“Got to, love,” Harry sighed, pulling on his shirt. He was too tired and it was too dark to find the buttons, so he left it open.
“Mum never gets up till six,” sighed Ginny, tugging at his shirttail. “Come back to bed.”
”It’s half six now, nearly. The sun’s coming up soon. Ginny. Ginevra.” He gently pried her hand away from his shirt, knelt and kissed her palm. “Hermione needs to get back down here. If your parents see me in here, we’ll find out whether Voldemort’s really the only one who can kill me. And if they find her up there... Well, I’m not sure how many of your friends and siblings will be alive come breakfast.”
Smiling, Ginny ran her fingers along his cheek. “Wish you were still on this floor. Wish you didn’t have to share.”
He looked at her and heard what she meant: I wish we could always be together. Again he kissed her fingers and walked to the door. Turning back, he stared at her, trying to etch into his memory the dim flame of her hair in the predawn light, the ocean swell of her breath, the twist of those wonderful lips...
“Go, idiot,” those lips said, “or come back to bed. You’ll be just as dead if they find you over there as if you were snuggling over here, warm and comfy.”
Grinning, he blew her a kiss, and quietly stepped through the door before he could be tempted back.
As he turned away from Ginny’s room, he was surprised to find Hermione, standing as frozen as if he’d cast a Full Body Bind on her. “Morning,” he whispered across the landing.
“Good morning,” she answered, perfectly polite, but looking for all the world as if Devil’s Snare might come bursting out of the walls at any moment and drag her down into some dungeon. Mrs Weasley’s torture chamber for scarlet women, no doubt.
“Never better,” she replied, and her face held that familiar mixture of terror and joy that had been so much his companion over the past twelve hours or so. He would have laughed if there hadn’t been a house packed with Weasleys (and one Delacour) all around them. Not even thinking, Harry bounded across the landing and threw his arms around Hermione; as she choked back a squeak of surprise, he realized that the same gentle odor of sweat and sex that he had tried to Scourgify away from himself and Ginny was wafting from Hermione.
“So,” he whispered in her ear, “did you and Ron have a nice chat?”
She laughed, and it was a low, deep laugh that Harry was sure he had never heard from his friend. “Yes,” she said. “As a matter of fact, we did. You and Ginny?”
Now Harry felt a little tickle of guilt. “Hermione, when you suggested this last night... Ginny and I are back together. We’d already... um... We’d already done most of the chatting we needed to do before we’d even come up to the room.”
“Really?” Hermione’s eyes narrowed, and Harry suddenly feared that she was going to launch in to a lecture on responsibility or honesty or Safe Sex. Instead her mouth bowed primly and she said, “Good on you.”
They broke into giggles, collapsing there on the stairs that led up to the attic.
When they had recovered, they leaned against each other as they hadn’t felt comfortable doing in years, and Harry reveled in her barely perceptible scent of new parchment and...
“Freshly mown grass,” Harry said, and she blinked at him. “Ron. That was the scent that you smelled in the Amortentia.”
She smiled and nodded. “And what did you smell, Harry?”
“Treacle tart, broom wax and... something flowery. Does Ginny wear a perfume?” When Hermione shook her head, Harry looked sadly at his unlaced shoes. “Oh. I wanted to buy her some.”
“I think it’s a shampoo that she and her mum brew. They use freesia blossoms for the scent and their color-enhancing properties.”
“Oh,” Harry said. Perhaps he could find some freesia-scented perfume for her. Or perhaps he could keep some of the shampoo for himself, so that he could smell her even when... But they were never going to be apart. Never. “She’s going to come with us after the wedding, Hermione.”
Her face tightened. “She can’t, Harry. It’s too dangerous. She’s got school –“
“She can’t not. I couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t stand it.” As her eyes searched his, he grabbed her hands. “I promise, when the bastard is finally taken care of, we’ll all come back and finish school and sit our NEWTs. But there’s something more important that needs to be done, now, and she should be doing it, too. She knows Voldemort better even than I do, Hermione. She’s suffered at his hand. She deserves to help us, and there’s no one I’d rather have with us.”
“Won’t you be afraid for her?”
“Won’t you be afraid for Ron?”
Hermione’s face blanched. “I already am. Terrified. For him. For you.”
“Hermione, if you left Ron here, do you think you’d be any less scared? I wasn’t, this whole last month after you two brought me to the Dursleys. All I could think of was Ginny, and if she was safe, and if I wrote her would it put her in danger.”
“Yup. Definitely. I wasted what could have been the most wonderful month of my life teasing Dudley with you two.” Harry smiled wanly.
Hermione smiled thinly. “Yes, I could tell you enjoyed having a couple of wizards who were of age in the house. It’s a good thing they never realized we couldn’t do anything without getting you in trouble.”
Harry shrugged. “I could have handled Dudley and my aunt and uncle. But it was nice having you there. It was lonely when you left.”
Her smile dimmed. “Harry, Ginny’s not of age. You need to talk to her parents.”
“Yeah. You’re right. We do.”
“They probably won’t give their permission.”
Again he shrugged. “Maybe you can help us persuade them?”
“I can try.” Hermione’s forehead rested against Harry’s for a moment. “Was it nice? Last night?”
Harry felt the flutter of something feathered near his throat. “Amazing. Scary. You?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding against him. She leaned back against the balusters. In the dim, indirect light of the landing, her eyes were black and sunken. “Harry?”
“Did you ever think of me... romantically?”
“Uh...” Her gaze seemed as steady and as piercing as Dumbledore’s, and Harry knew again that truth was called for. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.”
Her face relaxed. “Really?”
Harry nodded. Her kiss on Platform 9 ¾ had been one of the few things that had got him through the month after their fourth year. It had made it all the harder to stomach Ron and Hermione’s coziness when he had arrived at Grimmauld Place. “Yeah.”
“Oh,” she said, and Harry thought he saw her face color.
“Did you?” he asked. “Ever feel, you know, that way about me?”
She graced him with a small grin. “Of course.”
“Oh.” Harry tried to think back, to see if he had missed something. “I didn’t do anything really stupid and Ron-like, did I?”
The smile grew. “Not much. Though I must admit I wanted to bat you around the head a bit during that whole fiasco with Cho.”
His eyes narrowed as he remembered her expression when he had told her about the disaster at Madam Puddifoot’s. “You were pleased, weren’t you? That she and I broke it off because she thought I wanted to be with you?”
“Well, for your sake as much as mine, Harry!” She looked down, her curly mane obscuring most of her face. “She really wasn’t the right one for you, you’ve said it yourself. And... That day, when Luna and I were waiting for you and Rita to show up, Luna asked me when I was going to make up my mind.”
“She asked you what?”
“She said I clearly couldn’t decide which of you – you and Ron – I wanted to, to be with. The horrible thing was, she was absolutely right.”
Harry tried to imagine Luna Lovegood advising Hermione on romance and chuckled. “Surprises you that way sometimes, doesn’t she?”
Nodding earnestly, Hermione continued, “That’s when I started to realize that, as handsome and wonderful as you are, it was Ron I actually fancied, for reasons that are still quite unfathomable to me. I mean, Harry, I do love you...”
Laughing quietly again, Harry leaned across the stairs and kissed Hermione on the lips, shocking them both. Lack of sleep. Too much love. “I love you too, Hermione. And I’m so happy for you and Ron I could scream.”
“Oh,” Hermione said, blushing darkly and staring at his torso. “Oh. Yes.” Then she canted her head and stared harder. “Harry... what’s happened to your chest?”
“My...?” He glanced down. At close range all that he could see was that there was some sort of whitish stain between his nipples. “What?” he asked, brushing at it.
Hermione flipped out her wand and tapped it against his skin three times, and then a fourth. Each tap was accompanied by a slightly different wand movement; two he recognized as Healing Charms. “Come here,” she said, suddenly all business, and pulled him towards the small bathroom. Closing the door and turning on the light with two quick wand flicks, Hermione led Harry to the mirror. “Look.”
On Harry’s chest a white shape burned against his pale skin: it looked like a winged creature rising. A phoenix. A dragon. “It’s Ginny’s hands,” he gasped.
“It’s where her hands were when we, you know...”
“Made love,” muttered Hermione.
“She has a pair of my handprints on the back of her shoulders just like this, from when I saved her in the Chamber of Secrets.” Harry’s heart was racing.
Hermione peered at him and shook her head.
“It’s just... Harry, most people fall in love, make love, and it feels magical.” She smirked. “You have sex, and it is magic.”
Harry had to tear his eyes away from the mark that Ginny had left on him. Hermione’s face was closed. “I... Hermione, I’m sorry.”
His friend shook herself and smiled – a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. “It’s all right, Harry. Ron and I have got used to your... special-ness. Sometimes, however, it is a bit humbling.”
Touching her shoulder, he looked into her eyes. “Trade you.” She arched an eyebrow and he said, “I’d rather be special for what I do than what I was born to, Hermione. There’s a lot more to you than books and cleverness.”
Hermione pulled him to her. “Thank you, Harry. But what you do is pretty special, I think. We’d all be dead a dozen times over if it weren’t for your quick thinking and courage.”
Desperate to change the subject, Harry said, “Ginny thinks the marks on her are the signs of a Life Debt. I wonder what this one is about?”
Hermione pulled back, brows contracted. “A Life Debt? Harry, I did a lot of research after you made Sirius and Professor Lupin let Peter Pettigrew go. Life Debts leave no outward sign – it’s one of the reasons that they’re so mysterious. The only person who knows that one has been created is the person who owes the debt.”
“But Ginny –”
“Ginny may feel she owes you her life, Harry, but that’s not a Life Debt, no more than what Mr Weasley or Ron owes you. In order for such a bond to be created, a witch or wizard must risk his or her own life by stepping between the victim and his or her doom. As your father did for Professor Snape. As you did for Peter Pettigrew.”
“As I...?” Harry shook his head. “But Sirius and Moony wouldn’t have killed me, surely.”
“Harry, remember. Sirius was nearly mad. And Professor Lupin was half an hour away from transformation. When you stopped them, I really did think they were both going to kill you, if only for a moment.”
Staring back into the mirror, Harry looked at the flying shape on his chest. For a flash, it looked like the Hungarian Horntail that Ginny had joked about being tattooed there, and he smiled. Then he shook his head again. “Hermione. If it wasn’t a Life Debt that created this – that created the ones on Ginny’s shoulders – then what?”
Hermione gazed at it too, and Harry was struck by how odd it was that neither of them was embarrassed that they were both standing here looking at his naked chest. Hermione raised her fingers to her lips. “I don’t know. It’s some sort of bond, that’s obvious, but I’ve never heard of something like this. Perhaps Professor McGonagall –”
“Hermione, I’m not asking Professor McGonagall how Ginny’s handprints got burned into my flesh while we were shagging!”
Her mouth remained drawn, but the edges fluttered upwards. “I suppose not. Shall we ask Mr and Mrs Weasley, then?” One eyebrow arched eloquently.
“Hermione,” Harry spluttered, his stomach sinking, “I’m already sure they’re going to kill me for trying to take Ron and Ginny on this ridiculous treasure hunt. What if these handprints are some sort of wizarding sex thing?”
Hermione laughed at that. “Harry, somehow I think that if it were just that, no one above fourth year would ever swim in the lake – either because they’d been marked, or because they hadn’t. You’ve seen Fred and Angelina swimming – can you imagine someone as dark-skinned as she is being able to hide a pair of white hand marks under a bikini that small?”
Harry’s mind suddenly overflowed with the image of Angelina and Fred frolicking in the lake, of her miniscule parrot-hued two-piece and her abundant flesh, of where Fred’s hands might have pressed themselves. He shivered. “No. I guess not.”
“No. As I said, Harry. Your special-ness is sometimes quite humbling.” He looked up at her; she had a wicked sort of half-grin on her face. “I’ll try to do some discreet research when we go to headquarters after the wedding.”
“Thanks.” He felt sheepish, counting on his friend to research something so personal. A thought occurred to him; it wasn’t a good one. “I wasn’t even supposed to tell you about her shoulders, Hermione. Oh, hell. She’s always kept it a secret.”
“Yes,” she replied with the airy distraction that usually meant she was piecing something together. “Yes, I’d always wondered why she always dressed with her back to the wall, away from windows and mirrors.” She looked up at Harry. “Well, most young girls, we turn away when we’re feeling shy about being naked. I’m sure boys are the same. I always assumed Ginny was just trying to brazen it out.”
“That sounds like Ginny,” Harry said, smiling shakily.
“True. Harry, don’t worry about having told me. We’ll explain about your chest. I’m sure she’ll understand my finding out.”
“Maybe,” he muttered.
She touched his cheek. “You still think you can lose us, don’t you? You think you can say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing and we’ll all turn on you.”
He tried to look down, but she wouldn’t let him. “I... Some of the things I’ve done, Hermione, I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Now you look at me, Harry Potter. Don’t try to look away. I want you to hear this. We love you. We believe in you. We’re not going anywhere.”
“I...” I let Dumbledore die, he thought. I let Sirius die and Cedric, I let Peter Pettigrew and Bellatrix Lestrange and Malfoy and Snape get away. I put you and Ron and Ginny and Neville and Luna in danger, and all for nothing. He also thought about ‘the power the Dark Lord knows not,’ and about Dumbledore facing down Draco on the tower, and so he merely said, “Okay.”
Hermione hugged him, and he was very aware of her arms, of her thin-clad body against his. What an odd feeling. His stomach rumbled.
“Hungry?” Hermione laughed. He nodded and shrugged, and she said tartly, “An active night will do that. Mind, I’m starving too. We should go down and see if we can beat Mrs Weasley to the kitchen and get breakfast started.”
“Part of your campaign to get her to let Ginny come with us?” He loved the smile she gave when she was caught being clever – it was a very Weasley-ish side of Hermione that she didn’t show the world very often. “Sounds like a great idea. Come one, let’s get down there before Ron and Ginny find us in here and decide we’re up to something. Ron won’t be happy with the idea of me spending the night with his sister, but I’ll be pummeled into porridge if he thinks I’m snogging his girlfriend.”
Together, arm in arm, they walked out of the bathroom and down the stairs.