Disclaimer: All characters belong to JK Rowling.

A/N: A TEASER from the first part of the next chapter. I have about three scenes left to write. I'm leaning back towards releasing the next two chapters together, as they do really need to be understood as a pair. I'm hopeful I can finish them around May. But I had to give you something! You all have been so kind and patient and I hope you enjoy this taste! Would love to read your thoughts in reviews/PM.


Chapter 20: Hermione Granger (Teaser)

Timelapse reveals a slight of hand,
it unties the rules of time and plan.

- Timelapse, Sleeping at Last

We are the reckless.
We are the wild youth,
Chasing visions of our futures.

- Youth, Daughter

19 April 1999

Harry fell in slow motion, wisps of silver contorting and solidifying around him. Finally, his feet met spongy earth. He steadied himself.

It was a chill, spring evening. A mile down the road, Hogsmeade glowed like a fiery constellation. To his right, Hogwarts rose, that mammoth sentinel of stone. Save for the hum of insects and the flutter of wings in the surrounding forest, all was still. Only the figure at the gates was out of place.

Harry closed the distance between them, his steps soundless. Coming to the side, he looked into the face of his eighteen-year-old self. His skin rose up in gooseflesh.

Younger Harry gave no indication his future counterpart stood before him. His shadowed eyes were fixed on the castle. Occasionally, he glanced at his watch or banged the toe of his boot against the gate blocking his path.

He was handsome. Almost ludicrously so. It was upsetting.

At just over six feet, he was two inches shorter than Harry was now. His build was slimmer and his muscles beautifully lithe, shoulders hunched slightly as though unaccustomed to his own frame. His hair was still jet-black, no sign of the grey that currently touched Harry's temples. His face was smooth, yet defined along the jaw. The brows were heavy and shrouded eyes the color of struck malachite, which were filled with an odd combination of yearning and a practiced seriousness. Only one thing was the same: the thin scar deliberately hidden beneath his fringe.

The greatest change was in their composure.

Younger Harry was tightly wound, crackling with repressed energy. He flexed his fingers and stretched his neck from side to side in agitation. He didn't seem capable of standing still.

Harry couldn't help smiling.

The man before him, who possessed an undeniable physical and evocative attraction, had none of the equanimity and sprezzatura Harry had achieved in later life. This version of Harry was still very much a boy: defensive, eager to prove himself, and impatient with almost everything.

He glanced at the Auror Trainee armband on young man's cloak. The silver material was stark against black wool. The seal of the Auror Department was pressed into the stays of his cloak.

Reliving your own memories in the Pensieve creates a certain awareness. Placed within the exact context and location of his earlier life, Harry abruptly recalled memories and thoughts long forgotten. He could not directly listen to the thoughts of his younger self, but he felt certain his own thoughts and emotions were similar to what the eighteen-year-old must be experiencing.

His boot struck the gate again.

The spring of 1999 was a perilous time for the Auror Department. The ranks of the Aurors had fallen by a third after the Death Eater coup in 1997. Some Aurors fled and joined the fight against the Dark Lord. But many more retreated to their homes, waiting to see how the war would play out.

The Aurors who stayed behind suffered a harsher fate. Some joined the Death Eaters, sympathetic to the cause from the start. Others, and especially those who performed essential roles in Intelligence and Taboo monitoring, were placed under the Imperius. After Voldemort's death, the bewitched Aurors were quickly reinstated and those who had joined the Death Eaters were imprisoned, their loyalty to the Dark Lord confirmed by magical evaluations. By the end of it all, the Auror Department was less than half of what it had been before the assassination of Rufus Scrimgeour.

Officially, Harry was an Auror Trainee. Not even a year had passed since his joining up. But the three-year training program had been suspended. In June 1998, Acting Minister Shacklebolt and the first postbellum Auror Chief, Heath Whitehorn, announced that any able-bodied witch or wizard who was willing to hunt down the remnants of Voldemort's forces would be welcome in the AD. There were requirements, of course. Over seventeen years of age. In good physical condition. No past loyalties or close relations with Death Eaters.

Even with the lowered standards, it was difficult to find recruits. The wizarding world believed the war was over. The Battle of Hogwarts had seemed final enough, many said, which the Daily Prophet repeated ad nauseam. The remaining Death Eaters targeted their attacks on Aurors, not the general public. Consequently, Harry and the eighty new recruits inducted into the AD in the summer of 1998 were given missions normally reserved for officers with ten times their experience.

Not that Harry minded.

He wanted nothing more than to fight the vestiges of Voldemort's regime. That meant raiding Knockturn Alley, dissecting magical evaluations, interrogating purebloods, staking out Death Eater safe houses, and engaging in duels (when necessary). Trainee he may be, but there was no doubt in Harry's mind that he was an Auror. The past seven years of his life had been training enough, as far as he was concerned.

He breathed the life of an Auror. He drank in its mannerisms and foibles and peculiarities. He cared for little else. He thought of little else.

Which perhaps explained the glint of resentment in the eighteen-year-old's eyes as he looked at his former, beloved home.

Harry was on assignment. But not the assignment he should have been on. At that very moment, two of his mates were taking part in a final raid on a Death Eater hideout. Eight partisans were holed up in a pureblood manor awaiting certain arrest by the Aurors surrounding them.

Harry should have been there. He had worked the Death Eaters' files for weeks. He knew their backgrounds, their vulnerabilities, their favored methods of attack. He knew them better than his friends did, better than some of the senior Aurors, he expected.

But he wasn't there.

He was at Hogwarts. All fine and well when there wasn't a Death Eater raid going down halfway across the country. Instead, he was assigned to interview two students in Slytherin House believed to have made contact with Death Eaters. Death Eaters completely unconnected to the raid he might add if he was feeling bitter. Which he was.

He knew the two students in question were related to the Death Eaters. And while Harry could put the fear of god in them by virtue of his name and position, it would be a stupid Death Eater indeed who shared actionable intelligence with school-age children. It was an entirely useless mission.

Harry was sidelined from the raid at the last minute. That afternoon, in fact. For reasons maddeningly out of his control.

That morning, Harry was in the Dragon's Head, a pub at the mouth of Knockturn Alley. It was a favorite of purebloods and former Dark Lord supporters. He had been part of a sting operation to catch a Death Eater financier in the act of transferring galleons to an undercover Auror. All they needed was proof of the hand-off and they had him. A Gorgan Wormwood. He had thwarted their attempts at arrest several times before.

It had started off well. Harry and two other Aurors sat at the front of the pub, guarding the entrance. Their team leader sat alone, two tables away from the target. She would give the signal when the time came for drawing wands.

Harry had a line of sight on Wormwood sitting in the back. Just as Wormwood revealed a leather pouch, there was an earsplitting scream. It ricocheted through the pub, piercing the early morning drowsiness.

Harry and his companions spun around, sure someone had been murdered. Instead, Harry looked into a face of unhinged ecstasy belonging to a young woman who stood outside the window.

"It's him!" she shrieked, stopping three of her friends in their tracks. "It's really him! Fiona! Nialla! Come look! It's Harry Potter!"

And the jig was up.

There was a grunt and the sound of chairs being pushed across the floor. Wormwood stuffed the gold into his cloak and charged towards the back exit. Motioning fiercely at them, their leader drew her wand and followed in pursuit.

The screaming woman and her friends crashed through the pub door and were upon Harry in seconds: quills under his nose, hands running down his chest (and lower), purring into his ears.

"—little sister would just love a note from you, Harry," said one with russet curls and robes of Tyrian purple. She was holding a scrap of parchment—clearly a receipt from her purse—out for him to sign.

"To hell with your sister," said the girl who screamed. She stepped uncomfortably close, breasts pressing against his chest.

"Ow!" Harry cried, hand flying to his scalp. He turned in time to see that the man who accompanied the women had pocketed a tuft of Harry's hair.

Beyond language now, Harry's eyes widened in apoplectic fury. The first woman was making cooing noises in the back of her throat, stroking the spot where her friend had divorced Harry's hair from its roots.

Cyrus Monroe, also a new Auror recruit, stepped in.

"Ladies—sir—let him go! You are—please, madam—You are interrupting an official—unh! That's my eye!—an official operation of the Auror Department! Let him go, I said!"

It was no use. Harry, having raised his arms in an attempt to escape, tripped over one of the women's purses. He crashed headlong into the first woman, who looked more than delighted at this development. The other women tumbled down on top of him, whether by real or imaginary forces of gravity, he couldn't be sure. Like a dutiful Chaser on a fumbled Quaffle, Monroe dived after Harry and received an elbow to the nose for his troubles. This sent spectacular streaks of blood into the air, splattering across the heap of tangled bodies on the sticky pub floor.

An hour later, sitting outside Chief Whitehorn's office, Harry caught words like "celebrity" and "poster-boy" and phrases like "all fine and well for the papers" and "endangers covert ops."

Harry was then called into Whitehorn's office alone. The Chief was exceedingly kind. All Aurors had had an operation turn sour, he said reassuringly. Can't be too hard on yourself. The others would come to see that. Monroe's nose had already been snapped back into place and was healing nicely.

"It's a shame," Whitehorn said, more to himself than Harry, "that your scar has proven un-concealable with anything other than Polyjuice…"

Harry stared at a paperclip tray shaped oddly like a dried elf's ear.

The Concealment and Disguise division had tried every imaginable method to obscure Harry's scar. From targeted Disillusionment Charms to tonics derived from Metamorphmagus blood. All to no avail. St. Mungo's had even provided a hex scarring specialist to consult on the case. Since Harry was the only known person to survive the Killing Curse, his scar was an unmatched medical puzzle. The Healer's only hypothesis was that since his scar was the result of the darkest magic, it may prove irremovable by normal means.

It didn't matter much anyway.

With fairly simple spells Harry could change the color of his eyes and hair, but he was still the most recognizable wizard in the world. This was an unusual feat for a society with limited visual media. In the wizarding world, you could be very famous without people necessarily knowing what you look like. But seventeen years of fame and Voldemort's death made Harry the exception. His face and story were known. He was the rare global celebrity in their diffuse and fragmented world.

"Harry?"

Whitehorn was trying to get his attention.

"Yes sir?" he started.

The older man smiled benevolently. "I was saying don't worry. There will be many more raids to come, I assure you."

"More raids," Harry repeated. Panic rose in his throat. It tasted like bile and iron.

The Chief looked uncomfortable. "Yes. There is some feeling that perhaps you should remain at Headquarters tonight."

"But sir," Harry rasped, mouth filling with dust. "You cannot…I have…past month preparing."

"They obviously cannot afford any distractions…"

"But, but—there'll be no teenage girls at a Death Eater hideout, sir…" he said lowly. He was mortified to even have to refer to the events of that morning aloud.

Whitehorn gave him a pitying expression. Harry's insides turned molten.

The Chief's next words were muffled in his ears.

"Death Eaters seek you out specifically…know you're a valuable target…puts the other Aurors at risk not to lose you…"

Harry went back to staring at the elf tray.

"You're of great importance to this Department. Surely you see that, my boy," Whitehorn said. "You're the symbol of our revival, Harry. Not just the Aurors, but all of us. You are…"

Whitehorn didn't go on. Harry finished for him.

Too valuable to lose. Too precious to work. Symbol as stigma.

Ironic. Chosen One without a choice.

Whitehorn concocted the mission to Hogwarts as a consolation. If Harry couldn't be at the raid, he could at least be away from Headquarters. Avoid the appraising glances and forced cheeriness of the other Aurors.

Harry had not seen his former home in ten months. Since the last of the cleanup. Whitehorn had given him two days to complete the assignment, much more than necessary. If questioning the students and reading their correspondence took a few hours, he could spend the rest of his time with Ginny and Hermione, both in their final year at Hogwarts. There was also Hagrid and Harry had brought a jug of the groundskeeper's favorite ale. He was also sure Professor McGonagall would require a visit…

Harry hadn't seen Hermione since Christmas.

Surprisingly, he'd been able to keep up a regular correspondence with her (which likely surprised her too). He wrote her a letter a week. Sometimes more. For security reasons, he never told her what he was working on. But as in talking with her face-to-face, writing to her somehow helped him. She gave him perspective on the vagaries of his strange life and he found a nostalgic comfort in reading about hers. But while her letters were filled with worries over schoolwork and dutiful updates on Hagrid, McGonagall, and Ginny, there was an underlying tension in her stories. He was unsure what to ascribe it to. It was spring, he supposed. N.E.W.T.s were fast approaching.

He was also eager—for different reasons—to see Ginny.

He wanted to see that radiant face of hers desperately. If there was time, he'd suggest they fly around the Quidditch pitch together and chat about her recruitment prospects. But two nights with Ginny also meant two nights of sex. The two of them had been very annoying at Christmas, Ron informed him. Spending all their time together and sneaking off to different rooms in the Burrow, as if no one knew what they were doing. But knowing he wouldn't see her for six months, Harry hadn't much cared what people thought. Breaking abstinence two months early was fine by him.

As the night darkened, the castle was almost invisible against a moonless sky. Along grounds of black velvet Harry could make out a figure approaching, lantern swinging in the gloom. Likely one of the professors sent to fetch him.

Despite its impressive restoration, Hogwarts still bore the signs of battle. The salvaged walls were blackened with smoke, transitioning abruptly to fresh granite. The intricate walkway leading to the lake and Forbidden Forest had been replaced, the wood crisp and pale instead of moss-coated like he remembered.

"Harry!"

He raised a hand in recognition. "Hi Professor Sinistra." The figure emerged from the black in the shape of his old Astronomy professor. "Good to see you again. Thanks for taking the trouble…"

"Oh, Harry! Not at all," she said excitedly, fumbling with keys he was accustomed to seeing in the hands of Argus Filch.

"I'm just," she paused and looked at him with shining, rapturous eyes through the bars, "I'm honored to greet you first, Harry. It was a wondrous surprise to the faculty when we received your letter this afternoon."

He gave a tight-lipped smile.

"There we are." She inserted the correct key, opening a smaller door set into the gate. "Please! Please do come in."

Harry dipped his head and passed through. The pair set off towards the muted glow of the castle, older Harry in their wake.

Professor Sinistra was casting so many fond glances in his direction, Harry was afraid she was going to trip.

"What's new at Hogwarts, Professor?"

"Oh, nothing too exciting, bless our stars! There was a Quidditch match yesterday. Hufflepuff beat Ravenclaw. Mr. Filch was quite indignant with the mess in the Hufflepuff common room. He's still cleaning it up!" she laughed, shaking her head. "What else? Well, of course, O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s are upon us. The students have been given extra assignments. It's a pity there was no class today with the sky so perfect for stargazing. I'm at the mercy of the weather and the Headmistress, you know, Harry."

He smiled as the Astronomy professor chuckled.

But his younger self was distracted. He was glancing off at the Gryffindor tower and the dark edge of the Quidditch pitch as Professor Sinistra nattered on.

Harry never regretted his choice to become an Auror immediately after the war. Even on days like this one, he could imagine doing nothing else. He never seriously considered returning to Hogwarts for his seventh year, even after Hermione made it clear she would. It had been hard realizing she wouldn't be with them. Though, by rights, he supposed it was harder for Ron what with his relationship with her still so new and fragile…

The three of them had been inseparable for seven years. The thought of being apart was strangely daunting. Though, in the fine tradition of their countrymen, they'd never been able to express that feeling aloud to one another.

But his younger self was starting to wonder. If he had returned to Hogwarts, Harry likely would have been Gryffindor Quidditch captain and Head Boy. With his work and life in London, those titles didn't mean much to him now. But still. It might have been nice. To know what a normal year at Hogwarts was like, if there was such a thing. Wait out the public hysteria…

Harry pushed this thought away as he ascended the steps to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

He would find Hermione and Ginny first. Have a quick dinner. And then, perhaps, the three of them could stay up late talking by the fire in the Gryffindor common room.

Lost in his thoughts, younger Harry did not hear the low hum from beneath the doors. Didn't gather that the grounds were strangely quiet, the lights within the castle a little too bright. It simply didn't register that something was off until it was too late.

Professor Sinistra reached out a spindly hand and used all of her weight to ease the door open. She beamed at him and stepped aside. "Welcome back, Harry."

Foot crossing the threshold, his response drowned inside a deafening roar.

He froze. It was like someone custom-ordered a nightmare specifically for him.

They shouldn't have. They should not have.

The entire student body and faculty were there—hundreds upon hundreds of students and professors applauding, cheering, and whooping at his arrival. Two bodies struck him in quick succession. A cloud of ginger and brown hair obscured his sight. Explosions ripped through the air as Wildfire Whiz-bangs bounced across the vaulted ceiling. Peeves' cackle was somewhere in the mix.

Harry numbly realized the two bodies were Ginny and Hermione. His suspicions were confirmed when one of them started kissing every portion of his available skin.

"Ginny, Gin—what're you doing?" Stomach churning, he saw her hair was dotted with red and gold flecks. Confetti falling from the ceiling.

Fucking hell.

A wonderfully familiar laugh reverberated in his ear. "Try not to show how mortifying you find us."

"Hermione." Her name tumbled from his lips. A soft rush of relief. He enveloped her with his free arm and, leaning down, kissed the top of her head.

"What is all this?" he murmured darkly.

Ginny came up for air. "It's for you, idiot!" She squeezed his arm so tightly he could feel his heartbeat in his fingers. "We're welcoming you back properly!"

She was beaming at him. Harry did his best to convert his grimace into a smile.

Hermione's laughter was in his ear again.

"This can't have possibly been your idea," he said to her.

"No," she replied, her eyes dancing with suppressed laughter. She rubbed his back in apparent sympathy. "But I think you had better grin and bear it."

The two girls led him to the mass of students and faculty assembled in the entryway, along the marble staircase, and spilling into the Great Hall. From the black robes, he spotted Professor McGonagall striding towards them.

"Well, there you are, Potter," she said like he was tardy to Transfiguration. There was an unmistakable fondness in her voice, though. "All right, then?"

"Uh yes, Professor. Thank you." The students were swarming around them, trying to get a better look. "This wasn't at all necessary. I'm-I'm on assignment." He tried and failed to keep the indignation out of his voice.

"Of course you are," said McGonagall briskly. "But you can't deprive the school of its opportunity to welcome you, Potter. It's your first visit since June, isn't it? It's not every day the students have a genuine hero in their midst."

Harry gaped, sure he had misheard. That "genuine hero" shit would have been nice when he was her student.

Unfazed by his expression, McGonagall took Hermione's place and pushed him not so gently into the crowd. The students pressed themselves back like crabs to Harry's hungry seagull. Ginny was radiant, smiling widely as she led him by the arm.

"You must be famished from your trip, Potter," said the Headmistress.

"Not really. I apparated."

Hermione snorted behind him.

"I know it's a bit late," he said tightly. "I'll just turn in and get an early start, if that's all right."

"Nonsense," said McGonagall sharply. "It's only nine o'clock and what would we do with the welcome feast in your honor?"

"Welcome feast?"He very nearly gasped.

Hermione's laughter rang out, uncontrollable this time.


Older Harry laughed too, despite the heat radiating from his face. Residual embarrassment was not quite funny to him yet. Maybe never would be.

The Great Hall blurred around him. The figures within sped up as the Pensieve rushed him to the relevant memories. Harry saw the vague outline of his younger self being marshaled to the head of the Great Hall. He was made to stand at the lectern where Dumbledore had welcomed students at the start of each year. Harry's public speaking abilities had drastically improved over the past ten months. The result of countless interviews for wizarding newspapers across the world. The Auror Department had also forcefully encouraged him to speak at public events: the reopening of the Auror Offices and the unveiling of the new central fountain in the Ministry Atrium, to name a few.

But before the student body of Hogwarts, Harry remembered his intense discomfort. He was not much older than them. What nuggets of wisdom could he possibly offer? Drop out of Hogwarts and you too can be famous?

The picture blurred again, this time smearing across his vision so that nothing was discernable from silver wisps. He closed his eyes, directing his thoughts to show him Hermione. When he opened them, he was in another memory. Looking around he could see no one, let alone Hermione.

He appeared to be in a vacant classroom on one of the higher floors of the castle. Desks were piled against a far wall. It was almost completely black, the night sky only shades lighter than the darkness within. He took a step forward. He did not remember this, though something seemed familiar.

Then, he heard a sigh.

His younger self and Ginny were lying on the floor, shielded from the door by an arrangement of boxes. They lay atop a thin mattress, a sheet pooled around their naked bodies.

They had obviously just finished having sex. As his eyes adjusted, he could see the sheen of sweat on their skin. A heady scent hung in the air. The two faced each other and he watched his younger self trace his fingertips along the edge of her shoulder. Her eyes were closed, head tucked in below his chin.

Ginny had always been a gorgeous woman. But at seventeen she was unbelievable.

All the same features were there: skin like polished alabaster, waves of scarlet hair, full breasts and slender hips in ideal proportion. But her limbs had a certain careless elegance and her eyes the sort of unguarded trust that survives only in youth.

"I missed you."

He smiled at her words, fingers dipping into the arc of her hip, making her shiver against him. He leaned forward and blindly kissed the corner of her lips.

She rolled onto her back, breasts outlined in darkness. Harry wanted to laugh at how easily his younger self was captivated by the sight.

"I'm sorry we had to come here to do this," she sighed.

His hand was already reaching for her. He ran the tip of his forefinger around the delicate skin of her nipple before dragging his thumb along the underside. She barely noticed. She was used to his quiet, reverential exploration of her body now.

"Wherever's fine."

"I guess," she said, tone clipped. "I asked Hermione if I could borrow her suite while you were here. She said 'no.' Big surprise."

"Borrow?"

"Yeah." She turned slightly. "You didn't know Head Boys and Head Girls get their own suite in their Houses?"

He shook his head.

"There's a suite set aside in the Gryffindor tower for any Gryffindor who's either Head Boy or Head Girl. It has two rooms, just in case both are in Gryffindor," she explained. "It's just Hermione's suite now; the Head Boy is a Ravenclaw. I asked if we could swap places just while you were here, you know? She could sleep in my bed in the girl's dormitory while you and I could take the suite. And she flat-out refused. Then I said we didn't even have to switch. We could just take the suite's extra room, but she didn't like that idea either."

"Well, would you want to be next to us? Considering what we'd be doing." His hand ran down her ribcage before coming to rest below her navel.

She smiled reluctantly. "She's being a prude about it but won't admit it. She said she has to study for an Ancient Runes exam on Friday." She scoffed lightly. "Who studies for a Friday exam on a Monday?"

"Hermione."

Ginny moved beneath him. "I think it's rather selfish, honestly," she said, indignation creeping into her voice. "She knows how long we haven't seen each other."

He pulled away instinctively. Hermione and selfishness could not occupy the same space in his brain.

"It's not that odd of a reaction, Gin," he said gruffly. "If you were Head Girl and Ron visited, would you give him your suite? So he could…be with Hermione."

She made a cute retching sound. "Maybe not. Though I'd never be in that position. It's not like anyone but Hermione was going to be Head Girl once she decided to come back."

Like Harry would have been Head Boy, Hermione was the shoo-in for Head Girl. He got the feeling Ginny was not happy about this. There was a good chance she would have got the title had Hermione not returned.

"So now we're stuck here. In an abandoned classroom." She looked around the room, not missing the thick film of dust on the boxes and the cobwebs between them.

He murmured something incoherent.

"You should see that suite though, Harry. Two rooms and her own common room. There's a huge fireplace. She even gets her own house-elf, not that Hermione uses it."

Harry imagined Hermione's first meeting with her personal house-elf and found himself grinning. Probably freed it by now. Or else back to knitting. The thought made him feel very warm and he brought Ginny closer.

She turned on her side and he opened his eyes after a moment, feeling her watching him.

"What?"

"I was thinking…maybe you could convince her to lend us the room," she said, her fingers tracing the hollow of his throat. "You've got one more night here."

He shut his eyes, frowning. "It's her room. I'm not telling her what to do with it."

Ginny tensed in his arms, looking as though she might protest. But she hesitated and eventually mumbled: "Classrooms it is then."

He smiled, eyes still closed. "I already told you. Wherever is fine."

They kissed for a while then. She threw a leg over his hips and he brought her against his chest, hands lost in her hair. After a minute passed, Harry started to feel awkward. In his own memory no less. He wondered if he should direct the Pensieve elsewhere.

She pulled away finally.

"What did you think of your welcome back?" she murmured against his neck.

Sent into a sybaritic daze by her mouth, he was slow to respond.

"Over the top."

"What? Why?"

Harry groaned and turned onto his back. "I'm on a bloody assignment. Was that not clear to anyone? Do you think any other Auror would have….?" He trailed off, trying to find words that matched his anger. "Haven't been here since June," he grumbled, mimicking McGonagall. "Well, if they wanted to get excited about me, why not do it then and be done with it? Just let me do my job."

When she didn't say anything he opened his eyes. She was avoiding his gaze and it occurred to him, for the first time, that maybe she had a hand in arranging his welcome.

"I'm sorry, Gin," he said, reaching for her hand tangled in the sheets. "I'm just…I'm tired, that's all. These reactions…"

She was silent a moment. "I just thought…we all thought everyone wants to see you, celebrate your being back. Is that so bad? Why would you want to stop them?"

He wanted to groan again, but she was asking in earnest.

"After the war, I understand that people wanted to see me," he said to the ceiling. "We'd been in hiding for so long. Everyone wanted to know the full story. Hermione said that was a good thing, people should know what really happened. So I was all right with the attention and the interviews. The ones I did. The ones with Ron. You. Neville. Everyone.

"When it was about getting the truth out, it was fine. But then it just became about me. And it's kept being me. It's one thing to be famous, to be recognized. That can be okay. But it's different to be picked over and watched and feel like nothing you do is really your own. Like you only exist for them. And that's all they really want you for."

He was mostly talking to himself now. Ginny's palm was still on his chest.

"It's almost a year now. I keep wondering when it'll end. And then I think what if it doesn't? What if this is what it's like now and how am I ever going to do anything…how could anyone take me seriously?"

His last words were a whisper. A fear he had told no one, not even Ron or Hermione.

Ginny shifted when he had finished.

"Merlin." She laughed a little nervously. "Is it really as bad as all that?"

He glanced at her, unsure what she meant.

She looked at him as though he'd gone insane. "You do realize that everyone's just grateful, right? No one is trying to make you feel uncomfortable."

The way she said it sent a pang of guilt through his chest, settling below his breastbone.

"Maybe the attention is intense," she went on, rising up on her elbow. "But what happened last summer was incredible. They're happy and they want to see you happy alongside them. They're just showing you respect. What could be more serious than that? You don't have to act like it's such a bad thing."

He was quiet for a long moment.

"I'm overreacting." His voice was uncertain.

"Yes, love." She bent down to kiss a spot below his shoulder. "You worry all the time. You don't have to do that anymore. After everything that's happened, I know it's hard. But you don't have to."

He swallowed, taking in what she said.

"It's getting in the way of my job. You haven't seen it, Ginny. Not really. I just want to do my work and I…I can't seem to do that with all this going on around me."

She laughed aloud. "Don't worry about your job, Harry. From everything the Prophet reports, you're doing great there." She touched her fingers to his cheek. "I bet you'll head the whole Department one day. And you'll deserve it."

She settled back into the crook of his neck. After a moment, he brought an arm around her shoulders, her hair spreading out like watery silk. In a few minutes, her breathing slowed. They would both have to be up before dawn. Ginny to the Gryffindor tower and he to the faculty quarters he was ostensibly staying in.

Despite his exhaustion, it was clear he could not let go of her words. Like her youngest brother, Ginny sometimes failed to see how fame could be a bad thing. How it could ever make you feel powerless, instead of powerful.

You'll head the whole Department one day. And you'll deserve it.

It was the inevitability that frightened him. As though simply being an Auror meant he would be Chief. If he had been anyone else her words would be nonsensical. New Aurors don't assume they will be Chief, not even the most ambitious ones.

But because he was who he was—The Boy Who Lived. The Chosen One. The Vanquisher of the Dark Lord—the job was his for the taking. A mere formality of waiting until he reached the proper age and rank.

Is that what everyone thought?

Harry had been an Auror for ten months. There were inductees with better defensive skills than him, greater knowledge of potions and antidotes, and larger repertoires of hexes and spells. Harry was a promising Auror, of course. His experience with the Dark Arts was unparalleled. And even he could admit he possessed some natural leadership abilities. After years in the spotlight, he was not uncomfortable with people looking to him for direction.

But to say it like it was predetermined.

That assumption had nothing to do with his skill. It was about his ethos, his name. Was it then pointless to try and prove himself beyond it? To earn some of the fame thrust upon him at birth? Should he worry what his fellow Aurors would think if he were made Chief?

Or was it futile and he was stupid to agonize over it, like Ginny suggested. There were people who would kill to be in his position, so what right did he have to complain?

Since the Dragon's Head. Since the end of the war, really. That's what he had been trying to figure out. Was he going to be Harry Potter or was he going to be himself? And did the latter option even exist anymore?

Ginny was right about one thing though. He did want to be Chief. He could think of nothing he wanted more…

Harry turned from the couple and walked towards the door. The memories immediately coalesced, dense swirls of silvered grey.

Hermione, he said. Hermione.

At last, the memories shifted and solidified. Shooting high into a vaulted ceiling and condensing into stone under his feet. Harry recognized it instantly: the corridor leading to the Gryffindor tower.


20 April 1999

The hall was packed with students after dinner. Harry had finished his interviews with the Slytherin students that morning. He had just now finished the paperwork.

As expected, there was no useful information. He ordered the third-year and sixth-year to hand over their correspondence from the last twelve months and he had found nothing out of the ordinary. No concealment or invisibility charms. Ciphering spells revealed nothing. They were normal letters—parents checking up on children—save for the deliberate lack of detail as to their activities and whereabouts.

Harry made it to the Great Hall for the last twenty minutes of dinner. Ginny and Hermione were gone and he was forced to sit at the faculty table with McGonagall. But Hagrid had been there. Harry promised to visit the next morning and drop off the ale.

Now he darted between students in his hurry to get to the Gryffindor tower. A ripple went through the students at his presence and the hallway cleared, unimaginably tiny first and second-years stumbling back to get a better look at him. Behind him, he heard the clicking of several cameras but he kept his face forward. He somehow felt very old as the students waved at him and called out things like "Thanks for coming, sir!" and "Would you sign my chocolate frog card, sir? I've got one of the first ones they printed."

Finally, he stood before the painting of the Fat Lady. A group of fifth-years had just crawled through the portrait hole, but the frame swung shut before Harry could follow.

"You're not supposed to stay here," she said scornfully, looking down a stubbed nose that shifted beneath the brushstrokes. "You're staying in the faculty quarters. That's what I was told anyway. I can't let you in without a password."

Harry smiled a little. Rudeness. Always an unexpected treat these days.

"C'mon. I lived here for six years," he said, voice sweet. "What do you think I'm going to do? I'm not staying. I'm visiting a friend."

The Fat Lady didn't care much for his reasoning.

"We'll let you in…Harry," said a tremulous voice behind him.

A group of fourth-year girls had arrived. They stared wide-eyed, clutching schoolbooks to their chests like he was some exotic and dangerous beast escaped from the Forbidden Forest. Two of them looked breathless and were holding hands as though for mutual support.

"Uh, thanks."

The one who had spoken faced the portrait. "The password's Musidora."

The Fat Lady shrugged resentfully and swung open.

"You can go ahead," the fourth-year said, nervously tucking hair behind her ear. "Sorry about that."

"No problem. Thanks again." He smiled at her.

The girls devolved into titters.

Harry caught sight of his own face plastered on one the girl's notebooks. It was a Witch Weekly cover from seven months ago. Somehow, someone had taken photos of him during a run at the Auror Training Centre. It had been his mistake not to wear a shirt. In his defense, it had been unseasonably warm for September. Apparently, it was their highest selling issue in sixteen years.

He scrambled through the portrait hole. Older Harry caught the girls' whispers behind him.

"Even cuter in person…"

"Merlin, did you see his smile? You're so lucky, Delia!"

"I just about melted when he looked at me. Touch me. Am I shaking?"

Harry found this much more amusing than his younger self, it seemed. Younger Harry was looking frantically around the common room. He grabbed the nearest male he could find.

"Where's the Head Girl's suite?"

"Er, you take the short staircase on the left," said a startled sixth-year. "Hey, are you—"

"Thanks."

Harry made it to the darkness of the stairwell and leaned against the wall for a moment. He smoothed back his hair and touched his cheeks, pinker than normal.

He took the remaining stairs at a run and faced a rounded door with a bronze plaque that read only: HEAD GIRL.

He knocked twice and eased it open.

"Hermione?"

She was sitting cross-legged in an armchair, two books open in her lap. Her head snapped up at the sound of his voice.

"Oh god, Harry!"

She launched out of the chair, books tumbling to the floor. Flying into his arms, she nearly pushed him back into the stairwell. With a breathless laugh, he lifted her off the ground in a crushing hug. Her eyes squeezed shut and her fingers dug into his jumper.

"Oh god," she said, a whisper now. "Bloody Christ, I've missed you."

"I know."

Slowly, she let him go. But his sudden appearance had unsteadied her and she kept a hand at his elbow. Her eyes were bright.

"I can't believe you're here." She was grinning madly.

With little opportunity to speak at the feast the night before, they had arranged to meet today after dinner. He had hoped to run into her throughout the afternoon, but with his assignment and her classes and duties as Head Girl, it had proven impossible.

"Come here. Come here." She took his hand and led him to a couch before a roaring fire.

"Sit down, sit down," she instructed, nudging books out of his path.

"Okay. Okay."

He was grinning as stupidly as her.

"I want to hear everything you've been doing," she declared, pushing even more books off a coffee table. "What you're doing in London. What you're doing for the AD."

A final book skidded under the couch. Madam Pince must hate her. It looked like she had a quarter of the library's collection.

She stood upright, hands on hips, and blew a curl out of her face.

Her hair was bushier than he remembered. The messy waves fell past her shoulders. A shambolic halo in firelight. She was wearing her uniform button-down but had traded her skirt for jeans, the shirt tucked sloppily inside.

"I'm sorry we couldn't meet before," she finally said. "I've an exam on Friday and two next week. A couple of second-years got into the kitchens last night, so I was managing that this morning."

"It's all right. Really." There was something tender in his face when he looked at her.

Hermione nodded vaguely and collapsed next to him. They fell oddly silent as she threaded her fingers through his. Harry sunk down to lean his head on her shoulder. Her eyes fell halfway closed looking into the fire, her thumb tracing the ridges of his knuckles. His younger self breathed deeply. The tension that carried him through the day finally seemed to leave him.

She broke the spell.

"You've been busy too, I gather," she said, her tone light.

He smirked and looked up at her.

"Yeah. Been interviewing Slytherins. Official Auror business, of course."

"Yes, of course," she smiled, dragging out the last word. "Official Auror business in empty classrooms. Late at night. Don't pretend like I don't know. I'm the one who kept the prefects away from the seventh floor last night."

Harry blushed, sitting up. "I should thank you then?"

"Please. It's the least I could do." Her face grew serious. "I'm sorry I couldn't give you the suite…I'm just. With the exams…I'm particular about where I study. I can be rather tetchy about it, I know."

"Don't apologize."

She didn't look up. "I got the feeling Ginny was a bit angry with me about it."

He shrugged. "It doesn't matter. It's your room. Don't worry about it."

She sighed. "Where's Ginny then? I thought she was coming?"

"McGonagall called her out on missing class. She's doing detention."

Hermione caught the implication. "Oh…I didn't think Professor McGonagall would do that. It was you she was with, after all. How much did she miss?"

He rubbed the back of his head, smiling ruefully. "Well…half of this morning and two periods after lunch."

Hermione's mouth opened slightly. She couldn't imagine skiving off so many classes unless you were in a Full Body-Bind.

He chuckled at the look on her face. "It's my fault, really. She should be out in a couple hours. I told her to meet us here."

"But what about your interviews? If you were with Ginny…"

"The interviews took two hours this morning. I did the paperwork after McGonagall found her. Don't worry." He nudged her socked foot with his boot. "I'm still doing my homework."

"Mmhmm."

They were interrupted when the door swung open. Harry looked past Hermione's shoulder but found he had to shift his vision a great deal lower to see who had joined them.

"Oh, Lottie!" said Hermione, jumping up.

"Good evening, Mistress."

"Lottie, I've told you. It's Hermione."

The house-elf didn't respond. She was small, even for her species, at just over two feet. She had smooth, moss-colored skin and plates of lank hair sprouting from her wide forehead. Her eyes were the size and color of galleons, her nose narrow like a willow leaf.

"Come meet my friend," said Hermione, urging the creature towards the hearth. "You've heard of Harry Potter, maybe? He's come for a visit."

"I is knowing," Lottie squeaked, voice like air leaking from a balloon. "I is knowing a Mister Harry Potter, Mistress."

"Hermione."

"Mistress Hermione."

Hermione sighed.

As Lottie came into the light, Harry got a proper look at her clothes. For they were clothes. As was typical of freed elves, she had an odd understanding of fashion. She was wearing what appeared to be a first-year's shirt. The sleeves had been rolled back four times to make use of her hands. Over this was a pair of toddler's dungarees cut off above the knee, revealing yellow-and-purple candy-stripped tights. And around her neck, the pièce de résistance: a knobby scarf of rainbow-dyed wool.

"Nice to meet you." Harry extended his hand.

Lottie giggled (an even higher sound if it can be imagined) and shied away. She laid her small palms flat against her eyelids.

"I is knowing, sir," she peeped. "I is knowing."

"Oh. All right, then," said Harry awkwardly.

"Did you want something, Lottie?" Hermione asked, perching herself on the coffee table.

The elf jolted and opened her eyes. Very wide.

"I is not wanting, Mistress Hermione. Lottie is wanting only to serve. Lottie is never wanting, you see," she said, looking very solemn.

"Right, right. Of course," said Hermione, agitated. "What's—uh—going on then?"

The elf inhaled deeply, bat-like ears rising. "Lottie is wondering. Only wondering, ma'am. Mister Harry Potter is guest, ma'am? Lottie is thinking maybe he is being very cold. Maybe he and Mistress is wanting something, something for the cold ma'am? Maybe Lottie is making for them? Maybe?"

"Oh, um… Are you wanting anything Harry?"

"She doesn't need to bother," he started, but quickly amended upon seeing Lottie's ears suddenly droop. "But, I dunno. Maybe some, er, hot chocolate wouldn't hurt?"

Hermione nodded. "Lottie, if you wouldn't mind terribly, do you think you could bring up some hot coco for Harry and me? Only if it's not a big inconvenience for you, though. If you have other things to do, please don't feel like you have to…"

Harry rolled his eyes.

Lottie's lips disappeared into the folds of her cheeks in an eye-watering smile. She seemed overjoyed to have an order. Judging by the disarray of Hermione's suite, Harry got the impression Lottie didn't get many orders from her mistress.

"I will do, Mistress!" Lottie squeaked, pawing excitedly at her scarf. "I is doing right away. Thank you, Mistress! Thank you, sir! Lottie is going now."

And she vanished with a rippling crack!

Harry stared at the spot where she disappeared and then turned skeptically to Hermione.

She arched a brow. "Don't look at me like that. She loves being free."

"Does she?"

"She should! I freed her after three days. Finally got her into that scarf…"

"Did you have to hold her down?" He covered his smile with his fist.

She struck his shoulder with her own small fist. "No, you nit. I just…I ordered her to put it on, that's all."

"Oh, it works like that, does it?"

"She's free now and she loves it."

He couldn't contain the smile as he rubbed his shoulder. "Has anyone told you you're a bit mad?"

The brow arched again, amused this time. "Possibly."

They broke into toothy smiles, beaming at each other like idiots. Laughter bubbling below the surface. Hermione knew Harry found her fanaticism absurd. And Harry knew Hermione didn't give two fucks if he thought so. It was a delightful sort of understanding. The product of eight years of friendship. He shared it with no one else but her.

"Come here," she said suddenly, getting to her feet. "I know it's not very you, but I can't help it. I see you and I just want to hug you. Make sure you're really here."

He stood with a sarcastic groan. "Fine. If I have to."

"You do."

She wrapped her arms around his waist, locking her wrists behind his back. He didn't say anything when she pressed her cheek into his chest like she could fall into him.

"You're so solid, you know," she murmured, voice muffled. "I'mso glad you're here."

"I'm glad too." And for the first time, older Harry thought he meant it. He leaned down then and took her in his arms. Her chin was forced upwards to rest on his shoulder. She released a shaky breath against his neck.

Older Harry stared. There was something in the way her hands clung to him, in the tension at the corner of her eyes. Like she was trying very hard not to cry.

Words Hermione had said months ago, back in 2017 on the bank of the River Isis, pushed to the front of his mind.

That's how I felt most of my seventh year: isolated. I didn't have you and Ron. I didn't have any of my former classmates. It was difficult at times.

It finally dawned on him how lonely she was.

He and Ron had their lives in the city. But Hermione, surrounded by the familiar sights and sounds of Hogwarts, had no distractions. Nothing to divert her from the fact that she was without her closest friends for the first time in seven years. And at a point in time when public attention on them had never been greater. There was Ginny and Luna and a few younger students she knew, of course. But now he could see that hadn't been enough.

Harry thought of her letters. The underlying tension he sensed in each one but had never understood. In her own way, she had been telling him she was alone, she was unhappy. And Harry and Ron—being the oblivious shits they were at age eighteen (and older, he must now admit)—had never noticed.

Harry wanted to shake his younger self. Willed him to see what was in front of him.

Ask her! he said through clenched teeth. Ask her, you fuck. Ask her if she's okay.

But of course, he didn't ask. One, because he was an idiot. And two, because a low purr was rising up from the vicinity of their ankles. Crookshanks had come to investigate, circling the couple twice before Harry noticed.

He laughed and drew away. "Was wondering when you'd show up. Missed me, have you?"

He knelt down and rubbed Crookshanks under the collar. The purring grew louder. Hermione had left Crookshanks in the care of Mrs. Weasley during the war and quickly retrieved him once the fighting was over.

"I'm sure he has," Hermione said laughingly, but older Harry saw her swipe at her eyes.

"Well, I expect he's glad I'm not Ron."

She grinned, eyes only slightly red, as Harry sat back on the couch. Crookshanks jumped into his lap, paws pressing into his thighs until the half-Kneazle found a comfortable spot.

"How's Ron, then?" Hermione asked, returning to her chair. "I didn't hear from him last week."

"He's good. Busy though," Harry said, rubbing Crookshanks from head to bobbing tail. "They've been after this bloke who used to be the chief sweets designer at Honeydukes. Don't know if they told you? His non-compete clause is up, so they've just signed him on. Plan is to have a whole new line of traditional sweets, not just puking pastilles and the like. George is on the design end. Ron's doing all the contracting and marketing. They want to release by late summer."

"So, Ron's liking it then?" she asked, tucking her feet under her. "No more talk of his becoming an Auror?"

He could tell she was curious. Ron's fraught career aspirations were not easily discussed face-to-face, let alone through owl post.

"Uh, no," said Harry uncomfortably. "Not recently, anyway. He'd need to sign on in the next two months. Training starts in June. But I think…I get the feeling he'll stay. George is…"

He didn't finish.

"Not good?" she asked quietly.

He shook his head.

"Not yet. Better though. Really better," he said, assuring himself as well as her. "Much different than how he was at Christmas. Mr. Weasley wanted him to talk to someone, a professional, you know? But I think the work is really helping. He's spending all his time with Angelina and Ron. You'll see, when you get out, he's much less…he's better."

She nodded and they were silent.

"What about you, then?" she asked, perking up. "How is it at the AD? You were over the moon at Christmas…"
He hesitated, face going through several emotions.

She caught it instantly, of course.

"What happened?"

He released a long breath and told her. Told her everything. What happened at the Dragon's Head. Why he was really at Hogwarts. How the AD treated him with kid gloves yet seemed certain he would be Chief, whether or not he deserved it. How he couldn't go anywhere or do anything without other people knowing. How is life didn't feel like his own. Fame like he had never experienced and the guilt that followed after.

She listened silently, occasionally asking a clarifying question. The line between her brows grew harder as her eyes grew softer. She was troubled but not surprised by what he said.

"Well," Hermione sighed, once he had finished, "it really has gotten out of hand. You're right about that."

Harry nodded grimly.

"I don't think we realized how lucky we were to have Hogwarts these past few years," she said. "It shielded us in a way, you know? The teachers treated us like everyone else for the most part. Everyone in our year got used to us. But out there…out there that protection's gone."

"What do you think I should do?" he asked, attempting an indifferent tone.

She shook her head.

"I don't know, Harry."

He stared at her, surprised. She smiled gently. It wasn't a pitying smile, though. It was affection. Affection for him, affection for what they had gone through. A recognition their post-Voldemort lives were still far from easy.

Harry felt his throat tightening. Somehow, just having another person acknowledge that his situation was complicated was soothing enough for Harry. He needed validation even more than a solution. She was telling him it was okay. It was okay to be confused. It was okay to be upset, to feel used and manipulated. That's what the situation warranted.

"I could tell you to wait it out," Hermione mused, eyes unfocused as they often were when solving a problem. "I could tell you that maybe, in a few years, it will be better. You'll still be very famous, I should think, but you could start having some control over your life again."

"Control over my life?" Harry echoed. "When did I ever have that?"

He meant it sarcastically. But the tone was a little too dark to be funny.

She smiled grimly. "True enough."

"Ginny said I should just go with it," he said after a moment. "There's no point fighting. I'm lucky to be where I am, so why not just accept what comes with that?"

Hermione's eyes grew imperceptibly harder.

"That's one way to look at it," she said diplomatically. "But you wouldn't be the man I think you are if you did that."

His eyes flicked away from her.

"What kind of man do you think I am?"

She watched him carefully for a long moment. Her voice was measured, but undeniably tender, when she next spoke. Each word measured out in precise doses.

"You're a man who's been through hell and back. You've…taken on more and sacrificed more than anyone had right to ask or expect. God knows you deserve the praise they're giving you. All of it. Ten times over." Her careful tone was falling away as her eyes grew brighter. "But damn it…you deserve some fucking control over your life too!"

Harry, who had been staring fixedly at the fire, looked back at her.

"I want to tell you to just accept what they're doing to you," she said, face flushed. "It will lead to great things, I'm sure. After the last seven, eight years I think everyone wants you to be happy. You know I want that…" She looked down at the hands twisting in her lap. "But everyone's making choices for you, Harry. Again. When they've got no right to. After everything that's happened, that they could even think…" She shook her head slightly and looked at him. "I think you know that what they're choosing for you is different from what you want. And maybe deep down a part of you is scared to choose differently. But you've got a choice, Harry. You always do."

Harry watched the muscles work in his younger self's jaw.

"What choice do I have when…" he started, voice thick.

Hermione made an impatient sound.

"There are hundreds of choices," she said, voice intent but soft. "You could leave here, for starters. You could go anywhere, Harry. Australia, Africa, Tibet. Do whatever you want for a year, two years. Hell, five years. You could travel, read everything you've been meaning to. Figure out if you like to cook or paint or write. Anything." Her eyes drifted from his and her shoulders rose unconsciously. "You could live in the Muggle world. No one knows you there. You could figure out who you are. What you want. And once you know that…you'd know how to control your life, Harry. Because you wouldn't let anyone do it for you."

Harry was taken aback hearing her words for the first time in eighteen years. But he could tell it was too much, too fast for his younger self. His face was a blotchy red, eyes boring into Crookshanks' fur.

"It's not that simple."

"What's not simple? You're healthy. You've got money. Christ, Harry. These are the last years of our lives when we don't have to worry about a family and a career. What's stopping you?"

"No, it's not that." He couldn't meet the depths of her eyes. He struggled with the next words. "The things I want, for right now at least…are the things everyone's choosing for me."

She sat back slightly. His younger self didn't notice, but Harry thought she looked just a bit deflated at the limits of his imagination.

"I want to be Chief. I want that, Hermione. I don't know how to see beyond it."

She bit her lip, her eyes taking in the set of his shoulders and the flush of his neck.

"Then do it on your terms. Become Chief how you want to become Chief."

He stared. "How do I do that? Even if I work my arse off and do everything right, there are still going to be people who think I was handed the job."

"Then fuck them."

"What?" He jolted and Crookshanks hissed angrily.

"Fuck them," she repeated, smiling a little. "What do they know about you and what you've done? Besides, the selection committee for Chief chooses an Auror who's a capable leader and manager, right? If you are those things, then you're a good choice."

He swallowed. A measure of self-possession returned to his features.

"What if they come to me in five years or seven years and ask me to be Chief? I obviously won't be ready by then."

"Then tell them 'no.'"

Harry balked. "But what if it's my only chance? What if they give it to someone else and that person has the job for twenty, thirty years?"

"You still say 'no.' If you're serious about becoming Chief on your terms, and not theirs, the timing may never be perfect. You may have to wait until the next offer. Even if it comes decades later. If you can accept that, you're going into this for the right reasons."

Harry nodded vaguely, not necessarily liking this answer but knowing she was right. It was like the voice in his head that spoke in her voice. Always there, forcing his face into the truth.

Harry could feel the vestigial resolve rising in him. Should the day come when he would be named Chief, it would be because he had shown he deserved it. Shown it to the Aurors and shown it to himself. If they gave him the job, it would be because he was the best damn Auror they had.

"It's not about becoming Chief," he said, more to himself than to her. "It's about the work."

"Semper vigilio and all that."

Harry grinned. "You should be an Auror. Sure it's too late to convince you?"

"Oh, had you come all this way to recruit me?" Her eyes glinted like burnished bronze. "Here I was thinking that wouldn't start for another month."

He chuckled. "I mean it, though."

She looked at him fondly. "After seven years, I'll leave the mortal combat to you. Besides, the last person who told me I'd make a great Auror was a Polyjuiced lunatic and murderer."

He laughed dryly, remembering that lunatic had said the same about him.

"Don't know why you're dismissing Tibet out of hand, though."

"What would I do there?" he asked laughingly. "Learn to levitate with the monks?"

"Hey," she chided, stretching her legs. "Some Sarvastivadin monasteries are full of incredible wizards. I'd love to go there one day."

"Then go," he smirked. "You have a choice, Hermione."

She looked at him haughtily. "Maybe I will."

It looked like he believed her.

She stood and returned a book to her desk. Eyes closed, Crookshanks' ears followed the movement.

Harry smiled to himself. "And since when do you say 'fuck?'"

"Since you got so fucking stupid."

He laughed hard at that but her face was flushed when she sat down. She would always be the type of girl who blinked when she cursed. Dentists' daughter to the end.

They were interrupted a second time by the sound of clinking as a seemingly levitating tea service wedged through the door. The smell of cocoa and cinnamon was rich on the air.

"Coco's ready, Mistress," said Harry innocently.

Hermione smacked his head on her way to the door.


A/N 2: And that's it! Watch out for the completed version in the next couple months. Review + PM - would love to know what you think!