Title: Whatever I Am To You
Length: 10,000 words/25 pages
Rating: Mild PG-13 for some mild language (no lemons in this one, sorry)
Notes: Movie-verse, post-war, no epilogue. H/Hr. I've endeavored for a sympathetic portrayal, but this is still most definitely not pro-R/Hr.
"I liked that scene in the film, because it was articulating something I hadn't said but I had felt. I really liked it and I thought that it was right. I think you do feel the ghost of what could have been in that scene."
She'd rather die with him than live with you.
But she didn't go, and he didn't die, he tries to remind himself.
She only stayed because he asked her to. What did she say - what did she do - when you asked her to come with you?
Thunk. A little harder this time, maybe.
She kissed you, you blithering idiot. Not him.
That you know of, that horrible voice from the locket counters in his head, with that image of them, entwined and laughing at him. He shoves it down, focusing on the memory of Hermione's arms around him in the Chamber of Secrets. In a world where so many he's known, including one of his own brothers, no longer exist, it's one of a precious few bright moments.
He doesn't know if it's only been a few days since Harry killed Voldemort, or even a week. With Fred's death, the days had ceased to distinguish themselves from one another. At some point his family's grief had become as suffocating, as draining as if every Dementor in Azkaban had taken up residence around the Burrow. So he'd taken up Harry's standing invitation to Grimmauld Place, where they finished each night after spending the day helping with the recovery efforts at Hogwarts. Hermione - her parents still Obliviated and in Australia - had already been there, like Harry, refusing to intrude on what they saw as private family grieving.
McGonagall was determined to have the school at least partially restored to former glory in time for the new school year on September 1 - there was perhaps no more crucial part of the war recovery process than ensuring Wizarding Britain's future generations were still able to learn. Some were aghast at Harry in particular's insistence on helping ("You deserve some rest, my dear boy!" Professor Slughorn had exclaimed), but Harry refused to sit by while everyone else shouldered the duties of rebuilding. He had to live in this new world just as much as everyone else did, he'd pointed out. Hermione, of course, had agreed to join him, and wherever Harry Potter and Hermione Granger went, so went Ron Weasley, particularly once his family's grieving had become too much.
Hermione had even suggested the three of them go back to properly finish their final year once Hogwarts reopened, much to Ron's horror (Harry's reaction had been oddly muted). McGonagall and a few other professors were more than willing to grant them fully completed status in light of certain extenuating circumstances - namely, defeating the greatest threat the modern Wizarding world had known. But of course that was no excuse for Hermione to avoid a chance at learning any unlikely information she didn't already know.
At some point, Ron knows, he's going to have to return to the Burrow. Ginny's owled him once already, pleading his return - and making what she probably hoped came off as casual inquiries into Harry's well-being, of course fooling no one.
He's tried not to think about it: Hermione and Harry in this big old house together, alone. And then he feels like a git for not trusting his best friends to not shag the moment they get away from him.
And then, he wakes up late one morning to find the two of them already in the kitchen, huddled next to each other on the bench over steaming mugs of some drink - coffee? - and laughing softly, and it starts all over again.
You know I didn't make up everything, that Horcrux-like voice whispers again. The best lies always contain a grain of the truth.
"I'll go with you."
He loves her, he thinks. He doesn't know if it's always been this way and he just hasn't recognized it, or it's been something that grew over time. For sure he's felt something since the bloody Yule Ball, and seeing her with that - that Krum (you can't believe you ever worshiped the git). It's certainly not the kind of love those wizard blokes from the time of Merlin went on about. Hermione is no damsel, and he's no - well, unless that one time on McGonagall's giant chess set counts. There've been no flowery letters, no declarations on bended knee. The very idea makes him want to upchuck, and he's certain that's one thing Hermione <i>would</i> agree with him on. Barbed words, heated glares, the rush of adrenaline at knowing only <i>you</i> affect each other this way - it seemed to work for them.
Then her voice, a beacon in the night, drawing him back where he belonged. He'd sworn to himself when he came back that if at Harry's side was where she chose, then he would be there with her. Not to guard his "territory" - and he knew Hermione would punch him if he ever said anything like that. No, because beside her is where he belongs.
And beside Harry too, the daft git. Ron made a promise to him, too. Hermione's right, he needs them both. If Ron were going to get all, well, Hermione about his feelings, he'd even say he loves Harry too. Though not in the same way, he'd hastily add.
Most definitely not the same way, a wry little voice in his head adds, flashing the memory of her lips finally pressed to his, clothes sodden but body still warm and soft against him...
The ball he's been tossing against the wall finally falls to the ground as he groans.
He swears and grabs for the nearest thing to cover his lap; a folded spread of paper that might be the Daily Prophet. Good a place for it as any, he can't help but think with a smirk.
And then she's there. Eyebrows raised, cheek scabbed but healing, bushy hair barely in any semblance of a ponytail. And this time an ache hits in a completely different area.
How did it take him so long to realize she was not only a girl, but a damn pretty one at that?
Her lips twitch in a small smile. "Figured out which one yet?"
He stares blankly, then follows her eyes down to his lap - where it's not the Daily Prophet at all, but Witch Weekly, headline boldly advertising the quiz "Which Wizarding Hero Hunk Is YOUR Love Match?" There's even a small heart-shaped picture of Harry alongside it, winking at him. "Bollocks," he mutters as she giggles. But blast it, his... reaction to her is still clearly evident, so it's not like he can just toss the magazine aside.
Though with Hermione's brainpower - and judging from that gleam in her eye - she already knows. She giggles again, sitting beside him. Thankfully, she makes no move for the magazine - her touching him anywhere close to that area certainly won't help... that... subside.
"About time we got a moment alone together," she smiles, lacing her fingers with his.
"Yeah," he croaks, an odd mix of pleasure and smugness flitting through him. She'd sought him out, just him. Not anyone else. Maybe... maybe if they have enough of these, then -
"I'll go with you."
- Maybe it won't matter anymore.
This time, he initiates the kiss, lacing his long fingers into her hair and pulling her to him. Her lips work slowly against his, tasting, exploring; her hand goes flat against his chest, setting his skin on fire through his shirt.
If he'd known snogging Hermione would feel this incredible, he'd have started it years ago. (It sure beats the hell out of arguing.) She'd probably have slapped him the first time, but then, it's not like she hasn't done worse.
And yet, incredible as it feels, he can't help but... compare. His only real snog before now was Lavender Brown, and there's no denying that Lavender had reacted more, well, enthusiastically than Hermione has so far. (Even that Cattermole lady who'd thought Ron was her husband had been, but then, those were... unique circumstances.) But he tells himself that's just how Hermione is, not one to get all swept away by things like lust. That over time she'll loosen up.
Bloody hell, he can't wait, he thinks, and can feel himself grin.
She seems to pick up on his thoughts; she laughs and pushes away from him, ever so slightly. "Not yet. Not here," she says with another short laugh, inclining her head to the door.
And there it is again. The reminder that they never really are alone. Ron growls in frustration. "Can't we just... I don't know, lock the door, go somewhere else?"
She blushes, looks away.
"Too soon?" he says.
She nods. "I'm... I'm not saying never. Just... I'm still getting used to... to this," she goes on, brushing her fingertips to his lips. A pleasant shudder passes through him.
"But in the meantime we can still..."
She rolls her eyes, but not in the truly exasperated way he's so used to. If anything, she looks amused. "Yes."
"Can we, erm, now..."
"Boys," she sighs, shaking her head, and kisses him again.
A knock on Ron's door, and she jumps away. "Ron?" Harry's voice comes through the gap.
Ron swears so violently that Hermione's eyes go wide. Why hadn't she locked the door? For that matter, why hadn't he?
"In here," Hermione calls back. Ron stares at her, furious. She seems to belatedly realize what she's done; she bites her lip and shrugs at him, expression apologetic.
She's inviting him in? Tell him to sod off, we're busy! Not one bloody minute ago she was -
Something dark and unwanted simmers within him. There will always be three people in this relationship. If you can't deal with that, then -
"Hermione, have you seen R- oh." Harry frowns at Ron, and then his lips twitch in the barest semblance of a smile as he inclines his head towards the magazine. "I guess you're not interested in a game of Exploding Snap, then."
"Oh shut up," Ron mutters, cursing again and throwing Witch Weekly aside, any... reaction having quickly subsided now.
"I think Ronald has something he wants to tell you," Hermione laughs to Harry, pointing her head towards that damned magazine, and the winking picture of Harry.
And then there it is.
That look, that the-world-is-just-Harry-and-Hermione one they share, as they laugh together. The one he saw in the tent when they were jabbering on about the sword of Gryffindor, that he saw when Harry left to face You-Know-Who, that he's seen for seven bloody years, and it all comes rushing back. The glances, the knowing smiles, the apparitions from the Horcrux, the always-pleased exclamations of "Harry!" - all of it.
Do they even realize the way they keep looking at each other? Does he even fucking exist right now?
It's the bitterest irony, he thinks. He and Hermione would likely never have been friends, let alone more, if not for Harry. If he's honest with himself, their friendship with Harry's probably even the strongest common ground he and Hermione share. And now Harry is...
No, he can't play the better man. No, he can't let this go. And you know, maybe that's the reason she always -
You shut down the thought as ruthlessly as any Death Eater.
"Harry." Your breath is threatening to curdle in your throat, but you get the words out and sound, remarkably, like nothing is abnormal. "Could Hermione and I have a moment?"
For a moment Harry's brows draw together in confusion, then a flash of embarrassment and - disappointment? - as he glances at Ron, then Hermione, who's still sitting on the bed next to Ron. "Oy. Right."
Hermione's eyes remain on Harry, and then the closed door behind him, just a half-second too long. After that interminable moment, she finally turns back to Ron, face looking appropriately concerned. "What is it, Ronald?"
It's his sudden irritation in wondering why she always has to use his awful full name - like his mother, who he definitely does NOT want to think about when alone with Hermione - when addressing him, that provides the final incentive for him to jump.
"Do you even want to be with me?" Really no better way than to just dive in, right?
She looks stunned, bewildered. "What-"
"Do you want to be with me?" he asks again.
Now she looks offended. "I should think that would be well clear by now. Unless for some reason you think I just go around snogging any random boy, let alone one of my best friends, as if it -"
Something dawns on her, and her face darkens dangerously. "Ronald Bilious Weasley -" and there's that Molly Weasley tone - "we are NOT having this argument again."
"It doesn't have to be an argument. All you have to do is answer me, honestly. And I'll - I'll take you at your word."
"There is nothing going on between me and Harry," she says, rolling her eyes. "There never has been. There. Satisfied?"
Leave it. Don't press it.
But impulse control, or lack thereof, is one of his many failings. And it isn't about to suddenly stop being one now. "That's not what I'm asking."
"Then perhaps you'd better be clearer." Her tone makes the room suddenly feel like one or two of those Dementors left the Burrow and are now hovering nearby.
He blurts it out. "Do you love him?"
"Of course I do! He's one of my best friends!"
"No. I mean are you in love with him?"
Her eyes widen; jaw drops. "Where on earth did you get that?"
"More like where haven't I gotten it?" he fires back. Maybe it's just his typical jealousy. Maybe it's the stress of the last seven years, the last several months in particular. Maybe it's Fred. Hell, maybe it's all three. But whatever the reason - there's something cleansing, exhilarating about this rush of anger, like he nearly always feels when arguing with her, and he just can't quite let go of it. "Have you ever wondered, Hermione, why so many people keep thinking you two are together? Why the stories were never about you and me?"
She scoffs. "I think you of all people should know how much time we've had to worry about gossip only worthy of Rita Skeeter."
"Because you keep choosing him," he plunges on, ignoring her. "And the way I see it, there are two possibilities." He sticks up his thumb. "One. That big Hermione Granger brain ran the calculations, decided that what was best for Harry Potter, the boy who's going to save us all, was best for the entire wizarding world, the greater good. And that everything else, any other person's feelings, was either irrelevant or trivial in comparison."
"You've never been trivial to me," she exclaims, visibly wounded. "Is that really what you think of me? That I've reduced my two best friendships to base calculations?"
"Then tell me what option number two is, Hermione. The reason I've always been second best in your heart."
She bites her lip, gets that look she gets sometimes, like she's explaining something to a small child. "Ron, I know you and Harry have always had... issues over this whole who-gets-more-attention thing. I've never understood why you think being an orphan with a Dark wizard out to kill you is enviable, but... but your insecurity is not my fault."
"It's not my fault there've always been three people in our relationship."
"Ron, Harry is always going to be a part of our lives. We can't just cut him out."
"I'm not suggesting that," he retorts, exasperated. "It's just - I just wish that even once you would take my side."
"We've spent the last seven years fighting a war, with choices between life and death of not just ourselves but maybe the entire Wizarding world, and you're concerned about... scoring points?"
"Not everything is about life and death! Love isn't!"
She falls still, as if the wind has literally left her sails. "Are you saying... you love me?"
"I suppose I am." He looks at the door, looks at her again. "Not as a friend. Like that."
Her expression softens. "Ron... I nev -"
"If we're going be together, Hermione - we have to choose each other now and then."
"I did choose you!"
"When? Name once."
She fixes his gaze unflinchingly, doesn't miss a beat. "In the Chamber of Secrets."
For a moment, he's almost willing to concede the point. "Harry wasn't there."
"I would have kissed you if the entire bloody Ministry of Magic was watching!"
"Are you sure about that?"
He's stunned to see moisture glittering in her eyes. "There's another thing we need if we're going to be together, Ron. Trust."
And for this has no reply.
"Ron." She takes his hands in hers, kisses them, unshed tears glittering more than ever. "Please tell me what's bringing all this on."
Dammit, he's made her cry again. How many more times?
"Ron. Please, answer me. I care about you." It's the same tone from the tent, pleading with him.
"But not enough to stay with me!" he explodes. She jolts, but to her credit doesn't jump away from him. "You wanted to die with him rather than stay with me!"
She purses her lips, furrows her brow - she doesn't roll her eyes, but he can tell she's fighting the urge. She sighs, clasps his hand. He doesn't return the gesture. "Is that what this is all about? He's our friend, Ron. I didn't want him to die alone."
"And did what I feel matter at all? That I could lose not one, but both of my best friends?"
"You would have gone with him too."
"No." Her eyes widen in shock. "I made a promise to myself months ago, Hermione. To stay with you, no matter what. I knew there was no way Harry would let us go face You-Know-Who in the end. He'd Petrify us first. So I promised myself: if he couldn't be there for you, then I would be. Always.
"I chose you, Hermione. I chose you over him."
She looks away, but doesn't remove her hand. He can see her throat working, swallowing. "What do you want, Ron?"
"To say, once in a while, you'll choose me. And mean it."
She rubs her face in her hands. "I told you, I did choose you."
"You kissed me. Yeah. And then turned around and offered your life to our best friend."
"Because he needed me!" she shouted.
"What about me? I need you too!"
"Not as much as he does!" Her jaw immediately clamps shut, brown eyes wide, like she can't believe she just said it.
His jaw clenches. "I'll ask you one more time, Hermione. Is that the logical Hermione Granger brain talking... or is it something else?"
She looks away again, doesn't answer.
"Is it something else?"
"I don't know!"
Ron presses his lips together, pulls away from her.
"Are you in love with him?"
She sighs, looks away from him, looks back at him. And, if possible, his heart sinks even further. "There was one night. Right after you left." I knew it. "Harry was just trying to cheer me up, started this ridiculous dancing. Got me to join in." The look in her eyes - is she even aware of it? - makes Ron's chest hurt. "There was - there was a moment. When the music stopped, it was like we were both... waiting for something.
I think - I think I could have kissed him, if I'd wanted to. But you know what happened?" Her glare becomes pointed, accusing even. "I chose you."
He doesn't rise to the bait. "Did you want to kiss him?"
Her chest is heaving, her cheeks are flushed.
"Did - you - want - to?" He doesn't care who hears them.
Her voice is even louder. "Yes!"
He thrusts her hand away.
"But nothing happened, Ron! It was just one moment! It doesn't mean I'm..."
Ron cuts her off. "You want trust? Fine. Just say it, Hermione. Look me in the eye, say you're not in love with him, and I'll believe you."
"I'll believe you."
"Stop saying my name, you'll wear it out. Say you're not in love with him."
This time, the tears do fall. And it's almost as if his heart has already opened itself wide of its own accord, waiting for her to cast the spear.
"Hey, mate, do you nee - "
Ron shrugs his shoulder away from Harry's outstretched hand without missing a step. "Just le - not now, Harry." Shhww-craaaack, and he's gone, Disapparated who knows where.
And once again: rock, Harry Potter, hard place. He swears softly, resting his fist against the wall.
He's never known which side to take in these fights of theirs. Especially if the way Ron deliberately avoided looking at him when he walked out, is any indicator.
That's just the thing, too: the way Ron walked away. Not stalking off in fury, asking Harry to come help let it all off with a one-on-one round of Quidditch. If anything, Ron had looked like a man defeated.
Ron had shoved away his attempt at help. Should he ignore it, and follow him, or -
It hits Harry then, the pointed silence from the room where Hermione (unless he's missed the sound of her Disapparating) still is. He raises his hand to knock on the door, and for some reason it occurs to him Ron may take this the wrong way.
It's not like that, he thinks out of reflex, and he wonders who he's thinking it to. Then he rolls his eyes and knocks on the door anyway. This is Hermione, one of his two best friends. He'll do his best to help her, then together they'll go find Ron. They work past this, they always do.
And then they start the cycle all over again, another part of him reminds himself.
No answer. Another knock, more pointed silence. "Hermione..."
He opens the door, slowly, hand going to his wand. 12 Grimmauld Place is one of the places probably least likely to fall victim to random Death Eater attack, but Harry has been at war too long to dismiss any possibility outright.
There are no Death Eaters, no maimed or missing Hermione. He lowers his wand. She's sitting on the bed facing away from him, still silent. Too silent. Harry can't even tell if she's breathing, she's so still. He casts his eyes around the room, resting on the Witch Weekly issue spread on the floor. He snorts inwardly at the sight of his ridiculous winking mug on the cover (do I ever even do that?); he's seen far too many of these to care now, and surely, this wasn't what they were arguing over.
He walks over and sits beside her on the bed. Chancing a sideways glance, Harry sees her eyes closed, tear-tracks staining her cheeks. He's hit with the simultaneous urges to break Ron's jaw and wipe her tears away; the former isn't feasible (not to mention pointless) and he isn't sure if the latter is appropriate or even welcome right now. Unlike another moment he found her like this, the night Ron first kissed Lavender Brown - where she seemed to welcome and even take comfort in his presence, this time she doesn't even acknowledge it. It strikes Harry almost as if she's refusing to let herself take comfort from him. He'll offer it, but only if she wants it.
"You always seem to find me," she suddenly says, barely audible.
Harry, caught off guard, replies, "I didn't think you were trying to hide."
A messy intake of breath that could be an attempt at a laugh. "I think it would be pointless, as loud as we were."
"Just say the word and the Invisibility Cloak is yours." He's half-teasing, hoping to get a smile out of her, but he's serious too. He had even given specific instructions to Professor McGonagall that first night that Grimmauld Place was not to be disturbed until he said otherwise - they all needed a quiet place after the night they'd all had, and Harry wanted nothing more than the company of his two best friends.
Night? There's a hysterical laugh in his mind. As if it had only been one long dreadful night since this had all started.
Maybe it has been. Any time you want to get here, morning, that'd be fantastic.
She still doesn't look at him, but he could swear there's the briefest twinkle in her eye. "Not necessary. But thank you."
"Anytime." Her hand twitches next to his - whether searching him out or trying to escape, he's not sure. "Do you want me to leave you alone?"
This time she does look at him, almost stricken. "No. Please." She reaches for his hand, clasping it. He returns the pressure, though perhaps not as fiercely.
"If you want, I can find Ron - "
"Ron's gone to the Burrow. He said he needs to be with Ginny and the others right now anyway."
Ginny. A twist in Harry's gut, part guilt and part longing. Part of him had desperately wanted to go to her after Fred's death, but... try as he might, he just couldn't help the feeling of intrusion. Fred had been Harry's friend, but he had been the Weasleys' brother and son. Ginny needed her family now, she didn't need him.
"Anyway... Ron and I are done."
Harry almost looks around for the Bludger that hit his stomach; surely nothing else could have taken his breath like this.
"You don't mean - "
"We'll still be friends, I think. Somehow. But just not..." she tilts her head, shrugs.
"Oh." It's a stupid, totally unhelpful response, but Harry can barely muster the presence of mind - or the breath - to utter much else.
For years, Ron and Hermione have danced around... around each other. Certainly it's not all over just like - like this? Not a few hours ago they seemed so... well, as happy as two people could be in the first days after the end of a far-too-bloody war. And how many times have they argued? What made this time so bad?
They sit there in silence for several moments, before she breaks the silence again. "Do you even want to know why, Harry?"
"I-" He frowns; some part of his subconscious warns him, do not tread here. "What happened between you and Ron is between you and Ron."
This time a real laugh does escape her, but it's not amusement; if anything, it's hysterical.
"Oh, Harry." She looks at him, bemused, wiping the tear-tracks off her cheeks. "It's never been just me and Ron. Even you know that."
"No, I didn't mean it like that."
"Then tell me."
She sniffs, rubs her eye. "Are you sure?"
He's lying somewhat when he answers, "Absolutely."
A deep breath. "It was all about you. I'm in love with you."
She hiccups, but Harry barely hears it over the sound of his brain racing to and smashing against the ground. Then there's this strange buzzing which doesn't make any sense because if his brain is dead, he's dead and shouldn't be hearing anything, especially not what he just heard, and fuck, Ron and Ginny and hell, all the Weasleys are going to kill both of them, especially him, and -
"Or so Ron thinks."
It takes Harry a moment to regain his breath, but his heart is still thumping like a thousand trapped Snitches in his chest. "Blimey, Hermione! Why didn't you - "
"How else was I supposed to segue into it?" She shrugs. It's not exactly a... segue-able topic. 'Oh, by the way...'"
Point. "Still," he manages, trying to take a breath. "Give a bloke a little warning next time?"
She smiles, just a small one. Harry's heart, finally slowing, lightens a little at the sight of it. He knows it'll be some time before she's fully past this - she and Ron have been at this since they were - well, as long as Harry can remember. But knowing she's capable of a smile even now reassures him, She'll be okay. Which, really, is absurd. When has Hermione Granger not been able to pick herself up from being knocked down? If anything, she's the best of the three of them at doing so.
"Have you - have you ever thought about that dance, Harry?"
He's yanked from his musings by the odd shift in topic, but knows almost instantly what she's talking about. Then that warning part of his brain - what's left of it, anyway - starts to whirr again. He looks at her, notes how she seems to be holding her breath, watching him closely.
Yes, he can admit honestly, he has thought about it. He thought about it for hours that night, how he'd tried to lighten things for her and ultimately failed. The shadow of Ron had loomed too dark and heavy, and he hadn't attempted it again. It had also, quite clearly, flashed through his mind with so many other things in the brief moments in the forest before Voldemort had hurled the Killing Curse at him.
"Yes," he says after several moments, trying to ignore the way her face seems to lighten at that answer. "I remember I just wanted to see you smile again. Once."
"And I never thanked you for that," she replies, looking away, an angry glint in her eyes.
"Thanked me?" Harry is bewildered, as much by the swing in her emotions as anything else. "You stayed with me. You've always stayed with me. Even when - when it became obvious I didn't know what I was doing. I'd be dead if you hadn't stayed. I should be thanking you."
She looks away, blu - is she blushing? Suddenly he's reminded of another long ago conversation. There are more important things. Friendship, and bravery, and...
Harry's stunned when Hermione's arms suddenly go around him. In reflex, his arms return the gesture. It's not the first time she's hugged him, not remotely close, but... something about this one is new.
"Hermione? What -"
"I could never leave you," she whispers against his shoulder, and it sounds like a revelation. She pulls away, just far enough to look him in the eye. Something in her gaze makes him swallow uncomfortably. Like if Ron or Ginny were to walk in on them right now, he'd be unconscious on the floor. "I would've, you know. I would have gone with you."
Harry's whole body tightens. Every protective urge he's ever had surges, the refusal to let anyone else die for him, especially her and Ron. He even remembers looking at Ron over her shoulder, communicating to the other boy what he dared not say aloud in her presence. Not just because she would rebuff needing it, but because he knew she would refuse to accept what it meant. That he wouldn't be there to do it.
Take care of her - of each other - for me.
"Never," he swears, and even he's surprised by the level of anger in his voice. She seems taken aback, too. "Hermione, if you had been there, I - " his voice, to his frustration, refuses to go any further. For all her intelligence, can't she see why she shouldn't have been there?
I wouldn't have wanted to come back to this world, because it would be a world where I failed to protect you.
Voldemort would have wanted Harry to suffer every possible pain before he killed him, and every Death Eater knew: what greater pain did Harry Potter have than seeing those he loved suffer and die for him? And as brilliant as Hermione is, even she would have no - he can't finish the thought.
Never Hermione. NEVER.
She places a hand to his cheek, and without thinking he leans into it, closing his eyes, relishing the warmth that means she is alive. "I'm sorry."
He finds his hand going to hers, pinning it to his face. "Don't be."
"Sorry, Mr. Potter, you don't get to issue orders on this one." She kisses him on the cheek, maybe a moment longer than usual, then falls silent, looking at the door.
"That was what finished it, you know."
"What?" He's lost again.
"Harry," she says gently, almost patronizingly, "Ronald and I have argued more times than even I can calculate. Why did you think this of all times would... change things?"
Harry thinks back to what she said. That Ron thought she was in love with him, with Harry. It wasn't the first time she and Ron had argued over him, either. What had changed?
The warning in his brain screams louder than ever.
Don't ask her what she said. Don't ask her what she said to him.
And yet, he thinks he knows, even before she opens her mouth.
"Did you ever think anything... else, about that night?" she asks. He knows somehow that she's talking about the tent, the dance, again.
He eyes her cautiously. "What are you asking, Hermione?"
"Please, just answer me."
There was one other thing he'd thought about that night. One moment, and then he'd pushed it aside and not thought of it again - because she hadn't wanted it. Or so he'd thought.
"There was..." he says, slowly. "There was... when the music stopped, it felt like..."
Like the world stopped and it was just you and me. And then you pulled away.
Her eyes glitter. "I felt it too."
Harry's lips fall open, ever so slightly. There'd been an unspoken agreement to never mention that moment, or so he'd thought. Nothing had ever come of it, because she clearly wanted Ron, and he wanted Ginny, and -
And he's not sure of anything anymore.
"Hermione, are you saying you did... you wanted to..."
She bites her lip.
He places a hand on her shoulder, trying to convey a reassurance he's not sure he himself feels. "Hermione. I promise it'll be okay. Really."
She looks at him a moment, clearly uncertain, but then she smiles and nods slightly. She pulls her hand from his, exhaling once as she braces both her hands on her thighs and seems to be looking to them for - comfort, strength, he doesn't know.
Then she looks at him, and -
("Everything's going to change now, isn't it?")
"I... I did. I did want to."
Harry gulps in... well, he's not quite sure why. And yet - why else would she bring up that night at all, especially in relation to her fight with Ron? Why else would Ron be mad enough to - oh, hell.
"Give a bloke a minute," he manages.
He looks up at her suddenly, a horrible truth dawning on him. "It's my fault. You and Ron. I'm so sorry -"
She blinks, hand going to his shoulder. "What are you talking about?"
"But you just said..."
"Harry... it was a lot more than just that moment." She sniffs, her breathing intensifying. "Besides, it's hardly your fault Ron is - that he's such an inse-"
He takes her hand again. She seems to calm down.
"This has been a long time coming, Harry. And - Ron wasn't entirely wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"You've always been my best friend, Harry. Ron's my friend too, but it's never been - he's never been my best friend." She shakes her head. "Maybe I could have treated him better. Been a better friend to him."
A corner of Harry's mouth twitches. "You want my honest opinion?"
She laughs, softly. "What other opinion would I want from you?"
"You did treat him awfully sometimes. But he treated you awfully, too. Hell, I could be a jerk to both of you."
She looks up at him, pained. "Ron and I never could seem to express ourselves to each other without... without trying to... score points off each other. Maybe it's for the best this happened now. And not later, when we're..."
"Married?" Harry finishes. She gives that odd little almost-laugh again.
"Harry, don't think for a minute that anything between me and Ron is your fault. Besides, there were two of us that night in the tent. I didn't exactly kick you away."
"It wouldn't have stopped me," Harry replies with a grin. "I was going to get a smile out of you one way or another. And if kicking me would have done it, well..."
She pushes him, and they both laugh. But like all light moments seem to do, it fades quickly. He can't, tempted though he might be, just forget what she said. What it means - what it could mean.
"So... when you say... you wanted to..." he pauses. "Was it... was that the only time?"
He can count on one hand the times he's seen Hermione truly perplexed - including now.
She shakes her head and answers after what's probably only a few heartbeats, but feels like hours to Harry. "I did like Ron, really I did. You know how much it hurt me seeing him with Lavender. When he left us on the Horcrux hunt. But it wasn't..." she takes a deep breath, "it wasn't anything compared to what I'd feel if I lost you."
She raises her eyes to his, shining.
"I love you," she murmurs, "So much. If the idea of losing you as my best friend hurt so badly, I didn't know if I could handle losing you if I... if we were..." She strokes his cheek. "I tried to cut myself off from that idea a long time ago, when you were with Cho, then with Ginny, and... and I got better at forgetting. Until that night in the tent."
Harry doesn't realize when he disengages from her; he's only vaguely aware that his elbows are on his knees, one hand holding his glasses and the other running down his face. The familiar warm pressure on his back tells him Hermione's hand rests there, but he barely feels it.
What does he feel? Well, aside from having any coherent train of thought ever again completely bollixed. He's always turned to Hermione to untangle his romantic confusions, not create new ones.
He suddenly has to stand up, walk around - any kind of movement, some physical distance to help him think; he tries not to notice the wounded look on Hermione's face as he pulls away.
"Harry, say something."
"I'm sorry, Hermione. But - seven years. How much do we need to rewrite?"
"Nothing," she replies, stunned. "I'll always be your friend, Harry. Nothing will change that."
"But we..." He isn't sure what he's saying; the words just spill out. "If I'd known, had any clue..."
"Then what?" she stands up and takes his hand, her voice almost a whisper.
His mouth hangs open, lost for words, in what he is sure is a ridiculous expression. How would he have reacted, if he'd known sooner? Before the Yule Ball? When he'd been pining over Cho? Over Ginny? Would he have been willing to change the boundaries of their friendship? Would they really change at all? He and Ginny had been friends beforehand, but not - not like he was with Hermione. She was one of his best friends - if not his best friend. Even Ron hadn't stuck with him as steadfastly as she had.
And suddenly, he knows.
"I certainly would have paid closer attention," he says at last; her blush is unmistakable this time. Hermione. Blushing because of him. He's not sure what that makes him feel - some mixture of pride and even a little bit of awe, maybe. He'd thought he was lucky enough to have someone like Ginny look twice at him. But Hermione was... "You're the most brilliant girl I've ever known, beautiful -" her blush deepens - "and the most loyal friend anyone could ask for. I'd be a fool not to think about it."
Her lips form a little O-shape, her eyes glittering. "So you're saying..."
"If I'd ever thought I stood a chance with you, Hermione, Ginny would never have happened. Maybe not even Cho."
She purses her lips and blinks furiously, roughly wiping away tears. "I'm an idiot. If I'd just been honest with you - with myself -"
"We're being honest now." He swallows, more nervous than he ever was with Cho, or Ginny. This isn't just any pretty girl. It's... Hermione. And regardless of what either of them says next, nothing is going to be quite the same again. "I would have kissed you that night. If you had wanted it."
She gazes at him, new tear-tracks glistening on her cheeks. This time, he does reach out to wipe them.
"And I would do it now."
One wall, and a thin one at that. That's all that separates her from Harry. If she listens closely enough, she fancies she can even hear his breathing. He doesn't snore like Ron, thankfully; though even if he did, a simple Silencio would do the trick and he'd be none the wiser.
Actually, the snoring wouldn't be so bad. Something to focus on besides the odd creaks and groans of a huge, empty house, anyway. Odd how she'd taken Ron's presence for granted to fill so many silences. It was the tent all over again.
Well. Maybe not entirely like the tent.
One conversation. That's all that separates their relationship, the before of it, from the after.
What do you want?
What I always wanted.
There's no point in kicking themselves now. But when she thinks of it, what she and Harry might have had before now...
Going to the Yule Ball with him, instead of Viktor. Being his first kiss under the mistletoe, instead of Cho Chang. Not having to fend off Cormac's unwanted attentions at Slughorn's party. Her arms around him, not Ginny's, as he wept over Dumbledore's body.
But everything else she'd said had been true, too. If she had been more than his friend... when he'd disappeared during the Third Task? When he'd gone to the cave with Dumbledore? When Hagrid had carried him, so still, so lifeless, from the forest?
Would she have been able to remain objective? To continue to function logically, as she prided herself so much in being able to do? For the first days after Ron had left, she'd been useless, unable to even muster the will to perform the basic protective spells around their tent.
Harry had needed her brain, not her kisses. Maybe there's a reason this hasn't happened until now.
And still nothing has happened yet, not really. They'd both agreed that the situation of a certain pair of Weasleys needed to be addressed first. Ron deserved a heads-up before his two best friends suddenly showed up as - whatever they decided to be. Boyfriend, girlfriend? The words don't fit the connection she and Harry share, not really. Above all else, they had also agreed: friends. Nothing was going to change that.
And Ginny... Well, what was the acceptable amount of time after a brother's death before you told your girlfriend there was someone else? Was there even one?
Then again, it wasn't as if Harry and Ginny had ever actually gone on a date, he'd confessed. A handful of kisses, an admitted mutual attraction. And yet, it had almost seemed... understood that, after the war, when there would be time, the dating would actually happen. Not to mention, Ginny has been dreaming of Harry since she was a small girl. If anyone has a reason to take this badly, it's her.
For now, it's enough for Hermione that Harry even admitted that... that they were possible. She'd waited several years. What was a few more days, or even weeks?
And yet, a less charitable part of her can't help but seethe - just a little bit - that Ron, at least in part, again has an impact on her happiness. He's going to have to accept it sometime. Or... will he decide he just can't bear the sight of us together, and walk away again?
Whatever anger she feels toward Ron, she doesn't want that. Not just for her sake, but Harry's and Ron's. They'd been friends with each other before even she had. As close as she and Harry were, there were still things between the two boys she'd never really been part of. Quidditch, Chocolate Frog cards, hastily scribbled caricatures behind Professor Snape's back, blowing off Divination homework, rolling their eyes at girl stuff. Things that teenage boys needed to share even when they didn't have to save the world. Ron is the closest Harry will likely ever know to a brother. And Ron... he's already lost one brother; he shouldn't have to lose his best friend too.
She wishes Ron had been able to give some sort of inkling on whether he'd be okay. She understands why he didn't, though, especially if he'd loved her all this time. (Fancy way he sure had of showing it, part of her retorts.)
And her? Had she ever loved Ron the way he claimed to love her? She'd felt something, certainly. There'd always been an electricity, a tension between them that had been bound to combust into something. The sight of Lavender Brown kissing him had brought her to tears - but why? Because she really liked Ron - or because, yet again, the boy she thought she wanted decided they wanted someone else? Maybe both?
She'd had some sort of feelings for Ron, she decided, whatever the root of them was. She loved him as a friend. But in love?
No. At least, she doubts it. And Harry...
Harry. One thing's for sure, no boy - Viktor, or Ron, and certainly not Cormac - has her insides feeling the way they do right now.
It'll all be clearer in the morning, she tells herself. Of course, that conclusion's predicated on the assumption that sleep will actually take place, and that so far is as elusive as one of Luna's bizarre creatures. When she does try to let her mind relax, it strays to either of the equally un-relaxing (though in entirely different ways) images of letting Harry kiss her in the tent, or Ron storming out of their lives forever.
Surely not forever. He always comes back.
And what brought him back last time? You. He's probably not going to be so receptive to you this time.
She snarls in frustration, shoving a pillow onto her face. This is going absolutely nowhere. If only -
Her train of thought freezes, aware of a noise she hadn't heard a moment ago.
There it is again, from Harry's side of the wall. She listens more closely. Grimmauld Place doesn't have any ghosts or poltergeists, but it still almost sounds like -
"No - no..." And then, more strained, "Hermione..."
She's fully alert in a flash. She's surprised it's taken this long for Harry's nightmares to return, honestly. But - after tonight - surely it can't be coincidental that the dream is about her...
Halfway to Harry's room it briefly occurs to her this may not be a nightmare but maybe, another, less unpleasant kind of dream - but that notion dies immediately upon the next noise, a shout that curdles Hermione's blood.
"Hermione - no, not Hermione, no!" he screams, jolting upward in bed.
Before he's completely upright, she's at his side. One hand at his shoulder, the other cradling the back of his head. His hair and shirt are already soaked with sweat. "I'm here. I'm here."
He gasps, hands moving here and there along her body - not inappropriately, but as if he's trying to gauge she is, in fact, there, and real.
And then his arms are around her, breath coming in ragged gulps against her shoulder.
"Hermione," he says again, and something in his tone makes her heart jump into her throat, just for a moment.
"Tell me," she murmurs. Afraid, a little even. So many of Harry's dreams in the past have held portents, but - surely not now, with Voldemort gone? The thought of death no longer particularly frightens her. Except for the part where she is taken away from the boy in her arms now. Or he is taken from her. He, and Ron, are her only family now.
He doesn't answer, just continues breathing rapidly.
"Please, Harry." She pulls away from him, takes his chin in her fingers. Immediately, his wandering, unfocused gaze sharpens on her, and he seems to calm a bit. "You called out for me."
The fear in those green eyes quickly fades into anger. "In the forest. You. You were there, the last thing I saw... before Voldemort... and you were..."
The expression on his face breaks her heart.
"Oh Harry..." her arms go around him again. "We're not in the forest. Voldemort's gone. You made sure he won't harm anyone ever again."
"But there'll always be something. Death Eaters..."
"So what?" she counters, catching him off guard. "There's always been something. And that hasn't stopped me before now. I didn't leave you then, I'm not leaving you now."
"No. Like I said before, you don't get to give the orders here." She kisses his forehead.
"Hermione." More firmly this time. He takes her hand, breath still ragged but starting to even out. "The danger you would face as my... being with me, it would make you more of a target than you ever were as my friend. It was why Ginny and I never... why I never..." he inclines his head. "You know."
Hermione shakes her head. "And was she any safer? We were all in danger with Voldemort out there, you know that better than anyone." She fixes his gaze. "Do you want me to leave?"
"No," he says without missing a beat, looking surprised at his own vehemence. "Never."
"Good." Her arms tighten around him, chin against his shoulder. "If being safe means being without you, forget it. Friend, girlfriend, whatever I am to you, you're not going to be rid of me any time soon."
"Wouldn't... dream of it," he manages, and she's relieved to see the barest hint of a smile.
He takes her chin in his fingers, lifts it ever so slightly. She knows what he's about to do before he does it, and it's not quite what they'd agreed to do (or not do), but she allows it anyway.
If she ever imagined a first kiss with Harry... well, it doesn't bloody well matter one way or another, because this is the reality. Simple, perfect - and over all too soon. In fact, she doesn't open her eyes for several moments after he pulls away; she's not yet ready to acknowledge anything when the taste, the feel of Harry's lips (Merlin, they were so soft) is so fresh on hers.
"Better now?" she says at last, arms still around him, a smile creeping onto her face.
"A bit," he replies, matching her smile. "Sorry. It just... seemed like the thing to do."
"Do you hear me complaining?" she retorts with a quirk of her mouth.
She doesn't want to pull away. She strokes a sweaty lock of hair from his face, the lightning-bolt scar. She presses her lips to it.
He fingers the sleeve of of one forearm - the arm she's not sure she'll ever be able to leave uncovered ever again. Dark magic is always far more difficult, if not impossible, to fully heal than any normal wound. "We both have scars now," he murmurs, tracing his fingers over the hidden obscenity Bellatrix Lestrange had left. She shivers - not just because it's still sensitive, but from the delicacy of Harry's touch.
"That was one of the worst moments of my life," he confesses, jaw working, tensing. "Hearing you - if I'd been able to get out sooner -"
Her lips go to his temple. "Shh. No more."
They sit together like that for she doesn't know how long, arms around each other, chins on one another's shoulders. At one point Harry shifts, inhales deeply from her shirt, and something in her chest slides into place.
So this is what being in love with Harry Potter means.
Sleepless nights, hushed murmurings in one another's arms.
It's nothing she wasn't willing to do before. It's nothing she's not willing to do forever, if need be.
He looks at her, throat working, "Do you think you might... let me rest here, with you tonight?"
"It's your bed," she replies, raising her eyebrows.
"Right." He smiles. "It's fine. You don't have to stay."
"What if I want to?" she counters, surprised at her own boldness. "Unless you think it'd be..."
"No," he answers immediately, though the color in his cheeks belies a thought that occurs to probably any teenage boy in this situation.
"Good." Using his wand, she Accios a spare blanket and pillow to her, then smooths out a spot on top of Harry's covers next to him. While sharing a bed is really only one step closer than sharing a tent, and she knows neither of them would, well, try anything, she's not sure it's quite appropriate - just yet - to be on the same side of the covers.
Covers arranged, she stretches out alongside him, turned on her side to face him. The bed's not really designed for two people, but workable enough. "Comfy?"
"Actually, yeah," he says, stifling a yawn. She smiles. So long as he's able to sleep, that's what matters.
Leaning over, she presses her lips to his forehead. "I'm right here if you need anything."
She's not sure how long she lies there watching him sleep before she finally slips into slumber herself, but she knows one thing for sure: no more nightmares, at least that night. She wonders if she'll have to sleep in his bed every night, and isn't repulsed by the idea.
When she wakes the next morning, it's to a solid, not quite familiar, and yet... blissful warmth. Harry's arms around her, she realizes. She doesn't remember, so it must have happened in their sleep. She also notices she has far more room than she did last night; she stifles a sigh of exasperation when she sees he's practically hanging off his side of the bed.
She pushes at him gently - she hates to wake him, especially after seeing him so peaceful, but this'll be far less unpleasant than falling off onto the floor. His eyes flit open, adorably sleepy and then momentarily confused at the sight of her next to him. "Hermione?"
"Next time you try to play gentleman -" she scoots over and pulls him closer to the center of the bed - "don't do it by trying to fall off the bed, okay?"
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe you're just a bed hog?" he counters, yawning.
"I am not!"
"No more absurd than me being a gentleman," he points out, reaching for his glasses. She snorts. "Just do an Engorgio charm next time and call it good."
"Erm, on the bed," he says, visibly confused - and then amused. "What did you think I meant?"
"Nothing," she looks away, irritated with herself. So much for her thoughts not going there. Not that it would have been difficult if she'd ever allowed herself. Her friend is, after all, a rather attractive young man. She can think of any number of young witches who wouldn't have minded trading places with her last night.
There's a soft smile on his face, and the way he's watching her - she's never seen it before. It's not to say she dislikes it, though.
"What?" she says, more softly this time, feeling her cheeks warm.
"No more nightmares," he says.
"I know." She smiles. "That's wonderful, Harry."
"This doesn't feel strange," he goes on, fingering her hand. "I thought it might feel strange."
"It doesn't," she agrees, somewhat surprised - and yet not at all.
Nothing has changed between them - and yet everything.
She knows, now, another reason she waited so long. She could easily wake up every morning like this for the rest of her life, she thinks, and not grow bored with it.
It should be terrifying to any eighteen-year-old.
And yet, it's not nearly as terrifying as she'd thought it might be. Maybe it's partly because the once-omnipresent threat of Voldemort is gone; maybe it's because whatever they face, they've always been stronger together than apart. And they've always survived it. They survived, while Voldemort himself is - literally - ashes in the wind.
Harry makes them coffee in the kitchen while she gets ready: two sugars for her, black for him. It's like any other morning since they arrived back at Grimmauld Place - until her eyes fall on the blue mug with the chip on one side, the one Ron favored.
Harry covers her hand with his. "He'll be all right. He always comes back."
"But what will he be coming back to?"
"We had this conversation last night. Friendship goes two ways. I'll always leave the door open for him, and you will too, but - he has to walk through it."
"And if he doesn't?"
He presses his lips together, then winces as he takes a larger-than-usual sip of still-hot coffee. "Then we'll face it together. We have before." He takes out the Marauders' Map, spreads it before them. Instinctively, she leans in closer to him, hand going to his thigh. He looks surprised for a moment, but smiles and points to a spot on the map. "Professor McGonagall Flooed me while you were still upstairs. She says they've got more than enough hands in the Great Hall and the courtyard, she wants us to lead the efforts in Gryffindor Tower today."
"Gryffindor Tower," Hermione murmurs. Home, or what used to be. Maybe it can be home again. If not necessarily for her, but for future generations of Gryffindors.
"You always said you wanted to go back," Harry reminds her.
"What do you think? About going back, for real?" she asks. "You never really answered before."
He stares into his coffee cup, in a way that tells her he knows she's not just talking about the cleanup efforts.
"You don't have to answer me now," she says, squeezing his fingers. "Just... promise me you'll think about it? It'll be nice to have at least one familiar face there with me."
He squeezes back. "Of course."
She kisses him on the cheek - giggles a little bit at the hint of stubble - and takes one final swig of coffee. "Ready to go?"
He smiles; their hands brush as he hands her her jacket. And she knows. "Always."