A/N: As always, a million apologies for the long break between chapters. I finished veterinary school last year and have been a full-time doc for the past 9-ish months, and this chapter has been the slow and steady process of my lunch breaks. I very much hope you enjoy it, and of course, thank you for all the wonderful reviews - they always make my day!
Chapter 50: The Calm Before
Light, somehow simultaneously soft and blinding, burst in flashes through Harry's eyelids. He breathed in, deeply, as though the light itself would flood his lungs.
He craved to open his eyes, yet his lids (his entire body, really) felt far too heavy for such a task. The heaviness was unfamiliar, but not entirely unwelcome. In fact, the added heaviness— the gentle, solid weight pressing against his chest, his neck, his thighs…
Merlin, it was delicious.
It was good and warm and safe and everything he hadn't thought he could feel again.
Then he felt the shape of lips…felt them, soft and sweet, about his face, against his neck, along his jaw, beneath his ear…
Despite the tenderness of the pressure grazing along his skin, Harry felt as if every one of his molecules were leaping at the sensation.
Brightness crept into his vision, sliver by sliver, as his eyes finally slid open.
She smiled, her hands brushing his cheeks. Haloed as she was by the soft-yet-blinding white light, sheltered as they both were in a tent of snowy sheets, her smile struck him as truly angelic.
"It's about time," she said, and bent forward to kiss him. Her brown curls fell in curtains to frame his face, and Harry's fingers found their way into their depths.
He kissed her deeply, and her fingers trailed about, palms curling around his arms, nails scraping into his chest.
Then her lips were gone from his.
She continued to smile at him, gaze gentle as her eyes wandered about his face, dark and indiscriminate as she took him in. Her hand came up once more to his face, and he felt the caress of her thumb as it slid across his cheekbone, and down to trace the curve of his mouth.
His eyes wanted to slide shut again, all the better to revel in her touch, but instead he reached out to her.
The skin of her cheek was silky against his rough palm, and she leaned into his touch, overlaying his hand with hers.
God, that smile.
He couldn't help but wonder if his own smile was evoking this sort of emotion in her. Because surely he was smiling.
She leaned forward again, and her decadent golden irises were hidden from him as she closed her eyes, pressing her forehead to his.
"Love?" he said, an endearment, a question.
"Yes," she said, a reply, an answer.
Her eyes were still shut, and Harry felt an inexplicable, terrified lurch of his heart.
"Look at me," he said. "Please."
She opened her eyes, and their gazes were held together, millimeters apart.
Their noses brushed as she adjusted her head, just barely, to kiss him.
Her mouth was soft against his, and barely pulled away as her lips parted in a whisper.
"Accept it, love."
Harry's hands were suddenly tight against her face.
"I can't," he said, and was surprised by the desperation in his voice. "No."
Hermione's eyes were sad as her gaze flitted once more about his face before settling on his emerald eyes.
"Accept it," she said again.
And then she was gone.
The thoroughness of her absence—the lack of her weight lying atop him, the disappearance of her voice, the extinguishment of the very light that had surrounded her—was suffocatingly tangible. It fell on him, thick and heavy, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't feel, the only sensation that of the sheet that fell over his face like a veil…
Harry's eyes popped open, his heart thudding like a drum in his chest.
He blinked several times as he attempted to acclimate to wakefulness, a task that proved more difficult than expected given the similarities to the dream (nightmare?) he had just emerged from.
There was no pristine sheet covering him, but rather the same old, faded afghan from last night. Morning light crept through the curtains—pleasantly dim rather than blinding.
And Hermione was indeed lying atop him, but her gaze was anxious as her fingers swept his slightly damp hair away from his forehead, her own hair wild from sleep.
"Bad dream?" she said, voice unnecessarily soft.
"I…" Harry rasped, then cleared his throat. "Not exactly."
His hands followed the curve of her shoulders to rest on the small of her back, pressing her closer.
"Better now," he said honestly.
Hermione continued to peer at him, her lower lip caught in her teeth.
Harry couldn't help but chuckle. "Why d'you look so worried? It's not as though I'm new to weird dreams."
He craned his neck slightly to peck his mouth against her lower lip, which she immediately released, her cheeks coloring slightly.
"I'm sorry," Hermione said. "It's just…I was wondering if it had to do with the Hallows. Affecting you, I mean."
Harry blinked, his gaze trailing to the pile of outerwear hiding the magical artifacts.
Hands sliding rhythmically along Hermione's back, he turned to face her again with a shrug.
"I'd honestly forgotten about them."
Hermione's eyebrows rose.
"You forgot that all three Deathly Hallows were sitting in my living room?"
Harry shrugged again, sheepish.
"Kind of…" he said, a grin creeping onto his face. His hands finally stilled on Hermione's back, and one found its way upward to tuck a particularly errant strand of hair behind her ear. He had refrained from such gestures for the past decade, and he took peculiar delight in succumbing to such a tiny act. "It didn't seem quite as important as other events from yesterday."
Hermione returned his smile.
"Yeah," Harry affirmed.
Cocking her head, she propped herself on one elbow, hand cupping her chin.
"What event might that be? I don't seem to recall anything of import occurring yesterday…"
"Maybe 'import' is too strong of a word," Harry said, kissing her arm. "Moderate interest, maybe."
Bringing her hand forward, Hermione raked her fingers lightly along his unshaven jaw.
"Mild at best," she murmured, eyes following her fingertips. "I think I might like you with a beard."
It was Harry's turn to lift his eyebrows.
"You think so, huh?" he said.
In a matter of moments, he had grasped her shoulders and, ignoring her gasp of protest, switched their position, trapping her body beneath his.
Her eyes were wide as he bent and ran his scratchy jaw along her cheek.
"You sure about that?" he teased, his mouth finding its way to her neck.
"Harry!" Hermione yelped.
"Hmm?" Harry said, lips still against her throat.
He couldn't quite make out what was said next, as it was masked by a rather inarticulate moan.
"Sorry, what was that?" Harry said. His teeth scraped along her pulse point, eliciting another mewl of pleasure.
"Not nice," Hermione bit out.
Grinning against her neck, Harry's hands wound downward, finding their way beneath the fabric of her shirt. He gripped at her sides, and her back arched to meet his hips.
"Or very nice," Harry said.
He vaguely recalled their reluctance to become 'reacquainted' the night before, but the promise of a new day and a handful of hours of sleep suddenly felt more than adequate to rekindle this barely explored area of their relationship.
Hermione gave a sigh, a mingling of frustration and approval, and pulled at Harry's collar to kiss him properly, clearly of a similar opinion.
The next moments were a whirlwind of grasping fingers and searching lips, and Hermione was quite surprised when she found herself divested of her shirt with a small pop. Harry, pleased with himself, took immediate advantage of the newly exposed skin, his mouth traveling along her bare shoulder.
"Don't you—have work?" Hermione breathed into his ear, her chest rising and falling heavily.
Harry's own chest heaved. "Out of the office more than in it these days," he managed, sitting up long enough to pull his own shirt over his head before pressing their bare torsos together once more. "They know to owl if they need me. Don't you have work?"
"I'm Deputy Head of Magical Law," Hermione said before kissing him again. When they broke apart she fixed him with a mischievous smile that redirected further bloodflow from Harry's brain. "If anything I should be concerned about the whereabouts of my Head Auror."
Harry returned her kiss, deeply, and broke away again with a smirk.
"Rest assured," he said, trailing his lips downward to slide along her clavicle, "he is working tirelessly—" he kissed the swell of her breasts—"to ensure the complete—" his hands followed the curve of her hips— "and utter—" his fingers roamed up the inside of her thigh—"satisfaction of the Deputy Head."
Hermione's next words came out as something akin to a squeak.
"Not the Head?"
Harry shook his head, and the scratchiness of his jaw caused Hermione to squirm rather delightfully beneath him.
"Bugger him, I hear Granger is on the fast track for the job."
Hermione laughed, and her hands wound into Harry's hair as he continued to kiss his way down her abdomen.
"They—they do know to owl me as well…"
Harry, despite his preoccupations, could picture Hermione's eyes fluttering shut, and his hand continued to trail up her inner thigh—
Harry and Hermione's heads both jerked towards the window.
A large brown owl, as if summoned, stood perched outside of Hermione's window, head tilted at the pair curiously.
Harry's own head plunked heavily on Hermione's stomach.
"Don't answer it," he said petulantly.
Hermione laughed as she soothingly ruffled Harry's dark locks.
"It might be important," she said.
"Or dangerous," Harry said. "Best not open it."
Pushing at Harry's shoulders, she managed to press him away from her. Her cheeks were flushed, and Harry reckoned he could map the path his lips (and thus unshaven face) had taken.
"You know as well as I do that an Auror has been checking my mail," she said. "You arranged it, after all."
She stood from the couch and glanced about for where Harry had magically discarded her shirt. When she failed to find it, she scooped up Harry's and slipped it over her head as she approached the window to unlatch it.
The owl immediately proffered its leg, not bothering to hop fully into the flat, and flew away the moment Hermione had pulled the tiny scroll from its leg.
Closing the window, Hermione turned back towards Harry as she broke the scroll's seal. Her brow furrowed while she read its contents.
"What is it?" Harry said, his tone unintentionally sharp as he noted her expression.
"It's…from Ron," she said, eyes still absorbing the words on the parchment. "He says he wants to meet me at the Ministry and talk."
She sat down next to Harry on the couch, and he peered over to read the letter as well:
I honestly still don't know what to say here. Can't say I'm not still angry, because I am. But there are things we need to talk about, just the two of us. Rose and Hugo, for one. Could you come by the department today so we can talk? Promise I'll try to listen.
The words were messily written, even by Ron's standards, and Harry could only guess at the lingering anger that had caused his hand to shake as he wrote. However, the words themselves were remarkably lacking in vitriol.
Hermione continued to stare at the parchment, frowning, and Harry ran a hand through his hair as he reread the brief missive.
"This is a good thing, right?" he said, breaking the silence as well as whatever whirlpool of thought Hermione had managed to catch herself in.
"Um…yes, I imagine so," Hermione said, fingering the edge of the letter. "It seems as though he must have cooled off a bit, at any rate."
"Faster than I expected," Harry offered.
"Yes, much faster."
As she continued to stare unseeingly at Ron's handwriting, Harry couldn't help but feel that old and all-too-familiar discomfort he had always held at the idea of his two best friends in a relationship. While he knew a large portion of this discomfort lay in his feelings for Hermione, he knew much of it also stemmed from the simple and inherent duality of a couple, a duality that by its very essence precluded the inclusion of a third—namely, himself. The irrationally and pettiness of it was not lost on Harry, but he felt it nonetheless.
"You alright?" Harry said quietly.
Hermione nodded, her lower lip captured once more in her teeth, but Harry resisted the urge to kiss her as before.
"Yes, of course," Hermione said, and Harry detected a subtle, business-like shift in her tone. "Like you said, this is…good. He's still angry, but he's open to listening to reason."
Then her features settled once more into an expression of worry.
"Hey," Harry said, extending his hand and placing it gently over Hermione's. "It's going to be okay. You're right—no surprise there—it seems like he's willing to listen to reason, and if we just lay it out—or I guess if you lay it out since he doesn't want me around—but he'll get it as long as…"
He trailed off, acutely aware that he had descended into rambling, as Hermione peered at him with shining eyes, the ghost of a smile gracing her mouth.
She crossed over a hand—the one Harry had not covered—and placed it atop his, creating a meshwork of entangled fingers.
"That's just it though, isn't it?" she said, and very suddenly leaned over to place a kiss, soft and lingering, against his mouth.
She pulled away, but her hands remained, thoroughly immersed with Harry's.
"There's not much here to do with reason, is there?"
Harry swallowed, his heart once more thudding heavily against his ribcage.
"No," he said. "Not much."
Hermione smiled, gripping Harry's hands more tightly.
Harry, still at a loss for words, cleared his throat, then nodded jerkily at Hermione.
"I've gotta say," he said, "you pull off that shirt rather well."
Hermione's smile quickly turned downward as she took in her own appearance.
"Speaking of," she said, "what did you do with my shirt?"
Harry shrugged. "Not quite sure, to be honest. I'm sure it'll turn up."
"It had better."
"Well," Harry said, reaching forward to run his fingertips over the cotton sleeves, "if you're so opposed to wearing this one, we could always take it off—"
Hermione smacked his arm away, a pink flush to her cheeks.
"Harry Potter, you are incorrigible."
"Hey," Harry said, "if anything you should owe your current wardrobe to Ron."
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "And where exactly do you get that idea from?"
"I seem to recall a definite lack of shirts mere moments ago before Ron's bloody owl showed up."
"And I seem to recall that said 'bloody owl' was nowhere to be seen when a certain someone who is not Ron vanished my own shirt."
Harry raised his hand to rub the back of his neck and grinned.
"Fair point," he said. "But come on, you have to admit that he has pretty impeccable timing when it comes to ruining the moment. Like last night."
Hermione raised an eyebrow.
"I thought we were in agreement that nothing was going to happen last night."
"That was after Ron showed up," Harry said.
"And if Ron hadn't shown up?" Hermione asked, her hooded eyes betraying the casualness of her speech.
Harry fixed her with a hooded look of his own, one he hoped conveyed exactly what would have happened the night before if Ron hadn't shown up. More than once.
Hermione seemed to have no trouble translating, as she immediately blushed and made to stand from the couch, as if suddenly very conscious of its ensnaring properties and the acts that had almost occurred there mere hours before.
Harry held fast to her hand, grinning, and pressed his lips to her palm.
"I'm…going to take a shower," Hermione said, tugging her hand weakly from his.
"Good idea," Harry said, standing as well. "Should I join you?"
Hermione immediately planted her palms against his chest and shoved him firmly back into the couch cushions. She yelped as she found herself pulled down after him.
"Harry—" she said, attempting to push aside the mane of curls that had swept into her face.
Harry immediately pressed his lips to her freshly revealed mouth, effectively cutting her off. He smiled as he broke the kiss, quite enjoying the dazed expression on her face as he finished the task of pressing away her hair.
"I know," he said, "incorrigible."
The smattering of the shower resounded in Hermione's ears as she slipped on the pale blue shirt she had arbitrarily plucked from the depths of her closet.
Her fingers deftly set to work on buttoning the blouse while her eyes roved to the steam-filled bathroom, where a still bare-chested Harry had vanished moments before. The varying pitch of the shower's stream set Hermione's brain abuzz with the water's path, the silhouette that halted the drops' progress and their subsequent trail along damp skin.
Hermione swallowed as she rose from her bed to rifle for a pair of trousers to go along with her blouse.
Get ahold of yourself, Hermione, she told herself sternly, while her heart practically bubbled with the fact that she had spent the last half-hour necking with Harry Potter like some horny teenager.
Her heart was clearly winning out over the reprimand, as her mouth was continually fighting to curl into a ridiculous smile as Hermione applied a bit of makeup.
What little understanding Ron has managed to muster in the last twelve hours will thoroughly vanish if you don't rein in that lecherous little grin, she thought, only serving to send her into a fit of giggles at her own foolishness.
She did, however, have the presence of mind to cover the unmistakable marks Harry had left along her neck, pushing aside her shower-dampened hair to better assess their extent.
Merlin, the intensity of that man.
Not that Ron had lacked intensity—far from it. Intensity in his passion for their children, in Quidditch, in their arguments.
But this level of intensity, so quiet and burning, based so much in love…this was beyond anything Hermione had ever experienced in her relationship with Ron. The level of focus, centered on her and her alone—it set her skin aflame with pleasure, her mind reeling with exhilaration.
"I'm—I'm off to the Ministry," Hermione called out, finally donning a simple pair of flats to complete her outfit.
Harry's head popped out from behind the shower curtain, water streaming from his slickened hair.
"And you still want me to drop off Hugh with Molly?" he asked, squinting at her in attempt to discern her undoubtedly blurry features. His bruised cheek stood out more prominently without his glasses.
"Yes," Hermione said, fighting the urge to enter the bathroom and kiss away the water moistening his lips. "If Ron hasn't already. I've no idea if he spent the night at Luna's."
"Alright," Harry said. His tone was reluctant. "And you'll owl me or something if you need me, yeah?"
"Of course," Hermione said.
She searched for a moment for her purse, assuming they had finished their brief conversation, before realizing that Harry was still watching her.
He blinked as she turned her gaze back towards him, and the slightest bit of color rose to his face.
"I love you," he said, almost shyly.
That was the extent of Hermione's thoughts before she was across the room, the threshold of the bathroom, and in front of the shower, thoroughly kissing Harry's watery lips, one hand wound into his slippery dark locks, and completely unmindful of the shower's spray wetting her blouse and already damp hair.
She pulled away after a brief moment, and Harry peered at her, droplets clinging to his eyelashes.
"I love you, too," she said. "Entirely."
Hermione's flats padded softly along the Ministry's marble floors as she passed the occasional witch or wizard who deigned to trudge through their work on a Sunday morning. Governmental institutions tended to stand by their 9-to-5 schedules, and wizarding governments were no exception. Even the Auror department, being rather more dependable to have consistent work through the weekends, was surprisingly empty, the only sign of life emerging from the desk assigned to Ron.
She approached his form rather slowly, overly mindful of his hunched posture as he scribbled away at a scroll. The motions of his quill were stiff, even savage, as they scraped ink along the parchment, and she was a bit hesitant to announce her presence.
Nevertheless, she cleared her throat, and the white quill (one she recognized as having been repurposed from one of Marcellus's feathers as a gift) froze upon the parchment.
Ron's face jerked up, and he blinked furiously as if Hermione had suddenly shoved a lit wand into his eyes.
"I…I got your letter," she said, rather unnecessarily she felt.
Ron took the barest moment to answer.
"Right. Glad you could make it."
His tone was as stiff as his posture had been.
"Yes," Hermione said. "I'm glad you sent it. I…" She paused, brushing a tendril of hair behind her ear. "…really didn't like the way we left things last night."
Ron nodded, a terse jerk of his chin.
Then he stood so suddenly that Hermione took a quick step back, unconsciously gripping her wand within her pocket.
"I have to take these downstairs," he said, apparently unperturbed by her reaction as he gestured towards a small stack of files at the edge of his desk. "Walk with me, we can talk along the way."
He had grabbed the files and left the office before Hermione had had the opportunity to respond, and she had to practically jog to catch up to his long-legged strides. She eventually fell into step beside him, the only sound the rather arrhythmic synchrony of their footsteps. They moved past row after row of Ministry desks, and as the silence continued, Hermione began to cast sidelong glances at Ron, becoming rather disquieted by his reticence.
And yet not a single word escaped his tightly pressed lips, even as they passed into the lift. Ron jammed one of the buttons as they entered, and then stared coldly as the golden grilles slid together.
Hermione was not quite sure what she had expected when she first read Ron's letter, but she had (perhaps a bit naively) interpreted it as a sort of olive branch, begrudgingly as it may have been offered. But there was nothing remotely peaceful about Ron—his stance, his silence, his stony gaze.
The lift began to move, and she caved.
"I…I don't know exactly what you want me to say."
Her voice was almost lost among the rattling of the lift.
"Whatever you want to," Ron answered, dismissive.
Hermione furrowed her brow.
"What I—Ron, correct me if I'm mistaken, but you asked me here."
Another lapse into silence as they continued to descend.
"And yet you don't seem particularly keen on my being here," Hermione said, becoming more irritated by the second.
Ron shook his head, his eyes forward and the muscles of his neck tightened into thick cords.
"N-no," he bit out. "I'm really not."
He had been uncivil from the moment of her arrival, since yesterday, but damn if it still didn't manage to catch her off guard. She felt the familiar pinprick of tears at her eyes and she hastily brought a fist upward to swipe them away, unwilling to give Ron the satisfaction.
"I'm not sure why I bothered, then. Clearly you aren't ready to listen, and I really said all I needed to last night."
"So why come?" Ron mused, almost to himself. "If you've already said your bit."
The lift clanged to a halt.
"Department of Mysteries," said a cool female voice.
The golden grilles slid apart, and Ron stepped onto into the windowless corridor, his movements jerky. The flames of the nearby torches flickered as he swept past.
Hermione was rather tempted to stay on the lift, allow it to carry her back upwards, Apparate straight back to her flat—to Harry.
Instead, she stepped past the golden grilles as well, stalking behind her ex-husband.
"Maybe I want to know that we can get past this," she said, her voice unnaturally loud in the quiet corridor. "Eventually. I'm not naïve enough to think that this can all be fixed with a wave of a wand and we'll go back to being chummy tomorrow."
Ron's broad back continued to march on ahead of her, alternatingly cast in light and shadow as he passed the torches. He did not seem to hear her.
"I just want to know that one day we can get back to that place, Ron," Hermione continued, her voice growing quieter and causing her footsteps to echo more loudly. "All three of us."
Hermione slowed to a halt as she noticed Ron come up short in front of the black door that led into the Department of Mysteries.
"Why d'you even care what I think?" he said suddenly, staring at the door. "You've got Harry now. The love of your life, what you've always wanted."
His voice was devoid of emotion, no hint of mocking or bitterness.
Hermione swallowed at the large lump that had settled in her throat.
"Just…because Harry and I have begun a relationship doesn't mean that I want to sacrifice ours. Or yours and Harry's."
Ron continued to stare at the black door, his red fringe standing out brilliantly against the backdrop. His neck, as tight as ever, bent low, and the box of files in his hands shook.
Then everything was still, and Ron straightened, rotating his neck more loosely as though a tendon, previously stretched tight as a piano string, had snapped.
"Pathetic," he said in a voice very much unlike his own.
Ron whirled around suddenly. He tossed the box down lightly as he took a step towards her.
"You heard me. Pathetic."
Hermione swallowed, and distantly realized that she had already pulled her wand free, fingers white-knuckled as she held it against her side.
"What exactly is so pathetic about that?" she said, her voice cautious.
Ron laughed, the sound reverberating along the walls and echoing in Hermione's ears.
"What's pathetic is that you've been at this bullshit for years—pining after each other, forced to see each other every day and act like there was nothing between you, seeing each other married to another person and pretend like it didn't kill you a bit inside every time. Fuck, having a child together! And you waste your energy giving a shit about being pals with Weasley?"
Her spell bounced harmlessly off the shield Ron—or whoever this imposter was—had managed to erect. He barely even seemed to acknowledge the spell as he stalked closer to her.
"You don't deserve it," Ron snapped.
So intent was Hermione to maintain space between herself and Ron's towering figure that she failed to see the shadows cast along the wall behind her.
Her wand shot from her hand, and Hermione felt cold terror drench what little rational thought that had been left in her mind as she whirled in time to see a dark-haired witch—Krista—snatch it from the air.
And just as rapidly Ron had grabbed her by the shoulders, shoving her roughly against the corridor wall.
"You don't deserve it," he said again. "You've wasted years being concerned about hurt feelings, broken bonds, your own shame. Too cowardly to do anything but trudge through your menial lives."
Ron's face was millimeters from her own, his blue eyes wild.
"If you aren't willing to sacrifice everything—do anything—for the person you supposedly love so much, then you are nothing and deserve nothing."
Hermione thrashed against him, shoving with all her might, but Ron wouldn't budge. He shoved his arm against her throat as he reached into his pocket, and Hermione winced as she felt a wand shoved hard against her rib cage.
And all went black.
Harry did not know how long he stood in the spray of Hermione's shower, only that it had long gone cold when he finally turned the faucet's handle.
As he stepped out, the air played briskly on his skin, and a fresh layer of gooseflesh spread over his arms.
Grabbing the deep blue towel that sat neatly on the sink (courtesy of Hermione's infallible decorum), he roughly tousled his hair of excess water and dabbed at his face—gingerly over his sore eye. Placing the towel around his waist, he then replaced his glasses on the bridge of his nose and peered at himself in the mirror.
Pale face (made even paler by the cold), an impressively dark bruise under his right eye, the haggard planes of his cheeks stippled with black prickles. Flat stomach, perhaps even bordering on concave, with more angles and bony crags to him than he had seen since he was a teenager.
Wincing, Harry raised his hand to once more rake through his wet, shaggy hair, and the rather unimpressive mirror-Harry did the same.
What did she see in him?
I love you, she had said. He could still feel her fingers on his cheek, in his hair. Entirely.
As he raised a hand to his thin face, mimicking the feel of her palm, he wondered if it was easier or harder to love someone entirely when there was so little entirety to them.
Perhaps a bit of both.
Turning away from his reflection, Harry walked into Hermione's bedroom, adjusting the towel at his waist as he went. As his eyes fell upon her bed, he couldn't help but grin as he saw his previous day's clothes folded primly on her comforter, the fresh scent of her laundering spell clinging to the air.
He fingered the folded edge of his shirt, but his hands soon wandered from the worn gray cotton to the thick, downy texture of the periwinkle comforter on Hermione's bed. Pressing down, his palm sunk towards the mattress. He took in the look of his hand against her comforter, the divot it created, and then allowed his eyes to wander up towards the headboard. The bed was characteristically meticulous, but he could discern the shallow imprint on the pillow Hermione clearly preferred.
With the barest effort he could picture her there, curled on her side, with her brown ringlets splayed across the white pillow. And, with just a little more, himself, facing her, reaching a hand towards her sleeping form to brush one of those boisterous locks away from her delicate cheek…
Distracted as he was, he barely registered the clock chiming the hour, and forced himself from his musings.
Shit, Lily was always a bit sassy when it came to his being late—a trait she had picked up rather spectacularly from her mother.
Banishing his towel back to Hermione's bathroom with a wave of his wand, he quickly pulled on his clothes. He lurched back into the living room, fell back onto the couch long enough to lace up his boots, then stood and scooped up his coat. Only when he was on the verge of Apparating did he, with an embarrassed flush, pluck up the other items resting on the chair—the Elder Wand and the Invisibility Cloak.
The former he tucked into the inside of his coat, and the latter he shrunk into a more manageable size. As he pressed it into his pocket, he recognized two things: the sharp, hard edges of the Resurrection Stone…and the soft texture of fabric.
With a frown, he tugged the item free, and his frown rather quickly turned into a smile, and a smug one at that.
Tossing Hermione's cotton nightshirt on the couch, he turned on foot and disappeared with a very familiar pop.
"And here I was thinking you'd gone and forgotten you had a daughter."
Harry glanced at the nearest clock, which declared the time as an apparently scold-inducing 9:16 am.
He frowned down at his daughter, who stood with hands on hips as she stared back at him expectantly.
"Does sixteen minutes really merit this sort of greeting?" Harry said, mimicking her posture.
Lily nodded, red hair bouncing. "Over a quarter of an hour," she said as means of an explanation.
"Fine, I'm very sorry for making you wait an entire sixteen minutes to be picked up from a sleepover with your friends," Harry said, raising his hands in surrender even as he rolled his eyes. "It was terribly thoughtless of me, and I grovel for your forgiveness."
He theatrically fell to his knees and clasped his hands together entreatingly.
Lily, eyes sparkling at her father's silly behavior (rarely seen in the last months), smiled brightly.
"I guess so," she giggled. "But only because you groveled."
"I've had a lot of practice," he said, planting a kiss on her nose. "Where's Luna?"
"Here," Luna said placidly, seeming to appear out of nowhere. "Hello, Harry. Seventeen minutes late, I see."
"Sixteen," Harry corrected.
"Ah, much more reasonable."
"I thought so," Harry said. "Lily doesn't seem to agree. I've gone and had to grovel for forgiveness."
"So I see. Excellent form."
Harry stood and gave a small bow.
"Coming from a woman who's in a relationship with Ron Weasley, I'll take that as a compliment."
Luna's smile, previously so bright, seemed to wilt.
"Yes," she said. "As you should."
Harry, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable for having brought up Ron, cleared his throat.
"Hugh around? His mum's sent me in her stead."
Luna quirked an eyebrow.
"Hermione sent you?" she asked. "Were you with her this morning? No wonder your aura is so clear today!"
Harry's face flushed brilliantly, and he cast a nervous glance at Lily. Quite like Luna, she quirked an eyebrow, although with much less comprehension than her elder.
"So where is he?" Harry said, pointedly ignoring Luna.
The wilted smile again.
"There must have been some miscommunication," she said. "Ron picked him up this morning."
"Really?" Harry said. "Hermione—I thought that he and Hermione were supposed to be meeting up at the Ministry."
Luna shook her head. "He didn't mention it, but he was behaving a bit oddly. What's he meeting with Hermione about?"
The genuine intrigue on her face let Harry know that Ron had not gone into any detail about the events of the previous night.
"Er, best let Ron tell you," Harry said. "I—we all got into a bit of a row last night. I'm sure he'll catch you up on the specifics. Just don't be surprised if we don't see much of each other for a while."
He said this last bit as good naturedly as he could manage, but Luna's hand on his shoulder seemed to indicate that he had failed quite miserably.
"It's going to be alright, you know," she said kindly. "Ronald is wonderful in so many ways, but you've always been a weak spot for him. He'll come around, you'll see. Even if Hermione is at the center of it."
Harry, having been used to Luna's unusual perceptiveness (bordering on the mystical), merely placed his hand over hers with a grateful nod.
"Thanks, Luna. Really."
Luna smiled, her blue eyes bright.
"There's no need for that. Thanks, I mean. I've only ever said what I see, even if others can't."
"Or are a bit slow at seeing it," Harry said, swallowing.
"Yes, or that."
Harry let his hand fall to his side, and Luna followed suit as Lily continued to observe their interaction in confusion.
"Well," Harry said. "Suppose Ron must have taken Hugh to Molly's. Doubt he would've dragged him along to work, let alone for this conversation with his mum."
He peered at Lily.
"Did Hugh say where he was off to, Lilypad?"
Lily shook her head.
Then her expression brightened.
"Oh! Uncle Ron did give me a present, though!"
Strangely, she dashed away from her father to where her coat hung limply on a nearby chair.
"A present?" Harry said, furrowing his brow and feeling an oddly powerful sense of dread form in the pit of his stomach.
"Yes!" Lily said excitedly, already fishing in her coat pocket. "He said not to open it until you got here."
She pulled out a small parcel, loosely wrapped in plain brown paper.
"Lily!" Harry said sharply, moving quickly towards her. "Give me—"
But Lily had already pulled the paper loose from what Harry could now see was a tiny porcelain owl.
Harry lunged, but Lily had already touched the surface of the figurine with a delicate fingertip, her eyes large with delight.
His hands grasped at the air where she had been.
She had vanished.
Hermione blearily opened her eyes and immediately became cognizant of two things.
The first was complete darkness, thoroughly consuming and unmoving no matter how many times she blinked in hopes of clearing her sight.
The second was the sensation of a wand, pressed not into her ribs as Ron's had been, but into the notch of her throat above her clavicle.
The pressure briefly increased, causing her to cough violently.
A chuckle, and the force disappeared.
"Glad you could rejoin us, Granger. It is Granger again, isn't it? Surely you wouldn't have kept Weasley."
A woman's voice.
Hermione did not bother commenting, and instead threw herself forward from her seated position. The ropes bound about her wrists immediately jerked her back into place and tightened seemingly of their own accord, biting into her skin.
She must have winced, as the woman—surely Krista—gave a laugh.
"Don't hurt yourself, now. You've always been more for brains than brawn—you won't break those."
"Go to hell," Hermione bit out, her voice raspy. The words echoed.
Krista laughed again, seeming genuinely amused.
"Someone's angry," she said.
"Let me go and you'll see just how much," Hermione hissed, jerking forward again. The magical ropes burned, seeming to feed off her fury just as Hermione fed off the pain.
"Trust me, I would love nothing more," Krista said. "But then I would kill you, and a dead Hermione Granger is, for the moment, less valuable to us than a live one. Sweet Harry's unlikely to come charging in to save a corpse."
She didn't know if it was the anger, the stinging at her wrists, or the very recent return to consciousness—likely a combination—but Hermione floundered in the haziness of her rage-laden thoughts, rendering her silent despite how desperately she wanted to curse.
Curse Krista, Dolohov, herself…
Finally after an indeterminate amount of time—seconds, minutes—in which a furious whine filled her ears, she spoke.
"Why can't you just leave us be?"
She was ashamed at the desperation in her voice, cracking and horribly palpable.
Rather than the sharp poke of a wand or the hiss of a spell, thin fingers came to either side of her temples and tugged downward. The cloth that had blindfolded her fell down, encircling her neck, and Hermione blinked in the light, dim as it was.
Krista's dark, lovely features loomed before her, an etching of lines at the corners of her eyes the only testament to the passage of time.
Her expression was grim.
"It's far too late for that now," she said.
Their brown eyes met, and for the first time Hermione could see the anger in the witch's eyes. While no more intense than Hermione's current fury, it was made considerably more profound by its all-encompassing, deep-seeded nature—an anger that pulsed through her being at every moment. Anger at whatever youthful naivety that had pushed her towards the idealism of a madman, fury at a life unfulfilled after so many years of underground existence, rage that there was no undoing the past decisions that suddenly seemed erroneous and unimportant after the retrospection demanded by time.
Hermione blinked, and Krista's expression suddenly flared.
She recognized this woman better—crazed and tethered to this mad crusade until the end, for better or worse.
"Crucio," Krista bit out.
Hermione bucked against her restraints as her body was set aflame, her very cells ripped apart, every tendon stretched to the tautest length and prepared to snap. She howled, and the sound echoed through the room, rebounding and then crashing back onto her eardrums with the ferocity of a hurricane. The very salt of the tears pouring down her cheeks burned as acid on her flesh. And just as she felt that death would be a relief, a gift—
Hermione fell limp, whimpering as she twitched with the aftershocks of the spell.
"If you dare to pity me again, Mudblood, I guarantee it will be the last thing you do."
Hermione continued to shake, barely registering her words.
"Now Krista, remember we need the Mudblood alive."
Lifting her head, which felt impossibly heavy as it lolled on her neck, Hermione looked wearily in the direction of whoever had just spoken. Her eyes, for the first time, took in the tiered stone benches surrounding her, following them upward to the man—men—that stood on the top-most tier, looking downward to where she was bound.
No, she thought, craning her neck to look further around her. Not here.
But the stone archway that she had so dreaded seeing loomed behind her, the tattered veil lapping at the edges of its crumbling façade.
She turned back to see the two men—Dolohov and the fine-featured Caius—descending towards them.
"I remember well," Krista said, petulant. "She's in one piece, isn't she?"
Dolohov did not reply, but merely crept closer, stepping onto the dais on which Hermione sat.
"This will all be over soon enough," he said.
"Is that supposed to be a comfort to me?" Hermione said weakly.
"A comfort, a warning, an inevitability—take it as you will."
Hermione allowed her head to sag once more, the denim of her jeans blurring in and out of focus.
"So I'm bait, yes?" she asked unnecessarily.
"Perceptive," Dolohov sneered. "Bait, and a messenger as well."
Hermione closed her eyes.
"I won't call him," she said.
She couldn't. She would sooner suffer the Cruciatus again—would sooner die—than summon Harry to this place.
"I imagined you might say that."
Hermione, weary and painful as she was, only vaguely registered the echoing snap of his fingers.
Doors slammed, also barely penetrating the fog of Hermione's mind.
Her eyes burst open as she flung her head upwards towards the sound of the cries, and Hermione thought she would vomit at the sight of Hugo and Lily being thrust into the room, their eyes wide with terror.
Krista's brother, Xavier, held fast to Lily by her collar as they descended the tiers, and Nakul's swarthy hand held a wicked dagger to Hugo's throat. Both children's faces were grimy with sweat and tears—Hugo's red curls were plastered to his forehead, and Lily's fell in damp tendrils around her pale face. Hermione saw that Hugo's lip was split, already badly swollen, and saw red.
"You fucking bastard," Hermione hissed. It erupted from her mouth as a sob.
The ropes burned furiously around Hermione's wrists as she fought her restraints.
"Language," Dolohov said, grinning maliciously. "There are children present."
"You should have left them out of this," Hermione bit out, still struggling. "I had been willing to let you just rot away in Azkaban—"
"As opposed to what?" Dolohov laughed. "Killing me?"
"Precisely," Hermione said, teeth gritted. "And I will enjoy nothing more."
Krista gave a delighted laugh.
"Now this Mudblood I can get behind."
Dolohov, ignoring the outburst, gave a small frown. "You'll forgive me if I find neither option appealing. Now, as we were discussing…"
He reached a thin-fingered hand into his robe, and Hermione recognized the vine wood of her wand immediately as he withdrew it from an inner pocket.
"The children are here merely as an incentive to behave yourself," he said, brandishing the wand before Hermione. "As intelligent as I've heard you are, you should realize the odds of disarming five wizards before one of us manage to harm or kill these children are slim at best."
Hermione, stricken, turned her eyes to Hugo and Lily, both of whom whimpered piteously as Nakul and Xavier suggestively tightened their respective holds on the children. A trickle of blood fell down Hugo's neck from the point of the dagger.
"If you do as we ask, they won't be harmed. I promise."
Amazingly, it was not Dolohov who had spoken, but Caius. His voice was smooth but surprisingly sincere. Hermione could not recall if she had ever heard him speak.
"Are we clear?" Dolohov said.
He held the wand, palm-up, towards her, both an offering and a challenge.
Hermione could only briefly clench her eyes shut as she let her chin fall forward in a nod.
"Excellent," Dolohov said. "Krista?"
The woman obediently waved her wand, and the restraints around Hermione fell slack. Pulling her hands forward, Hermione massaged her burnt and bloody wrists, the impressions of the ropes etched into her skin.
Dolohov continued to offer the wand, tauntingly casual, although Hermione once more saw Xavier and Nakul adjust the weapons they held to the children.
Hermione took the wand, fighting the urge to recoil as her fingers briefly brushed his skin.
"Good girl," Dolohov said. "Now, we merely wish for you to send Potter a message—a Patronus."
"Saying what?" Hermione said, her voice hollow. She could not look at Hugo or Lily again. She was ashamed and powerless and weak, even more so clutching the object that could enable their escape. To see her shame reflected back at her would be too much, and she refused to be further humiliated by the inevitable tears she would cry if she looked in their direction.
So instead she closed her eyes.
Her wand felt cold in her hands as she listened to Dolohov's words, and she wondered how on earth she could produce a single happy thought in the desolation and defeat of this moment.
Swallowing at the lump in her throat, she attempted to clear her mind in the hopes that some pleasant memory would ease like a wave into her thoughts…
And then she thought of the early hours of, impossibly to her mind, this very morning.
The first lights of dawn passing through her curtains as the remains of the fire burned low in the hearth…
Harry, solid and whole, resting beneath her, breathing deeply in his slumber…
The roughness of his cheek as she pressed her lips to the corner of his mouth…
She swallowed again, despite knowing that a tear had already escaped her eyes.
"Expecto patronum," she whispered, and opened her eyes.
A wolf, large and bright, burst from the tip of her wand. It trotted in a small circle and sat primly in front of her, its silvery tail curving around its feet as it observed her.
Dolohov gave a small clap of approval.
"Excellent," he said. "Now go on, girl…send the message…"
So she did.
The very air seemed to reverberate with the forceful crack of Harry's apparition, lingering even as he hurled himself through the Burrow's shimmering protection wards and towards the front door.
He had barely begun to pound on its surface when Mrs. Weasley appeared, looking thoroughly bewildered.
"Harry, dear, what's—"
Harry brushed past her, neck swiveling as he took in the kitchen, empty save for George. The redhead's eyebrows were near his hairline as he set down a teacup.
"Where's Ron?" Harry demanded.
"Lovely seeing you too, Harry, the family's missed you terribly of course—"
"IS RON HERE?"
Mrs. Weasley placed a hand on Harry's shoulder.
"No, dear, he's not," she said, her tone clearly meant to be conciliatory, but unable to disguise a tremor. "What's going on?"
"Hugo?" Harry asked, already knowing the answer.
"No, Harry, it's just myself and George. Arthur's tinkering in the garage. No one else has been by all morning."
Harry's hands found their way into his hair as he crouched, his head between his knees. He felt as though he may be sick at any moment.
"Fuck fuck fuck."
George had stood up now, the beginnings of terror forming in his eyes.
"Harry, what's gone on?" he insisted.
Harry shook his head, sweating despite the chill in the air.
No, this can't happen, not again, not now, not to them.
"I have to find them," was all he said aloud.
He stood, face drained of all color.
"Stay put," he said to Mrs. Weasley. "You too, George. Send your Patronuses to Bill and Percy, Charlie as well just in case. Tell them to go home if they aren't already and triple check that all of their wards are up and functioning. Send one to Hogwarts as well to collect the children. Lock them in the Room of Requirement if need be. No one's to leave until I send word."
Mrs. Weasley looked on the verge of fainting.
"Dolohov?" she whispered. "Has something happened to Ron?"
Harry could not meet her eyes.
"I'll explain everything later," he said, turning. He very much hoped that would be the case. "Everything will be fine."
He could not recall having ever lied to Mrs. Weasley so completely, when he was so uncertain of everything himself. But he could not tell the truth to them, not when she was faced with the potential loss of another son, or George another brother. Or the loss of a grandchild—
No, he couldn't think like that.
Harry left before Mrs. Weasley or George could question him further. It was unfair, he knew, to drop in and terrify them so thoroughly with no real information, but he knew he was incapable of speaking the words that echoed in his mind like a mantra.
They're gone, and it's my fault.
He had been back to the Ministry and back to Hermione's flat prior to his visit to the Burrow, casting spells and charms that he knew would do no good. Magical signatures confirming they had been there, residues of harmless charms that either would use on a daily basis in their home or office. No signs of a struggle, a fight. Ron's desk coated with typical paperwork, one parchment lined with meaningless and rambling scrawls. The half-dozen Ministry workers Harry had come across unsure if they had seen Ron or Hermione that day, coming or leaving. It had all taken maybe an hour and a quarter, and yet he felt as though a small eternity had passed since he had last seen his daughter. Despite his best efforts, the thought that it may have been for the last time thrust itself into his mind, and he bent over the side of the Weasley's little garden, brown and brittle, and vomited.
His breath steamed as he gulped at the cold air to catch his breath, his hands shaking on the wooden post. Pushing himself away from the fence, he stumbled to the gate and back through the wards surrounding the Burrow.
Hardly aware of his actions, he Apparated.
He only recognized his stupidity when he arrived at his destination and hit his knees, howling in agony. His blood fell, steaming, into the thin layer of snow, brilliantly crimson. Hissing, he tore at his shirt where a rapidly expanding spot, dark and wet, was drenching his sleeve.
A large chunk of flesh was cut cleanly away from his forearm, the vessels meant to supply the missing muscles and skin spewing bright blood—it was the first time he had ever Splinched himself.
"FUCK!" Harry barked, already feeling lightheaded and even more nauseated than before.
He shakingly pointed his wand at the wound.
"V-vulnera sanentur," he said.
It was crude, especially performed at his hands, but the flow of blood quickly eased, and his flesh began to knit itself together. The result was angry, red, and stung badly, but a vast improvement over dying from exsanguination. He briefly thought of the dittany he had stored in the Auror Department.
With the immediacy of his wound resolved, he finally glanced around, and was only superficially surprised to see the spires of Hogwarts slicing through the grey sky in the distance.
Staggering upright, he grabbed the rod iron gates and stared at the castle. It stood innocently, quietly, and seemed to mock the tumultuous emotions roiling through Harry, as well as the man he had thought he had become since leaving the school.
He could not recall, even as that recklessly bold boy who had once traversed these grounds, ever feeling so powerless.
What use was there to being an Auror, the Chosen One, the Master of Death, if he could not protect his children, his best friend, the woman he loved? It had all become some sort of cosmic joke—his impotence despite the power he wielded. All he could do was stand, Hallows weighing down his pockets, as his mind whirred uselessly, never finding enough traction to give himself a clue to the next steps he should take.
He closed his eyes, willing the voice in his head—the one that sounded rather like Hermione—to inspire him to action.
And, as though he willed it into being—
Harry's eyes flew open as he spun, wand drawn.
A bright, silver wolf, blinding against the snow, stood before him. The Patronus opened its jaws, and Hermione's clear voice once more came from its mouth.
"We are in the Department of Mysteries," she said. Her voice was sad and mechanical. "Come with the Hallows, and tell no one, or Dolohov will kill us."
Then the Patronus, with a final gleam of its silvery eyes, vanished.
Harry could not describe, even later, how the Patronus and, more importantly, the sound of Hermione's voice affected him in that moment. How it filled him like a tonic, drenching his desperation until nothing remained but an intense, tactical anger.
He stood, his jaw set as he placed the Invisibility Cloak about his neck and pulled the Elder Wand from his pocket. He placed a hand in his pocket and rolled the Resurrection Stone between his fingers as he cast a final look at Hogwarts, the wind whipping the Cloak.
Then he spun and vanished.