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Graduating was a bittersweet experience. It was exciting to finally shed the shackles of education and orient himself towards the next thing in his life. All of his new friends had dreams of grandeur, and he couldn't help but get swept away in the anticipation. However, he was painfully aware that those friends were all the people he had there with him; his parents couldn't attend, and his brother –

No matter what he did, his thoughts always cycled back around to the boy who had once been his hero. Sometimes, he wondered whether he'd been permanently stinted by the war; he hadn't sustained any physical injuries – hadn't even undergone the torture that his classmates had had to endure – but it felt like his heartstrings had been twisted so tight that the pain would never fade. No matter how happy he otherwise was, or should be, there was always an undercurrent of loss. Honestly, he wasn't sure what frightened him the most; the prospect of living with that forever or the prospect of his emotions dulling until he couldn't feel anything at all. Either way, he was sure that it would cripple him emotionally. After all, it already had.

Torn between the allure of finding and honouring the place where Colin died and being terrified of the possibility of passing it by without ever realising its significance, he had decided not to return to Hogwarts. Instead, he'd finished his schooling at one of the larger schools nearby; it was neither as renowned nor as selective as Hogwarts, but it had been the right decision for him. He had still maintained contact with his old friends; they understood him and his experiences in a way that no one else ever could. His new friends had been affected by the horrors of the war, but their school hadn't been turned into a metaphorical battleground, let alone a literal one.

An informal support network had cropped up around him after the war, full of people who knew and missed Colin and didn't want Dennis to go through his grief alone. But, despite their good intentions, it just made him feel even more isolated. Their home was filled with people who felt the loss intensely but didn't even know that there had been a war in the first place. When he went to his friends – new and old – for understanding, he was faced with people who knew the backstory and understood what Colin had sacrificed but didn't really know or understand him. They had seen the cheerful boy who'd followed Harry Potter around like a love-struck puppy; the golden-haired boy who had fully embraced the role of older brother since the day the doctors had first confirmed their mother's pregnancy was almost a stranger to them. The rare few who were cognizant of both the facts and the emotions were too busy dealing with their own losses; they were open to his presence but were too shattered to be able to do anything but focus on their own jagged shards of life.

He considered staying in Scotland. It had always been associated with safety and home for him, and, in the wake of the war, it was starting to get to the stage of actually being safe, as well. Besides, despite the double-edged nature of being with any of his family or friends, it was daunting to give them up; a support network of the broken was better than none at all.

Still, the allure of fast-paced anonymity beckoned him like that wisp of temptation that starts as a whisper and grows until it, having tied up your brain and neutralised any divergent thoughts, is practically shouting at you, demanding attention in exchange for the safe return of its hostages. He had tried to implement a non-negotiation policy at first, ignoring its murmurs and promises by throwing himself into social situations he didn't even want to be in just to provide himself with distractions, but he eventually succumbed to its call. It was, after all, rather difficult to fight against one's own brain.

At first, his friends and family weren't thrilled with his decision to move. None of them thought it would be good for him; he was too broken, too quiet, too young to strike out on his own like that. In their minds, he needed them nearby to walk through the darkness by his side. In his, they were keeping him in the shadows; they let him talk about it, but they never responded in the right ways, instead keeping him locked within an unbreakable cycle of memory and loss. He didn't have the ability to escape it alone, and nobody else was properly equipped to pull him out of it.

They never fully understood his reasoning, but, despite their objections, they accepted his decision; it was just one of those things that he had to do, and resistance was proving not only futile but also estranging. A child who lived elsewhere, whether they soared or returned to ground, was better than a child who never talked to you.

Or, at least, they accepted it until they realised exactly where it was that he intended to relocate to. That announcement provoked another round of debate. The idea of the teenager moving to some little Welsh town where he could lose himself in the mundane in his quest to find himself was one thing; the idea of him moving to the fast-paced New York City as part of his journey to self-discovery was another entirely. It didn't seem like him, they insisted; it was uncharacteristic of him and certainly a sign of a grief that he should weather rather than humour or, worse still, embrace. Of course it's a sign of grief, he always replied; of course he missed his brother and was trying to find ways to cope with that pain, and of course some of those ways were new, were things that weren't characteristic of how he'd acted before. Dennis couldn't understand how they expected him to find a way to manage the loss without exploring and testing new coping mechanisms and lifestyles; it just seemed antithetical to him, like getting caught in a bog and deciding to wait for the ground to dry out rather than getting out to push the car free. He might get muddy, and he might get sore, and he might not get that car free, but at least he would be doing something about it.

That was, ultimately, the reason he eventually decided to move as soon as he found a decent place to live and a somewhat secure job. It did seem like a strange decision for him to make, given that living in New York City had been his brother's dream. Colin had been fascinated by the lights and the hubbub and the sheer number of people all possessing their own unique stories and experiences and brushing up against one another without ever crossing one another's paths in any meaningful sense of the word. It had caught the young dreamer's imagination and inspired his childhood desire to commit to art everything that so much as swayed in the breeze, seeming like a veritable cesspit of inspiration and muse to him. Ever since his grandfather had bought it for him as a Christmas present, Colin and his camera had been inseparable. That little boy with his bright, eager eyes had dreamed of moving to New York and becoming a photographer or a journalist or, really, anything that would let him live that life and interact with those stories and with the people they belonged to.

Anyone in wizarding Britain who knew of his hobby, other than his closest friends, related it to all the times he'd chased after Harry Potter with a camera. They assumed that his interest had merely been the culmination of star-struck eyes and a desire to share that with his equally obsessed family, not realising that it was much more complicated than that; none of them understood the depth of personality that lurked behind that lens and within that brain. It was just another example of how little his friends and acquaintances understood Colin and so how poorly equipped they were to relate to Dennis' pain; how could he commiserate with people who thought his brother had been obsessive and annoying?

Then, one day, he came across a promising ad in an American newspaper he'd subscribed to back when he'd first started considering the move. It had been but a dream back then, but reading stories and advertisements had given him something of a reprieve from his otherwise dull and flat life. The ad listed a small – tiny, really – apartment that was being let for a surprisingly reasonable price. Of course, even 'a surprisingly reasonable price' was well out of his means. Fortunately, his parents – despite their continued reticence – offered to cover some of his living expenses until he established himself there. Their rationale was that they would rather help him secure living space in a decent neighbourhood than leave him to live in whatever cheap place he could find. While they were by no means wealthy, the Creeveys were rather well off, and they'd saved the money they would have otherwise spent supporting the boys in case either of them wanted to then return to Muggle education.

Their assistance was bittersweet. Savings or not, they wouldn't have been able to spare enough money to make the move feasible had Colin still been alive. In fact, had Colin been alive, Dennis would have been living happily in Donegal, visiting the beaches and playing hurling with his childhood friends, while Colin fought tooth and nail to get himself to New York. It felt strange to be virtually handed Colin's dream on a platter that he only had to walk a few steps to take initial ownership of. Dennis couldn't help but wonder if, had the situation been reversed and it had been he who had died, Colin would have still decided to move to New York. Might he have planned to rent the same apartment whose owners Dennis was currently making contact with?

When he arrived, the apartment looked even smaller than it had in the pictures. The real estate agent had obviously employed a photographer who was rather adept at choosing angles and lighting that would make rooms look bigger and more appealing; the colours and dimensions were never completely off, but they were often different enough to make a difference in how the rooms felt. Some of the wallpaper was peeling off, more than one window refused to open unless presented with substantial persuasion, and its ventilation was poorer than he'd have thought a building code would allow. Not wanting to risk accidentally reversing a Transfiguration and shattering all of his plates, he'd resorted to Muggle methods of acquiring furniture. He had brought some furniture with him and was going to buy more when his income allowed him to. The apartment seemed more like a hollow shell than a home, but it wasn't hard to see it becoming one. He was a wizard, after all, and, while he wouldn't be able to make any drastic changes without alerting the Muggle owner to the fact that something strange was happening, he would be able to fix up little bits and pieces and erect wards that would make the place much nicer. His vision of it might still be homely and cosy in all of the bad senses of the words, but he could genuinely see it becoming a small haven that, at least temporarily, belonged to him alone.

Filled with such hopeful imaginings and fancies, he contentedly set about levitating his furniture into place and putting up the decorations he'd brought with him. Most of what he had went in his bedroom, but he'd had some of Colin's photographs copied and enlarged before he left Britain and he showcased them, moving and stationary subjects like, throughout the house.

The reminder that there would never be any new photos to grace his walls floored him. He would never again experience the excited rush of seeing another batch of Colin's photographs for the first time or the frustration of having to find a way to reorganise the displayed pictures to make room for more. The strange intimacy of seeing a place that he'd never been but that had meant something to his brother and the baffled confusion of trying to work out what the more abstract photos meant were forever lost to him.

It had always just been such a casually present part of life. Seeing Colin had usually involved being given a copy of his latest photograph and being regaled with at least one story about how he'd found a quaint little place or cornered the elusive subject or experimented with the technical elements of the photo. After he'd taken it for granted for so long, its absence was stunning in its unexpected suddenness.

Having Apparated directly into the American Ministry of Magic and then Flooed from there to his apartment, he hadn't yet had a chance to see the city itself. Once that his apartment was satisfactorily set up, he decided to remedy that.

He was met with a burst of noise as he stepped out onto the street; cars revved and beeped and slowed to a halt, and people chatted to their friends as they strode along the footpath with them. It was strange to hear so many people speaking English with such a different accent. Dennis had never been further afield than the United Kingdom, so he was only used to the kinds of accents he'd come across at school or in his youth. American accents weren't completely unknown to him – he'd watched television before, after all – but they certainly weren't a commonplace thing. It felt like he was being bombarded by all of it. What he had thought would be exciting was, instead, daunting and overwhelming. He didn't know where to look or where to go. Were any of the beeps or chattering directed at him? Did any of them pose a risk? He hadn't been in the Battle of Hogwarts – Colin had left him to guard their parents and, when he'd tried to sneak in anyway to make sure his brother was alright, he'd been spotted and detained by a friend's father – but his time on the run had still made him jumpy, conditioning him to be wary of any sudden movements or noises. The instinct had died down a bit since the final battle, but it apparently still flared up at times like this.

This is an amazing opportunity, he reminded himself. This is fantastic and brilliant and I'm so lucky to be here. Colin would have loved to be here, so I'm going to love it for both of us. This is part of his legacy. I am his legacy.

Having thus determined to see the city through his dead brother's eyes, he looked at the city afresh. The people bustling their noisy way along the footpath all had fascinating stories that he would be amazed at. Each of those jam-packed cars were conveying those people from exciting, unknown point of their busy days to another. Those sounds, as loud and alarming as they were, were a sign of life and vitality.

Life is noisy, he thought. It's when it's silent that you should worry.

Picking out a random lady in the crowd, he wondered at her story. It was a game that Colin had learned from some of his school friends as a child and that he had incited the Creeveys to play at every possible opportunity. The lady in question had frizzy red hair and was wearing a warm, tight-fitting coat. A small dog was cradled in her arms like a baby, and a raincoat was draped over her shoulders like a shawl. Dennis imagined that she was a well-to-do businesswoman who adored her pet and, secretly, liked to think of him like a son. Perhaps she did, in fact, have a son – a son who had grown up and moved away, perhaps. Yes; her son had moved away, so she had adopted a dog and named him after her boy and, now, treated him like the baby she'd once had to hold and cherish and look after. They were making their way back from the park; she had walked her pet there, but he had grown tired and she had decided to carry him home. Having trusted the weather forecast, she had anticipated and prepared for rain, but it had been a surprisingly clear day, so she hadn't needed the yellow raincoat. In fact, she would have, in all likelihood, taken her actual coat off as well if it would not have meant that she would have been toting about a dog, a raincoat, and an actual coat. She kept up with the latest fashion and cared about her appearance, but not enough to concern herself with whether or not it was fashionable to drape a raincoat over her shoulders.

Dennis could almost picture the way Colin would have been immersed in the story. His eyes would have shone with interest as they flickered between the lady, the replacement child of a dog, and Dennis the storyteller. His lips would have slowly curled upwards as he imagined the love between the woman and her pet, but then his brows would have furrowed when he considered the estrangement that had led to that love. The comment about fashion would have instantly pulled him from his empathetic sadness, and he would have laughed and saucily asked Dennis when he'd become an expert on ladies' fashion.

Colin's mind had always jumped about too fast for him to ever be fully in the moment. On more than one occasion, Dennis had likened it to a fast-forwarded movie; things passed by in a blur and you got the gist of it but not the specifics that made it what it was. It had been frustrating and more than a little hurtful and, most of all, utterly endearing. When it came to a good story, however, the boy – for that was how he would be forever ingrained in Dennis' memory – had had all the time in the world.

You're living in the past again, he told himself. Don't let this cripple you, remember?

A car backfired nearby, and he jumped in fright at the bang. A few people shot him unimpressed locks as they passed him, sending self-consciousness rushing through him like water escaping a broken dam. He reminded himself that they merely didn't understand the history that caused it to provoke such a reaction, but the forced platitude did little to calm his jittery nerves.

Perhaps it's time for me to return to the apartment, he thought. I haven't been out much lately, so all of this activity is rather sudden. I can try again tomorrow after I've had some time to process everything.

Satisfied with his decision, he headed back for the building.

He would deal with everything tomorrow.

His warm bed enveloped him like a welcoming cocoon. Hopefully, he would crawl into it as a caterpillar and emerge from it as a beautiful butterfly that was ready to take on the world with its red and gold wings. As he stared up at the white ceiling, however, he couldn't help but think about how empty it all felt. He had never before been truly alone. When he was little, he had shared a room with Colin. He had felt abandoned when Colin went off to a faraway magical place that he could only hope would one day open its doors for him as well, but his parents had been there for him, and they had helped one another through it. Not long thereafter, he too had been heading off for that wonderful school, where he had spent every night in a dormitory with four other boys. When he and his family had gone on the run, they'd slept in even closer quarters than ever, spending almost every minute of every day together until their coins burned and Colin – and, later, Dennis – headed back to Hogwarts to fight.

After Colin's death, they'd had to face the fact that their brief time without him years prior in no way prepared them for a world where he was no longer alive. When he first went off to school, they'd received letters and photographs and visits home for the holidays. After his death, all they got was sympathy, flowers, food, and, in rare cases, genuine empathy.

Dennis had struggled with the loss all throughout his time at Evergreen, but he had still been surrounded by classmates and professors and, for all that he wished there had been more people in the junction between people knowing Colin and people understanding his grief, they had been there for him. Now, however, he was, for the first time, completely and utterly alone. The sounds of peaceful breathing and snoring were noticeably absent. For the first time, he longed for the frustration of having his ears assailed by others' snores, just for the reassurance that there was someone else there with him. For the first time in his life, there wasn't even someone within calling distance. There was literally no other sentient creature in his home; he would have to leave its bounds in order to speak to somebody, let alone to have a real conversation or seek help.

Alone. Displaced. Lost. Isolated.

During his brief exploration of this new, scary, brilliant city, he'd been surrounded by people, even if they were only strangers. Now, in his bedroom, he didn't even have that; it was merely him and his memories and imaginings of his brother. And, in the dark silence of the room, it was hard to give any credence to that visualisation. Most shadows faded into virtual nothingness when exposed to the piercing perceptiveness of the light; this one drifted away when it was introduced to the dark, dispersing itself throughout it black food dye poured into a vat of oil.

Displaced from his country, alone and isolated in the cold room, lost in the dark, Dennis did the only thing that was left for him to do; he cried. He burrowed himself deeper into his covers, wrapped his arms around himself, and let the tears fall.

In some way, he did emerge from his cocoon as a changed man. The sobs had somehow cleansed him; the next morning, he felt tired and weary but, ultimately, ready to start afresh. His faux bravado had faded away like sand drizzling through open fingers, but the hands they left behind were much cleaner for the loss. As he brushed away the remains of his ersatz and borrowed enthusiasm, he was left with the beginnings of his own excitement. Despite the heartbreak and the fear, it really was an amazing opportunity for him. Even if he went home, he would not be returning a loser; he would be returning home as someone who had spread their wings and flown and then realised they were going the wrong way. It had just taken having his happy façade chipped away at for him to be able to see it.

After quickly getting ready, he made his way down the street to the American Ministry of Magic for his first day at work. His position wasn't anything spectacular; it was his first job and, while the fact that he had spent four years learning from famous wizards and witches like Minerva McGonagall, Filius Flitwick, Severus Snape and Gilderoy Lockhart definitely worked in his favour, he was freshly out of school and a war that they knew was bound to have left him with psychological scars. Being the junior assistant to a fairly low-tier worker wasn't the flashiest of jobs, and he was seriously considering looking for a second job at a bar or something in the Muggle world to supplement his income and help him become independent, but it was a good learning opportunity. And he couldn't be choosy when he was merely looking for a simple means to an end.

Besides, it was something that was solely his. His parents hadn't given it to him. People who knew of Colin's death hadn't been impelled to help him by charitable tendencies. A society who owed its youth their childhoods hadn't been trying to make it up to him by giving him a position or attempting to rebuild itself by using him to fill a position he wasn't yet ready for. That knowledge made it all the more special. He kept that feeling close to him as he nervously entered the building that he'd only ever Floo called before, as his new boss walked him through what was now expected of him, as he introduced himself to his colleagues, and even as he ate lunch at his desk because he knew he had a lunch break but wasn't sure how to go about taking it.

The day was by no means perfect. He stumbled frequently in his tasks and faced confusion at every turn. Although he and his colleagues all tried to connect, cultural differences complicated things; jokes that were supposed to be funny fell flat, comments that were supposed to be serious came off as peculiar, questions that were supposed to be perceptive came off as clueless, and answers that were supposed to be helpful came off as patronising. There were times when he internally questioned whether he really was the right person for the job, and when he felt certain that those around him were doing so as well. One of his colleagues outright provoked him about Britain's inability to control their Dark wizards just to test the limits of his control, and it took all he had in him to respond without snapping. Still, Dennis managed to win the older man over with his political response, and he was smiling broadly as he left work that evening because, despite all of the stumbling blocks that he had faced and was undoubtedly still to face, it was his and it was special and it felt good.

Things improved after that. There were still reassuring highs and disheartening lows in both his work and his attempts to socialise, and the letters from friends and family in Britain unfailingly gave him a sense of homesick melancholy. Their power was, however, lessening. The lows were fewer and farther between as he and his colleagues wrapped their heads around their cultural differences and as he grew accustomed to his work. They all grew better at responding to issues as they arose rather than jumping to conclusions about a phrase or gesture somebody on the opposite side of the cultural divide had used so casually. News from home, while still inciting feelings of longing, gradually grew less potent until he merely felt a nostalgic tinge as he read updates on the lives of people he rarely saw.

He wasn't crippled. This wouldn't hold him; he was down but certainly not out.

And he was starting to feel more at ease with the city; it wasn't just that the noises and impersonality of it stopped bothering him, but also that they started to invigorate him. Stereotypes and expectations still surrounded him like mosquitos waiting to be swatted, but they were all centred on his nationality rather than on him himself. However irritating they might be, they were noticeably easier to deal with. He found it easier to dispute and throw off the shackles of expectations surrounding his nationality than to skirt expectations surrounding him himself; after all, he was still Caucasian, so any discrimination directed towards him tended to be petty rather than debilitating. He would take jabs about tea-drinking and stiff upper lips over remarks about recklessness and starry eyes any day.

His parents and closest childhood friends visited him for his nineteenth birthday. He'd been back to visit them a few times and some of them had come to see him when they were able, but it was the first time they were all reunited since he'd first left Britain. Wizarding transport still got to his parents, who both looked a little green upon their arrival, so they hung around inside the Ministry until they were confident in their ability to walk without fainting or vomiting. As they finally left the Ministry, their second comments – after their obligatory birthday greetings – focused on how much better – how much healthier – he was looking. Dennis merely smiled and said that the city suited him before shepherding them down the road towards his apartment. The furniture and decorations were much more complete; they would never be fully done for good, of course, but they were satisfactorily done for the time being. It was all starting to come together as a place he could truly call home.

His American friends met them there. They headed to downtown Manhattan to explore a few of its art galleries before eating lunch at a fancy restaurant, watching a movie – which stunned and fascinated the purebloods among the group – and heading to Dennis' favourite jazz club for the evening. As they sat in the dim lighting, drank champagne and enjoyed the fast, restless music and serene ambiance, Dennis let his thoughts wander. Moving to New York City had been like jumping into the stuff of sensationalist novels; he never knew what to expect from it from one day to the next but, even as it drove him crazy and threatened to do his head in with its bright lights and fast nights, he adored it for that. Most of all, however, he loved the fact that he felt like he genuinely belonged there. He'd always been Colin's little brother or another impulsive Gryffindor or a Muggle-born wizard on the run; here, he could just be Dennis. As he explored who he was and what he wanted and needed from life, he frequently got the sense that the city had been there waiting for him all along; waiting for him to be ready for it, waiting to heal him, and waiting to free him.

Chapter Text

Tuning out the chatter of the people bustling around her at the bar, Ginny chipped away at the last vestiges of her nail polish. It had become something of a project for her over the past few days, testing her ability to could remove it all without succumbing to the urge to just finish it off with magic. Somehow, the painful monotony of doing it manually served to distract her from the worries that had taken to niggling away at her mind like a ferret.

Her main concern was getting her family to lay off on her. Her mother frequently pestered her about her single state, almost as if it were a disease that could be fatal if left untreated. In Molly Weasley's perspective, Ginny would never truly be happy until she was madly in love with someone who adored her in return. If that came with a ring and a bed, then, well, all the better. But, while Ginny appreciated the fact that her mother wanted her to have everything the world could offer her, the thinly veiled hints and set ups had quickly grown tiring. Even worse was her brothers' reactions; they had taken to pressuring her to settle down, claiming that it was embarrassing to see their sister flit from one boy to another like a ping pong ball.

She'd hexed every last one of them for that comment.

Still, Harry and Luna's wedding hadn't helped. Walking up that aisle ahead of Luna had given her a sense of closure, with the fact that she hadn't once wished that her feet were the last in the train of slowly moving boots providing that final reassurance that she was definitely over Harry. It had, however, also served as a reminder to her mother that Ginny was still only the maid of honour; while Harry and Luna were honeymooning somewhere in the Irish countryside, Ginny had suffered through another awful date that her mother had ostensibly-subtly asked Ron and George to set her up on.

She didn't much fancy wizards still a few months shy of graduating school, or the implication that there were no longer any suitable wizards in her age group. The boy – she couldn't even remember his name, so she'd taken to calling him 'the boy' whenever he came up in conversation – had been the younger brother of George's employee Verity, and, while he'd been nice enough, he'd been utterly naïve about everything. The only good thing about the date had been that he had been as disinterested in a second date as she had been, appearing to find her too cynical and conniving.

Trying to dig her nail under a particularly obstinate piece of paint without damaging the nail itself, she wondered whether it would have been easier to find a guy if she didn't expect potential boyfriends to understand the war and why it still kept her up at night like coffee drunk an hour too late. It almost definitely would have been. Regardless, she wouldn't have traded her past for anything. If she hadn't been involved, the things she had done would have fallen to someone else, to someone less capable or more burdened.

Oh, the joys of putting everything on the line for your country and then not having people understand the personal aftermath of your sacrifice. Her nail ran across the other viciously, pulling off a chunk of nail polish but grating the nail beneath in the process.

"Ginny Weasley?"

She fisted her hands in frustration before purposefully loosening them so that she could grab her drink and, clutching it like a talisman, turning to face the interloper. Publicity was the norm for her now, but it didn't mean she had to like it. It was just another reminder of how people thoughtlessly accepted what she had given them while constantly demanding more; more effort, more secrets, more thankless giving. While well meant, it felt like they were merely twisting the knife harder for the sole purpose of watching more lifeblood trickle out, unconcerned with trivial things like whether it was sustainable or whether she was even willing.

To her surprise, however, she vaguely recognised the dark-skinned young man standing before her as someone she'd seen a few times around school. It was harder to put contexts to faces and names now that she'd left school and met a myriad of new people, but he'd been wearing Slytherin green, if she recalled it correctly.

"I didn't expect to see you here," he continued, moving closer to the bar so that he was in view of the bartender. The teenager glanced up, acknowledged him with a nod, and returned to his work mixing a drink for an older lady. "Don't your lot avoid bars? You know, being so virtuous and all."

Hearing that voice, smooth and with the slightest hint of an accent that spoke of having parents who had been born overseas, was what sent the recognition rushing through her. "My lot has really never been the discriminating type," she retorted, eyeing him cautiously. Unlike yours, she added.

"True," Blaise Zabini conceded. "Is that still the case, do you think?"

The bartender made his way over to their section of the counter and, as the two wizards talked and exchanged alcohol for sickles, Ginny set her drink back down and casually returned to her fingernails in a subtle show of dismissal. It wasn't as if he was going to do anything but go right back over to his non-blood traitor friends as soon as he had his drink, anyway, and she certainly didn't care either way. With a sense of detachment, she noticed the bartender wander away as their conversation ended.

"Do you mind if I sit here?" Zabini asked, surprising her.

Although she wasn't interested in making nice with him, her curiosity had always been one of her weak points; she'd never quite been able to resist the allure of tasting new things or finding out whether two random ingredients would have a good or bad reaction when combined. Shrugging, she said blandly, "I'm almost finished; I can move if you get annoying."

He snorted as he settled into the stool beside her, although she couldn't tell whether it was out of amusement or derision. "Your drink or your nails?"


"What are you almost finished? Your drink or your nails?"

"I suppose both," she replied, looking up at him again just in time to catch the tail end of a smile.

"You know, you avoided us as much as we avoided you."

"Yet we tended to be a little nicer when our paths crossed. Less likely to randomly hex or insult people, you know."

"Oh, come on. Only the stupid Slytherins hexed people they didn't like. The smarter ones got them back in other ways."

Now she thought about it, Ginny couldn't recall Zabini ever hexing her, or any of her friends mentioning that he had targeted them. Harry had mentioned him saying some bad things about them on the train one year, and he'd never been particularly pleasant, but that kind of comment was still catnip to her curious-cat senses. "So, you mustn't have minded us, then, because I can't recall you ever hexing us."

He grinned at her, and she begrudgingly smiled back. "I was obviously one of the smarter ones."

"Right," she replied sceptically. "Running with that idea, what did you do to people you didn't like? I'm starting to think my brother might have been innocent of some of the pranks I accused them of pulling on me."

"I daresay they weren't," he said, his voice infused with humour. After a thoughtful pause, he continued, "Rumours, sometimes. Other people would cast jinxes that wouldn't show up until much later; it made for delayed gratification, but then there was less chance of it being traced back to them. Some people would be more obvious about it but would set someone else up to take fall for it. Personally, however, I tended to just gather information and wait instead of playing my hand early. It was more useful in the long run."

"So what you're saying is that the smartest Slytherins pretended like they weren't retaliating at all."


"I guess Malfoy wasn't one of the smart ones, then."

"He can be clever when he makes himself slow down and think about something. His problem was just that he felt like he was exempt from any repercussions and so didn't bother hiding his trail."

This might be the part that gets the cat caught and killed, Ginny thought as she took a swig from her firewhiskey, suppressing a shudder at the way it burned her throat on the way down. Nevertheless, she was unable to resist asking, "Who would you have hexed if you'd had a free shot at anybody?"

That was apparently a good question – or, for her, potentially a very bad one – because he took his own slow drink of alcohol before smiling at her in complete and utter self-assurance. "Not you, if that's what you're getting at. How many shots do I get?"

It hadn't been, not specifically, but she took note of it anyway. "As many as you'd like," she said, wanting to know who his greatest priority would have been but curious about how many names he would give.

"Malfoy first. He has always been a prat and is way too obvious about it for his own good. Umbridge, that pain. Nott was frustrating to be around, so I'm sure I would've sent a mild one his way at some point. Your brother Weasley – Ronald, I mean – for a similar reason to Malfoy." He hesitated as if to gauge her response, but she said nothing. While she loved all of her brothers and would have defended them to the death if he'd actually hexed one of them, she had felt the urge to hex all of them at one point or another, and had indulged in it a few times, she could only imagine how much stronger that desire would have been if she hadn't had that familial bond to begin with. The comparison to Malfoy was unappreciated, but it wasn't like Zabini had as much cause to hate him as she did. "Brown, because her gossiping made things unpleasant for a number of us more than once over the years." Two sets of brown eyes met ad he quietly concluded, "And, if we're counting people outside of Hogwarts, You Know Who and a number of his followers."

"Harry mentioned overhearing you say some things about us on the train." Realising how inadequate a description that was, she added, "It would've been at the beginning of your… sixth year, I think. He overheard you talking to Malfoy and some of the others."

"I've always been unimpressed by Slytherin's house mascot, you know," he replied, and a flush of irritation raced through her at the thought that he believed he could just ignore her comment without her noticing it. "We like to slide through the cover of grass until we find ourselves atop our own mountain, I suppose, but that's only one part of it. It would be more appropriate for it to be a chameleon. A good part of our philosophy is going unnoticed, or at least having your actions be so casual that they're disregarded. The idea is to get what you want without being seen as doing anything. For me, and for my friends, what we wanted was to avoid stirring the cauldron through disagreement. I don't recall what I said that particular day, but keeping my head done sometimes meant parroting out what Malfoy or Nott wanted to hear."

"And I'm supposed to believe that?"

He shrugged, the slight incline of his shoulders as subtle and graceful as everything else he did, and that move alone almost made her believe him. "Believe what you want. Or, better yet, ask Lovegood. She and Daphne were friends at school, as were Daphne and I."

She wouldn't be able to ask Luna until she got back from her honeymoon, and by then it might be too late. Still, she knew that she would ask. Because of that blasted curiosity. "Say I do believe you. What's the point in telling me this?"

His expression briefly shuttered, and she half expected him to finally get up and leave, but then it slowly became expressive again, almost as if he were forcing himself to stay open. "I don't like most of the people who trust me, and most of the people I might wind up liking have no reason to trust me. It might not make a difference, but I'd like to give them one, at least."

"Luna is on her honeymoon right now."

"I know. I was at the wedding. Field of flowers, yeah?"

Ginny smiled fondly, "Harry was so worried it was going to rain and ruin her vision, but it didn't until the reception, and she didn't even care when it did. She said it was a sign of prosperity rather than sadness because it meant they would never go through droughts in their relationship."

A moment too late, Ginny realised that she was opening her friend up for criticism, but Blaise merely said, "Probably a good thing she didn't go for the traditional white dress, then."

"That might've caused a stir," Ginny agreed, relieved that he'd left the rain thing be. "Look, I tentatively believe you." At his look of disbelief, she added, "I'm a lion, remember? I'm not going to let my guard down, but we do have that little habit of rushing into things. We tend to just run at things and hope it'll all work out from there. We're a reckless lot, you know."

He scoffed. "'Little habit.' More like fatal flaw."

"Sometimes, yes." Not wanting to let that rest between them for too long in case it turned things awkward, she downed the rest of her drink and stood up. She didn't fail to notice the flickering hint of disappointment on Blaise's face, so, smirking at him, she caught the bartender's gaze and breezily asked her companion, "Want another drink?"

Ginny pressed her face into her pillow, snuggling deeper into the warm embrace of the familiar bed. The smooth sheets felt like bliss commodified as they lay against her skin, and she was struck by the desire to just stay there all day. Even though she had never been a particularly restful person, she couldn't imagine that anything could feel better than a Sunday morning spent abed.

There is one thing, she corrected herself, a giddy smile spreading across her face at the thought of the day before. After a week of circling one another like meerkats trying to suss each other out, she and Blaise had almost fallen into a date.

And what a date it had been. They had avoided wizarding London as much as they could, instead blundering their way around its non-magical counterpart. Neither of them had really known what they were doing, but they had both revelled in the hilarity and unpredictability of their ignorance.

Honestly, it had been a bit of a test for him, giving her the opportunity to see whether or not he would subconsciously turn his nose up at the constant reminders of the Muggle world. To her relief, no such tell had arisen, and she'd instead been able to spend the entirety of the day wandering around with him. He had been fun and amusing and a remarkably good kisser.

Tracing her fingers along her lips, she would have been willing to swear that she could still feel the imprint of his lips where they had lingered on hers. The kiss had been brief but fiery, far eclipsing the sweet but unsatisfying kisses she was used to experiencing.

If there was one thing Ginny Weasley wasn't, it was delicate. Her past boyfriends had understood that on a logical level, but Blaise was the first one who seemed to really get it.

Energised by the thought, she slipped out of bed and made her way out to the kitchen. Unable to rid herself of her grin, she was grateful that she and Hermione had made the decision to move out together a few months prior. Otherwise, she would have been bombarded with questions and innuendos that she didn't feel like fielding lest they sully her good mood. Knowing that her friend had plans with Ernie that morning, Ginny pranced around the kitchen in peaceful solitude as she set about making pancakes for breakfast.

Life was still far from good, but things were looking better, for her and for her friends.

It was for that reason that she was humming an upbeat tune when Hermione's owl Terentia flew through the kitchen window with a newspaper attached to her talons. The tawny owl's feathers were ruffled from her morning flight, but she held out her leg with the composure of an aristocrat. Ginny relieved the owl of her light burden before grabbing a few treats from the jar she and Hermione kept beside the window. She gently smoothed out the animal's feathers with one hand while holding out the treats in the other. The owl's beak scraped gently across her palm as she picked up the snack. When Ginny's hand was empty once more, Terentia hooted softly and flew off through the small house.

Ginny idly wandered over to the newspaper and started to unravel it. To her great surprise, her own freckled face stared up from the page, flashing her with a wink and a sassy smile. As she blinked down in shock at her unexpected doppelgänger, the first thought that came to her mind was a sardonic, At least I don't look bad. Then, filled with trepidation, she dropped her gaze to the article itself.


Miss Ginny Weasley, the newest addition to the Holyhead Harpies and roommate to war heroine and notorious heartbreaker Miss Hermione Granger, has been sighted out in public with none other than Mr Blaise Zabini. Miss Weasley is known to have dated a number of older classmates in her youth before temporarily settling down with The Boy Who Lived himself. Alas, to the devastation of readers everywhere, their long-awaited relationship was remarkably short-lived, sparking vicious speculation that it really was all about the chase for the younger girl. A friend of her ex-boyfriend, however, has stepped forward to cite mismatched priorities as the main reason for their eventual split, naming Miss Weasley's determination to make it in professional Quidditch as the key cause of discord for them. Whether or not Miss Weasley was innocent of deceit, it is clear that she wasn't as dedicated to the relationship as he was. Given her close friendship with his ex-girlfriend Miss Granger, some have speculated that she was merely mislead by her older – and, according to some, wiser – friend.

Fortunately, Mr Potter, although heartbroken, has since moved on, marrying their mutual friend Miss Luna Lovegood a mere fortnight ago. Yet her first known public appearance with Mr Zabini came in the immediate wake of the wedding. Was the bad timing a thoughtless coincidence, or is there more to it than that? Was Miss Weasley so upset by Mr Potter's nuptials that she sought out Mr Zabini as a distraction? Have they been engaging in a sordidly secret relationship that was only now found out? Or, more maliciously, could their date have been a misguided attempt to overshadow the wedding or to incite discord between the newlyweds?

Regardless of the specifics of the situation, it is important not to judge either party for what may very well be an attempt to reconcile themselves with the toll that the war has been said to have taken on both of them. Considering the fact that Miss Weasley's catalogue of ex-boyfriends rivals even Mr Zabini's list of late stepfathers, the cause for attraction between them is clear. Perhaps, however, the reclusive Slytherin should take steps to confirm that he isn't just another trophy to be publicly displayed and then forgotten before progressing any further with his new date. Being under Miss Weasley's spell has, after all, proven itself to be a treacherous place to be in the past. For his sake, one can only hope that he is far enough outside of her usual type that he canl be the one to get her to settle down – or, at least, that he keeps his wits about him rather than blindly succumbing to her undeniable charms.

Groaning, Ginny leaned back in her chair, letting the paper fall to the table. Despite the media's focus on her friends, she had largely managed to avoid mention. They had done a few unsolicited editorials on her relationship with Harry after the wall, and another after she was selected by the Holyhead Harpies, but they had all been fairly mild. The bitterness had been apparent – after their missteps around Harry in the past, they had been reticent to even remotely imply that he might be to blame for the split – but it had been easy to brush off.

This, however, had gone too far.

How had they known where to find them? They had gone to Muggle London to avoid journalists and nosy acquaintances, but they mustn't have been as inconspicuous as they'd hoped to be. Concern flooded through her; while her friends – and, hopefully, his – would know better than to think that she'd manipulated him into the date, she wasn't as certain about what her teammates or sponsors would think. If the article generated enough bad press, it could jeopardise her career. Her only reassurance was the fact that the Harpies had a reputation of fielding strong and independent women, so their management would hopefully see it as adding to rather than detracting from her public image.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to take precautions. She rushed over to the quill and parchment she and Hermione had taken to leaving by the window for ease of access and hurriedly wrote out three letters; one to her team captain, one to the team manager, and one to Blaise. She did her best to keep the first two balanced, acknowledging and explaining the situation without ever truly apologising. It wasn't her fault, whatever the media said, and she refused to apologise for something as innocuous as going on a date.

When her letters were complete, she fetched Terentia and secured the envelopes to her. "I'm sorry for sending you out again so soon," she said, "but this is really important."

Then, her erstwhile good mood sullied by the way the tide of the media had dashed her memory of the day before against the rocks of public opinion, she grabbed the pancakes and collapsed into a slump on the lounge while she awaited the first reply.

When Ginny arrived at the small park that Blaise had suggested as a meeting spot, he was already there, pacing around its perimeter like a restless puppy. Grim-faced, she set up a series of wards to divert passers-by and prevent eavesdropping as she waited for him to walk over to her. By the time he reached her, she'd already settled onto a nearby bench.

Staring out at the ducks swimming across the tiny pond, she quietly told him, "It's safe."

"Good." He sat down on the bench beside her. "What are you thinking?"

A brief glance out of the corner of her eye told her that his gaze was equally fixated on the view, and she got the sense that he felt as insecure as she did. That knowledge gave her the confidence to press forward; surreptitiously watching him, she said, "You told me that the smarter Slytherins retaliate in ways that won't get them caught."

Blaise turned to face her, shock evident on his face. "You want revenge?"

"Yes. They can't mess around in our lives and get away with it scot-free." Tilting her head towards him, she smirked and said, "That's if you're willing to take the risk that you're just another trophy for my wall, of course."

He snorted. "That article was obvious bullshit. Of course I'm still interested."

"And so am I."

His answering smile lit up his face like a firework bursting into brilliant colour. "I'm glad."

Determined to push forward so that they could put her plan into action, Ginny declared, "Well, I have an idea."


"Go ring shopping." She held up her left hand and pointed to her fourth finger with a wink.

The colour drained from Blaise's face, and Ginny could almost see the gears in his brain reconsidering his previous evaluation of her. "I – Ginny, I like you, but I – "

A gleeful laugh pulled its way out of her, sending slight tremors ricocheting through her body as if it were an earthquake. Leaning forward, she covered her mouth in an ineffective attempt to stifle the delighted sound. Blaise contorted his body until he was leaning next to her, but his whispered inquiry after her wellbeing just set her off further.

"You don't need to buy one," she managed to get out between chortles. "Dammit, Blaise, we've only gone out once. It was an excellent date, but it was still just the one."

"Then what – ?"

"Just go looking in Diagon Alley. Ask the clerk for a closer look at the most expensive engagement ring you can find that is obvious without being gaudy. Make sure you're seen."

Within an instant, he was beaming at her once more. "You want to make it look like we're in on the joke."

"And to discredit them. The more unbelievable part of their story is, the less faith the readers will put in the rest of it. If anyone asks you about it, pretend you were looking for a friend but can't give his name away because you don't want to steal his thunder. You said Nott and Greengrass are planning to get hitched, didn't you?"

"Theo is planning on asking her in a few weeks."

"Perfect. That will give the Prophet enough time to make fools out of themselves while still giving credence to our ploy."

"I'll drop in on Theo to warn him and then go right there."

"Keep in mind," she added with a saucy smile, "I'm a silver person, and I'm rather partial to the right shade of pink."

Her hand slipped into his as they idled along the quiet street. A year gone, and how natural and casual the gesture had become still gave them both a thrill. "Harry's parents used to live nearby," Ginny explained. "Luna showed me the ruins of the house the first time I came out here."

"I heard about that. My mother never took me there, but she mentioned some kind of tribute."

She almost asked him when she was going to finally meet his mother – they'd talked about it a few times, but he kept putting it off – but decided that it wasn't the time for that. "It's beautiful. We can go there afterwards if you'd like."

"Sure. Do you think it's healthy for them to live so close to where it happened?" He caught her warning look and added, "From what I saw at school, Harry's been living in the shadow of his parents for years. Marriage could have been his chance at a fresh start, but he chose to settle down in the neighbourhood where they lived and died instead."

She didn't respond at first, wanting to make sure her words properly captured what she was trying to say. "You might've noticed that Harry doesn't have a particularly good relationship with his aunt and uncle," she said cautiously.

Blaise nodded; he'd noticed the tension that arose whenever Harry's childhood or family were mentioned, but nobody had ever volunteered an explanation, so he had let the topic be.

"They lied about how his parents died and what they were like. He didn't know anything about magic, or them, until Hagrid took him his letter. To Harry, his parents symbolise love and belonging and everything he was denied as a child, and there's so much that he still doesn't know about them. It's not… It's not that he's caught in the past, or that he can't move on, but rather that he's trying to reclaim some of what he missed out on. He's trying to respect them and draw strength from them, I think. He knows that he and Luna would never become his aunt and uncle, but I think living here makes him feel more secure in that." Ginny glanced over at him and was glad to see that his expression was one of consideration rather than jealousy.

"That's stupid," Blaise said. "He can be an idiot sometimes, but he's never been uncaring."

Blaise was as fiery and passionate as she herself – he was just much better at controlling it – so she kept half-expecting him to succumb to a burst of jealousy whenever she displayed just how intimately she understood Harry Potter. Dean or Michael or even Harry would have gotten insecure had she said something like that around them, and the wizards she'd dated since then would have taken it as a sign that she was still the crazy little dreamer with her eyes set on her brother's famous best friend. Blaise, however, never seemed to care. He'd asked her once whether she had ever regretted not getting back together with Harry after the war, and she'd said that, while she used to, she was glad that they hadn't. That was the only time he'd ever brought it up, and she loved the fact that he was so completely focused on their present rather than their respective pasts. Blaise was utterly secure in knowing that they were together at that point in time, and Ginny had always been the type to live in the moment, so, together, it was like he was the matchbox and she was the gasoline.

Ginny held his hand just a little bit tighter. Closing her eyes, she rested her head against his warm shoulder, and he leaned down to kiss the top of her head. As he pulled away, she tilted her head upwards, her mouth chasing his as it started to retreat. He let her catch it, and they stopped walking so they could enjoy the moment. His free hand buried itself in her hair like a puppy burrowing into its owner's side and pulled her closer still, and she reached up to snag the back of his shirt in her tight grip.

She pulled away just before she used up her air supply. Rising up to the tips of her toes and straining her neck, she pressed her mouth to his ear and whispered a breathless, "I love you," into it before resting her forehead on his shoulder as she succumbed to the need to rack in more oxygen.

She had felt it for a while but hadn't been able to say it until then. Although she knew that he felt far more than he ever let on, his almost impenetrable defensive veneer made it hard to throw things like that at him out of the fear that it would just bounce back off of him like a deflected coin. Still, she couldn't just keep it forever locked away inside her like a dirty secret. It was special to her, and she wanted him to know it, whatever the consequences of her words might be. Her feelings deserved to see the light of day.

His response was almost instantaneous. The thumb on his right hand started to stroke a soft pattern across her skin, while his other hand untangled itself from her hair and dropped down to rest against her back. He curled his head towards her until his lips were resting against her ear. "I love you too," he managed to say, and those four words were the sweetest she'd ever heard. "I love you."

They waited there, tangled around one another, until their breathing evened out. Only then did they start to move. Their arms slid away and they stepped apart. Smiling fondly at one another, their hands sought out one another, their fingers linking together like a jigsaw puzzle.

"We should go," she murmured, and they set off again, their hands swinging between them like a pendulum slowly ticking away to the beat of their hearts. She had always thought a person could set a clock by his dependability, and, as they smiled up at one another, she supposed that she had done just that.

"So, little Potters," Blaise finally said as they neared the newlyweds' house, slipping through the small hole in the back fence that Harry had invited his friends to use anytime. They stepped out into a haphazard wonderland of towering trees, stout shrubs, blooming buds and peculiar plants, with the path of multi-coloured stones that stretched out before them the only clear part of that corner of the garden. "I can only imagine the havoc they're going to cause when they get to Hogwarts."

"They're practically destined to make trouble. Luna has never cared about rules or expectations, and Harry has probably broken every school rule as part of his mission to save anybody who has ever been even slightly in danger." Ginny laughed as she stepped over a thick root that had started to inch its way across a bright orange stone. "I wonder how many professors will mysteriously resign the year before those girls start school."

Blaise chuckled, but he fell silent as they left the little bed of fairies and made their way across the short grass to the table that someone had set up in the backyard. A number of Ginny's friends were already there; even from that distance, they could identify Harry, Luna, Ron, Hermione, Ernie, Neville, and two redheads that were facing away from them but that Ginny was fairly sure were Percy and George. Noticing a twin bassinet set up at the head of the table beside Luna and Harry, she directed their path towards it as the chorus of greetings rang out.

"They're gorgeous," Ginny said, leaning over the bassinet to coo at the girls while Blaise conjured two chairs and pushed one into place behind her with a murmur of warning. "Thanks Blaise. Do you mind if we hold them?"

"Go ahead," Luna said. "Just don't drop them. We wouldn't want their brains to get scrambled up in the fall."

"No, we wouldn't," Blaise said earnestly as he took both a seat and a baby. "Which one is this?"

"That's Edith Lily. Ginny has Lydia May."

Ginny looked between the one-week-old twins, trying to memorise the differences between them. After living so long with Fred and George, she'd learned to identify a range of physical and personality features that were easily identifiable without being too obvious. More than once, her attempt to tell them apart had been foiled by bad lighting, and they'd always cast a charm to change their major features when pretending to be the other. While she'd met Edith and Lydia before, she hadn't yet found the features that would stick with her and make recognition instantaneous. In that moment, staring down at them, she managed to make a little more progress. Lydia's tufts of black hair seemed thicker than Edith's, and her eyes were a little greener. She also thought she had more Potter in her facial features, although she acknowledged that she could very well just be grasping at straws. Edith's eyes, in contrast, seemed a little less focused, as if she were already taking after their mother's tendency of focusing on apparently otherworldly things rather than the reality in front of her.

The gathering went better than Ginny had expected. Once the twins started to doze off, she and Blaise returned them to their bassinets and moved over to where they were actually supposed to be sitting. The tension that had been slowly dissipating over the six months since he'd first started socialising with them was finally gone. She didn't know what had finally done it. It might have been that they'd finally realised that Blaise was serious about Ginny, or that they had remembered their focus on championing love whenever they could, or that it was hard to be judgemental when two sleeping newborns were there to serve as a reminder of what they had all fought for. Whatever it was, she found that she didn't care. It was gone, and that was all that mattered.

Laughing at a joke Ron made, Ginny leaned into her boyfriend's side. "I'm so glad you're here with me," she said, referring to more than just the Potters' backyard.

"Me too," Blaise replied, wrapping his hand around hers.

It took a moment for her to register the fact that, for the first time, their enjoined hands were over, rather than under, the table. While they were more than comfortable showing physical affection in public, they had tried their best to avoid doing so in front of her friends in case it made things more uncomfortable around them. Looking around the table, however, Ginny noted that none of her friends seemed to mind the gesture. Most of them didn't seem to notice it, and those that did simply looked away with a smile.

"I think they like you," Ginny whispered to Blaise as she traced her thumb across one of his knuckles.

"It's about time," he replied.

Chapter Text

1 September 1977

Lily's fingernails tapped out a simple tune against the windowpane as she swung her legs back and forth, anxiously waiting for her company to arrive. She wasn't worried about being caught out of bed; her position as Head Girl gave her leniency in that regard, given that it was well within her rights to casually check up on the patrolling prefects. If anyone asked, that was precisely what she was out there to do. But the boy she was waiting for was late, and she was starting to worry that he might not be coming at all. They had agreed to meet as usual – same place, same time – on the first night back after the summer holidays, but she was there and he wasn't.

As the time grew ever later, the possibility that he had been waylaid grew smaller and smaller. Disappointment rushed through her at the thought that he might not want to see her anymore. After sneaking around to spend time together for more than six months, she had assumed that his interest was as genuine as hers, but she could have just been seeing what she wanted to see. Or perhaps spending a whole summer with his family had reminded him of all the reasons he had once hated her. He hadn't sent her one of their secret winks – their sign to say that they had to cancel any existing plans until they had the chance to regroup – during the prefects' meeting on the train or at dinner, so she had assumed that all was well, but perhaps he had been trying to simply forget that he had ever been with her in the first place.

Well, if that was the case, she didn't want anything to do with him either. The only reason she had ever agreed to these clandestine meetings was that he had seemed sincere when he said that he no longer hated Muggle-borns. His charisma and intelligence, while extremely appealing, were in no way enough to attract her to someone who thought she was beneath him. She had more self-respect than that.

Stepping away from the wall, she brushed out the creases in her skirt, adjusting it so that each of the multi-coloured pleats sat perfectly, and strode quickly down the hallway.

She was almost at staircase when a voice, cultured and intimately familiar, whispered, "Marco?"

Lily froze in place as a broad grin worked its way across her face. After she first introduced him to the childhood game, he quickly became obsessed with it. Despite his insistence that it didn't work in public settings due to the possibility of someone present actually having the name Marco, he had taken to it like a dog to food. "Polo," she replied, her voice warm and affectionate, as she turned around. "Regulus."


All of her instincts were screaming at her to just run into his arms and snog him until she forgot all about her earlier concerns, but she forced herself to wait. They were still too exposed in that hallway, and part of her was still apprehensive about his motives. Instead, she smiled at him before backing down the corridor, not taking her eyes off him, and into the secret meeting place they had happened across months prior.

As far as they were aware, they were the only people in the school who knew about it. The entrance was nestled in a little alcove on the fourth floor, hidden away from the naked eye. It didn't even look like a door; a large mirror stretched from the ceiling to the floor, and you had to say the right words in the right order before the small groove, about as thick as a thumb, would appear, marring the shiny surface so that you could gain entrance.

They didn't technically know whether anyone else ever used it, so they always put anti-detection and dissuasion spells up around the perimeter just in case, but they had never been bothered in all of the time they'd met there. It was, to them, their own special hideaway.

Once the charms were in place and the room was secured, Regulus pulled her into his arms and murmured, his warm breath tickling her ear, "I've missed you."

"You were late," she mumbled against his chest, wanting to enjoy their precious time together but needing to chase away the last of her fears first.

"I know. Some of my housemates wanted to talk to me, and they aren't the kind of people I can just say no to. I had to find a way to shake them first."

"That's all it was?"


"But…" She hesitated, not knowing how to best word her concerns. Verbosity might usually be her thing, but there were still times when her mind just refused to form proper sentences. She eventually settled on, "Sirius said you went out with Sophia Bones last month."

His expression was unfathomable when he slid his gaze down to meet hers. "Why would he say that?"

Lily shrugged. "He was chatting with Pettigrew. He might have left home, but he still keeps tabs on you, you know. He still cares." She paused, her eyes narrowing as she realised that he had skilfully evaded her implied question. "Was he right?"

He took a long pause before saying simply, "My parents expect me to get married young. If they think I'm not even trying… But, I assure you, it meant nothing to me. The whole time I was with her, my mind was here, with you, wishing she were you instead."

He didn't apologise. She hadn't expected him to. They, for all of their intensity, were not committed, so they both knew that he had done nothing wrong by going out with another girl, even if it had been real for him. And Regulus wasn't one to apologise for something that wasn't his fault.

"I get it," she admitted. It was tempting to confess that she didn't like it, but she didn't know how he would take it – nor how she would. It was easy to continue this thing they had while it was undefined and tenuous, but she didn't know how either of them would cope with it if it suddenly became serious. "Jess asked who I fancied – she could tell there was someone – and I pretended it was Remus. It got her off my back, and I knew it wouldn't result in anything anyway. Given his friend's obsession with me, everyone knows that nothing would ever come of it; even if Potter 'let'him ask me out, it would get too much for all of us eventually. But he could have, and I might have had to go out with Remus for appearance's sake."

His jaw tightened at the name. "Potter's still giving you a hard time, then?"

She scoffed. "He said he wants to try being friends, but his lewd gaze said otherwise. I'm hoping that the rumours about me fancying Remus will get back to him and give him pause, but I doubt it. Either way, I give him about two weeks until he's back to his old ways. And that's being generous."

"You need to tell McGonagall about it. This is harassment, Lily."

"She wouldn't be able to do anything about it. She could try, but we both know the fact that he's a Potter means she wouldn't be able to do much."

"His parents could. And they would. I've met them; they'd be furious if they knew how he was behaving. This is wrong."

"I know." She smirked at him. "But I'm going to do you one better. I agreed to his little friendship deal so that no one – however misguided – can accuse me of being unreasonable, but I'm going to go to Slughorn at the first sign of actionable trouble. He likes me; he'd decimate Potter, family reputation or not, if he knew he was harassing me."

That pulled a laugh from him, and the tension between them suddenly dissipated like air rushing from a pierced balloon. "Oh, you're good."

"Why, thank you." She reached out a hand and ran it through his long black hair. A sigh escaped her at the feeling of the soft fibres sliding through her fingertips. It's been too long. "I've missed you, too, by the way. I couldn't stop thinking about you all summer."

"Even when you were doing essays?" he teased.

"Especially when I was doing essays."

"Did I mention I like your shirt?" he asked, fingering the silky green fabric.

"Drat. I bet myself you'd notice the skirt first." Unable to control her excitement, she twisted her hips so the soft material swished around her legs and added, "It's like a rainbow."

He laughed. "Oh, I like that, too. I just think you look sexy in Slytherin green."

Stilling her body, she looked up at him with a hint of a smirk on her face. "Then why aren't you kissing me yet?" she playfully demanded.

Regulus grinned, and he set out to immediately remedy his oversight.

15 April 1978

Her hands clenched, gripping his thick hair tightly, as their lips continued to move against one another. His fingers traced across her stomach under the hem of her shirt, sending shivers racing down her spine. She loved magic, and she had seen a magnificent world of it, but this was a different kind of special. Between preparing for her NEWTs and fulfilling her Head Girl duties, she didn't have as much time to sneak out with him anymore, so the few times they could meet up had become all the more intense. Added to the fact that they'd both decided to go home for the Easter holidays, it made every moment spent together as emotionally and physically charged as the first. She slipped her tongue into his mouth, immediately engaging his in a slow dance that made both of them moan.

She was just about to recommend conjuring a lounge when a distant creak caught her attention. She wrenched herself away from him in a panic. His mouth chased hers like a cat after string, but she slipped her hand up between them to still him. Struggling to subdue her heavy breathing, she whispered, "Did you hear that?"

At her words, he froze, giving up on his quest to reclaim her lips. He silently shook his head, his eyes alert as they both listened for any sound that might alert them to another person's arrival. The room they had taken to sneaking away to was out of the way, and, as far as they knew, secret to everyone but them, but they were both aware that that didn't alleviate all risk. They still kept the lights off just in case someone happened by, and the slightest hint of explained noise still set their nerves alight like a match to dry kindling.

"It might have just been the wind," she suggested, her body visibly relaxing at the thought. Still, she sighed. They hadn't kept their secret for so long by being glib about the possibility of discovery, and cockiness would only serve to make things harder. "I should head back to the tower now, though. Potter has been keeping tabs on me lately."

His face contorted with a disgust that seemed to be amplified by the shadows cast on him from the nearby candles. "Since when has stalking been a Gryffindor thing?"

"Since him, I guess. He's convinced that the fact he wants to marry me makes it all alright. He hasn't technically broken any rules or done anything that the professors would deem inappropriate, but he gives me the creeps. Yet he stays close enough to the line of acceptable behaviour that there's nothing I can do about it. Ugh, I still can't believe Dumbledore made him Head Boy. I'm just waiting for the day we graduate so I don't have to see his stupid face anymore."

"Or mine," he pointed out, and she rolled her eyes at him. "What am I going to do without you here?" His tone was light, but she had grown to know him well enough to realise that the question was sincere.

"Find some other girl to snog in secret passageways?" she teased, before sobering up at the look on his face. As casual as they pretended their relationship was, they both knew that it was so much more than that. They weren't exclusive, not officially, but they only ever took advantage of that fact when it came to throwing others off their scent. And, ever since they had first admitted that to one another that day in the corridor, they always gave one another warning beforehand or as soon afterwards as possible. She cared about him too much to let rumours about her supposed crushes blindside him. And, given how he always warned her before attending any of the dates his parents set him up on and did his best to weasel his way out of as many of them as he could, she suspected that he felt the same way. "You'd be surprised what you can do with charmed two-way parchment and mirrors."

"Can you touch through them?" he asked, ghosting his finger down the skin of her stomach.

"No," she said, trembling at his touch, "but you can write and demonstrate." Noticing his confused expression, she continued, "Things. That you would want to be doing if you could."

A look of comprehension spread across his face, and he smirked at her. "And you would know this how, exactly?"

"Television and books. You know," she said, grinning, "Muggle things."

He winced, his expression becoming unexpectedly stony. They had teased one another about his family before, both of them subscribing to the view that making light of it would make it easier to accept their views, and he had never reacted like that before. Her amusement fell from her face at his bewildering reaction.


His expression shuttered, and a tinge of humour had returned to his voice when he asked, "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"

She, however, wasn't able to forget his slipup. "Seeing as how it's complete bullshit," she said, steel in her voice, "no, I'm not."

"At least I'm prepared," he joked.

"Then what was that about?"

"Nothing. It's just been a long day, and my family are… being my family. It really is nothing."

"Okay," she said, still suspicious but deciding to let it be for now. He would tell her if and when he was ready, and, in the meantime, she would keep an eye out. "I'm going to miss you when I graduate," she admitted with a sad smile. "Sneaking around is better than being thousands of kilometres apart."

"What are you going to be doing?"

"An internship, probably," she said, hating that she couldn't tell him the truth about Dumbledore asking her to join the Order of the Phoenix but knowing that even those whose loyalties had been formally declared weren't guaranteed an invitation. "I'm not sure where yet."

A floorboard creaked somewhere off to their right, and their heads snapped in that direction. The noise was outside of the room, but it was still too close for comfort.

"We should go." He leant forward to give her a final kiss, open-mouthed and intense, before withdrawing just as she started to rethink her earlier idea of leaving. She moaned in protest but let him go, instead stepping back and pulling down the hem of her blouse once more.

"Prat," she whispered fondly as she straightened her clothes and cast a quick charm on herself to set things right again. She would have just done the spell to begin with, but they had quickly learned how much they enjoyed seeing one another restore themselves the Muggle way.

He slowly redid the buttons on his shirt, and she watched his progress with an intense gaze. "You're the one who likes me enough to risk detention," he drawled as he moved to fix his sleeves.

"You're the one who likes me enough to risk social sc – " Blood drained from her face as her heart sank like an anchor, and she immediately reached for her wand. Screw sticking to the cover of darkness. He couldn't have…

"What?" he asked, looking up in surprise.

"What's on your arm?"

"Nothing," he replied immediately, but an uncharacteristic flush spread across his features, and he hurriedly reached down to unroll his left sleeve.

"Show me. Lumos." Her fury overpowered the spell, causing the entire room to be bathed in the orb's brilliant light. She squinted against the bright glare, forcing herself to keep looking despite the discomfort.

The spell lit up his panicked features, and the still-haphazard state of his shirt, and his pale skin of his forearm, and –

The tattoo that he hadn't yet managed to cover. A black skull stood out against the pallor of his skin, a snake twisting its way out of its mouth. Just looking at it twisted her gut up in painful knots, and she felt bile start to rise in her throat. She had never seen one in person before, but she had heard about them, and the newspaper had even printed an artist's impression of one just the week prior so that people would be prepared. It was unmistakeable.

"Why do you have a Dark Mark on your arm?" she asked, her voice as cold and unrelenting as ice as she forced herself to ignore the feeling of her heart sinking until it hit the ocean floor. She had long since learned, through Slughorn's tuition and her own experience with Regulus, that it was better to let people tie the noose for themselves. If you immediately started issuing blame, they could – and often would – accuse you of jumping to conclusions. When you let them try to explain their way out of an indefensible situation, however…

As far as she could tell, the Slytherin prefect had just the right amount of rope at hand.

And she wasn't going to give him the pleasure of seeing how that fact broke her.

"Lily," he said, "it's not what it looks like."

"So it isn't a Dark Mark? What is it, then, an expression of interest? An application?"

"No, it… It is, but…"


"It doesn't change anything."

"That's where you're wrong. It changes everything. What, do you think I'm nothing but a mudblood, too?"

"I've never thought – "

"That scar on your arm fucking says otherwise!" she exploded.

"I had to! If I didn't, my mother would have disowned me! I'm not like Sirius, Lily. I can't just walk away from everything I've ever cared about. I can't – "

"Yet you've done a damn good job of just walking away from me."

Pain was etched across his face, and he looked at her as if she'd slapped him. "Lily, don't do this. I didn't want this, and I don't believe it, and I would never – "

"But you did," she said, her voice breaking under the suffocating weight of her sadness. She couldn't take it anymore; she had to get out, get away; she had to flee to her lonely room in her lonely tower. What happened when the fairy-tale warrior princess escaped the dragon's grasp only to discover that the outside world was only full of suffering and betrayal? How could she ever go back to a life of captivity and naïve hopefulness?

How could she stay out here?

"Reg, you know the reason Severus and I stopped being friends was that he got too caught up in all of that. And now you've gone and done the exact same thing. How could you? I love you, you prat, and I know – commitment or not – that you love me too."

"You've never said…"

"As if that matters. They're just three words arranged together in an attempt to convey a feeling. We might not have said it, but our actions have shown it much better than they could have. At least," she said, taking a deep breath to steady herself, "I thought they did, until just now."


She shrugged. She knew that she would never be able to pull her anchored heart up again, but this was something she had to do. Compromises might be a part of relationships, but this was too great a concession for her to ever make. Just like she would never be friends with someone who consorted with people who called others mudbloods, she would never date someone who willingly threw in his lot with them either.

However much she knew that her heart would always call her back to him and his side.

Lily took a deep breath, fortifying herself, and his eyes dulled as he recognised the action for what it was. "I love you. I hope you stay safe. But you've chosen your side, and I've chosen mine, and this just isn't going to work anymore."

Her heart breaking, she leant forward and touched her lips to his one more time. Then she turned around and fled the room.

"I love you too," she heard him whisper.

That was when the tears started falling in droves.

17 March 1979

Her words continued to haunt him even after she graduated and rumours started surfacing that she was working with Dumbledore to end 'the Death Eater threat,' as some of the gutsier reporters had taken to calling it. It was excruciating to watch her leave the school and step out into this dangerous world without him by her side. Danger lurked at every corner for Muggle-borns, especially brave and outspoken ones like her, and he went to class each day with the knowledge that she could be killed while he was studying for exams that didn't even matter in the grand scheme of things. He longed for that two-way mirror she had once spoken about, yearning to see her face and hear her voice and have tangible proof that she was indeed alright.

But he couldn't, and it was his fault, and his fault alone.

He knew that she would take him back if he repented and agreed to switch sides. She was just that kind of a person, always willing to forgive as long as the person was genuine about wanting to change. That, more than anything, was where Severus had gone wrong; his regret had been real, but they had all known that he had no intention of actually doing something about the problem. And that was where Regulus was going wrong as well. However much he missed her, and however much he loved her, he would never be able to escape his loathsome situation. Once you committed to the Dark Lord, you were in it for life; the only way to leave was death or, if you were willing to leave everyone and everything you had ever known behind, extreme isolation somewhere he would never be able to find you. Taking the mark was a life sentence like no other, exacting its vicious toll no matter what you then proceeded to do. And, even though he hadn't particularly wanted to take the mark, Regulus had chosen to take on that burden. He didn't want anything to do with their militarism, but he believed in the separation of Muggles and wizards and that it was dangerous to allow Muggle-borns to be tied to both totally disparate worlds.

He chose it.

He should have known back then that the price would be Lily's respect.

And being a Death Eater while still in his seventh year of Hogwarts was proving harder than he'd expected. He had figured that it wouldn't be much of a sacrifice as the scope of what he could do would be limited until graduation anyway. But the Dark Lord had been confiding in him more and more lately, culminating in his request to borrow Kreacher that very evening. His mother would have been thrilled by the idea, but he just felt dread. Despite knowing that there was no hope of escape, part of him liked to imagine that he was wrong. Yet, the more embroiled he became, the closer he got to the inner circle of the Dark Lord's most trusted Death Eaters, the more certain it was that it would be his life forevermore.

I wonder when Kreacher will be back. Even though personal house-elves weren't technically allowed at Hogwarts, he had ordered his friend to come right to him after completing the task. He wanted to know what the house-elf's task was and how that fit into everything. The privacy charms were already up, so his dorm mates would, if all went well, never even know that Kreacher had been to see him that night.

You didn't excel in a group like the Death Eaters without keeping your eyes and ears out for information. And, although he loathed admitting it to himself, part of him, hidden away in the deepest and most secure recesses of his mind, wanted to be prepared in case there were ever an opportunity to change sides. He wanted to be ready.

A loud pop sounded next to him and a small weight landed on the bed, causing the sheets to dip to his left. Smiling in relief, he rolled over to greet his childhood friend.

His relief didn't last long. Kreacher was there, all right, and he was in one piece, but he seemed incredibly frail. The house-elf's leathery skin was almost colourless as he grasped at his throat desperately. And he was completely drenched and shivering, hunching in on himself as if it might make things better. "Water," he croaked out.

That was when Regulus knew something was terribly wrong. Not once in the whole time he'd known the elf had he requested something without littering it with subjunctives and conditionals to soften it. The teenager hastened into action, conjuring a cup and magically filling it with water before shuffling over so he could hold it up to Kreacher's lips. The house-elf drank gratefully, greedily gulping down the fluid until it, and several refills, were gone.

"What happened to you?" Regulus breathed out.

"H-He forbade – "

"And I'm ordering you to tell me. Please, Kreacher. I need to know so I can help you."

It took a few more attempts and a lot of manipulative entreaties to lure it all out of him, but Regulus eventually heard the full story. The Dark Lord had taken Kreacher to a sea cave out in the middle of nowhere. They had rowed a paddleboat across the water until they reached a small island with a bowl of green liquid on it. Kreacher had been forced to drink the most traumatising potion he had ever encountered, a potion that made him relive and repent every one of his guiltiest moments, until the bowl was empty and the Dark Lord could slip an ornate and viciously evil locket inside. The bowl had then been refilled. The Dark Lord had left, abandoning Kreacher there. Kreacher had crawled to the edge of the water in a desperate search for water and relief.

There had been Inferi floating beneath the surface, and they had almost drowned him. They would have, if it hadn't have been for Regulus' offhand command to return to him.

Kreacher's tale ended with a whimper, and Regulus stared at him in horrified silence. He didn't know what that locket was, but it had to have been something both dreadful and important. And he didn't know whether the Dark Lord expected him to inquire after his left-for-dead house-elf or to just quietly accept his disappearance, but his cavalier treatment of the magical creature chilled Regulus to the bone.

"Do you think you would be able to take me back there?"

Fear filled Kreacher's eyes, but he nodded nevertheless. "If – If Master Regulus desired it."

"Promise me that you will not tell either of my parents about this. Promise it."

A look of discomfort shot across his face. "I promise."

"I'm not going to let anything like this happen to you ever again, Kreacher. I swear it." He had valuable information gathered up already, so he knew the Order of the Phoenix would accept his help. And he knew just how to get to them. He and Lily could break and fall apart all they wanted, but they would never stop being there for one another. No matter what he did, Lily Evans would always be there to help him if he truly needed it.

And, in that moment, he needed it – needed her – like never before.

2 February 1980

The potion bubbled away as Lily added the final sprig of rosemary and returned to carefully stirring it. A few counter-clockwise stirs and the preparation was done. A quick glance at the clock put the time at half past twelve, so she decided to check if Regulus wanted to take a lunch break with her as it simmered and brewed. After casting a quick charm over her study so that she would be alerted if something went wrong and collecting the vial of modified Pain Potion she had made a cauldron of a few days prior, she made her way out of the room and across the hallway to Regulus' study, where he was working on creating new charms and jinxes to give the Order an advantage over their enemies.

His defection had come as a surprise. She had always known he was a good person, so the fact that being a Death Eater became too much for him to bear wasn't astonishing, but it had come much earlier than she'd expected it to. She had been hoping that he would approach her after he graduated to admit that being in the real world made what he was doing all the more real, but it hadn't even taken a year for him to rethink his stance on the matter. It hadn't been hard to persuade Dumbledore to let him join their ranks; convincing him to give him sanctuary rather than use him as a spy had been trickier, but they had all known that continuing on in that environment would be disastrous for him. He could only hide the news of Kreacher's survival for so long, and then Voldemort's suspicion would be aroused and focused entirely on him. Instead, they had faked his death so they could get the locket while still having Voldemort think he had died a traitor, and then the reunited couple had gone into hiding together.

It had seemed like the logical decision. After pretending that he had died in a valiant but foolish attempt to kill his erstwhile leader, going to battle would be a death sentence for him and would tell Voldemort they knew he had made a Horcrux. Besides, his skill as a researcher and in Charms was more useful to them than having an extra wand on the battlefield.

And, despite trusting Dumbledore and Lily's judgement, the Order wanted him to have a supervisor of sorts nearby to look out for any suspicious activity on his part. While Lily had hoped to take a more active role in the war, she had always gravitated towards Charms and Potions over DADA, so she had willingly given up on the fighting side of things to finally have the chance to be with him while doing something useful and uniquely suited to her own skillset. It didn't hurt that Potter still hadn't let up about wanting her, even when the knowledge that she was dating Regulus – and had been at school – came out. They had managed to get through seventh year without cursing one another, but being around him for any extended period of time made her uncomfortable. Even though Sirius had quickly embraced his brother's change of loyalties, James was convinced that Regulus wasn't good enough for her, and he was determined to let her know that he was a better choice.

And, given that Dumbledore didn't see his attitude as being harmful and couldn't risk isolating a reasonable portion of the group by disciplining him, she had figured that the only way to escape that was to take the chance to work behind the scenes.

The cottage was small and secluded and perfect. Located deep in the Scottish highlands and warded so tightly that not even Dumbledore himself could break in, it was as safe as they could possibly get. They had a small garden and a chicken coop, both with temperature charms in place so that they didn't have to worry about changes in the seasons, which they used to supply themselves with vegetables, herbs and eggs. Kreacher, who had reluctantly agreed to tamper with the Black family tapestry so it appeared as if Regulus had indeed died, lived with them as well and often snuck back into Grimmauld Place to fetch particular books to help with Regulus' research. Despite his continuing dislike for Lily and the niggling sense that he was betraying his mistress, he treated her with, at least, basic civility. The fact that she had saved Regulus, and that Regulus loved her, won his begrudging admission that she was clever and resourceful enough to make a halfway decent Slytherin, which, while not as important as being a pureblood, was quite the compliment in his eyes.

She liked it there. It was peaceful. Other than Mad Eye Moody, who often visited with groceries and to exchange information and potions with them, the three of them were self-sufficient and alone. They had invited her family to come with them, but Petunia had refused to live with her sister's magical boyfriend, so Moody had instead set the three of them up in a villa in Spain. Everyone else communicated with them via letter or Floo, if at all, so they could ensure that as few people as possible knew of their whereabouts. After spending a year and a half sneaking around Hogwarts to be together, living in an isolated and warm little bubble away from everyone else felt like bliss. They could be as open with their affections as they wanted without worrying about the wrong people seeing them, and they no longer had to pretend to each other that their feelings were any less than what they truly were.

Poking her head around the corner of his study door, she quickly took in the scene. He was huddled over his desk, writing furiously on a piece of parchment, his wand sitting a few inches away from his arm. They had aligned their working hours and agreed to always check before calling out for one another within that time so as not to risk startling the other. After all, she was handling dangerous and sometimes toxic ingredients, while he played around with experimental and potentially explosive magic, so an ill-timed distraction could be disastrous. Aligning their hours and setting that ground rule had, to date, minimised the potential for mistakes or injury.

"Reggie?" she asked, certain that interrupting him wouldn't pose any danger to him.

He looked up at the sound of her voice, and a smile broke out across his face. "Lily?"

"I was going to head up for lunch. Do you want to join me?"

"I'll be a few minutes. I just need to write this down before I forget it."

Nodding, she retreated and continued upstairs, leaving the cellar where they did their dangerous work. Humming along quietly to the happy chirping of the birds outside, she sat the vial down and, after tying her hair up into a messy up-do to keep it away from the food, started putting lunch together. Eggs were boiled and lettuce was washed and sandwiches were assembled. She was almost done by the time Regulus joined her, almost seamlessly slipping beside her to help her clean up.

"Good morning?" he asked.

"Yeah. I've almost finished the latest batch of restoratives for Moody; the final potion just needs some more time to finish brewing. I should be able to brew the poison today as well."

"Poison? I didn't think they wanted to take that route for interrogations."

She shrugged. "They don't. He's trying to find ways to destroy that locket. They think blasting it with dark magic would do it, but they want to see if they can find a more manageable way first." She dropped the last of the food scraps into the compost bins – lettuce for the chooks, eggshells for the garden – as he finished putting the dishes away.

"Your potion's there, by the way," she said, gesturing to the vial. "That's all you can have for the next twenty-four hours, so don't forget to space it out."

Although Dumbledore and Moody had managed to cast a spell on his arm to disconnect it from Voldemort so that the other wizard would no longer be able to feel the connection to him, it still burned when his old master called for his followers to flock to his side. That was actually another reason Potter didn't trust Regulus; the rare but casual reminder that Regulus had sold himself over to the Death Eaters had just made it harder for him to accept his repentance. The problem was that there hadn't been a potion strong enough to combat the pain. Lily had managed to create one, but it was highly addictive, so Regulus could only drink it sparingly. On days when they knew there was going to be an Order raid, she gave him a vial to drink as he needed it, but they usually kept their reserves in her study at other times so as to make sure he didn't succumb to the urge to overuse it. Instead, she tried to distract him with less addictive potions, kissing, and, well, kissing whenever the pain hit.

"The raid's schedule for three o'clock?" he clarified, taking the plate of sandwiches outside so they could enjoy the stunning view as they ate. They liked to admire the breathtaking scenery as often as they could, interspersing their solitary work with time spent cooing over the chooks' simple innocence or walking along the mountainside at sunset or sitting on the grass outside their front door to eat. "I'll finish half an hour before just in case they move in early again."

She scrunched up her face at the memory. Three weeks prior, the scheduled midday raid had been moved forward two hours because they realised at the last minute that the Death Eater hotspot would be less occupied then. Her brewing had been disrupted by Regulus' shriek of pain, and she had almost spilled the invisibility potion over herself in her hurry to reach him. An angry letter to the Order later, they had been assured that they would be told about such changes in the future, but the Order still occasionally moved in several minutes early without warning them, so they had both learned to be prepared. "Yeah. I'll join you in the library as soon as I've finished the poison so I'm there if you need me."

"Thanks." Leaning forward, he gently ran a hand through her soft hair. "I'm constantly amazed by how easy this all feels," he admitted. "Living with you, I mean. Now that we've gotten into the flow of things, everything seems to just fit together."

"I know," she murmured, taking his other hand in hers and interlocking her fingers with his. "It's like, no matter how hard things get or how much we argue, I know we're always going to be able to come back from it."

"I love you."

"I love you too." She rocked her body forward so she could kiss him, but the sudden grumble of her stomach had her swinging back almost immediately. "But, at the moment, I apparently want food more, so you're going to have to wait a while."

He laughed, loud and pleased and carefree in a way they hadn't been able to be when they'd been sneaking around together under the cover of darkness. "I can respect that. I would choose food over you as well."

Settling against one another, they ate, savouring the stillness and the sound of the chooks humming contentedly as the birds flying overhead sang out to one another in greeting.

21 April 1985

The birds trilled out their song as the slow melody of the wedding march started playing across the Scottish highlands. It was a bright spring day, and the sun was shining down on the little cottage as if it were smiling upon them. The end of the war seemed to brighten everything, to fill every cranny with happiness and life. Lily had expected to feel nervous, but she felt completely calm. She was at the place she loved and with the people she loved, and there was no reason to feel anxious. Instead, she smoothed out her short white dress and leant into her father's side and whispered that she was ready. Then, holding the bouquet of wildflowers before her like an offering, she started the slow march across the flat expanse of land. The ground fell away a few metres off to their left, opening up to the same gorgeous views she had looked at for years. And now she was able to share it with her family as well.

They followed the winding path away from the house and along the edge of the mountain. At the end of the aisle was a small circle of flowers. Albus Dumbledore stood on the other side of it, beaming proudly at her. Her mother was on one side of the circle with Slughorn, while Sirius, Regulus' cousin Andromeda, and her husband Ted lined the other alongside Moody and Kreacher. Lily watched her godson Neville toss the last of the flowers on the ground before going to stand beside her mother. A few moments later, Petunia reached the circle of flowers at the end of the aisle and shuffled over to take her place beside the toddler. Despite the lingering tension between the girls, she had agreed to be Lily's maid of honour, insisting that it was a travesty for a bride not to have one.

As soon as Lily's eyes caught sight of Regulus, however, they were for him only. He stood in the middle of the circle of flowers, alone and waiting for her. From then on, it was like she was drawn to him like a carrier pigeon who had sighted home. She was barely aware of her feet moving, one after the other, towards him; all she could focus on was him.

When they reached the edge of the circle, her father stopped and kissed her cheek. She smiled at him before walking the last few paces by herself as he filled the only remaining hole in their semi-circle of friends and family.

"I love you," Lily mouthed.

"I adore you," Regulus mouthed back.

Dumbledore started the proceedings, and she savoured every second of the ceremony. She knew it was much smaller and more remote than a Black would have been raised to expect, but the joyous intimacy of it washed over her, seeping into her very core. After the devastation of the war, all either of them had wanted to do was to marry in peace without concerning themselves with societal norms and expectations. Eleven guests wasn't many, but it was all they needed.

"I, Lily Marie Evans, take you, Regulus Arcturus Black, to be my lawfully wedded husband," she said when it came time for her vows. "I take you as you are. I vow to support and challenge you, to learn from you and grow with you. I vow to cherish who you are and who you will become and to love you unconditionally, even when life gets hard. You are my perfect complement, and I will be by your side always. You are my one constant in a world of unpredictable flux. You're it for me. Our relationship hasn't been easy, and I know it never will be. But, no matter what happens, I know that we can and will always come back from it – every single time."

"I, Regulus Arcturus Black, take you, Lily Marie Evans, to be my lawfully wedded wife," he said when it was his turn to speak. "I promise to choose you every day for the rest of my life, even when the world threatens to overwhelm us. I vow to respect and adore you, to support and challenge you, to know and love you. I offer myself as your partner in life and love, to feel your victories and losses as my own. I will do this forevermore without reservation or doubt. No matter what has been going on in our lives, I have always known that you would have my back, and I am determined to have yours evermore. I give you my hand to hold and my heart to keep as we live and grow alongside one another, come what may."

They celebrated their union with a kiss before pulling apart and greeting their guests once more. Petunia had an uncharacteristic tear in her eyes as she pulled Lily into a tight hug and told her that maybe, just maybe, she might be able to put up with visiting the couple every once in a while, and even Kreacher was unreservedly nice to everyone in light of the special occasion. As night fell, their guests returned to their respective homes, Petunia taking Neville home to her London townhouse for the weekend so that the newlyweds would have privacy for the first few days of their honeymoon.

"Ready to go to Ophelia's Retreat?" Regulus asked, his excitement almost palpable. Ever since the war had ended and they had finally become free to move freely in public, he had been pushing to take her to the Black family property in the Ile de Porquerolles, but it hadn't been feasible while they were stretched thin between raising Neville and clearing Regulus' name.

"I so am."

She looked out over the edge of the mountain one last time as she clung to him. Then, with a pop, they were hurtling through the air on the way to France.

They were boomerangs. No matter how far life hurtled them, they would always return to one another's arms.

Chapter Text

19 September 2001

Discarding the sparkly silver wrapping paper, Hermione turned her attention to the gift that had been wrapped within it. A small scrapbook sat in her lap. The front cover was glazed with gold glitter that twinkled at her like a sun, and 1991-2001 was written across it in red cursive letters. The inscription seemed to be magically imprinted, but it was undoubtedly Luna's handwriting. Inhaling sharply as she realised what her friend had made, she gently opened it to the first page.

It was beautiful. The calendar years were separated into sections, each of which contained about a dozen pages of moving photographs or detailed sketches of Hermione and her friends. The amount of effort and thought that the other witch had put into the project humbled her. Luna had made similar gifts for the others' birthdays earlier that year, but Hermione hadn't expected her to go to the same effort for her. The pair had never been particularly close, so she would have been neither surprised nor offended had Luna given her a less time-consuming gift. Then again, spending time on her friends was just Luna's way; it would never have even occurred to her to do differently for Hermione.

When she got to the year 1995, her gaze caught on one photograph in particular. Just seeing it brought memories rushing back to her like the incoming tide, sending old emotions crashing over her once more. A younger version of Ron and herself stared back up at her. They stood next to one another in the Great Hall, looking insanely awkward and insecure. Several minutes before the photo was taken, a student from a younger year had accused – or so it felt to her – them of fancying one another, leaving them both spluttering out vehement denials. Then Colin had come bounding up to them, all gold-haired and baby-faced and innocent, and asked to take some photos of them on his new camera.

Not wanting to upset him, the two friends had reluctantly agreed, but the other student's comment had unsettled both of them so much that neither had known how to stand. They had shuffled around one another, trying to get close enough to look natural without actually having to touch, for a minute or two before Colin had taken control of the situation and directed them on where to stand and how to pose. That had helped for the Muggle photograph he'd developed for her parents, but their uncertainty had come through loud and clear in the wizarding photographs.

It wouldn't have been awkward at all had they not fancied one another. Hermione had brushed off numerous crude insinuations about her friendship with Harry over the years because they had been so unfounded as to be ludicrous. The suggestion that she secretly fancied Ron, however, had hit too close to home for her. And he had later admitted that it had done the same for him as well.

A fond smile snuck its way across her lips at the thought. Neither of them had had any idea what they were doing back then. She had been good at reading and interpreting emotions, but she'd had no idea how to actually act on them when it came to romance. They'd always had to take one step back before taking any forward. It had just been part of them, their makeup, their history; to make any real progress, they'd had to first stuff things up abysmally. It had simply been the way of their relationship.

18 June 1996

Hermione's heart pounded in her chest as she ran, coloured lights flashing around her in a display that would be beautiful were it not so deadly. The DA had prepared them somewhat for the battle, but, as she struggled to hold her own against her foes, she was hit with how little it really amounted to in the scheme of things. They had been schoolchildren – clever ones, yes, but schoolchildren nonetheless – trying to teach themselves defensive magic in one-on-one interactions in a safe and manufactured environment. The Death Eaters, however, had no such shortage of experience. They had fought in kill-or-be-killed situations before, and they had made it through the swirling flames intact.

They had no chance, not without help. The six of them were grossly outnumbered and outmatched, and it was an uphill fight just to evade their foes. Yet she pressed on, trying to hold tight to the hope that Snape or the other members of the DA had noticed their absence and somehow gotten word of it to the Order. That was their only hope of salvation, the only chance they had of getting out of there alive.

Harry and Neville were with her, but she had no idea where the other three were, where Ron was. Her heart clenched at the thought of her friend. She had never told him she had come to fancy him; after the rigmarole of their fourth year, it had seemed safer to hide the crush that grew like a sapling over the course of the DA. Regret rushed through her at the thought that they might both die with it unsaid. Reciprocated or not, it would have meant a lot to him to know that she, at least, had chosen him over his brothers and Harry, and it would have given her closure to know that she had done all she could to act on those precious feelings.

Another spell whizzed past her, and she pushed herself to run faster. Her brain screamed at her to stop to take stock of the situation, to find the others and regroup, to create a plan to get them all out of the labyrinthine Department of Mysteries alive, to handle it logically. But she couldn't. Hesitation would mean certain death, for her and for the others. All she could do was to throw herself into the situation as it presented itself to her, reacting to it instinctually rather than rationally. Her only option was to focus on overcoming each obstacle that came their way until, hopefully, they reunited with the other three and stumbled out of the Ministry and into the safety of the outside world.

2 March 1997

Despite all of the issues they'd had over the previous few months, she ran to the hospital wing as soon as she found out about the poisoning. Even if he only wanted to be her friend, and even if his actions unknowingly hurt her, she couldn't stay away when he was in danger. Sitting by his bedside, clutching his clammy hand in hers, all she could do was hope that he would pull through. Madam Pomfrey had reassured them that the bezoar, and her expert supervision, would more than see him through the woods, but that didn't stop Hermione from biting her lips uneasily. He could have died. Her best friend could have died, and they wouldn't have even been on speaking terms at the time.

She was tense, knowing that Lavender could burst in at any minute, but she refused to let herself care. Relationships are fleeting, but friendship is forever, she thought, remembering the words Susan Bones had told her countless times over the years. It had been stupid, on both of their parts, to let something as trivial as a high school relationship sour their bond. As soon as they could get some privacy, she would talk it all through with him. She wasn't willing to put up with him snogging right in front of her, but she did want to spend time with him again. Perhaps he could spend lunchtimes with his friends and dinnertimes with Lavender, or vice versa, so that she and Harry could have time with him without her there.

She still couldn't believe how petty and immature he had been. Dating Lavender just because he was the only one of the four of them who hadn't snogged someone before and she was more than willing to fix that? When, to make it worse, he had – according to Ginny – admitted to Dean that he liked Hermione just days prior to first kissing Lavender? If he was willing to behave like that, she was glad she hadn't told him about her feelings for him. What would he have done if they'd started dating and then he'd found out she'd kissed Viktor back in their fourth year? Would he still have taken offense at it? She wasn't sure if either of them would have been able to forgive the other for the argument that would have ensued had that been the case.

But it wasn't the case. And, as furious and disgusted as she was at him for behaving so puerilely, she couldn't blame him for dating Lavender. She didn't like his reasons for it, but he was well within his rights to go out with some other witch. And, regardless of how disgusting she thought his public displays of affection were, it wasn't as if he knew why they were hurting her. As far as he was concerned, apparently, he fancied her but she didn't like him back. Using Lavender to get over someone else was a horrible thing to do, but he wasn't wronging Hermione by it. The only person he was betraying was Lavender herself. And, as tempting as it was to try to warn her roommate about it, she knew they didn't have the kind of relationship needed for that. Lavender would just think she was speaking out of envy and dismiss her advice out of hand. Besides, they had dated long enough that she had to assume real feelings had developed between them as well.

It was hard to hate him for it when she had always known about his insecurities. Ron's self-doubt drove him to assume that everyone was constantly judging him; any witch who wanted to be with him romantically would have to accept that he would take any perceived slight as being yet another instance of someone seeing him as inferior. That was just part of his baggage. She had begrudgingly accepted that back in fourth year when she'd forgiven him for how he'd treated Harry for being forced into the Triwizard Tournament and, later, her for choosing to go to the Yule Ball with Viktor. And the situation with Lavender was the same thing; she had to decide whether or not she could forgive him for it.

She knew that things wouldn't just change like a flipped switch, that he would continue to lash out at those around him until he learned to respect himself. But they were friends, and, whatever his faults, he hadn't yet done anything she would consider unforgiveable.

Of course, her standards for dating and for friendship were different. It was one thing to accept that your friend might occasionally give you the cold shoulder, but it would be another thing entirely to accept that from a boyfriend. Still, her crush on him hadn't faded; given that it had made it through the last eighteen months, she was beginning to suspect it could come back from anything. It had dulled into the background a few times, but it had never completely disappeared.

Am I in love with him? She hated what he was doing, but she couldn't bring herself to hate him. All she wanted was for things to be back to normal between them, even if it meant making small talk with Lavender every once in a while. Was that what love felt like? Or was that still just a combination of close friendship and physical attraction? How could she tell? She didn't feel like waxing lyrical about him, that was for sure, but still

The infirmary doors burst open, and a yellow bullet raced towards the bed. Instantly recognising the thick head of hair – it was hard not to, after seeing it pressed up against Ron so many times – Hermione released the boy's hand and leant back to give the other girl some space.

Apparently, however, that was too little too late; after briefly fussing over her unconscious boyfriend, Lavender turned her fury onto Hermione. Hermione understood why; the other witch had been hurt when Ron was under the influence of the love potion and then terrified when she'd heard that he had been poisoned, and Hermione was the obvious choice for a verbal punching bag. But she wasn't willing to let Lavender do that to her. She had just as much right to be there, to have been told about Ron, as Lavender did.

Lavender might have been the one dating him, but Hermione wasn't going to let her get between them any longer. If she had to accept Lavender in order to continue being his friend, then the other witch would have to accept her in order to keep being his girlfriend.

A quiet groan cut through her thoughts, and their gazes all turned to Ron. Hermione's breath caught in her throat. Was this it? Was this –


She didn't spare a thought for Lavender as she lunged towards him, leaning across his bed in her eagerness to make sure he was alright. "I'm here, Ron. I'm here. I'm so sorry. I'm here."

A loud sob broke out, and the blonde witch fled. Hermione's gaze, however, remained trained on Ron as his eyes slowly flickered open. A sense of vindication rushed through her. They would forgive one another; the past few months were reparable. And he still cared about her. For the first time, she thought she saw the hints of the light at the end of path. There was still so much ground to cover – Voldemort had to be dealt with, for one – but she was starting to believe that they might make it out in one piece after all.

25 September 1997

The ornate gold locket dangled from her neck like some kind of shackle weighing her down. Everything seemed that much bleaker, that much more hopeless, when she was wearing it. She wished that she could just take it off, but they had agreed to take turns so that they wouldn't risk leaving it behind if they ever had to leave their campsite in a hurry. It probably wouldn't hurt to set it aside for a few hours so that they could all take a break from it at once and properly discuss things, but a split second was all it might take for them to have to flee without warning or preparation.

Hermione stared out at the trees, which were clustered so close together that they looked like one big mass. The full moon cast a pale light over the clearing, imbibing it with an almost ethereal glow. She was grateful for it; while the wards would hide the light of a lamp or a wand, such a concentrated light source would make it harder for her to notice anyone approaching through the darkness. Using a lantern while on watch was sometimes necessary to staying alert and sane. It was, however, always a relief when there was enough natural light to see without it.

Her eyelids drooped as sleep called her like a siren. For a moment, she indulged it, letting herself taste its sweet oblivion. It would be so easy to succumb to its pull. It was like a warm bath –

Shaking herself alert, she forced herself to her feet – anything to keep her from heeding its song – and paced back and forth in front of the tent. Possible Horcruxes. Go. She tried to think over the information she'd been reading about the founders earlier that day in case there was something she'd missed, but her mind was too groggy to focus. Nothing had stood out at the time, so it sure wasn't going to come to her when she was half-asleep.

Instead, her thoughts wandered to the two boys sleeping inside the tent. Things were getting tense between the three of them. They hadn't made any progress since stealing the locket from the Ministry three weeks prior, and the atmosphere was strained as a result. All three of them had put their lives on hold for the cause, yet they didn't seem to be getting anywhere. They were no closer to finding a way to destroy the Horcruxes than they had been when school let out for the summer, and one contaminated locket was little compensation for there still being three unidentified Horcruxes left to find.

Ron was taking it the worst. She had grown up in a small family with parents who liked holidays that took them away from civilisation, and Harry had been desensitised to poor living conditions and systematic abuse, but Ron was accustomed to large groups of people and easy comfort. He had experienced relative poverty, sure, but he had never had to go without good food and carefree laughter and a soft bed before. The change was hitting him hard. Like a flower, he was wilting from the absence of sun and proper nutrients. If she and Harry were hosta plants, adaptable and low maintenance and best suited to shade rather than the scrutiny of direct sunlight, then Ron was a flowering gardenia, beautiful but temperamental and requiring a very specific set of conditions to thrive.

And being on the run with no contact to the outside world didn't exactly create a nurturing environment.

It didn't help that they'd had to postpone any hopes of a relationship between them. They simply couldn't spare any energy for romance while running for their lives. There were occasional moments – glances, lingering touches, meaningful smiles – that showed the other that they were still very much interested, but that was as far as it went. Still, meagre as it was, it was enough to keep hope alive. Every time their fingers brushed as they walked past one another, or they whispered jokes to one another while Harry was on watch because they couldn't sleep, it felt like an electric charge was simmering under the surface of her skin. They were poised on the edge of something small but momentous, something that could be swallowed up by circumstance if they didn't fight to keep it alive. It was like their feelings were the tiny flame on the tip of a thin match, braving the howling wind as they directed it towards the stack of kindling and gasoline they had so painstakingly amassed. Their hands were cupped around it to help it stay alight as they waited for the gale to die down enough for them to toss it on the stack and watch the fire burst into brilliant life.

They might not have had their chance yet, but she felt that they would.


28 December 1997

She excused herself from the tent, unable to stand the awkwardness any longer. The boys were so excited to be reunited that she almost felt guilty for souring their mood by not sharing their unbridled joy. But she wasn't willing to pretend that everything was alright when – to her mind, at least – it really wasn't.

Ron's return confused her; she just wasn't sure how to feel about it. On one hand, she loved him – she knew that now – and was so relieved that he was safe, and repentant, and back. The locket had finally been destroyed, and they had Gryffindor's sword, and it seemed like things were finally looking up again. Yet, on the other hand, it wasn't easy to shake the pain of his betrayal. Walking out on them had stalled both their relationship and their mission, catapulting Harry and Hermione further into misery and peril. That wasn't something he could just take back with pretty words; he had broken her heart, and not even a sweet story about lights leading him back home to her could undo that. Especially when she wasn't even sure they could ever get to the stage where their relationship was steady and strong and secure. Even though she was thrilled to have him back, part of her anxiously awaited the next trial that would threaten to tear them apart. It was like the wind kept slipping in through their cupped fingers, no matter how hard they tried, to make that small flame dance along precariously to its tune. How could they ever defeat it?


She sighed and swept a hand through her thick hair, tugging it out when it got stuck in a tightly wound curl. "I'm right here, Ronald."

He immediately made his way over to stand beside her. She continued to stare out at the snow-covered trees, but she could feel his intense gaze on her. "I'm sorry," he said for what had to be the thirtieth time that evening. "I shouldn't have left. I should have stayed."

She glanced over at him before sliding her gaze back to the scenery. "Yeah. You should have."

"What can I do to make this better?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "I want to forgive you, Ron. I really do. But it's not as easy as flipping a switch. I know Harry forgives you, but…"

"It's different. Our friendship is different."

"Exactly. I know I'll forgive you eventually – that's what we do – but I just don't know where that'll leave us."

He nodded. "Do you want me to head back in?"

"If you wouldn't mind. I need some space to think." He started to make his way back inside. Turning her head, she noticed the hopeless expression on his face. "Ron," she added, feeling compelled to say something – anything – to cheer him up again. "I really am glad you're here. There's nobody in the world I'd rather do this with."

"You too."

She watched as he slipped back inside the tent, letting the flap fall back into place beside him, and wondered what he and Harry were talking about. Was he reporting back on their conversation and asking for advice? Were they talking about something else? Or was he quiet as he too reflected on everything?

Sighing, she turned back to face the trees. She meant what she'd said to Ron. She wasn't worried about their friendship; that was strong enough to withstand anything. But she didn't know if she would ever be able to look at him the same way again. Romantic relationships required trust and open communication, and she wasn't sure if they had that anymore. The woods around them were so thick, so suffocating. For the first time since she'd realised his feelings for her, Hermione seriously considered the possibility that they might win the war but lose each other. What if the things that they did to cope ended up ripping them apart irrevocably?

2 May 1998

As the initial celebration gave way to shock, a stunned silence settled over the castle, broken only by the whispered inquiries of those tending to the wounded. Hermione surveyed the bittersweet scene with a heavy heart. The war was finally over, but they had lost so many good people in the process. Remus Lupin. Nymphadora Tonks. Colin Creevey. Fred Weasley. They were all gone forever. Despite knowing that each and every one of them had been willing to lay down their lives for the cause, it still seemed so pointless and wasteful. They had all had so much more to do and give and experience, but none of them would ever get that chance. They had seen the light at the end of the path, had seen dawn on the horizon, but they would never have the opportunity to experience it themselves.

She knew that each and every one of the fallen would still have fought had they known that they would die that night, but that was hardly comforting.

Her gaze flicked over to Ron. Standing idly in the middle of the room as people bustled around him, he looked adrift.

Several of his family members were crowded around Fred's body, sobbing silently into the early morning air, but he had left them half an hour prior to submit to McGonagall's mandatory health check and hadn't yet returned. Finally catching his eye, she jerked her head towards the entrance in silent invitation. Relief flooded her when he nodded and made his way towards her. She wanted to be there for him, to support him in any way she could, but she had been worried that he would shut her out in his grief. As he reached her, she held her palm out, and he instinctively slid his hand into hers.

Neither of them spoke as they made their way out of the Great Hall and onto the castle grounds. The grass was marred with scorch marks left behind by spells that had either missed their mark or done too good of a job, so they kept walking until they finally found somewhere untouched by battle. The lake was a deep, opaque blue, so much so that the twinkling light of the stars overhead barely pierced its surface. They dropped down to sit on a dry section of grass, and she curled herself around him, gently resting her head against his upper arm. Sitting by the lake, staring out across its depths, she could almost pretend that it had never happened, that she was just an untroubled schoolgirl sneaking out in the middle of the night with her maybe-boyfriend. It felt like they were a world away from the memories, even as her heart ached for those they had lost.

"Things are never going to be the same, are they?" Ron asked. "Fred… I can't imagine life without Fred there." Loud sobs rocked his body as he laid his head against his knees. "He's gone, Hermione."

Words failed her. All she could think to do was lean further into him as she whispered, "I know."

She was almost glad that he didn't say anything more. She knew he might have to, eventually, but she was terrified of making things worse by saying the wrong thing. It seemed far safer to just sit there in mutual silence and contemplation. That, at least, she knew how to do.

Time blurred together as minutes became an hour. She vaguely remembered repeating that she was there, and she knew that his sobs gradually turned into quiet sniffles, but everything else just faded into one big tearstained memory.

Eventually, he shuffled around to face her and, sitting cross-legged on the grass, started to tell her stories. Stories about pranks and jokes, about punishments and successes, about times when Ron had braced himself for mockery but been given unexpected compassion instead. She learned more about Fred Weasley in the following hour than she had in years of knowing him.

When Ron had talked himself out, he leaned forward and brushed his lips against hers. Unlike their battlefield kiss, this one was soft and fleeting, as if he were simply attempting to reassure himself that she was there. Not wanting to push him, she followed his lead, matching but never exceeding the intensity of his kiss. After a few seconds, he pulled away with a quiet sigh.

"I'm glad you're here," he murmured.

She trailed a hand through his mangled, dust-ridden hair, gently tugging out a piece of shrapnel that had gotten tangled in it. "I always will be," she promised him.

Orange light reflected off the murky surface of the lake as the sun peeked up from behind the trees, bathing them in its dim glow. Tears pricked at her eyes once again; they had made it. After seven years of fighting for their lives, they were safe.

And they were together.

19 September 2001

"It's beautiful," Hermione murmured as she closed the scrapbook and carefully placed it on the coffee table. Turning to her friend, she pulled her into a quick but earnest hug. "Thank you, Luna."

"You're welcome, of course, but a photograph is only as beautiful as the people in it," she replied serenely. "If our friends weren't all so lovely, it wouldn't be half as nice."

"Still, thank you."

Ron reached across her to pick up the book. Setting it on his lap, he slowly flicked through the pages of intricate drawings and photographs. Every now and again, a fond smile tugged at the corners of his lips. Hermione was curious about which images in particular were entertaining him, but she forced herself to focus on the other party guests instead. She settled for reaching out her hand and giving his a quick squeeze on her way to picking up the next present. It was messily wrapped, but it looked like it was not for want of trying; the paper bunched up at the sides and extra sticky-tape secured the edges together, almost as if the giver didn't trust it to stay together otherwise.

She only knew one person who was that terrible at wrapping presents. "Harry?"

He let out an embarrassed laugh. "And Ginny, but I wrapped it. What gave it away?"

"The bookshelf wrapping paper," she teased as she tried to slide her finger under the seam. The sticky-tape was too heavily layered for her to be able to break through it, so she resorted to just ripping it open as the group laughed at her plight.

As she carefully pulled the box out of the crumpled shell of paper, Harry said, "We know you guys could just transfigure some yourselves when you need them but, what with you two moving out soon and all, you should have a proper set."

"Thank you," she said, cutting him off, as she examined the cutlery set. "Harry, Ginny, they're lovely. Ron, have a look. Aren't they beautiful?"

Her boyfriend looked up from the open scrapbook and cast his gaze over them. She could see in his eyes that, to him, a cutlery set was a cutlery set was a cutlery set, but he smiled and replied sincerely, "They look great. Thanks, guys. We didn't even think to get some when we went shopping the other week."

"We thought so," Ginny said smugly. "And you teased us about forgetting to buy plates."

"Plates are bigger! They're so much harder to forget than knives and forks!"

"And yet they're easier to do without," she reasoned. "You could use a cup for a bowl if you really had to, but how would you eat soup without a spoon?"

Harry and Hermione smirked at one another in amused exasperation. They were both well used to the siblings' bickering; that was one of the few things that had stayed almost exactly the same since the war. The specifics of the arguments changed, but they fact that they existed did not, and Hermione rather suspected that it never would.

Just like us, Hermione thought, turning back to smile tenderly at her boyfriend once more. We change, and our fights and struggles change, but we're still here, going strong, and I hope that stays the same forever.

Chapter Text

The sound of Ron croaking out Hermione's name echoed in Lavender's head as she bolted out of the hospital wing. Gripped by humiliation and pain, she ran as fast as she could, ignoring the startled and concerned students and professors she passed on her way. Let them think whatever they wanted; that didn't matter, not anymore. Staying in the hospital wing after that was worse than any amount of gossip could ever dream of being, so it wasn't like she had a better option.

Her feet instinctively carried her to the closest girls' bathroom. Not even sparing a glance for the young Hufflepuff who looked up from washing her hands in concern, Lavender darted into an empty cubicle and slammed the door shut, almost smashing the sliding lock into place. After adjusting her clothes, she sat down on the cool seat, resting her head in her hands in misery. The girl outside said something, but Lavender didn't pay her any mind. After a while, she heard the sound of retreating footsteps and a door opening and closing.

How could he? How could he?! She couldn't believe it. She had always suspected that there was something between the pair, but Ron had assured her that there wasn't. He had never fully abated her suspicions, but she'd set them aside anyway, trusting him not to betray the faith she'd placed in him. How could he then go and prove her fears right? And how could either of them live with themselves? Lavender and Hermione weren't friends, but they were roommates, and that should have counted for something.

Ron was such a jerk. She had willingly put her heart on the line for him, even though she had known and accepted that there would always be a part of himself that he'd hide from her, that she would never know everything about his exploits with his friends. She had told him how she wanted to go into business with Parvati, about how she'd always wished she had a little brother or sister to play with… She had thought he was interested, thought that the fact that he had offered to take them both to see the twins during the summer holidays meant that he genuinely cared. But it had become all too clear that that was all a lie. He had simply been passing time with her, using her, as part of the little game he and Hermione played as they danced around their feelings. They were the players, and she was the pawn that Ron had moved forward in the hope of luring Hermione out.

That was the kicker. She realised now that it probably wasn't a coincidence that he hadn't been around lately, making time for Harry and Quidditch yet never quite managing to be there for her. When the going got tough, he'd simply avoided her, waiting for her to go away on her own – because, at the end of the day, she was disposable to him. He still hadn't even told her his feelings; she'd had to work it out on her own after hearing that the first word out of his mouth after recovering from being dosed with love potion was another girl's name. In his mind, she wasn't even worth an explanation; he was willing to put her through the pain of a broken heart, but he wasn't willing to put himself through the awkwardness of being honest with her.

What if he was right? What if, at the end of the day, she was forgettable? He had wanted her enough to snog her every chance he got, but she hadn't been enough – good enough, attractive enough, interesting enough – to make him want to stay. And that hurt. What he'd done to her was wrong, but that didn't necessarily invalidate the reasoning behind it. Ron being a jerk and Lavender being forgettable weren't mutually exclusive concepts.

She burrowed her head further into her hands, internally cursing him for having this power over her and herself for giving it to him. She took deep, rasping breaths, trying but failing to calm her cries. The bathroom was vacant, but it might not stay that way forever.

If only someone – anyone – had stopped it. If only Hermione had bowed out gracefully instead of encouraging him. If only Harry had told him that what he was doing was wrong and forced him to own up to it. If only Parvati had pushed harder when she'd first relayed her concerns rather than letting Lavender convince her she could handle it.

If only Lavender herself had trusted her instincts and dumped him rather than listening to his promises that he was long over any crush he might once have had on Hermione. Not listening to them had been her downfall, playing right into his hands.

If this is what they're willing to do to people, then they deserve each other, she thought bitterly. But I'm better than that. They might think I'm worthless, but they're the ones who didn't think twice about breaking someone's heart. They're the ones who don't matter.

Gradually, her sniffles grew fewer and farther between. Deciding to make a move, she cast a charm to clean her face and ripped off a few squares of toilet paper to blow her nose into. Even that small bit of proactivity refreshed her, so she hurriedly tidied up and left the cubicle. The bathroom mirror was awkward to reach, but she made do, quickly but expertly reapplying her makeup and fluffing up her curls. When she stepped back to survey her reflection critically, she was pleased to note that she looked normal. Her eyes were a little weary, perhaps, but she didn't think anyone would be able to tell how much Ron's betrayal had affected her from that alone.

She plastered a smile on her face as she strode out of the room. He had hurt her, and she knew she hadn't yet finished wallowing over that, but he would never take her dignity.

He isn't worth it, she repeated to herself as she made her way back up to Gryffindor Tower, clinging to it like an anchor. Her roommate would most likely spend the rest of the day in the hospital wing or library, so she, Parvati and Emma would hopefully have their dormitory to themselves for a few hours. She could fall apart again then if she wanted. For now, however, she had to remain strong.

He isn't worth anything else.


Four years later

The air was filled with happy chatter as the patrons of Beaucafé enjoyed their hot tea and anticipated what their tea readings for the day would say. The small shop was still fairly young, but in the three years since the war ended, it had bloomed into quite a profitable venture. It was known for good service, relaxing tea, strong coffee, and exemplary Divination skills. Lavender and Parvati had been worried that the French-sounding name might turn away customers, but they hadn't been able to resist the pun. Fortunately, the risk had more than paid off.

Lavender smiled as she passed a cup of tea over the counter to one of their regular patrons, an older wizard who came in daily for a drink and a reading. Divination had been a female-dominated subject when he'd been at school, so he'd never taken it, but he enjoyed listening to their predictions and then returning the next day to report on if, how and when each one had transpired. It had come across as a little condescending at first, but she and Parvati had both grown to like his stories. Despite their initial concerns, they had realised that it wasn't an attempt to give a snotty review or patronising approval; he simply wanted to share his marvel at their ballpoint accuracy. Getting to know him and his experiences had quickly become the highlight of their mornings, brightening up the opening shift to the point where it was actually bearable for the two night owls.

"Let me know when you're done," she called after him as he meandered over to his usual table.

Humming a happy tune under her breath, she went back to calculating the next order of teas. Work had taken a while to pick up after the war, especially given the stigma attached to her injuries. It had gotten so bad that they had considered having Lavender work behind the scenes while Parvati managed customer service. But then a few well-timed statements from some of the other survivors had sent people flocking to the teashop like birds to a stray chip. Even at their busiest, they hadn't needed to take reservations – a fact that she and Parvati were both grateful for – but demand seemed to grow every month, so she frequently had to reassess how much of each product to order.

There had been a time when she'd all but forsaken the hope of running a successful business. Scars marred her body from where Greyback's teeth had ruthlessly ripped into her, and she'd had to learn to live with the personality and lifestyle changes that had come with them. Madam Pomfrey had referred her to Bill Weasley for advice, but not even his extensive warnings and anecdotes had prepared her for the reality of her condition. It had taken her months to get control over her increased aggression and desire for meat, and even though she wasn't a werewolf, people had treated her like one. It hadn't been too bad for the first year; she had been surrounded by fellow survivors, all of whom had their own scars and struggles. But after she'd graduated, she had been set adrift, knowing what she wanted to do but not how to get there.

Fortunately, Parvati had refused to go into business without her, insisting that she would rather fail together than succeed alone. So they had applied for a start-up loan and thrown themselves into the venture with all they had. The excitement of finally realising their dreams had distracted her from her condition until, one day, she reached the point where she just didn't care anymore. Nightmares still plagued her on occasion, and there were times when the self-consciousness was overbearing, but for the most part, the mess was behind her.

As were Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger. The constant celebrations in their honour had desensitised her to them until she no longer even felt bad when their names were mentioned. There were other wizards to date and other witches to be friends with. She was grateful that her former roommate was trying to reduce the stigma surrounding lycanthropes and partial lycanthropes, but that was all. They were, quite simply, irrelevant to her.

Once she finished working out the quantities for the tea order, she glanced around the café to check that everything was still under control. Parvati was busy doing a tea reading while Felicity, their best employee, flitted between the tables, making sure that everybody was comfortable and happy. Lavender caught Felicity's eye, and the waitress tilted her head towards a table to let her know that they were done. Nodding in gratitude, Lavender made her way over, smiling broadly.

Two young witches were seated there, and both of their cups had been drained to the dregs.

"Hello, I'm Lavender," she said. "Were your drinks to your liking?"

"They were lovely," one of them said. She had a thick accent that Lavender vaguely recognised as Australian. "Have you considered becoming a franchise? I would love to be able to go to somewhere like this back home, but we don't have anything like this in Brisbane."

Lavender blinked in surprise. No, they hadn't. Beaucafé was their baby; it required constant attention in order to flourish, and they were still getting used to the idea of trusting their employees to provide that when they weren't around. The idea of opening a store overseas and placing their professional reputation in somebody else's hands was almost inconceivable. And yet, somehow, it was oddly appealing. She wouldn't entrust it to just anyone, and Australia was out of the question – the wizarding community there was far too spread out for it to be viable – but it wasn't the worst idea in the world. "We haven't, but if we found the right person and the right place, I suppose we would consider it."

"We would be your first customers," the second girl assured her.

"Be careful; I might just hold you to that," Lavender joked. "For now, though, are you ready for your readings, or would you like me to come back later?"

The pair looked at one another. After a moment, the one who had spoken first replied, "Now would be perfect."

"Alright, then." Lavender summoned a spare chair and settled into it before leaning forward with a huge smile on her face. This was one of the most rewarding parts of her job. "Who should I start with?"


Five months later

It had taken her a while to get her hair to sit right, but it was worth it to see the way the loose curls twisted up into delicate swirls. Her blonde hair contrasted vividly against her bright red dress robes. The war had sucked all joy out of playing dress-up and experimenting with her looks, so taking the time to perfect her hair and makeup now felt almost like coming home. No matter how the evening went, that alone would make it worthwhile.

As she smiled at herself from different angles to make sure she was happy with how everything had turned out, her thoughts drifted to the night ahead. Parvati had gone to the last commemorative ball with her boyfriend Ihsan, but Lavender had stayed home, worried that coming face-to-face with all of her old classmates at once would bring all the memories rushing back. When she had mentioned that at one of her therapy sessions, however, Ilene had suggested that seeing the community come together firsthand might actually help her heal. Lavender had been unconvinced, but when Ihsan had been unable to get the time off work to go, her best friend had insisted that it was a sign that Lavender should. Unable to argue with that logic, Lavender had resolved to keep an open mind and make the best of it.

After twirling in place to enjoy how the chiffon swished around her legs, she hurriedly organised her things before waiting for her housemate by the empty fireplace. Within minutes, the dark-haired girl had reached her side, dressed in a deep purple sari that complimented her figure. Since they were running late, they immediately linked arms and Apparated into the Ministry's exorbitant entrance hall.

When they reached the ballroom doors, they were stopped by a tall wizard who was sitting at a desk with a long scroll of parchment in front of him. "Wands, please."

They handed them over, and he tapped them against the scroll. Two lines of script – their names, presumably – shone green for a moment before fading once more. "You're both on Table 5. Choose any seats you'd like."

"Thank you," Lavender said as he gave their wands back to them.

Parvati led the way into the room.

The only word Lavender could think of to describe it was gorgeous. The walls, furniture, and decorations were all in varying shades of white or gold, creating a sense of stately elegance. Intricate chandeliers hung from the ceiling, but they were nothing compared to the massive centrepieces that sat on every table. They were shaped like wine glasses, except they were covered with white roses and lined with a circle of candles on top.

"They really went all out for this," Lavender said, her eyes wide as she took it all in.

"It's their way of showing that they haven't forgotten the war," Parvati said, a hint of sarcasm tinting her voice. "They did it last year as well. The theme then was House Unity, though, so they went multi-coloured and asked everyone to dress in a colour that wasrepresentative of a House that they weren't in."

Lavender smirked. "Let me guess; you wore blue and Padma wore red?"

"No, but we did consider it. I ended up wearing black, and she wore silver, if I remember correctly."

Shaking her head, Lavender looked around again, taking in her surroundings. "And this year, they went with a wedding theme because of Harry and Ginny. It would be tacky if the result wasn't quite so classy."

"I know," Parvati said, rolling her eyes. "Neville said Harry was furious when he found out, but since Ginny had already agreed to give a speech, they couldn't very well just not attend."

Lavender's gaze wandered over to the main table, where Harry and Ginny were sitting in positions of honour along with Ron, the Minister for Magic, and other high-profile guests. Sure enough, Harry and Ginny – who had married two months prior – were eyeing the decorations with obvious distaste. As much as she wished that she didn't, Lavender couldn't help but notice that Hermione was absent.

"I wonder where she is," Parvati murmured under her breath, presumably having noticed where Lavender was looking.

"I don't care," Lavender replied, and she was pleased to discover that she meant it. Back in the day, she had enjoyed reading about their relationship troubles in the paper. She hadn't been sure whether it would make her feel better or worse if they broke up, but she had taken vindictive delight in the knowledge that it wasn't all smooth sailing for them. Now, however, the topic simply bored her. As the realisation set in, she turned back to Parvati, starting to beam. "I genuinely don't care."

Parvati's eyebrows raised in surprise, but she smiled back at her. "I'm sure Ilene will be thrilled to hear that. Oh, look; there's our table."

They weaved their way through the tables until they reached theirs. As they sat down, Lavender came face-to-face with one of the towers of roses. "It really is extremely bridal, isn't it?"

Parvati laughed and shook her head. "Subtle, they are not." Her eyes scoured the room before she looked back at Lavender with a start. "Oh, while we're on the topic of weddings, I forgot to tell you; Felicity is talking about moving to Bulgaria after her wedding after all."

Lavender frowned. They had known it would only be a matter of time before Felicity left them, whether to live closer to her fiancé or to progress her career. Still, that didn't soften the disappointment she felt at the prospect of losing their best employee. "They've decided, then? I thought that he was looking at moving here."

Parvati shrugged. "Apparently, but you know how close-lipped she is about the guy. Getting her to talk about him is like reading tea leaves before the cup's even empty. It just isn't going to happen."

"I do," Lavender admitted. Felicity hadn't even told them his last name. All they knew about him, really, was that she had met him while on holiday in Spain, he had quickly become infatuated with her, and they had been in a long-distance relationship ever since, visiting one another whenever they could. "Did she say whether they had finalised the date for the wedding?"

"Early November, so we still have several months yet. Hopefully, Felicity will be able to help us train her replacement – not that anyone will be able to truly replace her."

They fell silent.

"Parvati," Lavender said after a few seconds, "do you remember how I told you about that customer who wanted us to start a shop in Australia?"

"Of course. Brisbane, right?"

"Right. What if we did become a franchise, but in Bulgaria instead? We've always known that Felicity would be capable of running the business on her own if given the chance. Maybe this is the chance. We would need a loan, but our shop here is going well enough that we should be able to get one."

Parvati's eyes narrowed, the way they always did when she was faced by a question that didn't have a straightforward answer. "That would be amazing if it we could pull it off," she said. "We would retain an excellent employee while expanding our brand and increasing our profits."

"But?" Lavender asked, knowing that that train of thought wasn't finished. She was the dreamer of the pair, coming up with innovative ideas to stay fresh and engaging, whereas Parvati was the more pragmatic one, vetting each idea carefully to make sure they were feasible. At first, having her suggestions broken down and pulled apart had bothered her, but she had learned to see it as a necessary part of working together.

"But it would be a really ambitious move. It would be much safer to start a new store here, where we know the market and can keep an eye on it. I don't know what the legal ramifications of going international would be, and Felicity would have to deal with a completely different set of employment laws and market conditions. It wouldn't be as simple as copying our business model and inserting it there. It would take a lot of work to make it marketable to a new set of consumers while keeping the same essence."

"I'm not saying it would be easy," Lavender allowed. "But Felicity's brilliant. If anyone can do it, she can. And we still have several months before we leave, which would give us time to do the market research and brainstorm with her."

"That's true," Parvati said, "although she also has a wedding to plan."

"Shouldn't we at least give her the option? I mean, take all of the practical issues out of the equation for a moment – you would be interested, right?"

"In going international? Are you kidding?" They grinned at one another for a moment, then Parvati shook her head and sighed. "I'll talk to the lawyer about it and see what she thinks, and you see whether the potential investors would be interested. After that, we'll go from there."

"I'll go get us some drinks," Lavender offered, rising from her seat. "To celebrate new ideas and a future filled with possibilities. Champagne?"

"You know me," Parvati said, nodding.

Lavender wound her way through the rapidly filling ballroom, stopping every now and again to talk to someone she recognised. By the time she had reached the bar, it was already buzzing with people trying to catch the bartender's attention. She got as close as she could before stopping, her gaze darting around the room in search of something to distract herself with.

"You look nice tonight," a familiar voice said.

Not him.

She looked over to her left. Sure enough, Ron was sitting on a stool by the counter, a beer already in his hand. Lavender wished she had an excuse to walk away, but she couldn't without drawing attention to herself. And if an altercation arose between her and Ron Weasley, she knew whose side the papers would take. "Thank you," she replied, her voice terse.

"You're here alone?"

"With Parvati," she replied, trying to derail the conversation before it went in a direction she really didn't want it to go. From the melancholy expression on his face and the fact that he had settled in at the bar so quickly, it seemed that things might not be going so well with Hermione after all. "I'm not sure if you've heard, but we opened a teashop together a few years ago. It's going really well. In fact, we – "

"Hermione and I had a fight," he said, looking down at his half-empty glass. "She said I'm too insecure."

"Oh," she replied since, really, there was no good response to that statement. Moved on or not, the last thing she wanted to do was to listen to her ex-boyfriend complain about the girl he'd left her for. She shuffled further forward as the person in front of her moved away and glanced over at the bartender, wondering how much longer it would take for him to get to her.

"I'm not insecure, am I?" He gazed up at her then, his blue eyes big and pleading.

In that moment, she knew how easy it would be. Her biggest gripe when they were together had been that she'd never known what he was thinking; how ironic it was that it was only now that they weren't together anymore that she could read him like a book. The fight with Hermione had left him reeling, searching for something to make him feel better. In a way, she felt for him. She'd had more than her fair share of that in the aftermath of the war; there had been many a night when the memory of her encounter with Greyback had left her searching for some mythical cure-all to make her forget. It was tempting to help him in his search. She could reassure him that he was right and Hermione was wrong, that someone like him could never be insecure because he would never have reason to. A few supportive words, and he would be hers for the evening. Not physically – even as shattered as he was, his heart belonged to Hermione – but enough that she could pretend they were sixteen again.

Except she didn't want to. Not anymore. She had cleaned up her life and put her heart back together, and she refused to demean herself by falling back to him again. What she was craving wasn't him; it was innocence. And what he was looking for wasn't her; it was validation. She didn't know how to find what she was seeking, but what she did know was that unless he could find the validation from inside himself, he would always be left wanting.

After all, that was the lesson she herself had had to learn.

Lavender sighed. It seemed like she was going to be playing intermediary after all. "Do you want me to be polite but cruel or kind but blunt?"

Confusion furrowed his brow. "Which one's which?"

"Polite but cruel is assuring you that you aren't insecure, even though you actually are. Kind but blunt is telling you that I'm the wrong person to talk to about this and that you should go home and see your girlfriend." Glancing up, she saw the bartender finally looking her way. "Two champagnes, please."

After she had collected the drinks, she turned back to Ron. "Seriously. Talk to her."

He opened his mouth as if he was going to reply, but she turned and left before he could, walking away without a backwards glance. Catching sight of Parvati over at another table, she made a beeline for her friend.

"I'm so sorry to interrupt, but this is for you," she said, handing one of the glasses of champagne over to her.

"Thank you," Parvati replied. "Rupert, have you met my best friend and co-owner, Lavender Brown? Lav, this is Rupert Thornton. I was just telling him about how we're considering expanding the shop."

Lavender's eyebrows raised at the name. Rupert Thornton was a well-known businessman with a large investment portfolio. He was, all things considered, one of the most likely sources of funding for them if they did continue with her idea. However, he looked slightly harried, as if he had just been ambushed. She forced herself to put on her broadest smile. "Mr Thornton," she said, holding out her free hand to shake his. "It's such a pleasure to meet you."

Then, turning her charm up as high as she could, Lavender proceeded to talk about anything and everything other than the shop. She could practically feel Parvati's surprised look, but she didn't pay it any heed. While Parvati took control of the legal side of things, Lavender was usually the one in charge of schmoozing and impressing influential people. Rupert Thornton had probably heard dozens of business propositions in the past week. For them to stand out, the trick wasn't to jump right into their own proposition; it was to build rapport so that he was genuinely interested in what they had to say. She would bring the conversation back around to the shop later, once he'd had the chance to relax.

Almost an hour and a half later, after discussing his work at length before transitioning into talking about their shop under the – admittedly not entirely fictional – guise of wanting his advice about Bulgaria, Lavender and Parvati made their way back towards their table. He hadn't guaranteed an investment, but Lavender would have been more surprised if he had. He had expressed some interest in discussing the topic further, which she considered a success.

"You look happy," Parvati commented, watching her with open curiosity.

"We just won over a potential investor," Lavender pointed out. "Of course I'm happy."

"It's not just that. I saw you when you first came over, and even then, you looked pleased about something."

Lavender glanced over her shoulder, her eyes automatically finding the place where she had last seen Ron. He wasn't there anymore. Whether he was with his friends or on his way home to talk to Hermione, she didn't know. For once, however, she knew that she hoped it was the latter. "It's always nice to realise that you've matured," she said. Casting a charm over their drinks to alert them if someone tried to tamper with them, she added, "Fancy a dance?"

Parvati grinned. "Well, it is a ball."