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"Harry Potter and the Unbreakable Bond"

Chapter Text

A Butterfly Flaps its Wings in China

                A butterfly flapped its wings in China. The wings, deep brown, were decorated with large circular patterns, which looked much like wide, staring predatory eyes. This defensive coloring worked once again, and the small brown bird that had been eyeing the butterfly hungrily, leaped, startled, into the air, and flapped away, its tiny brain having forgotten the insect, and looking for more food.

                The bird's dive, a half-hour later, for a grub on the ground, startled a small vole, which elected to remain in its hole awhile longer. This worked out very well for the vole, which would otherwise have been eaten, in four hours time, by a falcon.

                The falcon, in its turn, ended up feasting instead on a mouse, whose absence from a certain tree-branch four days later would cause a brown owl named Wei-Dung to detour for food, delaying his arrival in the Chinese wizarding village of Xai-Shou-Tse by an hour. In that hour, his recipient had gotten drunk, and this, in turn, led to a hangover that kept him from replying to the message -- from his daughter -- for another two hours. The two additional hours it took Wei-Dung to return to the school owlery meant that he was unavailable for the Divination master's note to his opposite number at Durmstrang, so a different owl took that letter, and by a different route.

                And so way led on to way, this owl's delay putting that one to work, that owl's speedy arrival causing messages to be read in a different order, and effects began to spread like ripples in a pond.

                In the world that you and I know, the message outgoing Minster of Magic Cornelius Fudge sent to Dumbledore was carried by a slow-witted and slack-winged Ministry owl named Slomo, and took four days to arrive. By the time it had done so, the date was too close, and there was no time to make the necessary arrangements, and, anyway, Albus Dumbledore had received word that poor old Tom Riddle had put a great deal of stock into something Dumbledore didn't fully understand -- something called horcruxes -- so Fudge's note had been replied to with a brief, polite, regret, while Dumbledore's concentration was focused on finding Marvolo Gaunt's ring.

                But a butterfly had flapped its wings in China, and so had begun a chain of events that put a sleek barn-owl named Hera in front of soon-to-be-former Minister Fudge, and so Dumbledore received the message days earlier, suggesting that the Ministry could begin in some small way to make amends by holding an official inquest within the Ministry's offices, into the death of Sirius Black. Fudge had further mentioned that, with the testimony and pensieve evidence of young Harry Potter and his friends, the inquest would likely also end with an official, if posthumous, declaration of exoneration for Sirius Black.

                Dumbledore had sat at his desk for a very long time, looking at that phrase. Posthumous declaration of Exoneration for Mr. Sirius Black.

                His blue eyes, moist behind the half-moon glasses, closed briefly in regret, for he, like all the rest, had believed the lies of a moment over the knowledge of a lifetime, and had thought Black guilty of a terrible mass murder. Harry deserved to see his Godfather cleared of those charges. Sirius, poor, dead Sirius, deserved it as well.

                Albus Dumbledore stood from his desk, and left his office, walking with surprising speed and grace towards the Hogwarts gates, from beyond which he could Apparate to the Ministry, and so changed forever the fates of all the world.

                Because a butterfly flapped its wings in China.

                "Mum, Dad," said Hermione, "This is fascinating!"

                She was studying unique magic among the ancient Peloponnesian wizarding monarchs.

                David and Jane Granger exchanged an amused glance. They cherished their daughter's intelligence, and her extraordinary drive to knowledge, but they did have to admit that there was something of a delta between her idea of "fascinating" and theirs.

                "Peloponnesian wizarding royalty used magic binding spells as part of their marriage ceremonies," she told them. "Listen to this! The Nuptialis Unum spell, used by the Regimagi upon their wedded offspring, guaranteed long and faithful marriages, for, when performed upon two people, it resulted in them being left forever touching, and no power in heaven or on earth could part them." She looked up at her parents, eyes alight with wonder. "I bet those Peloponnesians knew how to work at a marriage!"

                Jane chuckled. She'd been telling Hermione, the day before, about a cousin, divorcing after six months of marriage, and they'd both tut-tutted a bit about the lack of commitment. "I think that might have been carrying things a bit far, though, don't you dear?"

                "Oh, but think of how Daddy would enjoy shopping expeditions!"

                David snorted, and reached over with the Times, bonking his daughter gently on the head with it before returning to the crossword.

                Hermione grinned back at her dad, and returned to her book. "The spell had to be used judiciously, though," she read. "One angry Regimagus performed Nuptialis Unum on seven people at once, and they were, in the end, only separated by a bloody and terrible knife battle, which left only one survivor."

                David chuckled as he tried to think of a nine-letter word for Cube, cubed. "Doesn't take seven to make a marriage like that. Just go in our waiting room, and read any copy of the Sun."

                Jane leaned over his shoulder. "Tesseract, dear," she said. "And I didn't know you'd ever made it past page three."

                David smiled as he filled in the word, and raised an eyebrow at his wife. "My dear, I couldn't possibly spare the time for page three. Why would I, with you working the drill in Room Two?"

                He turned his head, and nuzzled into his wife's neck, and Hermione huffed. "Honestly! You're going to scar my poor psyche for life!"

                "Time you knew, sweetheart," her mother said, a little distracted. "I'm afraid this isn't the first time either."

                "Oh, I completely don't want to know," Hermione responded, with a fond roll of her eyes, and pretended to return to her book. She loved that her parents were still passionately in love with one another, even if they did indulge in these embarrassing displays on occasion. Her mother stepped away from her father -- who, Hermione noticed from the corner of her eye, gave her bum a little squeeze -- and ruffled her hair on the way by to the kitchen.

                "Oh, Hermione," her mother called, a moment later. "There's an owl for you!"

                "Oh!" Hermione stood quickly, and her head swam for a moment. She put a hand to her chest, feeling again the burn from Dolohov's near-fatal curse. Her father's eyes narrowed with concern. "Is it from R--" Hermione flushed. "I mean, who is it from?"

                Jane returned from the kitchen, her left arm held calmly perpendicular to her, a sleek brown owl perched on her forearm, eating bacon bits from her right palm. Hermione's heart swelled for a moment with pride at her parents. They were kind, intelligent people, and had adapted so well to their lives having plunged into the periphery of the magical world.

                "I don't think it's from your young man, dear," her mother was telling her, and Hermione's blush deepened. "This certainly isn't Pigwidgeon!"

                Hermione shook her head in agreement as she removed the letter from the owl's leg. It bore the official seal of the Minister of Magic, and her eyes widened. She opened the scroll, and read, eyes widening. She looked up at her parents. "It's from Minister Fudge himself!"

                "Soon to be Ex-Minister Fudge, didn't you tell us?" David Granger asked his daughter, with no small satisfaction. Hermione had told her parents about the Minister's campaign against Harry, and they had been livid.

                "That's right," Hermione told him. "But he seems to be trying to make some form of amends. He's requesting my presence at the Ministry tomorrow afternoon for an inquest into the death of Sirius Black, and for my pensieve testimony as to Sirius' innocence of the crime for which he was wrongly imprisoned! This is terribly exciting!"

                "Pensieve testimony?" asked her mother.

                "Oh, yes, Mother, that's the exciting part! It's a sort of magical device for sharing memories! I've never used one, but I'm told that it's an extraordinary experience. Anyway, since Harry, Ron, and I will all have matching memories to display of the Shrieking Shack, it should exonerate poor Sirius!"

                David smiled grimly. "Always the way, isn't it? Too late to do the victim any good, the Government pulls its thumbs out and actually tries to set the record straight."

                Jane tutted at her husband. "Too late for this Sirius Black, perhaps, but I'm sure that it will be some comfort to Harry."

                David Granger paused, remembering the small, handsome, dark-haired boy, quiet, green eyes intense through his glasses, at King's Cross. "It's the least they can do, but I suppose it's all they can do, at this point."

                "Anyway," said Hermione, "Apparently the ministry will be sending a car for me tomorrow. Professor Dumbledore is supposed to meet us at the Ministry. I'll want to confirm this with Professor Dumbledore. Do you mind if we get a Floo call, later?"

                "Sweetie," said Jane, "You know it only frightened me because I wasn't prepared. That's fine."

                Hermione had produced a quill, and ink, and a small roll of parchment, and written down a quick note in her precise, flowing handwriting. She tied it to the owl's leg, and told it, "That is for Professor Albus Dumbledore, and it is fairly urgent."

                The owl hooted seriously, bobbing its head, and Hermione led it to the kitchen window, and let the owl fly free.


                Ron looked up from the small, official scroll in his hand. "So, Dad, I guess I should just go into work with you in the morning, Yeah?"

                Arthur Weasley nodded to his son. "Yes, I think that would be best."

                Ron stepped over to his father, looked down at the project he was working on on the small living-room coffee table. Spread out over the surface were parts of a Muggle flashlight. Arthur glanced over at his son and smiled. "Extraordinary gadget, that." He pointed to a small glass ball with a metal threaded base. "Apparently, that actually lights up because a tiny wire inside it gets so hot it glows. And it doesn't burn up because there's no air in there. And those--" he pointed to two cylindrical objects about as long as Ron's thumb, but much thicker "--are supposed to store Eckletricity, just as if it were jam in the cupboard!"

                Ron was intrigued in spite of himself. "Have you ever opened one up? To see the Eckletricity?"

                Arthur blushed. "Don't tell your mother."

                Ron nodded understandingly. "Yeah. I guess it must be pretty dangerous. I mean, if two of those have enough Eckletricity to make a wire so hot it glows...."

                "Exactly." Arthur looked seriously at Ron, his gaze slipping down to the runneled scars on his arms. "So, I, er... I guess you come by it honestly enough."

                Ron stood a little straighter. "Is this where you give me a talking-to about taking foolish risks?"

                Arthur held his son's gaze for a moment. "No," he finally said. "I'll brave the wrath of Mollywobbles."

                "Oh, Merlin, Dad! I did eat today, you know!"

                Arthur chuckled at his son, then clasped a hand to his shoulder. "You stood by your friends, Ron. I can only ever be proud of that."

                Ron held his gaze for a moment, then hurrumphed and look back at the table. "So, what did it look like, then?"

                "I'm sorry?"

                "The Eckletricity. What did it look like?"

                "Well, that's the funny thing, Ron," said Arthur, rubbing the back of his head. "There wasn't any in there. Just some nasty wet slimy smelly dirty stuff, and a metal peg. Odd, that."

                Ron nodded, regarding the disassembled Muggle device. "Yeah... Odd."

                Harry sat for almost half an hour, re-reading the parchment from Dumbledore. His eyes kept returning to that one phrase:

                "While justice would have had Sirius live to see his vindication, his memory deserves it now nonetheless."


                Harry looked down at his bed, at Minister Fudge's letter. "I cannot begin to describe my regret for this office's -- for my -- treatment of you. I know there are no amends I could make, even if I were in a position to do so. But I hope that by inviting you to take part in his exoneration, I can in some small measure begin to repay my debt by allowing him to be remembered as he should be -- with honour as a hero in this dreadful war against evil."

                Harry bit his lip. Fudge. He wanted to hate the man, hate him for his own suffering, hate him for Sirius' death. How much would have been different if Fudge hadn't spent a year denying the return of Voldemort? How many lives might not have been lost?

                But Dumbledore's cover letter said that Fudge's contrition was genuine, that he actually wanted, in some small way, to make amends. And there was the other thing Dumbledore's letter had said, as well, something that Harry kept thinking about, over and over again, pulling and gnawing at it as if trying to break it down into its component parts for easier digestion.

                I know, Harry, that this will be difficult for you to understand, but it is, perhaps, the most important lesson I will ever try to teach you: Forgiveness is not something you do for someone else. It is not a boon to the forgiven. In the end, forgiveness is a boon to oneself, for it is the laying down of a burden, heavy and unpleasant, that no-one deserves to carry. It is perhaps Tom's greatest tragedy that he seems determined to bear this burden through all eternity. You can do better.

                Harry tried to wrap his mind around that. To forgive Fudge seemed unthinkable. The man should be punished! He had sat on his backside for a year, responding to the return of this dreadful threat by persecuting the teen-aged boy who was unfortunate enough to witness it. The people he was responsible to were left to fend for themselves as their only defenders were punished and ridiculed and forced into exile -- and death!

                But Dumbledore had placed great importance on the idea. To forgive Fudge seemed unthinkable, but Dumbledore seemed to have done it, and hadn't he suffered the man's cruel harassment as much as Harry had? Hadn't he been mocked in public, called foolish and senile? Hadn't he been forced to relinquish his position as Headmaster to Dolores Umbridge?

                Harry pulled out some parchment and wrote his replies quickly, then tied them to Hedwig's leg. "Bring Dumbledore's to him, first. I may be willing to give Fudge the benefit of the doubt, but let's not tempt him, all right?"

                And he sent Hedwig out into the night, then headed downstairs to tell his Uncle Vernon that Dumbledore would be arriving to take him out the next day.

Chapter Text


Chapter One: A Trial, a Tribulation

            Scrimgeour was waiting for Fudge in the main entry hall. It was chaotic and crowded, members of the press wrangling for position among the workmen beginning repairs on the fountain.

            "This is a mistake, Cornelius," he murmured, as Fudge approached.

            Fudge smiled gravely, offering Scrimgeour his hand. "Perhaps it is, Rufus," he responded as they shook. Flash-charms popped as cameras captured the moment of genial collegiality between the outgoing Minister and his replacement. "But for the next six hours or so, it's my mistake to make."

            Scrimgeour shook his leonine head as the two men turned to face the press, hand in hand. "We shouldn't be calling more public attention to the government's failure."

            "The public couldn't possibly pay more attention to our failure than they already are," said Fudge.

            Scrimgeour grinned over at him. "Our failure?"

            Fudge's responding chuckle was warm and genuinely amused. Were it not for the events later that day, the next day's Prophet headline would have read, not entirely inaccurately, "All Good Friends at the Ministry."

            "I don't recall you leading a fervent opposition to my position on You-Know-Who from the Back Benches at the time, Rufus," said Fudge.

            Scrimgeour's responding smile was no less genuine. "No, Cornelius, I can't say I did."

            "What the public needs to see now," Fudge continued, "is that their Government has recognized its error, and is taking steps to correct it. We can't brazen this one out. Anyone out there can see that we stuffed the whole thing up. Our only choice is whether or not we'll appear to be so stupid that we can't see it, too."

            There came a shout from the Street Level lift, and the press corps turned as one, flashes bursting as a slender young witch with bushy brown hair stepped from it. Her lips gathered in a disapproving frown as she scanned the crowd of cameras and reporters.

            "Miss Granger!," came a call from one of the reporters. He didn't wait to be acknowledged. "How did you feel when Antonin Dolohov attempted to fatally curse you?"

            Other voices instantly followed. "Will Harry Potter defeat You-Know-Who?" "Is he a good kisser?" "Is it true that Potter and Viktor Krum fought over you?"

            Another, younger voice cut through the others. "Miss Granger, is it true that you're the bossiest witch of your age?"

            Her head spun toward the voice, and there was Ron, grinning cheekily at her from the crowd, his father's hand on his shoulder. He was so tall, she thought, as she usually did when she hadn't seen him for awhile. Almost a man, and still, somehow, the eleven-year-old boy with the smudge of dirt on his nose and the lap full of Chocolate Frog cards. Their eyes met, and something within her clicked into place in a way she decided yet again to leave, for the moment, unexamined. She placed her hands on her hips and glared at him.

            "Yes," Ron called, as he and his father elbowed their way through the press towards her. "I can see that you are!"

            As he came within range, she swatted his chest. "Ronald Bilius Weasley, you stop that right now!" she hissed. "That is not funny!"

            Ron angled a brow up at his father. "See?"

            Arthur stepped back his hands up defensively. "Oh, no you don't, Ron," he said. "I said I was willing to brave your mother's wrath. Hermione, you must face on your own!" He smiled over at her. "Hello, my dear, how are you?"

            She smiled at him, her hand sliding unconsciously to her breastbone. "All right, Mr. Weasley. Still a little sore."

            He squeezed her shoulder. "I'm not surprised. That was a brutal curse. Dolohov still won't tell the Aurors what it was, apparently."

            Ron took her other elbow, and his blue eyes locked to hers for a moment, without pretense, without defense. "Thank Merlin you hit him with that silencing charm," he murmured. "Otherwise... I don't..." He bit his lip, looked down, and when his eyes returned to her, they were merry again. "Ready to go meet the great and the good, then?"

            Hermione's smile embraced both Weasley men. "I already have, Ron. Let's go meet the Ministers instead. And don't cheek them, Ron! Your father still has to work for them!"

            "Only one at a time, thank goodness," came Arthur's sotto voce reply.

            Hermione's heart swelled with fondness for this sweet-natured wizard, so kind and eccentric, with his love of all things Muggle. Oh! Hermione smiled.

            "I almost forgot, Mr. Weasley! My dad sent you a gift!" She fished in the pocket of her cloak and pulled out a box. "It's a Crystal Radio Kit." Arthur looked blankly at her. "It's a do-it-yourself kit to build a sort of Muggle Wireless set!"

            Arthur Weasley's eyes widened, and he reached eagerly for the package, "Oh, Hermione, please, thank David for this! What a wonderful gift! Simply wonderful!"

            Hermione's smile widened, and she leaned up to kiss Arthur's cheek. He grinned and demonstrated that Ron came by his blush naturally, then, winking at Hermione, told his son, "I'm sorry, Ron. I seem to be stealing your girl!"

            Hermione's and Ron's cries of protest were simultaneous and their own blushes nearly identical.

            Arthur chuckled warmly and took Hermione's arm, gesturing with his head for Ron to take the other, and they made their way through the crowd of reporters to the two ministers.

            Scrimgeour stepped forward first, his eyes fairly twinkling in a photogenic smile. He took Hermione's hand in both of his. "Ah, Miss Granger! Enchanting!"

            Hermione, unimpressed, nodded politely. "Chief Auror Scrimgeour."

            Scrimgeour's smile did not disappear, but it froze. "Surely you meant Minister.'"

            Hermione looked him steadily in the eye, reclaiming her hand. "Not for a few more hours, I should think."

            "Miss Granger," came a smooth voice. She turned to Minister Fudge, whose handshake was simple and professional. "Thank you for agreeing to take part."

            "I don't do it, Minister, for the Government or its employees. I do it for my friends." Her eyes were caramel-colored diamonds, staring into Fudge's. Mouthed platitudes would not overcome her anger over his treatment of Harry.

            "As do I, Miss Granger. To try to make amends."

            "Amends, Minister? Or a photo-op? Harry's not going to be pleased to see the press."

            Fudge looked seriously into her eyes. "Amends, Miss Granger. It was to that very press that I called Harry Potter a glory-seeking liar. I think it's only fitting that I apologize to him before them."

            She heard Ron gasp behind her. "You mean you're going to crawl? To Harry? In front of them?"

            Hermione put a tired hand to her forehead, but Fudge was un-fazed. "On my very knees, young Mr. Weasley, if that's what it takes."

            The minister held out his hand to the tall young man. "Rupert, isn't it?"

            "Ronald, sir. Ron for short." Ron took the hand. "And if you're man enough to look Harry in the eye and apologize, well, I guess I can do this."

            Fudge smiled in response, but if he'd been about to reply, a sudden clamor from the reporters silenced him, and all five of them, seeing the press corps turn, and flash-charms flare, looked toward the lift. There stood Albus Dumbledore, his hand gentle on Harry Potter's shoulder. Harry was scowling at the reporters, now shouting questions, shouting his name, trying to get his attention. Dumbledore leaned down, murmured in Harry's ear, and the green eyes turned towards him, still angry.

            The elderly wizard's lips quirked into a smile, and he spoke again, and Harry nodded curtly, closing his eyes for a moment.

            Then Dumbledore's wand was at his own throat, and his genial voice boomed through the chamber. "Ladies, Gentlemen, if you please! We are here on business with the Minister!" He gestured gently with one hand. "If you'd be so kind as to make way?"

            And, as simply as that, the reporters were silently parting, opening a path for Harry and Dumbledore to walk unmolested, toward the Minister.

            Hermione was still cringing slightly, her hands over her ears, and Dumbledore tipped her an apologetic wink. Harry was staring coldly at Fudge.

            Fudge offered his hand to the angry young man. Harry merely glanced down at it. Fudge stood for a moment longer, his face hopeful and disappointed, his orphan hand untouched in the air as the flashes went off. Then he lowered his hand again.

            "Hello, Harry," he said.

            "You called in the press?" Harry seethed.

            "In fact, I did," said Fudge. "You'll see why in a moment."

            He turned to Dumbledore. "Albus, thank you for coming."

            Dumbledore accepted the hand with a twinkling smile. "It is a pleasure, Cornelius, to accept your most generous invitation."

            If Dumbledore disapproved of Harry's attitude, he gave no sign. Fudge looked back and forth between these two men he'd so recklessly abused for the last year, one young, just sniffing at the entrance to manhood, one almost impossibly old, with all the wisdom the years could let him gather. Between them, he thought, they held the future of every man, woman, and child, wizard or Muggle, on the planet. Had he really been so foolish? Had he really done this stupid, stupid thing? He met Harry's adamantine gaze. Yes, Fudge thought bitterly. Yes, he really had.

            "I must speak briefly to the press," he told them. His gaze held Harry's a moment longer. "I hope you... won't be displeased with what I have to say."

            He moved his wand towards his throat, and paused. "I hate Sonorus. I always feel so silly."

            Dumbledore chuckled at him. "Indeed, Cornelius. Every time I put my wand to my throat, I must throttle the temptation to shout, Nobody moves or the old wizard gets it!"

            Hermione's eyes widened as a guffaw was forced out of her, and Dumbledore twinkled at her, whispering so low that only she could hear, "Yes, Miss Granger, Mel Brooks is something of a genius, isn't he?"

            Fudge smiled, not understanding the reference -- something from the Muggle world, no doubt -- and brought his wand to his throat, murmuring "Sonorus."

            "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press." His voice was rolling thunder in the room. The silent reporters looked expectantly at him. Flashcharms fired again. "A little more than a year ago, this young man was abducted from the Third Task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. He witnessed the cold-blooded murder of a friend, a gathering of Death Eaters, and the return of He Who Must Not Be Named." He paused a moment, and there was the sound of dozens of quills scribbling hastily across parchment. "He dueled the Dark Lord. He escaped with his life, and reported immediately what he had witnessed, what had been done to him, and what he had done. In the face of his testimony... In the face of the irrefutable evidence that was the lifeless body of a teenaged boy -- the body of the son of a close friend -- In the face of the absolute faith placed in this young man by perhaps the greatest wizard of our age..." He nodded at this toward Dumbledore, who humbly lowered his head. "This government -- I -- called this brave boy a liar. An irresponsible, glory-seeking malcontent. This government -- I, myself! -- called this great wizard, this titan, a senile, feeble old fool, and sent a... a criminal... to watch him, to control him, and eventually to replace him."

            He gazed out over the crowd, glanced to his left, to Scrimgeour, whose face was carefully neutral. Poor Scrimgeour, who couldn't let this event occur without him, and yet could react neither with approval nor disapproval until he saw how it played with the public. Fudge felt a moment of liberation. He was in no need of winning any elections any time soon. He didn't have to care what the voters might think, what might keep him in, or lose him, his office. For better or worse, that was all gone now, and he was left only with doing what was right, and it was somehow exhilarating. He knew the depression would return. He'd been a politician for far too long to be anything else now. Although he hoped he might, for these next few hours, perhaps be a statesman. Perhaps.

            "To merely say that I -- that the Ministry of Magic itself! -- was wrong, does not begin to address the foolishness of my actions. In my defence, I can say... nothing. Nothing defends, nothing excuses, the choices I made, the things I did and said. In my defence, I can say nothing, and my only, very poor, explanation is that I simply wished that the grave news Harry Potter brought back to us from that terrible place were not so. I did not want to believe that that evil had returned. I did not want to believe that I could not protect and defend you. I did not want to believe that Voldemort--" There was a collective, cringing gasp from the assembled press "--had returned."

            He took a step back then, positioning Dumbledore and Harry somewhat to the fore. "There is nothing I can say, no apology I may make, that is equal to the task of addressing the injustice I have done these two brave, honourable men. Still, I must try. So to you, Harry James Potter... To you, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore... I offer the apologies of this government. I offer my own, most heartfelt and abject apologies as well. As members of one Muggle religion put it, Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa. It is my fault, it is my fault, it is most grievously my fault.

            "The wizarding public has held me accountable. I wish you to know that I, too, hold myself and my Government accountable."

            He looked over to Scrimgeour. "In a few short hours, you will have a new Minister, a new government that will not be bound by, nor responsible for, the errors of the old. But I... I continue to hold myself to account. I will continue to hold the government to account for the choices it makes. I trust that all of you will do the same."

            He lowered his wand, and looked back and forth among them again. His gaze paused a moment on young Ronald Weasley, who smiled and offered an approving nod. Motion drew his eye back to Harry Potter, and he saw the young man standing before him, his face solemn, his eyes unreadable, but his hand offered before him.

            "I don't know if I can forgive you, Minister." His eyes flickered down to red welts on the back of the proffered hand, and the minister glanced down, and saw they formed the words I must not tell lies. "The scars are still too fresh. But I guess I can return some common courtesy."

            Fudge smiled, his eyes flickering again to young Weasley, and solemnly shook the proffered hand.

            "Now," he said. "I believe we have an inquest to attend."

            Harry had been expecting to once again visit the tenth level, with its forbidding courtrooms. Instead, when the lift released them on Level Nine, the Minister led them past the steps to Level Ten, and down a long, terribly familiar hallway.

            "Oh, no..." he heard Hermione breathe. He himself lacked the power to voice the same thought. Fudge heard her moan, stopped, glanced back, and saw all three young faces blanching. "I'm sorry. Genuinely. But for this inquest to hold legal weight, it must be held where the... Where the fatal event took place."

            Harry's eyes closed slowly, and he drew a long breath. I can do this. I can do this for Sirius.

            He looked Fudge in the eye, and nodded. Then it was a nightmare of corridor and that awful circular room of many doors, and Harry found himself again in that massive indoor amphitheater. There was a judge's bench set up near the central platform, a number of officials seated at a table before it, facing the rows of benches that were arrayed around the room. 

            Behind the bench stood that innocuous-looking stone archway, ragged black curtains fluttering across the opening.  So simple; shabby-looking, even. It filled Harry with sadness and rage to look at it. It was death. Sirius had done nothing more complicated than fall through that hole. He was gone forever, not even a body to be buried.

            Harry and his friends were shown to a section of the benches, where they were seated together.

            The Minister nodded solemnly to them, and stepped away, taking his seat behind the judge's bench.

            Harry turned to Dumbledore. "He's the judge?"

            "It is the Minister's prerogative, Harry," Dumbledore told him, "in any court function presided over by a representative of the Ministry. This is not a trial. There are no sides, no opposing councils. Merely an inquiry to find the truth."

            Hermione leaned across Harry, and murmured to Dumbledore, "Why aren't Neville, Ginny, and Luna here? They were part of this battle, and, after all, only Harry and Neville actually saw Sirius..." Harry nodded re-assurance to her, and she smiled gratefully, and finished her sentence, "saw Sirius, er, fall."

            Dumbledore smiled sadly. "Those three young people do deserve the recognition, Miss Granger. But you must remember, this inquest, while formally about Sirius' passing, in truth has another focus."

            He seemed about to say more, but Fudge gaveled the hearing to order. There were details of date and time, couched in officious language Harry could barely follow. Very shortly, the Minister leaned forward, looked towards the benches.

            "For our first witness, I call Miss Hermione Granger. Miss Granger, would you please approach?"

            Hermione swallowed, then stood, and walked down to stand before the bench. A wizard stepped forward from the "official" table, and extended his wand to her. "Miss Granger, please take hold of my wand."

            Hermione reached out, took hold.

            "On your Magic, this is an Unbreakable Vow. Do you make it freely?"

            "I do," said Hermione, firmly. Red fire flowed from the tip of the official's wand, and wrapped in a line around her hand.

            "Will your testimony here today be true?"

            "It will." Another snake of red fire bound Hermione's hand.

            "Will you conceal or obfuscate facts germane to the matter of inquiry?"

            "I will not." Another tendril of flame entwined her.

            "Are you under any constraint or restraint, prior vow or influence, that would invalidate or interfere with, or affect in any way the validity of this vow?"

            Hermione's voice was clear. "I am not."

            "Then your Vow is hereby sworn under the law and bound by magic. You may release my wand, and be seated."

            As Hermione's fingers released the wand, the red fire seemed to sink into them. She gazed with interest at her hand, flexing her fingers. She looked over, her eyes found Harry's, and she smiled solemnly at him. She then turned and took her place in the witness' chair.

            Fudge leaned toward her slightly. "Please state your full name for the record, miss?"

            "My name is Hermione Jane Granger."

            "Now, I would like to ask you to answer this next question incorrectly, Miss Granger, to test the magic of your vow. How old are you?"

            Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but only a vague choking sound emerged. Her eyes widened, and she tried again. Again, nothing.

            Hermione smiled. "How extraordinary! Minister, I am unable to prevaricate for you."

            "Very well, then, Miss Granger," said Fudge. "Would you be so kind as to truthfully state your age?"

            "I am sixteen years old, Minister."

            Fudge smiled. "Your place of residence?"

            And the questions rolled smoothly along, flowing seamlessly from administrative minutia to the details of that terrifying night. Harry was so proud of her. She was so collected, so in command of herself and her answers. He felt a swell of affection for this magnificent girl he was so lucky as to call friend, and glanced over at Ron.

            Ron was perched at the edge of his seat, his eyes intent on Hermione. Harry could see the tension humming through the muscles of his friend's back and shoulders. Harry gave one of those shoulders a quick squeeze, and Ron's eyes flickered gratefully to him for a second.

            "And you don't know which curse Dolohov used, Miss Granger?" Fudge asked.

            Hermione shook her head. "No, sir. I cast a silencing charm on him, which prevented him from incanting it, so I couldn't tell which one it was."

            "But even without the incantation, you were injured by the curse, quite severely, weren't you?"

            In answer, Hermione opened the front of her robe, and began unbuttoning the top few buttons of her blouse. Harry glanced over at Ron, saw his eyes widening, and looked back to Hermione. Her eyes met his for a long moment, then moved over to lock with Ron's, the barest hint of an exasperated smile playing momentarily with the corners of her mouth. She held her blouse open a few inches, and Harry saw -- and, peripherally, saw Ron see -- the livid red welt, scar shining white within it, that started a few inches below the hollow of her throat, and wandered, in an irregular line like a drunkard's walk, down towards the base of her breastbone, interrupted by the simple beige cotton of a sports bra.

            Harry saw Ron's hands clench into fists on the railing ahead of him, and lay a hand atop them. "All right, there, mate?"

            Ron's Adam's apple worked, and he nodded.

            On the platform, Hermione had turned toward the Minister. "You can see the scar, Minister. Madame Pomfrey tells me it will fade some, but I'll have it forever." Harry could see the Minister's eyes widen, see the slight movement of Hermione's elbows as she calmly buttoned her blouse again. "What got through of Dolohov's curse fractured my sternum down its length. It's what Muggle physicians call a hairline fracture. Around that fracture the bone was burned, its outer layer charred. There was also blunt trauma and burn damage to much of the soft tissue of my chest. My--" She drew a deep breath. "My right breast suffered a lot of internal cell damage -- cells ruptured from the shockwave -- and much of that soft tissue had to be removed and re-grown. If I'd had to depend on Muggle medical techniques, I'd have lost that breast." Her shoulders moved as she straightened her robes. "I overheard Madame Pomfrey telling Professor Dumbledore that, if I'd not hit Dolohov with that silencing charm, I'd likely have been opened from throat to crotch, and watched my heart beat its last on the floor in front of me."

            Harry made a choked sound, heard a whimper from Ron, and squeezed his shoulder again, while looking over at Dumbledore. The ancient wizard's face was turned downward, his eyes closed.

            Fudge sat back in his seat, his hand thumping boneless down to the bench, and Harry looked back toward him again. The Minister's eyes were wide. "I..." he took a breath. "I had no idea."

            Hermione was silent.

            "Did you realize that that's what you risked by coming here?" Fudge finally asked.

            There wasn't a moment's hesitation in Hermione's answer. "Yes, Minister."

            "Why, then--"

            She didn't let him finish. "My friends needed me. How could I let them face this kind of danger without me?"

            The Minister actually smiled at that. "I don't think that hat has ever been wrong."

            "I daresay it hasn't Minister," said Hermione, and Harry smiled.

            "Did your friends all know, do you think, the risks they faced?"

            "I believe that each of us knew them."

            "And you were all willing to face those risks for Harry."

            "Yes, Minister."

            "Why? Why would all of you, Harry included, take such a risk?"

            Again, Hermione answered without hesitation. "To save Sirius, Minister."

            "I understand that, Miss Granger. What I'd like to know is, why would you take such a risk to save a convicted murderer?"

            Harry stiffened, but felt Dumbledore's hand on his shoulder. He glanced back at the Headmaster, and Dumbledore nodded gravely to him.

            Hermione cleared her throat. "First, Minister, as a point of order, Mr. Black was never convicted. He was arrested and sentenced without trial to a life sentence in Azkaban."

            The Minister looked uncomfortable, cleared his throat.

            "In any case, Minister," continued Hermione, "Sirius Black was not guilty. I know this for a fact, sir."

            Fudge smiled. "And how do you know this, Miss Granger?"

            "Because I've met the man he's supposed to have murdered, Minister."

            Fudge's smile widened. "Would you be willing to show us your memory of that? In a pensieve?"

            "I would, Minister."

            Dumbledore's hand squeezed Harry's shoulder. A pensieve was brought forward, larger and more elaborate than Dumbledore's with five deep blue crystals set equidistantly around the rim.

            "That, Harry," murmured Dumbledore, "is a forensic pensieve. It will project the memories into the air for all to see, and those crystals can detect all known forms of memory-tampering, as well." He stood, and spoke up. "Minister, I would offer my services to any witnesses needing help learning to use the pensieve."

            The Minister nodded his assent, and Dumbledore approached Hermione, went down on one knee beside her, and spoke quietly. She held his gaze, nodding, her expression intent. He smiled and placed a hand upon hers, nodding confidently at her.

            Hermione closed her eyes, her face a stone carving of concentration, lower lip sucked between her teeth, a single vertical line evident in her forehead, and brought her wand to her temple. She swirled the tip of her wand for a moment against her temple, and then drew it back, and it brought with it a long, silvery tendril, which coiled and moved gently in the air, as she brought it over and lowered it slowly into the pensieve.

            The blue crystals glowed coolly from within. Fog began to billow from the bowl of the pensieve, roiling into the air, looking to Harry like a much more successful version of the steaming "volcano" Herbie Battlespoon had made back in his third year in the Muggle school in Little Whinging. The fog poured into the air, solidified into a nearly spherical cloud, perhaps ten feet in diameter, and suddenly, Harry was looking into the upstairs bedroom of the Shrieking Shack.

            There were Remus Lupin and Sirius Black. There were himself, Hermione, and Ron, barely holding himself up with one broken leg. His first thought was how heroic Ron looked, overcoming his pain to stand up to Sirius in his defence.

            In the cloud, Sirius seemed to charge for Ron, but Ron's rat, Scabbers, ran. Wands were pointed, spells were shouted, and as he tried to dive through a hole, Scabbers suddenly stretched, engorged, changed, and the man Remus and Sirius drew back from the floor, watery-eyed and pointy-faced, was Peter Pettigrew.

            Harry barely watched it all unfold again; it was still so vivid in his own memory: Sirius wanting to kill Pettigrew, Remus Lupin consenting, and Harry himself, standing up, convincing Sirius not to do it.

            Harry bit his lip. Damn me!

            Ron leaned over to him. "You did the right thing, mate. You couldn't have known."

            Harry felt a hand squeeze his shoulder, looked back to see Mr. Weasley nodding solemnly. "Listen to my son, Harry. He's wise beyond his years." Mr. Weasley tipped them a wink. "Occasionally, that is."

            Both boys grinned at him, and turned back, in time to see Fudge tell Hermione, "You are dismissed, Miss Granger, with the Ministry's thanks."

            Dumbledore helped her retrieve her memory, and she stepped from the stand before returning to the bench where Harry and Ron waited. Harry smiled at her. "You were brilliant, Hermione!"

            She smiled her thanks at Harry, and stepped past him. Ron was standing, looking at her. His large left hand gently took both of hers, and his right seemed to reach, of its own accord, for the top button of her blouse, above which the red skin could just be seen.

            Their eyes were locked on one another's, Ron's hand reaching, his voice quiet, almost reverent. "I didn't..." He suddenly seemed to notice his hand, and it changed course, squeezed her shoulder. "I didn't know, Hermione."

            She freed her hands from his and touched the sleeve of his jumper. "You've got your own scars, Ron."

            "Yeah, well..." Ron looked at his trainers. "They're not as bad. It's just my arms."

            Harry covered his face with his hands. That wasn't the thing to say, Ron.

            Hermione's voice when she replied was very kind. "It's all right, you know, Ron. Madame Pomfrey regrew the tissue. There's a potion and a charm." She paused a moment. "And a salve I have to rub on."

            Harry's gaze snapped up from his palms. Did she just--?

            Her face showed nothing but concern... but was there a glint of amusement in her eyes? Ron's ears were now bright red as he studied his trainers.

            Their attention was captured by the rapping of Fudge's gavel.

            "If you'll be so kind," said the Minister. "I call Mr. Ronald Bilius Weasley. Will you approach, sir?"

            "Y--" Ron suddenly looked a bit green. "Yes, Minister."

            His testimony went much as Hermione's did. He was sworn in with an Unbreakable Vow, and started with answers to simple questions about his name and age and address, and the questions segued quickly to the battle there in the Department of Mysteries.

            Ron's face was bright red with embarrassment as he described his conduct. "Everything seemed funny. I couldn't stop laughing. I was pretty bloody useless, if you want to know the truth."

            Harry heard Hermione's breath catch, and saw Mr. Weasley's hand come to rest on her shoulder. Her eyes closed for a moment, and she leaned her cheek over onto that hand.

            Ron talked about the tank of brains -- "Accio Brain. Yeah, that's the smartest thing ever done in this building." -- and pushed up his sleeves to show the runnelled maze of angry silver-purple scars the brain he'd summoned had left him with.

            Hermione's lower lip was pulled into her mouth, and Harry reached over to take her hand, as Arthur Weasley squeezed gentle reassurance to her shoulder.

            "Doesn't matter," Ron was saying. "My own bloody fault, innit? Bought and paid for with my own stupidity."

            Fudge shook his head. "You were under a serious befuddlement curse, Mr. Weasley. You can't hold yourself to account for that."

            "What? Only you get to do that, Minister?" said Ron.

            Fudge's eyes met Ron's, and they were silent for a long moment.

            "So, Mr. Weasley, did you know when you chose to accompany Harry that it would be dangerous?"

            "Well, yeah. I mean, we thought there were Death Eaters here, torturing Sirius. Not much more dangerous than that, is there?"

            "But, still, you came."

            "I've faced worse than that for Harry, Minister," said Ron. "I've been chased by an Acromantula!"

            "I see." Fudge raised an eyebrow. "So you only took the risk for Harry."

            "Nah." Ron shook his head. "Sirius was a friend. I mean, he wasn't my best mate or anything, but I liked him. I wasn't sure I believed Harry's..." he paused a moment, "Harry's information was correct. But I couldn't chance it. Sirius was a friend."

            "Now, you also witnessed Peter Pettigrew's transformation? His confession?"

            "Oh, yeah!" said Ron. "Right in front of me! I'd cared for that miserable git-bastard for years -- years! -- and what's he do? He turns out to be a bloody Death Eater!" Ron huffed in the witness' chair for a moment, then finished, "Sir."

            Fudge was actually smiling now. "I can see that it would be upsetting," he told Ron. "And would you be willing to share that memory with us?"

            "'S why I'm here, innit?" asked Ron, and Dumbledore approached him.

            Hermione leaned over to Harry. "He's awfully upset. I hope he can concentrate, retrieving a memory for the pensieve is surprisingly difficult."

            Harry watched Dumbledore leaning in to speak with Ron, and nodded confidently to Hermione. "He'll do fine."

            And indeed he did, drawing out the memory more quickly than Hermione. Harry was amused to note that Hermione looked prettier in this memory, and the details of her appearance -- patterns of freckles, runaway strands of hair -- were all thoroughly defined in a way they hadn't been in hers. He grinned cheekily over at her, and watched the pale pink blush rise up her face.

            Harry had a moment then, watching Hermione blush, watching the magnificent willfulness of  her hair, the warmth and depth of her brown eyes. It wasn't the first time it had happened, and it wouldn't be the last. She really is beautiful. He felt his heart filling with affection for her, with a warm envy for Ron, who so completely owned her heart. Harry let the thought roll around in his mind for a long moment: Arthur and Molly, five brothers, and a clever, courageous sister, and the love of Hermione Granger. No question about it, it was good to be Ron.

            Hermione glanced again at Harry, and paused. There was something in his gaze, something she'd seen before. It was puzzling. She thought it should make her feel flustered, or uncomfortable. He was looking at her almost as Ron sometimes did, when he thought she didn't notice. Harry's gaze held affection, attraction, even desire. But she didn't feel flustered by it, any more than she did with Ron. She felt safe in Harry's gaze. Their friendship was so strong, she felt such love for him, that those moments of hormonal teenaged desire were all right, somehow, just another part of the process of becoming adults together. She realized that his hand was still holding hers, and smiled.

            She turned back to Ron's memory as it replayed in the pensieve, saw Harry interceding on Wormtail's behalf. She smiled. In Ron's memory, Harry looked so noble, so heroic, standing up to his godfather.

            She glanced again at Harry beside her. He looked downcast, miserable, and she remembered something Ron had told her, last spring, something that Harry had muttered, awakening from a nightmare, not knowing Ron was awake and listening in his bed in the fifth-year boys' dorm. Ron had awoke hearing Harry cry Cedric's name, and then heard the gasp, the rustling sound of Harry sitting up in his bed, and then the words: I should have let them kill him. This is down to me.

            Hermione squeezed Harry's fingers, and he looked up at her, grateful.

            "Ron keeps telling me I couldn't have known," he said.

            "Well, Ron's a lot smarter than he gives himself credit for." Hermione lifted an eyebrow at Harry. "And if you tell him I said that, I'll hex you!"

            Harry grinned, and they looked back to Ron's memory. Wormtail, trying to wheedle her for his freedom. She blushed again, seeing how regal she appeared in the memory, her face a mixture of pity and disgust, but her body language somehow above Wormtail's petty pleadings. She looked like a wise queen, tolerant of her subjects, but too clever to be taken in by their flattery. Oh, Ron!

            Then Ron was dismissed, and returned to them. His eyes seemed to pause as he took in their clasped hands, but he moved past, to sit beside Hermione, as Fudge called Harry to the stand. Harry kept her hand as he stood, and Ron glanced up at him. "All right, there, mate?"

            Harry gulped. "Yeah, I--" He suddenly seemed to realize his fingers were twined with Hermione's. He released her hurriedly and moved to the witness' chair.

            Ron cocked a glance at Hermione's hand as she returned it to her lap, and she flushed, but Ron was smiling. "This has to be hard for him. He needs all the support he can get."

            She reached shyly, and took his hand. "Me, too."

            Harry was sworn in quickly, and soon he was describing, in a cold, dispassionate tone that frightened Hermione, the events of the battle of the Department of Mysteries, that awful conflict that ended, for Sirius, in this very room.

            "Is it your view that Ms. Lestrange deliberately sent Mr. Black through the veil?"

            Harry looked back at him for a long, silent moment, his lower lip pulled between his teeth.

            "I don't know, Minister," he finally said. "I believe she meant to kill him. I'm sure she'd have been as happy to do it with a curse as to knock him through..." he glanced at the veil, fluttering behind him, "through that."

            "But you are certain that Sirius Black's fall through the veil was a direct result of Lestrange's curse."

            "Oh, yes, sir!" Harry's eyes and jaw were firm.

            "Now, this battle, Harry. It was very dangerous, wasn't it? Your friends were injured, some of them, quite severely."

            Harry's eyes closed, and he angled his head downward. Ron's fingers squeezed Hermione's, even as she was squeezing his.

            "Yes, Minister." The voice was tiny, forlorn.

            "And you were, yourself, possessed briefly by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

            "I was, Minister."

            "Did these dangers surprise you?"

            Harry shook his head. "Of course not, Minister. It's like Ron said. We were here to face Death Eaters who we thought were torturing a man. We knew it was dangerous. But it was... it was important."

            "To save Sirius Black." The Minister's voice was kind.

            Harry's jaw was firm again, his posture upright. "Yes, Minister. Sirius was my godfather and my friend. He was an innocent man, unjustly imprisoned. I loved him, and I was happy to put my life at risk for him." He looked over at Hermione and Ron, and they could see in his green eyes that his gaze included Luna and Ginny and Neville, as well. His words rang out with moral authority, and Hermione sat spellbound by him. "I hate that my friends were so grievously injured, Minister. I hate it. But I'm just incredibly proud of them, for standing at my side. I can't explain how much I'm proud of them. How much I love them. We all put our lives at risk, Minister, and we did it to save an innocent life. We were -- I was -- misled, pulled into a trap, through my own arrogant carelessness. But as far as we knew then, an innocent life was at stake. Sirius was innocent."

            "Merlin's balls!" breathed Ron. He glanced over to Hermione. "Did you see that?"

            Hermione jerked slightly, and nodded to him, and there was a bit of a chuckle in his voice when he said, "I guess you did!"

            "...and you'd be willing to share that memory in the pensieve?" the Minister was asking.

            "Absolutely, Minister."

            Dumbledore huddled a moment with Harry, and then Harry was drawing out the long, silvery strand of his memory, laying it in the stone bowl of the pensieve.

            The geyser of steam again erupted from it, and again they were looking into the Shrieking Shack. Hermione gasped and pulled Ron's boneless hand into her lap, clutched it in both of hers.  In the view within the pensieve she and Ron stood side -by -side between Harry and a mad-eyed Sirius Black.. They were, quite simply, beautiful. There was no exaggeration of their features, no noble glow nor heavenly choir. Just two tired, ragged-looking teens, beaten, bruised, both of their bodies showing just the barest beginnings of the transformation from child to adult. But still, they were beautiful in Harry's memory, heroic and true. They were the flame of truth, the light of courage.

            Then Wormtail was transforming again, Pettigrew confessing and excusing, explaining his treachery as if it was the expected thing, and Remus and Sirius were advancing on him.

            And there was Harry, interceding on his behalf, and Hermione let out a choked little sound. The Harry they saw now was weak-willed, indecisive, simply too cowardly to watch even the rankest villain die in front of him.

            "Oh, mate..." she heard Ron breathe beside her, and she squeezed his fingers again, glancing over to see him shaking his head in sad wonder. "Oh, that's not the way of it, mate. That's not it at all!"

            Harry was excused. He retrieved his memory, and trudged back to them. Hermione was standing to meet him, and she pulled him into an embrace, Ron's long arms surrounding both of them.

            "You did right, Harry," she breathed in his ear. "You did the right thing!"

            "Listen to her, mate," Ron told him. He quirked a half-smile. "After all, this is Hermione we're talking about, and you know she knows everything!"

            This surprised a chuckle out of Harry even as Hermione started to scowl, so she quashed that impulse and put her hand to his chin, bringing him around to face her determined stare. "You'd better believe it, Harry! You'd just better believe it!"

            The rap of Fudge's gavel sounded, and the trio turned toward the Bench.

            "If I may," the Minister was saying. "I know that this hearing has been, in fact, something of a trial for you, but we're almost done. Please, be seated."

            The trio sat, Harry in the middle, Hermione holding his hand while Ron's arm lay across his shoulders, squeezing Hermione's shoulder unconsciously.

            Fudge wrote quickly on a couple of parchments before him, then stood.

            "It is the finding of this hearing," said Fudge, "that the death of Mr. Sirius Black was caused by homicide, that homicide having been committed deliberately. It is ordered that a warrant on a charge of murder be sworn out against Bellatrix Lestrange, that she may be arrested and brought to trial.

            "It is the further finding of this hearing that this government carried out a most grotesque miscarriage of justice nearly fifteen years ago. I therefore issue from this bench the proclamation that Mr. Sirius Black was innocent of all charges held against him. This parchment"  --he gestured towards his desk-- "is an official declaration from this government of exoneration for Sirius Black. The record will show, from this day forward, that Mr. Black was a hero, who stood firm against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, not only in the battle that ended for him in this very room, but fifteen years ago as well."

            Harry smiled, then, his eyes filling with tears.

            "This hearing is declared at an end," intoned Fudge. "One and all are dismissed."

        ;& bsp;   Various officials and functionaries stood and shuffled from the room as Harry sat, tears pouring freely down his smiling cheeks.

            Dumbledore approached quietly and let his hand rest on Harry's head. "As an old friend of mine has pointed out, Harry, not all tears are an evil. I am very proud of all three of you this day. And all three of you" --at this he patted Harry's head significantly-- "should be very proud of yourselves. You have acquitted yourselves this day with a grace and candor that is very rare indeed."

            Ron and Hermione smiled gratefully at Dumbledore, both leaning slightly into Harry, offering him the support of their warmth and their touch. Hermione noticed Mr. Weasley's hand from behind, gently patting Harry's back.

            By the time Harry's tears had stopped and Hermione looked around, she saw that the room was empty save for the five of them, and, near the door, Minister Fudge.

            Harry nodded at his friends and rose, and they rose with him, beginning to make their way down the steps alongside the benches. The Minister, seeming to take this as a signal, approached and held his hand out to Harry.

            Harry paused, looking at the hand for a moment, and then Fudge spoke quietly. "I don't pretend to have undone in an hour the damage that I did in a year. I don't pretend that I can ever undo it. But I hope you will at least see, Harry, that I truly wish I could."

            "I do see that, Minister," said Harry, and if his smile was so small as to be merely the suggestion, it was, at least, quite genuine. He took the offered hand once again. "I can't-- I can't say I forgive you just yet, Minister. I don't think-- I don't think it would be right to barter my forgiveness, like Sirius' good name was some sort of bargaining chip."

            The Minister's head drew back from Harry, eyes slightly wide, brows a bit elevated.

            "But I do thank you," Harry continued. "For myself. For my friends. For--" his voice hitched. "For Sirius."

            Fudge's hand touched Harry's shoulder, and Hermione watched with some approval as he nodded. "We should be going."

            Harry looked back at him. "I'd like a few more minutes here, Minister, if I may."

            The Minister looked a tad uncomfortable. "Er... Well, that is..."

            "Come now, Cornelius," said Dumbledore, smiling. "Surely between myself and Arthur, we can consider these young people well enough supervised for a few minutes?"

            Fudge considered a long moment, then nodded. "I'm very much afraid I cannot leave you here, Albus." Fudge drew a breath. "But I will wait at the door, and provide you all the privacy you need." He turned to Mr. Weasley. "Arthur, it has been a pleasure working with you."

            Arthur Weasley smiled and nodded. "At this juncture, Minister, I am able to say the same."

            Fudge chuckled. "Arthur, with a gift for politics such as that, it's a wonder you're not Minister yourself."

            The moment the two men shared could certainly not be called warm, nor friendly, but it was a moment of recognition, of sorts, of shared humanity.

            Fudge turned again to the three of them. "Harry, Ron, Hermione... I can't tell you what it means to me to look at the three of you, and see the next generation of the Wizarding World. You and your friends who were here with you that night. If you're typical of what Hogwarts is turning out these days, then I'm grateful indeed to know that our future is in much better hands than our present."

            He bowed to them, and turned, and walked to the door of the chamber, where he stood, out of earshot, in respectful silence, his hands clasped behind his back..

            Hermione shook her head. "I honestly don't know whether to believe half of what he says or not."

            "I'd say half seems about right, Miss Granger," said Dumbledore with a twinkle. "Employed or not, after all, he is still a politician."

            Arthur Weasley smiled at that.

            Harry nodded over toward the Veil. "I think I'd like..." He stopped. "No, that's not right. I need to..."

            "Come on, Mate," said Ron. "We'll come with you."

            Harry looked a trifle annoyed. "I'm not going to throw myself in after him!"

            "Too right, you're not!" Ron replied, with a cheeky grin that took the edge off the words.

            Harry couldn't help laughing. "All right, Mr. Tough Guy, all right. Come on, you two."

            He turned and walked slowly toward the Veil, his two friends at his side, and Arthur Weasley leaned close to Dumbledore. "Albus, are you quite sure..."

            "With your son and Miss Granger? Yes, Arthur, I do rather think so."

            Hermione shot a grateful glance at him over her shoulder, and they approached the Veil.

            They stood silently for a long time before the rustling cloth, and then Harry quietly began to speak.

            "Hello, Sirius. I feel kind of stupid here, in front of my friends, talking to this archway as if I'm talking to you. I guess, in a couple of weeks, Professor Lupin will be having a funeral, and then there'll be a tombstone somewhere, and I'll go talk to that, and that'll be just as stupid, 'cause you won't be there, either.

            "I wanted to tell you you're a free man, now. There are no charges hanging over your head. You've been officially exonerated. Fat lot of good it does you now, I guess."

            Harry drew a deep, ragged breath.

            "After you left Hogwarts with Buckbeak, Professor Dumbledore told me that no-one we love ever truly leaves us. He told me that I'd always carry my dad in here." He held his hand, for a moment, over his breastbone. "So now, there's mum, and dad, and, and you in there." He essayed a wan smile. "I guess it's getting a little crowded, huh?"

            He took another breath.

            "I love you, Sirius. And, and I'll always miss you. And I'll always be grateful that I got to know you."

            He reached his hand out, held it, palm-first, toward the Veil. Ron put a steadying hand on his shoulder, and the look Harry turned on him was equal parts irritation and gratitude.

            "Goodbye, Sirius," said Harry, quietly, and a pale-skinned hand darted out, quick as snake-strike, through the Veil to grab his wrist and pull!

            Just that quickly, Harry's hand had disappeared into the Veil, and Ron grabbed his forearm in both hands, braced one foot against the arch, and began trying to drag him back.

            Time dilated as Hermione shrieked, and events passed with stately, slow-motion grace, like a particularly well-executed figure-skating move, replayed on television for finer appreciation. She saw her hands reaching to grab Harry and Ron, as she looked back over her shoulder at the adults. Six wide eyes stared back at her from faces shocked into immobility. Harry's arm was disappearing inexorably into the archway, Ron's foot sliding by centimeters as he tried to pull him back, both of them slipping out of her grasp.

            Part of Hermione wondered why she was trying. Something within the Veil had got Harry, and was pulling him in, and Ron along with him, because he'd never let his friend go, never give him up, and no power in Heaven or on Earth could stop it.

            She felt them slipping away under her fingers.

            No power in Heaven or on Earth...

            Hermione's fingers slid up shoulders, and she let them go, until she felt herself touching skin, where their necks met their shoulders. She concentrated on that touch, on her love for them, on keeping them together, and it seemed like it took hours for her mouth to form the words:

            "NUPTIALIS UNUM!"

            She felt in her eyes a kind of impact, as if a painfully bright light had been turned her way, but there was no light to see. On her skin, as if the door to a furnace had opened, spilling its heat into the room in a wave, but the temperature did not change.

            She did the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life. She loosed her fingers as they clutched her boys' shoulders, and felt a moment's heartbreak as the soft skin of their necks slipped from beneath them, as she began to fall backwards. Then, as the very tips of her fingers were all that still connected her to them, she felt her fall jerking to a sudden halt that pulled at her arms as if she'd caught herself from a fall on a trapeze, and the boys' bodies jerked back at their necks. She looked back again and saw that Arthur Weasley and Cornelius Fudge were charging towards them, Mr. Weasley in the lead, and he was suddenly wrapping his arms around her body in a great bear-hug.

            Incredibly, he blushed deeply, and stammered an apology while adjusting his grip. She realized that one of his hands had fallen at first over her left breast. Of all the silly-- she thought, as he hauled back on her, gaining Harry perhaps another half-inch before the inexorable slide resumed, and then Fudge was upon them, wrapping his arms around Ron, and they were halted for a moment yet again.

            Hermione looked back over her shoulder again, at the still-frozen Dumbledore, saw him force himself into action as their feet slid again toward the Veil, and his wand was pointing at them, and he hesitated, closed his eyes, and finally cried out, his voice hoarse, "By the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak!"

            Hermione had time to think, What is that supposed to mean? when bright, glowing red ribbons of light spouted like streamers from the end of Dumbledore's wand, and writhed, snakelike, through the air towards her.

            The crimson bands wrapped around Mr. Weasley, around her, around Fudge and Ron and Harry, even snaking down to wrap around the pale wrist and hand that held Harry's arm.

            Dumbledore made a motion with his wand, not unlike a fisherman pulling in his catch. His hands didn't mime turning the handle on a reel, but he was pulling the wand-tip up in great, slow pulls, which tightened the bands around her, around all of them, and then lowering it more quickly while the wand withdrew the newly-created slack. At the second pull she felt herself being pulled backwards, and her arms and shoulders took the strain, her fingertips still impossibly touching the backs of Ron's and Harry's necks, pulling them back with her. It felt like her shoulders were going to pull out of their sockets, but the bands were still writhing, and they wrapped their way back up her arms and around her shoulders, re-enforcing them.

            Dumbledore took another pull, then another, and now the pale hand was exposed up to a forearm, and there was the beginning of black robes, and Dumbledore pulled again, and the ragged fabric of the Veil seemed to bow out toward them, and there was a sound, a kind of sucking Pop! and Hermione had an impression of black hair and dark robes being spat out of the archway, tumbling through the air, across the benches, to disappear behind the back row. Even as the shape flew, Hermione and her boys and Arthur Weasley and the Minister tumbled over backwards.

            The crimson bands disappeared, and Dumbledore sagged to his knees as Hermione looked at her hands, realizing she was no longer touching the boys' necks. Had the Nuptialis Unum ended when the danger had passed? That didn't seem right! Then she realised that Ron's left hand had ended up a few inches up her right pant-leg, his fingertips touching the skin of her calf, while Harry's left hand was touching Ron's neck. Skin to skin to skin.

            The boys were starting to stir, so she sat up, took hold of Ron's hand, and pulled it effortlessly way from her leg before reaching over to take Harry's right hand in her left.

            As they started to clamber to their feet, Ron tried to release her hand, and found that he couldn't break contact. "What the--?"

            "It's all right, Ron," said Hermione. "It's a spell I used to help us both keep a grip on Harry. We're kind of all stuck together until the spell is broken."

            "Well, let's break it then!" said Ron.

            Hermione blushed. "I, um... I sort of don't know how to break it, Ron."

            His eyes widened for a moment, then he smiled. "Well, that's not so bad then. We're all mates here. We can hold hands till Dumbledore can get us loose." He looked over at his mate. "All right, there, Harry?"

            But Harry was staring, eyes wide, at the back of the room.

            "Harry?" Hermione shook him by the hand, and his eyes snapped to her and Ron. "Oh, yeah. Yeah, fine."

            The Minister and Mr. Weasley were groaning to their feet, as well.

            "You're all right?" Mr. Weasley asked his son.

            "Sure, Dad, we're fine." He glanced over at Hermione and Harry. "Yeah?"

            "Fine," said Harry, and Hermione, glancing at the boys' hands in hers, nodded. "Fine."

            Arthur Weasley nodded at them and trotted to Dumbledore, who waved him off toward the back of the chamber. Fudge approached  and helped Dumbledore to his feet.

            Dumbledore thanked the Minister with a curt nod, and hurried over to Hermione and her boys. His eyes were concerned.

            "Miss Granger, I apologize to you. Nothing remotely like today's event has ever happened. I'm still not entirely certain I can comprehend what a shocking change to everything we know and think we know has just occurred in this room. I was quite simply shocked into immobility. You should never have been pu int this position."

            "Really, Professor," she said, reassuringly, "We're all fine."

            "Indeed, Miss Granger, and that is thanks entirely to you. Your quick thinking unquestionably saved the lives of Harry and Ronald." He turned to them. "I beg you boys to bear in mind how fortunate you are. Without Miss Granger's quick action, you would surely be dead now."

            Harry grinned. "Well, it's hardly the first time, is it, Professor?"

            They heard Mr. Weasley gasp, "Merlin's Beard!" and started to turn, but Dumbledore's raised hand arrested them. "A moment, please. Miss Granger, did I correctly hear that the spell you used was Nuptialis Unum?"

            "Yes, Professor. It's an ancient Peloponnesian Marriage Spell. I was reading about it the day I received your and the Minister's messages about this hearing."

            Dumbledore's eyes closed.

            Hermione was apologetic. "I'm sorry, Professor. I know it was a bit extreme, but-- It was all I could think of. You can break the spell, right?"

            Dumbledore was silent.

            Hermione felt as if she'd been punched in the gut: the air whistled out of her, and her eyes went wide, as she felt Harry's hand and Ron's tighten on hers.

            The voice that spoke next was Ron's, hushed, stunned. "You can't break the spell."

            "No," whispered Hermione. "No no no no no no..."

            "I'm sorry," said Dumbledore.

            From the back benches, in a tone of mixed joy and stunned amazement, Mr. Weasley cried out, "I simply do not believe it!"

            "The Nuptialis Unum,” continued Dumbledore, his voice grave, “is tied intimately to the very life-force of those bound by it. It can only be broken by death."

            "Believe it, Arthur!" cried a deep, familiar voice, full of danger and merriment, and the rest of them suddenly turned, eyes wide, and stared as the tall, rakish figure, black-haired and black-robed, grabbed him in a hug, and then vaulted over the benches, ran down them like a line of steps. He lifted Dumbledore by his armpits like a child, spun him happily, set him down and rounded on Harry, Hermione and Ron. His strong arms pulled them all together into a mighty embrace, their trainers leaving the ground, and then he stepped back, smiling, and looked around at the stunned faces, his eyes bright, sparkling with mirth.

            "So..." said Sirius Black,  clapping his hands and rubbing them together as he looked from one stunned face to the next. "Lunch?"


Chapter Text

Chapter Two: Mrs. Weasley Goes Spare; Miss Granger Comes Clean


            "forbid it!" Molly Weasley's palm slammed down on the table with a loud smack!

            They were seated around a conference table in Dumbledore's office at Hogwarts. It had taken a frantic hour to assemble them there by Floo. The Grangers had been at work, and had had to be interrupted and summoned by Kingsley Shacklebolt, canceling their afternoon appointments. They sat side-by side between Hermione and Professor Dumbledore. On Dumbledore's other side sat Minerva McGonagall, now looking to her right at Molly Weasley with wide eyes. Arthur Weasley sat by his wife's side, trying to hold her hand, and beyond him sat Shacklebolt and Nymphadora Tonks, who kept looking, with an odd smile, at Remus Lupin, who was grinning in amazement at Sirius, who seemed torn between grinning at the lot of them and sinking his face into his hands. Beside Sirius was Harry, the back of his right hand against Ron's left.

            Dumbledore had explained to the gathering the nature of the spell Hermione had used to save Harry and Ron, and Molly was shrieking, her voice hoarse. "This is simply unacceptable, and I will not allow it! My son issixteen years old! He will not be spending his every hour-- Sleeping with-- Bathing with-- Oooh!" Her words collapsed into an inarticulate cry of rage.

            "Mrs. Weasley," said McGonagall into the sudden silence, her voice as commanding as if this were a classroom, "this is not a matter you can allow or forbid! It has happened, and that is all there is to it! There is nothing for us to do but decide how we are going to deal with it."

            Molly spun at her. "What do you know about it, you dried-up old spinster?" she shrieked. "You'll never know what it is to have a son, to have him taken away from you and corrupted by some little tart!" She wheeled towards Hermione. "Oh, you love this, don't you? I know how you've wanted my boy, you little strumpet, and now you think you've done it, don't you?" Hermione burst into tears. "Now you think you've taken him from me! How dare you!"

            Every adult eye in the room had turned with some alarm toward David Granger, but he seemed content to let Molly scream out all her bile and have done with it, his left hand squeezing his daughter's right in re-assurance.

            But Ron Weasley was on his feet, and his voice shook with rage. "That's enough, Mum! That's e-bloody-nough!"

            His mother wheeled toward him. "Don't you take that tone with me, young--"

            "Shut it!" Ron was purple with rage. "You've already lost one son 'cause  he's a fucking git! Well, you're about this far" --he squeezed a centimeter of air between thumb and forefinger, Harry's hand dangling comically from his exposed elbow-- "from losing another one, and this time, it'll be your fault! Do you ruddy get that we'd be deadnow, Harry and me? Do you get that?!? We were going in through the fucking Veil, and Fudge and Dad and even Albus Sodding Dumbledore were just standing there, with their gawps open and their thumbs up their arses, andHermione Granger was fucking acting! She saved our fucking lives!"

            McGonagall's voice was a whip-crack : "Mister Weasley! We will thank you--"

            But Dumbledore's gentle hand on her arm stilled her. "No, Minerva. Mr. Weasley's assessment is quite right, and colourful though his language may be, I daresay he's earned the right."

            Ron still stood, staring at his mother, his eyes hard and blazing, and Arthur was staring back and forth between his son and his wife as if unable to quite comprehend the confrontation.

            Hermione was staring at him, mouth open, eyes wide, tears still flowing. On his other side, Harry looked miserably at the table.

            Ron drew a breath, and his voice, when it came again, was quiet, but as hard as the stone walls that surrounded them. "You'll think about what you just said, Mum. You'll think about what you just called Hermione, and you'll apologize to her, and you'll bloody well mean it! 'Cause, if you don't, that's it. We're quits, and I have no mother."

            There was silence then, and the tension seemed to spark between Ron's eyes and his mother's with an almost visible crackle.

            "Now, son," Arthur began, but Ron's head shook, once, decisively, his eyes never leaving his mother's.

            "No, Dad. That was just... No."

            They were all silent another moment, locked in that awful tableau of anger and conflict. "Mum..." Ron's voice was softer. "Think about what you just said to Hermione. Really think about it. Do you really think that?"

            For another brief moment, Molly's eyes stayed locked defiantly with her son's. Then, miraculously, one couldsee her thoughts turning inward, see her considering her words.

            And suddenly Molly Weasley's face fell into her arms. "Oh, Godric, what have I--"

            And she was on her feet, running around the table to kneel by Hermione, to take her hand from her father's, her own eyes moist with tears. "Oh, you poor sweet girl! Oh, what have I done? You know I love you, don't you? I love you as if you were my own, and of course I don't think that of you! Oh, of course I don't! I just--" She drew a breath. "I look at Ronnie, at what a tall, handsome man he is, and I see how much he loves you, and I'm always afraid that I'm going to lose him to you. That you're going to take him away from me. Oh, Hermione, do forgive a foolish old woman!"

            And Hermione stared for a long moment at Molly Weasley before leaping to embrace her, her words spilling out of her in a rush, "Oh, Mrs. Weasley, I'm sorry I didn't think of another way, I really am! I was so scared, so scared I was going to lose your boys, my boys, and it was all I could think of, and it never occurred to me that the spell couldn't be broken, but what could I do? I was losing them, I was losing them and I was so scared!" She took a deep breath. "And you know what, Mrs. Weasley? I'm even more scared now! How do I do this? How do I live mywhole life always with these two boys? Every second of every minute of every hour of every day, sleeping and bathing and, oh, my God!"

            But Molly Weasley had tucked a finger under Hermione's quivering chin, and turned the girl up to face her. "The same way you do everything else, child. With intelligence and grace and good heart, and a courage I can't even imagine! And sometimes you'll panic, and sometimes you'll go wrong, but in the end, everything will be all right. Because you and the boys love each other very much, and love can always find a way through."

            She turned to her son. "I'm so sorry, Ronnie. I should never have insulted Hermione, or your friendship."

            Ron smiled gratefully as he hugged her. "Thanks, Mum."

            Molly stood, then, and turned to face McGonagall. "Oh, Minerva, I should never--"

            "No, Molly, you should not." Her eyes were hard. "I know more than you seem to think about losing a son."

            "Oh, Minerva!" Molly's eyes were heartbroken. "I'm so sorry! I didn't know!"


            "Oh, Minerva, I do apologize! Please do forgive me!"

            McGonagall's eyes flickered to the table, and she regarded the surface for a beat, then looked back up. "It's forgotten."

            But there was a reserve in her tone which suggested that it indeed was not, and might never be. Molly looked at her feet for a moment, then walked toward the door. "I've... I've done enough here, said enough here. I'll go to the Three Broomsticks, and Floo home from there. Arthur can speak for me. Probably, it would have been better for all of us if he'd done so from the beginning." She looked again at Hermione. "My dear girl, I am so, so very sorry I spoke to you as I did. You saved my boys' lives,  Ron and Harry both, and I am forever grateful. And I daresay, dear girl" --her gaze flashed for a moment to her husband-- "that at your age, I was far more of a strumpet than you've ever dreamed!"

            And with that, Mrs. Weasley was gone. Those remaining sat, silent, for a moment, then Sirius chuckled. "Well, I'd say that went well, wouldn't you?"

            Remus Lupin shook his head at his old friend, but Ron wheeled round, pulling Hermione awkwardly with him as he pointed an irate finger at Black. "Yeah, and you can ruddy well shut up, too, Sirius!"

            Sirius sat back away from him, his face shocked. "Ron, I'm sorry--"

            "You're bloody sorry!?!? You almost killed us! You tried to pull Harry through the Veil!"

            "I didn't know!"

            "Well, you knew it was bloody somebody! You had to, you'd pulled his hand through!"

            Sirius shook his head. "No, Ron. It-- It wasn't like that. It's not-- It isn't-- It isn't like that beyond the Veil. I can't describe it, I can't explain, but it's not like bodies and robes and people and places over there. It's like concepts and ideas and metaphors. All I knew was that everything -- everything -- was trying to make me move on, move away from the Veil, and, and on. But I knew Harry was here, and he still needed me, and I'd failed him for so long, and I couldn't fail him anymore, so I waited, wanting to find a way back... And then I felt something, and it was right there, and I could feel that it was... It was permanent. It wasn't going anywhere, but it also wasn't going to be there for long, and I knew if I could just somehow hold onto it, it would bring me home to Harry." He paused, then laughed. "Godric, listen to me, I'm talking gibberish!"

            "A bit, yeah," said Ron, quietly.

            "Yeah." Sirius smiled at him again, then at Harry. "I promise you, Harry, if I'd known it was you I'd grabbed, known the danger I was putting you in, I would never--"

            "I know, Sirius," said Harry. "It's Okay. Well, you know, with me."

            "Yeah, me, too," said Ron. "I mean, I'm pretty hacked off an' all, but I'm glad you're here, mate."

            "'Sides," said Sirius, with a wicked grin, "there are worse fates for a couple of healthy young wizards than to be attached to a beautiful teen-aged witch!"

            "Sirius!" scolded Lupin, and Hermione dropped her face into her hands, dragging Ron's hand to her face with her own, and shook her head. David Granger leaned forward past his daughter, and silently raised an eyebrow at Sirius.

            Sirius raised his hands in surrender. "No harm, Mr. Granger, I'm just playing. Your daughter knows I have the greatest possible respect for her."

            Granger eyed him for a moment, then smiled. "I can see that you do."

            "Hard not to, really," said Sirius. "Extraordinary girl." Hermione still hid her face, and Sirius leaned far across the table to reach out and touch her hand. She looked up at him, half-prone on the table-top. "And I'll be eternally grateful to her, as well, for saving my godson, and my friend" --he jerked his head toward Ron-- "and saving me from the consequences of my recklessness. I knew what I was holding would stay anchored outside the Veil. I had no idea that that would be thanks to the brilliance and quick thinking of the brightest witch of the age."

            Hermione smiled gratefully at him, and McGonagall cleared her throat.

            They turned to her, and she gazed severely around the table. "Now, I appreciate that this has been a most... emotional day for all of us. This is not, however, an encounter session, and we have important business to conduct. These three young people will have an education to pursue, and their plans for it have just irrevocably been altered.

            "Now, clearly, they won't be able to stay in the Sixth-Year Dormitories. I do think I have a solution. We have already selected next year's Head Boy and Head Girl. Head Girl will be Galatea Bucket, of Hufflepuff. Therefore, the Gryffindor Head Girl's suite will be vacant. As  Head Girl's room, it has a most comfortable attached bath, which should prove somewhat less awkward than using the communal facilities as well. I propose that you three be housed there."

            She took a breath. "I must warn you, there could be trouble teaching you here this coming year. We shall have to ask the Board of Governors change the school's by-laws. Currently, they allow for coeducational housing only for married students. The Board is a notoriously conservative and rigid, and it may prove difficult to persuade them."

            Remus Lupin leaned forward. "Have those rules changed since Sirius and I were students?"

            "No, Remus, nor for over fifty years before that."

            "Then I think you'll find, Minerva, that there's no need to speak with the Board."

            Sirius chuckled. "That's right!"

            McGonagall frowned. "Whatever do you mean, Remus?"

            "Well, Minerva, you remember, when we were in Seventh Year, Lily came down with a rather nasty stomach virus?"


            Remus grinned at the memory. "I'm very much afraid Sirius, here, convinced himself that James and Lily were, er, going to find it necessary to avail themselves of communal quarters."

            "Oh, my God!" Harry covered his face with his hands. "I don't want to hear this!"

            Sirius chuckled. "No, Harry, I was just a dirty-minded little sod in Seventh Year. Still am, come to that! Anyway, I had Lupin help me research the school's by-laws. They state that coeducational housing is available only for Married Students, Minerva, precisely as you said. It doesn't specify Couples."

            "Exactly!" said Remus.

            Hermione looked back and forth between the two Marauders. "You expect me to marry Harry and Ron? Quite aside from personal issues that could be involved, such as whether I wish to marry either of them or vice-versa, doesn't marrying both present legal problems of its own?"

            "That's the beauty of it, Hermione," said Sirius. "You already have!"

            Remus leaned forward to her. "The spell you used: The Nuptialis Unum."

            Understanding dawned in her eyes. "It's a marriage spell!"

            "Exactly!" said Sirius. "It's a magically binding marriage! And what's the first law of Magical Contracts?"

            Harry and Ron looked blankly at one another, but Hermione smiled triumphantly. "What's magically binding islegally binding!" She looked back and forth between them. "But Harry..."

            Sirius grinned again. "Well, yes, technically, he's not of marriageable age until his birthday, but once he's sixteen, you're covered by the first law!"

            "Waitaminite!" said Harry. "I thought I wasn't of age until I turn seventeen!"

            "No, Harry," said Hermione. "That's the Age of Majority. We're talking about the Age of Consent. That's sixteen for wizards." She wrinkled her nose, and her voice was suddenly venomous. "Fourteen for Witches. Must keep those child brides!"

            Ron chuckled at his mate. "Blimey, Harry! Fancy that! You're our Child Bride!"

            Harry turned to Shacklebolt and Tonks, who'd been watching the meeting in silence. "Would one of you please just kill me?"

            "Oi!" cried Ron. "Never mind grievously insulting your groom, who's going to protect us all from Ol' Wossname?"

            "You're on your own," said Harry.

            Ron gave Harry a shove, and Harry turned to respond in kind, when Hermione spoke up. "Before you two drag one another to the floor for one of your childish wrestling matches, I'd like to point out two things. First, we are, in fact, in the midst of a meeting deciding important matters on our behalf."

            "Thank you, Miss Granger," said McGonagall.

            "You're quite welcome, Professor. And second..." She shook her left hand, jiggling Ron's right arm along with it. "I don't particularly want to go down there with you."

            "Now," said McGonagall, "we shall have to make some arrangements with your class schedules. Miss Granger has been taking a far more demanding course-load than either of you. Her grades in Advanced Arithmancy and Study of Ancient Runes demand that she continue with these courses. I don't expect either of you boys to pick those up as Sixth-year level classes, so you will be using those as study periods to work on your homework assignments for other classes. Some classes, we will have to decide later, as there are staffing issues to be considered."

            Dumbledore leaned suddenly forward. "Indeed, Minerva, I have a thought regarding one of these staffing issues. It occurs to me that a candidate has become available to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts."

            "I thought that you had decided..."

            "Ah, but that was before this candidate became available. Besides, he is awfully valuable in his current position."

            "But, Mr. Potter's O.W.L. scores..."

            "I was thinking, Minerva, that we could bring in a tutor for these three students. Evening classes, I think."

            "But, sir," said Harry, as Ron's eyes widened, "Won't that conflict--" He suddenly stopped, and exchanged looks with Ron. They looked at one another, then at Hermione, then at each other again.

            "Oh, bugger me!" cried Ron.

            "Mr. Weasley," said McGonagall, "Please do try not to develop bad habits regarding language within this school. We are not currently in session, I know, but I am still strongly tempted to begin docking you House points. Even if, in this case, I cannot disagree with you. I'm afraid that Dolores Umbridge will have her wish after all. Your Quidditch careers are over."

            Ron's face reddened, and he said, "Ah, d-- er, bu-- oh, h--" He stopped, drew a deep breath in through his nose, let it out through his pursed lips, then turned and said, conversationally, to Dumbledore, "Who's your new victim, then? For DADA?"

            Sirius leaned forward, looking interested. "I've been wondering about that myself?"

            Dumbledore winked at Ron, and smiled sweetly at Sirius. "You mean, you don't know? Truly?"

            Sirius shook his head. "No, I--" His eyes widened. "You don't mean-- You can't  mean..."

            "Of course!" cried Remus Lupin. "Sirius, it's perfect!"

            Dumbledore smiled widely at Sirius. "Do you accept?"

            Sirius sat back, a stunned expression on his face. "Me. Teaching at Hogwarts."

            "You'd be brilliant, Sirius," said Harry.

            Sirius smiled at him. "But, Harry-- I'm... I'm a Marauder! I'm the wild Marauder! And if I accepted, I'd be becoming... The Man!"

            David Granger laughed warmly. "Welcome to the club, mate. We've got jackets and everything!"

            Sirius laughed and pointed at him. "You and me, mate. We're going for a pub-crawl."

            David glanced at his wife, who smiled, and patted his arm. "Make it a Friday or a Saturday, dear."

            "Thanks, darling," said Granger, pecking his wife on the cheek.

            Sirius turned back to Dumbledore. "Well, Albus, if you're silly enough to offer me the job, I guess I'm just silly enough to take it."

            "Done!" said the Headmaster with a smile. "Welcome to the staff."

            He turned back to the table as a whole. "Now, we'll need to speak about living arrangements for the summer."

            Arthur spoke up. "Harry and Hermione have always been welcome at the Burrow, Albus. They're welcome still."

            "Then, Arthur, I think you will have them starting the first of August. Does that suit you as well, Mr. and Mrs. Granger?"

            David and Jane exchanged glances. "I think that would be fine," said Jane. "But we'd very much like to bring them home with us for tonight."

            Dumbledore looked taken aback. "I do appreciate that, Mrs. Granger, but there are security concerns in the Muggle world."

            David leaned forward and regarded him for a moment. "Mr. Shacklebolt and Ms. Tonks would be most welcome to stay, as well. And Mr. Lupin and Mr. Black. Hell, you can bring out a hundred of the toughest people you can find and stand them in a circle around our house with their elbows linked, if you want.

            "But our sixteen-year-old daughter is going to be spending her every night from now on in a bed with two healthy, randy teenaged boys. We will be having a very long and entirely embarrassing talk with them."

            Hermione had her face buried in her hands, and Ron was staring at his trainers, his face bright red, but Harry spoke up.: "Mr. Granger, we're not--"

            But David only laughed, not unkindly. "Oh, of course you are, Harry. You're fifteen years old."

            And Jane smiled down the table at him to show there was no judgment. "It's axiomatic."

            Dumbledore cleared his throat. "I do appreciate your position, Mr. Granger. Very well then. Kingsley, Tonks, you've seen the Grangers' home. Can you secure it?"

            "Piece of cake!" said Tonks, and Shacklebolt nodded.

            "Excellent! For tonight, Harry, you and your friends shall stay with the Grangers. That will give me an opportunity to speak with Vernon and Petunia, and help them with, er... preparations."

            Harry couldn't stop himself snorting aloud. "Now that's going to be fun!"

            David Granger leaned forward. "They'll be staying with the Dursleys, then? What about security in the Muggle World?"

            Dumbledore smiled. "Forgive me, Mr. Granger. There are matters involved here which simply can not be discussed. Suffice it to say that there are extraordinary reasons, having to do with Harry's safety, why he must stay with his aunt and uncle during the summers. And you may rest assured, sir, that only the most pressing of requirements could persuade me to permit it."

            David nodded. "Very well."

            Dumbledore smiled benignly around the table. "Very well, then. I think our business here is concluded."

            Hermione cleared her throat. "Not entirely," she said. "I would like very much to see the Gryffindor Head Girl's suite, and for us to have some privacy there. We've had a fairly long day. We're tired, we're sweaty, and I, for one, am beginning to need to urinate, plus I'm past due for my potions and salve, and before any of that can be addressed, I need to speak with Harry and Ron in privacy."

            "Sweetheart," began David Granger, but Hermione turned to him, laid her free hand on his forearm.

            "Dad, Mum... Trust me, all right?"

            "All right then," said David.

            Hermione turned to McGonagall. "May we have the passwords?"

            Minerva McGonagall regarded her student severely for a moment, then nodded. "Butterbeer will get you past the Fat Lady. For the Head Girl's room, the password shall be... Catseye. Your medications will be waiting for you, along with towels and a change of clothing for each of you. You may return to the Great Hall when you have finished your... ablutions."

            Hermione stood, and looked back and forth between Harry and Ron, who had stared, wide-eyed and silent, through this last exchange. "Well, come along, boys."

            As they left, McGonagall turned to Dumbledore. "The Crimson Bands of Cytorrak, Albus?"

            Dumbledore chuckled, patted her hand. "And you thought my choice of reading material would rot my brain!"

            She eyed the ancient wizard fondly. "The jury's still out on that one, I think, Albus."


            The door into the Gryffindor Head Girl's suite was under the steps up to the girls' dormitories. The torches were burning merrily on the walls, and on the twin-sized bed were three sets of clothing, school uniforms, in their sizes. There was also a sofa, a desk and chair, a small fireplace, and a door that led into the Head Girl's Bath. Hermione shrugged off her robes. They caught at her hands, where the backs brushed against Ron's and Harry's.

            "Touch each other, boys," she said, and Ron reached a tentative hand to Harry's, and Hermione was ready to let go, first of Ron's hand, then of Harry's to let the robes settle to the floor.

            Under the robes were her loose blouse, the jeans it had never been tucked back into after her testimony, and her black trainers. Under the blouse, that sports bra. Under the jeans, Harry didn't yet know. He looked at the clothing laid out on the unmade-up bed, the vials of potion and jar of salve on the dresser by the bathroom door, and supposed he would find out soon.

            He and Ron went through the process of getting their robes off. The choreography was already becoming familiar. They'd learned their limitations almost immediately. Each of them was always in direct body-to-body contact with at least one of the others. It didn't matter which, but there was never an odd one out. Always, one or both of the others would be touching each of them. Harry looked at Ron, tall, ginger-haired, in jeans and a t-shirt with a Muggle-style cartoon on the front that Ron had transfigured to look like Gilderoy Lockhart, grinning stupidly over the words "What, Me Worry?" His own t-shirt was plain purple, his jeans black rather than blue. It was the uniform of teenaged boys the world over. Ron's blue eyes met his, concerned, and Harry nodded. They'd laughed and joked and played, but they were no less aware than Hermione was of how drastically their lives had all been changed in the time it took Hermione to say Nuptialis Unum.

            Ron looked down to Hermione. His right hand, the touch looking so gentle, brushed along her jaw. "Hermione?"

            She pulled them over to the couch, sat in the middle, pulled them down on either side of her. She glanced over at Harry, on her right. "Harry, would you be so kind as to reach under my blouse, and touch my back?"

            Her voice was very quiet, trembling, and Harry was solemn as he nodded and obeyed, and she swiveled away from him, took Ron's hands in hers. Harry saw the tension in her neck and shoulders, the angle of her head, and realized she was seeing again the livid scars on Ron's arms.

            He felt her expand as she drew another breath. "Ron," she said. "I'm so sorry, Ron. It was supposed to be you and me. You know that, I know that."

            Ron's eyes were almost panicked as he glanced over her shoulder at Harry. Her small hand moved up to his chest, then his face. "I love you Ron. You know that, don't you?"

            "Well, yeah," said Ron, easily, prepared to dismiss the sentiment as friendly.

            "No, Ron." She shook her head, turned his face directly towards hers. "I love you."

            He reached to pull her into an embrace, was stopped for a moment, and then she moved one of her hands up to the back of his head, and he pulled her close, his hand stroking up and down her back, bumping occasionally and unapologetically over Harry's.

            Harry slid his hand to one side, out of Ron's way, and Hermione giggled. "Bit ticklish there, Harry."

            "Sorry," said Harry, and she glanced back to smile over her shoulder at him before turning back to Ron.

            "I love you, Ron. I've loved you since the troll."

            Ron leaned back, looked into her eyes. "The troll? Yeah? Honestly?"

            "Honestly, Ron. I've loved you since the moment I heard you say Wingardium Leviosa." She smiled at him. "And do you know why?"

            Ron's eyes were wide and rapt as he shook his head.

            "Because you said it right, Ron. You listened to me. You learned from me! You hated me, but you listened."

            Ron shook his head. "I didn't hate you, Hermione Jane."

            Hermione's voice was soft, her tone very kind, forgiving. "'She's a nightmare, that one,'" she quoted. "'No wonder she doesn't have any friends!'"

            "Didn't mean it." Ron's voice was very soft.

            "You did," said Hermione. "That's all right. 'Cause even hating me like that, you listened to me. You learned from me. And you used it to save my life. That's when I fell in love with you, Ron. Twelve years old, screaming up at the ugliest mountain troll you've ever seen."

            "I don't know when I did," Ron answered.

            Harry wished he could get up quietly and leave the room. This was for them, such a private, intense moment for the two of them.

            "I don't know when I fell in love with you. I just know, at some point, you were as necessary as air, and thinking to myself, 'I love Hermione Granger' would have seemed as stupid as thinking, 'I believe in trees.' You know? I mean, well, duh!" He moved his face over in front of her. "And then in Fourth Year, you went with Krum, and I thought I was going to lose you, and I was so scared, and I was such a git, I really was."

            "I know, Ron," Hermione said, and Harry could hear the smile in her voice. "I know you were."

            "Hey--" Ron began, but his voice was interrupted, and Harry heard the soft, wet sounds of their mouths together, and he just wanted to slink off into the night, but his hand was there, under her blouse, her skin soft and warm under his fingertips.

            He heard the breath rattle out of Ron, and then his voice, choked with emotion. "Oh, Merlin, Hermione. So long. I've wanted that so long."

            Her voice was equally choked. "I have too, love. I have too. Please, please, remember that. I'm sorry."

            She pulled one of his hands down her side, tucked it under her blouse, and then turned, as Ron gasped in surprise, to face Harry. Her eyes, so deep and brown -- Harry had once thought they were exactly the color of the warm rich earth of the garden of the burrow -- he'd never tell her that, of course: "You have eyes the color of dirt," even coming from a friend, didn't quite strike the right complimentary note -- seemed alive with warmth. She chewed a moment on her lower lip, clearly working herself up to something, and then spoke.

            "It was Third Year," she told him.

            Harry blinked his incomprehension.

            "That night we-- I mean, the first time we saved Sirius. The night with the Time Turner."

            "Hermione, I don't understand--"

            "You were so brave, so determined. I don't think you had any idea how impressive you were!"

            "I was impressive? Hermione, you were weaving timelines like Doctor Who! You were... You were commanding eternity!"

            "No, Harry, that was you. You commanded, and I was your tool."

            "Never that," said Harry. "My friend, my partner. You made it possible."

            "This is what I mean, Harry. You just don't see it. I was already half-giddy from being by  your side, and then, at the lake... I wish you could have seen yourself conjuring that Patronus."

            "You saw that?"

            "Of course I did, Harry." She took a breath. "You were-- You were amazing, Harry. You were confident, commanding, you were so straight and tall and you walked out there, and then you-- Your voice rang, Harry, tolled like a bell, and the power just blazed from you, you were the sun and the moon, you were a godling out of legend, and that, that army of Dementors fled before you! You, a thirteen-year-old Wizard, routed that terrible army single-handedly. Adults who can produce a true Patronus are very rare, Harry, very rare, and you produced one the likes of which hasn't been witnessed by the eyes of man in generations!  I don't think there's another wizard besides Dumbledore who could approach it.

            "The power blazed away from you, Harry, I felt it blow my hair and my clothing back, and I felt it sluice through my body, and Oh, my God, Harry, that's when I fell in love with you."

            Ron's eyes widened, and he barked out, "What!?" but she turned to him, lay a gentle hand over his lips. Harry felt the soft, smooth skin of her belly sliding under his fingers as she turned, and the knowledge that the skin of her back was doing the same under Ron's lived in some part of his mind.

            "Hush, my love," Hermione murmured to Ron. "Remember what I told you. I'm in love with you. I am."

            Ron's eyes were wide, now, as he looked from Hermione to Harry,  and Harry met his gaze with his eyes wide, and his breath coming short.

            Hermione ran her fingertips across Ron's cheek. "Do you trust me, Ron?"

            He stared at her a long time, then nodded, his eyes closed.

            "Then trust me just a little bit longer. Please, my love?"

            The breath he drew was deep and ragged, and his eyes turned to Harry's for a moment, as he considered, before turning back to Hermione. "All right, Hermione Jane."

            She leaned up and kissed him again, a light peck, then turned back again to Harry.

            "Do you believe what I told you, Harry?"

            He laughed uncomfortably. "Well, yeah, sure, 'cause, you know, any girl who tells a short, near-sighted, skinny guy that he's like a godling out of legend is obviously to be trusted."

            Hermione rolled her eyes, and put her hand on Harry's chest. "Am I clowning around, Harry? Or did I just pour out my heart to you?"

            Harry's eyes dropped, and he caressed lightly with the fingers on her belly. "I'm sorry, Hermione," he said. He looked back up again, met her gaze. "I'm just-- You never said. You never showed."

            "Well, I couldn't, could I? I was for Ron, I knew that. And I couldn't love you both, could I? So I quashed it, Harry, and I stuffed it down inside myself, and I told myself that my love for you was just platonic, that the attraction I felt for you was just natural, and I didn't even let myself know it was there."

            "You mean..." Harry's voice was quiet. "You mean feeling attracted to you sometimes, that isn't just a normal part of friendship with a girl?"

            "Oh, Harry, of course it is. But we're so close, Harry, you, me and Ron. That's what's not... not ordinary, not normal. How do we go through what we've been through together, and not feel something more and deeper than you feel for the kid you sit next to in History of Magic?"

            She took a deep breath. "And, you see, Harry, the thing is... When Ron's mum yelled at me, when she called me--"

            "Don't, Hermione," said Ron.

            She looked back over her shoulder. "But that's when it happened, Ron. That's when I thought, Now I have both of them."

            "You're not," said Ron, while Harry said, "You don't--" They stopped, looked at each other with wide, frantic eyes.

            "I didn't do it on purpose!" Hermione cried. "I swear to you both, I didn't. All I was thinking when I cast that spell was that it might keep you from going through the Veil. But when she said that, said about bathing and sleeping, I heard myself think that: Now I have both of them."

            She took another deep breath. "I had to think about that for a long time. Why would I think that? And there was only one reason. I thought about why I thought about having you, Harry, and I found myself remembering your power blowing through me like a warm wind as you summoned that Patronus. And then, oh, God, Harry, do you remember what we did right after that?"

            "We flew Buckbeak up to the tower to rescue Sirius."

            Hermione's eyes were slightly dilated as she remembered. "Yes, Harry! Within about a minute of seeing you like that, I was pressed against your back, with my arms around you, and that magnificent, beautiful, powerful creature flexing between my thighs, as we flew like owls in the night! I know you never knew it, Harry, but I came that night."

            He heard Ron groan behind her, and couldn't tell by his expression whether it was with hurt or arousal.

            "And when Mrs Weasley said that to me, all those feelings came boiling to the surface." She turned and looked back over her shoulder again. "All that love I have for you, Ron, all the love I'd admitted to myself I have for you." She turned again. "And all that love that I wouldn't let myself admit I had for you, Harry."

            She drew a deep breath , and sat back on the sofa between them. "What I'm saying is this: We're going to be together, all the time. We're going to share every bed, every shower, every bath. We can't get away from one another, so there can't be any reason to want to. That means..."

            Another breath. She was silent then, for a time, her chest rising and falling with each breath.

            Harry waited patiently, glancing over at Ron, who bit his lip, looking from him to Hermione.

            "That means I belong to both of you," Hermione finally said. "I have to. It's the only way."


            Ron lay his head back on the back of the sofa, his mind spinning. It was like the Confundus Curse he'd been struck with by Dean in a DA meeting last spring. It was all too much to process.

            Hermione loved him! She'd told him! She'd kissed him, and told him! And he'd told her, too, he bloody well had, he'd coughed it right up and said it: I love Hermione Granger. Okay, it was kind of buried in an example, but...

            That was important, Ron thought. It shouldn't be buried, shouldn't be a rider to another thought.

            He opened his mouth to say it again, to tell her, and the memory thundered back into him again. She loves Harry, too.

            He opened his eyes, lifted his head to look over at his mate, who was ashen-faced, open-mouthed, his green eyes staring sightlessly into nowhere.

            Ron tried to imagine his life with his mate forever touching either him or Hermione. He imagined making love to Hermione, with Harry there, facing away, one hand brushing his back, Hermione's elbow, trying to make himself small, and not interfere, and the thought filled him with sadness.

            Another image occurred to Ron: That slightly wicked, triumphant smile that he and Harry would exchange over a successfully executed Quidditch move, or some bit of business in the common room, but spread out beneath them, not the Quidditch pitch, not the carpet with the Gryffindor crest. Spread out beneath them, as they completed whatever mutual bit of legerdemain they'd pull off, Hermione, her skin glistening with sweat, her back arched, her face a mask of pleasure. Oh, Merlin!

            The thought excited him. More than that, it warmed him, and he was suddenly realising that he liked -- no, he loved -- the idea of, of collaborating with Harry in loving Hermione.

            He focused again on Harry, whose mouth was working now, though no sound was escaping.

            "All right there, mate?"

            Harry's eyes snapped to his, seemed to be struggling to focus. "I... Uh, that is..." He shook his head, and then his eyes were focused on Ron. His voice, when he spoke, was clear, deliberate, but very hesitant, very soft. "I dunno, mate. You tell me. Am I?"

            Ron looked to Hermione, who was watching him avidly, eyes wide. He glanced back at Harry. "I'll put it this way, mate," he said, and turned his eyes back to Hermione's. "I love you, Hermione Jane. I love you with everything I have. There's no-one else I love as much as I love you... except Harry." His eyes returned to Harry. "Mate, we're going to be attached to each other, all three of us, from here on out. Will you-- will you help me love her, mate? Because, I gotta tell you, now that we're like this" --he slid his hand across Hermione's belly to touch Harry's fingers-- "I can't figure out any other way to do it."

            Hermione had turned to watch Harry now, her lip pulled between her teeth. Her hand found Ron's arm and squeezed. It actually hurt more than a little: the scars left by the brain were very tender still. But Ron was watching Harry and Hermione, his heart strung out on a keen edge of razor-wire.

            Harry stared at him a long time, then shifted his attention to Hermione. "This is really what you want? Are you sure? You're not just--"

            "Oh, that's it, Harry," she interrupted him. "I zapped us with a thousand-year-old spell, and sealed our lives together forever just so I could get Ron to share me with you to make you feel better!"

            Harry's eyes widened. "I guess it does sound kind of stupid, when you put it like that." He shifted his gaze. "Ron..."

            "Oh, don't even, ya great pillock! Would I have made that great speech to you if I didn't mean it?"

            "I know you, Ron. You're a jealous type. You want Hermione to yourself."

            Hermione gasped, looked over at Ron, and he shrugged. "Yeah, I do. But that's not one of my options, is it?"

            Hermione's breath hitched, and she started, "Oh, Ron..."

            But he interrupted her. "No, Hermione. Don't apologise. You fixed it so I get to live long enough to hear you tell me you love me. So I get to live long enough to tell you I love you. This is the best of all possible worlds, love."

            He looked back to Harry. "The way I see it, mate, these are my choices: I can have you as-- as my partner in loving Hermione, or I can shag her with you sitting perched on the edge of the bed, touching one of us with a fingertip, trying to read a book or something."

            The image startled the beginnings of a laugh from Harry, and the laugh died in his throat, as Ron saw it sinking in that it was no joke, but the literal truth.

            He looked at them both for a moment, and then gathered Hermione up in his arms, Ron's hand, on her belly, now trapped between them, and he kissed her, hesitantly at first, and then with more enthusiasm. Ron watched, eyes wide, pulse racing, and realized, with shock, that he felt no anger, no jealousy, no possessiveness. Instead, watching Harry kiss the girl he loved aroused him, deeply.

            Finally, the kiss broke, and Harry sat back away from her again, looking from Hermione to Ron and back. "I love you both. You know that, right?"

            Ron reached across Hermione, started to touch Harry's shoulder, but it wasn't enough somehow, and he moved his hand to Harry's face. "I meant what I said, Harry. I love you too."

            "As do I, Harry," said Hermione, with a smile. "And I was right last year. You are an excellent kisser."

            A bright-pink blush rose up through Harry's face, and Ron laughed, giving him a small shove. "We'll make a Weasley of you yet, mate! Just have to do something about that hair!"                                                          

            Hermione brought Ron's hand back to her waist and stood, turning to reach down and take the boys' hands. "I still have a salve to put on, and we have to bathe first, because it's not as effective if it's not applied to clean skin. Come on."

            She somehow switched their hands in hers behind her back as she turned, and she led them into the bathroom.

            It was like a very slightly smaller version of the Prefects' Bath. The walls were done in rose marble, veined with peach and gold, and on the walls were paintings of water-nymphs and merfolk. The tub was smaller, but still more than ample for the three of them, and there were fresh towels hanging from racks.

            Hermione moved to the many spigots, murmuring to the boys, "I suppose you want something all manly, like Mahogany, or something. No more honeysuckle and Freesia for me!"

            "How about vanilla?" asked Harry. Hermione and Ron both looked at him. "What? It's a nice, fresh scent, it's girly enough for Hermione, and we won't be embarrassed to smell like it."

            Ron grinned. "Shit, that's a fairly good point, mate." He turned to Hermione. "And maybe a dash of cinnamon, spice it up a little."

            Hermione smiled, and twisted spigots, and the air started to smell like biscuits baking as the tub filled.

            She and the boys stood, for a moment, looking around at one another. Their faces became solemn. They could no longer pretend that what was about to happen between them wasn't enormous, wasn't life-changing.

            "Well," she finally said, and began steadily unbuttoning her blouse, "no time like the present."

            Harry's and Ron's eyes met as she drew the fabric off her shoulders, and the blouse slid down her arms and pooled around their joined hands, and the boys reached as one to touch her shoulders with their off-side hands, so they could release it. Then Harry shucked off his Tee-shirt, moving around to let Hermione's elbow touch his back, and began unbuttoning his jeans. Ron drew a breath and started stripping.

            In a few moments, they were naked, flushed, breathing quickly, as if they'd just run up a flight of stairs. And they stood there, for a moment, skin touching skin, and then, only then, did Hermione's Gryffindor courage fail her. She didn't try to cover herself, and Ron thought that was somehow worse. She just slumped, miserably, and began crying in great hitching sobs, tears pouring down her face, and Ron stood there for a second, his eyes wide, panicked, and Harry's eyes caught his, over her shoulder, and his mouth formed the words, Hold her!

            Ron pulled her to him, wrapped his arms around her, one hand caressing her back while the other stroked her hair, and she sobbed onto his chest, and Harry stood back, his arm stretched out, his hand rubbing her shoulder, and that distance would not do at all, and Ron took his hand from Hermione's hair, and grabbed Harry's arm, and pulled him, and now Harry was embracing her, too, his body pressed against her back, his arms around her, hands trapped between her belly and Ron's while Ron's hand moved between his belly and Hermione's back.

            "Oh, Ron," she wailed, "you're hard! Both of you!"

            "Well, we can't help that, can we?" said Ron gently. "We're teenaged boys, holding a beautiful naked girl in our arms. But look at it this way: You've been with us in the dining hall when we were holding forks and knives, loads of times, and we managed never to stick any of them in you, didn't we?"

            Through her tears, Hermione guffawed, and said, "Ron, that's got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

            He reached up with a thumb and wiped tears from her cheeks. "That's better, Hermione Jane. That's better. You've been more than brave, love. It's OK." They heard the water shut off, the charmed plumbing knowing when the level in the tub was just right.

            And Harry leaned around and kissed her cheek. "Lets just get in the tub, sweetheart," he murmured. Ron raised an eyebrow at him. Sweetheart? But Harry shrugged with a nervous half-smile at him, and leaned down to lift her up. "Help me out, here, Ron."

            Ron smiled, and reached down, and together they gathered her up in their arms, still weeping, and brought her gently to the tub. They stepped carefully in, and lowered her gently into the water, murmuring soothing endearments in her ears as they found soft washcloths, and cinnamon-scented liquid soap, and began to gently wash her.

In the bath


            She'd tried to be brave, she'd tried so hard. She'd brought her boys here, and told them her deepest secrets, and begun to do what she knew had to be done, to face what she knew could not be avoided. She'd led them to this room, this world of marble and water and scent and steam, had spoken bracingly, moved calmly, shedding her clothing as she'd shed her secrets, as the boys, her boys, did the same, and then they were naked, and they were so beautiful, her boys, so beautiful. Ron, tall and lean, large-handed and broad-shouldered, his stance relaxed and confident. Harry, smaller and slender, lithe and co-ordinated, almost delicate, but so strong, so strong, his green eyes bright through his circular glasses.

            And there she stood, with her too-small breasts and her too-wide hips and the hideous, revolting scar disfiguring her, and she wasn't ready for this, wasn't ready to be seen as they'd see her, touched as they'd touch her, because, no, she wasn't much, wasn't lush and well-proportioned like Lavender, or slender and elegant and exotic, like Parvati, wasn't as beautiful as they deserved, but they were blokes, teenaged boys, and even she would be enough to make them randy, and oh, God, she'd only ever kissed anyone once before tonight, that frantic and frightening few minutes with Viktor, and she hadn't known what to do, and hadn't really pleased him, or herself. And now she'd kissed both her boys, really kissed them, long and deep, and yes, it had been wonderful where her kisses with Viktor had been awkward, it had felt right, but this, this was so overwhelming. Now she was naked with her boys, her beautiful, randy boys, and they'd want to shag, of course they would, and part of her wanted to too, but, she'd never even seen a penis in person, and now here were two, and it was too much, too soon, and it was so overwhelming, and suddenly she was crying, weeping, heaving great, wracking, uncontrollable sobs.

            And Ron's arms were around her, and it was comforting, and then Harry's as well, their warmth against her, supporting, and comforting, and it was so good, so wonderful, and then she felt the pressure, the hardness, against her belly, against her back, and there was the voice in her head, maddeningly clinical, Those are erections, Hermione, erections, and they're yours, you made them, you caused them, and they're yours.

            And she wailed aloud, "Oh, Ron, you're hard! Both of you!"

            And Ron was murmuring softly in her ear, and he was saying -- Oh, Godric, he did not just say that! and the mirth escaped from her in one harsh bark, and she breathed, "Ron, that's got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

            And Ron's hands were gentle on her face, his voice kind, and loving, and there were Harry's lips on her cheek, his voice so soft, so sweet in her ear, and she was being lifted, carried, and then lowered into the water, luxurious, sweet-scented, and her world dissolved in the warm velvet of the water, in gentle hands and warm, soft cloth, in cinnamon-scented soap and loving, innocent touches, so kind and gentle even as they moved across her breasts, her nipples suddenly standing as if they'd been called to attention. Innocent even when Harry's cloth trailed down her spine and gently worked its way into the furrow of her bum, even when Ron's cloth brushed soap through the triangular nest of wild brown curls, and gently stroked across the musky crease where her thigh met her vulva.

            She swam in their touch, floated on it, reveled in it. How could it be possible? How could it be that two randy boys, their erections still firm and steely -- for as they moved around her, she could feel them, sometimes, brief touches of hardness against her side or her hip, never pressed, never flaunted, but there nonetheless -- could touch her, touch her everywhere, so lovingly, so reverently, so innocently? There were cloths and caresses, and even kisses, all so loving, so gentle, so undemanding, and she sighed, and felt herself rising again, rising up through the layers of wool over her consciousness, the awareness she had allowed to shut down restoring itself, and she looked back and forth between her two beautiful boys, and reached for a cloth, and soap, and began washing them, moving back and forth between Ron and Harry, washing arms and chests and backs, washing legs and then, with a deep, steadying breath, their bums, one at a time, first Ron's, then Harry's.

            She looked back and forth between them again, then leaned, got more soap on her cloth, and reached gingerly in front of Harry, cloth moving tenderly down his belly, soaping its way through the nest of curls, sweeping once along the length of him, gently, trying not to be too overtly sexual -- but how could she avoid it? -- and he groaned, leaned his head against her, kissed her shoulder, so gently, and she was soaping down, now, gently scrubbing around his scrotum, now, and the folds where his thighs met his crotch. She sat back from him, and they were staring, eyes to eyes, and she leaned to him, kissed him, softly, on the mouth,  her tongue gently tasting his, just a fleeting moment, and she tossed her cloth into the basket, and took a new one, wet it, soaped it, and reached down into the water to wash Ron. He groaned, as Harry had, as she stroked along the length him, and she smiled at him, and continued to wash him, cleaning around his testicles, scrubbing gently along those sweaty creases between leg and trunk. She leaned in and kissed him, as she had Harry, and then set back, looking back and forth between them.

            "You're still both..." She blushed. "You know... hard."

            "Hermione," Ron's voice was gentle, "we're teenaged boys. We're hard a dozen times a day."

            "On a slow day," provided Harry.

            "It's all right, really," Ron continued. "Well just, later on, you know, go and have a-- Oh." The tips of Ron's ears were suddenly pink. "No, I guess we won't do that, either, will we..."

            "Oh, man...." Harry's voice was troubled. "Oh, man."

            "Oh, dear." Hermione bit her lip. "I hadn't thought of that. You boys will want to, to, to masturbate sometimes, won't you?"

            The two boys exchanged a long, silent glance, as if they didn't know how to answer that. Finally, Harry said, "Damn, it sounds a lot more serious than 'wank' when she says it that way, doesn't it?"

            Ron let out a strangled grunt of laughter.

            Hermione bit her lip. This was so much, so hard -- so hard, her brain repeated the phrase now, with an entirely different connotation -- but she loved these boys so much...

            "Do you..." Her voice was tiny, now. "Do you want me to help?" Her hands reached down, grasped their erections, firm and soft-skinned and slippery in the soapy water, and stroked along them, just once. "Like this?"

            "Oh, God, Hermione," groaned Harry, "oh yes."

            Ron's lips were by her ear. "Is it really what you want?"

            "Oh, yes," she said, very fervently, and was surprised to discover that that was how she meant it. And she began stroking in earnest now, pumping, her hands sliding soapily over the hard flesh, so different, so much the same, Ron's a little stout and somehow jaunty, Harry's a little longer, slender and lithe, and Harry asked, "Can, can we touch you?" and she leaned over and kissed him, nodding as she did, and his hands were on her breasts, and then there were Ron's, and they were kissing her, her face, her neck, her shoulders. Every time she turned her head, there was a mouth there to capture hers, hands so gentle and loving on her breasts, tongues tracing the lines of her neck, of her jaw, of her collarbones. She felt her breath coming short even as theirs did, and then Ron stiffened, crying out her name, and she felt his release, and Harry grunted, "Oh God, so good, Hermione, love you," and he came too, and she was almost quivering, now, and Ron looked her in the eyes, kissed her, long and deep while Harry nibbled gently at her neck.

            "Your turn?" Ron asked her, and she took his hand in hers, guided it down to her center, showed him where to put his fingers, what felt good, and then she was pulling Harry's hand down as well, sliding one of his fingers into her as Ron stroked at her clitoris. She moved back and forth, kissing, instructing, "Harder, Ron, that's good," "Press on the front, Harry, Oh, my God, yes!"

            She'd come before in her life, of course. She'd masturbated as much as any sixteen-year-old girl, and there had been that time on Buckbeak's back, with Harry in her arms. But none of that prepared her for this, this world of pleasure, and caressing hands, gentle touches and soft kisses, these two beautiful boys devoting themselves to her pleasure. The climax shattered her, and she screamed their names, clutched them to her, kissed them, one and then the other. Somewhere, she heard Ron's voice, stunned, reverent. "Bloody Hell, Harry! Did you see that?"

            Harry's voice was hushed. "Oh, my God, Ron, oh, fuck yes!"

            When her eyes opened, they were staring at her, wide-eyed.

            "Hermione," gasped Ron. "That was the most fucking amazing thing I've ever seen."

            "Oh, yes!" Harry breathed his agreement.

            They stood then, rinsed themselves, and moved over to the counter with the towels, Harry dug out his wand, and cast a warming charm on them, and Ron took the first, and began drying her with soft, gentle trokes. Harry grabbed another towel, and joined in, and she took a towel, and began working on Harry, then, once he was dry, Ron. Harry had turned and retrieved the salve, which he opened, and offered to Ron, who scooped out a finger full, and began gently applying it along the length of Hermione's scar. Harry took the next glob, followed her directions as he massaged it into her right breast, and she felt its healing magic sinking in, and she smiled.

            They used the toilet then, urinating in turns. "You go first, Hermione," Harry told her. "We're blokes, we'll leave the seat up." When Harry went, Ron wrinkled his nose. "Bloody hell, Harry, that's just not normal. You need to drink more."

            Harry summoned their wands, handed them back, banished used cloths and towels and dirty clothes to the laundry basket, and they returned to the bedroom, smiling at one another, and dressed in the school uniforms that had been laid out for them.

            They stood together again, and Hermione drew her boys once more into an embrace, kissing them, one at a time. "I love you, I love you."

            And they murmured their responses, "I love you, Hermione Jane." "Love you both, so much, so much."

            And they separated again, hand in hand, and walked out through Gryffindor Tower, out the Portrait Hole, and down to the Great Hall.

            David Granger was waiting, reading a Daily Prophet and drinking coffee. He put down the paper, and looked back and forth among them, his face impassive. His eyes settled on Hermione's and she found herself blushing.

            "Well, come on," he told them, softly. "I'm sure Professor Dumbledore would like to disconnect this fireplace again from the Floo Network." He turned to his daughter. "Would you do the honors? I don't think I can do it."

            And she took a handful of Floo Powder, spoke her address, tossed it into the fireplace, and the four of them stepped into the flames.



Chapter Text

Chapter Three: A Very Long and Entirely Embarrassing Talk

            Harry stepped out of the Grangers' fireplace, and tried to look around appreciatively. It was a pretty nice living room, no question about it, but Harry could no more pay attention to it than he could swallow a Rolls Royce. He looked across at Ron, and saw the same expression there, the same mixture of wonder and terror, and his eyes returned to David Granger.

            He wasn't a very large man, nor particularly solid. There was no particular reason for Harry to be frightened of him. Other, of course, than the fact that Hermione's father was, without a doubt, going to kill him and Ron for what they'd just done, not half an hour ago, to his daughter.

            It was surreal. Half an hour from having his finger up inside Hermione --  having his finger up inside Hermione! -- to standing in the living room of her parents' house, with her father showing them to the sofa, and her mother arriving from the kitchen with a tray bearing coffee, tea, milk, and a plate of carrot sticks. He squeezed Hermione's fingers: the same small, slender fingers that had reached under the water, and stroked him -- no, that was the other hand -- stroked Ron to orgasm. She smiled back at him, squeezing his hand in response.

            As they sat on the sofa, David Granger pulled a chair around, facing them, for his wife, who was setting the tray on the coffee table in front of them. He then another for himself, and sat, facing them across the coffee cups and carrot sticks.

            "So," he said, evenly. "Coffee? Tea? Just milk perhaps? I believe we have some diet cola in the refrigerator if you'd prefer."

            Harry stared at him, like a squirrel watching a lorry bear down on it, while Ron managed to say, in a high, choked voice, "Co-- Coffee would be lovely sir."

            Granger nodded to the tray. "Serve yourself then."

            Ron selected a cup, and poured, with a great deal of clattering between cup and carafe, added a generous dollop of milk, and looked for sugar. There was none. He looked up at Harry. Harry shook his head slightly, but didn't dare mouth the word Dentists. Ron's answering nod was almost imperceptible, and he took a sip of the unsweetened coffee. Harry saw him suppress the grimace, but there was an echo of his shudder in his shoulders.

            "Now, then," Mr. Granger said, looking back and forth among the three of them. He suddenly glowered and leaned forward, to bellow "What have you two done to my daughter, then!?"

            Harry squeaked and pushed himself backwards, covering his face with one arm, and heard Ron's gasp as his cup of hot coffee fell into his lap.

            The next sound he heard was a low, rumbling sound from Mr. Granger, followed by a slap, and Mrs. Granger's voice -- so like Hermione's in its irritation -- snapping, "David Granger, you behave yourself!"

            Harry opened his eyes, lowered his arm, as Mr. Granger started giggling, and Mrs. Granger turned to Ron.

            "I'm sorry, Ron, dear, are you all right?" She started patting at his lap with a dish-towel. "I'm afraid Harry's Godfather isn't the only so-called adult you know whose sense of humor stopped maturing when he hit thirteen!"

            David was chortling now. "But did you see their faces, Jane? Oh, that was great!"

            "Honestly, David, you're not the one with second-degree burns on his crotch."

            Ron's eyes widened, and he waved his hands, "No, no, Missus, I'm fine, really, this is a school uniform, it's made to stand up to spills in the potions lab, and stuff. It won't even stain."

            "More than I can say for my sofa," said Jane, glaring at her husband.

            David raised a wry eyebrow at his wife. "I'm fairly certain, dear, with all the magical folk who'll be trooping through here tomorrow, we'll be able to find someone with a moment to Scourgify it."

            Jane Granger huffed, then sat down again, and David leaned across the table to touch Harry's knee and Ron's. "Listen," he said, "I'm really sorry. Well, no I'm not, it was really funny, but I promise you both, I'm not angry."

            "You're not?" said Ron.

            "No," said Hermione and Jane, in identical, exasperated tones, "He's not."

            "I'm not," he said. "I'm not at all. But, well -- and I know this is terribly uncomfortable, and believe me it's at least as much so for me and Jane as for you three -- the question, well..." He was actually blushing. "The question stands."

            Harry's eyes widened, as he stared at Mr. Granger, and he heard Hermione make a small, choked sound, and Ron squeaked just a little.

            "Mr. Granger," Ron managed to choke out, "I can't-- I don't-- A gentleman-- You're her father, sir!"

            Granger smiled gently. "Yes, I am, Ron. And I care about her very deeply, and I want to know that she's being safe, and being treated well, and, well... properly." He leaned forward, touched Ron's and Harry's knees again. "Now, see, the thing is, I know that there's no sort of Sex Education at Hogwarts. And, I don't get the impression, Ron, that your mother will have been all that forthcoming in educating you in this area." He turned. "And I'm dead-bloody certain, Harry, that the Dursleys have been no less useless to you about this than anything else."

            Harry gulped, and managed to squeak, in a high, girlish voice, "That's true, sir."

            Mr. Granger gave the knee a little squeeze. "Relax, Harry. It's fine."

            "We masturbated," said Hermione, suddenly.

            "Bloody hell, Hermione!" gasped Ron. He  and Harry turned to stare at her.

            She looked back and forth between them. "Well, we did!"

            Harry buried his face in his hands. "This is not happening."

            "Come on, now, Harry, buck up. I did warn you, after all. A long and entirely embarrassing talk."

            Harry looked back at him, tried to essay a smile, came up only with a half-terrified grimace.

            David sat back. "Now, was this masturbation individual, or was it mutual?"

            Hermione opened her mouth, but her father stilled her with a raised finger, and touched Harry's knee again. "Harry, you can trust me. I'm not angry with you. I'm not going to be. I'm trusting you and Ron with my daughter. I'd like you to trust me with your answer."

            Harry bit his lip, looking down at his shoes, then raised his eyes to Mr. Granger's. "It was mutual, sir. After we'd washed up, well, we were, you know, excited, sir. That's when we realised that we can't just go off to bed and..." he swallowed. "And have a quiet wank, sir. So Hermione, well, Hermione very kindly offered to help us. Sir."

            An amused smile played with the corners of Mr. Granger's mouth. "My daughter is almost always a very conscientious girl, Harry." He turned to Ron. "So she, er..." That smile again. "She helped you both then. At the same time?"

            Ron was blushing furiously, the tips of his ears such a deep red that Harry had some fear that they were simply going to burst open, spraying twin jets of blood all over the Granger's living-room. "Y-- Yes, sir. At the same time, sir."

            Hermione stammered. "I-- I-- I just love them both, Daddy, so much, and I, well, I have two hands, after all, and, well, it seemed... fair."

            "You don't have to justify, dear," said Jane. "That's one of the meanings of All's fair in love and war."

            "That's right, honey," Mr. Granger agreed. "I'm trying to gauge your comfort level, is all."

            "By that time, Daddy, I was very comfortable."

            "Not at first, then."

            She shook her head, looking down at her feet, and, to Harry's surprise, Ron leaned forward. "She was magnificent, Mr. Granger, you should have-- Well, no. But she really was amazing. I didn't understand at the time, but I think I do, now. She brought us into the room, sat us on the sofa, and talked to us one at a time, poured her heart out to us. It was like... Sir, she knew we were going to have to be naked together, so she was just going to get that done, and get it done right. No deceptions, no hiding. She told me about... About loving me, sir. Then told Harry about loving him! Biggest damned shock of my life, I'll tell you."

            "And are you in love with our Hermione?" asked Jane, smiling kindly.

            Ron's face lit up as he looked at his shoes. "Oh, I reckon so, ma'am. Been since I don't know when."

            "Well, we knew that, Jane," said David Granger. "The way they were always sniping at one another, rowing. Talk about unresolved sexual tension!"

            Jane fixed her husband with a steely gaze. "There is more to love than sex, David Granger!"

            "He vomited slugs for her, Jane."

            She smiled fondly at Ron. "You did at that, didn't you dear?"

            "Well..." Ron was blushing again. "It wasn't as if I meant to or anything. My wand was broken. The spell backfired."

            "You were defending our daughter, Ron," said Mr. Granger.

            Ron looked at his trainers, and Hermione leaned over, laid her head on his shoulder. Ron leaned his head on hers, and smiled.

            Jane smiled at them. "And that's all the answer that question needs."

            Ron sat up again. "Anyway," he said, "Once we'd sorted that all out, Hermione brought us to have a bath. She said it was because-- Oh, hell, it doesn't matter what she said. She knew that we were going to have to do that at some point. We were going to have to bathe, we were going to have to piss, and she didn't want it hanging over our heads. She's so brave, Mr. Granger. She's so amazingly brave. But, you know, there's only so much you can ask in one day, isn't there? Once we were undressed, well, Hermione kind of freaked out. She was so-- I mean, she was just stood there, wasn't she, and crying? Oh, yeah! She was so miserable. So Harry and me -- It was Harry, really, he kept his head, I didn't know what to do -- well we held her, and then we brought her into the bath, sir, and we, well, we bathed her."

            "Oh, Daddy, they were so wonderful to me! They just washed, that was all. They washed everywhere, but it was just washing, there was no, no groping or feeling or anything. I mean, they were randy, I could tell, as randy as anything, but they-- Oh, Daddy, they were just gentle, and kind, and wonderful, that's all." She took a breath. "So, then, well, they got me all calmed down, and comfortable, and I bathed them the way they'd bathed me, and, well, I touched them, you know, washing them, and, well, I knew...."

            "So she helped us," said Harry.

            "I see." David Granger looked at his wife, who was smiling warmly at the three teens. He turned back to them. "And did one of you then, er, help my daughter?"

            "No, sir," Ron began, and then stopped, as Granger started looking offended.

            "It was both of us, sir," said Harry. "Her-- Hermione wanted it to be both of us."

            Granger looked back and forth between the two boys. "Both of you. Together."

            "Yes, sir," said Ron. "We, er, we've always worked well as a team, sir."

            David Granger sat back in his seat, eyes a little wide. "...a team..." he breathed. He looked over at his wife, whose lips were pressed together as she smiled, her eyes glistening. "A team, Jane."

            Mrs Granger nodded. A single tear began to wander down her cheek, which alarmed Harry a bit, but, intense as it was, that was definitely a smile, so he supposed it couldn't be too bad. Mr. Granger chewed his lower lip for a moment, looking, suddenly, remarkably like his daughter, and then turned back to them.

            "Now," he said, briskly. "Was there any, er, anal insertion?"

            "Sir!" cried Harry.

            Ron gawped silently for a moment, before sputtering, "We would, sir, we would never..."

            David Granger held up a hand, smiling. "Never say never, now, lads. There's nothing at all wrong with it, in fact, I can tell you, the sensation can be quite breathtaking."

            Jane leaned forward, nodding, "And I must say, the first time your father tried it with me, it was, well, just the most wonderful surprise!"

            Hermione's eyes had suddenly assumed the dimensions of footballs.

            But Granger wasn't stopping now. He leaned in toward them. "Listen to me. Life is too short, and love is too precious, to say no to things like that because you think they're just for poofters or something. When you're together, when you're in bed, you can't give ground because of what you're afraid someone else might think of you. Never forget that. All you should ever take to bed with you is your love, and your own sense of pleasure. Well, and a nice warm jar of lube."

            "Oh, my God," said Hermione. "Oh, my God, Oh, my God."

            "Anyway," said David Granger, "the reason I ask is because, no, there's nothing wrong with doing it, but there's an order to it, and it's important. Always go from front to back. You can always put your fingers in the anus after the vagina, but it's really important  not to go from the anus to the vagina without cleaning them pretty thoroughly first. And that rule's as important with penises as it is with fingers. The reason is that there are germs and things that grow in the anus, that the anus can handle. It's made for pretty nasty stuff, after all. But they can cause infections and stuff if they get transported over into the vagina. And a germ doesn't care if it's under your fingernail or in your foreskin, you follow. So the rule's the same: Front to back is fine, but never back to front, unless you really wash on the way. And I mean really wash."

            Harry glanced over at Ron and Hermione. They were simply staring, open-mouthed, at Hermione's father.

            Mr. Granger patted Harry on the knee, and said, "Now, as long as we're around the subject anyway, let's talk about anal sex. Given the fundamental inequities involved with two boys and a girl, this is bound to come up as an issue at some point. The same rule about front-to-back, never back-to-front applies here as well, but the penis is really just as vulnerable to infection as the vagina, so it's important to take precautions."

            "Precautions," said Ron. "You mean condoms, right? We have those in the Wizarding world, sir."

            "Ah. I thought you might use a spell."

            "There is a charm, Daddy," said Hermione. "Well, a number of them actually."

            "Right, then." Mr. Granger took a breath, considered a moment. "There's one more thing I need to say about this topic, then. You absolutely need to take it slowly, when -- or if -- you try this. It's not easy to do, and who-ever is 'bottom' is going to need preparation. Start small, and slow. Just a finger at  first. Use some sort of lubrication, and try to add a finger. It's all about getting the recipient to relax. Only when they're really relaxed is it time to move on to using your penis."

            Ron and Harry were staring, open-mouthed.

            David Granger looked among them for several long moments, and smiled. "Look, I'm not blind to the fact that this is all a lot to take in, and it's got to be a bit weird coming from Hermione's dad. But..." He chewed his lip again. "Listen, you're teenagers. I know you're going to be sexual with each other. In an ideal world, none of you would be dealing with this for a couple more years. But here we are, and you're this..." He smiled at them then. "This magnificent threesome. Can I tell all three of you how proud I am of you? Of your courage, Hermione, of your gentleness, Harry, Ron? You three are, well, you're amazing. You are. But you've been pulled, way too suddenly, into this, and your bodies and hormones are going to be making demands on you, and you're going to give into those demands. You're going to have sex, and you're going to have it soon, and I fear maybe sooner than you're ready for. So I want to be sure you understand as much as you can about it, about what it means, what it feels like, what the dangers are, because there really are dangers, not just physical but emotional. We can't protect you from your bodies, but we can arm you to defend yourselves."

            They were silent for a long moment, then,  Mr. and Mrs. Granger looking back and forth among the three of them, before Harry finally spoke.

            "Mr. Granger, how old were you when you first had sex?"

            "Seventeen and a half," he replied easily. "With an older woman of twenty-two. She was the delivery girl for the curry place my parents ordered from, and I was just mad for her. I'm sure I was pretty obvious. One day, when my parents were out, I ordered in curry, hoping she'd be the one to deliver, and, well..." He grinned fondly at the memory. "She did."

            "Were you scared?" Harry asked.

            "Terrified. Fortunately, for her the thrill seemed to be the thrill she was giving me. I sure as hell didn't manage to do much for her."

            "Was she," asked Ron, hesitantly, "Was she tall, sir?"

            Mr. Granger's eyes flickered briefly to his diminutive daughter, then back to Ron. "Yes, she was, Ron. Tall as me. I'd never been with a smaller girl until Jane, here."

            Harry found himself looking back to Hermione's mum, who was really not much taller than Hermione was, and she met his eyes and smiled. "It will be all right, Harry, Ron. A woman is made to bear that weight, and you'll find that you're mostly supporting yourselves on your knees and elbows. And when you do just collapse, and lay your full weight on Hermione, well, she might have a little trouble breathing if you stay too long, but I promise you, if she feels half as much for you boys as I do for David, feeling your weight sprawled on top of her will be one of the best things in her world."

            Hermione was flushed, probably with embarrassment, but she gave Ron's and Harry's hands a little squeeze.

            "And, of course, Ron," added Mr. Granger, "You'll find that there are lots of ways of doing it other than with you on top." He glanced over at Harry. "Especially, I daresay, as there are the three of you."

            Mrs. Granger leaned forward with a smile. "Oh, yes. Especially, I'm sure, with magic involved. I mean, with transfiguration and suchlike, why, the possibilities are endless!"

            Hermione held her hands up. "Oh, Mum, that's-- I can't deal with that!"

            "Well, Hermione," Mrs. Granger petted her knee, "I'm not advocating that, we're not advocating anything. We're just talking about what there is. It's up to you to decide what to do."

            David Granger sat forward again, patted his wife's hand on his daughter's knee. "Boys, Hermione, can I have your hands here, please?"

            The three teens offered their hands, and Mr. Granger took them, brought them together, lay them atop his wife's, and then lay his own hand over them all. "I do want to advocate something, though. First, if you ever have any questions about any of this, any at all, you can always come to myself or Jane. Any time, day or night. I mean it. But I want to ask of the three of you this favor: Wait. You're under a lot of pressure from your bodies, and your proximity, and I can understand that. But you should give yourself time to absorb things, to get used to the idea."

            He looked each of them in the eye, in turn. "What you did today in the bath, that's fine, really, it's fine. But I'd like you to promise me that you won't go further than that for a while. That you won't, er, won't use anything but your hands. Say... Until Harry's birthday. Can you do that?"

            The three teens regarded one another for a moment, and Harry felt himself breathing an inner sigh of relief. He felt like he ought to resist the idea, or be upset, but it was sort of soothing, to be able to wait a bit.

            "Of, of course, sir," he said, quietly. "We'll do what you tell us."

            David Granger smiled. "Oh, I'm not telling you, Harry. It's your bodies, it's your choices. I'm asking you to do me -- and, I think, yourselves -- a favor."

            "I think it's a very good idea, Mr. Granger," said Ron, looking over at Hermione. Her expression seemed a little lighter, somehow, Harry noticed, and he quirked an eyebrow at Ron, whose own eyes acknowledged, and they smiled at each other.

            Hermione looked back and forth between them. "What?"

            The boys shrugged helplessly.

            "Well, then," Hermione said tartly, "I don't know about you two, but I'm hungry. Mum, Dad, do you think we could send out for curry?"

            And suddenly they were normal people again.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Souls Who Dwell In The Night

            "Ron!" Harry was upright, flushed, eyes wide, staring sightlessly in the dark as the cry was torn from him. "No, Ron!"

            In his mind, he saw it again: Ron, grabbing him, pulling him away from the Veil, then suddenly wrenching Harry free, throwing him and Hermione away from the opening, even as his own arms started to pinwheel, and he fell backwards, toward the fluttering cloth, his eyes wide, his face a mask of embarrassment, his mouth a perfect "O" of surprise.

            Suddenly, small, soft hands were touching him, stroking his back. "Harry," came Hermione's voice. "Harry, it's all right." Then she was upright, against him, her breasts soft and warm through her t-shirt on his bare skin, her arms wrapping around him, her lips, soft, moist, gently kissing his shoulder. "It's all right, Harry."

            He was in bed with Hermione!

            "Come on, love," she was murmuring to him, "budge over this way." To his astonishment, she was moving around him now, crawling into his lap, embracing, caressing, kissing gently. "Budge over where I was."

            Harry scooted that way, and a large, strong hand now was on him, pulling him closer, a voice saying, "'S all right, mate, I'm here, we're here, it's okay."

            Ron! He was in bed with Hermione and Ron!

            Ron's arm was pulling him back down, down onto the bed, wrapping, strong and firm, around his waist, and he threw one of his legs across Harry's as Hermione snuggled into his other side, caressing him gently, laying her head on his shoulder.

            He was in bed with Hermione and Ron!

            "Oh, no! Oh, God, I, I'm sorry, I..." He started to sit up again, and Ron gently brought him back down.

            "Harry, no, mate, it's okay. It's all right." He shook him a little. "Bring it back, mate, bring it back."

            "What?" Hermione's voice sounded puzzled.

            "When Harry has nightmares, he sort of fixates," Ron told her. "Takes him a bit to remember, you know, the real world."

            And it was this that brought Harry fully back to the present, transported in seconds by memories of all the times he'd been brought back by Ron, since the Tri-Wizard Tournament. In the dorm at Hogwarts, Ron crawling in through his bed-curtains to hold him. Seamus had once popped his head in after him, to make some crude joke, but one look at Harry's terror had stilled him. In Ron's room at the Burrow. And now here, in Hermione's surprisingly pink and girly bedroom at her parents' house. He let his head fall back to the pillows with a soft flump.

            "I'm sorry, guys. I didn't mean to wake you."

            Hermione leaned over, kissed his chest, her lips falling randomly half-way across his nipple. "It's all right, love," she told him, stroking his belly with one small, soft hand. "You've more than earned it."

            Ron snuggled closer to him, and Harry felt hardness pressed against his hip.

            "Hell, Ron," he said, a little surprised. "You've got wood!"

            "Look at it this way, Harry," Ron said. "You've been there plenty of times in the Great Hall, when I had--"

            Harry laughed and shoved him. "Shut up, you great berk!"

            But Hermione had lifted her head from Harry's chest. "You've got an erection, Ron?"

            "Should I have alerted WWN, or something?"

            "No, it's just, you know... You're hugging Harry. Are you bisexual?"

            "Your parents are a bad influence, Hermione."

            "It's a perfectly reasonable question, Ron, under the circumstances."

            Harry heard Ron sigh. "Hermione, it's three o'clock in the what-the-fuck-are-you-doing-up; I'm not prepared to put that much thought into it." He yawned again, mightily. "I think it's just the situation. You know, the three of us, together, in bed. I heard kissing. And I had my fingers inside you this afternoon. I've got plenty of reasons to be hard, and I'm too fucking tired to worry about whether Harry's one of them. This a problem for you, Harry?"

            Harry thought for a minute. "No," he finally said. "I guess it isn't."

            Ron reached up and tousled his hair in the dark, and Hermione squirmed partway across him to kiss Ron, and then kissed Harry, softly, lovingly, before settling back onto his chest again.

            "Good night, my loves," she said.

            David Granger was sitting on the edge of the bed, Jane stroking his back. "Hermione told us he has nightmares, dear."

            David sighed. "I know, Jane. But he sounded... Not just afraid. Desolate."

            Granger looked down past his bare knees at the floor.

            "Dear, before you go sit in the living room, put something on," said Jane. "Remember, we have guests."

            He looked back at his wife, naked and still beautiful in the light of the bedside lamp, and smiled. "You do know me, darling."

            "Yes, I do. You're well beyond sleep at this point."

            "Yes, dear." Granger pulled on a blue-and-green t-shirt -- Planet Earth: Love it or Leave it -- and a pair of grey sweats. "Love you, dear," he said, and switched off the light.

            "And you, darling," replied Jane, as he stepped quietly from the room. "See you in the morning."

            He padded quietly to the stairs, and down to the living-room. Remus Lupin was sitting on the sofa, smiling broadly at nothing.

            "Morning, Professor," David said, quietly.

            "By no sane definition known to man," replied Lupin, easily. "And, please, I'm Remus."

            Granger returned his friendly smile. "Then I'm David."

            He went to sit in one of the armchairs, saw there was a large, shaggy, black dog curled up in it, its nose on its paws. He cocked an eyebrow at Lupin.

            "Sirius," said Lupin.

            "You named your dog after--" Granger stopped, suddenly, remembering. "Oh!" He looked at the sleeping dog again. "How extraordinary!"

            The dog looked up at him, wagged its tail, barked very quietly, and Granger grinned. "You're welcome, mate. Try not to shed on the upholstery."

            The dog barked again, and this seemed almost to actually be laughter, and settled its head back on its paws.

            David moved to the other end of the couch from Lupin and noticed the coffee stain was gone. He pointed at its absence. "Your work?"

            Lupin smiled as he nodded.

            "Ta, then." David sat. "Thanks for staying here. I appreciate you making this place safe enough, while the kids are under my roof."

            Remus shrugged. "Least we could do. You and yours have been dragged head-first into our world, far more than most Muggle parents, even before, er, this."

            David's voice was quiet, serious. "The way I see it, we've been at the front lines of your war for five years now. Hermione didn't need this marriage spell to be attached to young Potter at the hip." He stood again, headed for the kitchen. "Would you like a pint, Remus? Sirius?"

            Lupin raised an eyebrow. "At this hour?"

            David leaned back out of the kitchen. "Part of this nutritious breakfast!"

            "You've talked me into it," said Remus, and Sirius barked.

            "Three it is, then," said David, returning to the kitchen, "and I'm not bringing yours in a bowl, Sirius!"

            He was back in a moment, bearing three tall bottles and a church-key, to see, as he reclaimed his place on the couch, the dog squirm over onto its back, and flow. Now Sirius Black lay on the chair, his back on the seat, head hanging upside-down over the edge of the cushion, and knees hung over the back. David opened a bottle with the church-key, and handed it to him.

            "Ta, mate," said Sirius, bringing the bottle to his upside-down lips.

            "Pleasure," David replied casually, and turned to open another bottle for a smirking Remus.

            "Thanks, David."

            David Granger tipped his own bottle to Remus in salute and sat back.

            "I'm sorry," said Sirius, his upside-down face suddenly solemn. "You're good people. You don't deserve to be dragged into our war."

            David took a pull at his own bottle. It was a rather nice home-brew one of his neighbors, a plump and very pleasant middle-aged lesbian named Allyce, made in her basement. "It's the Good Fight, isn't it?"

            "It is that," said Remus. He sipped some beer, and smiled at the bottle approvingly.

            "Then I'm proud to fight it. I'm proud of Hermione for stepping up."

            "She's always done that," said Remus. "As long as I've known her."

            "Heart of a lion, that one," agreed Sirius. "Honestly. I feel a bit weird saying this about a sixteen-year-old girl -- to her father yet! -- but I'll feel better following her into battle than some of the Aurors I know."

            "And your godson?"

            "I'd sooner follow him than your daughter." Sirius swigged his beer again, showing no discomfort at drinking it upside-down. David wondered briefly whether that was magic or practice, then imagined Jane's reaction when she caught him trying it, and wisely gave the whole line of thought up as a bad job. "No offense," Sirius finished.

            "None taken," replied David. "My daughter long ago pledged her life to his, and she's told us enough that I can see why. Hell, even here, today, as quiet and diffident as he's been towards me... He carries a kind of, of moral authority, doesn't he?"

            "That he does," said Remus, and both wizards smiled proudly.

            "And, you know what else?" said Sirius. "So does Ron Weasley." He lifted his bottle. "Young Mr. Weasley."

            "Hear, hear," said Remus, adding his bottle with a crystalline clink!

            "Her first love," agreed David, his bottle joining theirs.

            "I've known girls who made worse choices," said Sirius with a grin.

            "Damned few made better," agreed Remus. "Did you see him square off against his mother today?"

            Sirius laughed. "Albus sodding Dumbledore had his gawp hanging open and his thumbs up his arse! I thought I was going to wet myself. I wanted to stand up and applaud."

            "You should have seen him here today with me," said David. "I'd terrorized the poor little sods--"

            "Tonks told us about that," said Remus, with a smile.

            Sirius grinned wolfishly. "She wants you, Remus."

            "Oh, please, I could be her father!"

            Sirius snorted. "You weren't getting any at fourteen!" As Remus shrugged rueful acquiescence, he continued, "Anyway, I was transformed and you weren't. The pheromones were coming off her in waves, mate." While Remus sputtered, Sirius turned his still upside-down face back to David, his expression sincere. "You were saying?"

            David was unwilling to be derailed. "I was saying that Ron Weasley is a hell of a good man. Do you know what he did after I terrorized him? Not five minutes later? He was telling me she was magnificent!"

            Sirius' eyebrows raised toward the floor in mock amazement.

            "Not about that, you sick bastard!" David frowned. "Well, sort of. He was telling me how brave she was, dealing with... Well, you know." He drank more of his beer. "Amazing."

            "She's amazing," said Remus. "I mean, I'm sorry, you're her dad, and you can't have enjoyed it, but the aplomb with which she closed that meeting, to take the boys to... Er..." He trailed to an uncomfortable stop, waving apologetically at David.

            "No need," said David. "I'm not going to claim to be ecstatic about this -- Christ, she'll always be my little girl -- but they're good boys, and there's all the love in the world there. And you're right, Remus. She was extraordinary today." He tipped back his beer. "Of course, she always has been."

            "That she has," said Sirius, and Remus nodded his agreement, and chorused, "That she has."

            She knew for a fact that he slept. She had seen it, more than once. Nonetheless, when Minerva McGonagall was prowling the halls of Hogwarts in the hour of the wolf, and needed to speak with him, she always knew she'd find Albus Dumbledore awake, sitting in his quarters, a fire roaring in his fireplace, reading... something. She'd found him with textbooks, spell-books, the Bible, the Koran, Das Kapital, Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them, Dick Francis' latest horse-racing mystery -- and of course, those lurid Muggle comic books from the 1960s. By the Crimson bands of Cyttorak, indeed! Still, she supposed a lot of the illustrations were quite moody and vibrant, for stationary Muggle art.

            This time, it was a lurid romance novel called "HeartSplinch," by Philhelmina Tonks-Warbeck, into which Dumbledore inserted a bookmark as he turned to her.

            "Hello, Minerva."

            She stood silently for a moment in his doorway, then marched over and dropped herself into an armchair, staring into the fire.

            Dumbledore gestured silently, and a large cask floated, quick and graceful, into the room, to hover a couple of feet above the end-table between them. Two snifters arrived shortly thereafter, landing patiently and precisely on the tabletop like two Muggle helicopters landing on a rooftop heliport.

            "Brandy?" he offered.

            McGonagall raised an eyebrow at him. "Only if you promise not to serenade me about being a fine girl. I would not be a good wife!"

            Dumbledore chuckled. "But your eyes could--"

            "I mean it, Albus!" cried McGonagall, raising a warning finger, but she could no longer suppress her smile. Dumbledore's gaze warmed toward her, as the cask decanted brandy into the snifters, and he lifted his in silent toast.

            "Now, Minerva," he said, "what has you prowling at this dark hour?"

            "My conscience," she muttered darkly. "I know the situation is not in my control, but I feel like I've just pimped that girl out like a street-corner tart."

            Dumbledore's answering smile was kind. "Minerva, can you think of any other two boys, in the history of this institution, to whom you would more trust a girl's dignity and virtue than Messrs Potter and Weasley? Can you think of any girl you've ever heard of better able to handle the situation with a clear head?"

            "Oh, Albus, I know that. But the fact remains that today I sent two boys and a girl -- students, Albus! -- off to be alone for some sort of, of perverse, three-party assignation!"

            Dumbledore smiled at her again. "Oh, I doubt it was terribly perverse, Minerva. I suspect that it was sweet, as innocent and loving as that sort of thing can be. I trust those boys, Minerva, and I trust Miss Granger. She has wisdom, that girl, and courage as well. Neither she nor they will have done anything to shame us." His smile dimmed, as he sipped again at his Brandy. "It is I, rather, who have shamed them."

            McGonagall's eyes widened. "Albus, no. You cannot--"

            His voice was so gentle it seemed hardly to be an interruption. "I stood there, Minerva, just as young Mr. Weasley said, with my gawp hanging open and my thumbs--"

            "Albus!" McGonagall's interruption was far from gentle. "A physical manifestation reached from beyond the Veil itself! From beyond the Veil! You can be forgiven for a moment of surprise!"

            "Were it not for Miss Granger's swift reaction, Minerva, that moment's hesitation would have killed Harry and Ronald. Instead, it caused her to give her life entire to those two young men, and to bind them to her for their lifetimes. All of them, really, child-brides bartered for the dowry of their own lives, because I was unable to respond in time to save them." He put his snifter down on the table. "If you would castigate or reprove, Minerva, you must absolve yourself, and place your blame where it belongs. On me."

            They were silent a couple of moments, watching the fire.

            "I daresay, Albus, that those three lives were already joined before Miss Granger uttered that spell."

            Dumbledore nodded. "I imagine that's quite true."

            Again, there was silence.

            "Nuptialis Unum," murmured Dumbledore at length. "Extraordinary, really. Do you imagine young Miss Granger understands the power that involved? The last Regimagus reigned for four-hundred years, because none held the power to depose him." He lifted his snifter once again. "I don't imagine there are more than a dozen wizards alive with the power to cast Nuptialis Unum. Imagine the odds: four of them were in that room!"

            "Were they always that powerful, do you suppose, Albus?"

            "I shouldn't think so, Minerva," said Dumbledore. "It was their love that gave them that power. Their love that joined them together."

            "I just wish that weren't so literally true," said McGonagall, thinking once again of the laundry basket worth of washcloths, towels, and dirty clothing the house elves had brought out of the Gryffindor Head Girl's room. In her school, with her blessing! What was she thinking?

            But Dumbledore smiled gently at her. "It was love, Minerva. The power the Dark Lord knows not."

            McGonagall sipped her brandy. "I somehow thought the prophecy was referring to a somewhat... higher love."

            And at this, Dumbledore's eyebrows raised. "A higher love than that shared by those three extraordinary young people? Were it even a little higher, it would sweep the very moon and the stars from the sky!"

            McGonagall smiled at him, her eyes twinkling. "I think perhaps you've been reading Ms. Tonks-Warbeck a bit too closely, Albus!"

            He smiled as he lifted his glass to her. "Perhaps I have, at that, Minerva."

            When Arthur Weasley arrived in his kitchen, he found Molly, sitting at the table, looking blankly at the clock. Ron's hand was pointed firmly and comfortably -- after all, Arthur thought, it had plenty of practice -- at "Sleeping." He knew that, for a few terrifying moments late the previous morning, it, and then even his own, had been pointed at "Mortal Peril." That was also far too common a location for the hands of that clock. And it will only be more so until You-Know-Who is defeated.

            He sat down beside his wife and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

            "Oh, Arthur," she said quietly. "What am I going to do?"

            "What you've always done, Molly. Love them. Love them, and guide them the best you can."

            He sat there beside her and she leaned into him, sighing in the night.

            "I just feel terrible, Arthur. That little girl saved our boy's life, and I called her a whoare."

            Arthur squeezed his wife to him with one strong arm. "She's hardly a little girl any more, Molly. She's a young woman now. She's your daughter-in-law, legally and magically."

            Molly found it in herself to smile bleakly. "I'm afraid I'm not dealing with that all that well, Arthur. She's growing up, our little Ronnie's growing up..."

            Arthur nuzzled comfortingly into the side of her neck. "And still, somehow, you haven't aged a day, my Mollywobbles."

            She laughed and pushed gently at him. "I have, Arthur. I know I have. And I know I am, and far too fast, at that."

            "Nonsense, Molly. Not a day! Because, if you had, well, that would mean I had. And we all know that that is simply not possible!"

            "Honestly, Arthur, how could our children be growing up without our getting any older?"

            A third voice, younger, female, spoke behind them, completing their ages-old joke. "It must be magic, I guess."

            Arthur and Molly turned as one, as guiltily as teens caught necking by their parents.

            "Ginny," said Molly, very softly. "Why are you up, dear?"

            The teenager moved crossed the kitchen and poured herself a glass of cold milk. "Same as you, I guess. I miss Ron. I miss Harry."

            "They're only at the Grangers, dear," said Arthur. "And Harry would be at Privet Drive anyway."

            "Might as well be Mars, now," murmured Ginny, taking a seat opposite them.

            "He cares for you very much, Ginny. That hasn't changed."

            "No," said Ginny, bitterly. "And now it never will. He'll always care for me. His best mate's little sister. His... What, his co-husband's little sister? I'm his sister-in-law now?"

            Arthur was taken aback. She sounded so sad. "I thought you'd moved on from Harry. Weren't you dating that Dean fellow?"

            "Oh, Daddy!" said Ginny in disgust. "Dean's a very sweet boy, but... He was something to do while I waited for Harry to figure it out."

            "That hardly seems fair to the lad," said Arthur.

            "Daddy, we're fifteen. It's not like we were making lifetime commitments, you know." She sat a moment. "Unless you're them."

            Molly reached out, touched her daughter's hand. "You mustn't be bitter, dear. Hermione did the only thing she could think of to save the boys' lives."

            "And they unquestionably would have died without her," supplied Arthur, his hand joining his wife's on his daughter's.

            "Oh, I know all that, Daddy," said Ginny. "Albus sodding Dumbledore stood there with his gawp hanging open and his thumbs--"

            "Arthur Weasley! You told our daughter that!?"

            "No, Mum," said Ginny quickly. "Tonks told me when she came by to pick up some clothes for Ron and Harry." The girl chuckled. "She said Ron was great!"

            Molly looked at the floor. "He was magnificent, dear. He-- He helped stop me from making the most terrible mistake. I said the most awful, awful things to Hermione."

            Ginny nodded matter-of-factly as she took in some of her milk. "Tonks said you called her a whoare."

            Molly's eyes closed, regret filling her features. "I did, dear, may Merlin forgive me. That girl pulled my son from the very grasp of death itself for me, and Harry, too, and all I could think about was that he'd have to grow up now, that he'd be-- that he'd be a man with her. With her and with Harry. And I'd just be that much older. What a terrible, shallow, vain old woman your mother is, Ginevra. What a foolish, foolish old woman!"

            "Well, what does that make me, then, Mum? Because I'm only fifteen years old, and I hate her right now. I hate her so much! She took them away from me! She took my brother and she took Harry, too, and she cheated and used magic to do it, and I don't even get to be mad at her because if she didn't they'd be dead! How is that fair?"

            Arthur fumfuhed uncomfortably for a moment, trying to find some solace to offer his daughter. "Maybe it's not impossible, dear," he finally said, remembering something he'd read in a Muggle book, long ago. "Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, both married, and fathered children. It's possible to--"

            "Oh, sure, Dad!" said Ginny. "If you'd had to shag Mum with Uncle Gideon or Uncle Fabian in your bed with you, none of us would ever have been born!"

            Molly and Arthur stared at her, shocked into speechlessness.

            "Well, honestly, Daddy, you were talking about marriage and children. I'm pretty sure that has something to do with--"

            "All right, Ginny," her father told her gently. "Your point is well -taken. But you really mustn't blame Hermione."

            "I don't blame her, Daddy," said Ginny. "I just want to hex her so all her girl-parts close up or fall off."

            Arthur's eyes widened. "I, er, I think that might perhaps be considered a little unkind, Ginny, dear."

            "Yeah, well..." Ginny brought her glass to the sink, and washed it, putting it down on the drainer. Going through all those Muggle motions instead of just sneaking in a nice Tergeo was kind of soothing. "I'll get over it. She is my best friend after all, and she did save their lives. I'm going to punch her arm really hard, though, I mean it!"

            Molly gathered her daughter in her arms, and hugged her tight. "I guess we'll both just have to work, " she said, "at becoming better people."

            Arthur stood and joined them. "You're both good enough," he murmured, a hand on each of their shoulders. "More than good enough for anybody."

            And he led them from the kitchen, stilling the fire with a gesture from his wand, and led them gently towards the stairs.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: "The Student of the Day Before"

            Waking up together was an awkward affair, Harry decided, but had its rewards as well. Limbs tangled with limbs, warm touches and sleepy smiles, casual kisses and gentle caresses, and even Crookshanks, who'd crawled up on the bed in the night, and lay, purring in his sleep, on Harry's chest when he awoke, had him feeling safe and cozy and kind of overwhelmed.

            Having to use the toilet in a kind of conga-line production number was embarrassing, though it had to be said that it came in handy when he was able to send Ron and Hermione in a human chain to the cabinet across from the toilet to fetch a new loo roll.

            But best of all, he decided -- not to any great surprise -- was the shower. Hermione wasn't yet entirely comfortable, but she was getting there, and instead of the kind of immersive world of comforting sensuality they'd found in the Head Girl's bath, here in the Grangers' upstairs bathroom, with sunlight streaming in through a skylight, and prosaic tiled floors and chrome towel-bars, it seemed like it was okay to look at Hermione in a way that would have seemed the day before like taking advantage. Of course it was sexual -- It's axiomatic, said Mrs. Granger's voice in his head -- but it was friendly and playful, too.

            He found that Hermione's nipples were his favorite toys, ever. He hadn't much experience with girls' nipples, so he'd always thought that the coloured ring around the base was just that: coloured skin. But it was sensitive, and crinkly, and tended to inflate a little when he'd play with the nipples themselves, giving a lovely sort of two-tiered effect, as their colour would darken from pink towards rose.

            She, in the mean-time, had become mesmerized by the differences between his and Ron's erections. The fact that his was pretty straight while Ron's curled upwards ever so slightly just seemed to fascinate her. They washed and then wanked and then washed again, the boys "helping" Hermione first, before she wanked them, which took far less time, as watching her orgasm had brought them most of the way to their own already.

            The sexual play was great, Harry thought, and coming in Hermione's hand was mind-boggling, but the best thing about the shower wasn't the sex, it wasn't the wank or the orgasm or even those splendid, rosy nipples. The best thing was how quickly they'd become comfortable together. The best thing was simply touch. Hermione was there for him to touch, and so was Ron, and both of their hands found their way, gentle and friendly, onto him. At one point, Ron had leaned across them to adjust the water, and his erection had bumped into Harry's hip and slid across one cheek of his arse, and Ron had shrugged an apology to him, with a half-smile, the way he might have if he'd accidentally kicked his foot under the table in the Great Hall.

            In the end, when they were standing outside the shower stall, drying with warm, fluffy towels, Harry just grabbed them both in a desperate embrace, rubbing his forehead back and forth between Ron's collarbone and Hermione's shoulder, not sobbing, though he didn't quite know why he wasn't, but just drinking in their flesh, their touch, the simple feel of skin against skin against skin.

            "Poor Harry," said Hermione, cuddling him, as Ron stroked his back. "You've probably been touched more in the last day than you were the whole time you lived with the Dursleys, haven't you, love?"

            Harry couldn't quite find his voice to answer.

            "'Sall right, mate," said Ron, stroking his back. "'Sall right. You're a Weasley now. May not get you much money, but you'll never want for hugs, mate."

            Half an hour later, they were sitting at the Granger's kitchen table, having breakfast.

            "I think Ron may be bisexual," said Hermione, casually, as she scooped some scrambled eggs onto her plate.

            Ron dropped his forehead onto his right hand.

            "Why's that, dear?" asked David Granger, buttering his toast. Sirius and Remus looked over, interested, from the end of the table.

            "Would it be considered rude," Ron asked, "to rub scrambled eggs in your daughter's hair at the breakfast table?"

            "It certainly would," said Jane. "There's no safe way to do that with a fork, and we don't pick up scrambled eggs with our fingers at this table!"

            "He was cuddling Harry last night," continued Hermione, taking a couple of slices of toast, "and he had an erection."

            Harry blushed furiously, but leaned forward, and essayed a weak but cheeky grin across Hermione at him. "See, mate? No need to inform WWN. Bit redundant, really."

            "How about toast with marmalade," suggested Sirius, helpfully. "That's finger food."

            Jane speared him with a look. "And do you want to clean it up off the floor, then Sirius?"

            "Oh, like that's a threat," said David. "He'll just transform, and lick it up."

            Sirius laughed, clearly delighted at this Muggle's easy way with his powers, as Remus smirked at him.

            "So are you, dear?" Jane asked Ron, offering him the dish of marmalade.

            "Excuse me?"

            "Bisexual, I mean," she supplied, helpfully.

            Harry, feeling he was on safer ground as the attention stayed on Ron, smirked at him again. "You were right, Ron. They are a bad influence!"

            Ron quirked a smile over at Harry, then returned his attention to Hermione's mum. "I'm a sixteen-year-old boy, Mrs. Granger. I've been known to get stiffies from trees!"

            "Oh," said Sirius, "I know the one you mean! Down by the end of the driveway? Knot-hole right about" --he gestured a foot or so above the table-- "this height."

            "The poplar?" asked David, sipping at his orange juice.

            "No, no," said Remus Lupin, grinning widely. "Even when we were in school, Sirius never went for the poplar girls!"

            Silence settled over the table, and ten eyes turned to stare blankly at Lupin.

            Remus' grin slowly faded.

            "I happen," said Sirius, with great dignity, "to be speaking about--"

            "Oh, oh, I know!" cried Ron. "The larch!"

            "Yes!" Sirius slammed his hand down on the table and pointed at Ron. "The larch! Those leaves, those limbs, that splendid, splendid bark! I should go out there right now and mark it as my very own!"

            "That's fine, Sirius," said David, sipping his coffee, "but I'm fairly certain that's not sufficient to transfer title."

            "You know, Ron," said Hermione, "you still haven't actually answered the question. That wasn't a tree last night, that was Harry."

            Harry blushed mightily, but soldiered on, tilting his head to a coquettish angle and batting his eyelashes prettily at Ron. "It's true, Ron. I am, after all, your child bride!"

            "And quite a fetching one you are, Harry," offered Remus Lupin, lifting his coffee in toast.

            "It's a wonder he waited so long, really," said Sirius.

            Ron snorted. "We're dorm-mates in a British boarding school. Why buy the cow..."

            Harry looked shocked, now, as his blush deepened, and held his hand over the center of his chest. "I never! Ron, I never gave it up for you, no matter how many times you slipped in through my bed-curtains!"

            Ron's eyes darkened a bit, and he sat back.

            "Oh, Ron, mate," said Harry. "I'm sorry, I'm just messing about. I know you were only ever there to help me, Ron."

            The hurt faded from Ron's face, and he shyly smiled back at him. "Really?"

            "Of course, mate," said Harry. "And I really appreciate it."

            Hermione's stare at Ron was intense. "You are, aren't you, Ron? You are bisexual!"

            "Merlin, Hermione!" Ron's blue eyes flashed. "You won't let it go! You're like a dog with a bone on this! Why do you keep digging at it?"

            "Probably because the idea of seeing you with Harry excites her, dear," said Jane. "More juice?"

            "Mum!" cried Hermione, eyes wide, face flushed. She buried her face in her hands. "Oh, my God..."

            "Well, dear," said Jane, "It's a perfectly common fantasy for girls. You'll find it all over the Internet."

            "It's only fair, after all," said David. "Look how much we blokes like to see two girls together." He turned to Sirius. "Bacon?"

            "Wow, Hermione," said Harry. "Who knew you were such a right little perv?"

            Hermione turned slowly towards him. Her voice would have cut glass: "Did you enjoy yourself this morning, Harry?"

            Harry raised his hands in immediate surrender. "I don't say it like it's a bad thing!"

            "I think I might be," said Ron, softly, his ears starting to show pink at the tips.

            There was a moment's silence, as Hermione's face swung towards Ron, and Harry leaned over to look at him with wonder and no small gratitude for distracting her.

            "Really?" breathed Hermione.

            His eyes flickered over to Harry's, trying to read them, then back to hers. "Yeah," he finally said, his voice little more than a whisper. "I think so."

            His eyes remained locked with Hermione's now, his lower lip pulled between his teeth, and she smiled, her eyes so warm, and reached a gentle hand up to his face in a wordless caress.

            "That's nice, dear," said Jane. "Will you pass me back the marmalade?"

            Ron handed back the dish, as David leaned forward a bit, saying, "Probably just as well, Ron. Make things a little more comfortable for you."

            Ron's face was very red. "Yeah, doing a hell of a job of that this morning, I'll tell you."

            "There's no reason to be embarrassed about it, Ron," said Remus Lupin, gently. He gestured with his head at Sirius. "I mean, look at us. We're not embarrassed."

            The three teens suddenly stared wide-eyed at their end of the table, while Jane Granger smiled. "I thought you two had a somewhat 'couply' air about you."

            At that, Harry's eyes widened, and he looked back and forth between his godfather and his former teacher. "Are you--?"

            The Marauders both nodded.

            "Are you serious?" asked Harry, clearly astounded.

            "No, no," said his godfather. "The joke is, 'Are you fucking serious?' See, and then Remus says--"

            "Oh, give it a rest, Sirius," said Remus, noticing the disapproving look that crossed Hermione's and Jane's faces at the profanity. "That joke was old when we were in school."

            Sirius had the good grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry, not really breakfast-table humour, is it?"

            "Hmmm..." Hermione was frowning slightly, not in displeasure, this time, but in puzzlement. "I thought I read in Celestina Warbeck's autobiography that she dated you, Sirius, right after Hogwarts."

            "Oh, yeah, that tart!" Sirius looked displeased. "I read that thing while I was on the road. Did you know it was ghost-written by Rita Skeeter? Terrible scandal in the publishing world. Real ghosts up in arms to lose work to a living writer! Oh, yes, I read about how she had her string of disastrous boyfriends after Hogwarts, what with me being an evil mass murderer, and the other fellow who turned out to be a 'Dark Creature of the night!'" He jerked a thumb towards Remus.

            Ron's eyebrows rose. "You both dated Celestina Warbeck?"

            Remus' eyebrow rose significantly. "Yes, we did. Together. She left that little detail out, though. Apparently Pop Singer in Three-Way Tryst with Murderer and Werewolf wasn't the headline she wanted on her book reviews."

            Ron's voice was hushed, and reverent. "You two are now officially the coolest wizards in all the world!"

            Hermione speared him with a disdainful look, before turning back. "So you're also bisexual, then."

            "Well, I wouldn't say that, exactly," said Remus.

            "You mean you're just gay?"

            "No, I don't mean that," the werewolf said gently.

            "Well you must be gay, straight, or bisexual," said Hermione, her orderly mind irritated by the confusing statements.

            "What," said Sirius, "are those our only choices? What about trees? Legs? The arm of your best sofa?"

            David began chuckling.

            "Hermione," said Remus, gently, "I've -- we've -- learned that it's best not to try to put some kind of hard -and -fast label on something like this. It's something that comes from our, er... canine experiences. What feels good, feels good. That's all."

            "Or," said Sirius, "as someone once told me, 'Drunks and dogs'll hump anything, they get lonely enough.'"

            "I thought my phrasing was more elegant," replied Remus.

            "Sometimes," replied Sirius, "You're a right stuffy old queen."

            Remus grinned wickedly. "But sometimes, Sirius," he said, "I'm an animal!" And he growled, quite convincingly.

            It was an hour later that Dumbledore arrived, bringing news that they were to Floo to Arabella Figg's house, and walk from there to the Dursleys'.

            "Remus, Sirius, Muggle clothes if you please," said Dumbledore, gently. "Both to spare the good people of Little Whinging a puzzlement, and to appease the Dursleys. They are, I fear, rather, er, excitable about wizarding folk."

            Sirius smiled grimly at Dumbledore. "I was thinking of showing up wearing only a studded leather collar, actually." He paused a moment. "Though I've no doubt I'll be introducing myself properly in no time."

            The Headmaster's answering smile was bright and amused. "An excellent idea, Sirius. Most admirable indeed."

            "Will you be coming, too, Professor?"

            "Alas, Harry, I cannot. I must attend to a most pressing matter. One that could be crucial in defeating Voldemort."

            Jane Granger touched his arm. "Why do you call him that, Professor?"

            Dumbledore smiled kindly. "Ah, dear lady. I know you hear from most wizards you meet no more than You Know Who or He Who Must Not Be Named. But I don't feel that that's for the best. Fear of the name leads to fear of the thing. It's best to speak his name."

            "But it isn't his name!" she said. "That's what I mean! Hermione's told us his name is Tom Riddle. This 'Voldemort' thing is just some anagram he made up when he was just a scared little boy! Don't you see, Professor? It's a double-bluff! If he can, he cows you into not speaking of him at all, and if he can't, you're still calling him by his super-powered secret identity!"

            Dumbledore took a step back, his eyebrows raised and his mouth dropping open. "Mrs. Granger! Dear lady, I've long been most impressed by your daughter's brilliance. What a pleasure to learn just how honestly she comes by it!"

            Hermione, beaming, stepped over, pulling the boys with her, and wrapped her mother in a fierce hug. Ron, not knowing what to do, gently patted Mrs. Granger's back, while Harry grinned at her in admiration.

            David Granger caught Harry's eye and smiled, his face alight with pride. "That's why I married her, Harry, mate."

            Dumbledore's smile was a benediction. "And an excellent choice you've made, both of you."

            "Sir," Harry asked him. "If I may ask... What is this you're going to be doing?"

            Dumbledore smiled, opened his mouth to speak, then paused, considered. When he did speak, his voice was graver, his expression darker. "Too long, I've kept you uninformed of matters that concern you deeply." He glanced at Sirius. "Although the greatest cost of that mistake has been miraculously recovered, I must heed its lesson nonetheless.

            "Shortly after hearing from Minister Fudge, about the inquest, I received an owl from a colleague on the continent. I do not fully understand, but my correspondent tells me that there are objects of some sort that Vo-- that Tom believes can protect him from death, that he believes are the reason he was not killed when his curse against you rebounded. It seems likely that one of these items is a ring belonging to his maternal grandfather. It is my intention to try to recover this ring, and attempt to discern if it is indeed, a... er..." Dumbledore thought for a moment. "Ah, yes, that's right: a Horcrux."

            Sirius suddenly stepped forward, eyes wide and alarmed. "Did you say Horcrux?"

            Dumbledore looked at him with interest. "I did. The term means something to you?"

            "Yes! I don't know much, but I know the things are incredibly dangerous. My brother, Regulus, before the Death Eaters killed him, he was researching Horcruxces! I think his notes may still be in the family vaults. Now that I've been cleared, I can walk right into Gringott's and look at them. You must promise me, Albus, that you won't pursue that ring, until we look for Regulus' notes. Will you promise?"

            Dumbledore nodded. "Very well, Sirius. I promise." He turned to Harry. "Nonetheless, Harry, I fear I must give Little Whinging a miss. After our discussions last night, I do believe your Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia will be most grateful for my absence." He winked at the trio. "I believe I can trust Remus and Sirius to, er, charm them in my stead."

            Vernon Dursley's face was already the most remarkable shade of puce when he opened the door of Number 4, Privet Drive. "You damned freaks are early!"

            Harry smiled widely and politely at him. "Hello, Uncle Vernon. I'm so sorry to be late returning from that hearing. I'm sure you heard, we had a bit of an accident, and, well..." He gestured with his hands, Ron's and Hermione's swinging with them. "Here we are." He gestured with his head. "You've met my mate Ron Weasley, and this is my friend Hermione Granger. They'll be staying with us 'til my birthday."

            Vernon's large face darkened considerably more, and his eyes flared, but apparently whatever talk he'd had with Dumbledore had been more than usually persuasive, because in the end he merely snarled and stepped back into the house. Remus entered first, carrying Ron's and Hermione's trunks, and then the teens followed, a large, very black dog following close at their feet.

            "Here, now!" cried Vernon, "What's that mangy beast doing? You're not having a dog in my house, shedding on my carpet, peeing on my furniture! Get it out of here!"

            "Oh, he's not staying," said Remus mildly. "Padfoot will just be coming to visit from time to time."

            "It most certainly will not!" thundered Vernon, leaning dangerously into Lupin's face. "I see it again, I'll put it down, just like I did that damned Great Dane those miserable Barracloughs refused to curb! Now get it out of here!"

            The black dog barked, quite loudly, and Vernon reached quickly to the coat-rack by the door, and pulled from it a large, ornate walking-stick with a brass handle. Even as he lifted it, the dog flowed upward, assuming in less than a second a human form, black-haired, bearded, wild-eyed, in dark, flowing robes. One strong hand lashed out, and held the walking-stick where it was.

            Sirius' voice was soft, dangerous. "Hello, Dursley. I'm afraid we haven't been properly introduced. I'm Harry's godfather. My name is Sirius Black."

            Vernon Dursley's face paled. "You're not. You're not! He's dead! Harry told us!"

            "You know the old saying, Dursley. Rumours of my death were greatly exaggerated."

            Vernon tried to rally. "I wouldn't know the old sayings you magical freaks hold with!"

            "Actually, Mr. Dursley," said Hermione, politely, "that quote originated with Mr. Samuel Langhorn Clemens, the American writer from the nineteenth century, better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. You know, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court..."

            Dursley glowered at her. "Don't you dare correct your betters, brat!"

            Ron took a step forward, but Remus Lupin stopped him with a gentle hand on his shoulder, saying to Vernon, quietly, but with real steel in his voice,. "When she meets her betters, Dursley, she never does."

            Dursley tried once more to rally. "Now, see here, you can't push your way in here, and bully me in my own house!"

            "Oh, I think you'll find that we can, Dursley," said Sirius, his voice silky with menace.

            "Why shouldn't I just bring in the police, Black? You're an escaped prisoner! You'll be back in gaol before you know what's hit you."

            "Did you know, Dursley," Sirius replied, "that I'm one of the wealthiest men in Britain? It's frightfully handy having people think you're dead. Ever so much easier to move about, and put your money to work for you. Amazing what you can do with money, Dursley." He smiled airily, plucking the walking-stick from Vernon Dursley's fingers with an easy roll of his arm. "I've been cleared of all charges. The police want nothing to do with me. I'm free as the air. Shocking, isn't it, the way, with high-priced lawyers, with political contributions, even the guiltiest of men can get off on a technicality, if he's rich enough?" He handed the walking-stick to Harry. "So you see, Dursley, I'll not being seeing the inside of a cell ever again."

            He walked a circle around Harry's portly uncle. "So I want you to be clear on this, Dursley. I won't be here constantly, but I will be here. I'll be here as Padfoot, and I'll be here as myself. I'll be in the house, I'll be in the garden, I'll be in the yard. There'll be no reports of a strange man skulking, just a big, friendly black dog. And the dog-catcher will find only a wealthy gentleman of leisure.

            "I'll be here, Dursley, and I'll hear, and I'll smell, and I'll know. So you will be treating my godson and his friends with the utmost respect, won't you Dursley?"

            "I will not kowtow to those brats!" Vernon replied venomously.

            "No one is asking you to, Uncle Vernon," said Harry, softly. "We'll do the chores, we'll cook just like I always did."

            "But they'll be fed decent meals, Dursley," added Lupin, "and you'll respect their privacy. If there's any sort of abuse, physical or verbal, we'll know. And the consequences do not bear thinking about."

            "Oh, and make no mistake, Dursley," added Sirius. "If it's your word against theirs? You lose. That's all there is to it. Because I'll be able to smell the lies on you, Dursley. I'll smell 'em!"

            "Now." Remus Lupin turned toward the stairs. "Let's go see to Harry's room, shall we?"

            "Wait a mo," said Ron. He moved steadily past the foot of the stairs, dragging an unwilling Harry and a curious Hermione with him. He paused before a three-quarter-sized door, took the handle, pulled it open. The storage space there -- it would ennoble it to call it a "closet" -- was perhaps five feet high at its highest point, five feet long, maybe three-and-a-half deep.

            Ron's breath and Hermione's caught in their throats, looking into the tiny space, and they turned their gaze on Vernon Dursley, storm-clouds behind their eyes.

            "Guys," said Harry, quickly. He started to move his hands, got fouled up, and made a quick, complicated juggle to have them touching one another so he could move his hands, one at a time, to turn their faces to him. His gaze moved back and forth between Ron's eyes and Hermione's "Guys, I promise you, it wasn't that bad, it really wasn't. It was sort of... sort of cozy. All, you know, enclosed and contained and stuff. It was fine, really."

            "It was not fine, Harry!" Hermione's voice was a welder's flame, searing with tightly-controlled and focused heat. "It was child abuse! These sick, pathetic--"

            "Hermione!" Harry's voice was urgent now. "It's over, all right? Water under the bridge! I've not seen the inside of this cupboard in three years."

            "You lived inside it for ten, Harry," said Ron, his voice very low.

            Harry turned to him and grinned. "And I never will again, mate. So let it go, all right? I'd really just as soon leave the whole thing behind me."

            Ron's eyes stayed locked for a moment with Harry's before dropping. "Yeah, all right, mate. All right."

            As they turned back to climb the stairs, Harry hurriedly closing the door, Remus leaned towards Vernon Dursley. "You should thank your nephew, Dursley," he said, very quietly. "You were just in the greatest peril you've ever been in your life, and it was Harry that rescued you from it. Perhaps you should remember that."

            At that moment, the front door opened, admitting, in order, the lush, porcine form of Dudley Dursley, followed by the long, horsey face of his mother, Petunia. Her eyes widened at the sight of the crowd in her front hall, then widened further as they fixed on Sirius.

            "Sirius! But you're-- you're--"

            "Let's cut to the chase, shall we?" said Sirius. "I'm not dead, I'm not wanted by the police, I'm free to come and go as I like, and you, Petunia, you're as lovely and charming as ever you were, so it's good to see that Vernon, here, is so well-matched. Now, we're just on our way upstairs, to see to it that the accommodations for my godson and his friends are sufficient to their needs. If you'd care to accompany us, you're certainly welcome to."

            "If you think you can come into my house, order me and my husband about, and sit in judgment of us--"

            "Petunia," said Sirius, very quietly. "Do you remember how much we loved Lily?"

            Her eyes were suddenly dark and silent.

            "Do you remember when she came to you for help, you and your useless ox of a husband?"

            "I say--" began Vernon, but the merest flick of Sirius' dark and dangerous eyes stilled him as though he'd cast a Petrificus Totalus.

            "Do you remember, Petunia?"

            "Yes." Her voice was hoarse, and breathless. "Yes, I remember."

            "Do you remember turning her out into the night, Petunia? Do you remember closing your door and your heart to your own sister?"

            "Yes," she rasped. "I remember."

            "Then, ask yourself this question, Petunia. Can we come and go as we please in your house? Order you and your husband about, and sit in judgment of you?"

            She was silent a very long time. Finally, her chin jerked down and up once, spastically, and she again hissed, "Yes."

            "Ah, Petunia," Sirius smiled at her. "Not only as beautiful and charming as ever, but so, so much smarter! Come on, then!" And he turned and charged again up the stairs.

            Sirius cast a jaundiced eye about Harry's bedroom, eyeing walls and angles, tutting disapprovingly over the twin-sized bed.

            Hedwig squawked irritably from her cage, and Harry led Ron and Hermione over, so he could speak to her, and offer her some owl treats. She nipped irritably at his fingers, and he saw that the bottom of her cage was filthy. "I'm sorry, girl," he said. "I didn't expect to be gone overnight."

            She grudgingly accepted an owl -treat, somehow managing to shape her hard beak into a disapproving pout, a feat that never ceased to amaze Harry.

            "All right," said Sirius, "this won't do at all. I'll definitely need to make some changes, if we're going to make this bed big enough." He turned to Vernon Dursley before pointing to the wall behind the bed. "What's through there?"

            "The Master Bedroom! Now see here--"

            "Is that a bearing wall?"

            Vernon's mouth hardened into a thin line. "Yes, it is!"

            Sirius leaned close to him, his nostrils flaring. "You forget, Dursley. I can smell the lie on you."

            "All right, all right, it's not!" Vernon's wide eyes were terrified.

            Sirius aimed his wand at the wall, and it marched smoothly back away from the bed, a foot, two feet, three. The wallpaper on adjoining the walls expanded, its ugly pattern stretching, to keep its attachment to the wall intact. At four feet, Sirius stopped the wall. He aimed his wand at the bed, and it, too, began to stretch, and to grow, the sheets, blankets, pillows and duvet stretching with it until it was king-sized.

            He expanded the dresser out along its wall, quadrupling the drawer-space, and ducked his head into the the closet. This had originally been quite large, but an amateurish divider had been nailed up within it, limiting the space to about six inches depth and the width of the doorframe.

            He casually pointed his wand at the Dursleys, and muttered "Stasus!"

            That unattractive threesome froze in place, as time, for them, ceased passing. Sirius pointed at the partition in the closet. "Your work, Harry? A hiding space for secret treasures? Don't worry, they can't see or hear or even know that they're missing anything while they're in stasis."

            "No," said Harry, promptly. "That's all under a loose floorboard over there."

            "Excellent," said Sirius. He pointed his wand at the Dursleys again, uttered a quick Finite, then turned and banished the crude partition. Beyond it were a number of cardboard boxes, out of the seams of which bits of fur protruded. "Well," he said, "let's get rid of this lot!"

            "You can't get rid of those!" squealed Petunia. "My furs, my beautiful furs!"

            Sirius' voice was almost kind. "I just meant, remove them from the closet, Petunia."

            "But where shall I put them?"

            Hermione turned a dead-eyed gaze on her. "Perhaps the cupboard under the stairs."

            "I can't put them there," Petunia cried. "They'll be--"

            "Well, obviously," said Ron, his voice firm, "Anyplace where your beloved nephew can live for ten years, your furs will be fine for a summer."

            "An excellent point," said Sirius, his voice again dangerously silky. "Wouldn't you say that's an excellent point, Petunia?"

            She quailed before him, and Dudley suddenly snorted. "Why do you gotta be so rude to my mum?"

            Sirius turned towards him. He stared, astounded, at the fat, blond boy. Then he smiled, his grin as bright and sunny as a fairground. "Do you know, Dudley, that's the first time in all my life I've ever seen a Dursley do something I can actually respect! Extraordinary! So I'll tell you, Dudley, why I have to be so rude to your mum. Because of what she did to her sister, your Aunt Lily, who died when you were too young to remember, but who was beautiful, and talented, and sweet-natured, and generous. Because of how she's treated her nephew, who committed no greater crime than being born, and surviving an attempt on his life, and who she systematically abused and neglected from that day forward. And, finally, Dudley, finally, because of what she's done, and what she's doing to you, using you as a weapon to hurt Harry, and in the process spoiling you, just about ruining you, and leaving you with almost no chance whatsoever to be worthy of the air you breathe and the perfectly good blood that flows in your veins. I would have said she'd left you with no chance at all, but for that one question, that one lonely moment of caring about something other than your fat face and your next opportunity to stuff it. So that, Dudley, that is why I have to be so rude to your mum!"

            Dudley had stared at him, his eyes widening with every word, his mouth dropping further and further open, the color dropping from his face. He took two steps backwards, and collapsed, falling on his arse on the wooden floor with a very loud thud!

            Hermione moved quietly across to him, gently placing her boys' hands together, and taking Ron's other hand. She squatted down beside him, and was reaching towards his shoulder, when Vernon and Petunia barked, as one, "You stay away from our boy!"

            She didn't even spare them a glance.

            Vernon took a step forward, Petunia at his heel, when Remus raised an index finger toward them, halting them in their tracks.

            "Dudley?" Hermione asked, her voice quiet. "Dudley, are you all right?"

            Dudley turned his head slowly to face her. Harry watched with great interest. He'd only once seen Dudley look this scared, this vulnerable: when the Dementors had attacked last year. Dudley's eyes had finally tracked to Hermione's, and they locked with hers. "He really hates her!" he told her, astonished. He pointed a meaty finger at Sirius. "Tha' man really hates my mum!"

            "He loved your aunt Lily and Uncle James both very much. So did Mr. Lupin. Your mum wasn't very nice to them."

            "They deserved it," he said, quite simply, as if he was saying that water was wet. "They were freaks."

            "They were not!" said Harry, heatedly.

            Hermione looked back up to him. "They were to him, Harry. That's all poor Dudley ever learned. That's all he's ever known." She turned back to Dudley. "That's not much of an excuse for you, though, Dudley. You've had a shockingly bad upbringing, but Harry's had worse, and he's still kind, and he's generous, and he's brave, and people love him. Does anybody love you, Dudley? Love you enough to die for you?"

            Dudley looked at the floor in the too-small space between his splayed knees. "M-- Mum," he murmured quietly. "Mum and Dad do. They love me."

            Hermione glanced up at the others, and the look on her face said as clearly as words ever could: If you want to call it that.

            But her voice was kind as she returned to Dudley. "Maybe they do at that. But does anybody else, Dudley? Anybody who knows you just for you? Oh, Harry's told me you have mates, a group you run with, but do any of them love you? Do they even like you? Or do they just like how you can get together to make smaller kids afraid?"

            Dudley stared silently at the floor between his knees. Hermione squatted by him, looking, concerned. Behind her, Ron and Harry, and beyond them, Remus and Sirius watched with varying degrees of amazement, while across the room, the parents who loved Dudley enough to die for him stood silent, frozen with fear of Remus Lupin's forefinger, watching it happen.

            "You don't have to be what you are, Dudley," Hermione finally said. "You have a choice. The same choice Harry had. You can choose to be someone people can love. Harry did. You can. It's up to you."

            There was another moment, and then Harry nodded to Ron, and they moved around Hermione, and offered their hands, Harry first, then Ron, down to Dudley.

            "C'mon, mate," said Ron, very gently. "Let us help you up."

            Dudley looked doubtfully back and forth between the proffered hands.

            "No trick, Dudley," said Harry. His fat cousin eyed their hands a moment more, then took them, and, with quite a bit of effort, including Hermione helping to steady Harry and Ron, got to his feet.

            There was a moment's silence, then, and Sirius said "So, bathroom?"

            Dudley immediately pointed at the wall beside the door. "It's through there. It's connected to my room."

            "I'm afraid," said Remus, gently, "That you'll be losing use of it."

            Dudley pouted. "Yeah," he said sulkily. "I figured."

            "We'll need to see inside," said Sirius, "before we make changes. Don't want to break the plumbing."

            "Come on, then," Dudley snapped, and led Sirius and Lupin from the room.

            No sooner were they out the door than Vernon Dursley swung around and pointed at Hermione. "What did you freaks do to our little Diddums!?!? You and that-- that--"

            "I can hear every word you're bellowing, Dursley!" came Sirius' voice through the wall.

            Vernon's face reddened, and he hissed, "What did you--"

            "Still hear you!"

            "Mister Dursley," said Hermione quite calmly, "the question isn't what I've done or Sirius has done. You were right here. You saw what we did. We spoke to him honestly. The question is, what have you done to that poor boy?"

            "We!?" Petunia Dursley was outraged. "We've loved him! We've raised him! How dare you, you little--"

            "That's enough, Mrs. Dursley," said Ron, enough edge in his voice to stop Petunia in her tracks.

            Vernon stepped forward, redder than ever. "You don't speak to my wife that way!"

            "Then she doesn't speak to Hermione that way!" came Sirius' voice through the wall. Then: "Ah! There we are!"

            And suddenly a door appeared in that wall, and opened, and Sirius' head popped out. "Right. Here you are, then. Your bathroom."

            Dudley walked, pouting out the door into their bedroom. "Great. Now I'm going to have to go all the way downstairs."

            "I've done it for three years, Dudley," said Harry, as the trio made their way by him to look into the bathroom. "Maybe your mum and dad will let you use theirs."

            The bathroom was smaller than the Grangers' but it did have an enclosed tub and shower, with a window on the far side, a big enough sink for the three to brush their teeth, and enough room around the toilet for whomever wasn't using it to wait.

            The trio looked skeptically at the bath enclosure for a few moments. Finally, Ron said, "We're gonna need a bigger tub."

            Sirius, hearing them, leaned back in and aimed his wand, and the bathtub stretched another foot in each direction.

            As they emerged, they looked to see Remus banishing the boxes of furs from the closet. They heard the thump downstairs of the boxes arriving in Harry's old cupboard.

            Sirius was looking again at Harry. "Have you still got your mirror, Harry?"

            Harry looked down at his feet. "I sort of, well, broke it."

            "You did?"

            "Af-- After you fell. I tried-- I tried to use it to talk to you..." He took a breath. "When I couldn't... I... I..."

            "Oh, Harry." Sirius stepped forward and gathered him in a warm embrace. "I'm so sorry I frightened you like that. Did you throw away the pieces?"

            "No, They're in my trunk."

            "All right then," said Sirius. "Let's just have a look and fix it."

            Harry led Sirius to the trunk, Ron and Hermione trailing with him, and Sirius very quickly repaired the mirror.

            "It'll work now," he told Harry. "You can explain it later. Use it any time, any time at all. I mean it."

            "All right, Sirius."

            And then it was over. Sirius and Remus led them all downstairs. As they reached the front hall, Sirius rounded on Vernon one last time. "Remember what I told you, Dursley. I'll know."

            And then he flowed back into his Padfoot form, and he and Remus were gone.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: "...Never Killed Anybody!"

                The sun was brutally hot as the three of them stood together, painting the garden shed behind Number 4. Hermione found herself resenting Harry and Ron, who were wearing cut-off blue jeans and ratty trainers, cooling sweat glistening on their bare chests. Her own t-shirt was plastered to her, and her sports bra was so sweat soaked that it was starting to chafe. It was alright for them to have their tops off, their bare chests glistening with the sun-block she'd insisted on applying. They could benefit from the whispered breath of a breeze, so slight that her own sweat-sodden tee defeated it.

                It was their third day painting this damnable shed in the brutal heat. They'd completed it two days before, but Vernon had declared that the colour, once dried, was "too loud." So they had spent the next day stripping it before today applying a slightly deeper color, which Hermione had the uncomfortable feeling was going to dry into the approximate hue of a bruise. They'd seen Padfoot a few times, and once he'd even flowed into his human form, in the shadow of a copse of trees in the back garden, and sauntered over to speak to them.

                So it came as no surprise when he ambled up behind them again today.

                "It's okay, really," Harry re-assured his godfather. "This is the best summer I've ever had here. They let us eat our own meals, whatever we want, and the chores have been pretty lightweight, really."

                Hermione and Ron turned to stare at him, wide-eyed.

                "It really is, guys," Harry told them. "See that stone wall over there?"

                The wall was relatively straight, about four feet tall and three wide. No mortar held the stones together, and the fit was imprecise, but the wall had a charming, natural look as it ran along the border of the Dursleys' property, the sort of thing that stood in British pastures for hundreds of years.

                Hermione and Ron stared back at Harry again.

                "Yeah, those stones used to be all through the yard. Aunt Petunia wanted them cleared. It was over there." He pointed to the other border. "But Uncle Vernon didn't like seeing it out his bedroom window, so he made me move it across the yard."

                "When the hell was this, Harry?" asked Ron. Even Sirius seemed a little stunned by this.

                "I was nine."

                There was a moment's thunderstruck silence, broken by Hermione's venomous hiss. "That sick, pathetic fucking monster!"

                Ron rounded on her, eyes wide. "Hermione! You said-- You said--"

                "Yes, Ronald! I said fuck! Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck! The world didn't come to an end." She wheeled on an equally stunned Harry. "I swear to God, Harry, I'm this close to making that man this color the old-fashioned way!"

                Harry made calming motions in the air. "Hermione, it's all right. A little hard work never killed anybody!"

                "Do you know how many workplace fatalities there have been in Great Britain in the last five years, Harry? Two-thousand, six-hundred and twenty-seven. So clearly, hard work has killed a fair number of people, even when you factor out the twenty-seven percent that were homicides. But that's not the point, Harry. The point is that that filthy, neckless, purple-faced windbag used his nine-year-old nephew as some kind of chain-gang labourer! It's sick, that's what it is!" She turned to Sirius. "I'm not allowed to use magic out of school until I'm seventeen. Can't you turn him into a wart-hog or something?"

                Ron snorted. "You mean somebody didn't already?"

                "Wouldn't be much of an adjustment for him," agreed Sirius. "But I'm not sure I can bear the thought of improving Petunia's love life."

                Hermione stared, open-mouthed, at him for a moment, then started to chuckle. Her chuckle grew to a chortle, and suddenly they were all laughing, Hermione most of all, so loud, with great whooping breaths to recover between bouts, that when she collapsed, the others thought, at first, it was just laughter.

                Ron caught her easily when her knees gave out, saying, quietly, "All right there, Hermione?"

                But then they both realized that she wasn't laughing anymore, and Harry saw that she was deadweight in Ron's arms, as Ron looked back and forth between Harry and Sirius. "Guys, she's-- Help! Help me get her upstairs!"

                Harry and Ron started to lift her, taking a couple of steps toward the back door, but Sirius muttered, "Screw that! Concentrate on your room, boys, and push!"

                Sirius wrapped his arms around the three of them, and there was a tight, unpleasant squeezing sensation and suddenly they were standing by their bed. The boys lay Hermione carefully on the bedspread, feeling her forehead, which was quite hot.

                "Get her shirt off," said Sirius, his breathing harsh, as he leaned over his hands on his thighs, recovering from the strain.

                The boys looked quickly back at him, saw the grim set of his mouth, the fierceness of his eyes, and quickly set about peeling the sodden shirt from her torso.

                Her skin was sweat-soaked, and quite red, with livid chafe-marks showing at the edges of her drenched, beige sports bra, mainly under her arms.

                But the scar that ran down her chest seemed actually to be glowing white, and a faint, greenish steam actually rose from its surface. Where it touched her sports-bra, the fabric seemed to turn an unhealthy-looking brown.

                Sirius looked once, his eyes widening. "We're in for it now, I think," he muttered, throwing one of Ron's Chudley Cannons shirts over her chest, looking back and forth between the boys again. "Back up we go. Arabella Figg's living room, concentrate and push, let's go let's go, let's go!"

                And he wrapped his arms around them again, squeezing them tight, and then the pressure from all sides, like being shrink-wrapped in a neoprene tube, and they were in the living-room of Arabella Figg.

                Mrs. Figg bustled from the kitchen at the sound of Apparation, saw Harry and Ron carrying an unconscious Hermione, Sirius collapsing to his knees, eyes closed, chest heaving -- blood, Harry suddenly realized, dripping from his right nostril.

                "Oh, dear, what happened?"

                "Hermione collapsed!" cried Ron, as Harry nodded confirmation.

                "Saint--" wheezed Sirius. "Saint Mungo's!"

                "No, no, Sirius, dear, takes too long to be seen," said Mrs. Figg sweetly, reaching up to the jar on the mantlepiece and throwing a handful of Floo powder into her unseasonable fire. "Hogwarts Hospital Wing!"

                The flames went green, and she shooed the teens into the flames together. They saw a flickering array of rooms and fireplaces as they spun through the network, holding Hermione's form between them. She seemed so small, so fragile, and Harry felt irresponsible, like he'd been entrusted with a treasure, and had broken it.

                They found themselves staggering out of the big fireplace in the hospital wing, and Harry called out, "Madam Pomfrey? Madam Pomfrey!" as they moved as quickly as they could toward the nearest unoccupied bed. "Madam Pomfrey, we need help!"

                They'd split, holding Hermione in their outstretched arms, to lay her on that first bed, when the Floo blazed green again, and Sirius staggered out. He took one look at the trio, and turned to run for Pomfrey's office. He was back a moment later, alone but carrying a medium-sized clay pot.

                "She's not in there," he told them. "It's lunch time, she may be in the Great Hall. I'll go get her. You two start with this stuff. It's an all-purpose cleansing and healing cream. Get her bra off."

                The boys' eyes widened, but they obeyed, struggling for a moment to get the sodden thing off her, then crying out in frustration, and simply ripping it in two, pulling the remains away from her chest.  Sirius grinned at them. "Remember that, boys. It'll come in handy in other circumstances."

                He took the lid from the pot, got a large handful of the gooey stuff from within, and started slathering it down the length of Hermione's scar. As thick as he put it on, it seemed to absorb into her skin like a sponge, and then rise up again as foam, the bubbles sparkling and popping quickly, with a pleasant, outdoorsy fragrance.

                "Keep that up," Sirius told them, "put on more as soon as the old stuff has all foamed away." He took a bit, and leaned over, casually moving her breast aside with the backs of two fingers to smooth some onto a chafed spot.

                It was as he was doing this that Hermione blinked awake, smiling a bit as the stuff soothed the pain, then her eyes widened as she saw Sirius, leaning over her.

                He tipped her a wink as he leaned away, letting her breast drop over the now-healed spot.

                "S-Sirius?" Her voice seemed a bit alarmed, and she started to move her hands to cover herself.      

                He tipped her another merry wink and a rakish grin as he stood. "Good to see you, clever-boots! I give you one word: Pert! Now, don't go away, I'll be back as soon as I can with Madam Pomfrey!"

                Before she could even form her face into a scolding scowl, he was gone, racing out the door in a flurry of long limbs and flying black robes.

                Harry saw Hermione look down at her hands, still in mid-air, not having made it far enough to cover herself before Harry's godfather had gone, then at her chest, then back and forth between Harry and Ron. He smiled reassuringly at her. "I'm sure it's not as bad as it looks."

                "I take it I passed out?" she asked, matter-of-factly, then crooned, "Ooooh, that's nice!" as Ron blobbed more of the goop onto her scar. As he spread it, Harry got some as well, and began working on more chafed spots.

                "Yeah," Ron told her. "Laughed yourself into unconsciousness, you did."

                She let her head fall back on the pillow. "I'm sorry."

                "Oh, in the name of Merlin's bleedin' hemorrhoids, Hermione," cried Ron, "what have you got to be sorry about?"

                "Language, Ron!" she scolded half-heartedly, then cooed again as he spread more stuff along her scar.

                Harry was busy working on chafed skin, each area of which seemed to be healed entirely with a single application. He was staring fixedly at her navel as his fingers worked around her right breast.

                She drew a breath, and lifted her right hand up to twine her fingers into his hair. "You're allowed to look, Harry."

                "No, I'm not! I stink!"

                "Harry," Hermione's voice was soft, concerned. "What are you talking about?"

                He just shook his head, staring at her navel while his face reddened.

                Ron suddenly grinned as he reached across Hermione to cuff Harry playfully on the back of the head. "For fuck's sake, ya great pillock! You're fifteen years old, and you're rubbing a beautiful, topless girl's chest! Of course you've got a chubby! You only suck if you're copping a feel or something. You're not, are, you?"

                Harry shook his head rapidly at Ron, eyes wide, as he kept trying to look at Hermione, to see if she was as angry as she ought to be at this revelation.

                "Then it's like this! You look her in the eye, and you tell her, See here, Hermione, you've seen me in the Great Hall many times when I've had--"

                Then she was laughing, covering Ron's mouth with her hand while the other stroked Harry's hair. "Whatever you do, Harry," she told him, "don't say that. Trust me on this one."

                Harry looked shyly up at her. "You're not mad?"

                "No, Harry," she said quietly. "I'm not mad." She drew him toward her with the hand in his hair, kissed him very softly on the mouth. "You're very sweet to be concerned."

                Suddenly her eyes closed, and she lay back on the pillow.

                "All right, there, Hermione Jane?" said Ron, softly.

                She essayed a very slight nod and breathed the words, "Head rush..."

                "Kisses that good, yeah?" asked Ron, and Hermione smiled, as Harry felt his blush return.

                The doors banged open, and Madam Pomfrey strode in, Dumbledore and Sirius in her wake. Ron reached back, grabbed the discarded Cannons shirt from the floor, and put it gently over Hermione's chest before they could approach. Pomfrey nodded at him approvingly.

                She glanced around at the bed and the hanging curtains there to surround it, and with a practiced swish-and-flick, moved the neighboring beds aside, and started widening Hermione's, the curtain-rails in the ceiling spreading along with it. "Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley, please have a seat, there'll be room for all of you."

                Ron grinned across at Harry. "Have you noticed, since this happened, our beds themselves have gotten so much better? Worth it all by itself, I say!"

                Hermione smiled tiredly up at him, and Pomfrey ran a fond hand down the back of his head as she flicked her wand again, and the thin white curtains closed around them, giving them privacy.

                The mediwitch reached a gentle hand down towards the orange cloth over Hermione's chest. "May I?"

                Hermione nodded without opening her eyes, and Pomfrey lifted it away with a slight smile. "The Cannons, Miss Granger? I thought you were smarter than that!"

                "Here now!" cried Ron, bridling at this slight, and Pomfrey gently flicked the shirt so it fell over his head. Harry snorted laughter, and she winked at him, her fingers already running gently along Hermione's scar.

                "Well," she murmured rather tartly, her hand moving to palpate the right breast. "In some ways, your care has taken a rather sharp upswing to the exemplary." Hermione's face was pinking rapidly. "It appears that, as opposed to your previous two visits to me, for the last few days, at least, your salves and potions have been going on right on schedule." She winked at Ron, who had pulled the shirt from his head. "I'm sure that's attributable to the quality of assistance you've been receiving."

                Hermione opened her eyes. Looking back and forth between her blushing boys, she smiled a little.

                "However," Madam Pomfrey's voice lost some of its humour, "it becomes increasingly obvious that you have no interest in following my instructions themselves. Professor Black tells me you've spent the last three days out painting a garden shed? In the sun? Without frequent -- or indeed any -- stops for rest or water?"

                Hermione bit her lip.

                "Is there some part of you are neither to over-exert yourself, nor allow yourself to become overheated nor dehydrated that is in some way unclear to you?"

                Ron and Harry stared at Hermione for a long moment, then Harry turned swiftly to address the mediwitch. "Madam Pomfrey, this is completely my fault--"

                "No, young man, it is not! I don't recall having you in this room when I gave Miss Granger her instructions. Did you drag her, all unwilling, out to the shed and force the paintbrush into her hand?"

                Harry blinked at her, shook his head. "No, Madam Pomfrey!"

                "And were you even given the information that Ms. Granger was supposed to avoid exertion and heat? Did she perhaps mention that?"

                Harry and Ron turned alarmed, hooded eyes on Hermione.

                "No," said Ron, "she bloody didn't!"

                "Of course," Pomfrey told him silkily, "you did tell your two friends all about the potion-treatments for your arms. And the fact that it appears they haven't been applied in several days can be attributed to Mr. Potter's and Miss Granger's carelessness. Obviously."

                "Ronald!" cried Hermione. "Why didn't you say something?"

                "Well, why didn't bloody you?" The gentle fingers Ron ran down the scar on her chest were in stark contrast to his angry voice. "Don't you get how serious this is?"

                "And yours aren't?" Hermione took his wrist, held his livid, scarred arm up before him. The purple scars seemed to writhe with silver threads.

                "Well, excuse me," said Harry, "but I haven't any outstanding medical conditions, thank you very much, so I haven't been keeping anything from anybody, so why don't you both just shut up, and I'll be the one to deliver a right surly bollocking! What am I supposed to do, if you guys let this stuff keep going on and on and on? What if you pass out again? What if you die? What am I supposed to do? You two are the only ones who can stand me!"

                Ron and Hermione stared at him, wide-eyed, as Sirius' voice called through the curtains, "That's very true. I can't bear the little wretch!"

                Ron snorted with laughter, but Harry looked very serious as he took Hermione's hand, and then Ron's and looked back and forth between them. "No, really, you two, really. You have to take care of yourselves. I need you. You know that, don't you?" He took a breath. "I..." He took another breath. "I love you. You have to take care of yourselves."

                As Harry spoke, flowing orchestral music began to fill the room, romantic and richly melodic. Hermione would later tell him it was Tschaikovski's Romeo and Juliet.

                "'Cause I really don't think I could get by--"

                The music swelled, louder, now, and Dumbledore's voice said, quietly, gently, "Sirius..."

                The music stopped at once.

                The three teens were all desperately trying to quash their grins now, as Harry cleared his throat and tried to speak seriously again. "'Cause I'd be--"

                Suddenly he was spewing a series of giggles like machine-gun fire, and Hermione and Ron were going too. Madam Pomfrey's lips curled up at the corners, as Sirius' laughter boomed and Dumbledore chuckled.

                Finally, after maybe five minutes of helpless laughter, Ron reached a hand up and tousled Harry's hair, while Hermione pulled him down again into a kiss.

                "We promise," she murmured, almost into his mouth before giggling again.  She looked over at Ron, from his face to his scarred arms. "Both of us. Right, Ron?"

                "Yeah," said Ron, squeezing Harry's shoulder, then kissing Hermione's forehead. "Yeah, that's right." He was still grinning a little stupidly. "We promise, we both promise."

                "Well, Ronald," said Madam Pomfrey, "that's especially good to hear from you. A week ago, your mother flooed to ask if she should be more closely supervising your application of the potion. She told me you promised you were doing it, but she wasn't sure, and I reminded her that you're nearly an adult now, and must be presumed to be able to take some responsibility for yourself."

                She lifted his arm in her hands, turned it this way and that, looking at the scars. "From the look of this, it's been at least twelve days since you've applied your potion. Twelve days, Ronald!"

                She turned to Harry and Hermione. "Is he still having the nightmares?"

                "Nightmares?" asked Hermione, alarmed, while Harry shook his head.

                "No?" Pomfrey's eyes widened. "That's not good. That's not good at all. That means your subconscious is no longer fighting to expel what that brain brought you, Ronald! Do you value yourself so little that you're willing to allow yourself to be subsumed?" She tilted her head towards Harry and Hermione. "Do you think they value you so little?"

                Ron hung his head. "I'm sorry."

                "You're sorry!?" Hermione was livid. "Exactly what is this you've been keeping from us? Who are you, Harry?"

                "Hey!" cried Harry, aggrieved.

                "Oh, shut up, Harry! You know it's just the kind of thing you'd do!" She turned back to Ron. "We need you, Ron, just as much as you both need me, just as much as we both need Harry! We need you!  I need you!"

                "She's right there, mate," said Harry.

                "Yeah, well it's not all sunshine and daisies like rubbing that stuff into Hermione's tit," he said, bitterly. "It fucking hurts!"

                Hermione scowled at him, her left hand suddenly covering her right breast, and he looked an apology at her, leaned impulsively and kissed her left one. "No, offense, yeah? You know I love 'em both."

                Hermione was slapping at his back with her free hand. "Ronald Bilius Weasley! For Godric's sake, we're--" she gestured at Pomfrey with her eyes, and the mediwitch smiled. "We're not alone! Behave yourself!"

                "Okay, okay," said Ron, sitting back up.

                Pomfrey looked him in the eye, and her voice was gentle. "I'm very sorry, Ronald. I know that it's painful. It is also the only possible treatment, and it's vitally important that you resume it."

                Harry looked across Hermione at him. "Listen, mate, you know we'll both help, right? We'll help any way we can."

                Hermione caressed his face, then turned to Pomfrey. "Madam, can we place a sleeping charm, such as Obdormo, on Ron, and apply the potion while he sleeps?"

                Pomfrey's smile was both impressed and sad. "No, child. The potion's magic requires a conscious mind, an... an awareness of the very pain it causes."

                "Awareness of the pain?" Hermione's eyes were wide. "That has to be some form of Dark Magic."

                "It is child. But darker still are the magicks Ronald must battle within." She ran a gentle hand down the scars on Ron's arm. "This magic is darker by far, and it cannot be combated in any other way." She looked gently at Ron, but with real regret. "I'm very much afraid you're going to find this far more unpleasant than usual, Ronald. You've lost a lot of ground."

                Ron shrugged helplessly, and looked down at his lap, ears turning pink. "I'm very sorry, ma'am."

                "No, Ronald. I'm not in need of an apology. It is I who offer my sympathy to you." She regarded the three of them for a moment.

                Harry reached over, across Hermione, and gave Ron's knee a squeeze.

                "Excuse me for a moment," Madam Pomfrey told them, draping the orange Chudley Cannons shirt over Hermione's chest once again, and she stepped out of the curtains. They heard her voice say, quietly, "Albus, Sirius, I need your guidance on something please..." and her voice receded with footsteps, hers and theirs.

                Ron looked back and forth between Harry and Hermione, his expression somber. "I'm sorry, guys. I really am. This is going to be really rough, I think. I mean, it hurt like fuck last time I did it, and that was when I was pretty much on-schedule."

                "Language, Ron," murmured Hermione, stroking his fringe back away from his eyes. Her tone was more a benediction than a reprimand, and he leaned into her hand.

                "Yeah," he murmured, "well, I hate to have you see it, that's all."

                "Oh, fuck that, Ron," said Harry. He glanced to Hermione. "Er, sorry, Hermione." He turned back to Ron again as she wordlessly petted him in forgiveness. "Mate, if you have to go through a trial, you know we want to be there with you. You'd do it for me."

                Ron smiled bleakly at him. "You wouldn't let me, mate."

                "Yeah, well that's because I'm a great stupid prat, isn't it? Don't be stupid, mate. Don't be me."

                They heard a single set of footsteps approaching, and the curtains parted again to admit Madam Pomfrey, who had brought with her some scrolls and a quill.

                "I have discussed this matter with the headmaster," she said, "and he concurs that this is the best course of action. It is, of course, in the end, entirely your decision." She handed each of them a scroll. "These are contracts. If you sign them, you are agreeing to enter into a training program with me to become Healer's Aides. It will require you to floo here to train with me one day a week through the summer. When the school year starts, you will be spending six hours a week training with me as a class."

                 Hermione cleared her throat, and asked, "Why? No disrespect, healing is a noble profession, but if you went into a huddle to discuss this with Professor Dumbledore, and he thinks it's the right course of action, I have to think there's more to this than vocational training."

                Pomfrey nodded, a small smile playing with her lips. "Indeed there is, Miss Granger. As we see it, there are two advantages. One of them, I'd think would already be obvious." She gestured toward Hermione's scarred chest and Ron's arms. "Your lifestyle is such that each of you having good basic knowledge the healing arts, and especially immediate care, seems more than merely advisable."

                Harry and Ron grinned at one another. It was nothing she hadn't told them hundreds of times before, but they didn't think she'd ever phrased it so kindly.

                "The second advantage is that Medi-Magic trainees are partially exempt from Underage Use of Magic laws. You are allowed to use magic as you see fit in the course of healing."

                Ron's face lit up. "That's brilliant!"

                Pomfrey raised a warning finger at him. "Mr. Weasley, I am not offering up some mere fig-leaf to cover for you in disobeying the law! Training in the healing arts is very serious business and you will take it seriously! If you sign this contact, you will honour its letter and its spirit, and that means that any magic that you use away from school must be part of a healing process." She glanced down at the scars on Ron's forearms. "Even if it is a mere Imperturbitus to keep the patient from disturbing others."

                Hermione lay a gentle hand on Ron's scarred forearm, and looked up to Madam Pomfrey. "It's going to be bad, isn't it? It's going to be really bad."

                Pomfrey's eyes were dark as she nodded. "Yes, child, I'm very much afraid it is."

                "I know Ron's going to have to feel it," Harry said quietly, "but can you teach us magic to-- You know, after, to make him feel better?"

                Pomfrey smiled at him. "Today, if you'd like."

                Harry nodded quickly, looking back and forth from Ron to Hermione. "Let's do it, then."

                "Yes!" breathed Hermione, her face set in firm, determined lines.

                Ron looked back and forth between Harry and Hermione, and while their resolute desire to help him was moving, he thought more, instead, of being able to help them, to heal them, in the days to come. "All right," he said. "All right, yeah."

                Pomfrey handed Ron the quill, and he quickly signed his contract, and passed the quill on to Hermione as he handed the scroll back to Pomfrey. Hermione followed suit, and then Harry, and Pomfrey smiled approvingly as she collected their contracts and the quill.

                "Excellent!" she said, placing the scrolls and quill on a side-table. "Those will be on file before you leave here."

                She turned back to them. "Now, before we start training, there is one other piece of business. Hermione's mother owled me, and asked me to speak to you about contraception charms." She looked back and forth amongst the three of them, as they leaned forward, as one, to bury their faces in their hands. "You might as well strip, because you're going to be practicing until you get them right."

                "Oh, my God," moaned Hermione, as she reached for the button of her shorts.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: "Take Your Medicine..."

This chapter is dedicated to Sarah 'PutMoneyInThyPurse' Enany

            By the time the three teens left Arabella Figg's house four hours later, clouds had rolled in, and there were the beginnings of a fairly significant rainstorm. Tonks, who was accompanying them home in the guise of a huge Samoan man, had handed them all conjured umbrellas, but since there was a brisk wind, the umbrellas didn't do much good.

            "No, these are 'Age of Consent' spells, Harry," Hermione was saying. "You're of age to use contraception charms and things like Lubricus as soon as you're of 'Marriageable' age. So I've been allowed to do them since I turned fourteen. Ron has since he turned sixteen. You will too, come your birthday."

            "But how can they tell?" asked Harry. "I mean, could a sixteen-year-old do just anything he wanted, and then when the ministry showed up, claim it was Lubricus for a quick wank?"

            Hermione smiled and blushed. It was so strange, yet still somehow wonderful, the way all of them, especially Harry, had gotten past all of the embarrassment and discomfort, and just started taking sexuality sort of for granted. They didn't take each other for granted, not what they shared in the king-sized bed, or in the cramped shower enclosure.

            But she knew, a week ago, the idea of Harry casually mentioning even the concept of 'a quick wank' to her would have been inconceivable for both of them. Today it was just a part of a casual conversation.

            Of course, it was hard to imagine being embarrassed about much after the first part of their afternoon with Madame Pomfrey. She did feel the flush rising to her cheeks at the memory of Pomfrey's insistent direction, as she instructed her in practicing Prophiliaxus again and again, on both Harry and Ron, of their gentle fingers moving softly under Pomfrey's tutelage, as they learned and perfected Barricadus. To touch the boys there, to have them touch her, -- enter her, there was no other word for it! -- not merely in front of an adult, but under her direction... It had been a bizarre experience, embarrassing but still somehow heartwarming and humbling, in the quiet reverence the boys had shown for her, in their generosity to her as she touched and learned on them.

            And then they'd dressed again -- Hermione now actually wearing Ron's Cannons shirt, so long on her it hung well past the ragged ends of the legs of her cut-off shorts and nearly to her knees. Harry and Ron in grey "Property of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizarding Athletic Department" tee-shirts that Madame Pomfrey had given them. (These were entirely Muggle items, ordered specially from a mail-order company by Fred and George as a sort of "parting gift" to Hogwarts after they'd fled the school last spring. A case-load of five-hundred of them had been delivered to the front gates of what looked to her like an ancient ruin by a deeply confused British Post Office driver. Dumbledore, of course, adored them. They could be worn anywhere, quite openly, and no harm done, because Muggles would simply assume it was some sort of odd joke.) And then, Madame Pomfrey started teaching them Palliatus, which would end entirely a mild headache, or make an average one mild, or make an unbearable one bearable. It was little enough, Pomfrey had told them, but all she could teach them in a few short hours. As they walked, she glanced again at Ron's arms, and hoped it would be enough. She feared it wouldn't.

            "The detectors at the Ministry," Tonks was telling Harry, lifting a massive arm to run thick, blunt, brown fingers over the stubble on her shaven skull, "actually detect those 'Age of Consent' spells specifically. There's only about a dozen altogether, after all, and that includes household stuff like Tergeo and Scourgify, that aren't technically AoC, but, y'know, nobody much cares who's using 'em. If the real AoC spells are used by underage witches or wizards, the Ministry informs the parents, and they have to respond within eleven days with a report explaining the incident, and what discipline they performed. If the report seems at all dodgy, it's investigated. We've brought in a couple of real sickos that way."

            Ron frowned up at her. "Thirteen-year-old sickos?"

            A look of disgust crossed her stubbly face. "No, the parents. It was pretty dreadful stuff. In one case, the poor boy was nine!"

            Ron looked ill. "I do not want to know that! What the fuck is wrong with people!?!?"

            "You're asking me, mate?" said Tonks, tripping on the kerb as they stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street. Ron and Harry reached to steady her, but her twenty five stone nearly pulled the four of them, her included, to the pavement. Pinwheeling her vast brown arms, she regained that balance, in the process grabbing Ron's arm in a painfully tight grip, and stood upright.

            "Tonks," Ron told her, rubbing his arm and wincing, "you really need to either improve your balance a hell of a lot, or pick more petite disguises!"

            Tonks snorted and gave his shoulder a shove, underestimating her strength and sending the three teens reeling in a chain reaction. "Sorry," she managed, chuckling, "my bad!"

            But Hermione's eyes stayed on Ron's hand as he rubbed his scarred arm, and she bit her lip. The night seemed to loom over her head, damoclean and inevitable.

            They reached the corner of Privet Drive, and Tonks stopped. "Okay, you guys are all set from here. We're trying to give the Dursleys a little room. Don't worry though, Kingsley's got a team covering this whole approach."

            Harry smiled and nodded thanks, though Hermione thought she detected a trace of annoyance in his expression. She remembered something he'd muttered the other day at her parents' house, after they'd bade Tonks and Kingsley Shacklebolt good-night: "It's like I'm the bloody American President, being followed around by the Secret Service!"

            (Ron had chuckled at that, and told Harry, "Bill got a picture of those guys once, when Gringotts sent him to Washington to break some silly curse on a Government type! Did you know they run beside those Muggle cars?")

            Hermione gazed fondly over at Harry. He was the hero they were all counting on to save them from Voldemort -- and he'd do it, too, she knew -- but he still thought he was just a short, skinny kid with glasses.

            She felt Ron's hand squeezing her fingers on the other side and glanced his way, seeing him smile sunnily at her. A week ago, they'd been circling one another in a kind of dysfunctional mating dance, neither able to find the courage to move in closer. Now, those long, strong fingers that had so gently squeezed hers had been--

            She shook her head. You're on the front lines of a war, Hermione! You and your boys! You have more to concern you than these carnal gambols!

            But her boys were more than her friends now, they were her lovers both, and a week ago, could she have imagined that? Yes, she realized, her face flushing. In some part of me, I clearly could.

            The garage door of Number 4 stood open, and the Dursleys' car was gone.

            Dudley, however, was in his usual place, smack in the middle of the couch, staring at the TV. On the screen, a large group of rifle-wielding skiers in orange-and-black were chasing an unarmed skier in blue down an alpine slope, as dramatic music played in the background.

            Ron was mesmerised. "Who're the orange blokes? Are those guns? Those are the things like wands that shoot out little pieces of metal to hurt and kill people, right?"

            Dudley shook his head in a kind of pity. "Yeah, I guess that's close enough. The guys in the orange are Blofeld's henchmen. Blofeld's the bad guy. The one in blue is the good guy, James Bond. He's trying to escape Blofeld's lab."

            "Cool," said Ron, his eyes alight. "Where are the musicians?"

            Dudley looked puzzled. "Musicians?"

            "Yeah. That music. Dun-dunDaaaah! Dun-dun-dun-dunDun-dunDAAAH!"

            Dudley started laughing, and Hermione leaned over to Ron. "The music isn't part of the story, Ron. It's added by the movie-makers to help convey the feelings of the scene."

            "So this Bond fellow can't actually hear it then?"

            "No, Ron," said Hermione with a smile. "Just us."

            Ron's face split in a broad grin. "That's the most brilliant thing I've ever heard of!" He turned to Dudley. "Can we watch?"

            A sneer formed on Dudley's face, and he opened his mouth for a sharp retort, but it never came. Instead, he got up from the couch, moving to the chair beside it, and gestured for them to sit. Harry blinked at him for a moment, a little surprised, while Ron flashed another grin.

            "Thanks, mate," Ron said, and led them around, and soon the three of them were ensconced on the sofa together.

            On the screen, the view was sweeping by James Bond, flying up to him from behind, sweeping around to one side of him, looking him in the face, and then receding away before him.

            "Now, how did they do that?" asked Ron, leaning forward. "I mean, wizards would charm a bird or an owl or something to fly like that, and use Visio Pluribum to share its vision, but you Muggles can't do that. You use those Cambria things."

            "Cameras, Ron," said Hermione.

            "It's pretty cool, actually," said Dudley. "They had a cameraman hanging in this rig from the bottom of a helicopter."

            "That's one of those flying machines, right? Like an airplane with no wings, and a spinner-thing on top?"

            "Yeah, that's right. Anyway, this guy is hanging from a wire harness, way below the helicopter, and they just fly him right along amongst the skiers, and he can turn his camera, and get close shots and stuff like that. A couple of years before this, there was an accident, and this camera guy was hurt real bad. I think he lost a leg. But he was right back doing it again for this movie."

            Ron grinned over at him. "Dad's right. You Muggles are incredible!" His voice was full of admiration. "You'd never find a wizard who'd figure out all that, much less come back and do it again."

            Dudley smiled back at him, engaged enough in the topic that he forgot he was talking to a 'freak.'

            "And that with the music," Ron was saying. "That's what Sirius was doing today! That's so cool!" He looked back at Dudley. "Do Muggles do that music thing with everything on TV?"

            "Movies," said Dudley. "And a lot other stuff. Not much on news or documentaries."

            He reached for the popcorn bowl, and Ron held it out to him. Dudley took hold of it, started to take the bowl, then just scooped out a handful, instead, and Ron set it back on the table. Harry's eyes widened.

            "Dudley," said Harry, "did Sirius come back and threaten you or something? What's going on?"

            Dudley looked angrily at him for a moment, then turned to Hermione. "I don't like you," he told her, venomously. "I don't like you at all."

            She blinked at him, surprised. "I'm sorry, Dudley. You shan't have to put up with us for long. We'll be gone on Harry's birthday."

            "Yeah, so what? What you said to me won't." He pointed at the bowl on the table. "Have some bloody popcorn, all three of you lot, and just watch the movie."

            They sat back to watch, and as the movie continued, Dudley's sullenness subsided a bit. He spoke from time to time about the movie -- "I think this is the best one. People say Lazenby's rubbish, but I thought he was pretty good." -- and, when he went to the kitchen for a soft drink, he asked whether they wanted any as well. "Might as well. You lot doing anything at all is like watching a dance number from an old musical!"

            At one point, Ron offered the popcorn bowl to Hermione, and she looked past it, past his wrist, at the runnelled scars on his forearms. When she brought her eyes up to meet his, she saw he'd followed her gaze, and he was biting his lip. But then he nodded, and held the bowl across her to Harry.

            When the movie was over, Harry leaned forward again. "What do you think for supper, Dudley? If you want to order out, I can treat."

            Dudley bit his lip, hesitating for a bit, then said quietly, "Do you think you could make some of your spaghetti sauce? We have the ingredients."

            Harry grinned. "It's not like it takes Jamie Oliver, Dudley."

            "Yeah, but Mum won't make it because of my ruddy diet."

            Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but Harry put a hand on her arm. "Everybody goes off their diet now and again, Hermione."

            So Harry led his friends into the kitchen, put a middle-sized saucepan on the stove, and opened a cabinet.

            "Here we are," he said. He reached in and pulled out two yellow jars of some cheap commercial brand "Double Cheddar" pasta sauce.

            Hermione looked at the jars of bright-yellow sauce. "That's it? Harry, that stuff is dreadful!"

            "Yeah, well, once I put it all together, it's pretty tasty. I'm not claiming it's health food."

            Another reach, and Harry brought back a large can of tomato sauce. He handed this to Ron. "Here we go, mate," he said. "I'll show you how to work the electric can opener, You can tell your dad about it, give him a treat."

            He tutored Ron, who picked it up quite quickly, and the red-head looked, smiling broadly, as the can spun slowly beneath the blade. The way the starting lever lifted the top off the can as they removed it delighted him.

            As Ron held the can back to him, Harry found himself looking at the scars on his arms. He bit his lip, and Ron said, very quietly, "Don't, Harry, all right? It's bad enough as it is."

            "Sorry, mate." Harry took the can, and dumped it into the saucepan on medium heat. He followed it with the two jars of yellow cheese sauce, stirred with a big wooden spoon. "Hermione, could you grab me the garlic salt, and the canister of sugar?"

            Hermione did so, and watched with a smile as Harry added in a generous dash of the garlic salt, and apparently -- he wasn't measuring -- about a half cup of sugar.

            "That's a lot of sugar, Harry," said Hermione.

            "Yeah, but the tomato sauce is very acidic." Harry smiled as he stirred patiently. "The sugar is needed to counterbalance it. It does give the sauce a bit of sweetness, but it's really pretty nice. Ron, can you reach the pots and the sink? I need a large pot of water."

            Soon the larger pot was on the front burner, three-quarters full of water, with a bit of the garlic salt, and a dollop of "Extra Virgin Olive Oil."

            "How can it be extra virgin?" asked Ron. "I mean, either you're a virgin, or you're not!"

            Harry snickered. "What are we, then?"

            Hermione stepped up and snuggled between them, her arms around their waists, "I don't know. But I like what we are. I like it a lot."

            "So do I," said Ron, reaching down to give her bottom a little squeeze, and she was reminded for a moment of her Mum and Dad, the day before the inquest.

            "Me too," said Harry, leaning in to kiss her, and suddenly Mum and Dad were gone, and she knew she was part of something very different, but just as loving. Just as wonderful. They were too young to be this, but this was what they were, now. A family.

            Harry went into the bread-box, and found a loaf of store-bakery Italian bread, and began pre-slicing it with a large bread knife, not quite separating any given slice from the loaf. He dug around in the fridge, and pulled out a small jar of crushed garlic, and a small, half-empty tub of whipped butter. Harry used a fork to put some crushed garlic into the butter, and mixed it thoroughly, then used a table-knife to spread the butter into the slices on the loaf of bread, then put the loaf back into the paper bag it came in, and drizzled some water from the sink onto the bag's surface before popping the bag directly onto the oven-rack, and turning it on.

            By now, the water was boiling merrily, and the sauce was bubbling occasionally. and the trio were a kind of studied dance, Harry moving easily to from cabinet to sink to counter. He fetched a large colander, stood it in the sink, then two one-pound boxes of pasta.

            "I'll give Aunt Petunia this," he told them, as he opened the boxes, "She picks good pasta. This is called cavatappi. It's like elbow macaroni in a spiral maybe three inches long. And see the ridges? Picks up sauce like nobody's business." He dumped the contents of both boxes into the water. He stirred the pasta almost constantly with a slotted plastic pasta-serving utensil, occasionally reaching up to stir the sauce with the wooden spoon.

            Every now and again, Harry would deftly pluck just one noodle from the pot with the stirrer, look at it, and drop it back in. Finally, as the smell of the garlic bread in the oven spread through the kitchen, he smiled, and plucked the latest noodle from the stirrer with his fingers, blew on it, and held it playfully before Hermione's mouth. She leaned in and nibbled the end off the steaming noodle.

            "Al Dente?" Harry asked.


            Harry tossed the rest of the noodle to Ron, who deftly caught it and tossed it into his mouth as Harry dumped the pot of water and pasta into the colander in the sink. He lifted the entire colander, shaking it gently to drain the water from the pasta, and then he was back to the cabinets again, bringing out serving bowls.

            He opened the oven a crack, sniffed, then shut it off, as well as all the burners. Soon, the garlic bread was in a basket lined with a paper towel, the cavatappi mixed with the pale orange sauce in one large serving bowl, and a pre-made salad from the local supermarket dumped into another. Harry found a tray and piled on it four plates, four salad bowls, four plastic tumblers, a pile of napkins and four sets of silverware, then added the basket of garlic bread to one side.

            Back to the fridge again for a plastic four-pinter of milk, a couple of bottles of salad dressing, and a jar of shredded Parmesan and Romano cheese. "Ron, can you handle this stuff?"

            As Ron took it, he gestured Hermione toward the salad, and somehow managed to lift both the tray and the pasta, and they made their way in a sort of awkward chain into the dining room, where Dudley was seated at the head of the table, looking vaguely interested.

            They set their burden down on the table, and Harry quickly and calmly set it, working around Dudley like a waiter in a good restaurant, and Hermione recognised in his movements the ease of long practice. How often had he waited on the Dursleys like this?

            As soon as Harry had put a plate before Dudley, the boy was tucking in hungrily, scooping vast forksful of cavatappi into his mouth. He'd finished his first bowl before Harry had finished serving Hermione and Ron, and Harry calmly refilled his plate, then handed him a salad and poured him a glass of milk, finally giving him two pieces of garlic bread on a napkin.

            The trio sat eating together comfortably, Ron and Hermione helping themselves to salad and milk and garlic bread and second helpings, while Harry assumed responsibility for serving his cousin, who ate greedily and noisily.

            Hermione had to admit that Harry was right. The sauce was wonderfully tasty, tangy and just a touch sweet, setting off the wheaty taste of the pasta, and the spicy tang of the garlic bread. The salad was uninspired, as store-bought salads frequently are, consisting mainly of iceberg lettuce that was mostly water, and a few soggy tomato slices.

            When he finished, Dudley pushed back his chair and belched loudly, then stood and walked without ceremony back to the TV. Ron and Hermione exchanged a glance as they watched him go, but Harry simply finished what was on his plate.

            Between them, the trio and Dudley had thoroughly demolished the entire meal, leaving behind nothing but crumbs and dirty dishes, and Harry began stacking the dishes, gathering all the detritus onto the tray.

            Ron shook his head at him. "You're pretty amazing, Harry. Doesn't this bother you at all? You're his cousin, not his servant."

            Harry shrugged. "It's like Hermione said the other day. He doesn't know any better. This is what he's been raised to." He looked over at her. "You know, it never occurred to me before Sirius said it, but it's true, and y'know what? It's really, really sad. The way they've spoiled him, maybe even ruined him... It was all about hurting me. He's what he is, and it's... What do the military types call it these days? Collateral damage. They..." He paused to consider. "They buried him in, in..." another moment's hesitation. "In some sort of an orgy of, of... I dunno, conspicuous consumption, I guess-- to hurt me! Who hates a little boy that much?"

            Ron snorted as he stood, taking the tray from in front of Harry. "Ol' Wossname does."

            "No, Ron," said Hermione, as they stood to follow him back to the kitchen. "Vo-- Riddle's afraid of Harry. He wants to kill him for purely pragmatic reasons. I'm sure he's pretty angry at Harry for thwarting his will so many times, for living this long, but he doesn't hate him like that."

            In the kitchen, Harry took over again, despite Ron's and Hermione's objections. "It's just easier. I know the routine."

            And in minutes, he'd rinsed all the dishes, pots, pans, glasses and silverware, loaded them into the dishwasher with a practiced eye for balance and placement, and started it running.

            When they turned back away from the machine, Dudley was standing quietly behind them, and Hermione jumped, letting out a small squeak.

            "Oh, Dudley! You startled me."

            Dudley shrugged. His gaze dismissed her, and he turned back to Harry. "Thanks. For, you know, dinner. I like your sauce. I don't get to have it anymore."

            "No problem, Dudley," said Harry, neutrally. "Your mum would go spare if she heard about it, though."

            Dudley nodded, looking at him. There was clearly more he wanted to say. They stood for a moment, awkward and silent. Dudley turned to Ron. "What happened to your arms, anyway?"

           "Attacked by a brain," Ron said.

            "A brain?" said Dudley.

            "Yeah," said Ron. "Magical, floating brain. My own fault. I called it over."

            Dudley nodded. "Weird."

            "Yeah." Ron's face was serious. "Even for us."

            Dudley suddenly turned back to Harry. "Did you mean what you said before? About Mum and Dad ruining me to hurt you?"

            Hermione drew a sharp breath, and Dudley's gaze moved to her for a moment, then returned to Harry.

            "You heard that, huh?" said Harry, clearly wondering if he was about to be pounded on.

            "Yeah. Is that really what you think?"

            "What do you think, Dudley?" asked Ron. Harry and Hermione turned to stare at him just as Dudley did. "I mean, look," he continued, "I'm a freak, right? A wizard, and I know nothing from nothing about the Muggle world. But even I can see that the way they treated you had nothing to do with love. It's not normal to raise a kid this way. Even I can see it."

            Dudley regarded him for a moment, then looked back down at his arms. "A brain, huh?"

            Ron nodded. "Pretty much, yeah."

            Suddenly, Dudley's blunt fingers were gently following the lines of scar a few inches down one of Ron's forearms. He drew back awkwardly. "Looks tender."

            "A bit, yeah," said Ron, a little warily.

            Dudley turned back to Harry. "Thanks. For dinner. For cleaning up. For... Thanks."

            And he turned and walked from the kitchen. A moment later, they heard the front door open and close.

            Harry turned again, letting his hands trail easily along Ron's and Hermione's, and then, almost unconsciously, tucked the two hands, one large, one small, both up under his shirt, to touch his back, and leaned on the kitchen counter, looking out into the rainy twilight.

            Ron's voice spoke behind him, quiet. "It's really coming down out there. I hope he's okay."

            "I'm sure he'll be fine, Ron," said Hermione. "A little rain never killed anybody."

            Harry chuckled. "Do you know how many fatal hydroplaning accidents there were on Britain's motorways in the last five years?"

            Hermione felt the flush rise into her face. "No, and neither do you." She smiled and rubbed her hand on his back. "It is a good point, though. Still, I wouldn't worry, Ron. He isn't driving, and sometimes a walk in the rain can do your heart good."

            The wind gusted, blowing a blatting sheet of rain against the kitchen window.

            "Yeah, I'll pass, thanks," said Ron.

            They stood for a few moments more.

            "How long?" Harry asked.

            "Madame Pomfrey said, no earlier than ten o'clock."

            The trio turned together to look at the wall clock. It was 7:14. Two hours and forty-six minutes stretched ahead of them like an eternity.

            "Of course," mused Hermione, reaching for the hem of the orange Chudley Cannons shirt, and sliding it up over her thighs and abdomen, and onward past the smooth curves of her belly to briefly show them her chest, breasts high and round, nipples pink, her scar so much less livid than it had been at the inquest, "there are no time constraints on when we can do mine." She smiled wickedly over at Ron as she lowered her shirt again. "Would you like to do mine, Ron?"

            Ron stepped closer to her, took her hands, as Harry sidestepped softly, and turned back to the window, allowing one of his elbows to brush Ron's. Those cobalt-blue eyes stared down into hers. "Miss Granger, you're trying to distract me."

            She licked her lips, slowly, as she looked up into his eyes. "How am I doing?"

            "Qui--Quite well, actually."

            She reached up, one hand at a time, to clasp behind his head, and pulled him down to her kiss. She sucked on his upper lip, nibbling it a bit with her teeth, then opened her mouth to him, and felt fire pouring into her mouth with his tongue. Ron's kiss was often awkward, but always sincere, always enthusiastic. Harry's kiss, like his touch, was reverence and need and gratitude. Ron's was love, and desire, and intensity. His appetite for her was insatiable, and that was a hunger she shared, a thirst she now tried to slake. She drank him in, trying to fill herself.

            Somewhere, far away, she was aware of a door opening, a deep, male gasp, a woman's shriek, and then that male voice again: "What do you think you're doing, you indecent little freaks!?!?"

            She broke away from Ron, and looked over to the back door, where Vernon and Petunia were staring at them, angry and shocked.

            "It's called kissing, Mr. Dursley," she said tartly. She'd grown thoroughly sick of Vernon Dursley in the last three days. "It's how people who love one another show affection."

            "Well, aren't you clever!" snapped Petunia. "Aren't you just so pleased with yourself! Well, I'm not pleased! I have an impressionable boy in this house!"

            Hermione lifted her chin. "Well, Mrs. Dursley, I'll grant you that in this house, he's seen so little of love or affection that it would be bound to be confusing and upsetting for him, but you needn't worry. He went out a few minutes ago."

            "Of all the shameless cheek!" bellowed Vernon Dursley. "You unholy freaks let him go out in this?"

            Harry turned tiredly from the window. "Give it a rest, Uncle Vernon. Dudley's sixteen years old. He can handle a walk in the rain." Suddenly, the green-eyed boy smiled. "In fact, I'm starting to think he can handle more than either of us ever imagined. He'll be fine." He turned to his friends, his lovers. "Come on, let's go upstairs."

            "You'll go nowhere!" barked Dursley. "I'm not done with you!"

            "But we, Mr. Dursley," said Hermione, "are done with you. Have a lovely evening."

            And the three walked calmly to the stairs, leaving an impotently stuttering Vernon Dursley behind them.

            Harry grinned at her as they started to ascend. "Honestly, Hermione, I've never seen you cheek an adult like that!"

            "He's just an insufferable, boorish, snobbish, bigoted-- Aargh!  I can't even think of a word about him!"

            Ron grinned at her as they topped the stairs, and turned towards their room. "Miserable old fuckwit?" he suggested, as they closed the door behind them. "Buggering arsewipe?"

            Hermione raised a brow at him as she raised her wand. "Language, Ron!" She used Colloportus to lock the door, and Imperturbatus on the floor and walls. "There's no need for that kind of talk, honestly!"

            He turned and stood against her, looked down into her eyes. "What kind of language would you like then?"

            And she reached a hand, pressed against his hardness. "Body language."

            Harry took a half-step backwards, trying to work out a way to give his friends some space to nurture the flame that burned in the air between them, but she suddenly reached out and grabbed his belt buckle.

            "Where are you going, Harry?" she asked, and pulled him to her, even as she stepped into Ron's solid lank. She leaned into Harry, kissed him long and softly, her mouth working slowly against his. She looked over to Ron, saw him staring, eyes wide, dilated. She reached a hand down to run nimble fingers over the crotch of Ron's shorts, felt the hardness beneath the denim, felt the heat radiating from it. She finally broke the kiss, pulled back a bit from Harry.

            "Ron's hard, Harry," she said, running her fingers again over Ron's heat, his length beneath the denim.

            Harry's voice was hoarse. "I don't blame him. So am I."

            She turned her dark eyes to him. "And can you think of something we could do about that?"

            Harry leaned into her, kissed her, his hand trailing up under her -- under Ron's -- shirt to palm her breast. He did a thing he knew she liked, running his fingers slowly sideways across her nipple in a series of gentle bumps like the "rumble strips" on a motorway, and she moaned into his mouth and turned back towards Ron, as she shucked the shirt off, threw it to the floor.

            "How about you, Ron?" she asked. "Is there something you want to do about it?"

            He pulled her to him, crushed his mouth greedily on down to hers. She heard rustling behind her as she pushed Ron back towards the big bed, felt the way Harry's hands switched against her back as he pulled off the grey tee-shirt. As she reached down Ron's crotch again, she heard the sound of a zip behind her, and glanced over to see that Harry had his cut-off denims halfway down his thighs, the erection tenting his Y-fronts.

            She smiled then. Poor Harry, so starved for touch and affection that he was always the eager one, now that he was starting to really understand that she was here for him, too. Ron was more comfortable, more relaxed and confident about her body. Always loving, always reverent, but still, confident. This was his place to be, and on some level, he knew it.

            She turned back to him, but saw something had stilled in his gaze, and as she leaned in to kiss him, he leaned back just a bit. "Wait a minute." His eyes flickered away from her for a moment, to the bedside table. As Madame Pomfrey had promised, there was a new jar of Ron's potion there, waiting for him. "Wait a minute... What's going on?"

            Her smile was wicked, wanton, as she breathed, "What to you think is going on, Ron?"

            Miss Granger, you're trying to distract me. The jar of potion, sitting by the digital clock.

            "Oh, Hermione... No. No, no, no. This won't be that, Hermione Jane."

            "What?" said Harry. His shorts were halfway down his calves now, his movement arrested by the concern in Ron's voice, the hitch in Hermione's breath.

            "She's trying to distract me, Harry. Take my mind off..." He waved his arm at his friend, the runneled scars catching the light, then turned back to Hermione even as that light dawned in Harry's eyes.

            "What we have here, Hermione..." Ron stroked the duvet. "This can never be a... A tool for something else.. This is about us. Always. Or it's not happening."

            Hermione's eyes stayed locked with Ron's, so kind, so warm, and her heart filled for him. She loved him, loved him so much, loved him with all she had..

            She heard the zip sound again, and broke eye contact with Ron, and turned to see that Harry, always the eager one, always enthusiastic, had pulled his denims back up, and was shrugging the grey shirt back over his head. His green eyes were on hers as his head emerged from the neck. "Ron's right, Hermione." He turned to the other boy. "I'm sorry, mate. I should have seen it. I'm just such a randy prat..."

            Ron chuckled. "Don't, mate. You start apologizing for being a randy prat, you set a precedent I'm not sure I can live with!"

            Hermione giggled as Harry grinned and leaned down to the floor to pick up the orange Cannons shirt, held it out to her. She shook her head at him. "It's a tent. Besides, I've been without a bra since this afternoon, and now I'm randy, and my nipples are kind of sensitive. You don't mind, do you?"

            "Oh, good fuck, no!" cried Harry, and Ron laughed.

            "Sirius was right, you know," he told her, gathering her in his arms, and kissing her head softly. One finger traced a deft and gentle circle, not quite touching her left nipple. "Pert. Definitely pert."

            She made a low sound in her throat. "I can't believe he said that! I was in a clinic! For treatment!"

            "How'd you feel about him touching your breast?"

            She shook her head. "I was kind of freaked out at first, but then he said that, and I was so dumbstruck that by the time I thought about it again, he was... Oh!" Hermione looked over at Harry. "You know, Harry, your godfather is a very smart man!"

            But Harry was looking at his trunk, his eyes far away. "Hmm? Wha--?" He let his mind process Hermione's words. "Oh! Yeah! Yeah, he is! Hey, c'mere a minute, I want to get something out of my trunk."

            The moved over with him, and he dug around for a few minutes in the trunk, finally pulling out a small, battered hardcover book, its spine creased, its cover held on with cell-o-tape.

            Harry led them back to the bed, and climbed up on it, gesturing them to join him as he scooted back, arranging pillows behind himself, and sat with his back against the wall.

            "What's that, Harry?" asked Hermione.

            He smiled, opening the book, and flipping past the first few pages.

            "The Wind In The Willows," he told her. "By Kenneth Graham. Chapter One: The River Bank."

            She was smiling then, looking over at Ron, who looked, interested, at Harry. Harry smiled back at both of them.

            "The Mole had been working very hard all the morning," he read, aloud, "spring- cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above..."

            "As he hurried along," Harry read, "eagerly anticipating the moment when he would be at home again among the things he knew and liked, the Mole saw clearly that he was an animal of tilled field and hedge- row, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden-plot. For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime."

            He glanced at the digital clock on the bedside table. The red digits stared uncompromisingly back at him: 10:26. Beside it sat that clay jar. It looked so innocent.

            He looked over, eyes wide, at Ron and Hermione, and they nodded, faces suddenly grim, the world of Mr. Toad and the Water Rat as distant as Pluto.

            Harry placed a small piece of parchment back in the book, and set it down, and Ron silently pulled the grey Tee-shirt off, started to throw it to the floor, then paused.

            He glanced at Hermione's chest. Her areolae -- Hermione had taught them the word, taught them all the words -- had subsided again, and were now just a little pinker than the pale skin of her breasts, and had spread to diagonal ovoids about the diameter of a teacup, the nipples themselves small, a bit above center and only slightly darker. "You should put this on," he said. "I'm liable to thrash a bit, and I don't want to get any on you." He raised a brow. "'Sides, you've relaxed now."

            She smiled weakly. How was it, she wondered, that she had reached the point in less than a week where she could cuddle, bare-breasted, with her boys, and cease to even notice that she was exposed? Still, Ron had a point, and she shrugged the shirt on, pulled her hair out the neck behind her with an impatient gesture.

            Ron looked back and forth between them. "You should tie me up."

            "Ron!" the cry of protest from Harry and Hermione was almost simultaneous.

            "Guys, I'm going to thrash around. A lot. It doesn't get any better if I fall off the fucking bed and break my arm!"

            "That doesn't mean we're going to truss you up like a beeve at branding time in some old western," said Harry. He threw the pillows up against the headboard of the bed, then reclined on them, his torso at almost a forty-five degree angle. He held his hands out toward Ron, made a "gathering" gesture with his fingers. "Come on, old son. Come on. I'll hold you."

            Ron raised his eyes to him. "Harry, I--" He swallowed. "I can't."

            "Yes you can, Ron." Harry's voice was soft, but very firm. "Now, come on."

            Ron stared at him a moment longer, before his eyes dipped down. "Yeah," he murmured. "Yeah, all right."

            He worked his way up and around, and sat in front of Harry, between his spread legs, and leaned back against Harry's chest, his head settling neatly on Harry's collarbone. Hermione smiled bravely at them, looking at where Ron's head lay, and remembered the healing charm Madame Pomfrey had taught them for broken bones. It requires only five pounds of pressure, applied suddenly, to snap a human clavicle.

            Harry rubbed his hands briskly but gently over Ron's bare chest. "See, Ron? That's not so bad, is it?"

            Ron essayed a weak chuckle. "Bit queer, mate, t'tell you the truth."

            "I thought you were Mister Bi-Guy," Harry retorted softly.

            Ron actually did laugh a bit at that. "Pretty lame, Harry."

            Hermione reached past them to recover the jar from the bed-side table. It resisted her movements a bit as she brought it back to set it beside her on the mattress, like one of the toy gyroscopes she'd had as a little girl. As Pomfrey had promised, it was charmed to stay upright, to avoid spilling its noxious contents.

            She started to remove the top, when Ron shook a finger at her. "You're forgetting something important."

            She looked blankly at him, and he extended one palm toward her. Memory came flooding back, and she took up her wand in her left hand, pointing it at her own right. "Prophilixus!"

            She felt a tingle, and suddenly her hand looked just a bit shiny, as if it was wet, although it felt just the same. The effect spread up as far as her elbow. She switched hands, performed the same charm on her left, then realized she was still wearing her cut-off shorts, and was sitting cross-legged with her bare thighs between her and Ron. She summoned a pair of sweat-pants from her trunk and wriggled into them, then resumed her place at Ron's side. She took hold of his wrist, and he shook his head.

            "Hermione Jane, you're really going to have to restrain it. You're not strong enough."

            Hermione's eyes darkened, and she bit her lip. The wind howled past the window, flinging great sheets of rain at the glass.

            "You have to, Hermione. You have to."

            She looked down at her lap for a moment, then nodded. With a swish and a flick, magical cords and looped around his wrist, holding his arm tied tightly to a six-inch-wide circle of thin air. It looked pretty stupid, but Ron tried to move his arm, and couldn't.

            Hermione's eyes raised again and locked with Harry's as she removed the lid from the jar, setting it carefully aside. Harry's bear-hug around Ron's torso tightened, and he murmured in Ron's ear, "Ready, old son?"

            Ron nodded, tried to speak but made a choked noise. He cleared his throat, tried again, and managed to rasp out, "Ready."

            Hermione's protected fingers dipped into the potion jar, and came out with a glob of the stuff. It was a deep, greenish-brown color, and seemed to sizzle on her fingertips, a foul, sulphurous steam rising from it.

            The three teens regarded it for a long moment on Hermione's hand, and she drew a breath, and brought the stuff down decisively on Ron's forearm. Pale green flames leapt up from Ron's flesh, with a smell like spiced, rotted pork frying, and he bucked back against Harry, his eyes and his jaw clamped shut. Tears rolled down Ron's cheeks and a deep, guttural sound forced its way from between his clamped teeth like an animal escaping a trap, leaving parts of itself bloodily behind.

            Harry reached one hand up, tenderly brushed his mate's hair back. "Let it out, old son," he murmured. "No reason to hold it. Nothing to prove here. Let it out."

            Hermione's hands started spreading the pasty potion, smoothing it along Ron's scars. Harry glanced up at her face. It was awful. Her skin was drawn tightly in, leaving her cheekbones in sharp relief. Her eyes so wide and circular above them that she resembled a movie zombie, eyeballs set loose in empty sockets. They swam, though, with tears, which streamed down her face, past a mouth that was open in a rictus around clenched teeth. Everywhere the potion spread, those awful green flames followed with their horrible smell of spoiled meat cooking.

            Ron was making a long, slow, keening noise now, sweat pouring off of his entire body, and Harry rubbed the side of his face with his own, stroking his chest with his hands around his torso. "It's all right, Ron. You cry if you have to. You scream, the room's imperturbed. It's just us here, and we love you. So you go ahead, old horse. Go ahead and scream."

            Ron's eyes rolled back in his head, and his mouth opened to a wail the like of which Harry had never heard. Only one sound was even close, the sound of a woman screaming that he'd heard within his mind, distant and heartrending, when Dementors came too near.

            Harry realized he was kissing Ron's cheek, as he brushed the sweat-matted hair back off his face, his arm wrapped around Ron's untreated one like a wrestler's half-nelson.

            As Ron's scream faded to sobs, he heard more sobs as well, and looked again at Hermione, whose crying wracked her, even as she scooped more potion onto her fingers.

            She hitched a breath as she reached for his arm again, and through the sobs, Harry heard her voice, a quiet keening sound that he only belatedly recognized as singing.

            "Weasley moves inside my heart" she sang, as she smeared the potion onto his arm again and he bucked back against Harry and shrieked like the damned.

            "There he's always played his part."

            Harry kissed him again, stroked his face, his chest, and the long, slender, freckled body continued to buck as he screamed, and Harry's own tears flowed freely down his face. "It's all right, Ron," he continued to sob to him. "It's all right, I'm here, we're here, we love you."

            "You know he's owned me from the start."

            Her fingers were now working the potion into the shoulder beneath Harry's chin, and as Ron bucked again, a tiny droplet flew back, splashed onto his cheek. He actually saw the brief lick of green flame, smelt the puff of tastier cook-smoke, and clamped his mouth over his own scream. Cruciatus, he thought, might well have hurt more than this, but only because it had been over his whole body. His face was screwed up in its own silent rictus, as the sun-bright flame of agony poured from that spot on his face. He wanted to scream, to shriek, to run. But he couldn't. Ron couldn't know of this. He'd stop them, and, oh, by the Elder Gods of Lovecraft, there was still another whole arm to be done.

            Hermione stared at him, eyes wide, and he managed to shake his head, just a fraction of an inch, but she quietly picked up her wand, aimed it at his cheek, uttered a Scourgify, then Tergeo, then Palliatus, all quiet enough to be buried under Ron's screams.

            She rubbed a bit more around that shoulder, then sat back, chest heaving, and managed to gasp out, as she Scourgified and Tergeo'd the arm, and Ron's shriek trailed off to a moan, "That's why Weasley is my King!"

            He reached up with his free arm, brushed a tear gently from her cheek with his thumb. "That's all right, then, Hermione Jane," he managed to breathe. "There's no reason to cry, my love." Another shuddering gasp. "Your singing's not so bad."

            And Harry and Hermione both found themselves laughing through their tears, Hermione leaning forward to kiss him, her arm held safely out to one side, as Harry stroked his hair and held his face against Ron's.

            "And I definitely like your lyrics better than Malfoy's!"

            Harry murmured to him, his lips brushing Ron's ear as he spoke, "Shall I tell him that, then, so he can sing it to you when we get to school?"

            Ron managed a smile in return. "Fuck you, you great berk!"

            They lay together for a few minutes, just breathing, drinking in the company, drinking in their relief at the break. Finally, though, Ron spoke.

            "Guys... I hate to say this..." He laughed then, darkly but with real humour. "I really, really, really hate to say this!" His laughter, his smile, faded. "We've another whole arm to go."

            They were cold and still, looking back and forth among one another.

            Finally, Harry spoke. "You want me to switch sides?"

            Ron snorted. "I'd just as soon keep your face out of the line of fire this time, Hero-boy." He looked at Hermione. "You have a healing charm for that, right?"

            She nodded, her eyes already filling, as she cast Palliatus, again and again, on the arm they'd done. With a wave of her wand, the magical ropes were released, and that arm dropped like dead meat. She looked deeply into Ron's eyes. "Are you ready, my King?"

            Ron managed a smile at that. "I'm ready, Hermione Jane."

            With a wave of her wand, she'd tied his other arm to the air, and, tears already streaming, reached into the jar of potion. There was no pause to look this time. With shocking suddenness, she brought the wad of potion from the jar to Ron's forearm, and was slathering it down and around his wrist before he know enough to scream.

            It took a moment's stunned, wide-eyed silence before the agony roared out of Ron in a dragon's roar of pain and shock. "You scream, old son," murmured Harry in his ear, as Ron's body bucked against him again. His open hand rubbed over a sweat-slicked chest, and he found himself again kissing a cheek, kissing the corded muscles of Ron's neck. "It's all right, you scream."

            Hermione scooped up more potion, and attacked again, and Ron's scream subsided, tiredly, to whimpering sobs. Harry heard his voice crooning into Ron's ear.

            "Weasley's ever at my side."

            A keening squeal of pain escaped Ron, and he bucked again.

            "When larger men would run and hide."

            He arced forward and slammed backwards again, his head landing solidly, and Harry heard a loud Snap! like a giant pencil breaking, and a galaxy of pain exploded through him from where Ron's head had struck him. He sucked in a breath, eyes shut and watering, then sang again, through tight-clenched teeth, "That he's my friend fills me with pride."

            The whole arm and hand on Ron's side felt useless, so he petted and stroked with the other as Hermione worked her way feverishly up Ron's bicep. Ron shrieked again, his head rolling, grinding against Harry's collar, and he heard and felt bone grind against bone, and cried out, before gasping, "Weasley is my King!"

            And then Hermione's hand was running potion around Ron's shoulder, and he arced his head up, his mouth open, lips drawn back, and Harry recognized the look.

            It was one he'd had himself, years ago, at primary school, when Dudley had shoved him, causing him to fall onto the stand for a salt-water aquarium that had been set up to display jellyfish for some senior-level science project. The tank had fallen against the wall and exploded into a million shards, one of which, long and slender, had pierced the tender nerve cluster in his knee that so many have misnamed the "funny bone." That had been agony enough, but on its way, the shard had also skewered a hapless jellyfish, and the dying creature had lashed and stung at his knee where the glass pierced it. The pain had been electric and specific, entirely local to that knee, but so great, he'd had to do something, something to counter it, and he'd brought his forearm up to his mouth and bitten it, hard enough to break the skin. The scar was still slightly visible when the light hit it right.

            He remembered the rictus of his face before he'd brought his arm up, and he recognized it in Ron's face. He didn't think for so much as a moment. He held his arm in front of Ron, whose wild eyes were seeking a target.

            "Go ahead, Ron!"

            Ron had barely enough mind to shake his head in demurral.

            "I said, do it!" screamed Harry, and Ron's head struck forward, his teeth sinking into Harry's forearm, and Harry was rubbing his head against Ron's, kissing his corded neck, and Hermione sat away again, eyes streaming with tears, body wracked with sobs, and pointed her wand at Ron's arm.

            "Scourgify! Tergio! Palliatus! Palliatus! Palliatus!"

            Ron's head arced up again, and he gasped in a great gulp of fresh air as Harry looked at the bloodied bite-mark on his arm, and then Ron simply collapsed, falling, and Harry watched in a kind of terrified despair, in subjective slow-motion, as Ron's head fell, dead-weight, toward his broken collarbone.

            Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hermione gasp, her hand move slightly to reach to try to stop him, but that vile, corrosive stuff was still on her hand, and there was no time to clean it, and she watched, horrified, just as Harry himself was, and the sweaty ginger head crashed down onto him, and red light and a wash of pain exploded again through Harry's vision, and pain coursed through him.

            He heard Hermione Scourgify and Tergeo herself, and then she released Ron's arm from the magical ropes, and magically levitated him, laying him gently beside Harry. He heard her cast one healing charm, and screamed as the pieces of his collarbone moved back together, and scream melted into sigh as the bones began to knit themselves. A different healing charm, and there was a burning on his forearm, and when he looked again, the wound on his arm was gone.

            Hermione cast Palliatus on him, then again on Ron, and again, and again, before collapsing between them. They were all sweat-soaked, all tearstained and bloodstained, and in desperate need of a long shower, but the seven steps to the bathroom might as well have been a billion miles. It was Ron who eventually found the top of the potion jar, re-sealed it, and put the stuff on the table again, Ron who stripped all three of them, cast mild cleaning charms on them. Ron who, with a click of his wand, turned out the lights.

            And the three of them lay together in a naked tangle atop the duvet, stroking gently and kissing frequently as the storm lashed at the house, until they fell into a restless, haunted sleep, interrupted for all three by night terrors and tears.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight: Betrayal in the Cold Light of Day

            The daylight that emanated into the room from the window was cheerless, grey and without hope. The rain was no longer the screaming torrent of the previous night, but pounded steadily against the glass panes, drummed a brisk tattoo against the walls and roof.

            The room was still. The digital clock hummed quietly on the small table, its implacable red digits reading 10:07. Beside it sat the clay pot, covered, innocuous.

            Next to the table, the king-sized bed, wrinkled, was still made up. Atop the duvet was a tangle of limbs, indecipherable, incomprehensible. A stranger standing in the room would have been entirely forgivable if they'd been unable to immediately identify the source of the quiet, whimpering sobs. For one thing, there had been whimpers and sobs, and cries and gasps from each of the three teens who made up the pile. Over and over again through the long night, one would wake, giving voice to their misery, and the others would squirm around, cuddle and stroke, kiss and croon, until quiet and sleep reigned, for awhile, again. For another, the sound was very, deliberately quiet. The hypothetical listener would hear the sound as choked, muffled, as if from a face pushed into a pillow.

            Muffled as it was, though, it wasn't muffled enough. "Shhhh..." came the voice, a girl's voice, quiet, soothing. The hypothetical observer would have seen limbs moving, and the shapes on the bed would have resolved themselves to three teens, all laying face-down together.

            The moving legs, not dramatically long, were shapely, curving up to a rounded and dimpled bottom, which flexed as she squirmed closer, her bushy brown head moving up again, as it had several times in the last hours, to the shaggy ginger one. A hand came up, and stroked along the back of the ginger head, and the voice was there again. "It's all right, love. Hush, now, it's all right."

            She stroked a hand now down his arm, and he cried out. "It fucking hurts!"

            The third head, dark-haired, uncommonly disheveled, rose up on the other side of the red-head. "I'm sorry, Ron, mate." He reached a gentle hand to rub the freckled back. "I'm sorry."

            "Oh, Merlin's balls," murmured Ron. "Now I've got you up, too. I'm sorry, Harry."

            Harry squeezed a shoulder. "Hell, Ron, you know we don't mind. Do we Hermione?"

            The girl lifted herself up a bit off the bed, looked over at the clock. Her eyes caught on that clay jar, and slitted. She turned her brown eyes back to Harry's green ones for a moment, then nuzzled up again to Ron.

            "It's all right, my love," Hermione told him. "Time to get up anyway. Do you think you can handle a shower? Because, Ron, my love, I have to tell you. All three of us stink."

            Ron essayed a weak chuckle. "Hell, I'm glad to hear you say that! 'Cause if this stench were all me, I'd have been dead for two weeks!"

            He managed to roll over onto his back, and then let himself sprawl bonelessly again. Hermione raised herself up and looked at him, her gaze traveling the length of the long, freckled body and back. She loved the lean muscles of his legs, the smooth plains of his torso, the hundreds of freckles sprinkled across him. Loved his strong collarbones and his long neck and his prominent Adam's apple. She loved the expressive lips and cobalt-blue eyes that smirked at her, the ginger eyebrows, one raised in suggestive amusement.

            Well, if he was going to be that way! She looked deliberately back down again to the thatch of ginger curls, to the sort of stout, somehow happy-looking willy laying quiescent at its base. She loved it, too, loved the sensitive testicles in their complexly-wrinkled sac. She regarded this all, with interest and amusement and no small wonder. Was it really just four days ago that she'd only ever ever kissed this wonderful boy once, and on the cheek? Four days since the only mouth she'd opened hers to was Viktor's? Four days?

            She reached a hand, marveling at her own lack of hesitation, and stroked it down the length of Ron's belly, stroked it through those ginger curls, let her fingers grasp and fondle the penis that now firmed in her hand, caress the sac and the balls.

            Ron groaned, low and happy, and she leaned over and kissed him, her mouth parting to his, her tongue sliding into his mouth. He had a serious case of morning-breath, and she had no doubt she did as well, but it was wonderful nonetheless, as their tongues slid together, as his hand somehow snaked around her, to reach down, stroking its way along her back to caress and squeeze one soft cheek.

            The kiss broke, and she raised her head, and found her eyes locked with Harry's, bright through his glasses, dilated, and she knew he'd been watching them, watching her mouth, watching her hand which was now stroking Ron, wanking him with practiced comfort.

            Her gaze was unabashed again traveling along Harry's lithe, slender form, pausing at his willy, standing straight and slender from its black, tangled nest. She let go of Ron, who moaned softly at the loss, and reached across to stroke Harry. His eyes sank gratefully closed, and she glanced over to see Ron's smile, warm and amused, at his friend's pleasure. He nodded to her, and her heart filled. Ron had so little, she knew, but his heart was so generous. He took almost as much pleasure in Harry's pleasure as his own. She kissed him again, gentle and loving, on the upturned corner of his mouth, and looked again to Harry. His eyes were on hers again, so dark and green, and she leaned towards him.

            "Come here, Harry."

            Ron reached around him in a casually loving embrace, snuggled him closer to his side, and he leaned across Ron's chest to Hermione's waiting lips. As always, his kiss was both demanding and tentative, as if his tongue was somehow unable to believe its good fortune in finding hers, and determined to take as much pleasure as it could before it was caught and expelled. She let the kiss slowly end as she stroked him, then murmured, her lips still brushing his, "I love you, Harry."

            And as simply as that, he came, splashing across her hand and arm, across Ron's belly to spatter onto her abdomen and the dark curls of her pubic hair. In the corner of her eye, she saw Ron's smile widen as she leaned in and kissed Harry again, even as she released his softening penis and started stroking Ron's again, her semen-slicked fingers sliding easily, now, over the soft skin of his erection, even as her tongue slid across Harry's lips.

            She brought her foot up along the mattress, her knee rising above her until her foot was tucked against her thigh, and as she broke from the kiss, Harry looked down at her, spread and offered up to him, and he reached around her arm, and she felt his thumb circling her clitoris, and she angled her hips as she stroked Ron, pressed against Ron's hip and Harry's hand as she leaned down to nibble at the freckled neck, nipping lightly with her teeth.

            Her mouth opened against his neck in a moan as Harry's index finger slid into her. He was a seeker, his hands quick and nimble and confident as his heart was hesitant. She'd taught him what she liked, and he'd learned well, his fingertip sliding to find that spot Hermione'd read about in a Muggle book when she was 13 and found for herself two nights after riding Buckbeak with Harry. She squirmed against the hand, and Ron laughed throatily.

            "Whatever you're doing, Harry, keep it up. She likes it, don't you, love."

            "Ooooohhh....." she breathed. "Oh, yes!"

            She leaned up to kiss Harry again, and Ron took the opportunity to lean his head up and suck gently at the pulse-point of her neck.

            Hermione's mind was awash with pleasure as her boys attended to her. She gasped as she felt Harry's middle finger join the index within her, stretching her, as he sucked her lower lip, and suddenly she was gasping, eyes suddenly open, widening and locking with his as his ring finger reached back, circled once, and then poked gently into her anus. It wasn't much, wasn't far, just the tip of the finger, the first joint, but she'd never felt anything like it, and the shock was pleasure, and she was crying out in a stunningly sudden double orgasm, echoing from the spot inside her under Harry's fingers, from the clitoris she bucked against his thumb, even, somehow, from somewhere inside her anus as it clamped tight around Harry's fingertip.

            Her hand spasmed around Ron, and suddenly his back was arched, and he was coming too, a spurt of jism that curved in a long, clean arc above his belly, over their arms, to curve down again, a slow-motion parabola that splashed down comically on Harry's face and hers, still joined over Ron's in a kiss.

            Harry recoiled sharply, with a harsh cry, and Ron chuckled, "Sorry, mate," as Hermione leaned over to him, her mouth open, and began to lick the semen from Harry's lips and nose, loving the salty, smoky taste of it.

            She felt Ron's hand stroking its way around her arse, his long fingers slipping between the cheeks to meet Harry's fingertip still disappearing within her. The ginger eyebrows rose as he grinned. "Hermione, your parents are a great influence!"

            She smiled over at him, and returned to Harry, reaching to lick the splash of semen from his cheek, and he recoiled again with another cry.

            "Harry, what is it?" she asked him, concerned. "What's wrong?"

            He shrugged, looking embarrassed. "Hurts."

            "What?" She reached her messy hand up automatically, stopped the gesture, leaned her face toward him again. "It's the gentlest way, Harry. All right?"

            He leaned his cheek towards her, and she saw him find himself almost nose to nose with Ron, in whose expression amusement battled with concern.

            Hermione's tongue was as gentle as she could make it, tenderly lapping the remaining semen from his cheek, as he flinched, his breath hissing from him.

            She looked again, and realized that what she'd thought was a bit of dirt in the midst of an embarrassed blush was a tiny but horrible burn, a blister surrounded by a bit of charring in an inflamed, red cheek.

            "Oh, Harry!" Her brown eyes were wide and sorrowful. "Didn't I heal that last night?"

            Harry's voice was a mumble. "No, love. You did palliatus on it, so it felt much better, but I think you forgot the healing charm."

            "Oh, Harry!" She kissed him softly on the mouth. "I'm so sorry."

            "'Sall right, Hermione. Really. " He angled his head toward Ron. "You had other things on your mind."

            Still, she was leaning across him, scrambling for her wand, and she quickly cast a couple of basic healing charms on his cheek, watched the red skin cool to Harry's normal pale olive, the blister re-absorb, the bits of charring simply fall away, like ashes, leaving his cheek pink and healthy again. If only Ron's arms could be healed so easily!

            She froze, then, her eyes suddenly widening, staring, first at Harry's smooth, pink cheek, then at Ron's runneled arm, where he'd brought it up to rest on Harry's shoulder.

            "Oh my god." Her voice was barely more than breath. "We have to get up! Right now!"

            "What is it, love?" Ron's blue eyes were concerned. "What's wrong?"

            But Hermione was rolling across him, squirming over Harry, dropping to her feet and turning to pull her boys up.

            "Come on!" She pulled at their hands. "We have to go!"

            "Go where, Hermione?" said Harry, standing, one hand on her hip as the other reached back to scratch his bum.

            Ron, whose fingertips were lightly brushing that arm, grinned at the gesture. He clambered out of the bed after Harry. "Well, where-ever we're going, it won't be until after we've bathed, 'cause, you're right, Hermione. We're just nasty."

            "We don't have time for that!" Hermione barked.

            Harry reached up to run a hand through his hair, brought it away sticky with Ron's semen, which he eyed warily on his fingers, then looked up at Hermione's hair and smirked as her eyes widened.

            She bit her lip, actually trying, for a moment, to think of a way around it. "All right, we have to, but let's be quick! We've got to get Ron back to the Hospital Wing!"

            "We do?" said Ron.

            Hermione reached over and smacked his forearm lightly, and he yelp and jerked away. "Next stupid question?"

            "Christ, Hermione!" said Harry, and she turned her death-glare on him. He lifted his hands in instant surrender, and followed her to the bathroom.

            As the shower began to beat down on them, the sound oddly reminiscent of the pounding of rain on the roof, Hermione grabbed the bottle of shampoo, and looked daggers at Ron. "Next time, aim better! This is going to take forever to wash out!"

            He smiled at her. "But you look great with spoo all over you, Hermione."

            "Spoo?" She handed him the shampoo, half-smiling in spite of herself. "Is that a real  word?"

            Ron grinned as he squirted a generous glob onto her head, handed Harry the bottle and set to work.

            Harry managed to push his way under the stream of water as he squeezed is own glob of shampoo onto his hand. "How about me?" he asked Ron grumpily. "Do I also look good with spoo all over me?"

            Ron cocked an eye at him. "You look fucking great with Hermione licking it off you."

            Harry looked over at Hermione, looked up and down her body as if seeing her, suddenly, for the first time. Suddenly he was grinning, widely, stupidly. "That's a good point."

            The stupid smile stayed in place as he began massaging shampoo into his scalp.

            "This isn't funny, Harry!" she snapped.

            "It isn't?" asked Ron , running his soapy hands through her tameless locks. Hermione glared at him again, but he was uncowed. "If you want us to take this seriously, Hermione, you have to tell us what's wrong."

            "It's Harry's cheek," she said, angling her head over to give Ron's fingers better access as she soaped his freckly torso.

            "My cheek is fine, Hermione," said Harry, patiently. "You healed it. It's fine now."

            "Oh, you are so thick sometimes, Harry!" Her face darkened. "Not that I'm one to talk. Harry, why did you get that burn on your cheek?"

            Ron was frowning at her. "It was the potion, Hermione. A drop of the potion hit his face."

            Harry nodded. "Yeah. There was a flame and everything!"

            She made an inarticulate noise of frustration. "Oh, honestly, Harry! Don't you see anything wrong with that? Did you notice, perhaps, that you don't have cursed brain-scars on your fucking face?" Harry's eyes widened, more at the profanity than what she was saying. "Harry, it was the wrong potion!"

            "No, love," said Ron, "I recognize the smell."

            Hermione glared at him. "And did you recognize the flames, too, Ron? Did you recognize that smell?"

            "Hermione..." Ron's voice was patient. "I'd let it go for too long. The scars on my arms were left alone too long. They'd, they'd festered, like. That's all it was."

            "And Harry's face? Oh, honestly, Ron, do you ever think!?!?"

            The two boys' eyes met Hermione's, flicking back and forth between them, and started to widen as the implications sank home. That little green lick of flame bursting from Harry's unmarred cheek, not reacting to a curse or a scar, but to smooth, healthy skin.

            "Oh, my God." Harry's fingers leapt to his healed cheek. He turned to Ron with wide, dark eyes. "Oh, no, Ron. Oh, no."

            Ron was staring at his arms, the scars livid and puffy, with wide, frightened eyes. "What did we do? Oh, Merlin, Hermione, what did we do?"

            She fell against his chest, holding him. "It's my fault, Ron! I should have known right away. Oh, my God, Ron! How could I possibly have thought Madame Pomfrey would expect you to do that to yourself every night? As soon as we started, I should have known! What did I do to you, Ron? I don't know what I did to you!"

            Half an hour later they were standing, bundled in Muggle rain gear, on Arabella Figg's front porch and soaked to the skin.

            Ron was plucking irritably at the sleeves of his yellow rain slicker, grumbling under his breath that he didn't know why they'd bothered to dry off at all, for all the good it had done them. Of course, Ron's internal version contained a good deal more profanity.

            Hermione was holding an irregular-looking lump of tape. Strapping tape, then, when that ran out, duct tape, and when that ran out, masking tape, and finally a layer over the top that was made up of every last bit of Sellotape in the house. There were one or two small, open areas of the tape through which one might just barely make out reddish clay. Those areas worried Hermione, who was terrified that the jar would be broken and the potion spilled on the Floo-trip back to Hogwarts.

            Harry knocked again, waiting for the cheerfully dotty woman to answer. When the door opened, though, it was not Mrs. Figg who greeted them, but Dudley Dursley.

            "Hello," he said, his tone neutral. "Come to bring me back?"

            "Er... No." said Harry. "Didn't even know you were here. What are you doing here?"

            Dudley gestured them inside, to see Mrs. Figg sitting on the sofa with a small, thin boy, Perhaps five years younger then Harry. The sandy-haired boy looked over with some surprise at Harry, who in turn blinked. "Mark?"

            Dudley grunted as he closed the door behind him. "Evans there was out in the storm last night. I tried to tell the little idiot to get in out of the rain, but he ran away from me! He looked like a drowned rat before I caught up to him, and almost got blown into the street a few times. So, anyway, I was trying to get him home when Mrs. Figg invited us in."

            "It's all right, really," said Mark Evans, hurriedly. "He hasn't thumped me or anything!"

            Dudley glowered at him. "It's still early, right?"

            "Yessir!" said Mark, eyes wide. He turned back to Harry. "So, anyway, my mum's going to be here to pick us up, soon, and drive Mr. Dursley home, too."

            Hermione clutched the taped-up pot to her chest, staring back and forth, wide-eyed, between Dudley, Mark, and the fireplace. She opened her mouth, looked at Harry, closed it, opened it again, and was interrupted, before she could speak, by the sound of a car-horn outside.

            Mark ran to a window, and looked out. "It's Mummy!" he cried happily. "Come on, Mr. Dursley, sir!"

            Dudley actually smiled a little at the small boy as he opened the door for him, and followed him out, sort of shrugging a farewell to Harry and the others, as Mark raced down the front walk,yelling, "Mummy! Mummy!"

            They watched from the door as Dudley followed the smaller boy into the waiting Volvo station wagon, which drove off down Wisteria Walk.

            "Amazing," said Harry. "He beat the stuffing out of that boy last summer."

            But Hermione had already turned toward Mrs. Figg, her words coming in a breathless, incomprehensible rush. "WeneedtouseyourFlootogobacktotheHospitalWing!"

            She was charging to the fireplace, dragging the boys along behind her.

            Mrs. Figg, belatedly parsing the phrase "Hospital Wing," stood. "Is someone hurt?"

            Hermione was already reaching for the Floo Powder,  so Harry glanced over at her. "We don't really know, exactly, Mrs. Figg."

            "Hogwarts Hospital Wing!" Hermione cried out, throwing her handful of powder, and she was already glaring at the boys. "Well, come on!"

            Ron gave Mrs. Figg exactly the same helpless shrug that Dudley has given them, causing Harry to laugh as they wrapped their arms around Hermione and stepped into the flames.

            Hermione, though, definitely wasn't laughing as the three of them stumbled together out of the Floo, her arms wrapped tightly 'round the clay jar, and they wavered for balance. In this, at least, the jar was their friend, the charm that kept it upright doing the same for Hermione, and through her, her boys.

            Already she was shouting. "Madam Pomfrey! Madam Pomfrey, please!"

            Their luck was better this day than the previous. Pomfrey appeared immediately from her office, her concerned eyes quickly honing in on Hermione as she bustled over to them.

            "Whatever is wrong, child?" she asked, leading them over towards a bed.

            "It's Ron's potion, Madam Pomfrey. It's-- It's the wrong potion!"

            Pomfrey smiled gently. "No, dear," she said patiently, and Hermione nearly snarled. Pomfrey had turned to Ron, gesturing for him to remove the rain slicker, as she continued, "I did warn you that it was going to be very unpleasant, very painful. It should be much better now that--"

            The medi-witch's voice caught in her throat as the yellow plastic slicker hit the floor. She stared for a moment at Ron's left arm, then spun, grabbing Hermione's shoulders.

            "What did you do?"

            "Madam Pomfrey, nothing." Hermione stared back into the medi-witch's eyes, willing her to understand. "I used the potion you sent to our room. But--"

            "Please, tell me! It's all right, you're not in trouble, but I have to--"

            "I used this!" She held up the taped-up pot. "It's the potion that was waiting for us! But, Madam Pomfrey, it was-- It was wrong! It was awful! It burned, oh, Madam, it burned, with green flames, and the smell!"

            "Flames!?!?" Pomfrey was banishing the tape from the jar. "Green flames?"

            "Yes! You told us it would be awful, and we-- It-- I was so shocked-- I never stopped and thought you'd never have sent that awful stuff home for us to apply, much less Ron on his own. A bit of it even hit Harry, just a little drop--"

            Pomfrey spun, stared at Harry, and he angled his cheek toward her.

            "Yes..." Pomfrey's voice was low. "I can see now that a healing was performed here. You did very well, Miss Gra-- Hermione."

            She had finally removed the tape from the jar, and opened it. She took one whiff of the open bottle and blanched. She covered it carefully, took a half-dozen quick steps,  placed it firmly in the middle of a workbench, and then returned to the bed, began to closely examine Ron's arms.

            "Dobby!" she cried out.

            There was a pop! and the eager house elf was bowing before her. "Dobby is here, Mistress Madam Popsfrey!"

            Ron snorted at this, but Pomfrey's voice was urgent. "Dobby, I need the headmaster here at once! At once! And as soon as he's on his way, I will need to speak with you! Do you understand me?"

            Dobby's eyes -- already the dimensions of tennis-balls -- seemed to expand. "Yes, Mistress Madam Popsfrey!"

            And with another pop! he was gone.

            Pomfrey had turned back to Ron's arm.

            "Am I going to live, Mistress Madam Popsfrey, ma'am?"

            One corner of her mouth twitched slightly. "You know, I can turn you into a salamander, claim it's for medical reasons, and nobody will ever question me."

            Ron grinned at her, but Pomfrey's solemnity returned as she looked up into his eyes. She's opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted again by the faint Pop! of Dobby's appearance.

            "They is coming, Mistress Madam Popsfrey!"

            She spun toward the house elf. "Do you remember what I asked of you yesterday?"

            "Yes! Mistress Madam Popsfrey asked Dobby to bring Mr. Wheezy's medicine to Harry Potter's room!"

            "And did you do that?"

            "Yes. No! Master Headmaster has told Dobby he must de-- de-- deregulate, Mistress Madam Popsfrey!"

            "The word," came Professor Dumbledore's voice, as the door to the hospital wing opened, and he entered, Sirius close behind him, "is delegate, my friend."

            "That's what Dobby said!" agreed Dobby. "Defenestrate." Professor Dumbledore opened his mouth, then closed it again. "Dobby assigned the job to the new elf! The one Professor Black brought. Dobby thought that being trusted would help him feel at home here!"

            Sirius looked back and forth between Pomfrey, Dumbledore, Dobby, and the teenagers. "What's happened?"

            Pomfrey glanced at Dumbledore, who nodded assent. She turned to Ron. "Mr. Weasley, may I discuss this matter with the Professors?"

            "Of course," said Ron, instantly, then, sotto voce, "I just wish someone would discuss it with me!"

            "Well, Professor, Mr. Weasley was seriously injured in the assault on the Department of Mysteries. He was attacked by--" she paused, considered attempting to explain.

            Ron spoke up. "Floating evil brain. My own stupid fault, I accioed the damned thing."

            "Damned, Mr, Weasley," said Dumbledore, "Is precisely what that thing was, and is."

            "And the dark magic that produced those scars," Pomfrey gestured to Ron's arms, "carried with it the seeds of a kind of rebirth for it. To treat it, I had to pit a darker magic against it: A potion called Maltrucido Flammaria."

            Sirius paled, stared wide-eyed at Ron.

            "I see you've heard of it. It is Dark Magic to combat Dark Magic: so ferocious that it consumes and destroys the Dark Energies it encounters, but so short-lived, once activated by that contact, that it cannot itself take hold. Of course, for topical use on a person, it is diluted, a one-to-ten infusion in a Murtlap and Pallium solution. Even in such a preparation, it is extremely painful to use. Painful enough, sadly, that Mr. Weasley elected to forego its use for some twelve days!"

            "Look, I really am sorry, all right?" said Ron. Dumbledore rested a grave hand on his head, as Pomfrey continued.

            "Naturally, the potion would be far more painful, and far less effective, against Dark Magicks that have had that long to infuse themselves. Even with the Murtlap and Pallium, I expected it to make redskin burns--" she turned to Hermione "You'd call them first degree -- and even raise blisters. A patient can be expected to lose control of himself, to scream. Had I not known that Mister Weasley would have the help of his friends, I might well have insisted on admitting him for a couple of nights, until the lost ground was made up."

            She gestured toward Dobby. "I instructed Dobby, here, to deliver the potion -- the diluted potion -- to Mister Potter's room at his relatives. Dobby appears to have delegated--"

            "Defoliated," Dobby agreed.

            "This task," Pomfrey continued, as if he had not interrupted, "to a new house elf. That house elf delivered this."

            She took up the clay pot again, and handed it to the headmaster.

            Dumbledore opened the pot, and took in just a whiff of the scent, and was swiftly covering the jar again, staring at Ron. His voice was nearly inaudible. "It's pure." His words gained volume and clarity and emotion as he spoke to Ron. "Mister Weasley! I have no words..." he turned, his gaze encompassing all three. "The suffering you went through! Oh, my children, I am sorry."

            Harry's voice was quiet. "Do you mean to tell me that we went -- Ron went -- through-- Through that! -- for nothing?"

            Dumbledore's hand was gentle on his head. "No, my boy, no. Not for nothing. You and Miss Granger went through it for love. The healing arts are often unpleasant, and ever uncertain. You, Mister Weasley..."

            Ron held up a hand. "'Salright, Professor. I'm here, aren't I?"

            "Surprising in itself," said Pomfrey, as Dumbledore opened his mouth to speak again. He subsided and watched, with interest, as she turned to Hermione. "You completely... treated... both arms?"

            Hermione nodded, eyes downcast.

            "Stunning!" cried Pomfrey. "I ought not, perhaps, to tell you this, but that was enough potion to kill a mountain troll!"

            Hermione made a strangled sound, and both Ron and Harry reached out to stroke her hair.

            Pomfrey had turned back to Dobby. "I did tell you which potion was to be delivered, did I not?"

            "Oh, yes, Mistress Madam Popsfrey! You were very clear. Dobby told the new elf: The potion in the red clay pot in the East store-room." He pointed at the jar still in Dumbledore's hands. "That pot!"

            Pomfrey turned and stormed to a door in the east side of the Hospital Wing, flung it open, and suddenly cried out, "Albus!"

            Dumbledore followed her swiftly, the others, even Dobby, crowding after. On the floor of the east storeroom was a dark, partially-charred stain on the floor, and, lying on its side, beside the stain, a shining black pot, marked with painted white skeletons, which wailed and moaned, crying out, "Woe and peril! Woe and peril!"

            "Albus..." She reached gingerly over, careful not to touch the stained floor, and took up the black pot, her eyes widening. "Empty!"

            Ron pointed at the floor. "That was made by the pure stuff, right?"

            "No, child," said Pomfrey, grimly. "If it were pure, it would have eaten all the way through. That was the diluted preparation that I put into that jar." She pointed at the red-clay pot Dumbledore still held. "It was poured out, and the pure potion was substituted!"

            The trio's eyes widened, their faces snapped around towards Dumbledore, who would surely have an answer, surely be able to explain that Pomfrey was somehow wrong. Dumbledore, though, was chillingly silent.

            It was Sirius who suddenly screamed out, "Kreacher!"

            With a Pop! the house elf appeared, facing his master, and Dumbledore, with a finger to his lips, stepped with surprising grace between him and Ron.

            "My master calls Kreacher?" asked Kreacher, then said, quite audibly, "The filthy blood-traitor calls Kreacher to do his bidding yet again?"

            Sirius' voice was very quiet, very precise. "I placed you under Dobby's orders. Did Dobby order you to deliver a potion yesterday?"

            "Dobby, did, good master," said Kreacher. "Vile traitor to his kind as well!"

            Sirius bore down on him. "And did you do his bidding, Kreacher? Did you deliver the potion?"

            "Was there a problem?" asked Kreacher. "Did the stupid blood-traitor die screaming in his mudblood whore's arms?"

            "Answer me, Kreacher," said Sirius, "and speak only truth. Did you bring the potion Dobby ordered you to bring?"

            Kreacher looked angry, and he chewed his thin, cracked lip for a moment, then said, "No."

            "What did you do? Answer, and speak true!"

            "Kreacher poured out the weak version, and filled the jar with the pure! If the Wheezy valued his blood so little that he would debase it with that filth, he is not worthy of it! Kreacher stopped it flowing through his weak, traitorous veins!"

            "I told you that an order from Dobby was an order from me. Didn't I?"

            "You did," Kreacher replied with a surly grin. "Kreacher's master is no better than that great boil of an elf!"

            "And you disobeyed Dobby's order."

            Kreacher's eyes widened. "No! No, Dobby told Kreacher to bring medicine, and Kreacher did!"

            Dobby hissed. "Dobby told Kreacher which medicine to bring! Kreacher disobeyed!"

            "Did you disobey, Kreacher?" said Sirius. "Speak truth!"

            "Kreacher..." The house elf looked defeated. "Kreacher disobeyed."

            And suddenly Hermione was moving, stepping across in front of Harry to take the red clay pot from Dumbledore's hands, holding it out to Sirius.

            "Make him drink it!" Hermione's voice was a savage hiss. Her face was white, with livid red spots over her cheekbones. Her eyes were locked with Sirius'. "Make him drink it all!"

            In a step, Sirius was reaching for the jar, his smile dark, vulpine. He took it from Hermione's fingers, spun towards Kreacher.

            The house elf stood, staring, in awed fascination, at the red clay pot as his master's nimble fingers removed its lid.

            "I can do it, you know," said Sirius Black. "If I give the order, you must obey." He held the jar before the elf. "Smell it, Kreacher! Breathe deep of its scent!"

            The large nostrils flared involuntarily, drawing in the green-brown smoke that oozed from the pot.

            "Do it!" hissed Hermione again. "Make him drink it! I want to watch him drink it!"

            "Yess...." Sirius' voice was low, sibilant. "Kreacher--"

            "No!" Ron stepped around Dumbledore, one hand on Hermione's arm. "Sirius, no, you can't!" He turned to the headmaster. "Professor, are you going to stop this?"

            Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "No, Ronald. This is Sirius' decision to make."

            Sirius locked eyes with Ron. "He tried to kill you, Ron. He tried to kill you and leave your blood on her hands, on her conscience!"

            "Please, Sirius," Ron replied. "Please, don't do this."

            "What do you propose, then? A good scolding? You can see how dangerous he is. He'd do it again in a heartbeat." Sirius turned towards Kreacher. "Wouldn't you, you little brute? You'd do the same, and worse. Answer true!"

            "Kreacher would do anything to punish the filthy mudblood whore and the stupid blood-traitor! Kreacher would spare no pains!"

            "And are you no better than him, Sirius?" asked Ron. He turned to Hermione. "Are you?"

            Ron pointed a long, freckled finger at Kreacher, and the elf cowered under it. "Is that what you want to be, Hermione? Is it?" he turned back to Harry's godfather. "Is that what you survived Azkaban and came back through the Veil to become?"

            "Give him to Dobby," said Dobby, very quietly. "He is for the House-elves, now."

            Sirius turned and looked at him. "What?"

            "For millennia, house elves have honored our covenant. A life of service, to repay past treachery. Kreacher has broken that covenant. Kreacher has shamed all house-elves, everywhere! Give him to Dobby, Master Professor, and Dobby will see to it that Kreacher receives justice."

            "Yeah," said Ron. "That sounds good, yeah."

            Sirius looked over at Ron, again, then, longingly at the clay pot.

            "Come on, Sirius," Said Ron.

            Sirius met his eyes again, and then nodded, covering the pot. He turned to Dobby. "I can't simply give him to you, though, can I? For it to be magically binding, I must charge you a price."

            "Dobby will pay."

            "Thirty pieces of Silver!" Hermione's voice was still an animal sound, violent, wrathful.

            Sirius smiled then. "You know, I quite like that! Dobby? Thirty pieces of Silver is the price."

            Dobby gestured, and a small burlap bag appeared in Sirius' grasp. Sirius didn't even count it. He just turned his smile on Kreacher. "You are no longer in my service. You're Dobby's house elf now."

            Kreacher slumped miserable to the ground, and Dobby looked to the east. "Dobby calls upon the Great One," he said. "Come, D'Auppi!"

            There was another Pop! and the house elf who appeared seemed somehow to radiate calm, and happiness. He was a healthy pink, with a high forehead, and his ears, as large as Dobby's, were rounded. He wore a long, plain, grey smock and purple stocking cap.

            "Why is D'Auppi called forth?" he asked, his voice childlike, his expression beatific,if none too intelligent.

            Dobby pointed. "This elf has disobeyed his master, and attempted to murder another wizard, his own master's friend. Dobbie was forced to reclaim him, paid and purchased."

            "It has not happened for a hundred years." D'Auppi turned to Kreacher. "Take D'Auppi's hand. Perhaps you will be a better elf in your next life."

            And with that, there was a double-Pop! and D'Auppi and Kreacher were gone.

            Ron turned to Dobby. "Next life? Are they gonna kill him?"

            "No. Yes. Dobby is confused. Kreacher will be unmade. When it is done, he will no longer be Kreacher. He will be a new elf." Dobby made vague patting gestures in the air with his hands. "He will be unmade, and a new elf made. A better elf."

            "And Ron?" asked Harry. "What about Ron? What did that stuff do to his arms?"

            Dumbledore turned toward him in surprise. "Didn't I say? No, no I clearly didn't! I'm so sorry!" He turned back to Ron. "Your arms will be quite sore for a week or so. No doubt Poppy will prescribe you a Murtlap and Aloe paste for them. But that is just for simple, burn-related irritation. What you have on your arms, Ronald, are simply scars. The Maltrucido Flammaria consumed the dark magic -- all of it! These," Dumbledore gently touched one runneled arm, "are just scars."

            "The question," added Pomfrey, "is why you survived."

            Dumbledore smiled over his glasses at her. "I believe I can explain that. Young Ronald's life-force, and the light magic surrounding him, were too great. They are, after all, tripled."

            "Of course!" cried Hermione. "The Nuptialis Unum! It binds our life-forces together, Ron. So you were able to draw on our life-force to buttress your own."

            Dumbledore's smile embraced her. "Indeed, dear girl, exactly so." He looked seriously amongst them. "It  is a fortunate confluence indeed. The Nuptialis Unum enabled Ronald's life force to call upon yours and Harry's for support. And you and Harry both love Ronald so very much that your souls offered that support gladly. As dreadful as that experience was for you, I almost wish I could have witnessed it. It must have been the most extraordinary act of love."

            Ron looked for a long time back and forth between Hermione and Harry. "I reckon it was, Professor. I reckon it was at that."

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Unwilling Help from the Grave

       Albus Dumbledore looked seriously at Harry. They were seated in his office now, the headmaster having told Harry he wished to discuss "important matters" with the three teen-agers and Sirius. "Before we begin, Harry, I must ask you something. When we, er, spoke, in here, after Sirius fell, I told you something of grave import. Have you shared that with Mr. Weasley and Miss Granger?"

       Harry's eyes widened. "Oh! Oh, no! To be honest, Professor, I didn't even think of it!"

       Dumbledore's blue eyes twinkled at him. "I think it's safe to say, Harry, that you have had more than enough on your mind. I do, however, think that perhaps you should--"

       "Oh, of course!" Harry flushed, realizing he'd interrupted. "Sorry, Professor!"

       Dumbledore smiled, and raised an assenting hand.

       Harry started to speak, stopped, looked back to Professor Dumbledore. "I'd like to tell Sirius, as well."

       Dumbledore nodded. "I think that is wise."

       Harry nodded, and thought for a moment, then turned to his friends.

       "You know that the whole thing at the Department of Mysteries was a trap."

       Ron and Hermione nodded, regarding him seriously.

       "Voldemort was desperate to hear a prophecy. My prophecy. You know they call me 'The Chosen One' because of a prophecy, that it says I can defeat him. Well, He only knows half the prophecy. The first half. The prophecy was made by Professor Trelawney--"

       Hermione snorted aloud, her face skeptical.

       Harry half-smiled. "Yeah, and I don't blame you. But she's made real prophecies where Voldemort's concerned, too. Remember, I was there when she gave the one about Pettigrew."

       Hermione nodded, her features grim.

       "When she was interviewing for her job here, with Professor Dumbledore, she gave one, about sixteen years ago now. The first half was overheard by Snape--"

       "Professor Snape, Harry," corrected Dumbledore, gently, and Harry frowned.

       "And Professor Snape brought it straight to Voldemort!" Harry's green eyes blazed. "That's what started this whole thing. That's why he went after me. Why he killed my parents. Because..." Harry paused and quoted: "‘The one born with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches…. Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not…’"

       Ron looked grim, and Hermione's eyes were moist. She said, "You know, it's ironic. That sounds almost like Neville, too. He was born on July Thirtieth, and his parents..."

       Harry nodded. "It could have been Neville. The only reason it wasn't is that Voldemort -- that Riddle -- chose me. He looked at his enemies, at the two babies, and decided it was me. I was the one. So he killed my parents, tried to kill me. That's how he ‘marked me as his equal.’"

       Ron nodded, leaning a bit across Hermione to regard Harry carefully.  "What else?"

       Harry bit his lip. "I have to kill him, Ron. It's the part of the prophecy Snape didn't hear." He drew a breath. "‘And either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born as the seventh month dies….’" He looked down at his feet for a few moments, then back up at Ron, at Hermione. "I have to kill him, or he'll kill me."

       "Blimey, Harry!" Ron's voice was a harsh rasp. "If he ever learns about that, your life isn't worth a Leprechaun's Knut!"

       Hermione's mouth was a thin line. "None of our lives are, while Riddle's alive and free. They never were, prophecy or no!"

       Ron nodded, looked back at Harry. "That's true enough, mate."

       "Makes me the guy to be stuck to, doesn't it?" asked Harry, wryly.

       Hermione took his hand, and turned in her seat to face him. "Harry, I love being stuck to you. You and Ron both. I love you. We love you. And we won't be one inch closer to you in your fight against Riddle because of Nuptialis Unum. We were pledged to live and die by your side before we ever heard about the inquest. Don't you know that?"

       "Yeah, mate," Ron agreed. "We're in it, and always have been. We stand by our friends, yeah?"

       Harry smiled gratefully at his friends. "I feel like I ought to do everything in my power to keep you out of this, but I'm awfully glad to have you with me. I think I'm going to need all the help I can get."

       "And we aim to see to it," Sirius told him, "that you'll get all the help you need. Take a look here." He gestured towards the headmaster's capacious desk, which was almost covered with papers and parchments. "You remember I told you about my younger brother, Regulus."

       Ron nodded. "He was a Death Eater, wasn't he?"

       "Yes. He was always a surly little bastard, and he couldn't wait to fall all over himself to sign up with Voldemort, prove he was purer than his Big Brother. He took the Mark, and followed loyally, and they killed him. At least, that's what I thought. This--" He gestured at the parchments and papers "--tells a different story."

       Sirius paused for a moment, pushing his hair back away from his forehead. "He betrayed them. He decided that Voldemort couldn't be trusted."

       Ron grinned. "So there was some hope for the kid after all, then?"

       "What? No, no! He just thought Riddle was too unstable." He reached out with one hand, snatched up a piece of parchment and read aloud. "‘This pathetic, obsessive half-blood is a greater threat to the movement than the likes of Dumbledore! He claims to care about purity, but his only goal is the preservation of his own life.’ Not stupid, my Brother. I'll give him that. He was a bigot and a lout, but he understood Voldemort."

       He put the parchment back on the desk.

       "He understood him so well, he found his real vulnerability. Horcruces!"

       "So what're they when they're at home, then?"

       Dumbledore sat forward again. "That, Ronald, is an excellent question indeed.The day after I received Minister Fudge's kind invitation..." he paused a moment, glanced apologetically at Sirius, who grinned and shrugged. The headmaster smiled, and continued, "I received a communication from a friend on the continent. A friend and colleague of Nicholas Flamel. They had written to tell me that Tom Riddle believed, and not without reason, that his life had been saved on that terrible Halloween, Harry, from his own rebounding curse, because he had created several of something called a Horcrux. My correspondent had very little information, but suggested that a ring belonging to Tom Riddle's maternal grandfather, Marvolo Gaunt, might well be one of these Horcruxes."

       "Horcruces," corrected Sirius, with a smile.

       Dumbledore chuckled warmly. "There's no reason, dear boy, to suppose that this construction is from the Latin word for cross." He returned his gaze to Harry and his friends. "You'll recall that when I joined you at the Grangers' house the morning after your..." he gestured vaguely with his hands. "After the inquest, that is, that I mentioned that I was going to be seeking out that ring, that Horcrux, and Sirius mentioned that his late brother had spoken of them, and might have notes."

       "I remember," said Harry, as Ron and Hermione nodded agreement.

       Dumbledore gestured at his desk. "These are those notes. I don't recall young Regulus being much of a student, but after leaving school, he became a researcher to rival Miss Granger. I have learned a dark and terrible secret from these notes.

       "First: what is a Horcrux? It is an object of magic dark and terrible indeed. It is a hiding-place for a part of a human soul."

       "Part of a soul?" asked Harry. "Part of a soul? I don't understand! How do you get a part of a soul? Why would you hide it?"

       Dumbledore shook his head gravely. "You get part of a soul, Harry, by doing terrible damage to your own. You get part of a soul by ripping your own soul in half. And that is done by taking the life of another human being. Even as the murder is committed, the spell is performed, and a part of the murderer's soul, torn away from him by his act, is placed elsewhere, in some object. This object is called a Horcrux. The reason for creating one is equally sinister."

       "Immortality!" cried Hermione.

       "Just so," agreed Dumbledore. "If a part of one's soul is outside of one's body, then what kills or destroys the body does not kill the person himself. The soul survives. This is what happened to Tom Riddle when he killed Harry's parents."

       There was a moment's resounding silence.

       "According to Regulus' notes," said Sirius, "Riddle was planning to make six Horcruces. That way, his soul would be in seven parts. Riddle was a big believer in the power of numbers, and seven, well, seven's a very powerful number."

       "Young Mr. Black did a most thorough job of cataloging the objects he thought Tom used for his Horcruxes," Dumbledore added. "The first seems to have been a ring that belonged to his maternal grandfather, Marvolo Gaunt. The second, young Tom's diary, that so bedeviled you all in Second Year."

       Hermione's eyes widened, and she breathed the word "Oh!" as Harry nodded with his own recognition. "That would explain an awful lot."

       "Indeed it would," agreed Dumbledore. "The next seems to have been an ancient locket that once belonged to Salazar Slytherin. After that, a cup once owned by Helga Hufflepuff, and a puzzle-box that was made by Rowena Ravenclaw."

       "That's only five," said Harry. "You said he made six."

       "The sixth is a problem. He had not yet made it when young Mr. Black was killed, so we will need to discover it for ourselves. I do have a thought in this regard, however. Tom seems very much attached to Nagini, the vast and venomous serpent that attacked Mr. Weasley. It is clear that magic -- dark magic -- has been worked on it. I see nothing in these notes to indicate that a Horcrux couldn't be placed in a living being. My suspicion is that Nagini is the sixth."

       Harry nodded. "So at least we have a pretty good idea what all six are. That's good at least."

       "Better still," said Sirius, "My no-good rat-bastard brother is the hero of the day! He nicked one!"

       Harry's mouth fell open as Ron gasped "Cor!"

       Dumbledore nodded gravely. "Indeed he did." He reached into his robes, and produced a large, heavy, golden locket, its clasp in the form of an ornate, serpentine "S."

       "I've seen that!" said Ron. "When we were cleaning out your house, Sirius! We threw that away!"

       Sirius grinned at him. "This thing seems to be a popular target for thieves," he said. "Dung nicked it from the trash. And Kreacher nicked it from him. And just the other day, I nicked it from Kreacher! Oh, he was in a right state about it, believe me!" Sirius frowned suddenly. "I'm sorry Ron, that may be part of the reason why he did what he did."

       Ron waved the apology away. "Hell, mate, I'm not exactly Mister Insightful, but even I know that little bastard didn't need you winding him up. That was some powerful hate, that was!"

       "Quite so," said Dumbledore, with a sad smile.

       "So," said Harry, "Is that our move, then? To find these Horcruxes?"

       "While they exist," said Dumbledore, "Tom will continue to live."

       Ron sat forward. "So we find them, and destroy them? And then go after Riddle?"

       Dumbledore's eyes closed for a moment, and he nodded, very sadly. "I'm very much afraid, Ronald, that I can see no other alternative. Can you?"

       Dumbledore's features were actually hopeful, but Ron looked grave as he considered, then sucked in his lower lip, shaking his head.

       "And so I will be destroying, piece by piece, a man's soul. However foul are Tom's crimes -- and be assured, I know full well that they are foul indeed! -- Even he has never been accused of such a deed as that."

       Hermione leaned forward, one arm back to keep her in contact with Ron. "Can a soul, or even a part of one, be destroyed? Even separated and hidden in something like this locket, mustn't it still be somehow a part of the whole, just for this Horcrux trick to work -- which it clearly does? Wouldn't the fragment be freed, once the Horcrux is destroyed, simply return to join the whole?"

       Dumbledore shook his head sadly. "The answer, dear girl, is that I simply don't know. The soul is so little-understood, I would be a great fool indeed to claim knowledge. Your suppositions are all soundly based. I think you're right. I hope you're right. But I cannot assume it, and assume my morality is unchallengeable. That way lies.... Well, Tom."

       "So," said Harry, "How do you actually go about destroying it? Is it enough merely to, I dunno, break it or melt it down or something?"

       Dumbledore smiled. "Another fine question, Harry. And another poor answer is all I can give in exchange. I don't know. The problem is that the physical object is merely an anchor. Dark indeed is the magic of a Horcrux, and that dark enchantment must be broken. I did have one spell in mind, a very difficult one, but the late Mr. Black's notes tell me that, little known though it is, Tom knew of that spell, and has warded his Horcruxes against it. I could very likely cast my spell powerfully enough to break those wards, destroy his Horcrux, but the cost would be fearsome, and I prefer to leave that as a last resort."

       "I hate to say it, Albus," said Sirius, "But I honestly don't see any alternative. I think that you should teach me the spell. I'm expendable."

       "No, you're not!" cried Harry. "I've only just got you back! I'm not--"

       "You guys are all mental." Ron's voice, very firm, cut through Harry's, and silenced the room. Eight eyes turned towards him expectantly.

       "You mean, you don't see it?" Ron goggled at them. "Oh, for Merlin's sake!" He picked up the heavy locket from the desk. "Gosh, I sure wish we had some sort of, oh, say potion we could pour over this that would, say, consume Dark Magic! Wouldn't that be nice?" He stared around at them again. "I mean, Hello!"

       Dumbledore's eyes widened, and his face split into a wide smile. "Ronald, my dear boy! You are a treasure, sir! An absolute treasure!"

       Sirius was laughing aloud. "How did previous generations ever get along without you? Oh, what a Marauder you'd have made! Good man!" He turned to Dumbledore. "Back to see Poppy, I should think!"

       Dumbledore was standing. "Indeed so, Sirius! Harry, Ronald, Hermione, if you please!"

       And they stepped together from Dumbledore's office.

       "My, my, my!" The voice that met them in the hallway on the way back to the Hospital Wing was silky, its sneer richly evident, and Harry's back stiffened. "Messrs Potter and Black, side-by-side!" Severus Snape dropped momentarily into a surprisingly accurate impression of Gilderoy Lockhart. "What an historic moment this is! The Boy-Who-Lived and the Man-Who-Came-Back!" His voice was again his own. "The two saviours of the Wizarding world! To see two Messiahs together in one place is such a humbling experience!"

       Sirius's answering smile was broad and engaging, and very much like the one with which he'd greeted Petunia Dursley. "Severus, my friend and colleague! How lovely; to see you again! I hadn't expected the pleasure until school began. You in your familiar Potions lab, me teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts..."

       The sneer froze on Snape's face for a moment. "I needed to recover some ingredients from my stores." He turned toward Dumbledore, inclined his head up the hallway.  "And there is something I must discuss with the headmaster...?"

       Dumbledore smiled. "Of course, Severus." He turned to Sirius and the trio. "If you would excuse us for a moment?"

       They nodded their assent and watched Dumbledore follow Snape into an empty classroom before Harry turned to Sirius. "Two Messiahs? What was all that about?"

       Sirius looked disgusted. "The bloody Prophet! They've found some nutters who've started a cult, and they're playing it up for all it's worth."

       "A cult? What are you--"

       But he was interrupted by Hermione's giggling. "Oh, no, Sirius! Oh, that's, that's..." She gasped, and started laughing again. "That's too good!"

       Harry frowned, looking back and forth between his seething godfather and his giggling lover. "I'm obviously missing something."

       He glanced over at Ron, whose eyes suddenly widened. "Harry, mate, don't you get it?" He pointed at Sirius. "He's The-Man-Who-Came-Back! He came back from beyond the veil! This cult, it's.. They..." Then he, too was laughing helplessly, leaning on Harry and Hermione for support.

       "They what?" asked an irritated Harry, looking back and forth between Ron and Sirius. "What do they do?"

       "They worship me, all right!?" Sirius scowled. "Silly blighters pray to me and everything! They ask for my blessings, they ask me for miracles, for healings... Owls at all hours of the day and night! They bloody worship me!"

       "And they don't even know you shagged Celestina Warbeck!" cried Ron, now howling with laughter. Hermione managed the not inconsiderable feat of scowling at Ron while still laughing at a now quite red-faced Sirius.

       Harry stared, wide-eyed, at his scowling godfather. His lips quivered as he spoke, trying to quash a smile. "Worship you, eh?"

       Sirius glared at him. "Like a god."

       Harry couldn't hold it in any more. He brayed out his laughter, his arms draping over Ron's shoulders and Hermione's, and he pulled them to him, whispered in their ears -- a bit longer in Ron's -- and then the three teenagers dropped in unison to their knees, began salaaming towards him, crying out between near-sobs of mirth, "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!"

       Sirius glowered down at them. "Oh, very funny, you lot are! Har-de-har-har! See if I let you three into heaven!"

       Their laughter beginning to wind down, the trio more-or-less climbed one another back to their feet. Harry finally managed enough breath to ask, "What does Remus say about this?"

       Sirius found himself smirking in spite of himself. "Remus says I should be more understanding. After all, they don't think anything about me I didn't think in Seventh year!"

       This brought another honk of laughter from Harry.

       "Laugh all you want," Sirius told him. "Your dad's ego made me look like Pe--" And suddenly all the mirth was gone from his expression, and from Harry's and Hermione's too, and Ron looked among them as his own smile faded. "Like Peter," finished Sirius, his voice very quiet.

       They stood for a moment, all four again abashed by the magnitude of the Last Marauder's betrayal. Ron reached a hand to his shoulder. "Sirius... I'm sorry, mate."

       Black smiled sadly. "I miss him, you know," he mused. "He was so eager, so enthusiastic. He was like a spring day in wintertime, a cool breeze in August. He was refreshing. I can't even begin to understand what he was carrying around inside him." He looked seriously at Harry. "Was it me, do you think? I used to take an awful lot of the mickey out of him. Was it me? Did I make him feel so small that he was easy prey for anybody who made him feel bigger, more important?"

       Harry shook his head sadly. "I don't think so, Sirius. I saw him with Volemort. It... It didn't look to me like Voldemort made him feel very big." He shrugged. "I don't think he makes anybody feel big, himself included."

       The classroom door opened, and Dumbledore stepped back out into the hallway, Snape at his heel. "...did the right thing, Severus," he was saying. "We can't have a student placed in that situation. Do you think Tom will try to recall him?"

       Snape looked angrily at the foursome waiting in the hallway and then back to Dumbledore. "I do not know. When the Dark Lord sets himself to a purpose, he is loathe to turn his hand from it. I suspect, however, that other matter will prove too great a distraction." Snape glanced again at Hermione, his expression unreadable. "You do realize, Headmaster, that if the Dark Lord meets directly anyone who knows--"

       Dumbledore's eyes were grim. "I will be taking immediate steps, Severus, for their protection. Have no fear."

       Snape glanced again at Harry and Sirius. "In the presence of two Messiahs?" he sneered. "Of course not, Headmaster. That would be blasphemous."

       Snape bowed quickly to Dumbledore, raised a challenging eyebrow toward Sirius, and swept off toward his dungeons, as Dumbledore returned to Sirius and the trio.

       "We must, I fear, make haste. A situation has arisen that could potentially represent a real danger, and I will need to begin making arrangements right away. I must first, though, know whether your theory is right, Mr. Weasley. If the Maltrucido Flammaria can indeed destroy a Horcrux, we must know as soon as possible."

       Soon they were again gathered in the Hospital Wing, Madame Pomfrey pouring a small amount of the noxious potion into a shallow clay dish in the middle of a worktable. Dumbledore looked at the locket in his hand, but Sirius laid a hand on his. "Let's step back, I think, Albus, and levitate it."

       Dumbledore smiled at him. "An excellent plan!"

       They all stepped back, behind another work-table, perhaps two back from where the dish of potion lay. Dumbledore raised his wand, and Sirius suddenly stepped behind the trio, hands on Ron's shoulder and Harry's, hiding behind Ron and peering nervously around his head at the locket, which moved through the air between the tables with the stately grace of a Zeppelin. Ron smirked back at Sirius for a moment before turning his eyes back to the locket as it turned and tracked across the table towards the dish. It hovered over the brown-green, steaming sludge, thin golden chains trailing down from it towards the dish.

       The locket had completed a turn, and was facing back toward them now, its far end beginning to dip down toward the potion, the thin golden chain at that end seeming to reach for it... As the first link of the chain touched the grey-green-brown surface, the potion seemed to leap up it, green flames leaping into the air as it flowed up the chain and onto the locket. The rear of the locket dipped lower, small flaming bits of -- something -- dropping from the surface of the locket toward the table, pouring gouts of green-black smoke behind them, even as the flames enveloping the locket did the same.

       There was another, underlying sound beneath the electric crackle of the flames. A high-pitched keening sound, almost a mix between a scream and the whistle of a teakettle. It rose in pitch, louder and higher, nigh-unbearable, and the surface of the locket seemed to flex, expand, and Sirius' hands on their shoulders were suddenly forceful, throwing the trio to the ground, and he dove atop them covering their bodies with his own and his robes. The shriek reached its crescendo, and there was a crash as every bit of glass in the Hospital Wing shattered as one, and then a strobing of terrible, greenish light...

       And silence.

       They all stood quietly, approached the table. On it, the clay dish was cracked and dry, and in the middle of it lay a blackened, twisted lump. Dumbledore shone a bluish light at it from his wand, and nodded. "The Horcrux is indeed destroyed. The magic that bound the soul-fragment is no more, and no part of Tom is yet bound to this." He turned to Ron, smiling proudly. "Well done, young Ronald! Well done indeed!"

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten: Immediate Steps for their Protection

       “Wait! Wait!” Hermione was frowning across the Dursleys' dining-room table at Remus Lupin. “They what!?!?

       Beside her, Ron took her hand, squeezed it. She tried to jerk away from him, but he'd pulled his foot away from her ankle under the table, so she couldn't get her hand free. She kicked at him with an inarticulate grunt of anger, thereby freeing her hand, but in the process sticking her foot to his leg again. Ron snickered at her, earning the death-glare otherwise destined for Lupin. “Ronald, do you find any part of this funny?”

       Ron shook his head seriously. “No, love, I'm sorry. I was honestly trying to show some support.”

       She kept her eyes on his and nodded before turning back to Lupin. “Now, Professor, please repeat that, because I'm not at all certain I can have understood correctly.”

       Lupin nodded slowly. “Your parents are going to need to stay at the Burrow. Starting almost immediately.”

       “And this is because...”

       Lupin drew a breath, considered a moment. Finally, he said, “This is because, due to unforeseen events, it is possible that they could become high-priority targets for the Death Eaters.”

       “What unforeseen events?” said Harry, sounding angry.

       Again, Remus Lupin paused, looking deeply uncomfortable. “Riddle has learned that members of the Order have taken to calling him by his name. He is, of course, mightily displeased by this. I think the exact word was... apoplectic. Our concern is that, if he gets close enough to any Order member who knows, he will be able to use Legilimency, he will trace this back to your mother. That would be... quite bad.”

       “Ya think!?” cried Ron, as Hermione stared at Lupin, wide eyed, mouth gaping silently.

       “How did this happen?” demanded Harry."How did Riddle find out?”

       Lupin hesitated again.

       “How, Remus?” said Hermione. “Tell me.”

       “I told the Dark Lord, myself.” The voice from behind the three teenagers was a triple shock, not merely because there had been no sound of his arrival, but also because of that stunning admission, and the casual tone with which Severus Snape made it.

       They responded with three identical words, in three vastly different tones: Hermione's a near-hysterical shriek, Ron's an angry bellow, and Harry's deadly quiet: “You did what?

       Snape's response was as low and deadly as Harry's. “You'd do well to watch your tone with me.”

       “We're not in school now, you great greasy git!” cried Ron. “You shoved Hermione's parents off the back of the flying carpet! And for what?”

       “I do not answer to you, Weasley!” replied Snape. “I do not answer to children.

       Hermione's voice was now low and dagger-sharp. “If anything happens to my parents as a result of what you did, you will answer to me.”

       “You'll answer to all of us,” added Harry, his voice as cold. “Count on it.”

       “Unmanned though I am in my terror at the threats of three addle-pated brats,” Snape replied dryly, “I will endeavour to continue to function.”

       “Oh, yeah, that's the smart thing!” said Ron darkly. “You just keep that up.”

       Remus Lupin sat forward. “That's enough, you three. That's enough.”

       Harry turned angrily toward him, but Lupin stilled him with a raised hand. “At the moment, Harry,” he said, “You have other concerns.” He turned to Snape. “Explain yourself, Severus.”

       Snape bridled. “I do not answer to you, either, Lupin.”

       Lupin looked calmly at him. “Did you or did you not tell the Headmaster that you would stand behind your decision, take responsibility for it? I'll tell them if you'd rather. I'll tell them if you're too ashamed.”

       What little color was there dropped from Snape's face, and his mouth hardened into a line. He turned back to the trio.  “Miss Granger, the Dark Lord was livid at Lucius Malfoy's failure and capture at the Department of Mysteries. He intended to punish that failure by summoning Draco Malfoy, and ordering him to kill the Headmaster. I could not allow that order to be given. I could not allow a student to be placed in such a perilous position. The only alternative I saw was to distract the Dark Lord with something so infuriating that it would be all he thought about. The Order's use of his real name was an ideal distraction. He is now focused on that outrage to the exclusion of all else.”

       “For Malfoy?” cried Hermione. “You sold my parents out for Malfoy?

        “They are adults. Draco is not. If they or he must be put at risk, it is obvious which a responsible schoolteacher must choose.” Snape stared at her for a moment. “And what is more, Miss Granger, your own parents would and do agree with me.”

       Hermione bit her lip, and turned her head away, staring silently out the back window at the stone fence Harry had made when he was nine. Ron reached for her hand again, and looked over to Harry, who was staring at Snape with contempt.

       “It's a bad habit, Professor,” Harry said, coldly. “You keep running back to old Tom with other peoples' secrets.”

       “You are as arrogant as your father!” Snape growled. “Your entire life is nothing more than ideas above your station and disrespect to any who don't worship at your feet.”

       Harry's eyes blazed, but his response was derailed by Ron's voice, quiet but firm. “That's where you lose it, really, Professor. That's where you just turn loose of your wand completely. Harry's dad was mean to you. You had him killed! And yet you still insult him to his own son. You had him killed for making fun of you at school, and even at that, you still think you're the victim. You had him killed, and you aren't even sorry.”

       Snape's eyes narrowed, and is voice was a deadly hiss.  “Not... sorry? Boy, you have no slightest concept of the world of regret in which I live!”

       “Yeah, 'cause if I got a man killed, that's how I'd talk about him to his son!” Ron shot back.

       Hermione suddenly sat forward. “But, have you noticed,” she pointed out, “that Professor Snape seems to have nothing to say about Harry's mother?”

       Snape spun to face her, eyes wide and mouth silently open, as if she'd slapped him, then he spun, and stalked back into the kitchen. The sound of his Disapparation was very loud in the quiet house.

       “I'm so sorry,” Sirius said, as he followed Jane Granger into the bedroom. “I can't believe that filthy git did this to you!”

       “It's fine, Sirius,” she told him. “He was protecting a child.” She went to her closet, and pulled out a suitcase, threw it on the bed. “How long are we going to be staying?”

       Sirius, still scowling at the description of that poisonous Malfoy boy as ‘a child,’ suddenly found himself frowning in confusion. “What’s' that for?”

       “To pack enough clothing in for the, er, visit. So, how long?”

       “We don't know how-- “ He saw her opening a drawer and pulling out a pair of neatly-folded jeans. “Oh! No, no, Mrs. Granger--”

       “Jane, if you please, Sirius.”

       “Jane, no! No need for that, put those back in the bureau.”

       “I'll need clothes.”

       Sirius let his eyebrow twitched in an amused quirk, which she half-smiled at, before he said, “But you don't need to choose.” He gestured with his wand, and she placed the trousers back in the drawer. A slight motion of Sirius' wand closed it, and with another swish and flick, he incanted, “Decresco!”

       The entire bureau began to shrink, smaller and smaller, drawing in from the sides, down from above, until, as it reached the size and appearance of a modest jewelery box, Sirius flicked his wand away, and it stopped. He picked it up, and placed it in the suitcase. “Next?”

       Soon, the contents of the closet were doll-sized, and then the bookcase, books and all, and then the bed and bedside tables. All were packed away in the suitcase, which Sirius gallantly offered to carry, shrank to doll-size, and slid into his pocket.

       “Are you quite sure that isn't too much for you, dear?” chuckled Jane.

       Sirius grinned, looking into her eyes. If her daughter grows up like her, I know two very lucky young men!

       Jane blushed, looking down at her feet for a moment, and Sirius shook his head. “So, shall we go find your husband, and see to it that he's not flirting shamelessly with my boyfriend?”

       Jane laughed. “Absolutely, Sirius! We certainly wouldn't want any of that sort of thing around here!”

       “I'm very sorry, dear,” said David Granger, as they met in the living room, “but I'm leaving you for Remus.”

       The living room was as empty as the master bedroom, and Remus Lupin was holding a cigar-box in his hands.

       “Do you know what that is?” David asked his wife, pointing at the box. “That's everything from the living room and the office! Everything!”

       Jane glanced loftily over at Sirius, who displayed the miniature suitcase. “Bedroom,” she said. “Furniture and all.”

       David smiled. “Hell, I'm glad to hear you say that!”

       “Yes, dear, it's always nicer to sleep in your own bed, isn't it?”

       “Well, yes, but I was actually thinking that I feel less embarrassed about bringing my desk and chair.”

       “Dear...” Jane's voice was low. “You know I have very fond memories of that chair.” Her husband smiled slowly at her and she approached , smiling herself. “And the desk!”

       The two marauders locked eyes with one another.

       “Both on the pub-crawl, I think,” said Remus.

       “Oh, yeah!” replied Sirius. “No doubt about it.”

       He looked over to Jane again. “Are you ready to go?”

       She looked around the empty living room, and shook her head sadly. “I feel like we're leaving forever. I feel like I'm being chased out of my home. I hate this.”

       David crossed to her, pulled her into his arms. “We can't stay, sweetheart. You know we can't. We do Hermione and her friends no service by dying so we can say we didn't leave a piece of real estate.”

       “I know, love,” she murmured into his chest. “I know. But our little girl was conceived in this house.”

       David grinned at her. “I'm pretty sure that was in the Mini, actually. Rainy day, long drive. Remember, love?”

       She chuckled. “My back still hurts. Dratted gear stick!”

       Her husband kissed the top of her head, and she angled her face up to him, her mouth open to receive his, and they kissed for a moment with the abandon of teenagers, as if Remus and Sirius weren't right there with them.

       Sirius smiled wickedly, opening his mouth to speak, but Remus caught his eye, shaking his head. The wicked smile became kind, the eyes twinkling gently, and he nodded at his friend, his love.

       After a moment, the Grangers parted, and turned to the Marauders.

       “Shall we go?” asked Jane, firmly.

       The Portkey – it seemed a less alarming choice than Side-along Apparition – landed them in the yard in front of the Burrow. The Grangers' knees sagged, and Remus and Sirius caught them, held them upright as they recovered from the trip.

       David chuckled weakly. “Do you people ever travel in a way that doesn't make you want to vomit?”

       “Not if we can help it, mate,” said Sirius, with a chuckle.

       The front door of the ramshackle house banged open, and Molly Weasley charged out at them, wrapping first Jane and then David in warm, welcoming embraces. “Jane, David, I'm so glad to have you here, unfortunate though the circumstances are! I'm so very sorry about the other day. I was so awful to your daughter, and I owe her so very much!”

       “It's all right, Molly,” said David quietly. “That wasn't about Hermione, not really. We know that.”

       “You were in pain, dear,” supplied Jane. “You had to purge it out.”

       Molly looked downcast. “But I know I hurt her.”

       “And you made it right with her,” replied Jane. “That's what matters. “

       “Thank you, Jane,” said Molly Weasley, with a sad, gentle smile. “Thank you both. You're very kind. Well, come along, we'll get you settled in.” She led them toward the house. “The place has been so empty since the Twins left. It will be a pleasure to have someone to spoil a bit!” She ushered them in through the front door. “I do so enjoy being a good hostess. Right this way, you'll be staying in the front hall closet.”

       David and Jane Granger froze, unnoticed behind her, and exchanged a wide-eyed glance, as Molly opened a smallish door to one side of the slightly cramped hallway.

       “Well, come on, come on,” she cried, lifting out a large, canvas flap. David looked curiously at it, and Molly smiled at him. “It's a tent, dear.”

       “We're staying in a tent in your closet?” David asked, slowly.

       “'Course,” said Sirius, with a smile. “Where else? Come on, then!” and he ducked under the canvas flap and disappeared. A moment later, has voice carried back, sounding improbably far away. “Well? Are you coming?”

       David and Jane exchanged another glance.

       “Magic tent,” David said.

       “Like the World Cup! Of course! We should have realized!” replied Jane with a grin.

       They followed Sirius in through the flap, followed by Remus and then Molly, who called out, “Arthur? Arthur, the Grangers are here!”

       “Ah,” came Arthur's voice, “excellent!”

       David and Jane were standing in a medium-sized room, with four doors leading off of it, two to the back, and one to either side. The door to the left opened into what looked very much to be a spacious, 1950s-style kitchen, with all the conveniences, including a gas cooker, which Arthur was tinkering with. Next to that door was an ordinary enough sash-and-pane window, looking, impossibly, not into the kitchen but into the back yard, instead. Behind the sink in the kitchen was another window with an identical view. There were similar windows in the other walls as well.

       David pointed. “Are these just visual?”

       “No, no,” replied Sirius. “Those are real windows to the outside of this house. Cool breezes on a warm evening, quick escape in case of fire or attack, whatever you need.”

       Jane laughed. “This is wonderful! You magical people do lead the most interesting lives!”

       Sirius leaned over and murmured quietly to her, “Why don't you go let Arthur show you around the kitchen, while Remus and I get the other rooms sorted?”

       “Yes, yes,” called Arthur, turning from the stove. “Do come in! I'll show you how things work in here.”

       They gathered around Arthur, who showed them the magical refrigerator – which was no different in any practical way from a Muggle one – the magical dishwasher – which was much the same – and finally, his piece de resistance, the stove.

       “I was given permission to bring this home from work for you,” said Arthur. “The Misuse of Muggle Artifacts office confiscated it a few months ago. It's a normal Muggle gas stove, but it was charmed to work with self-directed Bluebell Flames.” Arthur, with obvious pleasure, turned a knob, and blue flames rose in a ring around the gas jet in one of the burners. But when the Grangers leaned closer, they saw that the flames were, in fact, small humanoid shapes. As Arthur twisted the knob, they grew taller, higher, larger, until, when turned all the way to “High,” the burner was a ring of foot-tall blue fire-people dancing a vaguely obscene, circular dance around the central gas jet, waving at the Grangers as they passed.

       “Lord,” said David, smiling. “It's like a Disney cartoon come to life!”

       One of the curvier fire-women thrust her flaming pelvis towards him.

       “Perhaps not,” said Jane.

       Arthur's embarrassed blush at the fire-woman's wanton display faded, and he smiled. “I've seen Disney cartoons, you know! Fascinating the way you Muggles have worked out a way to have moving portraits without any Magic at all! Amazing, really.”

       He reached for the knob to turn the burner off, and the fire-people turned and charged across the stove at him, flaring with a great roar, and Arthur backed away quickly, drawing his wand, and magically extinguishing them.

       He looked over at David and Jane. “Er... Perhaps it would be best if you dined with us, instead.”

       They could see it in the line of her shoulders as she shrugged off her clothing, the suddenness of her gestures as she turned on the hot water taps in the shower. They could hear it in the slightly clipped tones of her voice as she asked for the shampoo, feel it in the tension under their fingers as they scrubbed her back. Hermione was still upset.

       Ron didn't blame her one bit. He was still mightily hacked off about it himself. But he hated to see Hermione upset. He leaned over, as he held her shampooed hair above her head, and began kissing her neck, nibbling gently at her pulse-point.

       Hermione's groan was deep, almost guttural, and she leaned back against him. “Oh, God, Ron,” she breathed. “Oh, please, yes. Please, Ron.”

       She reached up, took one of his hands in both of hers, pulled it down to her. She placed it on her shoulder, then pulled and slid it down to her right breast. Ron remembered what Harry had discovered, and slid his spread fingers across her nipples, bump-bump-bump-bump, and her eyes slitted open and looked over at Harry, standing, watching, eyes wide.

       “What are you waiting for, Harry?” she asked, her voice low.

       “I thought...” he stumbled over the words. “I thought this was never supposed to be a distraction. Ron, just last night, you said--”

       Ron and Hermione spoke as one: “Shut up, Harry.”

       Harry stepped against her, began kissing the other side of her neck, one hand at her left breast, fingers sliding across her nipple as Ron's had, while his other hand squeezed one of the soft, rounded cheeks of her bum.

       He lifted his mouth away from her neck, and she turned to him, kissed him hard, pulling a little roughly on his bottom lip with her teeth. His mouth leaped back over hers again, lips against lips, teeth clattering together, and their tongues met, not to caress, but to wrestle, battling for dominance. She seemed to be striking at him with her hands, so he backed down a bit, deferred to her, and Hermione made a small sound of frustration in his mouth.

       Then suddenly she was gone, pulled away from him by Ron's strong right arm. Her back slapped against the wall with a loud, sharp smack! And she rebounded from it with an almost feral smile, grabbed Ron's head in her hands, pulled him to her, devoured his mouth.

       Harry stood, the edge of one foot brushing one of Ron's, and stared, wide-eyed, as they met not like lovers but like rugby players, a contest, physical and solid.

       Hermione grabbed one of Ron's hands, brought it down to her center. She pulled away from the kiss, stared at Ron, a wild, animal stare, eyes bright, and nodded slightly, and Harry stared with some wonder as Ron's long middle finger disappeared into her. She leaned her face against the freckled chest, biting, her hand still pressing his into her, and Ron's index finger was joining the middle one inside her.

       Harry's mouth hung silently open as he stared, and suddenly Hermione turned toward him, her hand reaching for his, bringing it down, her small fingers pressing his through the wild curls. He felt on firmer ground, here, his confident fingers reaching for the sensitive places she liked to be touched, but she stilled his hand with hers, guided his middle finger again down to her folds, and pressed.

       His eyes snapped up to Hermione's. She nodded at him. “Please, Harry.”



       “But... three?

       “Yes, Harry, please!” Her finger pushed his again, and he felt his middle finger sliding now up inside her, pressed hard against Ron's, and against her slick silkiness. The pad of his finger reached automatically for that spot, the one she'd taught him about the second morning, quizzed him on – although he refused to think about Doctor Grafenberg just now! -- and she moaned and arched against him.

       He moved his thumb gently against her clitoris – loving Hermione was such an education! -- and she pressed her hand down over his.

       “Harder, Harry!” A firmer press from her fingers on his thumb. “Yes! Hard, like that.” She moved against them, riding up and down on their fingers, her hands up to their shoulders now, holding her up, steadying her, and Ron began scissoring his fingers around Harry's, stretching her further, and her moaning cry seemed as much pain as pleasure, but the wide, intense gaze she turned on him was grateful.

       Harry pressed closer to her now, reached around behind her, his fingers and palm tracing appreciatively over the curves of her bottom, then exploring down into the cleft, as his mouth sought again the pulse-point of her neck.

       He bit a little harder this time, feeling the give of her soft flesh beneath his teeth, tracing small shapes with his tongue on the silky flesh they held.

       “Oh, God, yes, Harry!” Hermione was riding up and down on their fingers harder now, faster, moving them within her as Harry's thumb pressed rough circles on her clitoris. “Oh, fuck, yes!” And then her moans were disappearing into Ron's mouth. Harry's hand had made its way down far enough that his middle finger was now pressed against her anus, and as he worked her clitoris and that spot deep within he drew her upward to the tips of her toes, and then, as she dropped again, penetrated her with his middle finger. It wasn't the tiny, almost hesitant intrusion of the last time; Harry had read her mood, and he simply sank his middle finger into her arse, while his other middle finger reached into her, circling the spot, and his thumb simply pressed against her clitoris like a doorbell.

       She pulled away from Ron, crying out, and swung to face him, her eyes almost bestial, and her mouth leaped to his shoulder, her teeth sinking in as she moved against their fingers, in fast, spastic jerks, arrhythmic and urgent.

       They felt her spasm around their fingers, once, twice, again, like a string of firecrackers exploding one after the other, and  she cried out their names, her face clenched in smarting ecstasy,  and then collapsed against them.

       Ron grinned over at Harry. “Well done, mate.”

       Harry stood straighter, his features assuming a noble expression. “Well,” he said humbly, “like any great achievement, this was truly a group endeavour. I couldn't possibly have done it without you, Ron.”

       “Prats!” Hermione smacked them both on the chest, but with a smirk. “You're both just prats, you know that?”

       Ron's hand came up to her face. His thumb swept wet hair from her cheekbone. “Better now, love?”

       She nodded. “You knew just what I needed, Ron. Thank you.” She turned toward Harry. “That was a little scary for you, at first, wasn't it?”

       He nodded, silently.

       “I'm sorry, Harry. It was just... I'm so angry about what Snape did, I needed to fight, and I didn't want to fight with the two of you, and, well... it was what I needed at the time. Can you understand that?”

       Harry looked down for a moment, biting his lip. “I... I think so, Hermione. I was OK once I knew how you wanted to be treated. I hope that's not all the time, though.”

       She smiled, shaking her head. “No, sweet boy. No, it's not. I couldn't live without your gentle loving.” She kissed him softly. “You know that, don't you?”

       Harry shrugged. “I have a hard time believing it.”

       Ron reached over, squeezed his shoulder, and Hermione's gaze flickered to him for the briefest of moments before returning to Harry.

       “Let me see if I can convince you, Harry.” She kissed him again, his mouth, then his collarbone then his chest, tenderly kissing his nipple, and she started to bend her knees, lowering herself further down, kissing over his ribcage, across his belly to his navel. This, she circled with her tongue, then kissed, licking gently into the opening, before moving on, following the dark trail of hair down from his navel.

       The skin of her neck touched his erection now, and then she reached up, her fingers caressing then wrapping around his length as she leaned back and her warm, brown eyes looked up into his green ones.

       “I love you, Harry,” she said, and leaned in again, to gently kiss the glans, an opalescent white drop glistening at its tip. Her tongue flickered up that slit, and she leaned back a moment, then forward again, sliding his length into her mouth.

       Harry had never felt anything like it, and the breath shuddered out of him in a long sigh. Warm softness enveloped him, Hermione's tongue stroking around him, as she moved closer, sliding the head along the roof of her mouth, the barest touches of her teeth grazing him slightly. Then she drew back, and he watched, fascinated, as his shaft withdrew, glistening, from her lips, her head still angled back to hold his glans against the runnelled palate, her eyes locked with his.

       She sat back again, regarding the shine of her saliva on his erection, and started to lean in again, lips parted in anticipation, when Harry's hand on her shoulder stilled her.

       “No, Hermione,” he said, quietly.

       She looked confused. “No? Didn't you like it? Did I do it wrong?”

       Harry shook his head. “You did it great, Hermione!” he said, his voice a little shaky. “But... We promised. We promised your dad. Not until my birthday. Nothing but hands.”

       Hermione made a small sound of frustration. “He didn't mean this! He meant--”

       “I know what he meant, Hermione. But we promised.”

       “Can't we, you know...” Hermione's mouth was still so close to his erection that he felt her breath on the head as she spoke. The shower-water pounding on his back was forgotten. “Can't we change the promise?”

       Harry stared down into those brown eyes, hungry, loving, needy, stared down at those parted lips just an inch or so from him, and he wanted so much just to tilt his hips forward. So much.

       He shook his head. “There's something Professor Dumbledore told me, love. A promise made can't be changed; it can only be broken.” He reached down, twined his fingers into her wet hair. “I don't have that much to offer, Hermione. If I don't have my word, I have nothing left. Now, why don't you come on up here and kiss me?”

       She regard his erection for a moment more, then nodded and started to rise, but suddenly stopped with a gasp. “Just a moment!”

       She leaned over to Ron's erection, upturned, seeming somehow to smile, and kissed the end, licked gently along the slit, and then drew Ron in for a single, long, loving stroke. Ron's blue eyes were wide, his expression rapt, as he watched those lips sliding along him, and Harry felt his own erection pulse as he watched it. Watched Hermione's face , her lips wrapped around Ron, her nose finally burying itself in ginger curls. Watched Ron's face full of love and reverent wonder as he watched himself disappear into her mouth, and start to retract again. Watched Ron's shaft, shining with Hermione's saliva as it emerged from those soft lips. The head, now almost alarmingly purple, popped out into the air, and bobbed in front of Hermione's face, and Harry could see her longing for it shining in her eyes.

       But she drew a breath and stood, looking back and forth between Ron and Harry. “Always the same,” she said. “Well... different. But the same. Never more one than the other. You see that, right? That has to come first.”

       Ron laughed. “As long as I come soon, love!”

       Harry snickered and Hermione smiled, leaning into Ron again, and grasping his erection. He leaned down to kiss her as she began to pump at it, and her other hand reached blindly and unerringly for Harry's penis, and she was already stroking him as she turned to kiss him.

       “I can't wait for your birthday,” she told Harry as their lips parted and she leaned over toward Ron again. “I want to fellate you. Both of you.”

       “Excuse me?” groaned Ron, his amusement warring with his arousal.

       “To fellate you, Ronald. To blow you. To suck your cocks. To give you knob-jobs. Stop me when I hit on one you recognize.”

       “Can you go back one?” Ron choked out, somehow smirking and grimacing at the same time as her hand worked his erection.

       “Oh!” Hermione's smile was wanton, her voice husky and low. “You liked it when I said I wanted to suck your cock?” She turned to Harry. “Do you like to hear me talk about sucking your cock too?”

       “Oh, my God, Hermione,” he breathed, “You're going to kill me.”

       Her hands increased their pace. “I should stop, then,” she breathed, “Before I tell you both how much I want to fuck you.” She turned back and mouthed Ron's nipple, and he cried her name. “Because I do, you know. I want to fuck you both so badly! I want these--” she jiggled them a bit in indication, even as she stroked. “--inside me.”

       She leaned over to Harry, and murmured in his ear, “I can already imagine how Ron's stout, hard cock will fill me, how it will stretch me like your fingers did.”

       Even as Harry cried out her name, ejaculating forcefully over her hip and the frosted plexiglass door of the shower enclosure, she leaned to murmer in Ron's, “I can already feel how Harry's long, straight prick will lance into me, deep, deep into places I've never touched.”

       And then Ron was coming, her name -- “Hermione!” -- erupting from his lips in a strangled grunt, his semen splashing across her legs.

       They hung onto one another a moment for support, then Ron reached a languid arm and grabbed the hand-held shower-head, and rinsed them all down, and the glass door of the enclosure, and finally, after a look and a chuckle, rinsed his own seed out of the soap dish on the wall. He turned off the taps, hung the shower-head back where it belongs, and they stepped out into the bathroom.

       Ron stepped up, embracing Hermione from behind while Harry stretched across the room to grab them fluffy towels.

       “I love you, Hermione Jane. I can't wait for Harry's birthday, either... But I couldn't love you more, right now, just the way we are.”

 &nnbsp;     Harry stepped up to her from in front, wrapped his arms around both of them. If he noticed that Ron's hands, around Hermione's waist, were nestled into his pubic hair, he didn't say. Instead, he leaned down and kissed her thoroughly. “I love you, Hermione, and that's the truth.”

       Ron extricated his hands, wrapped them around Harry, and they both squeezed, pressed themselves into her, and Hermione sighed.

       “As long as I get hugs like this,” she said, “I can last a hundred years, birthday or no.”

       Ron leaned around, and kissed her gently, then, with a final squeeze, stepped back, took a towel from Harry, and began drying her shoulder blades.

       David was usually the one who walked in the night, but tonight, while he snored peacefully, Jane found herself sitting up, her mind returning to a kaleidescope of images from the day: Sirius' rakish, damnably attractive smile. Remus' quiet words about her daughter's rage. Molly's fierce hug and sad penitence. And their empty house, sitting in London with illusions of herself and David puttering through it, no doubt sleeping now as she herself could not, a mute surrender to the power of hate.

       Nonsense. To live is not a surrender! We're no good to Hermione dead.

       She stood, pulled on a housecoat, tied it over the flannel nightgown she was wearing in deference to being in someone else's home as she walked out through the tent's living room, and out through the front-closet door. The incident with the stove had caused Arthur to re-think the kitchen plans, and Molly had instead given them the run of hers.

       She stepped quietly into the kitchen, and over to the cabinets, trying to remember--

       “Glasses are above the sink, on the left,” said a soft voice.

       Jane twitched, looked over her shoulder, saw the lovely young redhead sitting at the table. “Thank you, Ginny.”


       Jane turned back, got herself a glass, opened the fridge. There was milk in glass bottles, and a pitcher of something a deep brown-orange, as if someone had mixed Orange Juice with dark Apple Cider. “Is this Pumpkin Juice?”

       “Yes, Mrs. Granger.” There was amusement in Ginny's voice.

       Jane shrugged and poured herself a glass. When in Rome!

       It was quite good, actually. It reminded her of the pumpkin pie she'd had in a small New Hampshire restaurant one November, while attending a Stateside conference on fixed prosthetics. It was sweet, with a sort of an earthy undertone.

       “I like it,” she told Ginny, as she turned toward the table. “Would you like a glass?”

       “No thanks. It always makes me pee at night.”

       Jane chuckled as she closed the refrigerator and joined her at the table. “So what are you doing up at this hour?”

       Ginny sort of shrugged. “Just couldn't sleep.”

       “You're pretty upset with Hermione, aren't you?”

       “Mrs. Granger, your daughter saved their lives. I'll always be grateful! Always!”

       “I know you will, dear,” said Jane. “But I also know how you feel about Harry. She's told me many times.”

       “She has?” Ginny looked interested.

       Jane smiled at her. “She certainly has. Quite a lot, in fact. I used to think it was a little strange, but it makes more sense to me now.”

       “What do you mean?”

       “I mean, I think on some level, she was reminding herself. She would never do anything to hurt you, you know. She loves you very much.”

       Ginny nodded. “I do know that, Mrs. Granger. I can't help being a little mad, though. I mean, wouldn't you be?”

       Jane nodded. “Yes, Ginny, I have to say I would.”

       They were silent for a moment, sitting together in the candle-lit kitchen.

       “She loves them both, doesn't she?” Ginny's voice was wistful. “She really does love them both.”

       “Yes, dear. I can definitely tell you that she does.” Jane took another pull at her Pumpkin juice. “She loves them the way I love David.”

       “I think Ron loves him too,” said Ginny, calmly.

       Jane smiled. “Do you?”

       “Yeah. I've seen, sometimes, when Harry isn't watching, I've seen the way he looks at Harry. I don't know if Ron's figured it out yet, though. This is the kind of thing he can be awfully thick about.”

       Jane wasn't sure what to say to that.

       “Oh, don't get me wrong,” Ginny said hurriedly. “I'm not saying he's stupid. But Ron's never been very self-aware, not that way. He's got five big brothers, and not a one of them ever looked at anything but girls. I don't know that it ever occurred to him that there are other ways.”

       “I suppose that could be hard for Ron,” said Jane carefully, “if Harry doesn't return it.”

       “Oh, don't worry,” Ginny replied easily. “He will. Might take some time, but...” She took a breath. “After ten years with the Dursleys? Harry will take all the love he can get.”

       “You know, you're a very wise young lady, Ginny.”

       “Eh,” said Ginny. “Sometimes. And sometimes I'm a spoiled teen-aged brat. You're just catching me on a good night.”

       Jane smiled at her, and lifted her glass in toast. “To good nights, then,” she said. “We can use the extra wisdom.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven: Sunday in the Park with Fred and George

         “They're entitled,” said George, “to a bit of fun!” He bit into a roll.

         “That's the truth,” supplied Fred. “I mean, locked up all day with those Muggles of Harry's--”

         “Durance Vile, that is!” George cried.

         “Ift iff!” agreed Fred, his mouth full of salad, then repeated, after he'd swallowed, “It is!”

         “Now, please,” said Albus Dumbledore, “There's no need to speak ill of the Dursleys. They were, after all, dragged unwilling into our world, and our war.”

         “Well, so were they,” said George, gesturing at David and Jane.

         “And they're not useless, mean-spirited--” continued Fred.

         “Cold-hearted, ” George added, and Fred joined him so that they were a chorus of disgust on the word “gits!

         “He does have a point, Albus,” David said. “I've had the displeasure of speaking with the Dursleys. I'm a dentist, not a psychoanalyst. I'm not qualified to explain those two to anyone. And you're absolutely right. Being dragged into your world and your war was not their fault. But how they've reacted is. How they've treated their own nephew is. And how they treat other families in their own situation who don't share their narrow-minded bigotry is their fault as well.”

         “Yeah, you know what, Dave?” said Fred. “Shut it. Honestly.”
         Molly Weasley gasped at her son's ill manners, but Jane stilled her with a hand on her arm, and a smile.

         “It's like you're bringing the killjoys right here to the dinner table,” added George.

         David sat back and smiled, enjoying the normalcy and acceptance implicit in being told to shut up. “Sorry, George.”

         “I'm Fred,” said George.

         “No, you're really not,” said David, “because if you were, you wouldn't have that slight chip on your left upper incisor.”

         While Fred sat back and laughed, Jane leaned forward, and asked, “So tell me more about this game?”

         “It's called Quodpot,” said George. “American wizards seem to like it better than Quidditch for some mental reason. Eleven players on a team, just one ball, the Quod, which is like a Quaffle, only it explodes.”

         David, who'd been thoroughly educated in Quidditch by Hermione, nodded slowly.

         “The longer any one player holds it,” continued Fred, “the faster it builds towards blowing, so there's a lot of passing. The team tries to get the Quod downfield, and into the Pot, which is a cauldron filled with a potion that neutralises it, so it can't blow up.”

         “And if you're holding it when it blows,” added George, “you're out of the game.”

         “Anyway,” said Fred, “There's this American Quodpot team, a sort of comedy performance thing--”

         “They're pretty amazing,” supplied George.

         “Yeah, they're really something. The New Amsterdam Travellers.”

         “See, they just travel around the world, playing games, putting on a show.”

         “And everywhere they go,” added Fred, “the team they play against is made up of local professionals.”

         “Professional Quodpot players, where they can find 'em,” said Fred, “and Quidditch players otherwise.”

         “And Avalon's Quodpot All-stars,” added Professor Dumbledore, with an indulgent smile, “are captained by young Miss Angelina Johnson.”

         “Who,” Molly added, “Fred has been dating.” Her grin toward her son widened, and her eyes sparkled. “Seriously, I might add!”

         Fred blushed vivid Weasley Scarlet. “Look at that,” said David. “Now they're even easier to tell apart!”

         “I would like to think,” said Professor Dumbledore, “that you can keep your, shall we say, personal lives separate from Order business. It's your turn to watch over your brother and his friends.”

         “Look, Professor, honestly,” said George, “we'll take care of them. Ron is our brother, and we actually, well...”

         Fred's blush returned as he finished for his embarrassed brother, “Well, Hermione and Harry are just as much Weasleys as he is, aren’t they?”

         “Not just for how good they've been to and for Ron,” added George. “Merlin, she’s just as brave and loyal as you could ask for!”

         “And Harry!” continued Fred. “Well, Godric, Professor, look at him!”

         George sat forward, and looked seriously at his former Headmaster. “Honestly, Professor, d'you think for one minute that Fred would put any of them at risk just so he could please his girlfriend?”

         “Harry loves broom-sports,” said Fred, equally seriously. “And so does Ron. And Hermione likes to claim to be above all that, but--”

         Jane leaned into the conversation. “You should see the scrolls she's sent us about Harry and Ron playing Quidditch! She tries to sound all standoffish and analytical, but I know my girl. She finds it all fascinating.”

         “Well, she would, wouldn't she?” asked George, with much waggling of eyebrows.

         “George Weasley!” cried Molly. “You are joking about their daughter's, er...”

         “Quite all right, Molly,” said David with a smile. “After all, he's joking about his own brother's, too!”

         Molly simultaneously huffed and smiled, as Fred and George suddenly blanched. “Oh, you're as bad as they are, David!”

         “Well,” allowed David, “It's something to aspire to!”

         As the diners at the table chuckled, Jane leaned forward again. “Quite honestly, I think the boys should take them. I know there's a war on, and I know things are getting bad, but... well, it's life, isn't it? We have to live it. They have to live it. Otherwise, why fight at all? If we're going to surrender our lives to him, we might as well just get it over with.”

         This brought the assembled Weasleys to a stiff silence, as Dumbledore and her husband smiled approvingly. Then Arthur and Molly were smiling warmly, and Fred and George slapped their  hands together over their heads, and Ginny raised her tumbler of pumpkin juice.

         Dumbledore's smile broadened. “The decision would appear to be unanimous,” he said. “Have a lovely time.”

         Fred whooped in victory and George opened his mouth to reply, but the deep, booming voice of Sirius interrupted both: “Oi! Where are our dates, then?”

         David grinned at his wife. “If they were Muggles, they'd be the ones who pull up to the pavement and blow their horns.”

         “So true,” Jane replied, touching his hand gently. “I'm not at all sure about letting you date them.”

         “Well, I have faith in you, my love,” David replied. “I'll let you date them.”

         Remus and Sirius sauntered in from the kitchen. “Well,” Sirius drawled, “That's certainly good to hear!”

         “Ready to go?” asked Remus with a smile.

         “Absolutely,” said David, as he and his wife stood.

         Jane smiled over at Molly as she helped clear away the last of the empty plates, and placed them by the sink, before joining her husband and the Marauders at the door. “If we're not back in three days,” she told her hostess, “Send in a search party with a great hangover cure!”

         Why is that all right with me? thought Ron. He'd awakened far earlier than was normal for him, awakened, in fact, with the dawn, and had rolled onto his side, regarding his bedmates solemnly. It had been a very strange couple of weeks, that much was for sure. Sirius back from the dead, Hermione's parents living at the Burrow, Nuptialis Unum. But stranger than any other part of it, thought Ron, even stranger than his growing attraction to Harry, was this.

         He lay there, watching Hermione sleep, Harry curled up against her side, his left hand gently splayed across her breast. His best mate, asleep with the girl Ron had always dreamed of, cuddled together, touching her breast. And it didn't bother Ron in the slightest. Instead it warmed him, as nothing else had. Harry, asleep, looked happier, more at peace, than Ron thought he'd ever seen him.

         And Hermione... She was so beautiful. Her hair, an uncontrollable explosion of energy, an outward expression of the hyperactive mind within. Her lips, full and happy, contentedly curled in her own unconscious smile.

         You're a jealous type, Harry had told him. You want Hermione to yourself.

         And he couldn't deny it. He did.

         But somehow, sharing Hermione's love with his best mate... It should have been impossible. It should have torn him up inside, like seeing her with Krum. But here he watched them snuggled together, and the tide of warmth rose within him. Not jealousy, not rage, nor anger. Not fear, nor insecurity. Just warm satisfaction at the joy he saw in his sleeping friends.

         He tried, now, to imagine being with Hermione without Harry. Just the two of them, locked together in their passion... It made him feel empty. He didn't have hands enough, fingers enough, mouths enough, tongues enough, to love Hermione like she deserved to be loved. Loving Hermione, he now knew, was a two-man job, and almost as great as the joy of seeing her orgasm, of feeling her clench and hearing her cry out, was the pleasure of creating all that with Harry, as a team.

         It really was, he realised, like Quidditch. He and Harry working together, setting up the plays, communicating with looks and nods and smiles. The angle of a head, the glance of an eye, and each knew he could depend on the other to do his part, to pick up where the other left off, to complete the gesture, carry through the motion, score the goal.

         And what a goal! Ron grinned at the thought of Hermione's pleasure, her breath shuddering out of her body, the tension lifting, and the moment after, that moment when her eyes were weightless as she looked back and forth between them. That moment. That moment held more magic than he'd learned in five years at Hogwarts.

         Yeah. To see that was worth any price. To make that moment? That was beyond price, beyond the very concept of price.

         The mystery, though, was that Harry's being part of the equation wasn't part of the price he was willing to pay. He'd thought that, at first, but that wasn't it at all. Harry's part in it, instead, moved the whole experience another step forward. Having Harry there to help him love Hermione made it all so much better. And that just baffled Ron.

         And then there was Harry himself. Ron looked again at the long-fingered hand, the slender wrist and forearm. Harry seemed so small, so delicate, as if the slightest pressure of Ron's fingers could snap him like a twig. Ron knew that was a lie. He'd played and flown and wrestled with Harry, fought for his life alongside Harry, and he knew the power in those slender limbs.

         But something had changed since that afternoon in the Head Girl's room. Changed since he'd asked Harry to be his partner in loving Hermione. Changed since that first time they'd stood naked together and carried her into the healing, vanilla-scented water.

         Now, and more and more every day, Harry's touch was charged for him. His memories of friendly wrestling in the Common Room, of victorious hugs after Quidditch, of moving quietly between Harry's bed-curtains to hold him when the nightmares struck, all carried an undeniable frisson of the erotic.

         Ron remembered the paradigm shift vividly. Remembered the three of them, undressing in the Head Girl's Bath. Remembered the excitement coursing through him at the thought that he was going to be naked with Hermione, remembered glancing over at Harry, and suddenly the slenderness of him had struck Ron, as it never had before, as, well.... sexy! The pale skin, the shockingly dark thatch of pubic hair, the penis that was expanding, stiffening, in response to Hermione's nakedness... and his own? He remembered Harry's startlingly green eyes, the gentleness of his voice as he embraced Hermione.

         Was that when it had first occurred to Ron that he'd like to kiss Harry? He thought perhaps it was.

         And that's how fucked up I am, thought Ron. I can't be a pouf, because Hermione turns me on like mad, but I can't be normal, cause Harry's doing it to me too.

         He looked again at Harry's lips, full, soft looking, curled in a simple happiness Ron would have killed to bring him. Looked again at the slender length of his arm, curled over Hermione, of his fingers splayed across her breast. Oh, Merlin!

         He remembered what Remus had told them all: It's best not to try to put some kind of hard-and-fast label on something like this. What feels good, feels good. That's all.

         Could it possibly be that simple? He regarded his sleeping friends for a long, long moment, their content faces, their loving touch. Fuck it. He drew a breath, then snuggled up to Hermione's side, closing his eyes in the pale morning light. It's always been the three of us. That's all there is to it.

         It was about nine that morning when they shambled blearily together into the bathroom and scrabbled about through the opening in the frosted Plexiglas until warm water was thrumming down the tile walls. Hermione managed, after a bit of wrestling between neckline and her explosion of hair, to shuck of Ron's "Cannons"  shirt, and Harry grinned sleepily at her, eyes gratefully taking in her form as he pulled down his pyjama bottoms, and then his eyes met Ron's and they exchanged a slightly different grin: A naked girl, and we can look at her all we want!

         Then they were under the pounding water, Hermione kissing them sleepily, first Ron, then Harry, and Harry reached down to touch her, fingers trailing through coarse, wet curls into velvet-soft folds, encountering warmth and moisture, and Hermione pushed him gently away, murmuring “No, Harry, please.”

         She kissed him again, giving Harry warm knowledge that it wasn't rejection, and he looked down at his fingers and his eyes widened.

         There was blood on his fingers!  “Oh, my God! Hermione, are you all right?”

         Ron glanced down and back immediately up at Harry, crying, with an odd expression, “Holy fuck, Harry! What did you do? You broke Hermione!”

         There was a roaring in Harry's ears as he stared back up at them, and he cried out, “I'm sorry! Hermione, I tried to be--”

         But Hermione wasn't listening to him, turning instead to punch Ron in the arm, hard! “Ronald Bilius Weasley! That is not funny! You apologise this minute!”

         But before he had a chance, she was turning to Harry, embracing him, cuddling him. “It's all right, love. You didn't do anything. I'm having my period, that's all.”

         Harry stared at her, eyes wide, his face a mask of bafflement.

         “Oh, mate!”  said Ron, “You really have no clue, do you?”

         "Of course he doesn't, Ronald! How could he? Who do you suppose would have taught him?"  Her voice was rich with contempt, as she continued, "Certainly not the Dursleys! Can you imagine?"

         "Taught me what!?"  cried Harry, still looking alarmed.

         Ron put a hand on Harry's shoulder. “Brace yourself, mate,”  he said, “this is pretty hard to believe...”

         Harry stopped short, halfway through pulling his shirt on, and looked over again at Hermione, who was waiting patiently for the boys to dress before she began. In the morning, dressing seemed to go better in shifts. “So it's really normal, then?"  he asked. "Are you sure?”

         Hermione smiled and leaned over to kiss him gently. “I'm sure, love. It's normal.”

         “And there's nothing they can do?”

         “No, Harry,”  said Hermione, smiling softly, “there's nothing they can do.”

         Harry looked downcast. “I'm sorry.”

         “Harry...”  Hermione was smiling now. “It's honestly all right. It's fine. It's a perfectly normal part of being a woman.”

         “Blood comes out of your fanny! That can't possibly--”

         “Harry, really. I'm even pretty lucky. Parvati gets the most awful cramps, and Lavender gets the worst PMS I've ever seen.”

         Harry looked confused. “PM--?”

         “It's when women get all cranky once a month, Harry,”  said Ron. “It's 'cause of their period. That's what Seamus meant that time he said Pansy Parkinson was 'on the rag.' That tampon thing Hermione put in?”  At this, Hermione blushed vividly. “That's the rag.”

         “That's a thoroughly disgusting expression, Ronald!”  snapped Hermione. “And it devalues women to imply that when we're upset, it's just because--”

         “Hey, you're the one who brought up PMS! I'm just explaining--”

         “Well, don't use that expression!”

         “"So Harry's not supposed to know what it means, just because you find it offensive? And I suppose you never get cranky over your period!”

         Hermione's face was very red. “I don't!”

         “Why did you jump all over me, then?”  bellowed Ron.

         “Because you're a completely insensitive prat!”  shouted Hermione.

         Harry looked back and forth between the two with a growing smile, and they rounded on him.

         “What!?!?”  they roared at him, in unison.

         “I just realised why you two are always bickering.” Harry looked pointedly at Hermione's breasts. Her nipples were crinkled, erect as he'd only seen them after they'd been played with. As the renewed flush rose into her face, he angled his head at Ron's pants, which were tented. The two stared, for a moment, at the evidence of each other's arousal.

         They were silent for a moment, and then those ginger brows rose as Ron's face was split by a broad grin. “So, all those times when you stormed off up to your dorm...”

         “No!”  Her blush deepened. “Not... not all the times...”

         “Well, I'd offer to let you two be alone, but...” Harry snickered and wiggled his toes, which were brushing against their feet.

         Hermione's hand reached, her fingers slipping casually into the waistband of Harry's jeans and pulled him close. “I don't want you to leave us alone, Harry.”  She leaned over, lay her head on his shoulder. “I'd never want to settle for half of my heart.”

         Ron stepped closer, his arms wrapping around both of them. “Same here, mate. Same here.”

         They stood another moment like that, in their three-sided cuddle, Hermione naked, Ron in his underwear, Harry needing only to pull his shirt down, and then broke, and resumed dressing.

         Harry watched in fascination as Hermione stuck a pad into the crotch of her knickers, and glanced again at the barely visible string among her folds as she pulled the knickers up to cover them.

         “Amazing,” he breathed.

         “Boy!”  cried Vernon Dursley.

         Harry grinned at that. After Hermione's cheek to him, a week before, Uncle Vernon's coping mechanism had been to ignore her, and Ron as well, and treat Harry as if he were alone. It was such a pathetic, even ludicrous, little performance that Harry found it more amusing than annoying.

         The doorbell rang again, and Uncle Vernon bellowed “Answer the bloody door, boy!”

         Harry shrugged as he and his friends stepped away from the cabinet they were dusting, walked past Petunia, who was watching a bad American "Housewife with a disease"  movie on the telly, and past Vernon, who scowled into his cheap check-out-stand "Word-Search” puzzle book, in a sadly failed attempt to appear to appear both intellectual and above it all.

         “Portcullis,” Ron murmured to him, as they passed. Sure enough, while he made a great show of ignoring them, Vernon Dursley began poring more intently over the puzzle, looking for the word, and Ron winked at Harry, who suppressed a smile. He was pretty sure Vernon would never realise that Ron was just throwing out words at random.

         Harry opened the door, and was greeted by two identical ginger heads, two identical wicked smiles.

         “Well, there he is!” cried Fred.

         “The Boy Who Lived It Up!” added George.

         “Got to admire your inventiveness, Harry,” Fred added as they stepped inside.

         “I mean,” continued Fred, as if he'd been speaking all along, “most lads your age go through that phase--”

         “--Questing after sexual identity and all--”

         “--But leave it to The Chosen One not to choose! Brilliant!”

         Harry grinned at them. “You know,” he replied, conversationally, “I'm pretty sure I can kill the two of you and get away with it. See, on the one hand, Scrimgeour's counting on me to take care of this little Dark Lord problem he's got, and on the other, well, after Sirius, they're kind of gun-shy about imprisoning innocent people unjustly, and there's just no way to send me to Azkaban without bringing Ron and Hermione along for the ride.”

         The twins laughed, George reaching up to tousle Ron's hair while Fred squeezed Hermione's shoulder in greeting.

         "”Listen,” said George, “We've got a bit of a treat for you. How'd you like to go to a match?”

         “Quidditch?” asked Harry, already excited, and Ron's gaze, over his shoulder, turned attentive.

         “No,”  said Fred. “Quodpot.”

         Ron gasped. “The Travellers are back in country? Wicked!” He turned to Hermione. “The Travellers--”

         “Yes, Ronald, the New Amsterdam Travellers are an international Quodpot exhibition team founded in 1926 by the American wizard Giles Post. They started as a serious competitive team, but were in the habit, once they'd established a safe lead, of clowning to entertain themselves and the audience. By 1932, the comedy had taken over, and they began international exhibition play. Shall I continue?”

         Fred was staring at her with an almost-frightened, almost-awed expression.

         “Yeah.”  Ron grinned at him. “Welcome to my life.”

         Fred laughed, as George said, “They're playing in the memorial park in Chipping Ongar.”

         "Care to go see the match?"  finished Fred.

         The two boys looked eagerly at Hermione, who smiled indulgently. “Yes, dears,” she said, “we can go see the match.”

         The Portkey -- a ragged length of garden hose -- deposited them in a small, abandoned, decrepit building. The ceiling and roof were gone from one corner, the windows and doors were gone, and moss and ivy grew over most of the walls.

         “What's this?”  asked Ron, looking around.

         “The Americans had a base here, during the Muggle side of the Grindelwald War,”  said George.

         “Those Aeroplane things Dad's always on about,”  added Fred. “Angelina's Granddad on her Mother's side, the Muggle, told her they flew out of the fields here. He said it was quite a sight!”

         George smirked at him. “You realise that's the main reason Dad likes you two together so much. You get married, and he's got a Muggle in the family to tell him all this wonderful stuff.”

         Fred blushed mightily, and Ron laughed at him. “You're pretty damned potty for our Miss Johnson, aren't you, Fred?”

         “Well, who can blame him?” said George. “She's quite the bird, after all.”

         Ron shrugged over to Harry. “He's got a point, there, mate. Great set of legs on that girl.”

         “Oh, you don't have to tell me,”  said Harry. “I've played on that team with her for five years now!”

         Fred barked with laughter. “I was going to offer to hex your bollocks off, you two, but I think your own girl's going to beat me to it!”

         Harry and Ron turned to look at Hermione, who was glaring at them with hooded eyes.

         They two boys moved against her in a warm cuddle. “Come on, love,”  murmured Ron. “What's it matter where we get our appetites, as long as we eat at home?”

         Harry, Fred and George all winced, and Harry hurriedly muttered, “Please remember that I didn't say that, OK?”

         “You were perving over Angelina, too.”

         Harry looked at her for a long moment. “She's a beautiful girl, and an amazing athlete, and smart, and driven, and funny, and sexy as hell. And I've played on a team with her for five years.”  He brought a hand up to her face. “But she hasn't stuck with me through thick and thin. She hasn't stood by my side against chessmen and three-headed monsters and basilisks and Dementors and werewolves and dragons and death-eaters and Snape. She hasn't stood with me against Voldemort. Angelina's great, but I don't love her. I love you. We both do.”

         “Merlin!” cried Fred. “George, if you ever see me talk like that to Angelina, please, just put me out of your misery!”

         George laughed. “Can I go retroactive on that? 'Cause I think I owe you three or four A-Ks already.”

         Fred's sharp retort was cut off by a soft voice from the frameless rectangle that had once been the door. “There you are, love! Come on, what are you waiting for, I want you to meet the team.”  Angelina's deep brown skin shone in the greyish daylight from behind her as she glanced among them. “Hi, George. Hey, Harry. Ron, Hermione. You three managed to totally bugger next year's team, didn't you?”

         Harry shrugged guiltily, and she laughed.

         “Don't worry, Harry. You had plenty enough on your mind what with being dragged into eternity. I'm glad Hermione saved you even if you are no more use to the Gryffindor Quidditch team! Come on, then.”

         They followed her from the decaying building, and Fred said, “Love, tell what your Granddad told you about this place again?”

         “It was an airfield,”  she said breezily, leading them through the tall, swaying grass,  her Union Jack Quodpot robes fluttering out behind her. “The Americans flew bombers out of it during World Ward Two -- you know, the Grindelwald War. Great big Aeroplanes that carried bombs. They'd fly over to the continent and blow up Grindelwald's troops and equipment, and the Muggle factories that made supplies for his armies.”  She gestured back to the decrepit structure they'd arrived in. “That was what they called the Operations Block. It was where they got their instructions before missions, I think.”  She smiled back at them. “Granddad was a mechanic here. He worked on fixing the planes up after they got damaged on missions.”

         She reached a hand casually back, and Fred actually Apparated the eight feet or so needed to reach out and clasp it. Harry and Ron exchanged an amused glance while Hermione beamed.

         They approached a hedgerow, and Angelina and Fred turned behind it. The others followed, and suddenly they were in a crowd of wizards and witches, a few wearing pointed novelty hats decorated with a silhouette of the New York skyline overlaid on a fluttering field of Stars and Stripes, with tight formations of tiny broom-riders manoeuvring deftly around the cone. A couple of the youngsters looked at Angelina with wide eyes. She was wearing her Avalon All-Stars Union-Jack robes, and was obviously a “Real Player.” To the children in the crowd, that made her as much of a celebrity as Celestina Warbeck.

         Harry grinned again, enjoying Angelina's slightly proud, slightly abashed expression, when a flicker of violet elsewhere in the crowd caught his eye. He looked again, then smiled. Loping along through the milling crowd was Dedalus Diggle, resplendent in his violet suit and top hat, reminding Harry, a very little, of Willy Wonka, from that odd movie that Dudley seemed to have a love-hate relationship with when he was six or seven. Harry caught George's eye and gestured with his head.

         George nodded. “It's no co-incidence, Harry. The Order sent extra protection. Tonks is around somewhere, too.”

         “Maybe closer than you think,”  said an Elderly Chinese wizard walking near them, with a long moustache and beard. “Wotcher, guys!”

         They all grinned at her.

         “'Lo Tonks,” said Harry.

         “There's my boy,” she said quietly to him. “Looking forward to the match?”

         Harry smiled widely at her. “You bet! I've never seen Quodpot before! It sounds brilliant.”

         “Well, it certainly isn't Quidditch,” said Angelina, with a smile, “but it is really amazing. The Travellers are just stunning.”

         “Yeah,” said a pleasant, female, American-accented voice, behind them. “But, best of all, we're humble!”

         They turned to see a tall, willowy young woman, about Angelina's age, pale-skinned, with brown hair hanging around her head like a bell. She was wearing the “Stars and Stripes and New York Skyline” robes of the New Amsterdam Travellers, brightly coloured and smartly designed.

         “Lu!” said Angelina, with a smile, “This is Harry, Ron and Hermione!”

         “Wow!” said the young woman. “Harry Potter? And Ron Weasley?”

         Harry nodded slowly, biting his lip. As he grew older, as he saw people die because of the reason for it, he hated his fame more and more.

         “Wow,” said Lu, again, her eyes, startlingly blue, shining. “You two actually know Dean Thomas, then! I mean, you've roomed with him and everything!”

         Harry and Ron exchanged a puzzled glance.

         “Er-- Yeah!” said Ron. “We've roomed with Dean for five years, now!”

         “That's so cool!” said Lu. “Listen, when you see him, tell him Lu said hello! He's my hero!”

         “Dean?” asked Harry, feeling stupidly let -down not to be the subject of this woman's fascination.

         She smiled at him. “Yes! He's the one who taught me I could fly!”

         “Dean?” asked Ron. Thomas was a fine flier, but hardly seemed up to teaching a professional, especially one of the Travellers.

         “Yes!” she cried, enthusiastically. “We're Owl Pals, have been since he was eleven, and found out he was magical. We were part of a 'School of Arts' program. I was so afraid of flying then, I was in sixth grade, and I wouldn't even touch a broom if I could help it. And Dean used to write me about how he was afraid, too, but he'd concentrate on how beautiful each little moment was flying. The view, the wind. He'd send me these beautiful drawings. That's still how I fly. I don't think about how I can fall. I just think about the beauty of each individual moment.”

         The three Gryffindors looked amongst one another, smiling in pleased surprise. Harry grinned back at the Traveller, and extended a hand. “I'll be sure to tell him,” he said. “Dean will be pleased, I'm sure.”

         Lu smiled in response, and Angelina led the group around another hedgerow, and they were outside a stadium, far too tall to be concealed by a hedgerow. Harry grinned at his friends. However dire other parts of his life became, he never lost his appreciation for magic like that.

         Angelina opened a door, and ushered them inside. They made their way through a short tunnel, and into a small gymnasium, where all the members of both teams were getting in some warm-up exercises.

         They were quickly introduced around, Tonks' fannish gushing comically at odds with her “old Chinese man” appearance, and then ushered out to the All-Stars' bench to watch the game.

         The Umpire brought a single, smallish, cube-shaped trunk to the middle of the pitch, as Travellers and the All Stars took to the air and to their starting positions. A whistle blew, the trunk was opened, and the red-black Quod was ejected a hundred feet into the air, where Lu – the name on the back of her robes was “Nulet” – seemed almost to reach through Angelina to snatch it from between her closing hands.

         The game was amazing. Angelina's Avalon All Stars were formidable players, swift, professional and cunning, and anybody could see that they were playing full out. But the New Amsterdam Travellers made them look like they were standing still. Their feats of legerdemain were nothing less than astonishing. Lu in particular had a habitual game of holding onto the Quod for dangerously long periods of time, then forcefully handing it off to one of Angelina's team-mates just in time for it to explode, taking the hapless All Star out of the game.

         Another of the Travellers, a black man dressed like a Red Indian, played a complicated passing game with a team-mate wearing gaudily improbable sunglasses, occasionally bouncing the Quod off the back of one or another of the All Stars as they drove their way down-field.

         The trio laughed and clapped as they watched the game, Ron pointing out some of the subtler grace notes of the Travellers' performance to Hermione.

         As the game went on, however, the grey clouds began to lower, and a thick, cold mist began to seep into the pitch.

         Harry squeezed his eyes shut, feeling something in his head, something both strange and familiar, and the constant prickling of his scar began to intensify. He leaned over to the nearest Weasley twin.

         “George,” he said, “something's wrong.”

         “I'll say it is!” crowed George, happily, seeing months of brotherly ribbing in his future. “My brother's bird is getting her arse handed to her, at a broom-sport, no less, by Yanks!”

         “No, George.” Harry raised his voice. “I'm serious.”

         “No you're not!” cried Fred to him. “He's much taller, and deeply hung-over!”

         But George put a hand on his arm, stilling him. “Something's really wrong, Fred.”

         And just like that, their faces were both grim as they started methodically scanning in all directions for a threat.

         Harry winced, and touched his forehead, and Hermione leaned over to him from the other side, taking his hand.

         “Harry, what is it? Your scar?”

         “Yes. No.” Harry squeezed his eyes shut, then slit them open. “I'm feeling something in my scar, but it's not like when Riddle's on the move. It's... familiar, though.”

         The fog lowered and thickened, and suddenly there were screams, and Fred and George and Tonks were grabbing the three teenagers, dragging them back through the training room, through the tunnel, and back out among the hedgerows. Even as they burst out from the Players' entrance, the gates flew open, and the entire crowd seemed to be pouring out of them in a great, screaming throng.

         Tonks pointed them towards the woods. “Run! Run for the woods! We'll send for someone to pick you up!

         Harry blinked back at her, confused, and saw, over her shoulder, dozens of ragged black shapes descending out of the fog. Dementors!

         His wand was out in a minute, pointing at the fearsome dark wraiths, but Fred grabbed his arm, pulling it down. “No, Harry! You're too well known! If Prongs is seen here, there'll be a bloodbath!”

         George grabbed Ron's shoulder. “You're the strategist! Keep his head on straight. Get into the woods, the three of you! Now!

         Ron nodded, exchanging a glance with Harry, and then Hermione and they ran, full-tilt, for the distant line of woods. Harry spared a glance over his shoulder, and saw the Twins and Tonks forming a defensive line. The twins aimed their wands, and Harry saw twin silver squirrels spring from the tips. What he saw next would play itself back in his head during the night, as his brain tried – and failed – to make sense of it.

         The two glowing silver squirrels streaked in all directions, zigzagging, seemingly at random, charging in front of stampeding people...

         Yet everywhere they went, they'd leap up impossibly and grab a Dementor, which would scream and flail, an eerie sound of metal scraping on rusty metal, and flee back into the clouds. The twins' small, hyper-kinetic Patronuses – somehow he was sure Hermione would have said “Patroni” -- were everywhere at once, and fully half the Dementors were being driven back.

         But half were still advancing on the crowds. Ron grabbed Harry's shoulder, jerked him around. “Come on, mate! We're not ready for this, not stuck together like this! We can learn the combat moves, but for now we're sitting ducks. Now, come on!

         As they crossed the tree line, and ran deeper in among the trunks and boughs, Harry risked another look back. Through the leaves and branches he saw fluttering black shapes, glints of fast moving silver, a brief impression of violet.

         Then they were in the forest and running, ducking and weaving in and out amongst the trees. They ran as long as they could, perhaps a half-hour, until Hermione's stamina – she'd never been the athlete her boys were – ran out, and they sat together at the base of a tree, panting and gasping.

         Harry turned to Ron. “Now... what...?”

         Ron shook his head, gulping air as he looked down at their feet. They were all wearing sandals, giving them bare skin at their feet to keep contact with. “If I knew... we'd be running... for our lives... in the forest... fucking primeval... I'd've said... trainers!

         Hermione was leaning her head back against the tree trunk, her eyes squeezed shut, her mouth gaping wide, dragging in deep, gasping breaths.

         “Alright, there... Love?” Ron asked her.

         She flailed her hand blindly in his direction, found his arm, and gave it a squeeze.

         “Was that an I'm OK squeeze? Or an Oh, fuck, I'm dying squeeze.”

         A sound that might have been a chuckle escaped with her next gasp, and she flailed again, apparently attempting to smack his arm.

         They sprawled there for a while, panting and gasping, feeling their hearts pounding like timpani in their chests

         Finally, Ron said, his tone almost normal, “You seem to be getting stronger, Harry.”

         “What d'you mean?” Harry asked.

         “The Dem--” Hermione wheezed. “He means the Dementors. You didn't collapse.”

         Harry looked stunned. “Hell, I didn't, did I?”

         “I think it's Nup--” gasped Hermione. “I think it's Nupial-- I think it's Nuptialis Unum!” She pulled in another breath. “It's what-- Professor Dumbledore-- Told you-- Harry.” Another gasp. “we're stronger together-- than apart!” There was another moment's labored breathing. “I know this seems-- pathetic to you two--” she gasped, “but I'd never-- have made it-- half this far-- before.”

         It was another ten minutes before Hermione's breathing had settled down enough for her to stand and continue, and Ron pointed. “I think we should march deeper into the woods. As far in as we can. These aren't magical woods, there's just Muggle rubbish in here like snakes and that.”

         “A poisonous snake could kill any of us quite dead without resorting to the least bit of Magic, Ron.”

         “Yeah, well, so could a Death Eater casting Avada Kedavra, and I fancy our chances against the snake a bit better.” He grinned. “I hear they're rubbish with a wand, and the only spell they know is SSSssssss!”

         “That's disgusting, Ron!” cried Harry, wrinkling up his face.

         Hermione chuckled. “Ron, that was truly awful.”

         “It's my second line of defense. If we get Death Eaters instead of snakes, I'll tell 'em my favourite jokes until they run away.”

         “Merlin, Ron!” scolded Harry. “You can't do that! They are human, after all!”

         “Oh, you're a right funny man, you are, Harry,” deadpanned Ron. He pointed again. “Come on, now, this way, I think. We'll just keep going.”

         They marched now, letting Hermione set the pace. The woods deepened and the occasional glimpses of sky darkened, and still they trudged on, stopping to rest for a few minutes every hour.

         Eventually, it was too dark to move safely, and Ron called a halt for the night. They chose a fairly flat area under a tree, and then moved off about thirty yards.

         Harry magically dug a hole, and Hermione transfigured a rock into a crude wooden toilet-bench over it, and they defecated, one by one, Ron making crude jokes, punctuated by the soft sounds of the product hitting the bottom of the hole. Then they tergeo'ed one another's backsides, and filled in the hole again before returning to their flat spot, which they piled with leaves and grass.

         Ron cast some simple wards, to awaken them if anything bigger than a squirrel approached, and they lay on their leafy, grassy mattress, listening to the woodland sounds around them.

         “Are you afraid?” Hermione asked aloud, after a few minutes.

         The boys were silent for a long moment, then Harry said, “No. I was, but I started doing what Lu told us about. What Dean told her. Now, I'm just thinking how lovely the woods are. And how lucky I am to be here in them with the two of you.”

         Hermione sighed. “Yes,” she said. “The beauty of the moment.”

         She snuggled her boys closer to her in the dark forest, kissed each of them, softly, gently, and lay her head back, feeling their warm bodies and strong arms around her. She was still smiling contentedly when she drifted off to sleep.

         They were awakened in the opalescence of dawn by the shriek of Ron's wards falling.

         “Well, well, well,” said a quiet voice. “It looks like the fool was right after all.”

         The man who stood over them was stocky, lumpy, with a lopsided, leering grin. “The Dark Lord will be well pleased, when I bring him back your bodies.” The leer broadened obscenely. “Amycus Carrow, not Lucius Malfoy, will sit on his Left Hand.” he straightened his wand arm. “Avada--

         The sound of the boarhound's bark was quite close, and the fist that met the side of Carrow's head was as large as the head itself. It seemed to the three teens – and later examination of the memory in a Pensieve would prove this impression correct – that the Death Eater's entire head was forced almost a foot directly to his left. The sound of his neck snapping was loud in the pre-dawn woods. 

         The three teens scrambled to their feet, and Hagrid turned to them. “Come on, you lot, the Portkey's over here. We'll have you back teh Little Whinging in two shakes. All hell's broke loose. There was attacks on four places yesterday, all very public. Yeh-know-who trying to draw out Order members.” His face was red. “The ruddy Dementors got Diggle. Tha's how this'n” --he gestured to the body of Amycus Carrow-- “came t'find yeh. Diggle saw you head inna the woods. Anyway, 'Ermione, 'ave no fear, Diggle didn' know yer folks was a' th' Burrow. Nobody was hurt when the Death Eaters destroyed yer house, and Dumbledore's meeting wi' yer parents righ' now, t'decide if they're alive er dead.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve: “He Who Really Ought To be Named!”

            David Granger regarded Professor Dumbledore with grim, but genuine, amusement. “So, what you're telling me,” he said, “is that we're better off dead?”

            Dumbledore returned his smile. “His madness extends quite a long way,” the ancient wizard allowed, “but in this, at least, Tom is quite sane: He expends no energy on slaying the slain. If we allow him to believe that he has killed you, that his Death Eaters succeeded, he will give it no more thought.”

            Kingsley Shacklebolt nodded, the flickering light from the lanterns in the Burrow's living room highlighting his smooth, brown pate. “We've already got a safe house for you. A retired Auror in Australia has set it up. Tonks and Moody are standing by right now. It'll be less than a minute's work to get two sides of beef and transfigure them into, er...”

            Jane smiled at him. “Our corpses?”

            Shacklebolt actually seemed to blush. “Well, er... Yes. As far as Riddle will know, he'll have killed you, and you'll be as safe as, well, as any other Muggles in Australia. There's no question about it. This would be the best thing for you.”

            “But,” said David, “Would it be the best thing?”

            “He just said--” began Moody, but Jane gently interrupted him:

            “That it would be best for us. What David wants, what we both want to know is, would this be the best thing-- Full Stop.”

            Remus and Sirius, both wearing that slightly-too-aware look that comes from a really strong hangover potion, exchanged an approving glance.

            David leaned forward. “Exactly. I'm thinking about Riddle, about how he'll react, and what reaction gets him closer to defeat. I'm not sure it's best if he gets the satisfaction of having killed us, and re-asserted his authority. Isn't it better if he – and the rest of your folk – know he's tried and failed? If I read him right, he'll occupy himself with us, but we don't matter, really, do we?”

            “Of course you matter!” said Dumbledore, quite seriously. “You matter a very great deal.”

            “Well, that's very sweet, Albus,” said Jane, patting his hand, “but you know it's not true, not strategically. If Riddle's concentrating his efforts on a strategically worthless target, well, that gives you an opportunity to steal a march on him, doesn't it?” David was nodding as she spoke, holding her hand in his own.

            “Doctor Granger,” said Shacklebolt, then corrected himself, “Doctors Granger, this is not your war.”

            “The hell it isn't!” said David, quietly. “That's our daughter, standing there in the trenches!” He leaned forward, his voice deep and serious. “And anyway, sooner or later, this war comes to my doorstep anyway, doesn't it? Even if Hermione'd never got that letter, if instead of Muggle-born, she was just another Muggle, I'd still have to defend her from Riddle eventually, wouldn't I?”

            “And beyond all that,” added Jane, “it's the Good Fight, and that makes it our fight. Otherwise, what are we? I won't be someone who lets evil thrive because it doesn't happen to be our problem. We won't be those people.”

            David nodded firmly. “Now, I want you to tell me the truth. Are you better off if Riddle thinks he's killed us? Or if he's mad as hell that he hasn't? Is this Order of yours better off?”

            “Well...” Remus Lupin's voice was slow, almost reluctant. “If there's one thing I've learned, over and over again – and I taught it to your daughter in third year – it's that an angry foe is a stupid foe.” He chuckled in memory. “Actually, now I think about it, I didn't really teach her that lesson. She knew more about it than I did.” His voice became a gentle imitation of hers. “The human brain is layered, like an onion, and those layers are a map of our evolution. Each layer, as you work your way inward, is more primitive then the ones outside it, and very near the center is the R-Complex, the Reptile brain. That is the seat of aggression, territoriality and anger. When we get angry, it's like the higher levels of our brain shut down, and we think like lizards.

            The Grangers grinned at him. “D'you know she wrote to us about that class?” asked David. “She was so proud, because you were truly interested in what she was saying.”

            Jane put a hand on his. “So the question is, by surviving the attack, can we make Riddle angry enough to make stupid mistakes? And if so, isn't that something worth taking a chance on?”

            “And, for that matter,” said David, with a singularly nasty grin, “just how angry can we make him?”

            Sirius sat forward in his seat as Shacklebolt's eyes widened. “You're talking about winding him up?” Sirius asked. “I like the way you think!”

            “I don't,” said Remus. “The risk--”

            “Is ours to take,” said David, firmly, and Jane nodded fiercely, holding his hand.

            “Now, what can we do,” asked Jane, “to really piss him off?”


A Daily Prophet Exclusive

By Barnabas Cuffe, Editor

            Editor's Note: I was faced, in this interview, with a serious dilemma: The Dark Lord's motivations for his attack are rooted in the use of his name. It has been the practice of this newspaper not to print that name, as it is likely to prove upsetting to our readers. Without doing so, however, this interview would become both incomprehensible and pointless. My decision was to print the name in full where the Grangers and others in this story used it. I wish to emphasize to any who may be reading that this was my decision, and mine alone. I and I alone can be held to account for it.

            It has been revealed that Doctors David and Jane Granger, of London, Muggle parents of controversial young witch Hermione Granger – who, the alert reader will recall, is a longtime friend and companion of Harry Potter, sometimes known as The Chosen One – were the targets of a failed attack late yesterday by Death Eaters.

            This attack against specific Muggle targets was an unusual one from an organization whose targets have primarily been related to political power in the magical community. The Prophet has learned, however, that highly -placed sources have strong reason to believe that this attack was carried out on the direct orders of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, himself!

            His motivation for this targeted attack against Muggles has also been revealed, in an interview with the intended victims, conducted by this reporter, in my position as Editor of the Prophet.

            “It was because we call him by his name,” Jane Granger revealed, in an exclusive interview with the Prophet. “We know that many wizards insist on calling him 'You Know Who,' and only the very brave, like Harry Potter, would call him Voldemort. But even calling him Voldemort is giving him too much power! Harry Potter told our daughter where the name came from: 'I Am Lord Voldemort' is really just an anagram of his true name, Tom Marvolo Riddle.”

            David Granger quickly agreed. “Voldemort is just an impressive name he made up for himself, a way to make himself feel powerful. It's all rather pathetic, really, isn't it? I mean, when I was a little boy, I used to pretend I was Dan Dare, or the Green Lantern (fictional Muggle children’s heroes, - Ed.) but I grew out of it. Riddle has not only kept his 'Super Powered Secret Identity,' as my wife calls it, but he's intimidated the Wizarding World into being frightened of it.”

            “And, honestly,” Jane Granger added, “It's such a childish way to make a name! I suppose we're lucky he isn't Mad Liver Root Mold, or A Dim Lord Over Molt!”

            Her husband was quick to join in the game. “Dim Tom, A Lord-Lover? A Vomited Dorm Roll?”

            “It's really, in the end, just very pathetic and sad,” Jane Granger concluded. “There's no question that he's a brilliant and very powerful wizard. But what he is in the end is a sad, pathetic, frightened old man.”

            “Really,” added David Granger, “it's all about fear. Riddle is old, and so afraid to die that he's traded away his humanity to avoid it. Now he's a sad, freakish monster, not human at all, casting about desperately to preserve his life, even at the cost of any possible reason to live. He has no love, no goals, nothing but his craven fear of a Rubicon we'll all eventually cross. It's just... pointless.”

            The Grangers are clearly aware of the danger He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named represents to them, and are currently in hiding. “Certainly, he's dangerous,” said David Granger. “We'd be fools to simply stay visible and wait for him. But we'd be even more foolish to let that common-sense caution be mistaken for fear or respect.”

            His wife agrees with this position. “Any common street-thug is dangerous, and so is Riddle. You need only look at the remains of our home to see that. But that only emphasizes what a sad, pathetic little man he is! Riddle, cowering somewhere in his make-believe Secret Headquarters, while he sends a squad of thugs to try – and fail! – to kill a couple of dentists! Honestly, how sad is that?”

            As little respect as the Grangers have for the Dark Lord, their open contempt for the Death Eaters is greater still. “The stupidity and hypocrisy of these 'Death Eaters' – and, really, what kind of a silly name is that? – is honestly pretty stunning. They march under some banner of Wizarding Purity – which anyone can see is idiocy at the outset – and fall all over themselves to curry favor with this half-blood, Riddle,” said David Granger.

            “And honestly,” Jane Granger agreed, “What is this Pure-Blood superiority nonsense they spout? Have they not heard of Hybrid Vigor? Of inbreeding? The magical population is far too small to be independently self-sustaining. You'd get all manner of birth defects, deformities, and mental retardation. And you need only meet our daughter to know that the notion that pure-blood wizards are somehow superior is simply fatuous. Neither David nor myself has any magical ancestors, and yet our daughter is, according to every source I've encountered, the most powerful and proficient witch in her class, and possibly the entire Hogwarts student body.”

            While it may sound like the boast of proud parents, this claim does seem to be borne out. According to Fred and George Weasley, pure-blood entrepreneurs whose new shop, “Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes,” has been one of the very few success stories in Diagon Alley this year, tell the Prophet, “She was easily more talented than either of us, and that's saying quite a lot. If her imagination was bent in the directions ours are, well, we couldn't hope to compete.”

            Hogwarts Deputy Headmistress, Minerva McGonagall, told the Prophet, “I cannot, of course, divulge student records or grades to the press. But I can and will tell you that Miss Granger is a vastly talented and intelligent witch, frequently doing extra credit work years in advance of her class level, and I would be hard-pressed to remember another student who was so intelligent, talented, or powerful.”

            Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, perhaps the greatest wizard of our time, does remember just one equally talented wizard. “Young Tom Riddle,” he said, “showed every bit as much talent and promise. A teacher ought not, perhaps, select favorites among his students, but I will say that I greatly prefer Miss Granger. More to the point, though, of Doctor Granger's comment, I will point out that young Tom was and remains a half-blood.”

            The Prophet has learned that the Dark Lord's rage toward the Grangers is not merely because of their insistence on calling him by his birth-name, but because they have convinced many prominent Witches and Wizards to do the same.

            Said Sirius Black, The-Man-Who-Came-Back, who has resisted the Dark Lord for nearly twenty years, in the face of much misunderstanding, condemnation, and over a decade of false imprisonment,  “Jane Granger's insight was amazing. I was there when she pointed it out to Albus Dumbledore, and, quite frankly, as soon as she said it, I was disgusted with myself. All these years of feeling quite brave for daring to speak the name 'Voldemort' and it was, as she put it, a double-bluff. We were still paying him homage with that overblown pseudonym! He's not a Lord, dark or otherwise. He's just an old man named Tom Riddle who's so afraid of dying that he's mutilated himself to prevent it.”

            This determination to call You-Know-Who by his given, rather than chosen, name has spread widely among those who oppose him. The Prophet interviewed more than a dozen others, who requested anonymity in order to maintain their effectiveness in the resistance against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and each of them voiced support and approval for the Grangers' position.

            “Jane Granger's courage and insight are amazing,” said one, a middle-aged woman. “I lost both of my brothers in the last war against Riddle. I will always be grateful to Jane for helping me see that he isn't some unstoppable monster. He's just a pathetic, self-hating, cowardly little man. And we will put a stop to him.”

            Another who went on the record was retired Auror Alastor Moody, who continues to fight the Dark Lard's forces in the face of many grievous injuries suffered in past battles against his minions. “Dr. Granger's a great lady. She's as brave as they come and smart as a whip, and she immediately saw through Riddle's sorry little ploy. I'm as proud to stand beside her and her husband as I am to stand with Albus Dumbledore. It's courage and wisdom like theirs that we need if we're going to get Riddle to overcome his cowardice and face his fear like a man should.”

            “The Grangers,” said Albus Dumbledore, “are an example to us all. I, and many others, have pledged our lives to their protection.  For each of us owes an enormous debt to the man and woman who reminded us all that we are fighting, not a fearsome Lord named Voldemort, but a frightened old man named Tom Marvolo Riddle. And reminded us that we are already half-way to winning, when we simply refuse to be afraid of him.”

            “Oh my God.” Harry's voice was very quiet, and the awed tone rendered his words something closer to prayer than exclamation. He looked first to Ron, whose cobalt eyes were locked on Hermione, his lower lip pulled between his teeth, before turning to look at her himself.

            Her face was pale, her knuckles white, hands trembling where she gripped the newsparchment. Her lower lip, like Ron's, was pulled into her mouth, but unlike Ron she was biting, hard, her jaw-muscles trembling, and as Harry watched, a drop of blood appeared at the edge of one biting tooth. Ron's wand was already in motion as Harry reached a hand for her, stroking her cheek, and murmured her name.

            Suddenly there was a loud SNAP! as the Prophet split between her shaking fists, and Ron was murmuring the healing spell they'd learned two weeks before in their session with Madame Pomfrey, closing the new wound in her lower lip even as she let out her inarticulate sound of anger and fear. She dropped the sundered halves of the Prophet and squeezed her eyes shut, as a trembling shudder rolled through her. She drew in a deep breath, then turned to her right.

            “Thank you, Ron,” she said, very softly, and leaned over to kiss him tenderly. Then she turned to her left. “Harry,” she asked, her voice still soft and modulated, “may I borrow your mirror, please?”

            Harry reached into his pocket and drew out the mirror Sirius had given him, handing it to Hermione.

            “Thank you,” she told him, and then addressed the mirror. “Sirius? Sirius, are you there?”

            Harry moved against her, wrapped his right arm around her. The muscles in her back were rigid, like they'd been sculpted of spring steel and bent into position, resisting their shape with a palpable quiver. He felt Ron's arm sliding across her just below his, squeezing her gently, and her eyes closed for a moment as the glass in her hand fogged.

            The fog cleared again, and he could see Sirius' face was looking out of the mirror at Hermione.

            His smile was warm and serious, his voice tender. “Hello, Clever Boots.”

            Hermione's voice held a structure, intricate and powerful, somehow fragile, like an award-winning ice-sculpture. “Hello, Sirius. I wonder... I wonder if I might speak with my parents.”

            Sirius looked down, his eyes darkening. “I'm sorry, Hermione...”

            “You're sorry??

            Sirius Black drew a breath. “They're gone. They left by Portkey as soon as Cuffe left the room. They're in a safe house.”

            “I want to see them,” said Hermione.

            “I'm sorry, it's impossible. There's too much chance of the three of you being traced. They're in a safe house in Australia, and Flooing or Portkeying over those distances leaves traces. The danger from Riddle is too great.”

            “I don't—” she began, more heatedly, cracks beginning to spider web crazily across the icy surface of her composure, but Sirius cut her off.

            “The danger isn't just to you, Hermione, or your parents, or even their hosts. It could connect them directly with the Burrow – to Arthur and Molly and Ginny. You can't, Hermione. I'm sorry.”

            She was shaking in earnest now and Harry and Ron were rubbing slow circles on her back. With his other hand, Harry reached for hers as Ron took the mirror with his free hand, holding it up for her.

            Hermione's voice, when she spoke again, was tiny, choked and hoarse. “They didn't... they didn't even say... say good-bye!”

            Now Sirius smiled again, warm and reassuring. “Oh, they did, Clever Boots, they did. You'll see next week, when you arrive at the Burrow. You'll see on Harry's birthday. In the meantime, well... They love you very much, Hermione. And they miss you already.”

            Hermione stared into the mirror at him for a long, long moment. Her face turned an alarming shade of red, and Harry felt the muscles in her back harden, quivering. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, her jaw muscles clenching – Harry could actually hear her teeth grinding within her closed mouth – and then said, vary softly, “Thank you, Sirius.”

            She took the mirror from Ron, and handed it to Harry, who saw his godfather's eyes widen in concern, heard the beginning of an exclamation -- “Oh, Bugg--” as the glass clouded again.

            Hermione's voice was quiet and brittle as she said, “Thank you, Harry.”

            They sat together for a moment, side-by-side on the king-sized bed, gazing ahead of them at the shabby, ugly wallpaper.

            Harry's hand continued to stroke her back, feeling the awful tension, as Ron's fingers followed lower circles, between her lumbar region and her bum.

            “I'm sorry, love,” Harry told her quietly.

            The crack of Apparition was very loud in the quiet of their bedroom.

            “Keeping a stiff upper for us then, Clever Boots?” asked Sirius, his voice bright and jovial.

            She spun toward him. “I can't believe you Apparated directly into our bedroom!”

            “Why-ever not?” asked Sirius, grinning just a bit too widely.

            “Why not?” She rose and stalked toward him, bringing Harry and Ron following nervously behind her. The muscles in her back were coiled under their fingers. “There's such a thing as privacy, Sirius! And respect!” She was right in his face now, as he smirked down at her, and Harry and Ron exchanged a nervous glance behind her back. “Suppose I was undressing!”

            “Nothing I haven't seen before, Clever Boots,” he said, and she hauled an arm back and slapped him, hard, across the face.

            Sirius' head rocked back, and he seemed to be blinking stars from his vision, before he focused on her again, and said, “Is that the best you've got?”

            She shrieked, and suddenly she was on him, pounding at his chest and face with her fists. Ron and Harry grabbed hold of her, tried to pull her back, but Sirius caught Harry's eye, shook his head urgently, and understanding flooded him. He released her arm, and she began flailing and screaming at Sirius again, as Harry reached for Ron's shoulder, and with that clasp and a gesture of Harry's head, the freckled fingers turned loose, and she brought that hand into play as well, slapping and punching and she screamed.

            Her shrieks gradually gained coherency, words like “Inconsiderate,” and “Inappropriate” and “Smug” and “Disrespectful” surfacing amidst the inarticulate cries, and all along, Sirius just stood, taking it, until suddenly she screamed, “They didn't even talk to me! They didn't even talk!

            And Sirius suddenly stepped against her, his strong arms wrapping around her, and he stroked her hair, crooning, “You cry, Clever Boots, that's all right. You cry.”

            The sobs shook her now as her rage had, and Harry and Ron were there to hold her. Sirius started to back away, but Ron grasped his wrist, pulling him back, and they held the small form of Hermione between them, and stroked her and petted her as she cried.

            Finally, she looked up at Sirius with bloodshot eyes, and said, “Why, Sirius? Why didn't they talk to me?”

            “Because it wasn't your decision, Hermione,” he said quietly. “They didn't talk to you for the same reason you didn't talk to them before going into the Department of Mysteries. Because they had to do what was right, and not waste time in the process. Within an hour of Hagrid finding you, we had Cuffe in the living room of a safe house in Derbyshire, talking to your parents. Within an hour after that, they were in Australia.”

            “I'm so afraid for them!”

            “I know, Clever Boots.” Sirius leaned down, and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I know you are. They're afraid for you, too. But they know you have to do what's right, and they knew that they did, too. How could your parents look you in the eye again, if they shrank from a fight you're leading?”

            “But they could be killed! I just want them to be safe! I want them to live!”

            Ron reached over and stroked her hair. “They want that for you, too, love,” he told her. “Merlin knows, it kills me, the risks you take with us. But they respect you, don't they, to do what's right, even though it scares the shit out of them.”

            The sound she made was as much a laugh as a sob, and she whined into Sirius' chest, “But I want to be a hypocrite!”

            “You want to be a Hippogriff?” Sirius asked with a dangerous chuckle.

            She looked up at him, eyes fierce but a hint of a smile playing with the corners of her mouth. “If you're working on a joke about riding--”

            “I want to live!” Sirius cried, his hands in the air, and she laughed again, quietly but genuinely.

            Sirius dropped to his knees, to bring his face to her level, and looked very tenderly into her eyes.

            “You're all right now?” he asked, reaching up with two fingers brush her hair back away from her face.

            She smiled and nodded. “Yes, Sirius. Thank you. I needed that.”

            He stroked a hand through her hair again as he stood, and pressed a kiss into the crown of her head.

            His smile included all of them, but focused again on Hermione, and, with a rakish wink and a loud Pop! of Disapparation, he was gone.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen: Matters of Life and Death


        Harry arched back in the bed, eyes clenched, teeth grinding together, his body as taut as an archer's bow, his fists gathering in handfuls of bed sheet. The long, low sound that escaped him was simultaneously quiet and forceful. Ron and Hermione were awake in a moment, snuggling up against him, Ron brushing his fringe off his forehead while Hermione rubbed, gently, inanely, along his belly.

        They rode out the wave for a long, an eternal moment, then Harry collapsed again on the bed, and brought his hand up to his forehead, groaning.

        “Oh, Harry!” cried Hermione. “Your scar!”

        She gently moved his hand away, and placed a tender kiss on the hot, livid scar, and Harry groaned again, this time, not without some relief. Ron was gently rubbing his chest, his lips close against Harry's ear, as he murmured, “All right, there, mate. You're not him, you're not there, you're you, and you're here, with us...”

        Harry's eyes closed and the tension seemed to drain out of him, only for another kind of tension to arise. His green eyes opened, and a humourless smile slowly appeared.

        “Guess who just read his evening paper,” he said.

        Ron lay back, eyes closed, listening to the sound of Harry's oddly dainty snores, and to Hermione's breathing, deep and even.

        He felt her shifting against his side, and felt himself smirking.

        “I know you're awake,” he murmured.

        “I'm sorry, Ron.” Her voice was a bare suggestion as she rolled toward him. “Did I wake you?”

        “No, love.” Ron rolled to face her, leaned into her for an unhurried kiss. “I was just... thinking. Thinking how quick your life can change. For bad, or...” he reached a hand up to caress her face, her neck, her breast. “For good.”

        Her breath left her in a sigh. “Oh, God, Ron.” She moved against him, kissing him again. “Do you have any idea how much I love your hands on me?” She took hold of his wrist, slid his hand over her breast, her side, and down to tuck under the t-shirt, this one Harry's, that she had worn to bed, and onto her bare bum. “Touch me, Ron.”

        His smile was a warm shadow in the dark. “Bossy.”

        But his hand slid gently over the curves of her bare bottom, drinking in the velvety softness of her flesh, the warmth of her skin.

        A groan shuddered out of her. “Oh, God, Ron, I want you so much. I want you both so much.” Her hand snaked down into his boxers, curled around his stiffening cock. “I love to touch you like this, but I want so much more than that, now. I want to taste you again, have you in my mouth. And I want to shag you something awful!”

        “Merlin, Hermione!” Ron leaned forward to suck and nip at her neck a bit. “You're killing me!”

        She took a breath. “Oh, God, Ron, listen to me! I'm a whore, Ron! I just want you inside me so badly. I never thought I'd ever talk like this to anyone, but here I am, telling you I want to be fucked, and fucked hard! And by both of you! Two boys, together!”

        Her hand moved on him, and he groaned again.

        “And, do you know what I love, Ron? I love that I can tell you how much I want Harry to fuck me. I love that you aren't upset about that. You used to be so jealous!”

        “Can't be jealous of Harry, love,” he breathed. “He's my mate. And he loves you; I know what that's like. The way I love you, the way I want you, how could I blame him? And how could I blame you?”

        Her hand quickened on him again, and she smiled at his groan of pleasure. “Unbelievable,” she murmured.

        “You are,” he moaned into the silence.

        She smiled indulgently and kissed him. “Thank you, love, but that wasn't what I meant. I was remembering that first day. The bath. You and Harry holding me, and how afraid I was of this.” She jiggled his erection as she stroked it. “This wonderful, happy friendly thing! It scared me so much, Ron!”

        Ron's voice was husky. “You don't seem scared of it now.”

        “Scared of it?” There was humour in Hermione's voice. “Oh, no, Ron. I'm hungry for it! I crave it. I love to feel it in my hand, Ron, and I want to feel it inside me. It's so stout and jolly, and I want to feel it pushing into me. And Harry's, Ron! Harry's, so straight and slender, I love it in my hand, the way it feels, so elegant and sleek, and oh, God, what it will be like probing into me, straight as a lance!”

        Ron's groans were louder now. “Oh, Godric, Hermione, I don't know what I want more! To fuck you myself, or to see what you're like together! I've known how you feel around my fingers, and oh, Sweet Rowena's Cunt, I've imagined how you'll feel around my cock! But, God, the two best things in my world, Hermione? They're your face and Harry's when you're coming. That's so fucking amazing just wanking, I think I may come all over the two of you just watching you fuck!”

        His fingers were reaching for her center, but she shook her head. “No, Ron, just let me please you. I don't feel right, being touched down there during my period. I don't feel clean.”

        “We know cleaning charms, love,” said Harry's voice, and he was against her back, his erection pressed up towards his belly, the length of it nestling between the cheeks of her arse.

        “Sorry mate, did we wake you?”

        There was laughter in Harry's voice as his hand slid across Hermione's hip, and down through the nest of curls. “You're shaking the bed.”

        “Sorry, Harry,” Ron said, as Hermione squirmed and murmured, “Harry, please, don't. I know it's irrational, but I just don't feel right.”

        “All right, love,” Harry replied, his hand sliding up her belly, under her – his – t-shirt. “Your tits are still on-sides, right?”

        She giggled as he nuzzled under her ear, then gasped as his fingers found her nipples. “Oh, God, yes, Harry, they're entirely in-bounds!”

        At the sound of her groan, Ron came messily under the sheet onto her belly and chest. She dragged her fingertips through the puddle on the sheet, and brought them to her lips.

        Harry moaned and thrust his cock up between her cheeks, the head sliding against the small of her back, as she licked her fingers clean and then reached up to the headboard of the bed to recover her wand.

        The cleaning charm was quick and quiet, and she kissed Ron again as she moved a bit more toward him, then rolled onto her back to grasp Harry's freed erection and begin to stroke, kissing him with a fierce tenderness.

        “So, how much did you hear, mate?” asked Ron with a smile. “Did you hear our love here craving your sleek, elegant willie?”

        “Uh-huh.” Harry's voice was distracted as he broke the kiss. “I'll tell you this, though, Ron, she doesn't want it any more than I want to feel her soft, warm fanny squeezing it as I slide into her.”

        Hermione groaned as she pumped at him, and Ron's hand joined Harry's on her breasts.

        “Yeah, it's a hell of a thought, mate, isn't it? I think her eyes will go all dark and narrow, and she'll pull her lip between her teeth, you know that adorable thing she does, when she's really concentrating?”

        “Oh, fuck, yeah,” said Harry, as Hermione's breath hitched under their fingers. Ron let his fingers surround her breast, moved it, feeling the weight of it in his palm as his thumb stropped languidly across her nipple.

        “And then she'll set her shoulders back in the bed, won't she?” said Ron, “And bring her hips up to meet you. And she'll say harder and faster and like that, 'cause she's a little bossy-boots is our Hermione!”

        “You better believe it,” she growled, and nipped at Harry's jawline with her teeth.

        “Oh, an' Harry,” Ron finished. “Think how she'll squeeze you when she comes!”

        “Fuck, Ron!” Harry grunted, and ejaculated, a long, forceful, juddering orgasm that undid Hermione's cleaning charm and then some.

        As she had before, she scooped some of the jism onto her fingers, and sucked those fingers into her mouth, and Ron licked his lips and groaned against her neck.

        Again she brought her wand down, and cleaned up after her lover, then she lay on her back, concentrating for a moment, and cast another cleaning charm, quieter, gentler, on her own crotch. She snaked he arms under and around her boys, and looked back and forth between them with a wicked grin.

        “I still don't feel clean,” she said, and her voice held an edge of desperation. “But you know what they say. It's only dirty if you do it right!”

        Harry and Ron smirked at each other across her sweaty form in the dark, and as one, their hands and mouths moved to her.


        It looked like a naked, blue-grey man with a television instead of a head.

        Harry and Ron exchanged a wary glance, but Hermione was moving forward, bringing them with her. She looked over at Madam Pomfrey. “How long will it last?”

        “About four hours,” Poppy Pomfrey replied. She looked at her young apprentices. “Now, it's terribly important that you remember: This is not a living thing. It has nerves and veins and muscles and bones and cartilage and blood, but it is not alive. It has a heart but no soul. It has no brain at all. It cannot feel pain!

        She walked a slow circle around the three teen-agers. “It is designed to respond as if it feels, but this is mere sleight of magic. You will see indicators in this screen that will show heart rate, respiration, blood -pressure, temperature, and yes, the levels of pain that a living thing would be feeling. But this is not a living thing, and it feels nothing! Do you all understand me?”

        “Oh, I know all about training homunculi, Madam Pomfrey!” enthused Hermione. “I've read about them! I just hadn't realized you were licensed to conjure one.”

        Pomfrey had walked over to the table nearest the bed on which the homunculus lay, looking back at Harry and Ron. “And you boys? Do you understand as well?”

        They nodded, both saying, “Yes, Madame Pomfrey.”

        “Excellent!” she said, lifting the 16-pound sledge hammer from the table, and she turned and swung it in a mighty overhand blow that crashed down on the thing's left knee, with a loud, horrible crunch!

        The homunculus bolted upright, arms flailing, and she brought the sledge down again on the same knee, mangling it further. The homunculus was clawing at the smashed, bleeding joint, jagged ends of pale-grey bone protruding up through grey-blue flesh, it's television-head thrashing around.

        Harry, Ron and Hermione were staring at her, faces pale, eyes wide, mouths hanging open.

        “You–” Hermione managed to gasp. “You–”

        “Well, don't just stand there!” Pomfrey barked. “Heal it!”

        “That,” said Ron, as they moved toward the Floo, “was the single most disturbing experience of my life. And I'm speaking as a guy who once vomited slugs for a day!”

        Hermione made a small, choking sound, her eyes closing for a moment, then she shook her head, and said briskly, “We could never in a million years have learned a tenth as much about healing broken bones and internal injuries, Ron, any other way! Imagine if we'd had to learn the old-fashioned way, on real patients?”

        The thought stilled all three of them for a moment, as they imagined the results of their early, miscalculated bone-knitting spells on a living breathing human being, and Ron turned a shade of green not seen since just before his first Quidditch match. Hermione's eyes squeezed shut a moment longer.

        She drew in a ragged breath, and then began again, “Of course, during the latter 1930s, during Grindelwald's rise to power, the Germans proposed using Inferi–”

        The boys swung around and stared at her, eyes even wider than before.

        She raised her chin, and continued, “Yes, well...” Another unsteady breath. “So, we're well off, all things considered, wouldn't you say?”

        The boys regarded one another for a long, wide-eyed moment, before turning their gazes slowly back to Hermione.

        Harry had just opened his mouth to speak when the flames in the fireplace roared green, and a head appeared, male, dignified, black, with deep blue eyes, very pale grey hair, and his wand jammed into his throat. The three teenagers just had time to cover their ears when the voice boomed out:

        “Poppy! Poppy Pomfrey, are you there!?!?

        The Mediwitch raced from her office to address the elderly man in the Floo.

        “Eligius! What is it?”

        “Hello, Poppy,” the man, Eligius, said. “We've got overflow. How many patients can you take right now?”

        Pomfrey's eyes flickered to Harry, Hermione and Ron. “What sort of injuries?”

        “A lot of broken bones, redskin, blister, and blackskin burns, residual Cruciatus pain.”

        Pomfrey looked horrified. “And you have overflow?

        Harry stepped over, his hand reaching back to touch Ron's. “Who did they hit?”

        “Oh, bugger!” Ron's eyes were widening in realization, as Hermione's fist went to her mouth. “Bloody Death Eaters!”

        Eligius glanced over at him. “The Daily Prophet. They went after everyone from paperboys to the publishers.”

        Harry's face was white, his voice cold. “How many dead?”

        “Three,” said Eligius. “Mr. Potter, I have no time to tell you more, I have patients I can't treat! Poppy?”

        “We can take six. That's all the beds we have.”

        Eligius seemed surprised. “You have the manpower?”

        “I have three Trainees here,” Pomfrey told him firmly. “They're up to the tasks of broken bones, burns, and general palliative care. I wouldn't ask them for more than that.”

        “Nor will I.” The head nodded to the Trio. “Mr. Potter, Mr. Weasley, Ms. Granger, I'm Eligius St. Westphall, head of Emergency Medicine for St. Mungo's. Are you prepared to deal with patient care?”

        “Yes, sir!” said Harry, immediately and firmly. He glanced at his friends. “I have to help. It's my responsibility.”

        “Not this time, Hero Boy,” muttered Hermione, a hint of dark humor in her face. “My parents did that for me. It's my fault for a change.”

        Ron just nodded. “Whatever we can do.”

        “All right,” said Eligius. “Make room, please.”

        Pomfrey shooed her trainees back away from the Floo, and an entire hospital bed came through, containing a writhing, moaning figure, blackened along its left side, a hospital orderly pushing along behind it. Another bed followed, and another and another, six in all, and Pomfrey shrunk the Hospital Wing's own beds out of sight, and rolled the new ones into their places.

        Pomfrey gestured her charges towards two of the beds. “Go between, help both, you know what to do.”

        And with that she was leaning over the nearest patient, casting Palliatus and summoning a burn-care ointment.

        The trio moved where Pomfrey had sent them, and Hermione turned towards the bed on the left, muttering, over her shoulder, “You two take that one.”

        And then they, too were summoning potions and ointments, healing bones and burns, casting Palliatus again and again.

        Soon, the middle-aged man Harry and Ron were working on was sleeping comfortably, bones healed, and skin shiny and pink, and Hermione's, a black man in his twenties, groaned gratefully as she rubbed potion over the last of his burns.

        They glanced at Pomfrey, who was on her third patient, and moved on to the last bed. This held a young woman, the first through the Floo, her left side blackened and charred, her right leg mangled, and her face heavily bruised and misshapen by a broken jaw.

        She looked up at them as they moved up beside her, and her eyes widened. “H- Hermione?” She could barely form the words. “Harry? R-Ron?”

        They stared at her for a moment, at her broken, misshapen face, before finally realizing – Ron would later confess to the others, with some shame, that what he'd recognized first was her acne – that it was Eloise Midgen, a Hufflepuff in their year.

        “Hi, Eloise,” Harry told her softly, as Ron and Hermione cast repeated Palliatus charms, and began straightening that mangled leg. “Not such a great day, huh?”

        She started a fractional shake of her head, and stiffened, her eyes squeezing shut.

        “No, stay still,” Harry told her. “It's OK, we can help. Let me help.” He leveled his wand at her chin. “Palliatus! Palliatus!

        Ron and Hermione began working on the charring on her left side as Harry drew a breath and cast a bone-healing charm on her jaw. That side of her face seemed to writhe as the segments of bone moved together under her skin, and her face began to resume its normal dimensions. He moved up to her cheekbone, and heard a gasp from Ron.

        Harry glanced over. Hermione was using her wand, casting healing spells, rebuilding deep tissues, while Ron was gently spreading potion over burned, charred flesh, leaving fresh, clean, pink skin behind him.

        In his hands now, shining and slick from the potion, was Eloise's right breast, beautifully shaped, firm and creamy, topped with a pert, pink nipple. Harry's eyes flashed up to Ron's, wide, surprised. There had been no pause in the gentle, soothing, healing work of Ron's hands, and already they were moving up towards her collarbone, turning blackened, charred flesh into pink, healthy new skin.

        Harry turned back to Eloise's face, unlovely at the best of times. Her eyes met his, and some knowledge passed between them, knowledge of what Harry had seen, of the discovery he'd made, and her lips curled into the ghost of a smile.

        “Feels... good...” she managed to breathe. “Weird...” She closed her eyes for a moment, and suddenly coughed. Flecks of blood appeared on her lips.

        “Madam Pomfrey!” Harry called. Eloise coughed again, more blood, and he looked frantically over his shoulder for the Mediwitch, who was looking up from her patient, her hands actually disappearing inside his chest.

        “It will have to wait, Harry.” Her voice was gentle, but firm.

        “She's coughing!” There was a hint of panic in Harry's voice. “There's blood!”

        “Suction the blood with your wand, Harry, so she won't choke on it. I'll be there as soon as I can.”

        Harry's eyes widened, and Hermione told him, “Combibus, Harry!”

        Harry nodded, moving the tip of his wand to the edge of Eloise's mouth. “Combibus!

        Blood flowed into the wand without a noise or extra motion, pouring out of her mouth like a colourized Aguamenti in reverse, and she bolted up into another spasmodic cough. Harry struggled to keep his sucking wand in position, and a large blossom of blood bloomed in her mouth, reminding Harry of a time-lapse film he'd once seen of red Poppies blooming in the spring. It was more than the suction from Harry's wand could handle, and blood splashed down onto Eloise's chest.

        “Harry....” Her eyes locked on his, wide, frightened, and then, suddenly, they held a moment of surprise, of discovery, and she breathed the word, “Oh!

        And there was no-one looking out from behind her eyes, no more fear in them, nor pain, nor surprise, as she fell away from Harry, slumped back down on the bed.

        The open eyes looked at nothing, the slack face offered neither absolution nor blame, and Harry's fingers scrabbled for the pulse-point in her neck, knowing what he'd find.

        “There's no pulse!”

        “I'll start CPR!” cried Hermione, but Pomfrey's voice snapped, “No!

        “What?” Hermione looked back around toward her. “But she's–”

        “No, child.” Pomfrey's voice was calm now, kind, as she made a last pass over the chest of her patient, and moved around to them. “She was coughing blood. That means there were internal injuries that CPR is as likely as not to make worse. Look.”

        She cast a series of diagnostic spells.

        The first showed green over the healed areas, red over the remaining injuries, but the colours were all dull, lifeless. “There's nothing you can do, child. You see? There's no spirit here. She's gone.”

        Another diagnostic spell.

        “Look, see here? She was hit with Percussus, and the shock weakened the walls of her heart as well as shredding the lung. There was so little structure to the lung that the deep-healing spell you cast caused the lung to actually grow into the weak spot on her heart. When it opened up, it began to pump blood directly into her lung.”

        Hermione's voice was a breath. “Then I killed her.”

        “No, child!” Pomfrey's voice was firm. “Death Eaters killed her. You did your best to undo the damage. This is not your fault.”

        Hermione's eyes met hers. “Could you have saved her?”

        Pomfrey paused for a moment, then nodded. “Yes.”

        “Then I did–”

        “No. Miss– Hermione. You have limitations. We all have limitations, I no less than you. There will always, no matter how skilled you become, even if you dedicate your entire lives to the healing arts, be patients you cannot save. This was a patient who was beyond your capabilities. That is not a failing on your part. You did the very best you could with the knowledge and training I've given you.” She paused. “And there are patients sleeping soundly and painlessly in this very room who can testify that your best is very good indeed. If you call yourself a murderer every time you can't save someone, you'll–”

        “Become me,” Harry said quietly, his brows together, and his eyes looking inside himself. “You'll become me!” He turned to Hermione now, his eyes on hers. “Don't do it, love,” he told her, his voice very soft. “Don't.”

        He turned to look down at Eloise Midgen's body, reached a tender hand to brush a stray lock of hair from her forehead. “I'm sorry, Eloise.”

        And he pulled a sheet from the table beside the bed, and drew it over her.

        The three of them sat together on a visitor's chair that Harry had transfigured into a small couch in a corner of the Hospital Wing, watching Aurors and other Ministry officials come and go.

        Tonks had come and very gently taken their statement, Hermione weeping openly as she described the spells and charms she had used, while Ron and Harry stroked her back and her hair, Ron translating those portions she'd been unable to say clearly through her sobs.

        She'd broken down again seeing the covered bed bearing Eloise's small, unmoving form drawn back through the Floo.

        The boys were so involved in holding and comforting her that they barely noticed the form that approached them, until the figure cleared his throat.

        Eligius St. Westphall was, as it turned out, extraordinarily tall, possibly six-and-a-half-feet, and Harry found himself wondering if it had hurt the man's back to squat down enough to speak through the Floo. But he squatted gracefully, bringing himself to their eye level, and placed a gentle, wrinkled hand on Hermione's, clasped in her lap.

        “Miss Granger – all three of you, really – on behalf of St. Mungo's, I wish to offer my thanks. You have all done extraordinary work here, and your lifesaving work is greatly appreciated.”

        Hermione gulped, managing a grateful nod, which her boys mirrored.

        St. Westphall turned back to Hermione. “Miss Granger, I understand how traumatic it is to lose a patient, especially to lose your very first. I still sometimes weep for a man called Reginald Paracelsus, who died beneath my wand in 1953. Poppy told me how... personally you've taken this loss. You see it as your failure, and young Miss Midgen's death as your doing. I tell you again what Poppy told you. It was not! Miss Midgen was murdered by Death Eaters. Her killers have been captured. They will be tried, they will be convicted, and they will not see the outside of Azkaban again.

        “But I will tell you something else as well, something you must all remember. I know well the siren song of self-recrimination. To this day, I still think back on poor Mr. Paracelsus and sing it to myself. I know in my mind, in my brain, that it was not my fault. There was nothing I could do for him. But my heart whispers its treacherous lies, and sometimes, sometimes, in the dark hours of the night, I believe them.

        “It is normal for you to feel the guilt you feel. It is normal for you to feel like you've failed. And it is normal to begin to think too much, to believe that, where there's smoke there's fire, and where there's guilt there must also be culpability.

        “I tell you now: there is not! I have reviewed the records quite thoroughly, and I am here to tell you that any of the healers in my Emergency Room who conducted themselves as you have here today would receive commendations, and you, too, shall be receiving them. It is true that the immediate cause of death for Miss Midgen was the deep-healing spell you performed. I do not lie to you. But I will tell you that any healer in my Emergency Room who had failed such an attempt would have been suspended from duty. Do you understand me?”

        The three nodded mutely.

        “No,” he said. “Not good enough, by half. I want to hear you say it, please. Do you understand me?”

        Hermione swallowed, drew in a shuddering breath, and squeezed her boys’ hands. “I understand,” she said, and Ron, then Harry, followed suit. “I understand.” “Yes, sir. I understand.”

        St. Westphall smiled at them. “You don't believe me, of course. That's to be expected. But let it at least sink in.” He reached out and tapped Hermione's forehead. “Let it at least stay here.” He stood, turned toward the Floo, then turned back. “Oh,” he said. “You must also remember that without your intervention, Evan Jordan and Barnabus Cuffe would be dead now. And that's a fact!”

        The three stared at one another.

        “Evan Jordan?” asked Ron.

        “He's Lee's brother,” said a soft, faraway voice, quite nearby, and they turned to see Luna Lovegood standing by their couch. “The families insist he's a cousin, but, you know...” She touched her necklace of Butterbeer corks. “It was the only way to hide him from the Rotfang Conspiracy.”

        “Luna?” Harry blinked in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

        “I came with my father. He's here to talk to Mr. Cuffe.”

        Hermione looked back down to her feet, pulling her lower lip between her teeth. Harry could almost see her gaze turning inward.

        “You must feel terribly guilty, Hermione,” said Luna, as casually as if she was saying it was raining.

        Hermione's gaze snapped up to hers, and Luna's large, bright, blue eyes regarded her frankly.

        “That's all right. It's what's supposed to happen. I felt guilty for three years and four months after my mother died, and I didn't even have anything to do with that.”

        “Three years and four months?” asked Ron. “That's... really specific. What happened? How did you stop?”

        “I got distracted.”

        Hermione's eyes widened, and she felt a small laugh escape her. She managed a small, grateful smile at Luna. “Why is your father speaking to Mr. Cuffe?”

        “Oh, we're offering to let him use the Quibbler's offices and facilities until the Prophet's are rebuilt.”

        “Really?” Hermione seemed surprised.

        “Well, yes.” Luna nodded slowly. “My father says that it's important that newspapers not be silenced by evil. Without the news, the public would be misinformed. After all, without the Quibbler, the public wouldn't know anything about the Crumple-Horned Snorkack, Oh, or Voldemort being back, I suppose.”

        “Or that,” Harry agreed. “I suppose not.”

        Luna suddenly reached out to Hermione, who'd started to withdraw again even as Luna answered her, and ran a gentle hand down her cheek in a slow, tender caress. “Don't worry, Hermione,” she said. “You'll get distracted, too.”

        It was maybe an hour later that Tonks returned to them.

        She squatted down, ran a gentle hand down the side of Hermione's face, looking among the three of them. “Listen. I've just heard from Professor Dumbledore. He was thinking that dealing with the Dursleys tonight might be a bit much. Sirius and Remus have invited you to stay the night with them. Would you like that?”

        Hermione swallowed, nodding silently. And Ron and Harry nodded their assent as well.

        “Where?” Harry asked. “Grimmauld Place?”

        Tonks shook her head, with a half-smile. “Nah. You know how Sirius hates that place, and now that he isn't a fugitive, well, he could finally buy something else.”

        “Where is it?” asked Hermione, trying to show an interest.

        “Dunno,” said Tonks. “Remus hasn't– You know...”

        Hermione leaned closer to her, and murmured, “Fidelius?”

        “Right,” said Tonks.

        “So, do they, er...” Ron was blushing a bit. “Do they live, er... together?”

        Tonks looked a little downcast. “Yeah, pretty much.” She looked back up at them. “Sirius bought a house for himself and one for Remus, and they say they're going to split their time. The Den – that's Remus' place – is up in the fens outside Cambridge. I get the feeling Sirius wanted his to be a bit more urban. I think maybe in Cardiff or Edinburgh.”

        They were quiet a few more minutes, as Tonks began shifting uncomfortably, biting her lip. Finally, she reached out to Hermione, laying a hand on her knee. “Hermione, can I ask you a question?”

        Hermione nodded. “Sure, Tonks.”

        Tonks indicated the boys with an angle of her head. “What's it like?”

        “Tonks!” cried Hermione, embarrassed, as the boys sputtered, and Harry managed to choke out, “We haven't!

        “No, no, no!” said Tonks. “Not that! I wouldn't ask–” she suddenly looked at Harry. “You haven't? Really?”

        Harry blushed deeply, and Tonks waved off her own question. “Anyway, that's not what I'm asking. I just mean...” She looked seriously back at Hermione. “You love 'em, right? Both of them? I can see it, you know. Anyone can. It's in the way they're there for you now, the way they touch you, the way they comfort you. They way you accept their touch.”

        “Yes, Tonks,” said Hermione, and although her voice was very quiet, it was also proudly defiant. “I love both of my boys very, very much.”

        “Annat... An’ that works, does it? Loving the two of 'em? Them both loving you?”

        “We are right here, you know, Tonks!” said Ron.

        “Oh, hush!” she replied tartly. “We're talking girl-talk. Feelings an' that! You don't count!”

        Hermione reached a hand out to Ron's knee, leaned back on Harry's chest. “It works, Tonks.”

        Tonks grinned. “Ace!”

        Harry reached up, and ran a gentle hand down Hermione's arm.

        “I don't suppose we got any of them,” he said to Tonks.

        She frowned at him. “What?”

        “The Death Eaters,” said Harry. “I don't suppose–”

        “You mean– Nobody told you? Harry, we got eight of 'em! Including Aunt Bellatrix! We weren't ready for the scope of it, but we had Kingsley and me and, hell, half the Auror office at the Prophet! We cleaned house, Harry!”

        Harry blinked owlishly at her, processing the information. “We... Cleaned...”

        “Yes, Harry! You didn't think we let the Grangers do that interview without a plan, did you?”

        Harry opened his mouth, then shut it again, and was saved from answering by the arrival of Remus Lupin, who handed the four of them a rolled-up piece of parchment, reading, “The Home of Sirius Black is The Kennel, at Number Sixty-Two, Wyndie Lane, Dagenham, Essex.

        Ron grinned. “The Kennel?”

        Remus returned the smile. “Come, then, friends, let us away.”

        And he led them toward the Floo.

        The were greeted with enthusiastic hugs from a weary-looking Sirius, who also kissed Remus thoroughly before leading them on a tour of the lovely, modest suburban bungalow, all pleasant wood paneling and large windows looking out on the night-time town.

        Their bedroom – “Not a guest room,” Sirius had said, firmly, with a wide smile, “This one is yours.” – was spacious and airy, with a vast, high bed, and there were clothes for each of them in the cupboard and chest of drawers.

        An hour later, they lay, curled on one another, beneath the comforter, listening to music from another room.

        Hermione's shoulders began shaking again, and Harry and Ron snuggled closer to her, stroking her hair, her arms, her back, and finally she lifted her head.

        “Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!”

        “No, love,” Harry crooned, stroking her hair. “No.”

        But she pushed her self up to look at him by the city lights, leaking in through the window. “Yes, Harry. I'm sorry. I never realized. I never knew! I was... I tried to be patient, before, but I never knew what it was like. Oh, Harry! Do you ever close your eyes without seeing him?”

        The vision of Cedric Diggory, eyes wide, face limp, limbs slack, swam again to the surface. He shook his head. “No, love. Not really.”

        “Oh, I'm so sorry, Harry. I never understood how it felt. I was so impatient with your guilt! I had the gall to dismiss it!” Her voice became a bitter imitation of itself. “’A saving-people thing!” She reached a hand to his face. “Oh, Harry. I get it now! I can hear that... that siren song. I know, you know. I know I'm not to blame, I know that the blame lies entirely with the Death Eaters. I know that.... but I don't believe it.”

        Harry kissed her, gently, tenderly. “I know you don't, love. I know.”

        “Harry.... You can't tell me not to blame myself while you carry your load. You know that, right? And you know it's not your fault Cedric died.”

        Harry smiled, slightly, grimly. “I know it. I don't believe it.”

        “Then I'll make you a deal,” Hermione told him. “I want you to remind me, OK? I want you to remind me, when I begin to wallow, that Eloise was killed by Death Eaters. Can you do that for me?”

        “Of course, Hermione,” said Harry quietly.

        “And I'll remind you that the same is true of Cedric. Is it a deal? You'll try to keep me from beating myself up, and I'll do the same for you.”

        “All right, love,” Harry murmured, feeling strangely like he was letting go of a piece of his own identity. “All right.”

        “An' I'll call you both on it if you forget,” added Ron, pressing a gentle kiss into Hermione's neck.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen: "Yes, We're going to a Party, Party"

     The door into the Trio's bedroom was at one end of a long hallway on the second floor of the Kennel. On the opposite end was the master bedroom, and in between, toward the rear of the house, a guestroom, and toward the front, the stairs. Drifting up those stairs was the sound of an acoustic guitar, an emotional, rich and soulful sound, a song that cried tears of joy and sadness. Following the sound of music down the stairs and to the left would bring you into a pleasant living room, where Sirius and Tonks sat comfortably on the couch, Sirius' feet up in Tonks' lap, while, on a straight chair nearby, Remus Lupin played a lovely old Fender, his eyes half closed as the fingers of his left hand bent the strings into higher, crying notes.

     “What's it called?” asked Sirius, quietly, and Remus replied, without opening his eyes or turning his head, “Europa. By an American – well, Mexican-born, actually – Muggle named Carlos Santana.”

     “It's beautiful,” said Tonks.

     Remus still didn't open his eyes, but he smiled at the comment, nodding his agreement.

     They sat a moment, listening to Remus play, and Sirius glanced at the stairs.

     “God, it feels so good, having them up there,” he said.

     Tonks frowned at him, for speaking as Remus played, but the werewolf smiled. “Yes, it does. It's all right to talk, Tonks. I don't mind.” He leaned into the neck a bit, as his fingers danced across the fretboard, and then finally looked at her. “I'm not looking for an audience, just enjoying myself.”

     She returned his smile, her cheeks coloring a bit, then glanced away from him, over to the stairs. “I'm worried about them.”

     “I daresay between the three of us,” Remus said, “we can keep them safe overnight.”

     “Not that,” said Tonks. “When the Dementors attacked the Travelers' game, Harry told me he wanted to stay and fight, and Ron told him that they weren't ready. They'd have to learn the combat moves.” She looked up at Remus, then over to Sirius. “He's right. They will have to. And who's going to teach them?”

     “I will,” said Sirius. “It's my job now. Defense against the Dark Arts.”

     “And you know what, exactly,” asked Tonks, “about how to fight and duel while physically attached to two other people?”

     The music suddenly stopped, as Remus' head snapped toward Tonks.

     Sirius sat back, leaned his head back against the top of the back of the couch.

     “Fuck,” they said.

     The silence hung for another moment, and then there was music again, deep and bluesy, and Tonks recognized it after a moment as Wandless Bobby Bones' Azkaban, Azkaban.

     “I'll come up with something,” said Sirius. “You both in on this?”

     “'Course!” said Tonks. Remus just smirked at him.

     Sirius eyed them both for a long time, before grinning a savage grin. “All right, then,” he said, and suddenly he was singing, his voice a throaty, meaty growl: “...swallowed my sanity whole! But as long as I know that she's waiting for me, believe I'll hang onto my soul. Aaaaazkaban, Aaaaaazkaban, you'll never take my soul!

     Ron frowned over at Sirius as they rounded the corner into the “Tinned Meats” aisle – which Ron, in fact, thought was a decidedly odd way to treat the stuff anyway – and said, to him, sotto voce, “I thought you said this was a Muggle town.”

     It had been Sirius who'd suggested this shopping expedition, grinning at Remus and Tonks behind their backs, claiming he wanted to stock up on Muggle-style foods – “For entertaining!” – and coffee-making supplies. (“One thing I learned when I was on the run: Muggles make better coffee than wizards, and it's the grinders and coffeemakers that make it happen.”)

     Sirius glanced down the aisle at the woman Ron was eyeing warily. She was shortish, with startlingly pale eyes, and hair a dark purple Tonks would have been proud of.

     “I see what you mean,” breathed Sirius, leaning his head back a bit. “It's not Tonks, her scent's wrong. I...”

     Hermione snorted at him. “There's a thing we have in the Muggle world, Sirius: Hair Dye.”

     “And that yellow helmet's a typical Muggle fashion accessory?”

     The woman glanced back up them, smiled, seemingly right at Ron.

     “Yeah, let's just head out,” Ron told Sirius. “I dunno why, but she really gives me the creeps.”

     But she made no threatening moves as they made their way back out of the shop again, and Sirius shrugged. “Probably nothing, but best be safe. I wish we were staying out longer, though.”

     Ron looked up at the sky, unusually blue and clear, compared to the recent grey fog, and nudged Hermione with his elbow, as he agreed, “It is a beautiful day.”

     She looked up at him under her lashes. “He wants to give Remus some time alone with Tonks, Ron.”

     “Don't be daft,” Ron said. “He's with Remus.”

     Sirius snickered, “Absolutely, Hermione,” he said. “Don't be daft. How could you of all people possibly think there could be room in a romance for a third person?”

     They both looked back at Ron, whose eyes were widening. “You're joking!”

     “Why would I be?” Sirius grinned at him again. “We shared Celestina Warbeck, after all.”

     Ron smirked. “You guys really are the coolest–”

     “No, we're not,” said Sirius, with a smile. “You two get to share the brightest witch of her age!” Hermione's eyes widened, and she blushed deeply, reaching across Harry to start smacking Sirius's shoulder, as he continued, “And the brightest-red witch of her age, too!”

     “Oh, mate,” Ron began, “you are totally--”

     “Perhaps,” Hermione interrupted, “it's because they are young enough to have the stamina to keep up with me!”

     Ron and Harry were suddenly staring at her, wide-eyed.

     “I mean, I'm sure, old fellow” she continued, “Once upon a time, long ago, you might have been in Harry's league...”

     Sirius laughed merrily, now, eyes twinkling. “I'm half in love with you myself, now!” he cried. “Goodness, clever-boots, I didn't think you had it in you!”

     “What?” asked Hermione. “To be boldly forward in speech or behavior; impertinent; saucy?”

     Sirius clearly sensed the trap, but saw no way out. “Yes...”

     “Well, you should have, Sirius,” she replied, archly. “That's exactly what pert means!”

     “Poor girl?” shouted Tonks, throwing Remus Lupin a look that went past dirty and filthy to positively septic.

     Remus looked over to Sirius and the Trio, but the three teenagers had all planted their faces in their palms in a unanimous gesture of dismay, and Sirius was holding his hands up towards his friend and lover, shaking his head rapidly. “Oh, no, mate,” he said, “You jumped into this hole yourself, don't look at me!”

     Remus deflated, turned back to Tonks. “Look, I didn't mean to imply that you're not entirely capable of taking care of yourself. I just feel that it's unfair of Sirius to be throwing me at you like that. I'm not.... I'm not that safe to be around. You think you understand my--”

     “I don't think I understand that! I know I don't understand your 'Furry Little Problem!' It's just that I don't care about that!” She pointed at Ron and Hermione. “Look at them! You think you turning hairy once a month is more dangerous than having Riddle mark you for death? But there they stand by his side, because they love him!”

     “Well, we are stuck to him,” said Ron, grinning cheekily until Hermione's elbow met his ribs.

     “Shut it, Ron!” she hissed.

     But Tonks was actually clamping her lips over an impulse to smile at Ron's cheeky aside, and she took a deep, calming breath, glancing back gratefully at the ginger-haired boy.

     “Look, Remus, Sirius left us alone because I asked him to, all right? Because I care about you. Because I think I love you. At first, with Sirius back, I thought it was impossible, but it's not, because they can do it.” She angled her head at Hermione and Ron and Harry, all of them blushing vividly again. “Your boyfriend flies on a motorcycle; you're a werewolf. I can turn into--” her face and body suddenly flowed and reformed, and standing where Tonks had been was Gromit, the animated plasticine dog “--anything!” She looked soulfully up at him for a moment with wise plasticine eyes before starting to flow back into her normally accustomed form. “Are you really going to try to tell me that anything – much less a relationship – is impossible?”

     “You are assuming--” Remus began stiffly, but Sirius interrupted him.

     “Oh, don't even bother, Moony,” cried Sirius, tapping his nose. “I can smell the desire on you, you know I can.”

     It was Lupin's turn to plant his face in his palm. “Sirius, regardless of whatever is in the air between Tonks and myself, I'm with you.

     “You Charmed the Heart Right Out of Me,” Sirius sang, in a fairly good impression of Celestina Warbeck.

     “And look how well that worked out!” said Remus.

     “That,” said Sirius, “is because she was a cow! Tonks is... Well, hell, she's Tonks, isn't she?”

     Remus looked back and forth between his lover and his would-be lover with the eyes of a trapped animal, before glancing at the clock. “Oh, dear!” he cried. “Look at the time! We really must be getting these three back to Little Whinging!”

     The hooded gaze Tonks turned on him should have vaporized him on the spot. “I'll take them,” she spat. “Safer for them and you!”

     “You really mustn't blame him, Tonks,” said Hermione, as they walked up Privet Drive. “It is an awful lot to take in.”

     “You lot seem to be handling it all right,” Tonks replied bitterly.

     “It was forced on us,” said Hermione, sadly. “Because I didn't know better.”

     Harry and Ron both spun to stare at Hermione, and Ron said, “Look, Tonks, the fact is, the two best words I ever heard in my whole life were Nuptialis and Unum.” Now Hermione's head snapped up, as wide and intent on his. “But it wasn't something I knew beforehand. I was always the jealous berk who freaked out when Hermione even looked at another guy, and too insecure to tell her how much I loved her. How the hell was I supposed to know loving Hermione was a two man job? How was I supposed to know it would be a thousand times better with Harry there to help me do it?”

     Now Harry was staring at him, too, his expression stunned.

     “Look,” Ron continued, “all I'm saying is, this is not anything you come into prepared for. Nobody teaches you to think of true love coming in threes.”

     Tonks finally looked up at him. “You think he'll come around, Ron?”

     Ron nodded with his lopsided smile. “Yeah, I reckon. I mean, he was a Marauder. An' now he's got Sirius t' help remind him of it. Yeah, I reckon he'll come around.” He glanced over at Hermione, who was still staring at him with wide, shining eyes, and Harry, whose green eyes were only slightly drier. “What?”

     When they arrived at Number Four, they heard voices in the living room, and the sight they saw there stopped the four of them in their tracks. Dudley Dursley, blond and porcine, was sitting, speaking, to a slender girl with long, blonde hair, who was scratching down his words as fast as she could with a long, lank-feathered quill on a scroll of parchment. A long, slender wand was tucked behind one dainty ear, pinning her hair back, and giving an excellent view of a radish earring.

     “Well, I have to admit, now that I've been thinking about it, he's not bad to have around,” Dudley was saying. “He does an awful lot of work and chores, to tell the truth.”

     Harry backed his friends back out of the room, and they stood for a moment more, listening in silence.

     “How do you think you treat Harry?” Luna asked.

     “Well...” Dudley's voice was very quiet. “Not very well, I guess. But, I mean, he is... Well, no.”

     “Did you ever hurt him?”

     Harry turned wide eyes toward Ron then Hermione, then finally back to Tonks. All seemed transfixed by the very weirdness of the moment.

     There was a long pause.

     “Yes,” Dudley's voice breathed. “Me and my friends used to thump him, all the time.”

     “Was it easy to do?” Luna seemed only vaguely interested.

     “Not really. For a skinny little bloke, he always put up a real fight. Gave as good as he got, mostly.”

     “Was it fun?” Again, Luna's voice seemed vague, distant.

     Dudley was silent for a very long time. “No,” he finally said. “No, it wasn't fun.”

     “Well, it seems to me, you went to an awful lot of trouble to be cruel to someone smaller than you, and now you tell me you didn't even enjoy it, so I guess I'm wondering why you did it.”

     Dudley's answer was, if anything, even slower. “I.... I guess I don't really know.” His voice was suddenly firmer, clearer. “Are... Are you going to use that in your article?”

     “Oh, I don't think so,” Luna answered, absently. “I'm just here to learn about the house. You know, how big it is, how many people live here, things like that.”

     “Then why did you spend the last hour asking me all those questions?” Dudley asked, not annoyed but simply baffled.

     “Oh,” said Luna, “I just thought you were very interesting. You seem to be one thing, but becoming another. You have a very conflicted aura.”

     They heard movement, and footsteps approaching, and Luna stepped into the kitchen, followed by Dudley, who stopped, staring at Harry, his eyes widening.

     “Oh, hello,” said Luna. “I thought I smelled your perfume, Hermione.”

     “My--” Hermione blinked.

     “Oh, yes, you started wearing it around Christmas last Year. It's not very flattering, really, but it seems to suit you somehow.” She turned toward Harry. “So, wasn't that interesting?”

     Harry looked back and forth from her to Dudley. “I...”

     “Shouldn't you lot be packing?” Dudley barked at them.

     “I...” said Harry again, then focused on his cousin. “Packing?”

     “Well, you're leaving tomorrow, right?” Dudley demanded. “It is your birthday. And I know Mum's got things she's wanting done around the house this afternoon. Anyway, don't look at me for help!” And with that, he pushed past them and out the back door, heading off around the corner of the garage with a firm, decisive stride.

     Harry watched him out of sight, then turned back to Luna. “What are you doing here?” he asked, his voice quiet and confused.

     “I'm helping my father with background. Most of the Prophet staff aren't well enough to come back to work, yet, so the Quibbler staff is putting out the Prophet this week. He's doing the story on your medical care for Mr. Cuffe, and wanted background on where you live. You know, what kind of neighborhood, how big the house is, that sort of detail.”

     Hermione lifted an eyebrow. “And how long were you interviewing Dudley for that?”

     “Why, about an hour, I think. I think he's very interesting! He's so contradictory.”

     “How did you get here?” asked Ron.

     “Oh, I hired a Muggle taxicab.”

     “What, from downtown?” asked Harry.

     “No, from the Burrow,” she said. “I needed to learn about your home, too, Ronald.” She looked over to Hermione. “Fortunately, your house was blown up. I'm almost out of those funny Muggle pound notes with the picture of the funny-looking woman on them.”

     “You took a taxi,” said Hermione. “From Ottery St. Catchpole. That's in Devon, Luna!”

     “Oh, I know,” Luna said brightly. “Otherwise I never would have found it!”

     “Are you headed back to the Quibbler offices?” asked Tonks. “I could give you a lift by side-along Apparation.”

     “Oh, thank you, that would be wonderful. I love Apparating. It always makes me want to throw up.”

     There was a moment's pause.

     “All right, then!” said Tonks, and then, to Harry, Ron and Hermione, “See ya, you lot!”

     When Tonks and Luna had gone, Harry looked over at Ron and Hermione. “You know, Dudley's right. I'd completely forgotten the date.” He grinned. “I won't minding seeing the last of Privet Drive for another year!”

     “I dunno, mate,” said Ron, with a smile, pulling Hermione against him and resting his chin on her head. “I've had a lot of good times in this house.”

     Hermione smiled, trying in vain to look up at him, then angled her gaze over at Harry. “He's right, Harry.” She reached a hand up, and lay it over the breast of his T-shirt. “This will always be a special place to me, too.” She took his arm, turned him toward the stairs. “Come on. Let's go get packed.”

     Packing took a surprisingly long time. Hermione was as organized and compulsive as Harry would have expected, and he and Ron exchanged more than one eye-rolling glance as the project went on.

     After two hours, though, there wasn't a thing left of any of theirs that wasn't in their trunks, except the clothing they were wearing, and a fresh set for the next day.

     Their satisfaction gazing around at this achievement, however, was short-lived, dying in a loudly bellowed “BOY!

     It was almost ten that night, when they staggered back into their room, dirty and sweaty, Hermione rubbing the fingers of her left hand, which had been broken when Harry almost lost his grip while moving the stove out into the kitchen so they could clean behind it. Hermione's first gasping cry hadn't ended yet when both boys were casting Palliatus and Episkey, and almost before she'd known she was injured, she wasn't.

     They showered languidly, scrubbing one another, massaging tired muscles, exchanging brief, undemanding kisses with Hermione. They toweled dry, and collapsed in a naked, sprawling heap on the bed, asleep almost as soon as Harry's flailing hand turned off the light.

     It was the tickle of Hermione's hair on his chest, not the velvet-warm moisture of her kisses up his chest, that woke Harry, and he blinked stupidly in the dark.

     “H-- Hermione?”

     “Yes, love,” she murmured, between kisses that were now making their way along his collarbone.

     “What time is it?” Harry mumbled.

     “It's midnight, mate,” said Ron, from the other side of Hermione. “Happy Birthday!”

     Hermione's thigh, warm and silky, slid across his as her kisses trailed up one side of his neck. “Yes, Harry,” she murmured, her voice throaty, her lips now brushing against his ear. “Happy Birthday!”

     She was squirming over on top of him;, her thighs around his hips, her mouth seeking his eagerly.

     She flexed and squirmed against him, and he felt himself growing hard against her center.

     “I love you, Harry,” she murmured. “And I want this so much.”

     She reached down for his erection with one hand, as she started to position herself, to position him, and Harry finally found his voice. “Hermione! No, love.”


     “No. Not yet,” breathed Harry “Not me. Ron first.”

     “No, mate,” Ron said. “No, it's all right.”

     “Ron first,” Harry repeated.

     “Mate. Really, I--”

     “No, Ron, I mean it. You've had hand-me-downs your whole life. Your first love will not be-- Oh, hell, this is coming out all wrong.”

     Hermione's voice had an edge to it. “I know I'm your birthday present, Harry, but I'm not something you can pass around. I can decide for myself!”

     “So can I.” Harry's voice was equally firm. “I can decide for myself too, and I've decided. I won't do this with you before Ron does. I won't, Hermione. You two have loved one another for years, and I love that you love me, too, but... I won't... I won't do this with you before Ron has. You and he belong to one another in a way I never will.”

     Suddenly, Hermione was lifting herself above Harry's chest, her arm reaching over, and a soft, dim, golden light, just enough to limn their expressions, was coming from the lower part of the bedside lamp.

     Hermione, leaning over him, studying him, was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, her breasts full and nipples erect, her hair an explosion of brown curls around her face, her lip between her teeth and her deep brown eyes almost burning into him.

     “You are not an outsider here, Harry,” she finally told him. “You are not my second-string boy. I love you.”

     Harry reached up to her, drew her down into a kiss. As she straightened, he smiled at her. “I'm learning to believe that, Hermione. And I love you for it, love you so much.” he drew a breath. “But, Hermione... Don't dig in on this. All right? I know you want to be with both of us. I'm happy to be second. Please don't make this a fight to prove some point. You know there's only one person on earth who respects you like I do, and he's right in this bed. I've taken so much away from you. I won't take this as well. The first time is for the two of you.”

     The smile that spread across Hermione's face was warm and sad and full of love. “You know that's a load of old cobblers, don't you?  You know you haven't taken a damned thing away from us.” She lowered her face to kiss him again. “But I won't fight. Our turn soon enough, hero-boy.”

     “Fair enough,” murmured Harry. Hermione started to squirm off him, toward Ron, and Harry stopped her. “No, love.”

     And his hands, so strong for all their apparent delicacy, moved her, rolled her around so she was lying back on him, her head laying back on his collarbone, and his left hand stroked and caressed over her belly and her breast, fingers stropping across her nipple, as his right reached to draw Ron over.

     Ron, though, moved down, and knelt between their legs, looked down at Hermione, open and offered beneath him. He lowered his head, as if in supplication, and kissed her breast, sucking the nipple into his mouth, and then on down across her belly.

     “R-Ron?” Her voice caught.

     “I've read something about this,” Ron said, looking up at her with a wicked grin. “I've read the first time is rubbish for girls, they usually don't, you know, come. An' it can hurt! So, I figure, maybe if I can make sure you come first, maybe if I can help you relax, well, maybe that will help, and it won't be rubbish.”

     “It won't be rubbish, Ron.” Hermione reached a hand down, stroked her fingers through his ginger hair. “Even if it hurts, it will be wonderful.”

     “Yeah, well...” Ron grinned at her. “I aim to see to it that, if it is rubbish, you'll already've come so hard, you won't notice.” He kissed his way further down her belly. “Oh, Godric, Hermione, I've waited for this!”

     And with that, he opened his mouth and lowered it onto her, and she let out an odd squeal, and her left hand fisted into Ron's hair, as Harry's hands squeezed her breasts, and his teeth nipped at her shoulder. Hermione's free hand curled up into Harry's hair, pulled his face up to catch him in a kiss.

     “Ohhhh....” she moaned. “Oh, Harry.... Oh, Ron's brilliant, Harry, he's fucking brilliant!”

     She cried out again, a wordless gasp, and Harry glanced down to Ron, and almost laughed. Ron had looked back up to meet his gaze at just that moment, and a kind of smug merriment danced in his cobalt-blue gaze. But what almost made Harry laugh was that Ron appeared to have grown a brown, curly mustache. He lifted his head still further, giving himself the world's silliest beard, to tell Harry, “Mate, you have got to taste her! This is...”

     He smiled, his lips shining with her moisture, and Harry found himself licking his own lips.

     Hermione's fingers in his hair pushed him down again, and Harry held her as she squirmed, pinching and teasing her nipples, caressing and squeezing her breasts, nibbling at her ear and the pulse-point just beneath it, sometimes listening to her groans and cries, sometimes swallowing them.

     Harry could feel the tension building in her, her muscles quivering under his fingers, under his lips and tongue.

     Suddenly, Hermione's eyes were locked on his. “Oh, fuck, Harry!” she said suddenly and quite clearly, and then threw her head back against him, arching her hips up against Ron's face as she cried out wordlessly, and then collapsed onto Harry. She lay there, panting for a moment as Ron lifted himself away from her.

     “Fuck me, Ron,” she breathed. “Oh, fuck me, fuck me now!”

     Ron shifted up a bit, and lowered himself onto his palms on either side of Hermione's and Harry's shoulders. She reached down to guide him, and the both stilled for a moment. Harry brushed Hermione's hair back away from her cheek.

     “Are you ready, love?” asked Ron.

     “Go slow,” said Hermione, her voice nervous, but still quite sure.

     Harry looked down between their bodies, saw Ron's cock, full and stiff in her hand, pressed down against her center, saw Ron's hips begin to flex, ever so slowly.

     A gasp, then a squeak, escaped Hermione as Ron slowly penetrated her. More breath shuddered out of her, and her lower lip was between her teeth.

     “All right, there, love?” Harry breathed in her ear.

     “Ooooohhh, yes....” she sighed.

     Harry looked back down again, fascinated and aroused by the sight of Ron's cock disappearing, slowly, ever so slowly, among her brown curls. Hermione's breath came in his ear in hitching gasps. Her hands were up now, holding Ron, pulling him to her, into her, and her hips were bucking slightly toward him. Finally, though, the space between them was gone, Ron's ginger curls pressed against Hermione's brown ones, and she murmured, “Stay still a minute, Ron. Let me get used to you.”

     He looked up at Ron's face, and found himself grinning at the stunned reverence he saw there. Harry found himself struggling to comprehend. Ron was inside Hermione. Right now, right on top of him, Ron was inside Hermione!

     “Oh, I love you,” he breathed to Hermione. “Oh, love, this is amazing.” His eyes flickered to Harry's. “Oh, mate, wait ‘til you try this!”

     The muscles in Ron's arms flexed as he lowered himself to kiss her, and then he was lifting himself again their lips parting, their bodies parting, and Harry, looking down them again, could see the glistening length of him emerging beyond the curls of her pubic hair.

     Some of the tension started to ebb from Hermione's shoulders, and her eyes widened, as she stared up at Ron in a kind of wild moment of discovery. “Oh, this, Ron, this, oh, this is--” She gasped, and its tone was different to Harry's ears, unalloyed. “Oh, yes, Ron!”

     Ron smiled at her, and turned his gaze towards Harry. “Help me out, here, mate,” he said to him. “Touch her for me.”

     Harry's eyes widened, sure he could not have understood.

     “I mean it, mate,” Ron said. “I want her to come. Touch her for me, Harry. Help me make her come.”

     “Oh, yes!” cried Hermione, turning to kiss him, her teeth catching and holding his lower lip for just a moment. “Oh, yes, Harry, touch me!”

     Harry reached down, his fingers trailing through her now-moist curls, his middle finger finding her clitoris, and he began to rub and tease it as Ron began to stroke downward into her again. Harry felt his fingertips brushing against Ron's shaft, slick with her juices, and his eyes snapped to Ron's, and Ron nodded at him, once, before looking back to Hermione.

     The fingers of Harry's other hand were playing with her nipples, and then Ron's strong chest was pressing his fingers down against her breast, and the surprisingly soft curls were pressing Harry's fingers against Hermione's coarser ones, and as Harry sucked at her pulse-point again, Ron leaned over and was nibbling at the other ear, and she sighed, a long low sound of power and pleasure and need, and Ron was lifting away from her again.

     “Wait,” she cried, as Ron lifted himself, “Ron, stay there!” She was scrabbling with on hand into the headboard, finding her wand, and Harry's eyes widened.

     “You didn't--?” asked Harry, but Ron smirked at him.

     “Don't worry, mate. I did Barricadus on her before she started in on you.”

     “Harry.” Hermione had got her wand now. “Hold me up, please. Towards Ron.”

     He started to take her shoulders in his hands but she shook her head. “No, love, my sides.”

     So he moved his hands and held her body up off his, and she was pointing her wand down there, towards her back, her bum, Harry's willy, and he had a moment of nervousness until she breathed “Lubricous!” and a jet of warm gel sprayed from her wand onto her back, onto his cock, and she was putting her wand away again, telling him, “All right, Harry.”

     Ron's smile was wicked. “Oh, you are the cleverest witch of your age,” he said, and pumped strongly into her.

     She slid now up Harry's body with the force of Ron's stroke, and the silky soft skin of her back and then her arse-cheeks slid along against his cock, and his eyes rolled back, as the breath whistled out of him.

     He smiled, remembering something Ron had said about her, a lifetime ago. “Scary,” he muttered, and she grinned wantonly over at him. “Brilliant but scary!”

     She kissed him, and turned back to Ron, as he pulled back again. “Fuck us, Ron,” she said. “Hard as you like.”

     “Oh, fuck!” breathed Harry, and his fingers moved against her clitoris again, feeling Ron's length as he slid again into her, and then out and in again, building a rhythm, pounding into her, stroke after stroke, holding himself up from her now, to give Harry's fingers room to work, and he felt the tension building in her again, like some spring inside her tightening, and her back and bum squirmed against him, against his cock, as Ron's every stroke drove her against him.

     And suddenly Ron's eyes were widening, and the words, “Bloody hell!” burst out of him, and he shuddered his release into her, and still he kept pounding and stroking, and Hermione cried out in her own climax, and Ron grunted, “Fuck!” and drove into her again, and suddenly Harry was coming too, feeling his semen squirting out of him between her back and his belly.

     Ron's mouth came down on Hermione's and then lifted again, his dark eyes suddenly locking with Harry's and his mouth came down again, and suddenly Harry was feeling surprisingly soft lips against his, an insistently-sweeping tongue, and he opened his mouth, and was tasting Chocolate Frogs and the honey-and-vinegar flavor of Hermione's juices, and his fingers were sliding into Ron's hair, meeting Hermione's, and pressing Ron's mouth to his as he heard Hermione's sudden gasp -- “Oh!” -- and then her face was against his, nudging him aside so that she could kiss Ron, and all he could hear was his heart pounding in his chest.

     Ron's head lifted again, and he looked at Harry, suddenly blushing, even as Hermione squirmed sidewise and started to turn, so they were in a more triangular configuration.

     “Harry?” Ron's voice was a whisper. “Was that--?”

     “Fuck, Ron!” Harry had grabbed his head again, pulling Ron down into another kiss, the erection that had barely started to wane after spilling between himself and Hermione's back reasserting itself. Hermione made a small sound of pleasure and arousal.

     They lay like that, for a while, in their three-sided embrace, sharing kisses in all directions, including, with no small effort, between the three of them at once.

     Then Hermione was moving again, pushing Ron onto his back, squirming around to lay back on him while she pulled Harry onto her.

     “Your turn, birthday boy,” she said hoarsely. “Your turn to fuck me, now.”

     He stared into her warm brown eyes as he moved over her, seeing the desire and certainty there, and it was like the universe shifted around him. She wasn't just being kind. She wasn't just including him because the exclusion would be too cruel. He glanced over at Ron, and saw his eyes shining seriously into Harry's, willing him to accept this, to take pleasure in Hermione – no, in both of them! -- not because he was stuck to them, and not because he was their friend, and not because he was the Boy-Who-Lived, but because Ron loved him, they both loved him.

     He squirmed up a bit, felt Hermione's coarse curls against his erection, and Hermione began to reach, to take hold and guide him, and Harry caught her wrist in one hand, and said, “Help me out, mate, would you? Help me find my way.”

     Ron's eyes, wide, snapped to Harry's as Hermione groaned at his words, and then Ron was grinning, reaching between them, and Hermione hissed “Oh, my God, Harry! Oh, Ron, oh, that's--” and suddenly she was biting on her lower lip, her eyes sinking closed, as Harry felt Ron's large, strong, calloused hand wrap around him, felt the velvety heat and slick moisture of Hermione's folds around the head of his prick.

     “You're--” he breathed, and his voice hitched, and he started again, “You're going to help me with her, right, Ron?”

     Ron nodded, his long, calloused fingers sliding down Harry's shaft, and dipping against Hermione's folds as he drew them up toward her clitoris, and Hermione gasped and moved beneath him.

     Harry stared into her eyes, silently asking, and she pulled his face down to her, kissed him. “Yes, Harry,” she breathed. “Yes!”

     And Harry began to press himself into her. He didn't know what he was expecting, but this, this heat, sheathing around him, velvet-soft and moist and tight against him, this was better than he'd ever imagined. He gazed into Hermione's eyes as he sank into her, saw them widen, a kind of amazement filling them.

     “Oh, my God, Harry, it's so different!” she breathed. “You're so different to Ron!”

     “What's it like, love,” Ron murmured in her ear, his fingers working her clitoris, the tips brushing against the length of Harry's shaft as he slid into her.

     “It--” She was panting now, the very act of forming her thoughts and sensations into words clearly exciting her. “It's slenderer than yours, Ron, so Harry doesn't--” she gasped at some motion of Ron's fingers, and Harry felt himself starting to press down on the top of Ron's hand. “He doesn't stretch me the way you do! Oh, but Ron, it's so... it's straight, Ron!” She gasped again. “It's straight as an arrow! Oh, and, Ron, I know that there isn't even an inch of difference, but feeling how straight he is inside me, that little extra length feels like it's lancing right up into me, right up into my heart.”

     Harry held himself there for a moment, letting Hermione's words wash through him, as he reveled in the sensation of her velvety heat. He was inside Hermione! As incomprehensible and amazing as that had seemed when he had seen Ron, it seemed simply impossible to him now.

     Hermione's fanny was familiar ground for him. He'd touched it, slid his finger through her folds, caressed her clitoris until she came, screaming his name, reached up into her with his long fingers, the pad of his middle finger finding Doctor Grafenberg's happy discovery, and drawing another kind of shuddering orgasm from her.

     But now, as he felt her walls surrounding his cock, so tight and hot and wet, it was like he'd never known her fanny at all. Like it had somehow opened up into an endless mystery that could swallow him whole, like there was a whole universe he had never known, and he yearned to discover it deep inside her.

     “Hermione,” he breathed. “Oh, my God, Hermione, I'm... you're...” he shook his head slowly, unable to process what he was saying. “I love you, I love you, oh God, so much!”

     She squirmed under him, moving him around inside her, and drew him down into another kiss, her mouth urgent on his, her tongue seeking, her teeth nibbling at his lower lip.

     “I love you, Harry. I love you both, I can't even-- Oh, God, Harry!”

     He had started to slide back now, up and out, drawing himself from her like a sword from a sheath, and he swallowed her moan, and then, as he broke the kiss, Ron's mouth was there at hers, and she turned her head to kiss him, and Harry felt Ron's calloused fingers touching his shaft as it withdrew, and he pressed into her again, slowly easing his way between her walls.

     Hermione's breath hitched into her chest, and her eyes stared into his with a kind of Dionysian wonder. “Oh, Harry!”

     “Fuck us,” said Ron.

     “Oh, yes,” cried Hermione, “Oh, fuck us both, Harry! Yes!”

     She nodded to him, and he drew his hips back again, and, faster, this time, drove back in again.

     He built in speed and intensity, his awareness constricting to nothing more than her brown eyes, and Ron's blue ones, burning into his as he pumped away, Ron gasping his pleasure as each stroke moved Hermione over him, Hermione crying out as Harry's cock speared into her.

     He'd already come once, so he was lasting longer, pounding into Hermione with brutal passion, the fire stoking itself within him.

     How had he denied this? How had he denied this for so long? This was everything, this was life itself, how had he denied it? Denied it to himself, to her, to Ron?

     The comical wet, slapping sound of his balls against her arse counterpointed his grunts, Ron's moans, and her cries, and suddenly Ron's was gasping, “Oh, fuck, you two!”

     Ron's fingers twitched over Hermione's clitoris, tapped out a staccato Morse on Harry's shaft as his blue eyes rolled back, and then the relaxation was spreading through him, Harry almost seeing the spread, ripples through a pond, and Harry felt the strength and rhythm return to Ron's fingers, and suddenly Hermione was crying out, pulling him down to her, kissing him, and, Oh, God, Harry felt her clench around him as she spasmed under her orgasm, and the thought that, between them, his cock and Ron's fingers had brought her to that was the final straw, and he bucked into her one last time as he came, seeming to explode into her in a series of twitching spurts.

     He held himself above her there until the last spasm shook him, and then collapsed bonelessly on top of her, feeling her breasts flattening under his chest, her sweaty, bushy hair tickling against the side of his face, and he turned his head, and kissed her, mumbling, “Love you, love you so much.”

     And then he felt Ron's large hand, stroking his back, and he was kissing him as well, and they squirmed around again, laying together in the big bed, limbs tangling and hands caressing, and Harry leaned to Ron again for a kiss, opened his mouth to Ron's tongue, wondering what in his life had brought him to this, and where he could go to say, “Thank you.”

     Hermione reached languidly for her wand again. The cleaning charm was quick and thorough, but the scent of sex still hung in the air, and she leaned over onto Harry as she put her wand back, and reached for the bedside lamp as she kissed him.

     “Happy birthday, Harry,” she breathed, smiling against his mouth, and there was a click from her fingers that plunged the room into darkness.

     The sun shining in the window woke them. The red numbers on the digital clock read 8:06.

     Ron awoke to find Harry regarding him with his wide, green eyes, looking so vulnerable without his glasses, his expression unreadable.

     “All right, there, mate?” Harry asked him.

     Ron grinned. “All in all,” he allowed, “I've been worse.”

     A shadow blocked the sun as Hermione leaned over from behind him to kiss him, her breasts swaying freely as she leaned.

     Then they were shambling to the bathroom, Ron absently caressing Hermione's bum, round and dimpled and beautiful, and she smiled at him, her thanks for his tactile compliment.

     Turns taken on the toilet, they piled into the shower stall, washing and stroking and petting. Ron leaned back, his eyes closed, and let the warm water pound his face, and smiled as he felt fingers wrapping around his erection.

     Suddenly, his eyes snapped open, as he recognised the long, calloused fingers. Harry grinned at Ron as he wanked him. He had a different style. Different from his own, different from Hermione's. A sort of a twisting motion with his wrist as he stroked down the length.

     Hermione smiled over at them, and sunk gracefully down to her knees. She leaned in and took Harry in her mouth. His hand tightened on Ron's cock, and he groaned, both boys groaned, and Hermione grinned up at them.

     Ron stared, fascinated, watching Hermione suck and lick and kiss Harry's cock. It was impossible to believe that he was seeing Hermione, his Hermione, drawing Harry's penis into her mouth.

     “How does that feel, mate?” he breathed.

     “Oh, man, Ron...” Harry's words escaped him in a sigh. “Oh, you have no idea!”

     Hermione leaned back away from Harry, grinned up at Ron. “Would you like to, Ron?”

     And now she was leaning over to Ron's penis, and he shuddered at the soft heat of her mouth as she drew him in, her lips sliding up part of his length to meet Harry's stroking hand.

     Her tongue traced a wavering path around his shaft as she backed away again, and she looked up, first into his eyes, and then Harry's. Her own eyes suddenly widened. “Oh!” she said.

     Ron looked over at Harry, who was staring down at Hermione's face, at Ron's cock, eyes wide, mouth slightly open, his expression... hungry?

     “Would you like to help me, Harry?” asked Hermione, her voice as calm as if she were asking for more ink or another quill.

     Harry's eyes snapped to Ron's, and they gazed wildly at one another for a moment, and then Harry sank to his knees beside Hermione. She leaned in towards Ron's cock from the right, began kissing and nibbling the head with her lips, her warm brown eyes locked on Harry's and after a moment, he leaned in, and his lips parted over his side of Ron's erection. They both licked and nibbled and sucked at the head, sharing occasional kisses around it, and then started taking turns, Harry licking and sucking Ron's glans, while Hermione leaned beneath him and lapped slowly at Ron's balls, then switching places.

     They were back in a shared kiss around the head of his cock, their eyes gazing lovingly up into his, when he came messily over their cheeks and hair. Harry grinned up at him as he leaned over to lap the residue from Hermione's cheek with slow, soft motions of his tongue, and Ron thought he was going to come again on the spot just from the sight of them, licking his jism from one another's faces.

     They rose, then, and pulled him into kisses, first Hermione, then Harry, and then Harry was moving his hand down her belly, down through her curls.

     “Harry,” said Hermione, “what are you doing?

     Harry looked confused. “Don't you want me to wank you?”

     “Not when I can have you fuck me against the wall of the shower,” she said, her fingers moving over Harry's cock in a soundless Prophilaxus.

     “Buggering fuck!” said Ron.

     Harry ended up with his elbows hooked under Hermione's knees, her back against the tiled wall, and Ron knelt beside them staring up in fascination at Harry's cock sliding into her. She seemed so open, somehow, her legs spread into Harry's arms, her labia spreading around Harry's cock, her arse-cheeks spread to reveal a remarkably sweet-looking pink pucker...

     “Harry, pull out a sec,” said Ron, and Harry did so on his next stroke, drawing a momentary sound of protest from Hermione, which died in her throat as Ron's long finger slid into her in his place. Ron took a moment to find the spot, and rubbed it with the calloused pad of his finger, then drew it slowly out, shining with her juices, and grinned up at Harry. “Carry on, mate!”

     As Harry's cock entered her again – Merlin's balls, that was a sight! – Ron reached up with his slick, shining finger, and worked it into Hermione's anus. Pressing deeper and deeper, exploring as he went.

 Illustration by GlockGal

     Hermione gasped and squealed – “Oh my God, Ron! Oh, my God!” – bucked against Harry, whose strokes were becoming faster now, his balls slapping against Ron's hand.

     Ron's own prick was hard again, as he fucked Hermione's arse with his finger, and watched Harry's cock slamming into her, and she threw back her head, and cried out, “Oh, fuck, Ron, my parents are a great influence!”

     “Holy fuck!” cried Harry, and he was suddenly stiff and still, as deep within Hermione as he could go, the taut muscles of his legs trembling, his head thrown back, and then Hermione was crying out as well, her arse clenching around his finger, her hands and legs trying to pull Harry closer.

     The were frozen in that tableau for a long, long moment, the only motion the water pounding down on them, and then Harry withdrew from her, his cock surrounded by a glistening white envelope, and as Hermione's fingers drew it off of him, muttering “Finite Incantatum,” the white glob of semen simply disappeared, consumed by the release of Prophilaxus.

     “I definitely prefer Barricadus,” Hermione said. “I loved it last night when I could feel you ejaculating into me.” She looked down at Ron. “So cast it, would you, love? Then come up here and fuck me good and proper!”

     Ron grinned as he reached with the fingers of his other hand for her center.

     It was about an hour later that they worked their way down stairs, Harry carrying his trunk and Hedwig's cage, Ron carrying his own trunk and Hermione's, Hermione walking a little gingerly between them, one hand stretched out to each of her boys. By the time Ron had finished, Harry had been ready again, and by the time Harry'd finished again – and it had taken a lot longer this time – Ron had been hard. Now Hermione's gait was a little tentative, and her face was split in a smile that wouldn't go away.

     Remus and Sirius were waiting for them in the living room, chatting amiably.

     Sirius' eyes lit up as they entered the room, focusing on Hermione. “I recognize that walk, Clever Boots,” he said, grinning. “You're walking the walk of the well and truly—”

     “Sirius!” cried Remus. “You really aren't, in fact, seventeen any more.”

     Hermione blushed, but her smile didn't fade as her eyes moved back and forth between her boys.

     Harry was looking around, his expression puzzled. “Where are the Dursleys?”

     Lupin looked embarrassed. “Oh! Yes, well...” He pointed his wand at the door into the kitchen, and said, “Finite Incantatum.

     “--ther thing!” bellowed Vernon Dursley's voice. “If you think you can-- Oi! How'd we get in here?

     Hermione seemed to be trying to sound scandalized: “You used magic on Muggles?”

     “I'll pay the fine,” Sirius growled.

     With a sound like a cattle stampede, Dursley came storming out of the kitchen, his wide-eyed wife and somewhat tired-looking son following.

     But whatever Vernon had been about to say, the sight of his nephew and his two friends, their trunks packed and ready to go, derailed him, and he instead smiled with grim satisfaction. “So you're off, then.”

     “That's right, Uncle Vernon,” said Harry, quietly.

     “Well, good riddance to you, and your insolent, indecent deviant freak friends!” He turned again, and stormed back into the kitchen.

     Petunia sniffed and turned to follow, reaching for Dudley's elbow to bring him with her, but she shrugged her off, stepping towards his cousin.

     “Dudley! What do you think you're doing!” she shrieked, but her ignored her.

     “Good-bye, Harry,” he said, holding out his hand.

     Harry swallowed and took it, shook it once. “Bye, Dudley. Have a good summer.”

     The fat boy turned to Ron, offered the hand again. “Ron.”

     “Thanks, Dudley,” said Ron, shaking his hand equably as Petunia gasped in horror.

     He looked over at Hermione, who approached him by a single step, put her hands on his fat biceps, and kissed him gently on the cheek. “Goodbye, Dudley,” she said, softly, as Petunia shrieked in horror. “Good luck.”

     Dudley blushed, then turned to Remus and Sirius. “Gentlemen,” he said, nodding at them, and turned and stepped into the kitchen, his mother following, hissing imprecations at him.

     Sirius' eyebrows rose. “By Godric, I think there may be some hope for that boy yet!”

     “Well, come on,” said Remus, taking Hermione's trunk from Ron. “The Portkey's out back.”

     When they arrived in front of the Burrow, Ginny was standing outside, waiting for them. Remus and Sirius grinned at her as they passed, carrying the Trio's trunks into the house. Ginny simply stood for a long moment, regarding them, and then strode forward.

     As she came within range, she drew back her fist and punched Hermione very hard in the upper arm, and while the older girl was still crying out, she spun to face Harry, grabbed him by the front of his t-shirt, and pulled his face down to hers. Her mouth was already open before it met Harry's and he squirmed in her grasp as she kissed him, quite thoroughly.

     “That's what you miss!” she told him, breaking the kiss, and then turned back to Hermione, and stepped against her, wrapping her arms around her in a warm embrace.

     “Thank you, Hermione,” she murmured, her eyes closed. “Thank you for saving my--” her breath hitched. “My brothers! Thank you so much.”

     She stepped back away again, and held out her hand to Ron. “Well, come on,” she said. “There's a party in there!”

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen: Celebration, Memory, and Intent

            The hugs started just inside the front door. Molly Weasley had her arms around her youngest son before he'd entirely crossed the threshold, and squeezed him as though she was trying to get the last bit of toothpaste out of him before buying a new tube.

            “I love ya, mum,” Ron managed squeak out, planting a surprisingly tender kiss atop her head.

            “Oh, my Ronnie! I've missed you so much! I'm so very glad to have you home!” Molly passed him on to his father, and turned to Hermione, enveloping her, as well. “Oh Hermione!” she breathed. “You saved them. You saved my boys. Thank you, so very much.”

            Hermione returned the embrace as best she could with Ron's elbow dragging hers around as he hugged his father. “I'm so glad to see you, Mrs. Weasley.”

            “There will be none of that!” Ron's mother told her. “You're family now. You're my daughter-in-law. As you already have a Mum, you'll call me Molly, all right?”

            Hermione looked at her, wide-eyed. “I... That will take some getting used to.”

            Molly Weasley looked knowingly back and forth between her and her boys, her eyes seeming to see last night's events and this morning's, and Hermione blushed deeply. Molly smiled at her. “I'm confident, my dear, that you can get used to rather a lot.”

            She leaned over and kissed Hermione on the cheek, smiling warmly. “You're good to them, dear. Good for them. That's all I ever wanted.”

            Hermione managed to smile, her eyes filling. “Thank you, Mi– Molly.”

            Molly Weasley reached up, petted her hair with a smile, and turned her gently towards Arthur, who didn't relinquish his grip on Ron, but gathered Hermione into that embrace as his wife turned to Harry.

            “Happy birthday, Harry! How wonderful to have you back!” She kissed his cheek, ran a hand through his hair, tucking a stray bit behind his ear, only to have it immediately wrestle free again. She held him at arm's length. “Look at you. You're looking underfed again. Of course, since you're never at the dinner table without my Ronnie, I suppose that's to be expected.”

            “Oi!” cried Ron, looking over from his father's embrace, “I heard that!”

            Arthur grinned at his son, nodding his head towards Hermione. “Your mother's been quite the joker since the Grangers came to visit,” he said. “I think a little of David may have rubbed off on her.”

            “Yes, well, David did remind me, dear, there's no reason being a parent means you can't have a little fun!” She turned back to Harry. “Not to worry, dear. I'll be getting a little more meat on your bones!”

            Harry smiled back at the openhearted woman who had so freely given him her love, so thoroughly welcomed him into her heart and home, for all the danger that followed him. “Thank you M– Molly?”

            “That's right, dear,” she told him with a smile, and turned him toward her husband, who simply gathered Harry into his arms, squeezed him together with Ron and Hermione, grinning and winking at him.

            “Welcome home, Harry,” he finally said. “Welcome home, all of you!”

            “Oi!” came a cry from beyond him. “Share! We get a turn!”

            And Fred was practically dragging Ron from his father's arms, squeezing him in a bear hug, and pounding on his back. “Oh, Ickle Ronnikins! We've missed you so!”

            Ron laughed. “Been a long week, has it?”

            For a moment, Fred's eyes were very serious. “Yeah. It's lasted ten years. Most of it between when you lot disappeared into the woods, and when Hagrid reported in from Little Whinging.”

            “You did good, little bro,” said George, with equal solemnity.

            Ron rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I especially liked the part where we got caught sleeping by a Death Eater. Real genius, that was. Better than Accio brain!

            “You were supposed to stay awake indefinitely, were you?” asked Fred.

            “It's a cool new game,” Ron replied. “Sleeping in shifts! All the cool kids do it when being hunted by homicidal maniacs.” He looked seriously at his brothers. “Look, I stuffed it up. I know I did. I'll do better next time. That's all there is to it, really.”

            Then Hermione was moving against him, her arm around him, and Fred waggled his eyebrows comically as he opened his embrace to gather her in as well. But the arm that gathered her in was strong and comforting, the touch protective and welcoming, and the kiss he pressed into her forehead was tender and loving and brotherly.

            Then, as George was grabbing Ron into an embrace, actually pulling him into the living room, Fred was clasping Harry to him, pounding his back with brotherly enthusiasm. “Hey, Harry!”

            Then Bill was pulling Ron from his brother's arms as George brought a hand up to Hermione's cheek.

            “You're a hell of a girl, “ George was telling Hermione, and Bill was telling Ron, “Man, I'm glad to see you!”

            “Too bad his bride-to-be isn't here, Ron” chimed in Fred. “You'd like that!”

            Hermione's face swung toward Bill even as she gently patted George's cheek. “Bride-to-be? Bill?”

            Bill glanced over at her. “Oh, yeah, that's right, you lot haven't heard yet. I'm engaged. Fleur wanted to be here to say hello.”

            “Fleur?” asked a wide-eyed Ron. “Delacour?”

            “Yeah,” said Bill. “She's been working with us at Gringott's and, well...”

            “She's working at Gringott's now?” asked Harry, extending a hand to Bill only to be pulled into the embrace with Ron and Hermione.

            Bill treated them all to a brotherly squeeze. “Since she graduated. She's a charmer.”

            “I'll say!” said Ron, and Bill shot him a warning look.

            “Down, boy!” he said, as Hermione smacked Ron's shoulder and Harry shook his head. “That kind of talk is hardly befitting a married man, now is it? And right in front of your wife. And your husband!”

            Ron's eyes widened, and he stared at Harry, nearly in panic. Could they tell?

            “That's right, mate,” Bill cackled at his brother. “Now Harry's sixteen, you lot are legally Husbands and Wife! And here I thought Fleur and I would be the first to make Mum delirious!”

            “Well,” Hermione told him with a fond poke in the ribs, “You'll just have to start working on beating us to grandchildren, won't you?”

            It was as if Molly Weasley had Apparated to her daughter-in-law's side. “Now, Hermione, dear,” she was saying hurriedly, “there's no need to make a race of it!”

            “Yeah, Hermione,” cackled George, and Fred completed the sentence, “These blokes here have only just figured out that they're your husbands!”

            “No need,” added George, “to make 'em think about being dads in the bargain!”

            “Merlin!” cried Ron. “You can say that again!”

            But Harry was still looking across at Ron, his face serious and still.

            Bill jerked his thumb toward the kitchen. “Food's in there! Come on!”

            As they turned toward that door, Harry moved past, behind Hermione, and reached down to take Ron's other hand, twining his fingers through Ron's longer, freckled ones. Ron squeezed for barely a heartbeat, then froze, staring first down at their fingers, then, eyes widening again, at Harry, then around at his family, his expression panicked.

            Molly gasped, her hand going to her mouth, and Fred's eyes widened. Hermione said, very quietly, “Oh!” and squeezed his fingers warmly, leaning in to softly kiss his neck.

            Ron glanced down at her, and her warm, brown eyes stared into his, loving, affirming, as she nodded, almost imperceptibly, in the suddenly-silent room.

            Ron's gaze held hers for a long moment then, the ticking of his mother's clock loud through the kitchen door, before he leaned over and kissed her, kissed his wife, chastely but unhurriedly, before turning to Harry, to his best mate... to his husband.

            Harry's green eyes were solemn.

            Ron gave his hand a gentle tug, and leaned in, kissing him, kissing his husband, as he had his wife, chastely, unhurriedly. Lovingly.

            Behind them, Sirius' voice let out a loud ‘Whoop!’ and Fred and George wolf-whistled as Bill blinked rapidly in surprise. Ron looked over at his mother, who still stared wide-eyed, her face pale, and her hand to her mouth. Ron's dad stepped up beside her, took her other hand, and smiled a complex smile at his son, a smile made of equal parts shock, sadness, and pride.

            Arthur Weasley's voice was just a bit husky as he spoke. “All right, son. You heard your brother. Food's in the kitchen.”

            Ron sat back away from the table, smiling up at his mother, near the head, who smiled back, a little distractedly. She'd been very quiet since he'd kissed his spouses that morning– well, no. She'd been very quiet since he'd kissed Harry. She'd been kind, and gentle, and fed them vast helpings of Harry's Birthday Brunch, a feast of waffles and scrambled eggs and fresh fruit and warm-from-the-oven bread and several kinds of muffins, dairy-fresh butter and real maple syrup that Bill had used his benefits as a Gringott's employee to Apparate to Vermont, in the States, to bring back in a grey stoneware jug from a small farm “upstate.” ("It's what the Americans do," Bill had explained. "Butter and this stuff on your waffles. It's really very good, actually.")

            They'd only started eating when Angelina had arrived, giving Harry a friendly hug, a peck on the cheek, and an official “New Amsterdam Travelers” team robe, with his name across the shoulders, his number from the Gryffindor house team in the center of the back, and a parchment scroll certifying that Harry was an “Honorary Member in Good Standing of the New Amsterdam Travelers.”

            As she'd sat beside Fred, he'd elbowed her gently in the ribs. “Yeah, so guess who Ron's snogging now! Harry!

            Angelina had chuckled. “Well, who can blame him? I've been tempted to snog the little bloke myself.” She'd winked at Harry. “Usually right after he caught the snitch in a game against Slytherin! And I know Oliver at least considered it!”

            Fred and George had guffawed as Harry blushed, burying his face in his hands. But Ron's mum had suddenly stood and busied herself at the stove.

            Ron glanced over at Harry, working on his second waffle. He loved him. He did. He couldn't deny it, not now, not after last night, when the impulse to kiss him, as he had Hermione, had become overwhelming. But he felt odd about expressing it that openly in front of his whole family like that. Didn't his mum have enough to deal with? Hell, didn't he?

            “Pardon us,” said Hermione, quite suddenly. “I'm afraid I need to use the loo.”

            They stood together, and soon Harry and Ron were perched on the edge of the downstairs bathtub as Hermione pulled down her light-brown corduroys and rainbow-striped cotton knickers. Ron smiled at the sight. Her bum was so wonderfully round, with those wonderful little dimples at the top, and he adored the glimpse of pink folds among the triangle of coarse brown curls as she turned and sat on the toilet.

            She smiled shyly at Ron, blushing as she always did when the first fluid sounds echoed from the bowl, then reached to take Harry's hand.

             “Harry,” she said, quietly, “what's going on?”

            Harry frowned at her. “What do you mean?”

            Hermione just looked at him with a blank face.

            After a moment, Harry broke her gaze, fidgeting uncomfortably. “I... I felt like Ron was afraid his family would find out about us.”

            “So you thought Ron was afraid of something, and your response was to throw him in the deep end of it?”

            Harry sucked his lower lip between his teeth, looked down at his trainers.

            Ron put a hand on his shoulder. “Mate...?”

            Harry's eyes closed. “I'm not ashamed,” he finally mumbled. “I'm not ashamed of loving you.”

            “Oh, for fuck's sake, Harry!” cried Ron. “I'm not ashamed of you! It's just... It's a lot to take in, innit? My mum, for fuck's sake, is barely ready to deal with the concept that I'm snogging Hermione, and she took one look at her this morning and knows we're shagging–”

            Hermione buried her face in her hands.

            “Well, sorry, Love, but you know she did.” Ron's hand stroked gently down the back of her head.

            Hermione nodded up at him, reached for the loo roll.

            Ron turned back to Harry. “I'm not ashamed of you, mate. I love you. You know that, right?”

            Harry stared down at his trainers.

            Ron reached a hand, drew Harry's face around, looked frankly into his green eyes. “I love you, Harry. Listen to me. I love you.” He leaned in, then, and kissed Harry, lips and tongue gentle as they gained entrance, mouths parting, finally, with a soft pop. “You got that, mate?”

            Hermione reached down into the pocket of her trousers, pooled around her ankles, and pulled out a foil-wrapped “moist towelette,” with which she then wiped herself, before dropping it and its foil package between her thighs, to be dealt with by the magical plumbing.

            Harry swallowed, looking over at Ron. “I– I love you, Ron.”

            “I know ya do, ya great pillock!” said Ron, and kissed him again. “But can we please not freak my mum out about it any more than necessary?”

            Hermione stood and turned to flush, and Ron caught the familiar fresh, fruity scent of the towelette from her fanny. He leaned his face against her abdomen, burying his long nose in her curls, as his hand slid up the back of one silky thigh to caress her bum.

            “I love those cleaning things,” said Ron, and pressed a gentle kiss onto the clean pink folds peaking out from the dark curls.

            Hermione's eyes slid closed. “God, Ron, don't do that.”

            “I'm only human, love,” Ron replied, with a gentle smile.

            “But I just peed!” she cried, a little distressed.

            “Don't worry, love,” Ron chuckled. “You did a great job with the fruit-thingie.”

            Then Harry was leaning around her, gently kissing her buttock, running his tongue slowly up the cleft, and her breath shuddered out of her. He stood, his fingers tracing gently up her thigh to her bum, sliding around one rounded cheek and into the now-moistened cleft, the pad of his middle finger playing with her anus as he tipped his head around to kiss her softly on the mouth.

            “I know I've been all flailing and emotional and that about Ron today, love, but I don't want you to think I've forgotten you.” Harry told her. “I love you so very much. I just... I kind of feel like I know how to love you, you know? I've seen it. Sort of. You know what I mean.”

            “Ron's a whole new world for you, isn't he, Harry?”

            Harry nodded, looking her in her brown eyes, still absent-mindedly teasing her anus with his fingertip.

            “I'll help you Harry,” she told him. “I helped you this morning, didn't I?”

            Ron groaned quietly as Harry nodded.

            “I'll help you love Ron. I'll help you find your way.”

            She kissed him again, then Ron leaned in, nudging his face in amongst theirs and the kiss managed to share itself among the three of them, lips and tongues sliding together as noses bumped awkwardly.

            “Now, if you boys will be kind enough to help me...”

            Harry smiled as he squatted, planting a last soft, sweet kiss on her bum as he drew her knickers up her legs, then Ron pulled them back down again for a moment to press another gentle kiss into her labia as he pulled up her trousers, doing her zip for her as Harry closed the button and then her belt.

            The three faces joined again in another brief kiss, three pairs of arms cuddled three bodies together, and, finally, three voices sighed contentedly.

            “Finally!” cried Sirius, as they stepped back out of the bathroom. He started to sidle by them, stopped, and dramatically fanned the air in front of his face, saying, “Woah!” He leaned over, and said, very quietly, “Silencing charms are your friends. You're in a house full of qualified witches and wizards, and the Ministry can't possibly catch you. I've been out here covering for you since For fuck's sake.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Now, look disgusted and smack me, Clever Boots, and then get back in the kitchen before the Boy-Who-Scoffed misses the rest of his Birthday Brunch!”

            Tonks arrived a half-hour or so later, bringing Harry a book on shield charms. She handed it to him with a friendly whack on the shoulder, then, with a muttered, “Oh, the hell with it!” she pulled him into a hug and kissed his cheek.

            Sometime after that Kingsley Shacklebolt arrived, bearing a “Chudley Cannons Pro Quidditch” game: miniature players, an inch tall, who would fly and obey Harry's commands. “It's supposed to be for little children, but I have to tell you the truth, Harry, I play with it myself. And it can be charmed to follow the play-by-play when you listen to a game on the wireless.  Almost like going in person... Well, no, not really.”

            He declined, however, much to the twins’ disappointment, to kiss Harry. “Spoilsport!” cried George, as Fred added, “Everybody else is!”

            The twins, as it turned out, had two packages for Harry. The first was a lovely set of Omnioculars. (“You may not be able to play, but you can watch games in high style!” Fred told him.) The second was a medium-sized parcel, wrapped in plain brown paper. (“Don't open that until you three are alone!” said George.)

            Sirius brought him a soft-but-bulky package that contained three sets of robes – school robes, casual robes, and dress robes – for each of them.

            “Thanks, Sirius,” Harry said, smiling politely.

            Sirius grinned at him. “You should know me better than that, Harry! Try them on, all three of you, try them on!”

            Harry nodded and handed their casual robes to Ron and Hermione, then shrugged into his own, careful to keep his sandaled feet touching Ron's and Hermione's so they could all pull the robes on without difficulty.

            “They look good,” said Sirius. “Very sharp! Now, lean your arms against one another's.”

            Harry spread his arms toward Ron's and Hermione's, and, to his surprise, felt bare skin against his, the only sign that there were robes in between a very slight and pleasurable tingle of magic at the edges of their contact.

            The glanced back and forth at one another, eyes wide, as Sirius smiled.

            “Thought you'd like that!” he cried.

            “I don't understand,” said Hermione, gathering the edge of her sleeve between her fingers. “It's not an illusion, I can feel the fabric!”

            Sirius' grin became wicked. “I had 'em custom made for you. You've heard of Solange Delacour, Fleur's aunt?”

            Suddenly, Bill was laughing appreciatively, and Sirius glanced over at him, tipping his head in acknowledgment.

            “I remember that she's a professional charmer of some sort,” Harry said vaguely, “Fleur said something about it in the tent before the First Task.”

            “Well,” Sirius allowed, “she's better known by her maiden name: Solange Clemence.”

            Ron's eyes widened, and Molly gasped, as Hermione said, “Oh! Yes, I've heard of her! 'The Courtier's Couturier!” Suddenly she was flushing, bright scarlet. “Sirius! These are sex robes!

             Sirius winked devilishly at her. “If you like, Clever Boots, if you like!”

            “Sirius!” came Molly's voice, her tone shocked, “I hardly think that's appropriate!”

            “Molly,” began Sirius, patiently, “Whatever it was made for, surely you can–”

            “Not the robes, you silly man! They're a wonderful, practical gift, and I wish I'd thought of it! But, honestly, making leering, smutty jokes like that, as if you're lusting after my sixteen-year-old daughter-in-law! And in front of her husbands! I thought better than that of you, Sirius!”

            Sirius took a step backwards, his face abashed, before turning a quiet gaze on Hermione. “Is that how you feel about it, Clever Boots?”

            “No, Sirius, I know you're not perving after me.” She glanced over at Mrs. Weasley. “But...”

            “But a little sensitivity to our hostess' sensibilities would certainly not come amiss!” finished Sirius. “Too right, Clever Boots, too right!” He turned back. “Molly, I apologize. I let myself forget too often that I'm not seventeen anymore.”

            Harry was frowning. “So... Fleur's aunt makes robes that...” he paused, trying to describe it. “That, er, disappear where they touch one another?”

            “Not quite, Harry,” said Hermione. “They disappear where they come between you and the touch of a loved one.”

            Sirius nodded. “One week from today, we're going to start some defense training. Remus and Tonks have agreed to help out. Wear these robes, with shorts and sleeveless shirts under them. That's what these are for.” He winked at Hermione. “Any fringe benefits you come up with are none of my concern!”

            Remus Lupin brought Harry a Muggle-style CD player that had been charmed to work by magic instead of electronics, and a selection of old Jazz CDs. “I especially recommend Nina Simone. Her version of 'Sinnerman' is just stunning.” He paused. “But, whatever you do, don't talk while she's singing. She gets a little... tetchy.”

            About ten minutes after that, Harry leaned over to Ron, and murmured, “I've not seen Ginny since we came in. I hope she's all right.”

            Ron frowned at him. “What'd'ya mean?”

            “I think she may be embarrassed about the way she hit Hermione.”

            “Well, she shouldn't be,” Ron sniggered. “She did it really well!”

            “Oh, very funny!” Hermione pouted, rubbing her arm. “I'll have you know, that really hurt.”

            “Here,” said Harry, “let me.” He took her arm between his hands, watching in fascination as his fingers sank through the soft fabric of her new robe as if it weren't there, and gently pushed up the sleeve of the T-Shirt she wore beneath.

            “Haaaarr-eeee!” she squealed, blushing, as he leaned in, his lips sinking through the cloth, and pressed a soft, sweet, chaste kiss onto her bicep, dead-center of the dull ache where Ginny's punch had landed.

            “Suck-up!” Ron tossed a strawberry at him as he leaned up again, and Harry deftly caught it in his mouth.

            “Thanks, mate!” he laughed. “But next time, dip it in sugar, will you?”

            “Jammy git!” cried Ron, reaching for a waffle, but his mother's voice stopped him short.

            “Ronald Weasley! If that's for eating, your plate's not empty! And you're certainly not using it as a projectile!”

            Ron was opening his mouth to reply, face abashed, when a fork stabbed into the waffle, dangerously close to his fingers.

            “I'll take it,” said Ginny, sitting down beside him even as she transferred the waffle to her empty plate.

            Hermione leaned forward, smiling around Ron at her. “Glad you're back, Gin.” Her eyes flickered down a bit. “Is that a package beside you?”

            Ginny's responding smile was a bit tremulous. “Yeah.” She held out the rectangular package to Harry. “I, uh.... I walked down to the W.H. Smith's in town. Wizards don't write books about this stuff.”

            Harry smiled as he tore open the wrapping, and found himself holding a hardcover book. “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Information on Women's Health and Sexuality,” proclaimed the cover. “Uhh...” Harry looked, wide-eyed, up at her. “I... Thanks?”

            Ginny looked seriously about him. “You're attached to one of these now, and I, er, I don't figure your useless Muggles taught you much of anything! So I thought you should, well, should be able to learn about this stuff. I'm sure Her–” She bit her lip. “I'm sure Hermione will help you.”

            Hermione's breath caught, and Harry's smile at Ginny was quite genuine. “Thanks, Gin.” He glanced down at the book again, turning it over to see the back cover. “It's very thoughtful.”

            Ron chortled. “A book? You got Harry a book for his birthday? Who are you, Hermione?

            Hermione was already tutting across Harry at him when Ginny cried, “No, Ron, that's your job! You're holding him and snogging him, just like her! Are you shagging him, too?”

            Mrs. Weasley's eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to speak, but stopped herself, with a visible effort, as Harry stood, crossing behind Ron, his left hand carelessly bringing Hermione's over to Ron, bringing Ron's hand to his own side as he pulled Ginny to her feet, and enveloped her in a hug.

            “I'm sorry, Gin,” he murmured to her, stroking her hair. “I don't want to hurt you. I thought... I thought we were OK. I thought you'd put me behind you. I thought you'd moved on.”

            “I thought so, too,” came her voice from his chest. “But all I did was outgrow a crush, and start to love.” she stepped away from him. “I want your life to be good, Harry. I want you and my brother and my friend to all be happy together. I do. But I can't pretend it doesn't hurt, Harry. Seeing her love you. Seeing him love you. Seeing you love them. I'm trying to be big enough, Harry, I really am.”

            “I'm sorry, Gin,” said Harry, pulling her back into his arms, and then Ron was there, joining that embrace, kissing her cheek.

            “You know you're still my favorite sister, yeah?” he murmured to her, as Hermione came around the other side of Harry, arms around Ginny, forehead pressed down against her cheek.

            “Merlin!” cried Fred – somehow, not even seeing, they could tell that was Fred – “Look at that! It's like they're going to absorb her!”

            “There'll be nothing left of our baby sister,” added George, “but a wisp of pink smoke that smells of strawberries!”

            It was another couple of hours before the party had wound down, Shacklebolt and Tonks having left for the Auror office and Remus Lupin making excuses and flooing off to the Den, something in his tone reminding Harry that it would be the first night of the full moon.

            Sirius came and squatted behind them. “Shall we go take a look at your digs?”

            Ron glanced around at Sirius. “Having lived in it for sixteen-and-a-half years, mate, I think I've got a pretty good idea what my room looks like.”

            “Oh, no, Ronnie,” said Molly, “With the three of you, we thought that would be too crowded. You'll be in the front hall cupboard instead.”

            Harry's and Hermione's eyes widened, as Ron said, “Oh, cool!”

            “That's... cool?” asked Harry. He knew enough of magic – and, of course, of Mrs– of Molly – to know it would, in fact, be all right. But still, he had to ask.

            Ron smirked over at him. “Don't worry, mate, it's not under the stairs.”

            “Come on,” said Sirius, with a tilt of his head. “I'll show you.”

            “Oi!” said Ron, staring wide-eyed around the living room of the tent. “This isn't ours!”

            His father smiled, clapping him on the shoulder. “No, son. The Ministry loaned us this tent for the Grangers, and extended the loan for you three.”

            “Wicked!” said Ron. He pointed to a window. “Look, it's the deluxe version!”

            Arthur smiled at his son's enthusiasm, and nodded to Sirius. “I'll leave you to it, then.”

            “To what?” asked Ron, as Arthur clapped him on the shoulder once more, and headed for the door-flap.

            Sirius smiled. “Come on,” he said, “I'll show you.”

            He brought them over into the living room of the tent, and gestured over toward the coffee table. On it sat a carved, stone bowl, and Harry gasped.

            “Albus loaned this to us. It's for you, Clever Boots,” said Sirius. “Come on.”

            He brought them over to the comfortable sofa – Hermione recognized it with a start as one she'd grown up with, one she'd sat on, snug between her boys, as her parents had talked to them about sex – and gestured toward the intricately-runed stone bowl, as he sat opposite them on her dad's chair.

            “Remember what I told you, last week, Clever Boots? Through the mirror? Your parents did say good-bye to you.”

            “Oh!” said Hermione, her voice catching, as Sirius put his wand to his temple, and drew out long, silvery strands of light, of memory.

            He regarded them for a long moment, dancing around the end of his wand, then transferred them gently down to the Pensieve.

            “Here we go, Clever Boots,” he said, reaching across to touch her hand. “Just lean in with me...”

            She brought her face down toward the bowl, seeing Sirius leaning in before her, and suddenly she was falling, tumbling, to land, feet first, just inside the door of the very room they were in.

            Sirius stood beside her, and another Sirius paced nervously opposite them, running his hands through his hair. In their familiar chairs opposite the couch sat her parents.

            Suddenly, she was staring around, wide-eyed, a sick, yawning feeling in the pit of her stomach. Where were her boys!?!?

            “Easy, Clever Boots,” Sirius told her, “You're in the Pensieve, remember. It's all right.”

            “No, no,” she was saying, feeling lost, isolated and out of true. “No, this isn't right.”

            And suddenly Harry and Ron were at her side. They looked around, surprised, as she breathed a deep sigh and pulled them against her.

            “Did you decide to come in?” Sirius asked Harry.

            Harry shook his head. “No. I just, I just felt--”

            “Something was wrong,” said Ron, and Harry nodded fervently.

            “Hermione needed us. I knew that. I could feel it. Hermione needed us--”

            “An' we were here!” breathed Ron.

            “Interesting,” breathed Hermione, her voice gaining strength and normalcy as she spoke. “Obviously, it's the Nuptialis Unum. But did it bring you because I needed you? Or did you just follow naturally?”

            Sirius – her Sirius, put a hand on her arm, and pointed to his week-younger self, who was telling her parents, “She'll be sitting right over there on that couch. Right in the middle. Just think about her sitting there, and tell her what you want to.”

            Hermione was moving over, sitting in her familiar place on the couch, Harry and Ron to either side of her.

            The memory of her father sat in his familiar chair, and leaned forward, looking her directly in the eye. “Hello, Hermione.”

            “Hi, Daddy,” she murmured, her voice barely a breath.

            “I'm sure right now, you're still pretty angry with me, with us.” He reached over and took his wife's hand. “I– We know how awful it is to know that someone you love so desperately has put themselves in grave danger, and there's nothing you can do about it.”

            Hermione flushed, looked at the floor.

            “Don't feel badly, darling,” said the memory of her mother. “We always taught you to fight the Good Fight. To do what's right, even if it has a cost. We've always respected that you've taken those lessons to heart.”

            “But we're not much good, lovely,” said her father, “if we don't follow our own advice. This terrible war has claimed too many lives. We can't hide our heads, and hope it will leave us safe. People are dying, we have to fight for them, and this was the only weapon we had to wield.”

            Jane leaned forward, and, she, too, seemed to be looking directly into Hermione's eyes. And why not? No one knew her better, where she'd sit, how she'd sit, the angle she'd hold her head at. No one knew her better... Except the two boys holding her hands, rubbing he back gently as she heard her parents' words.

            “Darling, the Order is taking wonderful care of us,” said Jane Granger. “There's a safe hiding place waiting for us, this Mister...” She glanced over at the memory of Sirius by the door. “What did you call him?”

            “Mister Squizzical,” said Sirius, quietly. “S. Quince Ezekial.” He looked over at the couch, his line of sight just above Hermione's head. “He's a good man. A retired Auror. I'll tell you about him.”

            “So, we'll be safe as houses,” Jane said. “And Voldemort will be angry enough to make stupid mistakes.” She drew in a breath. “We're very proud of you, darling, for standing with Harry and Ron in this awful war. Please be proud of us for doing our parts.”

            Tears welled in her eyes. “I wish we could see you again, say our farewells in person. But there's no time for that. It's just too dangerous. I love you very much, darling Hermione. We both do. And we already miss you terribly.”

            A harsh sob tore from Hermione's throat as her father leaned forward yet again. “I'm sure you're crying now, Hermione,” he said quietly, “and doing your best not to. I hope you'll let it out. Turn to your boys. Turn to your loves. You can always count on them.” He looked to Hermione's right, then left. “Ron,” he said. “Harry.” Jane's eyes snapped up to him, and he said, “Come on, now love, you know they'll be there with her.” He turned his attention back to what had been, at the time, an empty sofa. “You remember what I said to you that first night? It still holds, boys. I'm trusting you with my daughter. Take care of her. Keep her as safe as she'll let you.” He turned back to look again right into the spot where he had already known, more than a week earlier, Hermione's eyes would be. “Take care of your boys, Hermione. And take care of yourself. And I'll see you as soon as I can. I love you, we both love you, very, very much.”

            The memory of Remus Lupin poked in through the door, gently touched the younger Sirius' shoulder. “Portkey's ready. It's time.”

            The memory of Sirius moved toward the Grangers, but David stilled him with a raised hand.

            “Hermione, lovely... You've always done the right thing.”

            “Always,” added Jane.

            “You keep doing it. We'll come back to you.”

            “As soon as we can, darling,” Jane said. “As soon as we can.”

            “We love you,” David said. “We love you and we miss you.”

            He stood, reached back to help his wife to her feet. “All right, Sirius, Remus. Let's go meet your Squizzical.”

            The week-younger Sirius nodded, and, as the world went grey, Hermione felt the strangest sensation, like an upward tumbling, and she was sitting back on that same couch, now facing Sirius, her boys still by her sides.

            “Woah!” Ron was saying. “That was bloody weird!

            She glanced over at him, petted his face briefly, reached back to stroke Harry's knee as she turned a fierce gaze toward Sirius. “Tell me about Ezekial.”

            Sirius smiled a bit grimly, satisfaction in his eyes. “He was an Auror, and a damned good one. Worked with the Order in the first war. Retired in disgust when I was sent to Azkaban without trial. Didn't think I was innocent or anything, but thought the Ministry should be better than the Death Eaters. The Ministry kept hounding him to come back – he shamed 'em, made 'em look bad – so he left, moved to Australia. When Vo– When Riddle came back, Squizzical contacted Albus immediately, and offered his services. Albus had me stashed down with him for about a month – he wouldn't hear of it until Albus convinced him I was innocent, by the way! – and so on. We've hidden a few people with him. He's smart, and tough, and brave as hell, and I have trusted him with my life.”

            Hermione nodded, then stood, reaching back to her boys' hands.

            “Thank you,” she said to Sirius, her voice tight. “If you'd please show us which is the bathroom and which is the bedroom, I'd like to be alone with my boys for a bit.”

            Sirius looked at her carefully for a bit. “Am I going to have to annoy you again first? I'd really rather not, because you hit very hard, actually, so if it's all the same to you...”

            Hermione actually managed an amused snort at that as he rose, and stepped over to lean her forehead against his chest. “No, Sirius, you needn't annoy me again. I promise to weep and wail as soon as you've gone.”

            “'Sides,” said Ron, as Sirius leaned in to drop a kiss atop her head, “if she does need annoying, I can handle it. I'm really good at it, in fact.”

            She reached back to smack him, and he stepped away from her, maintaining contact only with a hand on her forearm, so flail as she might, she couldn't actually hit him.

            “See?” He grinned as she huffed her annoyance at him.

            “Right you are, then!” said Sirius, with a grin. He pointed. “Bathroom. Bedroom. Office. Bedroom's all done up for you, Hermione, with your things from home. I'm sure you'll want to redecorate later, but it should do.”

            And with that, he was loping out the front flap of the tent, and closing the cupboard door as well. Hermione led the boys toward the bedroom, but Ron angled them toward the other door.

            “Ron!” huffed Hermione.

            “Sorry, love, but you won't be any happier if I wet the bed.” Ron shrugged. “Sometimes that pumpkin juice goes right through me.”

            She shook her smiling weakly, and they stepped into the loo.

            Harry snuggled her against him as she stood watching Ron urinate, noticing with some amusement how deftly he handled his zip and his penis.

            It was so strange and wonderful, she thought, that this basic, private human activity was something shared between the three of them, not something that made her want to giggle nor squeal with shock, but an interesting feat of logistics, of fastenings to open, of a willy to expose, and to aim. She thought Freud was a bit of a crock, to be honest, and 'Penis Envy' a laughable notion, but she had to admit that it seemed handy to her to be able to stand straight and pee in a directed stream like that.

            “Need a turn, mate?” Ron asked, and Harry nodded, and she watched him, too, as Ron re-arranged himself and zipped up.

            Ron sniggered. “I was too busy minding my aim. Were you watching me like that, too?”

            Now Hermione did blush, as the abstract intellectualism of their strange circumstances resolved, somehow, into I'm watching my boys pee! “Well, it's interesting!

            Ron leaned over, his lips brushing softly against her temple. “S’all right, Hermione Jane. I'm kind of intrigued watching you, too.”

            Harry was blushing mightily as he zipped up. “I don't usually think about it, though,” he told Hermione. “You watching me, I mean.”

            Hermione pulled them both to her, leaned her head into their chests where they merged, breathing deep of their mingled scents. “I love you,” she murmured. “I love being with you, both of you, like this. I love peeing together and bathing together and sleeping together and rubbing together and knowing each other together the way nobody else can possibly know any of us.” When she lifted her head, tears were filling her eyes. “I love crying with you in a toilet because I miss my mum and dad so much. But I'd still rather we cried in bed.”

            And soon that's where they lay together, on the first bed they'd ever shared, holding and caressing Hermione as she wept, stroking and petting her, kissing her tenderly, murmuring quiet nonsense to her.

            Her world was her tears, and their warm bodies, their tender hands and sweet kisses and soft, loving voices, and she'd never felt so safe and protected, never felt so grateful for the circumstances of her life.

            As her tears slowly subsided, kisses slowly went from tender to languorous, caresses found their way to her bum and her breasts and the denim over her mound. She loved this, too, the easy, joyful sensuality, so happy and loving and peaceful. Ron had started to pull her T-shirt over her head, while Harry's nimble fingers were undoing her belt and her zip, and she'd better say something now.

            “I don't want to have sex right now. I'm still kind of.... Well, you know, sore. Down there.”

            Harry didn't even pause in opening her jeans, just glanced over at Ron as he slid his fingers into the waistband of her knickers. She cooperated, lifting her bum as he slid her denims and knickers down her legs. “I feel guilty, Ron, don't you?”

            Ron grinned as he slid her sports-bra up off her breasts, and she raised her arms so he could remove it. “I do,” he told Harry.

            “I think we need to kiss it better,” said Harry, as he wriggled his way down the bed, and Ron's smile widened.

            Hermione shifted up the bed, her legs spreading into a “V”, and half-sat, pillows piled behind her back, so she could look down at her boys, as they moved together, side-by side, between them.

            “Really, Ron,” said Harry, quietly. “Show me what to do.”

            Ron smiled, then leaned over and kissed him, and watching their mouths come together, Hermione gasped, feeling her heart-rate increase.

            “What I read in Fred-an'-George's magazines,” he said, “Is that it's good to tease a bit first. No need to go stampeding right to her fanny, 'cause her thighs are plenty sensitive. Start here, with light, little kisses.”

            He leaned over to the inside of her left thigh, his lips barely grazing her flesh, and Harry watched, with interest, then said, “Got it.”

            Harry's lips were now teasing and tormenting her right thigh, maddeningly out-of-sync with Ron's, and she felt heat building within her, like a covered cauldron on too high a flame.

            “Now, start slowly moving up,” murmured Ron, in a space between feather-light kisses, and his lips and Harrys traced ever so slowly further up toward the apex of her spread thighs. While the individual movements of their mouths were mismatched, creating a dreadful tension between them, their kisses were marching up in terrifying unison toward her center.

            She watched, fascinated, as they moved, red hair and black brushing together as the butterfly-wing brushes of lips and tongues teased their way slowly up her thighs. As they moved up, and the space got tighter, their faces started turning more and more towards one another.

            “Look at her face,” Ron murmured, the warmth of his breath flowing gently up her thigh, so close to the apex. “See how red she's getting?”

            “Oh, fuck, yeah,” breathed Harry, and his breath, too, flowed its delicious warmth over her tender flesh. “Oh, man, Ron, look at that.”

            “We did that, Harry,” Ron replied, his tone satisfied. “You an' me, mate.”

            Harry's laugh sent a warm sirocco flowing up and through the nest of bushy brown hair to warm her mons itself, and Hermione thought for a moment she might pass out from pleasure and desire. “You're the one who told her dad, mate: we always did work well as a team.”

            Ron turned toward him, and Harry's mouth met his in a lingering, open-mouthed kiss, and then Ron's head tipped ever so slightly in indication, and they turned back toward Hermione. They were pressed cheek-to-cheek now, and Ron murmured, “Now, last night, she seemed to like it when I licked up along the lips, the, the labia, like so...”

            His tongue reached, ran slowly up along the left side of her vagina, and he'd barely started before Harry's was working its way up the right.

            Hermione stared down, eyes wide, at her two boys. Their lips were very red, swollen by their kisses, their tongues deft, moving in an unconscious, instinctive rhythm with one another, synchronized and almost eerily precise.

            “God, Ron,” said Harry, “God, the taste of her!” And his breath rolling across her labia as Ron once again licked slowly, languidly, up the left-hand side sent pleasure rolling through her in a wave, and she heard herself squealing softly.

            “See, Harry?” said Ron, as Harry's busy tongue returned to its happy work, and his breath, too, sent electric shivers of warmth through Hermione. “She really likes it. Now, I think it's time to move up...”

            Now their tongues were playing with her clitoris, surrounding it, stroking it, and Harry smiled and moved in to give it a lingering kiss, sucking it gently, and Ron's red lips moved against her, and she felt their tongues sliding together across that hypersensitive bundle of nerves, and it was as if someone had taken hold of a dial inside her, a dial marked “Pleasure” and turned it up, with one savage twist, to “Eleven.”

            Her hands fisted in their hair, pushing their faces harder together, and she cried out their names, back arching, buttocks clenched, pushing her center hard against their mouths, and came, came hard, a thundering explosion of pleasure through her body, electric, cosmic, and she was lost in the waves of it, lost to time and space, tumbling through nothingness with no points of reference but her boys and her slowly subsiding pleasure.

            She lay for a long time, aftershocks arcing through her body like current as they squirmed back up beside her again, stroking and caressing, and Ron gently turned her face to his, and lips were soft, his tongue strong, and he tasted of maple and bacon and eggs and corn muffins and pumpkin juice and her sex. And then Harry's face was nudging against Ron's, and he tasted of sex and breakfast as well.

            She stroked them with trembling hands. They'd shucked off their robes at some point, but still wore their denims and tee-shirts. She felt the hardnesses of them, pressing against her, and her hands moved over those bulges.

            “Do...” her voice was hoarse. “Do you want...?”

            “No, love.”  Ron's voice was gentle as Harry's lips nuzzled softly against her neck, her cheek.

            “You gave us so much,” Harry breathed. “Last night, this morning. This was just for you.”

            Her heart filled and her eyes stung. She tried to work her mouth, but 'I love you' seemed so small, so lame, insufficient unto the task of telling her boys what they meant to her, how much they owned her, heart and mind and body and soul, so she just pulled them close and kissed them, held them and snuggled with them, her fingers moving through their hair and over their backs, her head moving this way and that to taste herself, taste them, taste their love in their mouths.

            “Harry,” said Ron, as the boys broke from a tender kiss, their mouths parting with a small sound just above Hermione's avid face. “Can I-- Can ask you something?”

            “Sure, Ron,” sighed Harry, his hand running slowly, tenderly up Hermione's body, fingers starting in the nest of her pubic hair, sliding slowly up over her belly, across her breast, not teasing, not even, weirdly enough, overtly sexual. Just loving and tender and wonderful. “What is it?”

            “Do you... Do you remember when you first thought you might be interested in a bloke? I mean, you know, like, sex and kissing and stuff?”

            Harry looked at him very seriously. “Yeah. I remember it as if it were yesterday.” he paused a moment, frowning. “Or, er, last night... or, rather, I guess, this morning.” He paused, looking directly at Ron, whose eyes were starting to widen. “At about twenty past midnight.”

            “Holy fuck! You mean--” Ron's eyes widened, and he stopped. Not seeming to know how to continue.

            Harry's eyes were serious. “Yeah. It's like... It's like, it never even occurred to me until you kissed me. It's all right, yeah? It's all right me kissing you and that?”

            “Oh, fuck, yeah! I just... I had, like a month to get used to the idea, an' I'm still not...” He gestured vaguely between his face and Harry's crotch. “I mean, I want to, but, I, like... I dunno. An' you just... I mean... Oh, hell, I don't know how to say this.”

            Hermione leaned up and kissed his cheek. “I understand, Ron. And I think I know the answer, too. Think about how Harry grew up with the Dursleys. Really think about it.”

            “Oh, come on, now,” said Harry, quietly. “It wasn't that bad, it really wasn't.”

            “It really was, Harry,” said Hermione, quietly. “It was more awful than you can understand. It's just that it's what you lived through, so you think it's normal.” She turned back to Ron. “Do you realize, Ron, that from the moment Harry was left on the Dursley's doorstep, till he was in Hogwarts, he was never – never, ever, ever, not even once! -- touched with love? Can you imagine Petunia Dursley kissing his scraped knees, or cuddling him when changing him out of dirty nappies?”

            Ron and Harry were both staring at her, eyes rapt. “I think about this. I think about this an awful lot. Can you imagine how she handled Harry at bath time? Washing him in the sink like an ugly plate that was given to her by her in-laws. She hates it, but she has to keep it clean, and she can't just drop it and let it break, so she hates it even more. Since he was a year old, Ron. Since he was a year old!

            Harry'd sucked his lip between his teeth, his eyes fixed on a spot between her breasts as his fingers circled it. Ron was looking back and forth between Hermione and Harry in something like horror.

            “That's how Harry developed, Ron,” Hermione was continuing. “How could he possibly be something as simple as 'Gay' or 'Straight' or even 'Bisexual?'” She slid her hand again up Harry's back, traced it again through his hair. “Harry's orientation is Please Touch Me. He's known people are supposed to be straight, or gay, or maybe bi, so when a girl was open to him, he was drawn to her.”

            “You make me sound so interesting!” Harry's voice was bitter. “Like a science experiment or something.”

            “Oh, Harry!” She pulled him down to her, kissed him tenderly. “You're not a specimen. I love you so much it makes my toes curl. You're brave and loyal and kind and loving and generous and a million things you have no right to be after being raised by the Dursleys. I will help you with your homework, and take you out to watch Quidditch and Quodpot, and live and die by your word, and fuck you long and slow by tea-time if I can manage it.” She kissed him again, and her caressing hand slid down his back, down under the waistband of his jeans and pants, and slid gently over his bum. “But you and we both need to understand this. This is how we live the deepest, most intimate part of our lives.”

            He smiled back down at her. “I especially like that 'fuck me long and slow by tea-time' part,” he said. “I like that quite a lot.”

            “I thought you would,” said Hermione, with a chuckle. “I think you like it more than even Randy Ron, here.” Ron pulled a face, but she silenced him with a gentle shake of her head. “Because it's not just fucking. It's not just an orgasm. It's a loving touch. It's the greatest physical acceptance a human being can offer. And you need that, Harry. You need that more than anybody I've ever known.”

            Ron leaned down and began nuzzling at her breast. “So if I'm all needy an' that, will you fuck me by tea-time, too?”

            Harry laughed and swung a pillow at him. “Sod off, you berk!”

            “Not to worry, Ronald,” she told him sweetly, as she started undoing Harry's belt. “I'm sure I can, er, squeeze you in.”

            “Oh, Merlin!” cried Ron happily, closing his eyes.

            She was still sore from the night and the morning, and even Harry's slender, elegant length hurt. But the stunned reverence in his eyes as he slid into her, well before his long, slow strokes built pleasure from pain, made this the best time yet.

            “You're inside me, Harry,” she told him, as he slowly sheathed himself. “You're inside me, and I love it, and I love you and I always want you in me.”

            “Love you, oh, love you,” he breathed, “oh, love you so fucking much.”

            Ron's hand was stroking his back, as gently as he'd ever stroked her. “It's brilliant, mate, isn't it? Loving our girl, it's, it's the most brilliant thing in the world.”

            Harry reached out to him, pulled him against them, kissed him, open-mouthed and sloppily. “'Cause she's ours, Ron. 'Cause you'll share her with me.”

            She smiled as she lifted her hips against Harry, and Ron leaned down and kissed her. “He's right, you know,” he told her. “You're everything I've ever wanted, everything I have, and you're twice as much 'cause I can share you with Harry.”

            Pleasure had overwhelmed pain, by then, and she hadn't expected to come, but she did, as Harry pushed into her in his slow, gentle strokes. It wasn't the earth-shattering, mind-stopping orgasm she'd had an hour prior. It was a smaller, softer thing, but sweet, as well, seeming to center not in her clitoris, nor the Grafenberg spot, but throughout her whole vagina, from the walls Harry gently stroked as he pressed, from the depths he reached with every stroke, from the love and gratitude that seemed to pour from his every motion.

            The gentle wave of pleasure poured through her, and it felt like drinking a warm mug of cocoa on a winter's day. She gently stroked Harry's face. “I love you, Harry. You can go faster, you won't hurt me.”

            He kissed her again, and his thrusts picked up their pace. She'd thought that it might, in fact, hurt, but it didn't, and she bucked up against him, encouraging him as he fucked her, and while she didn't come again before he spilled into her, the pleasure never subsided.

            He collapsed on her again, as he had the night before, and she held him against her, loving the fast beat of his heart against her breast, and remembered her Mother's words, and smiled. As was so often the case, her mother had been right. The weight of Harry, pressed bonelessly down against her, as his moist, softening penis slid from her, was one of the sweetest things she'd ever felt.

            Harry had rolled to the side again, and she pulled Ron over to her. “Your turn, now, my randy, patient boy.”

            Ron kissed her. “Are you sure, love? You've had a hell of a workout today.”

            “Oh, I'm sure. I know I won't always be this insatiable, but today.... I'm sure.”

            After the slenderness of Harry's cock, Ron's jolly stoutness stretched her, and again, briefly, there was pain. But again the pain gave way to pleasure, and Ron's strokes quickened within her, and she bucked her pelvis against his as he pumped. He kisses were playful, his movements both urgent and easy.

            Harry reached over from beside her, traced a finger over her chin, over her lips, and she closed her mouth over the tip, and lifted her head, sliding it in and over her moving tongue as if it was his cock. He smiled as he withdrew his glistening finger from her mouth, and kissed her, then Ron, and as the kiss broke, and Ron rubbed his cheek against Harry's face, he suddenly stiffened, driving deeper into her than he had thus far.

            “Holy fuck, Harry,” he gasped, and Harry smiled at him.

            “Oh, Merlin!” Ron lowered his head to nip at Hermione's collarbone, and s e looked down his freckled back to see Harry's hand pressed between the cheeks of his bum.

            Harry grinned at her. “Your dad is a great influence!”

            “Oh, fuck,” said Ron, “that's the truth!”

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen: “Beauty is a By-Product”



They made their way back out to the kitchen, Hermione's gait again a little careful, and Molly Weasley, its only occupant, clucked over them, embarrassingly. “Boys, I do understand that this is new and exciting for you, but you really mustn't push this poor girl. It's new to her, too, and she's not used to it! Look at her, the poor thing!”

            Three red faces fell into six young palms.

            “You sit there and relax!” Molly said, her hand on Hermione's shoulder. “I'll go up to the bedroom, and get you some cream for that. You'll want to use it on your thighs and hips as well, as your muscles aren't used to those sorts of motions, either.” She shook her head -- “Honestly!” -- and bustled from the room.

            There was a moment’s silence, before Harry looked over at Ron. “I think your mum's got used to the idea that you're snogging Hermione.”

            “Obliviate me,” came Hermione's voice, muffled by her hands and the cloud of bushy hair hanging over her face. “I beg of you!”

            Ron reached across himself to touch her hand with the offside one, so he could stroke her hair and back with the hand that had been holding that hand.

            He'd opened his mouth to speak, but stopped, cocking his head toward a sound, a quiet but very fast and determined Thump!-Thump!-Thump! approaching rapidly from the back hallway, and they glanced over to see the stolid, orange form of Crookshanks stomping with deliberate speed, bottle-brush tail standing above him like a battle-flag, towards Hermione.

            Her face lit up in a huge smile. “Crookshanks!” She leaned down to him as he approached, hauled him into her lap. “Is that my Cwookie boy? Is that my Cwookie boy? Mummy is so glad to see you! Yes she is! I was worried about you!”

            Crookshanks turned his face towards hers, chin angled just so, and she obediently scratched under it, causing him to purr loudly, angling his head slightly this way and that to direct the scratching fingers.

            Hermione smiled brightly back and forth between her boys. “I'm so relieved to see him! I was afraid he was killed when the Death Eaters destroyed the house! Nobody said anything about him, and I didn't want to ask, because, you know, an actual person had been killed!”

            “Oh, love,” said Ron. “You should have said.”

            “Yeah,” said Harry, reaching over to rub the shorthaired spaces in front of the half-Kneazle's ears with the pads of thumb and middle finger. “You should have told us, Hermione.”

            “When? When Diggle was killed? After I killed Eloise?”

            “Hey!” Harry’s voice was sharp. “You did not kill Eloise!”

            She looked up at Harry, eyes bleak, and he leaned in and kissed her, very tenderly.

            “You know you didn’t, “he told her, softly, his lips brushing hers, as Ron leaned in to kiss her just as gently on the soft skin of her neck. His other hand still stroking her hair.

            “See?” came Molly’s voice from behind team. “This is exactly what I mean! Poor Hermione can barely walk, and you're--”

            She was stilled by a gentle, sad look from Ron, as Harry told her again. “Death Eaters killed Eloise, Hermione. Not you.”

            “Eloise died because I’m not good enough,” she murmured, and buried her face in Crookshanks' fur, and her voice was muffled as she finished, “and here I was worried about my stupid cat!”

            Crookshanks' head rose sharply at that, affront all over his features, as Molly Weasley knelt by her, taking her hand. “Dear, I've spoken to Poppy Pomfrey. You did an exemplary job on each of your patients, Eloise included.”

            Hermione looked miserably over at her. “But Madame Pomfrey told me my spell killed her. She said she could have saved her.”

            Ron had moved around her, actually ducking under the table to get behind her with Harry, and his mother gratefully took his chair even as she grasped Hermione's hands in hers.

            “Hermione, dear, did you know that one of the people killed at the Prophet offices was taken by a Dementor in front of her ten-year-old son? Should he have conjured a Patronus to protect her?”

            Hermione's face snapped up to hers, shocked. “You can't expect a ten-year-old to conjure a Patronus!”

            “Why not?” asked Molly. “You can do it.”

            “I've had years of training in magic generally, and a year of intensive defensive training by Harry!”

            Molly simply looked at her, with wise, sympathetic eyes.

            “Oh, hell,” murmured Hermione, before dropping her face onto one hand, her head shaking, with a sound that might have been very quiet, very sad laughter.

            “Isn't it awful when she’s right?” Ron asked, stroking her hair sympathetically. “Don't worry, love. You’ll get used to it.”

            Hermione smiled gratefully up at her mother-in-law, and stood, bringing her husbands to their feet behind her. Crookshanks jumped gracefully to the floor, and commenced twining among their feet. She gestured toward the sink. “Shall we take care of the dishes?”

            “What? The Birthday Boy and his spouses wash dishes on his birthday?” said Molly. “That sounds an excellent idea! And after that, you can help in the garden!”

            “My, Harry,” said Hermione, her voice amused. “That's quite the smile.”

            It was late in the afternoon, and the three of them were working in an efficient row. Ron, in the lead, was pulling weeds from amongst the alternating sweet peas and runner beans, and pulling away dead leaves. Following him with a self-replenishing pail, Hermione was watering them. Harry, taking up the rear, was tying off the longer loose tendrils to the stakes that had been there to help them grow tall since planting season.

            Now, though, Harry was gazing at the ground with a sort of dreamy smile, clearly a million miles away.

            He shook his head at Hermione's voice, and blushed as he looked up at her.

            “What is it, Harry?” she asked, seeing how embarrassed he looked.

            His blush deepened, and he dropped his gaze. “I feel silly about it.”

            Ron grinned past her at him, “All right, now you've no choice! Now you have to spill it!”

            “Yeah,” replied Harry,”‘ Cause what I really need is for you to have more reasons to take the mickey out of me!”

            Hermione touched his shoulder. “I won't take the mickey, Harry. And I'd love to know where that smile came from.”

            He gazed into her eyes for a long moment, the smile returning. “Did you know,” he told her, “that I’ve always thought that you had really beautiful eyes?”

            “Harry!” It was Hermione's turn to blush, her lips turning upwards in a smile. “That's so sweet!”

            “See, your eyes are very warm. They just.... I look into your eyes, and I can see all the wheels turning behind them, but even more than how clever they are, how brilliant, they’re just so full of warmth! And I noticed – back the day this happened --” he waved his hand, pulling her elbow with it. “When you were talking to me, in the Head Girl's room, when you were telling me.... You know...”

            “That I'm in love with you? You don't have to be afraid to say it, Harry. It doesn't make you big-headed or something. I'm in love with you, just as much as I am Ron. I am.”

            Harry's answering smile was sunrise. “Yeah. When you told me you're in love with me. I noticed again what color your eyes are.”

            “They're brown, Harry,” Hermione said.

            “Not just any brown. They’re so warm, so rich. You know what brown they are? They're this brown.” He pointed at the ground. “This is one of my favorite places, Hermione, and this earth is one of my favorite things, because it's so vibrant, so full of life, so nurturing, so full of strength that lets good things grow in it.”

            “Why, Harry, that's so beautiful!” said Hermione, as Ron began chuckling behind her.

            Harry blushed. “I remember wanting to tell you, then, but, somehow, there's just no good way to tell a girl who loves you, 'Your eyes are the color of dirt.'”

            Ron hooted with laughter, and even Hermione chuckled a bit at that. “Yes, Harry, I can see the difficulties there.”

            Ron's laughter built, and Hermione tutted over at him. “Oh, honestly, Ron, it's not that funny!”

            “Oh, yes it bloody well is!” cried Ron, with great delight. “Do you know what gives our earth here this color? It's the fertiliser! Mum gets a shipment every spring from a Hippogriff ranch up in Wales! She mixes it in every year!” Hermione began to blush as Ron grabbed her hands in his, and practically sang to her, “Oh, Hermione, dear Hermione, how I love to gaze into your turd-colored orbs!”

            Harry now barked with laughter, but Hermione's face fell, and Ron was instantly contrite. “Love, I’m sorry, I'm just playing. You know I love your eyes. You know that. I don’t come over all poetic-like, like the Boy-Who-Waxed-Lyrical here, but...”

            “No, Ron. I'm just being silly.” Hermione shook her head. “When I was in Muggle school, one of the other girls, Elspeth McGivern, used to say that to me. Well, not that exactly, but...” Suddenly Hermione's voice was an imitation, high and sharp and biting. “That's why your eyes are brown, Hermione! Because you're so full of--”

            “Right, that's it!” said Ron. “We're off to find Elspeth! You point her out to us, we'll do the hexing!”

            Ron's voice held no merriment, only cold anger, and when she glanced over at Harry, his eyes were fierce.

            “Stop it, you two!” Hermione's voice was soft. “It's just... I'm being childish. She always made me feel ugly. A couple of years ago, she actually started modeling.”

            “Yeah,” growled Ron, “We’ll see how many jobs she gets when she's got a nice big, hairy pair of bollocks!”

            “She's ugly,” said Harry.

            Hermione shook her head at him. “You've never even seen her.”

            “I don't have to. She had to try to make you feel small so she could feel good about herself. That takes a kind of ugly that always shows, now matter what. Just look at Draco Malfoy.”

            “Yeah,” said Ron, warming to Harry's theme. “Now, you, Hermione Jane, you make me feel like a king, and The-Boy-Who-Sulks over here start spouting poetry like Lord sodding Byron.”

            “Hey!” cried Harry.

            “Belt up, mate, it’s all in a good cause.” Ron turned back to Hermione. “You're the beautiful one, Hermione. You're beautiful because we love you, and you're beautiful because you make us feel special, but you're mainly beautiful because you're beautiful. Or don't you remember the gasp that came up when you walked into the Great hall with Viktor Krum?”

            Hermione smiled. “'Viktor Krum'? Not 'Vicky'?”

            “Nah,” said Ron with a smile. “I can be magnanimous in victory. As I recall it wasn't Krum upstairs with you last night in Little Whinging. Not in the shower this morning, and not helping Harry make you writhe and squirm in a tent in the cupboard this afternoon.”

            Hermione smiled and leaned in to kiss him. “When did you get to be so secure and so confident?”

            “When the most brilliant witch in the whole fucking world was sentenced to life attached tome...and it was a good thing.”

            He kissed her, his hands sliding around her sides, and Harry leaned back away from them, letting his arms stretch out before him, trying to give them this moment. Their hands closed over his elbows at the same time, pulling him in to them.

            “Where do you think you're going, you wanker?” said Ron, nuzzling against his neck as Hermione kissed him.

            “Silly boy,” said Hermione. “This is not me and Ron, plus you. Don't you get that yet? It's the three of us. It's always been the three of us. Always. Sometimes, I used to cry at night, because I knew that we'd grow up, and it wouldn't be any more. I'd be with Ron, or I'd be with you --” She glanced over at Ron. “Yes, Ron, I did sometimes imagine that.” She looked back to Harry. “It broke my heart to think that one day, I'd be part of a 'two of us' that would come before the three of us.” She nudged her face back in between Harry's and Ron's, and their noses had to angle just so but they did, and their lips came together, and the only sounds for a moment were the moist motions of mouth against mouth against mouth. “Now, we’ll always be us. Always be the three of us first.”

            There was a sound, and they turned, and Ginny was standing by the row they'd been working. The sun had lowered further in the sky, and it painted her in shades of fiery gold and deep purple shadows. Her eyes were very wide, her mouth slightly open.

            “I'm sorry,” she said, her voice barely a breath. “I never knew. I never knew!

            “What's that, Gin?” asked Ron, reaching a hand out to her.

            “I... You’re beautiful.” She blinked, shook her head. “Together, I mean. You're just-- I never knew you were so beautiful.” She turned, blinking again, and if perhaps there were tears being held back by that blink, her voice gave no sign. “Comeback inside, you three. Mum sent me out for you. It's time for supper.”

            Supper was a much smaller affair. The twins had returned to their shop, and Sirius had gone to the Den to be with Remus during his “lycanthropic discomfort.” So they sat with Ginny and Molly and Arthur, dining on a delicious stew, with leftover breads and rolls from the brunch.

            Arthur, who had an early day at work the next day, begged off early and went to bed, and Ginny followed suit shortly thereafter, pressing kisses to the cheeks of Harry, Ron, and Hermione before walking quickly from the kitchen, her head down.

            As they stood to help Molly with the dishes, Hermione moved her leg out to the side a bit, and winced, and Molly's hand flew immediately to her mouth. “Oh, my goodness, Hermione, I’m so very sorry. I was so distracted by your talk of Eloise when I got back to you this afternoon that I forgot to give you this!”

            She reached into the pocket of her apron, and pulled out a small glass jar with a hinged lid.

            “Now, this is self-replenishing, so you won't need to replace it. You'll want to use a good, generous application. Now, you probably ought to cast Depilario first, as this can be quite the gooey mess, and it's very hard to wash out. Something about the oils in the hair.” Hermione stared at her, silent and wide-eyed, while Ron's mouth opened and closed rapidly, and Harry covered his with his own hand. “Remember, it should go on your hips and thighs and your bottom, too. Those are all muscles that you're using in new ways, and they're bound to be sore. Also, right up inside, don't be shy about it. I'm sure the boys will be happy to help.”

            Now Ron's mouth had made up its mind, hanging open, as was Harry's, while Hermione's lips were compressed almost to the point of disappearing, and her eyes seemed the size of Molly’s dinner plates.

            “You know,” said Molly, sitting down at the head of the table again, “I understand how new and exciting this all is for you, but you really do need to be careful. Soon enough, the novelty will wear off, you know, and it's important that you boys make a real effort if you want to please Hermione.”

            Ron and Harry buried their faces in their hands as Hermione made a strangled squeaking sound.

            “Well, honestly,” said Molly, “I do have seven children! It's not like I'm a stranger to the idea! Anyway, Ronnie, you're a Weasley, and I won't have you letting down the family. There's a proud tradition, you know: Weasley men know how to please their women! Your father, for instance! He's simply amazing! There's this thing he does with his--”

            “Muuum!” wailed Ron, in horror and despair, as Harry groaned and Hermione let out a series of choking sounds.

            Molly's head fell back, and a howl of laughter escaped her, and another, the mirth cascading out of her like the Niagara River hitting the Falls. “Oh, my!” she managed eventually to gasp. “Oh, my goodness! Oh, dear, that was fun!” She laughed again, hard and bubbling.

            The three teenagers stared at her, eyes wide and wary.

            “Oh, your faces!” she cried. “Oh, you can relax, dears, I'm only teasing! Oh, that was wonderful! I don’t remember the last time I've had such fun!” She reached out and tweaked Hermione's nose. “I have to say, dear, your father is a wonderful influence!”

            She stood again, pressing the jar into Hermione's numb hand, wrapped her unresponsive fingers around it. “You go to bed now, and use this. That part wasn't a joke.” She walked to the kitchen door. “Remember what I said about Depilario!”

            “Depilario!” said Harry, his wand moving very precisely, and he watched, eyes wide and wondering, as each of Hermione's pubic hairs simply crawled out of her skin, like a nest of tiny, impossibly thin worms. Ron flicked his wand, and banished the loose hair, and they both stared, fascinated, at her smooth, pink mons.

            “Oh, look at that, mate!” breathed Ron.

            Harry reached hesitantly for her, glanced up at Hermione's eyes. “Can, uh... Can I?”

            Hermione smiled. “Of course you can, Harry. You know that.”

            His eyes widened further as his fingers ran over her bare vulva, and Hermione's eyes fluttered closed. “Oooh, that's very nice, Harry.”

            “It's so smooth! So silky smooth! How long will it stay like this?”

            Hermione chuckled. “It’s Depilario, Harry. How long will your chin be like that?”

            Harry nodded. “Till I do finite. I'm sorry, I'm not thinking, I'm just... This is wonderful, Hermione.”

            Ron leaned down, and gently, softly kissed her mound. “Oh, yeah, Hermione, this is great.” He looked up at her. “How do you like it?”

            “I don't know. It's...see, I've always been sort of, of leery of this. My mother has a real issue about it. She says it shouldn't make a woman sexier for her privates to be indistinguishable from a little girl's... But I have to say, this feels really nice. Your fingers, Harry, your kiss, Ron. It's so different without the hair. I think I kind of like it.”

            Ron reached up to the bedside table, brought down the jar of healing cream, opening back the top, and holding the jar out to Harry. Harry smiled as he scooped some out onto his fingers, and Hermione gasped as he began working it into her skin. Soon Ron was at work, too, and they moved her and rolled her a bit, this way and that as they massaged the soothing cream into her skin, warming and cooling her aching muscles. Harry took a dab on his fingertip, and smoothed it gently, lovingly along the surface of her Labia, and she cooed and trilled at the gentle healing power of the cream.

            He held the jar out to Ron. “Your fingers are longer, mate.”

            And Ron dipped his middle finger into the cream, and ever so gently slid it up inside of her. The breath whistled out of Hermione, and Ron paused.

            “Are you all right, love? Is it hurting?”

            Hermione snorted. “No, Ron, it's making me randy! I've heard of the cure being worse than the disease, but never the cure causing the bloody disease!”

            “Well,” said Harry, staring at Ron's finger disappearing up into her, “It seems to be an epidemic, because I've certainly got a stiffie!”

            “Same here,” Ron admitted.

            “I can't, tonight, though,” said Hermione. “I really... I can't. But I can wank you boys if you want.”

            Harry and Ron both shook their heads. “Love,” said Ron, “I've survived more than one chubby without doing anything about it. I'll survive this one, too.”

            Harry touched her arm. “If you do without, we do without.”

            They finished with the potion, and helped her into one of Harry's T-Shirts and a pair of her white cotton knickers, and they both kept their boxers on as they slipped with her beneath the cool, pink sheets. They shared another three-way kiss, and Hermione pointed her wand.

            “Nox,” she said, and the room settles into darkness.

            “It certainly didn’t seem like a little girl's to me,” Harry said, suddenly.

            Hermione's chuckle was musical. “Good night, Harry.”

            Remus Lupin ran a hand through his hair as he looked around the basement of the Kennel. Sirius had magically expanded it into a full-featured gymnasium, with floor mats and padded walls.

            Sirius and Tonks were standing together looking at something stuck to the far wall of the room. Like him, they were both wearing brief running shorts and trainers, Tonks having added a lime-green sports-bra to the outfit. They all wore belts, with holsters for their wands.

            They looked very good there, Remus thought, all strong lines and smooth proportions, muscle definition showing in their backs and thighs and calves. She leaned over and bumped playfully against him, and he laughed and reached up to touch her back, and as they turned toward one another, they clearly caught a glimpse of Lupin in the corners of they eyes, and they turned toward him.

            “You're looking tired,” said Sirius. “Long weekend?”

            Remus, who'd finished the last of the month's transformations that morning, made a rude noise.

            Sirius grinned over at Tonks. “I think my favorite part of the 'Furry Little Problem' is winding him up when he has PMS.”

            She looked blankly at him.


            “Remember, Sirius, I can always kill you next month, eat the evidence, and blame the whole thing on a bad batch of potion.”

            “Bad potion?” Sirius’ smile was vulpine. “From our dear friend Snivelus? Please!”

            Lupin shook his head, his eyes closing briefly. “He is a member of the Order, Sirius. Don’t you think it's time we put aside our childhood grudges and worked together like adults?”

            “No,” said Sirius. “I really don't. I don't trust him, Remus. The way he talks about James? You’re the one who told me what Ron said to him!”

            Lupin looked down, and was distracted by Tonks' shapely legs as she approached him. “I don't think he’s turned yet, Remus,” she told him, and he looked up into her eyes, unusually solemn. “One way or the other.”

            “You may be right, Tonks,” he replied. “But if so, that's all the more reason to be grown-up about this. To extend a hand to him. If all we show him is hatred and distrust, why would he choose to side with us?”

            “After what he did to you?” cried Sirius. “What he tried to do to me?”

            “I was careless about my potion, Sirius, and transformed in front of students! I could have killed them! He was right to do it.” He drew a ragged breath. “And, Sirius, even I thought you'd killed Peter and those Muggles. Even I thought you were trying to kill Harry. Why wouldn't Severus?”

            “Enough,” said Tonks. “We're not here to have a sub-committee meeting on Severus Snape. We're here for three-side combat training. I've been giving some thought to some of the moves I think we can adapt. Sirius, did you find a spell?”

            Sirius nodded. “Yes. It’s another ancient Peloponnesian spell. This wasn't restricted to the Regimagi, though; any normal witch or wizard should have the power to do it.”

            Tonks was frowning. “You know, it's a funny thing, that. I'd never heard that Hermione was all that powerful a witch. When that Prophet article hit, I thought all that was just there to get up Riddle's nose, but she did manage to cast Nuptialis Unum.

            Lupin glanced over at her. “It's not something that gets bandied about when someone's a student,” he said. “Learning that one is unusually powerful or weak can have an enormous effect on a student's academic motivation, and seldom for the good. But Hermione was already a little above average power when she arrived at Hogwarts, and both she and Ron have been growing more powerful at an amazing rate ever since.”

            Sirius nodded. “It’s Harry. It's his love. You should really talk to Albus about this when he gets back. Do you know that every single student he taught defense to last year can conjure a corporeal Patronus?”

            Tonks' eyes widened.

            “Every one of them,” said Remus. “Even the girl who betrayed them. Harry had a lot of love for that class.”

            “Have you noticed that your magic has gotten better since you've known Harry?” asked Sirius. “Have you wondered why I had the strength to remain at the Veil for as long as I did? Harry loves us. Harry loves us, and we're more powerful than we would be. But it's nothing to his love for Ron and Hermione – even before all this.”

            Sirius held his handout before him. “Anyway,” he said, “There's a spell that's similar to Nuptialis Unum, only it isn't permanent. Until it's broken, we'll be connected the way they are. Are you ready?”

            Tonks reached out and took his hand, and Remus took them both. Sirius drew his wand from its sheath on his belt, tapped their clasped hands, and incanted, “E Pluribus, Unum.”

            A chuckle escaped from Remus as the slightest breath of magic rippled out over them, the tiniest zephyr of energy.

            “The motto from American money, Sirius?” asked the werewolf, with a wry smile. “No wonder it didn’t work.”

            “That motto,” said Sirius, with great dignity, “was adopted by the Americans from the annuals of Gentlemen’s Magazine, which used it every year from its inception in 1731. It was added to the masthead of the annuals by the magazine's co-founder, Sylvanus Urban, who allowed his  Muggle friend and partner Edward Cave to take full credit for his works in the Muggle edition of the Magazine. Urban, of course, was one of the great Wizards of his time. So I’ve no doubt the Yanks got it from this spell, and not vice-versa.”

            He opened his hand. “As to it not working... We'll see.”

            Remus tried to pull his hand away, and found he could not. Sirius's hand didn't feel any different under his fingers, but he could not release him. Suddenly Tonks was running her fingertips up his arm, smiling, fascinated as she watched.

            “It feels so normal,” she said. Then she tried to pull her fingers away from him, and grinned as instead she pulled his arm along with her.

            “All right,” said Sirius. “First things first, I should think. We can't fight if we can't move. I suggest we run some circuits.”

            “Merlin's hairy, wrinkled, fecund balls!” cried Tonks, as she tried to extricate herself from the tangle of limbs and bodies on the padded floor. It was the fourth time they’d tripped one another up and gone crashing down in a flailing tangle. And while the strong, masculine bodies felt more then good against her, well, they were working, weren't they, and this just wouldn't do at all. “Your godson,” she told Sirius, “and his friends, they're fucking miraculous!”

            “They really ran into that forest?” asked Remus, sliding his hand quickly down the back of her thigh, no doubt in a hurry to get it away from her bum. Oh, my, that did feel nice, though!

            “Full out,” she said, “and without missing a step. They're a bloody marvel!”

            Sirius had managed to pull himself to his feet, and reached his hands down to them. “Well, we're not going to learn how just sitting here!”

            And they took his hands and clambered to their feet.

            They sat again, on the padded floor, two hours later, side by side, panting. They'd managed to find a rhythm, and done circuits of the room, and some basic calisthenics, and were taking a break.

            “We should split up for lunch,” Remus said.

            “They can't split up for lunch,” reposted Sirius.

            Remus looked at him for a long moment. “Well, I'd hoped not to be crass about it, Sirius, but I do, in fact, need to answer nature's call.”

            “They can't split up for that, either.”

            Remus looked impatient. “Sirius, stop being stubborn, I obviously can't bring a you and Tonks with me to the loo. Break the spell.”

            “I can't,” said Sirius.

            “You-- What?”

            “I can't!”

            Tonks looked at him, interested, but Remus' face was horrified. “You-- You didn't!”

            Sirius rolled his eyes. “You think I'm wizard enough to re-name a Regimagus spell? Hell, to even cast it, under its own name?”

            “You told us it was temporary!” cried Remus.

            “It is temporary, Remus! Godric's arse, when did you get to be such a drama queen! It’s temporary, all right?”

            “Then you can break it!”

            “No,” said Sirius, tiredly. “It'll wear off on its own.”

            “Well, thank Merlin for small favors,” muttered Lupin. “I'll just have to hold it, then.”

            “For about seventy-two hours,” agreed Sirius.

            Lupin sat upright, eyes wide and round. “What? You said what?

            Tonks laughed, and climbed to her feet, trailing a hand down to Lupin's head. “Well, come on, then,” she said.

            “Come where?” cried Remus, as Sirius climbed to his feet as well.

            “To the toilet,” she replied, as if he were the world's thickest living human. “You're not holding it for 72 hours, you'll explode, and I'll be all messy.”

            “You're insane. Both of you.”

            She squatted down to bring her face closer to his eye level. It left them eye-to-cloth-covered nipple, protruding against the lime-green material of the sports bra.

            “Look, Remus, if I really horrify you that much, you can Caecutus me before and Obliviate me afterwards, but you really do have to pee.”

            “Oh, he isn’t horrified,” said Sirius, confidently. “He's putting out as many pheromones as you are.”

            “Godric, Sirius, must you?”

            “Well, what's the sodding problem, Moony? You want her. She wants you. We all like each other.”

            “I notice you don’t have much to say,” said Remus, gesturing back and forth between them, “about wanting one another.”

            “Well, I certainly wasn’t longing for Sirius,” Tonks admitted, “But he's a great friend, and I love him a lot, and I've got no problem with some friendly exercise.” She looked at him for a long time. “But you're right, I'm not in love with him like am with you.”

            Remus stared up at her, his eyes still wide.

            “Look,” she finally said, “If you don't share that, it's fine. It can still be a little friendly exercise, or we can all pretend we're grown-ups, and I won't pass out if I see your bits or you see mine.”

            Lupin reached up and grabbed her shoulders. He pulled her down to him so hard that their teeth clacked audibly.

            “About sodding time,” said Sirius Black.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen: Lessons, Hard and Easy

            Harry's thrashing woke Ron. This was something Ron was used to. Harry tended to have nightmares the first week or so after any change in his environment. Every summer coming to the Burrow, every autumn going to Hogwarts, last Christmas at Grimmauld Place.

            Hermione was already awake; her flat hand pushed up under Harry's shirt, rubbing big, slow circles over his chest and belly.

            “Shhh.....” she told him, her other hand squirming up into his hair. “Shhh, love. It's all right. You're here with me, here with us, here in our bed. Come on, love, it's all right.”

            Harry's thrashing stilled, and he turned toward her. “Hermione?”

            She kissed him, very gently, very tenderly, and his face registered a moment's confusion even as his hand settled comfortably on her hip. She glanced over Harry's shoulder at him, but Ron shook his head slightly. You're doing fine.

            “Come back to me, Harry, love,” she murmured, stroking him, and kissed him again. “Come on back.”

            His eyes closed a moment, and then he drew her into his arms, kissing her, his hands sliding up beneath the back of her shirt, fingers spread wide, as if to feel as much of her as possible.

            “Oh, Hermione,” he breathed. “Oh, God!”

            “Bad one?” asked Ron.

            Harry nodded, closing his eyes. “The - the graveyard. Riddle's voice - Kill the spare - Wormtail - Avada Kedavra - But it wasn't Cedric! It wasn't Cedric!” He held Hermione tight against him, kissing her again, his seeking fingers still moving over her warmth.

            “It was me, wasn't it, Harry?” she said, quietly.

            Harry barely managed a nod, as he fell back onto his pillow, drawing Hermione up atop him, and he looked over to Ron as she nuzzled against his neck. “You were there. You were just standing there, watching, with this look on your face, so sad, but not surprised. Just... Defeated. Like you already knew. Like me getting her killed was just a foregone conclusion.”

            Now Ron was kissing him, too, his lips gentle, his large hands moving on Harry, softly, lovingly.

            “Harry....Harry. You will never see me look at you that way, Harry. Never.”

            “What if I get her killed on you, Ron? It could happen.”

            “Harry,” began Hermione, gently, but Ron's firm voice interrupted her.

            “You're right, Harry. This is a war, and people die. But even if Hermione were killed, you wouldn't see me look at you like that. Not ever.”

            Harry's voice was a miserable, frightened whine. “How can you say that, Ron? How can you know?

            Ron's voice was calm and matter-of-fact. “Because if Hermione's killed, Harry, her corpse'll land on top of yours and mine. You know that as well as I do, mate. Nobody's killing our wife while we're still drawing breath. That's how I know.”

            Hermione reached over and tugged a lock of Ron's hair, and, when he came within range, kissed him thoroughly, before returning her mouth to Harry's. “You two are the sweetest, most impossible men on the planet. How you can lie here in our warm bed, building a pile of our corpses, I just don't know! But I'll tell you this much: We are not going to die in this war! We're not, because I simply won't allow it. We can't anyway. It's mathematically impossible. Because I can't be killed while the two of you are still alive, but neither of you can be killed while I'm alive. So, since none of us can be killed until the others are already gone, we're obviously not going to be killed. QED!”

            Harry burst out laughing. “There's clearly something wrong with that argument, Hermione, but I'm honestly not sure what it is!” Harry snuggled up to her again, kissed her with gentle, tender passion, lips opening, tongue seeking hers, and when they parted, he smiled warmly at her. “Thanks, Hermione. That made no sense at all, but I'm feeling loads better.”

            He kissed her again, and then settled back down, giving Ron a sleepy kiss as well.

            Ron glanced over at Hermione in the moonlight spilling in through the magical window, and saw her rather self-satisfied grin.

            “What's got you so smug?” he teased, and Harry smiled, and slit his eyes open to regard her answer.

            Hermione chuckled warmly. “Do you have any idea how much of the last five years I spent, seething with jealousy, because you got to be there to comfort Harry in the night, and I didn't, because of some stupid rule?”

            “You know the part of this I love,” said Harry, his voice smiling. “I love that Hermione Granger just said that girls not being allowed to spend the night in the Boys' Dorm is a stupid rule!”

            Ron sniggered. “'Course it is. 'Cause, you know, teenaged boys with a girl in their room for the night, they'd never touch her in an inappropriate manner,” he said, reaching casually over to palm her breast through his Gilderoy Lockhart T-Shirt.

            “Right you are, mate,” said Harry, pulling her to him, and sliding his hand under her knickers to caress her bum. “Teenaged boys would never do something like that.”

            “Certainly not,” agreed Hermione, as she lifted her hips off the mattress to allow Harry to remove her knickers. He squirmed around on the big king-sized bed, and trailed kisses up her inner thigh, and she curled her fingers in his hair as she murmured, “It would be a shocking breach of conduct!”

            She reached down and gave Ron's pyjama bottoms a tug, tossing her head at him significantly.

            Ron grinned at her in the moonlight, kissed her gently, loving the taste of her, the softness of her lips, the demanding boldness of her tongue.

            “Harry was right, you know,” he told her. “You are a right little perv!”

            She raised an eyebrow, and Harry sniggered from between her thighs.

            “I don't say it like it's a bad thing,” Ron said, quickly, before squirming around, guided by her touch, to where she wanted him.

            She suddenly gasped, and he knew Harry's mouth had reached her center. Her hands were almost frantic as they pulled down his pyjama bottoms, and she leaned in and took him in her mouth with a satisfied moan.

            It was a discovery that Ron and Harry had both been thrilled to make over the four days since Harry's birthday: Hermione loved to suck their cocks. “It makes me feel so powerful,” she'd told them breathlessly, after a long afternoon of going back and forth between them. “I love to feel you go hard in my mouth. I love that the tiniest movement of my tongue makes you squirm, and cry my name. I love how you both taste and feel, and I love, oh, I love that when you're in my mouth, I own you!”

            Harry, still flushed and panting from the orgasm she'd just drunk from him like water after days in the desert, had laughed weakly. “You own us anyway, Hermione. Don't you know that?”

            She had been silent a very long time. “Yeah,” she finally said, smiling deeply. “But I never believe it more than when I have you in my mouth.”

            “How about when you have us in your fanny?” asked Harry.

            She'd laughed. “I can't concentrate enough then to be aware of it, Harry,” she'd said, her look back and forth between them including Ron as well, “because I'm too busy squirming, and crying your names and belonging to the two of you, heart and mind and body and soul.”

            And fuck if that wasn't how he belonged to her now, as the wet heat of her mouth engulfed him, and drew away, as her tongue traced the fold behind the ridge of the glans, as her lips tenderly nibbled their way down his shaft to his balls, leaving the erection lying against her cheek. She turned her head, and his cock was sliding along her open mouth, until she closed her lips again over the end and drew him in, her head angled to press the head against the roof of her mouth, her tongue tracing little patterns over the silky skin of the shaft.

            He whimpered as he lay there on his side, as she used his thigh for a pillow and sucked and licked him between moans and squeals as Harry's mouth played with her fanny, occasionally resting his own head on her thigh.

            Hermione very gently nipped Ron's glans with her teeth, and he arched back, eyes wide, and found himself eye-to-wet-spot with Harry's Y-fronts.

            Harry'd gone down on him a couple of times now since that first morning, once more with Hermione, who'd pointed out spots on Ron's cock to pay special attention to, and once while Hermione was going down on him. Ron remembered kissing Harry and Hermione after that, tasting his own sex in Harry's mouth, tasting Harry in Hermione's. The tastes were similar but not the same, salty and smoky and, in Harry's case,  somehow dark. He didn't know how a taste could be dark, but it was.

            He was still confused, because he couldn't figure out whether or not he'd liked the taste.

            That wet spot glistened on Harry's Y-fronts, a few scant inches in front of him. Ron eyed the spot, remembering the taste on Hermione's tongue, and then he leaned slowly forward, extending his tongue, and flicked at the glistening moisture. It was different without Hermione's taste there. Not better or worse, but different. Well, the flavor of cotton and laundry soap wasn't as good as Hermione's...

            “Fuck, Ron!” gasped Harry. “Please!”

            Ron looked down at his face, peering up at him, flushed and hungry, from Hermione's smooth, silvery, moonlit fanny.

            Really? Ron's mind reeled. Look at him. From that one, tiny lick? Really?

            Hermione's mouth moved over his length again, and Ron gasped, losing his connection, for a moment, with the universe itself. Hell, yeah, really!

            His hands were drawing Harry's pants down, and almost before he knew what he was doing, Harry was in his mouth.

            He tasted like Harry, only more so. Salty sweat and the barest hint of a spicy tang that made him think of Spanish food, and that slight undertone of darkness.

            Harry's hand fisted in Ron's hair, and Ron moved his head, sliding his mouth down over Harry's cock. It felt amazing in his mouth, twitching this way and that in reaction to the slightest touches of his tongue. The skin of the shaft was so soft, so smooth, and its length in his mouth was elegant.

            And the noises Harry was making! On some level, he knew they were the same sounds Harry made when Hermione fellated him. But he was making them because of Ron! Ron could suck harder, nibble over there, lick just here, and those sounds would erupt from Harry!

            He barely noticed when Hermione's mouth drew back away from his own cock, but her heard her gasp, and glanced up to see her staring at him, wide-eyed and fascinated and aroused. He twitched an eyebrow at her as he moved again, sliding Harry as deeply into his mouth as he could. The head of his cock slammed against Ron's throat, and he gagged.

            Harry pulled for a moment away from Hermione's fanny. “Sorry, mate!”

            “'S’all right,” said Ron, it coming out “sah-wye!” around Harry's cock. Something about that brought the reality home to him: He had a cock in his mouth. He had Harry's cock in his mouth! There was a roaring in his ears. He had Harry's cock in his mouth!

            For a wild, yawning moment, he froze there. Was he going to freak out? Spit Harry's cock from his mouth with a cry?

            His head moved slightly, and Harry moaned, low and deep and guttural. “Ohhhh... Ron!

            The voice, so full of pleasure and love, warmth and need. Ron closed his eyes, and moved again, sucking and licking Harry's cock as if it were an ice mouse.

            It was only a few seconds before Harry erupted into his mouth, a twitching series of spurts that filled his mouth with that taste, that smoky, salty taste, that taste whose hint of darkness Ron would always wonder at, spicy and exotic in its undertones, mystery enough for lifetimes. Mystery he'd happily spend his own lifetime exploring, one long taste at a time.

            Even as he swallowed, Hermione dove onto his cock with renewed vigor, and suddenly, Ron was gone, his world contracted to the moist heat of Hermione's mouth around him, her clever tongue and the gentlest of touches from her teeth, and the orgasm thundered through him with the force of a volcanic eruption, the most powerful orgasm he'd ever had, and as he spettered into her mouth, she squirmed against Harry's face, and her eyes widened, and she cried out, syllables that might have been meant to resolve into his name, into Harry's name, into the names of gods and magic, and her eyes fluttered closed for a long moment.

            Then she was pulling Ron up to kiss him, as Harry squirmed up as well, and they lay together, kissing, tasting one another, tasting the combinations, and Hermione was reaching for her wand, casting a charm that left them clean and dry as they cuddled together in the moonlight. In less than a minute, they were all asleep.

            “Good,” said Sirius, looking his down at his three students. He'd arrived with Remus and Tonks to bring them back to the Kennel for their first training class, and found them in the back yard, watching Crookshanks chase gnomes. All three were wearing cut-off denim shorts - the boys', he was amused to note, briefer than Hermione's - and sandals, their legs casually touching. The boys wore plain white vests - he remembered with bemusement the American wizards he'd spent a few weeks hiding with calling those “wife-beaters” - and Hermione wore a navy blue “boob-tube,” the lines of her shoulders and collarbones elegant and beautiful. Oh, to be seventeen again! Sirius snorted to himself. At seventeen, he'd been such a self-absorbed, reckless git, this girl would have looked him up and down once, contempt in her eyes, and walked away. And rightly so, too.

            They glanced up at Sirius's voice, and suddenly Hermione was moving, wide-eyed, to her feet, staring back and forth from him to Tonks to Remus, the backs of their hands brushing against one another.

            Sirius noticed how effortlessly the boys turned with their contact, even as Hermione, staring, cried, “You didn't!

            “No, Clever Boots,” he said. “I didn't. I researched, and found a temporary version that was also used by the Peloponnesians. How else did you think we could learn combat moves to teach you?”

            She smiled, suitably abashed, as Ron shrugged, climbing to his feet, handing her her robes. “I just don't know why you cast it before coming to get us,” he said. “Seems like it'd be a bit of a pain.”

            “He cast it the day before yesterday,” said Tonks. “Lasts about three days. We'll time it better next time.”

            Ron was helping Harry to his feet, handing him his robes, as Remus said, “Anyway, Apparition is easier than expected like this, and side-along will be no problem.” He reached out and took hold of Harry's elbow. “You did this before with Sirius, yes?”

            Harry nodded.

            “Come on, then, Ron, luv,” said Tonks with a cheeky grin. “Give us a hug!”

            Ron laughed as he stepped up to her, arms wrapping her in a friendly embrace.

            “You and me, Clever Boots?”

            Hermione leaned into Sirius, hugging him warmly.

            “All right, all, concentrate, please! The living room of the Kennel!”

            And there was that sense of dark constriction, and the burrow's back yard was gone.

            They'd spent fifteen minutes running circuits of Sirius' basement gymnasium (“Just to warm up,” Sirius had said) and begun learning the first three-part maneuver Tonks had come up with.

            “The point is, rather than treating the connection as a disadvantage, you make it an advantage. There are things you can do that no-one else can, because you're all connected. So we're going to start simple, and use Hermione as a whip.”

            Hermione's face swung around towards her. “Excuse me?”

            “Well, you're the lightest, so both of the boys working together should be able to swing you. Still heavy enough to make a hell of an impact, though. Thing is, normal people wouldn't be able to swing you aggressively this way without losing the grip. Now, for you boys, the important part is not make contact until the right time. Watch.”

            She and Remus and Sirius approached a large, heavy punching bag hung from the ceiling from stout chains, and they swept into motion. She kept her hands on both of theirs as Remus and Sirius swept her sideways, off her feet, themselves moving in a graceful, dancelike pattern to avoid touching one another as they spun, swinging her once, twice, thrice around, and then Sirius was leaning an arm against Remus, while releasing his hold on Tonks, and she snapped across the length of Lupin's body as her cousin leaned back away, keeping his hands carefully in contact with Lupin's surprisingly well-defined shoulder, anchoring and counterbalancing him. Tonks' feet, close together and tightly controlled, smashed against the heavy bag with a deafening Smack! And the bag flew back away from her, chains clanking loudly and throwing off sparks, as Tonks rebounded back into Remus' arms.

            He held her there for a moment, and Hermione suddenly burst into a dazzling smile. “Three days? Oh, that's great, you three! Congratulations, really!”

            Tonks blushed. “Well, we're not here to talk about my love-life, are we? This is im- You really think it's good?”

            “It's wonderful!” said Hermione.

            “You don't think it's... You know... weird?

            Hermione raised an eyebrow, her hands moving against Harry's arm and Ron's side.

            “Yeah, well...” Tonks laughed. “Right, anyway, you wanna see that one again, or you wanna try it first?”

            “Let's try it,” said Ron, and they went to work.

            The first attempt ended with a high-pitched shriek, an “Oh, bugger!” and a baffling tangle of limbs, from which one of Hermione's elegantly shaped legs stood, briefly, like a flagpole, her toes pointed to the heavens.

            Then long, freckled fingers were wrapping around the knee, and Ron was swinging himself out of the tangle, lifting Hermione gently to her feet before squatting down to offer a hand to Harry.

            Harry nodded to him as he rose. “Switch places, you think?”

            “Yeah,” said Ron. “You're shorter, it'll work better.”

            “Steady on,” began Sirius, but Remus shushed him.

            Sirius raised a skeptical eyebrow at him, but acquiesced.

            Harry and Ron exchanged places, and they started again, swinging Hermione's slender form up from the floor and around, Harry ducking easily under Ron's arms as they danced their circular pattern, and then the boys came together, shoulder-to-shoulder, guiding Hermione across their bodies in a directed crack, and the sound of her feet against the heavy bag was thunderous, and the chain suspending it pulled from the ceiling with a screeching crunch as thick bolts were pulled from a wooden cross-beam. The bag sailed 12 feet to hit the wall with a thud! and drop to the padded floor.

            Remus slowly raised an eyebrow at Sirius as the boys collected Hermione back into their arms.

            “Oh, shut up, Moony,” said Sirius.

            The bag was re-hung, the chains magically re-enforced, and they practiced the move for another hour.

            The next move was a graceful shoulder-roll, bringing any of the three across the shoulders of either or both of the others in a swift, graceful movement.

            “Oh, that's excellent!” Ron said, as Tonks demonstrated jumping up to roll shoulder-to-shoulder across Remus' back to come down between him and Sirius. “You see that, Harry? We can get the strongest wand in any direction, and fast!

            Harry smiled back, nodding once, decisively, and glanced at Hermione. “What d'you think, love?”

            “Great!” she told him. “Any two of us can put the third in a defensive position, on no notice at all.” She turned back to their instructors. “Can we see that again with Sirius rolling? Tonks, I want a better look at how you re-direct his weight.”

            “Sure thing,” said Tonks, and glanced back and forth between Remus and Sirius. They nodded, and Tonks was ducking down, the motion of her arm and back directing Sirius as he jumped to roll across her, Remus helping brace her from the other side, and suddenly Tonks squeaked, her arm flailing, as Sirius slid sideways and tumbled to the floor, rolling a few feet away from them before stopping.

            The three adults stared at one another, eyes wide.

            “I...” said Sirius. “I, uh...”

            “Seventy-four hours,” said Remus, eyes on the wall-clock above the door. “Eighteen minutes.” He stepped over and helped Sirius to his feet, and the three of them looked awkwardly from one to another.

            “Perhaps we should call it a day,” said Hermione, quietly.

            Remus pulled Sirius against himself in a hug, and reached back with one hand for Tonks, and, when she took his hand, pulled her in and kissed her gently, before looking back up at Hermione. “I think perhaps that would be best.”

            Sirius glanced up and pointed to two doors on the second wall. “Shower rooms,” he said. Hermione didn't let herself think about the fact that by all rights, those rooms should be underneath a house two lots along. Magical dimension fiddling made her head hurt. “One for you, one for us. Ceiling's shared, so silencing charms, right?”

            But none of them really felt like doing anything requiring a silencing charm, and as she and Harry were gently washing the sweat from Ron's matted hair, they heard a sound that could have been a sob, in a voice that could have been Tonks'.

            Hermione rubbed the muscles in Ron's back, her hip against Harry's, and was suddenly very glad of the ceaseless touch of their skin.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen: “So Corrosive a Secret”

            “Headmaster, may I speak with you?”

            Albus Dumbledore looked up from his book, and smiled gently at the dark form in his doorway. “Of course, Severus. I take it that Bellatrix is sufficiently appeased that you are able to broach what's been troubling you?”

            “Yes, headmaster.”

            “Very well, then. Have a seat. May I offer you something?”

            “Thank you, no,” said Snape, settling smoothly into a chair.

            “How can I help you, Severus?”

            Severus Snape was silent for a very long time, then spoke quickly. “You told the– Told Potter. That it was I who betrayed his parents to the Dark Lord.”

            Dumbledore closed his eyes, nodding slowly. “I felt sure this was the matter that concerned you, Severus. Yes. I told him.”

            “You had given me, Albus, your most solemn word that you would keep my secret.”

            Dumbledore nodded again. “I did, Severus, and I broke that promise. Worse, I did not alert you that I was doing so, nor that it had come to pass. I had neither time nor opportunity to alert you in advance.”

            Snape's voice was venomous. “It was not your secret to tell!

            Dumbledore inclined his head. “It was not. In the end, however, I decided that it was not my secret to keep. Harry needed – Harry deserved – to know. I came to this decision while collecting him to attend the inquest. I deemed that for Harry to be kept in ignorance of what transpired leading to his parents' death was too perilous. We would be standing in the Death Chamber, standing before the Veil. I told him then and there. I wouldn't risk so corrosive a secret to lie between us.”

            “What risk, Headmaster?” Snape's voice was still coldly angry. “What possible hazard could be posed by Potter's ignorance? Who could it have harmed?”

            The eyes Albus Dumbledore turned on his old friend were bleak, and very old. “I do not know, Severus.”

            “Then how could you–”

            “How could I have known that Harry's ignorance of the prophecy, of my fears about Voldemort's connection with him, would cost Sirius Black his life?”

            Snape sat back away from the man who had shown him so much trust. “And yet, Black lives.”

            “Professor Black,” corrected Dumbledore, softly. “I was to expect, then, that a man would step whole and breathing from behind the Veil itself? Sirius Black was dead, Severus, killed every bit as much by the corrosive power of my secrecy as by Bellatrix. Did I have even an inkling of how your secret could have resulted in similar peril? No. It would be easier to claim I did, but I did not. I simply decided that the risk was too great.”

            The headmaster stood, and walked around to perch on the edge of his desk, allowing him to place a gentle hand on Snape's shoulder.

            “And I will tell you this, Severus. Harry's reaction when I told him confirmed for me that it was the right thing to do. He was in a very, very dangerous state.”

            The Potions Master sneered as looked over to a shelf where several of Dumbledore's prized trinkets were missing, replaced with other magical oddments from his collection. “I imagine he loosed another of his famous tantrums? Oh, the crying, the screaming and gnashing of teeth!”

            Dumbledore smiled at his old friend's wit. “No, Severus. He was silent for a very long time, and then he nodded, and quietly thanked me for telling him the truth.”

            Snape stared up at him for a long moment. “That seems unlike him.”

            “Indeed. I feared for him, then, Severus. It seemed as though his fighting spirit itself had fled him. To stand him before the Veil in such a state, with so terrible a secret hidden between us? What if it had come out?”

            Snape seemed sincerely baffled now. “But Headmaster... How could it?”

            “Suppose I was placed under oath for the inquest? Suppose I was asked questions about the purpose of the trap at the Department of Mysteries? To be questioned about the prophecy brings us much too close to that unhappy truth. No, Severus, I simply couldn't risk it.”

            “Potter told his friends.”

            Dumbledore nodded. “And Sirius as well, Severus. In this very room.”

            Snape lowered his head for a moment. “Because Potter deemed it necessary?”

            “Yes, Severus. Consider the peril that Miss Granger and Mister Weasley face because of that prophecy. Surely they needed to know its content. Surely they need to know that it was communicated back to the Dark Lord.”

            “And Black?”

            “Sirius is a trusted advisor. He has proven an inestimable help in finding a way to bring about Tom's ultimate defeat.”

            “And when Weasley or Granger deems it necessary to tell someone?”

            “Then they will do so, Severus, and I will trust in their judgment.”

            “I... see.” Snape stood, and moved swiftly to the door. “I cannot claim to be pleased with this turn of events, Headmaster, nor mollified by your explanation.”

            Dumbledore nodded. “I understand, Severus.”

            “I have much to think about, Headmaster. If you will excuse me?”

            “Of course,” said Dumbledore, but he spoke to the open door, and the back of Snape's fluttering black robes.

            “There are all sorts of possibilities,” said Sirius, sitting back on his couch. Remus was at the far end, and Tonks was stretched out between them, her head in Lupin's lap, her feet on Black's. “The question is, what are you trying to achieve? It's actually harder with you lot, because you're all co-operating. Imagine how easy it would be for two of you to disable the other, or trip them up, all stuck together like that? The whole question of closing space would be done with.”

            “Defensive formations are harder,” added Lupin. “Not just because it's hard to protect someone you can't leave in safety while you fight, but because any of you lot is likely to refuse to let the others put themselves in harm's way.”

            “But equilateral stuff will work well. You'll be able to cover a full three-hundred-and-sixty-degree field of fire, with some overlap, and that makes for a strong offensive or defensive posture,” said Tonks. She sounded very strong, very commanding, and it was an odd contrast to her comfortable supine sprawl.

            “I think we can practice that last one you were demonstrating on our own,” said Harry. “I like the way that roll could get us into positions so fast.”

            Sirius lifted a brow, opened his mouth, and Hermione pointed sternly at him from her seat on one of the comfortable armchairs, Harry and Ron sitting cross-legged on the floor at her feet. “I'm warning you!”

            “All right, all right!” surrendered Sirius, grinning widely at her. “I know better than to tempt terrible fate!”

            “Since when?” cried Remus, laughing.

            “Fair point!” agreed Sirius, and turned back to Hermione. “I find it's much more fun to get into positions sloooowly.”

            Tonks bellowed with laughter as Hermione rolled her eyes. “Sirius, you're a bad man!”

            He smiled over at Tonks, eyebrows wiggling devilishly, but the hand that caressed her bare leg was tender and gentle, and Hermione smiled, then glanced over to Remus, who was stroking Tonks' now-vermilion, now-magenta hair.

            “How is it working for you?” she asked.

            Harry and Ron exchanged a glance.

            “Feelings an' that,” said Ron.

            “We don't count,” Harry agreed.

            Hermione leaned towards Tonks, her expression interested, not looking away as her hands whacked their heads.

            Tonks grinned back. “Good. This seems very weird, now, though,” she said, lifting her feet away from Sirius. “'S funny, really. I used to wonder how you lot hadn't gone mad, but after three days... I miss it. I feel empty.”

            Remus leaned down to her. “I don't have to be stuck to you to love you,” he said, his hand cradling her head as he kissed her. “There are millions of hearts that beat as one, though they be miles apart.”

            Sirius smiled fondly. “He was that sappy when we were in school, too,” he chuckled. But his fingers never stopped tracing their dainty lines up and down Tonks' shin.

            “And as I recall,” said Remus, glancing up at him, “you tried to be all aloof and cool and above it all, and you melted like an Ice Mouse in a dragon-weir!”

            “That was James' fault!” cried Sirius. “Once he'd gone all soft on Lily, I had no-one to help me keep up my tough-rebel demeanor!”

            Remus smiled over at Harry, who was looking interested. “It was rather a sight, I must say, Harry. Your father was as wild as Padfoot, here, but your mother tamed him in short order.”

            “Ah, but he spiced her up more than a bit, too,” said Sirius. “You remember that time we found them in the Owlery–”

            “Sirius, we are not telling their son about the Owlery!”

            “No.” Sirius smiled wistfully, then looked over at Remus, tilting his head toward the chair. “You know, I've only just now realized how much alike they are.”

            “You're always going on about how much Harry is like James!” said Tonks.

            “No, my love,” said Remus. “That's not what he means. Lily Evans was one of the smartest witches I've ever known. She was sweet natured, and generous, a stickler for the rules, and utterly dedicated to fairness. Sound familiar?”

            “Huh!” Tonks looked over at Hermione. “I've got to admit, from the pictures I'd seen, I've been associating her with Ginny.”

            “Well, yes,” said Sirius. “She had that lovely red hair, and the fiery temper. There were similarities there, too.”

            “Looks like you were doomed from the start, Harry,” said Tonks, chuckling. “You know what they say: Men marry their mothers, because they are their fathers.”

            “Oh, no,” said Sirius, very firmly. “I've made that mistake once. Never again. Harry is not his father. He's a better man than James ever dreamed of being.”

            Harry looked petulant. “I thought you liked my dad!”

            Sirius smiled at him. “I loved your dad.” His glance flickered to Ron. “Not like that,you!” Ron shrugged with a can't-win-em-all smile. “But you're still a better man than he was. You're smarter and stronger and kinder. This past year, when I tried to lure you down to Hogsmeade? James would have done that in a second. It took me a long time to realize what an idiot I was to ask you, and I was ten times that stupid to be upset at you saying no.”

            Harry smiled. “On the other hand, Sirius, I'm willing to walk right out into Dagenham. Didn't I see a bakery around the corner?”

            Tonks drew a deep breath and stood, and, after a pause, stepped away from the Marauders. “Come on, then. I'll bring you.” She reached down to help Harry and Ron to their feet, and smiled as they turned as one to guide Hermione to her feet.

            The bakery yielded warm, fresh garlic-and-cheese-rolls, and very fresh butter from a small dairy case.

            As they were leaving, Hermione detoured them into the chemist's next door. Tonks smiled as Hermione led her two boys into a section called “Feminine Hygiene.” They made a bee-line for the far end of the aisle and Hermione was squatting toward the floor. ”Uh-huh! Excellent! I thought I might find these here!”

            “What's that?” asked Tonks.

            Hermione handed her the small brown box, whose beige label read, “Mrs. MacGillicuddy's Organic Citrus Wipes.”

            Tonks frowned. “You wipe fruit with this?”

            Hermione blushed furiously. “No, they're for... You know... Personal...

            Tonks looked blankly at her.

            Ron looked back and forth between them, confused, and said, “No, Tonks, she uses 'em to clean her fanny after she pees. You know, if there's no bidet.”

            Hermione buried her face in her hands.

            “You use these things?” asked Tonks, her face confused.

            Hermione drew a breath, then charged in. “Fine. Yes. Yes, Tonks, I use these. It's an all-organic, hypoallergenic specialty brand. No alcohol, no artificial ingredients, even the citrus scent is natural. My mum is very careful, because some of these things can be dangerous – did you know vaginal deodorants are a leading cause of Cystitis? – but she swears by these. I wish they didn't come in a foil packet, though.”

            Tonks laughed, holding up a defensive pair of hands. “I wasn't criticizing, Hermione. I'm just wondering why you don't just use Cloacina.”

            Hermione's eyes widened. “Cloacina?” Her face snapped around as she looked into nowhere. “Cloacina... The cleanser... Surname of Venus...” She spun again to face Tonks. “You mean there's a spell? A spell just for vaginal cleanliness?”

            Harry and Ron exchanged a wide-eyed glance, their mouths clamped desperately shut. Better to throw fruit at Death Eaters than laugh at this!

            “Yeah. Grubbly-Plank teaches it in second year.”

            Harry looked up. “Is that what that was about? I remember that. Remember, Ron? She was bringing groups of girls into the Cartomancy classroom?”

            “Yeah, you said something...” He reached a hand over brush a lock of hair from Hermione's cheek, tuck it behind her ear. “I was pretty distracted at the time.”

            “I missed it!” cried Hermione. “I can't believe I missed a whole lesson from Second Year, and didn't even know it!”

            Tonks looked confused.

            “She was petrified,” said Harry. “Spent the whole of Third year with–” He stopped himself even as Hermione's eyes widened. “With this gigantic course-load, trying to catch up.”

            “Don't worry, love,” Tonks told her. “It wasn't a class. It wasn't graded or like that. It was just informal-like.”

            “Can you show me?” Hermione asked her, eyes intent on hers.

            “What, here?”

            Hermione glanced around the chemist's shop, actually seeming, for a moment, to be considering it, before shaking her head. “No. No, at the kennel will be fine.”

            Hermione had barely paused in the kitchen long enough to hand the rolls and butter to Remus Lupin, before taking Tonk's arm and guiding her to the stairs, the boys trailing helplessly along with them.

            “What do you suppose that's about?” Ron heard Sirius ask as they made their way up in an uneven line.

            “Put a warming charm on those, would you?” Harry called back, and Ron grinned. For a boy who so frequently went off the deep end without so much as a glance, sometimes Harry showed surprising foresight.

            Almost before he'd finished forming that thought, Hermione was leading them into their room, saying, over her shoulder, “Close the door, Ron.”

            He swung the door closed, and even as the latch clicked, Hermione was telling Tonks, “Show me.”

            Tonks' eyebrow raised, and the amusement in her voice was edged, now. “Right here?”

            “Well, yes,” said Hermione, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

            “So I'm dropping my knickers and charming my cunt in front of two randy teenaged boys? Shall I give 'em knob-jobs while I'm at it?”

            Ron battled the temptation to cry out an enthusiastic Oh, yes, please! 'cause he knew Tonks would get a chuckle, but Harry's desperate eyes sided with his common sense, so he held it in.

            “Oh!” said Hermione, blushing furiously. “Oh, I didn't– Oh, God, Tonks, I'm sorry.” She chewed on her knuckle, tears forming in her eyes. “Oh, damn...”

            Tonks' eyes widened. “Hermione?”

            “You have to understand,” Harry told her. “It's a whole lesson, and it's from second year, and she didn't even know she didn't know it. So she's a little crazy right now.”

            “I am not crazy!” snapped Hermione. She turned back to Tonks. “But I have to learn this! Please don't make me wait until I'm back at school!”

            Expressions played across Tonks' face, and Ron thought it was time. “Oh, Godric's balls, Tonks! Not that! If it waits till we're back, it'll be Grubbly-Plank again! Don't make us watch Grubbly-Plank drop her knickers! Hasn't Harry suffered enough?”

            Tonks smirked.

            “We won't look,” said Harry, his voice soft and reassuring.

            “Bugger that!” cried Ron. “I wanna see what colour she has it! I'm betting plaid!”

            Hermione smacked Ron's arm, but Tonks burst out laughing. “All, right, all right,” she said. “Sit on the edge of the bed.”

            Hermione sat, and the boys turned around to face away as they sat on either side of her. Behind them, Ron heard the rustle of cloth, the odd sucking sound of a sticking charm being undone. Hermione drew in a sharp breath.

            Ron glanced over to Harry, whose wide eyes were on his. He found himself wondering, in spite of himself, what Tonk's fanny looked like. Tonks was plumper than Hermione – the memory of her form in his arms that morning, as they Apparated, was suddenly very vivid – and his imagination sketched in the more rounded shape of the gentle prominence of her belly sloping down to a rounded mons tufted with fluffy, electric-pink pubic hair that resembled cotton candy... Hermione's face leaning in close, lower lip between her teeth, her dark brows drawn together in concentration as the tip of Tonks' wand moved in a complicated pattern over her vulva.

            Harry's eyes were still wide, locked on his.

            Behind them, Tonks' voice breathed the word, “Cloacina.” Was there a slight hitch in her voice?

            Hermione made a small, interested sound, a wordless exclamation.

            Tonks was a metamorphmagus. She could transform her body any way she pleased. Ron suddenly saw in his mind's eye Tonks' labia, shaped much like lips, reaching forward to kiss Hermione. Hermione's mouth opening to receive the kiss, tongue reaching–

            “See how that works?” asked Tonks' voice, casually.

            “Yes...” Hermione's voice was very quiet. “Yes, I see that. Uh... Yes.”

            Harry was sweating. Ron bit his lip. There was a rustle of fabric, Tonks muttering a sticking charm, then her voice, cheerful, but, with an odd note to it: “All right boys.”

            They turned around, Ron making an effort not to spin quickly, as if he hoped to catch some glimpse – like pink cotton candy against the English-rose skin – and Tonks smiled a little too brightly, glancing over at Harry, and then very quickly away. Her eyes met Ron's and there was... something. She blushed vividly as Ron looked quickly over to Harry, who was also blushing, as was Hermione, and staring down at her feet as well.

            “Right,” said Tonks, with an awkward laugh. “I'm going to go see what my pups are up to!” And she spun quickly and was out the door, closing it gently but firmly behind her.

            As Ron turned back to them, he saw Harry slide from the bed, turning as he moved, to kneel between Hermione's legs.

            “Harrry!” she cried, but he had two fingers up the inside of the right leg of her cut-offs, and was burying his nose in the opening thus created, eyes closed and breathing deep as Hermione squealed in protest, swatting the back of has head, and Ron watched, wide-eyed and amazed, as Harry breathed deep.

            The grin he turned up was wicked. “She's wet, Ron.”

            “Oh, my God,” squeaked Hermione, burying her face in her hands.

            “Why Hermione Jane,” said Ron, his fingers gentle as he turned her face toward him. “I do believe that you got turned on by Tonks' fanny!”

            “Shut up,” she said, weakly.

            “Hermione,” asked Harry, his face and voice just a little too serious as he rose up to as full a height he could reach on his knees, “are you bisexual?”

            His fingers reached for her boob-tube. There was again the odd sound of a sticking charm being released as he pulled it down, exposing one breast, the nipple rosy and erect. “See that, Ron?”

            Ron nodded, leaning over to kiss the rosy, pebbled flesh, and Harry rose to his feet, leaning over to kiss her softly on the mouth.

            “It's you two,” she said breathlessly into his mouth. “I could feel the tension in you. I could tell you were hard.”

            “Oh,” said Ron, looking up at her from her breast. “Was that all?”

            Hermione was silent a long time. “No,” she finally said. “It was her, too. That was so... It was really intimate, Ron.” Another silence. “She's... She's really very sexy.”

            “She really is, isn't she,” said Harry, sitting beside her again, and reaching around her to take hold of the lower hem of her top. Ron, seeing what he was doing, leaned back away for a moment as Harry drew it up, and Hermione smiled as she raised her hands above her shoulders. Ron was already reaching for the buttons of her denim cut-offs.

            “So... How was it?” he asked, as he sank to his knees where Harry had been, and smoothly pulled the fabric down her thighs. “What was it like?”

            Hermione looked down at him. “Ron, are you seriously asking me to describe Tonks' vagina to you while you're pulling my knickers down?”

            “Yes,” said Ron, before leaning in to kiss Hermione's vulva, his tongue probing with gentle insistence at her folds.

            “Tell us,” said Harry, and Ron glanced up to see his hands at her breasts, fingers teasing those wonderful, pert nipples as his mouth dropped to the pulse-point of her neck.

            “I don't believe you two!” Hermione said, breathily, trying unconvincingly to sound outraged.

            Ron let his tongue trace a gentle line up her cleft, and her thighs spread further, opening her before him, like a flower, an offering.

            “Hermione, you know Tonks is adorable,” Harry was saying. “She's cute as all get out, and she has a great sense of humour, and an adventurous disposition, so you know she'd be up for, well, anything! And she's a metamorphmagus, so she could be anything you wanted her to be. Of course Ron and I think she's sexy.”

            Hermione moaned, and Ron wasn't sure, but he thought it might be as much from Harry's words as from Harry's clever hands at her nipples, his tongue at her fanny. He took another long, slow lick, letting his tongue play with her clitoris an extra moment, savoring her, salty, sweet-and-sour, before he leaned back and looked up at her. “An she had her cunt right out there,” he said. “Right in this room, right behind us, where all we'd have to do is look, and we'd see it. See it right in front of your face. An' you were leaning forward to look closely, weren't you? With your lower lip sucked in between your teeth, taking in every detail you could. How fuckin' sexy is that?”

            “Could you smell her, Hermione?” Harry breathed, and now Ron was groaning at the thought, Hermione's face in that mask of concentration, nostrils flaring as she took in Tonks' scent. Oh, Merlin's blue balls, that was fucking hot!

            “So she's sexy, and she's showing her fanny, and it's right in your face, and of course it makes us randy,” Harry was saying as Ron leaned in for another long, slow lick. “And, for fuck's sake, she's just shaggable as hell all on her own. But, you know, don't you, love?”

            “Know what?” Hermione breathed.

            Ron leaned back again. “That we'd run across Tonks to get to you.” And Harry whispered harshly in her ear, “Fuck, yes!”

            Suddenly Ron was standing, shucking his tee-shirt, ripping his denims and Y-fronts – the cut-offs were too short for Boxers underneath – down, and she spread herself further as he stepped closer, bending his knees to position himself, and Harry said, “Wait!”

            His clothes were flying as well, and he told Hermione, “Turn around, love. Turn around and kneel on the bed.”

            “Oh, yeah,” said Ron, straightening as Hermione turned. “I read about this. Centaur fashion!”

            “Oh!” said Hermione. “Oh, I like that much better than the Muggle term! It sounds much grander than 'Doggy Style!'”

            Ron started to position himself again, and Harry again interrupted. “Just another second, mate,” he said, and then, to Hermione, “Pick up that hand, love?”

            Then Harry was squirming around under her, and Hermione gasped – “Oh, Harry!” – as Ron saw his head emerging from between her thighs, his legs stretching across the bed, crotch below her face. Then Harry's fingers were teasing her fanny, opening her up for Ron, sliding briefly within to perform Barricadus.

            “Are you ready, love?” asked Harry, and Hermione groaned, “Oh, God, yes!”

            Harry a quirked an upside-down eyebrow at Ron, who stepped forward. Kneeling on the bed, Hermione was at the perfect height, and he pushed himself slowly into her. Godric! He loved this, so much! How many nights had he lay with his hand around his cock, trying to imagine what it would feel like to replace his callused fingers with the wet softness of Hermione's fanny? There was no counting. And now, here he was, sliding into her, and Merlin, she was so tight, so much tighter than he'd imagined, and the heat of her-- that's what Ron had never thought to imagine. In his fantasies, she’d been the same temperature as his hand, but she was hot in there, warm and wonderful on his cock like summer sun.

            Hermione was gasping as he slowly filled her. He'd learned this, much more than from Fred and George's magazines – which he was realizing were ridiculously wrong in so many ways – from Harry. Harry was always so controlled, so careful at the beginning, as if he was afraid of not just hurting Hermione, but breaking her. Eventually, in the end, he'd lose that control, and pound into her with abandon, but he always started with such long, slow strokes, and Ron could see that she loved it. So he held himself in check at first, as he buried himself in her, buried himself to the hilt.

            “Oh, God, Ron,” breathed Hermione. “Oh, that's so amazing. Fuck me, Ron, oh, fuck me!”

            It was as Ron was starting to slide himself out again that he felt it. A quiver and a gasp – a different gasp – from Hermione, a clenching around him, and then the softness of a tongue running up the exposed length of his cock, to play with his bollocks.

            “Oh, fuck, Harry!” he cried. “Are you kidding me?”

            “No, Ron,” came Hermione's voice, an amused and breathy imitation of her Correcting-Ron's-Essays tone, “He's licking us!”

            The tongue ran back down his length, and Hermione suddenly hissed in a breath, and Ron could tell she'd sucked her lip between her teeth again, though he could see only bushy brown curls at the back of her head, and her fanny squeezed around him again.

            “Oh, bugger me!” breathed Ron, almost reverently.

            Hermione managed that self-mocking tone long enough to gasp, “I don't think any of us are ready for that Ron.” She made a squeaking noise, and Harry's tongue was stroking back along his dick again. “Yet!”

            Yet!?!?!? Ron's mind boggled. Even as he was lost in the heaven that was Hermione's fanny, he suddenly imagined himself pressing into her arse. Godric!

            Harry's tongue had stopped, and his voice gasped, “Ron, pull out a tick.”

            Ron remembered asking Harry that on his birthday, and Hermione did, too, for even at the words, she moaned, and her groan as Ron slid out of her was more desire and arousal than loss, and Ron saw Harry's right hand, two fingers sliding, squeezing into her, and even as Harry withdrew, Hermione was pressing two of her own fingers inside herself. Ron pumped into her again, two, three long slow pumps, and reached down with his own fingers, slicked them wither her juices.

            He saw Hermione's head dip down, and then move up again, as Harry's hips arced away from the mattress, and Ron knew she'd taken Harry in her mouth, and one of her hands, slick-fingered, was sliding beneath Harry's raised hips even as he felt Harry's fingers sliding onto his bum. He Waited. Harry was in for a surprise, Ron thought, and he didn't want to accidentally hurt anyone if Harry reacted too strongly.

            There it was! Harry's hips arched still higher, and Hermione made a choking sound, and Ron felt a moment's stark terror as it seemed that Harry's teeth were going to close hard, but he remembered and stopped himself in time, merely squeezing Ron's ball gently with his teeth. Then Ron felt Harry's middle finger seeking entrance at his own arse, and he thrust forward into Hermione's fanny with his cock as he pressed his own index finger, still moist with the scent of Hermione, into her bum. She cried out, her voice muffled around Harry's cock, and suddenly Harry's tongue was back at work, laving over the place where Ron and Hermione were joined, And Ron began pounding into her more confidently, even as he slid that second moist finger into her bum.

            A moment later, He saw Hermione's head recoil again as he felt the rhythm of Harry's tongue falter, and he tried to spare some concentration on relaxing and being ready.

            As he'd known it would, Harry's second finger began pressing into him and his eyes and teeth both clenched shut as a low sound escaped him. He couldn't deny it: it hurt! Still, Ron found a place in himself to smirk at himself. I don't say that like it's a bad thing! For it hurt, undeniably, and quite a lot, but that stretching, that sense of being entered... He wished there was a word for it. It wasn't intrusion, wasn't invasion, with the implications of violence, of unwelcome entry. Harry's seeking fingers in him hurt, but the pain was lessening, and as Harry's fingers explored, pleasure blossomed from the sensation, and suddenly the fingers inside him were pressing just there, and an electric jolt of pleasure, sharp and sure and unlike anything he'd ever felt, and he shuddered a deep breath, pressing back as much against Harry's fingers as he did forward into Hermione in his mad strokes.

            Harry's tongue quickened against his shaft, his bollocks, and, he knew, Hermione's clitoris, and his own seeking fingers in her arse felt his cock moving within her, and she cried out, her voice muffled by Harry's cock, and she clenched around him, and suddenly Harry's fingers were pressing that spot again, And he barely managed to gasp out, “Hermione!” before he felt himself exploding into her.

            He pumped into her again, then once more, his fingers sliding slowly out of her arse, and he saw the muscles in her shoulder working, and suddenly Harry was arching again off the mattress, and crying out, the warmth of his breath playing over Ron's balls as Harry's voice managed to get as far as “Hermione, I'm--” before his unfinished warning was clearly rendered moot. Hermione's head jerked back toward Ron, and she made a surprised, choking sound, and then her head moved again, and her next gasp was clearer, and as her head moved to the side there was a geyser of thick, white fluid, splashing into her hair, and then another jet that rose clear, arcing over to spatter and rope onto her back.

            They were frozen there for a long moment before Hermione collapsed like a sack of wheat onto Harry, and he looked up, smiling, between her thighs at Ron, then leaned up to lick her juices and his own semen from Ron's softening cock. Ron reached a hand down and ran over Harry's cheek a caress as gentle as he's ever given Hermione.

            “Love you, mate,” he rasped, huskily, then turned and sat beside them on the bed.

            Hermione followed her boys down the stairs perhaps twenty minutes later, cleaning charms well practiced, and well used. She smiled as she stepped easily down the steps, the muscles in her crotch and thighs and bottom feeling loose and well exercised, and not the least bit sore. Her fingers were in her boys' hair as they took the stairs side-by-side, and she loved their two different textures, and her mind was spinning with possibilities.

            All she could think about was that feeling of being doubly filled, of Ron's penis in her vagina, while his fingers filled her anus. Those latter had hurt, rather a lot, but, like the old American song her father sometimes liked to sing, it “hurt so good,” a pain she didn't want to let go of, even as it started to subside and pleasure built from it. And now all she could think was that where those fingers had been, something else might fit, something long and sleek and straight and elegant that had felt so good in her mouth, and erupted in a prodigious explosion of jism, which had filled her mouth, then covered her cheek and eye, matted her hair – requiring three separate cleaning charms to undo – and left warm, sticky designs on her back that Ron had said reminded him of Arithmancy diagrams. She remembered the way Ron's fingers and cock had moved against one another, with only a thin layer of her between them, and imagined herself pressed between those sweaty bodies, those two penises moving against one another within her. It made her light-headed to think about it. She was a little afraid of it – slender though it was, Harry's penis was thicker than Ron's two fingers – but she also remembered how afraid she'd been of their erections that first day, and how she'd come to love them since.

            The bag of rolls was still on the kitchen counter, still gently steaming from the warming charm, releasing a lovely scent of cheese and garlic into the air of the kitchen. Of Sirius and Remus and Tonks there was no sign.

            Ron moved ahead now, leading them toward the table. “Merlin!” he cried, grabbing the bag, “This smells great!”

            She exchanged an amused glance with Harry, and knew they were sharing the same thought, the same combination of exasperation and wonder that, minutes after what they'd just experienced together, Ron was Ron, ruled by his stomach. Her eyes dropped from Harry's eyes to his mouth, and for a sudden moment she was back there, on her knees, Ron sliding into her, Harry's tongue taking long, loving licks from her clitoris along her spreading labia and onward, she knew down Ron's shaft. Was he suddenly remembering what it was like to be in her mouth, to feel her tongue along his shaft?

            There was a rattle of paper, and she looked to see Ron shaking the bag at them. “Make goo-goo eyes later,” he said. “You don't get some of these now, I'm going to scoff the lot!”

            “Nice!” cried a voice from the door into the hallway. “None for us?”

            Sirius sauntered in, his robes loose around him, his limbs loose and languorous. His eyes flickered to Hermione, and his smile grew wicked. “I think I owe you a debt of thanks, Clever Boots! I don't know what went on between you and Tonks, but...”

            Hermione flushed, but looked him straight in the eye as she leaned herself against Ron's long, strong form, her hand stroking Harry's arm lazily.

            Sirius smiled. “I see the benefit was entirely mutual!”

            Harry blushed deeply now, but Sirius smiled at him as he reached past to scoop a roll out of the bag in Ron's hands. “No need for that, Harry. Good for you lot, I say.”

            Hermione heard a sound from the door, and saw Remus arrive with his arm around Tonks, whose eyes met hers for a moment, before she blushed and looked away.

            The mons was rounded and very pink, with pale brown hair that looked as soft and downy as a new kitten's.

            Hermione held a hand out to her. “Tonks.”

            Tonks looked at her feet for a moment.

            “Tonks,” said Hermione again, and the older witch looked up shyly.

            Hermione's hand beckoned, and Tonks stepped over to take it. Her hand was surprising soft in Hermione's. She ran her thumb in a gentle circle over Tonks' knuckles.

            “Thank you,” Hermione finally said. “It meant the world to me.”

            Tonks swallowed, nodding roughly, and turned to Ron. “Give us some!” she cried, reaching into the bag. “Where's the butter?”

            That night, in their bed in the tent in the Burrow's front-hall cupboard, they made slow, sweet, uninventive love, with much cuddling and kissing as the boys took their turns fucking her,. Their hands and bodies and lips gentle against hers.

            Afterwards, they lay together in a bit of a tangled pile, and Ron said, “You know, I was thinking about those defensive maneuvers.”

            Harry looked over at Ron as Hermione stretched up over the head of the bed for her wand.

            “So have I,” she said, and it was the sort of discussion that generally would fascinate harry, but he must have been more tired than he thought, because the next thing he knew he was waking up to sunshine streaming in through the magical windows, thinking vaguely that he must have dreamed of battle or dueling or something, because he was thinking the word “Obliviate.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen: “The Burning Cathedral

            They saw the smoke on the twelfth of August.

            It had been an idyllic few days, for all the hard work alternating training with Madam Pomfrey and training with Sirius and Remus and Tonks — who had twice more used E Pluribus Unum to give them three days of physical combat training — and working around the Burrow, de-gnoming the garden — which Crookshanks enjoyed helping with, chasing the hapless creatures to the Trio for swift ejection — cleaning out the shed — full of Muggle items, some normal, some improperly charmed, and brought home rather than disposed of by an intrigued Arthur Weasley — and performing half-a-hundred other tasks, large and small, that Molly Weasley asked of them.

            There was still time for Quidditch on the wireless — Ginny had joined Harry and Ron in teasing Hermione for becoming excited when Cannons beater Joey Jenkins scored a goal, apparently inadvertently — and for playing in the fields out behind the Burrow, for lazing around in the sun, and swimming in the delicious cool water of the lake.

            And of course, there were the nights. Nights of pleasure and exploration, of gentle caresses and soft touches and fast, hard, deep strokes, and cries of passion — followed, one embarrassing morning, by a red-faced Mr. Weasley casting long-term silencing charms on the door, walls, and ceiling of their cupboard.

            They were out at the lake, sitting on the dock with their feet in the water, when the curls of smoke began to rise into the air off beyond the tree line. Harry'd been joking about uses for the Bubblehead Charm, which Hermione had countered, quite calmly explaining that for Harry's purpose, she'd “--need a spare bubble, actually, down, you know... there. I've read about this. Underwater sex is such a lovely fantasy, because, you know, it's weightless. But apparently the water washes away a woman's natural lubrication.”

            Ron stared at her, wide-eyed. “Hermione, hearing you talk all clinical like that would be a complete mood-killer if it weren't so fucking sexy!”

            “Language, Ron,” scolded Hermione, and Harry pointed and said, “Look at that.”

            Black tendrils of smoke were reaching up into the air somewhere in the distance.

            “Something in town, from the looks of it,” said Ron, with a shrug. “If you wait a bit, and listen hard, you'll hear the Muggles' Screaming Machine. Apparently, if you scream loud enough at a fire, it goes out, so the Muggles made a machine to do it for them, 'cause people can't scream that loud.”

            Harry and Hermione stared at him, eyes wide. His confident look faltered for a moment, and he muttered darkly about the twins, and they distantly heard the wail of sirens, and Ron burst into a smile.

            “See?” he cried. “There it is, the Screaming Machine!”

            Harry and Hermione both smiled, and Hermione said, “Ron...”

            Ron's face fell again. “I'm going to kill those two!” He muttered something they didn't quite catch, although it might have involved the phrase “anthill curse,” and looked back up. “So what's it for, then?”

            “It's to tell other drivers to get out of the way when the Fire Engine is on its way to a fire,” said Harry.

            “And they put the fire out...?”

            “By pouring water on it,” said Hermione, and Ron grunted. “That's hardly clever at all!”

            It was perhaps an hour later that Remus Lupin arrived by Floo, looking harried and upset, and met hurriedly in the silencing-charmed kitchen with Molly Weasley.

            They were waiting for him when he emerged, and he smiled weakly, holding up his hands in playful surrender. “All right, all right,” he said quietly. “Just a little Order business.”

            Harry laughed. “I love the way you say that, Remus,” he said, a little darkly. “As if Order business somehow doesn't involve me.”

            “Harry!” gasped Hermione, shocked at his cheek toward a trusted adult and friend.

            But Lupin was smiling gently at him. “Harry, do you really think that every single thing the Order does is about you?”

            Harry and Ron merely stared at Lupin, arms crossed, while Hermione blushed furiously, eyes darting back and forth between her boys.

            Lupin's smile quirked into more familiar, more personal lines. “Padfoot told me you wouldn't buy that.”

            Harry grinned back at him, and Lupin thought for a moment more, then relented. “All right. There's a fire in the village.”

            “Yeah,” said Ron, “we saw the smoke.”

            “It's the local church,” continued Lupin. “Saint Bubo's Cathedral. Saint Andrew's to the Muggles. The fire appears to be magical. The Muggle fire fighters are having no luck putting it out. We thought it might be some sort of diversion aimed at bringing protection away from you, so I was here to warn Molly to be on the lookout.”

            Harry's smile was sadder, quieter, as he touched Remus' shoulder. “Thank you, Remus.”

            “Now, I'm treating you as an adult,” said Remus, “in telling you this. I hope you're going to live up to that treatment, by not making life harder for Molly. Will you stay inside, stay in your tent, and let us protect you?”

            Harry considered him a long moment before answering.

            “All right, Remus,” he said. “We'll stay.”

            It was an hour later that Sirius arrived. He carried with him a smell of smoke, and there was a nasty burn on the right side of his face and neck. Molly set about healing it, applying a poultice of Murtlap and bread pudding, as he looked over at the Trio. “Remus told me he told you.”

            Harry nodded. “How bad is it?”

            “Bad,” said Sirius, curtly. Molly Weasley's lips set in a disapproving line, but she kept her counsel.

            “These are self-directing Bluebell flames — like Arthur had in that stove — but they're huge! Allowed to feed on the church, the smallest of them is twelve feet tall. And someone is directing them. They've killed three Muggle firemen.”

            “God damn it!” cried Harry, slamming his fist into his palm, and Hermione laid a gentle hand on the back of his neck as Ron squeezed his shoulder, just reminding him again, as always, that they were there and were on his side.

            “Harry, dear,” said Molly, distractedly, as she removed the poultice, “do please watch your language. Now would you cast Palliatus on Sirius's face while I make a fresh one, please?”

            Harry cast another Palliatus, and Sirius's eyes closed for a moment in grateful relief.

            “This is good work you're doing, right here, Harry,” Sirius told him. “This is hero's work.”

            “He's right, you know, Harry,” said Hermione, angling her own wand toward Sirius's neck. A blossom of healthy pink bloomed amidst the livid red skin there, and spread, as she incanted under her breath, and beneath his skin Sirius' ruptured capillaries knitted themselves back together. “This is what we've been training for.”

            “It's not the only thing, love,” Harry replied darkly. He leaned over a bit, giving Ron room to cast another spell that reversed the damage to the skin cells on that side of Sirius's face and neck. “Three firemen are dead because Riddle's still out there.”

            “You can't put that on yourself, mate,” said Ron, bringing his wand closer to the pulse-point under Sirius' ear. “This'll sting, I think,” he told Sirius, and turned back to Harry. “You're not responsible for what those nutters do!”

            Sirius cracked an eye to look at Ron. “Three men died so those nutters could try to get to Harry. He wouldn't be human if he didn't feel some guilt about it.”

            “Sirius!” Molly's voice was nearly a whipcrack. “You, of all people! I can't believe you'd be so irresponsible as to encourage him!”

            Sirius sighed. “We can't deal with something, Molly, without looking it in the eye. Harry—”

            “Harry will feel responsible,” Harry interrupted, “no matter what Sirius says.” He drew a breath. “The question is, what do we do about it?”

            The Floo roared to life once again, and Mundungus Fletcher rolled out of it, coughing and brushing soot out of his hair. “Remus says to keep 'em 'way from th' windows!” he called.

            Harry's head snapped up, and the three of them were running for the nearest window as Sirius sighed, “Well done, Dung!”

            “Bloody fucking Hell!” cried Ron, and Molly Weasley, following to the window, opened her mouth to upbraid her son, then froze, staring into the sky.

            “Oh, no!” she breathed.

            Above the tree-line, over the village, hung the letters of fire:



            “Harry,” said Hermione, plaintively.

            He turned to regard her with warm, green eyes. “I won't drag you into that danger against your will, Hermione.”

            “We should change,” she told him, “before we go.”

            “Go?” cried Molly Weasley, as Sirius glared mightily at an oblivious Fletcher. “You three are not going anywhere!

            “She's right, you know,” Sirius added. “People have died to keep you safe and out of their hands. Go in there now, and they've died for nothing.”

            Harry looked at him for a long, long time. "Am I going to cower here, then, in safety, while good men die in my name? Would you?" He turned to Ron's mother. “Would you, Molly?”

            She took a step backwards then, looking at the quiet intensity of the boy — no, of the young man — who stood upright and determined in front of her.

            “If you die,” she finally said, “who will stand against him?”

            “You will, Mum,” said Ron. “An' you,” he angled his head toward Sirius, “an' you,” toward Dung, “an' Remus an' Fred an' George an' Dad and Dumbledore and the whole lot of you. Maybe that's 'the Power he Knows Not.' That enough people love Harry to stand up for him when he's gone. Mum, Sirius, you can't keep reserving Harry forever. He does have a job to do. The best weapon in the world is worthless if you don't fire it.”

            “Harry is not a weapon!” cried his mother. “He's just a boy!”

            “No, Mum. He's a man. He's my husband, just like Hermione is my wife. I know we're only sixteen, an' I hate it as much as you do that we've had to stop being kids almost before we began.” Ron stood to his full height, shoulder to shoulder with Harry, and beyond him, Hermione stood taller as well. “You can't ask us to hide while our friends die for us, Mum. You can't.”

            “Harry, promise me you'll wait,” said Sirius, “just a bit.”

            Harry nodded.

            Sirius ran for the Floo, grabbing a handful of powder from the jar.

            “Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place!” he called, and threw, and followed the powder into the flames.

            They were coming back out of the front-hall closet, dressed in tough denim jeans, t-shirts, and thick, woolly waistcoats -- “Need the bare arms for getting around easily,” Ron had said, “but we want to protect what we can” -- and sandals with engorgioed soles, when Sirius spun back out of the Floo.

            “Come on!” he called, and trotted for the door into the back yard, his left hand fishing in his pocket as the three teenagers followed him. He was squatting at the edge of the dirt road as they arrived behind him, putting something carefully on the ground, and then he stepped back, pointing his wand.

            “Finite Incantatum!” he cried, and the object on the ground in front of him began to expand as if inflating, revealing itself to be a large, gleaming, motorcycle.

            “Triumph, under all the extras,” said Sirius, with no small pride, “1957, originally. But, you know, I've made a lot of changes.”

            He perched sidewise on the edge of the seat, and addressed his three charges. “Now, as for the three of you... This is a damned dangerous situation.” He looked at Harry. “You're being 'called out' like it's a school-yard fight. Well, it isn't. I mean it. I'm deadly serious.”

            Ron chuckled. “Yeah, I heard Remus call you that when you broke wind: Deadly Sirius.”

            Sirius smirked in spite of himself. “Yes, yes, we're all very tough and funny here tonight. I was actually getting to a point more practical than a pep talk. We're going in against Death Eaters. They're going to take every unfair advantage they can, and we need to make sure that we don't lose touch.”

            He looked from one young pair of eyes to the next. “Now, when I was researching to find E Pluribus Unum, I found one other ancient Peloponnesian spell. Clever Boots, have you ever heard of Mentis Unum?”

            Hermione frowned a moment. “Yes... yes! It was some sort of pre-marital education spell. I never learned the details.”

            Sirius grinned with dark amusement. “Yes. Our old Peloponnesian friends were pretty serious about marriage.” His eyebrow quirked, indicating their unconscious contacts, hand-to-hand-to-hand. “They wanted marriages to work. They believed marriages were built on understanding. So they created Mentis Unum. It works a bit like Legilimency. It's a mind-meld of sorts. Uncontrolled and complete. Unrepeatable. Any two people can only do it once. While it lasts, they are in contact. The caster experiences every part of the other's mind. Every thought, every feeling, every memory. Every sight, every sound, every touch, every reaction.”

            Ron nodded slowly. “You figure they're going to try and take us, so they can deliver Harry to Riddle. You want to cast it on Harry, so you'll know where he is, what's happening to him.”

            Sirius grinned. “Close. Not Harry, though.”

            Hermione shook her head. “No, Sirius. It should be Harry. He's the one Riddle wants to kill personally.”

            “But he's not the one most likely to come up with a plan,” said Sirius, and he turned to Ron. “You are.”

            Ron stared at him for a long moment, wide-eyed, unseeing, his brain working through the possibilities. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Yeah, all right.”

            Sirius's eyes were darkly approving, and they stared into Ron's as he leaned forward, his forehead to Ron's, his wand-hand reaching beyond to press wand-tip against the back of Ron's head. Ron squirmed a bit at that.

            “It's all right, Ron,” said Sirius, his moustache tickling Ron's nose. “It's all right.” He drew a breath. “Mentis Unum!

            They saw nothing happen to Ron, but Sirius's hair blew back, for an instant, as if he were on his bike and flying, and then he dropped to his knees and fell over, curling into a foetal position, hands on his head. The three teenagers were instantly gathered around him, bent over and touching him, concern in their eyes.

            With shocking suddenness, he spun and sat up, strong hands grasping Ron's shoulders as his eyes, wide and wild, stared intensely into Ron's.

            “I....” he breathed. “I... I am going to kiss you, Ron Weasley, right on the mouth!” And before any of them could react, he did so, as sweetly, as tenderly, as any father had ever kissed his son, And then held him again at arm's length, smiling at him. “You extraordinary man! You magnificent, brilliant, humble, loving man!”

            He stood, practically vaulting off Ron's shoulders, then reached to help the trio back to their feet, and was suddenly crushing Hermione to his chest in a mighty embrace, gazing down into her eyes with something in his own that made them think he might kiss her as well, and not with the fatherly chastity he'd kissed Ron.

            “Oh, Clever Boots,” he breathed. “I thought I knew, but I had no idea. No idea at all!” His hand came up and brushed wild hair back away from her staring brown eyes. “I didn't begin to understand...” A flush rose into her face as she remembered his words Every thought, every feeling, every memory. Every sight, every sound, every touch, every reaction — and felt his body against hers. Sirius noticed, and immediately held her away again. “Er... yeah. Sorry.” He jerked his head at Ron. “He, er... he loves you very much, you know.”

            “I know,” breathed Hermione, nodding.

            “He's right to,” said Sirius, his eyes solemn.

            He looked over to Harry, took a half step toward him, and then back again, shaking his head ruefully. “Er.r30; No. Getting into a whole weird area there, I think.” He spun to look at Ron. “No, I couldn't have thought of that before I damn near snogged Hermione! You try having a whole brain plugged into yours all at once! It's a bit overwhelming!” He looked back at her. “Teaspoon the size of Mars, maybe!”

            He coughed roughly and turned back toward his motorcycle. “One last modification to make, I think.”

            He pulled a coin from his pocket — not a Sickle or Knut, but some non-magical currency, small and coppery — and threw it to the ground, pointing his wand and incanting quietly, and the coin was transfigured into a streamlined side-car, which Sirius attached to the bike with a metal pin pulled from the same pocket as the coin.

            “Sort yourselves, you lot,” he said, mounting the seat. “One behind me, two in the sidecar.”

            Harry and Ron slid together into the sidecar, helping Hermione onto the seat behind Sirius, and Harry kept hold of her ankle as she snuggled against his godfather, wrapping her arms around him.

            Sirius glanced over his shoulder, looking a bit surprised. “Clever Boots?”

            “Oh, don't be silly, Sirius. Let's go.”

            Sirius grinned over his shoulder at her. “Good enough, Clever Boots!”

            And he started the bike, and set off down the dirt road towards town.

            “I wish we'd flown,” Sirius cried, as they skidded to a stop by the milling crowd around the conflagration that engulfed St. Bubo's up to the steeple.

            “And landed in the middle of this crowd of Muggles?” asked Hermione, climbing gracefully over her boys to dismount the bike.

            “They're all going to be memory-charmed anyway,” said Sirius, grumpily, as Ron and Harry clambered after her, turning as they did to look back at the blaze.

            Humanoid flame-people, most as tall as a house, were running around the church, pounding flaming fists against the wood, renewing the conflagration whereever they touched.

            The town's largest fire engine was scorched, its tyres melted and still flaming, and the fire brigade was reduced to performing crowd-control, save for a command crew that was standing watch over three shrouded forms on the ground, and a chief who was bellowing into his walk-talkie, “Alive, I said! We can't handle— Send in the military, send in UNIT or whoever! Do you read me!? Hello?”

            As he shook the radio, pounding it with the heel of his hand, Hermione shook her head. “That can't possibly work this close to so much uncontrolled magic. We have to get in there!”

            “I think I can help,” said a wistful, quiet voice, close behind them, and they turned to see the silvery eyes of Luna Lovegood. She held up a card with the Quibbler logo, and the word PRESS, and said, “Press Pass.”

            “Luna,” began Hermione, “I'm not sure--”

            “It will work,” said a stronger, female voice, all too familiar, and Ron was already crying out as they turned.

            “Gin! Go home! What are you thinking!?”

            “What are you!?!?” Ginny Weasley asked her brother in an outraged shriek. “You're thinking people are dying, and somebody has to do something! Well, so am I!”

            Harry's face sunk into his palm, but lifted quickly as he heard a formidable voice say, quite firmly. “I do approve of your friends!”

            As all five of the other young teenagers turned toward him, Neville Longbottom said, quietly, “Thanks, Gran.”

            Harry threw his hands in the air. “We were all here anyway! Even Luna lives in town! Neville, what are you doing here?”

            Neville pointed at the sky. The flaming challenge to Harry was far clearer here. “They reported that on the Wireless. I figured you could use all the help you could get.”

            “Right,” said Ron. “How's your Patronus holding up, Neville?”

            “Been practising.”

            Hermione raised an eyebrow, and Mrs. Longbottom frowned at her. “It's a stupid rule.”

            “Good, good,” said Ron. “You want a piece of this, Mrs. Longbottom?”

            “I did not come to sit safely on my bottom, young man!”

            Ron grinned. “Right you are! Now ordinarily, I'd be talking about surrounding the building and going in with Aguamenti, but on the one hand, I dunno that water will help with these, or I'm guessing the Muggles could have handled this. On the other, the three of us aren't so much for the spreading out thing these days. Now, I also figure that finité is no good here, or Remus and Sirius would have made short work of the whole thing. Hello, Remus.”

            Lupin had approached, looking outraged. He turned to Sirius. “What. Are. They--”

            Sirius snorted. “You're not seriously going to finish that sentence, are you? Next time you've got a mission of some delicacy and discretion, might I suggest that Mundungus Fletcher is not really your ideal choice?”

            “Yeah, if we can skip the domestics, please,” said Ron, easily, “We've ruled out Aguamenti and finité and I'm about to recommend trying Patronuses. Now, like I said, we can't split up, but that may work to our advantage. We can form a sort of semicircle here, yeah, and use the Patronuses to drive 'em that way--” he pointed with his wand “--into the Otter.”

            “Ron,” said Hermione, “Sirius said these were bluebell flames. If so, I don't think Patronuses will affect them.”

            Ron nodded. “No. But they ought to do something about whatever inimical force is directing 'em.”

            Harry grinned over at him. “'Inimical?'”

            “Hey, I've read a book!” cried Ron. He ruffled Hermione's hair. “I'm married to most of 'em!” Hermione just rolled her eyes.

            Ron gestured to the others. “C'mon, c'mon, spread out, please, us in the middle, we're the guests of honour, so let's not make it easy for 'em, yeah?”

            The others moved out to form a curved line and raised their wands.

            “Happy thoughts!” called Harry, and he looked over at Ron and Hermione and smiled.

            “On three,” said Ron. “One. Two. Th--”

            “Expecto Patronum!” boomed Augusta Longbottom's voice, and a huge, silver Vulture flew from her wand. Ron shrugged as the rest joined the call. Ginny's stallion and Luna's hare, Neville's toad and Lupin's big shaggy dog. Sirius's wand spouted a muscular, bald silver man on a flying surfboard, which Ron stared at, baffled. Finally, as one, his Jack Russell terrier and Hermione's otter flew forward, flanking the magnificent silver form of Prongs, who charged, overtaking the others.

            The fiery giants were driven back, toward the church, and on past it; the Patronuses herding them toward the River Otter, broad and sluggish. As they reached the banks they stopped, wavering, and then exploded, sending vast fireballs speeding through the town, setting fire to houses and shops, with what appeared to be ordinary flames. But there were dozens of fires, perhaps hundreds, and the six teenagers and three adults looked harriedly at one another.

            “You've got to split up and go!” Harry said.

            “And leave you unprotected?” cried Remus.

            “You've been training us,” Ron told him. “Are we helpless?”

            “The Muggles-” began Remus, but Ron was pointing to the ruins of the burnt fire engine.

            “Stay here!” snapped Sirius, and Ron grinned at him.

            “We'll work on the church,” he promised.

            Then the others were gone, casting Aguamenti in fierce streams onto houses and shops radiating out from the town square. He felt his hearts swelling with pride, for a moment, for his friends, young and old, so brave, so freely willing to put their lives on the line in defence of innocents.

            He turned back, nodding at Ron and Hermione, and the three called “Aguamenti!” and streams of water blasted from their wands, battering against the walls of the church, dousing flames, leaving behind wood both charred and sodden.


            They froze, exchanging a look among the three of them. The voice had come from inside the church.

            “Trap,” they said, in unison.

            “Mummy? Mummy!

            “Doesn't mean they're not using a real kid,” said Ron. “Muggle, I reckon. Their lot would find a Muggle kid disposable.”


            “Bloody hell!” said Harry.

            Hermione nodded. “We can't risk it.”

            Ron pointed his wand over to some of the astonished-looking firemen who were reduced to helplessly watching stick-wielding eccentrics fight fires they were no longer equipped to deal with. “Accio Fireman!”

            The man, a young fire fighter in his twenties, flew helplessly through the air to them, and Ron and Harry managed to catch him. He stared at them, terrified, and Harry asked, “What's your name?”

            “B-Barraclough. Andy Barraclough.”

            “Right, Andy, listen,” said Harry. “You can see there's stuff going on here you can't deal with. Stuff we can.”

            “Mummy, Pleeeeeasse!” cried the voice. “I'm scared!

            Barraclough turned suddenly toward the church, and Ron grabbed his arm. “No, mate, like my friend said, there's stuff going on you can't handle. We're going in there, see, my friends and me. If I'm right, that kid's going to come back out at you. It may be a bit, well, weird. Just get the kid, and get him the hell away. Don't worry about anything else you hear. Got that?”

            Andy Barraclough nodded once, quickly.

            There was a mighty Crash! From within the church, and a wailing shriek from the young voice, which just went on and on.

            “That's torn it!” cried Ron and the three of them ran together for the door.

            “Bubblehead Charms!” cried Hermione. “Smoke!” And they were casting the charm on themselves almost silently, surrounding their faces with bubbles of sweet, cool air, as Hermione's Reducto took the heavy doors out of their way, and they were within the huge, burning space.

            Flames moved freely along pews, up walls and over crossbeams, and thick, black smoke roiled, obscuring their vision. Hermione's wand came up, and her voice cried “Ventus!” Air blew steadily from her wand, pushing the smoke back, and they saw him, a small boy, maybe seven years old, screaming and writhing under a long, heavy wooden beam, covered in flames which licked over onto him as well, his clothing cheerily burning as he screamed and screamed.

            “Harry, you and Hermione get the beam!” cried Ron, and they obeyed him instantly, bringing up their wands to levitate the burning wood up off the boy, whose screams where horrific and unceasing. Even as it lifted from the boy, sliding upward into the air by careful inches — they did no-one any good if it broke into burning pieces to rain down on the child again — Ron raised his wand “Expecto Patronum!” The silver terrier leapt from his wand, and he told it, “Bring him to Andy, then fetch a wizard! He'll need better than Muggle remedies!”

            Ron's Patronus already had the burning child by the scruff of his neck, and Harry and Hermione gently streamed him with clear water as he passed. They stayed by unspoken agreement. If it was a trap, they didn't want their attempted escape to preclude the boy's.

            They formed into a triangle, and re-cast Aguamenti, spraying water at the flaming pews, and Andy Barraclough's voice bellowed, “Oi, in there! I've got 'im, get the hell out of it!

            “Good advice,” said Ron, angling his head at the door, and a deep voice boomed, “A shame you shan't follow it! Stupefy!

            But Ron was dropping as soon as the voice spoke, Harry and Hermione rolling easily across him to face the voice, their wands covering about fifteen degrees as they shouted their own Stupifies in response, and heard the distinct thuds of two bodies hitting the floor.

            “Fuck!” cried Ron. “Can't leave 'em here to burn, even though they are Death Eaters! Levicorpus!

            He hoisted the masked wizard into the air, even as Harry followed suit with the next, and even as they were turning to fling the unconscious Death Eaters through the door, four more, sensing their advantage, stepped from hiding. Hermione blocked two of them with a Protego but the angles were wrong, and the Trio fell, stunned.

            When Harry came back to awareness, the three of them were being thrown to the floor of some sort of rough-hewn wooden cell, a box perhaps seven feet by seven by seven.

            “Should have killed the other two,” said a rough voice. “It's Potter he wants!”

            “An' if they were still all stuck together dead? You wanna carry around that dead weight?”

            “Oh, fuck,” Ron moaned, rolling toward his loves.

            “'M here, Ron” said Harry.

            “Me, too,” said Hermione. “Can't've been out long.”

            They were starting to help one another to their feet when the cell lurched into motion, and they heard the creak of large wheels turning. The door they'd been thrown in through showed about a half-inch of light around it, interrupted by hinges on one side and some sort of bar across the middle of the other, and they staggered to their feet, then to that door, pressing their eyes to the cracks, Harry on the side with the hinges — on the outside, of course — Ron and Hermione on the other.

            Even as they watched, the cell lurched again, throwing them against the back wall, and when they got their eyes back to the crack again, they saw the fires of Ottery St. Catchpole dropping away.

            “Yeah, that's not good,” said Ron, and Hermione shushed him, frowning in concentration.

            Harry closed his eyes, listening as well, wind rushing, metallic clanking, the creaking of leather, muttering voices. Underlying, something rhythmic, getting louder and louder. Fwoop! Fwoop! Fwoop!

            “You hear that, Harry?” Hermione's voice was a whisper. “Thestrals!”

            Ron's eye was still pressed to the crack around the door. “Yeah, if either of you guys is interested, we're about a million miles up in the air now.”

            “Oh, we are not, Ron!” scolded Hermione. “The atmosphere doesn't extend more than about a hundred and twenty, at the outside, and judging by air pressure, I'd say we can't be higher than two or three.”

            “Still, I bet you'd fall for a long time from this height,” Ron replied darkly.

            “Well, Ronald, if you'd bothered to study anything that wasn't magic-related, you'd know that a falling object in Earth's gravity falls at an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second, squared, until it reaches what's called Terminal Velocity, at which point air resistance cancels out the acceleration and the object maintains that speed, so Mmmph!

            Ron leaned back from the kiss a moment later, smiling broadly at her in the dim light inside the cart. “Sorry, love,” he said, “but I really didn't want to hear the end of that calculation.”

            He reached up to stroke her hair fondly, and suddenly stopped, staring at her hair, looking almost metallic in the sliver of silvery moonlight shining in around the door.

            “Yes!” he cried. He pulled Hermione's face to him and kissed her again. “You love me most, cause I'm such a fuckin' genius, do you know that? C'mon!” he pulled her over close to the door. “Now, look, once I get one, it's real important that you two not touch me, got it? Not at all.”

            “How are we supposed to work that, exactly, mate?” asked Harry.

            “Well, other than what I got, I mean,” he said, pressing Hermione's head against the crack in the door. “Harry, I mean it, get back behind Hermione, and hold her, I'm pretty sure this is gonna hurt.” he leaned down to kiss her again. “I'm sorry, love, really. But you're gonna love this!”

            With that he took a stray set of her curls, and stuffed them into the crack around the door.

            “Ron!” cried Hermione, baffled, “What are--”

            “Hang on!” said Ron. He had his eye to the crack now, and grabbed more of Hermione's hair, twisting it into a loop and shoving it through the crack, perhaps eight inches above where he's done it before. “Wait for it....” he said quietly. “Waaaaaiiit.... foooorrrr.... iiiiiitttt.......”

            Then, with a triumphant “Hah!” he pulled the second handful of her hair back in through the crack, and Hermione gasped.

            Ron was pawing at the handful of hair he had, discarding small numbers until he was holding one single strand, shining in the thin stripe of moonlight.

            “Hold her hands, Harry,” said Ron. “Keep her occupied!”

            Harry, his eyes widening, took hold of Hermione's hands, and said, “Look at me, love. Look at me, that's all.”

            She suddenly flinched and jerked her head, and Ron backed off a bit, and she cried out, eyes widening. “Oh my God, Ron! That's brilliant!”

            Ron grinned. “Ain't it, though? Nuptialis Unum keeps us in contact no matter what. What'd you tell me? No power in Heaven or on Earth? Right, then. If all that connects you to me is this strand of hair, then it can't break. So if a metal bar from a door-latch is in its way, it'll just have to give way, won' it?”

            Hermione's hands gripped Harry's tighter, and her teeth closed on her lower lip for a moment. “That really hurts, Ron!”

            “I'm sorry, Hermione Jane! Just hang in with me, we're doing it!”

            Her hands gripped Harry's tightly, at the same time trying to pull away, and tears ran from her clenched eyes. “Don't stop, Ron,” she whimpered. “Oh, God, it hurts but don't stop!

            “What would Fred and George have given to hear you say that?” asked Harry with a cheeky grin.

            “That is not funny!” Hermione cried through a sound that was both giggle and sob.

            “And yet,” Harry responded, his grin as irritating as he could make it. His eyes flickered up to Ron who was working with great concentration, pulling his hand back into the cart while moving it up and down at a deliberate pace. Harry could see the single strand of hair stretched from his palm to the crack around the door.

            “You are never getting oral sex again!” Hermione huffed at Harry. “You're laughing at my pain! This hurts!

            Harry opened his mouth to retort, when there was a SPFLANNNG! And the door swung open. Ron hurled himself forward onto them, and they edged together to the open door, and looked at the abstract geometry of the landscape thousands of feet below.

            “Blimey,” said Harry. “Ron, mate, you sure you don't want to hear Hermione's calculations?”

            Ron grinned sidewise at him. “I think we've got this covered, mate. Brace yourself.” He took Hermione's hand and swung himself out the door. His weight pulled Hermione to the brink, but Harry braced them both, and Ron swung under, and they heard a Clunk! from beneath the floor.

            Hermione's eyes widened, and she looked up at Harry. “Two tugs. I think he wants me to follow him.” She nodded to Harry, and slid from the door, and he lay on the floor and let his upper body hand out, his hand stretched to Hermione, who swung up underneath with Ron. Harry heard her say, quietly, “Very good, Ron!”

            As Harry's eyes adjusted, he saw that Ron had fastened his belt around the rear axle of the cart, and Hermione swung between their hands like a trapeze artist. Ron looked hard at Harry, and jerked his head toward the front axle, and Harry nodded, and allowed himself to slide into space.

            Nothing like broom-sports to cure a fear of heights! He thought, and swung under the cart to grab the front axle.

            “Whazzat, Wally?” said the rough voice that Harry had heard as he woke up.

            “Hitchhikers, idiot,” growled the second voice, apparently Wally, “We're in the sky! It's nothing.”

            As their host assured his helper that there was nothing to worry about, Harry wrapped his legs around the axle, and used one hand to buckle his belt. Ron undid his own belt, and he and Hermione swung forward as well, and they clung together around the axle.

            “Now what?” asked Harry, in a whisper.

            “Now,” hissed Hermione, “you, Harry, hold Ron's ankles while he holds mine, you swing me up to this side of the cart, and I believe I can get our wands.”

            “How're you going to do that?” asked Ron.


            “I feel something, Wally! Don' you feel that?”

            “Shut up, Reg!” said Wally, sounding irritable. “It's gotta be the bloody Thestrals.”

            As she swung up to the left, Hermione arced her body and slapped hard against that side of the cart, and while Wally cried, “Bugger!” she swung back, Ron and Harry whipcracking her with savage smiles, and she disappeared for a moment past the left side of the cart, and they heard Reg yell, “Hey, whah!?

            Then Hermione was swinging back down, an unfamiliar wand in her hand, and she pointed it up at the floor under their captors' feel, yelling, “Reducto!” Then, even as a hole was blown through the floorboards, she shouted “Accio wands!”

            “Fuck!” cried Wally, and a single wand and a cloth bag flew through the hole and into Hermione's free hand.

            She threw the bag up to Harry who released Ron's right calf to catch it, and she pointed the two wands back up at the hole just in time to see two faces peering down through it. “Stupefy!” she cried, and the two men fell with solid thuds!

            Harry, meanwhile, had dug their own wands out of the bag, and Mobilicorpused Hermione up to their level, before distributing her wand and Ron's back to them.

            “I say we take the Thestrals,” Harry said. “They may have holdout wands, and I don't want 'em to wake up armed.”

            They used Mobilicorpus again, on one another, which ought to have been impossible, to move out to the Thestrals, and Hermione reached back with her wand and blasted the yoke holding the team of four Thestrals to the cart. The cart floated impotently in their wake as the Thestrals flew away, and the three young people made their way up to mount the leading pair, Harry on one with Hermione behind him, Ron on the other, their hands stretched out to one another.

            “You know the way home?” Hermione shouted across to Ron.

            “No idea!” Ron replied.

            Harry, hearing a distant roaring, smiled. “I have a feeling we're going to know soon,” he called, and they were ready and waving cheerily as Sirius's enormous motorcycle pulled up beside them, and he grinned back, waving wildly, and called, “Follow Me!”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty: “The Breathing Rose”


            “The ones you left in the cart,” Remus was saying as he accepted the cup of tea from Molly, “were Wallace Widdershins and Reginald Rankinphile. The two bodies from the church were Atticus Wainscoting and Bartlesby Took.”

            At the word “bodies,” all three of the teenagers flinched, but Moody ignored them, taking on from Lupin. “Between them, they had about the brainpower of a skrewt. Not a one of 'em wi' the brains to put that little trap together. The beauty of it was, they could count on you lot t'try an' rescue even them from the bloody fire! As soon as you started winning, you lost, see?” He looked back and forth among them. “Now, what was it the Death Eater in the church said again?”

            Hermione spoke, tiredly. They'd all repeated his one line again and again for Moody, and she didn't see that it would help to do it again. “Andy Barraclough yelled in and told us to get out. Ron said it was good advice. Then one of the Death Eaters said 'A shame you shan't follow it,' and tried to stupefy us, but Ron was already ducking.”

            “Shan't,” said Moody. “Shan't-shan't-shan't-shan't-shan't. None of these four would ever say Shan't. Not ever! I'm guessing Mr. Shan't was the leader. There was two escaped, right? Because you counted four more coming from hiding while you were trying to save Wainscoting and Took. At least one of those two had a bit of spark in the brain-pan. Not only does his speech show some education and intelligence, but the plan to basically use the front lines of his own gang as hostages against you lot was pretty damned smart.”

            “Th' bloke who thought of the plan,” said Ron, “isn't necessarily who spoke. Smarter not to. We got something on the one who talked. Three of us know his voice.”

            “And he's a left-handed caster,” said Harry. “I could tell by the rotation of that Stupefy.”

            “And quick enough to duck our retaliatory hex,” added Hermione. “I don't think he Apparated, I think he ducked.”

            “Wonderful!” grunted Alastor Moody, as he stood away from them. “A smarter-than-average, reasonably literate, quick-ducking, left-handed Death Eater who talks like the bloody wireless!” He strode grumpily toward the door. “We've practically got him surrounded!”

            As they shambled back into their tent in the front-hall cupboard, Hermione moaned, her hand gingerly touching her scalp again.

            She'd burst into tears about the time Sirius had led them for their landing at the Burrow, and a quick diagnostic spell from Ron – who'd proven remarkably adept at them – had shown a bruise, larger than his hand and spreading, and a kind of tearing separation between Hermione's scalp and skull, which had been filling slowly with blood. They'd performed the proper healing spells and Palliatus as well, but the spell was unequal to the pain of the tearing, and Ron had looked solemn, and stayed that way through Moody's and Remus's post mortem of the ambush.

            He looked just as solemn now as they ducked through the tent's canvas door. “You should have told me, love.”

            She shook her head once, then winced, cutting the gesture off. “I couldn't. You might have stopped.”

            “For fuck's sake, Hermione!” he cried. “I nearly tore your fucking scalp right off your head!”

            “You couldn't. Nuptialis Unum--”

            Ron's voice was very rough. “You know what I'm saying, Hermione.”

            She reached up, and pulled his face down to hers, mouth moving on his with sweet, loving, tenderness.

            Harry's first instinct was to turn away, but he found his eyes captured by the movements of Hermione's mouth against Ron's, and he simply gazed at them as they kissed, neither part of nor apart from the gesture, their love, and he watched in fascination as their mouths parted, lips peeling gently apart with a quiet, wet sound, and a single shining string of moisture stretched between them, connecting them a moment longer before it broke. He sighed and leaned in against them, his arms sliding around them both, and Hermione lowered her forehead onto his collarbone, letting out a moan that could be either pleasure or pain.

            He leaned over to her, pressed his lips into the top of her head, kissing her tenderly, wishing with all his heart that he could lessen her pain, and she and Ron both gasped at the same time, both stared at Harry, both asked him, in astonished unison, “What did you do?

            Harry looked back and forth between them, his own eyes widening at the wonder he saw in theirs. “What d'you mean?”

            “My head doesn't hurt,” said Hermione, while Ron was saying, “Mate, there was this light—

            Then Ron stopped himself, processing Hermione's words, and he drew out his wand again, waving it over Hermione's head with a deft motion while murmuring “Dermis Diagnosis.”

            His eyes and Harry's both widened. “Merlin's clanking balls!” Ron breathed, almost reverently. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

            “What?” asked Hermione, annoyed as she had been when they first treated her that she couldn't see the diagnostic spell as it glowed from her scalp. “What is it?”

            “He kissed it better!” cried Ron, sounding almost offended. “What the bloody hell is that!?!?

            Harry shook his head, eyes wide. “You've got me, mate,” he said. “I wasn't trying to...” He trailed off, sucking his lip between his teeth, reminding Ron, for a startling moment, of Hermione. “Or... Hell, Ron, maybe I was!” He turned to Hermione. “I was kissing your head, and all I wanted in the whole world was for you not to hurt!” He turned to Ron. “How's that shoulde--”

            “No!” cried Hermione, and Harry and Ron both blinked at her. “No, let me try!” And she leaned over and pressed her lips to Ron's left shoulder, which had, in fact, been sprained when he'd leaped under the flying cart.

            Harry's eyes widened as a golden glow spread from her lips throughout Ron's shoulder, and Ron sighed contentedly.

            He didn't even ask, but leaned over to press his lips to the right side of Harry's neck, where, he'd realised on the Thestral flight back to the Burrow, he'd received a fairly nasty burn on in the church. Harry moaned with relief as waves of soothing comfort spread from Ron's surprisingly soft lips as they worked gently on the remains of his burn.

            Ron straightened again, and looked back and forth between them with a kind of sloe-eyed wonder, his mouth spreading in an ever-widening smile, and Harry's lips and Hermione's followed, and they walked quickly toward the bathroom, shedding clothes as they went.

            As water sluiced over their naked bodies, and soapy cloths scrubbed away soot and grime, they looked for minor hurts, small cuts and bruises, and unmade the injuries with tender lips and loving tongues.

            Harry and Ron moved together over Hermione's chest, kissing her scar again and again, and each time they did, it diminished a bit.

            Clean and dry, they carried her, naked, to the bed, kissing that scar again and again and again, their hands moving lovingly over her body as they did so, and as the scar became thinner and more indistinct, of course their touches grew bolder, and she felt the heat pooling inside her as her beautiful boys moved their hands and mouths on her body, fingers sliding into her with familiar confidence, lips moving happily from from scar to breast, pausing sometimes on the mole high up, a little to the left over her breastbone, hardening and filling her nipples through their rapt and loving attentions.

            She surrendered to them, larger and stronger than she was, but she somehow never felt controlled or constrained by them. They were extensions of herself, and had been much longer than the weeks since she'd spoken those two words with which she had such a complicated relationship: Nuptialis Unum had saved her boys and given her husbands and made her an adult before anyone had intended. But even before that moment, she could no more have been intimidated by their size or strength than she could have feared her own arms and hands. Even in that first moment of nudity when their sex had terrified her, they had comforted her. They had always, since one terrifying night in the girls' loo, been her boys, and spell or no spell, they always would be.

            So she squirmed happily between their four strong hands, unafraid and unashamed as her pleasure overtook her.

            Soon Harry was lying on his belly, her thighs over his shoulders, as his mouth and fingers moved with happy confidence over her centre, his pursed lips giving a rhythmic series of gently sucking kisses to her clitoris, each setting off a small electric charge of pleasure through her as his long fingers reached up inside her to caress that spot.

            Ron, meanwhile, was moving his hands over her body and Harry's, kneeling beside them and moving firm gentle hands over them, his left on her breasts and belly, his right on Harry's back and bottom, and she moaned with arousal at the sight of those long, freckled fingers tracing along the cleft between his buttocks, even as she moaned her pleasure at their touch to her breasts, and Harry's mouth on her clitoris and hands within her.

            She came quickly, crying their names, and then reached for Ron's cock, and gently tugged it, urging him up toward her.

            Hermione marvelled at the feeling of Ron's hard cock in her hand, its firm stoutness, its upward curve, and she smiled as she looked at it, something about the shape of the head giving it a look of cherubic jollity, and she felt the softness of its skin sheathing the its hardness, felt the warmth that went with its rosy colour, and wondered again, as she so often did, that it had ever frightened her. It was such a happy, friendly thing, such an expression of love for her, and she loved nothing more than to touch it, to taste it, to feel it inside her, although she loved the sleek, straight elegance of Harry's cock every bit as much.

            She looked down the length of her body as he lay, gazing at her centre, where she lay open before him, letting her too-sensitive clitoris rest after that orgasm, his fingers inside her still moving gently, reminding her that she was a woman, and made to be filled by these happy, glorious cocks. His green eyes rose to hers, and she said, languidly, “Fuck me, Harry. Come up, darling, and slide your sweet, straight cock into me.”

            Both her husbands moaned at that, and she felt Ron's cock twitch in her hand. They did so love when she said those words, and that power thrummed within her – within her centre, sex, vagina, pussy, cunt – like a dynamo, and she thrilled and revelled in it. She felt Harry's fingers move inside her, performing Barricadus before his fingers slid from her, and his hands moved to the bed on either side of himself.

            She leaned slightly toward Ron, and moved her lips in a closed-mouthed, almost chaste kiss to the tip of Ron's cock, and he groaned and pressed himself gently to her, and she let her lips slide around the large, round head, and her tongue trace the line of the slit, now seeping that salty-sweet taste that was Ron. She moved her mouth and lips over the glans for a few moments as Harry shifted up over her, and then drew away, letting her lips slide just as easily off Ron's cock so she could look into Harry's eyes as he penetrated her.

            He always waited for her look, her permission, as if never quite believing he was allowed to do this, and she loved staring into his eyes as he pushed his cock into her, because every time, there was a moment of shock and awe, a moment of jubilant disbelief as he realised again that he was inside her, his cock sliding into her centre -- her pussy-- and that was as great a pleasure to her as feeling her labia spread and stretch, just a little, to allow his arrow-straight cock entrance, and the long, slow feeling of penetration, as he pressed himself by gentle inches all the way until his long, straight cock was within her as deep as it would go, his pubis settling atop her mons.

            He kissed her then, as he always did, a kiss full of love and gratitude, tender and almost tentative, a kiss that thanked her for the unlikely miracle of allowing him that entrance.

            As he lifted his head away, his cheek brushed against Ron's cock, and he turned his head and took its girth into his mouth with a grateful moan, green eyes closing as he slid the stout, happy thing into his mouth, and the sight of one husband's cock sliding through the other's lips sent a jolt of electric pleasure through her, and Ron's throaty gasp of “Oh, fuck!” sent another.

            She squirmed her hips, loving the feeling of how that moved Harry's cock inside her, as she leaned up to lick Ron's balls. She loved the feeling of them against her mouth and tongue, the fine, surprisingly soft red curls on his wrinkle-textured sac under her tongue, as she licked and sucked his balls, and she felt Ron's right hand fist in her hair, knew the left was in Harry's.

            “Fuck me, Harry,” she moaned between licks, and she bucked her hips, and drew her knees up and out, opening herself deeper to him, and one at a time, he hooked his arms under her knees, pulling her thighs up on either side of her breasts, and he groaned around Ron's cock as he pulled back and thrust into her again, harder and deeper, and Ron's hips bucked him toward Harry's mouth.

            The salt of Ron's sweat was tart on her tongue as she licked his balls, and the smell of his musk was strong and manly, and Harry's cock thrust up inside her, and she squeezed him with her internal muscles, the phrase Kegel exercises flashing through her mind, with remembered images of diagrams in books, and she thrust her hips up against the force of Harry's as she drew one of Ron's balls into her mouth and ran her tongue around it.

            “Trade,” said Harry, leaning around to kiss her through Ron's scrotum, sucking the testicle from her mouth into his, and she leaned the other way, and slid her mouth again over Ron's hard cock, filling her mouth with it as she took it as deep as she could.

            God, she loved having the boy's cocks in her mouth almost as much as in her vagina, and she moaned her pleasure at the feeling of that friendly hard thing in her mouth, sucking it and moving her tongue over it.

            At her moan, Ron cried out, and his cock throbbed in her mouth, he was so close, Harry's mouth and hers had already gotten him so close, and Harry's cock was thrusting into her centre, she felt it piercing her, lancing into her, so straight, so long, touching places inside her Ron would never know – and even as she thought that, she moved her mouth over the thickness of Ron's cock, and knew that when he fucked her, he stretched her in ways Harry never could.

            Oh, she loved her two boys, their two cocks, their four strong hands and how they all fit with her body. She loved the cock that slid into her now in a series of hard, almost frantic thrusts, and she loved the cock that filled her mouth and jerked and shuddered as she pleasured it. She loved the sleek and the stout, the straight and the curved, the intent and the happy. She loved the quick, sure hands of the Seeker, and the strong, certain hands of the Keeper. She loved the compact, slender body moving over hers, muscles well-defined under dark hair starting to fill in on the chest and abdomen, and she loved the tall, rangy, freckled body above her as she sucked that stout cock, with its firm, easy strength.

            Best of all, though, she loved that they were both hers, and she theirs, loved that there were no painful choices, and no one left aside.

            And as she thought about it again, thought about the fact that she was theirs and they hers, thought about the fact that one was fucking her while she sucked the other's cock, the thought and sensation were one, and she was coming again, crying unintelligibly around Ron's cock, which felt the vibrations of her cry, and spasmed, filling her mouth with his salty-sweet jism, as Harry's cock continued to thrust into her, slamming her again and again with jolts of pleasure through the end of her orgasm, before he, too, was crying out, and his cock throbbed inside her, and she felt the hot, sticky ejaculate spurt up inside her, and she came again, a soft aftershock that came from her knowledge of the pleasure she gave her boys, from the power her body had over theirs.

            Harry kissed her again, his lips meeting hers around Ron's softening shaft, and as Ron pulled away, Harry followed, taking Ron's cock in his mouth for a moment more before he lowered his face to hers to kiss her again, his tongue sliding into her mouth to taste Ron's sex as she moved her mouth over his, and then Ron was at their sides, and she was kissing him as well, letting him taste his own flavour in her mouth before he turned to kiss Harry, and taste himself there as well.

            She sighed happily as her legs fell straight again, Harry's softening cock sliding from her vagina, and she snuggled with her boys – her men, her husbands, but always, first and foremost, her boys – feeling them warm and firm and happily sated against her, kissing one and then the other and then both, feeling their hands, still appreciative, on her body and their bodies, still miraculous, under her fingers, and they all slid happily, almost unnoticed, into sleep.

            Harry, remembering the ghost of a smile that had quirked at Hermione's lips in the Muggle clothing store, waited until she'd looked away, and looked at Tonks, calling her over with a jerk of his head. He'd already folded the money into his palm, and as Hermione closed her eyes, shaking her head at Ron's antics as he clowned with a brassiere, his nimble fingers gathered in the grey cotton fabric, and moved his hand casually behind him as she glanced back at him.

            “I behave myself,” he said, with his most innocent expression, as he shook the knickers behind his back, and felt Tonks' smooth, wand-callused fingers take it and the money from him. “I want to live!”

            Hermione eyed him for a moment before turning back to Ron. “Why can't you be more like Harry?”

            “Because if I were, you'd be bored silly?” Ron asked easily. “Plus, I'm sexy as hell as I am, really, right Harry?”

            Harry heard the undertone in Ron's question, and felt a little charge within him, the little thrill he got every time he realised his feelings were all right with Ron, were shared and returned, just like his feelings for Hermione. “Oh, yeah,” he agreed, a slight quaver in his voice, as he reached up to take Ron's hand for a quick squeeze. “Dead sexy!”

            He saw Hermione's eyes fluttering between them, and the colour rising to her cheeks, and a glance at Ron told him he'd seen it, too, and they shared a surreptitious smile. Sometimes Harry thought the best thing in his world was how much it turned Hermione on to see him with Ron, how much it turned Ron on to see him with Hermione. Sometimes, he thought it was the fire that lit within him to see them together. How could watching her lips close around Ron be as arousing as feeling them on him? How could seeing Ron's freckled fingers moving over her skin be as sensual as feeling them, broom-callused and just a little hesitant, on his body? How could it be that both his friends, lovers, spouses, felt the same?

            He felt the softness of Hermione's arm, fine pale hairs that could only be seen in the sunlight, brushing against the back of his hand as she maintained the casual connection while turning to take another three pair of practical white cotton knickers and add them to her purchases. He felt Ron's fingers, still in his, squeezing with surprising gentleness, and wondered how close he'd come to missing this, to never having their love, their closeness, their sex and intimacy, so deeply beyond the bonds of friendship that had for five years been the centre of his life. Could it truly be that all it would have taken was for Hermione to have tried a different spell, for Fudge or Dumbledore to forbid his approaching the Veil, and he'd never have known this? Never have known the touch of that freckled expanse, never have known the velvety skin and lush curves between his fingers? Never have known the sweetness of those kisses?

            He closed his eyes for a moment, surrendering himself to his gratitude for whatever happenstance had brought him to this moment, to the fine, soft hairs at the back of his left hand, and the firm, callused fingers in his right, and then there were small soft fingers touching the moisture on his cheeks, Hermione's voice, filed with concern, saying his name.

            “Harry?” Her voice was hushed, almost reverent, and now Ron was looking closely as well.

            “All right, there, mate?” he asked.

            And all Harry could offer in response, tears pouring down his cheeks as he drew them to him, held them close, felt two very different hands stroking his hair, was one word, breathed again and again.

            “Love,” he breathed, holding them, squeezing them, kissing one then the other, only distantly aware of the outraged sniffs of the shop-keeper, of Remus Lupin gently distracting her with their payment. “Love.”

            Their trip to Diagon Alley was less emotional, somehow, as they trooped from Flourish and Blotts (where Hermione's pleasure was near-orgasmic) to Scrivenshafts (Where she attempted to share her excitement about a new line of quills with metamorphing nibs) to Madame Malkin's, where the proprietress herself served them in a private room, with a few gentle words about her discretion toward the young and in love, having read of their attached condition in the Prophet.

            “Merlin's balls, Harry!” Ron whispered to him in some alarm. “They're writing about our love life in the Prophet!?

            “I don't want to think about it,” Harry moaned, feeling a sick, leaden weight in his midsection, and Hermione leaned against his back, arms sliding around him in a comforting hug, as she shot Ron a brief, angry look.

            “It doesn't matter, love,” she told Harry. “It doesn't matter. Let them write what they want. We three know the truth; we know what we are. Nothing else matters.”

            Madame Malkin measured them with professional efficiency, and they left an hour later with several sets of school uniforms and robes, Lupin and Tonks carrying their bags as they made their way back toward the Leaky Cauldron.

            As they stepped inside, they were intercepted by Amos Diggory, who approached Tonks first, speaking in an undertone.

            He seemed thinner – not slenderer, but less substantial, somehow -- than he had two years ago at Stoat's Head Hill, thinner than he had nine months after, at the Third Task. Harry shuddered, remembering the faint echo – all he'd been able hear – of Amos Diggory's anguished cries over his son's body. Now Amos Diggory seemed to be halfway to being one of the ghosts who prowled the halls of Hogwarts, without bothering with the intermediate step of dying.

            He was still bluff and friendly as he turned from Tonks to Harry and his loves though, and told them, “I'm terribly sorry, but Minister Scrimgeour is here. He'd like a word.”

            “I don't think,” Ron said, darkly, “That he'll much like any words Harry has for him.”

            “Hush, Ron,” said Hermione. “He's a new Minister, and it isn't fair to punish him for the misdeeds of the old.”

            Harry merely nodded his assent, and they set off, following Mr. Diggory into one of the small, private rooms, which had been worked up into an impromptu office for Scrimgeour.

            The leonine man glanced up at the three young people, eyes flickering to take in Lupin and Tonks, and he returned his attention to the desk before him, scratching with his quill on a number of parchment scrolls for several seconds, before finally looking up at them again.

            “Mister Potter, Mister Weasley, Miss Granger. Perhaps now, young lady, you'll consent to calling me 'Minister.'”

            “Of course, Minister,” Hermione replied easily, but Harry felt the tension in her muscles.

            Scrimgeour stood, impressively tall and powerful, still, and limped around the table that had been transfigured into a desk for him, to lean one hip against it, as he looked at each of the three of them, taking in the contact, and crossed his arms. Finally, he looked directly at Harry, and spoke. “You did very well at St. Bubo's the other evening.”

            “Thank you,” said Harry, his voice neutral.

            “The Ministry would like to commend you. I'd like to commend you.”

            Harry nodded again, his expression closing down a bit more. “Thank you,” he said. “We did our best.”

            “I thought, perhaps next week,” Scrimgeour continued. “A small ceremony, at the Ministry...”

            “Before the press,” said Harry.

            “Well, of course,” said Scrimgeour. “Your heroism deserves recognition, and, in these dark times, it is perhaps well for the people to see such heroes, to know that courage and strength exist in this world.”

            “And to conclude, from the nature of the ceremony,” Harry said, his tone carefully neutral, “that we work for you. That what we do reflects on the Ministry? That you can take credit for it?”

            Scrimgeour's face coloured as Harry spoke, and his lips thinned to a hard line. “You will show proper respect! My office is entitled to it, and frankly, so am I! I was fighting the likes of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named before you were born!

            “No you weren't, Minister” said Hermione, quietly. “I've read up on your career. You were arresting the likes of Widdershins and Rankinphile and Wainscoting and Took. It's good work, important work, but you've never faced a foe like Riddle, and Harry's bested him thrice. And without one bit of help from the ministry.”

            “All three of you used magic, while under age, in the presence of Muggles,” the Minister began, his voice resonant and hard.

            “Yeah,” said Ron, wholly unimpressed by the implicit threat. “To protect them in a life-threatening situation in which they'd already seen magic. You want to call out the full Wizengamot to try us on that one? I mean, seeing how well that worked out for Fudge, an' all.”

            Scrimgeour's jaw tightened, and his knuckles whitened on his wand, and Harry thought for a mad moment that the Minister would snap it between his hands in his anger. Then, like the closing of a furnace door, the bland political expression dropped back over his face, and he said, quietly. “The Ministry of Magic is a powerful friend, and a formidable enemy. You should consider carefully before you choose which we will be.”

            “I have all the enemies I need, Minister,” said Harry. “Tom Riddle is all the enemy either of us needs. Instead of trying to threaten us or co-opt us, maybe you should ask yourself what you can do about him.”

            Scrimgeour's face grew darker, and he controlled himself with a visible effort, before turning his attention to the adults. “Auror Tonks--”

            “No, sir,” said Tonks, brightly.

            Scrimgeour stood away from the desk, and limped across to stand over her, glaring down into her face. Remus Lupin, out of his line of sight, grinned across to Harry, Ron and Hermione.

            “What. Did. You. Say. To. Me. Auror Tonks?” Scrimgeour bit off each word, his voice dangerously low.

            “What you ordered us to, Minister,” replied Tonks. “A year ago, sir, if you'll recall. You lot work for the Auror Department, and there is a chain of command. You do not take orders from some clueless political hacks. I don't care if it's the bloody Minister himself, if you get an order from outside your chain of command, your answer is 'No, sir.' If the ministry wants something from my Aurors, they can bloody well come to me, and if I, as Chief Auror, see fit, I'll pass that order down the chain.

            Scrimgeour straightened, stepped back a step, eyes wide and eyebrows high. “My goodness!” His voice was suddenly soft and weak, as if he'd been punched in the gut. When he looked down at her again, his voice was almost abashed. “Is that what I am, now, then? A clueless political hack?”

            He limped back to the desk again, sat heavily, pushing his hand back through his leonine mane. When he looked back to the three teenagers, his demeanour was almost penitent. “These attacks by You-Know-Who's forces are causing a lot of fear. People are losing faith in the Ministry's ability to protect them, and that makes them harder to protect. I have a duty, Mr. Potter. Will you help me?”

            Harry looked at his feet for a moment, and then at his loves, and only then, finally, back at Scrimgeour. “I won't be your mouthpiece, Minister.” He held the back of his left hand before him. “Did you honestly think I would?”

            “I am not Cornelius Fudge,” said Scrimgeour, bitterly.

            “But you became head of a the same Ministry he did, the same Ministry that promoted Dolores Umbridge, and put her in charge of Hogwarts.”

            Hermione spoke up. “I've read in the Prophet that the Ministry has reinstated her. There was talk of misunderstandings.” Hermione's voice was bitter and contemptuous. “She attempted to use Cruciatus on a student, Minister, right in front of me! What sort of misunderstanding is that?”

            Scrimgeour looked angry. “If Fudge hadn't called her a criminal in public, she'd be gone now. That gave her grounds to sue the Ministry! We're lucky she settled for reinstatement! The lawsuit could have cost us--”

            “It doesn't matter,” said Harry, tiredly. “I won't endorse a bureaucracy that cares about looking responsible to the exclusion of being responsible.”

            “You're Dumbledore's man, then,” said the Minister, unhappily.

            Harry smiled a By George, I think you've got it! smile.

            “Through and through,” he said.

            “Where's Sirius, anyway?” asked Harry, back in their tent in the Burrow, as the three of them helped Remus and Tonks pack all the clothing they'd bought, school uniforms and casual clothes, into a large bundle for Remus to bring to France, to Fleur's Tante Solange, to receive the same treatment as the robes Sirius had given them for Harry's birthday.

            “I got a message from him,” Lupin responded, as Tonks tucked more into the bundle. “Apparently, he was going on a brief trip with Professor Dumbledore. Something Albus had put off.”

            Ron looked interested. “You think they're fetching that first Horcrux? Remember, the one he mentioned at the Grangers' house, that first morning? Marvolo Gaunt's ring?”

            Harry and Hermione both turned quickly to him, then to Lupin, whose eyes had widened, and he nodded slowly.

            “Yes.... Yes, you know I think that may be it!”

            “Excellent!” said Ron, and Harry nodded.

            Remus nodded. “I'm sure it will make for a fascinating story. I'll ask him about it when I get back.”

            Hermione looked at Tonks, packing more clothing into the bundle, then at the large pile of books on the table. Harry could almost hear her longing to dive into them and start studying sixth-year subjects.

            “Well,” said Remus Lupin, “I'm off, then!” He started to hoist the bundle of clothing when Hermione held up one hand.

            “Oh, Remus, just a moment please!” She bustled over to him, the boys following obediently, and reached into the bundle, rummaging about for a moment, then withdrew, pale grey fabric in her hand. “Thanks, Remus,” she said, kissing the older man on the cheek, and then squeezed Tonks' hand. “Thank you, Tonks.”

            The two adult wizards left together, and as the cupboard door closed, Hermione turned back and grinned at her boys, unfurling the light-grey knickers in front of her with a wry smile. They boys grinned, looking at the dark-grey block letters across the front: HERE COMES TROUBLE.

            “The rest,” Hermione said tartly, “can be magicked to a fare-thee-well. These, you're going to have to take off me the old-fashioned way!”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One: “Teachers' Dirty Looks”

            “So he's gone on ahead?” asked Harry, as Lupin and Tonks walked them quickly through King's Cross Station. An attack in the midst of this crowded Muggle station didn't seem terribly likely, but “the Battle of St. Bubo's,” as it was now being called, had made everyone nervous, and the Order had decided that an escort was especially important.

            “That's right,” said Tonks. “He wanted to get his quarters and classroom ready before you lot started showing up.”

            “I think,” added Remus Lupin, “That he also wished to stay near Albus. Apparently, something happened up at Little Hangleton that has Sirius worried about him.”

            “What?” Harry pulled to an immediate stop, Ron and Hermione pulling up short. “Something's wrong with Professor Dumbledore?”

            “No, no,” Lupin shook his head patiently while still keeping a weather eye on the passing crowd. “Nothing like that. I don't have all the details myself, but Sirius seemed concerned that... Well, honestly, I don't understand it. I think the Headmaster did something risky, and Sirius is concerned, that's all.”

            Harry regarded him for another moment, and then nodded, and they moved forward again through the crowd, the trio pushing their own baggage-cart as Lupin and Tonks bracketed them, watching the crowds efficiently and unobtrusively.

            Ron nudged Harry, and brought his lips close to Harry's ear. “Is it just me, or are Lupin and Tonks really sexy when they're all strong an' protective like that?”

            Harry found himself grinning sidewise at his husband, as Hermione's hand found his.

            “Abort,” said Tonks, suddenly, in a quiet, conversational tone, taking hold of the baggage cart and pulling it sideways. She smiled over at Remus Lupin and said, in just such an easy tone, “We're going over to Plan B, no fooling, Remus.”

            But Remus clearly wasn't fooling around either, taking three trotting steps into a corner behind a set of lockers, where he cast a Patronus, which ran promptly through the wall before anyone else could see it. Then he was back beside the cart, pulling it quickly and casually towards another exit, as Harry, Ron and Hermione kept pace, looking around in spite of themselves for whatever danger Tonks had seen.

            It all looked painfully ordinary, though, the greatest apparent danger being the risk of death by boredom. The station was thronged, as always, by families, businesspeople, a couple of school groups, but nothing that seemed off or frightening, nothing more dangerous than the inherent hazards of the wares sold from the steaming chip cart.

            They were just passing a broken, rusty door marked JAN T R when Tonks quickly turned, grasped the knob, and pulled the cart through. Ron led his loves through after her, Remus Lupin bringing up the rear.

            Harry'd spent enough time amongst the world of magic not to be shocked that the small janitor's closet was instead a large, airy waiting room, with sunlight shining in through windows which should, by rights, have opened into a boiler room. Tonks had prowled once around the perimeter of the room before returning to them.

            “Alastor should be here soon,” she told Harry.

            Even as she spoke, the door banged open, and Alastor Moody thudded in, his false leg very loud on the concrete floor off the waiting room. “All, right, Nymphadora,” he rumbled, his magical eye circling, as Tonks threw him a filthy scowl, “what did you see?”

            “Three young men,” she answered darkly. “Early twenties, heavyset builds, six feet or above, moving back and forth between Platform 9 and Platform 10. All wearing the same shirt. Yellow, black line-art of a Muggle motorcycle.”

            Ron's and Harry's mouths dropped open and Ron cried, “That's it? Three blokes in Muggle shirts?”

            “Didn't feel right,” said Tonks, not the least bit apologetic nor defensive, and Moody was suddenly stock-still, his magical eye showing only a white orb as it looked back through his own head, and the wall of the magicked room.

            He nodded slowly. “Good work, then,” he told her. “I don't like the look of 'em either.” He turned back to Harry, Hermione and Ron. “I sent word to Shacklebolt as soon as I heard Lupin's Patronus. Ministry car'll be here within the hour.”

            “Car?” asked Ron. “Cool! Where are we driving?”

            “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” answered Moody dryly. “Perhaps you've heard of it.”

            “Hogwarts!?!?” cried Hermione. “That's got to be a twelve-hour drive!”

            Remus shook his head at them. “It's a Ministry car, remember? Magic.”

            “Well, that's good, then,” said Harry.

            Tonks nodded. “Shouldn't be more than eight hours, tops.”

            “Eight hours?” cried Ron. “What are we going to do stuck in the back seat of a car for eight hours?”

            “Oh,” said Hermione, “I'm sure we can think of something.”

            Tonks smirked as Hermione's boys sniggered, and Lupin said, with a very straight face, “Perhaps it would be best not to distract your driver, my dear.”

            Hermione's look should have vaporised him where he stood. “I meant reading and making preparations for school.”

            “Of course you did,” replied Lupin, with that same too-innocent air.

            “You,” Hermione told him, “have been hanging around with Sirius too much.”

            He smiled as he started pushing their luggage cart toward the far wall of the room, where a door appeared. “I daresay you're right.” The grin turned wolfish. “I daresay we'd've opted for distracting the driver!”

            The first hour had been fun, as the scenery flew by the Ministry car – a Rover 800 – at an amazing rate.

            “Ludicrous speed!” Hermione had shouted, pointing determinedly forward, and Harry and Ron had both stared at her, baffled. She'd looked back and forth between them for a moment, then shaken her head. “You boys are desperately in need of some cultural literacy!”

            The boys had laughed and joked as the miles rolled by, and Ron was pleased to see that the kitchen in back was well stocked with sandwich makings. Hermione had checked that there was a full loo roll in the bathroom before they returned to their seats, sandwiches in hand.

            An hour later, they were crowded into that small loo, practically in one another's laps as they struggled to maintain some level of dignity through the process. In the end, the only way to avoid painful bruising was for whoever was on the left to use the toilet paper on whoever was seated. Nobody much wanted to look one another in the eye for a while after that, and Ron said darkly to Tonks when they got back to the back seat, “Keep your wand ready. If I need to go again, I'll just shit my pants and have you Scourgify!

            The sullen silence that followed slowly transfigured itself into a sleepy one, and soon Hermione was sprawled over onto Ron, who was snoring loudly with his head on Harry's shoulder, as Harry's forehead rocked gently on the cool glass of the car window, issuing his own, oddly-dainty snores.

            Lupin, in the seat opposite them, glanced over at Tonks with a warm smile, and she squirmed quietly into his lap and kissed him.

            As the Trio stepped into the Great Hall, Remus and Tonks close behind them, They heard Professor Dumbledore's voice ringing out through the room.

            “Lastly, some staffing changes. It is with great pleasure that I announce that, this year, Defence Against the Dark Arts will be taught by Sirius Black. Professor Black has had a most extraordinary history of resisting and defending against the very darkest of magic, under the most inopportune of circumstances. Falsely accused of a most dreadful crime, he suffered some thirteen years amongst the Dementors of Azkaban, and survived with his sanity intact. I'm sure you will all learn very much from him.”

            The applause had started at the mention of Sirius' name, and was thunderous by the time Dumbledore had finished, but Harry was frowning up at Dumbledore, barely visible through the standing, applauding throng of students. He glanced over at Ron, saying, “Did you–?”

            Ron nodded. He'd heard it too, the slight reticence in Dumbledore's tone that seemed to suggest reserve, the slightest hint of distance. A year ago, they wouldn't have noticed it, but they'd spent more time with Dumbledore this year and more time with Sirius as well; there was something in his smile, as he stood and waved, that suggested something odd between the two men.

            Harry glanced to Hermione next, but she was looking in the direction of the other end of the staff table, eyes wide and intense, head craning this way and that, almost franticly, trying to get a look at–

            “It is also my great pleasure to announce that Professor Charity Burbage,” Dumbledore continued,  and Harry heard the slight extra suggestion of warmth in his voice that made an even greater contrast to the odd hint of chill Harry'd felt in his introduction of Sirius, “has been invited to take a walking tour of Canada's Muggle cultural sites. This was an irresistible opportunity for our esteemed Muggle Studies professor, and she is merrily studying the happy Muggle fisherfolk of Newfoundland even as we speak! As much as we'll miss her, it is my pleasure to announce what I consider a great coup for our school. For the first time ever, Muggle Studies at Hogwarts will be taught by teachers who are uniquely qualified for the job. Moreover, they are two of the most courageous people I have ever known, and I am convinced that they will prove a peerless asset to this school, and to all of your education. I must in passing mention that they are Muggles, but I know I can trust you to show them the respect you show all of your teachers.”

            Hermione's hands closed over Harry and Ron's shoulders to hoist her head above the level of the still-standing students, and she squealed with uncharacteristically girlish delight, “Mummy! Daddy!” as Dumbledore finished, “Please welcome Doctors David and Jane Granger!”

            Hermione launched herself forward, dragging the boys along behind her as she raced past the students, sitting and standing, who applauded, most looking a little confused, as their new Muggle Studies professors stood and waved. The trio broke through the crowd, and Hermione squealed again as she led them in a breakneck turn about the end of the staff table, and threw herself at her parents, Harry's and Ron's additional weight almost tackling them to the floor, and Harry found himself supporting Jane Granger as her daughter's right arm squeezed her, while Ron squeezed David's shoulder, before the Grangers gathered all three of them into a joint hug, David tousling Harry's hair over his wife's head, Jane stroking Ron's chest in a gesture that was oddly touching.

            Both Grangers kissed their daughter, and then, to their surprise, Harry and Ron as well, and as Jane pushed a stray lock of wild hair off her daughter's forehead, David told her, “I'm so, so sorry we weren't able to speak to you before we left, Hermione.”

            Jane squeezed Harry close to her side as she told her daughter, “It all happened so fast, but we had to do what we thought was right. The opportunity to distract Riddle and goad him into making mistakes was too good to miss.”

            “Well,” Harry told her, touching his prickling scar, “if your goal was to wind him right up, you more than succeeded. He does his best these days to block this–” Harry gestured again to his scar. “–But I can tell he's still off the deep end over it.”

            “Good!” said David, with a dark intensity Harry hadn't seen from him. “That's why we're back here, as well. Keep him at a nice, fast boil, and see how much he'll stuff up for us. We figure, there ought to be at least two more good Prophet interviews in taking this post, so we'll do our best to keep him from having a single rational thought.”

            “Exactly!” said Jane, and reached up to cup her daughter's cheek. “You're not angry with us, are you?”

            “How could I be,” asked Hermione, in a tone that suggested she strongly wished she could, “after all I've done?” She took a deep breath, and squeezed her parents again. “I'm so sorry for all the times I've frightened you. So sorry for all the times I will. When I read that interview, I was terrified!”

            “All three of us were,” added Harry, and Ron chuckled and added, “Us two, mainly of your daughter, admittedly...”

            Jane laughed and reached up to ruffle Ron's hair. “So were we, Ron, so were we.”

            “Still,” said David, letting his voice carry a bit, “we figured, Australia should be safe enough. If we were just hiding from Riddle and his lame-brains, I'd think Belgium would be far enough.”

            There came a gasp from the students nearest them – the Slytherin table – and David Granger winked as his daughter as Blaise Zabini glared mightily at them, and Draco Malfoy pulled Pansy Parkinson's hands away from her face. Hermione looked worried, but Harry grinned back at his father-in-law, thoroughly approving of his refusal to be cowed.

            “Listen,” said Jane, leaning closer and lowering her voice, as the affronted Slytherins returned to their meals. “Before you go back to your table....” She looked significantly at them, her expression reminding them that they were teachers and students now, not just family. “Do you know what's going on between Albus and Sirius? They're being perfectly cordial, but... I don't know, there's something there.”

            Harry shook his head. “I noticed it too, and, from something Remus said, it may have something to do with s trip they took a few days ago.” He lowered his voice further. “Order business, if you know what I mean.” The Grangers nodded. “But I don't know what it is.” He paused before adding, a little darkly, “I intend to find out, though.”

            As they slid into seats at the Gryffindor table, Seamus Finnigan clapped Harry's shoulder, crying out gleefully, “There y’are, ya lot o' pervs! Good summer, was it?”

            Dean Thomas rolled his eyes, lowering his face into his hands as Hermione reddened, but Ron just laughed, saying, “Yeah, I can't decide whether the best part was running away from Dementors or being attacked by Death Eaters.”

            “Gotta be the Dementors,” replied Seamus, his tone darkening a bit. “I mean, our new perfessers there haven't so much as a Wingardium Leviosa between 'em, an' a whole team o' them lame-brained Death Eaters couldn't lay a finger on 'em! Where's the challenge! Nah, dodgin' the Dementors is the real fun.” He glanced over at Dean, whose face had gone very still. “Oh, Dean, mate, I'm sorry. I didn't t'ink.”

            “Hey, Dean,” said Harry, as Hermione frowned between the dark-skinned boy and his Irish best friend, “I almost forgot! I got a message for you. We met the New Amsterdam Travellers, and Lu, their captain, said to tell you Hello! She said you taught her to fly, by owl-post. She was really excited to meet us, cause we–” He stopped, seeing Dean's expression become increasingly stricken. “What?”

            Dean shook his head, looking down at the table, then drew a deep breath, and looked back up at Harry. “She, uh... She disappeared. In the attack. Just vanished and gone. Best–” He drew in another breath. “Best guess is she got Kissed while she was trying to Disapparate, and, you know, just sort of went nowhere. That's what they think, anyway.”

            “Oh, Dean!” Hermione's eyes were bright with tears. “I'm sorry!” She reached a hand across the table, and took his, squeezing, and then she and Harry said, at the same time, “I'm so sorry! It's my fault!”

            The two stopped and stared at one another, and Dean laughed a quiet, sad laugh. “Yeah, there's a lot of that going around.” He patted Hermione' hand. “Your parents already came by and apologised 'cause it was their fault.” His tone darkened. “See, personally, I tend to think it was Riddle's fault. But...” He shrugged. “Whatever. Thanks. She was great, and I miss her, and I hope she shows up alive and well.” He reached for more roast beef. “Well, come on!” he cried with slightly forced jollity “We can't have the Hope of the Wizarding World go hungry, now, can we?”

            Ron grinned over at him as he started loading his own plate. “Have you been talking to my mum?”

            After the meal, as the students started milling toward the door, Harry steered Ron and Hermione with him to make their way towards the Headmaster's tall chair, but they'd made very little headway before a sneering voice said. “So how does this work, anyway?”

            They turned, and saw Draco Malfoy, arms crossed insouciantly over his chest, the large forms of Crabbe and Goyle flanking him. Malfoy curled his lip in disgust. “I suppose you two flip a coin to see who buggers whom, and the loser flips over the Mudblood and pretends she's a boy!”

            Ron's hands curled into fists, and he took a step forward, but the ease of Harry's voice completely derailed him.

            “Actually, Draco,” Harry said, his tone as casual and pleasant as if discussing Nargles with Luna Lovegood, “We've tried to have Ron bugger me many times. But every time I feel his thumbs prying my cheeks apart, all I can think of is your dad, in Azkaban, bending over for Crabbe's and Goyle's dads, and, well–” he shuddered theatrically, with the expression of a man who's just hit “six-days-dead-skunk's-rectum” in his bag of Bertie Bott's “–Eeeurch! Talk about a mood-killer!”

            Such colour as there was dropped from Malfoy's pale, pointy face, and he was about to launch himself when Crabbe grabbed his elbow, just as Professor McGonagall's voice cracked like a whip. “Mister Potter! I will not have such disgraceful language in the Great Hall from a member of my house! Whatever debauchery your summer may have been filled with, in this school you will comport yourselves with some dignity! Ten points from Gryffindor!”

            Harry turned slowly towards his head of house, and when he spoke, his voice was low and even, and Minerva McGonagall's eyes widened and she took a step backwards. “I apologise for my behaviour, Professor,” he said, “but what goes on in my marriage-bed is not 'debauchery,' and I'd appreciate it if you would show us that respect.”

            McGonagall's lips thinned and then relaxed, and she inclined her head to her student. “You are, of course, quite correct, and I apologise. But I do require that you behave with decorum in these halls!”

            “Of course, Professor,” said Harry, at once.

            Draco Malfoy's eyes had widened as Harry rounded on his professor, but he'd been quick to seize the distraction and turn with Crabbe and Goyle in tow, and stalk toward the doors.

            “Can't believe Granger's parents are professors!” said Crabbe, and Goyle grunted agreement.

            Malfoy's scowl darkened. “This used to be a school!” he growled. “Now, there's Mudbloods everywhere you look, and filthy Muggles teaching! Mordred! I can smell the filthy Muggle stink from here!”

            “Just out of curiosity,” said a woman's voice, sharp and penetrating, with that hectoring undertone that made him wonder why the Weasel hadn't strangled the Mudblood by Third Year, “just which of us filthy Muggles do you smell?”

            Malfoy turned to see Granger's parents looking blandly at him.

            “Both of you!” he snarled. “You're filth, and no real wizard will tolerate you!”

            “Both of us,” said David Granger to his wife, in the tones of a man deciding which magazine to purchase,

            “Very well, then,” said Jane Granger. “That's two hundred points from Slytherin House, then.”

            “What!?!?” Malfoy's face hovered between outrage and bafflement.

            “Openly insulting a professor to his or her face is surely worth a hundred points,” David explained, not unkindly, “And you've just told us in so many words that you've done it twice.” His voice hardened. “Two-hundred points.”

            “But–!” squeaked Malfoy. “But you can't!

            “Oh,” said a deep and silky voice behind him, and Malfoy spun to see Severus Snape towering over him, his black robes elegant, and dark eyes sharp beneath his lank, greasy hair. “I think you'll find they have. That will be fifty more points from Slytherin, and you will need to post an owl order to Flourish and Blotts. You will not be taking potions this year after all, Mr. Malfoy, you will be taking Muggle Studies, and perhaps, while in that classroom, you will learn when to simply keep your mouth shut for your own good! Do you understand me? I expect my students to behave with some foresight, not bellow out their every impulse with no thought for the consequences like some idiot Gryffindor! Now, go to your room.

            Malfoy stared at him darkly for a moment, then even more angrily at the Grangers, before he turned, with a muttered, “Yes, sir,” and stalked from the Great Hall.

            Harry, meanwhile, had managed to lead Hermione and Ron to the Headmaster's seat, and said, “Professor Dumbledore?”

            “Yes, yes, my boy,” Dumbledore answered, with a smile.

            “Professor, I wonder if we could have a word tonight. In private.”

            Dumbledore's eyebrows rose, but he nodded. “Of course, Harry. Shall we retire to my office?”

            Harry nodded. “I'd like Professor Black to be there as well.”

            Something in Dumbledore stilled, and the smile he turned back to Harry seemed to lack a small spark. “I'm sure Professor Black is quite busy tonight, Harry, preparing coursework, lesson plans–”

            “Please,” said Harry, his tone quite firm, and the headmaster looked at him for a long moment, then, eyebrows rising, back an forth between Hermione and Ron as well. Their expressions were as resolute as Harry's.

            “Very well, then.” Dumbledore smiled ruefully. “Apparently, marriage has been a growth experience for all of you.” He turned and called down the table to Sirius, “Professor Black! Mr Potter desires a word with us this evening. Will you join us in my office?”

            Sirius's face was concerned as he glanced from Dumbledore to Harry and his loves, and he nodded, and soon the five were ensconced before the cosy fire place, as Dumbledore offered Jelly Babies from a white paper bag – “A gift from a very old friend!” – glasses of pumpkin juice.

            “Very well, Harry,” Dumbledore said, his features warm and amused. “You've called us to order. How can we help you?”

            Harry looked back and forth between the headmaster and Sirius. “I want to know what's going on between you.”

            “Do you, now?” Dumbledore chuckled. “Harry, have you been given some position here at Hogwarts I was somehow unaware of? Social director, perhaps?”

            Harry simply looked back and forth between them again.

            “Listen, Harry,” began Sirius, “I know you mean well, but–”

            Harry cut him off. “Remus told me you went off together, and something happened between you. He thinks it has something to do with one of the Horcruxes, with Gaunt's ring.”

            “Well, now, Harry,” began Dumbledore, his voice firmer, but this time Ron spoke. “Look, Professor, you tell us this has nothing to do with the Horcruxes, well, we'll apologise an' slink off, won't we, an' call Harry a berk for dragging us in here.”

            For just a moment, Dumbledore's face hardened, then he sighed, shoulders drooping, and his face dropped, again for just an instant, into a truculent pout, before he looked over to Sirius Black. “I've no choice, have I?”

            “Albus...” Sirius's expression was solemn, and very kind. “I've just been wanting to know what's going on.”

            “Well, then, Sirius,” the ancient wizard replied, looking for a moment, impossibly old, “perhaps it would be best if you started. Please, tell the story.... And I will explain myself.”

            Sirius looked at his headmaster and friend for a very long time, then nodded, turning to Harry, Ron and Hermione. “The day before you went into Diagon Alley to stock up for school, I bumped into Albus preparing to leave for Little Hangleton. He told me he felt it wise to look there for Marvolo Gaunt's ring. You know he believed it to be a Horcrux.”

            The three students nodded, Ron reaching for another jelly baby.

            “I offered to come along, and, well....” Sirius glanced over to Dumbledore.

            “Yes...” Dumbledore appeared both amused and sheepish. “You no doubt noticed I seemed oddly reluctant toward your company. In truth, I had intended to undertake this little sojourn alone, but....” Again Dumbledore paused, eyebrows raised, tapping his pursed lips with one finger, before he drew a deep breath and said, “But, well, quite frankly, I could think of no credible reason to demur.”

            “So off we went to Little Hangleton, to Gaunt's house. Horrible, ramshackle affair. Practically a cave. Mummified corpse of a snake nailed to the door, looked like it had been there for years. Well, it took a bit of searching, but Albus found the ring.... And he tried to put it on! I mean, honestly, as if he was shopping for Jewellery in Madame Malkin's! I was– Well, honestly, I was so horrified, I almost didn't get to my wand in time. I levitated it right out of his hand. Well, of course, it had the most dreadful curses on it! We got it back to Bill, and, well, suffice it to say he had a few choice words for Riddle, and, when he found that Albus was simply going to put it on, well, he had plenty to say about that as well!”

            They looked over at Dumbledore, and were astonished to see that he was blushing furiously.

            “Well,” said Sirius, “Albus was quite vexed with me, and, well, I've not got a straight answer from him since.” He looked significantly at the older man. “Perhaps we all will now.”

            Dumbledore shifted in his seat as if it weren't – as they all knew it to be – one of the most comfortable chairs in the United Kingdom, and finally he turned, not to Harry or Sirius, but to Ron.

            “Dear boy,” he said. “I have no doubt you're well familiar with the Tales of Beedle the Bard?

            Ron blinked in surprise, as if Dumbledore had interrupted the conversation to discuss the latest issue of The Adventures of Martin Miggs, the Mad Muggle. “Well, sure! Who doesn't?”

            Dumbledore smiled kindly at him. “Well, I daresay your spouses, for a start,” he pointed out and Ron blushed, nodding, realising that Muggle-raised children would have no idea of the famous children's tales. “In any case, ” Dumbledore continued, “perhaps you'd be so kind as to tell us the Tale of the Three Brothers?”

            “Uuhhhmmm.... Yeah. Yeah, alright,” said Ron, confused as to his purpose. “So, long ago an' far away – or, hell, I dunno, long ago an' right around the corner – there were these three blokes, three brothers, see? Wizards. An' they were off travelling, you know, having adventures, and battling trolls, you, know, like that.

            “An' one midnight, well, they come across a river, right? Wild, raging thing, so deep an' fast they can't cross it. 'Course, duh! Wizards, yeah? So they conjure this bridge, and say, 'Yeah, it’s good to be us,' and they're about halfway across when this tall, mysterious bloke in a long dark cloak appears, see, and he says, 'I can teach you how to bottle fame and stopper–'” He broke off his sudden imitation of their Potions Master as Sirius bellowed his laughter and even Dumbledore smiled a bit. “Nah, what he says is, 'Lo, mortals, for I am Death Itself, an' you have cheated me by making this bridge! This river's for dying in, an' you're just walking over it pretty as you please!' Now, Death is, you know, pretty honked off about this, but, he's a tricky one, too, ain't he? So He comes over all oily an' smiles, 'Yeah, that's a good trick! An', for besting mer13;' You know, as if beating death isn't its own reward, yeah? 'An' for besting me, I grant each of you a boon! Ask what you will, I can't refuse you.'”

            Hermione was watching Ron with avid eyes, and Harry had to admit that he told the story well. He took a sip of pumpkin juice, watching his husband as he warmed further to his tale.

            “Now the oldest brother, he was a bit of a bully, honestly. Liked to get in fights, and such. You know the type. So he says to Death, 'I want the king of all wands! I want a wand that no other wand can beat.' So Death, well, he snaps a branch of an Elder tree by the riverbank, and fashions it into a wand, an' gives it to the oldest brother. He says, 'This wand cannot be bested. Your wish is granted!'

            “Next comes the middle brother, see, and he's the most arrogant sod you ever did see! So he wants to just push Death's nose in it that they beat him, see? So he tells death he wants to be able to to bring back the dead, see? Snatch 'em right out of Death's hands, basically. So Death, well, he sort of shrugs like it doesn't matter, doesn't he? And he picks up a stone from the riverside, and he gives it to the middle brother, and tells him 'With this stone, you may summon the dead.' An’, you know, Brother number two sort of does his little victory dance, and goes you know, ‘Take that, death! I’m the king, now!'

            “So death turns to the youngest brother. An' you know, like all youngest brothers, he's much smarter than his older brothers, all humble and noble an' that, yeah? Obviously, the hero of the story.” Hermione laughed at him, swatting his knee playfully, and he grinned at her, and continued. “'Strue though. The youngest brother is humble, and he's smart, and he doesn't trust Death one bit. So he tells Death, 'I wanna be able to hide from you, so you can never find me.'

            “Well, Death really doesn't like that. He was fine with giving the Elder brother the Elder wand, and he didn't say a word about the Middle brother bein' able to bring back the dead, but you could see it his eyes, he was downright furious at this. But, you know, when Death makes a promise, he has to keep it, yeah? So, grumbling under his breath the whole time, he takes off his own invisibility cloak–”

            “Death’s got an Invisibility Cloak?” Harry interrupted.

            “So he can sneak up on people,” said Ron. “Sometimes he gets bored of running at them, flapping his arms and shrieking . . .” Hermione swatted his knee again, and he harrumphed. “Yeah, so Death hands his invisibility cloak over to the heroic youngest brother, see, and the three brothers go on their way.

            “Now, once they're across the river, they split up an' go their separate ways.

            “The oldest brother, well, he goes all over hell an' gone to get to this village, see, where there's this wizard he had a pissing match with, like, years before, you know. This jammy little pointy-faced git with blond hair and a sneer. You know the type.”

            “Ronald....” cautioned Dumbledore.

            “Yeah, yeah, all right. So he finds this git in the tavern, see, an' he calls him out, an', you know, he's got the Elder wand, the unbeatable wand. So there's the git, dead on the floor, an' the elder brother gulping down the firewhiskey, spouting off, all about how his wand can't be beat, and he's the Stud Duck of all wizardkind. Then, you know, he takes the prettiest serving wench upstairs, and passes out afore he get his trousers down.”

            “I'm sure your mother didn't tell you that part, Ron,” giggled Hermione.

            “Nah, 's what you call artistic license.” He squeezed her hand. “Anyway, you just know he doesn't make it through the night. Passed out, flat on his face after going on about his unbeatable wand? Somebody sneaks into his room, slits his throat, and steals it, don't they?

            “So Death takes him after all.

            “Now the middle brother, he goes home, 'cause, you know, once you slap Death silly, well, what's left, you know? So he gets home, wanting to settle down with his pretty little lady he knew before he left, but she's gone and died while he was adventuring see? Just curled up her tootsies. Well, he's all upset at first, but then he says, 'Hey? Why else did I beat Death?' So he takes out the stone, yeah, and turns it over three times, an' his lovely girl comes back to him, like a ghost, you know, like Myrtle, only prettier.

            “Well, this sounds all right, but it turns out all pear-shaped. She's all miserable, 'cause she doesn't belong in this world. Myrtle an' Nick an' them stay because they chose to, you know? Chose not to move on. You told me that, Harry. Well, she, you know, she didn't want to hang around. She'd moved on. An' now she was dragged back where she didn't belong any more, for a man who claimed to love her, but didn't seem to care about that, and who she couldn't even touch. So she was miserable, and so was he, and after a few months of this, well, he hung himself, didn't he? Just so he could be with her on her terms.

            “So Death claimed the middle brother as his own, an' – other than one 'Who’s the king now, git?' – didn't even gloat.”

            Dumbledore nodded approvingly, and Harry asked, “And the youngest brother?”

            “Well, he's a youngest brother, inne? Smart, wise, humble, noble. So he lived a long life, always on the move, rescuing damsels, and saving townsfolk and deciding arguments, and generally being sexy as hell with his blue eyes and freckles and ginger hair.... And when he'd lived a long full life, married well, seen children grown and happy, well, he decided he'd gone on long enough. And then, finally, he removed the cloak, that invisibility cloak so perfect even Death couldn't see through it, and he gave it to his son, and waited.

            “An', when Death came for him, he greeted him as an old friend, and they left this world together, as equals.”

            Dumbledore clapped his hands slowly. “Well done, my boy! A grand tale, well-told!” As Ron ducked his head, his ears turning pink, Dumbledore drew in a breath. “I imagine that you are wondering why I requested it, however. I assure you, it was not a mere distraction from my, er... Disagreement with Sirius.” He drew in a deep breath. “In fact, it is at the very heart of it. The Tale of the Three Brothers is offered as a fairy tale. A fable for children about the wisdom of humility, perhaps, and the cost of hubris. But it is more than that. It is said that all legends and myths have their basis in fact. Muggles think dragons and centaurs and hippogriffs are mythical creatures. Well, the Tale of the Three Brothers is such a tale. Have any of you heard of the Deathly Hallows?”

            Sirius Black sat forward, eyes wide. “The Deathly– Albus, are you joking? I'd expect such nonsense from, say, old Xenophilius Lovegood – pretty dotty on the subject, actually, isn't he? – But surely you're not seriously suggesting that the Deathly Hallows are real! That three brothers bested Death, and were given gifts?”

            “No, Sirius,” said Dumbledore calmly. “That is the part that I'm sure is a myth. No doubt they were made by extraordinarily powerful wizards–”

            “But, Albus–”

            “Sirius, did you never stop to think about James' cloak? Have you ever seen its like?” The headmaster turned to Harry. “Harry, have you got your father's cloak?”

            “Yes, Professor.” Harry dug in his pocket, pulling the invisibility cloak from its depths, and, following the angle of Dumbledore's head, handed it to Sirius.

            As Sirius examine the fabric, Dumbledore leaned over to him. “Have you ever seen its like, Sirius? It's perfect. Flawless, peerless. You played with that for years, Sirius, and never once thought on its origins?”

            “James....” Sirius spoke slowly. “James was given the cloak by his father. It was an.... An heirloom, a family heirloom.”

            “Exactly!” said Dumbledore, excitedly. “Passed down from generation to generation, from father to son! And yet, it remains perfect! The enchantments that render it and its wearer unseen have lost not one iota of their power! This is no mere disillusioned travelling cloak! It is perfection, passed down through the generations! Don't you see, Sirius?”

            Sirius' eyes were wide, as were Harry's and Ron's and Hermione's, and they nodded as one. Dumbledore turned to his desk, and dug in the drawers, returning in a moment with a copy of the Quibbler. He placed it on the table before them and pointed at the corner of the cover. There, among the publisher's trademarks, he tapped a symbol: a triangle, enclosing a circle above a vertical line. “This symbol,” said Dumbledore, is the sign of the Deathly Hallows. The Elder Wand.” He drew his fingertip down the line. “The Resurrection Stone.” He traced the circle. “And the Invisibility Cloak.” His fingertip followed the three lines of the enclosing triangle. He looked again at Sirius. “Look at that symbol, Sirius. Do you recognise it?”

            Sirius stared at the symbol for a long moment, and his mouth dropped open. “You're not serious!”

            “Oh, but I am, Sirius, I am!” Dumbledore's eyes burned into his. “Remember I told you that I had seen the memory of a Ministry official who had visited Marvolo Gaunt's house? Gaunt, so proud of his heritage, directly descended from the Peverells! Hallows lore holds that the Peverell brothers were creators of the Hallows! And the stone on the ring was marked, scratched, with that very symbol!” Dumbledore sat back, hands slapping his thighs. “I couldn't be more certain. That stone was the Resurrection Stone!”

            “But.... But, Professor....” Harry's voice was hushed. “You've always taught me that death is.... Death is not the worst thing, not something to be afraid of. The next step in our journey. Why would you....” Harry pushed his hand back through his hair, Ron's hand on one shoulder, Hermione's on the other. “Why!?!?

            Professor Dumbledore drew in a long breath, and let out a deep sigh. “Harry... When I was very young... Not much older than you... Well, let's just say my choices in friends... In love... Were not so wise as yours. The results were...catastrophic. Someone died. Someone.... Someone very dear to me, and it fault. All my fault.”

            Harry sat back, remembering a moment in this very room, more than a year before, speaking with Dumbledore and Sirius after Cedric's murder, Riddle's reconstitution. Professor Dumbledore had, with Sirius's help, explained the shades of his parents called forth by Priori Incantatum. They'd said quite a lot that day, and in the days that followed, but it had boiled down to something very simple.

            “But there's no spell, Professor,” Harry said, “that can reawaken the dead. I trust you know that.”

            “Professor,” added Hermione. “Even in the story, the stone didn't work. Not really. It was like the Monkey's Paw.”

            Dumbledore looked defeated, and turned his face down, to the floor. “It's moot now, in any case. After Maltrucido Flammaria, the stone is gone. There was.... There was nothing left.” He glanced back up at them, then dropped his gaze. “Now, if you would excuse me,” he murmured, his voice sounding weak and tired and older then the stone walls around them, “the hour grows very late, and all of us have classes in the morning.”

            Sirius glanced over at his godson and nodded, and the three teenagers stood and followed him to the door. As Sirius reached for the knob, Harry turned back. “Professor? Are you.... Will you be all right?”

            Dumbledore's head bobbed gently, and his voice was gentle as he said, “Good night, Harry.”

            As the door closed behind him, Harry thought he heard that sad voice once more, barely a breath.

            “I only wanted to say I'm sorry.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two: “The Greater Part”

            After Sirius had walked them back to the Fat Lady – who opened the entrance-hole to a murmured "Dilligrout" – and bade them good night, Harry, Ron and Hermione found the common room quiet.

            It was well after midnight, and the lamps were out, leaving only the merry light from the fire crackling in the fireplace. At a low table dragged over into its light, Ginny was playing chess with Luna Lovegood, whose Ravenclaw-blue tie looked out of place in the crimson and gold Gryffindor common room.

            "Hi," said Ginny, with a smile as they approached. "Have a seat, I work better with an audience."

            "Hello," added Luna, "I'm so glad the Death Eaters didn't kill you."

            "Yeah," said Ron, with a sidewise grin. "Us, too."

            Ginny moved her knight. "So you were in quite the hurry to talk to Professor Dumbledore," she said. "Anything important?"

            Harry opened and shut his mouth a couple of times.

            "It's sort of complicated," offered Hermione. "I couldn't say it wasn't important, but...well, not the way we thought it might be."

            "So, not to do with Mr. Riddle, then?" asked Luna, moving her War Eagle – there are no bishops in Wizard's Chess – into position, and sitting back with a smile.

            Ginny looked quizzically at her – Are you sure? – and Luna nodded at her as Ron said, "Well – not really." He glanced over at Harry, who nodded fractionally. "It was some sort of magical gadget Riddle's using to prolong his life, but, well, it, uh...." He considered a moment. "It had a whole power Riddle didn't even know about, and it sort of left Professor Dumbledore with a... well, with a painful decision."

            "Really?" Luna looked over at Ron, expression placidly interested.

            Ginny shrugged and directed her knight again, and it moved, attacking Luna's War Eagle. Luna looked down at the board, crestfallen. "Oh, dear. I was hoping they'd breed. I think chess would be ever so much more interesting with Hippogriffs, don't you?"

            "I s'pose so," said Ron, smiling.

            Hermione leaned in to catch Luna's eye. "Luna, do you remember the Tale of the Three Brothers?"

            Luna's focus swung to her, and her silvery eyes brightened. "Oh! Do you mean Mr. Riddle's device was a Hallow?"

            Hermione nodded with a satisfied smile. "Sirius mentioned a Xenophilius Lovegood who was very interested in the Deathly Hallows."

            "Really?" Luna looked very interested now. "That's very interesting, because my father's name is also Xenophilius Lovegood, and he's been fascinated by the Hallows for years! What a co-incidence! I wonder if magical lines of force converge on the name."

            Ron nodded sagely. "I'm sure that must be it," he said, as Hermione's eyes widened.

            "Anyway, Harry," Luna said, her voice taking on a confidential tone, "Don't worry. I'd never tell my father about your cloak. He might ask me to try to take it away from you, and that would just be terribly awkward, don't you think?"

            Ginny looked amongst them. "Wait, wait! Are you telling me that you think Harry's Invisibility Cloak was given to the youngest brother by Death Itself, and passed down through the generations?"

            "Why not?" asked Ron. "Dumbledore does."

            "Well," amended Harry, "He thinks these Deathly Hallows were made by very powerful wizards. He doesn't believe they were given away by Death itself."

            "Oh, yes," Luna replied, nodding happily. "It's a very hard thing to believe in, even for someone as good at believing in things as Dumbledore."

            Ginny sat back. "You know, I did always think your cloak was pretty amazing, Harry. I mean, you know, Invisibility Cloaks are pretty rare, but yours seemed much better than the ones I'd heard about."

            Hermione was still focused on Luna, though. "It's about your mother, isn't it, Luna? That's why your father has such an interest in the Hallows."

            "Oh, yes," Luna replied easily, gesturing one of her pawns to move forward. "That's another reason I'd never tell him about Harry's cloak. If anyone controls all three of the Hallows, they become Master of Death. We couldn't have that. Daddy didn't see it happen. It was really very horrible. Daddy oughtn't to see--" She went suddenly silent, and then looked down at the chess set. "Well, it would be bad."

            Ginny had forgotten the game. She reached a hand out, and ran it down the length of Luna's long, silvery blond hair. "Was it the wand?" she asked her brother, looking for a tone of normalcy. "Had Riddle somehow got hold of the unbeatable wand?"

            Harry shook his head. "No, it was the stone."

            Luna looked up at him. Her eyes glistened. "Mr. Riddle was using the Resurrection Stone to prolong his own life? And now the Headmaster has it?"

            It was Ron who spoke, his voice very kind. "It was, Luna, but he doesn't have it any more. In order to stop Riddle using it, it had to be destroyed."

            Her voice was hushed, almost inaudible. "Professor Dumbledore's destroyed the Resurrection Stone? One of the Three Hallows is gone forever?"

            "I'm sorry, Luna," said Harry, quietly.

            Luna looked up at him for a moment, then her face burst into a broad, untroubled smile, lighting the room like a beam of sunshine. "That's wonderful! Now no-one can ever bring them together!" She looked at their stunned faces, and explained, "We're safe! Daddy's safe!" She sprang to her feet, skipped toward the exit, paused, returned to them, and one by one, kissed each of them, sweetly, as if in benediction, on the lips. First Ron, then Harry, then Hermione, then Ginny. The she rounded again, skipped toward the portrait hole and was gone.

            The four Gryffindors sat silent for a few moments, and Ginny opened the case for the chess set, telling the pieces, "Well, come on, game's over."

            Luna's surviving pieces sighed in relief and trotted into the case.

            The door to the Gryffindor Head Girl's Room still opened to "Catseye," and the interior looked much as it had. The room itself had been expanded and the twin-sized bed had been replaced by or transformed into a vast king-sized expanse, with velvety hangings in maroon and gold. Their trunks were lined up side-by-side-by-side across the foot, and Pigwidgeon's and Hedwig's cages hung, open, on opposing arms of what looked like an oversized hat-rack by the window. Crookshanks was curled up more-or-less in the centre of the bed, looking remarkably comfortable. The desk had become a sort of "U"-shaped workstation, with lamps and inkwells and cups for quills, conveniently located around the writing spaces. Their books had been placed in shelves above their respective desks, and a merry, golden fire danced and licked in their fireplace. They stood together just inside the door, looking at the room, at the large chest of drawers divided into three segments, at their tripartite desk, at the large, regal bed, at the couch where they had first, so long and short a time ago, pledged themselves to one another, pledged their hearts to one another, and their gazes moved as one to the door beyond, and they walked together, hand-in-hand-in-hand, to the bathroom. It was exactly as they remembered: Toilet and sink and huge, luxurious tub, fluffy white towels on racks.

            "I was so scared," Hermione breathed. "It was so stupid, because I trusted you two completely, trusted you with my life and body and heart and soul and everything, everything, but I was still so scared."

            Harry brought her hand to his lips, pressed a kiss into her palm, curled her fingers closed over it. "You were so brave, Hermione. You stood naked with two randy sods like us, and you trusted us. I faced Death Eaters and Dementors and Voldemort, but never anything as scary as that."

            "Yeah, that's poetic and all," said Ron, "but if you don't let me in front of that toilet, I'm going to piss myself."

            "You're such a romantic, Ron!" said Hermione, with a fond smile, and they stepped over, and Hermione watched with frank interest as Ron peed. Harry stroked her hair as she went, and Ron stooped down to rest his head on her shoulder, joining her in avidly watching Harry, making the smaller boy laugh.

            "Come on," Harry said. "Let's have a bath before bed."

            He shucked off his jumper and reached for the taps, this one then that, playing them like a musician, and the bathroom filled with the sounds of roaring water, and a sort of fresh, leafy, outdoorsy scent, as sweet and clean as the Weasley's garden, and Ron grinned over at him as he pulled his own school jumper over his head.

            "That's what you ought to do for a living, mate," he told Harry, "once you're done with Riddle. Professional bath-drawer. The right scent for any mood and occasion!"

            Harry laughed at that as he pulled down his uniform trousers. "There a lot of money in that, Ron?"

            "Oh, yeah, galleons and galleons," replied Ron. "Far as the eye can see!"

            They undressed unhurriedly, leaving their uniforms in the laundry basket, and slid easily into the warm bathwater, and, with soft cloths and peaty-smelling liquid soap, washed one another, hands moving easily over each other's forms, happily and comfortably familiar as they cleaned and cared for one another.

            "Harry," murmured Hermione, as she smoothly scrubbed down the furrow of Ron's bottom, "I've been thinking about what you said to Malfoy."

            "I'm sure you have," chuckled Ron. "You're a right perv when it comes to seeing me and Harry together, and that's the truth!"

            A bright flush rose into Hermione's cheeks and she stared down at Ron's strong, round bottom, but soldiered on determinedly. "You said-- Well, the way you said it, really.... Do you think being anally penetrated is something to be ashamed of?"

            Harry and Ron both turned to stare wide-eyed at her, and her flush deepened, but so did the determined line of her jaw. She reached her left hand to Harry's cock, hard and slender and straight in the water, and gave it a single soap-slippery stroke.

            Harry's eyes closed and he sighed his appreciation for her hand, her touch, then drew a breath and looked at her. "No," he said. "No, I don't. I just knew it would get under Malfoy's skin." He glanced from Hermione to Ron. "I've actually been thinking about it rather a lot, to be honest with you."

            Ron drew his lower lip between his teeth, but Hermione smiled sweetly at him. "So have I," she said. "I've been thinking about having both of you inside me. I know it's awfully greedy, but I just can't help it."

            "Oh, fuck!" cried Ron, as Harry's mouth dropped open.

            "I'm sorry," Hermione said, and Ron grabbed her and pulled her face to his for the strongest, most passionate kiss Harry'd ever seen.

            "Sorry!?!?" Ron cried, "Hermione, you're the best girl a bloke could possibly ever want!"

            Hermione's blush deepened further, but the corners of her mouth turned up, and there was a glint of wickedness in her eyes as she turned to Harry. "And you, Harry? Would you like to take me up the anus while Ron slides his penis into my vagina?"

            Harry's face split into a broad grin, and he looked over her shoulder. "Fuck, Ron, I see what you mean about her talking all clinical!"

            Her voice dropped a register. "If you prefer, Harry, I can invite you to push your long, slender cock into my arse while Ron's fucks my cunt. I'm nothing if not adaptable."

            Harry was against her now, kissing her hard, as well, while Ron moaned, "Here?"

            Hermione looked over at him. "Well, as sentimental as I am about this tub, I think this will be complicated enough without the risk of drowning. And we do have that big new bed out there...."

            They were out of the bath and dry in seconds.  Hermione handed Ron her wand and took one cock in each hand to lead her randy boys back to their room. A gesture from Harry's wand parted their bed-curtains, and she was on her knees on the bed, releasing those beautiful hard cocks, and turning to kiss them, first Ron, then Harry.

            Harry's hand slid over her mons, his fingertips encountering a line of fresh moisture, and he groaned and kissed her shoulder, as Ron's hands moved up to her breasts, and she sighed happily between them before directing Ron to lie down on his back. She threw a leg across him, and glanced back at Harry.

            "Will you cast Barricadus, love?"

            Harry made a small happy noise, his mouth against her shoulder blade, as he slid his fingers up inside her to cast the contraceptive spell, and she made her own small sound feeling his fingers move inside her.

            Then she reached under herself, and took Ron's hard cock in her hand, and pressed it up into her folds, lowering herself slowly onto him, and she moaned as that stout cock filled her, sliding up deep inside her, and Harry just held her sides at first as she fucked Ron, sliding up and down on his cock, before she leaned forward over him.

            "Cast-- Cast Lubricus, Harry," she gasped, and he gently slid the tip of his wand between her rounded cheeks, and murmured the spell, his wand ejaculating warm gel across her anus, and he reached with one hand, and circled the puckered pink ring with the pad of his middle finger, listening as her breath caught, and then pressed it in.

            He loved having his finger in her arse while she and Ron fucked. He could actually feel the motion of Ron's cock against his finger through her, and he thought how soon he'd be feeling it, not with his finger, but his own hard cock, and he groaned even as she did. A second finger joined the first, and he worked them, scissoring them, stretching her.

            "Now, Harry," she gasped, sinking all the way down onto Ron. "Please."

            Harry pulled his fingers from her, and moved over, to press the head of his cock against her anus, and he put his hands on her hips to steady her, steady himself.

            "Now," she gasped again, and Harry started to press himself forward, into her. It was a whole new world. As tight as her arse was around his fingers, he didn't know why he should gasp with wonder as it squeezed his cock, and he was shocked by the low, harsh sound she made as he slowly, slowly pressed himself into her.

            "Are you all right, love?" he asked.

            "Bugger me, Potter," she growled, her voice guttural. Ron groaned aloud, and bucked up into her slightly.

            Harry sucked in a sharp breath at that, and stared at his husband. "I feel you, mate!" he gasped. "Fuck! I feel you inside her!"

            Ron moaned wordlessly, but Harry felt the tremor of his cock inside Hermione, and he began to slowly draw himself back, before thrusting forward again.

            Hermione's voice this time was high-pitched, and tinged with pain, and Harry immediately froze, crying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

            Show looked over her shoulder at him, beckoned him with a toss of her head, and, when he leaned over her, kissed him, long and slow, her tongue sliding against his.

            "Bugger me, Harry," she said as they broke. "Good and hard. Don't worry, just do it!"

            The first penetration by Harry's cock, slender and elegant though it be, still far thicker than his two fingers, had sent an electric jolt of tearing pain through Hermione. But inside that was another feeling, a pleasure she'd never imagined, as intense and vibrant in its own way as Ron's stout, jolly cock happily thrusting up into her vagina, and she grunted, low and rough, her face momentarily clenching with the pain.

            Dear Harry, so solicitous, concerned for her as he slowly slid his cock into her arse-hole! She'd been surprised by the low, harsh sound of her own voice, rasping, "Bugger me, Potter!"

            Then she realised more of what she was feeling inside her, and Harry gasped to Ron, gasped, "I feel you, mate! Fuck! I feel you inside her!"

            Ron's moan thrummed from his chest into hers, and Harry drew back and thrust into her arse again, even harder. She couldn't withhold the sharp, high-pitched squeal of pain, and Harry froze again, frightened, crying out his apology even as the pain began to subside, even as her anus began to realise that the pleasure was greater, and she beckoned him, kissed him, long and deep and loving, and she felt the power of her sexuality roaring within her like a storm as she told him, "Bugger me, Harry. Good and hard. Don't worry, just do it!"

            Harry thrust into her again, harder, faster, and the pain was a steady hum, now, and the pleasure a rising crescendo, and she whimpered against Ron's shoulder, feeling his hardness still inside her, and she kissed Ron, nodded her encouragement, and he resumed his thrusting too.

            It was like nothing she'd ever felt before; it was transcendent. The heart's joy of Ron's happy cock in her pussy was matched easily by Harry's long, straight, elegant cock sliding straight and deep into her arse, and she felt the two cocks pressing against one another inside her, moving against one other with just the thin, sensitive tissues of her body separating them, and her boys kissed passionately over her shoulder as their cocks frotted against one another inside her body, using her tender flesh as a medium.

            The boys quickly built a rhythm, communicating by looks and nods over her shoulder, by the lightest of touches, as she turned from one mouth to the other, kissing, tasting, and her body was pressed back and forth between them, moved from one to the other, and their cocks pistoning up inside her slid against one another through the thin barrier of her body in accelerating counterpoint, and she ground and bucked, first toward Ron and then Harry, and she whimpered, whimpered her pleasure, whimpered their names, whimpered her love for them.

            "Fuck, Hermione, Ron, Fuck!" Harry cried, and he grabbed not Hermione's hips, but Ron's, and drove himself as hard and deep into her arse as he could, and she felt his cock spasm and twitch inside her, felt the thick, hot, fluid erupt into her, and Ron's blue eyes widened before her, and he moaned, "Fucking hell!" and then he grabbed Harry's arse in his large hands, and pulled himself into her as deep as he could, and his pubis slamming into her clitoris sent her spiralling into orgasm even as she felt his jism filling her, and red light washed through her vision, and she squirmed between her boys, collapsing down onto Ron's chest as Harry sprawled onto her back.

            They lay together like that, panting, moaning, Harry's face over her shoulder, and she turned her head to nuzzle her lips against his, too drained, for the moment, to even kiss him, as Ron nibbled gently on her neck and shoulder. Both of them slowly softened within her, and she sighed as their cocks receded, sliding gently out of her.

            "Hey...." Ron groaned, and she turned her head to face him. His eyes were loving, happy, sleepy, and he kissed her gently and murmured against her mouth, "Not that this isn't grand, but are you lot planning one moving one way or the other before I suffocate?"

            "Oh, fuck!" cried Harry, and slid sideways, and while it made it much easier for Hermione to breath, she still missed the comfort of his boneless weight on her.

            "I'm sorry," Harry said, as Hermione squirmed off to Ron's other side. "I shouldn't have been so thoughtless!"

            "Shut up, you tosser," said Ron easily, drawing him in for a kiss. "We both loved having you there. You should know that by now."

            Hermione made a happy little sound, kissing Ron's shoulder, and Harry lifted his head to look across his husband at his wife. "Hermione..." She looked over at Harry, reached across Ron to touch his chest. "What's it like?"

            "Oh, Harry!" Her eyes were happy, liquid. "Oh, Harry, Ron, it was... I've never felt anything like it! To feel you both inside me, moving against each other? Oh, God, Harry, I can't even begin to--" She stopped, looking into Harry's eyes, and Ron turned from her face to his, interested. "Oh!" said Hermione. "Well, it... it hurt at first. Rather a lot, actually. But it was wonderful, too. I think you'll need considerably more preparation, though."

            "Merlin!" cried Ron, suddenly understanding where this was going.

            "Ron's rather, er, thicker than you are, after all."

            Ron smiled. "I always knew," he said, "I was the thick one!"

            Harry sat upright, eyes wide, crying out wordlessly. Ron and Hermione were against him almost immediately, holding and stroking him, cooing and crooning to him, murmuring again and again "It's all right, it's all right, there we are, it's all right."

            Finally his breathing slowed enough for him to gasp. "God! Oh, God, oh, God!"

            "All right, now, mate?" asked Ron. "Here an' now?"

            Harry's eyes snapped to his husband's, and he shook his head, saying, "No, Ron, I mean, yeah, all right, yeah, but it wasn't that sort." He shuddered slightly, then glanced back and forth between them with something like a smile playing with his expression. "It was actually, sort of.... It was sort of refreshingly generically terrifying, actually."

            Hermione regarded him through narrowed eyes. "Come again?"

            "It, you know," Harry said, "It wasn't about my guilt, it wasn't about Cedric or Riddle being back, or any of that lot. I mean, you know, it was horrible.... But it wasn't my fault." He half smiled at Hermione. "It's sort of a nice change of pace." He paused again, his face growing more serious. "It was... Luna's mum. She was trying to steal my cloak. She was.... I don't really know what happened, you understand, but... you saw Luna. She as like – " He shook his head. "Horrible, horrible. She kept saying – I dunno how, she had no – . Anyway, she kept saying her daughter needed her, and she wanted the cloak, and... well, when she touched me, I guess that was when I woke up."

            "Oh, mate...." Ron leaned in and kissed him. "Oh, mate, that's rough."

            "Oh, Harry!" Hermione snuggled against his side, and they lay for a long time, trying to relax in the darkness.

            "Well," said Ron, finally, "I can't get back to sleep."

            "Nor I," responded Hermione.

            "Only one thing to do then," said Harry, squirming down under the covers, and after a moment, Hermione squealed aloud, and then groaned, a long, low sound.

            "Great idea, mate," said Ron, pushing the borrowed tee shirt up her chest and lowering his mouth onto one rosy nipple.

            Hermione managed to gasp her agreement, "Oh, yes! Ten points to Gryffindor!"

            An hour later, as the sun rose, they were up and dressed, sitting comfortably on a couch in the Common Room, Hermione reading from her Ancient Runes text while her boys huddled together over Quidditch Weekly, playfully jostling one another as Ron proclaimed the Cannon's certain victory in the coming season, which Harry seemed to find doubtful.

            "Ah!" cried a happy, Irish-accented voice. "There ya three are, the very picture of domestic bliss!" Seamus dropped himself into a chair opposite their couch and grinned over at them. "You lot have had quite the eventful summer, haven't you?"

            "Yeah, well, you know," said Harry. "Something to do."

            Seamus laughed aloud at that. "Aye, yeah, I just wasted my summer on swimming and Quidditch and that!"

            Ron started to put down the magazine, and Seamus reached for it. "Oi, give it here, ya part-time poofter! I wanna see if Ballycastle traded Washington back to the Finches!"

            Ron's brows came together as he passed over the magazine, and Seamus replied with an equally puzzled, "What?"

            "You called me a poofter," replied Ron, mildly, seeming more confused than offended.

            Seamus snorted. "'S not exactly Advanced Arithmancy, seeing as you look at Harry like you look at Granger."

            Hermione glanced up from her book. "If you're on a first-name basis with my husbands, Seamus, I'd appreciate if you'd do me the courtesy of not referring to me by my last name."

            Seamus looked embarrassed. "I am sorry about that, Hermione."

            "It's perfectly all right." Hermione returned to her textbook.

            "See, that's it," said Ron. "You're calling us pervs and poofters and whatnot, but it doesn't seem to bother you."

            "Should it?" asked Seamus.

            "That me and Harry are also together, I mean? Hell, I don't know."

            Seamus shrugged. "After me cousin, you lot would have to really put your backs into it t' bother me, and quite frankly, the only one of you who isn't too lazy to bother with it is Grang – er, Hermione, I mean."

            "Why thank you, Seamus!" said Hermione dryly from behind her books, as Ron and Harry both snorted. The book lowered slowly, revealing her dark eyebrows, gathered in a frown, as she looked at Seamus. "Your cousin?"

            "Oh, aye! A few removes off on me Mam's side. He's a Muggle, actually. Very into this sort of I'm here and I'm queer, I'm out, proud, and out loud thing. Campaigns for equal rights and that."

            "And you find that annoying, do you?" asked Hermione, her voice an icy lance.

            "Perish the thought, gracious lady!" cried Seamus, holding his hands up. "On t'other hand, I do think that a six-foot-three, two-hundred-fifty-pound bloke in pink tights should expect to garner the odd startled look, and there's no point in shouting at folks for being a bit perplexed." Hermione's eyes widened. "He's a good bloke, though," Seamus finished, "on those odd occasions you can distract him from how outrageous he is."

            "Yes, well," said Hermione, "There are some things that we just can't help --" She drew her elbow in toward herself, dragging Ron's toward her. "--but I think you'll find that we tend to keep our sex life behind closed doors."

            "Ye really have then? The three of you, I mean. You've done sex. Together."

            Hermione stared blankly at him as Harry and Ron grinned involuntarily.

            "Ah, ye have, ya great pervs!" Seamus's smile was wide and happy. "Look at you three, all together like that, doing sex together whenever you like! How lovely is that! That's lovely, that is! That's what life should be, isn't it? Free an' whole fer everyone! I'm so proud o' the three of you!"

            Hermione's eyes had widened through Seamus's happy cry, and she managed a "Yes, well...." as she raised her book over her rapidly pinkening cheeks. Her two boys shared a look as well, knowing what was coming.

            "Good on you," Seamus was saying. "So...." He swallowed and glanced around a bit before leaning closer. "What's it like?"

            Hermione's book slapped down on her thighs with a loud smack! "Seamus Finnigan, what we have and do together is very private and very special, and we will not be handing it around in boy talk for your masturbatory entertainment!"

            Seamus's eyes widened and he leaned back away, hands held placatingly in front of him. "I didn't mean any harm, Gra -- Hermione. I'm just curious. I can't help being a teenaged boy!"

            Hermione looked a little guilty. "Well, I'm sorry, Seamus, but be that as it may, boy-talk about my sex life is not something I'm willing to take part in."

            "Well isn't that lovely to hear!" came another voice, and they turned to see Lavender Brown toss her hair back as she raised her chin in disapproval. She turned to Parvati. "Honestly, it's a scandal, and I don't think it should be allowed here."

            Parvati glanced over at Hermione before returning to her best friend. "Oh, I don't know, Lavender. I mean, this is an accident of magic. It's not Hermione's fault she didn't know the spell was permanent."

            "Know-it-all Granger didn't know? Oh, please!" Lavender turned away. "She wanted them both, that's all, and knew she'd never be pretty enough to win either the normal way. She saw her chance and she took it!"

            Lavender stalked off toward the portrait hole, and Parvati approached Hermione and her boys. "I'm sorry about Lavender. We don't all think that. I just wanted you to know that."

            Hermione smiled and nodded.  "Thank you, Parvati."

            Parvati nodded as Seamus stood and went to meet Dean as he made his way down the stairs from the dormitory, chatting with Neville, and she started to turn away, then stopped, biting her lip before turning back to Hermione, and blurting out, "Did it hurt? You know, at first?"

            Hermione returned her gaze for a long moment before replying, "Just a little, at first. Ron was very gentle. After that, it was wonderful, and not scary at all." She paused. "But you can expect to feel a bit sore for the couple of days immediately afterwards."

            Parvati's brown complexion darkened, and she turned and scurried away, her hand over her mouth.

            "What was that?" asked Harry, seeming amused.

            "Yeah," added Ron. "I thought you weren't prepared to share our personal, private --"

            "That was different!" cried Hermione. "She was obviously scared!"

            "You think Seamus wasn't?" said Ron. "I think if you get to have girl-talk, we should get to have boy-talk!"

            "All right, fine!" snapped Hermione, packing her books away in her bag as the other Gryffindors began making their way out for breakfast. "You have your boy-talk, then!"

            "Can't say fairer than that," said Ron, and he leaned over and nudged Harry with his elbow. "Hey, Harry! Guess what?"

            Harry grinned back at him. "What, Ron?"

            "I'm shagging Hermione!" Ron announced to him, grinning widely.

            "Yeah?" said Harry, smiling. "Me, too! How is it?"

            "Brilliant!" cried Ron, and Harry grinned as he handed him his school-bag, replying, "Yeah, same here!"

            Hermione, having slung her bag over her shoulder, swatted them both, unsuccessfully trying to quash her own snort of laughter.

            As they entered the Great Hall, Professor McGonagall intercepted them before they could reach the Gryffindor table, and drew the three of them aside.

            "Miss Granger," she said, sternly -- but not without some twinkle, "I am aware that, as Prefects, you and Mr. Weasley are entitled to a certain amount of leeway in awarding a small number of house points. I'm fairly certain, however, that nothing that took place in the Gryffindor Head Girl's suite this morning at half-four qualifies Gryffindor for ten points."

            Hermione's face coloured and eyes widened as she clamped her hands over her mouth, as Harry and Ron attempted to stifle their sniggers.

            Neither was quite sure whether their Head of House winked at Hermione as she murmured, "I have removed those points, and I suggest that, in future, perhaps other words of encouragement might be more appropriate!"

            As McGonagall turned away, Hermione turned, too, and buried her face between her boys' shoulders, her own shoulders jerking up and down, and Ron's eyes widened with concern until he heard the first giggle escape her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three: “Adversarial Positions”

            “Missster Potter....” Severus Snape's voice was a long, low, slow hiss. “Missster Weasley....” The lank black hair swayed in front of his eyes as he looked back and forth between the two boys. “What, pray tell, are you doing in my dungeon? I am fairly certain that I recall not accepting you into my N.E.W.T.-level class, as you share between you the competence and skill of a flobberworm.”

            Harry opened his mouth to retort, and closed it again, drawing a deep breath and considering as Hermione opened her mouth to speak, only to be silenced by Snape's interruption: “I did not give you leave to speak, Miss Granger.”

            “Hermione is taking your class,” Harry said, tersely.

            “What?” asked Snape, sharply. “Miss Granger is taking the class...What?

            Ron's face colored, and his mouth opened, blue eyes hard as diamonds, but Hermione put a hand over his lips and stilled him.

            “Well, Potter?” demanded Snape, his face so close to Harry's that his greasy black hair brushed Harry's forehead.

            Harry's eyes blazed, and he bit off a word at a time. “Hermione. Is. Taking. Your. Course...” There was a long pause then, as he stared unyielding back into Snape's black eyes. “Professor,” he finished at long last.

            “Is she?” Snape's eyes narrowed as he regarded her. “Did I invite you to bring guests?”

            “Sir, you know that I'm magically bound--”

            “Did I invite--”

            “Ah, Severus!” Albus Dumbledore swept into the classroom with a benign smile, and if he was aware of the hostility sparking between his Potions master and the three students, he gave no sign. “Hard as it is to imagine on the first day of classes, I found myself with a few free minutes, so I thought I'd stop in and see how things were going with this most unusual arrangement.”

            Snape stood silently for a long moment, then let out a long slow breath through his nose, glaring over at Ron and Harry. “I am not a circus kelpie, performing tricks for an audience!”

            “Indeed not,” said Dumbledore, mildly. “I expect you've instructed Messrs Potter and Weasley that they will be required to audit the class, and that, while they will not be receiving grades, they will be required to perform all the class-work?”

            Snape's head angled over slightly. “I had not – yet – broached that solution, Headmaster.”

            “Well, then, Severus, I do apologize for stealing your thunder!”

            There was a moment's quiet. “Not at all, Headmaster,” Snape finally said. “Of course, these two willful louts have failed to bring proper class materials, such as books and cauldrons...”

            Dumbledore waved a hand in the air, “My fault, Severus, I do apologize. I had not thought to inform them of the need.” He brightened. “Still, no harm done! They can share a school cauldron--” Dumbledore took one from the shelves lining one wall of the classroom, and set it in front them. “--and, of course, there are more than enough used textbooks here as well!”

            Dumbledore's long index finger slid along the decaying spines of the books in the shelf along the rear of the room. “Now, then....” he murmured, drawing one from the shelf. “When I was in school, I always had used textbooks.” He riffled through the pages and returned it to its place in the shelf before drawing another. “It was great fun feeling the history of Hogwarts stretching out behind me as I turned the pages, and more than once I thought I would fail Charms entirely were it not for the most helpful annotations of previous students!” His face lit up as he riffled through the pages of the older book he now held. “Excellent! See here!” He adjusted his half-moon glasses on his long, crooked nose, and began to read. “Crush with flat side of silver dagger, releases juice better than cutting.” He smiled up at the class as if he'd just read them an undiscovered Shakespearean sonnet. Snape stood very still. “You see? This brilliant student of days past discovered a better way of brewing the Draught of Living Death!” Dumbledore looked up at Snape. “I daresay the notes and additions in this book are a veritable treasure-trove of magical knowledge! I would suggest, Severus, that Messrs Potter and Weasley be assigned the task of transcribing, evaluating, and formalizing these notes. Perhaps by end of year, they'll have performed a service.” He gestured with the book. “I daresay this boy wizard of yesteryear deserves the regard of posterity.”

            Snape stared at the Headmaster for a long moment. Dumbledore returned the gaze with an expression of mild expectation. “An excellent suggestion, Headmaster,” he finally agreed. “I thank you.”

            Dumbledore smiled beneficently. “It's always a pleasure, Severus, to help my teachers with their classes!”

            The chalk striking the blackboard made an odd sound, and most of the class looked puzzled as the seconds went by and the small, bushy-haired woman wrote, in a remarkably neat and even hand, Doctor Jane Granger.

            She handed the chalk to her husband, and he scrawled his own name below hers, again with a series of scraping CLACK!s: Doctor David Granger.

            Draco Malfoy slouched in his seat, regarding the two dentists with narrow grey eyes, and ground his teeth. He was still stunned by the outrage of Snape – Snape! -- condemning him to this hell. Muggle Studies had always been more a joke than a class, an elective course so disrespected that students from two or even three different years would be mixed together to form a class large enough to teach. But this was insupportable! This degradation of having these powerless vermin, these Muggles, yammering worthlessly at him, in authority over him. This nonsense wouldn't have been permitted when his father had been on the Board of Governors!

            True, Lucius Malfoy might be languishing in Azkaban just then, but he would soon be restored to his rightful place, and when he was, well, there would be retribution, wouldn't there? Of course there would!

            “Now,” said Jane Granger – Merlin, the Mudblood was almost her already! -- “Who arrived here at Hogwarts this year on the Hogwarts Express?”

            Hands rose around the classroom, and Draco snorted. What kind of idiot question was that?

            “Mr Malfoy!” said David Granger. “Did you arrive here by another route?”

            Draco stared at him for a long moment. “No.”

            Granger stared at him and Draco wondered if he was going to demand to be called Sir. Well, he could hang 'til he rotted if he thought that!

            But Granger turned to the class's only other Slytherin. “Mr. Nott?”

            “I Flooed to the Three Broomsticks, and walked from there,” said Theodore Nott, his face and tone, as always, maddeningly neutral. “I prefer to avoid the hugger mugger.”

            “Fair enough,” replied the Mudblood's mother, just as if Nott had been speaking to her rather than her husband. “The rest of you, though, arrived aboard the Express?”

            “Your grasp of the obvious,” Draco drawled, “is passable, at least.”

            The Grangers passed one another switching sides at the front of the classroom, wi