Ever After


The task of waiting on the Family of a noble estate was always subject to much contestation amongst the servants. Contrary to the majority, however, the servants of Godric’s Hollow fought and argued with each other to not receive the dubious honour. The bulk of the time such competition was moot as the Dursleys preferred to humiliate their noble relative with the menial, subservient duty. When Harry was otherwise indisposed, however, the fight between the other three servants could dissolve into some rather imaginative pranking.

Now, with Harry a fugitive, Hermione juggling her tasks with looking after him and Sirius liable to commit a triple homicide if left in the presence of the Dursleys for any period of time, the doubtful honour had fallen to Remus.

“You rang, my Lord, my Lady?” he intoned mildly.

As usual, the Dursleys didn’t even glance at him. “Yes,” Petunia said, as succinctly as possible, as though every millisecond spent talking to him caused her pain. “Madam Malkin will be here soon. Make refreshments.”

Remus bowed, face as blank as ever, although inwardly he was very surprised. The Dursleys seemed to go through a phase every four to five months of ‘preparing’ Dudley for court. Usually all that this entailed was a slew of orders, rather patchy etiquette lessons and wasting money on materials for a new set of court dress that were never made. This was a break in the pattern. And not a good break.

“Of course, my Lady,” Remus agreed, backing out of the family drawing room. As he walked back to the kitchen, his mind worried at this new development. Could it be that, rather than pretending at it, the Dursleys were actually going to present Dudley to the Royal Court?

‘But it makes no sense,’ Remus thought, frowning. ‘If they present Dudley then surely someone is going to remember Harry eventually. Then what will they do?

But no matter how much he told himself that it made no sense, Remus couldn’t fight off the worry and nervousness he was feeling inside. And, to add to the evidence, he suddenly remembered the fuss and bother at the market yesterday.

Remus didn’t know why the Dursleys bothered to parade around the market place, trying on jewellery, examining furniture and analysing the latest fashions. They had driven the farm into the ground, only the magical expertise of its servants able to keep the farm afloat. Every time they went on a spending splurge at the market place the next day more and more of Lily and James’ possessions were sold off the next day to try and satisfy the creditors.

But then, he thought bitterly, they had a sudden surplus of money these days. He didn’t know how much a servant went for these days, but it seemed to be enough to warrant a spending spree.

And a worthless one at that,’ Remus thought incredulously, trying to keep the expression from leaking onto his emotionless façade as he watched all three Dursleys converge on the shop belonging to the best sword makers in London.

“Well, what do you think, Dudley?” Vernon rumbled, looking around. “Need to have a decent sword to be a proper nobleman.”

Dudley looked around at all the gleaming weapons with an expression of unadulterated greed. Watching him, Remus felt a pang of anxiety. Dudley was a monster, yes, but given his aversion to exercise and movement in general he was a rather safe monster. Give him a weapon… Remus shuddered.

“How about this one, Diddykins?” Petunia asked, looking rather uncertainly at a short sword with an inlaid gold handle.

“May I help you?” The salesman, sensing a sale, appeared at Petunia’s elbow. “Er… my Lord, my Lady,” he added hastily as Petunia glared at him expectantly.

“Yes, we require a sword,” Petunia said stiffly, inclining her head towards Dudley who was still staring round in glee.

“Of course, a sword for the young master,” the salesman agreed, nodding enthusiastically. “Will this be your first sword, my Lord?” he asked Dudley.

“Yes, yes, get on with it,” Vernon roared, impatiently, glaring at the man. “We’ve told you what we want, don’t try and waste time from your work in idle conversation with your betters. Lazy beggar! If we get any more of this time-wasting attitude then we’ll get you thrown out onto the street!”

The poor salesman blanched and hurriedly run off to fetch them a suitable sword. Remus stared after him sympathetically. The threat Vernon made was sadly not an empty one. No matter how unreasonable – or hideous – they were, and no matter how prosperous the merchant, if a noble took it to their head to destroy them there was not much a commoner could do to stop them.

As the merchant came back with a selection of swords, Remus caught Petunia’s eye. She wrinkled her nose at him and snapped, “Wait outside.”

More than happy to escape the uncomfortable atmosphere of the shop Remus stepped outside and took a welcome breath of fresh air. Settling into a more comfortable stance Remus couldn’t help his gaze from wandering over to Madam Malkins.

He had managed to avoid it so far, fearing that if he looked at it too often the Dursleys would notice and somehow, inexplicably, work out that something was up. Yes, it was irrational and in more ways than one; for starters the Dursleys took great care to never look at their servants more than was physically unavoidable. They preferred to treat them more as moving furniture; useful, but unthinking. And for the second, even if they did notice Remus glancing more frequently than usual at Madam Malkins they would never guess the reason was that Hermione was inside, preparing to rescue Earl Harry Potter from the imprisonment they had condemned him to.

Good luck, Hermione,’ Remus thought, hardly even able to think of all that weighed on the poor witches shoulders. He looked on Hermione as a daughter, just as Harry was his son. He almost forbade her to go, not being able to bear losing another child. But he also trusted her and it was for that reason alone that he had convinced Sirius to let Hermione try.

“No!” Petunia’s suddenly snapped out from inside the shop. Remus jumped and whipped around, briefly worrying that his subversive thoughts had gotten her attention. “That’s far too short; it needs to draw attention.”

“I fear, my Lady, anything larger may make him fall over,” came the quivering voice of the salesman. Remus could almost hear the glares he must be getting for making that comment.

“Perhaps you are right,” Petunia said icily. Remus caught a glimpse of her moving towards the door. “We shall have to look elsewhere.”

“Wait! I have just the thing!” At once the shape of Petunia moved back out of view.

Poor man,’ Remus thought, not for the first time. He could clearly hear the resignation in the man’s voice; whilst he would have loved to have been freed from the rude, demanding Dursleys, if it became known he let a sale pass from his grasp then he could have lost his job. If the Dursleys put it about town that he was difficult then the shop could lose business. The Dursleys were such a vile example of humanity. Harry was their only real chance at getting rid of them.

‘Good luck, Hermione,’ he repeated and sent a silent prayer to anyone who was listening to let him keep his strange little family together.

And it seemed that Remus’ faith had paid off. He wished he could have seen Hermione in all her splendour. As it was he only caught a quick glimpse of her that afternoon as she had run back into the homestead, beautiful gown stuffed into an ugly brown cloth bag to return to Arabella as soon as possible, hair an unruly mess once more.

De-robed and un-made as she was, however, the pure joy made her look prettier than ever and Remus suddenly appreciated more than ever that the frightened little girl they had taken in so many years ago was now a wonderful, intelligent adult. He couldn’t be more proud.

“I did it, Remus!” she cried, grabbing his hands and dancing him round the kitchen. “Harry’s safe.”

“Brilliant, Hermione!” Remus said, grabbing the young girl into a hug. “Is he ok? They didn’t hurt him?”

Hermione shook her head although she looked a bit uncertain. “No, they didn’t hurt him – not more than to be expected in a prison. But they were getting ready to ship him out that day – I only just arrived in time!”

Remus stared at her, aghast. If they had delayed their plans by one day – or even from the sound of it a mere ten minutes than Harry would have been lost to them forever. “Then we must thank God for our unexpected saviour,” he said eventually. “If Princess Ginevra hadn’t stolen that broomstick –and you caught her…”

Hermione nodded, suddenly solemn. “We were very lucky.”

They stood there in silence before a noise from upstairs suddenly brought reality back to them. Although the Dursleys couldn’t possibly know about Harry’s miraculous recovery if they caught Hermione hanging about down below no doubt they would find some task for her to perform that would stop her getting back to him.

“I’m just going to grab some food and blankets,” Hermione said, piling her chosen provisions into a basket. Tapping the basket she murmured a quick notice-me-not charm. It would not do for the Dursleys to spy her from the house and wonder where she was taking so much food!

“We’ll try and get together tomorrow evening,” Remus murmured to her, opening the back door. “Tonks should be back tomorrow and we can plan what to do next.”

Hermione nodded, smiled, gave him one last joyful hug and whisked out of sight.

Climbing down the stairs into the kitchen, Remus was surprised to see Sirius. His best friend rarely made it into the house during the daytime, busy with overseeing the farm and horses. He also, though he would never admit, went out of his way to avoid the Dursleys wherever he could.

“What are you doing inside, Sirius?” Remus asked, frowning. Was something wrong?

“Garden needs de-gnoming,” Sirius shrugged nonchalantly, although his eyes twinkled merrily. “I have to ask their permission.

Gnomes seemed to be a constant irritation to the lands of Godric’s Hollow. The Dursley family took this sudden need to de-gnome the garden as yet another sign that magic was unnatural and incorrigible – after all, however many times their faithful staff went out to exterminate them, the supernatural creatures always seemed to grow back in numbers ridiculously fast. Having been bitten by gnomes before, the Dursleys scowled whenever Sirius informed them that they were out of control and gave him leave to spend the day getting rid of them.

Of course, what Sirius had failed to mention was that de-gnoming an estate – even one so large as Godric’s Hollow – took very little time and did not, in fact, involve any sort of extermination. As a result, the Dursleys spent the day huddled in the house, fearful of even looking out the windows in case they accidentally inhaled some sort of poisonous substance or glimpsed the light of a spell, whilst their servants could enjoy a wee bit of free time away from their oppressors.

Remus’ frown deepened. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” he said slowly.

“Why not?” Sirius asked, scowling. “I need to see my Godson!”

“Well I can’t blame you for that, Padfoot,” Remus said, “but they just summoned me to make tea and refreshments for Madam Malkin.” At Sirius’ confused look, he added, “Seems they’re being fitted for Court clothes today.”

Sirius’ confused look turned into one of incredulity. “Court clothes?” he repeated. “You mean they’re actually making some?”

“It seems so.” Remus paused for a bit before shooting a worried look at his best friend. “Sirius, you don’t think they actually mean to go to Court this year, do you?”

Sirius gave out his bark of laughter. “Don’t be ridiculous, Moony, the nearest they’ve ever been to the palace is the market place!”

Remus, however, was not convinced. “But there was that sword, yesterday…” He hadn’t actually properly seen the thing they’d bought, wrapped in heavy cloth as it was, but he certainly knew the weight of it. His arms still ached from carrying it back to the Hollow. And the salesman was right; it was far too long for Dudley.

Sirius was not to be swayed. “Just another pointless extravagance at Harry’s expense,” he dismissed. “Besides, they’d have to be completely insane to present Dudley at Court without Harry. The Potters are a very old and important noble family. People are bound to notice his absence.” When Remus didn’t say anything, he changed the subject thinking the argument was over.

And in a way it was over, for Remus could not think of a single reason why the Dursleys would ignore Sirius' point. Dudley and maybe Vernon were stupid enough to try but the real power in the family lay in Petunia and she was one cunning woman. She would never be so stupid or ignorant, like Sirius had pointed out to him.

Would she?

Neville’s day had started out normally enough. Waking up not too long after dawn, he joined in with the aurors as they performed their daily morning training. That particular day it consisted of a 3 mile run, half an hour of muscle strengthening and then a series of fencing bouts in which Neville was victor for all but one, where he was most soundly trounced by Auror Shacklebolt.

Very few of Neville’s fellow nobles bothered with such an exhausting commitment as daily auror training. The aurors were not the Royal Guards for just their fancy wand work after all. Ron, despite having been along to one of Neville’s first training sessions, and most of their peers were quite baffled by Neville’s continuing hard work. Nobility, after all, handed them all an easy, comfortable life, free of any obligation to work hard at anything at all. To learn the art of fencing was considered part of a noble son’s standard education but it was only ever used for two different purposes; to exhibit skill in competition and to settle disputes. Fencing was a hobby for these nobles, nothing more.

Neville, however, had a secret ambition, one that he had never told anyone, not even Ron. Duke Frankincense Longbottom, currently working as his Majesty’s Royal Ambassador to Florence, had been the Captain of the Aurors for fifteen years. As well as receiving many honours during his tenure, Neville’s father had also done much good for the Kingdom. Most notably, he played a large part in keeping the Kingdom together during the unease and unrest that had gripped England in the wake of King Ignatius’ passing. A Royal death and a series of abdications did not bode well for a happy country and many had taken advantage of England’s weakened state.

Neville had grown up listening to his father’s stories of uncovering treasonous plots, arresting thieves, unearthing foreign spies and once even foiling an aristocratic kidnapping ring. Duke Longbottom instilled in his young son a sense of duty and responsibility towards crown and country that he had never forgotten.

So Neville worked and practiced, no matter what the weather threw at him, nor the insults that followed, to be the very best and get to know the men that he one day secretly hoped to lead, just like his father.

Once practice was over, Neville made his way to the bath house for a quick was before heading back to his rooms to mentally prepare himself for what was increasingly becoming the most trying part of his day.

This daily trial was a fairly recent addition to Neville’s day. Before, he could eat breakfast with his peers; if Ron was awake and not called to a family meal then they would breakfast whilst planning what to do with their day; and sometimes he would eat by himself, just for the company of his own thoughts. Unfortunately, a solitary breakfast was now nought but a distant dream.

“Good morning, Neville.”

“Good morning, Grandmother.”

Dowager Duchess Augusta Longbottom looked down the breakfast table at her grandson, scrutinising him closely. Ever since hearing that Neville had declined to accompany his parents to Florence, choosing instead to remain at Court, the Duchess had taken it upon herself to ensure that Neville was both looked after – despite his protests that he was nearly of age – and did honour to the family name.

Neville could now translate these into plain English;

a) Order him about

b) Marry him off to a suitable bride

This last one was the one that gave Neville the most grief. Generally most of his Grandmother’s orders were sensible things that he had either already done or was about to do. The more nonsensical ones he interpreted as suggestions that he didn’t then follow up. Luckily alongside his sense of righteousness and honour, Frank Longbottom had made to instil in his son a lot of self-confidence. This made a handy shield against the sometimes rather demanding Duchess and she had given up rather early on about controlling every aspect of Neville’s life.

There was one aspect, however, that she refused to let hold of.

“Is that a black eye I see coming on, Neville?” the Duchess asked, frowning disapprovingly at him. “It really is not seemly; no decent Lady will come within 5 feet of you.”

Neville touched his left eye tentatively. Ah, yes. He had taken part in an unarmed combat fighting bout with some of the aurors during training that morning and the second guard he had fought had just clipped his eye whilst Neville struggled to get out of his grip. If his Grandmother could already see it then it was going to be completely black and blue by lunch time for sure. It didn’t hurt as much as it probably looked – one of the few perks of getting repeatedly beaten up.

“I thought the ladies preferred black eyes – evidence of danger, a bit of excitement,” Neville quipped, digging into his breakfast. Training was hungry work.

Duchess Longbottom wrinkled her nose. “Scars are attractive to ladies,” she corrected primly. “They are evidence of partaking in a sword fight, a much nobler weapon than brawling with your bare hands like a commoner.”

“I do apologise, Grandmother,” Neville said solemnly. “Next time I shall try my very hardest to get stabbed instead.”

She glared down the table at him so forcefully that he struggled not to laugh out loud. He did love his Grandmother – sort of – but she was so strict and disapproving of everything he did that he couldn’t help but bait her.

“Yes, well, at least it will be hidden by the masque at the ball but finding any decent sort of Lady to accompany you…” she broke off with a dramatic sigh. “We may well have to use some of my magical blemish powder.”

Neville didn’t know which alarmed him more; the idea of makeup or the idea of a ball. “A ball, Grandmother?” he asked, deciding on the latter. “I’ve not heard about any ball.”

“I’m not surprised, letting common guards beat you up and gallivanting off around the countryside rescuing Princesses that you won’t even marry,” she stopped once again, sighing wearily. Neville’s refusal to marry Ginny – whom he saw almost as a little sister, the idea of marrying was alien and uncomfortable – was a very sore subject with the Duchess. After all, there wasn’t a much better match than to marry a Princess.

Letting her disappointment with her Grandson fade, Duchess Longbottom gave herself a little shake. “Now, as I was saying, their Majesties are throwing a grand ball – masquerade – to honour our new Masters in residence and, of course, the impending marriages of Prince Ronald and Princes Ginevra. You, Neville, will find yourself a suitable noble Lady and accompany her to the ball. That is an order.”

Neville barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “Grandmother, I love you, but you cannot order me around.”

“Neville,” the Duchess repeated, glaring forcefully at him, “you will find yourself a Lady for this ball or I will find one for you. Am I understood?”

Oh, bloody hell!’ Neville thought, one of Ron’s favourite phrases. He scowled at the table. He had met a few of his Grandmothers’ ideas of suitable dates. The last one, Lady Lavender Brown, still haunted his nightmares sometimes. “Fine, we have an accord.”

His Grandmother smiled happily at him, although it was verging on a satisfied smirk. “Excellent! Now Neville, with regards to who I think your date should be, I believe you should consider – ”

But Neville was thankfully saved from having to listen to his Grandmother prattle on about the virtues of various ladies of the Court by the rather unseemly entrance of Ron.

Bursting through the door, looking as though he were fit to explode, Ron yelled, “Neville, you won’t believe the news I have!”

Neville, rising to his feet, was failing to keep his grin in check as he saw Ron suddenly realise that his best friend was not alone for breakfast. Staring at the Dowager Duchess in something akin to horror as she creakily rose from her seat, Ron went bright red as she bowed neatly to him.

“Good morning, your Highness,” she intoned. Royalty or not, however, she still managed to fix him with a disapproving stare.

“Um, good morning, Duchess,” he replied, sketching an awkward bow in acknowledgment. “I’m, er, sorry to interrupt your breakfast, but would you mind terribly if I stole away Lord Longbottom?”

“Who am I to deny his Highness?” the Duchess replied, although her tone was nothing so meek as her words. “Remember what you have been instructed, Neville. Now begone!”

Neville was so fit to bursting with laughter that he did not trust himself to speak. Instead, he bowed to his Grandmother and scurried out the room, an abashed Ron hot on his heels. Reaching the end of the corridor he suddenly burst into great guffaws of laughter.

“Shut up, Neville,” Ron snapped, ears still red from embarrassment.

“Sorry, Ron,” Neville replied and eventually managed to get his laughter under control. “But what on earth made you rush in like that? You know I always have breakfast with the vulture.”

The ‘vulture’ was their nickname for the Duchess Longbottom. It had originally been ‘dragon’ until Neville had caught sight of a magnificent stuffed vulture in her rooms.

“Just wasn’t thinking,” Ron shrugged, ears calming back down to a more normal colour. “I’ve got some news to tell you.”

“Yeah, already heard about the ball,” Neville said, grimacing. Both Prince and Count-in-Waiting hated royal balls with a passion. “Sucks, hey?”

“No, no, that’s not it!” said Ron, grinning so widely Neville was alarmed. “Well, yeah, they generally do suck, but that’s not my news; the wedding’s off!”

Neville stared at him, flabbergasted. “What, just like that?” he got out eventually. “They only announced it, what, three days ago?”

“Two, actually, but never mind,” said Ron, waving a hand dismissively. “All that matters is Master Dumbledore said some big old story about the power of love and voila! No more French bride.”

Neville still couldn’t believe it. “There’s no catch or anything? You’re just completely single Prince Ronald again? And Ginny, too?”

Ron frowned. “Well, there is a condition,” he admitted. “We have until the ball to find someone we want to truly marry – someone we love – and then we announce our engagement to them instead. Else it goes back to being little miss French Princess.”

Neville couldn’t quite understand why Ron looked so happy about this. “Ron, we haven’t managed to find a girl we want to court in two years – how are you going to find someone you love in two days?!”

Ron didn’t say anything, just went a bit red. Neville had a moment of inspiration. “Is this about that Lady from yesterday?” he asked, teasing.


“Right,” drawled Neville, just like their Durmstrang year mate Lord Draco Malfoy. Malfoy was a bit of a git, but no one had mastered the art of a good sneering drawl like him!

“Shut up, Neville.”

“Ron, you only met her yesterday! Ignoring the fact that all she did was argue with you, do you even know her name?”

“Yep,” Ron said proudly. “Countess Lily Ravenclaw.” He looked at Neville anxiously. “You don’t know her, do you?”

“Sorry, mate, no.” Neville looked back at his rooms considering. “The vulture probably does. Merlin knows, she seems determined to set me up with every eligible lady in the castle.”

Ron winced. “Not even for true love will I face your Grandmother, Neville.”

Neville laughed at that before a thought suddenly struck him. “I say, how’s Ginny coping with all this?”

To say that the answer to that question was not well would be akin to saying that the sea was a ‘bit wet’ or that a quidditch match was ‘vaguely fun’. Princess Ginevra Weasley was in a completely foul mood and wasn’t being particularly secretive about it. They could hear the shouting and crashing three corridors away as they made their way nervously to her suites.

“Erm, maybe we should get her out of the palace to cool down,” Neville suggested to Ron as they stood outside her door which was beginning to smoke a little.

Ron nodded fervently. “Good idea.”

So here Neville was, an hour or so later, watching Ginny explode various stones above the waters of the river. It hadn’t been an easy task getting her along as she was in such a rage that she shot various jinxes at them as soon as they came through the door. Neville had been lucky; part of auror training involved spell dodging. Ron, unfortunately, was a bit too slow and caught Ginny’s bat bogey hex right in the face.

“How’s the nose now, Ron?” Neville asked, looking over at the Prince on the bank next to him.

Ron scowled, prodding carefully at his slightly bruised nose. “Fine, Neville. Just bloody fine.”

Neville grinned but didn’t bait him further. Best friend he may be, but he was a Prince and going through a tough time at the moment. Instead he watched Ginny as she continued to blast pebbles over the water, with surprising accuracy. He didn’t think it fair that his two best friends should have to go through all this worry. He thanked his lucky stars every day that his Grandmother couldn’t arrange a marriage for him without the say of his father else no doubt she would have connived to have him married off long ago.

“Oh, what a shame.”

Neville jumped and twisted around to see what at first appeared to be a massive net. As the net shifted, Ron and Neville found themselves scrambling to their feet as it revealed Lady Luna Lovegood. Today she was dressed all in greens and browns as though attempting to blend in with the surrounding area. She even had created a headdress of leaves and daisies that circled her head like a crown. The whole attempt at camouflage, however, was somewhat spoilt by the large white net that was attached to a long pole she brandished carelessly.

“Oh, er, Lady Luna,” Neville said, sketching a clumsy bow. “What, erm, brings you here?” He nudged Ron in the side to stop staring at her.

“You know the crumple horned snorkack has a most distinctive mating call,” the Lady informed Neville dreamily. “My father told me that it resembled a great crashing of rocks. It doesn’t sound very nice to human ears, of course, but I’m sure it sounds perfectly lovely to another crumple horned snorkack.” She sighed, looking over towards Ginny. “I thought I’d finally manage to catch one,” she admitted sadly, waving her net around (and nearly bonking the rather exasperated guard accompanying her on the head) for emphasis. “Sadly, however, it seems that the mating cry of a crumple horned snorkack is very similar to the sound of exploding rocks.”

Both nobles just stared at her. What on earth could one say in reply to that? Luna frowned at them. “Oh dear,” she said, handing her pole to the surprised guard. “You look as though you’re suffering from a wrackspurt attack.”

And, having said that, she launched herself at them.

Harry jerked awake from another nightmare and berated himself for falling asleep. Again.

That’s the problem,’ he thought, ‘with doing nothing. You can’t do anything to keep your mind off sleeping.’ He had gotten a few scant hours the night before but, just as now, he had been awoken with bad dreams.

He wasn’t sure if remembering them was better than not. He felt that if he could remember what happened then maybe it would disappear from his dream cycle. As it was, he got the feeling that he was just reliving the same nightmare over and over.

Pulling himself to his feet, Harry walked carefully around the small room he had made his ‘home’ in the Shack. It creaked awfully with every step he took and he winced at how loud it sounded in the relative quiet of the Shack. ‘The Dursleys can probably hear this racket back at the manor,’ he thought gloomily, before grabbing a handful of grapes and settling back down on the couch.

Last night Harry had been full of fire and grand ideas on what he wanted to do. In the light of day, plagued by the cobwebs of dreams that he couldn’t remember but still left him unsettled, those grand ideas had failed to materialise into anything resembling a workable plan.

The safest thing seemed to be to wait until his 17th birthday but that was still over a month away. His aunt Petunia was not stupid. She knew that Sirius, Remus, Hermione and Tonks were not just going to sit by and let their crime against Harry go unnoticed. Probably the only reason they were still around at all was because she hadn’t had time to hire new servants and also because she guessed that they were completely clueless as to what to do about her betrayal.

Which, of course, we are, he admitted, frustrated. ‘I mean, what are my options, really? I could go up there and confront them about it – laughable, they’d just contrive to have me shipped to the Americas again. Or worse: Azkaban.

‘Plan 2 is to take this matter directly to the King. That may not be so difficult. I mean, Hermione walked straight into the palace – and talked with the Prince – with no one challenging her. But that’s just the palace grounds. To actually see the King…

“If you want to go outside, Harry, it should be safe for a few hours.”

Harry jumped at the sound of Hermione’s voice to see her smiling in at him from the doorway. ‘Wow, I must have been really absorbed in my thoughts if I didn’t hear her get all the way up that creaky staircase,’ he thought, even as he smiled back. “I think some fresh air would be perfect Hermione, thank you,” he said, getting to his feet with a groan. “I’m getting absolutely nowhere; my head’s just going round and round.”

Hermione’s smile immediately dropped. “Oh, Harry, I know it’s awful, but we will work something out!” she promised, fiercely. “The Dursleys just can’t be allowed to get away with this!”

Harry laughed at how furious she looked, his heart warming. It was so easy, shut up in the gloomy confines of the Shrieking Shack, to forget that he didn’t have to go into battle completely on his own; he had his family, who would stand by his side.

“Don’t worry, Hermione, they won’t,” he said, giving her a huge hug. “How can they, with you, Sirius and Remus by my side?”

She went red but smiled at him. “Come on. Sirius has told the Dursleys it’s degnoming day so they’re going to be shut up inside the manor all afternoon.”

“Excellent,” said Harry, grinning in anticipation. “I could do with a bit of stress relief – degnoming sounds perfect.”

“Sorry, Harry, but Sirius and I have already done it,” Hermione told him apologetically. “It’s too risky being that close to the manor,” she reminded him when he scowled.

Harry took a deep breath and then let it go. “I suppose,” he admitted. “Let’s get down to the river at least. Unless you object to my taking out my frustrations on a few poorly stones?”

Hermione grinned and shook her head. “Of course not, Earl Potter.”

“Lead the way then, Countess Ravenclaw.”

Hermione could slap pretty hard when she wanted to.

Ginny had learned rather a lot of things that day.

1. Ron made a wonderful screeching wail when hit with a bat bogey hex

2. Using reducto to smash pebbles into oblivion was a great way to work off rage – and also to improve her wandwork

3. Fending off wrackspurts could be a hazardous affair

There she had been, quite happily banishing rocks over the river bed and blasting them to smithereens, when from behind her she suddenly heard the most awful commotion. Turning around in annoyance she had felt her mouth drop open as she took in the sight of her brother and Neville being attacked by a small tree and cloud.

As she raced towards them this unlikely image resolved into Lady Luna Lovegood and a shocked guard holding a vast net. Ron and Neville seemed to be dodging about and tripping all over themselves in confusion as Lady Luna ran around them waving her hands madly at them.

Ginny stopped and stared at them in complete astonishment. “Lady Luna, what on earth are you doing?” she asked, finally.

Luna paused in her attack and smiled absent-mindedly at her. “They’re both suffering from a wrackspurt attack,” she informed the bewildered Princess calmly. “I’m helping them to fend them off.”

“By attacking us?” Ron yelped from where he was ducked with his hands clasped over his head.

Luna looked rather surprised at that. “Of course not, Ronald. What a bizarre thing to say.”

He straightened up and looked at her incredulously. “Then what in Merlin’s name were you doing just now?”

Luna stared at him sadly. “It seems my defence of your brain has not worked. I am very sorry.”

“Well, of course it wouldn’t, not with you trying to whack all sense out of it!” Ron snapped angrily. He opened his mouth to say more, but was stopped by a peal of laughter from Ginny.

“Oh, Ron, you are an idiot!” she laughed. “Luna was attacking the air around you – not trying to hit you, you dunderhead.”

Ron went bright red at that. “Shut up, Ginny,” he muttered, glaring at her.

But Ginny couldn’t seem to stop laughing at him and Neville. And then, all too suddenly, she was crying instead and she couldn’t seem to stop that either.

Neville and Ron both looked as flabbergasted as before which just made her start laughing through the crying as she sunk to the floor. They looked even more alarmed at that. They just stood awkwardly watching her sob her heart out like a mad woman. ‘Boys!

Luna didn’t say anything either but unlike the boys she wasn’t frozen into inaction. Walking forward she simply sat down next to Ginny and played with her headdress. Ginny was grateful. It seemed like she never had a chance to do what she wanted without having to explain it to someone, even something as simple as crying her heart out over a hopeless situation.

“Oh, Luna, what am I going to do?” she said eventually, once she’d called down a bit. “I can’t possibly find someone I love in three days. It’s ridiculous! Why are my parents putting me through all this heartache?”

For one split second, Luna looked so very solemn and wise, that Ginny was sure that whatever she was going to say was going to be extremely profound and make all her troubles vanish. After all, the witch lived with Master Dumbledore, the greatest and wisest wizard alive. She must have picked up something. Right?

“I feel like water skating.”

Or not.

“Water skating?” Ginny repeated, confused.

“It’s like ice skating, but on water,” Luna elaborated, although elaborated was a loose term. “Uncle Dumbledore helped me with the spell. Do you want to try?”

“Erm, no, not really. I’m not in the mood.”

Twenty minutes later, Ginny was gliding and swirling all over the surface of the river, laughing in delight. ‘So maybe Luna is a bit wise after all,’ she thought as she circled round a rather confused looking frog. There was something about racing about the river, sun on her face, and hair blowing wild that made her feel hopeful again. It was hard to feel depressed and fatalistic when gliding along in the summer sun.

I’m not going to let this stupid marriage thing defeat me,’ Ginny promised herself fiercely. ‘I can find love in three days – and if I can’t… well, I’m going to decide who I marry. They may be able to get me down the aisle, but they can’t make me say ‘I do’.

‘Nothing is going to bring me dow –’ “ARGH!”

Knobble was not your average garden gnome. In appearance, true, there was not much to tell him apart from his leathery brethren. His head could blend in very well with the most knobbly of the garden potatoes; his height was a very respectable and average 2 foot 1 inch; and his eyes were the same muddy grey-brown of his cousins.

However, it is often said that it is what is inside that counts, and this is where Knobble differed very greatly from his species; Knobbles brain was 25% larger than average. Whilst this meant very little in terms of his worm eating ability, it meant that when the great giant reaping occurred, Knobble could find the best hiding place in the gardens. What’s more, once he found the perfect place, Knobble had the will to stay there. He watched with scorn as, reaping after reaping, his unintelligent brethren gathered with stupid excitement to watch the travesty befalling their neighbours, only to have it happen to them not 20 seconds later.

On that particular morning, however, Knobble’s great hiding place had been discovered. Full of anger and shame at his detection, Knobble plotted revenge on his attacker even as he found himself hurtling through the air.

Now it was several hours later and, to Knobble’s further indignity, he still could not accurately find his way back to his comfy little burrow under the carrot patch. Walking round in dizzy circles, he suddenly heard something – and then smelled something – that he remembered.

It was the giant! The one that had discovered him! Extra 25% filled with thoughts of revenge, Knobble stumbled as quietly as he could towards the sound of the giant. Eventually managing to trip over into a large, leafy bush, Knobble waited for his head to spin less and peered out at his abuser.

There it was! Making that awful noise that giants made it was gabbling at another giant, standing at the edge of the great water. Knobble felt uncertain at this. Two giants was rather ambitious, even for him. But he quickly pushed aside doubts. This was his moment of glory!

And so, creeping carefully, he made his dizzy way towards his unsuspecting victims…

“Aha! 5! Beat that, Miss Granger!”

“Don’t mind if I do, Mr Potter.” Hermione angled her hand and whipped her pebble out at the flowing river. It bounced of the surface, skimming along 6 times before it sank beneath the blue-green murk. “And beaten.”

Harry grinned at her and she felt a bit of relief at seeing him smiling. She hadn’t slept at all well last night, thinking about Harry’s outburst and then him being left alone with all those dark thoughts all day. Harry was a very sensible wizard – certainly more sensible than Sirius – but when he got into his head a noble cause then he could sometimes rush into situations without thinking about them.

“So Tonks is getting back tonight,” Hermione said as she and Harry both hunted for more stones. “I thought we could meet up this evening and start planning what to do.”

Harry nodded his head. “To pull this off, we’re probably going to need every kind of contact we’ve ever made,” he said, grimly. “I’d like to believe that the King will take my word for it, but all Petunia needs to say is that I’m her servant and that’s that. People would certainly corroborate her story. None of them know who I really am.”

“But Petunia will then need to produce Earl Potter from somewhere,” Hermione pointed out. “When he – you – fail to materialise then the King is going to know that you’re telling the truth.”

Harry threw aside one unsuitable stone into the river and picked up another to examine. “That could take weeks – months even, if Petunia were clever about it, and she will be. By that time she could have had me shipped off to all sorts of unreachable places.”

“I guess you’re right,” Hermione sighed, bending over to pick up a nice flat pebble. “So I suppose we’ll have to ARGH!”

The next thing Hermione knew she was face down in the muddy water, clothes sopping wet and the unmistakable weedy taste of river mud in her mouth. Dragging herself upwards she spat the mud out of her mouth and turned back to stare at Harry.

“What on earth – ” she started before yelling as Harry too was propelled forward to land sprawled at her side.

“What’s going on?” he spluttered as he dragged himself up out of the mud, but Hermione only had eyes for the small brown creature that was hopping up and down on the bank. It gave what was unmistakably a maniacal laugh, blew a raspberry at her and Harry before running off into the woods on unsteady miniature legs, shrieking something that sounded like “Knobble, knobble, knobble!”

“Was that a gnome?!” Harry asked, incredulously.

“Yes it was,” Hermione confirmed, still staring at the river bank in shock. “A gnome that head-butted you on your backside to make you fall in the river.” And then she burst into laughter.

Once he processed what she had said, Harry joined in. “Oh, how ridiculous,” Hermione eventually gasped out, tears running down her face. “Here we are, plotting to overthrow two – nay, three – treasonous nobles and we are defeated by a simple garden gnome.”

Harry shrugged, eyes still sparkling with amusement. “Well, maybe that gnome has saved us a whole load of plotting – we’ll just set him on Petunia. Sorted.”

That caused a fresh outbreak of laughter from Hermione. “Oh-oh, can you imagine Petunia’s face?” she laughed. “Although I think we’d need a few more gnomes to take down Vernon or Dudley.”

“They’d probably have to hit them so hard they’d get permanent brain damage,” Harry pointed out. “That’s rather cruel; we may have to abandon this plan. Shame – I rather like the idea.”

They sat there for a while, still grinning, before the cold water they were sat in finally got the better of them. “We should head back,” Hermione said, squinting up at the sky through the trees to guess the hour. “I’ve had hardly enough time to do the Dursleys washing this week, let alone my own,” she said, indicating her filthy, mud strewn clothes.

“Oh come on, Hermione, don’t leave me just yet,” Harry beseeched her. “Come on, let’s just wash it off with a swim, it’ll be fine. I just don’t want to be stuck in that stupid Shack longer than I have to.”

Bother his puppy dog eye look,’ Hermione thought, exasperated. She bet Sirius had taught it to him. “Fine, but only half an hour, Harry, I’m sorry.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”

Lying on her back, staring at the clear blue sky, Hermione imagined all her stresses and worries rippling away through the deep waters, carried to someone else far away so she wouldn’t have to carry their weight with her anymore.

Sadly, for her, this was nothing but a fantasy, an impossible dream. She wondered briefly what it was like to be a noble – to actually be Countess Lily Ravenclaw. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about anything, if she didn’t want to. ‘What a novelty it must be for the rich to not have to care,’ she thought, before angrily slapping that thought away. For it was that novelty that landed them in awful situations like hers and Harrys’; where no one cared what happened to them, so long as they played their part quietly in the background.

Hermione felt herself tensing up again and groaned. Couldn’t she have just one whole minute where she didn’t worry about anything? Apparently not.

Looking up once last time at the sun, Hermione drew in breath to call to Harry and then suddenly she was hit and the world was still blue, but the sun rippled distantly through the thick waters and she was falling, sinking, falling….

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