The Harry Potter universe and all the characters in it belong to J. K. Rowling. I get nothing out of this except enjoyment.
Well, it took longer than I expected, but we got there. I didn't originally intend to write an OOTP followup when I conceived of the Yule Ball variation that turned into What If … Another GOF Alternative. And then when I decided to do so I figured I would write it over the summer. And that it would take about 3 chapters, like its predecessor did. So here we are, at 7 chapters and summer's long gone. At least I finished it before the end of September.
I think after this it's back to one-shots for me.
Hope everyone enjoyed the ride.
Chapter 7, And So It Ends
Harry and Hermione, now Henry and Jane, squeezed each other's hands in eager anticipation as they approached the train that would transport their group of students northward from Sydney into the Queensland Outback. Australia was large enough that several trains were required this day, one traveling west from Brisbane, one traveling south from Darwin, and another east from Perth, making several stops along the way. Magically, despite the considerable difference in distance travelled by the four trains, they would all arrive at the school at the same time.
Hermione had cast a clever jinx on Harry that would prevent him from accidentally using her real name, stopping him after one syllable. If he slipped up, he would seem to be referring to her simply as 'her'. In addition, to further disguise his identity, Harry now wore blue tinted contact lenses, and his curly brown hair thoroughly covered his forehead.
Due to the multiple trains, and the smaller student body overall, there were only a fraction of the students riding their train as there had been on the Hogwarts Express. Word spread quickly about the two new transfer students, which were a rarity here, as in most wizarding schools, and before long all the older students on the train, and most of the younger ones, would stop by to greet them and welcome them to AAMA.
"G'day, mate," a tall, sandy-haired youth greeted them as they stepped into one of the three cars on the train. "I'm Thomas, and this is Chris and Jack. He shook Harry's hand, and gave Hermione an admiring glance before taking her hand as well. "And in here are Jessica, Sarah, and Emily. Join us, if you'd like?" He gestured to a compartment, in which the just named students sat looking expectantly out at them.
"Hi, I'm Jane and this is Henry," Hermione responded quickly, moving into the compartment to introduce themselves to the others when Harry hesitated, his distrust of strangers making a brief appearance. "As you can probably guess from our accents, we're new here; our families just moved from England." There followed a flurry of handshakes and greetings, as well as a dozen quick appraisals in each direction.
It turned out that Thomas was in his last year, and one of the acknowledged leaders in the school. Jessica was his girlfriend, Chris was his best mate, and Jack was his younger brother. Harry and Hermione were pleased to learn that Jack and the two other students, Sarah and Emily, were also beginning their fifth years. Jack and Sarah were evidently a couple, and Emily was Sarah's best friend. The two girls quickly offered to help Hermione out with anything she needed – girl talk for "fill her in on all the school gossip and pump her for details about the cute guy she was with."
Harry quickly stowed their trunks, while Hermione carefully lifted Hedwig's cage into place. As frequently happened, the snowy white owl attracted notice. "You have a beautiful owl," Sarah commented. "There are only a few like that at AAMA."
"Yes, we're quite fond of her," Hermione replied with a smile as Hedwig primped for her audience. Emily and Sarah exchanged a grin at their new friend's use of the plural pronoun.
Meanwhile Harry had let Crookshanks out of his cage, and the cat stretched out on his lap for a few seconds before jumping off and curling up near Hermione's feet. "Wish I could say the same for your cat, mate," Jack joked, eliciting chuckles from the rest of the car. Hermione managed to stifle her indignant retort, since they were pretending that the half kneazle belonged to Harry rather than herself.
"But he's been right useful though," Harry countered, tacitly conceding that the big, bowlegged, squashed-faced cat was nothing to look at. And that much was certainly true, considering the important role he'd played during their third year in the Sirius/Pettigrew drama. Hermione promptly changed the subject, asking a question about their new school.
Several things quickly became apparent. No one seemed to care about their blood status, or even inquired about it. Australia, being a nation of immigrants, had little concern for class distinctions, and that attitude carried over into its magical sector. Lacking the forced separation of the Hogwarts house system and its resulting rivalries, the students mixed more freely. They also seemed friendlier, although Hermione thought this might have also been a part of the national character.
Another revelation was the considerable variation in the students' mode of dress. For some of the more daring, usually older, girls their leggings were so short as to disappear under their tunics. There also seemed to be a competition among these same females with regard to the necklines of the tunics. Hermione had decided on a relatively modest, but still attractive, scoop neckline that she felt showed plenty of skin and a hint of cleavage. She quickly realized that she was probably in the minority, as V-necklines predominated among the girls who had assets worth displaying. While none of them were shockingly low cut, they certainly got Harry's attention.
This, of course, was their intended purpose. The two new students received considerable interest from the opposite sex, and not just due to normal 'check out the new guy/girl' curiosity. Both of their bodies were more developed and in better shape than they had been the prior school year, a product of their time on the island combined with an additional year of physical maturity. They'd each been pleased with their new physiques, and had continued to work out after landing in Australia. The results were made obvious by the cut of their new attire, something that would not have been the case with their old Hogwarts robes. Hermione's curves were now quite apparent and Harry would never again be considered a skinny little boy.
Some of the more aggressive students, a few of each gender, made their intentions rather obvious, even though Hermione quite conspicuously kept hold of Harry's hand during the introductions and subsequent conversations. Being new, they were reluctant to be seen as rude, so they good-naturedly tolerated the teasing and flirting. Their patience and good humor ultimately paid off. They would need to be assertive for a few weeks, but eventually things settled down.
It didn't take very long for their identities to move past the 'new kid on the block' stage. For Harry, it was first his skill in Defense class, soon followed by his quidditch prowess. At AAMA, there were two levels of competition, an intramural league and a school team that competed against other Pacific Rim wizarding schools. Upon learning that Harry was interested in playing quidditch, Jack informed his brother, who was looking to replace the seeker on his team, who had graduated in December.
For Christmas Sirius had bought Harry a new broom, the best one made in Australia, deciding that it would help Harry blend in better. It was called the Lightening Bolt, put out by a broom manufacturing company called Southern Cross to be a competitor to the Firebolt. Sirius got a kick out of the name, and decided it must be destined for Harry. When Harry showed up at the informal tryout with the world class broomstick, everyone's eyes bugged out.
"You sure you can handle that?" Thomas wondered, running his hand over the gleaming mahogany wood.
"No worries, mate!" Harry grinned. After seeing him fly for several minutes his new teammates wore matching grins of their own.
"We've got the championship in the bag," Thomas whispered to Chris.
"Unless they grab him for the competition team," Chris pointed out. Thomas's grin vanished. That was indeed a very real possibility.
Chris proved to be prophetic, as Harry dominated intramural play, and was soon put on the interscholastic team. He and Hermione privately discussed this development with Sirius, but they concluded that no one outside England had ever seen Harry play quidditch, so he wouldn't be recognized by his flying style.
Other than that, the year was extraordinary in its ordinariness. Henry Darcy eventually drew the notice of scouts for the Australian national team, who were beginning to look ahead to the next World Cup three years hence. For her part, Jane Bennet quickly drew notice for her classroom abilities. The better students began to flock to her, and her table at the library came to be jokingly declared as standing room only.
As time went on, the more studious male students resented the fact that Henry always had first claim on the most favored seat by Jane's side, but didn't dare to complain, as they were smart enough to recognize the futility of such an action. As well, the more athletic female students resented the fact that Henry only had eyes for Jane, who was in the stands for every practice and game. They also kept those feelings to themselves, as they had no desire to cross the possessive witch who had demonstrated a wider knowledge of hexes than any other student. Despite these minor inconveniences, the two new students greatly enjoyed being at the AAMA. It was by far the most pleasurable school year either of them had ever experienced.
Amelia Bones's frustration had reached the a critical level. Voldemort's strategy to weaken her government with attacks on Wizengamot members had paid off in dramatic fashion. In order to avoid a no confidence vote she had reluctantly suspended the Death Eater trials.
She'd tried everything to thwart the dark lord. The Taboo on the Morsmordre spell had netted the Aurors one Death Eater when they'd caught Gibbon lingering too long, gloating under the Dark Mark after the second attack. But after that Voldemort had caught on, and made sure to cast the signature spell immediately prior to departing the location of his attack. The Aurors had countered by switching the detection charm randomly to one of the three Unforgiveables. That strategy had netted them Pettigrew, but at the cost of the lives of five Aurors when the dark lord had made an adjustment of his own and set an ambush, killing the response team as soon as they apparated to the home under attack. After that, there was considerably less enthusiasm among the Auror Corps for the quick response tactic.
Finally, she'd put pressure on Dumbledore to use his vaunted spy. When the headmaster had protested that using Snape's information would blow his cover, Bones had retorted acidly that the intelligence he gathered was worthless if they didn't act on it. She pointedly reminded the elderly wizard that his potions professor was the only Death Eater still at large, and that she had plenty of evidence to have him arrested. Now the Chief Warlock and the Minister of Magic were about to meet for a discussion that had the potential to end the war.
Bones had little patience for Dumbledore's leisurely greeting and soothing pleasantries when she arrived in his office. Declining his habitual offer of a lemon drop she came immediately to the point. "What do you have for me, Albus?"
"It seems that Tom is planning a bold move, Amelia," Dumbledore revealed, calmly stroking his beard. "He hopes to catch us by surprise by changing targets. While we are expecting another attack on a civilian target, he intends to strike us more directly, by storming Azkaban itself. With a single blow he intends to retrieve his supporters, strengthen his forces, add the dementors to his ranks, and further demoralize our citizenry."
"So he still doesn't know that the dementors have been moved elsewhere?" Bones confirmed. Dumbledore nodded in grim satisfaction. Snape had been specifically instructed to keep this information from the dark side forces.
"Then this time the tables are turned, and we can set an ambush for him," she declared in rising excitement. "We can take him out once and for all!"
Dumbledore's expression turned grim. "There is one additional condition I must make you aware of," he informed her. "You'll need to take him alive. He must not be killed or all our efforts will be for naught."
"What!" she shrieked, rising from her chair. "You cannot be serious, Albus! Why ever not?"
Dumbledore sighed, took off his spectacles, and rubbed his eyes. "I will not reveal the details, but Tom has performed a series of rituals on himself that prevent him from being truly killed. He would only be disembodied, and thus would escape, only to return at some future time. This is how he was able to survive his encounter with Harry that night in Godric's Hollow. He cannot be finally destroyed until I have succeeded in reversing these rituals."
Bones glared at the much acclaimed wizard seated across the desk. Setting aside the issue of his refusal to divulge the entire story, even to the Minister of Magic herself, she asked, "And how long will that take?"
"I cannot say," Dumbledore replied calmly. "I can only pledge that I will not rest until the task is completed."
"Fine, then," she snapped. "But I have no intention of risking my Aurors' lives because of this. If you expect him to be taken alive you can bloody well come and do it yourself!"
The two of them stared at each other for nearly a full minute before the headmaster nodded.
Upon returning to the Ministry, Bones summoned Scrimgeour and Robards and the three of them sat down to develop their plan. The ten death eaters that had been held in Azkaban all these years were among the most vicious of the dark lord's followers, and included Bellatrix Lestrange, her husband Rodolphus and his brother Rabastan, Dolohov, Rookwood, Travers, Mulciber, and the werewolf Fenrir Greyback. They had recently been joined by eight of their recently convicted comrades. The Minister was emphatic that under no circumstances were any of these killers to be allowed to escape.
Scrimgeour and Robards nodded grimly. New instructions would be issued to the goblin guards. The bloodthirsty little devils would not be at all reluctant to be part of this operation. Not only were the warriors be eager for some action, but their contract also included a combat bonus.
Valentine's Day was certainly nothing special for single people, Ron reflected sullenly as he and Neville strolled through Hogsmeade. It just so happened that a Hogsmeade weekend coincided with the holiday this year, and many of the students in the castle were taking full advantage of that fact. The usually tight group of fifth year Gryffindors had paired up, leaving him and Neville as the odd men out. Not only that, but he had to watch his sister being escorted into Madame Puddifoot's by her boyfriend, that Ravenclaw git Michael Corner. He supposed that he could have hooked up with Romilda Vane again, but she hadn't really been interested in him in the first place.
When the two Gryffindors settled into their chairs at the Three Broomsticks, he noted that at least they weren't the only ones without a date. Cho Chang and her friend Marietta were sitting at a different table, and as he watched them the pretty Chinese girl gave him an odd look, then glanced away with tears in her eyes. According to Ginny, she'd been crying a lot this year, because of what had happened to Cedric. Upon reflection, Ron decided that he probably reminded Cho of Harry, who had had a crush on her for a while before he got together with Hermione.
He sighed, wondering how his best friends were doing and how they might be celebrating today. If they were here this year, he imagined that they would want to spend some time alone together, but they'd also make sure not to leave him out entirely. He still missed them terribly. He wondered if he'd ever again have friends as close as the three of them had been. Along with that sense of loss came regret that he hadn't been as close to them during their final year at Hogwarts, due entirely to his acting like a jealous prat. One never realized just how precious something was until it was gone.
He looked up again to see Loony Lovegood wandering, in a daze as always, into the pub. To his dismay she headed right for him. Although he had to acknowledge that the girl, a neighbor of his from Ottery St. Catchpole, had grown up to be rather cute, he always tried to avoid her since she was completely off her rocker.
"Hello Ronald," she greeted him dreamily. "I see you're still suffering from a Wrackspurt infestation." Beside him Neville goggled while Ron rolled his eyes and looked away.
"Yeah, whatever," he mumbled dismissively. Luna continued to stare at him for another few seconds, then turned away.
"I must be going," she declared. "I'm on a mission for my father, you know." Ron shook his head. No, he didn't know and he didn't much care either. "Bye now," she added. Then the blonde girl with the butterbeer cork necklace and radish earrings serenely strolled away, unconcerned with the snickers coming from some of the other tables.
Ron turned to meet Neville's questioning gaze. "Don't ask," he muttered, picking up his glass and draining his butterbeer. "What do you say we head back to the castle?"
At the feast that night Ron's mood had not improved. He glared at his sister, sitting a ways down the Gryffindor table giggling with her friends. She had a flushed, slightly dazed look about her. Like she'd just been snogged silly. Every so often she sneaked a shy glance at the Ravenclaw table and blushed some more. Ron turned his attention to the other table, immediately spotting the object of her attention, Corner, who had a smug, self-satisfied look on his face. Ron immediately decided that he needed to get Fred and George together so the three of them could pay a little visit to the dark-haired Ravenclaw git. They needed to explain to him, in painful detail, the consequences of touching their little sister.
The youngest Weasley male grimaced. Why did little sisters have to grow up? Or lacking that, why couldn't she date someone safe, like … like Neville here. It would probably take his shy friend an entire year to get up the nerve to hold her hand.
It had been so much easier during Ginny's first three years at Hogwarts when she'd wandered around the castle totally smitten with Harry Potter. Ron knew that his best mate would never dream of taking advantage of his sister. Not that Ginny ever had the slightest chance with him, once he and Hermione had discovered their feelings for each other. In hindsight, things couldn't possibly have turned out any other way. Harry and Hermione had been … well, Harry and Hermione. The two of them just were. It was inconceivable that they'd ever be separated. She was totally devoted to him and he to her.
Of course, Ginny had been Harry's date to the Yule Ball. What if, say, Harry had fallen for her after all and he and Hermione had decided to stay as best friends? How would that had played out? In that case, Ron and Hermione might have ended up spending more time together and …
Ron shook his head. No, that would never have worked out. He hadn't even thought of Hermione as a girl until the Yule Ball. Of course, she had looked spectacular at that event. He winced. That fiasco was a memory he'd just as soon forget, as it had nearly cost him her friendship, permanently. But while he greatly valued that friendship, a life together with Hermione would be one unending argument. The two of them could scarcely be in a room together for more than an hour without sniping at each other. The girl was positively mental. Harry was welcome to her; somehow he not only was able to tolerate her, he actually appreciated Hermione's annoying, know-it-all characteristics.
Thinking of the two of them so intensely caused him to duck his head, lest anyone else at the table spot the moisture creeping into his eyes.
Great Merlin, he missed them so much!
Ron was finally brought out of his reverie when Neville nudged him. Looking up, he saw that his friend was gesturing toward the head table.
"Where do you suppose Dumbledore is?" he wondered. Ron noted that the headmaster's chair was indeed empty, and that Snape's was similarly unoccupied. The thought occurred to him that perhaps the Order was up to something.
"I dunno," he responded with a shrug. "I guess if it's important we'll hear about it tomorrow."
He had no idea how right he was. For the next day would see the beginning of a weeklong celebration in wizarding Britain, the likes of which hadn't been seen for more than fourteen years.
Albus Dumbledore leaned back at his desk and exhaled a long breath. The academic year that had just ended was the most extraordinary he'd ever been through. Given the goings on during Harry Potter's first four years at Hogwarts, that was no mean feat! And to top it off, virtually nothing had gone the way he'd expected, going all the way back to the previous summer. Harry's disappearance had set off a chain of events that he would never have imagined possible.
To begin with, the repercussions from that incident had cost him his newly hired Defense instructor before she'd even taught her first class. Of course, he'd had no regrets whatsoever over the loss of Delores Umbridge. She would have brought nothing but trouble to the castle, gunning for Harry from day one. And he was certain that the messy-haired lad would not have backed down. He still shuddered to think about how that clash might have played out.
That development had unquestionably turned into a major positive for the light side. Riding the wave of his and Harry's restored popularity, he'd been able to replace the detestable witch with Remus Lupin, who had turned out to be invaluable in more ways than he'd anticipated.
Although difficult to control, the new Minister Amelia Bones had been an enormous boon to the battle with the dark forces of Tom Riddle. She had single-handedly changed the course of the entire war, and would surely go down as one of the most respected ministers in history. Her brilliant initial move against the Death Eaters produced a setback from which the dark lord was never able to recover, resulting in his eventual defeat at Azkaban.
The headmaster lowered his head and closed his eyes, while massaging his temples with his fingertips. Riddle's plan of attack had been nearly perfect. He had arrived on the prison island with Snape at his side, accompanied by a host of newly created Inferi. These latter were none other than the reanimated corpses of the missing Wizengamot members and their families – men, women, and children. It was a terrifying scene. The dark lord's expectation had been that the sight of these foul creatures with familiar faces would overwhelm the human Azkaban guards, while he persuaded the dementors to abandon their posts and join him. Then he would release his imprisoned followers, and with these new additions his forces would once again be unstoppable.
But there were no dementors at Azkaban, and the goblin warriors were not fazed by the Inferi. Alive or reanimated, male or female, adult or child, the human forms of the attackers were all the same to them. Voldemort's response when he discovered he'd been set up had been swift and deadly – he'd executed Snape on the spot and turned to face Dumbledore in a rage.
The few who witnessed it would all agree that it was a duel for the ages, as the two most powerful wizards of the age battled it out on the rocky terrain of the desolate island. The Chief Warlock's advancing age, combined with the dark lord's complete lack of any scruples regarding the darkest spells slowly turned the tide. When Voldemort finally slipped a killing curse past Dumbledore's defenses it appeared to be over, until Fawkes the phoenix flashed into its path and intercepted the deadly green light.
The surprise of that avian interference was enough to throw the dark lord off balance for an instant, just enough time for Dumbledore's Flame Whip to catch his wand arm, severing it above the elbow. In no time he was bound and taken to the most secure cell deep in the depths of the fortress, never to see the light of day again. And Dumbledore received even greater acclaim, having now defeated two dark lords in the same century.
Much to his displeasure, every Death Eater on the island had been killed 'trying to escape', but his complaints went unheeded in the atmosphere of relief and celebration that soon enveloped the country. He still intended to see Severus Snape awarded a posthumous Order of Merlin for his sacrifice, and hoped that he could get Harry's and/or Sirius's support for the resolution when he presented it to the Wizengamot.
The remainder of the school year had passed in relative quiet. Horace Slughorn had been enticed out of retirement to fill the Potions slot for at least the remainder of the school year. There had been that small nuisance of a plot against Dumbledore's life, but of course he knew he was never in any danger from Draco Malfoy, Vincent Crabbe, and Greg Goyle. Although he felt it unfortunate that the Gryffindor girl had been injured, she'd eventually recovered and returned to her classes.
The headmaster would have preferred to handle the matter internally, but once Bones had got involved it was out of his hands. Dumbledore was amazed that with everything else going on, she and her Aurors had still followed up with their investigation. Thankfully, the three boys involved were underage and weren't sent to Azkaban.
Now, however, it was time for him to turn his full attention to the matter of Tom Riddle's horcruxes. Astonishingly, by a series of fortuitous happenstances, things had progressed much faster on this front than he'd anticipated. After Snape had been killed, he'd needed another confidant and had brought in Lupin, who was also indebted to him. Within a week after being briefed on the soul repositories, and Dumbledore's suspicions about which objects might have been used, the werewolf had brought in Slytherin's locket! He'd recognized the description as that of one of the dark objects they'd found while cleaning out Grimmauld Place. How it had gotten there was something of a mystery, since Dumbledore's investigations had suggested that it was in an entirely different part of the country. It appeared that Kreacher, the ancient Black family house elf, was involved somehow.
The next one, Hufflepuff's cup, had been discovered by Nymphadora Tonks and her mother in the Lestrange family vault. When Draco Malfoy had been arrested, on top of everything else that had happened to her family, Narcissa Malfoy had gone mad, ending up in the long term care ward at St. Mungo's. Consequently, upon the confirmation of the deaths of Bellatrix, Rodolphus, and Rabastan Lestrange, Andromeda Tonks was the only next of kin remaining. The most curious thing, from Dumbledore's point of view, was how the younger Tonks had even known to look for the Hufflepuff relic. He'd had no idea that she and Remus were an item.
The easiest one had been Nagini, who had been killed during a follow-up raid by the Aurors on Voldemort's headquarters. Other than the snake, the raid had revealed little. There were no records, or documented plans to be found – Tom Riddle had always kept all of his scheming in his own mind. What was evident was that the dark lord had exhausted his ranks of followers. He'd staked everything on the Azkaban raid to turn the tide once more in his favor.
The strangest, by far, of the horcrux finds had been Ravenclaw's diadem. The entire story was not entirely clear to the headmaster, but he'd determined that it involved his Divination professor, an odd 4th year Ravenclaw, and a hidden chamber in the castle the house elves called the Come and Go room. The soul fragment had possibly briefly possessed Trelawny, causing her to declare herself the rightful heir of Ravenclaw, right before both professor and horcrux were wiped out in an explosion involving an Erumpent horn. Dumbledore had later destroyed the diadem with the Sword of Gryffindor, just to be certain.
He was also inclined to not bother with hiring another Divination professor, in no small part due to how badly he'd been mislead by that ill-fated prophecy.
The upshot of all of those remarkable coincidences was that now, his upcoming mission to retrieve the Gaunt family ring would be the final, rather than the initial horcrux quest.
Of course there was still the matter of Harry Potter's scar. It broke his heart to think of what had to happen; he'd grown quite fond of the boy. He'd have to figure out how do deal with that issue when he finished with the ring.
Uluru (aka Ayers Rock), Northern Territory
Hermione stirred and awoke, and raised herself to a sitting position while she gathered her thoughts. A light blanket that had been covering her fell away, exposing her bare torso. Quickly she snatched it back into place, then, after a glance over at Harry on the next bed, settled back down again, wondering how she and Harry managed to get themselves into such bizarre situations. She sincerely hoped that this would be the last time.
Currently, they were in a rather primitive hut near the geological formation that was considered the most magical place in Australia, lying on two simple woven mats, covered by nothing but a pair of thin handmade blankets. The hut was owned by an aboriginal shaman who'd spent his life studying soul magic, whom they had sought out for advice about Harry's scar.
The news about the death of Dumbledore, caused by some sort of cursed ring, had been an overwhelming shock all on its own, but it was followed soon after by an urgent message from Remus Lupin. Lupin had been the one to discover the headmaster's body, and afterward had taken some time to go through his notes on the secret project they'd been working on. The short of it was that in his effort to achieve immortality, Voldemort had split his soul and embedded the fragments in several objects, all of which needed to be destroyed in order to make the dark lord mortal again. Dumbledore had been fatally wounded while destroying the final object. Or rather, the final but for one. His private notes indicated that Dumbledore believed that Harry's scar also contained a soul fragment, torn from the evil wizard unintentionally and without his knowledge by the reflected killing curse on that fateful Halloween night. They also revealed his belief that it could only be destroyed with Harry's own death.
Upon learning this, Sirius, who'd been doing research of his own into Harry's scar connection with Voldemort, stepped up his efforts. He had found an ancient native magic user who was widely regarded as the foremost practitioner of soul magic on the continent and made arrangements for Harry and Hermione to visit the man during their winter break in mid-July.
The balding, wizened old man with dark leathery skin brought to Hermione's mind a more human looking version of Yoda. After peering closely at Harry's scar while muttering some incantations, he put both hands on the teen's head and began to chant. In just a few seconds the expression on his face confirmed their worst fears. He'd insisted that the dark spirit be dealt with immediately, and before Harry and Hermione knew what was happening they'd been hustled into a ritual unlike any either of them had ever heard of or even dreamed existed.
It only took a glance at Hermione, seeing the look in her eyes, for the shaman to decide that she would be of great use in the ritual. Her function, he declared, would be to anchor Harry's own soul to his body while the fragment was exorcised. This was possible because the pair of them had a soul connection of their own, he declared, and the benefit would be to increase Harry's chances of surviving the process to a near certainty. Hermione, on hearing that, agreed instantly, although her enthusiasm dimmed somewhat when she heard precisely what the ritual entailed.
She now fought to control the blush that colored her face at this thought, focusing on the fact that the ritual had been an overwhelming success. It had gone more smoothly than the shaman had even hoped. It turned out that the fragment had already been under stress, due to Voldemort's fundamental inability to tolerate feelings of love, which Harry had been experiencing an abundance of recently. In less than an hour of magical tug of war the fragment was dislodged for good, permanently closing Harry's connection with the most evil wizard of his time, and making the latter mortal once again.
Now Harry, who'd been put into a light healing sleep, began to awaken, and Hermione wrapped the blanket around herself and moved over to his bed. Kneeling beside him, she took his hand in hers and gave it a squeeze.
He opened his eyes and smiled. "Hi. How are you doing?" she asked eagerly. "He said it worked! How do you feel?"
Harry's attention had been focused on the girl hovering over him wearing a blanket that was gradually losing its grip but he now directed it inward. "I'm fine," he decided. "Better than fine actually. I feel great. Like something that's been weighing me down without me knowing it has been taken away. Like I'm finally free!"
He paused and considered the rest of his body, now aware that he was completely naked under his blanket, which wasn't much more than a sheet, and realized that the same must be true for his girlfriend. He sat up and gave her hand a squeeze of appreciation, knowing how awkward the experience had been for her.
"How are you doing?" he inquired, turning the question back on her.
With her free hand Hermione tugged the blanket up to her chin and frowned. "I'll be alright, I guess. But Harry, you have to swear that you'll never tell anyone what we had to do! Not even my parents or Sirius. Dad would have a fit, and Mum would never let me live it down. And you know Sirius would tease us unmercifully." Harry immediately nodded, but Hermione, now that her worry over Harry was alleviated, was letting her other feelings take over.
"Harry, it was so embarrassing! I was positively mortified!" she began to rant. "Having to get naked in front of a total stranger was bad enough, but to have all our body hair shaved off! And then to be painted on … well on our most intimate places! And then to be pressed up against each other and bound together from head to toe for the entire length of the ritual!"
"I didn't think that part was so bad," Harry observed with a grin, making an attempt to lighten the mood. "I rather enjoyed it."
Hermione scowled and punched him on the arm. "Oh, trust me, I could tell. I could feel your 'enjoyment' poking me in the stomach the whole time!"
"I'm really sorry you had to go through all that," Harry commiserated, stroking her arm consolingly. "I can't tell you how much I appreciated it, just like everything you always do for me. You do feel it was worth it in the end, though, right?"
Hermione's face softened. "Of course it was. I'd have done even more than that if we'd needed to." Both teens blushed at the implication of that declaration. "And I suppose part of it was being taken by surprise. If I'd had more chance to prepare myself mentally, you know, work myself up to it." She sighed. "I suppose I'm just being silly, but …"
"No, you're not being silly at all," he assured her with another squeeze of her hand. "But what?"
"I just always felt that the only man that should see you naked was your husband," she confided. "And your doctor."
"Well, this guy's sort of a healer, isn't he?" Harry suggested. "And I … well I plan to be your husband eventually."
Hermione's ire melted at the earnest, caring look in his eyes and she threw her arms around his neck, unconcerned that her blanket fell away again. "Oh Harry, I love you so much. You're right, of course."
After she regained her composure, Harry teased that he noticed her doing a bit of staring herself while they were starkers, and with another blush she admitted it. She finally joked that they might even look back on it years later and laugh. Harry then suggested that the experience was actually pretty erotic, and perhaps they might want to try something similar again sometime.
After affecting a mock look of horror, Hermione grinned. "Which part," she wondered impishly. "The bodypainting or the shaving?" Harry pretended to furrow his brow in concentration, trying to decide, which gave her a chuckle, and they continued the playful banter. Hermione complained about the red paint all over her breasts, which prompted Harry to point out that now she would fit in with all the other English tourist women on the Australian beaches. Hermione laughed out loud at that observation. For it was true that many fair skinned female visitors from her home country, on being exposed to the topless beaches in Australia for the first time, tended to overdo it. These unfortunate ladies ended up with painfully red patches on the parts of their upper bodies that had never seen the sun before.
Soon Harry received a clean bill of health, their clothing was returned, and they expressed their heartfelt thanks to the shaman. The little old man assured them, with what Hermione thought looked suspiciously like a leer in her direction, that it was his pleasure. As the two of them began the walk back to the nearby village, where Sirius had been instructed to wait for them, Hermione noticed a thoughtful look on her companion's face.
After a minute or two he turned to her and asked, "What did he mean when he said our souls were connected?"
Hermione shot him a warm smile. "I'm surprised you haven't noticed," she responded. "Think of all the times over the years that we've known what each other were thinking, shared the same thoughts, or even finished each other's sentences. We've shared a connection since, oh, possibly as far back as first year. We're just in tune with each other, and have been for years. Some people refer to that as a soul bond."
"Oh," he replied, nodding thoughtfully. "I wonder if that means we could automatically be magically married or something. You know, like we're fated and our magic recognizes it, therefore it's already a done deal. Maybe even magically recorded in a Ministry somewhere?" He shot her an anxious glance out of the corner of his eye.
Hermione just shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Harry, where do you get such silly notions? Magic simply doesn't work like that. It can't bind you to someone without anyone even doing anything, or being aware of it! Just think of the chaos that would cause!" Harry shrugged sheepishly, and she wrapped an arm around him for a quick hug before continuing.
"And think of how horrible that would be. I would hate to live in a world where there was some completely arbitrary determination that you were married to someone without even knowing it. That would be even worse than an arranged marriage. It was bad enough that you were forced to compete in the Triwizard Tournament against your will. How would you feel if you were told that saving Ginny in the Chamber had triggered a soul bond and you were married to her when you were twelve and she was eleven! Can you see how absurd that would be? Not to mention that children of that age are in no way mature enough for a marital relationship! There's a reason for the age of consent being what it is."
Both of their faces wrinkled up in disgust at the image that suggestion brought to mind. Hermione stopped and turned to face him. "Sorry, Harry, you're just going to have to marry me the normal way." She squeezed his hands and grinned, which he returned.
"And when might that be?" he challenged, still smiling.
"Well, I already told you we couldn't get engaged for another year yet," she reminded him. "So I'd say the earliest would be the following Christmas. That is, if you're still interested by then." She raised an eyebrow with the last qualifier, returning his challenge.
"Oh, there's no doubt about that," he declared. "Besides, you have to marry me. You don't have a choice." She cocked her head inquiringly, and he leaned in close to whisper his reasoning. "I've seen you naked."
Hermione was taken aback for an instant, then a merry smile blossomed on her face. She punched him playfully and took his hand, turning to resume their trek, both of them laughing happily.
As they approached the village Hermione raised an important question. "So, what do you want to do now?" Harry immediately understood what she was asking. Now that the danger was over, would they return to Hogwarts or remain in Australia?
"Well, I do miss Ron, and …" Harry paused, with a look of consternation on his face. "Actually, except for Ron, and Ginny and Neville to a lesser extent, there's not that much else I really miss from back home. And there're the twins. It would be interesting to see how their joke shop turned out. But I like it here, I like AAMA, and I'm certainly enjoying this school year more than any I ever had at Hogwarts. I mean, for once I'm able to live and act like a normal person."
Hermione smiled. "Yeah, a normal person who just happens to be the hottest young quidditch star in Australia," she teased.
Harry grimaced and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Well, at least I got that on my own, for something I actually did." Hermione nodded her understanding. Now it was Harry's turn to tease. "But you forgot to add that I'm also dating the hottest and most brilliant witch on the continent."
Hermione tried to roll her eyes, but the smile that blossomed on her face interrupted her attempt at the dismissive gesture. "Oh, Harry, what am I going to do with you?" she sighed, wrapping her arm around his and laying her head on his shoulder.
Harry shrugged and grinned. "I'm sure I can think of something," he replied suggestively. Hermione groaned and shook her head, deciding it was time to return to the original topic.
"It wouldn't do in any case to change in the middle of a school year," she pointed out. So I think we should stay through the rest of this year for certain, and get our OWLs, and strongly consider finish out our schooling here. We should also see how Mum and Dad feel about it. I get the impression they really like it here. And Sirius seems pretty happy, too." After a moment's thought she added, "Perhaps we can have Ron visit over Christmas holidays."
Harry stole a quick kiss. "That works for me. Then he scratched his head and added impishly, "So, now that I don't have to worry about hiding my scar anymore, can we switch our hair back? I think the bushy look is better on you than on me."
Hermione laughed and gave him a hug. "We'll think about it."
Epilogue – Years Later
Harry paused, picked up the parchment from the table, glared at it, threw it back down, and resumed his furious pacing. What were those morons thinking?! How could anyone in their right minds let that murderer go free?!!
Suddenly, his wife burst through the door and wrapped her arms around him. "Harry! Did you hear?" she all but shrieked in dismay.
"Yes, it's all right here," he snapped angrily, gesturing at the offending document. "He's been released and he's making no secret of the fact that he's coming for me. Since Dumbledore's long since gone he's going to take out his revenge on me."
"Harry, what are we going to do? Do you think we …" Hermione began as she wiped her eyes determinedly.
"WE aren't going to do anything," he declared firmly. "I'm the one he's after."
"No, Harry!" she shot back. "We've always been a team and that's not changing now."
"But you have to keep the children safe," he argued. "We can't let anything happen to them. And you know what he's like; he wouldn't hesitate to use them to hurt me."
"Can't we just leave?" she suggested. "We can all go to the island. He'll never find us there."
Harry hugged her again. "Do you really want to hide for the rest of our lives?" he whispered. Hermione hesitated, then shook her head.
Hours passed, then days, and Harry grew increasingly desperate. Suddenly no one wanted anything to do with him. The Ministry was no help, washing their hands of the entire matter. Those whom he'd considered friends and allies melted away. He'd hoped that with strong backing he would be able to prevail, but now it looked that wasn't going to happen. He was on his own.
Finally, the moment they'd been dreading arrived with a loud crack of apparation sounding from the street outside their home.
"Jane, it's him!" Harry yelled. "Take Lily and go! I'll hold him off." His wife shot him a fierce, determined look, then grabbed their daughter and disappeared. Swallowing hard, Harry stepped out into the street to confront his nemesis.
There, waiting for him, was the figure of the revolting being he'd hoped to never see again, looking even more inhumanly evil than he remembered. "Harry Potter," the gaunt creature hissed. "Now we meet for the final time."
Suddenly Hermione was standing beside him. "What …? You came back? But …" Harry stammered, turning slightly to her while keeping an eye on his opponent.
"You know I'll never leave you, Harry," she declared softly. "I'll be with you forever. Now wake up."
"Wake up, Harry. You're having a nightmare."
Harry's eyes shot open to see his beloved wife anxiously leaning over him, stroking his cheek. "Oh Merlin, that seemed so real," he gasped once he'd taken in his surroundings. "I thought …"
Hermione nodded with a smile. "I know. I figured it out as soon as you shouted. You haven't called me Jane in years."
She shot him a mock scowl and poked a finger into his chest. "No more watching Westerns while eating pizza right before bed for you, my dear husband." Harry ducked his head and grimaced. "Which one was it?"
"High Noon," he muttered.
"So, you were Gary Cooper and I was Grace Kelly?" Hermione smirked. He nodded with a sheepish grin and she chuckled. "Well, my mum says every little girl wanted to be Grace Kelly while she was growing up, so I suppose that's not so bad. She leaned in and gave him a tender kiss. "Are you OK now?"
Harry nodded. "You don't think there will ever be a chance …?"
"None at all," she reassured him. "He's imprisoned under the same wards they used for Grindelwald, and he was locked up at Nurmengard for more than fifty years before he died of old age. Dumbledore cast them himself before he died. Tom Riddle can never leave the prison or he'll die instantly."
Harry nodded again and leaned back against his pillow, but Hermione could see that he wouldn't be falling back asleep anytime soon, and she was also wide awake. With a sly smile she sat up and pulled her nightgown off over her head. "Maybe we can think of something else to occupy your mind."
Harry's breath caught, just as it always did when she disrobed in front of him, and he supposed it always would. His gaze dropped to her full breasts, and then further to her thickened waist and the bulge in her tummy – the newest member of their family was due to arrive in five months. Life was truly wonderful.
Afterwards, the two lay in each other's arms, fully satisfied and about to drift off. Hermione gave him a soft kiss on the nearly invisible scar on his forehead, and they shared a knowing smile.
All was well.
And now for the final batch of author's notes!
A/N 1 I've attempted to show in this final chapter the ripple effect of Harry's initial decision to leave Britain. Bones becomes Minister and prosecutes the war more vigorously and more effectively, leading to an earlier final confrontation with Voldemort. The duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore goes much the same as it did in Book 5, but ends differently with Harry not being present – a distinct advantage for Dumbledore. Remus is the Defense professor instead of Umbridge, and consequently is at hand when Dumbledore needs a new confidant to replace Snape, resulting in some horcruxes being discovered sooner, but also resulting in Dumbledore's death when Snape is not there to stop the ring's curse from immediately killing him. A butterfly flaps its wings …
A/N 2 Earlier this year, Bobmin356 (Bob and Alyx) commented in an author's note in Chapter 5 of Mutant Storm that it was becoming hard to come up with new and interesting ways to kill Voldemort. I find myself in complete agreement. I have only one more idea and I'm saving it for a different story. So for this one, I went another direction and decided that Harry didn't have to kill him after all.
(The story mentioned can be found on fanficauthors dot net)
A/N 3 The ritual I used to extract the horcrux from Harry's scar is based on the one used for that purpose in the story, Harry Potter and the Warrior's Path, by Librarywitch. In that story she has a native American perform the ritual, where I used a native Australian, but the idea of Hermione acting as a 'soul anchor' – she called it a heart anchor – is hers. (She also had them partially dressed, uncomfortably so, with runes painted over their bodies.)
(The story mentioned can be found on fanfiction dot net)
A/N 4 It's probably obvious that I don't much care for soul bonds – at least the kind that suddenly appear from nowhere, usually when the two protagonists kiss for the first time. Even worse is when they discover they were soul bonded from birth. I can't think of anything less romantic. But instead of ranting about them here, I'll refer you to two authors that shoot them down rather effectively – Sarah1281 in "The Problem With Soul Bonds", Chapter 4 of Run That By Me Again? and Seel'vor in "Soul Bonds are NOT Cool", Chapter 5 of A Collection of Harmonious OneShots.
(Both stories mentioned can be found on fanfiction dot net)