Chapter 50: Partners and Leaders (Year 7)
For once, no tissues needed. Except perhaps for excessive happiness and squee. Some creepiness in mid-chapter, though that should be balanced out by what there's two of. Happy fourteenth of February, all.
Harry squinted into the box Moony was holding out to him, trying to see what was within it, masked by tongues of Gubraithian fire. "It's a letter," he said finally, looking up. "What about it?"
"It's a letter addressed to you," said Moony, closing the box and sliding it back into the desk drawer in the War Room at number twelve, Grimmauld Place. "From Albus. He didn't want you to know about it until you were seventeen, unless there were some dire emergency. Which, thankfully, there hasn't been."
"So, now you know it exists," Danger picked up the thread, in the manner Harry had come to expect from his Pack-alphas through the years. "But you're to open it under only one of two conditions. Either once you've made definite contact with Alexander Slytherin's Heir, or…" She gestured to herself and Moony. "If both of us are dead or dying."
"Cheerful," muttered Harry. "Do you think that's likely?"
"I certainly hope not, but those were the conditions laid out in our letter." Moony dusted off his hands. "Do you understand, Harry?"
"Yes." Harry scuffed his foot against the carpet, first against the nap, then with it, watching the fibers stand up and lie down, changing the color and pattern as they did. "Why does growing up have to be so much no fun at all?"
"Oh, I think parts of it are some fun at least." Danger winked. "Or haven't you and Ginny been enjoying—"
"Gah!" Harry clapped his hands over his ears and fled, Moony and Danger's commingled laughter following him down the corridor towards the stairs to the basement kitchen.
Sometimes having Pack-parents is more trouble than it's worth.
Dobby looked up from polishing the stove as Harry burst through the door. "Harry Potter, sir," he said with a small smile. "Does Harry Potter need anything?"
"No, just running away from the insanity." Harry sat down in one of the armchairs by the fire, watching Dobby fuss around the stove, simultaneously conducting the dishes in their ballet of washing themselves with occasional waves towards the sink. "How're you holding up?" he asked. "With Echo being gone, I mean. You know we're keeping an eye out for her, for anything we could do."
"Yes, sir, Dobby knows." Dobby nodded without turning around. "But Echo is a good girl and will keep her own eyes out as well, for ways she can stay safe. And besides, Lucius Malfoy knows what Dobby and Winky would do to him if Echo is hurt." The verb came out in a growl. "And besides the second time, once Harry Potter or his Pridemates have killed Lucius Malfoy, then the Malfoy line will be ended and Echo can come home." Now he did turn around, and smiled at Harry again, rather more toothily. "So Dobby has nothing to worry about, really, sir."
Harry wished he shared this confidence, but nodded nonetheless.
The werewolf stood, chest outthrust, and watched as two of his people hauled a third one forward. The female was filthy, her wiry red hair snarled and matted, her face smeared with grime, but still she glared up at him with a spark of defiance in her gray-green eyes.
We can't have that, now, can we. Good thing we won't much longer.
The werewolf smirked at her, thinking gleefully of the plan given to him by his liaison with the Death Eaters (fastidious little prick that he was, but still, scent and manner both proclaimed him an alpha predator, and such must be deferred to). A terror campaign did no good, the man had pointed out in his casually high-class way, if no one knew about it to be terrorized.
So we spread the word around that we were making an example, here, today, and look at the result. The werewolf let his eyes travel across the ring of jeering, leering males which had gathered around the female, both from this camp and from several others in the area, and felt his own lust begin to rise. We've let our females get away with far too much until now. From this day on, if any of them get ideas, we'll all come together to put them in their place. Remind them where they belong, and who they belong to.
Anything else is just too…human.
"Right!" He clapped his hands twice, quieting the crowd somewhat, though the comments and snickers directed at the kneeling female continued in an undertone. "We all know why we're here, so let's get to it! Queue up, boys, first come first served! And remember…" He grinned widely. "We're here to enjoy ourselves, so make her yell nice and loud for us now! This's our world, not anyone else's—"
"Then why're you taking orders from the Death Eaters?" a voice rang out clearly.
"Who said that?" The werewolf peered around suspiciously, hindered by the two or three dozen males below him who were doing the same thing, and the females who huddled on the periphery, attending this gathering because they'd been warned not to fail. "Ought to know better, if you've been here a while. We don't take orders from anyone! We may take…suggestions," he let the pause drag on for several seconds, until the level of snorting and elbowing below him was as bawdy as he wanted it, "but not orders."
"That's not what I heard," called another voice from a different direction. "Heard you take orders from Lucius Malfoy."
"Heard he's got you sitting up, rolling over, and begging," a third voice chimed in. "Him and his dear Dark Lord."
The werewolf had barely drawn breath to reply to these ridiculous lies when the female in the center of the ring sprang to her feet, her eyes suddenly alight. From within her ragged clothes, she snatched out what appeared to be a Muggle child's toy, a water balloon, if he remembered the stories properly—well, that made sense in some ways, she'd been a Muggle until the previous full moon, but where—
The balloon impacted the ground at his feet and burst, splashing him with a substance which was definitely not water.
He got two steps forward, intending to begin the chastisement of this unnatural bitch himself, before his knees buckled and he pitched forward onto his face, the other males around him similarly falling where they stood or dropping to the ground with their hands clasped behind their heads in response to hazily heard shouts and spellfire.
His last thought was to wonder, dreamily, what type of potion could make the female's hair appear to be turning a brilliant shade of pink.
"Ugh." Tonks held out her arms, allowing Charlie's Extra-Strength Extra-Gentle Cleaning Charm to travel along the length and breadth of her body. "That was definitely one of the dirtiest things I have ever done. One of the best, mind you," she added, glaring at the unconscious forms of the male werewolves crumpled on the ground all around her, "but still. Ugh."
"At least we were able to stop it, this time." Brian glanced up at the Werewolf Registry scroll Lee Jordan was holding for him (liberated from the Ministry, compliments of Percy, some months earlier), then back down at the werewolf he was examining. "We've come to several camps too late, since they don't always advertise what they're planning to do. And then, we don't always have the help we had today." He glanced to one side, where Corona, Maya, and the young woman they'd freed from a dilapidated shack a few hours before, leaving Tonks behind in her place, had the female werewolves gathered in a circle and were taking it in turns to make their explanations. "Thank you for it."
"Our pleasure." Charlie finished the spell with a flourish and handed Tonks the robes he'd been holding on his opposite arm. "And if you're looking for a place to take this lot…" He prodded one of the unconscious men with his toe.
"As it happens, yes." Brian got to his feet, brushing dirt off his hands. "We've established a central safehouse for the women, those who're ready to accept help. Which should be most of them, after today."
"I'd certainly hope so." Tonks fastened her robes and checked her wand's draw from its arm holster, then slid it away again. "Whereabouts? Or shouldn't you say?"
"Probably better not to mention it aloud," said Lee after exchanging a look with Brian. "But…" He drew his own wand and beckoned Charlie and Tonks closer, then sketched two pictures on the air. One was a waterfall with the entrance to a cave behind it, while the other was a boy's face, dark-haired and determined.
"Ah." Charlie nodded. "Got it. And how's…" His look at Maya needed no further explanation.
"She's thrilled that it had something good come out of it." Lee snapped his wrist, vanishing the pictures. "Especially for girls like she could have been, if it weren't for her uncle and aunt and cousins."
"And you." Tonks prodded him in the shoulder. "Don't go forgetting about yourself, now."
"You were saying, Charlie?" Brian spoke up before Lee's embarrassed grimace could turn itself into words. "Something about what we might do with the men? Clearly we can't let them run loose, they're terribly dangerous as they are, but I'm not sure how we could effectively guard them without tying up more of our resources on that than we can afford."
"Which is where my work comes in." Charlie grinned. "As long as we make sure none of them's left with a wand, my supervisor said we can house them in a couple little valleys in one of the dragon preserves. Too narrow for the dragons to get into, but if any of them try to leave…" He pursed his lips and blew. "Roast werewolf, a la carte. Doubt they'd even try to get out on the full moons, with that many big predators on the other side."
"They can ship in food, same process they use when there's not enough prey for the dragons," Tonks added, "and there's a stream or two for water. Caves along the walls for shelter." She looked down at the prostrate rows of bodies, her face twisting in disgust. "Suppose we can give them some straw for bedding if we have to, but I'd like it better if they had to sleep on bare stone. It's no more than what they were making Alexandria do, and the others." The pink-haired head bobbed towards the young woman she'd earlier been impersonating. "Can't even properly call them animals, animals don't do that sort of thing, not to their own kind…"
"Easy, love." Charlie squeezed her shoulder comfortingly. "This lot's been stopped, at least. And I'd bet you plenty of the men didn't like it, but they were afraid to speak up in case they were the next ones to get punished."
Tonks sighed between her teeth. "Damn you, dragon-boy," she said on the end of it. "Why do you always have to make me think about things?"
Charlie wiggled his ring finger in her direction. "Said I would, didn't I? Along with a load of other stuff, but I wasn't paying much attention to it all. You were too beautiful."
"So," said Brian hastily before Tonks could respond to this (though the pink of her hair was deepening steadily in what he suspected was her form of a blush). "We'll interview each of the men separately, find out whether they would have gone along with this voluntarily or not, and assign them to a valley based on that. To keep the ones who just got swept along with it all from becoming the next victims of this same sort of bullying."
"And let the bullies fight it out for who's top dog, and who has to knuckle under." Lee looked down at the werewolves coldly. "I wouldn't shed too many tears if most of them ended up as dragon bait before the war's over…"
"Why are you helping us?" asked one of the older women suspiciously, looking from Maya to Alexandria before finally settling on Corona. "What's in it for you?"
More than a year of traveling with Brian, and her last few months of talking personally with the women whose lives were bounded by the werewolf camps, informed Corona's answer better than she could have dreamed in the life she'd once lived. "Mainly we're stopping them," she said, nodding towards the unconscious men who were being checked over by Lee, Brian, Charlie, and Tonks. "They're dangerous to wizards and Muggles both, so we're taking them out of play. But it's no good removing one danger and letting another one slide into its place."
"The difference being," Maya put in, "that they're dangerous because they want to be, and you'd rather just find a way to live in peace. We assume."
Slowly, the woman nodded. "What's she got to do with this?" she demanded, jerking her chin towards Alexandria. "I'd seen her here, thought she was just one of the newly-turned, that they were planning on teaching her a good hard lesson, pounding it into all the newer ones' heads that there's no way out, no way back…"
"They were." Alexandria eased her seat on the hard ground, wincing a little as the half-healed bite on her left leg twinged. "But I got luckier than anyone has a right to be. And now we all have a chance at that same way out they didn't want us to have. A place to be safe, to learn to live with who and what we are now, and how to fit ourselves into a world that doesn't like us very much." She waved a hand around herself, encompassing the squalid little camp with its tumbledown huts. "I don't know about you, but even 'doesn't like us very much' looks awfully good after this."
"It isn't free," Corona added before the woman could speak again. "There will be work we'll ask you to do. But you'll have your choice of what it is, and none of it will be impossible or demeaning."
"And we'll teach you how to defend yourselves, and your new home." Maya's teeth flashed as she grinned, and a few of the women straightened their shoulders or lifted their heads in interest. "So that nothing like this has a chance to happen again."
"But before we get into any of that." Corona looked the older woman in the eye. "I don't think I caught your name."
The woman looked momentarily stunned, and a soft inhalation ran around the circle. "Barbara," she said after a few seconds. "Barbara Thompson. And you are?"
"Corona Gamp." Corona extended her hand. "I'm pleased to meet you, Barbara."
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the twitching of Maya's fingers. They had formed, momentarily, the hand-sign (of which Corona could read only a little, but this was one of them) for Nicely done.
"A good day, I think." Brian checked his watch to be sure the rice on the back burner of the stove wasn't overcooking, then stirred the thin-sliced vegetables in his pan, enjoying the scent of the spicy sauce he'd added. "Exhausting, yes, but this is the kind of thing I always hoped I could do with my life. Making a true difference, even just to a few people."
"And I was never taught that I could make any kind of difference at all." Corona finished slicing the piece of beef they would share and portioned it into two heaps, a small one to be cooked thoroughly for her and a larger one to receive the barest possible searing for Brian. "Pureblood children are meant to do precisely what their parents did, no more, no less. Unless it involves putting their inferiors more firmly in their place." She smiled a little. "If I had known what my place would become, I wonder if I would have dared speak to Sirius as I did."
"Corona." Brian snapped off the heat beneath the two pans and turned to face her, his heart beginning to pound. "We've never talked about what might happen. During the war, or after it. I've always assumed you were here because you wanted to be. But if you're not, if you would rather do your work from somewhere else—"
"Do you want me to go?" Corona had her head bowed over her hands as she scrubbed them at the sink, her voice so low that Brian could barely hear her over the water flowing from the faucet.
"No! No, of course not, I've never wanted that…" Brian swallowed hard, reminding himself of all the times he'd faced down larger, stronger, better-armed opponents without feeling half this much panic. "In fact," he said, forcing calm speech from his suddenly numb lips, "I was trying to ask the opposite."
"The opposite?" Corona shook the excess water off her hands and reached for the towel. "I'm sorry, Brian. I don't understand you."
"Then let me be a little clearer." Brian slid his hand into his pocket and found the item he'd been holding onto for nearly two months. "You're the most wonderful woman I could imagine. Except that I didn't have to imagine you. You're real, and you're here, and I love you."
Slipping the velvet-covered box from his pocket, he opened it, and watched her eyes widen in shock.
"I don't want you to go, Corona," said Brian Li, dropping to one knee in front of the woman he loved and holding out the ring his sister had helped him pick. "I want you to stay. Forever. Please, say you will?"
Tell Dad and Mum to expect us for their blessing sometime next week.
P.S. You so much as think 'I told you so' and I'll duck you in the koi pond.
Corona stood at an upper window, gazing out into the warm summer night, one finger gently caressing the five tiny stones in the ring she now wore, set in a curve which mimicked the Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, after which she'd been named.
"He's a good man, Mother," she whispered into the darkness. "He's kind, and he loves his family, and he likes to laugh. He'll take good care of me, Father, and I'll do the same for him. Just as we have been doing, these past months and years."
And I would speak to Elladora, but even in this moment I doubt she would hear me. Either from fear of what my Brian is, or from jealousy that he is mine and not hers. Which makes very little sense, that she could feel both those emotions at the same time, but I know my sister and I do not doubt that both feelings live somewhere in her heart, even though trying to maintain them would be enough to make my head spin—
But although she had long since lost any fear she might have felt of Brian, her head was indeed spinning, Corona realized distantly, as clouds of mist seemed to billow up inside her mind. What had she just been thinking? Something about her love? Her love, and her sister… so strange, that he should prefer her, when Elladora was older and should have been married first, but then, he had never had the chance to meet Elladora, and that was hardly fair…
And then she knew nothing more at all, until she awakened on her bed, still fully dressed, to the singing of birds in the first faint glimmers of the dawn.
Midway through the morning, an owl landed beside Lord Voldemort and offered him a slip of parchment which made him frown.
"Trouble, my lord?" asked Bellatrix, looking up from the maps of magical potential which Lucius had unearthed for her perusal. "What can I do?"
"Nothing, nothing." Voldemort waved it off. "A small setback in one of our areas of attack. Though I will need to speak to Lucius shortly, if you could have him fetched, my dear Bella." His eyes gleamed as she blushed like a schoolgirl. "And it confirms a far more important item is still at my command. A weapon within the Order of the Phoenix, unaware even of its own existence, but ready to my hand when I shall give the word." His fingers contracted slowly around the slip of parchment, crumpling it and smearing the ink. "To destroy, once and for all, an enemy who should long since have ceased to trouble me, and simultaneously to strike a devastating blow at the foundation of Harry Potter's confidence…"
"You wanted to see me, Professor?" said Harry, standing in Professor McGonagall's open office door. She hadn't yet moved up to the Head's office, and Harry wondered if that was because she still half-expected, as Harry himself sometimes did, to see Dumbledore strolling into one of the Sanctuary gathering areas for breakfast with Fawkes on his shoulder or talking gravely with the small children of Sanctuary, magical and Muggle, as they fed crusts of bread to the fat orange and black fish which had once been Death Eaters.
"Yes." McGonagall finished reading the scroll in front of her, signed her name at the bottom, and allowed it to roll up again. "Come in, Harry. Close the door."
Harry frowned, making sure to allow the expression full play only in the moment his back was to the Headmistress. Have I done something? I didn't think I'd done anything…
"You're not in trouble," McGonagall added before he'd turned around again. "I simply need to ask you a few questions."
Idiot. Harry rolled his eyes at himself and crossed the office to have a seat. She's got as good a nose as Neenie or Lynx, remember? And she's had it a lot longer, so she knows how to sort things out.
"I somehow doubt that you and your Pride will be returning to Hogwarts next week, given that Amycus and Alecto Carrow will be joining the staff," said McGonagall when he was seated. "I can write the timetables for teaching so that they have little or no chance of encountering your parents, but students are another matter. Have you given any thought to where you will base yourselves?"
"We were thinking Headquarters, Professor." Harry controlled his sigh of relief that he wasn't about to face a 'why your schooling is important' lecture. "You do know Meghan's coming with us?"
"I expected nothing else. But your absence leaves me in something of a quandary." McGonagall tucked away the scroll she'd been reading. "Given that some of my best candidates for Head Boy, and my leading one for Head Girl, will not in fact be enrolled at Hogwarts this fall."
Harry felt his eyes widen as her meaning sank in, and Professor McGonagall's scent developed a distinct tinge of amusement. "The things we remember," she said as if to herself, sitting back in her chair. "A cool November evening, a house in a Muggle neighborhood in Surrey, and Albus Dumbledore telling me that he wanted a certain little boy to grow up without any artificially inflated ideas of himself. Without becoming, as he put it, a pampered little prince. And here you sit, shocked that you and your siblings and friends could be considered for important duties." A tinge of sorrow touched her smile. "I only wish he were here to see it."
"I do too, Professor." Harry drew his wand and levitated the box of tissues on the corner of her desk nearer to her. "And I wasn't surprised about Neenie, or about Neville or Ron. Ron and Neenie are prefects already, and that's usually a requirement, isn't it? And Neville's sturdy, he doesn't crack, and everyone knows that. But I get into trouble a lot, usually by talking out of turn or getting impatient and doing something I shouldn't. Running the DA's suited me mostly because I do know how to fight, and that's only because I've been training for it, one way or another, my entire life."
The thought of the DA meshed with what McGonagall had been saying, and Harry sat up a little straighter. "Do you need to know who might be a good Head Boy and Girl for this year, Professor?" he asked.
"I was hoping you had some recommendations, yes." McGongall dabbed at her eyes, then Vanished the tissue. "Since one of the first criteria, this year, is that they must be ready to defend the school and their fellow students, both by magic and by guile."
"I think I might know just the right pair." Harry didn't bother to hide his grin. "And nobody will be able to say you're showing favoritism, either…"
When they were finished, Harry started for the door, when Professor McGonagall's soft cough brought his head back around. The Headmistress of Hogwarts was standing behind her desk, looking at him intently.
"You have your father's grace in motion, and his speed and power with his wand," she said quietly. "And your mother's precision of casting, and her indomitable strength of heart. But Harry—and you will not hear me say this often, so listen carefully—you are not your father, nor your mother, nor any of the people who have raised you. Each of them has given you something, but you have chosen what to make of those gifts, and what you have made is a unique and admirable young man. I am proud to have had you as my student, and I look forward to seeing who you will become next."
"Thank you, Professor." Harry bowed to her, as deeply as he would to his own parents or to Professor Dumbledore, and hurried out of the office before she could see or smell what her words had done to him.
She's almost as bad as Padfoot that way. At least they both hit me with it in private…
Harry stepped out of the Sanctuary kitchens the next day only to be confronted by Blaise Zabini, who wordlessly held up a small and sparkling item.
"Congratulations," said Harry, keeping his grin entirely internal as he looked at the Head Boy badge. "What about it?"
"Since when am I…" Blaise seemed to run out of words, and looked from the badge to Harry and back again.
"The best choice?" Harry waved Blaise over to a pair of the boulders which had been left in strategic spots around Sanctuary for sitting on. "Since you're a founding member of the DA, already a prefect, and passed all your O.W.L.s with E's or O's. Not to mention you already know how to work well with the Head Girl. Who has almost exactly the same qualifications, so you can't exactly say either of you doesn't deserve it."
He saw Blaise starting to draw breath for further argument and sat forward, cutting the taller boy off before he could begin. "I'm not coming back to Hogwarts this year," he said quietly. "If I were, we both know that badge would probably be mine. But I'm not, and it's not, and I want it in the best hands possible." He pointed. "There they are."
Blaise let out a long breath, and reached up to pin the badge to the shoulder of his robes. "I hadn't thought of it quite like that," he said, sitting back once the catch was in place. "It seemed like a joke, or a prank, not a serious appointment. Perhaps I'm a little too Slytherin for my own good."
"You can't be too Slytherin to suit me, so long as you're aiming it at the Carrows," Harry retorted, making Blaise snicker. "Just hold things together until we're ready to go after Voldemort, all right? It shouldn't be longer than a couple of months now. Get the Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs to keep their heads down, and don't let the Ravenclaws or Slytherins outsmart themselves. And hang onto this." He pulled a square of parchment from his pocket and unfolded it. "It'll help you a lot."
"It will?" Blaise asked dubiously, looking at the apparently blank surface before him.
"If you know how to use it." Harry grinned and drew his wand, touching it to the parchment's center. "I solemnly swear," he said, pitching his voice to carry only so far as Blaise, "that I am up to no good…"
Hermione lay sideways in an armchair in her bedroom at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, a book about Horcruxes facedown in her lap, the window open to the early autumn breeze. Her eyes rested on a glass globe on a shelf across the room, silent and quiescent at the moment, though she knew if she shook it once, snow would begin to fall inside it and sweet music would arise from it.
What would you say to me today? she wondered, watching the ever-laughing face of her twin, caught in that moment of joy as she loved to remember him. What wishes would you have for me on my seventeenth birthday? What would you think of everything we've been doing, for that matter?
"We've set up housekeeping here without too much of a hitch," she murmured aloud. "Which we're hoping means the Manor Den will work out when we get our chance at it, but time will tell. We've been out to check three more Horcrux spots—nothing yet, but that means it has to be in one of the last two, and we'll never stop being grateful you remembered how we could find those. And we're keeping the doors open and the candles lit for the Order members and the Red Shepherds, if and when they're able to stop here, which isn't any too often these days…"
Shutting her book and setting it aside, she got up to pace restlessly across the room. "It's not going well, Fox," she said, shaking her head. "Professor Burbage, from Muggle Studies, she disappeared in the middle of the summer, and we got a message from one of our spies in the Death Eaters just before the start of school that said she'd been killed. So Danger's the full-time professor there now, and she's having to keep two lessons going at all times, one that's what Muggles are really like and one that will satisfy the Carrows if one of them pops into her classroom. She says the second ones make her want to throw up, but she doesn't have a choice, because you know Alecto Carrow would just love to teach Muggle Studies."
She shivered, hugging herself, and turned on her toes to continue pacing. "And then there's Moony. They've put out a notice that he's a dangerous werewolf, that he's to be brought to the Ministry for questioning on sight, it's a horrible risk for him even to be at Hogwarts, but where else can he be when Danger's there? And I know, I know, he could stay down in Sanctuary, but he told Professor McGonagall he'd teach Defense, so that's what he's doing. He's teaching Defense. Only to the students he doesn't think will give him away, with Padfoot there to take over the instant he's needed, and with a house-elf nearby at all times, but still. He's teaching Defense. And I'm terribly afraid that it's going to get him killed, or worse, captured…"
Her eyes blurred momentarily with tears, until all she could see of the snow globe was a small, sparkling sphere, like the one Meghan had found in the Room of Hidden Things, that Harry now kept in his sock drawer. That globe had a barren mountain peak inside it, Hermione recalled as she dug into her pocket for her handkerchief, one with a distinctive jagged cliff overhanging its rocky slopes.
I wonder if it's a copy of a real place, or just the artist's imagination? Not that it matters. But it seems like a strange thing to dream up to put inside a snow globe. Most of them are a little fantastical, distanced from reality, either an idealized past or a time that never was at all…
She stopped beside the shelf and stroked the glass of her own globe tenderly. "Only this one was real," she whispered. "And I have it to remember always, even if I don't have you any longer."
And you would be the first one to tell me to stop sniveling and get out of this room and go see what the Pride has dreamed up for my birthday. With a smile, Hermione blotted her eyes once more and kissed her fingertips, patting them against the globe. So I will.
"Love you, Fox," she murmured, turning to leave the room. "Now and always."
A swirl of wind brushed against her cheek an instant before she closed the door behind her.
Ron stood back from the table where Hermione's birthday presents were piled, his fingers pleating restlessly at the lining of his pocket, beside a tiny bag with a drawstring closure. He could almost see her already, exclaiming for joy over The Lord of the Rings in a single volume, bound in red leather, her gift from Mr. Padfoot and Mrs. Letha, and the matching copies of The Hobbit in green from Meghan and The Silmarillion in gold from Harry (from whom he'd had the color report). Mr. Moony and Mrs. Danger had bought her a chatelaine watch with a two-sided face, so that she would have both the magical and the Muggle time, and Ginny had sculpted a clever series of stacked pots into which Neville had transplanted miniature, sweet-smelling roses.
And I…am giving her insanity. Or rather, asking her to share it with me. He resisted the urge to loosen the collar of his robes. This can't be a good idea, I should wait, I should come up with something else for today, I can't do this—
"Wotcher, Ron," said a cheery voice from behind him, bringing him around with his wand in his hand.
"Don't do that," he snapped at Tonks, who raised an eyebrow at him, rather higher than ought to be physically possible. "And don't do that, either," he added irritably, pointing at it.
"What crawled into your robes and died this morning?" Tonks frowned, restoring her eyebrow to its usual place. "I thought you'd be happy—whole day to spend with Hermione, all by yourselves, except for me and Charlie keeping an eye on the wards at the Burrow, making sure no Death Eaters or Ministry warts get any bright ideas…"
"Who said that was still on?" Ron kicked at the wall moodily. "Why would Hermione want to spend a day with me, anyway? I'm nothing special, she'd probably rather have the time to read and study, she gets enough of me as it is. Let's not bother telling her, all right? She can have the day to do whatever she wants, and I'll just…I don't know."
Tonks glanced once to each side, then leaned in. "You," she said conspiratorially, "have one of the worst cases of nerves I've ever seen. This is more than just a birthday surprise, isn't it?"
"You mean it shows?" Ron checked over his shoulder to be sure no one was coming, then extracted the little bag from his pocket and showed its contents to Tonks, who whistled softly. "Yeah," he said, restoring it to its place. "Exactly. And I'm scared to death, because she always does the smartest thing, and the smartest thing here—"
"Would be for you to try and let a few of those nerves off, because she'll see it on you from a mile away," Tonks interrupted, tugging gently on one of Ron's ears. "And for you to go out with her just like you planned, and do exactly what you were going to do. It's a good sign that you're nervous, it means you know this isn't anything to be fooling around with, but you'll hate yourself in the morning if you don't go for it."
"Promise?" Ron managed a sickly smile, and Tonks grinned at him and pulled him into a sisterly hug.
"Promise," she said into the same ear she'd tugged a moment before. "And my money's on you. Ickle Ronniekins."
"Why in the world were you and Tonks dueling this morning?" Hermione asked Ron as they left the front door of the Burrow, stepping out into a comfortably cool autumn day like a hundred they'd shared before. "I mean, yes, we could all see it was just a Silly Duel, you were both laughing and you'd put her in high-heeled shoes while she turned your hair white, but even a Silly Duel starts somewhere…"
"It's not important now." Ron's hand wrapped naturally around hers, as he glanced over and smiled. "Many happy returns, by the way. Er…she did put my hair back, didn't she?"
"Yes, she did." Hermione hid a smile, since one narrow streak of white remained over Ron's left ear which she wasn't bothering to mention.
Mostly because I like how it looks. It'll fade by tomorrow, I'm sure, but for right now it makes me think about the future beyond tomorrow. About peace, and happiness, and all the years we'll have as the Pride, to grow and learn more about what that means when we don't need it to mean a group of Warriors…
"Thank you for knowing what I'd like for my birthday," she said, squeezing Ron's hand gently. "We may not be able to get away from the war altogether, but one day when we don't have to think about it will make both of us stronger afterwards."
"Don't mention it." Ron shortened his stride to accommodate her as they began to climb the hill towards the orchard. "Do you remember, all those years ago? It was snowing then, but this is right about where I think I was…"
"When I first saw you. Though I didn't know it was you, not then. I just knew it was a boy, about my age, who wasn't one of my crazy brothers." Hermione looked up at the trees, feeling a surge of nostalgia. "And then I saw Fred and George, sneaking up on you, and I couldn't let that happen, not without trying to do something about it."
"And you yelled at me to get down, and I did." Ron ducked a little, making her giggle, as they reached the shade of the first tree. "You snowballed them back, and told me how to get up in the tree with you…"
"And the rest is history." Hermione reached up and touched the branch she'd been sitting on that day. "It seems like so long ago. More than half our lives, and so much has happened since then. I can't even imagine what my life would be like without you, Ron. You, and Ginny, and your parents, and your brothers, but especially you."
"Thanks." Ron kissed her lightly, then cupped his hands with a smile. "Want a boost?"
"Oh, why not." Grinning, Hermione stepped into the offered hands, and pushed off the ground as Ron hoisted her into the air, swinging her leg over one of the higher branches of the tree as she might mount a horse. "You always do know what I like."
"I try." Ron leaned against the trunk of the tree, watching her ascend. "You know something, Hermione? When I think about that day at the orchard, when everything changed for me, when I finally got real friends of my own, I think of Harry and Draco, sure, but I think of you first. Because that's how it happened. You were first. And you know something else? That's what you deserve."
His tone, his scent, his pose, all studiously casual, caught Hermione's attention, and she stopped where she was, three branches up, looking down at him between the autumn-browned leaves. What is he talking about?
"You deserve someone in your life who'll always think of you first." Ron had his hands shoved into his pockets, his eyes fixed on the end of a nearby branch. "Someone who pays attention to you. Who does know what you like, and maybe goes a little out of his way to get it for you. Who thinks about you first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and a good bit of the time in between. And…" He grimaced, one shoulder rising in a shrug. "I just don't know if I can be that person."
Hermione gripped the branch between her hands tightly, her breath vanishing as though someone had punched her in the stomach. This can't be, it just can't be what it sounds like—not even Ron is so tone-deaf as to do this to me today—
"Like I said, I don't know." Ron pulled his right hand free of his pocket, something small and sparkling between his fingers. "But I'd sure like a chance to try."
Holding up a gold ring with a single clear stone set prettily into it, he met her gaze at last, his blue eyes as clear and hopeful as she had ever known them. "Hermione, will you marry me?"
And I was going to put all kinds of reactions right here, but I think this is where it should leave off. Then the next chapter can begin with all the happy. Before I plunge us into DOOM AND DESPAIR.
Yes, next chapter starts the Bad Things again. You knew they were coming. It is, as I've stated repeatedly, a war. And not every character, not even every character that my readers like, gets to survive.
But for today, all is well in the Dangerverse. Thanks, as always, for reading, and please don't forget to review! Enjoy the half-price chocolate tomorrow, and stay tuned for Chapter 51: "Life and Death", coming soon to a website near you!
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