Continuing Tales


A Harry Potter Story
by MsBinns

Part 20 of 45

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The string of expletives that loosed from his little sister's lips upon their arrival back to the Burrow made Hermione gasp in horror.

She threw all sorts of colorful phrases at him that made Ron wonder just what Neville and Seamus had taught his little sister this year. "Christ on a fucking bike, you plonker! Why didn't you just Apparate to your fucking room!" Ginny howled angrily, hopping up and down after dropping a heavy cauldron on it.

"See where I get it from?" Ron grinned, thoroughly amused by Hermione's surprise and, if he wasn't mistaken, disgust at his little sister's mouth. "See why I always tell you she's not so innocent?" Ginny muttered more insults toward her brother and grumbled about not being able to use magic outside of school for three more months and having to carry the heavy cauldron by hand. "We didn't mean to scare you," he pointed out in an attempt at an apology, but his sister just continued to glare at him.

"Just get inside," she grumbled and pointed to the house as she continued to massage her foot. "Everybody's been worried about you two."

"Why? We said we'd be back by supper." Ron glanced at his wristwatch.

"Didn't you read the Prophet?" Ginny grimaced as she lifted the cauldron back up and continued to haul it over to the paddock.

"No, we were in Henley, remember? They don't exactly sell the Prophet on every corner." Ron rolled his eyes.

"Well, you ought to have read it," she informed from behind gritted teeth as she struggled to lift the cauldron to pour it into the pigs' trough.

"Would you help her?" Hermione prodded Ron, obviously noting the strain on Ginny's face to lift the heavy cauldron. Ron rolled his eyes, but obliged Hermione and walked over to assist his sister in emptying the cauldron into the pig trough. The pigs grunted appreciatively at the scraps and Ron looked down at the contents of the trough. He saw lard, the ends of carrots, potato skin, and the skin of an onion. His mum had made cottage pie, his favorite.

"So what was in the Prophet?" Ron took the empty cauldron from his sister's hands, which seemed to please Hermione, and turned back to the house with her.

"Someone's been killed," Ginny remarked casually.

"Who?" Hermione gasped and Ron felt her hand immediately wrap around his free one.

"Theodore Nott."

"Oh." Ron felt a tremendous wave of relief. "So?"

"So, he fought on our side," Ginny spoke up in odd defense of the Slytherin.

"Yeah, at the last possible minute," Ron laughed dismissively and gave a shrug. Nott was a snobby, racist, bigoted boy. He hadn't been a part of Draco's gang, but he had been friendly enough with him to put Ron off. He'd heard him refer to Hermione as a "Mudblood" more than once under his breath in Potions class and he frequently made snide remarks about how much better Hogwarts would be without Muggleborns. "You reap what you sow."

"He's dead, Ron." This time the voice that came to Nott's defense was Hermione.

"So are a lot of people," Ron remarked coldly. He could see both Hermione and his sister frown at the dismissive remark.

"Well, I know he didn't want me to know, but I overheard dad saying some people in the Ministry are calling it a reprisal killing."

"Makes sense." Ron shrugged dismissively again. Nott had turned his back on the Death Eaters in their most critical hour. It only made sense that he'd be targeted for his actions.

"I also heard him say security's being tightened up in the Ministry," Ginny continued to inform. "The Malfoys are being guarded - " Ron interrupted Ginny to mumble swears under his breath. "They've stepped up security everywhere - " Ron grumbled again about the improbability of finding Death Eaters at the grocery story. "And your Portkeys are being changed."

"What?" Ron halted in his tracks. "Why?"

"I told you - they're tightening security."

"But Nott was a Death Eater!"

"His dad was a Death Eater," Ginny corrected.

"Still! What's any of this got to do with me and Hermione? They don't think…" his voice trailed away, unable to even give voice to the possibility that this wasn't actually over.

"I heard Dad tell Bill they're having trouble rounding them all up, the Death Eaters," Ginny remarked glumly. "He even told Harry to lay low for a while."

"As if he needed to," Ron scoffed. "I hardly think he'll be lining up to give his autograph anytime soon."

"Actually, he wants to help find them," Ginny spoke sharply. "He's got a meeting with Kingsley on Tuesday about it." For some reason, the words made Ron feel funny. Harry was making plans for the future, scheduling meetings with the Minister while he'd been crying into Hermione's shirt. His sister motioned them inside then."Come on, they'll be so glad you're back."

Sure enough, their return was greeted like they'd just been gone an entire week and not merely an afternoon.

"Oh, he's back!" His mum cried out jovially. "And just in time too!" She beamed as she pulled out the cottage pie. "Look what I made for you, Ronnie!"

"Thanks, mum." Ron had to remember to smile appreciatively as he tried to process the news that Ginny had just presented them. The son of a Death Eater who had switched sides at the last minute was dead. There were Death Eaters still out there. The Ministry was on high alert. He and Hermione were leaving tomorrow. "Tell me about Nott," he blurted out and the house went silent at the words. Ron saw his dad glare at Ginny, his annoyance at her sharing of the news more than obvious.

"Maybe after supper, Ron," his voice rang out first.

"Maybe now," Ron challenged. "Hermione and I are leaving tomorrow, don't you think we ought to know?"

"Your mum's spent all afternoon making supper."

"Yeah, I don't know why, we've got all this food," Ron shot as he looked around the kitchen where every available surface was still covered in food from yesterday's funeral.

"Because she wanted to." His dad's face was unusually stern as he said the words. "Now, apologise to your mother," he scolded sharply at the rude comment and Ron suddenly felt like he was about two feet high. He couldn't remember the last time his father had disciplined him like a child.

"Sorry, mum," he murmured sheepishly in front of Hermione and his entire family. "You didn't have to do that…thanks."

"I wanted to celebrate your last night properly." His mum smiled then in an obvious effort to lift the tension. "Come on then, let's sit down." She motioned to everybody to take a seat at the lengthened table, which had somehow been crammed into the kitchen for the night instead of being out in the garden. Ron didn't bother to ask if it was a security precaution. He was still embarrassed at being scolded in front of Hermione.

The cottage pie was good and his family all did a masterful job at pretending that the news of a murder in the Wizarding community and Death Eaters at large wasn't a big deal. His brothers chattered on with Hermione about where in Australia Brisbane was and how she'd picked it and what the weather was like. His mum dished him out second and third helpings, beaming at him every time she did.

"It's really good, mum," Ron remarked politely, enjoying the food, but thoroughly annoyed at their avoidance of such an important issue.

"Only the best for you!" She beamed. "You'll make sure he eats well on your trip, won't you, Hermione?"

"Of course," Hermione replied from beside Ron. Her stockinged foot slid up his leg playfully beneath the table.

"I won't have any of that wild mushrooms business going on, like Harry told me happened this year," his mum frowned. Ron shook his head at Harry, wishing his friend had known better than to tell his mum something like that, then suddenly wondering what other details he'd told her. "Three square meals for both of you, do you hear?"

"Yes, mum," he replied obediently before making to rub his foot against Hermione's.

"That's my leg, Ron," Bill informed abruptly with a good natured but teasing smile. Ron felt his ears burn as beside him Fleur gave a fluttery laugh and the whole table did their best to suppress grins.

"You two'll be safe, won't you?" his dad suddenly inquired and the vagueness of the question made Ron's heart beat rapidly in his chest. Surely, his dad wouldn't bring up what he'd tried to talk about with him yesterday out in the garage here in front of everyone. "About where you stop to eat and where you stay?"

"Oh – er – yeah. We'll be safe."

Ron saw both Charlie and George stifle an obvious laugh, having clearly thought the same of his dad's question as he had.

"Your Portkeys have changed just a bit, you know," he spoke casually, speaking as if the time they were leaving had simply changed due to the weather and not the possible return of Death Eaters.

"Yeah, about those - " Ron attempted to interject.

"It's a minor change, really. You'll just be leaving from the Ministry now instead of Stoatshead Hill."

"Why did- "

"And you're going to have escorts with you in several of the countries," his dad continued.

"Escorts? You mean like bodyguards?"

"No, no, not like a bodyguard," his mum dismissed with an obviously faked laugh. "Just people to help point you in the right direction."

"They're bodyguards." Ron knew better and he looked to his dad as he spoke the words. "Why won't you tell me what's going on?" He couldn't keep it in any longer. His family was acting downright bizarre about all this and he couldn't figure out why.

"Because your mum made a nice dinner and we're going to enjoy it as a family," his dad's voice was taking on that unusually stern tone again. It sounded almost like somebody else speaking.

"What happened to Nott?" Ron pressed.

"After dinner, Ron," he warned and the edge in his voice told Ron what it meant. The details of Theodore Nott's murder had been grisly, not something suited for dinner table conversation or for his mum's ears. She needed this, his mum, this family dinner to pretend everything was fine. It had to be pretending. Nobody could pretend like this was a normal family dinner, not the day after they'd put Fred in the ground.

"Did you make any pudding too, mum?" Ron looked to his mum hopefully, ignoring the cakes and pies and roly poly all over the Burrow from yesterday.

"Apple dumplings!" She nodded her head vigorously, a wide smile on her face. Ron wondered if cooking was his mum's therapy the same way snogging Hermione was his.

"Wicked." Ron gave a smile back and this time took care to make sure it was Hermione's leg he rubbed his own against. He knew he was right when he felt her hand slide atop his thigh beneath the table and give a squeeze. The action made him think about what had transpired in her bedroom barely an hour ago.

He'd sobbed into her chest. The tear stains were still obvious on her shirt and he wondered if anybody else had noticed them or figured out it had meant his face had been buried against her tiny bosom for what felt like hours. Then they'd gotten horizontal on her bed. Then he'd tried to put his hand down her knickers. Then they'd talked about sex. He and Hermione had talked about sex. With each other.

That's how he would get through the rest of this dinner until he could ask his dad about Nott. He tried to recall what exactly had been said on her part. Something about forethought and responsibility and how it was about a lot more than just being randy, but then there had been that one part, those four amazing words he knew he'd be replaying in his head tonight as he fell asleep. I want you too.

That was what the hand on his leg meant. This wasn't like when she had to hold it down to keep his leg from bouncing or to keep him from leaving the table. There was something daring, almost mischievous, to the way she was touching him. Almost as if she liked doing it just out of view of his entire family. How far they'd come in just a week.

"Hermione, you'll bring your parents back to the Burrow when you return, won't you?" At the mention of her parents, her hand suddenly slowed its gentle kneading of his thigh.

"Um…yes…yes, I will." Ron heard the hesitation in her voice as she spoke the words.

"We want to have them for dinner. It's long overdue, I dare say."

"Yes." Hermione gave a polite small and her hand stopped its movement entirely.

"There's rail stations in Whimple and Feniton if they want to travel…you know, in the Muggle fashion. Though I dare say that might take a few hours from Henley. Arthur could certainly get a car from the Ministry to pick them up," his mum prattled on, oblivious to Hermione's response.

"You know, I've never met your parents, Hermione," Bill spoke suddenly, seemingly thoroughly distressed by the revelation.

"Nor have I," piped in Charlie.

"Well, you'll all get to meet them," Ron spoke suddenly, eager for them all to belt up.

"What do they do?" Charlie inquired brightly.

"They're dentists," Ron replied hurriedly for Hermione. "It means they - "

"They tend to people's teeth," Charlie, the recipient of an O in Muggle Studies, finished for him. "They must be very smart," he complimented then, looking brightly to Hermione. "That takes quite a lot of schooling."

"Of course they're brilliant, have you met Hermione?" Ron dismissed, knowing his brother was just trying to be kind and make conversation, but thoroughly annoyed by the fact that nobody else at the table, not even Harry and Ginny, could see that talking about Hermione's parents made her uncomfortable.

Ron looked to his mum imploringly then, hoping she at least might get it. Beneath the table, he slid his hand onto Hermione's upper thigh, hoping the intimate action might bring her back. He slid his long fingers around to the inside of her thigh, dangerously close to the place his hand had only hovered over briefly this afternoon, and gave a squeeze. She glanced over to him out the corner of her eye and smiled. Ron couldn't tell whether it was because of where his hand was or because of how he'd run interference for her, but his mum saw it and finally something seemed to click.

"So who wants apple dumplings?"

The night marked the first time Ron had stayed with his family after supper and not retreated upstairs with Hermione. Part of that was due to the fact that, after what happened in her bedroom, he wasn't sure when it would be appropriate to kiss her again. But part of it was due to the fact that dinner had actually been pleasant. If he forgot about Theodore Nott for a moment and what exactly his dad wasn't telling him, he realised part of him would miss his family. When he returned, whether it was five days or fifteen, Bill and Fleur would be gone and so would Charlie most likely. Percy might be out of the house again and possibly even George. This would be the last time probably until Christmas holiday that his whole family would be together. As together - he glanced at Fred's Cleansweep still propped up against the fireplace 0 as they ever would be again.

So he stayed downstairs and enjoyed the apple dumpling and he laughed as his dad shared stories of getting lost in Paris and Percy informed him how not to ask for the loo in Russia. Charlie told them about a rare dragon breed in the Western Ghats of India and George teased Ron about losing Hermione to Viktor Krum in Bulgaria, which made him quite cross until Hermione leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

Everybody gave a laugh then and he could hear his mum sigh over the sweet gesture and Fleur prattling to Bill in French about he and Hermione being "très mignon." Ron felt the tips of his ears redden, but he was pleased to see Hermione didn't even blush at all. In fact, all the fussing did was make Hermione lean over and do it again, this time right on the lips. It was a quick peck and that was all, but the action wasn't lost on Ron.

"Ugh, save it for Australia!" Ginny tossed a pillow at them both.

"Honestly, I still can't figure out how the brightest witch to pass through Hogwarts in quite some time chose my little brother," Percy articulated with a shake of the head.

"Don't sound so jealous, Perce," Ron grinned, feeling immensely cheered by Hermione's brazen display. He'd almost forgotten about Theodore Nott or how he'd come apart up in Hermione's bedroom. This is how it would be now, he realised with a smile. He and Hermione and his family, they could be together like this and tease and laugh and kiss and it would be okay. Maybe eventually he wouldn't even wait for the joke that never came after all four of his brothers had had a go at him.

"The way I heard it there were so many birds after Ron last year he had to chase them off with a Beater's bat!" Charlie teased.

"Yes, quite literally!" Harry roared with laughter, recalling the canaries Hermione had sent at him. Ron shook his head at Harry as he reached for his butterbeer, his own lips threatening to curve into a smile at the memory. Ginny chuckled too and Hermione just looked down at the floor, mumbling under her breath with a smile about how he deserved those birds.

"It sure took you two long enough to wise up," Bill shook his head. "Fleur told me she reckoned you fancied her after the Yule Ball at Hogwarts."

"Oh, the Yule Ball," Harry laughed again.

"Well, however it happened, we're glad it did. To Ron and Hermione." His father raised his bottle of butterbeer up high then, and Ron felt embarrassed for the first time all night as he realised this was all for him. The smiles, the jokes, the laughter. It was all for him. He wondered, sadly, what they'd all be gathered in the room talking and laughing about tomorrow.

"Ron and Hermione!" A chorus of voices sounded as bottles clinked around the room. Ron leaned into her shoulder and she leaned back up against his. He was tempted to kiss her, but instead they just grinned at each other, their eyes saying it all. At this time tomorrow they'd be in Australia. At this time tomorrow they'd be alone.

Perhaps it was the fact that numerous people in his family had already married the two of them off after only a week together, but there was something strangely ceremonial about Ron's departure from the Burrow with Hermione that felt odd to him. The way they had toasted the two of them last night reminded Ron of the way they'd toasted Bill and Fleur. Now the whole family was crowded around the sitting room, staring at them both and just waiting for 9 o'clock to roll around like it was a major event.

There was a nervous energy as his dad chattered on, making unnecessary conversation about everything from the Portkeys to the weather with whoever was closest to him. He'd assured Ron last night that he and Hermione would be fine. Theodore Nott's death was simply a reprisal killing between Death Eaters and it would not extend or affect the rest of the Wizarding world, but Ron wondered if he was withholding information because his mum was beside him as he spoke the words. The celebratory air had eventually died down last night. Eventually, each member of his family had left the sitting room until it was just Harry, Ginny, Hermione, and him.

Ron had wanted to talk about Theodore Nott then too, to ask more questions than the handful his dad had let him inquire about while mum was serving the apple dumplings. His sister seemed to know something he didn't about the circumstances surrounding Nott's change in loyalty the night of the Battle. She seemed deeply saddened by the news of his murder, even Hermione did. He couldn't figure out why they all seemed so shaken up. His sister looked much sadder than she should over a boy he knew had laughed about Hermione's blood status on more than one occasion.

The murder annoyed him more than anything else. Nott had been an arse, a stuck-up bigoted boy with a Death Eater for a father. Now he was dead, for apparently coming to the realisation at the very last minute that blood status really meant nothing and Ron was supposed to feel bad for him. He supposed he did; nobody deserved to die, especially not in the manner his dad had described, but all Ron knew was that his death meant more complications for their trip. Now they had to go to the Ministry. Now they had an extra Portkey to catch in Russia. Now they had a bloody bodyguard to escort them through seven countries. He didn't want a bodyguard tagging along. He certainly didn't need anybody else to help keep Hermione safe.

"Now, you'll get to the Ministry first and message us as soon as you get to Australia, right?" His mum reached out and straightened Ron's collar. He half expected her to lick her fingers and smooth down a cowlick.

"As soon as we can."

"And you'll let us know when you find the Grangers?"

"Er, yeah," Ron replied though he was hardly sure as to how exactly he was supposed to drop them a line from Australia.

"You make sure they know I want to have them over for dinner first thing after they get settled, Hermione." She looked to Hermione warmly.

"Of course," Hermione assured, but Ron could detect a flicker of nervousness behind her eyes at the request just like he'd seen last night.

"And you have the itinerary?" his father piped in.

"Yes." Hermione patted the beaded bag.

"And you know where you're going in all the cities?" his mum asked for the fifteenth time.


"And what you're looking for? You've got the time of the Portkeys, yes?"

"Mum!" Ron sighed wearily.

"Remember to be careful about the time change, that will be tricky."

"Blimey, mum, you'd think they'd never – I don't know – traveled on their own before!" George piped in then with a laugh.

"Not to the other side of the world they haven't!" His mum put her hands on her hips. "And through seven countries, oh!" She clucked then and fussed with Ron's jacket collar again.

"Oi, mum!" Ron groaned. He felt like she was sending him off for his first year at Hogwarts. Hermione did a poor job disguising her smile at his protesting. "I'm eighteen."

"You're still my son," she fussed. "Now come into the kitchen a moment."

"We've got to leave by nine!" he groaned and rolled his eyes. "And we've got enough food, I promise." Ron glanced back to Hermione's beaded bag, which was, thanks to his mum, now loaded with half a dozen ham sandwiches, crisps, biscuits, and most of the contents of the pantry.

"It's not food! Just come here." His mother looked to him with exasperation and, afraid that she was about to drag him into the kitchen by his ear, he obliged.

"We really do have a schedule, mum." Ron glanced back at Hermione, who now appeared to be talking to three of his brothers at once.

"Come now, it won't take but a moment." She looked over her shoulder to the group talking to Hermione as well then pulled a painting off the wall beside the enchanted ice box. Then she tapped two stones in the wall and Ron's eyes widened as a small hole the size of a breadbox began to form. He looked as the hole grew deeper and his eyes widened as he saw a canister that looked to be made of the same oddly coloured metals he saw inside Gringotts. It was even affixed with several strange looking locks, which he watched his mum open with a complicated wave of her wand.

"What's this?" Ron frowned, having never seen the hidden vault before.

"It's just…" His mum reached her hand into the canister and pulled out a handful of galleons, which she then placed into his palm. "It's not much, but take it."

"Hermione's got money, mum," Ron protested, uncomfortable that his mum was handing him what appeared to be the family's emergency savings.

"Your father and I want you to have this."

"I don't - "

"Please, just take it, Ron." Ron was surprised to hear his mum's voice waiver suddenly. He relented as he saw a familiar quiver of her chin. "Don't camp out if you don't need to," she ordered then and when she straightened his collar yet again, he didn't try to brush her off. "Be safe. Find a nice inn to stay in."

"Mum - " He felt his face flush at the recognition from his mother that he and Hermione would be staying together in the same hotel room.

"And go out for a nice meal somewhere. I won't have you going hungry."

"Mum, it's not like before. We'll be back in a few days. We'll probably still have your ham sandwiches," he insisted, though he had the same nagging doubt that he had had in his head when he said the words last night in Hermione's room. He had no idea how long it would take.

"Take care of her." His mum reached out then and cupped his face in her hands, tilting his chin down toward her. He could see her eyes were wet with tears. "She's taken care of you this week and…and now it's your turn." Ron looked down at the floor uncomfortably, knowing his mum was right. Hermione had looked after him from the moment he'd seen his brother's body lying there on the stone floor. She'd held his hand and watched him cry and stood there while he raged. "Be there for her," she repeated.

"Always," Ron replied instinctively and he puffed his chest out a bit as he did. The response reduced his mother to tears for some reason and she immediately threw her arms around his neck, hugging him fiercely like she had when he'd come in after Fred's funeral. "We'll be all right, mum," he assured and patted her on the back clumsily. "We'll be back soon." As he spoke the words he suddenly realised that 'we' was not entirely accurate. When Hermione returned home with her parents she would stay with them in Henley. He would be coming home alone. "There better still be apple dumplings left when I do!" he shouted across the room to his brothers, who were still talking with Hermione in the sitting room.

The remark caused his mum to let loose an awkward noise somewhere between a sob and a chuckle, a bit like the noises she'd made during the fireworks the other day as they made their way back to the rest of the family.

"Well, I reckon you better get a move on." His dad tried to speak cheerfully. He didn't look as pale as his mum, but Ron would hardly say he looked excited about their departure. Ron wondered if he was thinking about Theodore Nott and the horrible manner of his death.

"It's safe to travel, right, dad?" Ron couldn't help but ask, still feeling like there was something his dad wasn't saying.

"Safe to travel?" his dad gave a poorly disguised laugh. "Yes, of course, you'll be fine."

"You sure?"

"Yes, yes. You'll be safe in the Ministry and the rest is the easy part, really," he dismissed with a gulp. "Besides, what happened to Nott was – it was an isolated incident." His stammering hardly helped assure Ron. "You two – you'll be just fine." His dad reached out and gave Ron's arm a squeeze then. "You both can take care of yourselves. We know that," he stated firmly this time without any hesitation or stammering. "You'll be just fine."

"Hermione, make sure old Ron doesn't get boxed by a kangaroo, eh?" George teased.

"Yeah, or get too pissed on that Aussie firewhiskey. I hear it's ten times stronger," Charlie laughed.

"Take care of each other," Harry spoke solemnly.

"Take pictures!" Ginny piped in.

"We're not exactly going to be sightseeing." Ron sighed as he gave his dad a quick, but most sincere hug. His mum flung her hands around his neck then and Ron squeezed her back tightly before breaking apart and lacing his hand in Hermione's.

"Please let us know as soon as you find them!" his mum requested for the third time. "Be careful." Ron and Hermione nodded their heads and both sucked in a deep breath of air.

Then they were gone.

Ron wasn't sure which end of the trip he was dreading more. He hated the thought of traveling around Muggle Australia with his wand hidden, surrounded by customs he didn't understand, but the thought of stepping into the Ministry of Magic after the past three days of news articles about him, Hermione, and the mission they'd been assigned unnerved him even more. He was so reluctant to have to deal with admirers that he almost asked Harry for his Invisibility Cloak last night. He noted that Hermione seemed equally apprehensive about being recognised as they entered the Ministry, which was only slightly comforting. Hermione was always the confident one, yet she walked into the Atrium with her head lowered, like him, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone.

He was grateful for the pass Kinglsey had owled them that morning so they wouldn't need to wear nametags, but he suddenly wished he'd at least worn a hat. He clung to Hermione's hand as they made their way through the long and splendid hall, trying hard to avoid anyone that might recognise them. The Ministry seemed busier than usual, which was a slight blessing as most people seemed to be in quite a hurry and paid the two teenagers little mind.

Ron tilted his head back to look at the peacock blue ceiling and the gleaming gold symbols, remembering how he'd hardly even paid the ceiling any mind when he'd been here last fall. He used to love looking up at that ceiling when he was a little boy and his dad would bring him to work. He felt more nervous than when he had walked this very path with Harry and Hermione last fall.

"What level is it we're meant to go?" He gripped his wand in the hand that wasn't holding onto Hermione's. Looking to the security checks by the golden gates at the end of the hall, he hoped Kingsley's visitor pass would mean they wouldn't have to hand over their wands.


"Right." His hand tightened around Hermione's as they passed the gilded fireplaces and shiny dark wood that paneled the walls. Things were different, lighter than the last time they'd been here. There were security precautions, just as his dad said there would be in light of Nott's murder, but there wasn't fear etched into the faces of the witches and wizards they passed. They weren't searched. The guard even smiled at Hermione and him as he presented their visitor pass with Kingsley's signature on it. He recalled what his dad had said about everyone working together here and helping each other out. It really was a completely different Ministry.

He was pleased to see as they passed through the gates that the awful statue had been removed from the Atrium. All that was left now was a plain empty fountain. He thought it was rather fitting in light of all that had been lost. They lingered by the empty space a moment as Hermione rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb, apparently just as pleased by its removal. He had never really thought about the full impact of what they were doing this year. They were destroying Horcruxes, helping Harry like always, and just trying to stay alive. But as he looked in at the Atrium he couldn't help but think about the horrible statue that had been there so many months ago. Now there was nothing but empty space, nothing left to do but rebuild.

"Hey, look, it's Reg!" Ron felt a strange soaring feeling as he caught sight of a familiar looking wizard in navy blue robes on the other side of the fountain. There was Reginald Cattermole stood in a queue by the lifts, talking jovially with his coworkers in the maintenance department. "He made it." Ron's face stretched into a smile as he watched Reg file into a lift with his colleagues. Hermione leaned into his shoulder then, smiling tenderly at how pleased he was by Reg's survival. The small ferrety wizard's eyes caught sight of Ron just as the gold gates began to close. Ron saw his mouth open up as recognition dawned on his face, his eyes widening and his mouth dropping open. For a moment Ron was afraid he was going to shout out his name across the hall, but Reginald Cattermole's mouth just hung open as he looked to Ron with wonder, and though it embarrassed Ron immensely, an evident admiration.

"It feels like so long ago, doesn't it?" Hermione looked to Reg as well as they watched the lift depart.

"Decades," Ron agreed. He stood and gazed out at the Atrium, recalling how they'd fled for their lives here with a pack of frightened Muggleborns. He remembered how long they had spent planning the break-in into the Ministry. Ron wanted to laugh at how impossible a task it had seemed. They had no way of knowing what was to come in the coming months. The Ministry job had been the easy part.

He looked out at all the witches and wizards walking by, wondering how many had returned back like Reg Cattermole. He wondered how many had lost loved ones. He wondered how many had had to flee. "Mr. Weasley!" A tall wizard with spectacles suddenly shouted out. Ron whirled around and looked over his shoulder hopefully, expecting to see his father.

"Ms. Granger!" Another voice rang out loudly and it was only then that Ron realized there was a whole group of them and they were all looking at him and Hermione.

"Look, it's Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger!" Ron detected a Quick Quotes Quill in one of their hands and quickly began to stumble backwards with Hermione as a throng of people suddenly started toward them.

"A word, please, Ms. Granger!" The crowd seemed to grow bigger with each step.

Abandoning all attempts at being subtle, Ron tightened his hand in Hermione's and bullied past people for an empty lift. He shoved two grey-haired wizards aside, pushed Hermione into the lift and closed the gold gates with a quick flourish of his wand before anyone could force their way in behind him. Unfortunately, that didn't stop the inquisitive mob from slamming against the gates and hurling requests and questions their way.

"Would you sign my Daily Prophet?"

"Can you tell us what mission you were left with?"

"Is it true you two were married over the last year?"

"What were you searching for with Harry Potter?"

Ron positioned Hermione behind him, as if to shield her from the onslaught of questions with his own body. Both didn't dare utter a syllable, but their silence didn't seem to diffuse the questions at all. He willed the lift to hurry up and move.

"Can we get a statement about your brother, Mr. Weasley?"

"Ms. Granger, it's rumored your parents were killed while in hiding at the start of the year, can you confirm?"

Ron recognized Rita Skeeter and her emerald glasses through the gate. His eyes flashed furiously at the bold question that he knew had rattled Hermione.

"Piss off!" he snarled and a string of colorful expletives followed as the lift soared away.

He heard Hermione let out a deep breath beside him and he turned around to face her finally. She didn't even comment on his rough choice of words.

"It's just Skeeter. You know there's no truth to anything she says." He moved both hands up to her shoulders.

"How did she know they were in hiding?" Hermione fretted.

"Because you've done such a bloody good job hiding them," Ron assured. "The old hag probably went looking for them herself and got so annoyed that she couldn't find them that she made up a sodding story." Hermione let out a weak laugh at his logic. "Come on, this is the same woman who said you pulled Harry," he maintained, hoping to make her laugh.

"They've probably alerted everyone we're here," Hermione lamented as the lift climbed to the second level. Without even thinking, Ron drew his wand and in rapid succession cast the same five charms he'd been using on his bedroom door for the past week on the golden gates. "That's probably against the rules," Hermione remarked, though she looked impressed, especially at his ability to cast many of them nonverbally.

"Let them call the Minister," he dismissed, patting the visitor pass from Kingsley in his pocket. More than one wizard attempted to open the gates as the lift arrived at the next level. Several shouted to let them inside and one made a suggestive comment about what exactly was happening in the elevator that prevented them from entering, which made both he and Hermione blush.

"I wish we'd been able to catch the Portkey at Stoatshead Hill like we were supposed to," Ron grumbled as they left finally arrived level six and the Department of Magical Transportation.

"Security precautions are on high alert after what happened to Nott," Hermione informed, though he could see she was wishing the same thing. "They're just trying to keep us safe."

"Coming in here's probably more dangerous than going to Stoatshead Hill!" he scoffed as the gates opened and they stepped out of the lift. "I reckon those bloody journalists would run a person down for a story."

"It's Archibald Darling we want to see." Hermione looked to the great listing of offices on the wall in front of them. In between the Floo Network Authority and the Broom Regulatory Control was a list of all the Portkey offices. "All the Portkeys to Europe are in Darling's office."

"So these are permanent Portkeys, then? The ones that operate on a schedule?"

"Yes. Didn't you listen to your brother and dad yesterday after supper when they were explaining it?" She sighed in exasperation. Ron couldn't tell if it was exasperation with him or if it was because she was eyeing the hallway carefully for reporters. "They're usually reserved for diplomats and members of the Ministry."

"So why are you and me using them, then?"

"Because they're guarded," she explained, "and Kingsley wants to protect us."

Ron caught sight of that morning's Daily Prophet resting on a vacant bench. "Murder in Moresham" read the headline. He seized it and continued walking with Hermione. "Death Eaters Go into Hiding, Vow Return" the article beneath it read accompanied by "Who the Next Dark Lord Will Be and Why".

"I'm glad they're going for such a cheerful approach." Ron leafed through the paper, unbeknownst to the fact that he, Harry, and Hermione's pictures were plastered on the back page. He looked to the "Murder in Moresham" article and read aloud. "Though most Ministry officials believe Nott's death to be an isolated incident, some in the Auror office think the attack may be a reprisal killing intended to send a message. Those who fought in the Battle of Hogwarts on the night of May 1-2 are advised to maintain standard security precautions and avoid public areas until more details emerge." He scanned the rest of the article and then looked at the publication date. It had been written twenty minutes ago. "Do you think dad knew this?" he frowned at Hermione. "Why would he send us off if - "

"Is that Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley?" A curious voice suddenly sounded.

"Bloody hell, not again," Ron grumbled as he closed the paper hurriedly and stuffed it under his arm. Squeezing Hermione's hand, he hurried down the curved hallway toward Archibald Darling's room, which was of course at the very end of the very long hallway. They practically fell through the circular door and, much as he had upon arriving in the lift, Ron quickly sealed the door with a myriad of charms. He hardly took note of the outline of Ministry guards inside the chamber, who had drawn their wands in surprise at their sudden arrival.

"Ah, but I wouldn't do that!" A bright voice sounded from the back of the room. "When you lock others out, you're also locking yourself in. And you never know what you might lock yourself in with!"

"Mr. Darling." Hermione attempted to ignore the creepy warning that came from such a cheerful voice. "I'm Hermione Granger, this is Ron Weasley,"

"But of course." The curly haired man smiled. "We have been waiting for you."

"We'd have been here earlier if your bleeding reporters hadn't gone after us," Ron grumbled.

"Minister Shacklebolt warned them not to approach you." Archibald Darling spoke in a very crisp and articulate voice. "He will be most displeased."

"It was that Skeeter woman who was leading the charge," Ron couldn't contain himself from name dropping, highly entertained at the thought of her getting reprimanded by Kingsley. Perhaps there would even be a brief stay in Azkaban for her discretions.

"So you are traveling to France!" he smiled at them both. "A holiday of sorts? To celebrate the fall of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?"

"Not exactly." Ron frowned and looked to the man strangely. He wondered if many people were taking a holiday to mark the occasion.

"France isn't our final destination," Hermione piped in before Ron could say something rude. "We're going to Australia to fetch my parents. They've been in hiding, you see."

"Ah, wonderful. Well, Mr. Weasley, Ms. Granger, identification, if you will." Mr. Darling held out his hand.

Ron grabbed Hermione's wrist just as she reached out to surrender her wand.

"We're not turning our wands over." He almost laughed at the notion.

"Mr. Weasley, it'll just be a moment," Mr. Darling replied and bowed his head submissively.

"No," Ron retorted and he saw Hermione's jaw drop at the rude reply.

"I assure you, it's simply for your own safety."

"Have you had many people pretending to be us?"

"Ron," Hermione glared at him. "Just give him your wand."

"No! Who is this bloke?"

"He's worked at the Ministry for twelve years," Hermione whispered to him, though Ron was quite sure Mr. Darling could probably hear. "He's Muggleborn, he's from Watford and has been in hiding with his family in Germany for the past year. I hardly think he's about to ambush us."

"How do you know all that?"

"I heard your dad talking about him last night after dinner while you and Harry were looking through the new broom catalog." Hermione blew out another frustrated sigh.

"Well, how do we know it's him? What about the article I just read? How do we know he hasn't been Polyjuiced or put under the Imperius curse? Maybe it's the same guys who killed Nott," Ron countered.

"You're starting to sound like Mad-Eye," she chided.

"Nothing wrong with constant vigilance," Ron maintained, "I just don't see why we need identification to use an effing Portkey."

"Standard procedure within the Ministry since 1995, Mr. Weasley."

"Stop calling me Mr. Weasley," Ron gritted, "I feel like you're talking to my dad."

"So sorry, Mr. Weasley,." Mr. Darling gave another low bow. Ron frowned. He didn't want anyone to bow at him. He just didn't want to turn his wand over to someone he'd known for all of two minutes. Especially not after the article he'd just read in the Prophet.

"Why cant you just call Kingsley and take our word for it? Here!" he patted the breast pocket of his shirt. "We've got a signed pass from the Minister."

"The Minister especially r-requested we check your w-wands. It will only take a moment, I assure you." Mr. Darling stretched a hand out for Hermione's wand.

"Like hell." The hand that wasn't wrapped around his willow wand clinched instinctively into a fist. The guards in the room slowly began approaching the two

"Ron, calm down," Hermione pleaded. Her discomfort at his belligerence was evident.

"Why does he have guards?p" Ron looked around warily.

"Because I told you - these Portkeys are usually used for dignitaries and diplomats! They're here for our protection."

"Why are they circling us?"

"Because you're making a scene!" she cried.

"I assure you this is merely a precaution for your own safety."

"Oh, we can take care of ourselves." Ron's fists remained clinched as he let out a haughty laugh. "Trust me."

"I have no doubt," Mr. Darling spoke meekly, clearly unsure of how to proceed. He seemed to be eyeing the scars down Ron's forearms warily. Ron wondered if he'd read the Daily Prophet articles about him. He seemed to be treating him with a kind of deference that Ron was unused to. "It's simply p-protocol," he stammered.

"Show him your Muggle license, Hermione. The one for the automobiles you got last year. That ought to do it, right?"

"I'm afraid those can be forged."

"Well, so can wands and this - " Ron thrust the pass from Kingsley at Darling, "-and that Muggle license is all you're going to get from either of us." He crossed his arms defiantly. The guards were now so close to them Ron could read their nametags. His stomach twisted uncomfortably into a knot as he saw one of them was called Fred.

He knew Hermione was embarrassed and wanted him to stand down, but he didn't care. He couldn't explain the visceral reaction he had at the thought of surrendering his wand. Perhaps it was being back in the Ministry and the memories of all that they'd been through here. Perhaps it was the article about Theodore Nott and the grisly manner of his death. Perhaps it was the thought of all that was in front of them and what they had to accomplish, but he would not voluntarily give his wand to anybody. Not when he'd just promised his mother he'd take care of Hermione.

"That…that will be fine," Mr. Darling obliged, appearing more than the slightest bit intimidated by Ron's bravado. The guards all looked stunned that he had acquiesced, but Mr. Darling just gave them all assuring nods to stand down.

Hermione meanwhile glared at Ron disapprovingly as she rummaged through her bag for the tiny piece of Muggle plastic and muttered about why he didn't simply hand him his wand. Ron wished she could understand she was the reason he was so adamant about keeping it. A wizard without his wand was defenseless and he would never be caught defenseless around her again.

"Here you are," she said politely, handing over her identification. "I'm very sorry about this."

"It's all right," Mr. Darling stammered, glancing up to Ron nervously from behind his desk. "You've been through quite a bit, I understand."

"We've had our wands stolen, you see," Hermione attempted to explain. Ron wanted to tell her it wasn't merely about how their wands had been taken; it was about how many times they'd been put in danger. It was the possibility that maybe everything wasn't as cheery as Mr. Darling's bright voice would make it seem. Who could really be sure the war was over? It sure hadn't been for Theodore Nott.

"I'm very sorry to hear that. They are fine wands." He nodded in the direction of both their wands as he looked over Hermione's identification and verified it with the parchment in front of him. "Yes, th-this will suffice."

"Thank you." Hermione took back her license. She trained her eyes on Ron, giving him the look she always did when she wanted him to say something.

"Thanks," he muttered.

"You're most welcome, Mr. Weasley. I'm so sorry to have upset you. I assure you we are just looking out for you both."

"We know. Thank you again for your understanding." Hermione looked most apologetic.

"The P-Portkey to Paris is in… chamber two. It leaves in five minutes." Mr. Darling motioned to one of the circular doors against the wall. "Good luck on the rest of your journey."


A Harry Potter Story
by MsBinns

Part 20 of 45

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