Timeline Note: starts July 31, 1998, a week after Rest At Last.
The Weasleys had told Harry they were planning a birthday party for him, but kept the details of who was attending and how elaborate it would be as carefully hidden as any Order secret. Fred and George had been charged with keeping him occupied in their London store during the set-up, which to their minds had included giving him an innocent looking hard candy not half an hour before they were due home that had made him burp multi-colored bubbles. He could only hope the effect was spent; it would be rather embarrassing during the party.
A banner reading ‘Happy 18th, Harry!' had been hung over the front door of The Burrow, and Harry thought he picked out Hermione's charm work in the way the scarlet and gold paint glowed.
"Well, let's get the birthday boy inside," Fred said, then gave a dramatic sigh. "Doesn't it seem it was only yesterday we were helping him get his trunk onto the train?"
"Too true. Makes me feel almost an adult," George mournfully agreed.
"Bite your tongue!" Fred said, horrified. He shook his head. "The whole world's gone mad, I tell you…"
Harry hid a chuckle by coughing.
The three young wizards entered the house to find Ginny, Ron, Hermione, and Mrs. Weasley taking care of last minute tasks. Extra chairs had been set out and there was a sideboard full of finger foods for the party. Nestled against a wall was a narrow table Harry hadn't seen before with several brightly wrapped gifts arranged on it.
Hermione took several quick steps over and gave him a firm hug. "Happy birthday, Harry."
"Thanks. That banner outside looks great… so does the house."
"I'm glad you like it, Harry," Mrs. Weasley said. "I hope the twins behaved themselves today." She eyed her two most mischievous offspring. Despite having been on what was for them very good behavior, they shifted their weight nervously from one foot to the other under her gaze.
"Oh, they managed to keep me entertained without anyone blowing up, don't worry." A table and one of the displays had suffered, but as they had been the twins' own property it didn't seem right to bring that up with Mrs. Weasley.
"Good, good... The guests should start arriving any time. Ron, a bit of streamer has come down. Re-Spellotape it and then we're ready." She moved off in the direction of the kitchen, as Ron moved to carry out her orders. Hermione followed, grabbing up the Spellotape and handing Ron pieces so he didn't have to wrestle with the tape and streamer at once.
Had anyone told him first year that Ron and Hermione would end up dating, and happily, he would have thought it too ridiculous to repeat and his opinion would probably have been the same all through fifth year. He'd believed Ron would want someone more fun loving, while Hermione would prefer someone as studious as herself.
Things had started changing between Ron and Hermione sixth year, even if had taken a bit longer for them to officially become a couple. They had still argued – as loudly as ever – but Hermione stopped the personal attacks and Ron was no longer as guarded around her. Harry had never asked which had come first, but he wasn't certain they knew either.
"They've been good for each other, haven't they," Ginny said.
"Yeah… I think so. Kind of balance each other out." He realized he hadn't seen any sign of Mr. Weasley. "Did your dad get called in to work?"
"No." Ginny gave a smug smile. "He's picking up a special guest."
"It's a surprise," Ginny said firmly.
"Just as long as it's not Malfoy," Harry said, knowing it not to be a serious possibility.
"There's no way we'd do that to you, on your birthday of all days."
Ron finished with the wayward streamer in short order, which was good because guests started arriving almost immediately afterward. Dean and Seamus had showed up within a few moments of each other, followed by Neville and Luna, who had been dating for almost a year. Neville had found a job assisting a Master Herbologist in growing some rather tricky plants and was proud of the fact he'd been trusted to care for a planting of Devil's Snare by himself so early on.
Luna hadn't been surprised in the least by his success, and Harry realized the only reason he had been was his memories of the old Neville, who'd constantly been melting cauldrons and forgetting incantations. The new Neville was capable of holding his own against adult wizards, and while Harry still had mixed feelings about bringing his classmates into the fight against Voldemort he could feel good about that much.
Neville and Luna were about to head off and find Ginny when the door opened again, admitting Mr. Weasley. He gave the same sort of smile his daughter had, then waved in the ‘special guest'. It was Remus, in new (or at least unpatched) robes.
"Remus! It's great to see you - I didn't think they'd let you out," Harry said, going over to them. He'd had a secret hope that Remus would be able to come to the party, but that had seemed impossible.
"I suppose the Healers decided that if I was well enough to make a fuss over it, I was well enough to attend," Remus said mildly, "then Arthur was kind enough to take care of transportation."
Remus protested when Harry led him to a chair, but subsided when Harry argued he'd stand a better chance of being allowed out again if he didn't return to hospital exhausted. Hagrid arrived soon after, setting a suspiciously moving gift on the side table.
Harry spent the next twenty minutes or so circulating among the guests, who continued to arrive, and helping Mrs. Weasley see they had plenty to eat. He hadn't been around so many people at once since leaving Hogwarts, and found it half claustrophobic and half energizing.
"Well now, 'Arry, we're all 'ere. Yeh oughta ge' ter openin' yer presen's," Hagrid suggested loudly from the small couch he occupied just to Remus' left.
The suggestion was cheered by the rest, and so Harry headed over to the table. "First off, I'd like to thank you all for being here; it means a lot to me."
"What did you expect, Howlers?" Ginny piped up, getting chuckles from the rest.
"No, but… er, I'm just going to start opening the presents before I get myself in any more trouble."
"Smart idea, Harry," Dean quipped.
The twins' gift was closest, so Harry decided to start with it. There was the usual selection of the newest Wheezes, including a few that hadn't yet been released ("Don't worry though, Mum, they're fully tested") and, more unusual, a cleverly charmed teapot that produced an excellent cup of tea within seconds when tapped with a wand.
"We thought it would come in useful when you move into your new place," George said.
"It will, thanks." Anything that would mean less time in the kitchen was good, as far as he was concerned.
Next up was Hagrid's gift, which turned out to be a Crup puppy. It closely resembled a short-haired white terrier, except for one thing – her tail was forked. She had given Harry a very serious sniff, blinked her pale eyes at him, and then relaxed into his arms as though expecting to stay there the rest of the evening. Even when Harry set her down, she stayed curled up nearby.
"I wouldn'a given 'em ter yeh if yeh were gonna live in London or summat, bu' she'll be fine in Hogsmeade," Hagrid said cheerfully, after explaining that Crups had been known to attack Muggles. Harry, knowing Hagrid's tendency to gloss over the more dangerous aspects of animals he liked, decided then and there the pup would be kept well away from them.
"What are you going to name her?" Hermione asked.
"Don't know, really…" He gave the pup a long look, but couldn't come up with anything more inventive at the moment than Snowball. "Give me a little time to get to know her."
He reached for the next package, a cube where each side was about the length of his hand, then read the tag. "It's from Deborah…" He glanced at Lupin.
"If you don't mind, Harry, I'd like to do a spell or two to be sure there's no Dark magic present," Mr. Weasley said, standing and pulling out his wand. None of Deborah's letters (which had remained superficial in content) had contained any harm, but caution was still called for.
He handed over the package, and Mr. Weasley muttered a spell, then another. Harry didn't know what would happen if there was Dark magic – would it be destroyed, or glow green? – but as nothing happened he supposed the tests were negative. He was handed back the package, and pulled off the wrappings. The gift was a wooden box with a single drawer and what appeared to be silver fabric on the top.
There was a small note.
Touch your finger to the top
He did so, right in the center of the fabric, and a female face rose out of it in high relief. It was hard to distinguish details, or the woman's coloring, but after a moment the face took on a softer look, and spoke.
"Happy eighteenth birthday, Harry. My gift is one of knowledge. May this coming year be sweeter than the last."
The face receded, and the drawer opened itself. A capped round flask was inside, which Harry pulled out and saw was full of a bright silvery liquid he'd seen before - in Pensieves.
"It could be her memories of your mum…," Ron said, a bit awed.
Ron's idea made more sense the more Harry thought about it, provided the sender was who she claimed to be. He was eager to see his mother again… he wondered if the memories would be of large events, like his parents' wedding, or typical days in her life, or a mix of both.
"Let's keep moving on, Harry," Mr. Weasley said, not unkindly. Harry set the flask back in the drawer and set the box beside Fred and George's gifts, sighing inwardly. Was there ever going to be a time when he didn't have to be on guard?
* * *
The presents kept accumulating. From his classmates he'd mostly received fun gifts, such as a subscription to Quidditch Weekly that had come from Dean, while the adults had been a bit more practical – things for his cottage or contributions to his library.
He reached for the next gift, which was from Ginny and seemed to have the basic feel of a book, most likely one on Defence or Quidditch, he thought, as those were two of his best-known interests. Once he started removing the paper, however, he realized he'd misjudged. It was a photo album bound in rich green leather with a scrollwork design embossed in gold.
"Thanks Ginny… my first is almost full."
"Yes, I figured you needed a new one… Open it," she urged.
He did, and found there was a piece of parchment tucked into the binding. In Ginny's even handwriting, it read,
I wish for you joy, and love, and light
And most of all a future bright
So be happy, Harry, or you'll get a hex tonight
The wicked little twist at the end was so typically Ginny he had to laugh. "Very clever… and, I'll do my best."
She smiled back, brown eyes almost twinkling at the shared joke. He wondered why he'd never quite noticed before how pretty she was when she smiled.
* * *
The party lasted until about eleven, when those who had to work in the morning needed to be getting home, and Mr. Weasley left to take Remus back to St. Mungo's. Once the last guest had left, Hermione drew Harry aside.
"Professor McGonagall wanted me to bring something up with you," she began, fidgeting when she didn't think he could see her hands.
"It was in one of her owls. Not that she's written much; she's very busy as Headmistress, you can imagine - but that's not really the point. Professor Lupin won't be well enough to come back next term, so… she wondered if you would be interested in teaching Defence. Just for a year or two."
"What? Hermione, did you…"
"No," she said, raising her hands defensively. "It was her idea… she just thought, with your skills and having led the DA…"
Harry let out a breath and leaned back against the wall. He'd liked working with the DA well enough, and supposed he'd probably make an adequate professor, but still… "Can you honestly see me giving detentions and calling Ginny ‘Miss Weasley'? Having Trelawney predict my death – again – every staff meeting?"
Hermione almost smiled at that.
"If her other candidates are terrible, of course I'll do it," he continued, not willing to inflict another Umbridge, whom most of the students had recognized as trouble from the off, on Hogwarts. "Otherwise, my answer is no."
"You would be a good Defence professor, Harry," Hermione said, "but I'll let Professor McGonagall know." Harry knew this wouldn't be the last time Hermione would bring up the possibility of him teaching, but she seemed willing, having passed on McGonagall's message, to let it drop for now.
"Ron was telling me yesterday your boss has you busy doing research for a case… something about inheriting house-elves?"
"Oh, yes," Hermione said, immediately warming to the subject. "An elderly wizard in Somerset died without a natural heir. He left the house and the house elves" – she frowned – "to a friend's son, and one of them doesn't want to stay on. She's not bound to this new man, at least not like she was to her old family, and he's been known to mistreat house-elves terribly. It could set a precedent, if she's allowed to choose who to serve now… it would be a step in the right direction, at least."
Hermione would still prefer it, Harry thought, if all the house-elves were freed immediately, but she'd finally managed to accept it was going to take time. "I hope it goes well."
She fought off a yawn. "I'm going to say good night to Ron, and then Apparate home… it's getting a bit late."
"Good night, Hermione."
She nodded, and then disappeared up the stairs.
* * *
Two days later Harry, clad in plain black robes not so different from the ones he'd worn at school, found himself at Gringotts making his way over to the nearest available goblin. There had been a second note in the bottom of Deborah's box, with a small golden key she claimed would open Lily's private vault.
He set the key down on the counter. "Hello… I'd like to get into the vault this opens."
"Identification, please," the goblin said, eying him suspiciously.
Harry touched his wand to a misty-looking orb on the counter, a security measure instituted during the war. "Harry James Potter." The previously grey mist turned blue, confirming his identity. "I believe the vault belonged to my mother, Lily."
The goblin examined the key, then began flipping through a thick record book. "Yes… originally it was under her maiden name."
Harry felt his heart lighten. It wasn't a perfect proof of Deborah's identity, but he couldn't imagine why an enemy would bother passing on his mother's key. "And, when was it opened last?"
The goblin gave him an affronted look. "Only she, or you as her heir, would have been allowed entry."
"Sorry…" Harry said. "That was my last question."
* * *
The cart ride was as wild as Harry remembered, sending them careening over the tracks at such speed it was amazing they didn't tip off, but it was shorter. His mother's vault didn't seem to be as deep as the family one. Griphook stopped in front of a platform that gave access to four vault doors. There was no more than half a meter between them, and Harry reckoned the vaults themselves were smaller, just the kind of place a Muggle-born student like his mother might have kept a bit of wizarding money to replace supplies or treat herself on Hogsmeade weekends.
He followed Griphook out of the cart, and waited as he opened the vault. The air inside was extremely dank, a clear sign of how long it had been closed up. He took a torch from the wall and stepped inside.
His guess about the vault's size turned out to be correct. It wasn't much larger than a toilet stall, and for a gut twisting moment he thought the stone chamber was empty. Then his eyes fell upon a yellowed envelope on the floor. For Harry was written on the front in faded ink.
He tore it open and began to read the letter inside, which was in better condition.
22 October, 1981
As I write this, you are just over a year old. You're getting good at walking; you can't always keep your balance, but if you fall you get a very determined look on your little face and get back up again. You can say three words, too – ‘Ma', ‘Da', and ‘Pafoo'.
I'm sorry I didn't get to see you grow up. I'm sorry that, if you're reading this, I didn't get to be the one to leave money from the Tooth Fairy or see you off to Hogwarts the first time. Your father and I didn't plan it this way.
We've arranged to go into hiding using the Fidelius Charm, but I can't shake this feeling I have that it's not enough. I'm not a Seer, but I can't ignore it. I've given you the best protection I can, Harry – an ancient charm that might keep you alive if I'm killed first. And don't argue with your mother – it was my choice to make.
Your father and I both love you so much.
He finished reading, and took a rather shaky breath. Lily's handwriting started out neat but grew almost as messy as Ron's by the end, as though she'd been in a hurry. He supposed she had been; she'd died not ten days later.
Harry was now sure of two things. The first was that Deborah was who she said. The second was that his next letter to her was going to include a request to meet in person.
Author's Notes: Ginny's verse was written by my friend Rebecca. Thanks also go once again to Hollow Godric and LadyChi for their excellent editing work and listening to authorial angsting. J