An: As previous, JKR has it all. *cries silently in the corner*
An2: Let's just get on with it shall we? Note, a bit of gore and decidedly unpleasant spellcasting fairly early on. The rest is more of a big emotional wrap up with a touch more unpleasantness towards the end.
Chapter Eighteen: Bittersweet Dawn
Breath shuddered into gasping lungs as Harry collapsed onto the pavestones of the castle's front gates. He felt pain shoot up his legs as the skin on his knees split open at the impact, and he hurriedly braced himself against the cold stone as he pitched forwards, his forearms taking the brunt of the sudden stop.
He felt winded and empty; a part of him was missing, a gaping void that he never knew if he could fill. He had never loved Fleur like he loved Hermione, there was no passion there. But the sense of loss he felt for his friend was profound. His emotions had been on a roller coaster those last few hours; the maze, Victor cursing him, the kidnapping, Fleur's betrayal and the subsequent rape that still left him feeling sullied, then the bond between himself and Fleur, the explanation, the graveyard, the escape, Fleur's death.
All of it had left him drained and empty, begging in his mind for Hermione's embrace. Not simply her physical presence but the mental and emotional balm of her mind. He needed to lose himself in her, to forget the pain so that he could recover, or at least to share it and lighten the load.
Harry felt his tired limbs give out and he surrendered to the pull of gravity, laying himself down clumsily against the chilly pavestones. He lay there, face down on the ground, his energy spent and the massive surge of magical energy from Fleur was rapidly leaving his veins. He struggled to hold on to it, a last reminder of her sacrifice.
His disgust at her actions welled up within him once more; he couldn't forgive her, even in death, for what she had done to him. He could feel in the back of his mind the gaping wound where their bond had been; it was painful and raw, leaking energy like a scabbed wound seeps pus and blood.
He had no idea how long he lay there, his body wracked with shivers and starts as it slowly recuperated from his ordeal. Before he could truly pull himself together though, there was a rush of warmth and suddenly she was there. He didn't hesitate even for a merest of moments as he flung himself into their bond; the one thing that still worked in his battered mind was the desire to be with her. Her loving thoughts swept around him, holding his nearly broken mind together. His last conscious thought was of thanks and love for the mate of his heart.
"Thank you Hermione."
"I love you Harry, sleep now, we can talk when you wake."
So sleep he did.
The hospital wing was dark and cold. Hermione was used to it though; she had spent many sleepless nights in the fourth floor complex in vigil over her beloved. She was currently curled around him, his arm wrapped around her in sleep and it gave her the deepest sense of warmth she could remember ever experiencing. He was here, he was safe. She let out a rattling sigh against his chest as she ran through her mind all that had happened to him.
It was torture, plain and simple really. She didn't have to do this to herself, constantly reliving everything that had happened, but there was some perverse need to keep everything fresh and raw. As if her mind needed her to be truly thankful for having the man she loved in her arms. Over Harry's chest she could see her mother and father on the next cot over; they had become exhausted quickly, unused to the sheer amount of magic in the air around the school and had needed to rest. She didn't blame them; she could remember the first few nights she had spent at Hogwarts vividly. Strange room and even stranger roommates aside, the sheer amount of energy in the air had worn her out completely.
Harry was another story altogether, she knew full well the amount of energy he had expended in his duel with Voldemort that would cause exhaustion in any ordinary wizard. But the fact that he was also going through withdrawal from the massive power surge he had received from Fleur as her last sacrifice was probably exacerbating the issue.
Gently she cupped Harry's cheek with her hand, fondly brushing her thumb over his slightly stubbly skin and smiling down at him. It was so good to have him safe, but at the same time she frowned. It was not completely the same Harry who had come back to her. She knew her Harry intimately, perfectly. He was lighter now, seemingly free of some burden upon himself despite Fleur's death and the resurrection of Voldemort.
And his appearance, however subtly, had changed. His eyes, no longer that venomous shade of green, had settled into a more striking forest hue that was far warmer than ever she could remember. And his hair, once so messy it could barely be controlled, was now laying limp on his head. It looked far longer than she could remember as well; perhaps the straightness of it was exaggerating the illusion.
If she had not been bonded to Harry she would have cried foul; this was not her man, surely it was an imposter. But the truth of the matter lay within his mind; the young man thought like Harry, had Harry's memories, his emotions, his logic, his humour; it was all sitting there, waiting to be brought forth. There was also a gaping wound in his mind that she nervously probed, a wound that was already healing, and had been rapidly all night. She estimated that it would be healed within the next few hours fully, the last remnant of Fleur Delacour.
Suddenly finding it hard to breathe as her throat closed involuntarily she let out a strangled sob before sinking forwards to rest her head against his midriff, tears falling down her cheeks to soak into the bed sheets. Everything came rushing back, her betrayal, and Harry's rape. She cried for his loss, for everything that had happened to him. She had dreamed of their wedding night, of giving themselves to each other and sealing their love.
She knew, logically speaking, and from a magical perspective, that the magically enforced rape couldn't break their bond; it would require Harry actively cheating on her to accomplish that, not that he ever would. But emotionally Hermione was battling with her own sense of jealousy, loss, betrayal, even grief over Fleur's death. It was all so confusing; one moment she was their friend, next a traitor, then a rapist, then the victim. She didn't know how to handle it and for the second time that evening broke down completely, sobbing her heart out against Harry's sleeping form.
She had no idea how long she was there, weeping into the bed sheets. But after an indeterminate amount of time she felt her hair be brushed back from her face and tucked behind her ear. Then, before she could look up to meet the person with her gaze she felt a strong set of arms wrap around her and tug her onto the bed before wrapping her closely in their embrace.
Harry was awake; she twisted in his arms to lock her eyes to his, that warm green gaze that had melted her heart previously now set it positively thrumming with joy. Unconsciously she reached out and slid her hand into his locks, running her fingers through his hair, not knowing what to say she went with the first thing that came to mind.
"You're going to need a haircut."
The rueful smile she got in return was more than she could ever ask for; it was balm to her injured soul, it was the healing that she desperately needed, it was the reassurance that everything was going to work out. They still had each other and their parents; they would make it through this, they would endure.
Deep in the valley where stood five and fifty iron stakes, embedded within the skeletons and rotting bodies of the dead, stood a man. Two figures really; one was a man, the other...he was something else. The something else, he was clad in billowing robes of blackest night, gossamer thin and yet opaque like shadows. The man next to him was clad in robes of plain black wool, simple, unassuming. They stood before one of the latest of their victims; a young woman with a four-inch-thick iron stake shoved through her chest.
Fog suffused the valley. It was thick and cloying, like a musk of death that was infused with the sickeningly sweet smell of decay. The two figures were talking, one in a low smooth voice that seemed to invite calmness, the other in a voice that begat madness and would not do for repeating. It was of course, Lord Voldemort and Tyseus Krum, otherwise known in England as Valmortis; on the continent he was known by another name entirely, but that too does not bear repeating.
The young woman was well and truly dead; her skin had the sickly pallor of death about it and her eyes, usually so bright and vibrant were lifeless and cold.
"He escaped Our clutches Valmortis. We hope We will not have to regret trusting you in the future. Still, the boy has to die."
Valmortis seemed to twitch at the mild rebuke, he was well aware that he was the reason Potter had escaped; he should have had Peter put the Veela in ropes himself, and silenced her to boot. The half-breed's plan had been obvious from the moment he had tried to reassert dominance over her; there was no magic to connect to, it was all being siphoned off by the young man at the edge of the cemetery.
"I apologise, my lord; having never performed that particular ritual before I had no idea it would so strip my enchantments of their potency." Bowing his head in shame he said slowly, "I supplicate myself to your whim, my master."
"That shall not be necessary Tyseus; in truth We could have warned you of that aspect of the ritual beforehand. In hindsight it seems foolish for Us to have trusted Pettigrew with that responsibility. In the meantime, what, Our servant, are all these hideous stakes for? We approve of the killings, most certainly, and you have been busy, but they do so horrendously mar the approach to the house of Our forebears."
Lord Voldemort's tone was flat and unconcerned, at least the most audible of his voices was. Another was shrieking the words hysterically in a completely different cadence that was just on the limit of audible speech. Another was droning them like a sermon, yet another still was muttering them over and over, rapidly and maddeningly. All these voices overlapped and the most audible often shifted, though for the moment the somewhat bored one seemed to be holding court.
Valmortis' reply was in a tone meant for the worship of gods, yet there was a mocking, humorous quality to it that seemed to be only just held in check, as if it were about to burst forth in to riotous cackling.
"My first master taught me many things, my lord. The greatest thing he taught me, however, was preparation. Watch now my master, as I bring forth the fruits of our labours! ANIMATUMMORTUS EST!"
The chanted invocation was in Latin, but underlying the incantation was a thread of speech seemingly outside of mortal comprehension and incanted in a voice that was decidedly off and out of focus. Above them the young woman's skin sloughed off in great sheets, followed unceremoniously by her flesh, which fell in great gobbets to the ground as if pulped by a great and unwieldy hammer.
Brown hair pooled at Valmortis' feet as he twisted his wand. Organs fell from the corpse's rib cage and splattered wetly on the gravel, flecks of blood and viscera lightly speckling the hem of Valmortis' robes. Over them, all that was left of the body of the once beautiful young woman, a skeleton still red with viscera, began to shuffle and creak on its perch.
Lord Voldemort watched with an alien expression as the collection of bones wrenched itself free of the stake before falling the distance to the ground. Landing lithely it stood to full height, the ribs damaged by the stake's intrusion already knitting together. Through the fog, more skeletal shapes could be seen, moving in a collective smooth gait that belied the extreme power behind the incantation to animate them.
Before long five and fifty skeletons were lined up before them in ordered ranks whole, unblemished and ready for whatever nefarious purpose they were meant for. Before the feet of the two figures was another corpse. It was the body of a strikingly beautiful young woman, her silvery blond hair splayed out on the grassy berm. Valmortis gestured to the assembled horde.
"The runic stakes have been preserving these corpses for months, imbuing them with the power of the land. Now they are ready to serve you in whatever capacity you require, my lord. There is one final thing however, that I can do to strike fear into the hearts of our foes. May I ask you for a drop of your blood my lord?"
Voldemort looked at the man askance before extending one extremely pale and long finger.
"And what would you need Our blood for, Our servant?"
Tyseus looked directly at Voldemort then, invoking the old customs of respect and honesty by doing so.
"As this Veela's pure blood was instrumental in your rebirth as a magical living being, a god among men, so can your tainted blood resurrect this magical creature into a shade of her former self; a true undead."
Voldemort's lips curled back in a demonic smile as he uttered a single word.
The morning dawned bright and the two teenage inhabitants of the hospital wing saw it in from the window sill, Harry sitting against it with Hermione leaning back in his arms happily relaxing against his toned chest. They were smiling, despite everything, despite the coming conflict, despite the loss of a friend, despite the horrors inflicted upon Harry, despite the return of their most hated foe. They were happy, they had each other. And the love they shared eclipsed the horrors to come.
It was probably not rational; it was probably not even wise to be happy in spite of it all. A certain amount of discretion would normally be advisable; a period of mourning perhaps, maybe even a healthy dose of fear. They were concerned, certainly, and well aware of the trouble to come. But since Harry had woken up they had been irrepressibly happy. Rejoicing in each other's safety and continued livelihood, they basked in their love for one another.
Together during the night they were able to push aside the hurt, the suffering, and were currently revelling in the sensations of their bond once more. The coming day was going to be hectic; they both knew this with certainty as there were questions to be answered, people to confront, memories to be shared, information to be distributed.
Dumbledore had apparently already left for London that night after getting a briefing from Hermione after she had briefly scanned Harry's memories to refresh her own and ensure she had the details. He had been in a closed session with the Wizengamot for over six hours now and she knew he was fighting to have the return of Voldemort recognized publically by the stubborn head of state. Her parents had woken briefly not ten minutes before, and immediately headed back home via floo to open their practise for the morning, promising that the two of them would meet the teens at King's Cross station the following afternoon when the Express arrived. Several minutes of intense reunion amongst the strange family had been something of an emotional experience for Harry, who had never had something of the like before after one of his adventures. Harry's voice snapped Hermione out of her musings.
"You saved me last night sweetheart."
Hermione's breath hitched, they hadn't talked about the events of last night, Harry understanding that Hermione had already shared his memories of the event so that he didn't have to relive them to bring her up to speed.
"How did I do that love?"
Harry's answer reinforced in Hermione's mind the vague thoughts she had been having lately regarding adding another layer of the official nature to their relationship.
"Every memory I had of you, I brought to the surface last night, every single one, the good, the bad, the ugly." He winked at her slyly knowing she loved the spaghetti western.
"I remembered everything about you, everything who made you, you. I brought to the fore every scrap of knowledge I had about the woman known by the name Hermione Jean Granger. I recreated you inside my mind love; you were there with me that night, as I imagined you urging me to stay sane, to stay with you, to stay alive. You're the reason I'm here today to talk about this."
"I love you Harry."
"I love you too Hermione. You think we should get breakfast now? I think Madam Pomfrey would be happy to be shot of me."
Hermione smiled, her lips twitching up in the familiar pattern she knew Harry loved. Gently easing away from his embrace she linked their hands and nodded towards the door.
"We'd best get on with it if we want to get down there before it's all gone then. Are you sure you're ready to face the rest of the school?"
She watched proudly as Harry nodded and leaned forwards to press a firm kiss on her forehead.
"Absolutely I am. I want to show Malfoy that I'm not cowed by this; he won't be able to tell his father I'm hiding, moping or broken. I'm strong so long as I have you with me, and I'll be damned if I'll let them think I'm beaten."
She reached up on her tiptoes, a recent development with his growth spurt, to press a firm kiss on the smooth unblemished skin where the most prominent physical change had taken place: The loss of his scar.
"Shall we my love?"
The Great Hall was noisy and filled with the usual crowd of chattering teenagers when Harry and Hermione wandered in. Hermione had her arm around Harry's waist subtly supporting him as he was still somewhat weak on the leg that had been filled with acromantula venom not so long before; the long-lasting paralytic and nerve inflamer was a nasty concoction that, while not fatal, was still unpleasant to deal with. Even when magically flushed the body still suffered the effects of the virulent toxins.
All fell quiet as the two meandered to their seats on the Gryffindor benches and Harry was distinctly aware of hundreds of pairs of eyes on him. Warily he grabbed a discarded Prophet from the table to see the damage and almost immediately groaned in annoyance. The Prophet was up to its usual business and had done a fantastic job of insinuating that Harry had orchestrated his inclusion in the tournament to gain even more fame. Apparently he wasn't skilled enough to win via normal methods so he had planned for the death of the other competitors to ensure his victory.
Harry felt a stab of annoyance about the article before raising an eyebrow to Hermione who shrugged.
"Fudge is refusing Dumbledore's assertion that Voldemort is back; the headmaster asked me to ask you if you'd submit a memory of the event for testimony."
Harry rolled his shoulders back to rid himself of a crick there before nodding slowly.
"I guess so, people need to know don't they? No point us all running around like headless chooks."
He was rewarded by a brief but firm kiss from his beloved before the two settled into their meal, pointedly ignoring the surrounding students. A few minutes later Fred and George sat across from them, not saying anything but not staring at them either, their support clear. Neville sat on Harry's right a few moments later and nodded to him.
Harry couldn't help but feel a rush of gratitude to the three young men who were obvious in their steadfast support of him, not to mention Hermione who had stood by his side year long. Bitterly, Harry remembered the beginning of the year and his insertion into the tournament against his will, and the circumstances surrounding it. He supposed people in general must have short memories if they had already forgotten that Harry had been incapacitated during the time where people could submit their names to the Goblet of Fire.
A thought struck him and he turned back to Hermione with a grim expression. "The article claims I'm the only surviving member of the tournament, what happened to Krum?"
Harry watched with concern as Hermione blanched.
"He committed suicide last night."
Harry felt bile rise in his throat as he desperately tried to shove those thoughts from his mind. There was no need to mull that over. Apparently Hermione had noticed his thoughts and slid her arm around his waist again before kissing his cheek softly.
"Don't think now love, just eat your breakfast and we'll retire to your rooms. Classes have been cancelled and we'll be going home on the Express tomorrow morning."
Harry leaned into her embrace as he chewed a mouthful of eggs. Swallowing he asked with a touch of amusement, "What about exams? Surely we still need to get that out of the way, right love?"
Hermione shot him an amused glare before replying., "Our scores are being approximated based on our previous achievements during the year. As they aren't OWLs or NEWTs it isn't essential that we actually sit them."
Harry smirked before turning his head to whisper in her ear, "But you'd still rather be taking them right?"
Grinning Hermione turned to him and pressed another firm kiss to his lips which he relished for the short moments they were joined.
"Honestly I'd rather be spending the time with you."
Harry couldn't have been happier as they returned to their room.
Hermione could feel Harry retreating back into his shell as they sat in front of the fire in the champions' suite, wearing a pair of warm trousers and a simple button down shirt, their robes hanging in their room; Hermione was wearing a skirt and blouse. The stress of the year had dissipated and Harry was watching the flames with an expression Hermione knew well. He was being reminded of the fact that only he remained of the four people who had been officially sharing these five rooms. Cedric's bedroom door had disappeared months ago when his family had reclaimed his effects. But Fleur and Krum's rooms still existed, filled with all too present reminders of the young woman and the young man who had been living there.
Despite the fact that Victor had been under the Imperius all year and Fleur had been, albeit inadvertently, a traitor, Hermione knew that Harry had formed real bonds with those two and his brief if stiff friendship with Cedric had been a hard thing for him to let go. She knew full well that Harry was still grieving for Fleur; she had been a real and true friend to them all year. Despite the machinations behind the relationship she had shared with the two younger teens she had still been there for them as a friend and confidant.
Hermione knew she wasn't ready to grieve for Fleur yet. Too much was riding on the Veela's shoulders; too many events still clouded Hermione's memory of the witch. Harry on the other hand had been bonded to her, however briefly, and Hermione knew from experience what such a link would have entailed. Harry would be going through the full effects of grief for someone he had shared the most intimate of links with, physically and emotionally.
Hermione felt a tear roll down her cheek as she considered that, whatever the circumstances, Harry had lost his virginity to the French Veela; had lost something that he had been saving for Hermione, for their wedding night. Dimly she was aware of Harry's arms slipping around her waist and cuddling her close to him as she sobbed into his shirt. They stayed there, silent but emotional for several moments as Hermione purged this latest affliction from her soul.
She gasped in surprise as she felt Harry's mind sweep through her own, blowing away her sadness in a hurricane of love and devotion. She became aware of his breath brushing over her lips as he bent down to her, fisting her hands in his shirt she begged him in their minds to close the distance. She gasped against his lips as he obliged, plunging them both into a passionate kiss. There was no sense of dominance between them; Hermione gave as well as she got and they surrendered to each other equally, reaffirming their love for one another.
She gasped as they parted, panting under her breath and as she locked gazes with Harry, her eyes fluttering open, she saw within him the same love and devotion that she felt welling up within herself for him. Throwing herself into his arms she clung to him, desperate for confirmation of his safety, his love.
"I nearly lost you last night my love."
The words were abrupt and clipped, a sign of Hermione's deep emotions. "When you disappeared from that maze, when I lost all contact to you…it was terrifying, I had no idea where you were, if I would ever see you again, be held by you, feel your mind with my own. I was desperate for any news, any news at all. I fell apart Harry."
She felt his arms cinch around her with the firm loving grip that she so adored. Sighing softly she sank into his embrace, taking comfort in the warmth of his form.
Hours passed slowly as the two teens talked quietly about what had happened in the last day or so, finding it to be something of a purging experience for them both; they shared their love as Harry flushed the poison of grief from his system. Hermione raised several questions, some of which Harry could answer, some he couldn't; the biggest one was wondering why they would give Fleur a portkey to be free. Harry's reply shot her through with worry.
"I don't think they expected their bonds on Fleur to break when the ritual was performed. I think they were going to make her a sort of spy, breaking her Veela nature when I died so that they could lock her under the Imperius. I don't know of course; who knows if they could even do that. But I guess it's possible."
Hermione frowned at Harry's hesitant assertion. It was by no means a certainty, but at the same time it wasn't too far-fetched; nothing was really after the previous night. They had migrated back into their chambers at some point in the discussion and Hermione sat nestled between Harry's legs leaning against his chest with his arms looped around her waist in a possessive manner that sent warm tingles through her midriff every time they shifted. Her hands rested on his arms, tracing little circles on his hands or stroking his forearms tenderly. She sat there, cuddled up against him, for several moments as she considered his words. Eventually she shrugged.
"I don't think there's much use in speculation at this point love. We just have to be ready for when things hit the fan, as I'm sure they will soon enough. You and I both know full well that there's something no one is telling us, some reason he went after you when you were just a little boy. It's the reason he's going to come after you again, and I'll be damned if you're unprepared when he does. I need you mister."
She twisted in his arms slightly to fix him with a concerned look. "Without Fleur you had no chance against him, love. I know it's hard to get your head around but there has to be something we can do to prepare you; training, some equivalent of magical weightlifting, you know?"
She watched as a pall fell over his expression countenance and her expression softened further as she stroked his cheek tenderly with one hand.
"I don't mean to make you less than you are, love; you're a wonderful man, and a powerful wizard. But that faceless bastard isn't even human; there's no shame in admitting you need help."
Harry's head dropped down at that, his shoulders slumping slightly as he pressed his forehead against hers, looking into her eyes. The rough tone of his voice gave truth to his words.
"It was the most terrifying experience I've ever had. There was nothing between him and me except that tenuous veil of magic, nothing between me and the grave but sheer instinct. I don't think I could tell you what spells I cast or sorcels I used from moment to moment. What I can tell you is that he is truly inhuman, he didn't ever bother to dodge a single attack of mine; he parried absolutely everything by batting the spells and sorcels to the sides. The only thing I can be proud of is that he never overran any of my attacks. I was holding my own. But even then the only reason I could do so was because of Fleur's power and her casting through my own wand."
Hermione breathed deeply of his scent, taking stock of the situation before letting out a long breath. Briefly closing her eyes before opening them again to centre herself she made her own statement.
"You have one more thing to be proud of, you stood up to him. You fought him to a standstill. Fleur or no Fleur that was you; Fleur gave you endurance certainly, and maybe sped up your own casting by increasing the casts per second you could produce . But nothing that came out of that wand of yours was anything more than you can achieve, my love. You are a sorcerer, a powerful wizard. You've got more power locked within that beautiful body of yours than anyone I've ever read about. You just have to train, learn, and above all, live. You have to if only so that you have something to come home to, a reason to fight him, a reason to live."
She felt her breath catch in her throat once more as Harry's eyes did that smouldering thing that was just so unfair.
"I already have something to come home to, my love; you. Mum and dad, our future together. All of it is there for me to drive me not just to beat this, but to win."
Grinning Hermione leaned forward and captured his lips for a loving but chaste kiss.
"Then we'll just have to get you some help so that you can, right? Do you think Professor Moody might be willing to tutor you?"
"We can only but hope."
Harry knew full well that he should feel more broken by what had happened the previous night; he should be inconsolable, broken even, by the loss of his friend, his rape, the return of his enemy. But Hermione, bless her soul, refused to let him fall into that despair. She took him down to Moody's office; they requested, and were given promise of, help over the summer. She then took him down to the lake and kissed him till he couldn't tell up from down.
They avoided Dumbledore. The idea of being within arm's reach of the headmaster was one that brought up a boiling pit of anger within Harry; one that he knew would spill over into violence if it wasn't contained. How could all of this have happened within Dumbledore's purview? How could the sprites have gotten into the lake? The device planted in the dragon's cornucopia, the events in the maze? How could any of it have happened?
When he raised these questions to Hermione she added one to the stack that he hadn't considered; how could he have allowed Harry's name to be placed in the Goblet of Fire? Harry had no idea how it could have happened; he was sure that Krum's older brother could have easily accomplished the feat, being taught by Grindlewald was sure to have given the man a few tricks. But how could Dumbledore have let it happen?
Everything had come back to Harry in those hours; the years of abuse and torment, the painful scars that refused to heal completely on his back. The welts on his wrists where he had been tied to the doorframe were especially raw as they had been reopened by the manacles on his wrists the previous night. The terrors he had faced in his first and second years, the dementors, arguably a greater terror in and of themselves. All of it fell squarely on Dumbledore's shoulders and for the first time in months Harry was angry, not just at the aged headmaster but at the system that had allowed him to gain so much power.
Why was it that one man could hold the highest office of power in the judiciary system, the International Confederation of Wizards, and be the headmaster of a school all at the same time? There was something horrifically wrong going on in the wizarding world; the prejudice against Muggle-raised students, muggleborns and halfblood alike. It wasn't just in the schools either; the social stigma against them that had been written into law. It was all a sick twisted power trip for the purebloods and Harry was adamant that if given half a chance he would set things to rights.
Once again Harry was reminded of the conversation he and Hermione had had earlier in the year about leaving all of thisthe magical world behind and living as Muggles; never before had that been so appealing. And yet he knew, in the pit of his very being, that even if he ran from this world, it would still find him, still torture him and his family with pain and torment for years to come. No, running was not the answer. Voldemort was a bully, far removed from schoolyard hijinks, but a bully nonetheless, and bullies do not back down when given submission; no, they feed on such things. The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to one. And Harry knew that one day, he would have to stand on his own two feet against this threat.
It was a good thing he made that decision, because it would be all too soon that things would come to a head.
The day had worn on and the school was getting ready to head home. Gryffindor tower was especially quiet and Hermione couldn't remember a time when it was so subdued. Harry and Hermione had decided to spend their last night in the tower, socializing with those of their house. They would sleep together in Harry's room that night, and in the morning they would go home.
Currently Hermione and her beau were sitting on one of the squashy couches in the common room, surrounded by friends; Neville, the twins and their friend Lee, Seamus, Lavender, Parvarti, the rest of the Quidditch team and several more people who they had formed loose bonds with over the years. Hermione was amazed that so many were still loyal to Harry. The Hufflepuffs had finally shown their true colours and had offered their support.
Many of the Ravenclaws had pointed out that they knew full well Harry hadn't entered himself in the tournament and that he wasn't worldly enough to orchestrate such a scheme as to murder three other young men and women. Tracy and Daphne had each given the young Gryffindor a hug out near the lake with Hermione watching on, tearfully reminding him that not all in silver and green were callous and cruel. Hermione had been particularly surprised by this; however, it seemed that those two in particular had been harbouring crushes on Harry for a long time and had beseeched Hermione to keep him safe.
From beside her Harry spoke softly through the silence surrounding them, breaking her out of her reverie as he was so prone to doing. Briefly she scanned his mind and approved of his coming words.
"This is the beginning. It is a beginning of something far greater than any of us have ever seen. Powerful implacable forces are moving, terror is rising all around us. Threats will lurk in the shadows, waiting for us to step out of line so that they can strike. This year Professor Moody taught us how to defend ourselves, us Gryffindors; we've been some of the most receptive to his teachings, maybe me more than others, but I've seen huge strides from all of you."
Hermione felt herself swelling with pride for her man as he looked around the room, all eyes now on him. Each person he locked gazes with, held the challenge.
"This isn't a game any longer; it's not just classwork, it isn't even about OWLs and NEWTs. From now on this is about survival; it's about keeping ourselves safe, our families safe. It's about showing the shadows around us that even in the darkest of times there can be light. Next year I'm going to be practising every day, sorcery, spell-weaving, enchantment, defensive magic. Anyone who wants to join me is welcome, and from the darkness we'll come out from this in one piece. I'll be offering the same to the other houses. Unity, in the face of all that is before us, is far more valuable than house pride."
He took a breath and Hermione squeezed his hand in tacit support. She knew how desperately he hated the spotlight and how hard this must be for him.
"From now on you aren't my housemates. You're not my classmates, or roommates, or even just friends. Everyone who stands with me is my brother, or my sister. And into this darkness we shall march with heads held high, because we'll be ready for what's coming. Have a good holiday, all of you, and for those who want to join me, I'll see you first Saturday back from summer break in the champions' quarters. I've been experimenting and it seems it has a lot more to offer to us than just a place to sleep. Spread the word, Hogwarts is united again."
The night was cold, unseasonably so for summer. Harry wondered mildly if there was a malfunctioning cooling charm on the entire castle as despite the mid-day sun the castle was as chilly as ever when the sun went down. He and Hermione were curled up together in Harry's bed in the champions' quarters; he wasn't sure he would ever go back to Gryffindor tower, as this place had something of a homey feel to it now. He wondered idly how many others would take permanent lodgings in the seemingly limitless room.
He wasn't going to be able to sleep. He was comfortable certainly; despite the cold; the bed was warm and having Hermione's warm, soft body curled against his own was more than he could ever need to keep the cold at bay. He wasn't alone either; Hermione's eyes shone in the moonlight that still filtered through the one window the room had. Where that window was situated on the castle walls Harry would never be able to say; he had a feeling the room in which they resided was more magical than material and thus didn't follow the usual laws of matter.
He was laying on his back, his head propped up on a couple of pillows with Hermione's own head on his chest, one hand playing idly over his bare chest under the covers, her thigh hitched up over his waist. There was nothing sexual about their repose, although Harry was privately looking forward to spending time with his beloved back in their home at Oxford, naked time. Rather, their current situation was one of contemplation and deep thought, understanding and the baring of souls that only occurs in the wee hours betwixt midnight and the dawn. The train would be a fantastic place to get sleep tomorrow; there was no need to hurry to the realm of Morpheus tonight.
In the darkness of the cosy room Hermione's voice cut through the stillness. "I love you Harry, truly and without reserve. You are everything to me, sweetheart; you're the man I want to marry someday, nay, the man I will marry someday. My life is yours to share."
Tears silently tracked down Harry's cheeks as the full impact of Hermione's words hit home, and the implications, both explicit and implied. She was promising herself to him, to stand by his side in even the darkest of times, never to be separate from him again. It was the best thing she possibly could have given him as a gift, that assurance of unending loyalty.
She wasn't done yet though. "I'm going to be your wife one day Harry, I'm going to be the mother of your children, the partner of your life and the equal head of your family alongside you. And nothing, not Voldemort, not Valmortis, not Albus sodding Dumbledore, can take me from you. You're safe my love."
And that was the crux of the matter, till those words Harry had been on edge, feeling the keen bite of the manacles, the horrific, traitorous warmth of Fleur's betrayal, the terror of facing an inhuman machine of magic and flesh made material. But here, behind the formidable wards of Hogwarts, in a room dedicated to his protection, in the arms of his one and only love, he was safe. His hand came up from its perch on the small of Hermione's back to clasp her shoulder to him firmly.
"I love you too Hermione."
He had no other words, no affirmations of loyalty or dedication that he could offer her; he was spent from the inside out and his very nature was exposed to her. He could only surrender himself utterly in the face of that unwavering love and beg for succour against the darkness. Somehow he was sure that she understood; in those five words he was sure that he somehow conveyed the length, depth and breadth of his feelings for her.
He was a humble spirit, not intentionally and took no especial pleasure from being such, but he was humble, and he was true. Never had he lied to his beloved, and never would he. Never would he shy away from her because she was all he could ever desire and hope for, let alone dream of having to himself. He was however possessive, dependent, and jealous; slow to anger, and slow to cool. His mind was built to form undying connections, love that never ceased, grudges that never waned, fury that never abated. He was human, flawed and weak like any other, but strong in his convictions, strong in his faith, both in his love and in his burgeoning relationship with a higher power.
That was the man Hermione had fallen in love with; a flawed, broken and fractured human being that she had pledged to help make whole again. And she knew him inside and out. There were no words needed for such times, because she already knew everything he could ever say to her; his whole being was open to her scrutiny, and never, not once, had she found him wanting.
That, more than anything gave Harry hope that he and the woman wrapped in his protective arms would survive the coming conflict.
"Where am I?"
Those three words echoed around the sunken dungeon like plaintive cries for help. They were confused and without direction, as if asked on instinct rather than true curiosity.
"Who am I?"
Those words were more definite, asked with a distinct note of fear, even terror, as if the answer to such a question would define the entire being of the questioner's character, would define the entire scope of their being. And somehow the supplicant knew that the answer would not be to their liking.
The voice was high pitched on the first request, but soft, a woman's voice. Despite this inherent fragility there was hardness to it, a note of pure iron that carried the day. On the second questioning however there was a distinct tone of sharpness; under all that worry, fear, and terror, there was a defiance, as if daring the answerer to give an unsatisfactory reply. Once more the voice rang out. This time there was true power in it, an unwavering demand that echoed coldly through the ill-defined space.
"Answer me, now."
The reply came from a voice equally high-pitched, yet sterner, harder; the voice of a man, poorly accented and cold.
"You are where you are supposed to be. Where you are meant to be, where you were born to be."
"Tell me more."
The request was inquisitive; now that it had a willing provider the source hungered for more knowledge to fill the gaping holes in its mind. The reply however was equally cold, distant and uncooperative as it had been before.
"You are where you are supposed to be. Where you are meant to be, where you were born to be."
Chains rattled, the source sought to move, to seek out the source of the voice and request a deeper explanation.
"Tell me more!"
The voice was no longer requesting, it was demanding, ordering even. Yet the response came again, measured and precise, cold and distant, high pitched and unfeeling.
"You are where you are supposed to be. Where you are meant to be, where you were born to be."
Hours passed, questions asked, and answered with the same measured response. In the corner of the cold cell-like dungeon a naked woman curled up against the wall, her skin a pale white, hair a mottled silvery grey, eyes pitch black, and teeth like razor sharp needles. No light entered the chamber, and for that the body was thankful; it didn't really have a concept of light, but when the word skittered through its wretched mind the creature shied away from it instinctively.
Had there been light, however, an observer would have seen a waif of a woman, eerily beautiful like a crow seen in the light of the moon on a cloudless night. Or crimson blood on purest virgin snow. The questions devolved into screams, then tears, and sobbing; eventually there was only silence from her, and yet the voice kept repeating in the same measured tone, that same sentence. Two words finally came from the pale imitation of a woman.
The reply was long in coming, but when it did come the woman sighed in relief, pleasure even at finally making progress.
"Good girl. Do you remember your name now?"
The woman frowned, thinking hard, eventually she said quietly, "No"
Five final words split the silence before it returned for a much longer time.
"Good, your name is Epine."
When at last Epine responded, it was with a quiet reverence that belied her thankfulness to the speaker.
"Why am I here?"
The final words that came from her mouth would have chilled the heart of any man; they were so filled with reverence and joy that it was unnatural.
The morning held a couple of surprises for the two teen; initially the biggest surprise was the arrival of Professor Dumbledore in their rooms after breakfast. Harry had nearly flown off the handle and attacked their illustrious headmaster there and then for everything that had happened. The only reason Hermione didn't join him was that she knew there had to be at least one of them in control to keep the other in line; she supposed today was her turn.
When Harry had calmed down and stopped throwing things, there had been a very frank discussion between the three of them about what had transpired in the maze and afterwards. Harry had given Dumbledore a memory of the events as evidence for the Wizengamot to try and sway public opinion and Dumbledore had revealed one final piece of information that had nigh on crippled Harry for some time.
He was destined to fight that monster. A prophecy had dictated since before he was even born that he would be the one to kill the Dark Lord, or be killed by him. It had been a hard pill to swallow and he had been insensate for many minutes afterwards. Dumbledore had left them at that point, promising to keep in touch over the holidays in respect to their summer training.
He never did mention why he had told them about the prophecy then, or even at all. But Hermione strongly suspected it was because his many mistakes were coming home to roost and the aging Headmaster was doing his best to mitigate any further damage that could occur. Not to mention prepare Harry for the coming events in his life.
The other surprise had come in the form of Fudge, who briefly appeared to hand Harry his winnings; the irony being that the same magic that had Harry bound into the tournament bound Fudge to pay Harry his winnings for the event despite the assumed circumstances of his victory. In a moment Hermione couldn't have scripted, Harry turned from the Minister and awkwardly pushed the sack of gold into the hands of the nearest person, unwilling to accept the reward. That person happened to be Fred Weasley, whose plans for the money, alongside those of his twin, would become legendary.
Emma Granger felt like her heart could burst as she held her adopted son in her arms. He had been through so much; torture, rape, betrayal, battle, injury, loss, it boggled her mind. But here he was, unyielding in spite of the difficulties of his life, unbending against the tide of dire suffering. And at his side was Hermione; Emma couldn't have been more proud of them both and planned to make sure they were reminded of just how proud she and Dan were of the pair each day.
Now that she had them back, part of Emma never wanted to let them go again; the school was dangerous, they hadn't had a single year without incident and she highly doubted that was going to stop any time soon. She wasn't sure of the exact details of what happened that night after the third task, but she knew something terrible had happened and there was something deeper hanging over the teens. She had a feeling that there would be many more difficult discussions in the near future, but for now, Harry needed her, and she would be damned if she wasn't there for him every step of the way.
The teens had found Emma sitting a fair distance from the portal to Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters; she loathed being in the rush of students to suddenly erupt from the portal come time for them to head home. Hermione was confident with the station regardless, and they had an established meeting location to rendezvous before heading to the car for home. As Harry gently pulled away from her she held his shoulders warmly and looked into his forest green eyes. She had been a little shocked at the physical changes that had overcome the teen upon his return from the maze but had not shied away from him. Personally she thought the straighter hair and gentler eyes were more in line with his gentle but noble personality. And the fire that could be lit behind those green orbs in times of trouble was equal to his rancour when roused.
His eyes currently held the love and wonder that she had come to associate with his unfamiliarity to affection from adults, but behind that there was a tension she couldn't put her finger on. Quietly, but proudly, she spoke to him.
"I love you my son, and I'm proud of you and Hermione. You've been so strong, I couldn't be happier with you."
The tenderness that swept through his expression was mirrored on Hermione's face and Emma smiled softly before nodding to the exit.
Harry sat in his room in Oxford, a warm bundle of beautiful witch snuggled up against his chest as she slept in his arms. On his lap was a letter from Professor Moody detailing the initial lessons they should begin to practise together. He looked back at the year and realized that he had come a long way from the timid, shy boy who was beaten and abused. Through the trials of the school year he had been forged into a loving, caring, strong and confidant young man who was slightly jaded from his experiences.
He had experienced the lies surrounding him, the deceit of friends, family, enemies and neutrals. But he had equally experienced loyalty, from expected and unexpected places, from family and friends, and even those previously thought foes. The world was larger than ever before; across the Channel the French were rousing themselves to the tragedy of their own dying on British soil, the Great Russian bear was stirring in the east. The world was shifting, politics was coming to the fore, and battle lines are being drawn. The universe was centring itself on the coming conflict and a web of lies was spreading from Voldemort's domain to conceal his presence.
Harry's eyes were hard as he considered the deaths of those dear to him; his parents, Ron, Fleur, even Dean had been a friend. Cedric and Victor were gone, his childhood was lost. It was time for him to shrug off the shackles of youth, and to take on the mantle of adulthood. It wasn't something he was eager for, but as the young man gazed down softly at his beloved he couldn't help but reaffirm to himself that the world needed those who would stand up and do what was right, not what was easy. And besides...
When had his life ever been easy anyway?
An3: And here we are, the end of the story. It's been a long damn journey and I do apologise for the lateness of this chapter. But my lord was it hard to actually force myself to write! Some days I think I was subconsciously shying away from the idea of finishing this story for whatever reason -.-
I'd like to thank everyone who's stuck with me; My Beta Reader and editor Texan-muggle, a host of wonderful reviewers, and all of you who have seen, read, favorited, followed and otherwise endorsed my work.
This has been a somewhat emotional journey for me, not least of which because it's the first real project that I've ever finished, and I feel blessed that I could have such a wonderful group of (Dare I say it?) fans who've kept me going till this point.
An4: Review Responses:
JHarry: I've seen other people get annoyed about Alternate timeline stories not diverging enough from the canon timeline, but as most other authors say, the first year of divergence often will stay much the same, and from there things will spiral outwards. Something that needs to be remembered is that while we've put a lot more into Harry's character, given him strength and power to rival the Voldemort of canon, the Voldemort of this story is a different beast entirely, filled with untold power and aided by a minion who is actually competent at his job. It's going to be far harder for Harry to achieve anything.
Finally you need to remember that a lot has changed. Harry's scar doesn't exist, thus no link with Voldemort, he has his relationship with Hermione to keep him centred and training hard, he has a family to nurture him and support him in the coming trials. And above all he's more of a magical prodigy than in canon. There is a lot more yet to come, and much of it will stray from the beaten track in explosive fashion.
PezBerry: Thanks! I'm, as always, glad you enjoyed it.
Shadowking: See guys? This guy gets it, question the motives.
Darklelouch: Harry certainly has some decisions to make, and some of them made under pressure might lead to terrifying results.
Pairingmatters: You may have missed it but I made it clear in a previous review response that dean had died, rather gruesomely too.
Vegasman: But… Ron's dead… how could he have betrayed them? My head hurts…
Nathanhale: This guy also sort of gets it, you don't die in someone else's head and leave nothing behind.
Albrkic: Oh go put a sock in it, also how the hell do you pronounce that username? O.0
Shugokage: Awh, thank you! Glad to have someone comment on his revival
Darkow: I'm sad for Fleur too ;.;, but at least she died with her bond fulfilled.
Anotherboarduser: Maybe in the comfort of our own homes we can make the distinction between Fleur's being a traitor and otherwise, but Harry was panicked, stressed, and in a lot of pain, I think we can forgive him for not thinking straight, also he didn't have Hermione with him, keeping him calm, that made a difference. Also, there will definitely be a sequel, just not for a while.
Randomomens: Pettigrew wasn't under the Imperius, I'm pretty sure a ritual like that would need a willing servant to sacrifice themselves, wait, it's my universe, YES, the sacrifice did require a willing sacrifice. At this point in the narrative (Though we don't see it) Pettigrew has only one thing he's going to be useful for and he knows it, so he gives himself up for his cause, it's a sort of fanaticism that many of the death eaters will show.
Belthezzor: Ah yes I wondered when this would come up. When the will was read post Lily and James' deaths it would have become a document under public record. The Goblins are very transparent about that kind of thing. And the Hogwarts Library has a self-updating registry of births deaths, marriages and wills, Harry and Hermione would be in there as a 'Bonded Betrothal'. As for why she didn't tell him? Hermione would have assumed that Harry was told by Dumbledore (As per the law) and that Harry just didn't want to talk about it, simple mistake to make. Finally as for why Harry admitted to being abused, it was something of a last straw for him, and there are other reasons as to why he's still such a good person despite it all and still in control of his wits. Most people who are physically abused are also violent themselves, but do we see Harry being so? Of course not, because there's another factor in play I haven't told you about yet, Harry isn't the typical abuse sufferer.
DarkHeart: Ah, probably should have made that clearer, The Veela bond is about reproduction, it searches the most powerful physically healthy male in the area and bonds the Veela to him, then the bond creates feelings of intimacy later. A bond of love, (Like the one Harry and Hermione form) Is the one you are describing which requires intimacy first and usually leads to sprogs later. The curse they threw at Fleur just tricked her magic into believing Harry was the most Powerful (Not much of a stretch) and physically healthy (Much trickier) male she would ever meet.
Atokkota: See? I'm not being a retard, youngsters do drink tea.
Sent Via tablet: You think that's over the top? Wow you lead a sheltered life.
Exalted Demi-soul: Right? Things got messy quickly, and will keep getting…. Shutup Lucian, they don't know about that yet.
Inferius: This fills me with a disproportionate amount of pride.
Marvin: Woah there friend, settle down. Firstly yes I admit I made Krum a bit tall, but 60-70 feet translates into about 18-21 meters, the knee of a dragon would probably be about… eh 6 meters? Tops? So yes, I did screw up I think I meant to write ankle there, but 60-70 feet is still wrong.
Secondly, A school bus (And I'm assuming you're American) is about three meters tall, so… your math doesn't work for a start. Six school buses is more accurate, not six hundred, additionally, 22 million pounds? Really? What the hell are my dragons made of? Miniature neutron stars?
I only dignified this with a response because you made me laugh for a solid five minutes and I thought that deserved a reply.
Lady Isowen: Awh, thank you! That's nice to hear.
Major Wallace: Um, thanks, shortest review ever anyone?
TheFantasticFangirl: Wait, never mind, this is the shortest review ever, but it's also a greeting, so… Hi!
Alright lads and ladies, that's it for now, watch this space though because I'll probably start writing some other HP fanfiction soon enough. There is a sequel in the works for this story but it's on the backburner for now. Happy hunting! Happy reading! And HHr for life!