When would be the best point in time for an over-powered Harry to return to his past? Right before the First Task! In this chapter, the Christmas Break starts.
The last three weeks of term went past fast for Harry. When the story of Tom Riddle came out in The Quibbler, there was something of an uproar. Luna had found a few photos in the library of Tom Riddle while at school, while Mr. Lovegood had found a few images of 'Lord Voldemort' during the period where he was preaching his hatred more directly to Pure-Blood groups in the late 1950s through the very early 1970s. There was also an image of Riddle from a Daily Prophet photo that showed many of the merchants of Knockturn Alley at a meeting to oppose proposed regulations on artifacts in 1948, and even a grainy image of Riddle in the crowd of an anti-Muggle rally in Vienna in the early 1950s.
The images showed the progressive dehumanization of Riddle -- Tom Riddle, Riddle the Head Boy with one Horcrux, and how Voldemort looked with three, four, and five, although the article did not speculate on what 'dehumanizing Dark rituals' Riddle had subjected himself to. There was documentation of Riddle's background, and it was clear from the article that Riddle's blood-status had not mattered to his followers in the 1940s through the early 1970s; what had mattered was his descent from Salazar Slytherin and his advocacy of Pure-Blood culture and hatred of the Muggle world. Several flyers and reprints of early speeches and pamphlets reminded people that they had known all along who Voldemort was, they just had not cared, as he had served as a rallying point for those who loved the Pure-Blood agenda, and for those who disliked it and who could then point at Voldemort as the extreme version and condemn it.
The article was more discreet when talking about the Death Eaters -- who might have been condemned unfairly, who might have gotten off claiming Imperius, who might have been never suspected were all mentioned as categories and in general, but not named, other than Sirius Black, whose case was stated to be 'confusing' and whose conviction 'was of doubtful legality'.
Voldemort's fate was also debated. That he had been defeated by The-Boy-Who-Lived was clear, but no body had been found. The choices seemed to be that Voldemort had lost his power or even his magic and was no longer a threat, or that he might yet stage a comeback.
On the personal front, Harry and his friends made great strides the hour after dinner Monday through Thursday each of those three weeks, as they practiced dancing. Ron was not overly-pleased that Neville had asked Ginny. Harry had made the suggestion early (Neville was thrilled by the idea, and Ginny wanted to go the Ball), and had cast protective charms on Ginny's feet the first few nights. By the end of term, Neville had enough confidence and skill that Ginny no longer needed the charms.
Harry and Hermione made every dance meeting, and made Ron go as well. While Hermione had, at least for the moment, given up nagging Harry about anything, she continued to have a go at Ron about homework and the dance practices. Harry made certain Ron arrived to them at least somewhat cheery, although that took walking a delicate line of encouraging Ron to enjoy holding a girl he was becoming more attracted to and denying that Neville was having anywhere near as good a time holding Ginny.
Ginny and Marietta, both very impressed with the dedication of their partners, were actually starting to feel some genuine affection for them. Harry and Hermione were already far past that stage of course, and Cedric and Cho (who were also present every night) were not far behind Harry and Hermione.
Meanwhile Justin was a very confused young man. Luna was unlike anyone he had ever thought of meeting. She was also nice, smart, and considerate, as well as very pretty and rather sweet. He was starting to look past her eccentricities by the end of the second practice dance.
Luna was blossoming in the considerate, supportive atmosphere, much to Cho and Marietta's surprise. Luna would always be eccentric and naively and painfully honest, but she no longer felt it necessary to jump into every lull in a conversation with her observations or theories. She was made part of the conversations instead of being the perpetual outside observer awkwardly trying to add to them.
Any other number of couples showed up to the practices after the second night, and they were from all of the Houses (as two Slytherin girls, a Fifth and a Sixth year, had dragged their Ravenclaw dates there to make certain they could dance). Several Beauxbatons students also attended, as did a few of the Durmstrangers.
The Darker elements in Slytherin were confused by all this inter-House bonding, and also confused that they received so little direction from the Head of House. While Professor Snape had always been indirect and even subtle, his opinions and even at times directions had been very clear. Now it appeared he had abandoned his charges to what was threatening to become a rather sickening group hug, as a large section of the House fell in with the rest of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and even the Durmstrang students (although not their Headmaster) in being friendly with each other.
It wasn't that Snape was participating in the growing festive mood. In fact, Snape was being sullen and hostile to nearly everyone. Hostile towards everyone, Draco Malfoy and a few of the intelligent observers (Bulstrode, Davis, and Greengrass) in the Fourth year Slytherin/Gryffindor Potions class saw, except towards Potter and Granger, two of his three previously favorite targets. Snape was even treating Longbottom with more resigned contempt than active hostility.
Malfoy didn't understand the situation at all. The three teen girls, however, at least had a general idea. No one knew what had transpired when the rest of the class had cleared out that Friday after the First Task, but whatever had happened between Potter and Snape, there was no question that Snape was terrified it would happen again.
For Millicent Bulstrode, this posed a problem. One of her grandmothers was the product of a Pure-Blood wizard and a Muggle. She was therefore still not well-thought of, despite also being nearly an heiress to eligibility on the Wizengamot. She was certain if a few relatives would just die off, her treatment would improve a great deal. Of course, that was one reason that branch of the family stayed away from her's.
She had been drawn into Draco's faction early, and had supported him despite his many failings and failures. She wondered if it might not be the time to move a bit towards neutrality. She had decided she needed to observe what went on during the break. She therefore allowed Crabbe and Goyle fight for the right to take her to the Ball, as both had to go since Draco was, and both were desperate not to be dateless.
The two had managed to send each other to the Hospital Wing twice in the second-to-last week of term, and neither was ready to concede defeat. At that point, Ted Nott had stepped in and tricked them into sending each other to the Infirmary a third time, and claimed Millicent for himself. Deciding he might not be quite as spiritless as she had thought, Millicent had gone along.
Tracey and Daphne were already intriguing with others inclined to neutrality, and Millicent knew that she might not have long to change sides, if she wanted to. She had been surprised when Nott -- well, Ted -- had merely told her that it was his uncle who was the Death Eater, not his late father, as most people suspected. That told her that he was willing to at least investigate the possibilities with her, and if she was lucky, in many senses of the phrase.
Harry was surprised at how many students left on the train. Then he realized that he had been so preoccupied in trying to work up the courage to ask Cho out in the original time stream that he hadn't noticed that over a third of the older students had left, many intending on returning for the Ball.
Hermione had been curious as to how Harry might be preparing for his future confrontation with Voldemort. She knew that Harry was usually about the last person to bed at night. When she had been called it a night at 10:45 every evening, she had seen Harry sit down with books on defense and dueling. That first Sunday morning of the Break, she had been shocked to be woken up at 5:10 by a hand and forearm sticking out from under an invisibility cloak. The hand uncovered her mouth and dropped a note, asking her to meet him in the Room of Requirement. Hermione vowed to make certain she went to bed dressed decently, as obviously Harry could now by-pass the anti-male alarms on the stairs.
It took Hermione nearly half an hour to wake up, dress, and make her way to the Room. For the next hour, she watched Harry as he continued to exercise and shadow-spar (with both dueling moves and hand-to-hand), followed by 15 minutes of fast swimming in a pool which had suddenly appeared.
At 6:55, the pool suddenly disappeared, leaving Harry resting on the floor for a few minutes. Then he dressed and the two went down for breakfast. "That was a hard workout," Hermione observed. "Do you do that every morning?"
"Every morning," Harry agreed.
"Harry, how little sleep are you getting?" Hermione asked, concerned. She had wanted to share a complete day with him, but this was a bit more than even she had expected.
"I need four to four-and-a-half," Harry answered, "and I've been getting at least four every night since I've been back."
"Well, I suppose that explains how you can do so much," she said.
"It certainly helps," Harry agreed, not telling her he also had Merlin's prototype time-turner available.
Hermione took Harry's hand and asked, "I know you hate fame. How do you think you'll handle it once you defeat Voldemort?"
"I'll be somewhat famous as the Triwizard Champion, but if I do it right, the only people who will know about Riddle will be you, me, Dumbledore, Sirius, Remus, and Luna," Harry said. "That does bring up a subject we need to talk about. I know you want to get your background research done for the winter homework, so how about we meet back at the Room at Two?"
"Alright," Hermione said.
"You look tired," Harry told Hermione as he paced outside the Room of Requirement to set it up.
"I am," Hermione said.
Harry smiled and kept pacing. When they entered the Room, Hermione gave a small squeak of surprise when their clothes changed into pajamas, dressing gowns, and slippers. Hermione looked around and shivered a bit in anticipation.
The room was a fairly good-sized bed chamber. One entire wall was a large window, showing a snowy night scene, and there was a strong chill coming from it. Opposite was the door leading out, and Harry assured her that their clothes would reappear on them as soon as they stepped out of the Room's environment. There was also another door which led to a lavatory. The third wall was a large fireplace with a warming fire, with a small loveseat for two just angling off to the side.
One the fourth side was taken up by an enormous bed. Hermione looked nervous.
"I thought you could use a nap, nothing more," Harry assured her. "I can use the time to meditate."
"Alright," Hermione said cautiously.
Harry gestured to the loveseat. "But first, we have to talk."
"Alright," Hermione repeated.
Harry sat and took Hermione hands in his. "I think you know I love you." Hermione nodded. "And I know why you can't make more of a commitment than you have at the moment. So again, don't think I'm pushing anything."
"I trust you, Harry," Hermione said simply, and with total faith that he wouldn't ask more than she was ready to give.
"Good," Harry said. "Before we lay down, we need to talk about something completely different."
"And that is?"
Hermione's mind jumped the tracks. "Well," she admitted, "I didn't think that's what we'd be discussing alone in our jammies."
"We'll come back to us in our 'jammies'," Harry said. "To go back to what we were talking about on our way to breakfast, if I were to kill Voldemort in front of a crowd, I think one of three things might happen. First, they'd never believe it was him, and I could be arrested for killing someone."
"I guess I could see that," Hermione said.
"Second, they'd believe it was him, but would arrest me anyway, because it would have to be an execution, Hermione. I couldn't risk bringing him in front of a group of people and his getting away or hurting or even killing by-standers." Seeing Hermione was processing it, Harry added, "You can't claim self-defense if you execute someone, at least not easily."
"I suppose not," Hermione conceded. "Now what aren't you telling me?"
"Well, when Voldemort dies, so does everyone who is Marked."
"What!" Hermione exclaimed.
"Voldemort is draining away a tiny part of their magic. When he was disembodied, they all passed out. When I killed him in the other time line, that yanked the magic out of them, and when that was drained, their life force."
"Does Dumbledore know that?"
"If he does, then he's been playing things fast and loose with Snape," Harry answered. "So, the most likely scenario is that I would be charged with the death of the Death Eaters. So, I won't be terribly famous, because I have to let Wormtail bring Voldemort back, and then kill Voldemort without anyone knowing."
"We might be able to think of some ways around those problems, just in case it gets out, but we can come back to that. Instead, what does that have to do with house elves?" Hermione asked, deciding to come back to this rather disturbing development later.
"When we leave Hogwarts, we will have been together for three and a half years."
"Even if you on to an apprenticeship or to University, well, it would be nice if we were at least planning our wedding, assuming we're still together."
"Also true," Hermione agreed, for she had thought all this out long before Harry had even joined with his future self.
"So, as things look now, if we stay in magical Britain we will have a difficult time, due to our background," Harry said. "Our choices will be to stay and fight for the civil rights of elves and werewolves and such, or go to someplace like North America or Australia, where there aren't those sort of problems at least."
"I say we stay and fight," Hermione said. "I grant you, we might change our minds."
"Then here," Harry said, handing Hermione three sheets of parchment. "House elves are not really free anywhere, but they do have protection outside of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. This is the contract a wizard who is an elf contractor, as they are called in North America, has to sign."
Hermione frowned and looked the parchment over, while Harry said, "You have to understand that elves have to serve someone. If we can get the North American, or better yet the Australian rules adopted, at least they can't be abused."
Hermione finished reading and glared at Harry, who said, "I know, it's far from what you'd like, but you also have to consider what they would like, and what they've been conditioned to."
"Okay, say I do accept that. Then what?"
"There are two free elves here at Hogwarts."
"Dobby is one," Hermione said.
"Yes, and he's happy, but would be even happier employed by me with one of those contracts," Harry said. "Winky is here, too. She's very depressed and drinking a lot of butterbeer."
"And that's bad because?"
"Because even though it has only half a percent of alcohol, her drinking one butterbeer would be like you drinking a bottle of stout and she's drinking about twenty a day. She really wants to bond with someone the old-fashion way, but she might go for this." Harry pointed at the contract.
"So, you want to contract two elves?" Hermione asked.
"No, just Dobby. I thought you might want to contract Winky, with something like this added," Harry said, handing Hermione another sheet of parchment.
Hermione read it and sighed, since it was mostly about how she would have to treat her elf. "Was I really so hard-nosed about elves' rights?" she asked.
"Yes," Harry said simply. "Dumbledore okayed their staying here, although we'd be paying their wages, of course. Winky would be taking care of the Gryffindor girls' dorms, Dobby the boys. We wouldn't see them unless we specifically called for them."
"I guess I really do trust you, Harry," Hermione said.
"Dobby!" Harry called.
Dobby popped into the room. "Harry Potter sir?"
Harry nodded, "She's agreed, Dobby."
"Thank you, sir, miss. Dobby will be right back!"
Dobby popped out and then popped back with a slightly swaying Winky. "Miss wants Winky?" Winky asked.
"Yes, Winky," Hermione said.
"Miss wants Winky with nasty contract, or will Miss allow Winky to bond with her properly?"
"The contract is proper," Harry said. "It just isn't as strict."
"Please, Winky, contract with me," Hermione said, feeling sorry for the little elf.
Dobby quickly explained how she and he would be working during the school year. Winky looked at Hermione. "This is Mistress' orders?"
"If Winky agrees to the contract," Harry said, to which Hermione nodded.
"Dobby will sign now," Dobby said. He pinched his finger, drawing a drop of blood, and placed a large X on the last sheet of the contract Harry held out. "Dobby has already read it."
Harry pricked his finger and signed with a new quill. "Master Harry. . . ." Dobby started. Harry raised a warning finger. "Mister Harry," Dobby corrected himself. "Dobby will take Winky away until she sobers up and Miss Hermione has napped."
"Good idea," Harry said. With that, the elves disappeared. Harry stood and held out his hand.
Hermione looked at the bed, took Harry's hand, and stood. "I do need a nap, but perhaps we can sleep in a bit?" she asked hopefully.
"As you wish," Harry said with a smile.
"Come, stable boy," Hermione said, for The Princess Bride was secretly her favorite movie.
Harry picked Hermione up in his arms. "As you wish, milady Buttercup."
Just before she fell asleep some forty minutes later, Hermione murmured in Harry's ear, "You were right about the Parseltongue."
The equally-satisfied Harry merely kissed his beloved and decided to nap as well.
The infatuated couple awoke and took a shower together, and then conducted the contracting ceremonies for Hermione and Winky. At Harry's suggestion, Winky would make room in her schedule to help Hermione prepare for the Ball.
The pair finally left the Room of Requirement and went to have an early dinner. Ginny looked at them and said, "You two look well-satisfied with the world."
"We are," Hermione said.
"Very," Harry agreed.
Ginny made a face, but only for an instant. Neville, she had found, was actually more interesting than she had given him credit for, and his willingness to learn how to dance properly for her had improved his standing with her. The fact that her three brothers well less than happy about her interests at only thirteen added to Neville's appeal. Harry had stepped in when the twins had tried to be a bit too over-protective, and Ron was easily distracted by Marietta, who, it turned out, was nearly as interested in Ron's doing his homework as Hermione had been. Since she rewarded him with kisses, however, Ron seemed willing enough to please.