The Dark Arts
Harry Potter/Hermione Granger
Harry Potter Hermione Granger
Angst Romance
Harry and Classmates Post-Hogwarts
Deadly Hallows (Through Ch. 36)
Published: 07/25/2007
Updated: 07/25/2007
Words: 9,607
Chapters: 1
Hits: 2,690

Later than Later


Story Summary:
What follows is something that started gelling even before I had finished the DH itself, although the epilogue required great effort simply to make it something that could pass as canon compliant. It’s a one-shot, set three years after JKR’s epilogue. It’s bittersweet and it’s rated “PG,” for mature subject matter and some cursing It’s the best I could do at canon-compliant H/Hr fic, and I’m not even going to try after this. I’ll go back to writing the Fifth Element instead.

Chapter 01 - Later Than Later

Chapter Summary:
One shot, three years after JKR’s epilogue. Excerpt: “choosing her words carefully, she asked him: ‘Are you meaning to tell me that you allowed a bit of Voldemort’s soul to decide what the relationships between you, Ron, and myself were going to be for the rest of our lives?’” This is something that began gelling even before I had finished DH itself. The epilogue required great effort to write something both H/Hr and canon compliant. Bittersweet. Rated “PG-13,” for mature subject matter and some cursing. My last shot at canon-compliant H/Hr. I’m going back to the Fifth Element instead.

Later Than Later

"And you'll see the children back to Hogwarts, then?"

"Yes, Harry dear," Molly Weasley replied. "I'll take care of everything. I'm sure you have more than enough to think about at the moment. We can discuss everything later. You don't worry about a thing."

Soberly waving goodbye to his three children, Harry turned and trudged towards the top of nearby Stoatshead Hill. It was a beautiful day, but no day could be beautiful enough to overcome the intense melancholy he was feeling. He needed to get away. He needed to think.

Since the diagnosis only six short weeks ago, his life had literally been turned upside down.

Reaching the top of the hill, Harry slumped against a large shade tree. He looked out over the little magical village of Ottery St. Catchpole. He resolutely refused to look back the way he had come.

And he thought. Ginny Potter, his wife of twenty-two years, had died in childbirth earlier in the week, a victim of a nasty curse - cast upon him - at some point during or before the fall of what everyone now called the Voldemort Ministry. It was a curse designed to prevent Muggle-borns, half-bloods, and the like from procreating. It was insidious, its magic had no colour, and it caused no immediate effects. Most victims never even knew they had been cursed. It just lay in wait within, waiting almost randomly to destroy innocent children.

And their mothers.

After the diagnosis, he had cried, begged, and pleaded with Ginny to see reason and not to bring the baby to term. It had been to no avail. Even though the fatality rate was around 75%, she had insisted. It was what a good wizard wife would do, she said, to take her chances, put her trust in magic, and hope for the best.

It was a bloody, awful lie.

And now because of that lie, she was lying in a freshly filled in grave in the Weasley family cemetery next to....

"Damn, I need a drink," Harry muttered to nobody in particular.

He absolutely could not understand things. The Voldemort Ministry had lasted what - ten months? It was now more than twenty years since they'd overthrown the damn thing. In all that time, why hadn't the combined efforts of the Department of Mysteries and the all the healers at St. Mungo's been able to come up with a countercurse or something? You'd think that with all the available talent somebody would have been clever enough to overcome a curse that those slimy Dark bastards had only needed a few months to concoct?

He wasn't even forty yet, and now he was a widower ... not only a widower but a pensioner, generously maintained, but not doing much of anything....

"Like some company?" came a familiar voice from behind.

"Not really," Harry sighed. "If it was anyone other than you, I'd tell them to sod off straightaway." There was no further movement one way or another, so he added, "Have a seat, Hermione. I figure you're the only one there is with a clue to how I'm feeling right now."

Hermione sat, close by but not too close. "It was a lovely ceremony, wasn't it Harry? A fitting tribute to the one woman you loved enough to make your wife, and to her life and...."

"I hate funerals," Harry interrupted glumly, "especially Weasley funerals."

Hermione stopped. "Who am I kidding?" she shook her head. "You're right Harry, so do I."

"This is the fourth one for us, isn't it?" Harry said in that flat monotone of his that Hermione knew to be his beyond caring voice. "I think it's going to be my last."

"So what are you going to do now, Harry?" Hermione asked, the worry in her voice matching the despair in his.

"Me? I suppose I'll do what I've done every day since they took her to St. Mungo's. Crack open the old firewhiskey and drink myself into as close to oblivion as I can muster. I'm on a first name basis with Apollonius Ogden now...."

"Harry James Potter, stop pulling my leg, this is serious," Hermione began upbraiding him.

"Oh put a cork in it, Hermione," Harry growled. "Stop the bloody big sister lectures already. I mean, what right does somebody the papers call the 'reclusive widow Weasley' have to tell me how I'm ruining my life?"

"It shows that the papers are still printing malicious poppycock, for one," Hermione replied. "Which is not all that surprising, actually. I've never been the 'Widow Weasley' because I never formally took his name. You know how I feel about that."

"Yeah, but in true Hermione fashion, you ignored the heart of my question," Harry said sarcastically, looking closely at her - all dressed in appropriate funereal black - for the first time during their conversation. "You haven't denied the 'reclusive' part, and that's what's important."

It was Hermione's turn to sigh.

"You're right, Harry. It was really, really hard after those illegal potions smugglers took Ron," she admitted. "It was so sudden. One day he was as alive and - well, so Ron-like - and the next day he was simply dead. I had trouble adjusting, that's all. I'd lived almost all of my adult life through his, and then he was gone. There wasn't much to fall back on...."

"I'm sorry," Harry said softly, regretting his prior barb. "You could have come to us, you know. Any time, day or night, our door was always open - and just so you know, mine still is."

She put her hand on his, touching him for the first time since their formal, stiff embrace during the recently concluded funeral. "You're so sweet, Harry, but I didn't feel I should impose my problems on you. Also, you'd probably have offered to pay for things - and you know how Molly hates for any Weasley to accept charity...."

"You know and I know that Molly Weasley doesn't like a lot of things that don't conform to her preconceived notions," Harry grumbled, shrugging off her hand. "You shouldn't have let that stop you."

"Well, all I can say is 'I'm sorry,'" Hermione said with a shrug of her own. "But I did want to tell you some news, I got a job! I really needed to do this because Ron's death benefits aren't all that much, and with the Hogwarts tuitions and all, I do need a few more Galleons."

Harry brightened. "That's great, Hermione! And after so long. I don't recall you working since ... well, since the Enlightenment Campaign after the fall of the Voldemort Ministry."

Hermione stiffened perceptibly. "That's right, Harry, but with no kids at home anymore, and no husband either, it was time for me to do something, almost anything."

"So what are you going to be doing?" Harry asked eagerly.

"I've been accepted as Assistant Librarian at the Ottery St. Catchpole Free Magical Library," she told him. "I start tomorrow. If I do well, I've been told I'll be able to apply for Head Librarian when that slot next opens up."

Some of the brightness left his face as she told him her news. Harry quickly realized this and slapped his grin back onto his face. He wasn't fast enough, though.

"What's wrong, Harry? I thought you'd be pleased - not like Mrs. Weasley thinking I should spend all my time with her baking cookies," Hermione asked archly. "I've already spent so much of my life at home baking cookies."

"No, Hermione," Harry backpedaled. "I'm really glad you're getting out and doing something with your life. It's just ... just...."

"Just what, Harry?" Hermione asked again, more sharply this time.

Finally Harry couldn't hold it all in anymore. "It's just.... Dammit Hermione! What's happened to me? What's happened to you? What's happened to us? I feel like such a failure! Gone from the bloody Boy-Who-Saved-the-World to a pensioned off gentleman farmer, put out to pasture before he's forty, mucking about breeding thestrals and raising ... other stuff. And now, to top it all off, I'm just another bloke with a problem with drink since my wife died. When I came out of that wrecked mess that was Hogwarts Castle that day, all I wanted to be was ordinary - normal. And so that's what I've become.... And now I feel like, like I've wasted my life away ...."

This was a better start than Hermione could have imagined. If Harry - her Harry - was in a battle with the bottle, the first thing he needed to do was talk about it honestly. "Harry, you're not a failure," she started in. "You could never...."

Harry wasn't finished yet.

"And you, Hermione? You were the best! The cleverest witch of her age - or of any age, I'd reckon. You could have been anything! And now, twenty-two years later you're happy just to be an assistant librarian at a country library. I mean, what...?"

Now Hermione was purpling as well. Harry's emotional comments had struck awfully close to home. "Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Harry, but all the so-called 'better' jobs require N.E.W.T.s, and I didn't have the...."

Once he got started, Harry had become - in this one small way, anyway - the Harry of old. He refused to let her wriggle off the hook. "That's just what I bloody well mean, Hermione! You were the one everyone, even the Slytherins, knew would have been Head Girl.... But you never even got around to sitting for your N.E.W.T.s...."

Then Harry's flushed face turned abruptly white. He stopped for a moment and thought. Hermione watched him with narrowed eyes and thin lips.

"I'm sorry, Hermione. I ruined your life. I should never have asked you to give up your last year at Hogwarts. I should never have presumed...."

"Don't give me that kind of bullshit, Harry!" Hermione exploded herself. "Would they have even let a Muggle-born in Hogwarts that year? Of course not! Give me a little credit, at least! I wasn't a puppet you could make dance on a string. I came of my own free will! I did everything of my own free will. You would never have defeated Voldemort on your own. It was for the greater good. I don't matter that much. It's just...."

"And don't you give me that greater good business," Harry shot back. "You sound like bloody Dumbledore before he got as wise as he was clever. We don't sacrifice the individual to the group...."

Hermione stepped back. She had always been the one to step back. "Harry, calm down, I agree with you," she told him in her own forcibly calm voice. "We've both got a lot of regrets about how we've lived our lives, but like Dumbledore, we've still got a lot of years left. Maybe we can fix things yet. I'm happy to go over my own failings, which are many, but if you've started drinking since Ginny died, I think we really should talk about you first, since that could flat out kill you. OK?"

"OK." Harry assented in a soft voice. Another constant through the years had been that Hermione was always right. "You're right. Ever since Ginny went away to St. Mungo's, and even more since she's died, there's been so much missing. I mean it doesn't take much to breed Thestrals and raise house ... er ... plants. They pretty much grow themselves. I've got nothing to do, and all day to do it. I'm lonely. I'm bored. I'm a mess...."

"Why don't you start by telling me how things got that way?"

"I'll try," Harry agreed. "But I've never really thought it like that, though. After we defeated Voldemort, I probably could have been anything, but I was exhausted. All my life, I'd been gawked at, made a spectacle of, been marked for imminent death, or forced into the role of savior, that kind of thing. I was bloody well tired of it. I'd never known normalcy. I'd never known family. I'd never known love - at least the kind of love that can exist between a man and a woman."

"All I wanted to do was get out, get married, settle down, and be ordinary. So that's what I did. The Ministry was more than happy to oblige. Nobody cared whether I had N.E.W.T.s or not. Hell, I didn't even want to do anything that required them. That's why I didn't become an Auror like Ron. I couldn't stomach going back to Hogwarts and being on display for another year the way he did. I didn't want any more fame - I wanted to lose that. So I turned down the Quidditch talent spotters, and Shak's offer of a political post in his ministry."

"I settled with the Ministry. You know about that; you helped negotiate the deal. I got a huge pension, to add to the Potter inheritance. We got the Hell out of Grimmauld Place. Bought the ruins of the old Lovegood place for enough money to erase all of the Quibbler's debt and fixed it up. Then after doing a whole lot of traveling for a few years, we started a family. Once we had two kids, we were feeling cramped, so we moved out from under the literal Weasley apron strings and bought the country place we ended up calling Potter Manor. You and Ron organized our housewarming."

"I remember Harry," Hermione said, her soft voice cracking. "I remember like it was yesterday."

"Every time I asked the Ministry for more money, I got it," Harry continued. "But that came with a price. That price was that I had to play Boy-Who-Saved-the-World at various functions, and more and more I had to keep quiet, toe the Ministry line, and speak only when spoken to. I got too damn comfortable."

Hermione's breath hissed just a bit.

"Yeah, I know," Harry acknowledged. "That wasn't a problem at first. As long as Shak was Minister, we agreed on just about everything. And it wasn't really a problem during Percy's Ministry after that, although he grated on me more, presuming I would help him out just because we were 'family,' and all. But...."

"But what, Harry?" Hermione prompted.

"Well, then Arthur bought it when the supposedly enchanted Muggle object he was investigating turned out to be a bloody car bomb, and things started going sour. I didn't like some of what was being done in the name of 'state security,' and I told first Percy and then Brisbane so. They told me, in effect, that it was none of my business, and that I should be happy with all the gold I got from them." Harry sighed. "The berks...."

"So you received an implicit threat that if you spoke out, your stipend would be at risk?" Hermione asked.

"That's right," Harry confirmed. "And lately, it's been more than implicit. I wrote a private letter to Minister Dawlish last year about why I thought that the provision for automatic review of Muggle-born O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. scores above a certain level was discriminatory...."

"Good for you, Harry," Hermione interjected.

"Thanks," Harry smiled at her. "I wanted to tell you about it, but you were well into your recluse mode by then. Anyway, I was told that if I took those concerns public, I wouldn't be getting any more cost of living increases."

"So what did you do?" Hermione asked.

"Not a damn, bloody thing, to tell you the truth," Harry confessed, sounding disgusted with himself. "Ginny liked the Lady Potter life, and I didn't want to disturb her or the kids by biting the hand that fed us. The only thing I did was passive - I basically bowed out of public life, and frankly the Ministry was right chuffed with that. Finally, we were at loose ends, so we thought another child might restore some direction to our lives. It turned out to be cursed, and you know the rest."

Harry looked like he was going to cry. Hermione jumped in before he had the chance.

"Harry, all you need is for someone to give you a kick in the arse now and then," she diagnosed. "You already know the problem. You're too 'comfortable' - too 'normal' as you call it. Ginny was too nice and too much in love with you to do that. If you want, I will, because I'm not."

"That's probably a good idea," Harry started, before switching gears. "You're not what?"

"I'm not so much in love with you not to know when you need a good, swift kick in the pants, that's what Mister Potter," she said bracingly.

"Well ... OK, I guess," Harry replied, just a bit warily. "Now, I've told you my story. How about yours?"

Hermione gulped. She had never really talked about what she saw the downward spiral of her expectations with anyone, not even Ron. "Alright, I promised I would," she said reluctantly. "But can we go somewhere else? The sun's hot on all this black clothing, and I think there's an anthill somewhere nearby."

"All right," Harry readily agreed. "Potter Manor, then?"

"That's fine," Hermione assented. "More than fine, actually. I don't think I've been over since Ron was killed."

"You haven't," Harry said flatly.

They Disapparated.

A few minutes later, both Harry and Hermione had Transfigured their formal mourning clothing into more comfortable tweeds and woolens. Hermione was seated at a table in a comfortable anteroom set off from the large formal dining room. Harry was doing introductions.

"Hermione, this is Izzie," he explained to her. "She's my head house-elf. As you can tell from her uniform, she's a free elf. You'll be happy to know that there are only free elves here."

"Harry, I wouldn't have expected anything less from you," Hermione told him with an appreciative smile on her face. Then she was distracted by a scrabbling sound in the main dining room. There was a thump, then a squeak and a half dozen other, much younger elves rolled into view. They immediately picked themselves up and disappeared.

Perplexed, Hermione asked, "Harry, what's all that?"

"Umm ... other elves," Harry answered tersely. "Now, Izzie, would you please get Mrs. Weas ... oops, Ms. Granger something of her choosing to drink?"

"Why are there so many of them?" Hermione followed up.

Harry was stuck. He did not want to lie to Hermione when they were having their first real heart-to-heart conversation in oh so many years. "They're trainees. He told her. All free, like I said."

"You train house elves?" Hermione asked again. "To do what?"

"Among other things, yes I do," Harry admitted. "I train them - well Izzie and her staff train them - in everything they need to know to be proper servants. Then I train them in security and Defence. For a fee, I place them in wizard households who desire their services. There's a market for it. We learned from Dobby during the fight against Voldemort that free elves are every bit as loyal as slaves, and their protective magic is much, much more powerful."

"Now, what can I get you to drink, Ms. Granger?"

Hermione was still sharp as a tack, and she had always been interested in elfish rights. "Anything non-alcoholic will be fine, and I trust you'll be having the same, Harry.... Now, the only provider of services of free house-elves that I've ever heard of is J&J Services," she continued, "and it's a mysterious outfit. Nobody knows who owns it. Do you own it, Harry?"

It was Harry's turn to gulp. "Umm, yes."

Hermione jumped up and gave him a hug, just like in the old days. "I think it's wonderful, Harry. But why do you hide it?"

"Ministry," Harry said tersely. "They don't mind me doing it, per se. But they don't see free house-elves as something to be encouraged. They don't want the name 'Harry Potter' associated with it. So I have to run it under a made up name."

"What do J&J stand for?" Hermione asked.

She was surprised why such a simple question made Harry look extremely ill at ease. "Er ... James and Jean."

"I know James is your father, but who is Jean?" Hermione asked.

"Umm ... that's not it," Harry told her haltingly. "James is also my middle name."

That did not help Hermione much, and for a moment she was distracted by a smaller, much younger house-elf dressed in an identical J&J uniform. The elf was bearing a tray with an iced pitcher of pumpkin juice and two elegant crystal goblets.

"And Jean?" Hermione asked, whilst sipping some of the cold juice.

Harry just stared at her.

"Jean is ... my middle name," Hermione finally realized.

"Knew you'd get it," Harry said. "You always were the clever one."

"But why use our middle names?" Hermione asked.

Harry shook his head. "Hermione, I will always associate anything having to do with free house-elves with you. It's impossible for me not to."

"Well I think that's very sweet," Hermione said. She moved to squeeze Harry's hand but it was gone from the table - tugging at the collar of the brown turtleneck sweater he was now wearing.

"Yeah, I guess," Harry replied.

Hermione took a deep breath. "Well I suppose I'm obligated to tell my sordid tale now, aren't I?"

Harry sat up straight. "You're not obligated, Hermione. Not if you don't really want to. But I get the sense that you're almost as frustrated with how your life's turned out as I am with mine. I mean - look - both our spouses have died. It can't get more depressing than that."

She made the decision to go ahead - as she said - of her own free will.

"I think I will, Harry, but I'm not sure how much you'll be able to understand, since you're neither female, nor Muggle-born."

"I'm close enough to Muggle-born that the Nonus Natal Curse affected me just like it affected you," Harry said in his own defence. "So maybe I'll be worth something."

"Oh, Harry, I'm sorry," Hermione said, with a pained look spreading over her face. "But you're quite right. The Death Eaters' blood philosophy incorporated the Nuremberg laws, so your Muggle grandparents on your mother's side brought you within the curse."

"How do you still know so much, squirreled away the way you've been?" Harry couldn't help but asking.

"I learnt that when I served as a scribe in the Enlightenment Campaign," Hermione told him, "and besides, I've tried to study it. I've got all sorts of notes on it in my cellar."

"You've ... You've worked on the curse?" Harry gawked at her.

"Since my brush with it, yes," Hermione said, whilst looking frustrated. "Only theoretically, I'm afraid. I've no resources to put anything into practice. All I've been able to come up with is a charm that I think would identify people like us who've been cursed, before they learnt that the way we did. I haven't been...."


Harry's hand angrily slamming into the table interrupted her. "That's a damn sight more than the whole effing Ministry's ever accomplished in twenty years!" Harry roared, his frustration even worse than hers. "If only those bloody fools had put you in charge of it, so many.... Ginny...."

Hermione shook her head slowly back and forth, reached out, and patted Harry's hand, which had remained on the table. "I'm sorry, Harry," she said while looking into his pained eyes, "but I never had the credentials.... That's nobody's fault. It's just how things turned out - and I suppose that's a good place to start my story."

Harry gave two rapid shakes of his own head, pulled back his hand, sighed deeply, and regarded her attentively.

"You see, right after Voldemort fell, Ron and I got engaged," Hermione started.

Harry tried to smile, not very successfully. "I know. I was there when he proposed, remember."

"Another thing I'll never forget," Hermione said, her own bittersweet smile of remembrance coming to her face. "Anyway, money was extremely tight. The wizard world's economy was flat on its back, and the year's sojourn in Australia had cost my parents their dental practices. Ron wanted very much to become an Auror, but he had to have N.E.W.T.s to do it. We made a decision. I would go to work for a year to support his Hogwarts tuition."

Harry cut in, his voice very pained. "Hermione, I would have gladly paid the way for both of you return. You had to have known that. Did you think I was that much of an ingrate for everything the both of had done?"

"No, Harry. It wasn't that at all," Hermione said evenly. "As I told you before, the Weasleys, especially Molly, absolutely abhor charity. They had always made their own way, so that's how Ron and I decided to do it."

"Anyway, I easily found a temporary position as a clerk during Enlightenment Campaign, helping to cleanse the Ministry of Death Eater influence," she recounted. "In those days, my name had something of a cachet too, not like yours, of course, but enough to open quite a few doors. We thought that, once Ron was out of Hogwarts and earning money as an Auror trainee, I would follow and get my N.E.W.T.s as well."

"But what happened?" Harry asked sadly. "You were the best."

"You know good and well what happened," Hermione reproached him. "You just never had to think about such things. One or the other of us made a mistake, and I got pregnant. I had even gone so far as submitting my special Hogwarts application before finding out. We hadn't intended to start a family that soon."

"Well, Hogwarts doesn't accept pregnant students, and there wasn't a force in the world strong enough to deny Molly Weasley her grandbaby Victoire. So I put off Hogwarts. As it turned out, putting it off was the same as giving it up forever. By the next year, I would have been two years older than everyone else, with a husband heavily into Auror training, and an infant to take care of. I had to lower my sights."

"You should go back," Harry said, his voice barely above a whisper.

"Hah, like that'll ever happen," Hermione replied bitterly. "A forty-year-old Muggle-born matriculating at Hogwarts? Don't make me laugh."

"It wasn't your fault," Harry persisted.

"Every decision I've made in my life has been of my own free will," Hermione declared again. "Now do you want to hear the rest of my story or not?"

"Please, continue," Harry said.

"It wasn't that bad," she told him. "It wasn't bad at all, actually. After everything I'd been through, being a mum and nothing else was positively refreshing. All the grandparents helped out, and I devoted myself to teaching first Victoire and later Rosie everything I could. They were both readers by age four, and I saw to it that they could do third-year Charms and Transfiguration before they got their letters...."

"Whatever you put your mind to, you were always the best," Harry complimented her. "Victoire was Head Girl, and Minerva thinks Rosie probably will be too."

Hermione blushed. "Thank you, Harry. But truthfully, what mattered back then was that Ron was so happy. He always compared himself to you, you know. Now he was doing just what Harry had once wanted to do, and doing it very well. He brought home the course work from his training and we worked through it together."

"He graduated at the top of his Auror class, as I recall," Harry said lightly. "Now I think I know why."

"Don't sell Ron short," Hermione protested volubly. "He was a lot more clever than he ever got credit for being, especially after he got out from under my - and particularly your - shadow, Harry."

"Anyway, life was pretty damn good for a pretty long time," Hermione continued. "Ron did graduate at the top of his class, and he got good assignments. I wasn't exactly sitting around mouldering either. He'd bring his cases home and we'd go over them together, just like at the Academy. He was getting the toughest cases, and I got plenty of intellectual stimulation from helping him solve them." Hermione smiled wistfully at the receding vision of those golden years.

The smile did not last long. "We had our second child, Rosie, planned this time, six years later. And then we tried for a third pretty much right away. That was when we found out the hard way that I'd been cursed."

"Yeah," Harry remembered, "Ron was really upset. Everyone was."

"Unfortunately, they weren't all upset about the same things," Hermione corrected. "We didn't know quite as much about Nonus Natal then as we do now, but it was still considered a virtual death sentence if the mother continued the pregnancy. Ron didn't want that, and neither did I. So we went ahead with the abortion. That was a nasty thing in and of itself, since it's never been possible to diagnose a cursed fetus until midway through the third trimester."

"Except for your charm nobody's ever heard of," Harry commented.

"I'm afraid not, Harry. My charm - assuming it even works - would only tell you, or me, if we carried the curse. It does not diagnose a cursed fetus. That would be far more involved," Hermione explained.

"But with backing you could have done it," Harry stated.

Hermione bit her lip. "I can't worry about what might have been."

"Sorry. Anyway, that's when you had your epic fight with Molly," Harry anticipated.

"Damn straight it was," Hermione replied very forthrightly. "Molly always believed that babies - the future of the race - came before anything - even being Mum to the two girls. She insisted that I take my chances with the 25% survival rate, and I wasn't about to do that. Ron, bless his heart, supported me all the way, notwithstanding the worst that Molly could throw at us. And there's nobody I can think of who can guilt trip people better than Molly Weasley...."

"Try thinking of Albus Dumbledore," Harry reminded Hermione.

"True," she allowed, "but Albus only did it for the weightiest of reasons. Molly did it just because she wanted more grandchildren. Anyway, after I made my choice, she wouldn't talk to me for almost a year. She wouldn't even let me in the house for a while, until Ron and Bill both threatened not to come by anymore - and not to bring the grandchildren, either."

Harry shook his head again and buried his palms in his black hair, which was now beginning to show the first touches of grey, if one knew exactly where to look. "I think.... I think that's what killed Ginny. She was more afraid of her mum than she was of dying."

"Oh, Harry, that's awful," Hermione wailed. "Please don't tell me you think I ruined your life. I have enough regrets about my own."

"No, Hermione," Harry said stoutly. He gathered her in his arms for the first time since they had been fighting Voldemort together. "I didn't mean it that way at all. I don't blame you for anything. Absolutely nothing, do you hear me? You did what I thought was the right thing - then and now, dammit. There was nothing better you could have done. Unfortunately, Ginny was never really the strongest of persons, especially concerning her own family. She was content to let me drift for many, many years...."

"Thank you, Harry," Hermione sniffled as she recomposed herself. Realizing where she was, she self-consciously pulled herself free from Harry's embrace and took a seat on the opposite side of the table.

"Anyway, that was also the beginning of the end, I'm afraid," Hermione tried to continue. She stopped and drained the rest of the pumpkin juice from her glass.

"End of what?" Harry asked gormlessly.

"The end of Ron. The end of our marriage. The end of everything. Take your choice," Hermione said in an unnaturally calm voice. Harry recognized it as Hermione's voice of despair.

"What happened?" Harry whispered.

"The experience with the cursed pregnancy, well it pretty much put the both of us off of ... umm ... physical intimacy. Given how Molly was acting, we felt we had to try again, and we did. As you know, I did get pregnant one last time. Thank Merlin the curse skipped little Hugo. But all the joy had gone out of sex. It brought fear, not pleasure. The prospect of bringing another doomed baby into the world.... Well, it just.... I don't know.... We were both on eggshells through the whole thing."

Hermione put her own head in her hands and went silent for a while.

"You can stop," Harry offered, in his gentlest voice. Now he felt very queasy about goading her into this. "You don't have to tell me."

"But I think I need to," she decided. "I've never told anyone, even Ron, all of this. I feel it's been bottled up, eating away at me for years and years and years. I do want to do this, Harry."

"OK, but take as much time as you like," Harry replied. "It's not like I've got anything I'm supposed to do. My days are all pretty much the same, now."

"I withdrew inside of myself," Hermione eventually continued. "I concentrated on being the best mother, and to the extent possible wife, that I could possibly be. Ron was different, as you know."

"Ron would get mad and do things impulsively," Harry remembered.

"Now don't get the wrong impression," Hermione countered. "Ron never did anything like hit me or the children. Nothing like that...."

"He knew I'd kill him if he did," Harry said grimly. "I gave him 'the talk' on your behalf shortly after they let us all out of St. Mungo's after the final battle."

"Except for being away so much, Ron was always a wonderful father," Hermione went on. "But he was plainly frustrated with our sex life. After I became pregnant for the last time, he asked for an open marriage, which I reluctantly allowed. His needs were always intense, and if I couldn't handle them, I felt like I owed him the right to find comfort somewhere else. I could never do the same, but I let him."

"He shouldn't have made you do that," Harry grumbled.

"How many times do I have to tell you, Harry, everything I've done in this life, I've done of my own free will," Hermione protested forcefully. "I can't take anything back, anyway. That wasn't even the worst of it. It affected his work. He put more and more of himself into being this sort of uber-Auror that could handle anything. He got reckless - that's what it said in his file when I read it after he'd died. He was unhappy, unhappy with me ... with us. I think it was his way of committing suicide.... And now.... He never got to see Hugo become ... a Gryffindor...."

Hermione broke down completely and wept. Harry hesitated briefly, but couldn't stop himself from comforting the woman whom he still thought of, after everything that had happened, as his best friend - the person who understood him most completely.

Harry also realized that he had never truly understood Hermione before. If he had, he could never have done what he had done for all these years.

This time, she did not push him away.

After some very long minutes, Hermione had composed herself once again. She went to the bathroom, washed her face the old-fashioned Muggle way, and returned to her seat at the table. She gave a mirthless chuckle. "So you see, Harry, I don't take a backseat to anyone in having a totally messed up life. But you're right, it's neither of our faults, really. It's Voldemort's revenge. Even from beyond the grave, he's had his way with us."

Harry gathered himself up and looked her straight in the eye. "Hermione, I think that what you said about me is true about you as well."


"I think that, sometimes, you also can use a good kick in the arse," he told her.

"You're probably right," Hermione conceded.

Harry continued. "So I'm going to violate rule number one of my miserable existence...."

"...which is?"

"...Always rely on merit, and never on connections," he told her. "I'm going to talk to Minerva tomorrow."

Hermione drew herself up straight. "What good will that do?" she asked grudgingly.

"She's been at Hogwarts now almost as long as Dumbledore was," Harry said rapidly. "She knows everybody who's anybody in magical education. One way or another, you're going to...."

"...sit for my N.E.W.T.s." Hermione anticipated. "And do you expect to let me have any say in this, Mister?" she continued, but now her voice was noticeably more cheerful than her words.

"About as much as I anticipate you're planning to let me have with respect to the contents of my liquor cabinet," Harry answered.

"Deal," she said.

"Not quite," Harry replied. "I want Poppy to have a look at your Charm, too."

"Well, now that you've finished solving my problems, Harry, I think your problem is just as obvious," she told him.

"Yeah, I know. The Ministry's already hinting at wanting to fix me up with somebody 'from one of the better families,' as Vice Minister Oskenholt just happened to let slip earlier today," Harry revealed. "Bloody bastards - can't even wait until Ginny's buried."

Hermione bit her lip, hard. "Well, that's one problem, I grant you," Hermione acknowledged, a hint of that very even voice of hers returning. "But there are others...."

Harry knew she was right. "I need to get out from under Ministry control...,"

"...and you need to find something more productive to do," Hermione added.

"What can I possibly do after sitting on my arse for all these years?" Harry replied sarcastically.

"Lots of things, Harry," Hermione shot back at him. "But at least at the beginning, I think you've already done it."

Harry's eyebrows raised in confusion. "Already done what?" he asked.

"What do you think, Harry?" Hermione answered his question with one of his own.

"The only thing I've ever done that's worth a damn was kill Voldemort," he replied after a pregnant pause.

"Precisely," Hermione answered, her voice much more lively. "Up until then you led a remarkably interesting and exciting life, Harry, and nobody knows about it."

"I afraid I don't know what you're on about," Harry replied, genuinely befuddled. "I haven't been around your amazing powers of deduction in so long...."

"...that you think you've gone soft?" Hermione finished.

"Well, something like that," Harry said with a small chuckle. "Now what are you suggesting?"

"When you needed to get out from under the Ministry before, what did you do?" Hermione quizzed.

"Killed Voldemort," Harry stated flatly.

"Before that," Hermione prompted.

"Umm ... not sure," Harry confessed.

"Oh come on, Harry, you lived in her old house for years," Hermione threw him another clue.

"I ... I ... I told my story to the Quibbler," Harry said, as comprehension brightened.

"And you can do that again - only this time for money," Hermione declared. "That kills two birds with one stone. You become relevant again, and you get a source of income the Ministry doesn't control."

"Who'd ever want to read it?" Harry replied skeptically.

"I'd say about ten times the number of people as made Guilderoy Lockhart a best-selling author," Hermione told him.

"You want me to write...?"

"...a book about everything you went through..."

"...to do in Voldemort...?"

"...and all the crazy things that happened to us along the way," Hermione ended it.

"But I don't know anything about writing books," Harry resisted.

"And what exactly did you call me for years when you thought I wasn't listening?" Hermione asked him with anticipation now painted all over her face.

"A bookworm," Harry grinned back at her.

"So you'll dictate," Hermione continued. "I'm sure there's a Quick Quotes Quill around here someplace."

"And you'll edit," Harry added.

"And we'll consult with Neville, locked away with his plants up at Hogwarts," Hermione suggested. "He'll be glad for the distraction."

"And with Luna," Harry added. "I'm sure she's been doing just as little as I whilst tucked away in her self-imposed exile in the Faeroes."

"We might even be able to get her to come back," Hermione said, in a less giddy voice. "Since Ron's dead."

"Er ... what does Ron's death have to do with anything?" Harry asked.

"I swear - you men are all blind!" Hermione exclaimed. "She was bloody in love with Ron. She admitted it to me before she left. She congratulated me and said that she had to leave or else none of us would be happy."

"Well I don't think I'm any blinder than you are about Neville," Harry upped the ante.

"Spare me," Hermione said with that superior air that she often affected whilst still in school - but that Harry had not seen since she'd married Ron. "I knew he fancied me, but he gave that up by Fifth Year ... told me himself, he did."

"Hah! I'm not talking about you, you blind bat," Harry squawked triumphantly, "I'm talking about...."

"...Ginny," Hermione spat it out before Harry could.

Harry's jaw dropped. "You knew that?"

"To maintain my know-it-all reputation in your eyes, I should say, 'yes,'" Hermione almost laughed. It struck Harry that another thing that had gone missing for quite some time was Hermione's laugh. "But in fact I only learnt that today at the funeral, when Neville confessed. He said he could never tell either of you because he wanted Ginny to be happy, even if it wasn't with him."

Harry got a faraway look in his eye before responding again. "Well we can't help any of that, now, I suppose. But do you think that the Ministry will permit it?"

"I don't know, and what's more I don't care," Hermione declared.

"Well, what would you do? Sell it to the Muggles?" Harry poked at her.

"Twenty points to Gryffindor," she told him as his eyes bugged out. "If the Ministry's so frightened of heightening your profile not to let us sell your story as fact, we can sell it...."

"...to the Muggles as a fairy story," Harry said, not quite believing itself.

"I think your biography has quite a bit of potential, Harry," she told him. "And I can get all the Muggle publishers' addresses I could possibly need from the library where I'm working. It's half Muggle books anyway."

"Hermione, you are not going to work at that miserable little library," Harry told her. "I won't have you spending all your spare time helping me."

"I want to work, Harry," she told him. "You've already told me I've wasted my life...."

"...Just like you've told me I've been wasting mine," he agreed. "This is a joint venture. I'll pay you. I'm sure book editors get paid a damn sight more than assistant librarians anyway."

"Weasleys don't take charity. You know that," Hermione maintained.

"Ron's dead, Hermione. Anyway, that's exactly the attitude that started your...."

"...downward spiral," Hermione conceded.

"Anyway, I'm not talking about charity, any more than letting people - including a lot of Weasleys - stay at that Grimmauld Place dump during the war was charity," Harry declared.

"...this is a shared project every bit as much as the destruction of Voldemort was," Hermione agreed after thinking about it. "We saved our lives then...."

"...and we're saving the rest of our lives now. Let's see them tell us, no, you can't do that because it will upset the equilibrium of wizard society," Harry added loudly, screwing up his face to imitate the current Minister. "Hah! Let those berks at the Ministry try to stop us. I'd like to see their faces when they see...."

"...the ... Muggle novel." Hermione struggled to keep from cracking up altogether at the faces Harry was making.

She failed miserably, and started laughing. It was contagious, and Harry soon joined in.

"You know ... I'd forgotten just how much ... fun this could be!" Hermione forced out between mirthful spasms.

"Right again, know it all," Harry guffawed back at her.

Hermione grew a little more serious. "I can't remember the last time that we just sat around like this, brainstorming, and finishing each other's sentences like we used to whilst we were in school...."

"I sure can," Harry blurted, before he had realized what he had said. He stopped laughing abruptly. He had trespassed upon something that he had vowed long ago to carry with him to the grave. Worse, he had slipped up in front of Hermione.

"I'm sure you can," Hermione said, before the laughter died in her throat. "Why don't you...? Harry, why are you looking like you just swallowed one of Ron's dirty socks?"

"I.... I..., well, it's nothing, really," Harry tried for the save.

He failed. She was too clever, and his face looked too stricken.

"Harry, when was the last time we talked like this, if you remember it so clearly?" she asked pointedly.

"It's.... It's...." He was trapped. He didn't want to lie - not to her, and certainly not now - so finally he said simply. "I don't think you want to know this, Hermione."

She stood and put her hands on her hips. "And what's this horrible secret that you can't bear to tell me today. I've told you private things I've never told anyone - even about the disaster area that my sex life with Ron became. Tell me, Harry ... I promise I won't laugh, much, or think less of you."

He took a deep breath and rationalized that everything was OK because Ron and Ginny were both dead.

"All right," he began, in his most serious voice. "I stopped doing it, deliberately, after Ron - well, after he saved my life - that last year when we were on the run. He was jealous."

"I'm afraid you'll have to narrow it down some," Hermione pursued. "After all, saving each other's lives was practically an everyday occurrence that year. And Ron's always been jealous of you. You couldn't live with him as long as I did and not know that."

"True," Harry said, as he stared into space, licked his lips, and took another deep breath. He felt like he was walking on rather thin ice as the memories flooded back.

"Ron and I had a fight, and he left," Harry began again. "Then he came back, and saved me from drowning in that icy pond - I think you saw it - where Snape managed to leave Gryffindor's sword. I'd been stupid, and left that damn locket Horcrux around my neck even though I knew it reacted to threats. I would have drowned without Ron."

"Harry, we all had some stupid ideas - and some brilliant ones - that year," Hermione reminded him. "There's no reason to beat yourself up over it. Everything turned out for the best."

"Maybe," Harry replied vaguely. "Anyway, I owed Ron a wizard debt. I gave him the sword and let him destroy the Horcrux with it, since I thought he'd earned the right. But he couldn't do it - not for the longest time. The Horcrux was defending itself again, enchanting him. It showed him ... something...."

"What was it Harry?" Hermione was concerned now. This was an episode she had never heard about from either of them in twenty years. "I'd really like you to tell me."

"I'm not sure about that," Harry told her. He tugged at his turtleneck collar again.

"Try me," she invited. "I'm stronger than you think - or have you forgotten over the years?"

"I'm not ... not sure I am," Harry replied.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Hermione demanded. "What's this big secret that you and Ron shared that neither of you ever bothered to tell me. I thought we weren't supposed to have any secrets. You know, one for all, and all for one, and all that rot."

Harry closed his eyes as Hermione's relentless voice washed over him. "All right, I'll tell you. The Horcrux was keying on Ron's jealousy of me. For all I know it might have been keying on my hidden feelings too, since I was holding it, at least at first. It was threatening to possess him. I called to him. Ron didn't seem able to move. It showed him images of us - you and me - kissing one another. I have no idea what those images might have done next if my screaming at him hadn't woken him. Finally, when I was fearing the worst, at last he did it. I should never have put him to that task. He didn't want to...."

"But he did it, so all was well in the end," Hermione more or less repeated.

"I suppose it depends on how you look at it. Ron was traumatized, terrified by what he saw. I was afraid that he'd turn tail again and we'd lose him for good," Harry plowed ahead. "I told Ron, no. I told him that I loved you like a sister - only that and nothing more. That got rid of the thoughts Voldemort had planted in Ron's brain. Then we went back and woke you up."

Hermione had a very inquisitive look on her face, but otherwise her expression was impossible to read. They stared at one another until the silence became oppressive. Finally, she spoke.

"Did you tell Ron the truth, Harry?"

"What do you think?" Harry replied, so defensively that he almost sounded angry. "I've treated you exactly like I would my most cherished sister for twenty odd years, haven't I? Besides, I couldn't risk Ron running away again, you know. Fenrir Greyback would have killed you horribly without Ron there to save you. It was for the greater...." Harry stopped.

Hermione patiently waited until Harry's torrent of words dried up. "I asked you a very simple yes or no question, Harry. Did you tell Ron the truth?"

Harry could not bear to look at her. He looked to where one of his trainers was trying to dig a hole in a very expensive 900-year old Persian rug.

"No." he admitted, his voice soft and full of self-reproach. "But I've spent twenty-two years making it the truth."

There was no response. He looked up to find an expression on her face the likes of which he hadn't seen since the Battle of Hogwarts. He wasn't sure whether she wanted to kill him - or herself.

"I didn't lie to Ron," Harry repeated.

A vein pulsed in her neck. Harry noticed her squeezing her fingers against the palm of her right hand over and over again. When the number of squeezes reached ten, she spoke again. Her flat voice of despair was back.

That's a Hell of a way to satisfy a wizard debt," she stated.


Very evenly, choosing her words carefully, she asked him:

"Are you meaning to tell me that you allowed a bit of Voldemort's soul to decide what the relationships between you, Ron, and myself were going to be for the rest of our lives?"

"Umm ... not exactly...."

He had not been the subject of her "death glare" in many years, if not decades. He was now.

Harry quailed. "I suppose so, yes."

"Are you meaning to tell me that you rewarded Ron for running away - for leaving us in the lurch when practically the whole world seemed against us - by in effect 'giving' me to him?"

"I never thought of it in those terms, but I guess that's correct."

"Are you meaning to tell me that you two made this decision - one that has affected all of our lives, not to mention others, for decades - without bothering to give me the slightest say in the matter?"

"Er ... yes.... But you seemed so sad after Ron left that I thought...."

"You thought," Hermione spat. "You're right, Harry, you did make the stupidest decisions that year. My suggestion to visit the Lovegood place pales by comparison. Well, what about what I thought? What about my free will in this matter? I am not an object to be bartered in exchange for Ron's loyalty. I'm not a sacrifice to the greater good!"

Harry managed to squeeze a few words in edgewise. "But ... but you were sad.... You cried practically every night after Ron left."

"Of course I was sad. I was heartbroken. I had given up everything else ... everything I had ever held dear, to help you on this quest of yours. My parents no longer even knew who I was. Ron, whom I'd thought might have fancied me, had just abandoned the both of us to our fates. We had this bloody Horcrux driving us crazy by degrees. We could have been killed at any moment and you - why you wouldn't even look at me. You'd rather stare at a dot on a map than take a chance on what was right next to you! I felt like I was disgusting...."

Harry finally couldn't take it anymore. "Dammit, Hermione!" he yelled. "I was confused too, all right? Everybody thought I had all this secret information from Dumbledore and I didn't have an effing thing. I felt like you - and Ron, but he'd run away - had put your lives in my hands and I was just fumbling then away. It wasn't exactly conducive to those sorts of feelings. And there was a part of me that wanted you to leave too, so that maybe you could find safety in Australia or something."

"More of your damn wishful thinking," Hermione rounded on him again. "Like I'd ever leave you. I was never Ron. I might be a Muggle-born, but I've always been secure in what I was. I would never leave because - you know what? I loved you Harry! I loved you, and there I was feeling literally like the butt of a bad joke. You know the one! The one about 'I wouldn't touch you if you were the last woman on earth.' Even after Ron crawled back, I shut him out for weeks! Why? Waiting for some sign from you, that's why! Finally, I just gave up. The lowest dog knows the difference between being tripped over and being kicked. At least, I thought I did. Now I've learnt that you kicked me worse than I ever could have imagined...."

Harry was reeling. For good reason, he had never shared this information with anyone. "But.... But.... You promised that you wouldn't think less of me."

"Guess what, Harry?" Hermione regarded him furiously. "I lied, OK? But I'm hardly alone, I see. Now, I really think I ought to be going. I've got to go to work tomorrow, and right now I'm in a state where I'm not fit to do anything."

Hermione rose from the table they'd been sharing and quickly started walking towards the door of the anti-Apparition protected manor house.

Harry got up, nearly fell, and ran after her. He blocked her way to the door. "I don't want you to go before you've told me the truth."

"Don't make me hex you," she hissed at him.

"I've told you the truth. No matter how much it hurt. Now will you give me the same consideration?" Harry demanded.

She eyed him appraisingly. "Yes I will. Unlike you, I've tried not to hide my secrets from you."

Harry ignored the insult.

"You now know exactly how big of an arse I've been," he prefaced his question, "do you still love me anyway?"

She looked at him. She looked away. Her jaw began trembling, and her eyes began tearing. "Yes," she said in a barely audible voice. "You make it very hard, sometimes, but yes."

"Do you ... do you love me only the way a sister loves a brother?"

"No, dammit!" she almost screamed. "What do you think I just got done telling you? Not since the end of Third Year have I felt that way."

Then Hermione saw something that she had not seen since the defeat of Voldemort - a look of shear determination in his eyes. Harry folded his arms and stiffened his legs so that he resembled the Auror that he had never become.

"Then I don't want you to leave at all," he told her.

"What?!" Hermione yelped. "Just what the Hell do you want, then?"

Not relaxing his pose, he shot a look at her, the intensity of which set her very soul to shivering. "I want to make things right, as right as they can be made."

"Harry," she said more gently, almost not knowing what to say. "Look, we don't have time to sort all this out right now. I have...."

"We have the rest of our lives," Harry declared. "And I think we've finally purged the last of Voldemort's legacy. Will you spend the night, Hermione? With me? In the morning, I can send that owl to Minerva, you can find that Quick Quotes Quill, and the both of us can use the contents of my liquor cabinet as drain cleaner."

"Harry, I...."

"It's a very simple yes or no question, Hermione."