Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – A Kingly Favour

Harry holstered his wand and moved forwards to examine his handiwork. Roger Davies and Steven Maxwell were splayed against the wall of the reception area, quite unconscious. There was a lump sprouting on Maxwell’s forehead, where it had connected with the ridges of the ornamental oak panelling of the wall.

Neville joined Harry and tutted. “Did you really need to be so forceful?”

Harry scoffed in return. “They have a very important job. They need to be prepared.”

“But its hardly fair,” said Neville. “You are so fast it borders on the absurd. What chance did they have?”

“At least they got the wards up this time,” said Harry. He motioned to a door on their left, which was covered by a shimmering white, swirling mist. “Davies finally seems to be cottoning on to the procedure.”

“It’s conditioning,” said Neville dryly. “He keeps getting slammed into brick walls whenever you show up. It’s enough to make it stick. It’s really just self-preservation at this point.”

Harry gave a hollow laugh. “We’d better wake them.”

Neville drew his wand and cast the Renervate spells. Davies and Maxwell stirred below them with a series of groans. “Watch your head, Steve. Might need a balm for that.”

Steven Maxwell gingerly touched his head. He looked up at Harry. Despite the injury, there wasn’t even the barest trace of resentment in his eyes. “How did we do, sir?”

“Better,” said Harry, offering a hand and pulling Maxwell to his feet. “The wards are up. She’s safe. The response time is improving. Good work.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Maxwell. His eyes were unfocused and groggy.

Harry turned to Neville. “Nev, some healing for Mr Maxwell. Davies – lower the wards.”

“Yes, sir,” Davies obeyed. The protective shield over the door vanished with a flick of his wand. Harry nodded his thanks and stepped forwards, taking the brass doorknob in his hand. He looked over at Davies. “Is she alone?”

Davies nodded. “Finalising some minor affairs of State. Planning for a tour of Canada next month. Nothing that cant wait.”

Harry nodded again and entered the room.

The elderly lady looked up from her desk, her face cracking into a wide smile as she clocked eyes on him. She was in her nineties now but you’d hardly know it. Harry had met her many times, but was always bowled over by her energy and vivacity. He hoped he was half as good if he ever reached such a ripe old age.

“Harry Potter! Well, of all the ways to brighten my day!”

Then there was that regal quality to her voice. Harry always felt humbled by it. Her presence was something else. He had to learn this magic from her, while he still had time.

“Your Majesty,” he said, bowing his head. “Apologies for the abrupt intrusion.”

Queen Elizabeth simply laughed at him. “I would expect nothing else from you, Harry. I’m afraid Wills and Kate have just left. They’ll be very sorry to have missed you. You find me quite alone this morning.”

“You’re never alone, your Highness,” said Harry, taking her proffered hand and placing a chaste kiss against her fingers. “Shame about Will and Kate, though. I haven’t seen Princess Charlotte for months. I hear she’s quite the terror.”

The Queen laughed. “She managed to vanish the glass guarding the Crown Jewels just last week. The Beefeaters nearly combusted from the shock. I had Mr Davies memory charm half the corps. I hope you didn’t Stun him too badly on this visit.”

“He bore it well,” said Harry simply. He sat opposite the English monarch when she motioned him to do so. “They know the score. I turn up randomly and they try to protect you. It keeps them vigilant, on their toes. They’re actually getting better.”

“Yes, I felt the wards go up,” Elizabeth agreed. “And that’s not all I felt. I take it you found the tomb?”

Harry nodded, then leaned forward seriously. “Your Majesty, I want you to know that I have zero intention of taking your Regency from you. Britain is your country, I have no interest in changing the arrangement. Only of returning the country to your protection before its too late. That’s why I am here.”

Queen Elizabeth suddenly stood. She flicked a wrist and a shining sceptre materialised in her hand. She placed the orb at its tip to her head and cast silent magic. Harry felt an oath settle on him and rose to stop her. But she held out a hand to prevent him. Her magic was so powerful it actually forced him back into his seat.

“I, Elizabeth, Queen of England and the British Nation, and all her holdings overseas, hearby swear fealty to Harry Potter, Lord of Avalon, The Once and Future King. This is my Oath, my bond, may magic see it done.”

Harry gasped as the enormity of the oath settled on him. It was physical as well as symbolic. He just stared at the Queen.

“Elizabeth…”

She returned his stare resolutely. “The Houses of Winsdor and of Saxe-Coburg will stand with the House of Potter, the heirs to the House of Avalon. We will govern in your stead, as Chief Protectors of your line and legacy, for as long as you wish us to do so. This was always the plan, Harry. It was always going to be the way. If neither you nor your descendants wish to take the Throne…well, we shall keep it warm for you…just in case. But it does not stop you being who you are.

Harry tried not to grin. “Fine. But I will not permit you to bow to me, Your Highness.”

“One is still a Queen,” said Elizabeth stoutly. “And in charge until you say otherwise. And a Queen does not bow.”

“Good to know,” said Harry wryly.

“But you will be wanting this.”

Queen Elizabeth opened a large cabinet full of sparkling jewellery, pondered a while before picking out an elegant silver ring with a single red ruby encrusted in the top. A gold letter was set into the stone with actual gold thread.

“What’s this?”

“The family ring of the House of Potter,” said Queen Elizabeth. “Your godfather passed it to me after your father’s death. It will imbibe you with all the ancient magic of your family, and legitimise all your political power and claims in both the magic and Muggle worlds.”

Harry slipped the ring on. He felt new, yet old, magic wash over him. It was potent. It made him slightly giddy. It would take weeks to adjust to this. He and Neville would need to revisit their ritual ideas. They weren’t nearly encompassing enough for him to absorb this. It was a heady sensation.

“It can be a little overwhelming, can it not?” asked Elizabeth, gently. “I remember on my coronation…how I managed not to pass out is one of the great mysteries of my life. You should try putting on a crown, Harry. The weight of expectation is utterly ridiculous.”

“You’re doing a very good job at putting me off,” said Harry, rubbing his temples. He had pulled his hood back as a mark of respect, but the red silk shawl he wore to cover his face was still firmly in place.

Elizabeth laughed. “Now then. If you are not here to steal one’s crown, what can I do for you?”

Harry stiffened in his seat, steeling his resolve. “I’ve come to ask your permission…to start a civil war.”

The Queen interlocked her fingers and rested her chin on them. She fixed Harry with a firm stare. “I believe we already are at war. Are you seeking my permission to join it?”

“No…to end it,” said Harry sternly. He rose and paced around the table to look out of the Palace window. The skyline of London loomed imperious beyond an avenue of tall trees. Harry wistfully wondered if it would survive what was coming. “Tom Riddle, the Dark Lord Voldemort, has thoroughly penetrated nearly every part of magical and Muggle Britain. He has the magical world in the throes of a death grip so emcompassing I’m not sure it will ever fully recover from it. The damage already done is so fundamentally great…and his influence is permeating the Muggle world more and more. The leaders of two of the three main political parties are now under his control. Should either win the next General Election…then I seriously fear for the future of this country and her people.

“And Riddle wont stop with Britain. Even as we speak, he has mobilised a special branch of his Death Eaters to smash the restriction wards surrounding our country. Understand, Elizabeth, the European Council of Magic didn’t erect them to punish Britain – but to try and keep Europe safe from it. But they wont hold.”

“What are you asking of me, Harry?”

“I have to wage a war,” said Harry. “You’re right…its already begun. But it will get worse before it gets better. A lot worse. I need your help to hold everything together. To stop it falling apart. There needs to be a Britain left when all this is done, one worth fighting for.”

“The House of Windsor stands with the Great House of Avalon,” the Queen repeated. “We will stand strong and be counted. You have my full support, Harry. And my faith.”

Harry turned to her. “Thank you, Your Highness.”

He moved to leave but Elizabeth rose and placed a hand on his arm. “May I…may I see the sword?”

Her eyes were glinting with the excitement of adventure. Harry was convinced she couldn’t really be in her nineties. It was a fallacy. Harry grinned beneath his shawl, threw back his robe and unbuckled the belt which was tied there. The large broadsword shone with a magic all its own as Harry pulled it from its leather sheath. The Queen’s eyes went wide as she took the jewel-encrusted handle. She turned the blade in her hand, bathing in the magic flowing from it.

“How did it feel…to pull it out?” she asked quietly.

“I couldn’t rightly describe it,” said Harry, grinning. “Not to a Lady…and certainly not to my Queen!”

They both laughed. Harry re-sheathed the Sword of his greatest ancestor, then tied it firmly around his waist. With another bow and an exaggerated curtsey, he left the Queen to ponder a worrying future.

***

Hermione moved gingerly across her bedroom, her nightgown fluttering in the breeze from an open window. She placed her hands on the sill and looked out across the still night. It was clear. Stars shimmered and danced high above, dotted about the moon like a twinkling blanket. The moon was bright tonight. It threw the gardens into stark relief, dappling the high branches and cultivated lawns with silvery light.

It was really quite stunning.

Hermione marvelled at it, despite the discomfort she was in. She knew she had to put up with it. Magical injuries took a long time to heal. And she had a veritable back catalogue for her body to deal with. It had been five years since she’d suffered the Cruciatus Curse at Malfoy Manor, but those wounds had never truly been repaired. The deep, marrow-level ache was striking her now. Her hips were the worst part, creaking and groaning like she was an ancient old lady. She didn’t feel too far off from that.

But then there were all the years of Ron’s abuse, too. She should have guessed that he’d spelled her when she wasn’t looking. Restrictive charms of all kinds had been placed on her without her knowledge. Enola diagnosed them quickly and removed them with some clever runic spell work. Hermione was enthralled by that. She’d never seen the like. Hogwarts taught only basic theory of Ancient Runes. Hermione was just now beginning to understand they carried a power of their own unlike anything she might have expected.

Enola knew a ton about this subject. Her mother was one of Harry’s mentors in runic casting. She was so enthused when she talked about him that Hermione felt proud on his behalf. She was determined to get into this herself, when she felt stronger. It seemed that Harry had thoroughly immersed himself in the art and Hermione wanted something to connect with him on. If this was important to him, she would make it important to her.

Besides, that ritual room was completely fascinating.

She’d explored it briefly a few days ago. Had a proper look, with light and everything. The place was crammed full of carvings and runes and symbols and the place vibrated with magical energy. It was slightly stupefying. Enola had explained that the house was placed on the convergence of several ley lines, and was set out in a precise, deliberate way to harness them and create a powerful vortex of wild magical energy. One that Harry, somehow, had learned to tap into and channel.

Hermione couldn’t rightly envisage that. Or quite wrap her head around its permutations. It had allowed Harry to shield the palace and its grounds from any malicious intent, magical or otherwise, using the ancient runic dialect of his ancestors. It made the place utterly impervious to Voldemort. They could all be safe there practically forever.

But Harry wasn’t the sort to simply hide behind a magical shield. He created it for others to do just that, while he went off and devised a way to rid the world of Voldemort for good. How this might be achieved was fiercely guarded information. Only Harry and Neville knew the plan. Even Enola hadn’t been told. It was the only secret Harry insisted Neville keep from his alluring wife.

Hermione winced as a jolt of pain throbbed in her legs. Ron’s abuses had been much deeper than just curses on her. His physical abuse had taken its toll, too. Even this had been tinged with magic. They’d left a nasty imprint on her.

Just then there was a little pop and Sally was next to her, snapping her fingers to hold her upright as her knees buckled.

“Lady Hermione!” she admonished. “Why yous be out of bed without Sally! Yous not be well enough!”

Hermione still hadn’t quite got her head around being called Lady, but all the house-elves she’d met at the Palace insisted on it. Unless they were calling her Master Harry’s favouritest witch. That was their other personal name for her. That was guaranteed to make her blush furiously, so the older elves tended to refrain from it, fearful they were making her ill. The younger ones were more playful and did it just to set them all to wild giggles.

For it had turned out that Alice Longbottom had been quite correct. Harry’s apparent deep regard for Hermione was a well-known secret. Everyone knew, or was quite convinced of the fact, it seemed. Hermione didn’t know what to say to that, and had no answers when asked. She and Harry had always been extraordinarily close, but he’d stopped short of displaying anything more than friendship for her. But, according to Enola, this was merely an act.

And, apparently, the deepest regret of his life.

They’d talked extensively about this. Hermione was shocked and struggled to believe even half of it. If she dared believe the other half she was convinced her heart might explode from all its uncontrolled pounding. She’d always loved Harry, far more than a mere friend should and not in anything like the same way. She’d always known that. She’d filed it away as a rueful case of what might have been. It just hadn’t happened for them, never looked like it would. For a multitude of reasons, it seemed they’d entered into an unspoken conspiracy never to look the possibility in the face.

But Harry had reneged. He’d never said, but he’d thought about it a lot, according to Enola. In quiet times, in private, in a solitary world that he wouldn’t even have recorded in a journal. They were his own words to Neville’s wife, on the one time they openly discussed it, on Hermione’s twenty-first birthday. When Harry held his own party and got drunk enough for the both of them.

“He outright confessed to being in love with you,” Enola had said. “It was the most beautiful conversation I’ve ever had with him. He actually made me cry, he was so gushing about you. You have to know that Harry doesn’t open up like that very much. If ever. It was incredible to see. I actually felt blessed that he talked like that with me. It wasn’t long after me and Neville got engaged. We asked Harry to perform the ceremony and he was feeling all emotional. He’s a bit of a romantic at heart. And his heart literally belongs to you. He left me in no doubt about that.”

“But why didn’t he ever say anything?” Hermione replied, blushing madly.

“Why didn’t you ever tell him that you were in love with him?” Enola countered, evenly.

“I…what…how can you say…” Hermione was beyond flustered.

“Oh come on, love,” said Enola, waving her hand dismissively. “You actually light up when you talk about him. Its unbearably sweet. Especially when you’ve gone through so much shit with that prick you have to call a husband. That you can still remember what its like to love is quite literally breathtaking.”

Hermione didn’t know quite what to say to that. But she couldn’t deny a word of it. And after the life she’d endured for the past few years, she was too exhausted to even bother. It excited wondrous flutterings all through her body. It was a body that hurt, that was suffering after years of abuse, but it was starting to heal at the very least.

Just not as quickly as she, or her cross little elf, would have liked.

“Whys you up, Miss Hermione?” asked Sally.

“I felt something move,” Hermione explained. “Like the air of the house shifted. Does that make sense?”

“Oh that,” said Sally simply, waving her hand. “That be the shield ward moving. Always be happening when someone comes in or out. Be one day when you learn to recognise who it be. Feel different for everyone. Elves always know.”

“Then who’s coming in?”

“Oh, that be Master Harry,” said Sally without fuss. “Master Neville be coming in half a minute ago. I said they always be coming back. “

Hermione felt her breath catch in her chest. “Harry’s home? Can I go and see him? Will you take me to him, please?”

“Yes and no and no,” said Sally sternly. “Master Harry see you when he good and ready, Lady Hermione.”

Hermione crossed her arms and frowned. “And if I try and leave when you’re not looking?”

Sally looked at her, shrewd and swarthy. “Sally be always watching, my Lady. And Rhian be watching Sally. And Master Harry be watching us all. If Master Harry want Lady Hermione to rest, then Lady Hermione be resting.”

“And its useless for me to argue, I suppose?” Hermione huffed.

“Lady Hermione be getting the picture.”

Hermione turned back to the window. There was a flash of fire and Lily, Harry’s phoenix, exploded into flight just outside. She soared around a while before flying right up and perching on the open window ledge. Hermione stretched out a cautious hand. Lily turned in and rubbed her crown against Hermione’s fingers with a contented trill.

“See, Lady Hermione,” said Sally, folding Hermione’s day clothes nearby. “Master Harry always be watching his favouritest witch.”

Hermione blushed as Lily sang out in obvious agreement. The phoenix took one piercing look at her, then took off again, clearly satisfied with her spying mission. Hermione tried to track her flight path, to see which one of the many rooms Harry might be in, just in case she devised a way to escape the attention of the elves. But just then, Lily disappeared in a flash of flame.

Hermione huffed and folded her arms across her chest. “Well…that’s just cheating, Harry,” she said crossly.

Then Hermione was hit with a realisation.

“Sally – how long did you say Harry had been home?”

“Master Harry been here five minutes, no more, my Lady Hermione,” said Sally, now colour organising Hermione’s sock drawer. “Whys you ask?”

“Well it just…seems a little quick, for him to send Lily to check on me,” said Hermione thoughtfully.

Sally scoffed. “Master Harry ask firebird Lily and Sally to check on Lady Hermione before he even enter the house. He very worried about his most favourite witch.”

Hermione felt her heart skip at that. Her stomach joined in with little somersaults.

“Why do you all say that?” asked Hermione, limping to her bed and settling down. “What makes you think I’m his…fa-favourite witch?”

It seemed preposterous to even say aloud.

“Master Harry be liking Lady Hermione very much,” said Sally, tucking the covers over her before hopping onto the foot of the bed. “He be talking about her all the time. Elves hear everything, know more. Master Harry not talk about any witch like he talk about Lady Hermione. He light up like a glow-worm when he says yous name. Then there be his picture.”

“Picture?”

“On Master Harry’s nightstand,” said Sally. “Only one picture of a witch in Master Harry’s room. Only one witch in Master Harry’s heart, too.”

“And its…its of me?” Hermione could barely form the notion.

Sally nodded. “Sally not be surprised. Lady Hermione be very pretty. But all ladies need beauty sleep. Time for yous now.”

Hermione snuggled down in the covers, wild thoughts chasing each other through her mind. Her entire being was flooded with such emotion for Harry she could barely lay still. She’d never be able to sleep. Or she wouldn’t have, if a certain little elf hadn’t snapped her fingers and made it happen.

***

Harry paced patiently up and down. He’d waited long enough for bad things, this was a pleasant change of pace. Even so, he was restless. This had become a guilty pleasure for him. He should feel terrible about it, but he didn’t have it in him. He’d gone through a lot, surely the universe wouldn’t begrudge him this.

Perhaps Hermione might, but she didn’t need to find out.

Sally popped next to him and he was startled and yelped in surprise. Sally bowed apologetically. Harry patted her head to stop her shaking.

“It’s alright, Sally, calm yourself. Its my fault. I was miles away. I knew you were coming. I was just in my own world. Is she sleeping?”

“Yes, Master Harry.”

“Properly? Or is she pretending?”

“Fully sleeping,” said Sally proudly. “I bes pulling her eyelids open and everything to check.”

Harry chuckled at that. “You’re a good elf. I wont be long tonight. I’m tired myself. I just want to say goodnight.”

“Sally be waiting when yous be done, Master Harry.”

Harry nodded then gently slipped into Hermione’s bedroom.

His eyes took a while to adjust to the dark, but he soon found her sleeping form. He crossed the room silently and slid into a chair next to her bed. She was turned to him, her wild curls splayed out over the pillow. She looked calm, free of woes. And unspeakably beautiful for it. Harry’s heart thrummed as he watched her body rise and fall with her steady breathing. But it hid the truth in plain sight.

Harry drew his wand and began casting silent diagnostic spells all over Hermione’s slumbering body. His heart ached with each revealing spell. It was a foul history of broken bones, of dislocations, of muscle-deep bruises that were still sore and tender. She was in daily discomfort. There was a dark throb at her hips where an old wound was coming to the surface. He would have been amazed if she could even walk. He turned to casting healing runes, tracing them just above the covers before pushing them into her waist. It wouldn’t be a long-term fix, but it would ease her suffering for now.

Then he holstered his wand and looked down at her. He had a wild notion. It was dark, she wouldn’t see…

He slowly slipped off his shawl and tossed it onto the end table nearby. Then he returned his gaze to her. Even though he only had one eye left, uncovering the empty socket made him feel like he could see better. It was all in his mind, he was sensible of that, but he did it nonetheless. He wanted to look at Hermione with unfettered vision, as though somehow he could drink more of her in.

Just being sat with her relaxed him. Here he could watch her, guard her, protect her from anything. He would destroy the night itself if it presented itself as a threat to her. He didn’t want to start that train of thought, of those he would hurt for her. This was a quiet time. To enjoy watching her breathe, to live in her presence, to be thankful for every beat of her heart. He’d been so close to losing her. He couldn’t bear to think of that. His guilt made the windows rattle in their frames. He was getting too worked up. He had to leave his vigil for tonight before his magic erupted and broke something. He got up and tiptoed carefully from the room.      

Harry closed the heavy doors as carefully as he could, merely out of habit. He knew Sally’s magic would keep Hermione asleep through a thunderstorm. But that silly part of his brain still refused to take any chances. She was so hurt. She needed so much rest. He could have cried out at it, as though the agony was his own. He pressed his head against the cool oak of the door and let his anguish spill over.

He didn’t often permit his emotional shields to come down, but he was powerless to prevent it in the face of Hermione’s suffering. He loved her so much. How could he have let this happen to her? He took a breath to calm himself. The last thing he needed was to wake the whole castle. Or destroy it with his fury at his own failings. He stood, determined to master his sorrow, then brushed hastily at his wet cheeks. It was amazing, really, that despite the damage to his eye socket, both his tear ducts still worked.

Harry heard movement and reached for his wand on instinct. Then he just sighed.

“Still persisting with this creepy, stalker thing then?”

Harry frowned. “Be quiet, Ennie. It’s my house. I’ll stalk who I like.”

“Oh, I think you’re on safe ground,” said Enola, emerging into the light. “Most of the witches in this palace would be perfectly agreeable to you sneaking into their rooms in the middle of the night. Half the wizards too, probably.”

Harry blushed. That was to say, his scar tissue flared up in angry purple blotches. It was as close as he could come to a flush these days.

“You seriously need to get laid, En,” said Harry.

“Well if you didn’t keep stealing my husband for days on end maybe I’d get a chance,” Enola replied crossly. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me where you’ve been this time.”

Harry simply shook his head. Then he turned to consider Neville’s wife again.

“You’re up late,” Harry said suspiciously.

“When you have a baby of your own you’ll understand,” said Enola dryly. “Neville’s exhausted. He went out like a light. So I’m on Ally-Duty for the night.”

Harry frowned again. “There are over thirty house-elves here. I’m sure you can trust one of them to look after her for a while.”

“I want to raise my own child,” said Enola, simply. “The elves are always welcome to help, but some things only a mum should do for her baby.”

Harry turned to go. As he did, Enola caught sight of his face in the light and hissed at him. Only then did he realise he’d left his shawl on Hermione’s bedside table.

“Your scar is weeping,” she said gently, stepping close. “Quite badly, actually. Let me…”

“Leave it,” Harry replied lowly.

“Harry -“

“I said leave it,” he cut across forcefully.

Enola glared at him. “You don’t frighten me, Harry. It needs attention. I wont touch, I promise, but it needs to be cleaned up.”

Harry submitted with a small nod and a slightly bigger huff. Enola smiled sadly at him before leading them to one of the other suites nearby. She motioned for him to sit at a vanity table before taking out her whitewood wand. She began casting very slow and delicate cleaning charms and antiseptic spells and healing runes. Harry winced and flinched but tried not to show it. Even the light touch of Enola’s familiar magic caused him unspeakable agony where it touched his wound.

“I don’t know that this will ever heal,” she said in a soft but bitter tone. “That utter bastard…”

She trailed off. Harry let her work. She was always so careful with him. He could never tell her, but he welcomed her help. She was the only one he’d let do this. He didn’t trust anyone else to be so aware and precise.

Then she started talking. “I really like her, you know. She’s so bright and lovely, despite everything. I can see why you are so taken with her. She’s lovely. I approve.”

Harry held in a laugh. Enola’s wand work required utter stillness. Harry simply considered his reflection, his smashed face. The wide, jagged, angry gash splitting his face in two, robbing him of his right eye, his nose, setting his mouth into a permanent sneer. A face not even a mother could love. Who was he kidding? Hermione would be just as horrified of him as the rest.

And he really couldn’t blame her.

Enola carefully cleaned up the rest of his scar. The pinkish pus which had been oozing from the ridges was all but gone. She wanted to reach out, to soothe him. Harry could tell that. He backed away reflexively.

“Thanks, that’ll do,” he said quietly.

“Where’s your scarf?” asked Enola. “I could renew the antiseptic charms on it for you.”

“I left it on Hermione’s table,” said Harry. “Don’t know what I was thinking…taking it off…”

His voice trailed away.

“You just wanted to see her properly, ” said Enola, gently. “I understand that. Do you want me to get it for you?”

“No, leave her rest. She needs it. I have more in my room. Thanks, Ennie. I’m going to turn in.”

“You should see her, Harry,” said Enola quickly. “Let her see you. She’s going spare not being able to. The worry wont help her recovery.”

“Seeing me might make it worse,” Harry replied sadly. “I just cant. Look at me. I’m a mess.”

“A hot mess, Harry,” said Enola, lightly. “And if you think she will care about that, you’re doing her a disservice. I’ve only just started to get to know her and the one thing I can tell you is that she isn’t superficial. And its obvious how important you are to her. Give her more credit, give her a chance.”

Harry sighed. Even as his angry reflection looked back, his heart dared to hope. “Does she really want to see me that much?”

Enola smiled at him. “More than that. The only reason she hasn’t found you is that you don’t stay still long enough to pin down. See her, Harry. For you own good and hers.”

Harry sighed again, then slowly nodded. “Well, she’ll have to give me my shawl back. I’ll be tending the gardens tomorrow. I haven’t been to my secret copse in a while…”

“I’ll make sure she finds the way,” Enola replied, smiling broadly. She really was ridiculously pretty. “Goodnight, Harry.”

***

Hermione was shivering, despite the sunny weather beating down on her. She’d picked out another pretty sundress at Sally’s prompting. She felt rather alien in it. She hadn’t worn anything like this in years. It was a bit revealing, lower cut than she was used to. But this was liberating in itself. It was feminine, she felt womanly in the dress.

And she hadn’t felt that in a while.

But still she was shaking. There was no breeze. The air was totally still. It would be quite stifling later when the sun was fully up. She would be thankful for the thin cotton of the dress then. She felt the soft hem dance and tickle playfully at her thighs. She had too much leg on show. The little white flats Sally had slipped onto her feet her were dainty, but allowed for far too much skin. And the remnants of the bruises were still there.

What would Harry think when he saw her?

Hussy? Whore? Sympathy wench? She hadn’t seen him in years and his personality was altered. Everyone said so. She felt her stomach tighten as she walked slowly along the gravel path. She was too much on display. He might think she was throwing herself at him on this first, most auspicious of meetings. She wasn’t entirely opposed to that idea. But Neville’s warning about Harry not liking to be touched rang loudly in her ears. She had to be mindful of that.

Sally led Hermione out of the tree-lined avenue of the North Causeway and into a well-manicured garden of techicolour. Flowers and bushes were artfully arranged along a path of precisely-trimmed lawn and a little stream flowed here and there all through it, darting beneath tiny arches and bridges. It was a really lovely little walk. Hermione was bitter that she couldn’t do it without being hand-held by her personal elf.

Then they came to a gentle stop. Off to one side of the garden was a pretty sort of wilderness. It was a contained space, with climbing vines and a canopy of dense leaves over one side. Hermione could hear more water splashing inside. Sally let go of her hand and nodded her head for Hermione to enter.

She took a deep breath, curled her fingers into the red silk shawl in her hands, then cautiously walked forwards.

It was really quite pretty inside. It was wider than it looked. There was a little stone path lined with pebbles that led around the space, which was half in shadow from the leafy canopy overhead. Small flowerbeds were blooming in each corner and there was a cute little, circular granite fountain at the dead centre. A stone hippogriff rose from the middle of it and water was spouting from its open beak. There were four stone benches curling around the fountain. A lone figure sat on the farthest one, almost completely obscured by the shade.

Hermione’s breath caught in her lungs at the sight of him. He was wearing a long robe with a deep hood that totally covered his head. But she knew unquestionably that it was Harry, as though his very presence had its own vibration. She blinked back tears. She didn’t want to cry like a weak little girl. But just the sight of him sitting there was enough to shatter her world.

It took every ounce of restraint she had not to run and embrace him on the spot.

She was mindful of not spooking him by being so overt. Equally, she knew she had to master herself now to not show pity when she finally saw his face, his scar. Neville was quite firm on how much he hated that. Even Enola had emphasised this point. But Hermione owed her a debt. She’d been the one to finally convince Harry to see her. She felt a spike of jealously over that, over Enola’s ability to influence Harry. That had, for the longest time, been her domain. She was determined to wrestle that back from her new friend.

Hermione approached slowly. She noticed silly things, like the slump of Harry’s shoulders, the curve of his back, the stillness of the trees overhead. Time seemed to be holding its breath for them, not daring to intrude. As though even the universe itself wasn’t sure how this was going to go.

It hardly gave Hermione courage.

She clutched again at the shawl in her hand. She brought it to her face and breathed deeply. It smelled of Harry, so familiar yet markedly different. It was comforting. She marvelled at it. All morning, she hadn’t been able to shake the image of Harry sat at her bedside, sat so close by. Worrying for her, caring for her, trying to make her better. All the while suffering so himself. Suffering with irrational fear that she hated him, that she would reject him. She longed to tell him that nothing could be further from the truth.

But where to start? What could she say? Five years and so much had gone on. How did she go about breaking the ice?

She took a breath and sat on a bench opposite him, giving him space. Then she offered the shawl. He inclined his head at the movement.

“You left this,” she said gently. It wasn’t much, but it had begun. She couldn’t have said how, but she was sure he was smiling under his hood.

“Thanks,” he said quietly, taking it from her. “This is my favourite one. I’ve missed it.”

His meaning was undoubtedly clear. It brought the tears Hermione had been trying so hard to keep in. The very sound of his voice had broken the dam. It was him. It was her Harry. She had to charm herself from throwing her arms around him.

“Oh, Harry…”

He breathed heavily opposite her. His shoulders were shaking. He was crying, too. She knew. Just being this close to her was too much for him. She couldn’t quite get her head around that. It was sweet and lovely and so strange. But so frustrating. She wanted to reach out, to touch him. But she had to wait. She knew that. But nothing had ever been so hard.

“I’m sorry, Hermione,” Harry croaked slowly. He sounded beyond broken. “So, so sorry…”

Hermione steadied herself, held her own heaving sobs. Her voice stuttered as she spoke. “I…I don’t blame you, Harry. For any of it. I r-really don’t. I need you to believe that.”

His body was wracked again. Hermione had to grip the bench to stop herself moving. It turned her knuckles white with the effort. She saw Harry’s hands come up and disappear under his hood, cupping his face. He was brushing away his tears. Hermione could take no more.

“Let me see.”

Harry didn’t move.

“Harry…please. I need to see your face.”

He laughed hollowly. “You really don’t.”

“You’re wrong,” she said softly. “It’s the only thing I need. I don’t resent you for anything that has happened, for the things you think you have or haven’t done. I really, truly don’t. But I will get very cross if you don’t show me your face. You don’t like me being cross, Harry.”

He chuckled at that. It was practically musical to Hermione’s ears. “No, you’re right, I really don’t.”

“Then let me see you,” Hermione pleaded. “Please, Harry, I have to see your face.”

Harry sighed and huffed. In a moment that felt like a watershed, he surrendered. With a resigned, stiff movement, he sat upright. Slowly, reluctantly, he hooked his fingers into his hood and drew it back.

Hermione got her first look at Harry in five years. Two-thirds of his face was covered in a blue scarf that went down around his skull and crossed above his nose. She caught sight of his one remaining eye. It had lost its vibrancy. It was cold, callous even. That’s what struck her first. It was a dull green, a pale viridian. Not the sparkling emerald she was so used to.

And it hurt to see it. Far more than she had prepared herself for. Despite all her determination, this had stunned her. She had tried to condition herself for a horrendous scar, but to see the loss of life in Harry’s eye struck her like a bullet. Harry noticed. He bowed his head with resigned acceptance. He had expected this, but to see it happen cut to him more completely than anything else could. He held his hand to his wrappings and hesitated.

Hermione chastised herself. She took a few more breaths. “Harry…”

He sighed in response. It was almost a whimper. Hermione felt her heart break at the sound. She had thought she was wounded. But she knew instantly that Harry’s suffering was the equal of her own, worse even. It made her almost frantic to do what she could to soothe him. To soothe them both.

Harry went back to his unveiling. He unwrapped his scarf as though it were a turban. Hermione’s eyes widened as the true extent of the injury was revealed. She resolved to hold in her horror, her hatred for the man responsible. She bit on her tongue to restrain her gasp. Bit so hard that she drew blood, tasting its coppery flavour in her mouth.

Harry dropped his hands to his lap, his eye fixed firmly on the floor. He looked like he wanted to hug into himself and just disappear. He couldn’t look anywhere but at his feet. Hermione’s heart sank into her own at the sight. She forced herself to look at Harry’s scar, no matter how appalling it was. It was hideous. There was no other way to describe it. It was rough, angry, sore. Truly disgusting. And it had a slight stench of rank rotting and stale cream. It looked fresh, too. As though it might have happened just that morning. It was hard to look at.

For fucks sake, Hermione, grow up! She admonished herself. This was Harry, wounded but still Harry. Still beautiful to her. She stared hard at his wrecked face, determined and resolute. He was alive. Viciously injured, but alive. Still alive enough to be beautifully ugly.

And Hermione could think of nothing more wondrous in that moment.

“Does it still hurt?” she asked gently. She was morbidly fascinated by how it would feel to touch.

Harry looked up, a little surprised. “It stings…all the time,” he admitted. “But I’m sort of used to it now.”

That thought sliced to Hermione’s heart. The very idea of Harry in pain might as well have been a disease all of its own. It made her sensible to his plight. She looked at him closely. Not in pity – she knew he wouldn’t like that – but in deep concern. The more she looked, the less she saw the deep groove cutting his face in half.

“It gives you character,” she said, trying to keep things light.

“It makes me a monster,” Harry corrected.

“Hey – you are not a monster! Don’t talk like that.”

“Hermione, come on…look at me.”

“I am,” she said quietly. “I really am. And I genuinely can’t believe I’m able to say that.”

They held each others gaze for the first time in half a decade. And in that moment, something they’d both been missing flooded back to them. They both felt it. It stirred emotions in both that had been buried for far too long. Hermione couldn’t resist grinning at the sensation.

“So, are you going to tell me where you’ve been for five years, or do I have to curse a confession from you?”

Harry started to laugh, then checked himself. He didn’t laugh, didn’t let himself. Hermione remembered Neville telling her so.

“You’re approaching this awfully calmly,” said Harry. “I’m supposed to spend at least a month apologising to you before we start being civil.”

Hermione huffed. “You aren’t going to accept that I don’t hold you any ill will, are you?” Harry shook his head. “Fine. I’ll permit you one, clear-your-conscience apology. Just know that it is utterly unnecessary.”

“How can you say that?” Harry cried. “I left you in the hands of a monster of a man, who has abused and tortured you since he was allowed to get away with it! I can only imagine what sort of horrors you’ve had to endure under Ron’s hands.”

“None of which are your fault!” Hermione cried back, his passionate equal. “Whatever happened to take you away wasn’t your fault, either. And I know you would have come for me if you’d known what was happening. You did.”

“But I was a little late, don’t you think?”

Hermione stared at him, astonished. “You coming back from the dead was never too late for me!”

Harry opened his mouth to argue, but he was stumped. “I’m just really sorry…”

“I know you are,” said Hermione softly. She shifted onto the bench next to him, as close as she dared. “I’ve been told night and day by house-elves and witches alike just how sorry you are. And all I’ve wanted was to see you and tell you that you don’t need to be. You came for me, Harry…you saved me.”

Harry swallowed. Hermione could almost see the lump in his throat. “I saved you.”

“You did,” she smiled. “And I can’t tell you how grateful I am. But you can tell me where you’ve been all this time. I’ve bloody missed you, you know.”

Harry couldn’t prevent a laugh this time. He glowered good-naturedly at Hermione. “Stop that.”

She inclined her head. She wanted a story. She wasn’t going to be deflected from that course.

“Where shall I start?” Harry asked.

“How about the last time we saw each other?” said Hermione. “It breaks my heart to say the words, but we can fix that now. So start there.”

Harry scoffed. “That’s going to make this a very long story.”

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. “We appear to have plenty of time. Besides, you have five years of not talking to me to make up for.”

“Fine, but no interruptions. I don’t approve of my own laughter.”

“No promises, Harry.”

He frowned at her. “I left you in the Great Hall, didn’t I? On the night of the Battle?”

Hermione nodded. She was being compliant so far.

“Snape’s memories,” Harry began. His words weighed heavily on him. They hung in the air. “I went to Dumbledore’s Pensieve. I viewed them. I saw lots of things. I foolishly believed every single one of them. Long and short of it? Dumbledore thought I was a Horcrux. He sent me to die in the forest.”

Hermione clasped her hand to her mouth. “He what! How could he have thought you were a Horcrux?

“He thought Tom Riddle had created me as one the night he killed my parents.”

Hermione felt a surge of anger. “He thought Voldemort turned you into a Horcrux?”

Harry flinched angrily. “Please don’t use that foul affectation around me again. His name is Tom Riddle. He’s just a man, Hermione. Evil as fuck, but just regular flesh and blood. Please don’t say that foolish title again.”

“Sorry,” said Hermione, biting her lip. “But Dumbledore thought he’d meant to use you as a Horcrux?”

“Or to make one. The old coot wasn’t really clear. Its pretty fucking standard for him, to be honest. The problem is, he should have known better. Horcrux creation is a dark, but highly difficult piece of magic to perform. But do you know the one thing, the unmistakably most crucial element needed to perform the rite? A fucking body, Hermione! You need to be able to hold a wand and say words! Old Tom was utterly destroyed in his body. There is literally no way he could have created a Horcrux or separated his soul without it. Fucking Dumbledore seemed to ignore this most basic fact.”

Harry was breathing heavily, angrily. Hermione waited with baited patience. Harry needed to vent. She was happy to let him.

“But I was so dumb. You know me, blindly follow whatever Dumbledore said. Like he was some infallible god. Merlin, I was retarded. So Dumbledore thought I was a Horcrux and that Tom would somehow kill the Horcrux-bit in me without fully killing my body. Don’t ask how…he didn’t really explain that part.

“But I just believed Snape’s memories. I should have known that was part of Dumbledore’s master plan. He spelled his Pensieve to corrupt Snape’s memories when they interacted, as though he expected that I’d get to see them in some fashion. Dunno if he knew Snape would have to be killed for it. Not that he would have cared. He was a sly old fucker.

“So, the way it was put to me, I had to die to give everyone a chance. He didn’t tell me that I’d die and come back or anything. Just that I would die. End of. And I just believed it without question.”

“Why didn’t you come and speak to me!” Hermione cried hotly. She was almost yelling in her anger. “I could have told you how wrong Dumbledore was. I practically memorised that book on Horcrux creation.”

“I know…I know,” said Harry, tiredly. “I placed my faith in Dumbledore above you. It was a massive, massive mistake. It led to everything that’s happened since. Forgive me, Hermione. I was so, so wrong.”

“Oi…I allowed you one apology. You’re skirting your limits with two.”

“I can’t promise not to beg again,” said Harry. “I’ve just got so much to regret with you.”

Hermione felt a weird knot coil in her stomach and her heart leapt into her mouth. She shivered pleasantly under Harry’s gaze. So fierce and protective, even with just one eye. It was startling.

“So what happened in the forest?”

Harry scoffed. “I opened the Snitch, remember the one I was left in Dumbledore’s will? Well, turns out he’d hidden the Resurrection Stone in it. I’d have plumped for a high security Gringotts vault, myself, but there we are.”

“You didn’t…use it, did you?”

“Of course I did,” said Harry bluntly. “I’d pissed myself on the way down to the forest. I was so afraid.”

“Oh, Harry! Don’t you ever learn? That’s why you should never go anywhere without me! You can’t be trusted not to be so stupid!”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Harry said, with a crooked smirk. “Anyway, it didn’t work as it was meant to because I didn’t have all the Hallows on me at the time. Oh, and the fact that Dumbledore had cast a nasty little jinx on it to produce facsimiles of the dead that would further his plan.”

“Who came out?”

“My mum and dad, Sirius and Lupin,” said Harry simply. “Formed a creepy little suicide squad that accompanied me to my death. I was mindless at that point, Hermione. I think I’d had a little break from reality in truth.”

“Oh my fucking dear lord!” Hermione whispered aghast.

“So, in we pop to the forest,” Harry went on conversationally. “My mother and father, my godfather and my favourite teacher, all waving cheerfully as I stood in the middle of a circle of fifty Death Eaters and Riddle himself. I didn’t even question it. My mum was practically encouraging me to stand in front of Riddle’s wand. What the fuck was up with that? The shame of my idiocy is almost as strong as my guilt over you. Almost.”

“Then?” Hermione prodded.

“Avada Kedavra!” Harry hissed darkly. “Boom! I woke up and thought I was in some proto-afterlife. A misty version of Kings Cross. Bumbledore was there. Tried to explain this fucked up plan of his. I don’t know it if was real, or a dream. All I know it that it was wrong. He was wrong. Fundamentally.

“Meanwhile, back in the forest, Tom’s getting to his feet and sending Narcissa Malfoy to make sure I’m dead. I’m not. But I’m in such a deep coma I might as well have been. What Riddle doesn’t know is that Narcissa is a double agent. She’s on my side. She’s an Acolyte of St David. Part of a group that’s been trying to look after me all my life. She lied to Riddle, he thought he’d won, killed me. Then Narcissa conspired a way to get my body away from Hogwarts. I woke up properly in a cold catacomb. Underneath this house.

“It was five months later.”

Hermione gasped again, her eyes wide and startled.

“I went absolutely mental, as you might guess,” Harry went on. “For two weeks I was apparently wild. I had to be magically sedated in the end. Then my mind sort of caught up with my body and I settled down. I wanted to go straight out and back into the fight, to rescue everyone.

“But things had already changed by then. The final Phoenix members were dead. The heads of McGonagall and Shacklebolt were mounted, I heard. Riddle brought into the open all the secret changes his insiders had been making. The Wizengamot was disbanded, the Ancient houses subjugated or slaughtered. It was chaos. But I don’t need to tell you any of that.”

“No, it was pretty horrific,” Hermione agreed. “And it just got worse once they started herding squibs and non-Purebloods into the camps. But where were you? Who were you with?”

“Narcissa sent me here, to the ancient seat of my family,” Harry explained. “Celtic magic protected it, you know, as soon as I arrived and essentially took ownership. It activated all sorts of ancient protections. It’s also the headquarters of an equally ancient group of knights, warrior-wizards sworn to protect my family line. The Knights of St David, they are called. I spent the first three months of my resurrection learning all about them. My mother and father knew all about it. They were members, or under their protection.”

“But why?”

“This is quite a big secret, Hermione…can I trust you?”

She huffed at him. “Of course you can.”

Harry took a steadying gulp of air. “Generations ago, my family ruled a huge kingdom in this part of Wales,” he began. “Their most famous king was a man named Owain Than-gwyn. You might know him by a slightly different name. Most of history certainly does.”

“Which is?”

Harry scoffed at her. “This will be so much more dramatic if you let me tell it my way.”

Hermione grinned at him and motioned him to continue.

“Anyway,” Harry continued. “Owain was a giant of a man for his time. Easily six-foot-five at a time when most tall men barely reached five foot. He was a freak, an abhorration of nature. And he was an utter animal in battle. Vicious and practically unbeatable. It earned him the nickname of The Bear. Do you know what the old Welsh is for bear, Hermione?”

“I don’t know what the current Welsh word for bear is, Harry.”

“Well, its arth,” Harry explained. “And the definitive article in Welsh is ur.”

“So his nickname was Ur Arth?” askedHermione. “The Bear?”

“Sort of. But Welsh syntax is the reverse of English.”

“So…its Arth..Ur..?” Hermione’s jaw dropped open. “Arthur…not the Arthur?”

Harry just grinned at her.

“Merlin’s beard!”

“Which brings us neatly to him,” said Harry. “History became legend over the centuries, Hermione. Different writers embellished the story and the truth got buried somewhere. The reality is that Merlin was part of a triad relationship with Uther Pendragon and his wife, Igraine. Uther saw the advantage of having an offspring with powerful magical skill, so Merlin sired Arthur with Igraine. He’s his true father. When Merlin was betrayed and murdered by one of his apprentices, Uther adopted Arthur as his own and the legend was born.

“A ritual circle – known as The Round Table – was built and Knights from all over the realm were sworn into a brotherhood, to protect the line of Kings. There are branches everywhere, but the original one was founded right here, at Arthur’s birthplace. The Knights have guarded the bloodline for generations, and there are some pretty famous names on that list. Notably, Godric Gryffindor and, more lately, James Potter. And now…me.”

Hermione couldn’t move. She just let her mouth flap open and made little squeaking noises as Harry told his story.

“When my father was killed, the Knights tried to find me,” Harry went on. “My mother and father were getting heavily into ritual magic by that point. The Knights put them on that path well before my birth, and it intensified after they learned about the prophecy. My mother was inducted as an Acolyte, herself, after Hogwarts. They created a charm that would alert the Knights to my father’s death. Unfortunately, Sirius got to me first and followed Dumbledore’s orders to give me to Hagrid, who delivered me to Privet Drive. Thus began Dumbledore’s ill-judged tyranny over me.”

“Dumbledore loved you, Harry. I’m sure he did.”

“Maybe he did.” Harry took a heavy, patient breath. “Dumbledore was a hundred-and-fifty years old and was was borderline senile. He made mistake after mistake with me since I was thrust into orphanhood. His catalogue of errors made my life the hell it was. There was a support network for me right here. Dumbledore disregarded it, did his own thing. Broke a dozen laws in the process. But that’s for another day.

“His biggest mistake was regarding the prophecy. Of not understanding what they are, or how they truly work.”

Hermione edged forwards, impatient for the explanation.

“Dumbledore, like you, never paid much mind to divination or prophetic magic. You cast it off as ‘woolly’ and unreliable.”

“It is woolly and unreliable,” said Hermione, crossly.

Harry smiled at her. A sad, lopsided smile that didn’t reach the smashed side of his lips or his one eye.

“I can’t pretend to not be disappointed in you. I expected your experiences to have given you greater insight.”

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?” asked Hermione. She wasn’t getting any less cross.

Harry sighed. “You were once the custodian of a Time-Turner. It was a flagrant risk on Dumbledore’s part to give you that, by the way. It put, literally, the entire world in danger. Entrusting time itself to a thirteen year old girl? No mater how gifted you were. With Tom Riddle looking for any way of returning to power. What the actual fuck was he thinking?”

Hermione was affronted, but at the same time horrified. She knew Harry was making a very valid point, but he didn’t press it.

“Anyway, what was the main rule you learned about the Time-Turner? The one thing you couldn’t do with it?”

Hermione thought. “I couldn’t go forwards in time, only back.”

“Precisely. And why was that?”

“Because the future hasn’t been written yet,” Hermione recited. McGonagall’s voice was still clear in her mind.

“So where does prophecy fit into that?” Harry pressed. “How can one accurately, succinctly predict an unwritten future?”

“Obviously, you can’t.” Hermione was getting annoyed with Harry’s maddeningly patient air. She had a wild, fleeting idea of what it was like to talk to herself when she was explaining something, and being smug about it. She would have to stop doing that. “Hence why divination is woolly, unreliable and, frankly, a load of old rubbish.”

Harry smiled at her gently. He didn’t want to make her angry, that wasn’t his intention. He spoke softly with his next words.

“Yet you blindly followed me on a quest to destroy Horcruxes, to defeat Tom Riddle, when you knew my limitations as a wizard compared to his. When the best hope we had lay in a prophecy – a prediction of an unwritten future – that said I was fated to kill him. But gave no indication of how.”

Hermione stared at him. Her mouth had fallen open again. “Well, yes…but I…what I mean to say is that…well…”

Harry gave a bark of a laugh. “It’s okay to say you followed me because we were friends. I let you come for that reason. But the prophecy was still both our biggest source of hope and most horrific dose of reality. Apparently, I had the power to beat Riddle, but the reality was that none of us knew what that power was or how to harness it.

“Fucking Dumbledore said it was love. Bullshit. He thought if I sacrificed myself to Riddle I would save everyone. That my sacrifice would be like a giant version of what he thought my mum’s was for me. Like I’m so fucking special that my death meant more than that of anyone else who laid down their lives in defence of those they loved. It was one of Dumbledore’s more obscure mistakes.”

“Then your mum dying for you wasn’t the thing which gave you protection? But what about with Quirrell?” asked Hermione.

Harry smiled at her, it flashed a spark of emerald into the viridian of his eye. “You love to think. I love watching the process flit over your face. Indulge me, for old times.”

Hermione blushed and scrunched up her nose as she considered the problem. It was unbearably cute. Harry blinked to stop himself staring.

“Your mother and father knew of your heritage,” Hermione mused. “They were getting into naturalistic forms of magic after they found out. And they knew Vold…sorry, Riddle…was coming for you.”

“Good. Go on.”

“And your mother was excellent at charms and potions,” Hermione continued. Harry nodded. Hermione’s eyes widened as understanding dawned. “They knew you were going to be attacked! Your mother prepared you for it?”

“Good girl,” said Harry, lightly. “My mother and father turned their house into a ritual space as soon as Dumbledore essentially imprisoned them there. They needed to be ready. But, more than that, they knew what was going to happen.”

“In what way?”

“By understanding the nuances of the prophecy,” said Harry. “This branch of magic is a tricky thing. If you know something is going to happen, do your actions lead inevitably to it, or do they make it occur? Even if you try to prevent it? Its impossible to know. But the difference between my parents and Dumbledore is that my father was equally as clever and my mother far more insightful. Together, they understood the prophecy far beyond Dumbledore’s basic, flaky interpretation.

“You see, in his world view, either me or Riddle would die at the hands of the other. Basic as hell. No detail, no proactive effort to fulfil the terms. It would just happen. There it was, black and white. Fuck me, he was limited in his thinking. Anyway, my mother and father deconstructed it, realised that I would have a power which would enable me to win the fight. Dumbledore took it as Riddle giving me the power when he cursed me. But the prophecy doesn’t say that. In fact, it doesn’t describe that power at all. He marked me as his equal, but to beat him, I’d have to be his superior.”

Okay. I’m with you so far.”

“Stay with me,” Harry quirked. “It gets complicated. So there it is, long and short. Me versus Riddle and I, somehow, have the capacity to win. My mum and dad knew that, but they surmised that Riddle would too, and that he would come for me. They also knew that to get to me, he’d have to go through them. They would stand and fight, do their utmost to protect me for as long as they could, but Tom Riddle is the most powerful sorcerer in five hundred years. They couldn’t hope to win. But they knew I could…but obviously not as a baby.”

Hermione gasped. “So they sacrificed themselves? To prepare you for the future.”

“Merlin, you’re catching on fast,” said Harry, impressed. “Have I ever said how sexy your intelligence is?”

“Harry…” said Hermione, flushing.

“I make no apologies,” said Harry, unabashed. “I’ve faced death too many times in my life to give too much thought to propriety these days. But anyway, my parents knew that they would almost certainly die at the hands of Riddle. It was simple cause and effect. They wouldn’t allow that evil cunt to mark me without resistance, so they knew that whatever ‘marking me’ meant, it would only happen under duress. It was the only part of the prophecy that was certain to happen.

“So, instead of running from it, they decided to use it.”

“Wow,” said Hermione, quietly. She was still blushing from being called sexy. She hadn’t felt that in a while. She pushed it aside for now, albeit reluctantly. “But they could have just kept running.”

“And deny the world the only chance of freedom from Riddle?” asked Harry. “It would have been cowardly and shameful, just as if we had left that god-awful tent and Apparated away to Outer Mongolia and just left magical Britain to fend for itself. They couldn’t live with that any more than we could. With the idea of all those deaths on their hands. So they tried to do something extremely brave with what they knew.

“They were going to die. They knew that. Somehow, despite any effort they made, Riddle would find them. My mum worked out how. She was as logical as you. He would get to them via a weakness in their circle. He would torture and kill their friends one by one to find them. They started with the Longbottoms. Poor Frank and Alice. Left to the depravity of the Lestranges. It was Riddle’s insurance policy, in case he’d chosen the wrong boy to go after.

“My mum knew what would happen next. It would be Sirius or Lupin or even Petunia. And why should they suffer just to delay the inevitable? So they refused Dumbledore as Secret Keeper. They correctly guessed Riddle would target Pettigrew, the weakest of the Marauders. So they made him Secret Keeper, then began a considered campaign to marginalise him, belittle him, even. To make him think they were keeping him out of the inner circle and all the plans therein. It was psychological warfare against their friend, to drive him to Riddle. To save him being tortured by him. To play on his weaknesses and insecurities to ultimately keep him alive.”

“Harry! That’s terrible!”

“It’s dubious, yes, but they had the best intentions,” said Harry. “They wanted to draw Riddle to them, and save Pettigrew into the bargain, without it looking like that was what they were doing. They wanted Riddle in their space, where they would have the advantage, without him knowing it, without raising suspicions. He would be so mindless of the perceived victory, he’d make mistakes. He always does. Its a fundamental flaw of his. And their plan worked.”

“But you said they couldn’t beat him.”

“Not in the conventional sense, no,” Harry agreed. “But Riddle was doomed the moment he entered that house. It was their love versus his hate at that point. But on their ground, on their terms. They set ritual and runic traps for him everywhere and my father led him into each one. He was ridiculously brave, and so clever. They all drew aspects of Riddle’s power, duplicated it, then channelled it into me. The final one – the one that killed my Dad – was a Parselmagic spell. He didn’t even defend himself. He used blood magic on his death to funnel that ability into me.”

“So that Riddle couldn’t use snakes against you?” asked Hermione. She was slightly punch-drunk at the revelations.

“Or so that I could potentially use them against him” said Harry. “Making us equal, neutering that advantage he had.”

“Or, if you think about it, giving you the advantage,” said Hermione, excitedly. “Remember how the basilisk at Hogwarts answered to you? Maybe it recognised you as superior.”

“More than likely,” said Harry. “Either way, it was part of my parents’ plan to bring me to Riddle’s level.”

“So, what did your mum do?”

“Take a guess,” said Harry. “I wasn’t kidding when I said I love watching you think.”

Hermione coloured again. “A charm, maybe? Intensified by a ritual?”

“Spot on,” said Harry. “Ten points to Team Hermione. “It was a very specific charm. My mum invented it. It meant that Riddle’s harmful magic or intent couldn’t ever really go to its full effect against me, and me alone. She used her death to power the spell. It’s borderline necromancy, but I try not to think about that.

“So, Quirrell couldn’t touch me, not because some magic in my skin was repelling him – like stupid old Albus thought – but because he was actively trying to hurt me. When Riddle touched me in the graveyard, he was just making a point. If he’d tried to strangle me, or something, he would have received the same as Quirrell.”

“So the power he knows not is to able to be immune to him. He doesn’t know that. He will keep coming for me like a fool. And I’ll cut him down when he finds me.” 

“Ah, I understand,” said Hermione. “I think. The charm was against any intent to hurt you, not simply touch you. Your mum pretty much warded you against Riddle’s hate of you.”

“Right again, and that’s still the case. Its why I survived the Killing Curse. I’m not some miracle child impervious to the curse, I’m just immune to Riddle’s Killing Curse. Or any of his curses, actually. Its why I didn’t suffer as badly as I should have from his Cruciatus.” Harry’s breathing hitched. He turned on the stone bench to face her, unspeakable sorrow filling his eye. “I…I know what you went through…at Malfoy Manor. What Crucio really feels like. I’m so sorry you had to…”

Harry leant over and pressed a shaking hand to Hermione’s chest. He closed his eyes and breathed in. It was a pained, raspy gulp.

“You still feel it,” he whispered. “I know. I promise, when you’ve recovered your strength, I’ll take you into ritual. I’ll heal you, if you’ll let me.”

Hermione let out a choked sob, as though shocked by the promise, the compassion for her suffering. Nobody had understood before. Now Harry, through some innate process, suddenly did.

“I’ll let you,” she whimpered. She felt so small and weak, fragile in Harry’s strong presence. Somehow, though, she felt safer and more protected than she could ever remember. How was Harry doing this? She didn’t want to leave his side ever again if it meant feeling like this.

“I’ll make all this up to you, Hermione, I really will,” Harry vowed.

“I know you will,” she replied. “But you wont be making it up to me…you’ll be making it up to yourself. I don’t hold any of it against you, but I know you too well to argue. I just trust you’ll tell me when you think you’re forgiven.”

Harry laughed at that. “Shut up, Hermione. You’re making me laugh. I don’t do laughing.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Hermione. “We will have to address that. But tell me, if Riddle didn’t kill you with Avada Kedavra in the forest, why did you look dead?”

“I was massively comatose,” said Harry. “Like I said, I remember the curse, meeting Dumbledore in the afterlife, but when I woke up it was months later. Narcissa Malfoy cast a charm on me to make my skin cold and mask my pulse. I would have appeared dead to anyone who checked.”

“But they built a pyre and set you on fire!” Hermione exclaimed. “I saw it. Well, I saw what I could through my tears.”

Harry’s heart ached at the concept of Hermione distraught. His anger flared and the once steady trees nearby flapped wildly as his magic pulsed around them. Hermione took a tentative step. Neville had said Harry didn’t allow anyone to touch him. But he’d touched her, to calm her.

Turnabout was fair play, after all.

So she cautiously tracked a hand up his arm and splayed it against his chest. Harry’s breathing caught in his throat, but he didn’t stop her or withdraw. His heart was hammering so hard she was genuinely worried for him. But there was something inherently wonderful about feeling his heartbeat beneath her fingers, beating so strong, beating for her. Her own heart fluttered wildly at the sensation.

“That fire was yet another of showman Tom’s errors,” said Harry. “He really can be quite thick, for a wizard who is otherwise brilliant. The fire masked the phoenix apparition, which allowed me to escape suffering only superficial burns. They healed easily enough.”

“But there was a body…”

Harry sighed darkly. “That was also Narcissa’s doing. She arranged the switch for one of the Hogwarts dead. To this day I don’t know who it was. I’m not sure even she does. She just found some poor soul who’s body shape was similar to mine, cut a massive scar into his face – and lets be fair I’m so hideous who would want to check me close-up – then used the phoenix to switch the bodies on the pyre. Simple really, but effective. It happened so fast no-one was any the wiser. Even me. I just woke up in the catacombs with a sore face and a ton of questions.”

Hermione sat back, considering Harry’s words in wonder. “But I still don’t understand why Narcissa helped you at all. You say she’s an Acolyte of St David, but her husband was also a Death Eater.”

“A marriage she took at great risk to herself, to be an insider to the enemy,” Harry explained. “And to be able to keep a tab on me surreptitiously through Draco. She knew I was alive in that forest. She quickly Occlumens’d me to see if Draco had survived. She saw that we saved and spared him. She’s really very powerful, you know. Had she any lingering doubts about me, the act of saving her son convinced her to continue taking risks for me. She defied Riddle, lied directly to him. Then facilitated my rescue.”

“But to do what? She must have known that without you the world had lost its beacon of hope,” said Hermione. “That we’d all just crumble.”

“She knew of the prophecy, all branches of the Knights did,” said Harry. “So if I had survived Riddle, again, it must mean I was destined to win…somehow. Remember, at that point we had no idea how it was going to happen. It was quite an act of faith. She did her part, delivered my body to the Knights, then she took up her dual role again before anyone knew what had happened. She saved my life, Hermione.”

Hermione nodded as she considered that. “But then what?”

“The Knights had a simple task – get me ready to face Riddle again. To rid the world of the greatest threat to me. It was the best way to keep me alive. So they devised a proactive programme to improve my combat skills, to introduce me to the powers of runic and ritual magic. They’ve spent the last five years working to that purpose. Actually, more than that.”

“More?”

Harry nodded. “I’m a Potter, true to my name. We are alchemists, really. We take a transmuting agent – fire – and use it to turn a thing from one state to another. Accomplishing something nature would take much longer to do, do an exaggerated degree. That makes me a master of time as well.”

He pulled out a thin chain from around his neck. A very fine hourglass was suspended in a golden hoop within the chain. Hermione gasped as she saw it.

You have a Time-Turner!”

“Probably the oldest and most accurate one ever made,” said Harry. “It was necessary to facilitate my training. I’ve probably aged a good two years more than I look due to using this thing.”

“What training have you had?” asked Hermione, still marvelling at the Time-Turner.

“Where to start,” Harry sighed. “Understand, Hermione, they treated this as preparing me for a war. So I spent most of my time abroad. I was apprenticed to the Zauber Geheimdeinst, or ZGD for short, in Germany for over a year.”

“Who are the ZGD?”

“The German secret service branch of the International Confederation of Wizards,” Harry explained.

Hermione’s eyes widened. “You apprenticed with Hit Wizards?”

“The ZGD are the most highly-skilled and advanced organisation of their kind in the world,” said Harry. “I was mentored by a wizard named Dietmar Friedrich. The guy is an absolute badass. He took me on missions with him. Highly against ZGD protocols, obviously, but for Harry Potter some rules can be broken.”

“Harry…wait, missions?

“Yes. We went all over the world. You remember old Lockhart and his books? Well, that was my life for a while. Fighting Zombies in South Sudan was an interesting experience.”

“Zombies?” asked Hermione. She had paled.

“Reanimated corpses, Inferi, that sort of thing. There was a warlord there that the ICW had been after for a while. When Didi was done with him the guy had no limbs left.”

Harry closed his eyes in reverence. Hermione was shaking her head in wonder.

“So you were trained as a Hit Wizard? Wow. What else?”

“After Berlin came Buenos Aires. I think,” said Harry.

“Why were you in Argentina?”

“A man named Florentin Perez,” said Harry. “Current World Duelling Champion. I spent months working with him. Got more use of the Time-Turner there than anywhere. His closest challenger for the title, a French woman named Sophie Dechartres, joined us for much of it. She’s, frankly, terrifying. She has two wands, you know.”

“Really?” said Hermione. “So, you’re now a highly trained magical secret agent and world-class dueller? This is getting pretty hot, Harry.”

Harry shied away. “The ICW considers me a Class One War Mage, actually. First one to reach that level in about two centuries.”

“Hotter still,” said Hermione, leaning back. “So now you’ve come back to save the world?”

Harry grinned. “I only came back to Britain when Neville contacted me. Said he needed back-up for a dangerous mission. Turns out he was just going to propose to Enola and he needed support. He was a nervous wreck, bless him.”

“How did Neville get involved?”

“He’s a descendant of Gryffindor,” said Harry. “Not Godric, but his younger brother, Taliesin. When he took possession of Gryffindor’s sword to kill Nagini, it recognised he was in danger and transported him away. Poor Nev, he was trapped in a Gringotts vault in the pitch darkness for three days until the Knights finally discovered whose vault he ended up in. He still doesn’t like to sleep with all the lights off.”

“Poor Neville!” Hermione cried. “Poor Enola! Its a wonder she gets any sleep at all!”

Harry quirked his eyebrow at her. “I didn’t put your room too close to theirs, did I? I know they can get…er…pretty passionate when Alison isn’t there. I was going to turn the whole East wing over to them…the rest of the castle would certainly approve…”

“Harry!…” Hermione admonished with a crimson blush, swatting at him playfully. Harry looked down to the spot where they’d connected. Hermione was horrified. “Harry…I’m sorry.”

“You know,” he said quietly, “Normally, I don’t like anyone touching me. But with you…I don’t know…I-I don’t mind. I let Neville touch me for healing rituals and things. But he’s the only one. And even that is because I have no choice. I’d rather he didn’t, to be honest.”

“But you don’t mind me?” Hermione’s voice quavered as she asked.

Harry shook his head and looked down at his forearm, where Hermione’s hand had found its way to rest. He might have been looking at curiosity itself, such was the child-like expression on his face. Hermione took a shuddering breath and a huge risk. She brought her hand up, snaked it shakily around his shoulder. Harry tensed, then seemed to give in to her. Emboldened, she curled her other arm around his neck and linked her fingers together at his nape. Gently, and with several false starts of uncertainty, she coaxed his broken head towards her until he surrendered utterly and turned to rest it on her shoulder.

His whole body sagged into her embrace and she pulled him impossibly tight, with a snatched movement that ignored all her previous restraint. She felt years of tension in his body release then, in a reaction that stunned her completely, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her practically into his lap. She went without a moments resistance. She didn’t know what this was, or what was really happening, only that she wanted to be here more than any other place in the world.

She curled her fingers into his hair and placed a shy kiss to his forehead. She felt rather brazen, to be allowed such intimacy with a man renowned for his solitude.

“You know, I’ve been talking with Enola about you,” she whispered breathily into his ear. “About me and you, specifically. She’s been saying some rather interesting things.”

Harry laughed. “I bet she has. She never could keep a secret.”

“You’re doing a pretty awful job of it yourself.”

“Yet you’re still here.”

Hermione increased the pressure of their hug. “I didn’t say I didn’t like what she had to say…or that I didn’t feel the same. Exactly the same, in case you were wondering.”

Harry took a turn at deepening their embrace. There wasn’t much more they could do before they fused together.

“Pity you’re already married,” Harry teased.

Hermione stiffened and scoffed loudly. “Don’t ever mention that, Harry. I have no guilt if you don’t.”

“None at all,” Harry replied. “But I could grant you a divorce. I’m technically the ruler of this country. I have that sort of power, you know.”

Hermione thought a moment. “I’d prefer you to make me a widow.”

“Consider it done,” said Harry darkly. “Any other favours?”

“Do you mind?”

Harry moved his head back and held her gaze with a steady look. The emerald sparkle was back in his eye.

“For you…anything. Do you like the house? If things turn out right, it could be all yours.”

Hermione gasped and felt a flush rush up from her chest at Harry’s blatant suggestion. It was a little overwhelming. She gathered her rampant thoughts.

“Actually, I was going to ask you if you could go and rescue Susan Bones,” said Hermione. “She’s been my best friend for the last few years. She’s married to Blaise Zabini and he batters her worse even than Ron did to me. I hate to think of her suffering still.”

Hermione wasn’t about to ignore the hurt and disappointed look on Harry’s face though. She grinned at him mischievously.

“And, as far as the house goes, I think we should have the East wing. It has the best view of the gardens. Besides, I don’t want your magic to wake anyone up when we make love. I’ve heard you often lose control. I can’t wait for you to lose control with me.”

Harry’s mouth fell open a moment, before he fell back laughing.

“And my face doesn’t bother you?”

“Harry – I swear we will find a way to fix that,” said Hermione. “I wont rest till I know how. But if we never do, I wont care one bit. If we do it, we’ll do it for you.”

“Then in lieu, let me do what I can for you,” said Harry standing.

Hermione’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You’re going for Susan now?

“If she’s getting beaten up by Zabini, as you say, I wont let her stay there a moment longer than she has to,” said Harry stoutly. “Besides, I’ve been itching to use this.”

Harry flicked his robe to reveal the shining silver sword dangling from his hip.

“Harry…” Hermione whispered breathlessly. “Is that…?”

Harry smiled. “Yes it is. And Excalibur hasn’t tasted blood in centuries. She must be thirsty.”

And with that Harry swept away without another word, leaving Hermione feeling hotter than the sun.  

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