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The Trick Is to Keep Breathing

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1 November 2001: Mexico City

"Damn it's bright out here," Pansy said, squinting despite her sunglasses and hat.

"Not much shade in a stadium," Draco replied.  "And I do hate it when people come only for the parties and not the event."

"You've always been so sporty, Draco," Pansy said, fanning herself and sipping at an ice-cold lime drink.

"Good thing, or we mightn't have got these seats," he pointed out.

Draco had rejected the covered luxury boxes at the top of the stadium as being unsuitable for watching the contest (and privately to Pansy, less visible to any potential contacts) but Pansy suspected that Draco had mostly grown weary of playing the wealthy English playboy.  Not that his Spanish wasn't still quite good, but the war had made him into much more of a man of action than he'd actually been raised to be, and his patience for the idle rich frequently wore thin.  Pansy had spent more time around them—most of the year or so she'd been out of the country, in fact.  It had been great fun at first, honing her cat claws around others with similar sensibilities, but playing the game all of the time made it much less fun, and after a while she found that she didn't want an idle and empty life, either.  At least the general decadence had allowed her to come to terms with her sexuality somewhat out of the spotlight, unlike the rampant gossip she would have had to weather at Hogwarts.  Instead, her being a lesbian was just another way the continent had changed her.

They were quite good seats, in a box at the center of the arena with cushioning charms on the seat and back of the stone bench and a little buzzer for calling on the wait staff.  Below the level of seats was a sunken stone court, not unlike a squash or jai alai court, called a batey.  Along the top edge of the batey, about six feet above the heads of the players, was an intricate dynamic mosaic that detailed the history of the mesoamerican wizards.  The done thing among the local pure-blood wizards was to trace their lineage not to the Spanish conquerors, but to the Aztecs who had come before. 

"It's starting," Draco said, and Pansy looked down to see the procession, which was greeted by the crowd with complete silence.  Held aloft on two chairs were a man and woman dressed as Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the god and goddess of the dead.  They wore skull masks, their robes decorated with eyes and spiders, and two owls swooped above them.  Bejeweled crowns sat atop their heads. 

"I could do without the skulls," Draco muttered.  "They're so overused."

Pansy smirked.  "You mean, by other people who stole them from this ceremony."

"True."

Behind them entered the two teams, wearing replicas of the stone collars and belts the ancients had worn.  The procession moved slowly around the perimeter of the batey, and then the god and goddess and their attendants exited, leaving the players on the court.  As the door closed behind them, a great cheer erupted.  One of the officials held up his hands, then threw a ball into play.

"Something tells me one of those crowns is going to go missing in not too long," Draco muttered.

"Wouldn't surprise me," Pansy said.  The men and women in the batey moved about for reasons Pansy didn't really understand, but they were interesting just as patterns of brightly colored fabric against the stone grey of the batey, like an intricate ancient dance.  The game had been going for about twenty minutes when something stirred near her.

"Fancy seeing you here," said a voice just above them, and there was Parvati Patil sitting down next to Pansy, in the next box over.

"Don't tell me," Pansy said.  "You've been modeling Aztec jewels."

"No, just spring dresses," she replied.

"Ah, those new Mesoamerican prints.  How very unimaginative of your editor to photograph them here."

Parvati shrugged.  "Not my lookout," she said.  "And the dresses are very pretty."  She regarded Pansy.  "Scarves, too, and you could do with a bit of color.  Frozen grape?" she asked, offering a small container.

"Thank you," Pansy said, offering it to Draco, who took two green.  Pansy took a large black one for herself and handed it back to Parvati.  "I rather like wearing black and white, at least in the city.  Prints so often hide bad tailoring."

"Bad form to blame your fear of color on poor workmanship, Pansy," Parvati said, shaking her head.  "Ooh, that was a bad miss."

"Don't tell me you know the rules of this game."

"Don't you?" Parvati asked.  "Not so different from Quidditch or football, really.  A keeper in the goal, a ball you can't touch with your hands, offense and defense, just no snitch.  Or rather, the ball is like a cross between a snitch and a quaffle, I think."

"It hovers," Pansy said, "but how do they move it?"

"Magic!" Draco said, waving his fingers like a Muggle.

Pansy rolled her eyes.  "I'm serious."

"The belt and the collar, they create this sort of field thing that they use to manoever it," Parvati answered.

"A 'sort of field thing'?  Is that the technical term?"

Parvati scowled.  "I don't have to know how a broomstick works to use it," she said.

One of the waiters approached Draco and handed him a folded note.  He used the opportunity to order frozen grapes for himself and Pansy, and drinks for all three of them.

"What is that?" Pansy asked.

"Just a dinner invitation," Draco said, slipping it into his pocket. "Apparently Zabini's in town."

A young man Pansy faintly recognized joined Parvati in her box.  "Did you hear the news?" he asked, with a light accent.

"No," Parvati replied.  "Oh, Georg, this is Pansy Parkinson."

Pansy shook the photographer's hand.  "Yes, we met at a fundraiser, I believe," she said, and introduced Draco.

"So what's the news?" Parvati asked.

"The goddess crown was stolen," Georg said.  "Someone attacked the guards as they left the arena."

"Isn't that interesting," Parvati said, turning to look at Pansy.

"A real shame," Pansy said quickly, not liking Parvati's intense stare.  "It'll just end up on the black market, and then in the hands of a private collector, and no one will be able to see it."  She blinked, trying to remain calm.  "Er, I work in the Ministry," she said to Georg.  "I specialize in artifacts and artworks."

"I expect this theft will be on your desk when you get back to London," Parvati replied.

"I expect it will," Pansy said, and turned back to the game.



London

Padma was at the back of the shop, a bit hidden by a rack of fabric, when Ginny walked in, so she could see the panic in her future sister-in-law's eyes. Asking her to help plan the wedding had been a very good idea on Ron's part, as Ginny had calmed down notably from the spring, when she'd been a bit jumped up and nervous after Draco's New Year's Eve party. The poor girl had been completely overwhelmed, not to mention that the usual cats of young wizarding society—Queenie Greengrass and her whole crowd—had their claws out for Ginny from the moment she walked into the reconstructed ballroom. The annual parties Padma's mother threw weren't nearly as cut-throat, mostly because the older generation tended to maintain at least some decorum. Padma, Parvati and even Pansy had done what they could; Pansy had been particularly effective at scratching back not only because she'd been friends with many of these people but also because she was the one they thought had been wronged by Draco being with Ginny. Also, Pansy was swanning around the party with a statuesque blonde wearing a little slip of a dress, which was a statement in itself. But it had still been enough to upset Ginny very much.

Molly Weasley was a loving and capable woman, a good cook who was showing Padma a great many tricks not only in the kitchen, but the entire business of running a household on limited funds, something Padma had no experience at and about which her own mother was quite useless. Molly was also a bit interfering, but nothing Padma couldn't handle, particularly after three years of dealing with Harry's problems. But she had absolutely no visual sense whatsoever—Padma was learning to sew from Parvati, not from Molly—and the idea of her being involved in any way in the wedding planning had made Padma rather panicky herself.

But Ginny just naturally had excellent taste, the sort that starts trends in boarding schools. Molly was placated that Weasley traditions would be upheld with both Ginny and Ron involved, and Padma had some needed guidance since Parvati was suddenly traveling much more frequently than she had in the past. Which is not to say that Parvati wasn't involved, particularly with the outfits for the bridesmaids.

Padma caught Ginny's eye and waved her toward the back of the shop, where the fitting rooms and mirrors were located. They'd also been provided with a pot of tea, which in Padma's eyes was the least the shop keeper could do given that they were purchasing eight dresses including her own. "Parvati narrowed this down for us," she said. "And of course it will be made to order.  We'll all be there on the day to help you put it on.  Here we go," she said as the saleswoman lay a stack of silks on the table and then left them to it.

"How do I try on something that hasn't been made?" she asked.

"Just wrap yourself up in the fabric, like a towel or a sheet."  Padma smiled as reassuringly as possible.

"Right," Ginny said, picking up a pale green from the top of the pile.  As she got situated in the changing room, she asked Padma, "So how is the planning going?"

"Oh, you know," Padma replied, "the caterer is making a fuss over the pies.  I can't imagine why they can make any number of pastries but not a simple pie table." Padma had been to several Weasley weddings over the past few years and the pie table was a standard, especially as Weasley weddings were nearly always self-catered. Aunts and cousins would descend on one another's houses and cook up a storm, including making pies in as many varieties as they could think of.  Of course there would be the large white cake, but that was an afterthought.  And as the one area Ron was allowed to have a say was the food, he was insisting on the pie table he'd grown up with.

Ginny emerged with the first choice and stepped up onto the platform.  "Well, if it will be a problem, I'm sure we can make them.  We've done it before." 

Padma shook her head. "I don't think that will be necessary, especially as your mother provided all those recipes to the caterer.  They're just being tiresome. But I won't back down!"

Ginny smiled. "Fighting for Ron still?" she asked.

"Not this time," Padma replied, shuffling through the pile of silks. "I've come to love those Weasley pie tables, too."  She pulled out another color. "Oh Ginny, you should try this silvery blue.  It reminds me of that dress you wore to the Solstice Ball, back in school."

Ginny took Padma's choice back to the fitting room.  "And the seating?" she asked.

"Your mother and my mother are doing most of it.  I don't know who half of those people are!  But Ron and I are doing our own friends, together.  Which is only about thirty people, four tables, and even then Ron has been moving people every single evening.  But it's due in three weeks, and then he will not be able to change it!"

Draped in the silvery blue, Ginny came back out to join Padma.  "I think you're right about this color," she said.

"We needn't look any further."  Padma came up behind her in the mirror.  "I think Draco will like it too," she said with a little smile.  "How are you two getting on lately?"

"Oh, we're fine.  I mean, getting better, you know." She looked around and saw no one near them, but still lowered her voice.  "He takes these trips, he comes back.  I think he feels more in control now, with his case moving forward finally."  She sighed, and turned to face Padma.  "It's a relief to talk about this, actually.  That year between when everything blew up at the Euro Cup and the night in August when the case was suddenly on again? He was almost unbearable.  He was so sure he'd made some error, and the whole thing was his fault; that the case had fallen apart and they'd never find out who was really behind it, who was giving Pansy and the others their orders. Of course I couldn't help him at all, and he wouldn't even listen to Pansy.  He felt that the only reason Ron and Hermione had been brought in was because he had failed, so he couldn't bear to talk to them either, or to Sirius because he'd brought them in.  And Harry—well, now we know why Harry was useless."

Padma sighed and rolled her eyes.  "Sorry, it's just—"

"I know," Ginny said, patting Padma on the shoulder.  "It affected all of us."

She nodded, and sighed.  "Anyway, go on."

"Draco was—is—so driven by this case.  I know that everyone thinks that fight at New Year's was about me, but at least part of it was about how he was behaving, and I just couldn't take it anymore.  I couldn't be the only one he turned to, you know?  I've seen him worse; after his mother died he was barely there.  But last winter, he'd go from being depressed and just lying about to so antsy and frustrated I thought he was going to break apart.  It was nothing anyone could fix but he felt so guilty for it all in the first place.  So much of that fight was that he couldn't find his balance.  Only some of the problem was that I didn't know how to be the society lady he wanted—"

"Is that what he wants, Ginny?" Padma asked.  "I mean, I could teach you all of the tricks—it's dead easy and you are a clever, charming and pretty girl, which is more than half the battle—but if that's what he wanted, he'd be dating Queenie Greengrass."

"Well."  Ginny sat down on the banquette and sipped from one of the provided cups of tea.  "I suppose.  I just, I don't want to embarrass him."

Padma sat down next to her and put a hand on her knee.  "You don't.  Ginny, I've seen you at these functions—like my parents' New Year's Eve party.  You might feel out of place, but you never look it.  And you know, we all feel out of place.  I know I do.  It's just a familiar out-of-place by now.  We just grew up endlessly going to these sorts of parties and having our mother tell us to stand up straight."  She leaned in closer.  "And I know your mother, Ginny; I know she told you to stand up straight just as often as mine did."

Ginny looked around the room, a little smile on her lips.  "No, you're right.  Maybe it isn't as different as it feels."  She sighed.  "Anyway, even apart from that, with the case dead and Draco feeling so impotent and frantic, I just—I just couldn't."

"I know what you mean," Padma said. "It really should just be about the two of you, but then these other things happen."

"So many other things," Ginny said. "How is it for the two of you, really, now that Harry isn't even in the country?"

"At least now I don't worry every time an owl comes, that Ron will drop everything to get Harry out of trouble again."  She shook her head.  "I don't think he realized until he'd visited with Harry at McCormick and they talked to him about this enabling business.  He was so distraught, Ginny."

"I remember," she said, nodding.  "It was like he was in a fog."

"I found out about those meetings for the friends of people at McCormick and I made him go to them, even went with him for the first few, but I think once he saw that it was just folks like himself, and he could speak plainly, he started going on his own.  And I think it's helped him, thank goodness.  I don't know what I would have done—it all couldn't go on much longer."

"One of the few times that fame helped us," Ginny said.  "Well, sort of.  Anyway, I'm glad, Padma.  I can't imagine what it was like for you, when you were the only one who knew.  I remember that some days I'd see you and Harry both and you were so angry and I couldn't think why—I guess I just thought you and Ron were fighting over something."

"We were.  And now, we aren't.  I don't think—if he had asked me to marry him before Harry went to McCormick I probably would have said no."  She smiled.  "But now I'm picking out bridesmaid dresses and china patterns.  Lucky me!"

"Indeed!" Ginny said, laughing.  "What would we do if we weren't worrying about the flowers and the music?" She turned and went back into the changing room.

"We would be working," Padma said flatly.

"And how is the writing going?" Ginny asked.

"Well," Padma said, "it's … odd.  That little song I wrote last week for Gilbert's birthday is the best thing I've done in a while.  All my ideas seem to be about children.  Ron teases me that I'm just ready to have them, but he only says that because he knows it isn't true.  I've been reading picture books and I even got some Muggle children's music and a few traditional things that I listened to as a child, but I'm amazed that no one has done for wizarding children all that music for Muggle kids—even in the States."

"And you think you want to do that?" Ginny asked.

"I think I do," Padma said, cautiously.

"So why is that odd?" Ginny asked.

"Well, I mean, I don't have any children yet," she said, "and I didn't grow up with that many cousins around, like you did.  I don't know where this is coming from."

Ginny came back out then, in her street clothes, the silver blue fabric in her hand. "But you're going to follow it, right?"

"For now, at least.  And you?"

"I'm getting a little bored with entertainment writing, I admit," Ginny said, "but I'm not sure what's next. I've been looking through some Muggle magazines, trying to think about what they have that we don't, and building a proposal around that. But it's early stages yet."

"Well, I'm happy to help in any way I can," Padma said. "Right now I think we should go get a cocktail, even if it is only 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and drink a toast to new beginnings!"

"That sounds lovely," Ginny said. She smiled, looking less the anxious girl who'd walked into the shop, and more like the confident girl she was.



3 November 2001: London

"But perhaps it's just a coincidence," Dean said.  "You were there both times, right?  And you didn't steal anything."

"And they were both big events for those society set wizards," Seamus added.  "There's like, a place to be for each of those holidays."

Parvati tutted.  "Since when does Draco Malfoy run with that crowd?  Parkinson, sure, that's all she did while we were fighting a war, but Draco?"

The three friends had finished dinner and were now on the couch with a second bottle of wine. They were in Parvati's new flat, a small, bright one-bedroom.  She didn't need much room, really, as she traveled so often, and the only people who came over were Seamus and Dean, or Padma and Ron.  Her fashion friends preferred to go out. 

Dean shrugged.  "I thought it was a reaction to New Year's.  You know, if Ginny needs more space, or doesn't like his posh lifestyle, he'll go live it up without her, and then eat curry with her in London.  Or something.  At least, that is what they do, and really, who has ever been able to understand how that relationship works anyway."

"Well," Parvati replied, "I just don't like that Parkinson's hanging around with Draco again."

"Why not?" Dean asked.  "Other than that she's kind of bitchy, I mean."

Parvati grinned.  "Well, to put it plainly, she has some funny friends.  Terry Boot, Blaise Zabini—people whose loyalties were never exactly clear."

"Are we still worrying about that, though?" Seamus asked.  "We fought, we won, things are changing, the bad 'uns are out."

"But what about the Euro Cup?" Parvati asked.

"I just thought that was tacky," Seamus said, "rather than really dangerous."

"And anyway, what's that to do with Pansy Parkinson?" Dean asked.

Parvati paused, sipping her wine and settling back into the cushions.  "I guess I should tell you this now.  Since Ron said there was nothing in it, there's really no reason not to.  So, Euro Cup 2000, England vs. Germany.  England wins, and then—"

"And then someone puts up that silly Death Eater sign, just like at the World Cup back in '94, and Harry falls out of the sky before catching himself, yes, yes," Seamus says.  "We were all there."

"Then what happened with us?" she asked.

"Well, Hermione ran off to the sidelines to see about Harry, and then Ron went to security to help, and Draco completely vanished and Ginny wasn't even sure where he went, and—what happened to you?" Dean asked.  "Because you were gone for a little while."

"I couldn't—the last time I'd seen that skull was over Miss Bridgerton's Academy, when it collapsed."

"Lavender," Dean whispered, reaching a hand out to Parvati.  "I'm sorry, darling, I didn't think—"

"It's fine," she said, though she held firm to Dean's hand.  "I just needed to get away, have some water.  And then I saw Parkinson in the hallway near the bathrooms, and I wasn't sure where she was going or what she was doing, so I got my wand out to follow her.  She was scurrying along, and then she ducked into one of the empty meeting rooms, so I ducked down near the door to see what was going on."

"And?" Seamus asked, leaning forward.

"And there was Pansy, with a bunch of people in some copy of the old Death Eater robes—I think there were seven or eight of them—and she was screaming at them.  Zabini was there, but the others I couldn't quite see."

"Screaming at them?" Dean asked.

"Yeah, about what a rotten job they'd just done, how could they muck up something so simple, what on earth possessed them to just copy something from six years ago, where was their originality, oh yes that's why they need to follow a leader, speaking of that leader he would not be pleased.  I had the feeling that the thing hadn't gone off as planned."

"Well, no one was scared anymore," Seamus said.  "The Germans thought it was odd and the English thought it was disgusting and most of the rest of the crowd was just confused.  And once Harry got up and was okay, everyone calmed down and went back to celebrating."

Parvati nodded.  "And then she said, 'What the hell have you done with Malfoy?' and Zabini said that Boot had him someplace and not to worry."

"Good lord," Seamus said.

"And that was it; they started grumbling and she tapped her foot and Zabini said 'fine, I can take you to him,' and she asked if he really thought she was stupid enough to blow her cover like that and he said 'sorry, Pansy' and she said she wouldn't want to be any of them when 'he' finds out, which she was sure 'he' already had.  And then she stomped out, so I hid behind the door, and then I went 'round the back way and came back to you."

"Wow," Dean said.  "And that's what you told Ron?"

Parvati nodded.  "Later that night, back at the bungalow.  He said he was glad I told him, and that he'd look into it soon, and then oh, a week later in London he said that there was nothing to it, really, and that I'd misunderstood what was happening.  By then Draco had returned anyway, though no one ever said where he was."

Dean looked at Seamus, who cleared his throat.  "Yeah, I don't know where he was that first night, but he turned up at ours the next day, not long after most of you left.  Dean was still there."

Parvati's eyes flew wide.  "What?  Why?"

Seamus smiled shyly, an odd look for him.  "He said I was the best battle mediwizard he knew.  I went to school and got some supplies and patched him up, and he convalesced at the bungalow until he was well enough to leave."

"No wonder Ginny didn't seem worried.  I thought she was just numb, but—"

"She was the first person we contacted," Seamus said.  "She just couldn't tell anyone—it's not like that bungalow was the most secure place in Greece, and I didn't want Draco dealing with the Ministry and getting debriefed and all that until he was stronger. Not that he agreed; he spent most of that time beating himself up for the entire thing happening in the first place. Sounded like he'd had a mission and it had gone very, very wrong."

"You think?" Padma said. "So why on earth would Ron put me off? And why is Draco still hanging about with her?"

Dean shook his head. "I will say that I never believed for one red second that story that he stopped working for the Ministry after the Euro Cup. Too dangerous? Back to normal life? Did those people see how driven he was during the war, and after, going after those last few Death Eaters?"

"So what if he didn't?" Seamus asked.

"Well, clearly he didn't," Dean said.

"No, I mean, if he didn't," Seamus said, "then whatever he's doing with Parkinson, maybe that is the mission. Or the cover for it or what have you. Maybe that's why Ron put you off, Parvati."

She cocked her head. "When I see Draco out and about at these parties," she said, "he seems perfectly at ease, every inch the international playboy."

"Which isn't really like him," Seamus said. "I mean, like Dean said, it isn't the boy that we fought alongside, even if it always was his public image."

"So what are you saying?" Dean asked.

"If this is Draco's mission," he replied, "then either Parkinson is part of it, or she is it. Either she's dangerous enough that he has to keep an eye on her, or she's his partner. Either one would be a reason for Ron to put Parvati off."

Dean turned to her. "Which one, do you reckon?" he asked.

"I don't honestly know," she said after a moment. "She's fine to talk to, and sometimes I can even forget about this whole business and my suspicions, and then something like this happens."

"Forget?"  Dean asked.  "Oh, don't tell me."

"Dean!" Parvati said.

"You've never met an inappropriate girl you didn't want to sleep with," he said.  "And you've always had a thing for Parkinson."

"Excuse me! I have not!"

"Please," Seamus said.  "Ever since she came back from France you've been salivating over her. Which means, you probably aren't the best judge of whether she's on our side or not." He raised an eyebrow.

Parvati scowled. "I might not be, but it's not fair of you two to double team me."

"Oh, and you don't double team me?" Seamus asked.

"Or me?" Dean asked.

Parvati swallowed the last of her glass and refilled it.  "Well, I can control my lustful urges, thank you very much."

"I just wish you'd channel them to some nice girl," Dean said. "Whether Parkinson is on our side or not, she isn't that."

She couldn't help but glance at the portrait of Lavender on the side table, the burnt-out candle stub next to it.  "Not sure I'm really made for nice girls, Dean," she replied with a shrug.



Chip Head Island, Maine

Harry, sitting at the other end of their library table from his housemate, put his quill down.  "All right, Hermione, that's the third time in ten minutes you've sighed."

"Is it?" she said, looking up from her writing.  "I'm sorry, I hadn't even noticed."

"What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing.  I mean, it's just the outline, it's nothing."

"Hermione.  I know you don't think I'm interested but I am, and besides, I'm your research assistant—"

"Which is your counselor's idea," Hermione pointed out.

"—so I feel I deserve to know," Harry continued.

"Well."  She chewed at the end of her quill, then set it down.  "So the central thesis considers how native magical traditions reacted to first contact and colonization, and what differentiated the traditions that managed to survive from those that didn't, and how that did or didn't match the general level of resistance to colonization within the local Muggle population."

"Right."

"And I'm not sure I'm seeing any patterns.  There certainly doesn't seem to be a correlation with the Muggles, nothing that's consistent anyway."

"What about whether first contact happened before or after—when was the International Statute of Secrecy?"

"1692."

"Right, so what about contact after that?  How international even was that?"

"Exactly.  That was when international meant 'as far as Russia.'  Even China wasn't included in the original treaty.  Granted, wizards were always better traveled than Muggles but still, contact was limited.  The Muggle colonizers—oh, wait."

"What?"

"The Muggle colonizers brought the problem with them, with Christianity.  And colonization after 1692 was entirely Muggle.  So it isn't that the colonized country would be under the Statute, but the country wouldn't need the statute until colonization."  She stood up, starting to walk around the room.  "The correlation wouldn't be with resistance to colonization, but with resistance to Christianity.  That changes everything!"

"Um, including the work we're doing?" Harry asked.

"No, just how we look at it—now we're looking for different things in the same sources.  But honestly," she said, looking at a sheaf of notes, "you've been cataloging them so well that I don't think we have to go back over the sources, only over the notes."

Harry smiled.  "Good, I'm glad."

Hermione stopped pacing and turned to look at Harry.  "Are you really?  I mean, I know your love of libraries and research—"

"It's different now," he said.  "Frankly, I don't have much else to be doing.  And, well, after all the things I did, it's best to be helping someone else now.  I'm glad that it's you.  And look at you, you still get all fired up when you figure something out!  You're just the same, anyway."

"Not just the same as when I was twelve, I hope!"

"No, not in every way," Harry admitted, looking away.

Hermione cocked her head, looking at him, and then after a moment said, "Well, I'll put on the kettle for tea.  I think we deserve a break, don't you?"

"Yeah, yeah," Harry said absently as she walked out of the room.  It was going to be one of those days, he could just tell, where his ability to keep his feelings at a low simmer would be more difficult.  Not that he found being in libraries any more entertaining than he did when he was at Hogwarts, but it felt good to be doing a job and doing it well, and even better to see Hermione so very much in her element, after so many years of her watching him be in his.  Some days he thought the entire year would be a test of his ability to not just take whatever he wanted simply because he wanted it, which he'd been doing a great deal of over the last three years, justifying it to himself with his childhood of deprivation and adolescence of service to the wizarding world in general.  But it hadn't been the answer, and he hadn't really wanted half those things anyway. 

Except the game, and now he couldn't have that ever again.  Sure, he was learning how to control his impulses, and next week he was to start flying for small periods of time, which to be honest he was worried about.  It was simpler when flying was just something he couldn't do anymore.  Having to be moderate about that would be trying.  But not flying at all wasn't particularly practical, and it was better to learn how to do it again responsibly.

He was saved from his brooding by the ringing of the telephone.  "I'll get it," he called out, and picked up the receiver in the living room.

"Hullo?  Hullo?  Damn I hate this thing.  ARE YOU THERE?" shouted a familiar voice.

"I am here, and you could hear that if you'd let me get a word in, Ron," Harry said. 

"I hate this thing," he replied.  "Bloody Americans."

Harry chuckled.  "Come on, it's not that bad," he said.  "And firechat connection across the ocean's a bit wonky anyway."

"Hullo Ron!" Hermione sang out from the extension in the kitchen.  "Lovely to hear from you!  Is this work or pleasure?"

"Both," he said.  "Thank god for these secure lines.  Right, so you heard about the theft of the crown of some god or other in Mexico?"

"Mictecacihuatl," Hermione said.

"That's ours, then?" Harry asked.

"Yep," Ron replied.  "Pansy put the copy in Gringotts today, with all necessary charms.  Damned fine, these copies."

"They have to be," Hermione said.  "So what's next?"

"Chile, apparently, for midwinter.  Good thing Malfoy has such good Spanish.  Should be no problem."

"Chile?" Hermione asked, and Harry could almost hear her thinking.  "The native peoples of Tierra del Fuego—the Spanish explorers thought they were giants."

"Were they?" Harry asked.

"Not nearly big enough, even from the tales.  Only about the size of Hagrid.  Just exaggerated—the natives were likely just rather tall."

"Whoever this is," Harry said, "they're really hitting these holidays, aren't they?  Think there's something in that?"

"Could be, or could be they're just using the festivals as a cover for both the thief and Pansy," Ron said.  "I reckon we'll know more from the next theft, of whatever."

"Right, well, I look forward to your report, Weasley," Harry teased.

"Hey!" Ron replied.  "Even Sirius doesn't say that and he is my superior."

Hermione chuckled.  "Anything we can do to help in the meantime?" she asked.

"Well, actually," Ron said, "given the geography—India, Mexico, Chile—there's every reason to suspect that we'll end up in Africa before long.  Might need to pull in your contact there.  Ministry wasn't good at keeping in touch after the '60s; apparently they don't think much of the Commonwealth."

"Yeah, Remus is always railing about that," Harry said.  "Makes things hard for International Cooperation not to have those ties.  Short sighted, but then, when has the Ministry not been short-sighted?"

"Ron, you seriously want me to talk to Theodor?" Hermione asked.

"I'm just warning you that we might need him to get us in," Ron said, "and I thought I'd give you some notice.  I know he's your ex but you still talk to me."

"Me too," Harry said. 

"Yes, well, you two aren't like my later exes," she said.

"Did you say 'exes', plural?" Ron asked.  "Are you finally admitting to that professor business in my hearing?"

"Oh god," Hermione said, and Harry could hear her plopping down into one of the chairs at the kitchen table.

"Of course not," Harry said.  "Hermione never makes mistakes at all, and certainly not in her love life."

"Look who's talking," Hermione responded.  "At least my exes don't number in the hundreds."

"Those articles exaggerated greatly," Harry said.  "I never reached triple digits.  Now, back to Hermione."

"Next topic," she said in her warningest of warning tones.

"Wedding planning?" Harry tried.

"No," Ron said.  "Absolutely not.  I am tired of talking about that bloody wedding.  Even Padma is sick of it.  We have a schedule where we only discuss it for thirty minutes a day, directly after dinner."

"Well away from bedtime, that's good," Harry said.  "Good for your love life anyway."

"Yeah, well, don't really have to worry about that," Ron said.

"That's the way," Harry said.

"No, er, I meant in the other direction," Ron muttered.

"The other—are you two still having that problem?"

"What problem?" Hermione asked.

"Yeah, and with the stress of the wedding it's just got worse," Ron answered.

"What problem?" she asked again.

"You may as well tell her," Harry said.  "She's just going to keep asking until you do."

"Yeah, thanks for mentioning it in front of her, mate," Ron said.

"You did the mentioning, friend," Harry replied.

"WHAT PROBLEM!" Hermione shouted.

Ron sighed.  "Right, so Padma and I, well, we're still doing some things, but not, you know, er …"

"Not what, Ron?" Hermione asked.

"You know, the thing," he replied.

"Intercourse?" she asked.

"Er, yeah.  That."

"Why ever not?"

"Well, so, you know, me, which was bad enough sometimes but now she's so anxious now with the wedding it's even worse—"

"You what?"

"You know, my er, my size," he said.

"Oh," Hermione said, and they were all silent for a moment.  "Ohhh!" she said again.

"Now she's got it," Harry said, chuckling.

"Not funny, Harry," Ron replied.  "And can I just say, it's pretty sodding unfair that I have what many men would love to have, a gorgeous girlfriend—"

"Fiancée," Hermione said.

"—fiancée, and a large er, member—"

"But your gorgeous fiancée is afraid of your large member," Harry interrupted.

"Yeah, and who has that problem but ol' Ron Weasley," Ron said.

"So it's a tight fit?" Hermione asked.

"Yeah," Ron replied.

"She's on top?"

"Always."

"Have you tried getting her to relax?" she asked.

"Yeah, yeah, everything," Ron said.

"What about—I mean, have you got her off first?"

"Er," Ron said.

"You haven't tried that?" Hermione asked.  "Isn't that an obvious thing to try?"

"Well," Ron replied.  "You were always ready to go."

"I was fifteen, we weren't having intercourse, and not all girls are like me."

"She's telling the truth there, Ron," Harry said.

"You can do that, right?  Her orgasm isn't a problem?" Hermione asked.

Ron cleared his throat.  "No, no, that's no problem."

"Not anymore," Harry muttered.

"Oi!" Ron protested.

"Oh dear, was it?" Hermione said.  "I mean, you were a bit clumsy, but we were young, and I have to say, you were always surprisingly gentle."

"Well!" Ron said.  "Thank you, Hermione.  Yeah, it just isn't a very high priority for her.  She could go a lot longer without sex than I could.  Or either of you could."  He paused.  "Though I reckon you're going without now."

"Thanks for reminding me, Ron," Harry said.

"Best friends with that right hand, are you, mate?" Ron asked.

"Nice, in front of Hermione!" Harry said.

"Please," she replied, "I've heard you."

"Well I've heard you, too."

"All right then."

"All right."

"Glad we've established that," Ron said.

"Look, we are exes, and we have very complicated lives right now, and I don't think that bringing convenience sex into that mix is a good idea," she said.

"So you've talked about it?" Ron asked.  "I should have known."

"No," Harry said, "we haven't, though I agree.  I mean, that seems logical."

"She always is," Ron said.

"Is that a compliment?" Hermione asked.

"You know it is, and stop being touchy," Ron replied.  "Right, I have to go, but thank you for the advice."

"Let us know how it goes," Harry said.

"Oh, and I know we aren't talking about this," Hermione said, "but tell Padma I put my sari choice in the post to her today."

"I will.  Wait, how do I turn this thing off?" he asked.

"You put the handset back in the cradle so it pushes the little buttons down," Hermione said.

"Okay, right.  Well, good bye!"  There was some scratching on the other end of the line and some muffled words from Ron before the line finally clicked off.

Harry hung up and went into the kitchen, where Hermione was pouring out tea from the pot.  She'd already laid out a few sweets on a plate.  "That was good advice you gave Ron," he said as he sat down.

"Thanks."

"I, er, I'm sorry you can hear me."

She shrugged.  "Small house.  I could hear Seamus, too, when we were living together."

"Seamus was always loud," Harry said.  "And you're right, of course, about the sex.  I mean, with us."

"I think convenience sex is just never a good idea," she said.  "So often it's not really just convenience for one person, and then that's messy and horrible.  Seamus got into trouble a couple of times in Greece about that, boys thinking that he felt more than he did even though he was always upfront and honest about Dean.  Anyway, I don't think I'm a casual sex kind of person."

"Yeah, I don't think I am either, now I've done it," Harry replied.  "And it can be part of the whole, you know, thing."

"Words," Hermione said.

Harry scowled, and wished that she hadn't had those meetings at McCormick and in Salem with his counselors.  "Addiction, impulse control, whatever, part of that," he said.

"So no sex until it means something.  Well, I'll drink to that," she said, smiling, and clinked cups with Harry.

"Yeah, no sex until it means something."  He drank his tea, looking at her, and wondered when it would.