Author's Note: This is it, folks! The journey's end, the last farewell, the… wait, we already did that, didn't we? I'm serious, though. It's done. And here I am, just a teeny tiny little bit proud to finally have finished a novel-length story, and you guys still go on about how quick and short and swiftly done it all was. For Merlin's sake, people! Read slower!
• Epilogue •
The sun was brightly shining down on them, the sky a perfect blue with here and there single small white puffs of clouds lazily adrift, few and far between. Given the occasion people couldn't help but think that it was very nice of the sun to greet them all so warmly, yet they only managed to remain thankful for its persistent appearance since it was accompanied by a gentle breeze that kept the day from being hot beyond enjoyment. It was, all in all, what most people might just consider perfect weather, and in combination with its conspicuously perfect timing after two weeks of constant rain, it was all a bit suspicious. Around Hogwarts, as everyone knew and nobody really cared, not even the weather could be trusted to be entirely free of any magical trickery.
In other places it might have been frowned upon as a breach of decorum to doff the official ceremonial robes all seventh year students were expected to wear to the occasion, but no other than Headmaster Dumbledore himself had begun his introductory speech by telling them that there was no sensible reason for them to spend their last day as students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry sweating like pigs in a boiling cauldron. At that most of the gathered students had gladly discarded their long and encumbering garments with no small amount of relief, and while regrettable from a strictly aesthetical point of view, since the robes that were exclusively worn on this one special day – elegantly cut and richly adorned in the vibrant colors of the four houses – gave the whole occasion a very solemn atmosphere, it had certainly served to greatly increase the average mood around the crowd.
Seated on more than two hundred chairs, all the students, first through seventh year, attended the ceremony outside in the freshly mown meadow, listening to Dumbledore as he stood on a large stage in front of them, with all the staff members seated in a line behind him – including Rubeus Hagrid, Argus Filch and Dobby, although neither of them ever managed to look quite as official as everybody else, and each for their own reasons. Above the stage a large banner hovered freely in the air, fluttering gently in the wind yet always staying put, and to many a wizard's latent puzzlement it read, 'May the Magic be with you, class of 1998!' – an allusion every Muggle-born student was happy to enlighten their less pop-culturally educated friends with.
And after the Headmaster's characteristically whimsical and nonetheless oddly inspiring speech, the four Heads of Houses began to call up all the students that were graduating this year to come up to the stage and receive their N.E.W.T. certificates, beginning once more – just as it had nearly seven years ago – with 'Abbott, Hannah', only this time it was Professor Sprout who called out her name. Many smiles were flashed, many hands were shaken and a few steps were nervously stumbled over, and there was a lot of applause all throughout. Especially whenever someone stumbled. At the end of the official part of the ceremony, many silly looking hats were thrown into the air, and while many wondered why that was, everyone was more than willing to enjoy the one moment in their life when they got to throw away a hat that looked stupid when worn anyway. The best thing about these particular hats was, of course, that they exploded into little fireworks up above their heads, which actually prompted some of the students to ask if there were any more silly looking hats to throw.
After all that very orderly sitting and smiling and hat-throwing, people were eager to get to the more casual part of the day, which mostly consisted of doing whatever everyone wanted to do. There were tents and tables, games and music, drinks and snacks, and even some of the more outgoing professors – Dumbledore himself obviously on the forefront – joined the exuberant festivities. Others, like Professor Snape, merely endured.
There was one guy who sat at a table and watched the joyous activities around him with a faint but contented smile on his relaxed features, leaning back in his chair with his ceremonial robes flung over the empty chair next to him and his glasses lying on the table in front of him. The first two or three buttons of his white shirt were open and its sleeves were rolled up to his elbows; a red tie hung loosely around his neck. The favorable absence of any silly looking hat exposed his disheveled black hair. He watched amusedly as Dobby entertained a group of first years with a few magical tricks from his special house-elf repertoire, and he gave a quiet chuckle when he saw Seamus sneak up to his fellow Irishman Declan to empty a huge jug of Butterbeer right above the unsuspecting Head Boy's head. Next to them Neville, Dean and others burst out laughing.
And after witnessing Luna grabbing a helpless Ron by his tie and dragging him off towards a wooden platform where others were already dancing, which Ron himself would probably have described as impending doom judging by the horrified look on his face, Harry leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath and enjoying the warmth of the sunlight on his face, he felt as calm and serene as he had never imagined he would on this or any other day. Reflecting on two marvelously ordinary years of school during which no one had tried to kill him even once, he could hardly believe his luck, especially considering he'd just had the best final year of school he could have ever hoped to have.
With memories and anecdotes of what by his admittedly unique standards surely qualified as the least eventful months of his life flashing through his mind and assessing that they had, without a doubt, been the most exciting ones, Harry suddenly – yet not startlingly – felt a pair of slender arms lightly wrapping around his chest.
"Not in public, Severus," he said with a lopsided smile, his eyes remaining shut.
"Ewww!" he heard the most familiar of all voices protest.
At that he opened his eyes and found his favorite face hovering just a few inches above him, from his perspective obviously upside down.
"Hey, you," he greeted her softly. "I was just thinking about you."
"Is that so?" she asked him. "I'm gone for a few minutes and you spend them thinking about me? You are such a clinger."
"How long exactly are you planning on standing there without giving me a kiss?" he asked her. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
With a chuckle she willingly closed the little distance between their lips, and their kiss was soft and intimate, lingering for just a moment.
"Are you done with your Head Girl duties for the day?" he then asked.
"For the most part, yes," she replied. "And then there's just tomorrow left. One last time being responsible for the trip to the train station and then overseeing the Hogwarts Express on our last return journey."
"Feels a little strange, doesn't it?"
"It's a bit daunting, actually," she said pensively. "But then, at the same time, I am kind of excited about… whatever comes next."
"Anything specific in mind?"
She smiled at that. "Hmmm… there's you and me… and a whole lot of uncertainty," she then answered. "And I couldn't care less about the latter."
"How utterly irresponsible of you, Miss Granger," he said in mock disapproval.
"Well," said she, "I am known to be a pretty reckless lass."
Grinning, Harry loosely touched the back of her neck with one hand and gently pulled her down towards him, kissing her once more.
"Yikes!" another familiar voice interrupted their intimacy. "You just have zero respect for the natural order of things, have you?"
Two faces with one eyebrow raised on each turned to look at Ron, who stood to their side with Luna right next to him. "You should've stopped behaving so sickeningly lovestruck half a year ago," he told them. "Where's the fatigue and the boredom, the intrigue and the drama?"
"Well, Hermione just let me know that I'm too much of a clinger and to be perfectly honest I kind of think the same of her," Harry revealed. "So, yeah, some serious breaking up might be in the air."
"Definitely," Hermione agreed.
"Ugh," made Ron, clearly disgusted. "Agreeing even on your breakup reasons. You two are impossible."
"Don't listen to him," Luna pleasantly chimed in. "He's just been in an identity crisis ever since he can't help his two friends figure each other out anymore."
"Good times," Ron reminisced dreamily. "The two of you should really consider breaking up once in a while so I can work on getting you back together. I'm sure the collective staff of Hogwarts would be delighted to contribute as well."
"Oh Merlin, anything but that again," Hermione lamented, burying her face in Harry's shoulder.
"Yeah," her human hideout agreed. "I think we had enough public embarrassment to last us for at least another Jupiter cycle."
"How long's that again?" asked Ron.
"Long, I hope," said Harry.
"Just about twelve Earth-years," Luna offered.
"Not long enough," Hermione mumbled, her voice muffled by Harry's shirt.
"Anyway," Ron went on to say with a grin, "we're actually on our way to the lake to celebrate our liberation. Care for a dip?"
Hermione raised her head to look at Harry and the two of them didn't say anything at all for two or three seconds.
"Could you sodding love birdies at least talk like normal people do?" Ron complained, throwing his hands into the air. "You know… with words?"
Smiling the two of them looked back at their despairing red-haired friend and Harry pleasantly let him know, "We're right behind you."
Rolling his eyes even while being unable to keep an amused smile from curling up his own lips, Ron turned around with his arms around Luna's shoulders and together they headed off towards where the lake lay down below the hills, with a group of a few other people walking into the same direction already a bit ahead of them.
Harry rose from his chair and put his glasses back onto his nose. Then he gingerly ran his hands over the soft fabric of his ceremonial robes as his eyes wandered over the scenery once more: the happy people between the tents and the tables, seemingly with no care in the world. The large stage with the banner above and in the background, higher still, the castle reaching up into the blue sky, its windows and spires glinting brightly in the sunlight. The place that would forever hold seven most unforgettable years of his life inside its many halls and corridors, its towers and its dungeons, its secret chambers and enchanted rooms.
When he felt a hand intertwining with his own he was gently taken out of his silent reverie, back into the present. With his eyes flickering back towards the stage he smilingly said, "Nice banner, by the way."
With a chuckle Hermione answered, "Well, I wanted to ruthlessly abuse my power as Head Girl at least once before leaving Hogwarts."
Harry, while unhurriedly beginning to follow after Ron and Luna with Hermione by his hand, raised a skeptical eyebrow at her. "Once, you say? I believe I could think of at least one or two other occasions. Like that one time, when you kicked those poor girls out of the prefect's bathroom so you could have it all to yourself?"
Blushing ever so slightly Hermione replied, "Not just for myself, as you might recall."
"Oh, most vividly," said Harry with a mischievous smile. "Let's call it social service, then. Almost altruistic, really."
"Have you heard, by the way?" she asked him, more or less elegantly skipping past the shamefully delightful topic of her previous abuses of power. "They'll begin shooting that new Star Wars movie next week here in the UK."
"Oh! Well," he said, "what could possibly go wrong?"
"At least they don't have Disney doing it, or something like that."
"What an absurd notion," Harry commented with a snort.
As they walked through the pathless woods that covered the gently descending hills between the meadows where the festivities were taking place and the lakeside, they remained quiet for a while, simply enjoying each other's company, the cooling shadows under the thick canopy of the trees and the rustling of the wind in the lush green leaves. In between the many trunks and all the undergrowth, the glistening water of the lake was already visible and the nearer they came the clearer they heard laughter, excited voices and splashes of water. A small distance ahead of them, Ron and Luna were just stepping out of the tree line and onto the shore.
When Hermione heaved a sigh, it was the first sound either of the two of them had made in minutes. "Do you think they'll make it?" she then asked thoughtfully.
Harry looked first at her and then back to what her eyes seemed to be fixed on: the backs of their two friends.
"How do you mean?" he asked. "Like, for life?"
"I was thinking more of the year ahead," she answered.
"We're awfully cynical today," Harry quipped, earning a good-humored scowl from Hermione in return.
"I mean because Ron is leaving school and Luna will be back here for another year, you buffoon."
"Oh," said Harry, genuinely surprised. "I didn't even really think about that."
"You don't say," Hermione remarked with a toneless voice, and for some reason she received an exaggeratedly wet and noisy smooch on her cheek for that, which made her giggle.
"I don't know," Harry then answered her question after taking another moment to think about it more properly. "They seem to work out surprisingly well. Ron even seems to have come to some sort of arrangement with her imaginary friends. And she in turn is utterly smitten with her adorable klutz. So… I suppose they might just make it, don't you think?"
"Maybe, yes," Hermione replied, then paused before tentatively going on, "And what about us? Do you think we would make it through something like that?"
"A year we'd have to mostly spend apart from one another?"
She nodded, and Harry casually shrugged his shoulders.
"There's no doubt we would," he asserted naturally. "But we, of course, would simply cheat and just start teleporting into each other's beds again."
"Do you think that would work across larger distances?" Hermione asked, all serious as she bit her lower lip to ponder the question herself.
Harry stopped short and Hermione only involuntarily followed suit when she was abruptly held back by her hand entwined with his, turning around to look at him in puzzlement.
"Could you please not ruin that awesomely romantic sentiment I just dished out with your technicalities there?" he asked her with a barely suppressed smile, which then found itself mirrored threefold on Hermione's own lips. Closing the distance between them she wrapped her arms around his waist, which he reciprocated likewise.
"That is certainly a possibility," she whispered flirtatiously, and after nine months Harry had indeed become so adept at the art that he didn't point out every flirt he successfully identified anymore. "But you'd have to convince me a little that there's something more interesting to occupy my mind than my much-valued technicalities."
"Let me think about that for just a second," he replied, feigning some serious contemplation. "I'm sure I'll be able to come up with something."
"Seriously, people," someone who swiftly passed them by said. "Get a room."
"There are children around," that someone's identical twin added, shaking his head at them disapprovingly as he followed his brother towards the lake.
"Like fawns and stuff," said Fred, practically shouting since he was already quite a bit past them.
"Wouldn't want to scar those poor things for life with your indecent public exchange of bodily fluids," George added, picking up some speed to catch up with his brother.
"Respect the wildlife!" Fred yelled, probably making all the wildlife within earshot wonder what the hell was going on with those rambunctious bipeds again.
Looking after them they saw that both the Weasley twins were wearing nothing but bright blue swim trunks – identical ones, of course. Fred and George Weasley rarely came unprepared, which meant quite a lot considering their apparent tendency to appear virtually everywhere.
"So," Harry then said, almost as if nothing had disturbed their conversation at all, "what do you think? Yours or mine?"
With a most roguish smile curling up one corner of her lips, Hermione casually opened another button on Harry's shirt with a lazy flick of her finger, then teasingly ran said finger up over his chest, then up his neck and along his jawline, and following the motion with her eyes she only looked up at him when her fingertip finally came to rest on his lower lip, giving it a slight pull. Then, as her right hand wandered from his lips to the back of his neck and her left hand grabbed his tie to slowly pull him down to her, she hoarsely breathed, "Wherever."
And then, when their lips – aquiver with anticipation – parted and were just a fraction of an inch away from touching, she suddenly let go of him and conversationally said, "Now let's go for a swim."
Laughing, Harry helplessly looked on as Hermione turned and walked a few steps away from him, then halted and turned to face him once more with a blatantly amused expression on her features.
"You are insidious, you know that?" he asked her, shaking his head in consternation.
"Who? Me?" she asked, perfectly innocent. "I am merely making sure you'll have all the energy you'll need tonight when it counts."
"Now that's just… I mean, seriously…" he stammered, then broke off with a sigh and just looked at her for a moment. "I love you ridiculously much, you know that? Sometimes my feelings for you make me feel like a walking weepie."
"Great," said Hermione as she slowly came back to him. "Now that you've said that I can't possibly walk away the way I had planned. You know, with smug confidence in my seductive prowess and some especially deliberate swaying of my hips and all that stuff."
"While I certainly would have liked to see that," said Harry rather huskily, pulling her closer to himself, "right now I just need to kiss you. Like, very badly."
"Then please, by all means, proceed."
And proceed they did, and for quite a while too, presumably traumatizing any unsuspecting fawn that might or might not have stumbled upon this most obtrusive display of unrestrained affection. Just when a moan of pleasure escaped Hermione's throat, Harry left her lips, grinning slyly.
"What are you doing?" she asked him a bit dizzily.
"Just making sure you don't squander all your energy here and now, where by your own judgment it doesn't count."
Hermione took a deep breath, most likely to complain, but then she just ended up exhaling the air as a long sigh of defeat instead. "Well played," she granted flatly.
"I've learned from the best," he said with a wink. "Now, shall we finally join the others? I can only imagine the tales they are already spinning about our naughty woodland adventures. And if we don't go now, those tales might actually end up having some truth to them."
And beaming at each other they continued hand in hand, only coming to a stop once more when they reached the tree line with the lake opening up before them. Fred and George were just jumping off a long, sturdy branch that hovered two meters above the water, right into the middle of a group of other boys and girls who were already dabbling about, the violent splashes of the twins' impact eliciting laughter and good-humored complains.
"Odd, isn't it?" Hermione spoke eventually, and Harry turned his head to look at her attentively. "This lake turns out to be quite the place to close one chapter and open the next one."
"A good place to make memories," Harry concurred, and Hermione knowingly smiled at him.
"How about one more, then?" she asked him softly.
And Harry's lips mirrored Hermione's as he answered, "One more."
And with that they finally joined the others for one more youthful day they would never forget. Was all well, then? Today at least it was. And to Harry nothing else mattered, for today life was good. The future was uncertain, as it always is by its very nature. There still remained that matter with the most powerful Dark Wizard of all time who was still scheming his untimely demise, now probably more so than ever with him leaving the immediate protection of the place the other most powerful Wizard of this age called his home. There was still a prophecy that would one day be fulfilled one way or the other. A lot to face, a lot to lose.
But whatever road untraveled lay ahead of him yet, for the first time in his life Harry actually saw the clear possibility of a future, the vision of a life worth fighting for to the last, first evoked in the endless depths of a pair of chocolate brown eyes, wherein he found the solace, the strength and the courage to look ahead with hope and confidence, feeling like he could take it all on, prevail and live on – for on this day he knew that he was not alone. And while determined to treasure each and every single moment of peace that he would be granted along the way, deep inside his loving heart he believed that he and Hermione might just succeed in sleeping happily ever after.
At least once they would finally get a room.
~ The End ~
Afterword (this time it's personal)
What an absurdly happy, obscenely lighthearted story! I think I'm a little disgusted with myself right now. Nobody died, nobody suffered or despaired. Except maybe Malfoy a little, but who cares about that? Ugh. If I had any reputation to speak of, it would be in serious jeopardy right now.
I'm not going to lie, though. Writing this was pure joy and exactly what I needed: an escapist's haven. I spent two months (the two hottest months, no less) working on this, in a year that so far has not been the most delightful for me. I wouldn't be surprised if the creation of this story were to remain one of this year's highlights to look back on at the end of December. And to tell you the truth, that would be perfectly fine.
It's been good. And the fact that it's actually the first truly novel-length story I have managed to finish only adds to that. I don't yet know if this is a step on a longer journey or not, if this is progress on the road to Elsewhere (an elusive place where I finally write "real" stuff), or if it's just what it is: a good thing in and of itself, no matter if it leads anywhere or not. The time I enjoyed writing it won't go anywhere.
And while being somewhat satisfied with something I did is quite a fascinating sensation on its own, it's made all the better by the positive response to it I received from you people out there. If I contributed to you having a few nice hours in your life, something to laugh and smile about or something to warm your heart a little, then that in turn gives something of great value back to me.
I thank each and every one of you around the world for reading, reviewing and hopefully enjoying my story. For participating, for connecting, for appreciating. It is, in turn, appreciated beyond words.
I raise my glass of pumpkin juice and say, "To the memories that stay, even when we go astray." (Yeah, I'm drunk. On pumpkin juice, no less.)
For now, farewell!