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Stories begun in 2006 (post-HBP)

Author Notes:

Well, this is it - can you believe it? :)  I've had a devil of a time trying to post this, particularly around formatting.  I gave up... until I realized that 90% of the problem was operator error [sigh].  I hope you've enjoyed this, or have been entertained, or enightened, or at least haven't fallen asleep.  Thank you for reading.

Cheers,

Mike [FP]

Twenty

ON THE SEVENTH DAY

 

November 4, 2004     Hogwarts Castle, Perth & Kinross, Scotland

 

Harry was lost. Again. The castle was a much more sensible place than it had been in his day, but nothing was where it was supposed to be. A hand came down on his shoulder from behind. He whirled around and planted the tip of his wand under the chin of his assailant, all in the span of a single heartbeat.

All right there, Harry?” Neville said calmly; he hadn't so much as flinched.

Harry blinked. His mouth moved and he blinked twice more before he blurted out, “You didn't move!”

I didn't wet myself, either,” Neville chuckled.

But...”

Neville said, “I've seen you practice, remember? Nobody's more in control than you are. I figured you might react like that, but I knew you could stop yourself.”

In control? I did that without a thought – it just happened! I'm hardly in control at all,” Harry said.

Neville shook his head; “If you weren't in control, you'd have taken my head off. I wasn't worried about it. Now, having said that, I do hope my students won't need a change of robes if they cross paths with you...?”

I'll do my best,” said Harry with a snort.

How about breakfast, then? No one does a full English like the house-elves – excepting Hannah, of course!” Neville offered.

Is the Great Hall in the same place, at least?” Harry asked.

Neville returned, “Four days, and you've not been there yet? What have you been doing with yourself?”

I thought we were trying to avoid the students,” Harry said.

Well, we surely didn't want anyone to stumble across, you know... that... but there's no point in keeping to yourself now. Trust me, almost everyone knows that you're here,” Neville told him.

What about Herm –?” Harry started.

Neville cut him off, “She's kept herself scarce, but I doubt anyone would recognise her anyway. Think about it: none of our students were even in school when she was here. Our seventh years would have been firsties the year we were all on the run. Wait... you don't know where she is? Where have you been hiding, then?”

Oh, I've been here and there... in and out... unfinished business, that sort of thing,” Harry allowed.

Everything falls under Official Secrets, is that it?” Neville huffed as they entered the Great Hall.

The space was nearly unrecognisable. The wall adjoining the castle proper was made of the original stone as were the supporting columns, but the rest was formed from massive timbers. There were more and larger windows, fitted with ordinary panes rather than stained glass. Though the ceiling was half as high, the Hall was brighter and it had an excellent view of the grounds. An additional set of doors opened outward to a massive covered promenade that was magically protected from the elements. The familiar long tables were still in place, but there were round tables on the promenade as well, where a mixed group of students from Gryffindor, Slytherin and Hufflepuff were studying. He was surprised when they started demonstrating spells to one another, startled that there were no staff to be seen, and stunned to see two house-elves in plain view. They were tidying up but also seemed to be keeping an eye on the students.

The design is basically an update of the original Great Hall. The basic plan dated from the 12th century, I think. I miss the ceiling once in a while, but it does grow on you,” Neville said, and Harry realised he'd stood there like a great lump for most of a minute. He moved automatically toward the end of the Gryffindor table – or what had been the Gryffindor table in his student days, at least – but Neville smoothly redirected him toward the front.

Professor McGonagall had replaced Dumbledore's elaborate throne with a rather austere chair, where she managed to appear as though she was actually seated. No other members of staff had yet arrived for breakfast. She seemed to cast several spells, and Harry felt the presence of a small ward as well as something along the line of Muffiliato; clearly she didn't wish to be overheard.

As was her nature, the Headmistress then came straight to the point; “Good morning, Mr. Potter. You have been hiding from Miss Granger. I had thought better of you,” she said as he took a seat.

Harry managed to keep from wincing, but gathered scones onto his plate and lathered them with marmalade before he admitted, “I'm not sure that either of us know where to start.”

Miss Granger is an eighteen year old witch who is surely confused by all of this,” she returned; after a pause, she continued with narrowed eyes and thinned lips, “whereas you – if recent reports are to be believed – are somewhere in the vicinity of thirty years old, and far beyond most of our faculty and staff in terms of skill, training and experiences.”

Fair enough... been a hermit for years, though,” he said between bites of scone.

Yes, and it shows! Manners, please!” she demanded. Neville chortled at that before he was silenced by an arch glance from the Headmistress.

Harry rolled his eyes. “I'm too old for a scolding, Professor. If you've a suggestion to make, then make it,” he said. McGonagall's glance turned to a glare and Harry merely grinned. She huffed at him in frustration, and he couldn't help but laugh; her expression quickly softened.

It's a good thing we're early, Minerva, because the smile on your face would send the poor firsties to the Hospital Wing. The older students might think you were under the Imperius Curse,” Neville joked.

I'd end up being blamed, of course,” Harry said.

A shame Malfoy isn't around to conjure up a few buttons, right? 'Headmistress smiles! Potter stinks!' or something like that?” Neville went on; he paused for a long moment, before both he and Harry blurted out, “'When my father hears about this...!'” and burst into more laughter.

That will be enough, gentlemen,” McGonagall chided them; “Mr. Malfoy's puerile posturing was unworthy of note at the time, and it is unworthy of recollection now.”

After taking a moment, Harry said seriously, “You're right, of course. Say what you want about old Lucius, but the man was smooth – I mean, he was welcomed in the highest circles of power for years, even though everyone knew exactly what he really was. Draco must have been a disappointment; he was just a bully, and not a very good one at that. Honestly, by the end, I saw him more as Ron's nemesis than mine.”

Neville agreed, “That makes sense, looking back. Ron's a great guy now, but there was a time when he was... well... he could be as offensive as Malfoy in his own way. Don't get me wrong, Ron never set out to hurt anybody – can't say the same about Malfoy – but they both... erm...”

They were both loud-mouths who saw the world in absolutes?” Harry finished for him; “I haven't forgotten why Hermione ended up in that bathroom with a troll, you know? Ron needed something to push him into growing up... wish it had been something less horrible, though. Gudrun's been good for him.”

You're truly on better terms with her, then? That wasn't just something in the moment?” Neville asked.

Harry nodded; he said, “It's all settled. In fact, she'll be studying with me a bit.”

McGonagall straightened at that. “You're going to take up teaching?” she asked.

Something more like training than teaching, I think,” Harry corrected her.

That would be a pity. You have considerable natural abilities in the area of teaching, abilities that I would like to see directed in service of Hogwarts. 'Professor Potter' has a nice ring to it in my opinion, and as it happens, it is largely my opinion that matters,” the Headmistress said.

Harry blushed in spite of himself. He tried to explain, “Erm... nice of you to say... the thing of it is, I'm not sure that what I know can be taught. The things I've... learnt, discovered, tripped over, what-have-you?... they couldn't be picked up from a textbook or by listening to someone like me prattle on about it. It's more of a way of thinking... a way of living, really.”

I had rather thought that you would take up one of the major subjects. It wouldn't have to be Defence, of course. Given the breadth of your studies, I have little doubt that you could earn a Mastery in Transfiguration or perhaps Charms with little effort,” McGonagall countered.

Sorry, but I couldn't do that,” Harry said.

Humility is an under-appreciated trait, but self-deprecation is another matter entirely. You could sit a Mastery examination in Transfiguration this afternoon, and we both know it,” McGonagall insisted.

Harry shook his head and took another bite of scone. “Wouldn't happen... don't do Transfiguration any more... sorry...” he managed with a mouthful.

McGonagall clearly reached the end of her patience; she demanded, “What are you blathering about? I have seen you employ highly complex magic with casual ease!”

Harry drew the battered bit of wood that he carried for form's sake and set it atop the table. After a frustrated sigh, he said, “'Complex magic', you say... and already, we have a problem. Neville, I'll wager that you know as much about wand crafting and wand lore as anyone in Britain. Give this a look, and tell me what you see.”

Neville picked up the wand, rolled it between his fingers, sighted down its length, and otherwise manhandled it before he said, “I'd be a bit sore at you if you showed this little respect for wand wood... good thing it's just a stick, then, isn't it?”

McGonagall was so startled that she accidentally drifted up from her chair and slipped into a bit of her native brogue; “I've seen you use that wand – it cannae be a mere stick,” she protested.

Harry couldn't resist a bit of a smirk as he raised his arms, rolled his sleeves past his elbows, and – without a wand, a waggle, or even a whisper – proceeded to turn the long staff table into a glass patio table fit for four. He broke the profound silence by saying, “I'm afraid it's just twelve inches of oak. I really should put on a protective coating or something like that – you're right, Neville, I haven't taken very good care of it.”

Neville's eyebrows had nearly reached his hairline; “But... but... bloody hell, Harry!” he choked out.

McGonagall stared at the table, then at the oak stick, and again at the table before her narrowed eyes fixed on Harry. “That is impossible,” she said flatly.

Harry's lips twitched before he returned, “You're an incorporeal soul who's bound to the magical wards of a thousand-year-old castle, and you're calling this impossible? Just a bit ironic, that!”

Well, he's got you there, Minerva...” Neville said hesitantly.

McGonagall slowly shook her head as she told them, “At his best, Albus's wand-less work amounted to sophisticated parlour tricks. You know, of course, that he merely cued the house-elves to deliver food to the tables. It continues to amaze me how many students believed that he was summoning an entire feast with the wave of a hand. The wand-less conjurations of chairs and such...? Those were actually cancelled transfigurations. The lemon sherbets on his desk were for consumption, but the ones he kept in his robe pockets were transfigured furnishings and a trunk or two. In fifty years, I never saw him wandlessly conjure or transfigure anything larger than a pocket mirror!”

Either you didn't read my thoughts on the nature of magic, or you thought I was all wet,” Harry concluded.

McGonagall hesitated for a long moment before she sighed and admitted, “The latter, I'm afraid.”

Harry couldn't help but frown; given her state of being, he had somehow expected more of the Headmistress. He schooled his features before he returned as tactfully as he could manage, “We believe what we're taught. Practice reinforces belief. British wizards dismiss nearly everything that wasn't created on our own soil. That would be a lot to unlearn for a second year student, let alone someone as accomplished as you.”

You did, in fact, attend this very school for six years. You undertook the same basic education as all other witches and wizards in Britain,” McGonagall pointed out.

True enough... and then I left your world for ten years and explored realms of magical practice that not many Englishmen could even name. With all that, it still might never have come to this, but I've identified three things that make me fundamentally different from every other wizard you've ever met,” Harry said.

I can think of a dozen things without even trying,” Neville chuckled.

Harry mock-growled at him and – with a wriggle of his fingers and the incantation 'Oogedy-boogedy!' – changed his spoon into a foot-long wildly wriggling cod.

Potter! Return that spoon – and the Head Table! – to their rightful states and continue with your explanation!” McGonagall urged him on.

That isn't transfiguration, by the way. You could eat that fish if you like,” Harry pointed out before he clapped his hands sharply and ended both transformations.

Explain!” McGonagall hissed.

Harry cleared his throat and went on, “Right, then: three things. Firstly, I've never really had the same limits imposed on me as other wizards. No one close to me ever seemed shocked when I would do something unexpected... like, say, my Patronus? Don't get me wrong, I was praised for it, but no one ever told me why it was off for a thirteen-year old to drive off a hundred Dementors with a single Patronus casting. Neville, if you'd been in my place, I imagine your Gran would have given credit to your Dad's wand before she spent an entire afternoon telling you why you couldn't possibly have done it?”

What about Hermione? She was always one to insist on the rules, right? No offence, Minerva, but I'd probably never have learned Gamp's Laws if she hadn't drilled them into us for weeks,” Neville countered.

Harry couldn't help but smile a bit. “She always thought I was different – unique, I suppose. She expected everyone and everything but me to follow the rules, whether it was curfews or the supposed laws of magic,” he answered.

You may find that Miss Granger's perspective on such things has changed a great deal, should you bother speaking to her … but do continue,” McGonagall said without a trace of warmth.

Harry silently berated himself for reacting to the Headmistress as if he was still eleven, even as he pressed on, “Erm... all right, then... secondly... uh... yes, secondly: having a Horcrux in your head from the age of one seems to have an effect on the way one accesses magic once that Horcrux is gone. I haven't exactly studied the differences – there's only one of me, right? – but believe me, they're quite real. Within a few days I was already more powerful, at least in the sense that British wizards view power. I've always been able to cast longer than other wizards without fatigue, but even before I stumbled onto the truth of Magic... um... have I ever told either of you that I can apparate to Iceland in one go, and then on to Canada after a few seconds' rest?”

McGonagall's silvery sheen faded in a trice – she literally paled; “Harry... you're talking about apparation jumps of thousands of miles... surely you haven't...?”

Erm... it's a regular thing for me, really. Actually, a few years ago, I side-alonged an Auror from Bristol to Reykjavik and back – the bloke threatened to bring me up on charges for falsified entry documents, so I took him with me back to the Icelandic exit point. Now... well, I can side-along someone directly through Hogwarts' wards. I'm almost sure that I'm not Apparating, but I've stopped trying to put a name to it. Dobby says that it looks something like what house-elves do. Whatever it is, I'm definitely unaffected by wards,” Harry said.

I'd say that's impossible, except that you've taken the idea of impossible and ripped it into tiny bits more than once in the last few weeks,” said Neville; “So what's the third point?”

When my mum protected me from Voldemort, she created some sort of connection between me and Magic that other wizards don't have. Other wizards don't survive the Killing Curse, after all. Gudrun actually spotted it the first time she examined me, years ago. I think the connection between me and Hermione either used that same connection, perhaps even magnified it somehow. If that connection wasn't there, I don't think I would have been able to directly access Magic in the first place. Gudrun can do some of what I do, but the Healing Order's initiation creates a permanent connection between the healers and what they call grœð – which is really just one face of Magic itself – and even within the Order, her relationship with Magic was unique. Anyway, once I knew that I could directly relate to Magic with the application of sufficient will and intent, the rest came along rather quickly,” Harry explained.

I see. Have you considered that Miss Granger might now possess the same abilities or affinities?” McGonagall asked.

After a moment's pause, Harry allowed, “That makes sense, really. You're directly accessing Magic each time you perform something that looks like a spell, Minerva, and you're in a similar state to what Hermione was in.” And then there's the matter of the ritual itself and the magical properties of the talismans, he thought to himself.

When you properly speak to her, then perhaps you can confirm it?” McGonagall growled.

Wow! Will you look at the time? Cuttings to prepare, classes to teach... busy, busy, busy!” Neville suddenly piped up.

Coward,” Harry muttered.

Professor Hagalaz! Good morning!” Neville called out. Harry at first thought it was another distraction on Neville's part, but a middle-aged witch unknown to him approached the head table. McGonagall gave a complex wave of her silvery wand and the privacy scheme unravelled.

The witch squinted sharply and then her eyes widened. “Mr. Potter? The rumour that you're paying us a visit is true, then,” she said; “Edda Hagalaz, Ancient Runes.”

Harry brought his left arm across his chest in a formal way and bowed at the neck. “Good morning, Learned Peer,” he said.

Her eyes widened even more. “Well, where are my manners? Be welcome here, Honoured Peer,” she said as she brought her right arm across and mirrored his bow.

Neville gave Harry a hard stare. “You have a Mastery in Runes,” he said flatly.

Hagalaz shook her head and said, “No, no, Mr. Potter is a Rune-smith. It's not really the same thing to the Guild, though the Ministry doesn't distinguish between the two. Think of a Rune-smith as... well, as having earned a Mastery by challenge, I suppose? Instead of sitting for written and practical examinations, a Rune-smith defends a completed practical application before a panel of peers – it's called a 'don rag'. I'm told that some of the Muggles do something similar to assess advanced learning. It's rarely done these days, as anyone sufficiently accomplished to pass a don rag could easily pass the examinations. Don't misunderstand me, of course – a Rune-smith is perfectly legitimate and worthy of respect!”

Er... thank you for that. I don't know how I would have done on the exams – my education in runes wasn't exactly traditional. I wasn't going to spend months revising material I hadn't learned when I could take the challenge instead,” Harry said.

Who were your panellists, if I may ask?” Hagalaz asked.

Oh, I didn't go before the British Guild. I challenged in Brazil, a couple of years ago. Bruno Escrivão was the chair... don't know if you've heard of him? It was... well, it was on a bet, actually. I wouldn't have bothered, honestly, but there were some rather rare books on the line,” admitted Harry.

Hagalaz gasped, “Escrivão! Of course I've heard of him! How did you manage for someone of his stature to... no, never mind – that's a foolish question, isn't it?”

The Ancient Runes professor took a seat next to Harry and proceeded to pepper him with questions about his Runesmithing challenge project. Harry took a deep breath and proceeded to utterly confound her with a brief description of multi-dimensional and extra-dimensional runic arrays. He took her protests ('But that's...!' and 'You can't...!' and 'It doesn't...!') as gracefully as he could. McGonagall made no effort to intercede, even as more of the staff arrived and students began to fill the tables. He had a sinking feeling that this was the Headmistress's punishment for leaving Hermione to herself.

A few minutes later, there was a sudden pop! before the table. The current Defence professor – a young, cocksure, Durmstrang-trained wizard whose name kept escaping Harry – was instantly to his feet.

Lower your wand before you hurt yourself!” Harry barked at the professor, which set off a few giggles amongst the student tables.

The man stared forward dumbly for several moments before he demanded, “What the devil is that house elf wearing?” and the entire Great Hall went dead silent.

Ohayo gozaimasu, Sensei,” Dobby said as he bowed formally to Harry. The house-elf was clad in a very straight robe, secured by a sash – almost, but not quite, a kimono. It was mostly silver but heavily decorated: there were floral patterns, Japanese hiragana, Norse runes, and lengths of spun and knotted threads that Harry knew to be Incan quipus, among other things. The robe was garish in a way that only Dumbledore could have loved but it was remarkably appropriate for the circumstance.

Harry tried and failed to keep a straight face. “And good morning to you, Dobby. I assume you have good news?” he returned.

Dobby brings Sensei greetings from Gakusha-sama. Dobby is to present Sensei with the official record,” Dobby announced. He held forth a roll of rice paper tied with a silk ribbon, but was bouncing on the balls of his feet so forcefully that Harry could scarcely take it from him.

Harry opened the scroll, read the contents, nodded, and then brought his left arm across his chest. “Greetings, Honoured Peer,” he said with a bow.

Dobby brought his own left arm to his chest and bowed in return. “Dobby returns... I return your greetings, Honoured P-Peer,” he stammered. Professor Hagalaz's eyes rolled up into her head and she slumped in her chair.

Harry turned to a flabbergasted Neville; “Like I said... unfinished business,” he told him with a wink. Before anyone could speak and ruin the moment, Harry rounded the table, shook Dobby's hand, and escorted him from the Great Hall.

 

November 6, 2004     Hogwarts Castle, Perth & Kinross, Scotland

 

We are nearly finished. Cough once more, please,” Gudrun said.

Harry did as he was told and tried not to glare. “This is an awfully thorough physical,” he grumbled.

And a well-warranted one, considering everything that you've done to yourself,” Madam Pomfrey added.

Be glad that it is a physical and nothing more. Those savages beneath the Ministry would perform a gross dissection upon you if allowed,” Gudrun muttered as she took notes on paper with a fountain pen.

They'd do that to me for sport. I'm not the most popular fellow when it comes to that particular Department. Nice pen, by the way. Did you know Mont Blanc makes one with a reservoir specifically for charmed ink?” Harry said.

Gudrun shook her head. “I did not. That would be a useful thing. We do not... rather, the Healing Order does not teach the use of quills. There is no need,” she said as she finished writing and passed the paper to Madam Pomfrey.

The older healer nodded approvingly as she read; “This is very interesting, very interesting indeed. Some of these diagnostics would be rather useful to know. I'm able to derive the same information, but yours are much more efficient. I suppose they're secrets of the trade...”

They are not, but a specialised rune set is required for some – this one, and this, and this as well. If you wish to learn, I am willing to teach,” Gudrun said.

Harry huffed, “So, what's going on? Am I dying...? You know, rotting away as we sit here?”

Rotting away, all right – starting between the ears. You're fine. You're better than fine, actually. You've no right to be, of course, but that's nothing new with you,” Madam Pomfrey said briskly.

Sorry to disappoint,” Harry grumbled.

Madam Pomfrey seemed to deflate. “I'm not disappointed! It's just that... goodness knows that you've lived through your share of injuries, but how many times can one person muddle through on sheer luck? I worry for you, Harry,” she said.

Harry was completely caught short by that. He stammered, “I... I... it's really nice that, erm... that you care, right? I mean, I knew that you cared... it's just... umm...”

Gudrun let her hand rest on his shoulder and shook her head slowly; “How is it that you are so surprised by the feelings you inspire in others? This is not something that I can understand,” she said. Harry shrugged his shoulders in reply.

After a long moment, Madam Pomfrey ventured, “Now... there is still the matter of this connection between you and Miss Granger –”

Is it harmful?” Harry cut her off.

Madam Pomfrey admitted, “I don't honestly know. Perhaps you should answer that yourself?”

It is what it is. There's no undoing it,” said Harry.

Gudrun said, “It would be best if the both of you avoided exposure to harmful magics... curses and such things. This is no different than the connection you shared before the end of the War.”

That connection caused Miss Granger's soul to be disembodied and held in place for years. What's to say that it couldn't happen again?” Madam Pomfrey said darkly.

I don't think either of us plans on standing in the way of a Killing Curse,” Harry returned.

Yes, well... I doubt it was the desired outcome before, was it? The... the whole thing is more than a little disconcerting. It's as though you've become phylacteries for one another,” said Madam Pomfrey.

Gudrun scoffed, “Phylacteries? You imply that Harry was a soul jar for Hermione? That is ridiculous. It implies that they planned for such a thing to happen, and it discounts what Ski-madr did to Harry. Phylacteries do not work, in any case. They are known to hold back an imprinting only – it is like your portraits, or perhaps a ghost. Souls cannot be divided, they can only be crudely copied. Ski-madr thought it different and this cost him everything.”

Harry smiled at her and nodded in agreement. “That's it, exactly. Look, Poppy, I can diagram the whole thing for you if it would help. What happened to Hermione and me – or to the Headmistress, for that matter – is almost impossible to duplicate, and it won't happen again. No one is a soul jar for anyone else, and Horcruces aren't what Voldemort thought that they were. My guess is that I'll live as long as Magic wants me to live, and the same's true for Hermione,” he said.

Gudrun's eyes bore into him; she insisted, “You need to speak to her.”

Harry protested, “I've been taking care of a few things –”

Such as Dobby's accreditation as a master of Runes?” Gudrun cut in.

Harry fished through his trouser pockets as he said, “Among other things.”

And you will soon be prepared to see the woman who loves you?” pressed Gudrun.

He wanted to protest at that – if Hermione still felt that way, then those feelings were for someone who didn't really exist any more – but instead he said, “Soon enough. I've only two things left to be put into place.”

Could she not help you to do this?” Gudrun asked.

His expression darkened; “One of them won't be pretty,” he said.

 

November 6, 2004     Department of Mysteries, Ministry for Magic, London

 

Harry first felt Croaker's approach when the old Unspeakable was about two hundred feet from the entry to the Room of Death. He took a moment to set himself for a confrontation, but didn't stop his work.

Just wait there – I'll be with you in a minute or two,” Harry called out when Croaker was stopped by the runic ward placed on the entry.

Some of my brethren had hoped you would destroy yourself last Sunday,” Croaker returned.

Really? What about you? What were you hoping for?” Harry asked as he completed a long, sweeping bridge rune and moved to close a seventh circle of characters.

Croaker said, “I did not wish you ill, if that is what you wish to know. We cannot defeat you, Harry Potter; it has been foreseen. You could have defeated yourself when we put the time-turner in your hands, but it was not to be.”

Harry stilled his wand to avoid a costly mistake. “Foreseen, is it? Are you telling me that I'm part of another prophecy?” he growled.

In so far as I know, there are no other prophecies in play,” Croaker answered him.

Hmph... well, that's something, at least,” Harry grunted, and then he launched into the final elements of his work – a truly novel bit of rune-smithing, if he did say so himself.

I had expected that you would return the time-turner several days ago,” Croaker advanced, but Harry ignored him in favour of checking the quality of his finished product.

After three minutes, Croaker said, “I believe that you said it would be a minute or two?”

You've caught me out: sometimes I'm a bit of a plodder. All right, you can come in now,” Harry announced, and the ward tumbled down.

Croaker strolled around the room with unmistakeable admiration in his eyes as he inspected what Harry had wrought. “If only you saw the world as we do, young man... we could do so much together. This is truly magnificent. I have held a Mastery in Norse Runes for more than eighty years, and yet I must confess that much of this is utterly beyond me at first glance,” he acknowledged.

Thank you, that's very kind of you to say,” Harry said honestly.

You could have simply written out the ritual design and thus satisfied the Vow, although it is true that the resonance of a rune-struck ritual environment can present a variable in and of itself,” said Croaker.

Harry strode toward him in a genial way and placed the time-turner in the old wizard's hands. “You were right about this thing. It's dangerous, too dangerous. It should be destroyed, but I did say I'd return it when I was done,” he said.

I'm afraid that you are too powerful to be brought down by a mere bauble such as this. We will not be issuing it to anyone ever again, if I have anything to say about it. The sole reason to protect and preserve this device is so that we retain the knowledge to undo any catastrophes should others stumble upon the means of its creation,” Croaker explained.

I think I might actually agree with you on that. Shocking, isn't it?” Harry said with a smirk.

As Croaker continued to look over the vast array of runic circles surrounding and intertwined with the Veil of Death's stone dais, he said casually, “I am mildly surprised that you have not yet departed these chambers. With the Vow satisfied, my hands are no longer bound, nor are those of my brethren. Though I see that you will not be defeated at our hands, my brethren do not necessarily agree.”

Harry waited several seconds before he said, “Oh! You thought that this was the re-embodiment ritual! No, I'm afraid that this is something completely different.”

Croaker froze in place; in a monotone and with barely a breath, he asked, “And what sort of runic ritual have I found myself reading for the last several minutes?”

One that protects something more important to me than my own life,” Harry said.

The Muggle Queen's influence over us is not sufficient protection?” Croaker countered.

Harry casually drew his oak stick and held it aloft before he said, “No, it's not enough for this. By the way, before I forget... I, Harry James Potter, also known as John James Black, do declare that I will never knowingly provide the Department of Mysteries of the Ministry for Magic of England and Scotland or any of its so-called Unspeakables, current or former, with the knowledge required to carry out a ritual intended to re-embody the insubstantial self or soul of a human being, such as the ritual carried out at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on October 31, 2004.” He waited for five seconds before adding, “Lumos,” which caused the tip of the stick to erupt in bright, coruscating light.

Croaker's brow shot up in disbelief. The Unspeakable tried to speak but couldn't seem to get any words out.

For his part, Harry began to dance – or so it appeared to Croaker. With a skipping, bouncing, lilting stride, his bare feet moved from rune cluster to rune cluster in a very specific way. He chanted under his breath as he moved, even as he opened himself up to Magic and apologised for taking such severe action to limit the Unspeakables' next moves.

Immediately upon the sixty-third step, the outermost runic circle erupted in bluish light. Croaker bolted toward the entryway until he was well clear of any rune-struck stones. Harry held his place as the next circles lit up, one rune after the next.

Do you feel it?” Harry asked loudly.

Croaker slumped against the wall beside the entry. “Wh-what have you done?” he asked.

Harry said, “Compared to the rest of your lot, you're a decent man, Croaker. I suppose it feels like a dull ache to you? Something like indigestion, perhaps? Some of your brethren are probably begging for a pain potion right now. None of them have joined us here, and that's a good thing. It means that none of you were actively planning to drag Hermione Granger here against her will or otherwise do any harm to her.”

Croaker steadied himself and took several long, deep breaths before he said, “It is some sort of binding ritual. Most of those are Sumerian or Egyptian in derivation, but many of these are Nordic characters.”

Harry said coldly, “Don't worry, Croaker, you're no one's servant... well, other than Her Majesty, I suppose? This is very limited and very specific. Don't hurt Hermione, don't wish her ill, don't try to engage anyone else to hurt her, and you'll be fine. Wish her ill and you won't like the sensation. Actively try to harm her or have her harmed, and you'll be forcibly apparated to this room from anywhere in the world, at which time you'll develop an uncontrollable urge to walk through that Veil.”

My brethren will decode the ritual eventually,” Croaker said evenly.

You're the Runemaster – won't you decode it?” Harry returned.

Croaker shook his head; “I have no need to fear your ritual,” he said.

Harry allowed a small smile before he agreed, “No, I don't think you do. Your brethren won't be decoding anything, though.” He turned to the innermost circle of runes, pointed his oak stick and shouted, “BAM!” Both he and Croaker had to avert their eyes as a brilliant white flash of light filled the room. By the time either of them were able to look once again, not once trace of a single rune was visible – the Room of Death looked exactly as it had for centuries.

Croaker slowly broke into a smile and said, “Oh, well done!”

Harry looked at the Unspeakable thoughtfully for a few moments before he began to gather up his ritual supplies. “You're really not like the others, are you?” he said.

Croaker searched Harry's eyes for permission before he drew his wand and conjured himself a chair. After he settled into it, he said, “I do not need to agree with you or even to understand you in order to respect your abilities. You are only... thirty years old, perhaps? At thirty, Albus Dumbledore was an itinerant Transfiguration tutor whose reputation was built on admittedly remarkable NEWT scores. Chen Lu was an herb farmer at that age, and Nicholas Flamel was two years from completing his alchemical apprenticeship. Tom Riddle was only recently removed from work as an errand boy for a middling antiquities dealer. Merlin was a mercenary, barely more than a hedge wizard; he was in his fifties when he aided Vortigern at Dinas Emrys and nearly ninety when he met Uther Pendragon. Consider what you have already accomplished, Harry Potter.”

I've only done what I had to do,” said Harry.

Croaker nodded; he said, “Fair enough. As I said, I have nothing to fear from your ritual because Miss Granger has nothing to fear from me. My brethren will know what they risk should they choose differently.”

Will they listen?” Harry asked.

Croaker said, “A few will die. It will be of their own accord.”

That's awfully cold, isn't it?” said Harry.

Croaker returned, “The role of this Department is to maintain a certain balance in our world. We are pitted between the Ministry and the people, between light and dark, between change and safety, between magic and Muggles. As of this moment, you are the most powerful magical being in Britain, and you are very young. That is tolerable provided that you remain good, or at least well-intentioned. The prospect of a dark Harry Potter terrifies me, and your actions today show that the loss of Miss Granger could easily put you on that road. Any of my brethren should be able to reach that conclusion. Any who cannot are fools, and thusly are dangerous in their own right. Is that cold? Perhaps. It is also practical and it is a necessary perspective for those who do what we do.”

Harry said, “I couldn't do what you do, I know that much. We shouldn't need anyone to do it.”

That day will come,” said Croaker.

Something about that struck Harry oddly. He said, “You seem awfully certain of that...?”

It has been foreseen,” Croaker said.

Harry's eyes widened; he gasped, “By you – it's been foreseen by you. It happened when you went into the grœð, didn't it? I remember you said something when we first met... that you were still haunted by it, I think?”

Would you not be haunted by the knowledge that your world is going to end?” Croaker asked.

My world did end ten years ago, so I think I understand at least a little bit,” said Harry.

But now you have it back, do you not?” Croaker pointed out.

It isn't the same... we're... we're really different now, we both are,” Harry said.

One cannot go backward, I suppose,” Croaker sighed.

That's true for you, too, isn't it?” Harry pointed out.

Croaker stood slowly and vanished his chair. “I look forward to following your accomplishments, to the extent that you make them known. I look forward to following Miss Granger's works as well; it will be interesting to see how she has been tempered by this very singular experience,” he said.

Harry impulsively stepped forward and shook the old wizard's hand; “If you ever decide that you're interested in knowing what I know... I'm not sure that you'd understand it, and I doubt you could accept it, but for some reason I feel as if I could trust you with it. All you need to do is ask,” he offered.

Croaker seemed to ponder that for a few moments before he said, “It is an intriguing offer, and one so very ripe with implications, but for now I must decline. I am willing to correspond with you and your young lady from time to time, but I am in no hurry to meet her personally... particularly within these halls...”

After a moment's thought, Harry caught the implication; “You'd like to tell me what you saw in that Room, wouldn't you?”

The old man gave an enigmatic smile and returned, “You should understand better than anyone the dangers of foresight. It is enough to know that you will be at her side, wouldn't you agree?”

Harry couldn't help but smile at that.

 

November 7, 2004     Hogwarts Castle, Perth & Kinross, Scotland

 

McGonagall drifted toward Harry, hands on hips, and said, “Mr. Potter, as you appear to have been regularly lost for the last few days, I will conduct you to your destination myself.”

You'd think that with staircases that don't move, it would be easier to find my way...” he grumbled.

The Headmistress drifted along at Harry's side, pointing out the occasional change here or new feature there. More than once, when he mentioned Hermione's name within earshot of passing students, she shushed him. When they were well clear of anyone, Harry chided her, “We really aren't keeping this a secret, you know? It's not exactly practical to try.”

McGonagall didn't look his way as she said archly, “Miss Granger has been legally deceased for more than six years. It won't be a simple thing to explain away, and you can never acknowledge the means by which she has returned.”

I'm leaving the public announcement to Kingsley. Hermione's been in hiding... she left the country and couldn't be found... she's been in coma from injuries... that one's good, don't you think?” Harry said.

Few will believe that. A fair number of people saw her body,” she countered.

He scoffed, “Please! How many 'gas explosions' have there been in London over the years, do you suppose? It's amazing there hasn't been a ban on cooking gas with all the lies over the years, but the explanation still passes anyway – and not just with the people who are Obliviated, but with all the rest of them. The fact remains, Minerva, that wizards are about as clever as the rest of the human race. If an explanation makes the slightest sense and there's no evidence against it, then it'll be accepted. Besides, it would be even harder to arrange for a permanent unbreakable glamour and all the particulars of a new identity in both worlds – that's the alternative, you know? Well... unless you're expecting Hermione to leave Britain and never return, and that hasn't come up.”

McGonagall stopped moving and waited until Harry came to a halt before she said, “Really? Are you certain of that? You have spoken to her a total of two times since her return, so I rather doubt that you are privy to her future plans.”

A chill ran through Harry; “Are you telling me that she's planning to leave?” he blurted out.

McGonagall put on a flinty expression that Harry knew well from his school days – it left little doubt that she thought he was dim. “I rather think she should would have sought you out if that were the case. I do require a more complete explanation for your behaviour. You have spent a decade, subjectively speaking, determining how to re-embody Miss Granger. Now that she has returned, you choose to avoid her?”

There were things that I needed to do. She needed the space,” Harry said.

The Headmistress rubbed the bridge of her insubstantial nose in frustration and huffed , “I love you as if you were my own... most of the time... but there are occasions, Potter, when you can be a daft twit. Did or did not Miss Granger ask you to meet with her today?”

He gave her a blank look and babbled, “Erm... well... the elf brought me her note... she didn't give a time, you know, just said 'the Astronomy Tower'... erm, so I was looking for the Tower – just had to reorganize the whole place, didn't you?... the new Library is pretty remarkable, by the way, and we really could have used those dedicated practice rooms for defence and charms... umm... it wasn't that long ago... was it?”

Daft, Potter – utterly daft. Pick up the pace, please,” she snipped.

Harry stopped at the base of the Tower steps. “This is the Divination Tower,” he said.

The loss of the old Astronomy Tower turned out for the best. This tower is in a better position for clear observations – less light pollution, as Professor Herschel tells it,” she said.

He shrugged his shoulders; “Oh, well, it's not as if Trelawney needs a tower any more.”

That's rather unkind of you,” McGonagall upbraided him, though it seemed as if it was for form's sake.

As they climbed, he said, “Did you know that the old bat died on the same day that Hermione and I finally got together? That Christmas – while we were on the run? – we visited Oslo to thank the Norwegian Ministry for their help. Hermione decided that I should give out Christmas gifts to everyone that was part of the leadership-in-exile, and she added the Hogwarts staff to the list. Trelawney was living in Copenhagen then, I think. Anyway, I sent her a bottle of sherry. So, seven months later, she apparently had too much to drink and fell out the window of her own flat. The prophecy said '...and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives'. That bit doesn't say anything about a Dark Lord – I mean, it follows logically that it was either Voldemort or me, but the words aren't actually there. I've thought about this more than once, you know: I gave the bint a bottle of sherry, she died drinking that very bottle of sherry as it happens, and Hermione and I figured out where we stood with each other within a few hours of her death.”

After a long silence, McGonagall said, “Well, that's quite a stretch. I would also advise a greater respect for the dead, even those who were very, very frustrating during their lifetime.”

He shrugged his shoulders; “Her stupid Inner Eye got thousands of people killed... well, that and Snape's big mouth. I'll never be able to forgive him that, no matter what he did later. Anyway, these stupid prophecies never seem to make any sense until after the fact, so why not? She got thoroughly pissed by my hand, died as a result, and I started to actually live on that very day.”

In truth, I might have expected you to interpret Albus as the Dark Lord of the prophecy,” McGonagall admitted.

No... that occurred to me once, but he didn't die from the potion I fed to him in that cave. Any way that you think on it, Dumbledore either died by Voldemort's hand or by his own. It all comes back to Voldemort, honestly. That prophecy was nothing more than Trelawney's blathering until he decided to act on it. Then, after everything, the bloody bast... erm... well, he cost me ten more years of my life, but at least there's another chance, right?”

That is true enough. No matter what the prophecy actually described, it is no longer in force. What happens next rests in your hands. Don't stuff it up, Potter, or we will have words,” the Headmistress said with a flinty burr in her voice.

They passed a door that opened into a planetarium too large for the diameter of the tower. A group of Ravenclaws and Slytherins who looked to be in second or third year were taking notes on the massive star-field projected above them. Harry recognised the Southern Cross. They continued up the spiralling stairs until they came to an end at a metal door. McGonagall waved her hand and the door opened to reveal a high domed room with enormous doors on one side. The biggest telescope Harry had ever seen took up most of the room.

He didn't spotted Hermione until she was moving toward him. She said, “It's one of the largest reflecting telescopes in the U.K... didn't you say it was the second largest in Scotland, Professor McGonagall?”

That is what Professor Herschel tells me. Apparently there is one at St. Andrews that is slightly larger,” McGonagall confirmed.

Harry slowly circled the room, his eyes on the massive framework. “A NEWT in Astronomy might be worth it now,” he said appreciatively.

This is mostly for the benefit of the upper form students. I have agreed to let the Professor take on three apprentices for Mastery beginning next year. There have been more than two hundred applicants,” McGonagall said.

If you keep this up, Minerva, Hogwarts is in danger of becoming as superior as Albus claimed it was,” Harry said with a smirk.

Ten points for cheek, Mr. Potter,” McGonagall sniffed.

Harry pretended to look about in a panic and exclaimed, “Oi, was that Snape's ghost I just heard? Where's a necromancer when you need one?”

Perhaps you should make it twenty points, Professor?” Hermione said.

What will it take to convince you to call me by my given name, Miss Granger?” McGonagall asked.

I could say the same, Professor,” Hermione returned.

Harry said, “This could be good fun: who can out-stubborn the other, I wonder?” He was met by two equally penetrating glares and immediately broke into laughter.

McGonagall crossed her arms and then included Hermione in her glare. “Now then, Harry is finally here, despite an absent-mindedness only rivalled by Albus –”

Oi!” Harry protested; it was virtually a reflex for him to be angered by the sound of the old man's name.

“– and thusly the first half of my task is completed,” she finished.

It was more than a little rude for you to be forty-five minutes late after inviting me here,” Hermione threw in.

Harry said, “Invited you... I'm sorry? I mean, I was going to seek you out today, but –”

McGonagall cut in, “As I said, the first half of my task is completed. You see, I have less tolerance for foolishness than was once the case –”

Good lord, is that actually possible?” Harry muttered, and Hermione smacked his arm.

“– and watching the two of you these last several days has been maddening. It would be barely excusable behaviour if you were third-years. Therefore, you may consider yourselves assigned to an indefinite detention,” she went on.

You're joking,” Harry said flatly.

Hermione started, “With all due respect, Professor –”

McGonagall waggled a silvery finger at them and said, “This is no laughing matter. Potter... Granger... you will attend to this room until such time as either you have resolved all outstanding matters between you. The elves have been told that the Observatory is off limits. I will instruct Madam Pomfrey to ignore all messages from either of you, so hexing one another will solve nothing. Do not waste my time or yours by trying to evade this, Potter – though you are obscenely powerful, this is my thousand-year-old magical castle and not yours.”

Harry sighed, “This isn't up to you –”

Perhaps, but what can you do about it? Kill me? I think not,” McGonagall said.

Minerva! That's horrible!” Hermione gasped.

McGonagall gave an uncharacteristic grin – it was almost impish; “So that's what is required for you to invoke my name? I'll be certain to remember that,” she said.

This really isn't necessary,” Harry insisted.

Until later, then?” McGonagall said as she backed through the wall.

The smallest noises carried within the Observatory. Hermione kept her eyes to the floor and shuffled her feet nervously.

Harry nearly flinched at the sound. “This is silly,” he said.

Hermione sat against a railing that blocked access to the telescope's controls, her arms tightly crossed. “I suppose that it is,” she agreed.

I... I'm sorry that I haven't been around. There were things that needed to be done, arrangements to be made...” he floundered.

She put on a small smile and said, “Like Dobby, you mean? You took him all the way to Japan to sit a Runes mastery... it's really remarkable.”

I hoped you'd approve. He didn't sit an exam, by the way – he's a Rune-smith, like I am. You should see his project: it'll revolutionise potion-making... well, probably not in Britain. It wouldn't surprise me if someone in the Ministry tried to have him put down over this, not that I'd ever let that happen,” he said.

She crossed her arms even more tightly; “I did look at the first part of his work. It... it was beyond me, honestly. You should be very proud of him, he's brilliant.”

He's had a lot of time to focus on rune crafting. Don't feel badly – I'm not sure I completely understand how it works,” he told her.

I doubt that's true,” she returned.

Look, I do know a lot about traditional runes, the Nordic classes especially. But Dobby... he's on a completely different plane with his work. He decoded Incan quipus that entire teams of rune masters have been poring over for almost a century, and he managed it in just a few weeks' time. Proud? That doesn't come close to how I feel about him. He's... well, he's family. Ask him to show you his certificate from the Japanese Guild. No, actually, ask him to show you his Certificate of Identity from the New Zealand Ministry of Magical Affairs,” Harry said.

Hermione's brow rose. “His... what? What does New Zealand have to do with any of this?” she asked.

Well, Dobby is basically stateless. There isn't a house-elf nation, and under magical law here in Britain he still can't be anything but property. Did you know that it's illegal to own a house-elf in about half of the magical world? So, we took a trip to New Zealand a few years ago and had him declared a non-citizen refugee. As long as he spends at least ten days there every two years, they issue him what amounts to a passport. As far as the government in New Zealand is concerned, he is a free magical being by the name of Dobby Potter,” Harry said with not a little pride.

Hermione gasped at that. She stared at him in a daze for a few moments, then burst forward and pulled him into a smothering embrace. “Dobby... you... he... you gave him your name!” she babbled.

Damn right I did – he's family, remember?” Harry said into her hair.

She nodded fiercely at that, but showed no sign of letting go. It was the most physical contact he'd had with her since he first awoke from the ritual – the most contact he'd had with anyone in a very long time. After a long minute, she abruptly let him go.

I... I didn't mean to... I wasn't trying to... it's just that...” she stammered.

You can do that any time you like,” Harry managed to say.

Her breath hitched as she said, “I... umm... I'm not sure that...”

Harry took a quick step backward. “No, I wasn't trying to... I don't expect anything from you, not like that,” he insisted.

She looked down, almost as though she was afraid to meet his eyes. She blurted out, “That's not what I was trying to say. I just don't understand why... don't you see? I didn't understand Dobby's project, not even the slightest bit of it beyond the third page or so. I... I haven't even sat my NEWTs. I have six years of schooling to fall back on, that's all, and quite a lot of it wasn't very good. You're a Master, for goodness' sake, and I'm not... I'm not even...”

Harry tried to take her hands, but she pulled away from him. He said, “You're not even what – finished with school? Fair enough. Hermione, you've been gone for a long time. I thought Gudrun explained at least some of what's happened since we were at the Ministry? What are... are you afraid that I don't need you any more, or something like that? Is that it?”

She moved away from him frantically and snapped, “No! Well... yes, but that isn't what I... damn it, Harry! I'm not even human any more, all right?”

Not even... what are you on about? Of course you're human,” Harry scoffed.

She shot back, “I wanted to talk to Dobby, I wanted to hear him at least try to explain his work, but I couldn't. I couldn't get past this constant feeling when he was near me. It was like... it was like finding a long-lost brother, and I just wanted him to be there, like... like a protector, or something of the sort! Honestly! He's remarkable, and I am proud of him – and of you – but he's a house-elf! He can't be –”

Harry tried to cut in, “That's unexpected but not really surprising when you think about it. He did give the Magic –”

And then there's this!” she went on. Before he could say anything, she cupped her hands together and a familiar bluebell flame appeared two inches above her palms.

Outstanding!” Harry said, but she ignored him.

Or this!” she bit out. With a wave of her hands, the flame dispersed and a rather nice Queen Anne sofa and side-table appeared. She reached forward as though grasping for something, and a silver tea service popped into existence atop the table.

I'm... I'm not human any more... I'm just a freak...” she managed. He reached out and pulled her to the sofa before she could crumple to the floor.

With one arm around her shoulders, he said, “First of all, I never want to hear you say that word again, understand?”

But –”

Never again. You know how I feel about that word,” he insisted. When she nodded, albeit reluctantly, he reached for the teapot with his free hand and raised it close enough to catch the scent.

What are you doing?” she asked.

Hmph... you actually conjured PG Tips? Well, then... builder's tea it is, then,” he said.

Hermione laughed despite herself; “You haven't gone posh on me, have you?” she asked.

He said with a shudder, “No... just reminds me of Vernon, that's all. At least you didn't brew it in the mug – ghastly, that. Milk and two sugars for you?”

No! None for me, thank you! I realise that we're English, but tea is not going to fix this!” she huffed at him.

He said with a shrug, “Oh, well – you didn't ask for any scones, so there's not really a point, is there? Look, Hermione, you're not... that word you were using – you're not that. You are, in fact, a human being. You are Hermione Granger, all the way down to your quarks or whatever might be smaller than those. If you don't want to believe me, then you should have Gudrun explain it... just be sure you're ready for a medical school lecture on the subject. Say, do you want to get out of here for a while?”

Hermione gaped at the change of subject for a moment before she protested, “What? You heard what Professor McGonagall said: we're stuck here.”

Harry laughed, “That's a good one! She can't keep me here, and she knows it. I want to show you something – a few somethings, actually. I think it might change your mind, or at least help you understand some of what's happened.”

But how –?” she started.

Do you trust me?” he asked.

She met his eyes and said, “Of course I trust you.”

He opened his arms and stood there until she hugged him, much more awkwardly than before. “Close your eyes,” he said. She did.

 

November 7, 2004     The Black Cloister, John O' Groats, Caithness, ScotlandAfter a split-second of disorientation, he said, “All right, you can open them.”

She pulled away from him and her eyes immediately began to dart around the room. “Wh-where are we?” she asked nervously.

Why don't you look outside? I think you'll figure it out straight away,” he said.

I... I think I'd rather look over these shelves. This... there are so many books... very, very rare ones...” she murmured.

One peek out the side door first, and then you can hit the stacks,” he chuckled.

She followed his gesture and disappeared into the kitchen. A few moments later, she gasped, “John O' Groats? We're in John O' Groats?”

I've been living here since a few days after the end of the War. At first, I let the same cottage that we used... built this one a few months later. So, erm, welcome to my home,” he said.

But we were just in Hogwarts –” she started.

And now we're not,” he said.

But you can't –”

He said, “I can, and we did. Hermione, let me ask you something? You've always been one of the most observant people I know. Have you seen me use a wand since you came back?”

She went silent for several seconds before she admitted, “No, I haven't.”

Fancy a treacle tart?” he asked.

A... what?” she managed to say before he pointed at an empty spot on the cluttered kitchen table and wiggled his index finger. A simple plate appeared, topped by two servings of treacle tart, prepared exactly to his preferences. She let out a long breath and sagged into one of the table's chairs.

He said, “All right, then, let me have it: no wand, no incantation, no source material for transfiguration, food can't be conjured... what else?” Before she could answer, he sampled the tart.

Instead of lighting into him, she held out her hand and said, “Give it over.”

I'm sorry?”

I said, 'Give it over'. You asked me if I wanted a tart, after all,” she repeated.

No lecture?” he asked.

Well, it's clearly there, isn't it? You aren't choking, and the world hasn't been shattered by any of this, so I may as well have a snack,” she said.

I really did expect a rant, you know?” he admitted with a grin.

Considering that I did the same with a full tea service, I'm not exactly entitled, am I? Do you have an explanation for... well, for whatever this is?” she asked.

He said, “Well, it isn't because we're both, you know... that word. In part, it's because we've both had the benefit of large magical sacrifices – courtesy of my mother and you for my part, and courtesy of the two of us for your part. We're uniquely connected to Magic as a result. If you're asking about the mechanics behind the treacle or the tea service...? At some level, it's the conversion of Magic to matter, with some sub-atomic transfiguration thrown in for good measure, but that doesn't really matter.”

What do you mean by that? Of course it matters! We have to figure out what we're doing, what's happened to us!” she insisted.

He shook his head and said, “Why? So we can fix it? So we can use it as a proper tool? So we can teach it? I want you to read something, Hermione.”

But –”

It won't take but a minute. It's only six pages,” he told her.

Fine, but I won't have you putting me off,” she harrumphed.

Before he set the papers on the table, he said, “You don't have to read this, all right? I feel like I need to warn you or something. This will change everything.”

She snapped, “Do you want me to read those or not?”

I'm not sure that I do. It's more that I think you have to read this,” he said honestly.

She impatiently snatched the papers from him and began to read. The first pass took a little more than three minutes. The second pass took far longer. He waited for her to begin asking questions, but they never came. When she finally lifted her eyes from the table, she gave him a look that was absolutely unexpected: it was almost pitying.

So you spent ten years with all of these books and with teachers from all over the world, and after all that you realised this. I'm... I'm so sorry, Harry,” she said.

Why?” he asked, feeling a bit defensive.

Because you're right – I know you're right... I can feel it. I doubt I'll ever watch a wand waved or a spell cast without wanting to tell them that they've got it all wrong. Is that why you live away from wizards and witches?” she returned.

He said, “I had too much to be going on about. Even at that, I couldn't have walked down Diagon Alley after the War without being hounded, and I wasn't about to solve all the Ministry's problems for them. It was bad enough that I had to deal with the goblins and the Department of Mysteries –”

The goblins? What... hold on, sorry about that. I have a feeling I might be doing that for a while. It seems I've missed a few things,” she said ruefully.

He went on, “Understandable. Anyway, I'm just a regular bloke in John O' Groats. They took care of me, and they went out of their way to make it seem as if they weren't taking care of me. That's worth more than a cavern full of gold, I think. As for watching other people casting and such...? Even though I think this is the fundamental truth of Magic, it isn't something most people will be able to use. It takes a certain mindset and a certain... relationship with Magic.”

So you have to survive a Killing Curse or be resurrected from one?” she asked.

No, Gudrun is another example. Her people forge a connection to Magic via ritual. I don't really know if that's necessary; it might be that if you taught someone from the beginning with this in mind, they could do it. Maybe someone could approach Magic this way but still need to use a wand? Truthfully, if the connection isn't needed, even non-magical people might be able to invoke some aspects of Magic.” he mused.

Well, the only way to find out would be to start teaching,” she said.

Even if I could teach it, I'm not sure that I should. Can you imagine how badly this could be misused? One of the books Siggy had me read was by a man called Oppenheimer – he was responsible for America's first atomic bombs. I've thought for a while that the ethical issues he raised are spot-on in this case as well,” he countered.

If I'm following your paper – and I think I understand enough to say this much – then Magic would desert anyone who tried to misuse it as badly as you're worried about. Why couldn't you just set up some rules? I'm thinking of a more formal version of what we did with the D.A... or perhaps something like the rules for Masteries?” she said.

Guild Oaths, you mean? Erm... have we talked about how oaths actually work...?” he said hesitantly.

Hermione chuckled at that; “Gudrun and I had a chat about Unbreakable Vows and crossed fingers. I thought you deserved a good hexing until she pointed out that it worked exactly as you thought it would. Now that I've read this, I think it's fair to say that vows and oaths still apply to nearly everyone. I think a covenant of some kind would work, especially if you were teaching children and introduced it from the start; they would probably take it at face value,” she said.

A covenant, huh? I'll think about it,” he allowed; “So how do you feel about all of this?”

She puzzled over his question for quite a while, and he watched a dozen emotions play across her face. He was surprised how easily he could read her, but chalked it up to her being younger and still innocent in ways that he had surrendered long ago. Finally she said, “A bit relieved, honestly.”

What do you mean?” he asked.

Your paper, it's a relief. I've been really worried about how far behind you I am, about how much more you know. I still have a lot of catching-up to do, but I suspect there's as much unlearning to do as there is learning,” she said.

What you study is up to you. You'll never have to take a job unless you're interested in it,” he told her.

She edged toward him as she said, “Another thing I've realised is that even though you've stayed outside the wizarding world, you've stopped hiding.”

Erm... I have no idea what you're talking about,” he said.

Ron's a dear, but he didn't do you any favours in terms of school. I should probably lay it at the Dursley's feet as well – good riddance to that lot – but you always wanted to be normal, to blend in. I knew you were a good deal smarter than you let on. Everyone seems to know that you're brilliant now – a prodigy, really – and it doesn't seem to bother you. It's... umm...”

What?”

She cleared her throat and finished, “I like it. It's an attractive trait... er... very attractive...”

Harry said uneasily, “I'm... well, I'm... I'm older, right? Not just older than you, I mean – I'm older than our friends, too...”

Hermione rolled her eyes at that. “And Gudrun is how much older than Ron? What about Bill and Fleur?” she pointed out.

Gudrun doesn't look it, though,” Harry said quietly.

Hermione looked at him – really looked at him. He fought back the urge to flinch. After a long pause, she said, “Well, you're certainly not Gilderoy Lockhart.”

Excuse me?!” he spluttered.

She went on, “Obviously you're not prone to gazing in the mirror? Gudrun had a photo of you and Ron that was taken a few weeks ago. I hardly recognised you in it, because you look at least ten years younger now. The white's even gone out of your hair. I can't believe you didn't notice that, at least?”

I suppose I don't really bother with mirrors. I just finger-comb my hair – what's the point in fussing with this mess, right?” he admitted.

Hermione took on a thoughtful look. She said, “At the end of the ritual, you fell into the cauldron. Do you suppose that's it?”

You're saying that I was indirectly restored...? That's possible, I suppose. I thought that the extra years were part of the cost... but I suppose that it didn't have to be a physical cost at all...” Harry said, as much to himself as to her.

She bit her lip, and it was a few moments before she said, “I knew I would have a lot of questions – that only makes sense – but I expected I'd at least know what questions to ask.”

He said, “It'll come in time. There are a lot of people you need to meet, maybe some light reading –”

Light reading? Not from where I'm standing!” she blurted out.

I'm just having you on, but I mean it when I say it'll come in time. I put ten years into this, and I was, erm, a bit obsessive. I've changed quite a lot. You don't really know me any more,” he said.

For the second time, she looked at him until he wanted to flinch. “That's not true. You're the same person in every way that matters,” she decided.

But I'm not –”

You decided to save me, and you put everything into it – it didn't matter what it did to you, what it cost you. You reconciled with my parents – Gudrun's told me all about that, so don't even try to pretend – because you wanted me to have my family again when you brought me back,” she said.

Er... I was going to take us there next, actually. Your dad... for a while, this was what kept him going, you know? He was living for this day,” Harry said.

Hermione was instantly in motion; she gasped, “Is he all right? Is he sick? I was so angry with him – what if...?”

Relax, Hermione – he's fine. He wasn't, mind you, and I think your mum will kill him herself if he ever tries to keep back anything from her again. They're both fine. In fact, I'd say they're the healthiest non-magical people on the planet,” he assured her.

And what exactly have you done?” she said with a hint of a smirk.

I made certain that you didn't lose six years with them,” he said.

She took his hands and said, “Like I said, you're the same person. You're the same Harry Potter that I fell in love with.”

I... erm...”

Harry, I wouldn't have said that if I didn't mean it.”

But...”

You don't have to say it in return.”

That's not it... you know I do... it's just...”

Harry...”

Your parents are expecting us, actually –”

They can wait.”

And we're having dinner at Ron and Gudrun's tomorrow, and I want to introduce you to a few people here –”

That's a good idea, since I'll be staying here.”

Well, I had hoped –”

You didn't think otherwise, did you?”

I didn't want to assume –”

Start assuming.”

Okay, but we really should –”

I know, I really do want to see them, but we have to establish proper priorities.”

I... what?”

She looked deeply into his eyes, and flinching was the last thing on his mind. “I've had seven days to think on this, so I want you to be quiet and listen. I don't know what I'm going to do with myself, other than I've no intention of going back to Hogwarts. I can't pretend I'm an ordinary person, or an ordinary witch for that matter, and I'm as excited about being mobbed in public as you are. I do know that this is where I want to be, if you'll have me. That's what I wanted before... you know... and it's what I want now. It's not out of loyalty or obligation or anything of the sort, so put that out of your head right now. It's because I love you. That isn't something either of us is good at saying, but it gets easier every time I say it. As for everything else...? I suppose I've changed a bit from all of this. Patience comes more easily to me. There's something about this... this connection to Magic, I think you called it? There's a sense of... of calm, I suppose?”

You feel like you're at peace?” he asked.

Yes... yes, that's it, exactly,” she said.

I'm starting to sense that as well, now that I've been able to accept Magic as it really is. You might be a step ahead of me, you know?” he said.

I rather doubt that. So I'm staying here. You're not going to fight me on this?” she asked.

Wouldn't be very smart on my part, would it?” he laughed.

No, it wouldn't. I've no intention of having my own room, by the way,” she said.

Your father will come after me with a drill,” he dead-panned.

She snorted, “I'll protect you.”

Well, that's good, isn't it?” he said.

She said, “Proper priorities, Harry, in case you've forgotten?”

So that means we're off to see your parents?” he asked.

Oh, honestly! If you don't kiss me right now, I will be most put out,” she said archly.

He said, “Wouldn't want that, would we?” as he gave in to a different kind of Magic.  It was time to take the advice offered him by Ron and Gudrun, by Hermione's parents, by Siggy, and even by the grœð.  It was time to truly live.

I

FIN

 

 

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