BURROW

Sun. 14 July

He didn’t like people looking after him. Mrs. Weasley didn’t need to make him breakfast. Harry had arrived at the burrow much later than expected. He had detoured from his planned route—to visit Director Bones. He needed to talk with her about what she had done in becoming his guardian. But as fate continued to insist, Harry Potter could not and would not be lucky.

The Bones residence was cold and dark. Neither Susan nor Amelia had been present, and not knowing when they would return or where they could be found, Harry made the late evening trek to the Burrow. Almost everyone had been asleep when he arrived, but in breaking the wards, he had woken Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. He regretted that, but it had started to rain and his other options were not appealing. Molly had offered to make him tea, but both he and Arthur had felt it best to just get to bed. So Harry had made his way to Ron’s room taking care at the first landing to sneak past Ginny’s room.

He had wanted to see his friends—Ginny in particular—but it was not worth waking them from their slumber. In the wake left by his debacle with Susan, Harry had been thinking about some of the things Ginny had said.

‘I want you to be part of my family.’

She’d been angry then. Furious at how he had insensitively hurt Hermione by blaming her inexperience for Ron’s injury.

He wondered what she had meant. Had her true intent leaked out in that moment of frustration? Harry had detected several signals from Ginny over the years. Well... okay... she had been obsessed with him in her first and second years, but something had shifted. She had grown—matured. And now... after losing something with Susan that he wasn’t sure he understood...

Harry wondered what Ginny had meant.

But Ginny and Hermione had already departed when Harry had woken. He had risen late, and it wasn’t as though they should wait for him, but he was still disappointed. Mrs. Weasley must have seen him ruminating.

“I shouldn’t worry. They’ve been taking off early each morning. Something about a gym. I expect they’re just getting in some exercise. Mind now, girls of their age often find a need to focus on an unreasonable body image.”

Molly sat eggs and bacon down in front of Harry. It was actually somewhat odd to be in a kitchen and not be cooking, but as he imagined himself cooking for Mrs. Weasley, he couldn’t get past how strange that seemed too.

“Oh! And speaking of an unreasonable body image, Miss Delacour will be getting back in couple weeks with Bill. I don’t suppose you’ve had time to catch up since the Triwizard.”

No they hadn’t. Really, he and Fleur had barely spoken during the tournament. The longest exchange that Harry remembered was when she thanked him for bringing back Gabrielle from the lake. No one had bothered to inform him or Fleur that her sister was in no true danger. Just another way in which the leaders of magical education often felt the need to deceive instead of illuminate.

“No, ma’am. When do they usually get back?”

Molly chuckled.

“Well... they usually make it back in time for lunch, but they’ll probably demand a shower before sitting down for the meal. I don’t know what they are getting up to, but whatever it is it’s a workout.”

~ diffindo ~

“Then why don’t you just tell him?! Aargh!”

Hermione flung a hex at Ginny who stepped just to one side letting the spell deflect off her shield. Hermione was drenched. Ginny had always been a tenacious fighter, but it seemed like Harry’s return to the Burrow had lit something within her.

“Oh yeah! Like. You. Told. Ron.”

Each word was punctuated with a different jinx sent in Hermione’s direction. They were in a surrounding spread so she couldn’t just dodge. She pushed more energy into her shield, ducked, and turned sideways to limit the attack surface area. Her magic bore the attack and rebounded. They hadn’t been very powerful.

“You took like three years!

And then Hermione saw the trap. Ginny had lowered her into a crouched position effectively pinned. The bludgeon that now powered at Hermione was not going to simply deflect off her shield and she’d already dumped much of her reserve into it during the previous attack.

This was going to hurt.

A part of her mind was disturbed at how elated this realization made her. Pain was penance. Penance was the only forgiveness that would ever matter. It had a quality of the religious.

‘May thy holy light of agony wash away the sin.’

When the joy receded Hermione found herself sitting on her throbbing rear end. Though since her whole body hurt, her bottom barely registered.

Ginny was still across the room waiting for her to recover. She didn’t look worried for Hermione which was ultimately for the best. This had happened many times. Ginny was far more powerful than she knew.

The determined eyes looking out from Ginny’s concentrated stance told Hermione that she would be given no additional quarter. Good.

Hermione made a show of painfully getting up. About halfway up she snapped her wrist and sent a leg locker Ginny’s way. Out-gunned, outpaced, and outmanoeuvred Hermione turned to her remaining weapon... cunning.

Quickly behind the binding hex, Hermione sent a levitation spell. Then she had to wait. The last incantation was too good to waste if one of the precursors failed.

Ginny almost jumped the leg locker, but it clipped her left heel and that was all that was necessary. The Levicorpus that travelled in close pursuit lifted Ginny up and against the back wall.

Her gambit had worked.

Hermione grinned smugly and took careful aim.

Ginny’s stare of defiance only made it more delicious.

“Titillando”

“No—”

That was all that Ginny could get out before her verbal communication was reduced to uncontrollable giggling.

“You— bitch— I’ll get— you— back.”

Hermione was cruel but she wasn’t sadistic. A quick tickle hex was fun, but letting it stick was a true way to torture someone. She dismissed the spell, but was ready for Ginny’s counter attack. She sensed that a bat bogey was in her future.

As expected, Ginny pulled back for an aggressive attack.

“Time!”

In an unusual turn, Hermione was actually relieved to hear Ceannara’s voice announcing the end of their paid session.

“This is not over, Granger.”

But at least it was over for now. And for now, Hermione had won.

~ diffindo ~

Ginny fumed. She knew she was fuming, but she couldn’t seem to do anything to stop it. As she changed from her gym attire into her normal clothes, she couldn’t shake her frustration. She didn’t like to lose. And she would’ve wiped that smug look off Hermione’s face if she’d had a moment more.

But on another level she knew that this was—ultimately—for the best. Hermione needed confidence even if it came at Ginny’s expense.

And Ginny was distracted. She’d known that Harry was coming for a few days now, but it wasn’t until yesterday when his arrival became imminent that she’d totally lost all sense of centre. She needed to make a choice. Harry’s failure to arrive last night had been a godsend. And the opportunity to slip out early in the morning had been even more so.

But she was delaying the inevitable.

There was a fork in the road. From what Hermione had said about Harry’s conversation at the reading of Dumbledore’s will, Harry had nearly started a relationship with—of all people—Susan Bones. She wasn’t sure what this meant about Harry or about what he was looking for, but it did mean this... Harry Potter was on the market.

Ginny knew she wanted him. She always had, but now it was different. She hadn’t been ready, but now she was. But would he want her, or would he just see the little obsessed girl that had cried on platform nine and three-quarters as her storybook love had receded into the distance?

The truth was that there was a fork in the road, but Ginny had long ago chosen her path. She was not one to waver.

~ diffindo ~

Ginny felt so gross. Her workout with Hermione had left her the epitome of unappealing. So she had drafted Hermione as a distraction for Harry while she ran up the back stairs to make for the shower. That had worked, but it meant the Hermione knew more than she intended.

Now safely ensconced within the shower, Ginny let her thoughts flow off of her like the drops of water that blazed paths down her naked skin. The cascade quickly displaced the sweat leaving her feeling fresh. And the gentle lather of soap left her smelling clean.

She briefly let herself imagine that he was here moving the cloth up and down her body. Caressing her various parts. Breathing in the clean scent of her skin.

But not too much. Ginny didn’t claim to be ladylike but she wasn’t a slut either.

As she turned off the tap, she anticipated the possible embarrassment. He might not want this—want her—and she could handle awkward. Awkward might even be cute, but what she feared was that he would be gentle and kind and understanding... and still reject her.

Harry didn’t date.

There was Cho, but honestly, what did anyone think that was but a rebound from Cedric. It was cruel what Cho did—using Harry as some kind of proxy to work through her grief—a tool to be used and then discarded when no longer needed. But she wasn’t anything like Cho. She looked different, talked different, acted different—except Quidditch—so at least there was that.

Ginny towelled off quickly. It wouldn’t do to stay too long in the humid air and work up another sweat. She realized with some disappointment that she hadn’t really thought about her hair. It would still be wet, and while there was a spell to dry things she couldn’t bring herself to use more magic. She was exhausted already.

Well if that was how it was going to be then she would just leave it down. Wasn’t an approaching form glistening with moisture one of those male fantasies?

Ginny hurried to her room with nothing more than her towel around her. With Harry in the house she was going to have to stop doing that, but habits were hard to break.

She kicked her door closed and then began to examine the conundrum that was her wardrobe. What would he want her to wear? She had options: simple, sporty, nice, classy... She even had that tight outfit that Michael had bought for her, but it was a little more revealing than she was going for. Not a slut.

Ginny was overthinking this. She knew Harry well enough to know that he probably wouldn’t remember what she was wearing. And he wouldn’t want her to obsess about her appearance.

She took a couple more minutes considering which of the tops best gave off the message ‘I don’t obsess about my appearance’ before her mind collapsed from the absurdity.

~ diffindo ~

Harry had been in the front room reading the Prophet when he heard his friends return. But by the time he got up, Ginny was already up the stairs and Hermione came into the room grinning like someone had struck her with a confundus.

He’d hoped she’d be glad to see him, and he returned the feelings without restraint. She’d hugged him and the feel of her embrace soothed his anxiety. If this was the Hermione that Ginny had felt was in danger, then Harry still wasn’t seeing it.

“I’m... I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner.”

“No, Harry, I totally understand why you had to do what you needed to do.”

“I don’t think Ginny agrees with you.”

In response Hermione blushed a deep red which confounded Harry’s understanding.

“I think it’ll be okay, Harry. You said you’d tell me more about the hearings?”

She was changing the subject, but maybe it was time to talk about it. A deep sigh escaped Harry before he began to explain the entire sad affair right up to Lady Bones’ eleventh hour intervention. He even told her more about Susan... but he left out the White Wyvern and the subsequent evening. It didn’t seem like something she would approve of.

After speaking for some time, they sat down to wait for Ginny and Hermione stuck her nose in a book—her natural state—and Harry had retreated into his thoughts. But... Hermione kept glancing up with rather silly grin similar to that she had worn when she arrived.

And she was still doing it.

“Okay. What is it? You’re thinking about something. Is my hair unruly or something?”

She laughed nervously. His hair was always unruly.

“Nope— Nothing— I’m just going to read my book here. And we’ll wait for Ginny.”

Hermione wasn’t duplicitous by nature, so whatever this was made Harry nervous. She was always talking about something and ‘waiting for Ginny’ would be the perfect opportunity for her to expound upon her infatuation of the week. And Ginny had said that Hermione had been moping and despondent. This wasn’t that.

Finally, he heard someone coming down the back stairs. Ginny appeared at the archway. She had an odd presence about her. She was always a determined person, but there was a relaxed anticipatory resolve in her eyes.

Harry was startled as Hermione clapped her book shut and stood up.

“I’m going to see if I can find my copy of Modern Magical History.”

Hermione looked to Ginny and then back to Harry.

“Yep. I’ll just go find that.”

His heart raced as her awkward departure drew into sharp relief his aloneness with Ginny. The air he breathed was thick. She approached through the dense tension and—rather than taking his hand or maintaining any personal space whatsoever—she placed her hands on his shoulders like they were going to dance.

Her eyes smouldered with what Harry could only describe as desirous mischief. He’d prepared for her to be angry—begrudging. He’d left. But her right hand lifted up behind his neck and pulled him forward and down into her lips. They were soft and wet.

She’d shattered all his expectations. It would be arrogant to say he saw it coming just now, so perhaps it would be better to say he’d hoped. When she’d appeared in the doorway, he’d dared to hope. His mind wanted to be conflicted but the adrenaline driving his heart drowned out the complaint.

He joined and deepened the kiss—let it linger.

She invited his tongue inside with hers and Harry got his first real taste of Ginevra Weasley.

She tasted good. Like the first taste of your favourite food. Like a scent that brings back your childhood and then flees like youth. Like two saplings managing to grow together without choking each other—twined together but each separate and infinitely precious.

This was summed up in Harry’s adolescent mind as follows.

‘Whoa!’

Ginny pulled away and he regretfully consented noticing that he’d become slightly light-headed. He stared into her eyes. His mind emptied. He had no words for the new chapter that she had unexpectedly opened with her lips.

As the pregnant pause measured itself in pairs of deep breaths, Harry realized he had no idea what to do now. His face was slack because he had no concept of what expression to place there. He knew that she had served and it was his turn to volley. He was stuck. How could he accept her offering?

Ginny for her part was lost in the same irresolution. The tension rose until it was unbearable. He was going to screw this up.

Her eyes shot wide open as though she had just awoken in someone else’s body. She turned and then was fleeing back the way she had come. He had only seen her like that in his first and second years. His breath wouldn’t come to him.

Not a word had passed between them and yet something—perhaps the most important something—had been said.

~ diffindo ~

Ron lay motionless in his hospital bed. Little ever changed. Each day that Molly visited he would appear to have moved slightly. She liked to imagine that he was waking in the night. She had even left him notes early on as though he would read them in secret when no one was watching.

But she knew that St. Mungo’s staff were caring for him each day and that meant changing his position to prevent sores. Her eyes burned at the thought of her youngest son in such a state of being.

Molly was losing all her children. One at a time—or two in the case of the twins—they were finding their place in the world. But not Ron. He was stuck here.

She hadn’t even known that Hermione and Ron were together. And still, he had felt the need to pay limb and—god forbid—his life to save her. It was an honourable act worthy of his name, but he was so young to be making such choices.

Hermione had always seemed to act with solid judgement. But in this case she had done wrong. Her heart had hardened against her. Not that Molly hadn’t been very kind to her. It wouldn’t do to be to judgemental, but neither young Harry nor Hermione had truly ever acknowledged Ron. It had always been him following them.

Molly had to face it. Harry and Hermione were a dangerous influence. They always had been. But for some reason she had thought that the good Lord would watch over her family as he had during the wizarding war.

And now the two of them were under her roof with her last little one. Her baby. They would not take her. She would not allow it. She could see how Ginny looked at him. She would protect her baby. No one could fault her that.

But Molly felt utterly alone. She couldn’t share these feelings... not even with Arthur. He adored Harry and would never see through Hermione’s competent veneer to the selfish centre that had manipulated their youngest son into a hospital bed.

And here he lay—in that bed—just in front of her.

This wouldn’t happen to her Ginny.

~ diffindo ~

“But he must have said something?!”

Hermione could not believe that Harry wouldn’t have said something to Ginny. He wasn’t one for talking about feelings, but he couldn’t be that inept. Could he?

“Nothing! And then like some scared little girl I ran out of the room.”

Ginny dropped her face into her palms.

“Oh, god. He must think I’m so immature.”

No, there was no way that Harry would think that. Hermione had seen the looks Harry had given Ginny when he thought no one was watching. Hermione smiled inwardly. Sometimes it was convenient to be a wallflower.

“Maybe you broke him. Maybe it was so gob-smacking spectacular that his mind shut down.”

Ginny scowled at her.

“Come on, Hermione. I need you to be real with me. I royally cocked it up.”

“No, you didn’t. Look, it was always going to be awkward. And now you can talk it over at lunch. Harry said he was going to cook since your Mum wasn’t planning to be back in time. I’ll give you guys some space and you can talk it out.”

Ginny wheeled on her with a face full of fear and anger.

“No! You’re not going anywhere. This is partially your fault! ... I don’t know exactly how. But we’re going to pretend that this never happened and you are going to help and maybe then I won’t have to be horrified for the rest of my life.”

“Ginny...”

“No. No. I— You are not to mention it.”

She had never seen Ginny act this way. Even when she had broken up—quite publicly—with her former boyfriends. She had always seemed in control of her relationships.

“Okay. I’m not going to push you into anything, but...”

“What?!”

Hermione paused—taken aback for a moment. Ginny often reminded her of Harry. The raw intensity with which she confronted the world could be wondrous, but it was also terrifying. She was only trying to help.

“I just... wanted to say that it took a long time for things to happen with Ron. I would pay almost any price to get that time back.”

Ginny rolled her eyes which hurt Hermione’s feelings. She wasn’t wallowing—not this time. This was good advice and Ginny needed to hear it. Hermione felt the rise of her ire and couldn’t keep herself from throwing back some snark.

“Look. It’s your life to botch up the way you want.”

~ diffindo ~

‘Hey, lunch is ready.’

‘Okay, thanks.’

Ginny scratched her head. That had been the extent of the conversation when she had come down to the kitchen to eat lunch. There had been a few awkward glances, but it looked like Harry was going along with the plan.

They were just going to act like nothing had happened.

Ginny resented Harry for this despite the fact that it was exactly what she wanted.

Hermione was still pouting into a book. It wasn’t like Ron and Hermione were such a great example of a functional relationship anyway. She mustn’t continue to tie everything back to her pain. It was just a waste of time and a poor way forward.

They’d eaten in silence for most of lunch. Even Dad had been driven away by the unbearable climate of the room. When he’d come in from the shed. he’d taken one look at the trio of surly tense teenagers and immediately walked back outside.

Coward.

Ginny took a deep breath. As angry as she was with Hermione for her constant self-centred despair, she didn’t want her dwelling on Ron again.

So... a couple weeks ago, Ginny had begun cataloguing possible conversation topics to keep Hermione distracted. This was necessary because Ginny wasn’t one for words.

She pulled out a topic she knew would get Hermione talking.

“Harry, do you really have a seat in the Wizengamot? Your parents had one?”

Hermione put her book down clearly interested in his answer. Good. Hopefully this would also keep Harry busy and dispel the angst in the air.

“Apparently. Though any time someone mentions it, they seem to add that it isn’t very powerful. Lady Longbottom said that it didn’t control many votes. Do some people really get to vote multiple times?”

Ginny almost smiled as Hermione tried to suppress her natural smug face. She’d gotten pretty good at hiding it over the years. According to Ron, she’d been insufferable her first year.

And she wonders why people think she’s uppity.

“Yes, Harry. Each house can hold one or more seats in the Wizengamot which has had exactly 77 voting seats since the eleventh century. The number of votes can change, but it has been capped at 777 for the last two hundred years. For the most part houses trade votes here or there, but the system has been stable for a long time.”

“So one or two votes isn’t going to do any good then?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. The muggle Parliament has over fourteen hundred members who each have one vote. There’s still power in that.”

“But if Malfoy can just stoop down from on high with hundreds of votes, why would any one with just a few votes even try.”

“Well first, Harry, the house of Malfoy only has somewhere on fifty votes. The only house that has more than one hundred votes is the house of Black. It is literally the most ancient extant house from the perspective of the Wizengamot.”

“But why?! Why should one house have more power?”

“I know, it doesn’t seem fair. But if you read the history of how the Wizengamot was founded, they had to offer the powerful people some reason to be subjugated to a higher law. It makes sense that they would want a greater say.”

The three were interrupted by the apparation of the twins in the next room.

“Hey Harry! — Good to see ya. — We were hoping — that you might come and see our shop — one hundred percent free of charge — to founding members of course.”

“Fred. George. Is business good, then?”

“Is business good? — Hell no, business is deceitful — conniving — exploitative. — But we happen to be really good at it.”

“Would you like some lunch?”

“Nah. We’re here to get our brooms. — Do some flying. — We aren’t beaters any more — officially — but we still like go whack the old balls sometimes. How about it? — Up for a game?”

~ diffindo ~

Ginny was riding Harry’s Firebolt. She hadn’t asked for it, but the twins and Harry had gotten to the garden first and had grabbed the family brooms leaving her with Harry’s. It was the polite thing for them to have done.

But it had also been stupid. Harry might be able to out fly her on this broom, but he wasn’t on this broom. He wasn’t even on a Cleansweep. If they thought she needed an advantage, then Ginny would disabuse them of the notion.

When Ginny had jumped at the possibility to play Quidditch, she had assumed that the oppressive atmosphere that had soaked the kitchen would not follow her. The outside air always splashed clarity on her cheeks—it woke and invigorated her—but in most ways it was worse now.

Inside the house she could avert her eyes, pretend that Harry was an abstract intelligence and not a visceral body whose lips had so briefly embraced hers. Now she had to be content with his presence. She had to be strong. Either that or admit defeat—lose.

Ginny didn’t like to lose.

She regretted it. She knew she would. And she knew that she couldn’t have done it differently. Rewind the world and play it again and the same tragedy of anxiety and embarrassment would of replay over and over.

Ginny accelerated toward her partner George—it was George, right? He had pulled the quaffle off Harry in true beater style. Despite their crude joke they weren’t playing with bludgers or a snitch, just the quaffle which was for the best because the last time the family bludgers had gotten out one of them had made a run for it.

They didn’t really behave right.

The quaffle flew into her hands and Ginny executed a roll to avoid an approaching Fred and then pulled into a steep climb. They would follow and that was the point.

They shouldn’t have let her anywhere near the Firebolt.

At the peak of her ascent she kicked off from one stirrup and let the broom spin underneath her as she spun in opposition. The two met on the other side. She wasn’t facing exactly down since the broom’s simulated inertia was still less than her own, but just to one side was perfect.

As her foot met the broom again, she poured a magical flow into the broom which obediently and efficiently accelerated her in concert with gravity.

To her competitors she must have been a blur as they met and then continued to ascend waiting on their minds to catch up to Ginny’s and then for their brooms to catch up to their minds. The field opened up in front of her and she heard George throw a taunt at Fred.

Now with a couple clear seconds Ginny was able to let her thoughts flow again.

He hadn’t said anything to her. It had been amazing for her. but for him it apparently wasn’t worth commenting on. Even if in that moment he had been at a loss for words, he had to say something. And since he didn’t, she had no choice but to assume it was a rejection.

As Ginny scored a rather anticlimactic goal, she felt a moment of insight.

He doesn’t think of me as a girl.

She didn’t reject the feminine. She never had. But maybe the nexus between her and Harry had been too dominated by masculine energy. She could be girlier. She could if she tried... She could giggle at him like she didn’t have a cogent thought in her head. She could watch in feigned ignorance as he performed the ‘man’s’ duties.

Yeah... no she couldn’t.

And if that was what he wanted then he could go find a trophy. Maybe Susan wanted to live on the mantelpiece.

As Ginny returned to her side of the field to prepare for the toss in from the opposition. She caught Harry’s eyes. She let him see her anger and resentment. Maybe he didn’t like it, but Harry had to answer for the things that things that he did—even if they were only imagined in her mind.

But, God, he was gorgeous.

~ diffindo ~

Mon. 15 July

Minerva was getting annoyed with playing delivery person for Harry Potter’s mail. She should have foreseen Harry’s O.W.L. scores arriving at the Headmaster’s office. She had had no idea how directly Albus had involved himself in Harry’s affairs. It was obvious that he would want to keep track of Mr. Potter. With Voldemort’s return, young Mr. Potter was the only known entity that could defeat the Dark Lord.

In the end, Albus had found another way, but... but he had had plans for Harry. Minerva still lost sleep on occasion guessing at what those might have been. Severus had been sparse with the details that he knew.

“Ah, Minerva, will you be staying for lunch. I’m sure Molly would be happy to have you.”

“Thank you, Arthur, but no. I merely have some simple business with Mr. Potter—some mail that need be delivered.”

Arthur’s eyes lifted in comprehension.

“Of course. One moment.”

He left for the back of the home to retrieve Harry. Minerva took the short reprieve to sit and collect her thoughts. There were so few hours in her days now. The board of Hogwarts had moved fast, and some of the changes they required were... difficult.

She’d been ordered to reduce the acceptance rate of muggle-born and first generation wizards by seventy-five percent. The rolls of Hogwarts were checked each year and some adjustments had to be made, but to strike three of every four...

What would those students do?

The history of witches and wizards forcibly suppressing and denying magic was horrifying. In some ways, you simply could not run from what you were.

“Professor McGonagall.”

Harry had caught her ruminating. She chastised herself for showing a lack of focus to her student.

“Well met, Mr. Potter. It would seem that I am to be your mail carrier for the foreseeable future. As you now know, your mail has been coming through my office, and I have received your O.W.L. returns.”

Minerva was startled by a shriek of glee from the kitchen followed by the sound of hurried footsteps. Hermione came around the corner.

“Oh, Harry! How exciting!”

Harry rolled his eyes in a good natured rib directed at his best friend. Minerva would have taken vicarious humour in it, but she always found too much of herself in her top-of-the-class pupil.

“Miss Granger.”

“Oh, sorry. Greetings, Professor.”

“Well met, dear. But I cannot indulge in sedentarism. I still have to find you all a new head of house. Regretfully I cannot fulfil that position while holding the office of headteacher.”

Minerva waved off their eager inquiries.

“No, no. I could not tell you now even if knew who it would be. You will just have to wait until the opening feast. I will gladly announce it then... to everybody.”

~ diffindo ~

After the professor had left them, Harry had tried to delay opening his scores. Hermione knew that he was surely nervous. Harry had often discussed his desire to become an Auror—to serve and protect. And he would need certain scores to attain that.

So, in short, Hermione wasn’t having any of it.

“No, Harry, you are going to open them right now. There is no reason to wait. They aren’t going to change. So why are you delaying?”

Also, she just really wanted to know.

“Hermione, if you really want to know, why don’t you open them?”

Harry handed the envelope to her in a surly huff and turned to leave. She wasn’t going to accept his cold shoulder.

“Harry. Harry! HARRY, stop it!”

He turned to her with sudden accusing anger in his eyes.

“Harry, don’t you care how you did? It affects everything. You’ll only have access to high-level courses and thus future employment entirely based on the contents of this envelope.”

He looked at her like she said something disgusting. Like he couldn’t stand her. It hurt her.

“I don’t care any more Hermione. It’s not as if Snape— I don’t even know if I want to be an Auror any more. I’m supposed to be dead, Hermione. I wasn’t supposed to need to worry about a career. I... I have choices now. I’m not used to these kind of choices. I just want more time.”

“How much time do you think you have? Because I’m sure Ron thought he had plenty of time to figure out his future.”

Harry’s outburst was unexpected.

“Ron’s not dead, Hermione! You only speak of him in the past tense. He’s alive and for all we know he’ll walk into the great hall right as rain in September.”

Harry was right. It revolted Hermione to realize the truth of it, but he was right. She kept thinking and talking like Ron wasn’t going to get better. Why would she do that? She felt her stomach lurch at the wrongness of it.

“You’re right, Harry, I’m sorry.”

He turned again to leave.

“About Ron, Harry—you’re right about Ron. But you’re completely wrong about these scores. If you want time to think about you’re future, do it in the knowledge of what you have available. Please, Harry. You don’t have to show them to me, but please, at least look at the scores yourself.”

Harry didn’t turn back around. He simply held out his hand and Hermione deposited the offending parcel back into his grasp. He started to walk toward the back stairs opening the scores as he went.

Hermione was disappointed. She’d wanted to know.

“No way!”

She heard him exclaim from the kitchen. He came back around the corner.

“Exceeds Expectations, Hermione. I got an ‘E’.”

His mood had sure turned around fast.

“In what, Harry?”

“In Potions. How? I didn’t think Professor Snape would allow that.”

If Hermione had been in one of the childhood cartoons she’d loved as a young child, she would have seen a brilliant bulb appear over her head. Harry didn’t understand how O.W.L.’s worked.

“Harry, your Potions O.W.L. was scored by Ministry officials from the Division for Magical Education specifically the Wizarding Examinations Authority. Professor Snape had no say in what score you received.”

The look on Harry’s face was one of shock. He handed the paper over to her and she looked over his other scores quickly. He’d done well actually—slightly better than Ron.

“I just thought... So I can... I can still be an Auror?”

Hermione felt her heart clench. Sometimes she hated being so prepared for everything. Professor Snape did not allow students of lesser gradings into his N.E.W.T. level courses and Potions was a cornerstone of Auror training.

“No, Harry. Professor Snape only excepts Outstanding O.W.L.’s into his N.E.W.T. program. I’m sorry, Harry.”

“Oh. Okay.”

The fall of his facial expression tore at her. She was about to launch into her spiel on Harry’s other options—which she had worked out of course—when Ginny came in from the garden.

~ diffindo ~

“I was thinking we could visit the twins new shop later today. Do you guys...”

Ginny allowed her sentence to trail off when one look at Hermione and Harry told her something was up.

“So... what’s up?”

“Harry got his O.W.L.’s back. He did better than he thought.”

Ginny didn’t like to think about Ordinary Wizarding Levels. She had to prepare for those this upcoming year and it looked like torture. And how was she suppose to know what she wanted to do when she graduated?

“Oh, that’s great news, Harry. Have you selected your N.E.W.T.’s?”

“No, I just haven’t thought about it at all.”

“I’m sure Hermione has some ideas. Right?”

Ginny saw her brighten up, so she did have plans for Harry. Of course she did.

“Well, I do have some thoughts. For example, Harry, I assume that you’ll keep on in Defence since that’s your best subject, and given what you have available you’ll want at least three N.E.W.T.’s. I would probably suggest Charms and Herbology. And I might suggest dropping Transfiguration in favour of a handful of non-N.E.W.T. courses. For example, you could take Arithmancy and Apparition and still have time to stay in Magical Creatures. Though McGonagall might never forgive you if you did.”

Ginny smiled as she saw the real Hermione come out to play for a while. She wondered at exactly how her friend kept all of the information straight in her head. But Ginny frowned as she realized that Hermione was wrong.

“But, Hermione, Harry will need five N.E.W.T.’s including Potions to qualify for the Ministry Auror Cadet program.”

From the look that Harry and Hermione exchanged, Ginny knew that she had missed something critical.

“You do still want to be Auror, Harry. Right?”

The sad look that came over Harry’s face was tragic. Harry had spoken of being an Auror from Merlin-knows-when.

“I can’t. I only got an ‘E’ in Potions and Professor Snape will only accept ‘O’ students.”

“But I remember McGonagall saying the N.E.W.T. courses were open to Exceeds Expectations and above. She made a rather big fuss about it and about how our O.W.L.’s mean everything.”

Ginny looked to Hermione for confirmation.

“That’s for Professor McGonagall’s N.E.W.T. course and most of the other professors are the same. But Professor Snape can and does set a higher standard.”

That was unjust. It was unfair. He couldn’t do that. After all the heat that Snape had heaped upon him for five years and with Harry still getting Exceeds Expectations... it wasn’t right that one evil professor could prevent him from fulfilling his dreams.

“That’s totally unfair. Harry, Professor McGonagall is headmistress now. Go to her and make her fix this.”

“Ginny, it’s okay. I don’t even know if I really want to become an Auror at all. Maybe this is just a sign that I should look for a new direction.”

She was shocked. She couldn’t believe that Harry would just give up this way.

“You seem to be running away from a lot nowadays.”

And Ginny walked back to her room unable to sort out exactly what she had meant by that.

~ diffindo ~

“Harry! — Welcome to our patron — our benefactor — a true saint. — Consider everything free of charge — complimentary.”

As Harry greeted the twins, Hermione tried not to resent Ginny. She knew full well that Ginny was trying to cheer her up and distract her. It was nice, but rather annoying because it was working. The shop had so many interesting titbits of magic that she wanted to explore.

She looked around at all of the displays stopping momentarily at the love potions. It didn’t seem responsible to be selling these. Think of the damage that could be done by someone with mal-intent.

The virgin heart careened towards love without considering the risks. No one sold a potion to get rid of love—though some concoctions existed. No, the love that sold was empty and gilded. The real love—complete with its impurities—wouldn’t garner any kind of price.

Hermione couldn’t stay here among bright and happy people, but she didn’t want Ginny to see her escape. She worked her her way to one of the front displays—the one that displayed the skiving snackboxes. She checked furtively that Ginny was occupied talking with Katie Bell and then slipped out the door.

She just couldn’t be surrounded by all that chaos—not now. Hermione needed the familiar—the comfortable—the safe. She stopped in front of a window filled with her favourite comfort objects. She just needed a few moments to think.

Hermione opened the doors of Flourish and Blotts and as she stepped over the threshold the pleasant smell of slightly dusty books calmed her turbulent emotions.

She nestled herself in the ancient runes section and pulled a copy of Advanced Runic Syntax off the shelf and opened the book to peruse it. But her tumbling synapses wouldn’t let her focus on it. She couldn’t settle into the rhythm and relaxation of reading that normally came so naturally to her.

Harry had been right. She’d been thinking of Ron as though he was dead. Is that what she really believed? Had she abandoned him so easily? Hermione was idealistic by nature and pragmatic by experience. Ron was in bad shape and no complex system ever remained static. If he didn’t recover, then he would eventually deteriorate—die—Ron would die.

But, no. Just no. That was an absurd thing to assume. He had the best care the magical alcoves could offer.

But still.

Hermione didn’t worry about herself. No, it would destroy Harry if Ronald died. Harry blamed himself just as Hermione blamed herself. She couldn’t let him fall that way. Harry’s life had had too much darkness.

Ron wouldn’t die. He couldn’t.

~ diffindo ~

Hermione was missing. Ginny didn’t know how long she’d been gone, but she’d been talking with Katie about the advantages and disadvantages of a back handed broom grip, and when she turned back Hermione had been gone.

Ginny’s frustration smouldered, but more than that she worried. She worried that Hermione was putting on a front for Harry.

Harry...

No, she must stay focused. The entire purpose of visiting the shop was to force Hermione into the presence of happy enthusiastic people. And now, presented with that opportunity, she’d simply disappeared.

She was going to have to talk to Harry about it. But that was awkward—everything between them was now. It seemed like a field simply chock full of what Luna would describe as Wrackspurts. Ginny smirked at the image of patrons to the store unwittingly walking through a physical manifestation of awkwardness, being confused for a moment, and then moving on.

At least they got to move on.

No, she’d wanted Harry to visit specifically to see Hermione and to cheer her up, and now Ginny had gone and made that more difficult by selfishly thinking of herself. She shouldn’t have lost her mind over the whole Susan Bones thing. It sounded like it had ended badly. Ginny should have left it alone until Hermione was in better shape.

Ginny shook off her inertia and dove into the field of Wrackspurts as she crossed the room. It got easier once she was moving. Having a purpose and direction had always been a ready antidote for her problems.

Harry was talking with Dean Thomas. Great. If someone made Ginny feel like she had Wrackspurts and it wasn’t Harry, it was Dean.

She took a deep breath made the last few steps.

“Harry?”

When he turned to her, she saw the nervous look of fear quickly replaced by a polite smile. Ginny returned the artificial sentiment finding it almost painful to do so.

“Oh, hi. I was just talking to Dean about his classes next year.”

“Cool. Have you seen Hermione? I can’t seem to find her anywhere.”

Harry pointed across the shop.

“Oh, I saw her over there by the love potions, next to the...”

Next to the door. He was going to say next to the door. Damn it, Hermione!

Ginny shared a look of understanding with Harry and then they both started talking at once.

“I think you should...”

“I think you should...”

And then they simultaneously stopped talking. The lengthy pause swelled. Why had she kissed him?

“Harry, I think you should go. She’s heard enough from me.”

“But I don’t even know where she went. Do you?”

The look Ginny gave Harry was priceless and Dean burst out laughing at it.

“Harry, mate, I think we all can guess where Hermione would go. There’s only like three books stores. Start with the F.A.B. and work your way down.”

Ginny smiled genuinely at Dean. She’d watched him during the D.A. and she liked what she saw. Maybe if Harry continued to be a git, Ginny would see if Dean had something to say about her snogging.

“Yeah, okay. Ginny, do you need us to come back and get you. I suspect Hermione may not want to come back.”

“Harry, I swear, do you think I’m so feeble I can’t get home from my own brothers’ shop? Merlin!”

And Ginny turned back towards Katie Bell. On a positive note, it had seemed a little less awkward at the end then at the start. On a negative note, Harry was still a complete git.

~ diffindo ~

“Hermione?”

He could see her sitting in the reading chair at the end of a row of bookcases. She was staring at her book, but she hadn’t turned a page since Harry spotted her shortly after entering the store. And knowing how fast Hermione read, she certainly wasn’t reading.

“Hermione?”

She turned around slightly startled.

“Oh, Harry. Hi. I’m sorry, I just—”

“You’ve just had enough of Ginny trying to force cheeriness on you and you wanted to get away to a safe place.”

“I— yeah. How did you find me?”

Harry gave her the same look Ginny had given him which produced a mirthful sigh from his best friend.

“Yeah, okay. Never mind.”

“It’s okay. You know she only does it because she’s worried about you.”

“She doesn’t need to be. I can clean up my own messes.”

He wasn’t sure what Hermione meant by that. Harry sat down on the floor facing her.

“You know, he could have been hurt just as badly if he’d been with me instead of you. I— it was a stupid thing to say. You’re a better witch than I’ve ever been a wizard.”

Hermione shook her head and he saw her eyes begin to glisten.

“You don’t understand, Harry. I could have protected myself, not left myself open. But that’s not the real issue. He threw himself in front of that curse because of our relationship. He did it because we were in love. And it made him stupid. And that’s my fault.”

What?

“You can’t possibly believe that your responsible for all the things that people do because they love you. You can’t control that.”

“I could’ve not encouraged him. Then maybe he would’ve been more careful.”

“You just chewed me out for wasting time on my O.W.L. scores. If that’s wasting time and if you had something real with Ron—and you did, if I could see it as blind as I am, then you did—then pushing Ron away would have been a much greater crime.”

“Harry... I can’t. I can’t stop thinking it’s my fault.”

Harry pushed up into a kneeling position and gave his friend a hug.

“I know, Hermione, me too.”

“How do I move on?”

This time it was Harry’s turn to shake his head.

“I don’t know Hermione, but the world keeps going. It won’t stop for me or for you or even for him. I...”

He looked into her eyes which asked for an answer that he didn’t have.

“I don’t know, but we just have to keep going.”

“I can’t do it, Harry. I don’t understand how you can. How can I care about anything else when I’ve already destroyed everything? I...”

She turned her eyes to her lap and her voice dropped to not but a whisper.

“I know it would be better for everyone if I just wasn’t around any more. I don’t have anything to offer anyone.”

Hermione never saw the look of horror that climbed onto Harry’s face. Those words, they sounded suicidal.

“Hermione, don’t... don’t you think that way. Somewhere, deep down, I think you know that’s not true. You have more to offer than any other individual at school. Your parents love you. Your friends—.”

A edge of malice entered Hermione’s voice.

“You’ve never met my parents, Harry. Maybe I’m just tired of offering things to others all the time...”

She still wasn’t looking at him. He didn’t know what to say. This wasn’t okay. He couldn’t very well leave her alone.

“Just leave me alone, Harry. You don’t honestly believe I’m going to kill myself. I’m tougher than that.”

Harry had been here before. Not exactly here, but close enough. Her words were hollow and they held no confidence, but they were an absolution. He could leave and it wouldn’t be his fault. He could pretend to not know and no one would have any idea that he had been in a position to help.

It was kind. He should bravely reject that kindness. Godric Gryffindor would have rejected that kindness, but Harry now found himself a coward.

~ diffindo ~

She had followed his commands to the letter. She knew her duty and she stalked it with diligence. That arrogant little bumblebee had crushed her master’s new body with impudence and the pest had paid the commensurate price. But the Lord could not be vanquished so easily. Death was no match for the Lord.

The snake.

She was to protect the snake. She’d lain low as he had instructed making sure that no one was tracking her as she pursued her precious target. She’d get Nagini and make it to the graveyard and he would be restored again according to his plan. Reborn anew like a phoenix from the ashes. There was the matter of Harry Potter’s blood to be contended with. The Lord was unknowably wise in his decision to allow the young heathen to escape. He’d undoubtedly foreseen this circumstance.

Bellatrix Lestrange was dauntless. She’d only killed four on her way to the house of Riddle. She was of course merciful. It was wrong to torture animals, and muggles were little more.

Now wizards—wizards had the responsibility of their higher capacity and if they would not offer allegiance to the inescapably supreme Lord willingly, then they would be made so to do. They had a choice. They could choose and if they chose wrong then the necessary punishment was required. Pain was the most effective form of instruction.

The iron gate guarding the grounds of the Riddle House exploded inward with not but a twitch of her magic. The hinges screamed their rusty protest and the bars clanged as they slammed into the gateposts on either side. Bellatrix cackled her delight as she wielded her power over nature.

Bellatrix moved silently, almost motionlessly, up the path approaching the manor. She frowned briefly at the realization that she would again need to permit the presence of Wormtail whose name was fully and justly deserved. She reflected with some consolation that if he bothered her sufficiently she could just kill him. That put the smile back on her face.

As she stepped into the foyer, Bella knew something was off. Wormtail avoided the snake and thus the study—weakling. But he always kept the fire stoked to keep Nagini warm, yet the threshold looked cold and dark.

Bella directed magic into her feet and felt the pressure of the floor fall away. She hovered slowly up the stairs maintaining the element of surprise. The door was open. It should not be. Open doors were good for open ears. And it let the heat out which the reptile would need.

A shiver of excitement ran down her spine as she saw the oozing blood that pooled just inside the door. If Nagini had finally killed Wormtail, then Bella would feel no loss.

She gasped as she came around the door frame and the form of the deceased came into view. It was not possible. Nagini—the great snake and the Lord’s familiar—more familiar than any other wizard’s or witch’s could be—was lying in a death repose utterly motionless. Bella felt for the magic that emanated from the Lord’s pillars of eternity but could find nothing.

A knife had been run from tail to head. The line was straight and careful and little of the blood had spattered. The wound was post mortem.

She began to panic. If Nagini was vulnerable, then how many of the other pillars were vulnerable? How many had already been lost?

The cup.

It was still in the vault, and no one had been in that vault for years. She had to get the cup.

And kill Wormtail.

This betrayal was exactly in his nature. She’d warned the Lord of his untrustworthiness, but the Lord had his plan and his understanding. The sign of her righteousness burned along her left arm in protest at her failure to perform her duty. It was all in his plan.

Get the cup.

Kill the rat.