Strange Visitors From Another Century
Chapter Twenty-Nine: When The Dust Has Settled
I'm so sorry for the delay in updating. Thank you for all the reviews, alerts, and favourites, and I hope you enjoy this chapter.
They buried William two days after the battle.
Harry was there, with Ron and Hermione. They were lucky to make it; Hufflepuff had only temporarily released him and Hermione from the Infirmary, and only on the condition that Ron kept a close eye on both of them. Slytherin was under similar restrictions, and Hufflepuff was never far from his side as they stood with Gryffindor and Ravenclaw.
They weren't the only walking wounded. Just among their friends, Pollux had lost a leg to a troll, and Sigrun had been blinded. Harry barely recognised a quarter of those who had fought and bled for them. Even those who had come through without physical harm were suffering from exhaustion, and no-one had escaped the emotional trauma of such an horrific event.
Most shouldn't have been out of bed. Not one of them would have stayed behind.
Gryffindor had returned William's body to his family the day before. Now Harry stood beneath a sky that was insultingly clear and blue and let tears fall unchecked as his friend was placed in the grave. William had been dressed in his best clothes, and his most treasured possessions had been laid around him. His wand rested on his chest with his hands clasped over it. His face was still and calm, the usual mischievous grin gone for good, and all other details blurred as Harry allowed himself to weep.
He heard none of the words. He remembered his friend, William welcoming him into Slytherin, helping him through Runes, teasing the twins, coaching him against Edmund, showing him that Slytherin students weren't all bullies and bigots. He remembered William making him laugh, staying up with him when nightmares got through Slytherin's wards, and being there for him in a way that very few of Harry's classmates ever had been.
He had been Harry's friend, and Harry would miss him.
Afterwards, Slytherin led him over to William's family. It was the last thing Harry wanted to do, but he had to say something. He could feel the blood pounding in his ears, but just as anxiety was starting to turn to panic a gentle hand gripped his shoulder.
"They do not blame you," said Slytherin softly. "They know who bears the responsibility for their son's death."
Harry frowned at the self-loathing in his voice, but then they were in front of the grieving couple and Harry had to focus on them. He had to swallow hard before he could say anything. "I'm sorry," he managed. "William, he...he saved my life."
William's father gave a strangled sob and turned away. His mother's eyes filled with tears but she summoned a watery smile. "He would do anything for his friends," she whispered. She wiped her eyes and refocused on him. "What is your name?"
"Harry," Harry said. He opened his mouth, closed it again, and finally decided what he wanted to say. "I only came to Hogwarts a few months ago. William helped me so much. He showed me round, he helped me in lessons, he supported me... He was a really great friend. And I am so sorry-"
"Harry," William's mother interrupted. "If you knew my son at all, you knew that he made his own decisions. He chose to save you, and I know that he would have never made any other decision." She gave him a long look. "I would ask just one thing of you, if I may?"
"Anything," said Harry immediately. William's mother stepped forward, and Salazar stiffened almost imperceptibly, but she just brushed a stray lock of hair away from Harry's forehead.
"Live well, Harry," she said gently. "Live well."
Harry could only nod. There was nothing he could say to that. She smiled at him one more time, then hurried after her husband. Relief left Harry's knees weak and he let out a shaky breath. They should have blamed him, he blamed himself, but they didn't. Then he realised that neither parent had so much as looked at Slytherin and remembered his grandfather's words, and glanced down at him.
"It wasn't your fault either," he said. "You-all of you always tried to keep us safe."
"I was his head of house, and I was the one who allowed him to accompany us," said Slytherin quietly. Harry frowned, but before he could argue Slytherin continued, "You should return to Hogwarts. You still need rest."
That was true, and a funeral was the last place to cause trouble, so Harry let it go for the moment. Slytherin nodded past him to Ron and Hermione. "Are the three of you able to travel by yourselves?"
Harry was slightly mollified to see that he addressed Hermione as much as him. Hermione nodded, and Ron smiled.
"I'll keep an eye on them," he promised.
Hermione rolled her eyes, but she was still holding Ron's hand. Harry nodded too. "I'll talk to you later, Grandfather."
As it had every time so far, the title brought a faint smile to Slytherin's face. He inclined his head and went to rejoin Gryffindor and the others. Harry turned back to his friends, and caught a glimpse of a boy a few years younger than them. They had never been introduced, but Harry would have recognised that blond hair anywhere. The sight made his chest ache, and Harry found himself walking over to him before he even knew why.
"You're Alfred, aren't you?"
Alfred nodded. His eyes were red, and Harry's own eyes stung. "I'm Harry. I was friends with your brother."
Alfred looked away. Harry hesitated, not sure whether his presence was welcome, but just when he thought he should leave a quiet voice spoke up. "He mentioned you in his letters. He really liked you."
"I liked him too," said Harry quietly. He hesitated again, but as with William's parents he had to say something. "He was funny and kind and he talked about you a lot." Alfred's eyes widened, and Harry managed a smile. "He was really proud of you. I just…I thought you should know that."
The next thing he knew, Alfred had thrown his arms around his waist and was hugging him for dear life. Harry froze, then gave in and returned the hug. "It'll be okay," he whispered.
"No, it won't," Alfred sobbed. "He's gone!"
Harry drew back to look him in the eye. "It'll be okay one day," he repeated. "Whatever happens, remember that he loved you. And…and he'll always be watching out for you."
Alfred didn't look convinced. Harry didn't blame him. He sighed. "I'm not going to be at Hogwarts for much longer, but if you want to visit-"
"I'm never going to Hogwarts!"
Harry stared. Alfred met his gaze defiantly, face flushed with tears and anger. "My brother went to Hogwarts and he died! I'm never going there!"
Harry opened his mouth, but all his arguments died on his lips when a hand fell on his shoulder. Ron met his gaze and shook his head silently, and Harry swallowed his emotions. "I understand," he managed. He forced a smile. "Take care, Alfred."
Alfred nodded, and Harry let him run to his mother. Ron sighed. "Mate-"
"I know, Ron."
"This isn't your fault, Harry," Hermione began, but she fell silent when Ron squeezed her hand.
Harry ran a hand through his hair. He had seen the damage the Order had done to his friends, and how difficult it would be for everyone to recover, but he hadn't even considered what the series of attacks and the death of a student would mean for Hogwarts. Parents sent their children there to be safe. It would be a long time before they forgot this.
Harry knew that it wasn't his fault, but it was still hard to believe it.
Ron sighed again and pulled Harry into a quick hug.
"He's upset," he said roughly. "Hogwarts is still the safest place in the country for magical kids, and everyone knows it."
Harry was too exhausted to argue. Hermione squeezed his arm. "Let's go home."
Harry nodded. Ron and Hermione separated and vanished in sharp cracks and Harry followed a moment later, but even as magic enveloped him he couldn't help feeling like something precious had been lost forever.
Hogsmeade was well within Harry's limits for Apparation, but he was still exhausted and the day's events hadn't helped. He stumbled as he landed, and only Ron's grip on his hand kept him upright.
"Thanks," Harry mumbled. He pushed his glasses up in an attempt to stave off the growing headache, then blinked when Ron shoved a potion into his hand. "When did you start carrying these around?"
"It seemed like a good idea," said Ron blandly. He handed another one to Hermione. "I saw you wincing."
Hermione gave him a small smile and swallowed the potion without arguing. Harry sighed, and took his own. The magic took effect straight away and he sighed again as the pounding in his temples eased. "You're getting good at this."
Even a month ago Ron would have blushed to the roots of his hair. Now he just took the empty vials back with a slight smile. "I should hope so. You both okay to head back to Hogwarts, or do you want to take a minute first?"
Harry glanced at Hermione, then at the people already sneaking looks at them, and both of them nodded at once. "Hogwarts."
Ron smiled and gestured for the two of them to go ahead of him. Harry started up the familiar path to the castle, his mind pleasantly blank. The past few days had been insane. He had spent most of it asleep, and when he was awake he hadn't been able to do much more than stare at the ceiling. Being kidnapped, tortured, watching his grandfather be tortured, and fighting in a pitched battle had taken its toll, and then William…
Harry dragged his attention back to find Ron and Hermione both watching him. They had gotten good at knowing when he needed to be pulled out of his head, but this time Harry couldn't even force a smile.
"I just…I still can't believe he's gone."
It wasn't the first time someone had died in front of him. It wasn't even the first time someone had died to save him. That didn't make it hurt any less. Hermione gave a hiccuping sob. "I know," she whispered. "I keep seeing it, and thinking about everything I should have done and how if I had only-"
"Stop it," said Ron, in a surprisingly firm voice. "You'll drive yourself mad thinking like that." He looked down, but not before Harry saw the tears in his blue eyes. "Trust me."
Hermione shook her head. "I can't help it. It was all so fast, and there was nothing we could do and I don't know how to bear it." She paused and looked at Harry. "Was this how you felt? After…"
She trailed off without finishing the sentence, but Harry caught her meaning. Thinking about Cedric hurt just as much as it had all those months ago, and he managed to nod. Ron flinched. "I'm so sorry, mate."
Harry blinked. That was the last thing he had expected. Ron shifted under his scrutiny. "We left you alone after that," he mumbled. "It doesn't matter that Dumbledore told us to. We should have known, we should have done better."
A year ago, Harry would have been glad of the apology, but now he only felt hollow. He had never wanted them to understand, not like this. Hermione nodded, her own eyes very bright.
"I don't know how you did it," she said. She wiped her eyes, and gave a watery smile when Ron wrapped an arm round her shoulders. "I'm sorry we were so hard on you."
"It's fine," said Harry quietly. "It doesn't matter any more."
Both of his friends frowned at that, but Harry suddenly couldn't bear the current line of conversation any longer. He cast about for a distraction, and realised with an unpleasant jolt that Hermione was still rubbing her chest.
"Are you okay?"
Hermione dropped her hand immediately. "It still aches, but it's getting better."
Harry flinched. Thinking about how close one of his best friends had come to death hurt and he couldn't face it and he wrenched his mind away. Ron was frowning again. "I'll have another look at it when we get back to Hogwarts. Professor Hufflepuff mentioned another salve that might help."
He was really getting good at this. Harry seized on the thought with relief. "You like this Healer stuff, don't you?"
Ron nodded. "I really do. I'm going to look into it when we get back to our own time." He sighed. "Wish I'd tried harder in my OWLs though. I dunno if I'll be able to retake them if I don't do well."
Harry glanced at Hermione, half-expecting to hear an 'I told you so', but she just squeezed Ron's hand. "Don't worry. I'm sure you did well, and even if there are a few problem areas I'm sure they'll make an exception when they see what you can do."
"If they don't they're idiots," said Harry flatly. "I bet none of their trainees have saved someone's life in the middle of a battle before."
Ron smiled and pulled his scarf up around his face. "Thanks. We'll see how it goes, I guess."
The walk back to the castle took a lot longer than usual, but even with the snow and freezing winds Harry couldn't bring himself to mind. They needed a break, and neither him nor Hermione were in any condition to be pushing themselves. The only problem was that silence left him too much time with his own thoughts, but even as his mood started to darken again Ron coughed.
"Things are still going well with Slytherin then?"
Harry blinked, but nodded. Slytherin knew better than to try to get him to talk about things, but his quiet presence in the Infirmary had been a great help over the last couple of days. Ron shook his head. "I still can't believe you call him grandfather."
The memory of his and Hermione's gobsmacked expressions the first time they had heard him call Slytherin that and not get cursed brought a smile to Harry's lips. "I know it's not accurate," he said, "but uncle didn't feel right, and this does. And he likes it."
"We know," said Hermione. "Everyone does."
A dreamy look had entered Ron's eyes. "Please call him that in front of Malfoy," he said. "I'm begging here. It'll be even better than the ferret thing."
Harry snorted. "Always wanted to give him a heart attack. Snape too."
The image alone would be enough to fuel a Patronus. Hermione though looked more sober. "Do you really think he'll come back with us?"
Ron's own grin faded. "Dunno. He said he was thinking about it, but that was before…" He trailed off with a shrug, and glanced at Harry.
Harry hesitated. He knew how much Slytherin loved his friends Hogwarts, but Slytherin had walked into a trap for him. Slytherin had been tortured for him. And the look on his face when Jarlath and Zalasta had threatened Harry… He shook his head. "I think he will," he said quietly. "Maybe not yet, not until they're sure Hogwarts is safe, but I…I don't think he wants us to face Voldemort alone."
"You," Hermione corrected gently. "He doesn't want you to face Voldemort alone."
Harry didn't bother to confirm it. Ron was frowning again. "You won't be alone! We'll be right there with you!"
Warmth flooded Harry's body, and for the first time since the battle the weight of everything that had happened seemed to lift. Hermione nodded firmly. "We told you in first year that we're doing this together," she said. "Neither of us have changed our minds."
Harry could only smile at them. He didn't know what he had done to deserve friends like these. After a moment Ron gave a rueful chuckle. "Having Slytherin along too wouldn't hurt though."
Harry snorted, but Hermione sighed. "We would have the Order too. And maybe the teachers. It wouldn't just be us."
"Wouldn't it?" said Harry, and despite his best efforts he couldn't be the bitterness from his voice. "It's always been just us before."
He knew that the adults they knew had tried, but that didn't change the fact that none of them had been able to keep them out of danger. Hermione looked upset, but even she couldn't deny the truth. Ron sighed.
"We can worry about that later. Right now, you two really need to rest."
Harry couldn't argue with that. Everything was aching again, even with all the spells and potions. The rest of the walk passed in silence.
After everything that had happened, Hogwarts was more chaotic than ever. There were so many people wandering the halls that it almost felt like the Hogwarts Harry and the others were used to. Friends of Hogwarts and the Founders had come from all over to help fight and recover, but not all the guests were allies. Some of the werewolves had been barely more than children, others had been Muggles, but all those who had been forced into fighting had been taken under Hufflepuff's wing. She would make sure that they were looked after.
Gryffindor had taken care of the rest.
The crowds were not good for Harry's nerves. Every unfamiliar face registered as a threat, and after the third time he nearly hexed someone who came round a corner too fast Ron tugged them into one of the secret passages.
"Lets see if we can go a week without cursing anyone, eh?"
Harry took a shaky breath and loosened his grip on his wand. "Yeah. Sorry."
"Don't apologise," said Ron gently. "Everything's fine."
Harry bit his lip. He didn't like having such poor control over himself. It didn't make him feel any better to note that Hermione was clutching her wand too, and even Ron looked relieved to be out of the crowds. It would take a while for things to get back to normal. Or as normal as life ever was for them.
They made it to the Hospital Wing without further incident, but Harry stopped short just inside the entrance. Castor was helping Pollux back into bed, his movements incredibly gentle, and Helena was standing over them. She glanced up at their entrance and met Harry's gaze for a brief instant before pointedly looking away. Harry felt his cheeks heat up, and turned away to find both Ron and Hermione watching him.
His friends exchanged a look, then Hermione sighed. "You should talk to her."
"Thanks," Harry muttered. "I'd never have thought of that." Hermione raised an eyebrow, and he rubbed his eyes. "Sorry."
He wanted to, and had since the battle, but it wasn't that simple. Hermione sighed again. "She helped fight a bunch of terrorists, lost one of her best friends, and found out that we're time travellers and have been lying to her for months. You need to talk to her."
Harry looked over at Helena. He did miss her. His crush had faded in everything that had happened over the past couple of months, but he had thought they were at least friends. She had helped him a lot, and maybe he could help her now, but not if they couldn't even look at each other. Ron shook his head.
"And y'know what, I need to have a look at Hermione's injuries. Off you go, mate."
He gave Harry a gentle, but firm shove, in Helena's direction and drew the curtain around Hermione's bed with a flick of his wand. Harry shot a betrayed look at the closed curtain, but a soft voice from behind him made him jump.
Harry had to take a deep breath before he could turn around. Helena's eyes were red-rimmed, but she met his gaze steadily. "Can we talk?"
Harry realised his jaw was hanging open, and closed it with a snap. "Um, yeah. Yes. We should."
Helena nodded. She cast a quick look back at Castor and Pollux, who were talking quietly on the far side of the Infirmary, and led the way out into the corridor. Harry followed her along the passage until they came to a small alcove. There was a padded seat there, but Helena didn't sit and neither did Harry. He shifted from foot to foot, unsure of what to say, until Helena finally blew out a breath.
"I wish you had told me sooner."
It wasn't where Harry had expected to start, but he could deal with it. He took a shaky breath. "I know," he said. "I'm sorry. I… It's hard to explain and even harder to believe."
Helena's lips pursed for a moment, before she inclined her head. "I would have believed Mother, if not you," she said. She looked him up and down, and some of the stiffness left her frame. "You're really from a thousand years in the future?"
"More or less," said Harry. "It's really strange, I know-"
"I live in a school of magic," Helena interrupted. "I've heard stranger."
Harry couldn't help himself. "Really?"
Helena hesitated. "Maybe not stranger," she allowed. "But still. I don't like being lied to."
"I'm sorry," Harry repeated. "I didn't want to." He hesitated, but there was something he had to say and the sooner he got it done the better. "And I'm sorry about William."
Helena's eyes widened, but Harry kept talking. If he didn't, he didn't know if he would be able to start again. "If I hadn't been taken, and if he hadn't come to save me, he never would have died." The awful memory danced before his eyes, and he had to shake himself before he could continue, "He died saving me. It was my fault, and I am so sorry. If there was anything I could do, if I could go back in time and take his place I would…"
He trailed off as he finally took in the expression on her face. "What?"
"Harry," said Helena. "That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and I grew up listening to Myrddin."
Harry gaped, but Helena didn't give him a chance to interrupt. "You didn't kill William. You didn't make them cast that curse. You didn't make them attack us. They would have come after us whether you were here or not, and William would have still been in danger. Probably more danger, seeing as he wouldn't have had you as a sparring partner for the last couple of months."
"No. Enough people are blaming themselves for William's…" She looked away for a moment, and when she turned back her eyes were flashing. "There's only one person I'm angry with, and it's not you."
Harry stared at her. He hadn't left the Infirmary since the battle and had no idea what she was talking about, but Helena didn't waste time in enlightening him. "Edmund was the one who told Zalasta that Uncle Salazar cares about you. He's the reason you were taken. If it hadn't been for his foolishness, his stupid jealousy-"
"Wait," Harry interrupted. "Grandfather told me that Zalasta used Legilimency on him. It wasn't his fault-"
"And if Edmund had been focused on his Occlumency, like Uncle told him to when going to face a dangerous Dark wizard, instead of on how much he resented you then this never would have happened!"
Harry closed his mouth. He didn't know how to argue with that. He didn't know if he wanted to. Helena shook her head, and took a long breath. "It doesn't matter. I don't blame you, Harry. Neither would William." For the first time, she managed a shaky smile. "He chose to go and save you, because he loved you. Don't dishonour that by taking on the responsibility for his choices."
Harry automatically started to protest, then paused. It wasn't an easy thing to accept, but Helena wasn't the only one to say it. She was just the first one to be so blunt. Harry sighed and leaned back against the cool stone wall.
It was all he could promise. Helena eyed him for a long moment, then nodded to herself. "I suppose that will suffice. For now."
A smile tugged at Harry's lips. Helena was a force to be reckoned with. She smiled back as she finally took a seat on the bench, but her expression soon turned wistful. "I suppose this means you will leave us soon."
Harry sighed again. "Not soon," he said. "But, yes. I have to stop Voldemort. He's the man who killed my parents, and my friend. I can't stay here while he's out there."
He opened his mouth to continue, but Helena held up a hand. "You don't need to explain, Harry. I grew up with Uncle Godric, after all. I know you have to do this." She shifted slightly on the bench. "But I will miss you. All of you," she amended quickly, but not before a slight blush rose to her face. Harry smiled.
"I'll miss you too." He looked away, unable to meet her gaze, and picked at a loose thread at his sleeve. "We won't be leaving for a while. We've still got loads to learn."
"Good," said Helena quietly. She sat back against the cushions. "Will you tell me more about the future? I know you can't say too much," she added. "Mother told me. But you must have seen fascinating things."
"I guess so," Harry agreed. He sat down next to her and tried to think about some of his less terrifying experiences. It didn't take along, and a grin tugged at his lips. "I once had to go back in time to stop a hippogriff from getting executed so that we could rescue my godfather who was falsely-accused of being a mass murderer."
Helena's eyes widened, but her voice remained remarkably level, "Let's start with that one."
Harry smiled. Things weren't okay, but maybe there was a chance that they would be one day.
"We could have waited to do this."
Salazar spared him only a brief glance before continuing to probe the remains of the wreckage. "The longer we wait, the further he can run."
Godric grimaced, but didn't argue. His wand flicked in the patterns Salazar recognised from their earliest travels, and he shook his head. "He's good."
"You found him that way once before," said Salazar. "He will have guarded against himself against it." He cast another spell, but had to pause when his wrist gave a sharp spike of pain. He switched his wand to his other hand, but Godric caught his wrist in a gentle grip.
"You told me you were fully recovered."
Salazar looked away, unable to bear the compassion in his friend's eyes. "I'm recovered enough."
"We have to find him, Godric! Before-"
Salazar snapped his mouth shut before he could finish the sentence, but Godric's expression had already softened. His hand heated up as he cast a wandless healing spell on Salazar's aching wrist, but his eyes didn't leave Salazar's face.
"Harry is safe," he said softly. "Everyone is."
Salazar looked down, but didn't try to fight when Godric pulled him into a light hug. "He won't hurt anyone else ever again," he said. "You and I both know that he will be running, not trying to fight back. We will find him."
Salazar closed his eyes. "I should have dealt with him a long time ago."
"You had no reason to do so," Godric pointed out. "I know what he was and is, and so did you," he continued, when Salazar started to protest. "You never trusted him, and more than once the information he gave you proved invaluable. You couldn't have known that he would side with the Order."
"I should have," said Salazar bitterly. He pulled away, unable to accept the comfort he didn't deserve, and paused as he felt a tug from one of his older, usually quiescent wards. "I know where he is."
He paused just long enough for Godric to grip his shoulder before Apparating the two of them away. Wards surrounded their destination but rage leant strength and Salazar had been carrying enough rage to fuel a hurricane and the spells shattered under it. Salazar staggered under the backlash, but Godric was there, his own magic blazing, and there was a dull scream.
"Do not move."
It had been a long time since Salazar had heard Godric sound that angry. He shook the cobwebs from his head and stumbled forward. Zalasta lay on the floor, bound in ropes of golden flame, and his eyes widened as he looked up at Salazar.
"Are you really going to let him do this?"
Godric raised an eyebrow. Salazar looked down at his former friend and shook his head. "No." Zalasta tensed, but Salazar wasn't finished. "You're my responsibility."
At his words, the flames vanished and Zalasta stumbled to his feet. Salazar felt the tug of his magic, but Godric's anti-Apparation spells were far more powerful than the ones Zalasta had managed, and his former friend flushed.
"Pick up your wand."
Zalasta did so, his eyes never leaving Salazar's. "I had no choice," he insisted. "They were going to kill me."
"You could have come to me," Salazar hissed. Static crackled in his hair and ozone burned in the air around them. "We would have protected you. Together we could have destroyed them."
And their students would have been safe, and William… Salazar shook his head and raised his wand.
"You knew the consequences of betraying me."
Zalasta was fast. Salazar was faster.
Godric vanished the body with a wave of his hand and gripped Salazar's shoulder. "Back to Hogwarts," he said softly. "You need to rest."
Salazar didn't even try to resist. The chase and confrontation had drained what little energy he had had. He closed his eyes and let Godric take them home.
Ron cast another spell, examined the results, and scratched his head.
"Your ribs seem to be all right," he said. "I'm not so sure about your lungs though. How do you feel?"
Hermione rubbed a hand over a hand over her chest. "Not too bad if I'm talking, or walking," she said, "but doing both at the same time is harder." She looked up and gave him a small smile. "But it is better than it's been the last couple of days."
Ron nodded. "That's good." He had a couple of ideas on how to speed up the healing, but he needed to check with Hufflepuff first. Organs were harder to fix than bones and muscles. He cast one of the analgesic spells he had learned to help with the Cruciatus Curse, and was glad when a little of the tension left Hermione's shoulders. She leaned back against the pillows and squeezed his fingers.
"You really are getting good at this."
Ron felt his ears heat up. "Thanks," he mumbled. "But you should probably get some rest."
He leaned down to press a kiss to her cheek, but Hermione turned her head at the last moment and his lips met hers instead. Startled, he started to draw away, but Hermione cupped the back of his neck. "Ron," she whispered. "I'm not going to break."
Ron looked at her, saw the need in her dark eyes that matched his, and pulled her into a gentle kiss. Her fingers tangled in the hair at the nape of his neck, and she deepened the kiss for a moment before drawing back. Ron let out a shaky breath.
Hermione gave him a shy smile. "Wow," she agreed. Her expression turned uncertain. "So, does this mean…"
She trailed off, cheeks burning, but Ron caught her chin. "Hermione Granger," he said softly. "I love you."
Hermione drew in a sharp breath. Ron held her gaze. It was true, and had been true for years, and after the last couple of days he couldn't let any more time pass without letting her know it.
"Ron," she whispered. "I…I love you too."
Warmth exploded in his chest, and in that moment, Ron could have cast the world's brightest Patronus. He pulled her into his arms, mindful of her injuries, but Hermione clung to him with a strength that somehow didn't surprise him in the slightest.
"I was beginning to think you were never going to say it," she whispered.
"You could have said something too," Ron murmured into her hair, but he was smiling so hard it hurt. Hermione relaxed against him, and Ron smiled. Hermione was fine and they were fine, better than fine. Everything was going to be okay.
Then Hermione let out a full-body shaking yawn, and Ron drew back a little. "Yeah, you need sleep," he said softly. He brushed a lock of hair back from her face, and Hermione rested her forehead against his with a sigh.
"Will you stay?"
"I'll be right here," Ron promised.
He helped her settle back against the pillows, and watched her eyes flicker closed. She was asleep in moments, but Ron continued to hold her hand. He had come so close to losing her. His heart ached at the thought, and he shook himself. Hermione was alive, and she was going to be fine, and they had the rest of their lives to look forward to.
A grunt echoed from the other sound of the Hospital Wing, and Ron twitched the curtain back in time to see Pollux bang his head back on the pillow. He squeezed Hermione's hand in silent apology, then got to his feet and made his way over there.
"Did you need something?"
Pollux waved a listless hand. "Nah. Bored." His eyes flickered to Ron before returning to the ceiling. "Sent Castor to get some food. And a bath."
"Good," said Ron quietly. Castor hadn't left his brother's side since the battle, and it was taking its toll. Ron had been planning on talking to the two of them the following morning, so he was glad that they had taken matters into their own hands. Pollux's demeanour was worrying him though, and he dropped into the seat next to the bed.
"How are you feeling?"
"Really fed up of being asked that," Pollux muttered, but then he sighed. "My foot hurts. The one that isn't there," he added, when Ron squinted at his uninjured leg. "It really doesn't seem fair somehow." He scowled up at Ron. "You're the healer, anything you can do?"
Ron chewed on his lip. He was getting pretty good at healing physical injuries, but he wasn't sure how to fix something that, well, wasn't there any more. Hufflepuff wasn't back yet either. Still, his friend was hurting and that wasn't the sort of thing Ron could ignore, and so he pulled out his larch wand.
The diagnostic spells didn't turn up anything he didn't already know, but at least the stump was healing well. Ron frowned, and cast an experimental numbing spell. "How's that?"
Pollux shook his head. "Nothing." He glared at his leg. "How can it hurt when it's not even there any more?"
Ron could only shake his head. His studies hadn't covered anything like this. He chewed on his lip and tried to think. There had probably been loads of research done in the future, but that wasn't any good to him now.
Maybe he was going about this wrong. There was no injury for him to heal so the pain had to be coming from somewhere else, but the targeted spells he had been taught wouldn't be much help. Ron's eyes drifted to the side room where Hufflepuff kept her medicines.
"When was your last pain potion?"
Pollux blinked up at him. "Uh, this morning? Just after dawn?"
Ron glanced out the window to check the position of the sun and nodded to himself. "Should be fine. I'll be right back."
Both Hufflepuff and Slytherin had taken the time to emphasise the dangers of taking too many powerful potions too close together, but it had gone midday and the potion was designed to affect to numb the ability to feel pain throughout the body and Ron was out of other ideas. He selected one of the stronger potions and hurried back to his friend.
"Try this. If it doesn't help I'll go and find Hufflepuff."
Pollux pulled a face, but swallowed the potion without arguing. Ron watched anxiously, and after a moment Pollux sagged back against the pillows. "Huh. That did help."
Ron blew out a breath. "Good."
Pollux nodded drowsily, eyes starting to drift closed, and Ron stepped back. That was the other nice thing about the potions. Pollux needed sleep, but like all those who had fought, dreams had made that difficult. This might help.
A knock on the door broke Ron from his thoughts, and he looked round to find one of the younger Hufflepuffs hovering in the doorway. He pushed his own weariness aside and smiled.
"You okay, Cassie?"
Cassandra cocked her head in confusion, but shuffled inside. "I...Okay?"
"Are you all right?" Ron amended. Six months and he was still doing stuff like that. It didn't help that Cassandra was probably speaking Greek or Arabic, or whatever the ancient versions were, but at least she recognised his smile and returned it, albeit shakily.
"I...You're busy. It's not important. Sorry-"
"Hang on," Ron interrupted. "What's wrong?" He looked closer, and frowned at how red her eyes were. Cassandra looked on the verge of fleeing though, so Ron crouched until he was closer to her eye level. "What happened?"
Cassandra hesitated, then slowly held out her right hand. Her wrist was swollen, and Ron winced in sympathy. "Ouch. C'mon, let's get this sorted."
He picked her up and carefully deposited her on the nearest bed, and was glad when the gesture elicited a weak giggle. Ron smiled and pulled out his wand. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"
"I fell," Cassandra mumbled. "It hurts."
"I know," said Ron gently. "Nearly done." He cast one more spell, just to confirm his suspicions, and nodded. "It's just a sprain. Hold still for me."
Cassandra screwed her face up, and Ron touched her wrist very lightly with the tip of his wand. He skin warmed for a second, then Cassandra cracked open one eye. Ron smiled at her. "All done."
Cassandra looked slightly dubious, but her eyes widened when she flexed her fingers. "It doesn't hurt any more!" She beamed up at him. "Thank you, Ron!"
"You're welcome," said Ron. "Now I've just got to get some medicine."
Cassandra's face fell. Ron covered a grin with effort and cleared his throat. "Tenby."
The house-elf appeared with a crack and a bow, and Ron smiled. "I need some of Professor Hufflepuff's special medicine, please?"
Tenby winked at him. "Of course, sir."
Cassandra tugged at Ron's sleeve. "Do I need medicine? I feel much better, really."
"Sorry," said Ron. "Rules are rules."
Cassandra pouted, but her eyes widened when Tenby snapped his fingers. A piping hot honey cake appeared on a small plate, and the elf presented it to her with a deep bow. "Your medicine, Mistress."
"That-that's not medicine," Cassandra spluttered.
"It is if I say it is," said Ron, with a grin. "Go on, enjoy it."
Cassandra eyed him for a long moment, then grinned back. "Thank you, Ron, thank you, Tenby!" She took the cake and slid off the bed, her usual good nature completely restored. "Bye, Professor Hufflepuff!"
Ron spun round to see Hufflepuff watching from the doorway. She patted Cassandra's head as she rushed by, then fixed Ron with a warm smile. "Well done."
"How long have you been there?" Ron asked. "Thanks, Tenby," he added, when the house-elf cleared his throat. Tenby dipped his head in acknowledgement and vanished, and Hufflepuff crosses the room to stand next to him.
"Just after Cassandra did. I would have come in, but you seemed to have everything under control."
Ron felt his ears heat up, and he ducked his head. "Thanks. Oh, Hermione's asleep but I had to do that pain spell on her again, and Pollux was having pain in the leg he doesn't have any more and the spells weren't working so I gave him one of Slytherin's potions and that seemed to help and he's asleep too now-"
"Breathe, Ron," said Hufflepuff gently. She waved her wand over Hermione, then over Pollux. Ron waited, shifting from foot to foot, until she finally turned back to him. "I wouldn't have done anything differently."
Ron blew out a long breath. "I wasn't sure what to do about Pollux," he admitted. "How can it still hurt when it's not there?"
Hufflepuff sighed. "It's a peculiar phenomenon, but unfortunately not an uncommon one in these sorts of injuries. Sometimes it improves with time." She shook her head. "There are a few options we can explore. For now, it's important that he rests as much as possible, and the potions will let him do that."
"But he can't take too many of them," Ron checked. One of his dad's friends had got addicted to potions and that was the last thing Pollux needed, but Hufflepuff was nodding.
"It's just while he gets over the initial shock," she assured him. "Once he's a little more recovered we'll start on a proper treatment plan." She patted Ron's shoulder. "But I'm very pleased that you considered that."
Ron basked in her approval. He still wasn't used to being the sole focus of someone's attention for a good reason. Automatically his eyes went to Hermione to see her reaction, only to be brought down to reality with a harsh jolt at the sight of her lying pale and still on the bed. Hufflepuff followed his gaze.
"She will be all right, Ron," she said. "We've done everything we can."
"I know," Ron mumbled. He took Hermione's limp hand, and wished she would squeeze back. "I just can't lose her."
There was a long pause, then Hufflepuff guided him into into a chair with a light touch. She sat down next to him and wrapped an arm around him. "You won't."
She barely came up to his shoulder, but Hufflepuff still gave the best hugs. Ron leaned against her, all the while keeping his eyes on Hermione's face. He tightened his grip on Hermione's hand.
"I told her I loved her."
Hufflepuff stilled, then somehow hugged him even tighter. "I'm so proud of you."
Ron hugged her back as best he could while keeping hold of Hermione. Hufflepuff's hugs were nearly as good as his mum's. "Aren't you gonna ask what she said?"
Hufflepuff chuckled. "I don't need to."
Warmth bubbled up in Ron's chest. Hermione shifted slightly in her sleep, and Ron sagged against the the chair. He had known his own feelings ever since the stupid Yule Ball, but he had never dared to let himself think about it. Hermione was brilliant. Clever, passionate, strong... How could someone as amazing as her ever want him?
But she loved him too. She had said so. Ron huffed out a weak laugh.
"We wasted so much time."
He was talking to himself more than anything else, but Hufflepuff suddenly flinched. Ron froze, then understanding crashed in and he winced. "I'm sorry."
Hufflepuff shook her head. Ron shifted. Not knowing how Hermione felt about him had been bad. Knowing he loved her but knowing she would be going a thousand years away... He couldn't begin to imagine what that would be like. Hufflepuff shivered, and Ron hugged her tight.
It was a stupid thing to say, but what else was there? Hufflepuff let out a long breath, then shook herself and offered him a small smile. "Thank you, Ron."
For a moment she looked like she would continue, but then her head suddenly snapped up. Familiar with that behaviour after the last few months, Ron pulled back in time to see Gryffindor and Slytherin appear in the doorway.
Hufflepuff was halfway to them before Ron had even let go of Hermione's hand. Not that Ron could blame her; Gryffindor looked fine, but he was practically carrying Slytherin. Ron scrambled over to help, and Gryffindor greeted him with a nod.
"Ron. Thank you for keeping an eye on things here."
"No problem," said Ron, but he couldn't keep his eyes away from Hufflepuff and Slytherin. She had guided him back over to his bed with a gentle word. Her hand cupped his cheek, and Slytherin leant into her touch with no trace of his usual hesitancy.
It was an unusually intimate scene, and Ron looked away quickly. Gryffindor's hand landed on his shoulder, and Ron took a breath. "Are you all right, sir?"
Gryffindor blinked, then his eyes softened. "Well enough. It is done now. And what about you?"
"I'm fine," said Ron quickly. "I wasn't even hurt."
He knew he'd made a mistake when Gryffindor quirked an eyebrow. "Perhaps not," the older wizard said. "But you have been assisting here ever since. Helga has been singing your praises," he added, when Ron stared. "And it is not easy work. You have done very well."
That was far too much praise from people he admired. Ron scrambled desperately for something to say, only to freeze when Gryffindor squeezed his shoulder. "You should be very proud of yourself, Ron. I know I am."
All the stress and exhaustion of the last few days evaporated. The Infirmary blurred, and Ron hurriedly wiped his eyes before he could embarrass himself any more. "I...Thank you."
Gryffindor pulled him in for a brief, but fierce hug. "You did the work, lad," he murmured. He let go, and guided Ron over to the desk. "But now I think it's time you took a break. What do you say to a game of chess?"
Ron smiled back. His friends were safe, and his teachers were proud of him. Life was good.
"Oh, you've met the mermaids too? They truly are fascinating, aren't they?"
Harry pulled a face. "They're interesting, I guess. I didn't get time to stop and chat." At Helena's raised eyebrow he elaborated, "It was part of a competition. I had to get to their village, find something, and get back in less than an hour."
"That is quite a competition," said Helena after a moment.
Harry managed a smile. That was one way of putting it, but for once thinking about the Triwizard Tournament didn't leave him shaking at the thought of the graveyard. Helena was a surprisingly good listener. Harry hadn't been able to tell her much about the future, but he had had more than enough stories to keep her interested.
It was nice, talking to someone about something that wasn't life or death. Or at least, was as light-hearted as his life ever got. Harry was actually starting to relax when a voice echoed down the corridor.
Harry started. He would never get used to the Founders being able to locate them so easily. Helena, though, just rolled her eyes. "We're right here, Mother."
Harry got to his feet as Ravenclaw rounded the corridor. She looked as exhausted as he felt, and the crease in her brow eased at the sight of them. "I saw you leave early."
Harry flinched. Talking with Helena had been a good distraction, but now memories of William were crowding in again. Helena stiffened, but Ravenclaw shook her head. "Forgive me. I just wanted to make you sure you were both well."
"We are," Helena promised, but at the same moment Harry let loose a jaw-cracking yawn. He blushed under the identical appraising looks turned his way.
"Sorry." The potions Ron had given him had long since worn off, but the conversation had been enough to keep his mind off of it. Now, he was forcibly reminded of just how much everything ached, and how much he really hated the Cruciatus Curse. Helena huffed.
"You should be resting."
"I wasn't doing anything tiring," Harry protested, but arguing with Helena required far more energy than he currently possessed, especially when Ravenclaw was watching, and Harry surrendered to the inevitable. "Fine."
Helena and Ravenclaw hovered on either side as they headed back to the Infirmary. Harry couldn't bring himself to mind. He knew he had given everyone a scare when he passed out. He forced off the residual embarrassment and coughed.
Ravenclaw glanced up at him. "Yes, Harry?"
He hadn't realised he was now taller than her too. It was a weird feeling, and Harry hurriedly pressed on. "Is Grandfath- I mean, Professor Slytherin back?"
Ravenclaw's eyes softened. "He is."
Harry's heart leapt. He quickened his pace, only to pause when Ravenclaw laid a hand on his arm. "And if Salazar is happy with that term of address, and I know he is, then you need no other with us."
Warmth flooded Harry's chest. Helena bumped his elbow with hers. "Listen to her, Cousin."
Harry tripped on thin air. Helena laughed. "I know, I know, but the real relationship is far too complicated. Besides, I always wanted a cousin."
She held his gaze, and Harry nodded. He got both the messages loud and clear. It took him a minute, but he was able to smile back. "My cousin's a prat. I always wanted a better one."
"And now you do," said Helena firmly.
Harry nodded. He had known Helena would never allow anything to happen between them ever since she learned the truth, but she wasn't withdrawing completely. He could accept that. Her friendship was worth more than anything else.
Harry shook his head. At least Ron and Hermione would stop badgering him now. He followed Ravenclaw into the Infirmary, and automatically checked the beds. Hermione was asleep, but Ron was smiling as he played chess with Gryffindor so she had to be all right. In between them, Hufflepuff hovered over Slytherin, and Harry hurriedly over.
"Did you find him?"
Slytherin looked exhausted, but he gave a slight smile as he met Harry's gaze. "We did. He will never harm anyone ever again."
The last of the tension left Harry's body. Slytherin's smile had faded though, and Harry shifted. "I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I know he was your friend."
"Once," said Slytherin softly. "But he made his choice."
Harry chewed on his lip for a moment. He knew there was nothing else Slytherin could have done, but still. Hufflepuff excused herself with a gentle squeeze to his shoulder, and on impulse Harry sat down on the bed next to Slytherin.
"Thank you, Grandfather."
It had been two days, and Slytherin still looked surprised whenever Harry called him that. Not that Harry could blame him. Saying it still sent a thrill through him. After a moment, Slytherin relaxed and the smile that touched his face was much more genuine. "You never have to thank me for that, Harry."
The warmth in his voice settled Harry's nerves the way few things did any more. After the past few days, he trusted his grandfather more than he thought he would ever trust any adult. Something of that must have shown, for the last of the tension drained from Slytherin's body.
"Are you all right? I know this morning was...difficult."
"Yeah, it was," Harry admitted. "But I'll be fine." He looked Slytherin over more closely. "What about you?"
"I will also be fine."
Identical snorts sounded from Ron and Hufflepuff. Harry scowled at his best friend, only to be met by an unrepentant shrug.
"You ready for another potion?"
"Yes," said Harry reluctantly.
Ron nodded to himself, and left the chess game to fetch the potions. Gryffindor chuckled, undeterred by the raised eyebrow Slytherin gave him. Hufflepuff just shook her head and waved her wand quickly over Harry.
"Not as bad as I feared, but you could use some rest. You too," she added, with a pointed look at Slytherin. "Thank you, Ron," she said, as he brought the potions over.
"Thank you," Slytherin echoed, and accepted the potion with far more grace than Harry did. Ron nodded, then his eyes suddenly widened.
Harry's wand was in his hand before he registered the delight in Ron's voice, and he turned to find Hermione blinking round at them. Ron was at her side in an instant.
"Are you okay? You've only slept a couple of hours."
Hermione rubbed the sleep from her eyes and accepted his help in sitting up. Her face paled as she did so, but barely had her hiss of pain escaped before Ron cast another pain-relieving spell. She squeezed his hand as her eyes found Harry's. "Harry?"
Harry glanced at Helena, and smiled. "Everything's fine."
Helena nodded back, a slight smile of her own on her face, and Hermione sank back against the cushions. "Good."
She refocused on Ron, and Harry smiled at the looks they gave each other. Harry let out a long breath. His family were safe and healing. There was no more danger from the Order. He let himself lean against Slytherin, and his grandfather not only accepted the action but shifted so that Harry was more comfortable. For the first time in a long time, everything felt right.
It was at that moment that Ravenclaw cleared her throat. Harry glanced round at her, but was too comfortable to move. Ravenclaw looked round at the room.
"Now that everyone's here, and conscious, I have some news. News from a few days ago actually, but with everything that's happened..."
Gryffindor wrapped an arm around her, and Ravenclaw smiled up at him before continuing, "Anyway. I have made considerable progress on the time-travel calculations."
Harry's heart skipped a beat. He had waited so long to hear those words. Ron drew in a sharp breath and Hermione sat up, but Slytherin tensed. His face was completely blank, but Harry saw his eyes go to Hufflepuff. Harry swallowed, but Ravenclaw was speaking again and Harry dragged his attention back.
"It is extremely complex, and will require all four of us working in unison to succeed. It will also need to be performed at the Solstice."
Slytherin could have been carved from stone. Harry frowned, then he remembered the discussions he had overheard and his stomach lurched.
"The Winter Solstice is next week," Helena whispered.
Harry opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had spent so long wanting to go home, to make sure his friends were safe, to find Sirius, but now that it was all within arm's reach he found himself hesitating. He could feel a constant tremor running through Slytherin's body, saw his grandfather's eyes locked on Hufflepuff, and how she had yet to look away from him in turn. Gryffindor's smile looked painful, and Ravenclaw showed none of her usual satisfaction in a problem solved.
They didn't want them to leave, and as Harry tried to sort through the emotions swirling within them he found that he couldn't blame them. The Founders were as much his family as Ron and Hermione. Harry had learned so much from them, had fought beside them, and been saved by them.
He couldn't bear the thought that all that could be broken in one week.
But maybe it didn't.
Harry took a deep breath and straightened. Slytherin somehow tensed even further, and Harry leaned into him for a moment before focusing on Ravenclaw.
"This ritual...Is there any reason it has to be this Solstice?"
Ravenclaw blinked, but shook her head. "Certainly not. That particular aspect of the calculations is fairly simple to adjust." Then her eyes widened. "I see."
Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione, saw their dawning understanding and agreement, and looked back at his grandfather. "We do still have a lot to learn."
The joy in Slytherin's eyes cemented his decision. They would have to return to the future eventually. Voldemort had to be stopped. But for now Hermione was smiling and Ron was nodding, and Hufflepuff looked happier than Harry had seen her in what felt like weeks. Gryffindor beamed and clapped Harry on the back.
"And we shall be happy to have you for as long as you wish to stay."
Harry grinned back. Slytherin looked between the two of them, a frown creasing his forehead, before his gaze finally settled on Harry. "Are you quite certain of this?"
"Yes," said Harry firmly.
He had never been so sure of anything in his life. Slytherin gripped his shoulder tightly, the gesture conveying his feelings more eloquently than words ever could, and Harry nodded.
They would have to go back one day. There was no avoiding that. But not yet. For now, they would learn, and love, and become a proper family. For now, this was right.
Thanks for reading! Any feedback would be appreciated.
Once again, apologies for the slow update. As some of you may know, I work for the NHS, and the past year has been, well. You know. I'm hoping to complete this story by the end of the year, and start on the sequel, but we'll see. Thank you for your continued support, I really do appreciate it.
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