Weasley grinned at her husband but her reply was to the four, “So, how about an owl to Professor McGonagall to arrange a meeting?”

The four agreed and went looking for quill and parchment as Hermione asked, “Did you decide on a name for the eagle owl?”

“Adonis, he's such a handsome boy.”


Chapter 7: Householders
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Chapter Seven

Householders

Adonis returned the next day with a reply from Professor McGonagall:

I will be available to discuss your next year's school plans a week from tomorrow. Please use the floo network from The Burrow. The fireplace in the Gryffindor common room may be accessed as “Gryffindor common.” The Gargoyle password is “key lime pie.” If this appointment is suitable, please send your handsome new owl with confirmation. Hagrid sends his regards and hopes for a visit.
                                            Sincerely, M. McGonagall, Headmistress.

No sooner had they sent Adonis with confirmation than a Ministry owl arrived with a message from the Minister.

As we discussed at the Leaky Cauldron, I have arranged for an open Ministry of Magic assembly two days from now at 10:00AM. Bill Mullens will meet you afterward. If there is any problem with this arrangement, please let me know as soon as possible. I will come to The Burrow and escort you to the Ministry.
                                      Thank you, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Minister of Magic.

When the owls arrived, the two couples had been spending the morning talking with Mrs. Weasley about her spring planting ideas. Hermione had read in Better Witches Gardens that gnomes could be induced to permanently leave by constantly playing “Stairway to Haven,” a song by “Snog” a popular wizard band. Harry and Ron's opinion that de-gnoming had always been fun was ignored.  Even they would admit, de-gnoming had never been thoroughly done and was thus entirely ineffective. Regardless, the plan to musically offend the gnomes was tabled for a talk with George about how to repeatedly play “Stairway to Haven” without driving The Burrow residents starkers.

“If we're going up to Hogwarts next week,” said Harry, “we'd better get an idea of what we plan to do, and just what we're asking.  Is there some parchment?   Shouldn't we make a list?”

“There's parchment, ink and quills in the sitting room side-table, let's move in there,” suggested Ginny.

The four gathered in the sitting room, Ron and Hermione on the couch, Harry and Ginny in the arm chairs where Mr. and Mrs. Weasley usually sat to read. Hermione moved the side table in front of the coach, wet a quill, and looked at Harry.

“OK, here's a go. We take the Y.I.P.I. trip to Sydney. We'll be . . . well . . . disguised as Muggles.  We'll need to know what to say about who we are.  We'll need Muggle identities. When we arrive, we'll find the Australian Ministry of Magic, or whatever it is, and see if we can get some help finding Hermione's parents.”

“What do we do when we find your folks” asked Ron, looking toward Hermione.

Hermione had already thought it out. “Assuming we go with the Y.I.P.I. group, it won't be until the Christmas holidays. That means they'll have been the Wilkins for more than a year. It'd be best if I could spend a day or so with them before attempting to restore their identities. But, that might not be possible. They won't know who we are.”

Hermione paused, her friends knew she was puzzling something out and stayed silent. Her thought complete, she continued where she left off, “We'll need to be with them somewhere private. Also, we'll need to be with them after their memories are restored, a chance to fill out what's happened since, answer questions, settle any discrepancies.”

Ginny added, “Hermione, if they've been living there for months and months, won't they have jobs, a house, friends? We'll need time to arrange things and they'll need time too.”

Hermione looked at Ginny, shrugged her shoulders and raised her eyebrows, “True! We'll have to deal with what we find.”

“Money,” said Ron, “we'll need Muggle money for almost everything. How much was the Y.I.P.I. tour? Something like ₤1,200 each, wasn't it? Not to mention the mailboxes and stuff that Hermione needed to manage her house. Who knows what else we'll need Muggle money for?”

Hermione hadn't forgotten the cost.  "That's 600 Galleons just for the Y.I.P.I. trip."

None knew for sure the relative value of Galleons, Sickles and Knuts to Pounds, Shillings and Pence. Ginny knew, Ron and Hermione understood, that Harry had a significant wealth in gold. But, how to turn gold into Muggle money other than at Gringotts was a mystery.

“Wow,” said Harry, “we've got more than we can handle. We better start with the stuff we can't get wrong. Maybe Professor Mullens can help about the money when we're at the Ministry.  But, I have Galleons whatever the cost.  So, we should find out about Y.I.P.I. quick. If we can't go with the Y.I.P.I. group, we'll need another plan.”

“That means a mailbox.” Hermione quickly talked it through. “Right, we can use my parents'. We can buy envelopes, paper and stamps the next time we go to Arcade Street. I'm pretty sure I saw a stationary store in the same block as the pub where we left Bill and Ellen.  Muggle mail's no problem.”

Ginny insisted, “We really could use a place to work, where we can set up stuff and not have to shuffle it around the house. We need an office like Dad's. We could use my old room but we'd have to pack up when anyone visits and it's awfully small for four.”

“Grimmauld Place!”

“What!” exclaimed Ron.

“Grimmauld Place,” repeated Harry. “It's mine; it's empty.   Now that we can apparate back and forth freely, it's convenient enough.”

Hermione thought aloud, “OK! We know Yaxley took the Death Eaters in because it was turned upside-down. Yaxley's dead; Snape's dead. What about Lucius Malfoy?  Where's Malfoy?  Would he know about Grimmauld Place?” No one answered, so Hermione changed the subject, “I've only read about the Fidelius Charm but I'm sure each of us is a Secret-keeper so we can bring people if we need.”

"Well, it's sure safer than it was and Malfoy's probably gone to ground. . ."

"Ron jeered, "Like a snake."

“. . .and we can apparate there two-by-two under the Invisibility Cloak.  We're good at that,” laughed Harry.

Ron noted, “All the old wizarding houses are connected to the floo network, maybe we can just travel by Floo Powder?”

“Makes sense,” said Harry, “but I wouldn't want to try it until we knew for sure it wasn't blocked or something. The Order never used the fireplace that I can remember. But, we can check that when we're at the Ministry.”

“Let's go,” decided Ginny. “We need to go there anyway. I'll gather the fliers and newspapers, Harry can start ferrying you two, and I'll come last, after I get some coffee beans and food.”

Harry and Ron apparated beneath the cloak to the front step of Grimmauld place, ducking when they landed to accomodate Ron's height. The locks and chains undid themselves at the touch of Harry's wand and they stepped inside for the first time since escaping the Ministry with Yaxley in tow.

The troll foot umbrella stand was no longer over-turned. The 'ole dusty' apparition vanished when Ron said, “Severus Snape is dead.”

Harry asked Ron, “You think that'll finish it for good?”

“Blimey, no idea mate, no bloomin' idea at all.”

The two friends quietly checked-out the house. It was empty but still elicited some of the warm feelings from when they had so briefly lived there with Kreacher during the war. The curtains over the portrait of Sirius's mother were clean and the plagues holding the ancestral house elf heads were polished. The kitchen was immaculate.

When all four were together in the kitchen, Ginny magicked a fire for light and warmth.

Hermione remembered, “For a while, this seemed like home.”

Ron reminisced, “Too bad we missed Kreacher's stake and kidney.”

After thinking for a moment about the matters that he needed to resolve, Harry called, “Kreacher.”

Crack! The house elf appeared in the kitchen door. “What does Master wish?”

“Hello Kreacher, how're you?”

“Kreacher has been very busy at Hogwarts. School must be ready before the students return. Will Master” – nodding toward the others – “and friends be coming?”

“We're thinking about it,” said Hermione. “We're going there next week to talk with Professor McGonagall.”

Kreacher inclined his head slightly toward Hermione, not speaking. The elf knew it was a new world.  Not only was Voldemort dead, blood status was meaningless. Hermione had been the first to be kind and her ridiculous plan to free the Gryffindor house elves meant no ill.  The kitchen elves felt a certain affection for it's child-like foolishness.  Kreacher was stuggling with liking a Muggle-born witch.

Notions, not always fully formed as thought, occured to Harry out of odd places.  Sometimes just an image was everying, like the look Kreacher just gave Hermione.  Those who despised Muggle-borns, or quiety supported the Death Eaters, would have the same choice as the elf.  Either let go the prejudice or hide it.

Harry decided it was the time to push forward, “You've been keeping the house in order I see, thank you.”

Kreacher bowed his head as if to talk to his feet and mutter deprecations about Harry but he remained silent and shortly raised his head. From what they could tell of elf expressions, he was paying attention.

Harry paused for a moment while deciding what to say. He knew of no way to phrase what needed said that did not collide with Kreacher's magical attachment to the Black family and their Pure-blood chauvinism. That Harry owned the house and could order Kreacher as he pleased was not the whole of the matter. Like most wizards, he knew little of the ancient magic that bound house elves to houses and families.  But if there was ever a moment to change things with Kreacher, and maybe Mrs. Black, this was it. Snce the conversation was inescapable, why not take the chance for change?

“Kreacher,” he began, “since we were last here, things have changed. Ginny Weasley,” he turned to look at Ginny, “and I are together now, as are Ron and Hermione. We've not made any decisions about our futures because we've got to find Hermione's parents and bring them home. After that, or maybe after school, we don't know what work we'll do, so we don't know where we'll live, but this house will certainly be useful. All we need right now is a place to work, but in the future we might live here.”

Kreacher acknowledged that he understood by nodding his head, so Harry went on, encouraged. “We want to respect the Black family and your bond to this house but we don't want Mrs. Black to yell at our guests.”

There was no need to acknowledge that this broached the main issue – what change would Kreacher willingly accept.

All four were tense but Ginny went right to it, “Kreacher, I have an idea.”

Kreacher again made a slight, silent bow.

“Here's what I'm thinking. If we take the drawing room, the room with the Black family tree, and make it like one of the old manor halls, its walls full of the symbols of the family's achievements and images of honored ancestors, every time we sit there, every  guest who visits, will be reminded of the Blacks' accomplishments and contributions.”

Kreacher certainly grasped the bargain in the bribe – move the Black's artifacts into the drawing room, including the portrait of Mrs. Black, and leave the rest of the house for Harry. Since the drawing room was where wizarding families met guests, this had the effect of giving the place of honor to the Blacks. Had Ginny not been diplomatic she might have said, “We'll give you the drawing room, if we can have the rest.”

Kreacher’s reply was only, “Kreacher's order is Master's wish.”

“I know I can order you, but I'm looking for a way that makes you comfortable, that honors the family you've so long served. Everyone here fought the fight that Regulus and Sirius fought. We're all brothers-in-battle. You know the Black family is linked to the Weasleys by marriage. You said when we talked at Hogwarts that you were not unhappy there but you are bound to this house.  So I want you to know that staying at Hogwarts, coming here, or doing both is your choice.”

After a short silence Kreacher announced, “When a house passed to the heir of an ancient family, elves have extraordinary powers. Household spells become changeable. Do you know this? The power does not last forever?”

“No, I didn't,” replied Harry  “But if you, my friends and I were comfortable being together here, life would be a whole lot easier.”

“Kreacher likes this idea."

The four friends relaxed.

“Then, you should have the room next to it. It'll be yours to arrange and decorate as you wish. There's no reason to live under the cabinets. Whenever you want to be at Hogwarts, you're welcome there.”

The rest of the afternoon was lead by Kreacher, beginning on the upper-most floor in Sirius' room. When Kreacher accompanied the four upstairs, all were silent, but each was thinking that the confrontation had gone fairly well. Hermione wondered whether anyone had ever actually sought Kreacher's opinion, much less his cooperation. Harry, mostly relieved that Kreacher had not ended the conversation by bashing himself with the fireplace poker, tried to imagine what it would be like to live here with Ginny, to be married, to be householders, parents.

Ron and Ginny shared a quiet amazement at how different the lives of the wealthy families were. On the one hand, their life at The Burrow had been far fuller of hand-me-down clothes and second-hand school books than those born to Grimmauld place. On the other hand, it was impossible to imagine these dark and somber spaces as scenes of the raucous, familial affection that permeated The Burrow.

They stood in the doorway surveying the mess Snape made when he ransacked the room. Harry wondered if Snape had been working for Riddle or had rather taken his chance to find something of Lilly's. While they were still looking, Kreacher raised his right hand and moved his forefinger in a tapping motion. Everything fell from the walls in a cacophony of crashes and the fluttering of posters wafting to the floor.

Ron admired the elf magic. “Wow, that's seriously dramatic!”

Ginny was surprised, “I imagined we'd still have to use charms. I didn't think the walls would be instantly bare.”

Harry went immediately to where the picture of his father, Lupin, Sirius and Pettigrew had been, retrieving it from beneath an upside-down poster of a Muggle girl in a skimpy red bikini astride a shiny red and silver motorbike.

“This I will keep,” he said, turning it so all could see.

They all knew that to look at those he loved he must also see the traitor he had both spared and, in the end, killed with the magic of life debt. There was no need to acknowledge it, so they went to work sorting piles of what had been on Sirius' walls. Harry arranged the Quidditch posters in one pile, bikini girls in another, while Ginny sorted books into those that might be kept and those, like mangled school books, that had no use and should be vanished.

Hermione examined the poster pile, “Harry, do you really want to keep those Muggle posters? Do you want Muggle girls on your walls?”

“No, no,” replied Harry, “It's just that they remind me of Sirius."  He moved them to the junk pile.

Ron turned out the dresser drawers and was sorting through their musty contents while Hermione, with her usual fine wand work, cleaned them and returned them to their cabinet. It did not take long for them to recover a fairly small stack of books, another photo of Sirius smiling from the back of his motorbike, and a few mementos from his years at school. By far, the largest pile was junk.

Ginny examined the junk pile and retrieved the motorbike maintenance manuals. “These we should give to Dad. I'll bet he has parts of Sirius' bike hidden at The Burrow.”

Ron laughed, “Knowing Dad he's got the particularly strange bits stashed in back where he keeps his plugs.”

Ron and Ginny were laughing but Harry didn't get the family joke, “What?”

Ginny filled him in, “Dad's got an Undetectable Enlargement Charm at the back of the shed where the chickens roost.  He hides his Muggle stuff in there.”

“Really?” asked Harry.

“Where do you think Fred and George got their attitude toward rules,” laughed Ron.

“Kreacher,” asked Harry, “what should we do with all this junk?”

Kreacher made another hand gesture and the junk pile disappeared. Minutes later, the room was clean. The drapes were scourgified and open revealing that the magically-cleaned glass was leaded in a diamond pattern. The walls were bare, their grey silk coverings nicely lightened by cleaning, the bedding replaced. It was an entirely different room, its ancient elegance now discernible.

“Should we put anything back?” asked Hermione as she surveyed the empty walls.

“Later,” said Ginny, “we don't know who'll be using what, or when, so let's just leave everything nice and clean until we decide what to do.”

Regulus's room, although slightly smaller, was more trouble. The Black coat of arms with its motto, “Tojours Pur,” and Regulus' childish tribute to Voldemort were troublesome artifacts of the Blacks' history. Both confessed a blood prejudice that was both true and tragic. Regulus could be honored for his courageous sacrifice against a master he had come to recognize as evil, but “Tojour Pur” would always be out-of-place among those who might stay or live at Harry's Number Twelve.

Ginny and Harry looked at the painted-in-the-plaster coat of arms from the foot of the bed, now magically cleaned and made, and silently shared the thought that it could always be covered-over with a painting or poster. They decided to leave it for now and to give Regulus' poster of Prophet clippings to Kreacher. It was a luxury that some things didn't need to be decided right away.

The second floor bedroom, obviously that of Sirius and Regulus' parents, was a trove of family portraits, photos and, in one drawer, a sheaf of certificates of merit from the Ministry, the Wizengamot and other wizarding counsels of note. This delighted Kreacher and actually pleased Harry because spread across the drawing room walls – as they surely would be – they would give a more appealing image of Sirius' family than the coat of arms in Regulus' bedroom.

By the end of the day the four and Kreacher were standing in the drawing room looking at the newly-placed and magically-cleaned portrait of Mrs. Black in the central position above the fire. On all the chairs and stacked in the two corners next to the fireplace were heirlooms salvaged from upstairs.

Hermione retrieved Phineas Nigellus' portrait from her beaded bag. The portrait was empty, so she gave it to Kreacher explaining, “This is from the hallway, we borrowed it. It's been in my bag for quite a while, so he may not visit until we can talk to his portrait at Hogwarts.” Reaching back into her bag and rummaging around, she withdrew Nature's Nobility and handed it to Kreacher. “Thanks for loaning us the book.”

After Harry recinded Regulus' order so Kreacher could at last explain what happend. Mrs. Black listened intently. She was at first incredulous but could not imagine a house elf lying to his mistress and surrendered to the truth of Voldemort's guilt Her grief for Regulus was profound. With this proof that Harry was the magically-attested owner of Twelve Grimmauld Place and the agent of Voldemort's demise, her amazement overwhelmed her.  In shock but convinced of the changes in her situation, she looked past Kreacher, her eyes settling on the two redheads.

“Weasleys?”

Ron and Ginny nodded. Then, her gaze turned to Hermione who responded before she could speak, “Hermione Granger, Muggle-born.” Ron stood closer and took Hermione's hand.

Finally, she looked at Harry. “And you're Potter, the youth who defeated Voldemort?” It was part question, part statement.

Harry answered, “Everyone here, Kreacher too, fought Riddle.”

Mrs. Black ignored Harry's reply, “What's your family? You’re James’ son?”

“We're from Godric's Hollow.”

Ginny answered for Harry, “Harry's descended from Ignotus Peverell.”

This was a name Mrs. Black knew, “Yes, yours is a famous line.”

Although Harry was uncomfortable with the euphemism for "pure," he was happy to see Mrs. Black retreat into her thoughts without yelling anything at anyone, even Hermione. They'd come a long way, he'd let it rest.

Kreacher asked if he should prepare dinner and the four deliberated for a moment before deciding that they shouldn't spend the night but return to The Burrow.

“Kingsley will meet us there in the morning,” said Ron.

Ginny reminded all, “Mum expects us for dinner.”

Hermione capped the conversation with “And, we won't have to decide which bedrooms to use!”

The heavy curtains had been tied aside so they could see the first beams of warm sunset light through the leaded glass, so they decided to return to The Burrow just as they had come.

When Harry and Ginny, the last to arrive, walked toward The Burrow's kitchen door, sunset was coloring the world in dark reds and oranges. The Weasley's small flock of chickens scurried clucking toward the roost that hid Mr. Weasley's trove of Muggle wonders. The lanterns Mrs. Weasley lit with a quick sweep of her wand glowed warm and inviting through the kitchen windows.


Chapter 8: Return to the Ministry
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Chapter Eight

Return to the Ministry

At breakfast the two couples, excited that they would see their school friends, ate hurriedly while peppering Harry with spurious ideas for things to say. Harry had thought about the speech and had the foundation of a plan.  He asked Hermione if she could find the picture of the original Order of the Phoenix.

Hermione excused herself from the table, returning quickly with her beaded bag. “I haven't entirely emptied it because we don't know where we might go. I'm keeping things from our school trunks too.” While she fished around in its depths, the contents could be heard shifting as if in the cavernous hold of some great vessel.

Finally, she handed the picture to Harry, “We really need a place to keep things.”

“You know Muggle cinema, right?” Harry asked, merely raising his right hand slightly, palm forward, acknowledging that a place to keep things made sense.

“Of course, what're you thinking?”

“I want everyone to see this, so I was wondering if there's some way we can project it, you know, like a film.”

After thinking a moment, she replied, “I suppose we could enlarge it and raise it to where everyone could see with Wingardium Leviosa.

“Le'me see,” said Ron, “I know what to do.”

Harry intended to ask Ron what he knew to do but the kitchen fire blazed emerald green and everyone turned to see who arrived.

Kingsley Shacklebolt stepped from the fireplace. Mrs. Weasley swept the ashes from his robes with her wand. Kingsley wore the same robes he always wore, plain black, unlike the Ministers of Magic the four friends had known before, whose robes were meant to convey their status.

“Morning Kingsley,” said Arthur as he entered the kitchen with an empty dish and coffee cup in hand, having taken his toast and coffee in the quieter sitting room where none were suggesting humorous tidbits for Harry's speech. “All ready to go then?”

“Time for a cup of tea?” asked Mrs. Weasley.

“Yes a quick one,” answered Kingsley. Then, turning to the four, “Are we ready?”

“No!” was Ginny's emphatic reply, “We haven't got our robes on!”

Amidst a staccato of seats hurriedly pushed back and exclamations of “get a move on” from the elder Weasleys, they ran upstairs.

Back in the kitchen a few minutes later dressed in the new robes they'd bought at Madame Malkin's, they found Kingsley about to step into the fire. “I'll be there to meet you,” he said as he flicked the Floo Powder, called “Ministry Hall,”and vanished in green flame.

One by one, first Arthur and Molly, then Harry, Ginny, Hermione and Ron whirled though the floo network until they stepped out of one of the large fireplaces in the great Atrium of the Ministry of Magic. Kingsley greeted them and escorted them through an unbelievably large crowd. At the front of the hall there was a levitating platform where once a statue of witch, wizard and magical creatures had been, where the Death Eaters had erected a massive black monolith proclaiming “Magic is Might.” There was a  podium front and center

It seemed as if every wizard in the world had gathered in the hall but Kingsley reported they were all ministry workers and their families, some of whom had come from their assigned posts throughout England. Harry, at first feeling a bit intimidated by the crowd, relaxed as they greeted their friends who were standing in a milling pack next to the platform.

“Neville, great to see you,” the four spoke almost in unison, and thus it went for Luna, with Xenophilius behind her, all the Hogwarts teachers, Hagrid – waving his massive hand – standing chest and shoulders above the rest.

“At least he didn't bring Grawp,” whispered Hermione.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were already taking with Professors McGonagall, Flitwick and Slughhorn.  Kingsley left the four and strode to the center of the platform and raised his hands gesturing for silence.  The crowd gradually ceased talking and milling about.

Kingsley grasped both sides of the podium, his slow deep voice resonated through the hall so all could hear, “Witches and wizards, ministry officials, employees and guests, it's my great pleasure to introduce Harry Potter, who has graciously consented to tell us about the work he and his friends did during the Death Eater War. Harry, come up please.”

There was an immediate cheer and applause. Harry, who had started to move forward, instead hesitated, looking toward the crowd, surprised by the strength of their response.

He breathed deeply twice and started to say something when Ginny took his hand and kissed him on the cheek, “Just be Harry, everything will be fine.”

The Hogwarts teachers looked at one another, all smiles and knowing looks. Molly and Arthur held hands and smiled. Ron and Hermione laughed together, enjoying another of their best friends' romantic vignettes. Their school friends cat-called and whistled. Seamus' brogue was clear among them, “Hey, when's the wedding mate!” When several friends added their couple of Knuts worth of humor, it felt like the Gryffindor common room and Harry relaxed, stepped onto the platform, walked to the podium where he was embraced by the Minister of Magic and the cheers of the assembled witches and wizards.

When Kingsley left him surveying the audience from the podium. Harry was still unsure of exactly what he'd say. While doing the dishes Harry and Ginny had decided that going into this speech was like going into a duel. You needed a plan but you wouldn't know how to best use your skills until you were in it.  He'd need to gauge the mood of the audience before he could decide.  Was it solemn?  Was it joyful? There were many watching him who had lost friends and family.  How could he honor their loss?

He mused, “What would I want to hear if I were the long faced witch in the front row?” It was obvious, she'd want the truth; they'd all want the truth, so he'd begin by telling their story.

“Earlier this spring I fought a duel with Tom Riddle, the wizard who called himself the Dark Lord, Voldemort.” The audience cheered a Quidditch victory cheer. Harry waited for them to quiet enough to be heard. He was sure they wanted to celebrate, “Riddle died, not by any skill of mine, but because I was one of many wizards, some of them truly great, who sacrificed, planned, worked and fought for all of us. . .” After a sweeping gesture that took in the vast room he continued, “. . . who want nothing more than to play our part in the wizarding world, to live the full measure of our lives with our friends and families, and to know that the world we leave to our children will be filled with peace and opportunity for their fulfillment.”

The crowd was nearly silent now. He gave his truth to their attention. “Riddle lost that duel because many among us today, and many who did not live to see today, struggled for the victory we have come together to celebrate.”

He knew what to do now and looked toward Hermione and Ron, standing just to the edge of the platform. Hermione put her hand on Ron's shoulder as he, looking concentrated, raised his wand. The picture of the original Order of the Phoenix appeared in the air above the platform looking just as it did in the wizarding photograph. Harry gave Ron a thumbs-up with a grin and turned back to face the audience.

“This photograph was taken eighteen years ago. It's the original Order of the Phoenix, the witches and wizards who recognized Tom Riddle's threat to the wizarding world and who banded together to protect us all.” Harry turned and pointed upward to the huge image floating above and behind him, “There’s Albus Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of our time.”

Turning back to his attentive audience he continued his extemporaneous story.  “More than sixty years ago Professor Dumbledore was sent to tell the Gaunt family orphan, Tom Riddle, that he was a wizard and that there was a place for him at Hogwarts. He recognized that Riddle had great inborn power and surprising control. He also recognized that Riddle had already used his power to intimidate and punish. Dumbledore watched Riddle for many years and with the help of Severus Snape, who was his spy among the Death Eaters, he learned that Riddle had bound himself to life through the darkest magic.”

With Snape's name came a dull murmuring, particularly from the Hogwarts group, but Harry was feeling confident and intent on continuing his story. “Riddle hid six of these darkly magical objects; thus, he believed he could not be killed. He made an unplanned seventh when he killed my parents and tried to kill me.” When he pushed back his hair to show his scar the crowd's murmuring intensified as many witches and wizards questioned one another. Harry waited for them to turn back toward the podium, “Dumbledore was the mastermind who not only grasped how Riddle's hideous ties to life had to be found and destoryed but also chose myself, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to continue that quest.”

Except for a very few, most of Harry's audience knew nothing of Horcruxes and the friends' search to destroy them.  When they understood, repulsion ran through the crowd like a wave. When peoples' shock subsided, Harry continued. “Dumbledore wasn't alone. Next to him stands the great Auror, Alastor – 'Mad-Eye' – Moody, who died saving me from the Death Eaters. Deadalus Diggle, who is still with us; Marlene McKinnon, killed with her whole family; Frank and Alice Longbottom tortured to insanity by Bellatrix Lestrange; Emmeline Vance; Remus Lupin, who, with his wife Nymphadora, gave his life at the Battle of Hogwarts.”

Harry named each of the Order, paused, turned to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, gave a slight bow and completed the list, “Arthur Weasley, who with his sons cleared Death Eaters from the Hogwarts entrance, and his wife Molly, who has nourished seven children, one of whom, Fred, gave his life for our freedom. It was Molly Weasley who brilliantly vanquished the darkest witch of this, and perhaps any generation.”

Harry slowly swept the audience with his eyes, as if each of them could feel what he felt through his gaze. “These are the heroes. They were the first to fight, the first to die. They have gone on, joined by Dobby, a house elf that saved our lives, our friends Fred Weasley and Colin Creevey, Ted Tonks, and too many more.”

Harry turned looking up at the image again.  He held his emotion in check and spoke quickly, “Lilly and James Potter, my parents, who loved me so deeply they died to save me, whose sacrifice protected me even to the moment of my destiny.” His friends and family recognized that Harry's emotions were welling up. Ginny smiled at him, Hermione nudged Ron, who vanished the image.

Harry, facing forward again, was now certain how to finish. “On the night our quest began it would have ended had it not been for the foresight, brilliance and courage of Hermione Granger. Without Ronald Weasley, I would have died in the Forest of Dean. I don't think I could count the number of times my friends, Ron and Hermione, saved our quest.” He gestured for them to join him on stage. Hermione tried to demur and Ron looked like he wanted to hide behind Hagrid but their school friends pushed them forward. They walked to Harry holding hands. Ron looked out to the assembled witches and wizards and took-in their cheers, their admiration.

When they reached Harry he said, “It's nice but it could get old pretty fast.”

Harry smiled at Ron's realization, “I know, but we can enjoy today.”

The three embraced to the cheers of all.

Harry, again looked to the side of the stage, “While we were chasing around England others risked their lives to protect the students of Hogwarts. Ginevra Weasley, Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood lead that resistance."  Again, the school friends pushed them forward. When they took places next to Harry, on the other side from Ron and Hermione, Harry told the audience, “Ginny, along with Luna and Hermione fought Bellatrix Lestrange to a standstill before Mrs. Weasley showed us the power of a witch's love is greater than all the forces evil will ever muster.” He gestured to Arthur and Molly to come forward and as they did Ginny took his arm in hers and they greeted her parents together.

George Weasley's unmistakable voice rose from the crowd of friends, “Come-on Harry give'er a kiss.” Harry gave Ginny a quick kiss then laughed as she called back to George, “Give it a rest big brother!”

With this bit of sibling foolishness, the mood, which was already buoyant, became a celebration with Harry its chief cheerleader. One by one he introduced the groups – Hogwarts teachers, students, Hogsmeade residents – who had fought the Death Eaters, who shared in the victory over evil. Here and there he named those who had played some outstanding role – Aberforth who saved them and gave them access to the Room of Requirement. Professors McGonagall, Flitwick, Slughorn and Sprout, Professor Trelawney, “Whose well flung crystal balls foretold an abbreviated future for Death Eaters.” Hagrid, “Who saved us from the spiders and the spiders from us.”

It was not long before the stage was full, witches and wizards laughing, chatting one another up in a swirl of handshakes, shoulder slaps, hugs and boisterous greetings. With no more room on the platform, Harry called for those in the audience who had worked and fought to raise their hands and this released their jubilation. The crowd responded with a cheer. At last freed from the fears that had permeated the Ministry only weeks ago, invited to celebrate the courage of those who fought and lived, of those who fought and died, the Ministry united, extinguishing the fear the Death Eaters had so recently made their daily fare.

When the volume of sound declined, arm-in-arm with Ginny, Harry went once again to the podium and raised his hand. When he had everyone's attention he brought the celebration to a close. “Now, friends, another thing we learned during the war was that you should never get between wizards and their lunch. It's about that time. I suggest that everyone gets a bite to eat before we all get back to work.”

The crowd dissolved into groups of friends, families and co-workers, many leaving by the fireplaces others taking the elevators to their offices, Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione said goodbye to their school friends and followed Kingsley to the Minister's office where a table was laid with a delightful buffet lunch. Ron needed no second invitation and headed straight for the table with Hermione wondering aloud if his appetite was every actually sated.

“Bickering again,” commented Ginny.

It was her mother who answered, “Just like your aunts and uncles. You two are more like us.”

Ginny had no chance to reply as Molly and Arthur headed for the table themselves.


Chapter 9: Meeting Professor Mullens
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Chapter Nine

Meeting Professor Mullens

When lunch was over, the guests leaving, Professor Slughorn stopped to shake Harry's hand, “Well m'boy, that was a great speech. Didn't know a word of it when you walked on did you? You're destined for a Ministry career.” Harry didn't have a chance to reply before Slughorn continued, “Oh, no, not now; one day Kingsley can pass the mantle to you.”

“I don't know about that,” said Harry, “I'm sure I don't have Kingsley's skills.”

Slughorn leaned toward Harry and added in an almost conspiratorial whisper, “Harry, you told them that they're the reason we escaped the dark.  You made them feel good about themselves.” When Harry acknowledged this with a nod,  Slughorn continued, “Why do you think they follow Kingsley?”

Harry was silent so Slughorn answered himself, “Because that's the way he makes them feel.”

As the Potions Master walked away Harry thought that he'd need to say something about his memory and, what would be harder, to tell him about Snape's old potion book. Perhaps if they returned to school.

When everyone had taken their leave, Kingsley led them down a hall to where they would meet with Bill Mullens. On the way he stopped, pointing through a larger room to a door.

“Umbridge!” exclaimed Harry.

“Yes,” answered Kingsley, one of the wandless.”

“Wandless?” queried Hermione.

“Yes, we took their wands. We decided that some of Riddle's sympathizers were better kept from the Dementors. In fact, we're thinking that the fewer people we put in Azkaban the better because, well, the fewer Dementors the better. So, the ones like Umbridge who depend on having power to work their ill, we've taken their wands. They're de-clawed and watched but not feeding another brood of Dementors.”

“Do Dementors reproduce?” asked Hermione.

“Not so much reproduce as multiply, the fewer victims, the fewer Dementors. What do you think of our new policy Hermione?”

Hermione was surprised to be asked about a ministry policy by the Minister of Magic, but she didn't hesitate answering, “I think it's a good idea. I don't think we should be torturing people for punishment. It just perpetuates hatred and, it seems, makes more Dementors.”

Hermione, there's more to law than crime and punishment, there's planning and policy too. Give that some thought will you?” Then, addressing all four, “What have you thought about my offer to join the Auror Office?”

Harry replied, “We're really honored and I've thought that Auror would be the career for me for a couple of years. I think Ron has the same idea.”

Ron confirmed, “Yea, that's my idea too but we've a lot to do right now.”

Kingsley turned to Ginny, “Until you're of age I can't make a formal offer but you're an amazing witch Miss Weasley and we'd be excited to have you too.”

Ginny smiled, “Thanks Minister.”

Then he continued, “On reflection though, were any of you to join the Auror Office today, my first assignment would be to send you back to school. In time there'll be a lot for you to learn here but we've got to much to restore and repair. Another year at Hogwarts is another year with the finest teachers in the wizarding world and there's nowhere better to develop your Australia plans.” Then speaking again to Hermione, “Remember, Miss Granger, the war is over but challenges will be with us for a long, long time.”

Hermione didn't reply because she didn't quite grasp what the Minister was hinting at and they'd arrived at the door of a small conference room where they were greeted by an older wizard dressed in Muggle clothes.

Kingsley made the introductions, “Bill, here again are Harry Potter, Arthur and Molly's youngest, Ginny and Ron, and Hermione Granger. They've come for some advice about travel to Australia and Muggle ways.”

Speaking to the four he said, “By the way, Professor Mullens will be offering a new Muggle Studies class this fall. It could be a real help to your plans.”

Greetings over, Kingsley departed. They all took seats around a low, round table.

Professor Mullens was mildly portly – somewhere between Slughorn and Arthur Weasley. He wore his gray-tinged hair tied with a band in a pony tail that reached most of the way down his back. He showed more forehead than in younger years but was neatly shaved, clear-eyed and not very wrinkled. His Muggle clothes were unusual for an older wizard, jeans with what looked like boots, a yellow shirt with buttons at the open collar, and a rumpled tweed jacket with leather patches at the collar and elbows. A wide-brimmed hat hung from the edge of a well-traveled briefcase sitting next to his chair.

Professor Mullens leaned back in his chair and began, “As I understood at our dinner the other night, you need to get to Australia, find Hermione's parents, reverse Hermione's memory charms, and get everyone back to England. Correct?

“Yes,” Hermione lead the reply.

Professor Mullens carried on, “So, the obvious, you need to get there.”

Again, Hermione lead the affirmatives.

“OK, let's start with how. Naturally you'll think of brooms. You're young, fit, and competent fliers, which is in your favor, but the distances are formidable. It's approximately 11,000 miles as the owl flies. If you average one hundred miles an hour for eight or so hours a day, that's about two weeks in the air.”

“Nobody's doing that,” said Harry.

“Right, it's a possibility not an option.   In Europe you'll need to travel by night, to land for rest, to scavenge for supplies. If you Stun a Muggle to escape a mishap, they'll keep you on the run. You'll be all over the television news. The damn things are everywhere.”

Hearing it so plainly was a bit disconcerting. It didn't get better, “When you leave Europe, you'll need to chose a destination in Asia.  First though, you'll need to choose between several days flying without rest over the stormiest seas in the world, or working your way through the South Pacific to Indonesia where you can make a shorter over-water run to Australia. Given the time, the risk and that you need to bring Hermione's parents home, it's a fantasy.”

“We decided the same,” said Harry, “Apparition didn't seem promising either.”

“You four are quite strong so I think it could be done but only after considerable practice.”

Ron replied, “Kingsley said it could take four or five years to practice for an 11,000 mile apparition. Even then it seems too risky, and it's sure no way to get Hermione's parents back to England.”

Professor Mullens agreed.

“So,” said Harry, “that leaves Muggle travel; we take the airplane.”

Ginny took the Y.I.P.I. advertisement from a pocket of her robe and handed it to Professor Mullens, “We're thinking of signing up for this trip. Being with a lot of other young people would make us inconspicuous and since these are youth with an interest in world peace, and from different places, we thought they would be more tolerant of any mistakes we make because of what we don't know about Muggle life.”

“That's well reasoned,” Professor Mullens replied. “Let's think of what you'll need – “a Passport and a Visa for Australia. Don't worry about the Visa, the group probably takes care of that – actually I'm not sure you even need one – but you'll need a Passport and to get a Passport you'll need a Birth Certificate.”

“What's that?” asked Ginny.

Hermione answered, “It's how Muggles register the birth of a baby, when and where, who the parents are.”

“Exactly,” confirmed the older wizard. “Since three of you were born to wizarding families, you won't be registered, so you'll need to get a Birth Certificate before you can get a Passport. You could either magic one, or alter the records in the county where you were born. Once you have the Birth Certificate, a Passport is just a matter of filling in forms, paying a fee and waiting for the Muggle bureaucrats to do their job. It's the Birth Certificates that will take some doing.”

Seeing that the four were following his train of thought, he kept on, “I think you'll be able to blend in. Young Muggles and young witches and wizards are interested in many of the same things.” Then, he leaned forward, put his elbows on his thighs and raised his palms outward toward the four, “Mostly each other. But there's a whole lot of cultural elements, entertainment, sports, politics, and music that you won't know.” He pointed to Ron and Hermione, then Harry and Ginny, “boyfriend and girlfriend?”

They all nodded, “Yes, we're thinking to tell people that we're engaged,” said Ginny.

“Too young for Muggles to be engaged. You're how old?

“Seventeen and eighteen,” Harry replied.

“Yes, too young. Muggles will think the girls are pregnant if you're getting married at those ages. There's a lot of disagreement about sex amoung Muggles, but it will be safe to say you're dating.  If anyone asks, just tell them you have been together for a couple of years. Also, as couples, it's likely that you'll meet other couples. The singles will be looking to couple up and won't pay much attention. If they do, it still won't be a problem. Most Muggles keep their distance from couples because their history is full of fights over lovers. Muggle bonds are less stable than ours.”

“We'll need Muggle money too,” interjected Harry.

“Ah yes, money. You'll need money for everything, starting with copies of the Birth Certificate and the Passport.” Then, after referring to the Y.I.P.I. advert, “Since Y.I.P.I will be providing group accommodations, you’ll only need cash for spending in Sydney. Muggles your age won't have credit cards but those would be ideal because they give you credit for money you might not have.”

Harry noted, “We've gold, enough I'm sure, but we don't know how to convert wizard gold to English money.”

Hermione explained, "What Gringotts gives doesn't square with what we've learned."

Bill reached for a stack of newspapers sitting on the low table and selected an unopened section. Consulting a long, closely-printed chart of symbols and prices, he replied, “Gold is selling for about 200 pounds an ounce, so for four persons at 1,200 each, that's 4,800 or roughly twenty four Galleons. Plus you probably want some pocket money, some emergency funds, and tickets for Hermione's parents, so let's say fifty Galleons overall.”

“Not a problem for the Galleons,” said Harry, “but how else can we change Galleons into Muggle money?”

Ron jumped in, “Couldn't we just magic Muggle money?”

Bill thought about that for a moment before he replied, “Get one note, and multiply it? Yes, you could do that. Then, you'd need to change each serial number. They print them in sequence, but it's very, very unlikely that anyone would check, so, yes, that's a possibility for funds while you travel. But, you'll need a bank account to use checks. Handing ₤4,800 in currency over to Y.I.P.I. would be very odd. It might get someone thinking. So, look to open an account, maybe two in different names.  Then see about selling gold some legal way. Do you have gold that's not minted as Galleons?”

“I have Mothers of Galleons,” answered Harry.

Hermione, Ron and Professor Mullens' expressions showed that they were surprised but they said nothing. Harry thought to himself that if fifty Galleons would do the whole trip, a single one of the ancient gold bars in his vault would provide well more than they needed. The question was how to sell it.

“I wonder if Mundungus knows, he's a crook,” speculated Harry.

“Mundungus Fletcher?” asked Professor Mullens.

“Yes, we know him from the Order of the Phoenix; he stole a bunch of stuff from Sirius' house.”

“I don't think he'll be much help,” said Bill.  “If he's who I think he is, he's a sneak thief, and his buyers – Muggles call them 'fences' – would buy a gold ring or silver platter but a Mother of Galleons, no, you'd never get a fair price. And, it could easily go bad. The Muggle underworld is complex. Most Muggles don't understand it." He laughed, his thought amused him, "I think your best bet is to use one of the fancy dealers in the City. Even if they suspect something, there's no risk.  They'll take a profit rather than make a fuss.”

They were coming to the end of their questions. Athough they had no final answers, Harry thought the next steps were clearer. “If I have this right, we need to learn where and how to get Birth Certificates, then Passports. We need to learn where and how to get an address where we can communicate with Y.I.P.I. And, we need at least one checking account we can use once we learn how to sell our wizard gold.”

Professor Mullens answered, “Yes, that's about it. What you want is to become Muggles on paper. Once you have the pieces of a Muggle identity, no one will ever question it and, who knows, you may find it useful in the future.”

The four expressed their thanks and were getting ready to leave when the newest professor asked, “Will I see you in Muggle Studies this September?”

“We don't know yet,” said Hermione, “it looks like we won't get to Australia any sooner that the Y.I.P.I. trip in December, so it makes sense to go back and get started on our N.E.W.T.s, but we're not sure. We're meeting with Professor McGonagall next week.”

Ron was curious, “How did you learn so much about Muggles?”

“I taught them for twenty years.”

“How did that happen?” asked Ginny sounding surprised and looking intrigued.

“Long story, sure you want to hear it?”

“Yes,” Ginny crossed her legs beneath her robe and leaned back to make the point.

“I'm Muggle-born, here in London before the war, that's the Muggle war.  When I returned from my seventh year, I found my family had been killed and our house destroyed in an air raid. I learned that my neighbor's son, who was about my age, had been killed along with his family. A bomb destroyed our whole block of houses. So, I took his name, William R. Mullens, and used it to enter university. Lots of records had been destroyed; no one asked any questions, everyone was so anxious to get beyond the war.”

All four were captivated by his story.

“Being Muggle-born, I was intensely curious about what made me different. So, I decided to study Muggle sciences thinking that there might be some answers there. I had to catch up the basics, but so did most of my classmates, and a little magic is a huge help passing tests. So, I graduated with honors in biology, the Muggle science of living things. I found it very interesting, so I stayed with it to a Ph.D. and a job teaching undergraduates. That's students about your age, working on a first university degree.”

None of the friends spoke so Professor Mullens told more of his story.

“I kept a flat near campus, had many Muggle friends, and was married to a Muggle woman until two years ago when she died. Your Dad,” gesturing toward the Weasleys, “met me when he was investigating some magical mischief in my neighborhood. I had charmed a flower bed.  He recognized the magic and thought I was the wizard who had been up to whatever it was, I forget, burning door knobs or something.  Anyway, we got to know each other and during the war he asked a lot of questions. After Kingsley became Minister of Magic and gave Arthur his new department, he asked if I'd teach a new Muggle Studies program.”

“Did you ever learn what the difference between Muggles and wizards is? asked Harry, who was no stranger to the curiosity

“Well, I mostly learned how we're not different,” replied Professor Mullens. “We can reproduce with Muggles. Muggles can have a witch or wizard as a child. We eat Muggle food, contract Muggle diseases and suffer the same injuries, although we treat them differently, survive better and live longer.  Essentially though, we're the same.”

Hermione went for the critical question. “So, why can we do magic and Muggles can't?”

Like teachers will do, he answered with a question. “What do you think magic is?”

“I don't know. We don't think about it. We just do it.”

“Of course. Actually though, you should think about it."  He smiled at the four and continued questioning.  "What if everything that exists, exists within an immense, maybe infinite, potential where everything is possible? Muggles have names for it, theories about it.  If wizards are connected to this deeper space, wouldn't that explain magic?"

He stopped to regard each of the four, looking for comprehension. What he saw was more concentration; they were trying to find a metaphor, a way to make sense of what he said from their own perspective.

He gave them a Muggle clue, “Do you know how science describes this planet, the earth?”

Harry answered, “The basics.”

Hermione confirmed, "Just what's in the Muggle school books."

He made sure Ron and Ginny knew.  "At the center there's a hot, molten core; as you get further toward the surface, things become increasingly solid. At the crust – the ground we walk on – everything is quite fixed. Well, imagine the whole universe is like that, changeable and fluid at its deepest levels, fixed and solid at its surface. Muggles belong to the surface and we're in touch with something deeper, where what's possible is less constrained.  When we do magic, we're directing and forming that potential with our minds.”

Ron understood, “I think I get it. When I get an image I can make,it's like I can feel it coming, like it's invisibly forming until it sort of merges into my mind. I think I can make those pictures with my wand because they already exist.  I just need to imagine where they should be."

Professor Mullens looked at Ron as if examining him more closely, “You made the Order of the Phoenix image?”

“Yes, I looked at the photograph until I had – I'm not sure what to call it – a copy I guess – memorized. Then, all I had to do was imagine it in the air above the stage. I was nervous though; I'd only done this a couple of times and then on stone or paper, never on just air.”

Seeming a little preoccupied, Professor Mullens brought their meeting to a close, “Alright then, I think you've got the notion.  If you're interested we can talk about it at Hogwarts – you really should go back. If you like, I could help you get ready.”

Harry didn't want to repeat the whole story and he was nowhere near dense enough to miss that this was what everyone thought they should do. None of their elders were being at all restrained and, in truth, returning to Hogwarts was looking more and more inevitable.  “We'll probably be back."

When the four started out the door Professor Mullens called Ron back, Hermione hesitated a moment, then joined them. He asked Ron, “Have you always been able to make images from your imagination?”

“No, we were at my brother's funeral when it started. It just happened. I saw an image and when I pictured it on the stone, it appeared. I tried the same thing when I was making labels for my brother's joke shop. I could do it like a printing press, one after the other.”

“How old are you now?” asked Bill.

“Eighteen.”

“Did you have trouble with apparition when you were learning and have you tended to splinch more than others?”

Ron didn't answer immediately so Hermione prompted him, “You know you do.”

“Right,” said Ron, “it's embarrassing but, yes, I did seem to splinch when Harry and Hermione didn't. Once pretty badly when we were running from a Death Eater.”

“I wouldn't worry about it,” was the encouraging response. Next, he put on his large hat and lifted his briefcase from beside his chair, opened it, retrieving an elegantly penned card he handed to Ron. “This is a clever piece of magic we call a 'Come Calling Card.' It's an advanced Portkey. If you speak to it saying that you would like to come for a visit, my good friend Oscar Windemere will answer. Once he has answered, it will take you directly to him and return you when you've finished your visit. Use it sometime when you have a free hour. Take Miss Granger. Oscar will be happy to see you both, I'm sure.”

“Thanks,” said Ron, not the least bit sure why he was being given the card.

Ron's puzzlement must have been clear to Professor Mullens.  He rose, adjusting his large hat at a jaunty angle, briefcase in hand. “It's completely safe and I promise you'll not regret the visit.”  He shook Ron, then Hermione's hand and walked them to the elevator where Harry and Ginny were waiting.

The elevator wound its way to the main floor; the witches and wizards who got on all wanted to shake their hands and say a word or two of thanks. So, it took a while to reach the atrium. When they did, they were ready to step into the fire and say, “The Burrow.” Ron's conversation with the new Muggle Studies teacher already forgotten.


Chapter 10: The Old School
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Chapter Ten

The Old School

The few days after their Ministry visit went by quickly. The four spent a couple of afternoons at Grimmauld Place to solidify their plans and to unload some of Hermione's beaded bag. They knew it was too risky to go on what Hermione and Harry knew when they left the Muggle world.  They needed to know what adult Muggles knew. Thus, Ron and Hermione would research Birth Certificates and Passports, while Harry and Ginny would discover how to convert Harry's gold into Muggle money.  Ron and Hermione would work-out the Y.I.P.I. contact, while Harry and Ginny looked into travel by airplane. For now, they set aside discovering more about wizarding in Australia, which they hoped Professor McGonagall could help with, as well as learning more about Sydney.

While they prepared to travel by Floo Powder to Hogwarts, Hermione jotted a few notes about their plans on a scrap of parchment, just to be sure they remembered everything. Wearing their robes, each stepped into The Burrow's fire, cast the Floo Powder and vanished. When each stepped out of green flame in the Gryffindor common room, they were greeted by Professor Chester Sandberg, the new head of Gryffindor House.

“Welcome, welcome, glad to see you back in Gryffindor Tower, we've fixed it just as it was. You should feel right at home.”

For some odd reason the word 'home' reminded Harry of the Dursleys, who had never provided one. He was particularly curious how they had reacted to an all-wizard environment.

A quick look proved Professor Sandberg right, the common room was just as they remembered. It was immediately comfortable for Harry to be at Hogwarts, Standing with his friends in these familar surroundings raised many pleasant and some really wonderful memories. Grimmauld Place was his. Since their accommodation with Kreacher and Mrs. Black, it had taken on an oddly homey comfort in the kitchen where they worked, ate and relaxed. Even Kreacher seemed to enjoy their visits. But, The Burrow was where he, Ginny, Ron and Hermione lived together, where Mr. and Mrs. Weasley parented them, and with the exception of Molly's occasional worries and on-going concern for their big decisions, accepted their growing independence.

Professor Sandberg showed them around with detailed attention to the repairs. On their way to the Headmistress' office, he pointed out a window that had been smashed by a giant, a hallway where the Curse-breakers had vanished a hidden curse, perhaps one left by a dying Death Eater's penultimate revenge. Cleaned, the suits of armor were back on their plinches, the fallen tapestries rehung, blasted windows and walls repaired. The castle lacked only the hum of talk, the eruptions of laughter, and the emptyt corridor snogging of its students to restore its rightful happy brilliance.

When they arrived at the Headmistress' office – it was still hard not to think of it as Dumbledore's office – Ginny announced “key lime pie” to the now upright gargoyle.

It said, “Certainly,” and gave way.

They said goodbye to Professor Sandberg, who, as they mounted the turning spiral stair, told them that the Fat Lady's password was “crackers."

Arriving at the door of the office, Harry knocked. His knock was greeted by the unmistakable brogue of Minerva McGonagall, “Com'n, com'n.”

As they passed through the office to her desk, the murmur of the portraits mixed with the quiet chiming of the instruments Dumbledore had willed to the school. Professor McGonagall was behind her desk, four chairs arranged before it. She came around to greet them.

“Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley, Miss Granger, Miss Weasley, it's a pleasure to see you again. I trust you're having a good summer and all at The Burrow are well.”

No sooner had she spoken than an unmistakable voice asked, its tone teasing, “So, you've come to invite me to your weddings?”

Harry recognized the tease and responded in kind, “Well Professor, you'll be the first to know. We'll hang you right up front, provided of course Professor McGonagall doesn't have you in detention and that's not a permanent sticking charm.”

Dumbledore laughed, the same rich laughter as when he lived, “It's nice to see you too Harry. I hear you gave a wonderful speech at the Ministry.”

Harry gave an “it's nothing” wave of his hand.

Professor McGonagall motioned to the seats set out for them, returned to her chair and went straight to what was on her mind. She spoke with such clipped precision that the four knew she had been thinking about what to say.

“I was pleased to see that you are considering returning to school. You have done great things. All of us are extremely proud of you. Yet, as much as you have accomplished, there is more to learn. All the teachers, every one of us, hopes you will finish your N.E.W.T. year. We believe there is still more we can teach you and that your skills can be improved with formal education.”

Hermione answered, “It's not that we think we don't have more to learn Professor but we don't know exactly how to find my parents and, although now we have a plan, beyond the fact that they're in Australia, we really don't know where they are. . ." She paused then said what she found hard to say, ". . . or how to find them.  So, we've been more or less up in the air about school while we find out what we'll need to do.”

“Well then,” said Professor McGonagall, “let's begin by reviewing your plans.”

Hermione started but when Crookshanks came around the desk and climbed into her lap, she welcomed her cat.

Professor McGonagall laughed, “He's learned something I'm sure you'll find. . ."  She emphasized her last word with a broad grin,  ". . . useful.”

“What's that?” Hermione asked while Crookshanks purred loudly on her lap.

“He scares off Mrs. Norris; she won't come around.”

All four were thinking this would be very handy for after-hours snogging and were amused by their Headmistress emphasis on “useful.”

Hermione retold their ideas, then concluded, “Our hope is that there'll be something like a Ministry of Magic where we can get help finding my parents.”

Harry added, “Do you know anyone who could help us find out about wizarding in Australia?”

Professor McGonagall thought for a moment before replying, “As you know, my family are Scots; I cannot think of anyone to query. If I do, I shall do so instantly.”

All four thanked her.

“You've spoken to Professor Mullens, of course, he's your best contact for learning about Muggle authorities – Passport offices, banks and such. Since he will be teaching Muggle Studies this year he may be easily consulted. . . .” She looked at each of the four in turn, “. . . should you return to school.”  Returning to her professorial timbre, “Did you talk to Bill Weasley about the gold? He may have picked-up something useful working at Gringotts.”

Ginny and Ron looked at one another with a “We should have thought of that!” expression.

It was Harry who replied, “Thanks, that's a great idea.”

Professor McGonagall nodded in response and continued making her point, “But, I don't see anything in your plans that isn't better done here. In fact, since you've so much research and planning to do, Hogwarts is the best place to do it.  The Library, teachers, even a student might know something helpful. It's possible that an extended family might reach to Australia. For the youth trip you'll be on holiday, no need to miss classes.”

Hermione looked first at Ron, then at Ginny and Harry, “Do you see any reason why not? If we have the mailing address and bank accounts ready before school, the most we'll need to do in person will be something like a Y.I.P.I. meeting. So, assuming we get that done, I don't see any reason we couldn't be here.”

Ron asked, “What if we need to return to Australia, or even just to Grimmauld Place, or to leave school to meet with Y.I.P.I?”

Their Headmistress made it a fait accompli, “I'm sure we can accommodate the occasional absence. Good, that's decided. So, we need to talk about your courses. Ron, Harry and Hermione have finished their sixth year, so they''ll do my Transfiguration Class, Flitwick's Charms, Defense Against the Dark Arts with Professor Sandberg, and Potions with Professor Slughorn. You'll need Herbology too, of course, if you're still decided upon becoming an Auror. Although Kingsley has already offered, I think it's in your interest to complete all the required N.E.W.T.-level courses.”

Their Headmistress made another note then continued, “You should give some thought to Muggle Studies, it will concentrate on their culture and ideas.”

Professor McGonagall turned to Ginny, “Now, Miss Weasley, you have missed classes while you were being the bright and courageous young woman you are – I thank you for all of us. Nonetheless, I am concerned about Defense Against the Dark Arts. You are, as the Muggles say, fast on your feet.  You have a talent for the hex, but there is nothing like practice and the course this year will be very practically oriented.  I don't doubt you'll do well in the N.E.W.T. course; however, a review with Professor Sandberg would be a good idea to insure no sixth year skills are missed."

Ginny answered, “I can do that Professor.”

“Alright then,” Professor McGonagall replied, “Very good, I'm sure you won't mind having all your classes together, so I will take care of your schedules and talk to Professor Sandberg about Miss Weasley's review.”

After quickly making another note with her quill, she said, “Now though, we need to talk about Gryffindor House. Professor Sandberg – a great Gryffindor himself – will be a wonderful House Master. Yet, last year none of our school traditions, the House Cup, the Quidditch Cup, were accomplished.” Sounding absolutely scandalized she continued, “There was no Quidditch at all. It's a good thing that no House Cup was awarded because the Carrows gave house points in the most arbitrary and ignorant ways. We have a lot to restore.  There may be problems with naming Prefects, and some, perhaps  many, students will not return.  Considering this, I would like to name Ron and Hermione Head Boy and Head Girl.”

“Great idea,” said Harry.

Ron looked gobsmacked.

“Thank you. Your confidence means a lot,” said Hermione, “but aren't sixth year Prefects usually chosen?” Then, looking at Ron, “Is it something you want to do?”

“Well, Quidditch is one thing, but . . .  you know . . . Mum made sense saying that a year just studying here would be a good way to sort-of settle into our future. . . now that we have one.”

Hermione carried on, speaking directly to Professor McGonagall, “I don't think it would be fair to take the posts then leave. What I think the Weasleys mean is that we've formed these bonds,” pointing to herself and Ron, Harry and Ginny, “during difficult times and that it would be good to spend a year just going to school and being, well, a little losely scheduled.”

Professor McGonagall answered, “Molly makes sense. I concur.  Regarding the student leaders, normally we would chose from last year's Prefects.  Those would be the Carrows' Prefects and they'll surely not return.” She paused then spoke with some pride, “None were Gryffindor.”

Looking a little abstracted she explained, “It's not clear how many students will return. Parents may not be reassured. They may not be secure that there are no curses laying in wait. Some who left school during the war have probably moved on with their lives.  We won't know about those who left last year until school starts, so I'll hold arranging the Head posts for now.  May I call on you if we need you?”

Hermione looked at Ron but he spoke before she could, "Of course, it's Hogwarts."

She thanked them and changed the subject, “What about Quidditch, you certainly don't mean to miss your last year of Quidditch?”

“Oh no!” replied Ginny, “and we've got great new brooms, but can I mention an idea I've had from reading the Muggle student newspapers?”

“Please,” said Professor McGonagall.

Ginny started to lay out her idea, “Harry was the last captain . . .”

McGonagall cut her off, “Actually, if last year had been a normal year, I thought you would be the best choice to succeed Harry.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that, but what I'm thinking about is a second team, the Muggles call it the 'junior varsity.'  But, the idea is really simple.  Every year we have flyers in the under years who are good but not as good as the older, more experienced flyers. If, instead of letting them sit in the stands, we had them train with the team, we'd have a source of back-ups, should someone get hurt or . . ." She gave Harry a saucy smile,  ". . . have as many detentions as Harry.  Plus, we'd have a head start on training next year's team.  Depending on who comes back, we could have an experienced team.  Having under years in training would preserve Gryffindor lore and traditions too.”

Harry and Ginny were expectantly silent as Professor McGonagall thought about Ginny's proposal. Then, a voice from the wall, Ravens Smythe, himself a Gryffindor Seeker some 400 years ago, “Do it! The first year they'll think you're off your broomstick. The second year they'll think it is a fluke and by the time the other houses copy it, Gryffindor will be on its way to an undefeated decade!”

“I agree,” Professor McGonagall replied to his portrait, “it's a good idea."  She was so attached to Gryffindo Quidditch that the conversation changed from an interview to a chat with her team.

"Llewellyn Parsons, the fourth year Slytherin who wouldn't play because of Malfoy, will be flying this year. Malfoy won't be back. Parsons is a much better flyer and smarter too.”

“Malfoy's not coming back!” blurted-out Harry, with Ron, Ginny and Hermione looking as pleased as he sounded.

“Yes,” said professor McGonagall, “the Malfoys have decided that Draco has had enough formal schooling.” Her tone changed signalling that she would have no more to say about the Malfoys.  The chat was over.  “Well, I think we have accomplished what we need and I am looking forward to seeing you all in class later this year. It will be sooner than you think, summers pass quickly.”

The four stood preparing to leave as did Professor McGonagall, who rose to walk them to the door, “Hagrid is hoping you'll visit. I'm glad you’ll be coming back, I’d like a regular school year too. . . and the Quidditch cup for Gryffindor!”

Suddenly, having waited to the very last minute and almost missing the chance to speak, Ron turned and questioned Dumbledore's portrait, “What are you?”

Dumbledore laughed, “Good question Mr. Weasley. Just what do you think I am?”

“I don't know, you're . . . you're dead but you know what Dumbledore knew, you think like Dumbledore, how can you not be Dumbledore?”

“I'm not Dumbledore, Dumbledore has moved on.  Don't ask, I don't know where any more than you do. But how do you think a ghost is different than the living person he or she once was?”

Hermione joined Ron, standing next to him while Ginny and Harry stood just behind, engaged by the conversation.

Hermione answered, “A ghost is an imprint of a witch or wizard that remains among the living.”

“Yes, that's right,” answered Dumbledore, “however, for the ghost to be animate, for the imprint to have personality, to interact, there must be something more than a vaporous imprint. The witch or wizard who becomes a ghost loses their physical form in death but their urge to remain creates an imprint, like an ethereal photograph connected to the traces of their life.”

Ron, looking puzzled, asked, “But, their existence is past, how can it be here now?”

Hermione, more restrained than when throwing her hand in the air to answer a question in class, nonetheless almost twitched with excitement as the answer came to her, “There is no past, ghosts, these portraits are all connected to timelessness. It's like Professor Mullens said about apparition. We apparate into and out of timelessness. A time turner takes us in and out of timelessness.”

“You mean we pop in and out of being?” puzzled Harry.

“Exactly,” replied Dumbledore, “you are squeezed inward toward near timelessness and expand outward to your destination, carried by your determination. Likewise, the dying witch or wizard creates a ghostly imprint connected to their own memories, to the traces of their life. Certain rare and talented artists can connect to the memories of a departed person's life and create a portrait.  The more powerful the artist, the more ripples in time their magic connects.”

The four were mentally digesting this when Professor McGonagall spoke again, “Thank you Albus.  Don't you think our seventh years should give some thought to studying with Professor Mullens. His queries into magical theory should interest them quite as much as his knowledge of Muggles.”

“Indeed,” said Dumbledore, “for that and more.”

Thus dismissed, the four continued to the door, said their goodbyes and descended the spiral stair. When they passed the Gargoyle Ginny said, “When I walked in there I was thinking I'd give some serious thought to school next year. Two minutes later I had unquestionably concluded that going back to school was the best thing I could possibly do.”

They laughed together, Harry adding, “The office is bewitched!”

While the four friends traveled the halls and stairs of the castle, recognizing places where the most significant events of thier lives had transpired, the decision to come back felt better and better. By the time they looked into the Great Hall, the immensity of what had taken place there overwhelmed them. Here, Hermione, Ginny and Luna fought a duel to the death with Bellatrix Lestrange. There, Harry faced Riddle for the last time. Here in the Entrance Hall, Ron with his father and brothers, had met and defeated the last of the Death Eaters and their giant allies.

Now the house tables had returned, the staff table and the podium from which Dumbledore had said a few words – “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” – was in its place on the raised dais at the head of the hall. Sooner than seemed possible the tables would be full again, students and teachers in their sleepy-eyed breakfasts, their can't-be-late lunches, fantastic dinners and feasts, owls with letters and packages, perhaps even a howler or two, would restore the ancient rhythm of life at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

When they passed the entrance and looked out over the landscape their nostalgia stopped them like a magical barrier. They stood close to one another and looked out across the grounds, taking in the stone tombs of the Hogwarts fighters, the Whomping Willow, the Black Lake, the Forbidden Forest and, at the base of the hill Hagrid's stone hut, smoke curling lazily upward from its chimney. Absorbed, they moved slowly down the stairs and on reaching the path turned toward Fred's tomb at the base of the castle wall.

When they started down the path Harry and Ginny caught sight of the Gryffindor lion and fireworks dragon carved into the side of Fred's tomb. Ginny, ran forward to examine it, “That's really beautiful, when was it carved?”

Hermione's pride was unmistakable, “Ron made it after the funeral, while you were helping Mrs. Tonks back to the path.”

“Wow, Ron, that's amazing.  I didn't know you could do that,” said Ginny.

“It started to come to me during the funeral, I imagined it and it sort of came out of my wand.” Ginny and Harry were looking at Ron as if they could find something to explain this new amazement, Hermione with a delighted expression.

This made Ron self-conscious so he passed it off, “It'll probably never happen again.” Turning to face Fred's tomb he talked as if Fred were sitting on the stone bench, “Well Fred, we're coming back to school. That is, we're going to Australia to find Hermione's parents as soon as we figure out Passports and money, but we'll be coming back to school and we'll visit you often.” Still self-conscious talking to his brother's tomb, he turned to his companions and suggested that they continue on to Hagrid's.

When they neared Hagrid's house, Buckbeak, who no longer needed to be hidden from the Ministry, was much more than a memory. The great hippogriff was laying in Hagrid's garden patch.  His front legs folded over one another like a cat. His claws made an impressive display.  The garden was already filled with the spring-green shoots of pumpkin vines. The four friends approached, stopped, bowed and waited as Buckbeak rose and returned their bow. At that, all four affectionately stroke the great beast's feathers, cooing softly as if Buckbeak were just an exceptionally big, friendly owl.

While they were thus occupied Hagrid booming cry greeted them, “Hey, you lot . . .” He raised his huge arms in welcome and spoke in a surprised and delighted voice, “Look at yeh, you'v grown, you're . . . you're not kids anymore. I'm so glad ter see ya, com-in, com-in, it's been ferever an' ta' kettle's on.”

Hagrid's cabin showed no trace of damage from the final battle, only months in the past but already slipping into memories and tales. Fang, his large wet jowls hanging loosely, laid his head on Harry's lap as he had done so often before. It was good to be taking tea with Hagrid again.  It was nice that there were no barrels of Flobberworms or boxes of Blast-Ended Skrewts crowding the room.

“So, Hagrid, what've you been doing?” Hermione asked.

Hagrid, swallowed a big quaff of tea to reply, “After ya'll left, sorry I mist' ya, ministry wizards kept arrivin', dozens and dozens of 'em. First it's magical maintenance fix'n stuff. Then, Curse-breakers clear'n curses. Yer brother Bill were here fer that.”

Hagrid persevered with his story before any could respond, “While they's up ter that, Grawpi, Fang and I was fixin' things in the forest. There were wounded creatures an' Death Eaters hidin'. We brung 'em in. T'weren't in much shape to fight, except'n one, who's busy tryin' to Avada Kedavra me until Grawpi whacked 'm one. Took'm in too.”

“He was trying to kill you!” exclaimed Hermione.

“Yea, but too fer off an' too many trees. I's just divertin' him for Grawpi.”

“What did they do with the prisoners?” asked Ron.

“Hauled ‘em off ta Azkaban,” replied Hagrid matter of factually.

After another hour or so of catching-up, the red reflections of the setting sun on the windows reminded them that it was time to return to The Burrow. After extended goodbyes, the four began the climb back to the castle. By the time they reached the Fat Lady's portrait and Ginny announced, “crackers,” they were trying to decide whether they should tease Mrs. Weasley – who wouldn't be able to stand waiting to hear – or whether they should just tell her they'd be going back to school. By the time Ginny, the last to leave through the Gryffindor fire, arrived at The Burrow, Mrs. Weasley was already grinning and hugging each of the new seventh years.

“Butter beer,” called Mr. Weasley.

They sat at the kitchen table, drinking their butter beers while Mrs. Weasley magicked dinner. They ate and told stories from school. By the time they fell asleep feeling like students again was feeling pretty good.


Chapter 11: Return To Arcade Street
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Chapter Eleven

Return to Arcade Street


The four set-off for Grimmauld Place as soon as they finished breakfast. Arriving there, they spent the morning considering their day's tasks and making sure that both couples had enough money to get around and for Hermione to pick up a book about Sydney. Then, they set off two by two under the Invisibility Cloak until all four had arrived at the well-scouted alley near the Ministry. It was empty as usual. They walked the short distance to Arcade Street where Harry and Ginny stopped at a route map to find their way to central London where they hoped to find jewelers or antique dealers who would buy a Mother of Galleons.

Ron and Hermione continued on to the bookstore but crossed Arcade Street earlier than usual to gaze through the windows of the Muggle shops they'd not seen before. The stores were different than those in Diagon Alley but not as different as Muggles' lack of magic might suggest. Everyone liked to eat, Ron frequently. Pizza particularly appealed to Ron. The aroma of warm bread and spices filled the pavements when they passed the open pizzeria door.

Hermione gave him a tug down the street, again expressing her amazement at his appetite, “We've only just finished breakfast!”

This was not exactly true, breakfast had been more than three hours ago.  Ron didn't think Hermione could understand appetite as the pleasure of eating, she had to be reminded to eat.  They kept up their often-repeated dialog past a store selling bedding and another offering used furniture. It had run its course by the time they arrived at a small restaurant offering felafel, humus and Greek salads, dishes that Hermione had to explain to Ron. Ron was not sure that deep fried chickpeas sounded very tasty, thus avoiding further scrutiny of his appetite.

Immediately after the felafel shop came another seeming eatery that neither Ron nor Hermione quite understood. Though the large shop window, labeled “Cyber Cafe” in neatly painted letters, they could see two small tables in what had once been a display window. One of these bore several used paper coffee cups from the shop two doors down  Beyond the tables they could see a dozen or so desks, not unlike school desks, each of which was equipped with a computer.

“What're those,” asked Ron, “Muggle televisors?”

“No, those are computers Ron, Muggles use them to calculate and store things. Look at the sign; you can rent them by the hour.”

The sign she pointed out for Ron to read, “On-line Access, ₤1 / hour.”

Just as they were about to continue on, Ron grabbed her elbow and pointed toward the young man who had been instructing one of the customers.

When he returned to the table with the “Tech Support” sign and took his seat, Hermione exclaimed, “Isn't that Bill, Ellen from the clothes store's boyfriend, the artist?”

“Yea, it is; let's go say 'Hi'.”

When they entered the Cyber Cafe two of the customers turned to look at them. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about a young couple in jeans and trainers, so their gazes quickly returned to their screens. Bill, though, saw them and smiled, confirming their recognition.

“Hey, what's up? How're you guys? Did you get back in time with all your stuff the other day?”

“Oh, no,” said Hermione, “but Ron's folks were talking with friends so it wasn't a problem.”

“Cool,” said Bill.

“Is this your job?” asked Ron.

“Yea, I help people find their way around the network and get to use the systems after hours. What're you back in town for?”

Hermione, having read about the internet in the Muggle newspapers and thinking there was nothing to lose, explained, “We're thinking about going on a youth trip to Australia over Christmas break, so we're going to the bookstore to see if we can find out about getting Passports. Can you do that on a computer?”

She almost mentioned “Birth Certificates” but thought that might sound strange to a Muggle who probably assumed everyone had one.

Bill answered with an unexpected but hearty laugh, “Well, blimey, that's something, isn't it? Ellen and I work with Y.I.P.I. That's the trip you're thinking about, right? We're counselors; really, it’ll be a great trip.

“Yea, Y.I.P.I.,” said Ron, equally surprised.

"gYea, and you can sign up on-line. Have you ever used the internet before?”

Both Ron and Hermione shook their heads while answering, “No, we don't have computers at home.”

“So, what do you say? If you want to use the trip as an example, I'll do it with you. Sorry,  I'll have to sign you in and charge or I'll lose my job if the owner comes around, but if you want, I'll walk you through finding out about the Sydney conference.”

“That would be great.” Hermione was still thinking about Birth Certificates, “There's stuff we need to know.”

Bill led them over to a table with two chairs, pulled another chair a little to the side, and angled the keyboard toward him. On the screen was a sign, “Arcade Street Cyber Cafe,” twisting and rolling around the screen. It disappeared when Bill touched a palm-sized device, replaced by a blue background overlaid with small symbols in a row on the left-hand side. When he moved the device, called a “mouse,” an arrow on the screen moved in tandem. He placed it over a globe-shaped symbol he called an "icon" and pushed a button on the mouse twice in quick succession. After a bit, the screen was replaced with a display of images and text, something like a page of the Daily Prophet with Muggle pictures, but more colorful.

Bill explained, “This is a web browser, there's a new version coming but the cafe's owner doesn't like to use the latest versions because they have the most bugs.”

“Bugs?” asked Ron, “Like spiders?”

“Kind of,” said Bill, “the story goes that when any early computer would crash – that means it would stop functioning – it was because insects got into the wiring. So, anything that makes a program malfunction is called a 'bug'.” Ron and Hermione nodded their understanding so Bill carried on with his demonstration. “Up here's the search box, you type in a word or phrase and it gives you a list of the web sites that contain that word or phrase. So, you wanted to look for Y.I.P.I., right?”

Hermione replied, “Yes, we need the details of the Sydney trip.”

Bill used the keyboard and entered “Youth International Peace Initiative” in the search box. After a somewhat longer wait, the screen filled with a list in which “Youth International Peace Initiative” appeared in bold text, next to a longish string of letters. Some were recognizable words, all were blue and underlined.

Bill explained. “These are called 'links,' if one looks interesting, you click this left-side mouse button twice quickly and it'll show you the site.”

“Got it,” said Hermione, “it's like a phone book, only the connection's automatic.”

“Yea, like that,” answered Bill. “Go ahead and see what you can find. Come get me if you have any questions and don't worry about trying things out. You can't hurt anything.”

Ron and Hermione began a systematic reading of the links related to Youth International Peace Initiative. The first two were newspaper stories about the trip. While they read along together, their conversation became a staccato of partial phrases spoken in undertones to not disturb the other customers, “look, staying at the dorms on the University of Sydney campus . . . youth speakers . . . fourth international conference . . . more than 500 participants from around the world . . . 45 countries . . . sessions on what you can do even if you're too young to vote . . . representatives from schools around the world.”

Hermione summed up, noting that Ron had finished reading, “You know Ron, it sounds like a good thing to do, even if we didn't need to find my parents.”

“Yea,” said Ron in a whisper, “but a Hogwarts delegation probably isn't what they're expecting!'”

Enjoying the joke, Hermione replied, “Probably not, let's try this link down here.” She moved the mouse arrow over the link that read “Youth International Peace Initiative, Information and Application Forms.”

When the screen gradually filled with text and pictures Ron exclaimed, “There it is, click on that line in the lower right-hand corner, 'Application Forms'."

Hermione did and a new page opened on top of the other. Since it said “Page 1” in the upper-right corner, they tried to find page two. It took some fiddling but they soon found how to manage the browser. Together they surveyed the form.

“Name and address,” said Hermione, “we can probably use Post Office boxes that we rent, like for my parents' mail, if not, we'll have to work-out something else.”

Ron read more, “Sex, male/female, age, year-in-school. Oh! This will be a problem, school attended, what to do about that?”

“Let's fake it, say we attend a Muggle school, or maybe we're taking a year off to work and earn some money for university.”

“How about St. Brutus' School for the Criminally Insane? Wasn't that where the Dursley's told people Harry went,” giggled Ron.

“Yea, sure, that will go-over really well. Go ask Bill if we can print these.”

When Ron returned to the desk he told Hermione that all they needed to do was point the mouse arrow, Bill called it a “cursor,” to “print” at the upper left hand corner of the page. It was easy enough to find and when the mouse button was clicked, another, smaller display appeared over the application form. Hermione filled it out, requesting four copies. Not long after, a machine at Bill's desk ejected the forms.

Bill, took the papers from the machine, smiled as he recognized the forms,  and called to them from his desk, “Do you have more to print?”

Ron answered, “Maybe.”

Bill said he'd hold on to their prints until they were done.

“Well, that's pretty easy,” said Hermione.

Ron agreed and suggested that they try looking-up Passports. They typed “English Passports” into the search box and clicked “Go.” This time the list was longer and more confusing until they realized that several of the places listed were not actually government offices.

“Here it is,” said Ron, “ 'gov' must mean the government.”

They selected the site and when it appeared clicked on the “New Adult Passport” line.

Hermione made soft groaning sounds as she read, “Long form Birth Certificates, I wonder what that means. . .oh my. . .if it takes time to get them, we'll need an interview, two pictures, someone to sign and give their Passport number, expensive too.  Oh Ron, this is horribly complicated.” Then in a whisper, “No wonder our kind never get Passports.  Let's print this, then check on Birth Certificates.”

Again, the machine on Bill's desk whirled and ejected a page, Bill looked over and seeing Ron raise his hand, put the paper with the others and went back to his book. Hermione, watching the keyboard intently and hitting the keys with her forefingers typed “Birth Certificates” into the search box.

Both Ron and Hermione read the list silently until Ron spoke, “Hermione, check this one, 'U.K. Civil Records Computerized.”

When the page displayed they saw it was an image of the Times, about halfway down the second column the story began. They both noted what caught their attention while they read:

“All civil records, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage records, operators licenses for all classes of motor vehicles. . .”

“Manual records from county offices carried to London for data entry. . .”

“Now that they have been entered, the paper records, some of which are in very poor condition from inadequate storage, have been archived in a government climate controlled facility.”

“The nation-wide system is now in operation and is checked by government offices such as the Home Office for the issue of Passports.”

“Birth records are being processed now and the government records center employees are expected to complete marriage records by this September.”

“The new facility on Crossroads Court is operating two shifts each weekday.”

They both said “We need to go there” so much in unison that they had to laugh.

“Remember the address will you Ron?”

“Sure, take a look at this too,” pointing to a box in the upper right hand corner of the Times page. Inside the borders was a drawing of a beach with a palm tree framing the ocean beneath a wispy-cloud sky. Overlaid on the image was the headline “Ready for a Vacation?” Beneath was a paragraph telling how the Home Loan Bank of London would award a two week Caribbean vacation for two to a name drawn at random from those who opened a new checking account in the month of June.

Hermione remarked, “I don't think there will be any trouble opening a bank account Ron. It says that you can open it with a minimum of only ten pounds.”

After reading a few more of the links and finding nothing that showed an easier way to obtain a Passport, they went to Bill's desk to collect their printed pages.

He asked, “Finished?”

“Yes, thanks, we found what we needed.”

He handed them their prints saying, “I hope you'll decide to come. At least come to one of our meetings. It'll be a great conference and I think you'll like the people coming. Ellen and I would love to have you along.”

They paid for the time on the computer and printing, and thanked Bill for his help, saying that they would be back to use the system again. After walking to the bookstore and buying a copy of “Going to Sydney?” – chosen for its many maps and reviews of places to eat – they returned to the empty alley and apparated to Grimmauld Place to study the Y.I.P.I. Application.

                                                           ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

When Harry and Ginny left Ron and Hermione, they walked past Arcade Street to a tram stop. There, Ginny commented as they studied the map, “This is actually pretty smart, you can find your way to anywhere in London, supposing you know the street.” Then, pointing to the map, “OK, then, we're here.”

Right,” said Harry, “and across here is the district where we want to go . . . so we take the tram here, two stops over to the Northern Line and . . . let’s see . . . what about we take the tube to Leicester Square, get out there and see what we can find.”

Ginny pointed out a second route. “OK, if we have time we can get to this one, Piccadilly, and make it to Heathrow. Otherwise we can walk up here and take the Central through town, if we don't find what we're looking for.”

Harry noted, “Do we know what it costs and do we have the right Muggle money?”

“Yes, Hermione gave me a pocketful last night,” she said, patting the right-front pocket of her jeans.

It was not long before the tram appeared.  They boarded, paid their fares.  Not sure the stops would be announced, they took seats near the front. While they made their way through the London traffic on to the tube station, the buildings became taller and the traffic more dense.

Harry broke into a large grin and Ginny asked, “What's funny?”

“We're tourists. We've never been to any country, or even to a large city, except quick trips through London and there's nothing in our lives that's like this – the size, the numbers, the density is quite beyond our world.”

“I'm not really comfortable,” admitted Ginny. “It's oppressive.”

“It is. It feels like we could be overwhelmed at any moment but we need to get use to it.”

The stops were not announced but were well marked by signs at the curb. At the second stop they could see the entrance to the tube station from their window. They disembarked and took the stairs to the tube, paid at the turnstiles, and followed the signs to their train.

Having only train-traveled by the Hogwarts Express, they walked along the train to find a sparsely occupied car just as they looked for an unoccupied compartment. Finding a car with only two other passengers, they sat together on a bench where they could see the station markings through the door glass. Since their destination was general and more or less guess work anyway, missing the square by a stop or two probably made no difference. Nonetheless, having a plan gave them confidence, perhaps an unjustified confidence given the vagueness of the plan, but it helped make the strangeness of their surroundings seem curious and less threatening.

The other riders departed at the next stop, leaving the car empty, but only for a moment. From the front of the train came three youths, the largest led two others, somewhat smaller, but like their leader dressed in baggy pants and hooded sweatshirts. They walked in time, as if following some rhythm only they could hear. The big one had a large key-chain hung from a belt loop of his belt-less jeans. It jangled as he walked in a loping swagger. All three wore caps, brims to the rear. Harry watched them approach wondering if this was what Dudley had become, all false front and meaningless posturing.

This thought was interrupted before it could be completed by the biggest one's demand, “What are you lookin' at you prissy queen?” His attendants laughed in appreciation of 'prissy queen' and their leader turned to grin at them, basking in their subservience.

Although Harry didn't understand what 'prissy queen' meant he understood what it was. It was like a Muggle playground challenge and could only lead to a confrontation he had no interest in having. Ginny, never having experienced a Muggle playground, nonetheless recognized the threat. Harry felt her hand move to her jeans pocket and her wand. He did the same.

The whole situation could not have been more absurd. The three Muggles had unknowingly challenged a witch and wizard who had faced duels to the death. Stupefy and they'd awake in about a week, Avada Kedavra and they'd die. Physical size and strength were useless against magic. Harry started to think about how this typified the relationship of magical peoples to Muggles.

He set the thought aside. The large boy was virtually on top of him, “What ya lookin' at queenie?”

“You, I suppose, as you're blocking our view of anything else."  Harry's reply was a decision that conciliation would be understood as fear and showing fear would encourage their aggression. Harry had seen too much of Dudley and his friends to expect anything else.

Ginny understood what he decided. “It's not much of a view either.”

The three bullies pantomimed fear, raising their arms as if to protect their heads, saying, “Oh-h-h-h! Little red bird's got a bite,” in sarcastic tones.

Laughing, the big one looked at Ginny, then Harry, “What ya think pansy? Think your little birdie's ever snogged a real man? ”

It was Ginny who answered, quickly hiding her wand behind Harry's back as she hugged him around his waist, “Oh, I do, and if you B-O-Y-S will go away, we'd get a little snogging done, so bog off.”

Harry slipped his left arm next to Ginny holding her wand arm at the elbow and whispered, “I'm of age.” Ginny understood.

The confrontation was reaching a climax. Either this was enough and the little gang would move on to more convenient victims or it would turn physical. Harry and Ginny were both hand-on-wand alert. The car was empty and there was really no question how it would end.

The big one leered at Ginny, “Let’s see how tough you are ginger.”

He started to reach toward her. Harry put his free hand on his chest and pushed him back, “I wouldn't do that.”

He turned on Harry, “Why not, you gonna stop me?”

Harry laughed, “I don't need to, she's a witch, I'm sure she'll think of something clever.”

“Yea, right, bitch is more like it, screw off tosser.”

The bully reached down to put his hand on the back of Ginny's neck, meaning to force her forward into his unwelcome kiss. Ginny smiled and pointed the index finger of her free hand with a complex twisting motion. She touched the tip of his index finger, looked right in his eyes, grinned, and intoned, “Abracadabra,” to cover Harry's whispered, “Rus Tox.

He withdrew his hand as if he had been bitten and watched as an ugly reddish-purple rash spread to his forearm. When it progressed under his sleeve, he began to roughly scratch himself. Harry, Ginny and his bewildered companions followed the poison ivy's progress by his increasingly animated scratching.

“She's a witch!  She's a witch!  She's poisoned me,” he cried while scratching even more vigorously. He was nearing panic. His two companions, unable to think of a witch as anything but a black-robed, broom-riding hag, decided it was best to get their leader out of there in a hurry.

When they headed off in the direction from which they came, Harry flicked his wand saying, “Finite Incantatem. He'll be free of the rash in a minute, glad the trace isn't on me any more. I'd rather not have to explain that hex, although it was fair enough to alter his reality a bit.  Anyway, what's he going to say, 'Hey, I was harassing a couple of people on the tube and this witch gave me poison ivy with her finger'?” The thought was worth a hearty laugh.

They arrived at their stop with no further sign of the three bullies. When they first emerged to the street the pavements and intersections were relatively empty but as they walked along looking into the shop windows there was a rush of people from the surrounding buildings and tube exits.

“This must be lunch hour,” Harry said, “they mostly get an hour to eat at noon.”

When they stopped at a store displaying a huge variety of telephones, music players and other equipment, Ginny commented, “You know Harry, seeing this gives me a very different view of what Dad's been doing.”

“I know, the exploding toilets and stuff seemed funny, but it's ironic, we're powerful compared to individual Muggles, yet Muggles are so numerous. . .everyone on Diagon Alley on its busiest day wouldn't fill one of the pavements here. . .and they've so many powerful machines. . .staying out of their way makes a lot of sense.”

Ginny saw where he was going, “Secrecy protects us both.”

They decided they wouldn't find what they were looking for here.  They took one of the side streets that seemed to show more promise. After a few blocks, the buildings became smaller.  Even some of the apartment and office buildings had first-floor stores. A few blocks further and newer buildings were intermixed with older ones. These stores were more interesting than the glass and metal facades of those near the square, as were the goods on offer, antiques, clothes, furniture, rugs and art from around the world.

“Let's try this one,” Ginny suggested as they stopped in front of a jeweler whose sign read in small print at the bottom, “We Buy Gold, Silver and Precious Stones.”

Harry opened the door then followed Ginny through.  Almost immediately they passed a uniformed guard behind a desk at the side of the entry. He looked up as they walked by and then returned to reading his newspaper. The store was a labyrinth of display cases, not just along the walls, but also in its center. Each case displayed a different type of jewelry, here necklaces of silver, pearls and gold. There, a case of diamond rings, another of carved jade, all with tiny white tags on which astoundingly large numbers were written in a neat, tiny hand.

They approach the one clerk they saw standing behind a display of crystal vases near the center of the back wall. She was an older woman and did not look particularly pleased to see them.

Harry spoke as politely as he could, “Your sign says that you buy gold and silver. We would like to know how to go about selling gold.”

Sour faced, the clerk replied, “If you want to sell the gold ring your grandma left you, this is not the place.”

Ginny responded, “Actually, we're interested in knowing about gold bars, 100 once gold bars.”

This caught the clerk's attention but she still looked suspicious as she answered, “What's this, some sort of school report?”

“Yes, exactly,” Ginny affected a young and enthusiastic voice, “a school report.”

“Well, I don't have much time for this but gold bars are how gold is transported from the mine.” Breaking off she asked, “Where are your notes?”

Harry thought quickly, “We'll write it down later so we don't take up too much of your time.”

Seemingly convinced of his answer, she gave a terse explanation. “At the mine, each bar is numbered and certificates of purity are recorded. When a jeweler buys bar gold it is to be fashioned into rings, bases in which to mount precious stones.  Thus, we require a certificate of source and purity before purchasing. So, I hope that is useful for you. Good day.”

Thus dismissed, Harry and Ginny left, speaking only when they arrived on the pavement again. They tried the same question at another jeweler and got pretty much the same quick dismissal. They decided to give it up for the day but to return to the tube entrance on a different street one block to the north. Its commercial configuration was much the same but included an interesting apothecary that displayed old ceramic jars in the window. Each had the name of the herb it had once contained elaborately inscribed on a gilt-edged card hung from the handles on small, silver chains.

Across the street from the apothecary was another antique store with a facade that looked positively ancient. As they began to walk away something caught Ginny's eye and she took Harry's arm, steering him across the street and through the line of cars parked at its side.

“Harry, see that tiara on the black velvet, it's goblin work.”

“How can you tell?”

“Well, from across the street it reminded me of Aunt Muriel's, but do you see that mark inscribed below the inlaid flourish at the right side, just at the end?”

“Looks like a ram's horn.”

“Right, that's a goblin mark. Aunt Muriel showed it off when she was handing her tiara to Fleur. I forget the name she used but she insisted he was a famous maker.”

Harry started toward the door but Ginny grabbed his arm, “Not now,” she said, “we're young; we're in jeans; we don't belong here and the clerks know it. Let's come back later, better dressed. I'll bet there's other wizarding stuff in there.”

While they began walking back toward the tube station Harry asked, “So, are you thinking that other wizards have needed Muggle money and sold wizarding objects to get it?”

“Something like that,” replied Ginny, “it would be interesting to know why they were selling, but more importantly, is there a possibility that someone there knows about wizards, or at least wizard gold?”

"Or, is some kind of wizard crook."

They walked continuing to speculate on whether re-visiting the store was a good idea. If wizarding secrecy had been breached, showing-up with wizard gold, a big bar of very old wizard gold, wouldn't be a very good idea. On the other hand, if whomever was collecting wizarding objects was experienced with wizard sellers, the transaction might go easier.  There was no way to know, they'd just have to accept the risk.

In the midst of this conversation, just after passing a stand where taxis waited for passengers, Harry spotted what looked like a garden gate. Beneath a brick arch between buildings, there was an old, rusty iron-grill gate that seemed to lead to a human-sized passage, not really an alley.

“Wait,” he said, “this might be handy.” He tried the old gate and it creaked open, the latch had long since rusted away. He slipped past the gate, Ginny followed, quietly closing it behind her. It was a passage between buildings leading to a very small court yard.

“I know what this is,” said Ginny, “look at the bricked up door there; this was the servants' entrance, where they brought stuff for the kitchen. I'll bet that old door led to the kitchen when these were fancy houses. I bet this little courtyard is just big enough for a fishmonger's cart.”

“That makes sense,” said Harry taking in the pile of rotting leaves and litter against the wall, “but this would be a perfect place to apparate if we come back here. Doesn't look like it's ever used.”

They left, closing the gate behind them. By the time they reached the tube route map and figured their way to the Piccadilly line and Heathrow, the airport from which the Y.I.P.I. tour would leave, they had decided to return to the store with the tiara in the window. This time they'd dress to play the role of upper class youth who had inherited gold.

The ride to Heathrow was encouraging, apparently aggressive boys weren't on every train. Being after lunch and before quitting time, the cars were occupied but there were many seats available. When they arrived at Heathrow, they looked for a route map on the station walls. Before finding one, Ginny spotted a sign for Terminal Four with a list of airlines that included Quantas.

“Let's look here, Quantas is on the signs back there and, I'm pretty sure, that's the airline for the Y.I.P.I. trip.”

They found a van-like vehicle that ran to Terminal Four and arrived quicker than they expected. Seeing that people, most of whom were struggling with their luggage, simply got off without paying a fare or showing a ticket, they worked their way through the crowd into the terminal. It was packed with people arriving in vans and exiting from a gate labeled “U.K. Customs.”

Unencumbered by luggage Harry and Ginny gained the interior to find a chaos in need of deciphering. The followed the “Check In” signs and walked past lines artificially lengthened by metal poles and dark red, velvet-like ropes arranged in a serpentine maze. The destination of those snaking their way forward through these ropeways was a long counter where uniformed men and women were taking papers from people, typing at their computers, eventually returning more papers.

Although the large sign above the counter identified this as “British Airways Ticketing and Reservations,” what everyone was doing was not clear until one of the passengers, a mother whose son looked to be a first or second year – except of course that he was a Muggle – explained, “Just be patient, when we get to the front of the line, they'll check our baggage, give us our boarding passes, and we can move on to security without hauling these suitcases around.” The explanation served the teenage witch and wizard who overhead more than her child, who continued to fidget and complain.

Neither Harry nor Ginny had any idea what “security” might be but its direction was obvious by the progress of the crowd, most of whom were carrying handbags, camera cases and other hand luggage. The crowd queued again and Ginny pointed out an upper level from which they could watch the line as it snaked forward. For Harry and Ginny who had never seen such an arrangement, what purpose it served was not clear until raised voices at the front of one of the lines caught their attention.

A woman whose hair was so gray it looked blue was clutching a big purse and loudly complaining that there was no reason she should not be allowed to knit on the airplane, “What am I suppose to do for three hours, if I must check my knitting?”

Ginny said, “We've got to find a list of what you can’t carry on an airplane.”

“Wands, you're thinking about wands.”

“Yes, they won't know they're wands, but they could think they were knitting needles or something you can't have on an airplane.”

Having found out what they could by watching the security line, they took the stairs from the mezzanine and continued walking until they came to a take-out coffee shop with a crowded sitting area. They drank cappuccinos, which turned-out to be quite good, and watched the crowds. At one point a group of tourists speaking French went by following a leader who held a small flag aloft.

“I wonder if that's how the Y.I.P.I. group will go,” mused Harry.

“Don't know,” replied Ginny, “except for a few men in suits, it looks like everyone travels in their casual clothes. At least we won't have to worry about fitting in. There's a magazine shop over there, let's finish our coffee and see if there aren't some magazines where we can get an idea how we should look when we go back to that antique shop.”

Ginny selected two magazines from the section labeled “Fashion” while Harry watched Muggles talk about sports on one of the telvisions near the store. They described contests held in huge stadiums between teams mostly named for large, powerful animals. In addition to football, which English wizards knew something about, there was an American sport named “football” where two teams of rather huge men attacked each other in their attempts to move an oval-like ball across lines at opposite ends of a field. At least, that's what the pictures seemed to show. Another American Muggle sport called “baseball” was vaguely like the cricket that Vernon Dursley watched on television. The teams took turns trying to bat a ball over the other team and a wall that marked the limits of the field.

Harry had not grasped baseball by the time Ginny paid for the two magazines she selected. When they walked back toward the entrance by which they'd arrived, Ginny told Harry to wait next to the door of a women's restroom. Harry stood there wondering what a Muggle would do when instructed by his girlfriend to stand at the door of a women's WC. He had no sooner begun self-consciously looking around when Ginny opened the door part way and grabbed his elbow, pulling him inside.

Ginny, this is . . .”

“Empty. The Burrow or Grimmauld Place?”

Harry caught on, took Ginny's hand in his and turned. They re-emerged on the top step of Grimmauld Place. The door opened to his wand and they entered walking past where “Old Dusty” no longer materialized into the hall leading to the kitchen. When they passed the drawing room door, Ginny stepped inside just long enough to say, “Good day Mrs. Black.”

Ron and Hermione were already at the kitchen table. Hermione was busy making lists of things to learn, things to do, things to acquire. Her lists were in no particular order; that is, in whatever order they arose in the stream of her thoughts.

She looked up at Harry and Ginny as they entered the kitchen and went immediately to her conclusions, “We've got to simplify and divide the tasks. The Birth Certificate and Passport project is very complex. We found out that they have a computer center where the old paper records are being entered into government computers. We think we should try to get in there under the Invisibility Cloak and see if there isn't a way to magic what we need. We can forge some things, pictures and signatures for sure, but the Birth Certificates are tough. The bank account and postal address matters can be easily simplified. We can use my parent’s cheques to start accounts, but I think the Birth Certificates will have to be real.”

Harry and Ginny sat down opposite them. Ron smiled, “By the way, how's your day?”

“OK, we'll tell you about it. Let's hear what's on Hermione's mind first.”

All three looked at Hermione who didn't hesitate, “How's this for a plan. Harry, you and Ginny open a Mr. and Mrs. Harry Potter account. Ron and I will open one as Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Weasley. You almost never have to go to the bank and we have it worked out so you can apparate close enough to walk. From what we saw, banks are happy to open accounts with whatever name and addresses you fill in on their form. Since we're likely to need Muggle accounts again, we might as well start them the way things will be when, well, you know, we finish school and get married. Same thing for the Post Office Box, you come with me one time, rent the box, I've already checked and there are some available. Then, I'll charm it and everything will come to my beaded bag wherever we are.”

Her thoughts were met with a momentary silence. Ron, Harry and Ginny were hard pressed to think of something that Hermione had not already worked out. Even if she wasn't the smartest witch of her generation, she was who to have around when you needed to figure something out.

Harry asked what was known about the computer center.

“Just an address,” said Ron, “we didn't get there. On the map it looks like it's a short ride from Arcade Street so we can apparate for most of the trip. We'll just walk to the station from the ministry alley.”

“Well, we're too big for all of us to go under the cloak, so why don't you and Hermione take the cloak and do the scouting,” suggested Harry.

Ron confirmed, “That was our idea too, we can stop by the Arcade Street Cyber Cafe and learn more about the internet too.”

“Internet?” Harry asked, while Ginny's quizzical expression said the same.

Hermione answered, “It's what they call their computer network, they have ways of querying information from around the world and I think it could be useful to study, you know, to avoid mistakes with Muggles face-to-face.”

Harry and Ginny explained their day and their thoughts about it, the need to keep their wands on the airplane, to play different roles when contacting Muggles about selling gold, and the really incredible number of Muggles in London. Ginny, undoubtedly speaking what Ron was thinking, suggested that it was time to eat and they should get on home.

Two by two they stepped onto the front step and apparated to The Burrow gate where the smell of dinner greeted them.  Ginny and Harry were the last trip. Before they reached the kitchen door, Ginny skipped ahead and took his hands in hers.

"I like doing stuff with you;  I like having. . .you know. . .sort of an adventure,"

Harry smile and Ginny winked before she quickly brushed her lips over his.  They'd snog later, any delay and Molly would be at the door.



 


Chapter 12: Pirate Gold
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Chapter Twelve
Pirate Gold


The four slept late. Mr. Weasley had left for work and Mrs. Weasley had already begun her household routines before first Ginny, carrying the two magazines she bought at Heathrow, then Harry, then Hermione and finally Ron arrived in the kitchen. Ron made coffee; he enjoyed using the newly-learned spell, as well as the aroma of grinding and brewing. By the time Mrs. Weasley returned to inquire what they might like for breakfast, the four were enjoying Ron's brew. Ron described the pancakes with syrup and bacon they'd seen pictured in the window of a Muggle restaraunt and asked his mother if she could make it for breakfast.

While Mrs. Weasley began the wand work of breakfast, Ginny opened one of the magazines to where she had bent down the corner of the page. With her elbows on the table so her head rested on her hands above the magazine, she explained her idea.

“Yesterday, we found that places advertising that they buy gold were selling expensive jewelry. We were dressed like teenage Muggles and no one took us seriously. They figured we were a complete waste of time. On the way back, we happened on a store with a tiara in the window that reminded me of Aunt Muriel's without the diamonds. When we looked closely, we saw the same ram's horn mark that's on hers. That started us thinking that maybe they'd bought from wizards before. Anyway, it was clearly a goblin piece. So, we decided not to visit until we could look like, you know, wealthy Muggles who they'd think could own gold. So, at the airport I looked in magazines about clothes for what upper class Muggles wear. They call it 'fashion'.”

Turning the magazine so that the others could see she asked, “How about this for Harry?”

The picture showed a dark-haired young man, probably about thirty, wearing dark shoes, tan socks and slacks with a robins-egg blue shirt open at the collar. He wore a leather jacket that came to his waist and closed with a zipper. The outfit looked casual but seemed unmistakably expensive, an impression confirmed by the list of prices in the lower right-hand corner of the page.

“Wow, how does anyone look that unrumpled,” wondered Ron.

Harry reported, “I like the jacket.”

“Harry would look good in that,” observed Hermione, “maybe with a hat to cover his messy hair. Muggles pay a lot of attention to fashion. Certainly, they'll recognize it's classy and that's all that matters.”

Mrs. Weasley left the mixing bowl and frying pan on their own, pouring, flipping, and then stacking pancakes onto an increasingly large pile. Leaning between Ron and Hermione she said, “That'll work for a slim fellow like Harry,” and returned to the stove.

Next Ginny opened the second magazine and turned it toward the others. It showed a red-haired model wearing dark green high heeled shoes and a matching dark green dress. She carried a black leather purse that hung from her shoulder. Her hair was gathered at the back of her neck with a silver barrette and hung over the crescent of her shoulders the dress revealed. The dress was very simple. It was gathered at the waist by a wide leather belt with a silver buckle and exposed her stocking-covered legs from just above the knees.

Harry enthused, “Wow, you'd look great in that!”

Ron, still loath to admit that his little sister would ever be beyond girlish jumpers and school robes, sort of mumbled, “Uh-huh.”

Hermione's response was unequivocal, “You'll be stunning in that color. If the clerks are men, Harry could go starkers because no one will be looking at him, just you.”

Mrs. Weasley laughed, the four sort of giggled, and Harry added that – although it was true that Ginny would capture every eye – he'd rather not go nude.

Mrs. Weasley arrived with a platter of pancakes, a dish of bacon, four place settings, four glasses of pumpkin juice, and a pitcher of syrup preceding her in single file guided by her wand. Having magicked breakfast with some mysterious know-how, she picked up the magazine and examined the picture while the four helped themselves.

After pursuing it for a moment she noted, “Ginny dear, you've never worn high heels, have you?”

Ginny replied that she hadn't.

“What's your size?” Mrs. Weasley didn't wait for an answer. “There's a pair in my closet that might just fit, and you’ll need to practice, especially if you're to walk very far.”

“OK, I’ll try,” said Ginny, who added a question, “Mum, how would we go about finding these thngs in a store?  I don't think we'll find this stuff in Diagon Alley.”

Mrs. Weasley grinned mischeviously,  "Well it just so happens that I was visiting Muriel the other day and she had a friend from Gloucester over.  Anyway, her friend just bought this great new thing in Diagon Alley.  As soon as I saw it, I popped over and got one for us."

"So?" asked Ginny.

"Go to the closet in my room, the shoes I'm thinking of are way in the back, right-hand corner. They're bright red. On the top shelf, on the side toward the door, there's a wooden box,' bring that.”

Ron, Harry and Hermione didn't stop excavating the pile of pancakes in Ginny's absence. When she returned, she seemed a little unsteady in a pair of red high-heeled shoes. She carried her trainers in one hand and a squarish box in the other. It was labeled with the images of a wand and a spool of thread surrounded by the words “Handy Patterns for Wizarding Households” in a semi-circle.

Mrs. Weasley took the box from Ginny asking, “How’s it going in the shoes?”

“Shaky. I shrunk 'em a little; they fit OK; I'll wear em all day and see if I can get the hang of it.” Then, intently focusing on her mother, “When and where did you wear these?”

“Dancing with Arthur.”

What of the elder Weasley's youth had been revealed to them was intriguing and inspired their curiosity but Molly volunteered nothing more.  She was busy magicking a rolled parchment from the box and unrolling it in the air above the table where she stood.  Hermione jumped up and joined her reading the instructions.  The two were soon commenting to one another.

Harry and Ginny used the interlude to hold hands and silently reminisce about last night's pleasures.  Ron used the interlude to finish what Hermione left of her breakfast.

After a bit, Hermione told Mrs. Weasly to "give it a go" and sat back next to Ron.

Mrs. Weasley opened the box and after pushing things around a bit with the tip of her wand, removed a tiny jacket about the size of a Flutterby Leaf. She examined it, looked at the four and said, “You do remember the five laws?”

Since the trick with coffee beans, Ron rather liked the subject, “If you have some, you can make more. What you have you can transfigure.”
 
“To the point,” said Mrs. Weasley as she held her wand over the image in the magazine and spoke “Replico.” She then pointed it at the paper patternt and spoke “Objecto.” Instantly the tiny paper jacket became a three-dimensional copy of the jacket image. Next she told Harry to stand.  Holding the tiny jacket by the tip of her forefinger and thumb she began to enlarge it as she looked at Harry, judging the size. Satisfied, she handed Harry the jacket to try on.

“Cool, very cool!” said Harry as he pulled the jacked on and closed the zipper.

“Amazing!” said Ron, " I won't have to wear manque old dress robes again."

“Not bad!” agreed Ginny smiling at her mother's pleasure with the new magic.

Hermione observed, “It looks great but Harry still looks like he's eighteen, actually, he looks younger. It'll be the same for Ginny; she's obviously even younger than Harry.”

Mrs. Weasley replied as if it were obvious, “Use the aging draught I taught Fred and George, it's easy to make. All you need is to vary the ratio of the pumpkin seed to the dried plums to set the extent of the aging. I have everything you need here in the cupboard. If you need ten years or so, it works while you sleep, so there's none of the squirming like with Polyjuice.”

By now the pancakes were gone, the syrup pitcher empty and, along with the bacon, juice and coffee, transformed to warm, contented feelings. All four got up to clear the table and Ron set the dishes to washing, Harry grabbing them as they rose from the sink to wand dry and magic into the kitchen cupboard. Ginny and Hermione were rooting around in the Handy Patterns box. After a minute or two, Ginny stuck the box under her arm and she and Hermione started back upstairs.

“Hey, whe're you g'ng?” asked Ron, as he hurried to speak through a gulp of coffee before they left the kitchen.

“Upstairs to try on new clothes,” answered Hermione.

“Well, wait for us,” added Harry, “we'll come too.”

“No, you go play with your brooms. We don't need your help and if you stay away we can stay in our underwear and not run to the bathroom every time we want to change.”

“That's OK,” said Ron laughing, “we don't mind if you hang out in your underwear.”

“Funny, funny,” said Ginny sarcastically as she turned to leave, adding a sort of “silly boy” expression to round out the role.

Ron was back to his coffee and missed her performance.

“One minute there,” said Mrs. Weasley, “gi'me that box for a second, will you.” Taking the box from Ginny, Mrs. Weasley rummaged around until she had a small collection of patterns in hand. Handing the box back to Ginny she instructed, “You might as well make some skirts and shirts to wear with school robes while you're at it.”

The girls started upstairs and the boys started outdoors to collect their brooms. They never got to the door. Mrs. Weasley, holding a pair of shirts, demanded, “Where do you think you're going? Try these on.” Harry and Ron did what they were told as Mrs. Weasley worked on two more patterns, producing two pair of tan slacks.

“Try these,” she said, handing them over. Harry and Ron turned as if heading back upstairs but Molly stopped them with, “Really, what modesty, I've raised six boys and your fiancé Harry. Believe me! I've no need to see any more underwear, just try them on. I'll turn around.”

While the boys took-off their jeans and tried on the new slacks, Mrs. Weasley was working on another pattern. When they were ready for their fitting, she laid the new article on the table and told Ron to stand normally. Ron slouched.

“Well, normal for other people,” replied his mother. Ron stood straight and she used her wand to open the waist of his pants a touch, and then extended their length. The shirt was clearly tight at the shoulders so she widened it to fit Ron's chest and narrowed the tails so they weren't so bunched-up.

Next, she fitted Harry's slacks and shirt, which needed lengthened to fit. Finally, she handed Harry his leather jacket and Ron a safari coat with many pockets, a button front and a belt. After having the boys turn around twice so she could examine her handiwork, she declared herself done and handed the boys a coat hanger each.

“These are coat hangers, learn to use them. Fold your pants; lay them neatly over the bar. Then, hang your shirt, closing the top button so it won't fall off. Put your jackets over the shirt; make sure it's not lopsided or bunched up underneath.”

They did as they were instructed, got back in their jeans and T-shirts, and handed Mrs. Weasley their carefully-loaded hangers on their way out the door.

Harry and Ron spent the rest of the afternoon practicing Quidditch in the garden. Harry launched an old Quaffle at Ron again and again so Ron could block or catch it. After a while it became more a game of “catch,” because Ron found a rhythm where nothing Harry threw got by him. After that, they took turns chasing one another around the garden and yard to get their balance in and practice the light touch their new Firebolts required if they were not to oversteer.

By the time they returned the brooms to the shed and went back indoors, it was twilight and Mr. Weasley had returned home. He was reading The Prophet in his chair at the kitchen table. Hermione and Ginny were at the counter with Mrs. Weasley learning how to manage multiple knives cutting vegetables. There was stew already bubbling on the stove, stirred by an unattended wooden spoon. Mr. Weasley looked up from his reading as Ron and Harry entered and asked how practice went.

“Ron was unbeatable; I couldn't get the Quaffle by him.”

Ginny teased from by the stove, “We'll see how he does with a real Chaser; I don't think a Seeker knows how to throw a Quaffle.”

Mrs. Weasley had already started on the aging potion, as she added the last ingredients she asked Harry and Ginny almost as an aside, “I think ten years ought to do it, don't you?”

Harry and Ginny looked at each other and shrugged, with Harry saying, “twenty seven and twenty eight, that ought to be old enough. We've been thinking that our story will be that we inherited one of those 'don't open until such-and-such a date' files from back in my great grandfather's time.”

When Harry finished, Ginny gave her father more detail as she walked toward the cupboard opposite the stove and took down six large bowls. “Mom made outfits for Harry and I so we'll look like rich Muggles.”

When she started toward the table, Mrs. Weasley extended her hands toward the bowls. “Here, I'll take those.”

Ginny replied, “Don't worry I've got the knack of it now.” Only then did Harry realize that both Ginny and Hermione were wearing high heeled shoes. Ginny's were green and Hermione's were black and the heels of both were tall enough for a good-sized rat to squeeze beneath.

Mr. Weasley found the conversation more interesting than The Prophet so he asked, “So, just what is it that you're planning and why is Molly brewing the Variable Aging Draught?”

Ron started, “Hermione and I are going back to Arcade Street tomorrow and then to the Government Computer Center. We hope to get in under Harry's Invisibility Cloak and see if there isn't some way we can't magic what it takes to get a Muggle Birth Certificate. We need them to get Passports for our trip to Australia.”

“How do you plan to get in?” asked Mr. Weasley.

“We don't know; we have to reconnoiter this time. We've not been there yet. We just found it the other day,” answered Ron.

Arthur continued satisfying his curiosity, “Uh-huh, and you Harry, what will you and Ginny be doing?”

Harry looked toward Ginny to see if she wanted to say something but she was still occupied with a half-dozen knives. “We'll take the potion tonight so we'll look like we're in our late twenties. Then, we'll return to an antique store where we saw what we're pretty sure was a goblin tiara. If they seem OK, we'll talk to them about selling a Mother of Galleons. When we're sure about the Muggle money, we'll open a bank account and rent a post office box near Hermione's house.”

Familial talk continued as all emptied, and Arthur, Harry and Ron twice refilled, their bowls of stew. Most of the evening passed in the same way, with different combinations of the six and their various couples forming and reforming as the conversations changed and everyone completed their household chores and evening reading. Harry thought the hours after dinner were mental cleansing, even without speaking, the wear and tear of the day, or any anxiety for tomorrow, evaporated when you were in company it felt so good to be around.

Toward the end of the evening, just before bed, they were all having tea in their dressing gowns when Ginny asked her dad, “Is there any way to remove the trace before I'm seventeen?”

Her father replied, “I don't think they've paid any attention to The Burrow in ages Ginny, seven kids, visitors in and out, Fred and George up to who-knows-what, and all the regular household magic. There's no way they can tell who's doing what. Why? What's on your mind?”

“Professor McGonagall is having Professor Sandberg arrange stuff for me to work on over the summer so I'll can catch up anything I missed last year. I need to get my apparition license too. Anyway, it'd be convenient if I could apparate on my own. We missed apparition practice last year too.”

Her father promised to ask what Professor Sandberg thought best.

It was Mrs. Weasley who called “bed time” as she advanced toward Harry and Ginny carrying two glasses of aging potion. Harry was leaning with his back to the wall next to the hallway door. Ginny had her forearms on his chest and her hands on his shoulders and was just barely holding herself from leaning fully against him. Their noses and foreheads touched and they were smiling conspiratorially about whatever they had just whispered to one another. Ron and Hermione knew that Harry and Ginny were only an instant away from a magnificent kiss.  It never happened because two glasses of potion were clinked together quite close to their ears.

As they reached for them Harry said, “Ginny, do you remember?”

Ginny did remember.  They linked arms, raised their glasses and recited “bottoms up!” It was nice to remember Fred with smiles. They handed their glasses back to Mrs. Weasley with a simultaneous, “Thanks.”

Ginny kissed her mother on the cheek, “Mum, thanks for the clothes and cooking lessons, it was fun.”

Harry made his good nights and after he turned to leave Ron called behind him, “See you in ten!”

                                                           ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬
 
Harry was up early the next morning. He might have gone back to sleep but curiosity about the Variable Aging Draught propelled him out of bed and down the hall to the bathroom. The mirror's image was not much different than what he saw every day. His hair was still entirely unruly. His face was the same but perhaps broader jawed and the peaks of his hairline were maybe just barely a little deeper. Shaving had already become part of his routine, although it could be skipped now and again, but certainly not today. When he rubbed his hands over his whiskers, they seemed harder and certainly thicker. His new magical razor was up to the task, the one from Fleur's parents was long lost.

When he returned to the room he shared with Ron, he was cleanly shaved and as neatly brushed as he could be. The new clothes Mrs. Weasley had made for today's gold-selling didn't quite fit. The upper buttons of the shirt were a little too tight to comfortably button and the tan slacks showed too much sock. The belt had to be pulled uncomfortably tight to reach the third buckle hole but seemed loose at the second.

By the time he finished dressing and started downstairs to ask Mrs. Weasley to alter the fit, Ron was just opening his eyes. He said, “See you downstairs” and fell back asleep.

When Harry arrived in the kitchen Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were sitting together at the table having toast, strawberry jam and tea. Mrs. Weasley said, “Let’s have a look at you.” She stood and asked him to stand straight and face her. “Looks like you'll stay slim as you age but your chest has filled out and you are, I mean will be – if anything – better looking. Stand straight please.” Harry squared his shoulders and straightened his back as Mrs. Weasley began to work around him with her wand, talking as she went – “a little wider here, a little wider there, a longer sleeve, cuffs too high” – and in only a couple of minutes Harry's clothes fit perfectly, custom magicked as they were. “Try on the jacket,” she said, and he did. It only took a little widening at the chest and shoulders.

Arthur invited Harry to sit and have breakfast. Mrs. Weasley brought him a napkin and cautioned him to tuck it into his collar so he wouldn't spill on his shirt. While he slathered strawberry jam on a piece of toast, Ron and Hermione, still dressed in their pajamas, arrived and greeted all. Ron went immediately to table and got started on toast and jam. Hermione announced that Ginny would be down in a minute, she was making some last minute adjustments to her dress. Mrs. Weasley, still standing from working on Harry's fitting, brought Ron and Hermione coffee. On hearing the clicking of Ginny's shoes in the hall, she went to the kitchen door to greet her daughter.

The late-twenties Ginny was a little fuller, although neither greatly taller nor anything other than athletic-looking. Her red hair was longer, to her waist, and the complexion of her face and arms was smooth and shown with a healthy ruddiness that emphasized her freckles. Ginny wore the high-heeled shoes she had practiced wearing all the previous day, stockings that slightly darkened the complexion of her legs, muting her freckles, and the green dress belted at the waist with a wide, sliver-buckled leather belt that contrasted with the green of her dress and emphasized her figure.

Mrs. Weasley stopped, regarded Ginny for a moment and said, “Ginevra, you've shortened the dress again. It was fine where we left it.”

“Mum,” Ginny replied, “it looks better with these stockings, anyway, so what if some Muggles look at my knees.”

Mrs. Weasley grinned widely as she replied, “It's not Muggles looking at your knees that concerns me dear, it's Harry stepping in front of a tram. He's paralyzed as is.”

Everyone turned to look at Harry. In an instant they all were laughing uproariously. Harry, a cup of coffee half-way to his mouth, and a huge grin frozen on his face, was looking at Ginny as if a goddess had appeared at the end of the table. Ginny – not one to miss a tease – sauntered over to Harry in an exaggeratedly sensual walk, her hands on her hips. She bent down until her face was just above his and said, “Harry Potter, were you looking at my knees?” in a voice that suggested he most certainly must have been.

Harry would have dropped his coffee had he not already set it down. Then, he realized that the whole family was enjoying just how intensely attracted to Ginny he was.

“Sorry, sorry, it's just that Ginny's so beautiful that . . . that . . . I mean Ginny's always beautiful . . . it's just that. . .” Embarrassed to be found speechless in the presence of the future Ginny, he surrendered finishing his sentence and joined the general mirth.

When the laughter settled, Mr. Weasley teased, “Now, Harry, the rumor around The Burrow is that you and Ginny are talking of marriage.”

Harry answered, “Well, yes, we decided – Ron and Hermione too – not make a fuss about it because we're going back to school.”

Ginny nodded her agreement to her father, who continued, “Well then, we'd be really worried if you didn't find our daughter beautiful.” The senior Weasleys enjoyed this immensely.

While they did, Ginny sat down next to Harry, gave him an elbow in the ribs and said, “You don't look so bad yourself Harry Potter!”

While everyone ate their fill of toast and jam and a second round of coffee, Harry thought again about how the Weasley's expressed affection through teasing. It was an elegant way to recognize the bonds between Ginny and himself, Ron and Hermione. For Molly and Arthur the growing intimacy of their son and daughter's relationships wasn't worrisome because it fulfilled their desire for their children to love and be loved. The more he lived with them, the more certain he was that Arthur and Molly had decided, probably quite early in life, that family was more important than anything else they could do. It was the inspiration that set the course for their lives.

It was time to go. Ginny stood up from the table first and reaching behind wrapped the entire length of her hair around her fingers. When she had collected it all, she took a shiny green barrette from her pocket and clipped it across her folded hair. Looking at herself in the glass front of a cupboard, she arranged it to sit evenly above the back of her neck.

Turning to Harry she said, “Looks more mature, better for walking around town too.” Harry just smiled. Ginny could never be anything but beautiful no matter how she wore her hair, although he did hope it would always be red and long.

I was a beautiful day. The first of summer's warmth had been magic for the orchard and the seeds they'd started in the garden. The whole family accompanied Harry and Ginny to the gate. Harry went over the plan one last time, “If Ginny and I are done before noon, we'll apparate to Grimmauld place and wait until you arrive. When you're done at the Cyber Cafe and computer center, come to Grimmauld place where we'll be waiting. Depending on what time it is, we can decide what else to do.”

Everyone wished them luck. Ginny laid her hand on Harry's forearm, they turned together and disapparated on their way.

They arrived at the servant’s entrance courtyard with a soft crack. Their landing was a little off kilter so Ginny stumbled slightly. They worked their way quietly along the wall of the corridor to the rusty gate. Harry, looking over the iron curlicues, waited until the sole person on the street turned the corner. “Good to go.” He opened the gate for Ginny and both stepped onto the pavement. They turned the corner, passed the single taxi waiting for a fare, and walked straight to the antique store where they had seen the goblin tiara.

When Harry opened the door a quaint tinkling sounded from a tiny bell suspended so that the door's movement set its dainty clapper ringing. The musty aroma of things very old infused the interior. The store was cluttered. Artifacts filled the high, glass-fronted cases. A counter extended around three sides of the room creating a narrow aisle in front of more and higher cases. The aisle, indeed the whole store, was presently empty.

Harry and Ginny began to browse the store's contents with the glass-covered counter nearest them. It held heavy brass bracelets, some in the form of entwined snakes. Some looked more like armor for the forearm than jewelry, although they were inlaid with a very elegant design of interlocking rings. While they examined these, a door at the back of the shop opened and a middle-aged man, probably about Arthur's age, came to the other side of the display and immediately began to explain its contents.

“During the first millennium Scandinavian raiders often landed on the coasts of Ireland and Britain. Looting was their main aim, although they did take women captives back to their Nordic towns where they often became raider's wives. Mrs. . . .” he paused looking to Ginny.

Harry provided their name, “Potter.”

The shopkeeper introduced himself, “Harold Wainwright,” then continued his observation. “Mrs. Potter with her red hair and fair complexion could easily be one of their descendants. These are jewelry and armor pieces that date from the period of those raids. The brass work is quite advanced for the time and the inlays are guardian symbols.”

“They're very attractive,” said Ginny, sounding older and more patrician than she was, “probably a bit heavy for me. However, we were quite intrigued by the tiara in your window. It seemed so much like something my aunt has.”

“Ahhh!” Harold replied. “My father, the senior Mr. Wainwright, collected that piece many years ago and I'm not sure he'll part with it. He's very proud of it. It's his 'enchanted piece' because it never tarnishes. The sliver is very pure but it seems not to even collect dust.”

At this point both Harry and Ginny were absolutely sure it was goblin work; in fact, it couldn't be anything else. Harold Wainwright's pleasant demeanor and the presence of a goblin tiara among so many old, even archeological objects of art, encouraged them to continue.

Harry went right to their intent, “Seeing the beautiful old things you have, we thought that you might answer a question for us.”

“I'll certainly try Mr. Potter.”

While Harry admired how well she played her role, Ginny took up where Harry left off, “Harry's family solicitor had one of those 'Do not open until such-and-such a date' boxes from his great grandfather. Among other things, mostly personal papers, was a bar of gold. We would like to know what it is and what it might be worth. We really don't have much use for a big hunk of gold.” Adding with a humorous tone and an elegant wave of her right hand, “as drawing room decoration?”

“No I suppose not,” said Mr. Wainwright, “I don't imagine you've brought it with you?”

“No,” replied Harry, “but if I can have paper and pencil I'll show you how it's marked.”

The shopkeeper stepped a few feet to his right and brought a blue-ruled yellow pad and a pencil from within a drawer at the base of one of the glass-fronted cabinets. He returned and slid the paper and pencil across the counter to Harry. Harry drew the rectangle of the bar, explaining that it weighted about six pounds and had a design engraved on the upper surface. He drew the symbol of the Deathly Hallows, circle, triangle, line.

Harold Wainwright didn't hesitate a second, “Pirate gold. Le'me get my father, he'll want to see this.”

He returned from the rear door quite quickly, accompanied by an older man, perhaps in his 80's. His hair was so white and thin that his pink pate reflected the ceiling lights through it. He walked with a cane, the cadence of its tapping increased as he hurried to the rear of the counter in front of Harry and Ginny. Harry turned the drawing toward him.

His response was instant, “Pirate gold! Although this is not a mark we've seen before. Was your family engaged in the maritime trades?”

“Not that we know of,” answered Ginny.

The senior Mr. Wainwright launched directly into an explanation, “In the eighteenth century Spain was importing tons of gold, silver and precious stones from colonies in the Americas. It was how they funded their king and their wars. Many of the famous British seamen of the age were a kind of legal pirate. They received 'letters of marque' from the King, which allowed them to legally plunder the Spanish treasure fleets. The loot belonged to the crown but each ship that captured a treasure vessel shared the prize money.”

“Prize money?” asked Harry.

“Yes, a prize was a captured enemy vessel and the captain, his officers and even the common seamen each received a share of the ship and its treasure. But, not every treasure ship was captured by a letter of marque; some were captured by out-and-out pirates who sailed for plunder. Enough of them were English by the way. To manage their loot, they melted down the coins and ingots to make these bars, the trade standard for gold. This is the mark of one or another of the pirate captains. We don't know who.”

“You've seen these before?” queried Ginny.

“Yes, twice before, they're very rare and very expensive, your great grandfather must have been, shall we say. . . 'concerned' . . . by the provenance of this one and left it for a generation when no one could ask what might not want answered. According to an article in “Archeological Transmissions” a couple of years ago, there are four others known. All are in the hands of private collectors in Europe.”

Harold asked, “Would you want to sell it?”

Harry replied, “Well, we're thinking of it. We saw that gold was ₤200 on the London exchange and since there's nothing we can do with it, selling makes sense.”

The older Wainwright replied, “No, no, sir. This won't sell for its metal value, we have customers who'll pay ₤100,000 for something this rare. We'll charge a ten percent commission but I'll guarantee ₤90,000.”

Both Harry and Ginny wondered if their surprise at the amount showed in their expressions. Were there Muggles so rich that such a sum aroused no response?

“What do you think?” Harry asked Ginny.

“We don't need a valuable artifact we won't be able to show anyone. If it's worth that much we'll have to keep it in a vault. We've got enough antiques – too many if you ask me – so, let's sell it and do something nice with the garden.”

Ginny was enjoying her role so Harry played along, “Or, perhaps Paris?” Then, turning to the father and son, “How would we make the arrangement?”

Harold replied, “We will make the contacts and handle the sale. If you bring the bar here on Friday two weeks from now, we'll check the purity. Pirate gold is said to be amazingly pure, it's hard to imagine how they achieved that purity working with eighteenth century technology, but assuming the tests are good – and I don't doubt they will be – we'll give you a cashier’s check for ₤90,000. The buyer will be anonymous.”

Harry and Ginny looked at one another, pretending to think through the offer when both knew it was turning out much better than expected. After what felt like an appropriate deliberation, Harry offered his hand to the younger Mr. Wainwright and Ginny to his father, “Thanks, that'll be fine.”

Having shaken on their deal, the elder Wainwright left through the same door by which he entered, while Harold went to another drawer and returned with two printed forms.

He explained the legalities as he filled the blanks of the form, “This is a commission agreement. It's your promise that we are entitled to a commission of ₤10,000 pounds on a guaranteed sale of ₤100,000 and that the commission can be prepaid. That means you get that amount minus the commission. Go ahead and read through it. Take your time.”

Harry read the document; the language was oddly silted but basically comprehensible. It was essentially a list of possibilities and their consequences. Harry looked at Ginny who was reading the other form and asked if she wanted to read it. She said that if he was satisfied, she was satisfied and that she would be happy to sign. Harold Wainwright passed them a very old-looking fountain pen inlaid with a rose pattern. Harry signed, “Harry James Potter,” and Ginny signed, “Mrs. Ginevra Weasley Potter” and returned the pen to Harold.

Harold began to explain that the second form was a security agreement for an advance payment. Ginny picked-up the document and held it strangely close to her face as if she needed glasses she did not have. This made Harry look over her shoulder. As he did, he noticed that she held it oddly and that her forefinger was lightly tapping a set of lines at the bottom of the page. Harry caught on. It demanded an address they could not give.

Harry turned to the shopkeeper, “I think it can wait until we deliver the gold, perhaps then you could give us an amount in cash.”

“Certainly,” replied Harold, “would a thousand pounds be adequate?”

“Yes,” answered Harry, “that’ll do nicely.”

With the “Good days” said, Harry and Ginny left the store.

As soon as they had passed the window, Ginny sounded herself again, “Pirate gold, it can't be pirate gold, but it's certain that wizards have sold a Mother of Galleons before, and that tiara had to come from a wizarding family. Why do you suppose they wanted Muggle money?”

“I suppose if you were buying Muggle things to sell to wizards, you might sell gold so you could buy the Muggle stuff. Maybe someone wanted to hide among Muggles during the war. They'd need money to do it. Anyway, as long as they're sure it's pirate gold, it's safe to sell. The myth works really well for us. Selling it won't give any clue to where it comes from. Even that it's purer than makes sense doesn't seem to bother them.”

They had almost reached the servants quarters gate when Harry asked, “Where did you learn that accent and those gestures, you did that really, really well,”

“You know who that is. It's easy to sound like her.”

“No, I don't; who is it?”

“Pansy Parkinson.”

“Right, but without the nasty snarl.”

“Exactly, I didn't want to seem unfriendly, just rich.”

There was no one around. They entered and disapparated. Arriving at the top step of Grimmauld Place they made their way to the kitchen, Ginny again stopped to say hello to Mrs. Black and again left before giving her a chance to reply. Ron and Hermione must not have finished with their part of the plan because the kitchen was empty. Harry wand-lit the fire and lamps.

“So, we wait,” said Ginny.

Harry, taking both of Ginny's hands in his, teased, “Hey beautiful, ever snogged an older man?”

“Why, never!” intoned Ginny with an impish look.

“I think we should give it a try.”

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Hermione and Ron left shortly after Harry and Ginny, apparating to the now-very-familiar alley near Arcade Street.  They walked straight to the Cyber Cafe. Bill was not on duty but they knew enough to work without help. They checked on the Youth International Peace Initiative site and found a schedule of meetings for the Sydney conference, as well as a schedule of conference events. There were quite a number of speakers, two or three every day, and many of those would be presenting documentaries. There were also tour days where you could choose to visit one of the Sydney beaches, shop, or take one of the many available tours.

Ron was already fidgeting. Hermione recognized this as his usual anxiety before a challenge. Whether it was Quidditch, exams, or anything he needed to do for his friends, Ron typically worried, anxious to do well. He understood this and in private moments when they were cuddled together, they would talk about using this tendency to prepare for the task at hand. If he took the negative scenarios he was so prone to imagine and concentrated on preparing a response, a plan, he would not only be better prepared but his sense of preparedness would ease his anxiety. Nonetheless, anticipation was difficult for Ron, so Hermione suggested that they print the Y.I.P.I schedules and get on their way to the government computer center. Better to get it underway than to worry about it.

They walked back to the tram station, checked their destination against the route map and waited. When the tram arrived, they boarded, paid and took empty seats in the back, thinking they could talk with less restraint. To insure their privacy Hermione eased her wand from her pocket, covered it with the papers, and cast Muffliato. In fact, the spell wasn't needed as there wasn't that much to say, at least until they saw the circumstances at the computer center.

The computer center was located in a modern office building. They entered through a large revolving door that emptied into a high-ceiling lobby, a miniscule version of the Ministry Atrium, less everything magical. The floor and walls were made of what looked like stone except that it came in regularly shaped and patterned panels. A uniformed guard stood alone behind the chest-high counter. Behind him on two-tiered shelf were a dozen small televisions showing various parts of the building, including the lobby.

There was a line of people, some in suits with briefcases, some in messenger uniforms carrying packages and folders, as well as a mother with two young children, both of whom were having trouble staying still. Ron and Hermione joined the line. It was long enough that they did not appear on the television focused on the reception desk.

While they waited the two children became more boisterous, more or less accelerating everyone's impatience. The harried security guard was trying to deal with a businessman who had his briefcase open on the counter. He seemed unwilling to accept that the person he had come to see was unavailable and was haranguing the guard to check yet again, while the people in line became more and more agitated.

Ron noticed a group of four people, apparently employees, who went directly to a door next to a bank of four elevators. They opened it by typing on a small keypad located just to its left. He made up his mind quickly. In whispered conversation, they decided that Hermione would stay in line while Ron would try to enter the employee door under the Invisibility Cloak. They agreed that rather than try to meet afterward, Hermione should return to Grimmauld Place and Ron would find a way to apparate out of the building once he had reconnoitered the interior.

Hermione slipped him the Invisibility Cloak from her beaded bag. Ron waited until the youngest child distracted everyone with a very loud tantrum. He started to move but Hermione grabbed his elbow and said, “Wait! I have an idea.”

Ron stepped behind the two messengers who had turned to watch the mother try to control her screaming child. Then, Hermione stepped out of line, walked past the mother and children to the front. There, she began to berate the trouble-maker.

“You self-important jerk.” she began, Ron almost laughed realizing that Hermione intended to have a little fun. Feet apart, facing directly to the target of her verbal dismissal, she continued, “Obviously, normal, courteous behavior would be to give this gentlemen,” pointing to the security guard, “a message and to go call your office and figure out what has happened. But no, not you, you are far too important to worry that I have missed a job interview, or that the people in line have work to do, or even that your arrogant behavior has driven these children to distraction. Now, get out of line, let everyone do their job and GO!” Her “GO” was accompanied by a look of disdain and repeated jabbing of her forefinger in the direction of the door.

With everyone's attention fixed on Hermione, Ron surreptitiously ducked, threw the cloak over himself, stood and stepped lightly and quickly over to the side of the employee door. When Ron disappeared, Hermione threw her hands in the air and marched toward the main entrance. Some of the people in line were laughing, two were applauding, and even the children’s' attention had been captured. The thoroughly shamed businessman wrote a note for the security guard and departed not long after Hermione.

Shortly, three more employees arrived, entered the code 3-1-4-6, swung open the door and continued on without a break in their conversation about Premier League Football. Ron waited until the door began to close and, at the last moment, slid sideways through it. As he entered the restricted area, Hermione was across the street waiting for a tram to return her to the stop nearest “apparition alley.”

Ron followed the three employees, not close enough to bump them should they stop, but close enough to manage any further doors. The three were still avidly discussing the bets they'd made on an upcoming match. Ron concentrated on matching the rhythm of their foot falls as they made their way down a corridor to another door. After slipping through behind the employees, he found himself in the computer center.

It was a large room with a dozen rows of desks. It was filled with the sounds of keyboards clicking, fans whirling, and the hum of a row of devices that looked a lot like Muggle laundry machines. It was so loud that conversation would have been difficult but no one was talking, all were focused on their screens. While Ron waited at the back of the room, the three employees took seats at desks near one another in the same row. At the front of the room there were three offices. The doors to two were closed but a third was open showing a room of heavy-looking metal shelves holding large cardboard boxes.

Ron found a place behind the last row of desks where he could see the computer screens as well as the activity of the entire room. He waited and watched. The center's routine slowly revealed itself. At each of the desks there was a computer screen and keyboard, next to it was an inclined stand on which the clerk would put papers taken from a cardboard box that rested on a shelf beneath. Reading from the paper, they filled-in a form on the screen. Then, the papers went back in the cardboard box. When all the papers had been entered, the whole box was taken to the woman working in the room of shelves who replaced it with another.

If the routine were clear, how to accomplish his task was not. How sensitive were these Muggles? The ones he had followed showed no sign that they recognized his presence. His invisibility was sure but could he stand directly behind someone as they worked? There were cameras just beneath the ceiling in each corner of the room. If he bumped something, the movement would show but was anyone watching?

He concentrated. The key was Birth Certificates. He needed to know how to get three Birth Certificates into the computers so that they could get printed copies the Passport office could confirm. Ron realized that he could only start by discovering whether, and where, Birth Certificates were being entered.

The main aisle was to the left. It passed along the row of humming devices and shelves of spare screens and keyboards to the aisle in front of the offices. To the right though, next to a windowless wall, there was a narrower aisle large enough to pass through sideways without bumping any of the operators. Ron crossed to the right rear and waited in the corner beneath the camera to see if anyone had noticed his movement. Nothing happened. He started down the aisle with his back to the wall, one step at a time. As he passed each row of workers he could see the papers on the inclined trays . . . marriage records, then deaths and finally births.

He stopped and watched the nearest clerk enter several records; as she seemed not to notice anything, he stepped closer and closer, slowing and quieting his breathing until he could read the paper at the same time she was entering the information. It was quickly obvious that the computer version was essentially a copy except for a rectangular box in the upper right hand corner labeled “source number,” which contained the number handwritten on the cardboard box in thick dark ink. He backed off the wall to think, not wanting to risk detection.

It was clear that the operators did no more than enter what they saw on the paper forms. If there was a way to get paperwork past the librarian's cursory inspection, it would become fact. Ron realized he needed to see the room where the operators picked up and delivered the files.

Holding his arms slightly outward so that he didn't step upon or out-from-under the Invisibility Cloak, he traversed the aisle

When he looked up to see how close he was to the end of the rows, he almost gasped aloud because he was looking right into he eyes of a middle-aged woman. He instantly felt like apparating away but when he looked at the whole room, he saw no sign of alarm, nothing had changed. This, plus knowing that the Invisibility Cloak had never failed, gave him confidence to look into her eyes. When he did, he realized that she was not so much staring at him as staring through him. She was relieving herself of the boredom of such mind-numbing work. He continued on to the records room grateful not to have her job.

The records room door opened outward and rested a little away from the wall. Ron chose to stand against the wall next to its edge because this provided a slight barrier against anyone moving through the passage. He wasn't there long when the librarian, as Ron now thought of her, walked out the door and down the aisle toward the closed-door offices. Ron slipped inside and began to peruse the room before the sound of her high-heeled footsteps faded down the aisle. It was in fact a library of sorts. On one wall was a set of metal shelves on which she had arrayed file boxes. Each was marked with the name of the town from which it came and a range of dates.

One of these was opened on a table at the other side of the room. She had been sorting it into birth records, death records and marriage records. Each group was sorted and marked with a file number that was also recorded on her computer screen. Now his goal was clear. If they were to make birth records that fit, it would be best to find a box from the places they knew, Ottery St. Catchpole and Godric's Hollow, for 1975 to 1980. Actually, they could be from anywhere but the dates should fit their ages. If the records they made fit the essentials of their births, and closely matched the look of the real records, the government computer systems would faithfully report whatever their forgeries claimed.

Ron recalled the newspaper article. Files from around the country were brought here. This is where they were unloaded. Then, they were unpacked, sorted, given a file number, and entered into the computer system. Once entered, they were re-packed and hauled-away for storage. Ron was sure that even if that he had misunderstood some of the procedures, if they could insert birth records into the right files, the Birth Certificate problem would be solved.

When the librarian returned, Ron retreated to the rear-most part of the space. As he waited he examined the room carefully and noted that there were cameras on the walls just as in the outer room. This meant apparating in and out under the Invisibility Cloak when removing and returning the files – he meant to take entire boxes with him – so that the camera would not record boxes disappearing or appearing from nowhere.

When the librarian left again, Ron again perused the shelves until he found boxes for Oterry St. Catchpole and Godric's Hollow for 1978 to 1980. The first was very near the librarian's table, the other only a little further down the shelves. He decided to leave now, returning later to remove the files when the office was closed. He was moving toward the back of the space when he checked the camera in the shelf area. Someone had stuffed an opened box of new file folders onto the topmost shelf blocking the camera's view of the room. If no one retrieved it, he would be free to move around the room undetected. For sure, no one was watching these cameras very carefully.

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When Hermione arrived at Grimmauld Place, the lights were on, but everything was quiet. When she entered the kitchen to find Ginny sitting astride Harry's lap on a bench near the end of the table, she realized she had interrupted a snogging session. “Alright, alright,” she said, “back to work you two! How did it go at the antique store?”

Harry and Ginny replied that things had gone better than expected and that in a couple of weeks they would have what seemed like plenty of money – ₤90,000

In turn Hermione told the story of their visit to the Cyber Cafe and computer center. She concluded with, “It's been more than an hour and Ron's still not back, I wish I could have gone with him, but we're too tall to risk two under the cloak, and I needed to divert people's attention so he could get in.”

Another half-hour passed and Hermione became jitterier with each minute. To comfort her Ginny said, “I think it's a good sign. If he was back in a hurry it would mean he couldn't find anything or that something went wrong.”

“But, what if he got caught?”

“How's he going to get caught?” asked Harry, mildly miffed both at Hermione's nerves and the premature end of a perfectly delightful afternoon. “He's got the Invisibility Cloak and can apparate; there's no way they can catch him.”

That did relax Hermione but not as much as the sound of Ron coming down the hall. She was up in flash and met him with a hug and a dozen questions, all asked in a single sentence. Ron told the story of his incursion into the computer center and relayed his plan to return and grab two entire file boxes so they could study the contents and see if it would be possible to create the necessary records. Harry thought of suggesting that he come along but thinking that this was a chance for Ron to be praiseworthy – for Hermione anyway – he kept quiet.

Opening postal boxes had been forgotten in waiting.  They decided to return to The Burrow where they could help Mrs. Weasley with the garden until it was time for Ron to return to the computer center.

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The enchantment George had devised to play “Stairway to Haven” again and again appeared to be working as they saw small groups of gnomes crawling from beneath the rhododendrons and leaving through the newly-planted bushes that bordered the garden. Having read in Witch Weekly that eating naturally grown vegetables was good for witches and wizards of all ages, Mrs. Weasley had planted vegetables, along with the ornamental flowers and bushes. The garden already needed weeding and there were peas ready to pick. Weeding was definitely not that much fun, except that it was great to please Mrs. Weasley. Nonetheless, the idea of fresh peas in butter did inspire the picking, as did eating them fresh and raw from the vine.

When Mr. Weasley came home from work, they decided it was time for Ron to return to the computer center. He disapparated under the Invisibility Cloak and the three returned to the kitchen to help Mrs. Weasley with dinner and to await Ron's return.

Ron apparated into the back of the space. The lights were on so he carefully moved forward to the shelf area. All was quiet.. Everyone had gone home but the librarian had forgotten to turn out the lights. Having already located the boxes he saw they'd not been processed, tucked one under each arm and apparated back to the Burrow.

Hermione had not had time to look out the window for Ron even once when he came sideways through the kitchen door carrying two boxes under his arms. Harry and Hermione took the boxes and set them on the table while Mr. And Mrs. Weasley watched, somewhat puzzled. The lids were off in an instant. Harry and Ginny opened the Godric's Hollow box while Ron and Hermione started with Oterry St. Catchpole.

“What a mess,” said Harry, “everything is all mixed-up, although it does seem to be in something like chronological order.”

“Same here,” answered Ron, “birth, marriage, marriage, death, marriage, birth,” he called out as he checked a section of the records in sequence.

“All the better for us,” said Hermione, “if they had a really tight system it would be harder to fit ours in.”

Mr. Weasley getting the sense of what they were doing from their conversation asked, “Now, do I have this right? You’ve stolen records from the Muggle government and are about to modify them to some purpose?”

“Well, maybe, 'borrowed' is the better word,” said Harry. “Ron will take them back after we have invented a birth record for Ron, Ginny and I. Hermione's birth was recorded the Muggle way but we all need Birth Certificates. Without a Birth Certificate we can't get a Passport; without a Passport, we can't get to Australia to find Hermione's parents.”

Mr. Weasley, intrigued by the Muggle records, replied, “Let's see what you've got.”

Even Mrs. Weasley, joined in. Each took a few of the records at a time marking their place with various utensils from the kitchen drawers.

“Here's St. Catchpole 1979, that's right for Ron but too early for Ginny,” noted Mr. Weasley.

“Yes, but, we need to be eighteen for a Passport and Ginny won't be eighteen until next September,” answered Hermione.

Ginny responded, “What difference does it make if the certificates are accurate to our real birth years? We can pick a record that fits.

“Yea, they just need to be reasonable, not exact,” added Harry.

“OK, look at this from Godric's Hollow,” announced Ginny holding a piece of ruled paper out for the others to examine, marking its spot in the file box with a carving knife.

After Harry read the sheet he replied, “This is perfect; it's a ledger of sorts, handwritten, with only one birth in July of 1979. All we need to do is to add a record for me and put it back. That will make me nineteen, which is alright, and all we need to do is to copy the handwriting.”

They set the Godric's Hollow box aside, leaving the ledger sheet on the table, and turned their attention to the Oterry St. Catchpole box.

Oterry St. Catchpole had more records and used a different form, one for each record. It was Hermione who found the first and Ginny who found the second.

“Look here,” said Ginny, as the two forms lay on the table side-by-side as a cleaver and a large serving fork marked their spots in the box. “If we duplicate these two, change the names and dates to fit Ron and I, I don't see how anyone would know better.”

“For sure,” said Ron, “the operators will just type what they see. Let's work with these.”

“Next question is what spells to use,” added Hermione, having already asked that of herself. “I think I can duplicate the handwriting on the Godric's Hollow ledger by copying and re-arranging the letters, making-up any that are missing.”

Harry asked, “Ron, can you do what you do when you see something in your mind, you know, where you can use your wand to produce it?”

“I think so; I'll try with this form from Oterry St. Catchpole? Have we any paper that matches theirs?”

“We will in a minute,” said Hermione, “I think there are scissors in the silverware drawer, I'll get 'em.”

When she returned to the table, she clipped a very, very small sliver from the end of one birth record and cut that into two tiny rectangles that she enlarged with the same fitting spells Mrs. Weasley had used to adjust their clothes. Ron arranged the paper on the table directly in front of him, and after a moment, started to fill it in mentally. “Ronald Weasley; Mother Molly Weasley; Father Arthur Weasley.” Stopping for a moment he asked, “Grandpa and Grandma Prewett I know, but what about your ages at my birth?”

“Let's see,” said Molly, "you were born two years after Fred and George, we had your father's 35th birthday that year, so Arthur and I were both thirty one.”

“Wait a minute,” said Ginny, “if you were thirty one when Ron was born, that means you were only about twenty one when you had Bill!”

Arthur replied, “Yes, right out of school really.”

Ginny seemed like she had more to say but Ron started again, “Date of birth, Date of Registration, what do I put for Place of birth?” Harry and Hermione began randomly checking the birth records to see what went in that space.

Harry spoke first, “At home, there's two right here that list 'at home' as place of birth.”

When they had decided on all the information, Ron took a deep breath and pointed his wand at the blank paper Hermione made. Instantly, the birth record appeared.

Mrs. Weasley said, “My goodness Ron!”

To which Hermione replied, “He's very, very good at images Mrs. Weasley, very, very good.”

Ron was good at images and it didn't take long before he was walking to the gate holding the two record boxes, three new birth records included. Hermione put the cloak over him, checking to be sure it covered him completely, and Ron apparated back to the records room with the blocked camera. It was dark and quiet and the lights were still on in the shelf area. Ron replaced the boxes and immediately apparated away. When he returned to The Burrow, Harry and Ginny had changed back into their jeans, the aging potion was wearing-off, and everyone was helping set the table and serve dinner – chicken, baked potatoes and fresh-picked peas swimming in butter
 


Chapter 13: The Calling Card
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Chapter Thirteen

The Calling Card

It was as if settling the money and birth certificate matters removed a barrier that let everything flow unimpeded. The money was not yet in hand and they hadn't applied for the Birth Certificates because they didn't want their applications to catch their magically-made records before they found their way into the government computer system. Yet, both outcomes seemed sure enough to plan on. Hermione was certain enough that she began writing cheques. Harry initially objected that the money belonged to her parents but when Hermione explained that they would have plenty of time to repay before the next storage fee was due, Harry agreed that it made sense to get things underway.

Hermione wrote one cheque to “Mr. and Mrs. Harry Potter” for ₤100 with a note “Our best for your life together.” The idea being that when Harry and Ginny opened an account, it would look like a wedding gift. She did the same for “Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Weasley,” to the same purpose. Between their jeans pockets and Hermione's beaded bag they had just enough cash to rent the two post boxes they'd need to receive Muggle mail.
 
An hour later the four apparated to a tram stop that Hermione discovered near her house. When it was built, the workmen installed a small shed for their tools and supplies. Left behind when the stop opened, it was unused and forgotten.  It was ideally located for local destinations, like this trip to the post office and bank convenient to the Granger's. Anyone who noticed them leaving would think they arrived on a tram. If they needed to depart from the same neighborhood, they could act as if they were waiting until it was clear to slip behind the platform, unlock the shed with Alohamora and apparate away. It joined apparition alley near Arcade Street, and the servant’s entrance in the city as convenient access to and from Muggle London. Arriving at midnight on brooms and Thestrals wasn't an option if you had Muggle business to transact.

Although they were becoming use to Muggle transport, apparition was still faster and more convenient. Indeed, all four had gained respect for how time-consuming and difficult travel was for non-magical people. It was certainly ironic that when it came to great distances, like their trip to Australia, the airplane became the safer and more convenient conveyance.

Their first stop was the Post Office where Harry and Ginny selected a different queue than Ron and Hermione, thinking this was less obvious. The bored clerks paid literally no attention to anything but the forms they filled in and the cards they signed to obtain their post box keys. When Hermione counted he last pound of their rental fee in coins, the clerk did seem a little impatient but she said nothing.

Harry and Ginny continued on to the bank, while Ron and Hermione stayed at the post office to check the keys and perform the spell that would transport the contents to Hermione's beaded bag.

At the bank, Harry and Ginny used their newly-opened post box to complete the new account form they found in a stack on a high, narrow desk in the front window where customers filled in forms with pens tethered to the desk with light metal wires. Writing with a pen rather than a quill was a little different but convenient. With the form and Hermione's parents' cheque in hand they waited by a gate in a low wooden rail that separated a group of four desks from the main floor where the teller windows were. After a few minutes, a gray-haired woman at one of the desks gestured that they should enter.

When they took seats at her desk she asked, “How may I help you today?”

The name plate on her desk read “Mrs. Margaret Worthyton,” so Harry addressed her politely by name while pushing the new account form toward her, “Mrs. Worthyton, we'd like to open an account.”

Mrs. Worthyton took the form in hand and, using her finger to follow the entries, continued until she arrived at the box for employment. They had entered “student” for both.

“Where're you at school now?” she asked.

“Oh, we're on vacation until fall,” answered Harry. This was not an appropriate answer. She probably wanted to know the name of their school. Yet, the less detail they gave the less chance of an obviously false answer, particularly as they had never even seen any of the few Muggle schools they might have named. There was still so much they did not know about the Muggle world. But, one thing was becoming clearer, so long as the forms were properly completed, curiosity or logic need not be satisfied. This was indeed the case with Mrs. Worthyton.

After she filled in a form of her own, she asked, “May I have your initial deposit please?”

Harry handed her the cheque from Hermione's parents. Noting the message on the cheque, she turned to Ginny and asked, “Just married?”

“Why yes, thank you,” replied Ginny.

“How far along are you dear?”

Although Harry did not, Ginny knew what the question meant. “Oh, no, not yet. We've been together forever and . . .”  leaning closer and putting her hand on Harry's shoulder, “. . . there's no reason to wait any longer.”

Mrs. Worthyton excused herself, disappearing through a door at the end of the line of teller windows.

Ginny reminded Harry, “It's just like Professor Mullens said, we look too young to be married, so they assume I'm pregnant and you've had to marry me!”

“Kind of nosy to say it though.”

Their conversation ended when they noticed Ron and Hermione waiting at the low gate. A blond man at a desk in the second row stood up and came to meet them, escorting them to his desk. The couples didn't acknowledge one another, not wanting to arouse any curiosity. Just as well, Mrs. Worthyton was returning.

Once seated, she handed Harry a small, rectangular slip of paper, “Here's your deposit receipt, showing the amount of your initial deposit and. . .” handing over more papers, “here are two counter cheques and two deposit slips in case you need to use your funds or make a deposit before your printed cheques arrive.”  They will be mailed to you in a week or so. Thank you for your patronage, I hope you will be happy with our services and with one another.”

They thanked her and left the bank, walking slowly toward the tram stop while browsing the shop windows until Ron and Hermione caught up.

Ginny asked Hermione, “Did your fellow ask how far along you were?”

“No!” exclaimed Hermione.

Seeing that Ron had understood the expression no more than he had, Harry made a semi-circle gesture around his belly, “pregnant, how far pregnant.”

“Wow,” said Ron, “That's bloody weird.”

“Well, I look too young to be married.  So, people assume i'm pregnant,” said Ginny. “Anyway, so what if some Muggle woman thinks she knows what she doesn't, we've got the accounts we need. They'll be useful in the future and we won't need to go there very often. In just a few days we'll have enough money. Let's go to Grimmauld Place and fill in the applications for Birth Certificates and the Y.I.P.I. trip. The records Ron planted are bound to be in the computer by now.”

Everyone agreed. They apparated from the tram stop shed to the front step of Grimmauld Place two by two so as not to bump into each other and slip outside the charm. As they proceeded down the hall to the kitchen, they heard voices in the drawing room and stopped to see who was there.

The portraits of Mrs. Black and Phineas Nigelus were talking to one another. As the four entered, Mrs. Black spoke sharply to Ginny, “Well, are you going to run away, or do you have something to say?”

Ginny replied, “Oh, sorry, Mrs. Black.  We've been very busy, but I didn't want to be impolite when we drop by.”

This was not the truth. Ginny had not been greeting Mrs. Black and leaving before she could reply because they were busy but so that Mrs. Black would be diverted from her habitual shouted tirades, accepting Ginny's presence. Ginny had not expected that this would happen just now, but had already thought of questions that would appeal to Mrs. Black's obsessions.

“You knew my grandparents, didn't you?”

“Cedrella Black married Septimus Weasley. I knew Cedrella; I met Septimus at their wedding. He was known for practical jokes. Your family has always been brilliant, although usually eccentric. Weasleys have never much been part of wizarding society because of your ideas about. . .” she caught herself before saying “mudbloods” and quickly corrected, “. . . Muggle-borns, but your grandmother was a cousin to my father.”

“What about Harry's grandparents?” asked Ginny, a subject about which she was genuinely curious.

“Yes, you said 'Peverell,' and that's right. I inquired about his father because of Sirius, of course, and he's a Peverell through his grandmother's line. The male Peverell line died out long ago. Phineas' granddaughter Dorthea married Charlus Potter. He was an exceptionally powerful wizard and she was a very beautiful witch. It was thought to be a very fine match in their day. James wasn't born until they were quite old and they died when he was only about twenty.”

Unexpectedly, she looked at Hermione and said, “Phineas tells me you are a very clever girl and that it's generally said at Hogwarts that you are the brightest witch of your generation.”

Hermione was surprised to be addressed and not sure what to answer when Phineas Nigelus spoke in a clearly peeved tone, “That's said in the office. I did not say that. Not only did she stick me in that dark cavernous bag of hers but it took her weeks after Voldemort to remove me and un-do the ridiculous blindfold she imposed  . . .  why if I . . .”

He couldn't finish as Mrs. Black cut-across him, “Oh Phineas, don't whine, it's unbecoming!”

Hermione could only answer, “Well, we did have a rather lot to do.”

Harry, thinking that it was likely pushing their luck to continue much further added, “You know, we've got to get these forms filled in and we really need to get busy.”

Hermione, Ginny and Ron quickly agreed and made their goodbyes but before they could leave Mrs. Black called, “Miss Weasley.”

“Yes.”

“Think about it; you could be on the tapestry. You're of my blood and your children with Harry will carry our lineage on both sides.”

Ginny was taken aback, she knew of their relation, it's no surprise that the old wizarding families had intermarried innumerable times. But, she had never thought of it this way. “Yes, I will. You can be sure I will Mrs. Black.”

When the four left the drawing room they heard Mrs. Black shout, as if to be heard all the way to Hogwarts, “Kreacher, your master is here.”

Once in the hallway to the kitchen Ron said, “Telling Phineas not to whine was great but being related to her, blimey, that's a bit creepy.”

Harry realized, “It's why I own the house.”

“What!” exclaimed Ron.

Ginny understood, “Right, Dumbledore had to see that you were Kreacher's master to know you owned the house because these old family houses are enchanted against anyone but a blood relative.”

Hermione added, “Sirius grew up here, she's his mother, he probably had blood lines drilled into him since he could talk. He must have known Harry was related to Phineas. So, he knew the house would go to Harry. Harry's a male Black descendant.”

Ginny concluded, “Well, anyway, it's Harry's house and it'll be a lot more pleasant if we can at least keep her from screaming. Who knows, we might even be able to use the drawing room.”

“Got it!” said Ron.

Kreacher arrived in the kitchen with the usual loud apparition crack, “Master did not say he was coming.”

“No problem, we didn't plan on it,” replied Harry. “We stopped in to take care of some things we need to do for our trip. How's everything at Hogwarts?”

“We should be ready for the start of school but there are many repairs left to make."

“I thought all the damage had been fixed?”

Kreacher sounded almost surprised, “Master, it's a very old castle.  Without magic it would be what Muggles see. Every year there's plumbing to fix and spells to revive.” Harry gestured that he understood.  The old elf continued, “Would you like some lunch?”

“Well, if you've time, I'm sure we could all use a sandwich and a cup of coffee.”

Ron added an enthusiastic, “Btilliant!”

The rest of the afternoon went very smoothly. The Y.I.P.I forms were simple, except for the “What do you hope to learn” question, which could obviously not be “How to find Hermione's parents without attracting any notice or giving away that we're wizards.” It seemed un-Muggle-like for this answer to be critical to their acceptance. But it did seem sensible to answer the way they would, were they really who they were pretending to be. After a bit of discussion, they decided to write brief answers around their hope to learn more about what young people could do to change the world from within their own communities.

The Birth Certificate applications were purely bureaucratic, requiring the information necessary to retrieve the record. Having created those records, this was no problem. Using the envelopes and stamps they bought on Arcade Street, they prepared their applications for mailing.

"Anyway,” Hermione concluded, “you all apparate back to the Burrow and I'll drop these off.”

                                                       ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Next Thursday Harry and Ginny set-off for Diagon Alley and Gringotts to collect the Mother of Galleons they would sell the next day and to make a quick visit to George to see if he needed any help with the store. Hermione and Ron decided to stay home. Mr. Weasley was at work and Mrs. Weasley had taken the floo network to visit Aunt Muriel. It was nice having a leisurely second, or in Ron's case, a third cup of coffee.

After a while though, Hermione suggested, “Let’s use the calling card Professor Mullens gave you. Let's find out what it's all about.”

Ron hesitated, “We don't really know where it'll take us.”

Hermione assured him, “Professor Mullens wouldn't give us something that put us in danger, anyway, we can go wands-out; it's a Portkey of some sort.”

Ron agreed and went back upstairs to collect the calling card from his school trunk, where he still kept his robes, Deluminator, some books, and his Quidditch kit. Returning to the kitchen, he held the card in his hand and, not knowing what else to do tried, “Hello, this is Ron Weasley.”

The response was immediate, “Ah, Mr. Weasley, how nice to hear from you. Professor Mullens highly recommends that we visit.”

“Who are you?” asked Hermione.

“I am Oscar Windemere. And, you are Miss Granger?”

“Yes.”

Oscar continued, “Professor Mullens says you are both very impressive young people. I'm looking forward to meeting you. Are you able to visit me now?”

“Yes,” they said together.

“Very good, hold on to the card and you will be transported to my studio.”

Ron and Hermione looked at each other saying, “studio?” Then, “wands out.” Both drew their wands, held tightly to the calling card and in an instant they landed on a wide-planked wood floor.

They immediately stepped apart in a slight crouch with their wands pointed forward and surveyed the room. It was not very large and seemed quite crowded. Oscar Windemere was a short, rotund wizard wearing a Dumbledore-like robe finely decorated with a design of interlocking triangles in red, gold, and silver. Curls of gray hair surrounded the shinny, bald spot at the top of his head. He was sitting on a three legged stool next to a blank canvas on an easel. He had already swiveled to face them.

Noticing their posture and drawn wands he mused, “Caution, not surprising I suppose given who you are, but I assure you I mean you nothing at all like harm.”

Ron and Hermione put their wands back in their pockets and approached Oscar who gestured toward two chairs set against the wall, “Bring those over and have a seat, let's talk.”

He began as soon as they were seated, “So, Mr. Weasley, Bill tells me that you form images in your mind and that you are able to project those images onto various media – into the air at the Ministry, onto a marble tomb at Hogwarts and onto containers of various goods sold in your brother's store. Is that correct?”

“Yes, and the other day I duplicated a Muggle form.”

“Do you use a spell when you place your images Mr. Weasley?”

“Ron,” he replied, “no, I think about it, that's all. It just happens when I think about it.”

“Very good,” said Oscar emphatically, “very good indeed, how old are you now Ron?”

“I turned eighteen last March.”

“And, when did you first start noticing this ability.”

“Early spring, it came to me after a funeral.”

Oscar Windemere's voice was clipped, a touch flat, upper class. At first it put Ron a bit on the defensive but as Oscar's questions became more personal his friendly demeanor and broad smile put him at ease.

“Does it seem to you that you splinch more than others?” the rotund wizard asked.

Ron was still a bit embarrassed, “Yea, I mean, I've splinched a couple of times, once pretty badly.”

“Do you play wizard chess by any chance?”

“Yes, I started playing with my brothers when I was a kid.”

“He's quite good at it too,” added Hermione.

“I'm sure he is. When you play Ron, how do you plan your moves?”

“I picture the board after the moves I'm thinking of, then I look for what problems or opportunities the new configuration presents.”

Oscar Windemere looked pensive, but pleased, as if he was hearing what he hoped to hear.

Hermione  noticed his expression,  “What are you thinking Mr. Windemere?”

“We'll see in a minute.”

He motioned toward the blank canvas and asked Ron, “Do you mind trying a little experiment?” Ron said he'd try. “Here is what I want you to do. Look at Miss. Granger and put her image into your mind.”

Ron and Hermione turned toward one another, smiling.  Ron concentrated, opening then closing his eyes; he formed an image of Hermione in his mind.

Oscar asked, “Do you have it?”

Ron, eyes still closed, answered, “Yes, I think so. . .yes, I do.”

“Good, now, with her face the center of your concentration, I want you to look at this canvas, imagine the image of Hermione upon it and speak Vivendis Arturus.”

Ron did as instructed and an image of Hermione immediately appeared on the canvas. Oscar smiled, Hermione gasped, and Ron cocked his head from side to side, examining the image from different angles.

Oscar Windemere examined the image by looking back and forth between Hermione and her portrait, “Miss Granger, if you have any doubt about Ron's feelings, this image should dispel them forever. You are indeed a beautiful young women but I think in Ron's heart you are The Most Beautiful of All.” Hermione blushed, although not quite as red as Ron. Then, turning to Ron he said, “You are a very talented young man.”

“Thanks, but, please, could you explain?”

The older artist began, “You are a portraitist. This is a very rare magical talent Ron; you are able to imagine an image into being. I am the oldest person known to have this ability and I am nearly ninety five years old. You're the first new artist in many years. There are probably only fifteen, maybe twenty, people alive who have this ability to some extent or another. Your talent is quite pronounced. The spell, Vivendis Arturus, will make you images more vivid by itself, but as you learn to connect to the subject, the deeper levels of your talent will arise and your portraits will become ever-more alive.”

Ron hesitated but Hermione stepped in, the world “alive” having clued her to exactly what Oscar meant, “By portraits you mean the headmasters and headmistresses in the office at Hogwarts.”

“Yes, Dumbledore is my latest work. Ron has this magic and with training he will be able to make portraits, or any other image his imagination may conceive, like those for which Hogwarts is rightly famous.”

This was nothing that Ron had expected. He had privately hoped that he had a useful ability to make images for his brother's joke shop. It would be nice to be useful enough that George would see him as an equal. He had never imagined something this profound. Still somewhat shocked by the implications of what he had just learned – what did this mean for everything he had ever thought about his future – he asked, “What am I doing, I mean, how does this work?”

“Ahhhh, a difficult question Ron, I think Bill Mullens has the best theory. Let's just say that your magic includes the ability to connect with the timeless impressions made by people who have been instruments of change. The changes they have wrought are the connections by which you will find them. The greater the wizard, the easier it will be for you to connect with the impressions of their life but the more difficult it will be to absorb the depth. The closer you are to your subject the easier it will be to connect but if someone has never affected others, they will have left no trace. The extent to which someone lives in the minds, the memories, and the changes in other people's lives is the extent to which their portrait can be animate.”

Ron and Hermione were concentrating on Oscar's explanation, when Ron asked the critical question, “What does this mean? What do I do?”

“Well, first, you need to study with me. I will work; we will talk, and you will practice by working on my next portrait with me. We will both seek the lines that lead to our subject and you will be able to compare your discoveries with mine. In time, and probably quickly, you will discover what I discover. Then, you should choose a subject and begin a portrait of your own.”

Ron acknowledged Oscar's offer adding, “What if I fail? What if I can't do it. . .”

Hermione was having none of that, “Ron, you'll do it. Look at what you've done all by yourself, not even knowing you have this talent.”

Oscar firmly supported Hermione, “I think the probability that you will be unable to do what I am certain you are capable of doing is very small, negligible really. I had practiced for three months before I could do what you just did, seemingly effortlessly. Do you know why you splinch Ron?”

“No.”

“It's because to apparate you must concentrate on you destination – you know the refrain – Destination, Determination, Deliberation. Yet, because of your talent you feel the lines, the links of attachment through which you pass, and it disrupts your focus. You have the talent Ron, there's no doubt about that. Anything you do to focus your attention – your school studies, Quidditch, spell practice, even doing whatever you do for chores – if you're concentrating, you're becoming a better artist.”

Hermione spoke to Ron's new mentor, “We're planning to return to school this September and to spend our Christmas holiday traveling to Australia to find my parents. How should Ron begin to work with you?”

“I'll speak with Minerva – Professor McGonagall – and arrange to fit our work into your school schedule. I'm sure she'll permit you to travel by Floo Powder from her office. In fact, I'm sure she'll offer us any help she can.”

Ron nodded and thought for a moment, “Could we keep this quiet? I mean, I'm not embarrassed or anything, but once my family finds out, Mum will be asking about it all the time.  She'll worry I'm not doing well. Ginny and my brothers will start questioning me, and Dad will be forever asking to see what I'm doing. If everyone at school knows about it, I'll have to deal with that. If we can hold off getting my family involved until I'm actually doing something, it'll be a lot easier for me.”

Hermione suggested, “What if we say that you are taking lessons to improve your image-making, art class, as it were? We'll just not mention that you're one of a dozen people alive who can do what you're learning to do. Everyone will be happy thinking it's about labels for the store. At school it will be a routine no one pays attention to.”

Oscar added, “Professors McGonagall and Mullens will go along with that. What do you say Ron?”

“Thanks, thanks a lot; I can't wait to get started.”

The calling card returned them to The Burrow where they went for a slow broom ride, going nowhere. Hermione sat behind Ron with her arms around him and her head on his shoulder as they flew low among the trees and over the hills beyond The Burrow, Stoatshead Hill, and the countryside they traversed to meet with Xenophilius during the war. Avid snoggers, they rarely let so much private time pass unsnogged. But sometimes, like today with its excitng new future, just being alive and together was all they would ever need.

They were late getting back to help with dinner but not nearly so late as Harry and Ginny who didn't arrive until dinner was on the table. They hurriedly sat down. Harry dropped his pack on the end of the table with such a heavy 'clunk' that everyone looked, curious to see what they knew was inside.

Their curiosity had to wait because Ginny got everyone's attention, “Guess who we saw at Diagon Alley?”

“George?” said Ron.

“Yea, we saw George and you need to help with some labels and boxes, but that's not who I'm thinking of.”

Hermione asked, “Friend or foe?”

“Friend. Although one of them was pretty uncomfortable to see Harry.”

“Luna, you saw Luna and Xenophilius.” said Hermione. “How'd that go?”

Harry answered, “Xenophilius started sort of lagging behind when he saw us waving, so I went up to him and told him that I understood he was trying to save Luna and that anybody would have done the same.”

“Not really,” said Ron, “some people risked everything to fight whats-his-name.”

“I know,” replied Harry, “but Luna's our friend and he's a unique character. . .”

“Yea, more than unique I think,” interjected Ron.

“. . . so it was best to make him comfortable.”

Everyone at the table, including Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, agreed that this was the best thing to do. Xenophilius was odd but well meaning, even if his faith in strange stories made him an unreliable source of information about nature, magical or otherwise.

That settled, Ginny continued, “OK, but you haven't guessed everyone yet. Who do you think?”

Ron guessed, “The Patil twins?

“Nope,” said Ginny laughing.

Ron asked for another clue, “Was it a Ravenclaw?”

“Boy or girl,” asked Hermione.

“A boy, but I've never seen him at school.”

Harry was enjoying watching Ron and Hermione trying in vain to figure it out but Ginny had enough fun and filled them in, “A fellow named Rolf, Newt Scamander was there and Rolf came along!”

“Great,” said Hermione, “is he, you know, a love interest?”

“Don't know,” said Ginny, “they looked like they were having a good time.”

Ron was impatient, “Alright, now that we've had the gossip, let's see the gold, did you get the same Very Important Wizard treatment as last time.”

“Yes,” said Harry smiling.

“Well it's true, you are a very important wizard,” added Mrs. Weasley. “You're all very important wizards.”

Harry opened his knapsack and placed the Mother of Galleons at the center of the table. It had an almost magnetic effect. Everyone touched it. Ron and Mr. Weasley both lifted it to feel its weight. Ginny pointed out the markings and told how the Muggles believed the mark showed that it was pirate gold.

Although everyone thought that was hard to believe, Harry said, “It works to our advantage. As long as they believe it, we can get Muggle money without risking wizarding secrecy.”

When their eyes rested on the sign of the Deathly Hallows, they couldn't help but recall thoughts and feelings that only a few months ago had been all too meaningful.  Tonight though, family, the closeness of friends and lovers, was spell enough to ward them off.  They quickly returned to dinner.

Inspired by the news about Luna there was a little further speculation during dinner as to who might have gotten together with whom during the summer. After the dishes were done and the kitchen put away for the night, everyone settled into slow relaxation toward sleep. Harry and Ron were meticulously checking their nearly-new brooms while Mr. and Mrs. Weasley talked over the events of Arthur's day. Ginny and Hermione fooled around magically changing the colors of the outfits Ginny and Harry had worn for their first trip to the antique store. By the time Mrs. Weasley arrived with the aging drought, everyone was ready to sleep.

The next morning the shock of seeing Harry and Ginny as nearly-thirty-year-olds was still significant, like being transported to the future. Harry's shirt was now a bright yellow and Ginny had made a brown tie that matched his leather jacket. Ginny's dress was the same but a lighter shade of green without the belt. If anything, the lighter color made her brown eyes seem even brighter. She had made the dress fit snugly around her waist and added a smaller purse that matched her shoes.

Mrs. Weasley fussed about the fit of Ginny's dress but otherwise breakfast moved along quickly. Mr. Weasley needed to leave for work. Harry and Ginny wanted to get their trip to the city underway. In case things went slowly at the antique store they wanted to be sure to get the money to the bank. Ron and Hermione planned to make another trip to the Cyber Cafe to get started on Passport applications.

As before, Harry and Ginny apparated to the servants entrance. For early in the day the street was fairly busy so they had to wait until the people passing were all going in opposite directions before they could exit from the rusty gate. As they walked toward the store Harry started a quiet chuckle, a subdued laugh.

Ginny put her arm through his and gently elbowed him in the ribs. “What's so funny Harry Potter?”

“Dress up,” replied Harry, “I was just thinking that getting on these clothes is like a let's-pretend game that I heard girls talk about when I went to Muggle school.”

“What's dress up,” asked Ginny. “Putting on different clothes?”

“Sort of,” said Harry, “but the clothes are for pretending they’re gown-ups or fairy princesses. It just stuck me that we're pretending, in disguise. Not just that we're older but that we're who we're not.”

Ginny agreed, “We are and we need to get good at it if we're to be Muggle students for ten days in Australia.”

"For sure, do young witches play dress-up?”

“Don't know. I've got six brothers. Anyway, nicking Mum's wand and trying to make the chickens fly was my idea of fun.”

“Did you make the chickens fly?” asked Harry laughing.

“No, I levitated a couple but they made such a racket mom came and got her wand.”

When they reached the door of the store, Harry opened it for Ginny and followed her to the counter at the rear of the store where both father and son Wainwright were waiting. He thought for a moment of swinging the rucksack off his shoulder and onto the counter with a dramatic flourish but thought better of it when he imagined the six pound gold bar crashing through the glass. Instead, he set the rucksack on the floor and removed the Mother of Galleons, placing it gently on the counter.

The elder merchant ran his fingers along the markings, feeling their etched lines, “Perfect, exactly like the ones on record. Harold needs to take the bar for testing. This will only take about fifteen minutes and allows us to give our buyer a fineness guarantee.

Harold Wainwright picked-up the gold bar, politely excused himself, and passed through the door behind the counter to the back room of the store.

The elder Wainwright asked, “Would you like to see the silver tiara you saw in the window?”

Ginny replied in her modified Pansy Parkinson, patrician but friendly voice, “Oh, no, it must be incredibly expensive and I don't think it's anything I could ever wear. We aren't likely to be invited to any of the Queen's parties.”

He replied laughing, “Oh, I don't want to sell it, but wouldn't you like a closer look?”

Curiosity demanded a look, “Yes, by all means, I would.”

He walked to the front of the store with a set of keys he took from a drawer behind the counter. There, he opened a sliding glass door. Taking the tiara in both hands he rejoined Harry and Ginny at the front of the counter and handed it to Ginny. She took it carefully, turning it so she and Harry could view it from every angle.

Harry said, “It's very beautiful, someone took a lot of time to make these very fine engraved figures.”

Mr. Wainwright was focused on the tiera, “It's more than beautiful. The silver is very pure, yet it must be worked in a way we don't understand because it's also resistant to scratching and tarnishing. It's a really lovely piece. I think it is my favorite of all the objects I have ever collected.”

He looked abstracted and sounded happy; he must indeed love the tiara. Harry and Ginny were wondering if an Entrancing Enchantment was part of its Goblin-wrought charm.

While his father returned the tiara to the window, Harold returned and announced, “The test we use is electrical and can measure up to 24 carat gold accurately. We can certify that this bar is 24 carat. Shall we proceed with the paperwork?”

All agreed. The paperwork was just an exchange of receipts. Harry and Ginny received and signed for ₤1,000 in cash and a cheque for ₤89,000 and the Wainwrights signed for the gold received, its weight and purity.

Harry perused the cheque and Harold Wainwright explained, “It's a bank cheque, certified, and the money should be available in your account immediately.

“That'll be fine,” replied Harry as he handed the cheque to Ginny, who folded it and then tucked it into her purse with the casual gestures she imagined someone use to such valuable paper would use.

She held her hand forward to the elder Wainwright, “Thank you very much.”

He shook her hand, “Our pleasure Mrs. Potter.”

Harry shook hands with Harold, then his father. The courtesies paid and goodbyes said, Harry and Ginny walked to the door. As Harry opened it for Ginny, Harold called, “Mr. Potter?”

“Yes,” replied Harry turning to face him with his hand still on the knob.

“If you find any more of these in your ancestor's effects, I hope you'll think of us.”

“Oh,” said Harry, “I don't know what we'll find. It seems that he was something of an eccentric, or maybe even a bit shady, but if we do find anything interesting, we'll surely be back. We appreciate your service.”

Back on the street again and walking toward the apparition point they puzzled over the meaning of those goodbyes.  The Wainwrights offered to sell gold for them.  That was sure but had they heard a shared secret in his tone?  Was he hinting he knew something of wizards?  Was this a danger or an opportunity?  Both?

The answer would have to wait, Harry pushed forward, “What do you think, should we wait for tomorrow when the potion wears-off, or should we just go to the bank and make the deposit?”

“Let's get it done."

“What if that woman who was sure you were pregnant is there? We were eighteen days ago, if we walk in ten years older, won't she be suspicious?”

“Maybe, but what can she say? Anyway, I think we just fill in one of the deposit forms she gave us and go to the teller windows.”

They apparated from the servant’s quarter courtyard to the tram stop tool shed. The tram stop was empty as was the street, so they walked on to the bank satisfying their curiosity about Muggle houses.  Muggles were suspicious of anyone lingering around their residences so they usually kept a brisker pace. The weather was what summer should always be but was so rarely; comfortably warm with a light breeze. What could be seen of the sky from the city pavement was bright blue with an occasional wisp of cloud.

On arriving at the bank any notion that they would be noticed vanished. It was yet another reminder that they had a lot to learn about the Muggle world. At the tall desk in the bank window they filled in a deposit slip and joined the shortest queue to a teller window.

While they waited their turn, they watched the Muggles go about their tasks. The woman who opened their account was at her desk behind the low fence but so absorbed in whatever she was doing that she couldn't have noticed even if she did remember them. In the state Muggles seemed mostly to be they were inattentive to their surroundings. They moved past crowds of people without looking at their faces or even casually looking for a friend or acquaintance.

The teller too was all business, taking their deposit slip and the cheque without so much as a word, although when he saw the amount he became much more attentive.  Nonethe less their transaction concluded unquestioned.

When the bank door closed beind them, Ginny observed, “If you add up all the time Muggles spend going about things in their lives, things like getting from place to place, standing in line at a bank, or wherever, it seems to me their lives aren't so easy.”

“I know,” replied Harry, “and we do need to learn our way around but let's not hurry like Muggles, have you ever had a latte?”

“What's that?”

“It's a Muggle coffee drink, like cappuccino but more hot milk than espresso. There's a coffee shop on the next corner, I saw it on the menu. Let's try one.”

They stopped at the coffee shop. They hadn't much time to be just the two of them together so it was a latte, a cappuccino and a croissant sandwich later that they finished their walk and apparated back to The Burrow in time for dinner.


Chapter 14: The Chinese Book
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Chapter Fourteen

The Chinese Book

Ron and Hermione had so thoroughly researched, then completed, all four Passport applications that there was nothing left to do but wait for the Birth Certificates, write the cheques and put the applications in the Muggle mail. For the first couple of days after this was accomplished, it felt good to help Mrs. Weasley around the house, ride their brooms, snog, and generally take their time about everything. So, when Hermione suggested that they get ready for school, she garnered no enthusiasm.

She didn't give up, “Look, practically we haven't been in school for more than a year. We want time to have fun, to spend time together. If we're trying to catch up with all our classes, we'll have neither time nor fun. The N.E.W.T.s aren't easy and it certainly won't hurt our chances of doing what we want after Hogwarts – if we do well. So, if we find out what each of our teachers expects, we can be ahead in class, have more free time, and be ready to leave on a moment's notice. If we miss some school to get ready for our trip, or if it takes longer than we plan, we might not fall too far behind.”

Ginny agreed, although a little reluctantly, “If I'm caught up with sixth year Defense Against the Dark Arts that would save time and Harry can teach me as well as anyone.”

Harry noted, “Well, Professor Sandberg isn't an impostor, so he might be pretty good. He seems OK.”

“Yea,” agreed Ron, “But I miss Lupin, he was great. Anyway, if I'm taking an art class, I'd rather not be buried in school work.”

“Art class?” asked Ginny.

“Ron is taking lessons so he can help George,” answered Hermione.

“Good for you Ron!” enthused Ginny.

Hermione wondered if Harry noticed how much less Ron and Ginny fell into their habitual rivalry of siblings.

After going back-and-forth about the idea, they decided that they would send an owl to their teachers and ask what reading or practice they should do. Doing school work that did not absolutely need to be done seemed almost unhealthy. Yet, with just a few weeks before the start of school, with only the Passport interview and the Y.I.P.I organizational meeting on the immediate horizon, it made sense, if only a somewhat reluctant sense, to make sure they were ready to leave on a moment's notice.  Anyway, compared to fighting, homework wasn't all that big a deal.

After the Birth Certificates arrived, ironically Hermione's – the only real one – came last, they visited Neville after dropping their Passport applications in the mail. Neville was still living with his grandmother but his courage during the Battle of Hogwarts had both won her respect and convinced Neville that he was more than just typically clumsy and forgetful. His new confidence showed. He had transfigured a small greenhouse out of part of the front porch and was cultivating and studying a few rare magical plants. He was particularly excited about some rare mushrooms with a magical reputation he planned to grow for experimental potions. Like Harry, his parents had not left him Knutless, and he was taking advantage of the family vault to follow his passion.

Much of the manor was unused, Neville and his grandmother being the only residents. The four friends teased him that he'd need a Weasley sized family to do the six bedrooms justice, while managing to wring a confession from him that he had been dating Hannah Abott, a Hufflepuff member of the DA who had fought alongside Neville, Ginny and Luna. Hannah had joined Fred and George defending the secret passageways into Hogwarts and had unknowingly survived the final battle thanks to Harry's Shield Charm.

When they returned to The Burrow the first of their professors owls had already arrived. Professor McGonagall sent a list of sixth year transfiguration spells they should master and the title of the seventh year spell book – Advanced Practical Transfiguration. She noted that they could substitute any of the local plants and animals for those mentioned in the text.

“She must have changed the class some,” noted Hermione, “I think simultaneous transfiguration of multiple objects is new.”

“This list is all nonverbal,” added Ginny, “I'll need practice.”

The next afternoon two more owls arrived with lists from Professor Flitwick and Professor Slughorn. One of the potions listed was the Variable Aging Draught Mrs. Weasley had mastered but there were others that they thought would be just as useful, in particular the Elixir of Vigilance, which would keep the taker awake and sharp-of-senses for forty-eight hours. The selection of charms concentrated on advanced charms – Accio at great distance, disillusionment of multiple persons and larger areas– but with a small section aimed at developing practical life skills – plant growth, engorgement, wound healing.

After Harry read the list he noted, “I've never learned a disillusionment charm, we've always had my cloak.”

Ginny said, “Neville and I tried to teach it to ourselves in the Room of Requirement, you know, to be able to move around the castle freely. There's something to it that we didn’t get because ours wore off too soon.”

The idea of studying in the summer, although still a little foreign, seemed almost normal the more it was about spell work. They liked doing magic. What little hesitance remained vanished that evening when Arthur returned from work carrying a full set of their seventh year textbooks.

He explained, “I picked these up at Flourish and Blotts after I ran into Professor Sandberg, your new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. He gave me the list. He was in town to get something for your spell practice and to talk with people at the Ministry.”

“For our spell practice?” questioned Harry.

“Yes, apparently you wrote your teachers and asked for what you needed to be ready for your seventh year?” It was part statement and part question because Mr. Weasley was surprised they would think about school in the summer. Hermione of course, but Ron!

“Well, we'll see won't we,” Harry concluded.

Mr. Weasley took one of the books from the top of the pile and passed it to Ginny, who was standing closest to him.  “There's a funny story about this one. It's a Muggle book about government and the Flourish and Blotts' manager told me at least a dozen times 'The Muggles don't deliver to Diagon Alley.' It took him most of last month to get the copies. He started by trying to dress like a Muggle and buy copies from a Muggle bookstore.”

He paused to laugh and then continued, grinning. “The store was full of Muggles, who were all looking at him, probably because he was wearing something out of his closet. He panicked. Took the next taxi back to the Leaky Cauldron. So, he had to get the copies for your class by apparating into Muggle stores at night and taking their copies. He didn't want to steal them so he typed the amount on their cash registaters and left the money in the drawer. Imagine how bamboozled the shopkeepers must have been when they found they'd made the first sale of the day before they opened.”

Everyone enjoyed this story, embellishing it with guesses as to what he had worn to the Muggle stores. When they did turn their attention to the book, “Democracy in the United Kingdom,” it became clear that Professor Mullens intended they learn how the other government worked. But, after they each quickly perused the contents, it was the spell books that held their attention.

“Look at this,” said Ginny as she pushed an open copy of Flitwick's charms text toward Hermione.  “It looks like a lot of work on memory charms. I'll bet he's figuring to give you a lot of practice before we go to Australia!”

Hermione took the book and began to flip through the pages, commenting as she did, “Ah, Obliviate, I think it's best in emergencies, if you just need to clean up magic in front of Muggles or something. Their tendency not to believe what they see if it contradicts their idea of reality reinforces the spell. But, this Abscondo Memoria is what I used with my parents and the reversal charm Resero Memoria is what I'll need; some practice would be great.” Wanding forward further she added, “Petronum Loquator, that's the Patronus messenger. Oh, and the Fidelieus Charm too.”

Seeing that the table was now covered in books and lists, Mrs. Weasley asked, “Sandwiches for dinner?”

Ron's appetite responded, “Great! Can we have SPAM? We haven't had SPAM for a long time.”

This was something of a surprise for Mr. and Mrs. Weasley because SPAM sandwiches had been a Sunday dinner mainstay after family outings with seven children. Ron apparently hadn't made the connection between SPAM sandwiches and parental exhaustion.

When Ron's mother went to prepare dinner his father responded with, “Butter beer!”

With two trays of SPAM, cheese and mustard sandwiches, and bottles of butter beer on the table, the four continued their perusal of the lists and books, reporting their most interesting findings to one another between mouthfuls.

Arthur and Molly, digesting memories of when their children were young along with the sandwitches and butter beer, watched and listened from their places at the end of the table. They did not always need to speak to share their thoughts. It wasn't a mysterious or even magical connection. Rather, having lived together for more than thirty years and raisied seven children, there were many things they could only see the same way. This was not a magic of wands and incantations but a more ancient magic of shared love. Part of them was both of them. There was no way to see some things except through the inner sight of the single being the two had become.

One of those things was the scene before them. Ginny, their youngest and only daughter, was already a young woman, a young woman who would start a household with Harry before this time came again next year. Ron, who they still worried had yet to find his place, had nonetheless transformed his insecurity about Hermione's brilliance to pride in her abilities. If parents can ever be content, Arthur and Molly were. The two young couples had crossed the threshold of their own families. Molly was pregnant with Bill at the same age.  They'd have to give some thought to being grandparents.

Despite their confidence in the strengths of the four, a trip to Australia disguised as Muggles was complex and difficult enough to challenge much older wizards. Yet, when they left the table to retire, what echoed in their thoughts was what they said when they saw Harry and Ginny embrace in the Great Hall – if only we'd not lost Fred.

Another observer, perhaps the next Bathilda Bagshot, would likely think what the senior Weasleys did not. Of the original members of the Order of the Phoenix, Arthur and Molly were among the few survivors. Among the successors to those who had gone on, Harry was perhaps best thought of as first among equals. Ron and Hermione, Ginny, George, Bill, Charlie, and the Hogwarts student fighters were the core leadership of the next wizarding generation.

Arthur was now in charge of what was becoming one of the critical divisions of the Ministry and an important support of Kingsley's leadership. With the heart of the next generation eating SPAM sandwiches at the Weasleys' table, Arthur and Molly had left a mark on wizarding history that would be admired for as long as witches and wizards understood the power of love and knew the story of the Order and its fight against Voldemort.

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Fortunately, Professor Sandberg did not arrive early the next morning because they played with their spell books well into the night. They were just finishing a final cup of coffee on a bench in the orchard when an apparition crack alerted them to their professor standing by The Burrow's gate. He was carrying a large book under his arm and, seeing the four in their morning conversation, joined them.

“Cup of coffee or tea Professor?” asked Ron.

“No thanks, I stated with two at the Leaky Cauldron this morning. You know Arthur got me started with coffee. I hear the Americans drink it instead of tea.”

“I think so,” said Hermione, “since we're making descent coffee, we're only occasional tea drinkers. Some of Fleur's frenchness rubbed off on the family.”

“What's that Professor?” asked Ginny, pointing at the book beneath his arm.

“That . . .” replied professor Sandberg as he took a seat on the bench between Ginny and Hermione, “. . .is your summer assignment.”

Ron and Harry walked over to the garden and quickly returned with another bench they arranged facing Ginny, Hermione and Professor Sandberg. Their professor opened the book without looking and turned it to face each of them in turn. They all leaned forward to examine the open pages. They showed a series of figures, each wearing robes, not like the darker wizards robes common in England, but light-colored with colorful designs on the sleeves, collars and backs.  These were more like what Dumbledore, or indeed, even Xenophilius, wore but with sleeves that draped deeper along their sides. Each of the figures held a staff about the same size as themselves and seemed to be performing some skill with it.

“What's this?” asked Harry.

“We don't know,” answered Professor Sandberg. “Mad-Eye found it in the Minister's Office years ago. It has been hanging around the Auror Office ever since.”

Turning a few pages forward he continued, “We're sure it's Chinese from the writing. We had this copy made and some of the translations we could find in dictionaries have been added next to the characters beside the drawings. The original is very old; it's not made of parchment but of rice paper, which is still in very good condition. We made this copy to show around. Now and again a new Auror will take a crack at it and they generally think it's some sort of spell book but nobody's made sense of it yet.”

“Are there Chinese wizards?” asked Ron.

“There must be,” answered Hermione, “every European ethnicity has wizards, why not the Chinese?”

“Yes, it seems certain,” said Professor Sandberg. "We asked Professor Binns and he told us that when the Secrecy Treaty was signed there was a Chinese delegate at the event. He arrived accompanied by many attendants but was the only one to sign. Everyone assumed that there were not many Chinese wizards because every other nation sent dozens of representatives from their various populations.”

“But China's so large?” queried Hermione.

“Exactly, Kingsley thinks that Chinese wizards may have an advanced civilization with a central government, a Ministry of Magic for all the witches and wizards in China, something like that. At any rate, we've passed this copy around and no one seems to have more than a guess for what it's about. So, see what you can make of it. I don't think you'll have much trouble with N.E.W.T. Defense Against the Dark Arts – many in your class have been in open combat – so we'll get a lot done. If you don't have to convince people to stretch themselves, they learn fast.”

Hermione took the book and starting wanding throught the pages, “No title page or anything?”

“Not a thing!”

Hermione stopped at an illustration of two Chinese wizards in brightly-colored robes facing one another. From what was obviously one wizard's wand came a red stream that varied from a thick tear-drop shape to a thin line that faded at its end. The other wizard also aimed a wand but what projected from it was a golden-yellow orb shaped as if the top of an umbrella had popped out of the wand. The translated caption read: “Student sound of drum; master sound of rain.”

“Merlin's socks, what does that mean?” said Hermione sounded almost angry that the caption lacked a useful verb.

Ron and Harry had moved to stand behind Hermione and examine the book but only murmured something indistinct.

Ginny, spoke over Hermione's shoulder, “Isn't it a duel? Look, this” – she pointed to the red streak – “is a Stunner and this” – pointing to the orb – “is Protego.”

“Yea,” said Ron, “I can see that, but what's the sound-of-drum, sound-of-rain thing about?”

None replied.

Professor Sandberg rose from the bench.  “I need to get back to the Ministry for a meeting so I'll leave this in your hands. Use the book to play, to make guesses, to try things.”

They took these cryptic instructions to mean they'd been turned loose – here’s a puzzle, try to solve it, have fun.

He gave them a minute to think about it before departing, “I'll see you back at school. By the way, all the teachers are really pleased and now that Kingsley's burdened with a devastated Auror Office, I know he's happy to see you back in school. I think you'll find we've been able to make some changes you'll like. There were ideas some of us, including Dumbledore, talked about but with Riddle gaining strength. . . well, you know, it just wasn't time.”

After shaking hands all around, he started toward the gate then stopped, turning to Ginny, “Oh, Ginny, I nearly forgot. I told the Improper Use of Magic Office not to monitor your trace because you'd be doing homework for me. But I don't think they've paid attention to The Burrow since Fred and George got wands.”

“Thanks professor, Dad thought so too.”

Professor Sandberg continued, “Any morning that you can come to the Ministry with your dad, Wilkie Twycross will get you through to your apparition license.”

After Professor Sandberg apparated away, the four's attention returned to the Chinese Book. The first pages showed wand work of some kind but the few sparsely-translated captions inspired no immediate understanding. Other pages showed Chinese wizards performing with much larger wands, like staffs, roughly the same height as the wizards themselves. Assuming the Chinese were neither much taller nor shorter than European witches and wizards, these seemed like giant wands. Each was shown with a red projection, like the earlier drawings, but without the streak. It made the staffs look something like a paint brush. Thinking of it as a giant brush made no sense because some of the images showed it spinning through the air. Toward the end of the book it looked a lot like the wizards were riding these staffs, except that they were neither sitting on nor touching their staffs, but leaping over them. The captions were no help either, many had a Chinese character noted to mean “mind” but how that related to the images was anything but clear.

The book offered nothing but frustration. So, they set the benches facing one another, sat two-by-two and began working with McGonagall’s advanced transfiguration text. The first lessons dealt with the transfiguration of animals. So, not wanting to practice on their owls, what to use as the local substitute Professor McGonagall suggested wasn't clear. Ron opined that the garden gnomes could use transfiguring (no matter what the outcome) but in the end it was Mrs. Weasley's chickens that became feather dusters, hats, and a half-dozen other odd objects. By early afternoon when Ginny and Hermione joined Harry and Ron in being hungry enough for lunch, the chickens were returned to the yard, not terribly worse for their many mostly successful transfigurations.

Mrs. Weasley already had soup on the stove and bread on the table, so Ron – still delighted with the food-increasing spell – made a pot of coffee while Harry set the table. Ginny magicked the soup bowls full while Hermione ran upstairs to check her beaded bag for mail. She returned holding eight envelopes, two addressed to each of them. Each opened theirs right away.

“Passport Office?” she asked the others.

“Yep, interview July 23 at the Passport Office,” replied Ginny.

“Me too,” said Ron,

Hermione nodded, “Yep, the same. What about you Harry?”

Harry replied July 23 but I'm supposed to meet with a Mr. Harrison Britany at 1:00 PM.”

“I wonder what that's about,” mused Ginny. “Probably too crowded a schedule or something.”

They moved on to the next letter, from Y.I.P.I. All were the same and Hermione had already started to read aloud, so Harry, Ron and Ginny just listened:

Youth International Peace Initiative has received your application and deposit for our December 19th trip to the International Youth Peace Conference in Sydney Australia. We will be leaving on December 19th and returning on January 1st. Our first get-together for participants will be Saturday August 15th in the basement of the First Anglican Church. Y.I.P.I. Participants from prior years will be there to meet you starting at 7:00PM. After you have a chance to get acquainted with the other members of our group and to enjoy some light refreshments, there will be two speakers. Mrs. Emelda James will tell us about the trip arrangements and schedule and Willaim Weams will provide personal insights from last year's journey. We will provide a complete agenda for the conference and the papers necessary to reserve your room at the University of Sydney. You are welcome to bring friends who may be interested to attended.


Hermione summarized, “It goes on to give the address and say that we need to complete the attached information sheet and bring it with us to the meeting. Looks like they want to know if you're taking medication, whether you have, let's see: physical impairments, food allergies, stuff like that. If we want to visit friends or family during the touring days, we need to provide their contact information now. Oh, and you can get a single room for an additional ₤200 and request a particular roommate if you go with a double room. It goes on to say that the dietary information is for the meals served in-flight and that the University of Sydney has a diverse international population and that vegetarian dishes are always available.”

“Blimey,” said Ron, “we're almost on the way – Passports, Y.I.P.I., money – we're ready to go.”


Chapter 15: Meeting with Muggles
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Chapter Fifteen

Meetings with Muggles

The trip to the Passport interviews took only a slightly different route than Hermione and Ron had taken to scout the government computer center. The four managed it without trouble, or even that much attention. Moving among Muggles no longer elicited as much concern as it had in the early summer. When they arrived at the Passport Office, they found a short queue at the information desk, which they joined, their interview instructions in hand.

Ron, Hermione and Ginny were told to join another queue on the second floor and Harry was told to report to the receptionist on the fourth. While they waited for the lift, Hermione suggested that they meet at the coffee shop they'd passed down the street.

When the others exited the lift on the second floor, Harry continued on to the fourth. When the door opened, he found himself facing a carpeted waiting room with a reception desk  He walked to the desk, waited while the older woman sitting behind it completed a phone call, and then presented the Passport Office letter.

“I'm here for a 1:00 o'clock interview with Mr. Harrison Britany.”

She took the letter, set it atop a file in a manilla folder, and told Harry to take a seat; Mr. Britany would be with him shortly.

“Shortly” is a subjective word. To Harry the wait did not seem at all short.  Neither did the out-of-date Muggle magazines in the waiting room offer much amusement. Football looked reasonably interesting, a number of boys at school followed the sport. It might be fun to see it played. The glossy news magazines were mostly about politics. He knew none of the names or issues. Although quite bored, he knew better than to ask if Mr. Britany had forgotten him. Harry's idea for dealing with bureaucrats was to not to deal with them at all and, if it became necessary, to not interfere with their routines and say as little as possible.

When Harrison Britany did appear at the reception desk to lead the way to his office after a perfunctory, “Good afternoon Mr. Potter,” Harry was glad for his bureaucrat strategy. Harrison Britany was less than middle-aged, seemed reasonably fit, even perhaps athletic. He was like a better built Percy.  His black shoes were immaculately polished, his pants crease was perfect, and his school tie was geometrically aligned between the lapels of his lint and rumple-free jacket, held there by a tie pin that featured the Union Jack. He oozed self-importance. It virtually dripped from him as he motioned for Harry to take the chair positioned before his desk while he sat himself in the swivel chair behind it, expertly scooping the back of his jacket away, preserving its wrinkle-free perfection. The chair offered placed Harry noticeably lower. Dumbledore's desk was imposing and he had always felt small sitting before it, but with Britany Harry sensed “I'm above you” was a deliberate message.

“Mr. Potter,” he began, “here at the Passport Office it is our job to see that our citizens are well served for their international travel but that our British Passport – which gives around-the-world access as well as the respect due a citizen of our great nation – does not fall into the wrong hands.”

This was not starting well. Harry thought that chances were pretty good Mr. Harrison Britany had already decided that his were the wrong hands. The interview was likely to get worse not better. He told himself to relax, they were in a private room, and he could feel his wand in his pocket. If necessary, he would Imperius pompous Harrison Britany and be done with it. The trip to Australia was important enough and the interviewer officious enough that he'd have no regrets if it took magic to make things go the way they should.

“So, Mr. Potter, you are nineteen years of age?”

“Yes sir.".

“And you were born where, Mr. Potter?”

“Godric's Hollow sir.”  Harry wished he'd memorized the answers on his Passport application before the interview.

“You parents are James and Lilly Potter?

“Yes sir.”

“And you are a student?”

“Yes sir.” Harry was pleased he remembered the name of the North Country school they'd decided upon, and hoped that none had checked whether Harry Potter was indeed a student there.

The next question, however, came as a surprise. He did not inquire after the name of the school but instead asked, “What classes will you be taking this year?”

The answer Mr. Harrison Britany expected was absolutely not Defense Against the Dark Arts, Charms, Transfiguration, Potions or Herbology. What was it that Muggles take in school? He decided to go with what he hoped might be a Muggle's response when asked something obvious, “Well, you know, the usual stuff, English, maths, whatever.”

“Yes, whatever,” replied his interviewer. His tone of voice when he spoke “whatever” gave Harry the impression it might be one of those Muggle expressions you're not supposed to use. Almost reflexively, Harry grasped his wand.

He was nearly committed to the Imperius Curse, when Mr. Britany started a monologue that Harry understood to be leading somewhere. Where, he had no idea, but Britany did seem to be building toward a climax. Harry was curious to see just where he would go, the wand work could wait..

“Now, Mr. Potter, the British Passport is a very important document, it gives the bearer many privileges, access to many countries and serves as a positive identification almost anywhere in the world. You can imagine, I'm sure, that it's not a document we would want falling into the wrong hands.”

Wrong hands again, thought Harry, we're getting to it now. He thinks he has caught me at something, but what? Had he checked the school?

“So, Mr. Potter, can you explain why your application has been signed by” – raising the application and turning it toward Harry he pointed to the signatures – “a Mr. and Mrs. Granger.” He spoke the name “Granger” as if he had revealed unequivocal evidence of Harry's guilt.

"There we are" thought Harry, he thinks he's caught me pulling a fast one on my parents, or maybe the Passport Office. Ironically, he was pulling a fast one, the Birtth Cerificate, the pictures, the signatures, the whole application were magical forgeries. Then it came to him. It was something of a dirty trick, a lie for sure, but excusable as a little impromptu drama in a tight spot. Reaching up to pull his hair back, revealing his scar, then bowing his head slightly and rubbing his eyes as if hiding a tear, Harry replied in the softest, saddest voice he could, “Car crash, the Grangers took me in.”

Instantly, the look on Harrison Britany's face told Harry he had made the right decision. His grin of anticipation turned to a grimace of embarrassment. Mr. Harrison Britany did not like to think of himself as a bully, as having mistakenly suspected an orphaned youth. Harry knew the interview was over and that his Passport would be on its way.

Harrison Britany concluded, “Yes, indeed, so sorry for your loss Mr. Potter. This concludes our interview. Your application is approved and you should expect to receive your Passport in the mail during August. Thank you.”

The “Thank you” was a dismissal. Harry rose from the chair, thanked Mr. Britany for his time and left the office, passing the reception desk to the lift at what he imagined to be a business-like pace.

When Harry arrived at the coffee shop, he saw Ron, Hermione and Ginny sitting at a table near the front window. When he sat, he realized they'd been waiting for some time because all that remained of their cappuccinos was the dried milk-foam on the rim of their cups.

Two cups sat before Ron, who raised one and said, “It was going cold, we'll order a fresh one. What kept you?”

“No need,” said Harry.  He told the story of his interview.

Hermione approved, “Well done Harry, better than Imperio, don't you think?”

Ginny, teased him with, “Poor Harry the orphan,” and they all had a laugh.

“So, what happened with you?” asked Harry.

“Nothing,” said Ginny. “We queued, maybe there were a couple dozen people waiting. When it was your turn, you went to whichever of the clerks was free and showed them the letter. They pulled your application from one of the folders in the files behind them. They looked at you, looked at those pictures we magicked, and asked when you were planning to travel. That was it. We were in and out in ten minutes.”

Harry shrugged. Hermione paid the check and the four friends walked back to the stop, reversing their morning’s course from The Burrow.

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It was three days later before they looked at the Chinese Book again. Those mornings Ginny had gone to work with Arthur to work on apparition and needed only to pass her test. They had spent most of the morning practicing charms on one another when Ginny said, “I just realized something. The Chinese Book Professor Sandberg brought, is it in our room?”

“Yes, in the stack on the floor next to the shelves,” answered Hermione, raising her wand and pointing it toward the open upstairs window without looking, “Accio Chinese Book.” There was a muffled crash and the book flew out the window toward them.

Ginny caught it as Hermione pointed out, “Oh, it must have been toward the bottom of the pile, I'll have to sort out the books before bed.”

Ginny sat next to Harry and started leafing through the pages. When she came to the “student sound of drum; master sound of rain” image they had seen the day the book arrived, she said, “While we were practicing it occurred to me that this is also an exercise, practice, like what we use to do in the DA, or are doing now.”

“Attack and defend?” queried Harry.

“Yea, let's try it; see if it makes sense.”  Ginny put the book down as she got up from the bench. They both walked a few yards into the orchard and faced one another. They started stepping backward. After each couple of paces they would check whether the spacing seemed right.

When they were about twenty feet apart, Hermione, who had taken up the book and was examining the drawing, suggested, “Maybe, just a little further apart.” So Ginny and Harry stepped back another couple paces.

“You attack, I'll defend,” said Harry.

“OK,” Ginny replied, followed by, “Stupefy.”

Harry answered with, “Protego.”

Hermione closed the book and joined Ron watching. They were both curious what the exercise would show about Harry and Ginny's magic. Both were good but Ginny was noted for hexes and Harry had always favored charms. After all, he'd been able to produce a corporeal Patronus since he was fourteen.

Back and forth they went. First Stupefy, then Protego, then Stupefy, switching roles with each pass. It was clear they were stronger than they had been only a few months ago when they had used these spells in combat. Harry could feel the pressure of Ginny's Stunner, even though his Protego was quicker and more powerful. If you could say that a Shield Charm had weight, the strength to block an opposing spell, his was heavy even before it was fully formed. If you could say a Stunner had force, Ginny's hit his Shield Charm the way air pushes against you when you accelerate quickly on a broom. His Stunner was stronger too, so was Ginny's Protego.

After a few more tries Ginny held her Protego and raised her other hand to signal Harry to stop, “Think this is it?"

“Maybe. Other than doing the spells quickly, I'm not sure what skill we're actually developing and I still have no clue about the 'sound of rain' thing, but it does make sense to practice like this.”

Ron who had been watching closely added, “I think it needs to be nonverbal. I'll bet you can go faster if you aren't speaking the spells. Let's try that – after lunch.”

After lunch they returned to the orchard and lined up two by two, Ginny and Harry, Hermione and Ron. Starting slowly, each partner looked to see that the others' Shield Charm had formed before Stunning.  They worked on the rhythm of the exercise and on not verbalizing the incantations. Once it seemed each had good control of the rhythm and pace, they began to trade partners and increase their speed, each pair trying an ever-faster rhythm.

While they practiced, something more became obvious, Ginny was fast – very fast – faster than any of the others. At one point when practicing with Ron, she had to instantly raise her wand sending her Stunner harmlessly into the sky because she had seen that Ron's Shield Charm wouldn't be ready in time.

“Ron,” trying to keep any hint of peeved little sister out of her voice, “don't move your wand like that, it's not part of Protego and it's slowing you down.”

“Right, thanks.” Ron caught the older brother urge to make a smart remark and took her advice. It was hard to admit and still too hard to admit aloud but Ginny was good, better than he, and at least a match for Harry.

The exercise had an almost hypnotic effect so they were all surprised to hear, “Having something of a domestic argy-bargy are we?” Mr. Weasley was sitting on the bench next to the Chinese Book. His hearty laugh when they turned in surprise was the perfect clue that he was teasing; that, and the fact that teasing was normal for Weasleys.

“Dad, you're silly,” said Ginny as the four joined him on the benches.

Ron handed him the Chinese Book open to the appropriate page, “We think it's an exercise to improve your dueling skills.”

After looking at the book for a minute, Mr. Weasley replied, “What does it mean, 'student sound of drum; master sound of rain'.”

“No idea,” answered Ginny, “I think we may have the exercise worked out alright but we haven't made sense of the saying.” She took Harry by the hand and tugged him back to the practice ground, “Watch, see if you make sense of it.”

Harry and Ginny started the dueling exercise, as they increased speed, faster and faster, their individual skills were obvious. Ginny's speed meant that her Stunner was cast slightly before Harry's Protego had fully formed. Nonetheless, the force of Harry's Shield Charm was so intense and his Seeker's eye so quick that he didn't need to use the full charm to deflect her spell. They settled into the practice, their concentration deepening to the point that they didn't hear the others until Ron actually yelled “STOP!” They looked back toward the benches.

“That's it,” said Hermione.

“What's it?” asked Harry.

“Do it and listen, you'll see,” said Ron.

Harry and Ginny turned back toward one another and started the exercise again, a little slower so they could listen. Sure enough, there it was, the sound of the Stunners hitting the Shield Charm was like a drum beat, boom, boom, boom, in the rhythm of their practice. The beat on Harry's Shield Charm was deeper, that on Ginny's somewhat higher pitched, but the similarity to the sound of a drum was clear.

“So, we're students now,” said Harry when they stopped the exercise.

“Yea,” replied Hermione, “but at least we made some sense out of the book, well, one page.”

While Hermione packed up their spell books and the Chinese tome, Mrs. Weasley stood by the back door where the Flutterby Bushes planted for Bill and Fleur's wedding still glistened in the warm sunset light.  She shouted with no need for a Sonorous Charm, “Dinner, come'n.”

During their walk to the kitchen door Mr. Weasley queried the four, “Interesting practice but I'm still a little surprised you're doing school work.”

Ginny replied first, “I didn't learn much in school last year.”

“Anyway, it's not like we're doing two feet of parchment on the Goblin Wars,” joked Ron.

This reminded Hermione that they did have the book on English democracy to read but before she spoke Harry informed Mr. Weasley.

“It's spell work. It's what we do, magic, and we're getting stronger, even though we've not been practicing. So, is it really that surprising that we like to do it?”

“No,” said Mr. Weasley, “I suppose it's not.”

Dinner was one of Harry's favorites among Mrs. Weasley's regular meals, a thick beef stew with young carrots and onions from the garden. While they contentedly ate, Mrs. Weasley put down her spoon and said, “Harry's birthday has already past, we missed Ron and Hermione's too and Ginny's seventeenth will be here before we know it. It doesn't seem right that we haven't had a party.”

“Well, we're not kids; you've taken care of us all summer . . .” started Hermione.

Mrs. Weasley interrupted, “You've been great, you've done the garden, anyway when there's wands around a little mess is no reason not to have a party. You could invite all your friends and Arthur and I would enjoy it too. A house crowded with young people is a happy house.”

Harry replied looking at Ginny, “I think there will be a lot of entertaining to do next year Mrs. Weasley, maybe we should do something a bit less ambitious.”

Ginny kissed Harry's cheek and said, “Lot's of parties next year Mum!”

This was the first time that Harry or Ginny had openly hinted at a summer wedding. Ginny did not give them time to think or doubt her certainty, “I know what I want for a party."

“What's that Ginevra,” answered Mr. Weasley, who used her given name to remind her she was sounding particularly assertive.

“Remember the Muggle restaurant near the Arcade Street bookstore?”

“Which one?” asked Ron.

“The Chinese one, with the paintings on scrolls.”

Harry, catching on to the place, answered, “Yea, I remember. What's your idea?” Then pausing, inclining a slight bow, he added, “Ginevra.”

Ginny grinned, “I think we should take Mum and Dad to that restaurant, all of us, the whole family. When I was about ten we met Dad at work and went from the Ministry to do some shopping.  We passed a Muggle restaurant. Dad stood looking in the window until Mum made him move along. When we walked away he said that he'd always wanted to go to a Muggle restaurant. Let's do that. It can be a birthday party for everyone and our birthday presents will be watching Dad enjoy the Muggles.”

Everyone laughed. Harry teased that they'd have to coach Mr. Weasley or he'd likely start asking people about their plugs. Both Mr. and Mrs. Weasley tried to object, but the four friends were having so much fun that the matter was settled while the elder Weasleys were affectionately ignored.

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It was raining with fog the night of the Youth International Peace Initiative meeting. The church where it was held was near a square of red tile roofed Tudor-style houses. If it would not already be dark when they arrived, they might notice the resemblance to Ollivander's and other buildings in Diagon Alley.  It was not too far from an underground station but getting there required a mid-trip transfer to another line from any of the undergrounds accessed from the work shed, the alley by the Ministry or the servants entrance.

The question Ginny and Hermione were now contemplating was which route meant the least walking in the rain. They ran their fingers across a London map, counting the blocks they would need to walk on each prospective route.

When they were sure, Hermione told Ron and Harry, “Don't forget the umbrellas, we'll apparate to the station near my place.  Let's go.”

The concern for being rained on was mostly about spoiling their new clothes. A couple of nights earlier, after the birthday trip to the Chinese restaurant was decided, Hermione had mentioned that they would be in Australia for ten days and wearing jeans, T-shirts and trainers might not always be appropriate. This lead to another review of Ginny's Muggle fashion magazines, and the idea that Harry and Ron would need a couple pair of “casual slacks” and some “classic pullovers.” These, at least according the fashion magazines, would be perfectly appropriate.

Ginny and Hermione also needed clothes. Again, the fashion magazines provided choices. Each decided on somewhat different styles. Hermione opted for light-brown and white pants with matching jackets and a couple of light sweaters. Ginny chose a short skirt in dark green and a matching blouse with embroidered yellow-gold flowers at the collar and sleeves. She also selected a longer dress, again green, which Harry thought went brilliantly with her red hair and fair, freckled skin.

Mrs. Weasley, who had the knack for it, did the finishing touches  and everyone was attractively fitted. Everyone except Mrs. Weasley. When the subject of clothes for the restaurant trip came up, all had a good time deciding on a Muggle outfit for Mr. Weasley, settling on dark slacks, an open-collared shirt and a tweed sport coat with leather trim, which made him look very professorial.

Mrs. Weasley, on the other hand, was short and plump and tended to dress herself in robes and dresses adorned with stars, moons, flowers or other colorful themes matched by equally colorful conical hats. She had nothing appropriate for a Muggle restaurant. When she said, “I'll just wear one of my plain robes,” Ginny and Hermione banished Arthur, Ron and Harry to the sitting room with instructions to stay there until called.

It had been long enough to discuss the up-coming Quidditch season, both Hogwarts and professional, when Ginny arrived at the sitting room door and allowed them to return to the kitchen. When they did, they found Mrs. Weasley modeling a belted dress with lace at the sleeves, hem and at the rather revealing bodice.

Harry said, "Cool, that's pretty Mrs. Weasley.” What he did not say was that Mrs. Weasley looked quite sexy. Ginny was beautiful and he was comfortable admiring her; after all what else could be expected from a boyfriend, a fiancé? Hermione was also beautiful. She had matured even more this summer and Harry would need to be blind to miss that his old friend, the bushy-haired girl, had become a very attractive young woman whose femininity even school robes couldn't hide. She was also his best mate's partner but he'd decided that it was OK to notice how attractive she was and that this was in no way disloyal to Ron.

But, Mrs. Weasley? He wondered would Lilly, his own mother, have become plump like Mrs. Weasley? Would Ginny and Hermione have talked her into wearing a sexy, low-cut dress?

Arthur, had no problem with sexy and had taken Molly in his arms and kissed her, a snog worthy of any teenager, praising her looks with no attempt to hide his pleasure.

When they kissed again, longer this time, Arthur's hands rubbing Molly's back and neck, Ron exclaimed, “Hey, no snogging, your kids are in the room. Behave yourselves.”

Mrs. Weasley had a different idea, “Well there's other rooms, go, we're busy. Besides we're always ducking out because you lot are snogging all over the place. You didn't invent it you know!”

It had been a fun evening but it was forgotten when they set out into the inclement weather. Harry and Ron wore the comfortable, low, slip-on shoes Muggles call “loafers.” They offered no protection on rain-washed pavements.  Ginny and Hermione had similarly flat shoes and flesh-colored stockings. Since they'd not made rain coats to match their Muggle outfits, they decided to wear their traveling cloaks. They apparated to the work shed behind the station, ran into the station two by two under their umbrellas and caught the next train. They had to wait for their transfer longer than expected so they were a few minutes late arriving at the church, having run most of the way from the station.

The large, ornate front doors were closed and the stained glass windows were dark. They turned the corner in the rain and carefully treaded the wet stone steps to a modern-looking door.  Just inside they found a coat rack and a small table bearing a hand-made sign that read “Y.I.P.I Meeting.”

Hanging their traveling cloaks on the rack next to the table and setting their umbrellas leaning next to it, they entered the large room.  The walls were the great stone foundations and the vaulted ceiling above looked massive.  They'd no sooner taken in room when they were greeted by two familiar faces. All four recognized Ellen as the clerk at the Arcade Street clothes store, and Bill, her boyfriend who worked at the Cyber Cafe.

Ron greeted them immediately, “Bill, Ellen, how nice to see you.”

Bill replied, “Welcome. Welcome, glad you made it. Ellen and I were at the '96 and '97 initiatives so we're counselors – we help the group leader.”

“Cool,” said Ron, as the others smiled in agreement. Then, gesturing toward the walls and celings with both hands he asked, "What's this place?"

“It was the crypt but one of the Vicars here had it made into a community room, the current Vicar let's us use it for free, if we clean up."  He turned to lead the way, "We're not quite ready to start, let me introduce you to some of the crew.”

Bill and Ellen shepherded the four over to a group of boys holding bottles of pop next to a table of snacks.

Hermione, noticing that the bowls of fruit, trays of sandwiches and a large ice-filled silver bowl containing various Muggle drinks had Ron's attention, elbowed him, “You’ve just had dinner.”

“Hermione, just because you're never hungry . . .” Ron's complaint tapered off to one of his eye-rolling, eyebrow raising faces and Hermione elbowed him again as the introductions began.

Bill placed his hand on a young man's shoulder and said, “This is 'Rog' - Rodger Hyde-Smith - he's in his second year at Cambridge, along with this fellow, 'Tim' - Timothy Harding - they're both studying medicine.”

Rog and Tim were older.  Neither Harry, Ron, nor Ginny knew how to respond but Hermione did, “What courses do you take in the second year?”

“It's still basics,” replied Tim, “anatomy, biology, organic chemistry.”

“Is it tough?” asked Hermione.

“It's a lot of study. We don't get into any of the practical stuff for another year and really nothing clinical until some rounds in the fourth.”

A very tall boy who had been busying devouring sandwiches used a hiatus in his Ron-like feeding to introduce himself, “I'm Larry Nevers, people call me 'tree top' . . .”

Bill interrupted, “No they don't, people call you 'dip-stick' so leave the newbies alone.”

All the boys, including Larry laughed, Harry joined in but he had only the roughest idea what "tree top," "dip-stick" and "newbie" might mean. It seemed essentially good-natured, like teasing, so he figured remembering 'Larry' should be enough.

The other two boys at the snack table, Herman and John, were closer to the four friends' age, having finished the upper sixth. They would start university in the fall. Their introductions were interrupted by a woman, older than the four, who pushed in front of them.

“Hi, I'm Ariel, I'm studying law. Who are you?”

At that Bill said, “Excuse me, I need to see the group leader and let her know we're ready to start.”

When he parted, Ellen moved between Ron and Harry, who had taken places next to the sandwich tray, stepping a bit forward of the four, as if buffering them from Ariel.

Ariel was pudgy, with a pale, round face. She tried to hide her stockiness with a colorfully patterned loose dress and kept her dirty-brown hair tied in a bun on the top of her head. Her boots grabbed Ginny's attention because they looked a bit like dragon skin, which Muggles didn't know existed. Ariel must have noticed because she raised her dress and put one leg forward displaying a green-patterned, shiny, pointed-toe boot that came to the calf of her pale, thick leg. As she turned her foot back and forth to show the boot's high heel she said, “These are real cowboy boots, genuine alligator skin, Dad bought them for me when we were skiing at Aspen. . . it's in the States, you know, the best skiing is in Colorado.”

Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Harry were saved a reply by Ellen who ushered them away to take seats with Bill and another couple at one of the round tables toward the center of the hall. Once settled in, they looked toward the front of the room where an older woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a broad smile stood at an entirely unadorned wooden podium and called for everyone's attention.

While the room settled down, Harry looked around, taking in the Y.I.P.I. group. There were not much more than twenty in all, a table of boys, a table of girls, and two other couples, including Bill and Ellen. The other couple at their table was probably about Bill and Ellen's age. They were as black-skinned as Kingsley and spoke together in rhythmic, strongly accented English. When Harry turned toward them, they looked up and introduced themselves as Ahmed and Sophia Landry.

Before Harry could reply the woman at the podium introduced herself, “Hi, how nice so many have returned. For those of you here for the first time, I'm Emelda James, Coordinator for yipi.” The four friends exchanged quick looks noting that she said 'yipi' as a word, not as Y-I-P-I. She continued, acknowledging Ariel with a wave of her hand, “First, thanks to Ariel's family Range Rover dealership for their generous donation of the snacks tonight and, of course, Vicar Jameson for use of the hall.”  Vicar Jameson apparently wasn't in the room as she continued on, “Last year's trip was a huge success, not just for England, but for yipi chapters world wide. So, this year, we have an even more ambitious program. You'll be meeting yipi members from around the world, and experts in fields like ecology and international law.”

People talked among themselves, some clapped, so the four friends joined in.

Emelda continued, “Except for the arrival day, which will be given over to settling into our rooms and the 25th to 28th, which are open so you can spend time with Australian friends or family, or explore Sydney with a yipi tour, there will be morning and evening presentations by yipi groups from around the world. Our own Beefcak'a da Jamiaca” – at this everyone laughed and Ahmed stood and made an exaggeratedly theatrical bow – “will be reporting on European efforts to encourage sustainable agriculture. Ahmed, is there anything you would like to add?”

Ahmed took in the room with a long, semi-circular scan and said, “I'll be concentrating on food security, in particular how food security is more than just being able to feed today's populations. It's also sustainable farming techniques that recover soil lost to agriculture by mineral depletion. Sophia and I have collected over 100 slides from the U.K., and some important U.S. initiatives and we'll be showing those as part of the talk.”

Emelda replied, “Wonderful Ahmed, we're really looking forward to your presentation. If I remember right, it's scheduled for the Wednesday after our arrival.”

When Ahmed sat down, the four friends joined Bill and Ellen in polite hand claps and friendly smiles.

Emelda continued from the podium, “Bill and Ellen will be counselors this year.  I think Bill has something for us?”

Ellen told Bill to stand; he did. “I think this will be a great trip. The speaker list looks really interesting. And, for sure, don't miss seeing Sydney. There's lots to see, or beach day on the 28th, there's nothing like it in England, Ireland, the whole U.K. for that matter.”

Bill sat and Emelda continued, “There's not much more to say, everyone's checks are in, we've made the Quantas reservations. So, it's a pretty miserable night out there and I imagine you'll want to get started home. . .” Then, as if she had interrupted herself with the thought, “. . . Oh, make sure you leave me your medical and roommate forms before you go.”

When she finished, the room stirred. People extracted forms from pockets, purses and backpacks, wandering indirectly to the podium with their papers in hand, dropping in and out of conversation groups. Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione sat back in their chairs trying to absorb what they could from the meeting. They needed to get a sense for the whole. This was not merely a social group. It was like any Hogwarts team in their familiar humor and easy sociability but they were together for a purpose. More like the DA than just a club, their bond seemed to be a mutual interest in ideas bigger than themselves.

Feeling confident that he had at least a hint about the social milieu, Harry completed the introductions begun before the meeting, “Hi, I'm Harry Potter. This is Ginny Weasley, her brother Ron, and Hermione Granger. This is our first yipi experience and there's a lot we don't know but we're really looking forward to learning about all this.” “All this” being explained by an arms-wide gesture toward the room.

Ahmed and Sophia could not have been friendlier. Ahmed was a graduate student. He and Sophia had married last fall when Sophia had started work as a teacher at a suburban London school. As they talked the conversation turned to jokes about “the couples table” and inquires that Hermione and Ginny fielded about where they were in school (about to start the upper sixth) and their plans for the future (take a year, get a job and decide, or maybe university). Ahmed and Sophia, Bill and Ellen, were easy people to be around.

It was only when Emelda arrived to inquire after their medical and roommate forms that the four realized that their table was the last to leave. They handed her their forms. She went over them briefly, noting that Ron and Harry, Ginny and Hermione had signed up as roommates.

Sophia teased, “Making your parents happy?”

Ginny replied with a convincing casualness, “Well, you know, can't let the folks think the snogging's out-of-hand.” Everyone laughed as they walked to the coat racks.

“Going back to Arcade Street?” Bill asked of the four.

“No, we're heading back and will take another line,” replied Hermione, hoping that such an unspecific response would be enough. It was. The rain had let up some but Ginny and Hermione were pulling up the hoods of their traveling cloaks.

“Now that's handy,” said Ellen. “What do you call those?”

“Oh, just traveling cloaks,” replied Ginny, “they’re really handy in the rain.”

Again happy that no greater detail was required, the four expressed their thanks for Bill and Ellen's kindness, then left for their train holding umbrellas forward to intercept the wind-blown rain.


Chapter 16: Ginny Comes of Age
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Chapter Sixteen

Ginny Comes of Age

The party at the Chinese restaurant took arranging. They sent Adonis to all the Weasley sons suggesting Ginny's birthday for when they could all meet for dinner at the restaurant on Arcade Street. This produced a flurry of owl traffic, much to Adonis' pleasure because there had been so few letters since the four had presented him to the Weasleys that the great eagle owl had taken to swooping down on gnomes that could stand “Stairway to Haven” no longer, grabbing them by their wiry hair and flying them off to who knows where. This started when the four had turned de-gnoming into nonverbal spell practice but because it kept Adonis exercised and the garden in better shape, everyone was happy for it to continue.

The first reply was from Percy, “Can't come on Tuesday, I'm meeting my new landlord. Any other day is fine. Can I bring my friend Audrey?

Then Bill, “Fleur will be in town Tuesday and Thursday, those are the better days for us.”

Unexpectedly Charlie replied that he could come, “Reporting to the Magical Creatures Office, Harry's favorite Hungarian Horntail broke another set of chains and almost got to a Muggle town before we Stunned her. Took twelve of us. Any day is fine. I'll be in London all week”

George sent Adonis back right way, “Any time, any place!”

Eventually, everyone settled on Thursday after work.

When Thursday came – faster indeed than anyone expected – Ron, Hermione, Harry, Ginny and Mrs. Weasley traveled by Floo Powder to the Ministry where Arthur was to meet them in the Atrium. Neither the soppy Fountain of Magical Brethren that had marked Fudge's Ministry nor the horrific Magic is Might monolith that announced Voldemort's ascendency remained. Kingsley's Ministry was marked by a simple rectangular monument of brilliantly white marble. “Remember those who gave their lives for our freedom” was inscribed in handsome block letters cut deep into the stone. Similarly carved beneath the inscription were the names of those who had died in the two wars against Voldemort. The family stood before it, feeling more emotion than its simplicity portended, touching the names of those they knew – Albus Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Lupin, Severus Snape, Fred Weasley and Dobby, a Free Elf.

Arthur arrived while his family was standing silently before the monument. He laid his hands on his wife and daughter's shoulders, moving between them. “Powerful isn't it.”

They all stood with their thoughts until Percy arrived, Audrey's arm in the crook of his. She was a plain young woman, tall, spare (spare enough to worry Mrs. Weasley), with very thick glasses. Percy introduced her just as “Audrey,” which seemed a little strange. However, she made a really warm impression, greeting each of the family with unfeigned pleasure. Her amiability made everyone comfortable.

“The reservations are at six, we should get moving,” announced Harry to the group at large.

“Which way do we go?” asked Mr. Weasley.

“Do you know where the WCs were – where you had to flush yourself into the Ministry – you know, when the Death Eaters had control?” asked Ron.

“That was a garage entrance Pius Thicknesse had transfigured – toad spawn stupid,” replied Mr. Weasley.

Harry nodded his agreement with “toad spawn stupid,” then added, “We can get to Arcade Street easily from there.”

“Follow me.” Arthur turned and began to walk back through the Atrium to the elevators.

Their walk through the Atrium revealed a much-changed Ministry of Magic. People were talking and jostling along. It was as crowded as it had always been but there was none of the foreboding that had infused the place when Harry, Ron and Hermione had rescued the Muggle-borns and recovered Marope Gaunt's locket. Instead of a crowd of head-down, silent, worried people hurrying to get away, people were on their leisurely way home. Some stopped to talk, others to arrange social events and family outings. Several recognized Arthur and waved or said good evening. Perkins, the little wizard who had shared the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office with him, stopped to ask for a word.

Arthur leaned down to listen. Perkins looked up, “Counsel meeting is tomorrow Arthur, don't forget we need help, the cache of cursed tools Albright found really needs taken care of before some Muggle finds it.”

Mr. Weasley replied that he would make a point of it.

It being the end of the work day, the elevators were mostly emptying into the Atrium so the family had one to themselves.   Arthur directed it to the garage.

Percy asked, “So, Dad, what's the Minister's Counsel working on?”

“Oh, nothing much really, there's still so much to be looked after. The Death Eaters ate into the Ministry like Flobberworms, changing spells, closing departments, moving people around, losing records. It's just a lot of mess to clean up.”

Percy started, “I hear it's a really important . . .”

Mrs. Weasley cut-across Percy, “Minister's Council, Arthur, you're on the Minister's Counsel?”

“Well,” began Arthur, “Kingsley asked me, Minerva McGonagall, Bill Mullens and a couple other Order of the Phoenix hands to meet with him every Friday and talk about the future; that is, once we get things back in order. It's just a working group, nothing special.”

“That's not what I hear,” said Percy. “Everyone's saying that the council will be Kingsley's wand hand, his best advisers. Dad's in a very powerful place. If you want something done, talking to Dad is as good as having the Minister's ear.”

Arthur corrected him, “Well, no. Percy, you know how people talk. You can never tell if there's more gossip than magic at the Ministry. Kingsley's a good leader. He listens but he can decide for himself.”

The elevator door opened and everyone entered a large room filled with cars, trucks, even a Muggle school bus. Conversation stopped, except for Mrs. Weasley who took her husbands arm, leaned close, and whispered, “I'm so proud Arthur, the Minister's Counsel.”

Mr. Weasley patted the back of her hand affectionately,  “I'll tell you more at home.”

A short, somewhat chubby wizard wearing a Muggle chauffeurs uniform greeted them, “Wha'cha doin' down 'ere A'thur?”

“Using your exit if you don't mind Chuck. Have you recovered all the cars? Any still missing?”

“That effing idiot Selwyn crashed into a bloody Muggle cement truck. Thought there's nothin' to drivin', bloody fool.” He went on sounding fascinated, “Don' ya know, didn'a damage the truck – big as a 'ouse – one of the young Aurors turn'd the car inna big rock. Muggle pleasemen wonna find a thing.”

“What happened to Selwyn?” asked Arthur.

“Blimey, s- s- s- mooshed,” answered Chuck, smacking his hands together loudly, enjoying his own humor and lack of sympathy for the Death Eater.

As brief as this conversation was, it was plenty of time for the family, even Percy, to have spread out admiring the ministry cars. Ron, taken by the Muggle school bus, was sitting in the driver's seat making motor noises while pretending to drive. Percy and Audrey were trying out the huge, charmed interior of a long black limousine. Harry walked with Ginny and Hermione through the rows of different shaped and colored cars.

Mr. Weasley called out, “Hey, we'll be late, let's go.”

When they had scrambled back to where Chuck, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley stood, Ron asked, “Blimey, can we get one of these – like that bus – for the trip to Kings Cross, it's coming up you know.”

It was Chuck who answered, “Plan's to 'elp the first years but if there's somethin' aroun' I'll let A'thur know.” Chuck moved his wand upward and a gap in the wall big enough to drive a bus through opened into the alley. The family exited and walked toward Arcade Street. Chuck wanded the door closed behind them.

They soon arrived at the Muggle restaurant, where they all filed in next to a “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign on a stanchion next to an ornate, black-lacquer podium with inlays of Chinese women dressed in very colorful, flowing robes. An older Chinese man, who had been talking with a couple to whom he was handing large, leather-bound menus, slid behind the podium. He asked Mr. Weasley, “Do you have a reservation?”

Harry answered, “Yes, it's for twelve, the name's 'Weasley.' Not everyone's here yet.”

“Ah yes, the family room is ready for you,” said the older gentleman as he reached beneath the podium and retrieved a stack of menus, “Follow me please.”

The restaurant was large and very busy; people were animatedly talking, waiters were moving quickly carrying huge trays of food. Some carried many plates amazingly balanced on their hands and arms. The aromas of oils and spices filled the room as fully as the customers' conversations filled it with the tones of several languages. It was certainly not a solemn place. People were enjoying themselves, passing food between them, filling each others' tea cups from ornate ceramic pots, sometimes two or three to a table. Arthur was totally captivated by the scene, by the variety of people they passed among the tables. Ginny had his arm on one side. Her mother had the other. They steered him gently onward when it seemed like he might stop and watch.

The family room was a carpeted platform at the back of the restaurant. The windowless walls were covered with paintings attached to scrolls of delicately patterned paper with carved, round wooden rods at each end that looked like they were used to roll up the paintings. The room was filled, except for the aisles around it, by a huge table, both long and wide, with two large revolving platters positioned along its center line. It was set with twelve very large chairs carved to match the sideboard. The seats and backs held large red cushions.

The overall color scheme was jade green. The table cloth, the revolving platters and the plates blended with the broad-leafed plants growing in huge ceramic pots next to an ornately carved wooden sideboard covered with many little silver bowls, extra utensils and napkins.

It took a while to work out the seating. The head waiter stood aside and Ginny walked along the back wall looking at each of the paintings.

“See anything?” asked Harry.

“Nothing like the book, flowers and pretty Chinese women in beautiful robes,” answered Ginny.

The head waiter was patient. This was certainly not the first large family he had seated. At last they decided that Mr. and Mrs. Weasley would sit at the center of the table facing outward so they could watch the goings on. Harry and Ginny sat next to them on their left with empty places for George and Charlie on the right. Ron and Hermione took seats at the opposite end, across from the seats saved for George and Charlie. Seats for Bill and Fleur were saved across from those occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. Percy and Audrey seated themselves across from Harry and Ginny. When each sat, the gentlemanly waiter handed them a menu, accompanied by a slight bow.

Charlie and George arrived together, saw the rest of their family over the heads of the diners, navigated between the tables without waiting for the maitre de.  They took the seats the family chose for them. After they were seated, a uniformed waiter arrived with a tray containing three tea pots and cups enough for everyone, even those yet to arrive. While they poured each other tea, Charlie told everyone that he frequently went to restaurants in Romania. He and his particular friend Carlos – like all of his co-workers – were single and well paid so they rarely cooked for themselves. While they sipped the aromatic tea, he explained that Chinese restaurant fare was various and the portions generous. It was thus popular with the hardy, hard-working dragon tenders. He was explaining some of the dishes, speaking loudly so everyone could hear, when he realized his voice was the only sound in the restaurant. He looked around. The whole family followed his gaze.

Bill and Fleur were waiting by the black-lacquer podium. Every face in the restaurant had turned toward Fleur, her silver hair shimmered in a breeze all her own. She wore the light-brown skirt and cream-colored sweater she had worn to work. Simple as it was, on her it was perfect. It certainly did nothing to subdue the subtle glow that always seemed to radiate around her, or to dull her rare beauty.

Ginny, leaned close to Harry and whispered, “It must be nice to be a Veela!”

Harry smiled and put his hand on her knee beneath the table, “Oh, I thought you were!”

Ginny laughed, tossed her long red hair behind her, struck a sultry pose, and then kissed Harry. It was just an I-love-you kiss, not an impassioned snog.  Regardless, when they finished, Mrs. Weasley gave them one of her “What do you think you're doing” looks and said, “Don't you two start.”

It wasn't entirely clear what Mrs. Weasley didn't want them to start so they returned to watching everyone who was watching Fleur and held hands across the gap between their chairs..

The head waiter turned his gaze from Fleur long enough to remember to ask if they had a reservation. When Bill pointed to the Weasley group – Arthur was vigorously waving – he led them to the places saved at the family table. When they passed among the diners, people turned to keep their eyes on Fleur. One older man with short gray hair actually stood as she passed, only to be told, “Sit down Jim,” by his exasperated wife. Some of the diners seemed to turn-away from Bill's terrible scars; some stared. Without them he would have been easily handsome. But, true to what Fleur said after the fight at the Astronomy Tower; she was beautiful enough for both. That the scars would show her husband was brave was equally true. Bill walked next to her wearing his scars proudly, having earned them living up to his expectations for himself.

Arriving at table, Bill and Fleur greeted everyone, Percy and Audrey a little more formally. Once seated they looked down the table to Harry and Ginny, then upward to Ron and Hermione. When they caught each couples' eyes, Fleur blew them a kiss while Bill grinned and raised his right hand in a thumbs up gesture. George, noting his elder brother's gestured approval of the youngest Weasley couples, grinned mischievously and feigned toasts to his younger siblings with his tea cup.

Since the Hospital WIng rapprochement between Mrs. Weasley and Fleur, everyone had accepted her. Her exceptional beauty made her seem more stand-offish than she actually was. It was a distraction that discouraged familiarity. Although her attachment to Bill was more sentimental than would be possible for Hermione, Ginny, or even Mrs. Weasley, her love was no less sincere and not so shallow as to have cared for his looks. Bill and Fleur were happy and that was enough to make her one of the family.

Harry, Ron and Hermione would never forget the stalwart and generous way she dealt with all who had escaped from Malfoy Manor as well as her courage fighting alongside Bill. The Goblet of Fire made no mistake choosing Fleur as the Beauxbatons champion. Harry had seen that when she faced her dragon.

Now that everyone was there, Charlie re-started his description of the dishes on the menu but Mrs. Weasley, who had been avidly reading hers, took charge. “Charlie, everybody, take a look at page twelve, 'Family Dinners,' there's dinners for four, six and eight with different main courses, appetizers and desserts; what-about that? We could get two for six.”

“Better get two for eight, Ron's here,” said George.

“Shut-it George,” parried Ron.

Hermione didn't let that get by, “Ron, you could overwork a house elf with your appetite.”

Ron stated to reply, “I'm just . . .”

But Mrs. Weasley intervened, “Save it you two. . .” She leaned toward Hermione, cupping her mouth with her hands, nearly whispering, “and no more about house elves either!”

Ron elbowed Hermione, “Yea, Hermione,” who elbowed him back.

Their waiter arrived and they ordered with only a little bit of quibbling about the choices. Mr. Weasley ordered beer for everyone and almost answered “butter beer” when the waiter asked what kind. Charlie answered before his father, something that sounded like “Thing-Dow.”

Half a glass after the waiter arrived with a tray of greenish beer bottles and glasses, the food began to arrive. Six different waiters began delivering tray after tray of food. First came small dishes of chicken wings in sauce, fried squid, a tureen of soup with some strange but delicious vegetables, tiny shrimp in sauce, and huge bowls of rice with smaller matching rice and soup bowls for each of them.

When Charlie started teaching his mother how to use chopsticks, the whole table began to give them a try. Hermione, who had eaten Chinese with her parents, showed Ron, Bill and Fleur. Percy and Audrey put the bowl of little shrimps between them and laughed heartily at their attempts to pick up the small, slippery delicacies.

The main dishes arrived and were again placed on the revolving platters for everyone to help themselves. For the next several minutes conversation came only in tiny spurts between mouthfuls. There was a whole steamed fish, a whole duck with a sweet red-orange glaze cut into hunks, bones and all. There were tender slices of beef with broccoli, succulent bits of chicken with cashews, huge shrimp stuffed with crab, and a couple of noodle dishes. No one knew exactly what these were but they were nonetheless devoured. No sooner had Ron sat back declining thirds, or was it fourths, than the desserts arrived. There were orange and green melons cut in little balls, oranges sliced like flowers, and something sticky with an ice cream center.

While the last of the desserts was passed around, Mr. Weasley tapped the side of his empty beer glass with his spoon, reminding all of Professor McGonagall.

When his family looked his way, he began, “Ginevra Molly Weasley, our youngest and only daughter, indeed the only Weasley daughter for several generations, came of age Tuesday this week. This is an important milestone, not just for Ginevra, but for Molly and I as well. It's a passage, not only into adulthood for her, but into a new stage of life for us – one where we will soon awake mornings to a silent and empty Burrow instead of chaos and piles of laundry.”

All their children laughed but their laughter was subdued by the bittersweet tone of their father's musings. None had ever imagined their parents living alone.

Arthur continued, “It's traditional to give a . . .” Molly tugged at his coat sleeve reminding him of where they were “. . . one of our lot, a watch when they come of age.”

At this he rose from his chair and walked behind Harry to lean down and kiss the top of his daughter's head. Ginny stood and hugged her father, tearless but obviously moved.

Arthur continued speaking directly to Ginny, “In that tradition we offer you the smallest token of love and respect for a beautiful daughter who has proved her self loving, loyal to our highest principles, devoted to her friends, and outstandingly brave.” The watch he took from his pocket was not ornate but slim, light, elegant. The band was green-dyed leather with a silver buckle and the watch was silver with tiny stars that circled the hours. Ginny held out her hand and her father buckled it to her wrist.

Still standing as Arthur returned to his seat, Ginny held her arm, fingers upward showing all. She sat, showing Harry the watch. While they whispered together, George half-stood with one knee resting on his chair and the opposite foot on the floor next to it, “It's time for the vote.”

“What vote?” called Percy from the other end of the table.

“Well, seeing as the youngest of the family have been showing up regularly with their snogging partners and since there are rumors of marriage on The Burrow's winds, I think it is time to vote whether we – the older and wiser members of the family – agree with their choices. Oh, by the way Audrey, we've sure your really nice, certainly nicer than Percy, but you'll need to come around more often before you get a vote.”

Percy and Audrey laughed at George's jibe. Whether they heard the message in his humor was unclear.

“Wait just a minute . . .” started Ginny emphatically.

George cut her off, “Quiet little sis, just because you've come of age and are exceptionally stubborn, doesn't mean we're leaving such an important decision to you. We have a quorum of wise Weasleys and, of course, my holy self. So, now, show of hands, who says we vote Harry in.”

Molly exclaimed, “George!” Ginny hissed. Ron groaned.

Hermione raised her hand but George said, “Put it down, we haven't voted you in yet.”

Ginny put both hands in the air and was followed by everyone at the table, including Hermione regardless of George.

“OK that's it, Harry you're in, you're now officially a Weasley. Congratulations, you may snog the bride.”

Harry rose and started to say something but George cut him off, “Ahh, we voted you in Potter; we didn't say you could talk. Sit down! Now it's time to vote on Hermione, let's see the hands.”

Once again every hand was in the air. Hermione was blushing like a Weasley. Mrs. Weasley seeing that the rest of the diners were paying attention to their commotion put a finger to her lips and shushed everyone to a lower volume.

George finished somewhat less boisterously, “OK, you're a Weasley too, I don't know why a nice, smart girl like you would want to snog Ron, but go ahead if you must!” They did, but not for long; it's hard to snog when you're laughing.

The check came in a little leather folder, Harry grabbed for it but Bill got there first, “Now you're an official Weasley, you'll have to share.”

Harry, Bill, Charlie, Ron, George and Percy shared the bill. They managed the Muggle money with no help at all from Hermione. Between travel and work, Muggle money had lost its mystery and they had all learned their maths well before Hogwarts. When they finished paying, they wound their way through the tables and left the restaurant.

Harry quietly asked Hermione, “What do you think the Muggles thought, professor and students, big family, garden club?”

“Big family . . . all the red hair.”

They made their hugged goodbyes as they went their separate ways. Then, Molly and Arthur, Hermione and Ron, Ginny and Harry, walked none too fast down Arcade Street, taking their time in the summer night. Two young couples with their arms around one another and sneaking the occasional kiss were by no mean rare on Arcade Street. On the other hand, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley stood out by their age, despite holding one another close as they loitered by shop windows to satisfy Mr. Weasley's many curiosities. It was entirely light-hearted until they reached the window of the Cyber Cafe.

Ron pointed to the machines inside, “That's what we really need, a computer.”

“Ron's right,” said Hermione, “the Muggles have made so much available through what they call the 'internet' that we'd know so much more if we had access.”

Rather than try to explain, Hermione told Arthur and Molly how they had found what they needed to get bank accounts, Passports, maps, and how they were able to arrange the yipi trip, using the rented computers they were looking at through the store window.

Mr. Weasley's answer surprised them.  "We change our world with magic whenever we want, so we don't see anything there to know or study except magic.  They study it because the world is fixed for them.  They learn, and they make what they want with what they learn.  It is a mistake to think we can ignore them."

Arthur's philosophical bent had always charmed Molly but the two young couples mostly knew his humor, his teasing and his ready affections.  They weren't surprised that he thought about more than plugs and gizmos.  They were surprised they hadn't caught on.  This must be why there's a Ministers Counsel, what to do about the non-magical world.

While they walked the rest of the way to the Ministry there wasn't a lot to say. Harry was thinking that as much as losing his parents had determined the course of his life, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley would be the parents he'd chose if he couldn't have his own. He felt no need to say it. Ginny's presence, the touch of her hand, her flowery fragrance clearly said he was closer to being a father himself than to being a dependent child. That it was nice, more than nice, to be together, to be a family on a warm summer night could go without saying too. The pleasure of each others' company said it well enough.

When they reached the Ministry alley, the apparition point the four had used all summer, they apparated directly back to The Burrow, each of the couples thinking it would nice to be alone at home.


Chapter 17: An Unexpected Truce
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Chapter Seventeen

An Unexpected Truce


Much sooner than anyone expected, the proverbial “last minute” was no longer proverbial. The day after tomorrow they would board the Hogwarts Express and return to school. Their shopping list had grown at the increasing speed at which the hours were passing. Ron and Hermione had decided that Pigwidgeon and Crookshanks were plenty; Harry and Ginny decided they needed an owl. Neither would be sending so many letters that they would need two and if there were something too big for Pigwidgeon, Ron and Hermione could always use the larger, less bird-brained owl Harry and Ginny would buy.

They were glad to have put off buying school robes because – finely nourished by food, sleep and magic – all four had grown during the summer. One set of school books was fine for work on the orchard benches. Now, each would need their own copy, as well as a good supply of ink, quills and parchment. They were certainly all set for brooms but Ginny, Ron and Harry had outgrown their Quidditch gloves, guards and uniforms. Then, there were ingredients for potions class, George's spell-correcting quills, and – why not – some Weasley's Wizard Wheezes jokes and tricks. Their supply of school clothes, especially shirts, jeans, underwear and trainers had been well replenished by the Muggle stores on Arcade Street and Mrs. Weasley's box of magical patterns.

When they left for Diagon Alley, Mrs. Weasley handed Ginny and Ron each a leather pouch before they stepped into the fireplace.

“What's this?” said Ron.

His mother answered, “Gold, of course, you need to buy your school things don't you?”

The question was rhetorical but Ron's answer was full of surprise, “Yea, right, thanks Mum.”

Without looking, Ginny pocketed the bag and thanked her mother.

They could work as individuals, couples or a family.   For this outing they worked two by two.  Harry and Ginny would get their books, while Ron and Hermione would get their potion ingredients and writing needs. The first to arrive at Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions would get started on school robes while waiting for the others to meet them there. Finished there, the four would stop quickly at Quality Quidditch Supplies, then move on to George's, hopefully with some time for a visit. Then, a last stop at Eeylops Owl Emporium for Harry and Ginny to select an owl before heading home.

Diagon Alley was as it had always been. Ollivander's had not reopened full time; the repeated torture Mr. Ollivander had suffered was taking time to heal. The alley was not packed but busy, witches and wizards wearing their usual selection of distinctive hats and robes were traveling in both directions. Little clutches of friends turned like wheels as they steadily stepped aside to let the flow of shoppers pass.

Fortescues, now Honeydukes, was doing a steady trade with families taking breaks from their last-minute shopping. Harry wondered if somewhere in the crowd there was an amazed first year who – coming from the Muggle world – was being escorted by a friendly wizard to buy his first school things. McGonagall would know. He or she might need someone to answer questions. Ron and Hermione continued on; Harry and Ginny entered Flourish and Blotts.

Flourish and Blotts was only a little busy.  Most people had done their shopping before the eve of leaving for school. Familiar as they were with their books, it took no time to collect three more copies. When they went to pay, Ginny opened the pouch her mother had given her and emptied some of the contents into her hand. It was full of Galleons.

She started at it for a moment before showing Harry, “Look at this.” It was enough for all her school supplies and more. “Do you suppose Dad got a raise?”

“About time, with his new department and the Minister's Counsel, he certainly deserves one.”

Harry started to pay for the books but Ginny said, “Come on, havsies.” She split the stack of Galleons Harry had placed on the counter and handed half back. She matched the remaining pile with some of the gold in her hand.

They were the first to arrive at Madam Malkin's Robes for All Occasions. Madam Malkin greeted them enthusiastically, exclaiming what a pleasure it was to see them, seeing as no one knew who would be returning to Hogwarts this year. Not many students in their year had been by for robes. She started with Ginny, standing her a stool she used so that she need not bend so deeply to pin the hems. While she measured Ginny, moving her wand from shoulder to ankle, she kept up a running commentary about how much Ginny had grown, how pretty she was, and how she, Madam Malkin, had made all of Ginny's robes since she was a little girl.

When her monologue ended, Ginny asked, “Do you know if we'll need dress robes this year?”

“Well, for the holidays perhaps,” replied Madam Malkin as she pinned the sleeves.

Harry noted, “We'll probably be traveling for Christmas.”

They decided against dress robes. The summer after the seventh year was when wizarding couples traditionally married. They'd wait until the need to attend summer weddings was upon them.

Harry had just climbed onto the fitting stool when Ron and Hermione arrived, dropping two smaller parcels next to the large pile of wrapped books already on the floor. Ron went immediately to Ginny and they began to talk in near whispers. Hermione and Harry – assuming they were discussing their bags of Galleons – let them be. Neither Hermione nor Harry spoke. They just smiled at each other, silently sharing the irony of their pairings.

Ron and Ginny were brother and sister. Neither would ever not be the person born to, and raised by, Molly and Arthur Weasley.  Hermione, like Harry, had no siblings. Each was an only child. Both left the Muggle world to find their lives. The affection each felt for the other was deep but differed from the affection Hermione felt for Ron or Harry felt for Ginny by feelings that were difficult to describe but impossible to ignore. In one sense, Harry and Hermione were brother and sister. Brother and sister had bonded with sister and brother, creating something deeper than two couples who enjoyed each others company.

These were interesting and pleasing thoughts but they demanded no conclusion other than their shared smile at their partners' discovery of another change in their family life. Yet, by the time Hermione was turning on the fitting stool for Madame Malkin, none of the four was thinking about money or siblings. Harry did think that they could use some well-used arm chairs like those in the Arcade Street clothes store.

The familiar exercise of buying new, ever-larger robes had loosed a flood of thoughts about Hogwarts. They spoke of those they were looking forward to seeing – Luna and Neville – or of things freshly remembered – Quidditch victories and celebrations in the common room. After one reminisced, another would chime in with another pleasure forgotten during the war.   By the time they were back on the alley heading for Quality Quidditch Supplies, they felt more like Hogwarts students than they had since their fight against Riddle had begun.

The immediacy of their return to student life inspired their conversation so fully that shopping at Quality Quidditch Supplies passed almost unnoticed. It continued until Ron nearly shouted when he saw the joke shop windows, “Merlin's toenails, eyebrows, pants and socks, look at that!”

During Riddle's reign Weasley's Wizard Wheezes had been the one bright spot in Diagon Alley. If it had been a party then, it was a circus now. The lights from the windows shown into the alley like a brightly flashing beacon. The four stopped in front of the windows to take in the amazing displays. Beneath an undulating magical banner, “Just What You Need for Back-to-School,” were examples of the entire Skiving Snack Boxes line, You-No-Poo, spell-checking quills, and Acne Vanishing Cream. The Wonder Witch line had been grandly expanded and now included not just love potions but magical perfumes and lotions, even shampoos to turn your hair to any color of the rainbow, plus a few nature had left to George's imagination.

When their gaze took in the interior, the impression that the store had become more like The Burrow was inescapable. There were odd-shaped corners where the walls met the floor and ceiling. The stairs that joined each of the floors slanted side-ways as they rose. It seemed almost as if one room could not really be connected to another at such impossible angles. George had certainly been busy with his wand.

When they stepped inside they were greeted from behind the counter by a blond witch wearing maroon robes, “Welcome to Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, is there something we can do for you today?”

Hermione asked, “Is George in?"

The reply came from across the room next to a display of rainbow hued Pigmy Puffs, “That depends on who wants to see me? If it's my relatives, I'm on vacation in Italy.”

All four turned toward George who was enjoying his tease as he walked over to greet them, “Shopping a little late aren't we?”

“We sort of lost track of time,” said Harry.

“Not to mention not quite realizing that the day would come so soon,” added Ginny, “it kind of snuck up on us.”

George laughed, “I know what you mean.”

Hermione had been examining the store more carefully, “George, how to you keep track of all this? Three floors, did you always have three floors? You must have a thousand items here.”

George lowered his voice and answered, “Well Hermione I don't keep track. To be honest, it's way out-of-hand.  I run out of supplies because I haven't had time to do an inventory and if it weren't for an all-nighter last week, the new Wonder Witch Shampoo wouldn't've been ready.  So, Hermione, if you've any of that smartest witch of her generation stuff left over after O'ing all your courses, how about popping in and helping put some order to this mess?”

"Well George you know Ron will be taking an art class so he can help with labels and all, so maybe I can spend a little time here while he's studying.”

“Cool,” said George, turning to Ron, “People liked those labels little brother, think you could try your hand at some more?”

“Sure,” Ron replied, “think you could stop calling me 'little brother'?”

“Maybe,” said George, “it'll be hard though.”

Ginny laughed, “You got that right.  I don't know if it's even possible, you two have been teasing Ron since . . . .” She stopped, realizing that she had spoken as if Fred were still alive. She looked down, then at George, waiting for his reaction.

He became thoughtful, “It's OK Ginny. We never lived a day without him and, well, in a way, we still don't.” After a pause he continued, “I'm really happy for you all. I'm married to the shop now but I know there'll be someone for me.   Harry, Hermione you're great; I can't tell you how happy I will be to call you brother and sister.”

The serious moment didn't last, overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the store. George showed them the new items and the changes he had made in the production spaces now that the shield garment trade had all but disappeared. He showed Hermione the boxes of records, mostly with no tallies and in no perceivable order.  She asked him a couple of questions about how he did things, promising to talk to him more while they descended the slanting stair to the front of the store.

Ron insisted on paying for their purchases, quite happy about it indeed.  They were relaxed and happy when they stepped out to the alley, Hermione was stuffing a handful of spell checking quills, a box of erasable ink bottles, and a handful of decoy detonators (just in case we need to clear one of our favorite snogging spots) into a bag of books that Harry was holding open for her. When they got all their bags distributed among them and turned to walk on and find an owl, their laughter and conversation abruptly stopped. They dropped their packages as they instinctively reached for their wands. They were face to face with Lucius, Narcissa and Draco Malfoy.

Draco's voice was deeper than it had been at school but it had the same annoying, sneering drawl. He tilted his head back and to the side, drawing their attention to four tall, brown-skinned men standing close behind them, each holding a wand.

He said, “I wouldn't.”

The four surveyed the men. Each wore a dark uniform with an illuminated “M” over the pocket, black boots, a turban, and a dirk at their belt. Lucius added in a somewhat higher but just as annoying drawl, “Bodyguards, our cousin in India trains them.” Then, looking first at Ron, then Ginny, “You don't need to do your own wand work unless, of course, you're always a Galleon late and a Sickle short.”

Neither Ron nor Ginny replied, perhaps the Galleons in their pockets mocked Malfoy's favorite way to disdain the Weasleys. Perhaps his defeat, his arrogant but hollow bravado, was too pitiful to require a reply.

They stood, in mutual indecision, none speaking, until Harry broke the silence, “We need to talk.”

This was the most unexpected thing he could have said. Ginny, Ron and Hermione's expressions showed surprise but they said nothing.

Draco laughed at him;  Lucius expressed his disdain, “Talk, talk with you, what could you possibly say to interest us?”

Harry kept his tone deliberate, even and neutral, “Ask your wife.”

Draco and Lucius turned to look at Narcissa, their eyes questioning.

“He's talking about the old magic.”

“What! What nonsense is that?” said Draco, his eyes narrowing and his nose twitching as if retreating from some horrible smell.

Narcissa staunched her husband and son's contempt, “The nonsense that killed Voldemort. We’d better talk.”

Lucius, taken aback by Nacissa's answer, responded, “Now? Where?”

“Fancy an ice cream?” suggested Harry.

The scene in the ice cream parlor could not have been stranger. The four bodyguards, obviously relishing their three scoop sundaes, sat at one table just behind the Malfoys. Their obvious delight with the ice cream certainly did nothing to make them look fierce. Harry, Ron, Ginny and Hermione sat across from Lucius, Draco and Narcissa; all held cones. The tension between the two sides was completely at odds with the brightness of their surroundings, the radiant colors and festive flavors of their ice creams.

Harry went straight to the point, “Riddle's Avada Kedavra in the forest destroyed the Horcrux, the bit of his soul that attached itself to me. When Narcissa lied to him, saying I was dead, she saved my life.   He could have killed me then and there but her love . . .” then looking at Lucius directly “. . . and your love for your son, the need to see if he was alive, was more important than Riddle, Pure-bloods, Death Eaters, more important than anything. In fact, Narcissa, you'd already changed sides.”

Narcissa looked down as if contenplating her raspberry swirl.

Harry continued, “You knew he was just torturing Lucius. You knew he'd kill you all in the end.”

The Malfoys were silent.

“In the Room of Requirement, then again during the final battle, we twice saved Draco's life.”

With this Draco squirmed. From their expressions it was clear that this was something he had shared with his parents but had no desire to revisit.

“By the final duel, your allegiances were mine; you knew that for the Elder Wand he'd kill not just Draco but all of you, as coldly as he killed Snape. You knew only his death would save you. You wanted me to win. You willed me to win."

The Malfoys were silent.  Harry met each of their eyea in turn.  "I didn't like you then and I can't say that I like you now, but these things cannot be ignored. You may hate me but we are bound by these choices, like it or not.”

All were silent. Bizarrely, each licked the drips from their melting ice cream as the tense silence continued unabated.

Then Lucius Malfoy spoke, “Potter . . .”

Harry replied, “Malfoy,” quickly asserting his equality before Lucius could continue.

“What do you want from us? Surely you do not expect reconciliation, for us to be your friends?”

Harry, ignored Malfoy's acidic tone, “No, I seek only benign neglect. A truce, if you will.” There was no reply so Harry continued, looking straight at Lucius, “When Bellatrix ordered Draco to kill the snatchers who brought us to you, she said that if Draco didn't have the stomach for it, like his father, she’d attend to it herself. I didn't have time to think about it then but later I realized Bellatrix knew the truth. You use lies and subterfuge but you're not a killer. That's why Riddle tortured you for losing the prophesy, you didn't just kill my friends and capture me. He would've.”

Harry stopped and just looked at the Malfoys, silently demanding that they absorb his words. He continued before the silence became too uncomfortable. “Dumbledore, knowing he must die, made Severus Snape promise to kill him to save Draco's soul from being savaged  by murder done in fear of Riddle's revenge. You're slippery Lucius and you've done evil things, but the love in your family and the nobility of those you counted as enemies redeems even you.”

Again silence but this time Harry looked at his friends and said, “Finished? Shall we go get an owl?”

They replied by standing as they hurriedly finished the last of their cones. When they started to pick up their packages, Draco spoke, “Harry.”

Harry recognized the change of tone and the use of his first name.  He turned around.  "Yes Draco?"

Draco continued, “Was it you who told Kingsley that my parents took no part in the battle?

“It was.”

“If you had been to the Manor, I mean, if you'd been to Malfoy Manor as our guest, we would have shown you a portrait of a merchant prince in almost every regard my twin. It's one of the earliest magical portraits ever painted, probably about the time of the First Crusade. The sword he wears is in our Gringotts vault.”

Harry nodded for him to continue.

“We are an ancient family, our power is our wealth, and politics has not been a wise investment. We'll be forming a professional Quidditch team, which I'll manage. We'll return to trade, to commerce. I doubt our paths will cross in any meaningful way.”

Harry acknowledged Draco by raising his arms to his side, waist high, his hands open, and palms upward. The gesture said as carefully as, and more clearly than words, “My wand is not raised against you.” Draco repeated the gesture. They nodded to one another, the hint of a bow, but said no more. Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione gathered their packages and left.

Barely on the street again Ron couldn't contain his surprise, “Blimey Harry, of all the strange things you've done that's the weirdest.   When you said 'We need to talk,' I almost fainted and that ceremony thing with Draco at the end, that was unbelievable, totally effing unbelievable!”

Ginny's voice was full of laughter, “You made a truce with the Malfoys in an ice cream parlor. No wonder you're a great Seeker, you're completely unpredictable.”

“You're right Harry,” added Hermione, “despite his talk, what arrogant garbage – a Galleon late and a Sickle short – he's a defeated man. A wandless wizard is no wizard and Lucius knows it. Draco will decide the Malfoys' future.”

Ginny mused, “Ironic isn't it?  Narcissa saved your life to save her son, which it did in ways she could never have guessed.” Then, quoting Lupin from not so long ago, “Trust Harry, his instincts are almost always right.”

Harry shrugged his shoulders, "He lowered his wand."

They knew what he meant.  Although the tension of the meeting with the Malfoys made it seem endless, it was actually no longer than it took to eat an ice cream. Nevertheless, it was getting late so they jogged off to buy an owl as quickly as their burden of packages would allow. Harry and Ginny left their bags with Ron and Hermione just inside the door and began their walk around the nearly-replenished shelves.

Ginny pointed to a great snowy owl not unlike Hedwig, “How about that one.”

“No Hedwig moved on and so should I.”  After they browsed more he said, “Ginny, do you see the barn owl on the upper level, the one with big eyes?”

“The one with big eyes that follow us everywhere?”

“The same.”

“Let's get him, there's no reason not to trust serendipity.” She raised her arm with her elbow bent, forearm in front of her. Immediately, the barn owl flew from its perch and landed on her forearm.

“No reason not to trust serendipity,” repeated Harry.

They selected a sturdy cage that would stand travel and presented both at the counter. The old woman tallied the price and Ginny again paid half. Harry was unable to think that he had gold that Ginny had not but her pleasure at paying was making shopping fun.

Just before they turned to join Ron and Hermione, the woman behind the counter said, “That one's a bloody fine hunter, let'm catch his own dinner.” They said they would.

 


Chapter 18: Back to School
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Chapter Eighteen

Back to School

Early on the morning of their departure, at breakfast, Hermione asked, “Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, when you drop us at the Express do you apparate back to The Burrow?”

“Sometimes dear,” replied Mrs. Weasley. “Unless Arthur has ministry cars, then we ride back with them. Arthur likes to see that everything gets properly done. Is that what you want to do?”

“No,” replied Hermione, “I want to enjoy the whole catastrophe!”

Ron laughed and Ginny added to the mirth with a wonderful imitation of Hermione, “Oh! Yes, nothing like the look on a taxi driver's face when Crookshanks scratches long, ragged rips in his pants.”

When the cabs arrived, the family was already standing at the gate. Their trunks were piled two-by-two, one atop the other.  Hermione was carrying Crookshanks' traveling basket, empty as Crookshanks was still at school. Ron had Pigwidgeon in his cage, and Harry was carrying his and Ginny's new owl, “Barnaby.” The two drivers got out, gawked at The Burrow and opened the boots of their taxis. Harry and Ron lent a hand loading their trunks. In the first cab Ron and Hermione sat on either side of Mrs. Weasley, Crookshank's basket on Hermione's lap and Pigwidgeon's cage on Ron's.

The driver of the second cab held open the door to the passenger compartment, “So, back to school eh?”

“Yep, first day of term,” answered Harry as they climbed inside. They settled in for the ride with Ginny in the middle. Harry held Barnaby.

When the cab turned onto the paved road toward London Mr. Weasley asked, “How does it feel, going back to school?”

“First and last,” answered Harry with a theatrically mysterious voice and expression. Ginny was better at it but these little dramas were fun.

Both Ginny and Arthur looked at him quizzically.

He explained his play on words, “This is the first time since our first year we've gone to school with nothing but classes waiting. But it's also the last time. We'll be back, we'll be home, and we'll ride the Express again, but this is our last first day. It's like you said when you gave Ginny her watch; it's a new stage of life.”

Ginny added, “It's hard not to be a little sentimental but we're happy Dad. I honestly think we know what we're doing, well, most of the time anyway.”

“I'm sure you do,” answered her father, who was quite sure of his daughter.

The ride to London was uneventful, the two threesomes chatting amiably but without much purpose as each of them followed thoughts that could be spoken with a Muggle listening. When they turned onto the street to the station, now more run-down than when the grand edifice was new, the traffic intensified to an unmoving line long before the entrance.

After a few motionless minutes, Harry got out, sat Barnaby's cage on the seat and said, “I'll go see what's going on, maybe we should walk from here.”

In a few minutes Harry returned. He came to the driver's door and motioned for him to roll down his window. Harry explained so they could all hear, “Some idiot blocked cars, locked his and went who knows where. There's a lorry hauling the car away; we should begin to move now.”

Traffic began to slowly move as taxis, lorries, and cars cleared from behind the just-removed blockade but the road was still jammed and the station was hardly getting any closer. The drivers stopped and helped Ron and Harry navigate the four trunks through the queue of parked cars about half the length of a Quidditch pitch before the station entrance. Ron paid one and Harry paid the other while Ginny and Mr. Weasley ran for trolleys. Hermione and Mrs. Weasley stayed by their trunks and managed their pets.

Then, with two trolleys each loaded with two trunks, owls on top, Crookshank's basket in Hermione's arms, they hurried their way into and through the crowded station, here and there swerving around a Muggle or two. They had to halt in front of the barrier to platform 9 ¾ where an apparently first year family, a mother and son, fiddled with the brand new owl cage on their trolley.

Mrs. Weasley apparently sensed the problem was less about the cage and more about the barrier. She approached the mother, who was considerably younger, closer to the four friends than to their parents, “May I help?”

“Well, I- I don't know about the wall. . . I mean. . .the barrier . . . I guess it's called. You see I'm a, a mu- mu-.”

“Muggle,” said Mrs. Weasley matter-of-factly. “As long as you are with your son, or someone magical, the barrier will work for you. Arthur and I will help you back to the street when the train leaves.” Seeing Ginny point to her watch she took control of the trolley. The first year boy trotted alongside and his mother was more or less dragged along.

The two couples passed through the barrier as they had done so many times before. Steam from the Hogwarts Express carried down the platform from where the engine stood in the tunnel leading to the north-bound rails. In the coolness of the September air, it condensed on the sides of the cars and dripped onto the tracks below. But, where were the students milling around, greeting one another?  Why were only the families here?

Mr. Weasley shouted, “Everyone's on already.”

Between the traffic and the first year they were late and the doors were ready to close. They didn't think twice. “Locomotor trunk,” sounded in four voices and four wands guided trunks through the open doors.

Ron's was first on board. Hermione told him, “Ron, that first year isn't going to make it. Go get'm!”

Mr. Weasley helped the other three make room by rushing their trunks and cages into the corrido.  Ron ran back to the first year boy who was still holding on to the trolley. Ron bent down to face him, “Hi, I'm Ron Weasley; what's your name?”

“Kevin McArdle.”

“Alright Kevin I'm going to help you get on the train. Run, run as fast as you can to the door where my friends are waving and I'll get your stuff.”

The first year didn't even turn when Ron said “Locomotor trunk” but ran straight for the door where Hermione was waving him on. Mrs. Weasley trotted alongside handing Ron the owl. With the owl cage in his left hand and his wand guiding the youngster's trunk Ron sped up. The doors were about to close. He could hear the hiss as the brakes were released.  Ron's long strides caught up to Kevin as the doors began to shut from the front of the train.  He guided the trunk into the door, jumped in pulling Kevin with him as his father jumped off. The doors closed behind them.

While the train moved out of the station, they organized their trunks, their pets and Kevin McArdle. Ginny went first guiding her trunk down the corridor. She was followed by Harry guiding his trunk with Barnaby's cage on top. Behind him Hermione had both Pigwidgeon and Crookshank’s empty basket riding on her trunk while Ron brought up the rear guiding their stacked trunks and Kevin's owl. A very wide-eyed Kevin McArdle was keeping close to Ron.

When they passed the Prefects' compartment Hermione took a quick look. It was empty. “No Prefects,” she said, sounding unsurprised.

Ron replied, “McGonagall said they weren't sure who'd return to school this year. There must be a teacher or two on board.”

Ron was right; Professor Sandberg was sorting out an argument about trunks between two girls. They looked like second or third years. In the next car Ginny raised her free hand and when the others asked what she wanted she slowed, then stopped and called back to Ron. “Ron, the compartment just behind me has what looks like three first years, why not settle Kevin in there?” The three moved forward enough to clear the compartment door for Ron and Kevin.

Hermione, Harry and Ginny, their trunks hovering quietly in the corridor, waited while Ron kneeled in the compartment door to be closer to the three youngsters' size. He introduced Kevin to the others and hovered Kevin's trunk into the luggage rack above.

Handing Kevin his owl Ron promised, “See you at the sorting,” Ron returned to the corridor.  The parade of trunks continued down the aisle. They walked for most of another car looking for an empty compartment, responding to greetings from classmates, stopping to say a quick “hello” to Neville, who was deep in conversation with Hannah Abbott.

Harry remarked to Ginny, “Hannah was DA, in my year.  I'm a little surprised she's back. I didn't think she'd need N.E.W.T.s.”

“Maybe she came back to be with Neville.”

“Maybe,” said Harry, “that'd be nice.”

After entering the next car, Ginny again raised her hand to show she was stopping. A pack of older boys, one considerably larger than the others, was blocking the aisle while they engaged in some sort of animated discussion.

“Excuse me, excuse me please, we'd like to get by” said Ginny. When there was no response she tried again, louder, “EXCUSE ME PLEASE! WE WANT TO GET BY!”

There was no way they could not have heard so with tiny flicks of her wand she bumped her trunk into the rear of the nearest and largest of the boys while she again asked to pass, loudly, but still more or less politely. There was no response. Her trunk's bumps increased her demand for attention.

Suddenly the boy turned around shouting, “Stop that you idiot or I'll hex you!”

The other boys, following his lead, turned to face Ginny with their wands out. Ginny's trunk floated to the floor with a thump as her wand rose. When the three behind her heard it land, they dropped theirs – thump, thump, thump – the owls screeched.

Harry moved up next to Ginny but there was not enough room in the aisle to stand beside her because she was in her dueling stance facing square on to the boys, concentrated, ready. So Harry stood with his right shoulder facing toward the boys, wand before him, Protego ready. Ron and Hermione, maneuvering around their trunks, came forward too. There was no space for them in the corridor, so they stood behind, looking over Harry and Ginny's shoulders. Although the boy, a Slytherin by the green and silver markings of his robes, had been ready to hex Ginny when he shouted, the sight of her wand pointed at his face, and the hint of a smile on hers, was encouraging second thoughts.

No one spoke, no one moved, until the compartment door between the two groups opened and a boy about Harry's size with hair the color of straw leaned into the corridor and looked to his right toward the Slytherin boys, then to his left toward Ginny and Harry.

He spoke with a Welsh accent, “Ah Pritchard, good for you, some early dueling practice is it?” When Pritchard did not reply, the boy neither Ginny nor Harry recognized continued, “Good choice though, Ginny Weasley, Gryffindor Chaser, and a fine hand with a hex I hear.” Pritchard still did not reply but Harry thought he saw him lean back slightly. “Well, if you don't fancy a go at her, you might try her boyfriend”– pointing at Harry – “surely you know Harry Potter; he's something of a name around school. I'm sure he'll be happy to give you a try. He's had a bit of experience, anyway, that's what I've heard.”

By now the straw-haired boy was smiling, almost laughing, and Pritchard was clearly backing away. Ginny's stance had not changed, nor had her wand moved, but Pritchard's companions were quietly slipping into their compartment.

The boy, another Slytherin, didn't let up. “Of course then, that's probably Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley behind them, if you don't feel up to Harry or Ginny. . .” Then, exaggerating a thoughtful expression, “Hummm! Maybe that's not such a good idea either, I hear Granger's got . . .”

He didn't get to say what Hermione had because Pritchard shouted, “Alright, alright, we're moving, just shut it Llewellyn.” So saying, he too returned to the compartment, slamming the door so hard it rattled.

When Harry and Ginny lowered and pocketed their wands, the boy stepped from the compartment door and faced them. He offered his hand, “That's Graham Pritchard, not exactly the brightest candle on the tree, mostly just a nuisance, a Beater. I'm Llewellyn Parsons.”

Harry replied as he shook Llewellyn's hand, “Haven't seen you around, what year are you.”

“Fifth, I was a third year when you left school; last year my parents took me out and taught me at home.”

“Didn't the Death Eaters chase you down?” asked Ginny.

“Oh no, Dad's a retired Quidditch player, Mum stays home, the Death Eaters weren't interested in Quidditch and we live way deep in the country. My Mum went through the Spellbooks with me. With my Dad I mostly fly, we've been flying since my first broom.”

Ron and Hermione had moved around to face Llewellyn; Ron asked, “Are you a player?”

“I'll be on the team this year.”

“How come you didn't play before?” asked Ginny.

The straw-haired boy hesitated, looking at each of the four friends in turn, as if deciding what to say. Then, apparently having made up his mind, “You don't think that a Slytherin and a Death Eater are the same do you?”

“Close,” said Ron

“Ron!” chided Hermione. Then speaking to Llewellyn directly “Is that why your parents kept you out of school, the Death Eaters?”

“The Malfoys. Lucius has never liked my Dad and buying the team for Death Eater kids kept me off the pitch. I wasn't that disappointed though, who wants to fly with a bunch of thugs. Anyway, the cup wasn't played last year. This year should be different though. Actually Harry, I'm looking forward to meeting you on the pitch.”

Harry told Llewellyn that he'd see him around and on the pitch. The four headed a little further down the aisle where they found a compartment and settled in.

“That was fun,” said Harry laughing as he closed the compartment door and stepped around the stack of trunks on the floor. “For a minute there I thought we'd be starting school with a duel.”

“Some nasty tempers there, those Slytherins,” added Ron, “I was hoping to see Ginny's famous Bat Bogie Hex, big flapping bats all over their faces!”

“I could arrange that for you,” said Ginny as she twirled her wand between her fingers. Everyone ignored her.

“Llewellyn seems alright though,” noted Hermione.

“Yea, he did,” agreed Harry, “I wonder how he flies.”

“Really, really well,” said Ginny, emphasizing the “reallys.”

“OK, what's it you know?” asked Ron.

“Well, remember what McGonnagal said, 'smarter and a better flyer than Malfoy.' I'm guessing Lywellyn's dad is Alfredoc Parsons, a famously acrobatic Chaser for the Chudley Cannons. Retired in 1980. Llewellyn said that he and his Dad flew together almost every day. He was born in 1983 since he’s a fifth year now.” Raising her hands and shrugging her shoulders to emphasize her conclusion. He's been training with a pro his whole life.”

“Slytherin might be tough this year but we don't know they've anyone else who can fly,” added Harry.

The Express began to move much faster, having passed the London suburbs into open country. Each of them reached for a hand-hold to balance themselves while the train gained speed.

“Time to put these away,” said Hermione as she pointed her wand at Ron's trunk, the last to arrive and thus the top of the pile.

“What say we get our school robes on now, while we put the trunks away?” asked Harry.

Ginny replied, “We've got the whole ride.”

“Yea, but let's get the feel of it, I mean, being back at school.”

Ron opened his trunk and got out his school robes. Then, using a Hover Charm placed his trunk on the out-board side of the luggage rack. Each followed in the order the trunks were stacked, Hermione, Harry, then Ginny.

In a matter of minutes their trunks were stowed and they were dressed in their school robes. Ron and Hermione lounged on the seat facing forward. Ron's long legs stretched across the compartment as he slouched in his seat. Hermione had one leg tucked beneath her and was looking out the window, yet to start reading the book on the seat next to her. Ginny and Harry sat together on the other bench, her back resting on his shoulder, her legs stretched along the seat and the latest Witch Broomstick in hand.

The ride to Hogwarts was what rides to Hogwarts would have been without distractions like arguing whether Malfoy was a Death Eater, spying on him, or dealing with Dementors. The cart came. It seemed late because they were very near the front of the train. Pumpkin Pasties and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans were still fun, if overly sweet. They enjoyed these, along with chocolate frogs of course, as much because they'd forgotten wizarding confections as for their taste.

Before they boarded the train they hadn't talked about their expectations. In fact, they hadn't thought about much more than what they needed to get ready. Yet, in some recess in each of their minds this was certainly the trip to school they wanted. Having enjoyed learning spells in the summer, there was no foreboding about lessons. Nothing awaited them but friends, Quidditch and time with each other while Hogwart's magic tended to their needs. It was a magic of its own, a ride back in time toward a youth the wizarding war had stolen and their own growing up had very nearly left behind. Perhaps it was this corner of their minds that made it easy to accede to Mrs. Weasley's notion of big decisions.

Arrival offered no disappointment. There, at the end of the platform, lantern in hand, was Hagrid in his huge, shaggy coat calling for the first years. Kevin and the others were already milling around him. The four waved, yelling that they would see him at the feast. He waved his massive hand and smiled his usual unaffected grin.

Even the weather welcomed them back to school. There was a queue for the carriages, people standing about because so many more could see the Thestrals now. The night was so clear and the stars so bright that they lighted the landscape as the thestral-drawn carriages traversed the Hogsmeade road, through the gates, and to the base of the stairs leading to the castle doors and the Great Hall. After they disembarked, they stood at the base of the stairs and watched the flood of students cascade upward over the stone steps before joining the stream themselves.

When they entered the Great Hall and turned toward the Gryffindor table Ron said, “Let’s sit up front, I want to see Kevin get sorted.”

Once seated, while they waited for the sorting to begin, they looked down the table to see who else had returned to school. Ginny kneeled on the bench for a better view.  There was Dennis Creevey, his brother's camera on the table beside him. Andrew Kirke, who had not been the best Beater, had returned; so had Jimmy Peaks, who had not been too much better.

“Demelza's back,” noted Ginny, “two Chasers.”

Part way down the table they recognized Angus Matlock, Eloise Midgen, Jason Swann, and Romilda Vane. A little further, closer to the doors and on the other side was Jack Sloper.
When Ginny pointed him out Harry concluded, “We're doing OK with Beaters, Kirke, Peaks and Sloper aren't Fred or George but they can play.”

“We need a third Chaser.”

“Dean's back.” Harry asked himself how he felt about that. “He was on the run last year; we could use him at Chaser.”

He looked at Ginny who shrugged, “That's three, he's good. Look, Seamus and Parvati are back, they must need N.E.W.T.s too; they're in your year. Padma is back, next to Michael Corner at the Ravenclaw table. Do you suppose they're dating?”

No one answered. They'd spotted Luna.

Luna had apparently been one of the last ones off the train, or maybe she had just decided to walk. When Ginny stood and waved to her as she turned toward the Ravenclaw table, she skipped a little as she returned the greeting. She said hello to Anthony Goldstein, who had fought with her, Neville and Ginny in the DA. If he was back, he too had ambitions that required N.E.W.T.s.

While Luna took a place at her table Ginny surveyed the rest of Luna's housemates, “Ravenclaw better have some fifth and sixth years who haven't played before, or some pretty talented youngsters, because their team is gone – completely – none left. In fact, have you ever seen the tables so empty, it looks like a lot of kids didn't come back.”

The Quidditch conversation might have gone on longer but Hermione interjected, “Hagrid's not back, I wonder if something's delayed the sorting.”

The four all turned to the head table. There were Professors Slughorn, Flitwick, Sprout, Mullens, Sandberg, and Madame Pomfrey. All the chairs but Hagrid's were filled.

“Professor McGonagall is in Dumbledore's chair,” said Ron, “I wonder who'll lead the sorting?”

They didn'tt have time for much speculation because the sorting hat, sitting on the three-legged stool as it was every year, began to chant:

When the dark time passes,

The light time follows.

Let us remember those,

Who do not share the light.

The room remained attentive neither applauding nor returning to their conversations.

Ron guessed, “That must be how they're starting this year.”

Ron guessed right because coming through the doors to the Great Hall were the first years lead by Rubeus Hagrid. He had been wearing his aging coat on the Hogsmeade platform but was now attired as none had ever seen him. Beneath a plain, dark brown jacket he wore a turtle-neck sweater the same tan color as his pants. The four friends had seen the pants he was wearing in the Arcade Street clothes store, except, of course, not so huge. They were decorated by the rivets and thickly-sewn seams of the many pockets. The brass buckle of his wide leather belt was shaped like a Hippogriff. Everything was clean and fit well.

What was most unbelievable was his shoes. Nothing that could fit Hagrid's feet could be anything but immense but compared to the great floppy boots they remembered this pair was merely peaking from beneath the cuff of his pants. Perhaps Madame Maxine had magicked Hagrid a new wardrobe, or even done some transfiguring work on his hair. You couldn't say he had anything like a haircut, it was more like a mane, but it was reasonably tidy.

The first years followed. Some looked a little frightened but all were alternately keeping their eyes on Hagrid and gazing around, fascinated by the long tables, the thousands of candles suspended in air and the ceiling's magically-clear rendering of the sky. Everyone in the room remembered that moment, their first view of the Great Hall, their arrival at Hogwarts.

When Hagrid arrived at the head of the hall he stepped up to the platform before the podium and stood next to the three-legged stool. Reaching into his inside pocket and removing a scroll that could have fit in no one else's jacket, he turned to the first years saying, “Lin' up 'ere. Good! When I call yer name, go right ter ta stool. I'll put the 'at on yer 'ead an' you'll be sorted.”

He raised the scroll and read the first name, “Abigail Ashforth.”

Abigail Asforth was a petite but very pretty curly-haired girl. She stepped forward and more or less climbed the stool. The hat had no sooner fallen down around her ears when it said, “Gryffindor!” She hurried to the table taking a space next to Hermione who put a welcoming arm around her.

One by one the first years sat on the stool. One by one they were sorted. One by one they joined the house that would be theirs for the seven years of their life at school.

When Hagrid called, “Kevin McArdle,” up he stepped, with a quick look toward Ron.

Hagrid placed the hat on his head, the waves of his light brown hair holding it above his ears. “Gryffindor!” Kevin jumped the steps and ran to the Gryffindor table taking a seat next to another first year who was sitting next to Ron.

Excitedly he said, “I'm in your house Mr. Weasley."

“Yes you are,” said Ron, “welcome to Gryffindor Kevin.”

Ginny looked at Harry and Hermione in turn, “Looks like Ron has a new friend.” They all laughed but Hermione continued smiling.

With the sorting finished, the room, some already famished, turned to the podium as Headmistress McGonagall walked forward and placed her hands on either side of its slanted top. When she looked around the room, everyone's attention flew to her. To start her first term as Headmistress she had adopted robes of forest green, intricately embroidered with leafed vines but the tall conical hat she always wore had not changed nor had her stern expression.  The war had aged her.  She had lost Dumbledor, friends and friends' children she had known from birth.  Those who fought the Battle of Hogwarts knew her expression showed resolve.

Ron whispered, “I know how old she is, you won't believe it, Mum told me.”

“Well, let's hear it,” said Hermione.

“Sixty three at hernext  birthday, it's October 4th 1935. Think of the Death Eaters she dueled.”

Harry added perspective, “If you think of Dumbledore, it doesn't seem that old.”

She began her start of term speech. "My friend and colleague Albus Dumbledore had an expression he frequently used during the dark times at Hogwarts. 'You deserve to know.' It was a wonderful way of expressing our responsibility to treat you as the adult members of the wizarding community you will soon become. When you leave Hogwarts, you are adult in every way wizarding peoples recognize. Many of you will marry soon after you leave us and many of those who leave this year will be mothers and fathers before the first years sorted tonight take their O.W.L.s. Happily, what I will talk about tonight is quite the opposite of those dark times."

Their Headmistress stopped, took in the less-than-full house tables, and assured herself of the Hall's attention. "You deserve to know that while the castle was cleansed of curses and the physical damage was fully repaired before school began, we – the teachers of Hogwarts – have commenced but have not finished what has been only rarely seen in this school's history."

Next she spoke a single word, “Change.” It rippled through the surprised assembly as raised eyebrows, quizzical expressions and shrugged shoulders.

"Each class this year will change. Each of us has taught for many years. We share certain notions about how young people learn. We will put these into practice. For the most part, we will be emphasizing practice, lots of practice."

Many didn't know how to take this. Was “practice” another word for “homework?” Yet, homework was forgotten, when she said, "We have also agreed that the social order of the school should change to give you experience with skills you will need in the adult word. We will thus make more time for organized social experience, clubs, parties, dances and such."

The castle nearly vibrated with the intensity of the thoughts running through the minds of all but the youngest students. Eager to hear more; not wanting to spoil anything, whatever it turned out to be, the room did not explode into excited conversation; it just felt like it might.

Sensing the excitement their Headmistress waited just a moment before continuing. “However, you also deserve to know that Quidditch for this year is in an awful pickle.”

Some in the room, the four friends among them, recognized this as humor from their usually serious transfiguration teacher. They understood that she intended to get the feast underway in a festive mood. But no one doubted her intent when she considered her next thought and nearly laughed.

"I know that for many of you Quidditch, snogging and eating are the essentials of life. Therefore, we intend to do our best to help you enjoy them, except of course for the snogging, which I am sure we can leave to you in confidence that it shall be very, very well done."

This heightened the laughter that had not stopped since her mention of “Quidditch, snogging and eating.”

Hermione, her voice low, her hands animated, told the table around her, “This is great. This is how to start a term.”

Everyone agreed, Harry adding, “Can you believe it's McGonagall?”

Professor McGonagall continued speaking when the volume of laughter and conversation settled down. "We have one of the smallest classes in a long time. Many 6th years and a number of the 5th years have not returned. We lost too many in battles and some simply moved on with life beyond their education. We do have an additional number of 7th years whose studies were lost to the war, and we will be calling on them to serve the school. Indeed, we hope that every student will step forward to take some place in student life. We must restore the Quidditch tradition at Hogwarts. After Wednesday, there will be no homework for the rest of the week so that each house may meet to discuss how they wish to select their house team."

The Quidditch fans in each of the houses were looking up and down their table, thinking of who could play as their Headmistress went on. "You also deserve to know that the tradition of student leadership has been so interrupted that we have only today decided on the posts of Head Boy and Head Girl. I am proud to announce that Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger are thus appointed. They have served Hogwarts and the wizarding world with courage, skill and dedication and have enough experience as Prefects to preserve the system. Your house masters will appoint Prefects at your first house meeting."

The appointment of Ron and Hermione caused some talk. It was unusual for both to come from the same house, much-less to be one of the couples the whole school recognized. Nonetheless, the sounds reverberating around the hall generally signaled approval.

"Finally, we must warn the assembly of those matters of such import that they must be restated every year. First and foremost, Mr. Filch, our caretaker, reminds you that nothing purchased at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes is permitted in the castle. There is a list posted on Mr. Filch's door and for several yards further down the hall."

The Headmistress had to stop this time because the laughter was so loud none would hear her. It was a minute or two before she could conclude. "The entire staff wishes to remind you that should you wish to avoid an awful death it would be wise to remember that the Dark Forest is off limits to students. These important notices thus delivered, in the words of my illustrious predecessor, ‘tuck in'."

This time laughter merged with conversation. Then, when the tables filled with something for every appetite, the sounds of a festive meal perfected the pleasant cacophony. There were great roasts of meat and fowl with potatoes to satisfy those who needed filling.  Salads of vegetables, salads of fruits, to satisfy those who did not wish to feel too full, and deserts to amaze every taste.

After Ron delecatly spooned the last little rim of chocolate pudding from his bowl, Hermione took charge.  “Ron, we'd better go see that the first years have someone to show them the way. Harry, Ginny, can you take our first years up to Gryffindor Tower.”

“Sure.”

Harry and Ginny stood and organized the first years. Because they had taken seats at the fron of the table, they were close by. “Follow us, keep your eyes on the steps, there's a couple that disappear. If the stairs move, don't step, just hold the rail until they stop.”

Ron and Hermione crossed the Great Hall. Hermione stopped to ask Michael and Luna if they would manage the Ravenclaw first years. Ron walked to the Slytherins and asked Llewellyn to do the same, while Hermione called over to Hannah Abott, “You've been a Prefect can you get your youngsters up to your common room? Go ahead and pick someone to help.” Hannah waved her agreement.

An hour later they were in the Gryffindor common room, the first years settled in. Most of the Gryffindors, full from feasting and tired from their early starts and the day's excitements, had retired to their dormitories. A few of the older Gryffindors were still at tables or in the armchairs by the fire, letting the feast and the day's events digest.

Harry was standing in the center of the room grinning and looking pensive when Ginny, smiled brightly, her brown eyes alive.  “Harry Potter you're a sentimental fool.” She skipped twoice, laid her hands on his shoulders and her forearms on his chest, then kissed him. Not really a snog, but full of meaning, a kiss between lovers.  Finished, they stood there laughing.  When Ron and Hermione joinoed them, they turned to face them, both couples holding hands.

Ron teased, “You're mental. What's this about?”

Hermione knew, “That's where they kissed after the Quidditch match two years ago. This is where they started.”

Laughing, Harry pointed with his free hand toward the wall of windows, “And, Hermione was right there grinning like she knew all along. Ron, you looked like someone had bashed you over the head with a bottle of butter beer.”

“I did know,” said Hermione. “Every time you looked at her I knew.”

Ron, looked a little embarrassed, “She's my sister!”

Hermione took Ron's shoulders, one hand on each, and turned him to face Ginny. “Ron look at your sister. She's smart, she's beautiful, she's talented, she’s of age and, well look!” She reached over and took Harry's hand from Ginny's, “It's Harry's hand and she wants his touch. They're in love.” To emphasize Hermione's point Ginny took Harry's hand back before Hermione finished. “He's our best friend and he'd die before hurting Ginny. She's with Harry. They're happy.  Aren't you happy?”

Without hesitation Ron brought her hand to his lips and kissed it, “I'm happy, for that and a whole lot more!”

Harry and Ginny looked at each other.  Their eyes said they thought the same.  It was both very un-Ron-like and very much Ron.  The courtly gesture was quite unlike his usual expressions, but Hermioine was the princess in his fairy tale and the gesture said how he felt.

Both couples kissed goodnight and climbed the stairs to their dormitories.


Chapter 19: Classes
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Chapter Nineteen

Classes

 
The Muggle Studies classroom was actually Professor Mullen's office.  It's walls were covered with shelves, some filled with books, others with a variety of devices and unerecognizable items.  He had arranged their chairs in a semi-circle with his desk, a stand, and a large tripod facing inward. The chairs were unusual for Hogwarts, black with small arms. Each sat on a post that rose from the center of five legs, each of which stood upon a wheel.

“I know those,” said Ron, “I saw them at the computer center; they swivel.”

Sure enough, they did, which everyone determined for themselves as soon as they sat. Unlike all the other classrooms, the chairs had no desk, no place to put books or parchment. Everyone just dropped their book bags and rucksacks next to their chairs.

When everyone was seated, Professor Mullens stood in the center of the semi-circle, between his desk and the empty stand. “Let's see, who do we have? Potter, Weasley, Weasley, Granger, Longbottom, and Lovegood, the Poca Pedido de la Phoenix.

Poca Pedido de la Phoenix?” asked Harry.

“Spanish,” replied professor Mullens, “It means, at least, if I'm not confused, 'Little Order of the Phoenix.' In other words, you lot. You fought together. You trust Arthur and Kingsley. They told you to take the class. So you did.”

“Well Professor we're sure they had good reason. Mr. Weasley told us he thought it would be a really useful class,” explained Hermione.

“You're very kind Miss Granger, thank you. But just in case the class turns out to be boring beyond belief, I'm going to give you the idea that I most want you to retain first off. That way, if you mentally depart us after today, using our time together to enjoy a Weasleys Wizard Wheezes patented day dream, you will have what may be the best of it. If you decide the exploration of Muggledom I expect you to undertake seems worth your time away from Quidditch, snogging and eating – the essentials of life as our Headmistress so wisely noted – you will understand exactly how I propose we venture into the majority culture.”

From “Quidditch, snogging and eating” onward, the class relaxed. It was becoming something of a motto for the new school year and the manner he brought from teaching in the Muggle world was appealing.

He pointed his wand to the tripod, which was instantly holding what looked like a giant version of the stationary store tablets that Hermione kept in the kitchen at home. Ron, Ginny and Harry had become quite use to consulting her lists and had begun making their own. There were Muggle tablets, pencils and pens among their books. These Muggle items having been adopted for unofficial work for which they were quite convenient. Homework, of course, must be ink on parchment.

A page flipped over the back of the big tablet revealing a white sheet with a drawn figure. The figure looked like a bell. Professor Mullens, waved his wand like a band leader, “All together now, what does it look like?”

They all sputtered out, “A bell.”

“Right, the outline of a bell. This is a Muggle idea they call the 'bell-shaped curve.' It is called a 'curve' because it slopes.” Then, he used a thin beam of red light from his wand to trace the curve. “It slopes up slowly, and then rises faster to the peak, where it descends at a rate equal to the rise on the opposite side.” He looked at each of them in turn, looking for comprehension. Seeing understanding he kept on, “Got it? Good, stay with me. This isn't a picture of anything. It's an idea expressed in numbers that have been plotted to form a line. Muggles call these 'graphs'.”

“Where are the numbers?” asked Ginny.

“Good question Miss Weasley, very good.” He went to a side cupboard, “The numbers come from observing something, for example, sand falling in an hourglass.” He retrieved a very large hourglass from a side cupboard and turned it so the full chamber was uppermost and set it on the stand next to his desk.

He was silent while everyone watched the falling sand, then continued his lecture. “Now, let’s imagine that the numbers, the qualities we measure, are the positions where each grain of sand lands.”

He turned his wand on the big tablet and on the left side and bottom of the figure lines appeared with equally spaced marks, like rulers. About halfway up the left side was a bright red dot with blue lines extending to the ruler-marks at the left and base of the figure.  A third line departed the dot at an angle giving the illusion of dimension.

“So, let's call each of these marks 'one sand grain' – the width of a grain of sand in the hourglass - so this dot marks a sand grain that is about eight sand grains left of center and twelve sand grains to the rear. Got it?”

Everyone nodded.

“Now what this graph is telling us is where the sand grains will probably fall. If you measured the position of every sand grain that fell though the neck of the hourglass and marked them on the figure just like this red dot, all together they form the bell-shaped curve, pretty much like the shape forming in the hourglass.”

Professor Mullens stopped for a minute to let everyone regard the glass and absorb the idea. Then, he asked, “Anyone want to guess why Muggles bothered with this? Why did they want to know about 'probability'?” When no one volunteered, he pointed to Hermione, "Give it a go.”

Hermione was studying the chart, “There has to be some reason.  It explains something, maybe something they want to understand in their world.”

“Excellent,” said Professor Mullens, “What about you Luna?”

“Does each grain of sand have a place? When it falls through the hole in the top of the glass, does it go to its own spot?”

“Ahh, interesting thought Luna, but no. Some will be heavier or shaped differently, some will land one way or another, and others will fall later. So no, where each grain of sand lands isn't random, neither is it certain.  What the graph describes is chance.”

Ron said, “So, you need a lot of stuff for this to work, with five grains of sand, what happens, happens and the image doesn't tell us a ruddy thing.”

“Exactly, the curve is about large numbers,” replied Professor Mullens, who turned to Ginny, “How about you Miss Weasley?”

Ginny asked a question in return, “So, are you saying this graph predicts how things happen? It's Muggle divination?”

“Yes, given Ron's caveat about size, yes.  It describes what's likely.” Then, he turned to Harry, “Let's see, Harry can you sum this for us?”

Harry was doodling the shape in the air with his index finger. He answered after playing with it a little longer, “It's a tool of some sort, a way to explain or change things when you don't have magic.”

“Good job Harry.” replied their professor.  "Let's take a whack at using it.”

He casually wanded open a new page on the big tablet. It showed the curve intersected by lines equally spaced to either side of a central line from the peak.  “Alright Neville, your turn. Let's use this idea. What about magic? Let's suppose that every person on earth, magical or not, is represented by one of the points that make up the figure. OK?”

“OK.”

“Now then, if this extreme point to the left is where people with no magical abilities are tallied, who's at this end all the way over here?”

Neville answered right away, “Really powerful wizards.”

“Good Neville, but what does that say about these people stacked up in the middle?”

“Well, that depends on what you think magic is doesn't it? If there's just magic and no magic, then I really don't know. Yet, if magic is something most everyone has some of, then the people counted in the big middle bulge have what almost everyone has.”

Professor Mullens was obviously impressed with Neville's answer. “Very, very good Neville, right to the point. Let's adopt another Muggle idea, continuum. If this end to your left is no magic and this end to your right is really powerful wizarding magic, and as you move from left to right the magic gets more and more powerful – forms a continuum – what could we say about the people in the middle 'bulge' as Neville called it?”

Everyone was busy thinking about the graph but silent until Harry spoke, “It's the old magic isn't it, the ancient magic like love and the bonds that tie us to our friends and even to our enemies.”

Ginny got where he was going, “The left side is those hardly even aware of the old magic, the middle is the mass; they are more or less aware – Muggles know love – and the right side is witches and wizards.”

Professor Mullens was pleased, “There, we've arrived; you won't ever need to be conscious in class again. This is what I want you to take with you, to keep in mind. There's one population, everyone on earth, human beings. That population mostly shares some awareness, some ability with magic; even though very few are actually able to use it.  For most, for the vast majority, it might be no more than knowing that their family's love protects them or an intuitive feeling that they should do something.  Slide down the left side of the curve, and you're marking the chances of people who have less and less of even that.  Slide down the right side and the chance increases that people will know magic, do magic.”

Hermione was so excited by her idea she just began to talk. She pointed a beam of blue wand light at the right end of the curve. “So, how about this?  Here we have witches and wizards, and maybe . . .” her wand light pointing a little more toward the center “. . . here are squibs and Muggles who do magic in extreme situations . . .” again moving the light up the side of the curve “. . . and here's just plain Muggles but maybe more sensitive or intuitive than others.” Hermione stopped, pondering something.

Professor Mullens said, “Tell us,  don’t worry about being right Miss Granger, we all know you're as smart as they come. Go on.”

“So, let's say my Mum and Dad,” again pointing with her wand light, “are in here somewhere, in touch with whatever magic is, but not magical. Then, they marry and I'm born a witch. So, could it be that Muggle-borns come from parents who are nearly magical, or maybe unknowingly have some magical talent?”

“Yep, smart as they come. We can talk about what magic is as we go along – and I think we should – but for now let's just say that yes, it makes sense that Muggle-borns are the offspring of people with some magical connection, even if they don't know they have it.”

Neville, getting that Professor Mullens wasn't too concerned about formality expressed what seemed the obvious conclusion, “Blood status – Pure-bloods, Half-bloods, Muggle-borns – it's all nonsense.”

“Yes, more or less. Knowing the so-called 'blood status' of a magical person's parents tells us something but not everything about their abilities. Various talents run in families. Muggle parents do not often have magical children and magical parents do not very often have squibs. So, let's approach Neville's thought from a different angle.” Seeing his puzzled listeners he explained, “Different angle, it's a Muggle expression, an image, a metaphor. If you look at something from a different angle, you take a different viewpoint, like looking at a statue from the right or left, front or back. So, we're going to look at what Neville said in a different way.”

“Can anyone explain what the Muggles call a 'species'?” None replied, so he chided, “My, my, with what's on with the lot of you, I'd think it was obvious – the key is sex. A species is a population that can make babies who can make more babies. Now, if Harry and Ginny have a baby. . .” This was met by somewhat restrained giggles but Professor Mullens persisted. “. . . will their child be magical?”

“For sure,” said Luna, “they're both powerfully magical.”

“Right,” answered professor Mullens, “but what if Harry has sex with a Muggle waitress?”

“Ginny turns him into a worm,” said Ron.

Hermione laughed, “And feeds him to Barnaby.” Professor Mullens raised his hands questioningly so she explained, pointing her thumb toward the two, “Barnaby's their owl.”

The class found this hilarious, particularly when Ginny gave Harry a solid punch on the shoulder.

Professor Mullens brought them back to the subject, “Well, indeed, I'm sure the Wizengamot would rule that a justifiable de-worming but I meant was what would happen with the baby.  Surely, their offspring could mate with either Muggles or wizards and have more babies but would Harry's waitress baby be magical?” No one answered. “I don't know either, to know that we would have to know . . . Hermione?”

“We'd have to know what magic is and how we're magical or not.”

Professor Mullens nodded, raised his palms upward to emphasize that he had no answer and began to conclude the class, “We have something to think about as class goes on but for now here's what I want you to remember. There is one population, one species, humans. Some, a very small number, are witches and wizards, magical people. We can live in the magical world. Others, even though they are in most ways the same as us, they look like us, they eat what we eat, their teenagers eat, play and snog just like you, but whatever magic is, they don't have it. Muggles are us without magic. We are Muggles with magic.”

The whole class walked together down the corridor. Neville began, “Well, he's different isn't he.  But easy, no detention for not raising your hand.  It doesn't look like anything's ever out-of-turn.”

“That's the semicircle of chairs with no desks, he wants us to listen and talk. We're not suppose to take notes, we're suppose to answer questions, give ideas, interact with each other,” explained Hermione.  "I liked it, especially using it at the end."

Ron liked it too, "It's a lot better than taking notes."

“Great class,” said Ginny teasingly, “except the part about Harry and waitress.” When they were finished enjoying the joke a second time, she noted, “Transfiguration next.”

“Yep,” said Ron, “and we'd better hurry, I don't think Professor McGonagall has given up on detention.”

“See you later,” said Neville as he four hurried away.

Luna who also had not taken Transfiguration added, “Don't let the Nargles get you!”

Neville had always just scraped-by in transfiguration but Neville had never been this Neville before. He was close to transfigured himself. He had never been short but these days his carriage made him tall. He looked strong. He laughed and teased with his friends. Whatever was going on with Hannah, it made Neville happy. Neville would be fun this year.

McGonagall’s classroom was the same it had been for their six previous years and would probably be for many more. She was the same too, tall, stately, and projecting power. N.E.W.T. transfiguration was a larger class than Muggle Studies. In addition to the four friends there were another six students from Ginny's year who had moved into the seventh, their natural year. N.E.W.T. Transfiguration was particularly difficult and potentially dangerous. None would be unhappy with more attention for themselves.

Professor McGonagall began, “Ten is a good number, enough to provide some practical variety in our drills and still leave time for me to work with each of you. You have all, of course, been my students for your previous six years. I know your skills and talents. The worst of you should pass your N.E.W.T. -- if you do the work in class and at least most of your homework in a conscientious way. The best of you should be able to find employment requiring transfiguration skills. This is very highly paid because not many master even O.W.L. transfiguration. So, to bring it to a point, we will drill this year. To whatever extent the theory I have taught has been useful, that is likely where it will remain until you discover a need that motivates further study. Most of what we do this year will be practical. I will introduce a spell and we'll work at it – usually nonverbal – until you acquire competence. Then, I will introduce a more subtle variation or a more difficult task. We'll do that over and over, spell by spell. Are there any questions?”

Most of the class was still absorbing Professor McGonagall’s introduction. Hermione, though, had followed. She raised her hand and spoke when her teacher nodded permission, “Professor, how far into the text are you planning to go?”

“If you are to pass your Transfiguration N.E.W.T., you'll need to show that you are aware of the ethics, tradition and magical laws of transfiguration. We'll review these subjects in our homework assignments. At your practical examination you will also need to perform – on demand and under the stress of the examination – human transfiguration spells chosen by the examiner.”

The class collectively squirmed but Professor McGonagall set the squirming to rest.“ The spells you will be asked to perform will be limited to the superficial aspects of your own form. Hair altering spells seem to be examiner favorites.  Most of you have already accomplished this, so I don't expect any of you to fail your N.E.W.T.”

Everyone understood that when McGonagall used the word “expect” it had two meanings. First, she genuinely did not expect that you would fail. Second, if you did not meet her expectations, she expected you to work until you did.

Professor McGonagall levitated each student a small round mirror with a triangular piece that folded out to make a stand. Hermione laughed on receiving hers. Professor McGonagall asked, “Miss Granger, have you something to tell us?'”

“It's a makeup mirror; Muggle women carry them to fix their makeup when they're out, like on date, or to dinner or something.”

“Yes, makeup and that's what we'll do today. We will begin our review of basic transfiguration skills where we began in the sixth year and move quickly forward,” said Professor McGonagall, taking charge of their attention. “One reason transfiguration experts are in such demand is that while Polyjuice allows for very effective impersonation, it is total, not particularly long-lasting without constant dosing and the transformation is very unpleasant. Furthermore, there are many circumstances where much less will do. Can anyone think of a profession that would use this type of transfiguration?”

Lisa Crawforth, another Hufflepuff from Ginny's year, answered, “Aurors.”

“Exactly Miss Crawforth. When observing without being observed, a change of clothes and hair color, or maybe just a longer nose, is enough to make it seem you are not the same person you were the day before, thus avoiding suspicion.”

For the reminder of the class Professor McGonagall worked with each of them refining their spell work by restoring what they did with Restituto Vultus and having them try again, sometimes with a particular refinement of their wand work but most often with the exhortation to see the result in their mind's eye in precise conjunction with the nonverbal spell. Having already practiced advanced spells in the summer, none of the four had any trouble with the exercise, Ron was particularly good and was able to change the appearance of his beard so fast it almost seemed to be in motion. Harry, as he caught on to the visualization, amused himself with altering the color and length of his mustache and goatee. Lisa Crawford, who had known about disguise, was very creative with the spell, producing an excellent harlequin mask. Virginia Worsely matched the color of her lips and eyebrows, a light violet. Alfred produced a stunning handle-bar mustache.

Professor McGonagall was pleased, “Excellent, everyone has done very, very well. If we work like this all year you will all pass with Outstandings.”

Alfred and Virginia decided to keep their transfiguration makeup. Harry and Ron, who were quite pleased with their beards, decided to keep them until Ginny and Hermione pointed their wands, “No shave, no snog, Restituto Vultus.” They were merely scruffy-faced again.

It had been a long morning. Without a time turner, of course, time was the same every morning. What made it long was the concentrated effort it took to follow Professor Mullens' ideas and the attention to detail it took to satisfy Professor McGonagall. Double Herbology with the Ravenclaws would take attention too, so lunch with its mental break was welcome.

When they arrived in the Great Hall and took seats together at the Gryffindor table, there were huge platters of meats and cheeses accompanied by great ready-sliced loaves of French, wheat, and rye bread, pitchers of pumpkin and orange juice, apples, pears, and bananas. There was a basket of magnificently ripe peaches and apricots exuding a wonderful aroma. The four mostly ate quietly, well talked-out from their classes. While she said nothing, Hermione could not help her amazed expression as she watched Ron devour a third butty with so much tomato sauce it dripped onto the table.

O.W.L. Herbology was required for many jobs and anyone with a need beyond “A Modern Witch's Garden” on the WWN could see the use for it. N.E.W.T. Herbology was taken by fewer but still many, again because it was required for so many jobs. Even Aurors and Curse-breakers needed an N.E.W.T. in Herbology.

The greenhouses where the seventh years worked were dangerous places. To simply occupy space meant knowing which plants you should, should not, or must touch, how to approach those that you should, avoid those you shouldn't, and what to do should you be stung, burned, strangled, or otherwise attacked.  A fourth or fifth year who didn't panic would probably escape with no permanent damage, at least nothing more that a few small scars. A wandless Muggle, on the other hand, would be unlikely to survive. All of which explains why watching your fellow students enter the greenhouse was worth the occasional early arrival.

Most of the plants, including the most dangerous, could be avoided with a simple side-step, given enough room they were harmless. Others like the Extraho Sero, or Dragon Plant, required defensive maneuvers. It was so named because its mature stocks held a single flower, much like the common snap dragon except capable of spitting a shockingly purple nectar that dissolved cloth and seared skin. To get by students finger-flicked one of the lower leaves. While dangerous the Extraho Sero was so sensitive to pain that the harmless flick kept its attention for a minute or more, enough to safely pass.

In a similar way students would wave a hand or whatever was handy at the Virus Telum to keep its poisonus seed spines from penetrating robes and flesh. This warty cactus from the high mountain valleys of Northern New Mexico in America had three inch spines that shot a yard or two with good penetration. However, it never shot spines if there was even the slightest breeze from someone passing by. This was probably some residual defense acquired in its native high wilderness. Perhaps randomly poisoned mountain goats extracted a deadly revenge.

After the four friends had passed these obstacles with their well-practiced moves, they found Neville already at the front of the greenhouse where he kept several of the touchier plants he had started at Longbottom Manor that summer. He was wearing his dirt-stained garden coat with many pockets for his tools and was tending a large tray of odd mushrooms that he grew on the leftover tea leaves the kitchen elves saved for him. It had to do with experimental potions. He waved a small trowel over his shoulder acknowleding their greetings but stayed bent low over his brightly-colored mushrooms.

Michael Corner and Dean Thomas arrived with Parvati and Padma Patil, dancing through the aisles with practiced steps. Luna was close behind and added a little pirouette to her side-steps past the quieter plants. Then, Demelza Robbins and Romilda Vane passed in perfect sync – side-step, side-step, wave, side-step, flick, side-step, side-step, pause, turn, side-step, flick, flick, side-step.

Soon Professor Sprout arrived and making a quick count satisfied herself everyone was there. Neville, still wearing his garden coat, left his mushrooms to stand next to Harry as the class began.

Professor Sprout lost no time describing her lesson plans. “Most of you will not work in the soil after Hogwarts. Witches and wizards tend to keep gardens, a few potted medicinals and perhaps even something for their most-used household potions among the vegetables and flowers. Generally, however, your work in the greenhouses this year will be aimed at accurate identification, knowledge of where magical plants grow and what conditions they require. Not so much for growing them yourselves but more for knowing what you might find in the course of your future.   It's always best not to picnic beneath a Folium Occumbo that's ready to drop its leaves.”

There was the usual murmur of not-so-whispered student humor.  Professor Sprout let it pass, “The practical connection of Herbology to your professional and daily lives is potion making. If you could tally all the plants in wizarding greenhouses, or in fields, you would mostly find plants grown as potion ingredients. For example, who – besides Neville – can tell me something about this root?”

With that she held a tan-skinned, gnarled root in the airl. There was silence until Padma hesitantly raised her hand.

“Go ahead Padma, I didn't expect anyone to know this one, give it a try.”

“It's ginger, isn't it?”

“Right,” answered Professor Sprout, her voice revealed her surprise. “How'd you know?”

It was Parvati who answered, “Our Mum cooks with it all the time,” adding, “she's not English.”

The class more or less giggled.  Padma and Parvati were olive-skinned with large dark eyes and long, radiantly black hair. They were delicately pretty and quite obviously “not English.”

Professor Sprout paid no attention, “Yes, it's a ginger root and many cuisines around the world use it but this is one is special. Neville can explain.” She handed it to Neville.

Neville examined it closely, turning it over several times and running his index finger over its skin, “This is Zingiberis Rhizoma Recens or fresh ginger in English but if you look at the little bumps you will notice they are ringed by folds of skin in concentric circles, usually two, sometimes three.” With that he passed the root to Harry who looked for the concentric circles before passing it along to Ron.

“These rings appear only when the root has been picked exactly thirty-six hours after a frost. When it seems that the weather might be right, which isn't very often because the plant generally grows in tropical or semi-tropical climates, collectors camp near the wild plants. They set a Sensor Spell on each plant. If it's frosted, the spell marks the plant and the collectors wait thirty-six hours from the time the frost melts before harvesting the roots. The roots are then cut from the plant, washed in cold water, and wrapped in damp straw to keep them moist. They find their way to shops in places like Diagon Alley and wizarding hospitals like St Mungo's.   Frost-harvested ginger is very expensive because it's very rare and very powerful. Its effects in a potion can be as much as a hundred times greater than regular ginger.”

“Well done Neville,” enthused Professor Sprout. The root, having made its way around the class, returned to her. She pocketed it and continued her lecture. “Can anyone give me an example of ginger's use in potion making?”

Hermione answered, “Vigilance droughts.”

“Correct,” replied their professor. “Ginger is commonly found in potions to restore consciousness, encourage wakefulness or promote sensory sharpness. She checked her watch and then continued. “This is classical Herbology, the study of plants as agents, magical ingredients. We'll spend a lot of time on this, not only because these questions are likely appear on your exam but also because the knowledge will be useful at home and in almost any career you choose. The next class will meet in Firenze's classroom, easier seating and an appropriate setting. We'll begin to look at some useful potion plants. However, we do have enough time left for a little gardening, so let's break into groups of four to six and move on to Greenhouse Six where we'll fertilize the new snargaluff crop. We used all the mature plants last May.”

Greenhouse Six exited directly to the gardens so there was no need to dance past any dangerous plants on leaving. The four, after telling Dean that they would surely need him for Quidditch and to be sure to attend Wednesday’s meeting, decided that they'd enough time to visit Hagrid and still make it back to the castle for dinner. So, with a glance toward Fred's monument, they turned down the path to Hagrid’s cabin.

A little further along the downward-sloping path to Hagrid's, just past a large rock they laid a hand against to steady themselves when they made the tightest, steepest turn on the path, Hagrid came into view. He was standing next to Buckbeak grooming the Hippogriff's great tail with a huge comb. Buckbeak had to be enjoying it; he had an immense beak and foot-long talons with which to express any complaint.

Hagrid was wearing more new clothes. He was in a pair of bib coveralls worn over a shirt that looked like the bed covers in Ron's room, soft and warm. It had a green and red pattern, something like Professor McGonagall’s tartans, only in simple alternating squares.

Having reached the base of the path and dropped their book bags near the steps to Hagrid's cabin, they walked to where he stood with Buckbeak. The four stood shoulder to shoulder, bowed, waiting for the magical offspring of a griffon and mare. Buckbeak bowed immediately and they began their reunion. Buckbeak was the center of attention. Large, powerful and assertive magical creatures have a certain priority.

Harry said, “Hagrid, you look great. Nice outfit, what's up?”

Instead of replying to Harry, Hagrid reached out with both arms, “All righ', yer too grow'-up fer a 'ug?”

They were not too grown for a hug and Hagrid gathered them in as they exchanged the usual greetings and teases – how beautiful the girls were, how big they had all become. To Hermione and Ginny's amusement, Hagrid added how Ron and Harry needed a shave.

When they sat at Hagrid's table with nearly-human sized mugs of tea in hand, Harry asked his question again, “Hagrid, tell us, you look great, you've got new clothes, you led the sorting, come on, what's the skivvy?”

All four looked at Hagrid for a response. “Well, y'all know Luna.” They did. A nod was the only necessary reply. “Well, she were 'ere with Newton Scamander,” Seeing four unresponsive faces he added, “'Ta great magic naturalist, wrote 'Fantastic Beasts an' Where to Find 'Em.' Anyways, Luna's . . .”

Ginny cut him off, “Hagrid, we met Luna with Scamander and a younger fellow named Rolf in Diagon alley but we don't know why Luna was at Hogwarts.”

“Ah,” Hagrid replied, “Forge' that, did I? She wants ta study with 'im an' he said she could do with an 'O' on her Magical Creatures and 'erbology exams. Newt an’ me got to talkin' and, well, we want ya'll ta know 'ow ta get aroun' in nature. I mean, it's not 'ard to figure. You've got forests, mountains, all sorts of places. So, this year I'll be showing 'em what I do. I been doin' it fer years so I'm feelin' good 'bout teachin.”

“Fantastic,” said Harry, with the others adding, “Yea, it's great!”

Harry was still looking for an explanation, “But what's Luna got to do with your new clothes?”

“When she's 'ere she told me that if I kept my 'air and beard neat, dressed, ya know nice, I'm so big everyone'd see me different.”

“Everybody but us,” said Ron, “we know the real Hagrid beneath the fancy kit!”

Everyone cracked up, including Hagrid, until he suddenly stood up exclaiming, “Oh my! Dinner, I gotta be on time fer dinner, hafta be, I'm a teacher. Let's 'ead up.”

He went to a closet that they had never seen in six years, apparently hidden behind barrels of Flobberworms and the other strange creatures that Hagrid collected. He took a dark blue sweater from a shelf, pulled it over his coveralls and led them out the door.

While they climbed the path toward the castle they told Hagrid about their summer, about their classes but mostly they just enjoyed being with this new version of their old friend.

They all heard Hermione tell Ron, “We'll visit Fred after dinner,” but said nothing. They parted at the door of the Great Hall, the four to join their fellow Gryffindors, Professor Hagrid to the head table, looking very much the magic naturalist himself, albeit an exceptionally large one.

After dinner Harry and Ginny headed up to Gryffindor Tower when Ron and Hermione turned out the castle door to the grounds. Harry asked, “Do you want to join them or should we go ourselves another time.”

“Another time. They'll like the time alone with Fred.”

When they reached the Fat Lady's portrait, Ginny gave the password, “Orangutan,” and they climbed through to the common room. Harry, always, was careful not to bump Ginny. Once inside they took a table with four chairs near some still-empty shelves and stuffed their book bags beneath the table.

“We didn't open a book all day,” said Harry. “If this keeps up, we won't have to carry these around.”

Ginny stood, pushed back the table and sat on Harry's lap with her head on his shoulders and her lips very close to his ears. “I want you to hold me and tell me all the things you tell me when we're not lost in the ecstasy of our kiss. So, tonight after homework, which shouldn’t be too long now because Ron and Hermione are coming through the portrait hole, how about we get in our dressing gowns, make an excuse and meet down here? Bring your cloak. If our space near the fire is busy, we can sneak off to the passage behind the tapestry.”

Harry whispered, “Have I told you how much I love you in the last five minutes?”

This made her feel more wonderful than if his “I love you” had been accompanied by flowers and delivered from his knees. They both smiled, silently sharing the irony of how much they were like her parents, a little silly, a lot sentimental and very much in love. She returned to her chair as Ron and Hermione joined them, neither questioning what might have been said on Harry's lap.

“So,” said Hermione, “we're supposed to think of examples for Professor Mullens and to list some plants used in cooking that have magical properties for Professor Sprout. Right?”

“Right,” Ron, Ginny and Harry each agreed.

“So, what should we do Hermione?” asked Harry.

“Well, we have Defense Against the Dark Arts first thing tomorrow, then Charms and Potions after lunch. That gives us an hour or so before dinner to get to the library and see what we can find by the way of Professor Sprout's assignment. So, I suppose all we need to do is to talk about what Professor Mullens said about how we're Muggles with magic.”

“There's something else we should do,” said Ginny.

“What's that?” asked Ron.

“Just 'cause we're back at school we can't forget that it's really just three months before we leave for Australia, so we'd better keep getting ready.”

“Ginny's right,” said Harry. “Why don't we talk to Professor Mullens about it? He's probably got some good ideas. He lived with Muggles forever.”

                                                   ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

On the way to Defense Against the Dark Arts Ron and Harry made a quick stop at the Prefects' bathroom -- an extra cup of coffee had that effect -- and finished the walk to their classroom behind Ginny and Hermione. The two young women were walking arm-in-arm, talking happily.

Ron asked Harry, “They're happy aren't they?”

“Yes. We're lucky.”

“You got that right mate,” Ron clapped his right hand onto Harry's left shoulder and gave him a playful shove. “We're lucky.”

“Better than Felix Felicis and lasts longer.”

When they met their partners at the classroom door, most of the class had already arrived. Everyone was occupied with the latest gossip. Apparently Dean Thomas had been seen snogging Parvati Patil next to the Ravenclaw house-points hourglass in the Entrance Hall. Their classmates, for whom others' romances were second in importance only to their own, considered this an appropriate match. According to the class, snogging by the hourglass was a sure sign of a serious romance, if only because Dean, Michael, Parvati and Padma had been in steady company since boarding the Hogwarts Express in London.

Sometimes having Ginny's ex-boyfriends around felt a little strange. What Harry wondered was how Dean and Michael, both of whom were smart and talented, might feel toward him. Neither had been happy when Ginny ended their relationships. If they had formed their own couples, it would be much easier to be friends and importantly, teammates. He remembered Professor Mullens saying that couples usually interact with couples. It made sense for witches and wizards too.

As if to confirm their classmates' conclusions, Dean, Parvati, Padma and Michael came scurrying down the corridor holding hands. They were saved the attentions of their classmates by Professor Chester Vilnus Sandberg opening the door to the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.

By name he was descended from northerners, Swedes perhaps. But, he looked nothing like the tall, blond, fair-skinned wizards everyone thought of as Scandinavian. Instead, he was wiry thin, with long thin arms to match. He was not blond, not even straw-colored, but had thick brown hair that had turned gray at the temples and had gone longer without a haircut than Mrs. Weasley would approve. He dressed casually and wore plain robes. He seemed older than Arthur. Kingsley said he had worked with Mad-Eye and had been secretly tailing Death Eaters on the continent, keeping track of their preparations for war. Those would be stories worth hearing.

The classroom they entered had changed. Instead of rows of desks with a chalkboard and a teacher's desk at the front, there was an open space. Judging by its size some desks must have been taken away. At Hogwarts though, you could never tell.  With magic dimensions are fluid.  There are no laws of physics in a magical construct like Hogwarts. The floor of the open space was covered with a thick mat. On the wall to each side were other larger, thicker mats magically suspended in front of the wall. While he looked around, Harry started to think about the different teachers he had known in this room but dropped the thought when Professor Sandberg began.

“Good morning seventh years.”

Not sure of the new teacher's attitude, the class replied in practiced unison, “Good morning Professor Sandberg.”

He did not seem particularly attached to the greeting ritual so Harry guessed it would become quite informal before long. Professor Sandberg took off his trainers and set them at the corner of the mat. He stepped onto the mat and faced the class. “Since I'm sure you have heard something like this in all your classes, I'll be brief. We'll use your homework to cover matters of knowledge. That is, things you'll need to know about the history or theory of DADA.  In class, we'll practice, and practice, and practice.”

“There's no eighth year ladies and gentlemen. There's only life and its exams can be rough. So, practice.   If you need the space to practice after class, if you have questions, if you have trouble with any of your assignments, I'll be here during the break between your class in the morning and the fourth years just after lunch. Just bang on the door, if there's more than I can handle, we'll make appointments.”

A slight pause was all the punctuation his introduction received. He immediately started class with questions, “How many of you were DA members?” Many hands went up. “How many of you fought last May?” Many hands stayed up. “Here's my question then, what did the Death Eaters do that we didn't? What skills did they have we lacked?”

No one volunteered but a few spoke to each other in low voices.

“No idea, come on, surely you noticed something.”

Dean volunteered, “They used traps, like the taboo on Voldemort's name.”

“True,” answered Professor Sandberg, “anything else?”

Neville said, “They could fly like smoke on the wind.”

“Again true, although not exclusive to Death Eaters. I think The Death Eaters liked flying without a broom because it's fearsome.”

Harry looked at Ginny and made a doubled semi-circular flicking motion with his index finger, imitating a wand. She saw it and nodded. Harry raised his hand.

“Harry."

“Blocking spells.   When we fought them at the Ministry they often just flicked our spells away.” Remembering trying to fight Snape as he chased him after the Battle of the Astronomy Tower two years before, Harry continued, “Professor Snape was really good at it and Sirius, Mad-Eye, and Lupin used blocking spells in their duels but I think most of us were limited to Protego.”

“Good, very good, this was first on our list when we met to learn from our recent combat. After a fight, the best thing you can do is sit down and understand what you didn't know. It may be more important to know what you don't than what you do. Keep that in mind. If you look for your mistakes, you may not need to make 'em again. If you look at your deficits, you can improve. What stood out most for the Aurors was that we need to work on blocking spells. So, can anoyone imagine why we might want to use a blocking spell, typically some variant of Clausus Tentatio instead of a Shield Charm?”

Ginny answered immediately, “Faster attack.”

“Exactly Miss Weasley, exactly.” Professor Sandberg was obviously impressed. “You can go from Tentatio to Stuptefy in almost the same motion and, nonverbal, it's almost a single spell.” So saying he mimed with his wand, the slight twist to the right with a little flick for the block, a slight twist to the left for the Stun.

“OK, good,” he said, “there's your homework then, list the three main classes of blocking spells and their primary use. We'll talk about it next time and practice. Meanwhile, I gave some of your classmates a summer assignment as make up for work they missed last year. Let's see how they did. Hermione, why don't you describe the assignment and tell the class what the four of you managed to discover.”

When Hermione began to speak he added, “Come up and face the class so everyone can hear you.”

Hermione, seeming a little nervous, stood just in front of the mats to avoid taking off her shoes, “Professor Sandberg showed us a Chinese Book with what we think are spell practice exercises. We couldn't make Galleons or Knuts of most of it but there was one exercise that showed what we thought were two wizards alternately using Protego and Stupefy – we think to solidify them as nonverbal and get faster.”

“How about a demonstration?” asked Professor Sandberg.

Michael chimed in, “Yea, show us, I don't get what you're trying to say.”

Hermione responded, “Harry and Ginny got really good at it. They should demonstrate.”

“Thank you Hermione. Harry and Ginny come up, let's see.” When Harry and Ginny walked toward the mat he added, “Shoes off, keep the mats clean. We're all likely to end up flat on our faces this year.”

Harry and Ginny took off their trainers and stepped onto the mats in their socks. The mats were fairly firm, just a little give, soft enough to make a hard landing a little less bruising. They warmed up with a quick back-and-forth just to get their hands in. The class collectively wondered at the sight of the well-known couple trying to Stun one another.

They nodded to each other that they were ready and Harry made a gesture like inviting Ginny go before him through a door.

Ginny, understanding he meant “You talk,” turned to the class and explained, “The book is in Chinese. There are only two phrases translated next to the picture we think we understand. One is 'student sound of drum' the other is 'master sound of rain.' We think we understand 'sound of drum.' It's the sound the Stunners make when they hit the Shield Charm. It's like this.”

With that they began, increasing speed until the room filled with both the drum-like rhythm of the spells and the excited exclamations of their classmates. When they slowed and stopped, the excitement quieted and Ginny continued. “You can't just say the incantation in your head. To get fast you must think it happening. It's not the words but the idea of the spell. That much we get but the 'sound of rain' is still a mystery.”

Professor Sandberg started to say something when an idea stuck Harry from out of nowhere, “Excuse me professor, can we have a minute?” Their professor told him to go ahead, although he looked a little puzzled. Turning to Ginny Harry went right to the point, “There's a Muggle game called 'tag,' In tag you're just trying to touch someone, not to really capture them, just touch. So, what if we add something to the nonverbal part. Here, Ginny, put up a Protego, just hold it.” With Ginny holding her Shield Charm, Harry fired off a stream of Stunners, each becoming more and more subtle until they were just little bursts of red.  "Try that," he said and held his own Protego.  In a couple of minutes, Ginny's Stupefy, lik Harry's, was little touches of red on Harry's charm.

“Now, let's try it.”

They began the exercise again, alternating, both their Shield Charms and Stunners becoming lighter and lighter, faster and faster, like one caught the others' Stun and passed it back. Then it happened. Ron and Hermione recognized it first. Just like in The Burrow's orchard, Harry and Ginny were too concentrated to hear.

Ron burst out with it, “Blimey, the sound of rain; it's the sound of rain on a roof. That's it!” He and Hermione were standing. The rest of the class was in animated conversation trying to figure out exactly what they were seeing. Harry and Ginny slowed and became aware of the noise.

They looked to their professor who said, “Well, that was certainly the sound of rain. And, indeed, exciting. But what's the lesson here? What do you know now that you’ve made it happen?”

While they retied their shoes sitting at the edge of the mat, Harry answered. “It's not just thinking the incantation it's your intention for the spell isn't it?”

Ginny concurred, “It's your focus, clearing your thoughts, concentrating on the spell and controlling it with your mind.”

Professor Sandberg thanked the class for their attention and repeated the homework instructions as the class filed noisily out the door.

After lunch, Charms was what everyone expected it to be. Flitwick's charms were elegant. Rather than the DADA charms like Expecto Patronum or Protego, Flitwick could make things fly or dance. He could charm a door so your worries stayed outside. He could make things disappear, move them from one place to another and vanish them forever.

His wizardry was superb; he just wasn't very big or very talkative. So, he started class by listing his syllabus, starting with a review of Locomotor and moving on from there. November would be dedicated to concealment, enlargement, shrinking and vanishing charms, and after the Christmas holidays, they would start with memory charms and charms with multiple persons, like the Fidelius Charm.

By the end of the year they would be delving into charms dealing with unplotability, Portkeys, and magical barriers. He assured them that if they did their work, they would pass their N.E.W.T. The rest of the lesson they took turns sending a trunk-sized object to the Astronomy Tower where a sensory charm rang a small bell on his desk when the object arrived. Once each succeeded, they had to return the trunk to the classroom with the same spell.

Harry ran ahead to potions, arriving as the fourth years were cleaning up and leaving. When Professor Slughhorn saw him in the door he said, “Why Harry, so anxious to get started?”

“Well, actually Professor, I have a message to deliver and a confession to make.”

Slughorn eyed Harry carefully, looking for what his expression might tell. Uninvited, Harry closed the door, walked to his Potions Master and spoke without preamble. “Professor Dumbledore was killed before he got a chance to thank you and I've tried to not think about those times. So, I'm sorry, this is later than it should've been.” Harry paused before continuing in the most formal voice he could muster, “Your memory was the critical thing. Without it he might still be out there. You saved us, you saved everyone. Thank you Professor.” Then, with a slight bow, “Thank you sir; we all owe you more than anyone will ever know.” Then, fully aware of the irony of his words, “It will stay our secret.”

Slughorn was not so much taken aback as looking at Harry in a different light, seeing him as a young wizard who had not asked for the role he played or how it had impacted his life. It took him a moment to reply, “Harry, it's not one of my prouder moments but if it helped you, if it was what Dumbledore needed, I'm proud of that.”

Harry acknowledged him with a nod, then began to explain the Half Blood Prince. “Two years ago in the sixth year when I got Advanced Potion Making from the cupboard,” this was punctuated with a wave toward the side-wall cupboards where the extra ingredients were stored. “It turned out to be Professor Snape's old school book. It was full of his annotations. I was doing so well in your class because I had Professor Snape's notes. I'll do my best this year; I'm sorry I wasn't honest with you.”

Slughorn said the proper things but the understanding between them was a little different than the words. It was as if elder and younger, teacher and student, recognized one another as equals of a sort. Perhaps the shared recognition that they'd each at times failed their own expectations could be thought of as a kind of trust.

The class arrived, Ginny, Ron and Hermione searching Harry's face for a clue as to how his conversation with Slughhorn went. Harry signaled that things were well with a wink. Now that Hermione knew the book was Snape's, and that Snape had been loyal to Dumbledore to his death, the loss of the Half Blood Prince's book was not the unquestioned good it had seemed two years ago when she had insisted upon getting rid of it. Despite his failure to rise above the pains of his youth, he was a powerful wizard whose role in Riddle's defeat was heroic.

Slughorn enjoyed walking them through the qualities of a half-dozen potions they did last year. His main point was that potions were nothing for excited minds. Rather, potion-making was disciplined, suited to a relaxed and pointed concentration. They'd begin the year by reprising six of the potions they did in the sixth as practice of their technique, the disciplined attention that defined a good potioneer.

They all did very well. Their repetition of the Elixir to Induce Euphoria was the sunny gold it should be. Hermione, of course, excelled. She knew the background, use and nature of the potion and its ingredients better than anyone in the class and this knowledge showed in the subtle touches that made her cauldron just a bit brighter. Yet, as much as she was still motivated to excel, her urge to be best was being submerged in her pride for being helpful to her friends.

 





Chapter 20: Quidditch
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Chapter Twenty

Quidditch

School quickly fell into its natural rhythm. By the Wednesday night house Quidditch meetings, it seemed as if they had never been anywhere but Hogwarts and never done anything but study magic, eat three wonderful meals in a magnificent hall, and occupy themselves with one another and their schoolmates. Sneaking off to snog was all the adventure they wanted and snogging all the pleasure they'd need.  In expectation of the meeting, and in celebration of no homework, the common room was full of Gryffindors doing all manner of things from romantic talk in corners to Gobstones at the tables and gossip by the fire. Harry and Ginny had their heads together making a list of things they wanted to cover at the meeting.

Ron and Hermione had moved onto a couch beneath the window nearest the door to the boys' dormitory. They were holding hands and silently watching the common room commotion. Ron and Crookshanks had reached an understanding – no doubt enhanced by Crookshanks' new skill – and the big ginger cat was purring away on the sill above them. Ron knew his stake in Quidditch was keeping it no worries, so he declined a role running the team. Harry was the obvious captain.  He and Ginny were occupied planning together.  Often it seemed they liked working together as much as they liked snogging.

Kevin McKardle, the first year they had helped make the Express, came over with three other Gryffindor first years, Abigail Ashford, the tiny and very pretty girl who had to climb the stool to be sorted, Wilfred Reed and Elizabeth Crowley. Elizabeth looked like a young Ginny without red hair, intent and athletic. Wilfred was the largest of the four and seemed shy. He hung back as they approached the imposing Head Boy and Girl.

Kevin began, “Mr. Weasley. . .”

Ron stopped him, “Kevin, this is the Gryffindor common room and we're all Gryffindors here. We're your family at school. So, you don't need to call me 'Mr. Weasley.' My Dad is Mr. Weasley but we're Ron and Hermione. Is that OK?”

“Yes,” then after a slight pause, “Ron, Abagail says that Quidditch is the greatest game in the world but I don't know anything about it.”

“Well, Abagail is right; Quidditch is the greatest game in the world and I'll be happy to tell you all about it.”

Abagail was standing in front of Hermione her hands on Hermione's knees, rocking slightly, almost as if she was about to lift herself into a handstand. Hermione, reached, took her under her arms and lifted her effortlessly up next to her. Abagail shook her curly dark hair then nestled against Hermione. Ron patted the seat next to him and Kevin jumped up as did Elizabeth and Wilfred, when Hermione offered them space next to her.

When they were all settled in, Ron asked Abagail, “Have you had your first flying lesson yet?”

She replied sounding like flying was a wonderful treat, “No, but my Dad got me a small broom and we fly together behind my grandpa's house. He lives in the country so no one can see us.”

“How about you Wilfred, Elizabeth,” asked Hermione, “Do you fly?”

Wilfred just shook his head but Elizabeth answered, “It makes me nervous.”

Hermione laughed, “Me too.”

“What about you Kevin, are you excited to learn?” asked Ron.

“I don't think I'll be very good at it, I'm Muggle-born.”

Rod didn't need to catch Hermione's look to have something to say. Ron wrapped his arm around Kevin and leaned down to look him in the eye, “Don't you think that! Hermione's parents are dentists . . .” Kevin looked to Hermione who nodded in confirmation, “. . . and she's the best in our year, the best in who knows how long.”

Hermione, turned to Elizabeth, “We're all a little different Elizabeth, I'm sure you'll learn to fly very well but not everyone wants to play Quidditch.”

Ron continued talking to Kevin, “. . . Harry Potter was raised by Muggles, he never saw a broomstick until he came to Hogwarts and he's the youngest Seeker in a hundred years. My sister Ginny wasn't allowed to fly when she was little but she snuck out with my brothers' brooms and taught herself. When you see her fly Chaser, you'll know how good she is.” He sounded proud when he spoke of his sister.

While Ron was encouraging the first years, Chester Sandberg, Gryffindor House Master, came through the portrait hole.  He was wearing house master's robes. The Gryffindor lion was embroidered on the right side of his chest. Unlike the Prefect or Head's crests there was no letter to signify his position but beneath the Gryffindor lion was an elegantly embroidered image of Gryffindor's sword. On the sleeves were three broad purple bands in a cloth with a texture like velvet.  The tassels of his hat were gold.

The room began to quiet as soon as he entered. Ron told the first years that he would tell them everything they needed to know about Quidditch Friday night after dinner when they could all stay up a little later. Harry and Ginny, their list ready, turned their chairs away from the table to face Professor Sandberg, joining the rest of the Gryffindors waiting to hear what their House Master had to say.

“Before we begin the meeting, I want to tell you how honored I am to follow Headmistress McGonagall as your House Master. I'll not make a point of visiting the common room. I'll not be interrupting your many important activities, not even Romlida's fascinating discussion with Forsythe.” At this the whole room looked around to Romilda Vane who was in fact head to head with a fourth year boy discussing the set of Gobstones on the table between them.  Romilda looked up and the Gryffindors turned back to their House Master, curious as to how their he heard whatever was said.

Professor Sandberg did not pause, “. . . but, time-on-time, for special occasions like this, I hope you'll not mind if I join you.”

Professor McGonagall had entered the common room only during crises and to deal with matters of safety. The Gryffindors were not entirely sure how to take their House Master's declaration of visiting on special occasions but there was no time to think much about it because he got right to business

“We need to name one boy and one girl as Prefects. We have a few older Gryffindors this year but if we make them Prefects, they'll be gone next year and we'll lose their experience. We could choose sixth years, who will be candidates for Head Boy and Head Girl next year but then we'd lose our experienced Prefects. The House Masters have decided that the best policy is to hold to the tradition of naming fifth years. I have consulted with all the teachers, our Headmistress, and I have two badges here. One is for Harriet Downsworth, the other for Jason Silverthorn. Congratulations, I leave it to you to decide the wisdom of trying to put your sixth and seventh year classmates in detention.”

This produced some hearty laughs, some applause, a few teased threats and suggestions as to what Prefect-transfiguring magic the upper classes might posses. On the whole though, Harriet and Jason's appointments were accepted without fuss.

Professor Sandberg went on, “I think the next order of business is naming a Quidditch Captain who can lead the meeting from here.”

No one said anything until Dean spoke, “Harry's the Captain. There was no Quidditch last year and he spent so much time in detention two years ago that he needs to finish the job.” The older Gryffindors, particularly Harry, laughed so loudly Dean had to wait. “Anyway, those of us who've played have never managed a team. Harry's the only one who knows anything about it. It should be Harry.” Everyone agreed, it seemed to need no discussion.

When everyone turned to him, Harry stood. “This summer Professor McGonagall warned us that Quidditch might be a problem, so Ginny and I have spent a lot of time thinking about the team and we have a plan. So, I am honored, I'd be pleased to be your Captain and . . .” – turning to Dean – “Thanks Dean, I really appreciate your support.” Dean smiled and waved his hand dismissively. Sitting again Harry continued, “However, as practical matter, we're going to need all the experienced players to help, so I'll be counting on Ginny as Co-Captain, as well as Ron, Dean, Demelza and the other experienced players.”

Professor Sandberg turned the meeting over to Harry and Ginny, “That seems settled. Why don't you and Ginny bring your chairs up by the fire where it's easy for everyone to pay attention? It looks like we need to leave Ron where he is.”

People turned to look at Ron, who just waved.  Ginny and Harry exchanged a knowing look that said that the scene on the couch was good for Quidditch because a confident Ron really was a fine Keeper. Seated next to Hermione and surrounded by first years Ron looked about as happy as anyone could be. Seeing how comfortable the first years were, it quickly passed Ginny's mind that there was a lot of their father in Ron. The thought didn't last because the Quidditch meeting started.

Harry began, “Gryffindor has the only experienced Quidditch players in the school. We could play a match tomorrow with Ginny, Dean and Demelza at Chaser, Ron as Keeper, and any two of Andy, Jimmy and Jack controlling the Bludgers while I fly Seeker.”

Harry was about to continue when someone to the side of the room, he didn't quite catch who, said, “We don't need a team, Ginny waits beneath our goal, Ron blocks every shot, Ginny scores, and when she's run up a few hundred points, Harry catches the Snitch!” This made for considerable banter including a couple of suggestions that they just give Gryffindor the cup and skip the season.

Ginny countered, “We play Quidditch to play Quidditch. I'd like winning the cup better than most but what good's the cup if we win it without a challenge?”

Harry picked
. up from there, “This summer when we were thinking about the team, we didn't realize how few players the other teams would have. We were thinking it would be a regular season. Ginny's idea for practicing two teams was to give Gryffindor a head start on next year. Now that we know the situation, we need to adapt.”

The Gryffindors whose interest in the team did not extend beyond deciding what outfit to wear to the matches were drifting away and the most interested ones were moving up to form a tighter circle with Harry and Ginny.

When all were done shoving chairs around and sprawling themselves over the couches, Demelza asked the pertinent question. “What do you mean two teams?”

Harry answered, “Originally we thought that instead of just going with seven players, we'd get younger players for each position. We'd fly the first team and train this second team.  We'd play test matches for practice and fun. When the first team was getting ready for a match, the second team could drill. There's plenty of room to fly; there's no reason we can't do both.”

Ginny checked their notes and explained, “I've been looking at some of the professional teams training schedules and they play a lot of  practice matches as well as keeping their skills sharp with drills. So, we're thinking the younger team, whomever shows promise, would spend more time on skill work and the match team on match preparation and strategy. Now, given the problems for the other teams, we’re thinking to rotate younger players into the matches, giving them match experience and putting a team on the pitch that doesn't horribly over-match our opponents. We still win the cup, the other teams give us a go and Gryffindor will be really well prepared next year.”

The idea of sweeping every match by hundreds of points did not die easily, so there was more to be said. Then, Professor Sandberg brought silence and the room's rapt attention, “Gryffindor represents not just bravery but honor and loyalty. Quidditch is a great tradition at Hogwarts and in the years when we haven't been surrounded by dark forces, when winning wasn't everything, it brings the houses together as a school. As participants in a great tradition we could play our best against each other on the pitch and with each other when the match was decided. I think this plan is a great idea. But, it's late, so captains, maybe you could finish up.”

This did it. Reminded of their house and school even the players who knew that they had just lost some match time accepted the idea.

Harry closed the meeting. “So, everyone who thinks they might want to play Quidditch should come out. We don't know when we will have the pitch yet but dates and times for try-outs and practices will be posted on the board by the portrait hole. You should show up no matter what you think of your abilities. Anything else, Ginny?”

“No, see you on the pitch!”


Chapter 21: Setting the Season
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Chapter Twenty One

Setting the Season

By Thursday evening everyone who cared about Quidditch, which was largely the whole school to some degree, knew all about the house Quidditch teams and everyone with any experience had already been recruited. Given Gryffindor's advantages and their summer planning, the four weren't thinking of Quidditch when they came to breakfast early Friday morning. They intended to ask Professor Mullens before lesson what he thought they should be doing to prepare for their trip. This early there were not many people in the Great Hall but breakfast was on the table. When they took places near the doors, the tray of coffee cups and a carafe of coffee they had come to expect with their breakfast was already there.

“We've got to thank the house elves,” said Ron as he sniffed the aromatic steam rising from his cup.

Hermione agreed, “We haven't spoken to Kreacher either; we'd better do that soon.”

Harry knew they were right but didn't reply, instead helping himself to a slice of toast, four rashers of bacon and a large portion of scrambled eggs.

Thus occupied, they didn't notice Llewellyn Parsons until he arrived at their table, a Captain's badge over the Slytherin crest of his robe. He stood over Ron and Hermione's shoulders and paused slightly when he saw the Co-Captains insignia on Harry and Ginny's robes.

Looking toward Ginny he said, “Congratulations.”

Ron set his coffee down long enough to tease his sister, “Wrong one Llewellyn, congratulate Harry.  Ginny's letting him carry her broom, she even let him talk at the meeting.”

Harry and Ron found this hilarious and even Hermione cracked a smile. Ginny, went along with the tease by scowling and pretending to reach for her wand, “I hear you want to see my Bat Boogie Hex!”

Ron, still immensely enjoying himself, replied in a tone of mock concern, “Oh, no, no, don't hex Llewellyn, what will people think if you hex the Slytherin captain?”

“I meant you and you know it but I could do you both!”

“Are you ever serious?” asked Llewellyn a bit impatiently. “I would like the Gryffindor Quidditch captains to step out and talk about something important.”

Hermione told him, “Look, if they do that, we won't get done what we got up early to do. So, take a seat and have some breakfast. You can talk while we eat.”

Llewellyn couldn't hide his surprise, “It's the Gryffindor table!”

Ginny grinned, “Actually Llewellyn, we figured that out all by ourselves.”

Llewellyn answered with an exaggerated upward eye roll and eyebrow lift to signify that he wouldn't respond to such foolishness, “Yes, yes, but Slytherins don't eat at the Gryffindor table.”

“Why not! The food's the same,” said Ron through a mouthful of pastry.

Hermione exaggerated looking up and down the table, “If you're worried about poison, we could get one of the first years to taste it, we have one or two we could spare.”

Realizing that he would either sit or they would finish their breakfasts and leave, probably still joking, he sat when Ron and Hermione slid apart to make space for him facing Harry and Ginny. They pushed a plate and utensils in front of him.

He began while he helped himself to toast, oatmeal with cream and sugar, “If the three of you play every house team in school, you'll win every match.”

“We can see who's not sitting at the house tables.  What exactly do you want?” replied Harry.

Llewellyn answered, “I want you to realize that the rest of the houses can't put a winning team on the pitch against you.”

Ginny didn't argue his point, “Gryffindor's Harry's house. More of his supporters were Gryffindor, of course. Ron was on the run with Harry. I spent most of the year hiding. Dean was on the run too. So, there's four of the Gryffindor players from two years ago. More of us were out of school last year. More of us are back to get our N.E.W.T.s. That's why it's the way it is.”

“I get that. I'm not saying you’re doing anything wrong. I'm just pointing out that an experienced seventh year flying against a fourth year who's not really mastered a broomstick will be ugly. It certainly won't be good Quidditch.”

“We agree. What do you suggest?” said Harry.

“I want you to go to Professor McGonagall and tell her that we need more pitch time and that the season has to have as many matches as possible or Quidditch this year isn't going to be worth much.”

“You can tell her that,” said Hermione.

Llewellyn shrugged, “She's been a Gryffindor forever.”

Hermione nearly bit his wand arm off, “Yes, she's been a Gryffindor forever, but she's Hogwarts’ Headmistress. She'll be fair.”

Llewellyn just raised both hands, palms forward to her, signifying, “I get it,” or perhaps, “Don't hex me.”

Harry explained Hermione's objection, “Professor McGonagall is a huge Quidditch fan and the Hogwarts Quidditch tradition is important to her. She wants exciting Quidditch not to fill the Hospital Wing. What you say makes sense. Why don't you get the other captains organized to get a message from you and I'll talk to her after class today and ask if she can meet with us at her convenience.”

Llewellyn had not expected it to be this easy. He had what he wanted and he'd hardly started his oatmeal. Having classes himself, he continued to eat, interrupted only by small talk about school.

When they finished eating, Ginny said, “We need to get going.”

“OK, Great! Thanks, I'll go find the others and you'll talk to Professor McGonagall.” He pushed back from the table and stood. He turned to look around the hall for the other captains and headed to the Ravenclaw table as Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione walked quickly through the doors and on to the Muggle Studies classroom.

The door to Professor Mullens' office was open, so the four entered and greeted their professor who was arranging what looked like a small computer on a stand he had moved close to the semi-circle of swivel chairs.

“Ahh! Looking for more homework?” he inquired with an impish smile.

“Well, no, not really,” said Harry as he returned the smile, “but we do have a question for you.”

“Bring it on!” said Professor Mullens, using another of the Muggle expressions he enjoyed so much. It seemed to mean “go ahead and ask.”

“Well,” began Hermione, “when we told you about going to Australia to find my parents, you said that we'd probably have trouble blending in.  December will be here soon. We're wondering if you might have some ideas about how we could be better prepared.”

Professor Mullens leaned an elbow against the stand. Then he queried what they knew about a few odd names.”

The four were blank. The names meant nothing. Professor Mullens explained, “They’re Muggle bands. More people listen to their songs than there are wizards in England and Ireland, or all of Europe. Not knowing who they are will seem strange to any Muggle your age. I think what you want to do is get familiar with a couple of things. First, popular culture – movies and music are what most people know. Next, you need to know something of the Muggle news. This month England ceded control of Hong Kong, a colony on an island close to China; it's all over the telly.”

Again, this brought no sign of recognition from the four.

“How can we do that Professor?” asked Hermione.

“Same way everyone does,” he said as he walked to the cupboard at the side of his office, motioning the four to follow. He opened a drawer just beneath the shelves and removed a small black, box-like device with a series of buttons on its side. He pushed one of the larger ones and the lid popped open. He then took a pair of small, roundish boxes with holes in their faces from the drawer and pushed a pin at the end of their wire into the Muggle device. Reaching into the shelves above and tilting his head to read the writing on what looked like hundreds of small flat boxes; he removed one, opened it, and placed a silvery disk into the little machine. When he closed the lid and pushed another button, a song played. He twirled a small dial and the song continued but was barely audible.

“That's how you'll know, just like Muggles your age, listen to the songs. Here, take this with you.” Then laughing, "I guess you did want more homework.  Dumbledore showed me a charm so I can show you Muggle stuff at school, keeps the magic off 'em so they'll work."  After again perusing the shelves he selected more of the flat boxes, “Here's some other disks, they're called 'CDs'. You'll probably enjoy the music.”

“Where's the plug?” asked Ron, “My Dad's always interested in plugs.”

“I know,” answereed professor Mullens with a grin, “but this is a portable player, it runs on a battery, just like the laptop computer on the stand over there, which we'll talk about in class.”

When Luna and Neville arrived, Professor Mullens asked if anyone had thought more about being “Muggles with magic.” After a short discussion, mostly about the difficulties of Muggle life, he showed them the laptop computer and explained how he kept the battery working, what he called “charged,” by connecting it to a “charger” at his apartment in the city.

Then he played them Thursday night's news program recorded from the radio. There was a lot about a tragedy in the royal family, millions of people without a job, a major referendum, which Professor Mullens described as citizens voting on a policy, and a rather long and silly story about a military regiment's mascot, apparently a goat.  There was lot's of news but nothing that made much sense to the class.

The goat story did get laughs but Professor Mullens' question, “How does this effect witches and wizards,” brought on a serious mood.

Luna said it best, “It's the Grawp problem, isn't it!”

Professor Mullens had to ask, “And just what might the Grawp problem be?”

Luna answered, “Grawp is Hagrid's giant brother, he's not mean but he's clumsy. If he trips and falls, you could get crushed even though he had no intention of hurting you.”

This was an extremely perceptive answer put in a way no one else would. There were no obvious connections between the post-war wizarding world and one in which soldiers kept pet goats. Yet, how was it possible that a nation that had colonies on the other side of the world, where the unemployed numbered two million and where there were armies of soldiers, would not affect the much smaller population of magical peoples living among them?

By dinner the four were tired from their day of solid concentration. Things were moving very fast in all their classes, both Transfiguration and Herbology had been demanding. Before they ate, however, they had to find Llewellyn Parsons so he could tell the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw captains that Professor McGonagall had agreed to meet that evening.

When Harry had told her of the Captains' request after Transfiguration, she didn't even ask what the meeting would be about, instead giving him the password, 'hot buns,' and saying she would be in her office after dinner. Ginny thought that their Headmistress already knew, reminding the others that she had anticipated the problem and had seen who was and who wasn't sitting at each of the house tables no less than they.

After informing Llewellyn and finishing their dinner they headed back to the common room where, after dropping off their books, Harry and Ginny left for the Quidditch meeting. Hermione had a box of papers by owl from George and Ron had promised the first years a Quidditch lesson.

By the time Harry and Ginny reached the Gargoyle guarding the entrance to the Headmistress' office, Llewellyn Parsons was already there, apparently trying to talk the Gargoyle into letting him pass.

Harry told him, “You need a password, Professor McGonagall gave us one but we should wait for the others.”

They needn't wait long as two more students arrived, both wearing captain’s badges. Llewellyn introduced them, “This is Sanford Grimes, Hufflepuff, he's played in a summer league where he's from up in the Lake District.” Sanford shook Harry then Ginny's hands saying, “Pleased.”

Llewellyn continued, “This Richard Albertine, Ravenclaw. He was a third year when you were last in school so he was not on the Ravenclaw team you flew against. He's a Keeper, practices with his uncles who were at Hogwarts years ago.” Again they exchanged greetings.

Harry said “hot buns,” the Gargoyle stepped aside and the five ascended the spiral stair and knocked on the office door.

Professor McGonagall was waiting, “Com'in, com'in, welcome.” Dumbledore was sleeping in the portrait behind her desk and Llewellyn, Richard and Sanford, who had not been in the Head's office, seemed awed as they looked at him, then at the other portraits, the many magical instruments and Gryffindor's sword.

After they sat in chairs the Headmistress conjured in front of her desk, she took her seat behind the massive workspace and asked, “What can we do about Quidditch?”

Llewellyn looked at Harry but Harry pointed to him, “Llewellyn brought up some ideas at breakfast this morning. He says it well; he should start.”

Llewellyn began, “It turns out that with Harry and his friends coming back to school the Gryffindor team is the only one with experienced players. We understand why, and we're not complaining, but the rest of us have to fill whole teams. I have some OK flyers, a Beater, a Chaser and a Keeper, and I'll fly Seeker but I've nothing like an experienced team. Sanford has every position to fill and, while he's played himself, he's never been captain or run a team. Richard's in the same cauldron as Sanford. So, as things stand right now, there's no competition for Gryffindor.”

When he paused, Professor McGonagall interjected, “What do you propose?”

Llewellyn was relieved to get by what he feared would be the sticky bit, “We need more pitch time. We need more matches and we need to make it so we can practice whenever we have the time.”

Headmistress McGonagall looked at each of them in turn and asked, “Any objection?”

There were none. Harry made a proposal, “I think the team tents should be set up right away. If we can leave our kit there, maybe with a couple of curtains to change behind, we could go straight to the pitch. Even saving running back to the dorm could mean a couple of members who had time before dinner or something could get some flying in.”

Llewellyn enthused, “Great idea.” The others agreed.

Professor McGonagall thought for a moment then spoke with an ironic smile, “But, despite the importance of Quidditch, the fifth years do have O.W.L.s and the sevenths N.E.W.T.s.” The captains looked disappointed thinking that she would refuse to extend Quidditch. After consulting something on her desk, she abated their concern. “We get four Saturdays in January, four in February, five in March, and four in April. If we played twelve matches, that would be a full season. We could begin the season on January 11th, that gives you a little more than a week back from break. If we end on the last Saturday in April, the 26th, it will be a bit close to test time. I don't think it wise for the schedule to be extended later than that. But, this schedule will give you practice time and lots of match play. So, if you'll promise to keep your teams focused on their studies come spring, I think we can live with that.”

They all agreed so she continued questioning, “Now, what did you mean about practice schedules.”

Ginny went ahead, “I've been thinking about that. If we split Saturday and Sunday – morning for one team, afternoon for another – everyone would get one longer practice each week until matches start. If we take the five weekdays and rotate the teams, if a team or some of its members have time between classes or before dinner, then – if it’s their day for the pitch – they can use it.”

“But everyone's schedules are different?” objected Sanford.

“True,” answered Ginny, “and if there were some night where everyone on a team were available it might work another way but with seven people's schedules, different years, I doubt it can be worked out. So, the week days are just opportunities for a little extra flying time.”

Headmistress McGonagall took the decision, “Alright then, Saturday morning will be Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw in the afternoon, Gryffindor Sunday morning, and Slytherin Sunday afternoon. Week night rotation starts on Monday, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, then Gryffindor. Good luck to you all, let's have a good season. I want to see hard, skilled and fair play this year.”

With that the captains shook hands all around and descended the spiral stair to the corridor. Harry and Ginny started walking back to Gryffindor Tower but Llewellyn called after them, “Potter, Weasley!”

They turned and Harry answered, “Parsons?”

He caught up and said, “Thanks, I still think you're still going to win every match but at least we'll have a chance.”

“Sure you will,” answered Ginny.

Harry added, “See you on the pitch; I'm looking forward to it.”

Llewellyn smiled, “Me too.”

When they arrived back at the common room, they stopped just inside to see what was going on. Hermione was at one of the tables with a large box full of various scrolls, fragments of parchment, and even some Muggle tablet sheets like those upon which she was making notes. She was concentrated as only Hermione Granger could concentrate but occasionally watching Ron, grinning as she did.

Ron was slouching in one of the armchairs by the fire. His wand was pointing upward, above the heads of not just the first years but also a very healthy portion of the second and third years sprawled over the nearest furniture. From his wand came an image floating over the heads of his audience where everyone could see. It was a Quidditch stadium, quite nearly the Hogwarts stadium, and there were two teams flying, one in Gryffindor colors, and another in a somewhat drabber, dirtier shade of green than the actual Slytherin uniforms. He was lecturing about Quidditch, teaching the sport and using magic to illustrate.

When he spoke, the image in the air displayed what he was saying. Ginny and Harry sat down with Hermione; they too joined Ron's audience.

He was just explaining the Chaser, “The Chaser's job is to score by throwing the Quaffle through the opponent's goal. Now, a really good Chaser, like my sister Ginny. . .” He paused and one of the Gryffindor Chasers became brighter, more detailed. Indeed the red braid flowing over the back of her Quidditch robes was unmistakable. Then, he repeated himself before continuing. “. . . A really good Chaser like my sister Ginny has to be a great flier. Broom control is critical because a Chaser can't collide with another player but must fly through opponents who are trying to grab the quaffle, bash you with a Bludger or knock you off your broom.  Who remembers what that was called, purposely colliding with another player?”

He stopped talking to listen for an answer, which came instantly from several young voices, “Blatching.”

The image of Ginny as Chaser zoomed even faster and moved more acrobatically among the other players as Ron continued, “What other rule applies to the Chaser?”

Again several young voices answered, “Stooging.”

“Right, only one Chaser in the scoring area at a time. Now, that just leaves the Seeker.”

Ron continued teaching Quidditch Hermione told Ginny, “He's proud of you.”

Smiling, Ginny answered, “Sometimes.” After a pause to watch her brother, “This is the second time I've seen Dad in Ron. At the Quidditch meeting where you and Ron were on the couch with the first years, it crossed my mind, but I didn't pay much attention because we were starting the meeting.”

Harry, was still watching Ron, said, “His magic is getting really remarkable.”

Hermione reached across her piles of work and touched Harry's hand, “He's been working with Oscar Windemere. He's going tomorrow for most of the day unless there's practice. He's working on something, but please, please, don't ask about it; he wants it to be a surprise.”

At that she started sorting some items from the box into various stacks. Harry asked, “What're you doing?”

“Thinking! This is all stuff from George; it's the records and notes he has from the joke shop. I'm sure there must be a way to record these things so that they can be totaled and saved. If you knew you needed ten gallons of dittany for the Wonder Witch Shampoos and other potions, then you could think about how you wanted to buy it and you’d always know if you were running low.”

Harry replied, “Computer! If the Muggles can keep track of every birth, death, marriage and who knows what else using computers, George can keep track of his dittany.”

“I know,” said Hermione, “but how do you do that in Diagon Alley?”

Harry answered, “We need to know more about computers.”

Ron's lecture reached its finale, a wild and loud finale. The tiny figures in the stadium seats were all waving scarves in Gryffindor colors and the Gryffindor Seeker, who was wearing Harry's number, zoomed up, and up, and up, the glitter of the Snitch shining from his right hand.


Chapter 22: Witches and Wizards Dance
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Chapter Twenty Two

Witches and Wizards Dance

Harry awoke on Sunday morning to the sound of Ginny's voice. Once he got his eyes open and his glasses on he realized that it was coming from her large Patronus horse, “Harry, get up, meet me in the common room with your Quidditch kit. Let's have breakfast and get to the pitch early, there's something I want to show you.”

With his dorm mates still asleep, he got into his Quidditch uniform as quietly as he could, grabbed his broom and headed down to the common room with his gloves and knee guards in hand. Ginny was waiting for him and they walked sleepily together to the Great Hall for breakfast. They ate quickly, not talking much.  On the way to the pitch, they stopped by Fred's tomb. Ron's carving sparkled in the early morning light while they stood quietly thinking of Fred.

When they turned together to continue on to the pitch, Ginny said, “I miss him.”

“Me too.”

Once inside the Gryffindor tent they leaned their brooms against the canvas near the flap that lead to the stadium and laid their gloves and guards on the footrests. Ginny took the Chinese Book out of her book bag and led Harry to one of the benches. Sitting together with the book opened across their laps, Ginny turned to a page showing the Chinese-robed wizards maneuvering large staffs, “What if these aren't staffs?”

“What're you thinking?”

"Brooms.”

Together they looked closely at the illustrations. Turning the pages back to the Sound of Rain illustration Ginny pointed to the red streak they took to be the Stupefy.

“Notice something?” asked Ginny.

“Yea, it's longer and thinner, it comes to a point.”

“That's what I see,” said Ginny. Then pointing to the dot-like strokes between the vertical lines of the Chinese pictograph for rain, “Look at those, aren’t they an entirely different shape?” Then, turning back to the first page of the exercises that showed what they guessed to be staffs, Ginny pointed to the same shapes at the ends of the dots and lines in the Chinese character translated as “mind.”

“They aren't writing with a quill are they?” said Harry. “It's more like a brush, like painting.”

“And the stroke here is wider and ends with little streaks . . .”

Harry finished her sentence, “. . . like the twigs of a broom.”

“Yes,” said Ginny, “I think their illustrations have to be like their writing.  They're not so much trying to exactly depict things as they're making a symbol for it.   We didn't get the symbol because we thought we were looking at a picture.”

“So,” Harry began to think aloud, “if these are brooms, then let's guess these first pictures are some sort of practice for what follows, exercises maybe. Let's look at the next pages.”

They turned to each of the next pictures. Thinking of them as broom exercises made it much easier to imagine what each might be. From that viewpoint, the first illustrations showed hovering, turning end-on-end, and spinning. In later illustrations Chinese wizards were performing acrobatically on their brooms.

Ginny pointed to a series of pictures, “Look, Harry, this is a roll; he's flying straight, rolls upside down and flips his broom. He's right-side-up and heading in the opposite direction. What a Quidditch move that'd be!”

After turning a few more pages Harry stopped to study another image, “Ginny, do you see what I see?”

“Merlin's beard, he slides off the front of his broom, turns around as he falls, his broom dives, flies beneath him, and he's off in the other direction. To do that you'd have to control your broom without being on it.”

This was an entirely novel idea. Both Harry and Ginny were excellent flyers. Both had fine control of their brooms but neither had even thought of controlling a broom they weren't actually riding. As far as either of them knew, no one else had either. Clearly, the Chinese who made this book assumed you could, at least if the whole thing wasn't a Chinese fantasy or a dark joke. Yet, the sound of rain images had described the Stun and Shield exercise, why should the broom exercises be any different?

Harry asked, “Besides the flying and braking charms, are there others?”

“Well, there's the cushioning charm that makes the ride comfortable. The Chinese could have another charm on theirs. I don't think so though. Tell me, have you every felt your broom move before you did?”

“I don't know, I'm not sure I'm thinking when I fly, things just seem to happen.”

Ginny thought for a moment, “You're a natural flier. Hermione said you were good in your very first flying class, like you'd always known how to fly.  Mum was so worried about me -- her only daughter wasn't to be allowed falling off a broom.-- that she wouldn't let me fly before school.  Since I was sneaking out with brooms, and different ones, I had to teach myself. Maybe because I had to concentrate on the feel of the broom, I have this sense that you can – well I don't know exactly how to say it – but I think this will be like the sound of rain exercise, mostly about your mind.”

While they sat thinking, they heard voices approaching the Gryffindor tent. Ginny quickly closed the book, slid it from their laps, turned to Harry, reached for his waist with her right hand while she slid her left behind his neck.  Her kiss was full and deep.

As Harry responded, Ron and Hermione opened the tent flap, “Hey! Are you two in here?” Because it seemed they had interrupted a snogging session, they quickly closed it, partially muffling the sounds from outside.

“You two got up early to snog?” asked Ron, somewhat disbelievingly.

When they broke apart, Ginny teased her brother, “You should try it some time.”

Then, Ron noticed the Chinese Book next to Ginny and pointed it out to Hermione who said, “Reading and snogging?”

Harry demurred, “Maybe, maybe a little of each.” Then, knowing that Ginny wasn't ready to talk about the broom exercises, he changed the subject, “What brings you to Quidditch practice Hermione?”

“You're going to need help.” She pulled a small tablet and a Muggle pen from inside her robe, showed it to Harry and Ginny, then opened the entrance to the stadium and bowed them through. When they stepped outside, they saw what looked like half of Gryffindor house holding brooms.

“We'd better get organized!” said Harry, a little taken aback by the unexpected turn-out. Then turning to Ron, “Ron, why don't you take all the under years over to the other side of the stadium and find out what flying they've done. Teach ‘em what you can but . . .”

“Don’t let them fall off their brooms, crash into the stadium or get run over by the other flyers!” Ron left to collect the youngsters.

Harry asked Ginny, “Do you want to take the experienced players or the try-outs?”

“You've run try-outs before, I'll take the old team and do some fun drills but give me someone to play Keeper so we can make shots-on-goal.”

Harry turned to the assembly of broom-wielding Gryffindors and asked, loudly to be heard over the fuss of Ron sorting out his charges, “Anyone ever play Keeper?”

Nigel Wespurt raised his hand, so Harry asked, “Where Nigel?”

“The last two summers with my cousins, just behind their house, nothing like a pitch or anything.”

“OK, you go with Ginny. All of you who have played, go with Ginny and practice, the rest of you take a seat in the first row of the stands next to the tent. I'll be over in a minute.”

While the Gryffindors noisily filled the first row, Harry asked Hermione, “Do you mind coming with me to help keep track of this lot?”

“That's why I came. When Ron and I saw the crowd heading down to the pitch from breakfast, we knew you'd need all the help you could get.”

“Thanks Hermione, you're great, this could’ve been a real mess.”

Ginny lifted her voice over the noise, “Alright, Nigel and everyone who's been on the team, come with me, let's get out of the crowd and fly.” She hoisted her broom to her shoulder, looked at Harry and the now-smaller crowd of Gryffindors heading for the nearest seats and shouted back, “We'll stay goal high and above, keep your lot no higher than the top seats, no accidents today, OK.”

Harry waved, acknowledging her plan as he walked oto the closest seats where the rest of the Gryffindors occupied the first rows. When he arrived, choosing a spot about in the middle with Hermione next to him, her tablet and pen in hand, he started to get a handle on this particular kettle of fresh water plimpies. “How many of you have ever played Quidditch, anywhere, anytime, with your brothers or sisters, anything?” Only one girl raised her hand. “What's your name and what Quidditch have you played?” Harry asked.

“Silvie Norcross. My oldest brother was a Chaser from 1987 to 1989.  He taught me to how to score before I came to school this year. I'm fourth year.”

“What do you mean 'how to score' Silvie?”

“You know, fakes, fast turns, coming in at an angle.”

“Right,” said Harry and then as an aside to Hermione, “That's hopeful.” Addressing the group again he asked, “Anyone else?” None replied so Harry continued, “OK, everybody come on down here and get in line. We're going to play follow the leader. Keep a brooms length between you, don't get out of line, and stay low. The experienced players are at goal height, so let's stay out of their way.”

Harry remembered try-outs in his sixth year where there had been several accidents so he was determined to keep things under control and concentrated on basics. For them to build a team, what he needed to know was “Who can fly?” If they flew well, they could gain Quidditch skills. When they were lined up behind Harry he called, “Accio Firebolt,” and his broom flew through the tent flap to his hand. When he turned toward the line behind him, his voice took on a tone of command, “Up, mount your brooms, follow me. If Hermione waves you down, land back here.” Turning to Hermione he explained, “I'm going to increase speed until I lose some, wave the stragglers down. If anyone gets in trouble, let me know, OK?”

Hermione raised her wand, “Periculum?”

Harry mimed pointing a wand upward with his index finter, “Yea,” then kicked-off gently, rising only about ten feet off the ground. He started a slow turn around the stadium, cutting off before the end where Ron was working with a dozen first and second years.

Harry flew a squared off circular pattern around the center point of the Quidditch oval, four short straights and four rounded turns. With each pass he gained a little height, only a few feet at a time, tightening the circle and increasing speed. While he turned, he watched the flyers behind him, looking for those who seemed comfortable, who shouldered in their turns to counter the outward-pushing force of their speed.

With the tighter, faster circle, some drifted outward and began to fall behind. Coming to the end of the third complete circuit, Harry saw that Hermione had already waved down three of the flyers. Looking quickly over his shoulder he saw that the others were still in formation, seemingly comfortable, so he increased the pace doubly and at the next turn converted the pattern into a figure eight, forcing them to fly turns on both sides. Most flyers find one side easier than the other, the same as being right or left handed. This proved a good test because two more fell too far behind, leaving Harry with just three in train.

After one last turn around the figure eight, this time at a much faster pace, Harry landed next to Hermione, “See anything I should know?”

“Silvie never dropped off your tail, the other two, I think that's Larry Martinez there,” she said pointing to the boy next to Silvie, “were falling back on the last time around. I don't know the other boy's name but Larry and he were looking a little uncomfortable during the last figure eight.”

“Thanks Hermione.” Seeing the sun high in the sky, he turned back to the group and said, “OK, thanks to you all, but it's getting close to lunch. So, except for Silvie, Larry and . . .” Pointing to the third boy he asked, “Sorry, I don't know you, what's your name and year?”

“Dirk Johnson, third year.”

“Alright then, Dirk, Larry and Silvie, take a seat where you were.” He encouraged the others, “Thanks for trying out, but you need more flying time. So, get down here when you can and work on broom control and getting comfortable at speed. Practice what we did today and you'll be ready for next year.”

Silvie, Larry and Dirk were talking excitedly as they took seats in the stands. While they did, Ron arrived with his group of under years and introduced Harry to a girl with dark curly hair, “This is Elizabeth Crowly, and I think you should take a spin around with her.”

Hermione, remembering their conversation the night of the Gryffindor Quidditch meeting, interjected, “Elizabeth, I though you were uncomfortable flying?”

Elizabeth nodded but Ron added, “Watch her, you'll understand.”

Harry mounted his broom and gestured for Elizabeth to start off. She mounted her broom, kicked-off hard, and was at top speed before she had made the first turn of the circle. Harry flew behind her for the next couple of turns then pulled along side. “Elizabeth, follow me, no faster than I go.” With that he pulled ahead and began to slow the pace, adding more turns to the pattern and changing height until Elizabeth fell into the rhythm of following. Gesturing her to follow him down, Harry landed next to Ron, Hermione, Kevin and another first year.

When they dismounted Ron said, “Elizabeth, tell Harry what your cousin told you.”

Elizabeth apparently had to gather herself to talk to Harry because she took a couple of deep breaths before talking, “He said that you have to fly as fast as you can because if you go too slow your broomstick will fall out of the sky.”

Harry, Ginny and Hermione were tempted to laugh but Elizabeth's cousin must have a bit of a nasty streak to trick her like that. They refrained, not wanting to discourage a good flyer, so Ron explained her cousin's trick.

Ginny confirmed Ron's explanation, “A good flyer chooses speed based on conditions, to trick other players, and to get a good, clear look at what's going on around the pitch.”

Hermione added, “The flying charm is what keeps the broom in the air, not how fast you go.”

When Elizabeth and Kevin, who had flown remarkably well for having had so few flying lessons, had taken seats with Silvie, Larry and Dirk, Harry aimed his wand upward and shot off red sparks. Ginny saw his signal and lead the older players down, landing beside them. When all landed, Harry called, “OK team, take seats over there with the others.”

Ron and Hermione joined them in the stands as Harry and Ginny discussed what to say. When they were finished thinking it through, Harry addressed their team. “Here's the situation. We have a pretty experienced team, for every position we someone who has flown the position before.”

Ginny followed on, “Of course, with Harry flying Seeker, I don't think there's another team at school that's nearly as good, and like we said the other night, that's our problem.” The team cheered, calling again for an undefeated season and the Quidditch Cup.

Harry confirmed Ginny's notion, “Sure, sure, we want to win the cup, but it really is a problem. So, here's what we'll do. We've enough for two teams and we'll split up and fly against each other for practice and fun. To make up some for the match time the older players lose, we'll drill less and play more matches among ourselves.  However, if you've skills you need to work on, we'll be around to work with you when there's time.”

Ginny finished, “For matches we'll try to select a team that fits the opponent, can win and still gives experience to our younger players. Our goal will be to finish this season with the cup and a core team in place for next year.”

By the time the Slytherins were gathering, they set off to lunch, Ron and Hermione shepherding the youngsters, the team happily arguing how to split up for practice matches. Ginny and Harry waved at Llewellyn as he lead an appreciable crowd of Slytherins onto the pitch.

They returned to the Gryffindor tent. Once inside they saw a handsome wooden rack against the front wall. There were horizontal pegs where the team had hung their brooms and a series of pegs and cubby holes for everyone's kit. They said “Hermione” in sync.

After going through possible combinations of players that they might use when they knew the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing teams, Harry and Ginny hung up their Quidditch robes.  After a quick glance at Llewellyn struggling to keep too many people in some sort of order, they started up the hill to the castle.

Ginny slid her arm through Harry's, “This summer, back at The Burrow, when you thought about Quidditch at school, what did you imagine?”

“Well, it was something like Ginny Weasley running up the score with brilliant flying until I caught the Snitch in an exciting maneuver against the – usually Slytherin – Seeker. Then, of course, a great party in the common room that, once we'd celebrated with everyone, we'd leave and find a nice place to snog.”

“Yea,” answered Ginny, “About that. But, that's not the way it'll be, is it?”

“No, we'll have to sit out a lot, more than the others. I don't see another choice. Hogwarts needs Quidditch.  School woudn't be the same without it.  We get to do all the things we like doing, boast, bet, snog and fly, wizard fun. I want to leave a team for next year because I think it's about all we can hope from the way things are.”

Ginny answered after they'd walked a bit further, “I know, it's got to be fun for the whole school.  So we'll train and teach, maybe fly a few matches. For us, Harry, I want to do the Chinese Book. I want to learn the broom exercises.”

“If you like, I'll do 'em with you.”

“That is exactly what I want, just us, we'll figure it out and fly together.” Then, she stepped ahead of him, turned around and put both of her hands on his shoulders and her forehead against his, leaning on him as she walked backwards uphill. “We learn; we fly; we snog; what say you Harry Potter?”

Harry, put his hands on her shoulders and swung her around so he was the one walking backwards, “We learn; we fly; we snog!”

Arm in arm they continued on to the castle only to realize that they'd missed lunch. The house and staff tables were empty. Ron and Hermione were probably already back at Gryffindor Tower.

“I'm hungry,” Ginny complained.

“Let's visit the kitchen. I'll bet we can get a sandwich or two. Maybe even a cup of coffee. Anyway, we can see Kreacher; we really need to.”

When they arrived at the kitchen level, Ginny tickled the pear on the still life. It turned into a giggling door knob. She opened the door and they stepped inside, the door closing on its own behind them. The four long tables beneath the house tables in the Great Hall were already arrayed with place settings for dinner and the chattering army of house elves was busy preparing the evening meal

There were elves magicking batches of dough to knead themselves in great bowls the size of Mrs. Weasley’s laundry tub. There were elves levitating trays and baking pans the size of common room tables into the massive ovens. There were elves supervising a long line of knives that peeled, cut and magically increased giant stacks of vegetables for the side-dishes and salads. On the huge stoves, hot with magical fires, great copper pots bubbled and steamed. Roasts and fowls turned unattended on spits while elves brewed great pitchers of juices, immense pots of tea. The sounds of cooking mixed with the elves' voices and the rhythmic tapping of the cutlery. Here and there elves would sing an incantation in harmony and clouds of steam would rise from one of the gigantic copper pots, overwhelming the room with appetizing aromas.

For a minute it seemed the elves hadn't noticed them until a chorus of elf voices exclaimed, “It's Missy Ginny, she's back, and she's brought her Harry too.”

Harry watched the elves flow toward them in a little flood of upturned faces. “Humm! Seems you've been here before.”

“Yea, if a raid went off badly, or if we got caught on the lower floors with the Carrows after us, we'd run down here and hide. They never thought to come in. They'd pass right by and roust all the Hufflepuffs out of bed and search their dormitory but they never even tried to get in. They must've known the kitchen was here but thought only elves could enter.”

By the time Ginny finished they were being impelled by a virtual river of house elves, all of whom seemed to be offering something to eat or drink. They were flowing toward a corner of the massive room where there was a smaller, round table, like the one that Slughorn used for his Slug Club dinners. Instead of sitting at the table Harry and Ginny turned the chairs around to face the assembled elves. It seemed like a hundred elves surrounded them, yet the knives kept cutting, the dough continued kneading and the spits turned, while the copper pots steamed away.

Harry was thinking that the scene looked like a couple of adults about to start telling stories to a group of expectant kids when Ginny said, “Hi everybody, we missed lunch for Quidditch practice, could we please get a sandwich or whatever you have handy?” She might as well have said “bring us a feast” because before the last word of her request vanished into the cacophony of kitchen sounds there were trays of sandwiches, bowls of fruit, baskets of rolls and a huge pitcher of pumpkin juice on the table.

Harry smiled, “Thanks! But, I don't think we can quite eat all that.”

The elves laughed, pleased with their magical excess.

They ate sandwiches and a couple magnificent peaches, small but sweet and sticky with juice. Kreacher arrived accompanied by a young house elf carrying two steaming-hot mugs of coffee. The young elf had big Dobby-like eyes, pointed ears that bent at the tips, and a very long nose. She was dressed in what looked like a boy's undershirt belted with a colorful silken band that might have once been someone's cravat.

Harry asked, “Kreacher is it you we should thank for the pot of wonderful coffee that seems to find us wherever we're sitting?”

“Does it please Master?”

It was Ginny who replied, “It pleases Harry, me, Ron and Hermione every day Kreacher. How are you?”

Kreacher just nodded.

Harry continued, “Kreacher, what about the elves who were injured in the battle, is everyone recovered?” When Kreacher replied that all were well and fully recovered, Harry looked toward the obviously younger elf and asked, “Who's your friend?”

“This is Nessie,” replied the old elf, “Nessie is my second cousin Robertina's youngest daughter.”

Harry leaned forward to be more nearly level with the little elf's face, and extended his hand, “I'm pleased to meet you Nessie.”

With a bow Nessie touched his palm with the tips of her fingers, “Thank you Master.”

Ginny, followed suit, extending her hand in greeting. Nessie touched her hand just as lightly and quickly as she touched Harry's, “Thank you Mistress.”

“My name is Ginny Weasley. Harry and I are not married Nessie”

Nessie replied, “Yes, Mistress Ginny.”

Harry looked at Kreacher and asked in a somewhat puzzled tone, “Mistress?”

Kreacher replied, “We do not attend to wizards' ceremonies; we know magic. Mistress' bond to Master binds us.”

Neither Harry nor Ginny were comfortable with the idea that another being was bound to them by magic rather than choice. Yet, Hermione's unwelcome attempts to free the Gryffindor house elves taught them that with house elves it was best to cautiously accept what they didn't fully understand and probably couldn’t to do anything about.

Harry was still puzzling over how he and Ginny could have become master and mistress to Nessie when Kreacher explained, “When he who serves a house has no heir, family chooses who succeeds him.”

Harry interrupted, “But, Kreacher, we're, well, use to each other now and you know Grimmauld Place. You're Mrs. Black's company.”

“House elves are not immortal. Nessie is young and Grimmauld Place is the House of Potter.  She will work with me.  She and her descendants are forever bound to your family. Nessie will serve you and your heirs when Kreacher moves on.”

Harry and Ginny did not need to speak to decide on a careful response to this elfin plan. They listened to Kreacher's plans without comment. Nessie was a juvenile, older than either Harry or Ginny, but young enough to be bound to a new house, to a new master. In fact, this had probably already happened as far as there being any other choice, or even possibility.

The level of activity in the room had increased and the first servings of hot bread and rolls were taking their place on the kitchen's tables. Harry and Ginny decided it was time to get out of the elves' way. They thanked them for lunch and promised to meet Kreacher at Grimmauld Place as soon as school and their plans to recover Hermione's parents permitted. Waving goodbye to the others from the door, they closed it behind them and climbed the stairs to the Entrance Hall.

It was not yet time for dinner. Yet, Ginny's book bag hardly warranted a trip to Gryffindor Tower, particularly as the day was still quite beautiful. The sun had journeyed toward the winter solstice since they'd arrived at Hogwarts. The warm autumnal sunlight intensified the first touches of red, orange, yellow and brown colored leaves of the Whomping Willow and the forest trees. Leaves had already fallen. They decided to take advantage of the nice Sunday afternoon and find a place to sit and talk. They walked the grounds until they came to a beech tree where they had often sat before they were separated by the war.

There was a nice space against the trunk, almost as if it had been sculpted by generations of students. Harry remarked, “This tree is in so many memories, some of which aren't even mine. In Dumbledore's pensive I watched my father use Levicorpus on Snape, right here, humiliating himabout his pants.”

“You don't sound like you approve.”

“No, I was embarrassed to see it. I suppose he was jealous of Snape's friendship with Mum. Sometimes I wonder what it was that changed him so that they did get together. Lupin made it sound like he just grew up.”

They sat quietly for a while, their backs against the trunk of the tree, shoulders touching, just taking in the familiar scene around them.

“So, Mistress of the House of Potter. What do we do about Kreacher arranging a succession for Grimmauld Place?  And what's with that finger touching gesture?  Can you see living with Nessie?”

“Well, you may've noticed that there weren't many house elves bustling around The Burrow.   We Weasleys are a few rooms short of a manor, so I don't know what to say. I'll admit, if I think about living at Grimmaul Place, it's a temptation.”

“Temptation?”

“Yea, to be honest, it's so old and magical I don't know you could keep it up any other way. Having a fresh personality like Nessie around will be easier to live with, that's for sure. But, I don't even know if there's anything we can do about it. You inherited the house from Sirius and you're Kreacher's master, so you could always order them to stay at Hogwarts I suppose."

A young Thestral enthusiastically joined its mother's flight above the tree tops of the forest, banking and diving around her, its small, skeletal wings beating at twice her cadence. When the Thestrals flew out of sight, Harry turned to Ginny, “I could offer them freedom, offer to give them clothes. Although, that might be worse than ordering them to stay at Hogwarts.”

“It could for sure. We need to ask Hermione about it, she may know more.”

The sunlight turned redder as evening came on, brightening everything with its warmth. There being no obvious resolution to the matter of house elves they sat quietly together, immersed in each others presence and the sights and sounds of the castle's grounds.

Harry watched the light play across Ginny's face as it filtered through the yellow-turning beech leaves waving lazily in the evening breeze, “A Sickle for your thoughts.”

“I don't think they're worth a Knut, you know, Quidditch, kid stuff.”

“Like your poster of Gwenog Jones?”

Ginny leaned away from the tree trunk to look at Harry full on, “You've added Legilimency to your talents Harry Potter?”

“No, but you had a far-away look and we'd talked about how Quidditch wouldn't be how we imagined, so I thought maybe you were disappointed. We've never actually talked about it but I thought that poster represented your ambition to fly for the Harpies.”

“It did . . . it does,” answered Ginny, “but, like we said this morning, the great seventh year Quidditch fantasy isn't to be. I was sort of letting it go.”

“Why?”

“The teams scout the school matches looking for seventh years they might invite to a try-out. The Harpies have open try-outs where anyone can come but those are more or less just formalities, something for people to say they did. You can try for the other teams too but they take men, so every girl with a broomstick will be trying for the Harpies.”

“Ginny, I've never flown with or against anyone who is anywhere near as good. Who has your ability?”

“Well, you for sure.”

“Maybe,” said Harry but you're a Chaser and other than practicing Ron this summer, I haven't thrown a quaffle, so that doesn't count. Angelina, Katie, Dean and Demelza are good but none have your speed or skill. Isn't it hard to believe that the Harpies don't already know how good you are?”

“Maybe.”

Harry continued, “Anyway, we'll just have to learn some of the Chinese broom skills won't we? That'll make the Harpies pay attention?”

“That we will, that we will, but its twilight, let's go see if Ron and Hermione are at dinner. We're supposed to listen to some of the songs Professor Mullens loaned us before lessons tomorrow.”

With that she sprung to her feet, turned and held her hands to Harry, “Enough of my maudlin thoughts, let's go enjoy our prize.”

He reached, she took his hands and pulled him upward. When he got to his feet she pulled him close. As sometimes happened, they just held one another, enthralled by simply being in one another's arms. They were alive. They were together. Nothing else really mattered.

When they started back toward the castle, Harry asked, “Our prize, what prize?”

“This year, us at school, nothing to worry about but classes, Quidditch and getting Hermione's parents back from Australia.  We lived; we get to be here.”

After dinner they walked together back to Gryffindor Tower. The four friends were quietly moody. Neither couple was arguing. None of the four were particularly sad but the day had started early. They were tired and there had not been much to be enthused about. The Quidditch try-outs were more work than play. Although Ginny and Harry had accepted that seventh year Quidditch would not be what they'd imagined, they were far from celebrating. They would do what they needed to do but would have preferred the Quidditch of summer's imagination.

Hermione had known nothing about house elf succession or the hand gesture that Kreacher and Nessie had used. In fact, even Hermione was at a loss for how to know more about the customs or laws that governed house elves. Anyway, the time after dinner on Sunday was almost not part of the weekend.  Monday morning was heavy on every mind.

The one assignment left was to listen to some of the songs that Professor Mullens had loaned them. They left it for last because it didn't require filling a single inch of parchment. Professor McGonagall’s assignment to summarize the Laws of Transfiguration, with reference to when each had been recognized and how each was expressed in transfiguration spells, had taken several nights at the library. Just writing out the assignment had used all of Saturday morning before Ron left to work with Oscar Windemere.

When they arrived at the common room, it was full. It seemed most of the Gryffindors were in a similarly quiet mood. People were sitting and talking, some were reading, and some, who were undoubtedly rushing to finish procrastinated homework, were busily pushing quills over parchment.

The four friends took seats at an unoccupied table then realized that Professor Mullens' device and disks were in the girl’s dormitory in Hermione's book bag. When Hermione returned with them in hand, she passed them to Ron who, after a false start or two, managed to open the narrow container that held the disk, insert it into the Muggle device and connect the little pin of the tiny speakers. He looked at the device and, having forgotten exactly which button started the music, showed it to Harry, “What do you think, this bigger one with the arrow?”

“Give it a try; it can't hurt.”

Ron pushed the arrowed button and after a couple of seconds the song began. When the chorus began repeating, Ginny asked, “Can you stop it a minute? Ron pushed another button and the song stopped. Ginny questioned the song, “So, this Muggle is comparing himself to a beaten dog, living in a grave yard. I mean, we have sad songs like 'Long Black Veil,' but this seems absolutely depressing. What's the point?”

“I don't know,” answered Harry, “but, Ron, play some more, maybe it'll make more sense.”

Ron pushed the button again. Over the chorus Hermione said, “Vietnam is a country, below China.”

Harry added, “It's a war song, he's singing about a war.”

By now, people sitting at the nearby tables had begun to stand around staring at the strange device listening to the music.

“What is it?” asked Demelza.

“Homework,” replied Ginny.

“Some homework!” answered three of the other bystanders, one of who added, “Can you make it louder?”

“I'm not sure,” said Ron lifting the device to examine it closely.  After a couple of tries found a volume knob and turned it all the way.

Hermione spoke  over the music, “Harry's right, it's about a war.  He’s lost a friend.”

“And, he's depressed about it,” added Ginny.

When the song ended it seemed as if most of the Gryffindors were gathered around their table.   Several were asking them to make the music louder since they couldn't hear it in back of the crowd. Ron told them that the volume knob was turned as far as it would go and that the speakers were small, no bigger than a pigmy puff. Dean suggested the Sonorous Charm but Hermione reminded him that it was for the spell caster’s voice. She then suggested that it was too late for the under years to be up and if everyone was going to stay and listen to the music, at least the first and second years should be in bed.

A few minutes passed while the older Gryffindors got the youngsters off to bed, despite their complaints. Having an attentive Head Boy and Head Girl in your house was not all warm encouragement and Quidditch lessons.  Ron cast Muffliato on the dorm entrances. Everyone turned back to the table and Demelza suggested that they try Forte. When Ron set the music playing again, it was loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.   Indeed, it was loud enough that anyone passing the Fat Lady could follow the lyrics.

The four started to discuss the lyrics but the other Gryffindors had a different idea. Wands were out and the furniture was being hovered into piles, clearing space in front of the fire. With incantations of Wingardium Leviosa and Locomotor in use throughout the room, conversation was becoming impossible. The song continued and the band's rhythms set people's feet moving – some had already started to dance – the Gryffindors did not need to discuss whether it was time to party.

When it comes to organizing an impromptu dance a room full of wands is supremely useful. Thus, it was not long before the Gryffindor common room, its furniture in stacks against the walls with the carpets rolled up, became a dance floor. With the lamps dimmed, even the most procrastinated assignments had to be abandoned, along with everyone's Sunday evening malaise.

Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny tried to concentrate on the lyrics for a little while but with a dance going on around them, it was impossible. After a desultory attempt at supposing what expressions like “rock all night” might mean, Ron took Hermione's hand and said, “Come on, that's enough, let's dance.” They did, joining the other Gryffindors. Neville was dancing with Demelza, Parvarti with Dean, and some of the girls who could not coax one of the boys to dance, danced with one another while the self-conscious boys leaned against the stacks of furniture, their feet tapping in time with the music.

Harry and Ginny had never really been to a dance. Except for a minute or two at the clothes store, Bill and Fleur's wedding was their last chance, but Harry's promise to Ron had ruled that out.  He had only been able to watch Ginny from the side of the tent and lie to Viktor Krum about her large and jealous boyfriend.

He took Ginny's hand, “Shall we?” Ginny thought they should.

When they joined the others, Ginny didn't begin to dance but stepped close to Harry and, after playfully running her fingers through his hair, drew him close and whispered, “May I cast a spell on you?”

“You already have. How could I be more enchanted?”

Ginny answered with her hands. She slid her right hand onto the back of his neck and her left on the curve of his back. She pulled him closer, until their heads rested on one another's shoulders, until they were as close as robes would allow. She began to lightly sway in time with the music. Harry held her around her waist, surrendering to her warmth, to the desire to melt into her, to give himself whole to the being they were becoming. Holding one another and ever so slightly moving with the music their eyes closed as they slipped into the spell its rhythms cast, forgetting everything but the ancient magic of holding a lover.

They kissed and in their kiss was their joy and their gratitude for one another, for life. They were each others prize. Their happiness merged with the flow of the music and, when they joined the others, Harry's hesitance and self-consciousness had vanished. He gave himself to the light, lifting feeling of moving with Ginny in time to the music, in time with their hearts. Ginny danced as she flew, with easy grace. Both were athletes, flyers of exceptional skill who responded intuitively to subtle currents in the wind. They danced the same way.  As Ginny twirled she rose, reminding Harry of his mother Lilly's near suspension as she jumped from the playground swing in Snape's memory. Poor Snape, poor sad Severus, had he ever known what it was like to dance with someone he loved?

When Ron and Hermione came next to them in the shifting patterns of the dancing Gryffindors, they clasped Harry and Ginny by the shoulders saying, “Come-on, join us.” They stood side by side, arms on each others shoulder, stepping right, left, forward, and then back in time with the song. Ron took Ginny's hand inviting her next to him and Hermione did the same for Harry. The four laughed and danced to the end of the song.

Hermione said, “Not much doubt about that one is there!”

“No,” answered Harry, “If it was about Beaters, it’d be Ludo Bagman.”

The next song was slower but again the lyrics spoke to loneliness, to sadness, to the ennui of hopelessness. They all knew these feelings from the war but dancing together, surrounded by friends, the music, the rhythm, and the rising cadence of the chorus celebrated the end of loneliness in the hope for love.

When the last song finished, the reality of Monday morning arose heavilly in everyone's mind. Ron cast Finite and returned the disk to its container. The other Gryffindors put the common room back in order and began slowly moving toward their dormitories. Everyone knew they had over-extended the weekend but none regretted having done so. Nearly the last to leave, Ron and Harry watched Hermione and Ginny walk the stairs to their dorm, and then headed up to their own belated rest.

At next morning's breakfast the complement at the Gryffindor table was notably younger than usual. Students in the upper years were apparent by their absence until just the minimum number of minutes necessary to reach their Monday morning lessons. Then a steady stream of older Gryffindors rushed in, inhaled a few bites of roll, doughnut or Danish, gulped down a pumpkin juice or a cup of tea and rushed out again.

Ron arrived last of the four. Hermione, Ginny, and Harry had already sat at the bench nearest the doors when he arrived. Harry did not bother to eat. He was on his second cup of coffee as Ron wrapped one Danish in a napkin and stuck it in his pocket while munching a large bite of another pastry. Ginny ate a pear and drank coffee. Hermione made a small bowl of oatmeal, sugar and cream and wasted no time between bites. None of them had a word to say until Ginny stood and said, “We're late.” They followed her out the door and on to Professor Mullens' office.

Luna was already seated when the four arrived and hurried to their seats while greeting their professor. Neville was last to arrive, almost dressed, his tie hanging loosely from the pocked of his robe. Ron rather messily put away what remained of his second pastry. Professor Mullens was seated but leaning backward in his chair as if he was about to put his feet on his desk. He was not exactly laughing but was clearly amused.

When Neville settled into his seat, Professor Mullens rose and stood next to the stand at the center of the semicircle of students in their swivel chairs. His smile still broad, he began, “What happened at Gryffindor House last night?” Each face in the classroom showed surprise but no one spoke.

Professor Mullens continued, “Oh really! Do you think that having taught people more or less your age for twenty years I've never seen students who look like you at their first lesson on Monday morning? So, what happened at Gryffindor House last night that you all look about half a night short of sleep?”

Harry knew Mullens wouldn't let them get away without an answer, “The music you lent us.”

Professor Mullens gestured for him to continue, “Indeed!”

“We started out listening to one of the disks and thinking about the lyrics,” said Harry.

Hermione continued Harry's explanation, “Then everyone wanted to listen, we used Forte to turn up the volume and, well, we pushed the furniture back and danced.”

Professor Mullens was laughing now. He returned to his desk and rolled his chair to the center of the semi circle and learning against its back asked, “Well, what did you think of the music?”

Ginny said it in a word, “Sad. . .” After a pause she continued, “. . .the music and the lyrics seemed like two different worlds. Maybe the words are the loneliness and desperation, and the music is the hope. The story about being born in an awful place and sent off to kill is sad but the music is so strong, so driving, that you can't stand still.”

Hermione added, “It's a lonely kind of music but there's also a longing for love, for something more.”

Professor Mullens looked at each of the group seemingly pleased, “It’s a complex album.”  His thoughts were beginning to flow rapidly, “Your sense of it is right I think. What's important here is the experience of a class of people, the people born in the dying, formerly industrial towns of the United States. People with nothing but diminishing opportunities, who have boring jobs, who must do whatever it takes to 'git by on git'n by,' as the Muggles say.  For the artist I think it is about American working class kds -- your age -- sent to war then essentially forgotten and abandoned.  The song about the baseball player is about the same people -- the adult who has nothing in his life but the past or the beautiful woman whose moments of glory are merely memories shared with an old friend.”

Luna, until then quiet because she had not heard the music, asked, “Is that what life is like for Muggles?”

“No more than what life is like for wizards,” answered Professor Mullens. “Never forget how many non-magical people there are. There's a huge range of everything important in Muggle life, money, education, everything. These songs are about American lives but their counterparts are everywhere, that's why the songs are popular here too. There's universality to the experience, something that you picked up without any context, without knowing America, without knowing about its war in Vietnam. Think about that.”

He stopped talking only long enough to come around his chair around and sit facing them. “But, there's something important here no one's mentioned yet. Neville do you have an idea what that might be?”

Neville, a bit more awake than when he had entered the classroom, answered, “Is it that we're not that different?”

“Yes,” replied their professor, “but I'm thinking of something quite specific.”

Harry spoke up, “We danced.”

“Exactly,” replied Professor Mullens. “You danced. Your response to the music, your emotional response to the lyrics – they were written when you were only three or four years old – are the same as the people who heard them then, the same as the people who hear them now. So, again, think, what does this tells us?”

“Muggles with magic,” answered Hermione.

“Yes, Muggles with magic but take it a step further, particularly you four,” his gesture took in the four friends, “who will be going to Australia with a group of young Muggles.”

Hermione grasped where he was going, “Our responses to things in the Muggle world are likely to be the same as theirs. So, we can probably respond naturally.”

Professor Mullens was emphatic, “Yes!”  Then, he summed his advice. “About facts, about history, about culture, I think you'll need to be very careful not to give away that you're not who you want people to believe you are. About experience though, about responding to human situations, your responses to the people you meet, I think you should trust your feelings. If you encounter a situation you are unsure of, go with your feeling for it, don't try to guess what a Muggle would think or feel, look to what you think and feel.”

After a moment to let the class consider what he said, Professor Mullens returned to his lesson plan, “I'm sure we could talk more about this but I'll leave that to you. Now, we need to continue on with how Muggles arrive at decisions. With the example of the bell shaped curve we saw something of how the huge cultures that surround us determine what they consider fact, or truth. Next, I want to explore how they make political decisions, how they distribute and exercise power. So, for our next class I want you to read your democracy textbook, the chapters on the composition of government. Don't get caught in the details but look for where decisions are made, for where power resides.”

The rest of the day dragged on. By the time dinner arrived, their conversation was scarce, their appetite diminished and their urge and ability to do any homework had vanished back into the creative powers. They headed for their dormitories almost as soon as they reached the common room. Nonetheless, as Ron and Harry ascended the stairs, Ron called to Hermione and Ginny, “We should have another dance this weekend.”


Chapter 23: Vanished October
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Chapter Twenty Three

Vanished October


October arrived quickly and passed even faster. School became routine, as repetitive things cannot help but do, and October vanished in lessons, homework and Quidditch practice.  It was a frustrating month for the Quidditch teams. Although it was one of the clearest, sunniest Octobers for many years, it was also the coldest and wettest. Both of the first two weekends were rainy with the second Sunday morning, Gryffindor's turn for the pitch, dawning cold with fairly heavy showers and frequent hail. There were plenty of complaints as Harry and Ginny lead their team onto the pitch. Jack Sloper actually shouted above the rain, “This isn't Quidditch, it’s a cold shower!”

Harry was blunt and brief, “This – IS – Quidditch! Matches aren't called for weather. Kick off.”

Practice ended with everyone cold, tired and complaining but by evening when the Gryffindors again cleared the common room to dance, even the youngest players were repeating Harry's words with ironic pride, “This is Quidditch! Kick off!”

After a Thursday hail and snow storm that saw the castle and grounds covered with snow, the next weekend was quite cool and clear. The bright sun reflected off the snow making it difficult to see the Snitch so practice ended when the Slytherins arrived even though Silvie had not seen, much less caught, the Snitch. While the Slytherins gathered at their tent, Harry took off with Sylvie. Ginny lead the team back to their tent where she cast the charm she'd learned from Hermione to make the warming blue flames.  While they stood around the blue fire, Ginny recapped practice and then sent them home for lunch and a hot bath.

Harry circled above the pitch with Silvie showing her that the snow was no different than a bright, blue sunny sky. It didn't matter if you looked for the Snitch against clouds, snow on the ground, or bright spots of sky, it showed as a dark spot against the lighter background. It helped to take a wide view, to concentrate on a broad swath of sky because movement was more apparent at the edges of your vision.

There was no question that Silvie had talent and her broom skills were improving rapidly. As yet, she could not handle all the speed a broom could give her, Elizabeth was faster and stornger.  But Silvie could see out the corners of her eyes and had the light touch of an acrobatic flyer.

When Silvie too scurried back to the castle, Harry and Ginny got out the Chinese Book and tried again to control their brooms, a feat they had yet to accomplish. But, it was cold; they were tired and frustrated by their lack of success. Before long they too were on their way to lunch.

                                              ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

For the four friends Monday, Wednesday and Friday were without breaks except for meals, which were often hurried to keep up with their work. If there was to be any free time Tuesday, Thursday, or on weekends, homework had to be the after dinner priority on even the fullest of days. Harry and Ginny counted on their free Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to fly and to practice with the Chinese Book. Ron and Hermione often spent theirs in one of the empty classrooms.

Ron now had homework for his Saturday sessions with Oscar and Hermione was doing more and more to help George with the joke shop. Now that Ron's Saturday lessons were lasting longer and longer, Hermione often accompanied him, sometimes reading while he worked with Oscar, sometimes apparating to the joke shop from Oscar's studio.

In retrospect, it was obvious that they would deal with the increasingly intense load of homework as a team, splitting tasks and sharing results. This worked doubly well for their big Transfiguration assignment. Not only did they get O's, Professor McGonagall suggested they do all their assignments as a team. She also challenged them to take on more demanding tasks.

Professor McGonagall was concentrating on drills in class. They were moving rapidly now, working exclusively with advanced transfigurations. At the start of term they had been working with small changes in appearance. In a week they progressed to what could only be called disguise.  By the end of October, they were not only accomplished with cross-species transfiguration but also had begun to master conjuring, drawing objects from nothingness. Hermione's talent for transfiguration displayed more dramatically than ever. While Ginny, Ron and Harry were doing better than just keeping up with the class, Hermione was leading it.

There was the same intensity in all their classes. Everyone always knew what was coming when they arrived at Professor Sandberg's Defense against the Dark Arts lesson and found all the desks and chairs gone and the entire room's floor and walls covered in mats. True to his intent at the beginning of the year, they concentrated on blocking spells.

Professor Sandberg started them off with an orange, fat, soft ball with a stitched cover used in a Muggle sport unsurprisingly called “softball.”   One of the pair was to throw it at their partner who was to knock it away with a blocking spell. The exercise started with soft, loopy underhanded tosses but by the end of the second class, partners were heaving the softball at one another with all their might.   By the end of October they were blocking Stupefy.

Ginny's reactions were faster than anyone in class. This, coupled with the "sound of rain" mastery she and Harry had achieved, meant that she was always paired with Harry who alone could keep up. Nonetheless, all four friends had progressed far and fast. Like Remus Lupin and, ironically, Barty Crouch Junior's Polyjuice impersonation of Mad-Eye Moody, Professor Sandberg concentrated on practice and was tolerant of his students' occasionally diverted attention. If things got out of hand, if goofing off interfered with practice, Professor Sandberg had a huge repertoire of amusing minor hexes that he cast non-verbally, catching the inattentive by surprise.

Once when Michael and Dean, Parvarti and Padma became less concentrated on blocking drill than on their whispered conversation about inviting boyfriends and girlfriends to the now routine Gryffindor Sunday night dances, all four hopped from foot to foot for several minutes before they recognized their professor's hot foot hex. The rest of the class, however, didn't miss the amusement.

Gryffindor Sunday dances were not the only effect that Muggle Studies was having on the school. Having taken the class through a survey of English government and economy, by the middle of October Professor Mullens had returned to Muggle culture through readings from English art and literature. When he assigned J.R.R. Tolkien's classic, “The Hobbit,” copies found their way to all the houses. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs held evening readings in their common rooms. The older students discussing the Muggle view of a magic they believed to be fantasy, while the younger ones talked of Bilbo Baggins' exciting adventures. Even the Slytherin youngsters loved Bilbo.

When he showed the American western film, “High Noon,” Ron and Harry's common room re-enactments of a gunfight complete with cowboy lingo, Hermione and Ginny's impersonations of the female characters, and loud wand-bangs, was carried from the Gryffindor common room to the whole school by a couple of fourth years. By the last week of October hardly a meal passed without at least one mock cowboy duel, usually accompanied by copius magical smoke and noise. The houses completed to put on the most lavishly magical performance.

Monday mornings the Gryffindors continued to arrive short of sleep. Ron, Hermione, Harry and Ginny were sure that despite his students' regular Monday morning malaise, Professor Mullens was both aware and pleased with the effect he was having on the school. If someone had actually complained that he was encouraging the Gryffindors and their friends to over-extend the weekend, he probably would have felt obliged to bring it to an end. Certainly no one in his class was silly enough to say any such thing.

When the Gryffindors finally decided that each Gryffindor could invite one boyfriend or girlfriend to their dances, these invites became more prized than the little purple-ribboned rolls of parchment by which Professor Slughorn announced his Slug Club dinners. There had only been one thus far but now that Ron was invited, the four had greatly enjoyed themselves and were looking forward to another. Slughorn was weird about fame but he threw a great party.

Professor Slughorn's Potions class and Professor Sprout's Herbology had largely merged, although how much of the merger was intentional and how much simply serendipitous was never made clear by either professor. N.E.W.T. Potions was probably the quietest class in the school because Professor Slughorn continued to emphasize the calm, relaxed but focused mental state that lead to potions mastery. His lectures and homework assignments emphasized the magical qualities of potion ingredients. More often than not, the materials he chose to emphasize were also the subject of Professor Sprout's lectures.

Herbology classes were meeting in Firenze's forest-like classroom as often as in the greenhouses. Unlike prior years, there was a lot of Herbology homework and many surprise quizzes where they were shown a live plant or a dried herb and asked to describe its potion-making qualities.

Professor Flitwick's exploits during the Battle of Hogwarts had, of course, been reported and enhanced when retold throughout the school. Figuratively, his stature grew despite being smaller than most of his third year students. As Fred and George had once observed about Ginny, magical power is not related to physical size. His N.E.W.T. class now occasionally met on the grounds, giving room for the more advanced charms. During a gale with rain and snow on October 27th Professor Flitwick lead his students on to the grounds where they practiced Impervius.

Harry showed a real knack for charm work. His Undetectable Enlargement Charm was every bit as good as Hermione's and his Supersensory, and Vanishing charms were notably stronger. Although Hermione was still first to answer a question in any class and undoubtedly the best read student in the school, working together as much as they did, not to mention all the water over the dam of their year pursuing Horcruxes, continued to make her friends' accomplishments as important as her own.


Chapter 24: A Great Halloween
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Chapter Twenty Four

A Great Halloween


 
At breakfast on Saturday the 31st of October, Halloween, the weather was threatening but this was hardly noticed by the students gathering in the Entrance Hall for the first Hogsmeade trip of the year. Although the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw Quidditch teams had decided to go only before or after their respective practices, everyone who could was going. While they waited for McGonagall and Filch, all were abuzz with the rumor that the evening's feast would include a dance. Traditionally, the feast ended with an entertainment.

Since all of Harry, Ron and Hermione's fifth, sixth and what would have been their seventh year, had been disrupted by the war, their first year by Quirrell's release of a troll on Voldemort's orders, their third by an ill-considered promise to attend Nearly Headless Nick's Deathday Feast and their fourth by Harry's unexpected naming as a Tri-Wizard champion, the four friends were determined to have their first normal, uneventful and relaxing Hogsmeade trip and Halloween Feast.

They planned nothing extravagant, just a trip to Honeydukes for chocolate squares, having recently discovered that this dark, less sweet and somewhat bitter confection appealed more than gigantic lollipops and sugar quills. Then, a quick check for George whether Zonko's Joke Shop had re-opened and a visit to the Hog's Head for butter beer and to greet Aberforth.

By the time they reached the Hog's Head, Neville, Hannah and several of the Hogwart's fighters, as well as a couple of admiring Gryffindors, had already settled at a table. When Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione entered, they were greeted by shouts to join them. The four waved hello to Aberforth and started re-arrange the tavern chairs and tables to accommodate themselves, the late arrivals. Harry and Ginny went to the bar to get butter beers for all and to say “hello” to Aberforth, who welcomed them by complaining about the noise.

Dumbledore had called his younger brother “rough and unlettered” and he was, grouchy even. But he had twice saved their lives and made it possible for the DA to stay safely hidden in the Room of Requirement. He had fought with courage and effect in the final battle. Harry told him to get use to the noise; they'd be bringing him their custom from now on.

Back at the castle, the Hogwarts teachers were having a rare lunch together, taking advantage of all but the under years' visit to Hogsmeade, everyone's anticipation of the Halloween Feast and the after-dinner dance that was no longer a surprise. The common rooms were orderly, if not actually quiet, and the castle's corridors were essentially empty. The studious under years were finishing their homework to keep their evening free. The mischievous ones were restraining themselves, a detention tonight being highly undesirable. No one had forgotten their Headmistresses' speech at the start of term.

Not one teacher had told a single student about the dance, which Professor Sandberg had suggested because of his house's attachment to their now regular Sunday night events. Yet, their secrecy seemed to have had absolutely no effect on the speed with which the whole school learned the news. Dates and dance partners had been a topic of great interest and anxiety for all the preceding week.

Hogwarts teachers were, as Headmistress McGonagall had said in much different circumstances, “very good at magic.” They were also adult, indeed senior, witches and wizards whose behavior was constrained by their professional duties. With eleven year old children to seventeen year old adults as students, they had to adapt to each of their students' needs. The right response for an eleven year old child was not often right for a seventh year who was within months of a job, marriage and for some, children of their own. At their informal get-togethers though, they could freely express themselves with colleagues who were also friends, “letting their hair down,” only figuratively of course. Thus, with Hagrid hauling his magically enhanced pumpkins to the Great Hall, Filch and Mrs. Norris patrolling the halls, and most of the upper years at Hogsmeade or on the pitch, the teachers had settled in for a leisurely lunch in the room behind the staff table.

Filius Flitwick sat on a tall stool at the foot of the table, opposite Minerva McGonagall at its head. On one side sat Pomona Sprout, Horace Slughorn, and Poppy Pomfrey. On the other, Chester Sandberg, Bill Mullens, and Sybill Trelawney.  All around them reflections of the warm fire in the large fireplace glittered on the cups and trophys, plaques and memorials, of Hogwarts' long history.

Pomona, having set a clay pipe with a long curved stem, a mouthpiece made of finely carved black stone and a golden box of smoking leaf on the table between herself and Horace Slughorn, was extolling the virtues of her latest crop, recently finished curing.

“There's nothing like a little leaf before a nice meal, don't you think Horace?”

“Certainly, afterward as well. It enhances the appetite, stimulates taste and is a specific for digestion.”

She lit the pipe with her wand, took a deep pull upon it and exhaled a smoke ring that Flitwick impishly wanded above the center of the table where it floated spinning like a top. She passed the pipe to Horace. He too took a long draw and blew a series of little ball-like puffs that he magicked around Flitwick's spinning ring like a Christmas ornament.

With a great sigh of pleasure, he passed the pipe to Poppy Pomfrey who took a very delicate puff and passed it along to Minerva who declined, “No, not for me, I have all the appetite I need.”

Poppy laughed, “Minerva, you haven't overeaten since you and that other fourth year Gryffindor – Cindy McCauly wasn't it? -- lost a plum eating contest to those Ravenclaw boys!”

Because the other teachers had not heard of, or even imagined, that their Headmistress had ever engaged in silliness of any kind, they called out to hear the story. Slughorn adding, “Come, come Minerva, we shall keep your gustatory misdeeds secret.”

McGonagall replied, “Oh no! It will be secret like tonight's dance is secret and I think Mullens can't resist telling stories to his seventh years.”

She passed the pipe along to Sybill, who passed it on to Bill Mullens, who teased Minerva about her lack of faith in his story telling discretion. Sybill's comment that she did not wish to cloud her inner eye was received with polite murmurs. All the teachers at table doubted both Divination in general and Sybill in particular. Yet, as uncomprehending as Sybill Trelawney might be, the role her rare prescience played in the fight against Riddle commanded their loyalty.

Bill took a deep pull on the pipe, adding another, larger smoke ring around the absurd ensemble floating above the table. At Flitwick's turn, he tapped the ash onto the table, transfigured it to a tiny bright fire that he placed in the center of the smoke figure above the table, giving it the look of an oddly composed chandelier.

While Flitwick smoked, Minerva lightly tapped her wand and the table filled with beautifully arranged plates of cheeses, sliced meats, fruits, ornately cut vegetables and varieties of sliced bread. There were apples, pears, dishes of large dark red raspberries and little pitchers of cream and sugar with which to accompany them.

She gestured for them to begin, “Try the blue, it’s Muggle-made from Stilton and quite strong.”

The teachers set to making sandwiches or setting themselves plates of cheese and bread. Every wand was working magical skills their students could never have imagined. They magically assembled slices of bread, cheese and meat onto plates as sandwiches, poured berries and pitchers of cream into bowls and levitated selections of crackers and cheese from platter to plate. With all of them wanding their lunch at once, it looked as if a food explosion had landed on their plates as delightful meals.

Flitwick peeled an orange and an apple, then sliced them in mid air, and reassembled them on his plate as a red and orange flower. Pomona levitated the sugar and cream, mixed and whipped them to a sweet mousse with a spin of her wand and set a perfect peak of sweet whipped cream atop the bowl of berries levitating beneath. Minerva, true to her recommendation of the Stilton Blue, laid a thick coating on a baguette, lightly toasting it with her wand.

While they ate, Minerva asked, “Bill, speaking of your seventh years, how are they?”

“You mean the Hogwarts branch of the Weasley clan? They're doing well. They're smart, they're receptive and I think they could probably manage the Muggle world better than most at the Ministry. I didn't know Neville or Luna before but Neville seems nothing like the scatterbrain he’s reputed to be and Luna is sometimes amazingly perceptive. She sees the world through her own lens but has a fantastic ability to speak the uncomfortable truth.”

The Headmistress had checked with Hagrid, “Hagrid says she has talent. He told me that she helps care for the Thestrals and that even the older ones follow her around waiting for her to groom them, Newt Scamander. . . ”

Chester Sandberg interrupted, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?”

“Yes, exactly, he was here with her this summer visiting Hagrid. He'll take her as an apprentice if she gets her N.E.W.T.s.”

“Good for her,” said Pomona. “Good for Hagrid too, he's never had a student so interested, much-less one who is really talented with magical creatures.”

She was quick to add, “Longbottom's come into his own too. I've never seen him as confident or concentrated. After Christmas, I'll give him topics to prepare and let him present to the class, it's a waste to give him the same homework as the others.”

“Is it a girl?” asked Flitwick. “I overheard one of my fourth years say he's dating Hannah Abott.”

“Perhaps,” said Mullens, “I don't know.” Then, in mock seriousness, “Despite Minerva's concern, I do more in class than keep up with their love lives.”

Minerva replied in the same teasing way, “Nonetheless, since you do gossip quite a bit Bill, how about Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, how are they doing -- personally I mean? The war isn't that far behind us.”

“From what I can see, they are more mature than most seventh years and immensely busy. They're curious about Muggles and learn everything I offer. As for their deeper feelings, I don't know. They saw so much, so early, to believe that the war is forever forgotten. But, they don't talk about it, at least not in class. I know that Molly and Arthur think they need time to be young before they begin careers and families. Molly's already planning for summer weddings. They're in love in the sweetest way and are deeply loyal to each other, to Neville and Luna too.  If there's sequele from the war, it's in how they think; they like to know the ground before they step.”

Chester had been fairly quiet until then, "Makes sense if you've been stalked by a gigantic snake.  But, Bill, Harry and Ginny are up to something. To hear the Gryffindors talk, they're spending a lot of time at the Quidditch tent and even for older seventh years, their magic is progressing very fast. I keep them paired in class because no one else can keep up, specially Ginny.  Some are just as good with some spell or another, but Molly and Arthur's lot are getting everything I show them faster than you can believe.”

When Mullens paused, Fillius added, “You should see Potter's charm work, last week he cast a Protego Totalum that would make most Aurors jealous.”

Chester asserted, “Well, I'm not surprised. Everyone sees Expelliarmus as his signature spell but he used Protego more, uses Stupefy if not Expelliarmus and his Patronus has always been very advanced for his age. From talking to people after the war we have a very good picture of what they did in the final battle. Potter cast Shield Charms more often than not. You use what you trust and Harry uses charms.   It's his nature.”

“Like Granger's transfiguration,” added Minerva, “she's been conjuring better than most adults since she was fifteen.”

“Well, she and Ron Weasley are up to something too, afternoons in empty class rooms, off studying most of their Saturdays,” added Chester with his fingers raised to quote the word "studying."

“Billcam's Ax,” said Slughhorn with an air of finality.

“Simplest answer is best for sure,” agreed their Headmistress. “But just what answer do you have in mind Horace?”

“What makes young people serious about their studies, conscious of their future and makes their magic grow like doxies?”

Chester sounded a little surprised, “You think they're already intimate?”

“It fits,” said Slughorn. “Like you said, they're in love. They're all grown up.”

“You'd have to be a polar bear to make love in the Gryffindor tent, even if you are eighteen,” said Minerva. “I'm sure Harry and Ginny are doing something about Quidditch. I'm quite sure they're all getting ready to return Hermione's parents over Christmas. . .” Adding, after a short pause for a sip of tea, “. . . And I do know how Ron and Hermione spend their Saturdays.”

“Well do tell,” said Poppy.

“He's working on a surprise for his family. Ron has an exceptional artistic talent which he's training with Oscar Windemere.” They all knew Oscar's reputation so this was met with surprised expressions. Minerva continued without recognizing them. “Granger goes along or goes to 3Ws to help. It's all family matters but not, I think, the 'family way' as Horace suggests.”

“What's 3Ws?” asked Fillius.

“Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, the joke shop. With Fred gone on, George needs help. Ron and Hermione are helping.”

Filius interjected, “Well, I don't know about Potter and his friends but the Patil girls are another story. Michael Corner wasn't in the dormitory last Wednesday and he, Parvarti, Dean Thomas and Padma are at the very top of Filch's 'out of bed after hours' list. They have completely replaced Potter as his obsession. Last week Filch caught Michael near the Boris the Bewildered passageway. I gave him detention but he accepted it so casually, I'm sure he was diverting Filch from Parvarti who must have been hiding on the stairs. Seems to me they're moving from snogging to populating the class of 2010 at a pretty brisk pace.”

“Well, it fits their age, and as Horace said, the more the magic the less the child,” noted Pomona. “Dean, Michael, Parvarti and Padma are talented, smart and fought bravely. They seem to fit as couples, I wish them happy lives.”

They each raised their cups and toasted, “Happy lives.”

At the same time the teachers were finishing their conversation, Neville's table of friends, for it was Neville who had led the conversation all afternoon, were finishing their butter beers. Neville seemed to have made a strong connection with Aberforth who had actually joined the group at Neville's insistence bringing with him a large bowl of twisted and salted bread sticks he called “pretzels,” saying, “It’s a Muggle bar food, goes well with beer.”

Muggle or not, before it was time to go the pretzels were gone and Aberforth had spent most of the afternoon laughing along with the students as they told tales from school. There were anecdotes from the war but just funny stories about life in the Room of Requirement. Harry, Ron and Hermione had never heard these, so Ginny filled in details and told a story or two herself. Her imitations of the various DA members so neatly portrayed their idiosyncrasies that everyone said it was like being there.

After the laugher from one such story faded, Neville caught Harry's eye, “Do you remember it still, at night, when you wake and the castle's dark and quiet?”

Although the question was directed to Harry, he was not the only one at table who knew the feeling. The couples reached for each others hands beneath the table.

Neville added, “The fear?”

“The loneliness,” answered Harry, who intercepted the feeling before it could reach his eyes.

They all had enjoyed the afternoon together, not the least because it was such fun for Neville's friends to see him wear his new persona so comfortably. Yet, the sounds of deteriorating weather could be heard through the tavern door and even the grimy windows let through enough of the exterior to show darkening skies.

When the clickity-click of hail on the windows came, then went, Neville said, “We'd better get back for the feast, I can't wait to dance, it's the Weird Sisters tonight.”

“How did everyone find out that it's the Weird Sisters,” asked Ron. “The Halloween entertainments are supposed to be a surprise.

“Kirley Duke, the lead guitarist for the Weird Sisters, is the son of Catriona McCormack the Quidditch player. His sister Meaghan plays with Catriona on the Pride of Portree. Meaghan's husband's second cousin's son is a Hufflepuff third year. When McGonagall booked the Weird Sisters, Kirly sent an owl to his sister. Her husband sent an owl to his second cousin, who sent an owl to his son, who told all the Hufflepuffs, who told everyone else.”

Not everyone was sure they'd followed the flights of the guitarist's family owls but they did decide it was good idea to return to school before the storm got worse. When they filed out of the tavern, wishing Aberforth good luck and good day, they congregated in front of the Hogs Head buttoning their cloaks against the rising wind and cold.

Ginny and Harry, Hermione and Ron lead the group up to the High Street until Harry and Ginny stopped because they were laughing so hard at Hermione. She had her left arm draped over Ron's shoulder and was gesturing grandly while loudly and enthusiastically holding forth about their Herbology homework. It was just so Hermione to think about homework after a bit of butter beer.

Ron and Hermione stopped too. Harry and Ginny's laughter subsided. They looked at one another, smiled and kissed. It was just a sweetheart’s buss but when they parted, they looked again, then kissed like lovers. This brought a couple of wolf whistles from the Hog's Head group, but not for long, Harry and Ginny kissing was hardly news. They finished. When Ginny, who was facing Ron and Hermione, opened her eyes, she saw them standing arm in arm and grinning.

When Harry turned to face his friends, Ginny teased, “Well, Ronald, you're smiling. Have you gotten use to us?”

It was Hermione who answered. “Actually, we've been wondering about you two. We haven't seen you snog in the longest time. You're either gettin' it all done down at the pitch, or we don't know what. It's not like you to give up snogging.”

The two couples started back up the High Street past The Three Broomsticks and Honeydukes toward the winding Hogsmeade Road to school. Ginny decided to tell their friends what they'd been doing. “We go to the Gryffindor tent to try the broom exercises in the Chinese Book. We haven't talked about it because when Quidditch didn't work out the way we imagined, we decided to do something together, just the two of us. Anyway, it's not been going all that well so we've been quiet about it. Since we decided on learning the broom exercises, we've gotten nowhere, not a wiggle out of our brooms.”

Harry continued, “So, we've been concentrated on trying to figure it out and really frustrated that we haven't a clue as to why we've had no success. When we run out of ideas, or just don't have the patience to deal with it, we sneak out the back of the tent, around the stands, and fly low over to the forest behind the pitch. From there, we fly, sometimes just through the trees, sometimes around the side of the mountain out of sight where we can fly as high and as fast as we want without being seen. If there's one thing we can do – besides snog – it's fly together.”

They walked further along the road and Ginny opened to their friends more completely. “Anyway, snogging has changed for us. We know we can and we will, so we're more relaxed and, well, you know, after summer when we could cuddle in pajamas, snogging in corridors isn’t what it use to be.”

Ron and Hermione nudged each other, then Hermione said, “Yea, we know what you mean.”

“So,” continued Ginny, “we love to snog but . . .”

While Ginny searched for the words, Harry finished her sentence “. . . it's not time to finish what snogging starts and flying together connects us in a really satisfying way.”

With the press of school work, the Quidditch team, their out-of-school studies, and generally being surrounded by people all the time, the two couples had not shared such confidences since they'd been home at The Burrow. Ginny's revelations about the Chinese Book had opened the gates.

Harry carried on by asking Ron and Hermione, “It can't be that much different for you? The other day Ginny said that this year is our prize, our prize for surviving. We lived, not everyone did. Yet, even though we're together, there's still a lot we don't know. It's like we've solved a big part of the mysteries of our lives – that we belong together. But, that just opened more questions. Think about it, after your folks are back Hermione, what next? After school what do we do? What do you want for your life beside being together?”

It was nearly dark now and for a while the wind swirled from the north – where the walls and copses that bordered the Hogsmeade Road gave shelter – to the east where the same walls and copses funneled the wind and snow directly in their faces. Heads down, pulling their cloaks tightly around them, they didn't speak as they hurried up the road to school.

When the wind shifted again, Ginny continued the conversation from where they left off. “We don't know what's next. We have ideas. But we never had a normal year at school, classes, having friends, playing Quidditch, being together. . . ”

Hermione added to her thought, “. . . and not having any awful decisions, just stuff like homework and whether to dance or sleep on Sunday night.”

Exactly,” said Ginny, “and for now anyway, we're not in any hurry to decide anything we don't have to.”

Ron looked at Hermione to ask her permission for the story he was about to tell. She knew and smiled. Ron began, “This summer at home we were in the sitting room, on the couch, snogging in our pajamas. . .”

“Yes, great isn’t it, how did you manage it?” asked Harry before Ron could continue.

“You were asleep.”

This was not an answer to how they arranged to be alone after everyone had gone to bed but Harry said nothing, so Ron went on with their story. “We were snogging when Dad walked in.”

Hermione told the next part, “Of course, we jumped about a mile when the door opened. We'd barely managed get unwound by the time he sat down in that saggy arm chair of his.”

Both Ron and Hermione were grinning at their shared memory while Ron continued, “We're expecting a lecture but he didn't say a thing about it. He just said, 'The war's over; you'll have long lives. Take your time and enjoy the moments so being young doesn't pass you by.”

Ginny said, “Dad's such a delightful romantic. What did you do then?”

“We all went upstairs and went to bed.”

Although the wind had moderated, the snow had begun in earnest, great thick flakes of it quickly covering the road. They walked a little further before Harry spoke, “So, your folks, our teachers and, after all, even Kingsley, wanted us back at school. Do you think they're worried that the war pushed us together too fast, you know, as couples, so they didn't want us to make Molly's big decisions, get married, have kids?”

Ginny laughed, "Like they did."

Hermione smiled at Ginny by stayed on subject, “Well, when Kingsley made the offer to become Aurors, he'd been on the run. I don't think he knew what a mess the Ministry was until after he became Minister. By the time we were there this summer, he knew we'd learn more at Hogwarts.”

Ginny followed Hermione's point, “Remember what Mum said when she was talking about her and Dad during the first war, 'we were made for each other.' When they finished school they were eighteen. Bill was born eighteen months later. They were starting a family at the same ages you already are. I think the whole bit about big decisions is because a year at school is their idea of fun, great memories, good friends, a chance to get a feel for the future. And, well, you know, they're not wrong.” Laughing, she added, “Although I'm not ready to tell 'em that.”

When the gates to the grounds appeared through the snow and dark, they saw Professor Flitwick waving at them to hurry so he could magically seal the gates and get out of the weather. They waited for him to finish then walked with him to the castle, somewhat slowly despite the weather, their professor needed two strides for each of theirs. By the time they arrived at the Great Hall, the feast had begun.

The Great Hall was magnificently appointed with their teachers' wizarding skills well displayed. The huge windows behind the staff table, the windows on the outside wall and the magical ceiling were dark, revealing only fleeting glimpses of the swirling snow in light from the interior. The thousands of candles floating above the house tables, Hagrid's huge pumpkins magically carved and brightly lit, gave the huge hall the look of a cocoon of light, a bright bubble floating in a sea of dark. Hogwarts' teachers and students, ghosts and house elves, were passengers on their magical ship of light as it carried them toward the destinations of their lives, a magical mystery trip toward futures as yet unrevealed.

The tables were decorated with orange and black cloths and napkins. There were turkeys stuffed with the most luscious combination of flavors, whole hogs roast on spits over the kitchen's fires, great tureens of potatoes mashed or baked, magically refilling pitchers of pumpkin juice, gravy, squashes, relishes, cakes and pies of every description. The elves of Hogwarts knew how to make a feast and Hogwarts students, as excited as they were for the dance, knew how to appreciate the house elves' skills.

Fueled by the last slices of pumpkin and minced pie, the last bites of cake, the Great Hall buzzed with anticipation for the secret dance that was no secret. The teachers at the staff table must have felt that anticipation as a palpable wave because they all were hurrying through their desserts. When Hagrid finished what looked like an entire pumpkin pie, the teachers stood back from their table, which the Headmistress transported away with an almost unconscious wave of her wand. She walked to the front of the platform, sent the podium away, set her wand to the side of her neck and her magically enhanced words boomed through the hall, instantly capturing everyone's attention.

“Since tonight's surprise is so eagerly awaited . . .” Her words were met with laughter throughout the hall, everyone, even the Headmistress, was enjoying the students being one up on their teachers.

When the commotion subsided she continued, “Thus, if you will please stand . . .” Her words were lost in the sounds of students laughing and talking as they pushed back from the benches and stood. Then, with a huge smile she annouced, “Let the dance begin!”

The house tables and their benches vanished as the staff exited the platform. As soon as Hagrid, the last in line, stepped down, a quaffle-size ball of many brilliant colors formed at the center of the platform where the podium usually stood. Then a bagpipe wail rose in intensity in time with the growing ball of light. When it became almost too brilliant to look at, the bagpipe was joined by the high notes of a guitar. When the guitarist reached notes so highly pitched they nearly vanished from hearing, there was a brilliant flash and the ball of light exploded into thousands of sparking fireworks. The brilliantly colored sparks and smoke parted revealing the Weird Sisters. Everyone in the hall clapped and cheered and with a single resounding chord the band burst into a very loud chorus of wizard rock and roll.

Everywhere in the hall school robes and ties were abandoned on window sills and against walls as the hall filled with dancing couples, groups and girls on their own. Some of the boys hung back, leaning against the walls, some no doubt hoping that one of the witches would lead them out to dance. Surely some were hoping that a particular witch would be the one. Ron and Hermione, Ginny and Harry, were among the first on the floor along with the other constant foursome – Michael and Dean with the Patil twins – and most of the older dating couples. Neville and Hannah had gathered Luna and three other girls and were fast dancing in a line.

When a witch gives herself to music, her magic rises, surrounding her like a glow and lightening her body in the same proportion that it lightens her heart. When a wizard releases his inhibitions to music's melodies and rhythms, the magic infuses him, reaching outward to encompass his partner. Harry and Ron gave themselves to the music's spell, dancing with the grace and pleasure of being with Ginny and Hermione.

All around the Great Hall the older girls rose as they twirled. Ginny, shorter than many, seemed almost to float, head and shoulders above the dancing crowd, her hair swirling as she turned, falling across her shoulders in radiant russet flashes as she landed softly in Harry's arms. Hermione held Ron's hand and spun around him as he turned with her, both timed by the bracing rhythms of the bass guitar.

They danced and danced. When the band took a break between sets, Ron and Hermione rounded up the Prefects and saw that all but the upper classes were on their way to their dormitories. As they did, Harry and Ginny saw to it that the Gryffindor Quidditch team heard that practice tomorrow would begin at ten. When the band returned, they started with a slow dance and couples again took to the floor, holding one another close.

As the night grew older, the band chose slow, romantic tunes until it was only the older dating couples who remained. Harry and Ginny looked around for Ron and Hermione and not seeing them walked out to the Entrance Hall. It was empty but the castle doors were open letting the heat of so many dancers waft away into the cold winter air. Understanding that Ron and Hermione had probably claimed one of the better snogging spots, they returned to the Great Hall and danced the last dance.

Retrieving their school robes they wrapped them over their shoulders and stood at the open doors watching the snow accumulate in the light from the interior. While the last of the dating couples made their way back to their dormitories, Harry and Ginny watched the snow fall. It was a lovely storm, a storm that portended nothing but snow-covered grounds and a late start for Quidditch practice.

While they stood framed in the doorway, arms around one another, Ginny's head on Harry's shoulder, Professors McGonagall and Mullens exited the Great Hall to make sure all the students had returned to their dorms.

Professor McGonagall called them, “Alright, the night's over, back to your houses, no dawdling.”

Harry, recognizing the Headmistress's voice, replied before he and Ginny turned to face their professors, “We're on our way professor.”

When they walked past Professors McGonagall and Mullens, Harry smiled and Ginny said, “Thanks! That was a great Halloween.”

The two teachers watched them climb the marble stairs, hand in hand. Professor Mullens mused, “When another century lays on these walls there'll still be stories about those two.”

Professor McGonagall replied, “It's hard to resist a love story.”


Chapter 25: Broom Magic
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Chapter Twenty Five

Broom Magic

When Harry awoke on Sunday the first of November, it was still snowing, although not as heavily as the night before. From his window he could see the snow-covered grounds, the snowy castle roofs and the snow-decorated trees. He and Ginny exchanged three Patronus messages about Quidditch practice deciding that Harry would chivvy along the boys and Ginny the girls, meeting in the common room at nine o'clock. So, after getting out of bed himself and waking Ron to help with the youngsters, Harry woke the team members. This was made easier by copying Professor Sandberg's use of hexes on the inattentive in class, tickling, the Ricktumsempra Charm, was particularly effective. It didn't take many uncontrollable giggles to get even the most reluctant out of bed.

The team met in the common room dressed in their Quidditch kit and Harry, Ron and Ginny sent them to breakfast. They waited outside the portrait hole until everyone was out and followed them down to the Great Hall. While they walked together behind the team, Ginny told Harry, “I think I see growth rings on your stag's horns.”

“And individual hairs of your horse's mane.”

The more corporeal the Patronus, the more powerful the Patronus, and the development of these details gauged the unceasing development of their magic.

Ron asked, “Did you let Hermione sleep?”

“Yep,” replied Ginny, “Someone will need to be awake tonight; I think we still have homework.”

“Herbology,” replied Ron. “So, drills today?”

Harry agreed, “Yea, not sure what though. We figure that the important thing is keeping up the practice schedule and getting use to flying in ugly weather. But let's wait and see what shape the pitch is in and just how cold it is before we decide what to do.”

When the team arrived at the Great Hall, they sat together for breakfast. With the hearty breakfast having its effect, they were becoming their usual lively selves.

Harry offered, “We should come down as a group more often.”

Ron and Ginny, coffee cups in hand and already eating, just nodded. Hermione arrived, sat next to Ron, gave him a quick peck on the cheek and said “Good morning” to no one in particular while she helped herself to cereal.

Ginny remarked, “I was going to let you sleep.”

“Thanks, but you'll need me today,” answered Hermione.

Ron grinned before his next bite of bacon but Harry and Ginny looked at Hermione as if she had turned green, or perhaps sprouted a beak or tail. Hermione responded to their expressions, “Oh, for Merlin's sake you two, it's obvious.”

Harry and Ginny's quizzical looks remained unchanged so Hermione went on, counting off each point by raising a finger, “It's cold, the cloud cover's low, there's snow on the ground, visibility is awful, most of the team was up late. . .” Needing more fingers and unwilling to give up her spoon of oatmeal, she concluded without the counting gesture, “. . . practice is starting late.” Then, in a tone that implied her conclusion was obvious, “So, you'll run some sort of organized drills today and when you do you always need someone to keep track of things. Anyway, it's cold, you'll need more fires and I'll help Ginny with those.”

Harry wondered, “Ron's been teaching you Quidditch?”

Hermione didn't reply until she'd finished a few mouthfuls of cereal. “I've gone to school with you for seven years. I'm all but married to Ron. Ginny and I have been living like sisters since last year. Just how many hours of Quidditch talk do you suppose I've heard? A million maybe? You don't need to be mental about brooms to figure out that this is no day to have this many people, with this range of skills, blazing through the sky.”

Hermione, of course, was right. There was always an element of danger in Quidditch. Harry's several trips to the hospital wing were undeniable proof of that. The ugly weather and the less than fully rested team made the concern for safety poignant. So, after breakfast when the group made their way across the snow-covered grounds to the pitch, the four friends decided that Hermione would conjure more containers and set more of the bluebell flames, including a couple for hand warming on the pitch itself. Ginny and Ron were to lay an obstacle course that would challenge the team's broom skills and Harry would explain the day's exercise to the team.

When Hermione conjured fires and containers inside the tent, the team huddled around them, rubbing their ungloved hands over the flames. Harry explained, “We're starting late; it's lousy weather for a practice match; the Snitch will be lost in the low cloud cover. So, today we're going to do something fun for practice. Ginny and Ron are setting an obstacle course to challenge your flying skills. We'll time how fast you run the course so you can see how you're doing relative to your teammates. Keep in mind; this is not just a race. It's a chance to learn what you need to practice. We can run the course again later this season and we'll see if you've improved. When you finish, you'll have an idea what you do best, what you don't do so well, and you'll be able to work on what you need to improve. Any questions?”

There were a couple of smart remarks about setting the course in the tent and flying with a warmer tied to their brooms, to which Harry gave equally silly answers before leading the team onto the pitch.

No one had trouble getting into the spirit of the exercise. If they didn't like competition, they wouldn't play Quidditch. Although Harry had tried to not emphasize the contest, as soon as he noted they would be timed, the whole team began speculating about who was fastest.

The day was lightening some. The low-lying clouds had begun to thin in the sun. Hermione had conjured several copper-colored warmers that came to about waist height. Each was brightly ablaze with blue fires. She had set another half dozen at the edge of the pitch nearest the Gryffindor tent, the starting point of the obstacle course that Ron and Ginny were busy setting. They were levitating the last of what looked like large colored balloons in place above the pitch.

While the team stood around the fires, Ginny descended sitting upright on her broom both legs to one side. She slid off effortlessly as she landed and began to explain the exercise. “OK, listen up, what can we do on a broom?” No one answered. “Come on” said Ginny, one hand on her hip, the other holding her broom, “ it isn't cold enough to freeze your brains, what can you do on a broom?”

Young Kevin answered in a questioning tone, “You can fly, and you can stop?”

“Right Kevin,” replied Ginny. “You can fly and you can stop but do you fly in a straight line forever? No, of course not. So, since we're pretty dim this morning, I'll lay it out for you. You can turn right, turn left, ascend, descend, stop, go faster, go slower and hover.”

She paused a moment scanning the team's eyes to be sure she had their attention. Then, convinced they were following her, she continued, “Those are what we'll test. Now, how many of you turn right better than you turn left?” A couple of hands went into the air.

“How many of you turn left better than you turn right?”

Only one was raised.

“How many don't know?”

Only a couple of the players admitted that they didn't know.  Regardless, not everyone had a hand in the air, so these weren't the only ones who hadn't thought about this aspect of their flying skill.

By the end of Ginny's explanation, Ron had descended from setting the last of the colored balloon-like markers. He hovered about ten feet off the ground near where Hermione was standing next to her own warming fire, wand, Muggle pen and notebook in hand.

Ginny explained, “Ron will demonstrate. First, you'll hover where Ron is hovering, then Hermione will send you offt.” Hermione raised her wand, there was a bang, wand sparks and Ron started flying, rising into the course between the markers.

“Hermione will time you. He's going slowly to demonstrate the course but this straight stretch from one end of the pitch to the other is one of the chances you'll have to make some time. There are blue markers and yellow markers. Always keep the blue markers to your right and the yellow markers to your left. If you miss, if you pass on the wrong side, Harry, who'll be our referee, will add five seconds to your time for each miss.”

Ron had reached the end of the straight course and turned right at the furthest blue marker to follow the curve of the stands on the far side of the pitch.

“Now, here's another chance to make some time, a semicircular run around the far side, staying next to the stands. When you reach the starting point, you'll turn back down the straight stretch and at the last yellow marker, you'll make the same run to your left.”

Everyone watched as Ron, flying a bit faster now, made the left turn and started back to the beginning of the course. Before he reached it, Ginny summed the exercise thus far, “Have you got it, one straight run, right half oval, another straight run, left half oval. When you're back at the starting point the second time, you'll make a steep ascent to the green marker.”

Ron went into a steep climb aiming for a green marker that was just below the cloud cover.

Ginny explained, “The green marker's tricky. You don't need to stop but you must touch it as you pass, it'll flash green three times. If you miss, return and touch it.”

Demelza asked, “Do you have to touch it with your hand, or your broom?”

“Either one,” answered Ginny, “just make it flash, it's not a Snitch. It won't know either way.”

Ron demonstrated, slapping the magical marker. It flashed three times and he changed direction toward a red marker at the same level as the green one he'd just passed but at the opposite end of the pitch. He carefully swung left to pass the one blue marker, then right to pass the single yellow maker on the left.

Ginny reminded them, “Same as before, to the right of blue, to the left of yellow. You must completely stop at the red marker. Again, you can touch it with the tip of your broom, which is likely fastest, because next you'll descend straight down to the starting point. Unless you're still, completely stopped for two seconds, the maker won't stop flashing, and you can't start your descent. Any questions?”

Ron, a Keeper with plenty of hovering practice, rode his broom in a controlled fall until he passed the starting point and landed next to Hermione.

Ginny started them off, “Alright, in the order you already are, to the starting point. Harry, if you please, watch the markers.”

Harry kicked off and set himself hovering on the outside of the course where he could see that the yellow and blue makers were properly passed and still be heard without Sonorous. Kevin was closest to the start; he hovered in place until Hermione's signal. Raised a Muggle without a father, he received an extra share of the four's affections. Plus, he was a natural flyer. He made the straightaways fine, did both turns around the pitch reasonably well, slowed his ascent as he neared the marker so as to be sure to touch it but lost a lot of time fighting to hold his broom still at the red marker.

When he landed Hermione called out his time, “One minute, twenty seven seconds.”

Ginny encouraged the young flier, “Well done Kevin, let's work on your hover. Silvie, you're next.”

Silvie did better. She was a faster flier but had to slow to make the run around the pitch to the left. When she finished Hermione announced, “One minute, twenty seconds.”

Ginny coached, “Silvie, you put your shoulder in going to the right, so you can go faster and not get pushed onto the wall. Do the same on the left and you won't have to slow down. You can lose a pursuing Chaser that way.”

One by one the team flew the course and received their times. When each landed Ginny or Harry, sometimes both, would offer advice about technique or give ideas about how they could practice the skills they needed to learn. Unsurprisingly, the two older Chasers, Demelza and Dean, flew the course fastest, coming closest to what the team was now calling “breaking the minute,” meaning completing the course in less than sixty seconds. Demelza and Dean both flew the course in one minute and three seconds.

Harry and Ginny had both landed in front of the team and were about to end practice when Ron, grinning mischievously, started chanting, “Ginny, Ginny, Ginny.” The team picked it up and turned the chant to “break it, break it,” clapping and laughing as they did. With a huge grin, Harry pointed Ginny to the start where Hermione had already returned and was standing ready, clapping and chanting along with the rest.

To say that Ginny enjoyed a challenge would be a grand understatement. Ginny was an athlete – higher, farther, and faster. When she mounted and rode easily to the start, she was enjoying the team's challenge. Part of her enjoyment was that the team had acted together. They were having fun. They were a team and they were sure enough of her disposition to challenge her. Nonetheless, she had no intention of flying slower than anyone and was enjoying the chance to prove it. By the time she reached the start and hovered she had run the course three times in her mind and knew exactly what she would do at each marker.

When Hermione's wand banged and sparked, Ginny was at speed before the sparks faded. She flew straight between the markers leaning hard to the right, then hard to the left, using the momentum of her lean to pass the markers without slowing. At the last blue marker, she exaggerated her rightward, inward lean until it seemed she would fall to the inside, countering the outward force of her rapid turn. Then, the straightaway again and left at the last marker.  The speed of her turn pushed her outward until the outermost twigs of her broom lightly swept the stadium wall.

The whole team only had eyes for her flight, clapping, chanting, and the younger ones literally bouncing on their toes with excitement. They were flyers. They loved their brooms and Ginny made flying an art. She rode the ascent laying flat against her broomstick to lessen wind resistance, aiming to the outside of the green marker. She turned and flicked it with her fingers as she shot toward the red maker at the other end of the pitch. The maker flashed, the team cheered and was still cheering as she slowed, touched the red marker with the tip of her broom and waited for it to stop flashing. When it did, she rode her broomstick straight down to a stop as if floating out of the sky.

When Hermione called out “Fifty five seconds,” everyone cheered. Dean and Demelza were shaking their heads in amazement. Ginny had bested their times by almost ten seconds. Although unlikely to admit it, they probably expected as much. Ginny returned to the group and joined Harry in front of the team ready to call it day. Ron, again grinning impishly, started another chant, “Harry, Harry, Harry!” Again the team picked up the chant. This time it was a grinning Ginny who pointed to the start where Hermione was waiting, smiling and laughing. There wasn't anyone who wasn't having fun.

Harry mounted and rode to the starting point; he was thinking out each run, each turn, looking for ways to best Ginny's time. By flying to the outside of the green touch maker, Ginny had given herself room to regain speed while still easily able to touch the marker. It was a smart move but it added a few feet to her course and she still had to slow her ascent into the turn. This gave him an idea. If he could flick the marker with the tail of his broom as he flipped it, he might just save a second or two. It was the move in the Chinese Book without the roll.

Hermione's wand banged and sparked. Harry too took the straightaway at speed. Like Ginny, he leaned hard to pass the markers. Pushing for speed he passed so close that the wind from his passing left the markers bobbing in his wake. Like Ginny he took the turns lying nearly perpendicular to the wall, using his inward lean to counter the out-thrust of the turn. He turned into the ascent, pushed on the foot rests and slid up the handle of his broomstick, lying flat to slip though the air. He aimed slightly to the inside of the green maker and approached without slowing. Arching his back he worked hand-over-hand back down the handle of his broom, forcing the tip of his Firebolt upward. He firmed his stance on the foot rests and pushed like pumping a playground swing to make it go higher. His Firebolt flipped, its tail twigs hitting the marker. It flashed green. Harry's flip continued around to point his broomstick toward the red marker. When he came straight again, he knew he’d lost. The momentum of the flip was carrying him too high. He descended into the red marker, touched it, held, and dropped.

Hermione called, “fifty six seconds.”

Everyone loved it. The team was chanting, “Ginny beat Harry, Ginny beat Harry.” Ginny, Ron and Hermione were laughing. Hermione, pointing her wand toward her warming fire, was laughing so hard that she had trouble thinking Finite Incantatem to vanish it. Harry enjoyed it too. Losing to Ginny was no embarrassment and the fact that the team was having a good time on a day they would have preferred to stay in bed was all they could have hoped. They would fly better for what they had learned as well as for the comradeship. He landed, was greeted by Ginny and the team with smiles and teases about having to carry Ginny's broom.

Together they dismissed the team. Ron and Hermione aimed their wands at each of the makers, which vanished in turn. The team, still boisterous, headed back to the castle for lunch. They'd used their time to the fullest. The Slytherins were already leaving their tent to take the pitch. Ginny, noticing that Silvie and Kevin had left their gloves at the edge of the stands, reminded them to pick them up, and started to follow them over.

When the Slytherins walked past, brooms on shoulders, Llewellyn Parsons greeted Harry, “So, what'cha you lose to your girlfriend, your team seems pretty chuffed.”

Harry replied, “A practice race, something we did to get a little flying in, having a late start after the dance.”

Parsons noted the tripod flame stands, “What's with those?”

“Warmers, I'll get them out of your way unless you want them, it's still pretty cold.”

Llewellyn seemed to be thinking about it. Harry left it to him, “The stands and flames are spells. Do you know Finite Incantatem?”

Parson's nodded that he did, “Thanks, they'll be handy.”

The Slytherin captain had no sooner spoken than they both heard Silvie and Kevin crying. Both captains turned to see the two youngsters on the ground, Kevin holding his head and Silvie rubbing her shoulder. The big Slytherin Beater Graham Pritchard was standing over them with his wand out shouting, “You stupid little girl . . .” He said no more. His head came up, his face full of surprise.

Neither Harry nor Llewellyn grasped what had happened until they saw Ginny. Ginny was in her fighting stance, feet shoulder-width apart, more on the balls of her feet than her heels. She was ready to move; she was ready to fight. Her wand was pointed at the big Beater who had raised his but seemed unable to use it. His left hand was grasping his throat and he seemed to be straining to say something.

Harry realized that Ginny had Langlocked him non-verbally. Pritchard, the same boy who had blocked the passage on the Express, pulled his hand from his mouth and cast a mediocre Stupefy at Ginny. She blocked it with a tiny turn of her wrist and it ricochet harmlessly into the stands. Seeing Ginny calm and ready, he thought better of trying again, turned and walked away.

Parsons, having understood what happened, shouted, “Weasley!”

Ginny, helped Silvie and Kevin to their feet, brushed the snow from their Quidditch robes, handed them their gloves and sent them on their way. She walked over to Llewellyn and said with neither preamble nor excuse, “My apology. It's your team. I should've left it to you. I lost my temper. That oaf deliberately knocked those kids down and when he called Silvie a 'stupid little girl,' I tongue-tied him.”

Parsons said, “I would've handled it.”

Ginny replied before she turned toward the Gryffindor tent, “I know, I'm sorry. It won't happen again. But, if he tries to Stun me again, you'll scrape him off the wall.”

Harry couldn't help smiling. Ginny walked toward the tent, Llewellyn shook his head, looked at Harry, and exclaimed almost admiringly, “Your girlfriend's some witch Potter!”

Harry, reused a line that he'd come to enjoy, “Actually Llewellyn, I figured that out all by myself. Have a good practice.”

When Harry entered the Gryffindor tent, Ginny was sitting on one of the benches near the warming flames still burning in their tripod containers. The rest of the team was on their way to lunch. She said, “Sorry Harry, thanks for not intervening, but I shouldn't have lost my temper.”

“He's a gormless prat”

“Yea,” said Ginny, “when he called Silvie a 'stupid little girl' and pulled his wand, I lost it. He deliberately ran into those kids.”

“That was what Riddle called you in the Chamber of Secrets; I thought maybe he reminded you of that.”

“No, I just couldn't resist showing him the other side of the cloak, revenge for Silvie and Kevin; let him feel what it is like to be on the wrong side of someone bigger and stronger.” They enjoyed a laugh, the Slytherin Beater was two stone for every one of hers.

Harry sat next to Ginny, close so they touched, then talked about the Slytherin captain, “Llewellyn didn't say anything but I think he was embarrassed. I'll bet Pritchard's heard it from him by now. Llewellyn doesn't seem to be a bad guy.”

“Oh, I'm pretty sure I understand Llewellyn. He wants to play professional Quidditch. That's why he's in school; that's why he wouldn't fly with Malfoy. He's coached by his dad who knows the professional teams aren't interested in dim witted gits who bought their position. You've got to get along to play.  He needs to show his skills in a real match, not one of Malfoy's messes.”

“Makes sense.”

“He wants to win, above all he wants to win, but he needs to beat you within the rules. Llewellyn's all Quidditch, Quidditch skills, Quidditch rules, Quidditch ethics, Quidditch! I've not seen him fly a match but I'd bet he's good. I'm sure he wants to beat you to the snitch Harry. He's a Chaser but he's flying Seeker.  What better way to get noticed by the pros?”

Harry nodded, “A lot of things determine who gets the Snitch. Lunch?

Looking at the tiny circling stars on her watch Ginny answered, “I don't think we can make it, it's almost too late now.”

“We can if we fly.”

Harry turned to the broom rack. The teams' brooms were laid across pegs; his and Ginny's were leaning against the rack where they'd dropped them after Ginny's confrontation. Ginny stared to say something about lunch but stopped abruptly when Harry's Firebolt rose, turned, and stopped waist high, right in front of Harry.

For a while neither spoke, the sight of Harry's broom hovering before him exactly like the picture in the Chinese Book was too abrupt to absorb. Then, Ginny's excitement and puzzlement was clear in her voice and the flash in her eyes, “What did you do? That wasn't Accio!”

“I thought it. I looked at my broom leaning against the rack. . .” After a pause to remember exactly and choose his words carefully, he continued, “I felt something like the feeling of being on a broom. It's hard to describe but you know it. It's how you feel in touch with your broom when flying. What changed from all the other times was the feeling. Try, see if you can feel it.”

For a few minutes it seemed that Ginny was struggling with the idea, she seemed concentrated and strained. Then, suddenly, she smiled and her broom was hovering before her.

“See,” said Harry, “I'm thinking you have to sense the flying charm . . . to connect with it.”

Both walked to opposite sides of the tent, silently called their brooms, and put them through the first set of exercises in the Chinese Book, long since memorized in session after session of failed attempts. When they were successfully doing all three, they took their brooms in hand – not having touched them to this moment – and placed them back on the rack, returning to the bench, everything but what they had just done entirely forgotten, even lunch.

“Blimey,” said Harry, “think this through with me. A broom has a flying charm and a braking charm.”

“Yes, there's a cushioning charm, but it's not involved. Go on.”

“Do you remember when Hermione was trying to teach me Accio before the first Tri-Wizard task?”

Ginny prefaced her answer with a playful elbow in Harry's ribs. “Silly boy, I've known what you were doing since I was nine years old. Of course I remember. You drove Hermione mental for a couple of weeks and I couldn't watch until you had the egg and were still alive. Keep going.”

Harry started to imagine how things might have been had he understood his feelings for Ginny sooner. Then, deciding it was worthless to dwell on it, “I finally got it when I realized that you’re part of the charm. Do you know what I mean?”

Ginny thought for a minute then said, “I think so. It's your focus on what you want Accio to get that makes it work, right?”

“Yes, that's when I started to really get charms, when I realized that clearly knowing what you want is the key.”

Ginny responded, “OK, I get that, where are you going?”

“The flying charm is not something stuck inside the broom; it's not magic in the handle. The broom's inside the charm. When you get on your broom, you get inside the charm. The charm and your magic sort of merge. You're a great flier because you think. You know what you want to do and you know it clearly. So your broom does exactly what you want it to do. It's not really anticipating you.”

He saw that Ginny was following, “What if your intentions are a nonverbal incantation? What if you're giving your broom commands from inside the charm?”

Ginny thought about it for a moment, her chin in her hands and her eyes closed. “And, you're a good flier because your moves come to you so clearly, like that flip at the touch marker. You saw that at some point, right? You didn't think it out. It just occurred to you.”

“Right, I saw the move, how to do it, when I was thinking about how you flew that turn. I was looking for somewhere to beat your time.  I know you're faster on the turns and I'm faster on the straightaways but unless I did something different, matching your time was the best I'd do. You're too good for me to beat just by flying faster.”

“Well, if you'd started that flip earlier, let it go one more rotation, it would have been perfect. You would have bled off momentum and come out level with the marker. That would have shaved a couple of seconds off your time.”

“Possibly” replied Harry before he continued explaining his theory. “The flying charm senses you. It senses your posture; it senses your intents.”

Ginny added, “It senses responses you don't?” Then, to explain her idea, “Isn't that's why you fly faster than others? You're comfortable. Why else would be faster than another? The broom's the same. Isn't it because the Flying Charm senses when someone feels like pulling back at speed? Isn't that like a nonverbal incantation too?”

Harry had not thought of that but it made sense. The charm sensed the rider. Once you thought about it, that was the only way it could work

When they heard the Slytherins leaving, they waited a minute then looked out the front of the tent. Ginny checked the pitch, “No one can see us from the castle now it's snowing again but I can see from one end of the pitch to the other, let's try one of the Chinese flying exercises.”


Chapter 26: Falling Freely
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Chapter Twenty Six

Falling Freely

Ron and Hermione arrived at the Great Hall just a couple of minutes behind the Gryffindor team. They joined them for lunch and joking about practice. Cootes opined that Harry and Ginny weren't there because Harry was too embarrassed to be seen in public after losing to Ginny. Few agreed, the consensus being that they'd stayed at the Gryffindor tent to snog, which knowing Ginny and Harry, was where to take your flutter.

Ron and Hermione were fairly sure that missing lunch had more to do with broom practice than snogging in the cold but kept that to themselves. The team had enjoyed practice. Harry and Ginny had done nothing if not show that both were highly accomplished flyers. If it wasn't before, it was clear now, that they weren't asking for anything they couldn't do themselves. The Gryffindor team liked their captains, for their skill, and for how they ran the team.

Ron and Hermione made a quick trip to Gryffindor Tower to get what she wanted to work on that afternoon. Then, they walked to an unused fourth floor classroom where Hermione used the chalk board to work through her plans for George. She was creating a large chart of 3W's products in columns with all the ingredients and parts in rows. There were so many products and constituents that it would take many, many feet of parchment to record, so she used the chalk board – where it was easy to erase false starts or enlarge a row or column – to organize and draft her work.   When she completed a part of the enormous chart, she recorded it with Muggle pen and paper, labeling each so the various sheets could be assembled into a large, finished chart.

While Hermione worked at the chalk board, Ron looked for new pathways to the subject of his first portrait. Since early October, Ron's work had become a kind of meditation. To someone who didn't know what he was doing it looked as if he was asleep in a chair. As Ron's skill developed, Oscar Windemere gradually left him more and more on his own. When they worked together, he still followed Ron into timelessness but mostly to encourage, giving Ron confidence by confirming his findings. He no longer needed to lead Ron at all.

Having so often shared these magical meditations with Ron, when Pigwidgeon arrived with the message that Ron and Hermione would miss Saturday's lesson for Hogwarts' Halloween, Oscar had suggested that Ron try the work on his own as preparation for committing his first portrait to canvas. Only on his own would Ron discover he could do quite well without Oscar.

Oscar was sure of a few things. Ron's talent was significant and developing faster than he first imagined. In fact, the only thing left for Ron to overcome was his jitters. Speed would come with experience but Ron already had mastered the essentials. Oscar was also sure that Ron's first portrait would be good, very good. Having spent so much time following Ron into timelessness, Oscar had a thorough sense of who Ron was and how deep his feelings ran. Ron was, in short, a Weasley. He was sensual, affectionate and open. Although his early years with Fred and George had taught him to hide his feelings, having opened to Hermione was completing him. Her love was filling his vacancies of confidence and self-worth.

Oscar also understood that it was easy for an old wizard to like a smart, pretty and vivacious young witch but Hermione had a crisp and insightful intelligence he admired, as he did her devotion to Ron. He would miss their company when Ron's lessons were done. He was thinking of asking him to help with a new project.

They worked almost right through dinner. Then, Ron helped Hermione pack her papers in proper order before they hurried to the Great Hall. When they arrived, they surveyed the Gryffindor table for Harry and Ginny. Not seeing them, Hermione asked the nearest Gryffindors whether they had been at dinner.   Receiving no answer beyond shrugged shoulders, they sat at the nearest space and began to fill their plates.

They didn't get past a roll and a drumstick when Hermione said, “Ron, I don't like this. I'm worried. They may've gone flying in the trees; they could be hurt.”

“Hermione, don't you think  they'd send a Patronus if they were lost or hurt? They're probably just flying off their frustrations with the Chinese Book.”

“You know those two. They think there's nothing they can't do on a broomstick. Merlin knows what they'll try. Let's take some food and check if they're in Gryffindor Tower.”

Ron recognized the determination in her voice and was already moving food around to put some chicken legs and wings in what had been a bowl of fruit, “And, if they're not there, we'll go look. OK?”

“If they're not there, we tell the Headmistress, we'll need help to look.”

Ginny and Harry were there. That was apparent the instant Ron and Hermione entered the common room. There were two brooms laid over an armchair and robes, jumpers and Quidditch gear all over the back and arms of the couch in front of the fire. Their gloves and guards, their whole Quidditch kit, was neatly laid out, clean and dry. Ginny and Harry, on the other hand, were wet and dripping in front of the fire. Ginny was running her hands through Harry's hair, using her wand to dry it.  Her own hair was dry but unbrushed. Harry had probably wand-dried it for her. They both had their sleeves and pants rolled up to better rub their cold, wet limbs.

Harry sat with his head bowed so Ginny could dry his hair.  He gazed at her legs where her fair, freckled skin emerged from around her ankles, ruddy from the wet and cold. His gaze was captured by the sight. He had two thoughts in rapid succession. First, for no apparent reason, he remembered the younger Wainwright's idea that with her fair skin and red hair there could be Viking blood in Ginny's line. Then, that thought was vanished by a sudden realization – Ginny had freckles everywhere.

He didn't have as much time as he would have liked to contemplate Ginny's freckles because Hermione, who had hurried over to join them, sat next to him in the most available space leaving Ron to organize a space next to Ginny/  As she sat, she caught Ginhy's eye, then exaggerated her gaze toward Ginny's partially unbuttoned blouse.

Ginny grinned, turned her back to Ron who was arranging an arm chair to lean against, set her wand on her lap, and whispered as she quickly restored her school girl's modesty, "Warm hands."

They shared a knowing smile.  Only yesterday Hermione and Ginny and decided it was time to explore what Arthur called "the delightful territory between snogging and making babies."

Ron sat, pulled a napkin off the bowl of chicken, took two legs and passed the bowl to Ginny. Ginny, Harry and Hermione took a leg apiece. Harry took a wing too.

Before Hermione took a bite she returned to her intention, “Let's see, my friends the broom fanatics, spent all day without eating, flying around in a snow storm. After a pleasant day of not running into a tree at a thousand miles an hour they decided to risk dying of pneumonia while they polished their Quidditch kit. Is that about right?”

Ginny laughed, “Hermione, witches and wizards don't die of pneumonia. They go to the Hospital Wing. They drink a potion. Their friends bring them their favorite candy and they complain about having to stay overnight.”

Hermione smiled at Ginny's humor but only briefly because she wasn't ready to surrender her resolution to admonish her friends for taking untoward risks. However, when Ginny excliamed, “Harry solved the broom exercise,” Hermione and Ron both became very attentive.

Ginny stated it plainly, “We can control our brooms without being on them.”

Hermione's tone immediately changed to curiosity, her feeling that it was necessary to chastise them entirely forgotten, as was the chicken leg in her right hand, which she was using to punctuate her queries like an orchestra conductor's baton. “He did? How? It's a spell? Tell me about it. Start with how!”

Harry started the bowl back toward Ron after first dropping the bones of his quickly devoured chicken into it. After everyone had discarded their bones, Ron passed the napkin to wipe their hands as he finished the remaining wing and set the bowl aside.

Harry didn't get a chance to respond to Hermione because groups of Gryffindors had begun to arrive from dinner. Seeing the lot of them before the fire, Demelza leaned over the back of the couch and asked “What did you two do? It looks like you fell in the lake.”

As she spoke, she was joined by others, some on the team, some not, so Harry diverted their attentions to the on-going jokes about losing to Ginny, “We were racing all afternoon.”

Demelza asked, “So, who won?”

Harry answered, “Ginny, 426 to 1.”

Everyone thought this was hilarious and after a few minutes of happy banter left the four on their own.

When their fellow Gryffindors wandered off to their various studies, games and conversations, Harry and Ginny were finally able to relay what they'd learned.

Harry began, “When it first happened, we thought out the magical theory and I think we have a good idea of how it works. Yet, after working on Falling Freely all afternoon, I think it comes down to this – you can command the flying charm the same way you cast a nonverbal spell. If you can clearly imagine what you want the broom to do – assuming it's something a broom can do – imaging is just another way to control it, like leaning or pulling, moving your weight.”

Ginny explained further, “The trick is to sense the charm. Once you sense it, connect to it, it's really rather easy. It took us longer to be sure we were ready for Falling Freely than it took to learn it.”

Ron asked, “So, how'd you finally figure it out?”

Harry replied, “We were thinking of flying to lunch because we were late.  I turned to look at my broom and realized I could sense the charm, that the charm wasn't in the broom but the broom was in the charm. That did it.”

“So what's Freely Falling?” asked Hermione.

“It's what we decided to call the first exercise where you're actually off your broom. You get a few hundred feet in the air, dive and rise off your broom, like riding the wind. We think it's first because it's the easiest and safest,” answered Harry.

To which Hermione responded with a sarcastic flair, “Oh! Why doesn't getting a few hundred feet in the air and getting off your broom sound safe to me?”

Harry laughed, “Well, it's safe because we spent most of our time practicing with Arresto Momentum in case something went wrong. Then, we tried it one by one, always with one of us on the ground ready to stop a fall. After a while we realized that because you don't actually get outside the flying charm, it's easy.   It's nearly the same as being on it.”

Ginny continued his thought, “The exercise gets you use to it. At first, it's really scary, but when you realize you have control, it's a lot of fun. In the next exercises though, you actually leave your broom and fly it as you fall . . .” Noticing Hermione's expression she quickly assured her, “. . . until you bring it back to where you remount. It looks like there're some tremendous Quidditch moves.”

Hermione's worry abated. They'd sat by this fire many times when there was plenty more to worry about than broom accidents. “Well, it does sound like you've taken all the right precautions but the next time you disappear into a snow storm, send a Patronus and let us know, OK?”

“OK,” answered Harry and Ginny together.

“And, one more thing, do me a favor and go take a hot bath so you don't catch cold. I'll do the Herbology homework; you can copy it during lunch tomorrow.”

“Sure Mum!” teased Ginny, who was laughing at her own jest before it was even spoken. “But Harry can't get into the girls dormitory so we'll have to use the Prefects' bathroom.”

After they stood, Harry kissed her and joined her tease, “I'm sure that'll keep us from catching cold!" He didn't mention that in fact he'd very much like a hot bath with Ginny.  He'd like more of what they started, and had so quickly but reluctantly stopped, when they heard Ron and Hermione in the Portrait Hole.

Ron and Hermione ignored them. When Harry and Ginny started to gather their Quidditch gear, Ron picked up Harry's robes and the rest of his kit. “Here, get your broom, I'll get this stuff.”

Hermione did the same for Ginny. Ron and Harry watched as Hermione and Ginny climbed the stairs to the girl’s dormitory. They were only a quarter of the way up when Hermione stopped, turned, “Oh! I almost forgot. Notices arrived for all of us today. The next Y.I.P.I. meeting is December 13th, the Sunday before we leave.”


Chapter 27: Ready, Set, Go
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Chapter Twenty Seven

Ready, Set, Go

With the Y.I.P.I. meeting that evening, Harry, Ginny and Ron left Quidditch practice with the rest of the team. Only bits of snow remained in the shadows of the great oval's towers and the day was bright and unseasonably warm for December. They met Hermione, who had put in a little work on her project for George, changed into Muggle clothes and went down to the Great Hall for lunch.

The last time they had attended a Y.I.P.I. meeting it was raining. Although the day's weather seemed alright, the blue sky was about half covered by wispy clouds. They brought their traveling cloaks just in case. When they finished lunch, they walked toward the platform and staff table, waiting at the steps until Professor McGonagall waved them forward and walked them to the room off the Great Hall. There, she took an ornate silver bowl of Floo Powder from the mantle and saw them on their way to The Burrow, wishing them luck with their Muggle meeting.

Arthur and Molly were relaxing in the living room. Arthur was still in his dressing gown reading The Prophet in his favorite, saggy, shaggy overstuffed arm chair. A plate of crumbs from lunch and an empty tea cup rested precariously on the stack of books, apparently magically balanced on its left arm. Molly relaxed on the couch only occasionally attending to the knitting needles working in midair beside her, stitching one of the Weasley sweaters that were a Christmas tradition. Had their children been younger, a tree and voluminous decorations would already be in place by the bay window. With Bill and Fleur, Charlie, George and Percy on their own, Ginny and Harry, Ron and Hermione planning to spend the holiday in Australia, they'd decided upon a quiet Christmas, perhaps just a dinner or two with friends.

Hearing the four arrive in the kitchen fire, they met them as they were brushing off the ashes, Hermione using Tergeo to clean the hearth rug.

“To what do we owe this pleasure?” asked Molly, hugging them each in turn.

Ron sounded surprised, “We've the Y.I.P.I. meeting tonight, didn't we send an owl?”

Arthur replied, “Not that I remember but it's good to see you, announced or not.”

Hermione apologized, “Sorry, we've had the notice for a while and must have thought we let you know already.”

“I'm sure things are busy at school. It's not a problem. Come, let's have coffee in the kitchen and you can tell us all about school." Molly lead the few steps to the kitchen table.

The rest of the afternoon was spent leisurely catching up on everyone's doings, first at the table over cups of coffee, later in the living room with Arthur in his chair, Ron and Hermione sharing the couch with Molly. Harry and Ginny sat together on the floor leaning against another overstuffed arm chair.

Arthur told them about progress at the Ministry. A number of departments were still struggling with lost records and too few people but generally things had improved. People were feeling good about their work but Kingsley was showing signs of wear from trying to meet the expectations of so many different groups and departments.

Molly told them about Bill and Fleur and the owl she had received from Charlie. Audrey had sent a Christmas card, although they had no visit or word from Percy since the dinner for Ginny's coming of age. He was being very respectful of Arthur at work, it seemed that Percy as well as the entire Ministry was gossiping about the Minister's Council.

Hermione reported on all their classes, emphasizing how well Ron was doing. Harry and Ginny talked about Quidditch, neglecting their disappointed expectations and their practice with the Chinese book. Both thought this would surely make Molly apprehensive. They did however tease Ron about being a father figure for the first and second years. Ron blushed. His mother and Hermione beamed.

After a while Hermione announced, “Ron has something he would like to ask.”

Ron began rather more formally than the circumstances required, “I've been working on a present for the whole family. It would be best if I could give everyone their part at the same time. I was wondering if it would be possible to have a party here before we leave for Australia, perhaps on the day before we leave? That's Saturday December 19th.”

“Do we get to know what it is?” asked Ginny.

“Not before then,” answered Ron.

“Can we guess?” teased Harry.

Ron just shook his head but Hermione admonished, “Oh shusssh! Quiet you two.”

It seemed likely that Molly and Arthur hadn't been completely content with the idea of a quiet Christmas because both enthusiastically joined in planning a big pre-Christmas family dinner. It's hard to break a thirty year habit of holiday extravagance with excesses of home cooking, home baking and home-made gifts. They advised Ron that Bill and Fleur would probably want to have the Christmas weekend together at Shell Cottage but if they sent Adonis with an invitation that evening, chances were good that they would come the weekend before. Charlie usually had time off around the holidays and George could certainly come for dinner after the joke shop closed for the evening. Arthur suggested that he talk to Percy at the Ministry and that they should invite Audrey too.

Food was an always-welcome topic for the Weasleys, so there was plenty of discussion about which favorite holiday treats Molly should prepare. Since it seemed they might only be together that one day, leaving Arthur and Molly to eat all the left-overs, the menu demanded restraint, something that's not easy to find among Weaselys when it comes to food, family and parties. After a running negotiation about which of everyone's favorite dishes would be best, the menu was set – turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, Brussels sprouts in butter, mince pie and sugar cookies, a traditional wizarding Christmas meal.

Adonis was sent with an invitation to Bill and Fleur and would be on his way to Charlie and the rest of the family when he returned. The afternoon past quickly as all happily anticipated the coming party. When it was time to go, Molly and Arthur saw the two couples off at the kitchen door, Molly insisting that they wear their traveling cloaks because the evening was turning cold.

The trip via the work shed apparition point and train went smoothly, much quicker than expected. When they entered the basement, they found no sign for a meeting. So, after hanging their traveling cloaks on the rack, they examined the room. There were no tables or chairs, no podium, but Bill was pushing a four-wheeled cart loaded with folding tables through a door at the rear of the hall.

Seeing them Bill said, “Hi, you're early. We're just getting ready.”

Harry volunteered, “Can we help?”

“Sure,” answered Bill while pointing over his shoulder to the corridor behind him, “Ellen and Emelda are in the kitchen getting the snacks ready and I need to get a few tables and chairs set up.”

Hermione and Ginny greeted Bill as they headed for the door he had pointed toward, assigning themselves to the kitchen. Harry and Ron each took one of the tables from the four-wheel cart, “Do they go somewhere particular?”

Bill shrugged, “Nah, just space 'em out so there's room for chairs. We only need six or eight.”

Harry and Ron lugged their tables to spaces more or less in a straight line with the one Bill had already set in place. But, when Harry looked at the folded legs, he couldn't see how they unfolded. Ron wore a puzzled look that probably matched his own. His first thought was Erecto, which he quickly dismissed, instead asking Bill, “Bill, sorry to be so stupid, but how do these legs work?”

Bill turned the table he was working on upright and walked over to Harry. Ron leaned his table against the cart and joined them.

“Like this – you have to release this clip, then pull the legs upward until you hear 'em click into place.”

Ron shook his hed, “I wouldn't have guessed that."

It only took a few more minutes to place the tables, including one at the side of the hall for the snacks. Bill said, “That should do it, let's get the chairs,” and pushed the cart back to the corridor.

Ron stepped ahead and opened the door. A door to the right lead to a large kitchen where Emelda, Ellen, and Ginny were arranging cookies on plates. Hermione was pouring ready-ground coffee from a large, red, metallic-looking bag into the top of a large urn.

Another door to the left lead to a smaller storage room made by walling off a small arc of the massive celiving.  It held carts with tables and chairs, a podium and stacks of unlabeled boxes against the stone of the wall. While Harry held the door open, Ron pushed a cart of chairs through, with Bill moving ahead to open the door to the hall.

After they passed into the main room Bill asked, “So, how's school going?”

This question always made Harry a little nervous. School was the only reasonable explanation for what they were doing. Yet, Hogwarts was only superficially like an English public school. Should the conversation turn to classes, or anything more specific, Harry worried that he knew too little to invent a believable answer. What came to him would hopefully direct questions away from the more dangerous territory of what they actually studied, “Actually, it's going really well, we've got great teachers this year.”

Ron followed Harry's lead, “The food is great, we've had some do-it-ourselves dances that were a lot of fun and there's been enough time to, well, you know . . .”

Bill suggested, “Snog with your girlfriends?”

“Yea, that too,” answered Ron with a sly grin.

Bill was grinning broadly too, “I'm glad you've got your priorities straight!”

When they finished unfolding and placing the chairs around the tables, Hermione came from the kitchen with a table cloth over her arm. When she walked to the snack table to arrange it, she asked, “When you've got a minute, please, will you blokes carry out the snacks?”

“Sure, we'll grab 'em after we run these chairs back,” answered Bill.

When they finished setting chairs around the tables, Ron held one door while Harry held the other and Bill pushed the cart of chairs back to the storage room. That task finished, they went to the kitchen where there were three large plates of cookies arrayed on one of the metal work tables near the center of the room, convenient to the big stove.

Bill teased, “We'd better check these before we put them out, quality control you know.”

They did a thorough job before declaring the cookies “yipi quality” and loading the tea and coffee urns onto a metal trolley. Harry pushed it to the snack table, followed by Ginny and Emelda carrying trays of cups.

No sooner was the snack table ready than Tim and Rodger, the pre-med students, arrived and made their way to it, pouring themselves tea and taking a handful of cookies each. Not long after, the tall boy, Larry, arrived.  He was followed a minute later by Ariel. Larry helped himself to a cup of coffee. Ariel passed by the snacks with a somewhat disdainful comment about “Emelda's home-made.”

When Ahmed and Sohia arrived, Ginny and Hermione were done in the kitchen and the “couples table” from the last meeting reformed. While they were getting seated, Emelda reminded the boys that they had forgotten the podium.  Harry and Bill returned to the storage room and carried it out, placing it at the front of the room. Emelda put her folder of papers on top and began to check one of her many lists as she leaned against it.

It was fifteen or twenty minutes more before everyone arrived, helped themselves to a snack and found a seat. Emelda called for their attention, “Everyone, hello . . . everyone, hello . . . let's get started.”

When the last of the conversations finished and Rodger had rushed back to his seat with another handful of cookies, she began. “Since Tropical Cyclone Thelma has been all over the news, you need to remind your concerned friends and families of three important facts. First, it's over. Second, it skirted the north coast coming close to the city of Darwin and we will be in the south, at Sydney, the whole continent away. And, finally, it's OVER!”

The doubled emphasis on 'over' got a sustained laugh. It was clear that Emelda thought that no one should be so demented as to think a storm a thousand miles away and two weeks in the past was anything to worry about.

When the laughter subsided, she described some of the details. “The weather forecast is for the usual warm and fairly dry December. It's beach weather and we have a beach day scheduled for the bank holiday on Monday, December 28th . December to February are the hottest months and with luck the ocean temperature could be seventy degrees. Don't forget to bring sunscreen, or to buy it there; we don't want any of our delicate northern skins badly burned. Let's make this an infirmary free conference!”

Emelda waited a couple of minutes while peoples' conversations about beach day diminished, then continued. “There are no problems with the travel arrangements. Our tickets are reserved; we've been assigned a group of seats together. We'll be met in Sydney by yipi representatives who have made all the arrangements for us to pass Australian Customs and Immigration.”

Ariel spoke, her tone truculent, “I suppose they've got us all jumbled together in the back with the crying babies.”

Emelda replied, “Well, Ariel, we are flying on rather reduced tickets and we’ll all be together. We can amuse one another with our own good company.” Emelda held the tone of her voice even but each of them at the couples table heard the restraint and understood that Emelda was exasperated with Ariel. Ginny cupped her hands around Harry's ear and whispered. This attracted no undue attention because Harry managed to keep from laughing too loud when he heard her word, “Langlock.”

The rest of the meeting passed as Emelda called each of the yipi members to the podium and went through all their paperwork, obtaining signatures on waiver forms for Sydney University. She had organized everything from roommate assignments to seats on the airplane.

Hermione had brought the Australian guide book they bought on Arcade Street and a spiral-bound notebook with a ballpoint pen tucked into the metal rings of the binding. She asked questions about Sydney while each of them took their turn at the podium with Emelda. She wanted to know about buses and taxis, whether a formal tour would be better than an informal exploration on the days set aside for touring Sydney. Harry, Ginny and Ron recognized that some of Hermione's questions, in particular those about trains, were directed toward needing to get elsewhere than Sydney where her parents might be found.

Her questions got everyone thinking about the trip and excited that it was really just a week away. Ellen, with Sophia's wholehearted support, assured the four friends that they should absolutely not miss beach day. “When was the last time you swam in the ocean and basked in eighty degree sunshine?”

Ginny had another of her one word answers, “Never!”

“Well, then, you can't miss beach day!” asserted Sophia.

Hermione realized, “We'll have to buy bathing suits, we don't have any,” adding, “that fit,” to cover the possibility that not having a bathing suit was somehow unmugglish.

Ellen advised, “No, no, not here, buy them at one of the college stores down the street from our rooms, then you have a new bathing suit and a souvenir. In fact, the Australian Dollar is a good deal for us right now. It's a good time for some down-under shopping.”

Their conversation continued long enough after all the other yipi members had cleared everything with Emelda that the four couples and Emelda were the only ones remaining.

Harry suggested, “We'd better start clearing up, it's getting late.”

Bill, checked his watch, “You'd better get on your way, the rest of us don't have a House Master to give us detention for missing curfew. Ahmed and Sophia can help; you helped setting up.”

Ginny joked, “Well, anyway we don't want to keep an of the honchos up past their bedtime.”

The four friends said they would see everyone early Sunday morning at Heathrow, gathered their cloaks and began the walk back to the station.

After the four left, Emelda asked, “I am exhausted and have an hour drive home, would you mind cleaning up?”

Sophia assured her, “Of course not, no trouble.”

Emelda continued, “What do you think? Any potential problems?”

“You mean beside Ariel,” answered Bill.

“Yes, beside Ariel, what about your young friends? The Weasleys say they traveled with their parents, and Granger has been several places by train with hers. But Potter hasn't traveled outside of England and only by car or train. None of them has ever been on an airplane.”

“I don't think it's a problem,” answered Bill. “They seem quite mature for their age and they're so close to each other that I can't imagine them getting homesick.”

Ellen laughed, “Close isn't the word for it; they're crazy in love. They're as bad as Ahmed and Sophia, always touching.” This drew enough laughter that she had to wait before continuing. “They spent the whole evening holding hands under the table. Why, did you see? Hermione drank her coffee with her left hand so she didn't have to let go of Ron?”

Emelda laughed along with the rest, “Are we going to need room monitors? If those young girls come home pregnant, their parents will be furious!”

“Well, they must know what they're doing by now,” Ellen assured her.

“OK,” replied Emelda, “Let's hope so. See you Sunday, just lock the door from the inside and close it firmly when you leave.”

When Emelda walked away Ahmed said, “Well, they may be mature for their age and they're certainly close but they're definitely not your usual school kids.”

Ellen queried, “What are you on about?”

“How many eighteen-year-olds show-up with a guidebook and a steno pad, take notes, wear cloaks out of the eighteenth century, don't seem to know a thing about what's on the BBC, look completely blank when you mention anything in the news, and – by the way – have they ever actually said anything about their school or what they study?”

“Ahmed,” replied Ellen, “They're nice; they're sincere, and you know how much yipi work there is to do. We’ve been thinking to ask if they’d help us after the conference.”

Bill added somewhat sarcastically, “Yea, what? You think they're spies for the government?”

“No, no, although who knows what the hell the government won't spy on.”

“What then?” asked Sophia.

“I think they're nice, I think they are sincere but I think there's something they don't want to tell us about who they are and where they go to school. I'm not saying they're evil, just reticent to talk about themselves.”

“So, what's your guess?” asked Ellen.

“Well, maybe old man Weasley is a deposed dictator or something, or works in MI-5, so Ron and Ginny are in some secret government school. Maybe Potter and Granger are locals who met them at a dance or something and have been told not to talk about it. I don't know.  They're just not your typical upper sixths.”

“Maybe,” interjected Ellen, “maybe, they're really smart, go to some little school nobody every heard of, don't watch telly, and don't want to explain for the millionth time how they're getting PhD's in English lit at eighteen.”

“Or, maybe their parents are religious freaks and they're waiting to escape some cult and don't want people to think that they're like their parents,” quessed Sophia.

“Well,” said Bill, “It isn't really our business. But, we'll get a good sense of them at the conference. By then, if Ahmed's convinced they're not spies, and they haven't started passing out tracts predicting the end of the world, we can talk about whether to ask them to work with us after the trip.”

The four had walked only part way to the train when they passed an invitingly empty cul-de-sac from which they apparated back to The Burrow. Arthur and Molly were sitting in the kitchen, obviously having waited up for them.

“Sorry,” said Ginny, “We didn't mean to keep you up.”

“That's alright; how did the meeting go? Would you like something to eat before you head back to school?”

Ginny declined, “Oh, it went well, everything's set and we talked with our Muggle friends and learned more about things to do there. We'd better not stop to eat though, we've had cookies all evening and we'd best get back in case Professor McGonagall is waiting.”

Arthur asked, “When exactly do you leave? And, how do you plan to get to the airport?”

Harry had the details, “We need to be a Heathrow next Sunday morning at 7:00AM, so we'll have to leave here before dawn. We'll apparate to a spot we know and take the train. The flight is about 23 hours but there's a stop in Singapore so we won't be in Sydney for a bit more than a day.”

When the four gathered at the kitchen fire, Arthur held the little cauldron of Floo Powder and Molly hugged each in turn as they stepped into the fire, tossed the Floo Powder and disappeared spinning.

Professor McGonagall was waiting. She was relaxing in a rocking chair, her tall conical hat on a table beside her. When she stepped out of the fire, Ginny greeted her Headmistress with an apology for the hour.

Professor McGonagall replied, “No worry, an hour or so relaxing always ends my day.”

Hermione was followed by Harry then Ron. They too apologized for their lateness but Professor McGonagall waved her hand silently dismissing their concern and the four friends strolled back to Gryffindor Tower excited for the adventure drawing near.

 


Chapter 28: The Best Present Ever
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Chapter Twenty Eight

The Best Present Ever

The week before Christmas had hardly begun before it was over. The teachers made a noble attempt to teach but by Wednesday afternoon peoples' attentions were so fixed on their holiday plans that Thursday and Friday classes were almost playful. Flitwick had the seventh years decorate the corridors explaining, “It's not so much a tradition as something to keep you using your minds and wands.”

Professor McGonagall demonstrated some very difficult and complex but completely fanciful transfigurations while describing the particular skills involved. Her class was mesmerized. Professor Mullens read them sections of a book by the Muggle author Charles Dickens called A Christmas Carol and they talked about Muggle Christmas traditions. Professors Slughhorn and Sprout conspired to produce what they called their “holiday indulgences class,” which culminated in the ample production of potions for the forthcoming over-consumptions of food and drink. Professor Sandberg taught them some of his favorite minor hexes, the sort he used on the inattentive.

Everyone loved Professor Slughorn’s Friday night Christmas party. His room had definitely been charmed; he had been lavish with his invitations. Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny of course, but also the other nearly-inseparable foursome, the Patil twins, Michael Corner and Dean Thomas, arrived in their usual configuration. Neville and Hannah, and several others came as couples. Luna came by herself like the others who were still unattached.

All the teachers came, each wearing colorful robes. Professor Flitwick wore flamboyantly bright red robes that trailed a couple of feet on the ground behind him. Professor Slughorn was costumed as Santa Clause with a magnificently transfigured white beard and mustache, a sprig of ivy on his hat, and a long stemmed pipe in hand. The pipe was definitely not just for show because he and Professor Sprout were passing her little golden box of smoking leaf between them.

Professor Slughorn had laid in an ample supply of wine, butter beer and Madame Rosmerta's Oak Matured Mead to complement a table full of Christmas sweets. By the time the four arrived, several students had surrendered to the temptations of such excess. They were quickly hustled back to their dorms by their mates, the appropriate overindulgence draft in hand.

Hagrid, wearing a festive robe decorated with embroidered images of magical creatures, had filled a tankard of butter beer the size of a water bucket. He waved it cheerily toward the four friends, wishing them a booming “Happy Christmas,” as he worked his way through the crowd to greet Luna.

Ron and Hermione disappeared early in the evening so Harry and Ginny danced and socialized with friends they had not seen much, occupied as they were with classes, Quidditch and their brooms. The potion master's taste in music ran to slow ballads and romantic tunes from old Muggle movies, what Padma Patil waggishly but not inaccurately named "walk'n and snog'n music."  However, when Professor McGonagall and Professor Mullens took over the music they demonstrated what they called "ball room dances," some of which were fast and very rhythmic. Most of the couples, including Harry and Ginny, joined in, learning the Samba, the Rumba and an old fast dance from the first part of the century called “The Charleston.” The good cheer and dancing continued long past midnight.

On the way back to the dorm with the other Gryffindors, accompanied by their House Master to insure that there was no trouble from the Fat Lady, Harry and Ginny were sure that Ron and Hermione had gone off to snog when they left the party.

Harry asked, “Do you suppose they're already back at the common room?”

Ginny knew -- as Harry only suspected -- that Hermione was every bit as avid a snogger as Ron, or for that matter, Lavender Brown. She was just more dignified, not to mention her many other virtues. Ron, as neither Harry nor Ginny could conceivably doubt, was overjoyed with Hermione's attachment to snogging.   What Ginny knew that Harry did not, was that after a late evening with Ron, Hermione usually returned to their dorm with her shirt open and her bra clasp undone.  She'd already mentioned that the most private place in the castle was the Room of Requirement. So, there being no one to object to the Head Boy and Head Girl being out after hours, it was possible they'd be back rather late. This was more than needed to be said, so her response was simply, “Don't know. We'll see.”

Ron and Hermione were there, not presently snogging, but cuddling on an arm chair. Harry and Ginny joined them, taking the arm chairs on either side.

Hermione skipped small talk, “Unless we apparate straight to the airport, which would be mental, we'll need to leave The Burrow before dawn to get there on time.”

Harry and Ginny both agreed, having made the trip themselves, so Hermione suggested, “Let's ride the Express tomorrow. That way we can get more sleep, have breakfast here and a chance to rest and socialize on the train. But, tomorrow morning we should send an owl to Arthur and Molly telling them that we'll apparate from platform 9 ¾. That way your Mum won't need to leave her cooking. They sometimes apparate back to The Burrow after seeing us off. I asked, so I'm sure we can do it. We'll get there in plenty of time and you two can apparate back to The Burrow while Ron and I go get everyone's present.”

Harry suggested, “We could walk into Hogsmeade with everyone and just apparate to The Burrow.”

“Sure, you can,” said Ron, “but we haven't worked with the Prefects as much as we should. With the party tomorrow night, getting to the airport, and being on an airplane for more than a day, we're feeling like taking it easy.” Harry and Ginny agreed.

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Everything went as planned. They weren't taking trunks, just Hermione's beaded bag with everything for the trip. They'd pack for Australia at The Burrow. Harry's rucksack was filled with pens, notepads and the books Professor Mullens assigned in case they could get their homework done on the airplane. Ron brought his, presently empty, for coats and sweaters for travel. They had decided not to take the Invisibility Cloak for fear that their luggage would be inspected at a Muggle security station. No one knew what those machines could or couldn't see.  So, Harry sent Barnaby to The Burrow; they came to breakfast late; ate heartily, made the train and passed the journey cat-napping in their compartment and socializing around the train.

When Ron and Hermione were busy with the Prefects, Ginny and Harry visited with Neville and Hannah. They would be spending the holiday together with Neville's grandmother. Luna joined them for a while. She would be spending the holidays with her father and they expected a visit from Newt Scamander and his grandson.

Walking back to their compartment they ran into the other Hogwarts foursome and made small talk about the holidays. Michael and Dean were spending Christmas with their families but New Years with Padma and Parvarti at the Patil's. They didn't talk long. Harry had the definite impression that Padma and Parvarti were happier if Ginny weren't around.

When the Hogwarts Express arrived in London, Harry and Ginny apparated to The Burrow. Ron and Hermione went to collect the presents Ron would give that night. Bill and Fleur were already there, Bill was sitting with Arthur in the living room and Fleur was cooking with Mrs. Weasley. Considering the rather tentative start to their relationship, the two women were getting along. Mrs. Weasley even smiled and said, “Thank you dear,” as Fleur took over seasoning the gravy. After the usual Weasley greetings, Ginny joined the two women in the kitchen and Harry joined Bill and Arthur in the living room.

Bill asked, “So, do you know what brother Ron has in store?”

“No,” replied Harry, “He's been working on it all year but Hermione asked us to not talk about it because he's nervous about how it'll turn out. So, we've never asked. But, Ginny and I think it has something to do with the art class he's taking. He's studying so he can help George at the store.”

They did not have time to guess about Ron's present because they heard Charlie and his friend Carlos, who worked with him at the Romanian Dragon Sanctuary, arrive at the kitchen door. Charlie had a huge bouquet of roses for his mother and Carlos a bottle of fine old fire whiskey. Charlie hugged his mother, nearly lifting her off her feet, then introduced Carlos, “Mum, Fleur, Ginny this is my good friend Carlos from work. We have the holidays off and are staying at the Leaky Cauldron so I can show Carlos around.”

Carlos gave a courtly bow, “Charlie, you did not tell me your relatives were such beauties.”

Charlie laughed, “Carlos es muy galante.”

Carlos made another bow to Mrs. Weasley, kissed Fleur's hand and opening his arms wide as if amazed by Ginny's beauty exclaimed, “And, this can only be the beautiful Ginevra who the famous Harry Potter has swept away.” Then bringing his hands together and giving Ginny a conspiratorial look, “Or perhaps it is the lovely Ginevra who has done the sweeping! Shall we be invited to a wedding soon? I do love weddings.”

Ginny, bemused by his lighthearted flattery, laughed, “We'll be sure you get an invitation.”

Carlos was exuberant in voice, in manner and in the rapidity of his speech. Like Charlie he showed the nature of his work, not just in a long, jagged forearm scar from some dragon mishap, but also in his evident strength. Both he and Charlie were handsome and strongly built. Their hair was far longer than Mrs. Weasley could have approved had her second oldest son not just handed her a magnificent trove of Christmas roses.

With Carlos' voice being a new addition to the sounds emanating from the kitchen, Arthur, Bill and Harry's curiosity brought them from the sitting room and Charlie introduced Carlos. Then Molly, still busy with dinner, sent the men back to the living room, Carlos' gift of Old Warlock following on a try with five tiny glasses.

A little glass of the fine old fire whiskey had no sooner warmed their innards and further lightened their mood when Ron and Hermione arrived. Once they had they greeted everyone and ignored Charlie's question as to what they had in store, Hermione suggested that they get their packing done so that they could relax and enjoy the evening.

Harry "borrowed Ginny" from the kitchen and the four went upstairs to Ginny's room where Hermione began Accio this and Accio that until the beaded bag had disgorged the four piles of Muggle clothes they would take on their trip. The boys would wear the jeans and pullovers they had on for the airplane ride and the girls set aside a comfortable pair of slacks and a blouse for the same purpose. Their four Muggle jackets were also packed for on the airplane. They might need these until they got to Sydney where it would be warm. Harry passed out Muggle money so that everyone would have some in pocket. They'd spent almost none of the cash from selling the Mother of Galleons.

Each had composed a checklist in Hermione's trip notepad. When she passed it to Ron, the pen from the Y.I.P.I. meeting was still in its binding. In turn, each went through their own list checking that they had everything they had decided to bring. While they did, Mr. Weasley and Bill arrived with four suitcases the family had carried for their trip to Egypt in Ron's third year.

“Molly and I thought you could use these. The have little wheely things and long handles so you can pull them around.”

“Thanks Dad,” said Ron, “We don't dare carry Hermione's charmed bag because we don't know what will happen with the Enlargement Charm when they inspect it with their machines.” Without the Invisibility Cloak and Hermione's beaded bag their baggage would be thoroughly Muggle.

They packed everything in the suitcases. Luckily the suitcases had closeable exterior pockets for their bathroom kit, hair brushes, tooth brushes, and such. After some discussion, they decided that the boy’s magical razors did not look that much different from the Muggle sort they'd seen in stores. As far as Ginny and Hermione were concerned, razors were necessary equipment, so these were to be packed along with the other bathing supplies after cleaning up this evening. They loaded Ron and Harry's rucksacks with sweaters for each of them in case the airplane was cold, the Muggle books they were reading for Professor Mullens, the Sydney guide book, all their Y.I.P.I. papers, their Passports, some pens and notebooks.

By the time the two couples rejoined the party, Percy and Audrey had arrived and George had sent his Patronus saying that he would be there in about fifteen minutes. Captured by the aromas, everyone had migrated back to the kitchen, so there wasn't much room to move around. Molly almost shouted to get their attention through all the laughter and conversation, “Go on now, all of you, take a seat so we can get everything on the table.”

No sooner had the turkey and a huge bowl of stuffing been levitated to the table than George arrived, greeting everyone and took the seat that Charlie saved for him. Then, Fleur and Molly finished loading the table with the buttered sprouts and mashed potatoes.

The meal proceeded the way meals at the Weasley's usually do, eating, talking and teasing until everyone claimed they couldn't eat another bite, the signal for desert to be served. When Molly and Fleur set four mince pies on the table, the whole family's appetites faithfully returned.

Throughout dinner Harry and Ginny had watched Ron become increasingly nervous, even unable to eat more than a single piece of pie. Hermione had stopped eating and had her arm around Ron's waist, holding him ever tighter, as if her closeness could absorb his anticipatory jitters.

Harry whispered to Ginny, “I hope this goes well.”

Ginny, equally aware of Ron's state, laid her hand on Harry's knee and squeezed lightly as she whispered, “Me too!” With the tension created by Ron's attempts to control Ginny's love life gone, it was much easier for Ginny to express her concern for her next oldest brother.

Before the pies became empty pie pans, Ron and Hermione excused themselves to get things ready in the living room. “We need to set something up, so we'll call you when we're ready.”

“So, what's he got?” asked George looking at Harry and Ginny the instant Ron and Hermione left the kitchen.

“Yez, ez very mysteri-us,” added Fleur.

Arthur speculated that Ron must have made something for the whole family because it had been his idea to have everyone here for a pre-Christmas party. Percy asked Ginny if she knew who Ron had been studying with and Ginny replied that it was Oscar Windemere.

Percy must have known Oscar's name because he looked to Audrey saying, “You know who that is don't you?” Audrey looked surprised but nodded that she did.

The speculation ended when Hermione appeared in the kitchen door and said, “We're ready, please come to the sitting room.”

Ron and Hermione had done some wand work. The room had been rearranged. The couch was still situated beneath the big angular windows. The lamps, nick-knacks, and bits of Mrs. Weasley's knitting still filled its large sill. The end tables had been moved and both of the arm chairs, one on each side of the couch, were flanked by the two large ottomans that usually served as foot rests for each of the arm chairs. Since last August Mrs. Weasley's magical clock had returned to the mantle over the fireplace. It was there now, next to a two-handled vase that was decorated with images of nearly-naked Greek soldiers with spears and shields. Its hands pointed to only “home.” The coffee table had been moved in front of the fireplace and something squarish had been magicked there. It was covered by the colorful knitted throw that usually draped the back of Mr. Weasley's favored chair. Hermione's bag lay on the table next to it.

Ron and Hermione were standing next to the coffee table. Hermione had hooked her arm inside Ron's, wrapping it around to hold his hand. She reached across herself with her other arm, holding Ron above the elbow as if she were pulling him closer. Everyone was too curious to talk much so they seated themselves with the minimum of conversation it took to get everyone situated. Molly and Arthur squeezed in with Bill and Fleur on the couch, Charlie and Carlos sat together on the arms of one chair, Percy and Audrey took the other. Harry and Ginny shared one of the ottomans and George sat on the ottoman at the other end.

When everyone was seated Ron began, “This year I've been studying with Oscar Windemere to develop a talent I only just learned I had. It does not usually show until you're somewhere around eighteen. This is what . . .”

Ron did not finish because a voice, a familiar voice, came from behind the knit drape, “Enough about you; let's talk about me!”

Before Ron could reach over to lift the drapery and reveal the painting, Molly had already shouted in surprise, “Fred! Arthur, it's Fred!”

When Ron lifted the drapery, everyone joined Molly in almost shocked but delighted surprise. Arthur and Molly were speechless, their faces bright with smiles and their eyes wet with joy. Fleur was so excited she lost her English, “Mon amour, c'est Fred. Il est vraiment votre frère!”

Bill could only answer, “I didn't know Ron could do that!”

Carlos, who had hold of Charlie's arm and hand exactly as Hermione held Ron's, said, “Charlie! Do you know how rare this is? There aren't a dozen portraitists in all of Europe.”

Percy had risen from his chair, Audrey next to him, but could only say, “Fred, I couldn't save you. I'm so sorry.” He stared at Fred's portrait as if hypnotized.

Ginny, who Harry had not seen cry since Colin's funeral, had tears in her eyes as she leaned forward to say, “Fred we've missed you so much.”

Harry looked from Fred's portrait to Ron, who was finally looking happy and relaxed. Hermione seemed to float, buoyed with pride. She was very pretty, bushy hair seemed to suit the taller, fuller her. But her bond with Ron made her radiant. Harry had not expected a portrait but he was so happy for Ron he wanted to jump up and hug him despite all the tears in the room. He knew Ron's present was much more than Fred's portrait; it was the fulfillment of Molly and Arthur's deepest aspirations for their youngest son.

Ron had painted Fred in a brilliantly green dragon-skin jacket worn over a high collared tan shirt with a matching tie. Black leather boots, so shined that they reflected light as he moved, showed beneath the cuffs of his suit pants. His shirt had old-fashioned cuffs with links. Each featured the three interlinked W's of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. His chair was huge, a throne with an ornate carving of the same three interlinked W's in an oval crest above the chair back. The chair's massive arms ended in carved lion paws and the legs were shaped like the great clawed forelimbs of a Hippogriff. Fred was leaning against the side of his throne, smiling as he gazed at his family.

Everyone felt uncomfortable looking down at Fred's portrait, so as one they sat on the floor, their backs against the chairs they had just left. Molly first, then Arthur, sat up onto their knees and leaned forward to be nearer Fred.

Molly, teary but composed, said, “Fred we're so sorry. We miss you so.”

Arthur too, “Everyone does Fred, we miss you every day.”

Fred turned toward George and teased, “You haven't gone sentimental on me like the rest of our lot have you Saint George?”

“Nah” answered George in a not entirely unsentimental attempt at humor, “it's just that until Hermione figures out how to run the place, I need someone to restock the shelves.”

“Weak, weak, the entire world of dead twin humor before you and that's all you can think of, pitiful.” Ron's portrait was certainly true to Fred.

Fred stepped up into his great chair, placed his hands on the arms, leaned forward and looked at his whole family. Then, speaking directly to his mother, “Mum, is everybody happy?”

Molly answered, “Yes Fred, they are. If you were only here . . .”

Fred cut her off, “Mum, we won. Whats-his-name's gone; Harry put an end to him. We saved our world; the Muggle-borns are safe and we Weasleys did our part with honor.”

Then, looking at his father he changed tone, “Dad, I'll bet when you were blistering my butt for turning our artist brother into an arachnophobe you never thought that I'd die a hero.”

Arthur shook his head, “Well, Fred, we always had faith in you but we didn't want you to die at all.”

Accepting Fred's death would always be difficult but seeing their loss in perspective of the war and the family's stand against evil reminded them of its meaning. Fred had moved on but in memory made animate by Ron's talent, in the sound of his voice, in his irreverence even for himself, there was comfort for those he left behind.

Ron broke his silence as Hermione took up her beaded bag and reached inside, “I made a frame for all of us; this one” – pointing to the portrait on the coffee table – “is for Mum and Dad, The Burrow.”

Hermione had extracted another frame from her bag. It was empty except for its background and another throne. She took a couple of steps forward and handed it to Bill. She then turned to Fleur, “We women had some trouble forgiving you for being so incredibly beautiful and, well, so French. But we know that you are courageous and compassionate. You've made Bill happy and will be a magnificent mother. Ron and I, all of us, are proud to be your brothers and sisters.”

Molly turned to Fleur and gave her a slight bow of the head, which Fleur returned. Fleur rose and embraced Hermione. Bill put his arms around both of them and facing his youngest brother over Hermione's shoulder said, “Ron, if you're not a total fool, you'll marry her.”

When Hermione returned to Ron, he said, “I will, if you'll have me.”

She kissed him quickly on the cheek and replied, “I will; I already have.” Then, accompanied by their family's happy sighs, she reached into her beaded bag and removed another frame.

Ron said, “This is for Charlie; he can use Fred to scare the dragons, or at least talk them to sleep.”

When Hermione passed the frame to Charlie, Fred  passed quickly through the one Bill was holding saying only, “Hi Bill,” before stopping in the frame Hermione had just handed to Charlie. Charlie unwound his arm from Carlos to hold the portrait upright where both he and Carlos could see it.

Fred told Carlos, “They're a sentimental lot but they're kind and honorable people. They'll love anyone who makes Charlie happy.” Having given this somewhat enigmatic advice, he winked at Charlie and returned to his portrait on the coffee table.

Hermione had removed another frame from her cavernous bag by the time Fred returned. Ron took it and approached Percy, “You need to see Mum and Dad more often. We know we're an odd lot but we're your lot.” Then, handing the frame to Percy but addressing Audrey he continued, “Percy has brought you to the last two – really the only two – family events he has attended for a while. I don't think we are flattering ourselves to believe that this means you are becoming attached to one another. So, bring him by now and again will you? Our parents are great wizards, great people, and you'll see that if you get to know them.”

Audrey replied in her quiet voice, reaching over to take Percy's hand as she did, “I will.”

Hermione joined Ron with another frame in hand and together they came to where Harry and Ginny were sitting, their backs to the ottoman. Harry and Ginny stood and Hermione handed them the portrait, “You're our best friends; we've done everything together. We know . . .”

Fred cut her off, “I hate to interrupt what, coming from Hermione, would be a brilliant speech. Well, actually I don't mind at all. I get a kick out of being disruptive.  I need to talk to Harry.” With that he sat on the throne in the frame that Harry was holding to his side so the other three could see. “Harry, Saint George and I, long before he was holey, spent a lot of time with Ginny after you saved her in the Chamber of Secrets. She was young, traumatized and vulnerable so, naturally, we took advantage and pried all her secrets out of her. Did you know that she. . .”

Ginny cut him off by pointing her wand at his nose and saying, “I'm absolutely sure Langlock would work on you.”

“Yea, so am I,” said Fred and then he turned to Harry, “Looks like you'll have to find out about the time she dreamed . . .” He stopped mid-sentence unable to speak. Ginny had indeed Langlocked him.

“Give?” she said, smiling impishly.

He nodded and could speak again, “Harry, I guess you are on your own about the ginger demon's secrets but, since Ron says you have been reduced to carrying her broom . . .”

He was cut across by Ron who said, “I didn't say that! I said that Harry and Ginny are in love.”

George, not wanting to miss the fun, joined them by adding his own jibe, “What Ron told me is that Ginny has Harry . . .”

Ron cut him off too, “I didn't say anything to you!”

Ginny put her hand on his shoulder and reminded him, “Ron, it's Fred and George; they're having you on.”

Ron blushed all the way to his ears, realizing that he'd fallen for Fred and George's badgering for what could easily have been the millionth time. The whole family was laughing uproariously, Harry, Hermione, all the Weasleys, even Ron.

At this point Percy announced, ostensibly speaking to Audrey, but loud enough to be heard by all, “If you ever wonder what it was like growing up here, imagine this every morning, every evening, every breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week for years.”

While he spoke Harry looked at Percy’s parents and two oldest brothers. He thought he saw a look of realization on their faces and wondered to himself whether he had just heard the resentment that was at the root of Percy's rejection of his family.

This left only a frame for George. When Ron handed it to him, Fred was already there, sitting on his throne. Fred could not resist talking about the store, even for teases and jibes, so the two were soon in close conversation about how to replace the shield line, what new to add to the Skiving Snack Boxes, and whether or not George should hire someone to work in the back room.

Realizing that they would be occupied a while, the others continued the party without them. Nothing  pleased them more than Fred and George's reunion. Soon Carlos' bottle of Old Warlock was making the rounds on its own. Mrs. Weasley was offering everyone turkey, lettuce and mustard sandwiches – it was a mystery when these were prepared – as Mr. Weasley followed her around offering everyone one of the open bottles of butter beer he held between his fingers. Before long, the whole family but for Fred and George, was circulating from conversation to conversation, enjoying one another's company and relishing their excitement for Ron's accomplishment. Ron was the center of attention, the center of his family, a proud and happy Hermione smiling and laughing next to him. Both were elated by their best friends' and family's praise.

The four friends were standing by the door to the hall leading to the kitchen asking Ron questions about how he made the portrait when Mr. Weasley joined them to say, “Better look at your watches.” They checked the time, and then looked at one another in surprise.

Ginny groaned, “No! It's almost two o'clock in the morning, we need to leave in about three hours, if we're to be there on time to meet the group.”

Hermione sounded upset, “I forgot to check the train schedules. We don't even know if the train runs at five in the morning.”

Mr. Weasley calmed their concerns, “Don't worry. It's all set. Go on up, get your things ready and set all your stuff outside your doors, everything's arranged. I'll get you up when it's time to go.”

Ginny asked, “Dad, what's all set?”

“Don't worry, go get some sleep.”

While the four friends climbed the stairs to their rooms, Harry clapped his arm over Ron's sholder, “Ron that's the most amazing magic I've ever seen.”

Ginny added, “And the best present ever.”


Chapter 29: An Airplane Adventure
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Chapter Twenty Nine

An Airplane Adventure

When Molly awakened Hermione and Ginny and Arthur woke the boys, it was not yet dawn. They dressed quickly and hurried down to the kitchen. Their suitcases and packs were already gone from where they left them what seemed like only minutes before. When they passed the living room, they saw George asleep on the couch. Fred snored away on his throne. They must have talked all night.  When they arrived in the kitchen, Harry asked Fleur, who was serving toast and very strong coffee, where their bags had gone.

“Ze men 'ave 'em. Eat!

Slices of toast and jam, and two cups of coffee later, Molly, Arthur, Charlie, Carlos, Bill and George, who someone had obviously awakened, arrived in the kitchen. Arthur said in a voice that was much too cheery for so little sleep, “OK, we're set, let's go!”

The four friends had no idea what was going on but, what ever it was, they were on their way. When everyone exited the kitchen, one part of the plan became clear – everyone was going. They hadn't planned on a family escort. Had there been any time to think about it, they would have been nervous about their entire family meeting their friends at a gigantic airport.  Uncoached, there were endless chances for wizarding folk to unwittingly reveal their ignorance of Muggle ways. Hiding their true nature was necessary but touchy. Thanks to Molly's skill with her second box of Patterns for Wizarding Households, they all looked appropriately Mugglish. But who knew what any of them might say? Arthur would the curious; Molly would be apprehensive.  Could George resist a joke?

When Bill offered his arm to Hermione, Arthur to Ginny, Molly to Ron, and Charlie to Harry, it was clear that they were going side-along to insure their arrival somewhere they'd never been. None heard the series of cracks when the group disapparated, Percy and Audrey had left the night before. Fred was alone.

The arrived in a covered shelter at the far corner of an airport car park. There, waiting for them, and hiding their magical arrival in the nascent dawn, was a white vehicle with a large sign reading “Low Cost Car Park.” The big double doors were open, their suitcases and rucksacks were sitting on a metal rack behind the driver.

Chuck, the wizard from the ministry garage, greeted them from behind the wheel, “Alright, everyone 'board, we're righ' on time.” While everyone climbed on, Chuck reminded Mr. Weasley, “Blimey Arthur, your Repello Muggletum was too strong, there's 'bout fifty Muggles trudging t'other side.” Arthur performed the counter spell as Chuck pulled a large chrome handle that closed the vehicle's double doors.

While the “Low Cost Car Park” vehicle made its way to the terminal Ginny exclaimed, “Wands, time to hide our wands.”

“Hide your wands?” asked Bill.

Ginny explained, “When Harry and I came here to see what it was like, an older lady wasn't allowed to bring her knitting needles on the airplane. We can't risk that they'll react the same way to wands. We've got a plan.” She began to undo the bands holding her hair. Harry took his wand from his pocket and handed it to her. “We're going to hide ours in my pony tail and make Ron and Hermione's look like a barrette in Hermione's hair.” Ginny set the two wands on her lap and began to plait her hair as Hermione reached behind her to hide their wands in the thickest part of hers.

Fleur took the wands from Ginny, “Ginny, 'ere, turn 'round, I'll do it.”

Mrs. Weasley did the same for Hermione. When they were finished, Ron and Hermione's wands were actually holding a bun in Hermione's hair. Harry and Ginny's had vanished into the French style braid Fleur had made in Ginny's.

Before the bus pulled into the departures lane for the terminal, Bill asked, “What's that humming noise?”

Charlie heard it as well, “Yea, I hear it too.”

“Oh, it's nothing,” said Harry, “our wands do that for a while when we put 'em together.”

“Ahh,” said Bill, “the wand chooses the wizard.” Then, looking pointedly at how Ginny was leaning against Harry and how Hermione had crossed her leg over Ron's when she turned so Molly could work on her hair, “It's no surprise your wands are compatible.”

After waiting behind a similar vehicle, Chuck parked at the terminal curb and pushed on the big metal handle to open the doors. While each of the four retrieved their kit from the rack behind the driver, Mr. Weasley asked Chuck, “Do you want to come for lunch after we get the travelers on their way, turkey sandwiches and pie.”

Chuck replied, “Thanks Arthur, but no, this's official. I gotta clock in.”

Having overheard this as he was strapping on his rucksack, Harry asked Mr. Weasley, “Official?”

“How many Aurors do you think have traveled by airplane?”

Harry guessed, “Probably not many.”

“None. Kingsley organized this when I told him of your plans. The idea is that Bill and I will look over the physical layout while Fleur and Molly check out how the Muggles dress and behave. We'll report to Kingsley at work tomorrow and he'll be anxious to talk to you when you return.”

“Kingsley must be thinking that our kind will need to travel, you know, interact?”

“Yes,” but he said no more because Ron, Ginny and Hermione, who were in the lead as Harry and the family followed, had just greeted Emelda where she stood by a stanchion with a “Y.I.P.I. Meets Here” sign. Ellen was standing next to her holding a large folder. Bill, Ahmed and Sophia were standing a ways behind next to their bags, probably having arrived in time for Ellen to assist Emelda, but with no present task for themselves.

Hermione took charge and introduced Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, “Emelda, Ellen this is Ron and Ginny's mother and father, Arthur and Molly Weasley.”

Ellen, encumbered by the folder and currently checking in one of the Y.I.P.I. members, waved a sheath of papers in greeting.

Emelda extended her hand to Mr. Weasley saying, “I’m Emelda, I'm Y-I-P-I leader for England.  Pleased to meet you.”

Harry wondered if it was only around each other that they used the organization's initials as the word “yipi.”

Arthur returned Emelda's greeting, “We're very pleased to meet you. We're having a family gathering and decided to see our two youngest off. If we're in the way, we'll go.”

Emleda replied, “No, no worry, not at all. I'm afraid they must leave you here but it's wonderful when parents are interested enough to come.”

She shook hands with Mrs. Weasley, who was making sure to make no mistakes by saying very little, “Pleased to meet you Emelda.”

Making sure that Ellen was included, Hermione continued introducing Bill and Fleur, Charlie, Carlos and George, all of whom behaved perfectly like Muggles.

By now the Y.I.P.I. group was arriving in numbers. Larry's parents had apparently driven him to the airport as they were quickly introduced and just as quickly departed saying something about not wanting to be towed, whatever that meant. Emelda and Ellen were checking off each arrival on their list, so the four friends led their family out of the way of the queuing group. Even at this early hour the terminal was busy and people were hurrying on to the serpentine queues that lead to the counters beneath the “Ticketing and Reservations” sign.

Since things had gone pretty well thus far, Harry called to Bill, Ahmed and Sophia, “Come meet our family.” He introduced Bill, Ahmed and Sophia as counselors, members who had made these trips before and who helped Emelda.

“This is Ginny and Ron's Mum and Dad.”

After they greeted one another, he introduced Bill and Fleur, “Bill is the oldest brother and this is his wife Fleur. They're both in international banking.” The whole family grinned at Harry's introduction. Ginny was thinking that “inter-species banking” was probably the better description but kept that to herself.

Bill and Ahmed had acquired slightly glazed looks when they met Fleur so Harry moved on quickly to introduce Charlie and Carlos. “This is Charlie, he's next oldest of the Weasleys and this is his co-worker Carlos, who is visiting for the holidays. They're working with . . .” – thinking quickly – “. . . wildlife.”

Again they all shook hands. "Wildlife" got Ahmed's attenion, “Are you working with an environmental organization?”

Carlos was quickest to respond, “More or less, Charlie and I are specialists in species that are in danger of extinction.” It, like international banking, was not quite a lie. Dragons were certainly in danger of extinction should Muggles ever learn that they actually existed.

Finally, Harry introduced George as “The merchant of the family.”

George could not resist telling their Muggle friends that he “Sold magic tricks.”

Rodger and Tim had checked in and, carrying their knapsacks and a rectangular card in hand, were rapidly falling into Fleur's Veela attraction. The four friends looked at one another, silently deciding how to intervene when Emelda called out, “If you've checked in and received your boarding pass, leave your bags here except for your carry-on and go on up through security and wait at the gate for our flight – the info's on your boarding passes.” At this, Bill and Ahmed aimed Rodger and Tim toward the security entrance.

Ellen used a break in member check ins to hand each of the four friends a rectangular card, “Ginny, Hermione, will you please head on up with these three” – she pointed to Ahmed, Bill and Sophia – “and get in the front of the line to board. Find the section for our group and get situated. Bill, Ahmed, will you deal with anyone who wants to change seats and help get the carry-ons stowed.”

“Sure,” agreed Bill.

Ellen continued organizing, “Harry, Ron, if you don't mind, will you start taking  bags from the pile by Emelda and carry them to where the fellow in the blue uniform with the big cart is standing. He'll give you a batch of receipts; you can give those to me when we're on board.”

“OK,” they replied.

It was time to say goodbye. The four friends hugged their brothers and sisters, told Mrs. Weasley that everything would be fine and that they'd be back in a little more than a week. Mrs. Weasley took Harry and Ron into a huge hug, “Boys! Take care of those girls, OK?”

Ron demurred, “Blimey Mum, they can take care of themselves and you'd have to be barking to tell either of 'em what to do. But, there's nothing to worry about. The conference will be just like being in school, so don't worry!”

Harry whispered to Mr. Weasley that they'd been able to apparate back to The Burrow from one of the restrooms and to say thanks to Kingsley for the send off. Ginny and Hermione followed Ahmed, Sophia and Bill to the security line. They turned and waved to the Weasley's who waved in return, stopping just before the exit doors. Harry and Ron took deep breaths. If the girls had trouble with the wands, they wouldn't be there but there was probably nothing they could do if they were. Hermione and Ginny could handle it. They began carrying bags to the fellow in the blue uniform.

Since Ron and Harry had all the traveling stuff in their backpacks, Hermione and Ginny had nothing to carry but their Passports, the money in their pockets and the thick paper document labeled “boarding bass” in their hands. They followed Bill, Ahmed and Sophia to another queue. Everyone in line was holding a boarding pass and a Passport so they got theirs from their pockets and stood waiting like everyone else. It seemed to be some sort of Passport check, but whatever it was, it was just another queue. When they reached the front, they watched their Muggle friends hand their papers to a uniformed woman wearing a “Security” badge.

They did the same. She checked their Passports, “You with the peace group too?”

“Yes.”

“Good for you, have a nice trip; it's a long one.”

They exited that queue for another, this one leading to a couple dozen or more aisles leading to machines through which people's purses, bags and jackets were being passed. There were more people in these queues than Diagon Alley could hold. They moved to the next, shorter line in front of a metal doorway without a door.   When instructed by the uniformed man on the other side, they walked through, first Ginny, then Hermione, but nothing happened. It was obvious that they were looking for something. What was a mystery but if behaving like Muggles meant nothing more than staying in line, it would be easy. Muggles either liked to queue or were so use to it they seemed not to notice.

After the uniformed man directed each of them through the empty doorway, he took a quick look at their boarding passes and waved them on. Bill, Ahmed and Sophia were still in line waiting for their hand baggage to exit the machine, so the two young women walked toward a huge sign board where a crowd of people gathered. On the way they passed Ariel, the contents of her gigantic purse spread out on a metal counter. She was berating one of the uniformed men about why he was taking so long.

They stood at the back of the small crowd and read the sign board; it listed flights and destinations, the gate and time of their arrival or departure. They looked around until they saw smaller signs giving directions to particular gates. They found Gate Ten to their right. Bill, Ahmed and Sophia joined them and together they walked past stores selling liquor, gifts, perfumes and books. There was a coffee shop with a line out the door and into a waiting area where there were various chairs and tables. There were snack stores, sandwich shops and shops with windows full of Muggle gadgets, most of which had cords and plugs.

The terminal was crowded, Muggles of all types – families with toddlers encumbered by big bags and baby carriers with wheels, families with bored-looking kids about their own age, business men in suits talking on phones that were connected to nothing, a group that might have been a sports team wearing matching jackets, Indian women wearing brightly colored saris carrying bags and babies, their men walking somberly beside them in suits. Neither Hermione nor Ginny spoke as they observed this intensely swirling crossroads of the world. They were comfortable with the elastic reality of magic so these frenetic Muggle wonders were rather more curious than off-putting but the intensity of the sights and sounds left little room for talk.

When they arrived at Gate Ten, there was an electronic sign behind another counter with yet again other queues, “Qantas Flight 420, Boeing 747-400, Singapore / Sydney” with “Departure 8:35AM” and “On Time” lighted below. They queued again, nearly at the front.

While they waited, wondering how the boys were doing, Ahmed said, “That's quite a family Ginny. You and Ron the youngest?”

“Yea, Ron and I are the last ones at school. The rest have their own homes and jobs. We all got together last night because we won't all be home for Christmas this year.”

“How about your family Hermione,” Ahmed continued.

“And Harry's?” added Sophia.

Ginny gave a lie people would probably not question further, “Harry's family was killed in an accident when he was only a year old. Since we've hooked up he's practically lived with us.”

“And, your folks Hermione?” continued Sophia.

“They're out of the country right now.” Then, she changed the subject. “Did I just hear an announcement that our flight was about to board?”

“You did,” answered Bill, “we'll be on our way soon.”

They waited while the uniformed women at the entrance to the enclosed ramp boarded passengers in another queue who, as Ahmed explained, had bought the more expensive tickets, as well as a few families with young children. Being nearly at the front of their queue, they were next in line and arrived at the door of the gigantic machine as the last businessmen turned left to their section of seats.

A uniformed middle aged woman whose badge read “Dolores Arwell, Purser” welcomed them. After checking their boarding passes, she pointed them toward the back of the plane. She sent Hermione and Ginny down the furthest aisle, Ahmed, Bill and Sophia down the nearest. Checking the stub of their boarding passes they learned that they had seats 71 and 72 K. After having making their way past rows and rows of seats, small kitchens and toilets, they discovered that these were the very last seats on the airplane. Since they knew the boys would have the seats next to them, and had nothing to store beyond putting their Passports in their pockets, they walked back up the aisle to get a sense for the seat numbers in case they could help the counselors get the yipi members seated.

The yipi group must have queued together because they all seemed to arrive at once. For the most part everyone found their seats and got their stuff stored without difficulty but there was a problem on the opposite aisle. One group brought musical instruments.  Bill, Sophia and Ahmed were busy re-stowing the compartments above the seats, walking some of the bags to the opposite aisle where the compartments overhead had more room. While they were busy with that, Ariel whose seat was on Hermione and Ginny's side of the center row, was having a tantrum because there wasn't enough room for her purse. The three young men seated next to her were quiet but didn't look happy.

The counselors were busy, so Hermione and Ginny looked at each other as if to say, “Well, we might as well see what we can do.” With Ginny standing behind her, Hermione squatted next to Ariel so as to not be standing over her, “What's the problem Ariel?”

Ariel went on about a number of things but in the main she was just bereft of sitting upfront in first class. All the seats were the same, so her purse wouldn't fit under the seat in front of her regardless of where she was seated. Ginny and Hermione looked at one another, Ginny's expression implying that something along the line of Imperio or perhaps Stupefy would be appropriate but nodding for Hermione to go ahead with what Ginny already knew she'd do.

When everyone was settled again, Ariel had her choice of the fours' seats, two of the young men from York had better seats and one had unhappily settled for the aisle seat next to Ariel. After a short discussion about putting Ron and Hermione on the aisles for their longer legs, Ginny and Hermione had taken the interior seats of their new row, preferring to sit beside their partners.

The yipi contingent had not been settled long when Ron and Harry hurried down the aisle carrying cardboard trays of coffee in large paper cups with odd green emblems, lids and little thick brown paper bands. They were followed by Emelda with her folder and a handful of  receipts, then Ellen carrying two bags with the same coffee shop emblem. Harry continued on to the back rows where Bill, Ahmed and Sophia were sitting while Ron and Ellen stopped next to Ginny and Hermione.

Ron handed the cardboard tray to Hermione, “We got coffee. We're the last to board.”

Ellen suggested that Hermione set the coffee on what she called a “tray table,” pointing to a latch on the back of the seat in front of her. Hermione caught on, set the coffee on the tray, then Ellen passed her one of the bags saying, “Fresh croissants, they're still warm.”

Ron sat next to Hermione after stuffing his rucksack into the compartment above. Shortly after, Harry came around the other side and took the seat next to Ginny managing to push his rucksack into the space beneath the seat in front of him. Hermione passed the coffees and croissants and the four settled back for a second breakfast.

They didn't get a chance to talk before “First Office Devin from the flight deck” announced that the cabin crew would be coming around to check seat backs and tray tables. A member of the cabin crew, as they now realized the uniformed personnel were called, told Hermione to close her tray table and to stuff the bag of croissants beneath the seat until after take off. There was a sight jerk as the plane started moving backward, then a low steady rumbling after the engines started. Next, little televisions dropped from the ceiling and they were shown a movie on seat belts and what to do should the airplane crash. Ginny wondered aloud if this happened so often that they needed to show this movie. Hermione assured her it was just a rule airlines had to follow.

From what they could tell by bending forward to look through the little windows at the sides, they were passing terminals where other huge airplanes were attached to enclosed ramps. Then, they turned into a maze of massive cement ways bordered with different colored lights. After a series of stops and starts the great machine made a turn and First Officer Devin told the cabin crew to “prepare for take off.” Moments later the sound of the engines rose to an uncomfortable level and they began moving forward.

The plane vibrated as it gained speed, Ginny told Harry as she gasped his hand on the armrest between them, “I don't like this.”

“Me either,” answered Harry squeezing her hand in return, “I'd rather do my own flying.”

At first the gigantic machine inclined only slightly upward. Then, it rose at a much sharper angle. When it turned to the right Harry and Ginny got a glimpse of the airport fading into the distance. The plane straightened and continued to rise. Half an hour later it had settled into level flight and the little image of a seat belt in the overhead displays was no longer lighted. People began to move around, mostly queuing for the lavatories. Having finished their croissants and coffee the four friends decided that to save time in Sydney they'd work on their homework. There wasn't anything else to do anyway, squeezed together in a Muggle flying machine blasting through the skies faster than their Firebolts.

They had packed the books they were reading in Professor Mullens' class. Being Muggle books they were safe. Since it was a big project, getting it done would make their return to Hogwarts less of a drudge. Ron got his rucksack from the compartment overhead; Harry retrieved his from beneath the seat. When they opened the flaps, both hesitated, staring into the interior of their packs. Both reached in and removed a little card. After reading it themselves, Harry passed it to Ginny, Ron to Hermione; “We love you and miss you already.”

“Well, we know one thing,” Harry whispered to the others, “an Undetectable Enlargement Charm is undetectable.”

While he said this, he and Ron both held their rucksacks open so their partners could see the interior. It was packed with sandwiches, apples, pears, and neatly wrapped little packages of cookies. Mrs. Weasley had made sure none of her charges would starve.

They passed out books and a notepad for each. Ron helped himself to a turkey with mustard sandwich. They were reading the books in turn and keeping notes from which they would write their paper for Professor Mullens.

The four had not been working long when Ahmed stopped by, “Thanks for your help this morning. You're handy to have along.” Then, seeing their books and notes he asked, “What're you reading?”

Hermione, pleased that this was something about school they could actually talk about, described their homework. “We have a project due when we get back; it's a paper on existential thought. I'm reading Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death, Ron has Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Ginny has Kafka's The Trial, and Harry Camus' The Stranger. We read one, then trade. When we're each through all four, we'll put our heads together and write the paper.”

What she didn't say was that Professor Mullens felt that the best way to understand Muggle culture was to learn its philosophical roots, how Muggles understood their world and their lives.

Ahmed had expected something more like adventure novels but adapted quickly, “That ought to make some hours pass. I'll leave you to your work but again, thanks for your help.”

Then, noticing Ron's sandwich he added, “Smart to bring you own food.”

“Want one?” asked Ron.

“No, not now, but thanks.”

When Ahmed returned to his seat he found Bill and Ellen, Emelda and Sophia standing by the rear door of the plane, taking turns looking out the little window. After he joined them he said, “Guess what our whiz kids are up to.”

“What?” asked Sophia.

“Reading university level lit and writing a paper on existential thought.”

“Told you!” said Sophia, “They're nerds; they don't want people to think they're weird, so they're quiet about it.”

“Makes sense,” said Bill. Then looking at Ahmed, “You still think old man Weasley's MI-5?”

“No, more like central accounting,” replied Ahmed with a grin.

Emelda, not having been part of the antecedent conversation wasn't following, so she asked, “MI-5 what, what are you talking about?”

Bill replied, “Ahmed thinks our four teens are hiding something; they don't talk about their school and they're not like most upper sixths. They're sort of out-of-it as far as youth culture goes.”

Ahmed added, “Bill thinks we should recruit them for yipi but we're waiting until after the conference to get a better sense of 'em. So far though, they've been really good to have around.”

Ellen was sure, “I like them. I think they'll be good.”

After a moment Emelda said, “I put them in 71 and 72 across from us. They've been so willing to help and haven't ever traveled by air, so I thought I'd give them better seats. How'd they end-up in 68 with Ariel and the boys from York back here?”

“Three guesses, the first two don't count,” said Ellen.

“Ariel?” asked Emelda, but it wasn't really a question.

“Yep, she moaned about her seat. We were all moving carry-ons around – the bunch from Lancaster had too much to stow – so Ginny and Hermione just handled it. Gave up their seats, placated Ariel, and that was that!”

Emelda replied, “Well, Bill may be right, we can always use brains and initiative. Waiting until after the conference sounds fine.”

There was a lunch, ham and cheese on a dry bun with some odd orange-colored crackers. Hermione and Ginny opted for an apple and a tuna salad from the rucksacks. Curious, Harry tried a couple of bites of the airplane food and then went to his pack for a pear, an apple and a turkey sandwich. Ron ate everything on the tray plus two of Mrs. Weasley's turkey sandwiches. Hermione suggested that before he ate all the food in the charmed rucksacks Ron should take some sandwiches back to their friends. He did; the sandwiches were gratefully received.

There was a movie shown on the little ceiling televisions, a long fascinating story about young lovers from different social classes on a sinking ship. There was dinner, a bit better than the lunch, followed by Australian news programs and shows about Christmas. When night fell there were fewer people moving around because everyone was trying to sleep. They decided that it would be safe to use a sleep spell. That was probably the only way to get any sleep, the seats were cramped and although they reclined, it wasn't nearly enough to be restful. Since Somnus must be countered with Ressurecto at least one of them needed to cast the spell, and then stay awake to do the counter spell. They decided to do it two by two; at least they'd have their partner to talk to. Rather than undo their wands from their hiding places the girls cast the spells leaving them in place. Ginny's plait was long enough that she used her wand by directing it, while Hermione had to turn her head at an odd angle and reach behind her.

Hermione and Ron took the first watch, then Ginny and Harry. After they were awakened and put Hermione and Ron to sleep, Harry and Ginny sat quietly reading with regular looks at the map on the overhead televisions that showed their progress toward Singapore where the plane would stop before continuing on to Sydney. More than half the flight had passedt . After a bit, Harry said, “Let's walk around, I need to stretch my legs.”

They left their seats, walked back to the rear doors of the airplane and took turns looking out the little window. They were above clouds so they could see nothing of what they were flying over but it was refreshing to see moonlight on the clouds after so long in such a cramped, artificial space. They walked forward, silently gesturing 'hello' to Sophia, who was reading a book by a small light in the panel overhead. Emelda, Bill, Ellen and Ahmed seemed to be fitfully sleeping.

They had never met most of the yipi group because they had gathered for the Sydney conference from all over the U.K.. Some were sleeping, some reading, but none seemed particularly comfortable. Harry thought Somnus would do them all a favor. The magical sleep it engendered was restful and full of pleasant dreams but, as nice as that might have been, a group of people enjoying magical somnolence was likely to attract attention given the general restlessness of the other passengers.

When they arrived at the kitchen that separated their part of the plane from those forward, Harry peeked behind the curtain that separated it from the aisle. It was dark except for a few tiny red and green lights on the equipment. He opened it to show Ginny, she nodded and they stepped inside. Ginny flipped her braid over her shoulder, touched her wand and cast a nonverbal Muffliato on the entrances to the little kitchen.

They embraced and gently kissed; Harry's second-day beard did not invite a long snog.  Snogging was still changing for them, if what they did could still be called "snogging."  It was nourishment.  So too were school, touching, teasing, holding hands, Quidditch, flying, dueling practice, enjoying friends and family, and imagining their future together. Kissing wasn't just the heart of snogging sessions; it was the regular rhythm of their feelings, the recurring melody of their love song.

Harry and Ginny were taking their time on the path to making love.  Harry's hands never went anywhere Ginny's had not first lead them and Ginny had only so many chances.  Between classmates, lessons, school, Quidditch, homework and the Chinese Book there were few suitable moments. Regardless, just walking any path together was still so delightful that it was easy to be content. Their promise to Ginny's parents to “make no big decisions” until they finished school could be interpreted as they chose. Making love and marrying were not the same; the “big decision” could be either, as well as both. Marriage proclaimed in public the private bond of making love. It had been that way for Ginny's parents, perhaps Harry's too, for all they'd ever know.

After another kiss Ginny said, “Mr. Potter,” invoking their lovers language.

When Harry replied, “Yes, Mrs. Potter,” Ginny arranged her braid so she could rest her back against Harry's chest, nestling her head on his shoulder. Harry leaned against the wall so they melted into the closest contact possible, at least the closest contact possible in a tiny kitchen more than five miles high. Harry put his arms around her, resting his hands on her belly. Ginny took his right hand and slipped it into the pocket of her slacks where it lay across her thigh. She took his left and slid it upward until it rested where it could please them both.

She whispered the way they did when they hid behind the chair near the common room fire and kissed, whispered, and gazed into one another's eyes. “Tell me the couch dream..

Harry told his dream, another of many times. “We're sitting on our old couch, like at The Burrow. Our kids have bounced on it so many times that we've slid together into the sunken spot in the middle. There's a fire in the grate. I'm in pajamas, you're wearing a soft, long, warm nightgown and our kids are in their pajamas cuddling next to us. Your hair is loose across your shoulders, your legs are tucked beneath you, wrapped inside your nightgown. Our little redheaded daughter is on your lap, sleeping in the crook of your arm.  Your nightgown's been pulled over your shoulder. I can see the curve of your breast.”

Ginny, turned to kiss his cheek and teased, “Are you looking?”

“Between every sentence,” answered Harry before he continued the familiar tale. “Her older brother is snuggling next to me and I'm reading The Tales of Beadle the Bard from the tattered copy Arthur read to you.” They enjoyed the image before Harry continued. “After we put them to bed . . .” There was more to the story but the lights came on and one of the cabin crew stepped in, Marjorie by her name tag, Harry quickly reaaranged his hands.

Marjorie said, “Sorry, didn't hear you.” Then, noting Harry's rearrangement, added with a hearty, throaty laugh, “Don't worry. If it was my boyfriend, The Octopus, I'd been running for the loo trying to hold up my skirt with one hand and button my blouse with the other. Actually, I can't wait. It's been six days and I need a little love!” Marjorie emphasized her heartfelt need with a foot stomp and a rise of voice that might have awakened the nearest passengers.

Nonplussed, Marjorie spoke without a pause, “You with the peace group?”

“Yea,” replied Harry.

Marjorie described the remainder of the flight, “Well, some more food, a stop in Singapore and home. We're more than half way there.”

Ginny was curious, “Where's your boyfriend?”

“Sydney. We've been living together for two years and he's started his own business, a computer shop, and as long as I keep flying we're making ends meet. Basically, it's six days away every two weeks. I don't like it much but we need the doah.”

“Doah” was a new word but accompanied by the gesture of rubbing her thumb against her forefinger and the conversation's context, it certainly meant “money.”

Then, in a less enthusiastic tone, Marjorie recalled herself to her job, “I've got to fire up the galley here, anything I can get you?”

Harry replied, “Well, we could use a good cup of coffee and some for our friends in row 68.”

“Good coffee, I can't do,” said Marjorie, “coffee is watery American stuff up here. Unless you can do magic, you'll have to settle for fresh.”

Ginny answered, “We'll settle for fresh.”


Chapter 30: Arrival
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Chapter Thirty

Arrival

When Harry and Ginny woke Ron and Hermione after leaving Marjorie to her duties in the little kitchen, which they now knew was called a “galley,” they decided on shorter sleeping shifts so that both couples would be awake for the stop in Singapore. When that stop came, it was uneventful. During landing and take off, they were able to see glimpses of the airport through the side windows because most of the passengers had given up trying to sleep and had opened the shades leaving them unobstructed.

The rest of the flight was spent in the same routine, some sleep, some study, a meal, more television, Christmas programs mostly. They were skipping the meals Qantas served because Mrs. Weasley's sandwich largess seemed inexhaustible. They were happy for Majorie's coffee, as “watery American” as it might be.  She filled their larger coffee shop cups rather than the paltry little tea cups from the galley.

At one point Bill and Ellen, who had been stretching their legs, passed Harry and Ginny's side of the center rows just as Harry and Ron were passing out sandwiches. They stopped to ask, “How did you get all that food in those packs? You've been eating the whole trip.”

“That's normal for Weasleys,” laughed Hermione, although that was in no way an answer to their question.

Ron, whose hand was deep in the Enlargement Charm's depths, added, “Well, our Mum is really good at packing. You hungry?”

Ellen teased, “Can we borrow your Mum for our next trip?”

Ginny replied, “You know, she'd pack for you too.”

Bill and Ellen left with sandwiches, fruit and cookies for themselves, Ahmed, Sophia and Emelda. When they returned to their seats, Ginny, impishly imitated Bill opening a Molly Weasley packed rucksack to discover that it was three times larger inside than out.

The airplane routine continued until First Officer Allen, the pilots apparently having changed in Singapore, announced that it was time to get squared away for landing. First Officer Allen was more loquacious than First Officer Devin and continued to talk, describing their path into the airport. He suggested that those on the right side of the cabin could see Sydney just a few kilometers away, while those on the left would have a view of a large nature reserve and the rivers that fed Botany Bay right beneath them. By the time he finished talking, the plane had already descended to where those who could see out the windows were able to make out the details of buildings and cars. First Officer Allen finished by informing the cabin crew to “prepare for arrival.”

They couldn't see any of First Officer Allen's landmarks during the huge Muggle machine's descent. Except for a few passengers unsuccessfully trying to get another moment's sleep with their shades drawn, everyone with seats next to a window was looking out, blocking their view. They knew they had landed by the sound of the tires striking the concrete and the great increase in noise and vibration. The noise reached a very unpleasant pitch and the plane lost momentum so fast that it pushed them forward against their seat belts. When the plane completely stopped, three bells rang, Marjorie and the rest of the crew left their seats, and the queues began.

In an instant the aisles were jammed. Since they were at the back of the plane, it was a while before they could actually leave their seats because everyone crowded the aisles rushing to unload their possessions from the compartments overhead. With a mass of people all trying to get a step ahead in queue, everything took much longer than if they had just unloaded row by row. Here was a Muggle paradox for Professor Mullens. Muggles could build a machine that could flawlessly shoot through the sky for an entire day. Yet, they couldn't figure out how to get off it politely.

When the line did move, the two couples retraced their way through to the exit and up an enclosed ramp like the one in London. They followed the crowd to a large arrival area where a casually dressed man was holding a sign that read “Y.I.P.I.” He and Emelda shepherded the group through what seemed like endless lines until they at last loaded onto a large bus labeled “Sydney University.”

It took them through the airport, past massive car parks, onto a bridge over a river, past a big hotel, houses and open spaces that Harry identified as a golf course. He had seen golf on the Dursley's television once when they left him alone. He explained that it was a very slow game that involved hitting a small ball with a rod until it went into a little hole in the grass. Ron proclaimed in a whisper that it could never compete with Quidditch.

The road merged into a much larger one, then an even larger one after that. The signs read “66, Prince's Highway.” A few turns later the bus came to a stop and opened its doors in front of a complex of buildings in a treed park. Shortly, everyone had their belongings except Ariel, who left something on the bus. The rest of the group stood around in the bright sun, their jackets in hand or hung on their bags' extendable handles. When Ariel was finally ready, Emelda lead the group to a reception area where they were met by a man who introduced himself only as the “Resident Director.” He explained the rules about hours and loud music, noted the local pubs and eateries, and pointed out the resource center.

At this, Emelda took over, “Alright, everyone, we have the rest of today to settle in, catch some sleep, and get ready for the plenary session tomorrow at 9:00AM. You're on your own for meals, there are dorm kitchens in your rooms and the store here carries groceries. The local catering is said to be good. Eat where you wish. The Resident Director explained the rules.  However, you're part of our group, so we're asking that you tell one of the counselors where you'll be if you're gone overnight.”

She then introduced Bill and Ellen, Ahmed and Sophia, as the group counselors. While Emelda and Ellen set up their lists and files on a nearby table, Ahmed used a map to show where to find the convenient transportation, maps of the university and a bank. He showed how to walk to other parts of the campus and into the heart of Newtown and its eclectic selection of cafes and shops.

When he finished, Ellen called out, “When I call your names come up and get your room assignment, a key card, the conference schedule and credentials.”

It took about twenty minutes to pass out all the room assignments. When they finished, all the yipi members were off to find their rooms and only the two counselor couples and Emelda remained.

“So, what've you got for us Emelda?” asked Sophia.

“I saved a nice two bedroom. It's got a dorm-like kitchen, private baths and rooms. It's just around the corner.”

“Cool!” said Sophia, continuing with a chuckle, “You made sure the whiz kids were far enough apart!”

Emelda, answered with something of a grin, “Look, they're not kids. How many eighteen year olds on this campus do you think are sexually active?”

“Plenty,” said Bill.

“So, what are the odds that they are?”

Bill answered, “Sure, but they'll find a way.”

Grinning Emelda answered, “Yes, but on our watch we didn't make it easy!”

None of the counselors felt that it was really yipi business to keep people in their own beds. Knowing that stairs and a courtyard wouldn't deter determined lovers, they let it be.

The minute they were out of the airplane, Harry and Ron became anxious to have their wands in hand. So, they stopped at Hermione and Ginny's place to retrieve them before continuing on to their rooms. Hermione and Ginny's rooms were on the courtyard level at one end of the dorm complex.  Harry and Ron were on the top floor at the opposite end. To keep up appearances Ron and Harry had walked there with their luggage. Now they were apparating back and forth between their respective rooms getting everything unpacked and arranged. Having lived together all summer they were use to family life in The Burrow's busy spaces. In just a bit more than a half hour the four were unpacked, showered, changed and in the girls' living room.

Hermione was sitting at the desk going through the guide book, the computer keyboard pushed to the side. Ginny was reading over her shoulder. Ron was sprawled almost horizontal on the couch levitating a cup around the room.

Harry, pacing back and forth just to be on his feet after hours and hours of sitting, teased Ron, “Seven years of magical education and you're levitating dishes?”

Ron shrugged, “Well, it feels good to be a wizard again.”

Before Harry could reply Hermione turned from the desk, “It feels good to be human again. I needed that shower.” Then, before anyone could answer, she reported what they found on the map. “As near as Ginny and I can figure, this Glebe stop will take us to Convention Station where we change onto a monorail toward City Central. From there we can walk to the Hyde Park Barracks.”

“Let's go,” said Harry, “I've sat enough.”

He started for the door. Ginny remarked, “Did anyone see you two come in here? Do they think you're in your rooms?”

“I don't know,” said Harry, “but we can apparate to our rooms and walk back.”

“OK, let's not arouse any interest in how we get around; let's meet at the resource center,” suggested Ginny.

Five minutes later Ron and Harry found Hermione and Ginny at one of the center computers. They had looked up Hyde Park Barracks and Hermione was reading from the computer screen, “It was build around 1817 to 1819. . .” Then, looking around to see that they were the only one's there, “. . . that's more than a century after the secrecy treaty. Maybe there weren't enough wizards here before then. Anyway, we still only know there's a statue, behind that statue is a wall and that's where the entrance is magically concealed.”

“Well, let's go find out,” said Harry.

Following the guidebook map they walked along Carillon Avenue by a head-height brick wall that separated the pavement from the campus until they reached the entrance to Western Avenue. This must have once been a gateway of some sort because there was an arch connected to a brick building with a tile roof more or less immediately on the corner. Something caught his eye so Harry turned back along Carillon Avenue to look over the campus wall and there, between the wall, the corner of the building and some intervening privits was a perfect apparition point. It was hidden on all sides but only a few steps around the building from either of the streets. At worse, they'd have to wait until pedestrians passed before sneaking onto Western Avenue.

After all four memorized the apparition point, they walked Western Avenue from one side of the campus to the other. Being summer, there were not that many people around but the campus was impressive. There were fields bordered by trees, large buildings for the different faculties – Woman's College, Wesley College, Physics, a large sports center and a theater. After crossing a bridge over a highway they came to a mixed area, houses, businesses, including a huge building where cars were sold. Harry and Ron found Toyotas a great deal more fascinating than did Hermione or Ginny but the young women saw several stores along the way where they could sate their own curiosities about Muggle goods. Further on, after a stop to get Australian Dollars and a mistaken turn, they found their way down a very narrow curving road to the railway stop. There, they double checked the posted maps and boarded the next Metro Light Rail to Convention Center.

Once they were on the very modern train, much less worn and much cleaner than those they'd ridden in London, it only took about ten minutes to arrive at the Convention Center where they transferred to a monorail. This was interesting as none of the four had even seen, much less ridden one. It was elevated and made the twisting route to Central Station in a little over five minutes.

When they left the station, they found themselves in a center city environment. Yet, only a short walk away at the corner of Market and Elizabeth was a large park. Macquarie Street where the barracks was located was just on the other side. While they walked, they looked for places where they might safely disapparate. One spot, a small clearing in the trees, was ideal and only a few feet off the pavement.

When they emerged from the park, they walked to a crossing that lead to the square around the barracks. Macquarie Street wasn't too busy, neither was the square in front of the barracks. Walking around the wall like tourists, they looked for any indication of a magical portal. Having followed the wall on both sides with more persistence than any tourist and finding nothing, they sat on the steps at the base of the large statue, as unobtrusive a place as any in such a public space.

With the guidebook in hand Hermione said, “Maybe there's a clue in something the guidebook says.” With that, she turned to the page for the Barracks and began to read snippets aloud, “. . .built to house transported convicts . . . .wall kept them in at night to prevent street crime . . . cookhouse, bakery, cells and places for the soldiers . . . up to 800 convicts . . . renovated in 1887 for law courts.”

“Which brings nothing to mind,” said Ginny, sounding disappointed.

Ron asked, “Do you suppose we've got the right place?”

Harry discouraged the thought, “I think we've got to assume this is it, otherwise what can we do? If their Ministry isn't here, we've all of Sydney to search and no idea where to begin.”

Hermione suggested, “Look, it's a little after five in the afternoon at the start of Christmas week so there'll be less people around pretty soon. Let's find some dinner and come back after. We'll attract less attention and maybe revealing spells will show something or we'll get lucky and see someone use the entrance.”

They found an Irish Pub on King Street about a block away. Had they not been concerned, worried really, about finding the Australian Ministry, it would have been a good time. While they ate, an evening crowd filled the bar. It was Christmas week and the off time made for plenty of imbibing. So, when they returned to sit at the base of the statue and discuss how to go about finding the entrance, there were relatively few cars or pedestrians around. They decided to keep the area as clear as possible with Repello Muggletum, and to set Cave Inimicum to warn them of approaching people or vehicles.

With that accomplished, Ginny suggested Alohamora saying, “It's too simple but, just in case, let's see what happens.” Indeed, nothing happened.

After that, they waited for a group who had already robustly imbibed of holiday spirits to reach the boundary of their Repello Muggletum. When they stumbled around the corner, puzzled as to why they had taken the turn, Hermione tried Dissendium on the statue itself. That caused Hogwart's humpbacked witch statue to open the passage to Honeydukes. They had no expectation that it would succeed and were not disappointed in their expectation.

Ron tried a few light “Stupefy” to see if they revealed something. Specialis Revelio was equally ineffective but they were running out of ideas and trying anything they could think of.

After sitting in silence for a while, Harry remembered, “When Dumbledore was looking for the entrance to the cave where Riddle hid the R.A.B. Horcrux, he said that magic always leaves traces. He found the entrance by touching the wall, he felt something. I don't know what he felt but I'll try. I can't think of anything else to do. Keep watch. It'll look pretty weird if someone sees me feeling the wall.”

Pointing her wand at the weather-stained wall, Hermione advised, “What we read said that the entrance is behind a statue; this is the obvious statue, so try there, right behind it.

Harry was unsure what to do so he began by running his hands along the wall feeling for he knew not what but finding only the abrasive surface. Then, it occurred to him that this might be like finding the Snitch, the closer your view, the less chance you had of finding it. So, he unfocused his feelings, forgetting that what he was doing would make him look silly to passersby, ignoring that he really didn't know what he was doing. He closed his eyes and raised both hands, moving them slowly back and forth just above the surface. Then, almost immediately, he felt something. It wasn't easy to describe, just a feeling, maybe a vibration, or perhaps a subtle warmth, a vague sense of a surface other than the bricks. Whatever it was, he was certain he could sense the edge of the entrance.

Then, searching the same way around the sides of the entrance he found the key block, just like the one behind the Leaky Cauldron. It was surprisingly clear, marked as it was by the touch of many wands. He turned to his friends and said, “I have it, wands out, let's clear the spells.” When Hermione completed Finite, all four looked for onlookers. Seeing none, Harry said, “follow me” and touched his wand to the key block.

The four stepped through the magical barrier. It closed behind them. They were at one edge of something like a plaza, a large square. There were benches, a fountain and trees planted in round open areas surrounded by the cobbles of the square. The plaza was lit by orbs of light, as if from a Deluminator, floating where streetlights would have been. There were people standing along the sides, more stood at the corners formed where a wide, cobbled street met the plaza. Their faces were hidden in the shadows cast by the floating orbs above them. The cobbled street was bordered by what looked to be stores with porch-like roofs that overhung raised plank walkways. Lanterns shown onto the street from the shop windows. To one side there was a restaurant with candle-lit tables and chairs set out on the plaza. The customers were fixed on the four friends. Beneath the sign “Benington's Eatery” was an even larger sign with the words “Cold Tooheys” surrounded by continuously falling snowflakes.

What held their attention was not these surroundings but six wizards with drawn and pointed wands. They stood in a line facing them, each a fighting distance apart. Four were dressed in uniforms, navy blue cargo pants with large pockets, a light blue shirt, sturdy boots and darker blue uniform caps. Two others were dressed in jeans, shirts and trainers. Both wore billed caps with emblems. One was a pair of crossed red socks, the other showed the letter “Y” laid over the letter “N.”

The four were not thinking about hats. They were puzzled and waiting for some clue how to respond. This was not the reception they'd anticipated. They were expecting something more like Diagon Alley, a busy shopping street. Their wands were out; experience and lessons had taught them what to do.  Harry and Ginny were edging away from one another as unobrusively as they could.  Ron, likewise, was putting some space between him and Hermione.  If there was a fight, this would lessen the chance that detonating the pavement at their feet with Confrigo or Expulso would bring down more than one of them.  Harry was sure that the strong-looking one in the middle of the six saw and understood their movement.

Harry still felt the urge to step in front of Ginny shielding her.  He let the thought pass unattended. In a fight, Ginny wouldn't be hiding behind anyone, nor would he want her to be.  Together they were better than either singly..

Harry was confident he knew what the others were thinking. There were four strong Shield Charms just at the edge of silent release. They each knew what they would do, it was the only sensible thing.  No Stunners, just Protego, then they'd apparate back to Hermione and Ginny's flat. They were here to get help finding Hermione's parents, not to start a fight.   If worse came to worst, they'd have to find another way to seek wizarding help.

The wizard wearing the billed cap with the crossed red socks broke the silence, “That was a pretty neat bit of magic out there.”

It was Ron who replied, “Thanks, but this wasn't what we were expecting.”

The socks cap wizard paid no attention to Ron's answer and instead asked Harry, “Who taught you to feel for magic?”

Harry answered, “Albus Dumbledore.”

“Indeed,” came the reply, “very skilled, but we haven't used that portal since the area got built up.”

These wizards weren't looking for a fight but they had observed their search for the entrance and were prepared to defend their hidden domain. Feeling sure of this, Harry lowered his wand and introduced them, “My name's Harry Potter. This is Ginny Weasley, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. We're seventh year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in England.   We're here to find Hermione's parents who are somewhere in Australia. We're looking for your Ministry of Magic to seek your help. We tried to find a contact before we left but all we could learn was that the entrance was in the wall behind the statue.”

They thought that they saw the six defenders relax a bit but the one they now thought of as the leader wasn't ready to let down his guard. He called toward the crowd that had now moved closer to the edge of the plaza. “Wainwright, you went to Hogwarts, ask them something they should know if they're students.”

Wainwright was a much older wizard. By the length of his gray beard he could be as old as Dumbledore had been. His head was bald but for a few wisps of pure white hair. He stepped out of the crowd, walking slowly without a cane, approaching the line of wizards facing the four.

He complained, “What damn good will that do. Hell, McKenzie, look at 'em, their parents weren't born when I went to school, what're they gonna know?”

McKenzie looked like he was going to say something but before he could speak Hermione asked Wainwright, “What years were you at Hogwarts?”

“'31 to '37, your granddaddy's time.”

Hermione grinned, she knew something, “Minerva McGonagall was sorted into Gryffindor at the start of term in your seventh year.”

Wainwright laughed, “Yea, she was, how do you know, you don't look like a relative, best I remember she had a brogue?"

“She does. She's Headmistress and was our House Master before that. You were Gryffindor?”

Wainwright answered, “I was. Tell me boys, is the Quidditch pitch still up the hill behind the castle?”

“Nice try, trick question,” said Ginny. “It's never been there; it's down the hill toward Hogsmeade where it was built generations ago, where it's always been.”

Wainwright nodded, “You know Quidditch do ya?”

Ginny pointed to Harry and Ron in turn, “Harry's the youngest Seeker in a hundred years and my brother Ron's Keeper. I'm a Gryffindor Chaser.”

“Minerva McGonagall Headmistress, well who could've guessed it. McKenzie, back off, there's nothin' wrong with this lot.”

The wizards seemed to be relaxing and the crowd was moving closer, clearly not expecting a fight. There was a general buzzing from the on-lookers and Wainwright seemed convinced they weren't dangerous but it was still a standoff. Because their leader's wand didn't drop, none of the others lowered theirs.

After a minute a woman, tall and darkly tanned, stepped forward from the crowd and spoke in a loud, firm voice as she pushed between McKenzie and the muscular wizard next to him. “McKenzie if he's Harry Potter ask him to show his scar.”

McKenzie asked, “What scar?”

Harry pushed back his unruly hair to show the lighting scar on his forehead. As he did he said to his friends, “Maybe it's useful for something after all.”

The woman continued, “McKenzie, don't you read?”

At this all four smiled, the tone of her voice was so much like Hermione asking Ron and Harry for the thousandth time whether they'd ever read Hogwarts a History.

“Read what?” asked McKenzie of the woman who seemed comfortable telling him what to do.

“Read the damn Prophets my dicey uncle Randolph sends in the Muggle mail. It's them. He's the kid who killed Voldemort and those are his friends.”

“They don't look like kids to me; they're of age if they're a day Betty.”

“Of course they're of age; you heard 'em, they're seventh years. Don't be ridiculous.”

With that, the crowd began speaking excitedly, apparently they knew more about the Second Wizarding War than the four had imagined. If The Prophet was circulating here, there were more connections to Australia than they'd supposed.

This seemed to diffuse the last of the tension and McKenzie, the five other defenders, Ron, Ginny and Hermione pocketed their wands, stepping toward each other for introductions, their hands empty and extended in greeting.

As they shook hands all around, McKenzie began the introductions, “I'm Atrourus McKenzie, Head Auror, and these are my co-workers.” Pointing to the shorter muscular wizard in the “N” and “Y” hat he said, “This is Ian Philapoupus.” He continued to introduce the four in police uniforms, “This is Alfred Walters, Richard Prebend, Arthur Randall and my younger brother Rudolfus. And, this pushy shelia is my wife, Elizabeth. Around here everybody just calls her 'Betty'.”

Ginny looked at Harry mouthing “shelia?” as a question. Harry shrugged.

When the crowd moved forward, their numbers overwhelmed the two groups, merging them into a single, milling gaggle in the center of the plaza. Everyone was asking questions at once with Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny each trying to answer different people. This lasted a few minutes until the shelia everyone around here calls Betty raised her voice again.

“Alright, everybody calm down, let 'em talk one at a time.”

At that one of the wizards at the back of the crowed hollered, “Yea, hav'em buy a round at Beningtons and tell their tale.”

Betty knew better, “Rafe, you've had enough already and you know the English drink butter beer.”  By way of explanation she told the four, “If butter beer starts your engine a pint of Tooheys will blow your doors off.”

None of the four actually understood what she said. They got the sense that the beer was potent and that seemed enough for the moment.

Betty continued, “What everyone wants is the story. We get The Prophet through the Muggle mail but it's hard to put the story together. We know there was war last year, thank heavens it didn't get here, but you Potter. . .” pointing at Harry “. . . have been everything from the 'Boy Who Lies' to the 'Chosen One,' so everyone wants to know what's what.”

Harry did not want to tell the story again but he remembered the meeting at the Ministry and understood that their curiosity was genuine. If they expected to get help finding Hermione's parents, telling the story couldn't hurt. “Look, The Prophet get's going on all sorts of stuff, not always what's real.”

“That's no surprise,” said one of the older men standing near the edge of the crowd.

"Yea, that's for sure,” answered Harry. “When I was a baby my Mum and Dad fought Voldemort – his name was really Tom Riddle. He killed my Dad then tried to kill me because of a prophecy that I was a danger to him. My Mum tried to protect me so he killed her too.”

He moved the tale along quickly. When he told the story of their search for Horcruxes the crowd stayed silent but from the way some of them involuntarily turned-away, he knew they were repulsed. Repulsed and more than a little amazed.

“By our sixth year, Riddle had gathered his Death Eaters and acquired many more followers. They took over the Ministry of Magic, Hogwarts, and most of the wizarding world in the U.K. and Europe.”

Harry turned to Ginny, “Ginny Weasley, along with other friends who aren't with us here, fought the Death Eaters at Hogwarts.” Then, turning to Ron and Hermione, “For all last year and the final battle, Ron, Hermione and I fought the Death Eaters until the final moment when Riddle was the last to die. He died from his own mistakes more than from anything I did, but die he did.”

There was, of course, more to the story but that would do for now.


Chapter 31: Hermione's Tale
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Chapter Thirty One

Hermione's Tale

Atrourus McKenzie, Head Auror, took charge; no one objected, “Alright, everybody has the story, so back about your business and we'll take our guests to the Auror Office and see what we can do for 'em.”

McKenzie wasn't handsome, at least not in the fashion magazine way. For want of a word Harry couldn't find, he thought of him as “solid.” Tall, strong, calm, around Professor Mullens' age, but with only the lightest touch of gray in his short-cropped hair. He spoke like someone at ease with authority but the group that moved with him from the square to the street beyond was not greatly diminished. People didn't fear him.

The four, now mixed among the locals, couldn't help but be tourists to the extent of perusing store windows – books, potion ingredients, and robes – not much different than Diagon Alley except for looking more like the towns in cowboy movies. The locals were talkative and seemed happy to point out various features of what they called “Dog Town.”

“Why Dog Town?” asked Ron.

“Oz humor, there's an actual Dog Town on the Haunted Stream in Victoria. It's got a Witch Creek on it so somebody thought it was funny to name this 'Dog Town' too. Given the times, it could have been a couple of broom jockeys loaded on home brew,” replied Ian Philapoupus.

Ron was about to inquire what that meant when Harry and Ginny worked their way out of the crowd and stopped at the left side of the street in front of a store without the usual extended roof and walk.  The cobbles came right to the door. The sign said “Wee Willie's Brooms” and the display in front resembled a family portrait of brooms from the smallest to the largest. Harry and Ginny were staring at the largest, looking delighted.

Ginny had just nudged Harry, “Look at the size of that broom!”

To which Harry had replied, “Feel the size of the Flying Charm, it's out to here.”

Before Ginny could continue McKenzie joined them, followed by the rest of the crowd. He shouted toward the large door of Wee Willie's Brooms, “Willie come on out there's a couple of Brits out here admiring your brooms.”

Shortly Wee Willie emerged. Wee, Willie was not. He needed the entire oversized door. He was not as big as Hargid but he was bigger than anyone else, at least seven feet tall. Over heavy denim coveralls he wore a leather apron with the handles of various tools and a huge wand sticking out of its many little pockets, straps and loops. He was as fair complected as Ginny but without freckles. He had shaggy mop of blond hair that fell over his shoulders. His hand were so large that Harry and Ginny's disappeared into his grasp.

“Know brooms do ya?” he asked in a deep and vibrant voice..

Harry looked up, “Well, we play Quidditch and fly for fun.”

Ron, who had come up next to them added, “They're flying fanatics!”

Hermione's “They're really good at Quidditch,” reminded Harry and Ginny that their purpose here was to find her parents, not to fly Australian brooms.

So, Ginny moved the matter along, “We're pleased to meet you Willie and fascinated by the size of the Flying Charm on those . . .” pointing to the largest of the brooms.

Willie furnished the name, “Heavy Haulers, miss. And, just how'd ya know about my Flying Charm?”

Ginny raised her hand in front of her as if touching an invisible wall.

When he saw her gesture, Willie cocked his head slightly, looking at Harry and Ginny with a curious expression. He seemed to decide not to pursue whatever he was thinking.   “We've some distances to cover here in Oz, so we apparate a lot but if you've got a couple of kids, bags of groceries and a sack of cement, apparition can be dicey. One of my Heavy Haulers can take the lot and wiz you home at an easy seventy five. Wanna try one?”

They didn't understand “sack of cement” or an “easy seventy five,” but they got the idea that Heavy Haulers could haul heavy loads and haul them quickly. They really did want to fly one. Flying a new broom is a flyer's delight. But getting help from McKenzie and the Aurors was what they needed.

Harry demurred, “We'd love to Willie, but not now, we need to get something done. First chance we get though.”

Willie extended his hand saying, “Come back when ya can.”

They said they definitely would and continued on, still accompanied by a considerable crowd. The Auror Office was the first door in a single floor building with several doors along the boardwalk. The roof was flat and extended over it, supported by hewn posts set on brick pedestals next to the street. The raised walk was planked with thick lumber worn smooth by decades of boots and cloaks. When they filed inside, the office filled, not with just the six Aurors. but also with Betty and a considerable number of those who had been in the crowd. It was a single open room, longer than wide, with about a dozen desks set in two rows facing each of the longer walls. The desks were wooden, although not all the same make or design. The chairs too were a collection of types, including a couple of wheeled chairs like those in Professor Mullens' office. At the far end of the room was a kitchen-like space and the most unusual feature, a series of six doors, one next to the other in a row.

The group that accompanied them was more than twice the number of chairs, so for the most part people were sitting on desks or just leaning against the wall. Artourous McKenzie – who no one seemed to call anything but “McKenzie” – turned around to face the group by sitting backward in his chair, his chin resting on his forearms laid across the seat back. The four friends arranged themselves on four small chairs that McKenzie's younger brother unfolded from a flat form without using his wand.

Harry and Ginny more or less pushed Hermione and Ron forward, expecting Hermione to tell the tale of her parents and their immigration to Australia. They arranged their own seats just a little to the side and behind, along with those of the crowd. While everyone was getting settled, the Auror McKenzie had introduced as Richard Prebend arrived from the back of the room following a large levitating box. It had many cardboard compartments each of which held a bottle of beer with “OLD” in large white letters on a dark reddish label. As someone took one of the proffered bottles they would hold it up to Richard who would silently touch his wand to it, cooling the beer until the recipient nodded, raised a finger, or in some way indicated that the brew had reached the temperature desired.

Ron and Hermione took a bottle each but Betty cautioned, “Remember, each of those is like three of your English butter beers.”

Hermione returned hers, “I'll share with Ron.”

When everyone was seated and served, apparently having a beer in the Auror Office was nothing unusual, McKenzie asked Hermione, “Tell us what brought you all the way to Australia?”

Hermione began.  Harry let his mind wander, observing the people in the room, only occasionally attending to Hermione's story. It was easy to like these people, particularly McKenzie and Betty, whose back-and-forth repartee reminded him of Ron and Hermione. Looking at Betty he discovered  the word he hadn't found for McKenzie, “outdoorsy.” They'd seen plenty of wind and sun, a bit of cowboy to them really.

He was sure it was a mistake to think that Dog Town's simplicity and informality meant these wizards lacked skill or power. Wee Willie's flying charm was neither simple nor common and the Aurors' demeanor when they faced them in the square told they were no stranger to duels.

When Harry regarded the faces of the listeners, he saw they were intent as Hermione and, now and again Ron, continued their story. They seemed open and affable, and had effortlessly transited their response to the four from potential interlopers, perhaps enemies, to welcomed visitors or, if that was self-flattery, at least benign subjects of curiosity.

When he felt the rising warmth of the cold beer after just a few sips, he realized its potency. Holding the bottle to catch Ginny's eye, he tilted it slightly back and forth to suggest that they'd better heed Betty's warning. Ginny took a sip from her own bottle and, raising her eyebrows in agreement, set it on the floor beneath her chair.

Harry turned his gaze to the office itself. Unlike the London Ministry of Magic there were no meteorological charms at work, there were no memos flitting overhead. The whole of Dog Town was not only smaller but simpler, vastly less ornate. It could not be older than the English Ministry but it had the look of a frontier town.

Like the Ministry at home, people decorated their work spaces with mementos of their personal lives. Above most of the Aurors' desks, and in frames on those of the others, were pictures of their families. Above McKenzie's desk was a large photograph of McKenzie and Betty surrounded by their family. The youngest, who looked about Charlie''s age, stood with his arm around a very pretty blond girl, a wife or girlfriend. The older two formed little groups of their own within the larger picture, each a husband and wife with children smiling and waving. Only the picture over Rudolfus' desk was absent a family, instead showing him riding a beautiful tan-colored horse, its black tail swishing rhythmically as it galloped over an immense grassland with mountains in the distance.

When Harry next attended to Hermione's tale, she was describing how he had realized from Bellatrix's response to Gryffindor's sword that one of Riddle's Horcruxes was hidden in the Lestrange's vault. When Ron described how Hermione had withstood Crucio until Dobby rescued them, McKenzie's skill at questioning became even more apparent. His queries changed in a subtle way. He was no longer just asking about events, forming a timeline and history for himself, but also asking about their logic, their feelings and how they used magic.

After Hermione and Ron's story about the sword, he turned his attention to Ginny asking her how she, Luna and Neville had gotten past the magical protections on Snape's office. While he questioned her, he rocked back and forth on the rear legs of his chair, as much lost in his own thoughts as listening to Ginny's funny story about their punishment. Harry was certain that McKenzie was making a mental inventory of their skills and, in particular, how they solved problems. He was as intent on knowing who they were as on learning what they had done to bring them to Dog Town. McKenzie was smart and skilled. Harry was sure his help would depend on how he judged their intentions.

When McKenzie put all four legs of his chair on the floor with a substantial “clunk,” everyone knew the interview was over. He went to work without pause. “Rudolfus, is Johnson duty captain tomorrow?”

“Yes, I'm off, Alfred and Richard are on AM duty and Arthur is meeting with Sergeant Macilroy about security staffing for the German Embassy's Christmas party. One of their ministers is arriving by military transport and we need to take over from the air security group after he transfers to the embassy limo.”

The locals who had come along for the story were departing. Several stopped to introduce themselves and to welcome the four friends, too many to remember anyone's name.

When the office was mostly clear, McKenzie set out the Auror's assignments. “Rudolfus, before you go, please contact Johnson and tell him I've put Alfred and Richard on an investigation that came up over the weekend.” After a pause he added, “Tell him I'll book it as a lead on our new problem.”

He then gestured to Alfred and Richard and asked the four friends to follow him. Betty, the two Aurors and the two couples followed him to one of the doors at the back of the room where he touched his wand to the metal plate where a lock should be.

When the door opened, the most prominent furnishings were two desks, each with a complex looking telephone, a computer and two swiveling desk chairs. Between the two desks was a bookshelf filled with manuals with titles like “Unix Security Administration” and “TCP/IP Fundamentals.” There were also a pair of binoculars, two very large flashlights, a stack of newspapers and two shelves of music CD's. The single window looked out on a street scene dominated by Buon Gusto, Italian Restaurant, and its very large sign. The wall opposite the windows was entirely occupied by a closet with two large sliding doors. Muffled sounds of machinery emanated through them. Alfred and Richard took seats at the desks, each logging on and starting to work.

McKenzie turned to the four friends saying, “Hermione, if you'll give the details to Alfred, we should have found your parents by tomorrow afternoon.” Hermione gave their identifications and Alfred entered the data in a form. Meanwhile, McKenzie and Ginny conjured comfortable seats for everyone in the space at the end of the room opposite the Auror Office door.

When Hermione was finished talking with Alfred, she took a seat.

When everyone was seated, Betty said, “Confused are you?”

“Do we look it?” asked Ginny.

“More than less,” answered Betty as she turned to McKenzie and asked, “So, should I cover the background?"

McKenzie, who was still discussing something with Alfred, answered as he checked his watch, “Go on but I bet they need to get back to their rooms.”

Betty recognized his point with a nod and began, “For all of wizarding history in Australia there have very few wizards for the size of the country. This is an immigrant country begun as a massive outdoor prison. Obviously, it's much harder to transport a wizard against their will than a Muggle. So, very, very few wizards came here in the beginning and those who did were wandless, addled or squibs. Nonetheless, wizards have voluntarily come with every successive wave of immigration. Opportunists like McKenzie's granddad, came early on to get what they knew the old country aristocrats had, property, land. Others came to ply their trades where their skills were needed, the cauldron maker and the brewer.”

Hermione got it, “So, the wizarding community in Australia wasn't large enough to be self sustaining and wizards had to merge with the Muggle population.”

“Exactly,” replied Betty, “wizards and witches took jobs, became shopkeepers, or used their magical skills to grow things or make medicines. They got paid in Muggle money. Since there's no way to create a Gringotts or to mint Galleons, we still use Muggle money. Many of us have Muggle jobs. McKenzie here is Lt. A. McKenzie, AFP. He runs investigations. He's a federal cop. Alfred and Richard, all the Aurors, are in McKenzie's troop at the AFP. I'm mostly at our station. But, we all have Muggle identities, Muggle bank accounts and Muggle phones. We pay Muggle taxes and are subject to Muggle laws.”

Ginny took advantage of a pause in Betty's narration to ask, “But, you're Aurors, how does that work? Isn't there wizarding law?”

McKenzie, who had finished with Alfred and was taking a seat next to Betty answered, “It runs both ways. For one, we get the AFP salaries, what money our Ministry has is never enough. Quidditch gets what it wants. Everything else gets by. For another, we use the federal government's resources whether it's a Muggle or wizarding outlaw we're after. That's a big advantage. By tomorrow Alfred will have searched every database there is for your folks – immigration, driving licenses, bank records, tax returns, everything.”

Betty added, “And the AFP gets wizards on its cases. They've got something like 400 apparition points in Sydney alone so they move around better than Muggle police. With Supersensory and Disillusionment Charms, of course, they learn a lot of secrets.”

McKenzie laughed, “Nonetheless,  we say it's our excellent police work and network of informants that's responsible.”

“Johnson knows better, but he keeps quiet,” added Betty.

“Who's Johnson?” asked Hermione.

“He's Captain, head of our division, he's a Muggle.”

Hermione was surprised, “And he knows?”

“Yes,” answered McKenzie, “it’s a long story but, yes, he knows. We don't tell; he doesn't tell; and together we go a long way back.”

All four were thinking that they would like to hear more of that story but did not ask. Instead, Ron changed the subject, “So, this room, what do you do here? There are no doors except the one from your office in Dog Town.”

“This is one of our connection rooms,” answered McKenzie, “places we can apparate to or reach from a Dog Town portal but which also exist in the Muggle world. It's how we have phones and computers. This one is in the Royal Hotel, a place for traveling kids, backpackers, so no one pays any attention to the plastered-in door on the top floor. It's close to campus so I figured we could use it to meet while you're here. By the way, it's eleven now. Do you have to be back?”

Hermione answered, “Not exactly, but the plenary session is tomorrow at nine, so we should probably head back soon.”

McKenzie told her, “You're only a few blocks from where you're staying. We'll show you a safe apparition point and you can walk back from there. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know what we found.”

Harry said, “We don't know the number.”

McKenzie laughed, “No problem, we're the police. I'll call Hermione's room at five. If you're not there, I'll call every hour until we connect.”

Betty and McKenzie took Ron and Hermione, then Harry and Ginny by side-along apparition to an empty, fenced and wildly overgrown garden with a gate onto a narrow street, really more like an alley. They showed them through the gate and explained, “No one's ever here. Use it as you need. You're on Forbes, go to the corner, make a right, keep walking and you'll get to Carillon Avenue, go left, you'll see your place.”

The four friends thanked them, shook goodbye, and walked back to their dorms. They were curious about much but grateful that the search for Hermione's parents was off to such a good start.

 


Chapter 32: Shock and Ire
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Chapter Thirty Two

Shock and Ire


Hermione had charmed her alarm to sound like a country barnyard. She liked waking to a rooster's crow, just not at dawn. Today though, she was out of bed waking Ginny before the second crow. She silenced her watch then sent her Patronus to wake Ron. Moments later Ginny sent her's to Harry. He replied before Ron but having collaborated both Harry's stag and Ron's terrier told their partners they'd make good mothers and asked if they'd been getting lessons from Mrs. Weasley. Both replied that they got plenty of practice with their sleepy-headed boyfriends.

Having begun their day teasing, by the time they were at Hoochie Mamas, the local eatery, they were in an expansive, excited mood. Finding the Dog Town Aurors was a huge relief and today they might learn about worlds they didn't know, hear new ideas and, quite possibly, meet people from places they knew nothing about. These were prospects that any curious youth would happily anticipate, be they magical or not.

While they walked to the campus theater where the Y.I.P.I. plenary session would be held, they could see Ahmed, Sophia, Bill and Ellen ahead and could recognize members of their group behind them, including the contingent from York and Ariel, who was walking alone. The closer they got the more people there were. When they arrived at the auditorium, there were lines of yipis waiting to show their conference passes.

The auditorium was smaller than the Great Hall. The front was occupied by a stage that was presently hidden behind a large, wine-red curtain in front of which was a much plainer podium than the one from which Hogwarts heads addressed the school. The seats were set in slightly semi-circular rows on a downward slope toward the stage. Entering through the lobby the stage was on a lower level. People were choosing where to sit, some saving seats for friends. When the four arrived, their Muggle friends' row was full so they walked most of the way down the center aisle and chose four seats together in more or less the middle, what seemed the best vantage point.

Nothing happened until about nine-twenty but this bothered no one because the auditorium was still reverberating with the voluble conversations of the yipi members. When the speaker was introduced there was still a great deal of crowd noise; none of the four caught his name. Yet, when he stepped to the podium and adjusted the microphone on a segmented pole, he was met by relative silence.

"This year began with threats of war in Iraq and intimations of violence in Serbia. Today, the news is that the United States and Great Britain will certainly invade Iraq, a new war in an ancient land. The challenges to peace are many and enduring. When the year began 170 innocents were murdered in Algeria and it comes to an end with a hurricane in the central Americas that has killed thousands and left other thousands homeless, hungry and hopeless. The challenges to peace are many and unending. Throughout the spring and summer India and Pakistan rushed toward nuclear armament and the United States launched an aircraft carrier of massive power. Terrorists' bombs at that country's embassies killed 224, Americans and locals alike. The challenges to peace are many and enduring."

Now, the audience was silent and the intensity of their attention was almost palpable. With no sources of Muggle news, this view of Muggle lives was nothing less than shocking. The ebullient mood of their morning was ripped from them by a torrent of bad news.

"In April a mine pond in Andalusia Spain ruptured and only a fortunate diversion saved Spain's largest nature reserve but this catastrophe nonetheless destroyed one hundred square kilometers of farm land. The challenges of our industrial civilization are many and enduring. In China the great Yangtze River flooded its banks killing 12,000 and leaving many thousands more hungry and homeless. The challenges to our planet are many and enduring. When fall began, the Russian people faced an economic crisis of unimaginable proportions, banks collapsed, the Ruble crashed and millions lost the savings of their lifetimes. At the same time, four huge banks were fined over a billion dollars for cheating their own clients. In nations of wealth and privilege, children go to bed hungry and homeless every night. For many that will be their lot for their entire, usually foreshortened lives. The challenges to social justice are many and enduring."

The speech was a litany of challenges, the refrain of “many and enduring” repeated again and again as he reviewed the events of the nearly ended year. The crowd of young people who had entered the auditorium full of enthusiasm departed somber, subdued by the vastness of the world, the complexity of its problems and the powerful barriers raised against positive change.

When their four Muggle friends found them, Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione were sitting together on a bench pretending to read the conference schedule as they explored how they felt about what they'd learned.

Ahmed asked, “What did you think of the speech,” but changed the subject quickly when he saw their expressions. “That was news to you wasn't it?”

"Yes,” admitted Harry, “we live pretty sheltered lives and, well, we don't know much about the rest of the world and it's sad, it's depressing.”

In a not unkind way Bill said, “Babes in the woods,” but seeing Ron's puzzled look he added, “It's an expression. It means naive or lost.”

Hermione explained, “We've been so preoccupied with our own little world that we haven't paid attention to anything else.”

Their own little world had been occupied with matters of life and death for themselves, for those they loved, and for those they lost. But, there was no way to explain that to their friends without breaching the secrecy of their world and seeming deluded. Their very essence, what made them who they were, was magic. Hiding it was their first priority. Indeed, they could not forget that at any minute they might be asked questions they could neither avoid nor answer.

Thus, the four were relieved when Ellen changed the conversation's course. “There are four sessions back at the Village, what-a-bout each couple goes to a session and reports to the rest back at the dorms. That way we'll get the most from our day.  Oh!  Yea, pick up any notes or pass-outs for the others if you can.”

The afternoon sessions were nearly as shocking as the plenary speech. Harry and Ginny had selected the conference ecology track and attended an afternoon lecture about climate change, about the argument between scientists who were seeing an on-going increase in planetary temperatures, and politicians, who seemed intent on denial.

Ron and Hermione, on the other hand, chose to attend a session on hunger, on the disparity between the nations of what the speaker called “the first world” – the wealthy industrial nations – and what she called “the third world,” where many states could not feed their people.

This time when they got together with Ahmed, Sophia, Bill and Ellen, they were more comfortable having had time to settle their feelings. Like the well-practiced students they were, they could report and discuss what they had learned using the intellectual skills mastered studying magic. By the time they finished discussing the day's sessions with their friends it was already after five, so they'd missed McKenzie's first call. They rushed to receive his six o'clock call, gabbing sandwiches and juices at the first store they saw on their way back to Hermione and Ginny's rooms.

When the phone rang, Hermione answered. McKenzie's voice was formal, lacking the familiar tone of their conversation in Dog Town. “Good evening Miss Granger, this is Lieutenant McKenzie of the AFP.”

Hermione, surprised by the change in McKenzie's tone but assuming there was a good reason for it, played along, matching his formality, “Good evening Lieutenant McKenzie, thank you for calling.”

McKenzie continued in the same vein, “I have some questions and wonder if you might have a few minutes to meet this evening?”

“Certainly, when would be convenient?”

“Could you stop by the office in a half hour?”

Hermione agreed.  She hung-up the phone told the other three, “That was strange, very formal, maybe he was in public or something. Anyway, he said to meet at the office in half an hour.  That must mean the work room attached to the Auror office.”

They didn't wait.  Anxious to know what McKenzie had learned, the four exited the apparition compression in the Aurors' work room in the Royal Hotel.

The portal to the Auror Office was open, so the four walked to where McKenzie was talking to Alfred. He greeted them saying, “Anxious for the news?” It wasn't really a question, just recognition of how they felt. “Hermione, well done. Remember, Muggle talk only over telephones, especially college dorms with a switchboard. Let's sit in the connection room, the seats are still there.”

Once settled, McKenzie reported what the Aurors found, “Your parents arrived the week after you charmed them. They brought a good sum of money and they've done well here. There's no record of any contact with the dental board, so they're not working as dentists. Both have driving licenses issued in Queensland at the same address in Mackay, a seaside town about a thousand clicks north of here. So, that's the good news, everything points to your parents having made a successful adaption to Australia. They're living somewhere near Mackay.”

Hermione didn't miss the ambiguity, “Is there bad news?”

“No, not at all,” replied McKenzie. “Your parents' address is a pharmacy that rents boxes and receives mail for people. So we haven't actually located them quite yet.”

Hermione was puzzeled, “What does that mean?”

McKenzie thought before replying, “We call these 'convenience addresses' because they're convenient for someone who's mobile, no fixed address, or who lives down some rural road that's impassable for days at a time. We're looking into Mackay right now so we'll know more soon but I think it probably means they live in a remote area. They might pick up mail once a week when they're in town. That's not unheard of in rural Australia.”

When Hermione said she understood, McKenzie went on. “Is there anything about your parents' personalities, their likes or dislikes, habits, hobbies, anything that might give us a clue as to what they're doing in Mackay?”

“Well,” replied Hermione, “do you mean what might have leaked around the memory charm predisposing them to do one thing or another?”
 
“No. Anything, a recurring fascination, some sort of ambition, even something left over from their childhood, whether or not it's part of your charm work. The more typical of their personalities the better.”

Hermione thought a while, “Dad is kind of goofy about boats and trains, and my Mum likes to camp, to be outdoors. Trains are how we traveled everywhere. If we went to Europe, we traveled by train. If we were somewhere new, we went to look at trains. Once we spent a whole day walking the harbor in Calais but mostly it was trains.”

Betty arrived as Hermione finished speaking and, taking in the last of Hermione's description, asked McKenzie, “Looking for something to arrange the surveillance around?”

McKenzie nodded. Everyone could see how pensive Hermione had become so they waited for her to speak. When she did, it was to ask if McKenzie was thinking this meant her parents might be involved in the new problem he mentioned in the Auror Office yesterday? She was too smart to let anything pass.

McKenzie answered, “No, although it makes a good reason to assign the resources – you must know how Muggles do things after your forgeries.”

“Yea,” said Ron, “fill out the forms and everything's fine.”

“Right,” answered McKenzie, “but I think the matter of Hermione's parents is unrelated. Our surveillance will be based on the idea that they live in a rural area outside of Mackay and use the convenience address for mail.”

Harry was curious, “What was the problem?”

“Well, the day you arrived we found two dead Malaysians in center Sydney. People get killed in Sydney often enough. The problem is these two are in perfect shape, except for being dead.”

All four exclaimed, “Avada Kedavra!”

Harry wished he had been less curious because Hermione more or less leaped from her seat and started pacing, thinking out loud, “We'll need to get to Mackay. . .”

Betty calmed her, “Hermione, the two problems can't be related. It's hardly possible that your parents are involved with whatever it is that those Malaysians were doing. There's a wizard who has killed and that wizard's been in Sydney but that doesn't relate to your parents any more than it relates to any of the millions living here. There are Asian gangs in Sydney; there are dark wizards in Oz. The most likely explanation is some sort of turf war.  What could a couple of dentists have to do with that?”

Betty made sense and Hermione relaxed some, although she more or less threw herself back into her chair. It squeaked as it slid backwards.

McKenzie offered some advice, “Hermione, you've done some really impressive magic but you're not trained for surveillance. You're obviously Brits. Your accents will give you away in an instant. Even if you had Harry's Invisibility Cloak, sitting in the pharmacy won't be nearly as effective as knowing how to question the locals. So, I'd be anxious too, but we're the ones for the job. Now, if you'd like to join us here as an Auror, I'm sure I can get you hired!”

Betty teased her husband, “McKenzie, first you want to Stun 'em, now you want to hire 'em. They'll know you're crazy.”

This did get a laugh but McKenzie continued, “Stay with your conference, Rudolfus is already on his way to Mackay. He's native, he's had years of experience; we'll find your folks.”

Ginny said, “Hermione, he's right. We'd only be in the way.”

Hermione reluctantly agreed, “OK, but waiting's hard. I wish we could do something.”

This gave Betty an idea, “Didn't you say you had some tour days, or something like that; what's your schedule, more or less?”

Ginny remembered more than less, “We have three more days of conference events, the 22nd, 23rd and on the 24th just morning lectures. Christmas, Boxing day, then the 27th and 28th– your local bank holiday – are touring days, basically free days, but we've promised it for Beach Day with our Muggle friends. Then, there's conference between the 29th and the 1st, our last day, and departure on the 2nd.”

Betty thought through those dates, “Christmas in Sydney is a big deal; there are a lot of events but how-about you join us? We can pick you up Christmas Eve after your conference. We'll have a family dinner Christmas and then we can show you around.”

At this McKenzie added, “We can even get up to Mackay and have a look around. I've got an idea or two.”

Harry noted, “That's really generous of you but it's Christmas . . .” Remembering the photo on McKenzie's desk, “. . . You'll want to be with your family.”

Betty replied, “Our kids are grown, they'll be off to their own friends and relations after Christmas dinner and Rudolfus will be well up some mountain by then. If you feel guilty about intruding, you blokes can help McKenzie with his chores and I'll hold Ginny and Hermione prisoner in the kitchen!”

Everyone laughed. Hermione reminded them, “We were supposed to give Emelda the names of anyone we planned to stay with during the touring days before we left. We didn't know, so I'm sure they expect us on the yipi tours.”

Touring Sydney wouldn't be as interesting or as helpful for finding Hermione's parents as visiting with Betty and McKenzie, so they were pleased when McKenzie dismissed the problem.

“I'll make sure it's square with your leaders.”

Betty and McKenzie were generous with their hospitality and easy going. Just as Harry thought at their first meeting, they were easy to like.

                                                        ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Harry and Ginny continued following the conference ecology track. There were two more documentaries, which they now knew was what educational films were called. There were two smaller meetings called, for no particular reason they could determine, “break-out sessions.” Ron and Hermione continued following the discussions of world hunger. Since one of these was Ahmed's presentation of European efforts to preserve and restore farming land, most of the yipi group from London came to listen and support Ahmed. Harry and Ginny skipped a lecture on a reforestation project in Columbia. Ahmed was a good speaker; he was well prepared and his concern for food security was informed and passionate.

After Ahmed's lecture, Ariel trapped Harry and Ginny in front of a meeting room where she set forth a long list of what was wrong with yipi, its leadership and the conference program. “Look,” she said, “you're new, there's no reason for you to stick with yipi. What I start will have enough money to do things right. I know how to lead, how to get things done. So, when we get back to London, you can join my new organization.”

Fortunately, Ron and Hermione arrived with a message from Bill and Ellen that there was a presentation about land mines they shouldn't miss. None of the four were entirely sure what this might be about but it did permit escaping Ariel, which they quickly did with a polite non-committal answer.

The four friends’ reaction to the land mine lecture was visceral. At first it was shock. They'd never expected anything like this was even possible.The pictures tore at their feelings, children who had lost arms and legs, the lucky ones who survived. It was incomprehensible that every human, magical or not, didn't demand an end to it.

They had seen untimely death; they knew its cost; they still felt their losses as poignantly as they felt the miracle of their survival. Those they had lost roamed their memories as they listened to the tall, affable surgeon's stories of his desperate efforts to assuage the pain and contain the damage to kids whose foreign faces and names couldn't hide their every similarity to Colin, Dennis, Silvie, Elizabeth and Kevin. Young people, no different than themselves, were killed, maimed, their dreams destroyed, for reasons they never heard, for resources they'd never even see.

They kept their seats when the lecture ended to contain the emotions they couldn't restrain and to settle their magic, which was rising with their ire. Ginny's eyes flashed, her right leg unconsciously rising and falling on the ball of her foot. Harry knew she was holding on to her amazement and anger.  Let lose as uncontrolled magic, it could bring the ceiling down. He knew what she wanted because he wanted it too, to fight, to do something, anything, to have the generals and the politicians suffer Crucio made intense by righteous anger. He knew they all wanted revenge for their monstrous indifference. He knew too that wands couldn't solve a thing. Anger would be forever futile. The world was too big to change with wands. There had to be another way.

Ron was deeply upset. His easy, unaffected pleasure being around kids was rooted in empathy, empathy so strong he could follow the traces of someone's life into timelessness. Hermione, her attachment to Ron accentuated by the intensity of his feelings and her own struggle to rationalize what was in no way rational, got as close as she could to Ron. Their touch was comfort where there was none.

Before meeting their friends in the hallway, the two couples focused on what they needed to do rather than their emotions. After clearing their eyes, they met their friends. Their not-quite-restored countenances fooled no one. It had been easier for Bill, Ellen, Ahmed and Sophia to maintain emotional distance. They were older and had known these things for longer but they weren't strangers to what the four friends felt. They had those feelings too. They'd simply lived with them longer.

As quickly as the four arrived in the hall outside the conference center, Bill said, “Ice and Slice!” It wasn't a question, more an announcement.

Ahmed, his tone reinforcing Bill's, added, “Yep, Ice and Slice is what we need.”

Sophia concurred, “Ice and Slice to cure what ails ya!”

Ellen – as if it were the chorus of a song – musically intoned, “Ice and Slice indeed!”

Only Ron voiced what all four were thinking, “What's Ice and Slice?”

Bill replied, “Pizza, Ron, Pizza, the ultimate comfort food, follow me!”

“Ice + Slice” was a pizzeria just a couple of blocks from the back of their dorms, a block on Cambell, left onto Misenden Road, a short walk and there it was, second door on the left.

“Best pizza in Newtown,” said Ahmed as he opened the door and the aromas flowed over them. When they entered the most notable aroma was spices carried on the warm, moist smell of rising and baking dough. There were many other delightful smells admixed. Tomatoes, sugar and fruit were strong among them.

The eight moved into the restaurant and worked their way past the counters. Hermione, smiling at last, teased, “Ron has found heaven.”

Indeed, Ron was transfixed by a glass fronted counter with dozens of round containers filled with brightly colored puddings, some in colors that nature never considered.

While he examined the riotously colored choices, Ellen explained, “Gelato, like our ice cream, but less dense and sweeter. It's Italian.”

Madelyn, as the plastic tag on her uniform proclaimed her to be, greeted them just past the gelato counter and before the array of tables, “Eight is it?”

“Yep, eight,” answered Sophia.

“Just a minute, I'll put two tables together for ya.” Madelyn turned and headed toward two empty tables next to the wall. With the help of a waiter, she got eight place settings and eight menus arranged before leading them to their table.

When they were seated, Madelyn asked, “You Brits?”

They all nodded.

“Where ya from? London?”

Bill answered, “Yea, we four,” pointing in turn to Ellen, Ahmed and Sophia.

Hermione added, “Me too.”

Then Harry replied, “Small towns you've probably never heard of.”

“Try me.”

“Ottery St. Catchpole,” answered Ginny, pointing to herself and Ron.

“Godric's Hollow,” said Harry.

“You're right, I've never heard of 'em. So, what can I get you to drink?”

The whole group turned to the back of the menu where the drinks were listed. None were ready for a beer, but Harry, Ron, Ginny and Hermione were ready for a cappuccino, good coffee having been thus far rare and missed. Sophia and Ellen had Earl Grey, the prototypical English tea, while Bill opted for the homemade lemonade and Ahmed for a chai latte.

Next they turned to the pizza menu. The women had a brief discussion concerning the salads, prawns with baby spinach received a very favorable recommendation from Ellen, but in the end they decided it was definitely a pizza day. When Madelyn returned to take their orders everyone ordered a pizza. Harry and Ron another cappuccino, and all agreed on two 500ML bottles of sparking water for the table.

By the time Madelyn left with their orders, everyone had relaxed and Ahmed opened the subject of the morning lecture, “The film on the Sudan famine was hard to watch but the landmine video was. . .”

He paused, searching for the right word.

Hermione supplied it, “Heartbreaking!”

All recognized Hermione's description with nods and mumbles between bites of the Italian bread Madelyn had left for the table.

Harry, his confidence encouraged by the cappuccino's relaxing warmth, decided that now was as good a time as any to satisfy their Muggle friends' curiosity. If they were to go further with these relationships, Ahmed and Sophia, Bill and Ellen, needed to know enough to fit them into their own experience. They needed identities, backgrounds that would meet their friends' expectations for four older teenagers. Their reactions to the plenary speech and the land mine lecture made it clear that they were, as Bill had put it, “Babes in the woods.”

Harry reminded himself of Professor Mullens' advice that their feelings should be fairly safe ground. Muggles with magic were no more or less human than Muggles without. Harry was sure this was where to start; their friends already knew how they felt about what they'd learned.

At any rate, there wasn't any choice. There was no way they could pretend to be from the British middle class. Absent television, which was so much of English life and culture, the common knowledge of the Muggle world was unobtainable. Their identity needed to be believably exceptional. Harry realized that it needed to be the truth minus magic.

So guided, he took advantage of the emptied bread baskets to begin, “Bill's right; we're babes in the woods about what we've learned here and its been a shock. We just didn't know.” Then, he committed to the path his intuition showed him. “Our school is like most English public schools, seven years, dorms, three meals at house tables, teachers. . .”

Ahmed interrupted, “Snogging in the corridors, pranks in the dorms, and lots of sneaking around after curfew!”

“Yea,” said Ron, “plenty of that, a little . . . sport . . . and immense piles of homework!”

Everyone laughed, even those some years from school remember homework's interference with student life. Hermione grasped where Harry was going and expanded on his story, “Well, ours isn't like any of the nine originals. It belongs to the tradition of the monastery schools more than the public schools and it's very insular. Most kid's families went there.”

Ginny added, with more than a hint of a smile, “Yea, you almost need to be born into it.” This too brought laughter.

The laughter was curtailed by their attention to Madelyn who arrived with a large tray of pizzas, followed by the other waiter, whose name tag they could now see said “Bob.” Bob was carrying another large tray. Madelyn opened a folding table with one hand while balancing her tray above her shoulder with the other. Then, she set her tray atop the stand and began to pass out the pizzas on the tray that Bob was holding.

“Who had the Margherita's?” she asked. Ginny, Hermione and Ellen each reached for a plate. “And the La Reine? ” Ron raised his hand and she passed a plate to him. He hungrily regarded the rolls of sliced ham laid over the mushrooms and tomatoes. “The Romas?” Bill, Sophia and Ahmed reached toward her, so Madelyn passed the last pizza from Bob's tray to Bill. Bob left with his empty tray and Madelyn passed two more Romas from her own tray to Sophia and Ahmed. “Must be yours,” she said as she passed Harry the last plate. His pizza had a mound of grilled eggplant and ricotta cheese at the center. Looking around to see if any of the drinks were empty, she asked, “Need more to drink?”

Ahmed checked the sparkling waters and replied, “No, not now; thanks.”

For the next few minutes none spoke beyond monosyllabic praise for the pizzas they were occupied eating. However, once the immediacy of their appetites had been sated, Ahmed asked, “So, it's pretty hard to get into your school?”

Ginny, had made the comment, “We're scholarship students. You met our family, there's a lot of us and we're, well, just middle class. Harry and Hermione got in through exams too.”

Ginny, Ron and Hermione joined Harry in reporting the essentials while leaving out magic. They painted a picture of themselves as good students from unremarkable families attending an academically rigorous but little-known school, perhaps run by one of the more ascetic of Britain’s many beliefs.

So far, so good, so Harry diverted the conversation from the school to themselves, “Anyway, we all met there and, you know, after some false starts . . .” – the latter said while squeezing Ginny's knee beneath the table – “. . . we got together and . . .”

This time Bill interjected, “Did a lot of snogging in the corners?”

Ron, who was about to sip his coffee, laughed so hard he had to set it down. Everyone enjoyed Bill's reference to the obvious. Snogging was magic for Muggles as well and Muggles, at least these Muggles, seemed relaxed about it.

When the laughter settled and everyone had another couple of bites, most of their pizzas were close to consumed, Harry continued. “Yes, snogging for sure, but we don't get much in the way of news. We're just beginning to see there's a world beyond school.”

Their older friends were quiet for a moment. What they were hearing more or less fit their expectations. Since learning about their school project on the plane ride, they had imagined them as smart kids from a small but academically elite school. They were by no means rare in England. English education tended to sort people into a lumpy sort of homogeneity. What was unusual about these four was that they had begun to look over the walls of their cloister.

Ellen said, “Look, it's not what you know; it's what you do. You don't need to look too far to find a lot of misery, a lot of injustice, and endless ways our lifestyles have become really damaging to our world. What counts is what you decide to do about it.”

“Well,” said Hermione, “the problem is we don't know what we'll do after school.”

“Nobody your age does, well maybe a few whose ideas are fixed early,” added Sophia. “We've got about ten years on you and we've still got unanswered questions.” At least one of those questions was shared with Ahmed because the two exchanged a quick but meaningful look.

Before she could continue Harry proposed, “By 'do' I think Ellen means 'do about what we've learned here,' how we see our responsibility as humans.”

Ellen nodded and the others acknowledged that this was the question by waiting attentively for Harry to answer it. Harry looked around the table, then directly at Ginny. When he turned back to face the table, he said, “We've talked about volunteering with you folks, for yipi, when we get back. But we haven't wanted to say anything until we knew our plans after school.”

Ginny followed on, “Our lives after school are pretty well set. We've already been offered jobs and we've given our friends and family a lot of expectations. The question now is what we want to do about those expectations.”

Sophia sympathized, “That's a lot of weight to carry, all those things in place.”

Ginny answered immediately, “Oh! Don't think it's something awful. We can look forward to a comfortable life with our families. But, maybe because of that we're the people who ought to put some energy into changing our world.” She followed on from this comment so quickly that it was almost as if she was trying to interrupt herself. “I don't mean that like Ariel, like the world needs us. It's more we have the chance and ought to use it.”

“Did Ariel get at you with her new yipi scheme?” asked Bill.

“Yea,” answered Harry, “she trapped us between the classroom door and the wall.”

Ginny had obviously been waiting to have her say, “Ariel thinks that her family's money makes her better than the rest of us. To her, it's her wealth, her right, and she's worthy of it. So, she thinks you're stupid if you don't accept her superiority once she's shown you she's rich. She thinks she can run yipi because she can't tell the difference between being born rich and raised spoiled, and being smart, competent and hard working.”

“Wow! Babes in the woods no more,” replied Bill. Then looking toward Ron and Hermione he added, “Is it the same for you?”

Hermione spoke for them both, “It's about the same for Ron and I. We've job offers and Ron's brother has a business that he's asked us both to join. Ron has other attractive opportunities too. We've a pretty comfortable future to look forward to. Recently, Ron and I have been talking about maybe me going to university for law.”

For Harry and Ginny this made sense of Hermione's knowledge of Muggle university. They didn't comment as Hermione continued, “If I didn't make any money, it wouldn't make a difference to us and maybe I could do some good with a law degree.”

Ron enthused, “Hermione would be really good at it, she's the smartest in school and probably more than that.”

His pride in Hermione was so obvious and so obviously genuine that Ellen teased, “We've noticed you like her a lot Ron.”

The whole group enjoyed a laugh and Ron's ruddy ears.

After the laughter subsided Harry added, “The thing is, Ron's right. Hermione would be really good at it. Hermione would be really good at anything. Not only is she smart, she thinks straight under pressure.” It was Hermione's turn to blush. “But, I guess what we're saying is that we're attracted to working with you and yipi. We don't know that there's anything we can do that's worth us doing and we've sort of spent this year avoiding thinking about much beyond school and each other. So, there's things we need to get thinking about before we make any big decisions.” “Big decisions” gave the witches and wizards shared smiles.

Bill, Ellen and Sophia did not see those grins exchanged because they had already turned to look at Ahmed. The four friends followed their gaze. It was as if the others had passed a decision to him.

That was apparently the case. “We're planning to meet after the conference and decide whether to ask you to work with us as volunteers. But, really, there's no question we'd invite you. What you can do is anything. There's meetings to arrange, posters to make and distribute, radio stations to call with announcements. When we get back we should be writing letters to the editor, even to the little counsel newspapers, and using this trip as a basis for more grants. There are posts to make on internet bulletin boards. There's plenty to do but none of it takes any special skill, just the will and energy to get it done.”

When Ahmed finished, Madelyn arrived to take away their pizza plates and ask if they wanted dessert. They did but before they could start ordering Bill asked Harry, “It's past two o'clock, don't you need to meet your local family? He was there early this morning to assure Emelda it was OK to let you go. He arrived in uniform. Emelda was impressed. Is he military?”

“No,” replied Harry, “McKenzie's in the AFP, Australian Federal Police, he's an investigator.” In fact, none of the four actually knew what McKenzie did beyond being an Auror. Nonetheless, none questioned them further.

They decided to take cones for the walk back. With all the exotic flavors it took some time to choose. So, another fifteen minutes passed before the bill was paid and each had a cone in hand. Eating their gelatos, they set off for their dorms.

Ellen, walking with Sophia, Ginny and Hermione explained, “Organizations like yipi can't survive without finding new people. With our part time jobs we get paid enough from yipi to live around Arcade Street but for any future like having a family or even returning to graduate school, we'll have to leave and concentrate on our own careers.”

Ginny asked, “After what we've learned here, we want to do something but, like Harry said, we've been putting off thinking much about the future.”

Hermione added, “We'll do something but what and how much time we'll have depends on the decisions we haven't made.”


Chapter 33: Gum Scrub Station
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Chapter Thirty Three

Gum Scrub Station
 
When McKenzie and Betty arrived, Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione were already waiting with their bags. Their friends were uncontainably curious about the uniformed local who had come to take them for the holidays and 'just happened' to be off to the store when they arrived. If they were curious before, McKenzie and Betty's arrival raised their curiosity to an unbearable level. They were driving the most unusual vehicle any of them had ever seen. It was called an “OKA” and had a kind of squarish metal cabin in front of a short lorrie bed loaded with tool boxes, a roll of fencing and a collection of shovels, rakes and large hammers with long handles in battered wooden boxes..

Betty climbed down from the passenger side of the cab using a metal step that made the decent to the ground manageable. McKenzie arrived around the bonnet from the driver's side. If their friends had been expecting uniforms, they were disappointed because both McKenzie and Betty were wearing jeans that showed a lot of boot with tucked in, well-worn denim shirts. Their boots were scuffed and dirty. There had once been designs on the boot shafts but these were indistinguishable in their current state of heavy wear.

Harry felt a little like being greeted by their curious friends was imposing on Betty and McKenzie. Yet, not introducing them would be silly, given that they were all standing together in a pack. He went ahead and introduced everyone.

The OKA was the perfect conversation piece and McKenzie was the perfect guide, being himself enthused by the utilitarian character of the vehicle, its winch, the folding sides to the tray behind the cab, and the security of dual fuel tanks. In no time he was pointing out features of the diesel engine to Bill and Ahmed. Ron and Harry stood beside them nodding sagely, understanding nothing and keeping silent to avoid making their ignorance of such macho matters obvious.

Meanwhile, Betty had the four young women’s full attention as she described where they lived in Gum Scrub, which was north and inland of Sydney. Their station, as they learned Australian livestock farms are called, had been in McKenzie's family since his grandfather's time. Its lands included streams, ponds, a small waterfall, as well as different pastures and fields. Certainly the young wizards, and probably the slightly older Muggles, had never met anyone who raised horses, sheep and cattle.

More than a half-an-hour passed before McKenzie set the OKA in motion back toward the Prince's Highway. Harry leaned forward between the seats to speak, “Sorry, we didn't mean to put you on display. They're just curious because you arrived in uniform to talk to Emelda.”

“Works every time,” answered McKenzie. “Uniforms mean authority, so people are inclined to give you what you want. Anyway, who could refuse a 'distant relative' who can put you in jail?” The joke was good for a few laughs.

Shortly though Betty added, “Anyway, he likes to talk about his OKA and your friends seem very nice. They must have good hearts to be doing this instead of chasing careers.”

Hermione emphatically agreed, “They are nice. They're concerned about social justice and they've treated us more than kindly.”

Ginny noted, “We've just spent all of lunch filling them in on our backgrounds, anyway, those parts we can talk about. We want to keep their friendship after we get Hermione's parents home.  We're learning a lot and, well, they're really nice people; it's fun.”

Harry explained, “We've never had Muggle friends before. Actually, beyond passing them at Kings Cross we've never even spent time around Muggles. We've been – how to call it – puzzled about how to deal with the relationship. We can't just say, 'Hey, we're students of witchcraft and wizardry and we'd like to do something about the things we've learned here'.”

Betty laughed, “No, that wouldn't be a good idea.”

Harry continued after joining the laughter, “So, at lunch today we improvised around the truth, telling most of it, skipping magic.”

McKenzie navigated the large lorrie through traffic as Betty asked, “What did you tell them?”

Hermione answered, “That we were admitted to an academically elite school through exams. We didn't actually say it but we gave the impression that our school is small, unknown and a bit old fashioned.”

Ginny interrupted, “What brought this up was that we've been thinking that after school we might volunteer to help them with the yipi project. We'll learn a lot with them, we like them, and now we have a story that fits their expectations."

“Smart,” said Betty, “a good cover story is mostly true. But, what's 'yipi?”

Harry explained, “Oh, Y-I-P-I is Youth International Peace Initiative. They're an international youth organization that calls attention to how young people can make a difference in the world. It's their conference we're at.”

Ron filled out more background, “We picked it as a way to get here and look for Hermione's parents without bumbling around but since we've been at the conference, we've realized there's more to it than we imagined.”

None of the four had been paying attention to where they were going so they were surprised when the OKA turned at a sign for “UDU Storage” and came to a stop in front of a garage door. McKenzie said, “We're here,” touched his wand, which was laying on a flat area above the panel of controls, and waited for the garage door to open.

Ginny needed to calibrate her sense of speed and distance, “I thought your station was 400 some kilometers from Sydney. It doesn't seem like we ever left the city.”

While McKenzie drove the truck into the garage, Betty explained, “You haven't left Sydney. Rather than drive all day we have our wizarding conveniences. Com'on, we'll show you.”

Everyone climbed down from the truck and followed McKenzie. “Remember, if you need to get to our place, apparate here. The Muggle-side doors both open with Alohamora but there may be people around so just apparate inside.” With that he stepped to the back wall of the garage and pointed to a plain, seemingly ordinary stone the size of an English ten pence piece lying on the floor next to the side wall. “That's the key; try picking it up.” Hermione who was closest reached but found the small stone impossible to more. “Sticking charm,” said McKenzie. “If that stone's here, touch it with your wand. If not, it means we've locked this portal because there's a good reason not to have it open. You know, Muggle visits and such.” With that he touched the stone with his wand and the entire back of the garage disappeared revealing a handsome farm house, a nearby barn, and a fenced area with about a dozen horses standing in front of a building with many large doors.

Betty announced, “Welcome to Gum Scrub Station.”

All four wanted to ask about the magical portal. This was the third they had seen in Australia, each with an imaginative and admirable utility. They had already discussed the possibilities of having a portal between their eventual homes. However, when a pack of a half dozen dogs came bounding around the side of the barn heading directly for them, bouncing they ran with such enthusiasm, thoughts of portals vanished.

The six dogs were mostly black with brown and white patches on their legs and chests. When they bounded up to the group, Harry and Hermione, who knew dogs from their Muggle upbringings, knelt to greet them along with Betty and McKenzie. Ginny and Ron, who'd know only “Snuffles,” were slightly backing away.

McKenzie noticed and explained to Betty, “They're English wizard kids. They've never been around dogs.”

But Hermione and Harry having noticed their partners weren't with them, stood, took their partners by the arm and lead them down to where the dogs could better greet them.

Harry explained, “They're much more responsive than cats, rats or owls and are eager to please.”

They were eager to please and wagged their stubby tails so actively that the rest of the dog wagged along. McKenzie introduced them. “This is Curly, don't ask why.” The disclaimer was necessary because Curly was in no way curly, rather fluffier. He continued while rubbing another dog's neck, “This is Lucy, she and Curly are the parents of the rest -- Sparky, Lucky, Pipi and Jimmy.” When he spoke each of their names the appropriate tail wagged all the more furiously. Once the dogs had incorporated the new humans into their dog-human pack, they went back to their work of wandering about sniffing for new scent.

While the dog pack meandered off, Betty explained, “They're Australian Shepherds. Once, trained sheep dogs were the only way you could raise sheep here because they managed the flocks. Now, they're all but replaced by motorcycles. We keep a flock to keep 'em exercised. They get cranky if they don't work.”

The four friends took in the scene in front of them. It was too fascinating to think of anything else, so their questions about portals sunk deeper into memory. Gum Scrub Station was a complex of buildings. The house was directly in front of them, across a gravel driveway from where they stood outside the now-closed portal from the garage. The garden around it was more a mowed meadow than the grassy expanse of an English country manor. The house was wood sided with a slanting roof over a porch like the ones over the raised board walks in Dog Town. Here though, the porch was wide, screened all around and furnished with couches, a large wooden table and benches.

The house faced south. To their right was a wooden child's climbing set, sliding board and swings. The wood had weathered to gray but the swing ropes were white and looked new. From a dozen yards past the swing set eastward the land began to slope downward. To their left there were two buildings connected by rock paths from a door at the side of the house. The first was a large barn with a peaked roof that overhung open sections on either side of the walls. The side open to view held stacks of lumber, firewood, and some small equipment. Harry recognized the lawn mower from living in Little Whinging. The main section was accessed through two large sliding doors. These were closed.

South of the barn was a stable perpendicular to the barn side. It was wooden and like the barn and house, painted in a dark, reddish brown with trim pieces and fencing in white. Each of the dozen large doors opened onto stalls made of white-painted pipe. Each of the stalls had a gate that lead into the large pipe-fenced enclosure where a herd of horses was presently standing.

When Betty started to lead the group toward the house, Ginny asked, “Do you mind if I look at the horses?”

“No, go ahead; McKenzie needs to feed 'em pretty soon.”

When Ginny turned left accross the mowed meadow toward the stable, Harry followed, calling over his shoulder to Betty and McKenzie, “Her Patronus is a horse.”

This summoned everyone's attention. Sometimes interesting magic happened when a witch or wizard encountered the animal their Patronus emulated.  Professor Mullens called it, “The Doctrine of Signatures,” and thought of it as a quality of the creative powers.

McKenzie caught up with Ginny and Harry in a few strides and pointed to the corner of the enclosure where most of the horses were standing near a tank of water. When they reached the fence, McKenzie put his left hand on the top rail and reached over with his right arm. He held his forearm sloping downward with his closed fingers bent inward from the wrist. He looked over to Ginny and Harry, “Nose of a horse. Go ahead.”

Both Harry and Ginny made the same shape, the shape of a horse's head in profile, and shortly a horse did step forward to nuzzle McKenzie's forearm while making a soft sniffing sound. He raised his right hand and began to gently stroke her forehead where her mane fell forward between her upright ears.

He spoke very softly, “This is Sissy. Sissy is the lead mare, she's twelve and has foaled – birthed – four of this little mob.” Then speaking in a near whisper while stroking her ear McKenzie said, “Sissy, go meet Ginny and Harry.”

Sissy did as asked, first nosing Ginny's forearm, then Harry's, and back to Ginny's. Ginny reached slowly upward and touched the side of Sissy's neck, rubbing her beneath her mane as she whispered, “Aren't you the pretty girl.” Sissy no doubt agreed as she turned her head to nudge Harry's arm with her cool, damp nose. She had to nudge twice before Harry caught on that he should join Ginny in petting Sissy's surprisingly soft ears. With Sissy having lead the way for the rest of the herd, when Betty, Ron and Hermione joined them, more of the horses allowed themselves to be admired.

McKenzie was fond of his horses. “These are Australian Stock Horses; they're strong, stand hard work and are resistant to some of the local plants that are toxic to most equines. They come from the many different breeds imported from the U.K. and even some Spanish breeds like the Percheron, Arabians too. But, like sheep dogs, working horses are being replaced by vehicles and now most are on the huge outback stations.”

Betty added, “McKenzie's mounts do work at our boys' places during muster but they're mostly for recreational riding. We use brooms for quick chores around the station.”

A few minutes later Betty asked if anyone was hungry. They were, McKenzie particularly so, having skipped lunch to finish work in Dog Town before apparating back to get the lorrie and pick up their visitors. Betty suggested that they grill steaks outdoors on the barbeque and accompany them with some sweet corn cooked in foil on the coals. Hermione volunteered to help, and then volunteered Ron to start the fire and cook the steaks. Ron, who had never barbecued anything, tried to demure but was told, “There's nothing to it” and dutifully followed Hermione and Betty back to the house.

When they left, McKenzie pointed across the paddock, “Looks like you two get to clean the stable.”

The stable was entered from a large, double door on the side nearest the barn. There was an interior hall. It looked large enough to drive the OKA through. Each stall was accessed through a sliding door that was solid to about chest height, with vertical bars above. On the opposite side, covering two thirds of the stable's length, was a cement floor on which large lidded feed barrels and big rolls of grass were stored, one already broken open. The smaller part was walled off from the feed storage and held rows of saddles on stands with various parts of what McKenzie called “the tack” hung on pegs above.

Without wands, stable cleaning could have taken quite a while, but McKenzie showed them a version of Mobiliarbus that sent the horse manure flying to a compost pile behind the stable. This considerably sped the work. When they were done cleaning, they levitated large baskets of wood chips to renew the horses' bedding. Feeding meant loading grass into a cart with two large wheels in front and skids in the rear and guiding it to each of the stalls to dump the grass next to large buckets of water that magically refilled when the horses drank.

Back at the house Ron was already, as Betty called it, “firin' up the bar-b.” It looked like a big metal barrel that had been cut in half and hinged so that half formed a lid. Located next to a wooden table a few steps beyond the kitchen door, it was no doubt frequently used. Ron used Scourgify to clean the black metal grate on which the steaks would cook and Incendio to set the charcoal aflame. Incendio set the charred wood burning with flames about a foot high, which was more likely to make charcoal than steaks, so he used Aquamenti to sprinkle the coals and reduce the flames. It took a couple of tries but between Incendio and Aquamenti he got the coals glowing red.

When Hermione arrived with two dozen ears of sweet corn wrapped in foil, Ron was ready to load it toward the sides of the barrel where it could roast on the glowing, ash-covered coals. No sooner had Hermione left than she returned the few steps from the kitchen with two platters, one empty, one piled unreasonably high with steaks considering there were only six for dinner. Hermione estimated that they'd be ready for dinner in half an hour and suggested he hold off starting the steaks until he saw McKenzie, Harry and Ginny return from the stable.

At the stable, McKenzie was teaching Ginny and Harry how to lead the horses. This involved an intricately tied rope device called a “halter” that fit over the horse's nose and ears. A rope, called a “lead,” hooked at its base with a metal clasp. Walking by the side of each horse with their lead hand to the side, the place of safety in case the animal was distracted or jumped forward, they led each back to their stall.

Having finished, Harry and McKenzie were outside the enclosure leaning against the fence of Sissy's stall and Ginny was sitting on its top rail with her feet resting on the middle one. McKenzie explained that they did not “run enough cattle” to have a big horse herd like the vast outback stations and that practically Wee Willie's Heavy Haulers were all they needed for jobs around their station. He raised horses for his sons and their children, and for neighbors who wanted a good horse for recreational riding.

“I like their company,” he said. When he spoke, Sissy exited her inner stall and gently laid her head on Ginny's lap. Ginny softly rubbed her neck. McKenzie laughed, “Maybe Sissy knows all about your Patronus!”

Next, Sissy stepped forward so that her left side was next to Ginny. She stood with her head bobbing slightly, making a soft breathing sound. McKenzie said, “That's an invitation, do you want to ride?” As soon as he said “invitation,” Ginny stood on the second rail, holding the top rail with her left hand and swung her right leg over Sissy's back, settling just behind Sissy's big shoulders. Sissy took a couple of steps forward toward the gate to the enclosure.

McKenzie reassured Ginny, “It's alright, she won't let you fall. I'll open the gate to the arena. Hold her mane, it won't hurt her. Don't grip with your legs, just balance.”

With that he opened the gate with his wand and Sissy walked through and began to walk around the arena. Ginny relaxed, let go of Sissy's mane and placed her hands on her hips, easily adapting to the rhythm of Sissy's walk.

“Faster?” shouted McKenzie.

“Yes, faster,” answered Ginny, grinning.

“OK, relax, loosen your back and sit upright, you'll need to absorb her up and down movement with your lower back. Then click your tongue twice, Sissy will trot. It'll be a bit bumpy. If you feel like you're losing your balance, just say 'whoaaa'.” Ginny clicked twice and Sissy stepped into the faster gait.

The new gait made the horse's shoulders and hips rise and fall in a diagonal pattern, front right, rear left, front left, rear right, so it took a moment for Ginny to adjust. When she found the rhythm and was moving easily with Sissy, McKenzie said, “You're a natural, do you want to try the canter? It's smoother but faster.” Ginny nodded enthusiastically, so McKenzie continued coaching. “Hold her mane, make a kissing sound and rub her side with the foot next to the rails.” Ginny did and Sissy brought her head down, raised her inside front leg, and then pushed forward on both her hind legs. In an instant Sissy was carrying Ginny rapidly around the arena, her hair flying behind her, her pleasure unrestrained.

McKenzie looked at Harry, “She's already comfortable, bareback, first try; she's a real athlete Harry.”

Harry smiled, pleased by Ginny's delight and delighted by her beauty, “You should see her on a broom.”

When she came around another time to where McKenzie and Harry stood, Ginny said, “Whoaaa,” and Sissy stopped. She leaned forward until her hands were around Sissy's neck, rubbing her gently, “Thank you Sissy.” Then she placed both hands on Sissy's back, raised herself, brought her outside leg over and slid off in a single fluid movement.

While she walked with Sissy back to her stall, McKenzie said to Harry, “You know how special your girlfriends are, don't you?”

Harry recognized this as an Arthur Weasley-ish way to tactfully breach the topic of their relationship, but it made him mindful of the old wonder.  They were alive; they were together and something more.  They were partners; they shared a future.

“We do, believe me; we know how lucky we are.”

Ron started cooking the steaks as soon as he saw the three return along the stone path from the stable. By the time they'd washed up, he'd finished.  Hermione and Betty had set the table. Hermione helped him bring the corn, steam was rising from the folds of the foil, and the plate of steaks to the table. While everyone sat, Betty placed a large tomato salad next to the steak and corn.

Betty began the meal, “Welcome to our home, this is our own beef, so I hope you'll enjoy it.”

The dinning room table was long; the six at table tonight merely filled the end nearest the kitchen. The dinning area was the space occupied by the table and a side board in the single large room that included the kitchen. The walls were paneled in wood, except for the wall against which the kitchen appliances were set, including a huge old wood stove. The wall was made of large earthen bricks that showed traces of the straw used in their construction. The wood panels were of different sizes, some nearly two feet wide. A wall of bookshelves and a double door with huge black metal hinges separated the siting room.

At a pause in the conversation about Christmas dinner Betty, who had noticed Ron's interest in the planked walls, described their house. “The house is more than a century old. It was started by McKenzie's grandfather and finished by his father. McKenzie was born here. Until his dad was in his 80's there were a dozen riders during musters plus the family. His Mum fed them right at this table.  We added to the magical spaces with each of our boys.”

Hermione noticed that several of the stakes had slices off.  Apparenty Ron had learned they were ready by eating.  She didn't mention it, judged by the rate they were disappearing, he'd gotten it right.

Ron asked Betty, “In one of the films we saw at conference we learned that there are almost no old growth forests left. Are there still trees in Australia big enough to cut a two foot plank?”

“Some, in the national forests, but it's not common.”

After dinner, everyone helped with the dishes; the household magic was unrestrained. When those chores were finished, they followed their hosts into the siting room. Its main feature was the fireplace; all four of them could have easily fit inside. The weather was warm so the fire wasn't lit. Three large couches and two overstuffed arm chairs were arranged around it along with plenty of handy tables with lamps that McKenzie lit with his wand.

It was a wizarding room in the Muggle part of the house. To a Muggle it probably looked old fashioned, or maybe like a decorative affectation, but to the four friends who hadn't been in a wizarding space for days, it was reminiscent of The Burrow. The chairs and couches sagged a little, the rugs over the planked floor were worn where successive generations of children had played by the fire, and the tables next to the arm chairs were overloaded with books. It was a room with a history.

McKenzie and Betty took the places they must always take in the arm chairs. Ginny, removing her shoes, tucked her legs beneath her and snuggled into the soft space between one large cushion and another laid against the back of the couch. Harry sat next to her. Ron sat, then slouched, his long legs stretched toward the fireplace.

Hermione stopped at the wall of books and was cocking her head from one side to the other to read the titles on their spines. There were no spell books but volume after volume on horses, veterinary medicine, horse training, and an entire three shelves of handwritten notebooks. She was trying to make out the handwriting on their narrow spines when McKenzie reached over and pulled one from a shelf.

He showed her pages of diagrammed family trees. “These go back to my grandfather. They're the bloodlines of the horses raised here.”

“So, you breed horses?”

“Oh, it's a hobby now, I like training them; I like being with them. Horses are special creatures, they've their own magic, but there was a time here when you counted your mob of horses as your wealth.”

He sounded like he would have preferred those days.

It had been a long day, one that had begun with much emotion, continued with some nervous moments, and transformed to an adventure with new friends.  This and the torpor of much food much enjoyed ecouraged sleep.

It did not take many yawns before Betty said, “If you were at home, what would your sleeping arrangements be?”

The four smiled and Ron answered, “Harry stays in my room and Hermione with Ginny.”

“Then that's what we'll do here,” said Betty. “Come on, I'll show you your rooms.”

Their rooms were through another portal to the completely magical portion of the house. It looked much like the kitchen, dinning and living room and was lit with the same lamps, except for the bathrooms which were closer to those at Hogwarts than any in a Muggle home. All Betty said was, “We like our baths.”

It was not long, no longer than it took for a leisurely kiss goodnight, before all were in bed imagining Christmas Eve at The Burrow.


Chapter 34: A Sunny Christmas
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Chapter Thirty Four

A Sunny Christmas

Christmas morning the four friends awoke at the same time as every other morning since they'd arrived in Australia. The conference set their schedule for waking, attending lectures, eating, talking with Muggle friends and sleeping. They'd adapted to it. The odd thing was that it was Christmas. It wasn't winter.  In fact, the weather was perfect for shorts and T-shirts. But the weather was not the only anomaly. The wizarding war was a chasm between Ron, Ginny and Hermione's childhood anticipation of Christmas and this morning, when they expected nothing. Harry, whose Christmas presents had only come from the Weasleys, had no such memories.

Regardless of their absence of expectation, they did feel a little down. Were they back at The Burrow, they'd be overeating breakfast, particularly Molly's hot buns and Fleur's drip coffee, opening presents, and laying about with their family in dressing gowns and pajamas. Fred would no doubt be holding forth. They imagined him in place above the sitting room mantle. Arthur and Molly would be reminiscing about the delightful chaos of Christmas morning when their children were young. Since most of the rest of the family, Bill, Charlie, George and maybe Percy would only be stopping by, if they visited at all, Molly and Arthur might be on their own if Fred decided to visit George at the shop. For the first time since leaving their family at the airport, the four were a little homesick.

Betty and McKenzie were already drinking coffee at the kitchen end of the table and greeted them by pointing to a large pot and a stack of mugs on the counter next to the stove. While they filled their cups, they gazed at the bright, very un-Christmas-like morning. The sky was framing the barn, the stable and the fields beyond, in a fine pastel blue just arising from the grays and reds of dawn.

After filling their cups and joining Betty and McKenzie at table, Hermione began their day. “So, what can we do to be useful?”

There was quite a lot that they could do to be useful. There would be seventeen for dinner, the four, Betty and McKenzie, and eleven of their children and grandchildren. Their traditional Christmas dinner was lamb and Betty had prepared three roasts to bake in the oven of the big wood stove.

“The smoky flavor really makes lamb tasty and they don't make ovens that can take three roasts anymore.”

Their nostalgia for The Burrow dimmed when breakfast arrived. Betty made toasted home-made brown bread, oatmeal with fresh cream and sugar.

McKenzie observed, “With all these extra hands, there's no need to hurry.”

Betty handed Ron a yellow-labeled jar as he buttered his toast, “Vegamite, try it, it's an Australian treat.”

Ron slathered it on. His reaction to the first bite was a polite attempt to disguise his discovery that the Australian treat didn't deserve slathering. Betty and McKenzie were not fooled and laughed as if they'd expected his reaction, “Go ahead, put it down, you've got to be born here to like Vegamite.”

Hermione tried Ron's discarded toast, “Oh, not bad, it's like English Marmite isn't it?”

“Yep,” replied Betty, “brewer's yeast from beer-making, with vegetables and spices.”

While they finished breakfast and a last cup of coffee, they planned their day. McKenzie needed to feed and exercise the whole mob before their company arrived. They decided that since Ginny was taken by the horses, she would help McKenzie. Hermione would stay and help Betty in the kitchen. After the roasts and potatoes were in the oven, there were minced, coconut-cream and lemon pies to bake.

After they had discussed the menu, deciding to cut last night's left-over roast corn from the cobs for salad, they assigned Ron to haul wood from the stack beneath the barn-side overhang and to start the fire in the wood stove, filling the wood box next to it so the fire could be fed for most of the day. Harry was to fetch potatoes and flour from the root cellar, a low-roofed earthen room beneath the kitchen accessed through slanted doors leaning against the wall near the barbecue. When Harry and Ron finished these chores, they were to unload the outdoor furniture and toys from the barn so the five grandchildren could be entertained and not under foot in the kitchen.

Ron and Harry's kitchen chores went quickly. There was a wheelbarrow next to the wood pile so it only took a couple of Transport Charms to load the stove and fill the wood box. Hermione’s Incendio set the firebox ablaze.

Betty opened the screened windows and doors, “It'll get hot in here and that old stove will stay hot for hours.”

Harry's trips to the root cellar took a little longer; he had to ask how to find the potatoes, which were kept in old wooden boxes filled with sand.

Those chores done, Betty sent them off to the barn to gather the children’s toys and outdoor chairs. On the way, they stopped to watch Ginny working with a horse. She wore a hat with a rolled up brim that tied beneath her chin. Her hair was tied in a bun with a bit of orange twine like that binding the rolls of grass in the stable. She wasn't wearing her trainers but a pair of boots borrowed from a box in the tack room. Her jeans were tucked into the boots and a too large, blue denim, long sleeve shirt covered her T-shirt.

She was standing in the center of the circle a large horse's hooves were incising in the soil and sawdust of the arena floor. He was bigger than Sissy, with a white mane, tail and markings on its predominantly black body. In her left hand she held a long line that was affixed to the horse's halter. She held the other end of that line in her right hand, twirling it beside her.

McKenzie was leaning against the pipe fence of the arena offering hints and encouragement, “Patches is young, he's testing you to see if he needs to listen. Watch his hindquarters, that’s the power, that's where you'll see him slow down first. If he does, slap the end of the line on the dirt as you twirl. If the slapping sound doesn't do it, bump him with the knot at the end of the line. Don't worry, it won't hurt him; it just reminds him to pay attention.”

When Ginny slapped the knot at the end of the line on the ground, Patches broke from a walk to a trot; the rhythm of his feet hitting the ground accelerated. Harry and Ron arrived and leaned on the fence next to McKenzie.

“Sorry to hide your girlfriend in those old clothes Harry but with her fair skin and the summer sun she'll burn to a crisp out here.”

“No problem,” said Ron, “Harry'd think Ginny was pretty if she was wearing the old sack where Mun stores rags in the scullery.”

Ginny was concentrating on Patches and must not have heard because she didn't reply to what certainly deserved a sibling riposte. McKenzie and Harry, on the other hand, enjoyed a laugh before Ron and Harry left to continue their chores.

As they walked away McKenzie heard Ron say, “I know I gave you a hard time about her but I'm glad you're together. You're just mental enough to live with her.  She's some witch.”   McKenzie thought Ron could just as well have spoken for himself, Hermione was every bit as self-willed as Ginny or, for that matter, Betty.

The first thing Harry said when they pushed open the big double doors to the barn was, “We've got to get your Dad and McKenzie together.” Ron got it immediately because the barn was a much bigger version of Mr. Weasley's magically enlarged shed. In addition to the big tractor, a couple of different sized wagons, a machine with a completely unintelligible purpose and another that looked much like a giant lawn mower, there were long, heavily made tables. The shelves above each were filled with parts and pieces of various machines and a huge variety of objects like the spiky things Muggles use to hold pieces of wood together.

“Yea,” said Ron, “only it looks like McKenzie knows what he's doing.” Harry thought Ron was right, although the comparison was not entirely fair to Mr. Weasley who only rarely left the wizarding world. The neatly arranged tools on the benches and the orderly rows of – whatever they were with indecipherable uses – were surely some part of McKenzie's work on their station.

Ron and Harry worked their way deeper into the barn before finding what they were looking for in a section of mental shelves.  There were plastic storage boxes filled with balls, round plate-like disks, and a variety of toys. Next to the shelves was a stack of brooms and a pile of chairs nested one on top of the other. The brooms were a succession of sizes but most prominent among them were two Heavy Haulers. Ron levitated the boxes of toys and guided them with his wand while Harry carried the assortment of brooms in the crook of his arms.

When they arrived back at the house, they arrayed the toy boxes so it would be easy to get at the toys and laid the brooms in order of size against the wall. Then, returning to the barn, they divided the nest of chairs and levitated them into a circle around a large metal container they found in the garden between the house and barn. It was cauldron-like with three thick, stubby legs but much, much wider than deep and filled with ashes. It must be for enjoying an outdoor fire.

That task complete, they reported to the women in the kitchen for their next assignment, which was to set the table. It was just in time. No sooner had they most of the plates, glasses and utensils in place than Betty asked Harry to go back to the stable and get McKenzie. Their sons' families would be arriving in a moment.

When Harry returned to the stable, McKenzie was sitting on one of the bins where he kept grain for the horses, listening to a large Patronus horse. It wasn't Ginny's, hers had a longer mane was sleeker and thinner. Anyway, Ginny had already returned to wash up by the time Ron and Harry had finished collecting the toys, brooms and chairs. Not wanting to intrude on what might be a private conversation, Harry waited just inside the opne door.

The Patronus vanished; McKenzie met Harry part way. “That was Rudolfus. We know something about the two Malaysians we didn't know before. Rudolfus noticed that there was nothing in the coroner's report about what they were wearing. So, he went and checked. Wanna guess?”

“No,” answered Harry, “no idea.”

“Uniforms.”

“Professionals?”

“Right! You might uniform a couple of bodyguards but these two were wearing uniform shirts, cargo pants and deck shoes. Not what you'd expect for bodyguards.” McKenzie motioned for Harry to walk with him toward the house. “I think it's a safe bet that they're crew of some kind, maybe a large yacht, even a small merchant ship, but it's something big enough to need uniforms but not so large to be buying in bulk with the name stiched on..”

“And to afford killing two.”

“Yes, and to afford killing two.”

Before they reached the house Harry stopped and asked, “Does this change anything about the chance there's a relationship between these murders and Hermione's parents?”

McKenzie paused, looking at Harry with a thoughtful expression, “I don't see how. Although it does make our new problem look nastier than it did at first. It gives me an idea though.” Harry waited for him to continue. He did, “Didn't Hermione say that her father was enthused about boats as well as trains?”

“Yea, she did.”

“The Great Barrier Reef is off the coast of Queensland, in the north. Mackay is about in the center. The reef's one of the ocean wonders of the world. I'm thinking we should take a look at the Mackay waterfront.”

Harry caught on, “So, if they're living on a boat, they'd need a convenience address. You're thinking maybe her Dad's liking for boats has leaked around Hermione's charm?”

“Maybe, or maybe it has nothing to do with her charm work. Most people tell their deep desires to no more than a couple people, some probably none. They may have kept what's motivating them to themselves, or thought it wasn't ripe for a talk with their school girl daughter.  Anyway, Hermione wouldn't have needed to hide their hobbies.  There's no reason it has to be more complex than her Dad likes boats. But, let's go be social before we're in trouble with our wives. We can work on it tomorrow.”

Harry heard the “our wives” but didn't mention it. It felt wonderful. It's another nice thing about being in love, something inconsequential can make you feel really good.

The two had no sooner arrived back at the house and washed-up when the first guests arrived. McKenzie and Betty's oldest son, his wife Sarah and their two daughters pulled up in a mud splattered white estate car.  It featured a metal rack atop that looked like a tiny version of the stable fencing.  It held a couple of boxes of tools and two spare tires.

McKenzie, greeted them at the door to the big screened porch, “That creek overflowing again Art?”

 “Yea, we'll need to set some check dams sooner or later.”

When they were all in the house, Betty introduced the boys who were just finishing laying the table, “Art, Sarah, girls, these are students from England. They're here visiting with a group of young people interested in world peace. This is Harry and Ron.”

When Harry and Ron stepped forward to shake hands, Art greeted them. “Welcome, I'm Art. Dad tried to saddle me with Artourous but I lost all but the first three letters. Do we get to meet the pretty girls, or are you going to keep them hidden in the kitchen?”

Art had apparently inherited his father's sense of humor. Harry made the introductions, taking Ginny's hand and leading her forward. “This is Ginny Weasley; we're . . .”

Ginny provided the right word, “together.”

Harry continued, turning to Hermione who had moved forward to stand next to Ginny. “. . . And this is Hermione Granger.”

Hermione shook hands with Art and Sarah, “Ron and I are, well, 'together' is a good word.”

McKenzie introduced his granddaughters, “This is Jeanie, Jeanie is almost eleven, and this is Carolyn, who's . . .”

Carolyn answered for herself, “Nine, I'll be ten in September.”

The grandchildren went off to play. The adults had just begun to congregate in the kitchen when two apparition cracks coming from the living room announced the arrival of Malcolm, their second oldest son and his wife Janet. Malcolm was carrying their son Alfred piggy-back and Janet held their infant boy Jonas close, wrapped in a blanket.

Again the introductions were barely over when the youngest McKenzie, Bobby, his wife Lillith and their five year old Roger arrived on horseback. Bobby was the son that shared McKenzie's delight in horses. They lived only about a mile down the road and rode whenever they could. Bobby and Lillith dismounted and Bobby lifted his son from a saddle so small it looked more like a misplaced hat.

McKenzie, Ginny and Bobby led the horses to the stable where they were turned out with the others. On the way back, McKenzie and Ginny explained how they'd met and what the four were doing in Australia.

When they returned from the stable, three platters of lamb, two large bowls of baked potatoes, three giant salads, four butter dishes, two tureens of mint sauce and one of gravy were already on the table. Jeannie and Carolyn were being seated with their younger cousins Alfred and Roger between them with instructions to be helpful. Lillith sat toward the sitting room end of the table next to an extra chair holding a baby carrier so she could eat while Jonas slept. After Lillith was seated, McKenzie took charge of seating and placed everyone so that Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione were interspersed with the family. Short of dinner at The Burrow, nothing could have transformed their nostalgia better than the smells of wizard cooking, the bounty of the table before them and the familial ruckus of the McKenzies' Christmas dinner.

After dinner was underway, Malcolm, who was sitting across from Ron and seemed to be the most talkative of the sons, asked, “So. Ron, what do you think of Australia so far?”

“We haven't seen that much, we only made the one trip in Sydney to find the entrance to Dog Town, that's how we met your Dad. But this place is beautiful. We'll probably have to leave Ginny here; she's so taken by the horses.”

Art replied, “Ahh, the horses are Dad and Bobby's affliction. We only run a few hundred sheep and cattle anymore but keep horses like we had a couple of thousand head. . .”

McKenzie cut in, “Art thinks I'm extravagant.”

Malcolm ignored the teasing and continued, “This place is old, it goes back to Grandfather McKenzie. You won't find many like it any more.”

Hermione asked, “Did he come from England?”

Art answered, “Artourous McKenzie was the Muggle-born wizard son of a minor Scottish royal. When their father died, his older brother gambled away the estate and got himself killed in a duel. Old Artourous sold the title to a rich Brit the week he finished school, took the money, fitted himself out as a physician and landed here in the 1860's. Of course, with spells, potions and a very official-looking diploma from a school he never attended, he was hugely successful.”

Malcolm continued the story, “By the time his only son Wilbur took over in . . .” He paused and asked his father, “What year was that?”

McKenzie answered, “1928, grandfather lived until '54 but his horse had spooked and thrown him the year before and he wasn't the same afterward.”

Malcolm continued, “By 1928 when Wilbur took over, they’d acquired big tracts of land. We're not sure why he chose Gum Scrub. Back in 1907 Australia got the income tax. The tax office eventually noticed a lack of tax returns and Wilbur found himself in trouble with the government.”

By now the lamb roasts were bone piles, the potatoes were gone and the salad was reduced to tiny bits of lettuce stuck to the sides of the large wooden bowls. Betty served tea and Hermione levitated a big platter of pies from the ktichen.

Dessert occupied everyone for a time but when they started on their second cup of dark, South African tea, Art picked up where Malcolm left off. “Wilbur was no fool so he made a deal with the government. He deeded over the big forest tracts, they're still state forests, and kept the workable land. The state was happy. Wilbur was happy. He even talked the government into letting him keep the lumbering rights. So, although he didn't own the forest, he had its economic value and the state was on the hook for the fire roads.”

Malcolm took over the narration, “Then, when dad was born in '44 his father, our granddad, decided that the best way to exploit  their land was to go corporate. That's the way things are now. Dad is President of Gun Scrub Station. Art runs the corporate offices. I handle banking and land leasing and Bobby manages the farms. Rudolfus doesn’t pay much attention, let's Dad handle everything for him.” Then, his story for the visitors finished, he noted for his father and brothers, “You know, we really should work a bit, we've got to decide about the old Wilsonbury Station by the first of the year.”

Jeannie and Carolyn were getting restless. They'd finished their dessert somewhere during the story of Wilbur McKenzie's problem with taxes. Alfred and Roger sitting between them were squirming well beyond what Jeannie and Carolyn could, or even would even try to manage.

Ginny took Harry by the elbow and said to the table in general, “Why don't we go outside with Jeannie and Carolyn?” She didn't say, “So you can talk,” but everyone knew that was what she meant. Jeannie didn't wait and was already heading toward the kitchen door, her younger sister following right behind her. Harry and Ginny followed while Ron and Hermione lead the two five year olds to the living room.

Minutes later Hermione returned to the table, “Do you mind having a Christmas Tree?”

Betty answered, “Go ahead, whatever keeps 'em entertained.”

It took most of an hour for the McKenzies to finish their business. When little Jonas finished nursing, Lillith began to walk with him on her hip, exaggerating her movements to rock her son back to sleep. In her perambulations she passed the entrance to the sitting room, looked, grinned and returned to the table giggling, “You've got to see this!”

The family filled the doorway and were soon as amused as Lillith. Hermione had conjured a tree, a tree as tall as the room could hold. She and Ron were magically overloading it with whatever Alfred and Roger could imagine. There was a St. Nicholas in a sleigh, magically circling the tree going “Ho, Ho, Ho,” baubles of every description and – at the very top – a star that spun, radiated a kaleidoscope of colors and whistled “Jolly Saint Nicholas.” Lower down in among the boughs there were long chains of silver rings as well as lighted candles floating around the tree in rising and falling spirals just beyond the tips of the branches. Janet, Bobby and Lilith joined them, wands out, ready to play too.

The rest of the family helped Betty clear the table. When they brought the dishes to the kitchen and looked out the still open kitchen windows they saw Ginny and Harry coaching Jeannie and Carolyn who were riding two of the medium-sized brooms. Ginny was riding one of the Heavy Haulers sitting sideways, her wand out, along side Carolyn. Both were hovering at the north end of the yard facing south as Ginny coached, “OK, remember, four steps. First, enough speed, second pull the nose up, third kick hard on the foot rests, fourth pull the nose level as you come around. Got it?”

Carolyn answered, “I think so.”

Carolyn started moving. Ginny flew next to her, her toes no more than a couple of feet off the ground. Harry was standing about half way, following her flight with his wand. Ginny said, “One!” Carolyn started forward fairly fast. On “Two!” she pulled the nose of her broom upward. At “Three” she kicked too hard, lost her grip and fell backward off her broom. Harry caught her with a ready Hover Charm and gently lowered her to the ground. Apparently, this was not the first time she had fallen as Carolyn showed neither anxiety nor surprise. Meanwhile, her broom stopped its upward flight, turned, and flew down to hover at mounting height next to Carolyn, who jumped back on ready to try again.

Ginny wanted her to rest a minute, “OK Carolyn, let's give Jeannie her turn.”

Art, who had watched this performance through the kitchen door standing next to McKenzie and Sarah, reacted in surprise. “What was that? How'd that broom fly with no one on it?”

None answered. Then, Harry looked toward the house and the other Heavy Hauler flew to him and hovered at mounting height. When Harry mounted, Ginny dismounted. Barely looking she sent her broom to hover a few feet behind her. They were trading places. Harry flew alongside Jeannie and did “One, Two, Three, Four” for timing. Ginny watched with her wand ready. Much to her younger sister's dismay, Jeannie not only flipped her broomstick but came around flying flat and level. Carolyn, perhaps a little reluctantly, joined Harry and Ginny's cheers for her older sister. Next try though, Carolyn succeeded. They all cheered, Harry and Ginny setting off a virtual fireworks of Periculum sparks.

Betty joined McKenzie, their son and his wife at the door, “Know who's teaching your girls to flip their brooms?”

“Your young friends, Harry and Ginny,” answered Art, who wasn't sure why his mother was asking  the obvious.

Betty replied, “Our young friends Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. You been reading The Prophets I send over?”

“Really!” answered Art in surprise, “Not THE Harry Potter! The one who defeated Voldemort?”

“The same,” answered Betty.

“And Ginny?” asked Sarah.

McKenzie replied, “His girlfriend and an amazing witch.  She's got her own history with the war.”

Their conversation was interrupted by Bobby and Malcolm who arrived in the kitchen, shouldering into one another like a couple of kids. “It's almost dark, time for log toss, com' on Art, Dad, let's have a fire.”

Betty concurred, “I'll get the others and bring the marshmallows.”

Log toss was a wand game. After wanding everything out of the way and getting the dogs to sit so they wouldn't chase the tossed logs, everyone lined up by the wood pile and Art showed their guests how it worked. Using Wingardium Leviosa he raised a piece of firewood into the air and used his wand to flip it toward the cauldron-like fireplace. It landed just to the right of the target, next to one of the chairs. Everyone tried. Soon there was stove wood all over the yard, two chairs knocked over,  and good matured arguments as to whose log was closest. Finally, Hermione won with a “leaner.” Her hunk of the local pine landed, bounced once, flipped over and came to rest leaning against the cauldron's edge.

Everyone gathered the stray logs and stacked them in the cauldron-like fireplace, which was soon ablaze. As if they were all one family, the evening passed in convivial conversation helped along by another serving of pie. When it was time to take the children home, the two couples and the McKenzies finished Christmas sitting around the fire, marshmallows levitating in and out of the flames, while the rising sparks merged with the brilliant stars of the southern sky.


Chapter 35: Scouting Mackay
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Chapter Thirty Five

Scouting Mackay
 
When they greeted McKenzie and Betty at the breakfast table on the final morning of their stay, McKenzie was wearing a blue denim shirt with “RTBU” in large red letters over the pocket and “Retired” in smaller letters beneath. Betty wore a yellow pullover sweatshirt with just “RTBU” in large black letters on the back.

“RTBU?” asked Hermione.

“Rail, Tram and Bus Union,” answered McKenzie. “I thought we'd run up to Mackay and do a little scouting. People can be hesitant to talk to cops. So, if we get a chance to talk with any of the locals, Betty and I will be retired busmen from Sydney. Ginny and Ron will be our niece and nephew from London; you and Harry will be their fiancés visiting for the holidays.”

Betty continued to discuss their cover story, “How about we say that we're in Mackay looking for Hermione's uncle who stopped talking after a family fight about his immigration to Australia. That should get some attention; call on some Aussie-Brit bias. We'll say that we're pretty sure that he and his wife moved to Mackay about a year ago and they were always talking about living on a boat.”

Hermione asked, “So, you think it's Dad's interest in boats that's come to the fore?”

McKenzie answered, “Well, for now, let's just say that I think it's a plausible theory. Mackay is known as the 'Sugar Capital of Australia' because so much cane is grown up there but beyond the heavy freight there's nothing to attract a train buff for very long. But Mackay has a yacht harbor and the Great Barrier Reef is only sixty clicks offshore. There’s a tourist haven, Brampton Island, within twenty or so. Of course we still can't rule out that they're living in a rural area near Mackay but the yacht harbor is something six of us can scout in a day. So, it's worth the ride.”

Harry, thinking about his conversation with McKenzie the day before but not wanting to alarm Hermione, asked his question obliquely, “Is it a big ship harbor, ocean freight and all that?”

“No,” answered McKenzie. “Yacht racers, pleasure boaters, SCUBA diving and reef tours, the occasional commercial fisherman in for a refit or fuel.”

After breakfast they cleaned up the yard, packed their things and loaded their luggage into the OKA. They were due back to their rooms after the trip to Mackay. Ginny asked McKenzie if they didn't need to feed the horses and clean their stalls. McKenzie told her that Bobby was already taking care of it. It was late when the party finished and little Roger was already asleep, so they'd driven the OKA home last night. Bobby had returned with it a few minutes ago and was taking care of the stable. Then, he'd take his horses home.

The four friends weren't surprised at the casual travel preparations even though they understood Mackay to be something like a thousand kilometers away. When McKenzie closed the magical portal and opened the Muggle-side garage door, he only drove a half dozen doors around the corner of the self storage building before entering another garage. Betty got out, closed the Muggle-side door, then wand-touched an old soda bottle sitting on one of the boxes piled to the side of the garage. The back of the building disappeared. When the OKA exited they were in front of a long row of garage doors facing an empty lot, another self storage site.

Harry asked, “We're in Mackay?”

“Yes,” answered McKenzie. “We rent these storage sites an