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Bumps in the Road
see prior notes
Chapter 5 –Bumps in the road.
For the most part, we got through the courting-while-incognito issues in time for another minor conflict.
Make that a series of conflicts.
Some of them were obnoxiously ugly, others were merely obnoxious.
Harry’s estate, for it truly would be misleading to call it a mere farm or a country house, is a collection of various operations – an apple orchard, several large stands of nut trees, and his latest project, a horse stable. Each of these operations was designed to be self-sufficient after an initial investment period. Harry’s goal was to leave the farm to his heirs as a multi-purpose concern that would be gentle on the land, provide enough income to cover operating costs, and as a bonus, provide employment for the local inhabitants.
Having grown up in Leeds, I was rather remote from the horsey equestrian set. I thought that riding horses was an affectation of the idle rich. Little did I know that there was an equestrian subculture made up of a number of people of meagre means who would scrimp and save to earn enough for riding lessons, and when possible, would buy a horse of their own, said horses requiring a place to be stabled.
It was only after Harry and I started down the road of “taking care of each other” that I belatedly observed that the overwhelming majority of these proletarian equestrians were women – young, unattached women.
There is a breezeway that connects to the house by way of a hallway close to the kitchen. It contains the usual accoutrements of a “mud room” with racks for wellingtons and various tools, and a shower area, allowing family members to leave the various varieties of farm filth outside before invading the Potter homestead.
Arriving a bit earlier than scheduled, I found the house empty, but heard the sound of running water coming from the shower in the mud room. I walked through the breezeway and pushed the bathroom door open. Feeling particularly brazen, I called out “do you need me to scrub your back?”
It was a bluff, of course. Our relationship had not advanced beyond the occasional peck on the cheek. As an old married woman, now recovering widow, I thought this a meagre repast in the affection department, but Ginny had warned me about this, so I was letting Harry take the initiative, no matter how frustrating that might be.
There was no answer from the shower apart from hearing the water shut off, followed by various post-shower sounds.
To say that I was surprised when a tall, elegant woman in her early twenties pushed the door open, one towel wrapped around her middle and another around her hair would be an understatement. She had skin the colour of strong brewed tea and the thin nose commonly portrayed in Indian art from the Chandragupta period. (Seven years living with a self-styled Indian princess gave me a passing familiarity with Indian culture and history.) She smiled when she saw me, holding the towel closed around her bosom with one hand while extending the other to me.
“You must be Hermione. Harry’s told me so much about you,” she said, shaking my hand efficiently before disappearing behind a dressing screen. “My name’s Johanna, Harry asked me to tell you that he would be delayed.”
“Oh really?” I replied, for lack of anything intelligent to say.
The mysterious Johanna mistook this reply as an inquiry.
“Our normal Ferrier is a trifle indisposed, it being that time of the month, and Harry had to re-shoe a horse that managed to break an iron shoe while her rider was trotting by the river bottoms,” Johanna explained.
When next she appeared from behind the screen, she was dressed in tight-fitting jeans and a rugby shirt that nicely displayed her thin waist, flat belly and generous, perky bust. She was pulling her now dry hair into a twist behind her head. Her hair was dark brown, almost black, except when red highlights appeared as the light hit it just so – sleek and straight; altogether a marked contrast to my frizzy hair, which was now streaked with gray.
As I work around teenagers, including some with stunningly precocious beauty, I’m not normally disposed to fits of raging jealousy, but then again, in my defence, I’m not used to finding beautiful twenty-something women taking advantage of my – for lack of a better word – beau’s shower facilities. Her familiarity with the mudroom made me wonder if she was equally familiar with any other rooms in the house.
With impeccable timing, Harry arrived, which probably saved me from an ugly scene. He used the washroom to scrub his hands, and then pulled his shirt off, tossing it into a hamper before pulling a fresh shirt from a drawer.
“Find everything okay?” he asked Johanna.
“Yes, thanks,” she replied, giving him a shy smile.
“Give your family my regards,” Harry said, not batting an eye when Johanna dipped her head to kiss his cheek before leaving.
“Mum says you need to come to dinner,” she said as she went out the door.
“Have her Floo me,” he called to her departing, shapely backside.
Harry then turned his attention to me.
“Hey,” he said, giving me a grin.
Ten minutes previously, that grin would have sparked a flutter in my stomach. Now my stomach just had acid churning in it.
“Who is Johanna?” I asked, trying to keep the frosty tone out of my voice.
“Her?” Harry asked.
“Yes, her,” I snapped.
“She’s my goddaughter,” he said, as if that were a complete explanation.
“Pull the other one, Harry, it’s got bells on,” I said.
Harry said nothing – which was infuriating.
“She looks like a Page Three girl, how am I supposed to compete with that?” I asked rhetorically.
A flash of anger passed across his face, and then he gave a pained smile. He gestured with his hand to follow him into the house. He led me silently into the sun room, a room where, in happier times, Ginny held court. Harry pulled an album from the shelf, opening to the first page which displayed a couple in traditional English wedding attire. The second page showed the same couple in Indian garb.
“The Guptas,” Harry said flatly.
“Jasmine and Beckman,” he said, peering into my face, looking for some sign of recognition.
“That’s Jasmine?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, she cleaned up nicely,” Harry said with a proprietary pride.
“She married during the war – about a year after the Lupins,” he narrated, flipping the pages until he reached a group shot, posed in a church by a baptismal font. It was Harry, Ginny and the couple from the first photograph. Jasmine was holding what appeared to be an infant girl, dressed in a baptismal gown. “Here’s Johanna – the only picture taken that day, I might add, where she’s not crying. He leafed through the album, which was arranged chronologically, showing various shots of the Gupta family, in scenes with and without Ginny and Harry and any combination of their respective children. By the end of the album Johanna had transformed from a babe in arms to a skinny, very active girl, and finally into a slightly younger version of the woman I saw coming out of Harry’s shower in the mudroom.
“Harry,” I said, my face flushing with embarrassment. “I’m – I’m sorry.”
“For thinking ill of you – for being jealous,” I said, wishing that the earth would open up and swallow me at that moment.
“You thought?” he began, stopped himself, and then laughed.
“Why not?” I asked. “You’re a very eligible widower, and I’m sure you don’t lack for women trying to ensnare you.”
“Yeah, well there is that,” Harry said thoughtfully. “There’s a reason I stay out of the horse barns.”
“There’s a species of teenaged girls who seem to gravitate to the stables – they call themselves ‘barn rats’ – they work at the barns, mucking out the stalls and grooming the horses to pay for riding. Most of them are harmless, but a few get the notion that they can barter other services,” he said with a grimace.
“Oh,” I said.
“It wasn’t much of a problem when Ginny was alive,” he explained. “But after she – died – a few of them thought that I needed – comfort.”
“And?” I prompted.
“As usual, I didn’t pick up on most of the clues,” he said. “Luther, my Farrier, set the two most obnoxious ones straight, and the others gave up interest after that.”
“Johanna mentioned something about it being his ‘time of the month,’” I said.
“Yeah, he’s a werewolf,” Harry said nonchalantly, “and one of the best Farriers that we ever had here. I’m lucky to keep him. So, ever since then, I’ve stayed out of the stables, but Luther was out today, and one of the mares desperately needed to be re-shoed, so I did the best I could.”
“You know how to do that stuff?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m nowhere as good as Luther, but I can do it at a rudimentary level – Luther can do it all with fire, tongs and a hammer, but I have to use a surreptitious bit of magic to get everything to fit.”
“So,” I said.
“You’re not scrubbing her back when she’s lathering up in your shower?”
“Uh, that would be a ‘no,’” he replied. “It would be like me scrubbing Rose’s back.”
I grinned. I felt stupid and vulgar with a dash of self-loathing, but I covered it all up with a grin.
“She rescued Lucy this morning – that’s the horse whose shoe I just installed – Lucy had been wandering in the bottoms, and the two of them were a frightful mess by the time they got back to the stables.”
“Does she come by much?” I asked.
“With any luck, Johanna will take over the stables and supervise our training programme for young riders,” Harry said. “She thinks that ‘Uncle Harry’ is just showing favouritism, but she’s really the best one I’ve interviewed yet.
“Yeah, I am her godfather, after all. And to answer your earlier question, you’re not competing – not with Greta, not with Johanna; it’s just Harry and Hermione.”
I felt like a blooming idiot at that exact moment, but as embarrassing as the moment might have been, it was also comforting in its own awkward way. Harry knew at some level that he could get almost any woman’s attention, but he didn’t consider himself available.
The next bump manifested itself a week later – we were in Harry’s study, I was once again balancing his appointment calendar on the computer when I discovered that I couldn’t touch anything on a particular Thursday.
“Harry, is there something wrong with your date book program? It won’t let me do anything with tomorrow’s appointments,” I said.
Harry hesitated before answering. “I’m away from the farm tomorrow – on a trip,” he replied.
“Anything I need to know about?” I asked, trying to stifle a pang of resentment.
“Not yet,” he said, not meeting my eyes. “I’ll tell you everything when I get back.”
“Will it be dangerous?” I asked.
“About as dangerous as going out into the fields to pick peas,” he replied. “Actually, once I get there, I’ll have more protection than the King.”
It took some effort to not try to wheedle more information from him.
We had a pleasant evening that night – I was dressed up as the mysterious Ms Englebrecht, Harry was dressed in basic black. We had dinner at a café in Marseilles and then attended a concert. Harry’s taste in music was broader than mine – he could enjoy what I called “head-banging music” and then move on to baroque music played on period instruments. That night’s concert was somewhere in-between, a concert of Spanish guitar.
Harry’s manners had improved over the years; which isn’t all that remarkable, given the fact that he essentially raised himself while enduring neglect and abuse from the Dursleys. He opened doors for me, pulled my chair away from the table, and a host of other polite conventions. Up to that point in time he’d held my hand (or rather Greta’s hand), proffered an elbow when we were walking together, and usually would give me a warm hug before we’d part at the end of the evening. If given my choices, we would have moved faster on that front, but as I said before, Ginny had warned me about this.
We returned to my flat at Hogwarts and I took off the necklace, dropping several inches in height when I assumed my proper form.
He seemed a bit odd when he hugged me at the end of the evening.
“You worried about tomorrow?” I asked.
He nodded and then leaned forward to kiss me on the lips. I saw a sly smile on his face and was about ready to grab the lapels of his coat to force another kiss when he disappeared.
That kiss, meagre as it was, provided a lot of warmth for the rest of the evening. He’d finally kissed Hermione, not Greta.
The next day went without much of note – I taught classes, including a guest visit to the DADA class, demonstrating the Patronus charm. When I returned to my flat, the passbox on my desk was lit, announcing a waiting message from Harry.
When we began seeing each other he’d crafted a smaller passbox than the ones we’d used years ago. This one was about half the size of a cigar box, just large enough to hold a conventional Muggle envelope.
I dashed over to my desk, opening the box with anticipation. Inside was a folded sheet of paper (Harry almost never used parchment) bearing a very short message.
Can you come here tonight, after dinner?
I jotted “of course” on the foot of the note and popped it back into the passbox. By subjective time, dinner was in an hour, but it seemed like the time dragged by in extreme slow motion. When the hour arrived, I strolled to the great hall and ate a quick meal, taking time to answer questions from two of my students and one of my colleagues before I walked back to my quarters. Those who followed my movements knew that I would usually go for a walk on the grounds after dinner, deviating from this pattern only when the weather was either frightfully cold or raining.
Most people probably assumed that I walked to Hogsmeade for a drink – something I did from time to time, but not as often as imagined. Instead, I walked through the gates and a bit down the road towards the village until I was certain that I was out of sight from both town and school, Disapparating with crack.
I approached the garden outside the kitchen – honeysuckle was the most fragrant smell that evening.
Harry was waiting, in the study of course, with a lovely porcelain sculpture of a dragon sitting on the side table, next to the tea service and a plate of biscuits.
Examining the exquisite detail in the luminous red sculpture, I picked a biscuit off the plate.
“It’s lovely,” I said. “Is it new?”
“It’s rather ancient, actually, but it’s new here in the house,” Harry replied.
“Did you get it on your trip?” I asked.
“So it was successful?”
“Umm, fairly,” he said, moving to pour a cup of tea for me.
“So, what was the big mystery trip?” I asked.
“I went to Nepal,” he said tersely.
“After a fashion,” he said, motioning to the couch. Taking the hint, I carried my cup and saucer to the couch.
“You’re not very good, beating around the bush, Harry James Potter. You’d best get straight to the point,” I said.
“I love you, Hermione Jane Weasley,” he said, piercing me with his eyes. “How do you feel about acquiring another familiar?”
“What? Wait!” I sputtered. “I love you too, Harry, but what’s that have to do with dragon business and familiars?”
“Answer the question,” he urged.
“I’ve had a cat, I married a husband and then raised two children, I’d rather not be responsible for anything that I have to feed, clean or pick up after in any way,” I blurted out.
“Does that apply to me, too?” he asked with an impish smile.
“No,” I said suddenly. Then I laughed.
“What’s the familiar, and why do you want me to have it?”
Harry turned to the sculpture, uttering a throaty word that sounded like ‘haw-rat.’
The sculpture shimmered a bit and then slid off the side table like an otter sliding into a stream. Before I knew it, it was on my lap, butting my hand with its head.
“It’s alive,” I exclaimed.
“He’s alive,” Harry corrected. “Hr’t, meet Hermione, Hermione, meet Hr’t.”
“How’s that spelled?” I asked, giving the dragon’s head an absent minded scratch.
“With difficulty,” Harry replied, giving me a wink. “The best I can approximate, it would be H-R-apostrophe-T. It’s not a language that has much need for vowels.”
“You want me to have a dragon for a familiar? Are – you-- insane?” I asked.
“Yes, and probably not,” he said, trying to keep a straight face, “although opinions vary on that question.”
“Why do I need a dragon?” I asked. The dragon pushed my hand away as it turned in my lap.
“The question, I suggest,” the dragon said in a crisp, clipped accent, “is why you don’t have a dragon already.”
“He talks,” I said in surprise.
“Obviously,” the dragon said. “Aside from my intrinsic usefulness and companionship, I am more than qualified to protect you when you are away from your consort.”
“Harry’s not my consort,” I snapped, feeling slightly foolish to argue with something the size of a housecat.
Hr’t snorted, glaring at me with luminous yellow eyes. A puff of steam escaped from his snout when he snorted.
“He’s not my consort yet,” I corrected.
The dragon stirred in my lap again, coiling into a circle until his tail covered his snout.
“Why do I need protection, Harry?” I asked.
“Call me selfish,” he replied. “I’m falling in love again – with you, and I don’t think I could survive losing another mate.”
It’s hard to argue with logic like that. Harry had just declared in rather unequivocal terms exactly where we were heading in our relationship, I’d been prepared to move into high dudgeon mode, complaining about patriarchal, overprotective males, but that statement took the proverbial wind out of my sails, which was regrettable, as I’m really good at high dudgeon.
And so I obtained a familiar during the waning years of my fifth decade of life.
I quizzed Harry on the care and feeding of snow dragons (it amounted to ‘don’t step on them’ and ‘they clean themselves and feed irregularly – about once a month’). I was intrigued to learn that they were not related to any of the known dragon species, could turn invisible, change size and shape, and apart from not having thumbs in their native shape, were probably superior to humans in every way that I could imagine. In light of this new knowledge, I felt honoured with Hr’t’s presence, although I felt that Harry was being a bit extreme about my need for protection.
Acquiring a familiar was not the highlight of the evening, however. That was also the night that Harry gave me a proper kiss. Having been an old married woman for quite some time, you’d think that would have been old hat, but it wasn’t. I’d known that Harry loved me for ages, but the notion that he might find me kissable; much less desirable was, well, flattering. I’d considered him fanciable for ages, but moved him into the ‘off-limits’ category once it was clear that he was interested in Ginny Weasley, much as he’d moved me into the ‘off-limits’ category for much the same reason.
There were down sides to having a snow dragon familiar – Hr’t had no sense of personal space, draping himself on my lap or shoulder when I was sitting or standing still. After a while, I could sense when he was invisible in my immediate presence – don’t ask me how I did that, though. We had discussions on modesty (I did not want to dress or undress in the presence of a sentient, male creature, thank-you very much) and decorum. He would rearrange into the shape of a fox coloured tom cat when he would accompany me in public at Hogwarts, occasionally jumping up on the table to join me for meals in the great hall, becoming a fixture in my classes. The witches, each and every one, thought he was darling; the wizards split evenly between those who cared for cats, and those who preferred to avoid them. He managed to frequently rub up against members of the latter category, although he didn’t leave any tell-tale fur on their trouser legs. When I was going out in public, off the school grounds, he often went inert, shrinking to the size of an acorn. When he was inert, I could wear him as a charm on my bracelet, or as a pendant. After the first few times of arranging him in this fashion, he was able to conjure his own necklace, which meant that I’d occasionally find myself wearing a pendant in the middle of the day when I hadn’t put one on that morning.
Oddly enough, most of the time he would disappear when Harry was about.
Getting back to the kiss we shared the night I acquired a familiar; as noteworthy as I found that kiss, it paled in comparison to the next one.
The most profitable part of Harry’s estate was the apple orchards. When he’d first bought the estate the orchards had not been tended for a number of years. The first order of business was pruning back several years of small, unproductive branches, what Harry called “the massive haircut.” After the original orchard were producing again, Harry introduced some new stock, some of which was heirloom fruit, to encourage genetic diversity, and others were more popular hybrids and newly developed varieties. A good deal of the annual harvest was sold locally, but the finest fruit was exported abroad. I was shocked when I first learned the price of apples (and other fruit) in Japan. The notion of anyone buying an apple for £ 2.00 shocked me, but the high-end stores in Japan were selling the fruit from Harry’s orchards at twice that price. “The Japanese market is willing to pay for quality, and for that money they insist on extremely high quality, rejecting apples that Sainsbury’s would regard as first rate,” Harry told me years ago. The upside of this was that the revenue from fruit sales had made the estate as a whole profitable from almost the very beginning. The downside of this was that Harry ended up every year in Japan for what I regarded as an interminably long time.
Objectively it was a week and a half, but by my calendar it felt like months. I’d succumbed to a cold almost the day he’d left, and was just recovering from it when he returned. My classes had been particularly obnoxious during that period, the result of a feud between some of my more capable students. We had a date on the calendar for that Saturday, but he was returning to England on Friday afternoon. I was waiting at his house a few minutes after my last class, startling a few at Hogwarts by my hasty departure.
I made a pot of tea and debated baking something in his kitchen when I heard the sound of a lorry on the gravel drive that leads to the house. I’d prepared a sultry and sophisticated greeting, making eye contact with him from across the kitchen as he came through the door. All of that went out of the proverbial window. Harry opened the door, put down his bag, and I was in his arms. We hugged, and then I got a chaste peck on the lips, and throwing caution to the wind, I kissed him properly.
The colour shift at the edge of my vision should have tipped me off, but I usually close my eyes when I kiss, so maybe not. As kisses go, it was verging on fantastic. I loved Harry and he loved me, and however wretched I’d been when he was gone, he was here now. I could feel Harry’s warmth and his desire for me, which ignited a blaze within me. Next I felt Harry’s awareness of my desire, which was met by a flicker of surprise and another wave of desire from him. To this day I don’t know how long that kiss lasted, which, in hindsight, is reasonable, because while I was trying to pierce his soul with my lips, I passed out.