Chapter 2: Once More, Dear Friends
Six months prior...
"Why is that so hard to believe?" smiled Hermione Granger, best friend to the Boy Who Lived for the past seven years.
"I didn't think I'd find anyone here, that's all," Harry perplexed. Over the course of the final school year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter had kept his nose out of trouble and in the company of books and studying, much to the chagrin of Ron and to the expressed joy of Hermione. And yet, every so often, he would disappear for hours on end to a place only Harry knew. At least, that was what he had originally thought.
Harry discovered during his wanderings and careful inspections of the Marauder's Map, every oddity the Hogwarts castle had to offer. It was during one fateful night; near the end of November he had found a deserted corridor that led nowhere save to a collection of exquisitely done paintings of different landscapes from around the world. Unlike the other paintings in the school, these had no inhabitants, but seemed to breath life unto themselves. So real in fact, Harry touched the canvas as if to see if he were looking at a painting or a real place. The moment he did so, a field of long grass surrounded Harry during a calm, autumn twilight. A soft breeze flowed across the wheat-filled meadows with a crisp-clear, deep blue sky above filled with twinkling diamonds.
At first, Harry panicked. He was suddenly inside a painting on a wall down a corridor no one bothered using any longer. Strange though, Harry did not feel trapped. The calm and tranquil scene had caught his eye now spread out before him, beckoning him to be discovered. Walking for felt like hours, Harry never grew tired. It was as if the serenity of the art filled him with a sense of peace and well being, calming his nerves and granting him a bit of clarity in his dark thoughts of late.
Sitting to watch the wind roll across the hills, Harry felt it was time enough to leave and in a blink of an eye, found himself standing in front of the same scene down the lone corridor back at Hogwarts. Harry smiled to himself, knowing full well he would return to explore more of this secret place.
Later, when asked about where he had spent hours of his time, Harry merely shrugged and answered dully, "Walking." It was, of course, an omission of the truth. Harry never once mentioned the paintings to anyone else, not even Ron or Hermione, though he was want to. Harry was quite certain what their initial reactions would be.
It was not until he had spent a good fortune of his night in a landscape of a rich Tuscan coast that Harry was discovered, or rather had discovered someone else. Walking along the beach, Harry was surprised to find none other than the headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, snoozing peacefully in an easy chair with a book lain across his face. After a doubly embarrassing moment for them both, Dumbledore and Harry merely chatted about what they had both discovered.
"I must say, Harry," Dumbledore spoke while suckling a lemon drop. "I was wondering if any one would ever find these paintings."
"I'm sorry if I didn't mention it sooner, Professor," apologized Harry.
"No need to worry, Harry," Dumbledore smiled. "Curiosity is always an admirable trait. I, myself, have been coming to these wonderful places ever since I had found them in my own seventh year at Hogwarts.
"Unlike some places in the world," Dumbledore continued. "These places we visit are exactly what the great artist envisioned. A place to contemplate, to dream..."
"...to snore," Harry jokingly added.
"And yes, to snore," Dumbledore's eyes twinkled as he returned the young wizard's mischievous smile. "But, most importantly, I come here to find a sense of peace both in the world that is around us, and within us, even if we do not know it exists."
Harry remembered those words spoken to him now as he continued to gaze at his best friend. When had she discovered these paintings he was unsure; however, Harry did not feel as if Hermione was intruding during his time of reflection.
"A sickle for your thoughts, Harry?" Hermione inquired sincerely. Harry smiled at her humor and let the peace and calm of the landscape fill him instead of retorting in a rude fashion.
"It's a pleasure to have you here, Hermione," Harry answered, thoughtfully. His heart fluttered momentarily as she gave him an endearing smile. He offered his hand and they began to walk everywhere and anywhere for hours on end, merely talking, commenting upon the new students and how classes were going. They stayed far away from the talks of war, Voldemort and all things related. Here, in what was seemingly an untouched area of Northern Scotland, the two young adults could just BE.
As they descended a steep hill, a thought suddenly struck Harry. It was a pure epiphany that gave him a startling insight to more of the true world around him. Harry stopped mid-step and for what seemed the first time, truly looked at Hermione. From the bushy haired and bossy eleven year old to the young woman leading the way, his best friend had become, without his knowledge nor against his desire, a very important part of his life. Harry could talk to Hermione so easily about anything and everything. Granted, they had their arguments, but unlike his brotherly companionship with Ron, Harry knew Hermione had never let something mundane or petty come between their friendships.
Hermione caught unaware that Harry stopped, turned her warm brown eyes to the look of shock upon his face. Without saying a word, they smiled at each other in a moment of true understanding. There was no tearful realization, no emotional war raging behind hurt eyes, just the barest hint of fleeting embarrassment and the comforting knowledge that the other felt the same. Words would have cheapened the moment had either spoke, so the two welcomed the change of friendship by holding hands the rest of the night, inside a painting down a lone corridor at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Standing together in the Gryffindor Common Room, Harry caressed Hermione's soft cheek, placing a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. With his heart beating somewhere in the vicinity of his throat, Harry gave his best friend of seven long years, who always stood by his side or thought of the his own well-being and safety over her own, a soft and sweet kiss. Minutes passed and still neither made a move to end this singular act of love.
"Hermione?" Harry's soft expression broke the silence.
"Yes?" Her own voice was barely a whisper.
"If anything were to happen to me..."
"Ssssh," she stopped his lips with a trembling finger. "Nothing will happen to you."
"...But if it should," Harry held his resolve. "Promise me one thing."
Hermione could not trust her voice to not betray the sudden turmoil raging within her heart. Summoning the true courage of a Gryffindor, she nodded her consent, her eyes downcast and staring at the Harry's hands intertwined with her own. She closed her eyes, willing away the tears suddenly springing in her eyes, then felt her chin lift by a gentle hand. The green eyes of her best friend gazed at her with such fierce passion but such gentle kindness that her willpower failed and tears fell unbidden.
"Go to the place where we discovered each other at last," Harry spoke from the heart. "Remember me, there. Remember me and I will always be with you."
"This ends tonight, Voldemort." The voice of Harry Potter struck fear into the cold, lifeless heart of the Dark Lord. The Boy Who Lived took a small bit of pride witnessing fear in the eyes of the one wizard who cased so much pain to so many people for so long. Harry brushed aside the small victory, steeling himself against the approaching storm of a duel.
"Seventeen years, Potter," hissed Voldemort. His eyes darted furtively between the whelp before him and his one chance of achieving his long dream of cheating death and becoming the master of magic. His lips curled in a sneer as if he, the Dark Lord Voldemort, true heir of Salazar Sytherin, could be so easily defeated.
"Long have I waited for this day," his voice dripped with venom. "Your parents cannot save you this time. Sirius cannot rescue you. That buffoon of a gamekeeper cannot save you. And neither can Dumbledore. Not here, Potter.
"You are truly alone, boy," Voldemort laughed at the indignity of the situation.
"No allies. No friends. No family." His laughter echoed through the chasm.
The dark wizard was only buying time with his taunts to break Harry's resolve. Voldemort had watched stalwart wizards falter at the most costly times. This boy was no different. He too would fall beneath the power of one such as he. However, once again, the bruised and battered dark wizard was shocked by the boy's reaction.
Harry Potter was smiling.
"If I am alone in this fight, Voldemort," Harry spoke as if sharing something with a first year student. "So are you."
With a wave of his wand, the ancient and heavy doors shut with explosive force. The energy of the room was almost palpable. The device behind Harry swirled faster, bolts of magic lashing across the room, leaving gaping wounds in the wall and floors.
"Let's end this now," Harry spoke dangerously. "Tom."
Hearing his muggle birth name spoken to him by his mortal enemy was the final straw. No matter what, even if he had to use his bare hands, the Dark Lord would kill Harry Potter.
"So be it."