Ever After


Godric’s Hollow was in uproar.

Sirius couldn’t quite believe it. The signs had all been there but he still hadn’t thought it possible that even they could be so foolish. But the clothes were on, the carriage freshly polished by himself that very morning and the horses were ready to go.

The Dursleys were going to Court.

Or rather two of them were. Vernon, his moustache bristling with what Sirius supposed was pride, was stood outside the manor, waiting for his wife and son to depart for the Palace. Sirius didn’t know why Vernon had elected not to go to Court although he guessed that maybe they only had enough money to cover Dudley’s bulk. Whilst not as large as his son, Vernon could definitely be described as beefy.

“Wotcher, Sirius.”

Sirius looked over and gave Tonks a worried look. The younger witch looked absolutely exhausted and he couldn’t blame her. Her latest mission for the Dursleys had taken near up to Scotland and she had only gotten back just before midnight the night before. Then, of course, he, Remus and Hermione had had the task of telling her what had happened to the residents of Godric’s Hollow in her absence.

Talking keeping them all up till near dawn, it was a wonder any of them had managed to wake at all that morning. Then, of course, they were informed that Petunia and Dudley were going to Court. Today.

He supposed in hindsight he should have guessed something was up yesterday. He almost groaned as he remembered laughing off Remus’ concerns. But it had seemed so preposterous. It was just a fact of life at Godric’s Hollow: the Dursleys never went to Court. Even Arabella, when she managed to escape down into the kitchen for a tea and catch up, had thought nothing would come of it.


Sirius looked up and smiled as he saw Arabella peering down at him from the doorway. “Hello, Arabella,” he called, moving up the steps to take her arm. “Here, let me.”

Supporting her as best he could he helped her down the steep steps. She hadn’t been a young woman when Harry had been born and now he was almost of age her old years were certainly weighing on her. But she reached the bottom quite quickly with Sirius’ house and looked around, sadly.

“It looks so… lonely,” she said eventually.

Sirius tried to remember the last time Arabella had been in the manor kitchen and realised with a start that she hadn’t been back since Petunia had dismissed her, more than four years ago. ‘What a different house it was, even back then,’ Sirius thought, forlornly. Although smaller than James had kept, the staff was still a lot bigger back than today and the kitchen would have been a hive of activity. There was still a fairly hopeful atmosphere in the air, despite having lived under the thumb of Vernon and Petunia for twelve years already. ‘What a dreary place it is now,’ Sirius thought, thinking of all the empty, half-furnished rooms and the slightly bedraggled look of the manor as it suffered under a lack of staff.

“Yes,” he said quietly, in response to Arabella’s comment. “Yes, it does. But it won’t be forever.”

“No,” Arabella agreed, eyes glinting fiercely. “No, it won’t. Remus told me it all went well, by the way.”

“Perfectly, as far as I can see,” Sirius agreed, grinning again. He put a kettle on the fire to boil for tea. “I think Hermione even gave our Prince a good telling off, although she wouldn’t say as much.”

Arabella laughed. “I knew she had fire in her. Knew it since the first day I met her. I bet the poor Prince didn’t know what had hit him!”

Sirius laughed as well, shooting a spell at the kettle to speed it along. He was immensely proud of the little witch. He had known she had ‘fire’ in her, too, and he was glad that it wasn’t wasted. He worried about her and Harry the most of everyone. They were the most amazing people he had ever met; brilliant, intelligent and passionate about what was right in the world. They were both completely wasted as servants and Sirius secretly hoped that when Harry got the chance to break out he would drag Hermione with him. That girl deserved a moment in the sun.

“Well, I believe her beautiful outfit helped give her that boost of confidence she needed,” Sirius said, grabbing the cloth bag from under the kitchen table. “I’m sorry it’s a bit rumpled,” he apologised, “we couldn’t risk it being seen.”

Arabella shook him off. “That’s fine,” she dismissed. “One of the cleaners owes me a favour.”

“Speaking of dresses… what’s going on up there?” Sirius asked, curiosity getting the better of him. Although Remus had told him he hadn’t quite believed it and now poor Remus was stuck up there, serving refreshments.

Arabella made a tutting sound as Sirius poured out the suddenly boiling water into the tea pot. “It’s a right bloody circus,” she told him. “I’ve never seen such a palaver! It’s hard enough to get Master Dudley to stand still long enough to pin any clothes on him and then her is always fussing about the style. Merlin forbid we should accidentally prick the boy – Madam Malkin has already had to send one of her assistants home, crying, because Dudley stepped back into her pin, stupid child.”

“I wonder she doesn’t leave,” said Sirius. Madam Malkin had always seemed so stern and no-nonsense whenever he’d had to cross paths with her.

Arabella snorted. “I reckon she would if her wasn’t paying her so much.” Arabella always referred to Petunia as ‘her’. It made for confusing conversation, but the older lady had never forgiven Petunia for ignoring Harry. “Or if,” she laughed, “her didn’t waste a load of money every month on so for a load of fabric for clothes that never get made!”

“Well, they’re getting made this time,” Sirius commentated, pouring Arabella a cup, who accepted it gratefully. He tried to ignore the comment Arabella had made about Madam Malkin’s large pay as it just made him angry and poor company.

“Waste of bloody money,” Arabella snorted. “If they’ve not been to Court in these past 17 years then they ain’t going now. Especially now that they’ve done away with poor Harry. I don’t like her, but she’s no fool neither.”

She’s not a fool, Sirius agreed with that whole heartedly. But then here she was going to Court. He had a nice, mental image of the Dursleys getting to the gates before deciding no, this wasn’t the year, but quickly dismissed it. Amusing thought, yes, but sadly it wouldn’t be happening.

Tonks let off a massive yawn and Sirius scowled. It should have been his job to drive the carriage. Strangely, however, the Dursleys seemed disinclined to trust him and had ordered the poor exhausted Tonks to do it instead. It was conditioned, of course, upon her choosing a sensible colour for her hair or they would first give her legs and backside a good lashing first. Tonks, not willing to endure the agony that would involve, had thus muted her hair to a dismal mousy brown, pulled back out of her face. All the metamorphic skill in world, however, could not hide the huge shadows under her eyes.

“Well, I never thought I’d see the day,” Sirius muttered to her, still slightly disbelieving.

She shook her head. “Me neither. But we always knew they were a bunch of idiots.”

Sirius gave a short bark of laughter but felt uneasy. Petunia was a cold, calculating bitch. There had to be some gain in this for her – she would not be going through this plan if it was as seemingly stupid as the rest of them thought. Something else was going on here, but for the life of him, Sirius couldn’t figure out what. Instead his thoughts were just going round and round in circles.

“Bloody hell!” Tonks said suddenly before making an odd choking noise. Sirius looked at her in alarm before realising that she was trying not to laugh. Following her gaze, Sirius found he was soon making choking noises of his own.

Dudley Dursley looked extremely uncomfortable in his Court clothes, tugging at the unfamiliar fabric. In all fairness to Madam Malkin she had had done a very good job to try and flatter Dudley’s rather rotund figure especially given all the difficulties she and her assistants had faced. The tunic was a velvety blue, with white diamonds embroidered on the chest and white accents on the puffed upper sleeves. Madam Malkin had also added a sleeveless, knee-length silvery robe which, whilst maybe not being the height of fashion, certainly did much to disguise Dudley’s bulk.

What Tonks and Sirius were sniggering at, however, was not Dudley’s outfit but rather the two things he had chosen to accessorize them with; a feathered hat that added half again to Dudley’s height and his new sword which was so long it dragged against the floor.

Sirius first wondered where on earth they’d found a bird to have a feather that big before his brain caught up to his thoughts and he realised that it was probably engorged. He got a rather evil little kick out of a Dursley wearing something so obviously bewitched when they rather despised magic. It was dyed a light silvery blue to match Dudley’s outfit and swayed violently to and fro as Dudley walked out towards the carriage.

Whilst he laughed at the feather, Sirius couldn’t help wincing as the sword made a grating sound as it was dragged across the ground. Remus had mentioned that sword earlier and, now that he thought about it, Sirius remembered watching the Dursleys enter into the sword shop when Hermione was changing. It probably cost a fortune and there it was, being dragged across the ground like a wooden toy. ‘At least,’ Sirius consoled himself, ‘it’s in the sheath.’ If it hadn’t then no doubt there would be gouges all over Godric’s Hollow and the Palace.

Petunia emerged after her son, dressed far more sedately in a burgundy dress although its skirts seemed to treble her skinny width. She was also wearing an expression of immense pride. “You look wonderful, Duddykins,” she told him, smiling proudly, causing another outburst of smothered giggling.

“Right proper gentleman,” Vernon agreed gruffly, clapping Dudley’s back.

“It’s uncomfortable,” Dudley complained, pulling again at the fabric.

“It’s only for a short while, sweetums,” Petunia placated, pausing to reset the clothing the Dudley had set off with his fidgeting. “And the sword looks absolutely wonderful. Have you decided what to name it, yet?”

Dudley put a hand over the grip and grinned. “Stabber,” he said.

Vernon gave out a loud chortle. “That’s my boy, call it what it is,” he boomed. “I won’t have with all these fancy, wishy washy names. A sword is a weapon, not a piece of jewellery.”

“Well, Vernon, we had better be off,” Petunia said. She looked at him knowingly. “Don’t want to be late.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked towards Sirius and Tonks who, mercifully, had managed to control themselves by then. “You there – get the horses ready, we must be off. And you, get back into the house! If you haven’t got anything better to do than laze about then I’m sure I can find you something to do!” she threatened.

Only years of practice had enabled the Hollow’s servants to distinguish which ‘you’ meant who. “I’d better be off,” Sirius whispered to Tonks under the pretence of checking the horses reigns. “Keep an eye and an ear out – I want to know what they’re up to.”

“Will do, Sirius,” Tonks agreed, hopping up on to the driver’s seat. “I’ll see you later.”

As Sirius headed off towards the stables he felt someone watching him and turned round. Petunia met his eyes and Sirius was uneasy to see a flash of triumph in her eyes. She looked away almost immediately, going to help Dudley get his enormous hat in the carriage without bending the feather or shutting it in the door.

Ordinarily the scene would have filled Sirius with mirth, but that look of triumph had really unsettled him. ‘Looks like I shouldn’t have laughed at Remus yesterday,’ Sirius thought, a little bit guilty. But honestly it made no sense. What on earth were the Dursleys up to?

Ginny was absolutely furious.

Sadly, she recognised, it was becoming an all too common occurrence recently. She shot an angry look at her mother who ignored it with well-practiced ease. Her father didn’t ignore her, however, but simply told her, “Just wait and see.”

She scowled. It wasn’t like she had much of a choice. And she didn’t see why she had to meet this stupid earl in the first place, especially when she probably would be doing everything she could to get out of marrying him. But her parents had other plans.

“You should meet him, pumpkin,” her father had said that morning when they dropped this bombshell. “You never know, you might like him.”

“What,” Ginny had said rudely, “like an old fart who’s old enough to be my grandfather? No chance!”

The Queen and Percy had glared at her balefully, although Ron tried hard to not snort into his eggs. “Actually, Ginevra, he’s about Ronald’s age.”

Ginny and Ron had both stared at their mother in surprise. “Really?” Ron asked. “Do I know him?”

But she had shaken her head. “I don’t think so – apparently he was home-schooled, his family didn’t want to send him to Durmstrang.”

“Oh.” Ginny had pondered this whilst she finished her breakfast. Her visions of her future husband had always been nightmares of a crusty old man, doddering about a rundown castle somewhere. She had never once considered that the Earl might be about her age.

That still doesn’t mean I want to marry him,’ she thought fiercely, glaring at the doors that would soon reveal her ‘fate’. Further questioning of her parents revealed that they had never met the boy either but said that his mother and father, who had died when he was little, were very well spoken of. When it turned out that they hadn’t met them either, Ginny gave it up. ‘Just excuses to try and make me – no, them! – feel better about selling me off.

She shot a look across to Ron who sent her a sympathetic look. She rather despised Ron at the moment. It was alright for him – he’d found someone! And yes, whilst Lily was very mysterious, she was also good fun, intelligent and had a mind of her own. Huzzah for Ron.

But as for Ginny she only had three days – THREE DAYS – left to find someone and here her precious time was being eaten up by meeting with her mysterious fiancée. She did think it extremely unfair of her parents – Ron didn’t have to meet his French Princess until after he decided to marry her. Why did she have to meet hers first?

Bloody Merlin,’ Ginny thought, stiffening up in terror as the doors to the receiving chamber suddenly opened. ‘This is it!

The herald strode in and announced, “His Grace, Earl Harry James Potter and his aunt, the Lady Petunia Dursley.”

Ginny stared. And stared. ‘Oh, please Merlin, no!’ she prayed as horror unfurled inside her.

For Harry James Potter was an idiot.

He was a large man, that much was obvious, although his clothes had been well tailored for his size. That she could deal with. But unfortunately for Ginny she had grown rather used to reading her would-be suitors. You had to be when you were a Royal Princess because they could pop up anywhere. And, as clear as day, she could say that her would-be fiancée was a total idiot. She could see it in his stupid grinning face; the way he strutted into the room; the way the ridiculous feather on his hat brushed the floor as he bowed; the way the sword he wore sheathed at his belt scraped along the floor…

“Your Majesties,” he intoned, “Your Highnesses.”

It seemed even Ginny’s parents were a little taken aback too, because there was a weighty pause before King Arthur said, “Earl Potter, Lady Dursley. Welcome to the palace. May I introduce my wife, Queen Molly, my two sons, Princes Percy and Ronald, and, of course, Princess Ginevra.”

Ginny inclined her head as shortly as she could feasibly get away with and looked back up to see Earl Potter grinning at her with an almost greedy expression.

I HATE you,’ Ginny thought fiercely to her parents. ‘How in the name of Merlin can they do this to me? ‘Nice parents’ my royal arse!

“Would you like to join us for some tea?” Queen Molly asked.

“Tea would be lovely, Your Majesty, thank you.”

Ginny had almost forgotten that a Lady had entered with Earl Potter – his aunt, if she remembered correctly. Looking over at the blond haired woman she felt a chill go through her. Whatever her nephew might be, this woman was not an idiot. Her expression did hold hints of greed, just like him, but it was tempered by a look of cool calculation. This was not a Lady to be trifled with.

As the small company moved towards the set of chairs laid out for them, Ginny was horrified to see that Potter was heading straight for her. She shot a desperate glance at Ron who, seeing her troubles, quickly moved to try and intercept him. Alas, however, he was not quite fast enough and had to settle onto Ginny’s other side instead. He did, however, give Ginny’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

“So, Harry,” King Arthur said kindly, once everyone was settled. “I hear that you were tutored at home by some of the finest educators in the Kingdom. You must have learnt some fascinating things.”

“We made sure he would only have the best, Your Majesty,” Lady Dursley said, smiling fondly at her nephew. “After all, we felt like we just couldn’t send him to Durmstrang when it became apparent he did not inherit his parents’ magical gifts. To see the others learning magic and be forever reminded what he was lacking…” She shook her head sadly.

“Well, Durmstrang does educate both wizards and muggles, Lady Petunia,” Queen Molly pointed out, accepting the cup of tea a footman presented her.

“Oh, I know, Your Majesty,” Dursley agreed, “but it still seemed rather cruel. Besides, I must admit to being a little selfish; after what happened to my own boy I couldn’t bear to be apart from dear Harry.”

Well that might explain a few things,’ Ginny thought. ‘He’s a mummy’s boy. Or is that aunty’s boy?

“Oh dear, what happened to your son?” the Queen asked, looking worried.

Petunia shook her head sadly. “He died of pneumonia,” she said, quietly. “He was only 4 years old. My poor, beautiful Dudley.”

The King and Queen looked rather awkward at that, the Queen’s eyes glistening with tears. Ginny did feel sorry for Lady Petunia, it was an awful thing to lose your son, but she couldn’t help but feel a bit cynical about the way she had dragged her dead boy into the conversation. This show of affection didn’t at all fit in with the calculating expression she had espied earlier on.

Then she shook her head mentally. ‘Snap out of it, Ginny, you’re just looking for a reason to hate this woman and her awful nephew. Don’t be so cynical.

Her mother had taken Dursley’s hand. “You poor dear,” she said sympathetically. “It must be awful to lose a child. I thank Merlin every day that all seven of mine survived, although it was almost a relief to get into the palace and have access to all the healers we could need.”

“Your Majesties have indeed been very lucky,” Dursley agreed and then the conversation fell silent once more. Ginny sipped her tea woodenly, hardly noticing when the hot liquid burned her lips. Even when she couldn’t see him she could feel Potter’s eyes on her and it made her skin crawl. She suddenly found her wishing fervently for that crusty old man of her nightmares. Surely he – or anyone! – would be better than the creep sat next to her now?

“You have a wonderful sword, Earl Potter,” Ron said suddenly, making her start slightly. “Can I look at it?”

Potter smirked. “Of course, Your Highness,” he simpered, standing and unclipping the sword from his belt. “It’s an early birthday present from mu – my aunt and uncle.” Having unclipped the enormous sword, however, he struggled slightly to pass it over to Ron, who had come up behind Ginny.

Ron looked at it closely and even Ginny, who knew nothing about swords, could tell it was a magnificent blade. ‘What a waste it is on him,’ she thought, admiring the gleaming silver of the blade and the beautiful rubies set into the pommel. It was too long by far for Potter to handle, but Ron, who was at least 7 inches taller, handled it easily. He swung the weapon carefully through the air a few times before handing back to a slightly jealous looking Potter who nearly dropped it.

“It’s a brilliant sword,” Ron said, only just remembering to bow in Dursley’s direction. “You should come and have a bout with some of us one day.”

Ginny tried not to giggle as Potter went a bit pale at that. It was apparent to everyone he could not lift the blade, even if he did know how to wield it which Ginny doubted. “Oh, er, n-no thank you, Your Highness,” he stuttered, looking to his aunt nervously.

“Really?” Ron asked, looking surprised. “Don’t you want to show off such a fantastic weapon?”

“Oh, er, well – ” Potter spluttered again before the King cut across him.

“Now, now, Ron,” he said sternly, although his eyes twinkled merrily. “Don’t harass our guest.”

“Sorry, father,” Ron said, bowing towards him and then at Potter, who looked confused but relieved.

“Princess Ginevra,” Dursley suddenly said in the silence that followed, “I was wondering if you would like to accompany myself and Harry to the market tomorrow morning. We are so looking forward to welcoming you into our family, after all, and want you to get to know us before the wedding.”

“Oh, er,” Ginny said in a startlingly good impression of Potter. She had frozen up once more. All she wanted to do was scream ‘No, no, NO!’ at Dursley and Potter but she couldn’t think of any polite way of refusing. She had to find a way out of this marriage and she was never going to do that unless she had time to actually go looking for someone – anyone – else to marry!

“I think that sounds like a lovely idea,” Queen Molly interrupted whilst Ginny was frozen in thought. All pretence at civility gone, Ginny shot her mother a look of horror. Luckily Dursley and Potter were looking at the Queen and did not notice. “Although I think, for proprieties sake, Lady Petunia, that I had better send along Prince Ronald and maybe Lord Longbottom too as chaperones.”

Dursley found no objection to that. “That sounds wonderful, Your Majesty,” she said, smiling sweetly at the Queen. “You really are most thoughtful. We shall call for you at half ten then?”

As the Queen made noises of agreement and Dursley and Potter made to leave, Ginny stood woodenly to her feet. She hardly remembered what she said in farewell, although she vivdly remembered the sloppy kiss Potter boldly placed on her hand. All she knew was that as soon as they were going she whirled round on her parents.

“If you think that anything in the world will make me marry that oaf then you have another thing coming!”

The King and Queen looked suitably uncomfortable. “Well, he wasn’t what we were expecting,” her father admitted slowly, “but I’m sure he improves when you get to know him better.” He sounded a bit doubtful at that.

“And don’t forget,” Queen Molly added as Ginny made to make a furious rebuttal, “that our compromise is still available to you. Find someone you love and we’ll break the contract. Don’t waste your time ranting and raving, Ginevra. You’ve got some work to do.”

Yes I have,’ Ginny thought furiously as she stormed out from the room, almost knocking over the poor Herald. ‘And you can bet your stupid crown that I’m never going to marry Early Harry James sodding Potter. Not in a million years!

As worrying as the Dursley’s attendance at Court was, it did bring about an unexpected bonus. Whilst it was true that Vernon was still in the manor he had ordered Remus to bring him up a bottle of their best port, fully intending to drink himself into oblivion whilst his son and wife were away. This meant that the rest of the manor was free for a badly needed meeting between all the servants, minus Tonks.

However, it was very difficult for the small group to settle down to business because all they could talk about were the startling developments in the Dursley household.

“But it’s ridiculous!” Harry kept protesting. “It makes no sense – why now? As far as they’re aware I’m on my way to the other side of the world by now. What will they do if someone asks them to produce me?”

“Maybe they’ll just tell the truth,” Remus suggested. He laughed when the others looked at him derisively. “Not that they sold him – maybe just that he decided to go to the Americas, start a new life there.”

Sirius made a face. “I bloody well hope not, because there’s no way to prove they’re lying in that case.”

“I’m sure it will seem suspicious though,” Hermione said. “Someone might suspect something.”

“Yeah, it probably will,” Sirius agreed. “But they still won’t be able to prove anything.”

“Maybe Petunia’s realised what a pickle she’s got herself into and is trying to marry Dudley off to some rich and powerful family for added protection?” Harry suggested, with a grin which then turned into a full blown laugh. “Or maybe they’re going after Princess Ginevra – oh, I hope Tonks gets a good view of that one!”

They all laughed. Harry and Hermione had, of course, filled both wizards in on their doings the day before and they knew that Princess Ginevra wouldn’t look too kindly on Dudley propositioning her.

“Well, whatever the reason it doesn’t bode well for us,” Remus said as the laughter died down, getting them back on topic. “We don’t know what they’re doing, or how they’re behaving at Court… they could very well be forming alliances, making allies, that will work against us when we try to tell the truth.”

“Then we need to make some allies of our own,” Harry decided firmly. “Sirius, Remus, you must have some old contacts from somewhere that will be willing to listen to you.”

Sirius and Remus exchanged looks. “Maybe Baron Greenback,” Sirius said slowly. “He was a couple of years above your Dad and me at Durmstrang. Nice chap, muggle… I think he’s something to do with the palace treasury now.”

“I could talk to some of Lily and James’ old acquaintances,” Remus added. “Some of them might be willing to listen. Countess McGonagall, Lady McKinnon – no, she’s a Barleigh now – Baron Thomas…”

“Do you think Tonks will have any?” Hermione asked, for the older witch was still stuck at the palace with Dudley and Petunia. “She goes travelling all over for the Dursleys on business, maybe she can talk to some of them.”

“That’s a brilliant idea, Hermione,” Remus beamed. His face dropped, “Although I don’t want to have to send her out again, she’s only just got back.”

Sirius sniggered slightly. He had become convinced a few months ago that Remus had a ‘thing’ for his young cousin and nothing Remus said would convince him otherwise. Now Remus had learnt to just ignore the immature ageing prankster.

“Well we still have that money from the Princess,” Hermione said slowly, also ignoring Sirius. “We can use that to hire owls from the post office and send letters so she could stay close by.” The Potters had had their very own owl, a beautiful eagle owl called Beaks, until the Dursleys had tired of the owl’s shrieking and ordered it killed. Sirius and Remus suspected that that had just been an excuse, for it left their servants with no easy way of sending out letters to others. Now they had to rely on regular mail or the faster owl service the post office offered, both of which cost a lot of money.

“Let’s just hope that they’ll believe us,” Remus said, sounding tired. The full moon had only been 3 nights ago though it seemed much longer than that. What with all the chaos and upset that had happened he had even less chance to recover than he normally did and it was finally getting to him.

“What are we going to do if they do believe us?” Harry asked.

“We go to the King, of course,” Sirius said.

“Oh, ‘of course’,” Harry mimicked sarcastically.

Sirius mock-glared at him. “Be quiet, impudent pup!” he ordered and ruffled Harry’s hair with a laugh. Harry grinned back at Sirius. Merlin, it had only been two days but he’d missed Sirius and Remus. Although he couldn’t exactly say he’d been bored, what with the Prince and – the Prince!

“The Prince!” he exclaimed out loud. “What an idiot, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier. Hermione, we have to tell the Prince.”

Hermione looked alarmed. “I thought we decided yesterday we couldn’t,” she protested, nervously.

“Yes and in hindsight that was a very good decision,” Harry agreed, “but the Prince likes you. Not to mention Princess Ginevra and Lord Longbottom. That’s a way in – a very good way in.”

Hermione’s alarm hadn’t lessened. “But Harry no matter how much good feeling they have towards me it’s bound to be completely destroyed when they found out I lied about who I was!”

“She’s got a point, Harry,” Remus said, frowning thoughtfully. “This is a very delicate matter. Although Hermione wasn’t intending to deceive the Prince and Princess at first, if she keeps up this façade then it’s deliberate deception. And trust, once lost, is very hard to earn back,” he added ruefully.

“It’s worth a shot,” Sirius said, eventually. “I know you’ve had bad experiences before Remus – we all have – but this Prince Ronald sounds like a decent person. Maybe a little thick-headed about certain things, but I still think he’ll listen past the shock of discovering who ‘Lily’ really is to listen to Hermione’s story.”

Remus considered this but Hermione was adamantly shaking her head. “No, no! I can’t!” she insisted, looking teary-eyed with panic. “I’m barely keeping up this charade as it is, I just don’t think I can do it!”

“What happened to the fearless Countess who rescued me from the cages?” Harry asked, teasing.

Hermione sniffed a little. “That was different,” she said. “I was doing it for you.”

“Well, you’re doing this for me as well,” Harry pointed out, with a wry grin. “And Sirius, and Remus and Tonks.”

“Don’t forget yourself, Hermione,” Sirius added, quietly. She looked over at him and his eyes blazed with passion. “If we can pull this off – if you can – then you’ll be free of the Dursleys for ever.”

Hermione didn’t say anything for a while. Eventually she gave a quiet sniff, pulled herself upright and out of Harry’s arms. “I’ll do it,” she said resolutely, “for us.”

“For us,” the others echoed solemnly.

“So, we’d better get ahead with planning operation “Ronald”,” Harry said with a grin after the moment had passed. Hermione groaned.

“I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?” she asked, half serious, half laughing.

“No regrets, Countess,” Sirius teased her. “Besides,” he added, “what could go wrong?”

Famous last words.

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