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Stories begun in 2006 (post-HBP)

Author Notes:

This is the final, edited, complete version of Harry Potter and the Last Horcrux. Chapters 1 through 14 were completely written prior to publication of Deathly Hallows in 2008; chapters 15 through 19 and the alternate ending were in draft or outline form by that time

SIX
Home Is Where Your Friends Are

July 17, 1998     Hogwarts Castle and environs, Perth & Kinross, Scotland


Harry leant against one of the parapets atop the Astronomy Tower, where he had spent much of the night poring over the long-hidden true grimoire of Rowena Ravenclaw.  An orange glow crept slowly up the backside of the hills to the east.  The sky had already lightened from black to grey.  From his particular vantage point, Hogwarts looked almost as if nothing had happened:  as if the halls should be overrun with students concerned about nothing more than the quality of their revising, as if Hagrid should be lumbering across the grounds with his mad-creature-of-the-day, as if Dumbledore should occupy the centre chair at the staff table as he presided over one feast or another.

“Feeling better, I trust?” McGonagall said from behind him. 

Harry wrapped his hand around the nearest brickwork; “Bloody sodding… I almost fell!”

“Language, Mr. Potter.  It is easy to forget how silently I can move about.  I'm sorry that you were startled,” McGonagall said.

Harry took slow breaths and wrested his hand from the stone rail.  “No harm done,” he said in a shaky voice.

“It seems that much harm has been done,” McGonagall offered.  She glided to stand beside him and faced the sunrise.

“That’s all in the past,” Harry said.

McGonagall's eyes swept the grounds as she offered, “Hogwarts will come back, you know.  That is my purpose now.  It will come back, I promise you.”

“If I do my job, you mean?” Harry added.  Before McGonagall could speak, he went on, “I hope you’re right, I hope it comes back.  It needs to be here for people like me.  It… this was my home once.”

McGonagall said firmly, “Hogwarts remains your home, Harry.  Hogwarts will be your refuge whenever you should need her.”

“I like the sunrise,” Harry said; “I used to sit in the window and watch it from the dormitory.”

“And did you read as you watched, or are you taking up a new pastime?” McGonagall asked.

He said, “Hermione's not the only one willing to open a book, you know?  It's textbooks I don't care for... hundred pages of twaddle for every useful bit.  This Grimoire is about doing things.”

“That 'twaddle' represents a thousand years of intensive study and improvements in practice, Potter.  Our people have deified the Hogwarts founders for far too long, and I ask that you reject that example.  Rowena Ravenclaw, for all her greatness, could not have performed much of third-year transfiguration – even the tools for constructing the spells at that level did not yet exist,” McGonagall said archly.

“Could you re-enchant the Great Hall's ceiling, Professor?  Someone will have to do it eventually.” Harry retorted.

“It is true that many of the great techniques for magical construction have been lost to the ages,” the Headmistress admitted begrudgingly.

Harry said, “Ravenclaw did it in the first place.  I always figured it was some kind of enormous charm, but it was mostly done with runes.  She wrote the instructions in here, and not just for the ceiling.  There are a good two hundred pages on the wards alone.”

“Merlin bless us!  It's a manual for reconstructing the castle!” McGonagall gasped.

“I asked one of the house elves to copy anything to do with the castle.  It's all waiting at your desk.  Back to the book, though: there's not a jot of theory in here, at least not what passes for it in class.  She spends a lot of time on intention and symbols, but the rest is all practical,” Harry said.

“This was Madam Ravenclaw's personal Grimoire, Potter.  It stands to reason that its content assume a level of knowledge equal to that which she herself possessed,” McGonagall countered.

“Maybe so, but it's not just a stack of notes either.  Like you said, the theories didn't exist then.  I think I could manage most of the ward work described in here.  Honestly, we make magic more complicated than it really is.  I mean... it's magic,” said Harry.

McGonagall put on a thin smile.  “That is a very, very old argument; perhaps we can enter into it another time,” she said.

“Easier to just watch the sunrise, I suppose,” Harry snorted.

After a long silence, McGonagall told him, “The sunrise is hope given form.”

Harry turned to her and smiled.  “You sounded like Dumbledore just then.”

“I believe that comes from something I once read... and I must admit that despite yesterday’s events, I consider your comment to be a compliment,” McGonagall sighed.

“I don’t hate him,” Harry said.  “Part of me wants to… hate him, I mean… but I can’t hold onto it.”  He let out a bitter laugh and added, “Maybe it’s one of his potions, still working on me?”

“I rather doubt –” McGonagall began.

“Did he ever care?” Harry cut her off; “Was it all some sort of play-acting?  He said I wasn’t just a weapon… but he said a lot of things.  I don’t know what to believe.”

“He cared for you, I will attest to that,” McGonagall said firmly.  “If Albus was guilty of anything, it was that he cared too much.  Over the years I learned that when he cared deeply about someone, he would go to absurd lengths in order to assure that person’s well-being and happiness.  Despite his insistence on a lack of regrets, I do believe that he felt very badly about your childhood.  He allowed you more latitude than any other student in all of my years as a Professor, and he extended that latitude to Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley – and ultimately to young Miss Weasley, as well – solely because they were your friends.”

“They’re my family,” Harry said.

“Yes, I suppose that they are,” McGonagall allowed, “and I imagine Albus understood that to be the case.”

“I’ve already lost my parents,” Harry said; “I can’t lose them as well.”

“That lies mostly beyond your control,” McGonagall returned.

“If Dumbledore really cared, he would have kept them away from me,” Harry said.  “Maybe the Weasleys would have been pulled in anyway, what with the Order and all, but Hermione… he should have kept her away.”

“Albus was a powerful wizard,” McGonagall smiled, “but hardly that powerful.”

“He didn’t let the troll in, I suppose… you know, first year?” Harry said with a small smile; “I think that’s still the best thing I’ve ever done, and Ron probably thinks the same.” 

“You know, of course, that Albus was an alchemist,” McGonagall began, “and he forever saw the world and its inhabitants through that prism.  I believe that this is the best way to understand last year.  His portrait hinted at as much, actually, in one of its lucid moments.  Surely you can see that Albus viewed your life as an alchemical quest?”

“I… hadn’t thought about it.  That's, erm, that's pretty deep...” Harry said hesitantly.

McGonagall offered, “The end goal of your quest is to vanquish Voldemort, to restore balance between light and dark, to –”

Harry stopped her; “I do know what an alchemical quest is... just hadn't seen it that way, that's all.”

“Alchemists seek their personal balance as well, as they proceed with their quest.  You are aware of alchemical symbolism for the concluding phases of a quest – of creating a Philosopher’s Stone?” McGonagall asked.

“I remember something about opposites, and a queen…?” Harry ventured.

McGonagall nodded and explained, “I don’t pretend to possess a sickle’s worth of alchemical knowledge in comparison to Albus, but I do understand the essentials.  You’re referring to the white queen.  Now, present-day alchemists consider this to express integration of the feminine parts of the soul.  Keep in mind, however, that Albus was trained by Nicolas Flamel.  Flamel was a classical alchemist.  To him, the white queen was corporeal.  Have you heard of a soror mystica?  Flamel’s wife Perenelle was his soror mystica – his partner, his white queen.  I don’t believe that Albus set out to pair you with Miss Weasley, but I can easily believe that he set out to assure that you found your white queen.  He did believe that love was the key to your destiny, after all.  I can also imagine that the two of you evoked in Albus memories of your parents… I admit that I succumbed to the image on more than one occasion.”

“Opposites… sulphur and mercury, he said…” Harry said as his eyes lit; “Ron and Hermione, was that his idea?”

“Mr. Weasley could be the Red King as well, in a classical interpretation,” McGonagall said.  “I can tell you that Albus was immensely pleased… relieved, in fact, as the end neared.  He did not want you to be alone, even if it was necessary for you to fulfil your destiny alone.”

“I’m not alone,” Harry said.

“I assume that Phineas was telling the truth in one respect?” McGonagall asked.  “I am of course aware that you broke off with Miss Weasley last summer, though she and some others insisted that this was in order to protect her.”

“It started that way,” Harry allowed.

McGonagall closed her eyes; “And now?”

“She hasn’t been there this year, and that was for the best – she couldn't have handled it, not this.  She just doesn’t understand.  I need to be with people who understand what I have to do,” Harry said.   

McGonagall asked, “It is well and truly done between the two of you, then?”

“There’s no going back, not that I can see,” Harry said.  “I don’t expect I’ll live, anyway… best that Ginny thinks what she wants to think.”

McGonagall’s eyes flickered and she admonished him, “You should not be so cavalier about matters of life and death.”

Harry brushed back his fringe, highlighting his scar.  “After I destroy Hufflepuff’s cup and Slytherin’s locket, there’s one horcrux left,” he said; “It’s me, Professor.”

“I… well, I don’t believe that for a moment,” McGonagall said, but there was no conviction in her voice.

Harry explained, “Voldemort didn’t intend for it to be me.  I think he was going to use my death to make one, though.  When everything backfired, I took on a piece of him.”

McGonagall pursed her lips in thought before she said, “Hence the behaviour of the scar, the long-distance connection… is this just a fleeting thought, or have you subjected thisnotion of yours to study?”

“Hermione agrees with me.  She came to the same idea on her own.  I haven’t told anyone else,” Harry said.

McGonagall drifted back and forth across the top of the tower, as if pacing.  “I recommend that you keep this close,” she said after a time; “It’s not something that Voldemort and his supporters should know, certainly, and the Order could not cope with the matter – at least not in its former incarnation.  I see that you have collected Ravenclaw's true Grimoire, so perhaps you are needed elsewhere.”

Harry was startled by the rapid change in her manner; he started,  “Professor, I…”

McGonagall wouldn’t face him as she said, “You’ve had a single companion for quite some time, Remus tells me.  Given the ritual that Miss Granger performed on you – some would say that her actions bordered on necromancy, you realise? – I simply can’t…” She stopped, clearly distressed.  When she regained herself, she went on crisply.  “I can not view her as a white queen, not in the sense that Albus would have intended.  Has she become something of a grey queen to you, Mr. Potter?”

Harry ground his teeth and returned, “Ron told you what she did… or was it Remus?”  When she wouldn’t meet his eye, he asked, “Do you know what I did in return, then?”

McGonagall turned and crooked an eyebrow; “What could you possibly have done –?”

Excratio pensare.  Heard of it?  Wouldn't surprise me if you haven't – it's not easy to find,” Harry snapped.

McGonagall’s face went slack; “You took on the curse?  You share it with her now?  You… you foolish, foolish…!”

“She – was – dying!” Harry fired back.  “She decided to kill herself so that I could kill Voldemort, and I wouldn’t let her do it!  I couldn’t let her do it!”

“Do you understand that excratio pensare is irrevocable?” McGonagall demanded.  “If either of you are ever seriously cursed – ever, Mr. Potter – you’ll share it to some degree!  If you should fall to Voldemort…” 

Harry could scarcely bite back his anger.  “I didn’t consider it when I cast, but I wouldn’t do anything differently,” he snarled. “If I hadn’t done it, she would be dead right now.  If I can beat him, if I can kill Voldemort, then we’ll both live.  If I can’t… then at least she’s spending time with her parents now, before… well… if Voldemort wins then I suppose we’ll go out together, Hermione and me.”  He stared at her defiantly and pretended that the entire situation didn’t leave a hitch in his chest, before he concluded, “It was the best chance she had, the only one.”

“No one your age should have to make that sort of choice,” McGonagall said sadly, and then added, “No one at all should face it… but we are at war.”

“It’ll be over soon,” Harry said.  “Either way, it’ll be over.”

“How can we aid you?” McGonagall asked.  “Do you or Miss Granger believe that there is something else of use within the Grimoire?”

Harry said, “I’m hoping to find a spell, a potion, a talisman – anything – that Hermione can use… see, there’s one possibility that worries me: I kill Voldemort, but he kills me.  I know we can’t break the connection, but there has to be something that will dull it somehow.”

“There is also the possibility that she could be killed before you reach Voldemort, rendering you helpless or worse,” McGonagall said darkly.

The hitch in his chest grew painful.  “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said quietly.

“The house-elves will comb the Library under our direction.  If anything exists that could be of help, we will find it for you,” McGonagall promised.

“As soon as we have Voldemort’s location, we’ll have to make a move,” Harry said.  The prospect was exciting and terrifying all at once.  It was at last the right time, he was sure.

“I now possess a great advantage with regard to research,” McGonagall said, “as I have no need for sleep.  Retrieve the Grimoire, and go.”  She hesitated, as though unsure whether to say more.  “If something needs to be done, Harry… if something needs to be said… don’t squander these last days.”

Harry nodded; “I won’t, Professor,” he said.

As Harry made for the door to the stairs, McGonagall called out, “Unlike Albus, I have regularly suffered regrets.  I wish we had spoken like this before now.  I wish I’d taken more involvement in watching after you.  I wish that none of this was happening.”

Harry stopped and turned to face his former Professor.  “Thank you, Professor McGonagall,” he said; “Thank you for everything.”

“It has been my honour, Harry.  Despite what I said before… if you would, please let Miss Granger know…” McGonagall said with a stricken expression; “Please let her know… that no matter what she has done, no matter what she – or you – must do… please tell her that I considered her my protégé, and that I hold her in the highest possible esteem.”

Harry managed a wan smile and said, “I’ll tell her.  It’ll mean a great deal, I know.” 

Shortly thereafter, he collected Ron, thanked Dobby and the rest of the house-elves profusely, and made off for the Vauxhall Cresta.  They piled into the ancient car – it took six turns of the key before the rusty beast turned over – and Harry began to put distance between himself and Hogwarts, between himself and the past.  It was the future that mattered, however brief that future might be.

 

July 18, 1998     John O’ Groats Ferry, between John O’ Groats and Burwick

The silver-grey sea churned where the Orkney Ferry cut through it.  Harry leant against the deck rail and looked first to the horizon and then in the direction of the dock that he could no longer see.  The cottage was still faintly visible amongst a smattering of cottages at water’s edge.  He and Ron had spent the night there; Ron had been exhausted when they had reached John O’ Groats but unwilling to admit it.

The rap-tap of Ron’s cane rang against the decking.  “We’re not in Ottery St. Catchpole any more, are we?” he muttered.

“I like it here,” Harry said.

Ron smiled and joined Harry at the rail.  He said, “You know, I admit it – me too.  The Faroes were better, though – that’s closer to Iceland than here but it’s different there… more… inviting, I guess.”

“Met Gudrun there, did you?” Harry teased.

“Oi!  Enough with Gudrun, right?” Ron snapped.

“Easy, Ron!  It’s been too long since I could wind you up,” Harry grinned.

“It has, hasn’t it?” Ron said quietly.  He faced into the wind, hair pulled back and tucked into the pea-coat that he wore, red wisps strewn about his face.  He squinted ahead with pinked cheeks. 

Ron looked as if he belonged at sea, Harry thought, and he wondered if he knew Ron any more.  It wasn’t the same sort of distance that he felt from Ginny.  Ginny remained young, too young and too vulnerable in the ways that mattered now, but Ron seemed older – more mature than Harry felt himself, in truth.  It was a monumental change in a few short months.  As Harry watched Ron stare toward the land ahead, it occurred to him that the change had been longer in coming.  Their months on the move had already tempered Ron; the recovery from his injuries had merely sealed matters.

“We’re still friends, aren’t we?” Harry blurted out.

Ron whirled around so fast that he had to clutch at the rail.  “Bloody hell!  Are you serious?” he squeaked.

Harry recoiled.  “I don’t know… things change, people change… just asking, mate…” he stammered.

“Some things don’t change,” Ron said.  “Some things do, I suppose – some should, right?  Not that, Harry.  Never that.”

“See, the Ron I know, he wouldn’t say that,” Harry said.

Ron rolled his eyes.  “What, all I’m supposed to ask after is the next meal?”

Harry grinned and said, “Well…”

Ron leant hard against the rail; “I was always the funny one.  Never cared for that, actually – didn’t know that, did you?  It just seemed like every time I tried to be something different, you know… I’d end up being absolutely pants at it, and it was back to being funny again.  The hero, the funny sidekick and the bookworm – that was us.”

“I think better of you than that,” Harry said.

“Not always,” Ron countered, “and I’ve deserved it a time or two.”

“Maybe a time or two, then,” Harry admitted.

“Oi, you weren’t supposed to agree that fast!” Ron said.

The ferry started to rock amidst strengthening waves and both of them found their attention drawn to the sea for a time.  The water was more like a potion in the making than the calm pensieve of days prior. 

Ron cleared his throat.  “This is it, isn’t it?” he said without looking Harry’s way.

“I expect it is,” Harry said. 

“A few days you-know-where, then you and Hermione are off, and it’s over not long after that,” Ron said.

“I don’t know – it might go that way, it might not,” Harry said.  Hermione certainly wouldn’t be going with him, not unless they could break or block the curse-sharing bind.  It had occurred to him that distance might be the best possible defence.

“I suppose I won’t be there – you wouldn’t want me in the way,” Ron said.  “That’s why I went to Hogwarts with you, see?  I didn’t want it to end on the Cup, didn’t want that to be the way people remembered us.  This time out, we actually did away with a horcrux.  Well, you did it while I hid in the corridor –” Harry burst out laughing, and Ron pouted, “Oh, fine – laugh it up!”

“You can make me laugh when everything else is completely cocked-up,” Harry said.  “Don’t make that seem as if it’s nothing.”  He coughed, then added, “Besides, didn’t Hermione tell us that the winner writes the history?  It’ll be you and Hermione writing, then, so I figure you’ll make out all right.”

“You’re going to win, aren’t you?” Ron asked.

“Yeah,” Harry said.  “I have to win.  I’m going to rid us of him, once and for all.”

“I want you to say you’re coming back,” Ron insisted.

“I can’t –” Harry began.

Say it,” Ron demanded.

Harry gulped, “Ron… no promises, mate…”

“You need to think you’re coming back, for her sake,” Ron said, “and you damn well know who I mean so don’t even try taking the mickey out of me.  If you get yourself killed, it’ll be me writing that history on my own and you know I’d be pants at that.”

Harry sighed, “How am I supposed to do it?  Do you know something I don’t?”

Ron shrugged.  “I’m not the bookworm, remember?  Thing is, you’ve a fair number of those when we get to you-know-where.”

“I know,” Harry began; “Hermione will be ready to –”

“It has to be more than Hermione this time,” Ron said.

“Who, then?  Let me guess – Gudrun?” Harry asked.

Ron scowled at Harry.  “Sure, why not… and Lupin, and Bill, and those ponces from the Department of Mysteries – they have to be good for something, right? – and anyone else we can find with a good head for this sort of thing,” he returned.

Harry deflated.  His heart kept telling him that this was something left entirely to him – that he and he alone would see it through, for his parents, to Dumbledore, to everyone Voldemort had ever touched.  His head knew better – he needed help, at least for last preparations.  “Thanks,” he mumbled.

“S’all right,” Ron said gruffly.  They both looked steadfastly to the sea for a while.  Burwick was drawing closer.  The ferry was crowded with holidaymakers, many of them bussing from Inverness, but most were huddled inside against the wind.  “I’m horrid at this, too, all this feelings business... not the sort of thing for decent lads,” Ron added.

“You’re a good friend, Ron – the best,” Harry said.  “You’re my best friend.”

“That’s so? What does that make Hermione, then?” Ron quipped.

“Hermione and me, we’re just… it’s just that… I don’t know…” Harry struggled.  “We just are, you know?”

“I know, mate, I know.  She does that to a bloke,” Ron said.  “Er, here’s the thing… if I can’t go along, then you have to come back.  Simple, really.”  He put his hand atop Harry’s shoulder, gave a squeeze, then let go.

Harry couldn’t look at his oldest, best friend just then.  “You’re not bad at this,” he managed.  “Rather good, actually.  Emotional range of, what, you figure?  Tablespoon?  A level cup, maybe?”

Ron let out a barking laugh.  “Never going to let that go, are you?”

Harry shook his head and grinned.  “Wasn’t planning on it, no.”

 

July 18, 1998     East Mainland, Orkney Islands

Ron shouted something at Harry, but he couldn’t hear it over the wind.  He pulled the motorbike to the side, and tipped up his helmet.  “What?” he shouted, though he didn’t mean to shout.

“I said this is like scooting down a flight of stairs on my arse!” Ron shouted back.  He wore a leather helmet with absurd goggles that belonged on an aeroplane flyer from a long-ago Muggle War – like the bloody Red Baron, Harry thought.

“Sorry, mate – I didn’t plan this out, though.  This is entirely Remus’s doing,” Harry said.  He’d figured on Lupin leaving them another rusted hulk.  When the attendant at the ferry terminal’s long-stay car park had handed over the keys to an antique motorbike with side-car, both Harry and Ron had been more than a little surprised.

Ron fiddled with a map that looked as old as the side-car.  He ventured, “Erm... we are on the east road out of… Kirkwall, right?”

“That’s right,” Harry confirmed.  “I still haven’t a clue about a ‘Royal Burgh’; Kirkwall looks a mite small to be a Royal anything, I figure.”

“Yeah, well… we’re on the right path, then,” Ron said.  “It’s out on a nasty spit of land called Deerness, ‘round back of this old ruin.  Getting the Muggles to stay clear took a lot of work, I can tell you.”

“You… you think Hermione’s all right?” Harry asked.

Ron shrugged.  “You’re all right, so she’s all right – that’s how I see it.  Speed it up, will you?  I can’t take much more; I’ll be an hour just crawling out of this thing.”

“I can just cut it in half when we get there,” Harry offered.

“You’d do that, wouldn’t you?” Ron laughed, then added, “Bloody show-off,” under his breath.

The land was barren, even when compared to the northernmost reaches of the Scottish mainland.  They saw no trees beyond Kirkwall, nor any bushes save a few meagre outcroppings of heather.  The settlement crept up on them, appearing almost from nowhere as they reached the far side of the peninsula of Deerness.  There was little to distinguish it from other hamlets that they’d seen, though it occurred to Harry that there were more people milling around than the small number of buildings warranted.  It was only when the shock of recognition set in amongst a few onlookers that Harry knew they had arrived.

“Keep going,” Ron shouted over the din of the engine.  “We’re set up just past the thick of things, beyond the ruins.” 

People were waving madly now, and Harry nervously waved back; he didn’t see anyone who he knew.  “Erm, you don’t think I should stop?” he shouted.

“I want out of this thing, and we’d be stuck here all afternoon,” Ron fired back; “Like I said, keep going.”  Harry looked over his shoulder and realised that a lot of people were inclined to follow them.

The house brought to mind a more plausible version of the Burrow – two floors and a garret, but wider at the bottom than the top for a start.  Even without the sense of magic, it seemed a homey place.  Wash hung on two lines that ran from the porch to a tall stake, and Harry thought he spied goats wandering about.  Mrs. Weasley was on the porch, about to go inside with a basket.  She heard the motorbike and let the basket drop, then dashed down the steps.  Harry came to a quick stop just before she was upon them.

“Harry!  Good gracious – Harry!” she shrieked and enveloped him in a tremendous hug before he could even plant his feet.

“Hello, Mrs. Weasley,” he wheezed.

“Nice to see you too, Mum,” Ron grumbled as he stripped off helmet and goggles and began a futile attempt to free himself from the side-car.

“Oh, I don’t know what Remus was thinking, giving you this monstrosity,” Mrs. Weasley fussed.  “I know there’s sentiment attached –”

Harry turned his attention to Ron’s predicament.  “Hold still, mate!  Like I said, I can just cut it open,” he reminded Ron and levelled his wand.

“Harry!” Mrs. Weasley cried; “I do think it’s a horrible noisy contraption,  but surely you don’t want to slice it apart?”  She added very quietly, “What would Sirius think, after all?”

Harry’s hands fell to his sides, and he said, “This is…?”  Mrs. Weasley nodded.

“Oh…” Harry trailed off.  He didn’t know what to say; he didn’t even know what to think, in truth.

“No cutting me free, then,” Ron said quickly; “I’ll just… erm… turn about this way… oof!... and a little twist just so… ouch!”

Harry found himself quickly flanked by the twins, and a familiar Icelander pressed between them.  Gudrun stopped, hands on hips, and shook her head.  “I do hope you are still intact after this, Ronald,” she said; “There is no need for cutting, Harry – cast an Engorgement charm.”

“Poor ickle Ronniekins,” Fred Weasley said.

“Didn’t know he was in need of an Engorgement charm,” George Weasley chimed in.

“Pity, that,” Fred sighed.

“Too true, too true… with all the other things missing –” George began.

“Foot,” Fred said.

“Innards,” George added with a grimace.

“Brains,” Fred went on.

“Fred! George! Stop tormenting your brother this instant!” Mrs. Weasley snapped.

“All we were getting at –” George insisted.

“– was that there should be compensations for all of that, see?” Fred finished.  “But an Engorgement charm…?”

“That’s just sad, really,” George said with a slow shake of his head. 

“I was speaking of the side-car,” the healer said evenly, but Harry was sure her cheeks were ever-so-slightly pinker than usual.

“Oh!  The side-car – of course!” Fred said as he slapped his hand against his forehead.

“She is Ron’s healer – she’d know if he needed an Engorgement charm, wouldn’t she?” George pointed out.

“Oi, that’s enough!” Ron snapped.  Harry enlarged the side-car and quickly freed Ron. 

Gudrun placed her hands around Ron’s right ankle and gave a sharp twist, to which he didn't react.  She met George's eyes and said casually, “Your brother is in no need of such a thing.”  Fred burst out laughing even as George turned crimson – Ron was even redder.  Mrs. Weasley was tapping her foot, but a bit of mirth crept into her eyes. 

Gudrun turned to Fred and added, “I am sure that Harry could cast an Engorgement Charm, however, if you are in need of it.”

“That’s… well, that’s just wrong, it is!” Fred pouted.  “Come on, then, let’s go where we’re wanted!”

“Quite a fuss you’re making, Fred.  Could it be that we're not so identical after all?” George chortled.

“Away with you!” Mrs. Weasley screeched, and she shoved them toward the house.

“Checkmate!” Ron laughed.

Gudrun stood, satisfied with whatever she’d done to Ron’s ankle.  “How do you feel?  The potions are performing well?” she asked.

“Brilliant,” Ron said quickly.

“It is good to see you smile,” she said.  Ron positively beamed, and Harry – who stood behind Gudrun but within Ron’s view – made a subtle gagging motion. 

Mrs. Weasley looked Harry up and down.  “You’ve not been eating as you should.  At least you’re not skin and bones like Hermione, the poor poppet,” she said critically.  Her fingers went to his temple and she added, “You boys and your hair… whatever shall we do with you?” 

“I like it longer,” Harry said.  He knew she’d spotted the strands of white but wasn’t about to offer acknowledgement.  The past few months hadn’t been kind to Mrs. Weasley either.

“Everyone’s anxious to see you,” Mrs. Weasley said.  “Bill and Fleur are inside, and Charlie’s somewhere about.  The twins, of course…” She bit her lip – there was no need, for Harry had long put aside any lingering anger over sales of the twins’ creations to the wrong side – and then added, “You’ll want to see Ginny, of course.”

Harry frowned.  “You’re well aware I’ve recently seen Ginny,” he said, more sharply than he had intended.

Mrs. Weasley raised her hands, and admitted, “I shouldn’t have pressed Kingsley on that.  I’ve offered Remus apologies, and I’ll extend that to you as well.”  She lowered her eyes and went on quietly, “Something happened to Ginny while she was with you.  She won’t tell me a thing, but I know it – mothers know these things.”

“It’s not for me to tell.  Everything will be in the open soon enough,” Harry said.  He had to admit that he was a bit impressed; Ginny could keep a secret, unlike some of the others.

“Hermione is most anxious to see you.  She is walking behind the house.  No, it is not walking... she is, ehh... pacing?” Gudrun said to Harry.

Harry clapped Ron on the back.  “Let’s see about you first, mate.”

“I’m unfolded.  Go on,” Ron said. 

Harry glanced over his shoulder at the crowd making its way toward the path that led to the house.  “Thanks.  I’m not up to speeches and what-not, not right now,” he said.

“I’ll clean up after you, then... not half-bad at doing that, I've a bit of experience,” Ron laughed.  Harry grinned and then quickly headed around the side of the house, ahead of the throng of well-wishers.  Mrs. Weasley’s eyes were surely boring a hole in his back.

As it happened, ‘behind the house’ didn’t describe anything so simple as a courtyard or a mowed field.  To the right were cliffs that fell to the sea; to the left was the ruin that Ron had mentioned earlier.  She was there, glancing at a crumbling wall and talking with her hands.  There were two other people by her side, a man with sandy hair who looked to be about Mr. Weasley’s age and a woman who could only be her mother.  His feet froze in place.  Mrs. Weasley’s cutting gaze suddenly seemed quiet tame, almost welcome, for he was quite certain that Hermione’s parents were going to kill him.  Hermione’s mother saw him first; the look on her face was sad rather than accusing, and he wondered what she had been told.

Hermione responded to being nudged by whipping around, wand at the ready.  As her smile grew, the wand lowered.  He hadn’t seen her smile like that in a very long time – years, he figured.  She had that gleam in her eye that usually proceeded bounding, followed by a crushing hug, but she closed the distance slowly.  He wondered if it was because her parents were watching, because she wasn’t able to run, or because she’d finally had the good sense to realise how dangerous he was to her.  The unyielding smile belied the last and her slow and careful stride suggested the second.  The frozen mask of her father’s face told Harry that the first was a sure thing.

She didn’t pull him into a hug; instead she seized his hands.  When she started to talk, it was like an overflowing river: “Thank God you’re all right – I could feel it when you destroyed it, it hurt so much – and I didn’t know if you were all right, I wondered if it had turned out like Professor Dumbledore with the ring or something even worse, and then Professor McGonagall sent word that you were only unconscious and that Ron was looking after you, and Dobby was there as well – had you known beforehand that the house-elves were still at Hogwarts? – and she said that you would return yesterday, so of course Remus and everyone else was in a complete panic, and it figures neither you nor Ron would think to send a Patronus –”  She smacked him in the chest, but there was no anger in it.  “– but some of our people reported that you’d picked up the motorbike – it’s the one that belonged to Sirius, you know, and for the life of me I don’t know why it wasn’t given to you before – and I can’t tell you what a relief it was to hear, I was thinking all sorts of horrible things –” Harry began to laugh and her brow lowered.  “What’s so funny?  Do you think this is funny?  I thought that Voldemort’s men might have found you somehow, for goodness’ sake!”

“I missed you,” he said.

He caught her completely flat-footed.  “You missed me?” she asked.

He nodded and repeated, “I missed you.”

Her eyes widened.  “I can’t… it’s just… you… you really missed me?  Honestly?” she stammered.

Her father was still looking at him, his face as stony as before.  Her mother was harder to read.  Sod it, he thought, and he drew her into a hug.  He needed it, she needed it, and he wasn’t going to let her parents stand in the way.

“I missed you too,” she whispered into his shoulder.

“Were you able to sleep?” he asked.

“I slept well enough the first night,” she said, “but hardly at all last evening.  That’s your fault, you inconsiderate prat.”

“Ron was completely knackered,” he said.  “I wasn’t at my best, either.  He was asleep by half past seven and I wasn’t far behind.”

“That’s not surprising,” she said.  “It brought me to my knees when it happened; my parents were terrified.”

Harry pulled back a little.  “Brought you to your knees… you didn’t collapse all together?  No fainting?”

“No, nothing like that,” she said.  “I certainly don’t welcome another go, but I know it’s going to happen.  I think I’ll be better prepared for it now.”

Distance does make a difference, then, he thought.  If I can keep her far enough away, maybe… just maybe…

“Where did you go, just now?” she asked.

“Oh, sorry,” he said absently.  “A lot on my mind, that’s all.”

“I can understand that,” she said.

“McGonagall says hello, by the way,” he said.  “I’m to tell you that you were her protégé, and that she has the utmost respect for you.”

Hermione gulped and her eyes teared up; “She… said that?  I didn’t know…”

“Then you were the only one; it seemed obvious to me, to everyone I figure,” Harry said.

Hermione trembled, and Harry pulled her close again.  “I still can’t believe that Professor McGonagall… that she stayed behind,” she said.

“Everyone says she’s still the Headmistress,” he said.  “The ghosts, the house-elves… even the Sorting Hat, apparently.  The wards are still keyed to her somehow.”

“I didn’t think that was possible,” she said.  “How can they be keyed to a ghost?”

He shrugged.  “All I can tell you is that she has complete control of the castle.  Oh, and you’ll be pleased to know that it was the house-elves who forced out the Death Eaters.”

Her face lit again.  “I knew it, I knew they would matter!” she crowed.  “Oh, that’s wonderful!”

“They were defending their home,” he said simply.  He wasn’t about to remind her that, with the exception of Dobby, the reason they had defended Hogwarts was most likely because they were bonded into its service.

“Did you find out anything else?” she asked urgently.  “Did you talk to the other ghosts?  Did any of them know anything about the ritual I performed?  Did… I know this is a sore point for you, but did you speak to Professor Dumbledore’s portrait?”

“Yeah, I did,” he said flatly.  “There’s quite a lot you need to know.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “Oh?  I’ll hold you to that.”

Her father looked like a squall waiting to come ashore and dash Harry to pieces.  He let his hands fall away and took a step back from Hermione.  After clearing his throat a time or two, he squeaked, “Erm, I suppose introductions are in order?”

Hermione frowned.  “They’re being difficult, but I’m accustomed to that,” she sighed.  “Don’t fret about it – he won’t bite.”

“That’s a relief,” Harry said.  She took his hand, which was a surprise, and their fingers interlaced.

“I won’t let him,” Hermione said casually.  “Besides, it’s not as though he’d be capable of actually hurting you.”  When Harry stopped walking, she rolled her eyes.  “Honestly, you’re the one with a wand, not him,” she said.  It took a firm tug on his hand before he followed her.

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Author Notes:

I am in the process of moving, so it may be a few days before anything else can be posted.  Thanks.  11/3/2011

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