Disclaimer/Author's notes: JK Rowling owns Harry Potter. And here we go folks, off the deep end once again…a lengthy introduction here, setting up at least some of what's to come. Please leave a comment if you feel so inclined.
I'm falling apart again
And I can't find a way to make amends
And I'm looking in both directions
But it's make believe, it's all pretend
It's innocence within the maze
But I have chosen the wrong way
I'm still getting over who I was
There's no sense of trust, there's no definition of love
Shed Some Light
Harry pushed open the doors of the Hospital Wing, being careful not to jostle the tray of potions in his hand, and strode over to where Madam Pomfrey was sitting. The elderly mediwitch was tending to a fifth year student whose name Harry couldn't quite recall. That should have made him feel guilty, but he wasn't. He wasn't feeling much at all these days, just mindlessly traveling back and forth between the injured and dying and the dungeons, brewing potions as best as he could along with anyone else who was healthy enough to.
It had been four days since Voldemort's final offensive, and the Wizarding World—what was left of it, anyway—was still reeling from the losses incurred, all the while trying to find a sense of celebration in their ultimate victory. Voldemort had amassed his troops at three points, all of which were key to the ongoing survival of the Wizarding populace. The Ministry of Magic and Diagon Alley were hit very hard, but the Death Eaters had eventually been defeated at both locations.
The third prong of his army—and the most powerful, because it included him and all of his most trusted confidants—hit Hogwarts. The castle's outer defense, which consisted of enchantments and protections left over from Dumbledore's tenure, had held for a long time, long enough in fact for some reinforcements to arrive, but they had only taken down about one third of the Dark army by the time they fell. That left approximately three hundred students, of which only eighty or so were capable of magical combat, a dozen or so professors, and about twenty hastily assembled Aurors standing against one hundred fifty Death Eaters…and Voldemort himself. Somehow, though, the students and teachers ended up on top, perhaps because they knew more about the school, or they were more desperate, but in the end, it came down to Harry and Voldemort, as it had been prophesized. Others tried to step in to help, but they were soon swept away by the Dark Lord's significant power.
Harry didn't know how he did it, but he found some new magical strength within that allowed himself to stand against the barrage of Dark magic. It wasn't some righteous feeling, or even desperation, that fed his actions; it was just an emptiness, magnified by Voldemort's ever-present malignance in his life. He didn't hate the man, in fact he probably hated Severus Snape more than Voldemort—it was something more than hate. It was disbelief. Harry Potter couldn't believe that some being, who was probably nearing one hundred years in age, could just kill so many without any thought at all. It went against all of his ingrained beliefs. Voldemort was like some horrible caricature found only in Muggle comics—the evil arch villain who knew no limits.
But this wasn't a comic. This was real, and Harry had fought for his very existence throughout the halls of Hogwarts versus that caricature. Their duel had carried them from the Great Hall all the way to the Astronomy Tower, with Voldemort using just about every curse at his disposal, and Harry using few comparatively. In a moment of pure inspiration, or perhaps stupidity, Harry had leapt from the top of the Astronomy Tower, summoning his Firebolt as he did so. Just an instant before he reached the ground, it had caught up to him, and he soared back to the top, fighting Voldemort from his broom. Curses weren't working though, so he did one final thing—he flew right into the man, sending him flying off the tower and plummeting to his death.
Harry had had little time to celebrate though, because the battle was still being pitched within Hogwarts. He had rushed back into the fray, saving as many as he could. In the end, nine students and three teachers had been killed, along with about a dozen Aurors. The Death Eaters were not so lucky, fortunately, as their surviving numbered less than twenty.
A mass funeral had been held the next day, for everyone who had died, which including Pomona Sprout, Rubeus Hagrid, Filius Flitwick, Dean Thomas, Parvati Patil, and countless others who had fought valiantly. Harry sat through the funeral with the five others who had been at the Department of Mysteries with him at the end of his fifth year, not really listening to the various eulogies. It was all he could do to stop staring at his five friends, each of whom had fought fearlessly. Truthfully, he was wondering how they all could have made it out alive. He had thought that everyone who mattered to him was going to die, because that had been the direction his life had been going in.
But…here he was, three days from the funeral, trying to pick up the pieces of his shattered world, along with everyone else that had been spared. He set the tray of potions down on the side table next to the bed he was near, and turned to Madam Pomfrey.
"That's the last of them," he said.
She barely acknowledged him; he knew she must have been utterly knackered. "That's fine."
Harry stood there for a moment, unsure if he should say anything to comfort the mediwitch, but he realized there really wasn't much he could do. She was doing her job, just as he had done his when he'd sent Voldemort over the edge of the tower.
"You should get some rest," he said, softly. She nodded vaguely and waved him away, so he shrugged lightly and turned to the door. Curtains mostly surrounded the beds he passed, but a few of them weren't, and what he saw was enough to send his stomach roiling. Colin Creevey had been magically burned, and what was left of his face was barely recognizable. He was in a potion-induced coma—that much Harry knew—and would likely be there for a very long time. An Auror, now legless, occupied the bed next to the door. A well-placed cutting curse had rendered the man useless below the waist. There wasn't even a twinge of sympathy, though…only that same sick sensation he had felt when he looked at Colin.
Harry couldn't feel sympathy anymore; he was too desensitized to all of the violence and suffering. It had been going on for far too long, for the pettiest of reasons, that caring was just too much effort. He had done his job, and he was doing his best to help everyone recover, but he knew something about his attitude had changed. He just didn't care as much as he used to. It had all seemed so pointless.
Sure, Voldemort was dead, but what did that change in the Wizarding World? All of the prejudices Tom Riddle had fed on were still ripe for the picking, and would always fester just beneath the surface of the magical society. The leadership was still mostly intact, so there was little hope many policies—policies that had allowed the rise to power of someone like Voldemort in the first place—would be changed. Harry was not stupid, and actually had more global awareness than people gave him credit for, and he was sure it would happen just as it had countless times before in other places: some traumatic event would alter people's perspectives, but they would eventually forget and life would return to the same way it had been before.
Harry grew more and more frustrated as he traversed the empty corridors, making his way back to the Gryffindor Tower. If nothing would change, what had happened four days before? Why did all of those people, good and bad, have to die if in the end nothing much would change? Give it a few years, and Harry was sure Voldemort would just be a bad memory, and people would be attempting to move on, probably shunning stories or recollections of the last two dark years. They would want to forget, to move on, but Harry knew better. Forgetting was not moving on. Forgetting was forgetting; it was covering up something people didn't want to remember, or couldn't. The Wizarding World couldn't face the blame for what had happened, and therefore would attempt to ignore it all.
As Harry stepped through the portrait hole, all of these thoughts were burning through his head. His five friends were strewn about the couches, not saying much, and they all looked toward him when he came into view. They must have seen some of what he was thinking on his face, because Ron spoke up.
A week ago, Hermione would have admonished Ron for such a direct question, and Ginny surely would have told her brother off, but not today. Hermione just raised her eyebrow at Harry, probably wondering the same thing.
"Huh?" Harry asked, as articulate as ever.
"Your face, mate. You look like shite."
Harry rolled his eyes at Ron. "Thanks," he said dryly. Ron just shrugged. That same numbness, or perhaps it was apathy, that Harry had been feeling these last few days had seemed to spread to his five friends, because none of them pushed him for the answer to Ron's question, nor was there any kind of reaction—at all, from Hermione even—to Ron's use of profanity.
Harry laid down on an empty couch, stretching out to his full length. He sighed and put his hands under his head; he stared at the high ceiling of the common room.
"No one died," he said.
"Oh," was all Ron said. A silence, one that was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, settled over the six teenagers. It was just a silence, if for no other reason than no one had anything to say. Just about everything that could have had already been said within the last four days.
Finally, Luna, of all people, broke it. Her voice had been much less vacant these past four days, and Harry was still getting used to it. "What are you thinking, Harry?"
Harry blinked once, and then turned his head to look at her. He noticed that the five of them were now staring at him.
"Honestly?" More expectant staring. "What was really accomplished?"
Some part of Harry was amused to see Hermione open her mouth to respond almost immediately, and then that part was surprised when she closed it directly after. He had been expecting her to respond, but when she didn't, the question seemed more valid than it originally had.
Before anyone could actually answer, though, the portrait swung open. They all turned their heads to look as McGonagall made her way through the low passage. She straightened up, saw them, and immediately made her way toward the couches.
"Professor," they all said in one form or another.
She nodded at them. "You lot look quite busy," she said, although Harry knew she hadn't come in here just to make small talk.
"Not much to do…" Neville said, trailing off.
McGonagall nodded again. "Well, I just wanted to inform all of you that the rest of this year's classes and exams are canceled."
A horrified look flew across Hermione's features. "But…what about NEWTS?" she asked her Professor.
McGonagall smiled wanly, probably the first smile Harry had seen on her face in several months. "The Board has decided, in light of recent events, that your NEWT scores will be determined by your grade in that respective class." She gave them a moment for this to sink in.
"That said, I know how hard the six of you have been working this year, and I doubt that you have anything to worry about."
What she said was true, because Harry and his five friends had buckled down during the past year of school and studied very hard. They had known the war was intensifying, and wanted to be as prepared as they could be. It had paid off, because Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Neville were all in the top ten for seventh years; Luna and Ginny were first and fourth, respectively, amongst the sixth years.
"So…how long are we going to be here?" Harry queried.
"The Express leaves from Hogsmeade three days from now. Until then, you can spend your time gathering your things, saying your goodbyes…"
"What about graduation?" Ron asked.
"I'm sorry, but a ceremony just isn't possible this year. We plan on mailing your certificates," McGonagall said, a note of real remorse ringing in her voice.
"What about for Luna and I?" Ginny asked. "Hogwarts will be open next year, right?"
"At this point, I would say yes, but a lot can happen between now and then. The Board is still considering that issue. I'm sure you will receive a letter, one way or the other, sometime in early August." She turned her attention to the four older teens.
"If I may ask, what are you lot's plans?"
Ron, Harry, and Neville shrugged, but Hermione had an answer. "I was thinking about possibly interning at the Ministry…but I don't know how badly the battle there affected things."
"I'm sure with your excellent grades you can do whatever you want Miss Granger. I was just wondering if there were plans, at all. Mr. Weasley? Potter? Longbottom? Any ideas?"
"Something with Herbology, I'm sure, though I haven't really thought that far ahead," Neville said, and Harry thought he saw a glimmer of something on McGonagall's face.
"Eh….I don't know. I thought about Quidditch, but I don't know if I could take so many bloody losses with the Cannons."
"There are other teams, Ron," Ginny told her brother. He just rolled his eyes at her.
"Mr. Potter? What about you?" McGonagall asked, directing her question to just Harry this time.
He shrugged. "I haven't thought about it. Honestly, I wasn't expecting to live this long."
The silence that followed was deafening. McGonagall and Hermione were glaring at him, Ron and Neville looked uncomfortable, and Ginny and Luna were just shaking their heads.
"Harry, how many times have I told you—" Hermione began, but Harry raised his hand to stop her.
"What? It's the truth. I've never really truly considered the possibility of life after Hogwarts, and therefore I do not have any plans yet."
"Well, Mr. Potter, I suggest that you give that some serious thought during the next few days. I would hate to see talent and brains like yours go to waste doing something below you." He locked eyes with her for a second, seeing the disappointment from what he had said, but he didn't care. He didn't have to live up to anyone.
He shrugged again. "I guess." He turned his head back and resumed staring at the ceiling.
McGonagall cleared her throat after a moment, returning the bulk of the attention in the room to her. "If you have any questions before you leave, my door will be open. Good day," she said, and turned to leave. Various good byes were called out, but Harry remained silent. As soon as the portrait closed, Hermione turned to Harry.
"That was awfully rude, Harry," she said. Her tone wasn't condescending or angry; she was just stating a fact. Nevertheless, Harry became annoyed. He rolled off the couch into a standing position and headed for the exit. He didn't acknowledge what Hermione said, preferring to remain silent.
"Where are you off to?" Ron asked. He sounded slightly annoyed.
"It's bloody suffocating in here," Harry muttered, loud enough for all to hear. "I need to clear my head. Think I'll go for a fly."
As the portrait slid closed behind him, he was greeted by wonderful silence once again. He stuck out his hand and summoned his broom to him. It rounded the corner in a matter of seconds and sailed into his open palm. He passed no one on his trek through the castle, although all over were the scars of the battle that had taken place just four days earlier. Magical scorches on the walls, large divots on the floors, some tipped statues…no one had gotten around to cleaning everything up yet.
As soon as he had crossed into the sunny day, he mounted his broom and shot into the air, hoping to bleed off some of his irritation and numbness with the speed he could coax from his Firebolt. As he swung low over the Lake—low enough to have a slight wake behind him—his thoughts turned to what McGonagall had said. He was done with his education, at least as far as Hogwarts was concerned. Yet, he really had no idea what he wanted to do.
Financially, he could never work a day in his life and be set, but he knew that wasn't an option. Boredom would quickly set in, and that would be far worse than any job he could have had. The problem was everything he had thought he was interested in, one being Aurorship and the other being Quidditch, seemed quite lackluster now. He'd had enough Dark Wizard-hunting for one lifetime, so being an Auror was completely and totally out. As for Quidditch…well, let's just say he wanted to do something more meaningful than flying a broom and being followed by groupies. Even if it wasn't profound, he knew it had to be something that was personally satisfying.
He turned, rising a little, and flew over the dark Forbidden Forest. What options did that leave him? What was he interested in? Well, for one thing, he knew he could lead, and was actually very comfortable in a leadership position. The last eleven months had solidified that feeling. He also knew that he was very book smart, if he applied himself like he had over the past year, and that learning new things was actually very interesting to him. Other than that…he didn't know. As a Hogwarts student, he had spent too much time defending his life to really think about his options. And, as he had told McGonagall, he had never considered the definite possibility of life after Voldemort.
He turned around and sped back toward the castle, pushing his broom to its limits, reveling in the wind as it whistled past his ears. Hogwarts' grounds soon came into view, and he went in for a smooth landing by the shores of the lake. As he stepped off his broom, he noticed that he was directly across from the White Tomb, and brief pang of loss washed over him. He and Dumbledore had had their fair share of problems, but he knew that if the old man was still alive he could have gone to him with his current problems. Anger then flared up briefly, at Severus Snape, but that died quickly when he remembered hearing that Snape had been killed at the attack on the Ministry. The greasy git had gotten his comeuppance after all.
He shook his head. He was losing his train his thought. Had he figured anything out? Nope. With an almost-but-not-quite rueful smile, he turned and made his way back toward the castle.
"I think I'm going to pack," Ginny said, standing abruptly from her chair by the hearth. Harry glanced at her briefly, noting that it was now dark outside, and looked back toward the small fire. The six of them had just returned from dinner in the Great Hall, a subdued affair for sure. McGonagall had told all of the students present what she had told them earlier in the day, and many had had the same questions. Some of the younger years looked quite lost when she said that she was unsure if Hogwarts was reopening, but Harry didn't think twice about it. He wasn't coming back after he left on that train in the next few days.
Harry stood and leaned against the hearth, crossing his arms over his chest. Some part of him—some part that was disembodied—mused that he must look quite foreboding, creating stark silhouette against the fire. It was a barely tangible thought, but even so, it brought a curious smile to his face. He then realized his name was being called, and he looked over to see who it was.
"Huh?" he grunted. It had been Neville saying his name.
"Alright there, Harry?" he asked, with a raised eyebrow. "Said your name several times."
"You've been distant all day, mate," Ron said.
Harry shrugged, which he'd been doing a lot of recently. "Had a lot of things on my mind."
Ron nodded. "Where are you going when we leave? The Burrow? Grimmauld?"
An interesting question, because that was something else Harry had given no thought. "Dunno yet."
"You need to start making decisions, Harry," Hermione smartly informed him. As if he didn't know that already.
"Thanks, Hermione." His gaze refocused on the fire crackling in the hearth, and although he really didn't need to derive any warmth from it, he found comfort from it's changing, living, and coalescing presence.
"I should resume my packing as well," Luna said, and Harry heard her start for the exit of the common room.
"I'll come help," Ron said quickly.
Harry could almost hear the smile on Luna's face. "You can't get into my dorm, silly."
"We'll think of something," Ron said, although his voice had grown softer, and soon enough the portrait had swung closed behind them. Harry briefly entertained questions of what Ron and Luna had between them, but he quashed them with his mantra of late: he didn't really care. He heard Neville get up soon after, and listened as he went to the dormitory stairs and climbed them. He was still staring at the fire as Hermione sidled up next to him. She rested a hand on his shoulder.
"What's the matter, Harry?" Harry looked at Hermione. The firelight danced across her features, and he really looked at her for the first time in awhile, it seemed. She was without her school robes or uniform, wearing simple Muggle jeans and white t-shirt. Her hair was set in a loose ponytail; he noticed that she had small dark circles under her eyes, but otherwise her face was as unmarred as ever. She was staring at him intently, searching his face for the answer to her question. She had crept into his personal space when he wasn't paying attention, and he found himself a little uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable that she was there…just more so that they rarely were this close together.
And, as if something had slapped him across the face, he noticed the curves of her hips and her ample bosom. When had Hermione become a woman? When had she grown up? Had he been so preoccupied with the war and the Prophecy and Voldemort that he hadn't noticed his friend growing into the fine young woman she was? He became frustrated then, frustrated at the world for allowing him to miss something as simple yet key as that. It wasn't as if he was attracted to Hermione, but he certainly had never done her justice before.
"Er…" he managed to say, thoughts still swinging wildly around his head. Hermione smiled blandly at him.
"Always clear about what you want to say?" Her tone was light, though he could still hear that previous concern.
"Sod off," he said, jokingly, and smiled slightly in return.
They remained looking at each other for a moment, but Hermione asked again eventually: "So, what is the matter?"
Harry sighed and ran his hand through his unruly mop of black hair. "Nothing, really…" She just glared at him.
"What? I don't know exactly what's bothering me. I'm just restless, that's all."
She seemed to hesitate for a moment before asking something else. "Is it…is it because you've fulfilled the Prophecy."
"Fuck the bloody Prophecy," Harry said, watching her wince at his language. She didn't verbally admonish him though; rather, she just stared at him, as if she expected him to go on. "I never did take much stock in that stupid thing."
"But then…?" She left the rest of the question unsaid.
"Voldemort killed my parents, Hermione. He killed Cedric and Sirius. If anyone deserved to kill him, it was me. Like I said, the Prophecy was rubbish."
"So why the restlessness? You could probably do anything you wanted now, you know."
"Why, because I'm the Boy Who Lived?"
"Well, yes, but—"
"I've always hated that name," Harry interrupted her, quietly. His eyes were drawn back toward the fire.
"I know you do, Harry. But if you have options, why not use them?"
"Because I refuse to use my name to get me anywhere," Harry said, resolutely. And he was serious. He never wanted any advantage over someone just because his name was Harry Potter.
"Oh, don't be mental, Harry, that's not what I meant." He merely raised an eyebrow at her, eyes once again on her face.
"Look, your grades are excellent, you're well-rounded physically, you're generally a likeable guy…"
Harry grinned at her. "Just generally?"
She hit his arm lightly. "You know what I mean. I just don't like to see you moping around here, obviously thinking that there's nothing after this place," she said, with a sweep of her arms, "for you. We all have to adjust to life after Hogwarts, you know."
He gazed at her eyes for another moment, and then turned away. He began to pace back and forth, as he often did, though part of it was to remove Hermione from his personal space.
"I know what you're trying to do, Hermione, and I appreciate it, I really do, but I'd rather have some time to work out these things on my own. After all, I won't always have you there to look after me, will I?" Even though he said it in perfect innocence, if he had looked at Hermione's face just then, the aching hurt etched into her features would have astounded him.
Harry chuckled bitterly. "I am right mess, though, aren't I?"
"Yeah, s'pose so," Hermione said, almost at a whisper. Harry assumed she was thinking about something, since she often whispered when she was concentrating on two things at once.
"I think I'll get some packing in," Hermione said, and Harry was momentarily startled by her abrupt conclusion to their conversation. She had already turned away when he looked toward her.
"Have a good night, Harry," she said, waving over her shoulder as she mounted the stairs to her dormitory.
"You too," he called, watching her disappear 'round the curved staircase.
Harry was now alone in the Gryffindor common room; the only noise reaching his ears was the soft crackling of the flames in the hearth, which cast interesting patterns of light over the circular room. He slowly made his way around the room, looking at objects that had been there for his entire tenure, but that he hadn't really noticed before—or had, and had since forgotten about them.
For instance, there was a rather unique clock perched over the stairs to the boy's dormitory, one that he couldn't remember ever paying attention to before. Also, there was a bulletin board between the stairs that Harry hadn't looked at since sometime during fifth year. He decided to peruse it, simply because of the fact that he had nothing better to do with his time at the moment. Nostalgia hit him full force as he saw Quidditch announcements, as well as many other notices, ranging from student-sponsored clubs to new rules that were being enforced. It all seemed so insignificant now, though, seeing as several of the students who had lived in Gryffindor had recently forfeited their lives. Just as he was about to turn away, his nostalgia having turned into disgust, an advertisement caught his attention. It read:
Interested in continuing your education beyond Hogwarts? Does the Muggle world stimulate your curiosity? If both of these things interest you, perhaps you should consider the Wizard Amongst Muggles program, offered by the British Ministry of Magic, in conjunction with the American, Australian, and Canadian Ministries. We are offering magical students the chance to complete a four-year undergraduate education at a Muggle university, in a field of their choosing. Entry will be based on your Hogwarts' grades, which will be converted to the Muggle system for the application process.
If you're still with us, let us further interest you by informing you of the universities that have agreed upon this deal: Stanford University, California, United States; University of Australia at Sydney, Australia; and The North American School of Technology, Toronto, Canada. Applications can be acquired by placing your wand against the attached parchment and incanting, "Replacatio." We must receive your application at the Department of Foreign Education, Ministry of Magic, London no later than June 15th. You will then be advised of the results of your application within one week's time. Thank you for your time, and we hope that you will continue your education, whether through this program or other means.
Harry was intrigued, to say the least. He wondered who could have possibly put this notification here, and then not tell anyone about it, but after a moment he was sure it was McGonagall. Of course it was she. She was probably obligated to post the notice, but she didn't want to lose any of her promising magical students to the Muggle world, and had decided to just let sleeping dogs lie.
He lifted the piece of parchment, saw the attached application the first page had mentioned, and placed his wand against it.
"Replacatio." A fresh sheet of parchment materialized and fluttered to the floor. Harry bent to retrieve it, glancing briefly at the many lines waiting to be filled. He gave the notice one more cursory look, and then pursed his lips. McGonagall had spoken to them all about their future not six hours before…and she had failed to mention this. He respected her as a teacher and as an administrator, but he felt she should have at least told them so they knew all their options.
Thinking of all the packing he also had to do in the next two days, he folded up the application and tucked it away, making his way up the stairs toward his dormitory. He would consider this for a few days, and see where those thoughts led him.
The rocking motion of the train was already in full swing as Harry exited the luggage compartment, having finally stowed his trunk. He passed compartment after compartment looking for his friends, and didn't come upon them until the back of the train. He slid open the door, and in a moment of utter surprise, had to duck slightly to make it across the threshold. He was able to stand straight once inside the compartment, but ducking was new to him. He must have grown since he'd last ridden the train, the previous fall.
"Hullo, Ron. Hermione," he greeted his friends, taking a seat next to Hermione. Ron sat across from them; they both nodded at him, and resumed the conversation they had been having.
"And you said Neville was talking to McGonagall about possibly being the new Herbology Professor?" Hermione asked Ron, clarifying some earlier point that Harry had missed. His ears perked up at this, though, because he hadn't known that little tidbit of information.
"Yeah, and he was in a right state after," Ron replied. Harry noticed that Ron was smiling.
"Well I think that's brilliant," Hermione said. "What about you, Harry?"
"I'm happy for him, if it's what he wants to do. There wasn't a better Herbology student in Hogwarts," he replied, giving Hermione a playful grin. She was slow to reciprocate it, for some reason, and eventually only gave him a small smile.
"He's got to be the youngest Professor in about a million years," Ron said.
"Something like that," Hermione intoned.
"Oh, I forgot, but McGonagall said that Hogwarts would probably be reopening, and to pass that on to the younger years," Harry suddenly told them.
"When did she say that?" Hermione asked, rather sharply. Ron just looked at him.
"As I was leaving for the last carriage. I was the last student out."
"Oh," she said.
"Well, that's good news for Gin and Luna, I guess," Ron said.
"That would have been a bloody mess, finding a new school," Harry agreed. He stretched out his legs, grinning slightly to himself when he realized the compartment wasn't wide enough for him to do so fully anymore.
"I think I'm going to try out for the Wimbourne Wasps," Ron blurted out. Harry was startled, and so was Hermione, but they were soon both grinning at their red-haired mate.
"Go for it!" Harry said.
Hermione's response was much less…boisterous: "Charming," she said, sarcastically, albeit with a Cheshire grin.
"I figure since their Keeper is retiring they might need a new one…so why not? What have I got to lose?"
"Absolutely nothing," Harry said. He was already thinking of watching a professional Quidditch game with Ron as one of the Keepers, but his train of thought soon derailed as he remembered the folded up application still tucked away in his pocket.
Over the past two days, he had actually sat down and seriously thought about what he wanted to do with his life, cutting through all of the vagaries and apathies that seemed to be clouding his mind lately. He had spent the majority of the last forty-eight hours—well, those that weren't spent sleeping—trying to work out what he would do now that his Hogwarts career and lunatic-hunting duties were over.
He had come to the conclusion that he had absolutely no bloody fucking clue. None whatsoever. And that's where the application now burning a hole through his pocket came in. If he didn't know what he wanted to do for the rest of his life yet, why force the issue? Why make himself decide when he could potentially have another four years to work out that very same question? The only problem was it would take him away from Britain, from his friends, from the only place he had ever called home.
He winced at that word, though. Four Privet Drive had certainly never been home, and that left the Burrow, Grimmauld Place, and Hogwarts. He mentally scoffed at the notion of calling Grimmauld home; there was no way in hell he would ever be caught dead calling that mausoleum home. Hogwarts held some fond memories, but he could also remember countless times when his life and the lives of people he cared about had been threatened…not to mention taken completely. That left the Burrow. He loved the Weasley's, especially because they had taken him in as a sort of surrogate son, but he was older now and even he could admit that they smothered him perhaps too much. Some part of him knew that was why Ron was so rebellious; his parents had tried to smother him too much.
So, what would he be leaving then? His friends, that's what. He'd be leaving the people who had guided him through his toughest times, and who had stood by his side at all costs. It wasn't any sense of home or belonging that was giving him second thoughts about the application. It was having to leave his friends behind. That same small part of him that understood Ron's rebellious nature also understood that if he were to leave like this, leave Britain for four years or possibly more, everything would change. The changes might not be monumental, but they would be there.
He was interrupted from his thoughts when he realized Hermione was asking him something. He looked over at her. She was staring at him with a raised eyebrow and a putout look.
"Do you ever listen to me?" she pouted.
"Huh?" Harry intoned.
She rolled her eyes at him. "Before you left us there, I asked if you had thought anymore about what you're going to do."
"Oh." Well, there it was. Should he tell them what he was considering now, or wait till later? Eh…he wasn't a Gryffindor for nothing.
"Actually, I have. I was thinking about going to a Muggle university."
Both eyebrows were now raised, and she seemingly appraised him with a new look on her face. "Really? That's interesting," she said.
"Why would you want to do that?" Ron asked, eliciting a laugh from both Harry and Hermione. It sounded odd, to genuinely laugh, but Harry supposed it was because the three of them had done so little of it recently.
"Honestly, Ron, not all learning is a chore," Hermione supplied, and Harry couldn't help but laugh harder at the horrified look on his best mate's face.
"Well, now that I'm done with it, there's no way I'm doing more," Ron replied, with a smug look in Hermione's direction. She huffed and crossed her arms across her chest, but there was smile tugging at her lips.
"Anyways, Harry," she said, looking at him once again, "which one were you thinking about? Oxford? Cambridge?"
He was secretly amused that she held such lofty ideals for him, as he could never see himself at such reputable places. He shifted in his seat, unsure how to say what he needed to.
"Well, actually, the three I'm looking at are—" But he was interrupted by the door to the compartment sliding open and Ginny, Neville, and Luna entering. He turned his head in their direction and greeted them, as did Ron and Hermione, and he was glad for the temporary reprieve in divulging his information. He scooted closer to Hermione so Ginny could sit next to him; Neville sat across from her and Luna sat between Ron and him.
"Harry has some news for you, Luna and Ginny," Hermione said, cutting through the light chatter that had started. Harry looked confusedly at Hermione for a moment. Surely she couldn't have meant that he was thinking about attending university.
"McGonagall…" she prompted him, and the light bulb flickered on in his head.
"Oh! Right…well, as I was leaving, McGonagall told me that Hogwarts would most likely be reopening next fall," he said, looking at the two younger girls. He was rewarded with appreciative smiles.
"That's good news," Ginny said, and Luna nodded her agreement. Harry noticed that she seemed to be leaning on Ron, and that he looked a little uncomfortable. He was tempted to pester Ron about it, but he decided that now was not the time. He glanced over at Hermione, saw her looking at the same thing, and nudged her. She looked at him and he raised his eyebrows, nodding in Ron's direction. She smiled and shrugged, and nodded to Harry's other side. Harry looked over there and saw that Neville and Ginny were holding hands across the compartment. He looked back at Hermione, barely suppressing a chuckle. She patted his shoulder fondly.
It had always amazed him that the two of them could hold silent conversations like that, but it happened so often that he didn't question it anymore. In fact, he probably took it for granted, but there were just some things that Harry Oblivious Potter would never realize…not unless he was slapped in the face with it. He settled back into the seat, anticipating enjoying the rest of the so-far pleasant train ride, one that would be his last. Some point along the way, Hermione laid her head on his shoulder, but he paid no mind to it accept to adjust his position a bit, allowing her to get more comfortable. After all, what were friends for?
An easy silence settled over the occupants after awhile, and soon enough, lulled by the rocking motion of the train, the six of them succumbed to the warm drowsiness. Harry was the first to jerk awake, albeit slightly, because some part of his mind had been aware that jerking too hard would wake Hermione. The first thing he realized was that the train had stopped moving; the second thing was that a heavenly scent filled his nostrils. It didn't take him long to figure out that it was Hermione's hair, now fanned out across his shoulder and the side of his face. He smiled in spite of himself; she had always looked peaceful when she slept…not that he had seen her asleep very many times.
He quickly took stock of the cabin, and grinned when he saw Ron and Luna. Luna was leaning into him, asleep, and Ron had his arms around her waist, also asleep. Neville and Ginny were asleep, but were still lightly holding hands. He nudged Hermione lightly, trying to wake her up gently. She did something unexpected, however; she curled into his side, wrapping an arm around his back.
"No," she mumbled, although it was little more than a sigh. She was obviously still asleep. Harry had two options, one being waking her up and the second being carefully extricating himself. He knew that if he woke her up now she'd likely be mortified, so he chose the second option. Carefully, he removed her arm from around him, against her mumbled protests, and leaned her gently against the wall. He stood up, smoothed his own clothing, and clapped his hands loudly.
The reaction was instantaneous, if not hilarious. Five sleeping people bolted awake, with Ron having the most violent reaction. He almost chucked Luna on the floor, accidentally of course.
"Home sweet home," Harry said, holding back laughter at the glares Ron and his sister were sending him. As he left the cabin, he heard the call of Prat at his back. He turned around, smiling sweetly at Ginny.
"Anything for my l'il sis," he said, pinching one of her cheeks and smiling. He had no idea what possessed him to do it, but the murderous glare in Ginny's eyes told him to make a swift exit. As he beat a hasty retreat, he saw an utterly perplexed look on Hermione's face, one that was accompanied by a far away gaze. He quickly forgot about it though, because he had to get through the mass of students to get to his trunk. Deciding to be somewhat of a gentleman after the rude awakening of his friends, he levitated all six trunks down onto the platform.
He immediately saw that Remus, the Weasley's, and Hermione's parents were already making their way toward him. The Twins, suspiciously enough, were with their parents.
"Hullo, everyone," he said, as they neared him. They all greeted him in various ways.
"Harry! Our trunks?" he heard Ron call out from the train. He waved him over without turning. Ron and the others soon joined them.
"Where's Tonks?" Harry asked Remus.
"Tending to ickle Wolfiekins, no doubt," Fred said, earning an amused glare from Remus.
"She had to attend to Auror business today. Her maternity leave is ending soon, after all," Remus supplied, his voice sounding a bit wistful. "How are all of you?" he asked them.
The six of them, though somewhat subdued, told everyone they were fine and just glad that it was all over.
"You lot looking forward to a relaxing holiday?" Mr. Granger asked. Harry barely knew the man, but he smiled and nodded all the same. Actually…he didn't even know Hermione's father's first name.
"Sure are, Mr. Granger," Neville replied for them. Mr. Granger nodded, and then smiled at his daughter. Everyone took that as a sign to break into their respective groups, and the six of them said their goodbyes, however temporary they might be.
Hermione turned to Harry. "You know, my parents had our hearth hooked to the Floo. Feel free to drop by whenever, Harry." He nodded and smiled.
"Will do. Stay out of trouble," he said, smiling mischievously at her.
"Harry…you know if you ever want to talk—"
"Stop worrying your pretty little head about me and go to your parents, Hermione. They look like they're about to burst," he said, patting her shoulder. She gave him a very familiar look, then hugged him briefly, and made her way to her parents.
Ron called out just then: "I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of each other this summer, but the six of us have to get together sometime soon."
Harry replied in the affirmative, as did the rest, and the groups slowly broke up as people started to leave. Harry didn't miss the looks the adults were giving him, though, probably because they wanted to talk to him about Voldemort. He ignored them as best as he could, but he also knew that some of those conversations were inevitable. He turned to Remus.
"So how's Grimmauld these days?"
"Much warmer," Remus smiled.
"And how's William these days?" William was Remus's three-month old son, born to him and his wife, Nymphadora Lupin.
"Great," Remus said; a true grin lit up his face. The age seemed to melt away from the old wolf's features when he grinned like that.
"Got room for me, for a little while at least?" Harry asked.
Remus slung an arm around his shoulder. "Of course, Harry. It is your house, after all. You're welcome there anytime."
"Don't start that rubbish again, Remus. I gave the house to you."
"Yes, yes…and I thank you very much for that." Remus turned to face Harry, placing his hands on Harry's shoulders. The older man glanced briefly at Hermione's and her parents' retreating backs. "If you ever want to talk about anything, you know you can come to me, right?"
Harry smiled genially at him. "Of course. Now, let's go," he said, and Disapparated from the platform.
A surprise greeted Harry the next morning as he exited the bathroom at Grimmauld Place in naught but a towel, having just taken a shower. He literally bumped into Hermione; whose presence startled him so much he almost dropped the towel from around his waist.
"Hermione!" he cried, more startled than embarrassed.
She, however, turned an alarming shade of mortified red. "Er, Harry!" she exclaimed, for once in her life unable to articulate anything. "I just needed to use the loo," she mumbled, and then quickly pushed past him, slamming the door. He stood outside the bathroom for another moment, laughter bubbling up inside him. Fortunately for him, he made it to his room before it escaped, because he didn't want to know what Hermione would do to him if she had heard it.
He dressed in a pair of jeans and a tee, and then started to finish organizing his room. He heard the door to the toilet open and close, a light patter of steps, and then felt more than saw someone standing in his doorway. He looked up into Hermione's face, which was still a bit red, and then burst out laughing.
"I'm sorry," he said, through gasps of air.
"Git!" she exclaimed, but she remained where she was.
"You have to admit," he said, once he'd calmed down, "that it was quite funny."
He could tell she didn't want to, but a smile soon spread across her lips. She crossed her arms over her light-colored blouse, which matched the light skirt she was wearing. Her feet were bare.
"Really, Harry, you should put some clothes on inside the loo."
"Why? How did I know you were going to be here? And it's not like it matters anyway; I have nothing to be ashamed of around you."
A funny look crossed over her face for a second, but she didn't say anything. She merely continued to stare at him.
"What are you doing here, anyway?"
"I can't visit?" she replied, raising that distinctive single eyebrow at him.
"You must drive your parents barmy. You haven't even been home for a day."
"Oh, come off it, we can all Apparate now. It's not like distances matter much anymore."
Harry conceded the point. "True. I was just a little surprised, that's all."
"Understandable," she said, and then chuckled a little.
"See! I told you it was funny!" he said, as he continued moving about the room, setting up his things.
She moved into the room and sat on his bed. "You're impossible."
"And you love me for it," he said, cheekily. He turned around, catching her with her nose wrinkled in consternation.
"You know the blokes like it when you play hard to get, Granger," he said, winking a bit at her. He turned back around, hanging some clothes up in his closet, missing the slight flush to her cheeks.
"Well, anyways," he said, finally done putting things away, "what can I do for you today?"
"Does there have to be a purpose to my visit?" she asked, innocently enough. He gave her his patented Oh really? look, and she just sighed a bit.
"Ok, so maybe I am a bit predictable. I just wanted to continue that conversation we were having on train."
"Which one?" Harry asked.
"About the Muggle universities," she said.
Ah. So that was why she had come. He had thought it a bit odd that she didn't take at least a whole day with her parents, but now he knew why. He had piqued her curiosity and she wouldn't rest until it was satiated.
He glanced briefly at his desk, which held the now completed application, and went over to sit beside her on the bed.
"What do you want to know?"
"Well, which ones?"
Harry fidgeted for a second, unsure of how to tell her what he was thinking, but then decided that honesty, as it always had been with Hermione, was the best choice.
"Actually, Hermione, all three are foreign." He braved a look at her face, and saw that she had had absolutely no reaction at all. She blew out a breath from between her half-parted lips.
"Oh." She seemed to not be focusing on anything.
"One's in California, in America…uh, another is in Australia, and the third is in Canada."
"Why?" she finally said.
"Why what?" Harry asked, perplexed.
Her eyes finally focused on his. "Why are they all so far away?"
Harry shrugged. "Why not?"
"Harry, you're home is here, in Britain," she said. She seemed to be getting aggravated with him, though for what he did not know.
"I don't have a home, Hermione," he said, simply, because it was the truth.
"What?" she asked, clearly confused.
"The Boy Who Lived has a home in Britain, Hermione, but Harry Potter does not."
"Harry Potter has people who care about him in Britain, you know," she said, a little acidly. "I care about you, Harry," she said.
He smiled at her. "And I care about you. You're my best friend. But that's not what this is about. This is about me not knowing what I want to do with the rest of my life, and not forcing the issue yet. I can give myself four more years to determine that."
"There are plenty of Muggle universities much closer to home," she said.
Harry shook his head. "There's that word again, Hermione. Home. What if I don't want this place to be my home?" he asked, although his question was meant to be indicative of more than just Grimmauld Place.
"There's so much I haven't seen…so much I haven't done…I think it'd be a little hasty of me to decide right here and now what I want to do. And I know you're going to say Well, you can always change but we both know how hard it is to do that in the Wizarding World."
"I just…I don't understand."
Harry was becoming a little frustrated. He stood up, running a hand through his hair. "Is it so wrong to want to experience some new things, and perhaps get a quality education about something new in the process?"
Hermione deflated a little. "No."
"Besides," Harry added, "I don't even know if I'll be accepted."
She perked up again. "Why not?"
"I haven't sent the application out yet," he said, motioning to his desk. She stood up and strode over there, reading over the parchment that he had filled out the previous night.
"Stanford? I've heard that's very exclusive…" she trailed off, and turned back toward him.
"So you'd just leave me? All of us?" she asked. Harry knew that it was going to happen, the guilt trip, and he was prepared for it.
"It's not like I couldn't come back on holiday, and we can always write. No matter what happens, Hermione, I could never forget the friends I've made or the people I care about. Just because I'd be away from Britain doesn't mean I'd forget."
She was silent for a moment, and then turned away to look out of the window above his desk. "So you've thought a lot about this." It wasn't a question.
"Yes, actually, I have." She was silent. "What about you?" he asked her. "What are you going to do?"
"Well," she said, still looking out of the window, "I have several internships lined up at the Ministry, and if any of them go well, I suppose I'll work there."
"You suppose? You don't sound so sure," Harry said.
"I just thought—naively, apparently—you…and Ron, of course, would always be here," she said, laughing slightly to cover the shake in her voice Harry knew was there.
Before Harry could reply, there was a knock at his doorframe. He turned and saw Remus standing there.
"Hullo, you two," he said.
"Remus," Harry replied. Hermione just nodded to him.
"Have you had breakfast yet Hermione?" She nodded again. "What about you Harry? Hungry for anything?"
He shook his head. "Not really, not at the moment, but thanks for offering," Harry replied. Remus nodded and left the doorway.
Harry walked over to Hermione, hugging her from behind. He didn't know what was bringing about such a reaction from his best female friend, but it bothered him. By the way she was shaking slightly, he knew that she was crying, even though he couldn't see her face. She turned suddenly in his embrace, hugging him for all she was worth. He smoothed her hair a bit as he tried to convey strength with his presence.
After a few minutes of standing there holding each other, Hermione looked up at him, still teary, but smiling. She backed away from him a few steps.
"Sorry," she mumbled wiping a hand across her cheeks.
"S'alright," he replied. What else could he say? Her emotion had surprised him.
"It's just a lot to take in," she said, offering an explanation. Harry nodded. "It won't be the same, without you around," she continued. "Even if you do visit and write, you know it won't be the same."
Harry shrugged. Was there an easy way to say this? "I know, but we all have to grow up sometime, Hermione. We're all going to have our own lives, our own careers…it's going to be very hard now that school is over to keep that daily contact we've had for so long."
He was silent for a moment, regarding her. They just stood there like that, gazing at each other. She sniffled a bit and wiped the back of her hand across her face again, taking a shuddering breath as she did so. She nodded.
"I know…I just didn't want to accept that."
"Well, the war certainly buggered everything up, didn't it?" Harry asked, more as a rhetorical question though. "If we weren't fighting for our lives so much, maybe we all would actually have had a handle on what to do after Hogwarts."
"Maybe," Hermione replied, noncommittally. "So you're set on this?" she asked.
He nodded. "I think so. There's nothing around here that interests me right now, and I really don't want to sit around doing nothing."
"Not Quidditch? Or teaching, maybe?" Hermione asked. He was tempted to laugh at the hopeful tone to her voice.
"Teaching is a definite no, Hermione. I don't think I'll ever be able to go back to Hogwarts…too many things have happened there that I'd like to forget. Granted," he continued, seeing the look on her face, "there's plenty of good to go with the bad, but I like to think I've taken the good away with me." He smiled at her, and she reluctantly smiled back.
"And Quidditch? No thanks. It was fun during school, and I'm sure I'll always like flying, but I don't want that kind of publicity. I don't want to constantly be in the spotlight—I've experienced enough of that to last a lifetime."
"But you can't just run away from that Harry. It will follow you for the rest of your life. You did defeat Voldemort, you know."
He gave her a withering glare. "Yes, I know, Hermione. But I figure if I'm inconspicuous for long enough some of it will die off."
"So you're running away? Is that what this is really about?" she asked.
Ok, now he was becoming a little angry with her. He knew she was stubborn, but Merlin!
"No, that's not what I'm doing. If you had listened to what I've been saying you would know that," he said, perhaps a little sharper than he should have.
"I was listening, Harry," she said, very quietly.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It wouldn't do to row with her. "Look, Hermione, I'm pretty sure this is what I want to do. There's really no point in arguing over it."
After a moment, she asked him another question: "When are you going to tell everyone else?"
"When I know if I've been accepted or not, I guess. No point in getting everyone worked up over nothing, really."
"Alright, well I was just going to stop by and talk to you about this, so I really do have to get going," Hermione said, albeit an obvious reluctance in her stance.
Harry nodded. "I have some things I need to do as well, like stop by Gringott's and figure out just how much money I actually have," he joked, although it fell flat. Hermione just smiled at him, and started for the door.
"I'm sure I'll see you soon, Harry," she said, as they made their way down the stairs to the Floo.
"Spot on," Harry replied.
"You'll let me know the results of your application?" she asked, throwing him a cursory glance over her shoulder. She reached into the Floo pot and took some powder.
"I wouldn't dream of anything to the contrary."
She smiled in a patronizing sort of way. "You're bollocks at sounding snooty, you know."
He shrugged. "I try."
"Have a good day, Harry," she said, and threw the powder in. The flames roared green, she stepped in and called out her destination, and she was gone.
Harry sent the application off that very day, and spent the next week getting his affairs in order, as he waited for the results. He made that trip to Gringott's and met with his account manager; he was astounded when he found out his total net worth. Since his full name was really Harry James Potter-Black, he knew that he'd inherited some of Sirius's things, but the total amount had been lost on him. When Griphook told him that as of June 1st, 1998, he would be worth close to eleven million galleons (or fifty million pounds…a little under a hundred million American dollars), he had to take a step back to take stock of his situation. He knew he was wealthy, but he was actually the second richest wizard in Britain.
Those eleven million galleons didn't include various holdings, stocks, and securities within the Muggle sphere, so in actuality his net worth was somewhere near thirteen million galleons. He didn't know how right he was when he'd surmised that he didn't have to work a day if he didn't want to.
Upon finding out his worth, he immediately stopped by the twins' shop, explaining that he would be funneling some money into their business, because he felt what they were doing was a worthy cause. They had protested, quite vehemently, at first, but he'd finally convinced them when he agreed to take a small percentage of their profits as his own. What he didn't tell them, however, was that that small percentage would be funneled right back into their business.
During that week, he also did as much as he could with his friends, because he knew that he might be soon leaving them for quite awhile, although most definitely not permanently. Some of things Hermione had said had eventually started to resonate within him, and he dealt with some doubts, but in the end they weren't enough to totally disrupt his plans.
When the envelope from the Department of Foreign Education finally came, it was with some trepidation that he opened it, but he soon found out that it was for nothing. He had indeed been accepted, and to his first choice, no less. He could officially become a student at Stanford University if that was what he really wanted to do. Orientation was scheduled for August 12th, later that summer.
He looked at the calendar, noting that it was a little over two months away. He had to respond by the following Friday, indicating whether or not he was accepting the invitation. He knew that the Weasley's were having a big thing at the Burrow on Wednesday, so he could tell them all then if he decided to go.
As he sat there in his room, though, the decision became clearer and clearer to him. Of course he was going to go; it would be very foolhardy to pass up an opportunity like this. He Floo'd Molly and let her know that he would in fact be attending her dinner. She was ecstatic of course.
The days until Wednesday passed uneventfully, though he saw very little of his friends. Each time he tried to reach them they seemed to be busy; he did talk to Hermione a bit, however. She was busy getting her Muggle driving license.
Wednesday came, and as he got ready for the thing at the Burrow, some trepidation clouded his mind, but he was fairly resolute in his decision. He would tell them all during dinner some time. Just before he Floo'd over to the Burrow, he had a wild thought, and summoned his Firebolt to him. Perhaps they could get some kind of pick-up Quidditch game going; might be something fun to do. And if they did, it would probably be the last Quidditch he'd play for a very long time.
Everyone was already at the Burrow when he arrived, tumbling through the Floo. The Grangers, the Lovegoods, the Longbottoms, the entire Weasley clan, except Charlie…Bill and Fleur were even there. Remus and Tonks were there with William, enjoying the attention many of the people were giving their son. McGonagall was there as well; she was chatting with Arthur when Harry entered the kitchen and dining area, which had been magically expanded to fit everyone.
Several young adults Harry recognized as alumni of Hogwarts were also there, most likely all friends of Fred and George. His five friends were sitting on the porch in the backyard, enjoying the two Muggle swings Arthur had installed at some point during the last six months or so.
"Harry!" Hermione said, and jumped up to hug him. He returned the hug, and then turned to the others.
"Excuse me if I don't hug you, mate," Ron said, joking.
"Aww, why not?" Harry whined.
"Blokes just don't hug other blokes like that," Ron said, deadpan. Silence for a moment…and then they all burst out laughing. Harry sat down on one of the swings next to Hermione.
"Really, Ronald, are you so insecure with your sexuality that you can't hug your best friend?" Luna asked. Harry grinned at the expression on Ronald's face. Leave it to Luna to ask the most direct questions.
"S'quite alright, Luna. I know Ron loves me, deep down," Harry said, smirking at the evil glare his friend was giving him.
"Well, I know his love for me isn't quite as concealed," Luna said, rather airily. Harry almost choked he started laughing so hard. Ron's face had turned beet red; clearly he was embarrassed at what Luna had said.
"Not now, Luna," he muttered.
"I think it's cute," Ginny said, through her own laughs, and Hermione agreed with her redheaded counterpart.
"Shut it you. Don't think I haven't noticed you and Neville," Ron said.
"Oh?" Ginny said, sitting up a little straighter. Neville stayed out of it, wisely. Harry shook his head at Ron, not quite understanding how he could so willingly incur the wrath of his sister. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"You and him—"
"Yes?" Ginny cut him off. Harry and Hermione winced, and he thought he saw Ron's face change as he realized the error of his ways. "I don't need your bloody approval for anything Ron, and neither does Neville, so you best not finish that sentence."
Ron wisely kept his mouth shut, and the conversation soon turned to lighter fare. Soon enough, everyone was called in for dinner, and they all sat around the magically expanded table.
The majority of the meal was spent reliving various funny occurrences in the past, and Harry heard more than one story that night about his parents and what they'd done during their time at Hogwarts. He couldn't help but smile at Remus's description of his mother, Lily, hexing Sirius into oblivion one afternoon for trying a prank that involved her knickers.
Harry realized that in a perfect world, his parents would be sitting at this table right now, as would Sirius and Dumbledore, but this world was far from perfect. They might all be the image of peace and serenity at the moment, but it hadn't been too long ago when everyone was afraid of everything. He knew that's why he wasn't really going to have too much trouble leaving, because his life really hadn't been that spectacular yet. He had so much more to do…to see…and he just couldn't do that here. He'd be smothered, distracted, confined… It was with these thoughts that he called for everyone's attention.
"Alright, everyone, I have an announcement to make," he said glancing briefly at Hermione. He noticed that many people were glancing back and forth between him and Hermione, but thought nothing of it.
"All of us that just graduated from Hogwarts have that wonderful question of What do we want to do with our lives hanging over our heads, as I'm sure you know." There were several nods in his direction, but also some perplexed looks. He was clearly saying something different than what many of them had thought.
"Well, rather than decide that just yet, I've decided to take a little more time and perhaps learn a little more," he said. The looks were as confused as ever…so he went with the direct approach.
"I've decided to attend a four year Muggle university, in America," he blurted out. Perplexity turned into shock, and silence reigned for a few moments. It was then broken by an uproar of voices and questions, all being thrown at him.
It took awhile for everyone to calm down, but Harry weathered the storm. He knew some people were very unsatisfied with his decision, including McGonagall, as he had expected, but there was little they could do to change his mind. The biggest shock to them all was that he was leaving Britain, not that was attending university, which he understood. Many of the same arguments that Hermione had used were tossed at him, but he replied in much the same way: it was something he had to do for himself, if only to branch out a little bit.
By the time two o'clock in the morning rolled around, the only people left awake were he and his five friends. Everyone else had either gone home or to bed. They sat out on the same porch swings from earlier, enjoying the cool night air, listening to the peepers.
"So you're really leaving, eh?" Ron asked. Luna was cradled against his side, though she wasn't sleeping. He had obviously gotten over his earlier embarrassment.
"Not really leaving, Ron…just think of it as an extended holiday," he replied. He hated to say he was leaving, because that sounded too final.
"I must admit, I never expected this Harry," Neville said, and Ginny nodded from her position next to him.
"Neither did I," she said.
Harry shrugged. "Then perhaps this is for the best. It never hurt anyone to do something a little unexpected…"
"When are you leaving?" Hermione asked, rather quietly. It was the first time she had spoken in quite awhile.
"I'm leaving from Heathrow the morning of the first of August," he said. "Orientation isn't until August 12th, but I figure I might as well learn a little bit about the area surrounding the university," he said.
Hermione nodded, but did not respond verbally. The ensuing silence was broken by several yawns, one after another.
"Well, Ginny, I think I'm going to get going. My Gran's going to be a bother if I get in any later." She nodded and stood with Neville. Neville turned to Harry and looked like he wanted to say something, but just smiled and patted him on the shoulder instead. They made their way inside toward the Floo.
"I should be off too, Ronald," Luna said.
"I'll walk you home," he offered, helping her up off the swing.
"I can Apparate there, you know," she said, although she gave him a winning smile.
"And I can Apparate back," he said, ending any debate. Ron turned to Harry. "I'm happy for you, mate. You seem to be really happy and sure about this. Just don't forget us." Harry nodded, touched for some reason by his best friend's words. Ron turned away and him and Luna wandered off into the darkness, a whispered lumos lighting their way.
Harry started to rock the swing slightly; Hermione drew her legs up under her, shifting a little in her seat, so she could lean her head on his shoulder.
"What are you thinking, Hermione?" Harry asked. She had been so quiet since he'd broken the news.
"I'm going to miss you," she replied, her voice barely a whisper. He reached an around her back, pulling her to him in what he thought was a friendly way.
"I'm going to miss you, all of you, too," he said, resting his chin on her head. That same scent that always seemed to be near her, of vanilla and something else, was now pervading his nostrils.
"But it's not like this is goodbye, not yet, and certainly not forever," Harry said.
"I don't know if I'll see you again before you leave," she eventually replied. He leaned forward as she snaked an arm around his back, allowing her room to do so.
"What? Why not?"
"My parents decided to go to Singapore this year. We leave tomorrow, and we probably won't be back until sometime around the first of September."
"Oh," he replied. He wouldn't see her again for…well, for a while, at least. He didn't know how he felt about that, but he didn't like the suddenly empty feeling somewhere in the pit of his stomach.
"Will you be home for Christmas hols?" she asked. He knew he wasn't imagining the highly hopeful tone in her voice.
"I'd assume so," he said, although he really didn't know. A lot could happen between now and then.
"I hope so," she replied. "That's probably the next time I'll get to see you." The sadness creeping into her voice was breaking his heart, but he wouldn't let this change his mind. He loved his best friends, all of them, but this was something he was set on doing now. Like he'd already told her, he wouldn't stop caring about them or writing them, and he was almost positive he'd back in Britain a few times during the four years.
"I'm looking forward to it," Harry said, trying to joke a little bit, but something told him it was the wrong thing to do. Sure enough, Hermione was soon quietly crying into his side, as revealed by her slight tremors.
"Hermione, Hermione…" Harry murmured, pressing his lips into her hair as probably the tenderest gesture he'd ever done toward her. "Why are you so upset?" he asked her, very quietly.
"I just can't believe you're leaving," she said, looking up. He could see the tear streaks on her face, and again, they broke his heart, but there was nothing he could do. He wasn't changing his mind now.
"I'm sorry that I've upset you so much, but I'm not changing my mind. This is something I'm going to do," he asserted.
She held his gaze for a moment, and then began to untangle herself from his grip. He let go of her, and she stood up, smoothing her clothes. She sniffled, but she didn't wipe her face.
"I'm sorry, Harry," she finally said. She wasn't looking at him; rather, she was staring into the backyard of the Burrow.
"For?" he asked, highly mystified.
"Everything. Not being there more. Not convincing you…just not doing enough, I guess." She began to walk off the porch, probably thinking about Apparating home.
He stood up and walked to the railing. "Hermione, you're not making sense."
She turned to him, and in the half-light coming from the Burrow's windows, he saw a wistful smile on her tear-stained face.
"Someday you'll understand," she said, and raised her wand.
"Wait—" he started
"Goodbye, Harry," she said.
"Bye," he replied, but it was said to empty space. She had already disappeared.
The rest of his time in Britain passed uneventfully. Hermione sent him one short postcard from Singapore, wishing him well on his journey overseas. He thought about writing back, but he didn't know where she was exactly, and didn't want to risk sending Hedwig into a Muggle area.
He made the most of the rest of his time with his friends and surrogate family, and by the time August first rolled around, he was more than ready to go. He went to Heathrow accompanied only by Ron, preferring to keep it a small affair. Ron tried to shake his hand before Harry boarded the plane, but Harry pulled him into a hug instead.
"Take care of Hermione, will ya?" Harry asked, as he released Ron.
"Sure will," he said, sticking his hands in his pockets.
They stared at each other for a moment, myriad memories running through each other's heads, but there was little more they could say. They nodded at each other, and Harry turned away to board the plane.
As he passed onto the jetway, he looked back, but Ron had already melted into the sea of faces.