The After Life

Changing Status

"I'm not finished."

"Harry."

"Just a minute."

Harry hurried around with the dwindling taper. It was almost out. A wand and the incendio spell would have make this child's play. He wished the breeze from the window would die down. It was making this harder.

"Harry...can I look now?"

"Open those eyes and I'll hex them shut for a month."

"Really? You and who's wand?"

She had a point. "Please, just keep them closed a moment longer...there! All done. You can open your eyes now."

So she did. And she beamed at him.

"Oh, Harry, this is lovely."

"Happy birthday," said Harry. "Sorry. You don't know how hard it is to stick candles into a bunch of croissants. They aren't made for it."

Harry looked down sadly at the tray in front of him. Coffee, orange and pumpkin juice, freshly baked bread, pancakes and croissants. With candles in them. Candles that were already lilting mutinously. It wasn't as flawlessly crafted as Harry had pictured in his mind.

Hermione smiled at him warmly. "That doesn't matter, Harry. I wasn't expecting breakfast in bed! Thank you."

"Well, it is your birthday. Make a wish then."

"Only if you'll come and sit with me."

Hermione smiled again, and patted the bed next to her. Harry felt his insides shudder nervously. He did as he was told, trying his best to keep the tray steady. Hermione leaned over him and blew out the candles. There was always one stubborn one. It took a few puffs to put out. Harry was fixated by the pout of Hermione's lips.

"What did you wish for?" he asked.

"I can't tell you that," said Hermione, her eyes dark and sparkling. "It might not come true."

"But maybe I can help..."

"Then I definitely don't want to risk it."

They held a look a moment. Soft smoke rose from the remnants of the candles. Hermione looked so pretty in the pale morning light. Harry had to hold back from out and snuggling into her.

"Coffee?" she suddenly asked, her skin tinged pink.

"Hey, its your birthday," said Harry. "I'll be the one spoiling you."

"I'm sure I can manage coffee, Harry," said Hermione. "Three sugars, isn't it? Two white, one brown?"

Harry started. "Yeah...how do you know?"

"I...I'm not sure," said Hermione, frowning. "I...I just do. I must have made you coffee at breakfast or something before."

"No, I never let anyone do that, 'cause of my weird sugar thing."

"Yeah, what's that all about?"

"I like the taste of brown sugar, but I need white sugar for sweetness, too," Harry explained.

"But you're sweet enough, already," Hermione poked.

"Ha ha, just make the coffee, Birthday Girl."

They sat there a while, eating their way through Hermione's breakfast as she opened presents from her parents and grandparents. Her favourite was a small silver otter, with pearly white gems as eyes, on a fine silver bracelet that her mother had bought her. She twirled it in her fingers, admiring the craft work.

"This really is rather pretty," she said, fussing over the eyes. "I wonder where she got it. Oh look, there's a card... let me see...For Hermione, Happy Birthday, sweetheart. I bought this last minute on Diagon Alley. Harry mentioned that an otter protects you from darkness somehow...I didn't really understand all the magic, sorry! But the gems in the eyes are moonstones. They shine in the dark, I've seen it! Its beautiful. I hope they show you the way, if all other lights go out. Love Mum xx."

Hermione looked over at Harry. She wore such a look of adoration that Harry felt the room heat up all of a sudden. He began bothering a loose seam on the quilt as Hermione continued to stare at him.

"Harry?"

He shrugged at her. "Your mum was looking for an idea. I told her books were safe ground, but she was determined. You know how she gets."

"But...the otter," said Hermione. "That's my Patronus. You remembered?"

"Of course," said Harry. "I was curious to see which animal was inside you. I like to know what's looking out for you. We agreed it was fitting."

"We? You were with my mum when she got this?"

"Yes. We started this before you were injured, but never got to finish it. The otter just jumped out at us. And, obviously, we had to get it with moonstone eyes. I said I'd catch moonlight for you. This is the best I can do at such short notice."

Harry heard Hermione's breath catch in her throat. He grinned to himself. He'd hoped that would happen. He hadn't counted on her next move, however. She suddenly threw her arms around his neck and placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. He felt it tickle and shimmy all the way down his skin right to his toes. He wiggled them at the sensation.

"Thank you, Harry," she whispered. "It's beautiful. I love it."

Harry soared. He pulled her back gently and resettled against the headrest of the bed.

"Now, you may notice that my present is missing," said Harry. "But I'm saving that for a bit later. It isn't much, so don't get too excited, but I'm hoping the day I've planned will make up for it."

"The day? I was going to try and get to some classes today, Harry," said Hermione. "I realised yesterday how far behind I was falling."

"You will do no such thing," said Harry firmly. "I've already cleared it with McGonagall. She's allowed you to take the day off. She even went around and charmed the classrooms to not let you in."

"Harry! Why...what are you up to?"

"I'm taking you out for the day," said Harry. "We are going to have a break from all the craziness around us and have a nice time for your birthday. Don't even think about arguing. After breakfast, once you're showered and changed, we'll head off."

"Where are you taking me?" asked Hermione, grinning girlishly.

"Its a surprise," said Harry. "I just hope you like it."

"I'm sure it'll be lovely," said Hermione. "I'll be with you, after all."

"I'm glad you think that," said Harry, colouring a little. "Because I'm not planning to share you with anyone else today. We wont be going anywhere with other people."

"That sounds just perfect," said Hermione, smiling broadly. "Come on. Lets get this cleared away so I can get ready."

"Ok, I'll just take this back to the kitchens and clean it up. I'm sure the elves will want to know how my baking went down."

"Your baking? Harry...did you make my breakfast yourself? From scratch?"

"Well, er, yes I did," said Harry, bashfully. "The elves tried giving me tips, but I remember how to cook. I was the Dursleys slave for a decade. Its hard to forget some things."

Harry tried to ignore the pained look on Hermione's face. He had to learn to control his emotions. He couldn't be always infecting her whenever his mood swung so violently.

"Did you enjoy it, that's the main thing?"

"Yes! It was delicious! You can cook for me any time you like."

Harry beamed at her. Cooking had always been a chore, a task carried out under the burden of the threat of punishment. But if this simple act could make Hermione happy, Harry thought he might just invest in a recipe book or two.

"Good, I'm glad. Now get ready. I'll meet you downstairs when you're done."

Harry gave Hermione a gentle smile, which she returned with sincere affection. He felt it hit him like a ray of sunshine breaking through clouds. It lit up his skin and he turned away to leave her to change. He smiled all the way to the kitchens.

The day had started well.

Hermione tested the shower. The temperature of the water always took a moment to even out in her en suite. This was a nice perk for the Head Girl to have such facilities, but they took a while to get going. Hermione slipped out of her pyjamas and underwear, catching sight of her reflection in the mirror. She winced at the image. There was a deep, angry purple scar the length of her left side, from armpit to hip, where Ginny's curse had hit her. It was tender to the touch. She flinched as she gently massaged it, and wondered if it would ever fade.

She didn't think she could bear for Harry to see it.

She shook involuntarily at the idea, both excited and mortified by the concept. It would be quite the miserable thing, for on the first time Harry saw her naked he clocked his eyes on that ugly thing. She was still clinging to the last stubborn idea that he might find her ugly in all her nude glory in any case. That massive scar wouldn't help matters. She knew Harry, of all people, wouldn't judge her for a scar. But it was hardly conducive to romance, was it?

Hermione sighed. She was pacified by the idea that she was even considering this. That the notion of Harry seeing her naked was now a very real possibility in her life. Not even a possibility, but an inevitability. A certainty, she hoped. And she had never hoped to be seen naked by anyone before. That was an entirely new sensation. It thrilled her as she stepped into the warm water. It was just typical of her lousy luck that she wasn't looking her best as she was on the cusp of this most intoxicating of outcomes coming true.

She wondered excitedly what Harry had planned for her. It set her heart to its, now familiar, fluttering that he had gone to any sort of trouble for her, let alone made all these arrangements to treat her to a nice day for her birthday. She didn't really care what they were going to do. Just being together would make it incredibly lovely. And as Harry had said it would be just the two of them all day...Hermione could think of nothing better.

And it made it that much more suitable for her own plans.

She gently soaped herself as she pondered her strategy. She stared across this terrifying abyss, considering the voyage. It was more daunting than anything she'd ever faced. But wildly enthralling just the same. She tried to calm her rapid nerves, but the flutter was now becoming a vigorous shake. It wouldn't do, but she couldn't help it. The idea was making her sway with the drunkenness of it.

For, by the end of the day, she hoped to be able to call herself Harry Potter's girlfriend.

On a scale of Monumental Statements this was numbers one, two and three. Her wired brain wouldn't stay still as this thought bounced around it. She wasn't accustomed to being this mindless, but the very mention of what she dearly hoped would be her new role sent her over the edge like nothing else could. She practically danced as she continued to wash, paying extra attention to her more private areas. Well, you never know. If it went that far, Hermione wasn't sure she'd have the restraint to be as conservative as she thought she ought.

It was Harry, after all, and she couldn't stand to deny him. Or herself, for that matter. This urge, this ache, within her had the potency of a rogue Bludger, and threatened just as much chaos. Poor Harry, he might be startled when this animal inside was released! Hermione felt it stalking around her loins, purring with the possibilities, growling lowly at the frustrations. She couldn't keep it caged for too much longer.

Then, her body ached in a different way, a far more negative way, just to remind her that she might not have been physically capable of much more than a session of heavy kissing. Hermione shrugged, she would happily settle for that. Her body would heal, and she'd make it up to Harry later for his understanding and patience. For he would definitely show her both. Then she'd show him all the things she'd ever researched in this area. And her list was alphabetical.

But that was for later. Hermione stepped from the shower and went to change. The choice of outfit was a conundrum. Demure? Hard to Get? Geek Chic? She settled on a full-length, floaty, periwinkle blue summer dress with a thin, white cotton cardigan and matching white shoes. She surveyed the effect. She looked quite cute, if she did say so herself. It was casual enough, but the dress had a square, Georgian-style neckline. It hinted at cleavage, and Harry had shown a liking for that before.

Hermione hoped he'd do a lot more looking today.

The students of Hogwarts were used to seeing Hermione Granger hanging off Harry Potter's arm. Over the last few days it had been hard to tell where one of them finished and the other began. While it was certainly true that Harry was helping his injured friend to move about the castle, there were many among the student body who openly wondered if their holds had to be so close, or so tender. There were long-term couples who didn't seem quite so intimate. It set tongues to wagging and soon the famed Hogwarts rumour mill was churning out a new theory about the star turns of the old castle.

Of course, these rumours weren't totally new, but many of the younger students had missed them the first time they appeared. Now they were stirred again, the new generation were relishing the opportunity to indulge in such exciting gossip. Yes there were existing Quidditch Captains dating Gobstones Champions, and some juicy stories about cross-school relationships, since a new pen-pal scheme had been introduced to encourage greater interaction with other magical educational institutions, but none of these came close, really.

For the stories of the Hero of the Second War shagging Hogwarts Brainiest Ever Witch were just too hot for some to handle.

Harry heard these rumours, and the whispers that drove them, bristling like wildfires as he met Hermione in the Entrance Hall. He paid them no mind. He had only just enough mental power to focus on Hermione as she joined him. She looked stunning and the vision left him breathless. He lost his mind a moment as she limped gingerly down the Main Staircase. He only recovered in time to rush and offer a shoulder for the last three steps.

Then the hushed whispers broke out.

"Thanks," said Hermione, throwing an arm around him and making him bear her weight. "That was tough."

"Sorry, I didn't think," said Harry. "Hermione...you look...beautiful...incredible...I..."

Harry stopped as words failed him. He just looked at her, drank her in. She beamed back at him.

"Oh, thank you, Harry! You look pretty good yourself. White shirt, black jacket...its a classic. And very suave."

Harry coloured deeply. He felt very poorly attired, and not worthy of having Hermione on his arm.

"So, are we going somewhere upmarket?" Hermione asked, leaning comfortably on Harry's arm as they walked out the castle.

"Not exactly," said Harry. "Certainly not somewhere that deserves to have you looking so great. We are starting off in Hogsmeade. Can you manage the walk, or shall I get one of the carriages?"

"Can I use you as a support frame?"

"For as long as you need."

"Then I'd like to walk."

So they did. The action drew them impossibly close, practically linked at the hip. It might not have been entirely necessary to be quite so close, but it worked for both of them. Soon they fell into easy stride with each other and chatted pleasantly as they walked. Hermione prompted Harry for info on his plans, he batted them away, and Hermione was reduced to using tricks and schemes to try and get Harry to slip up.

But Harry was made of sterner stuff. The first surprise came when they reached the village. Hermione made to strike out down the main high street, but Harry guided her down a path which led away from the familiar shops and taverns. She looked puzzled and Harry grinned at her. There was something adorable about that look of hers, the one that told her insatiable curiosity had been aroused. Harry would tell her one day just how attractive he found her intellect. He loved to see it at work.

"Where are we going, Harry?"

"You'll see. Give it a minute."

So she did. And a minute later she was wide eyed in curious surprise.

"The Hogwarts Express!" she exclaimed. "Are we going for a ride, Harry?"

"If you'll favour me with your company," Harry grinned. The gleaming scarlet steam engine stood proudly at the platform of Hogsmeade station. Smoke billowed from its chimney, floating back to the only only carriage connected to the engine. It shone in the morning sunshine, reflecting the red and white flowers in the beds of the platform.

"Of course I will," Hermione beamed back. "But where are we going?"

"I'll tell you once we're aboard," said Harry. "Now, my lady, your carriage awaits."

Harry felt his heart swoop. Hermione had never looked so flattered. He was so pleased this part of the plan had worked. He knew the train held a special place in the hearts of many students, but Hermione had never shown an outward love of it. But, by the look in her eyes, she was positively relishing a private ride. He helped her step aboard the train and showed her into the carriage, which he had changed slightly

"Oh, Harry!"

"Do you like it?" he asked tentatively.

"Like it! I love it!" Hermione squealed. She threw her arms around him and gave him a firm squeeze.

Harry felt the carriage heat up. He looked at his handiwork. The racks had been removed, as well as the usual benches. The walls had been charmed to look like a vast library, with rows of books stretching back into the distance. Two comfy armchairs sat either side of a circular oak table, upon which stood a long thin vase containing a single rose. A small box sat next to it. An exquisitely carved fireplace completed the scene. It gave off no heat, but the crackle and swoosh of crumbling logs gave the carriage a cosy feel.

"This is just wonderful, Harry," Hermione squeaked.

"I'm glad you like it. I had a lot of help from Luna."

"Remind me to thank her later. Its fantastic!"

"Have a seat," said Harry. "I'm just going to speak to the driver."

Harry slipped from the carriage, ignoring yet another query about their destination. He returned a few minutes later, but not without grabbing yet another prop.

"Champagne, madam?" asked Harry, popping the magnum and pouring two glasses.

"Harry, isn't it a bit early for alcohol?"

"Not on your birthday," said Harry, handing her a glass. She took it, despite her protests moments earlier. The train hooted and began to roll out of the station. Harry raised his glass. "To you. Happy birthday."

"To me," said Hermione, clinking her glass against Harry's. They took a sip each. Then Hermione looked out of the window, her brow furrowed. "Er...Harry - the train's going the wrong way."

"No it isn't," said Harry with a knowing grin. "We aren't going to London, Hermione. Haven't you ever wondered where the Express goes once it drops the students off?"

"Actually, no," said Hermione, the light of adventure in her eyes. "But now I'm fascinated."

"I'm glad about that," said Harry. "Because I found out it goes a lot of places. I thought we could take a trip and see some."

"That sounds wonderful, Harry!" said Hermione eagerly. "I love steam trains."

"Really? So do I! How come we've never discussed that?"

"I suppose it had no reason to come up, did it?"

"What...apart from the fact a steam train delivered us to a world full of magic spells, potions, evil wizards oh...and each other?"

"Exactly, apart from that," said Hermione, smirking with a glint in her eye.

Harry shook his head. "Well, that's the plan for the start of the day. A toast...to eight years of being best friends. This is the carriage we met in, did you know? I remember it was the last one, Number 12."

"Wow! Is it really? You have gone to a lot of trouble, Harry. Thank you."

"Its nothing," said Harry, heat rising from his neck to his cheeks.

"It isn't nothing," said Hermione softly. "It really isn't."

She looked at him with tender sensuality, taking his hands in her own. Their eyes met, and some unconscious understanding suddenly flared between them. Harry felt on the verge of melting. He tilted his glass in her direction, then drank deeply.

So far, so good.

Hermione wasn't used to being pampered, let alone practically swept off her feet. She could hardly get her head around it. First breakfast in bed, then Harry arranging a private ride on the Hogwarts Express, including a champagne lunch complete with an array of cold meats, bread and cheeses, and strawberries to follow. Even the music was perfect. A soft soundtrack of Celtic violins permeated the carriage. It may have been coming from somewhere deep in the library Harry had enchanted onto the carriages walls for her. It mingled with the stunning views of the Scottish Lowlands, as they left behind the rugged landscape around Hogwarts and sped south. It was almost too much.

It was all so romantic.

But more than that, it was her sort of romantic. Books and beautiful vistas and Celtic folk tunes. How did Harry know she liked that? She was sure she'd never mentioned it to him. He was good, but not even he could have guessed that. If it wasn't all so perfect she might have felt suspicious. But she wasn't about to ruin the mood. She simply basked in having such a wonderful time. She and Harry sat in amiable conversation, occasionally nibbling from the meat platter, moving onto a second bottle of champagne and enjoying the warm fuzziness the bubbly liquid was sending to her brain. It made her laugh more than she normally would, but Harry seemed to light up at the sound, so she was keen to laugh as often as possible without looking like a crazy person.

But all the while she couldn't help wonder where they were going.

As much as a fun trip aboard the steam train was lovely as it was, Hermione was savvy enough to know that Harry had a destination in mind. He would nod out of the window every now and then, marking the change in the landscape. They were going somewhere, a fact made more evident by the fact that Harry pointed out things as they passed. Places of magical interest that the Express could be asked to stop at. Places Hermione knew about, but was surprised to find Harry knew about, also. The realisation occurred to her then.

He's made this trip before.

So where were they going? It took a good few hours to find out and Hermione enjoyed every second that she had Harry to herself. The huge surprise came when the Express sped through a coastal station called Rockcliffe...where it suddenly shot under water! Hermione gasped and reached out for Harry in surprise, gripping his hand tightly.

"Don't worry," he said with a warm smile, squeezing her hand back. "It's supposed to do that."

Hermione looked up, slightly awestruck. The Express moved elegantly through the dark water. Hermione could only stare speechlessly through the window and watch as the water flowed steadily past the glass. Harry found her look very amusing. For her part, she felt an innocent invigoration that magic could still stun her like this. It reminded her of all the things she loved and treasured about this world.

Speaking of which, Harry was still holding her hand. And he was looking at her with tender affection in his eyes. Hermione didn't trust herself to speak. She could only look at him, and what she saw sent her heart to frenetic beating. She had been used to seeing such hurt there, bone-weary pain deep rooted in Harry's very soul. But she saw none of that now. All she saw was fiery, burning adoration.

And she was coloured all sorts of pinks.

Harry's emotion coursed through her and she couldn't shake the sensation that he meant it. He was doing it on purpose. For her to feel it. He was revelling in this new skill. The thought floored her. She was barely cogent with the raw power of it. But she held his gaze for a long as she was able, before turning her eyes sheepishly to the table.

That's when she remembered the box.

Her coyness allowed her to study it covertly. It was larger than a ring box, which was good as the very notions that thought aroused were enough to send her silly. It was soft red velvet and the letters HJG were stamped inside a golden moon. Her initials? She shook her head in wonder at the effort. The letters glinted a rainbow of colours against the light of the carriage and Hermione had a hard time deciphering the original colour of them. She looked up at Harry to ask but she still couldn't form words under his wonderful gaze.

They stayed like that for some time, either through desire or embarrassment or for the very fact that they had been holding hands for so long it was now awkward to be the one to break the contact. Hermione certainly knew she didn't want to be the one who did it. But Harry didn't seem to want to, either. So because neither wanted to, it was okay to maintain it. And they didn't need to say anything about it.

Hermione had no idea how long the train was under water. Time was only marked by the feel of Harry's skin against her own, and it had no denoted units. His skin was so soft, she'd never imagined a boys skin could be. Ron's was coarse. Harry's was silky smooth, even the slightly textured scar tissue around his souvenir from detentions with Dolores Umbridge. Hermione tensed her jaw angrily as she rubbed the slick skin of the old wound. How could people so casually wound the one she loved so much?

And she almost, almost told him in that moment.

Then the train broke the surface of the water. Sunlight flooded the carriage, dimmer than earlier but it stung Hermione's eyes just the same. She pulled her hand from Harry's to shield her face. Her skin felt colder for the loss of contact. She felt it go sadly.

"Ah, we're here," said Harry brightly as the train rolled to a gentle stop. He reached down quickly and took the velvet box from the table. Hermione saw it and felt a jolt of nervous energy shoot through her. She looked up to see Harry offer her his hand. "Are you coming?"

Hermione smiled and let Harry help her up, repositioning her arm around his neck and letting him guide her from the carriage.

Harry helped Hermione step down from the train and gave her a few minutes to look at their surroundings. They were breathtakingly beautiful, after all. Perhaps not as much as her, but nothing was. He was pleased to see her looking suitably impressed. He had been slightly in awe of the view when he'd first come here, it was something he had to show her.

And also, she had to know. They couldn't proceed if she didn't understand fully.

"Where are we, Harry?" Hermione whispered. "This place is gorgeous!"

Harry smiled. "I know, isn't it? I love it here."

Harry looked around. They were on the shores of a stunning lake, behind it the Hogwarts Express sat on sleepers waiting for them. In the distance were deep green valleys, crystal blue waters, the sheer, rugged beauty of a mountain wreathed in white cloud. It inspired reverence. Harry drank it in and breathed deeply.

"But where are we?" Hermione pressed.

"Hermione - welcome to Lake Bala," said Harry. "We are in North Wales, the Snowdonia National Park. That's Mount Snowdon up there. Isn't it a beautiful spot?"

"It's incredible," Hermione breathed. "How on earth did you find it?"

Harry took a steadying breath of the Welsh mountain air. "When...when I left," he began cautiously, "I was looking for the easy fix to make me better. You know what I'm like. So I came here."

"For what purpose?"

"I was told of an old witch who was supposed to live here called Ceridwen," Harry explained. "She was supposed to have a magical cauldron which could give wisdom and had healing properties. I saw it as a quick solution."

"That sounds like myth to me, Harry," said Hermione.

"Oh, no, it was all quite true," said Harry. "Ceridwen's been dead years now. Killed by Grindelwald, if you'll believe. He wanted her cauldron. But he didn't find it. That's the myth part. The lake is the cauldron, its waters have transformative powers."

"Do they?" asked Hermione sceptically. "How do you know?"

"I met her daughter, Creirwy," said Harry. "She explained it to me. Very beautiful, girl, she is."

Harry waited a moment, to let the confession fall on Hermione. He was pleased to see her scowl at him.

"Creirwy and her husband, Morfran, told me to bathe in the Lake to help cure me," Harry went on. "So I did. It helped, but I sort of think the time I had to think while floating on the water might have had a lot to do with it. That and the peace and quiet. Its so calming. I think I might live here, you know."

"What? Here...by this lake?"

"Not necessarily here, but in Wales definitely," said Harry. "There's magic everywhere. In the ground, in the air, in the water. I feel more comfortable in this country than anywhere else I've been. I'm relaxed here. People seemed to love Scotland and Ireland and forget about this place. I sort of like that. I can live in peace. Do...do you like it here?"

Harry let the cautious question hang a moment before looking at Hermione, to gauge her response. She seemed to consider her reply then, in a second Harry couldn't pinpoint but knew had come all the same, her expression changed, warmed as she suddenly understood. She smiled so brightly she might have been glowing.

"Ye-yes, Harry, I love it in Wales," said Hermione breathily. "My mum's Welsh, isn't she? You won't find me forgetting about the place."

Harry felt his foundation shift. His world was changing. He knew it with firm certainty. He yearned for it to come full circle.

"Why have you brought me here, Harry, besides the view?"

Harry looked at Hermione as he pondered his answer. When he replied, his voice was heavy. "I want you to know who I am."

Hermione looked puzzled. "I do know who you are."

Harry shook his head. "I want you to really know. And this is where I found out for myself."

Harry turned his eyes and his face away from her. He let the memories of the time he was here flood him. And tears trickled from his eyes before he could stop them. And what was the point in pretending? Hermione had seen his scars, he'd undressed his wounds in front of her. Now she had to see him for all his flaws.

"Harry!" Hermione cried, rushing over to him as quickly as she could. She was too surprised by his sudden change of mood to say anything more. She simply cradled his head gently and held him close.

"I killed a man, took a life," said Harry lowly, huskily. "Nobody gets it. I saw Death look back at me and I still see it. I brought it into my world. And he haunts me, terrifies me, even. When I sleep, when I close my eyes, I can still hear my mum when she died...and see Cedric...and Sirius...even Dumbledore. Everyone I love leaves me. My parents, my family, my friends. My love is poison. I'm a disease. I need to be cured...or killed. People around me only end up hurt...or dead."

Hermione tried to comfort him. She said things like, "Harry, I..." and, "Harry, listen..." and other broken bits but then words seemed to fail her. But this was Harry's test...and Hermione was under scrutiny now.

"I'm telling you this, because you need to know how deep my darkness goes," said Harry. "There's something I'd like to tell you, something I want to ask of you, but I cant until I know you properly understand. Only then can you give me a genuine reply."

Harry eased himself from Hermione's embrace and slid to the floor. She went with him, sitting on her knees opposite him. His tears still fell. He'd been holding them in for a while. But he'd let them out onto this soil before, and felt stronger for the release. The mountains, the valleys, the clouds...they wouldn't judge him. They'd sit in silent observation, offering their beauty as a reward for his catharsis. Now, he hoped for something else.

"What is it?" Hermione asked quietly. Her voice betrayed a tremble.

"When I came here the last time, I was full of anger, of hatred, for pretty much everything," said Harry slowly. "I honestly wasn't sure if my shattered psyche would ever be mended. Whether I'd be sane enough to recognise the next dawn. But here, in this valley, I found beauty and life again. It made me remember that there were still good things in the world.

"That was when I first missed you."

"W-what?"

"I missed you," Harry repeated. He studied her expression hungrily. "I was sat here, almost on this spot, and I really wished I'd brought you with me when you asked me to. You don't know how close I came to taking you. I was so tempted. I didn't really understand why at the time, and the same sensation hit me as I sat here, feeling a bit better after three days of being on my own, and wishing you were with me."

"Oh, Harry! Really?"

"Really. It set a pattern. Everywhere I went after that, whenever I came across a place that cheered me up or made me smile, I found myself longing for you to be there to share it with me. No-one else. Just you. You were my only regret after leaving, and for the longest time I feared to think why."

"And...do you still fear it?" asked Hermione cautiously.

"No, I'm pretty sure I know why, now," said Harry. He took a lungful of empowering air. Hermione didn't seem to be up and running away, and his confession was so close now. "But I'm still afraid to tell you. In case you say what I hope you might, but that you don't know the extent of what I'm asking. Of what you'd be getting into. I cant give you your birthday present until you do."

Harry turned away. The emotions welling up inside were beginning to run away with him. He hiccuped, his tears unaccountably stronger now.

"I'm damaged, Hermione," Harry managed to force out. "You've felt a bit of it. But its far worse than you know. I hurt all the time. And I have so much hate and rage in me. I don't know if I can love, or be loved, properly anymore. Not like a normal person. I...I think I may be broken."

Hermione reached up and brushed away his tears with her thumb. Harry felt his breathing hitch. "Harry - you are not broken, I wont let you be. You're wounded, but we can heal those scars, Harry. And you are loved. So, so loved."

"By who?" Harry asked, doubtfully. "Look at me. I'm a mess, a trainwreck. I have the darkest issues colliding inside - self-loathing, impossible anger, unreasonably rage. Who would be foolish enough to take me on? Who'd want to love that?"

Hermione smiled at him with beautiful sweetness. She shifted closer, placed her hands on his shoulders and pressed her forehead to his. "I would, Harry...I do."

Harry looked at her. His world was standing still. Time had stopped without his noticing. There was no sound, save for Harry's own heartbeat thundering in his ears. Despite his almost certainty, despite his planning based on solid hopes, to hear Hermione say the words was utterly astounding. The impact was devastating, in the most incredible way.

"You-you do?"

Hermione nodded, her eyes shining with tears, too, though of a very different sort. "I do. I love you, Harry."

Harry felt his world flip with his stomach. But he still had to make sure. "As more than a friend?" he asked hopefully.

Hermione laughed. It sounded like sunshine coming out after the rain. "Yes, as more than a friend. As much, much more. I love you. I'm in love with you, Harry Potter."

Harry smiled more brilliantly than he had in his entire life, leaned in close, letting the words flow around him like warm syrup. When he finally remembered how to speak, his voice was barely more than a whisper. "I'm in love with you, too. I have been for the longest time. I love you Herm-"

But Harry's words were smothered by Hermione's soft lips, pressing firmly into his own. Her arms snaked around his neck, his found their way to her waist. She slid forward to straddle him completely, kissing him fiercely and deeply and longingly. Harry knew little of it. His mind was in the stars somewhere. But he managed to kiss her back, not breaking even for breath. This moment, dreamt of for so long, was finally happening.

And it felt more perfect than he could have ever imagined.

After an eternity locked together, but not nearly long enough for Harry's liking, Hermione eased herself away, but still kept their foreheads touching. She was breathing heavily, but she still smiled. It was the single most beautiful thing Harry had every seen in his life. Then Hermione seemed to lose control for a few minutes. She laughed, hugged him tightly, peppered his face with little kisses, pressed her cheek into his as she hugged him again, then laughed some more, before finally settling her head onto his shoulder and pulling him impossibly tight to her.

"Oh, Harry! Tell me this is true, tell me I'm not just imagining it all! Is this really happening?"

"I hope it is!" Harry smiled into her hair. He swam in her heady scent, he squeezed her as tenderly as he could, mindful of her injuries. It just wouldn't do to start their relationship with yet more pain.

"You never let me finish earlier. You said it first so its my turn. Its only fair, and I've waited long enough myself! I love you, Hermione. I love you so very much. I don't think I'll ever be able to tell you how much."

"Me too, Harry, me too!" said Hermione lovingly, laughing again and hugging him tighter still. Harry so loved the sound. Hermione was positively bristling with energy. She felt fit to burst. "I wish I could remember this moment forever. I never want it to end."

"Then perhaps its time for your birthday present."

"What? This isn't it?" asked Hermione, sitting back. "What could top this?"

Harry looked at her quizzically. "You think this is your present? Us getting together? I'm not that arrogant, Hermione! I mean...that is what we're doing, isn't it?"

Hermione laughed. "I would hope so. I don't go around kissing boys just for something to pass the time!"

"That's good to know," Harry grinned. "I wouldn't want my girlfriend doing that. I can call you that now, can't I?"

Hermione didn't answer with words. She leaned in and kissed Harry again. It was a kiss so slow and sensuous that Harry lost his mind to sensation, he was a slave to it. When Hermione drew back he felt his own lips hold the pose for several moments.

"I want you to call me that as often as you can," said Hermione, breathlessly. "I've waited so long to be your girlfriend, Harry. I feel we have to make up for lost time!"

"Me too," said Harry, ruefully. "We've both made mistakes in the past. We cant do anything about that. But as for the future, that's something different. So, here - happy birthday, Hermione."

And Harry handed over the velvet box.

Hermione took the box as Harry offered it to her. Her mind was still a frenzied whirlwind. She was struggling to get to grips with all that had happened in the past half an hour. They had been underwater on a train not so long ago. Now they were sat in a stunning Welsh valley as boyfriend and girlfriend, with all of nature behind them silently applauding. Even the sun had stayed out to watch. Hermione could still feel the press of Harry's lips against her own, she could still taste him. The sensations rattled her and hitched a permanent grin onto her face.

And she couldn't wait for more.

But the box in her hand now focused her curiosity. She traced her own initials with her fingers, marvelling at the array of colours shining in them. Then she slowly pulled open the lid. Inside was a silver necklace with a small silver book dangling from it. Hermione took it out and surveyed it.

"Now, it doesn't look much," said Harry. "But there's more to it than meets the eye. "Its imbibed with a powerful Memory Charm and some other little spells. When you put it on it will link to you. Then, every book you read, or have ever read, will be recorded in the necklace. If you need to research something or do revision, you can simply tap the silver book with your wand and it will transform into the book you need. I thought it would be useful for you with your classes."

"Wow! That's amazing, Harry!" said Hermione, her eyes wide. "That will really be great for me, thank you."

She leaned in an gave him a shy kiss on the cheek.

"But it does another clever little thing," said Harry. "It can record pretty much anything you want. Its sort of like a diary. Memories, events, sights...if you want to remember them just hold the book to you and think of what it is you'd like to remember, and it will be recorded. Then you can relive it whenever you like, sort of like a Pensieve.

"We've missed so much time, being apart. I...I thought you might like to remember the new memories we can make...together."

Hermione smiled affectionately at him. "Like to remember? Harry - I'd love that! Here, help me put it on."

Hermione handed Harry the necklace and turned away from him, lifting her hair so he could thread the fine chain around her neck. He fiddled with the small clasp but eventually fixed the necklace in place. The silver book glowed for a moment when it touched her skin. She held it tightly in her fist. She never wanted to forget this moment. This feeling.

"Its looks beautiful," said Harry, he slowly moved his hand towards hers, but his courage seemed to waver. Hermione met him halfway, took his hand and placed it over hers, both now over her heart.

"Not as beautiful as you, obviously, but..."

"Hush you," said Hermione, smiling shyly. She kissed him softly again. She couldn't help it. His lips were her new addiction. She didn't think she'd ever get enough of them.

"The sun's going to be setting shortly," said Harry, as the kiss broke. "Shall we watch it from the top of the mountain? There wont be anyone there now and its quite stunning to see from up there."

"We can't walk up a mountain, Harry."

"Are you a witch, or not?" Harry asked incredulously. "Honestly!"

"Oh, right,," said Hermione, bashfully. "Shall we Apparate together?"

"Ok. Just don't splinch me."

Hermione laughed. They both stood, Hermione took Harry's arm, spun them once and they emerged on top of Mount Snowdon some distance away. It was breathtaking from the summit. The evening sky was clear and they could see the sparkling waters and green valleys stretch for miles in every direction. And they were completely alone. Hikers and tourists were long gone, only a few hardy sheep had made it this far up so late in the day. It was picture postcard perfect.

Harry sat and lounged against a plinth with a golden disk atop it, detailing distances to other world locations and marking the summit of the mountain. He opened his arms and invited Hermione to join him. She needed no second invitation. She sat down, rested her back against his chest and snuggled up against him. Harry's arms wrapped tightly around her as he nuzzled the top of her head through her mane of hair. Hermione couldn't stop a contented purr escaping her chest.

"This is so incredible," Harry whispered to her, kissing her softly, holding her tenderly. "I've wanted to do this for so long."

Hermione wanted her heart to slow down. She was certain she might pass out with its rampant beating. And she didn't want to miss a moment of this.

"So have I," she breathed. "I wish I'd told you how I felt sooner. I'm sorry."

"Hey, lets not do that," said Harry. "We can regret later, and laugh about it. But not now. I just want to hold you. To love you. To be allowed to. You're mine...you're my girlfriend! I can't really believe it!"

Hermione grinned broadly. "Me neither. But I love the sound of it!"

"Hermione Granger is my girlfriend," said Harry in wonder, as though thinking to himself. Hermione couldn't get over the disbelief in his voice, as though he were the lucky one in this. That was a bizarre thing to think. She smiled to herself and clutched his arms where they were tightly wrapped around her middle.

"I'm not letting you go now, Harry," said Hermione. "You know that, right?"

"Please don't," said Harry happily. "I don't deserve you, and you will probably regret this tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever, but I'm going to enjoy and treasure every second of time you bless me with."

Hermione sat up and turned to him, giving him a deeply serious look. "Harry, you're mine now. My boyfriend. I've waited forever to be able to say that. And I love you more than I've ever loved anything or anyone. Ever. I'm never letting you go, you need to understand that."

Harry looked lost for words at Hermione's fierce declaration of her affection. He seemed stunned to silence that anyone could care about him so passionately. Hermione was pacified. She settled back down, her body now turned into his, the left side of her head resting on his chest. They fitted so well together, so easily, like it was her place all along. It was so natural. She sighed, more utterly content than she had ever been, curled into Harry, with his arms holding her protectively, possessively close.

She was so full of happiness she feared she might explode with it.

Hermione watched as the blood orange sun began to dip beyond the hills on the horizon. It dappled them both in golden amber. Harry sighed in complete comfort and the very sound served only to increase Hermione's own sense of well-being. Harry was relaxed, fulfilled, untroubled...just from the simple act of holding her. Hermione felt covetous of this power she could now wield. As his actual girlfriend. She would never give it up. She felt cosy enough to sleep. It would be the loveliest thing...

And the perfect end to a perfect birthday.