Unlike a sister
CHAPTER 4: THE FOREST OF DEAN
Summary: Harry told Ron he saw Hermione as his sister. Is i true? Remember, Harry has no sister.
Hermione. Harry stood, lurching towards the cell door.
“Harry,” Lakey called, voice hard. “Wait for me in the hallway, please.”
He glanced at Lakey. He thought about ignoring him and chasing down Hermione anyway. But Harry relented and sulked into the hallway.
He could hear Lakey muttering something to Callahan. There was shuffling and Lakey’s next words were for Anne. “Can I expect a report by tomorrow? Lunchtime at the latest?”
“Yes. It won’t take long. I did a thorough review. He wasn’t under the Imperious Curse.”
Harry turned from the cell, unsure how he felt about this information. A part of him had hoped an Imperious would explain Callahan’s behavior, that it would put this case quietly to rest.
Lakey and Anne stepped into the hallway. Anne directed her wand at the cell door and it swung on its hinges. A low clickconfirmed the door was sealed.
“Well, thank you for your help,” Lakey was saying. “Contact me if you have any problems. I look forward to a full report.”
“Always happy to help, Director.”
She turned to Harry. “And goodbye.” She paused at his troubled expression. “Please don’t hesitate to call on me, Harry, should you need me. I can always make time for your cases…” She reached down and fleetingly squeezed his hand before proceeding down the hallway.
Once she was a few yards away, Harry turned on Lakey. “Well, what is it?”
“There’s no need to be cool, Harry.” He placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder and directed him slowly down the corridor after Anne. “I’d like you to speak to Hermione. This case is getting to her; she’s not usually so emotional. To an outside observer she probably seems perfectly in control, but you and I know her better than that.”
Lakey stopped. “I’m giving her the rest of the day off. Why don’t you two have lunch? I’ve known you nearly as long as I’ve known Hermione. You’ve had your own struggles controlling your emotions in situations like this. From what I’ve heard, Hermione was usually the one who calmed you down. Can you do the same for her?”
Harry nodded, staring at the ground. He still felt panicky, but Lakey’s confidence was bringing him back to himself.
“Thank you,” Lakey said, but he paused and then sighed heavily. “This case is very important. Not just to Hermione, but to Magical Law Enforcement. We pushed through a lot of reforms after Voldemort’s fall. Now there’s a backlash. People think we took things too far. You and I both know there’s still a lot of hostility towards Muggles and discrimination against Muggle-borns in this country. This case will serve as an example in the years to come, I know it. It may well determine whether the Ministry will continue being a stalwart defender of the rights of the most vulnerable. Or whether we’re going to backslide into ignorance and suspicion, yet again. We can’t get complacent.”
Finally, Harry voiced the fear that had been coiling in his chest since morning. “John, do you worry that you’re putting a target on Hermione’s back with this case? She’s an amazing prosecutor, we both know that. But to put her out in the open on this case? When she’s a Muggle-born? When the public’s mood could easily turn in Callahan’s favor?”
Lakey gave him a piercing stare. “I’m surprised to hear you worry about the politics of a case. You’ve supported her more controversial cases in the past…”
“They were not like this. This is an Auror, a respected Auror. Like it or not, Callahan didn’t say anything that a lot of wizards don’t already believe. Besides, the causes Hermione’s championed—Muggle cooperation, intergovernmental consultations, not to mention house-elf liberation—they haven’t always been well-received…”
He wasn’t sure why he was talking like this.
“Harry,” said Lakey firmly, “this sort of change isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean we should stop pushing for it, does it? I’ll be damned if I sideline any counselor in my department out of fear for the politics of the situation. That includes Hermione. She’s a grown woman, Harry. She’s more than capable of defending herself.”
But then Lakey looked to the side. “However, she was not my first choice for this case. I was going to take lead myself. She insisted though. This is what she’s been waiting for…It’s unfortunate that it deals so directly with your department.”
“I’m not worried about my department,” said Harry viciously. “I’m worried about Hermione. I won’t see her pilloried in the media. She’s given too much to have it spat back in her face…”
Lakey grinned. “Harry, you shouldn’t worry about Hermione’s popularity. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has been unpopular for a very long time. As Hermione rises through the ranks, she’ll undoubtedly face criticism. Let that be her choice. Besides,” he said, turning towards the exit, “Minister Shacklebolt is firmly behind us on this case. With your support as well, Hermione might not face much of a backlash.”
Harry nodded grimly, quieted for now.
“So take her to lunch. Help her relax. Your department can manage without you for a day?”
He nodded. “I thought we’d be gone much later than this. I left instructions with my staff.”
“Wonderful,” Lakey beamed, back to his jovial self as he and Harry approached the desk with the two young solicitors. “Thank you, Harry. A little…perspective is all Hermione needs right now.”
Harry found Hermione outside. The holding cell complex itself was on the outskirts of Stonehouse. The air was crisp with the onset of autumn and the leaves were changing color in the surrounding hillsides. The grass was still deep, vibrant green.
She sat on a bench, staring off, arms wrapped around her middle.
“Hey,” he called as he approached.
She turned and put on a tight smile. “Hey.”
He sat down next to her and released a long sigh.
“I’m sorry for storming out,” she said after a pause. “I reckoned there was no point talking to him at that moment.”
“You were fine.”
Another closed-lip smile. “Where’s John?”
“He disapparated five minutes ago. He said you have the rest of the day off. He also suggested you and I get lunch.”
“Did he?” She smiled slightly. Genuine this time. “A day off. Haven’t gotten one of those in a while.”
He proceeded cautiously. “Fancy a walk towards town then? We could grab lunch and take it easy the rest of the day.”
She eyed him, one brow quirked at the end. He got the feeling she knew exactly what he was playing. It didn’t help that Harry was treating her like a horse about to throw its rider.
“You don’t need to worry about me, Harry. I’m fine. I just needed some fresh air earlier.”
“Okay,” said Harry slowly. “But we still need lunch.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head slightly. “All right,” she relented. “If I went home now I’d probably just do paperwork and eat mint chocolate ice-cream out of a tub.”
Harry laughed. He stood and offered her his hand.
Harry and Hermione easily found the cobblestone street that led to the center of town. She tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and they braced against each other to deflect the wind. Stonehouse was a working-class town with row houses lining both sides of the street, little flower boxes under each window. As they came upon the commercial area, they passed Muggle establishments selling clothes, groceries, electronics, and liquor. They finally found a pub that was open early and stepped gratefully inside. There were only three other customers—a teenage couple and an alcoholic Muggle at the bar.
“Two?” a plump woman wearing heavy eyeliner asked Harry and Hermione.
“Yes, thank you,” said Harry.
“Booth or bar?” She grabbed two menus.
“Bar, please,” said Hermione briskly.
Harry smiled at her, amused, and the waitress led them towards the brightly polished bar, seating them far from the drunk at the other end.
“We have specials today. The soup is pumpkin spice and we have a lamb roast with a side of potatoes and greens. Anything from the bar?”
“Scotch and soda.” She grabbed a coaster from the stack by her elbow.
The waitress turned to Harry.
“Oh, er—whiskey neat, please.” So much for getting back to the office, he thought.
Their waitress left.
Harry looked at Hermione incredulously. “Drinks this early? It’s 11:30.”
She shrugged. “The special sounded good, didn’t it?”
They spent the rest of their lunch in easy conversation, delicately skirting anything related to the Callahan case. They talked about the children at Hogwarts, Hugo and Lily, Ginny and Ron. Harry barely noticed the minutes tick by, though his slow inebriation was helping with that. After his first drink, he ordered another followed by a beer. Hermione stuck to her choice but also ordered two more.
Two hours later, Harry wasn’t feeling particularly drunk—the lamb roast had helped—but Hermione was undeniably tipsy. She was laughing loudly at the most inane things and the waitress was starting to look annoyed. The pub’s regular clientele was coming in.
Harry paid the bill and guided Hermione to the exit, hand on the small of her back. She giggled when she tripped over the threshold and Harry tightened his hold on her.
More cars were on the road now, so he steered her to the sidewalk. She stopped, staring fixedly at a bicycle stand.
“You all right?” Harry asked.
“Fine,” she said dazedly. She clutched absently at the front of his coat. “We drank too much, didn’t we?”
He laughed. “Don’t know what you’re talking about. I feel fine. You on the other hand, miss…”
She giggled again, something she rarely did. It seemed laughter was enough to unsteady her and she slipped sideways. Harry swung her back towards him, grabbing both her shoulders to right her.
“Oops! Sorry,” she whispered into his chest.
“You need to be careful.” He tried to sound stern but he couldn’t keep the smile out of his voice.
“Yes, sir,” she said with a hint of a slur. “You’re drunk too, though! Your face is red!”
Indeed, his face was very warm. The wind was doing nothing to alleviate that. He looked down at Hermione, her face close to his. She was flushed as well and her eyes were startlingly bright. Still the same brown eyes, but somehow interestingly deeper.
He shook his head slightly. “Aeration Spell then, is it?”
“Unf,” she grumbled, pushing her face further into Harry’s jacket.
He laughed again. “Yeah. That’s probably for the best.”
He pulled her into an alleyway between two shops. Hermione giggled as Harry dragged her with him and pushed her against the wall.
As Harry pulled out his wand, Hermione groaned. “God, Harry. In this instance you’re literally a buzz kill.”
“Shut up,” he said, fumbling. “I can’t carry you down the street, can I?”
“Sure you can, you bastard…”
“Look,” he said calmly, straightening her cloak on her shoulders. “I won’t make it strong, all right? Just enough so you can walk again.”
“Fine,” she sighed, squaring her shoulders against the brick.
He pointed his wand at Hermione. She squeezed her eyes shut as a gush of air hit her in the chest. Harry had received an Aeration Spell many times, especially in his youth. It felt like ice water being poured on your brain, running down until it reached your toes. It diluted the alcohol in the bloodstream.
She shivered hard against him and opened her eyes.
“Better?” Harry asked.
Hermione nodded, eyes already more lucid. “Depends on your definition, but sure.”
She looked down at the odd placement of their bodies. Harry followed her eyes and hastily stepped away. He replaced his wand and together they rejoined the Muggles on the street. Hermione was much steadier as they continued down the main thoroughfare.
“What time is it?” Hermione asked.
“What are we supposed to do now…with the rest of my day off?”
“I don’t know. I doubt there’s much to do around here.”
Hermione nodded, but offered no suggestions.
They walked several more feet before he stopped. “Hold on. I’ve got an idea.”
She looked up at him, curious.
“We’re close to the Welsh border actually. That means the Forest of Dean,” Harry thought aloud. “Want to head over there for old time’s sake?”
“The Forest of Dean?” Hermione repeated, not understanding. “You mean the place…wasn’t it one of our camping sites back…?”
“Yeah,” Harry nodded, pleased she remembered. “It’s where we found the Sword, where Ron found us again.”
“Oh,” she said, not overly keen. She tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “What do we need to see there?”
“I don’t know. It’s just nice. What else is there to do?”
“That’s true,” Hermione said slowly. “The weather’s getting warmer in any case.”
“Right,” he said, excited for some reason. “Just give me a second to remember…” He closed his eyes and felt Hermione come to his side.
“Ready?” he asked.
She took his hand.
They landed in a clearing. The ground was littered with leaves and the air was warm, warmer than Stonehouse at least. The sun was shining through the canopy, creating an aurelian glow around them. Luminous and sheltered at once.
“Oh,” Hermione breathed, releasing his hand. “I wasn’t picturing it… I came here with my parents once,” she whispered. She looked to her right. “And we set up camp just here?”
“I think so.”
She walked cautiously to the spot where their tent had stood long ago. He kicked at the leaves under his feet before coming to a larger tree he thought he remembered sitting against in much darker days. The trees had been bare then, the ground hard like ice. He didn’t even have a wand. Hermione’s had been stuffed in his jacket.
He put a hand against the bark and looked towards the trees that led down into a depression. It was there he had first seen the silver doe, Snape’s patronus, which would lead him to the Sword.
He was pulled forward by a shadow of a memory. He was seventeen again—desperate, confused—grasping for something, anything that could release him from the dead-ends and endless searching, the aching awareness that they had accomplished nothing…
He took a reluctant step forward. “Hermione?” he called out. He could hear the tremor in his voice.
“What is it?” Her feet were crashing through the leaves. She took his arm a second later. “What’s wrong?”
Her touch released him from whatever force had held him. He blinked before turning to her worried face. “It’s—I don’t know. It was a feeling,” he said slowly. He touched her hand, letting her know he was all right. “Do you want to see where Ron and I found the Sword?”
“Sure,” she nodded. “I never actually saw where you found it.”
Harry led her into the trees. He was working off muscle memory to find the location. After a few wrong turns, he caught sight of the brilliant surface of a pool up ahead.
“Wow,” Hermione murmured, catching sight of the pool herself. Upon reaching the clearing, she spun in a small circle. “It’s beautiful.”
It was full of light.
The pool’s surface shone molten gold in sunlight and the leaves of some species of tree had turned completely yellow, adding to the effect.
Harry followed Hermione to the edge of the pool and they both looked down into its depths. Harry could see brownish kelp swaying at the bottom and a minnows darting here and there between the shoots. The water was perfectly clear, just as Harry remembered. He gazed up at the trees, trying to recreate how it had all looked nineteen years ago. At the time, he had been sure someone was watching him just out of sight as he contemplated his retrieval of the Sword. Now, he only felt calm standing next to Hermione.
“It was down there?”
“At the bottom,” he answered. “Snape’s patronus led me here and disappeared. I saw the Sword through the ice and tried to summon it but that didn’t work.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I realized I would have to swim to it. So I took off my clothes and went in—”
“Oh, Harry! You didn’t!” she gasped.
“It was pretty horrible,” he chuckled. “I could hardly breathe, it was so cold. I was about to reach it when the locket started choking me. I think it knew it was close to the thing that would destroy it.”
“Ron was there suddenly and he pulled me out. He had grabbed the Sword too.”
Hermione smiled. “What did Ron say then?”
“Something along the lines of I was insane. I was just shocked and grateful to see him. Plus, we had the Sword.”
Harry turned from the pond. Looking to his right, he felt the same pull dragging him forward. This time it was towards the rock where Harry had opened Tom Riddle’s locket and Ron had smashed it with the Sword of Gryffindor.
“It was over here,” said Harry, as he approached the large slab of stone sticking out of the leaf-strewn ground. “This is where Ron stabbed the locket…”
Harry knelt beside the rock. He might have been imagining it, but he thought he saw a thin, white line on the stone’s surface. Perhaps the sort of line made by a slashing sword…
He traced the groove with his fingers.
Hermione was next to him. “So Ron destroyed it with the Sword?”
“It wasn’t that simple,” he said, lowering himself onto the rock. “Something happened before.”
Hermione sat down beside him. “What happened?”
Harry’s mind had not thought through the entire episode. The details flooded back to him now.
He flushed and glanced at Hermione. The sunlight struck her hair interestingly. It set her curls alight like gleaming bronze. Her cheeks were still slightly flushed from drink. But her eyes were watching him curiously.
“The locket…it tried to tempt Ron.”
“Tempt? How do you mean?”
“It tried to get Ron not to destroy it,” he explained, hands running subconsciously over his legs. “Ron was the one holding the Sword, ready to smash it. The locket tried to get inside Ron’s head…started saying things.”
“What sort of things? Could you hear?”
“Yeah, I could. It said awful things. Things like his parents didn’t want him or love him, that he was worthless. It showed him you and me.”
“You and me?” Hermione repeated. “Why?”
His mouth felt dry and he licked his lips. “I don’t know,” he said. “Two smoky versions of us came out of the locket. I think we were goading him, saying that…you and I were a couple. At some point, we kissed. Ron eventually pulled himself together and stabbed the thing. That was it.”
Hermione stared at him, a hard line forming between her brows. Harry doubted she knew she was doing it. He felt too warm, his stomach tight.
“Why didn’t either of you tell me about this?” she finally asked.
He didn’t know the answer to that question. He was regretting even mentioning the vision that emerged from Riddle’s locket.
“I don’t know,” he said again. “It didn’t seem important when we got back to camp. Ron was back and the horcrux was destroyed. What the locket had shown Ron didn’t seem important by comparison.”
“Yes, but what it showed him…” said Hermione, confused. “Does that…does that mean he thought something was going on between us?”
Harry shifted. “I’m not sure. Maybe.”
She laughed uncertainly. “But why would he think that? Had we done something that would cause him to believe you and I were romantically…inclined?”
Harry sighed, fervently wishing they could drop the topic. “It was an irrational fear…”
Hermione nodded vaguely. “Maybe. I mean…we both know Ron has been insecure about you in the past. About Quidditch. About your inheritance…There was your fight after the Goblet of Fire.”
He nodded, grimacing. He didn’t like remembering these moments from his youth. He and Ron were not the same people anymore.
“But when it comes to you and me, there was no reason for him to think that,” she said. “No one saw us as more than friends…”
Harry wasn’t sure why he spoke. He could have easily dropped it and that would have been it. Maybe it was her tone and the implication it carried. That the idea of them—him and her—was impossible, fantastical…laughable. Whatever it was, a switch flicked on in the back of Harry’s mind.
“I don’t know if that’s true.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, there were times when people thought we were a couple, weren’t there? Like after Rita Skeeter’s article.”
“Oh, right.” And then she smiled suddenly, remembering. “You know, Cho Chang actually came up to me one day and said she didn’t like how I was ‘monopolizing’ your time. I always remembered she used that word. ‘Monopolizing.’ Like I had taken something that belonged to her…”
Harry grinned faintly. He would have liked to have seen that conversation. But Hermione’s words reminded him of another example.
“I guess that went both ways because Krum confronted me about you once. I had to assure him we were just friends,” Harry laughed. “He was very relieved.”
“Really?” she asked, voice pitching higher. She looked almost giddy and, for a moment, he caught the briefest glimpse of the fourteen-year-old on Viktor Krum’s arm twenty-three years ago. “He never told me that. That’s hilarious.”
“But those were people we were dating,” she said reasonably. “They were bound to jump to conclusions. Though, I wonder why Viktor didn’t ask Ron the same question?”
“Maybe because you two were fighting so much?”
Hermione smiled. “Well, that hasn’t changed.”
“But actually, it was more than just them,” Harry started, remembering another instance. “Dumbledore asked me if we were dating in our sixth year. That came out of nowhere.”
“That’s so odd,” she whispered.
They sat in silence for a moment. Harry tried to ignore the heat rising up his back. This conversation had taken an awkward turn, as so rarely happened in his conversations with Hermione. He cast about for something different to discuss, but she spoke again.
“I suppose,” she said, eyes fixed on the water, “his insecurities about you and the rumors about us could have led Ron to see us in the locket?”
He nodded, staring at his shoes. “It’s a fair guess.”
“Ron never mentioned any of this.” Her voice was quiet and, he thought, just a little sad.
Harry could feel the warmth radiating off Hermione now too. Her knee had drifted towards his and a dark pulse seemed to grow and stretch between them.
She turned to him. “So. We snogged right here, Harry?” Her voice was low, almost seductive. He had never heard that from her before.
His head snapped up. She was grinning mischievously.
He laughed. “I guess we did. Did I tell you we were both naked?”
“Oh god!” Her eyes widened before she buried her face in her hands.
He laughed again and nudged her reassuringly with his knee. She was beet red when she lifted her face again.
“C’mon,” he teased. “It wasn’t real, was it?”
“I know. I know.” She sighed and looked at him fondly. She tucked a hand back into his arm and gave him an appraising glance.
“You know, I don’t think we’ve ever kissed.”
“What?” he said faintly. His eyes flew involuntarily to her lips.
“I don’t think we have. Not even on New Year’s. No wonder I find it so hard to picture…”
He gave her a half-smile. “What? Us going at it naked?”
She looked down at her lap, mortified again. “Yes. That.”
He watched her. Or at least watched her lips a moment longer.
“We could try it now.”
Hermione blinked. “What?”
“We never have, like you said. What better place than this? The site of our…debauchery twenty years ago?” he said jokingly, gesturing to the stone beneath them.
Hermione stared at him, trying to determine whether he was serious. Then, her face broke into a wide grin and she laughed.
“Well, in that case, I guess we have to!”
He smiled and looked away. “No, it’s all right. I was just joking.”
“C’mon, Harry,” she smiled, tugging at his arm “What are we? Twelve? We can handle a kiss between friends.”
He hesitated, breath tight in his chest. “Fine, then. If you’re sure.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just do it,” she said, eyes sparkling with humor.
They turned to face one another on the stone. Their knees touched now and Hermione placed a steadying palm on the black, warm surface of the rock.
“Hermione,” he warned, “don’t laugh.”
“I won’t!” she cried.
He couldn’t seem to keep the smile off his face.
“You’re the one who’s going to laugh,” she said reproachfully.
“Shut up. Just relax your face.”
Hermione rolled her eyes before closing them.
Free from her gaze, his eyes traced her lips a third time. He had never appreciated their color before. Deep rose, bare of lipstick. Her upper lip was ever so slightly larger than the bottom. Innocent and provocative at the same time. His heart was thrumming frantically in his chest, even while his fingers had gone inexplicably cold. The wind in the trees, the birds, the rippling of the pool’s surface—it all faded. Until everything was her soft breath in his ears, against his skin.
His eyes slipped shut before he covered her lips with his. The first sensation was softness. Softness he could not have imagined, could not have prepared for. Softness and warmth, which sent a dark bead of heat through him, filling his chest before settling startlingly, jarringly further south.
His eyes snapped open and he pulled away. They stared at one another, neither close to laughing. He numbly realized his hand was resting on the curve of her waist. Her hand was cupping his elbow.
He searched her eyes. They reflected the gold of the clearing but still carried that indescribable depth. Eyes he knew so well, but not like this. Not like now. And those eyes looked back at him. Surprised. Trusting. Hesitant. Wanting. And as he felt himself pass through the same emotions, her eyes traveled slowly to his lips.
Before he could think, he was kissing her again. Hard. And she was opening to him, lips parting with a soft gasp. With another jolt of heat, his tongue slipped inside her. And he was dragging her to him, arm circling her waist. And those were her fingers in his hair and her breasts against his chest and his eyes rolled further back in his head.
Her mouth was hot and wet and insistent. He stroked the length of her tongue with his and she the ridges of his teeth. One of them or both of them was shaking. And the sounds. The sounds—soft, aching moans rising in the back of her throat—gentle, powerful provocations. Harry could feel them through his entire body. Felt them slip down his jaw, through the tendons of his neck, pulsing ever lower, ever lower until he was hard and straining against his jeans.
He was quickly losing all sense of himself. As though neurons and synapses were rewiring and narrowing his thought to only this, only this. Last ditch efforts to stave off insanity.
Because this was Hermione. His adored, his loved friend. But he could taste her. He could feel her. She was making sounds for him—because of him—that he never dreamed possible. She was in his arms, her chest heaving against his. Her lips fused to his. Her skin coming to life beneath his fingers. How had this happened? What were they doing? He wasn’t sure how long the kiss had lasted, but if they didn’t break apart now then…then what?
It was Hermione who found the strength to pull away. She pushed against his chest and they separated, breathless.
“Harry,” she cried, jumping to her feet. “I’m-I’m sorry!”
She stumbled in her haste to put space between them. He reached for her instinctively, but something in her eyes stopped him.
“I-I don’t know what…” she stammered.
“That was…” he started, equally lost for words.
She took a breath and something passed over her eyes, like a veil being raised. “We…we got carried away. I’m so sorry. We shouldn’t have done that.”
He swallowed, the taste of her in his throat. He stood and was startled to find his legs weak.
But the heat of the kiss was fading. He felt a sudden, cold wave of terror. They had crossed an unspoken boundary. The line that had always been there between them, unacknowledged but understood. The line between shared looks and lingering looks. The line between embracing and holding. The line between touch and caress. Between affection and desire.
They’d crossed it. Or stumbled across it. In whatever manner, they were now beyond it. And with that came the knowledge that things could not be the same.
“Are you okay?” Harry asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, a hand nervously tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “That was…we shouldn’t have done that.”
“I’m so sorry.”
She paused. Her eyes softened and she looked at him worriedly. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been a stressful day for both of us. I was upset, drank too much. We don’t need to worry about it.”
He shifted uneasily, not meeting her eyes.
“Harry, really,” she said, coming towards him. She touched his arm, forcing him to look at her. “Please don’t worry about it.”
He nodded. But he couldn’t stop his eyes from landing squarely on her reddened lips.
She nodded, unconsciously biting down on her lip. Harry looked away.
“So…should we head back?” she asked, removing her hand and surreptitiously straightening her clothes. “It must be past five now.”
“Right,” he said again. “I need to check in at the office before going home.”
“Sure,” Hermione said quickly. “I need to go to Diagon Alley. The shopkeeper at Flourish & Blotts reserved an advance copy of Gretchen Ohlen’s autobiography for me. It’s supposed to be amazing.”
“Oh,” said Harry, vaguely remembering a Swedish witch and scholar Hermione had mentioned before. “Sounds great.”
Why were they talking about this?
“Yes,” said Hermione distantly. “Well, see you tomorrow?”
“Right. Tomorrow. See you tomorrow.”
They stared at each other for another moment, neither knowing how to fill the silence. This was usually the moment when they would peck cheeks and embrace before parting. That didn’t seem possible now.
“Well, bye then,” he said, immediately hating the brusqueness of his words.
“Bye, Harry.” She smiled faintly at him before disapparating.
He looked around the quiet clearing, the golden light quickly fading.
Harry was home by eight. His staff had taken care of his instructions when he arrived at the Auror Department, so Harry looked over the interdepartmental quarterly review and several other files. But in actuality, he mostly thought about Hermione.
He thought of her lips, how unquestioning they had been under his. The feeling of her pressed against him, the curve of her body in his hands. The golden light reflected in her eyes. The heavy lashes that fell when she looked at his lips. Harry followed these thoughts without truly processing them, not wanting to know what they meant.
After reliving the scene in the forest fifty times, he started to worry about his relationship with Hermione.
In all the years he’d known her, they had never been anything but fantastic friends. It had always been clear to him that Ron was in love with Hermione. He never thought much about whether she loved him back. He assumed their marriage was proof enough of that. In that reality, there had never been room for a Harry and Hermione who were more than friends. Yet, Harry had to reject that thought as well. He and Hermione had always been more than friends. To say they were just friends cheapened their relationship.
Yes, Hermione was his friend. But she was also a full list of separate identifiers. She was his source of advice and perspective, his co-worker, his reference library, his sister-in-law, his family, his best friend, and his savior on countless occasions. Perhaps no one else, to maddening effect, seemed to know what was going on in Harry’s head better than Hermione. They thought alike, of that Harry was certain. He didn’t need any more evidence than the half-year they had spent together in a tent. It had always been him and Hermione that chased down any clue that might have led to a new horcrux. Their time in the tent reflected a pattern throughout their Hogwarts days. Hermione had always been the other half of his brain. Usually the half that worked better.
Considering this, kissing Hermione was wholly ill advised. He had no idea how Hermione would react to the events in the forest. Sure, she seemed willing to blame it on stress but Harry had a feeling women did not forget these things easily. He certainly couldn’t forget it. Again, the same cold wave of panic swallowed him. His ruminations on her lips aside, he couldn’t be without Hermione as his friend. He simply couldn’t. He didn’t know anything else. There simply wasn’t another way to live, was there?
Climbing the stairs to his and Ginny’s bedroom, he saw a light at the end of the corridor. Lily’s room. Harry walked towards the strip of light and softly turned the doorknob.
Lily instantly squealed. “DADDY!”
She launched herself at Harry and he swung her up into his arms. She was getting heavier and it was not as easy as it once was. Harry laughed, letting his attaché slip from his hand and fall to the floor. “There’s my girl.”
“Mummy said you weren’t coming home tonight!”
“Well, I came back early, honey.” Harry smiled at her cherubic face, eyes wide and beaming. “But someone is supposed to be in bed.”
“I was! I was!” she cried.
“Yeah? What’s all this, then?” Harry accused, walking towards the dollhouse Lily had obviously been occupied with.
“I was just playing for a bit,” Lily protested. “I was about to go to bed!”
Harry knelt down, holding Lily in his lap. She looked at her father curiously as he essentially cradled her like a baby. She didn’t question him, though. Instead, she squirmed and grabbed two dolls within arm’s reach.
They were the magical dolls Harry had gotten for her ninth birthday. They were special in that they could change on verbal command: male or female, long or short hair, light or dark skin, brown or blue eyes.
“I made a mummy and a you, and then there’s Auntie Hermione and Uncle Ron,” Lily told him proudly, stroking the hair of the doll in her hand. It had shiny brown hair with flecks of copper. Her other hand held a doll with a shock of short, red hair.
Harry looked at the doll versions of Ron and Hermione. Then, he kissed Lily’s own ginger head.
“That’s nice, honey,” he said. “But it really is time for bed. It’s a school night. Gimme kiss.”
“Fine,” she huffed, resigned. She pecked Harry softly on the cheek.
He scooped her up again and laid her down on her bed. He tucked in the corners and moved to kiss her goodnight.
“G’night, Lily bear.”
Lily giggled. “Goodnight, papa bear!”
Harry smiled and kissed her forehead.
He turned and saw that Ginny was leaning against the door, waiting for him. Harry’s smile faltered only slightly.
The two moved out into the hall, closing the door softly behind them.
“You’re back early,” observed Ginny, looping her arm around Harry’s waist. “Thought I wouldn’t see you until morning?”
“It didn’t take as long as expected.”
Could Ginny feel how his muscles tensed? How his breathing hitched?
Ginny had already eaten, so Harry had a solitary dinner of Molly Weasley’s leftover casserole. He ate at the kitchen counter, too on edge to sit down.
His mind fell to its usual preoccupation of Hermione’s lips. But now the first tendrils of guilt were growing along the edges of his memory. He thought of the miniatures of Ron and Hermione that Lily held in her hands. Cold and wooden, but matching perfectly.
Somewhere in his mind, Harry knew he should have thought of them sooner. But considering either of them would mean the events in the Forest of Dean somehow involved them. He wasn’t ready to think about that.
Harry spent the rest of the evening in his personal study at the top of the house, attempting to read the same files he failed to read at the Auror Department. As the clock struck eleven, he returned to his and Ginny’s room. She was in the bathroom and Harry undressed to his boxers. He burrowed under the covers, prepared to appear fast asleep when Ginny emerged. He listened to the taps running in the next room. He pushed Hermione as far away as possible.
A few minutes later, he heard Ginny close the bathroom door. She paced softly to her side of the room, a faint perfume of mint and lavender following after her.
Finally, the lights went out and Ginny sat down on the other end of their massive bed. He could hear her placing something on the nightstand and then she slipped between the sheets.
Harry was relieved there would be no more talking. He needed to organize his thoughts. As a result, he was surprised when the mattress sank slightly next to him. Ginny draped a delicate arm over his chest.
“When are you going to work tomorrow?”
Harry paused, unsure whether to respond. “Usual time.”
“Okay,” she murmured, lips against his shoulder. Another pause. “I missed you today.”
Harry said nothing, not trusting his voice. His heart started up again.
Slowly, Ginny’s fingers traced his bare chest beneath the covers. They came to rest near his navel before dipping lower.
Harry’s muscles stiffened as Ginny lifted her head and leaned towards him, lips parted.
He tried not to draw comparisons, but immediately they were there. Ginny’s lips were soft, sticky with gloss. Her mouth tasted faintly of toothpaste. Rather than the gold of the forest, it was the moon that gave her skin a silver radiance.
Her hand stroked him. Assured, easy movements that within seconds had him inadvertently raising his hips against her palm. She removed her hand and lifted the hem of her shift.
“Ginny, I—” he started, unsure what he wanted.
But she was unclothed now, her skin luminous alabaster. In another movement, she straddled his hips and her fingers ran along the muscles of his torso. He watched her reach backwards and tug at his remaining clothing, knowing she must feel his erection hard beneath her.
“Shhh.” Her smile was blazing in the night. Her lips were back on his.
Harry couldn’t protest anymore. This was good. It felt good. Ginny’s ministrations were clearing his head, which was exactly what he wanted. He kissed her back fiercely, his tongue battling hers. She let out a surprised whimper from the back of her throat.
He grunted and reversed their positions. She laughed lightly as he pressed her into the mattress, lowering his lips to the spot he knew she liked just below her jaw. His hand found her breasts and he pulled one nipple into a tight peak between his fingers.
Ginny’s hips bucked against him. He looked down at her and she nodded, eyes dark with want. He didn’t need further encouragement. He slipped off his boxers and positioned himself between her thighs. Sliding into her with a groan, he let her adjust around him.
She started to moaned breathlessly as he moved inside her. First, slow and purposeful. Then rapidly, erratically, grinding his pelvic bone hard against her. He took her much more roughly than he usually did, like he could fuck the chaotic thoughts away with every thrust into her core.
The tension built and built until Harry felt her tightening around him. Suddenly her fingers dug painfully into his shoulders and she held him fast inside her as the waves overwhelmed her.
“Oh god. Oh god,” she gasped. “Harry!”
His eyes snapped to her face. A second later, he felt his own release.
But in that same moment, Hermione surfaced in his splintered, lust-addled mind.
Ginny pulled him down and murmured something against his neck. But Harry closed his eyes, holding the fleeting image of Hermione. Hermione saying his name. His name with those lips, swollen and reddened by their kiss.