Coming Back Later
Here is the third chapter in my continuation of "Coming Back Late," the epic fic that Paracelsus, the rightful author, apparently abandoned. After this one, I think I need only one more chapter to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.
Chapter 49 - Announced Mate
The black velvet curtain of unconsciousness slowly retreated across Harry's mind. The first thing he noticed was feeling stiff. Stiffness was certainly an improvement from blinding sheets of pain, but it was still worrisome. From all too much personal experience, Harry knew that stiffness signified long-term muscular inactivity.
That, and bruises … lots of bruises.
But he was breathing. That counted for something.
Harry's other noticeable sensation was heaviness, as in weight…. He felt heavy, another sign of lengthy muscle nonuse, possibly long enough for atrophy to set in.
Hard-earned experience also told Harry knew that heaviness meant that his consciousness - or his soul, if you will, was firmly tethered to his body.
In short, Harry knew he remained alive.
That counted for a lot.
When last conscious, Harry had not expected to experience a next time.
While he doubted he had ever been unconscious this long before, Harry had plenty of experience in unconsciousness. He knew how to go about regaining consciousness.
First things first. Inventory all available body parts. Harry certainly hoped everything was still present, but that had been one hell of an explosion. If not he would have to live with it. But he would be living.
Let's see…. Right leg and foot? Check. Harry repeated the process, successfully, on all four limbs.
Even that had been exhausting. Harry rested, readying himself for the next hurdle. He tried opening his eyes. He succeeded, but the light was so damn bright. Harry could not help groaning as he slumped down, back into something soft. He was in some sort of….
"Blimey, Harry … is that really you, mate? You're finally awake?"
Harry heard something, large and flat by the sound of it, hit the ground. Ron must have leapt to his feet. His heavy footfalls quickly approached his bedside. Trying to call Ron's name, Harry managed only an unintelligible gasping gurgle.
Harry felt Ron grab him clumsily about the neck and try to pull him into a sitting position.
"Oh, shit, I forgot…. Sorry mate!"
Ron released him, and Harry flopped back onto a bed which Harry had yet actually to see. Again he tried opening his eyes, but they were unused to the light. He might have caught a glimpse of Ron running in the opposite direction.
Ron returned apace. "Right, Hermione said you needed this."
At his mention of her name, memories of their last semi-encounter flooded back. It might have been a dream, but deep down Harry knew it was more.
Hermione had faced down Death for him. Harry knew, from personal experience, that such encounters often did not end well. He could not recall if Hermione had escaped….
Hearing Ron mention her name so casually filled Harry with hope. She must be alive, and at least reasonably well otherwise Ron….
His aforementioned male best friend interrupted Harry's train of thought - grabbing him, cursing, releasing and dropping him, then shifting to the other side of the bed. Ron grunted as he lifted Harry back up.
"Here, mate, drink this," Ron urged as he pushed a goblet to Harry's lips.
Groaning, Harry tried, but his disused swallowing reflex was loath to cooperate. Whatever potion Ron was offering slopped down Harry's chest as Harry tried his best to drink it.
"Oh, bugger all! Sorry, Harry."
Harry nearly gagged at the first swallow, but unlike most potions, this one tasted wonderful, like warm honey, spiced with cinnamon and a just a dash of pepper. Each swallow made the next one easier.
"That's right, Harry. Drink up. It's Hermione's special blend of Pepper-Up."
Harry soon downed the entire offering, save for what decorated his pyjamas. The fog cleared from his mind, perhaps emerging through his ears, as the potion worked its magic.
Harry's first coherent sentence sought confirmation. "Ron - Hermione, how is she?"
With Ron still supporting him, Harry felt him sigh. "Not near as well as she will be, once she learns you're finally awake."
"She's okay? She didn't, umm, die?"
"Not bloody likely," Ron chuckled rather ruefully. "I just reckon she returned your favor. She…."
Two ecstatic house-elves appeared in the room.
"Oh, Master Harry, youse finally being awake!" Ayesha babbled as she bounced on her toes.
"Mister Harry has come back," Brillig pointedly corrected. Mistress Hermy will be so happy. Me's fearing she's been a-working too hard. Trying not to show she's worried."
"She's always worked too hard," Ron commented. "Nothing new there."
Harry was instantly interested in what these elves could tell him about Hermione. As happy as he was to wake up in Ron's company, his first choice was - and would always be - Hermione. "How is Hermione?" he inquired, sounding a bit worried.
"Don't worry, Mate," Ron responded first. "She'll be fine now."
The question was really directed to Brillig, who had mentioned Hermione. As elves often do, she took the question literally. "Miz Hermy is … very busy right now, in a secret meeting…."
"A meeting so secret we isn't even allowed to tell you," Ayesha added.
Brillig looked scandalized. "Shouldn't we be telling Master Harry whatever he wants to know?"
"But Miz Hermy, she was sayin' that nobody can find out…."
"But Mr. Harry wants to know…."
"No, that's all right," Harry brought the elves' attention back to him. "If it's that big of a secret that Hermione might not even want me to know, let it go. Can you at least tell her that I'm awake, I sure she'd like to know that."
Before either of the two elves could hasten to obey, another elven voice echoed from the next room. "Canby would be honored to so inform the Minister, Mr. Potter, sir. You two should make ready," he addressed Harry's elves. "There are certain to be many visitors tomorrow."
Each was more than happy to do as Canby asked. Brillig and Ayesha scampered off after batting their eyelashes at the newcomer. Brillig stopped just an instant to gather up a large pizza box from the floor where Ron had dropped it.
"Bloody hell!" Ron swore as Brillig made off with what was supposed to be his dinner.
"Canby, I apologize," Harry cut in, intensely aware that Canby had been caught in his Malfoy debacle. "I should have trusted that Hermione would have matters in hand. I hope you weren't badly injured."
The effect of his apology on Canby surprised Harry. The elf was struggling to hold back tears. The free Ministry elf was behaving almost like Dobby used to.
"It's nothing, Harry Potter, sir. It is your friend to whom you should apologize. May I be excused?" the overwrought elf requested. "I should organize the Minister's office before I leave to inform her of your recovery."
Canby stayed rooted to the spot until Harry dismissed him.
Shooting Ron a quizzical look, Harry wondered what was going on.
"I think he means this," Ron responded with a resigned grimace. Pulling back his right sleeve Ron revealed … nothing.
"Merlin, Ron what happened?" Harry gawked. "No, it couldn't…. Was it?"
"I'm afraid so," Ron replied. "The same blast that damn near killed you took my wand hand."
Harry instantly felt guilty. He had recruited Ron for his vigilante effort against Malfoy (may he burn in Hell), and everyone paid a steep price for his miscalculation. "How?" Harry needed to know.
"Turns out, all kinds of nasty, black-arts stuff was stored there," Ron shook his head. "Consensus seems to be it was Snape's former house. During the explosion something cursed and really sharp skewered my wrist. Never did find out what. They had to cut off my hand to stop the curse from spreading."
Shaken, and recalling what had happened to Dumbledore, Harry said softly, "I'm sorry, Ron."
"Not half as sorry as I am," Ron shot back, somewhat, but not wholly, joking. "Nothing I can do about it now, though, and I'd do it again, since that bastard was trying to hurt Rosie. Anyway, I've still got hope, thanks to Her Majesty…."
Harry was stunned. "What? Who?"
Ron realized that might be too much, with Harry just revived and still disoriented. "Relax, Harry," Ron tried soothing his friend. "I just meant our fearless leader, the Minister Who Can Do No Wrong."
"Hermione?" Harry caught on. "What can she do?"
"What can't she do?" Ron chuckled before being more specific. "As for me? Well, like I said they found all sorts of things in that old place, most of them Dark. According to her, one thing that turned up was the instructions for whatever spell Voldemort used to give Ratface Pettigrew that replacement hand. She's having the Unspeakables check that spell out. If it's not Dark, she's promised that I'll be first in line for a replacement of my own."
"What did you mean when you said she can do no wrong?"
"Right now, she's everybody's golden girl," Ron smirked. "Everything's fallen her way in the weeks since your accident - except you - and now you're back!"
Harry stared at Ron incredulously. "Weeks? Ron, how long have I been out?"
"Today's November third," Ron revealed. You've been out of it for almost three weeks. After the first week, once St. Mungo's gave the okay for her to move you, she brought you here."
That was something else Harry had not thought about. "Where's here?"
"It's called `The Ossuary'," Ron informed him. "You rented it, remember. Hermione - sorry, Minister Granger - has a temporary office through that door." Ron pointed across the room. "Unless she has to be away for some official business, like last week's Halloween remembrance or tonight's hush-hush whatever, she tries to stay right here to watch over you. She even kips in a foldaway right next to you."
Harry was worried. While the most important reason they had kept their budding relationship secret was its possible effect on Rosie, public appearances were also a factor. She was thirty-two, he looked seventeen. Accusations that she was "robbing the cradle" could have political implications.
Harry had his own deep-seated and long-standing aversion to having his personal affairs aired in public. "So the secret's out," he declared grimly. It was not a question. "Has it hurt her much?"
That drew a chortle from Ron. "Hurt her? Are you kidding? Didn't you hear when I said she can do no wrong? Turns out that just about everybody, witch or wizard, is a sucker for a good love story."
Harry blinked. Hermione was almost always right, but apparently she had been wrong about the public's reaction to their romantic entanglement. That changed things, potentially quite a bit.
"That's the second time you said that," Harry commented. "What do you mean do no wrong?"
"Hah!" Ron burst out. "How much sympathy do you think came her way when it turned out that she was the victim of a nefarious plot against her little girl? Then she charges into St. Mungo's and nearly dies…."
"…That's what the papers said, anyway. Ready to sacrifice her magic and her life to save the Boy Who Lived Again when all the healers thought it was hopeless. Saves him, they say, by mixing their magic or something like that. According to the papers, and from what I've seen, it's bloody well true."
"What's bloody well true?"
"Mixing magic," Ron repeated, not sounding as cheerful as before. Harry was all too familiar with the new jealous tone seeping into his voice.
"Maybe you don't know, but that's how traditional wizard marriages are cemented," Ron continued. "Husband and wife mix their magic and become one. In all the time we were married, Hermione never did that with me. Instead we had some Muggle ceremony…."
"Ron," Harry interrupted. "Please don't go that way. Don't try comparing your marriage with my relationship. You wanted the divorce."
Ron deflated. "Yeah, I suppose that's true, and there's nothing I can do about it anyway. But what I just said is true, too. You saw how those elves reacted. Your pair now obeys Hermione, and that Ministry Elf of hers…."
"Well, he sure acted like he's now bonded to you. So without even being married, your magicks are mixed. Anyway, everybody loves a good love story, and it's done wonders for Hermione's popularity. But that's not all.
"Starting right after you were hurt, the Confederation, with information Hermione provided, smashes a massive international crime ring. Political opposition collapses. That bastard Zabini's in Azkaban…."
`So she figured that out, too,' Harry thought.
"…because it turns out Malfoy was his bloody tool to go after Rosie. He was trying to blackmail Hermione to help out that crime ring. Hell, they caught one of its leaders right in Zabini's…." Ron's voice trailed off and his enthusiasm abruptly dissipated. "Oh, hell…."
Harry had been distracted. That was not why Harry thought Zabini would wind up in Azkaban. Hearing Ron falter, Harry surrendered those thoughts and focused on Ron's crestfallen countenance. "What, Ron."
"Ginny was…. Ginny is…. She's in the long-term spell damage wing at St. Mungo's, and probably always will be."
"Oh, no," Harry whispered. "What now?"
"One of the crime ringleaders was caught - with Zabini - at Zabini's own manor. But not before he used some evil Memory Charm that … that destroyed Ginny's mind. Zabini claimed he was in love with her, but I always knew he'd only hurt her…. I had no idea how badly."
Harry was seething. "When I'm back to one hundred percent," he hissed through clenched teeth, "I think I ought to pay that low-life scum a visit."
"I had the same thought at first," Ron commented. "But he's in Azkaban already. Let them have him. I don't see how his life could get much worse. Fuck him."
On one level, Harry agreed with Ron. Zabini was being punished much more thoroughly and lengthily than anything he, Harry, could do. On another level, however, Harry thought things could get worse for the despicable Slytherin. Hermione knew a lot, but apparently had not yet discovered the depths of that wizard's depravity.
Speak of the devil.
"Harry!" a familiar voice called from several rooms away. "Are you awake? Canby said you were, and I'm so sorry I took this long to get back."
Harry could not help himself. He broke into a huge, excited grin.
"Well, mate," Ron slapped Harry on the back with his remaining hand. "This is my cue to get off. If it's all the same to you, I'd just as soon not stay for your reunion with my ex-wife."
* * * *
The moment Canby stealthily slipped into the room, Hermione suspected what might be afoot. House elves, even in Ministry employ, could not just "pop in" to Gringotts. To reach her had to have taken considerable effort. Although a free elf, Canby still utilized his almost preternatural elfin capability for inconspicuity.
It served them both well. Hermione's personally conducted top-secret negotiations with the goblins were at a delicate stage. Success would mark a watershed in goblin-wizard relations.
The dizzying fall of Blaise Zabini, coinciding with her sudden and wholly unexpected surge in popularity had created an auspicious political environment. Traditionalist opposition was disheartened and leaderless after exposure of Zabini's attempted blackmail plot. Revulsion against targeting Hermione's eleven-year-old daughter for poisoning crossed the political spectrum. Everyone had children. Zabini's fall discredited, at least for a while, opposition from the conservatives.
Hermione intended to take full advantage of this unexpected political opening. She had already raised eyebrows. Not only had she invited Muggle and goblin representatives to last week's annual Halloween memorial celebration at the Ministry, but they sat with her at the high table.
Unbeknownst to all but a few trusted supporters, her initiative was far more ambitious. She had offered both - and the centaurs, who showed no interest - formal diplomatic recognition. The Muggles were immediately amenable. Relations of a sort already existed between the Minister for Magic and the Muggle Prime Minister. Formalizing them would only require some tweaking of the Statute of Secrecy. However, the status of the Muggle United Kingdom as an independent political entity was never in question.
The goblins were much different. Before Voldemort's fall, for centuries the goblins had been treated as "magical creatures," meaning sub-human, barely more than beasts. Goblins had been useful for certain things, but not entitled to wizard political rights. The most controversial aspect of Kingsley's ministry reforms had been giving goblins a voice in wizard affairs. Most notably three goblin seats had been added to the Wizengamot. Kingsley's approach had been to incorporate goblins as citizens of the wizard world.
Hermione was proposing something altogether different. To her way of thinking, goblins should be treated as members of a wholly independent nation state, equal in every way with both the Muggles and her own Ministry. The goblins, naturally suspicious, were ill-inclined to surrender their Wizengamot seats, but they were even more intrigued at the prospect of complete elimination of discriminatory legislation. With independence, if they wanted to possess wands, they could.
The goblins had reserved the recognition question. Their leadership would mull that among themselves. Hermione was in the process of nuts-and-bolts negotiations when Canby brought her good news about Harry. Suppressing an urge to drop everything and depart, Hermione continued with her advocacy.
She offered another carrot to induce a favorable outcome - diplomatic immunity. If the goblins located their embassy within Gringotts, the bank (although not its depositors) could operate without interference by wizard law. Gringotts had been chafing under certain wizard regulations for as long as Hermione could remember. Using immunity in this fashion significantly sweetened the pot.
The extra incentive was needed. Never in goblin-recorded history had any wizard entered goblin territory, except as an armed invader. Hermione's proposal would require that several wizards be in residence permanently, and in a facility likewise entitled to diplomatic immunity and exempt from goblin law.
The goblins trusted this Minister more than any of her predecessors, but that hardly meant much. An agonizing half hour passed before a compromise on the exchange of embassies was hammered out - something each side could present without embarrassment.
Fortunately, goblins did not value chitchat. They did not expect their guest to linger after the negotiating session. As quickly as was politic, Hermione gathered her papers and departed. Urgently she summoned Jason Moore, commander of her personal security detail. "Home! Immediately!" she ordered in a hissing whisper, her need for speed almost overcoming her desire for confidentiality. "I understand that Harry's finally awake - thank Merlin - and asking for me."
Apparating to the Ossuary, Hermione had orders for the Aurors responsible for her safety. "When everyone finds out Harry's back, it will be pandemonium. Let me have an hour alone with him, first…."
"I can guess how much this means to you, Minister, but be reasonable. He needs a Healer's immediate attention," Moore resisted.
"After what I've been through, nobody cares more about Harry's safety," Hermione huffed. "Canby's note didn't indicate any distress. I swear, at the slightest sign of a medical issue, my Patronus will be on its way to St. Mungo's before you could do anything."
Minister Granger was his superior, so Moore agreed. Still, his choice would have been to call the Healers first.
But he was not in love with Harry Potter.
Finally free of her many duties, Hermione trotted up the Ossuary's grand marble staircase She passed the master bedroom she had converted into a home office and from which she had, more often than not, run her Ministry for the past several weeks. Most nights she slept in Harry's sickroom in the guest bedroom just down the hall, if "slept" was the word. Every two hours she would wake - partly in atonement, partly because Harry's elves were inexperienced - to cast spells that turned Harry's body and prevented bedsores.
Fatigue helped drive away memories of her last conversation with Harry.
At last he was awake. It would no longer be their last conversation.
Hermione's pace quickened the closer she came to Harry. "Harry, are you there?" she cried as she burst into her room. "Ron, is Harry…?"
Time came to a halt. The rest of the universe faded into insignificance. There sat Harry, propped up by some pillows, a weak smile on his face. His eyes - those green eyes sublime that she had, at times, almost despaired of ever seeing again, stared back at her. Both his love, and a thousand questions, danced in those eyes.
"Oh, Harry, thank Merlin you're alive," Hermione wailed, unable to hold back tears any longer. Happy tears fell as a wave of relief swept away any attempt she might have made at a more eloquent reunion.
"Hermione," Harry rasped, his voice sounding uncharacteristically weak. "I'm glad, too. I'm sorry, but I had to try."
Only with him did she need not try to be Minister Granger, still thought of by most as the Witch Who Won. Only with Harry could she still let her very real frailties show.
Of course, some of these frailties only involved Harry Potter.
Hopefully, Harry shimmied to one side and patted the vacated spot on the mattress, indicating that he wanted Hermione to be with him.
Hermione carefully slipped onto the bed next to Harry. No enthusiastic hugs - not until Harry passed a physical - or anything more intimate. "Please, Harry, never again," she murmured curling up next to him. I don't think I can take it. They said you would die…. All of them. That there was nothing anyone could do…! I can't do this again…!"
Harry held her as Hermione sobbed her entreaties. How could he have been so daft as to risk everything he had with the most wonderful witch - no, the most wonderful person - he had ever known.
"…I know you meant well. I know it's part of your nature," Hermione continued. "But you don't have to be a savior, or a hero, anymore. Voldemort's gone, Harry … even Zabini's in Azkaban…."
Hermione's words stirred the doubts Harry felt about himself. His great moments were in the past - hers were just beginning. The bit about Zabini also piqued his interest, but before he could ask….
"…Don't be a hero, Harry, not anymore. Don't play the fool with your life, not again…."
Harry stiffened. He had spent fourteen years as a Muggle, long stretches with only a radio for company. What would Hermione say next?
How did he feel about that?
Expectant - not at all apprehensive, he realized.
"…So please be careful. If you make me go through this again, I'll go crazy…."
No, Hermione was not going there. So Harry went somewhere else.
"Hermione, what did you do?"
It was Hermione's turn to stiffen. His capacity for unjustifiably assumed guilt was greater than anyone she had ever met - greater even than her own.
Barely audibly, she questioned his question. "Do you really want to know? Isn't it enough that I saved your life without losing mine?"
Harry knew the answer to that. "Yes, I think I do," he whispered in her ear. "It's like you said. I know I've done things that I think are right, but I've hurt you so badly they can't be. For both of us, I need to stop doing them. You nearly died before because of my saving people thing. Then I abandoned you. For my own sake, and yours, I need to exactly how badly I cocked up my latest adventure."
Ouch. Even after promising no more secrets, and demanding the same from him, Hermione had never told him how exactly how close she had come to dying that night in the Department of Mysteries.
It took little convincing for Hermione to agree that Harry was right. It would be cathartic just to get what had happened off of her chest.
"All, right, Harry, I'll tell you, but it isn't pretty."
"I have no illusions."
"I used a little-known magical technique called `Interposition'."
"And … none of the healers at St. Mungo's could do this better than you?"
"Only a couple had even heard of it, and they thought it was impossible for me to use it to save your life."
"Impossible? Nothing's impossible for you."
"For interposition to work, an intensely personal affinity must exist between the affected persons. All prior known successes involved spouses or immediate blood relatives," Hermione informed him, unwittingly corroborating what Ron had said. "I had neither, but I did have the pendant. I had to trust that it would be enough, and in the end it was."
Harry recalled that Ron had compared what she did to mixing their magic. "Nobody believed you?" he asked.
"Not a soul," Hermione hissed, biting back bitterness. "Everyone, every Healer at St. Mungo's, thought you were a hopeless case. Malfoy's synergistic potions exploded right in your gut…. Oh Merlin, they said your viscera had been destroyed. They wouldn't let me see your front side, and I didn't want to…. I'm sure I would have lost it."
Hermione's words shocked Harry enough to instinctively feel his midsection - to be sure it was still there. "I would have kept you away, too," Harry sighed, stroking her hair to keep her as calm as possible.
"They told me that magic, only magic, could regenerate your organs, but something, maybe the blast or maybe your injuries, had also separated you from your magic…. That's when I demanded to try Interposition. That's what it can fix."
"You're not a healer. What gave you that idea?"
"It was important for one of my early cases," Hermione revealed. "I was assigned to prosecute a mid-level Death Eater. He had killed an Unspeakable's wife and done unspeakable things to the poor man's two children. Like you, the children were magically marooned, and dying, when the Unspeakable arrived home. In desperation he attempted Interposition to save his children. Regrettably, he lacked sufficient magical reserves to revive them both, and he refused to choose. As a result, all three died. I researched Interposition because I had to decide whether the Death Eater could be prosecuted for murdering the Unspeakable himself, in addition to his family."
"Knowing you, you did."
"No, I didn't," Hermione admitted. "I determined that Interposition was sufficiently dangerous to the user that a murder conviction for his death was questionable. My opponent's barristers would have asserted a rather persuasive suicide defense. I decided that I had enough charges that were sure things that it wouldn't have made any difference at sentencing."
"Hermione, you could have died - and you knew it."
She shrugged. "That didn't matter. If I didn't do it, you would surely have died."
"But it should have," Harry whispered in her ear, holding her close. "Hermione, you're Minister for Magic. You have everything, amazing opportunities, ahead of you. The whole country is depending on you. When push comes to shove, I'm a has-been. My future is past, ever since I fulfilled my prophecy. I'm not worth your life … not anymore. It's…."
Hermione backed away from Harry and practically screamed, "RAT'S ASS!"
"What?" Harry was too stunned at Hermione's outburst to say anything more.
"Rat's ass," Hermione repeated. "It's just like you said, when you went through the veil to save me. You said you didn't care a rat's ass whether you lived, if I didn't. Well, it just so happens that I feel the same way. A life without you in it, frankly, doesn't hold that much appeal to me."
"But, you're Minister for Magic," Harry reminded her.
"Yes," she admitted. "And there are times that I hate my job for what it forces me to do. I had nightmares ever since that I would never have another chance just to do this. I felt utterly miserable and worthless for the better part of two weeks knowing that the last time we might ever have spoken was when I was deliberately hurtful to you because of my job…."
Harry remembered their last conversation well. "It's okay, Hermione," he reassured. "I knew that you were faking being mad at me because you had an audience."
"I thought what you had done was brilliant, but for bloody political reasons I had to act angry and humiliate you before that audience," Hermione confirmed through clenched teeth. "You did what you did for me and my daughter, and I deliberately played the ingrate."
"Hermione did what you did hurt?"
"It tore me up inside, but I had to do it or my enemies would have accused me of hypocrisy. Nobody had proof…."
"No, I meant this Interposition thing," Harry clarified.
A look of genuine surprise on her face, Hermione paused. "Umm … no, not physical pain. I was unconscious throughout. You needed my magic more than I did. The worst thing was having to name a next of kin. Since my parents won't have much to do with me…." She halted. This was something else she had never told Harry.
She sighed. "Yes, my parents never really forgave me for altering their memories. They never came back from Australia. I picked Fleur as my next of kin."
Once again, Hermione was on the edge of tears. Harry reached over and gathered her in his arms and aimlessly rubbed her back. "We should go talk to them," he declared. "And we will. You're Minister for Magic now. They should be bloody proud of you for all you've accomplished."
"I doubt it," Hermione shook her head. "They don't want anything more to do with magic."
Harry remembered something. "But they came back - at least I think they did - when you and Ron were married."
"Yes, and hated almost every minute of it," Hermione sighed. "They were not terribly impressed with Ron, and they had nothing whatever in common with his family. They were going to spend a week in Britain, but changed their plans to leave immediately after the wedding. They haven't been back since, and I haven't even heard from them in over a year. They don't know about you, for one thing."
"They will," Harry affirmed, pulling Hermione closer. "Because we're going to tell them - even if we have to go all the way to Australia to do it."
Hermione regarded him seriously. "What exactly would we tell them, Harry?"
To Harry the answer was obvious. "The truth. Ron says that after what you did everybody knows about us anyway. Frankly, I like it better that way."
"He's right," Hermione admitted. "When I learned you were on the edge of death, I didn't have the time or inclination to deny the obvious any longer. As it turned out, there was never any reason to. Beforehand, I never would have believed it, but I couldn't have made a better move politically. It seems everyone likes a love story."
"That's what Ron said, although he wasn't nearly as pleased with it," Harry grinned. "I gather that, from a political perspective, what happened to me was just what the doctor ordered, so to speak."
Hermione pulled away and looked at him, scandalized. "Don't you ever - ever - say that again! Politics was the farthest thing from my mind. YOU! You were all that mattered. Anything, everything, else was just … just…."
"That'll do, Harry," Hermione smiled at him.
"I know the feeling," he responded.
"Harry, I know that for practically all your life you've measured your worth by what you've done, or have to do. It's time to stop that. You have intrinsic worth. To me, you're everything. Politics is nothing, nothing, by comparison. It … it … sucks. I might be on top now, but half those bastards will stick a knife in my back the first chance they get…."
"Like Blaise Zabini?" Harry interrupted Hermione's rant.
"Him, at least I'm well shot of," Hermione replied. "He'll die in Azkaban for what he did."
"So you figured that out, too, while I was out," Harry commented. "Congratulations. That son-of-a-witch deserved whatever he got."
"I quite agree," Hermione huffed. "Putting an innocent child's life at risk in service of his Cartel lords. While I wouldn't wish what happened to Ginny on anyone - even her - that's more fitting punishment for Zabini than anything we could do to him."
Harry was gawking at his bedmate before she finished. "What? What exactly happened while I was out? I heard some of it from Ron, but not all this…."
Hermione filled him with the details of Ginny's unfortunate fate at the hands of Ibn al Afrit, and about how Zabini again feigned cooperation with the ICW after that event. This time, however, the result was different, and Zabini was caught red-handed.
"…We tracked the owls that Malfoy used for intelligence about what was happening to Rosie. They delivered their messages to a Fidelus-protected post box. We discovered that the box had been prepaid for many years by none other than our old friend, Edwin Lovinett. The Cartel's sequestration of Lovinett's memories, however, only extended to activities involving them. This owlpost box was let several years before the Cartel ever set foot in Britain. A little Veritaserum and Lovinett spilled the beans. He had originally rented the box on Zabini's behalf when Zabini thought he might be in touch with Death Eater remnants."
Harry clenched his fists in anger. "So Malfoy really was working for Zabini when he went after Rosie?"
"Exactly," Hermione pronounced. "All of his promised cooperation was phony. When he was caught out at last, he knew we could charge him, not only with that, but with everything he had dodged with his earlier agreements. Rather than have the entire sordid mess play out in public, he signed a confession and accepted a life sentence."
"Why would he do that" Harry asked. "What did he have to lose by standing trial?"
"He probably thought that by sacrificing himself, he could limit damage to his so-called `Fire Party'," Hermione surmised. "That didn't turn out the way he thought, either. Whatever the public's political inclinations, making little Rosie a pawn in his game totally discredited Zabini and everything he stood for. That's the second reason I'm in a politically advantageous position right now. Personal sympathy. Organized opposition to my programme has collapsed … for the moment, anyway."
Harry could hardly believe it. Ron was right. Zabini's imprisonment was entirely unrelated to the incident he had expected Hermione to uncover. She was still unaware of how truly perfidious Blaise Zabini really was. She needed to know, even if Zabini was already serving the maximum sentence allowed under current wizard law.
"Umm, Hermione," Harry slowly began. "There's more, about Zabini, I mean…."
"Not for me," she shrugged. "I could care less about him any longer."
"He killed you, Hermione," Harry blurted, "in cold blood - I've seen it."
She was shocked. "What? How could you? You weren't there. Thank Merlin, you were busy in the Department of Mysteries."
"I saw what happened in a Pensieve," Harry told her. "I never had a chance to tell you before … everything happened so fast. I wanted to see for myself, and I thought asking you would be too traumatic, so I asked your - bodyguard, I guess - Jason Moore. He let me borrow his memory, and now I'm sure Zabini cast the spell that suffocated you."
"Oh, Merlin," Hermione snorted. "That sleazy, slippery little bastard! If we hadn't abolished the death penalty, I might even…."
A loud gong sounded, signifying that Harry and Hermione had visitors.
"Who's at the door this time of night?" Harry asked, moments before he had his answer.
A Patronus Charm in the form of a snake appeared. It bowed to them both, or at least to Hermione, who was still enmeshed in Harry's arms. "Madame Minister, I must regretfully inform you that your hour has elapsed. For the sake of his own well-being, I must request that my healers conduct a thorough physical examination of Mister Potter. I assure you that, as soon as he is confirmed to be in acceptable medical condition, he will be allowed to return…."
"Hermione, what happens now?" Harry asked, his earlier uncertainty returning.
"You have a date at St. Mungo's for a thorough physical examination," she told him. "After what you've been through it was all I could do, even as Minister, to have you to myself even for an hour."
"My office will make the necessary announcement - as low-key as possible - that you have recovered and are being examined by the healers."
"After that, assuming all goes well, you can Floo or Portkey back here, or anywhere else you want. But you, of all people, I don't need to tell how much attention you're likely to receive if you venture out in public.
"I just want to come back here, or to you if you're somewhere else," Harry decided. "I'm not ready for the rest of the world yet."
"But you will be," Hermione encouraged. "Where do you want to start?"
Harry thought about that for a moment. Other than Hermione, the closest thing he had to family was
Teddy; strike that, Ted. "Hogwarts," Harry answered. "I need to talk to Teddy before doing anything else."
* * * *
Things took a bit longer at St. Mungo's than initially thought. Although trying on Hermione's patience - at one point the Minister almost descended on the wizard hospital once again - that was actually a good thing. The magical regeneration of most of Harry's digestive tract and related organs was further advanced than the healers had expected. Therefore, in addition to the soft-food test they had planned, the healers were able to call in Harry's elves (even he admitted to that now) and have them prepare Harry's favorite foods.
Harry entertained himself while waiting for the test results by reading back issues of the Daily Prophet helpfully supplied by the fawning St. Mungo's staff. His eyes watered, and Harry realized his Clayman-era optometrist's prescription needed updating. He had worse vision at physical age seventeen. One more thing to do.
Harry was able to report to Hermione that his digestive tract was, by every measure the Healers could measure, back to normal. Renal function, flora, potion metabolism through the magical aspect of his liver - all were back to normal.
Hermione ended up being most pleased.
Still, Harry did not tell Hermione everything. Fairly early during his stay he asked the healers for a urological consult. A healer named Dummitt explained that the explosion had at least spared that portion of Harry's anatomy, save for minor cystologic damage that had been easily rectified.
That pretext dispensed with, Harry requested a motility test. Given what he was considering he had to be sure. He received similarly positive results on that score. Although he kept those results religiously to himself, they mollified one nagging doubt he had about his accident.
He and Hermione celebrated his clean bill of health that evening at Enthalpy House - very privately, very enthusiastically, and very physically. It helped that Hermione had obtained an automatic feeding station for Crookshanks. No more annoyed Kneazle on the morning after.
Hermione was always a planner.
Once she convinced herself (which did not take long) that he would not break off in her hands, their lovemaking achieved a frenzied quality, at least from her side of the festivities. She wanted - needed - him badly.
All of him. As much as possible. As quickly as possible.
Ordinarily Hermione adored foreplay, a half an hour or more of gentle petting and rubbing. She was the quintessential cat person.
But not that night. At least not until well after midnight, after several intense, sessions during which Harry even thought she might have accidentally imbued him with a temporary, wandless Engorgio Charm.
The next morning, Harry sought Hermione's counsel before she left for the Ministry. "What do you want us to do, Hermione?"
"I have to go back to work" she rattled away. "I've been conducting most business out of the Ossuary since you were released from St. Mungo's ten days ago. Some matters, however, must be handled at the Ministry itself, and those have piled up. You - you're certainly fit enough - so you're free to do anything you want. But remember that you'll attract a crowd. Now, if…"
Throughout Hermione's monologue, Harry's frustrations built. Was she being deliberately obtuse? Finally, he spoke over her. "I mean us, Hermione. What do you want to do about us?"
Abruptly, she stopped in mid-ramble. "Us?"
"Yes, us," he repeated. "You and me. You're Minister, after all. People are going to talk."
"Let them talk, then," Hermione huffed. "They already are, anyway."
"I mean it, Harry," she reiterated. "I dropped all pretenses that we weren't involved the moment I learned about your injuries. It doesn't matter anymore. Like I've told you, the public is fine with `us,' and even if they weren't, I wouldn't care. Just because I'm Minister, doesn't mean that you have to do anything you don't want to do."
"Well, it matters to me," Harry declared.
Hermione's breath caught audibly in her throat. "Harry, what are you trying to say?" Inside she quivered with anticipation. Ron had sprung his on her totally unexpectedly, and in public.
Harry's insides quivered as well. That blurt-out was too much, too soon. He was completely unprepared, and was afraid of insulting the witch that, he now knew unequivocally, loved him every bit as much as he loved her. "Umm … I need to talk to Ted," he retreated. "After all, I can't very well take you home to meet my parents, can I?"
Hermione hoped she had hidden her disappointment. Until he had finally rid himself of the Deathly Hallows, Harry's entire life had been lived according to what others demanded or what Harry selflessly thought was best for others. She was determined not to push him. For once in his life, Harry would be able to choose what he wanted to do - not what she or anybody else wanted him to do.
"Sure, that makes sense," she told him. "You can Floo-call the Castle and make arrangements.
She trusted Harry to do the right thing, always and forever.
* * * *
Harry Flooed to Hogwarts two days later. It had taken somewhat longer to organize a simple visit than he had expected. Ted had also wanted to speak to him, but needed a more time to prepare something that he promised to show him when they met. Neville - Professor Longbottom - also wanted to get together.
Neville was waiting for Harry when he arrived at the main Floo in the staffroom. To Harry, he looked uncharacteristically stiff. "Morning, Nev, I know you wanted to see me, but you didn't have to meet me here - I know the way to your office."
"Umm … that's what I needed to discuss with you," Neville replied, trying to sound professorial. "I have instructions from the Headmistress not to allow you to roam the Castle unaccompanied. She's had second thoughts about our arrangements."
If Harry had known about Neville's view of these "arrangements," he would also have had second thoughts. As it were, he was simply gobsmacked. "What happened?"
"You and the Ministry … that is, Hermione, undertook to conduct a sting operation out of Hogwarts. One of her students was bait…."
"That `bait' was also Hermione's daughter, and she was a knowing and willing participant," Harry broke in to point out.
"True enough, but so what?" Neville conceded. "It wasn't my decision. Headmistress McGonagall was livid that such an operation went on for so long and involved not only students, but certain members of the staff - all without her knowing. Add to that Hermione being the Minister for Magic and … you know Minerva's had strong views about Ministry interference at Hogwarts ever since we were students."
Harry nearly gagged as Dolores Umbridge's toadlike image waddled through his memory. While it saddened him that someone he had known as long as Minerva McGonagall now evidently viewed him as less than trustworthy, he could understand her perspective. Besides, he had never been terribly keen about subbing as a DADA instructor. Nor did Neville any longer have anything to coerce him with, since Hermione had already figured out the whole Witch-Who-Won business.
"So, what you're telling me is that McGonagall doesn't want me on staff any longer?" Harry faked indignation.
"That's right," Neville confirmed, looking pained.
"Well then, here's my staff badge," Harry handed it over. "I'm certainly not interested in being where I'm not wanted."
"I'm sorry, Harry. I really am," Neville said sadly. "But I was able to make some provision for your future, if you're interested."
"What's that?" This offer was unexpected and perhaps intriguing.
"I checked. You can sit for any N.E.W.T. you want, whether you graduate Hogwarts or not. If you decide to do that, I've polled the entire teaching staff. To a wizard, they will be pleased to provide individualized instruction in whatever N.E.W.T. subjects you choose to pursue."
Harry had little background in wizard history, but knew enough to suspect this was an unprecedented offer - as well as a veiled slap at Headmistress McGonagall for discharging him. Hermione would certainly want him to take advantage of it.
His discussions complete, Neville escorted Harry to the anteroom off the main hall, where Harry could meet privately with Ted. Harry recognized it immediately, even though never having used this particular entrance. He had waited here First Year, before the Sorting. He has also endured the initial post-Goblet of Fire madness in this place.
He hoped that the third time would be more pleasant.
Neville left through the door to the Great Hall, and Ted entered through that door moments later.
Ted rushed to hug Harry, whom he had not seen since a brief viewing in St. Mungo's on that horrible night several weeks earlier - when he could see nothing save the tops of his and Hermione's heads. They had been very close to one another then, and Ted hoped even closer now.
That was one reason he had asked to see Harry, the reason he had discussed repeatedly with Tori. For that, they had devised a plan and already put it into motion.
But Ted had another reason - one he had emphatically not mentioned to Tori.
After their emotional embrace, Harry and Ted sat in soft Dumbledore-style chairs across a low table. Before they had even finished getting comfortable, chips, salsa, and butterbeer seemed to sprout from the table.
Harry attempted small talk. "How's Rosie?"
Ted did not interpret that as small talk. "She was upset at first, but after she had time to think, she's accepted your relationship with her mum."
"Oh." Harry had completely forgotten about Rose Weasley having had a crush on him. That's okay, I guess."
Silence stretched out between them until both interrupted it simultaneously.
"I have decided something you need to know about…."
"I've done what you suggested, but not exactly…."
After an awkward pause, with a wave of his hand Harry invited Ted to go first.
"I've done a lot of thinking about some of the things we talked about before … well you know…. I've decided that, for my own safety if nothing else, I should assume the Black head of house. But only as Black-Lupin," he hastened to add. "Nothing I've learned since Draco Malfoy almost killed you and tried using those same potions on me, suggests any involvement by Narcissa Malfoy. But to neutralize her, and who knows how many other questionable Black relatives further removed, I think I ought to do it."
"Not to mention, if something happened to Narcissa and your grandmother, who knows who would be the next Black in line after you to inherit," Harry added. "So you're assuming the mantle probably leaves them both in a safer position, as well as you."
"I hadn't thought of that," Ted admitted.
"Neither had I," Harry shook his head, "but I've done a lot of thinking about life and death over the past few days - including my own."
"So have I," Ted replied, now looking a bit green, as if what was coming next would be unpleasant. "I've also decided to make out a will."
"I've already told you that I think that's a good idea," Harry observed. "Why the long face?"
Ted gulped. "Don't take this the wrong way, Harry. I know we'd discussed it, but after your latest brush with death I've decided not to name you as the primary beneficiary of my will."
Briefly, Harry was surprised. Upon reflection, though, he understood. He did have a knack for attracting trouble, and Ted was right. "Can't blame you," Harry replied before the silence greeting Ted's announcement became too oppressive. "It's your inheritance and your life. I suppose it ought to depend on someone with prospects more reliable than mine."
Ted heaved a sigh of relief. "Thanks for being so understanding, Harry. You're still what the solicitor called a `contingent beneficiary,' and in the event of the worst, you wouldn't be left wanting anything - not that I think you'll need…."
"Congratulations," Harry interrupted. "Did you tell her?"
"What?" Ted was getting to that, but he had not expected Harry to leap so quickly to the ultimate conclusion. Perhaps all that mixing of magic with Hermione, assuming the Prophet had printed the truth for once, had sharpened his mental acuity.
"It has to be Tori you've selected," Harry explained. "Picking anybody older than I would have defeated the purpose, and beyond that, you're like me. You don't have much to choose from in the relative department."
Ted told Harry, "You're getting almost as insufferable as Hermione, you know that?"
"Thanks for the compliment," Harry nodded. "So I believe congratulations are in order, because you would never have named Tori unless you're now in a committed relationship. For the sake of that relationship, I just hope you've been honest with her about your furry little problem."
Ted smiled broadly. "You won't believe it, but telling her is what made everything finally click."
It was Harry's turn to respond with a dumfounded "What?"
"Like I've told you before, Tori's an honest-to-Merlin genius - the Hermione of this generation," Ted explained. "She'd figured it all out, knowing mom was a metamorphmagus, after Hermione told her why werewolves can't have children. She was waiting for me to tell her. She called it a `sincerity test.' And since I passed it…. Well, I shouldn't kiss and tell."
"When was that?"
From the distressed look immediately spreading over Ted's face, Harry had a good idea of that answer before his godson said a word. "Umm … It was the night after you were hurt. I was called away from Hogwarts to St. Mungo's and Tori, well she simply refused to stay behind. Waiting for news about you, we had plenty of time to talk. You'd been telling me I had to, so in your honor I did it. I fully expected that she'd never speak to me again. But the exact opposite happened, and we haven't looked back since…. Sort of like you and Hermione, I guess. That reminds me, Harry, there's one more thing I need to ask…."
"Could I cut in?" Harry asked facetiously before turning serious. "There's something I have to discuss with you."
Ted almost quailed under Harry's intense stare. "Of course. I hope I haven't been wasting your time…."
"Never, Ted," Harry tried to reassure him. "I want you to know, right up front, that nothing that happens will change our relationship. You'll always be my godson. You'll always be important to me. It's just that I need to do this. I can't go on the way things are without…."
"Oh, hell, Harry. Please tell me you're not going to leave again," Ted started to plead.
Harry stopped and looked crossways at Ted. Then he did the last thing in the world Ted would have expected. Harry started to laugh. Not a polite snigger either. Harry had not had a genuine belly laugh in quite some time - until now.
Harry's chuckles subsided while Ted gawked at him. "No…. Not at all," he gasped. I'm not leaving. Not now; not ever. What I was trying to tell you … not very well, obviously, is that I…." He straightened up and turned serious again.
"I wanted you to know before I did it, that I intend to ask Hermione to marry me. I was hoping…."
"Brilliant, Harry!" Ted shouted as he lunged for his godfather. "Congratulations to you! I'm sure she'll accept."
"Down, Ted," Harry reacted as he gradually extricated himself. "It's not that time of the month…. And don't be so sure about that. I know she loves me, but enough to marry me? Hell, she's Minister for Magic. I don't even have a steady job."
"You're job is to keep her sane and centered," Ted responded, as he stood and walked to the anteroom's door with the Great Hall. "Everything I've seen, heard, and read tells me she's crazy about you. She'll accept in seconds, I'm sure. No more time than it takes that fantastic brain of hers to process your proposal."
"Where are you going?"
"To get Tori in here," Ted replied as he reached the door. "The last thing I was planning to discuss with you was that exact same thing. We were going to recommend - strongly - that you propose to Hermione. She'll be thrilled, and I don't mean just Tori."
Tori wafted in. After the ritual hugs, they returned to the table where she deftly solved the problem of three people and only two chairs by sitting in Ted's lap.
Tori gushed for a while about "how wonderful" it was that Harry had reached the same conclusion they had about his matrimonial prospects. After some inconsequential discussion of wedding arrangements, Ted returned to the concern that Harry had expressed earlier.
"Harry, about not having a steady job. Don't worry about how much it would cost to…."
"Ted, I'm sure the Ministry will be more than happy to pay for the cost of the wedding. If Hermione's right about everybody loving a love story, it will be a political bonanza for her, and they'll find galleons in the budget somewhere. That, and I'm sure she already has a wedding dress."
Tori broke in. "Actually, what Ted had in mind was before the wedding. You'll need a ring for your proposal."
"I have some money saved up from working as a Muggle," Harry responded. "I can get her something."
"But this is not just `something'," Tori declared as she reached into her robes and produced an elegant ring box, covered in Tyrian purple velvet. She handed it to Ted, who popped it open, revealing a bridal set that Harry knew was worth more than his entire life savings. The platinum, rope-patterned wedding ring band bore a blue-white brilliant-cut diamond, of at least two carats. Lustrous pearls flanked it on either side.
Harry raised his hands, palms flat. "I - I can't take that," he protested. "I can't possibly afford it."
"But it's yours," Ted told him firmly.
Harry's face was paling rapidly. "No, it's not. I've never owned anything like that."
"That was your mother's," Tori almost yelled at him. "Just because you never had the chance to see the Potter vault before you … umm … vanished doesn't mean it was empty. Except for your will being executed before you were actually dead, this should rightfully belong to you. So take it!"
"And give it to Hermione," Ted added.
Ultimately they convinced Harry to do precisely that.
* * * *
With a ring worthy of Hermione Granger burning a hole in his pocket, Harry Apparated back to the Ossuary. It was late afternoon, and Hermione was nowhere to be found. He did not want to ask Brillig or Ayesha, for fear of upsetting them. Remembering what Ron had said about elves, Harry played a hunch.
Within five seconds, Hermione's personal Ministry Elf popped into view.
"Mister Harry Potter's wanting Canby, sir?"
"Actually, Harry's wanting Hermione," Harry informed the elf, trying again to dispense with formalities. "Harry thought Canby might know where she is."
"Minister Hermione is still at the Ministry," Canby told Harry. "She was leaving a note for you at Enthalpy House. She has to work late, but she was asking you to come to her office." Canby snapped his fingers, and a bright yellow card with an embossed gold seal appeared in his hands. "You'll be needing this."
The card read "Summons from the Minister for Magic."
Harry took advantage of one of Hermione's useful innovations since becoming Minister - designated, secure Apparition points inside the Ministry building itself. Arriving, he flashed the yellow summons at the Auror controlling the Apparition point's wards.
The Auror instantly recognized Harry without need for the card, and twisted an artefact on the wall behind her. The wards glowed, parted, and a cascade of water appeared in the gap. Harry passed through it, experienced a brief icy chill, and was instantly dry again.
It felt exactly like the Thief's Downfall at Gringotts. Somewhere in the stack of Prophets he had read at St. Mungo's Harry remembered reading about Hermione seeking closer collaboration with the goblins.
"Mister Potter, I can't tell you how relieved I am that you're finally safe," the Auror gushed as he passed by.
"Umm … thanks."
Try as he might, Harry would not be able to avoid attracting attention at the Ministry, or probably anywhere else in the Wizarding World. He was coming to accept that. He would be garnering more, soon, no doubt.
The upside of fame is that everyone was happy to assist Harry with directions. Soon he received a personal escort from no less than a Department Head, Amos Diggory.
Jason Moore, standing guard at the Minister's office, likewise recognized Harry on sight. He stood aside and waved Harry through, as the door opened of its own accord.
At least Cheryl, Hermione's personal secretary, did not make a point of fawning over him. She made Harry take his turn behind three other people cooling their heels, all waiting for an audience with the Minister.
She did, however, write his name on a small paper airplane and sent it flying into the Minister's inner office. Two of the three wizards ahead of him made their excuses and left. In about fifteen minutes, Harry was ushered in.
"Harry, I'm so glad you could make it," Hermione said as she rushed to him and gave him a warm hug. "It's been so hectic, with all the preparations."
"Preparations for what?"
"Umm … sorry, Harry, but I can't tell even you yet," Hermione looked pained. "Let's just say, we're on the verge of a major diplomatic break through. Please take a seat; I have something I want you to review."
Harry sat, as Hermione circled back to her desk and picked up a quill and parchment. Harry recognized the cute way she furrowed her forehead when she was thinking hard. That had not changed since Hogwarts. Harry had just been blind to his feelings.
She wrote something, stopped, and thought some more, still staring at the parchment. Without looking up, she began, "I did make time, however, to check Jason's memories of the day I died."
"I was right, wasn't I," Harry replied, not really wanting to think about that.
Hermione wrote something more, stopped, and raised her eyes to meet his. "Absolutely. That bastard faked breaking his wand. He fell to his non-wand side. It was ridiculously obvious once anyone bothered to look."
Harry winced. He had reviewed Jason's memory twice and not noticed that. "You could see him mouth the spell, too," Harry mentioned. "His silent magic wasn't that good, I suppose."
Hermione scribbled something else while Harry spoke.
"That, too," Hermione added. "But I also saw something that explained another worry I had about this…" - she pushed her blouse aside slightly to reveal that she was wearing his necklace - "…ever since that happened. Did you ever wonder why it didn't prevent Zabini's spell from killing me?"
"Umm … no - but I probably should have thought about that," Harry fretted. "You're right. It should have stopped it. And why not Kingsley's as well? No, wait, I charmed it to prevent any magic from harming you. Kingsley intended no harm."
While Harry talked, Hermione erased something and replaced it with what seemed to be a longer phrase.
"But Zabini certainly did."
"Damn right. The son-of-a-witch."
"Well, I saw in Jason's memory that rope tendrils from Kingsley's last charm had slipped under the necklace and pushed it over my head."
"Yeah, that would cancel the protection," Harry grumbled, unhappy that his mistake had allowed Zabini to cast what would have been a fatal spell, but for Harry's dumb luck - being near the arch when Hermione's soul passed through. "I'm sorry for screwing up, Hermione."
Hermione looked up after adding what looked like the finishing touches to the parchment with a flourish of her quill. "Oh, Harry don't be." She gave him a piercing look. "Don't blame yourself, or else I'll have to blame myself for not stopping you when I knew you were going to go after Malfoy somehow."
"Oh, all right," Harry agreed, remembering what he intended to do as soon as he found the right moment - not likely while she was busy being Minister. "All's well that ends well, I guess."
"Yes, and speaking of that, please review this." She banished the parchment she had been revising to him. "This is the full announcement I intend for the Ministry to make about your recovery and our arrangements going forward. As I told you before, I'm not keeping you a secret any longer."
Harry started reading, and then pulled the document closer. His nearsightedness was definitely worse, now that he was younger. After a few seconds, he smiled.
"Can I edit this?"
Hermione did not look particularly happy at that - probably because Harry had found her work less than perfect. "Of course," she shrugged, and a quill from her inkstand floated to him.
Struggling successfully to keep a straight face, Harry changed a word here and a word there until he arrived at the phrase he had spotted earlier. He scratched it out and wrote in something else. Continuing, Harry made a few more revisions.
Finished, he rose and delivered his edited draft Ministry announcement to his intended (although she did not know that, yet) personally.
Her quill poised, Hermione began reviewing Harry's changes. As she did, Harry dropped down beside her to follow along, mumbling that he needed to see better.
She gasped at one of his interlineations. "Living together as wife and husband?!?"
Shocked she turned to Harry, kneeling by her side - now with the ring box, open, in his hand.
"That's exactly what I mean," Harry answered, his voice shaky. "Will you marry me? I can't see ever wanting to be anywhere else, or with anyone else - only right here by your side."
"Oh, Merlin, YES!" she squealed. The parchment forgotten, Hermione hurled herself out of her chair and into his arms. She overbalanced him, and they both went sprawling - but neither cared.
They were still horizontal on the floor, kissing each other passionately, when Sheryl walked in, having heard an odd noise (Hermione's chair slamming into her desk).
"Well, well - something I should know about?" she asked sardonically, her eyebrows almost disappearing into her hairline.
Hermione disengaged her lips from Harry's long enough to announce, "Yes, we're getting married!"
Sheryl shrieked with joy.
The announcement that issued from the Ministry that evening utterly eclipsed the next day's news of a treaty being put before the Wizengamot that would establish full diplomatic relations with the Muggles and the goblins, including an exchange of ambassadors.
A few traditionalists muttered that the timing was intentional. Nobody else cared.
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