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The Potter Files (Part 1) , Demons by troll
Chapter 2 : Pee-Eyed
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3


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Harry Potter toyed with the quill over the blank sheet of parchment he had been staring at all morning. His main achievement was a small dot, then branching circles around the dot, and then he had to remove the ink stain with a tap of his magic wand. Irritated at himself for being devoid of thought. He hadn't written anything else, other than the date on top, and had progressed over the last hour or two to adding an occasional flourish to a letter or number. Except, by now, they looked ridiculously stupid.

A colossal, huge, fat nothing to report!

Harry knew he had to communicate his failure to find the 'missing' husband. He just didn't really want to. The wizard in question had apparently up and left his wife shortly after the war ended. Truly an unpleasant woman, and truth be told, Harry wondered often what had kept him at that home to begin with. Though no one was saying that out loud. A missing wizard who had been gone for seven years now. Had taken all his clothes. Emptied most of their bank account. Not been seen by friends and family all that time.

This wizard had a harpy of a wife (not a real harpy, but the incredible similarity was not lost on Harry), so Harry was not really sorry he couldn't find the guy. The real question was how to frame that underlying conviction in as neutral and unaccusatory tone as possible.

Harry had even thought of manufacturing false leads but immediately knew he couldn't face himself in the mirror if he did. Besides, it would be a relief to end dealing with the woman and her lucky escapee of man. This in fact had been a hopeless case, and Harry could have found him only if the missing man had sent Harry a forwarding address, if he was still alive.

Probably, Aruba or Tahiti! Lucky sod!

Unfortunately, it had been his only case in a couple of days. Okay, make that a couple of weeks. It was either incredibly peaceful out in the Magical world, or everyone had gone on holiday. Harry ruefully acknowledged the coming month before Hogwart's reopened was likely to be uneventful in the extreme, as most went on summer holiday. This time of year always brought some powerful memories back for Harry, and it was easy to drop back in his chair, stare out the window, and succumb to reminiscing about past summers as a teenager, instead of writing to unpleasant customers.

Nothing had come from the 'Magical Creature's' case. He had idly wandered the city, on occasion, looking up businesses with names resembling 'Aurora'. Harry had found an 'armada', 'alabama' and even had inspected an 'orangutan' place, just on the chance that the the coincidence of the name and its association with an exotic primate.

No luck there. Sold high-end toddler wear, with monkeys plastered all over.

A gentle shake of the building brought Harry out of his brief daydream. George Weasley, his next door neighbor in Diagon Alley, must be at work on some explosive practical joke. George at least had fun at work, Harry thought. Harry was stuck looking for stray magical pets, following errant spouses having illicit affairs, and playing companions for rich lonely widows who just wanted someone to gossip to. One in fact had turned out to be Rita Skeeter, the scandal reporter, in disguise, writing for a magical tabloid about the lonely disappointed life of Harry Potter after destroying the dictatorship of Voldemort.

That had nearly been the final straw. He had been so angry, he had stayed at home for a week, until chased out by his wife, Ginny.

Harry wrenched himself out of his daydream. He wanted to honor his one-man company's slogan “Finding the Unfindable” , even if it did sound a bit stupid and ungrammatical. Potter was a family man now, pretty soon anyway, and he had a responsibility to slog through admitting his failure to find the runaway husband and give a refund to the unpleasant woman. He also had one employee, an uneducated homeless young witch who was so poor at practical magic she almost qualified as a squib, and he feared for her well-being if Harry folded the company.

Harry did not need to work. Potter worked because he felt bored doing nothing, not because he had enormous expenses or a lavish lifestyle. Harry was independently wealthy, probably more so than any other witch and wizard in the world, and took great pains to hide it.

The fortune wasn't widely known, a promise he had extracted from his bank-employed brother-in-law, Bill Weasley, not to divulge the amount of his wealth to anyone, especially to anyone else in the family. Harry knew it would cause no end of grief, from greedy hangers-on, or from the magical press still hounding him. But especially from his best friend Ron's unending chip on his shoulder about his family being relatively impoverished, as far as wizards go. Ron's father, Arthur Weasley, was a happily content, mid-level government bureaucrat; maybe not rich in paycheck, but immensely wealthy in a loving family and a generosity of spirit. About the only father figure Harry had known, growing up, really. Harry fully intended to use Arthur as an example in raising his own children.

That Ronald Weasley was poorly paid, too, was ironic to Harry, because he knew Ron was joyously happy in being a policeman, or in magical terms, an auror, and could care less how many galleons a week he got.

Unless of course someone (Harry, rich aunts/uncles, sneering Death-eater parents of fellow class-mates, etc...) rubbed Ron's nose in the fact that aurors were hugely underpaid. Having practically grown up in the Weasley household, Harry knew the family was aware Ginny and he were comfortably well off. Ron was the only one it seemed to bother, so they all elaborately pretended to ignore the fact for his sake.

Besides, most everyone else (including the persistent press) seemed to think Harry was living on Ginny's money as an ex pro-Quidditch player. She had played for a couple of years out of school, but had given it up suddenly. After a dramatic personality blow up with the arrogant leader of the team, minutes after they had won the World championship. Harry had known it had been coming, and was happier she was free of it. Ginny hadn't liked to travel, Gwenog Jones and the circus about the 'Harpies' had been a growing irritant in their lives, and the Potters had quietly begun the steps for planning for children.

But she had really liked the competition. Harry hadn't pressed her about her plans after the baby; Ginny was rather vague about going back to playing. Unsurprisingly, she had burned some bridges with the Holy Head Harpies, and wasn't on speaking terms with many of her former teammates, many of whom viewed Quidditch as more important than family or breathing. In any case, they'd have to come up with some other way to explain his seeming endless supply of galleons. With just the two of them until the next month, there had been no real expenses.

The bigger obstacle to overcome was Harry's compulsion to give to anyone in need. The end of the war had seen a huge resurgence in the number of orphans and broken families, on both sides, and his own unhappy childhood compelled Harry like a curse to try to alleviate the suffering. His school friends, Ginny, and the Magical Ministry, had grumbled and attempted to restrain him from throwing money at the hurts of the magical world. The Weasleys and his Hogwarts' classmates feared he would bankrupt himself. The Ministry probably thought Potter made it look bad. Some thought it survivor's guilt (which he had, in legion), but only Ginny (and Gringott's bank!) really knew it was because Harry could easily afford to donate to a new hospital or orphanage, probably dozens. If Potter hadn't done so, he felt he would betray all the lost in the war, and the cause he and his friends had fought for. Harry had even given up his life, briefly. (the one time a Horcrux stuck to his soul was a benefit!)

Harry caught himself daydreaming again. Come on, Potter. Just get through this.

He glanced up at the untidy desk at Ginny's magical desk portrait. She giggled back at him, over the immense crescent of her stomach, as someone out of the picture lifted up the lower edge of her blouse to blow a raspberry on her tummy, and Ginny collapsed into helpless, embarrassed laughter. She'd be appalled if she found out this picture was out in public and would demand a equally comparable picture of Harry if it was discovered. He had no intention of that ever happening, thank you very much. It was Harry's guilty pleasure to watch her. He hid the picture when not in the room alone.

Harry was anxious, at first, at how his mentor and not forgotten friend, Albus Dumbledore, would react if Harry brought Ginny's picture to his office. Dumbledore's slightly larger miniature sat on the desk on the opposite side, but more openly displayed than Ginny's. It still confused Harry to remember the picture was not his friend, but magic, but it was an increasing comfort to him. Almost like still having Dumbledore around to confide in.

Harry had been presented the picture by Professor McGonagal a few weeks after the battle at Hogwarts. The wizard's portrait, fully animated just like the bigger ones at Hogwart's school, had been discovered in the deceased headmaster's desk as a copy to be placed in the Ministry in an emergency. And apparently hidden by double-agent Severus Snape in order to protect it.

Harry wryly recalled that was Minerva's explanation (still strange to call his old teacher by her first name, to her face!), but it was transparent Dumbledore had never intended the small picture to be with anyone other that Harry. Their mutual distrust of the Ministry of Magic, whoever ran it, had almost determined from the start that Harry would never step foot in the place as a government employee. That portrait would never spend a moment on any Ministry wall, if Harry could help it.

Nor was Harry welcome at the Ministry, in truth, since the ungrateful magical community voted Kingsley Shacklebolt and decent-honest saviors from the Order of Phoenix out of office the first chance the fickle wizarding public got. The new bunch, opportunists cashing-in on the failures of the brief Shacklebolt government to painlessly solve the chaos left by the collapse of the Voldemort regime, quickly made it apparent they viewed Potter's motives with suspicion. And that Harry's presence at any public event over-shadowed which ever self-important official showed up.

Harry Potter might be increasingly unwelcome at the Ministry, but they could do little officially to stop him. He was a private citizen, working for his own business, and had enormous support from the rank and file elements in the Ministry, just not the current crop in charge. It hadn't helped that Harry repeatedly called the government's missteps into question to a rabid press that still leapt to print what Potter uttered. Wonder how much longer that could last, Harry thought.

Harry puffed out his cheeks and blew out air in fustration at the blank parchment. He insistently wrote “Dear Madam” and stopped to compose his first sentence. He looked back up at the Ginny portrait. In any event, Potter had worriedly needlessly about the desk pictures. The portrait Dumbledore had laughed delightedly along with portrait Ginny, and forbid Harry from removing his wife's picture unless a client was in the room. Harry's chagrin at first quickly changed to mutual chuckling, and it helped after a bad day to come in and laugh with his two pictures for a few minutes.

Merlin, would this morning end? The letter was going nowhere. Where the heck was Ron? He usually showed up about now.




Ronald Weasley strolled confidently up the street. Ron was no longer a skinny red-headed teenager, but well muscled man in his mid-twenties. His now filled-out frame rolled past the rebuilt shop windows of Diagon Alley, and the passers-by would call out to him in happy acknowledgment that law and order was present and the Voldemort regime was truly dead. Most of them, anyway. In any case, it was a Friday, and the usual routine was laxer than normal. The chief had growled at them, but had given Ron's partner Luddy and he the day off, for successfully catching a perpetrator the night before.

Ron was still a relative rookie copper (Harry's penchant for Muggle TV terms still baffled Ron; why would an auror be called a piece of metal?), but he was already a seasoned veteran from his recent war experience by the time he aced the auror exam. His new wife, Hermione, privately believed the new government had finessed the test results, in order to influence the best friend of Harry Potter. Guess they didn't know him very well. Hermione didn't know Ron turned down a number of bribes and had truly passed almost every question with little difficulty (really, who needed to know how to fight off giant spiders, Ron thought with a shudder!)

He didn't have his brothers' Bill or Charlie massive shoulders, but Ron was taller, more a cross between the twins and the older two roughnecks. A few years had put some weight on all of them, even George and his remaining brother, Percy. Who knows what Fred would have been like.

That thought was truly depressing, he thought, don't go there Ron. Every day he got up in the morning, Ron saw his dead brother Fred's face, enshrined on his parents' fireplace mantle. Fred's death was obsessing his mother, even seven years on, giving the Weasley family home a perpetual funereal aire. Ron made a private vow his own house would only have the portrait someplace he couldn't look at it first thing in the morning.

Ron missed the practical jokes most, he thought. Fred's twin, George, just didn't seem to have the heart for them. Not ones that were funny, that is. Some were tinged with touch of meanness, especially towards poor Percy, the brother with the least sense of humor of the clan. Not that he was especially targeted, that Ron could see, but Percy avoided the rest of the family apart from major holidays. Embarrassment for years past, maybe but George didn't help.

Ron would have to have a word with his jokester of a brother.

Hermione was a true gem. She was putting up living at the Burrow with her new in-laws, knowing what a trial it was to be around Molly Weasley. It never seemed to get better, and the sooner Ron and Hermione were out on their own, the quicker the slow ache of agony at his brother's death would at least pass into the background. Mom just wouldn't let go, and it was punishing Dad, Ron thought as he pounded out footsteps walking on the cobble stones past George's joke shop.

George Weasley was sweeping out his store, by the front door, and waved a half-hearted greeting, “The Cannons lost another, Ron, that's another galleon you owe me.”

Ron had been about to say hello, but immediately clammed up and kept on walking to Harry's. George did not want to talk, in any case. Hence his quick jibe about the Chuddley Cannon's epic defeat. His solemn visage showed he too couldn't get past missing Fred. But he didn't go on about it, like Mum, Ron mused, just had an unerring instinct to rub yet another failure by Ron's favorite Quidditch team.

Ron moved effortlessly to the next doorway. Harry's detective office was in the upstairs flat, and Ron clumped up the stairs. Should get Harry a better sign, out front, Ron resolved yet again. The Quidditch snitch pictured in the glass window was too small, and it magically flitted about -like a snitch, naturally- and was difficult to see clearly. It wouldn't be a problem, except that snitch was the only item that had Harry's name on it, and was impossible to read unless the person stood like a gormless troll for ten or fifteen minutes. The whole effect was that the sign advertised someone, possibly named, worked at training at least one small flying insect. Not good advertisement!

“Halloo, in the office.” Ron stumped upstairs.

“Hello Mr. Weasley,” breathed Maddie Jones, the receptionist. She sat in a very conservative blouse, jeans, and light sweater. But her hair was -multi-colored? “Mr. Potter is expecting you.”

Ron spoke tentatively, not sure if he should comment on the quad-colored hair-do. Cut like an Egyptian princess. “Hey, Maddie, is he just starring out the window again?”

“As always,” She glanced at the closed door. That was usually a bad sign. “More, so, recently. How's Ludmilla?”

“Better. You know, sniffles, that's all.” That wasn't probably all. Ron's auror partner been out for several weeks, at a stretch, last spring. But she refused to talk about it, with Ron. He didn't want to pry. They were partners, but she kept a distinct distance from Ron and his friends. But maybe Madelene, the young witch they had rescued from kidnapping several years back, would have better luck. That was an idea!

“Maybe you could see her. Ask Bill or Harry or me to take you over. Think she doesn't want to talk to ….um, with me. Probably personal stuff, ...you know.” Ron had a suspicion, but that would stay with him. But he'd noticed even the fearsome Auror Desk Sergeant treated her almost ...gently, lately.

The whole idea gave Ron chills. He didn't like to think more about it.

As if his thoughts had leaked out to young Maddie, she soberly watched Ron for a few seconds, and then brightly chirped, “Oh, I'd like that. I'll go over straight after work.” But the enthusiasm seemed muted. Neither wanted to utter what it portended. “Go on in. He's needs a boot in the arse. Brooding about that 'Animal's' thing all summer,” Maddie shoved papers on her desk about, as if there was whole reems of things that needed attending to.

Ron knuckled a soft rap on the door, and was greeted with, “ 'bout time, this damned apologia about not finding this guy was going nowhere.” Maddie rolled her eyes, but Ron just shrugged back as he went on in, leaving the door open.

Harry sat back in his chair with obvious relief, simultaneously pushing face down a small picture on his desk, Potter had been nonchalant about it, but Ron was beginning to see people's unconscious behavior as better clues than their words. Wonder what that picture was?

“Was this the guy missing after end of the war? The one whose wife looked like Goyle and shrieked like Seamus's banshee?”

“That's her.” Harry ruffled his perpetually uncombed black hair. It was longer again. Seemed a compensation for Ginny's now short bob, Ron reflected. Harry went on,“I have been trying to say I am sorry, ma'am, without actually cheering the guy on faster.”

“Amen, brother”

“Lunch?”

Ron nodded. “Hermione and Ginny are coming by, said they had to stop and get Teddy.”

“Andromeda's been sick again.” Harry sighed. “It never seems to get easier for her, poor woman.”

Ron bit back that Harry had done everything he could, except actually take the now 7 year-old permanently in his care. It didn't need to be said. “I know how he loves his grandma,” Ron softly said, glancing at Dumbledore's approving nod.

“So,” Ron clumped his boots onto the edge of the evil desk as he plopped down in a chair. Change the subject, Ron, “Is that the only case?”

“Yeah, summer vacation is in full swing. Nobody has a care in the world.” Harry looked up, “Off-duty?” At Ron's nod, Harry began searching his fearsomely decorated old desk drawers.

A distant boom thundered from next door, rattling the window behind Harry. What Moody would have said for Harry to have his back exposed like that, Ron thought. Out loud, he said, “George testing the love potions again?”

“Merlin help us! If that was a love potion, we'd have to chain down the entrance to Diagon Alley. Harry rustled in his lower desk drawer, digging through piles of junk for the shot glasses. “No, I think he just lets one or two off every so often, because he can't stand the quiet.”

“You didn't have to move next door. He'll be alright.”

“He's my brother now, too. And George's not fine. He lives alone, never goes out, has no other friends except Lee Jordan, and us, of course. You and the rest all pretend, and stare off into the room corners, and Hermione and I have to constantly restart the conversation.”

“When are you going to get better furniture? This stuff looks like it was kept in a crypt and then rejected as too horrible.” Ron breezed on as if nothing was said.

Point taken. Didn't want to talk about it. Harry accepted the obvious change of subject and handed Ron a shot glass, and busied with the second. They softly clinked glasses, so as not to be obnoxiously blatant. Maddie was studiously pretending not to know what they were doing.

“I'll have you know these are Black family heirlooms,” Harry stated with mock self importance.

“Explains it. The axe wounds on the front look like it was Buckbeak's teether.”

“Git.”

“Prat.”

“Isn't this charming. Britain's finest showing off their elegant education, yet still maintaining a relaxed atmosphere.” The drawling, hated voice echoed from the still open door. Lucius Malfoy swept through like the royalty he felt he was.

Ron thundered upright, spilling the shot of mead on himself, the chair, and Harry. The reflex to slash with his holstered wand was so powerful he almost bit his lip trying to control his snarl.

“Malfoy.” Ron said. It came out sounding far stupider, to Ron's ear. He wished he could match that sneering condescension.

“Auror Weasley. So nice to finally see one about. There never seems an auror available, when we call. Good to know they are ...at ease.” Lucius eyed the empty shot glass in Ron's hand.

Who set it down, with forceful patience and, from Harry's perspective, a visible struggle not to shove it elbow deep up that sneering nose.

But Ron was only human, and the words tumbled out. “What do you want here, Malfoy? I can't give you charming. How about humility, or decency?”

Malfoy was taken back by Ron's belligerence. He had little right to be surprised, thought Harry.

Harry had stood up as well, effortlessly, but not with the naked anger of Weasley.

“I merely wish to engage Mr. Potter as an investigator. There have been some items missing from the estate, and the Ministry seems unable to send a man. The aurors don't seem to respond to my calls.” A dig at Ron! Had Malfoy finally gone insane?

The faint sound of fart, then a girlish giggle floated softly from underneath a small picture face down on Harry's desk. It was a true expression of Harry and Ron's appreciation of Malfoy's plight, but Ron wondered briefly why Harry had a picture of someone being flatulent. Dumbledore's portrait, sitting reading what looked like an ancient copy of the Daily Prophet, shrugged with exaggerated bemusement at Malfoy, probably irritating the stuck-up traitor even more that Ron had.

“I'll leave you, then, Harry,” Ron slowly moved toward the door. Memory of Hermione's screams were echoing off the inside of his skull. The war was over, Ron chanted to himself, moving to the door, not deigning to notice Malfoy edging out of the way. “The girls should be coming up the street, soon.” He wanted to throttle the man. Best I left the room.

“It won't take long,” Malfoy smiled, falsely, but with his famous fake sincerity. ”I wouldn't want to intrude.”

“I'll be down in a few minutes, Ron” Harry called back to his friend, slowly easing the wand in his shirt sleeve back under the cuff. He thought for a second he'd have to stun one or both the men, but then concentrated onto the now aged Malfoy, still elegant, but looking tired and less affluent.

“Madelene! You are supposed to announce any visitors,” Harry called out to the office front room.

“Sorry, Mr. P,” she called back, doing her nails. Harry thought it probably wasn't her fault, Lucius had just walked straight in from the stairs. The door had been open, after all.

Harry unconsciously kneaded his eyes. “'S'all right.”

“Quite some upholstery here,” Malfoy gleeful waved to the desk, but glancing back leeringly to doorway, “you don't see this kind of workmanship in England much these days.” He gracefully dropped onto the other, drier chair.

“What do you wan....” Harry himself ground his lips shut, and started over. “Sorry, what may I do for you Mr. Malfoy?” as he forced himself to sit. He wasn't really in the mood to banter about his fabulously beautiful but incompetent receptionist. Harry had prayed for deliverance from the other case. Was this his punishment? Was he reduced working for Voldemort's chief henchman?

Lucius eyed the Dumbledore portrait, who nonchalantly placed a small metal-framed sign in front of him that spelled 'mute', and continued reading what looked like a several year old issue of the Daily Prophet, dated from 1976.

Since Potter made no move to remove the picture, Malfoy had to assume it's presence meant confidentiality was assumed. Malfoy grew serious and sat back in the chair. His long, white-blonde hair, just so like Draco's, was looking a lot more silver grey than before. The walking stick he still affected no longer had the serpent head. That surprised Harry. Lucius's eyes watched Harry's reaction to the walking stick.

“No, no more snakes for me. I had my belly full of them, and my folly nearly killed my wife and son.” Malfoy said softly, still watching Harry like he expected to be attacked.

If Malfoy had just admitted he was the fairy queen of pansies, and the ghosts of Tom Riddle were riding in his hip pocket, Harry might have been less stunned. Lucius admitting Voldemort and company might have gone too far? Harry had no doubt Malfoy regretted everyone no longer worshiped the ground Malfoy walked. The rest was difficult to believe.

“The war is over, Harry. We lost,” Malfoy said self-deprecatingly. “It is sometimes good to be honest, even for me. Let us try to get through this. I have some items missing from the estate's guest house. I have no certain knowledge about how long they've been missing. Could be as long as.... well, several years.”

Dumbledore's portrait, out of direct sight of Lucius, ruefully shook his head and gave Harry a significant wink. Of course it was listening. The picture had been sure there was something Malfoy needed and wanted in an urgent way, otherwise he'd never be here. This was the heart of the matter. Malfoy wanted something.

“Okay,” Harry said with forced patience,”let me have a list of the items and I'll check the pawn shops. Quite a few of the older family estates have been pinched. You wouldn't have been unique.”

“I appreciate it. I'll leave the list with your delightful secretary.” There was a silence for a few moments. Harry sadly wondered how much was silently uttered in that void. He could think of very little he wanted to say to the old villain, the ex-Death-eater.

Malfoy looked pained, not as self-assured as before. “There is another thing we could speak of. I have no claim on you. You've already shown more mercy than the rest of Ri..Ri...Riddle's gang would have shown in a thousand years.”

This was a banner day, Harry pondered. An ex-Death-eater uttering Voldemort's real name with disdain! He was beginning to worry what was in Malfoy's back pocket.

“Could you occasionally speak to Draco?” escaped Lucius's lips.

What did he say? Harry stared back blankly.

Malfoy cocked his head, like a bird of prey, puzzled over a rabbit's truculent defiance. “His loneliness is compounded by his exile to our estate. Draco sees no one. No one comes calling. That might change if the one he thought his greatest foe was seen to converse with him. Treat him decently. Others might reciprocate.”

“I stopped being Draco's enemy. Don't ever want that to continue,” Harry quietly murmured, looking away from Malfoy. “Kept of his way, said nothing against him, or you for that matter. We owe each other nothing.” Harry sighed. Why wouldn't they just let the dead rest. “Sure, if you'd like. But I suspect it will be awfully one-sided.”

“Fair enough.” Lucius Malfoy clapped his hand on a knee and rose upward, leaning on his walking staff a little more than he had needed to in the past. Lucius was still a tall man, unbent, and would remain so to the end, Harry thought, despite what he had done to himself.

“I could ask no more of you. I think it would surprise you to know we are more in your debt than you believe.” Lucius looked like he wanted to say more, but was quickly aloof once more. “I will then bid you, adieu, Mr. Potter.” The once finely tailored coat was also looking a little rough at some edges, as Malfoy began gliding out of Harry's office.

Harry's massive reservoir of sympathy was at odds with the imaginary roaring beast in his chest. Malfoy had tried to kill or imprison all of them. Had possessed Ginny with Riddle's diary/Horcrux. Had nearly turned Harry over to Voldemort, and should have been in Azkaban or worse.

Because this was how you wanted it, Potter! Stop the cycle of endless revenge seeking, wasn't that your high-minded speech in front of the Wizangamoot, seven years ago. But he had never thought his old tormentors would be back, asking for his help.

Malfoy stepped out, raising his cane to salute Maddie Jones, while dropping off several sheets of paper into her little used in-box. Then he was gone out the downstairs door.

“How about that, Albus?” Harry said numbly to the desk portrait.

The portrait had watched the disgraced wizard glide down the distant stairs, craning his neck as if he could easily see Harry's office past the edge of the picture frame. Probably always could! But he remained silent in Malfoy's presence. Wizard portraits were common place, but were not the same as the ones from the Hogwart's headmaster's tower. Nobody except a close few understood this portrait was as real as the Hogwart's original.

In fact, it was the Hogwart's picture, but that was beside the point.

Dumbledore's always calm, whisper-like voice eventually said, “Something remarkable happens to old enemies, Harry. In the end, they sometimes find they are the only people that they have in common. The only ones still left to talk to. You are still standing after the long fight. That makes you worthy of respect to Lucius's world view. Maybe his attitudes truly have changed. Maybe he truly cares for a son he put in dreadful peril. I pray that is the case.”

“It all makes me sick at heart, Albus. They never let me forget.”




[Diagon Alley]

Ginny Potter and Professor Hermione Granger-Weasley arrived a short time later. In fact, Teddy Lupin, Harry's godson, arrived a good half-minute ahead of the women, stridently crying out to most of central London that “Ginny and 'Mione were here, Harry.”

The muffled far away correction 'are here' by Hermione's distinctive voice, was blithely ignored and fifty pounds of pure energy blew up the stairs and dragged Harry back down. “Starved... girls talk to much…and move too slow.”

“Amen to that, little friend,” Ron said from the porch in front of his brother George's Wizarding Wheezes joke store, as he scooped Teddy upside down by the ankles. Squeals of delight came forth, simultaneously with demands for instant release.

They were all lucky Teddy wasn't allowed to use magic, yet.

Ron glanced to Harry, with an unspoken question about what went on with Malfoy. Harry shook his head, he'd explain later.

“Gosh, I can't keep up,” puffed Ginny Potter. “If ours has this kind of staying power, I'm doomed.” Ginny was radiantly beautiful, thought Harry, despite her now short hair cut. Harry liked it long but he'd never criticize. She said it would be easier to deal with once the baby arrived, and who was he to argue.

Ginny slowly moved into his embrace. They kissed and he helped her down onto the chair Ron pulled out from George's store. Again, George waved from the back, but said nothing, and soon there a was a foot-hopping detonation somewhere below them that had Hermione, hurrying up, looking nervously at the wall.

“Why does George do that? He is going to take out half the Alley one day and us with him.” She glanced into the store, but all she could see was a faint puff of smoke fading away from the back room curtain.

Ginny and Ron uncomfortably looked at each other and then asynchronously said, “He's fine.” Harry knew enough about the family that discussion was not what they wanted and he hoped Hermione would take the hint. His new sister-in-law was a gifted mind, the most brilliant witch of her age some said, but had uncommonly poor talent for understanding people's silence about death. The Weasley's didn't want to discuss their feelings. Only Hermione did.

“Well, shall we go,” Harry said bracingly, “Let's try the new place with the Italian menu.” Prodding Teddy he began hustling people back into the alley.

“I just got here,” Ginny protested. “The fifty stone of child you got me with has been punching my bleeding bladder all morning.” But she knew already it was futile, as Teddy escaped and charged up the street screaming he wanted “the Machiavelli platter and a Borgia popsicle!”

“Potter,” she said, “I love you, but if junior here (patting her stomach) is like that, you are waking up a falsetto.”

Ron and Hermione roared with laughter, and Harry alarmingly and melodramatically covered himself.

“Wonder if the castle would loan me a cod piece,” Harry said.

“Wouldn't help,” Ginny panted back up to her feet, “I know what I'm doing.”

Ron and Harry both raised their eyebrows at that and wisely said nothing. Hermione kept chuckling though Ginny thought there was an odd edge to it. She'd have to ask her about that.

“Let's go before Teddy demands the 'Caesar' hot dog and finds out they don't have them in Italy,” said Hermione.

“No, why not?” said Ron. “Aren't they international?”

“No, Merlin's pants, the Italians are much more refined, Ron,” Hermione said, exasperated, “Hot dogs were central European snack food from the last century....”

“Oh, boy,” Harry muttered under his breath to Ginny. “I think I have heartburn.”

“Steady on, love. Think of England.” She looked up at his distant face; he wasn't keeping eye contact and smelled faintly of whiskey or maybe mead. Drinking, this early! Oh, please let me find a way into his head. She knew she wasn't unique in wanting to read her husband's thoughts, but Ginny had genuine worries about Harry. He was increasingly silent in company, and ever increasingly sought solitude, even at home.

She said nothing as she focused on the distance up the street to the new restaurant. This wasn't the place to interrogate Harry. Let's all pretend everything fine. Ginny promised herself to get to him at home.



  
[Diagon Alley restaurant]

Lunch went surprisingly well, in that hordes of murderous Death-eaters didn't appear, the table didn't open up into a dragon's maw, and there wasn't a spider to be seen (Ron occasionally glanced under the tables and up at the corners of the old building beams, when he thought the others weren't looking) It was relaxing, all things considered, the Potters and Weasleys were almost the sole customers.

The small tornado they had adopted, Teddy Lupin, was appeased by the showering of attention by the Italian family that had moved in to open up the restaurant, and he was polishing off a second or third bowl of an ice cream-like dessert. The easy chatter had tapered off to grateful silence as the four adults watched the lovely boy rapturously lick off the bowl. All four wished to do whatever they could for their slain comrades' child, probably to the point they had spoiled him rotten.

Hermione watched all. Ginny to one side was randomly grunting softly, feeling different sides of her stomach as Harry's baby was pounding out some sort of unseen rhythm. Ginny was perpetually tired, and Hermione suspected Harry was not as supportive as he should be. Ginny's obvious visage of nonchalance was a terrible act, Hermione thought grimly. Ginny furtively glanced over at Harry (who said little during lunch), and she had looked alarmed when he initially wanted to take the meal back to his office. Ginny's ability to talk him away from the idea showed she still had her power over him, but Harry fidgeted and softly drummed the table, all the while looking distant.

Ron, Hermione fatalistically reasoned, was no help. He had just polished off a massive sandwich the length of his arm in record time. She ached at not being able to do better at home and knew he ate hugely at lunch in order to tide him over her culinary disasters. Domestic duties had never had much appeal to a smart young woman like Hermione, and she had never troubled to learn much from her own parents. With a non-participatory Molly slowing fading with grief, both Arthur and Ron valiantly pitched to help in the kitchen, when Hermione asked, and loudly and unconvincingly sucked in every burnt crumb she dished out. It was their touching determination not to hurt her feelings that was keeping her going. They also went out to eat a lot.

And SPEW, Hermione's pet cause for elf rights, was causing problems for Ron. Both men tossed in comments about how much better elf-human relations were now, and they leapt at any and every offer of dinner at someone else's home. That she did, too, was a guilty relief to her that wisely was not commented upon by the male Weasleys. She knew the others thought she was a little extreme in rejecting any elf service in her house. Hermione was grateful the Weasley's pretended to agree. She knew Harry didn't. He liked to call-in Kreacher, the Grimauld Place's elf, in her presence, just to goad her when she would try to get him to loosen up. Very adult, Harry!

Ron brushed crumbs off his beautifully stark auror cloak with equanimity. He didn't feel it necessary to talk during lunch. He relished the quiet companionship but was not as blithely ignorant of the tension around the table as the others supposed. He just didn't like old buildings with dark nooks and crannies, too many places for the bugs that gave him nightmares.

Ronald Weasley had long since found it useful to be taken for the slow-witted, silent boon companion of the most famous wizard alive, and watch what others said and did. Harry's fame could have been a corrosive barrier to Ron, except that other people continuously mistook Ron's silence for stupidity while focusing on Harry and Hermione. Let 'em, that was really okay with me. His marriage and the brief exile away from his friends during the war had burned out the jealousy, mostly, and he didn't worry so much now about what people thought of him. Jealousy had nearly destroyed his chances with Hermione, and came close to costing Harry his life. The guilt over both was why he wouldn't let it get to him. (okay, he admitted to himself, it still bugged him his sister Ginny had played professional Quidditch and Ron hadn't.)

Ron was worried about the others. Hermione had that distant, faraway look he liked to call the “Librarian Mating Song,” when they were in private, that is. She had been a little subdued yesterday, but had brightened up this morning, obviously planning something. His sister Ginny was fighting a losing battle over her inner space; Hermione and he would be taking Teddy for the evening, it was fairly plain. And she was as worried about Harry as ever.

Harry was as fun as a troll at a tea party. He lamely entered in a few feeble comments when the others were chatting, mostly consisting of 'yeah', 'brilliant' and 'I should get back to work soon'. He really needed to get away for some guy-time, Ron decided.

Harry's one man detective agency was a mistake of the highest order, Ron had decided. It just reinforced his tendency for solitude, and kept him away from general contact. The other aurors kidded Ron, some not so gently, that the most qualified man alive to police the magical community was refusing repeated offers to join, and instead spending his days looking for missing owls or lucky runaway husbands (Ron had met Harry's client 'ogress', and wasn't so sure she wasn't one).

Why Harry kept a distance from the auror department, nevertheless, Ron understood all too well.

It put Harry beyond the government's touch, Weasley knew. Harry had been the one to plant the idea of aurorship in Ron. But when the government changed hands from Kingsley Shacklebolt, it was pretty apparent the newcomers had just wanted Harry's endorsement and his silent submission. As long as Potter was outside a government job, and independently wealthy, the buggers (albeit non-Voldermort tainted buggers) couldn't do too much to him.

Ron was still sad about Harry missing out on something he would shine at effortlessly.

This had to be ended. Harry decided. He was completely fine. The three most loved ones in his life were driving him crazy. He was just preoccupied with ending the case with the woman who could have been the blue print of the original, perfect Howler complaint letter.

Ginny obviously wasn't feeling well, why wouldn't she go home?

Hermione was perpetually in search of getting in touch with Harry's 'inner most feelings', not to mention S.P.E.W! Pah!, Harry was beginning to enjoy calling Kreacher in for trivial requests in Hermione's presence (he was catching Ginny's guilty spasm of pleasure, more and more frequently, when the elf cracked into existence, not to mention Ron's look of pure longing.)

Ron's persistent campaign to get Harry to open up was indeed wearing Harry down. Not unlike a unrelenting werewolf pack chasing down a lone vampire, Weasley was quietly working at Harry the futility of being a magical private eye for clientel that used magic to hide any and all clues.

“Why don't I take Teddy,” Harry announced, rising up with finality. “You are about to fall asleep, sweetheart, and nothing is going on at work. Come on, let's go.”

“Thank you,....okay.....fine.....yes, I could use a good session of petrification by that basilisk. Do you suppose Teddy gets it from his father? I never noticed Remus this hyper, or Tonks.”

“We never really got much of a chance to know them,” Hermione said sadly. “Who knows what a young Remus was like. I suspect Tonks was always Tonks.”

The four quietly laughed at the memory of Tonks, able to change her shape into comical animals, for their amusement. But as they paid, it just made Harry's melancholy worse. Harry was seeing brief mental flashes of his father's friend as Harry had known him. The one that dominated, unfortunately, was Remus's anguished, battered face after he had told them his unborn son would be better off without Remus Lupin. It had been one of last conversations Harry had with his father's old friend.

Harry and the others had been confronting Remus, when they were just minutes from joyously reuniting with an adult after the attack on the Bill and Fleur wedding party at the Burrow. It was not the one appropriate for this present moment of friendship, but it was source of profound regret to Harry.  Harry had chased him away, accusing Lupin of abandoning his family. One of many memories that seem to rise unbidden when the others mentioned the old days.

Why not the good ones, Harry mentally whined to himself.

He said nothing, crushing the Grimauld Place kitchen scene back into what he thought of as his mental 'mokeskin bag'. If he could just keep them from popping out on their own.

Ginny was glancing up at him again, when she thought he wasn't looking. I'm alright, for Merlin's sake, Harry wished she would stop watching him. He was not going to explode into a demon (Oh, yeah, he had forgot to ask Ron how that one went!)

The group herded the young Lupin out into the street. Not unbeknownst to the other three, but intimately familiar, Hermione took charge, enacting the unvoiced consensus by the others that Harry wouldn't watch Teddy for long, and the denizens of Diagon Alley would be cursing the Potters and Weasleys even more than usual if she didn't take command.

“Hello, everyone. Hi, Teddy” That dreamy voice could belong to only one person, as the Potter-Weasley group moved back down the street toward Harry's office. Luna Lovegood was coming the other way, followed dutifully by a small mountain of packages on two legs that soon turned out to be Neville Longbottom.

“Guys,” a muffled Neville murmured somewhere under the boxes. “Gosh Ginny, you look beat..... oh no!” as some of the items on top began to spill. Ron, Harry and Teddy dived to catch some, Teddy to gleefully start tearing the one open.

Between snatching packages away from Teddy, who seemed to have more hands than an octopus, greetings were exchanged all around though it was only a month since they had gathered last. Harry watched Neville fondly, took heart their other professor in the group kept company (was dating the right word for slavish beast of burden?) with Luna on his own without being “set up” by the girls. It was a ironic twist that Neville was considered more of a hero of the final battle over Voldermort by the available witches than Harry. The fact the “Three” had spent a good portion of the awful year in hiding, out of sight, while Neville played the piňata to the Death-eater occupiers at Hogwarts Castle no doubt added to Longbottom's allure.

And Harry was, of course, not 'available'.

Harry never doubted Neville was the best man he knew, and didn't begrudge him in the least his small army of admirers. That Neville chose to be with Luna only heartened Harry. Wonder if they are really a couple, Harry started to think. Nice symmetry to that!

“Did you eat lunch at the new place? They are such great cooks for being narco-terrorist mer-people. Have you found a solution to Harry's mental problems?” Luna served out seamlessly.

Ron was ready to chuckle, having grown fond of Luna's blithely delivered non sequiturs and devastatingly honest 'things-that-should-not-be-said-in-public'. The other three all looked briefly dazed, but quickly adjusted. The conspiracy theories Luna seemed to believe were endless and seemingly overlapped like fish-scale armor plate. The classmates were all used to it, though the uninitiated believed (wrongly) that Luna was an idiot. She was admittedly odd but not an idiot. There was steel hidden beneath those vapid eyes.

The girls immediately began silently messaging each other significantly. A fact and ability Harry could find in no magical textbook he had ever seen. What a minute, “Hey, what do mean my...”

“Aw Harry, my boy. I was just looking for you.” from behind the girls. The rotund and jolly Mr. Walsh, the Alley's self-appointed community organizer rolled up. “Do you have some time for the chamber of commerce?”

Interrupted, Harry just dazedly said, “Of course, sir, let me get some of the things still on my desk out of the way.” This day was fast degenerating. Walsh was a bad guy, but a colossal windbag. Harry would nevery get away.

“No rush, Harry. Ladies! Hello, Ronald, is Arthur getting on? Haven't had a word in ages. …” the rest grew into a general conversation blur for Harry, as he began daydreaming again about being alone

Abruptly, Teddy finished shredding open two boxes he could get access to, cried out “no toys, ew, this is boring.” He did this while waving a white piece of cloth in frustration, but that cloth locked everyones attention at once. The cloth was woman's underwear.

Quite beautiful, if Ron had to say so himself, not that he'd seen many.

“Oh, thank you so much.” Luna gasped, reaching quickly for the panties. Her usual dreamy look had vanished, being replaced with a beautiful light pink blush shade that would have been negligible to a Weasley, but stood out on her like a beacon.

“Neville,” asked Hermione innocently (but with a wicked gleam in her eye), “do all of her undergarments have the little yellow flowers around the waist band, or are there more colours?”

The part of Neville they could see, mainly his forehead, turned glowingly red, the eyebrows rocketed up, and his one visible eye was now frantically wider than Luna's ever were. Inarticulate “uh... well....I ...” murmured from behind the packaging, as the 'Eye' urged Luna to succeed, swiftly, so it could die in merciful oblivion.

Chuckles were barely suppressed as Luna seized the panties from an uncomprehending Teddy and tried to unsuccessfully vanish them behind her back. They didn't mean to be cruel, just gently poking fun at the easily flustered Neville.

“You young scamp,” the less restrained Mr. Walsh guffawed, “Don't we all wish we could be wild young pups like you.”

Walsh meant no harm. Harry knew this intellectually, and, ordinarily, would have laughed it off as unknowingly inappropriate. That is had Harry not just been thinking of Remus's torment, reliving his own guilt at driving Remus out of Grimauld Place in rage, Teddy having to grow up an orphan, and a possible werewolf, to boot.

He's not some dog, you pompous windbag, he's my godson!” Harry said, unable to hold back. At least he thought he said, because everyone had ceased talking, were staring at him, and Teddy was quietly backing away behind Neville.

The change over Harry was appalling, Hermione thought. Sounds seemed to have died away all around in Diagonally, and the very air around him seemed to darken while his eyes shown forth punctuating the shout. Ron had stopped in mid-laughter with his mouth still hanging open, and the girls were frozen in posture to stare in shock. Then it was gone, and Harry looked stricken.

“I'm …. sorry, Mr. Walsh, so..... didn't mean to say... forgive m.......” Again, the change was heart-wrenching. Harry looked sincerely anguished (had he known he was reaching for his wand! Hermione gasped), and Harry stammered there looking like he wanted to suck the echoing words and himself back into the void as if they had never happened. The old man had no idea what he had done, looking smaller and much like a wounded animal paralyzed by a fear of a giant scorpion.

“Harry?... darling?....” Ginny gently touched down on Harry's arm locked in the act of wand grasp (only his close companions knew he kept it in a special sleeve sown along his fore arm.) “It's... it's okay.”

“I know I didn't mean it, damn it,” Harry snapped

Again, Hermione thought her heart was about to seize, and Ginny's expression froze between earnest concern and instant fury. George appeared with dust mop in hand, quizzically looking to find out what the noise was (that was irony!).

Hermione frantically groped for something to say, do, enchant, you name it, to diffuse the confrontation, all in fractions of a second.

A low growling sound, like very far away thunder in the mountains, or distant ocean surf was coming from somewhere nearby, but just as Hermione was localizing its source as Ginny, Ron bellowed, “Don't you shout at her, you …... Why don't you bloody …... that up your.....” His actual words were a lot more descriptive, but Hermione punched him in the shoulder and pointed at seven-year Teddy watching Ron in rapt attention, so he stopped

.It didn't get much more educational from there, but Harry's cold look back at Ron could have frozen time itself. That Voldemort must have seen that look at the last moment...., an idle part of Hermione pondered

Great time for Ron to act the overprotective brother. What could go wrong next?

“He's very serious, now. Did we miss something about canine-nargle infestation?” Oh, Luna, for the love of ..

Swiveling her head, Ginny was dazedly focusing her attention like a thunder bolt on Luna, from Harry, who was trying to master himself under Ron's onslaught of earthy auror terms. Someone was going to die. It was probably Ron. Maybe Luna.

What is wrong with these people. Must they always snipe at one another, Hermoine wondered with resignation. Very well, guess I have to separate them like the lone adult.

Idly, she saw Hagrid, the half-giant school groundskeeper, walking toward them from the Alley entrance at the Leaky Cauldron tavern. A small pair of legs was waving from under his arm. Teddy! He must have escaped in the last few moments. Maybe she could use this as a distraction. Here goes.

“GIRLS, I am so glad to see you. We haven't had a chance in ages. Must talk, come on with me to the Cauldron, straight away. Boys, we will be there for a few minutes of ladies-chat. Be right back. Hagrid, could you be a dear and hold on to Teddy. Ta, Ta...” All this was uttered in a rapid-fire stream of syllables, overloud to Hermione's own ears, while simultaneously frog-marching Ginny, grabbing Luna by the other hand, and nodding to Hagrid as she moved the women in the opposite direction.

A virtuoso performance, if she thought so herself.

“Did you lose, this un...” The half-giant was just coming close to the group, carrying Teddy under an arm pit (the boy was about the size of a new kitten to Hagrid), and stammering to a halt as an accelerating Hermione towed the uncomprehending Luna and scarlet-faced Ginny away from the pointless argument.

Hagrid stammered, “But I'm ha' to go to Gring... ah.... all ri... come on lad. All ri' fellas, Harry?, Ron? Be back in a few.”

The rapidly receding women were watched by a still sputtering Ron and a frozen Harry. Walsh had retreated the other direction and was making his escape, while Hagrid lumbered on after him, telling Teddy tucked under his arm, who had stopped fighting, “you'll love it in t' caverns, all sorts of interesting creatures, and Goblins, ho,ho, you've never seen the like.....”

“What...why.....how.....” Harry began in starts and stops, and then his face closed in on itself. Ron instantly forgot his anger, something he was uniquely capable of, and looked rapidly from the women to Neville to Harry to Hagrid's diminishing hulk.

Hermione somehow had rotated her head to stare at Ron, while simultaneously walking/marching straight away, and communicated to Ron via various and nuanced eye rolling and head shakes to stay with Harry. At least, that was what he thought he should do.

Neville, with resignation at long accustomed to being forgotten, dutifully followed Hermione, Ginny and Luna, with a half-hearted hand-gesture to the men to communicate his ambivalent reluctance to part with Harry, relief to be fleeing, and profound gratitude that everyone had forgotten Longbottom had not denied knowing what color underwear Luna wore.

Ron was long practiced at this. Too many times, Harry lost it and immediately wished to expunge his guilt by retreating as far and securely as possible to pummel himself with self loathing. Both sides, if that was the military term, had left the field. Harry walked silently back into his office entrance and took several steps at a time on the way up, Ron close behind, waving at George to go back inside. As if on cue, George patted his back pocket and another low level earthquake rocked the region.

All this happened in seconds.




[Leaky Cauldron pub]

The 'ice pick'-like headache was beginning to make her eyes cross, Hermione decided. She sat in the far corner booth of the Leaky Cauldron, between a oddly-recovered Ginny, as well as Miss Lovegood, who was once again staring around space and customers like she had never been there before. Neville had brought up the rearguard but now sat separately at the bar, wondering at what just happened. And if he could become invisible like Harry.

Tom the Bartender brought a beer, a juice and an ice water to the women without asking. Hermione was slightly trembling with adrenaline, and did not respond to the bartender's quizzical look.

Ginny proceeded to switch the glasses around; taking the juice, giving Luna the beer (hoping she'd get drunk), and shoving the water to Hermione, waving off Tom.

This finally seemed to snap Professor Granger-Weasley out of it, and she refocused on a now calmly expectant (in every broad sense of the term) Ginny Potter.

Luna had begun listening in on the adjoining booth's occupants and was beginning to participate in a dialogue about newspaper reporters being really disguised vampires, having lost interest in the girl talk they never had.

“When are you going to tell him?” Ginny levelly and with aplomb stared into Hermione's eyes.

Hermione stared back, but then began to softly chuckle, eyes brightly beginning to tear. “Alright...okay...yes, just haven't had the moment. Tested myself yesterday. Waiting for us to be together. Thought this afternoon would be a happy occasion. Oh, well...” that last had begun to taper off into a inevitable sob.

Ginny smiled with genuine relish. This was too good, but first things first. She had to get Hermione back in one piece. Ron was predictably ignorant of what's coming his way.

“Come on and drink. It gets better. It just feels like your body has betrayed you. Ron should have 'His- Majesty-the-Bloody-Sorcerer' ready to grovel at our feet when we go back.”

“How come you aren't preparing to unleash certain death and destruction?”

“Because, for once, Harry finally unleashed this pent-upped rage. Just wished Harry hadn't scared the crap out of the local chairman of Magical Commerce and Thaumaturgy. Luckily, Teddy should be too happy traumatizing the poor Goblins to remember Harry's becoming the Demon-God-Incarnate. Blimey, we'd really ought to get Teddy out of there. Can't wait to see Ron's expression when you tell him.”

“He scared the hell out of me. You saw Harry's face. He was ready to hurt someone. The old man hadn't meant any harm?”

“No, he didn't, and Harry realized it. Harry held himself together, and we need to keep helping him do so. I want him to be a normal guy, not some piece of glass we have to dance around. If we treat Harry like an explosive, that will just drive him further away from people.” Ginny paused and said more seriously, “I didn't like being snapped at, but that's all it was. He'll dutifully make amends.”

Hermione sniffed, and took a big drink of water. “Sorry, your right. Been feeling volcanic all morning, myself. Want to giggle, scream, have a good cry, all at the same time.”

“It's the hormones. They'll ease off after awhile.”

“Hope so. Feel like a good tirade right now. Wonder where Ron learned such language.”

“Spoken truly by a girl without six brothers. And he probably gets new stuff from the other scary policemen. Come on, Hermione, lets go collect our cavemen. Make them remember the errors of their ways.”

Grimly still chuckling/sobbing, Hermione levered herself up and took a quick swig of Luna's beer (one last one) and took shark-grinned Ginny by the hand to pull her upright.

“Goodbye, Luna, we have to be going,” Ginny said cheerily, leaving some gold coins on the table, “I have to get back to stare nastily at Madelene.”

“Oh, nice to see you all. Thanks so much for getting us to the street. She is beautiful. Do you think she knows?”

Ginny laughed, and waved farewell, simultaneously realizing Luna had truly vanished the offending underwear out of sight some time between Harry's last bark and their sitting down at the bar. She wasn't that much of an airhead, her girlfriend, no indeed!

Taking Hermione's arm, but really being the one supporting-propelling her sister-in-law forward, they brushed by a gratefully forgotten Longbottom. “Stop wasting time,” Ginny whispered to his ear, patting him on the cheek and pointing her small chin in Luna's direction. And walked out like a woman fully expecting to see the most brilliantly staged theatre possible.





 [Harry's office]

Not so bad, really, pondered Ron. Things were improved, vastly.

Harry had sat down at his desk without saying much or acknowledging Weasley's presence, and Ron mostly just waited silently in one chair. Ron was never really good at the 'aw come-on, buck up' speeches; that had always been Hermione's forté. The occasional earthquake from George's business next-door explosions were making little bits of dust float downward.

Really must get George to tell what he was doing, before the neighbors really did call in the auror squad.

“Sorry, Ron.” Harry mumbled, playing with a quill and idly doodling.

Dumbledore's portrait also seemed to know how to do the eyeball communication thing, and was gesturing with slight headshakes for Ron to utter something in return.

“Yeah, s'all ri. Been waiting for it. Glad you got it out without splitting your pants or something.”

“Boob.”

“Twit.”

“Government stooge.”

“Capricious maggot brain.”

“Is that really what it means?” Harry said with a grin.

“Yeah, Look it up. Learn all sorts of things being an auror.”

They were chuckling lightly, voices carrying down the stairwell, when Ginny and Hermione finally got to the foot of the stairs. The women looked at each other, and breathed a joint sigh of relief.

“Thanks ever so much......Helping the pregnant woman.....Don't get up.” Hermione uselessly voiced sarcasm to the two still sitting men as the women made the top landing and waved to the buxom Ms. Jones.

Ron did finally vacate the chair and eased Ginny onto it.

“Oh wow, Harry. Is that a real television? Arthur would love to see it.” Hermione was picking her way through the typical Harry clutter, not wanting to be the one to revisit the 'incident'.

“It's his.” Harry was studiously relieved nothing was being said about his 'tirade' outside. “Couldn't make it work, he gave it to me when I moved in. You'd think by this time Arthur could stumble onto the concept of electricity. You just need to plug it in. The channels don't come in too great, I have to, er, adjust the reception.”

Meaning Harry had figured out a spell to pirate the signal off of the nearby Muggle department store around the corner from the Leaky Cauldron. He and Ron actually spent several hours a week after Ron got off shift, watching movies.

Ron loved the American Westerns but thought the Muggle stories involving magic way off base ('That long one, I mean, honestly, what kind of sod magic's his soul to a piece of jewelry and allows it to be bashed around by others and tossed into a volcano!') That delicious irony had nearly choked them with laughter, but it was a little too close to reality.

Hermione mentally sighed with relief, and said pleasantly to the room, “All set, then? Are we off to get Teddy, Ron?”

“Oh, yeah. Problem all solved. Nothin' too it.”

The change in Hermione was equally as stellar as Harry's outside had been. She'd had felt a good rant creeping upon her, and, why the hell not! “No problem? Right as rain? Have everything under control? Just patching up some spot leaks where the ice berg struck? Clear sailing all around? The wind at our backs? Got your friend to weep piteously at your knees for forgiveness? Thought everything through? Realized you Knocked Me Up! Mister-I-am-Prepared-For-Every-Eventuality?. Grasped the main chance by battling a Demon with two fellow knuckleheads? Survived to rush home to a worried woman grateful for not being left a widow? Dragged her to the tool shed so she could kiss with relief your entire sorry body while you left your protection upstairs? Given much thought to it, HMMMM.?”

Ginny Potter was wide-eyedly radiant, smiling with pure joy. This was the best present she had been given in a year. Just wait for her brother Bill to hear. She was sure George had (it had grown deathly silent again).

Harry was about to step in at this point, but Dumbledore made a imperceptible head shake, but then did a tiny flick of his visible hand toward the face-down portrait of Ginny on the far side of the desk.

Again, a muffled fart sound.

This, as designed, deflated the ramp up to criticality Hermione was headed toward. Ron's slack-jawed blankness oddly matched the peaked frenzy of Professor Granger-Weasley. They went well together.

“Baby?” He said numbly.

The fact dawned on her that she had just (Bellow the right word? How about peal or bombulate?) her most intimate secret to the wizarding neighorhood. Could she die of mortification, or was that oxy-moronic?

Professor Granger-Weasley gathered her things, and slowly processed with queenly dignity towards the door, not deigning to look at the voluptous Madelene, and gently, softly said, “Coming, Ronald?, I....We must get Teddy. Goodbye.”

Ron wisely said nothing but immediately followed at Hermione's heel.

“Wasn't that great?” Ginny whispered. Ron's stupefied countenance was gone, following Hermione down the stairs. “I haven't seen anything like that....”

She turned to see Harry smiling at her joy, and they shared a laugh.

“Feeling better, Mr. Potter?”

“Yes, hugely. Like a pyramid has floated off my chest, Mrs. Potter.”

“Been feeling you were the only one with worries, now?”

“No, but it is good to know Ron will soon know what this whole father thing will be like. I've been staring down the wand alone for seven years now with Teddy. And then you. Gosh, maybe this means Neville is next?”

“Have a very good feeling about that. Working on it. Shall we go?”

“Let me clean stuff up. The she-troll's letter can wait. Wonder if Hagrid survived down there?”

Another fart sounded.

“What in the world is on that picture?” Ginny reached through the papers toward the small frame.

In a flash, Harry remembered who he as with and the danger therein. He had to think of something, improvise!

“Just something to discourage unwanted clients. Something Dumbledore suggested. Used it on Malfoy”
Harry fired these out, sliding the picture through papers to the desk drawer. Something made of glass clinked.

“MALFOY? You mean Draco was here ......?” Ginny stopped. And pointed at the drawer and held her hand out.

He was caught. Nothing for it Harry thought. He'd probably have to have a portrait of his naked butt mounted at the front entrance at home. If he was lucky.

Harry reached, hand knocking the glass bottle again, and Ginny expressionlessly nodded. Did she mean she wanted a drink? She was a month due! He slowly pulled out the bottle, wondering if did she want a drink, he could magic Malfoy back to the room to make her spill it. It seemed the most plausible thing.

Ginny grasped the bottle neck from Harry, “This is just opened!” She said, “This is the one Hagrid gave you for Christmas.”

“Yeah, sure, Ron needed one after he came here from that demon appearance three weeks ago. Smelled like pure sulphur and shaking. Almost had to hold the glass for him. We were about to have some more today when Malfoy Senior walked in? Ron tossed it everywhere. Oh, by the way, I have a playdate now with Draco.”

“Thank you, thank you, dear God, ….....” She spoke to herself in a small voice, trailed off, and then more forcefully, “I worried you were in here with the wand to your head, polishing off the whiskey ...... what do you mean playdate .... never mind.” Ginny got up, and “Tell me later, I can't take anymore. I am going to find if they found Hagrid alive, or the Goblins have declared war. Coming?”

“Sure, I'll be down, let me close up.”

Ginny left, waving goodbye to Maddie Jones, who gave her a secret smile and tapped lightly her talon- like finger nails on her desk.



  
Not too bad, Harry decided. Everything had worked okay for him today, like the regretfully long departed 'good-luck' potion, except that is for the still missing runaway husband and having to pretend he missed Draco's brilliant voice. Those were minor, in the big scheme. No, not bad at all. Picture safe. Ron caught in the inevitable fatherhood trap. What else?

The detonation, when it happened, caught Harry half out the door. Ms. Jones was knocked to the far wall and yelped with a hand to her beautiful (Harry rethought) vulnerable backside where a splinter protruded.

A head-sized chunk of ceiling dropped between his two desk pictures, but the desk just shrugged it off as a weak effort, as if daring the building to do better. It had survived worse.

“Are you alright?” Harry shouted to Maddie. Or at least he thought he was. The ringing in his ears. He couldn't hear her reply but she gestured with one hand she was okay, and pointed toward the new hole in the wall and ceiling. The weak sunlight was coming in through the now mostly missing side wall of the office.

“George?, George?” Drat! Harry pointed the wand to his throat, and tried to peer out the splintered timbers through the new opening to Weasley's Whizarding Wheezes. Voice now magnified, “GEORGE!

“No problem,” weakly came up from far below, “bit too much on that last. Sorry! Fred was really the chemist. Carrying on..”

“Okay... alright....., we are okay up here.” Like George had given any thought to them.

Harry looked back at his office, now really a mess, and not just by his own hand. Harry clambered over to Dumbledore 's picture, but it was okay, and he slid it into the desk as being safer than out there.

What if his friends ...Ginny.. Teddy, had been standing …. this couldn't have been deliberate?.....no, stop being paranoid, Potter. George would die defending all of them, what possible motive.... Harry was really getting as bad as his deceased mentor, Moody. This was all just bad timing. Weasley was not paying attention to what he was doing much more than the twins had done at anytime in the past. There was no plot on Harry's life.

And his insane brother-in-law exploding house-wreckingly powerful spells just next-door! Oh yeah, Harry, great dinner-turner that would be at the next holiday. 'George tried to assassinate me, and slaughter his sister, brother, and potential nieces/nephews, Molly, please pass the potatoes.' Just the picture of George demonically laughing over their torn-apart bodies............

Harry helped Madelene Jones up, (carefully) dusted off the debris from her (admittedly too tight) outfit, and negligiently waved his wand at her small puncture wound in her posterior, popping the splinter away and healing the wound out of existence (trying not to look too closely at her injuries).

Demons, Why bring that up? This paranoia thing was getting out of hand. He had enough problems without jumping at shadows.

Well, that sacked it for the day, definitely, if not the week. So much for letter writing, but then he had just told Ginny he was done with that for the day, anyway.

And Harry had never met the demon, it was Ron, right? And he and his mates blasted the thing out of existence at three weeks ago. What would it have to do with Harry?

Well it could have been worse, at least it isn't raining?

It began to drizzle through the new hole over Harry's desk.

*


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