By what right had Hermione been worried? And for what reason? He could take care of himself. He had been Head Auror, after all. And it was hardly possible that anything out there posed a bigger threat than Voldemort ever did. Even less likely that someone (or something) was out for Harry specifically, unlike his old mortal enemy had been.
He was lying in his office bed only a few hours after returning from his brief reunion, pondering Hermione's strange behavior. Something was off, but what? A quick look at his map told him that his former best friend was wandering the halls this night. In fact, so were McGonagall, Neville, and several other professors. What had he missed? Had something happened? He shot up from his bed, dressing sloppily before abandoning his office to confront the first teacher he could find.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as his wand lit up the corridors he strolled through. Voices could be heard here and there, but they most likely belonged to the Hogwarts ghosts. The Marauder's Map told that Neville was close by, seemingly monitoring the hallway right outside Moaning Myrtle's bathroom.
'Neville!' he whispered hoarsely. 'You here?'
'Harry? Harry, what are you doing up?' Harry's wandlight reached his old friends face, lighting up the now slightly stubbled, but still quite chubby, face. Neville Longbottom, now a professor, was standing alone, outside of the girl's bathroom, disheveled robes and out of breath voice. And he was asking Harry what he was up to.
'I could ask you the same, Neville. Why are all the professors roaming the halls? Is something happening?' he asked. Neville glanced around them nervously. Sweat dripped from his forehead, shining brightly in the light emanating from Harry's wand.
'I'm - I'm not supposed to tell you, Harry. I think -'
'Not supposed to? What does that mean? On whose authority?' he demanded.
'S-Sorry, Harry, you'll have to ask the Headmistress -'
'I'm asking you Neville because you are my friend.'
Neville stood frozen, thinking, before turning to face his old friend.
'Harry,' he began calmly. 'We are colleagues now. If our Headmistress tells us to do something, we do it. I won't disobey her orders because we are friends. First and foremost, I am a professor of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.' He let out a long sigh as he finished his speech, looking quite amazed at himself for managing through all those words at Harry without faltering. Harry was amazed as well, proud even. His old friend… no, Professor Longbottom, had come a long way indeed.
'Then I'll ask her. Thanks, Neville.'
The map revealed McGonagall to be in the Great Hall, surrounded by three dots carrying names Harry didn't recognize: Wolstan Crane, Daniel Gomersall, and a Ragnvaldr Visla. Who were these people? Why the secrets? Was this what his Aurors had found on that anniversary, all those weeks ago? Questions formed faster than his mind could process them, faster than his now throbbing headache could handle. Hermione would have an idea, he knew. Hermione could help him.
Paintings on the walls shouted after him to mind his wand as he rid the halls of their blackness with it, waking up both the people within and the suits of armor he passed. Another quick look at his father's map showed that the person named Visla was now missing, nowhere to be found, replaced by… Decima Cely? What on earth was going on? When he finally found himself standing outside the Great Hall gates, hesitation gripped him, hindering him like an invisible barrier. He wanted to enter, to confront the lot of them. But, without being able to explain why, he also wanted to go back, to turn around and go to sleep. You're under a spell, a voice inside his head told him. It was ludicrous. No one had approached him, no name was close to him on the map. The spell is on the door, idiot.
'Finite Incantatem!' he pointed at the gates of the Great Hall, and all doubts melted away, as if they had never been there at all. Pushing open the heavy doors, the four people inside now stared at him, incredulously. 'Can someone tell me what the bloody hell is going on here?'
The four occupants of the Great Hall accompanied Harry to the Headmistress' office, where the Gargoyle leapt out of the way for the staircase to reveal itself as McGonagall uttered the words "White Vitae". The office had been redecorated since Harry's last visit. Gone were the enigmatic trinkets and strange tools of Albus Dumbledore. They were replaced by heaps of books, papers, and parchments that were being written on by enchanted quills. Adorning the walls were the familiar faces of the previous Headmasters and Headmistresses, including Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape. Some were snoring loudly, such as the aforementioned Albus, while others slumbered in peace.
In Fawkes place was a perfectly white cat, sitting up straight as the five of them entered, unblinkingly following them with her red eyes. The Headmistress waved her wand to produce two simple wooden chairs, apparently not bothering with either comfort nor hospitality, as there were now only three chairs, and five people. McGonagall motioned for Decima and Harry to take the seats in front of her.
'Potter. You - I owe you an apology.'
'Minerva. I don't accept it. Explain to me what is going on, and I'll consider it. And Decima, what are you doing here? And who are these two people? And where is that Visla-person?' So many questions, so little time… Not wanting to burst out more and seem too desperate, he eventually settled his inquisitorial tongue, convincing himself he would receive an explanation any second now, and that everything would become clear and obvious.
'How do you know Valdr Visla?' asked Decima. McGonagall raised an eyebrow at Harry, before her eyes found the map he was holding.
'I think we have given Professor Potter far too little credit, Decima. He isn't as dumb as he can sometimes appear.' Harry wasn't sure whether to take is as a compliment or insult, and landed somewhere in between. 'I do believe he deserves an explanation. Wolstan, Daniel, you can leave. If Valdr is still here… Well, you know what to do.'
Harry was lost. Completely lost. Was he dreaming? Had he fallen asleep, sometime many years ago? Had he in fact never returned from dying at King's Cross? The idea wasn't as bizarre as the actual events that unfolded in front of him, though when Decima sneaked a kiss on his cheek… It felt real.
'Sorry, Boss. I wanted to tell you, but…'
'But, Harry,' McGonagall continued. It was one of the few times she called him by his first name. 'Someone is after you. Someone close, someone with access to a… a broken technology, a technology we thought we were well rid off.'
'A Time-Turner, Harry.' Decima finished.
Time-Turners? Harry's face screwed up in confusion. They were all destroyed, back when… When Sirius died. At the Battle of the Department of Mysteries. It didn't make any sense, and his Headmistress' explanation only caused more questions than answers.
'Not a true Time-Turner, Potter. It seems to be someone or someones with a heavily damaged, or modified, device. Perhaps both. We can only catch glimpses of changes appearing in our presence; whispers, phantom footsteps… Well, you can understand the difficulty in chasing such a person in such a place as this.'
'Chasing? So how do you know their after me?'
'The voices we've heard have revealed some information, but… Not long ago, we were visited by a man calling himself Valdr Visla. He claimed to know a great deal about what was going to happen, which we of course did not believe… But then, things… Fell into place, just as he had described. We could not find him again, though. He disappears and appears at random, even within these walls, even with all our enchantments and protections… Sometimes he appears as an old man, other times as a young, cloaked figure, horrific scars on his face and scalp… We can't stop him. And we don't know who he really is. All we know is that someone is after you, and Visla, or one of the Vislas, is in on it.'
This was it. Of course it was. Hermione knew it. Did Ron? Would his best friend have kept this from him? Decima did, after all, and so did his former best friend. But surely, not Ron. This was what worried Hermione. What caused her strange behavior towards him.
'And why did you not tell me about this, Prof - Minerva? Why keep it a secret? Let me come here, and endanger you all?' The two women shared looks, seemingly trying to decide wordlessly on what to tell him.
'Harry, I know you'd want to solve this on your own. To end this. But Visla has shown us no reason to doubt his… prophetic words so far. He told us… He told us you would die. We did not want to burden you with that knowledge. And the less you knew, the less danger you would expose yourself to. Professor Granger knows as well as I that you cannot stay away from imminent danger if you have any hope of helping someone, even if that someone is yourself. Paradoxically, you are your own worst enemy in this regard, Harry. You put yourself in danger.'
'I don't care what Professor Granger -'
'I care, Potter. And she cares about you. You'd do well to remember that. I suggest the two of you solve your little dispute, and quick. Whatever ill-blood exists between you two is, as of now, irrelevant. Bury the hatchet, that is an order, Professor.'
"Bury the hatchet." Would that it were so simple. McGonagall did not know what had transpired on the Hogwarts Express. She did not know of Hermione's words and anger, nor of Harry's disappearance and betrayal of their friendship. He sighed… Of course, she was still right. Of the two of them, Harry had committed the far worse crime to their friendship, and it was up to him to try to mend it. Reparo would not do, maybe nothing would. But this was not an order he would ignore. For once.
Decima stood, excused herself, and left after giving her old boss a quick hug. Harry lingered a bit, wandering past the different paintings hanging from his old professors walls, hoping someone would suddenly wake up and bestow some ancient wisdom unto him. He stopped in front of Albus Dumbledore, his silver beard cut in half by the frame which contained Harry's old friend and mentor. His snores were convincing enough, but behind the half-moon spectacles, a single eye opened, winking at him, and then returning to such an authentic-looking sleep that Harry wasn't sure if what he'd seen was a figment of his imagination or not.
Hermione's dot on the map was still not in her chambers when Harry exited McGonagall's at far past three o'clock. She wandered around on the second floor, pacing silently as Harry approached. When he caught up with her, she stood outside the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, Harry's office. Startled by Harry's less quiet footsteps, she turned around, shining her wandlight directly into Harry's eyes, blinding him temporarily as he flustered to regain his sense of balance.
'Thanks, Hermione.' He blurted out as his vision grew darker and less painful.
'Sorr - well, you shouldn't have sneaked up on me!'
'Never one to admit wrongdoing, are you?' to her apparent annoyance, Harry laughed. 'Listen, Hermione. I should apologize. For what I said, for my disappearance, for my failures as a friend and as a person. Not only these past weeks, but… These past years. It's hard to admit to myself, but I have been awful. I saw this - this Hogwarts return, as a chance to restart, to rekindle my love for life and for magic. And maybe myself. I let you down, Hermione, and I'll never do that again. Ever. If you give me a chance, that is.' Hermione flew into his arms, accidentally stabbing him between the ribs with her want. He groaned in pain as she apologetically backed off and pocketed her wand, then awkwardly returned to the hug. 'Suppose that's my fault as well, seeing as I made you hug me?' they shared a laugh, as Hermione shed a tear or two on her best friends shoulders.
'Oh, Harry… And I came here to apologize to you. I… What I said was awful, way out of line, and untrue. Little Harry would be lucky to have you. Anyone would. I am.' Even in the darkness of the hallway, Hermione's now red cheeks were visible. She stared at the floor as Harry swept her into another hug.
'Friends?' he asked.
'Always.' She answered.
They stood there, holding onto each other for what must have been a long time since birds could be heard chirping when they finally let go of one another. Harry wanted to ask her into his office for quick tea as they both would have no time to sleep before their morning classes, but Hermione was already a step ahead of him when she opened the door leading to his office without saying a word. Not wanting to stop her, he followed closely behind, rubbing his tired and surely bloodshot eyes in the process. All the night's events and information he had been bombarded with was flying around in his sleep-deprived mind - clashing with the now blurred thoughts of his first friendly encounter with his best friend in a too long while. Her brown curls bounced lightly behind her pale skin, covering the top of her white shirt. The lack of a large, covering black Hogwarts robe exposed her quite pretty contours in his dimly lit office. She was… Attractive. And something told him it wasn't just his fatigued and overworked brain who was thinking along those lines. She had always been beautiful to him; though, perhaps this was the first time he saw her in a less than sisterly way. She was a woman.
As they sat down in his rather cramped and messy office, located behind the door in the front of the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, Hermione whipped out two cups of steaming tea, a couple of sugar cubes, and a small carafe of cold milk. He always had admired her elegant way with magic; she made everything seem so effortless, so easy. That was of course a lie, he knew. Hermione worked hard for her skills. She always worked hard and diligently. Another trait of hers he cherished.
'I've been meaning to ask,' Harry began. Hermione's face shot up from her tea to meet his gaze. 'Why'd they name the twins Harry and Hermione?' I would have thought Ron - or Albus, even. Why our names?'
Hermione shifted in her seat, looking a bit uncomfortable at the question and taking a small sip before answering.
'Well, they thought they were two boys when they first found out that Ginny was carrying twins. When the first boy was born, they named him Harry, naturally.'
'How is that "naturally"? Why me?'
'Oh, come on, Harry. Yes, Ginny and you didn't work out in the end, but she still loved you. The whole Weasley family does! And… Harry's a pretty name, don't you think? In fact, I read that there are loads of young Harry's nowadays, ever since you defeated Voldemort. Wood didn't mind, of course. I don't even think he knew about you two until recently.'
'Oh… And then the other twin was a girl, and they named her Hermione. That makes sense, I suppose. Yeah.'
'They were of course planning on a Harry and a Ron, running around inseparably just as the two of you when you were kids. I don't think they expected a pair of Harry and Hermione, but… I don't think they mind, either.' She quickly averted meeting Harry's eyes by staring into her cup, taking another sip of her hot tea. Harry could see how proud Hermione was that there was a child named after her, but to see her blush, to see her so happy by that… It brought a smile to his face as well.
'I'm just glad they named the elder one Harry, otherwise there'd be no little Harry now! If they'd started with naming the first one Ron…'
'Then there'd be at least one "Ron & Hermione" at the moment.' She said, with a solemn voice.
He wanted to cheer her up… Not knowing how though, he said nothing. Just looking at her, being with her, would have to do. At least for now. They shared a yawn, finishing their tea in silence, before Hermione "scourgified" her cup.
'Harry,' she started.
'Is it okay if I stay here with you?' he was quite taken aback by that. Stay here? Stay the night? Of course, the night had already passed. Only a few short hours remained until the students would storm the Great Hall for breakfast. 'Until morning, I mean. I don't want to leave…'
'Er - of course, Hermione. I only have the one bed, though. I'll - I'll just stay here by the desk then, okay?'
'Thanks, Harry. I only need a nap. I owe you one.'
'Don't mention it,' replied Harry. Hermione rose and turned to Harry's bed before glancing back at her friend. 'Oh, sorry.' He exited the room, realizing she needed to undress. 'Goodnight, Hermione.'
Trying to suppress the thoughts of his best friend undressing, he wandered around the classroom. Images of a young Harry and Hermione, sitting next to each other in this very classroom, haunted his exhausted mind. Of course, Ron was there, unlike he was now. Ron was always there. But not now. Now, there was only the two of them. And she was in his bed. Undressed, and, most likely at the very least, uncertain of her future with Ron. A part of Harry screamed for him to enter his office, to join her on the bed. But… that voice was back, the same voice who convinced him not to turn back from the Great Hall earlier. Don't do it, it told him. You'll regret it. Think about Ron. This is wrong. But why? Why was this wrong? Ron and Hermione were over. Done. Why would his best friend stand in the way of a new love blossoming? That would be.. selfish. Had Harry not acted unselfish all those years ago with regards to Ron's sister, this situation might never have happened!
Yet, he did not enter. The voice won. And Harry found himself a short hour and a half later startling awake on one of the comfortable student chairs of his office.