“I don’t want to tell the children,” Molly said, sipping her tea as she turned a page in the Daily Prophet. Arthur shifted slightly on the bed beside her. It was almost one o’clock in the morning; as though to prove to him that she was perfectly fine, Molly had only gone to bed after everyone else in the house had. Arthur was trying very hard not to become short with her.
“Really, dear?” he asked. He bit back the urge to mention that Percy, Ginny, and Ron, not to mention Harry and Hermione, had all noticed that Molly was not her usual self during dinner.
She nodded. “Since it’s nothing serious, I don’t think we need to tell them.”
Arthur frowned slightly. “Molly, they’ll probably notice—”
“I don’t think so,” she said airily, throwing him a smile. She removed her spectacles, closed up the paper, and drained the mug of tea, setting all three on her bedside table. “I feel much better, I don’t think I’ll need to sleep much at all. There’s no reason to make them worried over nothing.”
“The Healer said rest was important,” said Arthur, leaning over to turn out his light as Molly did the same.
“I know,” she agreed, settling down on her pillows—facing him, so that he would not put his arms around her. “But can’t we just keep it to ourselves? Really, it’s nothing serious, Arthur.”
“It could become serious,” he argued.
“No, it can’t,” Molly replied, gently kissing his forehead and closing her eyes. “Thanks to you and your persistence, I’ll be just fine.”
Arthur couldn’t help but hear a note of biting annoyance in her tone. He stared at her moonlit profile. She looked so thin, and so pale, that he felt a lump rise in his throat. “Molly, I—” he broke off, staring at her.
She opened her eyes again and gazed back at him. “Yes, Arthur?”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“Thank you, dear.” With a gentle sigh, Molly closed her eyes and fell almost immediately asleep. Arthur watched her for quite a while, feeling tears sting his eyes.
Why couldn’t he just speak to her? Why couldn’t he just say the words? I am here. I love you, and I know you love me. I want you to always be here. I’m sorry we lost him. I’m sorry we’ll be missing him for the rest of our lives together, but as much as it hurts, I want that to be a very, very long time. Please don’t close me out. I’m hurt, too.
“Blimey, that’s weird to think of, innit?” Ron asked through a mouthful of bacon.
Hermione frowned. “What is?”
“McGonagall with a family,” said Ginny matter-of-factly. She and Harry were looking at the latest copy of the Montrose Magpies magazine together over the breakfast table. “It’s certainly not something I would’ve imagined readily. Doesn’t really come across as a family-type, does she?”
“She didn’t just spring up out of the ground one day and start teaching Transfiguration,” said Hermione in an offended voice.
“Of course she didn’t,” said Harry, as Ginny and Ron burst into laughter. “But I’m with these two. I never imagined her as having any family. I mean, she was really involved with the Order, and everything—”
“That’s hardly a reason to think she’s got no one in the world,” snapped Hermione. “Look at your parents, they were married! And the Weasleys, too! Dumbledore had a brother, Kingsley had Hestia—”
“Hermione’s just sour that she didn’t know her favorite teacher had a whole life outside of Hogwarts,” Ginny snickered, and Hermione aimed a kick at her under the table. “What’s wrong with you, Ron?”
He had frozen in the act of biting into a piece of bacon and now stared, looking rather disgusted, into space. “What if she’s married?”
Harry choked, and Ginny’s jaw dropped as Hermione rolled her eyes and said, “She is not married. I’m sure that would’ve come up, considering I was hearing about her whole family! And don’t you think we would’ve found out by now if she was?”
“Not necessarily, Hermione, she’s pretty private,” said Harry.
Ron’s eyes widened even more. “What if she and Dumbledore—”
“No,” said Hermione loudly, and she was pleased to hear Harry and Ginny chime in their agreement.
“What?” Ron asked, sounding startled at their vehemence. “Why not?”
“Oh, Ron,” said Ginny sympathetically, getting up and taking her plate to the frying pan for more eggs.
Hermione glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Is it really eleven o’clock?”
“Feels good to sleep in, doesn’t it?” asked Ginny blissfully, coming to sit down next to Harry again and leaning over the page he was reading.
“What are we doing today?” asked Ron, staring out the window. Hermione followed his gaze; the outside world looked very cold, but was clear and sunny, fully ignoring the date and season.
“I was thinking you four could find our Christmas tree and take care of some of the shopping,” said Mrs. Weasley absently. She came wandering into the kitchen, reading a letter with a slight frown on her face. “And maybe drop by the shop, find out when Georgie wants to come home so I’ll have his bed ready.”
Ron shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Hermione frowned at him, but he shook his head slightly.
“Who’s the letter from, Mum?” asked Ginny; Hermione noticed that she and Harry were now sitting considerably farther apart than they had been just a few moments before.
“Your brother—er—Charlie,” said Mrs. Weasley, folding it up at last and removing her glasses. “One of his coworkers was injured taking care of a dragon the other day, and she’s got no one to go home to for Christmas. He wants to bring her home with him. I suppose we could find her some space…if I put George in his room, and Bill and Fleur—”
“Er—Mum?” said Ron. “I think George might be more comfortable on the couch.”
There was a ringing silence in the kitchen. Hermione didn’t even breathe, though she closed her hand on Ron’s beneath the table.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Weasley, her voice suddenly becoming rather high-pitched. “Do you think so? Well—well, that—that might work out, then. Charlie’s friend could have that room, so she can rest a bit.”
Hermione stared at Ron, who now looked very, very uncomfortable as he stared down at his lap.
“Percy and Charlie can share, that way—yes, I—I think we’ll manage it,” said Mrs. Weasley, hurrying over to the countertop. “Have you all eaten enough?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Hermione immediately; both she and Ginny jumped to their feet and collected the plates that were still on the table. “It was really delicious.”
“Mum, d’you have a shopping list or anything?” Ron asked. He and Harry had gotten up as well, both wearing helpful expressions.
“I definitely need to do some Christmas shopping,” said Ginny, as Hermione flicked her wand and the dishes began doing themselves.
“We’re happy to buy anything you need, Mrs. Weasley,” said Hermione. She turned around. Mrs. Weasley was looking a little tearful again, but she was smiling.
“Oh, thank you all so much. I really only need a gift for Teddy. I’ve made him a sweater,” she said, sniffing, “But it’s his first Christmas, I want to get him something special.”
Harry nodded. “I need to get him a gift, too,” he said. “I’ll find something for him.”
“And you want a tree, Mum?” Ginny asked. She and Hermione were already pulling on their hats, gloves, scarves, and cloaks.
“That’s all that’s missing, I think,” said Mrs. Weasley. She was now rummaging through a cupboard, looking for something. She pulled down a coffee can and peered inside.
“Ron and Harry can manage it,” said Hermione.
“There’s a place selling trees at the end of Diagon Alley, isn’t there?” Ron asked Harry, who nodded.
“All right, then,” said Mrs. Weasley, producing a small, golden key from the coffee can. She handed it to Ron. “You remember our vault number? Tell them your name, and they might let you move up the queue because of Bill, all right?”
“We’ll be back with everything, Mum,” Ginny promised, hugging her.
“Do drop by the shop and see George, won’t you?” asked Mrs. Weasley, kissing Hermione’s cheek as she shuffled them all to the door.
“And find out when he’s coming home,” said Hermione, “of course.”
“Thank you, dear—Ron, put that scarf on properly!” Mrs. Weasley called; Ginny, Ron, and Harry were already halfway to the gate. Hermione hurried to catch up, but glanced back at the kitchen window and saw Mrs. Weasley sinking slowly into a chair with a pained look on her face. Hermione bit her lip worriedly.
“C’mon, Hermione!” Harry called. “Let’s get going!”
“Can you manage it?” Ginny asked. They were at the Christmas tree stall, having just purchased a particularly large specimen, and she and Hermione held the packages containing Teddy’s gifts from the Weasleys and Harry.
“No problem,” Ron spat out a mouthful of pine needles; he and Harry were fighting to keep the Christmas tree standing long enough so that they could Disapparate with it.
“It’s just tricky, trying to do that with something this big,” said Hermione.
Ginny snorted. “Well, unless Ron and Harry are going to come back with full beards of pine needles, I say we let them do it, Hermione.” Hermione still looked nervous, and Ginny felt a twinge of impatience. “Come on, they can handle it.”
“We probably can’t, in all honesty,” said Harry, as Ron shook his head, and Ginny threw both a filthy look. “But we’re willing to try!” Harry added brightly.
Ginny hooked her hand around Hermione’s elbow. “Come on, Hermione. I’ve got to get one last thing before the shops close.”
Hermione looked very reluctant, so Ginny gave her arm a shake and raised her eyebrows significantly.
“Oh,” she said, finally understanding. “Right—um, good luck, then!” She linked her arm with Ginny’s and began hurrying away up Diagon Alley.
“Bye,” said Harry, sounding confused. “We’ll see you at the Burrow later!”
Ginny heard Ron mutter something that sounded suspiciously like, “Girls,” but she ignored it for now. “I know what I’m getting Harry, and I need you to help me,” she said to Hermione, as they dodged around crowds of busy Christmas shoppers.
“Of course,” panted Hermione, barely keeping up with her. “What is it?”
“You’ll see—here.” Ginny stopped before the shop window. Hermione looked up.
“I want to get him an owl,” she said in a great rush. “I’ve got just enough money for it.” She bit her lip, staring at Hermione, who seemed lost for words. “Do you think it’s a good idea?”
Hermione blinked once, and gave her a smile. “Where will we keep it until Christmas?” she asked.
Ginny shrieked and threw her arms around Hermione. “I knew you’d like it! I think Dad might let me keep it in the shed, it should be warm enough out there.”
Hermione smiled. “All right. What kind?” she asked, pushing open the door of Eeylops’ Owl Emporium.
“I was sort of thinking I’d know it when I saw it,” said Ginny, as an employee, carrying a huge bag of dead mice, approached them.
“Owl Treats and cages are half off for the day,” he said, looking harried; the shop was very full of people clamoring to buy pets.
“I’m looking for an owl,” said Ginny, “hopefully—well, for less than three Galleons?”
“You want these ones,” said the employee, pointing at the shelf full of birds on perches behind him. “Small but sturdy, we say.”
Ginny’s face fell; there was not a very wide selection. “Like Pigwidgeon,” said Hermione bracingly.
She nodded, feeling rather disappointed. “Thank you.”
“Say,” said the employee suddenly, staring at Hermione, “Aren’t you—?”
Ginny seized Hermione’s arm and yanked her away, ducking behind a crowd of witches who were cooing over a white kneazle and her kittens.
“Thanks for that,” Hermione whispered, as she crouched down; Ginny peered over the heads of the crowd. The employee gave up looking for Hermione and walked off the feed the owls. “I keep forgetting we aren’t in Hogsmeade—at least there they’ve stopped all this nonsense.”
“Did you see the looks Harry was getting at the tree stall?” Ginny asked, and she nodded.
“Of course—Ron says it’s impossible trying to work in the store because people keep cornering him.”
“It’s weird,” Ginny agreed fervently. Then she smirked. “But that’s your problem.”
“Oh, thanks,” said Hermione, straightening up at last and rolling her eyes. “Come on, let’s get Harry his owl and get out of here before somebody else sees us.”
“Sees you,” Ginny corrected, and Hermione elbowed her. She glanced down at her watch. “We should get back soon, anyway.”
“See anyone you like?” Hermione asked, gesturing at the owls, most of whom were sleeping on their perches. A few ruffled their feathers and turned tail on Ginny as she looked at them.
A sudden, loud hoot drew her attention; a small, gray owl with a few faint white speckles was pressed up against the small screen on the front of her perch, her enormous eyes fixed on Ginny. She gave another disproportionately loud hoot, and Ginny laughed.
“Hello,” she said, extending a finger to brush against the soft feathers that were poking through the screen because the owl had squeezed herself so hard against it. “Hello, there—”
“She’s so cute,” said Hermione, bending down beside her. “Oh, Ginny, I love her—”
“Oh, she’s a lovely owl, that’s a brilliant choice.”
Ginny tried not to laugh; the employee had found them, and was gazing straight at Hermione. He pushed his hair back with one hand. “Yeah, takes a good eye to notice her,” he said.
“My friend wants to buy her,” said Hermione briskly. “How much?”
“She’s five Galleons,” said the employee. “That’s a pretty good rate, too—people like her breed, you see, and she’s a mature one, but she never lost her juvenile coat, so they all think she’s too young to be a good post owl. So she’s on discount.”
Ginny’s heart sank. She leaned closer to Hermione. “I—I haven’t got five—I’ve only got enough for three and a cage.”
The owl beside her gave a dismal little hoot.
“How about three?” said Hermione immediately. Then, awkwardly, she placed a hand on her hip, and, for some reason inexplicable to Ginny, leaned against the wall, batting her lashes at the employee. “Three, and we’ll get a cage?”
Ginny had to fake a coughing fit in her hand when the young man turned bright red and stammered, “S-sure—I—I think—that’d be okay.”
“Oh, wonderful,” gushed Hermione, brushing her hand against his arm. She turned to Ginny, lifting her eyebrows. “Well, pay him, Ginny.”
Her eyes full of tears as she choked back laughter, Ginny counted out three Galleons and five Sickles, which the scarlet-faced employee took in his trembling hand. He returned moments later with a cage, and tucked the little owl safely inside it before handing it regally to Hermione. He gave her an idiotic grin.
“Thank you so much, er—?” she asked, and Ginny actually had to turn away, she was laughing so hard.
“Thomas,” he said at once.
“Thomas,” Hermione repeated, beaming at him. “Thank you, really—you just gave Harry Potter a wonderful Christmas gift.”
Thomas turned white as chalk, and Hermione walked away. Ginny hurried after her, laughing hysterically. As the shop door swung shut behind them, he could be heard shouting, “That was Hermione Granger! That was Harry Potter’s Christmas present!”
“Keep running,” Ginny said, giving Hermione a shove, and they darted around the corner. Finally they collapsed, giggling, onto a public bench. Ginny elbowed Hermione. “‘Why would Viktor Krum ever want to go to the Yule Ball with me?’” she said in a high-pitched, mocking voice. “‘I have no idea how to talk to boys!’”
Hermione’s cheeks turned pink as she lifted the cage up and peered in at the little owl, who seemed ecstatic to be out of the shop—she was hopping up and down on the spot and giving extraordinarily loud hoots. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Ginny hugged her tightly. “That was amazing, Hermione, thank you.” It was no small feat for Hermione to willingly take advantage of the celebrity she possessed; she believed, and Ginny certainly understood why, that it was wrong to do so.
Hermione shrugged. Her conscience seemed to be getting to her.
“You know Fred would’ve liked that,” Ginny said, and she laughed. “And Tonks, too.”
Reluctantly, Hermione smiled. “She would’ve gotten it down to two Galleons and a second owl, just because she could.”
“Oh, definitely,” Ginny agreed, getting up and taking the cage. She looked in at the little owl, who hopped closer to the bars and pressed her face right up beside Ginny’s, staring intently back at her. “I wonder what Harry will call you.” Hermione picked up the other packages and stood. Ginny felt her throw an arm around her shoulders, and looked up to smile at her.
“Why don’t we go to George’s store and find Teddy a little something for Christmas?” Hermione suggested. “We can share whatever it costs, and we’ll see George.”
Ginny nodded. “All right.” She looked down at the owl in the cage, who was flapping her wings and hooting merrily. “Come on, you.”
The bell on the door dinged loudly, and George swore; he hadn’t been quick enough to lock up. “We’re closed!” he shouted, without turning from the shelf he was stocking.
“It’s a free country and the door’s unlocked, you prat!”
George frowned and stuck his head out over the railing. Down in the middle of the lower floor stood Ginny, who beamed up at him.
“What, did you forget I existed?” she demanded.
“What are you doing here?” he asked incredulously, hurrying down the stairs and hugging her.
“The Hogwarts Express came in last night!”
“Hermione!” George cried, as she walked in, too. He hugged her.
“Did you forget?” Ginny asked, laughing. “Did you read any of my letters, George?”
“‘Course I did,” he lied. “I lost track of the date, it’s been mad in here. Blimey, it’s good to see you two!”
“It’s good to see you,” said Ginny, hugging him again. “I missed you like mad.”
“Have you been here in the alley all day?” George asked. “What d’you think? It’s turned around, hasn’t it?”
“It really has. Harry and Ron were here with us,” said Hermione, who was scrutinizing him a little too closely. He walked away, leading Ginny by the hand to the Wonderwitch display. “Your mum wanted a Christmas tree.”
George swallowed. “Oh, right. Here, Hermione. You remember those daydream charms? Look what I’ve done. These are for when you go to sleep. They’ll give you a good dream for the whole night, guaranteed.” He lifted the box off the shelf and showed it to her. “Really popular with little kids who’re scared of monsters or something.”
“Wow, George,” she said. “That’s really clever.” George didn’t miss the look she shared with Ginny, and cursed himself. Why had he chosen that new product? Any idiot could’ve guessed why he’d invented it.
“How’s Angelina?” Ginny asked brightly. “I haven’t heard from her in a few weeks.”
George stared between them, his mouth open slightly. Ron hadn’t told them? Then, suddenly, he realized that he’d hesitated too long. “Oh, she’s great,” he said. “Fine, yeah—er, she’s really busy, trying to get healthy for next Quidditch season, I guess.”
“Right,” said Ginny slowly. Hermione put the box back on the shelf. “Er—listen, we were looking for something for Teddy.”
“Brilliant,” said George, trying to sound upbeat, though it felt as though his arms, legs, and stomach were filling with cold water. “I don’t really have a lot of stuff for kids his age, though.”
“I was thinking a Pygmy Puff?” Ginny asked. “They’re soft, they can’t bite, and they’re pretty tough.”
Hermione nodded. “Harry would probably take care of it, so Andromeda wouldn’t have to, but we thought Teddy would like it. Have you got any?”
“Yeah,” said George, putting on a cheery smile. “Definitely. What color?” He started down the stairs, and the girls followed him.
Ginny beamed. “He’s always turning his hair blue—any chance you’ve got one of those?”
“Just one,” said George, leaning over the cage and drawing the little Pygmy Puff out. “I’d keep it away from that bloke, though,” he said, nodding to the owl in the cage that Ginny carried.
She pretended to be offended. “She wouldn’t hurt a toadstool!”
“Looks like a killer if I ever saw one,” said George, smirking; the tiny owl was nibbling on one of the bars of her cage, giving muffled hoots. He stroked the little blue Pygmy Puff in his hand. “Who’s she for? You hate owls.”
“I don’t hate owls,” said Ginny.
“You hate owls?” asked Hermione, confused. “Why?”
“I don’t hate owls!”
“Errol used to scare her to death, when we were kids,” George explained. “Don’t have any idea why.”
“Could it be because you and Fred used to lock him in my room while I was sleeping?” Ginny laughed, smacking his shoulder.
George felt his grin falter. He moved to put the Pygmy Puff in a little basket. “Well, here—”
“How much?” asked Hermione, stepping forward with her money out.
“No charge,” he insisted. “Just tell the kid it’s from me, too, okay?”
“Tell him yourself, Mrs. Tonks is bringing him to Christmas,” Ginny said, shoving his shoulder. “By the way, Mum wants to know when you’re coming home. Charlie’s bringing a girlfriend.”
“She wants to have room for everybody,” said Hermione, much more diplomatically.
George stared at her. “Well…you know, I just don’t know yet. I think I’ve got some shipments coming in—a couple more puffskeins, things like that, and I’ll need to sign for them…” He was fully aware that neither Ginny nor Hermione believed this, and that both were staring at him curiously.
“Look,” he said, “Tell Mum I’ll send a note as soon as I know.”
“You’ll be there, won’t you, George?” asked Ginny, sounding concerned. Her eyes were wide with worry.
“Of course,” he lied yet again. “Of course I will.” Ginny frowned. She was not stupid; she and Hermione both knew exactly what he was thinking, he could tell. “I hate to kick you out,” he said uncomfortably, “But I’ve got some bills and things to take care of. I’ve gotten behind on owl orders, that kind of thing.”
Ginny opened her mouth to ask another question, but Hermione laid a hand on her arm. “Okay,” she said gently. “We’ll see you soon, George. Come on, Ginny.”
“Thanks for the Puff,” said Ginny, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
George nodded once. He turned to the register and rapped it with his wand; the till popped open, and he began collecting the coins. But he watched out of the corner of his eye as Hermione and Ginny left the shop and disappeared into the dark street.