The Letter

Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter . . . unfortunately!

Chapter Two

Ron and Hermione were thrilled with the news. "He'll be in Gryffindor, of course," Ron said, tucking in to roast beef and mashed potatoes while congratulations went around the table.

"We don't know that, Ron," Hermione said. "He could be in Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff . . ."

"And pigs might fly," said Ron. "With both parents and all four grandparents in Gryffindor? Where else could he be?"

"It doesn't always go according to family," Hermione pointed out. "Bill's eldest, Victoire, is in Ravenclaw."

Ron scoffed. "That's just because he married a foreigner."

"What about Percy?" asked Ginny. "One of his kids is in Hufflepuff."

"Well, that's Percy, isn't it?" said Ron. "To tell the truth, I've never been entirely sure Percy is a Weasley. Always thought he had sort of a changeling look about him."

"Ron!" said Hermione, who was struggling not to smile.

"Oh, well," Ron said. "As long as you're not in Slytherin, James. As your godfather and uncle, I forbid it. No nephew of mine is going to end up in Slytherin!"

"What if one of your own children ends up there?" Ginny taunted.

Ron looked horrified. "A Weasley, in Slytherin? Never!"

"Honestly, Ron, not everyone from Slytherin turns out badly," Ginny said, with a glance at her second son.

"And Gryffindor has produced its own share of Dark Wizards," said Harry. "Remember Wormtail? And let's not forget Cormac McLaggen."

"Wish I could," said Ron, looking darkly at Hermione whose face, for some reason, had gone red. "What was it you arrested him for, Harry? Selling illegal potions in Knockturn Alley, wasn''t it?"

"Something like that," said Harry. "Besides, I still owed him for knocking me out in that Quidditch match against Hufflepuff."

Rose, who had been listening with bright interest, piped up, "I won't let the Sorting Hat put me in Slytherin, Dad. I'll tell it I want to be in Gryffindor!"

"That's my girl, Rosie," said Ron, reaching across the table to ruffle his daughter's bushy hair.

The younger children were all exchanging nervous looks, so Ginny decided to change the subject. "Harry's coming with us to Diagon Alley next week to get James' school things. Any chance of meeting you and George for lunch, Ron?"

"I'll have to see what's going on at the shop," said Ron. "We've really been busy. We're branching out again, you know."

"Again?" Harry said. "With two branches in England, one in Scotland, one in Wales, and another in Dublin? What's next?"

"France!" said Ron. "Fleur's put us in touch with relatives of hers who do business in the village just outside Beauxbatons. I reckon the French could really use a laugh, so we'll open a branch there and see what happens."

"Euro-Weasley," said Harry. "I'm impressed!"

"I impress myself sometimes," Ron admitted. "I'd open a branch near Durmstrang, too, if anyone could find it."

Hugo, who had Ron's red hair and Hermione's slightly prominent front teeth, murmured to Lily, "Our dad is very clever, you know!"

Ginny exchanged an amused look with Harry while Hermione beamed at Ron as though she quite agreed with their son. But Harry couldn't help wondering if any of his children would have said the same of him. To tell the truth, he wasn't sure they really knew what he did for a living. The work of an Auror was so shrouded in secrecy that Harry wasn't at liberty to discuss many aspects of his job at home. Not that he'd been home much lately, as Ginny was so fond of pointing out. He felt resentful again, but guilty too. Maybe he had been neglectful, but damn it all, he was doing the best he could!

"If you've finished your pudding, you can all go to the nursery," Ginny told the children. None of them needed to be asked twice and scattered while the adults moved to the sitting room.

"That was a lovely dinner, Ginny," Hermione said, as Harry poured brandy into balloon glasses.

"I'd love to take credit for it, but it was mostly Kreacher's doing," Ginny replied. "He still rules the kitchen, not that I mind. If it wasn't for him and Winky, I'd never find time to write my column."

"I understand your old Quidditch team is doing quite well," said Hermione, who read Ginny's column in the Daily Prophet faithfully each week, even though she didn't understand it half the time.

"They're favored to win the league," Ron said. "Although once the Chudley Canons pull out of their slump. . ."

"Two hundred years at the bottom of the standings isn't a slump, Ron," said Ginny. "It's an indictment!"

"Just because you played Chaser for the Holyhead Harpies for a few years doesn't make you an expert on every other team," Ron said irritably.

"Maybe not, but even if I didn't know one end of a broom from another, I'd still know better than to back the Canons," Ginny chided. "Give it up, Ron, they have as much chance of winning anything as I have of becoming Minister for Magic!"

Hermione, who had already downed most of her brandy, said, "You can just leave that to your husband, can't you?"

"Don't, Hermione," said Harry.

"Oh, come on, Harry," Hermione said. "You've heard the same rumors I have. Kingsley Shacklebolt is getting ready to retire and everyone has been saying. . ."

"Excuse me," Ginny interrupted. "What has everyone been saying?"

"I don't know that Kinglsey has any plans to retire and neither do you," Harry said to Hermione. "It's like you said, Hermione, it's a rumor."

"Rumors frequently have a basis in fact," said Hermione. "He'll have to step down eventually, and when he does, you're sure to be tapped as the next Minister."

Ginny looked from Harry to Hermione and then to Ron. "I suppose you knew about this too?" she asked.

Ron squirmed uncomfortably. "We'll, he's a logical choice, isn't he? I mean, come on, he's Harry Potter."

"I see." Ginny stared at Harry, who had slumped so low in his chair he was practically horizontal. "And when did you plan to tell Mrs. Potter about this?"

"Ginny," Harry said, rather feebly it seemed to him. "Nothing's been decided yet."

"Yet? You mean you've already discussed this? Someone has already approached you?"

Hermione's face had gone crimson. "Harry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean . . ."

"Don't apologize, Hermione," said Ginny. "If it wasn't for you, I'd probably have to read about it in the newspapers."

"Ginny," said Harry, "I haven't agreed to anything. I don't even know if I'm interested, to tell the truth. As you well know, I have quite enough to be going on with as it is, and I . . . well, there didn't seem to be any point in bringing it up until things were a little clearer in my own mind."

"You've obviously discussed it with Hermione, though, haven't you?" Ginny said. "And Ron. Always Ron. Well, this is just like it was during the war, isn't it? The three of you decide everything together and then off you go on your adventures while little Ginny stops at home. . . "

"Ginny!" said Hermione. "It isn't like that at all! I work for the Ministry, too. I'm in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, it's only natural I'd hear about it, and I just happened to mention it to Ron. . ."

"You mentioned it to Ron?" Ginny gave a harsh laugh. "What a novel concept, talking to one's spouse!"

"Ginny," said Harry, reaching for her hand, but she snatched it away.

"I'm going to check on the children," she said shortly, and swept from the room before anyone could stop her.

There was an awkward silence. Then Ron said, "I think that went really well, don't you?"

Hermione turned to Harry. "I am so sorry! This is all my fault."

"No, it isn't," said Harry.

"Yes, it is. Oh, why did you let me drink this stuff?" she said, shoving her balloon glass at Ron. "You know I can't handle anything stronger than sherry!"

"Can't drink to save her life," Ron explained. "She's rubbish at it. You should have seen her on our honeymoon after a couple of firewhiskies. Ah, well. No point wasting it, is there?" And he downed the last of Hermione's brandy in one.

"It's not your fault," Harry assured her. "I'm the one who mucked things up this time."

"Ginny'll be all right once she's had a chance to calm down," Ron said. "You know the Weasley temper: a quick flash in the pan, and then it's all over."

"I don't know, Ron," said Harry. "This has been coming on for awhile. She's been after me for months to cut back at work and spend more time with her and the kids. And she's right, you know? We used to talk about everything all the time, but for the past year I've been so busy I just never seem to get around to it."

"You've had a run of bad luck lately," Hermione said. "You've lost so many of your best people: two transferred, two retired, one on maternity leave, and that poor man who ended up in St. Mungo's. . . has anyone found out yet what sort of curse he was hit with?"

"No," said Harry. "And even if they do, he'll never be completely fit again." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "I can't believe I ever even considered standing for Minister after the pig's ear I've made of everything."

"Harry, that's not true," Hermione said. "You've been a wonderful head of department. Everyone at the Ministry says so."

"Yes, but I haven't much of a husband or father, have I?"

Hermione looked stricken. She glanced from Harry to Ron and said, "I . . . I should go after Ginny."

"I told you, Hermione, it's not your fault."

"It might help to talk things out with another woman. I'll just. . ." And Hermione scurried from the room, leaving Ron and Harry alone.

"Don't be so hard on yourself, mate," said Ron. "She'll come around."

"But she's right, Ron," Harry said. "It finally hit me tonight when James showed us his letter from Hogwarts. In three years, they'll all be away at school and then it'll be too late."

"Too late for what?"

"To know them. For them to know me. In a few more years, we won't be the center of their universe anymore. You remember what it was like when we were at school. Our housemates were our family, the castle was our home. It was for me, anyway. Might have been different for you. You had a family to go home to."

"So did you. And it was the same family, in case you've forgotten. But I know what you mean. Every time I think about Rosie going off to Hogwarts next year, I feel all. . .soppy." Ron blinked a few times. "But James isn't going away forever. He'll be home for Christmas, Easter, and summer holidays. And it's not the way it was when you and I were there. At least there are no Dark Wizards trying to kill him."

"None that we know about anyway," Harry said under his breath.

"Come on, Harry. Now you're just being paranoid."

"Maybe so," Harry sighed. "You know, he asked me about that once. James, I mean. He wanted to know what really happened. He'd read something in a book, I suppose, or overhead someone talking about it."

"Blimey!" Ron looked horrified. "What'd you tell him?"

Harry shook his head. "I didn't know what to tell him, to be honest. I gave him some song and dance about waiting until he was old enough to understand. But he's bound to hear things at school. After all, it's part of the Defense Against the Dark Arts syllabus now."

"And let's not forget, your picture's on the chocolate frog cards!"

"So's yours."

"Ah, yes," said Ron with a dreamy smile. "My finest hour!"

Harry laughed, but it faded to a sigh. "I've just got to do it, that's all. I'll figure a way to explain everything before he hears it second-hand. He has a right to hear it from me. They all do. I'm their father, after all."

"Well, when you've got it worked out, can I borrow your notes? I'll use them when I talk to Rose and Hugo."

"Done!" Harry grinned. "And I am going to find a way to spend more time with Ginny and the kids. I don't know how, but I will."

"You need to learn to delegate, Harry," said Ron. "You always were rubbish at that. You don't have to do everything yourself, you know."

"I know," Harry said. "It's just hard to know who to trust. People treat you differently when you're the boss. They say whatever they think you want to hear and then run their own agenda when your back is turned."

"Ted Lupin's started Auror training, hasn't he?" asked Ron. "He's trustworthy."

"Well, yes, but he's very junior. He'll need a lot more experience before he can be much help." Harry glanced at Ron from the corner of one eye. "I don't suppose you'd consider coming back into the fold, would you?"

Ron laughed uneasily. "I'm your brother-in-law. Might look like nepotism."

"I was only joking," Harry said. "I know better. I mean, come on, a tycoon like you? Why would you?"

Ron relaxed a little. "I was never any great shakes as an Auror anyway. Even you have to admit that, Harry."

"I admit nothing," Harry replied. "We revolutionized the Auror Department after Kingsley took over as Minister. It was you and me together, Ron. It was never just me."

"It was fun when we were starting out," Ron admitted. "Once we had everything up and running, though, I dunno, I guess the thrill went out of it or something. And then George needed help with the shop. He still wasn't coping with the . . . the whole Fred thing back then and . . . Well, he turned it around after he married Katie, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. And you have to admit, it worked out pretty well for me. I'm not sorry I did it, Harry, but I am sorry for leaving you in the lurch." Ron ducked his head, his ears reddening. "Don't know if I ever told you that. Better late than never, right?"

It was an awkward moment. They'd had a huge row when Ron left the Ministry and Harry knew it had been mostly his fault. He had accused Ron of treachery and desertion, among other choice epithets, and followed this up by refusing to speak to his best friend for several months. It had taken the combined efforts of Ginny and Hermione to convince him that Ron needed a place to shine on his own, away from the long shadow Harry had always cast, in order for their friendship to survive. As was usually the case, Hermione and Ginny had been right. The divergent paths had made their friendship stronger, and Ron really did seem to have found his niche. The joke shop had been on the verge of going under when Ron stepped in, but his marketing ideas had turned everything around and he had amassed a fortune in the process. Harry wouldn't have been at all surprised to learn that Ron now had more gold in his Gringotts vault than Harry had in his own.

"You didn't leave me in the lurch, Ron," Harry said. "You did what you had to do, and I'm glad it all worked out for you. I can't say I don't still miss you, though."

Ron smiled. "Me too, mate. But it's not like we don't still see each other all the time, is it?"

It was true, Harry thought. Ron was always popping into his office at the Ministry, and Harry stopped by the joke shop whenever he was in Diagon Alley, which was often. He probably saw Ron as much, if not more, than he saw his wife and children. Guilt flooded him again as Ginny's voice echoed in his head: "Ron. . . always Ron!" Okay, Harry thought, I get the message! No need to rub it in!

Hermione and Ginny returned to the sitting room arm-in-arm, and, as Ron had predicted, Ginny had calmed down. She apologized for her outburst, Harry apologized for everything he'd done wrong since the day they met, and everyone settled down for more brandy and conversation. But Harry's mind kept wandering. He thought of his children, these miracles that had arisen from the joining of his flesh with Ginny's. Who were they, these progeny of his, this fruit of his loins? Did he really even know James, or Al, or Lily for that matter?

Each of them was so very different, even in appearance. Al looked most like Harry. He had the same thin face, the same green eyes, the same untidy black hair that stuck up in back; he even had Harry's knobbly knees. The boy lacked only a scar, and considering how that came about, Harry was profoundly grateful for the distinction. Lily, on the other hand, was a stamped out miniature of her mother: red-haired and freckled with bright brown eyes that melted Harry's heart every time he looked at her. As for James. . . well, James was his own strange self. Ron had once expressed the opinion that James looked like Neville Longbottom, which earned him a "Ron!" from Hermione and a swat across the head from his sister. Actually, James looked like both of his parents, but neither in particular. His hair was dark brown, but with reddish highlights like Ginny's, and his eyes, though almond-shaped like Harry's, were as blue as Ron's. He hadn't inherited the tall, lanky Weasley frame, but was shaping up to be short and muscular like Charlie and George. And Fred of course. . . there was a lot in James that reminded Harry of Fred.

It's too soon, Harry thought again. I haven't had time to teach him anything! He wasn't even sure if he knew everything fathers were supposed to teach their children, especially when it came to his sons. It was simpler somehow with Lily, who was alternately sweet and silly, kittenish and clever, dreamy and profoundly wise. Harry thought girls must be easier to raise, for he never had any trouble with his daughter. The boys, however, were something else again, and with them Harry felt at a disadvantage for never having known his own father. There had been Sirius, of course, and Remus Lupin, and his Uncle Vernon had at least taught him how to duck. But there had never been anyone to show him how to throw or kick a ball, or explain things about girls. . . Oh, now there was a terrifying prospect! One day Harry would have to sit down with James and Al for the "talk" that fathers were supposed to have with their sons, and he had no idea how to go about it when the time came. The closest he had ever come himself was the mortifying occasion when Arthur Weasley took Harry into Ron's room and attempted to have the "talk" which Mrs. Weasley insisted upon once it became apparent that Harry had designs on their daughter. Harry had sat there, his face growing steadily hotter until he looked like a kettle at full boil while Mr. Weasley hemmed and hawed his way through a discussion that no young man ever wants to have with his girlfriend's father. He endured it by confining himself to saying, "Yes, sir," and "No, sir," at appropriate intervals until, at long last, he was released back into the wild with a head full of horrific images and a fervent desire to burn out his mind's eye.

Poor Arthur, Harry thought now. He had gone through that six times . . .well, five really, as he probably did the twins together, and what a specter that must have raised! Come to think of it, Al and James were only a year apart. Perhaps he could take both of them on at once and be done with it? No, that probably wouldn't work. Harry wasn't sure why exactly, but he was pretty sure Ginny would expect him to talk to each of them separately. At least he didn't have to worry about Lily. She was Ginny's problem, thank Merlin, and that was years into the future. What was Lily now, seven, eight? How old did girls have to be before boys started paying attention? Harry supposed it depended upon the girl, but Lily was very like her mother, and Ginny had attracted interest at a relatively early age. Okay, so maybe girls weren't necessarily easier! Harry's head began to spin with nightmarish visions of his precious, only daughter in the clutches of some specky, scrawny git with nineteen hands, and Merlin only knew what kind of thoughts racing through his ferrety little mind. I'll kill him, Harry thought. I'll skin him alive! I'll hang him upside down by his toenails and then I'll. . .

Harry became aware that Ron was waving a hand in front of his face. "Harry?" Ron was saying. "You still with us?"

"Sorry," said Harry. "Must have drifted off for awhile there."

"You're falling asleep, aren't you?" Ginny said, then turned to Ron and Hermione. "He was exhausted when he got home tonight. I'm surprised he held up this long."

"We should go," said Hermione. "It's late. The children really should be in bed."

The children were extracted from the playroom. Amid the usual clatter of thanks and promises to get together again soon, everyone made their farewells, then Ron and Hermione, each carrying a child, stepped into the fireplace. As soon as they had disappeared in a burst of green flames, Ginny turned to her own offspring and said, "Bed!"

"Why don't you let me sort them out tonight, Ginny?" said Harry.

Ginny looked surprised. "I thought you were tired."

"I've got my second wind. I don't mind, really."

She gave him a suspicious look, but said, "Be my guest."

Harry took Lily by the hand and herded the boys up the stairs, stopping only long enough to settle an argument that escalated into a shoving match. He found a clean nightgown for Lily and left her to change while seeing to Al and James who were popping in and out of each other's rooms like hyperactive jack-in-the-boxes. A second shoving match ensued which Harry broke up by pinning both boys to the wall with a look he normally reserved for Death Eaters, and informing them that, unless the house caught fire or was actually under attack, he didn't want to hear another sound from either one until morning. At last he returned to Lily, who had put on her nightdress and was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling.

"Did you have a good time with your cousins?" Harry asked, as he tucked the blankets around her.

"Not really. Hugo kept calling me a girl, like it's something awful."

"What about Rose? She's a girl."

"All she ever does is read her silly books," Lily replied disparagingly. Harry grinned: Rose was Hermione's daughter, for sure! "It's me the boys always tease," Lily went on. "They never pick on Rose. It's always me."

"Which boys? Your brothers?"

"All of them, really. It isn't fair!"

"Well, they should treat you with more respect," Harry said. "I can talk to them, if you like."

"No, Daddy," said Lily. "I can cope. I just don't think it's fair, that's all."

"No," Harry agreed. "It isn't fair. But I'm glad you're coping." He kissed her forehead and both cheeks, then straightened up to turn out the light, but not before saying, "Stay away from boys – they're nothing but trouble!"

Ginny was waiting in the hall when he came out of Lily's room. "What are you smiling at?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said. "I really love you, you know."

"That's good. Because I really love you, too."

Some sort of revolution was underway. Ginny knew that much, but she wasn't going to spoil it by asking a lot of silly questions. Instead, she linked her arm through his, and said, "Come on, Harry. Let's go to bed."

A/N: The action heats up in the next chapter with an escape from Azkban and Harry's worst fears are realized when danger stalks his children.