They were greeted by a scowling goblin.
Skipping introductions—and anything resembling a welcome—the goblin turned towards his assistant and snapped, 'Speartooth, take Mr Weasley to establish a new account. Mr Potter, Miss Granger, follow me.'
Ron grimaced nervously at his friends before following Speartooth without a word. Harry and Hermione, unsure what to expect on their first visit to Gringotts since their break-in fourteen months prior, hurried to keep up with the goblin's surprisingly brisk pace. He led them at length to a private office with a large desk, free of paperwork but adorned with a heavy marble obelisk and an exquisite (yet sturdy) metal clock. If they had been used as murder weapons, they had been thoroughly cleaned.
'My name is Trapskin, and I have been tasked with unfreezing your accounts,' he said, clearly not agreeing with the decision.
'Thank you, Trapskin,' said Harry, 'and please extend our gratitude to Director Ragnok for his leniency.'
Trapskin shot Harry a withering gaze, and Hermione discreetly elbowed Harry and added, 'We humbly bow to Director Ragnok for his unflinching negotiation with the Ministry, and we are grateful for the opportunity to once again do business with Gringotts after our well-deserved yearlong ban. May our shared profits abound!'
Mollified, Trapskin nodded and opened a drawer, pulling out several envelopes and a small box.
Holding up an envelope, he said, 'Miss Granger, these are the records for your account. As you know, it was opened in July of 1991 and subsequently frozen in May of last year, upon your shameless breach of these most hallowed halls. Normally this would result in a lifetime ban and forfeiture of your assets, but the Ministry provided satisfactory restitution on your behalf and, given your "extenuating circumstances," Director Ragnok saw fit to allow your return.'
He handed her the envelope and said, 'You may once again access your vault, Miss Granger.' With a slight growl, he added, 'Your own vault, that is.'
Hermione reddened and murmured her thanks, taking the envelope without opening it. Harry supposed she wanted to keep the meeting as brief as possible.
Turning towards Harry, the goblin handed over the second envelope, which was slightly thicker than Hermione's. 'Mr Potter, these are the records for your vault, which you first accessed in July of 1991. It contains all the gold from your deceased parents' estate.
'The envelope also contains records of the remaining Potter property—specifically the ruins of a country house in Yorkshire which was destroyed during the First Wizarding War.'
Surprised, Harry took the envelope and glanced at Hermione. He supposed that was where his dad had grown up, and maybe where his parents lived before hiding in Godric's Hollow.
Trapskin handed him the final envelope, which was thicker than the others. 'This contains documents pertaining to the Black family, of which you have been named sole heir. If I'm not mistaken, you've already taken possession of the Black family townhouse in London.'
'Yes, that's correct.'
Trapskin nodded. 'The townhouse and its contents are the primary remaining Black family assets, along with a minimal amount of gold still in their vault. They were once an exceedingly wealthy family, but their assets diminished considerably over the last centuries—through no fault of Gringotts stewardship, I might add. The Blacks proved rather … difficult to work with.'
'No surprise there,' said Harry dryly. 'I suppose generations of inbreeding and insanity don't make for sound financial planning.'
An smirk from Trapskin. 'Indeed.'
Opening the box, he pulled out a small jewellery case. 'This contains the Black family ring, which now belongs to you. In addition to granting you access to the Black family vault, which is one of Gringotts' deepest and most ancient, it identifies you as the current Lord Black.'
Harry's eyes widened in shock. 'Lord Black? You must be joking!' His mind quickly noted that this would be a truly epic prank on Padfoot's part, though he suspected it was just dreadful enough to be true.
'I am not joking. You can see for yourself by trying on the ring. Assuming it accepts you, of course.'
Hermione frowned. 'What happens if the ring doesn't accept him?'
'Here in Gringotts, the ring would simply fall from his finger. However, if a false claimant tried it on without goblin oversight, his hand would fall off with it.'
Unconsciously tightening his hands, as if to keep them attached to his body, Harry said, 'Well then, I may as well try it on.' He took the box from Trapskin and, with a nod from the goblin, opened it.
The ring was hideous—heavy gold, with a gaudy, emerald-studded snake coiled around a large faceted onyx. If this really were a prank, Sirius couldn't have chosen a more godawful ring. With a grimace, Harry pulled it onto his left middle finger.
The ring momentarily glowed blue and adjusted slightly to fit Harry's finger. Merlin, I think it just got bigger, thought Harry with a shudder.
Trapskin nodded approvingly. 'You are indeed the rightful Lord Black. Note that this affords you no special privileges at Gringotts, as the Goblin Nation does not acknowledge wizarding peerage. But certain wizards hold fast to the system, and you may find it brings you some attention within your world.'
Brilliant, thought Harry. Just what I needed: more attention. Hermione stifled a chuckle.
'I believe this concludes our business. Mr Potter, Miss Granger,' nodded Trapskin, rising from his chair and leading them back towards the lobby. Harry and Hermione walked behind him, exchanging relieved glances. They had imagined the worst in returning to Gringotts (though what could be worse than an enraged dragon?), so their brief interview was a pleasant surprise.
Reaching the lobby, Trapskin motioned and said, 'The cart goblins have been instructed to lead you to your vaults, which I assume you would like to visit.'
'Yes, thank you,' said Harry, eager to leave.
'Thank you again for your service, Trapskin, and may fortune's blade divide your enemies from their treasure and their lives,' said Hermione with a small bow.
Trapskin nodded in return and walked off. Harry and Hermione made their way towards the aforementioned cart goblins but stopped first near the counter where Ron was opening his account.
While waiting for Ron to finish his transaction, Harry turned towards the wall and tried to discreetly remove his new ring. It wouldn't budge.
Just my sodding luck, he thought. I'm probably stuck with this monstrosity for the rest of my life. He was at least able to rotate it around his finger, but even with the stone and serpent hidden, the ring was hard to miss. He should have asked Trapskin if there were a way to conceal it, but he'd been in such a hurry to leave that he hadn't thought to enquire. He hoped Hermione could tell him later.
Anticipating his thoughts, Hermione turned to him and whispered, 'Obscurio totalis,' while holding her wand to the small ring she was wearing. The ring vanished, and Harry quickly did the same to the giant pure-blood barnacle on his left hand—to his relief he could no longer even feel it. Hermione tapped her ring once more and whispered, 'Revelio totalis,' returning it to view.
Ron, having successfully opened his account, rejoined his friends. 'I reckon I'm a full-fledged adult now! I know it's nothing new for you lot, but I used to dream about the day I'd get my own vault at Gringotts. And I even have money to put in it! They let me do my deposit at the counter, so I'm all set.'
All three of them had hefty deposits to make that day, having lived the previous year on a cash-only basis. Harry had insisted on a three-way split for all the bounties and rewards he'd received for defeating Voldemort, plus he and Ron were earning salaries for their Auror training.
'We still need to go to our vaults,' said Hermione. 'Do you want to come along for the ride?'
'No,' said Ron, shaking his head. 'I've had enough Gringotts for one day. Just the lobby is enough to make me twitchy, after last year. I'll go meet George at the shop and see if he's up for a pint.'
'Excellent, we'll find you there,' Harry said, and Ron hastened towards the exit.
Although Ron had mostly got over his jealousy towards Harry, now that he finally had his own money to spend, Harry was relieved not to have him around for the next bit. Harry had always felt sheepish about his overflowing vault, and he wasn't yet ready to discuss the Lord Black business either. But he had no problem with Hermione accompanying him, and they walked together towards the carts.
The goblin barely looked at them and asked only for their vault numbers, which they provided. The Black vault, however, predated Gringotts' numbering system—or perhaps numbers altogether—and was merely referred to by name.
Hermione's vault was first, and she quickly dumped a heap of galleons from her newest bottomless handbag—her old beaded purse, somewhat tattered after their year on the run, had met its end on a bonfire the previous autumn. 'It's a relief not to be carrying that around anymore, even if it was charmed featherweight,' she said.
Next stop was the Potter vault, where Harry emptied his own expandable pouch. He had no idea how much gold was in the vault other than 'a big pile.' But now that he actually had a future to plan for, rather than certain death from Voldemort, he was more than a little curious to know just how much he had. He hoped the documents provided by Trapskin would say more.
Their final stop was the Black vault, seemingly miles beneath the others. Harry was surprised by how anxious he felt as they careened along the twisting tracks. Hermione must have felt the same, since she grasped his hand as they approached the Thief's Downfall, and they both relaxed after passing underneath without incident. Harry was glad for her company—who but Hermione or Ron would understand how he felt?
They reached the vault at last, and the goblin curtly informed him he'd need his ring to enter. The ring was once again visible thanks to the waterfall, and so he pressed it to a large, matching onyx on the door, surrounded by an equally hideous jewelled serpent. The snake let out a hiss and the door opened.
Torches illuminated automatically, and Harry's eyes widened as he looked inside the vault. If this was what Trapskin considered 'a minimal amount of gold,' Harry wondered how large the Black fortune had been in its prime. The heap was roughly twice the size of the one in his own vault, and Harry briefly felt insulted by Trapskin's slight towards his Potter inheritance.
More interesting, though, were the artefacts piled on the back shelves. Harry suspected some of them were goblin-made, and he wondered whether their anonymous escort was watching. Hermione, however, was drawn straight to the books.
'Oh, Harry!' she exclaimed. 'All those books! May I come see?' Her eyes glittered with longing.
'Yes, by all means! But mind you, don't touch anything—it's probably all cursed.'
Hermione was hardly listening, though, dazzled as she was by the bound volumes. Harry protectively inserted himself between her and the shelf. 'Maybe I'd better pull them out myself, since I'm wearing the ring?'
She snapped back into consciousness and said, 'Merlin, yes! Good point. I can only imagine how the Blacks might have warded their heirlooms from the likes of me. Uppity Mudbloods, you know.'
Harry winced, thinking of the scar on Hermione's arm, carved by one Bellatrix Black. At least Hermione could laugh about it.
'Pull out that one,' she said, pointing to a huge leather tome near the top. 'If that's what I think it is, I'll definitely want a closer look.'
Harry pulled it out and cautiously opened the ornamented cover, which was too dark and faded to read. Hermione stood a safe distance back.
In the flickering light they looked at the first page. It had a large illuminated drawing of the Black family crest, with the word Grimoire written underneath in ornate calligraphy. Hermione moaned reverently.
'Oh yes, please! That one! Can we take it home with us?'
Harry laughed. 'Only if you promise to take care of it. I'll not be feeding it and walking it at all hours, you know!'
Hermione grinned at him. 'You have no idea how I've longed to see an old family Grimoire. Ron's mum has the Weasley Grimoire, and a copy of the Prewetts', but it's terribly bad manners to ask to see another family's Grimoire. Even if I marry Ron I might never have access, since they would probably go to Bill or maybe Ginny.'
Harry's smile faded when she mentioned Ginny. They had broken up the month previous, and he was still grieving.
Embarrassed at her thoughtlessness, Hermione said, 'If you're done here let's go find Ron and George. I could use that pint he was talking about."
"You can't fool me … you'll probably order a half-pint of cider and not finish it,' Harry teased.
'I daresay you're right. Let's go.'
After tucking the book into his pouch, Harry exited the vault with Hermione, sealed the door, and together they climbed into the rickety cart. Their taciturn driver pulled the lever, and they travelled upwards along the spiralling tracks.
Weasley's Wizard Wheezes still blazed in a riot of colours, and fireworks still danced in the large display windows. But Harry's heart always sank a little as he approached the shop, remembering the twin who was no longer there.
Lee Jordan had stepped into Fred's role as Co-Mischief Manager, alongside George, of course, and he was filling Fred's shoes admirably. Harry knew, however, that Lee had taken the job mostly out of kindness. The previous summer George was understandably a wreck, and the shop was closed during the months it should have been most profitable. The war was finally over and kids were out of school, but Weasley's was still boarded up.
George would probably have let the shop slide into bankruptcy, and Harry, without access to his vault, had been unable to cover the bills—it would be several months before the bounties started rolling in. But Lee, who was also still grieving, finally took matters into his own hands.
George was spending nearly all his time holed up in his room at the Burrow, emerging only for the occasional meal, barely speaking to anyone. To make matters worse, his family—Mrs Weasley in particular—could scarcely look at him without tearing up. He reminded them too much of Fred.
Lee had made numerous attempts to reach out, to no avail. Tired of being rebuffed, he eventually blasted through George's locked door, grabbed him by his only ear, and Apparated him out of the house and into a meadow not far from the Burrow. Too depleted to Apparate back, and too dispirited to find his way home, George stayed outside with his friend.
They spent much of the following week rambling over the countryside surrounding the Burrow, rain or shine, mostly in silence. However, there were occasional deep conversations—and a gut-wrenching bout of sobbing—before Lee finally persuaded George to come back to the shop.
Returning to the shop unleashed a second wave of agony. The first week was so bad that George kept finding himself unexpectedly in his bedroom at the Burrow, due to accidental magic. But Lee persisted, retrieving George every time until things settled down.
Within a month George and Lee had moved into the twins' old flat above the shop, and they were able to reopen in time to make a few Galleons off the back-to-school crowds. The circles had mostly disappeared from under George's eyes, and he was once again able to function, albeit somewhat absently at times.
A year later, Lee seemed content in his unexpected role as George's partner, and no longer his caretaker. Harry occasionally recalled Lee's ambition to become an announcer on the Wizarding Wireless Network, and he once asked him about it, but Lee just shrugged and said, 'It'll keep.'
Harry's reverie was interrupted by an explosion of confetti as he entered the store. For about fifteen seconds the air was thick with it, blocking even Hermione from view, but then it sparkled for a few moments before disappearing completely.
'Self-cleaning confetti!' cried George triumphantly. 'It's part of a new line of products we're hoping Filch won't ban.'
'What, don't tell me you've gone legitimate,' said Harry with mock alarm.
'Perish the thought, no! These are mostly for parents who want to owl gifts to their kids but don't want their little angels to break the rules,' said George reassuringly.
Lee added, 'We're even considering a decoy programme, where parents think they're sending Hogwarts-approved gifts, but we actually fill the boxes with rule-breaking classics like our Skiving Snackboxes and Teleporting Parchments.'
Hermione reluctantly took the bait. 'What are Teleporting Parchments?'
George explained, 'It was Lee's idea—they're for when you're late finishing an assignment. Instead of handing in your essay parchment, you hand in a Teleporting Parchment, which is linked to your essay and charmed to be covered in your handwriting. Professors seldom grade homework right away, so you've got time to finish your essay and then switch it magically with the parchment on the professor's desk.'
Lee added, 'You can reuse the same parchment twice more, but after that it stops working. Otherwise we wouldn't sell enough to make it worth our while.'
Hermione sighed and shook her head. 'I don't know if I disapprove more of the flagrant rule-breaking or the planned obsolescence.'
Ron called out from the back of the store, 'Oh good, you're here! Can we get that drink now?'
Lee turned to George and said, 'You go ahead, I'll mind the shop until closing and then clean up. If I'm not home when you get back, I'll be out with Katie and the others.'
'Brilliant, thanks.' said George. Turning to Harry and Hermione, he asked, 'Where to?'
'The Leaky Cauldron?' suggested Harry.
George rolled his eyes. 'I realise you mostly live under a rock, Potter, but there are pubs in Diagon Alley other than the Leaky Cauldron.'
'Yeah,' piped Ron. 'How about the Twisted Niffler?'
'Excellent choice, brother mine. If we get there soon we can even grab a spot on the terrace.' George grabbed his jacket and led the way out the door.
'Couldn't we sit inside? I'm not fond of terrace seating,' grumbled Harry.
George scoffed, 'Scared of autograph-seekers, are we? Oh, the price of fame!' He flung his hand dramatically across his forehead.
Hermione swatted George and said, 'You try being mobbed every time you go out. It happens to Harry whenever he's in public.'
'Well then, it won't matter where he sits, so we might as well enjoy the nice weather,' said George with finality. Harry sighed but said nothing.
The four soon arrived at the Twisted Niffler, which had a very pleasant terrace indeed. George steered them to the last available table, where he and Hermione sat down while Ron and Harry went inside to order drinks. As they waited at the bar, Ron asked, 'How'd it go with the goblins? I forgot to ask earlier.'
'It was fine—better than I expected really. I put my foot in it once or twice, but Hermione was perfectly prepared as always with bloodthirsty goblin pleasantries.'
Ron laughed, 'She's been studying inter-species diplomacy, you know. Getting ready for her apprenticeship with the DMLE. I think she's even started learning Gobbledegook.'
'Don't let her hear you say that, I made the same mistake. "It's the Goblin language, Harry. Calling it Gobbledegook is highly pejorative and will cause irremediable offence,"' he imitated, using the precise tones Hermione always used while lecturing.
'Thanks for the warning, mate! I get into enough trouble as it is,' said Ron, grinning.
The barkeep poured their drinks, and Ron and Harry carried them back to the table, where they found George asking Hermione about some tricky charms he'd been tinkering with at the shop. They looked up when Ron and Harry set down the drinks.
George turned towards Harry, who was settling into his chair. 'Cheers,' he said, raising his glass.
'Oi!' protested Ron. 'I bought the drinks, not Harry.'
'I know,' said George with a smirk. 'I was thanking him for the whole killing Voldemort thing.'
Several nearby patrons looked up at the word 'Voldemort,' which most people were still afraid to say, and their eyes popped at the sight of Harry. Hermione ducked her head and laughed, 'Now you've done it. Harry's barely sat down and his cover's already blown.'
They could see a couple of people fishing through their bags, most likely looking for a spare parchment and quill. Harry attempted to slouch into the shadows but Ron, who had outgrown his complex about Harry's fame, just chuckled.
'You're doomed. May as well face facts and start carrying around a stack of signed photos like Lockhart."
'Only if you sign them too, Ron. Golden Trio, you know,' grimaced Harry.
A middle-aged witch approached the table, tentatively holding out some parchment and a self-inking quill. 'So sorry to bother you, Mr Potter, but could you sign this for my son? He's a huge fan and even has your picture on his wall."
Harry reddened but took the quill. 'Yes, of course, what's his name?'
'Thank you,' she said brightly. 'His name's Benjamin, and he's starting Hogwarts this September. He's already asked me for a Gryffindor scarf, even though he hasn't been Sorted yet.'
Sighing, Harry signed the parchment and thrust the quill at Hermione. 'You'll want their names too. They were with me nearly every step of the way.'
'Is it true you three met on the Hogwarts Express?' she asked. 'That's what Benjamin told me, but you can never believe all the rubbish they print.'
'Yes, that part's true,' confirmed Hermione. 'But not the part that says we made an Unbreakable Vow then and there to defeat Voldemort.'
'Or the story where we became Animagi in our second year, or the bit where Harry wrestles the giant squid into submission, thereby earning his undying fealty,' added Ron.
'What a disappointment, that's one of Benjamin's favourites,' said the woman sadly. 'I suppose I needn't tell him that, though.'
She stood for another moment, apparently hoping the conversation would continue, but the friends kept quiet with the hope that she'd catch on and leave them to their drinks.
'Right, thanks again,' she said awkwardly. In a more serious voice, she added, 'For everything.'
Harry nodded kindly, and the woman left.
Hermione glared at George. 'Don't say we didn't warn you. Is this really how you'd like to spend the evening, getting accosted by Harry's legions?'
'Er, no. Shall I put up a privacy ward?'
'I prefer Notice-Me-Not Charms, as long as we don't expect table service,' said Harry.
'Right then,' said George, who hastened to perform the charm. 'Anyway, where were we? Oh right, Hermione was walking me through some tricky enchantments. Any chance I can borrow you before the Ministry devours all your free time? Charms were Fred's speciality, not mine. I'm more of a Potions man, myself.'
'Potions, you?' burst Ron incredulously. 'Did you even get an O.W.L. in Potions?'
'I most certainly did! Outstanding, in fact,' he said proudly. 'My sources inform me that Snape hexed a hole in his wall when he found out.'
'Your sources?' asked Hermione, sceptical.
George leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. 'Peeves.'
Harry nodded in admiration. 'George Weasley, you never cease to amaze.' George smiled and doffed an invisible cap.
'Right,' said Ron, finishing his drink. 'Hermione and I have to run. She insists on taking me to the Muggle cinema tonight. Something about a matrix.'
'It's called "The Matrix," and I've heard it's got rather good special effects,' said Hermione.
'What are special effects?' asked Ron. 'Never mind, I'm sure I'll find out. George, see you tomorrow at the Burrow. Harry, see you Monday!'
The friends exchanged their goodbyes, and Harry and George waved as the pair walked off.
After a silence, George said, 'We've missed you at Sunday dinners. Mum especially—you were her best eater, after Ron of course.'
'Yeah, well…' he sighed. 'I can't very well show up now Ginny's chucked me.'
George frowned, 'Was it as bad as that? She said it was mutual.'
'That's very kind of her, but no, it was definitely her idea. Said we'd grown too much apart, and that I'd become a different person since the war ended, probably because I didn't return to Hogwarts last September. Never mind that I saw her loads, thanks to my Invisibility Cloak and the Room of Requirement.'
'I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that last bit,' scowled George with mock disapproval, drawing a laugh from Harry.
After a pause George asked, 'Why didn't you return? I know why I wouldn't have gone back, but why didn't you?'
Harry looked thoughtful for a moment before replying. 'I just couldn't pretend anymore. Couldn't pretend I was a normal teenager, doing normal stuff. It was hard enough during fifth and sixth year, knowing Voldemort was out there and then having that bloody prophecy hanging over me like a guillotine.
'Ron might have helped if he'd been there—it's hard not to feel like a kid when we're together, slacking off and obsessing over Quidditch. But then the Ministry offered us spots in the Auror programme, and when they said they'd waive our N.E.W.T. requirements, Ron made up his mind on the spot.'
George laughed. 'Ron never was the academic of the family.'
'No, he really isn't,' agreed Harry. 'So if I'd gone to Hogwarts, I'd be around Ginny, which would have been great, and Hermione of course, though she'd have driven me round the bend with N.E.W.T. preparation and the rest.
'But to go and live in Gryffindor Tower, with so many people missing … Colin, and Lavender … And the forest where it happened ... And even missing Snape, the bastard,' he added with a chuckle.
Another long silence. 'And then going into the Great Hall every day, remembering where they'd laid out all the bodies … Fred, and Remus, and Tonks … I just couldn't do it.'
George nodded, understanding. 'Yeah, I couldn't have done it either. Maybe I'll go back someday, but …' He trailed off.
After a silence, George looked up brightly. 'Anyway, about my sister who chucked you.' Harry laughed, and George continued, his tone turning serious, 'I reckon she never got over the whole Boy-Who-Lived rubbish. Not entirely, anyway.'
'Yeah, I suppose not,' agreed Harry. 'Instead she got the Man Who Survived. Not the same thing at all.'
George's expression grew somber, and for a while he was silent. Eyes downcast, he muttered, 'And then there's the Twin Who Survived.'
Taken aback, Harry looked carefully at George. He normally didn't talk about his loss.
'How are you doing?' asked Harry tentatively.
George sighed. 'Depends who you ask, I suppose. Ask one version of me and he'll tell you I'm doing fine. Ask another version and he'll tell you to bugger off. And then there's a third one who won't even reply. I think he's still hiding out in the Burrow somewhere.'
Harry said nothing, suspecting George just needed someone to listen.
'I'm quite good at going through the motions now. I can thank Lee for that, he's been an absolute lifesaver … But, Merlin, it's so lonely, even with Lee. You have no idea ... You've known loss, obviously, but I don't know if anyone who's not a twin can understand.
'I was so lucky. We were so lucky,' he corrected. 'To have another me, right there with me every day. The best of me, and the worst of me, all the time. We'd quarrel, you know, mostly when others weren't around. But even then, there was a connection right down to our core. A kind of safety. Like everything was all right as long as we were both there.'
George sighed. 'I feel like an oak tree struck by lightning, split in half. I don't even know how I'm still alive, why I didn't drop dead in the same moment. For a while I wished I had done. Still do sometimes.'
George was turning his empty glass over in his hand. 'You know, I hear his voice in my head all the time. Most of my ideas at the shop come from that voice, not from me. He's almost here, almost with me, but maddeningly out of reach.'
'That sounds like the Resurrection Stone,' observed Harry. 'It drove people mad, and I can understand why. So many times after the battle I wanted to go back and find it, see everyone again, say goodbye. Hermione had to stop me. She knew.' He paused. 'And I knew. It's not the same, never can be.'
George put down his glass. 'Yeah.' They were silent for a while.
'So, dinner?' said George unexpectedly. 'I think they have a menu here. Shall I lower the Notice-Me-Not and see if we can get the waitress over? I daresay she'll notice you soon enough,' he added with a nudge.
'Ugh, go ahead.'
Two autographs later, they'd ordered sandwiches and another round of drinks—butterbeer for Harry this time. George cast the Notice-Me-Not again and resolved to keep an eye out for the waitress when their food was ready.
'And how are you doing, Harry? Auror training treating you all right?'
Harry fidgeted with his beer mat. 'Fine, I guess.'
George eyed him suspiciously.
'Really, it's fine,' insisted Harry. 'It's just … not what I expected.'
'I guess I was imagining colleagues like Tonks, and instructors like Mad-Eye. But of course they're gone, and now it's either people who are star-struck, or petty arseholes who want to take me down a peg.'
'What about Kingsley?' asked George.
'Kingsley's all right, but we only got him back as Head Auror a couple of months ago, and he's almost never involved in the day-to-day.'
Harry continued, 'So there's one instructor, Auror Woodbridge, who fawns over me like a first-year. Like, when I don't know some charm I should have learnt at Hogwarts, he practically congratulates me. He'll clock me on the shoulder and say, "Well, I suppose you were up to more important things than practicing the Spinsucker Charm," and then gives me full marks for an exercise I should have failed. And then the other instructor, Auror Murdoch, is the exact opposite. He criticises everything I do, from my Shield Charm to my Patronus.'
'Your Patronus?' gasped George. 'Your Patronus is legendary! We sell glow-in-the-dark Prongs pyjamas at the shop and can barely keep them in stock! Adult sizes included.'
'No matter. According to Murdoch my Patronus is "too showy, waste of power."' Harry rolled his eyes. 'Right, always good to dial things back when Dementors are around.'
'Indeed,' said George. 'I hear they prefer a light touch.'
Harry chuckled. 'Exactly. Anyway, that's Auror training in a nutshell. What's funny is I don't mind all the parts I'd been dreading, like the early training sessions or even calisthenics. And I love the teamwork. But the big picture? Not so much.'
'Early training sessions? Calisthenics? Call me crazy, but it sounds like someone misses Quidditch training with Oliver Wood!' said George, grinning. 'Oh look, there's our drinks, I'll lower the charm.'
George lightly flicked his wand, and a moment later the bewildered waitress spotted them, setting down their glasses before turning towards another customer.
Harry sipped on his butterbeer. 'Wood, eh? I think you're onto something. Maybe I should just chuck the Auror thing and pursue a Quidditch career instead,' he laughed. 'Sounds good right about now. Do you think the Chudley Cannons would have me?'
George burst out laughing, and several heads turned towards their table. "Oh blast, forgot to put the charm back up. Hang on.' He raised the Notice-Me-Not again and said, 'With the Cannons' current standings, they'd be lucky to have anyone who can fly twenty yards without crashing.'
'Excellent, there's my fallback career then.'
'I'm glad we've got that settled,' said George. 'Any other major life decisions troubling you? How're things at Grimmauld Place?'
'Not bad. Kreacher's been a lot more lively since the war ended. Still nutty as a fruitcake, of course, but he loves when I have guests over. I didn't entertain much this past year, since I spent most of my free evenings at Hogwarts with Ginny, but I may as well start, now that I'm at leisure.'
'Shall I consider that an invitation then?'
'Absolutely! We've managed to clear most of the Dark magic from the house, thanks to Bill and Kreacher.'
George grasped Harry's arm, eyes wide with panic. 'Please tell me that doesn't mean we've lost Sirius's charming mother,' he implored.
Harry laughed, 'Alas, no. Walburga is right where you last saw her, looming over the entrance hall. In fact, she called me a "half-blood excrescence" just this morning. I threw a scone at her.'
'And here I was worried you were suffering for lack of company. I'm glad you're in such good hands.'
Harry shuddered, 'More like talons. Oh, speaking of talons, looks like our food is ready. Kindly drop the charm!'
'Sorry, my charm is a flame eternal,' said George, smiling suggestively as he dropped the Notice-Me-Not Charm.
Their waitress noticed them, and she smiled coyly back at George while setting down their plates. 'This one's a bit of a flirt, eh?' she said while motioning towards George, who waggled an eyebrow in response.
'That he is,' said Harry cheekily. 'You can find him at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, just down the Alley. Never a dull moment, guaranteed.'
'I might just do that,' she said, winking.
After restoring their privacy, George glared at Harry. 'Are you trying to get me a date?'
Harry, unsure whether George was amused or annoyed, asked, 'Do you want one?'
George laughed and bit into his sandwich. After swallowing, he said, 'Hard to say. Lee tries to get me out, of course, and we've gone on some double dates. But … it's hard to imagine getting serious with anyone right now, the way I am these days. Lee can tell you … I get rather moody sometimes.'
Harry snorted, 'Don't you remember what I was like during that year with Umbridge, and then after Sirius died? I was moody as hell. I'm still moody, come to think of it.'
'This is true,' agreed George. 'You can pull it off though. Black hair, you know.'
'Yeah, worked great with Ginny. She couldn't get enough of my moods,' Harry said ruefully.
'Ginny is just one witch. I'm sure there's another one out there for you.'
'Yeah, maybe.' They were both quiet for a while as they ate.
'You know,' Harry said abruptly, 'I've often wondered why wizards get married so young. We're supposed to have longer lifespans, when we take a break from killing each other, that is. But my parents got married when they were, what, nineteen? Probably the same for your parents, right?'
'Yeah, most likely,' replied George.
'So what's the rush? I suppose my parents got married during a war, so that might have hurried things a bit. But with Contraception Charms, there probably aren't a lot of shotgun weddings …'
'What's a shotgun wedding?'
'Oops, Muggle expression. It's when the girl gets pregnant and her dad threatens the father with a weapon to get him to marry her.'
'Ah, a wandpoint wedding! Which, now you mention it, probably explains why my parents got married so young. You may have noticed,' George said wryly, 'that they were perhaps not so skilled with Contraception Charms.'
'Pretty skilled at something else, I'll wager,' Harry sniggered.
'Oh dear, walked right into that one. Anyway, getting back to your question, I have no idea why wizards marry so young. I assume Muggles marry later?'
'Historically no, but that's changed this century. I read that in Britain nowadays, Muggles usually marry in their late 20s. I'm sure Hermione could tell you more.'
'No way, really? Their late 20s? How do they manage without Contraception Charms? Oh, scratch that, they don't. I suppose that's why there are so many of them.'
'No,' corrected Harry. 'Muggles have other types of birth control. Not as easy as charms, of course. Though maybe your parents should have tried some Muggle methods,' joked Harry.
'That's perfect! Dad would love that!' roared George. He changed his expression, looking suddenly like Mr. Weasley at his most jovial. '"Molly, I've got hold of some Muggle contraception. Shall we give it a go? I wonder how it works!"'
Harry, choking with laughter, attempted his best imitation of Mrs Weasley. '"Arthur, I won't have you trying any of your Muggle nonsense in the bedroom. It's bad enough we have a shed full of plugs! I won't have you putting a plug up my—"
George, near hysterics, smacked Harry on the arm before he could finish. Resuming his impersonation, he said, '"Don't be silly, Molly. I think it uses batt-ries."'
By now they were both doubled over, and they needed a minute to settle down. Wiping his eyes, George said, 'We seem to have got off topic. What was the question again? Oh yes, why do magicals in Britain marry so young?' His expression changed, becoming more thoughtful. 'I reckon it's mostly tradition. Wizards are mad for tradition, after all. And you said Muggles used to marry younger, right?' Harry nodded in confirmation. 'Right, that's it then. Mystery solved. Anything else you want to know?'
Harry drank the last of his butterbeer and leaned back. 'Why do we need to follow tradition? I'm not yet nineteen, and you're just twenty-one. Haven't we plenty of time? At least until the next Dark Lord turns up …'
'Always the optimist, Harry.'
'My point, George, is that just because you're not ready to get married, you needn't forego dating entirely. As long as you're not misleading the girl, why not have some fun? Isn't this what we fought the war for?'
'No… I'm pretty sure we fought the war to stop a noseless nutter from wiping out all of Great Britain.'
'Fine,' growled Harry. 'But commitment-free dating was definitely our secondary goal, no question.'
'I hear that's why McGonagall joined the Order,' said George, causing Harry to burst out laughing again.
'Oh, I miss Fred,' confessed Harry. 'He would have loved this conversation.'
George smiled fondly. 'Yes, he would have done. By now he'd have plans underway to reenact our parents' contraception talk at Sunday dinner. Possibly involving costumes, and props.'
'No doubt,' grinned Harry.
George pushed his empty glass aside. 'Another round, or shall we call it a night?'
'I should go. I expect Hermione will come round first thing tomorrow to get her hands on the Black family Grimoire.'
'You're kidding! Where did you get that?'
'Gringotts, this afternoon. The only way I could keep her from reading it then and there was by pointing out it would likely try to kill her.'
'And how will you prevent that tomorrow?' asked George.
'Er–' Harry paused. 'Can you keep a secret?'
'You insult me by even asking!' George protested. Noticing Harry's expression, he added, 'Of course, you have my word.'
Harry looked around to make sure the Notice-Me-Not was still active, and then he revealed his ring.
'Great Merlin's balls, what is that?' exclaimed George. 'Oh no, don't even tell me … I can guess. Anything that ugly has to be a pure-blood sigil of the highest order.' He paused a moment to consider, then took his eyes from the ring and looked up at Harry. 'Does this mean I'm addressing the new Lord Black?'
'Got it in one. My newest unearned honour.'
In a serious voice, George asked, 'Does Ron know?'
'No, I haven't told him yet. But I'm not as worried as I once would have been. He's grown up a lot this past year.'
'You're probably right. Just asking out of habit, I guess. You're sure it's not a prank from Sirius?'
Harry laughed, 'That was my first thought too, but the banker assured me it was real, and I was able to open the Black family vault with it.'
'Blimey! That must have been a sight! I suppose that's where you found the Grimoire?' Harry nodded. 'And some gold, I assume?'
'Yeah, but I'm not keeping it. I've already decided to give it to Andromeda Tonks and Teddy Lupin. She was a Black, after all.'
'Ah, good idea. You'll hang onto the house, though?'
'For now. I'm hoping the ring might give me new leverage over the Lady Walburga.'
George sat up, excited. 'If you can get her off the wall, can I have her? She'd be brilliant in the shop window! I can see it now, "Vermin! Filth! Vile scum! Come one, come all, and enter Weasley's Wizard Wheezes for all your blood-traitor needs!"'
Harry burst again into laughter. 'She's all yours,' he promised. 'Anyway, about the Grimoire ... I'm hoping I can use the ring somehow to let Hermione access the book.'
George thought a moment. 'Yeah, that could work. There's probably some blood trick to convince the book you and Hermione are married, and then it will eagerly part its pages for her.'
'I'm impressed you've managed to make an old book sound so … naughty.'
'Another one of my many talents,' said George. 'But yes, that ought to work. It wouldn't be a binding marriage ritual, of course. You'd just be pulling one over on the book.'
'Great, I'll suggest that to Hermione. And thanks, as ever, for your ingenuity at duping old parchments.' Harry smirked and pushed back from the table. 'Let's get the bill and head out. I'm sure the waitress is wondering what happened to us, or to you anyway.'
'Sounds good,' said George, rising from his chair. 'And Harry,' he paused, looking thoughtful again. 'Thanks for listening.'
A short while later, Harry was home at Grimmauld Place, where Kreacher was overjoyed to discover that Master had not yet eaten his pudding. The house-elf promptly served an elaborate trifle he'd prepared 'just in case,' and Harry tucked in with enthusiasm, causing the ancient elf to literally glow with pleasure.
'Will Master be expecting Miss Hermione tomorrow morning? Kreacher can stay up all night making the French pastries Miss Hermione likes.'
'Thank you, Kreacher, but you know Hermione insists you get a proper night's sleep, as do I.'
Ears drooping, the wrinkled elf gazed poignantly up at Harry. 'Would it be all right if Kreacher punished himself for staying up all night against Master's orders?'
'No, Kreacher. Punishments are forbidden, as you well know. Besides, I'm sure Hermione would be happy with the usual fruit and scones.'
'Shall Kreacher make extra scones for Master to throw at Mistress's portrait?'
Harry's eyes widened in surprise. Although Kreacher had long since accepted Harry as his master, he had never before spoken disrespectfully of his late mistress. Was this the ring's effect? wondered Harry. The ring wasn't even visible.
'Some extra scones would be lovely … and perhaps you could burn a few,' he added mischievously.
'Yes, Master! With pleasure!'
Feeling rather stuffed from two generous servings of trifle (Kreacher had insisted), Harry ascended to the library. The old-fashioned gas lights ignited with a puff as he entered, even though, as he had discovered months earlier, the house was not connected to a municipal gas line. He took a seat at the large table and pulled out the two envelopes he'd received earlier, containing documents relating to the Potters and the Blacks.
He'd intended to start with the bank statements, but inside the larger envelope he found a second envelope with his first name handwritten on the front. He opened it and was shocked to find a letter from Sirius, written only weeks before he'd died.
I hope you've reached a ripe old age by the time you read this, but the way things are going I suspect you'll be reading it on your seventeenth birthday. In which case I apologise for not being there when you needed a parent, poor substitute though I am.
First and foremost, I want you to know how much you mean to me. And not just because you're my best mate's offspring, or even because you remind me of James (which you do). You're a remarkable young man in your own right, combining the best of your parents. You've been dealt a difficult hand, worse perhaps than mine, and yet you've shown rare courage and strength of character. Being your godfather has been by far the most rewarding experience of my otherwise wasted life.
My only hope during these dark times, even as I anticipate my untimely demise, is that Voldemort will be defeated and you'll be able to enjoy the life you deserve. And you do deserve a good life, in spite of what you've been led to believe. I urge you to choose happiness, wherever it might find you.
I also hereby apologise for leaving you the Black family ring, with its attendant responsibilities. Feel free to ignore the Lord Black rubbish—I know I would have done, except maybe when demanded as a prank. But I hope you'll take your role as Head of House seriously (pun intended). House Black needs to be steered into the Light, and I can't think of anyone more qualified to do it.
I've also arranged for you to inherit the house immediately upon my death, even if you haven't yet reached majority. I wish I could leave you a more cheerful home than 12 Grimmauld, but hopefully it's better than the hellhole where you grew up (even though it's my fault you were stuck there in the first place). My greatest regret, worse even than convincing your parents to replace me as Secret Keeper, was to run after Wormtail that night instead of looking after you.
Merlin, this letter is depressing! Here I am, dead as a doornail, and I've still found a way to wreck your birthday. Old Prongs really knew how to pick a godfather, didn't he? At least I've left you a fat pile of gold, some of which I encourage you to squander (a Black family tradition). But I hope you'll also look after Remus if he'll let you, the proud bugger.
I should sign off ... Kreacher is spoiling for another fight and I hate to disappoint him.
All my love,
Harry was overcome with emotion. It was almost painful to read new words from Sirius, reminding him of the man he'd lost. And he hated how Sirius had tortured himself for believing he'd failed Harry—as if Azkaban hadn't been punishment enough.
He didn't know what to think about Sirius's advice that he choose happiness. How do I even go about that? Just being alive and having a future felt like an unimaginable gift. Was happiness even a choice? If it were, he'd still be with Ginny.
But he laughed through his tears as he read the two closing paragraphs. He desperately missed Sirius's irreverent humour, as well as his affection. Harry had been fortunate to have Sirius in his life, if only briefly. And he was moved by his godfather's wish that Harry guide House Black towards the Light—he silently resolved to make it his lifelong tribute to Padfoot's memory.
Harry glanced over the financial statements but found he couldn't concentrate after reading Sirius's letter, so he decided to examine them later and look at the Grimoire instead. He removed the heavy book from his expandable pouch and set it down at Hermione's preferred workspace.
The cover was dark leather, with large metal hinges at the binding, and the edges were heavily adorned with tarnished silver and what looked like semi-precious stones. Harry opened the book and noticed that the inside cover was inset with a small, engraved rectangle of gleaming gold. Perhaps this was for the blood ritual George had theorised?
Turning slowly through the pages, he saw that the entire book was handwritten. There was no table of contents—apparently spells had been added one by one over the centuries. The oldest spells were legible but extremely hard to read, due to the ancient calligraphic style. Harry frowned, wondering whether Hermione would be able to decipher it. He tried following the elegantly cramped text by running his finger underneath, and, to his amazement, the letters shifted and spread into more familiar forms. The writing was still old-fashioned but highly readable, and the text he'd suspected was Latin had turned into English.
Harry grinned and, for roughly the millionth time since his eleventh birthday, he felt a surge of delight at an unexpected new bit of magic. Perhaps this was an advantage of being raised outside the wizarding world—he'd never quite got over his astonishment that magic was real. Ginny had often been amused by his childlike glee at some silly magical toy she'd never thought twice about, like the battered self-stacking blocks she and her brothers had played with, or the storytelling mobile hanging over Teddy's cot.
With great interest, he started reading through the various charms and potions. There were quite a few recipes, and Harry's first thought was to show them to Kreacher. But a closer look revealed ghastly ingredients like 'Basilisk tongue' and 'Hag's hair,' and, most alarmingly, a recipe for Dementor bone soup, with a scrawled note in the margin that said, 'Excellent for nursing mothers.'
Shuddering, Harry slammed the book shut and resolved to leave it for Hermione, who was blessed with both insatiable curiosity and, as he'd discovered during those long months camping, a cast iron stomach.