At the eastern end of town there stood a two-storied cottage at the edge of a small grove just a half-giant's stone's throw away from the neighboring yet not quite adjacent houses, connected to the narrow outbound street via a winding gravel path. Originally, as the local legend went, built by a grumpy old hermit who one morning woke up to find an entire town suddenly encroaching on his property (thenceforth the outer hedge and iron gate as its deterrent fortifications), it remained to this day ever so slightly detached from the main part of the Hollow, and yet so very much an indispensable part of it.
The house itself had been rebuilt on more than one occasion, sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity, and twice even from the ground up, but on the soil in that very spot there had stood one home or another for as long as the Hollow itself had been. For centuries now it had widely been referred to among townsfolk as The Easternmost Home or, geographically arbitrary yet catchy as it was, Hollow's End. Although these designations were for the sake of auld lang syne alone still in circulation, for the past four decades the house had mostly and quite prosaically been known as the Potter cottage, despite the fact that for more than half the time not a soul had lived there at all.
Indeed, after tragedy struck in the night of Halloween, 1981, and the once so beautiful home was reduced to a half-demolished monument to man's incurable heart of darkness, it was from then on by many a provincial mind firmly held to be haunted and, in direct consequence, under all circumstances to be shunned. Thus abandoned, the severely damaged house and its surrounding area would likely have fallen into disrepair and soon been conquered by the all too eager overgrowth entirely, had not the Fairholmes, despite being situated on the very opposite end of town, taken it upon themselves to regularly tend to the old hedge and the lawn, the lush garden and the exterior walls of the building as best they could.
And so for many years Hollow's End was only spoken of behind closed doors and in secluded corners, in hushed voices and with somber miens: part ominous gossip, part uneasy remembrance. Time went by and things changed little, until eventually, as it is wont to do, life returned and superstitions receded where stubbornness did not persist. And to the front of the wrought iron gate set neatly into the topiary archway once again a name plate was affixed, and though the sign itself was new since the old one had been lost to time, the italicized name embossed on it remained very much the same that it first had been twenty-six years before: Potter.
Now, almost another twelve years later, the sign was still there, though perhaps, after years of wear and British weather, soon to be in need of a fresh paint job. Right in front of it there stood just then a man with a brown paper bag on his arm, and he looked first at the sign as if he were for a moment bemused by the name he found written thereon, before his eyes wandered on over the garden to the cottage at the end of the gravel path beyond the gate. The hint of a smile lingered in one curled corner of his lips, and in his emerald eyes there brightly danced a glint of gold: half merely sunlight's kiss, half something more.
And then, after this deceptively unremarkable moment that was all his own, the man opened the gate, stepped through the hedge's archway and noiselessly closed the well-oiled gate behind him again, finally heading for the white front door of the cottage—a door for which his hand would quite magically never in life need a key.
The house, of course, was his own.
"Honey, I'm home!" Harry jauntily warbled into the Potter abode as he stepped inside, secretly loving the unadulterated cliché of the ritual. Closing the front door behind him and dropping his wad of keys (not all doors in his life were as acquiescent to his touch as the one of his home, after all) on top of an old rosewood chiffonier next to the entrance, he headed straight into the kitchen to his immediate right after quickly discarding his shoes with a nimble maneuver of his feet.
Hearing no reply to his incredibly innovative greeting from anywhere in the house in the meantime, he eventually dug a bit deeper into his impressive repertoire of terms of endearment as he put down his brown paper bag on the kitchen island. "Darling? Poppet?" He had already retrieved a number of items from the bag and haphazardly spread them out on the counter around it when he paused and listened more intently. "Snugglebum?"
When still no response came his way as the seconds uneventfully ticked on by, he stepped back out into the corridor and looked briefly about, peering into the dining room vis-à-vis the kitchen with his hand holding on to the doorframe. Nothing either hither or yon caught his attention. Then, however, when at the far end of the hallway through a small gap of the door left ajar his eyes caught a glimpse of two legs lying stock-still on the hardwood floor, Harry felt all his insides convulsing at once and with a sharp gasp started down the corridor, only his heart racing faster even than his legs. He threw himself against the door with a bang and was down on his knees quicker than any of his senses could possibly translate any usable information about his surroundings, which is precisely how and why he ended up with a thoroughly discombobulated Hermione, already half-risen from the floor without his help, gathered in his arms, staring at him perplexedly with a pair of round chocolate eyes.
"Are you okay?" he inquired with unchecked urgency, examining her frantically for any sign of harm or injury. "What happened?"
"I, uh—I guess I must've dozed off for a bit," she stammered, still somewhat shaken from literally being shaken.
Harry Potter stared at his wife of sixteen years with unintentionally comical bewilderment written clearly on every inch of his face. "On the floor?" He looked about from left to right as if he were seeing their living room for the very first time. "Right next to the couch? An arm's length away from the carpet?"
"Well, it wasn't exactly premeditated," she explained what to her still seemed quite obvious, drowsily amused at his most evident incredulity. "I was playing with Longshanks, but the bugger's even lazier than his dad was, and that's saying something. Two rounds of fetch and he gets all cuddly and is purring all over me, and that's still the most potent soporific in the world. Apart from Professor Binns's lectures, perhaps. Where is he, anyway? Our felid, I mean, not Professor Binns."
"Right", Harry absently exhaled only half in reply, rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers as his heart and his lungs slowly calmed down again. Only now at the sight of his waning distress did Hermione realize just how serious the incident must initially have seemed to him.
"Hey," she sought to soothe him with a delicate hand tenderly at his cheek. "It's okay. I'm right here, luv. It's all right. I didn't mean to frighten you so. If I had, I would've used some ketchup."
He took a deep breath and nodded his head, even managing a short-lived chuckle at her wonderfully tasteless idea. "Sorry," he said, then was quick to pick up a more cheerful tone. "Well, so much for a productive morning, huh?"
She pouted, and having so solemnly announced her intention of getting back to work on her book to finally put an end to her involuntary hiatus before Harry had left the house in the morning, it was really her only choice. "I'll have you know that I got almost an entire... half of a page done. Which I'll most likely rewrite completely at a later point," she informed him with a wonky sort of pride. "I was really about to find my groove, too... until I got a bit sidetracked."
Harry perked a curious eyebrow at her. "By what? Shanks?"
Hermione shook her head. "You, mostly," she replied with a sprinkling of coyness sneaking into her demeanor, the smile she was giving him somehow managing to be as bashful as it was subtly mischievous.
He gave a sage nod in response to that particular revelation. "I had a feeling this would ultimately end up being my fault."
"Naturally," she readily agreed. "You see, if it weren't for you turning my life upside down for the past two and a half decades I could actually get some work done once in a while without my mind going off on an extensive tangent about our personal Best Of."
"Our personal Best Of?" he queried with a more spirited chuckle.
"Oh, nothing too risqué," she said as her enterprising fingers came to fiddle with the buttons of his white linen shirt. "Just some of our... more memorable moments."
"I find the mere implication that we've had any less memorable moments rather insulting, I must say," he humorously opined as his eyes, quite of their own accord, ran down the length of the woman's body in his arms just then. He was bemused to discover that she was dressed in that periwinkle summer dress of hers, so markedly reminiscent of a different sort of dress in much the same color that she had worn only once, and which, incidentally, had helped a good deal in making him realize just how utterly blind he must've been before when it came to the more obvious qualities of his favorite bookworm. Almost a quarter of a century had passed since then, and yet by virtue of this memory's unfading vividness in the most treasured depths of his mind the moment would forever remain as close to him as yesterday.
Having on a cursory peek appreciated the surprising fact that her toenails were neatly painted in the same shade of blue, his eyes came back up over her conspicuously smooth legs and the familiar necklace between her collarbones—the first birthday present he had ever given her as her official boyfriend—to take in her face more thoroughly than his twinge of panic had previously allowed him. Finding her smiling at him in that beatific way that only she could smile, there was little he could do but smile right back at her. There was that touch of color on her cheeks and on her lips that had been gone for far too long, and a fullness to her soft features that over a span of months had been taken out of her, little by little and week after week, by a treatment almost as mercilessly consumptive as the affliction it was meant to fight.
His right hand, as his left was still supporting her back, went up to the locks of her chestnut hair, which thanks to some arcane elixir of keratinous wonders was already long enough to tentatively touch her shoulders again, and quickly coming close to regaining that inimitable wildness which had always seemed to be so at odds with her decidedly orderly personality and often famously (and infamously) posh demeanor. To others at least. Only Harry, of course, had ever unlocked that very same vivacious fire in her heart, and so he alone had come to look at that fierce and barely containable mane of hair as a reflection rather than a contradiction of her innermost self. To see this part of her, this beloved outward manifestation of who she was, reemerge like this after months of draining hardship touched his heart acutely, intensely, and for one teetering second the sensation threatened to overwhelm him.
"You look good," he whispered in a low and halting voice, his heart stumbling over his tongue. "And more importantly, you look well."
Her smile widened, a glimmer dancing in her eyes. "I feel good," she told him softly. "And I think I am well. For the first time since this particular mess was kind enough to disrupt our lives, I feel really, really good again. I've felt it coming back to me for the past couple of weeks now. Slowly at first. Day by day a little bit. But today I woke up and I looked at you lying there next to me, your eyes still peacefully closed, and I felt the sun on our faces and the warmth in our skin, and it all seemed so... blissfully normal. I felt like myself again, for the first time in months. Not like an impotent passenger in some decrepit alien vessel of putrid flesh and brittle bone. I should write that down. Ugh, I felt like a prisoner in a cell that keeps closing in on me. But no more! My body feels like my own again.
"My skin doesn't hurt when I touch it. The light of day doesn't hurt my eyes. My limbs feel lithe again, my every motion smooth and effortless. There's no soreness. No constant sickly fatigue. No nausea, no headache. My senses are keen again, my mind not dulled anymore. Tired still, yes. Perhaps my brain's still a tad too sludgy to properly get it back to work, as I'll probably have to admit lying here on the floor like a passed out drunk with my laptop all the way over there. But my thoughts have cleared up. I can focus again, if not always on the most purposive train of thought. And my heart is back in it. I'm alive, Harry, and I can feel it. I can believe it again."
"And I am happy to see it," he said with a sheen of emotion in his eyes that was more eloquent than anything he could possibly put into words. He took her hand gently into his, caressing it and showering it with the lightest of kisses from its back to its palm to the tips of her long fingers. There was a playful note in his tenderness, but too much plain sincerity to make it seem in any way facetious.
"It's just too bad about my involuntary nap," Hermione said as she watched his display of affection with a shimmer of entrancement in her eyes. "I wanted to greet you at the door, actually. Hence the dress and all. I really felt like looking the way I feel today, and I intended to make a bit of a show of it. For you, primarily, as I hope you're aware. Is my eye shadow game on point, or what?" She batted her eyelashes at him for demonstration.
"I'm enjoying the show just fine," he assured her, planting another kiss right amidst the locks on top of her head. Inadvertently drinking in her scent he ended up breathing the most contented sigh into her hair. "You smell like yourself again, too," he remarked with his voice slightly muffled, eagerly proceeding to take another sniff or five in a blatantly exaggerated manner, his nose roving friskily all over her head, causing Hermione to giggle and wriggle in his arms. "Merlin, how I missed this smell!"
"Well, don't use it up all at once," she admonished him entirely in jest. "Took me a long time to scrape it all back together."
When his face came back into her view, Hermione was just a tad ecstatic to see that he actually looked a bit dizzy from his immoderate sniffing exercise. Butterflies apparently were not only out and about under the spring sun that day...
"You still look a bit tired, though," he observed as his eyes avidly roamed her features. "In a good way, mind you. A harmless way. Hmm... let me sweep you off the floor and carry you upstairs, what d'you say? I could do with a little afternoon nap myself, frankly. Watching people carry out my instructions all morning long is woefully tiresome business."
Quizzically Hermione arched an eyebrow. "Is that your big plan for our weekend with the house all to ourselves, Mr Potter?"
"Well, Mrs Potter, I definitely didn't intend to spend it on our hardwood floor," he retorted. "Come on. Let's get cozy and just doss about for a little while longer. Maybe we'll go for a walk later. Perhaps down at the coast, if you're up for it. It's almost as beautiful a day outside as it is in here." She smiled up at him, appreciating the meaningful way in which he looked at her as he spoke those particular words. "Might invite ourselves to dinner at Mrs Fairholme's, while we're at it. She'd be delighted to see you like this."
"Some solid ideas right there," she assessed. "Though I must say I'd prefer to put on some underwear prior to any of those activities."
Harry looked surprised, but skillfully played it down. "I would've hoped that Mrs Fairholme wouldn't get to see that much of you either way."
Hermione wrinkled her nose. "I was trying to be sexy here, you know, but you had to go ahead and ruin it."
"You don't have to try," said Harry. "You just are."
Her nose unwrinkled itself with immediate effect, and beaming at him she said, "Could you by any chance be a wizard, my dear? Because that's some serious magic right there."
"If you play your cards just right I might let you hold my wand," he played along with a wink, then however adroitly moved past the blatant innuendo. "So, to loaf or not to loaf. What say you?"
After a moment of careful deliberation, she exhaled a most lugubrious sigh. "Fine. You may carry me upstairs."
And grinning he swept her up as advertised and made his way out of the living room and to the staircase in the adjoining hallway. And then straight past it. Hermione's befuddled inquiry into the whole matter got no further than Whuh? before Harry succinctly explained, "Forgot about the groceries."
And so, making a bit of a silly game out of the task at hand with Hermione largely operating out of Harry's arms, who maneuvered her back and forth and up and down all over the kitchen space for as long as he could, they took care of the near-forgotten groceries together with questionable efficacy but indisputable joy, stowing away fruit and vegetables and bread and butter—and a box of chocolate and a bag of potato chips which had somehow and most inexplicably so sneaked their way in there as well—in their usual spots in bowls on counters, compartments in cupboards and one or two refrigerator shelves, as well as Harry's super secret stash for The Good Stuff: conveniently out of reach of their offspring's grubby mitts.
When all the work was done after triple the time it would have required if only it had been approached in less ridiculous a manner, first signs of fatigue were no longer plausibly deniable on Harry's part, with beads of sweat beginning to gather on his brow. Yet when his wife was on the cusp of reminding him of her ability to walk, he was quick to forestall any such nonsense and picked her right up again. "Sh! Let's not make me feel any older than I already am. I got this... babe. 'Cause you got me, and baby I got you..."
She laughed and in her best and not at all bad sing-song voice joined in, "Babe... doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo, I got you babe, doo-doo, doo-doo, doo-doo..."
And so, with a smiling Hermione's head resting lightly against his shoulder and her arms loosely wrapped around his neck, they made their way back out of the kitchen and at last towards the originally targeted staircase. Perhaps his presently elated heart was merely playing well-meaning tricks on him, but Harry couldn't help but think that his wife felt just a tad heavier again, after too many increasingly harrowing months in which she had come so horribly close to feeling like little more than a bundle of nothing in his arms. He had carried her quite a lot in recent times, though less so in the last couple of weeks with her strength at long last returning. When had he last carried her to bed, he wondered? Tuesday, was it? Still, she seemed a bit heavier than three days before. A pound at least, no doubt. No less than nine ounces. Almost all herself again, at any rate. Almost.
"How are things at the Burrow?" Hermione inquired somewhere between the softly creaking second and third step of the stairs.
Harry grimaced mirthlessly. "Garden gnomes are back."
"'Tis the season, I guess. The birds and the bees aren't the only ones getting busy, dear."
Hermione scrunched up her nose in understated disgust. "Now there's something I never want to think about."
His chest shook with a chuckle, and for the second time that day Hermione found herself literally being shaken. She really enjoyed it this time around, though. "Let's just hope Eleanor won't try to bring one home again," he said. "Dropped her off right after practice. She's going to have a field day with those poor gnomes."
"Wanted to see daddy boss around the boys some more. Rest assured, daddy delivered."
Hermione ejected a whiff of a laugh, but asked more seriously, "Any news about Vega?"
"It's not the torn rotator cuff we feared it would be, but he could still easily miss the rest of the season, I'm afraid. If we're lucky he'll be back for the last game or two, but I'm not holding my breath."
She sighed almost inaudibly, but Harry could feel it on the skin of his neck. "We really can't seem to catch a break, can we?"
"I think we're catching a pretty big one right now, my love," he said as he looked directly at her. "And I fully intend to never let go of it."
For a moment she got a bit lost there in her husband's emerald eyes, and she might therefore be forgiven for her impaired spatial awareness at that particular moment in time. "Whoa! Quick bathroom stop, please," she exclaimed about a nautical mile past the bathroom door. "I need to scrub the cat off my hands. He gets awfully licky sometimes."
"Fair enough," said Harry, deftly making a U-turn. "Wait a minute, so earlier with your hand I was effectively—"
"Passionately snogging our sluggard of a tomcat, yes."
"Well, in my defense," he said as he gently put down Hermione in front of the girls' basin and in accordance with tradition went on to use the boys' basin next to it himself, "he is a rather handsome fella. Must be taking after his mother in that regard."
Indignantly the wife returned, "And what exactly is that supposed to mean, mister?"
"Come on, now. I loved Crookshanks, I did, but let's be honest here. He was never going to win a quadruped beauty pageant with more than one contestant, and even then it would've been a tough call."
Hermione, chin proudly raised, grabbed a towel in much the same way the Queen of England might during some nationally televised royal towel-grabbing ceremony. "Well, that's exactly why I chose him in the first place."
A dubious snort came from the husband. "You chose him because he attacked Ron."
The wife seemed unfazed. "Certainly no detriment to my assessment of his good character."
"Ron sends you his love, by the way."
The wife was officially fazed. "I am an awful person."
"And my favorite one at that." He gave her a big wet smooch on the cheek and, ignoring her playful and altogether futile protests, picked her up once more. Without further delay or disruption he carried her through the dim corridor into the light-flooded master bedroom that overlooked the sprawling meadows to the east, finally laying her down on their Victorian four-poster bed with utmost care.
"Darling," she fondly spoke to him as he gingerly retracted his arms from underneath her, "you really don't have to be quite so careful with me anymore. I won't break if you handle me normally again, I promise."
"Force of habit," he said with an apologetic smile, leaning over her. "Sorry. I'll get back to my usual wife-beating drunkard style in no time."
She laughed, then dreamily sighed, "The man I married."
Grinning, he gave her a peck on the forehead. "You go ahead and get comfortable, luv. Forgot to wash my face." He left his glasses on the bedside table and made for the door. "I'll be with you in a minute."
"Don't take too long," Hermione told him as she blithely appreciated his marvelous posterior moving unfortunately into the wrong direction, "or I'll be snoring like a Snorkack by the time you get back." His laughter reached her from the hallway as she contentedly began to rearrange the pillows which, as a matter of course, had only hours before been neatly arranged by none other than herself. Alas, the circle of life...
Harry, meanwhile, quietly shut the bathroom door behind him and stepped towards the closer one of the two sinks, despite it technically being the wrong one for either one of the male members of the Potter household. He leaned onto the cool white ceramic with trembling hands, legs largely steady still but knees not quite trustworthy. His eyes were shut, his head bowed so deep his chin was almost touching his chest. Controlling his breathing to calm his churning heart, he kept inhaling deeply against that tightness that seemed to be gripping his entire ribcage, releasing the air through his mouth and going through the motions in slow and steady cycles. Despite his best efforts he felt pressure building behind his eyes, but stubbornly refused to give in to it.
(I've missed you.
It's only been six days, really...
Well, well, well. Look who's counting.)
"The hell is wrong with me," he grumbled to himself, opened his eyes and stared down at the blue veins and twitchy tendons standing out on the back of both his hands. Supporting himself on their heels, he clenched them into white-knuckled fists, held them like that for a second and relaxed them again. He then repeated the process a couple of times, still consciously managing the rhythm of his lungs as he did so. He was not going on routine but on instinct.
"Will you just pull yourself together already, for crying out loud," he angrily instructed himself through gritted teeth. He had never had much of a proclivity for soliloquizing, but lately—well, for a quite a while now, truthfully—he had caught himself doing precisely that more often than he cared to admit even to himself, and always much to his subsequent embarrassment even when there was nobody around to catch him doing it.
(It's you. It's always been you. And I don't want to waste another year being apart from you.
So... are you saying we should just... move in together, or what?
Don't you think we're rushing our fences here a bit? … What am I even saying? Let's do this!)
It had started during the times of Hermione's deeply unfamiliar absence, of course. That absolute absence of something so substantial and fundamentally irreplaceable that wherever it is missing there's left behind the almost tangible presence of an unfillable void: a materialized maw of nothing that like a black hole out in the vast, cold expanse of space keeps devouring and obliterating whatever it touches, its bottomless blackness growing ever larger and ever more voracious...
(You know, every time you kiss me I feel like the universe will have to come up with something bigger than death to part us.)
Without her, the girl-turned-woman that in the most real sense had never truly left his side from the day their friendship had been unbreakably sealed almost twenty-seven years ago, the house somehow had felt emptier than ever it could be without anyone inside at all. When during all those long bleak days and longer nights she was in the hospital and he at home, restless, helpless, useless, when she was in there sedated, in pain, unconscious, in surgery, all on her own, and he was out here, completely forlorn, cut off from her like that with no way of being with her, where he belonged, and taking care of ordinary things that made no sense anymore... that's when he had began talking to her with none but his own ears there to listen and only the silence between the walls to give answer. In houses without love and laughter there is no solace to be found, and thus in the most dire of moments Hollow's End had once again struck him as no more than the ill-fated tomb of all his life's hopes. The house itself, he had felt acutely then, could not survive another loss.
(Hermione Jane Granger, will you marry me?
Is that a rhetorical question?)
Grim matters had made a turn for the worse when his daughter caught him once or twice, found her dad talking to her absent mom in some distant, unfamiliar voice: poor little Ellie all confused and disquieted by her dad's most puzzling behavior. She was in that uniquely odd spot in life's fleeting timeline where she was too young to truly comprehend what was going on with her mommy, yet too old to be entirely and so blissfully oblivious to it all. Garden gnomes she got—preferably in her hands, too—but her mother withering away in front of her eyes in an unpleasantly smelling hospital room with strange tubes attached to her arms and her nose, and not a hair on her skull-shaped head... well, that was all a bit harder to make sense of. Perhaps not exclusively within a child's mind.
(I'm aware this may not exactly be the ideal time for this, but I've been meaning to tell you for a couple of days now and I sort of suspect it would soon enough prove a bit difficult to keep this particular piece of information under wraps. Literally, kind of. Because, you see... I'm pregnant, Harry.
Are you kidding me right now?)
Harry had tried so hard to be strong for their little girl, to comfort her as best he could even as his own heart at times struggled badly on that thin, frail line between hope and despair.
(Mr Potter, I need you to understand what we're dealing with here. Your wife is seriously ill...
… seriously ill...
… and things will get a lot worse before they'll get any chance to get better...
… a lot worse...)
And it had come so close to his heart... oh, how terribly close it had come! There had been times when all their yesterdays had seemed as distant as all their tomorrows seemed unlikely, when a morbid subjunctive had quietly crept into his thoughts of days to come and things not yet done. There had been moments, thankfully transient but gruesome nonetheless, when he hadn't been able to make out even the faintest spark of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Moments when against all his heart's wishes his mind had strayed in sickening flashes to the pernicious what-ifs of himself left behind: torturous considerations of what he, a single father then, could possibly do to compensate for her unbearable, irreversible absence...
(I'm scared, Harry.
Good. Some in here are too tired to be scared any longer. You can see it in their faces, in that dullness in their eyes. And that's what frightens me the most. I need you to be scared, Hermione. Because as long as you're scared, you're still fighting. And I need you to fight your way back to us, you hear me?)
They had almost, almost lost her once in one critical moment, where a single human error would have led to fatal consequence. He had seen the excruciating scene unfold in his mind's most cruel chamber over and over again as he had lain alone in bed during dreadful nights. A vision from which eyes firmly closed could not shield him: the heart monitor flatlining, doctors and nurses falling silent as a professionally detached somberness takes the room... her lifeless body lying limply on a cold, sterile operating table... her wedding ring close to slipping off her bony finger as a white shroud is lowered over her gaunt and colorless, yet still so eerily beautiful face...
"Stop it!" he hissed, punching the apathetic ceramic with enough uncontrolled force to send a tremor of pain through his hand and up his arm, concurring with an instantaneous sting of shame in his brain. He cursed under his breath, and having come so dangerously close to ejecting a burst of equal pain and anger in a scream, he momentarily regretted his decision to refrain from turning on the water to drown out any noise he might make, doubtful though it was just how much that would have helped if he had started demolishing their bathroom furnishing...
(I'm afraid there are no guarantees in this, Mr Potter. Not ever, even now that things are looking up.
… no guarantees...
… not ever...)
With a groan of frustration he opened the mirror cabinet above the basin while rubbing his scarred forehead with his aching hand, the pain therein still throbbing but gradually subsiding. The sight presenting itself to him did little to improve his mood: bottles upon bottles of prescription poison. Countless concoctions of awful things intended to treat even more awful things. Pills meant to abate the adverse effects of other pills while causing an entire set of side effects of their own. A cabinet that was supposed to be used for toothbrushes and corresponding paste, dental floss and nail clippers, hairpins and cotton pads, face cream and an assortment of cosmetics, innocent odds and ends of daily hygiene, instead contained enough medicine to kill just about the entire population of Godric's Hollow.
(I'm no more than a burden to you...
You carried me for seven years, my love. Let me carry you for a little while.)
Harry absently shook his head as his eyes flitted over the countless plastic bottles and paper boxes and all those vaguely ominous names printed on them in straight bold letters, each of them just another way of spelling disease. It was high time they went about clearing out this pharmaceutical mess. Keep the aspirin, toss the rest. Hermione didn't need much of it anymore, and soon enough would once again require the mirror cabinet above the girls' basin to supply her only with cotton pads and mouthwash and the occasional tampon. The way it should be, always.
(In sickness and in health, remember?
Till death do us part...
Death, my dear, can sod right off.)
Harry closed the cabinet and turned on the faucet after all. He leaned down over the sink and splashed his face with cold water a couple of times, running his hands over his face and cleaning out the corners of his eyes. It felt good, and he indulged himself for a moment longer. Then he turned the faucet off again and grabbed a towel with his eyes still closed, both his hands unerringly guided by the unconscious knowledge of his familiar surroundings. He pressed the fresh towel to his wet face, inhaling its flowery, kind of Hermione scent as he came back up into an upright position. With a last, slow wipe from his forehead down to his chin he dropped the towel from his face and ended up staring at his reflection. He absentmindedly raked his fingers through his hair a couple of times, paying no attention to the result.
(My dearest Harry, the following are the most difficult words I ever had to write, and they shall only reach you in case of my—)
He turned away from the faint shadow of fear in the eyes of the man in the mirror, switched off the lights, casting the mirror and its infinite phantoms back into obscurity, and left.
Upon reentering the bedroom he immediately started in a conversational tone, "Any news from Jonathan?" and with that went straight for the wardrobe with his back turned towards the bed, just to buy himself a few more seconds in which to fully compose himself. He didn't like keeping any of it from his wife, but this, he thought, was not the time. He would tell her of the letter he had not been supposed to find and even his ill-advised basin punching incident eventually, but not today. She deserved to have today, and so much more. With just a pinch of good fortune more of the days ahead would be more like today and less like too many of the woeful days now behind them, supplying ample opportunity for such discussions and many more. But not today.
"Yes, as a matter of fact," he heard Hermione reply. "Archimedes arrived just an hour or so after you and Ellie left the house. Woke up to the drumming of his beak against the window. A positively delightful percussive performance he naturally didn't deign to stop until I finally toddled over in a quasi-somnambulant state. The very moment I wrenched the window open, ready for some extensive early morning animal abuse, the little nagger got all fluffy and nibbled my fingers in that disarming way he does, rendering me utterly incapable of being peeved with him for even a fraction of the time he bloody well deserved."
Harry smiled at the mental images her rather colorful description of that blissful morning scene evoked as he unbuttoned his shirt, though Hermione of course couldn't see much of either smile or unbuttoning, which secretly she deemed unfair. "So how's life at Hogwarts this week?"
"All is well," she answered. "Or that is at least what I was able to gather from the three hastily scribbled lines our loving son demeaned himself to send our way. He had a bit of an altercation with a Slytherin boy earlier this week, but our esteemed Professor Longbottom intervened before it could escalate into some serious flyweight fisticuffs. Old family tradition, I suppose. Wouldn't you agree, darling?"
"On both his father's and his mother's side, if memory serves me right."
"Indeed," Hermione concurred amusedly. "Sometimes I think I can still feel my wrist hurt a little."
"Hah!" Harry ejected. "Don't give Malfoy's jaw more credit than it's due."
Hermione giggled gleefully. "At any rate, where was I? I only covered one of Jon's three magniloquent lines so far. Ah, yes. Magic, it would appear, is generally considered lame nowadays, and not being admitted to the Quidditch teams in first year still sucks. Especially when you're the the son of the only bugger who ever circumvented the rule, I suppose. Sucks almost as much as not being able to google your Potions homework."
At that Harry gave a thorough chuckle. "The times they are a-changin', huh?" He put his shirt on a hanger with rudimentary care, swatted at it a little for good measure and finally stowed it away somewhere between its ilk. Then he went to work on his belt buckle to get out of his black chinos. "It all sounds rather boring, I must say. Where are all the surprise Halloween trolls and three-headed guard dogs? What about the rampaging basilisks and all the sinister schemes of evil death cults? Our boy's getting close to finishing his first year at that school, and not a single attempt on his life has been made. I'll have to write McGonagall a strongly worded letter of complaint about this. I expect higher standards from Hogwarts, honestly."
His wife's delightful laughter had him grinning from ear to ear within an instant. "I may shudder at the thought of two hundred smart phones illuminating the Great Hall and fourteen-year-old witches constantly posting their duck-faced visages on Wandstagram or whatever it is they do these days," she said, "but a perfectly boring seven years at school for our children is a change of pace I'm all too happy to live with, thank you very much. Are you about done over there, luv, or do you require assistance with that particular sock of yours?"
He swirled around dramatically as he flung the last of his aforementioned socks into a random corner of the room. He wanted to make a funny, potentially even witty comment to nicely go along with it, too, but then something entirely different momentarily wiped any last spark of wit from his mind.
"You're naked," he observed in what for a grown man and father of two was remarkably dopey a fashion.
Hermione smiled somewhat impishly at him with her upper body supported on her elbows and her legs stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankles on top of the duvet folded at the foot of the bed. She waved at him with her toes. "I was hoping it would be noticeable."
"Yah," Harry barely managed to affirm the obvious in between gulps, and it was all a bit strange for a multitude of reasons, only some of which he was currently aware of. "Very notice-uh-babble."
Whether a day had gone by in the past two decades that he hadn't seen his wife naked or well-nigh so he could not say, but this was the first time in months that he was perceiving her in an unquestionably sexual context—a context she had deliberately arranged for at that. And Harry James Potter, aged 37, had absolutely no clue what to do about any of it, so he went ahead and retrieved his violently discarded sock from a lampshade instead.
"Well," Hermione went on to elaborate further on this exceedingly perplexing matter of unannounced marital nudity, "my original plan intended for you to be the one to help me get out of that dress, but then you told me to get comfortable and I didn't want it to get all crumpled." She looked at him expectantly. He stared back at her in a manner as far removed from meeting anyone's expectations as humanly possible, floppy sock still in hand, and so Hermione deemed it suitable to add in a measuredly sultry sort of way, "I'm very comfortable right now."
At that the bumfuzzled husband narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Just what exactly have you been doing all morning long with all those dodgy plans of yours?"
The wife, thereby very much caught in flagrante delicto, had just enough decency left in her wicked self to blush ever so slightly. "I told you my mind was in a perambulating sort of mood..."
"Uh-huh," a by now wholly sockless Harry replied as he at long last set about joining his scandalously unclothed wife in bed, himself not at all alleviating the rampant depravity in the Potter household by being clad in no more than a single pair of black cotton briefs. "I'm beginning to suspect that Best Of you mentioned earlier wasn't quite as innocent as you led to me to believe."
"But it really was!" an affronted Hermione insisted, reclining back into the pillows with one hand just above her head and the other resting lightly on top of her belly button. "Mostly, anyway."
Harry, positioning himself on his side right next to her with his head supported on a loose fist, his pinkie brushing slowly back and forth over his mouth, raised one most skeptical eyebrow.
"I'll have you know that I was merely reminiscing about some of our best kisses, okay?" Hermione sprang to her own defense in lieu of anyone else to do it. "Totally sweet and innocent, befitting of a proper lady such as myself."
Harry's eyebrow discovered new heights on the forehead to which it was attached, which just barely was still his own.
"Well, surely you would have to agree," Hermione continued under this immensely stressful spousal scrutiny, "that the kiss that ultimately led to our first time would be an obvious top ten candidate..."
Harry's wayward eyebrow relaxed and in its stead his lips curled upward, though not quite as high of course. "I probably would, yes. That was a good one. Including everything that followed after."
She couldn't help but smirk at him. "See how quickly the mind wanders?"
He chuckled. "So what else you got, missy? Don't tell me that's the only one you remember."
"Please! Not by a long shot." She paused for a moment to put her thoughts in order, because there generally were a lot of them. "I suppose our wedding kiss should be somewhere in the mix, although I personally preferred our wedding night kiss, since with that pesky crowd finally out of the picture we could really go all in. Take it aaall the way, if ya catch my drift..."
Harry shook his head at her in stern disapproval. "It's impossible not to catch your drift right now, you know? What in Merlin's name has gotten into you, you saucy little minx?"
"Well, nothing as of yet," the minx casually answered, throwing a pointed glance right down at his crotch before meeting his eyes again. "But I'm still working on it."
Harry Potter's eyes soon resembled those of a kobold maki as he gaped at his wife, thoroughly scandalized. "Really! This is—I dare say—indeed, most inappropriate, my lady." The lady, meanwhile, was wrestling with a bad case of the mad giggles. "Verily, as it were. Shocked is what I am! Shocked, I say!"
Harry made a valiant effort not to be too obviously hypnotized by the rather salient motion of her breasts that all this excessive laughing caused, and faced with this brazen bedroom obscenity proudly jutted his strikingly aristocratic chin.
"Well, I for one would like to submit our very first kiss for the jury's consideration," he went on to declare quite haughtily. "You know, a kiss that was actually innocent and that didn't lead anywhere except our shared future. It wasn't merely a prelude to something else, it wasn't just foreplay and it didn't end with all that carnal kerfuffle you seem to be so hopelessly obsessed with, woman. It was a thing of itself, and it was pure and wonderful and more magical than any spell I've ever witnessed."
Hermione had managed to compose herself about halfway through his increasingly convincing presentation, her occasional titter notwithstanding, and by the time he reached his closing words was regarding him with rapt attention and a loving expression on her face. "Yes, it was," she agreed quite in earnest. "We honestly had no business kissing like that with zero experience."
"Indeed," he concurred, every last bit of intentional affectation gone from his conduct. "Then again, we always were a great team."
"The best," she pleasurably amended.
They smiled at each other, not for the first time in their lives in absolute agreement.
"What about The Quidditch Kiss?" Harry offered after a moment's ponderous pause.
"Which one?" Hermione asked with a soft chortle. "I gave you a kiss before and after virtually every single match of your professional career. Oh, d'you mean the one after you won your first championship, when you came flying over to pick me up from the stands? You had to pay a fine too, remember? For a breach of safety protocols."
"Psssh, safety protocols!" Harry scoffed. "That kiss was worth every fine they could've thrown at me. But I was actually thinking of the one in the great deluge of '02 just now. Man, that game was the greatest battle I've ever fought that didn't include any weapons, and in the end... perhaps the most soul-crushing defeat I ever suffered." He chuckled quietly in a pensive sort of way, riddled with a distant and half-forgotten sadness. "Still haunts my dreams sometimes, that one."
Harry had taken his once so glorious Knights of Kernow to the European semi-finals for the first time in his career, already marking the club's greatest success in nearly a century. He had carried them on his back, fans and experts alike unanimously agreed. The team was widely deemed to have no business playing on that kind of stage, with a most apparent lack of talent they had—owing to some notorious mismanagement—struggled with for decades, which is why they had offered a certain someone who hadn't played a minute of real Quidditch in over eighteen months a professional contract back in '99. They took a chance on him because there was little risk in it for them, and he did bring a certain marketability with him that was still inextricably linked with his name. Eventually and after numerous improvements to the squad it would all pay off beyond anyone's reasonable expectations, netting them their first titles both domestic and international since 1911. But not on that painfully memorable day back in '02.
Hermione looked at her preoccupied husband affectionately, remembering with him nearly every last detail of that whole stormy mess of a day: that particular smell of grass and freshly painted stands, the faces of crestfallen fans and tears shed quietly in thunder and in rain. The match should by rights have never taken place that day, but the schedule had been judged too tight for the event to be delayed any further, and so they played. And Merlin, did they ever play! Hermione's sole source of interest in any sports had always been the boy who eventually became the man now at her side, but that bloody match on that diluvian day was one of the most intense experiences she had ever had, right down to its well-nigh unendurably dramatic conclusion and that devastating emptiness that settled in its wake.
The match had long ended and nary a soul had been left in the battered arena. The pitch had been utterly soaked, water the earth below could no longer absorb gathering on top of the grass in rippling puddles that came close to turning into a proper pond. And there in the very center of the impossible flood Harry had stood, his irreparably broken Firebolt, treasured gift of his late godfather, still in hand: a motionless silhouette behind translucent curtains of relentless torrents of rain. And she alone had come to him.
"That kiss was one for the ages, though," she said in a wistful whisper, smiling dreamily. "I still wonder where the hell Steven Spielberg was, because that was the most cinematic thing to never be caught on camera."
"You mean unlike the event that preceded it?" Harry cheekily challenged her. "You know, a competitive ball game which pitted two teams of airborne broomstick-riders against one another?"
"Eh," Hermione commented with unsurpassable indifference. "They can easily do that with CGI nowadays. They'd probably make the Quaffle explode every time a goal is scored. Quidditch by Michael Bay."
Harry's subsequent chuckle waned on a long and thoughtful sigh. "We had a pretty bad row prior to that, didn't we?"
"Oh, that's right. We hadn't spoken to each other for... two entire days, was it? Which is still our record."
Harry pondered over that for a moment. "Do you even remember what we were fighting about?"
"I could tell you," Hermione mumbled reluctantly, hiding half her face underneath her arm, "but I don't want to."
"Because it was entirely your fault?"
"Yeah, right," she scoffed at this most preposterous of suggestions. "As if that could ever happen!" They grinned at each other before she added in more serious a fashion, "It's just so utterly irrelevant, that's all."
And smiling still Harry simply replied, "Agreed."
His body so perfectly at ease next to hers, his mind did not cease roving, and he followed his gauzy, elusive threads of thought into a different corner of his dusty old memories.
"Personally," he shared what he uncovered, "I couldn't ever forget the kiss you gave me when you told me you're pregnant, either. Once I fully grasped what you were telling me, I mean. Took me a minute, I know. It wasn't as cinematic as some of our other candidates, but... it certainly didn't mean any less. Must've been, what, three days after my surgery? I was still so far away from everything, lying there in that ugly hospital bed with not a single good thought on my mind. Just going in circles around everything that had been taken from me, everything I had lost. Again left with nothing." He locked eyes with Hermione. "Or so I thought, idiot that I am. Until you pulled me back." He flicked his fingers in the air above her chest. "Just like that."
She regarded him with an appreciative smile. "I would gladly take all the credit for that kind of magic," she said, "but it wasn't quite that simple, if we're being fair. You had a couple of rough months still ahead, and you threw yourself at this house and into the considerable amount of work that had to be done on it practically the moment you were released from the hospital, going completely against the doctor's advice—and worse, your wife's."
Only minimally abashed, he grinned in that lopsided way that would always make him look younger and perhaps more mischievous than he really was. The latter part was still up for debate. "Well, you could've just let me mope about and wallow in self-pity some more, you know, but you had to go all, 'Oi, by the way, mate, I'm all up the pole o'er here so where be my fancy shack at?'"
Hermione let loose a guffaw. "Yeah, that's exactly how that went down."
"Aye," Harry tersely affirmed, teasingly tickling her belly button a little until she laced her fingers through his, half in defense and half for its own sake.
"You know," Hermione contemplatively picked up a thread of thought of her own a short while after, "I might as well add the countless kisses you gave me over the course of these grueling past months to the list, even though they may in sheer quantity ruin that top ten kind of thing we were going for here. But every deceptively casual peck on the cheek or the tip of my nose, every heartening kiss of my hand or the top of my head, every time your lips wordlessly communicated your boundless affection, your unconditional support, giving me all the strength and courage that I lacked, was so immeasurably precious to me. All of those, down to the most fleeting touch of your lips on my skin, and including the ones I cannot well remember for the enfeebled, delirious or even outright unconscious state I too often was in, are now my favorite kisses."
He met her gaze then and saw in her eyes the glistening harbingers of tears he could already feel welling up in his own at the mere sight of his beloved so vulnerable.
"I can only imagine how hard all of this must've been on you," she went on to let her heart speak, "and I know your own struggles, Harry. I know your demons, and I'll always be at your side to face them, for as long as I live. I'll fend them off when you're not looking. I know the way you sometimes doubt yourself down to your very core. I know of the weakness you cannot help but see in yourself. But Harry, my dear, through all of this madness you have been my lifeline. Yours was the voice that kept calling me back. Yours was the heart that kept mine beating when it was so close to giving up. You were the light that guided me through all this suffocating dark. You may falter as you carry me, but you do not fall. You are my strength, Harry, and this you mustn't doubt."
Her voice wavered but didn't quite break, and she put a palm against his chest as if to steady herself on his sure and solid form. "I found it difficult to face Jon and Ellie sometimes, you know. I'm ashamed to admit it. I—I didn't want them to see me like that. At my worst, my weakest, my numbest. I saw the horror in their eyes as they stared at that cadaverous half-ghost of their mother, and they... they don't deserve these scars on their brave little hearts. I wanted to shield them from all of this, from myself in that most undignified condition. Once, only once I almost... almost wanted to scream at them to go and leave me be, leave me to waste away and die... and I'm so ashamed of it now, Harry. I don't know what came over me, what possessed me to harbor any such sickening thoughts. I feel like I—oh, I failed them as a mother, in so many ways..."
"Hey," Harry soothingly breathed against her, his tears flowing freely now as much as hers, and he engulfed her in his arms, holding her close to his radiating warmth. "Don't. Please, don't do this to yourself, Mione. You didn't fail them. You didn't fail anyone. None of this was your fault, and I know you know it because even I know it and you're smarter than I am."
He paused, once again inhaling that infatuating scent of hers. "God, I've blamed myself so much for not being able to fight this battle for you, for not being able to do anything of any use whatsoever. This was the one dragon I couldn't outsmart, the one nemesis I couldn't meet face to face, the one task I could not master. And all the while the life of the one I love the most, along with those two snot-nosed loin gremlins of ours," and there came something of half a sob and half a chortle from Hermione, "was on the line. And I was so agonizingly powerless... watching you, the brightest witch to ever walk the halls of Hogwarts, who can weave artful miracles at the tip of her wand, coming so awfully close to succumbing to so vulgar a disease. No ancient spell from dusty tome, no bottled cure of some arcane elixir could help us... and just like that, magic itself was disenchanted."
He emitted a labored sigh, his breath jittery on his lips as he clung fiercely to his weeping wife, whose hands were clasped together in the warmth between their bodies.
"You've always been the first to point out how... what's that word you like... infinitesimal a part of our lives is actually in our hands," he went on. "Nobody truly is the master of their fate, right? How much people cling to this illusion of control, because sometimes the truth is too hard to take. Well, it was damn near impossible to take for me this time around. It was easy in comparison when it was my fate that spelled doom. When it's yours..."
He shook his head and planted a kiss on the top of hers. "And still we blame ourselves for everything," he whispered. "We did what we could with the hand we got dealt, didn't we? It was a pretty shitty hand at times, but look where we are now. Still in the game. Still going strong. And oh, you have no idea how strong you were even at your weakest. The way you marched through the entire ordeal. Those moments you mentioned? I think our kids didn't see them like that. Years from now they'll look back and realize how strong their mother truly was, going through hell and coming back to brush the dust off her shoulder. Coming back to them.
"And you're right. They are the ones we're here to protect. They're the ones we need to be strong for, and I think we've done a pretty decent job at it so far. It's only in each other that we can face our own weakness and find the strength to beat it, and thus hold on to the strength we need for them. And that's what we do, you and I. That's what we've always done, and what we'll continue to do. For each other and for our children. Until we can finally kick them out of the house."
Hermione laughed even as her sobs yet persisted, and Harry joined her with the last of his tears running down the side of his face, soon to be all but forgotten. She put her lips against his chest, his stalwart heart beating on and on underneath them. She remained like that for a minute, feeling her own heart drop into the calming cadence of his. Perhaps it was the other way around, too. She leaned back with his arms still around her to look up at his beautiful face. Man that he was he'd always object to that particular adjective with reference to himself, of course, but to her it was true and he didn't get any say in the matter anyway.
"I love you quite a bit, did you know that?"
Harry smiled warmly, a playful twinkle in his eyes. "I've had a growing suspicion over the past twenty-odd years or so," he answered. "And by the time Ellie was born I was like, 'That clingy witch is just never gonna leave my digs, is she?'"
She rolled her eyes at him, grinning even as she did so, and he once again buried his lips in the fragrant locks of her hair to plant one more kiss on the top of her head.
"Another one for the list," Hermione mumbled against his chest, from which a chuckle rose in response.
"You really need to raise your standards for that list."
She was quiet for a moment, and Harry knew she was busy thinking because that's what she usually did whenever she wasn't unconscious. "Say, if you had to pick only one, out of them all, which one would be your favorite kiss of all? Our very best one?"
"Oof," Harry assessed the challenge quite aptly. "Just the one? That's tough."
"I know," she agreed. "Maybe we should take it down a notch with all that bothersome kissing business. I mean, seriously, we're approaching forty here. It's high time for our marriage to gradually disintegrate, anyway."
"Not gonna happen, silly," he determined, pulling her back against him in a tight embrace. "You're stuck with me, whether you like it or not."
Hermione heaved a despondent sigh out of her human straitjacket. "Fine, I guess."
And like that they were laughing in earnest once more, both of them together.
"Still," she soon went back to her pending question, "if you had to pick just one..."
"Phew," Harry exhaled, which really was just another way of saying oof. "Just gimme a minute here. I'll have to visualize and compare. Maybe reenact a little, too."
"We're only counting kisses on the mouth or in the general facial area right now, Harry," Hermione thought it advisable to remind him of the official rules, such as they were entirely made up by her on the spot. "No other body parts allowed."
"Aw, things were just getting interesting in my head..."
"You take your time, then. I'll just be over here waiting for the reenactment to commence."
And with the last faintly shimmering traces of tears fading away on their peaceful faces, leaving only vaguely persisting smiles in their stead, they shared an intimate and deeply soothing silence for a little while, Hermione still nestled up to Harry with his free hand moving gently, slowly up and down the side of her most familiar body, from the wide curve of her thigh and hip, through the dip of her slender waist all the way up to the back of her shoulder, and then again in reverse. When a pleasurable if not explicitly sexual moan eventually escaped from deep within Hermione's breast in appreciation of his ongoing caress, it was a bit like Beethoven's Ode to Joy in Harry's brain. The orchestra had a mind of its own, however.
"Say... Harry, darling," she began harmlessly enough, although a coinciding squeeze Harry felt at his left buttocks negligibly belied the apparent innocence, "I was wondering, just in a general sense, you know, to get a clearer picture of where exactly our weekend might be headed, so that I may prepare myself accordingly, whether, and I'm getting to the point now, you were at all planning on ever taking my numerous hints here—any one of them, really. Between tarting myself up for you and not wearing any underwear, polishing my legs to the point of making them look like sparkling guiding lines that all but state 'This way, please', some highly sophisticated innuendos thrown in here and there for good measure, and finally awaiting you in bed completely starkers, I think you have a rather accommodating selection to choose from at your leisure."
Harry swallowed, then cleared his spontaneously rather constricted throat. "Yeah," he stalled for time as Hermione repositioned herself to be able to properly look the bloke in the eye, famously evasive not solely above a Quidditch pitch. "I've been a bit of a muppet here, haven't I? Don't worry, I did not suddenly relapse into eighteen-year-old me, who was fundamentally incapable of recognizing even the most blatant of sexual advances and couldn't have said what precisely constituted a flirtatious exchange if his life depended on it—which luckily it never did. So, uhm... yes, I did actually have a feeling you were... getting at something here."
She giggled. "I'm a wee bit relieved to hear that, I must admit."
He managed a strained smile, and the underlying apprehension did not escape Hermione's attention, which is probably why he went on to say, "It's just—I'm a bit... apprehensive here. I didn't know—" He groaned, already exasperated with himself. He was relapsing into his eighteen-year-old self. Eighteen-year-old Harry Potter had been a nice enough chap, or so Harry Potter liked to think. Awfully daft, though.
"I mean, the last time we had sex," he purposefully set out anew, "was quite a while ago, for starters. Before you began your treatment, if you recall. Before... all of that. And we were both crying in the end, lying right here with our arms wrapped around each other in the dark and not the faintest clue what lay ahead of us. Knowing only that we likely wouldn't be together that way for some time. It was as if our bodies were saying goodbye to each other even as our hearts didn't understand why we would do any such thing. Goodbye for a little while. There was beauty in it, I think, despite its sadness. Or maybe because of it. But it's a tough spot to restart from. D'you know what I mean?"
She nodded, her eyes never leaving his face.
"And the thing is," he forced himself to go on with some palpable effort, "along with everything else... I really, really missed you like that as well. Physically, I mean. Sexually. And that's hard for me to admit, because it's just so fucking embarrassing. Not missing you, of course, but—I mean, my spouse's in the hospital, clinging to that last fading spark of life that's in her, while I... well, I was here, some nights, feeling so damned lonely and missing you so much it hurt. And sometimes, occasionally, I couldn't help but think of you the way you used to be, and of the two of us together... and it burned me up inside. Until I found myself sitting here with a soiled tissue and a sullied conscience, feeling like some vile degenerate who can't control his stupid, primitive urges. And I was so bloody angry. Angry with the world, with life itself. Angry with myself, most of all, for being so fucking useless. Damn, maybe I should've given that potion a try I once read about back in school. Forgot what it's called. But I doubt some kind of Anti-Viagra would've made me feel any less pathetic. Bloody hell—"
"Harry," Hermione hastily interrupted him at that point. He had averted his face as much as he could entwined with her like that, but with one comforting hand at his cheek she gently guided it back to her. "My dear Harry, do you honestly expect me to judge you for any of that?" A ruminative pause. "You really have no idea what it means to me to hear this most outrageous confession of yours, do you?"
He had a look on his face that already stated plainly what the delayed shaking of his head merely underscored, and Hermione sighed and gave him a tender whiff of a kiss on the lips, which momentarily confused him even more. Some things never truly change, and when it came to these idiosyncrasies of her husband, Hermione was glad of it.
"Let me put it this way," she thankfully went forth to explain. "Being too weak to use the toilet without the help of my husband wasn't exactly a very flattering position to be in, to put it mildly. At times I wondered what keeping my life was worth if it meant surrendering even my last iota of dignity. You know better than anyone how fond I've always been of dignity. Great luxury to have, as it turns out. And then, on my first day home during that worst stretch, when it fell to you to take care of me the way so far only nurses who by now would most likely be hard-pressed to remember either my name or my face had done, and you were literally wiping my arse because I was too flipping weak to do it myself, the very first thought that shot through my constantly weary and drug-muddled mind was: 'Well, so much for our sex life. My husband is never again going to look at me with even a hint of desire in his eyes.'
"Yes, I'm aware I just made that sound somewhat funny, but the truth of the matter is that for a while there, in those moments when I was at my very worst and looked like a walking corpse, it was a very real fear in me. The possibility that I would never regain my former self, and to lose you like that. To lose us and everything we were, or really just any single one of the numberless parts of us that I cherish beyond words. I couldn't accept that we would come out of this with less than what we'd had before. I wasn't ready, wasn't willing to give up even the tiniest part of us.
"And of course you didn't lust after me the way I looked then. Goodness, it would have been a trifle worrisome if you had, honestly. But to hear that none of it stopped you from thinking about me that way, from wanting me still in a past and future tense... that is incredibly valuable to me. So don't you be ashamed, my darling. There's no reason to. Not for you, anyway. I'm the grown woman who needed assistance on the potty here, so..."
He swiftly hushed her with a kiss of his own this time, their lips spreading into toothy grins even as they were pressed against one another. "Let's be done with it, then. No more shame between us."
"Agreed," she said, wrapping herself around him a bit tighter still. "No more shame."
They remained for a while in still and tranquil harmony, their wordlessness saying all there was to say and more. When after minutes of sleep's tender embracement slowly but surely surrounding them both Hermione's voice was heard again, it was—much to Harry's eye-opening surprise—an alluring purr.
"You know," she began, her fingers moving smoothly down the curvature of his spine, "considering all the unspeakable things that have transpired in this very bed and elsewhere, I'd argue we surely must've stopped caring about shame a long, long time ago. 'Tis a silly concept for more pious folk than us, methinks." And as if to emphasize her point she sucked his bottom lip between her teeth before letting it flop back into place glistening with her saliva. Meanwhile, her hand had lithely wound its way from the back to the front of his pelvis, where it ended up cupping something. Firmly.
A gulp went up and down Harry's pipes. "Right," he concisely acknowledged the situation.
There was an arch smile on Hermione's adorably flushed face as she looked up at him while her hand was more boldly exploring its stiffening surroundings.
"I'm getting tingly," she observed in a breathy whisper, her eyes fluttering shut.
"Yeah?" was all he managed to croak.
"I haven't felt this in too long a time," she said, the pensive, downright analytical tone of her voice strikingly and quite amusingly at odds with the ongoing motions of her venturesome hand. "For months my libido was clinically dead. For weeks on end I was in a condition in which it was physically impossible for me to experience any such urges, and in the brief interludes between treatment cycles I was too utterly exhausted and sore to even consider acting on the faintest sexual impulse I might've had. I still thought about you, about us and our intimacy. I still found solace in those memories. But the hazy distance at which at times they appeared frightened me. So for all intents and purposes I was basically missing my ability to fully miss you in all the ways a human being can possibly miss another human being, in case I didn't yet seem clingy enough to you."
A light-headed smile took shape on his glowing features, and close to his as her lips already were she deemed it convenient enough to give him another kiss, just for how irresistible he was.
"I was so relieved to find these desires reawakening inside of me over the last couple of weeks," she told him, excitement now fully taking over the sober introspection. "And I can't even begin to put into words just how happy I was this morning, more than any of the incrementally improving days before, when I looked into the mirror and really, truly liked what I saw again. And that's when I knew that I wanted today to be the day. I felt ready, I was excited and I couldn't wait for you to come home to me."
Harry chuckled a bit clumsily, since Hermione's hand had not at all neglected its stroking activity. "And hence the lack of productivity."
She beamed at him in tacit and perfectly unabashed confirmation, almost as devilish as she was adorable.
"Are you—are you really sure, though?" Harry asked her, neither his hesitance nor his concerns entirely disposed of yet, although his tumescent erection was already way ahead of him. "Is this a good idea?"
"I have talked to Dr. Enys and Dr. Harris about this," Hermione informed him, her hand reputably enough pausing in recognition of this serious and hardly tantalizing medical intermezzo, "and they both gave me their unreserved blessing. My mind's been getting there for a while now; my body was just lagging behind a bit. I needed some time to settle back into it, you know? To get in tune with it again. Or maybe the other way around. But either way, I really feel like it's all there now. My mind wants to, and my body finally gets it again. Which my mind is really happy about. There are no medical concerns anymore, and I don't think there's going to be any pain in our way. I, uh... ran some preliminary tests earlier. Nothing you wouldn't want to miss, don't worry. Strictly professional. Mostly. And if against my expectations there's even the slightest sign of discomfort, well, then you're gonna have one sexually frustrated wife to deal with."
"So I should keep the sedatives at hand then," Harry quipped. "Just in case."
A guttural chuckle came from her that Harry reacted to on a visceral level, and then it grew quiet again and they just looked at each other with Hermione's hand remaining in a rather incriminating place with its motions still suspended, waiting for something to happen. Sometimes, however, when nobody does anything, nothing does in fact happen.
"So you're sure," Harry stated flatly, obtusely even, causing both of them to laugh out loud again there amidst their pillows, and somehow, in that moment, it made them both feel twenty years younger again in the very best of all possible ways.
Then Hermione's expression slowly changed and her eyes as a matter of course captured his, the intensity of her arresting gaze boring into Harry with immediate effect, and there was an unforced sensual quality about it that no deliberate act of seduction could ever match. It was just her, utterly unveiled.
"Harry," she said quite simply, her voice at its lowest and most mellifluous, ensnaring him without affectation and without the slightest conscious effort, "I know you love me, and I know you still need me. But right now... right now I really need you to want me."
He met her blazing gaze unflinchingly, and there was no question that he was hers, all hers, as his fingers gently, lovingly caressed her rose-tinted cheek. And he was drowning, burning, perishing and born anew in the smoldering depths of her eyes as he lowered his parted lips onto her expectant own, making her his, all his, and when they finally met so again did their scarred yet still radiant souls, their many times tested yet forever undaunted hearts. Starved for each other over months of deprivation, their rekindled passion surged and soon soared. There was deep-felt tenderness in this intimate reunion of kindred spirits, but there was even greater hunger.
Hermione would later be unable to say what the hell she was thinking, why or even how she was thinking at all in that moment of erupting passion, with her entire body coming back to exultant life in the arms of her man with unbridled force, but in between moans of an unequivocally sexual nature she actually interposed with a mind so dizzy any coherence of either thought or speech was an impressive if entirely superfluous feat, "You didn't give me your answer."
A for various reasons understandably disoriented Harry came up from the nape of her neck with her long fingers still entangled in his hopelessly disheveled hair. With his brain taking a second or two to get a bare minimum of emergency neurons in order, his wildly unfocused expression was rather priceless.
"Our best kiss," she graciously enough elucidated her meaning.
He blinked slowly, looked lost for a moment longer, and then, quite abruptly, was all there with—judging by the enlightened look on his face—the entirety of the universe at last figured out, smiling that inimitable smile that a long, long time ago one Hermione Jane Granger had unwittingly fallen for years before realizing it was the person on whose face alone it could be found that she was irrevocably in love with.
"The next one," Harry James Potter then said to his wife, already closing that eminently unnecessary distance between their lips once more. "Always the next one."
And forth he went to prove his point beyond all doubt, for today, after all, was unquestionably a good day in Godric's Hollow.
~ The End ~
Obligatory Footnote (you may or may not know the drill)
• Musical references: This story's epigraph is comprised of the first couple of lines of the Beatles song Here Comes the Sun, written by George Harrison and originally released on their 1969 album Abbey Road.
In addition, various other songs are alluded to over the course of the story. Specifically School's Out by Alice Cooper (1972), Space Oddity by David Bowie (1969), I Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher (1965) and The Times They Are A-Changin' by Bob Dylan (1964). Last but most certainly not least, the Ode to Joy, fourth and final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (1824), text written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785, is mentioned directly by name.
• Literary Allusions: Sprinkled in there somewhere, more or less subtle and on occasion slightly transformed references are made to Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken (1916), William Ernest Henley's poem Invictus (1888), as well as the novels Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce.
• People in space: As of the moment of publication, the precise answer to Niall's question about astronauts—which, if we're being totally honest, Harry really should've known off the top of his head just like the rest of us—is 536, three of which only completed sub-orbital flight. (Amateurs.) 533 then actually reached Earth orbit, 24 traveled beyond low Earth orbit and a solid dozen walked on the moon, which makes this entire group of Muggles considerably more special than wizarding folk. Suck it up, ya wand-waggling weirdos!
• Some serious Hollywood history: Two movie directors of all but disparate repute are mentioned by name in the story above. One is Michael Bay, exalted auteur behind countless unforgettable classics of cinema and unparalleled milestones of the visual arts, such as Bad Boys, Armageddon, Pearl Affleck and circa seventeen Transformers movies. The other is that Spielberg guy. I think he made a movie once about a Jewish shark from outer space who stole the Ark of the Covenant and had a close encounter with some artificial Nazi dinosaurs on D-Day or something. I dunno.
• Motto, motto on the wall: In the unlikely case any of my esteemed readers should find themselves offended at Harry's rather biting comments about a particular kind of interior decoration: don't be. I'm aware being offended is quite en vogue these days, but there's really no need for you to join the self-aggrandizing frenzy. It is, after all, perfectly possible to be a decent person despite a thoroughly questionable taste in wall adornments.
• About Longshanks: In spite of (knowingly) naming their cat after Edward I, and their daughter (coincidentally) after the king's mother, Harry and Hermione are not intended to be thought of as the biggest living fans of Edward Longshanks. 'Tis a jest, no more. And maybe the household feline does in fact have unusually long legs which alone would warrant the name.
The question remains, however... could he actually be the biological offspring of Crookshanks? Was the latter still fertile? Was he castrated? What about all that half-kneazle business? How might that work genetically? Do they have barbed penises, too? And where's Mrs Crookshanks? Pray tell, how and when did they meet? How was their first date? Was it like Lady and the Tramp, or more along the lines of Fritz the Cat? Did they stay together? If not, how did Harry and Hermione end up with the litter of kittens? And where are the siblings?
Well, folks, all of this and more is obviously going to be the subject of my upcoming Miltonic epic poem in blank verse, Of Claws and Shanks, focusing especially on the fascinating nature of penile spines. Stay tuned. (Please don't.)
This story would perhaps not have been outright impossible, but surely far more arduous to write without the constant accompaniment of the often tender, sometimes sweeping compositions of Brian Crain. He's subscribed to me on Spotify for some reason, too. He wouldn't be if he'd ever heard me rocking the Theremin, but that's beside the point. Check him out if you have a predilection for piano and strings. Or maybe just start learning the Theremin. It's about as close as you'll ever come to feeling like a real witch or wizard.