Harry Potter Hermione Granger
Romance Drama
Multiple Eras
Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire
Published: 07/14/2001
Updated: 03/22/2002
Words: 155,598
Chapters: 15
Hits: 223,651

The Show That Never Ends


Story Summary:
The Sequel to The Paradigm of Uncertainty``January 25, 2008...five months later...

Chapter 15

Chapter Summary:
The Sequel to


Chapter 15: Good Riddance

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test and don't ask why
It's not a question but a lesson learned in time
It's something unpredictable but in the end is right
I hope you had the time of your life.

--Green Day

September 5, 2008...

Hermione was awakened by a thump and a crash from the bathroom. "Bollocks!" came the frustrated whisper immediately afterwards. She rolled over and swung her legs out of bed, rubbing sleep from her eyes as she got up. It was still dark, but she could see the sky just beginning to lighten out the eastern windows. Harry looked up, dismayed, as she appeared in the bathroom doorway. "Oh, blast," he said. "I didn't want to wake you. I was trying to be so quiet, so of course I dropped the toothbrush cup." He held his hand over the broken pieces; the cup reassembled itself and jumped into his grasp.

"What time is it?" she said, most of the question lost in a mighty yawn.

"Five thirty."

"What are you doing up so early?

"I'm leaving for ECHO this morning, remember?"

Hermione nodded, yawning again. Enforcement Corps Home Office had been very convenient during its stay in London, but it had recently relocated as it was required to every three years. The new location in Rio de Janeiro was far more scenic but much less conducive to quick day trips. "Yes, but I didn't think you had to go at the crack of dawn," she murmured sleepily, leaning against the doorjamb and watching him pack up his shaving kit. His overnight bag was sitting on the stool in front of her vanity. "I wish you didn't have to go at all."

"Not as much as I do." It had only been two weeks since their return from Florence, and neither of them were too keen on being separated for any longer than absolutely necessary. The trauma of their estrangement, not to mention her too-close-for-comfort brush with death in the line of duty, had left its mark on them. "I'll be back tomorrow afternoon."

"Good, because we're supposed to meet with the caterer tomorrow night."

"Which one? The one with the..."

"No, the other one."

"Oh. Okay. Well, I'll be back early. I'll just come straight home, I don't need to go into the office first." He smiled at her, pulling on his uniform jacket. "What are you up to today?" It was Saturday, so Hermione wouldn't be working as he would be.

"I'm having all the bridesmaids over to plan our combat strategy. We haven't all sat down together yet."

"I wonder what our friends will think of your cousin Sarah."

Hermione smiled. "She's a character, all right." Hermione picked up Harry's purple uniform cape and stood in front of him to fasten it to his shoulders. He stayed still and let her do it, it was hard to get it straight without help. "Have you decided what to do about the Justin thing?"

"I think so." It had been recently decided that Justin would be in charge of the music for the wedding; unfortunately this precluded him from standing up with Harry. This left a hole in the lineup (to use Justin's phrase), and so far Harry had been stumped as to a replacement. "I'll let you know when I get back."


He picked up his overnight bag and headed for the door. "Hey, go back to bed. You were up late."

"Whose fault is that?" She arched one eyebrow at him, playfully letting her hand drift down to make a grab for his backside. Harry turned and smirked at her.

"Isn't it us blokes who are supposed to be randy in the morning?"

"Well, it's morning. Are you randy?" She backed him up against the doorframe.

"Around you? Always." He kissed her soundly, dropping his bag to put his arms around her.

"Ugh, I have morning breath," she said, smiling against his mouth.

"I don't care." He kissed her again, then drew back, sighing. "Unfortunately, I do have to go."

"Have a good trip."

"Ha ha, very funny." He picked up his bag and moved off towards the staircase. "See you tomorrow night."

"Bye, sweetheart. Bubble me from ECHO."

"I love you."

"Love you more."

"Do not."

"Do too," she replied as he disappeared down the stairs.

"Do not!" came his response, trailing back over his shoulder.

She waited a few seconds as his footsteps receded. "Do too," she said, smiling to herself.

Napoleon was waiting for him when he arrived at ECHO, a sleek and modern facility deep underground, accessible only by Apparating or Floo Powder. He looked, as he always did, exquisitely uncomfortable in his I.D. uniform. Harry could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he'd seen him wear it. "Morning, Jones," he said, approaching the sitting area where Napoleon was slumped on a sofa, his feet kicked up, reading what looked like a naughty paperback. "Nice to see you're making good use of your spare time."

"If I have to be here on a weekend then I resolve to work as little as possible," Napoleon grumbled.

"Where's Remus?"

"He and Isobel are in with the review board."

Harry sat down, shoving Napoleon's feet out of the way. "What time did they want us?"

Napoleon glanced at his watch. "We've got another half hour to wait, at least."

Harry shifted in his seat, wondering if now were the right time to bring something up. "Say, Jones..."

Napoleon looked over at him. "What?"

"Well, here's the thing. I, uh...the fact is that, uh...I've got something to, uh...discuss with you. Of a sort of...well, it's sort of...it's a serious thing."

Napoleon sat straight up. "Oh, God. Are you firing me?"

"No!" Harry exclaimed, startled. "No, no. No firing."

"Oh, whew. You had me going."

"Sorry." Harry took a deep breath and spoke as quickly as possible. "Justin'sgoingtoplaythemusicsoIneedanothergroomsmanhowaboutit?"

Napoleon just peered at him for a few beats. "Come again?"

Harry shut his eyes and started again. "Justin can't stand up with me, he's going to be busy with the music. I was hoping you'd...agree to take his place."

Napoleon sat there, mouth open. "You...want me...to stand up with you? At your wedding?"

"Yeah," Harry said, squirming a bit. "What do you say?"

"Your wedding, your actual wedding. The one to Hermione, not some weird pre-wedding to a newt or something."

Harry chuckled. "Yes, my actual wedding to the actual Hermione. I think you've met her."

"The same Hermione that I've been crushed out on for almost a year."

Harry frowned. "Oh, gosh...I didn't think about that. Will that be too uncomfortable for you? I mean, traumatic? Depressing?"

Napoleon shrugged. "I don't think so. I'm over it. Well, not over it...I'll never be over it like that. But I know she's where she ought to be...and she's with who she ought to be with. I'm happy if she's happy." He smiled, looking almost comically touched. "I don't know what to say, Harry. I'm overwhelmed that you've asked me. I know I'm...not your favorite person."

Harry examined his fingernails. "You're not a bad sort of chap, Jones. You've been a good second to me, despite my protestations. I'll always be grateful for all the help you've given Hermione. And hey, you risked your life to help save mine, not to mention you gave me a good kick in the arse when I really needed it. I guess I...may have misjudged you in the past."

"Does this mean you're actually admitting that we're friends?" Napoleon said, leaning forward.

Harry shook his head, smirking. "You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"

"Damned straight."

"All right, you win. You're a good friend to me, and I'd like you to stand up with me at my wedding. So will you do it or not, you cruel bastard?"

Napoleon broke into one of his patented megawatt grins. "It'd be an honor."

"Heads up!" Laura called just as an obscenely large pitcher of sangria floated over and plunked itself down in the center of the kitchen table.

Hermione came over bearing a plate of sandwiches. "Bloody George told me he'd make us lunch. Stupid Quidditch playoffs."

"If you want anything from any man, don't ask during Quidditch season," Cho said.

"Like you're any better, Miss Home-for-Three-Days-a-Month!" Laura teased her.

"Well, you'll be seeing a lot of me for the foreseeable future." The Minotaurs had been eliminated from the playoffs early, and Cho would be home until spring training began. Hermione was secretly glad...one more person to delegate wedding errands to.

"Where's your cousin, Hermione?" Ginny asked, munching on cheese crackers. "We're all dying to meet her."

"I told her to be here at one," Hermione said, glancing at her watch. "She's usually punctual."

As if on cue, the front door opened and shut with an authoritative slam. "Oy, Hermione!" came a loud voice, accompanied by the thud of heavy boots.

"In the kitchen, Sarah!" Hermione said, grinning. "Brace yourselves," she said to the others.

Into the kitchen walked Sarah Forester, Hermione's first cousin on her mother's side. Hermione watched her friends' faces as they beheld Sarah, resplendent in her black silk bomber jacket covered proudly in colorful Blue Peter badges and her leopard-print faux-fur trousers. Her ash-blond hair was drawn back into a simple ponytail, and Hermione saw that she was wearing her special green spray-painted combat boots for the occasion. She came over to Hermione and embraced her warmly, taking off her mirrored sunglasses as she did so. "All right, luv," she said, her voice edged with a strident East London accent.

"Sarah, I'm glad you made it," Hermione said, turning her towards the table. "Meet the other bridesmaids. This is Ginny Weasley, and my housemate Cho Chang..." Sarah shook their hands in turn, smiling. "...and this is Laura Chant, the maid of honor."

"Ah, boss lady, eh?" Sarah grinned, shaking Laura's hand. "Is that sangria?" She plopped herself down, kicking up her feet on the chair next to her. She poured herself a big glass. "A bit 'o wisdom for the ages, ducks. Bridesmaid duty is a right bit easier if you keep yourself well lubricated." She drained half the glass. "Right, then. As the wedding party, we've some important things to discuss...oh, shush, Hermione, I'll handle this. You're just the bride, this doesn't concern you." Hermione, who'd been about to say something, crossed her arms and sat back, giving her cousin the floor. Sarah leaned forward and regarded each of them in turn. "So. What do we think of this chap Hermione wants to marry?"

The three other bridesmaids exchanged looks. "Well, we...we're all very fond of Harry," Laura said, a bit uncertain.

"Fond, eh? I think he's bloody sexy, myself. In fact if it weren't that I love my girl here," she said, nodding towards Hermione, "I might be trying to steal him. Which brings me to my next point. As we all know, there's nothin' more attractive to certain sneakier members of the female persuasion than a bloke who's about to get hitched. We gotta be on the lookout, especially with Hermione's chap, being as famous as he is and all. So as a representative of Hermione's blood kin I'm putting myself in charge of guardin' the groom's virtue. I got no doubts about him...seems clear he's only got eyes for my girl...but I know women and I don't trust 'em...well, most of 'em. I got eyes like a bloody chickenhawk and I can spot the fluttering of a lash at fifty paces. Now, no offense, ducks, but I gotta start right at home." She turned her eyes on Ginny, who was sitting stock still and looked quite dumbfounded.

"You, Ginny," Sarah said, folding her hands on the table. "You're quite a looker, ain't you? He used to be your fella, right?"

"Uh...yes, that's right. That was a long time ago. And I don't think he was ever really my...uh, fella."

"Are you over it?"

"Oh, absolutely."

"Cuz you know, old girlfriends, they sometimes start havin' those 'last chance' thoughts."

"Oh, no. No thoughts. No threats to the groom's virtue here." By this time Laura and Cho were doubled over in silent laughter...but Cho stopped in an instant when Sarah's sharp gaze swiveled around to her.

"And you, Cho. You look pretty sneaky. I believe you used to date him, too...and were still sweet on him as recently as last year!"

"Not anymore," Cho hastened to reply. "I, uh...it was just a nostalgia thing. I didn't really...it wasn't really...uh..." Sarah just waited, one eyebrow arched. "I'm over it."

"If you say so," Sarah said slowly, but she sounded dubious. "But I'll keep a close eye on you."

"Okay," Cho said, sounding uncharacteristically cowed.

"What about you, Laura?" Sarah said. "Any deeply hidden secret passions we ought to know about?"

"Well, if there are they're very deeply hidden indeed, because even I don't know about them."

"Fair enough. Now, we've got two other ex-girlfriends to deal with, right?" Sarah said, turning to Hermione.

"Right. One of them, Ronin, is out of the country, she's not on the guest list, she won't be anywhere around. The other...well, I'd be very surprised if she showed up. But if she did, Sarah, I have every confidence that you could take her down."

"You got that right," Laura muttered.

Sarah grinned merrily. "Good! Smashing!" She suddenly made a face. "Oh, bugger, I brought you a present, luv. Left it in the bloody car. I'll be right back." She jumped up and strode from the room, her boots making authoritative thumping sounds. Three heads swiveled around to stare at Hermione, who was just watching them with a bemused smile on her face.

"Good Lord, Hermione!" Laura exclaimed. "That woman is the most abrasive, loud-mouthed, tactless creature I've ever met and oh my God I just love her."

"I'm going to have nightmares tonight," Cho muttered, but she too was smiling.

"I almost wish Allegra would try something sneaky," Ginny said, "just for the pleasure of watching your cousin reduce her to a quivering heap on the floor with a few well-chosen words."

"Sarah defies description," Hermione said. "She'll probably want to wear her combat boots with her bridesmaid's dress."

Sarah came back in, bearing a well-worn book. She sat down next to Hermione and handed it to her. "Remember this?"

Hermione's mouth dropped open. "Oh gosh...it's our old Dastardly Diary!" She began flipping through the pages, excited.

"What's that, now?" Laura said.

"Oh, uh...something I haven't thought about in ages," Hermione said. "Sarah and I spent a lot of time together as girls, that's why we're so close. Her parents were war correspondents, and when they were out of the country she used to stay with us."

"Like sisters, we were," Sarah said. She smiled, a little wistfully. "I miss that, Hermione."

"Me, too," Hermione said, squeezing Sarah's hand. "Anyway, this was the book where we wrote down accounts of our exploits. Silly stuff, most of it." She shook her head. "When I went away to Hogwarts we didn't see each other nearly as often. I'd forgotten all about the Diary."

Sarah took it from her hand. "I brought it because of a promise I made you when we were eight."


"Sure. Do you remember my Ouija board?"


"I had this Ouija board and I thought it was brilliant," Sarah told the others. "Hermione thought it was stupid, but I was convinced it would bear us the answer to any question from Beyond the Grave. One day I finally got her to use it with me." She looked at Hermione. "We asked it who you were going to marry. Do you remember this?"

"No, not in the slightest," Hermione said, mystified.

"I didn't either until I saw the entry in the Diary describing the answers. I didn't read it, just marked the page. I thought it would be fun to read it now and see how accurate it was. I don't remember any of the answers, do you?"

"I have no recollection of this happening at all," Hermione said, keenly interested.

"Well, then. Let's test the vision of the Mysterious Spirits." She turned to a marked page in the diary and began to read. "Hmm. I wrote down the questions and then the answers. First: Will Hermione ever get her sorry self married? Answer: Yes."

"So far so good," Ginny said, grinning.

"How old will she be? Answer: 23. Ooh, tough break there. Of course my handwriting isn't so hot, that 3 could be an 8."

"Who was I dating when I was 23? Oh, Abel, of course. Oh no! I was supposed to marry Abel! Call everything off!"

"Not gonna happen, ducks. I told you if I laid eyes on that poncer again I'd set my dogs on him. Next question: Who will Hermione marry? Answer...oh, this one makes no sense...uh...blast, I can't ready my own chicken scratches. I think it says Roman."

The others made amused too-bad murmurs, but stopped when they saw the look on Hermione's face. "Hermione, what?" Ginny said.

Hermione snatched the diary from Sarah's hand and peered at the page. "Does it really say that?"

"Right there." Sarah frowned at Hermione's suddenly intense scrutiny. "Why, you know a chap named Roman?"

"Um...actually, I'm about to marry him." She looked up at their puzzled faces. "That's Harry's codename. At work."

"You have codenames?" Laura said, but the others were focusing on the larger picture.

"That's well creepy," Cho said.

"What does the rest of it say?" Ginny asked.

Hermione spared the diary only a glance. "Well, even if it says I'm to marry someone with purple skin who works as an auto mechanic, just that Roman reference is enough to unnerve me. I mean honestly, what are the odds?"

"And you always thought Divination was so much hokum," Laura said. "That'll teach you to mock the mysteries of magical forecasting."

"Ouija boards aren't magical, they're superstitious Muggle toys," Hermione said.

"Still. Makes you wonder, don't it?" Sarah said. "Even if Ouija boards aren't magical, you certainly are. Maybe you saw something in your future and the Ouija board just reflected that."

"So what does it mean?" Cho said.

"It doesn't mean anything," Hermione said firmly. "Maybe I watched Ben Hur the night before and had gladiators on the brain. Maybe it's random...or maybe Sarah's handwriting is just that bad it doesn't say Roman at all."

"Or maybe it just means you and Harry really were meant to be together," Ginny said, smiling.

Hermione smiled back. "Well. I don't need a stupid Ouija board to tell me that, now do I?" The five women sat quietly for a moment, pondering this truism. "All right then," Hermione finally said. "Moving right along. Let's talk flowers."

Harry came into the noisy restaurant, looking around. "I'm meeting some people," he said to the hostess as she approached him. At that moment he saw Napoleon, half out of his seat and waving to him. Harry headed for the table where Napoleon, Remus Lupin, Diz Taylor and Isobel Hyde-White already sat.

"All right, Harry?" Napoleon said.

"Yeah," Harry said. "Nothing like a full day's worth of meetings to put me in the mood to party down." He glanced around at the others, all of whom were sitting hunched over their drinks, looking grim. "I see I'm not the only one."

Napoleon knocked back the rest of his drink. "I think we'll need another round of drinks for this conversation."

"I'll get them," Diz said, rising. "My turn to buy. Same for you two?" Napoleon and Isobel both nodded. "Harry?"

"Just a Tom Collins, thanks."

Napoleon made a face. "Eww, that's a chick's drink."

"I like Tom Collinses. Sod off."

Diz turned to Lupin. "Would you like anything, Remus?" She smiled at him in a way that made Harry's ears perk up.

He shook his head. "No thanks. I don't like to drink this close to the full moon."

"All right." She went off towards the bar with one tiny look back. Napoleon and Harry exchanged a knowing glance.

"What?" Lupin said, looking from one to the other.

Napoleon leaned towards him and spoke in a low, conspiratorial tone. "I think she likes you, mate."

Lupin blinked. "You think what?"

"Diz likes you. Harry, back me up on this."

"I'm going to have to agree with Jones here, Remus...as strange as it feels to say that."

"Don't be ridiculous, I'm far too old for her."

"Oh, you are not. She's not so very young, she's older than Harry and me. Isobel, let's have the woman's point of view here."

Isobel thought for a moment. "Hmm. It's hard to tell...she's not acting overtly flirty...but I think that for her personality any little sign would mean a lot. I'm with Jones. She likes you. Speaking as a professional observation specialist, of course."

Remus harrumphed, flushing a deep shade of violet and appeared as uncomfortable as Harry had ever seen him. "I think you're all crazy," he said, making a dismissive hand gesture.

"Time will tell," Napoleon said airily, wearing that patented Napoleon Jones I-know-something-you-don't-know smirk.

Diz returned to the table, holding four glasses between her hands. She sat down, managing not to spill anything. To Harry's eyes, Napoleon's theory seemed vindicated as she smiled a bit shyly at Remus while handing him his drink, but Lupin kept his eyes studiously averted. "I've been meaning to ask you," Isobel said to Diz as she accepted her drink. "Are you named after Benjamin Disraeli?"

Diz nodded. "Yes, I am. My mother is a historian."

"You're Muggle-born, then?"


"Who's Benjamin Disraeli?" Napoleon asked. Harry made tsking noises with his tongue, while Diz made an exaggerated 'shocked' face. "Hey, I don't know jack about Muggle history, mate! Ask me anything you want about the Geblic Rebellion of 1274 or the Mandelawan Uprising, but I got no clue about this bloke Disraeli."

"He was Prime Minister of Britain," Diz said. "My parents got a kick out of naming their kids after significant Britons of history. I have two sisters and two brothers, all of them suffering from the same schoolyard curse of unusual names."

"No one at this table will throw stones," Harry said. "The wizarding world is full of odd names. I may have one of the more common names of the world but my godfather is Sirius, his best friend is Remus, my second officer is Napoleon, my ex-archnemesis is Draco, I've got three ex-girlfriends with strange names and I'm engaged to a woman named Hermione."

"What are your siblings called?" Isobel asked Diz.

"My twin sister is Churchill, we call her C.T. My younger sister is Dickens. My brothers are Tennyson and Darwin."

"Wow. Imagine fitting all those on the Christmas card. I hope your parents share the pain."

Diz shook her head, smiling. "John and Mary."

Everyone burst out laughing. "That hardly seems fair!" Remus said. "Plain John and Mary saddling their poor children with such cumbersome tags."

"I admit it seemed rather hard when I was a kid but now I like my name. It's...unique, distinctive. All of us use our real names in daily life, except C.T. and that's only because she's so used to being called by her nickname. They get shortened, of course, for convenience...we must sound odd introducing each other. 'Why yes, I'm Diz, these are my sisters C.T. and Dickie, and my brothers Tenny and Dar.' At least in their longer forms the names have some sort of meaning." She looked over at Harry. "Is 'Harry' short for something? Harold or Henry or some other name?"

He shook his head. "Nope. It's just Harry. That's the way it is on my birth certificate. And it's not after anyone at all. As far as I can tell it has no significance whatsoever beyond my parents just liking it. My middle name is James, after my father."

"I've never minded my name," Remus said, "except that everyone's first reaction is usually to ask if I have a twin brother named Romulus."

"You don't, do you?"

"I'm an only child."

"I think it's a nice name," Diz said, smiling at him. Remus fidgeted in his chair and color rose again into his face.

"Uh...thanks," he said, managing a small smile in return. A loaded silence fell amongst the five agents.

Harry picked up his drink and sipped it. "Not to bring everyone down again, but we do have more important things to discuss." He looked across the table at Diz. "So what's the what?"

She sighed. She had been assigned by Argo to conduct a full analysis of the Florence mission and postulate as to what had gone wrong. "I've presented my findings to ECHO and they agree with me."

"Well? Don't keep us in suspense."

"I doubt it'll come as any great shock to you, Chief. The high level of organization and security surrounding this mission coupled with the completeness of its abrupt breakdown leave only one logical explanation for the failure."

Harry nodded. "Someone on the inside." His four words fell like blocks of cement, giving voice and reality to that which each of them had only allowed themselves to think. Everyone had known that this was the only real possibility, but it somehow seemed as if it might not be true if they just didn't say it out loud.

Diz was nodding. "There had to have been. There's no other viable alternative."

Everyone pondered this in silence for a moment. "I don't suppose..." Harry began, but Diz cut him off.

"So far there's not one single shred of evidence to even suggest a suspect," she said. "Every person involved in this mission is equally likely to have been culpable, and I might add that the list of possible suspects includes everyone sitting at this table."

"There wasn't much to say after that," Harry said. "The very idea, it's..." He trailed off, turning his teacup around and around in its saucer.

Hermione sat down next to him at the kitchen table. "I know," she said. "It hardly bears thinking about."

"Someone at the I.D. is not what he or she seems to be," he said. "At this very moment they could be up to God knows what sort of sabotage or information gathering. We have no idea who it is. It could be someone I don't even know, or someone I know and trust."

"Has there been any suggestion of a mole at the I.D. before the Florence thing?" Hermione asked.

"No, but that doesn't mean they weren't there. Someone skilled enough to have sabotaged such a large operation while perfectly covering their tracks could have done the same thing on a smaller scale a dozen times over and we would never have been the wiser."

"Maybe the Florence operation was their last hurrah. Is anyone unaccounted for?"

"No one except the four agents we lost. Each of their deaths has been investigated and verified. If it was one of them, then Florence was a suicide mission."

"If there is a double agent in our midst...then who sent them? The Circle?"

"That's my instinct." He looked up at her. "What was your sense of D'Agostino's Circle ties based on your observations at Wainwright's?"

"All my conclusions are in my reports."

"I haven't received my copies of them yet."

"Well then, I can't discuss it."

He gaped at her. "Why not?"

"Harry, as you are perfectly aware, the contents of my reports are classified."

"Oh, come on. I have the highest security clearance of anyone except Argo!"

"Not for my reports, you don't. My orders are very clear, I'm to discuss the contents of my reports with Isobel, Argo, and no one else. Sorry." She smiled impishly at him.

"All I have to do is Bubble Isobel and she'll owl me a copy right now!" he exclaimed.

"Then that's what you'd better do! Harry Potter, don't you start thinking that just because you're my sweetie that means you get extra-special access to my work. I'm not a member of your division, you don't get to order me around. If you want copies of my reports you can bloody well go through proper channels like everyone else!"

He held her eyes for a moment then leaned back in his chair, chuckling. "You're absolutely right. I'm sorry, it was wrong of me to ask."

"That's right," she said. "Darling, it's important for us to keep our personal relationship separate from our work. Especially with possible security breaches about, we certainly don't want to be accused of any impropriety. Once you've been given access to my reports by someone with the actual authority to do so, I'll be delighted to discuss my observations with you in excruciating detail."

"Fair enough." He picked up the teapot and refilled their cups. "You enjoyed that, didn't you?" he said, casting a sideways glance in her direction. "Throwing the book at me, so to speak."

"Oh dear, whatever gave you that idea?" she said, winking at him.

Hermione didn't think she'd ever seen the large study so crowded. Laura and Cho were over by Justin's desk, arranging and re-arranging little slips of paper on a huge seating chart for the reception. Claire was sorting through the large pile of RSVP cards and making notes on a master guest list. Justin was crawling all over his tall bookcase of sheet music, searching for various pieces only to discard them and begin searching afresh. George was haggling over the menu with Mel McDaniels, their wedding organizer, who was constantly being distracted and pulled away to handle other matters. Sarah was huddled in a corner with Ginny, who was going over some of the points of magic Sarah would need to know to participate in the wedding.

Hermione tried to hold herself above all this chaos, which was helped by the fact that she was quite literally above all the chaos as she stood on an ottoman being pinned, tucked and adjusted by her dress designer. "You can't put Cornelius Fudge at the same table with the Weasleys!" Laura exclaimed.

"Why not?" Cho said. "I thought they'd...you know, have lots to talk about!"

"Oh yes, lots. Fudge will spend the entire dinner grilling Arthur about what he's doing and how he's doing it, the whole time implying that he could be doing everything better and more efficiently if he were still Minister!"

"Just put Fudge next to Percy," George called over. "That'll solve the problem."

"Hermione, do we really need to save a seat for the Chancellor?" Laura said, changing the subject. "We all know damned well he won't show."

"Or she," Cho added.

"It's a formality," Hermione said. "We're more or less obliged to extend the invitation, but of course the Chancellor won't come. It would look odd if he didn't have a place saved for him, though."

"Put him next to Fudge," Cho said, excited, moving the Chancellor's slip of paper.

"Chang, will you get Fudge off the brain? For a moment?"

Justin walked by, leaving a trail of pages from an old and battered fake book. He paused and looked up at her. "Luvvie, George and I shouldn't be here. We shouldn't see you in the dress."

"Don't be silly, Justin. It doesn't matter if you see me, you'll all see it sooner or later. The only person who isn't allowed to see it is..."

"Hermione?" came a voice from the hallway outside, accompanied by approaching footsteps.

"Bloody hell!" Laura hissed.

Hermione looked around but there was nowhere to hide. "Sarah!" she said. "Go, go! Stop him!"

Sarah, who was nearest the door, jumped up and bolted from the room...just in time, by the sound of the collision as she met up with Harry outside. "Oh, no you don't," they heard her say. "It's bad luck."

"What are you talking about?" Harry replied.

"Bad luck! For the groom to see the bride before the wedding!" Everyone in the study chuckled.

Hermione could almost see Harry's eye-roll. "Sarah, the wedding's a month away. You're telling me I can't see Hermione for a month?"

"Oh, bugger, I mean the dress. You can't see the dress before the wedding, she's got it on so you can't bloody come in!"

"I need something out of my desk!"

"I'll get it for you!"

"Just let me in, will you? I need to talk to Hermione. I promise I won't look."

"You're damn right you won't. All right, but here...like this." Hermione heard a scuffling outside and a groan of frustration from Harry.

"Is this really necessary, Forester?"

"Yes, it is, you silly sot. Don't think I'm not on to you. You just wanted a little peek. Well, you're not gonna get it. Let's move it, come on."

They appeared in the doorway, shuffling along together. Sarah was walking along behind Harry with both hands firmly clamped over his eyes. Harry had his hands out in front of him like a man feeling his way through a darkened room. "Hermione?" he said, hesitant.

Hermione covered her mouth with her hands, stifling her laughter. "I'm right here, Harry. What is it?"

"Uh...there's a wizard at the door asking for you. Says he's from some charm outfit."

"Oh!" Mel said. "That must be the charm wizard I engaged to handle the selective perception fields for the ceremony. I'll talk to him, Hermione."

"Thanks, Mel," Hermione said. "I'm a little indisposed at the moment." Mel hurried from the room, her stylish heels clicking on the hardwood floor.

Harry stood there, hands on his hips, Sarah's hands still over his eyes. "Can I go to my desk now?" he said over his shoulder.

"Which one is it?" Sarah asked. Laura pointed to Harry's desk in the corner. "All right, let's move it out, scarface. And left, right, left, right," Sarah chanted as she marched Harry across the room. Everyone watched their slow progress with amused expressions.

Hermione found herself in the middle of an odd perceptive shift as she watched Harry root around sightlessly in his desk drawers for whatever it was he needed. It had been fine to discuss the wedding in abstract terms, to have invitations printed and engage an organizer, to choose bridesmaids and pick out a dress. Yet it had all felt a bit...academic. Suddenly, she was acutely aware that she was in the same room with him and she was wearing the dress. Somehow that made it all seem very real, all at once. In a month's time she was actually going to walk down an aisle, wearing this very dress, meet him at the end, take his hand and marry him. Not in a dreamy, theoretical sense but in a very real and legally binding sense. Then they'd walk back down the aisle and he'd be her husband, and she'd be his wife. His wife. Hermione felt a little shiver go up her back at this visceral realization. It was really going to happen.

"A-ha!" Harry said, victorious, holding up his Fil-o-parch. "Got it. Okay, Forester, let's march us back into the foyer so I can regain the use of my eyes."

Hermione smiled as they passed, Sarah vigorously protecting her from the mythical but suddenly all-pervasive Bad Luck. "Harry?" she said.

He stopped. "Yes?"

"You're adorable."

He smiled and looked in her general direction. "Thanks. You look beautiful, by the way."

"Hey!" Sarah exclaimed, peering around his shoulder. "You can't...can you see anything?"

"Just the insides of my eyelids."

"Then how do you know she looks beautiful?" Sarah demanded.

Harry turned back towards the doorway, head held high even as Sarah steered him like an errant pony. "I don't need to see her to know that," he said as they left the room. A chorus of "awwww's" followed their departure.

Laura stamped her foot, waving her hand frantically in front of her eyes. "I think I'm gonna start crying," she warbled.

Ginny reached out and squeezed Hermione's fingers. "He can be so sweet sometimes," she said quietly.

Hermione nodded, fighting a valiant battle to maintain her sardonic composure while inside she wanted nothing more than to melt into theatrically sighing dreaminess. "Yeah," she said, a bit hoarsely. "He'll do."

In the living room of a quirky downtown apartment an ocean and a continent away, Cassandra Theodorakis was flipping channels, dispirited. It had been one of those days. She'd misplaced a stack of graded quizzes and had spent an entire hour frantically searching her office only to find them in her briefcase where they belonged. One of her T.A.'s had gotten sick and she'd had to run his problem session for him, and she'd gotten a list of totally ridiculous comments on her most recent paper from the peer-review board.

And then, to top it all off, she'd gotten home late to find that her trusty dog Milo, a usually impeccably behaved Airedale terrier, had piddled on the kitchen floor. At least he had the good graces to look ashamed of himself.

And she'd missed "Trading Spaces." Damn.

She got up and went into the kitchen, knowing full well that there was no food in the house and she'd have to either order in or muster the gumption for a trip to the supermarket. She pondered this decision for about five seconds. Pizza it is.

"Get mushrooms on it," came a disembodied voice in the kitchen.

Another person might have run screaming from the apartment on such an occurrence, but Dr. Cassandra Theodorakis didn't even blink. "I hate mushrooms," she said. "And you don't eat."

"I like the smell," North said, walking into the kitchen through the outer wall. "Ordering in again? Alone?"

"As you see."

"Where's...uh...what's his name?"

"Stan," she said with a sigh. "Stan and I have decided to spend a little time apart."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

"No you're not, you hated Stan just as you hate everyone I date."

"I wouldn't put it like that. As long as they're not all evil it's an improvement."

She wandered back into the living room and flopped down on the sofa. North leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed. "What are you doing here?" she finally said.

"Just a social call."

"I'm not on duty, go away."

"Can't I visit a friend who looks like she might need some cheering up?"

She looked up at him. "Are we friends, North?"

"Why not?"

"The last time I got friendly with the associate Guardian it ended badly."

"I'm not Seth."

"No, but you could be. Anyone could be. And the more I care, the more of a target they become." She arched one eyebrow. "Don't tell me you're developing the lusty wrong feelings."

"I'm a Guardian, I don't experience emotion in the way that mortals do."

"What a relief," she murmured. She looked up sharply, having just remembered something. "Did you see that report I sent you? About Hermione?"

"I did. I'm glad she and Harry worked things out."

"Me, too. I've seen some of the alternate timelines where they don't." She shuddered. "Creepy. There's one possible outcome where she marries George Weasley and Harry runs off with...get this...Draco Malfoy."

North nodded slowly. "Huh. Imagine that."

"Thanks, that's one mental image I don't need running around inside my head."

"Have you made a decision about how much time you intend to take from her life? I ought to write up the paperwork."

She smiled. "Oh, North. You ought to know me better than that by now."

He chuckled and shook his head. "You're not going to take one damned second, are you?"

"No reason. The sacrifice was in her mind, not my demands. It has the same meaning whether I take part of her life or not."

"Will you tell her?"

The Guardian met his eyes. "Someday."

Harry and Hermione walked along the trails behind Bailicroft, hand in hand. Hermione was waiting for Harry to tell her what was on his mind. He'd been unusually quiet during this stroll, which had been his idea in the first place. "Let's get some air," he'd said. "Come take a walk with me." She'd been agreeable. A walk after dinner was always nice, and it was a pleasant evening. Warm for mid September, but cool enough to make her glad she'd worn a sweater.

They came to a spot where the path curved and brushed up against the banks of the creek that crossed the property. Several large boulders sat here, remnants of some long-ago glacier's path. Harry paused. "Sit down," he said. "I need to talk to you."

She sat on the largest boulder, puzzled. "What's wrong?"

He shook his head. "Nothing. I just...well, we're getting married in a month."

"Yes, we are."

"We've never really talked about what that means, exactly."

She frowned, even more puzzled. "Well, I...I'm not sure I..." She cut herself off as a dreadful idea intruded. "You're not having second thoughts, are you?"

"No!" he said, looking horrified. "No, of course not, I..." He laughed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it to sound so serious. I just thought we ought to cover some of the practical questions."

"Oh, I understand," she said, relieved. "Sure."

Harry sat down next to her on the boulder. "First of all, do you want to stay here after we're married? We could get a place of our own. A house, maybe. Or we could move back to London."

"Hmm. We could do that. Honestly, though, I'd be just as happy to stay here."

He smiled. "Me, too."

"I don't see any reason for us to move...until there's a more, uh, compelling reason for us to do so." They looked at each other for a moment. "But isn't that what you really wanted to talk about? The, um...compelling reasons?"

He looked away. "Well, we've never really discussed it, have we?"

"No. I always thought it would sort of come up on its own." She gave a few nervous chuckles. "I guess it just did."

"I hesitated because I wasn't exactly sure how you felt about it," he said.

"I wasn't sure how you felt about it." She reached out and took his hand, needing the reassurance of his touch. "Harry...do you want to have children?"

"Do you?" he returned. For a long moment they just sat there, two unanswered questions hanging in the air between them.

Finally Hermione looked down, smiling a little. "Darling, one of us is going to have to go first here."

He squeezed her hand tighter. "All right, here I go." He looked at her. "I'm not ready."

"Me neither." After a brief pause they both exhaled mightily. "Oh, boy. What a relief."

"I was terrified you had your heart set on starting in immediately."

"I was terrified that you did."

"Great Ghost, why haven't we talked about this before? We could have spared ourselves the terror."

"We were chicken." He looked at her, surprised. She nodded. "Chicken."

"You're absolutely right." He shook his head, chuckling. "After all we've been through and all the dastardly forces acting to rip us apart, wouldn't it be awful if something as everyday as children were to drive a wedge between us?"

"I'm not saying I'll never be ready," she said.

"Neither am I."

"I just...well, I was never sure I wanted children at all. I've never really felt those maternal stirrings other women talk about. I've never had the desperate desire to be a mother." She smiled. "The thought of someday having a child with you is definitely appealing. Just...not right away. Not yet."

"I've often thought I'd like to be a father someday, but always in a sort of abstract sense. I never gave it any real concrete thought until there was us, because you were the only person I could imagine being a parent with. But I can't quite see my way clear to it in the near future."

"Not to mention there are certain practical considerations we can't ignore."

"I know." He sighed. "It's bad enough that our relationship makes you a target for all of my enemies. Imagine how much more tempting our child might be to anyone who wanted to hurt us, or manipulate us."

"We shouldn't let that stop us completely, though."

"No, of course not. We can't live our lives ruled by fear of possible attack, we'd never leave the house. But it's something to think about. When the time comes."

She slid closer to him and laid her head on his shoulder. "What if the time never comes, Harry?"

"What do you mean?"

"What if I never want children?"

"Then we won't have any."

"But...you might still want them." He said nothing for a moment. Hermione went on, though she dreaded the response. "Marriages break up every day over that."

"Hey," he said, putting his arm around her shoulder. "Our marriage is not going to break up, and certainly not over that. I'm marrying you because I love you, not because I'm gambling on someday having access to your reproductive potential." The way he put that made her smile. Leave it to Harry to cut right to the chase. "My priority is your happiness. I'm..." He hesitated. "I won't deny I'd like to be a father someday. I'm nowhere near ready, but I'm sure at some future time I will be. But listen, and this is important." He turned and looked into her eyes. "All I will ever really need to be happy is you. We're a team here, my love. What we do with our lives we'll do together." He shrugged. "And hey, maybe I'll be the one dragging my feet. What if it's me who's never ready?"

"Impossible," she said. "If and when we decide to have a child it'll be because we are ready, as a couple. Therefore, by definition, if one of us isn't ready the other one cannot possibly be so."

He nodded sagely. "Why, how very logical, Dr. Granger."

"But seriously, Harry. The important thing for us to remember is that as long as we can talk openly about this, we'll keep this decision as stress-free as possible. So I propose that we make a date, an actual mark-it-on-the-calendar date to talk about this once a year, at least."

"With the proviso that we can still talk about it at another time if we want to."

"Of course. But this way at least we'll be sure of an annual discussion."

"Which date do you want to set?"

"What's wrong with today?"

"Not a thing." He grinned at her. "Okay. So...same time next year?"

She nodded, returning his wide smile. "You got it." She reached out and hugged him tightly. "Oh, I'm so glad we talked about this."

"Me, too," he said, hugging her back. He turned his head and kissed her cheek. "I ought to write Neville and thank him. The best luck I ever had in my life was that Trevor ran away from him and brought you to my compartment on the Hogwarts Express."

She sighed and drew back. "Let's go back to the house. I find myself overcome with a sudden and intense desire to rip all your clothes off."

He stood up, drawing her with him. "Race you."

"Hold still," Hermione scolded. "Let the man finish."

Napoleon fidgeted from one foot to the other while the tailor fussed with the hems of his tuxedo trousers. "I feel like a bloody lounge singer in this penguin suit."

"Do you want a break?" the tailor asked.

"Yes! Absolutely I want a break! Let me go outside a smoke a ciggie and grab a..." He started to walk off but the tailor stopped him, looking exasperated.

"In the trousers. Do you want a break in the trousers?" He pointed to Napoleon's trouser hem. Hermione snickered in spite of herself.

"Oh," Napoleon said, looking sheepish. "Uh...yeah, I guess so. Whatever. But if you ask if I dress to the right or the left I'm going to rearrange your face."

"I wouldn't dream of it, sir," the tailor said, going back to work.

Harry came in to the study, looking a little harried. "Honey, have you seen my Fil-o-parch?" he said.

"Honestly, Harry. I'm going to attach that thing to your arm with industrial staples. You lose it five times a day."

Harry paused in the middle of rummaging through the junk on his desk. "Please don't bust my arse right now. Either you've seen it or you haven't, it's a simple question."

"I haven't seen it. Look in your cloak pockets."

"I looked in my cloak pockets." He slammed a desk drawer in frustration. "Dammit, I've got a meeting with Argo this afternoon and all my notes are in that thing."

"Harry, why do I have to wear this thing?" Napoleon whined.

"Because it'd look weird if you went nude," Harry replied.

"Why can't I wear my dress uniform? You're wearing yours!"

"He's the groom, he gets to look special," Hermione said. "You're supposed to look like the other groomsmen. If that's possible," she added under her breath.

Harry suddenly smacked himself on the forehead. "Bloody hell, I think I left it at Sirius' office. Oh, now I'm sure I did." He headed for the door, pausing to kiss Hermione's cheek. "Bye, darling. I'll see you later."

"Don't forget to pick up Laura's dress on your way home."

"I won't forget. Try and have Jones back to work by lunchtime, will you? If he doesn't spontaneously combust first, that is."

"No problem." He hurried out of the room and a few seconds later the front door opened and closed.

"I think we're about done," the tailor said. "I'll just go and get the jacket, it's in my van." He left them alone.

Napoleon turned and faced Hermione. "How do I look?" he said, spreading his arms wide.

She smiled. "You look very dashing."

"And you know, just because it's you I'll take out all my piercings...well, almost all...and I'll dye my hair a nice inoffensive color. Brown, or red to match George."

"Oh no, I forbid it," Hermione said. "Well...you can take out your piercings if you must but I insist that your hair be pink or green or some other outrageous shade."

Napoleon looked puzzled. "I thought you'd want me to..."

"Harry and I want you in our wedding, not some watered-down version. If you looked too respectable...well, it just wouldn't be you."

He smiled, and not his usual brash grin, but a heartbreakingly sweet and almost shy smile. "You're amazing, you know that?" he said.

She punched at his shoulder. "How you do go on," she said, giggling a little.

"No, no, listen a second," he said, his tone serious. He reached out and took hold of her hands. "I've never had the guts to ask you this because I was afraid of the answer, but...if there had been no Harry, and if you and I had just met somehow...do you think that, uh...that we..." He shrugged, trailing off. "I don't know what I'm on about."

She looked down, sighing a little. "Oh, Napoleon. You are a dear, sweet man and I love you to death. I'm so lucky to have a friend like you. But...well, I don't know what might have been but for Harry. If there had been no Harry I wouldn't be the person I am. I'd be someone else entirely, maybe someone you wouldn't even like. The fact is that there is Harry, and I love him with all my heart." She peered at his face. "Is this going to be too strange for you? Standing up there and watching me marry him? Because we'll both understand if you want out."

"Oh, no!" he exclaimed. "No, I can't wait. It'll be such an honor to be there for you." He arched one eyebrow at her. "And don't think I didn't notice that you nicely avoided answering my question." She flushed and looked away. "No, it's okay. There is no answer, and to even ask the question is mostly pointless. Even so, I think I know the truth."

"Which is?"

"That you and I could never have had a relationship. I'm not your type, and when you get right down to it, you're not really mine either. I can love you from afar, but I don't think I could manage it from any nearer or for any length of time. So it's better for us to be friends, which we can certainly be. I can even be friends with Harry. I can't see him as a rival, because it'd be a pretty one-sided rivalry." He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "Good. That's out of the way. Now get me the hell out of this monkey suit. Where's my pants?"

The house was quiet later that afternoon as Hermione stood at the sink chopping some tomatoes for an omelette. No one was home from work yet except her. It had been a short day at the office because Isobel was on vacation and Hermione had been scheduled for a checkup with Sukesh, who'd had to cancel on her. So she'd just come home, relishing a little peace and quiet.

She heard the front door open and close, then footsteps. It was amazing, she thought to herself, that she could recognize Harry from the sound of his walk. Doc Martens on hardwood, long strides, heavy on the heel. He didn't say anything but she heard him coming towards the kitchen. She didn't turn as she heard him enter, then pause in the doorway. "Hi, honey," she said, keeping her eyes on her tomatoes. "Did you remember to pick up Laura's..."

Her words were abruptly cut off with a slight gasp. He was all at once directly behind her, having crossed the kitchen in complete silence. It was an eerie skill he possessed that she'd always wondered how he'd come upon. He pressed up against her back, pinning her gently in place. She started to turn. "Harry, wh..."

His hand on her neck then, keeping her face forward. "Shh," he whispered in her ear. "Don't turn around." He reached around and plucked the knife from her hand, setting it on the countertop. He ran his hands down her arms, lifting her hands and placing them on the edge of the counter at her sides. She was starting to feel tingly from his nearness and the feeling of his breath on her neck. "Just relax," he whispered.

He pressed gently on the back of her head so it hung down, her chin against her chest. Hermione had no idea what he was up to but she had a feeling she would like it, so she went along. Her hair was up in a bun, exposing her neck. He brushed a few stray hairs away and then blew softly on the back of her neck, just below the hairline. Hermione gasped, the shivers starting somewhere around her knees and rising up to her chest. She slid her hands out to brace herself until they were as far from her body as they'd go along the edge of the countertop. Harry covered her hands with his own, his arms resting against hers from shoulder to wrist.

Hermione shuddered helplessly as Harry blew on her neck again, this time a little harder, running from her hairline down to where her neck met her shoulders. She resisted the urge to arch her neck, letting her head loll down, amazed that such a simple thing, not even direct contact, could make her knees feel so watery.

It seemed an eternity passed while he did no more than breathe on her, though it was probably no more than a minute. By then she was about ready to melt into her shoes, and when he pressed his lips to the nape of her neck she let out a long sigh, her arousal spiking abruptly. She hoped he'd take pity on her and let her turn around, but he was merciless, keeping her pinned there against the kitchen cabinets while he ran his lips up and down her neck with agonizing slowness. He lifted his arms away from her and slid them around her waist, his hands slipping under the hem of her shirt to rest warm against her midsection and pull her tighter against him. Her breathing was coming in ragged gasps now, her hands gripping the countertop to hold herself steady as he found a particularly sensitive spot on her neck just behind her ear and sealed his mouth over it, applying a gentle suction as his tongue flickered over the skin.

"Oh my God," she gasped, thinking she'd soon be revising her top five list of erotic life experiences, three of which already starred Harry. She just had time to wonder which of the current five would have to get bumped for this little kitchen episode when Harry pressed one last gentle kiss to her neck and then drew away. Thank the Lord, she thought to herself, he's letting me turn around. She took a few deep breaths and turned, ready to pounce on him...but he was gone. The kitchen was empty, the only sign he'd been there at all the lingering warmth all along her back.

She found him sitting in the winter garden room, feet kicked up on an ottoman, casually reading a book. He looked perfectly composed as if he'd just wandered in from a massage or something. He looked up at she entered. "Hey," he said. "You look a little flushed. Are you feeling all right?" The slight twinkle in his eyes gave him away.

She was nearly speechless, spluttering a little before she could coherently respond. "Oh...you...I'm...you diabolical fiend!" she exclaimed. "After you just left me like that!"

"Like what?"

"In the kitchen!"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he said airily, but he looked a little flushed himself.

She cocked an eyebrow at him, hands on her hips. "You are evil, and you must be destroyed."

He closed his book and put it aside. "You and what army?" he said, eyes still glinting with mischief.

Hermione strolled forward, letting her hips do most of the talking. He thinks he's got the upper hand? We'll just see, she thought. She grabbed the hem of her shirt and stripped it off in one smooth motion. Harry's eyes clouded over a bit. She kicked his ottoman aside and leaned over him, bracing her hands on the arms of the chair. "You know what?" she said, surprised at the husky note in her own voice. "I think I'm going to make you beg." Harry goggled up at her, color rising to his cheeks. "What do you have to say about that, mister?"

He exhaled, his eyes looking her up and down. "Let's call off the wedding and live in sin. You could be too sexy for marriage."

She grinned. "Hold that thought."

Wizards and witches cowered against the walls, giving the boss a wide berth as she swept down the hallway with her cloak billowing and her eyes flashing like the fires of Hell. It was well that they did, because if anyone got in her way just now, Allegra would have batted them aside like a stray hair.

She looked neither right nor left, just went directly to the Master's chamber, deep in the dungeons of Lexa Kor. It was an old Potions prep room, complete with a raised dais for a cauldron and extensive shelving for ingredients and books. She knew not why the Master had chosen it to use as his communication room, and she didn't think the answer would have any meaning anyway.

She burst in, not bothering with her usual polite knock. She turned and faced the Master's portal.

The portal was the one and only object in Allegra's life over which she exerted no control whatsoever. It hovered above the old dais where a large cauldron had once stood, a sort of jagged hole in the air that glowed a uniform white. Through this opening to...somewhere...she heard the Master's voice and sometimes saw his indistinct form. What exactly it was and where it came from she did not know and did not care to ask. She had seen demonstrations of the Master's power and did not doubt that this portal, wherever its origins and however it was generated, were within his capabilities.

But right now she wasn't feeling particularly awestruck. She was right pissed and she was going to be heard, dammit. The fact that she'd stomped in here a dozen times equally pissed and equally determined to be heard and had yet left feeling cowed and browbeaten did not enter her mind. Allegra didn't like to dwell on the past. "Oi, Master!" she yelled, tossing her cloak to the ground. "Wakey wakey, eggs and bacey!"

His smooth, low voice issued from the portal as it always did, promptly and without any slant of emotion. "Good evening, Allegra. How was the mission?"

"I think you bloody well know how the mission was, you toerag. I lost four wizards, four of my better wizards, I might add. The Enforcers were there and they were waiting for us. This isn't the first time we've been sent into an ambush and I want to know why."

"Are we on to this again?" the Master said. "I have told you, my dear. My plans will not..."

"...always seem to make sense," she finished for him. "Yes, yes, I know all of that. Method to the madness, trust the Force, blah blah blah. Well, I'm sick of it! I want some answers, I want in to whatever your Grand Plan is, I want to know what I'm doing when I'm sacrificing my people for whatever plan you've got!"

"Is that what you told your friend Potter?" the Master said, a trace of an edge entering his voice.

All the blood in Allegra's body stopped flowing for a moment, freezing in her veins. "Wh...what?" she stammered.

"Did you think I would not know you had been to see him, my dear?"

"He knows nothing," she said, regaining some measure of composure.

"Perhaps not. But the...how did he put it?...moral dilemma you told him about. I trust it's no longer an issue for you."

"I worked through it myself," she said. "There can be no moral dilemmas for one without morals. I'm glad to be unencumbered by such considerations."

"A glib answer," the Master said. "You have no such delusions about yourself."

"All you need to concern yourself with is whether or not I do your bidding, and I do."

"I will be the judge of what is and is not my concern." His voice was still soothing, still calm, still almost comforting. "I have no concern about you, Allegra. You have far exceeded my expectations. All that we hope to achieve is closer than you think it is."

"Listen to me," she said, remembering what she was doing here. "I think it's time you shared a few more details with me. I've done everything you asked, sometimes at great personal cost. I've lost a great many of my best people to your mission. I did have a moral dilemma, and I set it aside, but it wasn't easy. I don't think I can take any more of your orders when I've never even seen your face."

She fully expected the usual cryptic response to this demand, which had been made before. The Master's reply, when it came, surprised her. "You're right," he said. "It is time you knew more."

The portal darkened slightly, a vague human shape appearing in its nebulous blankness. Allegra took a step back, apprehensive. Would she really see the Master's face tonight, finally? And how would it look to her? It could not possibly live up to her expectations. Would he be human? Would he be...something else entirely?

She realized her questions were about to be answered when the shape stepped through the portal and solidified into a human figure in a cloak, hood up and obscuring the face. She stared, her mouth open, as it descended the dais steps and stopped a few feet before her. The man...for it was a man, she could tell by his hands...reached up and pushed back the hood of his cloak, keeping his eyes downcast as if he were the one afraid to meet her eyes.

Her first, odd thought was My God, he looks like my father. The impression passed quickly but the resemblance was undeniable. He appeared about fifty years old but well-preserved, dark hair much like her own, peppered through with gray streaks. His face was mostly clear of lines and sharp-featured. He did remind her of her own father, who had been dead for almost ten years.

Then he raised his eyes to hers and all thoughts flew from her mind in an instant, an instant she would often think was a moment of pure insanity. He spoke, but she already knew what he was about to say, and who he really was.

He smiled, and his voice was like the tolling of a great bell. "It's nice to finally meet you...Mother."

For the first and last time in her life, Allegra fainted dead away. As the strength left her legs and blackness washed over her vision, all she heard was that last impossible and yet undeniable word and all she could see was the detached, almost amused look in his eyes, his eyes that filled the world, dear God his all-too-familiar eyes.

His brilliant, unmistakable green eyes.

Hermione was reading in the living room when Harry came in bearing a gift-wrapped box. She smiled at him and set her book down. "What's all this?"

He sat down next to her. "Call it a little early wedding present."

"Ooh, presents." She rubbed her hands together and took the box from him. She opened the lid and drew out a clear glass sphere. A single thread of lavendar light bent and twisted inside it. She looked up at Harry, puzzled.

"It's a Pensieve," he explained. He faced her, his expression serious. "I know you have always regretted that you never saw Ron's body, and that you and I couldn't really share that moment, one of the most pivotal moments of either of our lives. So...I put my memory of finding him in this Pensieve. Now, I'll understand if you don't ever want to look at it. But I just thought you might...if not now, then someday...want to experience that. You were right. We should have shared that moment. Maybe we still can."

"Oh, Harry," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I really appreciate this."

"Felt strange to give someone a present of such a horrible moment, but..."

"I know what you meant," she said, lacing her fingers through his and looking at the Pensieve. "And I know what it means to you to share something so private, so personal to you." She let go of him and held the glass in both hands. "I think...I ought to look at it right now. I might lose my nerve later, and I feel like I owe him. We ought to make sure we're both at peace with what happened to Ron before we're married. I know I've still got some work to do on that subject. This would be a good place to start."

"Do you...want me to come with you?"

"Um, no. Best let me see it myself first. But stick around. I have a feeling I'll need some company when I come out." He nodded.

Hermione got up and went to the card table in the corner. She set the Pensieve before her and touched its surface with her wand. The filament inside began spinning and Hermione stared into it, letting herself get pulled into the memory. She felt herself tipping forward as the glass loomed larger and larger...

...and then she was standing on the grass in the glen. It was night, and chilly. A night she remembered well.

A broom landed just to her right and she was peripherally aware that it bore herself and Harry, come to discover his body. She paid them no mind, it wasn't herself she was here to see. She walked forward, not needing to look or follow, for she knew where he had lain.

At first he looked like a bundle of clothing on the ground, but as she drew nearer her chest grew tighter and tighter as she could see that it was him. Just ahead of her, Harry reached the body and cried out in anguish. She did her best to shut him out, but it was difficult. She knew he could not see or hear her, and he was otherwise occupied. Harry heard her memory self approaching and ran to intercept her, leaving the body. She knew that in the time frame of the memory, she would now have several minutes during which no one else would be near Ron, a time when she could see him in peace.

She knelt on the grass by his side, her chest hitching...but amazingly, she did not feel the urge to weep. She had wept for Ron a hundred times. This moment was about making peace, about sharing his end with him and with Harry.

It was as Harry had once described it. His throat was cut, and a lightning shape was carved into his forehead. There wasn't as much blood as she'd feared, and his eyes were mercifully closed. He looked almost peaceful. She raised her hand to his face and touched his cold cheek. "Oh, Ron," she whispered. "I'm so sorry. You should be here."

She couldn't help but recall the last time she'd seen him, when they'd given themselves to each other for the first and last time. It had been awkward, hesitant, passionate and sweet all at once, and when it was over they had jokingly high-fived each other like Quidditch players. "Well, that's over and done with," he had said. "One less milestone to check off the list."

"I can't wait for next time," she had said before they'd parted...except there had been no next time, not for them, and for Ron not ever. She had never seen him again, not until now. She didn't question the reality of what she was seeing, or its accuracy. Recollection was imperfect, but the memories themselves were absolute. Pulled out of someone's mind and preserved in a Pensieve, they were like photographs...unchanging and faithful.

She bent closer to Ron's face, wondering how he would look if he had lived. Would he be tall like Bill, or shorter like George? How would his face look when he'd completed that transition from boy to man? She would never know.

She looked past the awful wound on his neck to his collarbones, clearly visible as his shirt was half-unbuttoned and pulled to one side. He had been so ticklish there. She hadn't used this to her advantage that last time, because...

Hermione suddenly found that she could not breathe. She stared at Ron's chest for a long moment, her brain refusing to process what she saw. When it unlocked and the truth poured in despite herself, she found that she could not scream.

She jerked herself back and rocketed up and out of the Pensieve, slamming back into her chair in the living room. She stood up so fast the chair tipped over. Harry was at her side in an instant. "Are you all right? You're white as a sheet!"

She stared at him. Was he real? Was she? Were they here in the living room? "Harry...uh..." She got a hold of herself. It was very important she keep her wits about her. "I need you to see something. Come with me."

"I'm not...what do you..."

"Just come with me!" she said, grabbing his hand. In a few seconds they were both standing by Ron's body. Harry was tense, confused.

"Hermione...I've seen this. I don't understand..."

"Harry, I want you to listen to me very carefully," she said, turning his face away from Ron to focus on her.

"All right," he said, looking at her a bit apprehensively. He probably thinks I'm nuts, she thought. What the hell, maybe I am.

"Do you remember what happened to Ron the day before he died? On the Quidditch field?"

"Yes," he said, but as if he only did because she'd asked. "Sure I do. We were practicing and he was hit with a Bludger. Broke his collarbone. Madame Pomfrey fixed it, but it left a hell of a bruise."

"That's right," she said, keeping her tone even. "He had that bruise the day he was killed. I remember because when he and I...you know, made love that day...I accidentally touched it and he said it hurt."

"Okay," he said, clearly not understanding where this was headed.

"Harry," she said, gripping his hands tightly. "I just want you to answer me one question." She turned him towards the body. "Do you see that bruise on his body?"

Harry blinked once, then bent and looked, seeing only what she had seen earlier...nothing. Just the plain, unmarked flesh of Ron's upper chest and shoulder. The place where there had been a nasty purple bruise and where one should now be very visible.

Harry slowly, very slowly straightened up and raised his eyes to hers. Hermione's thoughts were whirling in a mad rush around her brain as if enough activity could keep the horrible truth away for just a few moments longer. She kept flashing on that other body, that fake Harry body. It had seemed such a brash move for...whoever. Seth, the Master, whoever else...how had they dared send such a thing? Now she knew how they had dared.

It had worked once before.

She didn't quite realize how they had gotten out again but all at once they were back in the living room. Harry's face was so pale it looked gray. Hermione couldn't breathe, her chest had locked up tighter than a snare drum. It was too awful to think about, too awful to say. If I don't say it maybe it won't be true, she thought madly.

Harry's mouth opened and closed a few times as if he were going to try to say something. All at once his chest heaved and he clapped one hand over his mouth and ran from the room, nearly colliding with George as he came in. Hermione put her hands over her eyes and heard the sounds of Harry vomiting in the bathroom across the hall. George was puzzled.

"Hermione...is Harry all right? Is he sick? What's going on in here, I heard all this thumping!" They'd both knocked over chairs in their haste, Hermione saw.

"George, George, George," she repeated, her voice sounding like it was coming from a million miles away.

"My God...Hermione...what on Earth is the matter with you?" He came forward and took her arm, concerned.

She lowered her hands. She'd have to say it. "George...it's about...it's about..." She gulped and plunged ahead. "It's about Ron."

George drew back slightly, his brows drawing together. "What about Ron?"

The world was going gray all around her. She held on to her coherence desperately, but it was like trying to hang on to a greased rope. She met George's eyes, finding a welcome rock of stability in his brown eyes. Maybe I can say it, she thought. Let's give it a try.

"It's Ron, George. He's alive."


Author notes: Okay. Deep breath, everyone. Now that I've dropped on you the two huge atomic bombs that I've been waiting to drop for a year a few comments.

For the love of God, USE SPOILER SPACE when replying to this chapter. You can see how this one definitely needs spoiler space. Be careful and judicious. Don't give anything away in your subject headers, either.

I hope you can now see what I meant when I said that STNE was serving two functions, one of which was to set up the next story. You can probably also see what the next story's going to involve, which I haven't been able to say anything about without giving away the two plot twists I just foisted on an unsuspecting readership.

So welcome to my madness, nice to see you here. Ready? Hold on to your seatbelts, because the fun's just starting.