Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all related terms and characters are the property of JK Rowling. The use of copyrighted material is for non-profit entertainment purposes only, and in no way constitutes a challenge to the existing copyright.

A/N: You have no idea how little time I've had to write recently. Still, I wanted to give you a proper chapter, so the delay was certainly necessary. I've tried to ensure that there are no rough edges to this chapter, but as always, please let me know if I've missed anything, or if FF garbled something on the upload.

My life – which, among other things, includes switching jobs – has slowed my writing to a crawl. I have finished the bulk of Chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the MEtyK overhaul, but they're nowhere near ready to post. Soon, I hope…

I stand by what I've promised, though. I will finish every single one of these stories, and I thank you all for reading.

Now stop what you're doing. Go and read, Will he be Happy by KafkaExMachina – specifically Chapter 9. That story is, to date, the ONLY weak-and-meek Harry portrayal that I fully and completely support. Besides being hilarious in a sadistic, vindictive way, that story is the answer to any questions that you might have as to why my Harry isn't a wimp in TMF. Harry's my protagonist, so he needs a free will. Hermione's throwing around memory charms in my story, so Harry's virtually immune.

Why?

Because if Harry was susceptible to Hermione's influence, if he wasn't able to at the very least cope with Hermione's growing power, then Hermione would be the protagonist, wouldn't she?

My opinion is that Rowling herself established Harry's immunity to direct mental compulsion in GOF, so that we knew that whatever Harry felt or thought was real. Someone that can throw off Voldemort's Imperius at 14 years of age is not going to be susceptible to a student's Memory Charms; and Hermione is definitely a student, especially compared to Voldemort.

Anyways, in my opinion, a weak Harry makes for a boring story.

Now on with the show! Beware all people with the last name of Lovegood if you want to retain your sanity!

And a word of warning for the end of this chapter: Don't. Assume. Anything.

Next up after this:

The Pale, chapter 3

The Rose, the Oak and the Tower, chapter 2

TOW

Hairline Fractures

Harry sat trance-like as he watched Hermione's magic flow. Streams of blue and violet arced gracefully around her in the golden sea of her aura. Spells came to life, changed in mid-flight, and died as Hermione focused her will. The Marauders Map lay open in front of her, beside a blank sheet of parchment. Hermione's magic danced between the two sheets, transferring and altering properties as it worked.

It was an act of genius, but it was an understandable act of genius. Seeing the magic work at its most fundamental levels gave Harry amazing insight into Hermione's abilities. What would appear to others as miraculous revealed to him in its true form – several normal spells cast simultaneously and woven into an ephemeral work of art that transcended mortal ability. He watched silently as Hermione flawlessly reproduced and altered the work of four talented wizards with only a mild exertion of effort, her wand long forgotten in her desk drawer. Her mind barely registered what spells were necessary before her magic adjusted to reproduce the effect, and then tweaked it in whatever manner Hermione deemed necessary.

Hermione's smile brushed across his thoughts while she worked, causing him to smile as well. "What's got you so happy?" he asked.

"You."

"Oh? What've I done now?"

"I love the way it feels when you figure something out," she answered. "You preen."

Harry snickered, an image of Hedwig flashing in his mind. "I'd like to think I'm never a prat about things like that."

"Of course not. It's not a bad thing. You're just... proud of yourself. I like it."

Harry brushed against Hermione's thoughts affectionately, before retreating to his own. His mood faltered a bit with Hedwig's memory, and several minutes passed as he relived several of his private moments with his beloved owl. A small pang of guilt wormed through his guts as his thoughts turned to Hedwig's last moments, locked helplessly in her cage in the middle of a brutal firefight.

"Harry? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he said, snapping back to the present. "Just thinking of Hedwig."

The buzz of Hermione's magic faded away, and she came over to him, taking his hand. "Show me, please. Those memories felt painful." Harry sighed, relaxing his focus. Hermione's presence reached out for the memories, brushing across them gently until she reached Hedwig's death.

"Oh! I knew she died, but... Oh, that's terrible!"

"I can't help but feel bad," he said sadly. "It's not like Hedwig was a witch who could fight back; hell, she wasn't even out of her cage.

"She was my responsibility, in a way that no one else was. To have her die was painful. To have her body destroyed by my own spell afterwards... I know I did the best I could, and it's such a small detail in light of everything last year, but I feel like it was so wrong of me to do."

Hermione resonated soothingly in his mind, and she reached for the feelings of guilt and sadness. Harry pulled his thoughts quickly away. "No. I don't want you to take this away. It's mine. She deserves it."

"Hedwig would never have wished you pain."

"No, but it's not pain. It's... a need."

"Closure," Hermione finished for him. "You need to say goodbye."

Growing comprehension widened his eyes. That was exactly it, and with that revelation, came the obvious solution.

Harry coaxed his mokeskin pouch to grow, and fished out the Resurrection Stone. "Hedwig," he called softly as he turned the stone. "Come here, girl. Come back to me." With a soft fluttering of wings, the shimmering form of the beautiful snowy owl appeared, alighting on his shoulder. Hedwig pressed her face lightly against his, crooning affectionately.

"Oh, girl. I'm so sorry."

Several minutes passed as Harry stroked Hedwig's sides, while she nipped his fingers and tangled her feet in his hair. Finally, after a deep, shaky breath, Harry dismissed her, watching her fade away, leaving only a few ghostly feathers. Hermione reached out to take one of the feathers in her hand. Her magic exploded forth again, the room bathed in gold, and her eyes luminously bright. Harry squinted against the glare. As it faded, his breath caught.

Sitting in Hermione's hands – solidly and physically present – was a long, white feather.

Hedwig's feather.

"I know I can't bring her back to you," she whispered, a small trace of golden mist trailing from her mouth and eyes. "But I can give you this."

Harry took the feather gently, staring in amazement as he turned it in his hands. Hermione slowly faded to normal beside him, her eyes returning to their deep brown, her aura and misty breath gone. An odd current in Hermione's emotions made him look up. She sat watching him, looking unsure and slightly worried. Rather than speak, Harry leaned towards her and pressed his lips firmly to hers. With a sharp intake of breath as their lips and emotions met, Hermione pressed back, and their thoughts were lost for a moment in the roiling sea of Harry's gratitude and Hermione's relief.

When they broke apart, Harry cast a light protection charm on the feather, and placed it with the Stone in his pouch. When the pouch had once again shrunk, he turned back to Hermione.

"Why were you worried?" he asked. "That's not the first time you've done something absolutely amazing for me."

"I know, but it was a lot more than just an advanced spell, and it was something personal to you. I probably should have asked."

"I love it," he assured her. "I love it, just like I love you."

Hermione leaned forward to hug him gently. "I love you too," she murmured against his shoulder, before standing and moving back towards the table.

Moments passed as Harry once again fell into his memories, but with a considerably lighter heart. He felt Hermione take up her magic again, and dozed slightly to its soothing rhythm.

"Harry?" His eye cracked open to see Hermione standing over him; the sunlight had diminished noticeably. "It's done."

"Good. George will love it."

"I think so, too," she agreed, "it'll be a reminder of their youthful days as first- and second-years. Should we wait until April?"

Harry shook his head. "No, Christmas is fine. I think it'll be better if we don't associate it with their birthday."

Hermione nodded. "So, what are we getting for Ron and Luna?" she asked, cocking her head sideways.

"Well, Luna wanted to go to France, so why don't we give them a trip this Christmas?"

"That could be expensive."

Harry looked at her, amused. "Expensive to whom?" he asked.

"Nothing," replied Hermione with a roll of her eyes. "Forget I said it."

--

November passed by with classes progressing at wildly varying paces. The mysterious restrictions on magic resolved into a dichotomy – the younger students needed to cast every spell perfectly to get any results at all. The sixth and seventh years, however, came to a general understanding of the 'new rules' under Harry's more direct coaching, and no longer had issues learning new magic. The professors finalized their plans for a summer term, along with the other complications involved.

Harry sat beside Hermione, talking to her quietly as they waited for the final staff meeting of the month to begin. After a few moments of friendly banter amongst the professors at the table, McGonagall began.

"This meeting is to decide a strategy to implement for the rest of this year. With the success of the NEWT students – thanks largely to Mr. Potter's efforts – we have two years of students that, with the included summer term, may progress normally. The younger students, however, may not. Already, most of the students are bored and unfocused, having nothing to do besides practicing their spellwork, and then waiting while slower classmates catch up. What we must decide is how to continue with instruction."

"The NEWT students deserve some priority," Slughorn said. "They are about to enter wizarding society as adults, and we must ensure that they're prepared."

Sprout shook her head. "If we neglect the younger students, though, we'll create a gap in their education that might be impossible to bridge later."

"I agree," Sinistra said with a nod. "Besides, what on earth would we do to keep five years of restless students occupied until June?"

Memories of the DA floated through Harry's mind, and he recalled his impromptu lessons in the Room of Requirement. "That's an idea," he mumbled.

All eyes turned toward Harry, giving him pause for a moment. Even Hermione looked surprised.

"Sorry," he said, with every intention of being silent. There was something though, something very curious and Hermione-like, urged him to speak.

"I think that we could help with this," he started. "If the professors want to concentrate on the sixth years and seventh years, then Hermione and I, and maybe one or two others, could keep instructing the earlier years. We probably couldn't cover the entire curriculum for any year, but we could keep them moving so that they're not too far behind." Harry quickly glanced over to Hermione. He had mentioned her, but if she didn't want to do this – but Hermione was smiling at him, and he felt her approval from across their link.

"You're offering to teach?" asked Sprout, blinking.

"Well… yes."

"Commendable offer," Slughorn said, "truly commendable. But Harry, aren't you forgetting that the two of you are part of the student body we want to concentrate on? You'd never have the time to do anything more than you already are; you'll probably have to cut that back as it is!"

"Unfortunately, I have to agree with Professor Slughorn," said McGonagall. "The two of you would probably do a wonderful job with the younger students, but think what would happen to your own education."

Harry bit his lip to keep from grinning, but as soon as he caught Hermione's gaze, they both broke into huge smiles.

"I see that something about what I've said is amusing," McGonagall remarked dryly.

Hermione shook her head fervently. "No, not at all," she said. "It's just that I don't think you should worry about our education. We're quite ahead of the curriculum."

"So ahead that you're ready for your NEWTs?" asked Sinistra, adopting a shrewd expression.

Harry looked again to Hermione, who shrugged. "I think so," he agreed.

The professors shared looks of incredulity, but McGonagall looked only slightly perturbed. "I assume that you have a reason behind this overnight mastery of magic?"

"Can you all keep a secret?" Harry looked around at the professors, who all looked back warily. One by one, they all hesitantly agreed.

"I have the journals of Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape."

"You have…?" The Headmistress trailed off, stunned.

"I've been through them a fair amount, and I'm still learning as I go. I'm no Master in any area, but I'd like to think I'm well ahead of the NEWT student standard."

"I should say so!" spouted Flitwick, who then shook his head slightly in wonder. "Dumbledore's journals…"

"I'm sure you won't be surprised when I say that Hermione's way beyond me, too. To borrow Professor Marchbanks' words about Dumbledore, she's done things I've never seen before, and I've been through a lot." Hermione blushed red at Harry's words, and the pride that he sent in her direction.

"Well, that should settle that," Sinistra said, leaning back. "Unless anyone has a better idea, it seems that we've just promoted our Heads to Assistant Professors."

McGonagall nodded thoughtfully, but a voice from behind them interrupted. "If I may…"

All heads turned toward Dumbledore's portrait.

"What Harry and Miss Granger-"

"Hermione," she cut across. "No more 'Miss Granger' out of you."

"-Very well," the portrait chuckled, continuing. "What Harry and Hermione are suggesting holds great merit, but you would all do well to swap roles.

"Despite what the two of you may think, younger students are often more work to control and direct, and so I would trust those students to the professors, as they have already established themselves as authority figures. The two of you, however, have the direct respect of the majority of older students. You would, I think, find it far easier to guide them. If, as you say, you've been through my things, then you shouldn't have an issue with the material."

"I suppose not," allowed Harry, nodding hesitantly. Hermione nodded more firmly.

"Good," said McGonagall with a tone of finality. "Let's move along to planning, then. A shift like this won't happen on its own."

The following Monday, Harry found himself teaching the entire gathering of sixth- and seventh-year students.

"… So that's the general gist behind this," Harry finished, pacing at the front of the much-expanded classroom. "We'll finish the year in two large classes: Hermione's going to handle Runes, Arithmancy, Astronomy, History, and Herbology for both years. I'm going to handle Charms, Defense, Transfiguration, Muggle Studies, and Potions. Hagrid and Firenze are more than able to keep up their regular and NEWT classes, thank God."

Someone in the crowd yelled "Blast-Ended Skrewts!" and everybody laughed as Harry gave a mock shudder.

"Of course, I have to get through the NEWT topics, and I know exactly what you're going to ask me, so we'll get it out of our system in the first couple of classes. Everyone up and push the desks to the side! I'm going to show you all how to duel." He waited until the commotion and the scraping of desks died down before speaking again.

"Let's work a bit of Muggle Studies into this, shall we? Who knows what Star Wars is?" Almost every student raised their hands. "Wow! And I thought that the purebloods had no contact with the muggle world."

"It's pretty hard to avoid," a Slytherin girl said. "It's just some moving pictures, but it's got something like a religious following."

"That's true enough, I guess. Well, think on it as if the Force is magic, and Jedi were wizards. Their 'Lightsabers' were unique creations of metal and special crystals that, imbued with the Force, became something much more. Sound familiar?"

"Wands," murmured several people at once.

"Exactly: Wands are a shaft of particular wood with the core of a magical creature, fused together and imbued to become a lot more than just a stick with a hair in it. Just like a Jedi, we walk around all day without any possessions but the robes on our backs and our wands, which is more than enough for ninety-five percent of what life throws at us.

"Just like Jedi, we have different fighting styles when we duel. I've seen and practiced a few, and I'll show them to you."

"What do you mean, 'fighting styles'?" asked Ginny, who was near the front of the class. "I know that you know a load of spells, but we never covered this in the DA."

"Yeah, I know. That was three years ago, though. That was before I saw a lot of action with Bellatrix, Voldemort, Snape, and Dumbledore… If you watch experienced duelists, you'll see a pattern to how they fight; and there are a lot of different styles.

"The first style is what I taught the DA – the same style, coincidentally, that most Aurors would use. Since we were talking about Star Wars, let's call that style 'Form I.'" Several muggleborn students chuckled.

"Form I starts from a standard dueling position – side profile to your opponent, feet shoulder-length apart, knees bent, and your wand held in front of you, in line with your waist. You should hold your wand at the very back of the grip, with only the tips of your thumb, middle finger and forefinger, like this. Seems a bit loose, right? Well, get used to it.

"With this position and grip, the fastest spell you can cast is Protego, followed closely by Stupefy. Expelliarmus, Impedimenta and other charms all tie for a distant third. Most other types of spells will require you to adjust the grip on your wand.

"That form is what everyone gets trained in without question – your parents know it, you know it – you just weren't told how to make the most of it. With your wand in that position, and some practice to make those spells silent, you can all cast a Shield Charm so fast and potent that even Crucio won't penetrate. The biggest weakness to this style is when you're facing an opponent who's using Avada Kedavra, or other shield-breaker curses. The grip makes most transfigurations and counter-curses a little more difficult, and your wand usually needs to be away from your waist, so you're losing time there, too."

The same Slytherin girl spoke up. "But you used this against the Dark Lord, didn't you?"

Harry smiled at her. "You're very well-informed, aren't you?" The girl smiled back. "I'm afraid we haven't met before."

"Astoria Greengrass, Mr. Potter."

"Harry," he corrected. "The Ministry can call me 'Mr. Potter.'"

"Harry, then. I'm in frequent contact with Draco Malfoy."

"Ah. That would explain that."

"I know that the two of you aren't on good terms…"

Harry held up a hand to stop her. "Draco's not here and not causing me grief. I owe his mother quite a lot, and they are very distant family through the Blacks. We're good."

Astoria gave him a large and genuine smile. "It would mean a lot to him to hear you say that."

Harry looked at her strangely, but shrugged. "Tell him then, or arrange for us to meet one day; I don't do owl-order forgiveness." A ripple of laughter passed through the crowd of students, and Ron looked at Harry with raised eyebrows. Harry shrugged again, and began to pace.

"What I'm going to call Form II is the style that Dumbledore used." Harry adjusted his stance to a martial-arts pose, with his wand arm behind. "You'll notice that my body is leading instead of my wand," he said. "This is to hide the wand from my opponent's view as much as possible, using the left sleeve of my robe. My grip is three fingers halfway up the grip, with my forefinger extended down the shaft, making twisting and rotating motions easier to gauge. My wand is at chest level. In this stance, your fastest and strongest spells are Dumbledore's greatest weapons: Conjury and Transfiguration. No charms and hexes here; you're going to attack your opponent and stop incoming spells with your surroundings, and if there isn't anything to work with, conjure it."

"There's no way that you can fight with only Transfiguration," Ginny said. "It's just not possible." A few other students agreed; Harry noticed that most of the Slytherins remained silent.

"I'll agree that Dumbledore's style is the most difficult," Harry conceded. "But before you tell me it's impossible, I want you to know that Dumbledore and Grindelwald developed the style together, and used it to fight each other – that's still recorded as the best duel in modern history. I also witnessed the only duel in the war between Dumbledore and Voldemort, and Voldemort lost."

Several students murmured excitedly at that information. "What about Voldemort and the Death Eaters?" asked Luna. "Do they use a style?"

"The Death Eater's style involves what I call the Scorpion Tail, with your arm up over your head, like this. You hold your wand tightly with a full fist, and you cock your arm back as if you're ready to throw a punch. The Unforgivables and most other Dark Arts involve a lot of forward jabbing, thrusting, and sweeping with your wand, and you're in the perfect position to do that. Your wand is above or at least parallel to your head so that your body can't cross your line of fire, and to make it easier to fire over obstacles or allies. It's not an exact science, but you can be sure that anyone who's got their wand cocked back like this isn't going to be using Stunners."

"But that would make protective spells difficult," remarked Hermione, who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Harry eyed her dubiously; Hermione simply smiled back.

"It would," Harry allowed, "but you're in a side-stance, so the first and best defense is to bend at the waist and sway back or forward, like this. You can also bend and the knees and pull your waist back and forth. Because your wand is away from your body center in the first place, it's easier to return fire while you're dodging. Besides, if you're using the Killing Curse, you're expecting it to be used against you, too – there's no point bracing for shield charms or counter spells in a fight like that."

"So what style do you use?" asked Astoria.

"My preferred style is like this: Like Dumbledore, I've got my wand behind my body and mid-chest level, but you'll notice that my left arm's down and out of the way, and my grip is different. The base of my wand sits right in the center of my palm, and my forefinger, middle finger and thumb extend straight down the grip and shaft. It's almost like holding a paintbrush, I suppose. Charms and hexes are decently quick like this, and Protego's still dead easy. You can do Transfiguration without changing your wand grip, and I have enough room to jab forward if I want to use Dark Arts. The other grips and positions are a lot better for each type of magic, but I feel quick enough to use this."

"There has to be a reason," the Slytherin commented skeptically. "You wouldn't hinder yourself for nothing."

Harry smiled. "There is. This grip, in my opinion, produces the fastest counter-curses for most spells. If you know what's coming – and I know a lot of spells – then you can counter it. I greatly prefer this method of dueling, as it not only deals with incoming spells, but it also prevents any secondary effects from occurring.

"There's this muggle named Bruce Lee – heard of him?" Many students nodded. "I thought so. His writings on martial arts are world-renowned, and the biggest thing he calls for is to have no one style, no preferred method of fighting. You react with whatever's necessary: When they move back, you surge forward; when they surge forward, you move back; and when you see an opening, you strike. You accept minor hits to land major ones, and you even accept major hits to land a killing blow.

"It's a strong philosophy, and I like it. I can't use it if I'm conforming to any one style; but this stance gives me relatively easy access to all spells, and amazingly quick counter-curses. It's what I'm going on until I find something better, anyways.

"Alright, enough talking! Let's start on Form I!"

The class progressed, Harry throwing everything he could from the Charms, Defense, and Transfiguration coursework into their dueling practices. Once the class had burnt most of their energy, he talked about Potions and outlined their remaining assignments.

The class broke two hours later, students leaving in groups, still speaking about the relative strength's and weaknesses of "Dumbledore's Style" versus "Potter's Style." Harry just shook his head and walked to the old Defense classroom to meet Professor Simonson at the ex-Auror's request, a meeting that had him cloistered in his common room for the rest of the day, furiously planning.

Hermione walked through the portrait later that evening, greeting Harry with a one-armed hug as her book bag floated itself into the bedroom.

"You look tired," Harry said as he released her. "How did your class go?"

"Not bad," she replied. "Certainly not the circus you've got, where all of your Charms, Transfiguration and Defense material is centered on dueling and Star Wars." Harry chuckled as Hermione rolled her eyes at him. "I started by handing out their year's assignments, and I've just been moving around, helping. The classes pretty much run themselves."

"That's what I did for Potions," he agreed. "Everyone responds better to the material if they can see how to use it, though."

Hermione leaned back, blowing a wavy lock of hair from her face. "I can't believe we're teaching…"

"I'm not surprised," said Harry, shrugging. "My name's been pretty popular around the European Ministries since I've been able to work around the restrictions on magic. Shack figured it was even money that they'd have suggested I teach students directly if McGonagall went looking for help."

"True, but that's you, Harry. I never expected to be doing this."

"Oh, come on, Hermione."

"Well, think about it," she defended. "You've done some amazing things during your time at Hogwarts, and then you disappear for a year. Then, you suddenly show up, survive the Killing Curse again, and kill Voldemort. As much as you and I know it's more mystical details than advanced magic, the world practically worships you."

"Exactly," said Harry with a smile. "And when I say with a straight face that you're even better than I am, people listen."

"I don't know about that…"

"I do." Harry smiled smugly as he presented her with an envelope. "I met with Shack and Simonson this afternoon while you were teaching. They want me to run my lecture on fighting styles past the Auror Corps, and he's asked you to come, too."

"What for?" she asked.

"Probably to show off how skilled you are."

"So the Aurors can see living proof of your ability to train people?" Hermione smirked at him. "How very clever of them."

"Politics is politics," he said, giving a small shrug. "Interested?"

"Of course!"

That Saturday, Harry found himself going over his known fighting styles in front of more than a hundred Aurors, all of whom congratulated Harry on his success against Voldemort, and for his research into dueling.

"You may not think it's a big deal," Kingsley said as the Aurors left the room, "but studies and practices like yours help create and improve training programs. I think you've won a few converts."

Harry cocked his head. "What do you mean?"

"Your style!" laughed Simonson, "your 'Form IV,' or whatever you're going to call it. A lot of Aurors have taken up your practice routine, and now they're likely to take up your dueling style."

Hermione smiled at Harry. "Well, the other students did call it Potter-Style dueling…"

"There you go!" Kingsley said, bellowing in laughter. "A style created by you, and named after you."

"It's not the best style," Harry protested. "It needs a lot of work on the side…"

"All the better to prevent laziness." Kingsley clapped him on the shoulder. "Now back to school with you! Get those students whipped into shape, 'professor.'"

"They don't get it," Harry murmured as he walked away with Hermione. "It relies so much on your knowledge of counter-curses, so much on being fast enough to use other magic types without changing grip-"

"It's okay," she said soothingly, rubbing his shoulders as she moved him along. "These are Aurors, Harry. They'll learn in their practice duels what works and what doesn't. If they're smart," she said with a smirk, "they'll bring you back to 'demonstrate' on a few hapless Aurors and show them what it really takes."

"I suppose…" With a sigh, Harry let the subject fall from his mind. "Alright; let's get back to Hogwarts. We've got classes to plan. Would you…?"

"Of course." Hermione took Harry's proffered arm, and the two of them instantly appeared in their common room, where they fell into discussion about what to do for the rest of the month.

--

Harry casually flipped through a charms text as he scribbled notes in the margins. Quiet murmurings surrounded him as students from all four houses crowded the meeting area, comparing notes on various assignments as December classes drew close to finishing. Faint emotions buffeted against his fledgling Legilimency skills: Frustration and determination, pride for being correct, embarrassment for being wrong. The feelings were vague, and Harry couldn't trace them back to anyone in particular. It was a sign of his progress, though; the clearest anything had felt this entire month. Hermione would be pleased.

"Harry, do you have a moment? Transfiguration is annoying me today." Harry looked up to see Luna standing in front of him, her wand tucked irreverently behind her ear.

"Sure," he replied, making room for her to sit beside him. Several things caught his attention, now that he looked. Her radish earrings were gone, replaced by small golden hoops. Her uniform was also different – neater – and her hair was pulled into a long ponytail, something he knew Ron was overly fond of. How many other changes had she made? Most importantly, would Ron change?

Shaking his head slightly, Harry banished his concerns. "So, what are we working on?" he asked, once she had seated herself.

"Human Transfiguration – specifically, altering size."

Harry's lips curled into a smirk automatically, and Luna slapped him lightly on the arm. "It's not what you think, Harry."

"Liar," he said automatically, surprising himself. Luna was even more surprised, and stared at him incredulously. The longer he looked at her, the more certain Harry was of his statement. "It's true," he said, more than a little amazed. "You are lying."

"How…"

"Never mind," he said quickly. "That's not an answer you're getting out here."

"A-alright, then." Luna looked around, distinctly uncomfortable now. "Can we talk about Human Transfiguration… anyways?"

Harry looked at Luna for a long moment, willing his head to shake 'no,' but he couldn't bring himself to do so. "Yes Luna," he said reluctantly. "We can talk about it. Is this for you or for Ron?"

"Why?"

Harry resisted the urge to squirm. He thought, 'There's no reason. We shouldn't even be discussing this!' He said, "It helps to know what, exactly, we're enlarging."

"Me."

A sigh escaped his lips as he envisioned all sorts of negative scenarios. "Please tell me that he isn't asking you to do this," he said. "If he is, I'll give him a set of breasts – permanently."

"Oh! Oh, no, it's not that!" Luna's look of surprise was quite comical. "It's not my breasts I'm looking to enlarge. It's more certain orifices that are a little too tight."

A moment of tense silence passed as Harry dropped his head into his hands, an indiscernible jumble of emotions coursing through his head. This conversation was not happening. She did not just ask him-

But she had, and now she was waiting, smiling expectantly. Try as he might, he could not bring himself to send her away. If Ron had asked, or even Hermione… But Luna, bless her soul… he could not refuse Luna.

"Which. Hole?" he asked through his hands, not looking up.

"Both."

"And you assume I know how to do this… why?"

Luna shook her head. "I don't, honestly, but Ronald's no help with research, and I trust you the most to help me and to keep this discreet. You will help, won't you?"

"Yes, Luna," Harry said automatically, his eyes scrunched closed, shaking his head in disbelief. "Of course I'll help – I'll always help you, if I can." He took a deep breath; he couldn't believe what he was about to say, and he mentally cursed the man that made it possible.

"I want you to take this down, okay?" Luna nodded, readying a quill and parchment. "First, put your wand in contact with the … hole … not in, just around. Trace a small circle just around the outside, and poke in just as you're saying the incantation. Mental focus on the hole getting bigger… and wet. Got that?" He waited for her to nod, and then continued. "The incantation is laxo. Use it once, and give it a go – use it twice if you have to."

"Okay, then." Luna finished her notes, and then looked at him strangely. "How on earth did you know about a spell like that?"

Harry felt torn, wanting more than anything to keep silent – it was far better to speak, though, than let Luna's imagination run wild. He looked up to Luna and said, "You'll keep this to yourself?"

Luna nodded.

"Albus Dumbledore's journals."

Luna's eyes went wide – so wide, Harry thought they might fall straight out of her head. "Keep it quiet," he warned again.

"I will," she agreed quietly. "I'm – well, I'm shocked. I'm also surprised you remembered it."

"Yeah, well, it's not something that you can easily forget," he snapped peevishly. "Had a nice little section on charms like that, Dumbledore did."

"I can imagine – no, no I can't. Well, thank you. I guess I should go somewhere much more private if I'm going to try this spell."

"Have fun," he said dryly as she moved to leave. Harry dropped his head back into his hands.

"That did not just happen," he told himself. "That. Did. Not. Just. Happen."

"What didn't just happen?" asked Hermione as she sat down where Luna had been. Most students seemed to move away from them unconsciously, either leaving the area or settling at its outer edge.

"You won't believe what Luna just asked me about," he began, and quietly relayed the conversation. He stopped abruptly halfway through when he felt heat and light from Hermione's eyes.

"She what?"

A surge of anger and disgust rolled across the link, and Harry nearly fell to the floor in surprise. Just as quickly as it came, Hermione reeled it in, muttering "Sorry." Her eyes remained lit, however; golden-orange orbs that were anything but friendly.

"Hermione?"

She shook her head, and the light faded from her eyes. "It's nothing," she said. "Just a little disturbed by Luna's request."

"Right," Harry returned dryly. "Because that little display was nothing." On instinct, he looked around; no one seemed to notice them, which Harry took to be Hermione's doing.

Hermione huffed and looked away, crossing her arms. "I'm just- is it so hard to think that I don't want her talking about sex with you?"

"Hermione, come on," he said in exasperation. "This is Luna we're talking about."

"Yes, and?"

"I hardly think that Luna should be inspiring jealousy."

Hermione opened her mouth to retort and then closed it, taking a deep breath. "Well, she does," she said eventually. "You always did have a soft-spot for her, and it's always bothered me. The only reason that this wasn't just an irrational, five-second passing feeling is because you can feel my emotions. Please, just let it go."

Harry cocked his head to the side, thinking. "Why weren't you so openly jealous of Ginny?"

"Because you were with her. This – us together – was all just wishful thinking for me, until November 1st."

"You know I'm not going anywhere."

"I know," she sighed. "I'm… not used to having what I want. I've had to dig and scrape at getting anything that I wanted for years, and you just… fell into place. I'm worried."

"For what? I'm right here, for as long as you want me."

Hermione looked directly at him, and took his hands in hers. "I believe you, Harry. The thing is, you said those words to Ginny once upon a time, and you meant them. And now, you're with me."

Harry felt at a loss for words. Hermione was the last person he thought he'd ever have to reassure. "You're not looking at that the right way," he said eventually. "Ginny messed up. She wouldn't go places with me, she threw a tantrum in public, and she insisted on attacking you.

"You've been everywhere with me, you know to talk with me first, and you're wired into my head, so you know right away if there's anything wrong. The things that went wrong Ginny can't go wrong with you."

"I… I know," she said, bowing her head. "Soon, Harry. Soon, you'll be strong enough to see for yourself what my past has been like, and maybe you'll understand why something as simple as this bothers me."

"There are five people dear to me beyond all others," Harry said, looking up over her shoulder. "You, Luna, Ginny, Ron, and Neville. I don't want the five of you hurting each other. Or me," he added with a smile, "but I'm more worried about all of you."

Harry turned his gaze back to Hermione. Her eyes were still glittering slightly, her power simmering in response to her agitation. "I don't much care what you did to Ron – they way you tell it he was a monstrous git about things anyways, and I have to face facts – wizards do a fair bit of cursing to their friends and family and get away with it.

"To be honest, I was worried enough to look into the punishment for something like that, and as far as the law goes, since Ron was only being Obliviated, you'd come away with a hundred-galleon fine, give or take." It hadn't been his intention, but Harry felt a great wash of relief from Hermione, and her presence felt noticeably lighter.

"It's the same with your nudging Ginny along," he continued, "and I imagine you never really bothered with Neville." Hermione shook her head. "But Luna's… different. It's as if she never grew up, as if her father didn't allow her to. Only last year did she start to sound any different. Then Ron went and fucked her up again and who knows what that did to her.

"Don't hurt her, Hermione. She's just starting to grow properly, now, and I want to help her. She's not like me, or Ron even – you can't deny that Ron can take a beating and keep coming back. But Luna… you could snap her like a twig without thinking. Please, don't hurt her."

Hermione looked at him intensely, her eyes brightening again to an iridescent gold. "Tell me that I mean more to you." Harry rocked back, shocked, but Hermione leaned towards him. "Let me be selfish, Harry. Please, tell me what I want to hear."

"Hermione…?"

"Tell me what Ron couldn't tell me; what Ginny couldn't tell you. It matters so much more than love. It drove you to me, Harry, and it drove me to you. Say it; I need to hear it."

Harry cupped Hermione's face with both of his hands. "You mean everything to me," he whispered. "You are the most important person in my life. That's been true for years, and it will never change."

"Thank you," she breathed, brushing her lips against his. "It means so much to hear you say that. You mean the same to me, Harry. I'd do anything for you." Staring into her glowing eyes, Harry could only nod, and push back any concerns he had as to how fanatical Hermione's statement sounded.

"So," he began, looking for a different topic, "want to stay with me at Grimmauld for Christmas?"

"Yes," she replied, flashing a dazzling smile. "I definitely want to stay with you for Christmas."

School soon ended for the Christmas holidays, and Harry dutifully rode the train back to King's Cross before Apparating to Grimmauld. Kreacher was overjoyed to have company for the holidays, and Harry found himself looking at an amazing feast that Kreacher assembled to welcome him home.

A crack of Apparition startled Harry. "Harry?" called an older voice. "Are you here?"

"Andromeda!" he cried, dashing out to the living room to envelope the woman and her grandson in a crushing hug; Teddy laughed and changed his hair color several times.

"It's so good to see you!" he enthused, "and you too, Teddy. Have you been a good boy for Grandma?"

Teddy's response was to change his hair pitch black, and his eyes to a sparkling green. Harry scooped the tiny Lupin into his arms, lifting him high above his head. "You're something really special," he said, his voice heavy with emotion. "Come, on! I've still got food and tea aplenty! Let's get you both something to eat."

The rest of the evening flew by, Harry alternating his time between playing with Teddy and catching up with Andromeda. It wasn't difficult to persuade her to stay with him for Christmas, and Kreacher grew happier with the promise of more people.

Hermione came the next day, after talking to her parents. Harry strongly suspected that she simply forced them to agree, but he stayed far away from that discussion. Dinner that night was equally spectacular, and Harry, far too full to brave the stairs, resorted to flight to reach the second floor.

"You're getting lazy," chided Hermione as she walked up behind him.

"Nah," he scoffed, "just being 'practical.' You want the same room as last time?"

"I guess… Actually, I was hoping that we could keep sleeping together."

After two months of sharing Hermione's bed, Harry simply shrugged. "Sure, if you want."

They quickly reached a decision to leave Hermione's belongings in her old room this Christmas, to prevent any upsets from visiting Weasleys. The two of them slowly readied themselves for bed, and Harry began to doze as soon as his head hit the pillow.

"Harry?"

"Hmm?"

"I'd… really like it if we… well…"

Harry blew out a long breath, coming more fully awake. "Yeah," he relented, "I've kept you waiting, haven't I?"

"It's fine if you don't want to," she backpedaled. "I'm perfectly fine with waiting, if you still need time."

Harry responded by rolling over onto her, causing Hermione to squeak in surprise. In a heartbeat, their legs entwined and Hermione's arms reached up and around, encompassing Harry.

"Got you," he said, reaching around with his arm to settle the covers over them, before leaking down to kiss her gently. "Welcome to my home, Hermione. Stay awhile."

Hermione pulled him towards her, and coherent thought fled from Harry for the rest of the night, lost in the softness of Hermione's skin.

--

Harry's eyes snapped open as sunlight reached his face. Yawning, he looked over and smiled at Hermione's still sleeping form. Their pyjamas and underwear were in a tangled pile at the foot of the bed, and memories of last night played repeatedly in Harry's mind like a comforting song.

He sat there, watching the rise and fall of Hermione's breast, until increased activity in her mental presence alerted him to her waking up.

"Morning," he said as Hermione cracked an eye open.

"Mmph," was Hermione's sleepy reply. She squirmed and snuggled closer, and seemed to do the same in his head.

"Come on," he urged. "We've got to get ready for the others – well, I do, anyways. I have to pick Luna and Fleur up."

Hermione muttered darkly under her breath as she raised her head level with his. "Why is it that everyone can Apparate around just fine when running from Death Eaters or sneaking around for the Order, but now that we're not fighting, you're being used as a taxi?"

"Dunno. Probably because being splinched doesn't seem as bad when you're running from Killing Curses."

"Just don't be long." With that, Hermione dropped back to the pillow, wriggling back into her warm spot.

Harry leaned over to kiss her, before throwing himself out of bed and into the shower. He quickly dressed for the day, and Apparated away to meet Luna at her place.

"Harry!" Luna called, waving from her window. "I'll be right down!" Within five minutes, Luna was out the front door with a small backpack, and met Harry with a light hug. "Thank you for picking me up," she said happily.

"No problem. Hold on tight." Luna grabbed Harry's arm firmly, and one very tight tunnel-ride later, they appeared in Grimmauld's living room.

"Go on," he urged. "Hermione and Andromeda are waiting in the kitchen, and I need to get Fleur."

"Okay." Luna leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you for this, Harry. I know we'll have fun."

"Of course we will," he said, buoyed by Luna's cheerfulness. "Now get going!"

Luna bounced off to the kitchen, and Harry listened for a moment to hear Hermione's cheerful greeting and Teddy's customary squeal of joy at a new playmate, before turning his attention away. With a thought, Grimmauld Place vanished, and the French Ministry came into view, along with a smiling Fleur, who quickly ran over to him.

Harry switched to French automatically. "Happy Christmas," he said as he embraced the part-Veela warmly. "How have you been?"

"Busy," she replied, giving Harry one last squeeze before releasing him. "Our Minister has me working as the liaison to the Goblins. It is a far easier job in France than Britain, at least."

"Maybe not anymore. The Goblins went from hating me to bowing and scraping very quickly. It must be my charming personality."

Fleur laughed, flashing a dazzling smile. "Never change, Harry. I see that your French is quite good now."

"Thanks."

"Now, you must bring me to Hermione. There is so much to catch up on!"

Harry offered his arm to Fleur; once she had a firm grip, he turned sharply, Apparating them back to Grimmauld. Kreacher appeared out of nowhere, to take their winter cloaks.

"Master is tracking snow into the house," he chided, cleaning the mess with a point of his finger. "The Mistress is in the kitchen – doesn't belong there, no – with Madam Luna and Madam Andromeda, and is waiting for you. Madam Fleur is doing well, I hope?"

"Y-Yes," she answered in French, startled by the wrinkled House Elf, "I am well, thank you for asking."

"You are most welcome," the elf replied, switching languages seamlessly. "Come! There are appetizers in the kitchen to warm your chilled bones!" As Kreacher ambled off with the cloaks, Fleur shot Harry a confused look.

"He's very proud," he shrugged, "and he loves to show off the house."

"And he knows French."

Harry shrugged. "Kreacher's Kreacher."

"He definitely is a character," she agreed.

"Fleur!" Hermione greeted her excitedly as they entered the kitchen. "It's good to see you!"

"And you, Hermione. Mrs. Tonks."

"Please, call me Andromeda."

"Hello," Luna said airily from the side. "I see I'm going to have to learn French to stay here."

"Don't worry about it," Fleur said, switching back to English. "You won't need it to enjoy yourself."

A loud crack sounded from the living room, and Harry ducked back out to greet the newcomer.

"Hey, Harry!" said Bill as he banished his cloak to the stand. "How've you been?"

"Pretty good," he replied, motioning for Bill to sit. "Are you in the country for long?"

"For good. Shack's got me in the Aurors, now. I'm trailing those Vatican gits while they're in the country, making their life a living hell."

That was odd and unexpected; he felt a slight jolt of worry from Hermione that echoed his own. "I'm kind of surprised that they're still here."

"So's Shack. They seem bound and determined to find something, and they've ransacked the Department of Mysteries and come up blank, so they're still poking around. Shack's at his wits end with them, so he pulled me in."

"To do a little Curse-Making?" asked Harry with a grin.

"Exactly." Bill reached into his shirt collar and pulled out a golden necklace with a Time-Turner attached. "They want unsolvable mysteries to explore; I'll give them unsolvable mysteries."

"I can only imagine. So, how's Shack doing?"

"Got about this much paperwork to do," Bill said, holding his hand level with his neck. "He managed to get Arthur, Hestia, and Percy installed as Department Heads, before the old guard purebloods caught on and moved to block further appointments. Augusta Longbottom's helping from her seat in the Wizengamot, but the old guard's as zealous as any religion."

"Damn it. You'd think that everyone would have appreciated what we'd done just a little more."

Bill clapped him on the shoulder, saying, "You and me both."

"So, what happens now?"

"Shack's moving to get as many muggleborn and half-bloods into the Ministry as he can, in whatever positions he can. I'd guess in the long term that we're working towards getting a muggleborn or sympathetic half-blood Minister in place when Kingsley's done. By then, the pro-muggles in the Ministry will have enough seniority to qualify for Wizengamot appointments as the older members retire. Meanwhile, the rest of us work from the outside to prevent any would-be Riddles, Malfoys and Lestranges from showing up."

"Sounds about right," Harry mused. "It'll take me at least a couple of years to get into every position he wants me in – maybe closer to ten years without any preferential treatment."

"No, I think your first guess was closer – around two years, if the French Ministry's any indication. The more international support you have, the better. The Malfoys did you a big favor, moving to have the Potter name declared 'Most Noble and Ancient.' That'll keep the purebloods off your back. As for being a professor, that's McGonagall's call, isn't it?"

"I suppose," allowed Harry. "Who's all on the Board, now?"

"Bunch of neutrals, Augusta, and Mum." Harry and Bill shared a smile.

"Well, that takes care of that," Harry said brightly.

"It should," agreed Bill. "With the positive press you're getting right now, it's bound to go through."

They lapsed into comfortable silence for a moment, before a stray question entered Harry's mind.

"Hey Bill, why don't we see Time Turners used more often? I mean, if they were willing to give them to students..."

"…You'd think that Aurors and Unspeakables would use them all the time," Bill finished, tucking the Time Turner away. "Yeah, I thought so, too. Their official story about messing with time is mostly hot air. I'm sure you don't want the math, but the real deal is that you can only go as far back in time as you've had possession of the Time Turner. If you've had it for an hour, then you can go back an hour – that's it. If you've had it all year, you can go back as far as it can take you – usually about a week, give or take the quality of the particular Time Turner. Since you can't go back to just any event to fix things, it's really only good for one thing-"

"-Research," they said together. "I get it," Harry said, laughing. "I can see the Unspeakables using it for that, and the odd student like Hermione."

"They're still right about one thing," Bill warned. "You can't come into direct contact with your past self – everything sort of 'collapses' around your past self if you do, and you end up with up to a week's worth of fuzzy future memories and a destroyed Time Turner. Same thing happens if you try to span the same period more than once with the Time Turner. No matter how far apart the three of you are, everything collapses. That, really, is what the fuss is about: It's not 'Don't mess with time,' it's 'Don't destroy the ten-thousand-galleon Time Tuner.'"

"So, you can't go back more than once to anything, you can never get close to yourself, and you can't go back further than when you first got the Time Turner. That sucks."

Bill shrugged. "Works for what I need it for, and that's all that matters. So, you're going to be in France for Christmas?"

"Yeah. I told Luna I'd take her-"

A sharp crack interrupted them, as Ron appeared in the room. "Bloody effing bints," he muttered, throwing his cloak towards the rack, which moved to catch it. Ron blinked at the rack, and then turned to Harry. "Who did that charm?"

"Hermione; who else?"

"'Course." Ron turned to his brother. "Don't go home, Bill. It's a madhouse right now."

"What happened?"

"I told Mum that I was going to France with Luna, Harry and Hermione over the Christmas Break."

Bill and Harry looked at each other. "Uh oh," they said at the same time.

"Yeah, I thought so, too. But Mum just told me what to pack." Harry looked at Ron incredulously, and Ron nodded emphatically. "I swear, mate, its true! She all but told me to go. 'Course, Ginny gets into a huge row with Mum over this, 'cause that's what broke you two up."

"Oh God," muttered Harry.

Bill hummed in agreement. "Gin's going to hate her now. What was she thinking?"

"Dunno," Ron said smugly. "I did what any self-respecting bloke would do: I packed my stuff quick as you please, and got the hell out." The three shared a laugh, and a handful of jokes at the expense of the Weasley women.

"Come on," said Harry, "the girls are in the kitchen."

Bill stayed for the rest of the day, until Kingsley's Patronus interrupted with an 'urgent request.' Giving his apologies, Bill left just after dinner. Harry volunteered to put a tired and fussy Teddy to bed and let the women talk, and then he and Ron collapsed into the chairs closest to the living room fireplace, soaking in the warmth.

"It's good to be in this house now that the fighting's done," said Ron, a satisfied smile on his face.

"Yeah, it's turned out pretty well."

Silence fell, broken by the crackling and sputtering of the fire.

"Harry, are you going out with Hermione?"

Harry nodded. "It's heading that way," he said fluidly, having planned that exact statement for over a month.

"Oh."

"What's up, Ron?"

"Nothing," he said quickly. "Just… old feelings, you know?"

Harry gave a sad smile. "Yeah, I know. We've all got those lurking around."

"I guess you would… you and Ginny, right?"

Harry nodded.

"She's doing pretty well," Ron said, smiling towards the flames. "I'd have thought she'd be a wreck, she'd wanted to be with you so bad, and then all of a sudden, it's over. Tougher than I thought she was."

"You always did tend to underestimate her a bit."

Ron gave a loud snort, "Story of my life. I do a lot of that, you know – underestimate people, or whatever. You, Hermione, Ginny, Neville… Luna… I've been wrong about everyone."

Harry sat a little straighter, and motioned for Ron to elaborate.

"I mean… you, I can understand. No one really knew what was going on until the very end, and you always were a good wizard. I don't mean school," Ron said quickly, seeing Harry's face contort, "I know that you were a rubbish student, just like me. When it mattered, though, you were brilliant. The Basilisk, the Dementors, the Tournament… you did things that Mum and Dad couldn't have done, and they've been around. Now, you're even better than that – better than Snape, better than Voldemort… hell, better than Dumbledore, for all I know.

"I wanted to be there for you, like a friend would. I…" Ron trailed off, looking deeply into the fire.

"Then there was Hermione," he continued. "Smart, real smart, but a little… you know, in the head. I liked her a lot, I thought that maybe she'd like me, too. That was hard, trying to be someone she'd like. I think I shouldn't have bothered. She's kind of like you – amazing at whatever she does. Maybe she doesn't pack the same punch you do in a fight, but she seems to know everything, and that's cool."

Ron took a deep, shuddering breath. "I wish… I wish things went differently. I wanted to be there for both of you… I wanted you to need me." A tear escaped Ron's eye, and Harry watched with surprise and concern, unable to find any words to say. Ron took another steadying breath, and continued. "That's what made that Horcrux so hard last year – it told me what I already knew: You didn't need me. The two of you were just fine without me. I was so angry, but it hurt so much."

"It's not about need," Harry said quietly. "Dumbledore tried to teach me that in sixth year: It's about doing what you can. You're there because you want to be, not because you think someone needs you."

Ron sighed, wiping his eyes. "Yeah, I know that now. Took a long time for that to sink in. If I had done what I could with a smile on my face, a lot would have been different. We'd have never fought over the Tournament, or going after the Horcruxes. I'd have never tried to date Hermione."

That statement surprised Harry, but he left it aside for later. "Don't worry about it," he soothed. "The fact is, it's over, and we're sitting in my living room, talking about it. We made it through, mate – we're good."

"Yeah, we're good." Ron gave a loud sniff, and wiped the last of the moisture from his eyes. "Anyways, I got to thinking about this because of Luna."

"Oh?"

"She's getting close – closer than Hermione ever was. I… I'm scared. What if I can't make her happy, like Hermione?"

"You will," assured Harry. "I know you will."

"But I could mess up. She's like glass, you know. Everyone thinks she's made of steel… that she can't be hurt, but we hurt her all the time, and… I don't want to hurt her anymore."

"So don't. Just hold her tight, and tell her that everything's going to be okay."

"But how? How do I know that everything's going to be okay? My Dad says things like that… but I'm not my Dad…"

Silence fell like a shroud, both of them lost in their thoughts. Harry's mind drifted to his parents, and the image he had of Hermione holding their child. The memory that affected him the most, though, was of him holding Teddy, and the smile on the boy's face as his hair turned black and his eyes turned green. A wave of fierce devotion rose within him whenever he held the tiny boy; he had felt it especially strongly when Teddy had fallen asleep on his shoulder this evening, snoring softly.

"Because that's what you promise when you say that," said Harry, his voice surprisingly strong. "You're not just telling them everything's going to be okay; you're telling them 'I will make everything okay.' Because that's what you do – that's what it means to be a Dad."

Ron just looked at Harry, his eyes bright and pleading.

"Tell her that you'll always be there," Harry said. "Tell her that she'll always be happy. Then, one smile at a time, one spell at a time, whatever it takes, you do it. Every day."

"Every day," Ron echoed, nodding slowly. "Yeah, I can do that."

The evening passed quietly. Ron and Harry talked until sleepiness drove Ron to bed, and Harry walked towards his room, smiling as he saw Hermione already asleep. Harry stepped back out to lock the door on Hermione's room, and then locked his own door, placing silencing spells along the walls. There was no point in aggravating Ron with a discovery like this – they'd 'get together' in France, and then Harry would 'officially' move Hermione's things to this room.

Stepping over to the bed, Harry noticed that Hermione was tossing and murmuring in a quiet, panicked voice. It was strange for Hermione to have nightmares, and Harry reached out mentally to find her. Her presence in his mind was far away from where it normally sat, thrashing violently as though being attacked.

Concerned, Harry reached over to shake Hermione lightly. "Hermione, what's-?"

Harry rolled as Hermione suddenly turned towards him. Her eyes shone a hateful crimson, and fire began to dance around her form, taking animalistic shapes as it grew. Harry hit the floor just as the flames burst across his side of the bed, almost instantly reducing it to ash.

"Play with me, Harry," she giggled. "I'll make it fun for you."

The Fiendfyre roared towards him, destroying the furniture and floor as it came. Harry launched himself into the air, leaving the ground as the flames ate through the wood. The heat was no less painful above the fire, and his cooling charms were almost ineffective against the infernal flames. He fumbled through his pouch, grabbing for the Elder Wand. With a flick, the flames died out around him, and enough of the floor repaired itself for him to stand on. Hermione was hovering slowly towards him, a promise of pain in her look. Harry struggled to rationalize how this could be Hermione – how her power, so seemingly pure, could manifest such an unholy-

Unholy.

Struck by sudden inspiration, Harry cast the strongest Patronus he could muster. Prongs burst forth, and the Fiendfyre shrank back like shadow from light, guttering out in most places. Hermione roared angrily, and sent an enormous ball of magic against him – an amalgamation of more than a hundred spells, every one of them Dark. Harry worked his wand through a blinding series of motions, countering each group of spells one after the other until the ball of magic fizzled out.

There was no time for spells of his own; Hermione launched more and more attacks, But Harry could sense her magic pulsing and building, and he could see the spells in more than enough time to counter. Having regained his sense of equilibrium, Harry again left the ground, and hovered towards Hermione. Every passing second of furious counter-cursing brought him a few inches closer.

She had been having a nightmare – maybe she wasn't fully awake yet. There was no way to know, but in such close quarters, with or without the Elder Wand, every possible scenario would end badly. Urging Prongs along to remove the threat of renewed flames, he found soon himself face to face with Hermione, his wand a blur of motion in front of her glowing hand, countering spells the instant they appeared. The red of Hermione's eyes mixed with the pale whiteness of Prongs, bathing them both in a pinkish glow. She smiled manically, her magic building ever stronger. Harry monitored its rise carefully, waiting for the surge, and just as Hermione's fingers flexed, Harry spun quickly to the side.

"Rennervate!" he cried, pouring everything he had into his spell, pressing his wand against her temple even as fresh gouts of Fiendfyre blazed through the space where he had been, eating through the wall. Hermione's eyes instantly returned to a golden hue, and she staggered back a step, holding her head.

"Hermione, help me!" Harry worked the Elder Wand as fast as he could to counter the eldritch flames and repair the growing damage to the house. A new source of magic told him that Kreacher was now present, assisting him. Slowly, Hermione began to help as well; within five minutes, everything was once again normal, as though the entire ordeal had never happened. Harry nearly laughed out loud seeing the faint traces of his still-intact silencing charms. He had almost died, and no one in the house would know. With a final wave, Harry repaired his scorched clothing, and restored the frayed ends of his hair.

"Why did Master and Mistress destroy their room?" asked a distraught Kreacher. "Was it not to their liking?"

"The room was fine," Harry said tiredly. "It just got in the way of our spells. Don't worry, Kreacher; you do great work." Kreacher smiled and bowed, and after looking around to make sure everything was complete, he disappeared with a pop.

Harry turned back to Hermione, absently summoning his Holly wand back to him and repairing the charred wood. "Is it safe to put this away now?" he asked, gesturing with the Elder Wand.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, collapsing onto the bed. "I've never lost control before; I thought I was long past this."

"Long past what?" Harry prompted, still high-strung from the fight. His limbs trembled as his body washed out his adrenaline, and it only served to make him more irritable.

"It's nothing."

Harry winced at the psychic dissonance of that statement. "Hermione?" She slowly looked up, and Harry fixed her with a stare. "Teddy is sleeping not two rooms from here. Please don't lie to me, not now."

Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but let it hang open as her eyes widened. "Did you just…? Can you… oh please, Harry, was that…?"

"Yes," he confirmed. "I just felt you lie."

"Please," she begged, "tell me you're strong enough. Tell me you can see what I need you to see."

Harry tried to keep his confusion off his face. "What do you need me to see, Hermione? What can't you just tell me?"

"I- I can't…" There was a moment where Hermione shuddered, and her eyes flashed crimson again. Harry gripped the Elder Wand tightly, but her eyes were immediately golden again, and she looked at him forlornly. "I can't say it," she said. "I can't..."

"You mean that you're bound not to say it?"

Hermione struggled for a moment, before nodding. "That's close enough."

"I… alright, then. Is this something I can expect again?"

"I'll behave," she said, giving a sly grin. She almost immediately covered her mouth, staring at harry in horror.

"Oh boy." Harry looked at the clock; 11:57pm.

"If I try this right now, will there be enough time? We're leaving for France in the morning, and I want to still have a house by then."

"Time is mutable in the mind," she replied, looking eager. "Will you try? Please?"

"Alright," he sighed. "Let's give this a shot."

Harry knelt in front of Hermione, and looked deeply into her eyes, willing the connection to form. Her eyes seemed to grow to fill his view, and vague images coursed through his head as her mental presence loomed ever closer. Summoning up his courage, Harry pressed against her mind, and pushed inwards.

An explosion of light – dueling crimson and gold, and crimson was winning.

Suddenly, he was falling through fire, struggling to orient himself as he tumbled end over end. A strong hand gripped him by the collar, and yanked him hard to the side, slamming him up against an unseen wall. As the flames receded, Harry's eyes adjusted to his surroundings – the burning bookshelves of the Hogwarts Library. The windows were dark, and several smaller piles of books burned like pyres scattered through the room. Standing in front of him in a scorched and tattered Gryffindor robe, with shimmering, blood red eyes and wild hair, was Hermione.

"Got you," she whispered triumphantly. Harry shuddered as her tongue, impossibly long, slithered out more than a foot to lick him from the bottom of his neck to his ear. "Welcome to Hell, Harry. Stay awhile."