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Brave New Hope by ARG
Chapter 57 : Fast Tracking
 
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A/N: And it's a new record! 13k... I think I won't say anything more about this matter. I hope you like the chapter - I had to stick a lot of content into it because I sort of couldn't put it elsewhere... apologies in advance if it feels somehow disjointed because of that.

 25 December 1997

“No,” Mia firmly told her husband.

“But…”

No.”

“Aw, Mia,” he whined as he stood opposite her, the look of a kid begging for sweets all over his face. “Come on… it’s just a shower!”

She rolled her eyes. Of course he’d say that. “Yes, it’s just a shower. One you’re going to take on your own,” she told him, patting his cheek with a smile on her lips.

“But I’ll be lonely on my own. Plus, if you came along, we’d save time and water… isn’t there a drought going on? I’m pretty sure I heard something about a drought…”

“On your brain, maybe,” she replied, exasperated. “There’s no drought, Sirius Black and if there was one, us showering together would only serve to make it worse. I know you all too well – there’d be no water or time-saving coming from it.”

“Why would you ever think…?”

“Really? You’re trying to tell me there’s absolutely no hidden purpose behind you so vehemently insisting I take a shower with you? Because if there isn’t, by all means, let us take that shower… provided you swear it on your children’s souls.”

He gulped at that. “Well, I wouldn’t say… the word ‘absolutely’ is so definitive… and I just don’t like to gamble on souls, especially our kids’… hey, don’t give me that look!” he told his wife when he saw her regarding him with a clear ‘I knew it’ look on her face. “Is it so wrong for a bloke – a married bloke, by the way – to hope he’ll get to make love to his wife in the shower on Christmas Morning? Christmas, love!”

“It is wrong if it’ll make us late… again,” she told him. “On Christmas morning of all days. You do remember what we do on Christmas Morning, don’t you?”

“I know what I want to do…”

“We get up early so we can enjoy the day the most we can, we have breakfast together, we open presents, we spend time as a family…” she provided. “Don’t you want to do that?”

He narrowed his eyes at his wife. She was good. She was very good. And, frustratingly, that just made him want her more. “You are a cruel woman,” he told her.

“Hum, hum,” she mumbled, reaching for her dressing gown on a nearby chair. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a lump of coal with my name on it downstairs.”

“Oh, good thing you wouldn’t,” he assured her a bit moodily. “That way you won’t be too disappointed.”

She smiled as she put the dressing gown on and made her way over to him, placing her arms around his neck when she found herself close enough. He was just too adorable when he looked like a disappointed little kid.

“You know, you’re sort of sending mixed signals here…” he mumbled.

She chuckled. “Happy Christmas, Sirius,” she told him, reaching to place a soft kiss on his lips and ending it before he had a chance to turn it against her.

He gave her a look that clearly called her a ‘cruel woman’ once more, but didn’t make him refrain from wrapping his arms around her waist, pulling her closer. “Happy Christmas, Love,” he replied, resigned. “Last chance to change your mind.”

She smiled. “Ask me again tomorrow. Maybe the day after as well,” she offered.

“Oh, I’ll hold you to that. Believe me,” he assured her.

She laughed. “I’ll be waiting,” she told him, letting go of him and taking a step back. “Now get in that shower, lonely as it is, because I’m going after.”

“Why don’t you go first then?” he asked innocently.

Mia narrowed her eyes. “Because I know you’ll play dirty if I do.”

He looked a little disappointed. “Cruel, cruel woman,” he called her just before stepping into the loo and closing the door behind him.

His wife smiled to herself. She’d missed those… her husband’s little games. She’d missed him. Spending so much time away from him – first during his Azkaban years and now during his exile from Hogwarts – had shown her just how much impact he had in her life: he could lighten up her world like no one else ever had or ever would. He could make even the saddest moment into bearable ones. Like that Christmas – she’d been half expected to spend every waking moment of it mulling over the fact that Harry was Merlin-knew-where. To be truthful, she still spent quite a deal of time thinking of that but she had managed to enjoy the season nevertheless, mostly thanks to her husband and Arthur Weasley’s arrangement that had brought the redheaded family into Grimmauld Place to share it with them. Between all of them, a decent amount of Christmas spirit had been salvaged, although said amount unfortunately hadn’t been enough to stop Molly from breaking into waterworks twice the previous night – once during Christmas Dinner –, causing her to spent some good fifteen minutes alternating between sobbing on hers and Lulu’s shoulder over the fact that she had to wonder if she’s ever see Ron again.

Still sighing over the memory, Mia stepped out of the room in order to check on her youngest children. Alex’s room was already empty, which didn’t surprise her since the boy was quite the early riser and was likely already serving as a surrogate for Molly’s motherly affections. So, after tidying up the blankets on her son’s bed a little, Mia moved on to little Mary’s room.

That one was clearly not unoccupied. Having served her parents with a Christmas present in the shape of three hours to get her to go to sleep the previous night, it seemed the little girl had decided to sleep in that morning – that was, until an unknown amount of minutes before as, instead of screaming bloody murder for an adult to come and spring her, young Mary Black stood holding herself up by the cot’s railing, eyeing the structure as if she was trying to find a way to escape on her own. To be fair, Mary did look at everything that way those days – like she was trying to figure out everything about it… more often than not before she gave up and instead tried to eat it. Babies did that kind of thing.

When she spotted her mother at the doorway, though, Mary smiled, lifting up her little arms, already asking to be picked up, which seemed to cause her to lose her balance and fall on her bum. The baby looked quite surprised by it, not having foreseen the connection between letting go of the railing and falling down.

Mia chuckled as she approached the cot. “Haven’t quite mastered your balance yet, have you, my little darling?” she said with a smile as she reached down to pick up the little girl settling her on her hip before placing a kiss on her soft cheek. “That’s okay. Even grown-ups fall down sometimes – some more than others like your auntie Tonks – but you’ve got a decent excuse since you’re not going to be one until next week.”

Mary looked up at her like she was all ears, a small frown forming on her face, even though her mother was quite sure she wouldn’t have understood half of what she was saying.

She brushed the soft brown curls on her daughter’s head, sighing. “Today is a special day for you, you know?” she continued. “It’s your first Christmas. One year ago you were still in Mummy’s tummy.” One year ago everything was different. The thought brushed through her mind for a single second before she banished it, deeming it too depressing for the occasion. “Alright, little princess, let’s get you all dressed up for today, shall we?” she asked the little girl, walking over to the dresser.

Dressing Mary took her a little more than Mia recalled from before the beginning of the term, mostly because the little girl was bigger and more active, kicking and punching as well as rolling around. Afterwards, all dressed up in Christmas themed clothes, Mary seemed like quite the happy baby, giggling randomly before stretching her little arm towards the door like she was trying to reach for it.

“Want to go out there, do you?” she asked the little girl. “Alright, I suppose the two of us can walk around a little while Daddy finishes his shower.”

The little girl’s face lit up like the sun at the mention of the word ‘Daddy’. There was no doubt on Mia’s mind that her daughter absolutely adored her father, food-throwing aside. And, while she might drive him completely out of his mind sometimes, the feeling was very mutual. Poor child… she’d have jump through a lot of hoops in order to date one day…

Mia stepped into the hallway with the little girl just as she heard her eldest daughter’s voice as well as Ginny’s coming from the floor below right before a door was shut. Mary looked around, confused by the fact that she could see no source for the sound around them. “Want to go downstairs say ‘hello’ to Izzy?” she asked the little girl, who cryptically responded by drooling on her own hand. Mia took it as a ‘yes’.

Before she even had a chance to knock on the door leading into her daughter’s room, Mia was able to spot her inside sitting cross-legged on her bed already dressed for the day and, apparently, reading a book. Not just any book, Mia noticed, but in fact her sixth-year History of Magic text book. What on Earth? Mia thought, raising an eyebrow.

“Izzy?” she said, knocking softly on the door.

Her daughter looked up, clearly startled at first that someone was standing at her doorway. The she managed a smile. “Oh, hi, Mum. And Mary. Hi. Happy Christmas.”

Mia smiled back. “Happy Christmas to you too, honey. What are you doing?”

“Reading up the chapters a certain History of Magic teacher assigned her students to read over the break,” Izzy replied, looking pointedly at her.

True enough, she had assigned it to them. But still… “Izzy, I don’t think she’ll blame you if you leave it for after Christmas. She most certainly won’t give you any extra credit for doing it on Christmas morning, not that fishing for extra credit is something you’d ever do.” She paused for a moment, taking a step closer to her daughter and looking her up and down before pushing the door further closed behind her. “Honey, are you okay?”

Izzy gave her a confused look. “Of course I am – why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, you’re sitting alone in your room in Christmas Morning doing homework that’s not due for over a week,” Mia pointed out.

“Ginny did just step out to take a shower,” her daughter informed her.

“Still, Izzy. It’s just… odd,” she said, sitting on the edge of Izzy’s bed and placing Mary on the space between them. The little girl was quick to try and get her hands on the discarded text book, which she would have certainly used as a chew toy, had Izzy not snatched it back so quickly. “You’ve been getting up at six every Christmas since you were four, yet here you are today in your room at half past eight.”

“I’m not a kid anymore, Mum,” she pointed out.

“I know, love. But…” It was just uncharacteristic of Izzy to be so passive about Christmas. It could be about Harry – that with him not there, Izzy just didn’t feel comfortable with celebrating Christmas the way they used to. But still, Mia doubted it, as Izzy had been more than fine with setting up the tree, which she tended to with him as well. What else was different that year? Aside from the Weas… And just like that, everything clicked – the Weasleys were there that year. And with the Weasleys came the Weasley her daughter seemed to have a bit of a crush on. “Izzy… are you… avoiding someone… or something?” Mia asked her.

“Avoiding someone?” Izzy asked a bit too loudly before reaching over for her sister and snatching her to her lap, hoping playing absently with the baby would mask any nervous ticks she might develop. “Of course not. Why would I be avoiding anyone?” She was not avoiding him. George. She wasn’t. First, because she had no idea if he was downstairs in the first place; secondly because, even if she was, it wasn’t like she was planning to run away from him all day. Just from situations when she might be completely alone with him. Because she didn’t trust her stupid brain not to snog the hell out of him – it’d proven itself unreliable enough the previous afternoon. So, in all honesty, she just hadn’t been planning to go downstairs until Ginny went along with her because, while she didn’t trust her brains to keep a hold on themselves when she and George were alone, she was pretty sure she could find away to keep them under control with a third person in the room. Her sense of self-protection against embarrassment spoke louder.

Mia saw the lie in the denial as soon as it came out. She really did. But, since it rubbed her more as self-denial that as an intentional lie, she let that one slide without a lecture. “Well, I don’t see any reason why you should be avoiding anyone. I mean, everyone in this house is either your family or your friend. So what reason could there possibly be for you to avoid family or friends that clearly care for you? Unless something happened…”

“Nothing happened,” she said, once again too loudly, causing Mary to kick her little legs against her own in protest. At least that time it hadn’t been a lie, she thought, sifting her sister. Thank Merlin. Mary was so lucky she probably still didn’t find any specific appeal in boys. “Wha… what could’ve possibly happened?”

“I don’t know, honey. Sometimes things happen between friends. Like fights or… just confusing moments,” Mia told her, picking her words carefully. “But, most of the time, when friends are… good friends, which I’m sure would hypothetically be the case, those fights and those… confusing moments won’t make them care for you any less.”

It was getting painfully obvious her mother’s advice wasn’t about a general group of friends. In fact, it was starting to sound like her mother knew exactly what she was talking about. Izzy felt like groaning. She vaguely remembered rambling about George to her mother in an exhausted stupor sometime around the occasion when he’d dragged her out of the Burrow when it had been invaded but she’d been hoping it was a dream. Not that she didn’t trust her mother. She just didn’t feel like talking about it. Yet apparently she had no control over her tongue when she was sleepy – words-wise, that was. She might want to drink plenty of tea that day to make sure nothing incriminating came out of her mouth in front of George that day. Sometimes she just felt like it was easier to deal with him in magical papyrus form – at least that way she had less chance of embarrassing herself.

“Mum, friends are just friends,” she told her mother as Mary, sick of being on her lap, kicked around in frustration.

Mia sighed, starting to get frustrated. It was like talking to herself a couple of decades ago – and she didn’t mean that as a good thing. “Izzy, if I’d stuck to that thought twenty years ago like I tried to, you wouldn’t be here today.”

Izzy stared at her mother for a good thirty seconds while Mary squirmed before saying anything. “That… I don’t… We…”

“Ma!” the two of them suddenly heard Mary saying, both of their heads snapping around to stare at the little girl, who seemed to be stretching her arms at Mia, waiting to be picked up by her mother.

“Oh, oh,” Mia said, lifting the little girl onto her lap. “Was that a word, honey? Was that ‘Mama’?”

“Ma!” Mary repeated, trying to reach for her mother’s face with her chubby arms.

“Oh… my baby,” she said, reaching to place several kisses on the baby’s cheeks.

“Dad’s gonna be bummed he wasn’t here,” Izzy pointed out, rather glad Mary’s talking had encapsulated her mother’s attention, preventing a conversation she wasn’t ready for from happening.

“Bummed about what?” she suddenly heard her father asking as he unceremoniously stepped into the room, fully dressed for the day but with his hair slightly damp from the shower.

Izzy raised her eyebrows at him. “Eavesdropping, Dad? How very teenage girl of you.”

“You’d know about that, wouldn’t you?” he cheekily replied. “Anyway, what am I supposed to be bummed about?”

“That you missed Mary’s first word for about thirty seconds,” she stated.

At first, Izzy noticed that Sirius looked confused for a short moment. Then, after that, it took about a second too long for him to seem surprised. “Really? What did she say?” he asked, slightly too enthusiastically. Something was up – Izzy knew it was.

“She said ‘Ma’. I think it meant Mama… or do you think it might’ve just been a random sound?” Mia said, too wrapped up on the little girl to notice any odd behaviour on her husband.

Sirius shook his head, grinning. “I doubt it. Mary here is a smart little bugger,” he said, reaching to tickle the not-yet one-year-old.

“Yes, she is,” Mia agreed, smiling widely at her daughter. She’d been so certain she’d miss it. That by being away she’d miss all those milestones like the first step or the first word. But she hadn’t. At least not all of them… she couldn’t think of a better Christmas present at the moment.

“I guess in a few months we’ll be crossing our fingers for her to shut up,” Sirius observed with a grin. “What is this, anyway? All my girls conferencing in the same room… is this some sort of meeting to plan my demise and get all my money?”

“Dang… you caught us, Dad,” Izzy replied in a mock-embarrassed tone. “There goes that cot made out of gold that Mary was planning to buy with her share of the inheritance.”

Sirius clicked his tongue. “Bet it was all her idea, wasn’t it? I did always know one of you kids would be the death of me. All those smiles and that cooing… it was all a play, wasn’t it, Miss Mary?” Sirius asked the baby, who hid her face against her mother’s neck with a giggle. “Where’s the other male specimen inhabiting this house, anyway? Why isn’t he here protecting his father from his harpies of a mother and sisters?”

“I imagine he’s downstairs being spoiled by Molly,” Mia informed him.

“Ah… would rather be coddled by some redhead than to save his father,” Sirius concluded, shaking his head in disapproval. “The shame…”

“Well, don’t worry… since you’ve found us out this time, I guess it’ll be a few months before we can go back to planning your demise,” Mia told him, getting up from her daughter’s bed and handing Mary over to her husband. She placed a kiss on his cheek before excusing herself. “Well, I’d better get into the shower. You might want to give her breakfast now before she gets cranky,” she told her husband before smiling at little Mary. “Can you say ‘Ma’ again for Mama?” Mary just gave her a blank look in return, making Mia sigh. “Oh, well, maybe next time.” And, with that, she made her exit.

Left alone with her father and sister in the room, Izzy used the opportunity to shoot him an accusatory look.

“What?” he asked when he noticed it.

“That wasn’t really her first word, was it?”

He shot her a look of shock but, once again, it took a second too long to form. “Why would you possibly…?”

“It took you a little too long to look surprised, Dad,” she informed him. “Just like it took you a little too long to look shocked right now. So, was it? I won’t tell Mum.”

Sirius eyed her for a few seconds before saying anything. “Mary and I made a deal. We’ve decided that her first word would be whatever the hell she said first in front of your mother. So, for all intents and purposes, her first word took place today and was ‘Ma’.” Which sounded far better than the real first word she’d said… ‘damn’. Or something similar enough. It had taken him days to get her to stop it and even then he still wasn’t sure it wasn’t still there somewhere. He was pretty much dead if she said it in front of Mia. She’d made him sleep on the sofa when Alex had said something along those lines.

“And if she hadn’t said anything while Mum was home?” Izzy asked.

Sirius paused. “Hadn’t really thought of that, to be honest. But, anyway, your mother can never hear of this. It’d break her heart to know that she missed the real thing.” Although, given the word it was, he imagined she was much better off with that one.

“I’ve already told you I wouldn’t tell, didn’t I?”

Her father smiled. “Good girl. Now, let’s get this little one fed. You coming along, Izzybel?”

“I was actually waiting for Ginny.”

“What for? It’s not like she doesn’t know her way down. And why is there a text book on your bed on Christmas morning?” he said, having just spotted it. “Are you trying to get grounded, young lady?”

Izzy chuckled. “Merlin, if studying on holidays will get me grounded, I wonder what would happen to me if I ever make Head Girl.”

“Disowning, obviously,” he told her unceremoniously. “I’d have my bags packed the moment I got the badge, if I were you. Same to you, Miss Mary,” he told the baby on his arms.

“Well, that is unconditional love,” his eldest daughter commented as she got up from the bed.

“It’s for your own good, Izzybel. No child of mine is allowed to be some stuffy goody two-shoes,” he stated firmly starting to walk out of the room.

“Oh, so if I went out there and started dating some tattooed freak who lends a hand to You-Know-Who on Sundays, that would be just fine,” she pointed out as she followed him.

Sirius stopped on his tracked. “Dating?”

The fact that he’d taken issue with her dating at all instead of just with the horrid description of a potential boyfriend should have probably freaked her out a lot. They’d had that discussion before – that him frowning upon her dating was just ridiculous since she was neither a child nor completely demented. Still, she supposed the fact that it had been over a year since she’d dated anyone had probably allowed him to slip back into that blissful world where Izzy just didn’t care about boys at all. Which – she unsuccessfully tried to brand that fact as unfortunate – couldn’t be farther away from the truth as the previous day and many other occasions featuring George Weasley came to mind. “Do you really want to discuss this again on Christmas morning, Dad?”

Sirius just grunted in response, turning away from her and starting telling her sister that she wouldn’t be allowed to date until she was forty. Yeah… like that’s going to happen, she told herself as they reached the first floor. Her good old overprotective Dad…

“Oi, Izzy!” She nearly jumped out of her skin at the voice that called her name before noticing that she hadn’t actually been called by her name. Well, her full name, at least, which that voice recurrently called her by. She turned on her heel to face the source of it and spotted the Weasley in question through the living room’s doorway, sitting on the sofa with his father. She was pretty sure that one was Fred – not fully sure since she couldn’t see all the ‘tells’ yet but about 80%. “Happy Christmas, good morning, blah, blah… more pleasantries… blah. Anyway, Dad needs help with the telly,” he told her.

“Oh, okay… and likewise on the pleasantries,” she mumbled before stepping into the room, her father after her. “I’ll just…”

“Sure. You stay here while I go on to the kitchen with the daughter who doesn’t try to drive her father out of his mind,” he told her.

“Funny,” maybe-Fred said. “Didn’t you say the other day at the shop when you looked like you hadn’t slept since the beginning of the decade…?”

Regardless of what I said or looked like,” Sirius said quickly. “This one’s a hundred times worse,” he said, nodding at Izzy.

“Wow. And I wasn’t even trying,” she commented. “Wonder what happens when I am…”

“Aren’t you supposed to be helping with the telly, Izzybel?” he asked, trying to deflect the conversation. “Kids these days…” he mumbled as he walked away.

Izzy shook her head as she approached the sofa. “So, what’s wrong?” she asked, only afterwards noticing the screen on the telly was blue.

“No idea. Dad was experimenting with this black thing and the whole screen went blue,” maybe-Fred stated, showing her the remote.

“Oh, let me just take that,” she said, reaching for the object and fiddling with the buttons until the screen was filled with cartoons of yellow-coloured people walking around. “There. Done.”

“Ah, fantastic!” Mr. Weasley said, excitedly. “George and I tried to get it back to normal for more than ten minutes but nothing would work.

Had he just said ‘George’? “Er… George?” she asked out loud, staring at the alleged George. Maybe Mr Weasley meant that George had been there earlier because, now that she was near enough to see him up close, Izzy was about 99% sure it was Fred sitting on her sofa.

“Yep,” the younger redhead declared. Or rather lied, she was sure.

She stared some more – he was clearly up to something. “Okay…” she mumbled hesitatingly, walking over to sit by his side on the sofa. She couldn’t help wondering what they were trading identities for. It was probably some sort of game – that seemed like the sort of thing they’d do.

Oblivious to the matter, Mr Weasley observed the cartoons on the telly from his armchair with childlike wonder, which was something, as that was far from the first time he saw a television working, let alone that television. “Amazing,” the older man mumbled as he got up from his seat to observe the colourful broadcast closer. “Just amazing, these Muggles.”

Seeing her best friend’s father far too lost in his wonder to have any notion of his surroundings, Izzy found that opportunity as good as any to question Fred. “Alright, what are you and George up to really?”

Fred eyed her with a (remarkably good) forced look of confusion. “You must mean Fred and I.”

No,” she replied. “I do mean you and George. And don’t bother convincing me you’re not Fred. You know you are.”

The redhead looked completely lost. “How can you possibly tell? You ran into him, didn’t you? He blabbed.”

“He didn’t blab. I didn’t even see him yet today,” she assured him.

“Then how?”

Izzy shrugged. “Ginny told me about this ‘tell’ you have. Then I started to notice some others of my own.”

“Such as…”

She rolled her eyes. “If I told you, I’d lose the upper hand.”

“Come on – it’s just one,” he insisted, eyeing his father to make sure he was still far too distracted with the telly to hear. “What gave me away today?”

She could have kept her mouth shut – hell, she probably should have. It wasn’t like he had that whole effect George had on her that made her spill all sorts of stuff she wasn’t planning to. But still, she said it. She’d always wonder why – maybe it was her brain betraying her again. “You called me Izzy.”

“So? Everyone does.”

“Not George.”

Fred seemed confused. He could safely say he had never noticed anything of that sort. “Since when? How have I never noticed him call you by some weird nickname?”

“He doesn’t call me by a nickname – he just calls me by my name.”

“What name?”

“You do know that Izzy is the nickname, right? My name is actually Isabelle,” she stated.

“So George always calls you Isabelle?” he asked, surprised. She nodded in response. “How have I never noticed that?”

She shrugged. “I guess it’s not a really big deal…”

Fred responded to that by raising his eyebrows. That was far from not a big deal. George didn’t just do things for the sake of doing them – there was usually a reason behind them. The two single reasons Fred could think of for his twin brother to call Isabelle Black by her given name had to be: 1. Annoying her; 2. Trying to feel like less of a creep for liking her by calling her by a name that would imply an increased degree of… maturity on her. Fred was inclined to hope for the second. “So, you did say you noticed a few more ‘tells’… what would it cost me to get you to share them?” He was curious to hear what differences Izzy had noticed between him and George – since most people (including his own father) more often than not couldn’t tell them apart, her noticing those ‘tells’ had to mean she looked more their way (George’s, particularly) than most people did.

She might have said a lot of things. How their freckles had different patterns, how Fred always spoke just a fraction of an octave higher than George, how Fred tended to go to the most obvious and broad jokes while George stuck with more complex ones, how George’s grin was just a little softer than his twin’s… she could have said that and much more. Still, that time she had enough sense to refrain herself, knowing how obvious that would make her crush. “I don’t really think anything’s worth giving up this leverage on you two.”

And what leverage would that be?

The two of them turned to the door to find George casually coming into the room.

“Shh…” Fred whispered as he nodded warningly at their father, who was apparently still in the room… though solely in a physical sense as his mind seemed too lost on inspecting the wiring behind the telly, at which he looked at as if he really wanted to take it apart.

George raised his eyebrows at that as he approached them but didn’t really comment on it. “Well? Leverage?” he asked them.

“It seems, brother, that Isabelle knows a number of ways to tell us apart – which, by the way, she’s already done today – but refuses to share them,” Fred accused her.

“Aw, Isabelle. Where’s your Christmas spirit?” he asked her, more playful than annoyed. Honestly, it didn’t really bother him she could tell them apart. In fact, it made him a little proud. He didn’t want to think too much about the ‘why’ behind that.

“My Christmas spirit is just fine, thank you very much, just as is my common sense,” she informed him with a smile. “Would you give up on such good leverage?”

George didn’t reply. “Well, it sort of doesn’t matter now. We’ve got to abort this play, Fred. Mum knows.”

“Oh, come on – don’t tell me she’s in on this ‘tell’ thing too!”

“I’m sure she must know plenty of tells too – it’s Mum, isn’t it? She knows everything. But this time I sort of had to spill the beans.”

Fred gaped at him. “What? Why?!”

“Well,” George started, eyeing his father to make sure he was not paying attention – and wondering if he shouldn’t worry that the bloke was so close to the telly it might fry his brains, “she found a few – how should I put it? – make-up related stains on the inside of your clothes while she was cleaning our room. Safe to say she wasn’t happy about it and, as much as I love you as my favourite brother, I draw the line at hearing lectures about the weird stuff you and Angie do to each other.” Especially when he hadn’t been shagged in a while… a pretty long while. “Oh, by the way, she asked me to tell you to meet her upstairs in the room we’re staying in.”

The gape on Fred’s face became sheer panic. “Crap. Oh, crap. Why does Angelina have to keep wearing that cheap Muggle lipstick that leaves stains on everything? Mum will kill me.”

“Probably not,” George argued. “Being Christmas, she wouldn’t want to make the holidays bloody or anything. Plus, we’re guests in someone else’s house, so killing you here would be terribly rude.”

“Oh, please,” Izzy interjected. “Don’t worry about politeness – we did tell you to make yourselves at home. Plus, I don’t think Kreacher has problems with cleaning crime scenes.”

The redhead grinned at her, glad she was playing alone. “Well, if that’s the case, then it was nice to meet you, Fred.”

Fred glared. “You know, I’m a sucker for jokes but that one… that one just wasn’t funny.”

“It was funny to me,” Izzy pointed out.

“Well, that’s because the two of you are just…” He stopped himself, wondering if finishing that sentence was a good idea. It probably wasn’t since he’d just been about to point out the fact that they were bloody perfect for each other. George would kill him if he said that or at the very least be furious. Honestly, he’d rather that didn’t happen.

“Just what?” he heard Izzy asking.

He huffed, and eyed both of them. “Never mind,” he mumbled, giving George a look at the same time he got up, aware of the subtext that sent his brother’s way – hell, he wanted him to have the subtext. “Now, if you excuse me, I have to go to Mum and hope I find a good excuse for what she found on my way up.”

With that, he made his way out, leaving Izzy and George to watch him walking away with high eyebrows.

“Well, that was fun,” George mumbled.

“It was,” Izzy agreed with a chuckle. “Lipstick? Really? No chance that’s some joke of yours?”

“Oh, I wish it was a joke… or that there was a way for me to un-think the things I thought when Mum told me about it,” he said with a disgusted look as he moved to take the seat his brother had been occupying by Izzy’s side.

“Well, there are memory charms,” she offered, trying not to think of how close he was to her at the moment.

“What? And risk my sanity over these two? Not worth it.”

“What were you two trading places for, anyway?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Because it’s fun. Plus, Mum gets annoyed when we do it at home.”

“And doing it here would get her less annoyed?” she asked sceptically.

“No. But as long as she’s annoyed at us, she’s not mulling over Ron not being around,” George pointed out.

“Oh,” she mumbled. She wasn’t sure whether that was a noble reason behind the whole role-switching play or a simple way for him to justify it just for the sake of feeling better with himself. She didn’t ask, anyway. “Well, before you ask, I’m not telling you the ‘tells’ either, just so you know.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You mean there are more of them than the freckle thing?”

She looked confused. “I told you about that?”

He nodded. “Last summer. But there are more, aren’t there?”

Why was she even surprised she’d told him? He could probably make her spill her deepest, darkest secrets if he tried really hard… which, at the moment, mostly involved information about Harry’s quest and the fact that she had it bad for him. But, hell, that couldn’t go on, could it? She needed to learn to keep her mouth shut at will around him. Starting at that moment. “That’s for me to know and you to never find out.”

George eyed her for a second. “You know I’ll get it out of you, right? Maybe it won’t be today but one of these days, Isabelle, you’ll sing it like a bird.”

He might just be right… but she was going to put up a fight to stay quiet. “Oh, forgive me if I lay down while I wait for that to happen,” she replied. “Because forever is a long time to wait up.”

He grinned, rolling his eyes as he turned to look at his father again – the man looked like a fly obsessed with a lamp, only the lamp was actually a telly in that case. He made a mental note to talk to Fred about finding a way to give him one of those the following Christmas since it was a bit too late on that one. “Having fun, Dad?” he asked.

“Phenomenal, those Muggles,” the older man said as he stared at the yellow people moving around on the screen, kneeling far too close to it for his eyes not to be uncomfortable. “Getting draws to move around without magic. Simply phenomenal. I couldn’t help noticing the set isn’t connected to elektritity,” he said, misspelling the last word before turning to Izzy. “You don’t happen to know how it manages to work anyhow, do you, Izzy?”

She shrugged. “I think it’s some sort of spell. You might get more information from Lulu – she’s the one who set it up.”

“She was?” he asked, surprised.

Izzy nodded. “Her father was a Muggle – she grew up mostly dependant on Muggle gadgets. If you walked into her current flat, you’d think she wasn’t magical at all.”

“Oh, how curious! I wonder if she’s up yet.”

“She is – I heard her chasing Alex around down on the ground floor,” George provided.

“Ah, lovely, I think I’ll go ask her now while your mother doesn’t call us for breakfast.”

George chuckled, thinking of his mother lecturing Fred upstairs. “Oh, take your time. She’s a bit busy at the moment.”

Izzy snorted as Mr Weasley excused himself, completely oblivious to what his son meant.

“It’s amazing how awestruck he gets by all the Muggle stuff,” George observed once his father was out of the room.

“Well, Muggles do it all without magic – like it or don’t like it, the things they still manage to come up with are pretty impressive that way,” Izzy pointed out

“Say that to Dad and you’ve got a friend for life,” he replied. “You’re pretty good at that whole Muggle stuff, aren’t you?” he asked after a few seconds

She shrugged. “I guess. Why do you ask?”

“Nothing in particular. Just something I was thinking. I mean, you know how to operate a television, you constantly correct me when I misspell words about Muggle things, you successfully managed to get to the shop via underground last Summer…”

“I got a bit lost that time,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, but you got there in the end,” he replied. “Have I ever told you about mine and Fred’s first and only venture into the underground?”

She raised her eyebrows. “No.” But it was already sounding interesting…

“Well, it was last Easter. We were going to King’s Cross to welcome Ginny home from school and decided it would be fun to try to mingle with the Muggles. Plus, it’d be a fun thing to tell Dad about,” he added. “So, we traded some Muggle money, found the nearest station and got tickets. It was supposed to be just three of four stations or something but – don’t ask me how we did it – somehow we ended up miles away, by that place where the flying buses land.”

“The airport?”

“Exactly. We didn’t even notice until we got there.”

“How? Didn’t you see you were stopping on about a dozen more stations than you were supposed to… and probably heading the wrong way too? What line did you take?”

“Line? I dunno – we got into the first train we saw!”

“Well, no wonder you got lost, then! Were you expecting the train to magically know where you were headed to?”

“Hey! Don’t judge us. I’d like to see a Muggle sort through the Floo Network,” he replied.

He did have a point there, Izzy had to give him that. “Well, but didn’t Professor Burbage teach you this kind of thing?”

“No. We didn’t take Muggle Studies,” he replied. “We took Care for Magical Creatures and Divination instead.”

“Divination? What did you want Divination for?”

“I dunno – we were hoping to be there when Trelawney lost her marbles for good. Plus, it was kind of fun making up dreams for those journals she made us write. She predicted Fred and I would die before the end of the year on our first term with her. I think it always bugged her that we didn’t eat it after all – she always looked at us weirdly afterwards,” he stated.

Izzy chuckled. “Well, you should’ve taken Muggle Studies. It’s really fun… well, at least it was before Alecto took over. Now all they teach us is crap about how evil Muggles are and how they would decimate us if they could, so it’s perfectly fine if we beat them to it. And you know what’s the best part of it? We’re supposed to write a massive essay on how horrible they are and how they should be massacred. Muggles, that is.”

“Bet your head’s bursting with inspiration,” George joked.

“It is. I literally get up at night to write line after line of flawless text,” she said sarcastically. “Maybe I’ll just give up and take the detention. She promised it’d be pretty horrid but I’m sure I won’t be the only one there, so that might make it a little bit better.”

He gaped at her. “Are you mad? You’re not going to get yourself detention!” he said, all signs of humour having vanished from his face.

“Says the bloke who got it all the time.”

He huffed. “For Merlin’s sake, do I even need to say this?” he said under his breath. “I got detention with McGonagall, with Flitwick, with Sprout… even with Snape before he went evil,” he paused, watching as Izzy gave him a doubtful look, “alright, this openly evil. But anyway, I got detention with allegedly normal teachers, not murderous lunatics posing as such. They’ll torture you if they know they can get away with it. You know that.”

She let out a frustrated sound. “How do I write that thing, then? Just trying to come up with the words would make anyone with a little bit of decency sick!”

“Then don’t come up with the words,” George replied.

She eyes him oddly. “Now you’re just not making any sense.”

“That’s because you’re not thinking outside the box – do you realize that you’ve got a perfectly hateful portrait up in your attic that I am yet to mail to the Malfoys?”

“Are you suggesting that I ask Phineas to write the essay for me? Because, let me tell you, I don’t really think that works with dead people.”

“I’m not telling you to ask him to write it for you – I’m telling you to use him as inspiration.”

“Oh, come on! He’ll never help me with homework!”

“Then don’t tell him it’s homework. Just ask him why he thinks Muggles are the worst thing to ever happen in the world and I’m sure he’ll have plenty to say – I bet by the end of it you’ll have more than enough for two essays,” he observed before eyeing her and seeing she still didn’t look quite comfortable. “Look, I know it sucks that they’re making you write this thing in the first place but you do what you have to do when you have no other choice. Just write it down, deliver it knowing you don’t believe a word of it and don’t think any more of it. It’s not like it’s going to make anyone’s feelings towards Muggles any worse, least of all theirs.”

He did have a point there. The Carrows simply couldn’t get any nastier than they already were. “Thanks. I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.”

“No one will think any less of you for it – no one with brains, at least. I know that I won’t,” George assured her. “And if you want some company to help you endure Phineas’ idiocy…”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll take Ginny,” she said quickly before he even had a chance to offer. Thinking back to the previous day, it was easy enough to conclude that going back into that attic alone with George was just mad. She didn’t trust herself to endure that without jumping him. She barely trusted herself to be alone in a room with him in case her brain decided to play tricks on her which, thank Merlin, it wasn’t at the moment. Well, not very much, at least. Yet, she was still wondering how her plans not to be left alone in a room with him – which seemed to be the case at the moment – had been shot to hell… “She needs the material too, anyway,” she justified. “Plus, Mum probably won’t like us going up there, so it wouldn’t hurt if you stayed down here and covered for us.”

George shrugged. “If that’s what you want…” he mumbled. “But make sure Ginny takes her Christmas present up with her. It’ll be a lot easier to catch everything he says if you use it.”

“Use it? What sort of present is that?”

The redhead chuckled. “One of those Self-Writing Quills.”

“A Quill? You gave your sister a quill for Christmas?” she asked, chuckling.

“It’s lame, I know, but she brought it on herself. It’s a bit of a joke, you see? Gin-Gin kept complaining that, since you and I write to each other until so late at night, she now has to take all the notes during the first morning classes because you’re pretty drowsy. Which, I gather, she’s exaggerating because you’d have told me to leave you alone if you felt like you needed to go to sleep, right?”

Wrong, Izzy thought. More often than not, she was so caught up on their conversations, she could easily see herself letting them go on until dawn. And, yes, sometimes she was a bit… absent in mornings. But she didn’t want him to know that because, as sleepy as she was, she needed those conversations and last thing she wanted was for him to avoid them because he thought they made her tired. “Of course,” she lied with conviction. “She’s probably just trying to annoy you.”

He rolled his eyes. “Of course she is. Well, anyway, to get her to shut up about that, I thought I’d just give her a Self-Writing Quill and solve the problem. I can’t wait to see her face when she opens the package.”

Izzy smiled. “Maybe she’ll get a laugh out of it.”

“Good. She needs it – she’s been going around like someone’s just killed her puppy. Do you know what’s up with her? She’s usually a blast around Christmas.”

She looked down for a second and shook her head. “She wants space and I’m giving it to her. For now. I know that I owe her but if this doesn’t get better anytime soon, screw the space because I’m getting it out of her.”

George nodded. “You do that and let me know if it doesn’t work. Fred and I are perfecting this tongue-loosening sweet – if everything goes as planned, it’d make Madam Malkin spill the measurements of all her clients,” he said with a chuckled. “But, anyway, since we were circling the matter of Christmas presents, I’d say it’s about time you got to opening yours.”

“Mine?” she asked, her heart stopping for a full second. “You got me a present?”

“Yep.”

She stared at him for a second, unsure of what to say. “George! What did you get me a present for?” she managed to say, feeling slightly embarrassed. “You knew I wouldn’t get the chance to find anything for you.” She’d thought of it – she’d tried it. But having been locked up at Hogwarts until the 23rd and not being allowed to leave the house since then sort of made it hard for one to go Christmas shopping. Especially when the only shops accepting Owl orders these days were the Apothecary, the Cauldron Shop and Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes (which, while interesting, completely lost its appeal when one was shopping for the owner, of all people).

“I don’t need anything,” he stated.

“Well, neither do I,” she countered.

“Oh, but you might just need your present. Go on, Isabelle. Fetch it – it’s under the tree. The little one wrapped with the shop’s paper.”

“Hey! What am I? A dog?”

“Your Dad is… technically. I imagine the apple wouldn’t fall too far away from the tree if you ever tried to go animagus,” George observed. “Now, don’t stall. Go get it. What use is it wrapped up under a tree?”

She raised her eyebrows at him before letting out a long breath. “Alright. Thank you,” she gave in as she got up, only to stop a second later. “Am I going to regret thanking you in advance later?”

“Painfully,” he assured her with a mock-serious look on his face.

She rolled her eyes as she walked over to the tree, fetching the one matching George’s earlier description. She eyed it scrupulously as she made her way back to the sofa and ignored George’s cocky little chuckle, probably mocking her expression. “Don’t you dare move away while I open this,” she said, occupying her previous seat. “If it explodes on my face, I want you to be on the blast radius.”

“How generous of you,” he commented dryly.

“What can I say? Christmas makes me mellow,” she replied, pulling the bow and uncovering the little box. Well, she thought just as she spotted the little object inside, she couldn’t say he wasn’t full of surprises. Izzy reached into the box and got a hold of the little glad vial inside of it. The little vial with just a few drops of liquid at the bottom of it. “It looks… interesting,” she mumbled.

“It looks like a joke,” he countered. “It isn’t, trust me.”

“What is it, then? Perfume?”

“For all intents and purposes, yes. Between just the two of us, no,” he told her.

“What?”

“It’s disguised as perfume. The colour, the smell… it’ll fool anyone who searches your bags for sure. But don’t worry, you can turn it back to the real form with a simple charm-breaking spell. It only works if you do it, though. We made it so it wouldn’t otherwise,” he explained

“What can this possibly be that would require so much fuss to hide it?”

“Felix Felicis.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “Come again?”

“It’s Felix Felicis. Liquid luck, drink it and…”

“I know what Felix Felicis is! And I sure know how it works. Where did you get it from? Did you brew it yourself?”

George snorted. “Well, Fred and I tried but it didn’t go very well. We flipped a coin and Fred ended up as the test subject – the memories of that day have caused him to refuse flipping coisns for anything ever since. One drop in and a cross breeze caused a door to shut on his face, which, of course, was not long before he tripped and fell down the stairs: on one hand, he was lucky because he was about five steps away from the ground floor, so no broken bones; on the other hand, he fell straight on Verity just as Angelina was coming in. Let’s just say it didn’t look good and Angie made her feelings known on that matter. Loudly and violently. So, no, Isabelle, I assure you Fred and I didn’t brew that particular dose of Felix Felicis.”

“Who did it, then? Slughorn?”

George shook his head. “He refuses to brew it anymore – McGonagall said so during an Order meeting. He’s afraid it’d get on the wrong hands – even had Sprout hide this crazy rare ingredient so they couldn’t make him do it.”

“So how did you get it?”

“Well, actually we didn’t. You did,” he told her. “Technically, it’s re-gifting, which is a bit lame, but well…”

She looked confused for a moment before it dawned on her – having stolen Slughorn’s stash at the end of the previous school year. “But how did you…? We used it all up! I gave the last of it to my dad.”

George shook his head. “You gave some of it to Hermione for her to give Ron, remember? Well, he had his share and there was still a bit left afterwards, which he handed over to Fred and I when we ran into him so we’d drink it too.”

“Then why is it still inside the bottle?!”

He shrugged. “It was our first real battle – we didn’t want to spoil it be winning through cheating.”

“Cheating?! It was a bloody battle, George! What fun would it be to come out of it dead?”

“Well, we didn’t, the Felix was salvaged and we decided to keep it for a rainy day. Now, we’re giving it back to you.”

“To me? Why? I can’t accept this! There’s a war going on, George. Plenty of rainy days on the horizon,” she stated, unable to understand why he was giving her something his own life might one day depend on.

“Fred and I can deal with rainy days perfectly well, Isabelle.”

“So can I!”

He huffed. “I’m sure you can but the difference between us it that while Fred and I are free and pretty safe, all things considered, living in our own flat and not sharing a roof with Death Eaters, you are about to walk back into a school full of then, not to mention Dementors as well. If they come for us, we can run, while you can’t because of the school wards. Are you really going to tell me you couldn’t use a little more luck, should that occasion present itself? Because I’d say you would and I’d like to know you had it nearby to use, so just quit being stubborn and take it.”

“But… what about Fred? Does he agree with this? Wouldn’t he want to give it to… I dunno, Angelina?”

“Angelina’s on the same boat as ours and Fred knows perfectly well she’d physically hurt him if he even implied she couldn’t look after herself. Besides, he – like I do – knows that, as long as you have the Felix with you, Ginny will benefit from it as well. If you don’t take it for yourself, do it for her. She’s your best friend.”

Guilt. Was he using guilt – not to mention his own sister – to get her to bend his way? Because if he was, she was annoyed to admit that he was succeeding. “But… I… you…”

“There’s very little of it,” he continued, ignoring any protest she might be trying to bring up. “It should serve for about an hour of luck if you split it with Ginny. It’s not much but it should be enough to get you out of a potentially sticky situation,” he explained. “Now, before you start arguing again, keep in mind that I have a full week to convince Ginny to take the potion herself if you refuse – and, trust me, she will give in, if not for anything else, to get me to stop bugging her – which would make this whole argument between the two of us pointless.”

Izzy sighed. She knew a lost battle when she saw one. “I don’t know what to say,” she whispered.

“Well, ‘thank you’ would be a nice way to start,” he pointed out.

But she didn’t say thank you – she put the little bottle back inside the box, placed it on the coffee table to avoid any unintended break and then, avoiding looking him in the eyes as she did so, she leaned forward, wrapping her arms around him in a hug.

If he was surprised, he sure disguised it well because there wasn’t a single hint of hesitation in his acceptance. She felt surprisingly comfortable, as opposed to the tense hug she’d pictured right before doing it. That was the thing about him – he could at the same time make her feel nervous beyond description and overwhelmingly comfortable. It was completely irrational.

“Sometimes I wonder if you’re not the most frustrating person in the world,” she said out loud.

She heard him chuckling against her ear. “Funny – I feel exactly the same every once in a while,” he replied, making her smile.

Seconds later, she knew she should have already let go. She would’ve, really, but she didn’t want to. She was scared. Why? Because she knew she was exactly in the right mind-set to go ahead and do something so terribly dumb…

However, she didn’t need to think much more about that matter as the sound of someone clearing their throat by the door had her practically jump out of his arms. She was already berating herself for being senseless enough to hug George in room with an open door (through which anyone – her father included – could burst in) when she noticed it was Ginny. Thank Merlin, she thought, relieved beyond words.

“Sorry to interrupt but Mum’s about done scolding Fred. She told me to tell everyone to get going down to the kitchen for breakfast. She reckons it’s about done,” Ginny explained.

Izzy nodded immediately, jumping to her feet and avoiding at all cost looking at George. “Right. I’ll be right down – just have to upstairs to put… something in a safe place,” she mumbled before picking the little box containing the vial up and rushing out of the room as fast as her legs would allow her.

George watched her retreat as he got up himself, his brows far more furrowed than Ginny recalled ever seeing them. The younger redhead quickly moved back to the spot under the doorway she’d been occupying until her best friend had burst through it and stood there, waiting for her brother to approach.

He gave her an inquisitive look when he reached her, noting she was standing on his way. “Are you going to move anytime soon, Gin-Gin?”

Neither did Ginny respond to that, nor did she move an inch. Instead, she cleared her throat after a few seconds. “You know, I’ve got six brothers and one person I regard as a sister. Take a guess whose arse is going to get kicked if this thing crashes and burns.”

He just stared at her for a few seconds. “There’s nothing here to crash or burn,” he said.

“Then look closer, idiot,” she told him, rolling her eyes.

And with that, Ginny walked away, leaving her brother planted behind, wondering if her words meant what he thought they meant.

---

It was ridiculously late at night or maybe shockingly early in the morning – either way, the only light outside the windows came from streetlights – when Sirius Black had to drag himself out of bed, awoken by his youngest daughter’s cries, and follow the unholy sounds into the little girl’s room.

“Kid, I thought we were making progress here,” he mumbled as he approached the little girl’s cot. The kid was still a bit of a nightmare to put to sleep at night but they’d reached a point when she’d usually stay out once she got to sleep. “Don’t go thinking Daddy’ll come running every time you decided to start crying in the middle of the night, little lady. I’d just rather you didn’t wake the whole blo… er, the whole house up.” He picked his still-sobbing daughter up from her cot and cradled her against his chest after moving onto the nearby rocking chair.

The little girl’s crying subsided gradually as she sucked on her thumb on his lap. In the end, it took him a half hour to soothe her back to sleep, which he supposed wasn’t all that bad considering it was Mary. Of course, by the time the little girl was out, he was already very much awake. Awake to the point that he knew going back to bad would only serve to drag Mia into wakefulness too with his tossing and turning…

Groaning he made his way out of the nursery and found himself wondering what he could do to push himself back into a stupor. Stunning himself might work but it was highly advised against by the British Healing Society. Dawning some sleeping drought was also a no-no since neither did he have any ready at the moment, nor did he trust himself or Kreacher to successfully brew some in such a short notice. He supposed he’d just have to wait for drowsiness to come back. Maybe if he went downstairs and watched some of that horrid late-night telly…

He didn’t have a chance to even start enduring it, though as, upon reaching the floor below, he noticed there was a light under a room’s door. Harry’s room.

He froze for a second as his mind was unable not to wonder if the person in the room couldn’t somehow be its owner… No, he told himself. The kid was smarter than that – he’d know that coming home around Christmas, of all times, was insane to monumental proportions… Still, he told himself, checking wouldn’t hurt.

So, without bothering to knock, he reached to turn the doorknob of the door leading into the room in question and burst inside… only to find not a seventeen-year-old kid who’d just been away on a potentially lethal quest but instead the girlfriend he’d left behind, sitting cross-legged on his bed, staring at him with damp, bloodshot eyes.

Saying she looked quite shocked at having been caught would have been an understatement. “I’m not… I’m not crying,” she said, wiping her tears with a sleeve and forcing herself to look away.

He stared at her for a few seconds before saying anything. “Your face begs to differ,” Sirius pointed out.

Ginny sniffed. “I’ve just got something in my…” She stopped, huffing in a clear giving-up fashion. “I’m not one of those girls. The ones that go around crying because they don’t know what else to do. I’m not… Cho bloody Chang. I’m just…”

“I know,” he said.

“It’s weird being here,” she mumbled, not sure why she was telling him that at all. “In this house. When he’s not here. It feels…”

“…wrong,” Sirius finished for her.

Ginny eyed, looked up, eyeing him surprised. “How do you know that?”

“Let’s say I’m a bit of an expert in what comes to being apart from people you love,” he said before taking a breath and stepping further into the room so he could close the door behind him, giving the girl some more privacy. “Mia used to live in Wales, you know? Before… well, everything. We spent a lot of time together there during school breaks since Lulu was pretty liberal in what came to adult supervision for kids young and in love. Anyway, we made pretty nice memories over there. When I escaped from Azkaban and got on the run, first thing I did was to go there. Not sure why – we had a flat in London right before they carted me off to prison and she’d gone into hiding as well, but I guess I figured after all that time she’d have gone back to her family’s home.”

“But she hadn’t,” Ginny provided, knowing at least part of the story.

Sirius shook his head. “She hadn’t – she was already here. And being over there without her just didn’t feel right after we’d made all those memories together. It made me miss her ten times more than I already did. Safe to say I got out of there as fast as I could, also because the place turned out to be watched by the aurors looking after me. Anyway, my point is that I was at Mia’s place for a couple of hours and it made me feel pretty miserable; you’ve been here for over two days – if you feel like you need to cry alone in his room at who-knows-what-time-it-is o’clock, no one has a right to judge you, least of all me.”

The redhead bit on her lip. “Thanks.”

He nodded. “You’re welcome. I guess I’ll just leave you to…”

“Would you have gone along?” she asked. Ever since she’d stepped foot into that house and been flooded with memories and unbearable feelings, a slightly irrational part of her mind had been berating her over and over about not having gone with Harry on his quest. And while logically that part of herself should have been crushed by the fact that, as an underage witch still under the influence of the Trace, she’d only have been dead weight to him on the field, it hadn’t. She knew she’d made the right choice and yet… and yet she kept telling herself she shouldn’t have. “If it was Mia in Harry’s shoes and if you were the underage one, would you have gone after her?”

Sirius had to think for a moment, trying to step into the shoes of his teenage self. Would he have followed Mia then? The answer came easily once he found himself thinking the same way his younger self would. “Yes. Absolutely,” he replied, watching as Ginny’s face fell a little. “But you shouldn’t guide yourself by the things my teenage self would do,” he quickly added. “Because, honestly, he was a thoughtless idiot. Which brings me to the point when I should thank Merlin that I’m not and never have been on your shoes. Odds are I would have gotten myself killed, more likely than not gotten on the way countless times and potentially gotten Mia hurt or captured. So don’t doubt yourself, Ginny, because you made the right choice and I’m telling you all this the same way I’d tell it to my teenage self in that hypothetical little universe you’ve just created.”

Ginny could tell the irrational part that had been telling her otherwise wasn’t completely convinced on the argument but at least, for the first time since she’d came into the house, it had been ridden speechless. She let out a long breath. “Merlin, I can’t wait to turn seventeen,” she found herself saying out loud before she could stop herself. Realizing what she’d done, Ginny turned to Sirius in alarm. She knew he more than likely would have gotten the implication behind her words… and yet he didn’t look half as horrified as she’d expected him to be. In fact, he barely looked surprised. “I… I…”

“Don’t worry, Red. I’m not running to tell your mother that you’ll have a foot out the door at midnight on your birthday.” Of course, he understood the hypocrisy of his statement since he knew that if Izzy was the one wanting to go on a mad quest after her boyfriend, he’d want to know so he could lock her up in a tower in advance. Still, he was pretty partial to Harry – he had no doubt that, wherever he was, his godson had to be just as miserable without his girlfriend as she was without him. For now he could only hope that, if there was any good in that world, by Ginny’s birthday in August the whole matter of the war, Death Eaters and the need to be on the run would be far behind them. Or else he was pretty screwed, he thought with a tired huff. Hell, no need to think of that with months in advance, he told himself. He ought to focus on the more positive fact that he was starting to feel tired enough to successfully go back to sleep. “Well, I guess it’s time I leave you to your thoughts,” he excused himself, opening the door back and motioning to step out of the room. “Good night, Ginny.”

“Good night,” she mumbled in reply before he closed the door back behind him.

He made his way upstairs quietly, not bothering to turn on any lights on his way since he pretty much could walk the whole way backwards and blindfolded without missing a step by then. When he reached his floor, though, he noticed that the lights were on inside his room.

He stepped into it with raised eyebrows, only to find Mia unexpectedly sitting up on the bed while she cuddled their son against her chest, her lips pressed against the top of his head as she whispered little nothings while the little boy held on to his faithful stuffed dog.

Once she spotted her husband coming in, Mia shot him an inquisitor look. “Where were you?” she asked in a whisper. “I woke up and you were gone.”

“Mary was crying. You were so down under you didn’t even hear it,” he told her as he circled the bed to reach his side by the window. “What’s up with him?” he asked, nodding at their son.

“He had a nightmare,” she said, stroking the young boy’s hair. “Came running for Mummy and Daddy, didn’t you, honey?”

Alex nodded silently, burying his head deeper into the crook of his mother’s arm.

Sirius sighed as he got into the bed as well, sitting up by his wife’s side. “That’s alright, mate. Whatever it was, you know it’s going to have to go through me, Mummy, Izzy, Grandma Lulu, Grandpa Gabe and the Weasleys downstairs to get to you, right? It doesn’t stand a chance, kid.” His usually curious and talkative son didn’t react to his words, instead just remaining cuddled against his mother’s chest. Sirius took a breath. “Do you want to stay here with Mummy and Daddy just for tonight?” he asked the little boy, hoping to garner some reaction out of him.

That time, he was successful, as Alex shot him a hopeful look and nodded before saying a low ‘Yesh, Daddy’ to him. Mia gave him a smile as he lifted the covers and fluffed the pillows together so their son and his stuffed dog would settle themselves on the bed between him and Mia.

Afterwards, he lay looking at his wife, watching as she stroked their little son’s hair at the same time she hummed a lullaby under her breath – he’d have been lulled to sleep by it as well if he wasn’t so focused on looking at her, taking every single feature in and thanking Merlin she was there and not away, leaving him to miss her like that poor girl downstairs missed her boyfriend.

That was how things were meant to be like, he thought: Mia lying there by his side, lovely in the streetlight-illuminated darkness, calmly cuddling his sleeping son and not miles and miles away surrounded by Dementors and Death Eaters that were never meant to haunt a place as sacred for them as Hogwarts was. He didn’t even want to think that, in a week, he’d be back to sleeping without her by his side…

“What is it?” she whispered to him, just noticing his stare after making sure Alex was completely asleep by then.

Her husband shook his head. “Nothing. I was just thinking that I’m glad you’re home.”

“You’ve already said that a hundred times,” Mia pointed out with a little chuckle.

“So I’ll say it another hundred and mean it every time,” he promised.

Mia smiled. “You’re sweet when you want to,” she told him sleepily.

“One of many qualities,” he assured her, making her lips curl further.

He wanted to reach across the bed to plant a kiss on those amazing lips but he was afraid that’d only serve to wake Alex back up… the kid just had the worst sense of opportunity to climb into bed with them. So, instead he settled for placing his arm over his son so his hand would find Mia’s over the covers. “Happy Christmas, love.”

“Hum… t’s not Christmas anymore,” she mumbled against her pillows, closing her eyes.

“I don’t care,” he replied. “I love you.”

Her lips curled. “Love you too. Now go to sleep like a good boy,” she demanded.

He chuckled. “Yes, Mum,” he replied before doing what he was told.

Next time he came to himself, he vaguely noted the absence of a pretty wife and a little son in the bed before turning around and going back to sleep just because he could. The time after that one, though, he found himself being shaken awake by Mia, who he found sitting on the edge of the bed. It wasn’t the shaking that actually, woke him up, though – it was the concerned look on her face.

“Whazzit?” he slurred, recovering his conscience far too quickly for his taste.

“You need to get up now, Sirius,” she told him.

“Why? Is it the kids? Harry? Did something come up?” he asked.

She shook her head. “The kids are fine. So is Harry, as far as I know. But you need to go downstairs, Sirius. There’s something you need to see.”

He got up in a flash, barely taking the time to go to the loo before catching the dressing gown his wife handed over to him and rushing down the stairs after her. By the time he got into the kitchen, he couldn’t even say he recalled half the way down, his motion there having been so… automatic. He vaguely recalled Mia reassuring him on the way that none of their friends had gotten hurt or anything, which was partially confirmed when he noticed Remus – who should have been spending Boxing Day with his wife in Andromeda Tonks’s house – was standing in his kitchen as part of the group of about half a dozen heads, half of which were red, surrounding Lulu’s spot on the kitchen table. Only later did he realize they were all trying to read the magazine in front of her.

Every single article – it’s like he’s possessed,” he heard one of the twins commenting.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

All of the previously bent heads looked up and turned to him.

“We’ve lost Xeno Lovegood,” Remus declared.

Sirius looked at him in shock for a moment. “He’s dead?”

Gabriel shook his head as he got a hold of the magazine on the table. “No, but it seems we’ve lost him anyway,” he declared, handing the magazine to him.

It was the latest issue of the Quibbler… only it didn’t seem like the Quibbler at all. While, since the beginning of the full-blown war, the magazine had covered themes from self-defence techniques against Death Eaters to positive messages for those supporting the Order’s side, now it looked like a booklet of propaganda for the infiltrated ministry, starting with the cover announcing ‘Ten reasons why Harry Potter is the Worst Enemy of the Wizarding World’. “What on Earth is going on with that man? I thought he was on our side.”

“He was,” Arthur stated. “I’ve just ran into him last month. He seemed completely on board with us.”

“We knew it was only a matter of time before Death Eaters got sick of the Quibbler sticking up for us but I always thought they’d just shut it down, not change it altogether,” Fred – recognizable by his F-branded Weasley jumper – stated. “And, believe it or not, Xeno is still the editor. At least it says so here.”

“You should read the editorial,” Lulu told her son-in-law, “it’s puke-inducing.”

“Maybe they’ve imperiused him,” Mia suggested from behind Sirius.

“I think at the moment it’s irrelevant how they got the Quibbler to turn, Mia,” Remus stated. “People on our side will start losing faith if they see that even the magazine that had been boosting them up has turned. Dora nearly lost her mind when she saw this.” That reaction might, however, have been highly increased by the uncontrollable pregnancy hormones currently ruling over her body.

Gabriel nodded in agreement. “Remus is right. We need to set things up so they get it from elsewhere.”

“What do you suggest? That we start Potterwatch today?” Sirius asked.

Fred shook his head. “No, not today. We need time to spread the word… and the password too.”

“Yes, it would be a waste to have you starting up when only a couple of people were listening,” Lulu agreed, leaving the table to join her daughter by the door.

“When, then?” Remus inquired. “We need to fast-tack it.”

Fred nodded. “You’re right,” he agreed solemnly. “We need a date. A week from now at the most.”

“New Year’s eve,” George suggested. “No,” he corrected himself. “New Year’s Day. It’s when the students are going back to Hogwarts. Death Eaters will be too busy trying to gather who’s made a run for it during the holidays – we’ll completely sneak up on them. What do you say?”

“Perfect,” Fred declared as Remus nodded in agreement.

“Very well-thought,” Arthur stated as well. “The subtext to it will be fairly effective too. New year, new rules.”

“Alright, then,” Sirius agreed, placing the magazine back on the table. “Let’s make 1998 a year You-Know-Who will never forget.”

A/N2: Hope you liked the chapter. Now it's time to get back into study-hybernation mode. Feedback is so very welcome! Review!

 


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