Disclaimer: If you recognize the character, it isn't mine. Just playing in Rowling's sandbox.
Apology: For those who were hoping this was a notification for a new "Perils" chapter, I can say that I'm almost there. Hang in there.
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Plug: This story was begun several years ago. When I was invited to take part in the annual Fandom for LLS fanworks charity drive, I debated for a while and finally brought this story to a close. If you donated to the charity drive back in August, you already have this story in the compilation. For everyone else, new story! And for everyone else, here's a new H/Hr story!
As soon as the Aurors had her testimony, Hermione returned to her flat. Harry had wanted to come with her, but he'd been caught leaving the Ministry by one of the Wizengamot Wives, who was creating a charity for supporting research into a cure for werewolves. Naturally, she had gotten Harry's attention but had insisted on having his input into her plans then and there.
She changed out of her robes and into a comfortable jumper and track pants. She had no intention of leaving the flat before morning and didn't expect to see anyone. She fished some files out of her bag and sat down, ready to tackle some work.
She hadn't gotten very far when there was a knock at her door. Frowning, Hermione went to answer it and discovered Susan Bones on the other side.
"Sorry not to Floo, but they used the last grain of powder at my office earlier today. I wanted to see how you were?"
Hermione stepped back to let Susan in. "I'm mostly fine, I think. No physical aftereffects that I can tell."
Susan pulled out her wand. "May I?" At Hermione's nod, she swept her wand up and down. "Yes, you seem to be fine physically." Susan stowed her wand, and looked Hermione in the eye. "How about mentally?"
Hermione sighed and sat in one of the pair of squashy chairs in front of her fireplace, a deliberate echo of the Gryffindor common room. "It's driving me mad that I can't remember everything. I remember up to a certain point and then it all goes hazy or dark until I wake up in Harry's flat."
Susan sat in the other chair. "That's a fairly normal reaction, from what I've been able to research. One paper suggested that a strong Clarifying Charm might sharpen those memories." When Hermione leaned forward eagerly, Susan laughed. "That's a yes, I take it?"
Hermione nodded. "Yes, please do it!"
Susan pulled out her wand. "Lean back and relax as much as you can. Acclaro!"
Hermione's awareness was caught up in a tide of memory, unable to direct it, stop it, or do anything other than re-experience the previous evening on fast-forward. She flew through leaving work barely on time, meeting Harry and Ron at the pub, and sitting and nursing her first drink just to spite Ron.
Then some unknown trigger slowed things down: she was speaking to the American prat who finally got her hints and left. She was uncomfortably warm and her throat was dry. She picked up her glass to drink. This time she caught Harry's voice, barely audible above the babble of the crowd: "Hermione! Put it down!" as she drank.
And then she was caught once more, unable to hold onto the glass with fingers that had no feeling or response in them. Her very bones seemed to have turned to rubber. Her tongue felt too large in her mouth, rendering her speechless. Her vision reeled as the people in her line of sight stretched thin or swelled like images in a funhouse mirror. Their voices shifted to dreadful combinations of high-speed cackling and low booming notes.
And then the stranger was there, moving to pull her up. And she was terrified because the expression on his face was triumphant. Because she could do nothing to stop whatever he was about to do.
The bright flash of a curse nearly blinded her and she fell. The relief that the man was no longer in front of her trebled when she was lifted into the crook of a very familiar arm. "What did you do to her glass? What were you going to do?" The voice buzzed and wavered, the image swayed and twisted, but it was Harry. He swore viciously about something, then looked at her. "I'm here, Hermione. I've got you."
The spell kicked into high gear once more, rushing her through until Harry was there, lifting her up, helping her drink the potion, which immediately soothed her reeling senses, as if broken mental connections were snapping back into place. "Harry..."
"Yes, I'm here." The feeling of safety as he covered her. Voices in the other room. And then Harry was back, sitting next to her, pushing her hair back from her face. She clutched his hand, not wanting to lose the contact, and thought, I love you, Harry.
Except she'd said it out loud. And Harry had left the room when he heard it.
Hermione felt her stomach heave as if she'd been dropped from a height. Her eyes flew open and Susan was kneeling in front of her, clutching her hands.
"Hermione? Are you all right?"
She drew several shuddering breaths. "Yes...how long did that take?"
"About five minutes. I was really starting to worry; you were showing signs of massive stress there for a while."
"That charm...is very potent. But I remember it all, now. I should be able to identify both those men if they're caught."
Hermione let Susan check her over once more, then sent the other witch on her way. She had a great deal to think about.
That evening, Hermione was set with a book and a dish of ice cream. The ice cream was purely therapeutic and was helping a little. The book, an early history of house elves written with a rare sympathy toward its subject, ought to have her full attention.
After trying to read the same paragraph for a third time, she shut the book in frustration. She leaned back in her chair, taking another mouthful of mint chocolate chip, and tried to pinpoint where her concentration had gone.
A bell on her mantle rang, letting her know that someone was coming through the Floo. Since she'd spent part of the afternoon reinforcing the wards against all but a certain select group of people, she remained where she was and tried to bring her heartbeat back down from its instinctive fearful racing.
When she saw Ron come tumbling out of the flames, her disappointment was so sharp that she had to fight to keep a neutral expression. But her reaction only confirmed what she'd suspected; it was time for her and Ron to go back to being best friends.
If they could.
"Feeling better, Ron?"
"Er, yeah?" Ron looked wary.
"Harry said you'd had too much last night."
His face cleared, confirming to Hermione that both her best friends were keeping something from her. Then he burst out, "Look, I'm sorry! I shouldn't have been pushing you to drink like that! I should have listened to you...anyway, I'm sorry."
"Apology accepted. But you do realize that how much I had wasn't a factor? The spell that man cast would have done the same even if I'd been drinking water all night."
Ron took a deep breath. "That's not what I mean."
Hermione sat up, setting the dish aside as she caught the serious tone in his voice. "All right, I'm listening."
"I was trying to get you a bit drunk so you'd be more open to sleeping with me." He stopped, and visibly steeled himself for the verbal onslaught.
"You...what?" For a moment, Hermione was too stunned to think. Anger and indignation rose and she drew a breath to scream at him...and then his posture registered with her. He had already come to the realization that this was huge and wrong. Much of the anger drained away, and she made her voice gentle as she asked, "Why?"
Ron's eyebrows nearly reached his hairline at her reaction, but he pulled himself together. "Because it seemed that no matter what I did, you were never going to let me get any closer than we already were. We're supposed to be a couple, we're supposed to be getting closer. And...Bill said I should talk to you about it, but I didn't know how."
Hermione began nodding as he spoke. "You're right, Ron. I have been setting limits, and I haven't been explaining. I kept telling myself that I was sorting it out first, but I think I didn't want to face it, either." She looked up at him. "I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry I didn't try to talk to you sooner."
"D'you...want to talk now? I mean, after last night, you're completely justified in telling me to fly off a cliff without a broom. First I had my stupid plan and then I got too drunk to realize when you were in danger-"
Hermione rose and stepped forward, holding up a hand. "No, it's okay. It won't be any easier to talk this through tomorrow or the next day." She led him over to the squashy chairs, sitting across from him.
"Ron, the truth is that I love you dearly, as I have since you became one of my best friends. But even though I've tried, I'm just not in love with you. No matter how hard we try, there are just some things that neither of us will give an inch on. All we can achieve is a compromise not to talk about them, and that's created a minefield that we have to navigate constantly when trying to build a relationship." She felt tears welling in her eyes. "I miss being able to get mad at you when you make fun of my reading, or being able to just tell you when you've gone on about Quidditch too long. And the fact that you felt you couldn't just ask me about intimacy…that I held you at arm's length without explaining myself…those are big clues that we're not suited."
Ron nodded, his own eyes glistening a little. "I can understand that." He swiped at his eyes. "I talked to Bill some today, and then Fleur took over. After she'd cross-examined me and thrashed it all out, she said I was in love with the idea of being with you, rather than really being in love with you...if that makes sense?"
Hermione snickered. "Yes, it makes perfect sense, you ginger git!" She seized his hand and held it as he joined in. They laughed together for a moment before Ron pulled away.
"Are we...are we good, then?"
"Yes, Ron. Back to friends, but we'll probably need time to get used to that again."
Ron scrubbed his hands on his thighs, then stood with a deep sigh. "I better go. I need to talk to Harry before I go home. You still coming to dinner at the Burrow Sunday?"
"I ...maybe not this week."
He lowered his gaze. "Okay, then. Just…don't stay away forever?"
She gave him a quick hug and backed up before he could return it. "Be seeing you."
He nodded as he disappeared into green flames, and Hermione collapsed in a chair. She ran her hands through her hair, trying to push away the last of the unease she had felt while Ron was there. The conversation had gone more smoothly than she had any right to expect, and the notion that she was suddenly free to act on what she had discovered was too good to believe right away.
I should give it some time, though.
Harry was on his knees, scrubbing the floor of the loo. He had already brought the kitchen to a state of perfection and laundered every last scrap of clothing in the flat since taking Hermione to headquarters to give her statement.
And even after hours of cleaning, his mind continued to revolve around her and what she had said last night.
Every time he thought he'd convinced himself that she was nearly asleep and therefore unaware of what she'd said, he would remember a look she had given him or something she had done that said otherwise. Whenever he was sure that she had meant the sentiment as "just friends", he would remember Ron's complaints of Hermione not letting their relationship get past a certain point.
In short, he still didn't know what to do about the situation.
He heard the crack of an arriving wizard or witch, much quieter than the evening before. The difference was clear as soon as Harry heard Ron's voice, sober and subdued in stark contrast to last night. He got to his feet and went into the sitting room.
"You're a right mess. What have you been doing all day?" Ron looked Harry up and down.
Harry glanced down at his filthy T-shirt and grimy, sweat-streaked arms. "I've been cleaning."
"What, like a Muggle?"
"Sometimes it helps me think, all right?" Harry snapped and pulled out his wand. He began cleaning himself up and looked expectantly at Ron. "So, why'd you come?"
Ron hesitated before speaking. "I, er...Hermione and I broke up."
Harry's head jerked back up at that, staring at Ron.
"I went to apologize to her about, you know, about trying to get her drunk. And thanks for not telling her, by the way. It made it a lot easier." Ron sat on one end of the sofa and leaned forward, clasping his hands together. "Anyway, we started talking and realized that we're not really in love with each other, probably never were. So we're not dating anymore and we're going to find our way back to being friends again."
Slowly, Harry sat down on the other end of the sofa. That's brilliant were the words that leapt to mind, but instead he managed, "Are you all right?"
Ron nodded. "I think so. It doesn't hurt as much as I expected. Makes me thing we're doing the right thing. But, if you don't mind, I think we're going to sort of avoid each other for a bit first. I told her to come to Sunday dinner anyway, and she said she not yet, so maybe no outings for the three of us for a while? I think she needs space from me."
Harry reached over and gripped Ron's shoulder. "Sure, mate. However you want."
"Thanks." Ron rose. "And thanks for sending me to Bill's last night. Talking to them really helped."
Harry stood as well. "I'm glad."
"I'm gonna go now. I just thought you should know about Hermione and me, before word got around." He grinned suddenly. "You go back to your Muggle cleaning. And you can come do my flat later if you still need to think." He Apparated out.
An hour later, Harry's bathroom was sparkling clean. But his thoughts were no less murky than before.
Author's Note: Thank you as always for reading!