"So right now, all of magical Bucharest is cowering in fear of an escaped dragon?" Harry prompted.
"Yes." Luna confirmed.
"But you faked a dragon escape, so there's no real danger?" Hermione inquired apprehensively.
"Exactly." Luna gave a clipped nod.
"How?" Hermione demanded. "How on earth did you fake a dragon escape?"
"Well, after I realized that it wasn't feasible to get one out, I just created an illusory dragon in the enclosure and made it fly out. I made sure I did it near a guard tower so someone would see." Luna shrugged happily.
Hermione looked impressed. "That's actually quite brilliant." She blinked in surprise. Xeno and Sirius nodded in agreement.
"So how are we getting back?" Harry asked the group at large. He was growing increasingly worried about Luna's driving. It was terrifying, yet oddly graceful, and almost entirely unlawful.
Hermione gave Xeno a pointed look. "I imagined getting back would be much easier than getting here. Am I right?"
"Yes." Xeno nodded easily, biting his upper lip, appearing deep in thought. "We can side-along apparate you kids home, I'm sure. You feeling up to that, Orion?"
Sirius yawned theatrically and cradled his stomach. "I'd love to get lunch first." He said hesitantly. "Plus," he added with calculated nonchalance, "I've still got a rat to catch."
"You can not be serious!" Hermione scoffed.
"Lately, I'm a little more Orion, but deep down, I'm always Sirius." The black-haired man shot back, grinning cheesily.
Hermione sighed. "I can't believe you waited this long to do that. I've been expecting that joke since day one." She mumbled.
"It takes a lot of restraint. I'm tempted to whip it out all the time." Sirius defended himself. "But yes, we've come this far, and I intend to leave with the traitorous rat I came for. He's the key to my freedom, and I'm not letting his flea-bitten arse get away." He crossed his arms, signaling that there was no room for argument.
"How long were you in the country before you were caught?" Hermione demanded wearily.
"What was it?" Xeno asked, tapping his chin. "About twenty minutes?"
"Two hours." Sirius corrected, surprised by Xeno's betrayal. "I'll be honest," he put up his hands in a placating gesture. "It all could have gone better. I didn't have my Everyman charm up, neither of us had passports, and we were not as cooperative as we could have been with the local aurors."
"Well, sucker-punching an auror and attempting to escape isn't really cooperating, is it?" Xeno asked sarcastically, rolling his eyes.
"Well excuse me for clinging to freedom." Sirius huffed.
"Anyway, the sucker-punch is what got us thrown in jail. Without that we might have just been deported." Xeno explained.
"Everyman charms and caution aside, Harry and I need to get back home very, very soon." Hermione insisted. "So Sirius, will your plan for capturing Peter take more than half an hour?"
"Well, that would depend on whether or not we know where the Weasleys are staying." Sirius hemmed, glancing sideways at Luna.
"I passed an inn on the way there. It was close to the reserve, and it had a sign welcoming magicals." She offered hopefully.
"That's my favorite fake niece!" Sirius cheered.
They soon found the inn in question and began to prepare a plan of attack. Harry was surprised to learn that his godfather wouldn't be joining the assault.
"Well, the thing is, I don't think I should go in." Sirius said apologetically.
"Afraid you're going to sucker-punch someone?" Hermione asked cynically.
"Not as such, no. I'm more worried that Arthur Weasley would be able to see through my Everyman charm. Ministry employees are trained to see a forgettable face as a red flag, so there's a chance he'd dispel the effect and see my face, in which case he'd hex the bollocks off me." Sirius grimaced.
"Well then, Sirius can't go in." Hermione agreed with a sigh. "Arthur knows his face from the papers. Harry and I can't go in because as far as Ron knows, we're in England. If he sees us and says something, Peter might overhear. So I guess it's down to you and Luna." Hermione looked hopefully at Xenophilius Lovegood, who was examining the architecture of the inn with touristy interest. "If you're feeling up to it?" She added hopefully.
"Daddy?" Luna prompted.
"Hm?" Xeno snapped out of his reverie.
"Are we up for capturing and incapacitating the fugitive masquerading as a rat?" She inquired. "Story of the year?" She reminded him.
"Oh. Right. Certainly, yes." Xeno nodded, drawing his wand and pausing with his hand on the door latch. "Definitely incapacitated, not killed, right?"
"Right." Sirius turned to face Xeno with a severe look. "Very important to get him alive." He emphasized. "And make sure you don't let him transform. He'll be a lot more manageable as a rat. So, find Ron's room, get Peter, and get out – preferably without being noticed – in about five minutes." He summarized.
"Right." Xeno muttered distractedly and climbed out of the car.
"We'll be back soon." Luna said brightly.
"Should be a laugh." Sirius clapped Luna on the shoulder with a wolfish grin. "Good luck."
Six minutes later, Xeno walked around from the rear of the inn. He was clutching a limp rat and whistling in a way that was almost painfully casual, though Luna was nowhere to be seen. Xeno returned to the back seat with Harry and Hermione to give his report. "It went about as well as I expected. Had a little snag when I couldn't find him in Ron and Ginny's room. It turned out he was in Arthur and Molly's room, going through the closet. I think he was looking to steal some of Arthur's clothes for an escape. I managed to surprise him though. He should be out for another half hour or so."
"So he's unable to transform?" Sirius demanded.
"I think so." Xeno didn't sound very certain.
"Well, let's give him an incentive to behave." Sirius began transfiguring something, though the three in the back seat couldn't see exactly what it was.
"Where's Luna?" Hermione inquired.
"She's still inside, I imagine." Xeno replied. "She was distracting the Weasleys while I searched for Peter."
"How?" Harry wondered aloud.
"I'm not sure." Xeno shrugged. "She said she was going to wing it."
At that moment, Ron, Fred, and George came sprinting out the front of the inn and tore off toward the reserve. Seconds later, Percy and Molly followed. "It's not as if you could help! Put your wands away! You're still in muggle territory!" Molly bellowed. Sirius ducked down to hide himself and Harry and Hermione followed suit just in case Molly noticed them.
"Charlie and the authorities will handle it! Get back here, you bloody idiots!" Percy yelled plaintively.
As Percy ran off after his younger brothers, Luna exited the inn – clearly in no particular hurry – and exchanged words with Molly at a reasonable volume. The older woman seemed to be imploring her to return to the hotel, but Luna was gesturing toward the car with a reassuring smile. Molly looked on helplessly as Luna approached the stolen Mercedes, though her expression turned incredulous as Luna got into the driver's seat. The silver-eyed girl favored her father with a triumphant smile when she saw the rat clutched in his fist, and without further ado she took off, squealing the tires and setting a course for the airport.
As they left the inn behind, Sirius returned to a proper sitting position and revealed his handiwork with a very smug grin. He'd conjured a wooden box.
"A box? That's it?" Hermione asked flatly.
"This is no ordinary box. This is my Peterbox - a box for bad, naughty little rats." Sirius removed the lid to reveal that the walls of the box were lined with nails.
"Oh." Hermione winced.
"Oh indeed." Sirius nodded gravely. "Like to see him transform in this." He muttered, tapping the wood with grim satisfaction. He held the box between the seats so that Xeno could deposit their prisoner, replacing the lid after Peter was safely stowed. He turned to address Luna. "So how did your distraction work?"
"Oh, I just told them Daddy and I had heard from a local auror that there was trouble at the reserve, then I asked if Charlie was alright." She wore a self-satisfied smile. "Arthur apparated straight off. I don't think the others believed me at first, but after Arthur was gone a couple of minutes, they started to get worried. So the boys ran off. Perfect distraction." She smiled cheekily.
"Well-done!" Sirius cheered. "You should consider a career in espionage or something, Luna."
"It is a bit hazardous, but according to your mother, the pay was excellent." Xeno agreed.
Hermione looked at the older man quizzically. "I thought she was an Unspeakable."
"She had other offers." Xeno said simply.
"So how are we getting home now? Apparition?" Sirius inquired.
Xeno kneaded his forehead. "Yes, I suppose that is our only choice if we want to get there quickly. There's a reason people take portkeys for this kind of distance, though." He declared with a note of mild irritation.
"What's that?" Harry asked.
"It's going to give us all a massive headache." Xeno replied bluntly. "That's the best-case scenario, mind you. Most likely we'll end up with nosebleeds as well. Worst-case, we leave some body parts behind."
Harry and Hermione exchanged a worried glance.
They soon reached the airport, where they returned the car Luna had borrowed to roughly the same place she'd found it. "We should get one of these, Daddy. It's even more fun than the game in the village."
"We'll see." Xeno smiled fondly. "Could make for an article, I suppose."
"What game?" Hermione asked.
"The one that taught me to drive. There's an arcade in Ottery St. Catchpole. That's where I learned." Luna explained brightly as they searched for a place to disapparate.
"You learned to drive from a video game?" Hermione demanded.
Luna nodded. "I have the high score."
"That would explain a great deal." Hermione sighed, having gained a new appreciation for the fact that they'd survived what was likely Luna's first voyage in a real car.
The group soon found a suitable place sandwiched between two tall vans. Sirius declared it good enough after a few seconds passed with no muggles wandering into their line of sight and began to steel himself for the journey ahead. "Xeno, I've never apparated this far before, and I'm a bit out of practice." He appeared anxious. "Any tips?"
"Daddy, couldn't we bring them home with us to make it easy for him?" Luna suggested.
"Yes, I suppose that does make sense." Xeno sighed and rolled up his sleeves. "Just means I'm going to have to carry everyone myself, though." He muttered. "Everybody grab a patch of skin and hold tight. If your eardrums burst, don't panic – I've got a spell written somewhere for repairing them."
Everyone grabbed a section of Xeno's arm, except for Luna, who took one of his hands. "Ready?" Xeno inquired. He didn't sound excited about the outlandish feat of magic to come; he sounded more like a man who was about to lift something so large that it would almost certainly damage his back. Everyone replied in the affirmative, and with a crack, they vanished.
Harry felt an intense pressure – much more intense than any natural atmospheric phenomenon – and an instant later, he found himself standing in Luna's yard, gagging at the sudden difference. Xeno dropped to his knees and fell face-down on the grass. He was still moving, so Harry turned his attention to Sirius. The thin man rubbed his face, shook his head rapidly and transformed into Padfoot, continuing to flap his head and shake out the discomfort of the journey before changing back. Harry noticed that Hermione was clutching her ears in pain.
"Are you alright?" Harry demanded in alarm, taking his girlfriend by the elbows to get her attention.
"Yes." Hermione closed her eyes and winced. "My ears hurt quite a bit though."
"Are they leaking blood?" Xeno moaned from the ground.
Harry pulled one of Hermione's hands away. "No."
"Then the eardrum's intact." Xeno explained helpfully. "Luna, are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine Daddy." Luna replied. She was lying on her back several feet away as though trying to get used to solid ground again.
Hermione moved to see if she could assist Harry, who was still swallowing rapidly to fix whatever had gone wrong with his head before it made him retch, but she stopped halfway there with a frown. She squirmed on the spot as if trying to find the origin of her discomfort. Suddenly, she grasped her hips and rubbed her skirt up and down. "My underwear are gone!" She screeched indignantly.
Harry jammed a hand into his pocket. "Mine too." Harry muttered, then immediately regretted having opened his mouth. "Mmmmm-mm." He moaned dejectedly.
"Well I'm sorry, but five bloody people over a thousand bloody miles – something's got to give." Xeno shook his head doggedly.
Harry and Hermione were very glad to return home. Their Romanian adventure had been interesting, but that fact didn't offset the immense stress involved with potentially stranding themselves a thousand miles from home to attempt a jailbreak.
Hermione was glad to find that her parents hadn't questioned the note she'd left on the fridge stating that they'd gone to Luna's house and would be back before dinner. Nor did Emma seem to notice that the couple's clothes didn't fit quite the way they had at breakfast – a side-effect of imprecise shrinking and unshrinking. Hermione needed only assure her mother that she and Harry had eaten something and the older woman was placated. In actual fact, she and Harry had skipped lunch and were absolutely starving, but it was hardly worth complaining about after a successful assault on a prison and subsequent long-distance apparition. Hunger and a pair of knickers were a small price to pay for getting Xeno and Sirius back.
Sirius opted to stay with the Lovegoods again, citing the need to watch over Peter and develop a more permanent method of containing him. He promised that if the situation allowed it, he would try to visit tomorrow. Luna assured her friends that she would come with or without her fake uncle to keep them updated.
Bedtime was quickly becoming Harry Potter's favorite time of day. This was not due to fatigue or any desire to sleep (though today had certainly been tiring). He favored it because it allowed him to spend time with Hermione. Yes, it was quite true that he spent almost every minute of every day with Hermione. Most days, they even had large amounts of time alone. It was also perfectly true that they'd just had a strange adventure together – an action-packed lovers' vacation of sorts. But when their heads hit Harry's pillow, the air between them grew charged.
The darkness and quiet of the evening gave the impression that the world had drawn in around them, contracting until it contained only the room and the bed – the center of the universe. Their voices grew hushed, fervent and mirthful as they spoke mere inches from one another, almost always face to face until they were finally prepared to sleep.
The usual evening routine had come to include them talking for hours before falling asleep. They talked about anything, though it often seemed more like everything than anything. 'Everything' was the word Harry used in his head. He and his girlfriend talked about everything, and it didn't get old. Even when he had nothing to say, she spoke for him, and that was just fine. Her ideas and words flowed over him, and he felt their gentle weight as if they were a part of the bedding itself. He would listen, drinking in her beauty, knowing that no experience in daylight – today's or tomorrow's – could compare to this. He found Hermione so beautiful, angelic, even, with silky slopes and curves and high-voltage eyes illuminated in the orange and black gradients from the lamp. Sometimes, Harry had to concentrate very hard on what she was saying. When he stared too hard and missed something she'd said, he'd cover himself with a wordless kiss, which Hermione never seemed to mind.
Hermione would share half-hearted worries that her parents had knowledge or suspicion of their physical intimacy or her cat parts. She would giggle explosively – schooling the outbursts quickly into little hisses and puffs of air in an effort to keep quiet – at Harry's conjecture on Stan's likely reaction, were he to figure out that his daughter was sleeping with a boy and in possession of a tail. She assumed he would chalk it up to a bad dream and go for a very long drive.
Sometimes they would read one of Hermione's many books. She would often think of a passage she'd like to share with Harry – something she'd been reminded of during the day or something that had popped into her head even as they lay in bed together – and she'd tiptoe off to her room to grab the book in question. She would then look through the book by the dim light of one of their wands – often Harry's, so as to afford her the use of both hands – and upon finding the relevant passage, she would read it aloud, trying with reverence to deliver the prose the way the author would have wanted it.
Harry didn't always understand the things Hermione read to him, and even when he felt he did, he didn't always feel their impact the way Hermione did. Even so, he always enjoyed the process. Hermione's excitement at having something to share, the suspense of the journey to her room, the quiet passion of her delivery, the shimmering apprehension in her eyes when the words ran out and she looked at Harry to see his reaction. He loved all of it. He loved Hermione.
Luckily for Harry, Hermione loved him too. As she lay in Harry's arms, Hermione reflected that she was in a unique position when it came to her physical relationship with Harry. Due to his upbringing, Harry had no idea what couples typically did behind closed doors. This lack of knowledge coupled with Harry's habit of trusting her implicitly (especially in matters of intimacy) enabled her to try things with him that some boys might not have agreed to.
Initially, Hermione had wondered if she was taking advantage of Harry by not telling him what society would expect of them – that his dorm mates would have laughed at him if they ever saw him sitting in her lap – but she ultimately decided that she was doing them both a favor by keeping that knowledge to herself. Harry was freer by virtue of not knowing, and she wouldn't dare take that away from him. Better to let love evolve and flourish without intervention than to stunt its growth with tradition.
"Harry?" She asked, confident in the request she was about to make.
The wizard felt her soft voice resonate over his chest. "Hm?" He replied, stroking her neck. He was occasionally tickled by the kinky strands of hair cascading over his chest and stomach.
"Can we switch?" She murmured, dragging her fingers over his sides, listening for the sound of his breath hitching when she found a ticklish spot.
"You want to be the pillow?" He asked. He felt her nod. "Sure." They began to move.
Both sat up, and before taking their new positions, shared a long, lazy kiss – the kind that teetered on the very edge of unconsciousness. It was light and unhurried. They had all the time in the world.
As his face settled in near Hermione's chest, Harry noticed something. "I can hear your heartbeat." He smiled.
"I could hear yours, too. What's it sound like?" Hermione asked. Her eyes were closed, but her lips were fixed in the biggest smile her sleepy muscles would allow as she stroked her wizard's back.
"Like a heart, I suppose." He replied with a little shrug and a chuckle. He felt a bit silly giving such a plain and obvious answer.
"Are you sure?" Hermione playfully demanded. "Listen closer."
Harry pressed his ear against her chest focused on the sound.
"Har-ry, Har-ry, Har-ry." Hermione whispered, timing her words with her own heartbeats. Harry sniffed his appreciation for her joke, which prompted Hermione to giggle. "It loves you too. It loves having you close like this. It's a simple thing, but it makes me very happy."
"The feeling is mutual." The rumble of his voice tickled her chest. "The sound is really amazing somehow. Every time it beats, I feel more relaxed." Harry sighed. For some time, the two just lay together, feeling one another and listening to the beating of their hearts. At length, he sighed with deep, buzzing satisfaction. "I love you, Mione."
"Love you too, Harry." Hermione smiled and kissed the crown of Harry's head. Tomorrow was likely to be an important day. Whether Sirius got any closer to true freedom or not, she had something to look forward to - tomorrow night, she might ask to be the big spoon. And Harry would oblige.