A Minute with the Rising Sun
"Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving."~ John Dewey
He had always imagined they would fight the war together. Not just with Hermione, but with Ron and Ginny and Neville and Colin – all of what they had once called "Dumbledore's Army." But it wasn't to be. As Hermione had said in their first year, the battle against Voldemort was his and no one else's. Everything – all of the death and destruction that littered the war, the heavy burden of loss, the sleepless nights, the organised battles – was just a conspiring of the world to put into action the prophecy, to force a confrontation that was long overdue.
It didn't matter in the end how many had died on either side. That was what hurt most in the end. Every death was completely and utterly unnecessary. Cedric Diggory in his forth year at Hogwarts. Sirius Black the year after. None of them needed to die and none of the glory tagged onto their names by the Daily Prophet changed anything. He knew their deaths were meaningless; they contributed nothing to Voldemort's ultimate defeat.
It was slow, gradual numbing of his heart. It wasn't until he woke up in the Temple of Isis, two months after the defeat of Voldemort having spent a month in a death-like sleep, with a second scar crossing his first that he realised that everyone was gone. Blank cards, shiny foil-wrapped chocolates and half a greenhouse of flowers surrounded him. He was also very, very alone. There was no Dumbledore to explain exactly how he had vanquished Voldemort; he had to read the article about him in the Daily Prophet, ironically written by the infamous Rita Skeeter. Harry had reservations about the article's speculations, but he gathered some truth from it. He was found in the deserts of Egypt, in the middle of a newly made crater on Halloween. His wand had been reduced to splinters and still warm ashes had encircled him.
All the evidence of his final battle had been as ephemeral as those who had once fought alongside him. Forgotten. The desert and its moving sea of dunes soon washed over the crater with its waves of sand; the ashes were soon scattered by the desert winds. Nothing but him remained of that final confrontation.
He remembered little. Insults. Pain. Green light.
Sometimes he imagined what had happened, fabricating a truth with his many other encounters with the Dark Lord. Sometimes he simply tried to forget. Now, he could no longer tell what was his memory and what was his imagining.
Due to some morbid sense of humour, the Dark Lord had left a will. Voldemort had left him everything he had ever owned. Harry didn't understand it, but he no longer tried to. He periodically donated large portions of the vault contents to the rebuilding of the Wizarding community and other charities, but the ridiculously high interest rate and various shares seemed only to spawn more. The lawyer had tried to explain the strange workings of Wizarding finance, but reason eluded him. The only thing he dealt with personally was the Riddle House though more manor than house after Voldemort had augmented it with magic.
The emptiness of his hospital room convinced him he had nowhere to go. The Dursleys no longer welcomed him; with Voldemort defeated, he had no need for the protection of blood they offered. The remains of Grimmauld Place were too frightening to contemplate. It had been a battlefield for many of the clashes between the forces of Dumbledore, the Ministry and Voldemort himself. It was the first place that fell, the first that was re-conquered and the first to be abandoned. The bloodstains wouldn't wash off; the stone remembered.
Voldemort kept the Riddle House free from bloodshed. Besides the slightly gothic decor, there was nothing especially wrong about the place. That perhaps what scared Harry most when he entered the manor: the thought that Voldemort wasn't entirely inhuman in his tastes. Neither was the snake motif abused in any way. Even with the inconceivably complex wards about the place, it was almost normal.
He had moved in as soon as the Medics agreed to let him leave the hospital. The emptiness of the ward was unbearable. Not even the Press had disturbed him then. The Riddle House was no less empty, but the dark brooding looks of the walls was comforting it their cold way. The same way the raindrops cried for him when the storms came, the walls mourned with him.
Harry sat, staring into the empty fireplace. He didn't want a fire; cold was a sensation, it was one of the few things he still felt these days.
The war was too complex to contemplate in any terms beside that of deaths. Those were the only moments Harry remembered: when someone would come up to him and tell him the news. It was always the same – the same expression, the same grief – only the names changed.
Perhaps that was how everyone drifted away. He didn't want to know what happened to them. Harry wanted to remember them the way he had left them. He wanted to think of them without feeling any pain, guilt or loss. The only way to do that was to loose them. If he lost them to more mundane means – the lack of contact – then he wouldn't notice their death. He could pretend they were still alive.
It became easier after he left Hogwarts at the end of his seventh year; there was no need to see them every day. It worked, he supposed, since less three months afterwards, he had somehow defeated Voldemort in the middle of Egypt.
He liked to think Ron was out there somewhere, living in a house not unlike the Burrow raising his own family of redheads. Luna was probably editing Quibbler whilst humming "Weasley is our King" under her breath. In his mind, she never outgrew her fondness for the song, the same way Colin never stopped carrying a camera around his neck. Ginny was probably happily married to someone, raising children and cooking up feasts the way her mother used to. Cho would have found someone who was willing to cope with the demons of her past, someone who could sooth her fears. Fred and George were prosperous jokers, dabbling in showbiz occasionally...
He thought about Hermione as little as possible. He didn't know where to place her in his perfect world. He had at first thought of her married to someone, maybe Ron or Viktor Krum, but the thought soon became unbearable. Neither could he entertain the thought of her dating anyone. He could see her teaching classes of eager students, click her tongue at them as they made mistakes, but as much as possible he wanted to pretend that she only did that for him in their more mundane moments of schoolwork, when he wasn't saving the world. He liked to think of her going to Quidditch matches, but the idea of her cheering on someone else, worrying about someone else, soon became repulsive.
So he preserved the memories he had of her in the library alone, poring over huge books, sporadically pausing to scrawl notes on a piece of parchment. She was most beautiful that way, in her element, her hands moving about the books with purpose and an effortless grace, her eyes intent on the page and her expression alternating between triumph and frustration. He could almost hear her sigh of frustration as she pulled out a penknife to reshape the battered nib of her quill.
She was most alive then, like a tiger stalking and a cheetah giving chase. Tigers and cheetahs though, magnificent creatures normally with lazy grace and beautiful patterned fur, but the image one will never forget is not that of them parading behind glass cages in the zoo or them dozing on sun-warmed rock and beneath shady trees, it is when they are in their elements: a tiger stalking and a cheetah chasing. In the same way she was beautiful every moment, whether hurrying between classes or garbed in periwinkle-blue robes, but she was most beautiful, most graceful when between the pages of her book, stalking knowledge and chasing answers.
He remembered things about her that he knew he have forgotten, or never noticed in the first place: the way she tapped the nib of the quill on the blotting paper when she was impatient, the way she bit the left side of her lower lip when she was thinking hard, the way she fiddled with the top corner of the page. He knew she always dipped her quill into the ink at the end of every other line instead of waiting until the ink faded and would scrape the nib against the edge of the inkpot twice instead of once.
What saddened him most these days was that he couldn't quite paint himself into this perfect picture of her.
The invitations came as soon as the people felt it was safe again, as soon as the respectable period of mourning had passed. He had only three months of solitude. The House elves who ran the place kept out of sight. He paid them more than he should, but her voice at the back of his mind told him they deserved it.
He was only eighteen, after all, hardly the age to bury himself in depression. The Medic who visited him periodically reasoned that he should go out and enjoy himself. Let others see his new scar and celebrate. As the Medic spoke to him, calmly and logically, it was another voice that he heard in his mind – one shrill, but brutally frank, infinitely patient, insistently logical.
He replied to the first invitation with an effusiveness he didn't feel. "Honoured by your invitation... would be delighted to join you in your celebration..." The Medic was ecstatic and told him he was making progress. The House elves gladdened at the prospect of visitors and entertaining gossip. Mr and Mrs Pickering were overjoyed. It seemed as though he was the only one who wasn't on the verge of carolling with joy.
The ballroom was festooned with orange. The mirrors that peeked out from behind the pumpkin orange drapes gave the illusion of space, making the enormous ballroom look as though it lasted forever. Floating Jack-o'-lanterns cast an orange glow on everything; Harry guessed it was in honour of his victory over Voldemort on Halloween. Despite the lingering cold of February, the women lost no opportunity to flaunt their flesh. Most dressed in black and orange to compliment the Halloween theme. Others chose green, hoping to match Harry's green dress robes.
Whilst the crowd gathered around him, offering their carefully phrased congratulations and comments about the weather, Harry found himself searching for a figure dressed in periwinkle blue. The stares at his scar had always been annoying, but now that he had gained another, it got worse.
"You probably won't recognise me, Mr Potter. I'm Terrance Tallulah. You saved me last autumn. May I present my daughter, Shoshanna?"
"Honoured, Miss Shoshanna." Harry bowed slightly, playing the part foisted on him. It wasn't difficult now that he had grasped the basics of what was expected of him.
Shoshanna giggled; Hermione never giggled like that.
"Do you study at Hogwarts?" Harry sipped his glass of Firewhisky.
"Yes. It's lovely." She smiled a perfectly even smile. "The lake..."
Memories of his fourth year flooded his mind. The many walked they shared around the lake, letting words draw closer the distance between them. Harry downed the rest of his glass, hoping to drown the memories with the magic-laced alcohol.
"How's Madame Pince?" The question felt inane.
"Do you mean the librarian?" She giggled again, tossing her brown hair. The girl – he couldn't remember her name anymore – looked a little like her.
"I don't hang around the library that much, but I believe she's retiring to the archive next term. No children, more books, she says," elaborated the girl, sipping her cocktail between sentences. She exchanged his empty glass for a full one.
She resembled her a lot more from the side. Or perhaps it was just the Firewhisky.
"What do you do?" His voice wasn't slurring yet. He could still see her. It couldn't be the Firewhisky.
"Play Quidditch. I'm not very good." She looked up at him through her blue-tinged eyelashes. Her hand danced at her neckline. "Gin said I should stop polishing my broom and pay more attention to my flying skills."
The innuendo eluded him. "Gin?"
"Virginia Weasley. You know her, don't you? She used to be quite friendly with you. And that Muggle-born witch..."
Harry gulped down his glass. The memories were welling again. Fighting the flood of memories with more liquid was hardly a cunning plan, but then, he was a Gryffindor and they weren't famous for cunning plans. The only plan he had to kill Voldemort was to barge into the Riddle House and wave his wand at the Dark Lord. Strange, it didn't disturb him so much to think about the past now.
"Gin's been associating herself with a Slytherin, you know," she said in a dramatic whisper. "Dragged him out of Azkaban herself, they say. She won't tell us anything, of course, it's been all hush-hush..."
Harry made interested noises.
"I share a room with her, so I can tell you for sure she wears a ring on a chain around her neck – ring with, like, the Malfoy family crest on it. Like snakes and all. She never takes it off, but we girls notice things, like, you know. Ginny really should tell us about it. Makes it seem all, like, dark and mysterious."
Someone, probably a waiter, had refilled his glass with Firewhisky. Harry only noticed it was full again when he placed it to his lips and downed it all. The room wasn't exactly spinning, but when the thought of Ginny with a Malfoy didn't shock, he had to be more than slightly tipsy. The news didn't seem real. Perhaps Draco had a brother somewhere who wasn't as horrible as him. Perhaps...
Harry shook himself mentally. He couldn't seem to loose the image of Ginny playing happy families with someone normal, someone who had no connection with the Dark Arts, someone like Neville or Colin or Dean Thomas. Despite having spent time teaching her hexes and seeing her fly as Seeker for the Gryffindor team, he couldn't forget the little girl self he used to see... It was just a rumour. Rita Skeeter used to accuse him of all sorts of things; putting something into words – even printed words – doesn't make it real.
"She doesn't talk much these days," continued the girl. "Not even to that Looney girl. Ginny used to be quite friendly with her. In some ways, I suppose, they're practically family..."
Harry didn't remember drinking another glass of Firewhisky, but he seemed to be constantly putting down empty glasses. He didn't want to think about the past, the people he used to know, especially the best friend who knew him better than he knew himself. He didn't want to speculate about their love lives and their prospective children. The endings he had assigned to them in his mind was enough, he didn't want to wake up and find all his dreams were merely fiction. He didn't want to know that even after Voldemort's demise, they would lead very real, very unhappy lives, that still had arguing, money problems, unrequited love, bad grades, unemployment...
"Do you dance?"
"Of course." Her smile soon turned into a giggle.
Harry's dance skills hadn't exactly improved over the years, but the girl – Shoshanna, or something – didn't seem to mind all that much. She giggled, tossed her hair and remarked about nonsensical things that didn't register in his mind. She was invasive in manner; everything about her – her perfume, her body, her brittle voice – assaulted his sense, making him focus on the now rather than what could have been.
"You're warm," he said with wonderment. He reflected on his cold library, its empty fireplace and the way the shadow in the piles of cold ashes stared up at him.
"You'll find out how warm in just a moment." She giggled at that and smiled, showing perfectly even teeth. She wasn't the only one who had perfectly even teeth, but Harry couldn't seem to remember who else did. He cursed the Firewhisky under his breath; the memory felt important.
He didn't sleep with her; she was after all, too young. He did sleep with the next woman he danced with, though. She was three years older than him and brown-haired. He soon bored her, or maybe he was the one who became bored; a technical detail of no consequence. Someone else found him. And there was another someone after her.
It was in this way he started collecting a large number of ex-girlfriends. He steered clear of women who were in any way related to his past and women who couldn't afford loosing this strange game of love. He toyed with women who would toy with him. They paraded him in front of the cameras and the gutter press; he kept them to warm his bed at night and ward away the nightmares. He never remembered their names and they never stayed for breakfast. None of it mattered; he would never be cold again.
The turning point in his rakish lifestyle was a returned letter – a letter that he did not send. The owl who bore it looked very much like Hedwig, but Harry knew it wasn't her. Hedwig has vanished two years ago with a letter to Hermione. He liked to imagine them living happily together, though the idea of Hermione ignoring his letter wasn't one he dwelled on often.
Though it seemed familiar, he didn't recognise the handwriting on the envelope. It was a grand flourish in green ink, not the emerald green of the Hogwarts letter, but a cold green, not unlike that of a snake's eyes. Harry shuddered at the memory. The recipient's name and address was too smudged to be read, but it was his name and address on the back of the envelope.
Curious and more than slightly suspicious, Harry opened the heavy envelope and unfolded the letter. The parchment was of a high quality, but the beautiful flourish that decorated the envelope was squashed together, ruffled, hurried. It read:
Autumn is nearing. The manor is so quiet I can hear the rustle of the ghosts' robes and the rustle of the leaves though the latched windows. I hope to seal some of that serenity within this envelope and send it to you in your raucous household.
The trees outside are enchanted to stay forever green; Mother doesn't like the idea of autumn and its reminder of dying. She doesn't mind death itself much, but dying seemed a painful sort of pastime. I've been trying to undo the spell, though. Red is a much prettier colour. I hope all that leaf-raking is proving to be as much of an inspiration for your art as you once said. Don't expect any sympathy though for the sore backs and calloused hands.
I have also been trying to discover the meaning of life. I was enlightened yesterday, but your letter made me forget. Mankind is poorer because of you; all I can remember is that it has a lot to do with black leather, toast and whipped cream. This is, of course, not a hint about my birthday present.
You said that if one closed one's eyes and a smile still lingers on one's lips, one's lover is thinking of one, as though as kiss across the distance. I hope smirks count.
It continued for three more pages. Harry leafed to the end where it finally finished with:
With more love than yesterday and hopefully even more tomorrow,
PS: I plagiarised the first paragraph from a collection of letters Mother has been forcing me to read. I hope you have been suitably sceptical about the horrific thought that I have grown a romantic bone..
He forwarded the letter in another envelope and tried not to think about it. He got Kritzer, the House elf to write the envelope, mimicking the handwriting on the envelope. If someone wanted to conceal their identity with his, it should hardly be his place to blunder in their plans. He included a note with the letter in his own scribble: The real Harry Potter has much messier handwriting.
She walked back so casually into his life, it was as though she had never left. She appeared on his doorstep, bushy hair in disarray, wrapped in dark red cloak without even a first glance at his new scar. She leaned negligently on her broomstick, a battered Comet Two Sixty, and a large, lumpy bag (evidently full of books) squatted at her feet. Her pumpkin-patterned scarf fluttered in the autumn wind. Her cheeks were pink from the cold and her eyes were bright with enthusiasm. He could almost pretend it hadn't been over two years since he had bid her farewell on Platform Nine and Three Quarters. He could forget the lingering kiss she had planted on his cheek and the feeling of the soft skin of her oft-furrowed brow against his lips when he returned it.
"Hermione?" His voice was hoarse.
"Hello, Harry. Mind if I use your library?" She sounded cheerful, almost casual. She hadn't changed; he was grateful.
"Of course," he croaked, shuffling aside reluctantly to let her in. He ceremonially closed the door, took her cloak and hung it up. "Do you want a tour of the place?"
"It's alright. I'll find my way around." She sounded too comfortable, too at home; one wasn't supposed to sound comfortable in Lord Voldemort's ex-headquarters. Her voice filled the emptiness of the hallway; it felt complete.
Harry led her to the library anyway. Hermione remained silent. He could pretend he was leading the way down the halls of Hogwarts in the dead of night, in search for a midnight snack or something equally innocent. He could almost forget the two years of scarlet affairs he had indulged him; the past seemed very much alive with her presence.
She dropped her things on a chair immediately and gave her full attention to the shelves of books. Harry never noticed there were that many. Coiling around the room, they seemed like enormous, colourful snakes; their knowledge as dangerous as venom. Hermione's fingers danced on the spines as she read the titles. Just like the old days, he could never compete with the library for her attention.
After having collected a small pile of books, she returned to the table, heaped them next to her things and sat down. Taking a deep breath, as though about to plunge into water, she opened the first tome and read, allowing the breath to come hissing out as she eyes scanned the first sentence on the first line on the first page. It felt momentous to Harry, as though it was the beginning of something vast and ungraspable.
Harry watched Hermione read. She was like an apparition, not ethereal or ghostly, but as real as a dream at dawn. Her hair was longer, bushier; her eyes were older, wiser, but in all other ways she hadn't changed at all. She still bit her lip when thinking though something especially complex and she still toyed with the top left corner of a page as she read. Around her still lurked that aura of reasoned panic, the eternal paradox.
Hermione looked up expectantly at him.
Harry avoided her gaze. Turning to his desk, he shuffled the papers on it. Most of them were junk mail, invitations and fan mail. He hadn't sorted it out for a long time, having discarded the mail on his desk and forgotten about it for the past few days. Now was as good a time as any to organise it.
Among the most recent was a scented invitation from Lady Nedren. The party would be tonight. Olivette would probably be there. Blond, blue-eyed Olivetti had read Hogwarts: A History once.
Harry glanced at the reading Hermione. Tongue sticking out with concentration, she was writing something on a length of parchment that lolled over the side of the table. Hermione had definitely read Hogwarts: A History more times than Olivetti.
Scrunching up the invitation into a small ball, Harry smiled to himself. He then asked a very surprised Kritzer cook for two that night; he hadn't dined at home for the past two years.
The grandfather clock sang out noon with the mournful voice of an Augurey. Harry shuddered at the low throbbing cry; after over two years in the Riddle House, he still hadn't gotten used to the resident Augurey in the clock. He had thought it was just magic until he had spotted Kritzer feeding it one day with. Hermione seemed to remain at ease.
"Do you eat?" asked Harry
"Hmm..." Hermione continued reading.
"Eat. You know, food."
"Of course, Harry," said Hermione absently, turning the page.
Harry waited a moment before trying again. "Are you hungry, Hermione?"
"Sorry, Harry?" Hermione finally looked up. "What did you say again?"
"Lunch. You hungry?"
Hermione stared blankly at him for moment before the meaning of the words sunk in. "Now?"
"It's noon. Do you want some food?"
"Yes," said Harry, bemused.
Hermione smiled. "Can I eat here?"
"I can ask Kritzer to bring it."
"Please." She returned to the book (The Magic of Avalon) and rapid note taking.
Kritzer brought sandwiches shortly and they ate together in the library. Hermione wolfed down her food, eager to get back to work.
Harry spent the afternoon binning mail and staring at Hermione from behind the larger pages of parchment. He listened to the scratching of her battered quill on the parchment, a very pleasant sound that somehow filled the high-ceilinged library with life. She seemed to belong there, beside
Hermione seemed oblivious of his attention and left before dinner, giving her sincerest thanks.
"Can I borrow this one?" she asked as she rolled up the many yards of now filled parchment.
"The Prophecies of Merlin and their Ambiguities."
"No." It meant that she would be back tomorrow to read it again. Harry tried not to smile.
Harry could think of no words to make her stay so retrieved Lady Noreen's invitation from the wastepaper basket and sought out Olivetti.
That night was colder than ever before. Olivetti's parroting from the pages of Hogwarts: A History didn't seem enough anymore. Neither was her embrace warm enough.
He didn't expect her to return the next day, but she did and she continued to work there almost every day after that Halloween. They didn't talk extensively every day save the arbitrary greetings, but it was a comfortable silence between them. She immersed herself in her growing pile of papers and notebooks and he watched her behind his supposed paperwork. Sorting mail didn't take nearly long enough for his liking.
After a small accident involving Hermione and too many books, Harry insisted that he carried them for her as she selected them from the shelves. She muttered the titles of the books as she browsed, reading them off the leather spines; he savoured her voice. It was often slightly hoarse from disuse, unlike the shrill, worried voice he heard in his dreams or the sharp, reasoning voice that quelled his haste.
There were moments when he didn't believe she was real; it was as though she had just stepped out of his dreams, only more real, more perfect than he had ever dared imagine her to be. He wanted to touch her, ask her to confirm her presence, but he daren't. He merely remained silent and relished her nearness; it was enough. It was on rare occasions that he asked her direct questions, times when her posture, her gestures didn't tell him what she was on her mind.
"Why do you work here?" asked Harry, looking up from his small pile of envelopes. He was receiving less fan mail these days. The knowledge that he would have less excuse to linger in the library sorting out mail and "paperwork" annoyed him. Maybe he should reply to some of the fans to encourage mail. Another glance at the scented pink envelope changed his mind. He binned some more junk mail advertising encyclopaedias, an out of print bookstore and custom-made clocks.
"You do have the largest collection of books on the Dark Arts. And plenty other besides. The Riddles have always had fine taste in literature," she reasoned, not looking up from her book.
Nothing had changed; the Boy Who Lived, the Hero Who Defeated the Dark Lord and the man who was named Witch Weekly's "Most Eligible Bachelor of the Year" was upstaged by a library full of old books. It was of no consequence though, she was here, only a wall of books away, and that was all that mattered.
As unobtrusively as possible, Harry ducked under the table, retrieved the catalogue advertising books from the bin and started leafing through it. Silently, Harry vowed to keep his library the most advanced in England and decided to consult Kritzer on the matter.
Hermione's presence in the vast library brought to the place a sense of life and purpose. He never asked what she was searching through his archives for, but from his ferrying of books he knew it had much to do with the Dark Arts and magical History. Though little blood had been shed within these walls in comparison to all the other areas within Voldemort's dominion, it had always a sense of stagnation, almost death within it. The very timbers of the house remembered the deaths; too much magic had been used in its re-crafting, the Riddle House was almost alive. Dark Magic coursed within the stone and wood and like blood, it remembered and mourned; the house elves didn't mind, but then they did not share Harry's knowledge of the Dark Lord.
There had been little change to the house after Harry moved in two years ago; it was almost as though time stalled in it. The walls kept time out; the old man with the scythe was detained at its black-iron gates. Dark Magic could not give life and with the death of the Dark Lord, it was fading in potency; it would never go completely, but it was dying, not rotting or decaying or tumbling apart, merely dying. No matter how hard the house elves polished the glass, the sunlight shining in though the windows was always thinned by cloudy glass and the sky, however blue outside, seemed grey. Warmth was confided to the lit fireplaces and the nights were always cold; the warmth leeching away through the double-glazed windows. A loud echo always shadowed one's words, the house's desperate attempt to mimic life. Windows, heavy-lidded with dark drapes, stared listlessly out at a garden neither dead nor alive. No life could be kindled from the plants, yet the decay of death had not claimed them. It was a permanent autumn.
Hermione had changed that. The sunlight lanced though the windows and the dust motes, so lethargic before, danced in streaming light. The musty smell of the library vanished and the empty halls seemed complete. The restless memories of the house were placated and the varying degrees of messiness in the library gave the place purpose.
In the winter months, her arrival in the morning, bundled in thick black robes and a lumpy orange sweater radiated warmth within the house. It seemed to make brighter the weak winter sun and dull the edge of the cutting wind. The wind's howls seemed more for the shear joy and release of howling than the long, mournful cries of the winters before and the nights of her absence.
Hermione brought with her the warmth in the day, but in contrast, his nights were darker, colder. Starved of intimacy in his childhood with the Dursleys, small doses from Hermione and Mrs. Weasley in his teenage years had staved off the need. It was something he needed now. His nights were too cold, too empty and the house and its memories too depressing.
At first he only looked forward to her arrival every day, but soon he found excuses to linger by the window in the library facing the front garden in the mornings, trying to catch sight of her slight figure in the dull grey sky. She didn't always come in the morning, nor did she come every day, but she did enough to keep him waiting. If he waited long enough and strained his eyes hard enough on the cloudy English skies, the faraway but unmistakable speck of her on her Comet Two Sixty would appear.
"What is this?" Harry looked down at the card Hermione had excitedly thrust into his hands. She hadn't even stepped inside the house. The flapping doves and tolling bells on the cover made its purpose self-evident, but Harry felt the need to confirm. There was a dull pain in his chest and a slow, bone-chilling cold spread through him.
"Open it," she said, looking at him eagerly. Her eyes sparkled with anticipation; a joy not unlike that of the day she had burst in with the notification of her Prefect-hood. The memory was vivid, but oddly distant; Harry watched it as though through another's eyes.
"Come in first." He ushered her in and closed the large oak door behind her. A flurry of snowflakes followed. He had thought she wouldn't come for the snow, but had watched faithfully for her arrival, willing her into the sky. She had flown faster that day and strode up to the house with a briskness that had little to do with the weather.
"I'm in now. Open it." Hermione brushed a hand against her cloak but didn't take it off, evidently impatient to see his reaction.
"What is it?" he asked again. He wanted to hear it from her lips. The white ribbons and twin rings on the card didn't mean anything. The border of two entwining serpentine creatures gave him hope; blue and feathered, they seemed a little out of place on the otherwise lacy, white-and-gold card.
"A wedding invitation, of course," she answered with amusement in her voice.
"Wedding," he echoed. Door closed, Harry realised that the cold kindled inside him was something divorced of the falling snow.
"Next week. Tuesday. The whole affair is a little rushed, but Ron says it'll all be fine and after facing Voldemort together, he's not going to mess up on a wedding."
"Ron?" The cold was consuming, like fire. Unlike the bladed cold of ice-laced wind and damp cold of snow, this seeped inside him, past skin and reaching into marrow. It was a raw, fierce cold, unlike the languid embrace of winter; it neither numbed nor invoked sleep.
Everything made sense now, too much sense. After facing Dark Lords and Death curses, reason had seemed unnecessary. It now flooded back into his life and he saw everything with startling clarity. He had always assumed Ron would be getting married, having children, being happy, but he had never filled in the faces of his wife and brood of children save for their shock of red hair. He now knew it wasn't because he couldn't, but because he had dared not to.
"Of course. He's the groom."
She looked at him expectantly, but he couldn't bring himself to open the card.
Harry trembled; he griped the edge of the table until his hands whitened but he could not steady himself. He stared at Hermione in disbelief, a sense of denial. He remembered his promise not to loose any more people to the mundane problems of life, the petty little evils. Then he reminded himself that marriage wasn't an evil; it was neither petty nor whimsical.
Hermione seemed to glow with joy; she radiated a warmth he could not feel, like that of the blazing fires of the Riddle House in his two years of solitude after the endgame with Voldemort. She smiled. Harry sensed a finality in that smile; words betrayed him. He had always believed that between them they needed no words, but now he was desperate to dredge up some coherent string of syllables to utter.
But he stayed silent.
"Why didn't you come to the wedding?" Hermione's voice was cold, almost devoid of emotion; she had never spoken to him that way before. There had always been feeling, even negative ones: anger, frustration, fear; the lack of was far worse than he had imagined. The pain was near physical.
"Didn't want to," Harry shrugged. He dared not raise his eyes to meet hers. The cold still lingered and the female companionship he had sought every night in a bed tangled among thick blankets had not driven it away. As sweat beaded on his skin, the frigid cold only wormed inside him, gnawing and thrashing.
"Look at me, Harry," she commanded.
He obeyed instinctively, fear still knotting his innards. Though her voice showed no feeling, her eyes betrayed an anger, a disappointment. Some part of him counted the days since the last time he looked into her eyes; over two years ago, on Platform Nine and Three Quarters, before and after they had exchanged their absolutely platonic kisses and said "goodbye" more times than they should have.
Brown was a very expressive colour. It was the brown of the tree bark she had leaned against as they lingered by the lake of Hogwarts. It was the brown of the dark leather spines of the books she read just yesterday. It was the brown of the slightly overdone pastries they pulled out of the oven together one Christmas at Grimmauld Place, just the two of them amid the ruins of a house straddling what it was and what it will be. It was the brown of a Quidditch pitch after rain churned up the soil into mud and they sometimes reflected the sky in the same way if the sun shone the right way; flecks of cloud and dreams so contrasting with her practicality.
"Ron was looking forward to see you."
Now, her eyes were the brown of old dried blood, that which streaked his skin when he was found in Egypt after Voldemort's demise, the brown of memory; Blood was memory.
"He could come here himself, Mrs. Weasley."
Her features softened the anger in her eyes was doused. She pressed her lips tightly together as though trying to stop words from tumbling out.
"I'm not Mrs. Weasley. It was Ron and Luna's wedding."
Hermione looked up from the scroll (The Isle of Apples) and stared at him expectantly; she must have felt his eyes on her. Harry had been staring at her for most of the morning in what he thought was a very discreet manner. His hands continued to shuffle empty envelopes on the table as though they had not caught onto the fact that his ruse was exposed.
His throat was dry, a drought of questions. He needed to say something, fill the gap between them and mend the tear he had created in their perfect excuse.
"What are you researching for?"
"I'm writing a book... Well, two books actually."
Hermione dropped a bookmark between the pages, as though anticipating a long conversation. "Morgana. A biography. Muggles don't like her very much and consequently she's built up quite a bad reputation in their literature. The Wizarding world has likewise an inclination to dislike her. I'm trying to cut through all the prejudice and construct the her real story. If need be, I may risk a little time-turning."
"Why does Voldemort have such a vast collection of books on her?"
"In his strange, twisted way, I think he fancied her."
Hermione laughed at his shocked expression. "Perhaps, but if it is so, he would only be fascinated by her reputation. Morgana is allegedly the greatest dark sorceress."
"So the books is just part of Voldemort's obsession with a sorceress who was out of his league?" It disturbed him to think that he and Voldemort had something in common.
She smiled and with a familiar smugness, "As my research is showing, her reputation is hardly accurate. She was sorceress and witch, but definitely not dark.
"Voldemort absorbed into his library all sorts of books as Montague never lost his interest in the scholarly pursuits so added to the collection as his master killed all the original owners of the volumes. When he moved in with Voldemort, he brought all of his books with him. Most of Durmstrang's library also got transferred here."
"Not sure," said Hermione. "Montague again, I suppose. He wrote some rather interesting, albeit biased, articles for Yesterday's Mysteries and a book called Old Ways of Power. He had a wide scholarly streak, despite the morbid taste for blood and gore and a certain unacceptable predisposition. He's still published, like the way Marxist historians are published and like Marxist historians, he helped complete the picture of the times. Dark Arts does take up a large percentage of the collection, but its merely the beginning."
"Voldemort was more interested in rewriting history than preserving it," said Harry with a certain bitterness, remembering the barrage of conflicting reports during the chaotic reign of the Dark Lord.
"Yes, but in his twisted logic, or perhaps it was Montague's, he had to first find out what really happened. Montague was also quite reckless when it came to retrieving things from the past; he became quite a hoarder of artefacts and manuscripts. Ironic how our knowledge of the past was benefited by a follower of the one of the most evil wizards ever..."
"And the second book?" asked Harry, eager to change the topic; he didn't like to think he owed the Dark Lord anything.
"A story. Fictional. Historical. Set in Morgana's times. Just some squiggling to keep the ink flowing between research. If I'm lucky Mills & Boon might print it."
"I'm sure its brilliant."
"I wouldn't be so certain, Harry. Never underestimate a woman's ability to be sentimental." Hermione was grinning when she said the words, but Harry sensed an undercurrent something almost sad in her voice, an echo of the grin she gave him in the fire-lit Common Room when she assured him that "puppy love" didn't last.
"What's the story about?"
"Boy meets Girl. Girl rescues Boy. Boy rescues the world. Repeat until Boy and Girl get married."
There was an aching familiarity to the plot she described. It struck too close to the way things could have been, might have been, yet can never and must never be.
"Oversimplification, I suppose."
"No. Barely begun."
He wanted to know about her story, but he feared the knowledge the same way he feared to open the envelope she had given him. He wanted to ask if Boy and Girl had a happy ending, but he couldn't bear the thought of her saying "no." Knowledge was painful. He had not the strength to carry another memory, especially one belonging to someone else. His mind knew not how to stop, to reject thoughts when given to him, to dodge when words sliced to close and to resist the temptation of the truth. It is easier and far less painful for things to stay the way they were.
The storm tore the sky. The clouds, having brooded for days with their leaden arms firmly crossed over their bloated stomachs, finally unleashed their temper and lanced at the earth sharp, piercing rain.
Harry watched the tempest from behind the vast windows, made mirror-like for the gathering darkness outside. Rain re-divided time to its liking, playing a new tune for the senses to follow. A minute wasn't a minute, nor an hour an hour. It was both an eternity and an eye-blink. Monotony drew time out longer as a mischievous spirit would slip more seconds into a minute and more minutes into an hour, thinking one would not notice when all was the same. But in memory, the hours of rain would be but one memory, for boredom does not cling to the mind.
Storms used to unsettle him, but now they filled him with a certain calm as the coldness inside him solidified. Knowledge that the death of Voldemort did not eliminate such destruction was many of the facts he found hard to swallow; he had always tried to attribute storms to a meeting of the dark forces. He remembered now that the day he destroyed Voldemort was fine and sunny in Egypt; it was the lack of sandstorms that the nomads he had stayed with feared.
There was an agitation of light followed by a rearrangement of heavenly furniture. Blinking lightning and clattering thunder. Fear trickled in his veins, but he didn't know why.
He had first made friends with her on a Halloween as stormy as this one. A troll was loose in the castle and her name screamed in his head. He had not fully understood then and still did not fully understand now how his mind had picked out her name in all the gossip he had heard all day and remembered.
He tried to imagine bark-brown eyes gazing out into the same storm. As mud and rain made dark his eyes staring out of the glass, he tried to see her there, the way he had seen himself reflected in dark pupils of her eyes so long ago. He would lean across the table and its barricade of books, bring his face close to hers and see himself in her eyes. He remembered being trapped between two walls of enchanted flames with a row of strangely shaped bottles; she had told him to trust her as she believed in him, that he was a great wizard. He saw that great wizard in her eyes, what she believed he was and willed him to believe the same.
He remembered the glassy eyes of a petrified Hermione. Eyes that reflected nothing; but when he brought himself close enough, he could almost see the ghost of himself, what she had believed him to be and what he could be if he chose. It was painful to see them so vacant, a physical, leaden pain that he had mistook for the simple disturbing experience of seeing her corpse. Twice he had seen her like that, memories he hated but for her presence in them.
Harry wasn't waiting for her, he was merely looking out the wind. He had bought her a present for Halloween and carved pumpkins with candle-eyes sat in a long row on his empty dining table, but he wasn't waiting for her. His eyes didn't comb the space between the long needles of rain for her silhouette. She hadn't been for a week and he didn't expect her to arrive. He was merely looking when she wobbled into view.
Part of him reasoned it couldn't be her. Her common sense, caution and practicality would forbid her from flying on such a stormy day, but her figure was unmistakeable. She was no more than a wobbling pinpoint at first, but he recognised her and the lightning confirmed his suspicions. But he didn't need lightning, his shaking hands told him everything. She teetered at the edge of the wind that bore her. The fear no longer trickled, but flooded, creating a muddy tempest-torn sea. It was cold of fear that rippled from him like anger; power bristled from him. He rushed outside.
Harry cursed Voldemort for the endless corridors, the same corridors he had loved when he lead Hermione in twisting circles around the house to enjoy her closeness as she walked beside him. The thick carpet underfoot was cold as were the once warm panelling and woollen arras on the walls. The fire burned cold and the double glazing of the windows gave a frigid, refracted glare not unlike that of crystalline diamonds. The carpet soaked in the sound of his footsteps and all he could hear was the echo of thunder shuddering through the walls. He knot in the depths of his gut tightened with every tremble of the walls.
All this he noticed with uncanny clarity as time seemed to slow; the minutes elongated, drew out to mind-numbing slowness as the drumming of his heartbeat in his ear warned him of time's deception and the heart out there that had a rhythm that once matched his beat for beat, flutter for flutter as he held its owner too close and for too long.
He flung open the doors as he rushed out, with bare-feet and panic-wild eyes. His vision was soon speckled by rain, but he could still see her, spiralling just above him and helplessness fisted his hands. Frustrations gathered cold, cold power about him as he toyed with idea of ceasing the storm.
The storm ripped her from the sky and cast her onto the ground. It was his magic-bladed wind that cradled her and guided her downwards into his arms. Almost silver and in arching scythe-like gusts, the magic was unstructured, with no words to set boundaries or limitations and no wand to guide the spell.
It spread, wobbled, tightened, trembled, curled, loosened randomly, but she was safe and that was all that mattered.
When his wet, cold arms finally wrapped around Hermione's drenched figure, she trembled.
He clung onto her and despite the wet layers of clothing pressed between them, a certain warmth within him unfurled its tenuous leaves. She dug her fingers into his back, trying to pull him closer with a desperation he had never known was in her in all the times he had knocked out his breath with furious hugs. Magic kindled inside him, not that of rage or desire, but that of warmth. It mantled them in a haze of warmth, like the golden glow of firelight and the rose-coloured blush of aurora. Magic, in long vermiform tendrils slunk around him.
He buried his face in her shadow-stained, storm-matted hair, tangled his fingers with it and felt it plaster on him. He breathed in her scent and the fresh smell of rain with it. He thought he heard sobs, but it could merely be the rain if not for the warm, warm tears that thawed the space between them as they trickled from her eyes and seeped into his robes, her robes.
At first, he couldn't make out her heartbeat, as it echoed his so perfectly. When he finally found it and allowed himself to be lulled by its gentle rhythm, he started to wonder if it really his that did the leading. Perhaps it was hers he had listened to all along and was merely his he couldn't hear; perhaps it was her rhythm that his was echoing.
Harry said nothing, he knew dreams were often shattered with words and voice.
She was soft and hard; warm and cold; numerous contradictions to the senses against him, around him. He tightened his embrace and pressed her closer against him as though his presence will anchor her ethereal existence in his reality, fearing the drowning memories would wash her away. Her warmth, her weight felt so real, yet he knew she had vanished before.
He remembered another rainy night like this and how she had flung her arms around him then. It had been so complete, so perfect had they fit together, like two halves of a whole, that he worried that the many changes in him, both within and without, would make imperfect their embrace. But it still felt like coming home.
Her sobbing stopped and in a voice almost entirely stolen away by cold, she whispered, "I'm here. I'm finally here, Harry. I'm here. Here, Harry. Always will be, Harry. I'm here." Hermione breathed those words like a mantra, repeatedly, unceasingly, mouthing them with every breath as though their importance was equal to that of breathing.
He carried her indoors. Hermione whimpered a protest, but he ignored it. The ever foresightful Kritzer had prepared a nest of blankets by the fireplace in the library, festooned towels on the chairs and was now nowhere in sight. Kritzer had a tendency to be presumptuous, more than slightly intrusive when it concerned Good Mister Harry Potter's happiness and decidedly self-righteous, irrevocably injured when Harry questioned him about it, but for once, Good Mister Harry Potter was willing to forgive.
He gently settled her into the heap and piled towels around her. He missed the weight of her in his arms, and the warmth of her around him.
Hermione meticulously dried her hair with the fluffy towels and as she looked up at him through a veil of fire-gilded hair, breath caught in his throat. She looked almost wild that way, almost frightened, almost defenceless. If he hadn't fought alongside her in the Department of Mysteries, watched her confronted mazes, giants, tyrannical teachers and roaring, roasting flames with the same inner calm and unbendable logic, he would have believed her vulnerable, delicate. All the same, the urge to protect her persisted.
He waited until she had completely comfortable before pressing a mug of steaming hot chocolate (Kritzer had been very busy) into her hands.
"Happy Halloween, Harry," she whispered.
"You came all this way to say that?" Harry smiled.
She lowered her gaze and shook her head nervously, but supplied no other answer. She breathed into her mug, trying to cool its contents. Tendrils of smoke writhed from the mug and wreathed her face in mist. It reminded Harry of a snatch of history she once told him, something about parting the curtains of mists...
But he could not remember now, not as Hermione sipped her hot chocolate cautiously and the island of melting cream dabbed the tip of her nose. Her eyes misted over with pleasure. He stopped thinking when she reached a finger to wipe it off and licked that finger, languidly, carefully, thoroughly. Her finger still lingered just beside her lips as she licked them lips slowly.
"May I?" She reached a hand from her cocoon of blankets toward the tray of finger snacks and hot chocolate Kritzer had left them.
"Of... of course."
Hermione took a chocolate éclair from the tray and began to eat it with the same languid attention she gave the daub of cream on her fingertip. The warmth of the library had melted the chocolate and the cream filled, making it a very messy thing to eat, as the cream oozed out and the chocolate clung to her hand. She took small bites, carefully, savouring each nibble before swallowing and passing her tongue in a satisfied sweep over her lips before the next bite. Her eyes were half closed in bliss. Each pass left her lips damp and glistening.
Like a cat smoothing her fur and with the same matter-of-fact attitude as a cat, she licked her palm, her fingers and her lips clean. Hermione made an almost uncharacteristically soft, feminine sound of surprise as she spotted the melted cream oozed from the éclair. She followed its trail of sticky, white cream, chasing it with her tongue as it drooled from the centre of the éclair, dripping from it and dribbled down her wrist and arm. She twisted her arm to clean the spot just behind her elbow, where the melted cream had pooled. She had very beautiful elbows; Harry wondered why he never noticed that before. She glanced at Harry curiously, as though not understanding his rapt attention.
He needed to be distracted. Quickly.
Hermione returned to her éclair. She finished it, licked clean her arm and sipped hot chocolate before reaching for a dainty apple tart. It was much less messy, but the crisp pastry snowed honeyed crumbs which she tried to catch with a cupped hand and eat afterwards.
Another chocolate éclair and two more fruit tarts later, Harry finally snapped out of his trance and tried his voice again. The box was on the little table beside the window where he waited for Hermione every day. He strode over to get it, grateful for his robes and how concealing they were.
He folded himself beside her and she welcomed him, offering him a corner of her blankets. Harry draped it around his shoulder.
"I've a present for you. A Halloween present. But I hadn't had time to wrap it," said Harry apologetically. He gave the slim oblong box.
"Thank you, Harry." She opened it slowly, hands shaking slightly. Inside the box was a quill. It was made from a dull brown peahen feather, with no variation of colour as the barbs tapered. The nib looked freshly cut and sturdy, having been baked in enchanted sand for weeks. As Hermione twirled it in her hands. trailed golden sparks.
"Is it charmed?" she asked.
"Yes. I did it. Was a little heavy handed with it, but it'll soon wear out."
"Very heavy. I never saw this much magic in a quill. Almost expect there was a unicorn hair core." She traced a loopy golden H in the air and followed it with another linked beside it with curling feet. They faded too soon.
"No, but there is something inside it. Hold it to the light."
Hermione held it up just in front of the light. The bright light was refracted in space between the light brown barbs of the feather and a fragile rainbow flitted into view, just slivers of hazy coloured light.
"No. The charm stops the nib from wearing away. The rainbow is part of the feather."
Harry took a deep breath. "Someone once told me that though the peahen seems drab, without the grand feathers of the peacock, but it holds a captive rainbow between the barbs of its feathers. I mean... he meant... the male often reaps the glory, struts around in false pride, admired for its beauty, but it is the female that holds within it the rainbow, the sunshine in the rain, my hope... no, I meant..."
"It's all right, Harry. I understand," said Hermione.
"Here," he murmured, patting his shoulder. She leaned against him, tentatively. Her weight felt familiar, comfortable. Magic kindled.
"You're still shaking."
"Trembling, Harry, I'm trembling and it isn't the cold," she soothed.
Harry didn't understand, but wrapped his arm around her, holding her closer, hoping his meagre warmth was enough. He pulled the blankets tighter around them and breathed warm glasses-misting breath into her hair as he lightly rested his head against hers.
Watching Hermione squint at the feather and letting the tiny refracted rainbow play on her face, Harry realised that this was one of those rare moments of almost, where illusion reigned and things could pretend, could almost be something else. It was the fire, perhaps, or the storm, or his magic tingling on his skin. He could deceive himself they could stay that way forever, her nestled against him.
It was in moments like these that he could be almost a hero and claim to guard a sorceress who didn't need protection, that he could be the strength that she could lean on. She almost needed him, almost wanted him. He could pretend to shield her, to protect her, but the almost that hovered in the air could not silence in doubting whispers in his mind that she didn't need him, didn't want him.
Still, right now, it was enough. That almost in the restless shadows of the Halloween fire blurred that fine line between friendship and that something else he dared not now name.
"You still knit?" He asked eyeing her bag of wool.
"Christmas presents. Until I finish my book, it's all I can afford."
There was a long uncomfortable pause.
"Would you like to learn? You could help me with this."
"Yes." He knew a long time ago that he couldn't refuse her anything. Even without iron-clad logic her whim held more sway than he ever thought to believe. She hadn't needed a reason to summon him from a date with Cho Chang; she had one, a very good one that he didn't know when he abandoned a teary-eyed Cho.
"Would you like to help me?" she asked.
"I don't know how to knit."
"I'll teach you."
It was a moment out of time. A second chance. Harry remembered that years ago, she had made a similar offer. He couldn't quite frame the memory in time, but he could picture her just beyond a half-open door beside a hovering candle, clicking pale grey needles around lumpy green wool. She was making hats for the house elves.
No, that wasn't it. There was no half-closed door easing thus, no fading light. Memory obscured things, too many things.
They were in the common room. He had just emptied the contents of his mind for her perusal. She had been full of empathy, but he didn't see it that way then. He was too angry, feeling the world had wronged him.
"I'm absolutely exhausted and I want to make some more hats tomorrow. Listen, you can help me if you like. It's quite fun, I'm getting better, I can do patterns and all sorts of things now..."
Her eyes were shining with glee. Amid a chaotic patchwork of serpentine nightmares, baby giants, pink doilies, death and depression that made up his fifth year, he could remember a sacred space. His hallowed island of calm, embodiment of hope and illuminating reason.
He remembered the way she looked, in her element. She had always been so full of love, sympathy. Behind that reasoning mind, smokescreen of dust and barricade of books, there was heart larger than many would assume. And she didn't just sympathise, just love, just worry; she acted on these impulses in wild, slightly offbeat plans. This was only one in a long string of them.
"Er... no, I don't think I will, thanks. Er, not tomorrow. I've got loads of homework to do..."
Harry often returned to that moment, perfect it now seems, with the firelight, the hat-strewn common room and her; he had rejected her. At that threshold of change, perhaps he if had said yes, he would have had more excuses to hover by her side. He could have shared something with her that Ron didn't. He could have had her hands around his, forcing them to click the needles and coil the wool.
Perhaps he could have defeated Voldemort with a knitting needle.
It was a moment out of their past. He could maybe say what he hadn't said then, remake that choice. It was borrowed time perhaps, his tired mind reworking all those memories into a new one. A waking dream. Displaced moments, an event from the past relocated to the present. The workings of a careless fate as Verdandi's fingers slip at her loom and the threads of the past snared with the present.
Harry nodded, not trusting his tongue to speak. Hermione smiled and pulled out a pair of needles and some dark orange wool.
Harry did, dragging a chair next to her. The sound of wood scraping on wood seemed louder than usual.
"Ignore this. I'm casting on and you don't need to learn that," she said briskly as her needle flew in and out of what seemed a cobweb of wool festooned on her ink-stained fingers. The old bossiness was in her voice.
"Look." Harry leaned closer to her. Close enough to breathe in her heady scent of leather, parchment and iron gall ink. She made her own ink from gall nuts, cheap wine, green cave scrapings and tree sap some time ago and the heady scent always lingered, though sometimes drowned faint by other scents.
"In..." Hermione said slowly as she manoeuvred the needle. Her eyes were the colour of just watered flowerbeds, with the promise of spring growth. It was the brown of the lighted jack-o-lantern in the dark, the night-stained shade of backlit pumpkin, with all the luminance, enchantment and mischief of it.
"Over." The shell of her ear bore an invitation to whisper into it. Secrets, formless abstracts that plague his night with rearing, huffing horses that paw the air with silver hooves and flick back angry red-tipped ears. Nameless emotions that her presence stirred. Hoarse, meaningless, wordless murmurs of reassurance, tenderness.
"Out." Her voice was that of long ago, from long midnight revision sessions when all three of them gather around textbooks, stabbing frustrated quills into parchment. She hadn't spoken to him in voice since they revised for their NEWTS. He still remembered she was dictating the ingredients to a draught of wakefulness to him just before the exam. He remembered her warning that the measurements had to be exact. It wasn't the last potion she taught him, she had then went on to describe one that almost literally bottled death. It was a poison. But her voice had changed then, describing a deadly poison seemed so out of character then. Despite facing death with him at least once a year, she still couldn't describe a poison and its effects without hesitation.
"And off... Harry, are you paying attention?" she asked.
"Yes, of course," he said quickly. "Could you repeat that?" He focused on her hands and the knitting.
"In..." She had worn long-fingered hands, ink-stained and a callous where a quill so often rests. They weren't milk white or milk anything, for that matter. They were nimble, adept, brilliant at the swishes and flicks and twirls of wand-work. Fingernails short, skin dry and slightly cracked at corners. Ever practical and ever negligent...
"Harry?" she said suspiciously.
"Yes. Knitting. I am paying attention."
She gave an exaggerated sigh; Harry laughed. A foreign sound.
"In." Hermione slipped the right needle into the first stitch on the left. "Over." She coiled the yarn between the needles. "Out." A tricky slip of the needle around the yarn. Harry frowned. "Off." She pulled the stitch off the left needle. The right needle now had one loop on it.
"Simple," she concluded, brightly. Her knitting skills had obviously improved since their fifth year.
Hermione handed him the knitting. She guided his hands around the needles. Her hands were warm, beautifully, wonderfully warm.
"Now you try."
A few stabs and way too much wool-coiling later, all that was left of Hermione's neat start was a mass tangle of wool hanging off the needles from more stitches than any needle should rightfully have.
"What did I do wrong?" he asked plaintively.
Hermione simply laughed. "You're doing much better than I did when I first started." In a series of swift gestures that melted into one another, she undid and did again the stitches Harry had knotted up, finished the row and handed it back to Harry.
"Try again, Harry."
At the end of the evening Harry was no more adept at knitting than he was at the beginning of it. He had dropped more stitches than he could count and added even more where there weren't supposed to be any. Hermione demonstrated the In-Over-Out-Off to him endlessly, but couldn't quite concentrate with her intoxicating nearness.
The memory of Hermione's hands on his lingered, near branded into his own flesh.
"Snape and Trelawney are getting married," she announced.
"Why?" The thought of his two least favourite teachers being united in matrimony didn't exactly light warm fires in his heart. Briefly he wondered if they were joining forces to achieve a common goal - to make student life in Hogwarts miserable.
Hermione shrugged. "There was something about a list, but I'm not sure. Probably to do with tax returns I guess. Its cheaper to be married these days. That was Ron's excuse when he was accused to betraying his creed by Fred and George."
"Next Saturday, I believe, would you like to go? Snape's fondness for you hasn't grown very much over the last few years, I believe, but Trelawney still boasts how you were the brightest student in her class and how she foresaw your birth. Ron says he wouldn't go for the world, but Luna and Ginny find it very cute and are scheming to rope Ron into going with them. Fred and George are thinking of crashing it."
"I thought you might be amused." There was a desperation in her voice that shouldn't be there.
"I'm not very good with jokes these days. I've stopped caring."
"You shouldn't, you know."
"Shouldn't what?" He asked though he already knew the answer.
"Stop caring. It would all be for nothing if you stopped caring."
"Everything." She made an expansive gesture. "Everything."
She didn't answer; Harry knew her well enough to know without looking that she was biting her lip, regretting her words. He had redrawn the boundaries of their absolutely platonic friendship the day he woke up in the Temple of Isis, goddess of Healing in Egypt. He had wandered too close to them that day on Platform Nine and Three Quarters and he knew now that she was venturing too far again.
Harry sighed as he closed the newspaper. Rebecca, his latest ex-girlfriend, had just kicked up a storm in Wizarding tabloids. The press had a field day. They forgot her rather dubious honour and painted a portrait of her as the poor victim to Harry's advances. She appeared on the front of every tabloid, alternating between tearful sobbing, eye dabbing and brave smiling. Gone were the low-cut sleeveless tops and leg-baring skirts; she became a beautiful, well-dressed wreck. She had the talent of appearing beautiful when she cried: her makeup didn't run, nor does her nose dribble or redden in a most unseemly manner. Her hand never quite hides her face and her tears roll down her face perfectly, instead of stopping irritatingly halfway or trickle in the wrong direction. Her eyes only seem to grow brighter; no redness, swollen eye-bags or dark rings.
"No one believes that trash," said Hermione.
"It's not the only reason."
Harry turned to the back of the paper. A chock-a-block of classified advertisements, all crowded together on the page. None of them said "ex-Hero wanted." They were all too mundane, painful reminders that there were far more fundamental things wrong with the world than Voldemort, that after the Dark Lord was defeated the world still had to trundle on to find the "Happily Ever After." There were things no amount of wand-waving could fix.
"Job searching?" asked Hermione, looking at him curiously.
"How do you know?"
"I saw the article, 'Is Hero an occupation? Harry Potter as an outdated monument' from Daily Prophet. Bennson was being quite harsh."
"He always has been. Almost as bad as our old friend Rita."
"No one is as bad as Rita," said Hermione without a trace of her old anger.
"Did..." He couldn't finish the question. He almost wanted to ask that if Rita hadn't entertained her speculations on the tabloids, would they – could they – have ambled down that forbidden path. If Rita hadn't so clearly signposted it for them and paced them under public scrutiny, would they have not known and just became without knowing, the way it should happen? If they didn't need to over the years deny anything other than platonic love between them, would the feelings have had more space to grow when not stifled by their expectations and petty labels?
"What do you plan to do?" asked Hermione. "Maybe I could help..."
He looked at her puzzled.
"What do you want to do with the rest of your life? You can't continue like this not knowing."
Harry knew exactly what he wanted to do the rest of his life: to stare at her. He wanted to watch her bite her lip as she thought her way through the problems and fiddle with the far corner of the page. He wanted to watch her hands flutter in white butterflies of gestures as she spoke and the dawning of that victorious, self-satisfied smile on her face as she worked. He wanted to look at her, find himself in her brown eyes and know that she could see herself in his.
He wanted to be able to look away and know she was still there, to look up from his whatever he was doing and find her, to look back without regrets of words unsaid. He wanted to fall asleep with the knowledge that she was near and safe, that she would still be near and safe when he awoke. He wanted be able to wake up every morning not simply with the certainty that she would arrive soon, the conviction that shaped the long days waiting in front of the vast windows, but the knowledge that she was physically there. He wanted to be in other aspects of her existence, not only in her past and her writing. Ironic that after he had spent seven years thinking of Hermione as the librarian that he should be cast the role for her research librarian.
In short, he wanted to share the his life with her.
But that was too much to want, to have, to need. Why aim for the stars when one could barely hold what was in front of him? It was as unattainable as the late afternoon sunlight dribbling through one's fingers and a strip of midsummer sky, so he answered in a voice harsher than his own, "It is enough to be here."
Hermione nodded. He wasn't sure if she understood, but she lowered her head to focus again on her work, so he assumed she was satisfied with his answer.
She pushed back her hair with an idle hand, keeping it out of her face. Her head of feathery hair, not in curls or ringlets, but rather a mass of stubborn hair that each shot in a different direction. It didn't cascade or do any of the rustling and attention-seeking the hair of romantic paperback heroines did. It didn't annoy her, attempted no cultivation of hair-tucking habits so Hermione never sought to tame it. It didn't need to be neat; as long as it didn't bother her when she worked, it could do what it liked. For the same reason, she hated hair salons and whatever promises they had made to lure her inside; she always walked out of the place with more hair than when she walked in. Harry smiled at the memory of her anger when Rowena demanded that she spent an hour braiding her hair like a respectable maiden.
Yes, it was enough.
It was almost a week later when Hermione resurrected the subject of a job. Harry was going through a mail-order catalogue for "quality hardbacks" when she said his name. He suddenly realised how wonderful it was to simply be able to look up and find her eyes look at his. He wanted this, too. To be able to look up and simply meet her eyes without fear of seeing what was inside them.
"I've been asked to help with the compilation of a new edition of Hogwarts: A History."
"I don't want to remember, Hermione. And if I did, I don't want to share those memories with the public."
"Harry, I didn't ask... The old one is very inaccurate on the details about Slytherin and the other three Founders as we have discovered not so long ago. I was helping with that. I thought, since you've been into the Chamber, maybe..."
"Don't they want to know about Voldemort?"
"They do. But we don't need to tell them. There is more to life than Voldemort."
"There are other faces of evil besides Voldemort," he conceded.
"Not just evil, Harry. Life. What was and what will be. Historians don't only peruse the life of Voldemort; it is only one chapter in the many of history. They same way they don't obsess over other dictators like Hitler or Stalin, more or perhaps less evil than each other, I will not now judge, but dictators none the less."
"But..." The word was feeble.
"Harry. I'm not asking for you to write an autobiography or even to add your name to the front cover of the book and let it sell in your name. I just want details. I was unavailable for so much of our second year and later, when we went back, you saw different aspects of the Founder's world than me."
Unavailable. The long term of her absence was summed up in that one word. All that discomfort of feeling incomplete, that nameless emotion of yearning folded up and squeezed out into such a summery.
"I might not remember." It was a lie. He remembered; he remembered every moment of the long journey, but his focus was different. Whilst she marvelled at the tapestries and scrolls and maps of the cavernous great hall, his eyes had followed her. He didn't then and even know he would deny it, but how else could remember the whisper of her heavy blue robes and way the firelight threaded gold in her dark brown hair? He vaguely recalled a map, curling at the edges, spread on a great table, but he remembered her hands best, moving across the landscape with purpose as she explained their strategies.
"It will be enough, Harry."
Enough. Why was it that he was always settling for that?
"I can promise nothing. What if I remember incorrectly? Or if they press for more information? Or..."
"It was you who told me that we shouldn't waste time on the eternal 'what if...'s of life." Her logic, as always, was impeccable.
"I will try."
Hermione's "Mills and Boons" novel is actually more in the style of "The Other Boleyn Girl" by Philippa Gregory and "The Years of Rice and Salt" by Kim Stanley Robinson; dramatic, romantic, atmospheric, beautifully written as well as thoroughly researched and very firmly based in history. She's just being self-effacing the way we all know authors are about unpublished work.
I hope I haven't irritated too many Snape fans out there. This entire story is really just a glorified a plug for my Snape/Trelawney. Why Snape/Trelawney? Why not? Like Ron/Luna, I see it as a marriage made in the proverbial "sitcom heaven", the sort that provides endless entertainment for the reader whilst going beyond the trappings of a love/hate. It's something far more complex than that; the actually have a lot in common. They are on the same wavelength, just on different modulations.
And of course this isn't the end. We have a chase through time, some more snogging, deep ruminations and a lot of seriously twisted mythology to look forward to. And a happy ending, of course, but lots of angst en-route. Various spin-offs also planned to fill the gaps, such as Ginny and Draco's romance, Snape and Trelawney's arrangements and Ron and Luna's courtship, marriage and children.
The story is dedicated to all my shipmates on board HMS Pumpkin Pie, the wonderful Magpie and a certain shade of a particular colour.