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Brave New Hope by ARG
Chapter 56 : Christmas Eve
 
Rating: 15+Chapter Reviews: 6


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A/N: And just when I thought chapters were going back to a normal length, I find myself writing one for the top ten of longest chapters...

24 December 1997

“Have I told you yet how much I missed having you here at home with me?” Mia heard her husband whispering into her ear, his arm wrapping itself around her middle as she stood in front of the wardrobe, finishing getting dressed on Christmas Eve’s morning. “Because I did,” he murmured against her neck. “I did a lot.”

“So I’ve heard,” she replied, an easy smile playing on her lips. “At least once every hour since I arrived yesterday… Well, except for those nine we spent sleeping.”

Sirius groaned against her neck. “Nine hours in a row. Nine. I haven’t slept that long while the kids were in the house for the past three months,” he said. “Bless Molly Weasley and her desperate need to mother any kid within reach.”

Mia sighed, turning around and wrapping her arms around her husband’s neck. “I’m sorry you had to deal with them on your own this whole time,” she said.

Sirius shook his head. “Don’t be.” He meant it – he didn’t want her to be sorry. Not her. Because no matter how sleep-deprived, frustrated or stressed he’d been for the past three months while looking after two of their kids without her, it was nothing compared to the thirteen she’d spent doing the same without him. Besides, looking after the little ones had become far more than a duty… “Although I may contradict this in the future once those two get to robbing me of my sleep all over again,” he told her, “they’re worth every single frustratingly restless hour. They keep me sane by driving me insane,” he stated. “Does that make sense?”

“They’re a better reason for you to lose your mind over than the war,” she provided.

He smiled. “See? I miss this.”

“What?”

Sirius shrugged. “Just this. You knowing me so well. Us,” he provided. “But do you know what I missed even more?” he asked, not giving her a chance to answer before he captured her lips into a fiery kiss, that kind that was really just possible after a long time of forced abstinence. “This,” he mumbled before moving to her jaw, starting a descending path towards her neck. “And this.”

“Sirius,” his wife whispered, barely managing to keep her mind clear enough to present any shred of good sense. “We really need to get downstairs for breakfast. We have guests in the house.”

“They know their way around,” he carelessly replied, far too distracted by his… ministrations.

“Doesn’t make leaving them to fend for themselves any less rude,” Mia managed, tensing as she felt his lips making their way back up the invisible path they’d traced before. “So, if you don’t stop what you’re doing in the next ten seconds, I’m afraid I’ll have to take extreme measures to make you,” she warned him, placing a finger against his lips before they could touch hers again. “Be good.”

“But it’s Christmas Eve,” he complained like an annoyed little kid whose present had just been snatched away from under the tree.

“All the more reason for you to be good and for us to be nice to guests,” Mia replied, receiving a groan in return. “You have a problem, you know?”

“Oh, I know. I very much know. Three months without kissing his wife makes that to a bloke,” he stated, trying to sound absolutely miserable. “I thought the withdrawal might kill me.”

“Poor thing,” Mia mumbled, patting his cheek.

“Don’t mock me,” he said in a not-so-mocking tone. “I mean it. Seeing you every day through the two-way mirror just didn’t cut it.”

His wife sighed. “I know. But it’s better than nothing. At least we got to talk… we didn’t have that last time.”

Sirius let out a long breath. “No, we didn’t,” he agreed in a low tone.

Mia eyed him quietly for a second before cupping his face and reaching to place a small kiss on his lips.

Sirius raised an eyebrow at her just as she pulled away. “I thought we weren’t supposed to kiss anymore until breakfast.”

Mia smiled. “I’m not the one with the problem,” she replied before lacing her arm to his and walking him out of the room. “Now, Mr. Black, we’re going downstairs, we’re going to take breakfast and you’re going to act like the grownup you’re supposed to be instead of the randy teenager you actually are in your head. Are we clear?” she asked as they started making their way down the stairs.

“Provided my behaviour is rewarded later…” he offered cheekily.

She chuckled. “Maybe,” Mia replied, reaching to kiss his cheek just as they reached the floor below their room.

“Oh, crap. I think I left my wand upstairs,” Sirius declared, suddenly rummaging through his pockets. “You go on down while I get it, okay?”

Mia shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I’ll give you a minute.”

Her husband nodded quickly before rushing upstairs, leaving her standing there alone with her thoughts.

She looked around for a moment as she crossed her arms against her chest, taking in the familiar shapes and colours of home. Home, she thought fleetingly. She was home… yet it didn’t quite feel like home. Not in the way it used to. She might have fooled herself by wondering why that was the case but she didn’t – that would take too much effort for something that wasn’t bound to last. Truth was, home just wasn’t home without Harry in it.

Taking a breath, she looked up from the floor she’d been staring at for the past handful of seconds, allowing her eyes to move towards the door leading into Harry’s room. The door wasn’t closed, she noted, observing a small crack between it and the doorway. Before she knew it, she was walking towards it, nudging the door further open and allowing the hallway’s light to illuminate the otherwise dark room.

Aside from the darkness, actually, the room looked like Harry might just be downstairs having breakfast even though she consciously knew that wasn’t the truth. The fact that Kreacher had mostly left it alone, aside from making the bed and collecting the dirty laundry, had left a distinct Harry vibe in the room. It made Mia smile, albeit sadly. She knew if she looked under the bed, she’d find a massive mess or, if she opened the wardrobe, half of its contents would probably fall on her from all the times she’d ordered her godson to clean his room and instead he’d shoved everything into the most obvious hiding places. Izzy often joked one of those days a boggart might find a home in either of those places – she honestly wouldn’t be surprised if that did happen.

Sighing, Mia leaned against the doorway. She missed that boy like a severed limb. She missed his messes, the constant trouble he kept getting himself into, the bouts of fury he could get her to have sometimes… And just thinking it was Christmas Eve already and they had no idea where he might be… Who knew if he had a bed or a fire to sit by, away from the cold? Who knew if he’d even have a Christmas dinner that night? How she wished that the war would just take a day off so he could come home and be with them. One day. That wasn’t so much to ask, was it?

“Love?” Mia heard her husband’s voice saying behind her. She didn’t turn, instead waiting for him to join her, which he naturally did. His arm came around her back as he rested his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure he’s fine, you know? He’s not alone – he has Ron and Hermione with him. You know that.”

“I know,” she mumbled. “But he should be here. They all should.”

Sirius nodded. “True. I guess that means we’ll have to make Christmas extra special for them next year. Because they will be here next year,” he added when Mia looked up at him with a doubtful expression on her face. “I’ll hunt them down and bring them here myself if I have to.”

Mia gave him a little smile. For some reason, she believed he would do it. He’d get Harry there for her. For a moment, she didn’t even bother to think of the amount of danger that might involve. “Thank you.”

He placed a kiss on her forehead. “Always,” he whispered before nudging her back towards the stairs so they could make their way to the kitchen.

It didn’t take them very long to start hearing the voices coming from it, getting louder with each step. Mia’s guess was that everyone was already in there, which had her worrying for a second that she might be the worst hostess in the world. She wasn’t wrong about one part at least: everyone was there – Molly, Arthur, Izzy, Ginny, Alex, Mary, Kreacher and, more unexpectedly, her parents too.

“Mama!” Alex shouted just as he saw her coming through the doorway, speeding towards her until he was wrapped around her legs – one would think he hadn’t spent the previous night talking her ear off about all the things he’d done in her absence.

She reached down to his level with smile. “Good morning, my little prince. Did you sleep well?”

The little boy nodded excitedly with a big grin on his face, that one remarkably similar to his father’s.

“Don’t I get a good morning kiss?” Mia asked her son.

“Yesh, Mama,” the little boy declared, before all but launching himself around his mother’s neck and placing a big sloppy kiss on her cheek.

“Have you eaten yet, mate?” Sirius asked Alex just as he pulled away from around his mother’s neck.

He nodded immediately. “I hewping Kweacha now, Daddy,” he declared happily.

“Are you?” Sirius asked with a chuckle, eyeing the house elf as he stood by the stove. “Well, why don’t you give him a break for a minute and we go wish your sister a proper good morning,” he suggested, reaching down to pick up his son and shooting Izzy a narrow-eyed look before they made their way to their future victim.

“Good morning, dear,” Molly greeted Mia just as she reached the table, somehow standing by it balancing Mary on one hip while at the same time carrying a skillet full of bacon. “Would you like something to eat? There’s still plenty left.”

Mia nodded. “Thank you, Molly. You really didn’t need to put yourself to work. I’m supposed to be the one doing that…”

“Oh, nonsense – you’ve just gotten home. Give yourself a little break,” the woman told her easily. “Let me just fetch you some eggs and sausage.”

Arthur sighed as he read the paper on the other side of the table. “My Molly just doesn’t feel complete unless she’s feeding an army or juggling half a dozen tasks at the same time,” he commented casually.

“Well, let me at least take Mary,” Mia offered, reaching for her youngest daughter, who eyed her with a sunny smile on her face. Mary had been all smiles ever since she’d gotten home – Mia liked to believe it was because she’d missed her. She’d wondered many times if the little baby she’d left behind back in September would remember her when she came home – she was fairly sure Mary did, although she was much less of a baby these days, leaning more towards a toddler, all dimpled cheeks, curious brown eyes and soft curls on her head.

“Oh, of course,” Molly immediately conceded, putting the skillet down for a second so she could hand the little girl over. “You’ve probably missed this little angel so much. Such a dear… I honestly don’t know where Sirius gets all those stories from…”

“Kid’s an excellent actress, Molly,” Sirius assured her from the other side of the table as he and Alex approached a suspicious Izzy. “Don’t let yourself be fooled by the dimples and the giggles – I was graced with the sneakiest kids in the word. Well, in what comes to two of them, at least. Not so sure about the third, isn’t that right, Izzybel?”

“I have no idea what you’re referring to,” his firstborn replied, forcing herself not to pay any more attention to him by casually taking a bite from her toast as she sat by an oddly lethargic Ginny’s side.

“Well, maybe Alex here will be kind enough to remind you,” he suggested, turning to his son with a grin. “Knock yourself out, mate. Whatever you do, she probably has it coming.”

The little boy grinned before proceeding to reach for his sister’s hair with his hands and starting mussing it up as badly as he could, which was surprisingly effective for a kid his age.

Mia watched the scene from the other side, her lips curling slightly although she knew she should probably interfere at some point. On her lap, Mary managed to pull herself up until she was standing on her little feet and trying to get her hands on everything she could possibly reach on the table. “Oh, not the fork, honey,” she said, pulling the piece of cutlery from the little girl’s hand and placing it, along with the knife, out of her reach.

Mary let out a few unsatisfied sounds but was quickly distracted by trying to grab her mother’s hair and face in general when Mia shifted her position.

“That one’s going to be just like her father,” Lulu commented from the other side of the table. “Causing trouble all around.”

Mia then turned to her mother. “And I don’t doubt you’ll be more than willing to urge her to do so as much a she wants,” she replied.

Lulu shrugged. “Kids are supposed to get in trouble. Why fuss about it?”

Oh, how Mia wished she could share that vision as well… “I wasn’t expecting to see you here so early,” she told her mother.

“Neither was I but Gabe here wanted to make sure you’d really made it back in one piece. He’s becoming a real mother-hen if you asked me,” she said, nodding at her daughter’s father, who happened to be raising his eyebrows at her by her side. “Even wanted go upstairs to check if you were alive because you were taking so long to come down, if you can believe it.”

Gabe’s eyebrows only rose further by her side. “Funny. The way I recall it, you were actually the one to suggest that.”

“Well, clearly you’re growing senile with old age, Gabriel,” she quickly replied, averting his eyes.

“Yes, that must be it,” he offered, looking at Mia and rolling his eyes. Both of them knew Lulu too well to buy that, just as both of them knew that when she wanted to go against her own nature by being protective (and, naturally, refused to let other people know about that), it wasn’t beyond her to use the nearest person – in that case, Gabe – as a scapegoat.

“Well, regardless of which one of you is the mother-hen here, there is no need to worry,” Mia assured her parents. “I’m perfectly fine – the trip down from Scotland was quite uneventful, even if just a bit uncomfortable, actually.”

“And the school?” her father asked.

Mia looked down, trying to make her unwillingness to discuss Hogwarts’s state so early in the morning as pure interest in what her daughter was doing. “Still where you left it last time you were there,” she responded, averting the subject

Gabe nodded, successfully reading the subtext. “I’m sure it is,” he agreed, willingly dropping the matter.

“Here you go, dear,” Molly said as she started filling Mia’s plate with enough bacon, eggs and sausage to feed a small army before moving over to Sirius’s even though his chair was still empty. “Would you like some hash browns too, Mia? Sirius?” she inquired, turning to face the latter as he and Alex kept on bugging Izzy.

“Sure, Molly,” he replied, ignoring his daughter as she tried to push him and her little brother away.

“Dad, get him off!” she said. “Mom, tell him to go bother people his own size!”

“I’m pretty sure Alex is the one doing the most damage and he’s littler than you,” her father stated.

Mia sighed. “Sirius, stop acting like a five-year-old and leave your daughter alone. Same applies to Alex.”

Her husband groaned as he pulled their son away from his sister. “Looks like the fun’s over, mate,” he said, putting the little boy down. “Go sit with Gradma Lulu while Daddy eats, will you?”

Alex did as he said, but only because he knew his grandmother was an easy one to get to sneak him cookies. By the time Sirius took his seat by Mia’s side, the little boy was already working his magic on his grandparents.

“Mum! Stop it – I’m not hungry!” Ginny suddenly protested from the other side of the table, apparently awaken from her lethargy by her mother getting to her on her plate-filling mission.

“Nonsense. You girls are all skin and bones. Honestly, what are they feeding you at Hogwarts?” the older woman said as she started filling Izzy’s plate as well while she seemed to be distracted disentangling her hair from the mess Alex’s attack had turned it into.

“The same they were feeding you back when you were there!” Ginny replied, exasperated.

“Ginny’s right, Molly,” Mia assured her from the other side of the table. “If there’s anything that still hasn’t changed at all at Hogwarts, it’s the quality of the food.”

“But still…” Molly mumbled before back at her daughter. “You’ve barely eaten anything this morning. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you pushing your food around the plate, Young Lady.”

“I just don’t feel like stuffing myself right now, Mum,” Ginny said in an annoyed tone.

“She’s got a point,” Izzy offered, mostly for the sake of covering for her friend. “I mean, with Christmas Dinner right around the corner, we’d better save up some space or else we’ll be digesting today’s food until New Year’s.”

Molly seemed to consider that for a second. “Well, if that’s the case… but you need to eat some more. Look at you, Ginny. You don’t have the slightest bit of colour on your cheeks.”

That part was actually accurate, Mia noted. Ginny, who usually managed to look even the slightest bit chipper in her worst days, looked far from her usual self that morning. She seemed tired and altogether out of it. It made Mia wonder if something was wrong. “Did you sleep well tonight, Ginny?” she asked.

The girl made a noncommittal sound before nodding and mumbling that it was just ‘one of these days’, whatever that meant. Mia might have pressed the matter if Mary hadn’t distracted her by managing to shove her little hand into her mother’s plate, grabbing a handful of greasy bacon, which would not doubt have been aimed at some unknowing person, had Mia not interfered quickly enough.

“You’d better lighten up for when your brothers get here, Ginny-girl,” Arthur told his only daughter across the table. “Merlin knows Fred and George can’t resist yanking your chain whenever they have a chance.”

Izzy, who’d been taking a sip from her glass of juice, barely managed to hide her near-choking reaction to the mention of the twins… namely the one whose name started with a G. Somehow she’d let the fact that they were coming to stay that night slip her mind that morning, even though she’d obsessed over it until nodding off the previous night. “When… when exactly are they supposed to arrive?” she asked, trying hard not to sound too interested.

“Oh, they should come by after the meeting, I expect,” Molly informed her. “Those boys are just working themselves mad…”

“Wait a second… the meeting?” Mia asked, confused as she used a napkin to clean Mary’s hand. “What meeting?”

“Oh, damn, I forgot to tell you,” Sirius stated all of a sudden. “Kingsley set up an informal Order meeting for this afternoon.”

“On Christmas Eve?”

“There’s no time to waste these days,” Gabriel commented.

“I’m sure he won’t take up too much time,” Arthur pointed out. “He understands it’s an inconvenient occasion.”

Sirius nodded in agreement. “Arthur is right. From what I gathered, he mostly just wants to hear what’s going on within Hogwarts from an insider – you, in this case. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. Three at the most and we’ll be back to enjoy Christmas Dinner together.”

Mia sighed. “I guess if it doesn’t take longer than that…” she mumbled.

“I’m sure it won’t, Mia, dear,” Molly told her. “And if it does, you don’t need to worry. I’ll keep an eye on the children and help Kreacher setting up Christmas dinner while you are gone.”

“Not going today, Molly?” Lulu inquired.

The redhead shook her head. “Arthur will fill me into what’s important,” she replied dismissively. “There’s plenty of work needing to be done here.” Plenty of work she needed to do if she wanted to keep her mind busy and away from all the reasons why that Christmas felt like a faint excuse for a Christmas. If she wanted to stay sane, she had to stay busy.

“Alright, then, I guess everything is on track, isn’t it?” Sirius observed. “I’ve got to say, I haven’t felt like this in a…”

Before he could finish that sentence, though, Mary, who unknowingly to Mia had managed to get her hands into some more food, used her little arms to throw a handful of porridge at her father’s face.

“Mary!” Mia said in a scolding tone. “No! You don’t throw food at Daddy! That’s bad, honey.”

Sirius groaned from his seat, looking down at his porridge-covered shirt. “Yeah, it did feel like things were flowing too easy this morning.”

---

“’t smews funny,” young Alex Black declared in an intrigued tone, sniffing the half-decorated Christmas tree standing in front of him.

“Well, that’s because it’s an actual tree,” Izzy told him as she opened a large cardboard box resting on top of a chair, rummaging through a series of tree ornaments, trying to find the one she had in mind. “It’s supposed to smell funny.”

When her porridge-covered father had told her – after she’d shamelessly mocked him over the porridge-related incident because he really had it coming – that her long-time-coming punishment for her stunt with Snape would be to personally watch her brother while the ‘adults’ aside from Molly went to an Order meeting, Izzy had actually found herself swallowing hard. Because, although the kid was usually much better behaved around her than he was around her dad since he knew she was much more liberal when it came to giving him cookies (those seemed to be the one thing that he went out of his way to get), it was hard to get past his earlier betrayal through a ruthless attack on her hair (although it had mostly been her father’s fault), not to mention the general hyper bout he’d been in ever since their mother had arrived home.

She couldn’t deny it had been pretty adorable how he’d followed Mum around everywhere and how he’d rant endlessly about all the things he’d done in her absence (oh, the amount of Mama’s boy material she was going to have to tease him in ten to fifteen years…), but one certainly needed to wonder where he’d channel all the clingy energy he’d saved up for that end while their mother was gone for the meeting – Izzy’s mind had been quick to reach an answer: he was going to run her into the ground. Her and Ginny, who, thanks to Molly growing intrigued of the punishment, had been signed up for it as well despite her odd mood that day.

Right then and there, Izzy had seen the faintest glimpse of hell. Anyone could have told her (and she sure would have agreed) that any hope for a nap in what came to a kid who’d spent half an hour chasing Arnold, Ginny’s poor pigmy-puff, around the library just before lunch was in vain. And she’d just been able to foresee that if she and Ginny somehow found a way to effectively double-team the little barbarian, sweet little, usually-exemplary afternoon-napper Mary would have given her reputation up just for the sake of living up to her father’s statement from a few weeks before (upon talking to Izzy via two-way mirror after a long, restless day) that when her younger siblings wanted to drive someone mad, they did so with military precision.

Thankfully, when her father had tried to do even worse by giving her and Ginny a second task for that afternoon, said glimpse of hell has faded into bliss. The joke was on Sirius because there didn’t seem to be anything like decorating a Christmas tree to turn a kid full of pent-up energy into a pleasantly holiday-struck, useful one. One could say the tree was his equivalent to what a light bulb was to a fly…

“Why?” Alex asked, referring back to the ‘it smells funny’ matter.

“I dunno. It just does. You ought to ask Neville if he was here – I was never very good at herbology. Plants in general for that matter, really,” Izzy mumbled, her eyes still inspecting the inside of the box. “Hey, Ginny, do you want some of these red thingies for your side?” she asked her friend, holding up a bunch of sparkling red sphere-shaped ornaments. When her friend took a while to respond, Izzy looked up to find her just standing by her section of the tree, her eyes rather clouded as if her mind was anywhere but there. “Ginny? Are you listening? Ginny!”

She nearly jumped, accidentally knocking over a box of cone-shaped decorations, which made Alex giggle before trying to get his hands on a few. “Sorry, what was that?” the redhead mumbled.

“You looked miles away. Are you okay?”

“Sure. I was just thinking,” she said quickly, reaching down to pick up the discarded ornaments. “What were you saying, anyway?”

“I was asking if you wanted some of these,” Izzy replied, showing her the ornaments.

“Oh, sure,” she replied, that time actually turning her attention to the tree. Merlin, her section was a bloody mess – she needed to concentrate more on the decorations and less on her… frustrations.

“Hand those over to Ginny, will you?” she told her little brother, moving some ornaments into a smaller box and handing it over to him before mussing up his hair.

The little boy giggled before making a small run over to Ginny, who, Izzy noticed, couldn’t offer him much more than a faint smile upon accepting the box. Something was wrong with Ginny. Izzy didn’t know what and, worse, wasn’t even close to finding out since her friend had showed all signs of not wanting to talk about it. She might try to press it out of Ginny but, Merlin, what kind of friend would that make her when, just the day before, Ginny had agreed to give her space and not ask about her having the hots – quoting, just quoting – for George?

“I wanna put those,” Alex announced as he looked into the nearest box of ornaments, having climbed onto the chair next to it at some point.

“Those are for the upper part, Alex,” she told him. “You can’t reach it. Plus, you’ve already decorated your section,” she added, pointing at an adorably chaotic little portion of the bottom of the tree, full of overlapping ornaments and covered with far too many garlands.

Alex looked disappointed, though the look didn’t last much more than a second. “Youw tall,” he stated, looking up at her hopefully.

She really wasn’t tall at all, though her not-so-impressive stature might rub a kid his size as significant. Izzy sighed – her brother knew how to play his cards. She’d give him that. “Alright. I guess you could give me a hand with the upper part,” she said. “But there’s a catch to this deal.”

The little boy nodded enthusiastically, probably because he didn’t know what the word ‘catch’ meant in that context.

“Next time daddy tells you to mess with me like this morning, you turn around and do it on him,” she told him. “Deal?”

Alex grinned – that part, he seemed to catch perfectly. “Deal.”

“Okay, up you come, then,” she said, reaching over to pick him up. “Merlin, you weigh a ton these days.”

“’m a big boy,” her brother said proudly as Izzy balanced him on her hip.

“No, you’re not. You need to be at least five to be a big boy in my book,” she replied as she made her way to the tree. “How old are you again?” she asked, feigning forgetfulness.

“Twee,” Alex announced, showing her the same number of fingers.

“Liar,” she replied with a snort.

Her brother pouted in return. “Amwost twee,” he mumbled. “Daddy said so.”

“Did Daddy?” she asked. Alex nodded with an adorably serious look on his face. “Bet he only says that when you’re being a little monster,” she commented, to which Alex responded with an underwhelming roar. “Oh, scary, isn’t he, Ginny?”

“Hum?” Ginny asked absently from the other side of the tree. “Oh… er, sure.”

Izzy raised an eyebrow for a moment. Something definitely was not right with her. She couldn’t just ignore it. “Gin, are you…?”

“I’m fine,” she said quickly, shooting her an ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ look.

Izzy let out a deep breath. It was hopeless. “Alright, kid, let’s get to work,” she told her brother since his seemed to oddly be the only front that was working.

They worked on decorating the tree with giggles and clumsy hands. Izzy sure lost count of the amount of ornaments that fell on the floor or were somehow hung upside down. She didn’t bother to move those last ones – Alex seemed happy enough with the way they were arranged and she didn’t want to crush his pleasantly holiday-fuelled cheerful mood. At the end of it, when Izzy looked at their proud Christmas achievement, it was the messiest, most mismatched tree she’d seen in a long time… probably since she was seven and Harry nine and Lulu had the brilliant idea of putting them in charge of ornamenting the tree.

“Well, I guess it’s done,” Ginny mumbled. “I should go wash my hands. They’re covered in tree sap.”

“Alright,” Izzy slowly agreed as her friend made her way out, still wondering what had made her shift from the perfectly balanced mood she’d had the precious day to that moody, often-absent shell of herself.

“’s she sad?” Alex asked her in a whisper.

Izzy turned to him with raised eyebrows. “Why do you ask?” Could the kid have seen something she hadn’t? They said little kids were sensitive to these things…

Alex just shrugged. “I’m thirsty,” he told her, completely changing the subject. “Canna have a cwookie?”

She huffed… well, he was just three, after all. Focusing was still far away from his list of priorities. “Cookies don’t cure thirst, Alex,” she informed him. Her brother just offered her one of his adorable ‘please’ looks, completely ignoring the fact. Tempted, she checked her watch for a second. “Well, I guess by the time the sugar kicks in Mum and Dad will be home… I guess today is your lucky day.”

The little boy cheered, quickly demanding to be put down so he could rush to his promised cookie. Izzy let him because she knew he wouldn’t be able to go too far – protective charms on the stairs didn’t let him step foot on them without a ‘grown up’ holding him or his hand.

“Ginny, we’re going downstairs,” she when she reached the hallway, hoping her friend would hear her and join them. “Do you want to come too?”

No, thanks. I’ll just stay here and tidy things up,” she replied from the loo.

Izzy sighed. “Okay, then,” she mumbled to herself as she got a hold of her brother’s hand and helped him down the stairs.

She was glad to hear Kreacher and Molly’s voices coming from the dining room, meaning they clearly weren’t in the kitchen, leaving the field open for her to steal that cookie for Alex. She made a ‘be quiet’ gesture to the little boy as they crossed the ground floor headed to the flight of stairs leading to the basement kitchen, which he mimicked, clearly eager to be sneaky.

“Alright, let’s get you that cookie,” Izzy mumbled after they entered the kitchen, approaching the cupboards and opening the one where the cookie jar could usually be found. Frowning, she noted it wasn’t there. She moved to the next cupboard, than the other when she didn’t find it there either. Why on earth was it so hard to find? A giggle behind her answered the question for her – no doubt if the kid knew where the jar was, his little bouts of accidental magic would have found a way to get it to him, she thought as she turned around to find him hiding (badly) behind one of the chairs by the fireplace.

She tried to use her wand to summon the jar, knowing the wards around the house would block any alarm bells from the trace, but it didn’t come. Merlin, had they gotten to the point of placing anti-summoning charms around the jar? “You’re a piece of work with your cookies, aren’t you, Alex?” she said under her breath.

It took her several minutes of searching, but she eventually came face to face with the sought-after jar bizarrely hidden in the broom cupboard, inside an old, long-discarded cauldron. “There you are, you little…”

“Why does it seem like you’re doing something rather clandestine and, if that’s the case, why am I not in on it?” a familiar voice suddenly came from behind her, startling her into dropping the jar.

She braced herself to hear it breaking but it never did. When she looked down, she found it hovering about an inch away from the floor.

“So, Isabelle, are you going to pick that up or should I?”

Izzy grunted, reaching down to pick the jar up. “You know, next time you feel like giving me a heart attack, consider that stabbing me is probably a much more effective way to kill me,” she told George dryly without bothering to look back.

“Yeah, but that’s bound to be so much bloodier. Plus, who’d laugh at my written jokes if you were dead?” he replied.

She couldn’t help curling her lips at the response – he always had to have an answer ready, didn’t he? “Who says I laugh at them at all?” she replied, finally turning around to face him as he stood against the kitchen doorway, grinning in a ‘we both know I’m right’ sort of way. Merlin, why did that awake the butterflies in her stomach? Why?! “Anyway,” she said, using the excuse of walking over to the kitchen table with the jar as an excuse to look away from him, “how did you get in here without me hearing the doorbell? The floo is still disconnected.”

“Mum saw me walking over from a window, I guess,” he casually replied. “She let me in before I even had a chance to knock. Fussed some, as usual, before some plate-related crisis captured her attention instead. ‘Oh, Georgie, you’re all skin and bones! Don’t you and your brother eat at all? Why isn’t he here with you?’ The usual stuff.”

“Where is Fred?” she asked matter-of-factly, now that he mentioned it.

“He went over to see Angelina before she left for Christmas at her parents’ place. Wanted to give her a little ‘present’, he said,” George told her, making a face as he approached the table and pulled a chair to sit on. “Since he seemed pretty eager to do it alone and I don’t recall him actually buying anything, I figured said present might involve things that, if witnessed by me, would make me want to risk my sanity by obliviating myself, so I kindly decided he could probably live through it on his own. If Mum asks, though, there are no obliviation-inducing activities involved whatsoever – just respectful handholding and potential light smooching.”

Izzy rolled her eyes, sitting across the table from him. She’d imagined their first meeting face-to-face after the kiss would be much more… solemn. But she’d anguished about it for nothing because, aside from the butterflies’ wings batting their wings much, much harder in her stomach that they usually did when she was writing to him, it was just… them. Playful banter and comfortable talks. As long as it stayed there, she was fine. They were fine. “Your mother is not that thick, you know?” she risked saying. “She’s probably known what Fred is up to for years.”

George groaned, shrugging. “Let me enjoy my self-induced ignorance in peace, will you? I think it’s time we move on to other matters… such as me literally catching you with your hands all over the cookie jar. Sneaking cookies between meals, Isabelle? Shocking!”

“Appalling,” she offered. “But I’ll have you know, though, that my wrongdoing wasn’t really for myself. Alex loves his cookies and, since he was such a good tree-decorating assistant, I was going to give him one as a reward while at the same time hoping the sugar wouldn’t kick in until my parents came home and I could dump him on them.”

“Well, I’d say a sugar rush is the last thing you need to worry about right now,” he pointed out.

“What do you mean?”

In response, George gestured towards one of the armchairs by the fireplace, where she found her younger brother curled up on and drooling all over the chair’s arm as he slept. How hadn’t she noticed she hadn’t heard him in a while? “If anything sugar-related, the issue here is a crash, not a rush. Trust me, I have long years of experience when it comes to sugar-related ailments. Want help moving him?”

“And risk waking him up? No way. Give him a few minutes to make sure the kid’s really under,” she said. “Honestly, now that the Christmas tree is basically set up, I was starting to wonder about what I could find to keep him occupied next. It’s not really an easy thing to achieve in his hyper days.”

“Yes, I’ve heard stories of little Alex, the barbarian,” George said. “Your father sure tells them intensely enough to make one wonder if the kid is growing up to be some sort of criminal mastermind. Tonks insists he’s exaggerating by a lot, though…”

“It wouldn’t surprise me. Dad’s pretty dramatic, though, to be fair, Alex is known for acting a little less manic around girls,” she pointed out.

“Likes to impress the ladies, I see,” George concluded.

“Don’t you all?” Izzy mumbled.

Us all? Who do you mean by ‘us all’?” he replied, raising an eyebrow.

She gulped, wondering, in fact, who she had meant. “Hum… blokes with a perch for trouble-making? What? You’re not going to tell me you’re not one of those, are you?”

“And deny my most remarkable character? Of course not, Isabelle. I might as well be calling you stupid if I tried, which I’m pretty sure would probably get me injured in a way or another” he stated, causing her to reply with a grin in recognition of him knowing her so well. “Though,” he added, “when it comes to impressing girls, it depends on the girl.”

For a moment, she almost felt tempted to ask him if he was trying to impress her before quickly stopping herself – that would surely jump the line between friendly bantering and… flirting. She was threading dangerous ground… Friendly bantering was easy – she liked it because it was so… them. Flirting, well… would make it very hard not to think back to what they’d done last time they’d actually been within ten feet of each other. “Right… hum,” she mumbled, trying to think of a way to shift that conversation somewhere else. “Anyway, I didn’t think you were coming by until the Order meeting was over.”

“It is over,” he pointed out. “Your parents just haven’t made it back yet because they went somewhere with Kingsley. Some kind of meeting he’d arranged for your Mum or something – I didn’t really ask for more details. Didn’t sound dangerous, though, so don’t worry about it.”

Izzy imagined he was right – somehow, the only possible meeting that would cross her mind arranged by Kingsley for her mother involved her mother’s best friend, Elizabeth, in some way or another. “Well, and…?”

“And what?”

“What went on at the meeting?” she asked.

“You do know I’m not supposed to share that, right? With you being underage and not an Order member.”

She gave him a pointed look, silently asking him whenever he did what he was supposed to.

He groaned. “That’s not very fair, you know? Using my own history against me…”

“I didn’t say anything,” she replied, biting her lip to keep herself from taunting him with a grin.

“No. You were thinking it. I can tell,” he replied, narrowing his eyes.

“You read minds now?” she inquired.

“It’s all over your face,” he pointed out. “That I can read.”

She gulped. He was probably just saying that – he had to be. Because if he wasn’t, she just had to wonder about how much he knew about her… crush on him. Izzy wasn’t sure how good she was at hiding it… she shook her head, telling herself not to go there. “Well, just spill it, then. If you can read my face so well, you know I’m calling you on that whole ‘oh, I’m not supposed to share’ crap.”

He chuckled audibly. “Fine. Give me one of those and I’ll cave,” he said, nodding at the cookie jar.

Izzy smiled, reaching for the jar and sliding it across the table towards him. He caught it easily, quickly removing the lid and snatching a cookie.

“Chocolate. Nice,” he said before taking a bite.

“Well?” she prompted.

“Impatient, aren’t you, Isabelle?” George observed. “It wasn’t that interesting, you know? There weren’t even that many people in there. I actually had to punch Fred’s arm a bunch of times so he wouldn’t slip into a stream of daydreams featuring Angie and whatever plans he had for her…”

“Hey! You got your cookie, I want my data,” she stated.

“Fine, fine. I’ll give you your data,” he said, lifting up his hands in defeat. “As I said, it was pretty boring: assigning tasks, discussing missions – not even the exciting kind, by the way. Those are mostly under the grid. The most interesting part was actually your mum’s account of things inside Hogwarts, which I guess wouldn’t be that interesting to you since you were there yourself. Aside from that…” He paused, suddenly thoughtful for a second. “Well, I guess there is one thing…”

“What?”

“It’s about… you know that Harry has relatives, right?” he asked before getting to the point. “Blood relatives… an aunt, cousins…”

Izzy nodded. “Yes. He mentioned that sometime last summer. Dad did too.” It felt odd to think of Harry having relatives that weren’t related to her as well. True, it was bound to happen, given that they weren’t blood related, but still… thinking of Harry as anything less than an actual brother didn’t come naturally to her. He’d always been there for as long as she could remember, sometimes tormenting her, sometimes protecting her… filling the shoes of an older brother like no one else ever would. “They were pretty awful, according to Dad – Harry’s aunt and her husband, that is. Harry mentioned the kids seemed nice, though.”

George nodded. “Sounds right, according to what Hestia and Dedalus said. Anyway, apparently, they’re causing some trouble now… or rather the dad is. They were taken under the order’s protection last summer and that involves moving around. Last time they did, they were placed somewhere only temporarily because Hestia suspected the previous house they were in was exposed. The new place wasn’t somewhere ideal – it was kind of a bad place for them to be, actually, but since they weren’t supposed to stay for more than a week until they found a place in another village for them to go, it had to do… except when the time came to move them again, Harry’s uncle put his foot down.”

“What? Why?”

“He’s a big fat idiot, Isabelle. Honestly, the way Dedalus described him made me want to punch him even before I had a chance to meet him. Anyway, he put his foot down and now won’t let them move him anywhere else, which, given where he is, is apparently not good at all.”

“What do you mean by ‘not good at all’?”

He shook his head. “You’d have to ask Hestia and Dedalus – I don’t really know where they are. We chose to keep those kind of details as limited as possible. We just know they’re somewhere potentially dangerous and that the bloke – Victor or Vernard… whatever his name is – won’t listen when they tell him he has to move at least one more time or else his arse may very well be fried.”

“What a moron…” Izzy mumbled. More than a moron, she added in thought. It really was a relief that the man was in no way related to Harry. He didn’t get it, did he? That if they caught him and his family, they’d use them against his nephew… and likely not in a way that would leave any of them indifferent. And the worst part was that, as awful as his aunt and uncle were, Harry was not the kind of person who’d leave them to rot even if his life depended on it. If anything, for his cousins’ sakes. “Can’t they force him to go or something?”

“They could, probably. But then things would get sticky from there – they’d essentially be prisoners, making us sort of the bad guys… let’s just say the Order will avoid that for as long as they can. The trick here is to talk him out of his idiocy. If not him, his wife – honestly, without her and the kids on a tow, I doubt anyone would be interested on a prat like that even if he stays behind. I’m sure Hestia and Dedalus will handle it one way or the other,” he informed her. “Still, it doesn’t make the bloke any less of a pain in the arse. If he’s like that in a regular basis, I’d say Harry was lucky not to have to spend holidays around those…” George paused suddenly. “Sorry. Bad time to bring that up.”

“Don’t apologize,” she told him instantly. “I know he won’t be here for Christmas. You know it. Everyone knows it. It sucks, yeah, but it’s not it’s anyone’s fault. Well, at least not anyone in this room.”

“I dunno,” George replied, his lips curling a little, if only for the sake of cheering her up. “Your brother over there looks pretty guilty if you asked me.”

Izzy couldn’t help chuckling lightly as she turned on the chair in order to face the little boy sleeping on the armchair by the fireplace. “You did say something about him being a criminal mastermind in disguise,” she offered before clicking her tongue. “I guess if that’s the case, we’ll have to take his cookies away.”

“Tough love,” George said, nodding. “Too bad cookie embargos don’t work on everyone, or else we wouldn’t have His Evilness, Mr. Chief Death Eater to worry about now.”

“His Evilness, Mr. Chief Death Eater?” Izzy asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Just one of many nicknames Fred and I came up with for when we finally put our little wireless project on the air. In our defence, His Evilness has brought it on himself – he’s the one who won’t let us use his real name…”

“That’s a fair point,” Izzy agreed with a chuckle. Only George… “Any idea when the Resistance Network will be reaching the airwaves?”

“Oh, it’s actually not the Resistance Network anymore. It wasn’t catchy enough, so we decided to go for Potterwatch instead,” George informed her.

Potterwatch? Really?”

“Really. It sounded like an even bigger kick on the general arse of our favourite dark-cloaked freaks,” he stated. “As for reaching the airwaves, well, I guess it shouldn’t be too long now. We haven’t been in much of a hurry because we had to deal with closing the shop and we know Xeno’s been covering most of our bases over at the Quibbler, but I guess things will move quicker from now on. We already have plenty of contributors, equipment ready to use, locations on hold for the first broadcasts… basically, Lee just needs to say the word. He’s the one running the show now.”

Izzy nodded. “And the shop…”

George sighed. “It’s just temporary. We’ll open back up when things get better at Diagon Alley…”

“What if they don’t get better?”

“They will,” he stated firmly. “I’ve told you a hundred times, Isabelle. Don’t tell me I’ve wasted all that ink writing that down for you just so you’d ignore it.”

Izzy sighed. He had spelled that for her many times – not hundreds but certainly a few dozens. If it weren’t for all those times, she probably would have lost her mind by then. He had a way of making her believe in… in something better. True, it was only a temporary belief but by the time she was about to let go of it, he’d come back and make her believe again. Ignoring it wasn’t an option. “I didn’t ignore it but, I mean, it’s your shop. You and Fred have been planning it since you were… I dunno… my age?”

George chuckled. “Try twice his age,” he said, pointing at Alex. “But we’re not done with it. We’ve just closed the storefront because there were barely any people coming by anymore and it was getting sort of dangerous to stay open for the public. We’ve still got plenty of business from the owl orders – it’s not as flashy as the shop but it’s something. Really something. I mean, we had to stay up until three in the morning last night just so we could send everything out in time for Christmas. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have managed it between me, Fred, Lee and Remus if Tonks hadn’t offered a hand. True, baby Lupin’s only making her clumsier but she knows all sorts of wicked packing spells. Plus, it’s a hoot to hear her threatening Remus when he gets too protective.”

It was hard not to smile as she pictured the image in her head: Fred and George snickering around as Tonks pointed her wand at her husband in the midst of several owl order packa… She stopped picturing that upon recalling, all of a sudden, something she’d been forgetting until then. “Speaking of packing and stuff,” she said, “these owl orders mean you and Fred have been mailing a lot of stuff around, right?”

“Obviously,” George replied with a snort.

“So, say I asked you for some help mailing something – a big something – to someone… do you think you could comply?”

“Sure. Where do you want it sent?”

She hesitated for a second, easily predicting his (understandable) reaction. “Malfoy Manor.”

“Malfoy Manor?!” George asked in disbelief, raising his tone an octave. “You want to send something to Malfoy Manor? Is it a cursed something? Please tell me it’s a cursed something. Something that will explode the minute a Malfoy touches it. ”

“Shhh,” Izzy shushed him, turning to check on her sleeping brother for a moment. “It’s not an exploding something. But don’t worry, it’s not some tasteful Christmas present either. It’s basically a pain in my arse that I will simply transfer to theirs.”

George raised an eyebrow. “Alright, you’ll have to be a little more specific, Isabelle.”

She sighed, wondering where on earth to begin. “Okay… remember when I got caught in Snape’s office?”

“Of course,” George replied immediately. “On Halloween night.”

“Yes,” she said, surprised he remembered the day in specific. That day had, however, been the first time they’d spoken through the papyrus. Could that have something to do with…? Stop overthinking it, for Merlin’s sake. “Well,” she forced herself to continue, “the thing about the headmaster’s office is that you’re never really alone in there, even when it seems you are.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“The headmasters’ portraits,” she provided.

“Oh,” he mumbled. “Hadn’t thought of those. They’re usually just… there.”

“Not many of them these days, actually – or rather they are but the headmasters in them have gone somewhere else because they can’t stand Snape. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the case for all of them. Which wouldn’t be so bad if one of those who stayed behind hadn’t been my great-who-knows-how-many-times-great grandfather, Phineas Nigellus Black, who just happens to be a death-eater-loving, prejudiced old bat on a portrait that obviously hates me and really anyone descending from my disowned father. Not that I blame Dad for this or anything – Merlin knows I’d have made a run for it too if my parents were even a little like that… that thing…”

George frowned. That didn’t sound good. Didn’t sound good at all… “So, if he was in there when you broke in…” He still wasn’t quite sure what they’d been doing in there that day – she’d asked him not to ask about that and he’d complied. But still he could tell it had to be something important and potentially dangerous for her not to want to share. There weren’t many things they didn’t share these days aside from certain truths he didn’t even dare to think about. “Just how much does he have on you?” he asked. “Dirt, I mean.”

“Enough to get me, Ginny, Neville and Luna in a lot of trouble,” she stated. “Possibly far beyond a trip to the forest during a supposed full moon. Which is why I had to make a deal with him so he wouldn’t tell – he was more than willing to rat us out and leave us to rot, believe me.”

“What deal?” he asked, alarmed.

“Not a very bad one, don’t worry,” she assured him. “Phineas has a second portrait here in this house – we keep it in the attic because, as you can imagine, he’s as pleasant here as he’s at Hogwarts. So, I promised him that if he agreed to keep his mouth shut, I’d send our portrait of him over to a branch of the family that would… appreciate him more than we do,” she told him.

“The Malfoys.”

“Yes,” she said. “He’s not doing anything here. He’s been shut up there for years so he can’t possibly pass any important information to them. He just wants to be gone and if that’s going to help keeping me and my friends safe, I don’t care if…” She suddenly stopped talking, though, as the sound of steps coming down the stairs reached their ears.

Seconds later, Molly hurriedly made her way into the kitchen. “Oh, I didn’t know you were down here, dears,” she said, smiling faintly at both of them. If there was any hint of suspicion at seeing both of them alone and so engulfed in their conversation, Molly surely didn’t show it. To be honest, Izzy thought she might be too preoccupied with other matters to notice…

“Ginny didn’t seem to be in a very talkative mood,” George said in explanation. “She shipped me down here to go ‘bother Izzy’ – her words, not mine – before I had a chance to as much as ask her about her train ride yesterday.”

Molly sighed. “Yes, she seems to be a bit under the weather, doesn’t she? Oh, look at that,” she said when she spotted Alex’s sleeping form on the armchair.

“Yeah, apparently he fell asleep there while I was… fetching him some water,” Izzy said, causing George to have to stifle a snort, clearly knowing water had been far from what she’d come to fetch him, which earned him a glare.

“Poor thing must’ve been tired,” Molly said in a motherly tone. “Izzy, dear, if you were just down here to keep an eye on him, you can go upstairs. Both of you go. I’ll take him up to bed when I’m done checking on the turkey. I believe you and Ginny have already done enough to be set free from your babysitting chores.”

“Great,” George said for her, standing up. “Now you can show me that portrait you were telling me about. It sounds hysterical.”

Show him the portrait? That day? What would he want to see the portrait that day when he wouldn’t be leaving until after Christmas? “Alright,” she mumbled, getting up as well. “Thank you, Molly,” she told the matronly redhead who responded with an absent ‘sure, dear’, seeing as she’d already gotten busy preparing the gravy for the roasting bird. George was waiting for her by the door so he could let her lead the way. She raised an eyebrow a she reached the stairs. “Now?”

He shrugged. “Why not? Kind of need to see what I’m dealing with.”

“Okay, then. Follow me – it’s in the attic,” she mumbled, climbing up the stairs.

The last floor of the house didn’t quite feel… home. To be honest, she couldn’t even remember the last time she had been up there. Before her father had come back, she’d snuck into his old room – which shared the floor with his brother’s and the access to the attic – a few times to try and get to know him better. She was thankful that, now that she’d had a few years to get to know him in the first person, she no longer had much of a reason to go up there… well, aside from the present.

“The entrance is up there,” she told George, pointing at a hatch on the hallway’s ceiling. “Give me just a secon…” She stopped talking when the hatch opened it itself right before her eyes and a ladder came down. She turned back, raising her eyebrows at the redhead behind her, who happened to be holding his wand. “Really?”

“What? Were you planning to reach up there without magic?”

“I was going to use magic, smartarse! The Trace doesn’t work in here,” she informed him.

“That’s not fair. Fred and I had to wait until we were seventeen to use magic outside of the school!”

“Poor you. It’s not my fault the wards are too bloody thick for the trace to figure out whatever is going on in here,” she explained. “And before you ask, yes, that means Ginny and I can curse you if you and Fred act like bloody prats,” she told him.

“Okay, okay,” he said, lifting his hands up in defeat. “Can we just go on up there, Isabelle?”

She smirked, victorious. “Fine. But I should tell you – don’t touch anything up there as shinny or as harmless as it might look. There were pretty dangerous things in this house before we moved in – I think Kreacher got rid of the worst of it but I’m not sure how safe the non-worst is. Wouldn’t want you to lose a body part or anything.”

“Seriously?” he asked dryly.

She nodded, starting to climb up the ladder. “Yeah. You’d probably look pretty weird missing one of those.”

“Thanks,” George said dryly. He joined her up in the dusty attic seconds later, lighting the tip of his wand to help Izzy illuminate their surroundings. “Well, where are they?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” she declared, moving her wand around, trying to see through the darkness and the clutter.

George walked around too, keeping his wand lit as he scanned through the room with his eyes. There was plenty of crap laying around, from piles of books to chests full of Merlin-knew-what but no sign of… “Ah, there,” he said just as soon as he spotted a few portraits resting on the floor against an old dresser.

“Finally,” she mumbled under her breath, quickly making her way to them and reaching for the first, which appeared to be covered by a curtain. Just on the moment when she pulled on the curtain covering it, all hell broke loose.

The ear-piercing scream that came from behind the curtain nearly gave her a heart attack and caused her to jump so far back that her back landed straight onto George’s chest. She thought it might be a banshee – it sure sounded like one. But then she realized it really was the portrait screaming. That was vaguely familiar…

“Holly sh…” George mumbled, wrapping a protective arm around her before muttering an expulsion hex to send the portrait away from them and then, when it wouldn’t shut up, used another spell to get the discarded curtain to wrap itself around the screaming portrait, hoping to at least muffle it. It seemed to work as, seconds later, instead of muffling the portrait, the curtain actually quieted it.

None of them spoke for about thirty seconds after that – they were mostly too busy trying to get their hearts to start beating again.

“What… the hell… was that?” George asked slowly gaping at the now-covered portrait.

Izzy gulped, far too distracted by the fact that he still had his arm around her. In a protective way. And it felt damn good.

“Isabelle?” he said, dropping said arm.

“Ah, right,” she mumbled, stepping forward and forcing herself not to look at him. The portrait had just scared the senses out of both of them – nothing to be ashamed about nearly jumping him. “It think it might’ve been my grandmother,” she said. “I remember her having a portrait down there when we arrived. She was… touchy, to say the least.”

“You don’t say,” he mumbled sarcastically. “And here I thought that was like looking at a picture of you in a thousand years.”

… and just like that he was idiot-George all over again. She turned around on a flash, punching him hard on the arm before he had a chance to escape. That little…

“Hey! That was a joke!” he assured her, rubbing his arm.

“Not a good one,” she pointed out.

“Duly noted,” he said. “Merlin, Isabelle. A bit violent, aren’t you?”

“Only when people have it coming,” she replied.

He rolled his eyes at her. “Alright, let’s just find that portrait, shall we?”

“Right,” she mumbled, reaching for the next one on the pile, noting it was empty aside from the background of the painting. “It could be this one, I guess. It’s been a while since I saw it – I can’t really tell without his always pleasant frown gracing the frame.”

You took your sweet time, didn’t you, girlie?

Startled by the familiar voice, Izzy gasped and dropped the frame back onto the pile.

Careful! This painting if fragile! It’s a masterpiece!” it said, the voice muffled by the fact that his painting was pressed against the next one.

George was the one to get a hold of it next time, only to see Phineas already present in there. That portrait was slightly different from the one at Hogwarts – less heavy on the Slytherin colours –but he looked just as fussy as George remembered seeing him at the school. The little bastard, he thought as he turned it over and placed it down leaning back against the other portraits.

Oh, I remember you. You’re one of those troublemakers who share the same face,” Phineas observed.

“Well, most people call us ‘twins’ but that could just be slang when you were alive a few millennia ago,” George commented, turning to Izzy for a moment only to see her biting hard on her lip. He wasn’t surprised Phineas would recognize him – their proneness for trouble had certainly landed him enough times in Dumbledore’s office for him to be on first-name basis with basically every headmaster on the wall.

In my time, insolent boys like you would’ve been flogged,” Phineas told him, narrowing his painted-on eyes.

“Yeah, well, if it was still your time, you wouldn’t need a portrait to talk, would you?”

How dare…

“Hey, stop being rude to him,” Izzy demanded, moving until she stood next to George opposite the portrait. “You should be thanking him – he’s the one who’s helping me get you to the Malfoys.”

Him?!” Phineas said, quite scandalized. “Why should I trust he will even try to get my portrait there safely?

“Because, unlike you, I care for Isabelle,” he said, making Izzy’s heart skip a beat. “And the last thing I would want was for her – or my sister for that matter – to get in trouble with Snape and the Carrows because I didn’t help them keep their promise, therefore leading you to blab. On the other hand, though,” George added. “What assures us that you won’t spill everything over to Snape just as soon as you cosy up with the Malfoys?”

Phineas pursed his lips. “I am a man of my word.

George snorted at that. “Sure… now, completely unrelated, weren’t you successor to some bloke who got sacked because you and a bunch of students who, coincidently, happened to be all related to you, went to the school board saying he was a drunk?”

“What are you implying, boy?

“Me? Implying? No, I’m just recalling a few things I learned from this five-foot-long essay on the Headmasters of Hogwarts from the 19th and the 20th century that McGonagall made me and Fred write during one of our many detentions,” George informed him. “But if you want me to imply something, by all means, let me imply – or rather state – the following: if you as much as breathe a word to Snape, the Carrows or really anyone for that matter about what really happened on Halloween night, my brother Fred and I will burn this portrait into a crisp. Got it?”

Izzy gaped at him in surprise. What was he doing? Was he… was he threatening the stupid portrait just to make sure she’d be safe? No, she told herself. It’s not just you – Ginny’s in the middle too. But he had said he cared about her. She’d known that before – he’d made it clear in the past. But something when said it just made her… ugh, she was going mad. She really was going mad.

“And how do you intend to do that, boy, if I’m to be at Malfoy Manor by then?” Phineas asked, without realizing just how stupid he was being, all but assuring George he was going to betray them.

George smiled. “Isabelle?”

“Yes?” she asked quickly, jumpy that he’d called her name.

“Have I ever told you about this little spell Fred and I came up with to… let say, clean up after ourselves. It works miracles in what comes to… disposing of evidence.”

“Sounds interesting,” she played along, starting to catch what he was getting at.

“It is. It really is. See, you say ‘Specto Testemonium’. Or rather just think it – it works better when it’s unspoken. Like this, you know?” he stated, reaching for his wand and waving it in front of a somehow very pale Phineas, who all but lost it when a few red sparks came from the tip, even though nothing really happened. “And then,” George continued, “when you’re already connected to that evidence and think ‘hey, that thing would be way better if it were ash’, regardless of how far away you may be from it, you just wave your wand like this and say ‘erad…’”

Stop!” the portrait shouted. “I got the point.

“Oh, I see you do,” George said, turning back to Izzy. “As you can see, it’s pretty easy. And if, say, you want to use it on an extra set of evidence in Snape’s office, all you really need to do is find an excuse for him to get you there and use the spell silently when he’d distracted. Works like a charm, I tell you.”

“I’m sure it does,” Izzy agreed.

Enough. That’s enough,” Phineas told them. “I won’t talk – you got what you wanted. Now remove the spell!”

“What for? It won’t do anything until I say ‘eradic…’”

Don’t! Just get me out of here. I am sick… sick of you people!”

George grinned. “Alright, then. I’ll pick you up from here the day after tomorrow when I leave. Nice meeting you, Phineas.” And, with that, he picked the portrait up, turned it around so Phineas’s face was hidden and left it there. “You coming, Isabelle?”

“Er… yeah,” she said, immediately following him. “That was…” she mumbled after they’d left the attic, George pushing the ladder out of the way and closing the entrance to it behind him. “That was some spell.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “It’d be pretty wicked if it actually existed.”

Izzy gaped at him. “It’s fake?!”

“Not as far as Phineas knows,” he told her.

“Merlin,” she mumbled. “That was… that was really good lying.”

George grinned. “I prefer the expression ‘story-telling’. And it worked – I’m pretty sure he won’t open his mouth about you for anything in this world.”

Izzy just looked at him for a moment. “Thank you.”

He shook his head. “Don’t. It’s always a pleasure to scare the life out of a bastard like that one. Or, well, the afterlife in this case…”

“No, George, I mean it. Thank you. I hadn’t thought everything through – it hadn’t even occurred to him how he might blab after I’d kept my part of the deal. We’d be toast without you.”

He rolled his eyes. “Well, trust me when I tell you this was for purely selfish reasons. As I’ve said before, life would be pretty boring you without you just a parchment away to talk to.”

She smiled at him. “Yeah, these days my life would be pretty sucky without you there too,” she told him. “I guess a proper payback would be to save your arse next time you do something stupid and I’m around.”

“I’m not really keeping a scoreboard here,” he pointed out, smirking. “But I won’t mind having my arse saved by you if I ever need to. Provided you don’t do something stupid on the process, that is.”

She chuckled. “We’ll see about that.”

“Hopefully not.”

“Yet likely yes.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Thanks a lot for the vote of confidence, Isabelle.”

Her lips curled further and unexpectedly, she found herself looking at his. She looked away immediately but, by the time she did, the thought was already planted in her mind. What would it feel like to kiss him again? Last time he’s been the one to initiate it… maybe if she did that time he wouldn’t call it stupid…

She stopped herself. Her brain could not be serious. It simply couldn’t – she’d put herself through such an effort not to let her mind go there, yet on the single second she’d let herself slide, it stumbled spectacularly on the idea of kissing him?! No, she thought. Bad brain!

The doorbell rang downstairs, startling them both.

“That’s probably Fred,” George declared, likely unaware of the single second she’d spent considering making a feast out of his lips.

“Oh. You should probably go meet him downstairs,” she suggested, mostly for the sake of getting some distance to recover from her little… slip.

He agreed, mostly because he didn’t want Fred to start with his ridiculous theories about his time spent alone with Isabelle. “You coming?”

“You go on. I’ll be right down after you,” she stated.

George nodded. “Later, then,” he replied, making way to the stairs before he stopped himself and turned back around. “You know, with all of us in here until boxing day… this is gonna be a pretty interesting Christmas, don’t you think?”

Oh, he had no idea, she thought, swallowing hard.
 

A/N: Well, hope you liked it. Feedback is welcome! Review!


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