Well. I did say as soon as possible! This is the final chapter. Get stuck in!
A gull called and a lark replied, the latter sounding quite annoyed about being disturbed. Hermione closed her eyes, glad to be back home. Or at least to somewhere approximating home. She tipped her head back and welcomed the gentle sun warming her face. How strange to think that it was the same light that scorched the desert half a world away. How mundane the world here appeared, after such adventures.
She smiled at that thought. Though the barriers were gone, the remnants of magic still clung to the grass around Shell Cottage. They'd been raised with good intentions and dismissed after a job well done, so perhaps it wasn't odd to still perceive faint traces of their presence. For all its outward ordinariness, the cottage was located on quite an enchanted stretch of coast and had been for as magical folk called Shell Cottage home.
Her mind drifted, then, to the memory of a dream. She remembered the weight of Fleur's daughter in her arms and wondered at the significance. Had her own mind thrown out a last minute, desperate illusion in order to convince herself to proceed? It seemed likely, now. She had, after all, wanted Fleur very much. It was a bit disappointing to realise that her heart was willing to be so sneaky but she supposed that was par for the course.
People find ways to convince themselves of the veracity, the legitimacy, of their desires all the time. Why would I be any different?
She kicked her heels against the wall. She knew she needed to leave, and soon. She needed time and space to think about what she wanted. About the future. She'd spent so much time preparing for heart break and a bitter farewell that she now found herself at a loose end. Once again, she had to figure out what to do when the world kept spinning.
She lifted an empty snail shell from the wall, turning it over in her hands as she mulled various thoughts. She wanted to return to Hogwarts and earn her NEWTs. That was definite. She wanted to move into Grimmauld Place with Harry because firstly, she had no other place to go and secondly, she yearned to spend time with her friends. She'd missed Harry and Ron while she was away, though she suspected Ron wouldn't be speaking to her for quite some time.
Well. That wasn't the end of the world. Ron had stopped speaking to her loads of times. If they could still be friends after the bloody locket, they could be friends after this. She knew he was angry, and she supposed he had an honest claim to it, but she also knew he was a decent person. Even were he inclined to stay annoyed with her for the rest of his life, he needed to wrap his head around Bill's news. As stubborn as he could be, he was not one to let his pride come between himself and his brother.
At least, she hoped he wasn't.
She sighed and attempted to give herself a reassuring, albeit mental, pat on the back. Ron would be fine. He just needed some time.
Besides, she had other, much more interesting things to ponder. Namely, the fact that not only was Fleur Delacour not really married, she was also interested in women. Particularly, her.
She puffed her cheeks out, scowling down at the shell. Part of her wanted to jump for joy. Part of her wanted to jump off the cliff. She'd been prepared for misery and loneliness and howling into a pillow in the suitably glum Grimmauld Place. The reality she faced included a barbecue and the prospect of ending up in a relationship with a beautiful women who, somehow, found her captivating.
"Expectations always ruin things, don't they," she mused. She was happy, no doubt, to have been proven wrong but she was having a bit of difficulty in diverting her train of thought onto this new, happy track.
"Talking to yourself?" Fleur chided, coming into view beside her. The brisk breeze scattered her fair hair, causing her to raise a slender hand to brush errant strands away.
"Well, it's the only way she'll be guaranteed intelligent conversation, isn't it?" Ginny laughed, picking her way over.
"We're not that bad," Fleur mumbled, "surely."
Hermione turned, swinging her legs over the wall and facing her friends. Ginny was braiding several pieces of marram grass she'd picked, as easy in her own skin as ever she was. Her face was shining with excitement and mirth, warm and welcoming.
Fleur stood still, her hair still flying around her shoulders, squinting slightly into the westering sun. She was smiling and Hermione's throat tightened at the sight. Blood roared in her ears and her heart gave an extra beat. Her palms were damp but her mouth was dry and she felt herself sit up straight.
Suddenly, it was very easy to find the route onto that happy track.
She hopped off the wall and walked over to the pair of witches. "The search party, I take it?"
Ginny grinned and presented Hermione with the little grass braid. "Bill wants you to know the chocolate bananas are ready. Come on, enough sitting on the wall pondering life's great mysteries."
"Thanks, Ginny," she replied, grinning despite herself. Fleur winked at her and she felt her cheeks flare as they started back towards the others.
"You know," Ginny mused, "it explains a lot. About mum. About some things she let slip when she didn't think we were paying attention."
"She is not fond of me, in the slightest," Fleur sighed, sounding a touch aggravated.
"She expected you to what, turn Bill straight? And he you?"
Fleur shrugged in a very Gallic manner. "Apparently so."
Ginny gave a low whistle. "She really over estimates the abilities of her offspring, sometimes, doesn't she."
The three of them laughed the rest of the way back, barely calming themselves as they arrived at the table. Bill and Harry were levitating bananas off the grill and George was opening some more bottles of beer. He handed one to Hermione and Fleur and, after a moment, one to Ginny too. They took their plates and settled around the table, tucking in.
"These are fantastic," George muttered with his mouth full. "Dead good."
"They are, aren't they?" Bill agreed. "I'm telling you. Barbecues are the best way to cook."
"They're mad into them in Australia, aren't they Hermione?"
Later, much later, Hermione wondered at the ease with which they switched between light hearted topics and much more serious ones. How they could be discussing dinner one moment and remembering the fallen the next. How someone could tell a funny anecdote one minute and ponder murderous hatred the next.
It was, she decided, a function of friendship. Of caring. That when people loved you, truly, there were no topics that couldn't be broached.
There were no problems that couldn't be solved.
"Welcome home!" Harry laughed, pushing the door to 12 Grimmauld Place open. "We've made a few changes since you were last here!"
Hermione's jaw dropped. The hallway was bright and clean, light entering through a stained glass fan light. The floor boards had been scoured, sanded, polished and varnished. The stairs had received a new carpet and the walls new wainscotting. Hermione laughed, delighted by the changes.
"Harry, this is incredible!"
"Yeah," he agreed, moving towards the kitchen, "it's been a lot of work and a ton of cash but it's worth it. I'm working my way up so the top couple of floors are still pretty grim but it's getting better!"
Hermione shook her head, feeling quite optimistic about her new lodgings. "This is unrecognisable!"
Harry shrugged. "You'd be amazed at what you can accomplish with a willing house elf. Kreacher's been a big help."
She lifted an eyebrow at that titbit of news. "Well, I always told you a bit of kindness would go a long way."
"I know," he shrugged. "But you're not going to say I told you so, eh?"
She laughed, sitting at the long table. "I can restrain myself." Harry chuckled as he gathered a pair of handsome goblets and a bottle of wine. Hermione thanked him for her glass and gazed into the hearth fire. She suspected that the drawing rooms were much improved but there was something comforting about the familiarity of the kitchen. It hadn't changed much since last she'd visited, the only obvious addition being a few potted herbs sitting on the window sill.
"So," Harry sighed, "here's to a busy bloody day," he said, smiling as they tapped their wine glasses together. She nodded solemnly, sipping the heady drink.
"It didn't exactly go as planned."
"It would have been nice to know you were coming back," he chided, gently. "I could have had your room aired out."
She shrugged. "I came here this morning but no one was around. I decided to take the bull by the horns and get it over and done with, in Shell Cottage."
Harry frowned, then nodded. "Oh. Yeah. Ginny and Luna called around early. We went out for breakfast, then a bit of shopping. Almost time for Hogwarts." He took a sip of wine himself and peered at his old friend. "Are you going back?"
She nodded. "I have to, Harry. I mean, there is no way I'm not finishing school."
"It'll be strange, though," he said, softly. She nodded, heart stirred by the expression on his face.
"You're not going back?"
He shook his head. "I don't know what I want to do, but I can't go back there." He raised bright, concerned eyes to her. "Will you be OK? I mean, I'm not the only one with plenty of bad memories…"
"No, you're not," she sighed. "But it's something I feel I have to do."
He nodded, quiet for a long moment. Hermione sighed, wondering what the future would hold for all of them. Harry's gaze flicked up at her and she slumped forwards a bit.
"So…" he began, cautiously. "Um, I was wondering, you know…"
She shrugged, dropping her eyes and fiddling with her goblet. "Go on, you've been dying to ask all day," she swallowed. "Thanks for not doing so in front of everyone else, by the way."
He quirked his mouth into a smile. "All that, from Bill and Fleur, that was news to you, too?"
She nodded, glad that Harry was employing even a small amount of tact. "I had no clue, to be honest. I thought, like you did, that they were happily married."
Harry took a sip of wine. "So, um… in the kitchen…"
She rubbed her forehead. "That was… unplanned. I mean, we shouldn't have done that. We were talking about our Patronuses…"
Harry blinked, eyes wide behind his glasses. "The otter Patronus, the second one, that belonged to Fleur?"
Hermione nodded a bit nervously, swiping a hand through her hair. "Yes. She, um, she told me she'd never conjured one before. Not a corporeal one, anyway."
Harry swallowed. "I thought it was Ron. That his had changed."
She blinked, peering up sharply. "Did you ask him?"
He shook his head. "No. It seemed too personal, you know? Intrusive. Especially with everything I heard later, about Snape and my mum."
He let out a breath. "Wow. So….?"
Hermione was quiet for a long while, her chest tightening, partly from excitement and partly from trepidation. "You know what it means, Harry."
He seemed busy trying to keep a smile off his face. "How do you feel about that?" he asked, carefully.
Hermione drew a long draught from her goblet, acknowledging to herself that the question was a good one. She couldn't meet her friend's eyes, fiddling with her fingers.
"It's OK, you know," he said, "I mean, it must have come out of no where, shocked you."
Hermione laughed at that, though to her ears it sounded strange. "Oh, Harry, it did shock me when I found out. But that was a long time before the Battle."
Harry took a moment to think about that, his mouth hanging open. "Um, I think you'd better explain this to me, Hermione. I'm a bit lost."
She leaned forward, tracing a knot in the wood of the gleaming table top. "Fleur and I… We admitted that there was something between us in Shell Cottage. Not long after I got my wand. But we also agreed to not act on it. I mean, Harry," she felt tears fill her eyes. "I thought she was happily married! In love with Bill! The fact that she's a woman was one thing, but that was another entirely!"
Harry blinked again, sorrow in his bright eyes. "They were just pretending."
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak yet. Harry took her hand, grasping it firmly. "But they aren't any more."
She squeezed as hard as she could, biting her lip against the tears that threatened to fall. "I know. And now I feel so unsure." She cleared her throat and swiped at her eyes with her free hand. "I mean, when I'm with her, it all seems so much easier. I know what I want but… But everything is happening so fast!"
Harry chuckled sadly at that, running his thumb over her knuckles.
"Whatever you want, you know I'll be here, right? And it might shock them a bit, but your friends aren't going to abandon you, not even Ron."
"He was so angry," she whispered, tears splattering onto the table between them, her earlier confidence fled.
"He was. But he'll get over it," Harry assured her. "He's just, you know how he feels about you."
She nodded, miserable. "And I thought I felt the same way, Harry, for so long. When we were in school, it all seemed destined to be, you know? Fated. But I just… it doesn't begin to compare."
"With how you feel for Fleur?" he asked, gently, "or women in general?"
She bit her lip, meeting his kind, open gaze. There was no judgement or anger there. Just her friend and a place where it was safe to be honest.
Overcome with emotion, she hopped up from her stool and slid around to Harry's side, burrowing gratefully into his chest. He held her firmly, stroking her hair and whispering soothing words to her. She felt like such a fool for not speaking to him beforehand, for fearing his wrath instead of trusting in their friendship.
"Because it's OK," he whispered. "You're still my best friend and the greatest witch I know. You're kind and you care about house elves and people who can't defend themselves. That'll never change. You're one of the good ones, Hermione, and who you love doesn't change that. Well, I mean, if you wanted to run off with Malfoy or something…"
She laughed, a strangled, somewhat hysterical sound. She swallowed thickly and closed her eyes, inhaling the scent of his familiar after shave. She took a deep breath, girding herself. She was filled with the desire to muddle through this, to try and understand her feelings. Attempts by herself had made some small headway but it didn't feel anywhere near sufficient. Perhaps it was time to just act; to talk instead of think. As unfamiliar as the notion was, she began to speak.
"When I was little, I never really thought about the future having other people in it. I wanted to get good marks in school and go to a decent university. Perhaps study physics or marine biology or palaeontology."
Harry chuckled at that and she smiled, remembering her frequent changes in interest. "But then a witch in tartan robes came to my house, with a letter written in green ink and suddenly, the whole world was different. Magical. I was magical.
"But I never felt it. I could do spells, remember entire tomes and was perfectly obnoxious," Harry made a small sound of protest and she poked his side. "I was. But I never felt it Harry. It was all just homework and tasks to fulfill."
She took a breath, her pace speeding as her thoughts began to coalesce in a meaningful manner, finally. "Then I grew up a bit. Everyone around me was wondering about the future, about the people they'd share it with. About the people they wanted to be close to. I hated thinking about that, because I knew that the future was going to hold dreadful things. Horrible things." Harry's grip tightened convulsively.
"The few times that I did think about, you know, romance, I always thought I'd meet some kind, clever man," she sighed. "Not some silly white knight slaying dragons or anything. The other girls, Parvati and poor Lavender, described theirs down to the cufflinks but I never could. It seemed like such an unimportant thing to worry about."
She swallowed thickly. "And he never became clearer. I thought there was something wrong with me. I mean, I just didn't understand what they found so fascinating. I felt as though I was heartless or cold."
"You're the warmest person I know," Harry whispered, squeezing her shoulder. "With the biggest heart."
She laughed sceptically. "Well, I don't know about that." She sighed. "I think Ron was… I think I wanted to fall in love with someone so badly, I convinced myself that I had. Who knows," she sighed, "maybe I did. For a while. I never really spoke about it with anyone, you know. But it made me feel more normal, to have a boy to pine over. And it was complicated by the fact that I care for him deeply, as a friend. If he hadn't been my friend, I doubt I would have latched on to him, you know."
Harry nodded, smoothing her hair. "He can be a bit of a git, can't he?"
She laughed at that. She was quiet then, for a long moment. She opened her eyes and looked into the fire. It was strange, she thought, to have bothered with a fire during such glorious weather. Perhaps Kreacher was responsible. She clenched her teeth and forced her focus back to the task at hand, berating herself for her innattention.
"I did a lot of thinking in Australia. It's a big place, with an enormous sky," she said, wistfully. "It's hard to lie to yourself when you're alone, feeling so insignificant under the stars."
The flames danced before her eyes, cheerful as they writhed around wood and coal. Sparks burst joyfully upwards and she swallowed past a lump in her throat.
"I never felt magical, Harry, not really. Not until we started Dumbledore's Army. I met so many people and for once, I wasn't Hermione the know-it-all. I was teaching, and learning but most importantly, really thinking. Thinking for myself for the first time. It felt like real magic. Like I was coming close to something mysterious and big. Bigger than all of us but dependent on our participation. The stars burn without us, Harry, but spells don't cast themselves."
Harry made an encouraging, though somewhat confused, sound low in his throat. "At the risk of sounding horribly maudlin, that still wasn't a fraction of what I felt with Fleur. Around her, all at once I feel lost in something enormous and endless, that's still small enough to fit in me."
They were both quiet for a long moment before Hermione spoke again.
"When I was in Australia, I spent time amongst strangers. And while I never felt anything like that again, I came closer with women."
She inhaled tremulously, gripping Harry's top with white knuckled fingers. "If I'm honest with myself, it's always been that way." She closed her eyes and drew in a shaky breath, her heart pounding in her chest. Her fingers stung with pins and needles, her breathing coming in little gasps. She swallowed, her mouth dry and parched.
"I think I'm gay, Harry," she murmured in a bare whisper. Her heart collapsed, leaving her weak and shaking. She felt suspended in a frozen moment, completely unsure of what was to follow.
Harry just turned to embrace her more fully, kissing her forehead and chuckling. "You think? Will you let me know when you're sure?"
She laughed, a touch affronted by his cheek for gladdened by his gentle teasing. "I will."
He squeezed her again, running a hand up and down her back soothingly. "Thank you for telling me. I know it can't have been easy and I doubt you wanted to do it tonight. So thanks."
She released a breath that was more a sob, relieved tears burning her eyes. Her heart began to beat once more, swelling with nervy excitement and lightened. Unburdened.
"I think I'm straight, by the way."
A much more honest, genuine laugh spilled from her at that and she pulled back. "You think?"
"Well," he said, shrugging, "I wanted to return the favour, you know. In fairness, I am quite sure I'm straight." He grinned a little, lop sided grin. "Though who's to say? Maybe some dashing bloke will sweep me off my feet some day. I mean, you have seen Neville recently, haven''t you?"
She was surprised to hear herself giggling and embarrassed to feel tears rolling over her cheeks. "Thank you, Harry."
"The important thing," he said, handing over her goblet and lifting his own, "is that the only one who gets to say or decide whether you're gay or not, or even how gay you are, is you. And you don't really have to tell us if you don't want to. But I'm very glad you did. And if you want to talk about it more, I'll be here to listen."
Hermione wiped her eyes, her heart pounding in her chest, relief and nerves jangling together. Harry lifted his glass in a silent toast and they clinked them together. He smiled, his green eyes shining in the fire light and Hermione felt a rush of love for her best friend. She grinned back at him, tears still rolling over her cheeks.
"Thank you, Harry."
"Well!" Bill sighed, flopping onto the couch beside Fleur, "what a day!" They were alone in the house, the others all returned home. Ginny had tried to wrangle an invitation to Grimmauld Place but had been reminded of the fact that her mother would skin someone alive if she didn't arrive back to the Burrow at some stage.
Fleur rolled her shoulders and nodded in agreement. "That was a bit daunting, wasn't it?"
"Oh well. A story for the ages, eh?" he asked, his eyes shining. Fleur raised an eyebrow at him, taking a long swallow from her beer bottle. He was happy though, appearing younger and unburdened for the first time in years.
"The ages, indeed. Though next time, make some more noise."
"Next time, do not begin to shag your girlfriend beside the only door in the house!"
Fleur felt herself flush. "We were not shagging, as you so bluntly put it."
Bill waggled his eyebrows. "Really?" Fleur shoved him, without malice.
"More to the point, Hermione is not my girlfriend," she retorted.
Bill looped an arm around her shoulders. "Yet," he said, with a sigh. "Ah, young love."
She curled into his side. "Do you remember when I found the note?"
Bill sighed. "Merlin's beard, indeed I do."
Fleur closed her eyes against the sorrow recalled, letting it wash over her mind. After the departure of the Trio, the Battle and Funeral, she'd returned to Shell Cottage with Bill. It had taken days for her to get around to cleaning the bedroom which Hermione and Luna had shared, largely because she was so reluctant to erase the last trace of the other witch from her home. She'd found her favourite blue jumper neatly folded on the bed, a slim volume of poetry within.
Tucked inside the volume was a note, written in Hermione's neat, small hand writing. It had been short and left her wailing in Bill's arms for hours, lamenting the loss of a chance for love. Bill, too, had wept, apologetic and sore with shared grief. Though it had hurt, though they had shouted and roared at each other, it had cleared the air between them, allowing the first steps towards healing.
"I thought, honestly, after everything that had happened in Hogwarts, she'd never want to speak to me again," she confessed. She lifted a wry eye brow. "I cannot over emphasise how relieved I am that is not the case."
Bill hummed his sincere agreement. Fleur sat back, fixing him with a stern gaze. "Hermione deserved better, Bill, and I will be damned if I'm going to make any more mistakes. Even if she decides she wants me as nothing more than a friend, I will not play with her heart any more."
"Good," Bill agreed, nodding.
"So, we need to end this marriage, Bill. She already carries unnecessary guilt, we cannot add to that."
Bill took a sip of his beer, blinking nervously. "Yes… you're right. We do."
"Soon," she insisted, fixing Bill with a stern glare.
"Soon," he agreed, only the faintest shadow of reluctance in his words.
He swallowed thickly but nodded decisively. "The, um, we could probably ask dad for a hand with that. All that has to be done is for a declaration of annulment to be submitted to the Ministry and the original licence destroyed. It usually takes three weeks, once you've got the right forms."
Fleur lifted an eyebrow at that. "Well, it's not as bad as a divorce. They take months."
Bill nodded, a bit pale but excitement was flaring around his eyes. "Right. Wow. It's all real, isn't it? We're really going to do this, Fleur."
She clasped his hand and nodded. "We're going to rebuild Philander's legacy and make this nation safe. It will take a long time, but it'll be worth it."
He sat up, bouncing their hands between them. "It will be." He was quiet for a moment, his eyes bright with activity as the future began to take form in his imagination. He laughed gently and turned to her.
"You know, you were a great wife."
Fleur laughed. "Thank you. You were a wonderful husband."
Bill nodded. "Let's hope that next time round, you get the great wife and I get the wonderful husband, eh?"
She laughed, giddy at the prospect. "It will require us to demand that the law of the land be re-written! But I think we're equal to the task."
"Come on, one of our friends defeated the Dark Lord with a disarming jinx. Anything's possible."
This morning, as I stood in the shower,
I found myself thinking; if we were only
meant to share a single night, why
could it not have been the winter
But then I realised that December is not
the best time of year to spend a night
on the beach.
I'll never forget though, though I do wish
the night had been longer.
"So…" Harry drawled, from his position on the rug in front of the drawing room fire. "All that time in Hogwarts, when Fleur was driving everyone crazy with her magical charms…"
"She wasn't," Hermione giggled, sipping her wine. "Or she was doing so using her own, naturally bestowed charms."
Harry grunted and drained the last of the bottle into his glass, eyeing it with disappointment. "So she wasn't using her Veela thrall?"
"No," Hermione said, rolling her eyes. "I don't even know if she can, not in the manner we saw at the World Cup."
Harry considered that for a moment. They'd just finished the bottle of wine and were well on their way to being quite drunk.
"Is she a good kisser, at least?"
Hermione shrieked with outraged laughter, tossing a small cushion at Harry. Despite the wine, he still caught it one handed.
"I'm not going to dignify that with a response."
"So no, then," Harry sighed, feigning disappointment. "Oh well. She can't be gorgeous, intelligent and a great kisser. That would just be unfair."
Hermione took a sip of wine and clutched a pillow to her chest. "You're trying to trick me into kissing and telling, which I won't do."
Harry cackled, lying on his back with the pillow behind his head. "Well, you wouldn't be able to judge on the first one, anyway."
Hermione spluttered a bit before nodding solemnly. "Yes. It would be foolish to base any judgement on a inadequate data set."
Harry's mouth was hanging open. "Hermione Granger, you are a rotten liar!" he shouted, sitting up suddenly. "That wasn't the first time you snogged her!"
Hermione wrinkled her nose. "Don't say snog. It's a horrid word."
Harry scooted over to the couch. "Oh no, tough luck. If Ginny and I snog, you and Fleur snog. What's good for the goose and all." He was quiet for a moment, apparently deep in thought. "And don't try to change the subject! You snogged Fleur Delacour, on multiple occasions."
She glared at him. "You, Harry James Potter, are drunk."
"And you, Hermione Jean Granger, have kissed two Triwizard Champions."
She sniffed, folding her arms with as much dignity as she could muster. "Who said I kissed Victor?"
"Aha!" Harry said, pointing a finger at her, "you did snog Krum! I knew it. But," he said, taking a deep breath, "it's all right. We all do stupid things in our youth." He was, apparently, aiming for magnanimity. Hermione chuckled, though. It was incredible how much more light hearted Harry was, now that the war was over and his soul entirely his own. Besides, hadn't her greatest fear been that her friends would treat her differently if they found out about her and Fleur?
"Though, you know this does make me feel a bit better," Harry mused. "You remember the Polyjuice incident?"
"The one where there were six other versions of me," Harry said, frowning. "Fleur called me hideous!"
Hermione snorted. "Well, now you know that it wasn't you. Just that you're a boy."
"It was still rude," Harry griped. "Do you think she was just teasing Bill?"
"I think the incongruity of you in Fleur's underwear was enough to put a damper on all but the most ardent perverts." She giggled. "Besides, I don't think you're Bill's type."
Harry rolled his eyes. "You know, it would have been nice if you hadn't all stripped down right there in the living room!" he huffed, indignant.
Hermione chuckled. "It's strange, what seems important now. You didn't care at all about that, before," she reminded him.
Harry chuckled, rolling his eyes. "Well, surviving it all changes your perspective."
Hermione patted his head, toying with strands of his hair. "And allows you access to proper barbers."
"Yes," he agreed, "that too."
They were quiet for a long moment, Hermione playing with Harry's messy hair idly. "Fleur cut her hair, too," Harry said. "And the next thing, you have a new wand with a Veela hair core."
"It's not Fleur's," Hermione clarified. "It's her grandmother's. Fleur's hair was left at the tree where she got the wood for the wand."
Harry was quiet again, staring into the fire. "She must really care for you, Hermione."
"I think she does," she said, quietly. She drew a deep breath. "She told me she loves me, you know."
Harry nodded, not apparently surprised. "From speaking to her, I reckon she means it. She thinks highly of love. Respects it. I don't think she'd lie."
"Neither do I." She finished playing with his hair and reached for her wine, smiling a bit. Harry watched her move, an odd look on his face.
"You're different," he said, quietly. "You've never done that before."
She blinked. "Done what?"
"Fiddled with my hair." He smiled, tipping his head to one side and retrieving his own wine. "Don't get me wrong, it was nice, but it is new."
Hermione frowned, she hadn't even noticed she'd been doing it. "Sorry."
"No, no," he laughed, "I mean it. It's good to see you like that. Affectionate. Did she bring it out in you? You were holding her hand today, on the couch."
She swallowed, nodding. "I doubt it helped matters with Ron. But… it was more important to be there for her than to protect Ron's sensibilities."
"I agree," Harry said, nodding. "It was sweet to see, too. Definite proof that you're not cold, as if you need it."
She shrugged at that, feeling herself blush. "I feel different, you know. I mean, I barely knew I had a secret to keep but it still feels like the weight of the world is lifted, Harry."
"Yeah," he grinned, downing the last of his wine. "I know the feeling."
"So," Bill yawned. "What will you actually be doing in Hogwarts?"
Fleur yawned as well, tucking her feet under herself and propping her head in her hand. "Acting as a liason between the tribe and the school. What, precisely, this entails, I don't know. A bit of translation, perhaps. Not everyone speaks English, you see."
Bill frowned. "Sounds a bit…"
"Dull?" Fleur laughed. "It will be. But there are other tasks. The Forbidden Forest is tainted. The tribe is staying to restore it to its former state and this will, no doubt, be a most interesting effort."
"Do you think there are still Dementors there?" he asked, worry creasing his brow.
"If there are, they have hidden deep within," she sighed. "But there isn't a way to say no, not until the survey is complete. I had also hoped to update the library in Hogwarts. The Veela histories are not written, but passed from mother to daughter and sister to sister. It may be prudent to actually have some facts about the Veela, rather than superstition and rumour."
Bill nodded. "Like the way they kill any men who fathers a child on them."
Fleur snorted. "Hmm. I know several who would, but they're the exception, rather than the rule."
"Or how they only have one true love and can never be with another."
Fleur chuckled. "Ah, that would certainly simplify matters! Believe me, you have no idea how complicated the affairs of Veela villages can become." She smiled, recalling some ridiculous love triangles from her youth. Her mind wandered, as was its recent wont, to Hermione. She felt her face warm and ducked her head.
"Though, would it be so bad? I mean, finding that one special person and cleaving to them for life?"
Bill smiled wistfully. "No, it wouldn't, would it?"
They were quiet for a moment, each lost in thought as they pondered that. Her eyes slid shut as visions, half imagined desires, fluttered before her eyes. Hermione leaning up to kiss her. Dark hair spread over pale bed sheets. Dropping a quick kiss to the nape of her delicate neck.
"Tell me, Fleur," Bill said, quietly, "what would your perfect woman be like?" A spark of gentle mischief suggested he knew exactly where her imagination had wandered.
Fleur smiled fondly, the memory of happier times easily recalled. They'd been so young! So optimistic and bold. They wouldn't have been able to conceive of the horrors and sorrow awaiting. But, Fleur mused, they wouldn't have been able to predict the happiness either. The joy and moments of delight stolen from dark times.
"Brave. Intelligent. Kind. The kind of person who goes half way around the world, alone, to right a wrong. The kind of person who stands up for those who can't."
Bill chuckled. "Where will we find such a person?"
Fleur was quiet for a while. "Isn't it wrong for me to want to be with her, after everything? After all the lies? I mean, it's not a very sturdy foundation, is it?" She frowned, rearranging herself on the sofa. This had been on her mind for some time, but she'd never been able to pluck up the courage to discuss the subject with Bill.
Bill was quiet for a moment and Fleur wondered if this was something he'd spent time pondering. "No, it isn't. But Fleur, you care. You truly care which is so much more than most people!"
He tipped his head up, staring at the ceiling for a moment. "Most people go through life thinking about themselves the whole time, without once thinking about their own actual existence. Without asking who am I and what the hell am I doing here? But you have. And you may not have any answers yet but there's a kind of empathy that comes from trying, you know?"
Fleur frowned. "That doesn't make sense, Bill."
"It does," he insisted. "Think about it. You try to find your place in the world and realise, in some ways, you're outside it. That in some ways," he took a deep breath, "you always will be. But then you realise it's not just you. We're all outside, really, looking into other people's worlds. All alone but trying, desperately, to find a way in. To make sense of it all. Together."
He took a moment before her spoke again, something in the far-away look of his eyes telling Fleur he'd often considered this. It saddened her, for once they'd shared every thought and idea that sleeted through their minds. She reached out and clasped his knee.
"Because that's empathy, isn't it? Knowing that others exist in a certain way and telling them that you can see that. That you understand and you care."
He smiled, the scars on his face a distant memory and long absent peace softening his eyes. "We've got a long way to go, but you're further along than most."
"Thank you," she whispered, feeling quite unworthy of such praise. "I just don't want to hurt her."
"So don't," Bill replied, wrapping an arm around her shoulder.
"Just love her and care for her. Make things better for her. Be there when she needs you and piss off when she needs a break." They both shared a laugh at that, though Fleur sobered first.
She shook her head. "You make it sound so simple."
"Isn't it, though?"
Fleur smiled, her heart warm with affection for her best friend, though she didn't agree with his assessment.
"It can't be that easy."
"Easy and simple aren't the same," he pointed out. "It's simple, but it'll require a lot of effort. But I think you're worthy of the challenge."
Hermione woke grudgingly, her head sore and mouth dry. She moaned, reaching for the glass of water beside her bed. Sunlight was streaming in through cracks in the curtains,filling her room with golden light. On perhaps any other occasion, she would have thought it delightful. Sadly, given her miserable state, she was tempted to pull the duvet over her head.
She resisted the urge and instead surveyed the room, peering around with bleary eyes. She'd been a bit tipsy the night before, stumbling into bed without paying too much heed to her surroundings. At least, she mused, she hadn't been singing like certain people.
With a flick of her wand, the curtains swished open. The room was quite large and, like those downstairs, was freshly redecorated. The walls were a soft, buttery shade of yellow, complementing the pale stain of the wainscott. There wasn't a lot of furniture, just a wardrobe, chair and double bed. A perfect blank canvas, Harry had insisted.
She sipped her water and ran a hand through her hair, untangling the nightmare of frizz and curls residing atop her head. She lay back down, closing her eyes and pondering the odds of falling back into a peaceful sleep.
They seemed quite high, until she caught a whiff of bacon, wafting enticingly up the stairs. Her stomach growled and, after a brief moment of regret for the comfy nest, she forced herself up and into the bathroom. She wasn't quite sure how the en suite fit into the geometry of the house and decided she was probably better off not knowing until she had at least one cup of coffee on board.
Several minutes later, when she wandered into the kitchen, she was utterly shocked to find Luna Lovegood supervising proceedings. The other witch stood at the cooker, calmly frying a pan filled with rashers of bacon, humming to herself as she went. A pair of violet wellingtons were leaning against the back door, as well as a canary yellow parasol.
"Oh!" Luna called, when she caught sight of her. She smiled broadly, genuine happiness clear on her face, "you're back!"
Luna left a pair of bacon tongs hovering over the pan and rushed to her, laughing merrily. She embraced her warmly, wild blonde hair momentarily blinding Hermione. She had some rather magnificent earring that, when Luna tightened her grip, threatened to draw blood. Before Hermione could catch a glimpse, Luna had drawn back, holding her hands gently.
"Did you enjoy yourself?" she asked, tipping her head to one side, presumably to get a good look at her. Hermione fidgeted a bit. If she'd thought anyone other than Harry had been in the kitchen, she'd have showered or at least changed out of her pyjamas.
"Of course you did," she answered, airily, "and you weren't even maimed! Did you know that Australia is home to the Giant Hairy Banksia man? And the Lesser Spotted Venomous Chuddypuff? And the koala!?"
Hermione, who'd encountered one of those creatures and received a nasty scratch, frowned. She knew better than to challenge Luna and, despite herself, felt gratitude sweep over her that she'd avoided banksia groves.
"But, welcome home!" she hugged her again, kissing her cheek fondly. "You look wonderful with a tan, you know."
"I look freckled with a tan," she laughed, touching her nose self-consciously. "But I am home and glad to be back. Delighted to see you, as well."
Luna seemed pleased with that and headed to the cooker top, pouring two cups of strong coffee.
"There, you look like you need that," she teased. "Did you and Harry finish off that bottle of wine?"
Hermione winced. "I suppose we did!"
Luna shook her head. "And the half bottle in the larder, I suppose?"
She folded her arms, determined not to have the blame pinned on her return. "That was opened around the same time we turned on the radio. I blame Kylie Minogue."
Luna frowned. "That seems unfair, especially since I don't see a third glass in the sink! Imagine, not even offering her a drink."
Hermione chuckled at that, shaking her head affectionately. "Harry, it seems, somehow knows all the words to The Locomotion."
"Yes," the man in question muttered, stumbling into the kitchen in a grey t-shirt and boxers, "but I wasn't the only one!"
Hermione scowled. Luna smiled beatifically and placed a fresh coffee in front of Harry. "Now, now. No complaining until after bacon butties. They're the second best cure for a hangover."
Harry blinked and sat at the table, apparently unfazed by this invasion of his privacy. Hermione lifted a questioning eyebrow and Harry shrugged. The appearance of Luna in Grimmauld Place was, cleary, a common occurrence.
"Did I forget something, Luna?" he asked, sipping his coffee gratefully. "Were we meant to be going out somewhere?"
"Aside from moderation and the fact that I Should be so Lucky is a far better choice for drunken living room dancing, no, you didn't miss anything," she sighed. "I woke up early and decided to visit. And a good thing I did," she said, firmly.
She slid beautiful, gorgeous, perfect bacon sandwiches onto plates and Hermione felt her mouth begin to water at the sight.
"Left to your own devices, you probably wouldn't have managed a bowl of cornflakes," she scolded. "I don't even know why you keep those things in the house, Harry, when you could have proper food."
Harry, already face first in a sandwich, shrugged, brown sauce falling onto his chin. Hermione, lost in a highly satisfying gastronomic haze, ignored the pair of them. As wonderful as Australia was, they just didn't understand proper bacon sandwiches.
Luna lifted her own plate of food and took her seat, smiling brightly. "It's quite fortuitous I arrived in time to save you from the dreaded Gammer Goblins. Did you know they can turn your eyes yellow and your skin green and salty?"
Hermione, already feeling a bit weepy due to her hangover and the joy of familiar food, felt tears well. She grinned, delighted by and sincerely grateful for Luna's usual nonsense. Despite all odds, despite the wrath of evil folk and the failure of those charged with protection, they'd won. They'd emerged victorious. The worst of the world had been swept away while the best, the bacon sandwiches and silly stories, remained. Friends remained.
They finished their breakfast and Luna quizzed Hermione about her journey, displaying a much better knowledge of Australia than possessed by most folk from their part of the world.
"It sounds lovely," she sighed, "though I do think it'd be strange for everything to be backwards."
Hermione opened her mouth to object when the kitchen door burst open, admitting a blur of red hair.
"You are never going to bloody believe!" Ginny squealed, rushing over to the table. She slapped her hands down, face bright with excitement. She glanced at Harry, then back to Luna and Hermione.
Then back to Harry, raising an eyebrow. She shook her head, well used to brothers loitering around in their underwear, and slapped her hands down again.
"So! I was at home this morning, listening to mum rant and rave when the clock, the big bloody clock clicked!"
Hermione blinked, confused. The large clock in the Weasley house possessed a hand for each family member, allowing Molly to keep track of what each member of her family was up to at any given time. Most of the positions were concerned with very boring tasks, such as feeding the hens.
"Oh bugger!" Harry exclaimed, his eyes lighting up. He began laughing and within minutes, tears were rolling over his cheeks.
"What?!" Hermione demanded, quite confused. Ginny was laughing too, while Luna looked on.
"Fred changed the clock," Luna explained. "Molly brought it to Madame Prewitt's with her. It was quite hilarious."
Hermione frowned. She presumed by numbers, Luna meant the short messages saying what people were doing.
"Yeah," Ginny continued. "He changed them to good stuff, like in prison and in the pub."
"And not pregnant," Harry continued, "Ginny's on that one."
"Thank all that is good and holy," the young witch in question muttered. "It also had a spot saying just hitched. That was the point, you see. He charmed it before the wedding, to have a bit of fun with Bill."
Hermione paled. "Oh my." She swallowed thickly. "You don't mean…"
"Bill's not pregnant, too. Fleur's escaping valiantly."
Hermione sat stock still, her jaw hanging open. She blinked several times. Ginny patted her on the back, sending her falling forward onto the table, narrowly avoiding her plate.
"Yup. So." Ginny grinned. "Go have a shower, I said we'd meet with them at midday."
After much spluttering, complaining, shampooing and nervous outfit selection, Hermione stood shuffling from foot to foot in the drawing room. She was trying to calm her breathing, to slow herself down and actually think. Sadly, her mind was spinning in circles, most of which involved a certain amount of mental screeching.
Harry wandered in, yawning broadly. Hermione felt he appeared far too casual and almost demanded he adopt a stern demenor. She managed to restrain herself, but barely.
"Well, that was quick," he mused, grinning widely. "They don't muck about, do they?"
"Harry!" she snapped, glaring, "this isn't a time for joking!" She bit her lip and began to pace up and down. "I mean, what on earth happens now!?"
Luna sighed and stepped forwards, setting her hands on Hermione's shoulders.
"Now we go and meet our friends and congratulate them for being true to their hearts."
Hermione blinked. All at once, a number of things clicked together. Luna and her uncle. Some of the insights she'd provided in Shell Cottage. Her mentions of love between Fleur and herself.
"You knew?" she asked, her voice small and perhaps a bit hurt.
Luna shrugged. "I met Bill and Fleur at pride, once or twice, when Uncle Phil and Tim brought me. But, that doesn't mean anything. I mean, straight people go, too. Neither of them told me anything, so I never knew. And one can never presume."
Her grey eyes kind and soft, she lifted a hand to Hermione's cheek. "People are strange, sometimes. They do unexpected things for a variety of reasons. I hope Bill and Fleur will tell me why, someday. But it doesn't matter, as long as they tell the truth to themselves. And today they are."
Harry and Ginny draped their arms around each other, grinning like loons. "Come on," Ginny laughed. "We're meeting them in Hyde Park."
A dog pelted over lush green grass, barking as he ran for a tennis ball. Birds sang in the trees over head, deafening and raucous. An ice cream van played a tune and a group of young people threw a disc between them. The park was quite full, but there were several spare benches available, if one knew where to look.
Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour sat side by side on such a bench, slightly dazed expressions glazing both their faces.
"Well." Bill said, glancing down at the piece of parchment in his hand for what must have been the sixteenth time in three minutes.
"Indeed," Fleur said, several minutes later. Bill handed her the heavy, rough document. Watching as she ran her fingers over the inked letters.
Bill cleared his throat, unsure of what to say or do. "I suppose that's the advantage to having fought along side the Minister for Magic."
Fleur nodded. "We were lucky that the Yeoman Bedel happened to be renewing his unicorn licence."
Bill gave a shaky little laugh. "Yeah. I kind of wish dad hadn't been there, though."
Fleur frowned. "Why not? He was proud of you."
Bill groaned. "Yes, so proud that he proclaimed the fact in front of half the cabinet."
Fleur winced. "Well, he could have phrased it better than one of the gays but he meant well. Besides, it was worth it to see Percy faint."
Bill grinned, heartening. "Yeah, it was."
Fleur smirked. "And that Welsh junior whip seemed delighted with the news."
"He did?" Bill asked, sitting up straight and smiling somewhat foolishly. "Well. He was quite handsome, wasn't he?" Bill, she knew, was completely defenceless against the Welsh accent and she only hoped the junior whip was a decent lad.
Fleur laughed, peering down at the certificate in her hands once more, disbelief on her face.
"We did it." She said, her voice shaking a bit.
Would they both come to regret hiding their true nature for so long? Undoubtedly. Would they regret the chances for happiness that they passed by? Of course. Would they regret the sacrifice they'd made, knowing how many it had helped?
No. Never would they regret the small part they'd played.
For that reason, Fleur felt a tiny stab of sadness at the evidence of dissolution. For all the pain of keeping lies and secrets, they'd accomplished a lot of good. They'd helped antire families and they'd kept vulnerable people safe. Fleur would always be proud of what she and Bill had achieved, there was no doubt about that. Their false marriage would, she knew, always be a source of sorrow, for the fact that it reflected how precarious their social standing would otherwise have been.
At the same time, it was something of a source of pride, too. Their marriage had the shape of a great ruse or clever scheme and had been put to good use, protecting their family. It was a bit strange, she knew, to feel sad about the end of her entirely fake marriage. She sighed. There were many, many other things that could be done to improve the world and the majority did not require lying to oneself.
"And congratulations to you both!" a happy voice called. Fleur glanced up to see Ginny bounding into view, followed by Hermione, Harry and Luna. Greetings ensued, as well as some words of congratulations. Ginny was giddy with delight, regaling them with tales of the Weasley family clock.
"I'm happy for you," Luna whispered in her ear as she embraced her, "but even more happy for Hermione."
Fleur nodded, clasping the skinny witch briefly before letting her go. She'd always suspected that Luna knew more about them than she was letting on but the fact that she hadn't let on when it mattered was what mattered to Fleur.
Finally, Hermione stood before her, tousled hair and a soft, shy expression lighting her face. Her eyes were dark and happy, pleased in a way Fleur couldn't quite comprehend. She was dressed in faded jeans and a green shirt, the sleeves rolled up above her elbows.
"Hello," she said, stepping forwards. A frisson of nerves ran through her and Fleur tucked her hair behind her ear, grinning wryly as she briefly studied her shoes.
The moment was perfect. The air was sweet and rich with the scent of flowers and grass. Hermione was fiddling with her watch and, adorably, scuffing the toe of her runner against a tuft of grass.
"Coffee!" Bill called, grabbing Ginny by the collar. "We need coffee!" he repeated firmly, once he had the attention of all. "Come on, you gang give me a hand."
Before they rightly knew what was happening, Fleur and Hermione were alone. The former clucked her tongue and shook her head. The latter rubbed her forehead.
"They're subtle, aren't they?"
Fleur laughed at that, shrugging. "Well. Their hearts are in the right place."
Hermione shook her head, moving forwards the final few feet and embracing Fleur softly. "I'm proud of you, though it feels strange to say it."
Fleur wrapped her arms around the other witch and inhaled deeply. "I'm so relieved," she whispered, feeling tears of relief well. "I feel like I can start walking forwards again." A sniffle escaped and she was led to sit, a touch embarrassed by her tears.
"It's fine," she assured Hermione, "happy tears, really. This was, after all, always the plan. I just… I never thought I'd be so relieved! I never thought…"
Hermione smiled ruefully. "It'd be so easy? So simple?"
Fleur's eyebrows shot up and she stared at her friend for a moment before allowing herself a moment of mirth.
"Is it simple?"
Hermione nudged her shoulder with her own. "It could be. I think," she paused for a moment, gathering her wits, "I think it should be."
"You and I," she began, playing with the fringe of her beaded bag, "we need to be simple. And honest. Because," she took a deep breath, "there's something between you and I, Fleur."
Fleur nodded, resting her elbows on her knees. "There is, I agree. But there are also some lies.
Hermione was quiet for a long while. She plucked a few blades of grass and began to weave them together, silent as she thought.
Fleur spoke softly, twsting her watch around her wrist. "When you arrived you were so badly hurt. It worried me that I was just going to be another source of pain."
Hermione's frown deepened but was chased away by a smile. "It's not exactly comparable, is it? I mean," she nudged Fleur's shoulder with her own. "I did rather enjoy your company."
Fleur chuckled. "I know. But… Surely in order to assent, you need all the facts. You needed to know what was really going on."
"For the sake of the spell?"
Fleur shook her head, frowning. "What? No! I told you everything about the spell bar, um, you know."
Hermione nodded and Fleur was gratified to notice her blush. "But why, then?"
Fleur shook her head, fair hair flying free. It was, Hermione noticed, a bit longer than it had been. "Because what we did was important. And… and from the beginning I knew I didn't want it to only happen once. This isn't something to do to you, Hermione," there was an edge of frustration to her voice. "It was something to do with you. And for ever more, there will be this lie between us. And…"
Hermione sighed, wondering if they were getting anywhere. "You do remember that I knew that there were things I didn't know. But I trusted you to not let me do something I'd come to regret. And you did.
"I treasure that memory, Fleur. I'll never regret it. We found something good and joyous in the middle of all that misery. I mean… suppose I had known you're gay. What would I have done differently?"
Fleur shrugged, her expression dark. "Run screaming? Demanded I take you out to dinner first?"
Hermione chuckled. "Well, yeah. A date would have been nice. A date would be nice."
Fleur's head whipped up, surprise in her eyes. She studied Hermione's face for a long moment before a bright smile spread over her fine features. "It would, wouldn't it?
"We could try, couldn't we," Hermione said, quietly. "We could see if we're good together during, you know, something resembling normalcy."
"We could," Fleur agreed, leaning more firmly against her. "I think we'd be good together. But you'll have to be patient with me. I'm new to this."
"Me too," Hermione whispered. "We can help each other. It's not going to be easy, is it? I mean, just because Voldemort is defeated doesn't mean it'll be plain sailing."
"It won't be, no. I mean, do you even want to wade into something new right now? What happened yesterday, that wasn't fair to you at all." Fleur sighed. "After all our efforts to keep from outing Bill…"
"I don't want to have to hide, slink around like we're doing something wrong. Like we are something wrong."
Fleur sighed. "You're very brave, you know. You're right. It won't be easy. But I think it'll be worth it."
They were quiet for a long time, enjoying each other's company and warmth. Hermione felt her eyes drift shut and she yawned.
"I think I'm still hung over."
"Oh," called a familiar, and welcome, voice. Hermione opened her eyes to see Harry, Ginny, Luna and Bill in front of their bench, bearing paper cups of coffee and bags of pastries.
"Well, you know what's the best cure for hang overs?" Luna asked, a sparkle of mischief twinkling in her grey eyes.
"I have no idea," Hermione answered, gratefully accepting a coffee from Harry. Fleur took hers from Ginny and shrugged. Bill sat on the grass in front of them, blowing on his steaming beverage, Harry and Ginny joining him after a moment.
"Well, the best cure for a hang over is being pampered," Luna proclaimed, nodding seriously. "Preferably by your girlfriend."
Hermione laughed, fixing her gaze on her shoes. She bit her lip, feeling a bit more daring than usual, and glanced back up. Harry was trying to keep an enormous grin off his face while Bill appeared quite misty eyed. Ginny was providing a theatrical eye roll and Luna was digging through the bag of pastries.
She turned to her side. Fleur was blushing, for once, and wore a gentle, hopeful expression. She was clearly trying to wrestle control of her features, to not appear too eager, and Hermione fond it more charming than anything she'd ever seen. Her eyes were crystalline and filled with excitement, the same delighted excitement that was bubbling up in her own chest, Hermione suspected. Never had she seen her look more beautiful. Never had her radiance and cheer and softness melded so freely. Never had she been so free and unfettered.
Hermione sipped her coffee, trying to wipe the grin off her face. She peered up at Luna and back at Fleur.
"Any idea where I can get one of those?"
Fleur released a shaky giggle that managed to sound incredulous, relieved, delighted and ecstatic all at once. She schooled her features, taking a sip of her own coffee before sitting up and fixing Hermione with a blinding smile.
"You know, I may have a notion."
Thank you for reading this far. Thank you for taking the time. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you have any comments, please leave them. It's always great to hear!
Thanks to everyone who ever left a review. Special thanks to those who enaged in PM discussions. You really helped me flesh this story out and make it better than I could have alone. Extra special thanks to those who sent random, wonderful messages about topics as diverse as midwifery and sugar peeps! You all rock.
Everyone should also head over and read Ressick's tale, which is fantastic! It's called A Meeting of Equal Halves and is full of win. It made me utter strange, high pitched sounds of glee and will do that same to you!
Will there be more? I hope so! There's plenty of room to play with these two and I hope to revisit them. Throw on an author alert to be kept up to date, if you wish!
Again, many thanks. Thanks for sticking through the whole thing. As I said at the start, if you have stories of your own; tell them.
'Til next time,