Living Past the End
Writer: avonlea_dreamer (aka bingblot)
Summary: A fiction about Trio after war, how each of them face to normal life. Ron feels good, but Harry and Hermione don’t feel the same way. Harry can’t sleep, and he has a nightmare.
Harry jerked awake with a sharp gasp.
His heart was pounding, his face sweaty, his throat scratchy from the screams he never allowed himself to scream.
He wasn’t alone in the room. The sound of someone else’s breathing filled his mind and his grip tightened on the wand he never let go of, even in sleep—especially in sleep. He was immediately tensed and poised to leap up, the words of a hex forming in his thoughts, only waited for more of a sense of the person’s location, of the nearest place to duck behind.
It took a full minute of tension before sanity—and reality—broke through the mindless fog of automatic reaction and he remembered, realized. It was only Ron. Of course it was only Ron. He was at the Burrow, sleeping in Ron’s room as he always did at the Burrow.
And the War was over. Voldemort was gone.
They were safe.
Death Eaters were still being rounded up but his role—their role—had mostly ended. It was up to the Aurors now, up to the last, surviving members of the Order.
Harry lay in his bed stiffly, staring up at the ceiling in the darkness.
In. Out. In. Out. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
He tried to regulate his breathing, tried to force his muscles to relax, one by one, but couldn’t fully manage it.
Besides, he hated the darkness. If he had his way, he’d keep so many candles lit up throughout the night, it would be nearly as bright as full daylight.
Darkness meant danger. Darkness provided cover for enemies. Darkness meant increased vigilance was needed. Darkness meant the acrid taste of fear.
And darkness meant sleep—uneasy sleep, stalked by the twin terrors of memory and dread.
He hated sleep now too. Not that he ever got much of it these days. He didn’t think he’d slept more than a few hours, at best, on any night in the last year.
He lay as still as he could, trying to will himself to relax, not to react to the almost-stifling restlessness, the urge to get up and investigate, make sure that nothing lurked outside.
Maybe this was insanity, some corner of his mind suggested coolly—that detached corner of his mind that had developed as a shield of sorts against the emotions, the fear, that would otherwise strangle him. He’d read or heard somewhere that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same result and after all, wasn’t that what he did every night, always expecting, always hoping in some corner of himself that this would be the night he could sleep, this would be the night he got the better of the terrors that stalked his dreams?
He heard a creak and almost bolted upright, straining his ears. And heard nothing aside from Ron’s continued steady breathing.
He tried to ease himself down; the creak had only been the usual sounds of a house settling. There was no danger.
To say nothing of the fact that he knew that there were wards put up all around the Burrow.
He ought to know; he was the one to put them up every night. He knew, without saying, that both Mr. and Mrs. Weasley considered it unnecessary (which is why they didn’t do the same); he also knew that Ron, if he’d known, would have said he was acting paranoid, that there was no danger to protect against anymore.
Knowing all that didn’t change the fact that he needed to know the wards were up. They didn’t solve the problem—his current state was proof of that—but they did help.
Harry gave up the battle to keep still and swung his legs off the bed to sit up fully. He was too restless to lie still any longer and decided to get up, double-check the wards, if only to give him something to do.
Moving carefully, he stood up, easing his way across the dark room and opening the door with equal care. Ron might be a heavy sleeper but he knew that others weren’t and he had no wish to wake anyone up.
The Burrow was entirely still and silent, as it should be at that hour, and Harry crept quickly and quietly down the stairs.
He was almost to the front door when he sensed something, some movement, behind him and he whirled, his wand up, his lips parting on a hex—
To find himself staring at the point of another wand and, behind it, a very familiar face and form.
He promptly lowered his wand arm, dropping just that little bit the guard that had flown up automatically. “Jeez, Hermione, what do you think you’re doing? I almost hexed you!” he said in a heated whisper.
“Me? I almost hexed you!” Hermione returned in a whisper, although hers was decidedly calmer than his had been.
It was too dark for him to see much of her face beyond a pale shadow in the darkness but he didn’t need to see her face to know that her expression had softened a little, could hear it in her whisper, as she asked, “You couldn’t sleep either?”
“I can never really sleep,” he admitted. “I was just going to–”
“If you’re about to check on the wards, I just did,” Hermione interrupted him.
He blinked and gaped at her. “How’d you know?” he blurted out.
She made a gesture to indicate the front door. “You were going outside. What else would you be going outside at this hour for?”
He felt a flicker of an odd emotion and realized, belatedly, that it was amusement at her matter-of-fact tone. So very Hermione of her, he thought inanely.
“I actually meant, how did you know I even put up the wards?” Even as he asked it, he knew it was probably a silly question.
“Of course you’d put up wards at night. And even if I didn’t know you would, I’ve seen you taking them down in the mornings and I’ve heard you come down to check on them before.”
It was definitely a silly question; this was Hermione after all. Of course she’d known.
“You- you don’t think it’s silly of me since the War is over and all?”
“Silly? Of course not. And I’m glad you put up the wards; it helps me sleep better at night.”
He relaxed, realizing at that moment how nervous he’d been, how much he hated his own weakness, his inability to relax, to just let it go. He hated his inability to stop feeling afraid, to stop feeling like he was still fighting.
He hated it but for some reason that he couldn’t explain, he felt better knowing that Hermione felt some of the same thing. To her, somehow, he could admit his weakness in a way he couldn’t with anyone else, and doing so didn’t make him feel weaker but in some odd way, almost made him feel stronger, better about it. Maybe it was something about her matter-of-fact acceptance, her unquestioning understanding, but he felt better.
“Let’s go sit down,” Hermione said. “It’s silly of us to just be standing in the hallway like this. Unless,” she paused and glanced back at Harry, “you want to go back to sleep?”
“No!” he burst out involuntarily—although he did somehow remember to keep his voice low–not able to suppress his tiny shudder of reaction. “No,” he repeated more calmly in a whisper.
He felt Hermione’s look but, thankfully, she said nothing more about it as they went into the family room, settling down side by side on the couch.
They were silent for a few minutes, a comfortable silence, somehow, sitting together in the dark as they were.
“I have nightmares too,” Hermione finally said quietly.
He let out a shuddering breath. “Yeah. I- I’m afraid to sleep because of them,” he admitted.
“Oh, Harry… Don’t you ever get to sleep without nightmares?”
“It’ll get better, Harry. Really, it will. It’ll just take some time.”
He wasn’t so sure of that but somehow, hearing her say it, he could almost believe it.
“Ron doesn’t seem to have any trouble sleeping.” And even though he tried, he knew that some of the envy he felt over that seeped into his tone.
“I think… it’s different for Ron. This is his home; he grew up here and is surrounded by his family. It makes sense that he’d find it easy to feel safe here.”
“I suppose.” A home. Harry wondered what that must feel like, to have a home that you could feel completely safe in. Hogwarts had been the first home he’d ever really had and Hogwarts no longer felt safe to him, hadn’t proven to be safe for him. And much as he liked being at the Burrow, much as part of him basked in the feeling of being with a real family, he always knew that the Burrow wasn’t his home, the Weasleys weren’t his family.
“I- I envy Ron, you know,” he found himself admitting, his voice very low. “It just seems… so much easier for him.”
“In some ways, it is, but you know that Ron’s life isn’t perfect either.” She paused and then added, in a suspiciously bland tone, “Besides, it must be easier to be happy when all you care about is Quidditch.”
He laughed as he knew she’d intended him to and then was surprised at himself. He couldn’t really remember the last time he’d really laughed, sincerely, not the forced chuckle he tended to use during the days to deflect attention from the fact that he felt positively suffocated from all the attention.
He sensed rather than saw her smile and felt himself relaxing further, feeling some of the ever-present tension ease.
It was still dark but the darkness didn’t seem so terrible now that he wasn’t alone. There was an odd comfort just from being with someone else. The darkness no longer seemed full of lurking dangers.
Another silence fell until all he could hear was the soft sound of his and Hermione’s breathing, the quiet sounds of the night. And for the first time in a very long while, the silence didn’t seem ominous. He simply sat there and enjoyed what felt like the first real moments of peace he’d known in years.
After a while, he felt Hermione lean her head against his shoulder. “This is nice,” she murmured quietly and he knew she understood, felt much the same as he did about this sharing of the darkness with someone else.
It was… nice. A very tame, bland word but oddly fitting, too. Because it wasn’t about drama or intensity; it wasn’t as if he and Hermione were doing anything to ward off the darkness. This was a quiet thing, a calm thing, just him and Hermione, sitting in the dark—and for the first time, he felt as if the War might really be over…
Amazingly, he must have dozed as the next thing he knew, he was opening his eyes to find the pale, gray light of dawn filtering in through the curtains, dully illuminating the room. He must have dozed and, more than that, he had not dreamed.
He squinted across the room to the clock to see that it was just after five in the morning; he had managed to sleep for nearly three hours.
He turned to look down at Hermione, still leaning against his shoulder, to see that she was, apparently, asleep as well, her eyes closed. Seeing her now in the light, he could see the tell-tale shadows under her eyes, proof that her nights had been quite as restless as his had been. He was suddenly very glad that she had managed to get some sleep too.
“Hermione. Hermione, wake up,” he said, his voice gentle, not quite willing to move his shoulder and wake her up more abruptly.
She blinked and opened her eyes to focus on him almost immediately. “Oh, Harry. I must have fallen asleep,” she said, sounding as surprised as he had been.
“We both did,” he answered. “But we should probably go back upstairs before people start waking up.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Hermione pushed herself to her feet, moving with something less than her usual briskness, and he stood up as well, following her out of the room.
“Well, goodnight, Harry,” Hermione said and then paused, “Or, I guess, good morning.”
He felt himself smiling—and that, in itself, was unfamiliar enough to give him a moment’s pause. “See you later, Hermione.”
She gave him a small smile in return as she left, heading to Ginny’s room, while he turned towards Ron’s room.
That was how it began. And it became a ritual, a habit, of sorts.
He didn’t think it was really intentional, on either his or Hermione’s parts, but that was how it began, their meeting up at night, when all the Weasleys were asleep. Just the two of them, sitting and talking quietly in the darkness of the nights until they dozed and, somehow, managed to find the few hours of dreamless sleep that still evaded him elsewhere.
Oddly, he never mentioned it to Hermione or anyone else during the day—he never knew why except that their nightly interludes seemed somehow a thing apart from the rest of the world and to mention it during the day seemed as if it would break the strange unreality that lingered about those night conversations.
There were times it almost felt as if he were living two lives—the one during the day when he was nearly constantly tense, feeling half-suffocated by the very affection and concern of the Weasleys, to say nothing of the constant demands on his time and attention from the outside world, all wanting to make much of the Boy Who Lived and Hero of the Second Voldemort War, as the media had already styled him; and the other one during the nights, when he was, somehow, just himself, just Harry.
And during those nights, in the intimacy that the darkness encouraged, he and Hermione talked. They talked, a little, about their nightmares, the memories and the fears that still haunted them, and to her—only to her—he could admit how tense he still was, how afraid he still was, and admit just how much he hated the tension and the fear. To her, he could admit how suffocated he felt sometimes at being at the Burrow, where Mrs. Weasley, especially, almost smothered him in her maternal concern as Mrs. Weasley seemed to be channeling all her grief over Fred into even more affection for Harry. To her, he admitted too that he had nothing to say to Ginny when they were left alone during the day and, rather than getting better, it was almost getting worse.
And to him, Hermione talked about her parents and her guilt at not staying with them now that the War was over but that she just couldn’t bear to be with her parents, who cared so much but knew so little of what had happened in the last couple years. To him, Hermione finally admitted that part of her restlessness stemmed from not knowing what to do now, finished with Hogwarts as they were and no longer at War. To him, Hermione also admitted how she was afraid that she and Ron would never really be able to be more than just friends, that the relationship that had sort of started but then been put off as the War intensified was just not resuming the way she had rather expected it would.
To him, Hermione admitted that there were times she felt almost unspeakably old compared to Ron, somehow. His response to this was a teasing, “Yes, you’re quite the grandmother. I’m amazed you’re not going gray. I’ve been thinking I should buy you a cane.”
She’d elbowed him in response. “Harry!”
He’d sobered and then asked, “You don’t feel that way with me? After all, you’re older than me, too.”
He’d half-wondered if she would respond teasingly but she had tilted her head to the side thoughtfully, in one of her characteristic poses, before she’d answered, “No, I’m not sure why, but you’re… different.”
He’d hidden his relief with banter. “If that’s your way of telling me I look old, I don’t appreciate it.” And he’d been rewarded by her soft laugh.
For they did laugh during these nightly conversations. It wasn’t all serious conversation in those times. Whether it was a representation of his added comfort, he wasn’t sure, but he found his humor returning to him. It was easier to smile, easier to laugh, in those nightly conversations with Hermione than he found it during the day. And he knew Hermione felt the same way, could hear it in her tone and her laughs, that were… lighter, came quicker, than they were during the day.
They didn’t always talk. Some nights, they simply sat in comfortable silence and he would let the sound of her breathing calm him, conscious of the solid warmth of her against his side, and before he even realized it, he would slide into sleep.
It started almost by accident but it became a ritual and then, it became something like a need. He relied on the comfort, relied on the strength, relied on her friendship. Relied on the way her presence seemed to keep the worst of the nightmares at bay. It made the days easier and while it didn’t entirely ease his restlessness during the night or completely abolish his fears, it helped. He found a measure of peace during their nights and he needed that.
“What do you want for your birthday, Harry?” Hermione asked, during one of their nightly conversations.
“I don’t know.”
“Very helpful answer, thanks,” Hermione teased.
He half-smiled but then sobered. “Sorry, it’s just I wasn’t exactly thinking ahead to what would happen after… everything so it’s not like I made plans for my birthday.”
Hermione’s tone softened. “I know you weren’t. But you can think about it now; there must be something you want. A new broom. Quidditch stuff. Some books.”
He gave her a teasing glance. “I think you’re mistaking me with you. I’m not strange like you, remember?”
Hermione pretended to huff in offense but the smile tugging at the corner of her lips betrayed her.
“Seriously, Harry, there must be something you want. You can tell me.”
He hesitated, sighed, and then finally burst out, “I want to be left alone.”
He realized belatedly how that sounded when she stiffened and moved away from him. “Oh,” she said flatly and very softly and he could hear the hurt in her voice, though she tried to hide it.
“No, Hermione, I didn’t mean you!”
“You didn’t?” He felt her relax a little but she stayed where she was, as if she was still prepared to jump up and leave the room.
He could have kicked himself for his thoughtless answer, blurting it out like that, without thinking of how it would sound, without thinking of how it would hurt her. On a sudden impulse, desperate to make up for his stupid words, he put his arm around her shoulders, bringing her back against him the way she had been.
He sensed her surprise but then she relaxed against him, her head resting on his shoulder, and he knew he was forgiven.
“I didn’t mean you,” he said again. “I meant… I was talking about everyone else, the media and everyone, wanting to talk to me, to interview me. All the people I’ve never met, writing to me as if I’m their new best friend. Even…” He hesitated and then added, “Even the Weasleys, aside from Ron, who just care so much, are always talking to me, asking if I want anything, and are all so concerned and caring and it just…” he trailed off guiltily. “Sorry. I know I’m being an ungrateful prick.”
“No, Harry, you’re not. I can see how the way the Weasleys treat you would feel a little suffocating.”
“Yeah, suffocating. I know they’re only doing it because they care and they’re so glad we’re alright and safe again but I just… I wish they’d leave me alone, stop treating me as if I’m some visiting dignitary or someone who can’t so much as lift a finger. They’re all so glad to have me here, to know it’s all over, and they expect me to celebrate with them but I just… I just can’t… I don’t feel glad; I don’t feel like it’s over… I just don’t…”
Mrs. Weasley hadn’t let him so much as pour himself a glass of water since he’d arrived. When he tried, she was always shoo-ing him back to his seat and bringing him water herself. Admittedly, Mrs. Weasley fussed over them all but she fussed over him the most. And perhaps that was another reason these nightly interludes with Hermione comforted him. Because she was the only person who didn’t treat him any differently. She didn’t expect him to act happy when he wasn’t, didn’t treat him like a returning hero. Ron didn’t treat him like a hero but he did expect Harry to be happy and didn’t understand that Harry just didn’t feel that way—at least not yet.
Hermione was different. She… understood. She always had understood, he thought now. It was no wonder he liked being with her.
He lifted the shoulder Hermione wasn’t leaning against in a half-shrug. “Eh, it’s okay. I’m just being a prat, complaining because people are being too nice to me. As for my birthday, just get me something you think I’ll like. I trust you.”
He sensed rather than saw Hermione’s slight smile. “Okay.”
He shifted, settling more comfortably on the couch. She relaxed further against him and, after a brief hesitation, he rested his cheek against her hair.
“Anyway, after everything you’ve done for me this past year, you really don’t have to get me anything.”
“Don’t be silly, Harry. It doesn’t work like that; of course I’m going to get you a birthday present.”
“Thanks,” was all he said, quietly, but knew she could hear in his tone how much it meant to him.
He let his eyes close, hearing the sound of her quiet, steady breathing, and, for almost the first time, was consciously aware of how comforting it was. He didn’t know why it was but the sound of Hermione’s breathing was calming, whereas he already knew that the sound of Ron’s breathing had no such effect on him. His last conscious thought before he slid into sleep was that he didn’t understand it but he was thankful for it.
His birthday did end up being a happy day, the happiest day since the War had ended, since Mrs. Weasley had given in to his request and had refrained from throwing a party for him. It had, instead, been a relatively quiet day (or as quiet as any of his days were) and almost uniformly pleasant, barring the special birthday visit from Minister Scrimgeour and a few other Ministry officials. (He supposed he should feel honored but he didn’t. He still disliked Scrimgeour and listening to their congratulatory platitudes irritated him.)
The Weasleys gave him a new broom; Ron (predictably) gave him some Chudley Cannons gear.
Hermione’s gift was a book about famous Quidditch players of the last century. It was the gift of one friend to another, nothing more and nothing less—and he was surprised by a feeling of something almost like disappointment but was not really. He wasn’t disappointed, exactly; it wasn’t that he’d wanted anything more. (He was still a little surprised every time he even received any presents that didn’t consist of something like a used tissue, let alone several real presents). And yet… And yet, he was conscious of something, an emotion he didn’t really care to identify since it seemed the height of ingratitude, just a niggling sense of surprise that, in spite of how much closer he felt to her after their night-time conversations, she would still get him such a… purely friendly gift…
And for the first time he wondered why Hermione continued to join him in their nightly interludes. Did she feel the same comfort he did? Did his presence, his company, help her to sleep as hers did for him?
That very night, he found out, if not exactly why Hermione continued to join him, that the conversations they had did mean something to her. Found out, again, just how much Hermione cared about him. And he found out, too, just how much their nights meant to him.
He was waiting for her in the dark family room before she crept down to join him and as she sat next to him, she handed him a small box.
“It’s the other part of your birthday gift.”
“Hermione, you didn’t have to get me two–” he began but she interrupted him.
“It’s not really a gift. Just open it and see.”
He did. It was a key.
He stared for a moment before looking up at her. “Hermione, you—what is this for?” He paused and then added, teasingly, since he saw the flicker of a half-hesitant expression cross her face, “Did you buy me a new car? Or is this the key to the Crown Jewels?”
She smiled, obligingly, and then sobered. “No, it’s the key to a house.”
Now, he really stared at her. “You got me a house?!”
“No! I mean, yes, sort of, but not really,” Hermione rushed to explain. “It’s my grandparents’ vacation house, in the south of France. They spend a couple months there every year and when they’re not using it, they rent it out and allow my parents to use it a few weeks every year. My parents agreed to let you stay in it for the next month.”
“Your parents agreed to let me stay in it?” Harry repeated a little dumbly.
Hermione nodded. “Yes. It’s their month for using it and they’re not planning to visit themselves so they agreed. I thought… Harry, it’s a place for you to get away from everyone here. You can hide there. The cottage is rather isolated so you’d have your privacy but it’s close enough to the town that you can get anything you need easily enough. You can go to the beach and just relax. And I’ll tell the Weasleys and anyone else who asks that I don’t know where you went so you won’t be disturbed. You’ll be alone, Harry, where no one can bother you.”
“Your grandparents’ house. Alone,” Harry repeated inanely. He knew he sounded and probably looked like an idiot but he couldn’t help it. If Hermione had handed him the moon, he could not have been more surprised. Even when he’d said that he wanted to be left alone, he’d always thought it was impossible. He’d said it knowing it could never happen, that he couldn’t escape the attention.
“Yes. It’s what you wanted, Harry, to be left alone. And now you will be; you can be,” Hermione explained simply.
“No, I won’t,” he blurted out, unthinkingly, and realized belatedly that it was true. He’d never thought it could happen but now—now it was possible. Hermione had made it possible. And it was only now that he realized he didn’t want it. He didn’t want to be alone, didn’t want to run away, if she wouldn’t be there with him. That was really it. It was her. He wanted to be left alone, yes, but he wanted to stay with her more. He wanted to have these nights of talking to her, wanted to have her companionship and her understanding—wanted it more than he wanted to be left alone.
“Come with me,” he said flatly, urgently. As requests went, it sounded rather more like a command. “I want you to come with me. You—and Ron,” he added as an afterthought.
“But… Harry… are you sure? I thought…”
“I’m sure,” he interrupted her. “I want you—and Ron—to come with me. I wouldn’t have much fun if you weren’t with me too,” he added. “So, will you come?”
She nodded. “Yes, I’ll come. Of course I’ll come.”
He smiled. “Thanks, Hermione.”
And then on an impulse and because he’d just realized how much these nights with her had come to mean to him, he bent his head and brushed his lips against her cheek—except she turned her head at just that second and his kiss landed not quite on her cheek but closer to the corner of her lips instead.
He froze and felt her stiffen and they both jerked back a little to stare at each other and for a moment he felt a flare of something like panic that he quickly covered with a forced quip. “You have to come with me, you know, because I don’t speak a word of French so I’d be in trouble on my own, probably end up ordering a plate of live eels when I wanted a sandwich or something.”
She relaxed and returned his smile. “Well, I suppose, if only to save you from having to eat eels,” she teased, feigning a put-upon tone.
And just like that, the moment was over and they were just two friends talking.
“If you want to, we can leave tomorrow,” Hermione said.
“Yeah, okay,” he agreed. “We have to say bye to the Weasleys and everything but yeah, it’ll be good to get away.”
“It’ll be a vacation, Harry. You’ve never had a real one, have you?”
“No, I haven’t,” he admitted with a candor he probably wouldn’t have had with anyone else but this was Hermione and if there was one person in the world whom he could talk to about nearly everything, it was her. It was odd but even though the admission skirted dangerously close to one he never spoke of if he could help it—the Dursleys and how they’d treated him—he felt the last remnants of tension dissipate with the words.
It was so normal now, just like any other night, so normal he could almost forget that odd moment just a minute ago. Almost.
He couldn’t quite forget it, though, part of him still reeling from it. He’d almost kissed her. He’d almost kissed her—but that wasn’t what had shocked him most. What shocked him was that, in that frozen split second, he’d wanted to kiss her. Wanted to move his head just that little bit so he could touch his lips to hers. Wanted her. He’d wanted to kiss Hermione. Hermione, whom he’d never felt that way about, never thought about in that way.
And that flicker of heat, of desire, terrified him more than almost anything else.
Which was why he was so grateful that the tension, that heat, was gone now. It was a fluke, he told himself, an accident, a natural, instinctive, male response to almost kissing a girl. That was all. That had to be all it was.