Her laughter trickled over him, low, warm, and true. It was the first time he'd heard her laugh, really laugh, in ages. Something cold and brittle inside of him eased slightly at the sound, and he felt his own mouth turn up into a smile. The moment stretched until laughter faded into awareness.
"What?" It was that self-conscious and somewhat suspicious kind of 'What?', but she was still chuckling.
His smile widened into a grin, and he shook his head. "It's nothing. There is no 'what'."
"Ha-rry," she sang knowingly over the rim of her glass. He couldn't recall if it was her fourth or her fifth, but watching the red liquid slip between her stained lips, he found he really didn't care.
She swallowed hard and brought her glass to the table with a thud. "There - that," she said, pointing an accusing finger at him. "That's what. That look on your face. You're… plotting something. Aren't you, Mister Potter? You know you can't hide these things from me. I don't know why you bother trying."
She had a point. Not that he had any intention of going through with said 'plot,' but she'd nailed it on the head, even while drunk off her arse. He was still half-debating whether to tell her about it, though, so instead he stood and held out a hand.
Hermione eyed it suspiciously. "What?" she asked again.
"Dance with me," Harry answered.
"Here?" Her eyebrows shot upwards.
He gave a half-shrug. "Why not?"
At four in the afternoon, the place was practically deserted. They'd been feeding coins into a nicotine-stained and frightfully outdated jukebox for two hours. With flawless timing, the next song came up. The low, slow rhythm of some old American blues song churned its way through crackling speakers. When she just smirked at him, he rolled his eyes. "Dance with me and I'll tell you everything."
Her mouth curved into that wry, crooked slant and she slipped her hand in his.
Hermione allowed herself to be tugged into her best friend's embrace. Only this time, instead of clamping down on her feelings and instincts, she let them pull her closer. She'd had several glasses of wine, after all – anyone would be a little more affectionate. Besides, no one knew them here. The Muggle pub Harry had picked was far out of the way of any other witches or wizards. They could dance, laugh, drink for as long as they wished without worry for another round of gossip from The Prophet.
It was so, so very nice, she thought with a sigh.
The strong, warm hand at her waist slid around to her back, melting the distance between them. His thumb dragged across the tops of her knuckles and he led her in a lazy, rhythmic sway. Three beats into the dance, she found their bodies touching, her breasts grazing his chest with a pleasant, burning awareness. By the end of the first verse, they were practically cheek to cheek. Hermione inhaled the warm, clean spice of his…
Cologne? Harry never wears cologne…
Perhaps it was just aftershave that smelled so delicious, then. She breathed in another heavy drag, very nearly burying her face in his neck. She tensed briefly as reality flickered in on her, stopping her lips from making contact with that tempting column. But then his fingers – so quick and deft and talented – stroked an enticing line up her back just once, then slowly danced down her spine again where they rested at a spot slightly lower than before.
Nothing really out of line, however, she told herself.
All too quickly the song came to an end. They stood there, no longer swaying but not yet breaking away.
"Hermione." His voice was low and had a quality she didn't recognize. "Perhaps I should take you home."
She started to shake her head, but he stopped her before she could speak.
"We can do this again whenever and however often you like. But I think maybe we should both get some food in us, and then I can tell you about this 'Great Plot,' yeah?"
He always knew her so well, damn it. Even if he was completely unaware of it. Sadly, though, they couldn't do this whenever and however often she wanted. The wizarding world would undoubtedly notice if two-thirds of the 'golden trio' vanished for good.
His hand slid around to her hip and he gave her a squeeze before drawing back. "Okay?" he asked, giving her a little smile.
With a nod, she pulled away.
"That's it?" Hermione asked later over a slice of pizza. "That's the big plot?"
Harry grinned and leaned back against the sofa. "I didn't say I was plotting."
"No, but you went along with it. So tell me, what are you going to do, now that you've got me here for this so-called intervention?" She couldn't quite keep the annoyance out of her voice. As ridiculous as the whole thing was, it truly did irritate her that the Weasleys saw fit to judge her actions and pursuits. She was a grown woman, for Merlin's sake!
"Well, that depends." Harry picked at a loose thread on one of the cushions. "Are you practicing dark magic?"
She rolled her eyes. They used to talk about this, back when there was little more to do than wait and wonder in a tent in various parts of Britain. They'd talked about many things, but a popular topic was the misguided notion that there was dark magic and light magic; that some spells were, by their very nature, inherently bad no matter how they were being used.
"You know what I mean," he added, catching her expression. "What are you up to, anyway? The texts they said you'd ordered aren't illegal, but some of them were really dark."
"What, they gave you a list? Oh, good grief!" She set her pizza down on the plate and stood. "This is exactly what I mean, Harry. In the Muggle world, there are privacy laws. There are lines that people simply know not to cross. No, they don't have magic, but they have a great deal more of everything else, including civility!"
He held up his hands in appeasement. "I'm not arguing with you. But as your friend, I care about you and I just want to know-"
"No! I'm not practicing dark magic, okay? You of all people should know me better than that."
"Fine," he said tightly. "But 'of all people,' I would think you'd trust me enough to tell me what it is you are doing."
"Why? So you can 'report back' on my behaviour?" she snapped.
"I wouldn't do that," he replied in a weary voice. "Unless you're doing something illegal, it's no one's business. That's why I told you in the first place, you know."
She looked over at him and suddenly felt like an arse. Of course he wouldn't do that. 'That' would be gossip, and it was nearly impossible for anyone to pull information out of him that wasn't directly relevant to a legitimate concern. She sank down into an armchair with a sigh.
"I'm sorry, Harry. It's just – you know how I feel about them. After the business with Ronald, and Molly yammering about wedding plans to the press well after we'd broken up, and the whole ridiculous fuss about my parents' memories… I guess I'm just sensitive. Overly sensitive," she added with a little laugh.
"No, you're not. And you're not out of line at all," he said gently. "But this is exactly why you need to be more careful. They asked me to see you because they're doing what they've always done."
"Meddling," she muttered sourly.
He neither argued nor agreed. "If you're going to continue whatever this is, you'll need to be a lot more careful about it. That's why I'm asking. I trust you, Hermione. Hell, I owe you my life a dozen times over. Maybe I can help."
"Help?" In what way? she wondered, and her thoughts immediately went to the last book she'd received for her research. Warmth flooded her cheeks and other areas of her body at the idea of them working together in that fashion.
Harry cringed inwardly at how foolish and desperate he probably sounded. "Obviously you're brilliant," he said hurriedly. "I mean, I doubt there's anything I could really add to your – your work. But at the very least, I do have contacts."
"Contacts," she repeated.
It was Harry's turn to flush now. "Call it a side benefit from my seventh year."
While Hermione had chosen to stay at Hogwarts to finish out her studies, Harry had taken advantage of an invitation to study abroad. The last battle had nearly destroyed Hogwarts, and even with magic, only one-third of the school was restored in time for the next term. Both Durmstrang and Beauxbatons had extended offers to 'select' students in order to alleviate the load on Hogwarts. McGonagall and Shacklebolt had urged Harry and Ron to take advantage of the invitation, as a show of diplomacy and good will towards 'building stronger international bridges' or some such rubbish.
Ron had jumped at the opportunity to spend a year at a school he'd presumed was filled with half-veela and the like. Not wanting to rock the already shaky beginning to his relationship with Ginny, Harry had taken the more 'gentlmanly' route of attending Durmstrang. Not that it had helped in the end. And he seriously doubted anyone had a clue of just what he'd learned during his stay.
"And what makes you think I'm still in need of these contacts?" Hermione asked slowly.
Harry took a thoughtful pull from the bottle he'd been nursing. They had given him a list of the texts she'd ordered. And thank god they had, really. Otherwise, they'd have gone through with that ridiculous intervention they'd been discussing. A chain of people, mostly Weasleys, had nosed and meddled their way into a collective frenzy over this. From the shopkeeper's assistant who'd thought it was a juicy bit of gossip, to George and Angelina, then Arthur and Molly, who then coerced Percy to come up with some obscure Ministry document to take back to said assistant, demanding all of the details of Hermione's orders over the past three months.
Harry had played ignorant. He'd calmed them down and promised to get to the bottom of things. But despite his questions to her, looking over the list himself, he had a pretty good idea of what Hermione was up to. He had to tread carefully. If he was wrong, the tables would turn on a dime. And if he was right, his words might sound like an accusation.
"Your collection…" he finally answered. "It seems to be missing a couple of things."
Her eyebrows shot up, and a faintly amused smirk tilted the corner of her mouth. She was bluffing, and he knew it, so he waited. After a moment, the smirk faded into a hard line.
"How do I know-"
"—that I'm not setting you up to confess something wicked?" he finished for her, teasing her with a grin.
"I mean it, Harry," she said, frowning.
"Want me to take an oath? An Unbreakable?" He held out an arm and pulled up his sleeve in offering. His voice sounded earnest even to his ears. Her frown deepened, so he went on. "I meant it when I said I trust you, Hermione. We both know what it looks like, but I know better. Whatever it is you're doing-"
"But you don't know," she interrupted. Reaching across the low coffee table, she tugged his sleeve back down over his arm. His skin tingled where her fingers had touched it.
"Then tell me. I want to help."
She seemed to consider him for a moment before letting out a chuckling sigh. Her head dropped into her hands, her fingers tangling in the thick mass of dark curls. "How long have you got?" The question was partly muffled by her arms.
"Pardon?" he asked.
When she raised her head to look at him, she suddenly appeared small and exhausted. "It's not what you think, Harry. And it'll take hours just to explain it."
"Then perhaps I should put on some coffee."
Reverse Engineering. It was a perfectly reasonable explanation. Perfectly complicated, perfectly brilliant, and perfectly Hermione. And once he explained that to the others, no one would ever suspect otherwise.
After all, he'd witnessed firsthand the kinds of magic being taught and used in other countries. While it wasn't blatantly 'dark,' there was a much wider acceptance of the infinite shades of grey. Experimentation was accepted, even encouraged.
In so many ways, British wizarding standards were woefully far behind the rest of the world. Rather than try to catch up, however, they seemed to thrive on fear. Rumours and speculation kept them in the stone ages, segregated them from Muggles and other wizardingkind alike.
Harry sighed and rolled over, adjusting his pillow. She really wasa bloody genius. But even so, he was still floored by how extensive her idea was. It would be years before their efforts would fully take form, but they would change the world.
For the better.
It was the first time he felt like he had a purpose in years. Funny, that.It was also the first time he'd had something to share with her in just as long.
His mind wandered back to the list of texts Arthur and Percy had given him. Specifically to the last book on the list.Vein of Gold. He smirked. Lucky for her, they'd missed the secondary title, The Divine Magic of La Petite Mort.She'd skirted around thattopic neatly enough. But if they were really going to do this, it would at least bear discussion.
The thick, heavy need he'd been fighting back all evening pressed in on him once more. This time he let it through. Images of Hermione – both real and imagined – drifted behind his closed eyes. Her full, stained lips, moist with wine as they pressed against glass… his cock gave an earnest twitch at the idea of that soft mouth pressed to his skin.
She was so god damned powerful, beautiful, smart, and yes, sexy. There were times in that godforsaken tent when he thought he'd go out of his mind, and it had nothing to do with Voldemort. But she'd been so bloody fixated on Ron, the miserable git.
Not that he'd been any less of a git himself, Harry mused. Convinced that he didn't stand a chance of being anything other than a brother-figure to Hermione, he'd given up and trained his attention on Ginny. Or tried to, anyway. Tried, and failed rather brilliantly. When the invitations had arrived for seventh year, he couldn't get out of there fast enough.
Unfortunately, Durmstrang did nothing to wipe Hermione from his system. He was only grateful that the time away had effectively dissolved all of their relationships, distilling everything down to platonic civility.
Level the playing field…
That's exactly what she'd said about her Big Plan, too. There were theories that magic wasn't really exclusive to anyone, that some people simply had a clearer path of access to those energies. Those theories went on to suppose that, not actually being tied to a person's blood or body, magic could possibly be removed from a person, and possibly even be placed into a non-magical person.
If Hermione was right and successful, it could change everything. Dangerous criminals could simply be stripped of their powers. Muggles might no longer be Muggles. The boundaries between societies could fade. Arseholes like Lucius Malfoy would be proven wrong once and for all. And they – Harry and Hermione – would be at the centre of it all.
Harry didn't know what he thought of that. To be quite honest, he didn't really care all that much. Pathetic as it might be, all he cared about was her, and this was the perfect opportunity to work with her again – to work, and to hopefully do much more.
He'd read Vein of Gold. The Romanian witch who took his virginity had had a collection of books on the topic of sex magic. At the time, he'd nicked it in hopes of learning some valuable performance techniques. It turned out to be less of a 'how-to' sex book, and more of an archaic and (at the time) rather confusing and seemingly pointless set of exercises involving breathing very slowly and deeply in odd rhythms for long periods of time whilst maintaining an erection but not actually coming. At nineteen years of age, it had seemed a rather large load of bollocks.
Slowly, slowly, he drew the cool night air into his lungs. At the same time, he focused on the muted pulse of tension and need that swelled through his senses. His hand slid deliberately from the base of his hardness to the tip, fingers circling the crown with a slight squeeze, then back down again. He smirked to himself as his eyes fell shut and his hand fell into a measured pace. He'd better start practicing now, after all.
Hermione wasn't sure what woke her up first – the soft repetitive beep of her answering machine indicating that she'd received a call (likely from her parents) while the ringer was off; or the rumbling, violent racket of the garbage truck doing its work at far too early of an hour; or the blinding morning light that burned through her open window. But what hauled her out of bed despite the throbbing in her left temple was the insistent tap-ta-taptap-tap-taptaprhythm against the glass.
She could have guessed the bird even without the frenetic chirruping noises it was making behind the muffle of parchment wedged in its tiny beak.
"'lo, Pigwidgeon," she mumbled, opening the top half of the window to let the little Scops owl in past the screen. In spite of herself and of the fact that either Ron or Ginny had apparently seen fit to owl her, she couldn't bring herself to be grumpy with the overly-cheerful ball of feathers now zipping around her bedroom. Instead, she shook a handful of owl treats out of the bag she kept on a shelf and left them on the window ledge before shuffling off to the bathroom. Pig would eventually give up the wrinkled and scarred letter and go about his morning, and she wasn't in any hurry to read anything from the Weasleys just yet.
She'd just finished brushing her teeth when an odd sound caught her attention and put her senses on alert. Grabbing her wand from her nightstand, she crept out into the short hallway of her flat, only to be assaulted by the smell of bacon and coffee. Her stomach gave a noisy rumble and she lowered her defence. No attacker would trouble themselves with cooking her breakfast.
Peering around the corner into the small kitchen, her stomach went from rumbling to the pleasant wriggling sensation she'd almost grown used to over the past couple of weeks. It was official – her crush on Harry Potter was back in full force. The sight of him in his bare feet and jeans with a faded black tee-shirt, cooking at her stove like he belonged there every day, certainly didn't help matters.
Hermione bit back a wistful sigh. How was it that he only got better and better looking with time? she wondered.
Just then, he seemed to notice her and he flashed her a crooked grin. "How's your head?" he asked, reaching for a short glass of blue-green liquid on the counter and bringing it to her.
She offered him a weak smile and took the Hangover Potion from him. "Why did you let me drink so much, again?" She winced as the hot-cold bitter liquid hit the back of her throat in one quick gulp. Almost immediately, however, the throbbing behind her eye faded and a feeling of clarity fell over her.
"You seemed to need it," Harry replied with a shrug, turning back to the pan on the stove. "Although, you might want to consider that there are other, far more pleasant ways to burn off tension and steam. Especially if The Prophetkeeps up with their current level of interest in us."
"Do tell," Hermione said wryly, even as a twist of heat worked through her at his words. Undoubtedly he meant something perfectly innocent, like flying on that blasted motorcycle of Sirius's.
His answer was a silent look thrown over his shoulder at her, one eyebrow raised. Hermione felt her cheeks warm slightly.
"What?" she demanded.
Harry chuckled and shook his head.
Dear god, was he flirting with her?
"Maybe, if you behave, I'll tell you later," he said as he reached around her for a couple of plates from the side cupboard.
Hermione grit her teeth at the warmth and familiarity. Nothing new about this. It means nothing at all. We lived together in a tent for half a year, after all…
"So, you're not going to ask me what I'm doing, here?" he asked.
She poured two mugs of coffee and took them over to the tiny café-style table in the corner of the kitchen. "I don't look gift horses in the mouth if I can help it," she said. "Especially when they're cooking me breakfast. But since you brought it up, what are you doing here?"
"Well, I figured you probably got an owl by now…"
Hermione groaned. "You, too? I haven't opened the letter yet."
He set two full plates of food on the table and sat down. "Looks like they just want to meet for lunch."
"Ron and Gin."
She wrinkled her nose and looked out the window. She didn't even have to ask why they were making social invitations now, after months of pleasant silence. Yesterday's edition of The Prophet had boasted a full page in the social section with pictures of Harry and herself at a Muggle restaurant four streets down from the Leaky Cauldron. They hadn't been doing anything. But it was a departure from the cool, platonic distance the trio had kept from each other after their schooling had been complete. Now the wizarding community was starting to buzz with speculation about secret trysts and possible reunions. Undoubtedly Molly Weasley had caught wind and was pushing Ginny and Ronald to jump on that train now.
"Damn that useless rag, anyway," she muttered darkly.
Harry made a half-shrugging motion. "It was bound to happen eventually," he said.
"So, what now?" she asked, picking up a slice of toast and buttering it. Lunch with those two wasn't exactly how she wanted to spend such a sunny weekend afternoon.
"If we don't go, it'll cause more trouble than if we do. It'll just be an hour or so."
Hermione's mouth twisted unhappily. Ronald she could deal with. But the idea of tolerating Ginny around Harry cast a shadow over her day.
"Hey," Harry said suddenly, and she found her hand enclosed in his on the table. "It'll be fine. Okay?"
A confused frown pulled at her eyes. Did he know? No, no, of course he didn't. Just like any other time, he'd just chalk it up to her falling-out with Ron.
"Right." She pasted on a smile. "Of course it will. It's just lunch, after all."
"Just lunch." He squeezed her hand before letting go. "And like I said, if you behave, maybe I'll tell you about other ways of burning off tension. We don't want The Prophet to start calling you a lush, right?"
Hermione snorted and rolled her eyes before digging into her breakfast.
That afternoon found the four of them seated at a table at Diagon Alley's premier outdoor café, Silver Petals. She wanted to throttle Harry when she found out that he'd picked the location, as well as the table, which was easily the most visible spot in the entire restaurant. They may as well have had a spotlight shone on them!
People on the street and at other tables stared openly, and it was only a matter of minutes before the familiar face of Brandes Aloisus Middlethorpe, The Prophet's new top gossip columnist, appeared on the corner. He was just far enough away to be at an 'acceptable distance' by Ministry privacy standards, but he was brandishing a camera and listening intently to the chain of whispers that traveled through the crowd.
A nudge against her knee drew her attention back to the table, but everyone was still perusing the menus. She cast a questioning glance at Harry, who gave her an all-too-cheerful grin.
Yep, definitely going to throttle him, she thought grumpily.
At least Ginny and Ron seemed to be no more at ease with their situation than she was. The table was silent as everyone mulled over their choices.
When the waiter finally came over, he turned to Hermione first. She hadn't really looked at the menu at all – her stomach was in knots over the entire situation. "Oh, erm. I'll just have a café au lait and a cinnamon scone."
"Same here," said Harry.
"You're not ordering food?" asked Ron.
Hermione opened her mouth, but Harry spoke first. "We had a late breakfast."
"'We'?" asked Ginny.
Here we go, thought Hermione. She tried to kick Harry but hit a table leg instead.
Harry hummed nonchalantly as he handed his menu to the waiter. "We've been working together on Hermione's latest project."
Ron gave a grunt and a nod before ordering a full meal. Ginny's eyes narrowed for a fraction of an instant, but rather than remarking, she placed her order and unfolded her napkin into her lap.
"Mind-?" Ron asked a moment later, tapping a cigarette out of a pack.
A year ago, Hermione might have lectured him, or at the very least asked him to refrain. Since she just wanted to get through this and be gone, however, she just shook her head. She studied Ron for a few seconds as he tilted his head around his cupped hands to light his cigarette. Habit wanted to say he looked ridiculous – his hair was grown out in a shaggy ginger mess, and he was sporting a goatee that he probably thought made him look cool. But distance and lack of emotion gave her perspective. He looked… at ease with himself.
"How is Mathilda, Ronald?" she found herself asking.
"Who?" he asked on a smoky exhale.
"Mathilda – Mathilda Eversworth – wasn't that her last name?" Last time she'd spoken to him, the waifish little blonde had been on his arm on a constant basis.
"Hm – oh, her. I broke up with her ages ago."
"He's had three other girls since then," Ginny remarked, sounding unimpressed. "One was a Muggle."
Ron just shrugged.
"Ah," Hermione said. Again, she felt Harry's leg touch hers, and that familiar warmth spiraled through her nerves. She cast him a quick glance and smiled.
"So," began Ginny, "you're working on a project together? Is this a Ministry thing, or an 'independent study'?"
"Oh, it's an independent study," Harry interrupted. "I doubt the Ministry would approve something like this so early on."
"Really." The word was cool and flat, and again Ginny's eyes narrowed.
Yes, 'really,' Hermione wanted to say, but she pressed her lips together. Why on earth did Ginny still behave this way? Why did she even care? They'd broken up ages ago, shortly after Harry had left for Durmstrang. And it wasn't as though there was anything for her to be jealous of in any case.
"What kind of study?" Ron asked. And bless his soul, but he didn't seem to have an ounce of malevolence in his tone, either. "I mean, we all know Hermione's a genius, right? It's probably something brilliant and interesting. Not like Percy and his Quill regulation research. Did mum tell you about that? Bloody boring git. Sometimes it's like he never changed at all. So what are you working on, then?"
Hermione blushed and took a swallow of water. "Oh, it's really noth-"
"Sex magic," Harry interrupted again.
She wasn't sure if she was inhaling, exhaling, or swallowing, as her whole system shut down and forgot how to function. A hard gasp turned into racking coughs, her eyes watering as she struggled for air.
"Here, raise your right arm," she heard Ron say, as he thumped her on the back.
As her lungs cleared, Harry handed her the glass of water she'd just set down.
Ginny sat, frozen and still as a statue.
All around them, a sea of whispers washed their way to the corner where the reporter for the Daily Prophet stood, furiously taking notes.
"Your café au lait, miss," the waiter said with a smirk, filling their table with drinks and food and effectively preventing Hermione from any reasonable sort of escape.
Everything was going fantastically well. Oh, sure, he fully expected to bear the brunt of Hermione's wrath the moment they were alone. But now there was no reason to worry about 'speculation,' and he'd most certainly tipped the first domino in the Weasley barricade. Ginny would rant and rave to her mother - which might or might not culminate in a bit of drama – but in the end, the path was clear. No more hiding. And look – Ron didn't seem bothered in the least by it.
"So, have you been in touch with Krum, Harry?" he asked behind a mouthful of pasta. "He still waffling about retirement?"
Harry felt Hermione stiffen next to him as she slowly turned her gaze on Ron.
Ron paused mid-chew. "Wot?" he asked. Then, in a moment of remarkable calm and maturity, he shrugged. "Look, it's not my business what you two do with-" he waved his fork around vaguely, "—that. Shouting it out in a restaurant's a bit mental, but it's not like we weren't sent here to find out what you're up to."
Hermione let out an incredulous sort of huff and shook her head.
Harry grinned. "It's good to see you again, mate."
Her jaw hurt. Probably from grinding her teeth. Her parents would kill her on her next dental exam. If she wasn't already locked away in Azkaban for murdering her best friend. Her head was still swimming. For a while there, she'd hoped perhaps she'd imagined what Harry had said. After all, everyone was eating. No one was screeching or laughing or even pointing. But then Ronald had gone off and confirmed the whole thing.
And Ron! He was the least fazed of anyone!
Hermione couldn't bring herself to even glance at Harry. 'Sex magic'? They hadn't so much as… How on earth…
She scoured her brain for any trace of – of anything that might have given her away. None of the books she'd ordered had even hinted at that subject matter in the title. Even The Golden Vein was a perfectly innocent-sounding. And if there had been anything that gave her away, how on earth had he come to the conclusion that she had plans of practicing it out with him?
Oh, certainly she'd fantasized about it. But it wasn't like she'd meant to seduce him with it!
She glowered at her untouched scone.
"You want that?" Ron asked.
She shook her head and pushed her plate toward him.
Just a few more minutes, then they'd pay the bill and leave.
Her pulse kicked up in tempo. It was entirely possible, even probable, that this was all some ridiculous joke. But suppose it wasn't?
Don't be an idiot, Hermione, she chided herself.
Just then, the waiter came back with the bill. Ron quickly nabbed it, gave it a glance, then handed it back with a credit coin. Harry shifted and stretched, letting his arm rest lightly on the back of her chair. Ginny remained in stony silence.
"So tell your family we said hullo, yeah?" Harry said.
"Oh, yeah. Right," said Ron. "I expect you'll probably hear something from Mum, now." He stood and the rest of them followed suit. "It really was good seeing you two again. Tell your parents hi for me, too, Hermione."
Hermione made a vague noise and nodded. She was too distracted by the slight pressure of Harry's hand at the base of her back.
"Bye," Ginny said quietly.
"That went well," Harry said, when they were out of earshot of Ron and Ginny.
"Swimmingly," Hermione gritted. She didn't dare say anything else, as the streets were still filled with weekend shoppers. Most of whom recognized them even now, nearly three years after the war.
"You should probably let me Apparate us back to your flat," he continued cheerfully. "I suspect you might be a bit too… er, distracted at the moment."
"You're angry. I get that. But really, I think if you consider it, you'll see-"
"Harry." She trained her voice into a calmness she absolutely did not feel. "You might want to stop talking."
"Er – right."
They reached the Apparition point and she took his hand. Instead of turning and sending them through that dizzying twist, however, he dropped her hand and took her shoulders, forcing him to face her. She trained her gaze on his shirt collar.
"I'm coming home with you, and we're going to discuss this," he said calmly.
Then, very gently, he crooked his knuckle under her chin and tilted her face to that she had to look into his eyes. Hermione didn't know what she expected to see there, but it wasn't the tender, honest heat that held her gaze now. Was it possible that he was serious about this?
A soft brush of his thumb along her jaw seemed to answer that question. 'Best friends' didn't touch this way. She swallowed and slowly nodded. The smile that spread across his lips made her heart stop. It was that smile again. That secret smile that hinted at something naughty. It had been there all along.
She was still slightly dizzy from Apparating when she felt his lips against hers. Her back fell against the brick wall of the alleyway next to her flat building. His fingers danced down her arms, eliciting a rush of electricity through her nerves. He started to pull away, but no – it hadn't even really been a full kiss, and that just wouldn't do for a first time.
Sliding her hands up over his warm torso, she fisted them into his black hair and pulled him closer. Here was a proper kiss, she thought, as his tongue skimmed the inside edge of her lip.
Oh, gods, but this was so right.
And then it was over. He touched his forehead to hers, their noses bumping briefly, their breaths unsteady and mingling coffee and sweetness and heat, so much heat.
"I wasn't joking, and I wasn't lying, Hermione." Harry's voice was thick and rough, and she was reminded of how he sounded that afternoon at the pub when they danced. "And before you even begin to think it, I'm not just interested in the magic part of it."
Dazed and speechless, Hermione could only nod.
"That's it? I just get a nod?" He laughed softly.
"Shhh," she said, pressing her lips to his again.
Harry couldn't recall a time when he'd felt more joyful, more aligned with life itself. He was finally 'getting the girl,' he thought as he threaded his fingers with Hermione's and pulled her along to the entrance of her building. His entire body hummed with anticipation. It was reckless, impulsive, and perhaps a bit mental – he had no guarantee that she really felt the same way. But he had a pretty good idea, based on the way she'd kissed him back.
They practically flew up the front steps and into the lift. There, as though they were both of the same mind, they wrapped themselves around each other. Dear Merlin, but she fit perfectly in his arms. She was just the right height – not too short, in fact just tall enough that their bodies aligned like pieces of a sculpted puzzle. He wanted to take her right there, wrap her legs around his hips, press her against the brass and glass wall of the lift compartment, and slide home.
Later, he reminded himself, although that voice was nearly drowned out by his own gasp as he felt her cool, delicate fingers tugging at his shirt before sliding over the bare skin of his stomach.
"We're really going to do this," she whispered. It sounded almost like a question, not quite.
Harry was about to reply when those delicate fingers turned wicked, grazing over his nipples. He let out a groan and buried his face in her hair before paying a sharp little bite to her neck. She hissed an inhale and arched into him, showing more pleasure than pain.
He honestly wasn't sure he'd be able to do this whole 'sex magic' thing. He felt zero control - only greed, hunger, need.
The lift bell dinged and the doors slid open. Almost there…
"C'mon," he mumbled, stepping out into the hallway, his hand still gripping hers.
"Harry, I don't think I can…" Her voice wavered a little, enough to give him pause.
Stomach pulling into an unpleasant knot, he turned to look at her. Her hair was a gorgeous, mussed cloud, her cheeks stained a light pink, her lips beautifully swollen. She drew her bottom lip between her teeth nervously.
"You don't think you can…?" he repeated slowly.
Pink flushed to a darker red and she glanced away.
"I've never…" she began in a low voice, then cleared her throat. "I mean, it requires a great deal of – of focus and preparation and I've never…"
Harry couldn't stop the look of incredulity that came over his face. "You're a virgin? You've never had sex?"
"Not sex!" she replied with a scowl, hitting him on the arm. "Of course I'm not a virgin! But I've never actually done anything in that book. It's rather advanced magic of a completely different sort, and I wouldn't want to disappoint you, but I don't think-"
He stopped her with his lips, grinning against her mouth at the startled squeak she made.
"I don't care, Hermione," he said when he pulled away. "If it doesn't work the first time, all the better. It just means we'll need to practice more. In fact, I'm rather hoping that's the case."
The look she gave him rivaled that of McGonagall, until her lips began to twitch.
There it was – that laugh again, trickling over his senses and striking a chord of rightness within him.
He loved her.
It was a hot whisper against her ear, and it only served to ratchet her arousal one notch higher. She inhaled slowly, her body arching against him as she did so. Skin brushing skin, hot like a match to flint in slow motion.
He moved within her again – just barely – and her whole body seemed to ignite in a peppering of flame and electricity.
"No, not yet." The words were strangled, and she wasn't certain if they were directed at him or at herself. "More. Breathe. Breathe…"
They'd been doing this for god only knew how long. Her muscles had reached the point of exertion, passed it, ages ago. Her nerves were an unraveled tangle of need and desperation. She wanted to beg for release, but they were so, so close…
With a feral growl, he pinned her hands to the mattress, fingers threaded together both tender and hard. Sweat plastered his hair to his forehead in uneven patches, and she knew hers was just as much a mess. It didn't matter – the look in his green eyes as they gazed down at her told her she was the most beautiful woman on the planet. It always took her breath away when he looked at her like that.
Their movements slowed to a drag, raw and torturous until they were both there, teetering on a precipice higher than anything they'd accomplished in the last three days. Suddenly, she felt it – a glowing, golden ribbon of fire surging toward them, winding through and around them, tying them together and filling them until it seemed their very beings overflowed with it. Then, in one violent moment, it jerked them over the edge.
Somewhere in there, Harry had released her hands, had pulled her into his arms, cradling her against him so tightly she could no longer tell where her body ended and his began.
They had done it.
She knew, even before the last shuddering aftershocks of orgasm were wrung from her exhausted body. Something was truly different, truly amazing. She was almost frightened of it. Almost.
When she opened her eyes to answer, she gasped. All around them, a pale golden haze flickered and sparked.
"Hermione, breathe," Harry said again.
In doing so, she seemed to inhale whatever this cloud was. It filled her, filled them, with a power that was almost too much.
Finally her eyes met his. They were smiling down at her, just the same as always – that naughty secret, and that now-recognizable adoration.
"We'll change the world," he said.
"For the better," she added.