Simple and Clean
A Harry Potter Oneshot
Premise: Trelawney never made the prophecy, Voldemort was never defeated on Halloween of 1981, Britain has fallen into darkness, and Harry Potter is just another no-name rebel soldier trying to smuggle a certain Muggleborn witch out of Death Eater territory
- Jan. 27, 2011: First published
- Jan. 28, 2011: Epilogue pending, coming soon
"Harry, squad of six Death Eaters about a hundred yards south of your position," Neville reported into his communication mirror as he looked out across the desolate and crumbling cityscape from his position on top of the area's tallest building.
"Anyone from Voldemort's Inner Circle?" Harry whispered, using a small hand mirror to peek around the corner of a dilapidated building to see a squad of Death Eaters marching down the empty street.
Neville adjusted the omniocular that they had modified into a sniper scope to zoom in on the enemy. "Hard to tell with their masks on... most of them seem like new recruits by the way they carry themselves, but the leader..."
"Should we risk using the compulsion ward to force them to split up?"
"I'm getting a bad feeling about the leader... he might be able to tell something's wrong..."
"Well, it's not too weird for a squad to split up and search a wide area like this, so he might even think it's a good idea and won't question it," Harry argued.
"Fine... they're nearing your position, do it now."
"Compulsion wards going up."
Neville watched as the leader stopped for a moment before issuing orders for the group to split up into three groups of pairs. Once all three groups were out of eyesight from each other, he trained his sniper scope on the leader. "Harry, I'm going to try taking out the leader first. You go after the pair of Death Eaters closest to you."
Neville aimed his makeshift sniper rifle, which was made from a cherry wood broom handle that had been haphazardly infused with a core of multiple Unicorn hairs scrapped together from wands of fallen enemies. It wasn't crafted well enough to form spells, but it could still channel magic, and the runes etched into the tip were able to shape the spell-less bolt of magic into a fine-point piercing tip. Though, while he didn't have to worry about wind or parabolic trajectory or silencing any gunshot, it lacked the sheer velocity of a Muggle sniper round, so he had to predict how far the target would move between the time of firing and the time at which the bolt of magic actually arrived at the destination.
He exhaled in order to calm his beating heart before he held his breath and steadied his nervously clammy hands. Then, calculating the target's average walking speed, he aimed the crosshairs slightly ahead of his target before sending a pulse of his magic through the sniper rifle.
"Shite! I missed! Harry, watch it, they'll be on their guard now! I don't think they've figured out my position yet though."
"Bloody hell," Harry swore under his breath as he ambushed a pair of Death Eaters by dropping in on them from a second-floor window. Instead of using a wand, the fingerless glove on his right hand had supple and flexible strips of holly wood sewn into the fabric using threads of thestral hair. He drove his fist into the gut of the first Death Eater, releasing a violent flare of a red bludgeoning hex that shot straight through the other side out through the Death Eater's back and promptly snapping his spinal cord with a sickening crack.
The second Death Eater was so shocked that, before he could even collect his marbles, Harry easily closed the distance in a blink of an eye and used an open-palm uppercut with another burst of magic to the underside of his jaw to snap his neck.
Harry, hearing the sound of footsteps and robes fluttering, quickly spun around to find a Death Eater about to fire a spell at him when a red bolt of magic from Neville's sniper rifle rained down from above and pierced a gaping hole right through the white Death Eater mask.
"I took care of three of them, only the leader left, but he's bloody good. I couldn't land a single hit. He's on the next street to the north."
Harry slipped into a building that connected out through the other side to the next street and ran upstairs. He quietly slid down with his back against the wall to peek out a shattered window to see the Death Eater taking cover behind a car.
"He's behind the black Vauxhall Frontera. He probably knows your general direction if he's protecting himself like that," Harry whispered. "I'll engage while you switch to a different location."
"Watch yourself, Harry. I think you're faster than he is, but he adapts quick," Neville warned.
Harry quickly navigated the building so that he could get around behind the Death Eater. Unfortunately, the nearest exit was a good fifty yards away from his target.
'Shit, he saw me!'
Harry then decided to strike first before the Death Eater had time to react. He used an accelerator charm to fire an explosive burst of magic through his legs and rocket himself towards the Death Eater at an inconceivable speed. The rebound blast from his feets' initial contact with the ground left a small crater with a backspray of dust and dirt that was loud enough to startle the Death Eater into action, but Harry's speed had already closed the distance by then.
"Confringo!" Harry shouted as he used his momentum to drive a volatile flare of red magic from an open-palm strike.
The Death Eater nimbly dodged out of the way, so Harry diverted his remaining momentum to pull a circular U-turn back towards the enemy. He tried his best to stay within arm's length, as close as possible, so that the Death Eater would have to bend his arm at awkward angles in order to aim his wand at such a close target.
Harry fired off a burst of magical energy with each explosive strike, but the agile Death Eater somehow managed to dodge everything. Harry was the faster one, literally running circles around the Death Eater, but an observer would think that it was the masked man that was running the show.
Then, just as Harry tried another strike, the Death Eater had managed to buy enough distance to cast a shield spell. When Harry's magic-enhanced fist struck against the shield, he was repelled and sent flying backwards. But then, all of sudden, Harry felt himself jerk back forwards in mid-air as the Death Eater hit him with an expelliarmus disarming spell to summon his weapon.
It was too difficult to disarm Harry though, since his weapon was a glove around his clenched fist, but that was what the Death Eater had been counting on as the rest of Harry's body followed his gloved fist right back towards the Death Eater in an ad-hoc summoning. Then, with a smirk, the Death Eater did what he had never seen any pure-blood wizard ever do; as Harry came flying in, the Death Eater held out his muscular arm, clotheslined him, slammed him into the ground, and then drove his fist straight down into Harry's gut, knocking the wind out of him.
The Death Eater was then about to use the opportunity to cast a cutting hex at Harry at point blank range when Neville fired off multiple sniper rounds from a rooftop. The Death Eater gracefully danced around the rain of deadly magic as each round only crashed into the ground, kicking up clouds of dust and debris. And, amongst all that chaos, he still somehow managed to fire off a hex at Harry, who had quickly recovered and used his speed to close the distance once again to negate the Death Eater's range advantage.
But the Death Eater had come to expect close-range combat by now. He slammed his foot into the ground, the explosive force breaking a crater into the concrete and kicking up dust, and then he transfigured the subsequent cloud of debris that was kicked up into a solid steel wall lined with deadly spikes that Harry just barely managed to stop himself from crashing into. Before Harry could go around the wall, however, it disappeared as the Death Eater transfigured it further into a massive seven-foot-long Zweihänder sword.
'Bloody hell...' Harry's eyes grew wide in shock as he saw the gigantic blade crashing down on him and barely had enough time to avoid being vertically sliced down in half. The only thing that saved him from a second slash was that the Death Eater was also using the sword to block Neville's sniper rounds.
Then, in a further show of transfiguration mastery, the Death Eater turned the sword into a spear. But, instead of thrusting it at Harry, he merely used transfiguration to magically lengthen it while pointing the tip at his enemy. Before he knew it, Harry coughed up blood as he found a spear point impaled into his abdomen.
Neville fired a round that shattered the wooden handle of the spear, freeing Harry to run for cover. "Get back and heal, Harry!"
"Shit, this guy's a bloody ace. He's just toying with us!" Harry swore, wincing in pain as he pulled the spear tip out and used some rudimentary slipshod healing spell on the wound.
"Complacency is his weakness," Neville replied. "We have to take advantage of it!"
But Harry didn't even have time to catch his breath as the wall behind him exploded into rubble before he just barely managed to sidestep a blasting curse that would have otherwise blown his head clean off his neck. It instead hit his left arm, shattering his bones with a sickening crunch.
Ignoring the pain pulsating from his uselessly limp arm, Harry flooded his legs with his trademark accelerator charm magic to backpedal to cover. He didn't use his full speed though in an attempt to lure the Death Eater into some traps that he and Neville had laid ahead of time.
As expected, the Death Eater followed him, all the while dodging shots from Neville's sniper rifle and casting rapid-fire spells of his own at Harry. Harry's glove couldn't really channel and focus magic as well as a traditional wand though, so he couldn't counterattack at such a distance. It was limited to firing off violent bursts of uncontrolled magic at short distances, maybe a meter at best. His handgun was also out of ammunition due to the rarity of firearms in Britain and the difficulty of smuggling them in from Ireland. He was able, however, to coat his gloved hand with a shield charm and use it to manipulate and redirect the momentum of enemy spells back at the caster.
The Death Eater was surprised at first to see the rebel boy "catch" the cutting hex that he had thrown at him and send it right back. He, however, nimbly dodged it as well and actually seemed entirely amused. This battle was full of things he had never seen before, and he was going to enjoy this to the fullest. A close-range combat specialist whose speed was so inconceivable that he actually seemed to blur out of sight? And a long-range sniper specialist with an unimaginable accuracy that could land three clean headshots in a row on moving targets from what seemed to be at least a kilometer away? His glee was clear from the maniacal grin that was plastered across his face, as his mask only hid his eyes.
That ever-so-brief lull in the spellcasting gave Harry the opportunity to find his bearings and try to remember where they had set one of the traps. Then, despite the primal and instinctive urge to retreat, Harry resumed his tactic of keeping the distance between them close since there was nothing he could do further out.
The Death Eater, however, continued to nimbly avoid all of Harry's point blank strikes and Neville's rain of sniper fire as Harry slowly lured them into the trap. He only hoped that Neville knew what he was up to and would know to spring the trap.
But then, all of a sudden, the Death Eater tossed his own wand away to the side. Harry's eyes grew wide, shocked that the Death Eater would throw his own weapon away like that. Then, as his vision instinctively focused on the wand clattering to the ground a few feet away, he subsequently lost track of the Death Eater.
'Shit! He tossed his wand away to distract me! Bloody clever bastard!' Harry swore as the Death Eater clamped his fingers around Harry's neck and lifted him clear off the ground. Harry then suddenly had the wind knocked out of him again when the Death Eater drove a powerful fist into his gut with an impact that seemed to shake the entire world all around him.
"I vas being pleasantly surprised to see a British vizard as yourself using your fists," the Death Eater remarked with a thick Bulgarian accent.
"Glad you're having fun, buddy," Harry coughed weakly, struggling against the iron grip around his neck.
Neville then took the opportunity to line up an accurate shot though, forcing the Death Eater to release Harry and dodge the lethal bolt of magic. But, even though the shot had missed, it still served the secondary purpose of hitting the triggering mechanism of the stasis wards, gluing the Death Eater's feet to the ground. Harry then used his explosive speed to deliver the finishing blow.
"Accio!" The Death Eater summoned his wand back but it was too late; Harry's fist had already driven a cutting hex straight into his chest.
But, as if in slow motion, Harry's elation of victory froze cold when he noticed a smug smirk form on the Death Eater's face as he aimed his reacquired wand over Harry's shoulder. Then, with a sardonic chuckle, he asked, "Vot is it that you value more than your own life, boy? The life ov your comrade, I am thinking, yes?"
Harry's eyes grew wide as the Death Eater fired off a powerful blasting curse into the air, aimed straight at the building Neville's sniper nest was situated on. With a tremendous explosion, the rooftop and top few floors were blown to smithereens and came crumbling down in a shower of debris.
"It vas fun, Unnamed Rebel Boy. I have not had this much fun in a long time, thank you," the equally unnamed Bulgarian Death Eater mocked with his last dying breath.
"You wanted to see me, Professor Slughorn?" she asked with a barely noticeable hint of nervousness in her voice. The usually cheerful potions professor seemed harried and worried. That was never a good sign.
"Ms. Greengrass..." Horace sighed, hesitating as he twiddled his fingers. "I have reason to believe that Ministry Aurors are on their way at this very moment to arrest you..."
Her eyes grew wide in fear and shock. Trembling and momentarily speechless, she took an involuntary step backwards. "B-b-but... how? How did they find out?"
"I... I am not sure, but I suggest you escape immediately. There is no time to gather your things, just run," Horace said. "Take the secret One-Eyed Witch passage to Hogsmeade and run."
"But I can't! My sister! Astoria!"
"I will take care of her, I promise. But you are in danger. You are one of my favorite students and I don't want to see you hurt. Please just go," Horace implored. He then fished out two vials, one containing bone-healing potion and the other containing the silvery wisps of a penseive memory, and handed both to her. "A friend of mine on the outside contacted me recently about healing a broken arm. Give this to him and he will help you escape. And the penseive memory is for Albus Dumbledore. It is imperative that you forward this to him."
"Can't I at least say goodbye to my sister?" she pleaded, nearly in tears.
"If you get caught, then it will be a permanent goodbye," Horace pointed out hastily. Then, hesitating for a moment, he gave in. "Make it quick. If they show up, I'll try to hold them off."
"Thank you, Professor," she cried, engulfing him in a powerful hug before sprinting to Gryffindor Tower. From her room, she grabbed her emergency pack and slung it over her shoulder.
"Astoria!" she cried as she burst into the fifth-year Gryffindor girls' dorm.
"Sis?" Astoria asked, startled.
"We've talked about this before, right? That, one day, I might have to leave?" she said, desperately trying to control her emotions.
"N-no... no! Sis!"
"I have to go. I love you, Astoria. I'll... I'll come back someday. Goodbye."
Harry etched Neville's name underneath those of Frank and Alice Longbottom on the gravestone. Nearby were the graves of Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Alastor Moody, Rubeus Hagrid, Edgar Bones and his niece Susan, and other fallen members of the original Order of the Phoenix.
He had heard rumors that Albus Dumbledore had revived the Order down south, based in Devon or Cornwall or some such. If anything, hopefully the Weasleys would still be there. Maybe he'd head south to join them. Or maybe head to Kent where the French were able to hold out a resistance over the narrowest part of the English Channel. Well, either way, he'd be heading south. There was nothing left for him here now anyway.
For years, the Order in Scotland, based in Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, had concentrated on leading raids against the M-Reactor facilities that Voldemort's forces had set up all across the country. M-Reactors had been constructed early on in the war to disrupt Muggle electronics and suppress nuclear fission reactions over a wide area. And they were powered by the magic of enslaved Muggle-born wizards and witches, so the Order had often targeted them to free the prisoners and help them escape to Ireland across the Straits of Moyle.
But after the senior members of the Order had all fallen, after Hogwarts had fallen to Voldemort, things had begun to deteriorate rapidly in Scotland until it was just kids like Harry and Neville left. For years, the youngsters had tried to continue the raids and help Muggles and Muggle-born escape, but their numbers also dwindled. And now Harry was the only one left of their little band of rebels. It was all over. There wasn't much he could do alone. After one last job there would be nothing more he could do in Scotland. It was time to pack up and leave.
He felt bitter that he couldn't do more for his home. He had grown up here amongst the Order, but now Scotland was firmly Death Eater territory and there was nothing he could do to wrench it back from them. All he could do was retreat. He cursed his powerlessness, his uselessness.
The last Death Eater they had fought had called him 'Unnamed Rebel Boy.' He was a nobody. He was no Luke Skywalker. He was no John Connor. He was no Thomas "Neo" Anderson. He was just Harry, a nobody.
He remembered having a conversation with Neville once. "Do you ever wish you were somebody?" he had asked.
"What do you mean?" Neville had quirked an eyebrow.
It had been during the aftermath of a particularly large-scale battle. The battle had ended in disaster, they had to make a hasty retreat and had no time to properly honor or even identify the dead. The scene of dead bodies littering the ground would haunt him forever. His memory was littered with no-name corpses. And that had been when he had realized that he was a nobody, that he could have just as easily been one of those no-name corpses on the ground amongst hundreds and thousands of other no-name corpses. This was war and he was just another no-name soldier.
"Like... I don't know... the main character of a story or something," Harry had shrugged, not really having known at the time how to explain it to his friend. "Main characters never die, right? And they always have some kind of power to defeat the villain, to make a difference. You know, they're somebody."
"Yeah, I think I know what you mean," Neville had nodded, raising his gaze to the starry night sky. "Sometimes at night I have this dream... like... some seer made a prophecy, before we were even born, about you or me being marked as Voldemort's equal and having the power that he knows not... silly, huh? But as dumb as it sounds... I'd kill for a prophecy like that right about now."
"And then I suppose Voldemort would hear the prophecy and would try to kill us while we're still toddlers, but it would backfire on him or some nonsense like that, and we'd have lived the last fifteen years in peace, right?" Harry had grinned. "You're right, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
Neville had rolled his eyes at that. "Sod off. You're the one that asked in the first place."
He missed Neville already. Both their parents had been part of the Order, so they had grown up together, trained together, laughed together, fought together. But now it was time to say goodbye.
"Neville... I brought you back to your parents... being buried here means that you're officially a member of the Order now... not really sure when I'll join you as an official member though..."
Then, with a solemn and impassive face, he gently pressed his knuckles against Neville's name, as if giving him one final friendly fist-bump.
"See you around, buddy."
With her nerves already frazzled from being on the run, she jumped in shock when she found a boy waiting for her at the end of the secret passageway to Hogsmeade. Somehow, she had expected an older and grizzled war veteran or something. He did look the part of a rebel soldier though. He was wearing a navy blue utility jacket with two pockets on each side and a pair of loose cargo trousers that also had additional pockets, probably all filled with various weapons and tools.
She then noticed that his left arm was in a sloppy makeshift sling. "Are you... a friend of Professor Slughorn?"
"My mum was... she was part of the Slug Club and what such nonsense back in the day," Harry shrugged. "And you're the one I'm supposed to smuggle out of the country?"
"Y-yes," she stammered.
He raised an eyebrow as he studied her appraisingly. She was about a head shorter than him, slim even in her bulky school robes, and had wavy brown shoulder-length hair with matching brown eyes. For some reason, he had been tempted to describe her hair as 'bushy' but it actually wasn't really, it was styled to be straight at the roots and gradually curled into elegantly loose helices near the tips. She definitely looked like the Pure-blood princess that she was supposed to be.
"Wh-what?" she asked, instinctively raising her arms over her chest as she felt his eyes examine her.
"Nothing. You're very pretty," he shrugged. "Do you have the potion Slughorn brewed for me?"
"That's Professor Slughorn," she huffed, trying to hide the hint of a blush that was still on her cheeks. She pulled the potion vial out of her robe and handed it to him. "It should take about fifteen minutes to fully heal your arm."
"Thanks," he said before chugging it down and pocketing the vial in case he needed something to transfigure into a knife later. It was yet another weapon that lined his many pockets. Better prepared than sorry.
"I never got your name," she pointed out as he led her out of the secret passage.
"Joe Bloggs," he replied flatly as he surveyed the area. It wasn't a Hogsmeade weekend, so the streets were fairly lazy and shops were idle. He noticed a pair of Aurors patrolling though, so he motioned her to be quiet.
She could tell that Joe Bloggs was clearly not his real name, but she held her tongue as they quietly snuck out of the village. It wasn't until they were in the clear under the cover of the surrounding forests that she made her irritation known. "Are you going to tell me your real name or what?"
"What kind of pure-blood are you to get that Muggle reference?" he chuckled, his eyes never ceasing to scan their environment. "My name is John Doe."
She frowned. But maybe it was a clue. The John Doe alias wasn't used much in the UK. "So you're an American? You have a very convincing Scottish accent."
"You're definitely not a pure-blood," Harry snorted. "Fine, my name is Harry Wotsit."
"Hmph, back to being British?" she huffed. "Really, what's your name? It's not fair that you already know mine."
Without replying, he suddenly pulled her close and backed up underneath the cover of a tree as a pair of Death Eaters flew overhead on brooms. He then glanced at his watch before testing out his left arm. The potion had seemed to have done the trick.
"I think we're far enough out to apparate," she noted, taking out her apparition key.
"They've probably blocked your key, and even if they didn't, they'll be able to track it. They'll be on us like white on rice the moment we touch down," he pointed out.
"Should we risk apparating without it then?"
"With all of the M-Reactors planted all across the bloody country? Apparating through all that interference without a key is like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse," he replied with a roll of his eyes. Voldemort had intended for the M-Reactors to only disrupt Muggle electronics, but an unintended side effect of all that magical interference was that it also affected apparition and portkey travel. Even with a key, apparition was quite limited in range now. "We'll just have to get to the next town as quickly as possible on foot. Get on my back."
"Wh-what?" she stammered as he knelt down on the ground to grant her access.
"Unless your body can handle the strain of an accelerator charm, get on," he rolled his eyes. "I can handle it for a short distance, but it's more important to get as far from here as possible as quickly as possible."
"An accelerator charm? What's that?" she asked worriedly as she tentatively put her arms around his neck and pressed herself up against his strong back. "You mean the enchantments they put on brooms? Are you sure that's safe to use on yourself?"
"You know what's not safe? This place... is going to be crawling with Death Eaters, Snatchers, and Aurors when they realize that you've done a runner. I'd rather not stick around for that," he said, gripping her smooth thighs with his arms and stabilizing her cute bum with his hands.
"H-hey! Watch where you're touching!"
"Don't fall off," he snorted. "Ready? Hold on tight."
She had to bite back a shriek as Harry exploded forward with neck-snapping acceleration. She was surprised, however, by the eerily smooth ride. She then realized that, aside from the initial propulsion, which seemed to drain the boy a great deal, he used friction-reducing charms on the soles of his shoes to skim over the ground like an ice skater. It was only when air resistance and other such forces began sapping his speed that he used another accelerator charm burst to kick off and propel himself back up to speed.
After a while of traveling through the woods in such a manner, she could see a desolate and broken-looking Muggle town in the distance. The buildings were falling apart, windows were shattered, automobiles were smashed, and the grey of the bleak and overcast weather did nothing to help either.
Harry immediately headed towards a tall hotel building that seemed abandoned like the rest of the town but still mostly intact and picked out a random room. With long hallways of identical-looking doors, it would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack for anybody searching for them.
Once they arrived at their room, Harry almost collapsed in exhaustion. He was breathing heavily, his chest heaving for oxygen, sweat was pouring down his brow, and the muscles in his legs burned and were on the verge of spasming.
"Merlin... please be okay." She hastily got him some water to drink and gently dried his face of perspiration before stretching and massaging his legs. "Are you going to be okay? Please say that you'll be okay. I demand that you be okay."
"I'm okay," he assured with a weak laugh. "Blimey, you're quite the bossy one, aren't you?"
Seeing him in this state, she felt a feeling of gratefulness curve her lips upward into a gentle smile. "Thank you... for helping me..."
"Don't worry about it."
She then placed his arm around her shoulder so that she could support his weight and help him lie down on the bed. She then took off her robe and placed it over him, since cooling off so quickly after overheating himself from exertion was causing him to become clammy.
"You're not going to ask?" she asked as she idly straightened out the wrinkles in the robe that she had lain over him. "You went through all this trouble for me and you're not even going to ask why?"
"Voldemort is after you. That's a good enough reason," he shrugged. "Any other information is extraneous, but if you want to get it off your chest, feel free."
"I... I can trust you, right?" She felt that she could trust him. She wanted to trust him. She needed to trust somebody, anybody. She hated living in constant paranoia, not knowing who she could trust. And now the fact that she was truly alone, on the run from the life she had lived for the past decade, finally fully registered in her mind, and it left a gaping void of loneliness and fear in her chest. This boy was the only person she had left. So, before she could even really think the consequences through, she blurted out her secret, "I... I'm a Muggle-born... and Daphne Greengrass isn't my real name."
"Figured as much," he nodded.
Once that was out in the open, the rest of her story followed like a leak that had opened up into a geyser, unable to stop. "I met Daphne and Astoria when I was about six. The rest of their family had been killed due to collateral damage from a Death Eater attack. Despite being pure-blood, Daphne hated Voldemort for killing her parents, so she and Astoria fled to Muggle London where I met them at the orphanage I was living at after my parents had also been killed by Death Eaters.
"During a Death Eater attack on London, Daphne died the same way her parents did, collateral damage, she had been caught under some falling rubble when the orphanage was being evacuated. Before she died, she asked me to take her identity and take care of her sister for her. I became Daphne Greengrass so that I wouldn't be persecuted and enslaved for being a Muggle-born... but the Ministry somehow found out about me... and now I'm here... with you..."
He nodded and let out a long sigh. "I suppose you'll want my story too."
She timidly chewed on her bottom lip. "I do... but only if you want to..."
"Not much to tell," he shrugged, staring distantly up at the ceiling. "My parents were part of the resistance against Voldemort, so I grew up amongst the fighting. I never went to Hogwarts, I just learned what I could from training with other members of the resistance and on the fly out in the field."
She studied his weary face and for the first time realized just how young he really was. The way he carried himself and the haunted look in his eyes expressed an older maturity, but underneath all that, he was still just a kid like her. Despite having grown up hiding her identity and under the constant fear of being found out, she had still managed to lead a sheltered and isolated pure-blood life. She couldn't even begin to imagine the horrors that this boy had gone through.
"After the resistance fell... it was really just us kids left... all we could do was hold off the Death Eaters and buy time for Muggles and Muggle-born in Scotland to escape to Ireland. After doing that for a few years, I'm down to my last job... here... with you..."
She noticed how he had a way of telling her his life story without actually telling her anything. Either he didn't really trust her yet or he was just a private person. She didn't really blame him though. She too had been wary about telling him her secret, she had just kind of blurted it out due to emotions running high, but it had taken a load off her chest, a burden off her shoulders. She really hoped that she could trust this boy, and that he'd eventually learn to trust her. All they had were each other after all.
"Thank you... you should rest now... sleep."
"Neville! Hurry up and get the freed prisoners into the forest! I don't think we can hold the Death Eaters off for much longer!" Harry shouted into his communication mirror as he ducked behind a slab of concrete for cover. He then winced as he was pelted by a shower of debris from a nearby blasting hex explosion.
"Keep your pants on, shite! You really think they're going to trust a pure-blood like me to lead them to freedom?" came Neville's reply through the mirror as Harry watched bolts of covering fire sail past him from Neville's sniper rifle. "I think we'll be clear in five more minutes, then you can retreat!"
Harry intermittently peeked up over his cover and fired off a wide assortment of spells. He then pulled out a bottle of firewhiskey and glanced over at Susan Bones, who was crouched behind the rubble of a destroyed building some distance away. "Susan! What you got left?"
"A couple frag grenades!" she replied into her mirror.
"Toss one!" he shouted over the noise of all the explosions as he ceased casting spells while he busied himself with stuffing a rag into the bottle of firewhiskey. He then ignited the alcohol-soaked cloth with his wand before tossing the improvised incendiary bomb.
"We're good! I got them all into the forest! Pull back now! I'll provide covering fire! Go, go, go!" Neville shouted into the shared communication channel.
Harry signaled at Susan and the others before they retreated at a sprint. The Death Eaters seemed occupied by the firestorm that he had caused, so he pulled out another glass bottle, this one filled with a mixture of petrol and soap, and lit it up before tossing it to create another barrier of fire. The ones that did get through were picked off by Neville's sniper rounds.
Harry then saw a Death Eater that had managed to slip through readying a hex aimed right at Susan's back. With a burst of speed and desperation, he made a mad dive and instinctively reached out to block the spell with his protego-coated wand arm.
"Harry!" Susan's eyes grew wide as droplets of blood and splinters of Harry's shattered wand crowded her vision as if in slow motion. She quickly shook herself out of it and tossed a grenade at the squad of Death Eaters.
Then, seeing Harry in shock over the loss of his wand, Susan dragged him to his feet. "Come on, Harry, let's go!"
The rest of the retreat was a blur for Harry. He had just lost his wand, his weapon in fighting this damn war. What was a soldier without his weapon? If he had felt powerless to make a difference in this war before, he now felt near catatonic in his despair. How was he supposed to fight without a wand? How was he supposed to protect people?
"Harry?" Neville sighed, seeing to his friend once they had safely made camp. "Look, mate, it's not so bad. I lost my wand too a while back."
"Harry... thanks for saving me... I'm sorry about your wand though," Susan said softly, taking a seat by his side. "Here, let me take a look at your hand."
"C'mon, Harry, we'll get you a new weapon in no time. Maybe a sniper rifle like mine," Neville said, trying to cheer up his still despondent friend. Then, as Susan was cleaning up the wound on the back of Harry's wand hand, he noticed the unique shape of the wound. It looked like a lightning bolt. "You got a pretty wicked scar out of it at least."
"You boys and your battle scars," Susan scowled as she applied some healing salve and bandaged it up. "Harry... are you going to be okay?"
Harry stared blankly at the ground. He hated this feeling of being powerless, it was an emptiness that threatened to swallow his entire existence. What had he lived for up until now? What had defined his entire life? His existence? War. Battles. Fighting. It was all he had ever known. And now losing his weapon was like losing his purpose in life.
"Harry... here... ol' Sirius used to wear these gloves when riding his motorcycle... it'll cover up the bandages," Neville offered, knowing that the pristine whiteness of the bandage around his wand hand would cause Death Eaters to perceive Harry as the weak link in any future encounters.
Harry, staring at his godfather's old pair of fingerless biker gloves, just nodded dumbly.
When Harry woke up, his first instinct was to check that he was still armed. He relaxed when he found that he was still wearing his glove that had strips of holly wood sewn into it with thestral hair. Allowing himself a nostalgic sigh for times long gone, he slowly revealed the lightning bolt scar that was etched into the back of his hand. Susan. Neville. Everyone. He missed them.
Then, breaking himself out of his memories, he found that night had fallen and that the girl was peacefully sleeping on top of him in bed. Seeing her serene face rise and fall with his chest, he figured she must've been really emotionally drained from the past few hours. But they weren't completely in the clear yet, they still weren't far enough away from Hogwarts, they had to keep moving.
"Hmm? Huh? Harry?" she mumbled groggily as she wiped the sleep from her eyes.
His eyes grew wide in surprise. How did she know his name? Did he talk in his sleep? Did she look through his stuff?
"S-sorry," she stammered as she quickly got up, blushing a little from having fallen asleep in the arms of a handsome boy. "Oh, you don't mind if I call you Harry, right? You gave me Joe Bloggs, John Doe, and Harry Wotsit, but you don't really seem like a Joe or a John."
He laughed a little as he stretched out his tired muscles. "Yeah, Harry is fine. Should I just call you Daphne?"
"Daphne is fine. I've been going by Daphne Greengrass for more than ten years now anyway," she nodded as she fixed her hair in a nearby mirror. She had to pass for a pure-blood aristocrat and as Astoria's older sister for most of her life, so maintaining her appearance had sort of become a habit; not out of vanity, but for survival. The real Daphne had always treasured her beautiful hair after all. Her hair, on the other hand, was a little on the bushy side and, while she had mastered a wide arsenal of grooming charms, sometimes the quick and easy solution was a ponytail.
"Do you think I should change the color of my hair?"
He watched her tie her wavy hair back into a stylish high-ponytail, flashing the nape of her neck, and he suddenly found himself entranced by its alluring smoothness and seductive curvature. The only thing missing, he mused, was a periwinkle blue hair ribbon.
He then quickly shook himself out of it and discreetly looked out the windows for any sign of Ministry or Death Eater patrols. "Don't waste your magic on a disguise, Scotland has been an area of rebel activity for so long that Death Eaters and Aurors stop pretty much everyone to check for identification anyway. It's better to just not be seen altogether."
"So is there anywhere in particular you wanted to go? Ireland? France?" he asked.
"Professor Slughorn told me to give this to Albus Dumbledore," she shrugged, holding up a vial that contained the silvery wisps of a memory.
Harry snorted at that. "Haven't heard from Dumbledore ever since he abandoned Scotland. There are some rumors that he's established a resistance down south in Devon, but that was years ago... no idea if he's still there."
Daphne was a little surprised and disappointed to hear the contempt for the leader of the Light in Harry's voice. Having led a sheltered life ever since becoming Daphne Greengrass, she hadn't heard much about the resistance over the years, taking care of Astoria had been her main priority, but she had known that Dumbledore was their leader and had expected him to be a great man. But Harry didn't seem to respect him much, so if even members of the resistance didn't respect him, then what hope was there then?
"But still... maybe this memory will help in the fight. Even if Devon is our only lead, we should still try," she insisted.
"Very well, I was going to head there anyway. It's at least four hundred miles going through England though. I doubt we can go through Ireland... we've been smuggling Muggles out that way for so long that the Death Eaters are bound to have caught on by now and are probably closely monitoring all of the ports," he said. "But, before we leave, we need to gather supplies. What do you have on you?"
"Um..." Daphne reached for her emergency pack, which was a small handbag, and rifled through it for a quick inventory. "I got some spare clothes... healing supplies... field rations... various potions... a magical tent... money... and some books."
"You fit all that in there?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "Did you do the charm work yourself?"
"Yes, I did," she grinned.
"Mind working your magic one more time?" he asked, handing her his satchel. "I don't have a proper wand, so the extension charms that I try to cast always destabilize and wear off after a week or so. Pain in the arse to keep reapplying the charm."
"A man-purse?" she snickered as she went to work.
"It's not a man-purse. It's called a satchel. Indiana Jones wears one," he snorted with an eye-roll.
"Done," she said, handing it back to him.
"Huh, would you look at that," he mused after seeing how much more spacious and organized his bag had become. "Well, that's brilliant."
"Thank you," she said with a proud grin, blushing slightly at the praise.
He then glanced out the window at the deserted moonlit town to make sure the coast was clear. "We should stock up on canned food... save your field rations for the field. Oh, and as much as appreciate you wearing a skirt, you should really change into something more practical."
"Right," she nodded before heading for the bathroom to change.
When she returned, wearing a comfortable pair of denim trousers and a wool peacoat instead of her school robes, he led her out into the chilly night to find a grocery store they could loot supplies from.
"Take as much water, canned food, protein bars, pasta, instant cup noodles, cereal, peanut butter, whatever you think hasn't gone bad yet," he said.
"Okay," she nodded and started dumping cans of fruit into the expanded compartment for food in her bag.
When she came across the canned peaches, however, she paused as a wistful smile came over her face. "Astoria really loves peaches..."
She nodded sadly. "I miss her already..."
"Don't let every little thing remind you of her, it'll drive you mad... it's too easy to find pieces of her in everything..." he murmured distantly, as if talking to himself, "First it's the peaches, then maybe the horoscope in the newspaper, a certain song playing on the wireless, or maybe a seasonal flower that will come back to haunt you every single year..."
She tugged gently on his sleeve and gave him a sad smile. "You okay?"
"Sorry," he sighed, shaking his head before resuming clearing the shelves of the canned food.
"Don't be... it's natural to miss your friends and family. I'm willing to listen if you ever want to just talk..."
He nodded stiffly but didn't say anything. He instead moved on to other aisles for more supplies once they were finished packing away the canned foods.
"What flower?" she asked after a little while of silence, referring to the seasonal flower that he had mentioned earlier.
He paused as he reached for a bottle of high-proof rum. It was his mother's favorite drink even though she'd be giggling like a schoolgirl after just one shot and out like a light after two. Shaking himself out of it, he popped the bottle open, much to Daphne's surprise, but didn't drink it. He instead poured about half of it out on the floor and started pumping liquid hand soap into the half-filled bottle. He then left some room to fill the rest of the bottle with petrol later before recapping the bottle shut. He was making an incendiary bomb. He repeated the process with a few more bottles before drawing a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the lily, on each one. It was oddly fitting, considering what a fiery redhead his mother used to be. He never really used these bombs to attack either, always to cover a retreat, to protect.
"The lily," he finally answered. "Every summer... the lilies bloom... and I'm reminded of her..."
Daphne nodded, glad that he trusted her enough to share even that small piece of nostalgia with her. "Lilies..."
After getting a few more things, they went outside to puncture the fuel tanks of some broken-down automobiles to fill the rum bottles up with petrol. He then handed her a couple of the bottles and some rags. "These are Molotov Cocktails. Just soak the rag with the alcohol, stuff it into the bottle, light it with a magical fire that's hard to put out, and throw. Comes in handy when you want to cover a retreat. Tossing one while hiding behind cover is a lot easier and safer than having to pop out into the open to aim a spell too."
"Okay..." She stared hard at the deceptively innocent bottles she held in her hand. She knew that a wand could be used as a weapon, but she had never used it in that way before, so it was strange to hold an actual dedicated weapon, an incendiary bomb, in her hands. Gulping hard, she stowed them away in her bag, hoping she wouldn't need to use them.
"Wanna break open a can of those peaches before we start our journey south?" he asked, leading her to a small cafe.
"Yeah," she nodded with a smile. "I'd like that."
Harry had originally planned to travel throughout the night to cover as much distance as possible, but he had forgotten that Daphne wasn't used to traveling such far distances by foot. But, more importantly, she had a wand. He had lost his wand a long time ago, and so had Neville and quite a few others in the resistance before they had also lost their lives, so it had been a while since he had had a companion who was able to properly cast security charms or wards. It had forced the resistance to become more and more resourceful and cunning about hiding out from Death Eaters while they slept, but now he had Daphne.
And it turned out that Daphne's brilliance knew no bounds. They had managed to get her magical tent set up in a small clearing and hidden by an assortment of ingenious security charms and wards in no time.
"Oh, that feels so good..." Daphne tried to muffle the embarrassingly inadvertent moan of pleasure by burying her face into a pillow.
Harry smiled a little in amusement as he continued to massage her calves and feet. He didn't want her to be sore in the morning, since they had more walking to do, so it would be best to flush out as much of the lactic acid as possible.
Additionally, after a few hours of trekking through the woods, Harry had found that Daphne was sort of a touchy-feely type of girl. She had often clung to his arm, either for safety or warmth, during their trek. And, when he had finally agreed to stop and set up camp for the night, she had almost flung her tired arms around him in what would have been a bone-crushing hug if she hadn't stopped herself first (which, inevitably, had led to a short moment of general awkwardness). Daphne was still in a period of emotional vulnerability, so any sort of touch or human contact like a massage, would do her a world of good.
What he hadn't been ready for, however, was her tears. After a period of silence, with him just quietly kneading at her tired muscles, it first came as a quiet sob, muffled by her pillow, until it became an uncontrolled torrent of grief.
It was understandable. She had been on the run and hadn't had time to just settle down and get her emotions organized until now. Now that they were able to catch their breaths, now that she had the chance to just think, the realization that she might never see her sister or her friends ever again must have finally fully settled in.
But he didn't know what to do about it. Offering a shoulder to cry on wasn't his thing. Whenever Susan had needed to cry, Neville had always been there for her. Whenever Neville had needed to cry, Susan had always comforted him.
Harry never cried.
Astoria never called her Daphne, but she never called her by her real name either. Astoria considered her a sister though, and that was all that mattered.
Daphne looked up from reading her Hogwarts acceptance letter to see nine-year-old Astoria standing at her bedroom door and clutching her favorite stuffed bunny. "What is it, Astoria?"
"Do you really have to go?" she asked in a scared voice.
Daphne smiled a little as she held out her arms. Astoria promptly rushed in for a hug and buried her face in Daphne's nightgown. Hogwarts had been home to rebel forces, the Order of the Phoenix, for as long as she could remember, but the Ministry had managed to take it back about a year ago. It was a school again, and enrollment was mandatory and exclusive for all pure-bloods and half-bloods. "I have to, Astoria. I'll come back during the holidays. And, in two years, you can join me at school too. Until then, the house elves will take good care of you while I'm gone, okay?"
"But I'll miss you," she cried.
"I'll miss you too," Daphne said, holding back her own tears. She was scared that her true identity as a Muggle-born would be somehow found out at Hogwarts. Astoria had already lost one sister, the real Daphne Greengrass. She was terrified that, if she were found out, Astoria would lose yet another sister.
But she couldn't cry. Not in front of Astoria. She had to stay strong for her.
Daphne Greengrass never cried.
Only Hermione Granger was allowed to cry.
"My name... it's Hermione," she said softly, sniffling as she dried her tears.
Hermione's shoulders slumped a little when the boy still insisted on going by an alias, even when she had already offered her real name to him. "Okay..."
"No, seriously, my name really is Harry," he chuckled.
She blinked and tilted her head to one side, staring at him, before breaking out into a light laugh. She had needed a good laugh. "Harry... I like it... Harry..."
"Hermione... pretty name," he smiled, causing her to beam with happiness.
It was the first time she had heard anyone call her by her real name in over a decade. The vulnerability of having her real name known made her a little shy, but it was such a good feeling, like she was giving a part of herself to him. And knowing that Harry was his real name also made her feel like they had a real connection now, like he too was trusting a part of himself to her.
"Name's Harry Potter... nice to meet you," he said with a gentle grin as he held out his hand. She promptly ignored it and flung her arms around him in a tight hug.
"My name is Hermione Granger. Pleased to meet you."
Harry and Hermione had made good progress for the next few days and had managed to completely avoid patrolling squads of Death Eaters and Aurors. Normally he would ambush and engage Death Eaters whenever possible, since a dead Death Eater was the only good Death Eater after all, but he didn't want to put Hermione in any danger, nor did he want to show her what it looked like to take the life of another person.
It wasn't until they had reached a major river that they could only cross by a bridge guarded by Death Eaters that he would be forced to once again bloody his hands. It was a Muggle bridge northeast of the crumbling and deserted metropolis of Glasgow, but bridges were important enough choke-points that they were of interest to Death Eaters and the Ministry. Brooms and other such air transport were tightly regulated by the Ministry, so bridges were an easy way of controlling both rebels and Muggles.
Scotland had been an area of heavy rebel resistance for decades though, due to the Order of the Phoenix having been based there, so most Muggles and Muggle-born had already been evacuated to Ireland. There weren't any Muggles left to really control, so security around bridges were minimal at best nowadays. Even formerly great cities like Glasgow were now reduced to desolate ghost towns. The wizarding population wasn't as large as the Muggle population, so Scotland was mostly empty now.
"Stay back where it's safe... you don't have to watch," he said, holding a protective hand over her as he used a Muggle spotting scope to scout the enemy location.
"But I can help," she insisted. "You can't do this by yourself! It's too dangerous!"
"I've taken on worse," he shrugged nonchalantly. Really, this was a no-brainer operation. He was more concerned about her emotional state. And, perhaps, a part of him was ashamed of being such a ruthless killer. He didn't want to show her that part of him. "Just stay here, and don't watch."
"I'll at least watch your back," she persisted. "I have decent aim, I could probably land a stunner even from way back here."
"It's not like I haven't seen someone die before, Harry," she pointed out in a soft voice. "It was only a few years ago that I... I watched a professor at school die..."
Harry blinked and then stared at her hard as realization dawned on him. "Oh, yeah, that's right... Snape..."
"H-how'd you know?" she stammered, trembling at the memory of Severus Snape's head being blown into bloody chunks of flesh and bone.
He went back to surveying the bridge through the spotting scope in order to avoid her gaze.
"Neville, you see anything?" Harry asked tiredly as he put down Neville's broomstick sniper rifle. Neville was temporarily using a Muggle L115A1 sniper rifle due to magic just harmlessly pinging off the Hogwarts wards.
"Yeah, mate, and I think I'm in love," Neville grinned. "The group of girls over by the lake... see that tall blonde with the pigtails?"
Susan rolled her eyes. No wonder Neville had his sniper scope aimed at a completely different direction. "I'm a girl too and I'm standing right here, you know."
Out of curiosity, Harry picked up the broomstick sniper rifle and used the scope to zoom in on the girls. He then checked the student and staff roster that Slughorn had provided for them. "Her name is Hannah Abbott... Hufflepuff."
"WHAT? Hannah? Gimme that!" Susan snatched the broomstick rifle and took a look through the scope. "Wow... she's really grown up..."
"You know her?" Neville asked quizzically.
"When we were little kids, childhood friends," she shrugged. "Her family is pretty neutral... her parents own an upscale restaurant... while my family has a long tradition of law enforcement, so we ended going our separate ways. Haven't seen her since."
"Childhood friend, huh?" Harry murmured absentmindedly as his gaze wandered over to the Quidditch pitch over on the far side of the grounds. It hadn't slipped his notice that the only Weasley on the student roster was Ginny. Maybe Ron and the twins had dropped out after finishing up their mandatory OWLs, they had never seemed like the types to want to study if they didn't have to.
"Hey, wanna pull Hannah out of there and introduce me?" Neville asked, waggling his eyebrows.
"Eww, don't hit on my friend," Susan scowled, playfully hitting him in the arm. "Besides... she looks content. She's safe there. She's a neutral pure-blood so they won't touch her. Just leave her to her peaceful life. She doesn't need all this."
"Right," Neville nodded with a sigh. "I hope the girls leave soon... I would hate to traumatize them by popping open a man's head with a 0.338 caliber sniper round while they're watching."
"We don't even know if that pale-faced greasy-haired git even comes out into the sunlight," Harry muttered. Ever since they had found out from Slughorn that Snape was teaching at Hogwarts, they had been waiting out there for hours for the Death Eater to show his face.
"Hey, Harry, find any girl you like?" Neville asked with a grin.
Neville was probably nervous about the assassination even if he didn't show it. He had never killed anybody using a Muggle sniper rifle before. Talking about girls was probably his way of dealing with the pressure and nervousness, so Harry decided to indulge him. Since Susan was still looking through the broomstick sniper scope, he reached into his satchel and pulled out a Muggle spotting scope and looked through the zoom lens.
There were three other girls aside from Hannah Abbott. According to the student roster, the blonde Ravenclaw was a half-blood named Tracey Davis and the two brunettes were pure-blood sisters in Gryffindor, Daphne and Astoria Greengrass. His lens paused on the older sister. He found himself oddly drawn towards her for some reason.
"Do you guys ever wonder what it'd be like if we had never joined the resistance?" he asked absentmindedly, his hand unconsciously reaching out to the pretty Greengrass girl as if to affectionately tuck a lock of wavy hair behind her ear. "We could be right there with them right now..."
Neville raised an eyebrow. "What's with you, mate? Just yesterday you said that you wanted to be somebody and make a difference in this war."
Harry sighed, regretting that he had ever said anything. "I'm just tired of being an insignificant no-name soldier... it'd be nice to either be somebody in the war or not be in it at all... we're in the war, but we're nobodies... it's a bloody frustrating position to be in... like, we're fighting and dying, and all for what?"
Susan rubbed his back sympathetically in understanding. It was just too easy to feel like an insignificant pawn fighting against other insignificant pawns. If they took out some Death Eater, another one would just take his place, take his mask, like nothing had ever happened. The fact that they all wore the same masks almost made it seem like Death Eaters never died, no matter how many they killed. It was demoralizing.
"Well, Snape is somebody and if we take him out, maybe we'll make a name for ourselves," Neville quipped. "We won't be no-name soldiers anymore."
"Then stop ogling Hannah Abbott and get your scope back on the castle," Harry deadpanned.
"Fine, but you do realize that we've been at this all day without a single sign of Snape," Neville sighed, shifting the stabilizing bipod for the rifle back towards the castle's main entrance.
"Maybe it'd be faster if I just waltz right in, slit his throat, then make a run for it," Harry grumbled. "The security wards around Hogwarts have made them complacent. They won't suspect a thing."
"That actually might not be a bad idea," Susan shrugged, transfiguring Harry's clothes into Gryffindor school robes. "You might want to use your animagus form to get closer to the castle though... too suspicious for a random student to come out of the forest like this."
"Mind transfiguring my clothes too so that I can go chat with Hannah Abbott?" Neville grinned. Susan was the only one with a working wand amongst the three of them, so they had to rely on her for a lot of things.
"No, Neville, as much as I want to go talk to her as well, it's an unnecessary risk," Susan replied. "Besides, if things go pear-shaped, Harry can get out of there much faster than either of us."
Harry closed his eyes and concentrated on transforming. He hadn't really had the time to master it though, so it took an inordinate amount of focus and left him fairly drained when turning into his half-breed wolfdog form. It wasn't particularly useful for stealth, since there weren't any more wolves in Britain, but it was passable as long as people thought of him as some kind of husky. It wasn't really useful for combat either, but at least he wasn't a stag; in war, practicality took precedence over sentimentality.
He trotted his way down along the lake and tried to act friendly when he realized he would be passing by Daphne Greengrass and her friends on the way towards the castle.
"Hey, look, it's a dog," Astoria pointed out excitedly.
"Careful, Astoria," Daphne warned. She knew that there were no more wolves in Britain, but its features looked too lupine to be a normal dog.
Harry started wagging his tail, running around in a circle, and whatever else stereotypical friendly dog behavior he could think of, anything to keep the girls from reporting him to a teacher.
"He's so cute!" Astoria cooed. She then transfigured a rock into a rubber ball and tossed it. "Fetch, boy!"
"Harry, what are you doing?" Susan groaned into the communication mirror. In the background, he could hear Neville rolling around laughing his head off. Of course, Harry could only bark in response.
"Good boy!" Astoria grinned and scratched behind his ears when Harry brought the ball back.
"No collar, must be a stray," Tracey pointed out.
"Strange, it has an earring though," Hannah giggled, referring to the reflective cross that dangled from Harry's left ear. Susan had to fight the urge to shout across the communication mirror to say hello to her childhood friend.
Daphne studied the wolf-like dog carefully, but it seemed far too playful to be dangerous. So she untied the periwinkle blue ribbon that she was using as an elegant bow to hold her ponytail and tied it around the dog's neck like a collar. "There you go."
Harry barked in appreciation and was about to go about his original mission when he saw Snape leave the castle in a hurried walk, robes dramatically billowing behind him.
"Heads up, guys. Greasy-haired git at two o'clock," Susan reported, bringing the spotting scope up to her eye. "About 1600 meters out... wind is about five miles per hour west... too far away."
"He's already heading back inside... we don't have time to move closer," Neville said, adjusting the arc on the scope and taking aim with Susan's distance estimate in mind. "Should I risk the shot or do you want to wait for another chance? If I shoot and miss, then we might not get another chance, but if we wait..."
Harry immediately transformed back, startling the girls into shock. His back was to them, so he wasn't too worried about his his physical description going into an Auror report, though his animagus form would probably be compromised. So, ignoring them, he started waving at Snape to get his attention. "Hey, Snivellus, long time no see! Want to help me practice the levicorpus jinx?"
Snape spun around, eyes going wide in shock before narrowing into a murderous rage. "JAMES! How? I killed you!"
"Take the shot, Neville" Harry ordered in a solemn voice as he clutched at the periwinkle blue ribbon that was still tied around his neck like a scarf.
"Whatever you say, boss," Neville nodded, feeling all responsibility for failure or success of this mission transfer to Harry. Neville knew it was cowardly of him to put it all on Harry's shoulders, but it was the only way he could steady his trembling hands enough to get off a clean shot. Harry gave the order, Snape's death was his burden now. So he pulled the trigger without any fuss.
Harry then used his traveling cloak to shield the girls from seeing the spray of red mist that splattered against the outer castle walls. 'Sorry you had to be here for this. Hope you have a peaceful life. Goodbye, Ms. Greengrass.'
"Sorry you had to be there for that," he said simply.
But Hermione recognized the weight behind those words. Her eyes grew wide when she realized that he was the mysterious wolfdog animagus who had been responsible for Severus Snape's assassination. But Snape had called him James. That made her wonder if he had lied to her about Harry being his real name. She wasn't really sure how to feel about that or about how he had mercilessly ordered another man's death, so she suppressed any thoughts about it and saved them for a later. Right now, they had more important things to deal with.
He put his scope away and reached into his satchel for a small earring. When he handed it to her, she saw that it was a very small and reflective cross. It was a communication mirror.
"Put it on, it's linked up to this one," he explained, pointing to the matching earring that he had on his left ear. "Stay here. I'll come back for you."
Then, not giving her a chance to argue, he quietly snuck forward under the cover of buildings, automobiles, fallen debris, anything that would get him as close as possible undetected.
Hermione was tense as she watched, but it was over in a blink of an eye. Once he had gotten close, he had used his trademark accelerator charm speed to blitz in to close-range combat where most wizards were horribly inexperienced. She noticed that he didn't use a wand, he used his fist instead. He had only needed one strike per Death Eater, each strike discharging an explosive burst of magic at point blank range followed by sickening cracks and crunches of bones shattering.
Hermione's shock at how obscenely fast Harry moved was offset by the nausea of seeing him snap bones and limbs apart into disgusting angles. She almost threw up when he drove an uppercut into a Death Eater's gut and the red flare of magic shot straight through to the other side through the Death Eater's back, effectively snapping his spinal cord and folding him over backwards in half like a piece of paper.
After stripping the Death Eaters of their money, masks, robes, and wands, he tied weights to the dead bodies and tossed them into the river. The wands, even if they weren't compatible with him, could still be useful for raw materials. And the masks and cloaks could come in handy as disguises.
When he returned to her, he found her on her knees, trembling in shock. He let out a long sigh and ran his fingers through his hair as he contemplated what to do next. A part of him wanted to put his arms around her, but it seemed odd for someone who had just killed four people in cold blood to offer anyone any sort of comfort.
Neither spoke for the rest of the day.
Daphne unlocked the door to Greengrass Manor to find it dark and empty. Well, empty wasn't too unusual considering how large the house was for just the two sisters and two house elves. But it was strange for all of the lights to be off. Astoria shouldn't have had any reason to go out at this time.
"Astoria? Are you home? Where are you?" she called out in a shaky voice. She then tried calling the house elves, "Cloud? Tifa?"
The house elves weren't even answering her call. The lights wouldn't turn on either. Something was definitely wrong. Fear started to grip her, clawing at her, becoming nearly unbearable.
"Astoria! Where are you? Tifa! Cloud!"
She took off at a sprint throughout the house. The kitchen was empty. So was the library and the sitting room. With each room she checked, her desperation slowly grew and grew, threatening to crush her.
"Well, well, nice of you to join us."
Daphne's eyes grew wide in fear as she found Astoria and the two house elves stunned and propped up against the wall of Astoria's bedroom. And, standing in the darkness, was the eerie white mask of a Death Eater, seemingly floating in the air as his black cloak blended in with the gloom.
"Let them go!"
"You Mudblood filth are all the same, no manners," the Death Eater chortled mockingly. "It wasn't very nice of you to trick this poor little pure-blood girl into thinking that you were her sister. Not very nice indeed."
"I am her sister!" she cried shrilly.
"I would have been more impressed that you managed to pull this charade off for so long if the Greengrass family hadn't isolated themselves so much when the war started," the Death Eater remarked, letting out a dramatic sigh as he picked Daphne up by the scruff of her shirt collar.
"Let me go!" she screamed as she struggled wildly in vain.
"But, alas, when the war started getting bloody, the Greengrass family tried to avoid the public eye, and not many people got to know young Daphne. No one even noticed that after a year of disappearing into the Muggle world, she came back looking... bushier..." the Death Eater chuckled, enjoying the triumph of his detective work a little too much. He didn't even notice that Daphne's desperation was causing furniture to move about and topple over at random in bouts of accidental magic.
"Though, still, despite my extensive research, I still haven't figured out your name," the Death Eater mused. "Ah, not that it matters. Filthy Mudblood is a good enough name for you."
It was then that her accidental magic had literally pulled the rug out from under his feet. He fell backwards and thumped his head hard enough on the ground to go into a daze. So Daphne scrambled to her feet and ran off as quickly as she could.
"Come back here, you filthy Mudblood!" he raged as he gathered his bearings. "Come out, come out, wherever you are, you can't hide forever!"
But when he walked into the kitchen to search it, he felt a stab of sharp pain explode from his core. He looked down in shock to see a large kitchen knife lodged straight into his chest.
Daphne's eyes were wide in fear, her face splattered with blood, as she slowly backed away on trembling legs.
Harry woke up the next morning to the usual burning soreness that followed his use of the accelerator charm. With a groan, he managed to drag himself out of bed, brush his teeth, and get dressed before exiting the tent to find Hermione practicing a few dueling spells outside.
He plopped down on the ground and quietly watched. He had to admit that he was very impressed with what he saw, she was better than him even. But, then again, he hadn't used a wand in years.
"Good morning," she greeted as she wiped the sweat from her brow. Those were the first words she had spoken to him in the past eighteen hours or so.
"Morning," he nodded. "You're really good, you know. My jaw would be on the ground right now if I didn't already know you were all-around brilliant."
"Thanks," she beamed. Being complimented by an incompetent Ministry-appointed Defense professor was nothing compared to the praise of someone who had grown up out on the battlefield. "But you'd probably still run circles around me... literally..."
"Not that I'll ever have to," he shrugged.
"Your accelerator charm... is it something you can teach me?" she asked hopefully. She was always up for learning new things. "It seems awfully useful and effective. Why is it that you're the only one I've seen ever actually use it?"
"Learning it is a waste of time for most wizards," he shook his head.
"Why?" she frowned. Heresy! Learning was never a waste of time!
"Lots of reasons," he shrugged. "First of all... you need fast reflexes so that your mind and body can keep up with the speed, and a sharp spatial awareness so that you have a 360 degree mental image of your surroundings at all times. Quidditch Seekers usually have a good knack for those things, but most wizards don't.
"Second... wizards have too much pride to give up their wands, but wands don't go well with high speed movements. It's hard enough to aim a spell while you're standing still, so how much harder would it be to aim one while moving at mind-numbing speeds? Swish and flick isn't exactly conducive to good aim. I fight with my fists, so I don't have to worry too much about aiming, but wizards typically have too much pride to fight with their fists.
"Third... it puts a large physical and magical strain on the body. Most wizards are too lazy and out of shape to handle the physical strain. Some don't even have the magical stamina for it either. Even I can't really handle it too well," he shrugged, pulling up one leg of his trousers. She gasped when he revealed the angry red veins running up and down his leg.
"It'll fade back to normal in a few hours," he assured. "But there's one more reason why no one ever uses it, and it's the most important... as a Muggle-born, you are at least aware that cells are the basic functional units of life, right? Well, the accelerator charm also accelerates cell division and regeneration, and human cells have a predetermined limit cap on how many times they can divide over a lifetime... at this rate, I'll probably lose the use of my legs by the time I hit my late twenties. My right arm will probably be the next to give out."
"Then... shouldn't you stop?" she asked worriedly.
Honestly, he had never actually expected to live long enough to be thirty years old, so he had never really concerned himself with the consequences. But he couldn't tell her that. A comment like that was too much of a downer.
"I'll do whatever necessary to keep us alive until we find Dumbledore," he shrugged. "Need to get him that pensieve memory, right?"
'Whatever necessary...' She nodded gratefully as she placed a hand over his. "Thanks..."
"And not that I'm against you practicing and being prepared and all that, but... you're not expecting to fight, are you?" he raised an eyebrow.
"Whatever necessary, right?" she said softly.
"Killing four blokes is a pretty steep toll just to cross a ruddy bridge," he pointed out absently.
She gave his hand a gentle squeeze, feeling guilty about not saying a single word to him yesterday. It had just been so much of a shock to her, but it had put some parts of her past in perspective. As a young girl, she had stabbed a Death Eater with a kitchen knife just so that Astoria wouldn't have grow up alone. It almost seemed noble and justified compared to what Harry had done just to cross a ruddy bridge, as he had called it.
She shook her head. "It wasn't just to cross a bridge... Harry... thank you, for everything that you're doing for me..."
"Don't thank me," he sighed. "All I'm doing is taking you away from where you really want to be, aren't I?"
"You're keeping me alive so that I'll be able to see Astoria again someday," she pointed out. "So I will thank you... Harry, thank you... your real name is Harry, right?"
He gave her an assuring smile and nodded. "Harry James Potter."
"Hermione Jane Granger."
As they continued to travel south, Harry would have figured that the Death Eaters and Ministry would have given up on looking for Daphne Greengrass by now or, at least, scaled back the resources they had allocated to the search. Mercenary Snatchers would probably still be on the lookout due to the reward, but they were less organized and easily taken care of, so he didn't really worry too much about them. However, it seemed like the number of Death Eaters in the area had actually ramped up significantly in the past few days, hampering their progress.
"Stay down," he whispered, peeking out of a third-floor window of an abandoned Muggle office building that they were hiding in. Above were broom squads of Death Eaters and below were ground troops patrolling the empty streets.
"I don't think I'm the one they're looking for," Hermione replied. "There's no way they'd put so much effort into finding one Muggle-born witch."
"You're probably right," he agreed. "Something's up..."
"Look, the patrols are moving on to the next area," she pointed out.
Harry saw that the Death Eaters were indeed moving on, it looked like a fairly typical routine sweep of the area, but he sort of had a nagging feeling that something was off. Staying wasn't really a good idea either though. "Wait it out for a few more minutes, then we go."
After a few tense moments, he took another peek out the window and saw that the area was clear. He then went around to other windows to check out different directions. Clear.
"Let's go," he nodded.
But, then, just as he said those words, a bolt of magic came crashing in through a window, nearly taking off his left leg if it hadn't been for his lightning quick reflexes.
"Get away from the windows!" he shouted, dragging her out of the room and down into the hallway. "Get down to the basement, there's a direct entrance to the subway station there. Judging from the angle of fire, he's either on a broom or a rooftop, so you'll be safe underground. From there, you can take one of the other subway station exits to a different part of the city. Go!"
"What about you?"
"I'll draw their attention, while you make a run for it. Remember, you can always talk to me using your earring, okay? I'll be fine, so go!" he ordered, pushing her towards the stairwell.
He then ran off towards the roof and pulled out Neville's broomstick sniper rifle from his satchel. He wasn't the sharpshooter that Neville had been, but this wasn't an assassination mission where every shot counted or a team mission where he had to mind friendly fire. If anything, he was just planning to spam shots and hope that at least one of them would hit the target.
But the moment he got to the roof, a hail of spells rained down on him from above. Kicking his accelerator charm to the max, he exploded forward and used the momentum to leap to the rooftop of the next building, where the rain of spells continued to follow him.
He found cover under an overhang and saw that it was a single witch riding sideways on a broom high above. She was wearing a Death Eater half-mask, but her robes were more of the seductive and revealing sort. "Shit... a sharpshooter... and she can snipe from an unstable moving platform like a broom too..."
He peeked out from his cover and fired off a few rounds from his broomstick rifle, but quickly had to duck again when the Death Eater returned a much more accurate counterattack.
"Harry, are you okay?" Hermione asked over the communicator.
"I'm fine, there's a sniper on a broom, but she's the only one I can see," he replied as he made a run for it before the Death Eater used a powerful blasting hex to turn his cover into rubble. "Correction, she's both sniper and artillery, shite. How's it on your end?"
"All clear. I think the other Death Eaters all moved on to the next area, but if they hear the explosions, they'll be back," she reported.
"Unless this bird is even cockier than the last ace I fought," he muttered, ducking under a shower of debris from a nearby blasting hex explosion while blindly returning fire. It didn't look like this particular Death Eater was using a specialty wand like Neville's broomstick rifle because there was a variety of spells being thrown. But if the Death Eater could follow his accelerator charm speed with such accuracy even with just a normal wand, while riding a broom at such distance no less, then this witch was definitely an ace. He had to pull myriads of random sharp turns just to throw her off as he zig-zagged across rooftops because just his speed wasn't cutting it.
"Bow to ze most beautiful witch in ze world, you lowly peasant! Now, dance for me, leetle commoner boy! Dance to ze waltz of my spellfire!" the Death Eater witch cackled loudly with a bombastically arrogant and narcissistic French accent as she continued to fire off her endless stream of spells. "If you die by my wand and happen to be reborn as a noble, I would consider dancing weeth you! You should be grateful! Ah ha ha ha!"
"Guess Voldemort managed to get some of the French on his side," Harry swore, having to resort to some fancy acrobatics in order to stay alive.
"Zat is it! Magnifique! Dance! Entertain me, leetle peasant! Ah ha ha ha!" she tittered in amusement.
Using the friction-reducing charm on the soles of his shoes in order to skim at high speeds without having to expend so much energy, he went from rooftop to rooftop until he finally reached a building that was low enough to jump down to the ground safely using a cushioning charm.
The buildings provided some semblance of cover for him now that he was down on the street, so he wasn't completely out in the open anymore. Sniper fire still continued to rain down around him though, so he couldn't stop moving. It wasn't the constant barrage from before, so he was intermittently able to strafe laterally to return fire. He didn't have the time to actually look through the scope to line up a shot, but he could still blindly spray and pray.
Then, all of a sudden, everything stopped. He looked up and saw that the Death Eater seemed to be having trouble with her broom. Gobsmacked, he asked, "Hermione! Are you jinxing her broom?"
"Shut it! I'm trying to concentrate here!" was the reply.
Grinning, he pulled the sniper scope to his eye and lined up a shot. She really was brilliant to be able to pull off that kind of spellwork from such a distance. And, not only that, she didn't even have to reveal her location either. Not to let her hard work go to waste, he started firing away.
He wasn't the marksman that Neville was, but he still managed to land a lucky shot that shattered the tail end of the Death Eater's broom, forcing the witch to land. Ground combat was more his specialty, so he rushed towards the area where he estimated that the Death Eater would land.
But then, just as he got near, he was blindsided from the right by a spell that shattered the bones in his upper arm and sent him sprawling across the ground. But he didn't have time to tend to his injury, he had just barely managed to scramble to his feet when multiple spells mercilessly pounded down on the space he had just occupied moments before.
"Harry! Get out of there!" came Hermione's desperate voice through the communicator.
He quickly backpedaled with a desperate burst of speed and what he saw made his eyes go wide in shock. There were two airborne wands chasing after him from different directions and firing off spells. Back at a safe distance was the smirking Death Eater who was controlling the remote wands with wild gestures of her hands.
"Casting spells with remote wands? Is that even possible? Bloody hell!" he swore as the only things that saved him from being turned into swiss cheese were his razor sharp reflexes and a combination of insanely flexible acrobatics. He wasn't able to dodge everything, but, luckily, he found that the remote wands lacked power and continued to diminish the longer they strayed from their master. They would leave a bruising mark and hurt like hell, but they weren't disabling unless they hit a vital area.
"You are quite handsome for a peasant! Such viguer and vitesse! Such dextérité! You are making me wet!" the Death Eater witch moaned seductively.
When the remote wands ran out of magic, they immediately retreated back to their master, who whipped out her primary wand to continue sniping from a distance while her magical core recharged the remote wands.
Harry's speed had reduced dramatically, however, due to fatigue and the pain pulsating from the broken right arm that was flopping around uselessly like a limp fish. With a well-placed shot, a smoldering and smoking hole pierced through his left shoulder as the Death Eater promptly put that arm out of commission as well. He then crumpled to the ground as the next two shots took out both of his legs.
"Hermione... she thinks I'm alone, so this is your chance to make a run for it," he whispered weakly into his communicator as the Death Eater witch strode towards him in victory.
"No! I won't leave you!" Hermione cried.
"You still need to get that pensieve memory to Dumbledore," he reminded before promptly shutting up when the Death Eater reached hearing range.
"Salut, my handsome peasant boy," the witch purred as she propped him up so that he was seated against the brick wall of a crumbling building. She seductively ran her finger up his chin as she took off her mask, revealing a beautiful pair of sky blue eyes.
"Bonjour, madamoiselle," he snorted sarcastically.
"Normally, one does not wonder ze names of ze insectes zat one crushes under foot, non? But you are not a bug. I would like to know your name before I kill you," she whispered as she straddled him and pushed her pert breasts against his chest.
She then moaned sexily into him as she pressed her lips against his and caressed his tongue with hers. His mind started to blank, but he knew that this daze wasn't from a mere kiss; her lipstick was laced with venomous toxins.
'Shit... is this it? I'm gonna die... shit... well, there are worse ways to die, I guess... but... Hermione...' he struggled to stay conscious, but there was nothing he could do with both his arms and legs completely immobile. 'Goddammit, think, think, think... I need to get back to Hermione! Think, damn it, think!'
"Harry, use your head!"
"Your name iz 'Arry?" the witch chuckled in surprise, having been close enough to hear Hermione's voice through the communicator as she pulled back from the kiss.
Harry, without even thinking, literally used his head, promptly knocking the Death Eater witch out with a desperate headbutt.
"Just Harry," he coughed weakly before he slumped over and watched his world turned black.
"Mummy? Where's daddy?"
Mrs. Granger worriedly glanced at the clock before forcing a smile for her daughter. "I'm sure he's on his way home right now from work. He gets off at five and his commute takes about half an hour."
"What time is it now?" Hermione asked.
"Here, I'll teach you how to tell time, sweetie," she said in order to distract themselves from their worries. She took off her wristwatch and handed it to Hermione. She then went on to explain the hour hand, which was the easy part, but little Hermione had some more difficulty grasping the concept of the minute hand and the five-times multiplier that went with it.
"So it's five fifteen, right now?" Hermione asked.
"Yes, very good, honey," Mrs. Granger smiled.
"And daddy will come home when the minute hand reaches the six?"
"That's right, sweetie."
"Okay," Hermione nodded before heading off to the front door to sit down and wait.
"It's still another fifteen minutes, you don't have to wait by the door," her mother said.
"I'll wait," Hermione replied.
And she waited. But, when the minute hand reached the six, the door didn't open.
So she waited some more.
She heard the telephone ring, then her mother's sobs.
When the minute hand reached the seven and the door still hadn't opened, silent tears came sliding down her cheeks.
Harry woke up with his body stiff with pain. Hermione was seated on the floor with her head resting on the edge of his bed, sleeping soundly. Next to her was a washbasin filled with water and surrounded by bloodied bandages and empty potion vials.
Wincing, he sat up and checked his injuries. He was in a lot of pain, but his arms and legs were functioning again. She had done a fantastic job patching him back up. He smiled a little as he pulled her exhausted body up into bed and tucked her in.
"Hmm... Harry?" she sniffled groggily.
"I'm fine... go back to sleep, you must be tired," he said, patting her on the head.
She immediately shot up and grabbed his arm before he could leave. "No! You're not fully healed yet. You need more rest!"
Seeing her eyes shine with worry and fear, he acquiesced and got back into bed with her. "You need to rest too. I'm not going anywhere, so sleep."
She nodded, too tired and drained for the fact that she was in bed with a boy to even register in her brain. "I was so scared I was going to lose you too..."
"I'm still here... right here..." he assured.
She then shifted her exhausted body a little to give him a chaste kiss goodnight before promptly falling back asleep.
"Susan? You need anything?"
She shook her head as she sat down at the edge of Harry's bed, watching him fiddle with the periwinkle blue ribbon, a souvenir from their Snape assassination mission. "No, just making sure you're okay."
"I'm fine," he replied absently.
"You still thinking about that Daphne Greengrass girl?" she asked softly. "If you really want to stop fighting... maybe we can figure something out... maybe you can take Neville's identity as a pure-blood and start going to school at Hogwarts..."
"No... I have to keep fighting."
"Seeing that girl... I was only momentarily tempted by that peaceful life, that's all, I'll forget all about it by tomorrow and we'll go back to fighting as usual," he said firmly.
She let out a long sigh as she laid down next to him, her burgundy wine red hair falling seductively across his pillow. "I can help you forget her then... if you want..."
As soon as Harry regained full use of his body, they quickly continued their journey south. After that last battle, Hermione's determination to help out more with the fighting only made Harry work that much harder so that she would never have to. So he had made sure to be extra careful about avoiding any possible confrontations with Death Eaters, even if it had meant taking long detours or laying low and staying in one spot for longer than usual while things cooled down. Harry knew the Scottish terrain pretty well and hiding a small party of two was much easier than the large squads of rebels and freed prisoners that he had been involved with in the past. Traveling when it was just him and Hermione was almost too easy in comparison.
They had had a few close encounters, but luckily they had managed to cross over into England without any direct confrontations. The northern and central parts of England had been the first areas to fall to Voldemort's forces, so they had been so solidly entrenched in the Dark Lord's grasp that rebel forces never really bothered risking precious resources on such difficult targets. But after being clear out of the war for so long, a sense of complacency had settled on the region, so it was easy to just blend in right in in broad daylight.
"We should change out of our Muggle clothes and into some robes," he advised when he saw a wizarding town over on the horizon.
"Wait... we're not just going to waltz right in there, are we?" she asked worriedly.
"Why not?" he shrugged. "Scotland, the southern coast of England, and the western coast of Wales are where all the fighting is going on. There hasn't been any fighting or rebels in this region in over ten years, so these people are used to the peace. They probably won't even ask us about our blood status and just assume that we're half-bloods."
"Might want to pretend that we're newlywed or something though. Kind of odd for a young couple to be about like this otherwise. You don't want to be accused of being a scarlet woman, right?" he chuckled, as he pulled out set of wizarding robes from his satchel.
"Honestly, who uses that term nowadays?" she laughed, heading behind the trees that lined the road in order to change.
"Are you okay with Töpfer as a last name?" he asked once they were both dressed in typical everyday robes.
"Töpfer?" she quirked an eyebrow in amusement. "The German word for Potter? Really?"
"Harry and Hermione Töpfer," he grinned smugly. He then reached into his satchel but hesitated for a moment before bringing out a handful of wedding bands. "See one that you like?"
"Where'd you get all these? Did you rob a jewelry store or something?" she raised a quizzical eyebrow as she perused through the selection.
"Does it count as robbery if the store was already abandoned?" he asked cheekily.
She then picked a matching pair of plain white gold bands. "I like these... simple and clean. Anything fancier would make people think we're wealthy and that might draw some unwanted attention."
"True," he agreed, putting the rest of the rings back into his satchel. Then, holding out her ring, he paused, as if silently asking her if she wanted him to place it on her finger for her.
Blushing a little, she held out her hand, palm down, fingers spread. With a lopsided grin, he obliged her by gently placing the wedding band on her ring finger.
The two of them had never talked about their first kiss together. She figured that he was probably chalking it up to her emotions running high at the time, but she actually had grown quite fond of him. The idea of being married to him, even just for pretend, made her heart skip.
"You might want to change your hair and eye color just in case too," he suggested.
Years of keeping a low profile had suppressed her inner showoff, but that was no longer necessary when it was just Harry, so she indulged herself by taking on the challenge of trying to recreate the magical shade of green she saw whenever she looked into his eyes. It was harder than it looked.
When she was satisfied with her green eyes, she moved on to her hair. She didn't want to look like his sister though, so she passed on black. And, while she personally didn't buy into the blonde stereotype, she didn't really fancy the idea of other people thinking that she was an airhead. She was already a brunette, so brown was already out. So, unable to make up her mind, she cheekily picked the exact opposite of her new green eyes and changed her hair into a vibrant shade of Christmas red.
His reaction was nothing like anything she had expected though. He just looked absolutely stunned speechless, though not from surprised amazement or approval, but more like he had just seen a ghost.
Then, before she could say anything, he whispered, "Darker..."
She blinked a little in surprise but quietly obliged, gradually turning her hair darker and darker until he told her to stop at a shade of burgundy wine red.
She shivered a little, feeling as if he were replacing her with someone from his past. She had spent the last decade as Daphne Greengrass, she didn't want to erase Hermione Granger again, but her wand continued to move as if on its own. She had, out of necessity, perfected an assortment of hair-grooming charms over the years, so it really was almost autopilot for her. All she had to do was push a little more power into the straightening charm and her shoulder-length hair was now free of any waviness.
After staring at her hard for a moment, a moment in which she felt incredibly self-conscious and shy, he shook himself out of it and said, "Black hair. You take my black hair and green eyes, and I'll take your auburn hair and brown eyes. That way we'll have consistent reference colors."
Letting out a small breath of relief, she smiled a little as she complied. Seeing her eyes and hair color on him and his eyes and hair color on herself, it was almost like they were still themselves, just with swapped color palettes. She felt more comfortable with her hair in his shade of black rather than the burgundy red that belonged to someone from his past. She didn't want to be a substitute anymore.
"You look good... though I do prefer your regular look," she remarked.
He grinned a little and patted her on the head, the contact making her straightened hair stubbornly spring back to waviness. "I like your regular look too."
Smiling, she blushed. "Thanks..."
"Well... we should check into an inn, maybe relax here for a few days. Enjoy cooked meals and hot showers for a change," he suggested as they made their way into town.
Hermione had a small stash of galleons packed away in her emergency pack and Harry's galleons had mostly come from confiscating them off of fallen Death Eaters, but they decided to save money by checking out just a single room for the two of them.
And, as expected, the matronly innkeeper didn't ask too many incriminating questions about their identities; it was mostly just innocent comments like how adorable a couple they made. They still didn't want to risk visiting the more highly-regulated places though, such as the broom shop, which required a Ministry-approved license.
When they got to their room, Hermione got to once again enjoy a hot shower and soak her travel-weary body in a proper tub. During their travels, such luxuries had been a rarity, and her stubbornly bushy hair had been on the verge of overpowering all of the charms she could throw at it. She wasn't really vain about her appearance, but the real Daphne Greengrass, even as a six-year-old, had put much pride in her hair, so Hermione felt obligated to at least honor her first-ever friend by taking impeccable care of her own hair. Besides, if anything, she wanted to look nice for Harry.
While Harry took his turn in the shower, Hermione took the chance to look through the shared compartment in their enchanted bags. She had recently figured out a way to set aside a single compartment that was accessible from two different bags, which came in handy for things they needed to share at a moment's notice such as healing supplies. They had also, however, ended up using it to share some more mundane things as well, such as books.
She had packed some of her favorite books into her emergency pack, but she had already read them all countless times, so she had placed them into the shared compartment for Harry if he was ever interested. It turned out that Harry had a large collection of books as well, which she had initially found as odd, considering the life he had led. He had replied by telling her that constant battles would drive a person mad if it weren't for hobbies. He really did have a way of telling her stuff without actually telling her anything.
Some of his books were, predictably, war novels such as Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Some were practical, such as various magical and Muggle textbooks and guide manuals. But most were for the purpose of taking him as far away from the war as possible for a brief reprieve before he would once again have to face reality and bloody his hands.
One more thing that she noticed was that a lot of the books hadn't actually belonged to him, they had belonged to someone named Lily Evans. Judging by her taste in books, Hermione felt that she would have liked Lily Evans a lot. Then that brought her back to her first night after meeting Harry; when they had been gathering supplies, he had mentioned that the lilies that bloom every summer remind him of her. That person must've been Lily Evans.
When she had met Harry, he had been all alone. He rarely ever talked about his old comrades. But now she had a name of someone from his past, and that somehow made the fact that he had lost everyone he had ever known just that much more real.
"Pride and Prejudice?" he asked, breaking her out of her thoughts as he returned from his shower.
"I love this book," she smiled.
"Don't laugh, but I kind of like it too," he replied sheepishly.
She really did try hard not to laugh at the thought of battle-hardened Harry Potter reading chick-lit like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but it was just too much for her, so she buried her face into a pillow to muffle her amusement.
"Are you quite finished?" he laughed.
She grinned at him and nodded. "Sorry, couldn't help myself."
"You hungry? I'd kill for some food that doesn't come out of a can," he remarked.
Nodding, she renewed the color charms on their eyes and hair before following him downstairs where they were able to enjoy a delicious hot meal. And, afterwards, she had talked him into taking a stroll around town like a regular young couple.
It was all so normal, and she reveled in it. A part of her wished that they could stop running, stop fighting, and just settle down in this small town. But one look at Harry and she could tell that he wasn't relaxing into the normalcy. She could see the way his eyes darted around to immediately map out all exits and escape routes whenever they entered a new building or room. He was still too much of a soldier.
And that made her realize that she didn't even know what it was that he was fighting for. At first, she had assumed that he was a Muggle-born like her due to his Muggle knowledge, but after learning that his parents had fought in this war as well and the fact that his last name was from an old pure-blood line, she knew that he was most likely a half-blood.
But, still, half-bloods had rights. He could have still led a normal life. So what was so important that he'd give that up for a life of bloodshed?
"How's Neville doing?"
Susan let out a long sigh as she sat down next to Harry and nuzzled her head against the crook of his neck. "How are you doing?"
"Peachy," he replied lifelessly.
She frowned. "Harry..."
But he quickly cut her off. "Why are you still here, Susan? Why are you and Neville still here? You're both pure-bloods. Just go home. Stop fighting. The Ministry has started Hogwarts back up... you two could both be regular first-year students in September, just normal eleven-year-old kids. Go live a normal life."
"You could too, you know," she pointed out in a soft voice.
"My mum was a Muggle-born... I'm not just going to lie down and lick their boots after what they did to my her," he snorted in disdain. "Besides, as a half-blood, all I'd ever be is a second-class citizen at best... at worst, I'd get thrown straight into Azkaban for being a blood-traitor, but at least you two will have special considerations as pure-bloods. I can't ever have a normal life."
"Then this is all about revenge? Or are you just fighting because you have no other choice?" she asked quietly. "Harry, something like that... that's too sad..."
He stopped when Hermione gently tugged at his sleeve. "Hmm?"
"I don't know what you're fighting for, but... would it be selfish of me to ask you to forget about all that even just for one day and relax? We don't get much chances like this," she said softly. The way he surveyed the area as if there were someone out to ambush them around every corner, the way he periodically clenched and unclenched his gloved fists like a twitchy trigger finger, it wasn't normal.
"Constant vigilance," he replied, causing her shoulders to slump. Then, smiling a little, he picked out a pretty cherry blossom pink ribbon, feeling the untainted softness between his rough fingers before putting his arms around her to tie it into a bow at the base of her ponytail, like how she used to with the periwinkle blue ribbon she had given him long ago. "Do you like it?"
She blushed a little as she looked into a mirror. "It's pretty."
"I'll buy it for you," he smiled, handing a couple galleons to the store clerk. "Something like this is normal, right?"
She wanted to protest that he didn't have to spend money on her, but any girl would be happy to receive a present from the boy they fancied. The heart-melting smile he wore as he gave it to her just made it even better.
She loved his smile. It was a miracle that the war hadn't stolen it away from him.
"Sirius, I'm coming too!"
The scruffy goofball of the Order let out a long sigh with an end note that sounded like a groan. "Listen, Harry... go back inside and play Exploding Snap or something with the other kids. I know this isn't much of a childhood, but, damn it, just enjoy yourself. It's not a crime to smile, you know. Have some fun like a normal kid, for Merlin's sake."
Young Harry glared at him with stoic eyes, his face as impassive as ever. "I want to fight."
Sirius stared back, holding it for a few tense moments in silence, but he was the one that broke first. With a groan, he mussed up his own hair in frustration before relenting. He pulled out a couple wands and handed them to the boy. "Don't make me regret this, Harry... I'm not taking you along this time, but... these belonged to your parents, pick the one that works better for you and practice on your own using books until I get back. I'll start teaching you once I come back."
Harry nodded and promptly sprinted back inside.
"That kid looks more and more like James every day, but he's nothing like his father," Sirius sighed when he caught up with Remus. "James was such a fun-loving prankster, always laughing, smiling... but Harry..."
"Haven't seen Harry smile in years," Remus nodded solemnly. "He's always so cold and distant... doesn't even call us uncle anymore..."
"I promised him I'd train him, teach him how to fight, once we get back from this operation," Sirius groaned. "James and Lily would've probably killed me for teaching their kid how to fight, huh?"
"Then teach him, not how to fight, but how to protect his precious people," Remus said. "Teach him how to protect their smiles..."
But Sirius never got the chance; he died later that night. In his will, he left Harry his most precious possession... his smile.
"You can take the bed, I'll set up the tent and sleep in there," Harry offered later that night.
Hermione wondered exactly how long Harry had gone without a wand. She could have just reminded him that she could transfigure a bed for him, but she chose not to and instead pointed out how stale the tent was from all of their traveling. "Room service!"
A house elf immediately popped into the room. "What can Floppy be's doing for Mr. and Mrs. Töpfer?"
"How much would it cost to clean out a magical tent? Ours has gotten kind of stale on the inside," she said.
"Master is charging four galleons for tent cleaning," Floppy replied.
Hermione nodded and handed the rolled-up tent to the house elf along with five galleons. "Do it. And take a galleon for yourself as gratuity."
Floppy stared at the extra galleon reluctantly.
"Well? What are you waiting for?" she asked, placing her hands on her hips.
"Mrs. Töpfer is being very generous," Floppy bowed before apparating away.
Harry, not having been able to put in a single word during the entire exchange, smiled in amusement at Hermione's take-charge bossiness and wondered if this was what it was like to have a wife. "Does that mean I'm sleeping on the couch?"
"If you want me to transfigure it into a bed for you," she said, losing the nerve to ask him to share the bed with her.
"Huh, didn't even think of that. Brilliant," he mused. He didn't notice her shoulders slump in disappointment.
After stocking up on warm stasis-charmed meals to last them a while and an assortment of healing potions, the two of them set off to continue their journey south. It was a reluctant departure for Hermione, but she knew that she still had to get Slughorn's pensieve memory to Dumbledore.
"What's that?" she asked once they reached the Manchester area She was pointing south at a tower that rose high above the horizon in the distance.
Harry grimaced. "That's an M-Reactor. We should avoid it."
It occurred to her that, if it weren't for Harry, she would probably be enslaved inside one of those towers already. "Is it impossible to free all the Muggle-born inside with just the two of us?"
"Freeing them might be possible, it's escaping with such a large group of people that's the hard part," he shook his head as he checked his map. "That's the Little Hangleton M-Reactor... one of the first ones ever built and the most heavily guarded. We should head around through Great Hangleton to avoid it."
"Oh..." she let out a sigh, wondering why, out of all of the Muggle-born in the country, she had gotten lucky enough to never have to see the inside of one of those things. "How do M-Reactors work anyway?"
"Not exactly sure," he shrugged. "Well, you know that electronics don't work in areas of concentrated magic use, right? They just hook up every Muggle-born they can find like a human battery and force their magic over a wide area to cause a similar interference.
"Muggles were heavily dependent on electronics, especially computer databases, so the M-Reactors pretty much crashed Muggle society overnight. And that was when Voldemort revealed the existence of magic. With Muggles in a chaos and panic over the loss of electricity, Voldemort was able to fool the wizard populace into thinking that Muggles really were inferior and needed guidance from wizards. It was quite ingenious really," he explained.
Hermione had lost her father before the M-Reactors had gone up though. Even before Voldemort had revealed magic to the world, Death Eaters had been attacking Muggles in what had been covered up as a massive string of terrorist attacks.
"But that's what got me thinking that Voldemort isn't a pure-blood," he said, startling her with his radical theory. "There's no way a pure-blood would have thought to deprive Muggles of electricity. And what's more, the M-Reactors also suppress nuclear fission reactions. With M-Reactors, Voldemort had effectively neutralized aerial bombers, long-range ballistics missiles, nuclear bombs... anything Muggle that would have been a threat to wizard dominance. There's just no way that he's a pure-blood."
"Now that you mention it..." she nodded, casting one last look at the tower before they headed in the other direction.
When the two of them reached the outskirts of Great Hangleton, what they found was what looked like another bleak and desolate Muggle city. But, when they journeyed deeper south into the center of the city, they found that it wasn't as abandoned as they had previously thought.
"What is this? This is terrible..." Hermione gasped.
"A Muggle slum," Harry nodded, taking a look around the poverty-stricken ghetto. It was a good thing that they had changed into Muggle clothing, or else the two of them probably wouldn't have been very welcome.
"Can we do anything to help them?" she asked hopefully, seeing a couple of young children tending to a meager vegetable garden. "Maybe we can take them with us."
"Once we go further south, the number of battles will escalate... and it will be more difficult to travel while staying hidden with a large group," he shook his head. "They might even be safer here."
"Poor kids..." she sighed.
Harry and Hermione stayed in the slums of Great Hangleton for a couple days at Hermione's insistence. Harry had been without a wand for so long that he often forgot how useful magic was for non-combat applications, so he was impressed when Hermione went around trying to help the Muggles in any way she could.
She cast fertilizer and pesticide charms on vegetable gardens, used healing spells to take care of the sick and injured, repaired broken shelters and furniture, passed out jars of bluebell flames for light since they didn't need a fuel source to keep burning, dug irrigation channels for water, and many other helpful things. Harry, even without a wand, could still draw runes and erect some wards, so he did his part as well.
"I wish I could do more for them..." she sighed as lay in bed that night, exhausted. Using so much magic had left her very drained.
Seeing Hermione help the poverty-stricken people of the Muggle slum was quite different from his years of experience freeing Muggle-born prisoners from M-Reactor facilities up in Scotland. When he had saved people from M-Reactor facilities, they had always been too scared, too frightened, to even thank him as they had fled to the safety of Ireland. So it was an odd experience to actually be thanked for once. It was nice.
"You've done plenty... the people here are already calling you an angel," he chuckled, sitting at the edge of her bed. To him, she really was an angel, like a ray of light chasing away the darkness that haunted him. Seeing her compassion and kindness really stirred something within him; perhaps he was falling in love?
But what right did he have to fall in love? All of his friends were dead. He couldn't protect anyone.
"Hermione! Wake up, something's wrong."
"Huh?" Hermione groggily wiped the sleep from her eyes to hear shouting outside. "What's going on?"
"Not sure," he shook his head as he carefully headed outside. Down the street, under the pale blue light of daybreak, was a single Death Eater witch confronted with a few scared Muggles holding firearms.
"So you really won't tell me about the witch or wizard who performed all this magic for you?" the Death Eater asked in a perky voice that seemed incredibly out of place.
"They already left! So leave! You have no business here!"
"Please don't lie to me," the Death Eater pouted. "If you tell me, I promise won't bother you anymore."
"Harry, we have to do something," Hermione whispered frantically, feeling guilty that it was her magic that had drawn attention to this Muggle slum.
"I'll draw her away, and you watch my back in case she has backup hiding out somewhere," he said. If she really was by herself, then she was probably quite powerful. While the wards they had put up weren't all that complex, it would take more than a grunt Death Eater to get past them.
"Be careful, Harry," she said worriedly before impulsively giving him a quick peck on the lips. "I'll give you a better one when you come back."
"I look forward to it," he grinned before making his presence known to the Death Eater. "Looking for me?"
"Oh, yes, I was. Wand please," the Death Eater smiled brightly as she spun around and held him at wandpoint. She was wearing a Death Eater half-mask, but her robes consisted of a slender black qipao-style dress with side slits that ran high up her thighs for increased range of motion. Her jet black hair tied into twin buns added more evidence to her Asian descent. Though, oddly enough, she had a playful Scottish accent, unlike the Bulgarian and the French Death Eaters that had come before her.
Harry kept one hand up in the air as he used the other one to pull out one of the wands that he had confiscated from fallen Death Eaters and tossed it over to her. "Now leave the people here alone."
"Walk with me?" she asked cutely, though it really wasn't a request.
"You're not even going to ask for my blood status?" he asked, trying to break her focus with conversation as they moved away from the Muggle settlement.
"One does not wonder ze names of ze insects zat one crushes under foot, non?" she replied smugly in a mock French accent, causing him to laugh. Perhaps she was a friend of that insane French Death Eater witch he had fought back in Glasgow.
"So what is it exactly you want with an insect like me?"
"Maybe I'll keep you as a pet," she quipped. "Then I suppose I will have to give you a name."
"Harry, I got all of the people to hide in a safe spot," came Hermione's whispered voice over the communication mirror.
So, at that moment, Harry spun around and, with a burst of speed, charged in at the Death Eater witch. But, just as he struck, the flare of magical discharge from his fist went straight through as the Death Eater exploded into a shower of vibrant pink cherry blossoms. And, the next thing he knew, he was coughing up blood as the tip of a sword pierced through his abdomen from behind.
"Tsk, tsk, a pet shouldn't be attacking its master," she remarked, nipping at his ear from behind.
Harry then realized that this witch was an illusions specialist. It wasn't a branch of magic that he had encountered too often in combat. In Britain, most applications of illusion magic had been either for hiding magical structures like Hogwarts or for stealth, such as disillusionment and glamour charms. The sword that was lodged into his gut was definitely no illusion though.
"A master shouldn't be stabbing a pet with a sword," he coughed, doing his best to suppress the mind-numbing pain.
"Of course, silly me, no swords then," she chuckled as she pulled the sword out of him and transfigured it into twin sickles connected by a long chain. She then sadistically ran her tongue over her lips before asking, "Now, are you going to come quietly?"
"Of course not." He used a spinning backhand to strike at her. But, again, she disappeared in a burst of blossoms. Not to get caught off guard again, however, Harry immediately kept moving in an unpredictable zig-zag pattern as his eyes darted around wildly in search of the witch.
But, as he was moving, he realized that something was very wrong when he crashed into something solid yet invisible. Feeling around, he realized that it was an automobile, and its shape was exactly the same as the one across the street. Confirming his suspicions, touching the car that was across the street turned it into a shower of cherry blossoms.
"Seems like you've figured it out," she laughed, appearing before him. But, really, he now knew that she was behind him, not in front of him.
"Left and right, forward and backward... everything is opposite," he grimaced, desperately trying to mentally remap his surroundings.
"Just knowing the trick and actually trying to work through it are two completely different things though," she smiled, twirling one of the sickles in the air before launching it at him from the left side.
He saw it coming from the front-left and knew it was actually coming from the back-right, but years of reflex movements honed from high-speed combat wasn't something he could just turn off with a flick of a switch. Before he could make a conscious decision, his body reflexively moved the "wrong" way. He cringed in pain as the blade of the sickle lodged itself into his back with a spray of blood. He couldn't help howling out as she cruelly pulled the sickle back by the chain, loosening even more flesh and blood from his body.
"Want to try again? Practice makes perfect," she pointed out sweetly. She thrashed him again. The illusion wasn't active this time, but he thought it was, so he ended up miscalculating again and receiving another painful and bloody gash.
"So you can turn the illusion on and off... tche, I don't even know what's what anymore," he chuckled sardonically, nursing his wounds as blood dripped across the pavement.
"Harry! Imagine a chessboard with each square being one meter-squared with your position as E5. North is going higher in number and east is higher in letter. Got it?" came Hermione's voice over the communicator. "You're on E5 and she's on D4... so take a retreat path to F7 then H8!"
"Gotcha," he replied, grinning at Hermione's brilliance, but instead of retreating, he turned around and struck. He didn't see her there, but when his fist caught a flutter of her hair as she dodged his attack, the illusion broke and revealed her. She seemed completely surprised and quickly recast another illusion with a different set of rules.
"Damn it, Harry! I told you to retreat! Not to attack her!" Hermione screamed. She had evacuated the Muggles a good distance away, so it had taken her a while to get back to the battle and thus hadn't realized the extent of Harry's injuries until she saw his high-speed movements leaving a bloody trail across the ground.
"Hurry up with the coordinates! I'm kind of lost here without you!"
With a groan of exasperation, Hermione continued feeding him coordinates on their imaginary chessboard. Fighting by coordinates was still no substitute to using his senses though, and Harry was losing blood fast, so the Death Eater was managing to whittle him down little by little. In the meantime, however, Hermione realized that, as an outside observer of the illusion, she could analyze the arithmancy behind it.
"Harry, this isn't working, retreat via path to F2 then H1 while I cover you! Don't argue! Heal and take some blood-replenishing potions!" Hermione snapped. "While you were keeping her busy, I've been analyzing the arithmancy behind her illusions, and I think I've got her figured out enough to be able to charm my eyes to see through her. She still thinks that you're alone, so I'll try to catch her by surprise."
"Hermione, wait! Goddammit," he swore as Hermione already started a more traditional duel of spellcasting. But as the Death Eater's attention shifted to Hermione, he found that his world had reverted back to normal.
He quickly dashed inside of a building, hoping to catch the Death Eater from behind by reappearing on the street from a different exit. He ran some quick slipshod healing spells and gulped down a blood-replenishing potion on the fly as he burst out the exit on the other side of the building.
When he rounded the corner, however, he saw the two witches, locked in a vicious duel, cast twin slashing curses at each other at the exact same time.
"Neville... thought I'd find you here..."
Neville ran his fingers over Susan's newly engraved name on the granite. "Hey, Harry?"
"We failed her, didn't we?"
"No matter how many times I apologize to her for failing to protect her... the burden never gets any lighter..."
"Apologizing and asking for forgiveness are two completely different things," Harry said in a solemn voice as he turned his gaze upwards towards the starry night sky.
"Is it difficult? Asking for forgiveness?"
Silence blanketed the two of them as Harry ran his fingers over the periwinkle blue ribbon that Daphne Greengrass had unknowingly given him while he had been in his animagus form. What were they doing here? What difference did their fighting, suffering, and sacrifice make? Would the world have been any different if they had just kept their heads down and lived normal lives? Where had they failed so badly to end up in this hopeless situation?
"Asking for forgiveness... I wouldn't know, I never tried," Harry finally answered. "I never felt that I deserved forgiveness, so I never tried."
Neville let out a long sigh as he got up, nodding. "Me neither."
Hermione winced as pain shot all through her body. She lifted up her shirt to find that her abdomen was wrapped up in so many bandages that it looked mummified. She was more worried about Harry though. She hadn't gotten a close look at his injuries during the battle, but she could tell that he had been in pretty bad shape.
So she endured the agony and dragged herself out to Harry's room in the tent. She found one of the Muggles from the slums, a former nurse, tending to his injuries and feeding him potions according to the instructions that he had given her before passing out from blood loss.
"How is he?" she asked weakly.
"Oh, you're up. No, no, you need more rest," she scolded, trying to lead her back to her own room.
So Hermione just stubbornly levitated her bed to Harry's room. "How is he?"
The nurse checked her over once again and, after double-checking Harry's instructions, gave her another potion to drink. "Your husband had sustained heavy injuries, but he will pull through."
Hermione sighed in relief as she fingered the wedding band that she still wore. "Thank you for nursing us to health..."
"No, thank you for helping us so much with your magic and defending us from that Death Eater," she smiled as she got up to leave. "Now go back to sleep, you need more rest."
The moment the nurse was gone, however, Hermione could hear the sound of sheets rustling over from Harry's bed. "Harry? You need to rest."
When he turned his head to face her, he gave her a hollow smile and shook his head. "I need to keep watch to make sure no more Death Eaters come to investigate."
"Then I'll come too."
The force behind his sudden response startled her.
Then, after taking a few calming breaths to reign himself in, he said, "You were hurt more than I was, so you rest. You shouldn't be fighting. I'll keep watch."
She wanted to point out that it had been a team effort, that they both would have been toast without each other. She wanted to scream at him for being so stubborn. She wanted to plead for him to rest his injuries. She wanted him to stay with her. She wanted to remind him that she had promised him a kiss once they had made it out of that battle alive.
They were alive now, but she couldn't find her voice.
Once they had both recovered and departed from the Great Hangleton slums, they continued to head south past the Manchester area and began to travel at night, under the cover of darkness, while hiding out during the day. Where they were now was an area of heavy Death Eater and Ministry troop movement heading south since the southern coast of England along the English Channel was where all of the fighting was. Due to M-Reactor apparition limitations, the troops generally moved by broom, so ground traffic wasn't too heavy, making it possible for Harry and Hermione to avoid running into Death Eaters.
Harry had distanced himself from her since the last battle though. It wasn't so obvious at first, he'd still smile, albeit hollow ones, but it was through the lightheartedness that he was pushing her away, pretending that there was nothing bothering him.
Then the times he smiled gradually grew less and less as he become more stoic. At first she had thought it was due to the need for silence as they passed through areas of heavy Death Eater activity. Harry was always on high alert, so she had thought that the lack of conversation was just him trying to focus on keeping them alive for the time being.
After a couple weeks passed since they had left Great Hangleton though, she could see that Harry had already begun to fully revert back into an isolated soldier. She didn't know what to say to him though.
It was when they had passed Bristol, she had noticed that he was getting more and more antsy. They were getting close to Devon, less than a hundred miles to Ottery St. Catchpole, where he knew a handful of Light families had resided before the war. Was he worried that there would be nothing there once they got there?
"What's to the west?" she asked in a soft voice.
"You keep glancing west every now and then," she pointed out. They were headed south, so she had found it a little odd that he kept looking west. "We can take a detour and go there if you want. What's over there?"
Frustrated with his increasingly withdrawn and remote behavior, she grabbed his arm to stop him and subsequently exploded on him, "Harry, tell me what's wrong. Stop pushing me away! Is this about me getting hurt back in Great Hangleton? It wasn't your fault, Harry, so stop blaming yourself! Please, just talk to me! I'm a part of this too, and I refuse to be dead weight! So stop isolating yourself! Maybe it's easier for you to be alone, that way you won't have to lose anyone else, but do you really expect to live the rest of your life alone? You keep pushing me away, but you're still wearing the wedding band, aren't you? I am too! We're in this together! I want to be with you, I refuse to leave you alone, so get used to it!"
He quirked an eyebrow as he studied her with impassive eyes. "I'm impressed you could say all that in one breath."
She didn't know whether to bristle with anger or blush in embarrassment; she ended up doing both.
Before she could continue her tirade, however, he changed course and started heading west. "West of here is a small rural village called Godric's Hollow... my parents are there..."
"Uncle Remus... are you leaving too?"
Remus' shoulders slumped when his hopes for a quiet departure were dashed. He turned around and gave Harry a hollow smile. "It's not safe to be around me... I'm better off on my own where I can't hurt anybody with my... furry problem... I have to go..."
"So you're running away."
"I suppose that's one way of looking at it," Remus admitted wryly. James and Sirius had been the only people keeping him from losing to his inner werewolf, keeping him from losing his sanity. But, after losing his friends, after years of fighting a futile war, he was now just a shell of his former self, just a broken man.
"Where will you go?"
"Not sure. I suppose I'll try to cause as much damage as possible... I'm not fit to protect anybody... all I do is hurt people, so I might as well go off on my own and direct it at the bad guys," he mused, tossing a piece of chocolate to Harry before unwrapping one for himself. He always had some chocolate handy, figuring that war was sort of like a Dementor's kiss, leaving a person drained of happiness and life.
"You're still needed here, you know."
"It wasn't so bad when we were at Hogwarts, when we had a solid base of operations... just cage me up on every full moon... but things are different now that we're always on the move. I'm just going to keep breaking free and hurting people... no, Harry, I need to go," Remus said grimly. "I'm not fit to protect anybody."
"I'm going to miss you..."
"I'll miss you too," Remus nodded with a sad smile. "Sorry for failing you, Harry."
Harry shook his head. "I never blamed you... even if I had, I've already forgiven you."
"I'm not looking for forgiveness, Harry... I don't deserve it... I'm just apologizing, that's all... goodbye, Harry."
When they reached Godric's Hollow, they found that it was another Muggle settlement. Though it wasn't so much a poverty-stricken slum like Great Hangleton as it was a refuge. The village was surrounded by forests, a good deal out of the way of any main roads and far from any major city, so it was almost like a small bubble isolated from the war.
"So this is your home town?" Hermione asked, trying to make conversation.
"Yeah," he nodded absently. "It's getting late... do you want to set up camp at the edge of town and call it a night?"
"You don't want to visit your parents first?" she asked. "I can wait here if you want."
Harry glanced over at the church on the other side of the small village for a moment before shaking his head. "I don't think I'm ready... besides, I'm not letting you out of my sight again."
"Okay," she nodded. "Would it be too much to check out your old house? Might be better than staying in a tent."
"Probably people already taking shelter there," he shook his head.
"True..." she agreed, shoulders slumping. When he had agreed to show her his childhood home town, she had thought that he was opening up to her again, but he was still being distant.
Seeing the loneliness in her eyes, he sighed and took her hand with a guilty smile about how moody he'd been lately. "Were you expecting to see my crib and embarrassing baby pictures or something?"
She saw a hint of the familiar light in his eyes that had been absent for the past few weeks, causing her to brighten considerably. "Is it too much to ask to want to get to know more about you?"
"Guess we can at least just check it out," he shrugged, leading her down the road. When they got their, they found the windows lit by flickering candlelight, as expected. But it was what he saw through the windows that shocked him; it was a family of redheads.
"Harry?" she asked, startled as he took her hand and pulled her up to the front door to knock.
"Who is it?" came a voice from the other side of the door.
"I'm here to collect rent, Weasley!"
"Did you say Weasley?" Hermione gasped.
They heard some not-so-hushed whispering coming from inside before the door opened to reveal a pair of red-haired twins.
"Fred, is that really Harry Potter?"
"And Gryffindor's lovely ice princess Daphne Greengrass too? Or is it Daphne Potter now?"
"The Harry we knew was never such a lady's man."
"Might be polyjuice. These two might be up to no good."
Harry grinned. "I solemnly swear I am up to no good."
"By george, it is ickle Harrykins!"
"No, I'm George!"
"I know that! It was a figure of speech!"
"Ickle Harrykins?" Hermione nudged him teasingly with her elbow and had to stifle a giggle.
"You know these two clowns?" Harry raised an eyebrow.
"We all went to Hogwarts together," Hermione explained. "Though, these two jokers dropped out after they took their OWLs."
"Hey, Ron! Ginny! Everyone! Come down! It's our childhood friend Harry Potter here to collect rent! And he brought Daphne Greengrass too!"
"Bloody hell!" came Ron's trademark expression. "Harry? And Daphne? Wow, I am so confused right now."
"Are you all just going to stand at the front door like that or are you going to invite them in?" Ginny rolled her eyes as she ushered them all into the sitting room. "Long time no see, Harry. Good to see you again too, Daphne."
"Harry, you haven't met these two yet, right?" the twins asked as they brought forward two non-redheaded people. "This chap is Cedric Diggory, and this here is Luna Lovegood. We were all neighbors back home."
Harry then introduced himself to them, while Hermione only had to get reacquainted from their time at Hogwarts.
"Now can you two please explain what is going on? Harry Potter, who I haven't seen in over ten years, and Daphne Greengrass, who would rather die than skip out on school, are sitting here in our house, this is just bizarre!" Ron exclaimed.
"It's actually my house," Harry corrected.
"We have no idea why you're here, you have no idea why we're here, and your reasons are probably just as depressing as ours, so let's save the sob stories for later, yeah?" Fred cut in, breaking out some Muggle beer.
"So, Harry, tell me... how do you open these Muggle contraptions without using a loosening charm?" George asked, handing him a bottle of beer.
Harry grinned as he used the inside of a door latch to easily pry the cap loose before handing the open bottle back. "Here you go."
"That was bloody brilliant!" George exclaimed as the Weasley brothers scrambled to try it out for themselves.
"Don't encourage them," Hermione rolled her eyes, though she was surprised by his resourcefulness.
"That's our bossy ice princess!" Fred cheered.
"And Harry's the man who finally melted her!" George whooped.
Hermione raised an eyebrow, blushing slightly. "We haven't even started drinking yet, and they're already this rowdy?"
Ginny laughed as she handed her an open bottle of beer; her brothers were having way too much fun trying out the door latch method of opening a bottle. "Well, if you didn't spend all your time in the library, maybe you'd know."
"Done for the night already?"
"Somebody has to stay sober enough to keep watch," Harry replied somberly from his perch on the balcony railing.
Cedric pulled himself up and joined him on their precarious ledge overlooking the forests to the south. Even when Harry was glancing back inside at the revelry that was still going on, Cedric noticed that Harry was using the reflections in the glass to still keep watch in all directions. "It's probably useless telling you that there's no need to keep watch, so... I'll keep watch. I've only had one drink."
"It's fine, I don't really like drinking anyway," Harry shrugged. Anything that decreased his chances for survival was probably a bad thing. As far as he was concerned, the only things alcohol was good for were setting Death Eaters on fire or disinfecting wounds.
"Guess I'll keep you company out here then."
"Thanks," Harry nodded. "Hey, Cedric... have you heard anything about Dumbledore?"
Cedric looked a little surprised. "He wasn't up in Scotland with the Order?"
Harry's grip on the railing tightened before he let out a sardonic laugh. "That's just great... everyone up north thinks the Order is down south, and everyone down here thinks that the Order is still up north... that's just brilliant."
Cedric's eyes narrowed as his face turned serious. "What do you mean?"
"I'm the last one left, Cedric," he spat with a bitter snort. "Mind filling me in on the situation down here? What happened to you guys? Why are you guys here instead of Ottery St. Catchpole?"
"Dumbledore did come down here to establish a second branch of the Order years ago," Cedric started. "But he disappeared soon afterwards. We assumed that he had headed back up to Scotland to help with the fight there, but I guess not."
Harry just nodded grimly.
"The Weasleys, Luna, and I... our families were part of the Order down here, but membership was secret. We weren't labeled blood-traitors like you guys up north in Scotland because our families weren't openly resisting You-Know-Who. We went to Hogwarts like all of the other pure-blood kids. But, a few years ago, while we were at Hogwarts, the war came to Devon... our homes burned down... our families died... so we all dropped out of school once we took our mandatory OWLs and came back to try to salvage anything we could.
"By then, the Weasley, Lovegood, and Diggory names were outed as blood-traitors. Us kids weren't convicted of anything, but we pretty much became pariahs... still above Muggleborns on the social ladder, but well below half-bloods... we just got tired of it all and ran away here," Cedric finished with a sigh. "Mind telling me your story?"
"Not much to tell," he shrugged. "After Voldemort and the Ministry took back Hogwarts, the Order was pretty much scattered across Scotland. Over the years, they picked us off and whittled us down until it was just me left. Not much I could do by myself, so I left."
Cedric noted the complete lack of detail, but didn't push it. "Mind if I ask where Daphne comes into the picture? Is her sister alright?"
"You'll have to ask her for her story," Harry shook his head.
"Hey, Cedric..." Harry murmured as he watched Hermione laugh merrily at something Ron was saying. "Do Death Eaters or Ministry officials ever come by here?"
"No, not really. Their hands are too full with the French resistance in the east to bother with this tiny little village in the middle of nowhere," Cedric shook his head. "This place may have historical significance, but that's just it, history... there's nothing here now but Muggles and us blood-traitors... not even worth their time. We live pretty much undisturbed here. Despised, unwanted, and scorned, sure, but mostly undisturbed... kind of like living in a cupboard under the stairs, I guess. It's not luxury, but at least we're living."
"Do you think you can take in one more person?" Harry asked, nodding towards Hermione.
"We're actually going to be leaving soon," Cedric said. "There's going to be a ship landing in Devonport in a couple days to smuggle people out to France. You two are free to come with us."
"Just her," Harry shook his head. "She's wanted by Death Eaters and the Ministry and it might put your entire group at risk, so if you don't want to take her, I'd understand, but..."
"Are you going to go fight again?" Cedric asked, interrupting him.
Harry took a deep breath as he watched Hermione actually enjoying herself for the first time in a long while. She'd be safer escaping with them to France. "Yes."
"We just dye her hair red the Muggle way, and if she's seen with us, people will assume she's just another blood-traitor Weasley and avoid her no questions asked. That's better than being wanted by Death Eaters at least," Cedric said.
"Can I count on you to keep her safe? I don't usually trust people like this, but..."
"I haven't fought a lick in my life, always been a bystander, while you've sacrificed everything... let me at least do this for you. I'll keep her safe," Cedric nodded. He then made an unbreakable vow to back it up.
"You love her, don't you?"
Harry didn't respond either way, just continuing to watch Hermione loosen up with the effects of the alcohol. Though, he twitched a little when it seemed like Ron was flirting with her.
"You could come with us too, you know. Dye your hair blond, pass as Luna's older brother. The Lovegoods were eccentric enough that no one would find it odd for Luna to have a long lost brother coming back from a romp through the Norwegian wood hunting for Snorkacks," Cedric offered.
"Thanks for the offer, but I can't," he replied, shaking his head.
Cedric then noticed Hermione stagger towards the balcony, unbalanced from the alcohol. "At least give Daphne a say in the matter. Maybe she can talk you into coming with us."
With that, Cedric opened the sliding glass door for Hermione, who had seemed to be fumbling with it from the lack of coordination and motor control. He then gave her a nod before heading back inside.
"Harry... what are you doing out here?" she asked in a slight off-kilter manner as she stumbled into his arms.
He noticed that she still had her handbag on her, as if ready to just get up and leave at a moment's notice. It was understandable, since they had been on the run for over five hundred miles now. She had gotten used to being prepared at all times to make a run for it.
Without her noticing, he subtly reached into her handbag and retrieved the vial containing Slughorn's pensieve memory before pocketing it. It wasn't her burden anymore. A wild goose chase to deliver it to Albus Dumbledore wouldn't require two people, he'd be fine by himself.
"How much have you had to drink?" he quirked an eyebrow as he smelled the alcohol.
"Do you not like it when girls drink?" she asked, suddenly looking worried. She then clutched at his shirt and buried her face in his chest. "I'm sorry... it's my first time drinking... I don't know what I'm doing... I'm sorry... you probably like good girls who don't drink or do any bad stuff... I'm sorry... please don't hate me, Harry... I'll be a good girl for you, I promise..."
"Hermione... you're blabbering," he chuckled as he comfortingly put his arms around her. "Don't worry about it, Hermione... I like you just the way you are."
"Then why wouldn't you talk to me for the past few weeks?" she asked sullenly, her voice still muffled due to her face still buried into his chest.
Harry let out a long sigh. "Hermione... it's because I like you that I've been such a git lately... sorry for having been such a git."
"Don't be sorry, just don't do it again."
He was a little startled at that, though she couldn't see it. He then smiled a little and nodded. "Okay."
"Harry... you probably don't remember, but... I owe you a kiss," she said shyly as she pulled away just enough to look into his eyes.
"You do? Oh, um... then... I... uh..." she stammered incoherently.
"Though I'd feel like I'd be taking advantage of you if I claimed it right now," he chuckled.
"I'm not drunk, I swear," she insisted, though her facial expression clearly indicated that she was berating herself for losing her chance to kiss him just because she had a little too much to drink. "Besides... I'd be the one kissing you, so you wouldn't be taking advantage of me."
"Maybe tomorrow," he said kindly, kissing her lightly on the forehead before retrieving a couple bottles of water from his own bag. "Drink up, all of it, don't want a hangover tomorrow, right?"
"Right, I don't want a hangover tomorrow when I get to kiss you," she agreed, causing him to laugh a little. She really was too cute. "Let's go to sleep so that tomorrow will come faster."
"Sis? Where are you going?"
Daphne stiffened, then her shoulders slumped, as her hopes for a quiet departure were dashed. "Astoria... I... I have to leave... please understand..."
"No! I don't understand!"
Daphne glanced down at her trembling hands, the hands that had driven a kitchen knife through a Death Eater's chest. No matter how many times she washed them, it was as if they were still tainted with blood. "Those bad men... they'll keep coming... I'm only a danger to you, Astoria... I can't protect you... I have to leave..."
"You can't leave! I don't want to be alone!" Astoria wailed.
"You won't be safe if I don't leave..."
"I don't care!"
"Astoria... I'm sorry, but... this is for the best... goodbye... I'll miss you..."
But, just as she was about to leave, Astoria grabbed her hand and screamed at her, "HERMIONE!"
Shocked, she turned around to see Astoria sobbing violently while clutching at her hand for dear life. "Astoria..."
"You promised Daphne... that you'd be my sister... I can't lose you too... please..."
Hermione woke up the next morning with a slight headache, nothing too bad though. It seemed like it was already past noon, but Luna and Ginny were still fast asleep.
Then, hoping that Harry was already awake, she made her way to the bathroom to brush her teeth, wash, and pretty herself up a little. The night before was a little fuzzy, but she remembered most, if not all, of it, especially her conversation with Harry about the kiss.
Then working up a bit of courage, she made her way to the room Harry had shared with Ron and Cedric. She didn't find him there, which would have caused her to panic if Cedric hadn't been absent as well. Neither of them had much to drink, so they must have gotten up early. Ron, however, was out like a light.
"Harry?" she called out tentatively into her communication mirror.
A tense moment of silence.
She let out a sigh of relief. "Where are you?"
"Kitchen. You hungry?"
She went downstairs to find him find him deftly chopping vegetables and fruits with a knife. She was about to pull out her wand and do it for him in the fraction of the time, but she then stopped herself, wondering how he really felt about losing his wand. The magic that he channeled through that holly and thestral hair glove of his was so uncontrolled and volatile that it was mostly only good for combat. She didn't want him to think that he was only good for fighting, so she left him to his vegetables. Besides, she enjoyed this domestic atmosphere, and she hoped that maybe he'd get used to it enough to want to stop fighting and finally settle down.
"No hangover?" he asked.
"Slight headache, no big deal."
When he was done chopping, he distributed the vegetables and fruit over eight bowls before adding various other things such as nuts, canned tuna, and some boiled eggs that Cedric had gotten from the communal village chicken coop. "Hungry?"
"I can wait for the others to wake up," she replied. Then, before she lost her nerve, she reached up and gave him an innocent kiss on the lips.
The resulting smile on his face was an odd mixture of amusement and melancholy as they just stood there in a comfortable silence. She leaned into him a little to hide her shy blush, resting her hands and cheek against his chest, as he idly placed his hands on her hips. Ever since she had gotten hurt fighting against the Death Eater back in Great Hangleton, he had been so distant, so this closeness came as such a relief.
As she serenely drew circles across his chest with her finger, she took a deep breath of his personal scent and felt a little perverted for enjoying it so much. She couldn't really help it though, it was an addictive fragrance. There was that note of wood and spice, like the sandalwood he used to calm his twitchy wartime trigger finger or the stick of rolled cinnamon bark that he'd sometimes chew on to keep his reflexes alert for his brand of high-speed combat. Though it did make her a little sad when she realized that even his scent was associated with fighting, it was still a part of him, and she wanted all of him.
She wasn't really sure how to go about making him hers though. She had never had a boyfriend before, so she had no experience. She had always occupied herself with her studies and taking care of her little sister Astoria. A number of boys had flirted with her and had tried to date her of course, she was quite pretty due to her efforts in keeping up appearances as pure-blood Daphne Greengrass, but none of them knew the real her. Only Harry.
So she decided to be straightforward about it. She wasn't really one of those giggly girls who would play games and beat around the bush anyway. "Does this... make us a couple?"
He put his hand behind her head and kept her close so that she couldn't see the melancholic look in his eyes. "I want it to."
She wasn't sure how to interpret his response. Some of the implications frightened her, but she did her best not to waver. No, no wavering, no letting him weasel out of this one. So she put her foot down and firmly said, "Then we're a couple."
He couldn't help smiling at her bossiness.
"Neville! Where are you?"
"Over here, mate..."
Harry desperately scrambled over the rubble to find Neville's broken body crushed under a mountain of debris. "Neville! Hang on! I'll get you out of there!"
"Only if its to bury me with my parents and Susan... otherwise, don't bother getting me out of here, I'm done for, mate," Neville half chuckled half coughed.
"No! Don't say that! You're going to live, damn it!" Harry screamed as he started blasting away the rubble.
"Cut that out, mate, can't even hear myself think," Neville scowled weakly. "Harry, listen..."
"Neville... I'm so sorry... this... this should've never happened... I..."
"Shut it, Harry... I don't blame you, I never blamed you... neither did Susan or Sirius or Remus or Moody or Hagrid or anybody... the only person who ever blamed you was you," Neville coughed. "Stop dragging that bloody burden everywhere you go and forgive yourself already..."
"Find a nice girl and settle down somewhere peaceful... maybe that Daphne Greengrass girl... and start a greenhouse and name it after me or something, that way I won't die as just another no-name soldier..."
"You're not just another no-name soldier... you're Neville Longbottom..."
"Heh, good to know, mate... well, till next time... cheers..."
Harry knelt down in front of his parents' grave and placed a wreath of roses there, but he didn't know what to say to them. His first inclination was to apologize, as usual, but he then remembered how Neville had once told him to shut it when he had tried, so his father would have probably told him to stop apologizing too.
Mr. Prongs is indignant that his son ever thought his parents would blame him.
James and Lily wouldn't blame him. But Harry still blamed himself.
Mrs. Prongs would like to see her son let go of his burden.
But if he wasn't supposed to apologize, then what was he supposed to say? He hadn't been able to protect anybody, he had let everyone down, he had let them die.
Ms. Bones scoffs at that very notion as entirely absurd.
Mr. Padfoot thinks that survivor's guilt is overrated and that Harry should just suck it up and move on.
Mr. Moony would like to point out that Mr. Padfoot never survived long enough to know what survivor's guilt is.
Mr. Longbottom warns that dragging one's arse around will result in a long bottom and would thus like Harry to stop dragging his arse around.
And, despite all of their deaths and sacrifices, he still hadn't been able to make a lick of difference in this war. He didn't want their deaths to have been meaningless. He didn't want them to have died fighting a futile war. He had wanted to be able to make a difference so that their efforts wouldn't go to waste. But, despite their sacrifices, he was still just another no-name soldier unable to do anything of any significance.
Mr. Prongs would like to clarify that he had not died trying to make a difference in the war, he had died trying to give his family a better life.
Mrs. Prongs agrees with Mr. Prongs that their deaths would only go to waste if their son continues to mope and drag his burden around.
Ms. Bones thinks it's about time Harry forgives himself and stopped fighting.
Mr. Padfoot, in fact, would like his gloves back; they were meant for biking, not for fighting.
Mr. Moony, at the expense of sounding like a hypocrite, would like Harry to stop being chained down by his past.
Mr. Padfoot agrees with the hypocrite Mr. Moony and would like Harry to stop talking to dead people and move on with his life.
Mr. Longbottom wonders if Harry can even hear what Messrs. Dead People are saying through that obstinately thick skull of his.
Mr. and Mrs. Prongs would like to remind their son that they love him no matter what.
Letting out a long sigh, Harry figured that his parents wouldn't want him to dwell on the past so much, so he made it short.
"I love you... I miss you..."
On Cedric's advice, Harry had dyed his messy mop of hair a shade of dirty blond to match Luna's, while Hermione had dyed her hair red and straightened it out using a heat-charmed Muggle flat iron. Their disguises were done through Muggle means, since they didn't want to run the risk of losing magical disguises through any finite incantatum security wards.
As expected, they had been able make the journey down to Ottery St. Catchpole in broad daylight without running into too much trouble. Every now and then, any wizards or witches who knew of them and their family reputation would jeer and mock, but never anything to compromise Hermione and Harry's true identities. Ron had once remarked that years of listening to Draco Malfoy spout his pure-blood nonsense had made him pretty much immune to all of the jeering.
The plan was to spend the night at Ottery St. Catchpole for old times' sake and then make their way to the nearby city of Plymouth the next day. From there, one of Cedric's old school chums would smuggle them to a ship docked at Devonport in packing crates that were supposedly headed for the Isles of Scilly just off Cornwall but would actually head for France instead.
"Harry, something bothering you? You've been really quiet," Hermione said worriedly once they had arrived at Ottery St. Catchpole. "Are you worried about tomorrow?"
Tomorrow. He solemnly fingered the pensieve memory vial that he had in his pocket. He had gotten Cedric to create a duplicate and had slipped the original back in Hermione's bag without her ever knowing it had been missing. That way, if Dumbledore wasn't in Britain anymore, she'd be able to look for him on the continent, where it was safe. But Harry would stay, search for Dumbledore in Britain, and continue fighting. After tomorrow, he might not see Hermione again for a long time.
"Let's share a room tonight," he said suddenly, causing her to blush a little. "We don't have to do anything you don't want to do, but let's stay together tonight."
"Okay," she nodded with a shy smile.
The Burrow was in ruins, and the Lovegood and Diggory houses weren't in much better shape, so they had decided to set up tents in the Weasley back yard. The Weasleys had one that had three bedrooms, so the twins would take one, Ginny and Luna would share another one, and Ron and Cedric would take the last one. Harry and Hermione would just use the tent that they had been using for the entirety of their journey so far.
Once she had gotten dressed in her nightgown, she tentatively joined him on the bed that they would share for the night. She lied down next to him as he idly ran his hand over the length of her arm.
"Eep!" she let out a small squeal when he suddenly pulled her on top of him. "I'm not too heavy, am I?"
"If you worry about every little thing, you won't be able to enjoy this as much," he shook his head as he put his arms around her. "And, no, you're not heavy. Enough to keep me settled, but not enough to chain me down."
She smiled, nodding. It would have been a romantic thing to say if he hadn't subsequently confessed to the other reason he wanted her on top of him like that.
"This position also gives me a pretty good view down the top of your nightgown," he added cheekily.
"Harry!" she whined in embarrassment as she quickly deprived him of the view.
"What? You're very beautiful," he remarked, running his hand through her hair. She had used a glamour charm to turn it back to her natural brown just for the night. His hair was also back to its natural color as well.
"You're just saying that," she shook her head.
"No, I'm not. I've always thought that you were pretty. Back when we met in the secret passage from Hogwarts to Hogsmeade, one of the first things I said to you was that you were very pretty," he reminded, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "I've fancied you ever since you tied that periwinkle blue ribbon around my neck like I was some mangy dog."
"Because you were a mangy dog," she chuckled, enjoying the small romantic kisses he was planting down the sides of her face.
"A wolfdog," he corrected between kisses. "And I still have the ribbon... I take it everywhere."
"I know, I've noticed," she said, also noticing that he had practically covered every part of her face with kisses by now except for her lips. He was gradually moving closer and closer at a teasingly slow pace though, causing her to shudder with anticipation. So when he finally captured her lips, she purred into him with delight.
As their kisses grew heavier and more passionate, she felt his arousal press against her and his hands roam across her back. When his hands tentatively rested on her bum, she let out a small yelp of surprise. It felt nice, he made her feel sexy, but there was something off about the whole thing.
"Harry... wait, stop..."
"Sorry, I didn't mean..."
"No, no apologies," she cut him off as she removed his hands from her behind and held them in hers. "I want you to keep touching me... I want you to keep touching me..."
His eyes grew a little wide as she began to slowly remove the gloves he generally wore at all times, his weapons in fighting this war. "But..."
"Shh," she smiled reassuringly at him as she finally got to hold his hands for real. They were trembling slightly at the loss of the one constant companion he had had throughout the war, but she made sure to make up for that by planting affectionate kisses on his hands. "See? That wasn't too hard, was it?"
He fondly nuzzled the crook of her neck as she gingerly placed his hands back on her bum so that he could resume his ministrations.
As their touches became more intimate and their kisses fell upon more and more sensitive areas, she noticed that he was involuntarily grinding his pelvis against hers and squirming with restraint. She saw that he wanted her, hungered for her, but he didn't want to push her.
"Harry... do you... do you want to have sex?" she asked cautiously.
He blinked in surprised and suddenly paused from the snogging. "Are you sure?"
"I... yes... I want you, Harry. Though... I don't really have any experience with this sort of thing," she admitted nervously.
"I sort of like it that you don't," he chuckled, earning himself a playful smack on the arm.
"Sexual double standards!" she huffed. "Guys always want to be a girl's first... but girls... we want to be your last..."
"Do you want to be my last?" he mused. Well, with the type of life he led, it was entirely possible.
Catching his line of thought, she quickly added, "I wouldn't be opposed to spending the rest of my life with you... and hopefully it will be a long life..."
"Then do you want to get married?" he asked, rubbing her wedding band between his fingers. "For real, I mean."
She blushed a little. "It's a little too early to talk about marriage..."
"Don't pure-bloods have marriage contracts from birth?" he joked.
"Prat, you know what I mean," she laughed, snuggling close to him. Still, it was nice to hear him talk about marriage and settling down. At least he was thinking about it as a possible alternative to a life of fighting.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from marriage was a one-night stand, and he wondered if that was what this was. She would be leaving for the safety of France tomorrow and, still unknown to her, he'd stay here and fight. The thought of a one-night stand kind of irked him though, so he figured it would be another reason to try to come back alive once the war was over.
That was the first time he had ever even considered that actually surviving the war was even a remote possibility, he realized. He had always fought under the presumption that he'd join his comrades sooner or later. What made him so special that he would get to live while they lay buried in the ground? No, he never thought of himself as anything special. He was just another no-name soldier, he didn't deserve special treatment. It was only fair that he'd die in combat just like the rest of his comrades.
"Do you think my friends and family would resent me for wanting this happiness when they can't?" he asked softly.
She shook her head and gave him an affectionate kiss. "My parents would be sad if all I did was deprive myself of happiness just to satisfy my guilt. You have to forgive yourself, Harry... if you don't, then what right do I have to forgive myself either? I can't keep beating myself up over my parents death... I've forgiven myself already... you should too."
"My parents would have wanted me to be happy... and so would yours... Harry, what is it that makes you happy?"
He didn't really need to think too hard for the answer to that question.
"Then make love to me, Harry... please..."
A small smile crossed his lips as he nodded and poised himself over her. "I love you, Hermione."
"I love you too, Harry."
She then braced herself as he pushed inside of her, but nothing could have prepared her for the pain. A look of anguish fell on Harry's face when he saw his lover's face scrunch up in agony.
"H-Hermione... I... I'm sorry... I didn't mean to hurt you... I..."
Wincing a little, she shook her head as she pulled him close. "No, it's a good kind of hurt... no apologies, Harry, remember? Forgive yourself already..."
Mr. Padfoot would like to congratulate Harry for becoming a man.
Mr. Moony recommends Mr. Padfoot to keep his wet nose out of other people's personal lives.
Ms. Bones is relieved to see Harry finally let go of his burden so that she can finally rest in peace.
Mr. Longbottom would still like a greenhouse to be built in his name though.
Mr. and Mrs. Prongs are happy for their son.
Hermione woke up the next morning feeling sore but incredibly happy and fulfilled. It was a wonderful feeling to wake up in the arms of the man she loved. Seeing him stir, she gave him a loving kiss. "Morning."
"Morning," he yawned before giving her a kiss back.
But there was something about his kiss, the look in his eyes, the tone of his voice... something final.
"You're not getting on that boat to France, are you?" she asked softly, trying her best to keep her voice from breaking.
He stiffened for a moment before putting his arm around her and bringing her close. They had only known each other for a short while, but she already knew him too well. "No... no, I'm not..."
"Then... then I'm staying too," she insisted.
"No. Dumbledore might be on the continent, gathering forces or whatever, so go search for him there, it's safer there," he replied. "I already made a copy of the pensieve memory, so I'll keep searching for him here."
"We can ask the Weasleys and Cedric and Luna to look for Dumbledore, I can stay with you," she protested weakly despite knowing that he'd never agree to that. With his speed, he was far more mobile and stealthy traveling by himself.
"Why does it have to be you? When we get to France, we can ask some of the French soldiers heading to fight in Britain to look for Dumbledore. Please... just stay with me," she implored, burying her face into his shirt.
"Hermione... I've lost everyone... my friends and family have all died fighting this war... if I don't make a difference in this war, then it will be like their efforts were all for nothing," he said softly as he fished out the pensieve memory vial. "Getting this to Dumbledore as fast as possible is my chance to finally make a difference... to finally be somebody... not just another no-name soldier... this will be my last mission, I promise... then I'll come back to you."
"You're not just another no-name soldier... you're Harry," she said, giving him a longing kiss. "You have made a difference... you're the Harry who saved me... you're the Harry I fell in love with... just Harry... simple and clean... my Harry."
"And you're my Hermione," he nodded, kissing her forehead. "But I still have to stay... your sister doesn't know that you're going to France... and she finishes her mandatory OWLs this year, right? If I stay here, I can smuggle her out to France to join you in July."
"Thank you..." she broke out into a small sob as she nodded into his chest. "Then I'll get to see you again too, right? The three of us can be together then, right?"
"Yes... just be a little patient... it's only about nine months or so... just a little more and we can be together again..."
"You're not going to go dying on me or anything before then, right?" she sniffled. "Promise me you'll be careful and come back to me alive..."
"Here... I'll do one better... Hermione, will you marry me?"
She stared at him in shock for a moment before launching herself at him with a big hug.
"Of course... yes... I love you, Harry."
"I love you too, Hermione."
- Epilogue coming soon
- Due to the RPG-style journey this story takes, the pink ribbon Harry gives to Hermione is a nod to Zack and Aerith from Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core, since Harry has messy black hair and striking eyes like Zack and Hermione is a wavy-haired brunette like Aerith.
- The "boss battle" Death Eaters are not Krum, Fleur, and Cho. They can be if you want them to be, since I left them unnamed in the story, but I personally didn't write them as such. Their various combat styles have borrowed elements from Bleach, Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist, Gundam, and Infinite Stratos, though adapted to wizarding magic of course.
- One of the themes in this story is the importance of a name and how it ties into identity, which JKR kind of touched upon in canon with Voldemort/Riddle and The-Boy-Who-Lived.
- I got the idea of the M-Reactors from the N-Jammers in Mobile Suit Gundam.
- The title of this story continues my running gag of taking song titles from the Kingdom Hearts OST.
- I've never been to Britain, so a lot of artistic license went into the geography used in this story.