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Chapter 5, Pensieves and Plots – The Enemy Comes to Hogwarts

When Harry opened his eyes the next morning, he discovered that this time he was spooned up behind Hermione with his arms wrapped around her, rather than the other way around. He was relieved to discover that neither his hands nor any other part of his body was doing anything that would get him into trouble. He tried to shift himself to ensure no problems of that sort would arise, without waking her, but she turned toward him as soon as he moved.

“How are you feeling this morning?” she asked gently.

“Good. Real good, actually,” he informed her. “You’re a very good listener. It helped to get some of that off my mind. I actually fell asleep pretty quickly and slept all night. I just now woke up.” Not wanting to dampen the mood he decided to change the subject. “And I was relieved to see that I hadn’t accidentally done anything inappropriate with my hands,” he joked, giving her waist a small squeeze with those appendages to illustrate their innocuous positioning.

Hermione looked away and bit her lower lip for a few seconds, then lifted her gaze to his with a challenging look in her eyes. “And what if I told you that it wouldn’t be inappropriate?”

Harry met her gaze. “Then I wouldn’t want it to be accidental.”

Hermione nodded, impressed with the maturity in his answer. She pulled away and sat up, folding her legs beneath her, while he scooted back and propped himself up on his elbows for the discussion that both knew it was time for.

“We seem to be moving in that direction,” Hermione began. “And I have to say that I find the idea appealing. But I have some thoughts I want to share with you on the subject. I haven’t really dated anyone seriously, so this is all new to me,” she admitted. “At Salem most of the dating was in groups rather than one on one. We’d all go out together; some would pair up and some wouldn’t. When I got back here and went to University I went out a few times, but was generally too busy trying catch up in my studies to spend much time on it. Plus, I knew I was going to come back into the wizarding world so there wasn’t any point in starting anything with a muggle guy.” She peeked up at him shyly and added, “And besides that, there was this boy I got to know when I was younger and every other guy I met suffered by comparison.”

Naturally, Harry blushed as soon as he realized that she was referring to him. But Hermione continued without a pause. “I did pay attention, though, and there were quite a lot of girls who were … rather casual about intimacy, shall we say. They seemed to think nothing about meeting a guy at a bar and then spending the night with him. That’s not what I want; I think it should be with someone special.” Her implication was obvious.

Harry knew that now it was his turn to be equally forthright. “You’ve gotten some idea of what my life is like now,” he noted. “But you may not realize yet just how bad it is. I have almost no one I can talk to – I mean really share things with – and trust that they’ll keep my confidences. And as for dating?” He snorted mirthlessly, then continued. “But, to be honest, right now I need a friend more than I need a lover.”

Hermione’s face fell, and Harry felt a pang of regret, but he needed her to understand the situation fully before he could risk going down that path.

“You could have both,” she suggested softly. Harry nodded, somewhat glad to see that she wasn’t backing down.

“Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to risk the possibility of not ending up with either,” he countered.

“So where does that leave us now?” she wondered. Harry thought for several seconds, then grinned.

“How would you like to accompany me to a ball at the Ministry next week?” he asked.

Hermione’s response included a very enthusiastic hug.

-ooo-

Over breakfast Hermione asked about the ball, and Harry explained that it was one of several social events that he felt obligated to attend each year, this one coming on the anniversary of his final victory over Voldemort. She then wondered who he usually took to these affairs and he divulged his rotation system with young witches who’d been in the DA, and accompanied him as a favor – Katie Bell, Susan Bones, Padma Patil, and Tracey Davis.

“Not Cho Chang?” Hermione wondered. Harry shook his head with a grimace.

“She was actually my date to the first one, but I quickly found out that she was expecting more out of it than I intended,” he informed her. “She was still hoping we’d become romantically involved.”

“You never did say how things turned out with her during your fifth year,” Hermione reminded him.

Harry shook his head again. “It didn’t work out,” he revealed. “I asked her out on two Hogsmeade weekends, the first one being on Valentine’s Day. Actually, on that one she hinted about it until I figured it out. But both times she got sick on that Saturday morning right before we were supposed to go.” Hermione’s eyebrows rose in suspicion and Harry nodded.

“I found out later that each time Ginny had slipped her one of Fred and George’s products that made you violently ill – they intended them for students who wanted to skive off class,” he explained. “After the second time Cho got gun-shy; she figured that the twins were in on it too – they weren’t really – and no one wanted to go up against them, so she backed off. She still gave me longing looks during DA meetings, but whenever I approached her she said she was sorry, but she had other plans.”

Hermione declared that she had no idea that Ginny could be so devious, but Harry assured her that this was perfectly in character for the youngest Weasley. Then Hermione realized something else.

“One girl from each house,” she observed. “Is there some significance there?” Harry shook his head.

“That’s somewhat of a coincidence,” he asserted. “There were more than that at the beginning, and I did try to have all four houses represented, but not specifically one each. But Hannah Abbott started dating Neville, and Daphne Greengrass’s father had ideas about making it a more ‘permanent’ arrangement. He contacted me with an offer for a betrothal contract.” Hermione gave an involuntary gasp. Harry shot her a wry grin. “I politely declined, and never asked her again. She was mortified, and apologized profusely, but there really was no other option.”

“It seems there would be more Gryffindors.” Hermione couldn’t help herself, and persisted with more questions about her ‘competition’. She was trying to recall what these girls looked like at twelve or thirteen, and then extrapolate to how attractive they might be at the present time. Naturally, she’d known Katie the best, and was aware that the former Gryffindor chaser was good-looking and athletic. Padma, of course, was Parvati’s twin, and like her sister was considered one of the prettiest girls in their year. She didn’t know Susan Bones very well, except she thought she remembered that the Hufflepuff had been one of the first girls in their year to start developing a figure. She recalled even less about Tracey Davis, save for the fact that she was a Slytherin.

Harry shrugged. “Katie’s really the only girl in the year ahead of us that I got to know well. In our year there were only Lavender and Parvati at the end, and I already told you Lavender is with Ron and Parvati is with Seamus. Ginny made certain I never got close to any other girls in her year or lower.”

“And Ginny wouldn’t have been an option.” It was half question/half declaration. Harry only scowled and shook his head. Hermione would have liked to hear more explanation of the current state of his relationship with not only her, but the rest of the Weasley family, but refrained from pressing the issue. She then decided to drop the line of questioning altogether, but resolved to learn as much about these other four girls as she could.

When they finished eating and began discussing their plans for the day, Harry had an inspiration, and realized that he could accomplish several useful things with one trip. “I think it’s time we paid a visit to Diagon Alley,” he decided.

-ooo-

It was an eye-opening experience for Hermione. She knew that the populace of the wizarding world made a fuss over Harry whenever he went out in public while he was a student, but it was nothing compared to the way they treated him now. The reaction she witnessed as they made their way up the street from the Leaky Cauldron could best be described as total awe. She could feel how uncomfortable it made him, and she drew closer to him to show her support. Finally, one little girl gathered her courage and dashed forward for an autograph. Behind her, all her friends gasped and giggled, and Hermione realized that an entire generation of young witches had hopeless crushes on her best friend.

It brought back unpleasant memories of the beginning of her own second year and GilderoyLockheart. Of course, the adulation for Harry was perfectly justifiable, in contrast to that fraud! She stood back while Harry smiled reluctantly at his young admirer while he signed a slip of parchment. He also told her he looked forward to having her in his class when she came to Hogwarts, eliciting a furious blush.

When he finished, the girl scurried off to the group she’d been with and hid behind her mother, who Hermione now noticed was giving Harry an entirely different sort of look, indicating rather blatant interest of a more intimate nature. She instinctively took his arm, somewhat possessively, while they broke away from the small crowd that had formed, and entered a brightly decorated shop with the letters WWW over the door. She was caught by surprise, however, at the gasps that came from the onlookers at this simple gesture. As he held the door open for her, Harry teased that she’d probably just made the front page of the Daily Prophet. And it dawned on her that he probably wasn’t kidding!

Harry had filled her in on the details behind Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, which had been the lifelong dream of the Weasley twins, Fred and George. They’d made him a minority partner in the joke shop in return for his giving them the necessary start-up capital, and after they’d died in the war their wills had left him with fifty percent ownership. Lee Jordan, Angelina Johnson, and Alicia Spinnet had received one percent each, with the rest going to the Weasley family. So Harry effectively had a controlling interest, although he left the day to day operation of the business to Lee and his two former quidditch teammates. He’d confided to Hermione that he was gradually transferring his shares to them over time, since they were the ones doing all the work.

Once inside the store, Hermione promptly decided that ‘joke shop’ was a gross misnomer. ‘Prank emporium’ might be more accurate. Bright colors abounded, with a large section at the front of the store devoted to photographs of spectacular fireworks available for purchase. Farther back the shelves were stocked with an assortment of goods that wiggled, bounced, popped, and shrieked for attention from the browsing customers, each crying out, ‘Me! Buy me!’ Along every wall boxes were piled to the ceiling, all stamped with the WWW logo. Another section of products masqueraded as something other than what they were – trick wands, deceptive clothing, joke quills, etc.

A cluster of customers parted before them, their conversations coming to a quick halt before murmurs and whispers sprang up in their place. ‘Look, it’s Harry Potter!’ ‘He’s here!’ ‘No way! Are you sure?’ ‘Who’s with him?’ ‘Dunno.’ Finally a trio of familiar faces emerged and Harry reintroduced Hermione to Lee, Angelina, and Alicia.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that the customers made a show of going back to their shopping, yet each kept an eye and ear on Harry and Hermione. And Harry had spoken loudly enough so that everyone now was aware of her name, that she was an old friend of his, and that she was the new Muggle Studies professor at Hogwarts. She decided that it was a rather clever way to disseminate some useful information.

The two girls greeted her with hugs, taking a moment to look her over as they all noted how much they’d grown and matured since they’d last seen each other. Harry then went off with Lee and Angelina while Alicia showed Hermione around the shop. One item that caught her eye on a display near the counter was a box identified as Patented Daydream Charms , which were labeled as not being for sale to under-sixteens, presumably due to the potential ‘adult content’ of the daydreams.

“This must be extraordinary magic!” Hermione declared as she examined the fine print.

“Go ahead and try it for a few seconds,” urged Alicia. “Just use the Preview setting.” She took the pendant out of the box, made an adjustment and handed it to Hermione, who shot a quick look around the store, sat down behind the counter and slipped it around her neck.

Immediately she was transported to a deserted tropical beach, with bright sun, sand, palm trees, and gently breaking waves. She was wearing a bright blue string bikini and next to her, holding her hand and gazing at out at the water along with her, was Harry, similarly attired in a dark blue pair of swim trunks. As the dream unfolded, they turned to each other and embraced, with passion in their eyes. Then Harry reached behind her and untied the knot in her bikini top, while leaning in to kiss her …

Suddenly the vision terminated, and Hermione found herself back in the joke shop, breathing heavily, her pulse racing.

“Oh my!” was all she could manage initially. Alicia grinned.

“Which one did you get?” she inquired. “The pirate ship, the jungle, or the deserted beach?”

“The beach!” she gasped. Then, making an effort to pull herself together, she asked, “How did you ever get Harry to agree to let you use him in these things?”

Alicia’s eyes sparkled, and she leaned in closer and lowered her voice. “We don’t. It’s a generic setting. The customer’s own imagination fills in the rest.”

Hermione blushed bright red as she realized what she’d just revealed, but Alicia waved her off. “Don’t worry about it,” she explained. “More than half the witches we sell this to end up with Harry in their daydream, according to our surveys.” She laughed. “If we could guarantee he’d be in all of them, we could double or triple the price!”

Somewhat relieved, Hermione continued her tour of the premises, ending up in a back room that was obviously a workshop. There she found Harry discussing a new product under development with Lee and Angelina. He looked up when she entered and took a few moments to explain that the twins had left plenty of ideas in their notebooks, but the trick was to make them work. Hermione looked at the page they were poring over, then sat down to study it.

“We’re getting the effect we want,” Lee explained. “But we can’t control the timing. Sometimes it lasts for only a few seconds, but sometimes it stays for hours.” Hermione nodded, concentrating on a specific spell string. The level of sophistication here, combined with the daydream charm she’d just experienced, was forcing her to reevaluate her opinion of the redheaded pranksters.

“What if you add a control rune, right here?” she suggested, pointing to a line of characters. Lee looked over her shoulder and scratched his head, muttering that it might work. Then he sidled up next to Harry.

“Do we have money in the budget to hire a consultant?” he whispered loudly. “And is she available?” Harry just smiled and reached out to give Hermione’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze.

“How’s Katie doing?” he asked Angelina, seeing that Hermione wasn’t going to be able to pry herself from the journal just yet.

“Great. Puddlemere is definitely in the playoffs, so she won’t be back for at least another week,” she replied, then frowned at him. “So stop putting it off and get yourself another date for the ball,” she chided.

“I already did,” he informed her with a satisfied grin. “I’m going with Hermione.”

Three heads shot up immediately and turned to the witch in question, who’d just finished her examination of the notebook of tricks and jokes, as she rose and joined Harry at his side with a shy smile. Each of them in turn teased her about whether she knew what she was getting herself into, and commenting that she’d need her Gryffindor bravery to survive the ordeal. Alicia added a knowing look that caused Hermione’s cheeks to turn pink.

After letting them have their fun for a minute, Harry announced that it was time for them to leave. Rather than battle his way back through the crowd outside that had likely grown even larger since they’d entered the store, he led Hermione to the adjoining office. There he explained that the larger businesses in Diagon Alley had a private floo connection to Gringotts, and with a flash of green fire they found themselves in the lobby of the goblin bank.

Instead of getting in line for a teller, Harry approached one of the desks and asked to meet with Fleur Weasley. The goblin there looked up at him and scowled, then assumed a more neutral expression when he realized who it was. He gestured to a nearby door, and Harry led Hermione into what turned out to be a small conference room.

A minute later the most beautiful woman Hermione had ever seen swept into the room.

“’Arry, what brings you ’ere today?” the lovely blonde beamed at him as she embraced him and kissed him on each cheek. Hermione stiffened slightly, but managed to restrain herself, realizing that this was the French Triwizard champion that she’d read about, but more importantly who was one of Harry’s close friends. But even this subtle reaction caught the other witch’s eye, and she turned toward her expectantly.

Harry quickly introduced Hermione as an old friend and new Hogwarts professor, but Hermione could see the speculative look in Fleur’s sparkling blue eyes as she regarded the two of them. Harry either didn’t notice or chose to ignore it, and continued by asking the French witch about her family.

“We are all well, but my leetleVictoire misses her godfazzer,” she informed him with a smile.

“I was just there for her birthday,” Harry protested, but with a guilty expression on his face.

“Mon cheri, zat was three months ago,” she chided, laughing lightly as he winced and hung his head in surrender.

“So it was,” he acknowledged. “Well, it’s been busy since school ended, but I’ll try to get over there sometime one of these weeks. Tell her to pick a nice sunny day and we’ll go to the beach and find all the prettiest shells there.” Then he cocked his head back and regarded her questioningly. “As I recall, the last time I talked to her she told me she wanted a baby brother or sister,” he declared.

This time it was Fleur’s turn to be caught off balance. “Per’aps some day, but not just yet,” she responded with a blush. “But speaking of sisters, you know zat Gabrielle turned seventeen zis year. She wants to know when she can have her turn wiz you.” Harry groaned and shook his head in mock dismay. “You know zatVeela always get zere man,” Fleur teased.

“Well, then how did you end up with a loser like Bill?” Harry shot back with a smirk.

“Loser, huh?” a new voice sounded from behind them, causing Hermione to jump and turn in surprise. But Harry didn’t react, and she realized that he’d already known the older man was there, and the last taunt had been for his benefit as well. “I can still show a young upstart like you a thing or two, I’ll have you know.”

Hermione tried to keep from staring at their new companion. He was a ruggedly handsome man with the typical Weasley red hair, stylishly long and tied into a ponytail. He was also in what she supposed was the wizarding equivalent of a wheelchair – something like a sedan chair floating on a flying carpet. His legs, she noted, ended just above his knees.

“Ah, but ’Arry, when I met you, you were just a leetle boy,” Fleur sighed. She moved up next to her husband and wrapped her arms around his neck. “So zere was nozzing to keep me from falling in love wiz my Bill.” Hermione marveled at the light-hearted, almost flirty teasing that went back and forth between them, in what was an obviously well-practiced routine. It ended, finally, with them all sharing a companionable chuckle.

Harry next introduced Hermione to Bill, who regarded her thoughtfully, commenting that her name sounded familiar. She explained that she’d been good friends with Harry and Ron their first two years at Hogwarts, and the redhead grinned and now recalled that he’d heard about how brilliant she was. Harry added that she’d been the one to figure out that Slytherin’s monster was a basilisk, and its mode of travel, which helped him to find the Chamber of Secrets and know what he was up against. Bill immediately turned serious, and declared that the Weasley family was in her debt, for her part in saving Ginny’s life.

Harry promptly lightened the mood by joking that this was good because he had a favor to ask – he’d invited Hermione to accompany him to the Ministry’s Victory Ball and was hoping Fleur might be willing to take her shopping to help her pick out something to wear. Hermione shot him a look of surprise. Planning ahead was supposed to be her thing, not his, but she hadn’t even considered that aspect of the event. Of course it would require wizarding formal wear, and Fleur’s assistance would be valuable indeed.

Fleur and Bill also reacted with surprise. “An old friend, you said?” the French witch queried accusingly. “Zat was quite devious of you, ’Arry Potter.” For his part, Bill asked, just as Lee and Angelina had, if Hermione knew what she was getting into.

Hermione hesitated only briefly, then squared her shoulders and gave a firm nod. “I’m getting a pretty good idea,” she asserted. “And I think it’ll be worth it.” Harry took her hand and gave it an appreciative squeeze, smiling at her warmly.

Fleur didn’t miss any of this, and her gaze reflected her evaluation of this new player on the scene, and her potential as a partner for her good friend. Evidently, Hermione passed, because the blonde woman broke into a broad grin. “Despite your intelligence, you must ’ave been een Gryffindor,” she decided. Hermione nodded with a shy smile of her own, and Fleur continued approvingly. “A Ravenclaw would ’ave taken much longer to zink about it.”

Everyone had a good laugh from that cogent analysis and Fleur pulled Hermione aside to discuss their proposed shopping expedition. She suggested that they go to Paris as it offered two advantages – they had better fashions there than in London (her French heritage would never permit her to even consider otherwise, but Hermione agreed with her) and they would be less conspicuous (the English press would be all over them if they were spotted). Hermione unhesitatingly concurred.

After agreeing on a time and place for the women to meet on Saturday, the two professors took their leave. Instead of exiting through the main doors, Harry guided Hermione to a private passageway that Gringotts maintained for their preferred customers. They emerged in an uncrowded section of Diagon Alley and quickly made their way through the Leaky Cauldron into muggle London. A quick transfiguration of their robes and they could relax and blend into the midday throngs of the busy city.

Harry accepted Hermione’s offer to buy lunch, and after a leisurely meal at a friendly pub, she suggested that they stop in to see her parents at their dental practice. The Grangers greeted him warmly as they recalled the first (and last) time they’d met him when he was just twelve years old.

He took the opportunity to assure them that he completely understood why they’d felt it necessary to remove Hermione from Hogwarts at the end of that year. This helped relieve them of some anxiety they’d had over how he’d react to the decision that had been a source of so much stress in their family.

Then Hermione revealed her ulterior motive for the visit, when she casually inquired if her mum would like to join her on a shopping trip to Paris. Her eyes sparkled as she explained why she needed a new ball gown. Once they got over the shock, both parents couldn’t resist casting appraising glances in Harry’s direction. They were not unaware of his stature in the wizarding world, and their daughter’s eagerness to renew their former friendship.

-ooo-

That evening, to Hermione’s surprise, and slight dismay, Harry begged off on another round of his retelling of his life story, claiming a need for a break. And Hermione found herself, for the first time since she’d come back to Hogwarts, spending the night in her own bed.

It was somewhat disturbing how much that bothered her. After all, she’d been sleeping by herself for as long as she could remember – how could she have become so accustomed to sharing a bed with Harry in such a short time?

In his own room, Harry was having much the same thought. He was troubled by how much he was discovering he needed her. What if he did something to mess it up, and had to go back to the way things had been?

-ooo-

Upon awakening the next morning, Hermione found a message in her sitting room suggesting breakfast in the Great Hall at 8:00. She quickly dressed and joined Harry, and the other professors who were in the castle that day, for an amiable meal. When the owls arrived with the morning’s Daily Prophet, the pair learned that Harry’s jesting prediction had been nearly correct – a story about Harry Potter visiting Diagon Alley in the company of a new young female Hogwarts professor was on page three, not page one.

Harry joked that it was probably because they didn’t have a picture to go along with it, and predicted that there would be an interview request for her before the day was out. Hermione scoffed, but McGonagall informed her that she’d already received one!

Harry promptly announced that he intended to spend the day away from Hogwarts. Hermione was initially hurt by his seeming callousness, until McGonagall nodded her approval, explaining that if Harry was present for her interview the reporter and photographer would focus on him, not her. This way they stood a good chance of getting some publicity for their planned revision of the Muggle Studies course.

Both of them turned out to be correct. The reporter’s first question was if Professor Potter would be joining them, and her disappointment was quite evident when informed that he was not available. But she went through with the interview anyway, and politely took extensive notes on the changes they were making in the curriculum. She perked up considerably when Hermione revealed that Harry was helping her out, that the revision was his idea in the first place, and that her efforts had his full support.

Harry was back again for dinner, but once again delayed the continuation of his tale that evening, citing her need to get an early start the next morning. Hermione now suspected that she knew the reason for his reticence. He’d done something during that year that bothered him, and he was worried that she’d think less of him when she learned about it. She resolved to find a way to convince him that his fears were unfounded.

-ooo-

Hermione was amazed to learn that famous fashion houses like Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Cardin had wizarding wear subsidiaries. But rather than take her to one of these, Fleur led her into a smaller, rather exclusive looking boutique. Inside, the proprietress instantly recognized her and welcomed her warmly. Fleur introduced the two Granger women to Madame Jeanette, who had been designing clothing for her family for years.

But when Fleur indicated to the silver-haired witch that Hermione was to be her customer that day, her enthusiasm dimmed perceptibly. Hermione couldn’t really blame her; Fleur’s near perfect body, hair, and face would be a much better showcase for her product than Hermione’s rather ordinary looks. The woman promptly perked up, however, when Fleur informed her somewhat with some asperity that if they found anything suitable, their purchases that day were to go on Harry Potter’s account, as Mademoiselle Granger was going to accompany him to the next week’s Victory Ball.

Hermione began to protest about Harry paying, but Fleur whispered that he would get a very good price on whatever they bought. Hermione later learned what this really meant – Harry rarely paid for anything in the wizarding world; shopkeepers across Europe were only too happy to provide him with their wares free of charge.

She was fascinated with the magical boutique, which was far more elaborate in the way they dealt with their clients than Madame Malkin’s had ever been. She realized that this was the difference between mass produced, ready to wear everyday clothing and custom tailored, individually created formal wear. They were escorted into a fitting room, a private parlor with racks of fabric, chairs, tables and several mirrors.

There, the first step was a complex spell that mapped her body and then created a perfect dressmaker’s dummy with her exact proportions – a bit too perfect, perhaps, since it was essentially a three dimensional nude replica of her torso, including her exact skin tones and textures. At least the mannequin’s nipples weren’t hard; that would be even more embarrassing, Hermione thought. Probably because she hadn’t been either chilled or aroused when the duplication spell had been cast. After all, it was rather warm in July in Paris. As for the other … she felt her cheeks glow as she reflected that it was fortunate they hadn’t made this shopping trip right after she’d viewed that daydream charm the other day!

Seeing her discomfort, Fleur assured her that the magical construct was only temporary and would disintegrate as soon as they walked out the door, so that only the four women present in the room would ever see it unclothed.

Next, Madame Jeanette brought out large books of pictures of different styles for her to choose from. A simple wand touch and it would appear on the dummy. Likewise with the fabric samples – another wand touch instantly transfigured the gown, and the same was true for colors.

A key decision to be made was strapless or straps, V-neck, straight neck, scooped neck, etc. Hesitant, Hermione asked Fleur what she’d wear.

“Usually strapless,” she replied promptly. “Except for ze times I was pregnant or nursing.” Next to her daughter, Mrs. Granger nodded knowingly.

“How much?” she asked the blonde French witch.

“Two full cup sizes,” she replied with a smile. “Eet was ze only time in my life I really needed ze support.” (She was not small-busted by any means, but Veela were naturally firm.)

“Same here,” the muggle woman agreed, inwardly amused at having something so simple in common with the gorgeous magical being before her. “Hermione’s father thought he was in heaven.”

By now Hermione had figured out what they were talking about and was blushing furiously. Before her mother got a chance to embarrass her further by speculating on how a future pregnancy might affect her own breast size, she asked what Harry’s other escorts wore. Fleur thought for a moment.

“Some of each,” she decided. “Katie usually goes strapless. Susan’s a lot bigger and always goes wiz wide straps and a V-neckline. Tracey’s done both. And Padma often wears a sari, which ’as a scooped neck.”

“What about Cho?” Hermione wanted to know. Fleur shook her head in disgust and stepped up to the table, flipping the pages in one of the books. She found an extremely revealing strapless gown and transferred it to the dummy.

Mrs. Granger gasped. “Hermione Jane, you are not going out in public wearing that!” Hermione wholeheartedly agreed. Half of her breast would be uncovered by the barely-there creation!

“How does that even stay up?” her mother wondered.

Fleur and Hermione shared an amused glance, and answered in unison. “Magic!”

She finally settled for a gown with thin straps and a V-neckline that showed a bit more cleavage than her mum would have preferred, but that Fleur and Madame Jeanette assured her was perfectly appropriate for the occasion. (Hermione didn’t want to risk any comparison with Cho.) The fabric and color combination she selected was a light, floaty material of periwinkle blue.

Just when she thought they were finished, with the ultimate mock-up of the formal gown arrayed before them for final approval, a wizard entered the dressing room, evidently summoned by Madame Jeanette. He was introduced as Jacques, another Delacour family friend who owned an exclusive jewelry store. He carefully studied the dressmaker’s creation from multiple angles, nodding several times as he looked back and forth between the mannequin and Hermione.

“Diamonds and sapphires,” he suggested eventually. “For ze necklace and ze earrings.” He traced his finger along the V-neckline of the gown and looked to the two French witches, who nodded. Then he left the room. When Hermione realized what was going on, she was aghast.

“I can’t let Harry buy something like that for me, no matter how much discount he gets!” she gasped in an aside to Fleur.

Just then Jacques returned, with a dazzling construction of silver and precious gemstones that made both Granger women’s knees go weak. While he arranged it around the dummy’s neck Fleur pulled the two protesting English women aside and explained that the jewelry would only be on loan, and this practice was customary for affairs such as these. Hermione and her mother realized that it was something like the BAFTA awards show, where designers provided their fashions to the stars in return for the publicity. (1)  Here, in this world, Harry Potter was the equivalent of royalty, and wizarding fashion trendsetters would give their wand arms for the right to outfit him and his companion.

The three women decided to take full advantage of the trip and spend the day in Paris. At one point, while her mother was in a wine and cheese shop, Hermione got the chance she was looking for to ask Fleur about her relationship with Harry. Her French companion gave a fond smile, but assured the younger witch that she held only brotherly affection for the green-eyed wizard, pointing out that Harry had been only fourteen, and small for his age, when they’d met. Hermione persisted in wondering if that might have changed as they both grew older.

But Fleur was not interested in playing ‘what if’, telling Hermione that she believed in leading the life one was gifted with, not concerning herself with one that might have been. But she took the time to explain that if she hadn’t met Harry when she did, she wouldn’t have met Bill when she did. And if she hadn’t become engaged to Bill, she wouldn’t have become reacquainted with Harry, which was when they really began to get to know and respect each other. So despite their teasing of each other, there truly was little likelihood of them ever becoming romantically involved.

Now Hermione, on the other hand, had an opportunity now that she should seize while she had the chance, Fleur claimed. She was clearly hitting it off with Harry, and she didn’t need to fret about their ‘lost years together’. Perhaps, if she had been at Hogwarts all seven years, they might have developed a brother-sister relationship and never reached this stage. It was impossible to know what might have happened – she might even have developed a romantic interest in Ron! Hermione scoffed at the possibility of that ever happening, given how their personalities clashed, but Fleur reiterated that one just did not know.

As for Harry, Fleur opined that he’d closed himself off so tightly that it would take a determined effort to get him to open up and risk a romantic relationship. His past experiences in matters of the heart had not been good. She felt that it would be up to Hermione to take the initiative if anything were to happen.

Hermione pondered what she’d learned, and made a decision. It was time.

-ooo-

Back at Hogwarts, Harry waited on the front steps of the castle. He’d done a lot of thinking the past two days, about what he really wanted in a relationship. Hermione had handled herself superbly in the pressure of their outing in Diagon Alley, better than he’d ever expected. And yet, he’d still backed off, reluctant to move things forward toward an actual romance. He’d become resigned to the fact that he’d never be able to find a woman who could look past his fame enough to really get to know him. But now, one who’d done exactly that had, as if by magic, reappeared in his life. Should he take that chance?

It was evening when she finally returned, and he went out to meet her as she walked up from the gate. She greeted him with a bright smile and a crushing hug.

“How was your shopping?” he asked eagerly. “Did you find something good?”

“Oh Harry, it was simply wonderful,” she gushed, pulling back slightly. “The gown is so amazing and …” she paused, and looked at him with shining eyes. “Thank you so much … for everything.”

And then she kissed him.

It was gentle, but firm. It was brief, and yet it seemed to linger indefinitely. It was unexpected, and yet not at all a surprise. It was a simple gesture of gratitude, but it was complex with subtle meanings and significance. It was a promise of a possible future.

When they broke apart Harry found himself at a loss for words. Hermione took his arm and led him toward the lake. “I think it’s time we continued our conversation,” she suggested gently. “Tell me about the next year.”

“It doesn’t end well,” he warned, but did not put up any resistance.

“Don’t worry,” she assured him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

-ooo-

As they walked around the lake, Harry began to fill her in on the repercussions of his incursion at the Ministry. The first thing she wanted to know was what happened to Umbridge.

“McGonagall really did a number on her,” he chortled. “She’d been keeping meticulous records all year, and remember, she’d made that deal with Rita Skeeter. As soon as the story came out that Dumbledore and I had been telling the truth all year, it was followed in the Daily Prophet by an exposé of all her misdeeds. Fudge wasn’t likely to have survived the embarrassment in any case, but that was the final nail in his coffin. She got sacked just before he was forced to resign.”

“And how about you?” Hermione asked hesitantly. “How did you cope with … everything that happened?”

“Not well,” Harry admitted, shaking his head. “I was in a funk for several weeks. I had a bit of help. First Luna talked to me while I was wandering aimlessly around Hogwarts the last week of term. Her mother had died when she was younger, so she could relate. Then later that summer I talked to Tonks for a bit. She pointed out that quite a few people were at fault, not just me, and including herself. We all had to deal with it and move on – Sirius would want us to remember him fondly and not mope around.” Hermione nodded that she understood.

“And finally, there was Fleur,” Harry added.

“Fleur? How did she come into it?” Hermione wondered.

“I ended up spending most of the summer at the Weasleys,” Harry revealed. “And she was staying there too – she’d just got engaged to Bill. She didn’t get on too well with Mrs. Weasley, Ron went into something of a daze whenever she was around, and Ginny … well, Ginny didn’t care for her at all. So she ended up spending a lot of time with me and … well, we just clicked. Probably because we both had the problem of people not being able to look past our images and see a real person inside.”

Hermione realized that she’d heard about this from Fleur’s point of view that afternoon, as Harry continued. “She had trouble making friends, too. Guys generally went all stupid around her, and girls were jealous of her, and afraid she was going to steal their guys.” He grinned at her. “What was your first reaction when you met her?”

Hermione thought a moment, then shrugged. “I think I was mostly taken aback by how beautiful she was.” She looked up at Harry and saw his grin widen.

“You also tightened your grip on my arm,” he informed her with a smirk, and she felt her face turn red in the fading sunlight. She’d hoped he hadn’t noticed that. “Don’t worry about it,” he reassured her with a squeeze of her hand. “It happens all the time with her; she’s used to it.”

“Anyway,” he continued. “She was the first girl I’d found that I could really talk to … since you’d left, I mean. But it was just my luck – she was older, already out of school, and engaged to boot. So I still didn’t have anyone like that at Hogwarts.”

“What about Luna?” Hermione suggested.

Harry’s eyes darkened a bit as he gazed out towards the western sky where the sun was approaching the horizon. “Luna was sweet, and kind, and the most loyal person you’d ever meet, but she wasn’t really someone you could talk to. With Luna you mostly listened. But not for too long at one time, because after a while you wondered about her sanity.”

He turned back to face Hermione and shook his head. “She always said things that sounded so absurd. She eventually turned any conversation into a discussion of creatures that you weren’t sure even existed, most of which were invisible. And then there were her opinions – you know those tabloid papers that specialize in farfetched conspiracies?” Hermione nodded – her parents occasionally vented about ‘those nutters’. “Well, Luna’s father published the wizarding equivalent of one of those, called The Quibbler ,” Harry revealed. He managed a small, fond smile. “She would have driven you absolutely batty.”

“So, I assume she was a Hufflepuff?” Hermione guessed. Harry shook his head.

“Nope, a Ravenclaw,” he revealed. “She was really a one of a kind.”

They continued their walk in silence for half a minute, as Hermione mentally filed this curious Luna character away in her mind. From the way Harry was reacting, she was likely yet another friend of his who he’d lost during the war. She waited patiently for him to return to his tale.

“So anyway, what I really needed at that point was someone to talk about the prophecy with,” Harry pointed out. “But just as I was getting close enough to Fleur where I felt comfortable unloading on her, the summer was over. So I never told her.” A wry smile crossed his face. “It was probably just as well – we were spending so much time together by that point that some of the Weasleys were starting to get suspicious. Ginny was particularly put out.”

His smile broadened into a grin. “And then on the last day of summer holiday Fleur gave me a kiss on the cheek, and told me that I needed to find a girlfriend that year in school,” he told her with a chuckle. “Ginny was fit to be tied. As far as she was concerned, I already had a girlfriend – her! She blew up, and she’s pretty much hated Fleur ever since. I think she still blames her to some extent for us not being together. At any rate, she still refuses to be in the same room as Fleur when the Weasleys get together.”

Hermione had come to a realization – Harry’s first criteria for getting close to a girl was that she not act like a fan-girl. Fleur had passed that test, but Ginny never did. She wondered if the redhead might have been more successful if she’d ever discovered that important fact.

Deciding to change the subject, she asked him how he’d done on his OWLs. Harry informed her that he’d received O’s in DADA, Transfiguration, and Charms thanks to the extra studying he’d done that year, and mostly E’s in the other subjects. He specifically mentioned his E in potions, saying it would become important later. That piqued her curiosity, so he next related how Dumbledore had used him to persuade an old professor to come out of retirement.

“That was rather manipulative of him,” Hermione commented disapprovingly.

“You have no idea,” Harry muttered, shaking his head.

Hermione could sense that there was more to the story. “At least you got a decent Defense instructor, though … didn’t you?” She trailed off at the dark look on Harry’s face.

“Did you notice that he never actually said it was for Defense?” he pointed out with some vexation.

“Well, what subject, then?” she wondered.

“Potions.”

“But … oh no!” she gasped, connecting the dots.

Harry nodded grimly. “I’d resolved after the fiasco at the Ministry to think things through more thoroughly and try not to make assumptions. But that was exactly what Dumbledore wanted me to do – assume Slughorn was going to take over Defense Against the Dark Arts. But he was actually the former Potions professor – it turns out both the Weasleys and my parents had him as a professor. He also liked to befriend promising or well-connected students; he had a group he called the ‘Slug Club’. That’ll come up again later in the year,” he added in an aside.

“So, after thinking about it for a bit, I asked specifically if he was going to be the Defense Professor, and Dumbledore had to admit that he’d given that job to Snape,” Harry revealed. “I didn’t react well to that at all, and it pretty much undid all the good feelings he’d generated by springing me from the Dursleys so quickly. He, of course tried to defend Snape’s teaching, and I challenged him – I bet him that I’d get a better score on my Potions OWL than I’d ever received on any of Snape’s exams. I was right, too, and he knew it. He eventually compromised by allowing us to keep the DA going as a defense study group. His only condition was that we’d open it up to more students, including Slytherins, but I might have done that anyway. I still used McGonagall’s magical oath, which she modified to be a pledge that they didn’t support Voldemort in any manner.”

He shrugged. “The Slytherins who hated me didn’t want to join under any circumstances. From our year only Daphne Greengrass and Tracey Davis ended up attending regularly. Blaise Zabini came a couple of times but then dropped out. The other seven either tacitly or overtly supported Voldemort. As it turned out, Draco already had taken the Dark Mark.”

Harry then moved on to the year itself, calling it the closest thing he ever had to a ‘normal’ year. McGonagall had made him the Gryffindor quidditch captain, which along with running the DA and Dumbledore’s promise of private lessons led him to decline her additional offer of the Prefect’s badge. He allowed that in hindsight he’d rather he’d taken the prefect position and let Ron handle quidditch – there were too many hurt feelings among players who didn’t get picked, not to mention all the second guessing when things didn’t go perfectly in every match.

He briefly described the quidditch tryouts, and the appearance of a large seventh year named Cormac McLaggen who was an aspiring keeper. He and Ron had battled to a draw, so Harry had provisionally put both on the team, declaring that whichever one was doing best in practice the week before a match would play.

As it turned out, well before the first match McClaggen had so alienated everyone on the team with his arrogant, patronizing attitude that he’d been tossed off. But Ron had felt betrayed, and his and Harry’s friendship had been further strained. Harry then disclosed that he’d consequently relied more heavily on Katie for advice on coaching the team, leading to a closer relationship with the senior member of the team.

Other noteworthy items included the new title, ‘Chosen One’ that the press had tagged him with (Hermione made appropriate murmurs of sympathy) and an unusual potions book. Harry hadn’t realized until the first day of class that Slughorn would accept an E on the Potions OWL, where Snape required an O, and so had to borrow a book when he’d suddenly found himself taking the class.

He extolled the virtues of this second-hand treasure to Hermione; how it contained notes in the margins that improved the recipes for all the potions, and also contained quite a few useful spells that the original owner had apparently created. It had even won him a prize on the first day for creating the best Draught of Living Death potion in the class – a vial of Felix Felicis potion.

“You’d have loved it!” he declared. (2)  Hermione wasn’t so sure, but kept that to herself. She did inquire about the good luck potion, but Harry just grinned and told her it would come up again later.

“So,” he concluded as they reached the far side of the lake and began the return leg. “Nothing much out of the ordinary that year, except for the annoyance of Slughorn pestering me about his Slug Club, my private lessons with Dumbledore … and oh yeah, Malfoy plotting to kill Dumbledore.”

This revelation had the intended effect, eliciting a gasp from Hermione, followed immediately by a punch on his arm. “You prat!” she chided, before sighing resignedly. “OK, tell me about Malfoy first, then the others.

Harry recounted Malfoy’s failed attempts to carry out the task that had been assigned him by Voldemort himself. The first one involved Imperiusing a student into taking a cursed necklace into Hogwarts during the first Hogsmeade weekend. As it turned out, it was Katie Bell, who Harry had invited to accompany him (taking Fleur’s advice about dating to heart). That effort had failed, but Katie had nearly died, and ended up having to go to St. Mungo’s for months to recover. Due to the seriousness of the situation, Hermione refrained from teasing him about his date.

She could not resist a few chuckles over the next episode, which started with Ron accidentally eating some love-potion laced cauldron cakes that had been given to Harry by an admirer named Romilda Vane. That hadn’t turned dangerous until after Ron had been cured by Slughorn and they’d celebrated by opening a bottle of mead he had left over from Christmas. But the beverage had been laced with poison, and Ron had been the first to drink it. Harry had saved the day again by grabbing a bezoar and shoving it down Ron’s throat.

“I don’t really see how either of those attempts could have been expected to work,” Hermione pointed out after some thought. “Especially the first one. How would the necklace even have reached Dumbledore?”

Harry shrugged. “I wondered the same thing. At the time, I thought maybe I was the target. It certainly made me think twice about asking another girl out for a while, since it had nearly gotten Katie killed. I finally concluded it was a diversion from Malfoy’s real attempt, but I never knew for certain.”

As for the Slug Club, Harry claimed that he’d mostly managed to avoid going. His first experience had been on the Hogwarts Express on the way to school, when Slughorn had invited him and Neville, along with a few other students, to join him in his compartment. Then there were weekly supper meetings. He did attend the Christmas party, taking Susan Bones as his date this time.

He confided that he’d noticed that Susan, despite being the niece of Amelia Bones, longtime head of the DMLE, had never been invited to join the Slug Club. He’d concluded that it was because Madame Bones had been murdered by Voldemort early the previous summer, and Slughorn hadn’t wanted to risk associating himself with her niece. So Harry was making a point by inviting her.

“And that was the only reason?” Hermione teased. Harry did admit that Susan was also a very nice girl, a loyal DA member, and filled out her robes rather fetchingly. Hermione allowed herself a satisfied smirk, and Harry rolled his eyes at her antics.

“And what did Ginny have to say about you dating two other girls?” she queried as her smirk grew broader. But Harry grinned back.

“Nothing, actually, except for a lot of glaring,” he responded. “See, she evidently decided on a change of tactics after Fleur’s comment. She got herself a different boyfriend, probably to make me jealous. She took up with Dean Thomas that term. So she really couldn’t complain, not out loud anyway. And Katie, since she was good friends with Fred and George, wasn’t afraid of her. Susan could take care of herself as well.”

Harry rolled his eyes as another memory came to him. “Ginny made sure that I saw her and Dean together too,” he added. “There was this one time when I came across them in a deserted corridor groping each other. Unfortunately though, at least from her perspective, Ron was with me at the time. So the two of them ended up in a blazing row while Dean and I got out of there as quick as we could.”

Hermione chuckled. “OK, back to the Slug Club,” she decided.

Harry shrugged. “Not much more to tell,” he declared. “Except that Malfoy was definitely not invited to join. His humiliation almost made the whole thing worth it. I had to put up with the nonsense at least a little because I needed something from Slughorn. And that brings us to the next part of the story – my so-called special lessons from Dumbledore.”

Harry spent the rest of the walk back to the castle filling Hermione in on the year-long series of meetings with the headmaster, which turned out, he noted with some disgust, to be not much more than a personal history/psychological profile of Voldemort, consisting almost entirely of viewing a lot of pensieve memories.

Hermione was horrified at his revelation of the dark lord’s soul splitting and creation of horcruxes, and even more amazed, as well as revolted, when she learned that one of them had been the diary that had caused them so much trouble back in second year.

She expressed surprise at hearing that another one, a ring, had severely injured the headmaster, blackening and withering one of his hands. But she was even more astounded that the learned old wizard, reputedly the only person Voldemort feared, hadn’t taught her friend a single spell or attack strategy during all that time!

“He did show me one thing, during our last lesson,” Harry admitted, albeit grudgingly. “I’d been getting frustrated at the same thing, so I insisted that he at least teach me the spell for detecting the things, and tell me how he’d destroyed the one in the ring.” Hermione’s eyes lit up as she turned to him, eager to hear the closely guarded secret, likely known by only one or two other people in the world.

Harry did not disappoint her. “He stabbed it with the Sword of Gryffindor.” A soundless ‘Oh my!’ formed on her lips as he explained how the enchanted blade had absorbed the destructive power of basilisk venom when he’d used it during their second year.

“Well, that was certainly worth knowing, at least,” she commented once she got her voice back.

Harry nodded solemnly. “It definitely came in handy the following year,” he agreed.

They walked along together in silence for a time before he sighed and turned to her. “And that brings us to the end of the year … the day Dumbledore died.”

Hermione’s arm entwined with his as her brown eyes locked on his green ones. “There is a particularly painful part to this, isn’t there?” she asked softly. Harry nodded, transfixed by her warm, accepting gaze. “Then wait a few minutes until we can get properly situated,” she instructed.

Harry followed her lead as they entered the castle and made their way to his quarters. There she asked him what he customarily wore to bed during the summer. His cheeks turned pink as he informed her that on warm nights it was just a pair of shorts. She nodded and told him to get ready, and she would return shortly.

When she reappeared in his room she was attired in a lightweight summer sleep set consisting of a pair of pajama shorts and a loose tank top that left a patch of bare skin showing at her waist as she raised her arms to take the hair clips out of her hair. Then she entered his bedroom and climbed into his bed, beckoning him to join her.

“What are you doing?” he asked, once he got over his astonishment at her boldness.

“Demonstrating to you that I meant it when I said I was staying with you no matter what,” she replied unhesitatingly. “You need me.”

Harry nodded and got in beside her. He stretched out on his back and she snuggled into his side as he wrapped an arm around her. He caught his breath as their bare legs intertwined, fighting to keep his thoughts on the matter at hand, which was completing the tale of sixth year. Or, at least he thought it was. This was completely uncharted territory for him, although he had to admit that the exploration of it was not at all unpleasant! Hermione waited patiently until she sensed that he was comfortable with their position, and then prompted him to continue his tale.

Hermione listened in rapt silence as Harry first revealed what Draco Malfoy’s actual plan had been – to use a linked pair of vanishing cabinets to smuggle Death Eaters into Hogwarts. He’d been using the Room of Requirement all year, right under everyone’s noses, to bring his plot to fruition, culminating on the night Harry and Dumbledore left the castle to search for a Horcrux.

Harry, though, had been suspicious that something was up, and had requested that his most trusted DA members patrol the castle to keep an eye out for whatever Malfoy was planning to do. He even passed around his bottle of Felix Felicis , and everyone had taken a sip except for Ron. At Hermione’s curious glance he chuckled and explained how he had pretended to give Ron some before the first quidditch match of the year, and Ron had performed superbly. Thus, by his fractured logic, he didn’t need any this time either. Unfortunately, Harry added as his face darkened, Ron had consequently been severely injured in the confrontation that ultimately occurred, the only one in the DA to receive more than a few scratches. It had taken him weeks to recover.

Harry next recounted his and Dumbledore’s journey to a cave by the sea, and their harrowing retrieval of a locket from a basin in the center of an underground lake teeming with inferi, made possible by Dumbledore’s willing ingestion of a vicious poison which filled his mind with visions that left him trembling in terror. And Harry’s subsequent successful side-along apparation to bring himself and a greatly weakened Dumbledore back to Hogsmeade, only to be confronted by the horrifyingspecter of the Dark Mark glowing its deathly green visage as it hovered over the Astronomy Tower.

His voice lowered almost to a whisper as he told of flying on borrowed brooms up to the tower, only to be petrified by Dumbledore and forced to watch helplessly beneath his invisibility cloak as Malfoy disarmed the headmaster, followed by more Death Eaters who burst out onto the Tower and began mocking the incapacitated but still amazingly calm and collected old wizard.

Until Snape arrived and spoke the words of the killing curse. Avada Kedavra.

Hermione fought back a sob as she felt the tension in Harry’s body, and the look of anguish on his face. Somehow, though, she was aware that as awful as that scene had been, it was not ultimately what was causing him such distress. She reached up and lightly stroked his cheek, wordlessly offering her encouragement and support. After a long moment he continued …

-oooOOOooo-

As Dumbledore’s body, like a great rag doll, toppled over the edge of the tower, Harry suddenly found himself free to move again. Acting without conscious thought, he tore off his invisibility cloak and tucked it inside his robes even as he chased after the last of the Death Eaters disappearing through the door. He had only one thought – catch Snape and Malfoy and make them pay!

Stupefy! Incarcerus!” Before the dark robed man ahead of him had even hit the floor, Harry hurtled him and raced down the stairs, summoning, catching, and snapping his wand as he ran. One down.

He emerged into a corridor that more resembled a battleground. All around him DA and Order members battled more Death Eaters. Thankful that everyone he could identify was still alive and relatively unhurt, he dodged through the chaos, throwing blasting hexes at the two largest Death Eaters as he passed through. But by now, Snape and Malfoy were almost out of sight.

He rounded another corner and just missed getting hit as a streak of red light flew past his head. Ducking back, he spotted one of his shortcuts that would take him to the Entrance Hall. Realizing that the fleeing Death Eaters would need to get outside the Hogwarts gates before they could apparate away, he cursed his lack of foresight. If he had simply grabbed one of the brooms they’d just flown up to the Astronomy Tower on a few minutes earlier, he could have easily headed them off. But that gave him another idea.

Just outside the Entrance Hall he pushed aside Ernie MacMillan and another Hufflepuff who, curious about all the noise, had wandered up from their common room, and shouted a hurried apology as he raced for the main doors. Out on the steps he caught sight of his quarry again, running across the grounds headed, as he’d suspected, for the gates. Taking careful aim, he let fly with the spell with which he was most proficient. “Expelliarmus!”

To his grim satisfaction, Draco’s wand flew from his grasp, but before Harry could summon it he was hit from behind by a bludgeoning curse and went sprawling. He quickly realized that he must have passed up some of the Death Eaters with his shortcut, and he was now in the precarious position of being in between two groups of enemies. It was time for his alternate plan.

Reaching into his robes, he gave the smaller of the two time turners he wore around his neck two quick twists, having worked out that everything that had just occurred had taken no more than twenty minutes. An instant later he found himself back in Hogsmeade.

With a smoothness born of constant practice, he whipped out his invisibility cloak and covered himself, so as not to be spotted by his previous self and Dumbledore. Then he forced himself to calm down and take a minute to think, and plan out his next series of moves.

His first priority, he decided, was to find out for certain what had happened to Dumbledore. It was possible that the killing curse had missed, and that the blast had knocked him off the edge of the tower. Unlikely, but still possible. After that, there would still be time to intercept Snape and Malfoy before they could escape. And make them pay for the unspeakable crime they’d committed!

Now resolved to a course of action, he ran through the massive gates and summoned his Firebolt, then silently streaked up toward the Astronomy Tower, staying below the level of the battlements. Once there he hovered, listening again to the end of Dumbledore’s conversation with Malfoy, and the taunts and jeers of the Death Eaters. When he heard Snape’s entrance, he moved directly below where he’d determined that Dumbledore was, and braced himself.

Avada Kedavra!

Harry clenched his teeth, his anger still threatening to overwhelm him, but a second later he caught sight of the dark shape of the headmaster’s body silhouetted against the sky, and moved to intercept it. With a jarring thump he caught it, then regained control of his broom and guided it to the ground at the base of the tower.

As he’d expected, his hopes were in vain. It had happened just like he’d witnessed the first time. Dumbledore, the greatest wizard of his generation, was dead. Carefully, he laid out his headmaster’s unmoving form and straightened his spectacles on his face. Then he looked around until he spotted the wand that Draco had sent flying off the tower with his initial disarming spell, and retrieved it.

To his surprise, it throbbed in his hand with barely suppressed power. Putting that intriguing observation temporarily aside, he remembered the horcrux that had been their original goal of the evening’s journey, and fumbled through Dumbledore’s pockets until he found it, a simple gold locket. He tucked it away in his own pocket as he heard the clamor of voices from the castle entrance. He had perhaps two, no more than three, minutes until his quarry reached the gates.

He knew he could take out Snape and Malfoy if he caught them by surprise, but wished he had some backup for the rest of the Death Eaters. Then it came to him. “Dobby!” he called out softly. The previous year the excitable house elf had soundly berated him (that is, he had scolded him in that polite, formal way that servants worldwide admonished their employers) for not taking him along to the Department of Mysteries. His elfin friend immediately appeared, having been waiting anxiously for this summoning.

Harry quickly gave him his instructions – let Snape and Malfoy go, wait until his other self was knocked down, then stop the Death Eaters behind him … by any means necessary. Dobby nodded fiercely and disappeared.

Harry next disillusioned himself and flew up and over the outer walls and toward the massive gate from the outside. Then he dismounted, still disillusioned, and got into position. What to do? If he captured the two murderers, they would likely be sent to Azkaban, but what were the chances that they would subsequently escape? With Dumbledore’s death, probably quite high. In fact, if Voldemort succeeded in taking over the Ministry, they might even be released.

A loud squawking caught his attention. It was a hippogriff, Witherwings,the one Hagrid had acquired to replace Buckbeak, and it was now attacking the fleeing pair of Slytherins. (3)  Harry made his decision. He would use Dumbledore’s wand, just in case someone thought to check his afterward. And in addition, it would be poetic justice.

-oooOOOooo-

Harry fell silent and the witch in his arms waited for a few seconds, then spoke in a soft, calm voice.

“You killed them.”

“I killed them,” he affirmed. “Cutting curses. They bled to death.”

Hermione knew that Harry desperately needed an affirmation of her support. This was what he’d been so worried about telling her. She remembered her grandfather, who had fought in World War II. He’d had to kill enemy soldiers, but he was most certainly not a bad person. She tightened her grip on Harry.

“Good,” she declared. Harry shot her a sharp look of surprise. “You were in a war, Harry,” she insisted. “That’s what soldiers have to do to the enemy.”

The look of relief on his face melted her heart. She leaned up and gave him a gentle kiss. “How can I convince you that I’m not going to leave you?” she demanded.

“You’re here right now,” Harry replied with a sigh of contentment. “That’s pretty convincing.”

Then he kissed her.

It was gentle, but firm. It was brief, and yet it seemed to linger. It was a simple gesture of gratitude, but it was filled with significance. It was a promise of a possible future.

After they broke apart she nuzzled her forehead against his cheek. “Is there anything else?” she asked.

Harry shook his head. “Not much. I told Witherwings to fly far away and not come back, so if they did think he did it, he wouldn’t be captured. I left the bodies there and went back onto the grounds, banished my Firebolt back to the quidditch locker room, and found Dobby and Hagrid standing guard over the other Death Eaters. I stunned and bound them, then went back to Dumbledore’s body. Three days later they buried him in the tomb by the lake.”

Hermione nodded and snuggled up against him. “And by the way,” he concluded, “The horcrux was a fake.” She hissed in surprise, but then relaxed. That story could wait.

She rolled onto her side, facing away from Harry, and urged him up against her back in a spooning position. Then she took his hand and pulled his arm across her stomach so that he was holding her tight, but at the same time she slid it under her top. To his amazement, she then moved it higher up, until it nestled up against the bottom of her breasts, making just the slightest contact.

Harry understood. She trusted him. She was ready to move their relationship forward. And she was allowing him to set the pace. He gave her ribs a gentle squeeze and nuzzled his mouth through her hair, laying a soft kiss on the back of her neck. Then they both closed their eyes.

Hermione felt herself warmed, not only by Harry’s cozy embrace but by an inner glow of contentment and satisfaction. She considered uttering those three special words, but there would be another time for that.

“Goodnight, Harry,” she murmured. “Sleep well.”

He already was.

xox-XOX-XOX-xox-

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Author Notes:

(1) Originally this reference was to the Academy Awards, but then I realized that in Britain they have their own movie awards – BAFTA. A quick internet check showed that they also have a ‘red carpet’ where the stars show off their gowns, being sure to mention the designer, so I changed it. As luck would have it, I also found a photo of a dress that is close to what I envisioned the infamous Cho Chang strapless gown (mentioned a few paragraphs previously) to look like. It was worn by Jennifer Lawrence at the 2011 BAFTAs (except hers evidently stayed up even without magic!).

(2) Harry never learned that Snape was the Half Blood Prince, since Hermione wasn’t around to do the research, and as is seen at the end of this chapter, there was never an opportunity for Snape to reveal his identity.

(3) Recall that in this story Buckbeak flew off on his own at the end of third year, not with Sirius. So Hagrid had to get another hippogriff. Not surprisingly, he named him Witherwings.

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