Harry woke to a steady tap tap tap sound, and the feeling of cold wet in the air. He reached for his glasses, but they were wet and left cold clamminess on his hand. He wiped them off on his pyjama top, and settled them into place before he opened his eyes, but they didn't really do much for him anymore. He'd needed a new pair for decades, but he'd put the purchase off until he could no longer afford it.
He looked around the blurry one room shed that was his home, and spotted a tiny flash that fell from the ceiling to splash against the tiny three-drawer dresser next to the bed. Tap.
"Must have rained last night." He mumbled to himself. No matter how many times he patched the tiny roof, it always leaked when it rained, and usually in a different place each time. He would have just Vanished the whole thing and made a new one if he still had a wand. Would have fixed his glasses better than just electrical tape too.
Her voice drifted out of his memory, filled with confidence and pride. He felt his lips stretch into a small smile despite the sharp, bleeding pain it put in his chest - even after twenty-two years, two months and eight days.
He sighed against the pain, against the desperate longing, and flipped the blanket off himself. As he did, he saw a small package wrapped with gold paper and tied with a red bow on the arm of the threadbare sofa he used as a bed.
That was odd.
He sat up with his back against the opposite arm and simply looked at the package for a moment. Truthfully he was somewhat loathe to stand up, as he knew that while the floorboards let any excess water drain through, they would still be cold and damp against his feet.
Who would send him a gift? Why?
It was July thirty-first. That's why his alarm hadn't awoken him, he'd taken the day off. Still, who'd send him a birthday gift and how did they even find him?
He got his knees under him and leaned forward to look closer at the tag attached to the box. It read "Happy 40th, Harry."
He snorted in derision. No it bloody wasn't. He hadn't had a happy birthday since Nineteen-Ninety-Six. Not since before... He shook his head to clear that thought. There was no sense dwelling on what could not be changed, no matter how dearly he wished for it. He reached out and picked up the package and brought it to him. It was physically light, but there was a solidity to it that he could not define. It almost hummed in his fingers, though it felt like just an empty box.
It couldn't be from Ginny, he knew that right from the start. She was in Milan that time of the year, maybe Monaco. In any case she hadn't given a shit about his birthday since school. His eighteenth had been wonderful at the time, just Ginny and him at the beach. It had been so peaceful, so relaxing, so crammed full of sex. It had been one of his most potent memories... Until she'd divorced him five years later and taken everything. Three months after she'd kicked him out of his ancestral home, the potions had worn off and he'd realized exactly what had happened.
He'd tried to see Albus, Ginevra Junior and little baby Arthur constantly after that, until she'd paid to have the Ministry revoke his rights to his own children. After that he just didn't have the will to... He shook his head to clear that thought too. More of that and the Hermione in his head would start to get cross with him.
He likewise knew the gift hadn't been from any of the kids. He hadn't seen any of them since they were little, and the few times he'd reached out to them after they'd finished school they'd not been kind. The last time, Albus Severus had just stepped in front of his siblings, looked him in the eyes and said "Nobody wants you here. Fuck off, Loser."
No, he knew it wasn't from any of his children. They hated him. The sharp, rancid pain of that fact raced through his veins again and brought the familiar sting to his eyes. It was just as well things were already blurry.
He set the gift back on the arm of the sofa where he'd found it and crossed the room to the toilet to relieve himself. Hands and face washed, teeth brushed, he got dressed for the day. He only had one thing to do for the day - the same thing he always did - but it took most of the day. He picked the gift up and slipped it into his jacket pocket as he went to leave the shed he called home. The ground by the door had turned to mud as it did after every rain, but it didn't matter. With a desolate sigh he reached inside himself and focused his intent on being somewhere else. A specific somewhere else. It was easier to do with a wand, but he simply couldn't afford one.
He arrived quietly, unnoticed by the scant few living beings in the place. He'd become so good at going unnoticed over the years, he frightened a squirrel when he crouched down beside it. He watched the thing bound away across two rows of tombstones and up a tree before it turned to chitter at him.
"Hi Mister and Missus Granger." He told the stone he crouched in front of. "It's Harry again." He brushed a few stray bits of mown grass from the top of their stone. "It's been a whole year already... Nothing much has changed. I'm forty today, and you know how my birthdays always make me smile. I hope everything is brilliant for you, wherever you are. Thanks again for always being so nice to me. I miss you. Yes, I know I always come to talk to her, but you know I don't mind if you listen in. You've already heard everything in any case. Say Hi to Mum and Dad if you see them before Hallowe'en, tell them I miss them too."
He focused his intent and poured it into the image of a flower. A single yellow rose faded into being in front of their stone, and Harry stood again to lay a hand on the top of the stone for a long moment. Finally, he took two steps to his right and crouched again.
"Hello again." He whispered as his voice failed him. Every damn time.
He cleared his throat and made sure her stone was clean while he fought the hollow emptiness that welled up within him and stung his eyes. He focused his intent again and made another rose, this one deep red in front of her stone.
"Yes I know, Hermione. I'm trying. I just miss you so much, even after all this time." He let his head fall forward so his tears would drop to the ground. He knew there was no point in trying to stem the tide, it had never worked. He let it consume him instead. The only time he let himself acknowledge it even existed was here, with her. She was the only one who cared. The only one who'd ever cared.
"I see you in my mind sometimes," He admitted, "Sometimes as a teacher, sometimes as a librarian, sometimes as a politician. My favourite so far is the librarian. You're at your desk, book in one hand and Crooks in your lap while you lazily pet him with the other hand. I miss you too Crooks, you rascal. I should have listened to you better, mate. You knew what was going on. I'm so sorry, Hermione - Yes, I know! I can't help it, okay? I am sorry. Nothing is going to change that. It doesn't matter if none of it was really my fault, it still feels like it is. I still have to be here without you."
He took a deep breath and choked back several sobs as he sank to his knees and leaned his forehead on the cool stone. It was a long time before the pain in his chest let him straighten again. He sniffed and dug in his pocket for a tissue, but his fingers hit the gift box before he found a tissue and blew his nose.
He grinned for a moment then. "Yeah. Just like third year, you're right. Unfortunately I can't take it to McGonagall to check for jinxes and curses. She passed a few years ago. No, I didn't go. After everything she was party to, after everything she knew and never did anything about, after all we suffered while she stood by and watched I couldn't bring myself to go. I didn't want to let that bile out on her family. They didn't deserve it."
He pulled the gift box from his pocket and ran his fingers over it.
"Besides... If it turns out to be something deadly, then I'll get to see you. I'll get to hug you. Smell your hair again. I used to love the smell of your hair, Hermione. It was so... It was so you . It smelled like home. You were my home, and you still are, Hermione. So... if this kills me... I'm okay with that. I'll finally get to go home again."
He winced slightly at the tirade that set off in his mind, but it made him smile too.
"I know, Hermione. You're right, you know you are. You always are. None of that changes how I feel though. I love you. I always did, even when I was too thick to realize it. Yes, I know that wasn't my fault either, and you know that doesn't matter. I knew it fourth year, even if I didn't know that I knew. I told you that years ago. I just... I was so stupid, Hermione. I know I say it every year, but I still don't know how you managed to put up with me. I wish... No, of course not. It doesn't change the fact though, does it? I wish I could go back and change it all the same. I'd start tinkering with time turners if I hadn't been such an idiot and gotten myself into this mess in the first place."
He was quiet for a time, until she asked him a question.
"Because it hurts too much. More than once a year and I'd be a walking wound." He barked a laugh at her reply. "I suppose I am, at that. I know, yes you're right of course... You know I can't afford that though. Can barely afford to eat. I honestly never thought I'd be the same as an adult... Stuck in a tiny cramped space, barely eating scraps..." He sighed then as he listened to her. "I missed your anger too. I used to make you angry sometimes on purpose, did I ever tell you that?"
He smiled at her name as he remembered.
"Because you were so... I don't know, impressive? Beautiful? Awesome. You were awesome when you were angry. Like a volcano erupting at night. You don't want to look away even though you know it's going to kill you."
He shook his head. "Say what you will, Hermione. It's true. One more thing I should have said to your face."
He hefted the gift box then, and he could feel the magic inside it had changed. It had purpose then, intent. It was no longer just potential.
"No, my mind is made up, Hermione. It could just be a prank. It could be something really nice - yes, of course I'd find whoever it was. I'm not that rude. If it doesn't blow up in my face, then I'll see you next year. If it does..."
He knew he shouldn't think it, but part of him wanted it to. Guilt and shame swirled around that part and tried to suppress it, but in the deepest, darkest corner of his honesty he knew he'd been made to regret his decision to return to life in the forest. He'd come back for her, only to have Ron snatch her away permanently. That ginger bastard hadn't even gone to prison. Twenty-five galleons, that's what her life had been worth to the Ministry. Nothing more than the fine for 'accidental death' of a mudblood. He was done with it all at that moment. He'd have turned his back on all of it if not for the potions Ginny fed him. But then, if not for the potions, he'd never have been in that position in the first place.
He took a deep breath and let it out as he grasped the ribbon that made up the bow, and pulled. The ribbon snaked out of its knot smoothly and fell away, leaving just the gold-coloured box.
He grasped the lid and pulled.
For a moment, nothing happened. He could feel the magic contained within the box swell and direct itself, and as it reached toward a critical mass, Harry closed his eyes and relaxed more than he had at any point in the previous twenty-two years, two months and eight days. A tear squeezed its way out of the corner of his eye.
"Here I come Hermione." He whispered. Surprisingly, she didn't yell at him for that. Instead she merely opened her arms in welcome.
He could feel the magic flood out of the box and over his entire body. It tingled his every nerve, tiny pinpricks all over his skin for a long moment, until he felt the pressure of the air around him stop pressing down on his skin. The birdsong in the air, the humming of insects, the droning of vehicles on the road - it all stopped then. He felt himself separate from his surroundings, then he fell.
He'd been kneeling on the ground at her stone, so when he began to fall he thought he would sink down to be with her in mother earth's cold embrace... but he continued to fall. He fell for long minutes. He'd have been able to count how long by using his slow, steady intake of breath... except that he didn't breathe. There was no air around him, and he knew that - it just didn't cause him any discomfort.
"I must be going straight to her then." He thought, but he kept right on falling.
As it turned out, he was almost right.
He landed with a soft relaxation, as though he had simply lain down from a sitting position. Beneath him he felt a warm, comfortable bed.
He felt a hand stroke his forehead, it gently smoothed his hair back from his face. He knew that hand. He could smell it was her.
"You poor dear." She cooed. He knew it was her voice too, but he could not bring himself to open his eyes and confirm it. Tears escaped his closed eyes as he drank in the sensation of being near her. Of being home.
"Definitely one of the worst." A male voice said. "Happy fortieth, Harry."
Surprise overtook him. It wasn't Sirius's voice, it wasn't even what he'd imagined his father's voice would be like. Who was she with? Absolute despair overtook him then. Even in the afterlife Hermione had gone with someone else. How did one go about suiciding from the afterlife?
"Oi, tosser. I know you're awake. Get on with it already, we have a great deal to do."
Even dead, apparently he simply couldn't find peace - nor freedom from arseholes. He opened his eyes with a sigh.
"Hello." Hermione smiled down at him, and for a second everything else disappeared. He devoured her eyes, the shape of her face, her perfect lips, and he realized that he didn't just love her. He was in love with her. She was the very definition of beauty and desire. His everything ached with the need to kiss her.
Then the moment passed, and he realized she didn't look at him the way she had. Her eyes held compassion, tenderness, but also distance. He looked around, and saw he was in a large room with several windows, the bed he was in, a ritual circle on the ceiling above the bed, some weights and training equipment.
"Most of the time you wonder where you are, but then most of me haven't had the utter shitfountain your life has been. Given where you were and what you were doing, I imagine you're likely wondering if you're dead. You're not. At least not yet, though I can promise there wll be times in your near future when you'll think you're dying."
Hermione chuckled at that.
Harry finally sat up and looked at the other male in the room. He was perched in an office chair at the foot of the bed.
It was him.
He'd cut his hair short, and the scar was clearly visible. The other him was thinner as well, but also much more muscled. He looked lean and hard. Harry had to admit a stab of jealousy as he looked, and then a stab of guilt as he realized it was him, and he could look like that at any time if he had only worked at it.
He looked back at Hermione then, and he had to admit he hadn't seen the differences. Her hair was sleek and long and straight, worn in a pony tail that rested on her shoulder. She too was thin and hard with muscle. He looked past her out the window then, but the sky was wrong. It was dark out, the sky was a deep indigo, but there were no stars. No moon.
"What is this? Who are you? Where am I?" He frowned and his fingers twitched for the wand that no longer existed.
"You won't understand the answer yet, sweetie." Hermione smiled at him. "Not for a while. I'm Hermione, yes, but not your Hermione."
"You don't know anything about your own Family's magic, so you don't have any way to know the answers to your questions. I'm you, Harry, but not you you, obviously. I'm a you whose life was very different from yours. Sirius, Merlin bless his mangy hide, nabbed me from Godric's Hollow before Hagrid arrived. He took me to Canada and raised me there and in lots of other countries around the world. He taught me to use my magic wandlessly from the time I was a baby, and I had the best tutors for martial arts and magic and even muggle subjects that money could buy."
"And I met him when we were children - I was nine. We fell in love almost immediately, and he showed me that I was a witch. That I wasn't a freak, that our magic wasn't something to be suppressed or frightened of." Hermione's face shone with love at the other him, and he felt the knife in his chest twist.
Other Harry took over again smoothly. It was almost like watching Fred and George bat a conversation back and forth, but nowhere near as annoying. "Thanks to Tom's biggest failure - leaving a part of him in me - I was able to take the knowledge of his horcruxes from him directly. When I showed up at Hogwarts in fourth year, he only had the snake left." He pointed at a purse that rested on the desk behind him. It was snakeskin.
"We got rid of Tom and then... influenced... most of the Ministry toward acting in the public interest. A few examples had to be made of course, but once everyone knew what would happen to those who were greedy or pureblood elitist, Britain became a much nicer place." Hermione smiled and sat in the other Harry's lap.
"I'm nearly three hundred years old, Harry." The other him said.
He scoffed. "That's utter tosh, you look twenty!" He himself looked like he could be Other Harry's father.
Harry and Hermione both laughed.
"Potter Family magic revolves around Time , Harry. Every year on my birthday, ever since I was twenty, I rewind my physical clock a year."
"Fuck off." Completely fucking impossible. Utter bollocks.
"It's true nonetheless, Harry." Hermione smiled patiently at him. "After we were married, I was able to learn it as well."
"In any case, it's fine if you don't believe yet. The simple fact is we cannot allow our Family magic to be known outside the Family. Ginny is worthless when it comes to studying it, she skimmed through the Family Grimoire and didn't understand a thing, so she put it away and never touched it again. Your boy Albus Severus, on the other hand..."
"Whatever possessed you to do that to an innocent baby? I mean, Honestly." Hermione wrinkled her nose at him.
"Suffice it to say that you letting the Family magic be stolen by Ginny does things to the Tapestry that we simply can't have. So, we have brought you outside Time, as we have done with the others like you, to train you. We'll spend as much time as it takes, because there is no time here. When we think you're ready, we'll put you back into your body as you're recovering from the First Task. If you have even a grain of brain inside you, you'll pull your finger out and show Hermione how you feel. Ask her to the Ball. Take her on dates. Something. Anything."
Hermione leaned back and kissed Other Harry's cheek. "You'll also know where all the horcruxes are and be ready for Tom and his pet rat in the graveyard. You'll change things for the better. Fred will live. Remus and Tonks will live. Teddy will keep his parents. All the good happy things." She smiled at him.
It was too much to hope.
Something in his chest broke, and tears spilled down his cheeks. "Please tell me this is real." He asked quietly. "I couldn't -"
"Oh it's real, Harry." Hermione came to sit on the side of the bed and enfolded him in her arms. He broke down and sobbed as she held him.
"Shh," She stroked his hair, "There there. We'll get you back to her Harry, but it wouldn't be much good if we let you go as you are, you don't know anything, you can't do anything. Nothing would change. It'd be the height of irresponsibility. We'll get you trained up so you can go back and get things done properly."
"Thankfully, you already use a bit of silent and wandless. I was actually a little impressed with those roses. It will make things a bit easier to teach you." Other Harry added softly. "We'll have to fiddle with your memory some as well before you go back. Bring memories of that time to the forefront and push everything since then into the background, that sort of thing. As you diverge from what happened before, you'll begin to lose your memories of the life you've lived and you will become your younger self. That's part of what the training is for, we'll teach you enough to be able to keep your goals in mind."
"Thank you." He said when the storm of tears had passed. "Thank you both, if you only... well, maybe you do know, at that."
Hermione smiled at him and wiped his tears away.
He smiled back at her. "Alright, where do we start?"
He opened his eyes groggily, and immediately shut them again. The overhead lights were far too bright. Even with his eyes closed the amount of light was nearly too much. He focused on his breathing, narrowed his entire consciousness to the slow inflation and compression of his lungs while his eyes adjusted. After a long moment, he was able to open them again.
It had worked.
He shouldn't have been surprised, everything else Other Harry and Hermione had told him had been true, but this had been almost too much to hope for.
He looked up at the ceiling he'd seen so much of in his youth, its immaculately clean whitewashed plaster, the flat sconces that held enchanted Lumos. He took a deep breath in through his nose and smelled the distinctive aroma of the Hospital wing. Mixed potions, clean sheets and towels, and very faintly, parchment.
He looked to his left, and there she was.
She sat in the a chair next to him, slouched forward with her chin on her chest, asleep. His chest clenched at the sight of her - even moreso to see her asleep. She looked so peaceful, so innocent, so impossibly precious.
His fists clenched and he was forced to breathe deeply again as rage filled his every pore. He focused and made himself relax.
It hadn't happened. It wouldn't happen. He would prevent it.
He repeated it over and over to himself until he calmed down. He uncurled his hands and looked at them, and had to smile. They were smaller than he was used to. More tender. Less useful. It was alright, that would change soon enough.
He tried to lever himself up, but was instantly reminded that the body he had returned to was injured. His left shoulder screamed red hot lava at him, so he relented and rolled onto his right side before he hitched himself higher in the bed.
"Harry?" It was only one word, but her voice was filled with care and concern, and his heart flew as he finished righting himself.
He turned, and she had her lower lip between her teeth as she looked at him, her eyes warm.
"Hello again." He smiled back at her.
"Of all the stupid, lamebrained, boneheaded ...!" She whacked his leg with her textbook after every insult, then dropped it in his lap and wrapped her arms around him. "I was so scared, Harry! Don't you ever do that to me again! It's bad enough when you play Quidditch, but trying to outfly a Horntail, you.. you -"
She cut her tirade short when he wrapped his arms around her despite the protests from his left shoulder, and pressed a soft kiss against her cheek.
She leaned back in shock and touched the place he'd kissed. "You kissed me!" She accused.
He nodded, still smiling. "And I should have done long before now. I'm so sorry about that. I... I thought I was going to die, Hermione. The whole time there was only one thing going through my head - 'I have to get back to Hermione. I have to get back to Hermione'. When I was flying for my life, it was like my whole life played out in front of me, and I saw everything in perfect focus. I realized I've been an utter prat. I'm sorry, Hermione. I should have listened to you more. I'm going to start to do everything I should have done from the start."
She looked down at her textbook and smiled a little smile as she blushed a faint pink. "Well... I'm just glad you came back at all."
"Would you go on a date with me next Hogsmeade weekend?"
Her eyes widened. "What did you say?"
"I asked if you would go on a date with me next Hogsmeade weekend. I fancy you, Hermione. I have for a while."
"Who are you and what have you done with Harry Potter?"
He smiled ruefully at that. "He was an idiot. He can't believe he let Ron talk him into taking bloody Divination in order to goof off more. He's dropping that shite immediately."
"Harry! Seriously?" Hermione's eyes went even wider and her eyebrows jumped.
He nodded. "Seriously. There's SO MUCH I could be doing,Hermione. So many better things to devote my time to. Useful things, helpful things. Things that will make me happy that I spent my time on them. Paying more attention to you is first among them."
"Harry, you don't -"
"I don't deserve you, I know. I honestly don't know what it is I do for you that keeps you here with me, Hermione. By rights you should have left and gone on with your life, and nobody could blame you if you did."
"You're my best friend, Harry." She said in a small voice. Her blush hadn't faded any.
"And you're my best friend, Hermione. I hope you always will be, no matter what." He tapped his head with a finger. "You're in here, you know. Whenever I try to figure out what the right thing to do is, it's your voice. It's your face I see when I close my eyes. I always thought that was just because we were such good friends, but..."
He sighed and took her hand in his. "But... the thought of not being able to see you anymore hurts , Hermione. The pain that puts in my chest makes my shoulder seem like a papercut. I couldn't hide from it anymore. I... I want to stay with you." He looked into her eyes and let her see everything he felt for her.
She interlaced her fingers with his then, and played with the tips of his fingers with her other hand. A small smile played with the corners of her mouth.
"Alright." She said. "Next Hogsmeade weekend isn't until January though..."
"Damn, I'd forgotten. Could... Would you let me take you on an in-castle date Saturday night then?"
"A date... Where could we go in the castle?" She frowned, "I don't fancy being followed around by Lavender and Parvati."
Harry smiled and leaned back. "Leave that to me. Do you know how to skate?"
"Ice skate? Where do you suppose -"
"Hermione, don't spoil the surprise. Can you skate?'
"Good. I thought we might enjoy a spot of skating, maybe some hot cocoa, and dinner."
"That sounds lovely Harry, but I still don't see -"
"Just trust me, Hermione. Hopefully it's the first of many weekend castle dates." He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.
She caught her lower lip in her teeth again, and regarded him with a speculative look. Her cheeks were still pink.
"I'm sorry if it's too much too fast, Hermione." He sighed and lowered her hand again. "I just -"
She put her finger on his lips and leaned forward to kiss his cheek. "I'm just... surprised. I didn't think you liked me... like that."
"I like you so much I was afraid to tell you." He sighed. "I didn't want to mess it up. I'm... slow... when it comes to... affection..." He could feel heat rise into his cheeks and his breath came quicker. "I haven't had any... So it took me a long time, but I'm not a complete turnip, I know what these feelings mean. After facing the fact that I could die in the next second, I realized I'd waited too long already to tell you. You're the smartest person I know, Hermione. If you didn't know what to do with my feelings, then no-one would."
Her expression softened at that, and her cheeks grew a deeper pink. "I think... I think I'll keep them, if you don't mind." She smiled at him.
"Like in a jar on the mantel? Or maybe strewn across a canvas on the wall?"
She chuckled. "Prat. I meant... I fancy you as well, Harry." She paused to take a few deep breaths, and looked him in the eyes. He hadn't realized just how much he'd missed her until her saw the unending depths of her eyes again. She was frightened, but also excited, he could see that much immediately. Beneath the surface he could tell she also thought about what it might mean for her future.
"You do?" His eyebrows rose.
She nodded. "Since second year."
He grinned hugely at that. "I had no idea." He reached for his wand on the table beside the bed, and once it was in his hand, he silently enlarged the bed nearly double its width. He let go of Hermione's hand and used his right arm to shove himself over to the left half of the bed.
"I know from experience those chairs are awful for sleeping in." He said. "You could go back to your dorm, but... I'm glad you're here and I'd like you to stay if you would."
She smiled shyly and stood - and stretched - then walked around to the opposite side of the bed. She sat on it and made sure her robes were decent while she slipped her shoes off and swung her legs up beside him.
He found her hand again and squeezed it. "Thanks, Hermione. Goodnight."
She smiled and squeezed his hand in return. "Goodnight, Harry."
Hermione was kind enough to ask Neville to drop by the hospital wing when she left in the morning, and Neville was kind enough to bring him his textbooks before he had to get to class. Harry spent most of that day reading entire texts front to back, and he actually learned a few things he hadn't known before.
Madam Pomfrey cleared him to leave in time for dinner, and when he entered the Great Hall, he paused for a second while he searched for her. He didn't have long to wait, they spotted each other at the same time, and Hermione jumped up from her seat at the table to run toward him. He smiled and ran toward her, and they met with a hug.
"Hi." She said with a smile.
"Hey." He grinned back, then dropped his voice to a whisper only she could hear. "You smell fantastic."
Her smile widened even as her cheeks pinked again, and she opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. He put his arm around her shoulders and walked with her back to the table to let her off the awkwardness hook. She put her arm around his shoulders as well as they walked casually to the far end of the Gryffindor table.
One of the things he remembered very well about his fourth year at Hogwarts was the isolation forced upon him during the tournament. When it happened the first time, he felt that loss keenly and had let it push him into making poor choices. He had lived with isolation for more than twenty years since, and its hold on him was nonexistent. He would forgive those who apologized, and the rest could rot - except Weasley. He had a hard enough time keeping his hand away from his wand just to see that bastard's gormless face.
Twenty-five fucking Galleons.
"Harry, what is it? What's wrong?" He turned to see Hermione looking at him with concern etched on her brow.
He sighed. "Too observant, Hermione." He flashed a grin at her. "In addition to reading all the texts for this year, I did a lot of thinking today. I'm done with Ron, Hermione."
"I know he's been a bit of a git -" She started to make excuses for him, so he stopped her.
"No, that's not it. Not at all. Everyone makes mistakes, Hermione. A friendship can be mended over that. That's not the problem."
"I don't understand, I thought you were best mates?" He could see her mouth deliberately frown, but the light in her eyes belied it.
"I had a good think about why he's acted the way he has. It isn't because he thought I cheated and he's against that. I would be fine with that. Even if you thought I cheated to get into the tournament - "
"I would never!"
"I know Hermione, it's an example. No I didn't cheat, of course, but if I had and you were angry at me for it, then I would deserve that. You would be right to be angry because I did a bad thing. Ron isn't angry because he thinks I cheated."
"No, he isn't." She sighed and looked down the table at Ron.
"He's angry because I didn't tell him how so he could cheat too. That's not the kind of influence I want in my life. He doesn't care what's right or wrong, he just wants what he wants and thinks the world owes him everything because he's a pureblood wizard. Deep down he's exactly as prejudiced as Malfoy, it just manifests differently."
Hermione looked at him as that realization connected comments and incidents in her memory, too many to refute. She took another deep breath and nodded.
"Anyway, that's the logical reason."
"There's another?" She asked. He eyebrows betrayed her surprise.
Harry nodded. "I hate the way he treats you and I won't put up with it anymore. I'm sorry I put up with it this long, Hermione. You never deserved a single mean word. I was just desperate to not lose friends."
"It's okay Harry, I don't really -"
"It matters to me, Hermione. I won't tolerate a single mean word about you, not even from you." He shot her a quick smile. "Besides, if the entire school can turn on me in a single second, then none of them were friends in the first place. As long as you believe in me, that's all I need. I'll forgive anyone who apologizes of course, as long as they mean it. We both know Ron won't because he doesn't."
Hermione looked into his eyes as she smiled at him, and her eyes turned glassy over a long moment. Finally she took a deep breath, as though she had forgotten to breathe. She nodded and rubbed his shoulder.
She snatched her hand back when he winced.
"Oh Harry! I'm sorry! I forgot!" She looked dismayed that she'd witchhandled his injury.
He smiled back at her and rolled his shoulder gently. "It's okay Hermione, it's just a little tender. Fully healed. Wouldn't be here if Madam Pomfrey didn't think I was alright."
"I know, I'm just sorry I - Wait, you said you read texts today?" She stopped moving and her gaze intensified.
He nodded. "Yeah, I wanted to be sure I understood everything before I start reading ahead."
"Reading... ahead . You. You're going to read ahead." her eyes were wide, her tone incredulous.
He smiled and nodded. "I told you I was going to listen to you more. I'm tired of all this flying by the seat of my pants nonsense. If I didn't have you or if I wasn't quite so lucky, I'd be dead. Even if I still have you, my luck will run out at some point. I'm tired of not knowing what I'm doing and only learning what I need to know in the moment. I'm behind everyone else thanks to my... home life... and it's past time I start taking an active interest."
Her mouth opened and she stared at him in shock.
He quirked one corner of his mouth and grinned at her sardonically. "Yeah, I deserve that."
She snapped out of her daze and smiled at him. "Maybe a little."
They ate dinner together in comfortable quiet, and made their way to the Gryffindor common room after. Harry stopped at the portrait door and bowed to the Fat Lady.
"Lovely to see you again, madam." He said with a smile, "Thank you for everything you do for us, your ongoing vigilance is very appreciated. Leones Superbia."
"Oh my." The Fat Lady replied and giggled to herself as the portrait swung open.
"What was that about?" Hermione asked once they were inside.
Harry shrugged. "Even if she's long dead and gone, there's still a piece of her in there. It's not right for people to just treat her like a door when she's guarding us."
"I don't disagree, but..."
"My eyes are open, Hermione. I've taken a lot of things for granted, you included, and I see that now. It's wrong, and I need to stop."
"Don't take this the wrong way Harry, I'm over the moon at your newfound cognizance... I'm just a bit miffed it took getting pierced by the tailspine of a dragon and nearly dying for it to happen."
Harry laughed. "What can I say? You already know I'm extraordinarily thick. I guess it just took more force than usual for me."
"Now that it has happened, can we not have any more near-dying? Please?"
He grinned and nodded. "Absolutely. Now that I know I can be brave AND smart, I'm going to go with the smart option and only resort to brave when unavoidable."
"Thank Merlin! I've had all my heart can take for one year. I'm going to go let Crooks out for a bit, you going to stay in the common room?" She walked toward the girl's dorm.
"Yeah, I'm just going to get some reading material."
"Don't forget we have that transfiguration essay due Monday!" She called behind her as she climbed the stairs.
Harry grinned quietly to himself as he climbed the stairs to his own dorm and pulled a book from his trunk along with the Transfiguration essay on the limits of size alteration. He was already seated on the sofa in front of the fireplace with the book open when Crookshanks hopped into his lap and sat in the book.
"Hey 'shanks." He smiled genuinely at being able to scratch behind Crook's ears again. "How you doin, mate? Keeping my best friend happy?"
Crookshanks butted Harry's hand with his head as if to say "Monkey, please! Of course I am, now pet me!"
Harry was happy to oblige.
Hermione arrived a few minutes later, the remains of a blush evident on her cheeks. She sat next to Harry a conspicuous distance away.
"Cornered by the gossip crew?" Harry raised an eyebrow at her.
She nodded and didn't say anything, just cuddled Crookshanks as he padded from Harry's lap to hers.
"What is it this week? Are me and Malfoy secret besties? Am I faking being injured to garner sympathy because I didn't do so well in the First Task? Ooh, I know - I've gone Dark and attend Death Eater poker night on Wednesdays."
She laughed then, and it filled him with light. That was the sound he'd missed more than anything. Twenty-two years, two months and eight days he'd longed for that sound.
"Poker night..." She giggled. "You're mental."
He chuckled in return. "For going? Probably, Lucius is a terrible loser. Always throws his cards in the air."
She laughed again and cuddled Crookshanks some more. She smiled at him, and her eyes shone with mirth for a moment, then she set Crooks in her lap and picked up her textbook. She flipped it open and held it with one hand while she read and quietly petted Crooks with the other.
He stole glances at her every few minutes to burn the image into his memory.
"I can see you looking at me, you know." She smirked quietly after a while.
"That's handy, I can see you looking at me too."
"I wasn't." PInk started to creep up her cheeks.
"Ohh, my mistake. You must have been looking at this then..." He handed her his transfiguration essay. "This is just to show you, I don't want you to do any editing or anything. I won't ask that of you anymore."
She took the essay and unrolled it after setting her book down. She scanned it all the way to the end.
"I'm impressed, Harry." She said as she handed it back. "I'm not sure what's more impressive though, that you've finished early or that it's actually well done."
He rolled it back up and set it on the floor. "Thanks, that's high praise coming from you." He smiled.
"Why..." She bit her lip.
"Why don't I want you to proofread anymore?"
"Because it's extra work for you that you shouldn't have to do. I appreciate every single time you've helped in the past, but I need to just get my butt in gear and use my brain for these things. Stop treating them like a worthless obstacle to having fun. I actually learned some things I hadn't known before just from reading the textbooks."
She snorted. "Well that is what they're for..."
"It feels good to know the answers for a change. To be able to talk about something in-depth with confidence."
She smiled warmly at him, and Crooks began to purr.
"On a different topic, I won't be around most of tomorrow. I'll be preparing. Can I meet you here at about one o'clock?"
She nodded, and her smile grew. "Anything I should prepare for?"
"We're going ice skating and I don't know how, so I imagine there will be a lot of falling down. Dress warmly, and for a lot of hauling a dunderhead to his feet." He grinned ruefully.
She laughed again. "Don't worry, Harry, you'll be fine."
"I hope so, I only learned the cushioning charm today, but I plan to practice it a lot tomorrow." He smiled back at her while she laughed again. They smiled at each other, just to enjoy the happiness on each other's faces for a long moment, and then Harry closed his book. "I'm going to go get some sleep, and get an early start tomorrow." He reached over and scritched Crooks under his chin.
"Alright, goodnight Harry." She said.
He gave her hand a squeeze as he smiled back at her. "Goodnight Hermione."
He picked up his book and essay and with a last smile at her, climbed the steps to the dorm and his bed.
"Dobby!" He called.
Dobby appeared almost instantly on the bed in front of him, his hands wringing each other as he danced from foot to foot in excitement. His pillowcase was greasy and dirtier than it had been in the past, though it looked like mostly food smears. It looked a lot like Harry's apron had when he left it uncleaned for too long.
"Great Wizard Harry Potter Sir calls lowly Dobby! What can Dobby does for Great Wizard Harry Potter Sir?"
"First of all, please stop calling me all that Dobby, I'm not some great wizard and I'm not above you in any way. Please just call me Harry. I want to have a few long talks with you about that, but not today, I have favours to ask of you today if it's not too much trouble?"
"Favours? Great - er, Mister Harry Potter Sir wants to ask Dobby for help?" His voice went higher and higher and squeaked the word 'help'. He went still for a moment before he lunged at Harry's chest and burst into sobs as he wrapped his arms around him.
Harry only smiled and hugged him back. He'd missed Dobby as well. "Yes Dobby, favours. I'm asking you to please help me because friends don't tell friends what to do. That's slavery and that's horrid."
Dobby stopped and looked up at him with a sniff. "Dobby... bes Mister Harry's friend?"
Harry nodded. "Yes, Dobby. I count you as my friend. I want to talk to you more later on about being part of my family too. "
He burst into tears again and rubbed his face into Harry's pyjama top. "Mister Harry Potter Sir wants to bond with Dobby!" He wailed. "Dobby not deserves such nice! Dobby not deserves friend Harry Potter!"
Harry patted his back while he waited out the storm of tears. "Of course you do, Dobs. You're a great elf and a great friend. Do you have anything you need to get done this morning before we leave?"
Dobby stood up again and wiped his eyes, then blew his nose on the hem of his pillowcase. "Dobby will gets everything done now, Dobby cannot wait to help his friend the Great Harry Potter."
"Thank you, Dobby. I still need to shower and get dressed, so I guess just come back here when you're finished?"
Dobby nodded hard enough to flap his ears against his head, and vanished with a pop.
Harry jumped out of bed and hurried to shower and prepare himself for the day, and just as he pulled his jumper on, Dobby reappeared with a crack.
"Brilliant! Perfect timing, Dobby." He smiled at the elf, and threw a privacy shell around them.
Dobby hopped around excitedly. "How Dobby helps Gre - er, Mister Harry Potter Sir?"
"I have a number of places I want to go today, starting with Gringott's in Diagon. Are you alright to spend the day with me? Should I talk to your manager or something?"
"No, Mister Harry Potter Sir, Dobby is fine. Other elveses not likes Dobby and is happy Dobby goes away."
"Hm. I'd forgotten about that. Please keep in mind Dobby, that anything I ask you to do is just a request, okay? You are always free to refuse. I'm not your master, even after you're part of the family, understand? You're my friend, and we're a team. Partners. Equals. If you ever start to feel like I'm treating you like a servant, I want you to immediately go and tell Hermione that I'm treating you like a servant, alright?"
Dobby nodded with his forearm over his eyes as he sobbed. "Great - Mister -" He sniffed between sobs, "Dobby will tells Mistress Hermione, Dobby promises."
"Great, thanks Dobby. Can you take us to Gringott's from here or should we get outside the wards?"
Dobby just reached out to grab his hand, and they appeared outside the goblin bank.
"Thanks, Dobby. I might be a while in here, is there anywhere you want to go or anything you want to do while I'm busy?"
"Dobby likes the clothing stores. They has wonderful socks!"
Harry laughed. "Alright, you go have fun with the clothing stores then, I'll call when I'm done, alright?"
Dobby grinned at him and trundled off toward Madam Malkin's while he faded from sight.
Harry turned his focus toward the bank, and strode up the steps past the guards.
He greeted the Fat Lady - whose name turned out to be Lady Ingentia Crassulent - at precisely twelve-fifty-five, and she swung open to show Hermione in thick jeans, and a white, long-sleeved shirt under a grey jumper. She leaned against the back of a sofa, and held a thick coat in one hand and gloves in the other. She'd styled her hair and had it held back from her face in two cute barrettes on her left side. He also saw a hint of mascara and the distinctive pink shine of her favourite lip gloss.
She looked up and smiled at him as he entered, and he felt himself grin in return. He couldn't have stopped it if he'd wanted to. The fact that she'd gone to such lengths just for a date with him put the sun in his chest.
"There you are." She said. "I like the coat. Very dapper."
"Thanks. I thought it was well past time I started to dress in my own clothes. You look amazing." He grinned back.
"No I don't." She said, but she looked at the floor as pink creeped up her neck to her cheeks.
He held the door open for her, as her hands were full. "I think you do."
She waited until he had let the portrait door swing closed, and shoved his shoulder with hers - gently. "So? I notice the Black Lake still hasn't frozen over..."
He laughed and shoved back gently. "Just follow me. You're going to love this."
He led her through the corridors of the seventh floor, then indicated a spot on the floor next to a tapestry of dancing trolls when they arrived in the appropriate hallway. "Just stand there a moment. Watch this." He grinned, and proceeded to pace three times back and forth in front of empty wall.
She had begun to frown when the french doors materialized, dark wrought iron and frosted glass that emerged from the beige sandstone wall.
"What!?" She demanded, and immediately strode to examine the door. It was of french baroque design, but she didn't get to study it as much as she wanted, because he pulled the doors open for her.
"After you." He smiled.
"HARRY ! OH MY GOD !" She squealed. Hermione actually squealed as she passed through the doors and onto a concrete area dotted with park benches and stairs that led down to a quite frozen Seine, all at the base of the Eiffel Tower.
He made sure the doors were firmly shut, locked, and sealed behind him before he stood next to her to admire the view.
"Harry, this is... I can't believe..." She looked at him and the shock was everywhere on her face, and it warmed his heart even more.
"It's called the Room of Requirement. I read about it in Hogwarts: A History." He smirked.
She dropped her coat, hat, and gloves and wrapped her arms around his neck. He squeezed her back, arms around her ribs, and she pulled back to look into his eyes. He could see her joy and wonder war with disbelief, as well as other feelings he couldn't quite discern.
"Harry, this is... I underestimated you, I'm sorry." She breathed in a heavy whisper.
He smiled and squeezed her quickly. "You can hardly be blamed for that, you only have my history to go on. Besides, I didn't make the Room of Requirement, I just found out about it."
"I read Hogwarts: A History several times, and there was no mention of this!"
"I looked for it in the library, and the only copy they had was from twelve fifty-four. I guess they just didn't bother to put everything in later editions. It's in my dorm if you want to borrow it." He grinned.
"You say the sweetest things, Harry Potter." Her eyes smiled into his.
"I'll make up for it with buffoonery once I get my skates on, I'm sure." He quirked one corner of his mouth.
"Come on then, gear up. I can't wait to see that." She laughed as she let go of him and picked up her coat and gloves to put them on.
"Ugh." He groaned, and descended the stairs that led to slick ice. He sat on the third stair up, and took his wand out. Hermione sat beside him and did the same. He transfigured his brand new runners into a pair of comfortable-looking black lace-up leather boots with extra-thick toes and ankles and skate blades on the bottom. Hermione transfigured hers into a pair of plain white leather skates.
Harry frowned at them, then flicked his wand as he concentrated on them. Tiny blue roses and forget-me-nots blossomed from the eyelets.
She stopped and looked at him with an indecipherable expression.
He shrugged. "I just think it suits you better than plain. The plain ones are okay too, but..." He smiled and then quirked his mouth again, suddenly afraid she didn't like it.
She set her mouth in a half-quirk as well while her eyes danced. She flicked her wand at his skates, and a full-sized sunflower blossom sprang into being on each of the toes of his skates.
He laughed and flicked his wand at her again while she shrieked and skated away while laughing.
He quietly and quickly cast cushioning charms on his hands, elbows, knees, head, and rear end. He took careful hold of the railing and, leaning on it heavily, managed to get his feet under him on the ice. He stayed there for a second, then stood up straight and let go. Hermione skated slowly back and forth a few feet in front with a smile on her face, and for a moment he seemed to do alright.
He took a few sliding steps, fully aware that the point was not to walk normally but instead to slide, and his mouth crept into a grin as he felt the ice slide by beneath his feet - but then his feet decided they each wanted to skate in a slightly different direction. His legs got gradually farther apart, so he tried to take a step and bring one closer to the other, but that sent the other one shooting forward, and he slid to a stop on his back at Hermione's feet.
She leaned over him and laughed mercilessly.
He waved off her outstretched hand and tried to get up on his own, but did a reasonable impression of a reverse can-can before he slid to a stop at Hermione's feet, flat on his face.
She laughed even harder as she offered to help him up. He flipped onto his back and had to smile at the way her face shone.
"Alright, I learned that lesson." He sighed and sat up to grab her offered hand.
"Spin around and face me... yes, like that. Put your skates against mine, toes to toes. Good." She leaned back as she pulled him to his feet, then held his hand while he tried to skate again.
"Try to balance on one skate." She said, "Don't try to go anywhere, just practice balancing on the one skate."
It was not as easy as it sounded.
He wobbled quite a lot, so he took his wand out and reinforced the ankles of his skates. It helped some, and he was able to balance sufficiently on one skate. Hermione made him hold that pose for a count of ten on each foot.
"Watch me." She said as she pushed off with one skate and balanced on the other. "Most of the time you're only on one skate, you swing one leg forward while you push off with the other."
"I see. You're also not going in a straight line, really, sort of side to side that results in a straight line." Harry watched. She made it look easy, and it was hard to concentrate on what she showed him rather than the poetry of her motion.
"Exactly. You try."
He did well for the first second or so, he managed to keep one skate under him as he pushed off with the other, but when he tried to switch feet he put the skate too far ahead of him and slid toward Hermione on his butt.
She tried to stifle a giggle, but didn't quite manage. Truth be told, even if he knew how to skate he'd be hard pressed not to fall once he knew it made her smile.
She helped him up and he tried again, he made it three steps that time. He made it five steps the next, then a whole minute. The first time he tried to turn, he catapulted himself through the air onto his side.
She had the decency to check if he was okay before she laughed.
After an hour or so of falling on various parts of himself less and less, he reached out and took Hermione's hand as they skated. She started, as she expected him to fall again, but relaxed her face into a smile and held his hand while they glided across the river's surface.
"I don't know about you, but I think I'm ready for some hot chocolate." He said.
"My fingers are getting a bit chilly." She agreed.
Harry grinned at her and slowly made his way toward the stairs that led up to the Eiffel Tower. When he finally grasped the railing, he took out his wand and transfigured the skate blades into bootsoles, leaving the giant sunflower blossoms intact, and happily climbed onto the stairs.
"Ah, solid ground. I'll never take you for granted again." He sighed.
Hermione chuckled and transfigured her own skates into cute white boots - she left the flowers as well. He reached out for her hand and held it while they climbed the stairs to the top.
A small table set for two stood beneath the tower itself, sporting two large mugs that steamed in the chill air. A bowl filled with tiny marshmallows stood in the center of the table. Harry paused as they reached the table and pulled on her hand to get her to face him. She did, with a question on her face, but before she could say anything he stepped into her and wrapped his arms around her.
"Thank you, Hermione." He said softly.
She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him for a long moment as well, then let go. "For what?" She asked as she sat.
"For being patient. For teaching me how to skate." He grinned. "I'm not quite there yet, I know."
She smiled at him as he sat on the opposite side of the table. "Nonsense Harry, you'd have been fine with a few years of practice." She grinned back at him.
"Ha ha. It'll still be a couple years of practice, but at least I'm not polishing the Seine with my backside anymore.... as often."
She chuckled at that and dropped a handful of marshmallows in her mug.
Harry did the same, and they sipped hot chocolate in silence for a few moments. Then Hermione frowned at her mug and the marshmallows, and ate a marshmallow from the bowl.
"That shouldn't be possible." She said.
"The marshmallows, the hot chocolate. This is all magic, right? But you can't make food, it's one of the Principal -"
"Exceptions to Gamp's Law of Elemental Transfiguration." Harry smiled. "I know. Dobby brought these for us from the kitchens. I suppose the Room could make a semblance of food, but I imagine it would vanish once we left and we'd be just as hungry as we would without it."
She stared at him for a moment, her frown warred with something else he couldn't place in her eyes.
"Why, Harry?" She asked, "Why dumb yourself down all this time when you're clearly so much more than that? Was it Ron?"
He smiled a bittersweet smile. It was bound to come up sooner or later, and though he had resolved to tell her everything, to give her the totality of himself... He found that admitting to it out loud still welled up guilt and shame, even then.
"No... and yes." He took a deep breath and let it out. "When I first went to school at age five... I thought it was brilliant. I loved it, even if I did get detention the first day. I did everything the teacher asked and read everything I could get my hands on. When it was time for report cards... My Aunt and Uncle didn't believe I could do better than Dudley, so they accused me of cheating. I was..." He paused to fight the shame of it down before he could force the words out.
"They beat me, locked me in my cupboard under the stairs. I think I had a slice of bread or two that week. It didn't matter how brilliant school was after that. From then on, I made sure to do worse than Dudley." Don't hate me don't hate me don't hate me. "Ron.. he had this unspoken expectation that I would be as crap as he was at school work. That we would goof off and... doing poorly didn't matter as much as his friendship. I see now that's not what real friendship is." He looked resolutely into his hot chocolate, terrified to look at her and see an expression of horror or disgust on her face. He felt more open and vulnerable than he had ever been before, and that terrified him too.
He heard her push her chair back. She rose and came around the table to stand beside him. She put her arms around his head, pulled him into her stomach and cradled his head against her.
"I'm so sorry, Harry." She said in a small voice. "Can you ever forgive me?"
He wrapped his arms around her waist like she were a life preserver in a cold and bottomless sea, and tried to keep the flood of emotions inside him. "You haven't done anything wrong, Hermione."
"I have, Harry. I've thought poorly of you for being lazy and not applying yourself. I'm so sorry. I had no idea..." Her voice rose in pitch, and he could feel her stomach tense. He stood up to face her, and saw tears on her cheeks.
"I'm sorry I brought it up, I didn't mean to make you cry." He brushed her tears away with his thumbs as well as he could. She finished the job with the backs of her hands, then shook her head.
"No. Don't be sorry, Harry. You didn't make me cry. These tears are for you, not from you. All the times I yelled at you for not doing your homework... I feel like such a shrew now." She bit her lip and looked at him as though to ask him not to hate her.
As if he could ever.
He gently enfolded her in his arms, and she did the same to him. "I should have told you a long time ago... I was terrified of anyone knowing. Of being looked at with pity. Of people laughing at me for it. You most of all."
"I would never!" She said vehemently.
"I know, Hermione. I know that now. It's because you're so important to me that I was most afraid of your reaction. I know that doesn't make a lot of sense, but -"
"No, it does. I understand, Harry. I..." She stopped herself, as though she just couldn't bring herself to say what she'd begun to. "But it would take a lot more than that to make me not want to be your best friend, Harry."
"Thank you." He held her tighter as his voice came out in a tiny whisper.
"Thank you." She squeezed him tighter in return. "For trusting me. I know that wasn't easy."
He laughed a little, nervously. "No, it definitely wasn't.. I do want to tell you everything... Eventually. It won't be easy... It probably won't be easy to hear, but... I don't want any secrets from you. I do trust you, Hermione." He pulled back to look into her eyes, and he could feel a small, shy smile pull at his lips.
She bit her lip as her eyes went glassy, but she smiled at him with warmth and acceptance, and he felt just the tiniest bit lighter.
"I trust you too, Harry. I think that's the first time you've ever said anything about... the Dursleys... I hope you won't think less of me when I fry them in their own fat for what they've done to you."
Her brows lowered, and her eyes practically shone with outrage then. That broke his smile free and he hugged her again.
"Thank you for that too.... you're awesome when you're angry." He grinned. "I've spent years thinking up creative ways to hurt them, but really when it comes down to it they aren't worth my time. They certainly aren't worth yours. I'd rather keep all yours to myself." He gave her a quick peck on the cheek and let her go as he felt heat creep up his neck as he sat back down.
She smiled while her eyes softened, and she pulled her chair from the opposite side of the table to the adjacent side, and sat next to him.
They drank their hot chocolate in comfortable silence after that, though he could see Hermione thinking whenever she looked at him, and with her next to him, their knees touched under the table. Neither was inclined to move.
When she finished her hot chocolate, Hermione casually hooked her hand over his so her fingers rested in his palm. He smiled at that and rubbed her fingers gently with his thumb.
"Fancy some more skating, or would you like to try something else before dinner?" He asked.
"Hmm... More skating, I think. After you went through all the trouble to bring me to Paris, I think we should enjoy it while it lasts." She smiled.
He grinned in return and stood, though he never let go of her hand. They walked back to the stairs, re-applied their skate blades, and kept right on holding hands as they skated around their own private wonderland.
Harry gained confidence on the skates as the hours ticked by, though he was still a little rickety during turns until she showed him how to cross-step. He liked that so much he got a little too enthusiastic and ended on his face again. Hermione laughed at that, so he got up and tried again, but he built up so much speed that his feet couldn't keep up and he slid across the Seine on his back.
Hermione chased after him as he laughter echoed across the ice. "Harry, are you alriAAI!" She shrieked as he swept her feet out from under her, but he succeeded only in dropping her onto his own stomach.
"Ough!" he grunted when she landed. "Okay, that didn't work out as I'd imagined. Oohh."
She smacked his chest. "Serves you right! Cheater." She grinned, "Are you alright?"
"Nope." He smiled back. "Completely done in. Definitely need a new ribcage now."
She laughed and swatted him again. "Prat!" She tried to roll off him to her knees, but he stopped her mid-way so she just rolled to her hip and faced him while she half-lay on top of him.
She smiled down at him her eyes bright with laughter and fun, and he simply couldn't help himself. He flexed his stomach and sat up partly to bring his face close to hers - closer than they'd ever been while facing each other. Her eyes bored into his while the air between them sparked to life and fairly crackled with the intent between them. Slowly, he closed the distance and pressed his lips to hers. Her lips were so soft, so perfect as they moved against his that he felt her down to his toes. She melted against him in that brief second, and a tiny moan escaped her throat.
He pulled back to look at her, afraid he'd gone too far, but her eyes were tender and hungry and not at all upset. Before he had time to register the smile that put inside him, she slid her hands beneath his head and pulled him into another kiss. She kissed softly at first, tenderly. Once, twice, then she sucked on his upper lip, and he could feel her brush her tongue against it. Her kiss became hungry then, and she devoured his lips. Teased them with her tongue, and when he responded with his own tongue, she opened her mouth and twined her tongue with his.
The taste of her woke his every nerve. Suddenly he couldn't get enough of her, and his hands were on her face, in her hair as they snogged the daylights out of each other. He lost all sense of time. The ice beneath him didn't register as cold. His entire world came alive as it shrunk to her face and how it merged with his own.
After an eternity that seemed far too short, they separated again.
"Mmm..." She sighed and relaxed on top of him. Her cheeks were deep pink, nearly red, and all her lip gloss was gone. It had tasted of strawberry. "That was worth waiting for." She smiled down at him and kissed him again tenderly.
"I had no idea you could feel kisses in your toes." He whispered.
She giggled, and her eyes lit up. "You too?"
He nodded, still semi-vacant with shellshock. "I understand what 'rock my world' means now."
She laughed again. "I don't know if I can keep myself from doing that constantly now that I know, Harry. Would you mind?"
"Kissing? Or rocking my world?"
"Definitely both." She grinned and her eyes sparkled.
"Can I... I'd like to... be your boyfriend, Hermione... if you're alright with that?" He knew it was probably too soon, but his mind still reeled with the power of her kisses, and he had to ask. He couldn't not ask.
She looked down at him for a long moment, but as he searched her eyes for what she was feeling, she didn't look upset or taken aback by it. She looked... happy. "I'm sorry Harry, I feel like I need to pinch myself to make sure this is real. Yes, I would love to have you as my boyfriend, I just... after wanting this for years, I guess I'm a bit afraid I'm dreaming it."
He pinched her leg.
"Ow! Prat!" She slapped his chest even as she grinned.
He grinned back at her. "Sorry, couldn't resist. I know exactly how you feel though... I feel like I'm not allowed to be this happy."
She leaned in and kissed him again. "You're my boyfriend." She giggled. "I'm your girlfriend. Me." She kissed him again.
"I'll need your help for this, you know. Because of my... I don't really know... how to be a boyfriend, so when I mess it up keep that in mind?"
She shook her head, a firm set to her lips. "No. No being a boyfriend. I won't have it. You, Harry James Potter, just be Harry James Potter. You are the sweetest, most thoughtful boy already. If you try to change that so you can be some idea of boyfriend you have in your head, I shall become quite cross with you."
He smiled at that. "Alright. I just... It seems too easy."
She kissed him again, and the look on her face changed. "It won't be. We'll have to find places we can be alone and snog... I am definitely snogging you silly again... we'll also have to bear the teasing and whatnot from everyone else."
"I've stopped caring about that, if I'm honest. They've all proven that their words shouldn't carry any weight. I used to think that what they thought of me was my worth, but I haven't changed in the last four years except to grow up some. The number of times everyone's opinion of me has flip-flopped in that time proves they don't know me and never cared to. Why should I base what I think of myself on their opinions when they're all so fickle?"
She smiled at him and then snogged him ruthlessly for a moment. "That... is a very mature attitude. I'm thrilled with the new you, Harry. I mean, I liked the old you, but..." She broke off and her cheeks turned pink again.
He just pulled her into another kiss and told her without words how happy that made him.
Hermione stopped him in the hall as they approached the Gryffindor common room entrance. "I had a wonderful time today, Harry." She smiled and stepped into him for a light kiss. "Thank you."
He smiled back at her and reached out to hold her hand. "I did too. Thank you. May I take you on another date next Saturday?"
She grinned at that, and was about to say something, but stopped, then frowned. "No." She said, but her eyes twinkled. "May I take you on a date next Saturday?"
For a moment his heart flip-flopped in his throat, but after her question he relaxed and smiled back. "Absolutely. I look forward to seeing where we go."
She smiled at that and spun on her heel to resume their slow walk to the common room. He didn't let go of her hand even as they bid Lady Crassulent a good evening and walked inside.
"There you are!" Ron's voice cut through the calm, happy, relaxed feeling like nails on a chalkboard. Ron jumped off the sofa and walked to stand in front of Harry. "Harry, whoever put your name in the cup, I reckon they're trying to do you in!"
Harry's face deadpanned as his mood flatlined. "No shit, Sherlock. Welcome to four weeks ago."
Hermione stifled a giggle.
Ron's face went red. "What the fuck is a sure-lock?"
"It's an insult. What do you want?" Harry found himself not just becoming shorter of patience by the second, something inside him wanted to hurt Ron. Badly. Something about twenty-five galleons reverberated through him and made him unspeakably angry.
"What do I want? I'm trying to forgive you so we can be mates again!"
"Forgive me? Forgive me." Harry stood and stared at Ron while he tried in vain to wrap his head around that.
"Forgive him ?" Hermione echoed. "You should be on your knees begging his forgiveness for being such an absolute git, Ronald! As though Harry should be asking forgiveness for your idiocy!"
Ron's face went several shades darker. "Nobody asked you, fucking nosey know-it-all bint! Go back to your precious books and homework, the men are talking!"
Harry shifted his weight as far backward as possible before he threw every single ounce of his body into the punch. The first two knuckles of his fist caught Ron squarely between his cheekbone and his upper teeth, and proceeded across his face as the bridge of his nose gave way and pointed both Ron's nostrils at his right hip. Blood sprayed from his broken nose as Ron collapsed backward onto his arse. Both his hands went to his face as he made high-pitched whining noises.
Harry stood over him with both fists clenched. "You can say what you like about me, but I ever hear a single unkind word out of your filthy gob about Hermione, and you'll have my fucking boot for dinner! DO YOU FUCKING UNDERSTAND ME!?" He shouted the last in Ronald's face.
Ron stared up at him, his eyes wide as he bled down his front. He nodded stiffly, fear rampant on his face.
Harry looked up to see most of the rest of the House as they stared at him. "That goes for everyone else too!" He shouted.
He looked back at Ron. "We are not mates. We are not friends. You should get to the hospital wing, your nose is broken."
Harry turned to look at Hermione, almost afraid to see her look of disapproval at his actions... but her face was filled with shock, except for a tiny satisfied smile. Not disapproval. He walked back to where she stood and looked at her feet.
"Sorry you had to see that. I'm tired of people putting you down and I won't take it anymore. Not from anyone."
"Harry..." She said softly.
He looked up to see her gorgeous brown eyes filled with warmth.
"I'm also sorry because my having done that will take away time that I could've spent with you. I'm off to tell McGonagall now. Thanks for the best day I ever had in the castle, Hermione."
"Thank you for the best day I ever had in the castle, Harry. I'll be waiting for you here when you get back." She planted a soft kiss on his cheek, and he knew everything was alright. He nodded at her with a smile, and held the door for Ron to exit after him. They walked in silence, Ron a half-step behind. Harry knew he was probably glaring death at him, and would likely curse him in the back later on as his pathetic coward's revenge, but he didn't care. He had bigger fish to fry than Ronald Dipshit Weasley.
He turned down the corridor that led to McGonagall's office without a glance at Ron and without slowing his pace one atom.
"Come in." She called when he knocked. He entered her office and closed the door behind him, then stood in front of her desk. She was grading essays.
"To what do I owe the unexpected pleasure, Mister Potter?" She asked as she peered over her glasses.
"I'm here for my detention, or whatever other punishment you see fit, Professor. I broke Ron's nose. He's at the hospital wing now."
She looked at him for a long moment. "I take it this was not a bit of horseplay gone too far then."
He shook his head. "No, professor. I'm through accepting other people's denigration of Hermione. I expect you'll be seeing a lot of me in the future."
"I see. Am I to understand there has been a... change... in the nature of your relationship with Miss Granger?" He saw just the tiniest hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
He nodded with a grin. "Yes, professor - though that's not the cause of my actions, just another symptom of the change in me."
"The change in you? Enlighten me, Mister Potter?"
He sighed. It was hard enough to explain it to Hermione. "I nearly died, Professor. It's not the first time since coming to the school, either. It's long past time I pull my head out and start taking things seriously. That means my schoolwork, the Tournament, my safety, and that of my friends - of which there is only one. Meeting Hermione on the train was the best thing that ever happened to me. She's the best friend anyone could ask for, and I would be a complete idiot to not want to spend the rest of my life with her. I like to think my parents didn't birth an idiot."
She definitely suppressed a smile at that. "And your violence toward Mister Weasley?"
"Verbatim : 'Nobody asked you, fucking nosey know-it-all bint! Go back to your precious books and homework, the men are talking!' My thoughts are that he earned more than what I gave him, I did just enough to get the point across."
"I see." Professor McGonagall took off her glasses and leaned back, fingers interlaced on her desk. "And you don't regret your actions? The end of a friendship?"
"Not even slightly, Professor. Like I told Hermione, Ron isn't angry with me because he thought I cheated to get into the Tournament. He's angry because I didn't include him so he could cheat too. That's not an influence I want in my life."
She nodded once. He could see in her eyes she had decided her course of action. "I expect the Headmaster will wish to speak with you privately once he gets wind of your... changes. I further expect that shall be punishment enough. I look forward to seeing what your serious effort brings to the classroom. Goodnight, Mister Potter."
Harry gave her a tight smile as he turned to leave. "Goodnight, Professor." She was probably right about Dumbledore, but Harry already knew what he would say and what he wanted. It would probably be time to put his plans for Dumbledore in motion.
True to her word, Hermione waited on the sofa when he arrived back to the common room. She had her back against the arm, her knees up, with a book open against her thighs. Julie Parkes, Fay Dunbar, and Carl Hopkins sat at the desks around the room, intent on homework. Harry sat next to Hermione's feet.
"How long?" She asked him.
"Probably at least half an hour. Maybe an hour."
"That's not very long for a detention." She stopped reading and frowned at him.
He smiled at her. "I explained the situation. I even told her I would very likely come to her again later for the same reason. She said that Dumbledore would likely want to talk to me when he hears about it, and that would be punishment enough."
"Which means she approves." Hermione smiled.
"That was my thought." He smiled back at her. "I'm going to go get some sleep so I'm fresh for tomorrow's fights." He rubbed her shin, and stood up - or tried to, as she grabbed his robe and pulled him down again.
"Thank you." She whispered into his ear, then kissed his cheek. "Nobody has ever stood up for me before."
He pulled her to him and hugged her, then let her down again. "It's past time I start being the friend - and boyfriend - you deserve. Get used to it." He planted a soft, caring kiss on her lips. "Goodnight, Hermione."
"Goodnight Harry." She smiled back at him.
"Missed you in Charms." Hermione said as she sat next to him at the table.
"The Headmaster wanted his chat. I got a note to show Professor Flitwick." He replied as he took a slice of beef from the serving plate to his own and added a dollop of gravy to it.
"Was it what you thought?" She took the plate of beef as he passed it and took some for herself.
"Worse." He grunted. "Half an hour on how people deserve second chances and Ron was - unbeknownst to me, apparently - a fast friend, a staunch supporter. He urged me 'for the Greater Good' to patch things up with him."
She stopped what she was doing and focused on him. "What did you say to that?" She asked in an uncertain voice.
Harry smiled at her reassuringly. "I told him that Ron was 'a mean, lazy, entitled, lying cheater and if I never saw him again I'd count it a life well-lived.'"
She giggled before she could stop herself. "You didn't!"
"I absolutely did. Every word of it is truth." He grinned cheekily at her. "He tut-tutted of course, but he has nothing to say about my life or who I associate with. The fact that he tries is both creepy and criminal."
"Yes, that is a bit disturbing. Like he somehow gets to parent you because you're Harry Potter. There are other orphans in the castle, he doesn't do that to them."
"Not anymore. I'm done with him and all that nonsense. I'm here to learn every scrap of magic I can, and Albus-Mr. Famous-too-many-jobs Dumbledore can go suck a lemon drop. I may not have had any control over my early life, but that stopped Friday."
As if on cue, Hedwig entered the Great Hall with a soft cry and landed on the table in front of him. A clearly shrunken envelope of paper attached to her letter-carrier. He ran the backs of his fingernails over her head-feathers and fed her a bit of beef before he took the envelope from her. She nipped his finger playfully and then flew back out of the Hall.
Harry tapped his wand on the envelope. "Engorgio Naturalis".
The envelope grew to it's normal size, and he opened the flap at the top to peek inside. He smiled at Hermione then.
"Something good?" She asked after she finished a floret of broccoli and swallowed.
"Definitely. Something so good in fact, I think you might even praise me."
"I don't know... after snogging my lips off and standing up to Ron for me... it would have to be something really good to top those." She smiled a little smile, but the glint in her eye was cheeky.
Neville leaned forward from his seat beside Harry and looked at them both. "Congratulations you two." He whispered with a smile.
Hermione smiled back, even as pink creeped up her face from her neck. Harry took her hand under the table and squeezed it, then looked back to Neville.
"Thanks, Nev. I couldn't be happier. Hermione is definitely the catch of the millenium."
"What?" Hermione whisper-hissed, and a tiny note of shrill peeked through.
"You are. I'm so sorry it took me so long to notice." He kissed her cheek. "I'll make it up to you if it takes the rest of my life."
"Harry!" She whispered again as her face went from pink to scarlet.
Neville grinned at Hermione's distress, and Harry shot him a wink.
"What kind of wedding gift should I bring then?" Neville asked politely.
"Neville!" Hermione hissed, and put her hands to the sides of her face like blinders with her elbows on the table.
"Nicely done." Harry smiled at Neville. Neville started to blush at his own temerity.
Harry went back to eating dinner, and smiled for a long moment as he did - until he reached for his goblet of pumpkin juice. A warning tingle moved from his fingertips up through his hand to his wrist as he got within touching distance of the cup.
Someone had tried to potion him.
Harry put both his hands on the table and went still as he committed his pose to memory, then pulled himself out of the Timestream.
Everything else went absolutely still. There was no sound, no movement. Everything froze exactly where it was. He'd done it correctly, that was exactly how it should be. He looked around at the other students at the table near him. There was a fair bit of space around him and Hermione - probably still due to the asinine Tournament nonsense - but he could readily see there was no-one around them who could have physically poured anything into his cup. That left use of a Switching Spell, or House Elves.
He went up and down each table, including the Head Table where the Professors sat, but none of them had their wands out. None of the students had a wand out either, not even at the far end of the room at the Slytherin table. None of the Slytherins could have seen his cup to use a switching spell on it in any case, but he'd be a fool to not at least check.
With use of a switching spell ruled out, that left House Elf interference. Harry knew Dobby would never allow anything to be put in his drink, so that left a hundred other Hogwarts Elves. A hundred Elves who were accustomed to taking orders from the Headmaster and other Staff. Who had no choice but to take orders from the Headmaster and other Staff. He honestly wouldn't have put it past Snape to try to potion him, but he knew that wasn't the case. He had defied Dumbledore's urging to be friends with Ron, so he suspected the Headmaster had simply decided to remove his choice in the matter.
Nuts to that. He was done being Dumbledore's little lamb.
He picked up his cup filled with potioned juice and walked up to the High Table, right up beside the Headmaster. Luckily, it appeared the Headmaster was drinking pumpkin juice as well. Harry Vanished the contents of the Headmaster's cup, and poured what was in his cup into the Headmaster's.
"Bottoms up, Headmaster. Better you than me." He was sorely tempted to do something nasty to Dumbledore, but decided against it. It would tip his hand, and he would prefer to get his mission accomplished before then. Besides, Dumbledore had no need to know. It was bad enough he was going to have to tell Hermione once Riddle was properly dead. He just hoped she wasn't disgusted -assuming that he even remembered the rest of his life after Hogwarts by then. As it was, he could only remember that which Other Harry and Hermione had taught him, and had protected within his mind. He knew for a fact he had married someone other than Hermione before, but he couldn't recall her face or her name... or their children's names or faces. How long would it be before he forgot them altogether? And why wasn't he sad about it?
They had told him it would be frustrating, and they were right, but they had protected enough of his knowledge for him to trust that he was doing the right thing. Besides that... He walked back over to his place next to Hermione and peeked at her face. She still had her hands up so nobody could see her from the sides, but behind her hands, and despite her blush, she had such a happy smile it made his heart soar.
"I hope I can make you smile like that forever." He told her as he resumed his seat. He carefully put himself into the position he'd been in before he'd exited the timestream, and quietly re-inserted himself.
He picked up his knife and fork, and without any warning tingles in his fingers near his food, he began to eat dinner. He would have to stop by the kitchens for something to drink afterward, but that was a minor inconvenience. He contemplated asking Dobby to get him something, but decided against it. Even if Dobby would be over the moon to do something for him, Hermione was right in that you didn't ask friends to do things you could do yourself. It would be too easy to treat him like a servant, even though that's what he wanted to be.
Two mouthfuls of food later, Hermione hadn't shifted position, so he leaned over to whisper to her. "You look great in red."
That earned him a swat.
"What did you get for question thirty-seven?" She asked him over the table. She twiddled the quill in her fingers - a sure Hermione-sign of anxiety.
"Um..." He shifted a couple of books to look at a parchment sheet beneath. "Wilkes Array."
She sagged in relief. "Oh good. I couldn't remember if it was a Wilkes Array or a Nested Array."
"I could be wrong. I was going to check it after class. I've only been studying runes for a couple of weeks, after all."
"I'm fairly confident that you're right, but let's definitely check after -" The door to the Transfiguration classroom opened and students from Gryffindor and Hufflepuff began to filter in. They chose to study in the classroom they had to be in next to avoid having to pack everything up and run to class when they inevitably lost track of time.
Harry and Hermione reluctantly packed their runes books away and took out their Transfiguration texts.
Professor McGonagall stayed true to form and suddenly appeared behind her desk as she shifted back from her cat shape. Harry supposed shocking those who weren't used to it was some of the only fun the elderly witch got, so he paid it no mind.
"We start today's class with an announcement." She stated loudly so the students in the back of the room could hear, "As is tradition during years when the TriWizard Tournament takes place, there will be a Yule Ball..." She looked directly at Harry then, "Also according to tradition, the Champions will begin the dancing. The Ball is limited to those in Fourth Year or above, unless their date is above the required age limit."
Harry raised his hand.
"Mister Potter, you have a question?" Professor McGonagall raised an eyebrow at him.
"Yes, Professor." He replied, and turned to Hermione. "Hermione, would you be my date to the Yule Ball?"
That put a smile on both Hermione's and McGonagall's faces.
"Harryyy ," Hermione half-whined, "We're in class!"
Neville and several of the Hufflepuff students chuckled. For some reason he could feel Ron glare at him from the back of the room.
"I shall leave that to you to sort out after class, Mister Potter." Professor McGonagall said acridly, though her eyes twinkled. "Please open your texts to page two hundred twenty..."
He and Hermione had already been over the day's lesson, so while they both took notes, they also quietly stole glances at each other. When the class finally finished, Hermione took an uncharacteristically long time to pack her texts and parchment and quill away. Professor McGonagall closed the door behind her to leave Harry and Hermione as the only people in the room. As soon as the door clicked shut, Hermione pushed him against a desk and snogged the reason right out of him.
When her hands had their fill of his hair and his chest, when he gasped for breath and the world spun, she finally pulled away and picked up her bag.
"Yes!" She said, and strode out of the classroom with a spring in her step.
Harry smiled quietly to himself as he drifted back to solid ground. "I am so in love with you." He whispered to the empty room. He wasn't sure how he knew since he'd never been in love before, but he was absolutely certain.
He caught up to her in the hall as she headed for the library. "Hey." He smiled at her. She slipped her hand into his.
"Hey yourself." She smiled back.
"I have to go to Gringott's Saturday, and I thought it would be a good time to see about some formal robes, do you want to come and do some dress shopping? You might already have something suitable, I have no ide-"
"That sounds great Harry, but how are we going to get there? London is five hundred miles off." She frowned at him. "And no, anything I have will be too small for me now. Too small and too frilly. I haven't worn a dress since I was eight."
He looked around, and quietly guided her by the shoulder into a broom closet.
He closed and locked the door behind him, then took his wand out and sealed and silenced it. He cast Lumos after and turned to face her - her cheeks were completely scarlet. He frowned while he tried to figure out why she would -
He had actually only intended to tell her he'd been practicing Apparation, but... She looked so cute like that, and her heart practically throbbed in her eyes. She didn't seem angry at being shoved into a broom closet, quite the opposite. He decided in that instant what he had to say could wait. When in Rome...
"Nox." He dropped his bookbag and put his wand in his pocket as he stepped into her and found her cheeks with his hands. He kissed her deeply right from the start. He tried to give her everything he felt for her through his lips, while his hands slid around her and slowly down to her behind.
She moaned into his mouth when he flexed his hands on her largest muscles, and her hands slid up his shirt to glide around his torso as she felt all the contours of his own muscles.
That felt really good.
He left one hand on her behind and slid one hand up her back as well, then slowly onto her ribs. He wanted to touch her everywhere, but he decided against it. They had time, he was in no hurry. He thanked his lucky stars to be there with her at all, that she wanted to kiss him and liked doing so.
Hermione had other ideas.
She put her hand over his and pushed it upward directly onto her breast, and groaned into his mouth as he caressed her there. She felt fantastic.
Her hands wandered then too, she grabbed his behind with both hands and squashed the two of them together, to press every inch of their bodies as tightly to one another as she could. He had no doubt she could feel his reaction to her against her stomach - which she then proved by gliding her hand over it.
She broke the kiss and leaned her forehead against his. "Merlin Harry, is it supposed to be that big?" She asked breathlessly.
Harry's ego grew wings and covered the earth.
"I can't find a reply to that question that doesn't leave me sounding like a git, so I'm going to leave that to you to figure out. It's the only one I've got, so..."
She giggled and brushed her fingers up and down it again before her mouth captured his once more. He relaxed into her and their snog took on a slower, less hungry tone. It didn't fizzle out, it just calmed down and they both enjoyed themselves until they realized they'd been there a long time.
"Remind me to do this again. Merlin you feel good Hermione. I feel almost dizzy."
"No." She said firmly. "I'm thrilled we did this, don't get me wrong - it was everything I fantasized it would be - but I'd rather be somewhere clean and pleasant and..." She leaned closer and whispered with her lips on his earlobe. "Where it would be alright if I wanted more..." She sucked on his earlobe then. He shivered all the way to his heels.
"Um, I mean..." She backed off suddenly, "If you're alright with that? I don't want to push you into something you aren't ready for."
He reached out and hugged her to him. Only Hermione would be worried about him.
"Hermione... If you wanted me to, I would... make you pregnant... tonight. I would question your decision, but... If it's you, the answer will always be yes. The rest of my life is yours for the taking."
"Oh Harry..." She whispered. She buried her face in the crook of his neck and sobbed quietly. He stroked her hair and rubbed circles on her back as he held her.
She reached up to kiss his cheek when she stopped crying, and wiped her face on her sleeves.
"Do you mean that?" She asked softly.
"With more happiness, enthusiasm and cognizance than you think I do." He grinned.
"Harry James Potter!" She whisper-shouted. "You used cognizance in a sentence! Correctly!"
"I'm sure it was just luck."
"Nonsense! You get out of this closet and marry me right now!" She giggled.
Harry couldn't help but laugh. "If I'd known that was all it took..." He hugged her again as they both laughed.
"Lumos." She said, and the end of her wand lit the cramped little room. "Between the snogging and the crying... how is my face? Am I a mess?"
"I think you're beautiful." He smiled at her. "Cheeks are still a bit red, but I like it."
She slapped his chest lightly. "You're making it worse!"
"Sorry," He smiled, "Can't help it, it's true."
She smiled at him again, then took several deep breaths in a clear attempt to calm herself. "I'm going to go wash my face and freshen up a bit before dinner, see you there?"
"Definitely. I want to get you alone and in private again after dinner though, so instead of the library or common room could you meet me in the Owlery after dinner? It's a non-snogging thing, don't worry. I would not choose the Owlery as a snogging spot."
She chuckled. "I was going to say, that's a bit icky. Alright, see you at dinner." She stepped into him again and he wrapped his arms around her as they kissed.
She tacked a cheeky kiss on the end, and quietly slipped out of the closet, and shut the door behind her. Harry simply Apparated to his dorm.
After dinner - and more good-natured ribbing from Neville and some of the quidditch team - they walked up to the Owlery. It was quiet except for the occasional hoot from one of the owls, and Hedwig flew to land on his shoulder as soon as they climbed the last couple of stairs.
"Hey girl." Harry smiled and fed her a few nuggets of ham he'd saved from dinner. "You won't repeat anything Hermione and I talk about to anyone else, will you?"
Hedwig just looked at him as though he'd suddenly started to screech like a monkey.
"I didn't think so." He brushed his fingers through the plumage on her head and she butted against his fingers.
Harry took his bundle of papers out of his robes and handed them to Hermione. "I wanted to show you these and talk to you where there weren't any paintings, as I suspect they all report to Dumbledore."
"What? Why would you want to keep something from Dumbledore?" She frowned.
"I don't trust him. My eyes are open now, Hermione. Do you want my list? I made a list."
She smiled briefly, her eyes sparkled into his. "Yes, alright. What's your list?"
"Item One: The first time I ever met the Weasleys, Mrs. Weasley shouted about 'all these muggles' on the King's Cross platform on the muggle side . She asked Ginny, a ten-year old, what the number of the platform was. As though they hadn't been there a hundred times before with Bill and Charlie and the twins."
Hermione's smile fell off her face. "That... is more than a little suspicious."
"Hagrid didn't tell me how to get to the platform - I thought up until this year that he just forgot - you know how Hagrid is, but put the two things together..."
"And Molly knew you would be stranded, so she essentially called out and baited you." Hermione's brows began to slide toward frown.
"Exactly. Neither Hargrid nor the Weasleys would do either of those things on their own though."
"No, they wouldn't. You're right, it stinks of Dumbledore."
"Right. So I started to think why he might want me stuck at the station, and the only thing I can come up with is he wants me close to the Weasleys. Probably so he can tell them what to do, and they can tell me what to do and I'll listen because I owe them so much."
Hermione's frown turned into a grimace. "That's... It makes sense, but..."
"Item Two: I talked to Sirius last weekend, and he said that when he arrived at my house just after my parents had been killed, Hagrid had me in his hand. Sub-Question number one - how the hell did Hagrid know to be anywhere near the place? Sub-Question two - what would Hagrid do with a baby? The answer to both questions is Dumbledore. Hagrid on his own would have raised me in his hut, just like he tried to do for Norbert. Again, Hagrid works for Dumbledore."
"These are all facts? None of this is assumption or hearsay?" Hermione looked nearly sick.
"Sirius saw me in Hagrid's hand with his own eyes. It's the only reason he went after Peter. That means Dumbledore is responsible for putting me with the Durselys. I was supposed to go to Sirius. He's my Godfather. Why and how did I end up with the Dursleys unless Dumbledore wanted it so?"
"And Item Two corroborates Item One." Hermione began to frown angrily.
"And leads me to believe that Dumbledore has manufactured my entire life. To what end I don't yet know, but I'm sick and tired of it. I'm awake now, and making my own path. I will not be led to wherever he wants me like some good little sheep. I don't care what his purpose is, he's responsible for ten years of..." Harry looked down at his feet, unable to voice his shame to her directly. "Of... beatings and starvation and pain and fear. All the times I wonde-" His voice hitched, and his eyes stung and his vision went watery, but he swallowed and continued on. "All the times I wondered 'Why me' - all the times I cried myself to sleep from sheer loneliness - every drop of blood spilled and every new scar - they all belong to Dumbledore. Now that I know that, I hate him Hermione."
"Harry..." She flung herself around him and squeezed him as tightly as she could, head buried in his neck.
He dropped a kiss on her hair. "Thank you Hermione. I know I'm not alone as long as you're here."
She stayed like that for a long moment, and when she let him go, she had tears in her eyes as well. She wiped them away with the heels of her hands. "What are you going to do?"
"Well..." He smiled and wiped away his own tears, "I hadn't even gotten to Dumbledore hiding the sorceror's stone in a school and then baiting children to go looking for it, or the bloody basilisk, but I'm sure you can work out my points there on your own. As for what I'll do - you're holding the first step."
She blinked and then wiped her eyes again before she looked at the sheaf of papers in her hand. Her eyes widened as she read.
"Harry! This declares you an adult! Legally! What?!"
Harry smiled roguishly. "Well, I figured since The Ministry said that the TriWizard is only for of age witches and wizards, and The Ministry said I absolutely have to compete..."
"They'd declared you of age ! Harry, this is brilliant!"
"That's what I went to Gringott's for the last time. It turns out I have an Accounts Manager, his name is Spinehook. He's a bloody genius, he prepared all the necessary forms for me and got them filed through the Department for Control and Regulation of Magical Creatures. He said they never read any of their correspondence, so when he filed those whoever stamped and verified them at the Ministry didn't bother to actually read them. So I'm free of in loco parentis , free of the Trace on my wand. No underage magic letters. I can practice whenever wherever. That's how we're getting to Diagon. I've been practicing Apparation."
"You greasy sneak! You didn't tell me!" She frowned suddenly, and stamped her foot. "That's new - It turns out I hate that you can do something I can't."
"Probably the first and last time that'll happen." He laughed. "Let me enjoy it for a moment."
She grinned and gave his shoulder a swat.
"Of course I'll show you everything I know." He smiled warmly at her. "We can practice when we have a few minutes between study periods."
She smiled and nodded. "So is there another step? You said this was step one."
Harry's smile fell. "You're not going to like step two, but don't hate me before I explain the whole thing, okay?"
Her smile fell too, but she nodded.
"I'm getting help from Dobby. I'm going to bond with him because that's what he wants, but I'm only doing it because that's what he wants, and he's a friend. He's already saved my behind a bunch. Have you noticed Dumbledore getting really friendly with Ron recently?"
"Yes, actually. I thought it was really odd."
"Dobby's been switching my drink at dinner with Dumbledore's. There's been Loyalty potion in it. Every time Dobby tells me about it, I look around, and none of the students has a wand out, so it can't be a switching spell. Even if there was any kind of reason for any student to want me to drink Loyalty potion keyed to Ron. I can't think of a reason for that either. Dobby thinks it's the Head Hogwarts elf, and she only answers to Dumbledore."
Hermione frowned. "That tracks with Dumbledore essentially shoving you into the Weasleys to begin with. I don't like it, Harry. I don't like you taking a house elf either, you know it's basically slavery -"
"It isn't. Not even close. I asked Dobby about it, and you can too. House Elves don't have their own magic Hermione, and they need magic to survive. They've had to develop their symbiotic relationship with other magical creatures - not just witches and wizards - just to stay alive. If they were free like we are, they'd die. When I bond with Dobby - according to him - I'll share part of my magic with him, every second of every day. It's my magic he'll use in his own way to do his elf magic. He's eager to serve as a thank you for his life and ability to do things."
Hermione's frown slowly let up as he spoke. "Oh." She said when he finished. "I didn't know..."
"Even so, even though I'm happy for his help and will always treat him like a friend - I'm still me, and I completely agree with you. I made up a contract for him. He gets a galleon a day each work day, Sundays off, and his own living space wherever I'm living. I won't abide slavery of any kind either. In fact, I'm keen to get done with Hogwarts in order to turn my attention to freeing other House Elves caught in situations like Dobby's used to be. I figure between you and me and Sirius, we can compile a list of Elves in need of intervention and prank their owners into freeing them, then help find good homes for them."
Hermione brightened considerably at that. "Alright, I'm not hating step two anymore, but I should probably sit down and talk with some elves as well. I admit I've been a bit lax there."
"So that's most of what's been going on with me. Part of what I'll be doing on Saturday is talking to Spinehook about my family vaults. He sort of hinted at our last meeting that Dad comes from a very very old family. If what I suspect is true, then I'll also never have to go back to the Dursleys again, I can live in my Mum and Dad's ancestral house."
"Merlin, Harry! Where are you finding the time to do all this AND study AND work on the egg AND plan our dates? You don't have a time-turner, do you?"
Harry laughed. "No, no time-turner. First off, I'm quite motivated about the dates. There is another answer as well, but I can't tell you. Not that I don't want to, I literally can't. I've taken vows not to tell anyone who wasn't family because it has to do with Dad's Family Magic."
"You have a secret branch of magic?!" She nearly shrieked.
"It's common in very old families, I'm told." He shrugged.
Hermione frowned again, and glared at him as though to peel open his brain and see his secrets through sheer information hunger.
"Sorry." He quirked one corner of his mouth.
She pursed her lips together and narrowed her eyes at him while she simultaneously poked his chest with her rigid index finger. "We will revisit that, Harry James Potter." She relaxed her face into a greedy grin, "Now, show me how to Apparate!"
All eyes were on her as she descended the stairs into the Common Room.
She held the hem of her dress at ankle height while she traversed the stairs, and it showed her delicate, elegant feet wrapped in equally elegant pumps. A part of his mind provided a fleeting impression of the same moment in a different life overshadowed by shame, but it was obliterated by the wonder and awe he felt as she approached.
He knew it must have shown on his face, because her eyes smiled at him and never left his. "You look amazing, Hermione. I mean... I always knew you were beautiful, but now so does everyone else."
"It's just the makeup." She said softly, "Tomorrow I can go back to being regular boring bookish me."
He held his arm out for her to take, and she did. "To everyone else, maybe." He said softly in return, "You will never be undesirable to me, Hermione. Never."
"Hm." She grunted. "We'll test that later. I require proof." She smiled at him with a sidelong glance.
He laughed and patted the hand that held the crook of his arm. "I look forward to it - as long as it's not tomorrow."
She laughed in return and just smiled at him with a twinkle in her eye.
Twice during dinner, he saw his and Hermione's plates and cups flicker. The first time was just as dinner was served, and the second time it was as dessert was served. Harry made a mental note to do something special for Dobby as thanks.
Hermione's brows furrowed as dessert was served, and she leaned over to whisper. "Did you see that? My mousse flickered. I think my cup did as well."
Harry wanted to kiss her cheek, but he didn't want to ruin her makeup and make her cross. "I did. I'll explain later."
"As soon as possible. It's making me mental with curiosity." She frowned at him and proceeded to enjoy her chocolate mousse in a way that made Harry mental with hormones. Thankfully, they had finished dinner somewhat quickly, so there was time for him to calm down before the Headmaster announced the dancing. Viktor and his date Katie Bell were called to the dance floor first, as Viktor was in first place in the Tournament. Cedric and his date Cho Chang were called next, then Fleur and her date Roger Davies. Harry and Hermione were called last, but as far as Harry was concerned they had the whole dance floor to themselves.
He gave it a full ten seconds after they began dancing before he started to explain. Any longer than that, and he knew he risked serious injury.
"The flickering plates thing was Dobby. I suspected there might be something extra added to our food and drink, so I asked him if he would mind checking it for us. As you saw, he seems to be not only vigilant, but enthusiastic." Harry whispered so only she could hear, "And yes, before you say anything I am already trying to think of something nice to do for him as thanks."
Her frown smoothed out some, but didn't disappear. "I want to talk to him as well. Tonight. The thought that someone tried to potion me..."
"Stunned. Scared. Tiny. Angry. That's how it made me feel the first time. Now it's just angry - and that's only regarding me. The fact that someone tried to potion you makes me want to tear the castle apart with my bare hands."
"Yes, that's it exactly. I'm shocked and frightened, but... The fact that someone wants to control me... Control you..." He could feel her fingers grip his hand and shoulder tightly as they danced.
"And again, look where we are. It was in the food and drink. My money's on one of the staff making a Hogwarts Elf do their dirty work. I wouldn't put the attempt past one of the students, but it would have to be a Switching spell or a physical attempt. Nobody was near us, and I'm always looking for people with wands out because of it. There weren't any."
"That makes me even more shocked and frightened, Harry."
"We know what it's about. We suspect it's Dumbledore trying to control me. If I had to guess, I'd say that your food and drink were spiked with aversion potions keyed to me. We already know mine are spiked with things to make me want to be Ron's friend."
She pursed her lips in anger as she glared at his chin. "Unforgivable." She hissed. "Trying to use magic to break us up... Trying to break us up at all, let alone for some stupid scheme..." She blew an angry breath out through her nose and looked him in the eyes. "I will never let anyone and anything between us, Harry. When I catch whoever it is..."
"I'll help." He grinned. "You're no angrier than I am."
She sighed, then relaxed and smiled back at him. "No, you're right. I'm sorry, Harry. I didn't mean to make it seem that you weren't."
"Relax Hermione, I know you care." He smiled reassuringly, "How many women do you think would stop to ask me if I was ready to do more than kiss?"
She blushed a little and the corners of her mouth curled upward.
"Exactly. you can count that high on no fingers. You and only you have my trust, because I know for a fact that you and only you have my best interests at heart. You always have, best friend. I'm just sorry it took so long for me to understand and reciprocate."
Her hands clenched on him suddenly. "Harry." She said in a low, menacing tone, "You just used reciprocate in a sentence. Correctly."
"I've been studying." He winked.
"As soon as we get out of here..." She threatened.
He raised an eyebrow at her, as though to dare her to finish that sentence.
"I will show you what that does to me. And don't think I missed that you called me a woman either."
He paused to press a kiss to the knuckles of her hand. "You are, Hermione. You're a beautiful woman, inside and out."
She just looked into his eyes as her gaze turned warm.
"I thank my lucky stars for every moment I get to spend with you, for a myriad of reasons." He added cheekily, "Not the least of which is... Without you, that could be me." He indicated with a quick nod of his head the table at which sat Ronald Weasley and Padma Patil. Ron sat in his chair and blatantly stared at Susan Bones, Hannah Abbott, and Fleur while poor Padma read a book. Padma had gone to the same lengths her sister and most of the girls had. She had done her hair and makeup, applied some jewelry, and wore a spectacular dress. She looked fantastic as she sat at Ron's back and read a textbook, utterly bored.
"Oh, poor Padma. Harry, would you... No, nevermind."
"Would I dance with her so her night isn't a complete loss?"
Hermione bit her lip as she looked into his eyes, an unfamiliar stream of emotions in them. She nodded. "It would make her night, but you're already making my night, and I don't want to share you, and I don't want anyone asking me to dance while you're dancing with Padma, and you better not dance for very long."
Harry chuckled quietly. "I don't want to dance with anyone but you, ever. I don't want you dancing with anyone else either, especially not while I'm dancing with someone else because you want me to."
She smiled back at him. "I'm going to rest my feet and have something to drink, and everyone else can leave me alone."
"Don't eat or drink anything unless Dobby gets it for you, I don't trust it otherwise."
"That's sound. Give me a moment to disappear to the loo before you ask her. I don't want Ronald over here asking me because you're dancing with his date."
"Alright, I'll go to the refreshments table while you head out."
They stopped moving then, and Harry bowed slightly to her as she made her way toward the restrooms.
At his request, Dobby slipped a note to Padma. Harry could hear the results from the refreshments table.
"OI, where you going?" Ron demanded.
"None of your business, Weasley." Padma retorted hotly, "Sit there and stare at Susan's tits some more."
Ron crossed his arms as his face reddened, but he didn't dare say anything else.
"What did you want to talk about?" Padma asked when she arrived next to him at the refreshments table.
"Would you like to dance?" Harry asked.
Padma smiled, then frowned. "That's a hell of a way to treat Hermione, Potter." She hissed.
"It was her idea." He smiled. "If it wasn't, I would completely agree."
"Oh." Padma smiled again. "In that case, I accept." She held her hand out to him, and he took it as they walked onto the dance floor and began to dance.
"Thank you for this." She said after a comfortable few minutes of quiet dancing.
"Welcome." He replied with a smile. "I'm sorry you had to be bored that long."
Padma shrugged. "It was better than not coming at all. I thought he might at least want to dance some, maybe cop a quick feel. That would have been alright. At least the night isn't a total loss thanks to you and Hermione."
"Wow..." Harry breathed. "If he had half a clue what he's deliberately missed..."
She chuckled warmly. "Thanks for that too, Potter."
"Alright... Harry." She smiled as they danced for a while longer, then she stopped when the music changed. "Thanks, Harry." She said, and strode toward the exit without even a look toward her date.
Hermione materialized next to him then, and he held out his arms to her with a questioning glance.
She stepped into him, and they resumed their interrupted dance. Harry told her everything that happened as they glided across the floor.
"That was unexpectedly satisfying then." She declared when he finished. "I honestly did not think she'd defend me like that."
"I didn't either, but it made me happy. With any luck, you might have a friend there."
"We'll see. I'll talk to her when we get back. Now..." She broke the dance and gripped his hand firmly, "We have a great deal of snogging to do, and not a lot of time left before bed." She strode purposefully away while her heels clacked against the floor, and dragged him toward the seventh floor.
The sun peeked over the treetops as though too timid to dispel the chill that rimed the grass, just as sound was loathe to disturb the sleepiness of the morning. Into this peaceful scene, they arrived with a CRACK that split the frosty morning air.
They both stood still for a long moment.
"The book was right, the queasy feeling does lessen with practice." Hermione said finally. She took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out slowly through her mouth, then squeezed Harry's hand and turned to kiss his cheek. "Come on, I'll make us some breakfast."
Harry grinned a roguish grin. "Should I be afraid?"
That earned him a swat.
"Honestly." She huffed, but smiled back as she pulled him toward the door. She took a set of keys from her pocket and opened the door, then pulled him inside. "Hello! Mum? Dad?" Hermione set her trunk down and made room for Harry.
Harry quietly closed the glass french doors behind them as they removed their footwear. Hermione's mother poked her head around the corner from the dining room and then walked toward them with a smile. "Sweetheart! We weren't expecting you for the hols, what a lovely surprise!" She and Hermione hugged each other, and then Harry was swept into a hug as well. "Welcome, Harry." Mrs. Granger let go of him and smiled. "It's about time she brought you home. You've grown, even from the last time we saw you at the station."
That made him warm all over. "Thanks, Mrs. Granger, it's wonderful to meet you again."
"Ah ah." She frowned. "None of that Missus Granger tosh. My name is Evelyn..." She grinned and winked at Hermione, "Or Mum."
"Mum! " Hermione went wide-eyed and red crept up her neck as she bodily turned her mother and marched her out of the kitchen to the dining room. Evelyn simply laughed as she let herself be shooed. Hermione stood at the archway to the dining room with her hands on her hips after her mother sat back at the table where her teacup still steamed. " Really."
"Would you like some help?" Harry asked. Hermione turned and smiled at him. Her flush had taken near-epic proportions and her cheekbones fairly glowed dark pink. She crossed the kitchen to give him a quick, tender kiss.
"Thank you, but no. I wanted this to be a rest and relax vacation for you. You've had enough nonsense going on already."
"Alright, I'll butt out this time, but you know if I don't at least pull my weight I won't feel right." Harry raised both his eyebrows slightly and gave her a pointed look.
The hardness in her eyes softened, and she nodded. "We'll talk about that later, I do want you to feel at home." She kissed him again, and then guided him toward the dining room. "Go get embarrased by Mum while I make us breakfast."
"Brilliant, baby Hermione stories here I come." He grinned, and then flinched and chuckled as she gave him a swat on the shoulder.
Harry went to sit at the table, and Evelyn raised an eyebrow at him. "You're not letting her cook by herself, are you?"
Harry nodded confidently. "Yes ma'am. I offered to help, she wants to do it on her own."
"You're braver than I gave you credit for, Harry. Don't worry, we know an excellent Gastroenterologist, I'm sure the stomach pump won't take long."
"I heard that!" Hermione shouted from the kitchen.
"Love you sweetie!" Evelyn called back. Harry could see exactly the same sparkle in her eyes that Hermione got when she took the piss out of him. The whole thing made his heart giggle, and he sat there and mutely grinned like a fool. For some reason, talking to Hermione's parents seemed... familiar. Comforting. For some reason he expected it to be sad, but it was the farthest thing from sad. Just being there made him happier than he'd ever been.
"So what's the latest rubbish you've had to put up with this year, Harry? Hermione mentioned you were entered into some contest against your will, but she was rather deliberately vague." Evelyn turned her attention on Harry, and Harry instantly understood how Hermione was able to make him feel like a butterfly pinned to a board. It wasn't that he didn't want to share, far from it. To have someone ask about him and his life was a rare treat! If Hermione had been deliberately vague, then she didn't want her parents to know how dangerous things really were - likely they'd pull Hermione out immediately if they did know. Hermione would explode if they did that. She wouldn't be there to make sure he remained among the living. Honestly he didn't want to be there if she wasn't there in any case.
What to tell?
"The contest itself is annoying, that much is true. Mostly because I never wanted anything to do with it to begin with. The real pain of it is that everyone thinks I put my own name in - that I somehow cheated the selection process - and have sort of shunned me because of it. Hermione is the only one who believes that I didn't, and she's sort of made herself shunned by association. That's what's annoys me the most about it. Even our other friend Ron turned out to be a massive git about the whole thing. He was among the loudest haters, not because he thinks I cheated, but because he thinks I deliberately withheld how I cheated in order to gain fame and fortune without him."
"Tch." Evelyn frowned. "I never liked that boy. Granted we've never met him, but he's been in Hermione's letters enough for us to get some idea. Usually when she's near tears over something he's said. You can imagine how fond we are of Hermione's tears."
Harry nodded. "Probably about as fond of them as I am. You won't need to worry about him or anything he's said anymore."
"Oh?" Evelyn took a sip of her tea and set the cup down. "I thought you three were a team?"
Harry quirked one corner of his mouth. "Were. I sort of... woke up, I guess. I realized why he was angry at me, and decided he wasn't an influence I want in my life. I also hated how he talked about -and to - Hermione. When I was telling him I didn't want to be friends with him anymore, he went off on something Hermione said and I... I sort of... broke his nose."
Evelyn closed her eyes and sighed, as though she'd just had a massage and was completely relaxed. "Thank you for that, Harry. That's not something Malcolm or I could ever do." She opened her eyes and smiled at him, and she looked satisfied, then sighed again. "It's not something I should be condoning either..."
"I went to our Head of House immediately and told her what I'd done. I fully expected detention or worse, but apparently Ron isn't well liked."
Evelyn laughed at that. "Good on you, son. You did the right thing in that case. I rather think you did the right thing by cutting him loose as well, but that's not for me to decide. The change in Hermione's letters has been very telling, and right or wrong you've made her happy. I can't thank you enough for that."
"You better not have made her too happy." Mister Granger growled as he entered the dining room and kissed his wife's forehead. He stood next to her and frowned pointedly at Harry.
"No sir Mister Granger, not the way you're insinuating." Harry held his gaze calmly, despite the urge to flee.
"Oh sit down Malcolm, your intimidating father act isn't going to be necessary." Evelyn practically shoved him at a chair.
Mister Granger broke into a grin then and sat down, but leaned over the table at Harry. "Did it work? Was I intimidating?"
Harry relaxed and nodded. "Absolutely sir. Almost as much as Hermione."
Evelyn roared with laughter while Mister Granger looked crestfallen.
Hermione came to the table then and set a plate in front of Harry with bacon, sunnyside-up eggs, and sliced tomato, with a ramekin of mixed fruit as well. She set a similar plate next to him and sat there, between him and her mother. "I'm surprised you're still here, Harry. I thought they'd have scared you off by now." She threw a cheeky grin at her parents.
"Apparently I'm crap at intimidation, and your mother hasn't got the baby albums out yet." Malcolm winked back at her.
"Not at all, Mister Granger. Don't mistake me, you were very good at it - it's just that Hermione is world-class." Harry corrected him.
Malcolm perked up at that. "Aw, bless. Thanks, Harry." He looked particularly proud of Hermione just then.
"World class at what exactly?" Hermione asked, a forkful of egg halfway to her mouth.
"Lots of things. Breakfast, for example. This is really good!" Harry smiled at her and quickly stuffed his gob so he wouldn't have to talk anymore. Malcolm and Evelyn shared a look while Harry had the sense to blush.
Hermione managed to somehow make the act of placing a forkful of egg in her mouth while watching him equivalent to waterboarding.
"Well." Malcolm said as he observed it, "You're not wrong, Harry." He stood up to leave the dining room. "Best of luck, mate." He called over his shoulder with a wave as he left.
"So... How long?" Evelyn asked. She had a gleam in her eye that Harry had never seen before. It tensed his entire body to flee.
"How long what, Mum?" Hermione asked after she'd finished her mouthful.
"Well, I know you've been pining for some time dear, but this..." She waved her hand, palm out, in a circle around Harry and Hermione, "...Is new. How long have you been snogging?"
Harry scooped more food into his mouth and chewed while he tried to ignore the heat that crept up his neck and face. He risked a glance at Hermione, and she looked sunburnt.
"Ah, so you are snogging then." Evelyn smiled warmly at them both. "About time, too. We'll wait for you in the living room, dears." She leaned over and kissed the side of Hermione's head before she picked up her teacup and book and followed her husband.
"Sorry." Hermione whispered after her mother had left. "So embarrassing."
"Yes, but... In a good way. They love you. It's good-natured teasing, the way we do to each other." Harry smiled at her. For some reason, the whole thing - having the piss taken out of them, being embarrassed over kissing, all of it - it was absolutely perfect. It warmed his insides and made him want to cry at the same time.
"You really like breakfast?" She asked. "Mum always said I could burn water, but this came out alright."
"I am genuinely enjoying it. These eggs are perfect, exactly as I'd expect from the only Gryffindor with Outstanding in Potions. Thanks for breakfast, Hermione." He smiled.
She slipped her hand into his under the table just as they did at school, and Harry switched hands to eat with his left.
He finished first, and waited patiently for her to finish so he could take the plates to the kitchen and clean them. "Your Mum is Master level at embarrassment."
She squeezed his hand and the look in her eyes said both "I know", and "I'm so sorry". He smiled back at her and shook his head a little.
"I like it. They seem... They seem like what I imagine my parents were like." He said softly. "It's easy to see how much they love you."
Hermione finished her mouthful and turned to him. She took a quick look toward the living room to make sure her parents were safely out of earshot, and pulled his head toward her for a tender kiss. "I really hope they come to -" She was interrupted by a loud BUMP at the window, followed by two taps. They both started in their seats, and Hermione let go of his head as they both turned to see Erroll at the window. He had a red envelope in his beak.
Harry sighed. "I'll go deal with it."
Hermione let out an exasperated noise. "So much for the hope. I'd love to know where she thinks she gets the right."
"We both know the answer to that. Potions didn't work, so now it's browbeating. I'll just go pop it to their verandah and be back in a second."
"Don't splinch yourself being quick." Hermione's brow pulled downward. He smiled at her as he put his shoes on.
""I'll be careful."
Erroll landed on his outstretched arm, and Harry brushed his headfeathers for him. "Hey Erroll, thank you for your efforts. I'll get you home quickly, alright?"
Erroll bobbed his head twice with a thankful "Krr!"
He Apparated to the Burrow's verandah and took the letter from Erroll's beak. Erroll jumped off his arm and flew upward, and Harry could feel the Howler's magic begin to activate. He dropped it, but it floated in front of him, and he concentrated extra-hard, just for Hermione, as he Apparated back to the Granger's garden before it could yell a single syllable.
Hermione had already taken their plates to the kitchen when he returned. He removed his shoes again and stepped into place beside her as she washed the dishes. "No splinches." He said as he picked up a teatowel to dry the dishes with.
"Good." She handed him a plate. "Any idea what it was about?"
He took the plate and dried it. "Either breaking Ron's nose and dunping him, or returning their gifts or both. Either way I don't care what she has to say."
"Are you alright?" She asked, her face tense with concern as she handed him the second plate.
"I would feel worse about it if she'd been genuine from the start, but knowing she's been part of some plot to direct my life, to manipulate me... I'm fine, Hermione. Genuinely, not all-the-bones-in-my-arm-are-gone I'm fine." He grinned. "I think for the first time in my life, I really am fine." He kissed the side of her head.
"Ugh." She grunted. "Don't remind me." She handed him one of the ramekins and he dried that, then the other. Then she placed a dollop of soapfoam on the end of his nose as he dried the ramekin, and giggled at him.
"Cheater! Catch me while I can't defend myself." He grinned at her.
"Of course!" She laughed. "It's the best time!"
Harry finished drying the ramekin, and wiped the foam from his nose. He grabbed two opposite corners of the teatowel, and snapped it at her behind.
"Harry!" She shrieked with a laugh, and tried to put her hands in the way. He tried again, and she caught the end of the towel. He grinned and pulled her to him, to wrap his arms around her. She dropped the towel on the counter and squeezed him back. "I'm glad you're comfortable, Harry. I really wanted you to feel at home." She said softly.
"I really do." He smelled her hair and sighed. "Thank you."
The click-whirr of a camera sounded from the hallway. Hermione's parents both stood there, Evelyn held the camera still for a moment, and then let it drop and looked to her husband, who smiled at them with an arm around her shoulders.
"That's going to be absolutely lovely." Evelyn smiled a satisfied little smile and they walked back down the hall to the living room.
Hermione growled softly. "Sorry about them."
"Is it weird that I think they're adorable?"
Hermione giggled and stepped away from him with a smile as she slipped her hand into his and pulled him into the living room.
The Granger Christmas Tree stood proudly in the center of the large bay window that overlooked Cuddington Park Close, and its soft glow lit several gifts still beneath it. Hermione went to hug her father, who grinned widely as she did.
"Welcome home, love." He said softly as he hugged her.
"How long have you both been waiting to take that particular P-I-double-five?" Hermione asked as she went and hugged her mother.
"Fifteen long, arduous years, sweetheart." Her mother replied with a smile.
Hermione plonked herself on the sofa facing the tree, and her father immediately handed her one of the gifts from under the tree.
"Happy Christmas, Hermione." He smiled.
"Right now?" Hermione sighed, and smiled back. "Thanks, Dad. Oh, I've left my - "
Harry's wand was already out, and her trunk floated silently in from the kitchen to stop in front of her. She grinned at him and opened it, then handed gifts to her parents, and Harry tucked the trunk out of the way behind the chair he sat in.
"You really are learning magic..." Mister Granger breathed as Harry put his wand away.
"Yes Dad, we really are. I'd love to show you, but I'm underage, I'd get a summons from the Ministry if I did magic outside Hogwarts." Hermione explained, "Harry doesn't have that problem, due to the Ministry's own cockup. Can I tell them, Harry?"
Harry nodded. "Sure, go ahead."
Hermione went into lecture mode as she explained how Harry had been entered into the Tournament against his will and how he'd recognized the logical outcome of the situation and had himself emancipated. She left out their suspicions about Dumbledore and the fact they'd had potions put in their food and drink. She had to tell her parents about their dates and the Room of Requirement after they made Harry show them the necklace Hermione made him for Christmas, with its tiny gold Eiffel Tower pendant. Her mother had asked about the significance of the Eiffel tower, and Hermione hadn't had any choice after that. They also made her show off the Eiffel Tower quill nib that Harry had made her.
"I would love to see that." Malcolm sighed when Hermione finished. "A room that become anywhere, anything... We could go skiing in the morning and then relax on the beach to warm up."
"It's pretty brilliant, I admit." Harry replied. "I love magic."
"How did you two make each other's gifts? Was that magic too?" Evelyn asked.
"I actually transfigured Harry's necklace from the spoon I used at dinner that night."
Harry started to laugh. "I did the same thing!"
Hermione grinned at him, and he leaned over to whisper at her. "I want to make something for your parents - a picture I think. Is there something I could use?"
"You are so sweet. Don't move, I'll get something." She whispered back, then hopped off the sofa and headed back to the kitchen.
"What are you up to?" Evelyn gave Harry a sly look.
Hermione returned almost immediately and handed him an empty tin from the recycle.
"Brilliant, Thank you." He smiled at her as she sat back down. He pulled his wand out and concentrated, then wove the requisite pattern in the air above the tin, and tacked a permanency rune on the end.
"Blimey!" Malcolm said as the tin became a detailed picture frame with filigree corners, and a picture of the two of them as they stood in the hall, just after taking a picture of him and Hermione.
Harry handed the picture to Evelyn. "I didn't know I was coming until last minute," He shot a quick smile at Hermione, "so I didn't have time to prepare. Happy Christmas, Mister and Missus -" He stopped when Evelyn shot him a warning glance. "Er... Mum and Dad." He finished with an embarrassed smile.
Evelyn beamed at him and stood to wrap him in a hug very much like Hermione's. She handed her husband the picture, and he immediately placed it on the mantel.
"I'm so sorry we don't have anything prepared for you either Harry, and we don't have magic to bail us out." Evelyn looked upset and embarrassed.
Harry shook his head. "Just being here is more gift than you'll ever know." He smiled at them and tried to blink away the tears that inexplicably burgeoned in his eyes.
Hermione reached over the arm of the sofa and took his hand with a soft smile.
"I've never been back here before." Hermione whispered. "These offices are just lovely." Her eyes scanned the whole place, lingered on some of the photos on the bookshelves behind the desk, and the wickedly sharp-looking battleaxe that hung on the wall behind the desk within easy reach of the desk's owner.
"What we're here for today is going to raise questions for you, and I'll happily explain everything that I can, but a lot of it has to do with Family Magic."
Hermione fixed him with an angry stare and growled in her throat. She still hadn't forgiven him for not telling her everything the first time.
"I want to tell you, Hermione, I really do, but I can't. We would have to be married for me to be able to tell you. That's just how the Family Magic works, I'm sorry."
"Hmph." She grunted, and raised her eyebrows as she wiggled the fingers of her left hand at him.
He knew she only wanted to know about the Family Magic, but part of him was shocked and humbled she would even suggest such a thing. "You... are you really sure you want to be stuck with me forever?" He asked. His voice sounded small even to him.
She stopped and let her hand fall, and her expression was serious as she examined his face. Her eyes softened, and she kissed him deeply. "Yes." She said. "But if we come home married after a trip to the bank my parents will explode."
"With good reason. Hopefully you still feel that way when we graduate." He smiled back at her and kissed her left hand.
"Technically we could leave school after next year, once our O.W.L.s are through." She pointed out.
He smiled at that. "As if you don't want to ace all your N.E.W.T.s too. Have you decided -" He was cut off by Spinehook's return. He carried a small case at his side, and put it on his desk as he sat back into his chair.
"You were correct, Mister Potter." Spinehook said. "Gringott's is happy to fulfill our contractual obligation, and present to you your agreed-upon fee."
Harry smiled at him. "Brilliant. Thank you, Manager Spinehook." Spinehook smiled in return.
"Harry, what is that?" Hermione asked quietly, "I can feel that from here. It feels... bad. Greasy. Disgusting."
"I'll explain in a bit, as much as I can, anyway. I don't want to waste Spinehook's time." Harry stood and bowed to Spinehook. "Thank you again, Manager. I look forward to a long and lucretive relationship."
Spinehook steepled his fingers, elbows on his desk. "As do I, Mister Potter. Good luck."
They left the bank then, and as soon they were out into Diagon proper, Harry apparated them to the front lawn of a sprawling Elizabethan manor house.
"Oh that's beautiful!" Hermione breathed as she looked over the architecture, the flawless hedgerows, the brightly-coloured gardens to the left, and more importantly, the springtime temperature. "Harry, where are we?!"
Harry took a deep breath and let it out. "TECHnically... this is my house."
"My Dad came from a really old family." He shrugged. "It's going to be hell to maintain. If Spinehook didn't tell me first that its maintenance costs were already offset by the interest from some of the family's holdings, I'd probably have decided to sell it soon as I saw it. I don't even want to think about the kind of money it took to build it." He shuddered as literal mountains of gold passed through his mind.
"Holy cricket, Harry." Hermione gawped at the manor in front of them. "How are there flowers blooming? Why is it warm? It's the end of December!"
Harry grinned at her. "Maaaaaagic." He waggled his eyebrows at her and then ran as she hit him with multiple slaps to the shoulder.
"You'd better run, after that!" She glared.
Harry walked back to her and kissed her cheek. "Sorry, couldn't resist."
He just grinned roguishly at her and sat down where he was on the grass.
"So..." He said, as his grin fell away and his eyes fell onto the case he carried, "You know about Voldemort."
"I know what I've read... I know what we've seen." She said.
"I trust you Hermione, so if you tell me you won't tell anyone else what I'm going to -" He was interrupted by four sharp CRACKs as they were surrounded by House Elves. Dobby appeared with another CRACK a second later, in front of Harry.
"Who bes you, sits on Master's lawn with such badness!?" One of the elves he'd never seen before asked.
"Nobody bes touching Master Harry, or Dobby bes thrashing you!" Dobby growled.
"Calm down, Dobby. It's alright." Harry laid a hand on Dobby's shoulder. "Relax. They have a right to ask." He turned to the elf who had asked the question. "I'm Harry Potter. I was told this place belonged to me. Is that not the case?"
"Master Harry?" The elf perked up in surprise. Harry felt four tiny touches on his magic, and then the elves threw themselves to their knees and bent double with their faces on the grass. "Forgive Gribbly! Gribbly not bes knowing it you, Master Harry! Welcome home, Master Harry!"
"Thank you, could you all get up please? I'm not keen on the bowing and such." Harry cast a sighing glance at Hermione.
Once the four new elves had stood up, Harry relaxed some. "Thank you. Dobby, could you please explain to Gribbly and our new friends how I hate slavery and how things are going to change? I'm a bit busy just now."
Dobby nodded. "Dobby can does that, Mister Harry Potter sir!"
"Thank you Dobby. Gribbly, to answer your question - Hermione and I are here because I needed a quiet place to destroy this... badness."
Gribbly nodded, and then nodded to Dobby as well. "Gribbly shows Dobby around and we bes talking."
Gribbly disapparated with a pop, followed by the others and Dobby.
"Sorry, I've never been here before or I'd have sorted them out already." He apologized to Hermione.
"They probably won't like it, if the Hogwarts elves are any indication." Hermione warned.
"We'll talk about it, hopefully I can get them to understand. I'll turn my wand on myself before I treat anyone... the way I was treated."
Hermione crawled to him on her knees and hugged him to her. "And I'll blast anyone who tries to treat you that way to atoms." He wrapped his arms around her ribs and she dropped a kiss on the top of his head.
"Thank you for that." He smiled up at her.
She smiled at him, then looked at the case. "So we're here to destroy whatever that is."
"Right. I was getting to that. We know for a fact I killed Voldemort when he was a baby, but he didn't pass on. He's still here, as a wraith, a possessive ghost, whatever he is."
"That -" He pointed to the case, "Is five of the things that keep him anchored to this world."
"It is? How? What is it?"
"According to the books Spinehook got me on the subject, it's an ancient Egyptian piece of magic called a Horcrux. Apparently one of the darkest, most vile pieces of magic in existence. Spinehook said there was magical baby sacrifice involved, and I stopped him there. I didn't want to know."
"No wonder it feels so... gross."
"It's even worse when you ask yourself why you never see any five-thousand year old Egyptian witches and wizards walking around."
Hermione cocked her head at that. "No, you don't. Don't hear about any or read about any, either."
"Right. The books I read said the soul itself has a duration limit of about a thousand years. Nicholas Flamel with his elixir of life is only six hundred and some. So at most, using Horcruxes can only grant you that long. Yes, it's a long time, but it hardly makes you immortal, especially if you have to drink unicorn blood and doom yourself to a horrible existence even when you have them."
"Which we know Voldemort has done." Hermione agreed. "And that makes buying that little bit of time with horrid sacrifice and being doomed to a further half-life just idiotic."
"So basically Voldemort is an absolute nutter. Not that we didn't already know that." Harry concluded.
"I know that Voldemort made six of these. I can't tell you how I know, Family Magic. I further can't tell you how I know where they are, either. I gathered these five of them together, and I'm going to destroy them right here, right now."
"And you can't tell me how, because Famly Magic." She used air quotes around the words Family Magic.
"Sadly, that's true. You can swat me all you like, I can't tell you until you're family."
She gave a harsh, protracted sigh, then sat down and crossed her arms. "Fine... Hang on." She frowned after a moment, "Some of the ghosts at the castle are older than a thousand."
"Ghosts aren't souls though, they're the imprints of souls in the fabric of magic, and have a much longer shelf life. Like a fossil versus the actual animal."
"Where are these books? I want to read them." Her eyes took on a dangerous gleam, like they did during exams when students raided the library.
"Okay, we'll have to go back to Gringott's for them, Spinehook said they can't leave his office."
"Tomorrow then." She crossed her arms again and pouted.
He smiled and patted her knee. "Tomorrow. So... I'm going to do some Family Magic now, and the only reason I can do it with you here is because you won't be able to tell what I'm doing. There's no spellbolt or anything, so don't ask what I'm doing, I can't say."
Hermione swatted his shoulder, but didn't say anything. Harry smiled at her and closed his eyes, then took a deep breath as he concentrated. He waved his wand over the case, and a moment later, he opened his eyes again.
Hermione looked at him, clearly waiting for him to start. When he smiled at her, she frowned at him, then looked at the case.
"I can't feel it anymore! What did - you can't tell me! Arrggh!!" Hermione made claws of her hands and growled at him.
"Not yet, anyway." He smiled back. "That's them taken care of. Now Voldemort only has one to keep him here, but I know that one will be with him when I go kill him."
"You what? Harry, don't tell me you're going to go looking for him?!" Hermione's face suddenly contorted with fear.
Harry shook his head. "I don't need to go looking. I know where he is. I also know he's just a horrible little flesh construct right now. That's why it would be the best time. He also has Wormtail as a nursemaid. I'm going to wrap Wormtail up nice and tightly so he can't wriggle free and give him to the DMLE. Hopefully once they see he's alive they'll exonerate Sirius."
"That would be nice, but I'm worried Harry. This is Voldemort and Wormtail."
"Voldemort is unable to hold a wand, he's not much of a threat. This is the best time Hermione, and I want to get it done and over with so we can get on with our lives."
"I want that too harry, but it doesn't have to be you! We can give all the information to the Aurors and they can bring twenty or thirty of them."
Harry saw the concern in her eyes flare, and he felt a spike of guilt for their history. The reckless, unthinking actions of his past had given her a knee-jerk fear, and he recognized his part in the blame. "I'm sorry, Hermione. I know I haven't exactly been calm or thoughtful in the past. This isn't me going off half-cocked and thinking it has to be me the way I used to. In this particular case, it actually does have to be me."
"Why? Why you?"
"There's a prophecy." He said with a sigh. "It's why Voldemort targeted my parents in the first place. I have to kill him or he me, the two of us are already set against each other. The longer we go on, the more people will end up being hurt needlessly. It has to be me who ends him, Hermione, and I want to get it done while I have the advantage. I've already taken away most of his ability to avoid real death, and at this point he's not much of a threat. The longer I wait, the more dangerous he becomes."
"Fine, then. I'm coming too." Hermione set her jaw and stared cold steel at him.
Harry's heart melted to see that look in her eyes, to hear her declare she would be beside him and danger be damned. He knew he didn't deserve her, but he was not stupid enough to turn her away.
He took her hand in his. "I hoped you'd feel that way." He told her softly. "When you're with me, I feel like I can do anything."
She frowned. "You're not going to argue?" Her frown lifted, as did the very corners of her mouth. "Why aren't you protesting you need to do it alone and I should remain behind in safety?"
He chuckled at that. "Because as much as I would like to know you're safe and secure, we both know - well, you always did, it's new for me - we both know that's selfish and stupid. There's a far better chance of total success if you're there, you're bloody brilliant."
"Well." She smiled and squeezed his hand. "I'm afraid comments like that are subject to the Snog Tax, Mister Potter."
Harry sighed and filled his features with mock chagrin. "Drat. Should send payment to the Town Council, or should I pay it in person?"
"As your duly appointed Snog Tax Collector, I'm afraid payment needs to be immediate and in person." She gently pushed on his shoulders until he lay on his back, and she knelt over him.
"I have never been happier to pay my taxes, Mizz Collector." He said with a grin. "Thank you for wanting to come with me. With any luck we'll get this sorted and be able to concentrate on better things."
She let her hair fall around his face as she dipped her head and claimed his lips, and Harry found it the most wonderful experience he'd ever had, kissing the most perfect woman while surrounded in the best-smelling, softest curtain that ever existed.
Hermione unrolled the drawing Harry had done on their last day of holidays. "Adhaerentia ." She waved her wand at it to stick it to the table and make it flat. As it was Friday evening - the first Friday evening since the Christmas Holidays - the common room was exceedingly rowdy, that was why they had retreated to 'their room' of Requirement.
The drawing was not detailed, it was just a floorplan with some additional information regarding some of the rooms. She placed photographs next to some of the annotations they explained, careful not to touch either of the vials or the hatchet also on the table, then took a deep breath and let it out.
"One last time, from the top." She said. "Step One - we Apparate to Riddle Mansion - but not too close, we need to be outside the Wards."
"Correct. As it's who it is, I have no doubt the Wards are indiscriminately lethal and likely to only let marked Death Eaters inside." Harry added.
"That's a good point, I hadn't thought of them letting Dark Marks inside. Step Two - You do whatever you're going to do to the Wards to bring them down. You'd better be making notes as well, Harry. I'm going to want detailed explanations of how you've done everything you've done so far with your Family Magic."
"Assuming you still want me once we graduate, you know I'd be ecstatic to show you everything." Harry grinned at her.
"You're just lucky I could never marry anyone just to learn something." She shot back.
"What ?!" Harry mock-goggled, "Hermione Granger's thirst for knowledge has limits?!"
That earned him a swat.
"Prat." She smiled back at him. "As I was saying... Step One get there without being noticed. Step Two bring down the Wards. Step Three find and kill the Snake -"
"I'm actually still a little surprised you're alright with that." Harry interjected.
"It's not some helpless captured wild snake, Harry. It's a familiar . Voldemort's familiar. Even if it wasn't evil to begin with, it is now. It's actually a kindness to kill it before we kill him, that way it won't suffer when it feels him die."
Harry nodded and let it go, content that she understood the gravity of their task.
"Step four," She continued, "find and bind Wormtail. We'll be under the cloak for that, as he'll likely be on-guard. Voldemort will know the Wards are down, and will likely send him to investigate. How are we stopping them from just Apparating away?"
"I borrowed a set of anti-Apparation and Portkey Wardstones from Sirius. He was tickled for them to be used against Death Eaters, since they were made for them in the first place. They're already in place around the manor, I'll activate them when we get there, before I drop the Wards."
She nodded. "He did seem rather excitable over the Holidays."
Harry smirked back at her. "That was partly due to the Wardstones, that's true. The rest was him just being thrilled I found my hormones."
"You told him about us?"
"I did. It was... awkward."
Hermione frowned. "Awkward how?"
Harry sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "I thought it would be a nice thing, you know? We'd maybe have a conversation about how cute Mum and Dad were together, but instead he got this pained expression, followed by that determined frown he gets -"
"The one he doesn't think exists. One of my favourites." She chuckled.
"That's the one. So then instead of a nice conversation, he tried The Talk."
"Oh no!" Hermione clapped both hands over her mouth. "He didn't!"
Harry smiled ruefully. "He absolutely did, until I shut him down. He was like a dog with a bone though." - Hermione rolled her eyes at him at that - " He wouldn't let it go until he taught me... a charm."
"What was it? Teach it to me!"
Harry grew slowly red. "It... wouldn't work for you. It's a... guy thing."
"Oh." Hermione looked crestfallen. "What's it for?"
Harry's face finished its tomato transformation and he looked away. "Contraception." He said.
"Oh, good! Teach it to me anyway, I can cast it on you if you forget."
Harry frowned at her. "Why aren't you embarrassed about it?"
"Oh really, Harry. If you only knew the number of times I almost... even just over the Holidays... Even with my parents in the house..." She looked away then as her face began to pink.
Harry blew out a breath explosively. "Thank Merlin for that. I thought it was just me."
"Dinner at Le Poisson was especially hard. You look SO good in a suit." She grabbed the front of his shirt in her fist and pulled him into a kiss.
"Mmm." Harry moaned softly as she kissed him. "See? That. That right there." He said as she let him go.
"That what?" She grinned.
"That is why I want to get this nonsense out of the way." He pointed at the table. "I like you wanting more. I'm happy to give you more. This is splitting my attention, when it should be entirely focused on you and how dizzy your kisses make me."
"At least you have your priorities straight." She took a deep breath and let it out again, clearly bending her will to re-focus on the matter at hand. "Okay... Step One get there without being noticed, and activate the anti-Apparation Wardstones. Step Two bring down the Wards. Step Three find and kill the Snake. Step Four find and bind Wormtail. Step Five, you do your Family Magic and Voldemort dies permanently. Step Six, we hand Wormtail to Susan's aunt."
"Step Seven, we ace our exams, cuddle and snog a lot - and maybe more - while you and our future together have my full, undivided attention." Harry grinned.
"I like Step Seven." She smiled back. "Alright, let's get this over with then, part of me can't believe we're doing this."
Harry nodded. "Thank you, Hermione. Thank you for believing me, thank you for believing in me, thank you for coming with me. Just... thank you. For everything."
She pulled him into a hug and squeezed him to her like he was saying goodbye. "You and me, Harry. Always." She whispered as she kissed his neck. She let him go and took a deep breath, and seemed to relax some. He reached up to cup her cheeks and kissed her tenderly, and tried to smile reassuringly. She leaned her forehead against his, and rubbed his shoulders. Harry packed up the hatchet, basilisk venom, and phoenix tears. Harry pulled his invisibility cloak from his bookbag, and flipped it over his head while holding the front up for her to enter.
She flipped the edge of the cloak over her head to join him beneath it.
They crept together under the cloak, as they had done many times before, all the way through the castle, through the front courtyard, to the gates. Once they were outside the gates, they paused to stand up straight and stretch.
"Ready?" Hermione asked once they were back under the cloak.
"Ready." Harry replied. "I'll take care of the Apparation, I have a spot already picked out."
"Alright, let's go." She wrapped his arms around her and held onto them.
They appeared on the edge of an overgrown field at the foot of a hill whereupon Riddle Manor sat. It was a three-story, artless, square house that seemed to have been built more for maximum use of space than any aesthetic. They crept closer and began the climb up the low hill to the house. When they were only twenty or so meters from the house, Harry stopped.
"Toujours Pur." He said, and they could both feel the pressure of the anti-Apparation and Portkey Ward snap into place.
"Step One down." Hermione whispered.
Harry froze in place and committed his pose to memory before he pulled himself from the Timestream. He slipped out from under the cloak and made his way around the grounds at a light jog. He enjoyed the evening air of the west country, and the lovely orange clouds the sun made as it set. He found the snake behind a shed near the stables, it was engaged in swallowing a Yorkshire terrier with a leather collar. The nametag was a tiny metal bone with the word "Tyrannic" on it. It wore a red argyle doggiejumper, and Harry could tell the poor thing was already dead, it had multiple puncture wounds.
"Well, at least you're outside the Wards." He whispered, and jogged back to Hermione. He slipped back under the cloak and resumed his position before he re-entered the Timestream.
"We're going to switch Steps two and three." He whispered. "The snake is outside the Wards, over that way. Head to the stables."
"What?" She whispered back, "How do you know that?"
"I'd love to tell you but I can't." He whispered.
She growled low in her throat. "Our honeymoon is going to be spent with you teaching me everything you can't tell me now." She whispered back as she headed toward the stables.
They found the snake still in the same place, still in the process of swallowing the dog. It was just a lump that travelled slowly back from the snake's head at that point, and Harry thought that was just perfect.
"It's just eaten something. Can you transfigure some kind of yoke between the head and the lump? That should keep it in place."
"And keep it from biting. Brilliant." She whispered. She crouched and snuck her wand under the hem of the cloak. Part of the ground surged suddenly upward just behind the snake's head and wrapped around it as it changed from dirt to steel. Part of the ground beneath it changed to steel as well, and the snake was trapped.
"Perfect. You're brilliant." Harry whispered, then slipped out of the cloak as he freed the hatchet from his belt. It took a lot more work than either of them expected to free the snake's head from its body, as Harry had to fight off the thrashing length of its body as he hacked away with the hatchet.
Harry took out his wand and scourgified himself and the hatchet before he approached Hermione again. The dying snake had sprayed blood everywhere, it was all over him and the hatchet as well.
"Hermione?" He whispered when he was finished.
"Here." She whispered, and lifted the cloak enough to see her feet.
"Okay, hold on a second, I'm going to bring the Wards down. We'll have to hide quickly, as I imagine Wormtail will show up then."
"When he does, we hit him together." She confirmed.
Harry nodded, and closed his eyes to concentrate. He waved his wand toward the house, then got back under the cloak "Wards are down." He whispered.
They crept closer to the house, and sure enough, less than a minute later Peter Pettigrew quietly opened the front door and sniffed the air. Harry and Hermione crouched and eased their wands under the hem of the cloak.
"Three. Two. One." Hermione whispered, then they both fired at once. Harry shot a stunner at Wormtail's face, but it was bright red and Peter let out a shriek as he raised a shield to block the spell. It bounced off the shield and spun away harmlessly into the night, but unfortunately for Peter, Hermione's Petrificus Totalis hit him square in the knee. His arms and legs slammed together, and he toppled forward to land on his face.
"Step Four down." Hermione whispered with a smile. "Now just the Dark Wanker."
Harry pecked her cheek before he lifted the cloak off himself. "You keep that on, I'll count on you as my backup in case he is more capable than I thought?"
"Alright. You better not get cursed, I'll be very cross with you."
He smiled in return. "I'll do my best."
Harry stunned Peter just in case, then Hermione stunned him as well - probably just because. It took a moment to manoeuver Peter to where Harry could get under him and carry him into the house.
"Test the stairs before you take a step." Hermione cautioned him, "I don't like the looks of them. They look decrepit."
Harry tested each stair as they went up before he put his weight on it, and thankfully none of them gave way under him, but they all creaked disturbingly.
They found the thing that was Voldemort in a room at the top of the stairs to the third floor. It looked to be a study or lounge of some kind, with a crackling fire in the fireplace between a pair of comfortable-looking wingback chairs. Harry dumped Wormtail to the floor between Voldemort and the fireplace.
The thing that was Voldemort looked a bit like a baby, which was to say it was roughly the size and shape of a baby - that was where the similarities ended. It had tiny beady eyes like shiny black beetles. Where a normal baby was wrinkled with chubbiness, Voldemort was wrinkled like that happy baby chubbiness had withered and aged to become stark red burnished leather with a waxy sheen to it. It's mouth, when opened, revealed tiny broken and yellowed teeth surrounded by rotting gums.
"Potter." It hissed. "As you can see I was unprepared for guests. Surprising you took the initiative. So unlike you. I shall remember this and adjust accordingly the next time."
"Having a dragon try to eat you puts things in perspective." Harry replied, then added "Stupefy."
The hideous Voldemort grotesquerie slumped into its blankets, and Harry tapped it on the head with his wand to see if it were truly unconscious. It made no movement.
"It's disgusting." Hermione whispered from next to him.
"Yes it is. Sorry you had to see that." Harry replied as he picked the baby mockery up from its resting place and wrapped its blankets around it tightly. Then he held it out to Hermione. "If you would, just hold it so its head is touching Wormtail's Dark Mark."
"Ugh." Hermione made a disgusted noise as she took her wand out and levitated the thing in place as he'd asked.
Harry took his wand out and concentrated on the connection between the two. "Aperta Vi Aquaeductum!" He incanted as he waved the wand in a complex pattern. A flash of greeny-purple light passed between Voldemort's head and Peter's Dark Mark, then Harry put his wand away.
"Thanks." He told Hermione as he picked up the hideous homunculus. "Could you sit Pettigrew up please?"
Harry put Voldemort back on the chair in an upright position, and took out the vial of basilisk venom. Careful to avoid the teeth, he poured the entire vial of venom down Voldemort's gullet. He re-capped the vial and put it away, then took out the vial of phoenix tears and poured that down Pettigrew's throat.
"How long do you think it will take for..." Hermione's question fizzled out as they both watched Voldemort's body darken from red to black. "Nevermind. We should go. Final Step."
"Are you alright to Apparate back to school?" He asked.
"No." She replied. "But I'm fine to Apparate to Whitehall. In for a penny."
Harry frowned, but he knew from the timbre of her voice she wouldn't be dissuaded. She meant to stay with him. "I would rather you not cop any of the blame for this, but fine. Let's go."
It was a bit of a squeeze to fit into the phone booth with the unconscious Pettigrew - who stank terribly, even under the invisibility cloak - but they managed.
As luck would have it, Amelia Bones had been recalled to the Ministry due to a number of Ministry employees who'd suddenly collapsed and died. She was in her office when Harry and Hermione arrived.
"Why are you in my office and not at school?" She demanded immediately.
"Hermione is here because she wouldn't let me go alone. I'm Harry Potter, I'm here to tell you my Godfather was illegally imprisoned in Azkaban for killing this man." Harry pulled the cloak off the bound, unconscious, and floating Pettigrew. "I'd like him freed, please."
Amelia stared hard at Harry for a long moment, then Hermione, and only then did she look at Peter. "Your Godfather is?"
"Sirius Black." Harry replied.
"And this is?"
"Peter Pettigrew." Hermione said.
"He was my parents' Secret Keeper, not Sirius, and is responsible for leading Voldemort to them."
Amelia sighed. "You have the worst timing, Mister Potter. What's happened here tonight -"
"Is my doing as well." Harry said. "I killed Voldemort tonight."
Amelia stared at him even harder. "You did what?"
"I killed Voldemort. Hermione came with me as backup, but I'm the one who actually killed him. You can find his corpse at Riddle Manor in Little Hangleton. Third floor, room at the top of the stairs. If I had to guess, I'd say you have a bunch of dead Death Eaters here in the Ministry. Have you checked their arms for the Dark Mark?"
Amelia stood and ran for the door. "Don't you move!" She shouted at the two of them as she left.
"Looks like Step Six is going to take the longest." Hermione quirked one corner of her mouth.
Harry smiled and took her hand. "Sorry for giving you a crap evening, but I'm glad you're with me."
She placed her free hand on top of his. "We have a few minutes right now, teach me that Charm Sirius showed you." She put her hand behind his head and pulled him into a kiss. "It may come in handy..."
"That wasn't awkward at all." Harry drawled sarcastically.
"Hey, at least he didn't ask you for money. That would have been way more awkward." Sirius laughed, "I thought he was your best mate in school?"
Harry shrugged. "He was at one point. That was before I woke up and realized what an utter git he was. I actually broke his nose."
Sirius laughed and draped an arm across Harry's shoulders. "You never told me about that! What did he do?"
"The entire time we were friends he'd done nothing but insult and degrade Hermione. I was in the act of telling him I didn't want to be friends with him anymore, and he went off on Hermione. I'd had enough of it." Harry shrugged.
"I'm surprised there's anything of him left. That was remarkable restraint if you only broke his nose."
"It only a couple of days after the dragon. Hermione and I being together was new. Besides, his was only incidental, unthinking insult. He only ever uttered one insult on purpose to Hermione, in sixth year."
"She broke his nose for him again in the middle of the Great Hall. Vicious right hook. No idea where she learned it."
Sirius laughed again. "Honestly, don't take this the wrong way Harry, you know I love you, but of the two of you I'd be inclined to stay out of her way a bit more than yours."
"No, I fully agree. I don't want her mad at me either. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for the rest of the Wizengamot... but then I listen to their whingeing about not being able to take bribes or payoffs or anything anymore, and I'm inclined to start punching as well."
"Yes, well. Your pain is everyone's stability, you know. Leave the Lord punching to me." Sirius winked at him.
"Does that make you the Wizengamot Attack Dog?" Harry grinned back, and received a slap upside the head for his efforts. He elbowed Sirius in the ribs, and then wrapped his arm around his shoulders as well.
"Cheeky little bugger." Sirius smiled warmly at him. "Awkward run-ins aside, thanks for coming with me to the Vaults, but we'd best get you home. I value my mobility."
Harry laughed, and Apparated them both to Potter Hill.
"I'm home!" He called to the house when he and Sirius entered.
Dobby appeared with a CRACK. "Hermione says she's waiting for you in the main dining hall, Harry." He said with a grin, then popped away again.
"That's a bit odd, usually she's in the Library." Sirius noted.
"Contrary to popular belief, she doesn't spend all her time in the library, just most of it." Harry quirked a lopsided grin.
The double doors into the main dining hall were closed when they arrived, and that caused Harry another frown. "She doesn't close the doors unless there's something heavy to discuss. Why would she want a heavy discussion in the dining room?"
"You going to stand in the hall pontificating or go find out?" Sirius raised an eyebrow.
Harry gave him an annoyed glower and opened the doors to the dining hall.
It was filled with people.
"SURPRISE!!" They all shouted.
He felt Sirius jam a party hat on his head and heard him giggle with glee. "Happy Birthday, pup."
The walls of the dining hall were festooned with tinsel and banners that proclaimed "Happy 40th Harry" and "Happy Birthday". An enormous cake sat in front of his seat at the head of the dining table, with the rest of the table covered in gift boxes and bags.
He'd forgotten his own birthday again.
"You brilliant bunch of..." He spotted the children in the crowd, and left the rest unsaid.
Everyone laughed, and Sirius shoved his shoulder. Harry rounded on him and tried to grab him in a headlock, but Sirius was faster than he looked. "You knew too, you mangy mutt!" He accused.
Sirius scooted around the far side of the table and dropped a kiss on top of Hermione's head. "Of course!" He grinned.
"And he had the mange cleared up months ago." Ranti added as she kissed Sirius and put baby Mira in his arms.
Everyone laughed again.
Harry went to Hermione and crouched next to where she sat to enfold her in a hug. "I love you." He whispered. She smiled her loving smile and kissed him.
"Happy Birthday, love." She whispered back, then spoke at a normal volume. "Go on, sit down. I gave up my reading time for this."
Everyone laughed again, including Harry as he took his seat.
Malcolm and his wife 'little' Susan Abbott - now Susan Potter - both came to hug him, as did James and his girlfriend Tiffany Greengrass.
Hermione lit the candles with a wave of her hand, and everyone sang the song. Little Mira Shireen loved the singing and wailed as loudly as she could, with claps and squeals of delight until Sirius gave her raspberries on her neck and she grabbed twin fistfuls of his beard.
"DADA!" She yelled, and caused both her parents to get misty. Harry looked to Hermione, who looked back to him, and they both looked to their sons. With a deep inhalation and a wish in his heart, Harry blew out all the candles... which then all re-lit themselves. He blew them out again, and then frowned at them as they re-lit themselves again.
Hermione tried to suppress her smirk unsuccessfully as she looked to her husband with love, covered with smug satisfaction. Sirius howled with laughter.
"I'd expect this from them, but from you? Oh the betrayal." Harry clutched his hand to his heart while he made a pained expression.
Harry and Hermione's assembled family and friends took the rare opportunity to laugh at Harry once more.
"Female Marauders are always the most dangerous." Sirius said with a wink.
"Hear hear!" Remus chimed in, with a cheeky grin toward Tonks.
"That must be true, not even Papa messes with Aunt Ranti." Padma grinned.
"Oh he used to." Ranti replied, "But I cured him of that long before you were born, dear. He still can't eat fish."
"Now that's a story I'll be wanting later." Sirius grinned at his wife.
Harry had his wand out and waved it over the cake, then sighed as he raised his eyebrows at Hermione. She smirked her little smirk at him in return, and he cast a spell over the cake. He then licked his thumb and forefinger, and pinched out the flame from one of the candles. They all extinguished instantly, and stayed out.
The crowd cheered as Harry finally solved his cake.
Dobby and Gribbly clicked their fingers at the same time, and the cake began to float just off the platter while plates flew in from the kitchen, and each plate received a slice of cake before it floated to a person in the room. They even remembered to serve themselves, for which Harry aimed a large grin at them.
Sirius was first to demand that Harry open his gifts, with all the impatience of a teen.
Josh took his arm from around Luna's shoulders and handed Neville a galleon.
"Told you." Neville grinned.
"And I still took the bet, like the flappin' Galah that I am." Josh returned with good-natured humility. "Cheers, mate." Luna smiled and kissed his cheek when he sat back down.
Harry gave in to Sirius's prodding, and opened gifts while they enjoyed the cake.
Neville and Susan had made him a coffee mug for work that read "Don't make me tell my wife what you're up to".
Everyone laughed at that except Hermione. "If I get more work because of that, you're staying to help." She warned him.
Teddy and Ellie's gift turned out to be two parts. The first was a cane that shouted "Look out, I'm old!" when touched, and that made everyone laugh. The real gift was beneath that, a new MagiTab tablet computer.
"How did you!?" Harry exclaimed when he unwrapped it. "I didn't tell anyone I wanted one of these!"
Teddy rolled his eyes. "Come on , Uncle Harry. It's not as if I haven't known you my entire life. Besides, Aunt Hermione knows everything. Everyone knows that."
Ernie and Padma gave him a tie that had brooms and little golden snitches that flew all over. He loved that and promised to wear it to work at least once a week. Dobby, Gribbly, Dribbly, Wibbly, and Bibbly had all worked together and made him a sharp briefcase with shoulderstraps that retracted and became part of the leather when a rune on the faceplate was pressed. Even better, it had enough space inside to store his broom and several erumpents.
Luna and Josh gave him season passes to Puddlemere United, and smiled at each other when Harry's face lit up as he saw them. "You two! This is too much!"
"Nonsense." Luna replied. "Happy Birthday, Harry."
Josh grinned at him too. "Might even see ya there mate."
Remus, Tonks, Sirius, and Ranti had all pitched in together and gotten Harry and Hermione reservations at a hotel and tickets to a Broadway show in New York, delivered inside a card that yelled at him to FOR MERLIN'S SAKE TAKE A VACATION!.
Harry just looked at the perpetrators with a blank face. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
Tonks gave him a swat.
The final gift was very clearly a book, so Harry expected it was from Hermione. It turned out that it was also from Hermione's parents, Hannah, Malcolm and Susan, James and Tiffany.
It was a deep maroon colour with gold lettering on the spine and front, that said "The Journey". Harry looked around at the crowd who had gone quiet, and smiled to his friends and family as he opened it.
It was a picture album.
The first picture was of Harry and Hermione, hand in hand, as they exited Scrivenshaft's in Hogsmeade. Harry remembered the day well, it was their first Hogsmeade date. He looked to Hermione with a warm smile. "That was a good day." He said.
"They've only gotten better since." She replied, and placed her hand on his arm.
The next page was he and Hermione showing off their Prefects badges, followed by pictures of the common room with Harry, Hermione, and Neville all studying. Then Hermione, Harry, Neville and Luna all studying in the library, and in the next Padma had joined their study group. Susan Bones and Hannah Abbott joined their group in the picture after that.
Harry stopped and showed Neville and Susan the picture of the first time they held hands, and he stopped again to show Hannah the picture of herself and Wayne as they held hands.
Hannah smiled back a trifle misty-eyed. "I'd almost forgotten how short he was." She chuckled.
"Thankfully I take after you in that regard." Sue smiled and hugged her mother before she retook her seat on Malcolm's lap.
Harry chuckled out loud when he flipped the page and there was his proposal to Hermione in the Great Hall at the end of seventh year. "You were so embarrassed." He smiled at his wife.
"Thankfully I was more in love with you than I was embarrassed." She smiled back. Harry reached over to hold her hand while he flipped through photos of their wedding, and stopped when he came to a newspaper clipping from the Prophet.
"Wow." Harry said, "I'd almost forgotten about Dumbledore's arrest. That was big news. Shook the whole foundation, that did."
"He deserved it and more." Sirius said with a growl.
"You're not wrong." Neville agreed.
"I'm just glad things were finally able to change." Harry smiled at the crowd. "So no-one else will have to go through what we did."
He smiled at Hermione again when he saw the paper clippings that listed the arrests of most of the Wizengamot and the crimes they were imprisoned for.
He showed the crowd the next picture that made him smile, he and Hermione hand in hand the day they graduated from Oxford.
"Proudest day of our lives, that was." Evelyn smiled at her daughter and son-in-law. "Until wee Malcolm and James arrived, of course." Malcolm added, and grinned with pride at his grandsons.
"Speaking of..." Harry held up the book to show baby Malcolm's first picture. He rested in Hermione's arms, a bundle of navy blanket with a tiny pink face and messy black hair.
"So adorable." Sue grinned and kissed her husband. "I never tire of baby Malcolm pictures."
"I hope there are some baby James pics in -" Tiffany didn't even get to finish before Harry held up one of baby James. He was also swathed in a navy blue blanket, his tiny fist in the air and tufts of bushy light brown hair that peeked out above his forehead like a cloud.
"Yay!" Tiffany grinned and wrapped her arms around James's neck. "Such a cutie."
"You too, kiddo." Harry beamed at Teddy and held up a picture of Remus and Tonks as she held baby Teddy.
Ellie leaned in closer, but then relaxed. "Yeah, I have that one." She kissed Teddy's cheek.
Harry's grip on Hermione's hand tightened when he turned to the picture of the two of them waving goodbye to Malcolm as he smiled from the window of the Hogwarts Express. They were joined by Neville and Susan and Padma and Ernie in the next photo, as Malcolm stuck two fingers up behind James's head as James waved from the train window.
"I still owe you for that." James turned to look at Malcolm mischievously.
"And a million other things." Malcolm grinned back.
The last few pictures in the album were of Harry as he was sworn into his current position as Chief Warlock, and Hermione as she accepted the mantle of Minister of Magic. He skipped over his own pictures, but spent a long moment on the ones of Hermione.
His eyes were wet as he closed the book and set it gently on the table in front of him. "I'm so very proud of you, you know that don't you?" He whispered to Hermione.
She leaned her forehead against his and ran her fingers through the back of his hair. "Yes, my love. I do." She smiled and her eyes said they would pick that discussion up later, what she had to say was not for others.
Harry nodded, and smiled again at the assembled wellwishers. "Thank you, all of you. Truly. Even you, Sirius." Harry quirked a lopsided grin and winked at him.
"Bloody cheek." Sirius grinned back, and laughter rang through the room.
"Decent birthday, Dad?" Malcolm asked.
"Thanks to all of you son, I can honestly say this is the best fortieth birthday I have ever had." Harry replied with a loving smile.