[Fanfic] Living Past the End -Chapter 8

Living Past the End

CHAPTER 8

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_8

Hermione awoke as a shaft of sunlight fell across her face.   She felt a little disoriented, conscious of feeling that something was… not wrong, just… off, different…   And realized as she returned to full consciousness that it was because she felt… rested.

She didn’t know the last time she’d felt so rested in the morning.   It had been months—a year, maybe?   She didn’t remember.

She scrunched her eyes against the sun, turning her face into the pillow in a sudden, childish impulse to delay opening her eyes—and then stopped.

Her pillow.

She opened her eyes.   She was in her room, in her bed.   How had—the last thing she remembered was sitting on the couch in the front room with Harry.   They’d been talking.   She remembered the rush of mingled sympathy and protective anger she’d felt as she thought about the way Harry’s relatives had treated him.   Her heart had squeezed a little at how lonely he must have been all those years.   Even though he’d been telling of the “good” things, of being happier when he was left alone, she’d thought of how lonely that must have been.   It wasn’t that she didn’t know and understand that it was possible to be happy while completely alone.   She had some fond memories from her own childhood when she’d been alone with her books and her toys—but for Harry, all his positive memories involved being alone because he’d been miserable when his relatives were around.   She’d suddenly remembered Harry as she’d first seen him, remembered how young and small he’d looked in his cousin’s oversized clothing—remembered the look of surprise in his eyes sometimes at an occasional friendly word or gesture.   She’d known before that Harry had been treated badly by his relatives but last night had been the first time she’d really felt as if she understood the scope and depth of his relatives’ mistreatment of him and just how bleak and lonely Harry’s childhood must have been.   It had hurt her with an almost physical pain to think of it and all she could do was silently promise herself that Harry would never be left that alone and friendless again.

And then… She must have fallen asleep.   She was, she realized, lying on top of the blanket on her bed, being covered instead by the quilt she recognized as being from Harry’s room.

Harry.

She moved her head and saw him.   He was sitting in a chair, sleeping, his head resting against the wall, his lips slightly parted.

Had he—he must have carried her up to her room, she realized.   She had a vague, rather dream-like memory of being lifted—it must not have been a dream after all.   She felt herself flush with a mixture of embarrassment and surprise and confusion.   He could have woken her up but instead he had carried her. And covered her with the blanket from his own room.   And then stayed, as if to guard her from nightmares. She felt another rush of warmth, from affection this time.   He really could be so… sweet.

She studied him as he slept, noticing that his glasses had slipped to be slightly crooked.   His hair was its usual mess, making her want to comb her fingers through it. She studied him and for once, maybe because the knowledge that he’d carried her up to her room was still warming her heart or maybe simply because he was safely asleep and she didn’t need to fear that her expression would reveal her thoughts, she didn’t even try to deny her own reaction to looking at him.   Didn’t try not to acknowledge the way her heart fluttered, her breath became a little shallow, her skin heated.   She didn’t even try to deny that she wanted to kiss him, that she just wanted him

He stirred and then blinked his eyes a few times before his gaze focused and met hers.

For just a moment, neither of them spoke, just looked at each other as she suddenly forgot to breathe.

“G’morning,” he finally said.

And she felt a swift curl of heat in her body at the husky, sleep-roughened sound of his voice.   God, he sounded… sexy… like that and then blushed at the thought.

“Good morning,” she managed to say and then found herself blurting out, “You carried me up to my room.”   If she’d thought about it, she would have phrased it as a question but the words slipped out before she’d thought.

An expression that was something like a shoulder-less shrug crossed his face. “You were tired.   I thought you’d sleep better in your bed.”

“You could have woken me up.”

His gaze dropped, one hand rather restlessly pleating a fold in his trousers. “You were sleeping so soundly, I didn’t want to disturb you.” He looked—and sounded—rather… shy?   She couldn’t remember when—if ever—Harry had last seemed shy. Not that Harry was overly given to boldness or insouciance but she would have sworn that they’d been friends for too long for him to feel shy around her. But maybe—she almost caught her breath on a surge of poignant hope—maybe this sudden shyness was a sign that their friendship was shifting, changing.   That he was beginning to wonder if they were only friends.

“Thanks,” she said softly.

“Anytime.” He looked back up at her and—and something about the look in his eyes made her heart skip a beat, her breath catching in her throat.   The air suddenly felt thick, heavy, as if it were being filled with unspoken words, unacknowledged feelings…

“How’d you sleep?”

“Did you sleep okay?”

They both spoke at once, the questions overlapping, and the tension abruptly eased as they both laughed.

“Did you manage to sleep?” she asked, speaking first.

“Yeah, I did. What about you?”

She smiled. “I slept through the night.   I think it’s the first full night’s sleep I’ve had in months.”

“Good, I’m glad.”

“You—you stayed here all night.”   It came out sounding like something halfway between a statement and a question.

He lifted one shoulder into a shrug.   “I wanted to make sure you didn’t have nightmares.”

“Thanks.”

“You’ve stayed to help me with my nightmares so we’re even now,” he returned with a faint upwards quirk of his mouth.

“Still.   Thanks, Harry.”

He glanced at the window, at the bright sunshine outside.   “It looks like it’ll be a perfect day to go to the beach,” he said, changing the subject so obviously that she suddenly realized he really was uncomfortable with this, with whatever had changed between them after he’d carried her up to her room and then stayed with her as she slept. Something had changed, not because of what he’d done but rather because of what it meant, what it revealed—and now, he was uncomfortable.

She felt a sudden, almost unaccountable pang of loss.   She knew what she felt and what she wanted, what she hoped for—and yet… for a fleeting second, all she could think was that their friendship—the solid, dependable friendship they’d always had—was somehow over.

She forcibly pushed the irrational thought out of her mind and sat up. She was being ridiculous.   They were still best friends.   “Harry, are you sure you’re ready to spend the day at the beach?   It’s a public place and there’ll be lots of other people around and, well, you know…” She trailed off rather awkwardly, not wanting to say that he didn’t deal well with large crowds.

He made a slight face.   “I don’t know,” he admitted after a moment. “But I guess we’ll find out,” he finished with an attempt at bravado.

“We don’t have to go, if you really don’t feel ready for it.   I can—I’ll think of some excuse and Ron will give in, you know he will.”

“No, it’s okay.   I—I want to find out if I can do this.   And—and it’s what Ron wants to do.   He’s put up with doing what we want to do for days now and…” He shrugged a little.   “It’s what Ron wants to do,” he said again, as if that simple fact settled the matter. Which, as far as Harry was concerned, it did.

“It’s okay, Harry, you don’t have to explain.   Ron’s my best friend too and I know…” she hesitated for an almost imperceptible second and then finished, “I know Ron comes first for you.” Because she did know it. It wasn’t something that had ever been put into words between them but it was an underlying truth of the Trio and had been since the beginning.   She didn’t even mind it. She knew she was Harry’s best friend—and maybe, maybe, something more than that now—but she also knew that Ron was—had been—Harry’s first friend.   And Harry’s loyalty to Ron was bone-deep.

“No, he doesn’t,” Harry said slowly, an odd note in his voice making her glance at him.   He looked… a little surprised and the tinge of shyness was back in his face.   “You do.” He sounded somewhat uncertain, as if he were still trying to convince himself of it, but then he repeated himself. “You come first for me.”

She blinked and found herself blurting out, “But I know that’s not true!”

He gaped at her.   “What—why on earth would you say that?   I think I would know better than anyone.”

“Because—” she waved a hand a little, a weird, frustrated gesture as if to emphasize her point—“Ron’s your first friend and—and the one you’ll miss the most.”

He frowned. “What are you talking about?”

She let out a breath, her voice quiet.   “The Second Task,” she said briefly and then added, hurriedly, “It’s okay, Harry.   Ron’s my best friend too and—”

He cut her off by laughing abruptly. “Hermione, don’t be daft.”

“What—”

“That was ages ago.”

“It wasn’t that long ago.”

He sighed, his face changing until he suddenly looked much older than his years. “It feels like centuries ago.”

Her face and her voice softened with understanding.   “Yeah, I know.”

He sat back in his chair, running a restless hand through his air. “Things are different now. I’m—we’re all different now.”

It was true, of course, but some things hadn’t changed and she’d thought Harry’s loyalty to Ron was one of them. She hesitated for a moment but then blurted out, “I really come first with you?”

“I don’t care so much if I can’t enjoy myself at the beach today since it’s what Ron wants to do but if you said you didn’t want to go, I’d tell Ron we weren’t going.” He gave her a faint, rather sober smile. “Just don’t tell Ron, okay?”

She had to laugh a little.   “Okay.   Harry?”

“Hmm?”

“You come first with me too.”

“Thank you,” he said quietly.

There was something a little odd in his face and she realized with a little shock just how moved he was—and for a fleeting second, he was once again the little boy with broken glasses who had never known what it was like to have anyone care about him.   Her heart clenched.

“And you can’t tell Ron that either,” she added quickly, wanting to banish the shadows from his eyes.

Now he smiled for real, his eyes clearing. “I won’t,” he promised.

She returned his smile and there was a brief silence before he stood up, stretching a little. And she found herself abruptly distracted as his t-shirt rode up, revealing a strip of pale skin at his waist.

“We may as well start getting ready for the day,” he said as he straightened.

She scrambled up off her bed in a flurry of movement so he wouldn’t catch her staring—oh who was she kidding, she’d been ogling him—and busied herself haphazardly folding his quilt up.

“Here, you’d better take this back to your room,” she managed to say, striving to sound matter-of-fact, as she handed him his quilt.

“Thanks.   I’ll see you downstairs in a bit.”   He gave her a fleeting smile as he left and she sank back onto her bed, annoyed at herself now.   She couldn’t keep reacting like this!   She’d gotten so good at ignoring her physical attraction to Harry, tamping down and generally refusing to acknowledge her reaction to him, so much that she usually succeeded in pretending she didn’t react at all. He was only her best friend.   That was all. And she wasn’t about to risk their friendship by giving any indication that she thought about him as anything other than a friend.

Anyway, he didn’t care about her as anything more than his best friend.   Or at least he hadn’t used to.   But maybe, maybe that was changing…

Her gaze fell on the chair he’d spent the night in—to keep her nightmares away. And she heard his voice as he’d told her, “You come first for me.”

He’d been talking about their friendship, she knew.   He hadn’t meant anything more than that.   And she would have sworn that she didn’t mind that Ron’s friendship came first for Harry, would have sworn that it didn’t matter.

And yet, knowing that her friendship came first… It wasn’t all she wanted from Harry but for now, for that moment, it was enough.

Harry felt himself steadily getting more tense as they approached the beach.   It was too open.   There were too many people around.   His gaze swiftly scanned the scene, taking in the location of all the people, making quick mental notes of what they were doing, if anyone looked like a potential threat.

A potential threat. He inwardly laughed although it wasn’t out of amusement. At this point, every stranger appeared to be a potential threat to him!

“Now this is my idea of a vacation!”   Ron’s voice drew his gaze and he had to grin at Ron’s unbridled enthusiasm.

He glanced over at Hermione and felt his smile fade. She had tilted her face up to the sun as if she were a flower basking in its warmth, her eyes closed, her lips slightly curved. And the sight of her at that moment hit him with all the force of a punch. He reeled, suddenly feeling a little light-headed, as for a fleeting moment, everything else faded and nothing and no one else existed in the world but her.

It was only a second before she opened her eyes and smiled at Ron. “It is a beautiful day,” she agreed.”

“Yeah, it is beautiful,” he heard someone say and realized belatedly that the words had come from him—and he was still staring at Hermione.

His voice had sounded odd, a little unlike himself, he knew, and he immediately felt Hermione’s concerned glance and he managed a quick reassuring smile.

She didn’t look particularly reassured and he guessed she could see that he was still feeling a little… off-balance.   But for once, it wasn’t out of nervousness over being out in the open but because he was still amazed at how strongly he’d reacted to Hermione in that moment.   He couldn’t—he didn’t feel that way about her.   Did he?

“Why don’t we go to the end of the beach where it should be less crowded?” she suggested.

“That’s fine,” Ron agreed and they set off across the sand.   And he quickly forgot about his reaction to Hermione as his usual reaction to a crowd set in.   It was too bloody open on the beach; there was no shelter, nowhere to hide.

The beach was crowded—it looked like half the people in France had decided to descend on this one spot today—and he frowned, automatically adjusting his pace to keep slightly behind Ron and Hermione.   He could hear them exchanging a few idle words but he didn’t try to listen, too preoccupied with their surroundings.   With guarding their backs, as always.

He heard a distant shout and then the sound of running footsteps behind him and reacted instinctively, jumping back as he whirled around, his wand at the ready.

A football spun past him followed by a fellow with blond hair who flashed him an odd look before he caught up the football and kicked it back towards where another fellow was obviously waiting. Harry hastily lowered his wand, trying to calm himself.   There was no attack, just an errant football being kicked around by a couple young men.

A hand touched his arm and he started again, turning sharply only to relax marginally—and feel like an idiot—when he realized it had been Ron.

“Harry, you—” Ron began, his face a mask of alarm and dismay and concern.

“I’m fine,” Harry interrupted Ron sharply before he could finish whatever he’d been about to say and saw the effect of his harsh tone in the way Ron’s expression changed, his hand dropping as he stepped back.   And something about Ron’s expression irritated him further.   Ron was giving him that careful look, eyeing him with the wariness usually reserved for poisonous or otherwise lethal predators. “I’m fine!” he snapped again.   “Let’s keep going.”

Ron’s face closed off as he began walking and Harry hesitated, expecting Hermione to follow Ron but she didn’t.

Of course she didn’t.   She stayed beside him as he followed Ron.

“You shouldn’t be angry at us.”

He turned to her, his mouth opening in automatic defensiveness at her tone—but then the words died in his throat. He couldn’t be angry at her, not now, not with that understanding look on her face.   “Sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me.”

And of course she was right.   He glanced at Ron’s stiff back, hesitated, and then Hermione linked her arm through his, keeping him beside her as she quickened her steps to catch up with Ron.

“Sorry.   I’m a git,” he offered.

“Yeah, you really are,” Ron agreed with a slight bite in his tone. “I don’t know how we put up with you.”

There was a beat of silence. Harry felt Ron’s glance. “You going to be okay, then?”

And he knew Ron was over his brief flare of temper. He forced a smile for Ron’s and Hermione’s benefit. “I’ll be fine,” he answered firmly.   Neither of them looked particularly convinced and he glanced away, looking for some way to distract them or convince them—or both.“Anyway,” he added, gesturing to a couple of bikini-clad girls sunbathing, “not even I’m crazy enough to think people like that are threatening.”

Ron glanced at the girls, one of whom chose that moment to turn over onto her back, and his step hitched for a moment as he stared.   Distraction accomplished.

“Careful, Ron, you’ll trip over your tongue,” Hermione advised.

Ron pulled his gaze away, assuming a mock-injured expression. “What? I was just looking. A fellow would have to be dead not to look.”

“Looking and drooling, you mean,” Hermione teased.

Ron turned red but gamely tried to defend himself. “I was not drooling!”

Hermione only laughed and Harry felt himself smiling automatically, feeling a bubble of happiness well up in his chest, momentarily cutting through his tension. When had he started reacting like this to the sight of Hermione’s smile, the brightness of her eyes, the sound of her laugh?He couldn’t even pretend to himself that it could be explained away by their friendship.   He’d never reacted to anyone’s smile the way he did to Hermione’s. Not even Ginny’s at the height of his fancying her. Not even when he’d sometimes felt as if Ginny were a magnet for his eyes and he’d jealously noted every one of her smiles. But even then, he hadn’t reacted to Ginny’s smile—cared about Ginny’s smiles—the way he did now to Hermione’s, the rush of warmth in his chest.

His thoughts were abruptly jerked back to the present as he heard a shout behind them, his shoulders jerking in automatic reaction as he snapped his head around. He forcibly kept his wand down by his side, even as his fist clenched tighter.

It was nothing threatening, just another tourist hailing a friend of his, and he turned his head back, catching Hermione’s concerned gaze.

He forced a smile. “See, I’m getting better,” he said with manufactured lightness. “Another couple false alarms and I won’t react at all.”

She managed a forced smile in response. “I’m impressed.”

“You should be. My self-control is a marvel to behold.”

He was rewarded for this display of exaggerated vanity with a laugh that somehow soothed his ruffled nerves, calming him until he began to feel cautiously optimistic that he might be able to relax enough to enjoy the day after all. As long as he could see her smile and hear her laugh, he thought.

“This looks like a nice spot,” Ron announced. “What do you two think?”

“It works for me,” Hermione agreed. “Harry?”

He glanced around, noting that they had come nearly to the end of the beach. They were within throwing distance of where the sand gave way to rocks and just past the thinning groups of people. Ron was watching him with expectation and anticipation clearly written on his face.   It was as good a spot as any, he supposed, and they wouldn’t be completely surrounded by strangers.   “This looks great,” he said with manufactured enthusiasm.

“Finally! Hermione, you’ve got the towels?”

“Give me just a second, Ron,” Hermione rejoined mildly. “The ocean isn’t going to disappear in the next minute if you don’t get into it.” As she spoke, she had taken out one of the towels they’d brought and with a quick glance around, used her wand to enlarge the towel until it was the size of a blanket and spread it out on the sand.

Ron was practically dancing with impatience, Harry noted with a spurt of amusement, as Ron stripped off his shirt so he was wearing only his swim trunks.

Ron glanced at Harry. “Harry, you coming for a swim?”

He opened his mouth to agree—he was in his swim trunks too—but then froze.   He couldn’t take his wand with him into the ocean.   He would be wandless. Defenseless. “I can’t!” he blurted out.

“You can’t swim?”

“No, I can’t go into the water. I just can’t.” He was breathing faster, his pulse racing in immediate reaction to the very thought of leaving his wand behind.   His fist was clenched around his wand and he realized, belatedly, that his hand was trembling slightly from the force of his grip.

He was peripherally aware of Hermione’s glance and then she reached out, her hand closing around the fist wrapped around his wand, stilling the slight tremors. “It’s okay, Harry.   Why don’t we just stay on the beach and make a sand castle instead?   I always loved making sand castles.”

“But—” Ron began before abruptly falling silent and Harry knew that Hermione had just shot Ron a look because Ron paused before agreeing with rather patently false cheer, “All right. Making a sand castle sounds like fun.”

Harry jerked his head into a nod.   He hated that he reacted like this, hated that even the thought of leaving his wand behind made him so crazy. Hated knowing that he was keeping Ron from doing what he wanted to do. He forcibly slowed his breathing down, loosening his fist from its death-grip on his wand one muscle at a time. “How do we—” he broke off, swallowing, and then started again, trying to sound more like himself. “What do we need to make a sand castle?”

“Oh nothing really, just some water to help us shape the sand the way we want to.” Hermione released his fist after a gentle pressure of her hand.   “I’ll just go bring back a couple buckets of water.”

She dug into the bag they’d brought to carry food for lunch and pulled out two plastic bags, quickly transfiguring them into two buckets.   And Harry felt a twinge of mild amusement cutting through his lingering tension as he saw that she’d made the buckets the Gryffindor colors of red and gold. That done, she glanced at him, meeting his eyes. “I’ll be right back.   You can pick out where you want to build the sand castle.”

Harry looked at Ron.   “Sorry,” he explained rather briefly. “I can’t go anywhere without my wand.”

Ron’s slightly frowning expression cleared as he glanced at Harry’s fist, still clenching his wand. “Oh right.   I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I hadn’t thought of it until just now either,” Harry managed with an attempt at lightness.   “How do we make a sand castle then?”

Ron’s lips quirked. “You think I know?   I’ve never made a sand castle in my life.   I think Hermione’s going to be the expert on it.”

Harry felt his lips curving into a real smile at that.   “Hermione’s the expert at everything.”

“Yeah. It’s bloody annoying at times,” Ron pretended to grouse but his grin gave him away.

Harry looked away, his gaze finding Hermione automatically.   He squinted a little into the sun, tensing slightly as he realized that there were a few people in the ocean ahead of where Hermione was going. He knew she had her wand with her but her hands were full with the two buckets and—he eyed the expanse of sand between them and the water with sudden alarm. “Go catch up with Hermione,” he suggested with quick urgency.

Ron blinked at him. “I think she can carry two buckets of water.”

“I just—don’t like her going off alone.”

“What? You think someone’s going to ambush—”

“Don’t even say it,” Harry cut Ron’s incredulous and half-teasing question off quickly. “Just—don’t.” He knew he was overreacting but he couldn’t just shrug off his vague apprehension, even as his mind shied away from putting it into so many words.

“She can take care of herself.”

“Still. Just—go with her.   Please.”

“Okay,” Ron agreed, setting off at an easy lope. “But if Hermione gets annoyed, I’m blaming you,” he added, glancing back.

Ron caught up with Hermione in another minute, falling into step beside her.   Harry saw Hermione glance over at Ron in some surprise and Ron answering with a gesture of his hand. But Hermione didn’t look back at him so he knew Ron hadn’t told Hermione the truth about why Ron had joined her.

Harry supposed he should sit down on the towel while waiting instead of standing around like some sort of statue but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not yet.   He needed to stay standing, stay alert as he watched Ron and Hermione’s retreating figures.

Some part of him knew he was being irrational.   They were on a beach surrounded by Muggles and no one knew where they were.   And even if something were to happen, it wasn’t as if being seated would slow down his reaction time as he knew all too well. And yet—being seated might mean it took him another second before he could be up and on his feet and he knew all too well that sometimes it didn’t take more than a second for everything to change.   So he stayed standing. And watched as Ron playfully splashed Hermione with water and as Hermione splashed Ron back in retaliation before filling the buckets and handing one over to Ron. That done, they turned to walk back and even at that distance, he could see the grins on their faces.

Ron made some sort of teasing remark and he saw Hermione laugh even as she elbowed him in response.   And Harry reacted—again—to the sight of Hermione laughing, even at that distance, felt the bubble of warmth fill his chest and his tension ease a little.

She paused, lifting her arm to point something out to Ron, and Harry froze, his mouth suddenly going dry.   Her shirt was wet and clinging to her, lovingly outlining the curve of her waist and her hips and—and… He pulled his eyes away only to find himself fixating on her legs—had her shorts always been that short and had she always had legs that looked like—well, that looked like that?

Merlin, she was so… hot. Something hit him in the chest with all the force of a blow, making him feel as if he couldn’t breathe—oh, who was he kidding, it was lust. Lust for Hermione that had hit him so hard and so fast he was almost dizzy with it. He wanted Hermione.

No. Oh no no no no no. He wasn’t—he couldn’t—he didn’t think about Hermione that way.   She was his best friend and—and he never wanted that to change and—and he wanted her.

He suddenly remembered Ron’s question the night before and how he’d answered that he didn’t know.   Now he did.   He did fancy Hermione.

He tore his eyes away from her, needing to look away, needing to think about something else, to try to shove all these… thoughts… about Hermione into the deepest corner of his mind so he could act normally around her.   Not that looking away from her helped much—the image of her seemed to have been seared onto his brain.   Instead he sat down and started playing with the sand, sifting his left hand through it then creating small piles and systematically flattening them out again with as much concentration as if Professor McGonagall herself were going to be judging him on his precision.

From somewhere behind him, there was a sudden blast of noise, a sharp crack like a car backfiring that slashed straight through the center of his nerves making him jump, his heart race—

Screaming.   He heard screaming, the sound of terror and danger, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe—why couldn’t he breathe—his chest had shrunk or his lungs had collapsed or—or something—and he couldn’t do anything, only listen to the screaming…

He fell forward onto his hands but his arms wouldn’t hold him up and instead he collapsed, curling forward over his knees until his head nearly brushed the sand.   And tried to draw breath into his lungs, gasping.   He was suffocating!   He was going to suffocate and die right there on the beach.   He was dizzy.   Spots danced through his vision, gathering and clouding it up until his vision grayed out…

“Harry! It’s okay.   It’s me.   It’s Hermione. Harry!”

He heard the voice cutting through the fog, felt an almost painful pressure on his arm that momentarily distracted him and slowly, belatedly realized it was from her hand gripping it.

She spoke quietly but firmly into his ear.   “Breathe through your nose, Harry, slowly.   It’s okay.   Just breathe.   In and out.”

He shut his eyes, trying to force himself to listen, to follow her instructions in spite of every instinct.   It didn’t come easily.   He gasped and hiccupped, his chest and lungs seeming to fight against him, against everything, in order to get more air.   Blindly, he moved his hand, finding hers and then gripping it as if it were a lifeline and he was drowning.   She returned the pressure, squeezing his fingers, and he focused on that, on the pressure of her hand, the one solid, stable thing in a tilting, unstable world.   Focused on the solidness of her grip until he almost forgot to worry that he couldn’t breathe, making it easier to slow his breathing down.

In and out.   Just like she’d said.   In and out.

“It’s okay, Harry.   Just keep breathing, slowly.   Slowly.   It’s okay.   Just keep breathing.   You’re going to be fine. No one else is watching; it’s just me and you and Ron.”

He belatedly became aware that she had kept up a running stream of words, a sort of mantra of soothing nothings that hadn’t even impinged on his consciousness as actual words until now.   The mention of Ron distracted him, sharply reminding him that of course Ron was there too, that Ron had seen him collapse, that Ron was watching.   He should have been mortified—he was sure he would be mortified later—would feel the heat of embarrassment at the thought of having gone to pieces like he had in front of Ron.   But that would have taken an energy he didn’t have at the moment, still too focused on controlling his breathing, on staying still and calm.

He was still holding Hermione’s hand, although his grip was too tight to be justified by the term, holding. He realized too that her other hand was on his back, moving in slow, soothing circles.

“Hermione, I—” he finally managed to say, or almost wheeze, his voice sounding shaky and unlike himself.    He wasn’t sure what he was about to say—that he was sorry, that he was grateful, that he was better now—but she stopped him.

“It’s okay, Harry.   Don’t try to talk until you’ve got your breath back.” And he had the sudden, odd sense that she understood, that she knew what he’d been about to say even if he didn’t really know it himself.   That sense of being understood somehow acted as a balm on his shredded nerves, soothed him, calmed him as almost nothing else could.   He didn’t know why it should, just accepted that somehow, for whatever reason, at that moment, it did.   And he needed it, needed her.   He needed her so much.

He suddenly remembered—a little flicker of awareness leaping to life inside him, making him freshly conscious of the warmth of her hand on his back, her nearness—what he’d realized before this had all happened, that flash of lust for Hermione.   It was… not gone but dormant, for now—terror had a way of doing that, he reflected with a twist of bleak humor—but he suspected, no he knew, it would be back.   Now that he’d looked at Hermione like that, thought of her like that, he couldn’t go back to viewing her purely platonically.

But it didn’t matter.   Lust was one thing—a powerful thing—he was still a teenage boy—but he couldn’t risk his friendship with Hermione.   He needed her too much.   He didn’t think he could bear it if their friendship changed, if things with him and Hermione turned… awkward at best, the way they had with Cho and with Ginny.   He wasn’t happy about the fact that he was never quite comfortable around Ginny anymore but he could handle it.   He’d never relied on Ginny, never needed her.   Hermione was different.   And he couldn’t lose her.

A little tentatively, cautiously, he opened his eyes, blinking as he almost swore the sun had gotten brighter, but he could see again, the spots that had clouded his vision gone.   He could see again and more than that, he realized, he could hear, the sounds of the rest of the world rushing back into his consciousness.   The steady sound of the waves, the cry of the occasional sea gull, the soft rise and fall of people’s voices, the occasional sound of passing cars from the street behind them.

He held his breath for a few seconds, testing himself, before letting it out again.    His heart was still beating faster than he’d like, he still felt too jittery and… fragile, as if his composure were being held together by pieces of string and could fall apart all too quickly.   But he was better.

Moving slowly, deliberately, he lifted his head, straightening up to meet Hermione’s worried gaze.

He couldn’t quite manage a smile but tried for a twitch of his lips.   “I think… I’m all right now.   Thanks.” And as if to prove it, he finally released her hand, letting go as he sat up straight.

She gave him a small smile but her eyes were still dark, concerned.   “Okay, if you’re sure, that’s good.”

He turned to look up at Ron, standing just beside and in front of him, still holding the two buckets as if he’d been frozen in place.   And inwardly winced a little at the look on Ron’s face, the stark dismay and worry mingled in with nervousness.

“Merlin, Harry, you—what happened?   You just… I’d never seen… what was that?” Ron stammered.

“Ron!” Hermione rebuked sharply.   “Don’t—”

“No, it’s okay,” Harry interrupted her.   “It was…” he automatically glanced at Hermione, the quiet understanding in her eyes somehow steadying him, before looking back up at Ron, “a panic attack.   I… er… don’t react well to being startled,” he finished with a slight twist of his lips.

“Are you… okay, then, now?” Ron asked carefully.

He nodded and finally managed to produce something like the ghost of a smile.   “I’m… better now.   I’ll be okay.”

Ron didn’t look entirely reassured.   “D’you want to leave, go back to the cottage?   Or something?”

No,” he answered quickly.

“But Harry…”

“No.   I said we’d spend the day at the beach and we’re going to spend the day at the beach.   I’ll be fine. Really. I can do this.”   Becoming aware he was protesting too much, he turned to Hermione with an attempt at a smile.   “So how do we make a sand castle, then?”

Her eyes were still concerned but she answered him, silently falling in with what he wanted. “When sand is damp, it can be molded into shapes and structures pretty easily so we can start by clearing a fairly shallow pit about the size of however big we want to build our sand castle to be.”

“Can we make a sand castle version of Hogwarts?”

That got her to smile a little. “I don’t see why not.   That’s a good idea.”

She moved to kneel on the sand a little bit in front of him.   “Here, Ron, you can put down the buckets and come help me clear a pit.”

Harry was peripherally aware of Ron doing so but his eyes were caught and held by her hand as she stretched forward to push a pile of sand out of the way.   He leaned forward and quickly grasped her wrist, holding her arm still as he looked at her hand, the hand he’d been gripping, that was still painfully red.   He sucked in a sharp breath, guilt stabbing at him. “Hermione, I—Merlin, Hermione, I’m sorry.   I shouldn’t have—”

She tugged her arm free with a quick movement.   “It’s okay, Harry.   Honestly.   It doesn’t hurt; it looks worse than it feels.”

“But it—”

“Don’t worry about it, really, Harry.   I’m not hurt.”

“Still.   I’m so—”

“Don’t you dare apologize,” she interrupted him.

He felt a flicker of something like amusement at her words.   “It really doesn’t hurt?”

“You wouldn’t hurt me,” she responded, her voice softening.

Which was true, of course.   He wouldn’t hurt her. Not intentionally, not ever.

“So can we start making a sand castle of Hogwarts?” Ron interjected now.

Harry glanced at Ron, managing a smile. It felt a little shaky on his lips but it was still a smile. “Okay.”

And so they did. And it was… fun.   In spite of his lingering nervousness and occasional starts, he managed to have some fun, even while out in public with strangers around and nowhere to hide.   It wasn’t perfect but it was a start.

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