Harry Potter watched the Hogwarts Express disappear from Platform 9 and 3/4 with a resounding toot of its horn. He waved one last time at his two eldest children vanishing along with it. It was Albus' first day at Hogwarts and Harry hoped he would be alright. He'd seemed so scared. Ginny took Harry's arm in a would-be-consoling way. He barely noticed it, and when he did, he shrugged her off.
Then there was a sudden, high-pitched, angry cry, a flash of green and the train exploded in front of them.
Harry had barely time to scream before he was shocked awake, panting for air as if just breaking the surface of water. His scar throbbed painfully and his pyjama shirt was soaked in sweat, boiling in his veins but breaking like ice on his skin. He jerked upright and reached for his glasses, tentatively thought about his wand too. But the panic was subsiding, the fear ebbing away as the pain in his scar eased. It was just a dream. Voldemort was dead. Harry had to remember that.
Voldemort was dead.
Harry ran the words over in his mind, as he'd done a thousand times in the past month, since it happened. Since he'd murdered Voldemort. For the second time. It didn't seem real. Somehow, some part of the phrase just didn't feel like truth to Harry. This evil, this threat, this 7-year burden, gone. Just like that. Harry was struggling to wrap his mind around the concept.
All the months meandering around Britain in that fucking tent. Cold, hungry, hopeless. All the deaths, from poor Hedwig to misunderstood Snape. The fight with Ron, Hermione tortured by Bellatrix, walking to his semi-death and his bizarre meeting with Dumbledore on the edge of the afterlife. It was a year more scarring than any other of Harry's fleeting life. It seemed liked a different world.
But now there was this dream. What the hell was it supposed to be?
It had seemed so real. Stood at Kings Cross with Ginny and their kids. With Ron and Hermione and their brood next to them. He even remembered the names. Had he really called his son Albus Severus? Was he setting the kid up to be a cunt? He shook the idea away. It wasn't real, it wasn't the future.
But it had certainly felt like it.
Harry rose and looked in the mirror. The circular boys dorm at the top of Gryffindor Tower was empty. Term end had been postponed after the Battle of Hogwarts and the repairs were still ongoing, meaning the castle had few inhabitants at the moment. Harry, as was his lot, simply had nowhere to go. He could have gone to the Burrow, but he found that he didn't want company and Molly Weasley's constant fussing would have pissed him off after a day or so.
So he remained at Hogwarts, largely alone. He was fine with the situation, preferring his own company to that of other people. His thoughts were a convoluted jumble, a veritable trainwreck and what he needed was time and space to order his mind. This he would not get at the Burrow.
His reflection in the dorm room mirror was pale and startled. Hardly surprising, as he was very pale, and this was startling. He stroked a finger the length of his scar. It still prickled but Harry suspected this may have been an involuntary reflex to touch on the scar tissue rather than any actual pain. After a few moments he actually wondered if the burning pain, that he could have sworn he felt, was simply part of his dreamscape, rather than anything real and not worthy of concern.
But the dream had been so vivid. And why would it have affected his scar? Only Voldemort ever did anything to the old wound.
Maybe it was another hangover. Maybe seeing Voldemort's mind had awakened a latent Seer talent in Harry. It would explain the visceral nature of the dream. But it would raise some other, more awkward questions.
Like why he had hated what he saw with such vitriolic force. Not only that, why he'd hated the look on his older self's face. How he knew, as if by innate instinct, that his future incarnation, if that's what he had been at all, was so deeply unhappy with life. For what was there not to like? He had everything he'd ever wanted - a wife, a family. His dream life, literally, made flesh. But he wasn't happy, it hadn't been the fairy-tale ending.
Harry knew this truth as completely as he did his left from his right.
So, what was wrong with it? Harry was wracked trying to work it out. But no answers were forthcoming, and with no way of delving into the dream further he would have to take it at face value. Luckily, the details were not diminishing as they would from a regular dream. Harry started at this thought, as though it were further validation that he'd seen his future, or at least a possible one.
One thing was for certain - it wasn't a future Harry wanted at all. He didn't want to look like that, for his eyes to grow so cold and lifeless, to become that man he'd seen waving off his kids. What could have happened to make him like that?
The place was called Wetherspoons, but the actual name was The Moon Under Water. Hermione liked that. She'd always harboured a soft spot for Orwell and his ideal public house had a very emotive name. To be in one was quite something.
But she was nervous.
Of course she was. There was just so much that could go wrong with this evening, and so much that was riding on it. She shuddered at the thoughts racing through her mind. She sipped her drink for comfort. Pink gin and lemonade. All the rage in London. Fruity, hints of strawberries. Very nice, all things considered.
Her parents had been surprised with her order, expecting her usual mineral water. But tonight wasn't a night for water, unless it had alcohol in it. Dutch courage was the order of the day. Apt, too, as the impending influx of orange would be quite in keeping with the theme.
That theme being Ron and the other Weasleys meeting her parents for the first time since they'd become a couple.
Rescuing her parents from their unexpected sabbatical in Australia and restoring their memories had been stressful enough. Telling them she had a steady boyfriend was another thing altogether. But their reactions ... it stuck with Hermione even now.
"So we will finally get to meet this Harry Potter then!" her mother had cried, somewhat triumphantly when Hermione broke the news to them. "I've been so looking forward to it."
"As long as fame hasn't gotten to his head," her father had added. "Only a grounded boy will do for our Hermione."
Wait a minute ... What...?
Her parents seemed to have expected her to announce she was going out with Harry. Hermione was shocked by the revelation and it stirred some unusual things in her chest. She swatted them back. It was just embarrassment. After all, she'd never told her parents she had a boyfriend before. Or even introduced them to a friend, for that matter. For them to think it was Harry ... well, that was just ... it was ... what was it? She couldn't put a title on it, but she would deal with that later. After she corrected them.
"Oh ... it's Ron you're seeing," said her mother. It wasn't lost on Hermione how her mother's face dropped. Even her father looked wary. They cast an unusual look at each other that Hermione couldn't read at all. A casual onlooker may have used the term concerned. "Well ... congratulations, sweetheart. We will have to meet your boyfriends' family properly. Have a good night out together somewhere."
So here they were, in Leicester Square, in a crowded pub, for just that purpose. And Hermione was more on edge that she could put into words.
She had been sat in worried anticipation long enough when, finally, the Weasley clan arrived. They were noisy and boisterous and looked like the worst kind of awestruck tourists. It was one of the reasons Hermione had chosen a central London location for this most auspicious of meetings. If the Weasleys made a show of themselves, for being surrounded by so many Muggles, at least it could be passed off as them being over-exuberant visitors to the Capital. Hermione had seen it many times before and the good folk of London had developed a strong tolerance for such indecent enthusiasm.
But even this excuse didn't seem to encompass their reaction to being where they were. They talked loudly about the quaintness and backwardness of everything as if they had not a care in the world. Although she knew nobody but her parents in the vicinity, Hermione couldn't help but feel mortified by the comments. The other drinkers looked oddly at the newcomers and Hermione felt her head bow involuntarily as the red-headed invasion reached the table she was sharing with her parents.
"Hermione! How lovely to see you! Come here and give me a hug!"
Molly Weasley's voice would have carried the entire length of the London Underground. Hermione felt a fleeting half-wish that she could tap out with her Oyster Card. But instead she stood sheepishly and accepted the bear-hug from Ron's mother. Heads turned their way and Hermione wished the others would at least sit down.
But they didn't. They insisted on hugging her one after the other, as though she were already a part of the clan. The patrons of the pub craned their necks, expecting at the very least for a star of the West End to be within their midst. The scoffs that accompanied their disappointment when they saw Hermione, who was no-one's idea of a celebrity, brought a strange thought to her mind.
Poor Harry. This must have been what it was like for him. All the time. No wonder he hated it so.
The thought of Harry struck an odd cord with her. She looked around for him, sure that he would have come with the Weasleys for this night on the town.
But he wasn't with them. She felt a strange, cool shiver at noticing his absence.
Her chain of thought was broken by Ron, who had sidled up to her and slid his arm into hers. She smiled at him.
"Er ... shall we get the, erm, introductions out the way?" he whispered to her.
"Yeah ... that's a good idea," said Hermione. She guided Ron to her parents. "Mum, Dad ... you remember Ron? He's my boyfriend now. Ron - my parents, David and Catrin Granger."
"Nice to meet you ... er, properly," said Ron. He shook Hermione's father's hand and gave her mother a very awkward kiss on the cheek. "Catrin ... that's an unusual name."
"It's Welsh," said Hermione's mother. "I'm from Cardiff originally. David and I met at medical school. It wasn't quite as unique a school as yours I imagine."
"No, I doubt it could have been," said Ron, laughing. "Dentistry can't be nearly as fun and interesting as magic, can it?"
Ron's comment was off-handed. He meant nothing by it. But Hermione wished the floor could have opened up and swallowed her. Arthur Weasley saved her blushes.
"Hello!" he said jovially, greeting the Grangers warmly. "How great to see you both again. I'm sure our kids have plenty of explaining to do, eh?! But how about we do it over a drink? I'm afraid I don't know much about Muggle beers, but I'm keen to learn if you'll lead the way, David. Come on, Ron, give us a hand with these drinks. You've got all night to swoon over Hermione!"
"Yes, Dad," said Ron, grinning madly. He gave Hermione an awkward peck on the cheek, before following Arthur and David to the bar.
Hermione felt redder than Miss Scarlet. She decided there and then that she hated the spotlight. Of anything. This was going to be such an uncomfortable night. She looked forward to it being over. The Weasleys wanted to fuss around their youngest boy's new girlfriend, and Hermione was deeply against being fawned over. She wanted to just be with Ron, away from all this. But Molly wanted to preen her, George tried to make flirty talk with her (but it seemed half-hearted without Fred, which broke Hermione's own heart to see) and Bill and Fleur, who had hung back initially, seemed to be prepping her to follow in their footsteps. Hermione wasn't sure how she felt about that.
Her mother sensed her discomfort. Hermione could tell that and was thankful for it. But the pained expression on her face did little to ease Hermione's tension. Her mother didn't like seeing her stressed and uncomfortable, that was natural, but she didn't seem entirely at ease herself. This only added to Hermione's worry. When she and Ron had gotten together it had been the obvious culmination of a long road for Hermione. To see her parents less that accepting of it was more than a little jarring.
And it was obvious that that was her mother's reaction. Even now, after just a brief beginning to the evening, Hermione could read her mother's mind. Though she was too nice and decent a woman to voice the thought aloud, it screamed to Hermione, clear as day.
My daughter can do better than this.
Hermione was spared the chance to analyse this further when Ginny suddenly pressed in close to her. Her expression was loaded and emotional. She had been waiting for a chance to speak with Hermione and the topic must have been important, if the strained, blazing look on her face was anything to go by. When she spoke, it was a quiet whisper that only Hermione could hear.
"Have you seen Harry lately?"
If the question was odd, then Ginny's tone was downright disturbing. It would suggest that she hadn't seen Harry recently, which was totally absurd in Hermione's head. He was with them at the Burrow after all.
"No," Hermione replied. "I went off to get my parents back from Australia and we had to restore their memories. And then I had to explain everything to them. That took a while. I haven't had a chance to come over and see Harry yet. Is there a problem? He's okay, isn't he? I thought he might have come tonight, actually..."
Hermione's words trailed off as an odd train of thought crossed her mind. She'd really like to see Harry right about now. She looked to the door of the pub, as though he might simply walk right in, as if she'd Accio'd him there. But he didn't. Hermione felt a fierce sense of disappointment that he'd dared let her down in this. She would definitely give him a telling off for it when she saw him next.
"He's okay ... I think," said Ginny. "I haven't seen him for a while, so I can't say for sure."
"Haven't seen him?" Hermione laughed. "Hiding out with the ghoul, is he? Typical Harry, moping about in your attic while the world and his dog wants an autograph!"
"Harry isn't staying with us," said Ginny, confused.
Hermione felt her heart miss a step. "Then where is he?"
Ginny shot Hermione an odd look, as though sensing something in her tone. "We think he's still at Hogwarts. We asked him to come home with us after the Battle, but he refused."
"Then you don't know where he is!?" Hermione's incredulous tone drew stares from nearby tables, but she didn't care. How could they not know where Harry was or, more importantly, know how he was? She'd gone off after her parents safe in the knowledge that Molly, Ron and the other Weasley's would take care of Harry and all the multitude of things he would need in the aftermath of defeating Voldemort. To hear that they hadn't, that they'd left him to his own devices, seemed the most deplorable lapse, the severest dereliction of duty Hermione could ever imagine.
But her mother noticed the tone. There was nothing else in the world that affected her little girl like this. Nothing else quite sparked in her in this way. Nothing stirred this unbridled passion, this protective instinct, this utter devotion that Harry Potter did.
It had been the same way since Hermione had started at Hogwarts. This Harry character set something off in Hermione that Catrin Granger loved to see, and she would have loved to meet the boy responsible for it. But all she could do was sigh at the ultimate display of her daughter's outright stubbornness, her emotional blindness. Or was it avoidance?
"We are pretty sure he's at Hogwarts," Ginny went on. "But none of us have seen him for at least a fortnight. I was just wondering if you had."
Ginny's tone betrayed something else, something that Hermione found riled her. It was typical Ginny and had little to do with Harry and his well being. But Hermione, being Hermione, wanted to help out.
"Ginny - what aren't you telling me?"
Ginny looked ashamed, a little guilty. But her voice was resolute when she spoke. "Nothing really...its just that...I thought, after Voldemort was defeated that Harry might want ... that he and I ... that we would ..."
"Get back together?" Hermione offered.
Ginny nodded meekly. "I know its selfish, but I just assumed that's what would happen. But when I spoke to Harry he didn't seem to want to know me. He was really distant. I don't know what I did, but I hoped things could go back to how they were before ... well, everything."
At that point Hermione wanted to slap Ginny Weasley as hard as she could. After the year they had just been through how could she expect things to simply return to normal. Hermione choked back a scoff at the idea. Normal. What even was that? And how could a girl like Ginny even begin to know, begin to fathom what Harry had been though and suffered? Who was she to think she had any right to Harry and his counsel, his recovery? That was Hermione's domain.
Hermione sat back in her chair, scarcely able to believe she'd even had that thought. Since when had she claimed dominion over Harry's well-being? It was a sobering idea, but one she couldn't shake, as outlandish as it was. She felt oddly devoted to where he was, obsessed now with knowing if he was okay. More than that, if he was okay without her. It was a bizarre revelation that she hoped he wasn't, but that she was able to make it better if given the chance.
What the hell am I thinking these things for?
Hermione firmly suppressed these ideas. After all, Ginny was waiting expectedly for an answer. When Hermione formed it, there was a callousness there that she had never before felt a need to express. But Hermione couldn't help it.
"What we went though ... it was tough. It changed us. Harry wouldn't say as much, you know what he's like. Never very skilled when it comes to words."
Ginny nodded as a sad smile crossed her eyes.
"If he wanted to say anything, he'd do so in his actions," Hermione went on. "So if he didn't talk to you..."
"He doesn't want to be with me," Ginny finished sadly. It seemed the confirmation of a thought she'd long been trying to deny. "Its just that I've always liked Harry. I gave up on him for a bit, then we got together ... I thought I'd finally gotten him for good."
Hermione felt her heart kick her in the throat. That phrase had irked her greatly. But she wasn't sure why.
"I can't say for sure," said Hermione, hiding a bitter undertone. "But if I know Harry, and I think I know him pretty well, that's his way of saying how he really feels. I'm sorry, Ginny."
Ginny didn't look on the verge of tears, but there was a look of steely resignation in her eyes. "Thanks, Hermione. I knew you'd understand and help me. At least I haven't got to waste any more time on Harry, eh?"
Hermione gasped. She couldn't help it. Waste time on Harry? What kind of Blast-Ended Skrewt bullshit was Ginny spouting now? No time spent on Harry was wasted.
Hermione! Pull yourself together, girl! Stop these thoughts!
So she did. Ron and the fathers of both families were returning from the bar. Hermione hitched her best grin onto her face and tried to seem involved in the night, but her mind was now anywhere but the inside of this Orwellian nightmare.