[Fanfic] Living Past the End -Chapter 6

Living Past the End

CHAPTER 6

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

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“Crucio.”

“No! Hermione!”

Harry started awake on his cry, bolting upright and then stumbling out of his bed only to crash heavily against the wall.

He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.   He felt as if he were being strangled. He yanked at the collar of his shirt, ripping it, but it didn’t help. Air. He needed air!

Outside!

He attempted to move but his knees buckled beneath him as his fingers scrabbled madly at the wall.

His chest hurt and he suddenly wondered wildly if this was what it felt like to have a heart attack. He couldn’t get enough air into his lungs, felt as if his ribs and his chest were being compressed.

He panted and gasped for air but could never get enough of it.   He couldn’t see, his eyes narrowing, his vision dotted with tiny points of light.

Through the sound of his own harsh gasps for air, the mad sound of his heart pounding, the screams he could still hear in his head, he vaguely heard his door open.

“Harry!”

He still couldn’t see but in the next moment, he felt her beside him, felt her hand on his back.

He clutched at his chest. “I… can’t… breathe!” he wheezed out.

“It’s okay, Harry.   Slow your breathing down. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale.”

She was barking mad!   He couldn’t breathe and she wanted him to slow his breathing?!

“Inhale. Exhale.   Slowly, Harry.”

He didn’t understand. She was barking mad—she had to be—but he listened to her. And he did what she said.

Forced himself—in defiance of every instinct, everything he wanted to do—to inhale slowly, hold the breath for a couple seconds, and then exhale just as slowly. Inhale. Exhale. In. Out.

He felt her hand on his back, rubbing in slow, comforting circles. “Breathe, Harry. In and out.”

And slowly—amazingly—it helped.   The spots clouding his vision faded and he blinked rapidly as his vision returned.   It was too dark for him to see very clearly; her face was just a pale oval in the darkness.   But he didn’t need to see her.   His mind filled in her features where they were indistinguishable in the darkness. He focused on her face, his mind superimposing the concerned expression he knew she would have, as he controlled his breathing, feeling the tightness in his chest ease little by little.   And also little by little, the screams he heard in his head quieted.

“I’m here, Harry.   Just keep breathing, in and out, slowly.   In and out…” she kept up her murmuring, as well as the warm pressure of her hand on his back.

Belatedly, he became aware that she was adjusting her breathing to his, imitating the slow, deep, steady breaths he was forcing himself to take.   Something softened inside him at this indication of empathy, of solidarity.   He still felt jumpy, tense—but he was no longer alone.

“Feeling better?” she finally asked, softly.

He managed to nod a little jerkily.

“Let’s sit down.” She slipped her arm around his back, providing some added support for his still somewhat shaky knees as they made it the couple steps back to collapse heavily onto his bed. Or more accurately, he collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut while she sat down normally.

A silence fell.   He no longer needed to concentrate quite so much to keep his breathing even, his heart wasn’t pounding quite so fast anymore.But he still felt tense, his calm a ragged façade. He could feel it, the tendrils of the panic, the heart-wrenching terror he’d felt, hovering just at the fringes of his mind, not gone but biding its time.

“This was where I first saw the ocean.   My grandparents had just rented this place for the first time and my parents and I flew out here for a week in the summer.”

He blinked and turned to stare at her, confused, at this non-sequitur, the apparent randomness of it.   Except this was Hermione and she was never random. She wasn’t looking at him—he could just make out her profile as she looked down towards the floor—as she went on, softly.

“I’d never seen the ocean before.   My grandfather tried to get me to go into the water but I refused. I was terrified and wouldn’t set foot in the water.   I must have been all of 5 years old or so at the time, I think. My grandfather pleaded and cajoled but I was stubborn and insisted that I wouldn’t walk one step into the ocean.   Finally my grandfather promised me that he and my Nana would never ever ask me to do anything that wasn’t safe or was dangerous for me to do. And then he picked me up and promised me that he wouldn’t put me down until I asked him to. Then, still holding me, he walked slowly into the ocean.”

He still wasn’t quite sure where she was going with this but couldn’t help listening.   Her voice was quiet. She had, he thought with some surprise, a pretty voice. He’d never noticed it before but there, in the dark, where he couldn’t really see her as anything much more than a darker shadow, her voice was lovely.   Like the sound of water to a man dying of thirst in the desert.

“I almost strangled him with every step he took into the water but I didn’t cry out and he kept on going. He didn’t stop until the water was just deep enough that it came to about where my knees were as he carried me.   By then, I couldn’t help but be curious at the way the waves moved and that nothing bad had happened.   So when he stopped and checked with me, I finally said he could keep on going and he did, until the water was almost level with our shoulders. I was still a little scared but my grandfather only laughed a little as he said, ‘you see, ‘Mione, isn’t this fun?’”

“Your grandfather called you ‘Mione?” he interrupted, forgetting himself in that moment of surprise.

“My family almost always called me ‘Mione when I was little. My parents only started calling me Hermione when I started Hogwarts and my grandparents still tend to call me ‘Mione.”

“You never let us call you ‘Mione.” He distinctly remembered one time in Second Year when Ron had been trying to wheedle Hermione into letting him look at her essay and Ron had pleaded, “Aww, come on, ‘Mione, please…” And Hermione had given Ron one of her patented looks, the one Harry had mentally named her spider glare, and Ron had—as always, when he was on the receiving end of that particular look—surrendered and retreated with the haste that had inspired Harry’s name for the look.   Ron had dropped the subject of the essay and he and Ron had both finished their essays laboriously, without so much as daring to ask Hermione a question. And neither of them had ever dared to call Hermione ‘Mione again.

“You never really asked and, anyway, it was my little kid nickname. It would have been silly to keep using it at Hogwarts.   We didn’t call Ron Ronniekins either.”

“Not unless we wanted to make fun of him,” he interjected.

She laughed a little and he managed a slight smile. And realized as he did so what Hermione had intended by telling him this story from her childhood; she had wanted to distract him from his panic.   And it was working.   He felt calmer, no longer needing to focus so much on the pace of his breathing.

He reached out on impulse and gripped Hermione’s hand, squeezing it briefly. “I can’t imagine you being so scared of the ocean.”

“Oh I was.   At the time, pretty much all I knew was that the ocean was deep, deeper than rivers like the Thames, and I had this idea that it meant the land just ended, dropped off like a cliff at the water’s edge.   So I thought if we took one step too far into the water, the land would end and we’d step right off the cliff and fall into the depths of the ocean. So of course, I was terrified.”

He could hear her smile in her voice.   He could picture it, a smaller version of the Hermione he had first met, little Hermione—no, little ‘Mione—lifting her chin as she refused to walk into the ocean and then the gradual conquering of her fears.

“I wasn’t much of a Gryffindor back then,” she quipped lightly.

“Yes, you were,” he blurted out. “You could have stopped your grandfather from picking you up at all or you could have stopped him from going any further when he stopped to check but you didn’t. You were still scared of falling into the ocean but you didn’t stop him.”

“My grandfather promised I’d be all right.”

“Still. When—” he broke off abruptly but then went on, his voice a shade rougher, quieter, “when Dudley didn’t want to do something because he was scared, he’d throw tantrums, shrieking and crying, ‘til he got his way.” He couldn’t quite believe he was saying it—he never usually talked about Dudley—but somehow, in the dark, with only Hermione there, the words simply came. And part of it, he realized, was that his fears—the things that haunted him—no longer involved the Dursleys. Not really, not anymore. He might not be comfortable—he suspected he never would be comfortable—talking about the Dursleys, but at least the thought of them didn’t close his throat.

“Oh,” was all Hermione murmured even as she squeezed his hand for a moment. And he knew she realized what it meant both that he’d mentioned Dudley at all—but that she also wasn’t going to press him on it. He felt a sudden rush of affection and gratitude—and wondered, not for the first time, just what he would do without her. She was—of course, she was—his best friend but more and more, he realized she was more than that. Somehow. Ron was his best friend too, just as certainly, but he knew without thinking that he would never be able to talk about any of this with Ron.   Ron would not—could not—understand.   Hermione was different. Hermione was more. How much more or what “more” even meant, he didn’t know. Some part of him still shied away from even thinking it.   She was just… more… and “more” was undefined.   And it was fine that way.

“Tell me more about your grandparents,” he finally said.

“My grandparents are great.   I loved visiting their house because I loved my grandfather’s study. It was full of books.   Both my grandparents loved to read and, more than even my parents did, encouraged me to read all I wanted to. They were both teachers, my Nana taught secondary school and my grandfather taught history at university.”

“So bossiness and liking to lecture people runs in the family.”

She laughed and bumped him with her shoulder. “If I’m anything like my grandparents, I’ll take it as a compliment.”

“I meant it as one,” he said quietly.

“Grampa was a great story teller. He told me stories from Greek mythology and the Arthurian legends but most often, he told me about history whenever I visited. About the lost princes in the Tower, about Henry VIII and his six wives, about Guy Fawkes and his Gunpowder Plot, about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and about Eleanor of Aquitaine and all her adventures.” Her voice softened until he could hear a smile in her voice. “He used to call me his little Gloriana because he knew that the stories he told me about Elizabeth I were always my favorite.   He told me that she proved what no one had really thought was possible until then, that a woman could be just as clever and just as powerful as any king of England had ever been and that he never wanted me to forget that.   The summer after our Second Year was his 70th birthday and to surprise him at his birthday party, I memorized Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury to recite to him.”

“What speech?”

“It was just before the Spanish Armada and troops had gathered to try to prepare for the invasion of England. Elizabeth went out to Tilbury to where the troops were and gave what’s probably her most famous speech.”

“Do you still remember it?”

“Honestly, Harry, it’s not…”

“Please. I want to hear it.   I’ve never heard of it before.”

He somehow sensed her slight flush but after another moment’s hesitation, she began.   “My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit our selves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery…”

He had asked mostly out of idle curiosity and a wish to keep being distracted but he listened with an interest that surprised him.   She started out rather haltingly, her voice a little uncertain, but soon the old-fashioned phrasing flowed quite naturally. “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm…”

He’d never cared much about history, either Muggle or magical, but now, listening to Hermione, he couldn’t help but get some sense of the drama of the speech.   Not because Hermione was any sort of actress, able to imbue the words with dramatic power; she wasn’t. She sounded amazingly matter-of-fact as she recited the speech. It was more because he could hear all of Hermione’s love of history as she spoke, couldn’t help but be amazed at how she remembered this, in spite of the fact that she had memorized it years ago, before the War had started.

And there was something oddly… comforting… about that.   When he often felt as if he’d thought of nothing else but the War for almost his entire life, when he sometimes wondered if he even knew who he was when he wasn’t Harry Potter, the Boy Fighting Voldemort, it was comforting to be faced with this evidence that yes, there had been life before the War, life that wasn’t part of the War, and Hermione still remembered it.

It was comforting.   It was also off-putting as he wondered, a little sickly and not for the first time, just what Hermione was doing being friends with people like him and Ron.   Hermione, who was so clever, who enjoyed history, and was reciting from memory a speech given some 400 years ago, a speech he’d never even heard of before!

She finished and he stayed silent, just staring at her—or what he could see of her, which was little more than her profile—for a moment.

“Did I put you to sleep?   I told you it wasn’t—”

“How can you stand to hang out with us?   What are you doing, being friends with an idiot like me?” he blurted out. “You—listen to you talk about history and stuff and I—I don’t know anything about that and—”

“Harry, stop it.” she interrupted him quickly. “You’re not an idiot and as for why I’m friends with you, we’ve already been over this, remember?”

He frowned. “What—”

“It’s because there are more important things than books and cleverness.   Cleverness doesn’t mean much on its own.   Tom Riddle was clever too.”

He stiffened, jerking in spite of himself at the name. Oddly. He didn’t react like that at the thought or mention of Voldemort but something about the human name, Tom Riddle, bothered him. Maybe because Voldemort no longer sounded—or looked—like a human but Tom Riddle was just another boy’s name.   Maybe because he was still bothered by the superficial similarities between him and Tom Riddle—half-bloods with unhappy childhoods, both Parselmouths… Whatever the reason, he reacted, releasing her hand as he jerked as if he’d been electrocuted.

He heard her sigh and then after a moment, she started again. “Anyway, you shouldn’t focus so much on my cleverness as if you’re stupid.We’re not that different, you know. We’re both Gryffindors too, remember. The Sorting Hat could have put me in Ravenclaw but it didn’t.”

“Lucky for me,” he finally said. He tried to imagine Hermione being sorted into Ravenclaw—possibly never becoming friends with her.   He felt a slight shudder go through him at the thought. Thank all the Fates that the Sorting Hat had put Hermione in Gryff—

“Why did the Sorting Hat put you in Gryffindor?” he blurted out. “Not—not that you’re not brave but it just… you know… at first thought, it does seem like you belong in Ravenclaw…”

“I know.   Other people have said so too and I’ve wondered about it too.”   She paused and then added, “I was surprised when the Sorting Hat announced Gryffindor.”

He turned to look at her. “You were?”

“Of course. Well, Hogwarts: a History explained about the different Houses and I’d assumed in reading it that I belonged in Ravenclaw.” He saw her shrug. “Loving to read, studious—I sounded like the perfect Ravenclaw.”

He smiled. “Yeah, you do. Did the Sorting Hat say anything to you before it sorted you?”

“Mm, just that I was an interesting one. That was really all it said before it announced Gryffindor.   But I’ve thought about it and I think I’ve figured it out.”

He grinned to himself. Of course she had. “Then why were you Sorted into Gryffindor?”

“Because Gryffindor was where I would grow the most, as a person. If I’d been Sorted into Ravenclaw, I wouldn’t have needed to really change or grow up much.   I’d have been surrounded by people who studied just like me; I’d never have gotten into trouble…”

“That’s true. Ron and I were always the ones to drag you into trouble.”

“You didn’t drag me; I walked into trouble right beside you,” she retorted.

A laugh escaped him before he’d even realized it, amused—and somehow warmed too—by this flash of spirit. So very Hermione.

He sensed rather than saw her answering smile before she went on. “But because I was Sorted into Gryffindor, I had to grow up, surrounded by people who weren’t exactly like me.   It pushed me so I didn’t study as much—”

“You studied plenty,” he interrupted her rather dryly.

“Not as much as I would have if I’d been in Ravenclaw. I think… being Sorted into Gryffindor… well, it made me become the person I had the potential to become but wouldn’t have been otherwise, if that makes sense.”

“It makes sense.”

“It’s the same with Neville too.   On the surface, he seems more like a Hufflepuff; he has the same sort of bone-deep loyalty and he’s not competitive or aggressive or outgoing.   But he has hidden depths and now—”

“He’s just as much a Gryffindor as any of us are,” he finished for her.

“Yeah.   He grew up, just like I did.”

“And I stayed exactly the same,” he quipped. “Reckless and impulsive then and now.”

She laughed. “Some people are hopeless.”

“Maybe it just means some people didn’t need to change and started out perfect.”

She bumped him with her shoulder. “Perfectly egotistical, you mean,” she teased.

He nudged her back with his shoulder. “Hey, I’ll have you know a lot of people think I’m quite a swell fellow.”

She laughed again as they engaged in a playful mock-tussle, pushing against each other with their shoulders, that ended in what amounted to an armistice as he flung his arm around her shoulders as her head settled against his shoulder.

A comfortable, companionable silence fell as he let his head rest against her hair. And he realized that now, finally, he felt calm again.   His heart was no longer racing. He was… at ease again, the tension and the last lingering tendrils of panic gone, dissolved.

Thanks to Hermione and her distracting, deliberately lighthearted conversation.

“Any more stories from your childhood and your grandparents?”

“You mean, I haven’t bored you yet?”

“No, not yet.” And somehow, he was suddenly very sure that she never could bore him. “I bet you were really cute back then, ‘Mione.”   He used the childhood pet name deliberately, half-teasingly. He’d never even dreamed of using the word ‘cute’ to describe Hermione before—would probably have scoffed at the very idea—but somehow, it just came out and he was a little amazed to discover that he really meant it.

He sensed her slight smile. “Just don’t call me that when Ron is around.   I don’t need him making fun of me.”

“Fair enough. It’ll be our secret,” he answered easily—and sincerely. He didn’t want Ron calling her ‘Mione. He didn’t want Ron knowing stories about the little girl Hermione had once been, the girl who’d been afraid to go into the ocean, the girl who’d grown up hearing stories from English history at her grandfather’s knee. He didn’t want Ron discovering the smooth loveliness of Hermione’s quiet voice speaking in the darkness.

It was utterly selfish of him. To say nothing of irrational. It wasn’t as if Hermione’s childhood stories were secrets.   And yet… his reaction to the thought of Ron seeing this side of Hermione, of Ron calling her ‘Mione, was immediate and visceral.   And negative.

He didn’t know why—and at the moment, he didn’t care to analyze it either.   He just knew he didn’t like the idea.   He wanted to be the only one who knew these stories, wanted to be the only person outside of her family who could call her ‘Mione.

Merlin, when had he suddenly become possessive about Hermione? He’d never felt possessive about her before!   She’d always been Ron’s best friend just as much as she was his; she generally spent as much time with Ron as she did with him, teased Ron just as much as she teased him.   And she was the first girl Ron had really fancied.   None of which had ever bothered him in the slightest before.

Crazy! He mentally shook himself, shoving any such stupid thoughts out of his head.   Hermione was his best friend and Ron’s best friend.That was all.

She laughed softly, thankfully distracting him. “Well, there’s one story. If you ever meet my grandfather, he’ll probably tell it to you.   I think he’s told it to everyone he’s ever met for more than ten years now.   It’s his favorite story of me from when I was little.   I don’t remember it myself but I’ve heard it so many times that it’s like I remember it.”

“What’s the story?”

“I was staying over at my grandparents’ house and my grandfather read me the story of the Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen and—”

“What’s the story about?” he interrupted her.

H felt her glance. “Oh. You never heard the story?”

“No.” And found himself adding, “The Dursleys didn’t spend a lot of time reading stories.” He vaguely remembered Aunt Petunia reading some stories to Dudley when they’d been very young but he had never been included for this, had heard some stories only as a result of surreptitiously eavesdropping from outside of Dudley’s bedroom.   Amazingly, he remembered this and felt rather detached from it, almost as if it had happened to some other boy.   Not to him, the Harry who was sitting here now with Hermione.   That other Harry, who had never had any friends, had always been desperately hoping for, seeking, scraps of basic human kindness, never mind friendship and affection.   That other Harry could never have even imagined, let alone hoped for, a friendship like this, of being able to sit next to someone and talk to them in the darkness about nothing in particular and yet have it mean… everything…

He sensed her slight hesitation, the sudden increase of tension in her, at the mention of the Dursleys, but she didn’t respond otherwise. “The Wild Swans is about a princess named Eliza who had eleven brothers.   Their father, the king, married again—”

“Let me guess, he married a wicked stepmother who hated Eliza for being the most beautiful girl the world had ever seen,” he interjected a little dryly.

Hermione laughed. “Right on both counts. At any rate, the wicked stepmother used a spell to get rid of Eliza’s brothers and they turned into swans. The stepmother told lies about the brothers to the king who basically disowned his sons on hearing about it.   Then the stepmother went after Eliza.   She tried to use another spell but that didn’t work because Eliza was too good and pure so the stepmother instead had Eliza be smeared with something like mud to turn her hair and skin dark and make her look terrible. The king didn’t recognize Eliza on seeing her like that and so Eliza was essentially banished from the castle. She wandered alone until she came to a pond in a forest and took a bath and was restored to herself.   By that time, it was night and just then, she heard a noise and hid.”

“Is this where Eliza gets rescued by a prince?”

“Not quite.   Instead, eleven swans landed on the pond and then were immediately turned back into their original selves so Eliza was reunited with her brothers, who explained to her that their stepmother had cast a spell to turn them into swans during the day but at night they turned back into men so they always needed to make sure they were on land and not flying when sunset came. Eliza immediately wanted to know what she could do to break the spell and save her brothers.”

“She sounds rather more like your type of princess.”

“That’s what my grandfather thought too when he read it to me.   Anyway, the brothers flew with Eliza to a distant land to escape their stepmother.   And then Eliza prayed about how to break the spell on her brothers and finally, she was told by an old woman that the way to break the spell was to take a bunch of stinging nettles and weave them into coats for her brothers and if she threw the eleven coats of nettles over the swans, the spell would be broken and they would turn back into humans. But she wasn’t supposed to speak even one word while she made the eleven coats or her brothers would die.   So Eliza set out to save her brothers and started making the nettle coats and stopped talking.   And one day, the king of that land was out hunting and he saw Eliza and thought she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen so he lifted her up onto his horse and took her away to his castle.”

“Of course he did,” he commented wryly.

“Right. Anyway, the king dressed Eliza up in the finest clothes and gave her all sorts of luxuries and he also ordered his servants to take the pile of nettles she’d been found with and put them in her room as well since she seemed to care about them so much.   The king married Eliza and afterwards, continued to treat her well while she stayed silent and worked on the coats. The king’s chief minister didn’t like Eliza and suspected she was some sort of witch who’d ensnared the king and set out to poison the king’s mind against Eliza.”

“Naturally, because otherwise it would all be too easy.”

“Right,” Hermione agreed and he heard the slight smile in her voice before she went on. “So the next night, the king and the chief minister followed Eliza as she went to the graveyard to get more nettles. The next day, Eliza was arrested and taken away from the palace on a cart for public trial and condemnation as a witch but all the while, Eliza never said a word and kept on sewing the nettles into coats. Suddenly, eleven swans appeared and surrounded Eliza while she was on the cart.”

“Nice of her brothers to finally show up.”

“She threw the nettle coats over her brothers and they all turned back into their normal selves, except for one, the youngest of the brothers, who still had one arm that was a swan’s wing because Eliza had run out of nettles and didn’t finish making the last sleeve for the coat. Having done this, Eliza finally spoke up to assert her innocence and then promptly fainted while her brothers explained what had happened to them and what Eliza had done for them.”

“And they all lived happily ever after?”

“Pretty much,” Hermione agreed, a smile in her voice. “Anyway, so my grandfather read me this story and when he was done, he asked me what I thought about it.   And I wrinkled up my nose and announced that I didn’t like it at all.   He asked me why and I answered, ‘the kings were dumb.’”

He laughed. “‘The kings were dumb,’” he repeated. “That’s what you said?”

“Yes, just that. My grandfather laughed so hard he almost fell over and when he got his breath back, he asked me to explain why I thought the kings were dumb.   So I said that the first king, the father, was dumb because he shouldn’t have believed the bad queen and he was dumb for not recognizing Eliza just because she was dirty.   As I put it, ‘I get dirty too and Mummy and Daddy still recognize me.’”

“You got dirty? Don’t tell me you were playing in the dirt!” he said with exaggerated shock. “I thought you always stayed inside and read.”

“Well, this was before I had really learned to read so I spent quite a bit of time outside playing.   Poor Mum. I went through a brief phase of being fascinated at how dirt could turn into mud if you just added anything liquid to it so I got in trouble a few times because I went outside and poured my juice into the ground just to see if it would turn dirt into mud like water did. It wasn’t, as you might imagine, the cleanest scientific experiment.”

He burst out laughing, picturing a miniature Hermione pouring juice into the ground with the same familiar expression of concentration he already knew so well wrinkling her forehead.

She laughed as well.   “At any rate, I went on to explain that I didn’t like the other king either.”

“You didn’t like that he believed Eliza was a witch just for going to the graveyard?” he guessed.

“Actually, no, I said he was dumb because he decided to marry her when he’d never even heard her talk and the only thing he knew about her was that she was pretty and being pretty is a silly reason to like someone.”

He laughed again, entirely able to picture a very small version of Hermione and the serious expression on her face as she criticized a fairy tale.“How old were you when this happened?”

“Around four.”

“So you’ve always been a precocious know-it-all,” he teased.

“I guess you could say that. But I never did like fairy tales involving beautiful princesses much. I guess some part of me always realized that I wasn’t very pretty myself so—”

“Yes you are,” he blurted out unthinkingly, interrupting her. “Why would you say that?”

“Oh, well, thanks, but you don’t need to say that just because we’re friends.”

“I’m not. Of course you’re pretty.” He said it almost automatically, as a simple statement of fact. Which it was, not that he bothered to think about it much. Hermione was simply Hermione and he never really thought about her appearance any more than he analyzed the brightness and location of the sun.   It was just one of the simple underlying realities of life.   But then he stopped and looked at her, at what he could see her in the dim gray light of encroaching dawn filtering in through the curtains.   He knew her face, of course.   He probably knew her face better than he knew his own—and yet, somehow, for some reason, looking at her at that moment, he suddenly forgot how to breathe.

Pretty?   No…   Hermione wasn’t pretty.   “Pretty” was a simple thing, an uncomplicated thing, a conventional thing.   “Pretty” was a word to describe Ginny or Cho or Parvati or Lavender. Hermione… well, Hermione wasn’t like that.   Her face was… different… from simple prettiness.   Her eyes were just slightly too large, her chin a shade too pointed, the curve of her jaw ever so slightly too defined.   And yes, her hair was a little too untamable.   With all that—no, Hermione wasn’t pretty.   She was… something more than that, better than that.

She was… she was…   He mentally floundered for a word to describe her before he gave up.   He didn’t know what word to use but he found himself thinking that he just… liked the way she looked.   He suddenly knew that there was no one whose face he would rather see—in good times and in bad times, at all times and every day.

He didn’t know what that meant—it meant something—and he was suddenly flustered, uncomfortable, as if all his thoughts were plainly written on his face.

“Anyway, it’s not just me who thinks you’re pretty,” he hastily added. “Viktor Krum did too, remember?   He didn’t spend all that time in the Library watching you before asking you to the Yule Ball because he liked the way you talked.”

She laughed softly, reminiscently. “Oh, Viktor, yes, I suppose he did think I was pretty.”

Harry mentally frowned, promptly—and irrationally—regretting that he’d ever brought the subject of Krum up in the first place. He didn’t like the way Hermione’s expression had softened, the way she called him Viktor. And he really didn’t like the thought that Krum had apparently noticed that Hermione was pretty so quickly, not when it had taken himself years to realize the same thing.

Bloody hell, he was sounding just like Ron in that fight he’d had with Hermione after the Yule Ball. He was sounding—he was—jealous. Jealous!   Ridiculous!

He squelched the thought immediately.   He wasn’t jealous.   He’d never been jealous. Not about Hermione.   He refused to be jealous over Hermione.

“And I’m sure Ron thinks you’re pretty too,” he hastily added, wanting to bring the subject away from Krum.

Hermione made an exaggeratedly skeptical face. “I sometimes think that I might as well be a walking, talking book as far as Ron is concerned.”

“Well, maybe he thinks you’re a pretty walking, talking book,” Harry quipped.

She laughed and he grinned, ridiculously pleased with himself for having made her laugh. He liked to hear her laugh and see her smile—which was only natural after the last year when neither of them had had much reason to laugh or smile.   Or so he told himself.   He just couldn’t quite believe it, the otherwise reasonable explanation somehow sounding hollow.

And as he looked at Hermione’s laughing face, he was suddenly sure that not only must Ron think Hermione was pretty but that Ron must still fancy Hermione too. How could he not?   A fellow would have to be blind, barking mad, and an idiot not to fancy Hermione.   Hermione with her cleverness and her kindness and her loyalty, to say nothing of her smile.

Hermione had said that she didn’t fancy Ron like that but if Ron still did fancy Hermione…   Harry suddenly, desperately, needed to know if Ron still fancied Hermione. Because…   because he just wanted to know.

His eyes had drifted to the window and he noted idly that it was nearing 4 a.m. It was rather sad proof of just how little he’d been sleeping that he could estimate the time so exactly just based on the quality of the light filtering in through the curtains.

“You’re not sleepy?” he blurted out. “I’ve kept you up again for half the night.”

“It’s okay, Harry.   I can stay if you want me to.”

“Stay,” he answered immediately and only realized after he’d said it that he really meant it.   He didn’t know if he would manage to fall asleep again but the thought of being left alone, alone with the near-constant nightmares lurking, had something in him almost shuddering away.   No, he didn’t want her to leave.   It was selfish of him—he should, no doubt, let her return to her room to get some sleep—but he couldn’t seem to help it.

“Okay.”

A comfortable silence settled over them for a few minutes, a silence that he finally broke as another question occurred to him.

“Hermione, before, when I thought—when you came in, how did you know what to do? How did you know how to help me?” He had almost blurted out ‘when he had thought he was having a heart attack’ but he couldn’t say that.   It sounded ridiculous.   Crazy.

“When you were having a panic attack?” she finished gently.   “I had researched it.”

“When I was having a panic attack,” he repeated. “How did—what made you research that?”

“Do you remember that day early this summer when I made Bill and Fleur take me to the local library by the Burrow?”

“Yeah,” he said a little uncertainly.   He did vaguely remember a day when she had said she was bored and asked where the nearest library was.   Ron had, he remembered now, given her a hard time for wanting to spend her free time in a library, of all places, when it was the summer.   But Hermione had prevailed and Bill and Fleur had agreed to accompany her—Bill to show her the way and Fleur to keep Bill company.

“I went to the library that day to look up whatever information I could find about soldiers returning from war or other people dealing with traumatic experiences.”

He drew back to gape at her.   “You—but how did you know?”   That had been long before he had first run into Hermione at night, when he had been doing everything he could to act relaxed and unaffected.   He had thought that he’d been rather good at it too.

She gave him a look. “I know you, Harry, and I know what you look like when you’re having trouble sleeping at night.”

Of course she knew.   Silly of him to even ask.

She focused her gaze absently on the floor. “So I researched it. It was a Muggle library, naturally, but people are largely the same in the way they deal with traumatic experiences. The descriptions of the trouble soldiers have in returning after a war all sounded familiar.”

She didn’t say it but he knew it without her saying so, that she had spent those hours at the library researching for his sake—to help him in the aftermath of the war just as much as she had helped him during the war.

He felt a rush of warmth in his chest.   It was so… like her…   not only to notice that he was having trouble sleeping but then quietly, without even mentioning it, to try to help him.

“Hermione, I… you…” he began but then trailed off, not quite sure what he wanted to say or what he could say.

“It wasn’t just for you, Harry. I was having nightmares too,” she added matter-of-factly. And characteristically.

“Still. Thank you,” he said, “for wanting to help and for staying.” And then, on a surge of affection and gratitude, he did something he’d never done before and brushed his lips against her cheek.

She flushed and gave him a small smile. “Always.”

Always. He found himself thinking that the one word summarized their entire relationship.   With all that had happened, with all they had been through—she was here beside him, his best friend.

Always.   And for the moment, nothing more needed to be said.

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