Ron gave a sigh of relief as the breakfast rush finished. He waved to Charlie as he headed out onto the dragon reserve. He had never given too much thought to what exactly Charlie did, but his first week on the reserve had opened his eyes. He had spent one day following Charlie around as he fed the dragons, made sure their enclosures were clean and in good repair, and moved one of the dragons up to the mountain enclosure. Ron had lost track of the number of charms Charlie had performed that he had never even heard of much less couldn't perform. It was certainly a long list.
The dragon keepers were involved in research and educating the local magical populace about the dragons. The reserve housed a large magical veterinary centre as well as a magical hospital that specialized in magical creature bites. In addition to the dragon keepers and medical staff, the reserve also employed a large support staff. Ron had never realized that house elves and dragons did not get along, so all of the functions that house elves normally performed had to be done by people. So Ron had found himself employed in the kitchen staff, which on consideration he found preferable to cleaning or laundry.
To his surprise, Ron was able to sign up for classes on the reserve. Most of the children of those working on the reserve were taught at home by their parents, but for more advanced classes, arrangements had been made for courses in Charms, Transfiguration, Medical Healing, and Care of Magical Creatures. The courses were self-paced and overseen by workers on the reserve. Ron had signed up for Charms and Care of Magical Creatures, which to his surprise he was enjoying.
After hearing from Hermione about all the work she'd put in to catch up with her course work at Beauxbatons, Ron was quite glad he'd not gone that route. Hermione had sent several letters telling him all about her classes, the school, and the friends she had made. He had made an effort to reply at least once after he'd arrived, telling her all about the reserve, but he had not responded to her latest letters.
Ron had spent a lot of time thinking about the events of the autumn. He acknowledged that he had not contributed as much as he should have to the hunt. The young wizard really did wish he could tell Harry how sorry he was, but he had to admit he was glad to be someplace where he was warm and had access to plenty of food. He also knew he was still a bit angry at Harry, although he wasn't even certain why. Harry had told them the truth and tried to talk them out of joining him. If Ron was being totally honest, he still felt guilty for leaving his best friend like that.
After working steadily through the morning and afternoon rush, Ron was ready to take his lunch break when his brother showed up in the dining room.
Making his way quickly over to his brother, Ron asked anxiously, "What's wrong?"
Charlie gestured for his brother to join him in one of the smaller conference rooms. Ron followed him, imagining all kinds of grim news his brother might need to share with him.
Sitting his brother down at the table, Charlie said, "Ron, I've heard from Bill."
When his brother paused, Ron couldn't take it. "Is everyone okay? Is someone hurt?"
"No one is hurt," Charlie hastened to reassure him. "You know that the Ministry announced that Ginny is wanted for questioning in the death of the Carrows?"
Ron nodded impatiently and Charlie continued, "I've heard from Dad and Bill and they both think that the Prophet is trying to discredit Harry and Ginny in any way possible."
"Okay," Ron said slowly. The Prophet had run several articles about the elusive couple. To the Weasleys' dismay, they had dredged up the events from Ginny's first year, hinting that Ginny was somehow tainted. Interviews with ever cooperative Slytherins painted Ginny as a 'scarlet woman' to quote Mrs. Weasley. Ron had incinerated the papers that talked about Harry and Hermione's true love and the insinuation that Ginny had used love potions in an attempt to get Harry for herself.
Charlie slowly took a copy of the Daily Prophet from his pocket. Ron braced himself for another round of horrible stories, but nothing could have prepared him for the pictures on the front page of the Prophet. A large colour picture showed his sister in a passionate embrace with Draco Malfoy. If that wasn't bad enough, in the accompanying story, Draco told how Ginny had seduced him and forced him to betray his true love, Pansy Parkinson. To make matters worse, pictures of Ginny and Blaise Zabini were also featured in the article.
Ginny smiled as she watched her husband finish painting the back bedroom of the basement flat. It had been over a week since their emotional visit to Godric's Hollow, and it seemed to have brought them even closer as a couple.
She was glad to see him in such a good mood today. Two nights earlier, he had woken from a nightmare and sobbed in her arms about his fears of not being able to defeat Voldemort. They had talked at length about what might happen if one or both of them did not survive the coming confrontation. She knew that Harry had made arrangements so she would be taken care of financially if he died, but she tried not to dwell on what she knew was a possible outcome.
A knock on the door distracted her. Hurrying over to answer, Ginny was surprised to see Alicia standing in the doorway.
Gesturing her in, Ginny said, "Alicia, what are you doing here? I thought you were working today."
"I am working, but I needed to talk to you. Is Harry here?" Alicia said as she made her way to the barstools by the kitchen counter.
"Hi, Alicia," Harry said as he joined them. "What's up?"
Looking straight at Ginny, Alicia brought out the newspaper. "You need to see this."
Ginny felt her blood draining from her face when she saw the picture of her kissing Draco Malfoy. She heard voices next to her, but couldn't tell what they were saying. She would remember kissing Malfoy, right?
Turning, Ginny vomited on the floor. Harry gathered her close as she swayed. Alicia cleaned up the floor, feeling slightly guilty after seeing how overwrought Ginny was at the sight of the pictures.
"That's not me," Ginny whispered. "I wouldn't …I wouldn't do that." She grabbed onto Harry's shirt. "Please, believe me. I didn't…"
"Ssh, it's okay," Harry said soothingly. While the pictures made him want to vomit as well, his common sense kicked in after his initial response to the pictures. He knew Ginny. She would never willingly kiss Malfoy. Forcing himself to look at the pictures, he said, "It must be a picture of Pansy."
"Pansy?" Alicia said. Understanding flooded her face. "The Polyjuice Potion."
Harry scanned the article quickly. He made a face at the insinuations that Ginny had seduced Malfoy as well as having a sexual relationship with Blaise. With a wave of his wand, Harry cast an Incendio on the paper, taking a grim delight in watching it burn.
With a whispered apology, Alicia showed herself out. Harry gathered his wife up in his arms and carried her to bed. He held her as she cried herself to sleep. As he watched his wife sleep, he swore he would make Malfoy pay for his lies.
Several hours later, Harry had finally convinced Ginny that they needed to go out to eat. He spent the afternoon flirting, stealing kisses and generally showing Ginny that he believed her and did not blame her for the lies of others.
Harry took Ginny into central London. They marvelled over the Tower of London and walked along the river.
"I wish I could make sure my family knows the truth," Ginny said softly.
"I know, love," Harry said, bringing her hand up to kiss the back of it.
Ginny winced and Harry cast another Numbing Charm on the small tattoo on her inner wrist. He smiled to see his name and a small lightning bolt tattooed on her arm. Ginny had decided she wanted a mark that only the two of them knew about.
"Those pictures were horrible," Ginny had argued. "I want a mark that you will know to look for to show that it is me."
Even after he'd pointed out that he'd known the pictures were not real, Ginny insisted she wanted to do it. He reciprocated with her name on his inner wrist surrounded by a heart.
Ron made his way back to the quarters he shared with his brother. He winced slightly, his face and jaw still sore from the punch Charlie threw after Ron's initial reaction to the article about Ginny. When he pushed open the door, he stopped at the unexpected sight.
"Bill? What are you doing here?" Ron hurried to greet his oldest brother.
"I came to see how you were settling in here," Bill replied easily, giving his brother a one armed hug.
The three brothers made themselves comfortable in the small kitchenette. Charlie cracked open the bottle of firewhiskey Bill had brought with him. Ron looked between his older brothers a bit uneasily.
"How is it going?" Bill asked Ron.
"Okay, I'm working in the kitchen and taking a few classes," Ron said.
Charlie fixed a plate of sandwiches and grabbed a few bags of crisps as Ron told his brother about his life on the reserve.
"How are things at home?" Ron asked.
Bill sighed. "Not great. We just found out that Ted Tonks was killed."
"Tonks' dad?" Ron asked in surprise.
Bill nodded. "Yeah, Dora is pretty torn up about it. Remus is really worried about her. She is due next month."
"Ron," Bill looked at his brother with compassion. "Dean Thomas was also killed. We found him and Ted together."
Ron stared at his brother in confusion. "No, that's not possible. D-Dean is my age. We…we heard them that night. They were doing better than we were."
Looking into his glass of firewhiskey, Ron missed the look that was exchanged between his two older brothers.
"What do you mean, Ron?" Bill asked.
Silence hung heavy while Ron seemed to gather his thoughts. "The night Harry and I got into our fight. We heard a group of others including Ted Tonks and Dean. There were some Goblins as well. We heard them talking about Harry and they talked about Ginny trying to steal the Sword of Gryffindor. The Goblins said the sword was not the real one. Harry and Hermione started getting so excited. Maybe Dumbledore had hidden this for Harry. Maybe we needed to find the sword. I…I just got so angry."
"Why, Ron? What really happened?" Charlie asked.
Instead of answering, Ron finished his drink in three long swallows. He felt the burn as it crawled down his throat, a feeling of warmth spread throughout his body. For a moment, he felt the intense feelings of worthlessness and jealousy that had overcome him that night.
"You wouldn't understand. I…I hate not being someone."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Bill asked.
"I'm the sixth son. You are the oldest, the good-looking one, the curse breaker. Charlie was a Quidditch captain. People really looked up to him. Even Percy was Head Boy. The twins are funny and rich. They have all of these cool inventions. Ginny is the only girl so everything she does is new. I can't do anything new or different that someone else in my family hasn't done," Ron burst out.
"So what do I do? I become best friends with Harry Bloody Potter. He's rich, he's famous, he is an amazing Quidditch player, a Tri-Wizard Champion and I'm just his best friend. Mum fusses over him. I swear she likes him better than me sometimes. And Hermione…why would she look at me when he is there?" Ron finished sadly, sipping more whiskey.
"What a load of dragon shite," Charlie said after looking at his brother for a minute.
"There are seven of us," Bill said. "There are moments when all of us feel less important, but Mum and Dad love all of us. I remember when you visited me in Egypt. Dad kept going on about how brave you were and how you were such a loyal friend to Harry. You've had a big impact since your first year."
"As Harry's sidekick," Ron said bitterly.
"Why are you so angry at Harry?" Bill asked. "I know you don't really believe Mum loves him better than you. He just need mothering more than you do."
"What does that mean?"
Bill laughed. "I've seen it myself. Mum fusses over you, making sure your laundry is done or you have enough food and you tell her to back off or you've got it. Harry lets her fuss. 'Yes, Mrs. Weasley' and 'Thank you, Mrs. Weasley.'"
Charlie agreed with his brother. "I don't think Harry's had much love in his life."
Ron slowly swirled the amber liquid in his glass. "I know. He…he's always so surprised that people do something nice for him. He was so surprised that first Christmas that he was getting Christmas presents. I don't think those Muggles he lived with treated him very well."
"Right, so do you think he sees you as a sidekick?" Bill asked gently.
"No," Ron sighed. "He's always been a great friend. I just feel so…small next to him sometimes. Aside from…his history, he just seems to get everything. He's rich – he's got a Firebolt and nice clothes…"
Bill slammed his hand down on the table. "Ron, how did he get his money?"
"From his parents," Ron said, looking at his brother in confusion.
"Right," Bill said. "Which do you think he would rather have – the money or his parents?"
Ron's face fell. "His parents."
"Exactly," Charlie said. "Ron, you need to get past this. From what I've heard, this isn't the first time this has come up. You and Harry are best mates and have been from your first train ride. He is wealthy and famous. You need to accept that."
Ron felt the sting of tears in his eyes, but his brothers weren't done.
"Ron, we aren't ganging up on you or trying to make you feel bad. We just know that if you can get past this, you can be whatever you want," Charlie said.
"What did you mean about Hermione?" Bill asked. "You like her, don't you?
Ron squirmed uncomfortably. "Well, yeah. She's one of my best friends."
"Not like that," Bill chided him. "You like her. Why do you have such a hard time admitting it?"
Ron glared at his brother before he said, "Fine, I like her. Okay?"
"So why haven't you done anything about it?" Charlie asked.
"What do you mean?" Ron said defensively.
Bill shook his head. "Don't get mad at us. We're here to help. Have you ever told her you liked her?"
"Have you ever asked her out?"
"Why not?" Bill asked curiously.
"What if she doesn't like me the same way?" Ron burst out. "I don't want to ruin our friendship."
"Why wouldn't she like you?" Bill asked gently.
"Why?" Ron asked incredulously. "She's smart and pretty and she could do so much better than me. Why would she pick me over him?"
Ron glared at his brothers when they exchanged a smile. "What does that mean?"
"Why do you think this is a contest between you and Harry?" Bill asked.
"What?" Ron looked confused. "He's her other best friend. They don't fight like me and Hermione do. He knows when to say the right thing."
Charlie smiled. "Ron, just because they are friends doesn't mean he likes her. I've never seen or heard anything to indicate that he likes her like that."
Bill agreed. "I really don't think he likes her in that way."
After letting Ron think about it, Bill said, "I heard that Harry was dating Ginny."
Ron rolled his eyes. "He was dating her at the end of last year, but he broke up with her. He said he's too dangerous to be around."
"So he didn't break up with her because he didn't like her," Bill clarified.
"That doesn't sound like he likes Hermione," Charlie said quietly.
Bill put his hand on Ron's arm. "Ron, you have so many things to offer. You're funny and brave. You are a good and loyal friend. I think that whatever happened out there, it really affected you. Just think about what we've talked about."
Ron nodded, but didn't verbally respond to his brother. Charlie added, "Ron, take it from me. You need to curb your temper and you need to think before you talk. That is what gets you in the most trouble."
He paused and looked at his younger brother. "You are very lucky that Ginny didn't hear what you said about her."
"I…I didn't mean it like that," Ron said miserably. "I just never expected to see my baby sister snogging ferret-boy Malfoy on the front page of the Prophet."
"I didn't either, but I didn't call her a whore," Charlie said sharply.
Bill reached out and smacked his brother on the back of the head. "Is that why Charlie pounded on you?"
"You can't tell me you didn't think that!" Ron said hotly.
"No," Bill said flatly. "I was horrified at the picture, but I did not think my sister was the whore she is being portrayed to be."
Ron sighed, but did not respond. He sat quietly the rest of the evening, listening to his brothers and enjoying their company. They had given him a lot to think about.
Dean Thomas's death brought home to Hermione the dangers of her position. The day the news broke, the former Hogwarts students at Beauxbatons had spent the day together, grieving not only Dean but grieving the losses to their way of life. Hermione shared with them the fears she had in wiping her parents' memories and sending them to Australia. Mandy's mother had been killed the year before in a Death Eater attack on London. Mandy's father had pulled her from Hogwarts and sent her to Beauxbatons. The Turpins and MacDonalds had both moved with their families to France to escape the persecution of Muggleborns. Justin worried about his family still in England. He was the only magical person in his family. He had chosen to leave them, hoping they could blend into the Muggle community.
"I got a letter from Colin," Lauren told them. "He and Dennis are attending their local secondary school, but still reading their Hogwarts books at night. It must be so frustrating to know about magic, but be unable to practice it."
Justin nodded. "I can't imagine what it must be like for the two of them, but at least they are together."
"Do you know how Dean ended up on the run?" Lisa asked Hermione.
Hermione shook her head. "No, the night we heard him, all we heard was Ted had run into him a few days before."
"His poor mum," Mandy said. "He was really close to her. He has two younger sisters, neither of whom are witches. His mother didn't know if his father was a wizard or not. He had abruptly left them when Dean was a baby. They didn't know for the longest time what had happened to him. He was killed and Dean thought looking back, it may have been a Death Eater attack."
She blushed when she noticed the others looking at her. "I had a big crush on him at the end of fifth year. Unfortunately for me, he only had eyes for Ginny."
"It is scary to think he was on the run with at least two full wizards and two Goblins and they got caught," Lisa said, rescuing her friend.
Hermione nodded. "It was scary out there. I don't think I realized until later how dangerous it was. We were just lucky that we didn't get caught."
"I still can't believe you went into the Ministry and rescued all of those Muggleborns," Justin said.
Blushing, Hermione said, "Trust me, I can't believe we got away with it either. It is a good thing that Harry is so good in a crisis. I may be better at planning, but when it comes down to the execution, he and Ron are always much better than me."
Lauren smiled at her. "You miss them, don't you?"
"I do. I've been best friends with them since first year," Hermione said.
"Do you have any idea where Harry might be?" Natalie asked.
Hermione sighed. "I wish I did. I can only hope that he and Ginny are together. I think they are both in a lot of danger."
Lauren nodded. "I hope so, too. She is one of my best friends. Not only do I worry about her, but I have to read all of the lies the Prophet writes about her."
"Why do you think the Prophet is going after her?" Natalie asked Hermione.
Hermione made a face. "I think they are trying to turn people against her."
"What do you mean?" Justin asked.
Hermione took a moment to marshal her thoughts. "Someone tried to kidnap her at the end of last term. If as we think, Harry rescued her, they might be trying to drive them apart or at least make it so people would be less willing to help her. If they are on the run, they need help. If Ginny is seen as a…slag who will sleep with Death Eaters, people will not want to help her."
"I think it's a bit more than that," Lisa said. "I think they are trying to make people think she is not worthy of Harry. I mean anyone willing to help them will be thinking of Harry as the Chosen One. I think by portraying her as a weak person, they are trying to show she is not worthy of being with him."
Harry smiled and reached over for Ginny's hand as they walked back from their sword lessons. He was surprised at how much fun they were having at the lessons. He was thankful that they had something going well as the combination of the lack of progress on the last Horcrux and the articles in the paper had them both discouraged. The articles in the Prophet were tearing her apart, especially because she had no idea how her family was reacting to the papers.
"Harry, what is that?"
Looking around, Harry saw smoke coming from a few blocks away. They hurried in that direction.
As they turned the corner, Harry recognized the familiar black robes and masks of the Death Eaters. They were going through a shop, burning the books and tormenting a small group of Muggles.
Harry felt a thrill of fear when he saw a body dressed in Auror robes, lying broken on the pavement. He turned to his wife and saw the horror and determination in her eyes. Pulling his wand, he quickly cast a Disillusionment Charm on both of them.
As they neared the scene, Harry gestured for Ginny to circle around and they cautiously started to see what they can do to help.
Ginny started towards the Auror, but backed away in horror when she realized he was dead. She turned her attention to the Muggles. There were five people on the ground, three men and two women and she guessed they were all in their mid to late twenties. Two of the men were unconscious and the other man was bleeding heavily. The two women had been separated from the men. Ginny stunned one of the Death Eaters hitting them from behind. She quickly bound them up and turned her attention to the Muggles.
Moving over to the women, she guided them into the shadows. Realizing they might be scared if they thought an invisible person helping them, Ginny quickly reversed the Disillusionment Charm so they could see her. Glad for the Muggle first aid Harry had taught her, Ginny helped the women with their injured friends.
Harry quickly entered the shop itself. There were a group of five Death Eaters pulling books off the shelves and throwing them on the growing fire. In the flickering firelight, Harry could see the books they pulled were all Muggle books depicting witches. He saw The Wizard of Oz,The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond fly into the fire. There were stacks of books, all with the word witch or wizard somewhere in the title.
Shaking his head in amazement, Harry made his way through the darkness of the shop, picking off the Death Eaters one by one. He managed to stun and bind three of the Death Eaters before they realized they were under attack. As the Death Eaters turned and started searching for him, their leader started shooting spells blindly into the stacks.
Changing his pattern of attack, Harry glanced outside and saw that Ginny was taking care of the Muggles. He cast a silent Aguamenti, causing water to pour out of his wand, damping down the fire.
While the charm put out the fire, it had the unfortunate side effect of alerting the Death Eaters to his position. He felt a Cutting Curse slice across his leg and he dodged a purple curse that looked rather dangerous.
Taking advantage of his invisibility, Harry jumped across the floor of the shop and shot off a pair of stunners. While neither hit their mark, they did force his opponents to dive out of the way.
"Marcus, we need to get out of here."
Harry came to a halt. He knew that voice. Shooting a Tripping Jinx, he sent his quarry sprawling. The Death Eater he recognized as Marcus Flint Apparated out, leaving Harry alone with Draco Malfoy.
As Draco got to his feet, Harry sent him crashing to the ground with a fist to the jaw.
"You're not so tough without your pals to back you up, are you, Malfoy?"
Draco looked around as Harry reversed the spell making him visible. Blanching, Draco regained his swagger quickly. "Where's your little tart? The Dark Lord wasn't pleased that she escaped."
Not bothering to respond, Harry sent a Cutting Curse slicing across Draco's arm. Draco cursed as he grabbed his arm. "How did you like the pictures, Potter? Blaise and I have been arguing who she enjoyed snogging the most."
Harry laughed as he sent another curse in Draco's direction. "Did you forget it was your slag in the pictures, Malfoy? She did seem to enjoy snogging Blaise. Should you be worried?"
Draco ripped off his mask and yelled, "Crucio!"
Diving to the floor, Harry avoided the Unforgivable. Summoning a stack of books, Harry sent them flying at Draco.
"Harry, we need to get going!" Ginny called from the doorway.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Harry slammed his fist into the side of Draco's face sending him reeling. As she saw who his opponent was, Ginny joined Harry in the shop. Calling up the skills her oldest brothers taught her, Ginny slammed her knee into Draco's groin.
"I am not a slag! I would not touch you if you were the last man in the world!" Ginny yelled in his face.
Pulling on Ginny's arm, Harry said, "We need to go."
As they reached the door, Harry heard Malfoy mutter a spell. Pushing Ginny out of the way, Harry turned and sent a Bludgeoning Curse at Malfoy, breaking his leg . Ginny turned and yelled an incantation at him, sending Bat-Bogeys flapping around his face. Striding over to his school nemesis, Harry yanked Draco's wand out of his hand.
"You won't need this."
Harry and Ginny hurried away as the Aurors and Magical Reversal Squad started Apparating into the site.