Another year gone, one more to go.
Hermione couldn't help but feel a little melancholic. Life at Hogwarts hadn't been the same since Harry had left. Life with Harry had been exciting, if hectic, and that had been with her being on the edges of his life. She couldn't imagine what it would have been like to be him.
His plan to fake his own death hadn't panned out at all; no one had believed that someone who could destroy half of Voldemort's Death Eaters in less than an hour would die. Faking his own death was exactly the sort of thing he would do, and everyone knew it. Now stories of him appearing all around the world popped up at times.
There was even a segment on Wizarding radio dedicated to his sightings. In vanishing, Harry had only fueled an intense interest in him. People bragged about having been his classmate when they had been afraid to give him the time of day before.
Heroes were always easier to revere from a distance.
In his absence he had grown into a cult figure; no longer just the boy-who-lived, he was now the boy who fought. People idolized him and feared him in a way that he likely wouldn't have known what to do with had he been around.
Keeping her distance from Harry had been difficult, but she'd understood why he was insisting. She could protect herself, but her parents would be helpless should someone think to threaten them.
It had been months before people had started to believe that she and he were no longer an item. Her general sense of malaise had probably helped to sell the story.
She'd thrown herself into her studies, and if there were times when she and Neville slipped away to visit Dumbledore, taking the floo to see Harry, no one was the wiser. There were other times when he came to visit in the castle, although those times were more dangerous.
After a while, though, the visits became less frequent. Harry was traveling, and intercontinental apparition was only possible for the most powerful of wizards. Many wizards didn't bother to apparate at all, which Hermione found incomprehensible.
She stared out the train window. She should have just apparated home instead of bothering to take the train. It had been a sense of nostalgia and the feeling that she wouldn't be riding this train very many times in the future.
Still, there were limits to nostalgia, and the train trip seemed longer every year. Muggle trains were considerably faster, not surprising since this one had been stolen in the eighteen hundreds. However, the Ministry wasn't likely to steal a more modern train just for the comfort of the students.
"So tell us about your new boyfriend." Lavender Brown said, poking her in the shoulder. "Isn't he the third in two years?"
Neville had gone home with his grandmother, leaving Hermione stuck in a car with some of her less interesting classmates. That might be part of her feeling of malaise.
"He's from Brazil," Hermione said shortly. "He's older."
"Muggleborn?" Lavender asked.
Hermione nodded, turning her face back to the window, hoping that Lavender would get the message that she wasn't in the mood to talk.
"And he's going to pick you up from the station?"
Lavender giggled. "He's a brave man if he tries to date Harry Potter's girl."
"Harry's got nothing to say about who I date," Hermione said sharply. "He gave up that right almost two years ago."
"Sorry," Lavender said, although she didn't sound sorry.
None of the others seemed to understand the kind of danger that kind of speculation would put her in. In their safe, perfect worlds that kind of danger was just fiction. They lived in a a safe, perfect bubble where the biggest worries were grades and which boys were going to ask them out.
Harry had sacrificed so much for that, and none of them understood it at all.
The car was low and black and sleek. Hermione had never been much of a car person, and since she'd entered the Wizarding world even less so. She had the sense that it was very expensive though, and very elegant.
Her boyfriend stood tall and dark and handsome, his swarthy Latin features smiling broadly as she walked cautiously up to him.
She had no visible luggage. The new Weasley reducing luggage was all the rage among the students, one that she had not seen any reason not to indulge in. Her luggage all fit in her handbag now.
They were easier to make than containers with undetectable extension charms, which means they were much cheaper, affordable even for muggleborns like her.
He leaned down and kissed her. Glancing back, she could see her classmates staring at her jealously.
"Ready to go, my sweet?" he asked.
She waited while he opened the door for her and she slipped inside.
The interior was elegant and amazing. The car had to be worth more than her parents house. From the looks on the faces of the girls and women outside, many of them muggle, everyone else knew it too.
He slipped into the driver's seat, and a moment later they were off. Neither of them spoke until the train station was out of sight.
"Do you think they bought it?" He asked.
"They did the last two times," Hermione said. She scowled. "Did you have to make my boyfriend an entitled jerk?"
His dark features shimmered in the darkness of the car, settling back into the familiar features of Harry.
"I had to keep it interesting," he said. "You couldn't keep dating poor muggles from East London."
He'd argued long ago that if she dated the same person for a long period everyone would assume it was Harry. Changing boyfriends regularly would make her look fickle, but it would protect them both.
Hermione suspected that he was starting to love creating identities and disguises a little too much, but there wasn't much she could do about it.
"Where'd you get the car?"
"Bought it in a junk yard, crushed to scrap," Harry said. "You'd be amazed what you can do with a few reparo spells. I've actually got a side business selling cars to muggles and muggleborns."
He'd probably created a sleazy persona to do it in as well.
"You hire a few muggles to look out for good deals, pay them a commission. They know better than to ask questions. I think they think I'm laundering money."
"There's been more sightings of you," Hermione said. "Were you really in Pamplona at the running of the bulls?"
"Or climbing Mount Everest, or at Burning Man...whatever that is?"
He coughed uncomfortably. "I actually was at Burning Man. I had to meet a Shoshone shaman; the Native Americans have entire traditions that don't use wands at all."
Over the past two years he'd been training with wizards on every continent; Witch doctors in the Congo, Native American shaman, Sorcerers in the Middle East, and Asian mystics.
"I thought you'd already trained with Native Americans," she said, glancing at him. He looked healthy and tanned. The perpetual slouch and worry lines that had been an indelible part of his existence at Hogwarts had vanished.
"There's different traditions in different tribes," Harry said. "Some of them are very different from each other. It's made doing things without a wand a lot easier. I'll show you sometime."
"I don't suppose you met him as yourself," Hermione asked.
Harry glanced at her and grinned. "No...I was Geoffrey Anderson, muggleborn from Australia."
He'd developed a real talent for acting and languages. He'd fooled her several times just to prove he could do it. It irritated her every time he did it.
What boggled her mind wasn't that he had temporary disguises. It was that he had identities that he kept up; some of them had businesses and each of them had their own manufactured background and personalities.
As far as the people around him were concerned, each of them was a real person.
They stopped next to a large empty field outside of town. Harry leaned toward her and for a moment she thought he was going to kiss her. Instead, he whispered an address in her ear.
Where the field had been a rather large house appeared. She glanced at him and he grinned.
"Can't be a rich jerk of a boyfriend without a nice house."
It wasn't as nice as Neville's house, but her parent's home could have fit in the driveway.
"How can you afford all of this?" Hermione asked.
"I've got another identity that buys houses and flips them," he said. At her look of incomprehension, he said, "Buys a house cheap, maybe one with a lot of damage, then fix it up and sell it for a lot more."
With magic, something like that would be a lot easier than doing it the muggle way.
"It just seems like cheating," she muttered.
Harry grinned. "My whole life is about cheating. I'm not hurting anyone...people who buy from me get a nice house or a nice car, and it doesn't really matter to them how I did it."
He probably had bank accounts as a muggle and as a wizard, in multiple countries. Most other countries didn't use goblins as bankers, and there were different systems.
"You are your own Secret Keeper?" Hermione asked.
Harry nodded. "Sirius helps me cast the Fidelius charm; Dumbledore helped me once...I'm trying to teach Dobby, but he doesn't seem to get it."
"It's illegal to teach Wizarding magic to House elves," Hermione said, staring at him.
"It's only illegal if they catch you," Harry said, grinning. "And frankly, I don't care what the Ministry has to say."
Hermione wondered just how powerful Harry was getting. From the things he'd told her over the years, he'd learned things that even Dumbledore didn't know, even if he didn't have the man's vast combat experience or raw power.
"How many of these places do you have?" Hermione asked.
"A few," Harry said evasively. "Most aren't this big, of course. I think it's important to have safe houses that no one knows about."
Meaning that he kept the locations of his safehouses spread through the people he needed to make him the Secret Keeper. Doubtlessly he'd never even tell her where all of them were.
The habits of a lifetime were hard to break, after all.
Hermione wondered if he'd actually obliviated Sirius as to the location of some of the houses. She hoped he hadn't, but she wouldn't put it past him.
He'd undoubtedly used the Weasley twins as well. He was their secret backer for an industry that had gone far beyond a simple joke shop. Their line of shrinking luggage had probably made them as much money as the rest of their business put together, and from what she'd heard from Ron Weasley, they were expanding internationally.
It had gotten to the point that they were employing half the Weasley family and they were still struggling to find enough employees. If Harry was sharing in the profits from that, then he was a rich man even without any of his other scams.
"This place isn't what I wanted to show you," Harry said. He stopped the car and stepped out of it.
She followed suit, and as she closed the door to the car, she felt him put his arm around her.
Closing her eyes, she leaned her head up for a kiss, but instead she gasped as she felt herself being pulled through a tube. It seemed to last forever, much longer than any apparition that she'd ever experienced.
A moment later she stumbled, feeling slightly sick.
She was on a beach, and the sun was setting. The ocean was beautiful and the sky was lit with colors that she couldn't remember ever seeing in England.
Looking back, she saw a house on the beach. The wall facing them seemed to be made up entirely of glass. The view from inside had to be spectacular.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"You said you had a boyfriend from Brazil," Harry said. "So I thought it was appropriate."
"Brazil?" she asked, flabbergasted.
Only the most powerful wizards even attempted intercontinental apparition, and she hadn't heard of anyone bringing someone along with them at the same time. His powers had to be vastly above what they were the last time she'd seen him if he'd even attempted something like this.
"Why are we here?" she asked.
"How do you feel about learning the Fidelius charm?" Harry said, grinning.
"I thought it would be good to have a place that was only for the two of us," he said. "A place that no one else can go."
"But how can I get here?"
From his pocket, Harry pulled a small box. Hermione's heart fluttered.
Opening it, he pulled out a ring. It clearly wasn't a wedding ring, but it was still beautiful, a thing of entwined golden leaves and a small sapphire.
"The stone is a portkey keyed only to you," Harry said. "Touch it three times in a row and you'll be pulled here, no matter where you are on the planet."
Hermione stared at the ring. It was undoubtedly his way of protecting her, giving her a way to escape that people wouldn't expect, since the jinxes to stop portkeys were different than those to stop apparition.
Still, it was the first jewelry he'd ever given her, and her hand trembled a little as he slipped the ring on her finger.
"Are you expecting trouble?" she asked.
"Always," he said. "There are still pockets of Ex-Death Eaters out there. Most of them aren't out for vengeance or anything, but none of them like the Ministry much. If they stumbled across me they'd attack me if they could."
Hermione had heard rumors of groups of terrorists found dead, and not always in Britain either. Some were Muggle terrorists and others Wizard. Many of them had been in places Harry had admitted to having been. She was afraid to ask him about them for fear of what he'd say.
Sometimes she wasn't sure she knew him anymore. In some ways, she never had. Part of her was looking forward to getting to know him, a task that would likely take a lifetime.
She stood watching the sun set for a while in silence. He stood next to her; he had to feel pretty confident that they were isolated if he was standing with her in the open in his original face.
"I've disillusioned us both," Harry said at her expression.
He couldn't have gotten through her occlumency shields, which meant that he knew her well enough to know what questions she was likely to ask. That was a little scary.
"So where do you go next?" she asked.
What she meant to ask was where they were going to go, but for once he wasn't as clued in to what she meant.
"I'm going to college," he said.
"It's not just magic I've been studying," Harry said. "I've been working hard to get good enough at Muggle subjects to go to college."
There had been a time in Hermione's life where the thought of going to college hadn't been a question. It had been the inevitable progression of a smart girl's life, something that simply happened after secondary school ended.
The Wizarding world seemed almost purposefully designed to thwart that. No education that wasn't about magic after the age of eleven meant that wizards who wanted to return to the muggle world were woefully unprepared.
Catching up with six years of education in just two years while simultaneously studying other forms of magic and starting businesses on the side was the action of a madman.
"They try to keep us away from Muggles," Harry said. "But I think that combining magic and science will be the next great innovation that finally pushes us out of the middle ages."
"So what will you study?" Hermione asked.
"Chemistry," Harry said. "And maybe a little physics."
"Creating new magic is dangerous," Hermione said. "That's how Luna's mother died."
Harry grinned. "I'm just a risk taker, I guess. The thing is, I can't study everything. No one person can learn enough to really make a fundamental change in the nature of magical theory."
"What are you saying?" Hermione asked.
"I need some really smart, really motivated people to follow me and learn other things...medicine, biology...the pure sciences. I think wizards have been working alone for far too long. We need to create a think tank to create things that neither muggles or wizards ever imagined."
"And you want me to be one of these people?"
"When I think of smart and motivated people, your name is at the top of every list."
Hermione had been hoping for a romantic weekend, but this was something completely different. It would be very difficult, catching up with everything she had missed. Yet somehow, the challenge appealed to her.
The Ministry had restricted what magic could be researched for a long time. Anything they didn't approve of was declared to be dark. Some of those designations Hermione agreed with and some she didn't.
What Harry was suggesting was likely to be illegal, or would be made illegal shortly after the Ministry found out about it. The Ministry wanted to create a world where Wizards couldn't live in the Muggle world.
The most dangerous wizards to the Ministry were those who could vanish into the Muggle world without a trace.
"You know this will cause trouble, don't you?" Hermione asked.
Sighing, Hermione said, "And I suppose you want me to do all this extra studying on my own time?"
"Revise your papers a couple fewer times and you ought to have plenty of time."
"Fine," she said, pretending to be irritated.
He saw through her, of course.
"Ready for that weekend I promised you?"
Glancing back at the beach house, it was Hermione's turn to grin.
"I'll race you," he said.
Laughing, Hermione chased Harry across the sand. Life with Harry was never going to be conventional, but more and more she saw him beginning to relax and enjoy life. The dark specter of the past would always be part of him, but he was learning to make peace with it.
His childhood had been all about death, but that didn't mean that his future had to be. Life could be good, and Hermione was determined to be there as Harry learned just how good life could be.
Seeing him smile was the best reward.