Chapter 15

When he reached his dorm, Harry wasn't all that surprised to find Hermione waiting for him. She sat cross-legged on the bed, her head tipped forward into her hands, and for a moment he thought she was crying.

"Hermione?" he asked tentatively, his heart lurching at the thought of her in pain.

She raised her head and smiled at him. If she'd been crying, she hid it well – he didn't see a trace of any tears on her cheeks. Unfolding her legs, she rushed to him and threw her arms around his neck. They clung to one another, hearts hammering wildly in their chests.

I love her, Harry realized, startled by the intensity of his devotion. I love her so much, I'd do anything to keep her safe…

"I'm so sorry about all of this," he murmured into her hair. She clutched him tighter. "I should have listened to you. I should have known I couldn't trust her – "

"Stop." Hermione stepped back, her mouth set in a stern line that still, to Harry, looked extremely kissable. "Just stop right there, okay? You're not to blame for any of this. You couldn't possibly have expected Voldemort to do something like this."

They sat down on the bed. Curving one leg underneath her, Hermione turned toward him. Harry linked his fingers through hers. She went on, "And I didn't really believe she had anything to do with Voldemort, Harry. I didn't trust her, but I mostly thought she was just after you, you know, for her boyfriend. I could never have imagined…"

A flash of the Dursleys' faces, paralyzed in a moment of horrific final fear, took Harry's breath. Quinn, his Quinn, had done that –

I have to stop thinking of her as Quinn. She was Bellatrix, always Bellatrix. Quinn was never real.

Silence closed around them, charged but companionable. Almost without thinking, Harry pulled Hermione onto his lap and cradled her close. She sighed happily against his shoulder, and in spite of himself, he smiled. He'd suffered so much this summer, true, but he'd also gained. Even after just a few short weeks he was starting to wonder how he'd lived before he could hold Hermione like this.

He wished they could simply curl up together and leave all of the questions for in the morning, but he knew they needed to talk at least some of it out. So he asked, "How did you find me, anyway?"

"After Fawkes brought your message, Dumbledore sent Mad-Eye and Lupin straight to your house," she explained. "They found Tonks there. She'd been guarding you, and Qui- I mean, Bellatrix had stunned her from behind. She didn't even know what had happened to her, or to you. Dumbledore thought since I'd spent so much time there I might know something, so he sent Mr. Weasley to ask me if I had any idea what might be going on, and my first thought was of Quinn. When I told him about her, that I couldn't shake the feeling she might be evil somehow, he brought me to Dumbledore.

"They – I mean, most of the Order were at your uncle's house, and the police were all outside and all of these reporters…" Hermione's voice broke, and she closed her eyes for a moment until she regained her composure. Harry squeezed her hand encouragingly. She went on, "Dumbledore went straight over to what we'd thought was Quinn's house, murmured an incantation I didn't recognize – I think it was some kind of hex-breaking spell, but I need to look it up – and all of a sudden, I realized that it was just an empty house!"

Harry tried to imagine the shock of that. He supposed it couldn't have been any greater than seeing Quinn transform into Bellatrix, but nevertheless, he understood why Hermione still looked like she only half-believed what she'd seen.

"But how did Dumbledore know it was Bellatrix?" Harry pressed. The details of his rescue remained fuzzy. For some reason, he thought that if he could just piece together the whole evening, he might be able to make some sense out of the senseless situation.

"Me." Hermione smiled tiredly. "When Dumbledore broke the spell, I saw who Quinn had really been along: Bellatrix Lestrange. It didn't take the Order long to narrow down where Voldemort must have taken you, if he hadn't- I mean, if you were still alive." She shuddered at the words but finished bravely, "After all that, there was no way they were leaving me behind. I told Dumbledore if he didn't take me along I'd Apparate, and probably kill myself trying."

She blushed even as she said it. Harry smiled admiringly at her, knowing the nerve it must have taken for her to give that sort of ultimatum to the Headmaster.

Now that her side of the story was finished, he knew he owed her his part. She didn't press him. She sat quietly, twining their fingers together, massaging his palm with the pad of her thumb. Harry felt a stab of guilt over his suddenly rampaging hormones – given the horrors of this night, he felt as if he should have been numb with grief, unable to feel anything except sorrow for his family's death.

The Dursleys weren't much of a family, he noted sourly. I feel more guilty than sad – does that make me a terrible person?

Mostly because telling the story would divert him from those troubling thoughts, Harry quietly began the tale of his ill-fated sixteenth birthday. He couldn't meet Hermione's eyes as he owned up to agreeing to a private party with Quinn. He even forced himself to tell her about the drugged drink, and the scene upstairs in Quinn's bedroom. For better or worse, he didn't want any secrets between the two of them. He owed her the truth. She could make up her mind from there.

She gave no reaction to that part of the story. When he described finding the Dursleys', she pulled his hand into her lap and clutched it tightly; when he relayed Voldemort's threats, she kissed his fingers fiercely.

"I'm so proud of you, Harry."

Whatever reaction he'd expected, it certainly hadn't been that. Blushing, Harry stammered, "I didn't do anything heroic, Hermione. I let my family get killed. I-I nearly cheated on you…"

She flinched a bit but remained stoic. "No, you were nearly drugged and coerced into doing something you would never have done otherwise." Holding up a hand to still his protest, she said firmly, "You didn't do anything wrong, Harry. You're allowed to have others girls as friends, and I know you felt very close to Quinn. I'm not going to say I like the idea that you wanted to spend your birthday alone with her, but I also don't see it as you 'cheating' on me."

Harry sighed. I don't deserve this girl, he thought. She's too perfect – smart, beautiful, understanding, brave. One day she's going to wake up and ask herself what she's doing with a dolt like me.

Well, he decided, he would just have to do whatever it took to be sure he made her happy. Reaching out tenderly, he brushed a stray lock of hair from her cheek. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me," he admitted, flushing again at his honesty. Hermione blushed, too, but she smiled radiantly. "I don't know why I didn't see it before."

"Everything happens in its own time, I guess." Her voice sounded a little breathy. She inched closer and Harry's heart rate tripled as he anticipated her kiss. "And I think it's time we finished what we started a few weeks ago, don't you?"

He closed his eyes, remembering that night in his room on Privet Drive when, if it hadn't been for the terrible pain in his scar, they would have made love. As then, he felt slightly torn: It went without saying that he wanted Hermione, but he also didn't want to do anything she'd regret later, anything that might hurt her or their relationship.

She sensed his hesitation. "It's all right, Harry." Her breath fanned his face; she dropped a row of tiny kisses along his jaw. "I know what I'm doing. I know what I want. I've been waiting five years for you to notice me. I don't want to wait any longer."

This time, when her mouth sealed his, he didn't resist. Hermione melted into him and he slipped his arms around her waist, supporting her as the kiss deepened, her tongue darting across his lips so softly he wanted to moan. The pain and fear of the past several hours, the uncertainty and sorrow of the weeks to come, faded away. Harry surrendered to the moment, to the love that washed over him in golden, warming rays.

They undressed one another slowly, a little awkwardly, fumbling with buttons and zippers. The passion that had spurred their first encounter hummed steadily beneath this one; instead of a flash-boil, it felt more like a slowly consuming inferno, and Harry decided he liked the slow better than the fast. He'd never really considered just how perfectly round Hermione's shoulders were, or how soft the skin between her shoulder-blades was, or how smooth and long her legs were. After his initial round of nerves disappeared inside of a wave of desire, he took his time kissing her all over, enjoying the small sounds she made, and submitted with hardly a touch of self-consciousness to her return exploration, making small gasps and cries of his own as her lips and hands moved across his body.

He couldn't have scripted a more perfect first love-making. When he finally pressed her beneath him, he hesitated for a moment, staring down into her dark, smoky eyes. "I don't want to hurt you," he confessed, suddenly terrified again.

"You won't," she answered. Reaching down, she guided him inside of her, and the ability to think clearly or rationally left Harry instantly as he felt her sweet, sticky heat around him.

Afterwards, they slept entangled in one another's arms. Harry thought it might have been the deepest, sweetest sleep of his life. When he woke the next morning, his limbs a little stiff but a smile already stretching across his face, he almost had to pinch himself to be sure the girl lying beside him was real.

Hermione didn't wake when he eased out of bed and crossed to the window, pulling on a pair of pajama pants in case one of the house elves arrived with breakfast. He knew he should wake her up soon, get her something to eat, talk about what was to come. They had so much they still needed to discuss – most importantly, where he was going to live now, what they were going to say to Ron about their relationship, and how Hermione felt about having used one of the Unforgivable Curses on Bellatrix.

Let her sleep, his inner voice prompted. You have all the time in the world to make these decisions. Let her sleep, and let yourself enjoy being in love, just for a little while.

Being in love. Harry allowed himself a full ear-to-ear smile, glad no one else could see how goofy he looked. Around Cho, he'd always felt shy and uncertain, like just being Harry would never be good enough. Around Quinn, he'd always felt excited and nervous, like being Harry was impossible (for obvious reasons, since he'd thought she was a Muggle) and being a different, more interesting Harry was required. With Hermione, though, he could feel all of those things at once – shy, uncertain, excited, nervous – and still be entirely comfortable in his own skin, completely at ease with who he was. That, even more so than the way his heart jumped when she laughed or how his body tingled at her touch, convinced him that what they had was strong enough to last the perils and trials of the coming weeks.

Telling Ron would be difficult, of course. Harry didn't delude himself that it wouldn't change the friendship the three of them had so long enjoyed. Somehow, however, and maybe it was only optimism, he couldn't believe that it would destroy that friendship. The bonds between them were stronger than that. He supposed he would just have to trust that, when all was said and done, Ron cared too much about both he and Hermione to discard them because they'd fallen in love.

The golden sunshine spilling across the room seemed to pale as, unbidden, Voldemort's threat rang in Harry's ears: "If you refuse me now, I swear to you that I will take from you everyone you hold dear, one by one."

Reflexively, Harry touched his scar. His forehead felt cool and dry; he hadn't given it much thought last night, but he'd experienced no pain in his scar as he and Hermione made love. He wondered what that meant. Had Voldemort's tie to him somehow been lessened by their encounter the night before? Had he learned how to block Voldemort from his mind without knowing it?

Outside, Fawkes soared past the window. The answer came to Harry so instantly and so simply that he half-suspected the phoenix had whispered it to him. Voldemort hadn't wanted to invade his mind last night, because what Harry felt for Hermione was so pure, so undeniably good, that Voldemort couldn't stand to witness it.

Love, Dumbledore had told Harry after Sirius's death, was Harry's greatest gift, and his greatest weapon against Voldemort. The self-proclaimed Dark Lord might want to turn that weapon against Harry, to destroy his spirit by taking away the people he loved, but in the end, Harry knew Voldemort couldn't hope to succeed. In all of their battles, Voldemort had never managed to do more than superficial damage to Harry – cuts and bruises, scrapes and scratches, all of which could be healed. Killing the people Harry loved was just another kind of bruise, a bruise that went to his heart but, like any other bruise, would be healed by Love.

The clouds shifted and sunlight flooded the room once more. Harry gazed reverently across the Hogwarts grounds, struck by how much this place had come to mean to him. This, after all, was home. Here, he was surrounded by memories of his parents and of Sirius, who had walked these halls before him, and by people who loved and cared for him. He saw now that he had never needed Quinn to make him feel complete. Those he had lost lived on inside of him; those who remained had also loved and lost, and they were all standing together in the same battle. The love Dumbledore had seen in Harry, the love he had felt last night with Hermione, was a weapon beyond Voldemort's conception, and it went much deeper than any scar.

And so it will all turn out right in the end, no matter what.

Buoyed by that thought, Harry realized that he was ready to face the day, and whatever the days to come had to bring. He turned from the window, stretching his pleasantly-sore muscles, and walked toward the bed where Hermione was just starting to wake up.

Author's Note: At last! The family vacations end, the betas return, and the final chapter gets posted. I hope it was worth the wait. I can't promise a sequel but I won't discount the possibility, either! Anyway, since I'm going to take a break from my own writing and let the creativity batteries reload, I was hoping some of my dedicated readers and reviewers would be so kind as to email me links to their stories. Please, please, pretty please? Thanks! My email is Love to you all!