[Fanfic] Living Past the End -Chapter 11

Living Past the End

CHAPTER 11

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_11

An errant ray of sunlight slipped in past the drawn curtains and shone on Hermione’s face.

A slight frown creased her brow as she turned her head away, resisting the tug of consciousness, only to find her nose half squashed against something hard. And she awoke, her eyes opening.

Oh…

Her nose was pressed against Harry’s shoulder. Harry’s bare shoulder.

She felt what was probably a rather dreamy smile curve her lips as the memory of the night before returned to her mind in a rush.

Harry was asleep. Moving cautiously so as not to disturb him, she shifted a little away from him, curling one arm beneath her head to get a better view of his face.

As always in the few times she’d seen him sleeping, she was struck by how different he looked in sleep. He looked younger in sleep but even so, he didn’t look young. It made her newly conscious of just how much the stresses of the past couple years had aged his face beyond his years, even in sleep but especially so when he was awake. She couldn’t help thinking that the lines around his eyes, the way his skin looked stretched tight across his cheekbones, were evidence of the price he had paid for these years of becoming so familiar with the darkest aspects of magic and humanity in defiance of his true nature.

He stirred slightly in his sleep, his head turning fractionally away from her as a sighing breath soughed from his parted lips.

She found herself focusing on his lips, a flush of heat spreading through her entire body. She wanted him. She was a little amazed at how much she wanted him, the ferocity of the lust she felt. She’d known, of course, that she was physically attracted to Harry, but she was still accustomed to thinking of Harry in terms of her emotional attachment to him, so used to thinking of him as the best friend she cared for so much and less used to thinking of him as a physical, sensual being. Now, though, after last night, she didn’t think she’d ever be able to look at him or think of him again without remembering the way he’d kissed her, remembering the feel of his lips and his hands on her skin…

Almost of its own volition, one hand stretched out, wanting to touch his face, trace his familiar features with her fingers—but then she stopped, her hand hovering little more than an inch above his face.

No, she couldn’t touch him now.   She knew what a light sleeper he was and how little sleep he tended to get these days. And she knew if she touched him, he would wake up and she couldn’t—she wouldn’t—cut short his sleep now.

She drew her hand back.   No, she wouldn’t wake him up.

Besides, she thought with an inward smile, she could touch him all she wanted once he woke up. She didn’t have to try to hide her physical reaction to Harry anymore. She hugged that knowledge to herself, savored it.   And savored even more the fact that amazingly—thrillingly—Harry wanted her too.

She had been so convinced for so long that Harry would never see her as being a girl, never view her in anything other than a purely platonic light.   So convinced that even after he’d kissed her, she still couldn’t believe he’d really wanted to do it rather than it just being a thoughtless impulse for friendship or comfort or whatever—the mistake of a moment and immediately regretted. She didn’t think—no, she knew Harry wouldn’t deliberately lead her on to think he cared more than he did or that he might use her for purely physical purposes—but for all that, she also knew Harry’s impulsive streak.   She knew the way Harry sometimes acted on the impulse of a split second, out of pure instinct, without stopping to think, and how that tendency led him into trouble.   And when Harry had broken off their kiss so quickly—just after she’d realized that Harry was kissing her—and started babbling an apology, it had seemed so… inevitable that the kiss might have been a meaningless, instantly regretted impulse.

But then… to learn that, after all, while it might have been an impulse, it hadn’t been meaningless at all, had been, if anything, all too meaningful…

At that moment, in the surge of joy she’d felt, she really could not have done anything else except kiss him—finally—the way she’d wanted to kiss him for months.   And for all the times she’d thought about kissing Harry, touching Harry, nothing could have prepared her for the reality of it.   The reality of his lips and his hands and his body…

She felt herself flush at the thought, her body melting, tingling, with remembered pleasure…

And then, as if tugged out of sleep by the force of her wanting him, he woke up.   Startled awake, really.

It was a little shocking—and a little saddening—the way he jerked awake, going from sleep to complete alertness in the space of an instant, the immediate return of tension to his body as if he was, in that split second, completely battle-ready.

He turned his head sharply and saw her—and relaxed with almost as much suddenness as he had awoken.   “Oh.” The word escaped him in something of a sigh.

She met his eyes, seeing the way the shadows in his eyes retreated, faded, as his eyes became clearer and softer than she could ever remember seeing before, a change all the more noticeable now, without the usual barrier of his glasses.

She felt herself blushing hotly under his gaze, suddenly feeling a little shy, self-conscious, at the new softness in his expression.   “Hi,” she finally whispered, inanely, needing to break the silence.

“You’re here,” he breathed in response and there was something like wonder in his tone.

He shifted, turning onto his side to face her more fully, and then lifted one hand to touch his fingers to her cheek in a fleeting, feather-light caress.   And there was something like wonder in his touch too.

Her breath and her heart seemed to flutter a little at his touch.

“You slept,” she said softly after another long moment of silence stretched out between them.

“I did.”

She felt her heart pinch a little at the thread of surprise in his tone. And on the swell of tenderness, she reached out her hand to touch him the way she’d wanted to since she’d woken up. The way she’d wanted to touch him for years, really.

His eyes closed at her touch as her fingers gently brushed a lock of his unruly hair away from his eyes then traced his eyebrow before skating down his temple. Funny, how even now, when she knew she could touch him so much more intimately, it was being able to touch him like this—simple, barely-more-than-platonic touches—that meant so much to her. Her thumb lightly stroked the bridge of his nose and then down to touch the dent just above his upper lip. He reached up and caught her hand in his, pressing a kiss to her palm, and she caught her breath at the sensation, the way sparks of desire tingled up her entire arm. She’d never known her palm could be such an erogenous spot but she suspected she’d never forget it again.

He opened his eyes and his expression abruptly changed, his eyes darkening. She followed his gaze to realize, belatedly, that the movement of her arm had caused the blanket to slide down and that, with her arm still extended, he now had a clear view of her bare breasts.

She felt herself blushing even hotter than she had before, her entire body burning with an odd mixture of self-consciousness, arousal, and the beginnings of embarrassment.   It had been so much easier to be uninhibited, to invite his touch so openly, in the darkness.   Now in the light of the morning…

She could have retrieved her arm, Harry’s grip on her hand having slackened in his distraction, and shielded herself from his gaze.   She could have—but she didn’t. In spite of her self-consciousness, in spite of her sudden, uncharacteristic shyness, she didn’t cover herself. Because whatever else, she wanted to be with Harry like this, wanted it enough that it easily over-rode her instinctive modesty.

“God, Hermione,” he finally rasped with a sort of reverent enthusiasm. “I told you you’re lovely.”

She felt his words as if it were a touch, felt her nipples tightening, her insides seeming to liquefy with desire. And she couldn’t help the soft moan of arousal that escaped her lips.

His eyes darkened and flared at the sound and then he reached for her, his fingertips lightly resting on her breast and then tracing a delicate circle, his touch oddly hesitant, as if this was the first time he’d touched her so intimately and he wasn’t sure she would let him. Little tendrils of fire seemed to streak out along her every nerve ending at his touch. He brushed his fingers across her peaked nipples once, twice, until she gasped, a fresh shiver of want streaking through her and pooling between her thighs.

It was stunning, how her entire body reacted to his touch and to his expression, the look of totally focused intensity on his face as he stared at her, as if memorizing the way her body looked and learning the reactions of her body to his touch were the only things in the entire world that mattered to him.

Oh, the way he looked at her… She felt… beautiful. More than that, she felt desirable. Sexy.   For the first time in her life.   And in some small corner of her, she dimly realized that she’d wanted to feel beautiful, perhaps all her life.   And now, she did.   Because of Harry.   And it was thrilling and, somehow, arousing too.

Only Harry, she thought fuzzily. Only Harry could arouse her so much with just looking at her… In some small corner of her mind that still retained some coherence, she knew that lust was universal and arousal a natural thing—and yet, at that moment, she was somehow sure, too, that this—this unfurling of warmth and knee-weakening desire inside her from his touch and his look—this was unique to them.   This was about him and her and somehow, irrationally, she couldn’t help but feel that she was meant to be with him like this.   Meant to have him touch her like this, his hands exploring, learning, the curves of her breasts, the hardened peaks of her nipples, the soft skin of her stomach…

He was learning her body the way he already knew her personality and her thoughts… And something about the thought made her suddenly desperate to learn him too.

Her hand had fallen to rest on his bare shoulder but now she moved it, sliding down his arm in a long caress that also served to push the blanket further down, baring them both to the other’s gaze.

And just as he had watched her, studied her, it was her turn now to study him, letting her gaze roam over his chest and then down his flat stomach to his jutting arousal.   Harry wanted her. And somehow, even though after the night before and all that had happened this morning, she had already known that he wanted her, even as much as she wanted him, seeing the proof of his desire amazed her all over again.

Oh Lord… It was… him, she thought inanely, any ability to think coherently leaving her brain completely. She was seeing all of him now and he was… He was…   She couldn’t think of a word. All she knew was that she burned with wanting to touch him all over.

She let her hand sweep across his chest, brushing her fingers over his flat nipples as he had done to her, and he made a sound like a strangled moan. Her hand wandered further, down his stomach, feeling his muscles contracting automatically at her touch.

He had lost weight, she realized, rather inconsequentially.   She knew she had lost weight in the last year but she hadn’t known that he had too.   It hadn’t been apparent when he was clothed but now, she could see that it was true.   It was evident in the hollows above his slim hips, in the way she could feel his ribs so easily in running her hand down his stomach.

Her heart pinched a little and in the surge of tenderness, she reached for him, sliding closer so she could kiss him, softly at first, and then with more passion, as she felt his arm tightening around her.

She broke off the kiss only to drag her lips down his chin and then further, scattering soft kisses along the line of his jaw and then sliding further down to kiss his throat, her lips parting so she could touch her tongue lightly to the delicate skin just below his Adam’s apple. She felt it bob as he swallowed, a half-strangled groan issuing from his throat, and she smiled slightly against his skin, thrilling at this power to arouse him.

Her hands hadn’t been still either, making their own way south, as she let her hands wander freely over his chest and his stomach and then down, her fingers tracing down his thigh and then up again. Her wrist brushed lightly against his rampant arousal and he moaned, his hips jerking a little, and she gave in to the wordless begging of his body by circling her fingers around him delicately at first. He gave another strangled groan and she closed her hand around him with more firmness and stroked.

“Hermione!” he choked out, her name roughened, blurred into something rather less than three syllables. His hips stirred and his hand clutched convulsively at the sheets.

She touched him with more boldness, her hand stroking along his length, exploring the velvet hardness of him.   She felt something like exultation rushing through her veins, glorying in this, in knowing she was pleasuring him like this.   She wanted to give him pleasure, wanted to give him everything.

He cried out and then he grabbed her wrist in his hand, pulling her away from him.

“Stop. Please,” he gasped, his breath coming shallow and fast.

His arms pulled her in and up, his lips finding hers as he kissed her more forcefully than he had before.

She pressed herself against him.   She could not get close enough; she felt as if even crawling inside his body wouldn’t be close enough for her. She wanted to be even closer, wanted more, and without thought, acting purely on instinct and desire, she slid one leg over his.   His thigh slipped between hers, coming dangerously close to the core of her, and she broke off the kiss to gasp at the heat and the friction.

And then, with a boldness that surprised her when she remembered it later but didn’t occur to her then, too preoccupied with wanting to touch him more, taste him, she shifted to straddle him fully.

He sucked in his breath sharply and she looked up to meet his wide eyes, looking almost black with desire.

“Hermione, you—” he almost croaked.

Something about the way he was staring at her—as if she was the most beautiful, amazing thing he’d ever seen, as if she was a goddess, a siren—filled her with an odd confidence, an odd sort of knowledge.   As if her body, in timeless instinct, knew what to do even as she really didn’t.   His hands had fallen to her hips, holding her, as she rose up and then slid down over him, around him.   She let out a soft hiss of breath at a twinge of not-quite-pain, more a little discomfort, as her body adjusted again to this invasion, the muscles in her thighs stretching to this new position.

But then his fingers tightened a little convulsively on her hips, his hips rising beneath her, and she gasped, any discomfort forgotten in the fresh tingle of sensation at the feeling of him inside her.

And her body took over, rocking above him in a mindless, instinctive rhythm, as his hips thrust up to meet hers.   The world narrowed, faded around her, until all that existed was the harsh sounds of their breathing, of the sensation of his body inside her, the wonderful, thrilling heat and friction of their joined bodies.

She felt the pressure—the pleasure—building, building, inside her until it finally burst, sheer sensation roaring through her body as if a starburst of pure physical pleasure had exploded inside her. She was vaguely aware of his hands clutching her with sudden convulsive force, his hips thrusting one last time, and then there was a flood of warmth inside her as a hoarse cry ripped from his throat.

She slumped on top of him, her suddenly boneless body draping over his, as the burst of tingling sensation slowly faded.

She felt woolly-headed from the mind-stealing pleasure so it was some time—she didn’t know how much time—before she gradually realized where she was and murmured, “Am I too heavy for you?”

“No, stay,” he mumbled a little thickly. “I like feeling you on top of me.”

The words surprised a soft laugh from her and she lifted her head a little to look at him, although it seemed to take an inordinate amount of energy to do so. Was he—he was blushing, his cheeks reddening a little. It was… endearing, adorable, even. And she couldn’t help but ask, “You like having me on top of you?”

“No. I mean, yes. I mean, that didn’t come out right,” he blurted out and then grimaced a little. “I just… I like being like this,” he finished a little awkwardly.

She smiled slightly, lowering her head again to nestle against his shoulder. A little inarticulate as he had been, she understood. She liked being like this too, liked the closeness of it, liked the sensation of his heart beating against hers, liked the feeling of almost sinking into him, as if their bodies were melding together. She liked the solid heat of him beneath her, liked the warmth and the weight of his arms around her. She liked it all. She loved it all, loved him.

“I love you, you know,” she heard him mumble.

It was such a perfect reflection of what she’d been thinking that for a moment, she hardly registered that he’d spoken or exactly what he’d said. It seemed like a full minute, maybe even more than that, passed before she realized—he… he loved her? He hadn’t just said that, had he?   She lifted her head again to stare at him. His eyes had been closed but at her movement, he opened them.

“You do?” she asked a little breathlessly.

He blinked, a faint frown of confusion flitting across his face. “Do I what?”

“You said… you love me.”

He opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. “I do.” And somehow there was both wonder and certainty in his tone.

“Oh, Harry…” It was all she could think to say, somehow, and all she could do was kiss him, although her lips landed more on his chin than on his lips, until he lifted his head, one hand sliding up her back to cup the back of her neck, and kissed her, softly. “I love you,” she whispered against his lips when the kiss ended.

Emotion flared in his eyes as he just stared at her for a long moment, in which she could almost see the confused welter of thoughts flooding his mind, but all he said, sighed really, was her name, “Hermione…” Just her name but something about his tone made it seem eloquent.

A few strands of her hair slid down, fell over her face, and he tucked them behind her ear with unthinking tenderness, his hand lightly cupping her cheek. And if she had had any lingering doubts about his sincerity, they would have been banished in that instant.

Harry loved her. After all these years, after all these months of futilely trying to convince herself that being Harry’s best friend, knowing he trusted her and confided in her more than anyone else, would be enough for her.

Funny, she would have expected that the happiness she felt would have been reflected in the brightest of smiles but somehow, the moment felt too solemn for smiles. The knowledge that Harry loved her meant too much to her to make her feel like smiling.

“I didn’t know…” The sighing words slipped from her lips without her thinking about it.

Confusion flickered across his face. “You didn’t know what?”

“I didn’t think you would ever think of me like this, that you would ever love me.”

“Why not?”

“Well, we’ve just been best friends for so long,” she began slowly, trying to put into words some of her mostly unexpressed beliefs, “and I’m not like Cho or Ginny.   I’m not… interested in Quidditch or… or very pret—”

“No,” he interrupted her. “You’re not like Cho or Ginny. You’re… better than they are. Quidditch and all that—that’s not that important.”

“Don’t let Ron hear you say that Quidditch isn’t important. He might disown you from being his friend.”

He laughed and she felt the rumble of his laughter in his chest.

She smiled helplessly back at him, her heart reacting as it always did to the sight and sound of his laugh.

“That’s why you’re better,” he said a little abruptly.

A slight frown drew her brows together. “What?”

“You make me laugh,” he explained simply. “With Cho or Ginny, I didn’t, somehow. And I can talk to you.   I didn’t—couldn’t—really talk to them.”

“Oh, Harry…” A smile trembled on her lips as she reached up and did something she’d wanted to do for years, running her fingers lightly through his messy hair. “You really are sweet, you know.”

His lips twisted into a rather rueful half-smile.   “I think it makes me sound daft. I mean, I didn’t know anything about Cho except what she looked like and that she played Quidditch but I fancied her anyway.   No wonder me and Cho ended up crashing and burning so fast.”

“Poor Cho.   I feel bad for her.”

He grimaced a little. “I know I was a git to her.”

“Oh, Harry, no, that wasn’t what I meant,” she blurted out quickly. “I just meant… she had a really hard time after—well, after what happened to Cedric.”

His expression darkened at this mention of Cedric—of all that had happened at the end of Fourth Year. And saying the words brought back all the memories of that night and, in spite of how much time had passed since then, she felt a slight shudder go through her.   On an impulse of tenderness—and so much relief it almost clogged her throat—she lowered her head to kiss him lightly, her lips landing half on his lower lip and half on his chin.   One of his hands tangled in her hair as he lifted his head to kiss her fully on the lips, tenderly.

“I was so glad you survived that night,” she whispered, the words coming almost unbidden to her lips, as the kiss ended.

“I know,” he returned quietly.

She’d never thought about it before, but now, the memory seemed to take on a new significance, a new power.   “Cho must have been watching, too, at the Final Task; she must have seen you and Cedric both disappear and… and then you came back and Cedric…” she trailed off, her throat suddenly tight with a flood of newfound empathy. “She… I don’t know how she did it, coming back to Hogwarts after what happened to Cedric.   I—I don’t think I could have.”

“You’re amazing, you know that,” he suddenly said, quietly.

She blinked at him, seeing a new, odd sort of softness and a wonder on his face.   He was looking at her as if he’d never really seen her before.   She felt herself flush.   “No, I—what?   Why—why do you say that?” she stammered, her thoughts scattering at the look in his eyes.

“You’re so… nice.”

She felt a small smile curve her lips at this statement, even as she felt her heart melt, more moved by this so-characteristic, rather lame compliment than she would have been by the most eloquent speech from anyone else.

“You… care so much about other people,” he went on, less than fluently.   “Even now, years afterwards, you… care about how other people felt.”

“I didn’t think about how Cho felt at the time.”

“Yes, you did. You noticed, you understood why Cho was crying a lot in Fifth Year.”

“A lot of people noticed. And I understood because I knew how she felt.”

“You knew how she—you fancied Cedric too? You didn’t, did you?”

Her lips twisted into something approaching a faint smile, her heart squeezing a little with affection. “Not because of Cedric, Harry, because of you.”

“Me?   I was fine.”

“I meant because I knew how scared she must have been that night. I remember how scared I was when I saw you and Cedric disappear like that.   I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared and there was a moment after you came back that I thought—I thought you hadn’t, that you’d been the one to…” She trailed off, a slight shiver of recollection going through her, not able to say the terrible word, not even now.

His expression softened, one of his hands moving to cup her cheek tenderly. “I never thought about what it was like for you watching. I remember seeing your face, seeing that you’d been crying, afterwards.”

“I think that was really when I knew, when I decided,” she found herself admitting.

“Decided what?”

“That no matter what happened, I would stay with you. When you and Cedric disappeared, I was so scared and it was worse because I didn’t know what was happening.   I only knew it was bad and I was left to imagine the worst and know that I couldn’t help you.   I couldn’t do anything to help you. And I think… that was when I decided that whatever else happened, I wanted to stay with you so if you were in danger, I would know it and I could at least try to help you. I just… never wanted to be left behind to worry and not be able to help.”

“You did help. You helped more than—I’ll never be able to tell you just how much you helped.”

Her lips trembled into a small smile even as she felt tears pricking at the back of her eyes. “I’m glad.   It was all I wanted, to be able to help you.”

“Hermione,” he breathed in a trembling sigh, “I… you…” he trailed off, visibly searching for words to express the emotions she could see crowding into his eyes and his expression. After a moment, he gave up, his hand sliding behind her neck as he lifted his head to kiss her, softly, tenderly.

Afterwards, Hermione lowered her head, nestling against the little hollow where his neck met his shoulder. She felt his hand move, idly stroking her hair.

They lay there in silence for a little while, Hermione comfortably curled up against Harry’s chest while Harry’s fingers idly played with Hermione’s hair.

“’Mione,” he breathed after a long moment, so softly that she almost felt the word as a little ruffle of air more than she heard it.   His tone transformed her childhood pet name into an endearment and a caress all at once. She smiled inwardly. He had spoken so softly that the syllables blurred and blended together so she could almost imagine he had said, mine, instead. Because she was his—his friend, his confidante, his… lover… It was an uncharacteristically sentimental thing for her to think but at that moment, it seemed only natural, fitting with the mood of the morning.

Hermione lazily watched the play of shadows on the wall as the sunlight from outside brightened and slowly crept further into the room.   And it was evidence of how sluggish her mind was that it took her a little while to register the increasingly bright sunlight.

“We should probably get up,” she said quietly.

He didn’t immediately respond and then— “Do we have to?” Harry groused, only half-jokingly. “Why can’t we just stay in bed all day and let Ron amuse himself today?”

She poked him in the side teasingly. “Lazy bones,” she quipped and then sobered a little, as she lifted her head to meet his eyes. “What are we going to tell Ron about this, us?”

He sobered too. “I’ll tell him the truth,” he said simply.

“You—we can talk to him together,” she offered.

“No. I—I feel like I need to talk to him myself. It’s just… he’s my best friend,” he explained a little awkwardly.

“He’s my best friend too.”

“I know.   It’s not that. I just… it’s a bloke thing.   I—I feel like I need to talk to him myself.   Especially after he asked me the other day if I fancied you.”

“Really?   Ron asked you that?   When?”

“The other evening when your parents rang up.”

“Why would he ask you that? He doesn’t care,” she blurted out and then added, “not like that, at least.”   She didn’t mean that Ron didn’t care about her at all, only that it was unlike Ron to think to ask about something as, well, sentimental as fancying someone.

“He asked because I’d asked him if he still fancied you.”

“But I told you that Ron and I weren’t… like that anymore. I told you we were just friends.”

“You told me that you didn’t care about him like that.   That didn’t mean that he might not still fancy you.   And you’re… you.   How could he not fancy you?”

“Oh, Harry…”   A smile of helpless affection trembled on her lips. “That’s… so sweet…”

Surprisingly, endearingly, he cut his eyes briefly away from hers, color rising in his cheeks. “Yeah, well,” he demurred awkwardly, “I had to ask.   I just… wanted to know.”

“And he told you he didn’t fancy me like that anymore.”

“Yeah, but that’s because he’s daft.”

She choked on a laugh. “Honestly, Harry, you shouldn’t say that,” her rational mind compelling her to chide him, although she couldn’t make her tone sound anything other than loving, not disapproving at all. “It doesn’t work like that. You know it doesn’t. A couple months ago, you didn’t fancy me either.”

“A couple months ago, I was an idiot. You know how thick-headed I am.”

How else could she possibly respond to such a statement than to kiss him?   And so she did, thrilling in the knowledge that now she could kiss him whenever she wanted to.

She drew back, smiling into his eyes. “What did you tell Ron when he asked if you fancied me?”

His lips curved into a wry expression.   “I told him I didn’t know.”

She laughed softly.   “Did you really not know or did you just not want to talk about it?”

“I really didn’t know.”

“When did you—” she began and then stopped, coloring.

“When did I figure it out?” he finished for her. “Honestly?   At the beach the first time we made a sand castle.”

“Really?   That was days ago. You didn’t—you never said—”

“I told you I wasn’t going to risk our friendship over a little thing like lust.”

She smirked, raising her eyebrows. She couldn’t help it.   “A little thing?”

He laughed softly, his hands sweeping down her back in a leisurely caress that sent a shiver of delicious sensation through her. “Okay, fine, a big thing like lust.”

“It is a big thing, isn’t it?” She lifted a hand to trace his lips with her finger. “I knew I wanted you,” she found herself admitting, feeling herself flushing. Part of her couldn’t believe she was saying as much but her habit of frankness with Harry was ingrained. “But I didn’t know, didn’t realize just how much I would feel, just how powerful lust was.”

One corner of his lips twitched upward slightly, a spark entering his eyes. “Should I take that as a compliment?”

She bit back a laugh but a smile still escaped as she tapped his nose teasingly with one finger. “Someone’s very vain.”

He caught her hand in his, kissing her fingertips. “I didn’t know I could want you so much either so maybe it’s you that’s good in bed.”

This time, she did laugh and then dropped a quick kiss on his lips. “Flatterer,” she accused him affectionately, before she reluctantly forced herself to move, sliding off him and sitting up.

She felt herself blushing as she retrieved her scattered pyjamas and put them on again.   She sensed him watching her but kept her face turned away from him and after a moment, she heard him sit up as well, putting on his glasses.

Suddenly feeling unaccountably shy—ridiculously so, given the events of the morning—she didn’t quite look at him as she said, rather awkwardly, “So I guess I’ll see you downstairs in a little while.”

He had hastily put on his shorts again and then stopped her, catching her hand. “Hermione.”

She turned back, finally looking directly at him, only to see that his gaze and his attention had fallen to the bed, and to the few dark stains on the sheets.

Oh, right. She blushed again, even as she realized that whatever he’d been about to say when he stopped her had apparently been entirely forgotten as he turned back to her, a stricken expression on his face. “I made you bleed?   God, Hermione, I—”

And she forgot any awkwardness she felt in the sudden rush of love, her heart squeezing a little, even as she cut off his words with a soft kiss.“I’m fine, Harry. That happens when it’s… a girl’s first time,” she explained, somewhat less than fluently.   “It hurt a little at first but did I seem like I was in pain this morning?”

“No, but…” he trailed off, not looking particularly reassured. “I just… I didn’t know I’d made you bleed.”

Using her wand, she performed a quick cleaning spell, getting rid of the stains.   “See, Harry? The blood’s gone and I’m fine.”

He had the grace to look a trifle embarrassed now. “Sorry. I guess I overreacted a little.”

She allowed herself a small smile. “Just a little,” she teased gently.

The faint beginnings of a smile just touched his lips. “I just…” he trailed off and then met her eyes, finishing soberly, “I hate to see you bleed.I hate to even think of you being hurt in any way.”

“Oh, Harry…” She brushed her lips against his, softly, reassuringly. “I hate to think of you being hurt too so I guess that makes us even.”

He managed a real smile at that. “Right.”

“I’ll see you downstairs.”

“’Mione,” he blurted out just as she reached the door.   She turned back to look at him. “I—I really do love you, you know,” he finished, not quite fluently.

She felt her expression soften, let him see all the emotion she felt in her face. “I know. I love you too.”

And then she slipped out of the room, reluctantly forcing herself to let the day begin for real.

~

Ron ambled downstairs, yawning, and Harry glanced at Hermione before he volunteered, “Ron and I can go into town to buy breakfast for us.”

Ron blinked but agreed. “Sounds good, mate.”

It would be his opportunity to talk to Ron alone but Harry felt a sudden return of nervousness as he thought about leaving Hermione alone.Unprotected.   Even though the wards were still up and he, of all people, knew how capable she was, he couldn’t just stop his visceral reaction to leaving Hermione alone. He stepped towards Hermione. “Stay inside,” he told her with soft intensity. “And try to stay away from the windows.”

For a moment, he could see that she wanted to protest, say that she could take care of herself, but then she nodded, once. “All right.”

“Thanks.” He wanted to kiss her for her acquiescence, knew she’d agreed only for his sake, so he wouldn’t worry too much. But he couldn’t, too conscious that Ron was right there, so he settled for squeezing her hand briefly. “We’ll be back soon.”

She managed a smile. “Hurry up. I’m hungry.”

He returned her smile, even as he was momentarily distracted at the way her lips curved. “We’ll hurry.”

Once outside, he felt his heart lifting even more than it already had at the sight of Hermione’s smile, his mood brightening in automatic reaction to the sunlight. He tilted his head up to the sun, newly conscious of the beauty of the day. “It’s a nice day.”

He sensed Ron’s curious glance and returned the look to see Ron studying him, an odd expression on his face. “What?”

Ron blinked. “You look… happy.”

He had to laugh a little. “Is that such a strange thing?”

“Well… a little, yeah,” Ron admitted and then managed more normally, “I guess this holiday has been good for you.”

He thought about Hermione, the past night, the new trust that he would wake up from nightmares to see her face, and had to smile. “Yeah, it has been.”

“Good.   Clever of Hermione but then I guess she’s always clever at knowing what you need, isn’t she?”

There was his opening but he found himself blanking on what to say, how to tell Ron. Tell Ron what, exactly? That he had shagged Hermione?He mentally snorted—there was no way he would say that. Even thinking it seemed somehow wrong. That Hermione was his girlfriend now?Funny, but even that didn’t seem quite right. Hermione was… his everything.

“Say, Ron, speaking of Hermione, I—er—Hermione and I—I need to tell you that Hermione and I are… together now.”

He ventured a glance at Ron to see that Ron was—smirking?

“I knew you fancied Hermione.”

Fancied her—of course, it was true.   He opened his mouth to agree and just leave it at that—but he suddenly remembered Hermione saying, “It was all I wanted, to be able to help you,” saw again the look on her face as she’d said it. And he realized he couldn’t—didn’t want to—somehow soften or play down his feelings for Hermione. She meant too much to him.   “It’s—it’s not just that,” he began. “I—I love her,” he blurted out.

Ron stopped as abruptly as if he’d run into a wall. Slowly, he turned to stare at Harry, gaping a little. “You—what?”

Harry met Ron’s eyes. “I love her,” he repeated.

Ron blinked, his mouth closing and then opening again. “Does she—wait, no, don’t tell me.   I don’t need to—” he broke off and then finished, a little awkwardly, “I know you’ve always come first for her.”

And even though there wasn’t even a particle of reproach in his tone, Harry found himself feeling obscurely guilty. “Ron, I—you know she cares about you,” he said.

Ron waved a hand in the air in a rather dismissive gesture. “Yeah, I know. I care about her too.” Ron met Harry’s eyes, a half-rueful expression on his face. “Me and Hermione—we’re just friends, you know, and that’s all we’ll ever be. And it’s not—I know it’s better that way.”

“Ron…”

Ron looked away, starting to walk again. “It’s okay, Harry.”

Harry supposed he should leave it at that. After all, Ron said it was okay—what more was he really expecting?   And yet, he found himself blurting out, “You—you really don’t mind?” He waited tensely for Ron’s answer. He knew now that Hermione meant too much to him for Ron’s answer to really make a difference—but to be at outs with Ron would have been a high price to pay. A price he knew he would pay without question—as important as Ron still was, Hermione came first for him, as he’d told her days ago—but it would still hurt.

Ron paused and then after a long moment, asked, “Just… does she make you happy?”

“Yes.” He could feel what was probably a silly smile spreading over his face at the bare thought of her and just how happy she’d made him.And he spared a brief moment to be thankful that Ron wasn’t looking at him, was keeping his eyes fixed ahead of them.

“Okay.   That’s… all right, then,” Ron said a little jerkily and then said nothing more.

After a couple seconds, Harry looked over at Ron. “You’re not going to ask if I make her happy?”

Now Ron slanted a rather sarcastic glance at Harry. “This is Hermione we’re talking about. I’m sure if you didn’t make her happy, we’d both know about it pretty damn quickly. She’s not exactly shy about telling us when she thinks we’re being prats.”

He had to laugh. “Fair point.”

Ron was silent for a minute and then said abruptly, “I wasn’t good at it. Hopefully you’ll be better.”

“At what?”

“Making Hermione happy.” He paused and then went on, speaking not quite naturally, “I didn’t make her happy. I annoyed her and half the time, I didn’t understand what I did or why she was annoyed, and that pissed me off so I deliberately set out to annoy her and it just kept getting worse.”

It was the most Harry had ever heard Ron say about his break-up with Hermione—for that matter, it was the most either of them had ever said about the break-up. Hermione had never told him much more than saying it hadn’t worked out. “Ron, you…”

Ron glanced at him, meeting his eyes frankly. “I was a git to her,” he admitted rather gruffly. “I hope you’re better, manage to make her happy.”

He remembered the way Hermione had smiled at him that morning, remembered the way his heart warmed and seemed to become buoyant in his chest at the sight of her smile. If anyone had asked before today, he would have said that of course he knew Hermione’s smiles but her smile this morning had been… different. Luminous was the only word that came to mind. His throat was suddenly a little tight with emotion.And he could only think that he would do anything to see that smile on her face every day. “I hope I make her happy too,” was all he could say.

“You’ve always been better at understanding Hermione than I am,” Ron offered a little awkwardly.

Harry stared at Ron for a moment. However true the words might be—and he wasn’t sure about that—it was the first time either of them had ever put such a thing into words.

“This is… different,” Harry finally said. Which was true too.

Ron didn’t respond for a moment, only looked at Harry with an odd expression on his face.

“What is it?” Harry finally asked.

Ron blinked, seeming to remember himself.   “You—you really do care about Hermione a lot, don’t you?” There was a slight change of intonation in his voice as he said the word, care, that betrayed a brief struggle with his discomfort at using the word “love.”

Harry felt heat rising to his cheeks for no reason he could really identify except that he could hardly believe he was talking about emotions like this with Ron. But for all that, it was maybe the easiest question he’d ever had to answer. “Yeah, I do,” he said quietly.

Ron nodded—and then kept on nodding for just long enough to make Harry nervous all over again.

But then Ron looked squarely at him and then, surprisingly, cracked a small grin. “You can stop looking so nervous, Harry. It really is okay, y’know. Just don’t start snogging in front of me all the time or anything.”

Harry relaxed and returned Ron’s smile. “Okay.” His steps quickened. “Come on, let’s hurry. I don’t want to leave Hermione alone for too long.”

“Anyway, I’m hungry so the sooner we get some food, the better,” Ron agreed.

Harry laughed a little. “That too.”

They were mostly silent on the way to the bakery and back, only exchanging a few idle comments. And Harry found himself smiling a little to himself over nothing—and everything—a strange, unfamiliar sense of… of optimism filling his heart. On thinking about it, he wasn’t sure he’d ever looked forward to the future before, not really, never really expected anything good might happen. And even now, he was tense and not fully at ease, his fears, his nightmares, momentarily pushed to the background but still there, ever-present. He was still haunted by the War.But for almost the first time, he could accept that and still believe, with almost amazing confidence, that things would get better. He would get better.

He had Ron and Hermione—Hermione, who loved him.And with her, because of her, he somehow knew he was going to be fine.

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