Chapter 6

Chapter 6 – Night Terrors

Hermione was equal parts excited and nervous. She had never seen ritual magic performed before, and the promise of being part of such a first experience wasn’t without its daunting elements. Harry had told her he needed her, and she was desperate to be good enough. Ritual magic was a big thing for him, she so wanted to be a part of it, too. But the niggling doubts lingered.

What if her power wasn’t enough for him, or of the wrong sort? What if their combined magics didn’t mesh? That might speak volumes for their compatibility in other ways. She quickly dispelled this particular fear as complete nonsense. They were nothing if not compatible, but what if she’d been tainted by all the secret curses Ron had cast on her? She didn’t want to contaminate the ritual by bringing some hidden darkness to bear on the proceedings.

And Ron’s lingering impact only furthered her concerns.

She’d been so brow beaten by him over the years that her confidence was on the floor. She could almost hear his voice in her head, telling her she wouldn’t be good enough, or that Harry would realise his mistake in rescuing her, see she was worthless and send her packing within the hour. He’d move some pretty new witch into the beautiful bedroom suite she now covetously called her own, while she was left to fend for herself in the dark world outside the ward shields of the Blue Palace.

She swallowed hard at the thought, but pushed herself to stop being so negative. He asked for you, didn’t he? she thought to herself. He had. And so earnestly, too. As though he were singularly eager to share this form of magic with her. The thought cheered her, but only briefly. She knew Harry had always thought highly of her talents. She was even shyly allowing the notions that he valued and respected her above all others into her waking mind. That took some accepting.

But it didn’t make her automatically good enough to be a serious part of this key element in his life.

It was with these troubling thoughts racing through her brain that she followed Harry into the bowels of the palace towards the Ritual Chamber. He’d summoned Rhian, who had assembled the other wizards of his inner circle. All six were waiting for them as they arrived. Neville and his father were there, but Hermione didn’t know the others. They all looked curiously at her as the two parties met.

“Are we letting an outsider be part of this rite?” asked one of the wizards, a tall, tawny haired man. “That’s a risk.”

Harry frowned. “This is my closest and best friend,” he said firmly. “She is neither an outsider nor a risk. I would trust her with my life. In any case, we are about to face a Horcrux and I feel eminently safer with her at my side as we do it. She is more experienced at dealing with this particular sort of evil than any of you.”

Hermione blushed hotly and turned her eyes to the floor, masking a girlish grin that swept her face. Her earlier doubts had been obliterated by Harry’s fierce defence of her. She so wished he would let her kiss him. Then again, she might not let go if he did. And death by kissing just wouldn’t do.

The wizard who had spoken cowered back. “Forgive me, my Lord. I was just preaching caution.”

“And you go right on doing that, Sir David,” said Harry. “I rely on you to check me. However, this young lady will be joining us in this ritual. For those who don’t know, this is Hermione We -“

“Granger,” Hermione corrected quickly. She scowled at Harry in a semi-playful manner. “Please don’t use that insult against me again, Harry.”

Harry smirked lightly. “Forgive me, Miss Granger. Let me introduce the wizards who make up my inner circle – trusted men with whom I share power to achieve the aims of ritual. You’ve met Neville, of course, and that thinning haired clone next to him is his father.”

“A pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Granger,” said Frank Longbottom, proffering a hand. “Neville and Harry have told us all about you.”

“All good, I promise,” said Neville, grinning.

“Right,” said Harry. “Sir David Pincott is my paranoid friend to the left, then we have Patrick O’Brien, Lord Angus Kelvin – fourth Marquess of Ayr – and Owain Glyndwr Jones, who is distantly related to the last King of Wales. How far in line to the throne are you, I forget?”

“Thirty-seventh,” said Owain, somewhat pompously. “I’m still considering a legal challenge to that. Especially after Anthony Hopkins had his son anointed. That put him into twenty-second and knocked me down a spot. I tell you, just because he’s a big name in Hollywood…”

“I hear he’s an accomplished wizard,” said Patrick O’Brien, his Irish accent thick and lyrical. “He developed a potion to help adopt personality traits and combined it with a form of Legilimency. Fascinating stuff.”

“Maybe that explains why his Hannibal Lecter was so freaky,” Hermione mused. “Don’t you have a title, Mr O’Brien?”

The Irish wizard laughed. “Not as such. But I am the living incumbent clan leader of the Tuatha De Danann. Makes me the most powerful wizard in Ireland.”

“Even if he does say so himself,” Harry returned, his eye flashing with mirth. “Right. That’s the introductions out the way. Let’s get this started.”

“What is this, exactly?” asked Frank, as Sir David opened the ritual chamber and they all followed him inside.

“The visitor we had was the current Prince of Dyfed,” Harry began. “He brought me the object in the box as a declaration of his fealty to me. Its dark as hell, as I’m sure you can all feel.”

Harry placed the box on the plinth at the heart of the raised ritual circle and the other members of his Enclave filed past it, assessing the thing.

Riddled with Dark Magic, you might say,” Angus Kelvin offered in his Highland Scotch brogue, when his turn came.

“Quite,” said Harry, his lips curving in a grimace.

“But what is it, Harry?” asked Frank. “You said it was a Horcrux. I’m assuming its not the Horcrux or you’d be running around like a man possessed.”

“No, it isn’t Tom Riddle’s last Horcrux,” Harry confirmed. “However, this was made by him. That dark bastard has a magical signature that’s quite distinctive. I can feel it. It’s like having rotten, fly-ridden, hairy dragon shit in your mouth and not being allowed to spit or swallow. I don’t recommend it.”

“What do you mean by made by him?” Neville queried, holding the box and examining it. “How can that be, if it isn’t his own?”

“Pwyll of Dyfed said Riddle used other people, split their souls and trapped them inside objects,” Harry explained. “His magical signature is so strong they would feel like his own Horcruxes. Well, to anyone but me, because I know the difference. I was intimate with that twat for a long time.”

“Fuck me,” Neville exclaimed. “I didn’t think that was even possible.”

“Tom may be a cunt, but he’s still quite brilliant,” said Harry. “It does mean, however, that there could be any number of these decoys out there. Our task just got a little more complicated, gentlemen.”

“And lady,” Hermione huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. She returned the stares she received resolutely. “What? You better believe I’m going to be part of this. I have as much reason to hate Riddle and his New World Order as any of you. More, perhaps. I may not be ready just yet, but I’m going to be as big a part of this resistance as I can be.”

Sir David Pincott smiled at her. “I take it back, Miss Granger. You are most welcome here!”

“Flirt with her again, David, and I’ll cut your willy off and post it to your wife!” Harry admonished, amused. Sir David grinned in return, but backed away with his hands raised in a gesture of peace just the same.

Hermione stepped close to Harry. She whispered to him playfully. “Was that a touch of jealousy I detected?”

“Rabidly so,” said Harry, his eye flashing between hers.

You being jealous…over me…that may be just the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen…not to mention the absolute cutest.”

“Don’t tell anyone. I have an air of mystique to uphold.”

Hermione laughed. It was the final tonic to finally bury all her earlier worries. Harry moved to the centre of the room and she went with him, as if it were her right. The other members of Harry’s Enclave conceded to her in like fashion. They parted for them with courteous bows. That stirred wild beatings in her chest for some unfathomable reason. It made her feel unspeakably close to Harry suddenly, as though she’d crossed some invisible boundary of intimacy.

It was a boundary she had no intention of leaving.

The Enclave took up places around the edge of the ritual circle and draw their wands. They began muttering lowly and for a moment Hermione was confused, until she realised they weren’t muttering at all – they were chanting. Their words were too low for Hermione to make out and, in any case, she got the distinct impression they weren’t speaking English. Slowly, the chanting grew louder and louder, until they were all in sync like a well-practiced chorus. Then, each wizard raised his wand and shot out a glowing beam of light, which all met at the apex above the plinth at the circle’s center.

And the effect was instant. The room became suffused with power, a field of intense magical energy unlike anything Hermione had ever experienced. It heaved and throbbed around them like a turbulent sea, igniting runes and alchemical symbols carved into the floor. They flashed in multi-colour and vibrated with a power all of their own, joining with the swell of energy already swirling fiercely around them. Hermione felt it physically in her body. It was akin to standing next to a giant speaker at a concert and having its vibrations pierce you. She was a little afraid of it, and grabbed Harry’s arm on reflex.

“Its alright,” he whispered soothingly to her. “You’re quite safe. You have to know I wont let anything hurt you ever again?”

“I trust you, Harry.”

“Then join with me,” said Harry. “This is an induction ritual to join my Circle. You need to add your magic to it. The others wont work with you if they don’t feel your honesty and intent.”

“What do I do?”

“Let me guide you,” said Harry. “I need you to relax your mind and your magic. You’ll feel me trying to get in. If you trust me, don’t fight it. Just give to it. Then I’ll draw a bit of your magic to add to the circle. You’ll feel the magic of the others when you join, but I’ll keep them from getting too close. I don’t want to share you, Hermione. Not with anyone.”

“I don’t want to be shared. I’m yours,” she smiled back. She took a steadying breath. “And I’m ready.”

It was a strange sensation. She felt Harry’s hand on hers, then she felt his mind on hers. The feelings were strikingly similar. She would know his soft touch anywhere, the contours of his fingers, the splay of his palm. His mind felt the same. But as it touched her own she gasped. It was intrusive and intimate. He might as well have shoved his hand down her knickers. This sensation was quite as pleasant as she imagined that bold move would be. She didn’t resist it at all.

And then his entire being was all over her, cradling her inside her body and coating her without. It was like being inside a cocoon of Harry’s essence. And it was so full of affection, so bubbling over with love for her that she lost her breath as she tried to absorb it. She never wanted him to go away. She was in absolute bliss and felt, for the first time in her life, so completely and purely loved that she was having difficulty processing it. It was just that intense. It was beyond description and it left her a little senseless.

She barely noticed her magic being pulled like a stand of stray hair. Harry effortlessly blended it with his own and added it to the others. The room lit up on all sides. Then Harry stepped away, taking his essence from Hermione. The room seemed immeasurably colder as he went and, with a sharp pang, she felt suddenly lost and alone. She wanted Harry back with her, inside her, or whatever that had been. He belonged there. She would have to tell him off later for not sharing this experience with her sooner.

But Harry was set to task now, single focused on the decoy Horcrux. He flicked open the box. Inside was a small, ruby-red amulet trimmed with copper wire crafted into a Celtic design. It looked fragile. Harry lifted it out and turned it with his wand, examining it.

“Be careful, Harry!” Hermione hissed. “Horcruxes have defence mechanisms built in.”

Harry nodded at her. “Patrick – the basilisk venom.”

O’Brien drew a vial from his cloak and tossed it to Harry, who caught it deftly. He then turned to Hermione. “You might want to stand back.”

“I might. But I don’t,” said Hermione firmly. “And I wont, either.”

Harry shrugged at her unflinching stance, uncorked the vial of venom and poured it over the amulet as he placed it on the floor. It fizzled and hissed as the venom melted it. Two figures emerged from the pale smoke as it swirled into shapes. They began to play out a scene before them. One was Tom Riddle, eyes red in his slits-for-sockets. His wand was drawn and aimed at a figure bent to her knees before him. Her face was slashed and gashed with multiple wounds. Hermione let out an anguished cry when she saw who it was.

“Professor McGonagall!” she breathed dully.

The smoky image of the former Hogwarts Deputy Headmistress turned to them. The tracks of wispy blood cut runnels through her grimy skin. Her face pleaded for assistance. Harry was roiling with fury, Hermione could see it in his eye. But he was intently focused on pulling as much of the swirling magical energy to him as he could. He was giving off visceral waves of power, as if he were using the others’ magic to supercharge himself.

Voldemort was talking. Casting a complex spell with his wand and words. The Horcrux-McGonagall smiled an empty, dejected, hollow smile. She looked so beaten, she was almost welcoming the inevitable. And Voldemort obliged. His wand shot out a beam of thin light. It hit McGonagall in the throat and began to slice. It was jagged, rough and the smoky blood shooting from the severing cut was astonishing. The cry which issued forth from McGonagall’s mouth was the sort of pained, terrified shriek Hermione would never have thought her once-favourite teacher capable of emitting. She was too strong for such a thing. Hermione flung her hands to her ears to block the sound, but the putrid sickness bubbling in her belly was harder to quell.

It was a protracted minute before the head was severed. It rolled over to Harry who jumped back to avoid it. McGonagall’s empty, desperate eyes looked up to him.

“Please…help me, mister Potter!” she begged.

And Harry’s anger snapped like a clap of violent thunder. He cast three complicated runes into the air, cast them so fast Hermione did a double take. Then he infused each one with the combined power drawn from the circle. The intensity was so great the energy made Hermione’s hair stand on end, static-electric like. Then Harry sent the runes speeding towards the smoky form of Voldemort, who was moving towards them. 

They trapped him as if in a cage, and Harry advanced furiously on him, wand drawn and drumming with his power. He pushed the runes tighter together, squeezing and compressing the prisoner within. Voldemort struggled uselessly against them. He was no match for Harry’s rage, his powerful intent. Hermione felt it sweep over her time and again as Harry’s magic pulsed around the circle like a storm. And she suddenly knew exactly what Enola had meant.

Harry was truly terrifying in this state.

His power was unmatched. It was feral, wild. This was a domain in which he dominated. Nothing could beat him here, and poor Tom Riddle was feeble opposition. Hermione felt that excitement stir again, the one she’d felt on that first night, when Lily the phoenix had rescued her from Malfoy. Harry in this mode was so powerful it was intoxicating. Neville hadn’t hoped Harry would beat Riddle…he knew he would. He’d seen this side of Harry, he knew its ferocity.

But she doubted if Neville knew how insanely sexy this was. She wanted to tear Harry’s clothes off and have him take her right then, their audience be damned. There was something about his magic, an undertone she couldn’t quite pinpoint. But it was pure sex. It made her instantly aroused and her knees went weak with the potency of it. She wondered if the other girls knew about this. They’d hinted at Harry’s sexual prowess, she wondered if they actually meant this. Well, there was one thing for absolute sure.

She wouldn’t share this with any of those bitches again. This was hers, she owned it. Or, she very soon would.

Then there was a snap of energy and Harry angrily pushed the last of his collected magic at Voldemort. The runes closed together and the spirit of Voldemort was crushed into a thousand wisps of smoke, which drifted harmlessly into the air. Harry sank to his knees, exhausted with the effort it would seem. The ghostly figure of Minerva McGonagall rose, head and all, from the smoke. She knelt down next to Harry and smiled.

“Thank you, Potter,” she said, her voice echoey and ethereal. “It feels wonderful to be free…and whole again.”

“I’m sorry, Professor,” Harry stuttered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t strong enough, to save you. Forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive, mister Potter,” said McGonagall gently. “You are too harsh on yourself. Love yourself a little or,” she glanced warmly at Hermione, who had also crouched down at Harry’s side, “let someone else do the loving for you, if you are unable. I have to go…I’m being called.”

“Professor,” said Harry quickly, his voice broken. “Tell my mother I love her.”

McGonagall smiled warmly. “She already knows that, Harry. Farewell.”

And with that she, too, dissipated into the ether. Harry slumped to the ground with a thud, curled up and groaning in pain. Neville raced up urgently. Hermione was suddenly worried…this obviously wasn’t normal.

“Harry! Talk to me! What have you done?” Neville cried as he reached them. There was a trace of anger in his voice. He cradled Harry, who’s eye was rolling blankly back into his head.

“Nev, what’s happening?” asked Hermione, her worry growing in the face of Neville’s desperation.

“Harry’s going into shock,” said Neville quickly. He drew his wand and cast rune after rune into Harry chest, trying to heal him. “Stay with me, brother.”

“What’s going on, son?” asked Frank, coming up and pulling Harry’s shawl off, as he was in danger of swallowing it. His scar was pulsing with angry energy and had turned a deep shade of bruised purple. It had opened up and was dripping with pus and blood. It smelled awful. Hermione would have pinched her nose but she was now in full on panic mode.

“I don’t know,” said Neville, still rune casting. “It’s like he’s been hit with a ton of bricks. His body is mangled inside. I can’t explain it. Its almost as if he’s taken years of abuse in the space of a few minutes. His body has been overloaded by it. I don’t know if he can take it. We need Enola. Right now. Hurry, I cant hold him on my own.”

Patrick O’Brien had left the room before Neville had even finished speaking. Hermione’s heart was thudding in her chest, her fear paralysing.

“We wont…l-lose him…will we?” Hermione couldn’t even hold the notion steady in her frenzied mind.

“We will if Enola can’t stabilise him,” said Neville bluntly. “I just don’t understand how…”

Then his eyes settled firmly on Hermione. She felt like she was being x-rayed.

“Hermione…how do you feel?” he asked slowly.

“I’m having a full on panic attack!” she cried. “I can’t breathe, my pulse is running so fast I might pass out, and I can’t help him! How do you bloody think I feel?”

“I mean your body?” Neville pushed. “Your aches and pains? How are they.”

What a question to ask at such a time! Hermione was about to say the worry was making her agony ten times worse…then she noticed it wasn’t. In fact, aside from the fear, she felt like a million Galleons. She had not one bit of pain, anywhere. That throb at her hips was gone, the dull ache in her stomach was no longer there, and she felt light and lithe. Neville had his answer in her expression.

“For fucks sake, Harry!” he yelled. “How was I so fucking dumb not to see! Fuck, fuck, fuckety fuck!”

“See what?” asked Hermione.

“Harry has been keen to get you into ritual for ages, to try and help with your recovery and healing,” said Neville. “But it takes months to prepare for something like that. Its a massively draining experience, not to mention the intimacy parts of it. You were not up for it physically. It would have set you back who knows how long in your recovery. Why did I not question it when he brought you here today? Damn it.”

“I’m still confused,” said Hermione. “What has Harry done?”

“Harry’s used the ritual to draw all your physical wounds into himself,” said Neville. “In one go. To stop your suffering, he’s taken it into himself. But its obviously worse than he knew, or you let on. I should have known he’d try something like this.”

“Nev, this isn’t your fault,” said Frank, looming above them with a look of concern.

“I’ve gotten so swept up in the great mood about the place I’ve stopped being diligent,” said Neville. “I’ve slacked off.”

“Then this is my fault,” said Hermione, with a shock of horror. “If I’d never come…”

“Then Harry would have never experienced happiness again and that is all sorts of wrong,” said Neville quickly. “You coming here is the best thing to have happened to him. I know he thinks so. Merlin! This is just so typical of him. Chivalrous prick. I’m going to end him when he wakes up.”

The door to the chamber was suddenly flung open. Enola was actually running across the space to them

“Everyone out, except for Nev and Hermione,” she commanded forcefully, sitting and pulling Harry’s head into her lap. The others obeyed her without question, leaving the three of them alone with Harry. Enola rolled up her sleeves and her whitewood wand was in her hand, thrumming with her magic. She looked utterly determined. She passed her wand over Harry’s body, up and down like a probe. She closed her eyes and incanted silently.

“His body is smashed,” she breathed in assessment. “Broken bones, ruptured organs. These were your injuries, Min.”

“Yes,” Hermione replied, sadly. Her voice was tiny and she felt ashamed for herself. Neville threw a consoling arm around her. She turned into his embrace and let herself cry on his shoulder in self pity.

“You poor thing!” Enola whispered consolingly. “The things you must have endured…”

“Enough of that,” said Hermione, angrily wiping at her tears. “Focus on Harry.”

“I am,” said Enola. “Harry has to fight his way out of the darkness you lived in for so long. You don’t need telling how hard a fight that will be for him.”

“What do you mean ‘fight his way out‘?” asked Neville.

“I can’t explain it fully to you, honey,” said Enola gently. “It’s between Harry and I. He wouldn’t be happy with me to go into too much detail about it. Just know, he compartmentalises his own pain and suffering in an internal plain we created in his mind. Then, he goes there to deal with it in mediation and ritual. Its one of the darkest places in creation.”

“And now Harry is there with my pain?” asked Hermione, horrified.

“Not yet, but I have to guide him there,” said Enola. “Its the only chance he has to survive. But its going to be an ordeal for him.”

“Can I help?” asked Hermione.

Enola shook her head. “This is Harry’s battle. And mine.”

“Yours?” asked Neville.

“I have to join Harry there,” Enola explained. “He’s confused and frightened in that place. And weak. He needs my help to get through it. That’s why neither of you can come. He would never want either of you to see him in that vulnerable state. And he’d never forgive me if I showed you.”

“But you are allowed to see?” asked Hermione, unable to keep the suspicion and jealousy from her tone.

Enola read her inference clearly. She sighed. “Remember what I told you. Harry and I are not, and have never been, romantic. But this thing between us is deeply personal. Maybe, one day, he’ll have you do this for him and not me. But for now, I’m all he has.”

“Then help him” said Neville. “Just be careful. We’ll be waiting for you when you come out.”

Then Enola took a steadying breath, pulled a strand of light from her temple and pressed it to Harry’s. Then she passed out beside him.

* * *

Harry felt like he was drowning. His throat was filled with something viscous, gelatinous. It was blocking his airways. He coughed and slapped his back but it wouldn’t budge. He was afraid, scared witless at the prospect of dying. He didn’t want to do it. Where would his mind go, his thoughts? What would happen to all his love? But he couldn’t breathe. Why wouldn’t it just go away? Leave him alone. It hurt so much, like a lancing blow to the trachea.

And he was cold. So very cold.

There was a blackness in his veins, pushing through him. It was icy. He shivered as it flowed underneath his thin skin. For he felt thin, stretched somehow. He couldn’t hold in heat. He tried to hug into himself for warmth. But there was none. The cold pressed on his lungs, heavy and leaden. He spluttered for a breath that refused to come.

Would dying hurt? He was mindlessly afraid that it would. He couldn’t take any more pain. His entire self hurt. He couldn’t survive any more wounds. There was a terrific ache in his hips. He’d been kicked down stone stairs for that to happen to him. He rubbed hopelessly at his papery flesh to try and soothe the stabbing pain. It just made it worse. For even his hand hurt. He turned his palm to inspect it. The raw flesh of seared skin sat before him. A clothes iron had been responsible for that damage. He could still smell his skin as it caught and burned, the remnants clinging to the iron as it was drawn away.

But he felt oddly disconnected to all that somehow. Maybe he was a ghost. The injuries nothing more than cold memories from his bodily life. He felt like a ghost. Thin, without substance. And so cold. The wind had no barrier to pinch his soul with its icy touch. He shuddered against it and tried to hold his mind steady.

But he was slipping.

He couldn’t see anything. Shapeless masses flowed in and out of his sight, but he was too consumed with the pain and the cold to catch hold of a single one. To focus on it. He didn’t even know where he was. The freezing tendrils crept through him as he huddled into himself and he couldn’t find the will to look around. He knew, vaguely, that he was trembling. He was sure it was getting colder. He needed to move, because, ghost or not, this cold was getting unbearable.

Harry pulled himself forwards. He could only use his left arm. His right wrist had been shattered. He couldn’t remember how that happened. But he remembered why he was so cold. It had been bitter that winter and the basement of the new house didn’t have heating. He shouldn’t have been there in just his underwear. Who knew how long he’d be locked in there this time. He supposed he should have known better than to stay for that extra drink with Luna…

There were things moving around him. He couldn’t make them out, but he was pinned to the floor with fear of them. They were dark, but their heads were flaming. Harry was so afraid of them he pissed himself. They would burn him if they got too close. He didn’t know where they were, but they were frighteningly nearby. Why wouldn’t anyone help him?

He was so alone, maybe the only person in the world. The loneliness bit at him, took low blows when he wasn’t ready. Was he really such a bad person? Why had everyone abandoned him, left him to fend for himself against the flaming-haired monsters? Harry was too afraid to cry. He was pathetic, weak. He should just give in to the inevitable. He wasn’t worthy of anyone. Maybe he should just end it himself, feel something beyond this misery, before he felt nothing at all.

He hauled himself up a jagged rock face into a howling wind. The splintered stone snagged at his arms, cutting into his flesh. The rocks were razor-sharp, but he had no choice but to touch it, to clamber onwards. There was no other route of escape. He inched forwards, whimpering shrilly at each cut. He didn’t know where he was going, there was nothing to see by. But he was sure this was the right way, the only way, to go. He peered over the ridge, expecting nothing more than a further expanse of the smothering darkness.

But there was a light. Harry was startled by it. It was bright, and so, so warm. He unfroze from the spiky cliffside and hurried towards it. But the shadows moved with him. They pounced and tackled him. He fell. He felt icy fists connect with his face, heavy kicks landed in his abdomen. But there were other attacks. Words he could barely hear, but he felt them. Cutting him down, trampling on his very spirit. He felt worthless. He couldn’t move anymore, and why bother trying? He might as well just lie there, accept the battering he was due for his own pointlessness.

But then the light was upon him and the shadows shrieked like golems and fled. He felt his wounds, let the pain envelop him. The light was letting him. It was here to help. It was safe, friendly. He knew it somehow, knew it would look after him. He had dressed his wounds in its presence before. It encouraged him to stand. It didn’t speak, but he knew its commands. He obeyed. He moved slowly, staying in the warmth of the thin beam. He could feel the ice at the edges. He feared it. Harry moved more quickly, following the light. It would lead him home.

It always did.

And slowly, Harry began to know. He recognised the place. His eyes adjusted to the gloom, his skin firmed and began to resist the cold. He looked out across the scene. A rocky, dusty, dark landscape, bleak as the edge of despair, with angry black and purple clouds crackling with lightening overhead. There were dark crevices, nooks of hatred and evil all across the vast plain. Harry was utterly terrified of taking a step in any direction. He shuddered as a sickening fear crossed over him, his flesh prickling in sharp spikes.

He fell to his knees and let out his tears. He was so afraid of this place. Everything here wanted to hurt him, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight them all. He wasn’t good enough to beat the demons encircling him. He scratched at his eyes, preferring to claw them out rather than to see the horrors before him. He wondered if he’d ever be safe again.

And then he was being eased gently down. His head coaxed onto a soft pillow, or maybe it was a soft lap. He looked up. An angel looked back down at him. Surely she was an angel. She was divinely beautiful. Her skin like flawless porcelain, her hair dark waves of hope. She smoothed his sweaty brow, his face, her very touch was healing. He felt stronger. She was whispering to him, but he could barely make out the words. He just let her care for him, and he grew empowered under her ministrations. He trusted the angel to look after him.

“Come on now, Harry, time to come back to us,” the angel whispered. “Hermione is waiting for you.”

Harry sat up sharply, his heart pounding beneath his ribs. Hermione? She was here? She couldn’t be….it was far too dangerous. The demons down here would surely get her. Harry leapt up, power flowing into him like a dam had burst. He felt strong, predator-like. He needed to be, to protect Hermione against this palpable darkness. The lion rose in him, snarled and roared and snapped its jaws angrily, viciously. The shadows receded in the face of his fury. How dare they threaten her? He would rip them all apart! Bite and swipe and slice till they were all in bits beneath his rage.

Then the angel was suddenly gone, and her warmth went with her. But she was still close, Harry could tell that. But which way to go? Then he heard Hermione, a whisper somewhere just beyond the angel and her light, which had flashed on the horizon. Hermione’s voice was the wind, blowing and swirling and coaxing Harry to action.

For she was crying, screaming out in agony.

And, though he couldn’t see her, he knew she was cowering, balled up, bracing to be hit. It didn’t take much of a leap to work out who was giving her this beating. Harry roared in uncontrolled anger. He had to save her, to get her safe from this place. He heard her voice again and raced for it, desperate for her, mindless with his need to protect her from anything. And everything. For the night here was long and full of dangers.

Hold on Hermione, I’m coming.

***

It had been six hours. There was a medical spell and potions research lab on the ground floor of the palace, and it was here that Hermione sat watch, one hand gripped tightly in Harry’s own. She hadn’t left his side since he and Enola had been moved here. Not that he would have known. He was utterly unresponsive. The bed he was prone on didn’t look the most comfortable either, built for function over pleasure. Hermione frowned at the idea of his discomfort. She thought about transfiguring the cot into something more bouncy, or at least fluffing his pillows.

After all, he had enough to deal with trying to free himself from his nightmare dreamscape.

He looked pained, troubled. Hermione could tell that in the crinkle of his eyelids, the tight pinch of his forehead. She didn’t want to think of him as frightened, despite appearances. He had become such a blinding anchor of strength for her, in such a short space of time, that she was starting to think of him as borderline invincible. The idea of him having any sort of vulnerability was basically absurd in her new vision of him.

But his hands shivered, and told her a very different story. In the way his skin crept, and darted from hot to the very, very cold. He was so in need, wherever he was. Hermione was desperate to help him, but she might as well have been a million miles away, not sat at his bedside clutching his trembling fingers between her own, for all the use she felt to him. All she could do was smooth them and whisper gently to him, unsure if he could hear her or not. 

She knew of no better way to help.

She covered his scars with his shawl to protect his modesty. Every now and then she would splay a hand across his chest, to feel his heartbeat, to reaffirm that he was still living. It brought all her own senses into shocking focus to feel him so viscerally alive beneath her touch, sending a heat rushing up from within her own chest and coating her in the deepest flush.

Next to Hermione, Neville was as motionless as Harry at Enola’s side. She looked determined, purposeful, even in her deep sleep. But Neville was pale with worry, his head bowed and lips pressed firmly to his wife’s hands, which he clasped firmly between his own. Hermione’s heart bled for him, she ached from her worry for him. It was the first time she’d seen the new, strong him break down like this. 

And his love for Enola screamed out at her, shaming her for her earlier jealousy. The tender way he brushed her hair from her head, the way he hushed quietly to her when she spasmed, the desperation in his eyes that she had gone into danger somewhere that he couldn’t follow. The tell-tale marks of a love so strong it should never be doubted, too pure to be threatened by the risks facing it now.

Hermione felt terribly responsible for all of it.

She closed her eyes and concentrated on Harry. Her stretched heart didn’t have room for all this emotion, not when she had spent so many years blocking it off. Harry became her focus; if she could somehow help him, all would be well. But she felt useless, impotent. Like Neville with Enola, she felt Harry had gone to a place that she couldn’t reach, somewhere beyond her ability to render aid.

And the irrational part of her brain was truly terrified of that. It made her believe that Harry could only ever be truly safe when he was with her. When he was out of her sight, she couldn’t protect him. Like that night five years ago in the Forbidden Forest. He had gone into the most gravest of dangers alone, without her. Hermione hadn’t been there to defend him from Voldemort. Or from Dumbledore, or from himself, as she had so unshirkingly in the past. If she had been, maybe none of this would have happened.

But there was good and bad with that. Maybe Harry would never have confronted these suppressed feelings for her, would never have come to see her as the beautiful, incredible, most important person in his life that she was now certain she was. The ritual had told her all of that. And so much more besides, as astounding as all of it was. She blushed at the thought. She was sure she didn’t deserve it, wasn’t worthy of a love so strong. But she knew she had it, nonetheless. Harry loved her so much it was breathtaking.

And she gripped his hand tightly, prayed to Merlin and every God she could think of, and begged Harry to come back and tell her. Not that she could imagine how he ever would. Words just weren’t his way. Maybe it would fall to her to do the telling for them both, just as soon as she could sort her own feelings out.

For she was certain she knew how she felt now. Her reaction to Harry being in such peril had brought that slamming home to her. She had been resisting it, unreasonably thinking it couldn’t happen so fast. This wasn’t some soppy movie, after all. But, then, she accepted this wasn’t fast. This hadn’t all come on in the space of a couple of weeks, since she’d been rescued. It wasn’t the new ideas of Harry that had stirred these passions in her, the ones that threatened to make him an addiction.

This had always been there, for as long as she could remember. As much a part of her as her bushy hair and bookworm ways. Harry was just that integral to her world.

It had been then when she was just a girl, when it was new and raw and so powerful that she pushed away from him during their sixth school year, because she was so fundamentally afraid of it. The strength of her own feelings for Harry had rattled her so much she consciously put distance between them rather than face it. She had nearly been killed in defence of him the year before. That was frightening enough.

That she would have done it again, without even a second thought, totally shattered her world.

She was too clever not to know what that meant. She’d kept that self-conversation at arms length since their third year, when Harry had first opened up to her about his desire for a family, one cruelly snatched away from him by being denied the chance to live with his Godfather. She was the first person he’d let that close to him. They’d crossed a boundary together, without even flinching at the border. That meant something important for them both, but Hermione was too young to really understand it, or how deep it went.

But now, consumed with worry at his infirmary bedside, she finally accepted emotionally all she’d once cautiously skirted where Harry was concerned. He had done it for her, years ago, if she believed the elves and the witches of the house. She couldn’t wrap her mind around how he came to that conclusion, but she was deeply fascination by the scenario. One day, she would make him tell her all about it. It would become her favourite bedtime story. When they were tucked up in bed, together, hopelessly and endlessly tangled together.

So Harry had to come back to her. Even Voldemort wouldn’t be cruel enough to deny her, not now she knew just what Harry coming back would mean. For her, for them, for the world. And for any stupid twats retarded enough to dare pose a threat to them. Hermione wouldn’t abide them. If Harry was dangerous when riled, then Hermione was positively lethal when crossed, and nothing made her crosser than people who threatened Harry.

Neville’s words rang with truth in her ears, as Hermione clutched firmly still at Harry’s fingers. Tom Riddle really didn’t know the horrors that were coming for him.

* * *

And Harry stumbled again. His knees were scratched and grazed. Dark blood seeped from already deep wounds. Grit and dirt stung at the ridges. And he couldn’t heal them. His wand was lost, somewhere in the abyss. He couldn’t remember where he’d dropped it. In any case, he didn’t have the strength to go and find it. He rubbed at the cuts with similarly scarred fingers, wincing and yelping at the pain.

Then Enola raced around the mountain of skulls Harry had fallen against. She cast a series of spells at unseen enemies, who roared and recoiled with a cannon-blast of thunder. Harry covered his ears as the air vibrated with the deafening crack, just as Enola cast the fiercest Shield Charm she could muster. She slumped to her knees, struggling for one clean breath. Then Harry screamed. His old scar split open on his head in a burst of fiery agony. The pain was so blinding Harry lost his mind a moment. He crumpled to the floor. Voldemort was near, stalking like a predator. And Harry was too weak to resist him. Surely, it would soon be over.

Harry’s exhausted body stilled, his mind wished for the end.

Then his mother’s voice coursed through his being, infusing him. He knew her words, she’d spoken them so often before, but he couldn’t hear a sound. They were in him, part of him, like a spell he’d absorbed into the fabric of his soul. She spoke of only one thing, his most devastating source of power. One that had welled in him so forcefully he’d been terrified to look at it. It was like the sun, blinding and empowering all at once. It was the only thing that could save him now. Harry had long feared that if he ever did look at it that he’d never be able to look away. Not ever.

And if she ever looked back…Harry was petrified he might drown in her. And he so wanted to drown.

For he was so very tired of being alone, of walking his path of solitude. He curled up against the cold, rocky floor and wished for her comfort. Her touch had always comforted him. He’d like nothing more than to reach out for it whenever he needed to. But even this thought shook him in terror. The risk of abandoning his lonely life and inviting someone to share his world…to cast off the familiar solitude and become part of something bigger, better…the very concept scared him stupid. He didn’t like to need, to have this necessity for her.

But with Hermione, he was just powerless to resist it.

The mere thought of her invigorated him. He pulled himself up and stumbled to Enola, panting and shuddering nearby. He hauled her to her feet, hugged her close and let the energy Hermione’s memory had stirred in him pass to her. This was magic he could do without a wand. It sent out protective waves like a destructive Patronus, powered by Hermione. It sent the demons and Dementors scurrying like pitiful rats. Even the shadow of Voldemort turned tail and fled, unable to face down the power Hermione could enable Harry to wield.

“Ennie, its our chance, open the gate,” he whispered to her.

“But your wounds…they aren’t healed…” she replied warningly.

“I can cope with the pain,” said Harry, bracingly. “You’ve righted my mind…again. That’s all that matters. If I ever forget to tell you, thank you.”

“One day we’ll come down here and kick the shit out off all of these darknesses, your darknesses” Enola promised. “You can thank me then. Come on, lets leave before the devils come back.”

They broke apart and Enola brandished her wand. She drew a doorway in front of them, decorating it with runes, then pushed her magic into it. A long, blindingly bright tunnel emerged and sped away from them, swirling and churning with milky mists and clouds. She raced through it without hesitation, knowing that Harry would demand that she went first. Harry, himself, took one last look back at his internal mindscape. It was bleak as fuck, to be frank. Even so, he would miss having two eyes again, even if all they saw were the horrors of his life, trapped in a plain of his own misery. He took a steadying breath, prepared for the searing pain his waking body was about to be hit with, then darted after Enola down the tunnel to consciousness.

* * *

The crackling torches of the driveway were still lit. Hermione swallowed at the sight, her mouth dry and arid as she looked at them. Her skin crawled with roiling fear. But she daren’t turn back. The wards to the house would have been activated by now, it would be already known that she’d returned. She felt sick every time she crossed the security perimeter; the darkness of the magic there always settled ill on her stomach. She dry retched against the sensation, then began a slow walk towards the house.

Over to her left, Hermione could hear the prisoners of the camp being worked away, even this late into the night. They were building a new block and the scraping of shovels and the sounds of construction drifted to her ears on the close, still air. Hermione didn’t want to know what the new block would be used for. It was bad enough that Draco Malfoy himself regularly turned up to inspect its progress. If his Section Seven had anything to do with the place…Hermione shuddered at the very notion. If he was going to be close by, it might be worth throwing herself from the roof of the manor house after all.

There was a crack somewhere in the camp. It may have been a whip, or the snapping of bone. Hermione had conditioned herself to be dully immune to such things. She’d protested once before, when they first moved here, begged Ron to soundproof the house at the very least. To keep them from hearing the misery outside. He’d punched her in the face for her insolence. These were the sounds of victory, of justice, he’d insisted. Then he locked her in the Black Room for two days without food. Or light. And just a canteen of stagnant water, still there from her last stay.

It had taken two months before she could sleep with the lights off once he’d released her.

But how she wished the lights were off now. Each torch she passed acted like a cruel pointer to her impending fate. Each one flickered out as she went by, marking the moments like the sinister conductor of the Devil’s Orchestra. She knew what was going to happen. It was just a case of how bad it would be. And, if she knew her husband, it would be pretty horrific. He was getting worse at his punishments, and by worse Hermione meant more effective, reducing her to a greater mess of a wreck each and every time.

It filled her with unspeakable anguish that they hadn’t fulfilled their duty-bound marital commune this month. That was always something of an ordeal, but lately Ron had been experimenting in making it a new form of torture for her. She often heard his concubines screeching in agony as he tested his new techniques on them, all to make them perfectly horrendous for her.

All permitted under the guise of a formal expectation as part of their marriage contract.

Hermione had no legal recourse to protest. Not that anyone would have listened to her. King Voldemort had enforced a raft of laws that made witches like her the property of their wedded Lords. She might as well have appealed to a tree for justice for all the good it would do. The Death Eaters of the legal courts would turn any complaint she made into an act of treason against the Dark King and his ‘reforms’. They’d sooner burn her at the stake, like poor Hannah Abbott, than bring her husband to heel.

So, if Ron chose to torture her sexually, she had no choice but to endure it as best she could. Then cry her silent tears later in her separate bed, when she was sure he wouldn’t hear…and punish her for that, too.

Hermione really wished she could fathom what had happened to him, how power had corrupted him so greatly that he shirked off all sense of honour and decency. He had been an okay sort of guy once, during a time Hermione now honestly struggled to remember. She just never imagined Ron would become the devil she now knew. 

She felt certain his cunt of a sister had a lot to do with it.

The way Ginny had thrown herself at Voldemort’s feet ranked as one of the most disgusting displays Hermione had ever witnessed. A willing volunteer to bear his children; she still recalled the way her hair had turned an ugly, evil tint of black as his seed quickened in her womb, how her eyes lost all semblance of colour, given over to hatred and malice. It made her sick to think on it.

Hermione shuddered at the memories. How had it come to this? She felt inordinately jealous of Harry right then, for escaping this nightmare when he did. He would have hated this, riled against it so much. It was a stupid train of thought. Harry would never have allowed this, if he had any say at all. He would have gone down fighting, he did, after all. Surely, that was how he came to die in the Forbidden Forest.

Hermione steadfastly refused to believe Voldemort’s propaganda, that Harry had walked to his death, died on his knees like a coward. It screamed against every notion, every shred of knowledge she had about her lost best friend. But that’s how Voldemort’s new history books would record it. Harry’s name, his deeds, had been forcibly scrubbed from Great Wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century and Modern Magical History. His entry didn’t even make the new appendix of the amended Rise and Rise of the Dark Arts. He was a footnote in history, reduced to a passing nuance, paid as little mind as the New World Order could allow.

Except for those who knew and loved him. Some things just couldn’t be erased.

Unless the entire wizarding population was Memory Charmed. Hermione wouldn’t put that past those bastards. It was the kind of sweeping evil they were prone to. Hermione actually moaned at the thought. Imagine losing all knowledge of Harry to a spell? She didn’t think she could bear that. She resolved to protect her mind from such an eventuality. If Ron ever came across that idea he’d probably curse her in her sleep. She’d wake up one day and Harry Potter would never have existed for her…

And all her remaining hope in the world would die with his stolen memory.

She had to push her memories of Harry deep, deep down. The final security checkpoint was coming up. If they scanned her mind and found those thoughts close to the surface, they’d report it to Ron. She couldn’t let that happen. Those memories were her most precious possessions, they kept her sane. She had to defend them. Hermione focused her brain, throwing up her low-level Occlumency shields. They were light, barely noticeable. The guards were not accomplished Legilimens, and the standard intrusion spells didn’t delve too deeply. She had to be thankful for small mercies these days.

She reached the checkpoint barrier and handed over her wand. She felt naked and vulnerable without it. The two Death Eater guards took turns inspecting it, testing it for hidden curses or enchantments. They frowned as they found it clean. Then, each one took a turn patting her down, lingering longer than was necessary on her breasts and the upper parts of her thighs, all the while smirking malevolently. Then, without warning, they cast curses at her. First the Imperious, to ensure she had no mental defences in place, as they were illegal. Hermione felt her mind wander, she lost her ideas of space and time. Then she came shuddering back with a thud. Their spell work was clumsy, awkward. It smacked a full-blown migraine into her head.

Then her head was forced into a Legilimency Probe between two crackling rods. It stung as the imbibed spell crossed her mind. It flirted with her shields, but didn’t dip beyond a surface level. One Death Eater examined the results on an emerald tablet. Seemingly satisfied with the results, he cancelled the probe.

“You are past curfew, Mrs Weasley,” said the second Death Eater, returning her wand.

“I lost track of time,” she offered, rubbing her temples to offset the ache throbbing there.

“I have no interest in your explanations,” he said coldly. “You can explain that to your Wedded Lord. I sincerely hope his reprimand to you is sufficient. You need to learn your place.”

Hermione bowed her head and the guards parted for her. She edged towards the house, her cautious steps crunching on the gravel underfoot. Her heart beat furiously in protest the closer she got. Her skin prickled with so much fear it was like being licked with icy fire. She couldn’t control her rasping, ragged breaths. She was quite terrified. She lingered at the door, fumbling with her key as her fingers were shaking so much.

Then, it simply swung open for her. Slowly, menacingly.

“You’re late.”

Hermione’s heart dropped into her stomach, already coiling with sickness. The entry hallway to the house was in complete darkness. Hermione could hear Ron’s voice but couldn’t see where he was. He would love that, to taunt her, to keep her guessing when he would strike. She was frozen on the threshold, held fast by the thrill of terror rushing through her.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered meekly. “It was Susan’s birthday and…”

And she never got to explain, for a rough hand snatched out from the darkness, tangled painfully in the curly locks she’d made up so carefully and prettily, with glitter and ribbons, for her night out, and dragged her into the house, slamming the door shut behind her….

Hermione bolted awake and jumped up, heart racing, leant over the side of her bed and threw up copiously. She squeaked and baulked and fell back onto her pillows, fighting to push away the dark memories of her nightmare. Her cheeks were sodden with hot tears. The dark images were clustering at the edges of her mind, tunnelling her vision into a swirling mass of blackness. She struggled to calm herself, to regain control of her panicked senses and remember where she was.

There was a pop and Sally was at her side. Her eyes were wide as she clocked Hermione’s desperate state.

“Lady Hermione!” she shrieked, looking at the pool of vomit soaking into the carpet. “What be wrong?”

“I-I had a nightmare,” said Hermione, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “I’m sorry.”

“You not need be sorry,” said Sally, cleaning up the sick with an effortless snap of her fingers. Another click and a calming spell settled on Hermione, slowing her whirlwind of fear to a gentle trundle. I’m not there anymore, I’m not there anymore, Hermione repeated over and over in her mind, breathing heavily and wringing her hands together. Sally cast her hand over Hermione’s sweaty forehead. “Well, you not have fever, at least. But come, let Sally get you into clean nightie. You sicky all over that one.”

Hermione slowly rose from her bed. Her legs were still trembling from the dream, but the images were starting to fade now she wasn’t by herself. She stripped down, beyond modesty, and Sally conjured a cold cloth, which she rubbed her down with. Then she helped her into a new nightdress and guided her to her favourite seat by the window, where a light breeze helped to cool her hot brow.

“Does Lady Hermione want me to fetch Master Harry?” asked Sally. “I know he come at once.”

Hermione was sorely tempted a moment. Harry would make it all better just by being there with her. But she checked herself. It had been scant days since he’d woken, screeching and writhing in agony, after destroying the decoy Horcrux in ritual and sneakily stealing her pain away into the bargain. The healing witches of the palace had subdued him again to work on him and Hermione had been forced to stay away and leave them to it. Now he was just resting and recovering.

“No, I’ll be alright,” she said with a rattling breath. It was half-true. She’d win the battle for now, not let her sleep demons best her. She just wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of sleeping. She had a good potion for that. “Harry needs to rest. Merlin knows I can relate to just how much.”

“Master Harry be very brave taking Lady Hermione’s aches and pains,” said Sally proudly. “Sally be knowing how very bad they was. Master Harry very brave, but very stubborn.”

“Stubborn?” Hermione queried.

“Master Harry not rest, not heal,” said Sally, sadly. “He face pain to master it. Sally never seen it work, but Master Harry insistent. He never sleep much after sessions with Lady Longbottom, though they usually prepare better for one. But Sally will let him off this time.”

Hermione sat up crossly, her dream forgotten in the face of Harry being up and about and suffering needlessly, and not telling her he was so she could tell him off for it. “So you’re telling me Harry isn’t in bed?”

“No, my Lady,” Sally confirmed.

“Then where is he?” Hermione asked. “And why will you ‘let him off’?”

“Master Harry at his Shrine with Firebird Lily,” said Sally.

Hermione quirked her eyebrows. “His Shrine?”

“Is where Mrs and Mr Potter sleep forever,” said Sally. “Would have been Mrs Potter’s birthday today.”

Hermione gasped aloud. Harry had brought his parents here? Dug up their graves and moved their bones? But why?

“Sally, can you take me to him?”

“Sally not sure,” said the elf, wringing her hands nervously. “She not be sure if Master Harry be wanting to share such a private moment.”

“He’ll want to share it with me,” said Hermione, confidently. “Can you at least ask him for me?”

Just then there was a flash of flame above them. It yielded Lily, Harry’s beautiful phoenix. Sally looked up at it and actually smirked.

“Sally be thinking Lady Hermione have her answer,” she said. “Master Harry always be listening and watching for her. Firebird Lily be waiting for you, my Lady. But Sally insist you wear a dressing gown. It be chilly outside. Nippy…for a Lady.”

Hermione blushed at the inference and slipped into her thick gown, pulling it tight around her. Lily fluttered to her shoulder and instantly whipped her away in a blast of fire. Hermione wasn’t sure she particularly liked this way of travelling, it was quite dizzying. Lily didn’t seemed to notice her discomfort, leaving her alone at the entry to an outdoor mausoleum and soaring over to Harry, who was sat cross legged nearby. Harry crooked his arm without moving his head, feeling Lily’s presence as she reached him. The phoenix perched on his arm, the way Hermione had seen Hedwig do countless times. She lamented the loss of Harry’s first familiar.

“Sit with me, Hermione,” Harry requested softly.

Hermione moved slowly to Harry’s side and eased herself down next to him. She still moved cautiously, out of habit, though she now felt no pain at all. Well, at least none that was physical.

“You should be resting,” she said gently.

Harry looked down. Hermione had sat very close to him, their thighs were touching.

“I am resting,” Harry replied, sighing. He fixed his eye firmly ahead. “I feel calm here. It helps.”

Hermione followed Harry’s line of sight. He was looking at two large, marble headstones in front of him. They looked fairly new, well cared for. Fresh flowers had been placed at the base of one of the headstones, the one Harry was directly in front of. Even Hermione, who was no kind of botanist, could guess what kind of flowers they were.

“You brought them here?” she asked softly.

“I had to,” Harry replied lowly. “They would have been desecrated if I’d left them in Godric’s Hollow. I couldn’t allow that. I don’t know if they mind that I moved them or not. I hope not.”

His shaking voice betrayed his worry. Hermione snaked out her hand and smoothed his forearm. She knew it was a risk, to test Harry’s physical boundaries. But he made not the slightest movement to withdraw or push her off. He allowed the contact, Hermione’s chest fluttered that he did.

“I’m sure they know you did what you thought was right,” said Hermione. “I think its right.”

She couldn’t see his face, but she could sense him smile.

“Then that’s the only validation I need. My mum said to trust you. I always did. The one time I didn’t, I let Riddle take me out of the game. I’ll never make that mistake again.”

Hermione sat in stilled shock. “You…you talked to your mum about…about me?”

Harry chuckled. “Actually, she talked to me about you.”

“When?”

“Five years ago, when Riddle sent me to the very edge of the afterlife,” Harry said vaguely. He shifted awkwardly. “I’m a little bit ashamed of what happened when I was there. I’d rather not talk about it.”

Harry stiffened and edged away from her.

“You were ashamed of talking to your mum about me?” asked Hermione, honestly a little hurt.

“No, I didn’t mean ashamed like that,” said Harry quickly. “That’s not what I meant at all.”

Hermione felt pacified by Harry’s slightly manic reaction, but she was still wary. “Well, what then?”

“It’s just that…I’m still ashamed she had to speak to me at all. That she had to wake from her rest…because of what I was going to do.”

“Which was?”

“I…I was going to take the train,” said Harry, his voice shamed and tiny.

Hermione turned fully to him. “I don’t understand what that means.”

Harry stiffened further, sighed deeply and bowed his head so his shoulders hunched. “When Riddle cursed me, I went to the very edge of death,” Harry began heavily. “It took the form of a spectral Kings Cross train station. I met Dumbledore there, had the conversation with him I already told you about. But…I left a bit out.”

“Which bit?”

“The bit where he gave me the option of taking a train…to go on.”

Hermione sucked in a breath as she realised what Harry was suggesting.

“I – I asked Dumbledore,” Harry stuttered. “If you would stay with Ron. I was so exhausted, Hermione. I was done. I’d had enough of the pain, the fighting, the suffering. You’d kissed Ron, I knew you wanted to be with him. I trusted that he would take care of you if I…if I didn’t come back. 

“I asked Dumbledore three times if you would stay with Ron. He looked me in the eyes each time and said you would. But he didn’t elaborate on it. I know now that it would have interfered with his plans. I thought…I dumbly assumed that would mean Ron would protect you. You’d be safe. You’d be okay without me. So I…I called for the train. I even got on it and sat down.”

Hermione felt her pulse speeding in her neck. Tears stung behind her eyes. Lily suddenly took flight from Harry and landed deftly on her shoulder. It made her instantly calm, and a little bit coy and shy. She couldn’t understand why. It recovered her power of speech.

“But…the train didn’t go…go on.”

“No,” said Harry. “You see, I didn’t remain on my own on the train for very long. My mother appeared from another carriage…one further on, one I couldn’t see into because it was so cloudy and milky. She was so beautiful, Hermione. I was mesmerised by her. I just looked at her face, her gorgeous smile, for the longest time. It might have been months, just staring at her. I couldn’t look enough. And it was the real her, not the dark copy Dumbledore had trapped in the Resurrection Stone.

“Eventually she spoke to me. She told me it wasn’t my time. I wasn’t finished with life. And it was nothing to do with Voldemort or any of it. That was just window dressing.”

“What did she mean then?” asked Hermione.

“She told me I was in love and didn’t know it,” said Harry. “And I ought to go back and experience it fully. That it would change not only my life but my very soul. It would make all my pain pale into insignificance. She said it was such a powerful love it could change the world around me. And that the girl I loved was owed to be told about it.”

Hermione’s mouth fell open. Lily the Phoenix sang out beautifully. The note quavered in the air and resonated in her bones. It filled her with brightness and light, boundless energy, and waves of emotion that left her light-headed. It chased away the last lingering remnants of Hermione’s nightmare. She wasn’t certain, but she couldn’t shake the impression this was how Lily talked to her…and she wasn’t entirely sure which Lily was doing the talking.

“Harry…I…” she tried to say. She wanted to say a million things just then, but none seemed quite right. In the end she settled on, “how did you get Lily?”

“My mum gave her to me, to get me back,” he said. “She just summoned her as we sat on the train. I didn’t name her, like Neville thinks. Lily was already her name. I think some of my mum is in her. I think that was her animagus form. When she spirited me back, she stayed with me. To watch over me.”

“Neville said she never goes to anyone else,” said Hermione. “But she doesn’t mind coming to me.”

“She reflects my emotions,” said Harry. “And my mum’s, too. She approved of you. So Lily does as well.”

Hermione blinked. She was beyond humbled, so shivery with awe that she could barely think.

“I’m not asking for anything extraordinary, despite how that all sounded,” Harry said quietly. “I’d have never told you that story if I could have avoided it. I don’t want you to feel cornered or pressured. That wasn’t my intention at all.”

“Cornered? Pressured?” Hermione huffed. “To be loved by you? There is nothing but beauty in that, Harry. I don’t deserve it, I’ve done nothing to warrant it.”

“You’ve been you,” said Harry. “All my life. For all the wonder and loveliness that really means. For the rise of my conscience, for my introduction to what love actually is. And that’s more than I was ever due. I didn’t see it before because I didn’t deserve to. I still don’t. To feel what I do for you…I shouldn’t have been blessed with that. I shouldn’t have known such a thing could exist. And you are more than worthy. It’s what makes what has happened to you even more despicable. To think that Ron…to think that I…”

“How many times, Harry!” cried Hermione, hotly. “You didn’t do anything!”

“I boarded the train…” said Harry, his voice childlike, infinitesimally little. Like apologising for a scolding he could not avoid before it came. “I was going to go on. I wanted to. I left you behind, consciously. Gave up…on life, on you. And I’d have never known…never known what this was. How it felt. How wonderfully amazing it felt. Just to know it, whether you feel anything for me or not. My entire existence would have been a sham without the knowing, a waste of bone and sinew. Just to be able to feel this for you…it makes me even more ashamed that I might not have ever known about it.”

Hermione wished she could quell the rampant flickering of her heart. She was so breathless at Harry’s words she couldn’t formulate the right replies in her mind.

“So…you boarded the train,” she said eventually. “And your mum talked you into coming back? For…for me?”

Harry nodded. Hermione could hardly breathe.

“She forgave me for my moment of selfishness,” said Harry, staring hard at his mother’s gravestone, tracing her name hungrily with his eye. The moonlight had shone directly at the engraving just then. “She told me off first. I mean, she is my mum. She didn’t get the chance to tell me off for anything when she was alive…because of everything. I think she quite enjoyed it, actually.”

Hermione smiled fondly, looking at the grave, too. She leaned over gently and pulled her wand. She conjured a wreath of red roses and placed them against the marble with a whispered ‘happy birthday, Mrs Potter’. Harry watched her and his breath caught, coming in ragged, shallow gasps.

“If your mum forgave you, then so do I,” said Hermione sitting back. “But you need to forgive me back.”

Harry turned to her questioningly. “For what?”

“For settling for Ron at Hogwarts,” Hermione began. “For not telling you a long time ago how I felt about you. I could have at least have given you the option, given you something to think about. And I need you to forgive me for not fighting for you. I settled into bondage, into despair. I allowed it. I even considered suicide when it got too much. It wasn’t you who was selfish…it was me. I was cowardly, afraid of you. Afraid of a real relationship, one I knew might last forever once it had begun…

“…I was afraid of being in love with you.”

Harry gulped. Hermione watched his throat rise and fall with it. There were words trapped there somewhere. Harry struggled to get them out.

“Is…is that what you are?” he croaked after a minute or so.

“Always,” said Hermione, offering her most adoring smile. “Always have been. Whereas you didn’t know, I didn’t let myself know.”

“And now?”

“I just want to drown in you.”

Harry seemed to melt. The lines in his forehead relaxed in utter contentment, his eye flashed with sheer elation. But it wasn’t enough for Hermione. She slowly, tentatively reached up, tracking her hand around his head, questing for the knot of his shawl. She pulled gently till it gave to her. Harry didn’t make one motion to stop her.

Emboldened, she gently unravelled him. He closed his eye; Hermione could sense his building shame. She moved her free hand under his drooping chin, easing his head back up. His eye opened questioningly, swimming in disbelief. He couldn’t process that she wanted to see his ruined face. It was all kinds of wrong in his world. That, despite everything, she wanted to look at him. His soft, baffled gaze considered her as if she were an alien creature. What that meant, what it spoke of his mental state, sent Hermione wild with despair. She continued unwrapping the shawl until it came away completely.

Then she cupped a hand gently to his good, left side. Her thumb tracked a path back and fore across his cheek. His skin was maddeningly soft. Hermione’s other hand came up behind Harry’s neck, her fingers dancing little circles at his nape, tickling the little triangle of downy hair she surprisingly found there. His eye darted wondrously across her face, searching, hoping, hotly curious to dissect her intent.

It was only then Hermione realised that the air around them was throbbing. It was heaving like in the ritual chamber, encasing them in such a cocoon of energy…it was like bathing in caramel. But it wasn’t Harry’s energy…it was hers…or theirs. She couldn’t place it. She only knew she didn’t want to leave it. Harry was letting her in, this was his way of showing her. And he’d let her see his face…

How far dare Hermione go?

She decided to leap. Her hands about Harry’s face and neck kept up with their movements. He had closed his eye at her touch. But she wanted him to be aware of what she was about to do.

“Harry…” she whispered breathily.

He opened his eye to her, watched slowly as she inched her face closer to his, didn’t resist when she slightly tilted his head. He felt wonderfully compliant and pliable in her hands. He was shaking crazily, it drove Hermione’s thoughts into a cartwheel. At this point, Lily took flight and encircled them, as if standing guard against any disturbance.

It was the last piece of encouragement Hermione needed.

She boldly closed the gap between them and pressed her lips softly to Harry’s, mindful of his cut side. He gasped a moment, then shuddered all over as Hermione’s tongue raked against his mouth. He was really defenceless, and he opened up for her without resistance. It took about ten seconds of Hermione’s dominance for Harry to really accept this was happening, that maybe Hermione actually meant it. Meant every swipe of her lips against his, every unrepentant thrust of her tongue against the sides of his mouth, when it wasn’t duelling with his own.

And then, he just gave to it, taking Hermione by immense surprise as his hands found her waist, raced up to her shoulders and then swept her to the ground, where he dropped himself atop her, kissing her passionately with no mind for his injured lips. Hermione was senseless from his intensity, and forgot he was injured at all for a few moments, until she accidentally moved her hand to his scar. He winced in unmasked agony as she touched his wounded skin and she broke apart from him.

“Harry…oh, I’m so sorry!”

He looked down at her, grinning as widely as his smashed features would allow. “For that? Some pain is worth it…and that definitely counts!”

Hermione laughed nervously beneath him. Her heart was speeding, her chest heaving,  but the pause allowed them both to draw breath, to consider what had happened. Harry still looked a little wary, as though he wasn’t quite able to believe where he was.

“Harry…say something.”

“You are quite ridiculously beautiful, did you know?” he said sweetly, brushing a stray hair away from her cheek, which was scarlet from a deep blush. “Do you mind if I just out and stare at you from time to time, without it seeming weird?”

Hermione laughed and tugged Harry back down on to her. She wanted to feel him close again, feel his body heat mingle with her own. She had to slow her heart. If she passed out and missed this moment she might never forgive herself. “You can look at me as much as you like, on one condition.”

“Name it,” said Harry. “I suppose I should just lay it out there and say that I’ll do pretty much anything you ask.”

“I want to be able to see you,” said Hermione, one hand idly playing with his hair, while the other arm hugged him as close as he could get. “I want to see your face, to kiss that wonderful mouth of yours. Even if we have to go somewhere private to do it every time.”

Harry brought his arms up and curled them around her shoulders. “I can do that.”

For a few minutes they just lay there, quiet and content. It was Harry who broke the companionable silence.

“I’m going to sit with you tonight, spell you to restful sleep,” he said. “Don’t even think of arguing. I have an errand to run tomorrow, then we are going to talk about these nightmares of yours.”

“How do you know…”

“I just do,” said Harry. “I didn’t just take your physical wounds, you know.” He sat up, and pulled her with him. “We will heal that part of you. I promise you that.”

Hermione couldn’t help it. She leaned in and kissed him again. She knew immediately that all her fears about Harry were right…he was going to become a fucking addiction for her. She could barely stay away from him as it was. She was in so much trouble.

They slowly, reluctantly, broke apart. “What errand do you have to run? Can I come?”

“Are you feeling up to a jaunt outside the wards?” asked Harry. “It’s okay if you aren’t. It isn’t safe out there.”

“That goes for you too,” said Hermione. “And I have no intention of hiding in here any more than you do. So, where are we going?”

“I have to go and find out how Luna’s doing, we haven’t heard from her in a while,” said Harry casually. “I’m worried she might be in danger now that my secret is out. She’s crucial to my and Neville’s plan to decimate Riddle.”

Hermione was positively aroused at Harry’s assertion of decimation. He had no idea what his forcefulness did to witches. It was devastatingly alluring. Then she cocked a curious glance at him.

“Luna…does she know you’re alive…because if she does and didn’t tell me…I should warn you I might be liable to kill her!”

Harry barked a laugh at her. “Oh no, but Nev and I have been pulling a few strings behind the scenes for years. Ernie Macmillan was our contact in the wizarding world. He manoeuvered Luna into her role at the DoM and she’s been doing some interesting research for us, without ever knowing it. Ernie and Nev used to meet regularly. Nev was gutted when he heard about him being butchered by Malfoy. I don’t know if Ernie knew about me for certain, but we are reasonably sure he guessed I was still around. He never did understand why Nev had such an unnatural interest in your well being, when he’d married the witch Ernie considered the most gorgeous woman under the sky.”

“Enola is stunning,” Hermione agreed.

“She is, but I think you’re prettier,” said Harry shyly.

Hermione blushed. “Don’t be silly, Harry.”

“I’m not being silly,” he said firmly. He looked at her stoutly, unquestionable truth in his eye, in every line of his face, both wrecked and beautiful parts. It took Hermione’s breath away and she flushed hot all over. He actually meant that. How could he mean that? She couldn’t pull the truth into her mind at first, but it kept pounding at her from Harry’s earnest expression, until she had to submit to it.

“Thank you,” she mumbled. It was all she could manage.

“Thank you, for letting me look,” he said, blushing himself. His scar went an odd sort of blotchy purple when he blushed. Hermione found it distractingly cute.

“When you go for Luna, can I come then?” she asked, to redirect the conversation.

“Are you sure you’re up for that?”

“Absolutely,” said Hermione. “Besides, she lived near my old house in Glastonbury. I can show you the way.”

“You know you have alert charms on you, yes?” said Harry. “Enola told you she couldn’t remove them? The authorities will know pretty quickly if you trigger an alarm.”

Hermione nodded. “I know where all the checkpoints are. I used to dodge them for sport when I wanted to escape for some alone time back at the start. Besides, I’m not afraid. I’ll be with you. You’ll look after me, wont you?”

Her tone was teasing, but Harry’s response was serious. “I’ll gut the fucking lot of them if they turn up and threaten you.”

“No, you’ll spare some for me,” Hermione replied darkly. “I have a few scores of my own to settle.”

Harry quirked an eyebrow at her and laughed.

“What?” Hermione asked.

“Nothing,” said Harry. “Its just that…I’ve often heard the girls say its sexy when I get a bit…dark. I never really got that till just now…now I totally understand.”

“If you like that dirty talk, wait till we’re ready to go to bed,” said Hermione huskily. “Enola has been teaching me her bedroom vocabulary.”

Harry laughed, almost nervously. “Been anticipating needing a new language, have you?”

Hermione smiled sultrily back at him. “Only since, ooh, about my second day here. Since I decided I would need to christen my new house. You think your rituals are powerful…you wait till you see what I have planned for you.”

She saw Harry shiver at her words, his eagerness evident in his posture, his glowing skin. But now was too soon, he’d only just consented to kissing. Other things would have to wait.

Hermione just hoped she wouldn’t have to wait too long. Though, she thought dreamily, maybe a wedding night would be worth waiting for. 

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