- Harry Potter Hermione Granger
- Romance Drama
- Multiple Eras
- Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire
Published: 07/14/2001Updated: 03/22/2002Words: 155,598Chapters: 15Hits: 223,651
The Show That Never Ends
- Story Summary:
- The Sequel to The Paradigm of Uncertainty``January 25, 2008...five months later...
- Chapter Summary:
- The Sequel to
- Author's Note:
- PLEASE READ:
Chapter 14: One
three weeks later...
Another agent might have felt threatened, or resentful, or fearful of his own position, but when the doorbell of the safehouse rang to announce an arrival he'd been expecting all day, Remus Lupin only felt relieved. He was man enough to be able to admit when he needed help, and heaven knew he needed it now.
The safehouse in Florence was a three-story brownstone belonging, at least on paper, to the Association for the Advancement of Wizard-Muggle Relations. The Association owned a great deal of real estate all over the world, an impressive feat indeed for an organization that didn't actually exist...it was an I.D. front company, one of many. Remus and Isobel Hyde-White had virtually taken over the safehouse and two other secured locations in the area for the joint SIR/I&R mission they were currently running...although for the last week at least, "running" was perhaps not the appropriate term. At the moment, Remus felt more like the mission was running him instead.
Everyone looked up at the sound of the doorchime. "They're here," said one of the agents. Remus heard someone else mutter "Thank God." It was a sentiment he could support wholeheartedly. Thank God, the cavalry's here.
Footsteps were heard then on the stairs, approaching the large upstairs parlor they were using as a command center. It had started out a well-organized and efficient workspace, though you'd never know it to see it now.
Remus rose as the door opened and a sizable group of agents entered, robed identically in I.D. field cloaks. They looked around without comment, hanging back as if waiting for instructions. They parted all at once and Harry walked through them to the front where he stood and took one glance around before fixing his eyes on Remus. He smiled crookedly. "So. Someone call for take-away?" he said, eliciting a round of nervous chuckles.
Remus moved forward to shake his hand. "I'm glad to see you, Harry."
"You, too. I wish it were under better circumstances."
"Jones," Remus said, nodding to Harry's second, who hovered by his side bearing a tall stack of briefing folders, which he began distributing to the newly-arrived agents.
"Remus, this is Captain Taylor, my new head of field operations," Harry said, indicating a woman on his other side. She was tall and plain and had what could only be called an obscene number of freckles on her face, her mousy hair pulled into a tight bun. "Diz, this is my good friend Remus Lupin." She shook Remus' hand, and the light suddenly dawned.
"Disraeli Taylor?" he said.
"That's right," she replied.
"Nice to meet you. Glad you made it across the pond in time for this little road trip."
Harry turned to her, assuming a businesslike air...the pleasantries were over, apparently. "I want a full briefing in an hour. You and Napoleon get status reports from all the agents here, I want you both to be completely familiar with the details of the entire operation. Take charge of the team while I talk to Remus."
"Yes, sir," she said with a curt nod...Remus got the impression she was restraining herself from saluting. Her military bearing was a little striking in the usually informal I.D. atmosphere, but Remus had heard that this legendary agent was a stickler for procedure. Taylor went about her orders while Harry followed Remus into the small side chamber he'd been using as an office.
"Well, I never expected to get called in on this operation," Harry said, taking a seat.
"No one was less thrilled than I, but I had no choice." Remus sat behind his desk, lacing his fingers together and now facing the unpleasant task of confessing in excruciating detail exactly how wrong everything had gone. "Sometimes you just need the big guns. When things go south, you call CCO."
"I'm not questioning your actions, I'm just surprised. I thought this operation was under control."
He hesitated. "She's in the hospital."
Harry straightened up, an alarmed look crossing his face. "What happened?"
"She was with a team covering a party being attended by most of D'Agostino's syndicate when the party was raided by a rival syndicate. Three other agents were hurt as well, but thankfully no one was killed."
"An attack by a rival syndicate? Poorly timed."
"Well, most of us feel it was a staged incident. For our benefit."
Harry said nothing for a moment. He didn't need Remus to spell out for him exactly how many different ways that was bad. "I had no idea D'Agostino was that ruthless," he finally said.
"He's a lot of things we had no idea about, Harry. The guy's colossal, he's terrific in the Biblical sense. He's into everything. Illegal talisman smuggling rings, potion pushers, planned assassinations, money laundering, blackmail, Polyjuice prostitution...not to even get started on the innumerable Muggle incursions."
"I'm familiar with the backstory." He met Remus' eyes. "If I recall correctly, you said time and again that it was a mistake to attempt a takedown of the entire syndicate at one time."
"I wish I'd been wrong about that. But it would have been less risky to target individual sections of his organization one at a time and dismantle him bit by bit."
"We'll figure this out and get it under control, don't worry. But...and Remus, past experience has taught me to be frank about this, even though you know how things go. When CCO gets called in, we're in charge. Therefore I've got to tell you that as of right now I must officially take command of this operation. This isn't a reflection on your abilities or my confidence in them, it's just general policy."
"I understand." He did, all too well. When he'd been Harry's second their division had been called in to a few field operations that had gone badly, and he had watched Harry struggle with deposed commanding officers who resented their presence...even if they'd been the ones who'd called them in. "My ego isn't at stake here, Harry."
"Good, then we won't have any problems. As far as I'm concerned, you're still in charge. You know the situation here better than I can hope to do. The good news is if anything goes wrong it'll be my head on the block, not yours. My first priority is the safety of your agents in the field. We'll start working on ways to extricate them without betraying their covers. We'll want to minimize the target's knowledge of our activities, especially the level of infiltration you've achieved, while we maximize our ability to set up another takedown when things cool off." Harry shifted in his seat and cut his eyes away, just for a moment. "How many of your field agents are unaccounted for?" he asked, his tone aggressively even and controlled.
Remus wondered for a moment if he should answer the question Harry had asked or the one he hadn't. He opted for the latter, not seeing the point in prevaricating. "She's all right, Harry. She's made all of her meets and her reports are coming in on schedule. She hasn't been discovered."
Harry's expression didn't change but Remus saw his posture relax a little. "I appreciate that, but you didn't answer my question."
He sighed. "Three are unaccounted for."
"Twenty-one total are undercover."
"That's bad." Harry cracked his knuckles absently, thinking. "Napoleon and Diz are catching up on your particulars. I'll want to see your field journals and Isobel's, and I may want to meet with some of the field agents during their scheduled contact appointments." He stood up. "Remus, we'll get to the bottom of this." He started to leave.
"Harry?" he said quietly.
Remus hesitated. "You know there's only one realistic explanation for how it's possible for this kind of operation to go so badly wrong."
Harry took a breath and held it for a moment. "Let's not jump to any conclusions just yet. We'll burn that bridge when we come to it."
Napoleon came into the safehouse conference room, flipping his parchpad closed. Diz was sitting at the head of the table surrounded by notes and reports...or at least he thought she was, the stacks were so tall he couldn't see her. "Diz?" he said.
"Yo," came her reply from behind the mountain of paperwork. He went around the table and pulled up a chair next to her. So far his relations with this woman had been...strained. First of all he wasn't sure how exactly to treat her. She outranked him, but because he was Harry's second and she was only field supervisor he often found himself in the position of giving her orders. Second of all, with her formal manner and attachment to procedure, she was his diametric opposite in just about every way imaginable.
"I've talked to all the agents here in the safehouse. What've you got?"
She sighed. "Just updating myself on their progress. Everything seems to have been going fine until about a week ago, when it all went to hell. They've got three missing undercover agents, six agents down in various incidents that mostly seem staged, and several supposedly secret meet locations under surveillance by the target."
"D'Agostino," Napoleon murmured. "I've heard about that guy for years."
"Probably the most formidable figure in organized crime...though don't kid yourself, it's not that organized. This operation was supposed to take him down and dismantle his syndicate...but you know what their real purpose was, don't you?"
"To find out if D'Agostino has Circle ties."
"That's the big question mark. So far there's no evidence that he does, but knowing Allegra it's hard for me to swallow she'd let another wizard assemble the kind of power he has in the underground without any kind of consideration for the Circle."
Napoleon sighed. "I'm worried about my friend Hermione. Is she all right?"
Diz shuffled through a stack of papers. "Granger, right? So far she seems fine. She's undercover in the home of Patrick Wainwright, he's D'Agostino's most important lieutenant. Sort of his right-hand thug."
"She's in the guy's house?"
"Yeah. She's posing as a governess named Madame Treblinka, who cares for Wainwright's three kids. Her reports are impressively thorough. She's provided a great deal of useful information about the comings and goings of the top syndicate muckety-mucks. A lot of the syndicate's business is run out of Wainwright's house, which is why they put her there. Last report came in yesterday." She thought for a minute. "This isn't going to be a problem for our boss, is it?" As was usual with her, the word "boss" was laced with very subtle sarcasm.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, they had a...a thing, didn't they?"
"You might say that."
She shook her head, clucking under her breath. "I hope he can keep his wits about him and not go to pieces just because one of his little exes is in the field here."
Napoleon stood up. "Don't you worry about Harry," he said coldly. "And you shouldn't talk about things you don't understand." He stalked out, allowing himself the satisfaction of a good door-slam.
You're everywhere to me
When I close my eyes, it's you I see
And everything I know that makes me believe
I'm not alone...and you're everywhere I see
So tell me, do you see me?
Hermione considered herself a trained professional. She had been taught by the best in the business and had, by now, acquired a good deal of practical, hands-on expertise. She knew the ropes. She hadn't just fallen off the turnip truck yesterday.
Nevertheless, when she saw Harry sitting on the park bench where her contact would ordinarily have been sitting, she almost betrayed a visible reaction. She held herself back just in time. She couldn't give any outward sign that might compromise her position, or the fact that she recognized Harry in any way. He was in what she thought of as his casual disguise, still mostly himself but with his hair lightened to medium brown and the scar erased from his forehead. Without his glasses and his eyes tinted hazel he was almost unrecognizable, even though his face hadn't changed an iota.
She didn't let herself wonder about what the heck he was doing there, or where her usual contact agent was. Just follow standard procedure, she told herself. When all else fails, follow standard procedure. The thought was comforting, especially right now. Very little news of the rest of the operation reached her in Wainwright's house, but what did wasn't good. Also, she was pretty sure she was coming down with something. She felt light-headed and sick to her stomach. One of the children had just gotten over a stomach bug, she'd probably picked it up.
As was her usual routine for her meets, she ducked into a secluded alley and removed the glamour she wore to disguise her appearance. A severe-looking governess named Madame Treblinka stepped into the alley, but Hermione Granger emerged. She walked casually to the park bench and sat down on the other end. Harry gave no sign that he'd seen her, merely kept his eyes on the newspaper he was reading. Treat him as if he's your regular contact, she told herself. Go through the motions.
"6520," she said under her breath, not moving her lips much. It was her recognition code number. Harry had to respond with the correct code so she'd know he wasn't an impostor.
"5963," he said, in like fashion. "Report."
Hermione went on with her report. She supposed it was too much to hope for that he might actually talk to her; after all, he wouldn't have done so even when they weren't in a tense undercover situation. He listened, giving no outward sign he was doing so. "Wainwright came on to me last night," she added at the end of her report. This piece of information was not for Harry's benefit, she would have reported it to her regular contact.
"That isn't unusual, is it?"
"No. He's slept with just about everyone on the staff, it was only a matter of time before he got round to me." She paused, not bothering to elaborate on Wainwright's success, or lack thereof, in seducing her. Let him wonder. "I saw D'Agostino this morning. It was the first time I'd actually laid eyes on him."
"He's shorter than I expected."
"Everyone says that." Pause. "Anything else?"
"That about covers it." At this point she should have gotten up and left, her business concluded...written reports were submitted by stealth owl, she had no further need to maintain contact. The longer she lingered, the greater the chance the covert meeting would be observed. However, she had a million questions she would have loved to ask, and eventually decided she was entitled to pose at least one of them. "What are you doing here?" she said. "Where's my usual contact?" She couldn't refer to the man by his name, she didn't know it.
"I'm a temporary substitute."
She sighed. "You've been called in, haven't you? CCO, I mean."
"I didn't know it was going that badly."
"Don't worry about it. Concentrate on your own task." He hesitated. "Are you all right?" he said, almost too softly for her to hear.
She resisted the temptation to read too much into his question. "I'm fine," she replied.
"You look tired."
"It's difficult to relax in my position. It's a tense assignment."
"Not that I was sleeping all that well before I got here," she added before she could stop herself. She glanced at him for the first time since sitting down and caught him looking back at her. For just a moment their shared pain zinged across the space between them like an electric shock. Harry dropped his eyes back to his newspaper. A wave of nausea gripped Hermione's stomach and she winced, cursing the bug that was plaguing her. If there was one thing she didn't need right now, it was to get sick. Her expression didn't escape Harry's notice...as a former Seeker and now a spy, good peripheral vision was one thing Harry had in abundance.
"You're pale," he said. "You need to look after yourself."
"I'm fine," she repeated. She stood up. "I've got to get back."
"Stay sharp," he said, his voice betraying a little more urgency than it had before. "Be careful."
She made no reply, just walked away quickly, not looking back. Her heart was pounding and nausea was fluttering through her entire midsection. She couldn't have imagined that just sitting three feet from him would be so upsetting. She'd been sequestered in Wainwright's house for weeks now and hadn't seen anyone save her I.D. contact agent, who might as well have been an android for all the personal reassurance he offered. She hadn't been completely aware of how much her estrangement from Harry had drained her until she'd arrived here almost a month ago and found herself totally debilitated with exhaustion and emotional weariness. She'd concentrated completely on her assignment, which had provided a surprising degree of relief.
Oddly, although she needed to be alert at all times, her undercover role offered more of a respite than she would have thought. As governess to Wainwright's three children, she had plenty to occupy her mind as she taught and looked after them. There were frequent outings to parks and musical events and she had her evenings largely to herself, during which she could read or walk in the extensive gardens of Wainwright's estate. At times it was almost like being on vacation. She was always conscious of her task, which was to observe as much as possible of the syndicate's activities there in the house, but there was limited opportunity to do so. She could only see what business came through Wainwright's residence.
Seeing him just now had caught her completey off-guard. She hadn't even known he was in the country. Had she really thought she was beginning to put him behind her? What insanity had made her think she might be able to get over him?
She felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes as she hurried down the picturesque streets of Florence. She wondered if their meeting had had any such effect on him. He didn't seem to be having much trouble putting their relationship behind him. Even their conversation in his office, just before her departure, had smacked of casual-acquaintanceship...and that had been the most words they'd exchanged since their parting.
She wanted to believe that his air of total detachment was a put-on, to hide his real feelings. Everyone had commented on his aloofness, and not just towards her. If she knew Harry, and she knew him well, he would swallow everything he felt and cork it tightly inside him. Well, when this was all over, and if it was going so badly it would be over soon, she would find a way to break through that mask of apathy he wore. She had to know if it was just a defense...or if he really no longer loved her.
four days later...
The safehouse was abuzz with activity. Harry had everyone hard at work on contingency plans for withdrawal of the entire team...no small task given the level of undercover infiltration that had been achieved. When an agent was so completely ensconced, you couldn't just pull him out at the drop of a hat without people getting suspicious.
Lupin reviewed and approved parchment after parchment of orders that crossed his desk, his mind spinning with ramifications and the explanations that would surely come later. Harry was standing at a large wall map of Florence, touching it here and there to zoom in closer. "All right. Sabian is watching this meet point here," he said, pointing to a small park. "If D'Agostino has someone following Agent Murdoch we'll know about it soon."
"What if they spot Sabian?" Disraeli said. Harry, Lupin and Napoleon just looked at her for a moment. "What?" she said.
"Not a chance," Harry said. "Sabian's worked for me for five years and I've never seen him. He's more than a match for D'Agostino's goons." He turned back to the map. "All right. So we've got Lila ready to fake her..."
The door banged open, cutting off Harry's words. It was Shay Daley, looking harried.
"What is it, Shay?" Harry said, his brow furrowing.
"We may have a problem," she said. "Hermione didn't show up to her meet today. Her contact waited for hours...she never came."
Lupin's heart sank. He looked up at Harry, standing there with his arms crossed over his chest. His face had gone a little paler but otherwise he didn't react. Lupin waited for whatever orders Harry would give. The proper procedure in such a case was to wait a day. There were many reasons for an agent to miss a meeting...one such absence wasn't necessarily cause for concern. Generally measures were not taken until the agent had missed two meetings...though Lupin knew that Harry's first instinct where Hermione was concerned would be to charge in with guns blazing, so to speak.
"All right," Harry said. "Advise her contact agent to go back to the meet site tomorrow. Dismissed." Shay, looking upset, left the room. In the event an agent had to miss a meet, standing orders dictated that they try again the next day, even if there was no scheduled meet that day. If Hermione had been merely unable to make her meeting, she would return to the meet site the same time tomorrow. If she didn't show up, then there would be real cause for concern. Harry had done exactly what was expected and appropriate for any agent who missed one meeting.
He turned around and faced them, his jaw clenched. Napoleon spoke first.
"It doesn't mean anything, boss," he said quietly. "There's a million reasons why..."
"I know," Harry cut him off. He nodded, his eyes on the floor. "I know," he repeated quietly, almost to himself.
Harry paced back and forth in front of the status board as arguments raged across the conference table. He didn't appear to be paying much attention. His eyes were lowered and he seemed deep in thought.
Lupin rapped on the tabletop. "Quiet, quiet!" he said. "This is pointless."
"Pointless?" Agent Murdoch said. "We can't waste any more time, Lila's been made. We have to enact her scenario right now or we'll be adding her name to the casualty list."
"We can't keep faking deaths, they'll get wise!"
"They're wise already, we've got to cut our losses and just abort everything."
"We'll lose any shot at D'Agostino if we pull out all at once!"
"Screw D'Agostino, our first duty is the safety of the field agents."
"What safety? They're all more exposed than we know, by half! Silverstein's being followed, Knightsbridge had to go underground and Granger's missed three meets." Lupin saw a number of eyes cut to Harry as Agent Williams said this last. Hermione was unaccounted for, had been for almost a week now. The other undercover agents had made some discreet inquiries with no success. It was believed she was still in Wainwright's house, but she wasn't making her contact meetings and her reports were no longer arriving each day. Harry maintained a stubborn silence on the issue, giving only stringently proper orders regarding her status, but Lupin knew it must be eating away at him. He didn't think Harry had slept in days.
Raised voices bounced back and forth across the conference table. Everyone was tense and frustrated, not to mention worried about their many friends and colleagues still in danger and trying to avoid D'Agostino's increasingly sharp-eyed minions. Harry abruptly stopped pacing and headed for the door. Everyone looked over at him. "Where are you going, boss?" Napoleon said.
Harry turned back. "I'm going to Wainwright's house."
That shut everyone up. The agents looked around at each other, unsure how to respond. Only Diz Taylor seemed to have the wherewithal to speak up. She stood, her stoic face creased into a thoughtful frown. "Care to elaborate on that plan, Harry?" she said.
He met her questioning stare. "We've got an agent missing, Taylor. All reports indicate she's still in the house. If she could get away she would have done so. If she were able to contact us she would have. I don't think there's much question that she's in trouble." Lupin watched this exchange from his chair. This was as much as Harry had said about Hermione's situation in days.
"We have a lot of agents in trouble," Taylor said. Lupin swallowed past annoyance at her...she was only doing her job. "Why involve yourself personally in this particular instance?" He was amazed at her gall. Every person in the room, Taylor included, knew exactly why he might involve himself personally...she just wanted to make him admit it.
"Because none of the other agents are being held against their will inside their own undercover situations. There's nothing more dangerous for an infiltrator than to be cut off from external support. Something is going on inside that house and I intend to find out what."
"Sir," Taylor said, standing up a little straighter, "it's inappropriate for you to go to that house." You could have heard a pin drop in the conference room. Lupin felt like protesting, but Taylor would have her say...and he couldn't get away from the fact that she was absolutely right.
Harry didn't look surprised. "Why is that?"
Diz walked out from behind the table to face him. "Because you are in command here, sir. If you want the house approached you should assign someone to do so. If you are compromised you jeopardize the success of the entire mission."
"This wouldn't be about my prior relationship with Agent Granger, would it?"
"You said it, sir, not me."
"You think I'm acting irrationally?"
"Don't put words in my mouth, Harry. But we can't let our emotions interfere with strategic decisions."
"I can't help it, Diz. My emotions are involved. I care that Lila's cover has been blown. I'm worried about Agent Silverstein. I'm afraid for Agent Knightsbridge's safety. And yes, I'm very worried about Hermione. Maybe you have the ability to detach your feelings from your work but I'm afraid most of us don't." He looked past her to Lupin. "What's your emergency cover for Wainwright's house?"
"Uh, the first underbutler. Chap called Gustafson."
"And where is the real Gustafson?"
"For how long?"
Lupin smiled. "As long as we need him to be."
"Good." He looked back to Diz. "I'm going to that house, Diz. I'll need the background one-sheet on Gustafson if I'm to impersonate him, and I'll need the glamour ready within the hour. Will you see to it, please?" He turned around to leave.
Diz didn't look happy. "I have to object, sir. You have an emotional conflict and you ought to excuse yourself from direct action. It's too dangerous for you to go."
Harry paused, his back still to them. "Your objection is noted."
Taylor wasn't finished. "Sir, I can't allow..."
Harry whirled around, his eyes blazing. "Captain, you will carry out my orders or I will relieve you of duty. Understood?"
Taylor stiffened a little. "Yes, sir," she said, with deliberate formality. Harry nodded once and left. Taylor hesitated a moment, then turned to the gathered agents, all of them staring at her. "You heard the man. Let's get that glamour ready. Napoleon, get the one-sheet." Everyone scrambled. Taylor went to her seat to gather her papers.
Lupin sighed. "I wonder, Diz, what was the point of all that?"
"It needed to be said." She glanced at him. "You could've backed me up. You know I'm right."
"I'm afraid it doesn't matter. He was determined. Besides, he might have an emotional hangup, but I believe in his ability to function in spite of it. I know you've only been with his team a short time, but he's really a remarkably skilled agent, not to mention a very powerful wizard. He's still the best person to go in after her, regardless of who she is to him."
She shook her head. "I hope we don't kick ourselves in the head over this later."
I can't stand to fly, I'm not that naive
I'm just out to find the better part of me
I'm more than a bird, I'm more than a plane
I'm more than some pretty face beside a train
It's not easy to be me
I wish that I could cry, fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie about a home I'll never see...
Hermione lay in her bed, buried under heavy silken covers, struggling to keep conscious. Her vision was fading in and out and her entire body was wracked with tremors and spasms that came and went relentlessly.
For the moment she was alone. This was unusual. Since she had been confined to her bed, almost three days now, she had been always watched by a member of the household. Most often it was Wainwright's wife, whom she had grown to loathe. Sometimes the butler, her chief tormentor. For a few hours Wainwright himself had sat with her, glaring, but he hadn't spoken to her.
She wished she could take advantage of her momentary solitude and attempt escape, but her mind was so fuzzy she couldn't hang on to the end of a thought. She wouldn't get very far in her condition, anyway...she was so weak her limbs would not support her. Her wand was locked up somewhere in Wainwright's office, the house was full of people and the front door was so far away it might as well have been in Rome.
The seconds dragged by as she waited for...she wasn't sure what she was waiting for. Death, she supposed. That was all that was left. Sometime soon she'd be taken from this house and she would never return, not to anyplace. She would go down as missing in action. She wondered if Harry would sign the order declaring her legally dead. She knew they'd never find her body, Wainwright would see to that. Is this soon enough for you, Guardian? she thought. I'll be coming to you soon.
At that moment the door to her bedroom opened and for a second she thought she saw the Guardian there, come to take her away to the Domain. A figure in a cloak stood silhouetted against the light from the hallway, pausing there on the threshold. Then it stepped forward into the light and she saw that it was Harry.
At first she assumed she was seeing things. This wouldn't have been the first time she hallucinated his presence in her delirium. She'd done almost nothing while she lay here but wish desperately for him to find her. She had seen him in her room several times. Once he'd sat on the edge of the bed and held her hand as she told him over and over that she was sorry, so sorry.
He shut the door behind him and came towards the bed so Hermione could see the look on his face. The surprise cleared her mind a little. The mask he'd been wearing the last two months, that cold and detached I-feel-nothing mask, was gone. Naked emotion was stamped on his features, clear and unchecked. She'd asked herself over and over if he still loved her, and now she had her answer. It was all over his face as he saw her lying there in the bed. "Hermione?" he whispered. She opened her mouth but no sound came out. He hurried forward and dropped to his knees by the bedside, looking down at her. He looked so anxious and afraid, and yet the sight of an emotion on his face, any emotion at all, was so welcome to her that it didn't matter.
"Harry?" she croaked.
"Yes, it's me."
"Are you really here?" she whispered. She asked the question in spite of herself...if this were another hallucination she didn't want to know.
"I'm here," he said. He laid a hand on her forehead, brushing back her damp hair. He raised one eyelid then the other and peered into her eyes. "No one knew what had happened to you, I couldn't stand it any more. What's wrong? You were ill when I saw you the other day...what is it? What's the matter?"
She gripped his sleeve with trembling fingers. He felt real enough. Relief struck her then with enough force to make her dizzy. Her vision swam in and out of focus, his face doubling and then trebling. She bit her lip and the world came back a little bit. "Ohh..." she exhaled. "I wished for you to come," she said. "I wished for you every second." Her words were shaky and weak.
"I'm sorry it took so long," he said, grasping her hand tightly. "I'm here now, sweetheart. What's wrong with you? Can't you tell me?"
"They're...poisoning me," she breathed. She felt Harry's fingers tighten on hers until it hurt, but she was glad even for that. Any sensation helped keep her focused on the present when her mind wanted nothing more than to drift away.
"Wainwright?" he said, his voice tight.
She nodded. "He and his wife...found out about me."
"Who else knows?"
"Unh...no one else. They kept it secret...because..."
Harry finished the thought for her. "Because they didn't want D'Agostino to find out they'd been infiltrated."
"Yeah. So they made me sick...little at a time..."
He cut her off. "So they could get rid of you, say you went to a hospital or something and no one would suspect. Yeah, I get it. Okay, I gotta get you out of here." He reached down and slipped his arms underneath her shoulders, helping her to a sitting position. "Can you move at all?"
"Not much...weak, tired."
"Don't you fall asleep on me, you hear? Talk to me, just keep talking." He darted across the room to her closet and began rummaging through it, probably looking for her cloak.
Hermione made herself keep talking, as he'd asked. It was easier to concentrate with him there for her to focus on. "When I realized why...I was so sick...I tried to get away, but..." She steadied herself with a hand on the bedpost. "They caught me. I was too weak to fight."
"You did the best you could," he said, coming back with her cloak. He sat on the bed and wrapped it around her, fastening it securely under her chin. She held on to his forearms, trying to bolster her nerve and concentration for their escape. "Do they know who you are?" he said.
"No, just that I'm an agent. I don't think they even know who I work for." Thankfully, her glamour was externally cast and would remain intact until removed. If she'd had to keep it up herself she would never have been able to do so. "Harry...I'm so glad you're here," she whispered.
He looked up at her then, and the look in his eyes made her want to burst into tears and jump for joy at the same time. It wasn't just the look itself, which was mostly anxiety and concern, but the fact that it was such unconcealed emotion. It was the Harry she was used to, not the one she'd been stuck with for these last months, inasmuch as she'd seen him at all. Abruptly, he pulled her to his chest and hugged her, tight. "Dear God, Hermione," he murmured against her hair. "I wasn't supposed to come here but I had to, I just had to. I was sure I'd get here and find out you were already dead." She couldn't reply, she was incapable of rational response. All she could do was hold on to him and whisper his name, over and over again, her voice half-choked with tears. He drew back. "Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here." He kept an arm around her back and helped her out of the bed.
"Harry, how...they're all in the house...how will we..."
"You let me worry about that." He reached into his pocket and withdrew his glamour talisman. With a few muttered words, the guise of an older, sandy-haired man slid over his features. The disguise looked vaguely familiar but she couldn't place it. She had the vague impression of a servant she'd met once soon after her arrival. Disguise was always necessary, but even more so for him. It was one of things that annoyed Harry to no end...trying to be a spy when you had the most famous face in the wizarding world was galling to say the least.
He half-dragged her to her feet, but her limbs felt like jello and dark flowers were blooming again in her field of vision. He grasped her by the shoulders and shook her. "Don't you dare," he said sharply. "You stay with me, you hear me? Now come on! Stay with me!" She clung to his cloak and tried to stagger along but she was just too weak. She barely felt it when he bent and picked her up. She huddled against his chest, despising her own weakness and hating Wainwright more than ever.
"Harry...you can't carry me all the way...big house..."
"I'll carry you all the way to the safehouse if I have to," he said, already heading for the door. "Just hang on and whatever you do stay awake."
"I can't fight...you can't if you're carrying me..."
"I won't have to," he said quietly, for they were in the hallway now. "If Wainwright is so afraid of anyone finding out about you, he'll have to help me get you out of the house quietly or risk exposure." He started down the stairs near her room. They'd have to use the front door, the house backed onto a cliff overlooking a lake, there was no escape that way. To get out they would have to make it through the entire house. As if that weren't enough, his magic would be useless. Like most of the buildings associated with D'Agostino's organization, Wainwright's house was fitted with dampening charms to prevent the use of magic by anyone other than authorized inhabitants. This was also why their disguise glamours had to be cast and controlled from the I.D. safehouse, linked to them only by a remote-control talisman.
She buried her face in the crook of his shoulder and held on tightly, images and sounds passing over her in a meaningless flood of surreality. Her body shivered endlessly, every muscle tense and vibrating and the skin all over her body swollen into gooseflesh. Harry's arms felt strong supporting her, though she could feel his pulse hammering along in his throat. His footsteps were quick and purposeful, but eerily silent.
They passed into the main foyer, a huge three-story space near the front of the house. A number of rooms opened off this entry space, including Wainwright's private suite of offices, where syndicate business was usually carried out. At the moment a number of top men in D'Agostino's crime family were meeting there, including perhaps D'Agostino himself.
She heard a door open ahead of them just as they entered the foyer and she felt Harry tense up. "It's Wainwright," he whispered. He hesitated. "I'm going to have to put you down for a moment, luv. I'll need one hand free. Can you stand?"
She nodded. "I can stand. Don't worry about me." She raised her head a little and looked ahead of them. Wainwright was standing in the foyer with two syndicate muckety-mucks she knew by face but not by name. Either of them would be delighted to learn of her presence in Wainwright's house...they would have loved to get him out of the way and take his place at D'Agostino's right hand. Harry gently set her on her feet, keeping one arm tightly around her. She held onto his cloak in a deathgrip, concentrating only on keeping her feet firmly underneath her. Whatever they were going to do, he'd have to take care of it. She was in no condition to help him. They walked slowly forward.
One of the muckety-mucks saw them first, an older gentleman with a kind face whom she'd always had trouble believing as a ruthless criminal. He always wore nicely cut velvet robes and spoke gently to her. "Madame Treblinka," he said now. "You poor dear! Patrick, she looks worse," he said to Wainwright. Everyone knew that she had been ill for some time now. "The woman belongs in a hospital."
Wainwright walked quickly towards them, away from his associates. He was a tall man with distinguished silver hair even though he was only forty; the very picture of an executive CEO, even if he was majordomo of the world's largest wizarding crime syndicate. "What's going on, Gustafson?" he said, sotto voce, as he reached them.
Harry glowered at him. "I'm taking her out before the poison finishes her off," he said, also keeping his voice low. Their escape depended on preserving Wainwright's carefully guarded secret.
"You're not Gustafson," Wainwright said, dread filling his features. "Who are you?"
"I'll let you wonder about that. Better help us to the door. You don't want to appear uncaring in front of your friends." They were magic words. Wainwright immediately moved to Hermione's other side and grasped her elbow. The three of them began to shuffle slowly towards the front door. Hermione accepted Wainwright's assistance only because she was in real danger of collapsing if she didn't.
"You'll never get out of here alive," Wainwright muttered.
"I'd worry about my own neck if I were you."
"Your magic is no good here. You can't defend yourself. You couldn't even throw a Tickling Charm if you wanted to."
"No, but I could shoot up the place with the .38 in my pocket," Harry said, keeping his right hand free near his side. "Now, how would that look? Or would you rather just tell them who she is? Go ahead! I'm sure any of your friends would love to hear about how you had a major security breach in your own home for nearly a month without even noticing."
Wainwright had no reply. By now most of his associates had drifted into the hallway. "Where are you taking her?" one of them called.
"To the hospital," Wainwright called over his shoulder. "She's...much worse tonight."
"It's about time, Patrick," another of them said. "You shouldn't have waited this long."
"Gustafson heard her cry out and found her...she'd collapsed in her room," Wainwright called to them. They were nearly to the door now, Wainwright keeping tight to Hermione's side. He glanced at her, concealing his anger only semi-effectually.
"Who is she, really?" he said. "Not Madame Treblinka."
"That's none of your business, Wainwright." One of the porters held the front door open for them, unaware of anything unusual about this.
"Get well soon, Madame," the porter said. In a way, Hermione felt bad about deceiving the ordinary people who worked here. They were no more criminals than she was, many of them totally ignorant of their employer's true line of work. Hermione felt a tremendous surge of relief as they passed over the threshold, and not only because she was free of the house that had been her prison and nearly her deathchamber...but more because out here, Harry could use all the magic he wished.
Indeed, the moment they were out, he yanked her away and gathered her up in his arms. He ignored Wainwright's protests and Hermione held onto him as tightly as she could as he took three running steps and leapt into the air. Chilly night air rushed past her face and whipped at Harry's cloak as he arrowed through the darkness. As the house disappeared behind them, Hermione at last lost her tenuous grip on consciousness and slid into a welcome, warm darkness.
When she woke again, she was lying in bed in the safehouse. She was in one of the upstairs bedrooms, a comfortable and tastefully decorated chamber augmented now with a few medical talismans and monitoring charms that glowed and pulsed as they watched her vital signs.
Sitting by her bedside, watching her attentively, was a woman with a stern, freckled face and brown hair pulled into a tight French braid. Hermione blinked at her. "Who are you?" she asked, her voice muzzy with sleep.
The stranger smiled, and it warmed up her face considerably. "I'm Captain Taylor. You can call me Diz, if you wish."
"Oh, you're the new agent. The famous one. My friend Napoleon told me about you." Still groggy, Hermione nevertheless felt a great deal more alert than she had in days.
"How are you feeling?" Diz asked her.
"Better." Hermione struggled to sit up. Diz helped her to a sitting position and fetched another pillow to put behind her back. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Three days?" Hermione repeated, amazed.
"We weren't sure you'd make it. There was very nearly enough poison in your bloodstream to kill you. The medical officer made sure you stayed asleep until he was satisfied most of it had passed. It'll be awhile before you're completely clear of it."
Hermione looked around. "Where's Harry?" Her memories of her last few days at Wainwright's were hazy, but she clearly recalled both his distress and his tenderness when he'd appeared like an answer to a prayer and rescued her.
"He's seeing to some of your paperwork. He's quite busy, too...we're in the process of pulling everyone out of the city."
Hermione shook her head. "I had no idea it had been going so badly."
"You couldn't have done. You performed your own duties very admirably, if I might say so. It isn't your fault Wainwright discovered your identity." Taylor leaned closer. "How did you realize you were being poisoned?"
"Didn't at first. Just thought I was getting sick. But then I overheard some of the servants talking about how Wainwright ordered that no one but the butler was to wash and handle my dishes, something about my having a germ phobia, which I knew wasn't true. I started noticing that no one but the butler ever served me. It wasn't a very long walk from there, given how sick I'd been feeling. I tried to follow standard procedure and abort the infiltration, but I was already too weak and I was caught. I never found out what they used on me."
"You were poisoned with extract of janacane."
Hermione nodded. "Ah."
"You're familiar with it?"
"Yes, of course. It comes from a root that's a slightly less lethal version of its cousin the iocane root, and its effects mimic the symptoms of any one of a number of ordinary illnesses, several of which I thought at first I had contracted." She shook her head. "Harry found me just in time."
"Yes, quite." They both looked up at the sound of a rising commotion in the hallway. Raised voices approached from the stairs.
"I don't care about your standing orders, you better bloody well let me see her!" came an insistent Cockney voice.
Taylor raised one eyebrow. "Are you up to this?"
Hermione smiled. "He can come in."
"I'll be on my way, then. It was nice to meet you...and excellent job." She left the room, and a few seconds later Napoleon burst in.
"Oh, you're okay," he said in a rush. He hurried forward and hugged her before she could get out a single word.
"I'm okay," she said, laughing a little and hugging him back. "Nothing to it."
He sat down in the chair Taylor had just vacated. "Nothing to it, she says! You almost died!" He was keeping a tight grip on one of her hands as if convinced she'd float away. His friendly, effusive presence felt like a hit of good brandy deep in her stomach, warming her all over. "Ruddy medical officers wouldn't let me see you, said you needed rest and all that!"
"Breathe, Napoleon." To her amusement, he did just that, taking a few deliberate deep breaths.
"Okay, okay. I'm okay." He shook his head. "But I was really worried about you."
"Thanks. I'm fine now." She sighed. "But it sounds like the whole mission's a wash."
He sobered. "Mostly, yeah. But you shouldn't worry about all that, it's being taken care of. You did your own job brilliantly."
"Still got caught, though, didn't I?"
"That couldn't be helped." He glanced out the door. "What'd you think of our new celebrity? Taylor?"
"She seems okay. But she...doesn't like Harry much, does she?"
"Picked up on that, did you? No, she doesn't."
"Well...she feels he was promoted too quickly through the ranks by virtue of his fame, not his skill. And surely you know she's not the only person in the I.D. who feels that way."
"I know. It bothers him. He finally gets a job because he's suited for it instead of just because he's Harry Potter, and his fame still follows him around."
"I think she's starting to see why he's a division head at age 28, though. Give her time."
There was a knock at the door. "Come in," Hermione said. The door opened and Harry stood there, holding a clipboard. She sat up straighter, a smile spreading over her face, her heart beating a little faster. "Harry," she said, hoping that she would see in him the same emotion he'd displayed at Wainwright's house. He stepped into the room and she sagged, seeing at once that her hopes were in vain. His face was shuttered again, the guise of Detacho-man (as Napoleon had once dubbed him) firmly in place. He stood at the foot of the bed, coming no closer, holding his clipboard before him like a shield. "Hi," she managed, the disappointment deflating her spirits.
His only acknowledgement was a nod. "I've brought your new orders," he said. "You'll be on full medical leave for the next two weeks, and after that on restricted duty for two additional weeks. You will remain in Florence for the duration of your medical leave, there seems to be some uncertainty about whether or not you ought to travel. The safehouse will be occupied for at least another month, you can stay here."
"Understood," she said flatly. The awful thought rose in her mind that she may full well have hallucinated his behavior towards her at Wainwright's house. Clearly he'd been there and had gotten her out, but the reality of their escape may have been quite different than her recollection.
He paused. "If you need anything just ask the mediwizard." He turned to leave, then hesitated. "I'm glad you're feeling better, Lieutenant," he said, his eyes on the floor. He left without a look back.
Hermione sat stiffly in the bed, concentrating all her willpower on not crying. She felt Napoleon squeezing her hand. "Dammit, dammit, dammit," she muttered under her breath.
"That's not him," Napoleon said quietly. "You should have seen him when he got here with you the other night. I had to physically restrain him when the mediwizards took you away. He cares, he really does."
"I know," she said. "And I didn't hallucinate it, by God." She looked at Napoleon. "He can play Detacho-man all he wants, I'm not buying it anymore." She drew herself up. "He wants to act like there's nothing? Fine. Two can play at that game."
Diz had sequestered herself in the tiny office she'd been assigned, waiting for the headache potion the mediwizard had given her to kick in. She tried to concentrate on the paperwork stacked half a metre tall on her desk, but it wasn't easy.
Her new assignment was, so far, a lot more than she'd bargained for. She didn't suppose it was normal for one's first task in a new posting to be a salvage on a forty-agent operation.
Her assessment of her fellow agents was largely favorable, even more so than she'd anticipated. Her unit in New York had been the picture of quiet efficiency, staffed only with the best agents hand-picked by her, so she'd grown accustomed to working with the best and had wondered if she'd be disappointed by her colleagues at the home office. So far these fears had not been substantiated. She'd been especially surprised by Jones, about whom she'd heard many horror stories. He was, admittedly, colorful and unorthodox, but she'd also found him competent and enthusiastic, going about everything he did with a single-minded gusto that she almost envied.
As for her new boss, she could admit to herself she'd had many preconceived notions of the Great Potter, most of which were colored by her resentment that the division head position had not gone to her, as many people thought it might (or should) have done. She had accepted his leadership grudgingly, assuming he was where he was by virtue of that scar on his forehead. She hadn't realized how deep-seated her belief in his unworthiness had been until her arrival at the home office, where she'd immediately observed that no one treated him any differently. Argo Pfaffenroth seemed to cut him no slack whatsoever over and above what other agents received. She had also assumed, as many did, that Harry used his fame to his own advantage, in life as in his job. She had quickly learned that this couldn't be further from the truth, in fact he was downright uncomfortable with it.
She still thought he was too young for his job, and wondered at his quick rise to the rank of Major...but she was starting to see concrete reasons for his success. He was damned good. His actions in Wainwright's house had been foolhardy, but it was hard to find fault with results.
"You oughta go out and get a massage or something," came a familiar voice. She looked up to see Napoleon standing in the doorway.
"How's your friend?" she asked.
"She's okay. She fell asleep again." He shook his head, his expression grim. "I don't think she knows how close she came."
"Maybe that's better."
"Have you seen Harry?"
"Uh...I saw him down in the common room a few minutes ago. He said he'd be in the little gym." She hesitated. "He looked kinda tense."
"Yeah, I bet." He turned to leave.
"Where are you going?"
"To administer a good talking-to. It's about time someone did."
Napoleon found Harry, as Diz had said, in the little gym. It was a small workout room in the basement of the safehouse, more useful as a place for agents to let off steam than for actual workouts.
Harry was in the corner, shirtless, thrashing a combat dummy to within an inch of its life. The stuffed human-shaped figure bounced and vibrated on its wooden stand as it withstood blow after blow from the visibly agitated wizard who stood before it, sweat running down his skin in rivulets. Napoleon stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb and watching his boss with an expression full of unvoiced observations. "Getting some stuff out, are we, Harry?"
Harry paused and spared him only a momentary glance, but it was a telling glance. Napoleon knew that in some strange way, he might be the only person Harry could speak to honestly. The fact of his own feelings towards Hermione made him a sort of kindred spirit, if Harry admitted it only grudgingly. Harry went back to the combat dummy. "They were poisoning her," he said through clenched teeth, punctuating his words with the flat sounds of his fists hitting the dummy. "Like a rat in a trap."
Napoleon sighed. "I know." While Hermione had slept for three days, hovering on the edge of life, he had spent enough hours lying awake plotting revenge fantasies to sympathize with Harry's anger.
Harry stepped back, hands on his hips, breathing hard. He looked up at Napoleon, his eyes flat and deadly. "Wainwright better pray he never meets me again."
"I know how you feel, Harry. I feel the same way." He walked forward and sat down on a nearby bench. "But, really...am I the person you ought to be telling these things to? I think there's someone upstairs who might like to hear about how you feel."
Harry snorted and went back to the bag. "Are you a counselor now, Jones?"
"Naw. Just a dispassionate observer."
"Well, I don't need your advice."
"Maybe it's high time someone gave you advice!" Napoleon said, jumping up. Harry stopped, surprised at Napoleon's sudden vehemence. "You know, everyone's so busy tiptoeing around you they wouldn't tell you if you had a great honking gob of spinach between your teeth. Well, I've had enough. I've had it up to here with your Mr. Roboto impersonation!"
"Did you come here to pick a fight with me? If so, you can leave right now."
"I didn't come here to fight with you, I came here to try and talk to you." Harry rolled his eyes and went back to his pummeling, though the largest share of his wrath seemed to have been spent. Napoleon stood behind the dummy, trying to catch Harry's eyes, which were resolutely fixed straight ahead of him. "Hasn't this gone on long enough?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Maybe it's just none of your business!"
"It is my business."
"I don't see why."
"Because I'm her friend, and like it or not I'm your friend too. I can't keep standing around watching the two of you play I'm-Invisible-You're-Invisible." Harry said nothing, but his level of ferocity against the dummy jacked up a notch. "You've no excuse anymore, you know. Whatever problem you had that drove you apart, it can't be important enough to warrant this...torture you're putting yourselves through."
"You don't understand."
"You got that straight. Look, I might not be privy to all your innermost workings, but I know this: I've never known two people who were so in love as you and Hermione. What's more, since you've been separated I've never seen two people so miserable and yet so determined to act natural. You're both too stubborn by half, and it's just about to drive me round the bend!"
"Are you quite finished?" Harry exclaimed.
"You wish! I'm just getting going!"
"I suppose you have it all worked out, then?"
"What's to work out? Go up there and talk to her!"
"It's not that simple."
Napoleon reached out and grabbed Harry's arm just as he drew it back for another swipe at the combat dummy. "Well, you know what? I think it is that simple. I think you're the one who's making it complicated, you and her both! Maybe it doesn't have to be such hard work!"
"You don't know what you're talking about," Harry snarled, yanking his arm free.
"When do I ever know what I'm talking about? It hasn't stopped me before and it won't now!"
"Well, I don't want to hear it!"
"Oh, sure. Everything's got to be about you. What about me? Everyone's so focused on you and Hermione, no one stops to think how all of this makes me feel!"
"You? When do you come into it?"
"I'm the Other Guy, Harry! The guy waiting in the wings praying for a breakup! Well, surprise, the breakup happened and it only made me feel worse. You know what this is like for me? Let me clue you in. It's like watching someone throw away a precious treasure you've wanted your whole life. You think it's easy for me to watch her suffer? You think it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to see you wrecking something most people never get to experience?" He sighed. "You had it all, Harry, but you're too stupid to see it. Upstairs in that medical wing is one of the great women of the world. Believe me, there are plenty of men who'd love the chance just to buy her coffee. But you...you had her! And you let some stupid secret come between you!"
"Hey! Don't put this all on me! She's the one who walked out on me, remember?"
"Yeah. I remember. But none of us can really appreciate what she was going through, and she did what she had to do. And when she tried to come back, you turned away. So you're both idiots, no argument there. But that doesn't mean you have to punish yourselves forever!"
Harry was wilting now, his shoulders starting to slump in defeat. "It's too late," he almost whispered.
"Only if you do nothing."
Harry looked up and met Napoleon's eyes for the first time. "I can't," he said.
Napoleon gaped at him, incredulous. "Do I have to tie you two together? Just go talk to her, will you?"
"You don't see what I mean." Harry turned and picked up a towel laid across a nearby bench, mopping his forehead with it. "It needs to...come from her," he said, slowly. "I don't want her to come back because I ask her to. I don't want it to be about me. That was the problem before. It has to...be her choice."
Napoleon shook his head. "Boss, don't take this the wrong way, but are you blind and stupid? She's ready! She's there! She's just waiting for a sign from you. Anything. One tiny little signal...and you're giving her nothing to hang her hat on with this Detacho-Man act you've got down." He stepped closer until they were almost nose to nose. Napoleon, who was three inches taller, glared down into Harry's face. "Don't stand there and tell me you're going to let this relationship swirl away down the drain because you don't want to be the one to blink first." Harry said nothing. "I know you're still in love with her. I know you hate what you've become. And, believe it or not, I know what you're going through. But it doesn't have to be this way. You're just making it difficult when it's really so simple."
Harry fetched a deep, weary sigh and slung the towel around his shoulders. "The rest of the mission personnel will be leaving Florence by the end of the week. I've got about two months of vacation time stored up, I think I'll stay here and take a few weeks off...God knows I could use the break." He looked up at Napoleon, a significant look. "I'll be staying in the agency's suite at the Marquis." He held Napoleon's eyes for a moment, then walked past him.
"Is that it?" Napoleon asked quietly.
Harry hesitated in the door. "That's the best I can do." And he was gone.
"I think you should stay here, Hermione," Lupin said.
She folded her spare cloak and put it on top, closing the lid of her suitcase and latching it. "If I spend one more day in this safehouse I'll go crazy from cabin fever," she said, smiling a little.
"You shouldn't be alone. You're still weak, you're still on medical leave. And what about your treatments? You need help administering them."
"I can do it myself, Remus. I'm a big girl."
She held up a hand. "No buts. After tomorrow no one will be left in this house except me and a few nurses."
"I can stay..."
"You have to get back, Remus. You have a few debriefings to attend, if I'm not mistaken." Remus said nothing, a chagrined expression on his face. "Look, I can take care of myself. I won't push it, I promise."
"But where will you stay?"
Hermione paused. "I'm not sure. But...I think I have an idea."
As I returned across the lands I'd known
I recognized the fields were I once played
Had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I'd laid
If I built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Let me build a bridge, for I cannot fill your chasm
Let me set your battlements on fire.
Hermione stood outside the door to Suite 416 of the sumptuous Hotel Marquis, her hand raised to knock. She thought better of it, and withdrew her wand instead.
The door swung open and she entered. The suite was large and luxurious, a central living room with a spacious balcony, a bedroom with a large attached bathroom, and a fully equipped kitchen/dining area. She put her purse on the hall table and took off her cloak.
One of the French doors leading to the balcony opened and Harry stepped inside, holding a mug of tea. For what seemed an endless moment they stood there in tableau, staring at each other, both of their expressions carefully neutral. Hermione felt his eyes follow her as she carried her suitcase into the bedroom. When she returned, he was hanging her cloak on a peg behind the door. "Give me your treatment prescriptions," he said without preamble.
Hermione opened her briefcase and took out a parchpad. "Everything is there," she said, handing it to him. "The dosage schedule is on the last page. I can handle the charms if you..."
He cut her off. "I'll take care of it." He went into the kitchen.
Hermione sat down on the couch, looking around the suite. "Nice place."
"Are you hungry?"
"You shouldn't be up."
He came into the living room and set a cup of tea on the table next to her, then continued to the French doors. He went back out onto the balcony and closed the door behind him. Hermione stared at the door for a moment, then picked up her tea and sipped it slowly, blowing on the hot surface so as not to burn her tongue.
Harry put his wand away, closing the parchpad. "Lie still for a few minutes," he said, slipping the antitoxin talisman into its cut velvet protective pouch. Hermione didn't argue. The cleansing spells were uncomfortable and always made her feel dizzy and disoriented. Happily, the course of her treatment only had another week remaining before the janacane extract would be purged from her body.
Morning sunlight streamed into the suite's large bedroom. Hermione lay in one side of the king-sized bed, the other side smooth and undisturbed. She could only surmise that Harry had spent the night on the couch in the living room, if he'd slept at all. After her arrival, he had spent the rest of the evening on the balcony and she hadn't seen him again before going to bed. He had awoken her just minutes ago to administer her treatments.
He got up from the edge of the bed and left the room. Hermione lay there for some time, staring at the ceiling and waiting for her internal equilibrium to reset itself after the harshness of the medical charms. When she felt steadier she rose and showered, wrapping herself in a large and fuzzy bathrobe provided by the hotel.
She went into the kitchen, drawn by the smell of coffee. Harry wordlessly handed her a plate of breakfast, which she ate without comment. As she was finishing, he went into the bedroom and after a moment she heard the shower running. She was on her second cup of coffee when she heard the familiar splishing sounds of his razor as he shaved.
A few minutes later he emerged with damp hair and began the washing up. "I can do that," she said, getting up.
"Sit down," he said. "You're on medical leave. That means no dishwashing."
"But you're on vacation."
"Yes, I am. So today I'm going sightseeing." He turned around and looked her in the face for the first time that morning. "Would you like to come along?"
She set down her coffee cup. "Yes, I would."
"You're sure you're up to it?"
"I think so, if we can pause to rest once in awhile."
"Of course." He went back to the dishes. "Better get dressed. We'll leave soon."
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the realms of silence.
They spent the day touring Florence. Hermione knew it better than Harry did, having lived there for several weeks and visited a number of popular sites with Wainwright's children. The city was still new to her, though, and stunningly beautiful.
They walked at a leisurely pace, stopping frequently to allow her to rest and taking taxis for longer distances. They commented on the architecture. They discussed where to go for lunch. They remarked upon the beauty of the many vistas into the Tuscan countryside.
Hermione was amazed to find how easy it was to talk and yet avoid saying anything at all.
They took a cab back to the hotel, watching the city pass through their respective windows, a safe cushion of space between them in the back seat of the cab as it had been all day.
Hermione went into the bedroom and lay down, worn out by the day's exertion and keenly aware that she was, despite her protests, still quite weak from her ordeal. She stretched out on the bed and was asleep before she'd even had time for an unsettling thought to cross her mind.
When she woke a few hours later, a soft knit blanket had been placed over her and her shoes had been removed. She looked down at herself, blinking in mild confusion. She sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, and rose from the rumpled bed.
She found Harry in the kitchen, cooking dinner. She watched him for a few moments before speaking. "When did you learn to cook?" she asked.
He turned. "George has been teaching me."
"I suppose so."
Hermione set out plates and silverware on the small dining table. They ate in near silence, sitting across from each other, a large floral centerpiece largely precluding eye contact. Hermione didn't think Harry would ever replace George as unofficial house chef at Bailicroft but his cooking was edible, if simple. After dinner she helped with the washing up, over Harry's token protests.
The sun had set when they finished, and it was once again time for Hermione's treatments. She sat in the most comfortable reclining chair in the living room while Harry set out the talismans and the charms. He got out his wand and carefully performed the spells, referring often to the mediwizard's instructions and taking his time. When he was finished he left her alone for a few minutes to recover. She sat there taking deep, slow breaths until the nausea and the shivers had passed.
Once she felt like herself again, weariness seized her and though it was still rather early, the large bed beckoned to her. "I'm turning in," she announced, standing up. Harry was sitting at the desk in the corner writing out some owl posts. He didn't look up.
"Good night," he said.
She went to the bedroom door and hesitated, then turned back. "Harry?" she said. He looked up at her. "There's really no reason for you to sleep on the couch." He said nothing, just regarded her steadily. "It's not as if we've never shared a bed before." He seemed on the verge of comment, but still said nothing. She shrugged. "Your choice." She went into the bedroom, changed into her nightgown and slid between the crisp sheets.
She had no idea how long she laid there before Harry came in. At least an hour, but it could have been much longer. She watched him shed his clothes and put on his pajamas...just the bottoms, as was his usual habit. He drew back the covers and got into bed beside her.
The silence was very loud as they lay there, side by side, a good foot of space separating them as they stared at the ceiling. Despite her earlier fatigue, Hermione was wide awake, and she could tell just by the sound of his breathing that he was no closer to sleep than she was. That loud silence had, by now, become an oath that couldn't be broken, nor was it broken now. Not when Harry got into bed with her, and not when she reached over and slipped her hand inside his pajamas.
Hermione kept her eyes focused on the ceiling as she wrapped her fingers around him. He didn't make a sound or move a muscle as she began to move her hand up and down, feeling him stiffen beneath her touch. She felt his whole body tighten up just a little, but he did not help or hinder her.
When he was ready she sat up and peeled the covers back. She hiked her nightgown up to her waist and straddled his hips on her knees, easing herself down until he was fully seated within her. She fixed her eyes on a point straight ahead and her hips began the steady, familiar motion. After a few moments he assisted her, his back arching to meet her strokes. Hermione kept her hands to herself, bracing them against the headboard for leverage. She could see that his hands were gripping the sheets at his sides, and his eyes were open but averted.
She rode him to climax, gritting her teeth against the cry that wanted to rise in her throat. The only sound he made as he came was a single guttural moan that was half-swallowed before it was even uttered. She remained briefly where she was, collecting herself, then rolled off of him back to her side of the bed.
When it was all over the fatigue returned to Hermione's body full force. She turned on her side and snuggled into the heavy covers. They both slept then, facing away from each other, the silence lying between them like a no-man's-land.
The next Hermione knew she was being shaken awake again. "Time for your treatments," Harry was saying. Sunlight was streaming in through the bedroom windows and the smell of coffee greeted her as she sat up. Harry was already dressed and had the talismans and charms ready. Hermione sighed.
"Only a few more days of this," she said, bracing herself for the discomfort of the treatments.
He looked up at her. "Does it hurt that much?"
"Not exactly, but it doesn't feel good." She met his eyes then, and an ill-defined expression passed between them. Harry broke the moment by returning to his preparations, and within a few minutes he'd completed her treatments, leaving her alone as always to recover.
The only conversation at breakfast concerned plans for the day ahead. Harry had an idea of driving to a nearby winery to sample the local vintages; Hermione agreed and he went to the house telephone to ask the concierge to see about renting them a car.
No mention was made of the odd, disconnected sex they'd shared the night before. Hermione almost had occasion to wonder if she'd dreamed it, but knew she had not. The slight ache in her loins told the story. She did not ponder her own actions, or his. Now was not that time. She had lost the ability to analyze her own situation or her own impulses; she could think of nothing else to do but ride the tide of events to whatever conclusion they led. Harry's emotional rescue of her from Wainwright's house seemed a distant memory, and it was as if the rest of the world had ceased to exist. Their friends, their jobs, their home...all the trappings of their lives felt very far away, very remote. It was as if she'd fallen into a parallel reality in which only she and Harry existed. Even the city of Florence with all its beauty and its lively inhabitants were mere window dressing for whatever drama the two of them were playing out.
By the time she had showered and dressed, their rental car was waiting for them downstairs. They left the hotel room, another beautiful summery Tuscan day greeting them as they left the hotel.
They did not return until evening, having spent most of the day in the countryside. The trip to the winery had been enjoyable and informative, and they'd had occasion to sample many excellent wines. A tour of a nearby village had followed, and lunch in a charming outdoor cafe. They'd taken a walk along a beautiful river and browsed in quaint shops full of quirky antiques and amiable shopowners.
At one point during a stroll through a botanical garden they'd paused to rest in a gazebo overlooking a smooth sunlit lake. Hermione perched on a bench, catching her breath, while Harry stood some distance away looking out at the water.
"Do you want to go back to Florence?" he asked.
"No, I'm fine. Just give me a few minutes."
Pause. "We'll need to be back in time for your evening treatment."
"I know, Harry." She cleared her throat. "At least it isn't too warm today."
"No, it isn't. The concierge told me it may rain tomorrow."
"If it does, we could visit that museum you mentioned."
"I suppose so." Pause. "The woman in the cheese shop recommended a place for dinner."
"Is that so?"
"Yes. Unless you'd prefer to leave for town first."
"I think I'd rather eat here. I'm hungry."
"Me, too. Must be all this fresh air."
She looked around, leaning against the balustrade. "Don't forget, you wanted to stop and buy a few bottles of that Cabernet for George."
"Ah, yes. I won't forget." He sighed. "It really is a very nice day."
She regarded the back of his head for a moment before replying. "Yes. It really is."
Hermione's treatments that evening weren't as uncomfortable as they usually were. She knew that the instructions she'd given Harry described a gradual decrease of the dosages as the remaining janacane was eliminated from her system. She didn't feel as tired tonight as she had the last few days, either. "I think I'm getting better," she commented.
Harry looked up at her, a slight expression of relief touching his eyes, which was more than she'd seen there since arriving. "Really?"
"Yes. I feel...more like myself, less tired."
"Good." He rifled through the prescriptions she'd given him. "There are suggestions here that when you feel up to it, you should start up some mild exercise again. It'll help your body recover."
"Exercise? I'm not up to sparring or jogging."
"Nothing so strenuous. Maybe...tai chi, or yoga, or something."
"I don't know tai chi or yoga."
"Me neither. But...we could dance a little. Something mild, like waltz or rhumba."
She blinked at him, a little taken aback. "Yes, we could." He held her eyes for a moment, then gathered up the treatment charms and left the room.
The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. Harry tuned the stereo to a local jazz station and they sat in the living room engaged in their own activities. Harry read a book while Hermione continued work on an afghan she was knitting, a hobby she'd picked up from the housekeeper at Wainwright's house.
Eventually, the hour grew late enough that Hermione stood up and left off of her knitting. "I'm going to bed," she announced. Harry looked up from his book. She hesitated. "Are you coming?"
In lieu of responding, he marked his page and set the book on the coffee table, rising to follow her into the bedroom.
The events of the previous evening allowed them to skip the pretense. They stood on opposite sides of the room and removed their clothing, not bothering with pajamas, and got into bed. As before, they lay side by side for some time, not speaking.
Eventually, their experience of the night before replayed itself almost identically, except that this time Harry was the initiator. On some tacit signal, he slid over next to her, hazarding a brief glance into her eyes to make certain of her complicity. She parted her legs to accomodate him and he settled over her, propping himself on his elbows. In one practiced motion he slid inside her, shutting his eyes as he did so. Hermione focused her gaze over his shoulder and out the window, watching shadows move across the glowing disc of the moon as Harry's hips rose and fell, first slowly, then with increasing speed and force. Hermione held on to the pillow beneath her neck as her body responded to his; her skin flushed and her knees fell further apart to draw him deeper.
His breathing grew ragged and he shifted his weight back a little, changing his angle against her body; Hermione automatically adjusted her hips to compensate. Her orgasm hit her suddenly, taking her a bit by surprise, a groan escaping her lips before she could bite it back. Her body clenched around him, pushing him over the edge as well. He held himself tight against her for a long moment, then relaxed and rolled away to his side of the bed. Hermione kept watching the moon, transfixed, but saw out of the corner of her eye as he put on his pajama bottoms and turned on his side. Soon enough the sound of his breathing told her he was asleep, and before she even knew it, she had joined him.
The next morning as he administered her treatments, Harry told her that the concierge had informed him that the hotel employed several fitness instructors. Someone would come to their room twice a day to take her through some mild exercises, if that was all right with her. She agreed at once, privately relieved.
And so, the days went by. Hermione was aware on some level that what she and Harry were experiencing would probably qualify as one of the strangest times of either of their lives...she could only guess at how she'd view this week in Florence later in life when reflecting upon it.
Their days fell into a routine. Her treatments, lessening each day in their dosage and duration, were given to her morning and night by Harry, who kept her to a very tight schedule and carefully followed the instructions she'd given him from the I.D. mediwizard, even going so far as to owl Sukesh several times for clarification. The hotel's fitness instructor came soon after Harry's call and began to teach her tai chi, which she found extremely soothing and invigorating. She was amazed at how quickly her strength was returning now that her treatments were nearing completion and she was resuming some physical activity. On only her second day of workouts, she and the instructor began some light sparring, increasing in intensity as she grew stronger. If the man was surprised at her skill level at hand-to-hand combat, he made no mention of it.
She and Harry spent their days wandering about Florence and the Tuscan countryside. They visited museums, historic sites, famous country estates and marketplaces. Their conversation was casual, easy and completely devoid of content or meaning. They restricted themselves to aggressively neutral topics like which restaurant to dine in or the exact nature of the current and upcoming weather.
At their hotel, owl posts came and went regularly. Both of them spent a portion of each evening answering work-related letters. Harry always had communications from his staff to deal with, and Hermione was endeavoring to keep up with her own work while on leave. Numerous personal owls from their friends and families went unanswered and largely ignored; any letter not bearing the I.D. seal was placed without comment on a growing pile in the corner of the writing desk.
And so during the day they played their roles quietly and without discussion, and at night they continued to have impersonal and mechanical sex. This dichotomy between their diurnal and nocturnal relations seemed jarring in a way, but in another, more truthful way, it was all the same. Hermione supposed that the entire situation would be fascinating from a clinical perspective, which was the only perspective from which she could bring herself to view her situation. As she and Harry drifted from minute to minute, both of them now wearing that impassive mask of shuttered eyes and guarded expression which had until now been his sole province, the sense of unreality grew stronger within her. This wasn't their relationship, it wasn't any relationship. It was more like a dramatization of a relationship in which the roles of Harry Potter and Hermione Granger were being played by two relatively unskilled actors being forced to perform with poorly written dialogue and no significant characterization.
But it was all they had, and for reasons too complex for her tired mind to sort through right then, it was necessary...and it would go on as long as it had to.
And all the roads we had to walk were winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
But I don't know how
Because maybe, you're gonna be the one that saves me.
When it happened, it happened fast.
It was late, and they were returning to their hotel from an evening at a Hitchcock film festival. It had been a double billing of "Rear Window" and "Dial M for Murder," followed by a discussion with a local film professor on Hitchcock's skill at staging single-room films. Hermione had found the evening stimulating, but neither she nor Harry had taken much of an active role given that Harry had to translate what was being said for her from Italian...he had something of a talent for languages and had learned a number of them since joining the I.D., but she was as slow linguistically as she was quick at most everything else.
It was now after midnight, and she was gratified that she wasn't tired. It was a sign of her return to near-normal health that she could stay up late and remain lucid. She and the hotel fitness instructor had engaged in their most intense sparring session yet this afternoon and she was sore in a few places, but glad for it.
They weren't speaking as they walked the half-kilometre or so back to the Marquis...but for once, they weren't drifting along in a daze as they had been for the entire week. The level of tension was palpable, and had been steadily rising all day. No one mentioned it, but they were both conscious of it. This, whatever this was, couldn't go on much longer. Something would have to give soon, one way or another...except that there was no way to broach the topic without shattering the dim mirror of reality through which they were regarding each other. She was afraid, afraid to look past their private little world and into the future, which would have to find them returning to England and their lives and all that waited for them there.
In the end, the burden of action was taken from them, perhaps fortunately so. A chance and almost ridiculously timed intervention by unwitting intruders shattered that mirror for them. At another time and place it might have been funny, that the interpersonal stalemate between two people could be knocked into a cocked hat by such a mundane occurrence as being mugged.
They came into a deserted piazza a few blocks from the hotel, not really paying attention to their surroundings. They should have known better. Even if they hadn't both been professional intelligence agents, it was common knowledge that tourists were frequently the targets of muggings in Florence, and all visitors were advised to be on their guard.
As it was, they didn't realize what was happening until they were surrounded. Hermione was oblivious, her eyes on the pavement, when Harry suddenly grasped her by the arm and stopped her in her tracks. She looked up, puzzled, and saw at once what had alarmed him.
Five young Italian men had come from various corners of the piazza and were now standing in a circle around them. They looked rough and eager for a fight. Although this was a situation which could be dangerous, Hermione wasn't all that concerned. She and Harry could certainly take five untrained Muggles, especially now that her strength had returned.
The men were chattering amongst themselves. Hermione picked up a few words now and then, but most of it went over her head. Harry said something to them in Italian. They replied, and there was a quick exchange of dialogue the meaning of which Hermione could guess well enough. "What do they want?" she whispered.
"Our wallets, what else?" Harry said.
"How do you want to handle this?" Under normal circumstances it would have been wise just to give the thieves what they wanted and hope to escape unharmed...but neither of them were normal people, and their circumstances of late were anything but. In many ways they were both spoiling for a confrontation, and if they couldn't have it with each other, they could at least thrash a gang of would-be muggers.
"I think the usual response scenario is appropriate." Hermione made no reply, but altered her body language somewhat. She hunched her shoulders a little and moved to stand partially behind Harry as if she were cowering. Harry's attitude grew more belligerent and confrontational. The thieves moved in closer. Hermione pretended not to notice the two creeping around behind her. Finally, Harry uttered some exclamation and threw himself at one of the thugs in a clumsy, amateurish lunge. The guy merely stepped aside and let Harry trip over his own feet. The two thieves behind Hermione grabbed her by the arms. She cried out and feigned terror. Harry was hauled to his feet by the head thug, who shouted at him in Italian, gesturing at Hermione. It didn't take a genius to surmise that he was threatening to harm her unless Harry cooperated. Harry sagged, defeated, and agreed. He glanced at Hermione once, the signal there in his eyes. It was up to her now.
Hermione had been slumping in a near-swoon, forcing her captors to support most of her weight. Now she took a deep breath and straightened, slamming the heel of her shoe into the foot of one of the thieves holding her. The man cried out in pain and immediately let go of her. Before the other one could even begin to react, she drove her elbow into his stomach. He doubled over and she grabbed the back of his head and smashed her knee into his face. He fell over and lay still. This took about three seconds. She looked over at the other three thieves, all of them wearing stunned expressions at this abrupt turnaround in what had probably seemed an easy job. Harry took the opportunity and yanked free of the head thug's grasp. He kept hold of the man's arm, turned and flipped him over his hip, slamming him to the brick pavement of the piazza. The other two rushed him, finally regaining presence of mind enough to act.
Hermione didn't see much of the ensuing fight, because at that moment the thug whose foot she'd stomped on grabbed her from behind, turned her around roughly and punched her across the face. Stars exploded in her vision and she struggled to keep her footing, but if there was anything her I.D. training had taught her, it was how to take a punch. She let the guy think he'd stunned her and he swung his other fist at her. She ducked and the blow went over her head. Her attacker overbalanced and she spun in a tight circle, her foot whipping around to connect squarely with his jaw. He fell over, unconscious.
Hermione bent over, hands on her knees, breathing hard. The footsteps came behind her and she whirled to face another attack, her fist swiping through the air. She realized it was Harry a fraction of a second too late to pull the punch and she hit him, hard. He staggered back a few steps, hand to his face. Hermione winced. "Oh, Harry...I'm sorry." She looked past him to where all three of his attackers lay incapacitated on the ground, bound up by ropes from his wand. Without even thinking about it, she used her own wand to immobilize her two in like fashion. "Are you okay?"
He straightened up, looking a little sheepish, wiping blood from his mouth. "I've had worse," he said. "In fact, I've had worse in the last few minutes." He looked at her, his eyes all at once there in a way they hadn't been for some time. "Are you really sorry?"
"Of..." she began. She'd been about to say 'of course I am' but she suddenly didn't know if she was, in fact, sorry. A part of her had exulted in the feeling of striking out at him. Her emotions were starting to seethe, and it felt good after months of repression and now an entire week of total and complete freeze-out. It didn't help that her inadvertent blow had done what her presence in his hotel room and in his bed hadn't been able to do...it had knocked that unfeeling mask clear off his face.
"You know what I think?" he was saying, color rising into his pale face. "I think you wanted to hit me. Oh, it was an accident, but I think you liked it."
"What a horrible thing to say!" she exclaimed. "I would never wish to hurt you, Harry!"
"Oh no? You've done nothing for three months but hurt me!"
"Bollocks! You don't feel anything anymore, you're a Harry-shaped glacier and you're so damned serene and nothing bothers you!"
"There's no need to shout!"
"I want to shout!" she yelled. "And it wouldn't do you any harm, either! This, whatever this is, this has gone on too long and I'm going to shout because I'm damned angry about it!"
"Good!" he said, suddenly fierce. "It's a relief that the Hermione I know is still in there somewhere!" He shook his head, then turned abruptly and strode away back towards the center of the piazza, not appearing to care which way he was going. Hermione stood shocked for a moment, then ran after him.
"Don't walk away from me, Harry Potter!" She had trouble keeping up with his long strides.
"I don't feel like talking right now," he said tightly.
She grabbed his arm and spun him around. "Well, that's just too damned bad! If I have to tackle you to the ground and sit on you you're going to talk to me!"
He shook her hand off his arm and stared at her, and she could see he wanted to talk about it just as much as she did, but he wasn't sure how to go about it. "You know, we've been apart for months," he finally said, jaw clenched. "We haven't been speaking. We've barely seen each other. But I've gotta tell you, this past week, here, with you...well, this was the first time I started to really wonder if I'd lost you for good."
"But why? We've been speaking...making love..."
He barked short laughter. "You call what we've been doing making love?"
"No, I guess not."
"No. More like...mutual masturbation using each other as props." Hermione said nothing. That was exactly what it had been. Harry looked at her. "We haven't been making love, Hermione. We haven't even been having sex. We've just been shagging. And I'll tell you something else. Of all the women in the world you were the last person I would have ever thought I would just be shagging. I thought that no matter what things were like between us that when I touched you there would be some kind of emotion there, any kind. Not this...this nothing, this blankness, this absence of everything. It makes me sick. I would rather have rage. I would rather have you fight me and mean it than have you touch me again with that void behind your eyes."
"So this is my fault now? For not trusting my emotions with you?"
"Oh, hang whose fault it is! God, why can't we get past this?" He was shouting now, walking back and forth with his topcoat swirling around his legs. Hermione found herself rooting for him internally even while her own anger swirled and bubbled to the surface. Yes, Harry. Get it all out. You've said nothing of consequence since Sirius' birthday party. Tell me what you felt then, what you feel now. "Look at us! Look at what we've become! We're both so miserable we can barely draw breath and we can't even talk about the real issues, or anything approaching an actual emotion! So what do we do? We prattle on about museums and art and discuss which restaurant to have dinner at and we have meaningless emotionless sex and sleep without touching each other!"
"You've got a lot of nerve dumping this on me now after you threw me out!" She forced down the tears that wanted to rise in her throat.
He gaped at her, incredulous. "I threw you out? I threw you out? You walked out, and not just out of Bailicroft! You walked out on an unconscious man who you knew damned well would wake up needing you just so you could get your head on straight!"
"I was on...sabbatical!" she spat, the only word she could come up with. It sounded, she suddenly realized, ridiculous even to herself.
"Oh, you were on sabbatical! Well, in that case, it's all okay! I didn't realize you were on sabbatical!" The sarcasm dripped from his voice, turning it alien and foreign. "For Christ's sake you can't take a sabbatical from a relationship, Hermione! Not without at least consulting with your partner in the so-called relationship! It might have been easy for you to go walkabout but it wasn't so easy for me, stuck back there in hell. It might have been easy for you not to think about what I was going through but I sure as hell couldn't take a sabbatical from the rejection and the abandonment and the fact that I had just been marginalized by the woman who said she loved me above all else!" She knew he had spoken of these things to no one. She knew it as well as she knew the slight dimple in his left cheek. "Do you know where I was when I woke up? I might have been in Confinement but I was really in the cupboard, that damned cupboard under the stairs. That's where it felt like I was. Unloved, unwanted, unnecessary and half-forgotten."
"Half-forgotten?" she exclaimed. "Jesus, Harry, the entire wizarding world was hanging on your every breath and you were surrounded twenty-four/seven by scores of people who love and care about you! If anyone it was me that was forgotten! In the grand holiday of your Great Awakening I'm sure there might have been a slight footnote about what's-her-name, the fiancee, taking a little trip to decide if she really wanted to be What's-Her-Name for the rest of her life!"
He strode forward and grasped her by the upper arms. "I didn't want the entire wizarding world, I only wanted you. I could have been surrounded by every last person on the planet and I would have still been alone because I didn't have you there. Don't you get it? Nothing matters if you're not there. Nothing is real, nothing has any meaning, nothing else is important in my life unless you're there."
She stared up into his face, twisted with anger and sadness, and it slammed back into her like a cannonball in her gut, all at once, how desperately she loved this man and how much she had hurt him, how much they had hurt each other...and at that moment nothing else mattered but that his heart be healed of this. "Yes, Harry," she whispered. "Talk to me. Please talk to me."
He released her and stepped back. "I was so scared, I've never been that scared. Of everything. Of myself, of what I'd become. Of what you'd had to do to get me a cure, because I knew you must have given up something precious to have it upset you so much you had to leave. I was scared of you coming back but I was more scared that you wouldn't. And when you did and I looked at you and all I felt was more scared...then I got mad. And I said some things I regret."
"I know." He blew air through his teeth and ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't think I can talk about this anymore, certainly not like this, yelling in the middle of the night out here in the piazza. Let's just..."
"Just what, Harry? What happens now?"
He met her gaze. "I don't know."
The long silence stretched, stretched into agonizing infinity. If he turns away now it's over, Hermione thought to herself, and whether or not that was true, it felt true. The words kept repeating in her head like the desperate ravings of a frightened child. If he turns away now it's over. If he turns away now it's over. She wanted to say something, anything, to keep him there, but the paralysis of indecision had her in its mighty grasp. If he turns away now, it's over.
She watched in the slow-motion of heightened awareness as Harry turned away, his eyes on the brick pavement. He turned and took a few steps away from her...and ran smack into the large fountain which was directly behind him.
Hermione watched, her mouth hanging open, as his feet caught on the low six-inch lip around the pool and he flopped face-first into the shallow water, a tangle of limbs and topcoat. In his distraction he hadn't even seen the ground-level depression surrounding the tall sculpted fountain that sat in the middle of this piazza. Bent on making a hasty exit, he couldn't have done a more convincing pratfall if he'd trained for it his whole life.
He spluttered to the surface, dripping wet and sitting in the foot-deep water looking like the world's oldest wading-pool patron. He blinked twice, water running from his hair into his eyes, a look of bemused confusion on his face. Hermione was at a loss, so she did the only thing she could, which was burst into mad, screaming laughter.
She doubled over, holding in her stomach before it could rupture from the sheer shock of it. Tears streamed down her face and she sucked at the air with great gasping lungfuls. "Gosh, thanks," Harry muttered, but there was an embarrassed half-smile on his face.
She staggered to the edge of the pool, conscious that she ought to do something to assist him. She held out a hand. "Here...let me...help you..." she managed between laughs.
She ought to have known better, she would later reflect. Harry grasped her proferred hand, but used it not to haul himself up but to pull her into the pool too. With a surprised gluk! she splashed into the shockingly chilly fountain water, which at once went up her nose and down her throat. She thrashed to her knees, coughing and holding out her dripping cloak, still half-laughing...except now Harry's laughter was mixed with her own. They staggered to their feet but Harry's shoes slipped on the tiles and he lost his balance, grabbing at her out of reflex. Down they both went, again. "Well, we're just gonna get wet now, that's all there is to it," Hermione said.
"I'm glad I didn't wear my cloak tonight, it's pure wool. Would've shrunk right up." He finally managed to keep his feet under him and stood over her as she sat there and laughed at the impossible absurdity of it all. "Give me your hand," he said, grinning. He pulled her to her feet and put one arm around her to steady her.
Hermione looked around just as he turned his head and wound up staring directly into his face. She froze, her mouth open mid-laugh, and saw the smile drain from his face.
It was a strange moment, one she would never forget as long as she lived. It was as if a blown fuse inside her was replaced and all the lights blazed again after a long time in the dark. She remembered suddenly how his eyes had looked when he'd knelt before her and asked her to marry him. She could feel once again his arms around her the first time they'd kissed, how tightly he had held her, how his hands had trembled when he'd touched her.
Now his hand trembled again as he raised it and gently brushed a strand of wet hair off her cheek. She saw with alarm that his eyes were misting over. He let his hand linger on her face, then ran his thumb gently over her lips. She reached up and brushed the water from his face, holding it between her hands. He shook his head slowly, holding her gaze, his eyes filling the whole world. "Harry," she whispered. "I'm so...I'm so sorry..." The words were hardly more than exhalations.
He pressed his thumb to her lips again. "Shh," he said. She didn't need to hear him say that he was sorry, too...the look on his face said it more clearly than he could have done if he'd shouted it from the rooftops. "No talking." A slow half-smile curled his lips.
She nodded. "No talking," she repeated, answering his smile with one of her own...the significance of his phrase not lost upon her.
fourteen months earlier...
Harry kicked the door to the Cloister shut behind him, unsteady on his feet after carrying her up the stairs from the living gallery. He put her down and they fell back against the closed door, the need to keep their balance running a distant second to the sudden but all-consuming need to kiss each other as hard as they could without leaving a bruise. Could this be happening? One moment shouting at each other, one best friend to another, each terrified of losing the other, then the next moment falling into a passionate embrace? Did such things happen outside the movies? Apparently they did.
She drew back and looked up at him. They were both breathing hard and her heart was racing. He was holding her face between his hands, staring down into her eyes with an intense expression. "Are you..." he began.
Hermione put her hand over his mouth. "No. No talking." She didn't want to talk about it. If they talked about it they might talk themselves out of it, and she didn't want that. She didn't know what was happening and she could tell by his expression that neither did he, but she did know that at this moment she wanted him more desperately than she'd ever wanted a man in her life. A little voice of reason in her mind warned her that this would ruin their friendship, and that was scary. Her friendship with him was so essential to her existence that she didn't know what she'd do without it...and yet, that same voice was wondering if there might be something even greater beyond the friendship. It whispered that this was what they were meant for, this was what they were meant to be to each other. Not friends. Not only friends. Something else.
Harry nodded. "No talking," he repeated quietly.
in the present...
Harry put a finger underneath her chin and slowly drew her face towards him. The intensity of his gaze made her stomach flutter, but she held it as she drew closer. She could feel his hesitation as well as her own, but there was nothing left to risk, nothing to lose. The mugging and then their sudden dip in the fountain had surprised them out of their own pretense, and now that they'd glimpsed each other with their protective walls toppled, it was too late to go back.
A shiver ran through her as her lips touched his for the first time since she had bid him good-bye in Confinement, what felt like a million years ago. She ached to pull him closer but held herself back, unsure how to proceed. He drew back, gazing deeply into her eyes, an unspoken question lurking behind his own. She smiled and nodded, tears leaking steadily down her cheeks.
The weight of a hundred days' grief lifted from her shoulders as Harry drew her to him and kissed her, in the way he always had...with all of himself poured into it. She leaned into it and kissed back, one hand lingering on his face while her other arm curled around his shoulders. She didn't know long they stood there tightly wrapped together, doing their best to cram three months' worth of kisses into one endless moment, but eventually another sensation intruded. "Harry," she murmured against his mouth.
"My feet are cold." He broke off, blinking, and they both looked down...they were still standing shin-deep in the fountain. They looked at each other again, bemused, and before you could say "wombat" they were both giggling madly.
"Perhaps we'd best get out of this fountain," he said, mock-serious.
"Oh, only if you want to," she replied, unable to stop smiling. "Personally, I like my toes all pruny."
Hermione would never have imagined how difficult it would be to climb stairs facing backwards while furiously kissing someone and grabbing at their clothing. She tripped several times, and Harry ended up carrying her most of the way up the stairs to their suite.
The deja vu was powerful, recalling to her mind their first night together. As it had been then, they could scarcely let go of each other long enough for simple tasks like walking and operating a doorknob, but they managed to get inside the suite without incident.
Dark shadows loomed over Hermione's head, the foreknowledge of the intense discussions still ahead of them, but right now it didn't matter. She was here with her Harry, really with him after a long time apart, and while she was in his arms she felt there wasn't anything they couldn't get through together, even this.
They left a trail of wet clothes and muddy footprints behind them across the living room as they shuffled and stumbled their way into the bedroom. She felt like they were making an incredible racket between their footsteps and their bumping into walls and furniture, not to mention the gasping quality of their breathing and the fact that they were still both half-laughing. Oh, hang it, she thought. I don't give a damned who hears us. She kicked off one of her shoes, which promptly flew through the air and knocked a lamp off the side table by the couch. Harry dissolved into giggles that made his kisses vibrate against her neck and shoulders. "Whoops," she muttered.
"Nice shot, ace," he said. They turned in circles, still undressing each other as best they could, until their knees hit the edge of the bed and they flopped onto the mattress in a heap. They rolled over a few times before coming to rest on a rough diagonal.
Hermione was struck by a sudden thought. "Harry, wait," she said. He drew back at once, an apprehensive expression crossing his face.
"What is it?"
She held his face between her hands and made him look at her. "What do you want to happen here?" she asked.
"Good God, isn't it obvious?"
"You know what I mean."
He nodded, his fingers playing over her face. "I...I can't do it anymore. I can't be without you, not when there's the slightest chance we can make things right. I don't care what it takes, it's too much. It's tearing me up inside, more every day."
"What about...everything else?"
"It'll still be there in the morning. No matter how hard it might be to work through it, I'll do it. I'll do whatever I have to do. I won't let it keep us apart, not anymore."
She smiled up at him, her lower lip trembling. "Do you still have it?"
He blinked and drew back a little. "Yes, of course." He peered at her closely. "Do you want it back?"
"More than anything."
She could see muscles in his jaw clenching. "Don't...don't ask for it unless you really want it. I can't..." He stopped and cleared his throat. "I couldn't bear it again."
"I really want it back."
Now it was his turn to appear on the verge of tears. He swallowed hard and nodded. "Okay." He sat up and she followed suit, ending up half in his lap. He reached inside his shirt and drew out a fine gold chain. Suspended on the chain was her engagement ring. It made Hermione ache all over that all this time, all these weeks he'd been walking around appearing so unfeeling, so detached and so very disconnected, he'd had her ring on a chain around his neck, keeping it close to him. He freed it from the chain and picked up her left hand, bending to kiss it softly before he slid the ring back to its proper place.
"There," she breathed. "For better or worse, right?"
He smiled and pressed his palm to hers, lacing their fingers together with her ring sparkling on top. "I think we've banked up enough 'worse' for a few years, haven't we?"
"God, I hope so." He met her eyes then, and Hermione felt her insides go all slushy at the smoldering expression in his. She drew him into her arms and back onto the bed, and a truthful description of what followed is perhaps best left to the pen of a more skilled storyteller than I, faithful reader.
Do you want to know if everything glittering
Will turn into the gold I see in your hair
I feel it could be there somehow, tonight
Do you want to find something worth saving
The change would do me right, I've been just waiting
And hesitating with this heart of mine
You're still a mystery, but there's something so easy
In how you're sweet to me, I feel completed
Like it's something I needed for this heart of mine
So though we cannot know if everything glittering
Will turn into the gold, I'm through with waiting
And hesitating, I want you taking this heart of mine.
Hermione lay in his arms, drowsy with the exertion and emotional upheaval but still too agitated to make sleep a viable possibility. He was slowly stroking her back, so she knew he wasn't sleeping yet either.
"Is it my imagination or was that the best sex we've ever had?"
"I'm not sure. Ask me again later, provided I don't burn up on re-entry."
She raised her head to look into his face. "Do you think that Operation Wombat will be disappointed not to have had a hand in this?"
Now he laughed out loud. "Ah, Operation Wombat. Bless their dear, interfering, blatantly obvious little hearts."
Hermione chuckled. "It was rather amusing to watch them sneak around and plan their little schemes, thinking they were fooling me."
"I'm a little disappointed in Napoleon. I'd have expected a higher level of stealth at least from him. But I am glad to hear that they were as obvious to you as they were to me."
"Well, honestly. I'm a professional surveillance agent and you're the highest ranked covert operative on the planet. It's just so cute they thought we wouldn't notice. The only thing that puzzles me is who thought 'Wombat' was an appropriate codename."
"Oh, come now. Romantic intrigue? Sneaky gossip-mongering? This sounds like a job for...Justin Finch-Fletchley!"
"If Justin were a superhero, what would his outfit look like?"
"A silver taffeta thong and sparkly little boots with wings on them. And a Viking helmet."
For a few moments Hermione had occasion to wonder if it were physically possibly to bust a gut laughing. "Wh...why a Viking helmet?" she stammered, breathless.
"It's shiny and has big horns. Which of those two things doesn't remind you of Justin?" he deadpanned.
She laughed again and hugged him, feeling punchy with upheaval and relief. For some time they just lay there, gently touching each other as if to make sure they hadn't forgotten how. "You know," he finally said. "We do still have a lot to talk about."
She sighed. "I know. But...not right now. It'll keep until the morning. Right now I just want to hold you, maybe cry a little. Is that okay with you?"
She felt him smile against the top of her head. "It's okay with me. In fact, I think I'll do the same."
Hermione opened her eyes and stretched languidly, smiling as the warm sunlight fell on her bare skin. She still tingled all over from the night's activities. She and Harry had made love twice more during the course of the night. The second time had been leisurely and sensual, without the urgency that had marked the first time. Both of them had shed tears during that second go-around, mostly tears of relief at this reconciliation and of sadness at the time they'd lost. The third time, just as the sky was beginning to lighten, had been more enthusiastic...in fact, enough so that they'd ended up on the floor beside the bed.
The slant of daylight told her it was mid-morning; Harry was nowhere in sight. He'd probably be out on the balcony, where he'd always preferred to spend his mornings during their stay. She rose and wrapped herself in one of the hotel's impossibly fluffy bathrobes, pausing to slip on some knickers and socks before she went into the living room.
He was sitting on the balcony, where she thought he'd be, drinking coffee and gazing out at the breathtaking view of Florence. She came up behind his chair and slid her arms around his neck, bending to rest her head on his shoulder. He reached up and took her hands, turning his head to kiss her lips. "Good morning," he said softly.
"Yes, it is," she said. He was clad in his pajama bottoms and a white t-shirt, bare feet propped on a footstool before him. He pulled her around his comfortable upholstered deck chair and she curled up on his lap, settling her head in the crook of his neck. For awhile, no one spoke. Hermione allowed herself to bask in the feeling of utter contentment, marred only by the fact that now they'd have to talk seriously about the things they'd put off the night before. She hoped he'd start, because she didn't know how.
At length, he did. "Before we have this discussion that we have to have," he said, "I want to make one thing absolutely, perfectly clear."
She raised her head and looked at him, a little tremor of dread running through her. She hoped he didn't intend to impose conditions on their reconciliation. "What's that?"
He met her eyes. "I love you. I never stopped, not for one moment. I always loved you, and of the many things I'm sorry for now the one that weighs the heaviest is that I ever made you doubt it." He shook his head. "However I acted, however I might have seemed to you and to everyone else...well, it was only because..." He trailed off, reconsidering. "It was just self-defense."
"You don't have to explain, not that part of it, anyway. I understand."
"And I'm sorry if I confused you that night at Wainwright's. I honestly didn't think you'd remember, or even that you'd be aware of me. Even if I hadn't thought as much, I don't think I could have suppressed my real feelings through that. No one's that good an actor."
"You didn't confuse me. It was a relief. It gave me some hope, because I had been wondering if...well, if you were over me and didn't care anymore."
He gave a strangled sort of half-sob, half-laugh and pulled her closer. "Oh, my God. As if I could ever get over you, as if I could ever stop caring."
She kissed him several times on his lips and cheeks, hoping to erase that worried expression on his face. "I love you, too, Harry." He sighed and turned his face towards her, sealing his mouth over hers. For several minutes they sat there in the chair, necking shamelessly like a couple of adolescents up in the Astronomy Tower, which was in truth about how Hermione felt...like a teenager, full of the heady passion of youth. His hands were smooth and familiar as they slid between her robe and her skin, the morning stubble on his cheeks pleasantly rough against her face.
After some time they stopped kissing and just sat there in a tight embrace, enjoying one last peaceful moment of closeness and intimacy. "I'll start," he finally said quietly. She nodded.
Harry released her and stood up, turning to lean against the balcony railing and face her as she sat in the chair he'd just vacated, her legs tucked underneath her. He took a deep breath, thinking a moment before speaking.
"You have a secret you don't want to tell me," he began. "I was very ill, and you set out to save me, which you did...except you won't tell me how. I..." He hesitated. "I thought at one time that you didn't tell me because you didn't trust me to handle it. I don't believe that anymore. I think you're convinced that you're acting in my best interests by keeping your secret." He held her gaze steadily, speaking with calm deliberation. "I want you to tell me. I need you to tell me. But...if you can't, if you really can't, then..." He sighed. "I won't lie to you, Hermione. If you can't tell me, even after all that this secret has done to us, well...I won't like it, and I won't ever really understand. But I'll accept it. I'll try to understand, and I'll try to get past it. I won't ever stop wondering, and I'll always wish you could share this with me. Even so, I trust you. I trust you to act in my best interests."
Hermione stared at him, her mind spinning. "You've thought a lot about this, haven't you?"
"I've thought of very little else for three months." He shook his head. "I don't mean to imply that I'm okay with this. I'm most decidedly not okay with this. I wish you could tell me, it hangs over my head all the time, wondering what you had to do for me. But...it's not nearly important enough to me that I'll let it keep us apart for one moment longer than it already has." He smiled, a little weakly. "Okay, I said it. There." He held her eyes for a few beats, then slowly turned around to look out over the city, giving her time to ponder.
She didn't need very long. She knew what she had to do. "When I..." she began, but her voice caught and rasped. She cleared her throat and started over. He did not turn, intuiting perhaps that her response might be easier if it were not made to his face. "When I set out to find a cure for you, I knew it could only come from one place...the Guardian. No one was sure she existed, but I found her. I found her and I talked to her. She was...well, I find myself hard pressed to describe her. She was willing to help you, but for a price." She could see Harry's back tensing up and knew he wanted to turn around, but he stayed where he was. She hugged her knees to her chest, staring at the balcony floor as she spoke. "So I offered her my own life in exchange for yours." Now Harry did turn around, his face white. She held up a hand before he could say anything. "She refused. She wouldn't take it, she said I was offering her something of no value to me."
He frowned. "Your own life? That didn't..."
"She was right. If you had died my life would have become...pretty miserable." She glanced up at him before continuing. "She said she'd accept something else in trade."
Harry stared at his feet, his mouth opening and closing a few times before he could speak, hesitantly, as if he dreaded the answer but couldn't bear not to ask. "Wh...what did she...take from you?"
Hermione looked straight into his eyes. "She could not take my whole life, so she took a portion of it. Time off my life. I won't know how much. Maybe minutes...or maybe more. Days, months, even years. When I die I will go to her. Only then will I know how much I lost."
Her words hung in the air between them. Harry's expression defied description. For what felt like a very long time he said nothing, just stared at her, his eyes looking very prominent in his pale face. Finally he lifted his hands to his face, bowing his chin to his laced fingers, thinking. At length, he spoke. "I...I don't know what to say. I'm feeling a lot of different things right now, I can't quite summarize them all up neatly, so...let me just try and explain what's going on in my head." She nodded. "First of all, I'm glad you told me. I'm very glad."
"Me, too," she said. "I didn't want to because..."
"I know why you didn't. I'm certainly not known for my ability to let things go."
"I thought it would..."
"Torment me endlessly?"
"Something like that."
"Well, you're not wrong. But...just let me try and explain." He came forward and knelt before her chair, grasping both of her hands and looking up into her face. "I'm being torn in several directions right now. One of the things that was so hard about not knowing was that it gave my imagination free reign to envision all the awful things you might have had to do. I don't mean to downplay the magnitude of what you gave up, but..."
"You had been imagining worse."
"Yes. Then I realize that I'm feeling relieved that you only gave up a portion of your life, and that makes me feel just about like the most horrible person in the universe."
"But there are worse things she could have asked for. I've wondered how it would have been if she'd taken my magical ability..."
"I thought of that."
"...or our ability to have children..."
"Thought of that too. Believe me, there's not one single awful thing you could have given up that I didn't think about when I was trying to guess what you were keeping from me. Just knowing for certain is a huge relief. So, first of all, there's that. But then, there's a part of me...and it's a very large part...that's horrified at the very idea that you should give up one tiny second of your life for me. I've built a significant portion of my identity around my need to keep you from harm, and..." He stopped and looked away, his throat working, and when he spoke again his voice quavered. "...it's hard for me to accept the sacrifice you made. It goes against every instinct I have as a wizard, as an agent and most importantly as a man who's hopelessly in love with you."
Hermione reached out and stroked his face gently, trying to smile. Her lips weren't cooperating. He continued. "So I could sit here and throw a wobbly. I could rant and rave and say you shouldn't have done it. Believe me, most of me would love to do just that...but I won't. Hermione, my feelings about you have many layers. I like you as a friend, as my best friend, in fact. I admire your intellect, and I'm envious of it as well. I'm proud of your accomplishments, and I enjoy seeing you do well. I miss the girl you used to be while at the same time I'm in awe of the woman you've become. Of course I hardly need add that I love you because of all these things. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, I respect you as a person. I respect your ability to make your own decisions as they affect your own life. I may have a visceral reaction to your sacrifice, but I refuse to belittle it by questioning your right to make it. If you made such an agreement with the Guardian in good faith and of your own free will, then I won't say anything against it, regardless of my feelings on the matter." He stopped and sighed as if this speech had exhausted him. He looked down at their joined hands, keeping his eyes lowered as he went on. "You know I would do the same for you and more, in a heartbeat."
"So why should you expect any less from me?" she whispered.
"That's precisely my point. If we're equal partners in this relationship, and I hope that we are, then...if I know that I'd sacrifice anything for you, I shouldn't be shocked or upset that you'd do the same for me. I'll be honest, it will be hard for me to live with this...but I will try to accept it in the spirit it was given."
She did smile now, relieved at his attitude. "I'm glad."
"There's just one more thing I'd like to add."
He straightened up on his knees so he was on her level, looking right into her eyes. "You saved my life. Thank you."
Hermione sagged, a burdensome weight lifting from her back. She held out her arms and Harry pulled her to him, holding her tightly as she knew he'd been wanting to this entire time but had held himself back so as to respond to her revelation with some clarity. She twined her fingers in his hair as he planted kisses all over her face, then hugged her again, both of them sighing with relief that this issue was finally out in the open where they could look at it and deal with it together. "How do we do it?" he whispered at last. "I mean...how do we live with it, all the time? Knowing, but not knowing...how does it work?"
She sighed. "We'll do the only thing we can. We'll just go on with our lives and try to make the most of every day we have, which we should have done anyway. Nothing will change. I still won't know how much time I have to live. One of the things I realized while I was away was that I couldn't allow this knowledge to take over the time I have, or else she might as well have taken my whole life. I think one reason I wanted to keep it to myself was so that I alone would bear the burden and you wouldn't have to make the effort to put it out of your mind that I've had to make."
"It's my job to share that burden with you, darling. You said it to me once yourself...if you don't share your troubles, you don't give those who love you the chance to love you enough."
"I know. I'm...relieved that we can talk about it now." She looked away. "And there's something else I've been wanting to say to you."
"I'm sorry I left without telling you. It was wrong of me, I know that now. I should have talked to you first. All I can say in my own defense is that at the time it seemed like the only thing I could do. I was just so weary and frightened and I didn't trust myself. I didn't feel like I should be around you, not right then."
"Well, I accept your apology, but in a way I wonder if you didn't do the right thing. When I woke up I wasn't in any condition to talk reasonably to you about much of anything, and I'm sure you would have ended up staying and staying. You may have even come to resent me for it. Now that I know what you'd just done, I understand better why you needed some time to yourself. At the time it hurt me, a lot, but in hindsight...well, I can see why you did what you did. That doesn't mean I don't wish you'd been there, because I could have used your support during my recovery."
She leaned towards him and pressed her forehead to his, swallowing past the lump in her throat. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I'm sorry you had to be alone for that."
"You're forgiven. And as you pointed out, I was hardly alone." He looked into her eyes. "You know, much as it pains me to admit it, I know how most people see me. Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. Vanquisher of all things evil and yucky, blah blah blah. However I may seem to others, whether it be as Harry Potter or as a spy or even as the Mage...in the end I'm just a man, and you might be the only person in the world who really sees me that way. I can't promise you much. I can't promise you a peaceful life free of danger, or a happy future without villains dogging our steps. I can't offer you my everlasting love, because we both know love changes over time and evolves into something new every day. I can't promise you a home, or a family, or any of the things normal people can reasonably expect. I can't even offer to grow old with you. I have days when I'm frankly amazed to still be alive given the number of people trying to punch my ticket prematurely." He leaned closer. "All I can promise you is my body and soul, for as long as they're mine to give."
She smiled tenderly at him. "You say that like it's nothing at all, Harry. None of us can see the future. All we really have, when you get down to it, is ourselves. Only you could offer me everything you've got in the world and apologize that it isn't more."
Harry either could not reply or did not wish to. Instead, he pulled her off the deck chair into his arms and kissed her with so much ardor that it took her breath away. She wasn't accustomed to such fiery passion from him; as a lover Harry was more the tender-and-sensual sort than the intense, fire-breathing sort. Still, she wasn't complaining, especially since it seemed to be contagious. She responded in kind, feeling heat rise to the surface of her skin as she all but ripped his t-shirt off over his head. All at once the tie to her robe seemed to have become untied and his arms slid beneath to encircle her. She began to wonder if he intended to make love to her right here on the balcony; before she could voice this question he abruptly pulled her against him and stood up with her in his arms, supporting her weight with his hands under her hips. She wrapped her legs around his waist and gave in to the moment as he carried her back into their suite.
It was simply amazing how different Florence looked when she saw it at Harry's side instead of standing two feet away from him.
Their morning lovemaking had continued just as intensely as it had begun, and in the few moments when Hermione had managed any rational thought she'd wished for soundproofing such as they had around the Cloister...but such practical considerations had been mostly beyond her, nor could she work up any proper Englishwoman's embarrassment over who might have heard them. She simply didn't care.
After a few hours' nap (which had suddenly become urgently necessary) she'd gotten up to shower, which had started out normally but through a series of events perhaps best left to the imagination had ended up as an experience she would have to rank as number two of the five most erotic moments of her life (number one was still the full-body massage he'd given her after her I.D. exams).
It had been Harry's idea to get dressed and venture out into the city and see it again, or "properly," as he'd put it, which she'd taken to mean "while not trying to preserve an emotional detente." At first she hadn't been too keen on the idea. Lying about in hedonistic luxury in their suite all day had seemed like a much better alternative.
Harry had laughed. "Darling, another twelve hours like this and I'll have to be put on intravenous fluids."
And so they had gone out. She had to admit, he'd been right. Suddenly everything looked different. She realized that she had just spent a week that, on paper, was probably the most romantic seven days one could spend with another person and it had been completely wasted on both of them. She shuddered to remember that trip out to the country winery and the charming village. The entire day had been one long picture-postcard romantic idyll, but for all they had noticed they might as well have been touring submarine manufacturing plants in Minsk.
They revisited some of the favorite tourist spots, noting with amusement the item in the newspaper about the capture of a local robbery gang, found mysteriously tied and incapacitated in the middle of a piazza. They sat in an outdoor cafe and sipped sweet, strong coffee while Harry told her all about his long recovery. They walked hand in hand along the banks of the Arno River while Hermione told him about her adventures during her month's absence.
They ended up at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant for dinner, a place frequented only by locals which the hotel's fitness instructor had recommended to them. The interior was cramped but comfortable, and the smells wafting from the kitchen made Hermione's mouth water. Harry ordered for both of them since she couldn't read the menu. She grinned at him, a little bemused by her own giddiness. "What?" he said, smiling at her. "Do I have something in my teeth?"
"No. But I could listen to you speak Italian all day long. You could read me stereo instructions and it would still make me swoon."
"It's not my favorite language. I think Russian is sexier, personally."
"You don't speak Russian."
"Yeah, I do. A little. Enough to get by."
"Wow. How many does that make?"
"What, languages? Uh...not counting English, of course...four with fluency. Two or three more to get by. That's just the human languages. I had to learn goblin for an undercover assignment...that was easy, though. It's a magical language that imprints itself on your brain instantly once you read the rules. One pass through the textbook and you're fluent for life."
"If you were a Muggle you could have been a great linguist."
"Well, the I.D. language programs are very good, and quick. They have to be. I do seem to have a bit of a knack for it. I often wondered if it were connected to the Mage thing, sort of a facet of the Knowing Touch."
"No, because I can still do it."
She hesitated. "But...you didn't lose all your Mage powers, did you?"
"Oh, no. Just the heightened ones that I had when I was sick. When the Guardian fixed me up, I lost the enhanced abilities I'd been exhibiting, like the Knowing Touch."
"That's too bad."
"I'm not sure it is. Small price to pay considering all the other baggage my dark half brought with him. Besides, I'd rather develop my Mage abilities on my own. I can get the Knowing Touch back if I practice, but it'll take years." He shrugged. "I don't think I'll miss it...although it would be nice to be able to play the piano again." He chuckled. "I suppose I could take lessons and learn like everyone else does."
"You? Do something like everyone else does? Oh dear, we can't have that. There'll be a scandal."
"I know, it's shocking." He sobered, taking her hand across the table. "There's something I should probably tell you, in the interests of honesty."
"Oh God, what? Don't tell me you had a torrid affair while we were apart." A pained expression crossed his face, and Hermione felt the bottom sink out of her stomach a little. "You didn't, did you?"
He jumped a little. "No! Of course not!"
He hesitated. "It was...gosh, almost two months ago now. I had a...uh, a strange encounter...with an ex of mine."
"An ex? Not Ginny, surely."
"You ran into Ronin?"
"No." A look of dread was coming over his face. Hermione was merely puzzled.
"If you tell me it was Cho I will have to kill you," she joked, attempting to ease his discomfort a little. She wasn't worried he'd had some sort of one-night stand, but she was confused as to what he meant by 'strange encounter.'
"Not Cho, either."
She frowned. "But that's all of..." She stopped short, her mouth hanging open. His eyes flicked to her face and then back down to the tablecloth. It was all the confirmation she needed. "Harry James Potter, are you sitting there and telling me that you had some sort of incident with Allegra?"
"Yes," he said simply.
Hermione withdrew her hand and laced her fingers together on the tablecloth. "Okay," she sighed. "I'm remaining calm. Why don't you tell me about it?"
He did, describing the entire encounter in detail. She listened, mystified, imagining his surprise to walk into the kitchen and find Allegra just sitting there waiting for him. By the time he'd finished it was clear to her what had happened, she just didn't understand why. "That is, bar none, the strangest thing I've ever heard," she said.
"You're telling me," Harry replied. He looked up at her. "You're...not angry?"
"Angry? No. Not at you, anyway. I'd have to be pretty insecure to be jealous of her. Like she'd ever in a million years have a chance with you now, or that she'd even want one."
Harry sighed. "That's a relief."
"But why do you think she did it?"
"I wish I knew. Maybe just to screw with my head."
"Maybe she was really trying, on some level, to reach out to you. Maybe you're right, and she's having a change of heart."
"I don't think so. When she left she seemed like her old self." He ran a hand through his hair. "I can't believe I kissed her."
"She kissed you. You know I've always said she still has lingering Harry issues." She bit her lip. "Any ideas about her moral dilemma?"
"No. What little I've been informed of her activities since then suggests nothing unusual. I imagine she worked through it herself." He shook his head. "The entire thing was just so disturbing." He smiled at her. "I must say, you're taking this a lot more calmly than I might if our positions were reversed."
Hermione sighed. "Well, remember...I'm hardly in a position to cast stones. I'm the one who slept with Draco Malfoy for months."
"That's not remotely the same thing, and besides, he tricked you."
"Allegra tricked you, too. She's insidious, Harry. She preyed on your optimism about the goodness in every person to make you think she wasn't quite your enemy. Maybe she thought she could seduce you back to her side. If that's the case then she doesn't know you at all."
"I'm just...monumentally relieved you're not furious."
"No, not furious. Actually, I'm sort of amused. Think about it. The moment you become remotely single even your archnemesis is throwing herself at your feet saying 'take me, I'm yours.'"
He flushed a deep scarlet color and made a face. "I was hardly beating them off with a stick."
"Oh, come on! They were lining up and you bloody well know it!" She laughed at his chagrined expression. "And why not? Who wouldn't jump at the chance for a date with Harry Potter?"
"I think you overestimate my box-office appeal. And hey, look who's talking! If Lloyd Llewellyn were any more obvious he'd have been sending you his severed ear!"
"Oh, poor Lloyd. I had one disastrous coffee date with him. Excruciating."
"Not as excruciating as that awful dance at the Ministry Day party with what's-his-name."
Hermione laughed. "Sasha's a nice guy, just not a very good dancer. Honestly, unpleasant as it was at the time, I was glad you cut in. If you hadn't I was planning to fake an ankle injury. But don't let's get off the subject! We were discussing the escapades of Harry Potter, Swinging Bachelor."
"Well, if there were women beating a path to my doorstep I confess it escaped my notice."
"What about Sandra Sussmayer?"
"Trainees always try to ingratiate themselves to instructors, it means nothing."
"She flirts with everyone."
"All right, you can't write off Lindsay Pascal so easily. I saw her at the Ministry Day party, she was all over you."
"Lindsay Pascal is...uh...very persistent," he stammered, flushing even redder. Hermione grinned, enjoying needling him a little.
"Word around the campfire is that she made some pretty big talk about how she planned to reel you in and help mend your broken heart."
"I swear, you men can't see past the end of your nose. Even I heard about this despite everyone's valiant attempts to keep it away from me."
Harry fixed her with a steady gaze, one eyebrow arched. "Hermione, Lindsay Pascal is an intelligent, capable agent. She did make her interest known to me, and she is a very friendly and attractive woman. However, she has one very significant flaw, which is sadly insurmountable."
"What's that?" Hermione sat back, arms crossed.
Harry leaned forward. "She isn't you, and is therefore completely uninteresting to me." He smiled.
Hermione sighed, melting. "How is it that you can manage to say exactly the right thing when I need to hear it the most?"
He shrugged. "Ample inspiration."
Their second week in Florence could not have possibly been more different in mood from their first. All discomfort had gone, all awkwardness was forgotten.
Several times, each of them commented that it almost felt as though they were on honeymoon, so much so that as the second week drew to a close they were referring to this trip as a "pre-honeymoon." Everything took on a magical, romantic cast. Things that would have ordinarily been annoying ended up funny, things that might have otherwise been boring turned romantic. They lavished words of love on each other and became incapable of being in the same room without touching in some way. They spent hour upon hour talking, about everything and anything, but almost as much time in silence, merely content in each other's company. Hermione lost count of the number of times they made love. With no responsibilities to interfere and no obligations to distract them, they were free to spend many hours exploring and rediscovering each other.
As the end of the week drew nearer the knowledge that soon they'd have to return to their lives began to intrude on their solitude. "We really ought to answer some of those," Hermione commented one evening, nodding towards the stack of personal owls, still untouched.
"What's the point? We'll be home in a few days."
"Should we tell everyone we're back together before we get back, or wait until we're home?" So far, they had not communicated their reconciliation to anyone out of some unspoken agreement. It had felt right to keep it to themselves, almost as an extension of their self-imposed exile here together. In a way, Hermione almost felt as if telling everyone would burst their perfect little bubble. It would have to burst eventually, but why hasten the process? They were having too much fun here on their own.
Harry looked up from the desk where he was writing up some orders for his staff. She saw the mischievous twinkle in his eye and sat up straighter. "Actually, I've been having some thoughts about that."
"Well, Operation Wombat spent the last two months plotting and sneaking to get us back together, right?"
"So what do you say we get a little of our own back?"
She grinned. "What, praytell, are you suggesting?"
"Just that we have a little fun of our own with them."
"Oh, my, my. What is going on in that devilish mind of yours?"
"Here's my idea. Do you know what's happening this weekend at Hogwarts?"
She thought a moment but came up blank. "What?"
"The Friends and Former Pupils Gala."
"An event for which I have fond memories."
"So, what would happen if I were to owl, say, Napoleon, and tell him I was coming back in time to attend the Gala and that I was bringing with me a brand-spanking new girlfriend."
"Conveniently leaving out the fact that your new girlfriend is just your old girlfriend."
"Hey. Life partner."
"Of course, my mistake. So you tell Napoleon, thus insuring that by the Gala everyone and their brother will know all about it."
"You can write to Laura and say you're still convalescing."
"Will it work? Doesn't everyone know we're staying here together?"
"No, not really. You didn't tell Lupin where you were going, did you? All anyone knows is that we're both in the same city. Anything could be going on here."
"And then when we arrive at the Gala together..." She faltered. "I don't know, Harry. Seems kind of mean."
He raised an eyebrow. "Do you know what the Wombatters had planned for us?"
"They didn't get a chance to enact this scenario, but I heard that their next escapade involved getting each of us to agree to a double date with Ginny and Draco, but when we arrived we'd find out it was actually a triple date...you and your date, me and mine, and Ginny and Draco."
Hermione contemplated this horrifying idea. "Okay, pass me a quill. They're going down."
Writing to let you know that I'll be returning home on Saturday in time to attend the Gala at Hogwarts. I'm in a more festive mood these days than I have been of late.
I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I've had some romantic developments here in Florence. I've become involved with someone here, it was quite unexpected but certainly exactly what I needed. I don't want to say too much, I rather want it to be a surprise. I'll be bringing her to the Gala, I'm anxious for everyone to see her.
See you then, Harry
I'm sorry I haven't been terribly good at answering your notes during my absence. I've thought of you often. I have been much occupied with my recovery, which I'm happy to say is complete. I'm feeling fine and healthy, and the doctor says I can go back to work soon.
I am still convalescing, though, and I'm taking some time to think about everything that's been happening. I'm not sure when I'll be back, but I'll try and let you know.
"Well, there we are," Harry said, looking at their two notes. "Mission accomplished."
Hermione nodded. "Certainly misleading, but no actual lies."
"Laura might be suspicious that you don't mention me at all."
"She'll assume that I haven't seen you, or that I have and it's too painful to talk about or too much to go into over owl post."
They sent the owls from the balcony. "I hope we've given them enough lead time," he said.
"They should both get their owls this evening. That gives them an entire day, which is more than enough time, believe me." She turned and slid her arms around his waist, feeling his go around her at once. "I'm not sure I fancy making another huge spectacle of myself at the Gala."
"My love, given our history, there'll be a spectacle no matter what we do. Might as well engineer our own spectacle, on our own terms."
"I'm anxious to see everyone."
"Me, too." He reached up and touched her hair. "I think we both needed this time alone, away from everyone and everything, to reconnect...but I'm ready to face the world again."
"So am I." She kissed him. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
"Then let's go home."
The Friends and Former Pupils Gala was rather more crowded this year than it usually was. Despite talk that it was because of the pleasant weather, or the new band, or that Quidditch celebrity Royce MacLachlan had drawn officiating duties, everyone knew damned well it was because people wanted to get a look at Harry's new girlfriend.
Operation Wombat sat moodily at a table in the corner. "Is it me, or is everyone depressed?" Justin said, uncharacteristically quiet himself.
"It's not you," George said. "If the Royal Couple are really splits for good, well...it's like finding out that they're putting the Berlin Wall back up and going back to two Germanies."
"Nice analogy there, G."
"Oh, blow it out your arse, Justin."
"Cut it, you two," Laura said. She was sitting with arms crossed, a look of grimly determined unhappiness on her face. A long pause ticked by. "I hate her already," she finally said.
"Let's not be too hasty, now," Ginny said. "She might be perfectly nice."
"I don't care if she's Mother Teresa and Princess Di in one convenient package, I reserve the right to hate her unconditionally."
"And Hermione said nothing about this at all in her note?"
"No, she didn't even mention if she'd seen Harry. I think she probably stayed at the safehouse, or wherever she was recovering. I doubt she knows. I didn't get the sense she was planning to come back for the Gala."
"I think it's abominable of Harry to bring his new little chippie here, of all places," Napoleon said. "Didn't he propose to Hermione at the Gala last year?"
"Yeah, he did," Laura said, her gloom intensifying. "Announced it here, too." She sighed. "It is a bit insensitive of him."
"Blokes get insensitive when they've got a new girlfriend. Harry's not immune."
Napoleon shook his head. "I just can't believe it. I can't believe he'd let Hermione recover all alone while he went off trolling for a new sack partner. You should have seen..." He cut himself off. "Of course I can't discuss any details of classified I.D. activities."
"We've heard the speech, Jones," Draco drawled.
"I feel sorry for this poor woman," Ginny said. "She's walking into the lion's den. Every person in this room is primed and ready to despise her. That's a hell of a welcome, isn't it?"
"I have no sympathy," Laura said. "It's her own fault for getting involved with a man who's so clearly destined for someone else."
"She might take issue with that assumption."
"Fine, no one else will take issue with it. Probably not even Harry. He's just on the rebound, it won't last. But I still hate her," she hastened to add.
It was still the early portion of the evening, largely an informal mixer with hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Laura could see Sirius and Cordelia across the room, and a table full of Weasleys, save George who was with them. Sirius had already been pumped for information about Harry's news but had pleaded ignorance. As far as anyone could tell Harry had only mentioned his planned appearance here to Napoleon, which he had to know was tantamount to announcing it via Sonorous charm.
A low rustle of murmurs was rising near the front of the Great Hall. Stephen, who'd been chatting up some old law school classmates, came hurrying back to their table. "I just heard," he said breathlessly. "Harry just pulled up outside in a carriage from the station."
"And?" Laura said. "Who was he with?"
"They couldn't see, it was from a distance. A woman was with him, but she was wearing a cloak with the hood up, they didn't get a look at her." Everyone rose and moved towards the entrance, which seemed to be the general tide of crowd movement.
"See?" Laura hissed. "She knows what she's walking into. Hiding behind a cloak, as if that'll hold up for long. He probably had to drag her here."
"We'll have to meet her eventually, might as well get it over with all at once," Ginny said. The assembly was milling about near the large doors that led into the entry foyer. No one was making any pretense that they weren't keenly interested in Harry's arrival here, and the whispering was like the roar of the ocean.
Laura shoved her way to the front, dragging Ginny and the other Wombatters with her. "I want a front-row seat," she said. "All the better to glare at her, my dears."
The doors at the bottom of the stairs opened and Harry came in, leading a woman in yes, a cloak, who seemed reluctant. A hush fell over the crowd. Harry looked up at them, grinning. He waved as he took the woman's hand and started up the stairs. "Well," he said as they drew near. "What a welcome home!" They stopped at the top of the stairs, still a brief distance from the Great Hall. "Hello everyone...Sirius, Cordelia. Laura, Justin...everyone."
The new girlfriend stood there like a statue, head lowered, the hood of her cloak still obscuring her features. Harry patted her hand. "She's a bit shy," he said. "She has the silly idea she might not be too welcome here." He spoke to the woman. "Everyone's anxious to see you, darling. Right?" he said to the crowd. Everyone glanced around, unsure how to respond. "Come, let's get your cloak off," he said.
The woman turned her back and undid her cloak fastening so Harry could slip it from her shoulders. She reached up and smoothed her hair, tied up in a sophisticated chignon.
After a brief pause, she turned around, slipping her arm through Harry's and smiling at the onlookers.
In the short moment before pandemonium ensued, a single New Zealand-accented voice was heard to state quite plainly:
"You are both in so much trouble."
The Gala was somewhat different after that. The mood of dread dissipated like a bad dream in sunlight, and the partygoers set to their business of enjoying the evening.
Royce MacLachlan distributed the yearly honors to Hogwarts alums of achievement, improvising a new one and acknowledging Harry and Hermione for "Entrance of the Year," an accolade met with enthusiastic approval from the crowd.
Speculation as to the details of the reconciliation ran rampant, but neither of the two people in the know would discuss it. "It's quite a story," Hermione said.
"For a later time," Harry finished. "Tonight we'd just like to see our friends and enjoy the party."
So they did. They made their rounds, separately and together, shaking hands and hugging. Ginny watched them from her perch at the jubilant Wombat table, and she couldn't stop smiling.
The dancing portion of the party had been greatly anticipated, because this year the organizers had procured the Dallas Hot Five to provide music. They were a very famous twenty-piece band from Texas with a five-man Dixieland combo as their centerpiece, though their music was not restricted to that genre. They delivered on their reputation and kept the dance floor crowded, though oddly free of the party's most conspicuous guests.
Harry and Hermione spent most of the latter portion of the party sitting together on a bench near the dance floor, talking largely to each other and often not speaking at all. Ginny had an idea why...the two times they had ventured on to the dance floor everyone had immediately cleared off to watch them. They had obliged with two dances, but it seemed they'd had their fill of spectacle for the night.
"They sure got us back," Laura said, finally rejoining the Wombat table after a long trip around the dance floor with Justin.
"Back? For what?"
"Oh, come on, isn't it obvious? They knew about Operation Wombat the whole time. They got back together in Florence and decided to have their revenge on us so they cooked up this whole 'new girlfriend' farce."
Ginny frowned. "You think?"
"And to think we thought we were being so stealthy, like we'd actually fool them." Laura laughed. "I guess we ought to leave spying up to the professionals, eh?"
The two women sat side by side, both of them watching Harry and Hermione sitting close together, not speaking. As they watched Harry lifted Hermione's hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. She smiled at him and said something that made him laugh. Ginny sighed. "It's like old times."
Laura shook her head. "No, it's different. They're different."
"Can't you see it? They're...I dunno. More serious. More them. I think they learned some things in Florence."
"Such as how much they really mean to each other. Nothing like a separation to bring that point home, trust me, I know what I'm talking about. And that love isn't made of steel. It's pliable, it bends...sometimes it breaks and has to be mended. It's powerful, but it's sensitive. You have to treat it with respect, or it'll get lost. I think they went through some very hard times together, and they came out of it. Someone once said that God makes problems just to see what you can stand. They found out what they can stand, and they'll be better for it in the long run." Laura stopped to find Ginny staring at her in amazement. "Sorry. Made a bit of a speech, didn't I?"
"Those were some pretty astute observations, especially considering we have no idea what happened in Florence."
"Doesn't matter. They're here, they're back. That's what matters. And I couldn't be happier for them."
They fell silent as the Hot Five swung into "Night and Day," their male singer going into the lyrics to the old song with a raspy Texas twang in his voice. They watched as Harry stood up and drew Hermione on to the dance floor. This time, perhaps because of the sedate song and the sentimental lyrics, they were left in peace to dance together, hands clasped between them, Hermione's engagement ring throwing off sparkles from the low candlelight. Their friends and family members watched them from a discreet distance, each one of them in their own way feeling the satisfaction of seeing a great wrong set right.