Chapter 9 - Tenuous Ties
Erwin Granger idly poked at one of the miniature figures before him as he concentrated on his next move.
"Ouch, bugger," he swore. His wife, Sarah, raised a curious eyebrow at him. She was reading another book about things neither of them could understand.
"The knight stabbed me," Erwin said defensively.
"When are you going to give up hon?" Sarah asked. "You've not won a single game yet."
"I refuse to lose to artificial intelligence," Erwin replied. The little chess pieces shook their fists or rocked back and forth indignantly at that remark.
"How can you stand to be around that unnatural nightmarishly freakish thing," Vernon Dursley said grouchily.
"Are you still going on about that?" Erwin asked, genuinely surprised. "It's been weeks now, I should think you'd have gotten used to it."
"We'll never get used to it," Petunia snapped. "We've known about this since my sister got her nasty little letter all those years ago."
"It's really quite fascinating to me," Sarah said gently. "We've been given a rare chance to have a more complete understanding of the world."
"Dudley, don't put your hand in there," Petunia snapped. Dudley had discovered a long silver box and was probing it; probably thinking it was a cookie jar or something. His mother's warning reminded him that magical items sometimes bit back and so he quickly withdrew his chubby fist.
"Unnaturalness," Vernon repeated distractedly, as if it were an incantation to protect himself from magic.
"I fail to see what's so unnatural about it," Erwin said. "I mean, is it really any more unnatural than muggle technology?"
"Got to be bloody kidding me," Vernon said in a choppy tone. "Things popping out of no where, doesn't obey laws of science or nature."
"Actually, magic clearly obeys some kind of laws or else they couldn't teach it," Sarah said.
"Right, and besides, how is something unnatural if it happens in nature. All the magical creatures and what not have existed along side what we know of as normal creatures for all this time. Think of it like bacteria. Microorganisms are only a recent discovery yet they've always been here." Erwin said.
Vernon was clearly not convinced and was working himself into a lovely shade of purple. However, before he could retort a loud painful moan drifted in from the main hall. The Dursley's clamored away from the door in fear whilst the Grangers bolted into the hallway to see what was going on.
"Oh!" Sarah shrieked when she saw the bloody mess in the floor. Tonks, complete with bubble gum colored hair, was clutching her hip and moaning. The whole of her left leg and hip was either cut open to the bone or just soaked in blood, thus making it impossible to tell for certain just how badly she was injured.
Erwin rushed toward her, but she flung up an arm to stop him. "Don't come near me," Tonks hissed, "I'm dangerous."
Erwin stopped short, unsure of what to do. "Get Hermione," Tonks said, teeth gritted with pain, "I know you've got that mirror thing, get Harry and Hermione."
Harry paced nervously back and forth down the length of the room that the Light Bearers had taken over as their Hogwarts headquarters. Hermione kept looking at him furtively from time to time whilst trying to concentrate on the stack of books she had managed to find on shaping.
Shaping was basically where potions met transfiguration. Using a potion to alter one's physical makeup wasn't all that novel really, but when the changes became permanent the magic involved got exceedingly complicated. Even the brightest witch of her age needed to concentrate.
"Harry," Hermione said impatiently. Harry skidded to a stop.
"Do you need some more hot chocolate?" he asked eagerly.
"No, I need to concentrate," Hermione replied. "You do too, you're supposed to be helping me research how that potion went wrong."
"I can't concentrate either right now," Harry said. "I just know something bad is going to happen. The moon has been out for three hours now; Voldemort isn't going to wait any longer to use his werewolves. Besides, you're using the book I need next."
Hermione sighed and closed the book. "You've been so good to me Harry and you never even asked me why."
"Why what?" Harry said. He sat down next to Hermione and wrapped an arm around her slight frame.
"Why I started taking that potion without even telling you," Hermione whispered.
"Don't be silly," Harry replied. "People go on about trusting each other, but then they demand that they be kept informed of every slight detail of their partner's life. Trust is like faith, its belief in and reliance on someone without proof. I trust you Hermione and that means that you don't have to give me a running account of everything you do. If you think that I don't need to know something then I trust you to make that decision because I know you'd never keep something from me without cause."
"Harry-" Hermione said, voice thick with emotion. Harry just squeezed her a little more tightly in response.
"Don't worry about it." Harry said reassuringly. "All that matters is that you're well now."
"I'm being silly," Hermione said. She sat back up and wiped the corner of her eyes before grinning at him.
"I'm still worried though," Harry said, remembering the situation, "Maybe I should go check on the stationed forces."
"Harry, we've already gone over why that's a bad idea," Hermione said seriously. "What happens if we get separated or ambushed or something. We need to be here so that we can go together in full force to where ever Voldemort decides to attack, if he decides to attack."
"Oh, he'll attack-" Harry began, but was cut off by a high-pitched voice emanating from Hermione's robes.
"Mum?" Hermione said, startled. She fumbled through her robes and pulled out the two-way mirror that Harry had given her. "What is it?"
"Hermione dear, you and Harry need to come back to Grimmauld Place right away. Your friend Tonks has been badly hurt, she's asking for both of you quite urgently," Sarah stammered out hastily.
"Right, we're coming," Hermione said. She extended her left arm, exposing the portkey bracelet, which Harry grabbed as it activated. After a whirl of color they found themselves deposited in the main hall just a few feet away from Hermione's parents and the gravely wounded Tonks.
"Harry," Tonks growled, "I've been bitten, restrain me, hurry."
"Bitten?" Harry asked, dumbfounded.
"Bitten by a werewolf," Tonks shrieked. Harry's hand quivered and his wand appeared in it so fast that the movement escaped human sight. Bright silver ribbons streaked out, gently wrapping Tonks up like a mummy, and also levitating her off the floor. Hermione went over to the prone form of the young auror and cast healing charms on her wounds. The worst damage closed up, but she still looked to be in bad shape.
"I'll contact Poppy," Hermione said. She sent a messenger charm whisking away.
"We should get you downstairs," Harry added. The young couple held their wands at the ready as they levitated Tonks down to the dungeon just in case she managed to finish transforming and escape.
In one of the vacant rooms in the dungeon near the potions lab was the cage that Remus used during the full moon. Even though the Wolf's Bane potion allowed Remus to keep his mind he still isolated himself so no one could be accidentally infected. Harry suspected that he also loathed having anyone see him in his condition.
Hermione easily conjured another sturdy cage separate and apart from Remus' for Harry to deposit Tonks in. If Tonks actually transformed her mind would be feral so it wouldn't be good for her to be around any other living thing, even another werewolf. After the cage was firmly locked Harry withdrew the silver ribbons.
"Can you talk to us about what happened?" Hermione asked gently. Tonks looked like she was still in shock. She had conjured fresh clothes since there was no reason to take her wand. A werewolf can't perform wand magic so if she transformed it wouldn't matter if she still had it.
"Y-yeah," Tonks said, gulping audibly. "Fudge was at the Ministry tonight and must have been expecting something because all the regular patrols were recalled. He had hit wizards out in the open too, which is really unusual. About two hours ago fifty front line aurors and eight of the hit wizards were dispatched to some town, uh, I can't remember its muggle name."
Remus whined from his nearby cage and Harry surmised that he could understand what was going on. He wished that the kindly Marauder could communicate to Tonks right now. His experiences would probably be of great help in consoling a newly converted werewolf.
"When we got there it was madness," Tonks continued. "There were Death Eaters running around all over the place rounding up muggles. They were killing the young, old, and infirm, but everyone else was being taken prisoner."
"No doubt to be converted into more werewolves," Harry said with a scowl.
"The leader of the expedition was Captain Daley, one of the new auror field commanders, and the hit wizards were apparently only along as advisors even though they technically outrank all aurors," Tonks said. "Daley has never fought a real battle before, he's a law enforcement auror not a warrior so of course he ordered us to go in and arrest Death Eaters."
"Oh no," Hermione gasped, already having figured out what would happen next.
"Yeah," Tonks nodded grimly. "I was assigned to start freeing muggles and modifying memories while almost everyone else fanned out through the town to apprehend Death Eaters. They waited until we had all gotten separated from each other and spread out over a large area before launching the trap."
"Oh my, Miss Nymphadora, still in constant need of healer supervision I see," Poppy said, bursting into the room rather forcefully, even for her.
Tonks giggled, despite everything that had happened, "Its good to see you too Poppy. I hear that Harry here has been trying to overtake my record on number of days spent in the hospital wing though."
Poppy didn't go into the cage, but she was still able to perform some of her medical charms and pass some potions through the bars.
"The gash has been healed quite well," Poppy said. "Do you have any Wolf's Bane potion?"
"Yeah, over there," Harry said, pointing to a simmering cauldron in the far corner of the room.
Poppy went over and got out a large goblet full for Tonks to drink. "This should help suppress the condition and possibly keep you from transforming until the next moon." She explained.
"Bloody hell, this stuff is awful," Tonks said, nearly spitting it out. "Can't you put some sugar in it."
"I'm sorry, sugar ruins it dear," Poppy said sorrowfully. Remus made a few little snorting noises that sounded like werewolf humor.
"Oh well," Tonks sighed, "At least this potion actually exists. It makes it easier knowing I won't lose my mind."
Harry and Hermione nodded, unsure of what to say. Tonks sensed their discomfort and resumed her story.
"Scores of werewolves attacked as soon as we were sufficiently disorganized in our pursuit of the Death Eaters. Individually, a werewolf is no match for a witch or wizard, let alone an auror, but in numbers like they were, using that funny off colored armor, they ripped us apart," Tonks said, sounding rather distraught again at the recollection.
"Then the hit wizards seemed to wake up and started hitting back against the first wave," Tonks continued. "They used some kind of funny whipped cream spell that I'd never seen before-"
"Like this?" Hermione asked. She twisted her wand, causing a thick fluffy cloud like mass to come out of it. Tonks shuddered, her newly converted body reacting uncomfortably to the anti-werewolf charm.
"Yeah, that's it," Tonks confirmed. "They were holding out very well, but then the avatars attacked with a second wave of werewolves. Two hit wizards were struck down with the killing curse immediately; they never even saw them coming. The rest pulled some kind of advanced magic and vanished out of there."
"How strong are hit wizards anyway?" Harry asked Hermione via their link.
"I don't know, I've never seen one fight, but they're supposed to be the greatest mages of their age. Dumbledore was supposedly offered a position as a hit wizard, or maybe held the position before he started teaching at Hogwarts, no one knows." Hermione replied. "Its very secretive."
"I couldn't see what happened from there on out, but things started getting destroyed really fast. Most of the town was ablaze and I was still trying to get the remaining muggles out of their restraints. I was concentrating on that when a werewolf got the drop on me, clamped its jaws down on my hip, and started shaking me around like a feather pillow."
"How did you get away?" Poppy gasped, horrified.
"I don' t know, there was an explosion and the werewolf took the brunt of it. I was thrown clear so I activated the galleon shaped emergency portkey that Hermione insisted I take," Tonks said, flashing a grateful smile toward Hermione.
"Well, I think that's enough for now," Poppy said firmly. "Tonks needs to rest and I dare say you two do too."
"All right, but we'll stay here, just in case Tonks needs anything," Harry said. He sent off a messenger charm to Ron explaining the new situation, but he didn't expect Voldemort to launch another attack after the one Tonks escaped from. He grabbed Hermione's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze while they watched the young auror drift into a fitful sleep.
"I'm afraid that Voldemort is going to overwhelm us at this rate. If he manages to destroy the Ministry the unity of the magical world will further deteriorate," Harry said.
"Yeah, we can't wait any longer, we've got to start reaching out for unconventional allies," Hermione said.
"Who should we approach first though. We don't exactly have a long history or reputation yet." Harry said.
"Centaurs of course," Hermione replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. When she saw Harry's puzzled expression she elaborated. "We need control of the Forbidden Forest and there's no way we can do that without centaur collaboration. I don't fancy having a bunch of werewolves or who knows what else lurking about so close to Hogwarts, do you?"
"I hadn't really thought about it, but that makes sense," Harry replied. "Centaurs hate us though, how are we supposed to get them on board."
"We may have to be pretty forceful, but we already have the perfect representative. Firenze can probably be convinced to take an emblem and we can get him access back into the forest. I know he misses it," Hermione said.
At some point after their conversation Harry and Hermione fell asleep. The next thing they knew it was morning again, Hermione's bushy hair was partially stuffed into Harry's mouth, and Remus was snoring on the floor. Thankfully he had crawled under his robe so when he had transformed back into a human he was more or less dressed. Tonks seemed to still be asleep too, but Harry thought she might be faking it.
"Come on Harry, let's get out of here so they can be together for a while. I'm sure Tonks will be much more comfortable discussing her condition with Remus without us being there," Hermione suggested.
Harry nodded and together they made their way stealthily up the stairs to the kitchen where Fleur and Molly were making breakfast. Mad Eye and Arthur were there too, sitting at the table and drinking some coffee, though they didn't seem happy about it.
"Rush copy of the Daily Prophet," Mad Eye said sullenly. Harry picked up the paper and held it where Hermione could easily read it too. A handsome man with long blonde hair wearing a cloak with snake insignia on it was beaming at them from the center picture.Ministry, Allies, Death Eaters Foiled In Daring Action
In an evening raid on a muggle town, just hours before this paper was rushed into print, the Ministry succeeded in a stunning coup against the forces of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. The resounding victory resulted in the capture of a score of Death Eaters and the death of two of the feared avatars. Our witches and wizards in red proved yet again that they are more than a match for any lawless elements that might wish to cause trouble in England. Joining in the action was the European Common Defense Treaty Force under the command of Septimus Artemis. A famed hit wizard in his own right, Viscount Artemis' Treaty Force is considered the most formidable magical army in the entire world. Long the envy of the Americans the Treaty Force…
"Uh, they seemed to have left a bit out," Harry said, putting the paper down. Hermione continued reading.
"You better believe it Potter, five hit wizards dead due to sheer stupidity, twenty three aurors dead, missing, or too wounded to get back in the fight anytime soon, Captain Daley tortured into insanity and according to Arthur, killed by his own comrades," Moody burst out angrily. "The auror corps has fallen far since my day I'll tell you that. Bloody nancy boys, they don't train for war anymore, can you imagine if the Germans attacked us again, or any of the African states? Wouldn't last two months…"
"You were at the fight?" Harry asked Arthur. Molly snorted and let out a heavy breath. Arthur cringed visibly.
"Yes, Harry, I was there. Special favor to the Minister, he asked me to go, but I've been permanently assigned to Ministry defense now," Arthur stuttered nervously.
"Like that's any safer," Molly said shrilly. "You-Know-Who will be hitting there next. I don't care what you think you can do Arthur you can't match wands with HIM!"
"Please Molly," Arthur said nervously. Hermione was looking at the middle aged red head a bit strangely, but she didn't say anything.
The remaining days of the full moon were stressful, but there was no repeat of the first day. Instead there were dozens if not hundreds of scattered attacks all throughout England. Even with oblivators working full tilt the muggle press was up in arms over the "crime wave."
September was beginning to dwindle down by the time Harry and Hermione were finally ready to confront Firenze about being their representative with his people. They found themselves waiting outside the classroom that had been enchanted to resemble the forest as students filed out of their lesson.
"You may come in now," Firenze called softly. Harry glanced at Hermione with surprise, wondering how Firenze had known they were there, but she just shrugged and went inside.
"The North-West wind carries the taint of blood," Firenze said solemnly when they greeted him. "The two of you stand firmly beneath Mars, and now I sense you wish for me to draw a sword as well."
"A different sword than ours," Hermione said, as if he hadn't spoken. Divination was still disdained by her, despite the prophecy.
"We want you to become our ambassador to the centaurs of the Forbidden Forest. We wish to enlist their aid in securing it against incursions by Voldemort's forces." Harry explained.
"A worthy effort," Firenze said, "yet my brethren will not see it as such. They will decline your offer and make an attempt on your lives. Centaurs will never enter into a bargain with wizards again, not after the ancient betrayal."
"What betrayal?" Hermione asked. Firenze looked taken aback that they didn't know what he was talking about.
"Surely the wizards still speak of it," he replied. "Centaurs were once plains dwelling creatures, we thrive in open airy fields. Wizards pushed us into magical forests like the one here at Hogwarts and instituted their secrecy laws to repress us."
"We've never heard of such a thing," Harry said earnestly.
"It doesn't matter anyway, we will have control of the forest…one way or another," Hermione said darkly. Firenze contemplated this for a moment before nodded reluctantly.
"I suspected as much and I will try to help you convince my fellow centaurs to do the right thing. Please, don't hurt them if they refuse to see our way," Firenze said.
"I can't make that promise Firenze," Harry said sadly. "If Voldemort isn't defeated more people will be at risk than just the centaurs. I promise that I won't hurt anyone unnecessarily though."
"I suppose that will be good enough," Firenze snorted. "I will accompany you into the forest at dusk. Now if you'll excuse me, I have students."
"Bit snippy there on the end," Harry commented as he followed Hermione outside.
"Well, we did sort of make threats against his people," Hermione said.
"We're going to Hagrid's?" Harry asked. Hermione was already leading him toward the valley where the half-giant's hut was located.
"Yeah, we can wait for Firenze there and Hagrid is always fun to talk to," Hermione grinned. She was almost as fond of the big man as Harry was, especially after third year. Even when she was exasperated at him for his more questionable actions, like Gwap, she still supported him
Hagrid was chopping wood out in front of his hut, getting an early start on his winter chores. Fang was lounging in the shade next to the relatively small hut, which was looking more run down than ever.
"Hi Hagrid," Harry and Hermione yelled out at the same time. Hagrid looked up and motioned for them to come on over.
"Ello' there, what brings ya down my way?" Hagrid asked politely.
"We're going to meet Firenze this evening and go have a talk with the centaurs about guarding the forest for us," Harry said.
Hagrid darkened a little. "Those ruddy mules are really being ah pain these days," he said. "I dun go much inta tha forest anymore tho' so it ain't the bother it use ter be."
"What about Gwap?" Hermione asked hesitantly.
"Ole Gwappy decided to go back ter his home an be our go between fer the giants what didn' join up wid You-Know-Who," Hagrid explained happily. "I was so proud o' him. He got right clever at english too ya know."
"That's really nice Hagrid," Hermione said sincerely.
"I wonder when Dumbledore was planning to tell us that he'd reinitiated contact with the giants?" Harry said.
"Well, he did turn over the Order's communications and recent records. Its possible that I just haven't got to that part yet. We've been pretty busy," Hermione replied.
Harry nodded and returned his attention to Hagrid. For the rest of their stay they talked about less serious matters like Hagrid's latest crop of pumpkins or Fang's patchy hair loss. The chill of night air was beginning to set in when they heard hooves coming toward the hut. Harry and Hermione conjured up their long black Light Bearer cloaks and uniform.
"I am ready," Firenze said formally when they came out to greet him. With a last wave goodbye to Hagrid and a promise to be careful they headed into the forest. Harry and Hermione let their cloaks fall around them completely so as to hide their arms. Both of them had engaged their armor and drawn their wands so as to be ready for anything unexpected.
"The forest is wilder than it was when I still called it my home," Firenze said after they had been walking for a while. Harry could feel all kinds of things crawling around just outside their immediate area. In the gathering night the forest seemed to stretch up infinitely into the dark canopy that blocked out the sky.
"Hagrid kept a lot of the worst creatures beat back when he frequented this area," Hermione said. Harry considered this and remembered his second year when he got lost in Knockturn Alley. Hagrid had been there buying flesh eating slug repellant. No doubt he drove off a variety of nasty creatures, keeping them away from Hogwarts and its supply of too-curious-for-their-own-good students.
"We're nearing Aragog's layer," Harry said suddenly, memories from second year coming back.
"I can't imagine coming here as a second year," Hermione said, shivering. "Its spooky enough as it is."
"Aragog has a great deal of influence in the forest too, perhaps we should see him first," Harry said. Firenze snorted uncertainly but followed along as the couple now strode deliberately toward Aragog's home.
As they came closer they began to run into Aragog's children, some of which were nearly as big as their parent. As deadly predators they were attuned to anything that they might consider prey enough to know when they were confronting beings too dangerous to attempt to eat. As a result the spiders they encountered scurried clear of their path.
At last they stepped into a clearing that Harry remembered quite vividly. Spiders wiggled all around and above them, moving about on their thick strands of webbing. Firenze neighed skittishly, but knew that he couldn't run away now, and the wizards he had chosen to accompany didn't seem worried.
"Only once before has meat wandered so willingly into my domain," Aragog said in his hollow raspy voice.
"Yes, I remember my first visit," Harry said. "That was over four years ago."
"You…" Aragog said, "Now you return with new companions and I sense that it would be worse than futile to make a meal of you now."
"I was young then…my power has grown," Harry affirmed.
"Why do you come to me here? Do you seek…retribution?" Aragog asked.
"My power has grown, but it is not limitless," Harry said. "I have come to ask for your help against the one who commanded your greatest foe, the unspeakable terror I defeated after my last visit here."
"We are in your debt for the destruction of that unspeakable nemesis, it is true," Aragog said. "What aid could we possibly give to one such as yourself."
"Watch over the forest, do no harm to the sentient creatures that choose to come within it, and report all activity you see, especially those would ally with the master of your nemesis. In return we will defend you from those you will ally against if you join our cause," Harry said. Aragog scuttled forward and peered down intently at them with his big eyes.
"Very well, it will be so," Aragog said. "I will command my children for your sake, because of our debt to you."
Harry bowed to the monstrous spider in respect and thanks. Firenze and Hermione followed suit before turning to walk slowly away, back down the path they had entered by.
"That was creepy," Hermione said once they had made it a safe distance away from the spiders.
"You're telling me. I guess Aragog was really happy about me getting rid of the Basilisk though," Harry said.
"You are a rare person Harry," Firenze said suddenly. "Aragog would have pledged far more to you had you asked it."
Harry reddened uncomfortably. "I only want to stop Voldemort, anything more than that is unnecessary."
"Quiet," Hermione said urgently. "I thought I heard hooves from over there."
They were in the middle of a tiny clearing and so had a little bit of light coming in from the waning moon. Harry couldn't see anything though and he didn't think Hermione could either unless she changed into her owl form.
Sharp twangs sounded all around them and the whistle of something splitting the air came rushing toward them. Hermione's eyes flashed and a dozen fireballs erupted in the air all around them as she burned down the incoming arrows.
"Come out Bane," Firenze snorted angrily. "Since when do centaurs attack from the night without warning."
"Since traitors and wizards wander in a place forbidden to them," Bane growled. All around them centaurs stepped into the clearing to form a tight ring around them. Unlike the spiders, they had no idea how outmatched they were.
"We didn't come here to fight you," Hermione said hastily.
"No, you came here to die," Bane yelled back. "Firenze, you have forfeited a simple death. Kill the mages."
Two centaurs rushed forward, blunt weapons raised high for a killing blow. Silver flashed and the dull thud of metal impacting against flesh was heard as the two charging centaurs were sent reeling. Harry and Hermione had wands pointed at the now hesitant centaurs and armor covered arms raised defensively.
"You are no match for them anymore," Firenze said softly. "We should not turn away allies such as these."
"Traitor," Bane said, recovering his voice, "Wizards cannot be trusted."
"All we ask," Harry said gently, "is for you to guard the forest and keep us informed if Voldemort or his minions try to enter. In exchange we will protect you from him. I know the centaurs have had their losses."
"There have been no losses," Bane replied. Harry stared into the creature's eyes and saw the lie dancing just beneath their surface.
"There will be more losses if you don't ally yourselves with us," Harry said. "Normally, we would not press this issue, but the proximity of the forest to Hogwarts demands that we have control over it lest Voldemort use its cover against us."
Bane seemed to hesitate. For whatever reason, all the other centaurs refused to speak, instead looking to Bane to make their decision for them.
"What if we refuse?" Bane asked hesitantly.
"Then we'll destroy this forest completely and ward it with the most deadly traps we can devise," Hermione said grimly. To prove her point Harry gestured with his wand and one of the nearby trees withered away into a pile of fine powder.
The centaurs, even Firenze, looked stunned and even a little afraid. They all began glancing back and forth to each other when Bane didn't say anything at first.
"We will consider it," Bane said finally, motioning for the centaurs to join him. Harry and Hermione relaxed visibly after they had withdrawn a short distance for a discussion.
"Centaurs usually let the herd leader decide. For Bane to request consensus…it is a rare occasion," Firenze said when the others were out of earshot.
The discussion dragged into a debate judging by the sharp gestures and the way the herd seemed to divide into three different subgroups. Harry and Hermione started playing a game of transfiguration domination with each other as they waited. Basically they each transfigured a rock into a different form that would have a natural advantage over the other's rock. Hermione had started out with a cat, Harry had countered with a large dog, Hermione responded with a tangling predator plant, and so on.
Hermione's elephant was just getting ready to step on Harry's monkey when the centaurs returned with their decision. Bane had the oddest look on his face, even for him.
"We have decided to accept your terms," Bane stated flatly, "So long as it is understood that we are not your servants. We are engaging in a trade of one service for another. You will protect us, we will pass along information relevant to your war."
"Excellent," Harry said, delighted. "All you have to do to summon our aid is to have Firenze use the silver medallion around his neck to call to us. He can relay whatever information you gather as well."
Bane snorted and turned away, the rest of the centaurs following him.
"Thank you Harry Potter," Firenze said as he turned to follow them as well. "I have missed the forest a great deal. I will continue to teach for the rest of this term, but after that I will be leaving Dumbledore's employ. For now I will resume my residence out here in nature where I am most comfortable. Safe journey back to the castle."
"No, it's we who should thank you Firenze," Hermione replied. "For everything."
Harry nodded and waved as the noble centaur galloped off to rejoin his kin. Harry and Hermione got their bearings with the direction spell Hermione had discovered for Harry during the Triwizard Tournament before beating a hasty retreat back toward the castle.
Harry could make out a bit of light coming from Hagrid's hut as they passed it on their way back up the hill toward the castle. The waning moon was still large and illuminated the entire landscape in its silver glow. Hermione was walking slightly ahead of him, her bushy unkempt hair sprawling out from under her witch's hat.
Harry had been waiting all day to find the right moment for this. He didn't know why he had waited until now, other than today was Hermione's birthday. All at once an immense amount of anxiety and self-doubt caught up with him. Harry fumbled around in his robes for the little box that he had been carrying around for days.
"Hermione, hold up a minute," Harry said, grabbing her hand and twirling her around slightly so that she was facing him. Hermione eyed him curiously; her cheeks flushed from the cool air, eyes reflecting the twilight.
"Hermione…I just wanted to tell you how much I love you and how thankful I am that you've always been there for me, believed in me, all these years. I know we've already reached an understanding what with the whole mind link and everything, but I was hoping we could make it official," Harry said as he bent down on one knee and opened the box he had taken from his robes. "Say you'll marry me."
Hermione looked like she might burst with giddiness. "Yes, please, Harry, of course I will," she said breathlessly. Harry slipped the ring onto the long thin finger as she held her hand out for him. As soon as he finished she yanked him up and pressed her lips to his eagerly. They stood there, on the side of the hill silhouetted against the diminishing moon, and enjoyed their first moments as betrothed.
"Harry, what is this gem?" Hermione asked giddily after admiring her ring for a moment after they broke their kiss.
"It's a bloodstone…that's a blood ring," Harry said.
"Wow Harry, I don't know what to say…so you can't do any magic against me now?" Hermione asked.
"Well, not exactly. The stone governs based on intention…I can do all the magic I want to you," Harry said.
"No, I'm pretty sure you can't do any magic against me at all," Hermione said.
Harry pointed his wand at her lazily and shot out a little spark of lightening. Hermione jumped slightly and rubbed her arms.
"Never mind," she said, "The book I read must have been wrong."
"Well, the source I have says that the stone only constrains the person who gives it if they do it begrudgingly, as part of an obligation. The stone then works to protect the person who gets it from being harmed by the person who gave it. Pureblood wives in arranged marriages used to demand them so that they wouldn't have to fear their husbands," Harry explained.
"Because the stone is crystallized magic," Hermione prompted.
"Yeah, that's what the book said," Harry confirmed. "However, before that it was used to show unconditional devotion and implicit trust. That's why I chose it."
"That's so sweet Harry," Hermione cooed. He had researched something even more thoroughly than Hermione had during her endless investigation of all things magical. "I love it when you read books for me."
"I'm glad you like it," Harry said warmly. He suddenly felt like going out and reading even more.
"So, where do you want to go now, Hogwarts or Grimmauld Place?" Hermione asked as she latched onto Harry's arm.
"Well, if we went to Grimmauld Place we could get something to eat and tell your parents," Harry said.
"Then Grimmauld it is," Hermione said happily. Together they activated their portkeys and an instant later they found themselves standing in the main hall back in London.
"Oh no, its crazy bridal Hermione," Harry joked at Hermione's unusual exuberant expression. She was practically bouncing up and down in as they made their way toward the kitchen.
"It's your fault," Hermione grinned back. "Does that mean you want to set a date though?"
"How about the day after victory?" Harry asked.
"That sounds perfect-" Hermione broke off as they entered the room. Remus, Tonks, Molly, and Arthur were sitting around the table. Crookshanks darted out from behind a cabinet and purred contently. Hermione didn't have the heart to shoo him away even though he started batting at the loose folds of her robes.
"Is there anything left to eat?" Harry asked. Molly was busy supervising the spells that were washing the dishes and she had already done away with most of whatever leftovers there might have been.
"Of course dear, there's some meatloaf keeping itself warm under that bowl over there," Molly said absently. Hermione sat down while Harry retrieved some plates for them before sitting down next to her.
"So, what brings you two here instead of Hogwarts?" Remus asked. Harry glanced at Hermione who was trying to chew really fast.
"Uh, actually we just came here to eat," Harry said. "We missed dinner and didn't want to disturb the elves."
"We're glad that you're here though," Hermione said after she finished swallowing. "There's a job for you, if you want to do it."
Remus raised a skeptical eyebrow. "What kind of job?"
"Well, the Ministry and Voldemort have both tapped into foreign sources of support so we need to keep up. Harry and I think that the wizard community in the United States is our best shot so we want you to go make contact for us," Hermione said.
Skepticism broke out with deafening silence. "I don't know," Remus said. "I doubt that the Americans would really want to help us."
"Why not?" Harry asked. "This affects them too."
"The Americans don't like us…any of us," Arthur explained. "Didn't you wonder why so few of them showed up for the Quiddich World Cup?"
"I thought they just didn't like quiddich," Hermione said honestly. "No one talks about international wizarding relations much except-"
Arthur and Molly cringed as Hermione cut off. She had been going to say Percy.
"Well, the wizards that left Europe did so for the same types of reasons as most of the muggles who left. They wanted to be out from under the heel of the pureblood economic dominance and they wanted political autonomy. Unlike the muggles, they were never in a colonial relationship with the nations they left. Upon arrival in the New World they set up wards to block portkeys or apparation across their borders." Remus said, smoothly covering over Hermione's stumble.
"Yeah," Arthur added, "When the muggles decided that they wanted independence too the wizard community helped them out. Nothing very overt, but enough that some very small, very disorganized muggles managed to wrest independence from England."
"So do the wizards still help the muggles out like that?" Harry wondered.
"Not really," Remus replied. "Even in the Great War the muggles basically fought it on their own. The American wizards were content to let Dumbledore and England supply the magical talent. They don't have a Ministry of Magic like we do, but a loose guild structure. They obey the muggle laws and basically have no other regulations except a self imposed statute of secrecy."
"No Ministry?" Hermione asked incredulously. Harry could feel her wondering why none of this had ever been mentioned in a book.
"They have no need," Arthur said. "Their local guilds keep a handle on bothersome magical creatures and make sure that the wizards in their region are held accountable to muggle laws. In fact, some of them serve in muggle government as muggles. The only thing they have that could be considered national is a quasi-government that is empowered to draw the guilds together for war and regulate magical immigration. There is a small standing army that they can expand with conscription quickly if they have to fight, but they've not had to in a long time."
"I still see no reason why they wouldn't be willing to at least talk with us, if not form some kind of alliance," Harry said.
"The wizards in America are far more introspective than their muggle counterparts or even than the wizards here in England. They won't see it as their fight and they won't want to get involved with the oppressors their grandfathers fled," Arthur said.
"It doesn't matter if they don't want to listen we still need to make the attempt," Hermione insisted. "The Light Bearers are sending an ambassador to fish for any favorable agreement we might get and if you don't want to do it Remus just say so. We can find someone else."
Remus squirmed in his chair. "It's not that I don't want to do it exactly, but Tonks is still recovering and she hasn't even had her first real transformation yet."
"Don't worry about that Remus," Tonks said softly. "I'll be fine. There's the potion and the cage is already set up."
"The first time can be really bad, even with the potion," Remus admonished gently.
"Just take her with you," Hermione said, rolling her eyes. "You could use an auror watching your back anyway. I'm sure Tonks could get enough time off-"
"Actually, I'm not an auror now," Tonks said sadly.
"What happened?" Harry asked, shocked. He knew how much Tonks loved being an auror.
"I got bit, remember?" Tonks said ruefully. "I'm an untrustworthy dark creature now."
"They can't be serious. You're still the same person." Harry said angrily.
"I'm afraid so," Tonks said. "Only pure humans are allowed to be aurors. They offered me a spot on magical law enforcement, but there's no way I'd be a gold snatcher."
Gold snatcher was the derogatory term used to describe ordinary magical law enforcement because traditionally their main function was writing fines and citations. No auror, the elite of the Ministry's employees, would ever want to fall so far.
"Well, auror or not, Tonks is still one of our best fighters, and you might as take her with you. You can both represent our cause as ambassadors," Hermione said firmly.
"We'll provide you with money and transportation overseas," Harry said. "How does a ocean cruise sound?"
Tonks looked expectantly at Remus who sighed and shook his head slightly. "All right," Remus said finally. "If Tonks thinks she's up to it then we'll do it."
"This'll be fun," Tonks said brightly. "I've always wanted to visit the states."
"Great," Hermione said happily. "Let's go find my parents Harry, we've still got something to tell them."
Something in Hermione's voice must have triggered suspicion in Molly's motherly brain because her eyes narrowed and darted to Hermione's hands.
"Is that what I think it is," Molly exclaimed excitedly. "Have you set a date? You've got to have it at the Burrow. Oh Arthur, isn't this so exciting?"
"Molly!" Hermione squeaked as Harry put an arm around her and gave her narrow shoulders a squeeze. "We were going to tell my parents first."
"Of course dear," Molly said, bustling over to examine Hermione's ring. She muttered something for a minute then looked at them sharply. "A blood ring?"
"I'm surprised you know what that is," Harry said. "I only ran across it accidentally in a book a while back."
"Does it, uh, work?" Remus asked nervously.
"Don't worry, Harry can still smack me with his wand if I'm bad," Hermione said mischievously.
"No, it doesn't work like that," Harry said, giving Hermione a kiss on her cheek, "I gave it to her willingly, she didn't even know about before hand."
Arthur looked very please upon hearing that. "Well congratulations Harry, Hermione, I'm sure you two will be very happy together. Like Molly said, we'd be delighted if you wanted to have the ceremony at the Burrow."
"We're not getting married right away," Hermione said, "But thanks for the offer, we'll keep it in mind."
"No date then?" Molly pouted.
"We're both too busy to be distracted right now," Harry said seriously. "We've still got a war to win."
"That's probably a good idea," Remus said solemnly. "Just be careful not to let events outside your control dictate your lives to you."
"We won't, but thanks Remus," Hermione said. Harry kept his arm around her shoulders as they left the room. Hermione's parents were still sitting up in the main room playing a game of wizard's chess.
"Oh great, the Dursleys are here too," Harry groaned.
"Just ignore them Harry, maybe they'll be happy for you," Hermione said optimistically.
"I doubt it," Harry replied skeptically.
"Hi darling," Sarah said when she noticed them enter the room. "Your dad finally tricked me into a game of chess since he couldn't stand losing anymore."
"I'm still losing aren't I?" Erwin replied cheekily as the two teens sat down on conjured chairs next to their game.
Hermione took a deep, giddy breath. "Mum, Dad, Harry and I have something we want to tell you."
They looked puzzled for a minute until Hermione lifted her hand up and wiggled her fingers. Sarah didn't have an audible reaction like Molly did, but she still looked very emotional.
"My little girl is growing up," Sarah said. Harry considered this to be a major understatement considering Hermione was quickly becoming one of the most veteran fighters in the ongoing war against Voldemort, but he supposed from a muggle mother's perspective getting engaged was a big step too.
"Can't say I didn't see this coming," Erwin said neutrally. He extended a hand to Harry. "Congratulations son, I know how much you both care for each other."
"Thank you sir," Harry said, truthfully thankful not only for his well wishes but for him not giving him some embarrassing lecture or threat.
"Setting a date soon from now?" Petunia sniffed peevishly from the Dursley's corner of the room.
"Actually," Hermione said, pretending that she didn't catch onto Petunia's meaning, "We've not decided on a date yet. We'll probably wait until the war is over though."
Harry was relieved again that they dodged yet another awkward situation and continued to make small talk with Erwin. Hermione and her mother talked rapidly for a while before they had their quota of wedding gossip filled. They declined to stay at Grimmauld Place for the night and instead portkeyed back to their rooms at Hogwarts to finish off what had turned out to be a very exhausting, yet ultimately exciting day.
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