May 9th, 2005
"You loved me."
Hermione stared at him, her gaze fixated on the vulnerability and honesty in his eyes. He loved her. Had loved her? Did he still? She opened her mouth, wanting clarification, but Harry finally broke eye contact which caused her to lose her nerve. A part of her wondered if she had left behind her inner Gryffindor in Thoros Nott's cellar.
"Everything's complicated," Harry muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose between his eyes.
Complicated. The word sank in her gut like a stone. Tilting her head to the side, Hermione forced a smile and tried to change the subject. "Where are your glasses?"
Harry looked back up at her quizzically. "What? Oh." He let out a chuckle. "Temporary charm that helps with the Polyjuice."
Awkward silence fell between them, and Harry stood, shuffling his feet. He sucked in a deep breath, an old tell that reminded her of whenever he had been called on during class and lacked the answer. He'd had the same expression on his face when he walked onto the pitch for his first Quidditch match. It was both endearing and unnerving all at once. He fetched his glasses from a nearby shelf, put them on, and turned to face her, clearly wanting her approval.
"There's Harry," she whispered.
"I do love you still."
Hermione's lips parted, and she slowly let out a breath, waiting for him to continue. When he did not, she licked her bottom lip and said, "You know I feel the same, right?" She felt the stone in her stomach vanish when he smiled at her, looking just as relieved as she felt.
After another moment of silence, Hermione said, "We're married. Really married. Is it . . . irreversible?"
Harry nodded. "I know we're different people now. I don't expect anything from you, Hermione. I just want you to be alive and safe. We're still technically at war with Bellatrix's army of uninformed Death Eaters and Imperiused puppets. And . . . a lot has happened since . . ." He cleared his throat. "I want you to heal and do whatever you need to . . . I want to say get better, but it's not like you're sick. Sorry, I'm rubbish at this."
"I understand," Hermione said. "I know I'm not like I was. The crowd of people downstairs was too much. Logically, I understand why. I can comprehend that I'm safe, but physiologically, my body and mind have been conditioned to be alert and cautious. It's fight or flight. I know I'm not broken. I'm just . . . I'll need time."
He slowly walked toward her, kneeling down once again at her feet. "I'll do whatever you need me to do, Hermione. We can figure . . . us out whenever you want to." He leant into her touch when she cupped his cheek, rubbing her fingers through his beard as though she were scratching a dog. "If you don't like the man I've become, we'll figure something out."
"I like the beard," Hermione said.
Harry chuckled. "I'm just lazy. I don't like to shave."
She gave him an incredulous look. "You know there's a charm, right?"
He made a noncommittal noise and closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of her touching him. He took her free hand in both of his and kissed her palm. When she moved her fingers from his beard to his hair, Harry let out an exhausted sigh and rested his head down beside her leg. The warmth of her skin made him want to fall asleep, which was usually when his brain began working overtime in thinking about everything in the world that worried him.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. Were you hurt? I mean . . . I heard about Greyback, and someone said that you might have been behind what happened to Amycus Carrow—"
"They didn't touch me," Hermione said quickly, cutting him off. "Some certainly thought about it. Talked about it. Which was why I did what I did. But, you should probably know that I did have a . . . relationship, of sorts, when I was . . ."
Harry sat up, looking at her with compassion. "I know. It was about two years in, right?"
Hermione shrugged. "I didn't have a great concept of time."
"Dean told me."
Closing her eyes, Hermione shakily breathed out. "He's alive?"
Harry nodded. "After he was taken from the place where you two were. A group of us were able to break into the Ministry before it was officially sealed up. We thought maybe we could access some properties through the Floo Network. When that didn't work, we jammed it up on the inside with a few curses. It took them over a week to fix it. During that time, they used other means to transport Muggle-borns. Some of our forces caught Dean being moved. He told us that you were alive, where you were being kept, but we couldn't get in. He seemed . . . intimately concerned."
"It was nice," Hermione said quietly. "Having someone familiar around, I mean. It was only for about two months, but . . . it helped. I didn't love him, and I don't think he ever felt that way about me. We were just there for each other when we most needed it."
Harry swallowed. "If you had fallen in love, it . . . I wouldn't fault you for that. Sometimes, it's hard to rely on a person, be intimate with them, and then just . . ." He bit his bottom lip anxiously, looking down at the ground. "Sometimes walking away from someone is hard."
"Are you still in love with Ginny?"
Attention fully grabbed, Harry's eyes widened comically at her question. "What? I, er, no. I mean . . . Ginny and I never got back together. Just friends."
"So, if it's not Ginny—"
"You should really get some rest," Harry said, his face flush. He looked heartbroken and guilty as he backed away from her. "I have things to look after. Men to debrief about everything that happened today. I can stay with you if you need me to. Or I can ask Luna or Ginny to come?"
Hermione stared at him, suspicious of his sudden change of subject. She shook her head. "I'll be better alone, I think. Do the doors lock?"
"They do, but I can keep them unlocked, if you'd prefer." He drew his wand and waved it in front of the door. "It's a one-way Locking Charm. You're free to go whenever you need to. I don't want you to feel caged in. No one but me can get back through. Is that all right?"
Nodding her head quickly, Hermione moved back onto the mattress, feeling like a little girl who needed to have her feet tucked under the covers so that the monsters beneath the bed could not reach her. "Go on. We'll talk more when I wake up. I'll be fine."
Harry gave her a wan smile that said he was not quite sure about that. "I'm glad you're home."
When he was out of sight, Hermione closed her eyes and let tears spill over onto her cheeks.
Sleep came oddly easy. It was shocking how safety could have such an impact. Hermione had walked right up to Harry's wards, pressing her hand against and then into the magic, letting the familiar feel wash over her. Protected. It was easy to let the thought lull her to sleep. Staying that way, however, came with more difficulty. She woke several times throughout the day, taking notice of the sun's position out the window each and every time she opened her eyes. Only once had Harry been there, sitting at his desk, making notes without being alerted to her having woken. Every time she was reminded that she was no longer in a Death Eater's home, Hermione closed her eyes and let sleep take her once again.
Eventually, she woke to a pitch black room, Harry gone. Tired of the silence, she pulled herself from the bed, eager to check the wards once again, a habit, she thought, that would not go away anytime soon. Sighing as her fingertips grazed the invisible barrier, she muttered under her breath, "Don't develop a compulsion, now."
Unable to cast her own light without a wand or the ability to do magic even if she had one, Hermione let touch guide her around the room. She ran her fingers over every surface, memorising the feel of it. She smiled when she stumbled upon Harry's cloak, fisting it in her hands and bringing it up to her face to breathe in the scent. It smelled like him, but there was still a lingering scent of smoke in the fabric. Setting it down over the back of a chair, she moved along the room, gasping when her fingers felt something familiar.
She closed her eyes, nostalgia heavy in her mind as she picked up the Invisibility Cloak.
Determination, curiosity, and the magical anonymity carried her through the hospital corridors. Retracing the steps she had taken earlier, Hermione found herself back down in the corridor where they had arrived. Terrified, but eager, she made her way through the open doors that Ginny and the Death Eaters had vanished through that afternoon. No one walked the hallways, but she could see light coming from an area around a corner. Taking slow but certain steps, she peeked around it, leaning against the doorframe until she was peering into a room through the window of a closed set of double doors.
Her mouth fell open at the sight. Each and every young Death Eater that had fought at Harry's side was lying in a hospital bed, magical and Muggle monitors hooked up to their bodies. Stepping back, Hermione looked up to see the words "Critical Care Unit" written above the doorway. She wondered if that was just a coincidence.
Staring back into the room, she watched as unfamiliar faces sat at the bedsides of the Death Eaters, some sleeping, others reading to keep themselves occupied. There was a little girl asleep in the bed where Zabini lay unconscious, tucked up under his right arm. Theo Nott was in the bed next to him, separated by partitions similar to the ones used in the Hogwarts hospital wing. Neville was curled up next to the bed in an armchair that looked magically enlarged, Luna asleep in his lap. Her arm was stretched awkwardly behind her, her fingers laced through Nott's.
It was not the concerning sight of unconscious Death Eaters or her sleeping friends that had her in shock, however. It was Harry—sitting in an uncomfortable looking chair next to Malfoy's bed with his shoulders slumped forward and his forehead pressed against a metal railing. He had one of Malfoy's hands cradled in both of his the same way he had done with her earlier that night: gently, tenderly, affectionately . . . intimately.
"Oh my God," she whispered in understanding.
"It's good to see you up and about."
Hermione jumped and spun on her heel, turning to see Ginny standing behind her. "Ginny?"
The redhead grinned. "Or, well, not see you see you."
Tugging the Invisibility Cloak off, Hermione let it fall to the floor at her feet. "Ginny."
Her friend sucked in a breath and opened her arms but then hesitated. "Oh, Hermione. Can I . . . Can I hug you?" When Hermione nodded and stepped close, Ginny wrapped her arms around her gently. "Merlin, I've missed you."
Doing her best not to cry, Hermione hugged back as tight as she could without hurting the other witch. "I thought before that you were upset with me."
Pulling back, Ginny wiped at her eyes with the back of her sleeve. "What for?"
Hermione sniffed. "Because Harry was forced to marry me."
Ginny let out a laugh that seemed oddly placed considering where they were and what world they lived in. It left Hermione with a sense of hope that things could be normal. "Oh hell," Ginny said, rolling her eyes. "I've not looked at Harry that way since Bill's wedding. Years, honestly. And don't go thinking anyone had to twist Harry's hand to marry you. He was more concerned with what you and . . ."—her gaze briefly flickered to the window—". . . everyone else would think about the idea."
Hermione looked back inside, watching as Harry pressed the back of Malfoy's hand to his cheek. "Silencing Charm on the door?"
Ginny nodded. "Heard the wedding was awesome," she said with a smirk.
"The wedding was boring," Hermione muttered. "The fight afterward wasn't . . . entirely unpleasant." She recalled the look of absolute fury and terror in the Death Eaters eyes, Dolohov specifically, right before Malfoy had Portkeyed her out of there.
"He's all grown up, our Harry," Ginny said affectionately as she moved right up against Hermione, squishing them both into the corner to peer inside, "but he's still the same boy who killed a Basilisk when he was twelve. Runs into battle head first. Thankfully, he's got brilliant people like us to do his thinking for him."
When Hermione remained quiet, staring at Harry and an unconscious Malfoy, Ginny elbowed her gently. "I wasn't upset with you earlier. I was upset that I couldn't come right to you. Things were a bit mad when you all came back, and we only had a short window to get the snakes settled."
"What's happening to them?"
The magical monitors hovered around the bodies like a colourful fog with a pulse. The Muggle monitors were hooked up to their chests and arms, likely keeping track of heart rate and blood pressure. Each had a significantly bright bubble of magic wrapped around their left arms. Only through a squinted gaze could Hermione see the tense muscles beneath the charm.
"They're being tortured through their Dark Marks. Luna was able to alter the tattoo enough that they could come through our wards without a hassle, but we couldn't figure out how to break the mark entirely, especially since they needed to be summoned if necessary to keep their covers. But now that's all done with. Bellatrix knows they all turned traitor, and she's using Riddle's connection to them to make them suffer for it."
"They're asleep. Draught of Living Death?" Hermione asked. Ginny smiled and touched her nose with the tip of her index finger. "For how long?"
"Until it drains the magic. Bill figured it out. Once Bellatrix locked onto their Dark Marks, we put a Stasis Charm on them and anchored it directly to the curse that Riddle put into the tattoo," Ginny said, looking rather impressed with the magic as she described it. "Even if Bellatrix stopped trying to hurt them hours ago, they're still connected. Harry says it's like leaving the lights on a car."
Hermione smiled, her brain that she knew had gone long neglected felt like it was being brought back to life in the wake of her freedom and access to knowledge once more. "You're draining the battery. The power attached to the Dark Mark. That's brilliant."
"Unfortunately, we have to sit around and wait for the magic to just . . . die." Ginny gestured with her hand at the room full of Death Eaters. "Meanwhile, they're suffering. They can't feel it, not really, or at least they won't remember it when they wake up, but it's still bloody awful to watch."
When Hermione saw Harry kiss Malfoy's palm, she turned away from the window. Ginny looked at her sympathetically, and Hermione sighed. "It's not . . . I'm just shocked." And she was. She had known that Harry was holding something back, but it never once occurred to her that it was this. She tried not to focus on how worried Harry looked.
"Harry didn't tell you, I take it?"
Hermione shook her head. "How did it happen?"
"You died," Ginny said bluntly, looping her arm through Hermione's and leading her away from the window. "And then Pansy Parkinson was found flayed in what used to be Diagon Alley."
Eyes wide in shock, Hermione stumbled over the Invisibility Cloak that was still wrapped around her feet. She cleared her throat as she bent down to retrieve it, wondering if what she felt was shock or pity for Pansy Parkinson.
"She'd gone missing for three weeks," Ginny said as she walked into a nearby room that used to be a waiting area for families when the building had been a Muggle hospital. "Draco had been trying to convince her to join us, but he couldn't tell her exact information thanks to all the vows he took to keep our secrets. She promised to meet with him somewhere to talk about it, and she never showed up. We don't think that anyone knew she was thinking of turning; Draco says that Pansy was already on the bad side of some really terrible people. He and Blaise found her body."
She frowned, letting out a heavy sigh as she took a seat on one of the sofas, gesturing for Hermione to join her. "She was his best friend—Pansy and Draco, I mean. Harry understood Draco better than anyone else, after what we thought had happened to you."
Hermione pinched her lips into a straight line, thinking about the years that all of her friends had thought her dead. They had grieved for her. It hurt to think on too much.
"Then Lucius Malfoy died," Ginny continued waving her hand back toward the other room, "and those two disappeared behind closed doors for three weeks. We all took turns looking after Draco's mother, and Harry looked after Draco. They still argue and banter like before, and they actually fought a lot in the beginning."
"How long?" Hermione wondered.
"Years. I don't know when they made it official, but . . . Are you all right?"
She had not realised that she was wringing the Invisibility Cloak in her hands, but her knuckles had gone white. Looking down, Hermione let go of the cloak and flexed her fingers. "Harry loves Malfoy. He . . . I took that away from him—from them."
Ginny reached out, taking one of Hermione's hands. "Harry made up his own mind, Hermione. And he does love you. Always has."
"What did Malfoy think of the plan to save me?" Hermione asked, eyeing the doorway as though Malfoy would come straight through it at any minute and hex her.
"Angry, of course. But not at you. Merlin knows that he would have done the same thing and left Harry if Parkinson was still alive and needed a quick wedding to be safe. We're at war, and Draco knows that sacrifices have to be made. He's made plenty." Ginny sighed, running a hand through her red hair. Hermione noticed that it was much longer than she had ever seen it. When the locks were briefly moved away from Ginny's neck, Hermione noticed a group of thick scars.
Unconsciously, Hermione touched the marks on her own skin that Greyback had left behind and watched as Ginny purposely put her hair back in place, averting her gaze in the process. "How can Malfoy have changed so much?"
Looking much more comfortable with the conversation, Ginny relaxed. "Well, he was a right prat for seven years at Hogwarts, and then he's spent the last seven years being not so big of a prat. Maybe he just didn't like school very much. Allergic to the castle?"
Hermione let out a soft, unconvincing chuckle. Eventually, she muttered, "Temperamental toward Scottish climate?"
Ginny laughed and put an arm around Hermione's shoulder, hugging her close. "He's a shit, but we're all a little sour now and then, aren't we?"
"What did Ron think of this?"
Snorting, Ginny rolled her eyes. "Thought it was horrid, of course. Went out of his way to avoid them for about a month. Then we started pranking him by telling him he was needed in rooms that Harry and Draco were . . ." She stopped when she noticed Hermione shifting uncomfortably. "Sorry. Too much information? S'pose you don't much want to hear about your new husband's sordid past with his ex."
"Husband," Hermione remarked under her breath, still in shock over the day's events. "They didn't look like exes in there."
"Harry's never been good at letting go."
Hermione nodded, and then eventually looked up, already feeling herself on the verge of tears as she asked, "How did Ron die?"
Ginny tensed, but a familiar posture took over that reminded Hermione of the way that Professor McGonagall would hold herself. "Bravely." She sniffed once and swallowed down what had to still be immense grief. "My stupid, big brother. Bellatrix lost control of the werewolves some years ago. We heard that a pack had a group of children that they'd infected. Death Eaters and locals that aren't with us are told to kill werewolves on sight. Ron went in with a small group to save them. He got the kids out, but Death Eaters showed up, and between them and the wolves . . . It's okay. He's a hero."
Hermione brought a hand to her chest, closing her eyes as she fought the tears that were stubbornly falling from the corners of her eyes. "A Hero."
Ginny nodded, giving Hermione a watery smile. She wiped away a few of her own stray tears and then squeezed Hermione's hand. "We're all very proud of him. And we still have Amy."
Blinking, confused, Hermione looked up. "Amy?"
Ginny frowned and let out an exasperated sigh. "Bloody hell, what did Harry waste all that time talking to you about, tomorrow's breakfast menu?"