The next few weeks went by without incident. Harry and Hermione settled easily into their pre-term friendship and any awkwardness between them had seemed to vanish. Still, being around Hermione left Harry with an odd feeling in his stomach that he couldn't explain away and he caught himself on a few occasions rather guiltily indulging in her company in the Head dorm instead of searching out Ginny.
A welcome addition to their trio had been Aubrey, the new Hufflepuff Prefect they had met on the Hogwarts Express. She had indeed joined them for dinner that night he found Hermione in front of the mirror and every night since then. Harry found she made quite enjoyable company: she made everyone laugh and had an easy grace about her that made everyone around her feel comfortable.
Granted, her entry into the group came with its fair share of hiccups. She had gotten into a pretty serious row with Hermione over the issue of Death Eater amnesty ("A dark wizard doesn't change his spots." Aubrey had rather smugly proclaimed. "And I suppose Severus Snape playing double agent for seventeen years isn't proof enough?" Hermione had countered.) And Hermione was also rather taken aback that Aubrey was more successful than she at getting Ron to study ("The key is to make it fun!" she had chimed as she explained the rules to a magical board game where she had replaced all the trivia cards with study questions to a fuming Hermione). Ginny on the other hand was crestfallen that Aubrey was the final nail in the Hermione/Ron coffin ("You'd think she hung the moon." She whispered into Harry's ear one night at the sight of Ron's eyes glued to Aubrey at dinner).
Harry had been forced to ignore her on several occasions due to her annoying habit of asking him to relive some of his early adventures that she had not been at school for ("Oh come on, can't you at least tell me how you managed to sneak a dragon out of the school without getting caught?" she had whined as Harry sped into the loo to wait her out).
However, she had finally proven herself to Harry when she caught a Slytherin sixth year trying to hex a Gryffindor student and produced a perfect shield charm so that the Slytherin (a nasty piece of work named Simon Daugherty) spent the next two days in the hospital wing with a rather itchy rash in a sensitive area.
So three had become four (five counting Ginny) and now Aubrey accompanied them almost everywhere. Ron certainly seemed to enjoy her company, he looked more confident than Harry had ever seen him, which made Ginny change her mind about the girl. Even Hermione had come around when Aubrey had proven herself useful in studying for Arithmancy. Ron had given her the passwords for Gryffindor tower and the Head common room so that she often times joined them there during study hours or on weekends. Conversely, more than once she had disappeared with Ron and Harry had spotted them on the Marauder's Map in the Hufflepuff common room close by the kitchens.
"It's rather cozy." Ron explained to Harry, "Rather like a large, earthen den of some sort."
"That would make sense, since their mascot is the badger." Hermione had chimed in.
"Right. It's surprisingly bright though, they have these windows that make it look like you're underneath a sunny meadow or something. Rather brilliant if you ask me." Ron continued, a lazy grin stretching across his face as a rosy cheeked Aubrey joined them for lunch.
As September slid into October, Harry for the first time contemplated the anniversary of his parent's deaths. He had never really thought about it before, but now that he had actually been to see them he wanted to do something meaningful. He became preoccupied with what exactly he wanted to do. As far as who he wanted to go, Harry was putting that part off for the moment.
He knew he should take Ginny. She was his girlfriend after all and he would eventually have to include her in these sorts of things, but there was something in Harry that fought that notion. He wasn't much for including people in his past. Whatever sorrow and pain was there he didn't want to burden anybody else with. Ron had always seemed to know the appropriate distance to keep and what subjects to avoid with Harry and for that he was grateful. Strange as it seemed, hindsight had told him he had even been a little grateful at the time that Ron wasn't there when he went to see his parents the first time. He hated to admit it, but somewhere deep down it bothered Harry that Ron so often took for granted the one thing he always had that Harry didn't: a family.
That left Hermione. She had been there with him before and had known exactly what to do without Harry even saying anything. It was that understanding that he wanted and needed. Hermione had it and Ginny didn't. It wasn't even Ginny's fault. She couldn't help it any more than Ron could that they came from such a large family. Still, he couldn't quite bring himself to ask either of them, unable or unwilling to make up his mind.
At last came the day before Halloween and Harry knew he couldn't put it off any longer. Unless he was going to go alone he had to ask the question that had been on his mind for weeks. It was while having chess match in the Gryffindor common room that he saw Hermione walking towards him with a concerned look that finally galvanized his decision in his mind.
"Hermione?" he asked, sharing an easy smile with her.
"Going to finally tell me what's been on your mind for the past few weeks?" she replied.
"Yeah…I wanted to know if, after the Halloween feast, you would go with me to Godric's Hollow?" uncertainty slipping into his voice on the last syllables.
Hermione's smile slid off her face and she furrowed her brow. "What about Ginny?"
He had been afraid of that. "You were the one there with me before." He answered simply.
She seemed to contemplate this for a moment. "I…of course I'll go Harry." Hermione's voice was quiet and her expression visibly softened.
"Thanks, Hermione." Harry gave her a soft smile that she didn't return. He watched her look for a moment like she wanted say something before she turned and walked to the portrait hole, his eyes following her out of sight.
"Yoo-hoo. Earth to Harry?"
"Oh…" he turned back to the game he had forgotten about, "sorry Jay. My move?"
"Yep, all you Brits get your head in the clouds when a pretty girl walks by or is it just you?" Jay gave him a wicked grin. He was an American transfer student with a lame sense of humor, when he spoke at all, but had been a superbly gifted flyer at quidditch tryouts. Utterly fearless, his antics on a broomstick scared even Harry. That was also why Harry liked him.
"Just me Jay, I'm utterly hopeless with women if you haven't heard."
They continued the game in amiable silence, Harry's mind drifting off to what Hermione had been about to say before she walked off.
Halloween started much earlier when you were Head Boy. Harry and Hermione had had to get up early to help place the decorations in the Great Hall with the teachers, long before the students rose from bed for breakfast. He was already tired by the time they finished and waited for Ron, Ginny and Aubrey to join them at the Gryffindor table.
"So, what exactly are we doing tonight?" Hermione asked, biting her lip nervously.
"I was thinking we would walk out passed the gates, apparate to the graveyard, spend a few moments with them, and then come back. Nothing extravagant, but I just wanted to do something." He felt uneasiness settle in his gut at the thought of seeing his parents again.
"Okay, Harry." Hermione's voice was quiet. It was just then that a yawning Ron and cheery Aubrey walked up and sat opposite them.
"Can you believe this girl?" Ron mumbled, "How can you be so cheery so early in the morning?" he gave Aubrey a bleary eyed glare.
"It's half eight Ron." Aubrey sighed, "Besides, don't you want to get up and actually do something? How is lying in bed any fun?"
Ron mumbled something discreetly to his toast that Aubrey didn't seem to catch. Harry grinned, he knew that Ron would never admit that he was just fine starting his day early if it meant time with Aubrey. As Aubrey and Hermione entered a deep discussion on their Arithmancy class for that afternoon, Ron leaned over his breakfast.
"So, are you going tonight?" Ron whispered.
"Yeah, I'm going. Not for long, just for a few minutes."
"I don't blame you mate." Ron moved his eyes discretely from Harry to Hermione and back to Harry.
"Yes." Harry answered to unvoiced question as Ron nodded solemnly. "Mate don't take it personal, I…"
"I didn't say anything Harry. I get it, I really do. You told me about last time remember?"
"The last time what?" Aubrey chimed in, her conversation with Hermione apparently over.
"Nothing, luv." Ron gave her a significant look and she instantly changed topics to quidditch, much to the annoyance of Hermione who had been looking at Harry like she wanted in on the conversation. Ginny arrived just in time to divert the conversation once again with her news of catching Neville and Hannah in one of the secret passageways on her way to breakfast.
The day seemed to fly by all too quickly for Harry. It seemed like one minute he was at breakfast, the next he was in potions learning to mix a dreamless sleep drought (easy when Hermione had learned to make it during the summer), and now he was sitting at the Feast and eating far less than he normally did.
"Are you okay?" Ginny asked next to him.
"Yeah, I'm just a little pre-occupied is all." Ginny had a concerned look on her face. She had taken news of his plans better than he had thought she would, which he found out was because Ron had gotten to her first.
"Harry," she had sighed, "I…I understand. I'll admit I don't like it, but I get it." She had taken him by the hand. "Can you at least tell me that we can start working towards including me in these sorts of things? I know it will take some time, I just feel left out you know?"
He had told her that they would work on it and that he was grateful for her understanding. It had been a relief to not have an upset Ginny on his mind while he contemplated what he was about to do.
He looked up from his reverie to see Ron and Hermione both staring at him. "Do you want to go now Harry?" Hermione asked.
"Don't feel like we're keeping you here." Ron added. "Why don't you go on ahead? We'll be fine here."
Harry nodded and stood up, giving his friends a grateful farewell. Aubrey smiled and gave him a small wave, Ron nodded his head, and Ginny gave him a quick kiss.
Hermione and Harry walked together out the front door and across the grounds. Neither of them said anything, the sound of their feet on the ground the only noise apart from the breeze making its way through the trees. When they reached a spot just outside the front gate, Hermione took his arm and he aparrated them to a spot just outside the kissing gate they had passed through almost a year ago.
Her hand slid down into his and their fingers tangled as he felt his grip tighten. There was a small knot in his chest as they walked straight towards the tombstone, a cold breeze stirring the leaves around their feet.
They came to a stop in front of the stone, a tingling starting behind Harry's eyes. He was prepared this time and conjured a single white lily, placing it gently on the ground at the foot of the gravestone. He felt Hermione kneel next to him and she placed a single white rose next to Harry's lily.
He stayed kneeled there for a while, letting his hands trace the name "Potter". If he was honest with himself, he had spent his whole life not knowing precisely what the name meant or who he really was. Circumstance had always seemed to dictate who he was: orphan, wizard, or hero.
"Harry, I brought something else." Hermione's voice was quiet and raspy. There were fresh tears running down her cheeks. She produced a small, framed photograph. "I thought they should have a reminder of you."
She placed the photo behind the flowers and Harry felt his breath catch in his throat. It was a picture of the two of them with Ron, sitting by the fire of the common room. He recognized the scene, they had all been laughing at a story Ron had told about Aubrey.
He took her hand into his again, a gentle squeeze his thanks. He only needed to see Ron and Hermione's faces to be reminded of who he really was, not who others wanted him to be.
They stood for a moment, Harry fighting the silly urge to talk to them. To tell them all about the two people in the photo. How Ron made him laugh, beat him at chess, and talked quidditch. How Hermione always had the answer, cheered him on at his games, and told him when he was wrong. Then he remembered his mother's words in the forest
"We never left."
He couldn't tell them anything they didn't already know. He actually smiled at the thought.
Gently tugging at Hermione's hand, he led them out the kissing gate and into an empty side street. They walked in perfect unison, in no real hurry to get anywhere.
He disaparrates them back to the tall gates of Hogwarts. Their hands remained locked all the way through the abandoned grounds and corridors, keeping a leisurely pace until at last they reached their Head common room, the fire already low in the grate.
"Thanks." He says, finally releasing her hand.
"You're very welcome Harry. Are you okay?" her voice is tender and the embers of the fire reflect in the deep pools of her eyes.
"Yeah, I'm good." She takes a step towards him and he opens his arms to take her in, feeling his chest and ribs compress with the pressure she's applying. She takes a half step back, letting her hands take hold of the hem of his shirt while reaching up to plant a kiss on his cheek, letting her lips linger there longer than she always had before.
"Goodnight Hermione." Her eyes linger on him until she's completely turned around. His eyes follow her until her bedroom door closes behind her.
Harry pulls out a photo album from underneath his bed. It was a birthday gift from Hermione, it contained all sorts of pictures of Harry, Ron, and her as well as some that included the twins, Neville, Ginny, or even Luna. Most of the pictures came from Colin Creevey and Hermione had written a short dedication to him in the front cover.
He flipped through the various pictures, stopping every once and awhile to relive a particularly enjoyable memory. He stops at a photo of just him and Hermione. It was from Christmas of his fifth year and she had insisted that he pose for a photo of just the two of them.
"Come on Harry! Just one! We need at least some proof that we can be friends without Ron." She laughed at Ron snorting butterbeer out of his nose.
"Alright, if you insist." Harry faked resignation in his voice as Hermione took him in a tight embrace, their cheeks touching as he feels both his and her faces stretch into grins.
They both indeed have broad grins in the picture. They both lean their heads back every so often to look at one another and laugh. The Christmas tree in the background flickers with the lights of real fairies.
He puts the photo album away and turns out the lights to get to sleep, but it is long into the night before the image of the photo leaves his eyes.