A/N: Well, it's been a terribly long time since I've posted anything-partially because I've been trying to rework the next installments of Heart Haven, but mostly because of the demands of real life. This piece happened almost entirely by accident; it's probably the strangest thing I've written yet. It's… ambiguous. But I hope you enjoy it!
The aftermath was over; or, at least, the loudness of it. Now there was just that great silence, a silence heavy with grief and deep with relief. And there was night-time, too, stars and moon and summer breezes.
The lake was bright, like a silver coin in the moonlight, and he was a shadow against the ripples, a crooked shadow against a smooth expanse.
He sat on the banks of the lake, his back against the old tree, and for a minute his mind slipped away, like a pebble sinking into water. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the rough bark, smelling the air that was still smoky, and smelling the pines, the rustling pines in the distance.
"There you are," she said, and the lake rippled.
He didn't say anything; he didn't want to talk to her, not now. He knew what he had to say, but too tired to say it. That was what he was.
"Hermione thought I might find you down here."
Despite himself, he smiled.
Encouraged, she sat next to him. The pines rustled again. So did the branches above him.
"It might rain," she said, the words heavy and fine, casual and weighty.
He didn't reach for her.
So she continued.
"You weren't at dinner. Everyone wanted to talk to you."
His jaw tightened.
"Yeah?" he said, quietly. She balked at that; he had tensed, and a current of grief whirled in his face, which had been so calm and quiet before.
She wondered if he knew that she was grieving, too.
He turned his face away, so all she could see was his shadow, and there was another long silence. A long, still silence that contained nothing and promised nothing.
She'd known a lot of those kinds of silences, especially from him.
Unexpectedly, something pierced her-some feeling, some sense-like grief and like anger and like… like love, severed and raw. Even through the pain, and the anguish, and the tears, she realized she'd been waiting for that pain; she was breathing and seeing and knowing. It was though she'd been looking at him with closed eyes, and now, now the dream had broken, and she could stretch out her hand and touch his shoulder, trembling in the agony of living, really living. Now there was no striving between them, no mutual agreement that they really ought to, and there was only she, and him, and change, like the tides. The illusion of `them' was quickly slipping away, quickly disappearing, like sand through a sieve, and whatever was left was a small, precious thing--- something real.
She drew back her hand, and he looked briefly at her.
"You're… a really amazing friend, Harry," she said, looking directly into his eyes. "You always have been. So… I'll leave you to your thoughts-"
He spoke her name as she turned away, and when she looked back, he was standing, with that serious, intent look she had never understood.
"I'm sorry," he said, and he leaned forward, and kissed her lightly on the cheek, touching her shoulder briefly before he stepped back.
He thought he saw a lingering smile in her eyes before she left him.
Grief didn't feel quite as he thought it would, not really. He'd expected… well, he didn't know what he'd expected.
Or perhaps that was the difference.
He never expected-to be the one grieving.
His parents were on the steps, holding each other in utter silence; Ginny had reappeared in the Great Hall, and was sitting with George, who hadn't said a word to anyone… not since the end.
Ron had looked at the body.
The body, he thought, because that wasn't Fred. That silent, still thing on the floor was not Fred.
He knew none of them would ever use the phrase `dying of laughter' again.
He looked at Hermione and didn't blush. He didn't… smile. He couldn't even remember what it had been like, to kiss her, only that he wasn't sure he could again. He wasn't sure he could do anything like he had before the battle, before Fred-
"Ron," she said again, and he wasn't afraid, being alone with her, as he might have been sometimes. He expected her to say something more, but she didn't, so-he did.
"Bloody-stupid-war," he said, and his voice broke. Her eyes softened, and filled with tears. He couldn't feel ashamed for crying when she touched his arm.
He was crying.
And it hurt.
She didn't know what to say; never before had she wished so much to know something; he was crying and she didn't know what to do about it.
She didn't know.
She rarely did, with Ron, and she was afraid that whatever she said might hurt him more; she always seemed to hurt him more, and Merlin knows he couldn't take any more…
She cried, too.
Ron saw her tears and suddenly realized that they were more together now than perhaps they had ever been; that she was grieving for him and for his family, and he was grateful, to have a friend like her.
Yes, she was close to him-she was holding his hand-she was leaning against him and shaking with sobs… and when he looked at her, her face blurry and his throat sore and his gaze tremulous-when he looked at her, he was glad she was there; he was glad-
But he knew… he wouldn't-he couldn't-kiss her.
Not like that.
He remembered being next to her, when they saw-that body-when they saw the body that could not be Harry-
And she'd known, before anyone had said anything, before Ginny had cried out, before anyone had realized- he'd felt her collapse, under the invisible blow, and steadied her, and heard the most terrible words he'd ever heard, three words: "Oh, God…"
And then: "NO!"
Oh, God, no.
Oh, God, no.
He could see the thoughts across her face; he could see the pain etched in her eyes, like that scar at her throat, like that scar on that body's pale forehead…
It was the first time he'd seen grief that close; the first time he'd seen someone die-the first time he could see-clearly-
The girl he'd bickered with, the girl he'd fought for, the girl he'd left, the girl he'd returned for-
Suddenly he saw her, and he knew…
He loved her.
He still did.
And he let her hand go, and he took a step away.
Not like that.
Hermione found him under the tree, and it rained.
He was standing, leaning against the tree, and watching the rain assail the surface of the water. The streaks of water, the streaks of moonlight, and the dark clouds-his eyes traced each, and held each-
Because… because he'd finally cried.
But not when she was there.
She didn't ask him inside; she didn't tell him anything. She only came to him, dripping rainwater; sodden, breathless, muddy-
Their eyes met. She was still breathless and shaking and… and he could not help taking a step toward her; he could not help but approach her, and the thunder boomed, as if sounding the weight of his step upon the earth.
And she stepped nearer to him, too, her shoulders heaving and water streaming down her cheeks and neck.
Another flash of lightning and another step; the air crackled and the clouds whirled and the lake churned--
And as if she could not bear it another moment, she stumbled into a run and clung to him, smelling of rain and earth as he wound his arms around her; suddenly he was as breathless as she was; suddenly he went weak and tired and lost and sank, slowly, to the ground.
She sank to the ground with him, and over the wind and the storm and the rain, he could hear her-breathing.
He held her, and she was warm, alive- she clutched his shirt, his sodden old shirt, and breathed, brokenly, "I won't ever let you go-"
He remembered that walk, in the pines, that long-slow-walk-
"I-knew that," he heard himself say, hoarsely, "I knew-you'd… you'd have-"
"I would have gone with you, anywhere-anywhere-"
"I know," he said again, this time with such intense gratitude that he could not quite breathe. "I know you would have-and I couldn't… he'd have-God, Hermione, he would have killed you-"
"I don't care!"
They were holding each other painfully tight as the oak behind them swayed
"I do," Harry said, into her ear; he could feel the heat of her skin; he could feel her trembling. "I do care."
She could hear his heartbeat; she could feel him breathing.
It was his name and it was enough; he could have kissed her, but he didn't.
Because he'd told her; because she knew what he meant when he said… I do care.
He didn't kiss her, but he held her, and said, "Hermione-"
He felt her take his hand, so slowly; it was as though she were feeling every pulse and vein in his fingers. Their gazes met, and his heart beat; he leaned closer to her, and their lips met- light, warm, real.
Harry closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against hers.
He couldn't smile, not yet, it was too soon-but now… now-he could breathe.
A/N: Thank you for reading and happy New Year!