The wind rushed by Harry in an exhilarating whoosh as he zoomed through the night skies, his eyes peeled for the Snitch. As he soared above the stadium full of cheering spectators the starlight cast a pearly sheen on the bare skin of the naked girl whose arms were clasped tightly around his waist, her billowing golden hair glowing as brightly as any Veela’s.
“There it is Harry,” shouted Hermione, “I see it... the Snitch is over there!”
Harry spied the Snitch below, but knew he’d never reach it before the other Seeker if they spotted it. Harry went into a spiraling dive to distract the opposing team’s Seeker... and if that didn’t work, Hermione’s enchanting presence on the back of his broom should do the trick. The roaring crowd was sure he was going to crash and Hermione shrieked in his ear.
“HARRY!” she screamed. “WAKE UP!”
Harry bolted upright in a panic. Hermione’s face was terror-stricken as she shook him, and the roaring crowd sounded very real. There was a boom outside and the tent shook. Sirius burst through the door into Harry’s room, his face ashen.
“Don’t worry about being in pyjamas - no time to dress,” shouted Sirius, “You need to get to safety now.”
“What’s happening?” gasped Harry, strapping his wand holster around his middle as Sirius bustled him and Hermione to the entrance of the tent.
“Not sure yet! Some sort of attack...” Sirius replied. “Lupin’s already got Neville and gone to get Luna and her father - they’re headed to the woods nearby...”
As they hurried outside, hundreds of wizards and witches in pyjamas and nightgowns were running and screaming to avoid fiery bursts of magic and exploding tents. Harry and Hermione could just make out through the smoke a group of thirty or forty hooded and masked figures shooting spells apparently at random.
“There’s the Weasleys, stick with them and get to the woods!” barked Sirius. “I’m going to help Arthur and the Ministry put a stop to this...”
“Sirius, wait...” Harry shouted as Ron grabbed him.
“Bloody Hell, Harry!” yelled Ron, his freckles standing out against his pale face. “We’ve got to go...”
Harry kept a tight grip on Hermione’s arm as he reluctantly allowed Ron to lead them both towards the Twins who were just ahead scurrying towards the woods with Ginny. Harry, Ron, and Hermione lost sight of Fred, George, and Ginny in the smoke and the throng of frightened wizards and witches.
By the time they arrived in the woods, they couldn’t see where the others had got to among the groups who were huddled behind bushes and trees. But there was one young wizard whom Harry recognised right away. Draco Malfoy stood nonchalantly by a tree, grinning malevolently, his eyes glittering.
Harry glanced in the direction that Malfoy was looking and his blood began to boil. Four people - two of them very small - were floating high above the campground, apparently being held aloft by the spells of the masked wizards. Laughing drunkenly, several of the hooded figures pointed their wands and began vanishing the nightclothes of the screaming woman and the children in the air.
“That’s the Muggle campsite manager and his family...” Ron moaned. “That’s just sick!”
“Is that the only way your daddy can still get someone to put out for him?” Harry snarled at Malfoy. “Looked like your mum was going to hold out on him tonight for making her look bad in front of the Minister earlier!”
“Watch your mouth Potter,” Malfoy sneered, his laughter cold and mirthless. “You wouldn’t want them to find your pet Muggle and have their way with her would you? That could be her up there!”
Hermione gasped in horror and clutched her dressing gown a bit tighter around herself.
“Hermione’s a witch...” snapped Harry, reaching for his wand.
“Harry - NO!” Hermione grabbed his hand. “He’s not worth it!”
“Mudblood - Muggle - what’s the difference?” Malfoy smirked cruelly. “You’d better keep your eye on her Potter. There’s a new order coming... soon they’ll all know their proper place - beneath a pureblood or six feet under.”
“The hell with this!” growled Harry, “I’m not staying in these woods while your daddy and his friends ruin things for everyone.”
“Harry... where are you going?” yelled Ron, “Come back... Hermione...”
“If Harry’s going to fight them, then I’m going too...” Hermione shouted back at Ron, shooting Malfoy a vicious glare.
“NO! STOP! Hermione...”
“What’s the matter Weasel-boy?” Malfoy chortled, “Afraid that Potter’s pet is going to die along with him? Surprised you had it in you actually... I didn’t know you knew what a girl was yet.”
“What are you talking about?” Ron's face reddened as he glowered at Malfoy.
“I saw the way you looked at Granger. I have to give you credit Weasleby, though I don’t know what you see in that buck-toothed Mudblood...”
“Shove off Malfoy,” Ron snarled. He fumbled for his wand and his face fell. It was gone.
“Pathetic,” sneered Malfoy, “You can’t even hold onto your wand.”
“He’s one of them Hermione - I just know it!” Harry fumed as he darted back to the edge of the chaotic campground. “Mr Malfoy’s behind one of those masks...”
“You’re probably right Harry...” began Hermione before shrieking, “Look out!”
Harry and Hermione both dodged the jet of red light fired at them by one of the hooded wizards. Harry wished he knew some fighting spells, but he had thought of at least a few that might possibly be useful. He swished and flicked his wand at a steel tent pole from a nearby demolished tent. The pole lifted a couple of metres off the ground. Harry twirled his wand and sent the steel pole spinning through the air.
The startled Death Eater - for Harry was certain that was what the hooded and masked wizards were - ducked and the tent pole missed him. But the Death Eater standing behind him who had just stunned a Ministry wizard wasn’t so lucky. The steel pole clobbered him on the head with a ringing sound and he collapsed.
The first Death Eater fired another spell, but Harry dove and rolled out of the way as the tent behind him exploded in a burst of flames. Terrified and angry, Hermione used the first spell she could think of before the masked wizard could aim another deadly looking one.
“Diffindo,” she yelled, slashing her wand.
The Death Eater screamed and fell to his knees, dropping his wand. He clutched at his side and keeled over, a bloom of red spreading across his white robes. Harry gaped at Hermione and she peered back at him with shock written all over her face, suddenly feeling guilty for using such a dangerous spell on a human being.
“MORSMORDRE!” A voice rang out loud and clear, startling them both; they whirled around to see through the smoky haze, a shadowed figure standing in darkness near the tents. As Harry and Hermione both caught their breath, a glowing green cloud lit up the night-sky. The cloud roiled and formed into a shape which they both recognised.
“The Dark Mark!” muttered Harry.
He and Hermione glanced back towards the tents but the wizard was already gone. Yells of fright and apparition cracks could be heard throughout the campground. Through the haze, Hermione could see several of the hooded wizards vanishing, and assumed that the Death Eaters were fleeing.
“There they are!” they heard Ron shouting. Harry glanced up and spied Ron running towards them with Luna and Neville in tow.
“Are you both mental?” bellowed Ron, but then he saw the two masked figures lying on the ground and quieted, his face a picture of confusion.
“Where’s Lupin?” Harry asked, ignoring Ron’s bewilderment.
“He left us in the woods with a large group of other kids and came back to fight,” said Luna matter-of-factly.
“Did you both do that?” asked Neville, peering at the masked wizards on the ground, looking awed.
“Er...” said Harry, swallowing nervously as he glanced at Hermione, not sure what to say.
“Yes!” Hermione said in a small voice, hoping that they hadn’t killed either of the wizards.
She heard sobbing and turned around, looking at the spot where the wizard who had set off the Dark Mark had stood. Harry peered the same direction and his eyes widened in surprise when he saw a little figure who hadn't been there a few moments ago.
“Winky?” he muttered. Before Harry could work out what was happening, numerous loud pops and cracks startled the five young wizards, Harry spun around seeing at least twenty wizards surrounding them, wands aimed.
“DUCK!” Harry yelled as he grabbed Hermione and Luna, shoving them to the ground. Neville barely managed to pull Ron down in time as bolts of red lightning crackled and flew over the top of their heads, sparking and rebounding.
“STOP!” roared Mr Weasley. “That’s my son and his friends...”
Still shaking badly, Harry clambered to his feet and helped Hermione and Luna return to theirs as Ron and Neville stood up.
“Which of you did it?” barked a severe man whom Harry recognised immediately. It was Crouch, looking panicked and wild eyed, strands of his slicked hair clinging to his sooty and sweaty face. “...Which of you conjured the Dark Mark?”
“Don’t be ridiculous Crouch,” growled a grizzled wizard with mangled features and a large, spinning, electric blue glass eye. “That’s Potter and Arthur Weasley’s boy, and a few of their friends...”
“Oh... yes... yes of course!” Crouch muttered, seeming to return to his senses. Several more apparition cracks echoed, startling everyone, and Sirius appeared with Bill Weasley and a few other wizards that Harry didn’t recognise.
“Harry...?” gasped Sirius, his eyes wide with shock, “Is everyone alright?”
“Er... yeah. I think so...” said Harry breathlessly, his heart still thudding against the wall of his chest. “What about Lupin?”
“He’s fine,” Sirius replied shortly. “So what’s going on here?”
“The Dark Mark...” the gruff looking wizard muttered as his glass eye spun around grotesquely. “It was conjured from somewhere in this vicinity!”
“Ah... I see, Mad Eye,” Sirius nodded. “Harry, did any of you see who conjured it?”
“Er...” Harry gulped, “I couldn’t get a good look at the wizard, but he was standing right over there...”
As the wizards all drew nearer to the spot which Harry was pointing at, Crouch’s face turned even whiter than it had been. A sobbing house-elf was sitting there with a wand in her lap.
“That’s my wand!” squeaked Ron, “What’s my wand doing here?”
“That’s a very good question!” said a wizard that Harry didn’t know. “What were you doing with that wand Elf?” The terrified house-elf squealed and sobbed even louder.
“Come off it Amos!” Mr Weasley looked incredulous. “You can’t possibly think..."
“And yet here she sits - bold as brass with a wand in her lap,” said Amos coldly. “That’s clause three of the Wand Use Code broken right there...”
“It wasn’t Winky,” snapped Hermione, who was almost in tears herself. “Harry just told you it was a wizard.”
“Did either of you actually see him cast the spell? Eh?” Amos growled. “Well...? Did you?”
“Easy now Diggory,” said Sirius warningly.
Hearing Amos’s surname, it occurred to Harry that this might be the father of Cedric - the Hufflepuff whom he’d lost a quidditch match to in third year when he’d fallen off his broom after being swarmed by dementors - and he was beginning to take a serious dislike to Mr Diggory.
“I heard him...” Harry asserted through gritted teeth. “I turned around and he was standing there - then he vanished. Winky didn’t show up till after...”
“But you could have misheard, and you might not have seen the Elf at first!” Amos Diggory’s eyes narrowed, then he turned back towards Winky. “I’ll take that wand Elf... we’ll soon see what spell was last performed...”
“It doesn’t matter!” Mr Crouch suddenly barked, having recovered himself somewhat. “Unless you are proposing that I teach my house-elf how to perform the Dark Mark!”
“And don’t forget that’s Potter you’re talking to, Diggory!” growled the wizard that Sirius had called Mad Eye. “I’m sure he knows the difference between the sound of a wizard’s voice and a house-elf’s...”
“That was horrible, the way they were treating her!” said Hermione, angry tears trickling down her cheek. “Mr Diggory calling her Elf - as if she didn’t have a name. And Mr Crouch sacking her for running away... She was frightened and he didn’t even care - like Winky wasn’t even human.”
“Well she’s not,” said Ron.
Crookshanks narrowed his eyes at Ron and his bushy tail began to twitch. Harry frowned and opened his mouth to retort, but Hermione had already begun to lay into Ron furiously.
“That doesn’t mean she hasn’t got any feelings Ron. It’s disgusting - slavery is all it is...”
“You heard her back at the match,” Ron interjected hotly. “House elves like being bossed around - old Winky was only upset because she got sacked...”
Which wasn’t quite how Harry recalled it. Winky had been very upset about something else before she had got sacked. Fuming himself now, Harry tried to get another word in edgewise to ask Ron how much he’d like being a slave - and to point out that Winky hadn’t exactly enjoyed being ordered to save Crouch one of the highest seats in the stadium - but Hermione beat him to it again.
“It’s people like YOU Ron, who prop up rotten and unjust systems,” Hermione shouted, “just because you’re too lazy...”
Hermione halted in midstream when Sirius, Bill, and Mr Weasley entered the Weasley tent with ‘Mad Eye’ after conferring outside.
Everyone had returned to their tents after determining that Winky had done nothing illegal, and that whoever had cast the Dark Mark was long gone. Luna had thanked Harry and Hermione with hugs and said goodbye, as she and her father were packing up their tent right then and there and heading home. Lupin had departed as well, taking Neville home by side-along apparition. Harry and Hermione had dressed hurriedly and been brought to the Weasley tent by Sirius, where the Weasleys were already packing to return to the Burrow on the Knight Bus.
Sirius addressed Harry and Hermione as the heavily scarred wizard with the swiveling electric blue glass eye clomped forward. Harry only then realised that the intimidating wizard had a wooden leg. Crookshanks purred and arched around the scary looking wizard’s one good leg. Hermione shrank back and scooted a bit closer to Harry, shivering slightly, feeling a bit creeped out by the wizard’s eye.
“After chatting with Mad Eye, it seems that proper introductions are necessary,” Sirius began. “Harry, Hermione... meet Alastor Moody. He’s an old friend from before - he knew your father Harry, and Dumbledore. And he’s an Auror...”
“Was an Auror,” Mr Moody corrected, “technically I’m sorta retired now - I was just here tonight fillin’ in as added security for the World Cup. And as I’ll be seein’ you lot real soon at Hogwarts, I thought it’d be worthwhile sayin’ hello good and proper...”
“You’re going to be at Hogwarts?” blurted out Ron, unable to help himself. “How come?”
“You’ll see soon enough Weasley,” said Moody with an ugly grin. “Anyway, I also wanted to say nice work to you both, Potter, Granger! ... Thanks t’you two, a couple o’ scumbags are on their way to Azkaban after a visit to Saint Mungo’s.”
“Er...” Harry gulped, hardly daring to ask... hoping one of them was Mr Malfoy. “Who were they? Did you get any more?”
“The rest disapparated before they could be apprehended,” Moody snorted. “They hoofed it after the Dark Mark appeared! As to the pair you both nabbed... a couple o’ low level thugs who’d been hired to cause a bit of trouble...”
“Oh!” said Harry, feeling perplexed and oddly disappointed. “I... I thought they were Death Eaters...”
“I don’t doubt that some of ‘em were. They were all wearin’ the get-up,” replied Moody. “Whoever put those two up to it was surely among the rest. Unfortunately the ones that you and Granger captured didn’t have any idea who was payin’ them or who was behind the other masks - though I reckon I could guess who some of 'em were...”
Mr Weasley gave a little cough, and Alastor Moody decided that he’d probably said enough for the time being.
“Heh! ... Can’t really say any more without any proof I suppose. Right then... I’m off for now, but I’ll be seein’ you again real soon.”
Moody gave Harry and Hermione a nod, who were both still a bit too taken aback by Moody’s imposing presence to say more than “Bye,” then he turned around and grimaced at Mr Weasley, Bill, and Sirius.
“Arthur, Sirius... expect I’ll be seein’ you around too. Good to have you on board as well, Bill!” And with that, Moody stomped out of the tent and disapparated.
“I expect Molly will horrified to hear that you both put yourselves in the path of danger again, but Alastor isn’t wrong,” said Mr Weasley, smiling uncertainly at Harry and Hermione as he put his hand on Ron’s shoulder, “That was quite impressive, all things considered... Anyway, come along Ron - let’s give these two a moment to say goodbye to Sirius.”
Sirius beamed at Harry and Hermione proudly as Mr Weasley stepped out of the tent with Ron. But as he regarded them both cannily, Sirius could see that they were still feeling unnerved.
“Well done you two!” he said quietly. “A pair of dangerous individuals are in custody right now...”
“Will they be alright?” Hermione interjected, her features full of anxiety, an image of a wizard in bloody robes still fresh in her mind. “Mr Moody didn’t really say.”
“Yes!” replied Sirius, raising his eyebrows when he spied worry in Harry’s expression as well. “St Mungo’s Healers will have them both fixed up in no time. Please... don’t beat yourselves up or be too concerned for the two who attacked you both - you only did what was necessary to defend yourselves, and I care much more about your safety than I do about theirs.”
“Yes... it might have been safer for you to remain in the woods, but you both showed your true mettle by stepping up to fight evil. I couldn’t be prouder of you both...”
The Knight Bus was noisy and full, packed like an enormous purple tin of sardines. Harry had never seen so many people on the bus, all of them returning to their homes from the World Cup. But the Weasleys somehow still managed to squeeze on board with Harry and Hermione. There wasn’t enough room for everyone to stay together though; Harry eventually found a spot on the top deck of the triple-decker bus where he and Hermione could fit.
Harry was glad for that, as he didn’t think he could tell her what he was feeling in front of the others. There was only one seat left though, and Harry offered it to Hermione, prepared to stand for as long as he had to.
“Don’t be silly Harry,” said Hermione. “There’s plenty of room for both of us. I can sit on your lap...”
“Er...” Harry gulped and glanced nervously around at the throng of wizards and witches on the upper deck.
“It’s alright Harry,” Hermione murmured. “Nobody will think anything of it as it’s so crowded.”
“Yeah... I suppose you’re right,” Harry replied, brightening as a fluttery feeling in his middle loosened the knot of anxiety in his stomach.
It suddenly occurred to Harry that this was an opportunity for a bit of a cuddle which would go unremarked on - not to mention that it might make it a bit easier to say what he had to say. Fortunately the seat was a poofy cushioned armchair, as all of them were on the bus tonight due to the needs of the moment.
Hermione settled in Harry’s lap, an arm around his shoulders after he’d sat himself down. Moments later the bus lurched into motion and rumbled off into the darkness. Holding on to Hermione tightly as the Knight Bus hurtled through the countryside, every shudder and tremor seemed much more intense to Harry than it had on previous occasions. Harry let out a little groan of embarrassment when he began to inadvertently respond to the sensations, certain that Hermione could feel him stiffening beneath her.
“Are you comfortable enough Harry?” asked Hermione with concern as she adjusted herself in his lap, peering at his flustered red features.
“Er... I am if you are,” said Harry in a squeaky voice, his face blazing. Trying her hardest not to giggle and embarrass Harry even further, Hermione leaned in a little.
“I’m very comfy,” Hermione whispered earnestly in Harry’s ear.
Harry felt the fluttering sensation again and his nervousness began to ebb, though he had a sudden strong urge to kiss Hermione. Instead, he smiled shyly and let out a happy little sigh as he settled in for the ride. After a while, Harry finally felt relaxed enough to tell Hermione what he hadn’t had a chance to yet.
“I’m sorry Hermione!”
“Whatever for Harry? I told you I was perfectly comfortable.”
“It’s not that...” Harry swallowed, and continued quietly, “I mean about earlier tonight... Ron was right! I was completely mental... I don’t know what I was thinking... running back to the campsite to fight grown-up wizards when I don’t really know how! ...”
“I... I was just so angry at Malfoy - I really wanted to hurt him - but all he was doing was flapping his jaw, and... and I knew I couldn’t really attack him just for being a mouthy creep. And when I saw what his father and the other Dark Wizards were doing to those poor people, I... I figured I could go after them - fight them instead...”
“Oh Harry,” Hermione peered at Harry, her eyelashes glistening wetly. “You don’t have to apologise for that...”
“I do Hermione,” said Harry forcefully, blinking back his own threatening tears. “I could’ve got you killed... I should’ve just stayed in the woods with you and Ron. If I lost you - if something happened to you, I... I don’t think I could bear it Hermione - I couldn’t live with myself... not without you...”
Throwing caution to the wind, suddenly not caring that the Knight Bus was jam-packed with passengers - most of whom were dozing anyway as it was nearly 4 am - Hermione crushed her lips against Harry’s. Startled into speechlessness, Harry let it happen and found himself adrift, lost in Hermione’s passion. As her lips parted wetly from his, Harry gasped breathlessly and peered at her with wide bewildered eyes.
“That’s why I love you Harry,” said Hermione. “Because you’re so brave, and kind, and selfless - you always care more about others, and put yourself at risk to try and do the right thing - to save everyone. Don’t you ever apologise for that... ”
“But I was stupid - reckless - I put you at risk...”
“I followed you of my own accord Harry - because I want the same things that you do... I want to save people too Harry! We can’t always stop the people we love from being hurt, but as long as we fight together... that’s all that really matters.”
Harry bit his lip and stopped talking, seeing the determination and fire in Hermione’s eyes. He felt the truth of it burning deep within. He felt torn, as he was more certain than ever that Voldemort was back. Harry never wanted anything bad to happen to Hermione - he never wanted to put her in danger. But he knew that he felt better with her by his side than without her, just as he knew she would always be there for him... even if it meant putting herself in harm’s way.
It would be so much easier not to love Hermione - not to need Hermione - and not to have to worry about getting her killed. But he thought back to the conversation that they had had with Dumbledore after they had killed the Basilisk together; he thought back to the moment in the woods a short while ago when Draco Malfoy had as good as threatened Hermione’s life again.
Hermione would be no safer if Harry wasn’t with her. Hermione was right; being together was what counted - they were stronger together than apart.
“Together...” Harry whispered. Unable to fight his urge any longer, he drew Hermione closer and kissed her, his own face wet with tears.
As they kissed, Hermione could still sense the guilt inside Harry. He may have overcome it for the time being, but she knew that it would always be a struggle for him. But Hermione also knew that no matter what happened, she was never going to let it keep them apart.
Clinging tightly to the railing, Ginny carefully climbed up the spiral stairs to the top level of the Knight Bus as it careened wildly along its way. After the stop in Newport, several seats had opened up downstairs and she had gone to see if Harry and Hermione would like to come back down and rejoin the Weasleys.
She spied them at the front of the bus, apparently deep in some intense conversation. The top deck was as jammed as the rest of the bus, but there was an empty seat behind them which must have cleared out in Newport as well. Most of the other passengers were asleep. Ginny gripped the armrests of the chairs as she made her way to the front, but a sudden lurch sent her tumbling into the empty cushioned armchair two seats behind Harry and Hermione.
They hadn’t spotted her, and when Ginny overheard their conversation, she was very glad that they hadn’t. Ginny had lifted her flaming red head just in time to hear Harry say, “...I could’ve got you killed...” and then continue on to tell Hermione that he couldn’t bear to live without her.
Ginny blushed as deeply red as her own hair when she witnessed the intensity of their first kiss. She’d never seen them kiss in public before. Ginny slid down in her seat, heart pounding as she hid behind the passenger snoring in front of her when Hermione finished snogging Harry. Ginny’s eyes widened and she did her best to control her breathing when she heard Hermione reassuring Harry, and telling him that was why she loved him - telling him how kind and brave he was.
The pain and anxiety in Harry’s voice when he’d responded, and the conviction in Hermione’s when she told him that fighting together was what really mattered tore at Ginny’s heart. When Harry tearily returned Hermione’s kiss, Ginny found herself crying. Ginny wiped her tears away on her sleeve, glad now that she had finally listened to her mum’s advice, and given up waiting hopefully for Harry to start looking around at other girls. It was obvious that Harry was too attached to Hermione, and she to him.
Ginny knew that she would always like Harry, but she just wanted him to be happy. And Hermione had never been anything but nice to Ginny. The last thing Ginny wanted to do was spoil their happiness. Ginny smiled to herself through the tears which kept leaking, hoping that one day she could find what Harry and Hermione had together with someone of her own.
Maybe Neville - he was really sweet and kindhearted; she had really enjoyed hanging out with Neville and Luna at the World Cup. Or Dean - he was funny and bold. Unbidden, a cheery image of Luna’s gleeful face as she giggled at Ginny’s silly teasing remark about Neville being their shared “date” for the World Cup popped into her mind, and she got a little fluttery feeling in her tummy.
Uncertain what that meant, Ginny put her thoughts aside and decided to leave Harry and Hermione to themselves until the Knight Bus reached Ottery St Catchpole. When Hermione leaned in for a third kiss as Harry’s fingers twirled some of her beautiful tawny ringlets, Ginny took the opportunity to creep back down the aisle the way she had come.
The Knight Bus arrived in Ottery St Catchpole as the first pink rays of dawn crept across the sky. Hermione felt someone gently shaking her. She yawned sleepily and blinked, seeing Ginny’s beaming face come into focus. Hermione reddened when she realised that she was still in Harry’s lap with their arms wrapped around each other. As Hermione stirred, Harry roused awake; he groaned when he saw Ginny hovering over them. Crookshanks peeked out from under the poofy armchair.
“It’s alright,” said Ginny, grinning. “All the others are still downstairs. We’re here now...”
Everyone was exhausted and Harry was feeling very stiff and sore as he and Hermione trudged along the graveled lane to the Burrow in the early morning mist, following the Weasleys as Crookshanks trotted beside them. But as the price of cuddling Hermione for a few hours, Harry wouldn’t have traded that soreness for anything else in the world.
Mrs Weasley barreled across the yard in her slippers waving a newspaper when she saw them approaching. To Harry’s surprise, she hurtled towards the Twins and flung herself on them sobbing, dropping the newspaper and the note which had been sent to her with Hedwig on the ground.
“Ouch Mum - you’re strangling us,” muttered Fred.
“Oh thank goodness you’re all alive!” wailed Mrs Weasley. “And to think that I shouted at you before you left...”
“They had a row about the Weasleys’ Wizards Wheezes that Fred and George have been making,” whispered Ron with a grin when he saw Harry and Hermione’s puzzled expressions.
Once inside, Mr Weasley wearily plonked himself in a chair and poured himself and his wife a healthy splash of Ogden’s Old Firewhiskey into the cups of tea which Harry and Hermione had kindly made for them as he peered at the hot-off-the-presses early-bird edition of the Daily Prophet.
“TERROR AT THE QUIDDITCH WORLD CUP!” blazed across the top of the front page.
“Of course!” Mr Weasley sighed heavily, sharing a dark look with Mrs Weasley and Bill. “National disgrace - Ministry blunders - lax security - only two culprits apprehended - full investigation called for...”
“Rumours of bodies recovered...?” groaned Mr Weasley, “Well, that bit’s a load of rubbish! The only ‘bodies’ recovered were the two hooligans that... er... were caught... very much alive...” Mr Weasley’s eyes flickered towards Harry and Hermione uncertainly. He really wasn’t sure if Molly should know about their role...
“How come it doesn’t say anything about Harry and Hermione fighting them and knocking them out?” asked Ron, looking bewildered. Bill and Mr Weasley both winced and palmed their faces.
“WHAT?” bellowed Mrs Weasley, her eyes bulging as she gaped in horror at Harry and Hermione, who both cringed.
“You faced Death Eaters? You poor dears! You could have been killed...” she shrieked, pouncing on Harry and Hermione like a mother tiger on a mission to carry her cubs to safety.
“We’re fine Mrs Weasley! Really!” squeaked Hermione, seeing Harry’s crestfallen face.
“Blimey! Members of the Wizengamot are calling for Fudge’s head...” said Bill loudly, distracting his mother from smothering Harry and Hermione.
“And why not?” said Percy superciliously, “Fudge and Madam Bones should have had full Aurors in charge, instead of DMLE Patrol to provide security... and probably Dementors as well. Mr Crouch says Scrimgeour should have been running operations - and according to Mr Crouch, the Senior Undersecretary agrees...”
“Do us a favour Perce, and shut up,” snapped Bill. “There’s good reasons that Crouch and his sort aren’t in charge of the DMLE anymore...”
“Boys, please...” said Mr Weasley. “Percy, we should probably both head to the Ministry and get to work...”
“But Arthur, you're still on holiday...” Mrs Weasley began to protest.
“I’m sorry dear, but this is a huge disaster for the Ministry, and they’ll be needing all hands on deck!”
“I suppose you’re right,” sighed Mrs Weasley. “Just try not to be late home. None of you have had much sleep!”
Mrs Weasley began making breakfast for everyone, and refused to accept any help from Harry or Hermione, saying that they both needed to rest after their terrible ordeal. Ron was rather pleased, as his mother seemed to think that he and Ginny, and Fred and George should be let off the hook as well.
While Bill and Charlie helped their mother with breakfast, Ginny went off to have a shower, and Fred and George made their way to their room. Ron was about to help Harry carry his trunk upstairs to Ron’s room, when his mother turned around from the bacon pan after conferring quietly with Bill.
“Oh, Harry dear,” said Mrs Weasley, “Bill says he’ll share Charlie’s room for the moment while they’re both still on holiday, and that you’re welcome to his old room if you’d rather.”
“Er... really?” gasped Harry.
“Absolutely!” said Bill. “Wait here a moment Ron, I’ll take Harry and his trunk.”
Ron scratched his head in bewilderment and peered at Hermione questioningly. Hermione simply shrugged, her brows furrowed; she was as much at a loss as Ron was, as she was fairly certain that she herself would be sharing Ginny’s room for the next few days.
“Well, this is it Harry!” Bill grinned when he and Harry reached his old room. “It’s not much, but when I was chatting with your godfather, Mad Eye, and Dad before we finished packing up to come home, Sirius pulled me aside and asked about the sleeping arrangements at the Burrow...”
“He told me that you’d been emancipated, and for some reason he seemed most insistent that you have your own private room to sleep in, if at all possible...” Bill raised his eyebrows and smirked knowingly.
“Er...” Harry turned pink and rubbed his face, wondering what on earth Sirius had been telling Bill. “Th...thanks Bill!” Harry stammered, feeling an odd mixture of joy and trepidation. “I... er... I really appreciate this loads.”
“Now, I know Mum is well aware of your status as a legal adult, but I’m not certain that it has entirely sunk in... So fair warning Harry, if you have any late night visitors perchance, they should probably still exercise caution - and be aware that Mum is usually up by 6 am!” Bill concluded with a wink.
Harry peered at Hermione’s wind up alarm clock, then grinned at Hedwig and Crookshanks who were both perched together on top of Bill’s oak wardrobe as Hermione nestled under his arm sighing contentedly. He couldn’t believe his luck.
It had been a very long, weird day. And despite being worried about the return of Voldemort and Wormtail to Britain, the mayhem at the World Cup in the wee hours of the morning, and the possibility that Cornelius Fudge’s days as Minister might be numbered, Harry didn’t feel half as dreadful as he could have. It was hard to believe that he was actually in the Burrow cuddling and kissing Hermione in perfect privacy.
After breakfast, Ron had wanted to play a bit of casual quidditch with his brothers and Harry, eager to show Harry the moves that he’d been practicing on his Cleansweep 8 all summer, but Mrs Weasley had thankfully insisted that everyone take naps first.
Harry had felt much better after a few more hours sleep, and following lunch he’d filled Ron in about his scar hurting again and his nightmare with a bit of help from Hermione. Then Harry had spent the rest of the afternoon flying around with Ron, and Fred and George, and Bill and Charlie. Showing off on his broom, Ron had been as happy as Harry had ever seen him, which Harry had found very pleasing. And after dinner, Harry had spent some time playing games with Ron, Ginny, and Hermione, before getting ready for bed.
Then just a short while ago, Hermione had cautiously crept into his room, quietly giggling about Ginny’s participation in a conspiracy of silence with Bill. They had shared a few kisses, and now Harry lay there, simply enjoying the warmth of Hermione’s embrace, her minty aroma, and the rhythm of her gentle breathing as she snuggled beside him, curled under his arm.
As Harry began to drift, he felt an exhilarating rush of wind. He was soaring again under the stars on his Firebolt with an enchanting luminous beauty clasping her bare arms around him. This time there were no spectators and no snitch, the only thing golden being Hermione’s billowing hair and sparkling eyes, which always seemed to shine so in moments such as this.
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