It took him a little while to recognize the sensation that surrounded his body. Water. He was enveloped by water. Warm. From head to toe, his body was experiencing a warmth like he had experienced only once before.
Surprisingly, he wasn't struggling for breath, and found he didn't feel the need to breathe. It was as if he had gained the ability to breathe like the creatures of the sea, or even, as if there was no more need for air.
He didn't remember how long he had been here. He didn't remember how he had reached his place. He didn't even remember his name. But none of that troubled him.
He was like a child inside his mother's womb. Content to just be.
He opened his eyes and looked up. He must have been very deep under the water, for he could not see the surface, and only a trickle of light penetrated the darkness. There was no fear.
He raised his hands to his face, and looked at them. He didn't know why, but he thought his hands were blessed. He had held something in these hands that had been precious to him, a treasure, something to be adored, to be revered… but what had it been?
Tentatively, his hands started to travel across his face, over his chin, across his cheeks, over his lips and the lines of his nose, until they reached up, his fingertips caressing the flesh across his forehead.
The skin was smooth, silky and simply… perfect. And he suddenly thought something was missing here. Something that marked him… something that made him different.
The word 'lightning' flashed across his mind, but he had nothing to connect it with.
And he allowed himself to just forget.
He curled his legs up, his knees reaching his chest, and drew his arms around them. Like a ball, he closed his eyes and let the soft, gentle underwater currents do with him as they wished, taking him to and fro across the… was it a river? A lake? A sea? An ocean?
It didn't really matter. Nothing did.
Time was something that did not exist in this foreign place, so he didn't know how long he had allowed himself to just drift aimlessly, before he felt a strange sensation in each of his shoulders. He uncurled his body and opened his eyes.
Even in the dim light, he recognized the shape of two… two like him… each floating on one side of him. One had a long, lean body, with jet-black hair, big gray eyes, a chiseled nose, and a smile that felt familiar. The other was slightly shorter, a bit stockier, with locks of raven hair and warm hazel eyes that sparkled with their own light. This one was looking at him with an expression he did not comprehend, nor could even identify, but it was enough to provoke a new surge of warmth to spread through each one of his limbs.
He knew these men. He didn't remember their names, their ages, or how they related to him, but it didn't matter.
The one with the blue eyes and the mischievous smile pointed upwards, into the surface of the water, while looking directly at his eyes. He recognized he was being told to go up, toward the light. He looked back at the man with the brown eyes, who nodded comfortingly. With that, he pushed upwards with his legs and started to swim.
It was a long journey, but he didn't feel the least bit tired. He felt as if he could continue swimming forever as long as he had his two companions by his side.
But with each stroke he took, the light breaking through the surface of the water became brighter and brighter, until he could hardly keep his eyes open.
And only then did he felt fear.
What awaited him on the other side? Why would he leave this place of pure bliss for the unknown? Images of pain, of sorrow, of death flashed on his mind, leaving him broken and shaken. Is that what awaited him?
He couldn't swim anymore. His eyes hurt too much. His body ached. He just wanted to go back. Down below. Where it was safe.
Suddenly, two hands were cupping his cheeks, the thumbs caressing soothingly the soft skin. He struggled to open his eyes and, after adjusting to the blinding light, recognized the man with the brown eyes floating in front of him. Softly, the man came nearer, until he rested his forehead against his.
He heard a soft voice, a voice he had heard before only in his head, whispering to him from somewhere far away.
'I know you are afraid… I know what has been your lot on the other side… But you do not belong here. Not yet… You have to leave… You have to return…'
And the man let go of him. He did not understand what he was being told, but surprisingly, he was not afraid anymore.
The two men grasped him by the wrists with gentleness, and the man with the blue eyes proceeded to reach up and touch his eyelids with his fingertips. He understood he was being told to close his eyes and let them guide him to the surface, so he did just that. With undeniable trust, he allowed himself to be enveloped by the light, pulled by these two men, until he felt his head breaking the surface of the water with a splash.
Still with his eyes closed, he took a deep breath, although he knew it was not needed. He was tempted to open his eyes and have a look around into this strange new world, but something told him that it would be a dangerous thing to do, for the light seemed to be too strong here for him to withstand.
His arms were tugged delicately toward the direction of where, he imagined, was the shore, so he followed his two companions across the immense expanse of the waters, until he felt the soft sensation of earth underneath his feet. Slowly, they began to rise, walking across the receding waters, and leaving them behind.
And then, they just stopped. The men let go of his arms and took a few steps back. He felt the presence of a third person drawing nearer, but he did not dare to open his eyes and look. So he just waited.
A pair of small, delicate hands settled on his shoulders, and traveled upwards, caressing the shape and contours of his face, the tip of his nose, his eyelashes… with every caress, a new and incredible sensation assaulted him. He felt unbridled power growing deep within his chest, waiting for the right moment to finally break free.
And when he felt he could not take these feelings anymore, he felt her lips on his skin. She kissed him on the forehead with inconceivable tenderness, leaving a shadow of fire where her lips had touched him.
And he cried… he cried not from pain, nor anger, nor fear, but from finally recognizing the feeling that had steadily grown inside him since he awakened.
It was love.
Slowly, he opened his eyes. The light was so intense he was tempted to close them back, but his curiosity got the better of him. Through the moistness of his tears, the figure of the lone woman standing in front of him slowly came into focus.
She was a vision to behold, with flowing red hair that danced with the breeze, cheeks that were kissed by the sun, lips that were full and curled into a bright smile, and magnificent green eyes that shone with divine light.
He knew who she was even before she spoke. He now knew whom the two men standing by her side were. And most importantly, he knew his own name.
He understood everything. He saw it all.
'It is time to wake up, my child… She's already waiting for you… She needs you… They all need you…'
He nodded, and smiled.
They will meet again.
Where was he?
What was he doing here?
Was he dead? Is this the afterlife?
Sounds started to penetrate the veil wrapped around his confused mind. It sounded… it sounded like voices. He knew these voices. He had heard them plenty of times before. They seem to be… arguing about something. And slowly, the words were started to become intelligible to him.
"And what the hell does this mean? It doesn't make sense!"
"Ronald, that's the alchemical symbol for Mercury, which combined with Sulfur produces… "
"Well, it's all Chinese to me! Whatever compelled me to study Advanced Potions is beyond me!"
"Would you quit complaining, Ron? At least you don't have Trelawney this year."
"I would take Trewlaney over Snape any day."
His eyes fluttered opened. They refused to focus for now, but from what little he could see, he was laying on one of the beds of Hogwart's infirmary.
How had he gotten here? How long had he been asleep? His friends were here… but where was Hermione?
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Luna raising her eyes from the heavy book on her lap to look at him. Then, she gasped, closing the book with a start.
To Harry, the sound was muted, far away, but it had been loud enough to capture the attention of her companions, who simultaneously turned their heads in Harry's direction.
Ron jumped from his chair, spilling on the floor the parchment, quill and ink that had been laid on his lap as he rushed to Harry's side. Their gazes locked for a few moments, in silence, until Ron whispered, "Luna, go get Madam Pomfrey… Ginny, go get the Headmaster!"
It came to Harry's attention that he had never seen his freckled best friend so distraught, so haggard. His eyes had lost some of their sparkle, and there were dark bags under them that belong to a man far older than he was. But the grin on his face was more than genuine, and it was enough to make the corners of Harry's lips curl up in a smile.
"Hello, mate. How are you feeling?" Ron asked, doing something uncharacteristic of him and grasping Harry's hand on his own.
"Like the whomping willow got frisky with me," Harry softly replied. His voice sounded incredibly hoarse and throaty, his tongue sticking inside his mouth, as if he hadn't spoken for a long time. "What happened? And where's Hermione?"
Ron's brow creased in a frown, "You mean you don't remember?"
Harry shook his head.
"You don't remember the ball? The Death Eaters? Bellatrix?"
"No," whispered Harry, his breathing quickening. He heard a distant sound in the back of his head, a shriek, a chorus of wails, and that was enough to make the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention.
From somewhere to the left, he heard Neville's voice ask, "He doesn't even remember the orb?"
The orb. The picture of a glowing sphere of organic membrane hovering over his head came sharply into focus. In his mind's eye, he saw the gray mist surrounding him, thousands of imprisoned souls whose only pleasure was to inflict the same pain they felt upon the living.
Coming for him.
And taking her.
The veil was lifted.
He saw everything. The orb… the mad flight trying to escape from the hall… the revelation of the Death Eaters… the attack on Roger… his imprisonment in the chair… his friends' failed attempt to save him… Neville being punished with Crucio… his attempt to gain time by revealing the Prophecy… someone behind the door… and Hermione… Hermione… the knife tearing at her flesh, the clammy and vaporous hands reaching for her.
No, it couldn't be… Hermione couldn't be… she just couldn't… he was going with her… he needs to be where she is… she can't be! She just can't!
"HARRY! CALM DOWN!" Ron screamed, grabbing onto Harry's arms and trying to force him to lie down as he had been. "Neville, help me!" he struggled. The next moment, a strong pair of hands grabbed his legs and pushed him to the bed.
"HERMIONE! HERMIONE!" Harry called over and over again. From far away, he heard the voices of Neville and Ron telling him to calm down, assuring him that everything was okay. But how could he calm down? How could he…
"MISTER POTTER!" the panicked shriek of Madam Pomfrey reached his ears. The next instant, the shadow of the woman fell on him as she, with the help of Ron, Neville and Luna, forced a vile tasting potion down his throat.
He stopped screaming almost immediately, his limps desisting in their fight against the people that were trying to stop him from hurting himself. But it did nothing to appease the ache in his heart. A choked whimper escaped from his throat as he laid his head on the pillow. Ron was looking at him as if he were about to cry, unable to lose the iron grip he had on Harry's arms. Luna was running her hand through his raven locks, telling him to relax and let the potion work, for he was still very weak from his journey. He barely noticed Neville limping toward him, until the young man stood behind Ron and asked, "Did you hear us, Harry?"
"Hermione…" was the only word that passed through Harry's lips.
The next words that came out of Ron's mouth were something that sounded right out the most wondrous of dreams.
"Hermione's fine, mate," he whispered. "She's resting. She's hardly left your side."
Ron's words slowly started to sink in. Yet, they were still too good to believe. "But I… I saw… the knife… she was… she was…" he stuttered.
"Shhh," Ron shushed as he would a small child, "I know. I can't explain it. But I promise you, she's well." A small smile crept back into his lips before he added, "She's so fine she already threatened me with taking my broom away if I didn't pass next week's History of Magic exam."
Yeah. That was his Hermione.
'She's okay… she's well… she's alive.'
Harry experienced such a relief that he had to struggle to remain conscious.
"I'll… I'll come back later," announced Madam Pomfrey, feeling this was a moment too sacred and personal to intrude in.
Ron's hand gripped Harry's arm even tighter, struggling against his own tears. He knew exactly what Harry was feeling, for there was not a day he did not think about what had happened that dreadful night and the miracle only he had witnessed.
"And you?" whispered Harry when the tears had seized.
"I'm okay," Ron smiled. "Although I have to admit… the bunny suit chafed me for days. Talk about rug burn!"
"I thought it was a Gryndybuck," replied Harry, returning his smile. Even Luna laughed as Ron answered with a roll of his blue eyes, a gesture he usually reserved for Hermione. "And you two?" he asked, looking at Luna and Neville intently.
They shared a significant look before Luna answered, "We're both fine, Harry. All of us are."
"Do you want to sit up?" offered Ron, "You must be sore after being in that bed for so long." Harry nodded, and allowed Ron to help him sit on the bed, while Luna propped a pillow against the wall so he could rest more comfortably.
Ron was right; his body ached in all the wrong places. And that prompted Harry's next question, "How long have I been out?"
"Twenty eight days," an unexpected voice answered.
All four looked in the direction of the curtains, where Ginny was standing next to two other men, one whom Harry had never seen before… and the other, dressed in scarlet robes, with inquisitive blue and a crooked nose, who had answered the question.
"Professor Dumbledore," nodded Ron, standing up and taking a step back. The Headmaster smiled at him, and took his place by Harry's bedside. Ginny waved at the patient from the entrance, and he waved back. The other wizard, a man with dark hair, strong chin, black robes and piercing black eyes, nodded in his direction. He responded in kind.
"How are you feeling, Harry?" Dumbledore asked, resting his wrinkled hand on Harry's shoulder, as was his custom. Like Ron, the Headmaster seemed to have aged at least ten years since the last time he saw him. Still, there was that unmistakable sparkle behind those half-moon spectacles, and he couldn't help be surprised at how safe he felt in the Professor's presence.
"I'm fine, sir… just a bit tired…"
"Don't worry about that," the old man replied, "Between Madam Pomfrey's recuperative potions and a light exercise program, you'll regain your strength in no time."
"I know," whispered Harry. His face adopted a troubled look, as his mind struggled to grasp some of his chaotic thoughts.
The Headmaster recognized the expression on Harry's face and decided to take the first step. "What is it you want to know, my boy?"
He wanted to know so many things his head was ready to explode, even after Madam Pomfrey's calming potion. But he decided to start with something that should be known twenty-eight days after the fact.
"What happened at the Ball? How did the Death Eaters enter Hogwarts? Isn't it supposed to be the safest building on the planet? And what was that thing? And… and what happened to Hermione…"
"Let's start from the beginning," the Headmaster interrupted. Ron seemed to be ready to leave the room at the old man's request, but Dumbledore just started to speak, not only to Harry, but to all of them.
"As you may or may not be aware," Dumbledore started, "one week before the night of the ball, there was a robbery in the Museum of Berlin. Now, this seems to be a very common occurrence in the muggle world, except for the fact that the article stolen was of magical origins."
Luna interrupted him by asking, "How did a magical artifact ended in a muggle museum? Isn't that a breach of the Statue of Secrecy?" Dumbledore did not seem to mind the interruption. In fact, he smiled at the young Ravenclaw, a hint of pride in his eyes. He looked at the other wizard standing at the foot of Harry's bed, and nodded.
"I can answer that," the stranger started to speak, "My name is Till Lindermann. I work as liaison between England and Germany's Ministries of Magic." Mr. Lindermann smiled genuinely as he added, "May I say it is an honor to meet not only you, Harry, but your brave friends as well."
Ron's ears and Neville cheeks were pink; while Luna did not gave any signs that she had even heard Mr. Lindermann and Ginny crossed her arms over her chest smugly.
"Um… sure," Harry stumbled, before returning the conversation back to the subject of interest, "What happened with the artifact?"
"Well," Lindermann started, clearing his throat before continuing, "Just as there is a liaison between the British and the German Ministries, there is between every Ministry and the muggle government in power. This… ambassador, if you want to call it that way… is a wizard that is chosen to live life among muggles, to follow a life of public service in order to ensure that muggles remain unaware to the existence of our world, and to also make certain that there exists a respectful and helpful relationship between them and us.
Three weeks ago, our current ambassador informed us that the muggle museum was planning an exhibition on ancient civilization myths about death and, knowing we possessed some very valuable Egyptian scrolls that describe the process of preparing the body to travel the river Styx into the land of the dead, asked if we could loan them to the exhibition under the name of a fake collector. The Minister didn't saw any harm in this, so he allowed one of the treasure keepers to send the documents to the museum.
After the break-in, and only to assure that these documents were not among the missing articles, two Aurors were sent to investigate. Passing as the fake collector's security detail, they were shown surveillance videos. These videos revealed not only that Mr. Potente, a museum security guard, entered an unauthorized area moments before the articles went missing, but also that among the treasures that were being exhibited was the infamous Orb of the Wailing Souls.
When the body of Mr. Potente was discovered and, as the autopsy revealed, had been quite dead for at least three days prior to the break-in, we realized a wizard had stolen one of the most dangerous dark arts artifacts in existence.
We needed to get it back, and we needed it fast. So we asked for the help of the world's most skilled wizards in order to locate the orb."
"So," Harry spoke, turning his attention to Dumbledore, "that's why you left Hogwarts. That was the urgent business the Wizengamot had called you for."
"Exactly, Harry," Dumbledore said with a sigh, "It was the perfect plan. They managed to sneak the orb out of the safety of the ministry, steal it, put blame on a muggle, and send us on a wild goose chase to distract us from their real purpose."
"Which was?" asked Ron.
"To get rid Harry before Voldemort comes back to reclaim what he believes is his," the Headmaster answered.
Neville was the one who asked the next question, "But how… how did Bella-lla… Bellatrix and the others managed to sneak into the castle?"
"By means of a very old… and very ordinary… deception." The Headmaster's expression turned grim. "They hid inside a Trojan horse."
Ginny was the first one to fully understand what he implied, "By Merlin! The attack on the Weird Sisters a few days later! The three crazed fans! They were it! Right? Right!"
"Very well, Miss Weasley," nodded Dumbledore.
"But… weren't the three fans arrested afterwards?" Ron wondered out loud.
"Three people were placed under arrest, just not the right three," the old man answered.
"Polyjuice potion. The aurors arrested the transfigured musicians, and the Death Eaters were left to take their place," Luna said, her tone of voice as casual as if she were reading the back of a cereal box in the supermarket.
"With a little help of Cruciatus and Obliviate," Mr. Linderman added. "The Weird Sisters are still in Saint Petersburg's psychiatric ward recovering from their ordeal."
"I feel the need to apologize," the Professor sighed, "it seems that in my wish to make this a memorable moment for you all, I didn't fully realize the risks implied in opening my castle to strangers."
"You had no way of knowing, Headmaster," said Ginny.
"But… what happened to the other Professors? There was no one but students and musicians when the doors closed at midnight," Ron asked.
"Poisoned," Dumbledore answered, "somehow, one of the death eaters got close enough to pour a vial of Hellebore extract into the wine the faculty was sharing. It was not enough to kill them, but it was enough to make them very, very sick."
"But they came back, didn't they?" Harry wondered, "I mean, before I was… knocked down, I guess… I saw the doors bursting open… they captured Bellatrix and the others, didn't they?"
"Actually, that was Professor Dumbledore," Ron answered.
Dumbledore's voice trembled with uncharacteristic emotion as he said, "I came back just in time to see you falling."
"How did you know to return?" Luna asked.
"Hogwarts told me," the Professor replied. After a long silence, he added, "the connection I share with this school… and its students… is more than skin deep. When the castle felt something as powerful… and as evil… as the orb, it called to me… and I listened." Another silence fell as the friends shared looks that ranged from puzzle to awed, until Dumbledore raised his head to look around the room and said, "Can you give us a few moments alone? There's something I need to discuss."
Ron nodded and, looking at Harry one more time, said, "We'll be just outside" before stepping outside the curtain. Luna, Ginny and Neville, who Harry now realized was walking with a cane, followed.
Harry's attention returned to the Headmaster. He was silent for a long time before he finally asked, "Do you realize that, without knowing, the Death Eaters did exactly the only thing that would allow Voldemort to win?"
"What do you mean?"
"You, Harry… you cannot be destroyed by the hand of another that is not Voldemort… nor can he be destroyed by someone other than you," Dumbledore spoke, "That is why the Orb of the Wailing Souls was the perfect trap. You would have been unable to fulfill your destiny, and Voldemort would have been free to reign over the world."
"According the Prophecy."
"Yes… that is the interpretation according to the Prophecy. It could be wrong, of course, but… evidence seems to be pointing to the contrary."
"Professor Dumbledore," Harry asked, biting his lip in an unconscious gesture, "Do you think… do you think Hermione would have done what she did if… if she had known about the Prophecy?"
"It doesn't really matter, Harry," Dumbledore whispered. "Whether she knew what she was doing or not, the truth is… Miss Granger saved us all."
"How is she?"
"She's fine now. She has hardly left your side. I believe Madam Pomfrey threatened her with a visit to Saint Mungo's to get her to go to get some sleep. She's a keeper, that one."
The old man had made that last statement to lighten the mood, but Harry did not hear him. He kept thinking about the moment he had heard Ron's scream, when he had looked toward the dance floor to find her with a knife in her chest, when the blade tore through flesh and organs, when she fell to her knees in a pool of her own blood, when the wraiths grabbed her as if she was nothing more than a ragged doll and started to carry her to their home, and finally, when the last glimmer of life had disappeared from her brown eyes.
How could she be okay? She had died! He was sure of it! He had to see her. He just had. He had to make sure they were not lying to him. He had to make sure she was here… with him.
A tear ran down his cheek, one he wiped quickly with the back of his hand, hoping that Dumbledore did not witness his weakness. But it was too late. The Headmaster who loved his student more than he should knew exactly what troubled Harry.
"What Miss Granger did was… was an act of bravery worthy of Godric Griffindor himself… but it was not brought on by the desire to be a hero," whispered Dumbledore, a tone of reverence in his soft voice, "but by love." His eyes now glinted behind the half-moon spectacles with unshed tears as he added, "In fact, her act was one of such selflessness and devotion that even Fawkes was moved."
"Fawkes healed her," the young man said.
"He healed her wound," the Professor clarified, "But something else brought her back."
"That is not an answer I have. By all accounts, Miss Granger died that night…"
Harry's heart sank. So, he had been right! Hermione had died. And Dumbledore himself told him that there was no potion, spell or magical object that could bring someone back from the dead. Then how did this wonderful miracle come to be?
"That is a mystery to me, my boy," the Headmaster answered, guessing at Harry's train of thought. He seemed to think about his next words for a few moments before finally saying, "I can only theorize that… that Miss Granger herself has a destiny that has yet to be fulfilled."
Before his words were allowed to sink into Harry's mind, the old man asked, "Harry, do you know how you freed yourself?"
It took a few moments for Harry to gather his thoughts and form a coherent answer, "I don't know, Professor… I just… I felt as if… as if something was growing in me… it felt like electricity… like lightning… like fire… like ice… I don't… I don't even know how to describe it, but… it just grew until… until it burst…." Taking a deep breath, he added, "If I did anything to… awaken… this energy, it wasn't conscious."
When Harry finished speaking, he noticed there was a very unique expression in Dumbledore's face. The old man merely looked back at him, playing with the long hairs of his beard with one hand, while tapping the bed next to Harry's arm with the other. So deep in thought he appeared that Harry wondered if the Professor had even paid attention to his answer.
"Yes, Harry. I'm just thinking about what you just said," spoke the Headmaster, his eyes focusing back on Harry. "I believe I have a theory about what happened. Care to hear it?"
"Remember your first year at Hogwarts?" Dumbledore asked. Harry nodded; who could forget that? His introduction to the wizarding world, the knowledge of his parents real fate, the beginning of his friendship with Ron and Hermione, the mystery of the philosopher's stone, and the revelation that the Dark Lord was alive and trying to regain his power. It had been quite the eventful year.
The Professor continued, "When you encountered Voldemort in front of the Mirror of Erised, Professor Quirrel tried to attack you. But he couldn't touch you…"
"Because of my mother's sacrifice," Harry finished for him.
Dumbledore nodded, "Because of a sacrifice that came from pure and selfless love."
The significance of the Professor's words dawned on him as he voiced, "What Hermione did… it freed that… that energy… in me."
She had saved him… like she had done countless of times before…
"That's what this old fool thinks anyway," the Headmaster said, the faintest hint of a smile in the corners of his mouth. It was quickly replaced by a slightly troubled expression, one that Harry did not missed.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's just a hunch… a feeling," the old man spoke in a soft whisper, "But I feel we haven't seen the full extent of the consequences of Miss Granger's valiant act."
"Does that…" Harry started to ask, feeling his throat tighter than it had been just a few seconds ago, "does that mean she's in danger?"
Another smile crossed over Dumbledore's features, but it was not a smile of amusement, but of resignation, "We are at war, my dear boy. Everybody is in danger."
Harry closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. Dumbledore was right. She was in danger. They all were. But how much more in danger was she now that Bellatrix had guessed the depth of his love for Hermione? What if the Death Eater were to escape again? What if Voldemort were to find out?
"Harry," the Headmaster called, interrupting his thoughts, "this is just a suggestion. After all, the decision is yours to make. But I think you should tell Ron and Hermione about the Prophecy."
Harry could do nothing but agree. It was not like he had ever doubted his friends' loyalty, but there was no denying just how far they were willing to expose themselves in a war that was not theirs to fight.
There was another thing that troubled him… the visions. During the days preceding the ball, he had been assaulted by dreams that, as he understood it now, were a precursor to the events that transpired that night. But how could he have known? Was he a seer? Had Voldemort regained access to his mind and decided to taunt him?
"Is there something else, Harry?"
"Yes… the days before the attack… I saw some things that… that I can't explain."
"Oh, yes… both Professor McGonagall and Firenze spoke to me about your strange behavior in their classes. And Miss Granger and Mister Weasley filled in some blanks," Dumbledore replied. Scratching his chin with his left hand, he added, "In fact, it was Mister Weasley himself who told me about a little… potion problem?"
"Err… yes…" admitted the young man, somewhat embarrassed. He still remembered how he had thought he was under a love potion, and the utterly ridiculous behavior that had prompted.
"I believe what you saw beforehand was partially a result of the Potion of Ardent Lucidity," continued the Headmaster.
Harry frowned; he didn't remember anything like that from the list of side effects read by Luna. "The potion can tell the future?"
Dumbledore shook his head, "Not really. What that particular potion does is open the mind to what is buried in the unconscious.
Now, it is my belief that there's also another unconscious, a collective that connects every living thing together… outside space… outside time…" With that, the old man took out his wand and muttered something under his breath. A semi-transparent image appeared in front of him, something that resembled an eagle's eye picture of a sea sprinkled with masses of land. "You can think of this unconscious as an ocean… there may be thousands and thousands of different islands scattered throughout, but they all exist in the same waters."
Harry found his words to be very beautiful… but not the least bit informative. "What does that have to do with what I saw?"
"If any… disturbance… breaks the surface of the ocean, it will create," Dumbledore continued, reaching up with his bony hand and touching the illusion he had created with his long index finger, "a ripple. Doesn't matter how big or how small the rock is, the waves of the ripple will – invariable - reach the coasts of every island sitting in that ocean."
"I just… just happened to be looking?" Harry asked.
The Headmaster nodded, "By accident… or by fate."
"Fate is a fickle mistress, my boy," the Professor answered, rather enigmatically, "she sometimes shows her hand in the most unexpected of ways."
Firenze's curious words popped back into his head.
' "A vision… a vision of death and destruction… of the past… of the future… maybe of the present… time doesn't mean much to the universe" '
The question remained. Had the vision been fulfilled? Or was there something else lurking in the future for them?
One thing he was sure of… that was an answer the Headmaster would not be able to provide.
"I must leave you now," Dumbledore said, letting his wrinkled hand rest on Harry's shoulder and squeezing it tenderly. "There are a few things I still need to discuss with Mister Lindermann, and I don't dare to keep you away from your friends any longer."
The old man smiled, looking at the night table next to Harry's bed. Only then did the green-eyed boy noticed the fact that it was filled with "Get Well" cards, delicious treats, two teddy bears, and even a small doll dressed in a sexy nurse's outfit that kept moving her hips to the rhythm of a silent song.
Harry had to laugh. It was good to be back in Hogwarts.
Knowing fully well what had captured the Headmaster's attention, Harry nodded toward the table and said, "Help yourself."
With that, Professor Dumbledore reached for the nearest Bertie Botts' Every Flavor Beans box and opened it. He bit into a dark jellybean, making a facial gesture of delight. Harry chuckled; Bertie Botts had finally been good to Dumbledore.
"What is it? Blueberry?"
"Black pepper," the Headmaster announced. Smiling a bit more widely after seeing Harry's expression, he added, "It does not have the best taste… but it works wonders for my sinuses." Dumbledore winked before turning around and stepping outside.
Only a few seconds passed before Ron, Luna, Ginny and Neville were back inside and standing next to Harry's bed. This time, Ron reached for a chocolate frog on the table before being swathed on the hand by Luna.
Ron quickly defended himself, "What? He's already awake! He won't mind! Just ask him!"
"It's okay, Luna. I'm used to it," Harry said, smiling back at his friends and looking around the corner of the curtains for any sign of Hermione.
"We couldn't find her," Ginny answered before he had a chance to ask, "She probably couldn't get any sleep and, knowing Madam Pomfrey wouldn't allow her back here, decided to go for a walk."
Harry sighed. He had already waited twenty-eight days to see her. He'll just have to wait a few more minutes.
He looked at Neville, who was standing with one arm across Ginny's shoulders and the other one on the head of the cane. The smile on his face faltered. His friends had also gone through hell that night, and they now had the scars to prove it. "So, are you guys are really okay? You are not saying that to make me feel better, are you?"
"We are, Harry. Don't worry," Luna answered for all.
"I have to thank you," Harry continued, replaying in his head how they had almost beat the incredible odds against them by disarming Malfoy and attacking the Death Eaters, "I can't even begin to tell you how brave you all were. Thanks for being on my side."
"Hey, we are a team," spoke Ron, a playful smile on his face. "We are Dumbledore's Army, remember?"
Harry nodded. Indeed, they were a team. Such loyalty both scared and fascinated him.
He turned his attention toward the other black haired boy in the room. Harry still remembered how Neville… shy, soft-spoken, and sometimes insecure Neville… had stood up against the people that had tortured his parents into insanity. How in that impossible situation, The Boy-Who-Was-Almost-Chosen had been the sole voice of reason. And how he had almost paid with his life for it.
'We prefer to die now than to let him win! You hear me, Harry? We choose to die if it means he'll be stopped!'
And he had meant it. He truly had meant it.
'My parents gave their lives to protect the secret, Harry. Don't let their sacrifice be in vain…'
Oh, yes… Neville definitely knew more than he had originally thought… maybe even more than Harry. It was a conversation for another place, and another time, but one that will be inevitable.
"You were simply brilliant, Neville."
"Wasn't he?" Ginny added, reaching up with her hand and interlocking her fingers with those of her boyfriend. She didn't understand, or maybe just didn't know, the depth of the connection between these two boys, but the expression in Neville's face left no doubt that he did.
"Don't mention it, Harry," the youngest Longbottom nodded, adding as almost an afterthought, "Besides, I am the one who owes you."
"Are you crazy? I almost got you killed!" Harry blurted, frustration tight in his voice, remembering how the combined Crucio spells had hit Neville on the chest and had thrown him into the air as if he weighed the same as a feather.
"Bellatrix…" clarified Neville, "she won't… she won't hurt anyone anymore."
"She's dead?" asked Harry.
"She wishes," spoke Ginny with nothing but disdain in her voice, "She's in Saint Mungo's… When the Avada bounced off you and hit her… it didn't kill her, but it destroyed what was left of her brain."
"The healers say she will never recover," Luna added, her fingers playing with the hairs in the back of Ron's neck.
"Fitting end if you ask me," the redhead mumbled.
It was. The devil that was Voldemort's right hand, the traitorous woman guilty of the murder of his godfather and countless others, that had constantly conspired to destroy Harry, was no more.
Harry was surprised to realize that he didn't felt anything after hearing the good news. There was no happiness at knowing that Sirius was finally avenged, there was no pride at knowing he had played a part in it, nor righteous anger when he thought of all the unspeakable things she had done. There was nothing.
Before he could ponder any further, a stern voice coming from the other side of the infirmary broke through the curtains and interrupted his thoughts.
"MISTER MALFOY! YOU HAVE TO STOP THIS NONSENSE! You need to drink this! NOW!"
Harry couldn't believe his ears. Malfoy? Draco Malfoy was still here? In Hogwarts? After what he had done for his dear aunt? After holding the students hostage at wand-point?
The expression in Ron's eyes was the only answer he needed.
"Harry, please… calm down… listen to…"
But Harry was not listening. Nothing but adrenaline pumped in his veins as he threw the covers aside, jumped from the bed, and stomped barefoot toward the curtains. Luna tried to stop him by holding onto his hand, while Ginny did the same to his shoulder, but he just shook them away and, flipping the curtain, laid eyes on Madam Pomfrey and the student she was now fussing over.
"YOU!" Harry roared, marching toward Malfoy with just one idea in mind: to beat him into a bloody pulp. He was the one that had helped the Death Eaters come into the school; he was the one that had HURT Hermione; he was the one who deserved to die!
He didn't see Madam Pomfrey ordering him to return to bed at once, threatening to call the Headmaster and with binding him to the bed. He actually pushed the woman aside as if she were just part of the furniture. He only saw Draco Malfoy, his head rested against the pillow, his hair… pale and limp, his cheeks… gaunt and hollow, his gray eyes… dull and lifeless.
But the smirk… in those pale lips there was the unmistakable shadow of the Malfoy's trademark smirk.
"I'LL KILL YOU!" Harry screamed, merely two feet away from the bed. And he would have if it hadn't been for Ron, who threw himself between his friend and his enemy. Harry's body collided against Ron, who took the opportunity to wrap his arms around Harry in an attempt to restrain him.
"STOP IT, HARRY! JUST STOP IT!"
"LET ME GO!" he roared. Ginny and Luna had helped the shocked Madam Pomfrey to her feet, who seemed to be petrified by what had happened. Why were they so intent in protecting Malfoy? He had been in league with Bellatrix! If it were for him, they would all be dead! Why the hell did they care about what happened to Malfoy?
"YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!" Ron screamed back. His blue eyes blazed, but his voice dropped to merely a whisper, "Malfoy's already been punished enough. If you hurt him now, you'll only get in trouble. And I won't have you going to Azkaban for something as stupid as this!"
"Let him go, Weasel."
It took Harry a few moments to realize that the horribly hoarse voice belonged to the young man he wanted to hurt. Even though the smirk was still present in his face, there was none of the disdain he was used to hearing in Malfoy's voice. In fact, it was the voice of someone had been utterly and completely defeated.
"If Saint Potter wants to kill me, let him do it."
Harry grew even angrier, but from that anger a new emotion was born: disbelief. Disbelief because he couldn't bring himself to consider what the little voice inside his head was telling him.
"You really… you really want that. Don't you, you sick fuck?" Harry found himself asking despite already knowing the answer. The smirk on Malfoy's face deepened, but the expression in his eyes darkened. There was now so much hate behind those gray eyes that Harry prayed Malfoy would get out of the bed and strike him, silently begged for something, anything, that would give him an excuse to wrap his hands around Malfoy's neck and watch his life drain away.
But nothing happened. Malfoy remained on his bed, his gray eyes focused, not on Harry, but on something else, something more terrible… something that only the Slytherin could see.
Harry felt his anger retreating slowly, like an ocean's waves after hitting the shore. His body now shook from the exertion and, thoroughly exhausted, he went from fighting against Ron's grip, to leaning on him for support. His best friend patted him awkwardly on the back and whispered, "It's okay, Harry… it's okay. To Madam Pomfrey, he added, "You can put the wand away, ma'am. Everything's alright, now."
Ginny reached them and, together with her brother, carried Harry back to his bed. He had barely sat down before Madam Pomfrey was back in front of him with a small vial full of gooey white liquid.
"Drink this. You'll feel better," she instructed. Her voice was still trembling, but she had regained some of her color. This time, Harry did obey, and was pleasantly surprised to find the liquid did not taste as foul as it looked. With that, Madam Pomfrey left them, placing the curtain back in place before returning to check on her other patients.
It must have been a strengthening potion, for in no time, Harry's breathing was back to normal, his body didn't ache as much, and he actually felt he could now stand on his own two feet.
"Feeling better?" Neville asked.
Harry nodded. There was something much more pressing to discuss than his health. "What is Malfoy doing here? How come he's not in Azkaban rotting like the other Death Eaters?"
The four friends exchanged glances, wondering how to explain this. Ginny was the first one to speak, "Malfoy was found to be… cooperating with his aunt against his will."
"WHAT?" Harry blurted. He lowered his voice after Ron's eyes reminded him to keep his voice down. "And who is stupid enough to believe that?" he whispered.
"Dumbledore and Lindermann… Lupin and the other aurors… and I," replied Luna.
"What? How could you believe that rat bastard? Cooperating against his will, my ass!" Harry hissed, "He's been a death eater himself since he was in nappies!"
"His mother died," was Luna's plain answer.
"So?" Harry blurted. It was only a few moments later when the news sunk in, and he found himself frowning in confusion. The last time he had heard, Narcissa Malfoy was alive and well, still fighting for the release of her husband, Lucius, from Azkaban, claiming he was framed.
"Listen to her, Harry," pleaded Ron. Harry bit back his words and allowed Luna to speak.
"That night, Harry, after what… after what happened, we were ordered to gather all the students in the school and bring them into the Great Hall for a head count. We were to remain there until the castle was checked for fear that other Death Eaters had managed to sneak inside.
They had already taken the wounded away, and Rodolphus and Rabastan had been taken into custody. Ginny was with Neville in the infirmary, Dumbledore was with you, and Ron refused to leave Hermione's bo… Hermione alone. So I was asked to assist with the first and second years students that were about to spend the rest of the night in the Great Hall. There, I heard bits and pieces of conversation from the aurors that were searching the castle, and even got a glimpse of Malfoy as he was being taken into a room for interrogation.
He was screaming, thrashing and flinging his arms like a madman as he tried to break free. It took five aurors to finally drag him into the room. Just before the door closed behind them, I heard Malfoy scream "SAVE HER!" I thought he was speaking about Hermione… that he had finally snapped… so I didn't give it too much thought.
By now, it was already morning. Just before we cleared the sleeping bags to prepare the hall for breakfast, the owls came with the mail. I saw the eagle bearing the Malfoy's family crest sweep inside, a large, misshapen package hanging from his beak. The eagle seemed to search the hall for Malfoy and, not finding him, dropped the package on the place where his master always sits.
Every bone in my body seemed to scream that there was something wrong. So I knocked on the doors and told the auror guarding us that a package had arrived for one of the students accused of conspiring with the Death Eaters, and he in turn went for Lupin. Lupin and Tonks left the room where Malfoy was and came into the Hall. After making sure there were no jinxes or enchantments in the parcel, they opened it."
For the first time since he had known her, Luna's voice trembled. The girl that had watched her mother die now appeared uncharacteristically shaken by whatever it was that she had witnessed in the hall. Harry was not known for being a physical boy, but he couldn't help but reach out his hand to the girl he had been annoyed with just a few minutes ago, and squeeze her shoulder tenderly. Ron was holding onto her hand, his thumb caressing her knuckles as he mumbled mumbled, "Go on, love. You can do it."
Luna breathed deeply, and regained some of her calm composure. "It was horrible… her gray eyes opened, frozen in a perpetual expression of horror… her mouth sewn shut… her skin and hair caked with dried blood, chunks of her scalp missing, pulled by the roots… and the smell… that nauseating smell of death… and of decay."
"Narcissa Malfoy," Harry whispered, feeling nauseated himself.
"Her head, to be more precise," Ginny added in a whisper, "We heard Lupin telling Dad that Narcissa's tongue was missing, and in its place a crumpled sheet of parchment. A message to Malfoy."
"I still… I still don't understand," Harry asked. So Narcissa Malfoy had died a horrible death intended as a message for her son. Who had done this? And why?
"We only know bits and pieces," Neville continued for her, "but from what we've gathered, the Ministry decided not to press charges, because all evidence points to Bellatrix having Narcissa as a hostage to get Malfoy to go along with her plan."
"Bellatrix? Bellatrix killed her own sister?" he whispered with incredulity. To murder your own flesh and blood… how utterly malevolent do you have to be to be able to do that?
"Apparently," said Ron, sighing. "Malfoy never had a chance; his mother had been dead for at least a couple of days."
That explained Malfoy's strange behavior during the week; his restraint, his anxiety, the strange looks he shot Harry's way, and that bizarre warning during their fateful encounter outside the doors of the Great Hall. He knew what was going to happen… and could do… or would do… nothing to stop it.
"I don't understand something. Why would Malfoy need to be bribed into helping his aunt get rid of me? If anything, I would think he would jump at the chance!"
"We don't know. But we are pretty much inclined to believe it's the truth. Even Hermione thinks so," Neville said.
"But why?" Harry pressed.
Ron was looking intently at Harry as he answered, "Because Malfoy tried to kill himself after finding out about his mother."
"I don't believe you," he mumbled. Malfoy? THE Draco Malfoy? The one that had never given a damn for anybody but himself?
"Believe it," Luna sighed. "We were right here when Snape brought him in. Madam Pomfrey managed to stabilize him, but he had to be taken to Saint Mungo's for further treatment. He just came back two days ago."
Guessing at his friend's line of thinking, Ron shook his head. "Harry, you know I am not a fan of Draco Malfoy. In fact, I hate the bloody bastard. And I tried to think he had just done it to claim insanity or something stupid like that… but after seeing it with my own eyes… that was no attempt, Harry. He really was hoping to die."
The worst headache he had probably experienced in his seventeen years of life was now pounding behind his eyes. This was all too much. He couldn't… he couldn't even begin to absorb all that he had learned since he had awakened. There was only one thing he needed right now, and that was…
"Hermione…" he called to no one in particular. He needed to see her so badly, to feel her, to have undeniable proof that she was alive and well. It was amazing that, while feeling so physically tired, he could feel so emotionally restless, like a jungle cat that had been kept in a cage for too long.
"You know? I think I have a pretty good idea of where she is."
Harry had trouble recognizing the gravelly voice that had just spoken, especially since there was nothing in the room to indicate a sixth presence. But Ron just grinned wryly and, tilting his head toward the curtain behind him, said "Sorry, mate. Didn't mean to wake you."
"Really? Because I think the racket Potter just made could have raised the dead."
A new wave of shame and guilt washed over Harry when he realized he had failed to ask about one more person… a man that had surprised him more than once during the course of that night.
Stunned, Harry's feet touched the cold floor as he walked toward the side curtain of his little cubicle. Pulling the curtain aside, he saw him lying on the bed. He had a steel contraption around his head to prevent him from moving, and thick bandages wrapped around his neck. He had lost some weight, his blonde hair was slightly longer, and, overall, he looked more vulnerable. But there was no mistaking the smile on his face.
Harry had never been so happy to see Roger Davies cocky grin.
"So… Sleeping Beauty has finally awakened. Glad you could join us," Roger said with some difficulty. The stillness of the Ravenclaw's body was apparent to Harry, and suddenly became clear that his ex-nemesis was paralyzed from his injuries.
"I'm sorry," was the only thing Harry managed to say. His mind's eye wondered back to Sirius, to Cedric, to his parents… how many others would have to suffer in his name?
"Don't be," Roger quickly answered. "What happened was not your fault. You are just another victim… like the rest of us."
Harry took a hesitant step toward the bed. The closer he got the more obvious the extent of Roger's injuries became. "How… how are you feeling?"
"I'm not feeling much… which seems to be the problem," laughed Roger, just a smidgen of bitterness crawling into his voice. He quickly cleared it away before adding, "But Madam Pomfrey says I'm getting better. I've already gained back the feeling in my fingers and my toes… and I think someone tickled my feet yesterday. Can't be sure… In a month or so, I'll be transferred to a treatment facility in Switzerland… prospects are looking good for, at least, a partial recuperation."
"Full!" Ron, Luna, Ginny and Neville corrected from the other side of the room.
By now, Harry had reached Roger's bedside. He reached with his hand and grasped the blonde's arm candidly before saying, "What you did… what you did was incredibly brave."
The smile on the Head Boy's face seemed to vanish before he whispered, "Foolish too… but I couldn't just stand aside". His eyes, which had been steadily locked on Harry's figure, now seemed to loose focus, lost in the tall ceiling of the infirmary. He breathed deeply for a few moments, and finally added, "You know? I had always wondered what it would be like to be the great Boy-Who-Lived for a day…" His eyes went back to Harry as he finished, "I guess I got my wish."
"You should have asked me… I would have saved you the trouble," answered Harry.
"Too late now…" spoke Roger. His smile seemed to return, and it was that same genuine beam he had seen the night of the ball. "But I quite like an unforeseen consequence of my actions."
Harry couldn't help but return the smile. Roger's good mood amidst the grim circumstances was definitely contagious. "And what's that?"
Roger whispered in a rather conspiratorial tone, "Sponge baths."
"Madam Pomfrey's?" Harry grimaced. That was a mental picture he did not needed.
"Ewww! No!" Roger laughed, simultaneously grimacing from the effort it took over his weakened body, "Let's just say there are very nice – visitors - who go the extra mile… After all, even Madam Pomfrey has to sleep." He winked and clicked his tongue, clearing any doubt that he was indeed committed to remain positive.
Harry laughed genuinely before patting Roger's arm, "You know? I can't remember why I hated you so much."
"Maybe because I tried to steal your girl?" Roger offered with a rather randy smile on his face.
"So," replied the Gryffindor, a rather smug smile on his face, "you knew she was my girl, didn't you?"
"Potter, everybody but you knew that."
Harry felt the heat rising on his face. He looked over his shoulder, only to find Luna, Ron, Ginny and Neville nodding in approval. He scratched the back of his head in a sheepish gesture. "Rub it in, why don't you…"
"She's one of a kind, that one," Roger whispered in a less cheerful tone. The smile was now one of quiet resignation. "You are a lucky man, Potter."
"Thank you," Harry said, his voice sounding tight even in his own ears.
"Don't mention it. Just be good to her."
"I will. I promise," nodded Harry.
"And," said Roger, his voice stronger so that Harry's friends could also hear, "- speaking of girls that dig boys with scars - you want to know what she said her favorite place in all Hogwarts was?"
"The library?" both Harry and Ron answered simultaneously.
Roger couldn't help but roll his eyes and mumble, "Gee… no wonder she gets so frustrated with you two." By now, Ron was standing next to Harry, waiting for him to answer. "Alright, Dumb and Dumber… I'll give you two a clue… what's the one place where Hermione's roots are firmly planted… and entangled with yours?"
Ron frowned, and only waited a few moments before replying, "Roots? What the hell is Madam Pomfrey giving you? Hermione doesn't have ro - "
Roger interrupted Ron by nodding weakly at Harry, "Look at his face. I think he knows the answer."
Harry did know. It was the place whose shadows had watched them grow since their first year at Hogwarts.
"Go to her, Potter."
Fifteen minutes later…
"I still think you should have let me come get her," Ron mumbled under his breath, looking from side to side as if expecting some new danger to pop out of the earth at any moment. Indeed, a slightly paranoid existence was one of the few side effects of being one of Harry Potter's best friends.
"I didn't want her to see me there," Harry confessed with some difficulty, "And I didn't want to see her with everybody around." He was a little out of the breath from the walk, and had resorted to using Ron's shoulder as a cane.
They were already on the Hogwarts grounds, making a straight line toward the tree by the lake. It was that beautiful time of the day when the sun had already set behind the mountains, but the renegade rays that refused to believe it was time to say goodbye worked on casting a mystical orange glow over everything they touched. Luckily, Ron and Harry had not encountered many students on their escapade, and had asked of the few they had met to remain quiet about the news that The Boy Who Lived had finally awakened. Harry had already had enough distractions today to last a lifetime.
"Alright," Ron grumbled. "But could you at least button up Neville's jacket? You are going to catch a cold."
Harry smiled. It was definitely cold outside, as it usually was by the end of November. And it was very windy, as judged by the way his hair was being tossed all over the place. But since when had Ron become such a worrywart? "You are beginning to sound like your mother," he replied with humor.
"You would too if – " Ron sighed. He didn't finish the sentence, but it wasn't necessary for him to do so. Harry understood perfectly well… he would too if he had seen his two best friends 'die.'
His smile quickly deflated. He had been too worried about everybody's physical wellness that he had forgotten to ask about the deeper… and more permanent… wounds.
"I'm sorry," said Harry. He didn't remember the last time he had told Ron he was sorry about anything, but he thought they would never be enough.
"I know," Ron replied, swallowing hard. Harry could see he was struggling to say something, but the redhead remained silent. He could feel his heart grow heavy, and as he looked away, he saw the shape of the familiar tree barely thirty meters away, looking strangely surreal against the backdrop of the glittering lake.
He saw a furry ginger ball jumping up and down and running circles around the trunk, and he recognized Hermione's pet, Crookshanks, who seemed to be having a great time trying to catch a red and golden hummingbird. But there was no sign of Hermione.
"I can't see her," Harry said, squinting hard. It didn't help one of the lenses of his glasses had cracked in three when he landed on the floor after Bellatrix's Avada.
"I can… at least her shoes."
Ron circled the tree from a distance, allowing Harry to spot what he had seen. Slightly blurred, but it was there… the figure of a girl lying on the grass, her head cradled in the nook between the trunk and a particularly thick root, her eyes closed, her arms crossed over her chest, holding what appeared to be a book close to her heart.
Ron stopped walking, and Harry did the same. "Well, there she is," the redhead announced without need, sounding slightly uncomfortable. After a few moments of silence, he surprised Harry by adding, "I'm the one who's sorry."
"I failed, Harry," his friend spoke, his voice now shaking slightly. "I couldn't… protect her."
"Ron, there was nothing you…"
Ron continued to speak, ignoring Harry's protests. "When I saw her… with Malfoy's knife… I knew…. I knew what she was about to do… and I couldn't… I couldn't do anything to stop her… just like I couldn't do anything to stop Bellatrix's spell from hurting you…" He momentarily lost his voice as a single, errand tear rolled down the freckled cheek. He quickly wiped it away, straightening up his posture in a childish attempt to regain control of his emotions.
Harry said nothing. What could he say? There was nothing he could say to make it better. He had been in the exact same position Ron was right now and he knew one thing; deeds, not words, was the only thing that could make a difference. So he did something he had never done before in their six years together: he hugged his best friend. Ron stiffened at the gesture at first, but finally gave in, and returned the hug in earnest.
Some time passed in comfortable silence before Harry heard Ron's dry chuckle. "What is it?" asked Harry, his voice tight, finding it difficult to get the air through the lump in his throat.
Ron was still struggling to bite back his laughter when he added, "I'm just thinking… that if people see us like this… they are going to start reaching the wrong conclusions."
"Don't worry," Harry smiled. He pushed Ron at arm's length and, still holding onto his shoulders, said, "Redheads are so not my type."
"Oh, the woes of being a Weasley," Ron joked. He smiled and, tucking his hands inside the pockets of his trousers, nodded at the tree over Harry's shoulder. "Go get her, tiger."
Harry took a deep, steadying breath. When he noticed his friend had begun to turn around and seemed ready to walk back into the castle, he said, "Don't go far". He remembered Dumbledore's advice, and there was no better time for that particular conversation. "There's something you both need to know." And with that, Harry turned around and walked the remaining distance toward the person he had ached to hold since the moment he became aware he was still alive.
For an instant, he saw her as she had been that night… first, as the stunning young woman he had met on the balcony after seven years of friendship… then, as the beauty drenched in her own blood, kneeling on the floor of the Great Hall, embracing a fate of pain, suffering and torment… all in his name.
He had promised her that night that - no matter how it ended - they would be together. And by some unexpected and thoroughly miraculous event, they had both survived the impossible.
Harry collapsed on his knees next to her body, his eyes now focusing exclusively on her features. The expression on her face was one of peace, of contentment, as if dreaming of a reality where danger was not waiting for them at every corner. But she had lost some weight, and there were dark circles under her eyes, making her seem far older than her nubile eighteen years. He knew it was probably a consequence from spending the last twenty-eight days worrying incessantly for him.
He didn't have the heart to wake her up. So he just knelt next to her, reaching with his hand - but not quite touching – her body. He wanted so badly to rest his head on her chest, to hear that one last bit of undeniable proof that she was indeed alive – the beating of her heart.
He found himself thinking about his first time on the Hogwarts Express, and about the instant when this girl stepped into the compartment he was sharing with Ron, looking for Neville's toad. Who could have guessed that the little bushy-haired, socially awkward little know-it-all would end up being not only one of his best friends, but the most important person in his life?
He could feel it now in every bone in his body… her love for him. It was so palpable he wondered how could he have been so blind. It was there… in her embrace and her encouraging words before he went off to fight Professor Quirrell for possession of the stone… in the way she had run toward him screaming 'You solved it' after she had woken up from the spell the basilisk had put her under… in how she had risked it all to try and save his godfather from certain execution… in how she had stayed by his side during the Tri-Wizard tournament, suffering ridicule and scorn while helping him with the tasks and struggling to patch his friendship with Ron… in how she refused to distance herself from him when he decided to take out his anger at the world on everyone… in how she submitted herself to what she knew was certain danger for him… on the way she had fought his inner demons and emerged victorious.
But at what cost?
All those times he had almost lost her… when she had been petrified… when they had gone to the Department of Mysteries in search of Sirius and she had fallen under the hex of a villainous Death Eater… when Bellatrix and her companions had simultaneously cursed her, sending wave and after wave of excruciating pain to every cell of her body… and when she had fallen under the strain of the self-inflicted wound aimed to save Harry from an unfathomable faith.
And by some… some phenomenon nobody could explain… she was still here. With him.
But the question remained… what if she hadn't? What would have happened if he had woken up today only to find that the woman he had pledge his love to was now resting… six feet underground?
He shivered, but not from the cold, wrapping Neville's cloak around him as far as it would go. He tried to ignore the sudden lack of air, the anxiety, the tightness around his throat, and the constricting pain in his chest triggered by the thought of how close he was to losing her this time. He tried to distract himself by thinking about other things, beautiful – heavenly – things… like the first time he had tasted her lips… the first time he had heard her say I love you… the flavor of her skin… the way she whispered his name… how her fingers dug into his hair every time she tried to pull him closer…
But only one thought truly remained in his head… that right at this moment, the laws of the universe dictated that he should be standing in front of a slab of marble with the name "Hermione Granger" carved on its surface.
Without realizing it, Harry began to cry… not gut wrenching wails, or racking sobs… but silent and unobtrusive tears that unhurriedly rolled down his cheeks.
And like in the story of the moon, in which before the child has shed his fourth tear, his mother would already lulled him back into peace, the third tear Harry shed fell on Hermione's hand. And slowly, but surely, her eyes started to flutter open.
It was a mumble rather than a word, but it was enough to capture his attention. He looked up at her face, and couldn't help but smile as he watched her waking up, her eyes unable to focus in the figure kneeling next to her. Her hands reached up and she started to rub her eyes as she fought against the heaviness of interrupted slumber, like a child who has been denied five more minutes in bed by her parents.
But everything about her changed the next time she opened her eyes, because it was only then that she truly became aware that she was neither dreaming nor hallucinating, and that he had indeed awakened, and was now here with her.
"HARRY!" she screamed, her face a mixture of shock and utter delight, throwing whatever she had been holding close to her heart aside before sitting upright with a start.
He chuckled, his smile incongruent with the wetness of the tears on his cheeks. He couldn't resist the temptation to say, "What? Expecting another one of your boyfriends?"
She answered him by jumping to her knees and slamming into him in a tight embrace that would have knocked him to the ground had he not been kneeling in the first place. His arms went around her waist and brought her closer still. He dropped kisses into her hair as fresh tears rolled down his cheeks, her body rocking against his. But this time, they were tears of elation, for the young woman in his arms was undeniably alive.
He mistakenly thought she had been laughing until he felt the wetness of tears on his skin. She was shaking, and every now and then a sob escaped through her parted lips. He did the only thing he could do; he held her closer still, until no foreign particle could squeeze between them, his hands running up and down her back soothingly, his lips whispering evanescent declarations of love that were meant only for her.
She started to rain wet kisses on his neck… his chin… the arches of his cheeks… fisting handfuls of his cloak in her hands, as if she were afraid that at any moment he would fade away. He knew exactly how she felt. His hands reached up, her hair tickling his knuckles, before feeling the overwhelming need to see his reflection in those brown pools. Cupping her cheeks, he leaned back just enough so he could see those eyes.
So dark. So passionate. So Hermione.
He watched her chew on her bottom lip, stifling another sob before it had a chance to escape, her eyes searching for his. Her eyes held such intensity that he was sure she could not only see him, but into him, passing through tissue, blood, and organs until reaching into his very soul.
And he knew without a doubt that she knew him better than he knew himself.
He thought of a thousand things he could say at this moment. But alas, any words he could come up with would be inadequate to convey all he felt. He was beyond happiness… and beyond fear, for there was no other way to describe the elation he was experiencing with the understanding that she was indeed here, indeed real, and the terror he felt with only the memory of being so close to losing her again.
"What you did," whispered Harry, his voice raspy and tight with emotion, his eyes shining in the dimming afternoon, "was incredibly, incredibly stupid."
She bit her lip even harder, her chin trembling. Her hands reached up and held onto his forearms, clinging desperately to him. It took her a few moments before she managed to croak, "I'm sorry, Harry… I just … just couldn't…."
He smiled. "Thank you."
She frowned in genuine puzzlement, an expression that seemed incongruous with the turmoil of emotions behind her eyes.
His thumbs now traced circles on her cheeks, wiping the trail the tears had left in their wake. "You saved me, Hermione… you and you alone…"
She was even more confused by his admission, and that had the positive side effect of calming her down. "Saved you? But the Avada… it almost… almost…"
Harry repeated what Dumbledore had told him not an hour before, "When you… when you sacrificed your soul for mine… you gave me the power to fight them." His voice trembled, but the smile on his lips never wavered, as he finished, "because what you did…you did out of love."
The ghost of what was now known as Hermione's mischievous smile appeared at the corner of her full lips. '"Well," she began, her eyebrow arching impishly, "I do think you are sort of cute, but I wouldn't go as far as saying that I…"
Harry silenced her with a kiss to the forehead. He lingered there, feeling the softness of her skin against his parched lips. He felt her shiver, her breath hitching from the chaste contact. He couldn't deny the fact that the thought of something more sent currents of electricity up and down his spine.
"I love you…" he whispered, his lips barely a centimeter from her skin, "so… so much."
He felt rather than saw her flutter her eyes close, and nuzzle her nose against his chin. "I love you too," she breathed. Her right hand let go of the grip she had on his arm, and settled over his chest. It snuck between two of the buttons, and settled over his naked skin… right over the spot where the worst of the unforgivable curses had bounced off his body… right over his heart.
"Are you really alright, Harry?" she asked, looking up into his eyes to judge the honesty of his answer.
"I am," answered Harry with a soft smile. There was something so infinitely intimate and slightly forbidden about her gesture that it made his heart beat twice as fast. But the smile soon vanished… for he remembered that this same hand that was now so lovingly caressing him was the same one she had used to deliver the fatal blow that had almost taken her away.
"And you…" he asked, tucking an errand curl behind her ear with a shaky hand, "how are you really feeling?"
"I'm fine, Harry," she smiled quietly, trying to appease his personal daemons. "And now that you are finally awake, I couldn't be better."
"But you… you…" he started. He couldn't even finish the sentence…
Not that he needed to. Hermione knew exactly what was going in his head.
"And now I'm not. I'm very much alive, Harry…" she whispered, cupping his cheek with her left hand, "And I've missed you… God, I've missed you so much…"
Harry gulped. There was jus so much tenderness, and devotion, and love reflected in those beautiful brown eyes that it made him feel lightheaded. How could she? After all she had endured for him? How could she still love him?
"Promise me…" he begged, his voice barely a whisper, his hands dropping to her shoulders, "just promise me, Mione… that's you'll never – ever - do something as reckless as what you did that night…"
Hermione never answered… at least, not with words. What she did do was smile a lazy, soothing smile, the index finger of her right hand trailing from his chest, to the follow of his neck, the line of his jaw, the tip of his nose, the arches of his cheeks, his eyelashes, the scar on his forehead – that mark that had brought him so much pain and was now the origin of so much pleasure.
Her hand cupped his other cheek, and her thumb softly caressed his lower lip. Harry sighed, trembling, knowing very well she was trying to distract him but finding himself unable to do anything about it.
"Mione - "
And then, she leaned closer and allowed her lips to descend atop of his.
It was a slow, tender kiss, much like the one they had shared that first night together on the balcony, and yet, terrifyingly unique, for just the idea that he had almost lost the chance to kiss those lips again made it all the more sweeter.
Harry's eyes fluttered shut against their will, his hands traveling without hurry down her sides, until they found a lovely place to rest on her hips. He tried to focus, to grasp what he had been thinking about before this glorious caress, and for one instant, thought he had been successful.
That is, until Hermione's hands inched their way into his hair, and her tongue ran over Harry's lips. Driven by a sudden and inexplicable hunger, he opened his mouth to her, tasting her for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. For Merlin… she tasted even better than he remembered, a flavor that reminded him of everything he loved… the wind on his face when he was flying on his broomstick… the aroma of ink and parchment that hung around her after a particularly busy day at the library… the feeling of freshly cut grass tickling his hands as they sat side by side under the shadow of the beech tree… the sensation of her curls against his cheek whenever she rested her head on his shoulder.
It was those moments – rather ordinary for some people – that made all heartache he had experienced worth it… if only for another chance to experience them again.
Their tongues were frantic, and just a bit on the clumsy side, in their exploration of one another, and yet, he felt as if she was drinking in his soul the same way she seemed to be drinking in the air from his lungs. Her hold on his hair brought him closer still, his hands on her hips traveling to the curve of her round bottom, and pulling her closer, their hips crashing together.
She was fire, and he was begging to be burned. He fed off her moan, devouring her lips, which were soft and yielding against his firm assault. The flames of desire licked and caressed places in him he didn't even know existed, but he forced himself to be gentle, a feat in itself due to the sheer magnitude of his desire for her.
He would demand the title "The Happiest Man Who Ever Lived" on his epitaph if only he had a chance to wake up to this always.
But something else was going on.
He was drowning in the sensations caused by her mouth on his, her hands on his skin, her hips rolling into his… but there were others sensations as well, sensations he couldn't explain… like the distinct sensation of being underwater… of breaking the surface… of intense sunlight kissing his skin… of a wind that seemed to lift him from the ground and carry him up to the clouds…
Hermione must have sensed the change in him, for she abruptly ended the kiss and looked up at him with worry. "What is it, Harry? Did I hurt you? Are you in pain?"
He couldn't help but smile. Here was the greatest gift life had given him… her lips bruised and swollen from his kisses, the skin of her lower back hot and begging to be touched… her eyes full of compassion and understanding… worried that she might be hurting him. Life sure had a wicked sense of irony.
Taking a page out of her book, Harry lowered his lips on hers again, this time in a slow, sensual kiss. She sighed into his mouth, her eyes fluttering shut, as the now familiar currents of electricity traveled to corner of his body. Dear Merlin… who could care about prophecies and dark lords and death eaters and unexplainable miracles when this was the alternative?
If life had taught Harry anything, it was that all good things must come to an end.
"That's it! I'm going back to the castle before I go completely bonkers! I'll wait for you two by the doors!"
The kiss ended abruptly when both Harry and Hermione burst out laughing. She gave him one last, lingering kiss at the corner of his mouth as he screamed to the man standing a few meters behind them, "Don't you run off!"
Ron laughed and started to walk toward them. "Only if you two stop swapping spit for a moment! I need time to heal my fragile psyche". He was now standing next to the kneeling couple, a bright smile on his freckled face, as he offered each one of his friends a hand.
Hermione was the first one to accept his offer, disentangling from Harry's arm and incorporating herself with Ron's help. An instant after letting go of his hand, she slapped him on the shoulder. "Displays of affection are perfectly natural, Ron," she explained with mock seriousness, grasping Harry's hand. He was still a little weak from all the – activity – and would need help from both.
"It may be natural for the rest of the school," Ron huffed as both he and Hermione helped Harry to his feet, "but it's going to take a while for it to be natural for me… For Merlin's sake! It's like watching Fred jamming his tongue down Ginny's throat!"
Hermione's face contorted in a very uncharacteristic expression of disgust. "Ewww! That's beyond gross, Ronald."
"And that is exactly my point!" Ron continued, both he and Hermione oblivious to the smile on Harry's face at the familiarity of the scene. "I mean, don't you realize how disturbing is for me to see Harry pawing at your…?"
Hermione interrupted Ron before he could finish the sentence. Only God knew what she might have done to him if he had dared to complete the thought. "Harry WAS NOT pawing at my… my…"
"Actually, Hermione" Harry sighed, slumping his shoulder dramatically as one arm snaked around his girlfriend's waist, "Ron's right. I was sort of pawing."
Hermione feigned being annoyed at both of them… something she had had plenty of practice in. She crossed her arms over her chest and said in her best lecturing voice, "The verb pawing implies handling something rudely or clumsily… what you did was more like petting… or slight fondling… or -"
It was Ron's to turn green. "I think I just threw up in my mouth."
"Good. You deserve it," Hermione smiled smugly, reaching for Ron's ear and twisting between her fingers as she added, "Next time, don't be such a peeping tom."
"Ouch!" Ron slapped her hand away at the same time Hermione's arm went around Harry's shoulders. "I can't help it! It's like watching two Quidditch players crashing in midair!" He smiled wryly, adding, "Painful, but you can't look away!" He ducked before Hermione could punch him in the arm again.
It didn't escape by Harry the fact that the bond of friendship that Hermione and Ron had always shared now seemed to be even stronger than before. Unbreakable. And it was only natural. Only God knew what those two had gone through together during the last few weeks. Harry was almost envious. Almost. He tightened the grip he had on her waist, and dropped a sideways kiss on the top of her head.
"You dropped this," Ron mumbled, crouching on the ground to pick something up. It was the object Hermione had been holding close to her heart while she was sleeping. Harry was curious to see what it was, and he didn't have to wait long, because soon Ron was standing next to Hermione with an easy smile on his face, holding the object for all of them to see. "Aw, what a handsome bloke I was."
It was a white and black magical photograph, showing three young children, a girl flanked by two boys her age, beaming, completely unaware they were being photographed. The look they shared was more meaningful than any words could explain.
Hermione's other arm stretched over Ron's shoulders, unconsciously bringing him closer. None of them noticed, but they now held the same positions as the kids in the picture. Her eyes on the portrait, she said, "Colin gave me this a few weeks ago… it was the End of Term Feast. Remember?"
"How could I forget?" Ron whispered. "Ginny was safe. You had just woken up from being petrified. And Hagrid had just been released from Azkaban."
Harry's eyes involuntarily began to water.
Five years ago… it seemed like an eternity had passed since that happy day. But there they were… Ron… with his freckled cheeks, his ginger hair, and that patented Weasley smile… Harry… thin, scraggly Harry, with those old eyeglasses that were too big and too round for his head, grinning at the girl that stood in the middle… his Hermione, with her bushy hair, warm brown eyes and proud smile, looking with nothing but affection from one friend to the other.
Harry's eyes moved from the portrait to the people standing next to him. There they were… just as they had been five years ago… by his side.
The time had arrived for a conversation seventeen months in the making.
"Ron, Hermione… there's something you need to know."
The gravity in his voice was obvious, and both Ron and Hermione looked up from the picture with worried expressions in their faces. "What is it, mate?" asked Ron, while she just squeezed Harry's shoulder in a gesture of support.
"Please… sit…" Harry sighed, gesturing toward the tree. Both Ron and Hermione shared another anxious look before letting go of Harry and taking their respective sitting places over the roots.
"What's wrong?" asked Hermione in a hushed voice. She didn't fail to notice the fact that the lake had suddenly attracted Harry's attention.
Her beloved remained quiet for a long time, just looking at the reflection of the moon over the surface of the water. He couldn't explain what he was feeling to his friends, nor he could understand it himself. The lake… it called to him. A shiver ran up his arms when he felt the two transparent hands grasping him by the wrist, and the ghost of feminine lips over his scar.
Ron's voice managed to pierce the fog of his mind. He blinked once, twice, before turning his attention back to the task at hand.
He sat on a rock, facing his two friends, feeling very tired, very weak. "Do you remember," Harry began, licking his dehydrated lips, "the… the Prophecy in the Department of Mysteries? The one about me and…"
"Of course we remember," Hermione interrupted, nodding almost imperceptibly. "You told Bellatrix you knew what the prophecy said…"
"You were lying, weren't you? Trying to buy some time," Ron spoke.
"Not exactly," Harry sighed. "I know what it said."
"But… but how? The Prophecy sphere… you told us it had been destroyed before you got a chance to hear what it had to say," Hermione rationalized.
Harry nodded. "It's true. And although the sphere was the only written record of the prophecy, the person that recorded it in the first place is still alive."
"Dumbledore," she quickly inferred. Ron shot her a "how-do-you-know" look like the one he often sent her way during Advanced Potions, while Harry managed to answer with a small smile.
"After… after Sirius death… Dumbledore took me into his office and… and he told me all about the prophecy."
"What does it say?" Ron and Hermione asked simultaneously.
He had committed the words to memory, repeating it over and over in his head during all those days spent locked up in Buckbeak's room, neglecting hygiene and sustenance in exchange for punishment for feeling responsible his godfather killed. But even he was surprised with the ease with which he shared his dark secret.
"The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies… and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not… and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives."
A heavy silence befell over the three as the words started to sink in. Ron's face was one of pure concentration, processing the words over and over in his mind, while Hermione chewed on her bottom lip, her eyes drifting toward the lake, rubbing her hands together, struggling for warmth to fight the shivers that had suddenly crept over her.
He jumped a bit when Ron's voice broke the eerie silence, "Wait! That's why Bellatrix's Unforgivable couldn't kill you. When He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named tried to kill you when you were a baby, he marked you as his equal! That means you are indestructible!"
Harry would have paid attention to Ron if he hadn't been worried about Hermione. For one, she didn't seem to share Ron's positive interpretation of the sibylline message. In fact, she had gone abruptly still, her eyes still fixed over the dark waters. If it hadn't been for the soft rise and fall of her chest, Harry would have feared she had been petrified.
"Hermione, are you okay?" he whispered with worry.
When Hermione turned to face him, he noticed there were fresh tears in the pools of her eyes. In contrast, her face shone with a strength he had seen only a few times before. Their gazes met. "It can only end like that, can it?"
"Like what?" Ron asked her.
With her eyes still fixed on Harry, Hermione concluded, "Either Harry kills Voldemort… or Voldemort kills Harry."
"But that means…"
"That the worst is yet to come," she whispered, looking away just as crystalline tear fell down her cheek. She quickly wiped it with the cuff of her jersey, trying hard not to cry again by biting on her bottom lip. Ron, who seemed to be having a hard time accepting the significance of the prophecy himself, absently placed his hand on top of Hermione's knee and squeezed softly, sharing in her distraught.
"Look," Harry said with a tired sigh, "I am not… I'm not telling you this so as to worry you."
"What do you expect, Harry?" Ron answered with a frown.
"I expect you to accept…" Harry explained, "I'm telling you this because you need to have fair warning. You have never left my side, but there will be a time when I will have to fight alone. There's nothing you can do to help me."
Hermione turned to face him and, very quietly, but with the fierceness he had come to associate with her, said, "I refuse to believe that."
"Me too, mate," nodded Ron.
The Boy-Who-Lived closed his eyes, releasing a loud groan. Count on his friends to always take the difficult path to everything. He finally mumbled between clenched teeth, "It's not like I have a say in this."
He heard her stretch as she stood up, the grass crushing underneath the soles of her shoes. He didn't dare to open his eyes, for he knew he would lose this battle before ever getting a fighting chance. She stopped and kneeled between his legs.
"Harry, look at me."
Why did she have to ask? Didn't she know that he was incapable of saying no to her? And didn't she know that he was saying this for their own good?
Her hands cupped his cheeks tenderly, and she was so close that he felt the wisps of air from her parted lips lick his skin when she commanded, "Harry… look at me."
He finally opened his eyes and saw her… the young woman he had discovered he loved more than he loved himself. And just behind her shoulder, the redheaded young man who had shared in his misadventures since they first shared a ride on the train to school so many years ago.
"Just today," Hermione continued to speak, "you told me that my love had saved you… that it had given you the strength to fight Bellatrix. Were you lying?"
Harry blinked twice in confusion, not really grasping the logic behind her question. Finally, he answered, "Of course I wasn't… but that's not the point…"
"Well," she smiled softly, "I love you now more than I loved you before." She caressed his cheek with kindness. "And Ron loves you too."
Ron nodded from his sit, and with a playful smile, added, "In a manly, heterosexual way, of course."
Hermione continued, "And I'm sure that love… the thing Voldemort understands least about this world… and about you, Harry… is what's going to help you defeat him… once and for all."
He took a really good look at his two best friends. They were still both visibly shaken by the truth of the Prophecy. And yet, the expressions on their faces were of strength, acceptance, and unwavering determination. Theirs were the faces of two people who wouldn't be denied what they had accepted as their own destiny.
And Harry Potter finally understood. "You would go with me till the very end. Wouldn't you?"
"See, Hermione? After six years, he finally notices!" Ron chuckled. He quickly stood up and walked toward them. Placing one hand on Hermione's shoulder and the other on Harry's, he joked, "Your boyfriend is a bit thick if you ask me."
"I am not asking you, Ronald," Hermione said, looking up at him, "I already know."
"Hey," Harry's lips curled into a smile, "I'm still here you know!" Hermione just smiled a bit wider, and used her grip on his face to draw him nearer, kissing him very softly on the lips.
He could hear Ron's disgusted groan, and thought that a joke was sure on its way. But to his surprise, the only sound that reached his ears was the screaming of a very disgruntled school nurse.
"MISTER LONGBOTTOM! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?"
Hermione frowned, looking at her two friends as if she just knew they had something to do with that. "I don't want to know what happened… but I'm guessing Harry has to go back to the infirmary. Am I right?"
"You are always right, Hermione," Ron mumbled, giving her a hand to help her up. "And I sure hope to be there on the day you are finally proven wrong."
"Don't wait up," she replied with a smug grin as they both helped Harry back to his feet. He was a bit unsteady, a problem which Hermione quickly solved by draping his arm over her shoulders to support some of his weight, placing her own arm around his waist to keep him close.
"Do you need any help?" Ron asked her with a tinge of worry. She just smiled and shook her head. And with that, Ron started to walk back to the castle, the photograph still in his hand, with Harry and Hermione just a few paces behind.
"What are you going to do now?" asked Harry, twirling a lock of brown hair absently between his fingers.
"Me? Oh, I have lots of homework to catch up to. Haven't been in the mood lately," she answered, quickly adding, "I'll take my things to the infirmary, of course. You too need to catch up on your homework." Thankfully, she decided to ignore the look of repulsion in his face. But Ron's presence gave Harry a better idea.
Nodding to Ron's back so only Hermione could see him, Harry smiled, saying, "I've got a better idea. I mean, since you are going to be in the infirmary, maybe you could help me with my sponge bath…"
They couldn't hold in their laughter when they saw Ron clamp his hands over his ears and run away, screaming "La-la-la-la-la" over and over again like a madman.
"I'm going to have so much fun teasing him," she admitted, tightening her hold on his waist.
Harry released a contended sigh, a curious thought sneaking into his head. "And to think this all started with Snape's…"
"Never mind," he mumbled apologetically. He was certainly not in the mood right now to share that particular part of the story.
"Wait," Hermione said as she stopped their walk back to the castle. She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and produced her wand. Harry smiled as she stood up in front of him, knowing exactly where this was heading. "You know? I would have guessed that after almost seven years in Hogwarts you would have learned to repair your glass."
"But then, it wouldn't be the same," he winked.
"True," she agreed with a rather satisfied grin. She waved her wand around before tapping his eyeglasses and whispering, "Oculus Reparo." The cracked lens was no more.
Harry hugged her to him, resting his chin on the crown of her head. Warmth spread to every limb in his body when he felt her arms go around him. He breathed in her scent, serene in the realization that she was there with him. "What would I ever do without you?" he mumbled into her hair.
She leaned her head back just enough so she could look him in the eye. "I promise, Harry… you will never learn the answer to that question."
And she kissed him one more time.
In that instant, the future became clear… he would achieve his destiny… he would destroy the Dark Lord… and he would get a chance to live the life he's always wanted… with her.
Together, they continued their journey back to their shared home. Little did they know that their love - as insignificant as a pebble breaking the surface of an endless ocean - would ultimately decide the fate of everything caught in the web of existence.
"You know," said Harry, finally reaching the doors to the castle, "I wasn't completely kidding when I suggested that sponge bath."
Hermione gave him one of those looks that told him she didn't know whether to kiss him or punch him. Or both.
"Don't push your luck, Mister."
First of all, a big thanks to Mileya for beta-ing this chapter. Gracias, mi reina. Te debo una grande.
Well, a lot has happened since the last update, hasn't it? First, the release of HBP and the now infamous interview given by JKR to Mugglenet and TLC. I won't talk about any of those things here because I don't want to waste another moment on JKR and her obvious disregard for her fans. I went through a lot of emotions after discovering that: heartbreak, disbelief, anger. I had made the decision that I wasn't going to waste any more time on this story, or in anything else that had to do with the HP fandom.
That didn't last long, because I discovered that I like being delusional. In the words of Peter Pan, I do believe in fairies, and no one and nothing will ever change that. Besides, I'm very thankful that my ship didn't happen in cannon, because someone who has so little regard for the things that matter to me, like friendship, loyalty, responsibility, and love, could only ruin it by writing about them.
So that's why you are reading the last chapter of this story. What did you think of it? Be sure to let me know. And I bet you have a few questions that have been left unanswered. Want to know why? Caught in a Web was in fact designed to be the first chapter in a trilogy. But because it took me such a long time to finish it, I'm not sure anymore if I have the time or the energy to go onto the second part. So until I figure that one out, I have a proposition:
I'll be out of the country for a few weeks. During that time, you can leave me a review with any questions you might have about the story so far. When I come back, I will post a little snippet of the sequel, plus I will answer all the questions posted IF THE ANSWER DOES NOT COMPROMISE THE SEQUEL. So ask away people.
Oh, I had forgotten to mention last chapter's title Danse Macabre is taken from one of my favorite classical compositions, written by Camille Saint-Saens. The song is based on an ancient superstition that says "Mort" (Death) appears at midnight every Halloween, and he/she has the power to call forth the dead from their graves to dance while he/she plays the fiddle (Devil went down to Georgia, anyone?). I recommend this song wholeheartedly to anyone that likes to be amazed and perturbed. Perfect theme song for Bellatrix!
Last but certainly not least, this story is dedicated to a group of girls- whom I will not mention because they know very well who they are- that I met thanks to this story. You mean the world to me. You are my friends, my confidantes, my biggest supporters and my sisters. Las quiero con todo mi corazón. Y pronto se los dire cara a cara.
And to all those who took the time to drop me a message, I could have never completed this story without you. I am very, very, very thankful for your support.
ScullyMulder: Hahaha I think it's funny that Roger had to 'die' for people to like him. Poor dude!
Baseball Fanatic: Aww, didn't want to make you cry with the last chapter… so I'll take it as a bonus.
BrazilianFan: Glad you liked the last chapter! Hope you like this one too.
Confused: Well, now you know the answer to your questions. Harry didn't die (the curse bounced off). Hermione did, but something happened that she's not anymore.
Romulus Magnus: Oh, another music fan. And about Neville in potions… well, he's stronger than he seems.
Wockygal: Nope. Harry not really dead. Hope this chapter explained it all.
Nebodies Nobody: Awwwwww, don't cry! Everything is alright… for now.
Disciple of Yorae: Ah, thanks for the kind words. I'm very happy you liked it. Last chapter was designed to be a chaotic and anxious time, but I think this one is a bit more mellow.
On3-Shot: Thanks for the support, Kim! But you know, eating out of your little sister's plate is very, very evil of you hehehe. And you read the story in one day? Wow. I'm impressed and honored. Any recommendations? Well, some of my favorite stories are here on but are in Spanish. You know Spanish? In case you do, you might want try stories by Mileya, Dama Blanca, Flor and Hikari Takaishi Y. In English, some of my favorite stories are stored in You might want to try that site out. Hehe hope you had a good meal after that! You deserved it!
Sally: Hey Sally… well… not quite dead, at least Harry. Hermione on the other hand… was, but now isn't. Heheh that's confusing. Thanks for being with me since the beginning!
TheHard: The Queen of Cliffhangers? Hahahaha Thanks!
Jason: Hi, Jason! Yeah, it kind of sucks that their happiness was short-lived, but I think this last chapter might make up for that. Also, if there's a sequel, there are more adventures waiting for them. And thanks for the kind words!
Hibari: Hahaha que loquilla eres. Primero que nada, lo siento mucho por esos golpes que te salen cada vez que le das un cabezazo al monitor o al teclado por la frustración; creeme que no me gusta frustrarlos por eso, pero es completamente necesario para la historia. Ahhh, me encanta Louis Armstrong! Se ve tan tierno así grande y cachetón, pero cantando cosas tan bonitas. Hehehe el bill del cardiólogo se lo envías a H/Hr alla en Hogwarts. Awww, pero no me gusta hacerte llorar. De verdad! Me da mucha pena, pero es completamente necesario para el argumento de la historia completa. ¡Espero que este capitulo te haya hecho sentir mejor! Muchísimas gracias por ese apoyo tan grande que me das. Se agradece de cora. ¿Y sabes? Esa línea de "She was beautiful. So pale. So perfect. So dead" es una de mis favoritas... creo que es por el ritmo que tiene. Me haces sonrojar cuando dices que en un capitulo en el que te hice llorar "me pase". Ya sabes que las oraciones se escuchen... ¿pero como¿Y por que? Eso se contesta a su tiempo. Un abrazo bien grande, Hibari. Gracias por todo.
Lara Himura: Hahaha ¿aun me odias? Espero que no después de leer este ultimo capitulo. ¡Disfrútalo!
Sheryl: Thank you very much, Sheryl. Hehe I kinda like horrible cliffhangers, I know, but I think you are going to enjoy this ending.
Quizgirl: And now you know how I could write another chapter after this one. Hermione would have never hurt Roger or Neville (as you can see, they both made it) because that would have made her a murderer. There is a bit of a clue as to why she gave up her own life for Harry in the scene when she grabs the knife, but it'll be touched more upon the sequel.
Trini-Rad-Dreamer: Hey Trini! As you've read, this story was originally conceived as part of a trilogy, so in a way, there are plans for a sequel (and if you are a careful reader, you'll see there are many unanswered questions in this story). We'll see if I get an opportunity to start working on it. Hope you enjoyed this one!
Bowles: hahaha chill, Robin. If you read this chapter, you know the answer to your question. Oh, I also love all knife/crucio/blood scenes… they are more fun to write than the fluffy stuff. And no, no Voldemort in this story, because the light under the door was Dumbledore. Glad you liked last chapter.
Usha88: Haha gotta love a review that starts with "that was horrible". Thank you! Very glad you enjoyed last chapter, because it was a pleasure to write. Oh, I do agree with what you said about Hermione's thinking, but there's a good reason why you don't get more about that. The sequel focuses on Hermione, and her "journey". So you'll get to find out more about that in the sequel (if I get around to writing it). But if you read that scene again… there's one little tiny thing Hermione thinks at that moment that nobody has mentioned and it kinda sheds some light on her actions… but also more about that in the sequel. Thanks for the support, Usha! Really appreciate it!
Psy-Girl1: Oh, me encanta escuchar que te gusto tanto el capitulo anterior. De verdad que fue un placer escribir. Y es extraño, porque no me gusta hacer llorar a nadie, pero me agrada que los lectores se puedan identificar con las emociones de los personajes. Espero que te haya gustado tambien este ultimo capitulo. Un abrazo.
Pnut-Potter26: Aww, don't drown! That's bad! And now you know that Harry wasn't really dead (and the interpretation of the Prophecy so far agree with you). Hope you enjoyed!
David¡Hola bello! Bueno, lo prometido es deuda así que aquí esta el último capitulo. ¿Sabes? Creo que fuiste el único lector que notó que el nombre del capitulo no era muy feliz que digamos. Danse Macabre es una de mis canciones favoritas, asi que si tienes la oportunidad de escucharla, creo que te gustara. Y bueno, ya sabes después de leer este capitulo que fue lo que paso con Harry y Hermione... bueno, sabes mas o menos. Mas de eso en un futuro (si es que la secuela se da). Ay, como me agrada que digas que el fic te ha ayudado a mejorar tu ingles. Eso me hace sentir muy bien. Yo también siento que he mejorado muchísimo como cuenta-cuentos durante el transcurso de esta historia. Y si hay algo que podemos sacar de toda experiencia en la vida, es una lección. Ay, no quería hacerte llorar, pero me alegro que te hayas envuelto emocionalmente con los personajes. ¡Ah, que bueno que te gusto la escena de Neville! Es uno de mis personajes favoritos. Sabes? Una de las cosas que tanto me molesto de HBP fue la poca importancia que le dieron a Neville. Pero no me culpes si tu familia te envía al manicomio, eh! Y claro que no me molesta leer de ti! Nunca coincidimos en MSN, y ahora que me voy de viaje por par de semanas se va a hacer más difícil. Pero algún día se dará. De eso estoy segura. Y no te preocupes... pronto leerás el próximo de Profecía.
Sadistic Shadow: hehe How minty of me? Danke. That sounds so sweet (and refreshing). Oh, so glad you liked chapter 16. Like I've said, romantic stuff… not that easy for me to write. And isn't Neville the best? He makes me go all fan-girly. Damn you JKR for ignoring him! And oh, thanks for spotting the niece mistake… that went over me and my beta. Good spotting! Or maybe is because Draco is so good-looking she sometimes thinks he's a girl? Heheh j/k hahaha Hate Roger for getting hurt? He was headboy! And he had a wand! He did the right thing!
Katie: LOL Take over for Rowling? Oh… I would never do that… I don't respect her anymore. But thanks for the encouragement! Pumpkin pie love x-100!
Draco4ever1: Hehe thanks. Would hate to do the expected.
AngellicHuntress: Ha, glad to hear from you! Well, now your fears about H/Hr have been appeased. And your working on original fiction? That's awesome! Let me know how that goes. And they did have a happy ending! … for now.
RmGuccione: Spoken like a true X-Phile! Nobody is really dead until worms have digested their remains. And the time estimate for Danse Macabre is about 10-12 minutes, which is why the chapter is a bit chaotic and all over the place… the time frame for the events is really, really small. Hope you liked this last chapter too.
Witchperson: Hi! Well, I'm glad Chapter 17 was not really what you expected, because what would be the fun in that? It is kind of ironic that he spent 15 chapters pining over her, one chapter with her, and then everything comes down the drain… but remember, this story is the first chapter is a bigger storyline. This is the deus ex machina for everything that is designed to happen on the second part of the trilogy. And to clear away all confusion, Hermione was dead… very dead. Now, she isn't. Harry never died, but the curse did damage him, which explains his long stay in the hospital. Ha! Glad to hear you love Roger! Me loves him too. Thanks for the encouragement.
MileenPotter: Thanks Mileen! Glad you liked the story so far and hoping you like the ending too.
Yamila: Ah, fuiste la segunda persona en pensar que el titulo del capitulo anterior daba mala espina, y también era latino. Go Latinos! Hehe Me alegro muchísimo que te gustara Danse Macabre, porque fue el mas interesante para mi en escribir. Aw, y gracias por el apoyo. En serio! Sin ustedes esto jamás se hubiese completado.
Beyond-the-veil: LOL THIS HAPPENED! UPDATED NOW! HOPE YOU LIKE!
Heahrune: Aww, thanks. And don't worry. There's no such thing as being late in reviewing. I appreciate the encouragement. Gracias.
Mileya: Ay, mi niña… ¿que te puedo decir a ti que no te haya dicho? Solo gracias. Aunque me tienes que explicar como sería la tecnica para quedarte tanto con Draco como con Harry. Ummm… ¿eso no te suena a algo? Ay, como es la palabra… la tengo en la punta de la lengua… dejame ver… dejame ver… ah! Ya sé! SANDWICH! -nudge wink- Yo love you too.
Well... that's it from me for now. See ya soon.
Dream on until your dreams come true,Anasazi