[Fanfic] Living Past the End -Chapter 7

Living Past the End

CHAPTER 7

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_07

The sound of the telephone made them all start, Ron nearly leaping out of his chair.

Harry met Hermione’s amused gaze as she laughed and stood up. “Relax, Ron. It’s just the phone. It must be my parents.   They said they would ring.”

Hermione disappeared into the kitchen while Ron grimaced a little. “I don’t know how Muggles got used to talking to a piece of plastic in their hand.”

Harry grinned.   “It’s not that much different from talking to someone’s disembodied head for a Floo call.”

“But for a Floo call, you can still see the person you’re talking to.”

Harry shrugged.   “Anyway, it’s not like phones are a new thing; they’ve been around for ages now so people have gotten used to it.”

“I suppose.” Ron looked and sounded skeptical but said nothing more, only taking another gulp of Gini, the French lemonade-like soda Hermione had insisted they try.

Harry glanced toward the door to make sure Hermione wasn’t returning before blurting out, “Say, Ron, can I ask you something?”

“What’s up, mate?”

“D’you still fancy Hermione?”

Ron choked on his drink. “What?!”   He gaped at Harry. “Why the blazes would you ask me that?”

“You fancied Hermione before… I just… I thought you and Hermione were only waiting for the War and all that to be over before…” he trailed off, making an awkward motion with his hand.

Ron had the nerve to chuckle in Harry’s face at his discomfiture. “Have I been acting like I fancied Hermione?”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. You and Hermione haven’t been fighting as much.”

“We’ve had less to fight about. Doesn’t mean I still fancy her and I know she doesn’t still fancy me, if she ever did.”

Harry stared at Ron. “She did. You know she did.”

Ron squirmed a little. “Yeah, I guess. But she doesn’t now and don’t look at me like that. Hermione’s my best friend too, y’know.”

“I know.” And then added, the words practically escaping of their own volition, “You really don’t still fancy her? Why not?”

Ron gave Harry an odd look. “She’s… a little scary, y’know, and she’s always… thinking…”

Harry abruptly laughed. “That’s a bad thing?”

Ron chuckled too. “No, I just meant…” he paused and sobered, “I always felt like she was thinking about a million things other than me, even when it was just the two of us.   And half the time, I never really understood what she meant or knew what she was thinking and that got… annoying.” He shrugged. “I dunno how to explain it but me and Hermione… just never worked…   And now… it’s like you said, Hermione’s practically like a sister—she’s annoying, we fight, and she’s always there.”

“Hermione’s not my sister,” Harry blurted out unthinkingly, with a vehemence that shocked him. And shocked Ron even more, from the looks of it. Harry felt himself coloring and looked away, taking a drink more because he needed to do something than because he was thirsty. Bloody stupid… why had he said that?

“Bloody hell, Harry, you—do you fancy Hermione?”

“No!” he blurted out too quickly—and then, “I don’t know.”

Ron frowned. “But what about Ginny then?”

“We broke up after 6th year and then… I don’t know. We didn’t see her much at all during the War and… that’s all,” he ended lamely. “I don’t know.   It’s… different now.   I’m different now.”

“Okay…” Ron didn’t look like he understood but he didn’t look angry either. Which was something, Harry supposed.

Hell, he was confused about all this too so it was no wonder that Ron found it confusing.

“Y’know, you could tell me if you fancy Hermione,” Ron said carefully after a moment.   “I wouldn’t—I don’t care—you could tell me,” he finished awkwardly.

“I don’t… me and Hermione, there’s nothing to tell.” And there wasn’t, really.   He and Hermione were only best friends. Still. That was all.

Besides, Harry suddenly thought with a pang of… of something, whatever it was he felt or might feel for Hermione, there was no reason to think that she felt anything other than simple friendship for him. She had helped him and comforted him and—and saved him… somehow… but that was just what Hermione did. It was just the sort of person Hermione was. It was, as she’d said, what friends did… Friends. His chest suddenly—irrationally—felt a little hollow at the thought.

Ron slanted a glance at Harry. “Do you want there to be something to tell between you and Hermione?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why’d you ask if I fancied Hermione if you don’t fancy her?”

“I just wanted to know!” he burst out, exasperated now. “I just… Hermione’s been really… great with… with everything and I just… I want her to be happy,” he finished, not very fluently.

“So do I,” Ron agreed equably, “but in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not very good at making Hermione happy. Irritating Hermione is more what I do.”

“Not always. You make her laugh too.”

“Hermione’s my friend,” Ron shrugged flippantly. “Anyways, making her laugh isn’t that important. Hermione’s never been the most fun person in the world.”

Harry bit back the automatic defense of Hermione that rose to his lips, sternly quashing his spurt of temper at Ron’s careless dismissal of Hermione. He knew Ron wasn’t insulting Hermione. “Well, I’m hardly the most fun person in the world either,” he said instead, trying to sound humorous.

Ron gave an exaggerated sigh. “I know. I don’t know how I’ve put up with you over the past few years.”

Harry balled up his napkin and tossed it at Ron, pretending offense, relieved as he was that Ron had been distracted from the topic of Hermione. “Hey, I’ll have you know that I’m famous for my wit and charm!”

Ron snickered. “I can honestly say that I’ve never found you to be charming in the entire time I’ve known you.”

“Prat.”

“It’s not my fault that you’re boring! You shouldn’t call people names just for telling the truth,” Ron managed to say, sounding amazingly prim, a moment before he dissolved into guffaws.

Harry laughed too, forgetting his earlier irritation with Ron.   Ron was daft when it came to Hermione, that was all. Besides, it wasn’t as if he wanted Ron to fancy Hermione.

“What’s so funny?” Hermione asked as she returned to the room.

“Ron was imitating Percy.”

“Harry was acting like Lockhart,” Ron answered at the exact same time.

Hermione laughed. “Okay.”

Harry studied her, wondering.   Had her laugh sounded a little forced?

“How are your parents?” Ron asked.

“Oh, they’re fine. They say hello and that they hope we’re having a good time.”

Harry inwardly frowned. There had been a flicker of—of something—that crossed her face before she answered and her tone had been a shade too casual.

As if she’d sensed his gaze, she glanced at him and gave him a small smile.

A smile which, for once, he didn’t return and her smile faded as she shook her head almost imperceptibly.

Everything’s fine, Harry.

Part of his mind wondered when this sort of almost-telepathy had started, when he’d developed this ability to read her thoughts in her face as if she’d spoken aloud. The rest of his mind was preoccupied with the thought that something was wrong.   Something was wrong—and Hermione didn’t want to talk about it.

With Ron there, Harry wasn’t going to bring it up—he knew better than that. He would ask her later, he mentally resolved.

“I hope you told them that I’ve been deliberately and cruelly prevented from spending my days at the beach and instead been dragged against my will to all sorts of historical places,” Ron interjected, his tone implying that ‘historical places’ were the equivalent of torture.

“How’d you guess?” Hermione deadpanned. “That’s exactly what I told them.”

Her lips weren’t smiling but Harry could see the spark of humor in her eyes and the way the corners of her lips were tipped up ever so slightly and… And he couldn’t look away from her, from the subtle indications of her amusement to the familiar tilt of her head as she looked at Ron.   He didn’t know what was wrong with Ron; Hermione wasn’t loud or rowdy in her humor but she was funny and… fun. How was it even possible that Ron didn’t see this?   For that matter, how had he not noticed it until now? How had he not realized that Hermione was… mesmerizing… somehow?

“Good. I would hate to think that you’re minimizing my suffering,” Ron said in an exaggeratedly languishing tone.

Now Hermione laughed. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Ron.   You’re quite a martyr.”

“And since I’ve suffered in silence for so long, can we please spend the day at the beach tomorrow?” Ron pleaded, adopting the look of a pitiful puppy.

Hermione glanced at Harry. “What do you think, Harry?   Should we have mercy on poor, suffering Ron?” She was smiling but he could see concern in her eyes.

The beach—an open space where they’d be surrounded by strangers with nowhere to hide.   And where it would be hard to keep his wand with him.   They’d make a perfect target. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t…

He glanced at Ron, who was looking hopeful, to Hermione, who had such sympathy in her eyes—and he felt a sudden flash of annoyance.   At himself, at his own fragility.

“Yes, let’s,” he agreed recklessly.

He caught Hermione’s questioning glance. Are you sure?

He managed a reassuring grin. “Well, we could make Ron beg some more but I decided to be nice.”

Ron snorted. “That would make a nice change.”

Harry slanted a mock threatening look at Ron. “I could still change my mind.   I hear there are some old castles nearby that we haven’t seen yet.”

“Oh no, not more old castles!” Ron pretended to cower in fear. “Haven’t I been bored enough?”

“They’re not boring, they’re fascinating,” Hermione corrected, a grin tugging at her lips.

Ron shot her a supremely skeptical look. “If you say so.”

Harry snickered and then laughed and felt himself relax further. They could go to the beach and they would be fine.   The War was over, he told himself for what must have been the billionth time. There was no real danger anymore…

The rest of the evening passed quickly, companionably, with the three of them idly talking. It felt like old times, could have been any of the times when the three of them had been hanging out in the Gryffindor Common Room before the War had really started. This—the Trio—had not changed. They had all grown closer and had grown up, changed as they had been by the War, but at least, Harry thought, they were all still here, still best friends. And after all, that friendship was still the same.

Or not.

Hermione laughed at some quip of Ron’s and he glanced at her, his gaze inexorably drawn to her at the sound of her laugh. She had just taken a drink and something about the light made her lips seem to glisten, caught at glints of gold and mahogany in her hair. His mind barely registered her laughing rejoinder to Ron, preoccupied as he was with the spark of amusement dancing in her eyes, the curve of her lips. She was so… lovely… yes, that was the right word.   More than simple prettiness, less intimidating than outright beauty.   She was lovely—and he had the sudden thought that he could happily spend the rest of his life looking at her, watching the play of expression across her face…

The rest of his life!   He abruptly realized what he’d been thinking—and who he’d been thinking it about—and mentally pulled himself up short. Oh no. No no no. He wasn’t going there. He was over-reacting to the relief of the War being over and Hermione being safe. That was all.   He wasn’t going to—he didn’t need to—shouldn’t be—thinking in those terms.   For that matter, he didn’t know what he really felt for Hermione anyway, whether this was just the friendship and gratitude from the last seven years or if it was something more, if something else had changed.

Maybe, after all, he had been too preoccupied, too busy, too worried with the War and everything else, to really see or notice Hermione until now. And now that the War was over, now that he could relax a little more, he was just noticing.   It didn’t have to mean anything more than that.

She was, as she’d always been, his best friend. And she was lovely.   That could be all it was.

“Well, I’m going to shower and then sleep,” Ron announced. “G’night, you two.”

“Good night, Ron.”

Harry blinked out of his reverie. “Oh. G’night, Ron.”

Hermione glanced at him after they heard the sound of a door closing upstairs. “Are you sure about going to the beach tomorrow?   If you’re not ready, we don’t have to.   I can think of an excuse or something.”

“Ron might hex you if you tried to keep him from the beach.”

“I’m better at dueling than he is so I think I’ll take my chances.”   She sobered. “Seriously, Harry, are you sure you’re ready?”

He met her eyes. “Yes.” And realized at that moment that he meant it. Oddly, as until then, he would have sworn that no, he really wasn’t ready to spend the day in an open space surrounded by strangers, but somehow, looking at her, he thought he really was ready.   Or he could be ready. “I can’t keep hiding and avoiding things that make me nervous or I’d never go anywhere.   I don’t… I don’t want that.   I want to move on.   And I can’t keep being afraid.”

“It doesn’t mean you have to force yourself when you’re not ready.”

“I think… I think I am ready. I will be ready.” He shrugged and made an aimless gesture with one hand, not quite sure how to explain himself.“I just… it’s like you said, we get better. And you’ll be there.   You’ll help.” And after all, maybe that was really it.   He would be ready because he knew Hermione would be there too and she would help keep his waking nightmares away. He didn’t expect it would be easy but he thought—he hoped—he just might manage to relax enough to enjoy himself. Another tentative step towards reclaiming—or just creating—the normal life he’d never really been able to enjoy.

She gave him a soft smile, her eyes warm and alight with approval—and seeing it made his entire chest feel oddly lighter, buoyant even.“Trying to live up to being a Gryffindor?” was all she said, lightly enough.

He shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe I am being reckless but I hate being afraid.”   He paused and added somewhat more seriously, “Besides, it’s what Ron wants to do and after… everything, it’s the least I can do.”

Hermione’s face changed. “Damon and Pythias,” was all she said mildly, before adding more forcefully, “I hope you don’t think you owe us anything!”

“Only my life,” he said with an attempt at lightness.

“You don’t owe us anything, let alone your life!   If anything, we all owe you.   You saved us. You’re the—”

“Don’t!” he interrupted her sharply. “Don’t call me The Hero or the Boy Who Lived or—or any of that rot.   Don’t you ever—” he broke off and then added with forced calm, “I don’t want to hear that from you.”

She had paled slightly but she met his gaze steadily. “I wasn’t going to call you that.   I was only going to say that you’re the one who ensured we’d win the War.”

He sighed a little, his anger leaving him as quickly as it had flared up. “I couldn’t have done it without you, you know.   You and Ron,” he added with a mental wince at how much of an afterthought Ron had been—and yet, in spite of his obscure guilt at the thought, it was true.“And I’m not talking about your research or—or your spell-work.   I just mean… I would have given up or—or just gone barking mad or something if it hadn’t been for you.”

He managed a faint smile. “People say I defeated Voldemort and won the War. I say that you won the War and I was just the fellow who did the recklessly stupid stuff that somehow allowed us to win.”

“Oh, Harry…” She looked rather as if she wanted to cry—alarmingly so—but then she blinked and her lips trembled into the semblance of a smile.   “Does that make me the Heroine then?”

She said it lightly, even jokingly—as of course she would.   But he didn’t smile. “Yes,” he said simply and entirely seriously. “You are the Heroine.”

Oh bloody… He hadn’t thought but now she really looked as if she were going to cry and he was suddenly terrified, to say nothing of dismayed. He hated seeing Hermione cry. In sudden panic, he tried frantically to think of something to say to make her laugh. “If I have to be saddled with a bunch of annoying titles, I’m thinking of sending a petition to the Daily Prophet and all the other wizarding newspapers that you should also get a title of your own. Something like The Girl Who Saved The Boy Who Lived or The Girl Whose Brain Defeated The Dark Lord or to be really brief, The Great Brain.”

He was rewarded for this piece of nonsense as she burst out laughing. “The Great Brain?” she almost spluttered.

He grinned and shrugged. “Hey, it works. You do have a great brain.”

“The Great Brain sounds like the name of some sort of vaunted cartoon villain so I think I’ll pass.”

“How about She Who Is Always Right, then?”

She assumed an expression of mock hauteur. “I like the sound of that. Yes, that can be my new title.”

“I’ll write to the Daily Prophet tomorrow, informing them.”

She laughed. “They might actually listen, knowing how everyone’s been falling over themselves to anoint you the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

“Are you saying I’m not the greatest thing since sliced bread? I think I’m hurt,” he said, adopting an injured expression.

She grinned at him, leaning over to pat his hand. “Poor Harry.   Did your ego just suffer a blow?”

“My ego is very sensitive.”   He couldn’t keep a straight face after that and gave in to his laughter, laughter that eventually faded as they just grinned at each other.

A comfortable silence settled in the room, a silence that was, as always, perfectly companionable. And he found himself thinking that it was amazing how… nice… it was—for lack of a better word—to just sit here with Hermione, not talking or doing anything in particular but just sitting in quiet friendship.   It was the sort of moment that the War, with all its attendant dangers and stresses, had made impossible and he hadn’t stopped to realize until now just how much he’d missed the quieter moments. He had thought about how he missed having fun, missed being able to play Quidditch, missed being able to sleep in—hell, at times, he’d even missed the routine of having classes to go to, missed a time when the next homework assignment was his biggest worry. But it had never occurred to him to miss the quiet times.

He glanced at Hermione to see the rather pensive expression on her face as she traced idle patterns on the table with her finger.

“Hermione.”

She looked up at him with a quick smile. “Hmm?”

“Are your parents really all right?   There’s nothing wrong?”

“They’re fine, Harry.   Why do you ask?”

“Before, when you came back from talking to them, you looked… upset.   There’s really nothing wrong?”

“It’s nothing, Harry. Really.”

He inwardly frowned as he studied her, not quite sure why he didn’t believe her reassurance. He just knew he didn’t. There was something bothering her, he was even more sure of that now than he had been before he’d asked.

“I thought I was supposed to be the one who always insists that nothing’s wrong,” he finally said.

He said it—and meant it—lightly enough but it suddenly occurred to him just how true the words were.   He knew that he didn’t confide in people easily; the enforced habits of a lifetime when there had never been anyone to confide in weren’t so easily overcome. Talking about the things which bothered him came somewhat easier now but only to Hermione and Ron, to a somewhat lesser extent.   For the first time, it occurred to him that after all, he and Hermione were alike in their reticence—in stark contrast to Ron, who was the proverbial open book.Hermione didn’t really talk about things that bothered her either, whether it was due to her independent streak or reluctance to show vulnerability, he wasn’t sure.

Or maybe, he thought with a sudden chill, it wasn’t that Hermione was reticent but that she was reticent with him.   Maybe she didn’t trust him enough or thought he wouldn’t care…   “Hermione… you know you can tell me anything, right?”

She gave him a flash of a smile.   “I know.”

“If there’s something bothering you, I’d want to know, you know,” he said rather awkwardly. “I’d want to help, the way you always help me.”

Her lips trembled into a pale smile. “Thanks, Harry, but it’s not something you can really help with.”

“I could try. I’d—I’d do a lot to try to help you.” He would do anything for her.   He supposed it had been true for a while now and after all they’d been through together, it shouldn’t have felt like a revelation at all—but somehow, it did.   They had all risked their lives for each other more times than he cared to count so it really shouldn’t seem new—it wasn’t new. And yet… something about knowing it, thinking it so explicitly, felt… significant…

“It’s just… My parents want me to come home,” she admitted in something of a rush.

Oh.   Her parents. He felt that little pang of… something… that he occasionally felt when people spoke about their parents, about a relationship with their parents. It wasn’t anything quite as ignoble as envy, more just an odd niggling sense of being… left out…

Hermione had spent a couple days with her parents just after everything had ended, after she had brought them home again.   It had never occurred to him until now—in his own self-centeredness—to wonder at the fact that even then, to say nothing of afterwards, she’d spent most nights at the Burrow.   Now, belatedly, he realized—and wondered.   He had never questioned it; having Hermione around was so normal and he’d been so thankful that she was there and—to be honest—had been too wrapped up in his own difficulties to spare much of a thought for anyone else.

“They… miss you?” he ventured a little tentatively.   It was the easiest thing he could think of. “Yes. No. I mean, yes, they do, but that’s not exactly why they want me at home.   It’s just… I’ve spent so little time with them these past few years and that… bothers them. More than ever after this last year.”

“They weren’t… angry with you?”   He’d never asked how her parents had reacted when she had brought them back home.   Not really.   He had asked, rather perfunctorily, if her parents were all right but he had never really asked how they felt about… all of it.   He realized that now with a growing sense of dismay and self-loathing.   He was a git. A completely self-centered arse.

She sighed and grimaced a little. “No, they weren’t angry, just… sad and disappointed.”

“Which is worse,” he inserted with a sudden flash of insight and empathy.

She glanced at him.   “Yes,” she agreed. “You’re right.”

“Try not to sound so surprised.”

The corners of her lips curved in a ghost of a smile. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s okay.   I haven’t given you much reason to think I would understand.”   He paused and then added, quietly, “When Remus caught me sneaking into Hogsmeade in Third Year, he—he wasn’t angry but he was disappointed… that I had risked my life so carelessly.   And that… was worse.   I’d rather have gotten a detention with Snape.” He looked away, swallowing the lump of emotion at the mention of Remus and the memories… Memories of Third Year had gotten so painful now, after what had happened to Sirius and now Remus too.

She reached over and squeezed his hand briefly.

“You should go,” he blurted out. “Stay with your parents.” He went on, not quite looking at her and speaking quickly. “I’ll be okay.   We’ve had a week of holiday and Ron and I can just go back and stay at the Burrow.   Don’t worry about me. You should be with your parents.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“But they’re your parents.   They’re your family. It’s not like you’d be leaving me alone. Ron will be there and the rest of the Weasleys. I’ll be fine,” he reiterated, infusing his voice with more certainty than he felt.   Never mind that Ron and the Weasleys had never really been able to comfort him before, nor had he really even wanted them to know how haunted he still was by the War. But that didn’t matter.   What mattered was Hermione.

“Harry…”

“Your parents are… your family.   They—you should spend more time with them.   I don’t—I don’t want you to have to fight with your parents because of me.”   And that was really it.   He didn’t want Hermione to be at odds with her parents, not because of him.

“Oh Harry, you don’t understand…” she sighed.

“What don’t I understand? Your parents want you to go home, spend some time with them.   But you’re staying here instead.”

“I’m not staying because of you.   I’m staying because of me.”

He frowned. “What…”

“I’m staying because I can’t leave!”

“Why can’t—”

“Because I’m still too afraid!” she burst out. “Because even during the day, I need to be able to see you so I know you’re safe!   Even though I know the War is over and there’s nothing to worry about, I can’t believe it unless I’m with you and can see you! I can’t!” Her voice cracked alarmingly on the last word and she abruptly ran out of the room.

He felt as if he’d been Petrified in his chair but her leaving galvanized him into action and he leaped up out of his chair so fast his chair almost fell over as he ran after her.   “Hermione!”

He caught up with her steps into the front room and grabbed her arm. “Hermione!”

She stopped, not fighting his grip, but kept her face steadfastly turned away and he lifted his hand to touch her chin gently.   Her eyes flashed up to his and he realized, with a sick twist of his heart, that there were tears in her eyes. Tears because of him.

He abruptly wrapped his arms around her, hugging her.   “God, Hermione, I’m sorry.”

She gave a muffled sniff before she hugged him back, burying her face in his shoulder for a moment.

“I’m a git.   I’m sorry,” he said again as he drew back after a moment to look at her. “I didn’t mean to pressure you like that.   I didn’t know.”He hadn’t known—but he should have.

“You are a git—but I knew that already.”

And just like that, he knew she’d forgiven him.   More, that she wasn’t upset with him. He relaxed, the knot in his chest loosening a little.

He kept his arm around her shoulder as they walked over to the couch to sit down and after a moment, she settled her head against his shoulder.   He tightened his arm around her almost instinctively.

“I’m sorry,” he reiterated.   “I didn’t mean to…”

“You can stop apologizing, Harry,” she sighed. “I know you didn’t mean to make it harder.   It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay.   It’s not okay that I made it harder for you.   It’s not okay to make you feel guilty about staying.   I—I should have realized…”

“How could you have known?   I haven’t said anything and I’ve been trying to hide it.   I hate how afraid I still am, how stupid it is to still be afraid.”

“I should have known because—because I feel that way too.   Whenever I’ve lost sight of you—or Ron—during these past few days, I’ve panicked until I saw you again.”   He paused.   “And it’s not stupid.   You’re never stupid. Didn’t we agree that we weren’t going to blame ourselves for still feeling afraid?”

She managed a wan smile.   “Yeah, we did.”

“But it is hard.”

She nodded against his shoulder but didn’t say anything else.

He let his cheek rest against her hair, keeping his arm around her shoulder.   The way he felt now, he might never let her go again.   He was so used to thinking of Hermione as being stronger than he was, braver than he was.   And she was strong and she was brave. But he needed to remember that she was afraid too.

“Your parents aren’t upset with you for not staying with them?” he asked quietly.

“No,” she said slowly. “I almost wish they were.   I just feel guilty about it all.   I should spend time with my parents but I can’t leave. And I don’t want them to worry about me either so I haven’t really known how to explain to them why I can’t stay with them.” She sighed.   “I just… don’t know what to do, Harry.”

At any other time, he might have made a teasing remark about how he’d never heard her say that before but now, laughter was the furthest thing from his mind.   It was almost physically painful to hear the uncertainty, the vulnerability, in her voice, so far removed from her usual decisiveness.   And he needed to help her.   How, he didn’t know.   Hermione had been right when she said it wasn’t really something he could help with.   But he needed to do something.

“What if I went with you?” he suggested impulsively. He hadn’t stopped to think but the moment he said it, the vague beginnings of an idea began to form in his mind.

She lifted her head to stare at him but he went on, cutting off the objection he could see forming on her lips. “If your parents wouldn’t mind.   We could Apparate back to London and then go to your home and spend a day with your parents before coming back here. That way, you would still get to spend some time with your parents.”

“But Harry, this is supposed to be a holiday for you.   I can’t ask you to—”

“You’re not asking,” he interrupted her.   “I’m offering.   It’ll allow you to spend some time with your parents, even if it’s just a day.”

“What about Ron?”

“As long as your parents don’t mind, I’m sure he’d come too if we asked him.   If not, he can spend the day at the beach ogling the girls in bikinis.”

“You wouldn’t rather spend the day at the beach ogling the girls in bikinis too?” she asked teasingly.

He shrugged one shoulder. “Nah. You’re more important.   The girls in bikinis will still be there another day.”

She smiled. “I’ll talk to my parents tomorrow and see what they say. Thanks, Harry. I have felt bad about spending so little time with my parents.”

“It’s nothing.   I want you to be able to spend more time with your parents. I—”   He stopped, hesitated, and then added, his voice suddenly a little rough, “I’d give almost anything to be able to have just a little more time with my parents.”

She sucked in her breath and gave him a stricken look. “Oh, Harry, I—”

“I know,” he interrupted the apology he knew she was about to make. “It’s okay. I didn’t mean—it’s important to spend time with your parents. That’s all I meant,” he finished quietly.

She reached over and squeezed his hand, still looking rather distressed.

And because he wanted to make her smile again, he quickly added, “Besides, I’m sure your parents have lots of stories of when you were little and I want to hear more about little ‘Mione.”

She did more than smile, she laughed, flushing a little. “Now you’re making me regret agreeing to this.”

“Too late now.”

“Even if I tell you that my parents only keep sugar-free snacks in the house and never serve dessert?”

“I once had cake for breakfast every day for a week so I think I can afford to miss a few desserts.”

“Why on earth did you do that?”

He abruptly sobered. “Dudley went through a phase where he insisted on having cake for breakfast for more than a month,” he explained briefly.

“You said you had cake for breakfast for a week, not a month.”

“I did,” he affirmed flatly before he stopped and then went on, trying to sound nonchalant, “By the last week, even Dudley was tired of cake so he stopped throwing tantrums at the very idea of my getting some and Uncle Vernon was away on a business trip so Aunt Petunia let me have a small slice of cake for my breakfast.”

“I hate your relatives, Harry,” she said with a level of vindictiveness that startled him—and somehow comforted him too.

“I don’t like them much either,” he admitted with amazing ease. He didn’t understand it but something about her anger—anger on his behalf—allowed him to think of the Dursleys without the usual morass of emotion.   He could think about the Dursleys with something approaching calm, almost indifference.

Because he really wasn’t alone anymore.   He found himself suddenly remembering that one of the ways in which he’d comforted himself in those times when he’d been shoved into the hall closet or after Uncle Vernon had been particularly harsh had been to imagine having someone who could—who would—defend him.   Usually he had imagined his parents somehow coming back, imagined the way his dad—built up in his mind to be a near-mythical hero, of course—would make Uncle Vernon cower. All those times when all he’d wanted had been a friend, someone to take his side. And now he did have someone to take his side, friends who would—who already had—stayed with him through everything.   And it made all the difference.

“Do you have any good memories from when you were little?”   Hermione’s quiet question interrupted his thoughts.

He turned to look at her, the word ‘no’ automatically rising to his lips, before he stopped, stayed by a reluctance to sadden her, as he knew the answer would. He didn’t think anyone had ever asked him that before and he needed to really think about it.   “A few,” he finally answered, almost as if he could hardly believe it. “When I was really little, Aunt Petunia ruffled my hair a couple times.”   He stopped, suddenly remembering with a tightness in his throat how much those few, fleeting gestures had meant to him then.   How he had savored them in memory, over and over again, those pitifully few gestures that had made him feel… cared for…

“She wasn’t always mean before… before the weird stuff started happening, when my magic started to show itself. She was… better… when Uncle Vernon wasn’t around. She mostly just ignored me.   And I didn’t mind that so much.”   He paused again and then went on, with a little more animation, “There were days when I was left alone at the house all day because Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon took Dudley somewhere.   I liked that.   I could watch the telly or play with some of Dudley’s toys and just do what I wanted.”

“I’m glad.   Everyone should have some good memories from childhood.”

“It’s all right, you know,” he said, responding more to her still rather subdued tone than to her words.   “It was a long time ago.”

And of course, it was true.   He had not lived with the Dursleys for years; he hardly ever thought about them anymore.   He certainly had no plans ever to see them again.   Those years were done. Over. And that was all.

Hermione shifted, settling more comfortably against him, and he readjusted his arm around her shoulders.   And the moment seemed to punctuate his idle thoughts about how far removed he was from those years with the Dursleys.

Oddly, it wasn’t even because of the reminder that he wasn’t alone, the solid warmth of Hermione against him.   Of course that was different too—back then, he’d had no friends and no one who cared about him—but he suddenly found himself thinking that maybe the biggest difference was that back then, he hadn’t cared about anyone else either.   It had been lonely, isolating, not to have anyone care about him—it suddenly occurred to him that it had been even more isolating not to care about anyone else either. He hadn’t liked the Dursleys—he’d actively hated Dudley and his uncle—and while he’d felt the occasional qualms of guilt over his inability to like them—they were, after all, the only family he had and his aunt and uncle had taken him in—those had always been easily and quickly banished by some fresh example of the fact that the Dursleys didn’t like him either.

All of which had made it easy for him to focus solely on himself.   At primary school, before Hogwarts had changed everything, he’d been solitary, mostly as a result of Dudley’s bullying but also because he simply didn’t pay much attention to anyone else.   Being left alone by the Dursleys had been the closest he’d come to happiness so he’d done what he could to be left alone at school too.   He hadn’t been actively mean—he’d seen enough of Dudley’s example to recoil from that—but neither had he done anything to help anyone else. He hadn’t been the only target of bullying by Dudley and his little gang of thugs and at those times, he’d never done anything, only been thankful that Dudley was ignoring him in favor of tormenting someone else.

Hermione was different.   He remembered how she’d admitted that she hadn’t really had friends before Hogwarts either—but when Neville had lost his frog on that first trip on the Hogwarts Express, it had been Hermione who had actively stepped in to help Neville by looking for it.That mental image of Hermione when he’d first met her—her matter-of-fact question of whether anyone had seen a frog—rose up in his mind and he had to smile.   Funny—how a question over a lost frog had marked the beginning of the most important friendship he’d ever had.

Hermione said he had a “saving people thing”—and it was as true as just about everything else she said—but he found himself thinking that his “saving people thing” was generally limited to things that involved physical danger.   Helping people in a way that didn’t involve doing something reckless—that rarely occurred to him.

He should do better about that, think more about other people, think more about Hermione.   He should be there for her, help her, as she had always, always, helped him.   He should try to be as good a friend to her as she had been to him.

He turned to glance down at her and then abruptly stilled as he realized she’d fallen asleep.   Her eyes were closed, her breathing slow and even. And he was suddenly afraid to breathe or move so much as a muscle in case it would wake her.

He stared down at what he could see of her face.   Some strands of hair had fallen over her face and he could see them fluttering with her every breath but he didn’t dare move to brush them aside.   She looked… so young, he suddenly thought.   Young and vulnerable—two adjectives he hardly ever associated with her—as she was nestled against him.   His chest filled with… with something… some emotion he couldn’t identify, didn’t really care to try to identify at that moment except to be amazed that she trusted him so much—felt safe enough with him, beside him, to sleep while leaning against him like this.

He didn’t know how long he sat like that, hardly daring to breathe, as she slept.   But after a while, it occurred to him that she would probably wake up with a crick in her neck if she stayed in her current position.   She would be more comfortable in her own bed.

He hesitated, torn between wanting her to be comfortable and hating to wake her up.   He knew better than anyone how tired she must be, how little sleep she’d gotten in the past few nights, having stayed up with him.   And she was sleeping so peacefully now, he hated to wake her up in case she wasn’t able to fall back into a dreamless sleep.   Goodness knew, it happened often enough to him.

He frowned as he watched her, debating a little longer.   He knew she was normally a light sleeper but she was sleeping so soundly now and was tired enough…   Maybe…   Moving very slowly, with as much care as if he were about to touch something so delicate it would shatter if he so much as breathed on it wrong, he shifted, sliding his free arm beneath Hermione’s legs so he was carrying her as he stood up.

And then froze as she stirred against him.   “Mm, what—Harry?” she mumbled, still mostly asleep.

The sound of his name in her fuzzy, sleep-fogged voice did funny things to his insides for some reason but he ignored it as he only whispered, his voice as soft as he could make it, “Ssh, go back to sleep, Hermione.”

“Mm-kay,” she mumbled vaguely into his shoulder.

She seemed to be drifting asleep again so after a moment, he began to move, his steps slow and careful, his every sense attuned to her every breath and the weight of her in his arms. He paused, allowing himself a brief moment of triumph as he made it to the top of the stairs without waking her up or otherwise disturbing her, and then made his way with marginally more ease down the hall to her room. He held his breath as he lay her down in her bed with excruciating care and then straightened up, watching as she shifted, curling up onto her side.

She was lying on top of the blanket but he didn’t dare move her again so he could pull the blanket out from beneath her and after a moment, he went quickly to his own room and grabbed the quilt from his own bed and returned, covering her with the quilt carefully.

Only to freeze with the quilt still in his grasp when she stirred, making a small restless movement. “Harry?”

“Yes,” he breathed, the word barely more than a breath of sound, as he finished covering her with the quilt.   He waited, frozen in place, bent over her, for a few long minutes, but then slowly straightened up as her breathing evened out.

“Stay.” He froze again at the murmur, indistinct enough that he couldn’t be quite sure he’d heard it.

She was still sleeping but the shadow of a frown now creased her brow. He suddenly remembered how she’d admitted that she needed to see him so as not to be afraid, how she’d told him that he kept her nightmares away, as she did for him. He kept her nightmares away…

He couldn’t speak, his throat suddenly tight, and anyway, he didn’t want to speak, afraid that any sound would disturb her.   But he bent over her and ever so carefully, brushed some hair away from her face, the tips of his fingers skimming over her temple with a feather-light touch.And amazingly, her expression cleared, smoothed out, as if even in sleep, she could somehow sense the warmth of the rush of emotion clogging his throat.

He glanced around her room, his gaze falling on the chair tucked into the far corner of the room. Quickly, he used his wand to make the chair float up across the room and then had it set down carefully in the nearest corner where it would afford him a view of Hermione’s face.

And then—just as she’d asked—he stayed.

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