Love to my magical beta, s and h forever. She keeps me creative and sane.
I apologize for the delay in posting. Life has gotten much busier than I would wish for it to be. Please enjoy this chapter and consider reviewing. Thanks for reading!
"It was in the darkest of my days when you took my sorrow and you took my pain and buried them away. You buried them away. And I wish I could lay down beside you when the day is done and wake up to your face against the morning sun. But like everything I've ever known, you'll disappear one day. So I'll spend my whole life hiding my heart away." (Hiding My Heart, by Adele)
Although Harry, Ron, and Hermione wished for nothing more than to discuss their conversation with the Minister, they finished celebrating Harry's birthday as enthusiastically as they could. They were finding it extremely difficult to be cheerful but were all too aware of the trouble that Molly had gone to in order to make Harry's dinner special. They ate and socialized for a few hours before excusing themselves under the pretense that they wanted to be well-rested for Bill and Fleur's wedding the next day. As soon as they confirmed that the evening's activities were continuing without them, Hermione let herself into Harry and Ron's room and cast a quick Muffiato. It wouldn't do well for anyone walking by to hear that they were not, in fact, asleep.
Harry and Ron were in their respective beds, and Hermione quickly sat down at the foot of Harry's, sighing heavily. A long moment of silence lingered over the room until Harry finally spoke.
"Happy birthday, my arse," he spat out in indignation. "Who does Scrimgeour think he is, anyways?"
"Oh, I don't know, Harry, maybe he thinks he's the most powerful wizard in Britain. You know, like the Minister of Magic or something." Hermione did nothing to conceal her sarcasm and disgust. She had little confidence left in the Ministry after her dealings with Umbridge the previous year, and the day's conversation with Scrimgeour succeeded in destroying any semblance of respect she may have had for the institution he represented.
"Well, yeah, I guess there's that," Harry mused complacently before regaining the previous anger of his tirade. "Still, that doesn't give him the right to do whatever the bloody hell he wants! Really, Hermione, the man suggested that you and Snape had an inappropriate relationship! If I were you, I'd have been about to hex his balls off for insinuating such an utter lie. Even thinking about it now gives me the creeps. I might even be scarred for life, actually! Could you imagine it, Ron, if there were some sort of twisted, obligatory sex clause in Hermione's independent study?" Harry shook his head violently from side to side as though attempting to quite literally force unwanted images and thoughts from his head.
"Don't even say stuff like that, Harry!" Ron exclaimed with no hesitation. "It doesn't even matter, anyway, because there wasn't anything like that. Hermione would have had a fit and talked to Dumbledore about it, if that were the case. Right, 'Mione?"
Hermione looked at their horrified faces, feeling a mixture of amusement and extreme discomfort. She had been afraid that Scrimgeour knew more than he was letting on when he implied that her relationship with the professor was more than platonic but was relieved when her answer seemed to satisfy him. She had hoped Ron and Harry wouldn't bring it up again. Their conversation was too close to the mark, as far as Hermione was concerned, and she looked for a way to change the subject. Fortunately, the three friends had much to discuss.
"Yes, Ron, that would have been horrible. I wouldn't have stood for it," she said calmly, placating her inquisitive friend. "Now, about these gifts. There has to be more to them than we think. Scrimgeour's right on that account; Dumbledore wouldn't have just left us these things purely for their sentimental value. But what could they mean?" Hermione looked down at the book in her lap, utterly confused.
"I don't know, 'Mione." Ron picked up where her thoughts had trailed off into nothingness. "I mean, this Deluminator only really has one purpose. Unless I'm supposed to keep it until we face Voldemort and surprise him by turning out the lights so that Harry can sneak up on him or something."
"Good idea, Ron!" Harry exclaimed enthusiastically.
Hermione rolled her eyes. For being "The Chosen One," Harry certainly didn't seem to be taking his responsibilities very seriously. She hoped that he didn't actually think that turning out the lights would be enough to gain an advantage over the Dark Lord. His multitude of Death Eaters could just as easily use Lumos to make any room brighter than it had been previously, and they would all be doomed. She looked back at Harry to see him absentmindedly tossing his Snitch in the air, bringing her thoughts back to the issues at hand.
"Well, Harry, your Snitch is still promising. If Dumbledore were going to give us any sort of instruction, it would be through that. I was so glad it didn't open when you took it from Scrimgeour. I was certain that something was going to happen! Perhaps he deactivated the flesh memory?"
"Well, of course it wouldn't open when I took it from Scrimgeour, Hermione. I'm glad you were paying such good attention during my first Quidditch match. I didn't catch this Snitch with my hand. I caught it in my mouth!" Harry had a look of triumph on his face, finally remembering something Hermione didn't. Times like these were rare, and Harry wanted to bask in his glory. It, however, was short lived.
"Of course, how could I forget?" Hermione began with a mocking lilt in her voice. "Oh, that's right. I was busy under the stands setting Snape's robes on fire when we thought he was trying to kill you! I'm so sorry I missed your spectacular win for Gryffindor!" Hermione smirked at Harry's sheepish grin, satisfied that she had humbled him and just a bit reassured of his critical thinking skills. It was no surprise to Hermione that Harry would figure out the secret of his Snitch; flying and Quidditch meant the world to him.
Hermione and Ron held their breaths as Harry popped the Snitch into his mouth. It didn't open, but Hermione was able to notice previously nonexistent text appear on the golden ball's exterior.
"I open at the close," she read. "Well, that doesn't help much, does it?"
The three friends pondered the Snitch's riddle for what felt like an eternity, before Ron spoke up.
"This is just like when we were trying to figure out that Black Lake riddle in fourth year for the Triwizard Tournament. I'm sick of thinking. Hermione, do you have any idea why Dumbledore would give you a book of children's stories?"
"Oh, they're children's stories? I have no idea. I guess I'll just have to translate them and see if anything strikes me as odd or helpful. What I'd really like to have a look at is the sword of Gryffindor, but there's no point in thinking on that, really. Although, we should try to find some way to get it."
Hermione was growing tired of pondering Dumbledore's riddles. In fact, she found herself somewhat resentful of him. It was because of his meddling plan that she had become so attached to Severus. By initiating a relationship between her and his own murderer, Dumbledore had been instrumental in breaking her heart. And now, instead of having time to come to terms with her own feelings of betrayal, he was plaguing Hermione, Ron, and Harry with more seemingly impossible questions and hints. Her confusion quickly turned to rage, and Hermione felt as though she would either burst into tears or vomit. She preferred to have neither happen in the company of her two friends. She stood up quickly.
"We can talk about this more later. I'm exhausted, and we should be rested for the wedding. Plus, I still have to get some things in order. Speaking of which, do you have the things I asked you for earlier when we were doing chores for Molly? I really think we should be prepared. We might need to speed things up, now that we know for sure that the Ministry is watching us."
Ever since the night of their escape from Privet Drive, Hermione had been on edge about Voldemort and the Death Eaters. She was convinced that it was only a matter of time until they would be ambushed, and Hermione wanted to be prepared. She had an awful feeling that Bill and Fleur's wedding would be a perfect opportunity for Voldemort to attack; practically the entire Order of the Phoenix would be there. Even though it had been arranged that Harry would be disguised to make things safer, Hermione decided that it would be prudent to be prepared for the worst. So she had Harry and Ron pack what they would need in the event that they would need to make a speedy exit. She had meant to ask them for their items sooner, but things had gotten rather busy with wedding preparations.
"Oh, right. Here you go, Hermione." Ron and Harry both tossed small bags at her, which she readily caught.
Hermione thanked them, wished them a good night's sleep, and then returned to her room, grateful that they had packed light. And although she normally would have stayed up for hours contemplating what had occurred that afternoon, Hermione feel asleep almost the second her head hit her pillow.
Hermione woke the next morning to the sounds of Molly Weasley shouting orders at anybody and everybody within reach. She was sorely tempted to remain in her bed and skip the wedding all together, but she would never have heard the end of it from the Weasley family. She supposed that if Ron and Harry had to suffer Molly's frantic preparations and Bill and Fleur's celebration, she had very little choice but to participate in solidarity. She quickly changed her clothes and hurried downstairs to find that all the finishing touches had already been put on the flower arrangements and the floating candles that decorated the expansive field on which the Burrow was built. With everything in place, Hermione was quickly ushered into the Weasley's living room, which was to serve a double purpose that day as a dressing room.
Fleur was already in the process of being tied into her dress by her mother. Although Hermione was taken aback by how lovely the dress looked on Fleur, she mused that it must be rather uncomfortable for her to wear. The satin corset top of the dress was beautifully detailed with beaded lace appliqués and had an intricately laced up back, the shape of which accentuated Fleur's tiny waist. Hermione hoped that, if there weren't some spell to keep Fleur from feeling as though all the air in her lungs was being restricted by her tight garment, she wouldn't have too much trouble breathing on her own. The organza ball gown skirt was voluminous enough to seem princess-like but not so overwhelming that Fleur was lost in the sheer size of it. It had a short train in the back, which Hermione thought was only practical, since Fleur and Bill were to have an outdoor wedding. She couldn't imagine ruining what was sure to be a ridiculously expensive dress by dragging its train through the dirt. Merlin forbid if it rained.
After wishing Fleur luck and changing into her own dress, Hermione walked outside to join Ron. He was standing with some strange looking boy she had never seen before, and she could only assume that it was Harry in his newly Polyjuiced form. They both waved at her enthusiastically, and she walked over to them slowly, careful that her heels would not sink into the ground.
"Well, this is special, isn't it? What, with my brother getting married and all." Ron looked surprisingly happy for being up so early in the morning. It was usually a chore to be around him on the days when he got little sleep.
"I take it the rest of the preparations went smoothly this morning?" Hermione inquired. "I guess I must have overslept; you were finished with everything when I first came outside."
"Yeah, Molly was surprisingly calm this morning," Harry reassured Hermione in his new, higher pitched voice. "I guess all that adrenaline is stopping her from crying every other minute like she had been before. Have either of you seen Bill or Fleur yet?"
"I saw Fleur this morning before I got dressed. She looks gorgeous. She doesn't seem nervous at all, which is a relief. It must be that whole Vela thing; I imagine that I'll be practically twitchy on my wedding day. Well, considering that I'll get married." Hermione wistfully looked off at a point over Harry's shoulder and was surprised at what she saw in the distance.
"Shit," she muttered loudly enough for Ron and Harry to hear. "That's Viktor, isn't it? I suppose the Delacours must have invited him. It makes sense. He was in the Triwizard Tournament, after all. If you can't bond over shared near-death experiences, what can you bond over?"
Before Harry or Ron had a chance to respond to Krum's presence, he was by Hermione's side, pulling her into a hug. When he released her, Hermione realized that both of her friends had conveniently managed to disappear, leaving her alone with Viktor.
"It is so good to see you," he began. "Come, ve vill have time to talk before the vedding." He took her hand and led her to a pair of chairs at one of the tables that had been set up previously.
"Yes, it's lovely to see you, Viktor. I didn't know you were going to be here today! How have you been?" Hermione glanced quickly to her left, noticing that Ron was glaring at them from behind a shrub. She assumed that he thought he was being discreet.
"The usual," Krum responded. "But I am much better now that I am seeing you again."
Hermione blushed unintentionally, remembering how infatuated she had been with Viktor Krum two years ago. Things had certainly changed for her. She considered, for the briefest of moments, how things might have been if she had remained in contact with him. His continued questioning interrupted her thoughts, however.
"Vat have you been up to at Hogvarts?" Krum smiled quickly at the group of giggling Vela girls who had begun to gather at the table next to where Hermione and Krum sat, reminding Hermione exactly why she hadn't pursued a relationship with him.
"Studying, mostly, but I'm sure you aren't surprised at that." She was about to say more, but Ron came over and interrupted their conversation, letting them know that it was time to take their seats. The ceremony was about to begin.
Hermione and Ron walked over to their assigned seats and remained standing, facing the back of the aisle the rows of chairs had created, after the music signaled the beginning of Fleur's walk to the altar. The procession only lasted a matter of minutes, but to Hermione, it felt like an eternity. She hadn't expected to be so affected by it.
While the majority of the attendees seemed to be preoccupied by Fleur's dress and general loveliness, Hermione was focused on something entirely different. Her gaze moved back and forth between Fleur and Bill, and she was incredibly moved by what she found being shared between them. Their eyes never strayed away from one another, and there seemed to be thousands of words and emotions communicated through this unspoken connection. Hermione had never been around much when Bill and Fleur were together, but now at their wedding, Hermione could see the depth of their love; it was displayed plainly on their faces. Looking back at Fleur, she noticed that she looked more beautiful than she had before; there was a new light to her face, one that was no doubt inspired by the man she was about to marry.
Hermione found her witnessing of their love to be both beautiful and heartbreaking. Her thoughts immediately flew to the relationship with Severus that she once had, the way she loved him. Did she change when she looked at him the same way Fleur was changed now? She had never thought to look. She suddenly realized that she had never taken the opportunity to simply enjoy and revel in the time she had spent with Severus; she had spent all that time worrying and overanalyzing. She thought of the opportunities they could have had, what their relationship could have become if circumstances were different. Her musings continued for the entire service, and before Hermione knew if, Bill and Fleur were sharing their first kiss as husband and wife. Their shared happiness seemed like such a lost dream for her now.
After the ceremony was over, Ron immediately grabbed her by the hand and ushered her to the table to which they had been assigned. He ran to gather some food for himself, most likely in an attempt to gain an advantage over the appetites of the other guests, but Hermione remained seated. She knew she was being ridiculous, and she truly was happy for Bill and Fleur, but she also couldn't help feeling a bit sullen now. Before her mind ran away with thought, she looked up to see Harry's Polyjuiced form talking to Viktor, and before she knew it, she was looking at Ron once more. She chuckled to herself at how complicated her teenage love-life turned out to be. She never would have guessed that a bookworm such as herself would ever have any appeal to a Quidditch superstar or her best friend, and she certainly never would have imagined herself in a situation as forbidden as a student-teacher relationship. She smiled at Ron's stare of confusion as he witnessed her seemingly random outburst and encouraged him to tell her about the present members of the Weasley family that she had never met.
His description of his Aunt Muriel, who was sitting several tables to their right, was swiftly interrupted by Harry. Hermione had almost forgotten that it was him until he directly addressed her.
"Hermione, Ron, we need to talk. I have to tell you something important about –"
But before he could finish his thought, a wispy, silvery lynx glided into the Weasley's yard. Hermione had never seen that particular Patronus before, but once it began to speak, there was no doubt as to the identity of its owner: Kingsley Shacklebolt. Its message was less than congratulatory.
"The Ministry has fallen. Scrimgeour is dead. They are coming."
The three friends turned to each other in panic. The guests around them were screaming and running in all directions, adding to the already palpable chaos. Spells began to fly; the Death Eaters had arrived. In the midst of it all, Hermione managed to make her voice audible to Harry and Ron.
"Harry, Ron," she yelled at the top of her lungs, "take my hands. We're leaving now!"
Hermione turned on the spot, and Harry and Ron soon experienced an unexpected, immense pressure accompanied by an inky blackness. They had just Apparated. They had just seen some of their most loved ones for what may have been the last time.
If it hadn't felt as though they were in a war before, it certainly did now.