[Fanfic] Living Past the End -Chapter 4

Living Past the End

CHAPTER 4

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.

Source: here

livingpasttheend_4

It should have been a good day.  It had been a good day.

They had gone into Nice and basically played tourist.  It had been beautiful, picturesque, if crowded.  Ron had groused a bit at being dragged, as he put it, to see old buildings and things instead of the beach, but it had been mostly good-humored and consisted more of making teasing comments to and about Hermione’s love of history than anything else.

Hermione had, predictably, given both him and Ron a history lesson— to which he had bitten back a smile and Ron had barely bothered to hide his impatience and not even bothered to pretend to listen.  But Hermione had taken it in stride and contented herself with a few teasing ripostes.

The sun had shone and, fortunately, no unexpected, loud noises had occurred to startle them– him– and it had been just about the perfect day.  The sort of perfect day he’d never even dared to imagine, a day where he was with Ron and Hermione and they were all safe and happy, just three best friends on an outing.

And yet he hadn’t enjoyed it.   He hadn’t been able to relax enough to enjoy it.  Oh, on an intellectual level, he’d known it was a pleasant day and he’d told himself repeatedly that he was having fun, was enjoying himself.  But repeating the words hadn’t made them come true.  And he hadn’t really felt the enjoyment.

No, he’d spent the day tense, wary.   He knew they were surrounded by Muggle tourists but Nice wasn’t a purely Muggle town and one never knew where Dark wizards or danger could lurk.   And after the last year, he knew all too well that even the sunniest, most beautiful day could turn into a horror in the space of an instant.

The War might be over, the Death Eaters scattered and defeated– but not for him.   Not when  he still felt constantly alert, even afraid.  Not when every time a stranger brushed too close he automatically stiffened and tried to reach for his wand.  Not when he had lost sight of Ron and Hermione for a moment as they passed through a milling crowd and his heart had instantly sped up, a hard hand of panic squeezing his heart, until a moment later, there had been a break in the crowd and he had spotted a familiar flash of red hair and quickly maneuvered his way through the crowd to join them, slipping his arm through Hermione’s.

But he thought he had hidden his wariness well.   It was a rather sad relic of the last couple years that he’d gotten so used to hiding what he felt and he’d made a deliberate effort to talk and laugh and not betray his tension by so much as a glance or an unguarded gesture.

And if Ron’s and Hermione’s behavior was any indication, he had succeeded.  Ron had relaxed and become more like the cheerful Ron of before the War than he had yet been, a near constant grin on his features.  And Hermione had been herself too, assuming the didactic tone that she hadn’t really used in more than a year as she told them about the history of the city.  She and Ron had even fallen into a couple of their brief squabbles, also in a way that they really hadn’t in the last year, when they had generally been too focused on the dangerous present to bicker.  And perhaps most telling of all, their bickering hadn’t been abruptly cut off with a look of guilt as one or both of them remembered that there were bigger things to worry about than petty disagreements.  Instead, the bickering had ended as they generally had before the War, with both Hermione and Ron addressing themselves solely to him for a little while until one of them forgot themselves and addressed the other with some teasing remark, signifying that all was forgotten.

And he had realized with something of a pang how much he had missed this, without even realizing it consciously, how much he had missed the Trio, the easy friendship they had had.  The way they were complete, the three of them, never needing or wanting anyone else.

His pretense had been worth it just for that, he thought, just to see Ron and Hermione acting so carefree, almost as if the War had never happened.

So he managed a grin as Ron stood up with a cavernous yawn.   “Okay, I’m off to bed,” Ron announced.

“Night, Ron.”

“Sleep well, Ron,” Hermione said.

Left alone, he glanced at Hermione and offered, “You can go up to bed too.  I can take care of putting up the wards.”

She lifted one shoulder into a half-shrug.  “No, I’m not that tired yet.  I’ll help you.”  She gave him a teasing glance.  “Besides, I want to make sure you do them right.”

“Hey!” he protested in mock offense.  “I’ll have you know I’ve gotten a lot better in the last couple months!”

“Still not as good as me,” she quipped.

“No,” he acknowledged readily enough—he didn’t think anyone was as good as Hermione was at putting up wards— “but I have improved a lot.  I had a good teacher, you know,” he added, rather more seriously.

He felt rather than saw her quick smile of thanks at that before they separated to put up the wards.  As usual, she finished before he did and he turned back to see her watching him.  “What, didn’t I do them right?” he asked lightly.

She tilted her head to one side, pretending to think about it.  “They’ll do.”

He let out a huff of feigned injured pride and she laughed and he smiled as he fell into step beside her as they returned inside.

She touched his hand lightly, giving him a quick smile.  “Good night, Harry.”

“Good night,” he returned automatically even as he felt his usual dread of sleep return.   And on a sudden impulse, without even thinking about it, he found himself blurting out, “D’you want to meet me down here in a few minutes?   I mean, unless you think you can sleep tonight.  You don’t–”

“Of course I’ll meet you,” she agreed readily, interrupting him.

He managed a smile.  “The usual meeting of the insomniac club.”

“Right.”

He changed into his pyjamas quickly and then went downstairs, bringing the quilt from his room with him.   She joined him within a few minutes, settling onto the couch beside him.

They exchanged slight smiles but were otherwise silent for a few minutes.

He felt himself relaxing a little, about as much as he ever did these days, with Hermione beside him, alone in the cottage except for Ron, sleeping upstairs.

“You didn’t enjoy yourself today, did you?” she asked quietly.

“Yes, I did,” he lied automatically.

She gave him a look and he shut his mouth on the reassuring lie.  “How’d you know?” he asked instead.

She lifted a shoulder into a small shrug.  “I know you.”

He grimaced a little.  “I thought I was being so good about hiding it.”

Now she smiled, her lips curving upward slightly.  “You were.  Good enough that I didn’t notice it for most of the morning until just before noon.”

“What did I do to give myself away?”

Her lips twisted a little into a thoughtful expression.  “It wasn’t really anything you did so much as it was what you didn’t do.   Ron said something funny and I glanced at you but you didn’t smile.”

“I was smiling,” he protested.  He didn’t know exactly what she was referring to but he knew he’d been smiling.  He’d been careful to keep a smile pasted on his face at all times for the better part of the day.

“You were smiling but it wasn’t a real smile.  I realized that when I looked over at you and your expression didn’t change because of what Ron said.  And I realized that you hadn’t even heard what Ron had said because you were too busy looking around, too busy keeping watch.”

He sighed a little and made a face at her.  “You see too much.”

She let out a brief laugh.  “Sorry.”

“It was a good day,” he said.  “I just… couldn’t relax enough.”  He shrugged a little.  “I know the War is over and there isn’t much danger anymore but I just… can’t stop being alert, can’t stop being afraid.  I’m so—”

She cut him off. “Don’t you dare say you’re sorry, Harry.”

He obeyed, biting off the word.  “Okay,” he agreed mildly.  He paused but then began, “I didn’t want to take away from your fun or Ron’s so I tried to hide it.  You should be able to enjoy yourselves even if I’m being stupid.”

“You’re not being stupid!” she said sharply.   “I thought we agreed that we weren’t going to blame ourselves for still having nightmares and still being afraid.”

“Maybe at night but during the day…  it makes less sense to be afraid during the day.”

“Oh, Harry,” she sighed, her voice abruptly gentling.  “You and I both know that bad things don’t only happen at night.  We can be in danger in broad daylight too.”

Yes, they did both know that.  And even if he’d thought the exact same thing several times over the course of the day, somehow it still bothered him to hear her say it.  Bothered him to know that she was afraid during the daylight too.

Which was nonsensical of him.

On an impulse, he reached over and squeezed her hand.  “But you had fun today, didn’t you?  It seemed like you did.”

“Yes, I did, for the most part.  At first, this morning, I was tense too but then, after a while, I managed to relax more.”  She smiled, a little wistfully.  “I had almost forgotten how much I like seeing old, historical places, and trying to imagine what it must have been like so many years ago.”

He smiled too.  “You sounded like your old self today, going on about the history of everything we saw.”

“I probably bored you and Ron out of your wits.”

“No, you didn’t,” he denied automatically and then corrected himself with a half-grin. “Well, okay, you did bore Ron.”

“That’s surprising,” she said with an entirely straight face.  “He did such a good job of hiding it.”

He laughed and then found himself blurting out, “I missed you, you know.”

She gave him a confused look.  “I haven’t gone anywhere.”

He grimaced.  “Sorry, that came out wrong.  I just meant…  it was nice to see you get so excited about the history and all that today.   I realized that you haven’t really done that lately, haven’t really had anything to be excited for, not really,” he stumbled over how to express what he meant.   “It was just… nice…”  he finished lamely.

Her smile was soft, understanding.  “Yes, it was nice.”

“I guess… I just got so used to all of us being serious.”

“Having fun feels a little strange now, doesn’t it?” she agreed.

“Yeah.”

“It’ll come back, Harry.   It’ll get better.   We were serious for so long; it’s not surprising that it would take some time for us to fully realize that we don’t have to be like that anymore.”

“Because the War’s over and we’re all safe,” he finished rather flatly.

He knew she noticed his tone, the dull thread of disbelief, born of an inability to believe it, in his tone, but she didn’t say anything.  At least not then.

“Did you ever think about what you’d do after this was all over?” she asked instead after a brief silence.

“Not really.  At least, not in the last months.  At first, I did, a little.  I thought about… about being with Ginny again,” he admitted with a sudden rush of candor.

“Oh.”

“But then I just stopped.”

“Thinking about Ginny?”

“No.  Yes.  Thinking about anything that would happen after it was all over.  I stopped…” he trailed off and then finally finished, very quietly, “I stopped really believing that I’d survive.”  Because he had stopped believing that.   He had never really put it into words before, certainly never spoken of it aloud, but there it was.  Why make plans for a future that he didn’t think he would live to see?

“Oh, Harry.”

“I guess I was wrong,” he said with an attempt at lightness that failed miserably.  The look on her face made his heart twist and he wished he hadn’t said it, hadn’t admitted it.

She reached out and grasped his hand, squeezing it and then retaining her grip on it.  “Oh, Harry…”

“It’s okay, Hermione,” he was quick to reassure her.  “I didn’t mean to… it’s over now and I’m fine.   Anyway, I just wanted to say that that was why I never really made plans for when it was all over.  What about you?  What did you plan?” he asked, shifting the subject deliberately.

“I didn’t really make any plans either.”

“You?  Not make plans?   I’m shocked,” he said teasingly, even as he felt like bands had tightened around his heart.   For Hermione not to make plans told him more than almost anything else could about how worried she had been.

The ghost of a smile crossed her face.  “I know.  I just… I wanted us to be safe again.  That was all.”

“And now?  What do you plan to do?”

“I don’t know.”

He slanted a glance at her.  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that before.”

A glimmer of answering humor lightened her expression before she sobered, sighing a little.

“What about you and Ron?” he asked after a moment.  The other, easier part of life-after-the-War, or what he had thought would be life-after-the-War.   “I thought…  thought you were just waiting for all this to be over.”

She started shaking her head even before he’d finished speaking.   “No.   Ron and I…  I thought we might end up together for a little while but… no.   We’re too different, I think, and I…  I don’t care about him that way, I know that now.   I thought I might, in 6th year—but I don’t.”

“I’m sorry,” was all he could think to say, rather inanely.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for.  I think Ron knows it too so it’s all right.   We’re best friends and we’ll stay that way.”

“Are you sure about that?” he asked on a sudden surge of curiosity and something like doubt.   She had sounded confident, of course, but then Hermione generally did.   “It’s just… today, you and Ron seemed so—normal, comfortable together—like your old selves.”  He waved a hand around in a gesture of uncertainty, even diffidence.  “I don’t know.   You and Ron were getting along today, as well as ever.   And you both seemed… happy…”

“Harry, are you—do you want me and Ron to be together?” she asked carefully.

“I want you and Ron to be happy,” he answered promptly and entirely sincerely.  It was such a truth that he didn’t even need to think about it.   “It’s just…  well, I guess I always sort of expected that you and Ron would end up together and now that the War’s over…”

He sensed rather than saw her shake her head again.  “It wouldn’t work, Harry.   The War, everything this past year—I just know myself better and I know I don’t feel that way about Ron.   Not now… and sometimes I wonder how much I ever really did or if it was just what I thought I should feel,” she added more softly, almost as if she were speaking more to herself than to him.

“As long as you’re sure and you’re happy about it.”   He lifted his arm to put around her shoulders, bringing her in closer to him, in a brotherly embrace.

And like a brother, too, he turned his head to drop a quick kiss on her temple—but she turned her head to look up at him at the wrong moment—the right moment?—and for a split second, a second that seemed to freeze in time, they were almost nose to nose.  No, not like a brother—how he had thought he could be like a brother to her, he couldn’t for the life of him remember.  Their faces were so close, their breaths mingling—and then not, because he’d stopped breathing—and all he could think in his suddenly fogged brain was that it would be so easy—incredibly easy—even natural—to touch his lips to hers and kiss her.  She didn’t move and neither did he—he could have sworn that time stopped and the earth stopped rotating too as everything just stopped, stilled.

He was about to kiss Hermione!

The thought rang through his dazed brain with all the volume of a claxon and had something like the same alerting effect and he almost jerked back, abruptly dropping his arm from around her and focusing his gaze on the floor.  “I’m your friend, so of course I want you and Ron to be happy,” he said again, rather inanely, striving desperately to sound carelessly friendly.

“Well, it won’t be because I’m with Ron,” she said with rather more firmness than was warranted, the sort of resolve generally reserved for oaths—or the sort of resolve of someone trying very hard to hide her discomfiture.  And then, more gently, added, “We’re just not… right together.”

He would have looked at her but since he was the cause—the stupid cause—of her flustered state, he kept his gaze studiously focused away from her.  “Well, I can see how that might be a good thing.  Honestly, I’m not sure you’ll ever find someone who’s really right for you,” he paused for a moment and then finished, quietly, “because that would involve you finding someone who deserves you and—” he flicked a glance at her before looking away—“I don’t know if that’s possible.”

The silence stretched on for a couple minutes, for long enough that he finally had to look over at her to see that she looked—dismayingly—as if she was fighting back tears and more than that, a look he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen before, a look as if he had just single-handedly defeated a dragon.

“Oh, Harry,” she finally said, giving him a watery smile, “that might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

He returned her smile almost reflexively, because he couldn’t not smile at her when she was looking at him like that.   “I meant it.”

Their gazes met and held for a moment before he cut his eyes away, suddenly obscurely uncomfortable for no reason he could identify.  It was just too… something…  And he responded to the impulsive need to deflect attention, injecting humor into his tone as he said, “But if you tell Ron I said so, I’ll deny it.”

He sensed rather than saw her answering smile.

“What about you and Ginny?” she asked after a few minutes of comfortable silence and now she sounded once more herself, a thread of teasing in her voice.

“What about me and Ginny?”  he returned, deliberately obtuse.

“If you’re going to pry into my personal life, I get to pry into yours.”  More than a thread now, more like an entire tapestry of teasing.

He smiled automatically at the humor in her voice.  “There’s nothing to tell.”

“That’s not fair.”

He threw a smirk at her but then sobered.  “Honestly, I don’t know about me and Ginny, if there’s ever going to be a me-and-Ginny again.”

“Isn’t that what you want?   You said… you said that’s what you thought about, what you hoped for after the War ended.”

“It was what I was hoping for,” he answered candidly.   “But now… now I’m just not sure…”

“Don’t you still care about her?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” he answered rather flatly.

He felt her sideways glance.   “You don’t sound very certain, Harry,” she ventured carefully.

He sighed a little.  “That’s ‘cause I’m not.  I just…” he waved his hand in an aimless gesture meant to indicate his confusion.  “I don’t know what I still feel for her.   I did think about being with her at first but after a while, I just… stopped…”

“I know, you told me,” she murmured.

“No, it wasn’t—that’s not—even before I stopped thinking about what I wanted to happen after the War, I’d stopped really thinking about her.   It was like, with everything that was happening, I just… forgot to think about her.   And I never really remembered to think about her until after it was all over.”  He paused.  “And now I sound like a selfish git.”

“No, you don’t.  You aren’t,” she assured him quickly.

He threw her a quick slight smile.  “Thanks.”

“It just happens that way sometimes, Harry.   You were busy; you were fighting a War, for heaven’s sake—if ever anyone had a good reason for not thinking about a girl, it was you.  And you didn’t—we didn’t see much of Ginny this past year.”

“Out of sight, out of mind?” he asked rather ironically.

“Something like that.”

He made a face.  “Yeah, but—doesn’t that say something about my feelings for Ginny in the first place, that I just stopped thinking about her when I didn’t see her?”

“It might,” she agreed cautiously.

He was silent for a moment, thinking.   He hadn’t really bothered to try to figure all this out; after all, what was the point of analyzing it anyway?   He didn’t think about Ginny; he didn’t really need to think about Ginny.  He hadn’t talked to Ginny much before they’d left the Burrow and even when he had, it hadn’t been for long, had mostly consisted of commonplace nothings and awkward silences.

But, he supposed, in an odd way, that was what Hermione was for.   She made him think about things, or more accurately, often talking to her made him think about things he otherwise wouldn’t.   It could have been—maybe even should have been—irritating but somehow, it wasn’t.   He was just more comfortable talking about things with Hermione.

“I never stopped thinking about Sirius even when I didn’t see him, didn’t know where he was most of 4th year,” he abruptly blurted out.

“Well, you… were fond of Sirius.  He was important to you,” Hermione said carefully.

“And Ginny isn’t,” he completed the thought.

“I didn’t mean that.”

“No,” he agreed.   He knew she hadn’t.   “But it is true,” he admitted with a sudden burst of candor that surprised even himself.  “I fancied Ginny but really, when it came down to it, she wasn’t that important to me.”  He stopped and then finished, “Not like you and Ron and Sirius and Remus.”  As always, he felt the stab of grief—mingled in with guilt—at the thought of both Sirius and Remus, although now the grief over Sirius was duller.

Hermione reached over and squeezed his arm lightly in silent sympathy.  Because she knew—as always—even without his telling her.

“I’m sorry.”

And somehow he knew, too, that her quiet words were for what he’d just admitted about Ginny and not for the mention of Sirius and Remus.   Not because she didn’t grieve for Sirius and Remus but because she knew he wouldn’t care to talk about it then.

“It’s okay.”   Because it really was.   Somehow.  Surprisingly.   He didn’t want to hurt Ginny but he was… fine…   Whatever he had felt for Ginny had just faded away, so that when he thought about her now, tried to remember what he and Ginny had had before, it was with an odd sort of detachment, as if he were trying to remember something that had happened to some other person.  “I think… it was rather silly of me… to think that Ginny and I could just go right back to being together after the War as if it had never happened.”

“Not so silly.  I think we all get through hard times by imagining that when they’re over, we can just go back to the past.”

He slanted a glance at her.  “You’re not going to say that it’s an irrational thing to do?”

Her lips curved slightly.  “Well, it is, but that’s never mattered for what people think.  And how did you know that’s what I would say?”

“I’ve got to have learned something from having spent the last seven years with you.”

“To somehow make up for the torture of having me around all the time?” she riposted.

He lifted a shoulder in a noncommittal half-shrug.  “You said it, not me,” he deadpanned before his expression and his tone abruptly changed.  “I wouldn’t say it, you know—that it was hard to spend so much time with you.”

“I know you wouldn’t.  It would be rude to say that to my face,” she said lightly.

“And I am the soul of politeness,” he quipped, falling in with her humor, accepting that she didn’t want the conversation to become too solemn.   With all the more ease because he knew that, joking aside, she knew he wouldn’t think that.

He didn’t think that.  He had spent almost every day of the past few years with her because he knew he needed her cleverness—and because he knew she was too loyal to leave him—but he suddenly found himself realizing, to the full, that it wasn’t only that.   Yes, he had needed her, but more than that, he liked being with her.  He enjoyed her company.

A rather daft sort of revelation to have about one of his best friends but true and, somehow, it felt… significant.

He had a sudden flash of memory—of their 4th year when he and Ron had been estranged and he’d thought how there was much more studying and much less fun with Hermione as his only companion.  It had been true, then.

He hadn’t thought about it since—tucked the disloyal thought into the back of his mind with only the lingering belief, in some tiny corner of his mind, that Ron was the best friend he had chosen, the best friend whose company he really preferred, and Hermione was the best friend who had chosen him, or somehow been chosen for him.

But now—because of a silly, teasing statement—he found himself really thinking about it.  And realizing it wasn’t true anymore.

Yes, it was true that Hermione’s company was more serious than Ron’s—would always be true, no doubt.  But she had changed, some of the edges of her seriousness, her know-it-all bossiness, worn away, softened.  She’d learned to be more humorous.   And he had changed too, become more serious in his turn, and learned to trust his rash impulses less and her thoughtful planning more.  And he’d realized his own weakness and, in so doing, learned to appreciate her rather quiet strength.

Funny, it almost seemed as if they had both changed, grown up in their different ways, to end up… on the same level, side by side.

Really, when had he started to think about things like… like Hermione always did?

Well, there were worse people in the world to start to imitate, he thought philosophically with a mental shrug and smile.

“Are you sorry?” she asked.

He blinked at her.  “About what?”

“About you and Ginny.   Sorry that you can’t just go back to the girl who’s waited for you.”

He made a face.  “If you put it like that, then of course I’m sorry,” he stalled, deliberately misunderstanding her.

She narrowed her eyes at him.  “Don’t be thick, Harry; you know that’s not what I meant.”

He laughed briefly, amused almost in spite of himself at how quickly Hermione could go from sounding sympathetic to irritated—and not so amused at the thought that Hermione was one of the few—the very few—people he knew who would use that tone with him now.  He sobered quickly though, answering her question with the honesty it deserved.  “I’m sorry if it means that Ginny’s going to be hurt or disappointed.  I never wanted that.”  He paused and then sighed, making an aimless motion with his hands.  “Honestly, I think… I’m more sorry to think I’ll be disappointing Mr. and Mrs. Weasley.  After everything they’ve done for me…”

“They might be disappointed, Harry, but they’ll understand.   They won’t hold a grudge against you.”

He slanted a glance at her.   “The way Mrs. Weasley didn’t hold a grudge against you in 4th year when Rita Skeeter wrote that garbage story about you and me?”

She made a gesture as if to brush that aside.   “That’s ancient history, Harry.  I can’t even believe you remember that.   And it’s different and was based on a misunderstanding.   If what Rita Skeeter wrote had been true, I’d have deserved it.   You haven’t lied to Ginny or deceived her in any way and you did break up with Ginny before all this started.”

“Sort of,” he agreed, not entirely convinced.  “We never said anything about it but I thought… I think we both expected that the break up was only until the War was over.”

“Maybe you did both think that,” Hermione agreed gently, “but things change.   People change.”  She hesitated and then asked, “Do you think… did Ginny say anything to you while we were at the Burrow?”

“No, she didn’t say anything, but we weren’t exactly alone much either.  I… I was sort of avoiding being alone with her,” he admitted reluctantly.

“Then I think she’ll understand.   Ginny’s not dumb, Harry.   If you were avoiding her, she’d have noticed.”

He grimaced.   “Great.   So I can be the git who broke up with her and then avoided her like she had the plague.   Yes, I’m sure the Weasleys will love me for that.”

“Don’t think like that, Harry.   You didn’t do anything wrong.   You broke up with her honestly, you didn’t make any promises to her or ask her to wait for you.   It might not be easy, it might be awkward for you and Ginny for a little while, but you shouldn’t blame yourself.”

“I don’t want to hurt her,” he reiterated, the guilt he felt over Ginny—over what he didn’t feel for Ginny anymore—not at all lessened by what she’d said.

“If it would make you feel better, you could always write her a letter, breaking up with her for good,” Hermione suggested in a carefully neutral tone.

“‘Dear Ginny, it’s over.  Your friend, Harry.’  Like that?” he retorted, and then laughed in spite of himself at the impossible bluntness of it.

“Exactly like that,” she agreed, deadpan, before she spoiled the effect by laughing.

And he had to laugh again too, his heart abruptly feeling lighter, some of his determined gloom dispelled.   After all, Hermione was probably right.   She knew Ginny, was friends with Ginny—and wasn’t she generally right when it came to people?   She’d known to trust Remus, had known not to trust Mr. Crouch all those years ago.   And he trusted her.

“You’re right,” he said now.   “I am sorry to disappoint Ginny but it is over.   It’ll be awkward but…”  he made a helpless gesture.   “Anyway, I’m not sure it’d be fair to expect anyone to put up with me now, not when I can’t really enjoy myself and I can’t sleep through a night without nightmares.”

“Don’t say that, Harry.   Ron and I are putting up with you just fine, as you put it.”

He gave her a slight smile.  “That’s because you’re so used to putting up with me, you don’t know any better.”

She gave a deliberately teasing laugh.   “Hey, if Ron and I were going to get tired of dealing with you, we’d both be long gone by now.”

“I know.  Sticking with me might be the only daft thing I’ve ever known you to do.”  He tried to sound joking but the humor came out somewhat flat.

He felt her sudden sharp glance but she only said, her tone deliberately light, “How do you know I was sticking with you and not just sticking with Ron to make sure he didn’t get himself into too much trouble?”

“If that’s what you were trying to do, you didn’t do a very good job of it.  You should have kept Ron and yourself as far away from me as possible,” he blurted out, an edge to his voice that he couldn’t soften.

“Don’t, Harry!” she retorted, her voice sharp.   She paused and then added, in a softer, although still firm, tone, “Don’t say that.  Don’t even think that.”

He sighed, slumping back onto the couch.   “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have brought it up,” he conceded.   He left unsaid that he didn’t think he could stop thinking it but for now, let it pass.  He didn’t want to get into an argument with Hermione—as he knew he would over this—not now, at least.   He didn’t want to disturb the fragile peace he’d found in this talk with Hermione, the sort of peace he never felt during the day.

He felt her glance and knew she’d noticed his omission—of course she’d noticed.  “No, you shouldn’t have,” she said, her tone milder now.  “Not unless you want to fight with me.”

His sudden tension eased at this indication that she wasn’t going to press him on this, would let it pass, at least for now.  He let out a huff of breath that might have been a laugh if it had been allowed to grow up, falling in with the thread of conciliatory humor in her tone.  “I don’t.   You’d hex me into next week.”

“See?  You do know better than to annoy me by saying silly things like that.”  There was a smile in her voice.

And he had to smile too, almost involuntarily, in response to her smile.

A comfortable silence fell as he let his head fall back against the couch.   It was quiet, the quiet of the middle of the night, quieter even than it usually was at the Burrow at this hour.   At the Burrow, there was always more noise, whether it was the soft creaks of the house settling or the quiet murmurs that came from people turning over or shifting in their sleep or the occasional snores of Mr. Weasley.

And for almost the first time, he didn’t find himself mentally populating the silence with an encroaching threat, didn’t find himself imagining an enemy in every wisp of sound or even in the absence of sound.

It was just… quiet…  quiet that wasn’t threatening or ominous or tense but just a simple fact.  It was quiet… but more than that, even, he felt…   what was it?   But even as he thought it, he realized what it was he felt—strange as it was, even amazing.

He felt safe…  Somehow.   He didn’t know why or how but he did.

He let his eyes close, feeling the peace seep into him, soothe him.  Safe… 

Of course it didn’t last.

He jerked awake—he had slept, dreamlessly—but awoke abruptly, feeling a fleeting instant of panic, of dismay—how could he have let himself sleep, just lower his guard like that?   Anything could have—

In the next instant, reality returned and he sank back down on the couch from where he’d already half-arisen.  He looked over to see that Hermione was sleeping.  Soundly, he could see in the weak, gray light beginning to filter through the curtains.

He wondered if she was cold—the blanket he had brought down from his bedroom last night was on the couch beside him—but after a moment, he decided not to cover her with it.   The room wasn’t cold and, more importantly, he didn’t want to risk waking her up by covering her with the blanket.   He knew what a light sleeper she was—what a light sleeper she had become in this past year, just as he had become.   He would just let her sleep.

In the meantime, he studied her with a care he had never been able to use before.   Studied her so he noted the shadows under her eyes, proof if he’d needed it of her own inability to sleep.   More than that, though, he realized to the full just how hard she was trying during the day, trying to act normal, trying not to be afraid, trying to disguise and bury what she was truly feeling.   He felt a sharp twist of dismay and guilt.   He hadn’t realized, hadn’t thought, just how much effort Hermione was putting into her behavior, to be as strong as she was.   He was so accustomed to her stoicism, her calm steadiness—but now he realized that even at night, with only him, when he knew she lowered her guard more, relaxed more, she was still trying.   He could see it in the difference in her face, in her expression, a difference he couldn’t explain or otherwise put into words except to say that now, in sleep, when she wasn’t trying, she looked softer.   Younger.  More vulnerable.  And he had become so used to the subtle indications of strain in her face during the day—it was rather as if her skin grew infinitesimally tighter over her features— that he’d ceased to notice it at all, until now, when it was gone.

It was a glimpse of a Hermione no one, certainly not him, really knew, a Hermione whose defenses were entirely down, who was—for a short while— worry-free and at peace.

He felt a throb of emotion and found himself thinking that at this moment, he didn’t want anything else.  For the first time, he really felt, not just that the War was over but that they had won.   He felt… happy…   And it somehow didn’t matter that he still couldn’t really relax or that the wizarding world was in the slow, painful process of rebuilding itself after the War or that they had lost too many people and that the grief over those losses was still fresh—or more accurately, all those grim realities mattered less.   All that really mattered to him at that moment was this—that Hermione was safe, unharmed, and sleeping peacefully.

He didn’t know how or when it had happened, that Hermione’s safety and her peace of mind meant so much to him—but somehow, it did.

He glanced at the light filtering in through the curtains.   It was still early.   It would be a couple hours before the day would really begin.

He could go out to recheck the wards or otherwise take a look around.   Part of him wanted to, the part of him that never quite lost the sense of impending danger.

But for once, that part of him was subdued.

He settled back onto the couch, not to try to sleep himself but simply to watch her sleep.   That was all.   He watched her sleep.   And he was happy.

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