Chapter Nine

She could hear the voice again. The low, throaty singing of a lullaby. The high-pitched wail of grief. The torn sob of despair.

But now she knew who it was. She shivered, even in her sleep, picturing the tall, beautiful, broken woman with long red hair and startling green eyes.

But the sounds were changing. No lullabies or tears.


Screams that tore her ears and made her skin prickle.

Screams laced with terror and resignation.

And then it wasn't her voice any longer, but his. Screaming for Lily to stop. Begging her to stop.

It wasn't until he said her name that she sat up straight in her bed, panting. "Hermione," he'd whispered, even as his wife's tortured screams went on.

Without a second thought she flung off the covers and threw on the closest clothes she could find. Running to the living room, she could hear Severus open his own bedroom door and follow her.

"What are you doing?" he demanded. "Hermione? Where are you going?"

Without a second glance, she threw a pinch of Floo powder in the fireplace and whispered her destination, leaving Severus behind. She thought vaguely that it shouldn't be so easy to leave him behind, not if she were really planning on trying out a relationship of sorts with him, but pushed the thought aside as she arrived at Potter Place, only to find it engulfed in flames.

She choked as the smoke curled into her lungs, and wiped her streaming eyes. The screams she had heard in her dreams were now louder, closer, and infinitely more terrifying. Pausing only to make certain that the grip on her wand was secure, she sprinted up the steps, towards the flames, and towards the screams.

The fourth floor seemed further away than it ever had before, and she was panting and holding a hand to her side before she arrived at the top of the stairs. The screams now seemed muffled, and she wondered how she'd heard them so clearly upon her arrival. But it didn't matter. Gasping in the smoke-filled air, she plunged down the corridor to the room at the end of the hall.

Her heart sank as she dodged the flames licking out of deserted rooms. The flames on this floor were from no ordinary fire, she realized, as she recognized the tell-tale signs of Fiendfyre. Flames in the shape of a dragon chased her, but she managed to step neatly to the side, only to see a chimera engulf the dragon flames, mutating them both into flames that dogged her every step. But then she was in front of the door, and it didn't matter what kind of flames were engulfing the house. It only mattered that James Potter was inside, and that he'd called for her.

With a hiss of pain, she grasped the hot doorknob and pushed the door open. She thought she had been prepared for whatever she would find, but she was wrong. Lily Potter was standing in front of the window, her arms clutching an invisible baby of her own making.

And flames were licking toward her nightgown.

"Lily!" James begged. "Come to me! I promise that we can escape!"

But Lily's hysterical laughter showed that even if she could hear him, she really couldn't comprehend what he was telling her. "Escape?" she repeated. "Yes. Yes, we'll escape. But not before I finish dismantling the wards."

Hermione's heart sank. Lily had done it. She'd broken Dumbledore's wards, but she had blasted through them, instead of carefully unravelling them, layer upon layer. The failsafe had been triggered, and she knew that none of them had the skill to counter it.

They were doomed. The house would be destroyed in a matter of minutes.

And James had to know it. Still, he held out a hand to his wife, urging her to come to him. She shook her head and raised her wand, as if to battle the flames around them. Instead, another wall of Fiendfyre appeared between the husband and wife. With horrifying speed, the flames set upon Lily, streaking up her nightgown and forming a horrible, orange-red halo around her.

"Lily!" James whispered, but it was too late. She collapsed in a heap of flames, shuddered, and lay still.

Hermione watched as the flames abated, apparently satisfied with the life they'd taken. But only seconds later, the flames regrouped, forming a massive dragon. Hermione surged forward and grabbed James' arm, attempting to drag him away from the coiling and snarling ball of flame now focused on him.

"Hermione," he said, his voice raw from smoke, pain, and grief. "You came."

"I came," she repeated, her own voice sounding like a scratched record. "But, James! We have to go!"

He stared at her dumbly, and she took advantage of what she was certain was a very temporary stupor. With a firm hold on his elbow, she dragged him with her as she sprinted around the body of Lily Potter and to the window behind her. The heat of the fire had already blown the antique glass to bits, so it was easy enough grasp James' hand firmly and tug him to the low ledge.

A lick of flame, the end of the Fiendfyre dragon's tail caught James squarely on his cheek, and he let out a startled cry. Terrified, Hermione plunged through the window, dragging him with her, and cast every cushioning and safety charm she could think of.

The four floor drop was infinitely worse than whatever distance she'd fallen, clutching on to James' broom. She knew that now. Then, she'd had hope. Hope that James would somehow, against the odds, get them out of the mess they were in. Now, she was the one in charge, and she was quite certain that this ending wouldn't be nearly so happy.

In desperation, she concentrated harder than she ever had before. Land safely, land safely, land safely, she chanted, over and over. And then she felt her body contort, and wondered if she was too late. Was she already dead? But no. Her arms were twitching, lengthening, mutating, and her grasp on James began to slip. She felt him slip away from her, only to be caught by her...talons?

He was safe. She was safe. Their landing wasn't graceful, but they were both in one piece. Even if her piece wasn't exactly human. A phoenix, she thought dully. My Animagus form is a phoenix. Exhausted, she performed the counter spell, and collapsed on the ground next to James, her body aching more than she thought humanly possible. She realized she was screaming aloud only when her throat grew too rough to produce sound. Her mind cleared as she gulped in great drafts of fresh, clean air. They had landed a safe distance from the house, and she watched with horrified, mesmerized eyes as it disintegrated into a heap of rubble.

"We made it," she whispered, unable to think clearly beyond the notion that they'd somehow escaped the burning inferno. "James, we made it!"

But James was staring at her blankly, watching her lips move. A long, wicked patch of bubbling skin proved that he hadn't been quite fast enough to escape the Fiendfyre unscathed.

"Oh, James," she said, staring at his face in horror. "We've got to get you help!"

He blinked and continued to stare at her lips, and then turned to her with a puzzled expression. With a sinking heart, she realized he hadn't heard a word she'd said. The Fiendfyre had managed to catch both of his ears, and they were rendered useless.

She tore her eyes away from him only when she heard the crack of two people Apparating into the clearing only a hundred yards from them. Harry, who had obviously side-along Apparated Professor Snape, sprinted over to them.

"Hermione!" he whispered, the sound lost in the roar of flame as the house behind them burned. "Dad!" He paused, searching the grounds. "Mom?"

James' lip-reading skills were good enough to follow that much. He shook his head, and Harry dropped to his knees in the ash-filled grass. Hermione closed her eyes, grief and tension taking their toll. "I tried," she said, her voice no more than a strangled whisper. "I tried."

And then strong arms were around her, and she was crying. Crying for the woman who had been driven insane by the lies Dumbledore had spun in order to form Harry into someone who could win the war. Crying for the man who had been forced to watch his wife's descent into madness. Crying for the son who had spent year after year feeling unloved, longing for the kind of love only family could provide. Crying for herself, for being so stupid as to fall in love with a man who wasn't hers to love, and for being unable to love another man to whom she was probably better suited.

"You're safe, now, Hermione," James whispered. "And you've saved me."

She knew that he couldn't hear her. With her head buried in his chest, he couldn't read her lips. And so, she felt safe enough to whisper, "I love you, James Potter. And that's all that matters."

His grip on her tightened, and she released the sooty, black-stained tears that refused to stay behind her eyes. She was alive. James was alive, even if he couldn't hear. And that was all that mattered, in the long run. Grief and guilt might make it impossible for them to ever be together, but it was enough to know that she loved, and was loved in return.

Ten Years Later...

"Harry James Potter!" Hermione scolded, whacking her best friend's hand with a mixing spoon. "You will most certainly not eat all the batter before we've even had a chance to make cookies!"

Harry grinned sheepishly and licked the large glop of dough he'd managed to procure off the tip of his finger.

"That's disgusting," she said, even though her lips were twitching. "You do realize that uncooked cookie dough contains raw eggs, don't you?"

Harry shrugged. "Builds up immunity," he informed her with as lofty a tone as he could manage.

"It most certainly does not," she grumbled, but didn't move the bowl out of his reach, either. "I swear, if Jane picks up your bad habits..."

"You'll do what?" Harry asked, grinning as only a proud brother could and sweeping up the three-year-old girl in his arms. She'd been contentedly patting the dough into somewhat round spheres to place on a baking sheet, but happily gave up the pursuit to be twirled by her favourite (and only) brother. By the time Harry set her back down, she was gigging madly and Harry's hair contained clumps of raw dough.

"Good girl," Hermione praised, giving her daughter a kiss on the cheek. "Harry needed some help with his hair."

"That's hardly fair," Harry grumbled, not even attempting to fix his messy locks. "It's not as if I don't try..."

"Children!" James Potter strode into the kitchen of the small cottage he and Hermione had purchased after their wedding five years previous. "Do I need to separate you?"

Jane deserted her brother long enough to throw her arms around her father, and soon James, too, was wearing an accessory of cookie dough.

"That's enough," Hermione finally said, interceding on behalf of the males Jane had completely wrapped around her little finger. With a wet washcloth, she cleared the worst of the cookie dough off of her daughter's hands and sent her off to play in the living room with her doting brother.

"I missed you today," James said, moving to take his wife in his arms as soon as both of his children were out of sight. "I think your theory on the scar reducing potion is brilliant. I Owled Severus, and he plans to brew a test batch tomorrow."

Her face lit up. "Wonderful! I'll have to take Jane for a visit to Severus tomorrow and discuss the details." She bit her lip, hoping that James wouldn't be offended that she wasn't suggesting that he accompany them. Severus had accepted James' return after the wards had been broken and Potter Place burned, but the two men still didn't enjoy each other's company for extended periods of time. Owls without hexes were about the most Hermione thought she could ever hope for, especially seeing as how Severus had now lost two women to the same man.

Not that Severus had ever really loved either of those women, Hermione reminded herself. It was more a love born of friendship, and she was determined to succeed where Lily had failed. Severus would always have her friendship, no matter how prickly he sometimes became.

James stiffened at the mention of a visit to Severus, but wisely refrained from saying anything inflammatory. Reaching up, Hermione traced the path of bubbled skin on his face that had never quite healed. It began on his forehead, wound down his cheek, and ended on his ear. Severus had mitigated the worst of the damage on the lawn of Potter Place, and the healers at St. Mungo's had diligently worked to repair the rest. Six months later, an experimental potion developed by Severus Snape restored his hearing, and an uneasy truce had formed.

James' eyes closed as she ran her fingers over the bumps. The skin was always sensitive, and he never tired of her gentle touch. It was their ritual, and one that Hermione knew she'd never tire of. No matter how long her day, or how frustrated she sometimes became with her husband, one look at his scars reminded her of exactly what it felt like to be without him. And how she would do anything to keep them together for the rest of time.

Hermione brushed her lips over the scar nearest his ear, and began planting a series of kisses designed to remind him of how lucky they both were. James lifted her easily and set her on the counter, mindless of the clutter. With deft, practiced fingers, he eased his hands under her blouse and began his own series of kisses.

"But what about—"

"Harry's a smart lad," James murmured, over-riding her protest. "He knows to make himself and Jane scarce for the next little while." A flick of his wand, and the kitchen door was locked and the room silenced.

"And just what makes you think that I'm interested in these shenanigans of yours?" Hermione teased, even as she pulled his shirt from his trousers and began undoing the buttons.

"Because, love," he said, "I'm the luckiest man in the world."

Hermione smiled against his bare chest before pressing a kiss to it. "That you are, my love. That you are."

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Author's Notes

Characters from the Harry Potter series are the property of J.K. Rowling. They are used without permission and not for profit.

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