The Weasleys gathered outside the Burrow and, as a group, peered up at the third floor.
"Reckon it's safe to go in?" Ron asked Charlie. Charlie simply shrugged.
"Well," murmured George, "can't have lasted long."
Charlie wrinkled his nose. "Not the first time, at any rate."
"Oh, dear," sighed Percy, "there is that."
Fleur giggled, wan as she was, and Bill joined her, while Ron's face contorted in disgust. "Merlin," he groaned, "how many times d'you think—?"
"Boys!" barked their father, "How can you possibly imagine…?"
Molly turned what she thought of as her dragon's eye on her children and then upon her husband. "I don't notice you being in a hurry to burst in there, Arthur Weasley."
They all shrank from the door.
With a snort she turned from them and walked into her kitchen.
If Harry was touching Ginny a bit more than was strictly necessary in order to put the kettle on, he could be forgiven, perhaps, for jumping when the front door burst open and Molly Weasley swept in, looking very much as she had the first time he visited the Burrow. He had seen what she was capable of with a wand all too recently, and so it wasn't unnatural for him to note her resemblance to a large, protective beast of prey.
"Hey, Mum!" Ginny chirped. "We've just started tea."
Mrs. Weasley froze in the doorway, and for a moment Harry's heart was in his throat. Then she blinked, smiled and strode into the room. "Tea would be lovely, dear," she said, a little higher than usual, perhaps, as she hung her summer cloak on the hook just inside the door, and sat at the table.
Harry turned to Ginny, about to ask what he should or shouldn't do, but Ginny just winked, which left Harry rather speechless.
In all honesty, all that Harry could think about in that moment was her face. Her smile. The smell of her hair. The feel of her skin beneath his fingers. Hopes and dreams…
There was a quiet scuffle at the front door as all of the Weasley men—and Fleur—shuffled in, each seeming to want to be the last to enter. Somehow, by dint of lack of seniority perhaps, Ron ended up in front. "Hey, Ginny. Hey, Harry. Nice weather, i'n'it?"
"Yup," said Harry. He turned to Mr. Weasley. "Nice at Shell Cottage?"
"Oh, yes," said Arthur. "Very lovely."
"London, too," coughed Charlie, and all of the Weasley men coughed in agreement. Fleur giggled again, and Harry could feel Ginny's back vibrating against his.
"Shall we have a seat, gentlemen, Fleur?" asked Percy, even more stiffly than usual, but rather than take the mickey out of him, his brothers all nodded solemnly and arranged themselves at the table, staring down at their hands.
"Oh, Harry," Ginny said, her voice low in a way that Harry had never heard it except under very private circumstances, "maybe we should have cleaned the table. After, you know—"
"Ginny!" squealed Harry, as all of the members of her family—even Fleur and Mrs. Weasley—leapt to their feet with looks of horror on their faces.
Ginny snorted, threw her arms around Harry's shoulders from behind, snorted again, and finally burst out into loud trumpet peels of laughter. "YOUR FACES!" she howled. "Merlin, your faces, it's just priceless!"
The assembled Weasleys stared at her, and then at Harry, and he felt more than a bit of a threat behind their blank expressions. "Ginny," Harry whispered with growing desperation.
"And you, Mum!" snorted Ginny into Harry's shoulder. "'How can you even think that a good boy like Harry would get up to anything disrespectful—' HA!"
"Ginevra—" began Mrs. Weasley in a low voice.
"W-we just t-talked," Harry spluttered, "really."
Before her mother could answer, Ginny crowed, "And snogged a good bit!" As her family's faces all began to turn white, she added, "No more than I've seen every single one of you lot do—even you, Mum!"
And they all turned red.
The kettle began to whistle the tune to "A Cauldron Full of Hot Strong Love," but no one thought to remove it from the flame for what felt to Harry like an entire lifetime. Finally, Molly Weasley sat once again in her chair, the one closest to the stove. Without turning back to Harry and her daughter, she said, with something of her usual cheerful authority, "PG Tips, dears, in the cupboard to the right of the sink. Third shelf from the top."
Ginny prepared the tea, and Harry Levitated cups and saucers to everyone. Ron, who refused to look Harry in the face, the hypocrite, followed his preternatural sixth sense to where a stash of freshly bake scones were hidden. Charlie Summoned a pot of lemon curd from the fridge, and, as Ginny poured out, Harry watched as the color in everyone's face returned to normal.
Their expressions ranged from mortified—Percy—to bemused—Bill and George—to perplexed—Charlie and Mr. Weasley—to positively flummoxed. Ron, of course.
Mrs. Weasley looked as if nothing more or less were happening than a family tea, while Ginny looked happier than Harry had ever seen her, and as she finally sat beside him, a wave of affection overcame his sense of self-preservation; he grasped her hand right there in plain view. For a man who had felt very close to dying for the second time in a month, Harry was feeling quite wonderful.
Ron, of course, was distracted by food and by his thoughts, whatever they might be. As the youngest Weasley brother dug into his third scone, Harry broke the silence. "Blimey, Ron. You ought to be careful, turning that color! I haven't seen anyone go quite that shade of magenta since…"
As Ron blinked at him, chewing on, Harry suddenly realized that there was something that he had forgot. "Mr. Weasley?"
"Er, yes, Harry?" Arthur Weasley peered at Harry over the top of his cup with trepidation.
"How are my relatives?"
"Your—?" Mr. Weasley's anxiety melted into sheer confusion.
"Aunt Petunia, Dudley, Uncle…" Harry pointed at Ron, who had stopped mid-chew, but was still blinking. "Mr. Diggle and Hestia Jones took them off someplace safe, but, I mean…" Harry was suddenly aware that the entire table was staring at him. "Are they…? Well, I mean, do they even know the war is over?"
"Bugger," hissed Bill, earning slaps on the back of either hand from his wife and his mother. Ignoring their rebukes, Bill muttered, "Mad-Eye was their main contact. And Remus was the backup. I don't know that anyone even knows where they are."
"Well," Ron said, swallowing at last, "it's not like you care, is it, Harry?"
Looking around at them, at the sea of freckled faces that were more his family than the Dursleys had ever been, he surprised himself as much as them by answering, "Yeah. Yeah, I think I do."
As it turned out, Kingsley knew exactly where they were, since Remus had decided that, Moody being dead, he himself needed a backup. The interim Minister insisted—despite protests from half a dozen secretaries (Percy among them)—on accompanying Harry to the Dursleys' safe haven on the Channel Islands.
Ginny insisted on coming along, but it was generally decided, much to Ron's chagrin, that the sight of any of the other Weasleys was more likely to put the Dursleys on guard than at ease. Ginny made very sympathetic comments to her brother about how difficult it must be to be left behind, which made George laugh and Hermione titter. Ron wisely shut up, for which Hermione kissed him.
This kiss was the main topic of conversation at the Burrow for the next two days.
Of course, it did ease Ron's disappointment that Kingsley's schedule forced the party to leave at just after dawn. Ron decided that, all things being equal, a lie-in might be a better choice than visiting Harry's relatives after all.
As they strode out the Weasleys' front door, Kingsley wasted no time turning to Harry and asking, "So, Harry, what are your plans?"
Ginny bristled, stepping protectively between Kingsley and her boyfriend, but Harry just laughed. "You're the third Minister for Magic to ask me that."
"Well, it's a real question," Kingsley said with a sad smirk. "I may not be as desperate for your help as my predecessors were, but there's no question that everyone—inside the Ministry and out—is curious about where you're headed."
"Come on, Harry. Kingsley, please."
Harry shook his head and placed his hands on Ginny's square shoulders. "Kingsley. I like you a lot more than I did Minister Scrimgeour, but I'll say the same to you as I did to him. I don't want to be anyone's poster boy."
"Who said anything about a poster boy?" Kingsley chortled. "You're a celebrity, it's true, but you're also a bloody talented wizard, and we could use you in any number of places. The Ministry is desperately short-handed these days; between the casualties from the war and sweeping out some of the trash, there's not a department that couldn't use you."
"I…" Harry blinked, and pulled Ginny closer to him. "I was thinking of going back to Hogwarts."
"Huh," grunted Kingsley. "I suppose I can't blame you." He winked at Ginny, but his expression remained thoughtful as they started walking towards the Burrow's boundaries once again.
Harry and Ginny's hands swung between them. He felt suddenly, blissfully free.
They had nearly reached the paddock when Ginny suddenly squeezed Harry's hand and stopped. "Mi—Kingsley?"
Ginny looked back at Harry, a funny expression on her face that put him in mind, for some reason, of Lupin. "If Harry'd said yes, what would you have asked him to do?"
Kingsley peered at the two of them. "Minerva tells me you wanted to be an Auror, Harry. Is that true?"
Harry had so many things running through his head in that instant that he couldn't even begin to think what to say beyond, "Yeah."
"Still considering it?" Kingsley's eyes narrowed slightly, and Harry was suddenly aware that dark circles showed through the dark skin beneath them.
Harry peered down at Ginny, whose face was now gathered in exactly the same thoughtful, sad smile she had given him at Dumbledore's funeral so long ago. "I… I hadn't really thought about it. I've been a bit… distracted."
Kingsley smiled. "I can't think why. Well, the Auror department was decimated; we haven't had a new trainee since Tonks's class anyway—constant cutbacks shut down the academy. There were casualties during the war, and I'm sad to say that some of us turned out to be… unfit. Fully staffed, the department is meant to have thirty-six Aurors in the field, plus another fifty or so support staff. I can field a dozen now, and most of them are reaching an age where de-gnoming the garden sounds a lot more attractive than facing some madman spitting curses. We need new blood badly, and I won't deny having Harry Potter join the department would make people feel a lot safer, not to mention making the Wizengamot more willing to open up the purse a bit."
"Thought you didn't want a poster boy," grumbled Harry.
"I don't. I've seen you fight, son, and I know your character. You'd do the Aurors proud. But politics is also politics, and sadly I'm the one stuck with the job of running this mess until we can get a proper election organized and I can go back to having fun on the job, dodging hexes." Kingsley laughed, rumbling, contagious, like a very tall, very dark-skinned Father Christmas. Ginny joined him, and even Harry couldn't help but smile. "So, what do you think?"
Harry shrugged again and looked down at Ginny.
Again she gave him that bemused look, though there was more of a smile there this time. "He's got a people-saving thing," she said to Kingsley.
"Thank Merlin for that!" Kingsley chuckled. Then he peered at the couple a bit shrewdly. "I'll need to open up the academy again, and the old building's so thoroughly cursed we'll have to pull it down and rebuild. And we're too short-handed to maintain much of an Auror presence up at Hogwarts, despite the fact that the school's boundary spells were compromised during the battle, and they'll need even more help this year." He smiled. "I don't suppose Minerva and the governors would mind if I were to run the Auror academy out of the school for a year or two, do you?"
Ginny's smile brightened, and Harry could feel himself begin to grin too. "No, sir. I don't."
"I think my brother Ron would be interested in joining as well," Ginny added. "And a few of the other members of the DA—Susan Bones, for sure, and Terry Boot."
"Wonderful," said Kingsley. "The more the merrier—you trained those DA tykes well, Harry, and any Bones is always welcome in MLE." He extended his hand. "So, are we on?"
After another look at Ginny, who nodded, Harry took it. "Yeah," he said. "Absolutely."
"Welcome to the family!" boomed Kingsley, pumping Harry's hand, and they all laughed.
They arrived on Fee Sark a few moments later, where the sun was shining and the coast of Normandy glimmered on the horizon.
"Nice weather," said Kingsley, and seemed more than a bit put off when Harry and Ginny began to giggle. Stiffening to his full, imposing height, he muttered, "Well, you don't always get that on the Channel."
"Never been, sir," Harry managed to say before he and Ginny both burst into guffaws.
Shaking his head, Kingsley led them across the tiny island towards a low, lone house that stood near the eastern cliffs. As they approached, Harry began to feel nervous; the house seemed to be missing parts of two walls and there didn't seem to be any signs of life. "Kingsley? It… It looks deserted."
"Ah!" said Kingsley, knocking a fist against his own forehead. "Sorry, I forgot. Look at me, both of you, please." When they had complied, he looked around for a moment and then whispered, "The Dursleys are concealed at Siren Farm."
Harry was confused—why bother to tell them that? But when he turned back to their destination, he understood. What had looked like a single, abandoned farmhouse was a small collection of buildings: a house, a garage—though where one would drive to, Harry had no idea—and several smaller outbuildings, including what looked to Harry to be a broom shed. All where brightly painted, sparkling in the early morning sunshine.
At the front of the house, a figure knelt, working on a flowerbed, and Harry knew even from this distance that it was Aunt Petunia, even as he knew without being able to say why that something was wrong. Different.
"Is that your aunt?" Ginny whispered as the trail they were walking brought them to the end of a fallow field and up to the garden gate.
"Yeah," Harry murmured, though he felt as if he almost couldn't recognize her; something about her posture…
"She doesn't look so bad," Ginny murmured.
Harry was about to answer—how, he wasn't sure—when Aunt Petunia looked up. She gave a startled smile and stood.
As Kingsley opened the gate, three more figures appeared. Dedalus Diggle, wearing a bright purple dressing gown not terribly different from his usual robes, stepped out of the house, wand drawn in one hand, a tray with two steaming mugs in the other, while the door to the small building that Harry had thought was a broom shed burst open, revealing Hestia Jones and a shirtless, sweaty person who Harry could only assume was Dudley.
"That's your fat cousin?" muttered Ginny under her breath.
The blond hair was right. The height was right. Even the red face looked very Dursley-ish. But this boy was chiseled, muscular and lean as some marble sculpture, and he stood in front of Hestia, a metal bar grasped threateningly before him.
"Blimey," Harry gasped, "Big D, you look good."
Dudley—for Dudley it had to be—frowned, but before he could respond, Dedalus barked, "Where did Harry Potter and I first meet?"
Harry blinked. It was amazing how in just a few short weeks the habits of suspicion and distrust had been forgotten. "Uh. At the Leaky Cauldron, I think. Hagrid was bringing me to buy my wand."
Dedalus nodded, and when he lowered his wand, Hestia and Dudley stood down as well.
Suddenly, Harry was wrapped in a set of thin arms that had never held him so tenderly before. Aunt Petunia sobbed as she grasped him. "Oh! I'm so glad that you're all right!"
Harry had no idea how to answer this—it was even more alien to his expectations than a fit Dudley or an aggressive Dedalus Diggle. He patted her back and stared, first at Ginny, who gazed back at him with her jaw open, and then at Dedalus, at Hestia and at Dudley.
"Been right worried about you, Harry," Dudley said, standing at ease, though his biceps still bulged.
"You have?" Harry said, stunned.
Hestia chuckled. "Of course we all have. You're our hope. Is everything all right? We haven't heard a thing all these months."
"Did have a spot of bother just after Easter," chirped Dedalus, much more his cheerful self. "Death Eaters attacked Hestia and Dudley while they were out on a training run."
"Dudley took out the first," added Hestia, looking proud. "Roundhouse kick nearly knocked the stupid git's head off. Served him right. I got the other two while they were gaping."
"Always said you'd have made a good Auror, Hestia," laughed Kingsley.
"And spend all that time writing reports and drinking bad tea? Not on your life." The three older wizards all chuckled. Petunia continued to sniffle into Harry's shirt.
"Where's… Uncle Vernon?" Harry asked. It wasn't that he wanted to see his uncle, certainly, but there was something odd going on, and Harry still couldn't put his finger on it.
It shouldn't have made Harry sad. Merlin, the obvious humor of it should have made him want to laugh. And yet he found himself saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry," and meaning it.
"Thank you," Petunia said. She still had not released Harry. Looking up at him, she said, "I realize that there was not much love lost between you, but he always did try to do what we thought was best for you. And those last months here, well…" Unaccountably, Aunt Petunia began to pinken. "Not having work to go to, not having all of our responsibilities… His last few months really were like a second honeymoon for us. It was like spending time with the Vernon I fell in love with all those years ago all over again." She beamed up at Harry.
"Er," he began.
"Not a bad way to go, either, lucky old bastard," snorted Hestia.
Beside him, Dudley hissed, "Hessie!"
Harry had no idea what they were talking about—the idea of a happy Vernon Dursley, a Vernon Dursley content with something other than yelling at people, was so far beyond his understanding that whatever it was that Hestia was trying to say about the way he died…
Harry looked at Ginny, who seemed as perplexed as he was; Kinglsey was sniggering. Aunt Petunia…
Aunt Petunia was blushing like a schoolgirl, and suddenly Harry felt certain he knew just what Hestia had been talking about. Looking at the gruff witch standing with her elbow on his cousin's shoulder, Harry spluttered, "You mean, Uncle Vernon died…?"
"With his boots on," snorted Hestia.
Dedalus Diggle tittered. Dudley winced, and Harry couldn't help but join him.
Aunt Petunia recovered her speech first. "I will always know that he went… happy."
Ginny was looking dangerously close to laughter, which Harry implored her silently to hold in. "Well, that's good, then," he said. "Still, I'm sorry."
"Thank you, Harry," Petunia said. Then she straightened up, releasing him at last. With four crisp swipes of her fingers, she erased any evidence that she had been doing anything but gardening for the past half-hour. "Now, are things going well?"
"Is You-Know-Who still in control of the Ministry?" Dedalus piped up.
Dudley added, "Those masked bastards made it sound like hell out there."
"They were quite happy to tell us you were dead, Harry," Hestia spat, "though none of us believed them. When I Obliviated them, I made sure to add a memory in of running into you and a small army over in Brittany. Hopefully that confused the bastards a bit."
Again Kingsley laughed. Harry looked down at his aunt. "It's over," he said. "I killed Voldemort. We won."
"You… killed him?" Petunia's eyes grew wide.
Harry nodded. "Well, he killed himself, really."
"Way to go, Harry!" said Dudley.
"He was brilliant," said Ginny, grinning.
Petunia turned, noticing Ginny apparently for the first time. "Oh!" She stepped back, hand to her chest, looking much more like the Aunt Petunia that Harry knew.
"Um, Aunt Petunia, Dudley," Harry said stepping over to Ginny and taking her hand, "this is Ginny, Ginny Weasley. She's…" He looked down at her. What was she? Anything that he could call her seemed either too enormous or too small.
"I'm Harry's girlfriend," Ginny supplied. Smiling brightly with the morning sun blazing in her face.
"Of course you are," Petunia said, still looking shocked. "It's just…"
"I look like Harry's mum?"
"Not… Not really. You don't look terribly like Lily at all. But when I first saw you, there is something, yes, it was quite uncanny."
Harry looked down at Ginny. His clearest images of his mother were all from her girlhood. From Severus Snape's memories. The girl in those memories was taller than Ginny, clear-skinned and auburn-haired, with the green, almond-shaped eyes that greeted Harry every time he looked into a mirror. She looked nothing like Ginny.
But there was something, Aunt Petunia was right. A fire. Something.
There was, too—it made Harry's heart hurt to realize—the fact that Snape's memories of Lily Evans were colored with the same desperate combination of admiration and desire that Harry himself felt for Ginny. The main difference there was that Snape had spoiled any chance he might have had with Lily. Harry—through luck and his girlfriend's apparently bottomless capacity to forgive—had managed to see things through to the other side.
"In any case," Harry said, finally, to his relatives and their minders, "it's over. You're all free to return." Four blank faces greeted his gaze. "You needn't stay here."
"Well," burbled Dedalus, "that's wonderful news about You-Know-Who's defeat, at any rate!"
"Here, here," agreed Hestia, who was frowning at Dudley.
"We… We can go home?" Petunia asked, though she did not look terribly excited at the prospect.
"Well," Kingsley said with a cough, "I'm afraid that the night the charm broke… The Death Eaters destroyed your house in Little Whinging."
"Oh," said Petunia, as if he had told her that a television program would be delayed because of a news bulletin. Harry was astonished that his relatives' house had been destroyed, but flabbergasted that his aunt barely seemed concerned.
"I have breakfast ready," Dedalus said, "or rather, Bunty has. She always makes too much, so I'm sure there's more than enough for the three of you—kippers, tomatoes, bubble-and-squeak, eggs, chipolatas—Bunty does make the most marvelous chipolatas. Everybody, do come in and let us continue our conversation over a lovely meal." He handed one of the still-steaming mugs in his hand to Harry's aunt, and the two of them turned and strode towards the house.
Hestia threw Dudley a t-shirt and followed the other two. Kingsley and Ginny were looking at Harry as if he understood what was going on, which he didn't. As Dudley pulled his shirt on, Harry asked, "Uh, Dudley?"
"Yeah, Harry?" The shirts sleeves stained to contain Dudley's arms.
There seemed to be so many things to ask. "Bunty? Who's Bunty?"
Dudley, who had been starting to follow his mother and the others, stopped in his tracks. "You…? You don't know Bunty?"
Harry gaped at Ginny and Kingsley, looking for some sort of help. They had none to give.
"She knows you!" Dudley chuckled. "Goes on about you all the bloody time. Your biggest bloody fan. C'mon," he added. "Dedders's not kidding, she puts out a great spread for breakfast. You don't want to miss it. Hell, just thinking about it, I'm starving." With another low chuckle, Dudley strode towards the house.
Harry looked back at Kingsley once again, but the Minister for Magic was looking rather sheepish. "Can you handle a side-along back to Devon, Harry?"
"Of course he can," Ginny piped in, her lips pursed in what Harry assumed was either disapproval or curiosity; he felt both.
"Banquets and parties every night for the past fortnight," said Kingsley, shrugging his large shoulders. "Mrs. Shacklebolt has me on a strict diet, and a second, full breakfast definitely isn't on the menu. Besides, I hadn't planned on staying, didn't think there'd be anything to do but deliver the message and send them on their way. I really do need to get back to the Ministry; we've got Thicknesse's trial this morning, and I can't be late for that."
"Of course not," Harry conceded. He might have felt more anxiety had Ginny not been there with him. He extended his hand. "Thanks for getting us here."
"My pleasure!" Kingsley answered, smiling broadly as his enormous fingers closed around Harry's. "Old Talionis Fairbanks is taking care of running Magical Law Enforcement at the moment. I'll have him get in touch, shall I?"
"Yeah!" Harry agreed, surprised at his own enthusiasm.
"And have the others owl him too!" Kingsley called. When they waved in acknowledgement, he grinned, leapt the gate, and disappeared.
Ginny took his hand, and Harry felt, once again, supremely, idiotically happy. "Head in for some kippers and sausages, shall we?"
"Sure," Harry said. "But first—"
They hadn't had an opportunity for a good snog since his first day back at the Burrow. They quickly remedied that situation, and then strode into the farmhouse hand in hand.
Harry somehow ended up separated from Ginny at breakfast. He was seated between his cousin and aunt, while she sat across from him, between Dedalus and Hestia. Her foot, however, had managed to find his beneath the table. At least, he hoped it was Ginny's foot.
The table was piled high with food—enough, Harry thought, to feed most of Gryffindor and possible some of Hufflepuff. Dudley ate like a man who hadn't seen food in weeks; this wasn't a surprise, as he'd always had what Aunt Petunia had insisted on calling a healthy appetite. What shocked Harry, however, was the fact that his cousin seemed to eat the vegetables and fresh fruit with the same gusto as what Harry had to agree was the first-rate fry-up.
"So, Bunty cooked all of this?" Harry asked his aunt. It was odd to be sitting beside her during a meal; odd to have her pass him the tray of sausages or the tea.
"Yes," Aunt Petunia said, her face set in a kind of rapture that Harry had only ever seen when she had persuaded Uncle Vernon to buy a gleaming, self-cleaning oven for her kitchen when Harry was seven. "She's quite marvelous."
"Um, so is this her house?" Ginny asked, clearly seeing that Harry was confused.
"Her…?" Aunt Petunia's eyebrows shot up, making her face look even longer than normal.
"No, Harry," chuckled Dedalus, "this is your house. One of four, as I understand it, including the old Headquarters."
"Four?" Harry goggled. Across the table from him, Ginny shrugged, eyes wide.
"Well, there's this one, it was your grandparents' summer home; as everyone knows, there's the one in Godric's Hollow, though, sadly, that's obviously not… Well, then, of course there's the Blacks' old home on Grimmauld Place, and the cottage in Hogsmeade."
"Though that one's got a reputation for being haunted," said Hestia, neatly filleting a kipper with her wand.
"Haunted?" said Dudley, stopping his remarkable demonstration of food consumption for the first time since Harry and Ginny had sat.
"Well, it's only in the last quarter-century or so," Dedalus answered. "When I went to school with Carlus—your grandfather, Harry, you look so much like him, same knobby knees—he would take me there on Hogsmeade weekends and we'd visit his parents. Your great-grandmother, Harry, was a Prewett, and Miss Weasley here can tell you what wonderful bakers Prewetts are wont to be." He sighed happily. "Alas, when last I visited Hogsmeade, the house was quite shut up. As Hestia says, it had got a reputation as—"
"The most haunted house in Britain," Harry gasped. "The…" Again he looked at Ginny. Again she shrugged, though she was smiling now. "My family owned the Shrieking Shack?"
"Owns it still, as I understand it," said Hestia.
"Oi, Harry," snorted Dudley around a slice of orange, "must be rough knowing where to go to bed at night!"
"I didn't know," Harry said, and then turned to his aunt and repeated, "I didn't. Honest."
"No," said Petunia. Her face remained relaxed, but she seemed to be thinking something through.
"Ghosts, though," said Dudley with an exaggerated shudder.
"Nah," Harry said, his head swirling, "that was just a story Dumbledore put about so Lupin could have a place to hide during the full moon. My dad, they were friends, it must have been my dad's… Lupin's…. He was a werewolf." A wave of sorrow—never far away these days—began to wash over him; Ginny reached between a tray of chipolatas and a basket of bananas and squeezed his hand.
"Werewolf?" said Dudley.
"Remus?" gasped Dedalus and Petunia, together.
"You say 'was', Harry?" gasped Hestia.
"He died," Harry whispered. "In the last battle, at Hogwarts." Everyone at the table nodded. Harry and Ginny had given them a very quick summary of the events of the past year, but they hadn't spelled out the full cost of the war. "He and Tonks, both."
"Oh, damn." Hestia, whom Harry had never seen who any emotion aside from good humor and—once—rage, began to cry. "Oh. Poor… Is Andie all right? That must have hit her something awful."
"Yeah," Harry said. "I mean, she's okay. But yeah. She's raising Tonks and Remus's son, Teddy, my godson, he's great, and… I think she and her sister Narcissa have kind of patched things up a bit, which is nice."
"Never could stand Cissy," sighed Hestia. "Empty-headed bint. But life's too short, and family is family."
Inexplicably, Aunt Petunia patted Harry's hand—which was still covered by Ginny's—and smiled.
"Yeah." He shook his head. "So, um, this Bunty? Is she… a cousin of mine or something?"
Again, the Siren Farm inhabitants looked both amused and perplexed by his question.
"Harry," said Ginny, voice and face warm, "I think she's got to be a house-elf."
"Oh." Harry felt incredibly stupid. Of course, meals like the one before him, and a cook hidden away, serving the house… Then a cold weight settled on him. "Oh. Merlin. She belongs to me too, is that it?"
"Well," said Dedalus brightly, "she is bound to the house, and the house is yours, so yes, I suppose that she does!"
"Oh," Harry said. He didn't want another elf, another creature bound to him, for which he was responsible—
"Dobby wasn't your elf, Harry," Ginny said quietly from across the room. "He was your friend. That's what he told everyone who would listen."
"Yeah," Harry conceded. Knowing that Dobby had died by his own choice relieved Harry's sense of guilt in some ways, but deepened it in others. He took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah. So, um… Bunty?" he called.
There was a crack, and a round head appeared immediately behind Ginny's shoulder. "Yes, M-master?" came a squeaky voice.
Harry stood and walked around the table. Bunty was short, even for an elf, and prodigiously plump; clearly where years alone had left Kreacher half mad, they had given Bunty a chance to sample her own wares. Harry had heard Ron joke that you should never trust a skinny cook; if so, Bunty clearly was to be trusted. Kneeling down so that they were the same height, Harry said, "It's, uh, nice to meet you."
"Oh!" Bunty cried, tears beginning to run along her wide nose. "Master Harry is already meeting Bunty, but Master Harry was only a baby when he is meeting Bunty, perhaps Master Harry does not remember—?"
"No, no," Harry said. Elves' emotional outbursts were no longer new to Harry, but they continued to overwhelm him. "I… I'm sorry that I haven't visited—"
"Oh!" cried Bunty again, "But Master Harry is here now! If Bunty had only known that Master Harry would be coming back to Siren Farm, Bunty would not have prepared such a poor breakfast for his welcome—!"
"It's wonderful," Harry blurted. "Wonderful meal, isn't it, everyone?"
All of the people at the table agreed loudly that it was.
"Master Harry is too kind to say so!" Bunty blubbered. "Oh, it has been so lovely these last ten months, serving guests and family of the Potters once again."
"And you have done very well, Bunty," said Aunt Petunia, with a great, happy show of noblesse oblige.
"Master Harry's aunt is very kind," Bunty sniffled. "Master Harry's aunt is always very kind to Bunty."
Harry looked from Petunia to the elf and back. "That's… good."
Petunia smiled that new-oven smile again, and Harry could see it: the one creature in the whole magical world of which his aunt would not disapprove, that would, in fact, make his aunt's every dream come true. A house-elf.
"Aunt Petunia, Dudley, I'm really sorry that your home… That the Death Eaters destroyed the house on Privet Drive looking for me."
Petunia frowned slightly; Dudley shrugged.
"Would you like to stay here?"
Now Petunia's face became radiant. "Oh, Harry. I… That would be lovely."
"Would that be all right, Bunty?"
The house-elf dissolved into tears, throwing her chubby arms around Harry's shoulders.
Harry patted her on the back, gently detaching her. "I'll take that as a yes. What about you, Big D?"
Dudley chewed on one chiseled cheek and looked at Hestia; for a moment, Harry was worried—Hestia Jones was not an unhandsome witch, by any stretch of the imagination, but she was easily twenty-five years Dudley's senior…
Hestia patted Harry's cousin on the shoulder in a manner that smacked more of comradeship than romance, and Harry felt relieved. "He's got something he wants to do," she said.
"Er," grunted Dudley awkwardly, shoulder muscles bunching under his shirt. "Yeah." He glanced at his mother, who nodded, misty-eyed as she often was around her son. "Gonna join the army," Dudley said at last.
Dudley nodded. "It's because of you, see?" When Harry shook his head, Dudley plowed on. "When we first got here, nothing to do, Hestia here started training me, just to keep me from going off my nut with boredom, you know? And so's I wouldn't be useless if it came to a fight. And we talked about you, and the Order, and how you lot were all risking your lives to help people, to save people, and I thought, right, here's the one thing I know I'm good at, only I want to do it for good reasons, you know, instead of…"
Instead of beating up ten-year-olds in the park, Harry thought. "Yeah."
"Couldn't join the Order, though, could you?" joked Hestia.
"Nah," answered Dudley with a smile. "Then after Dad… er. Yeah. Well, I was kind of angry, and nothing else to do but train and fight, and then those masked bastards showed up, and we showed them what for, me and Hessie, and I thought, right. Going to join the army when this is over. SAS eventually. If they'll have me."
Hestia grunted, "They'll have you."
"Wow," said Harry.
"Yeah," said Dudley.
"Oh, Dudley," gushed Aunt Petunia as she had done so often, "I'm so proud of you."
And for once, Harry could not disagree with her.
When Ginny and Harry finally waddled out the front door, the inhabitants of Siren Farm—Harry's summer home—waved warmly in farewell. Aside from Dudley, none of them would be leaving any time soon. Dedalus's house too had been destroyed, though he seemed even less concerned than the Dursleys, and Hestia lived with her sister, Gwenog, who would be deep in training for the upcoming Quidditch season and would, Hestia said with a laugh, "be a right bint for the next two months."
"Thanks for coming," Harry said, squeezing Ginny's hand.
"Are you joking?" she laughed, "I got to meet the famous Dursleys—two of them, any way—see yet another of your houses, and talk to Gwenog Jones's sister!" Ginny and Hestia had talked about the Holyhead Harpies for a while, quite losing the Dursleys, though Harry and Dedalus tried to explain the ins and outs of Quidditch to them. Mostly, Harry watched Ginny, who seemed positively giddy once she realized that she was talking to her idol's sister; seeing her beaming left Harry feeling quite giddy himself.
As they hopped the fence—which was a lot harder for them than the much taller Kingsley—Harry asked, "So, um, do you think your parents would mind if we stopped off someplace on the way back?"
"Oh?" said Ginny with a grin that was more than a little wicked, "Going to show me yet another of your houses, are you?" When he didn't answer, but merely stood there, mouth open, she laughed. "Mum always promised to bring me to Godric's Hollow when I was little, to see the statue and the house. Somehow, she never did. And of course…" She stopped short, suddenly looking up at him more timidly than she had done in years.
"Merlin, Harry, I'm sorry, I just thought…" She shook her head. "I mean, it wouldn't be the same for you. I'm sorry, never mind."
"Well," she said, blushing, "there's a rose garden there, at the back of the house. It's supposed to be, you know, one of the most romantic spots in Britain."
Grinning, he kissed her, and was pleased when she abandoned her embarrassment and kissed him back. "That sounds great," Harry said. "Definitely. We can stop there second."
"I… I was thinking maybe we could drop in at Mrs. Tonks's and see Teddy. I haven't seen him this week. Do you think she'd mind?"
"'Course not," answered Ginny; her lips found his again, and he could feel them smile against his own. "Family's always welcome."
Family. "Okay," Harry said, taking her hand and turning.
Fume (Epilogue Drabble)
As Harry made faces, Teddy giggled brightly.
Ginny didn't notice that Andromeda had sat beside her until the older woman whispered, "He'll make a good father some day."
"Don't," Ginny said.
"What?" Andromeda chuckled, "Too much like your mum?"
Ginny answered slowly, "That…."
"And?" Andromeda waited, her gaze palpable. "Don't try telling me you don't love him."
"A fool could see he loves you."
The boys laughed, oblivious. Teddy mirrored Harry's coloration; they laughed again.
"No." Ginny barely spoke. "Angry. Because he left. Because…"
"Ah. He knows?"
Harry looked up, grinning.
"You'll be fine," sighed Andromeda.
A/N: Thanks to my pre-beta, aberforths_rug, and my beta, Sherylyn. This fic is the fourth in a cycle of stories called The F Words; the first three were Friends, Fame, and The F Word.