Disclaimer: Not mine. Just playing with the what-ifs because it's cheaper than therapy.
This story is inspired by the song "I Know the Reason" by the band Carbon Leaf. It's also my first experiment in playing with some serious literary alchemy symbolism and themes. See if you can spot some of the references!
The owl had come to him at home, rapping its beak on the windowpane and pulling him out of the light sleep he had achieved. He stumbled to the window, blinking against the imminent sunrise, and swore at the bird as he pulled the sash up. It dropped two folded parchments on the sill and hissed at him in response. He took the one addressed to him automatically. The owl snatched up the second one, taking off so quickly that he wouldn't have been able to read the name if he hadn't been intimately familiar with it.
An owl in a hurry, with messages for both of them. He opened the letter with a sinking feeling.
Please come to St. Mungo's as soon as you get this. Ron was ambushed on his way home from the Cannons game tonight, presumably by former Death Eaters. The Healers are trying their best, but they don't know if he'll make it or not. Molly is on the verge of collapse.
Harry was at his wardrobe and pulling out clothes almost before he had finished the note. Rather than waste time looking for clean robes, he threw on a pair of jeans and a jumper, jamming his feet into his trainers. He shoved his wand into the pocket hidden along the seam down his thigh and left his flat to get outside his Anti-Apparition wards.
Quick as he had been, Hermione was there first. The sight of her in the hallway, safe and talking to Arthur and patting his hand, made his tense muscles relax just a little. She wore a baggy jumper, skirt and boots, and had a satchel slung over one shoulder; she had defied all expectations after the defeat of Voldemort and entered University. She was specializing in library science and research methods, hoping to earn a place as a researcher in the Ministry, possibly even as an Unspeakable, when she was through.
Hermione stepped back from Arthur as Harry approached. Arthur was grey-faced from worry and shook Harry's hand with more than usual force.
"How is he, Arthur?"
"No change. Thank you for coming so quickly, Harry. It will mean a lot to Molly."
"Do they know who attacked him yet? Or how they managed to catch him off-guard?"
"Who? No. How? The Healers found traces of a Befuddlement Draught in his system and the Aurors are acting on the presumption that someone spiked his drink at the victory celebration. He was walking from the pub, presumably far away enough to Apparate, when he was attacked."
Harry scrubbed one hand through his flyaway hair in frustration. Hermione quietly took his other hand and squeezed it.
Many hours later, there was no change. Harry had spoken to Ginny, been wept on by Molly, and not teased by the twins, which was the most telling point of all. He had gotten a single glimpse of Ron through the door to the ward as a nurse went in; Ron was unconscious, his face and chest covered in bruises and cuts. The Aurors' theory was that Ron's attackers had wanted to injure him as blatantly as possible before killing him. They still didn't know what stroke of luck had interrupted the attack, but had eliminated all but half-a-dozen names from their list of suspects.
After delivering the news to Harry in hushed tones so Molly would not hear and become hysterical again, Tonks informed Harry that he was officially on holiday from his own Auror training for the next three days. He mentioned this to Hermione and offered to let her stay in the spare room of his flat, as he was closer to the hospital than she. She thanked him, accepting the offer without hesitation.
"Let's go upstairs to the teashop for a bit," she suggested. "I need to make a list of what I'll need to pack and, knowing your larder, one for the market as well."
Harry shook his head and strode down the hall. "I have to get out of here." He was dimly aware of Hermione following him as he exited St. Mungo's to find that the previous day's leaden clouds had let loose a heavy rain. Water poured down in sheets silvered by streetlamps in the darkening afternoon.
Hermione quickly conjured an umbrella and raised it over the two of them, sticking to his side to keep both of them sheltered. "Which way do you want to go?"
He picked a direction at random and they began walking.
They wandered from Holburn into Clerkenwell, listening to the rain drum on the umbrella and splashing their feet through puddles. Harry let the rhythm soak in, almost hypnotizing him to the point where he was only conscious of the drops beating above his head and the warmth of Hermione pressed close to him. She stayed silent beside him, following as he turned one way and another.
Harry slowed down as Clerkenwell Green dead-ended. Trees and red phone boxes lined a plaza that ran next to St. James Church. Streetlamps fashioned like Victorian gaslamps of old gave a dim glow in the heavy rain. Harry looked around, then turned left and led Hermione past a pub and a few shops, into the churchyard sheltered by large trees and high hedgerows. They found a bench that was protected from the worst of the rain, with only a steady drizzle filtering through the branches and leaves. Harry automatically waved his wand at the stone bench to dry it and they sat, the umbrella covering them.
Harry gazed out across the churchyard, with its tangles of flowers and canopy of trees. He noticed one spot where two rosebushes had grown together, until the red and white blooms were so entwined that it would have been impossible to separate them without killing them. He looked at them moodily, seeing in the red the blood that he must continually spill fighting the remnants of Voldemort's army in order to protect the white, the innocent wizards and Muggles. Even though he was still a trainee and would be for several more months, Robards had begun sending him out with Aurors on a number of smaller missions. Officially, he was making sure that Harry could work well on teams, given his history of trying to go it alone. Unofficially, it was public relations gold to have Harry Potter as part of a successful sortie against former Death Eaters. And these missions were on top of his already brutal schedule of classes and training.
Gods above, I'm so tired.
Hermione's hand slipped into his. "I know you are, Harry."
He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't complain like that."
"Whyever not? You work just as hard as anyone, harder than most in fact."
He swung around, his eyes hard as flint. "Ron is lying in a hospital bed, he could still die! I have no right at all to complain about a little overwork!"
Hermione lifted her chin, matching his gaze. "You are completing some of the most difficult training one can go through, for one of the most dangerous and thankless jobs in the wizarding world, and that bastard Robards is using you as if you were a full Auror just to make himself look good! You are hardly going through 'a little overwork'!"
"But I'm still alive, aren't I? How on earth can I complain when I'm still alive?"
Hermione's jaw dropped and it seemed to take her a moment to process what Harry had just said. He watched as she groped for words. "Why…what…what on earth makes you think you have no right to complain?"
"I survived Voldemort, didn't I? What's more, my two best friends and a lot of people I care about did, too! My entire life has been on borrowed time ever since my mother sacrificed herself for me! I should be glad I'm here, I should be glad I'm able to repay some of that debt by making sure there's never another Grindelwald or Voldemort! It's why I was born!"
He felt the sudden tug as Hermione tore her hand out of his grasp. Her expression was both stunned and outraged, and, if it weren't for the rain pouring down around them, Harry thought she would have vaulted off the bench and away from him to start pacing.
She reached around the umbrella shaft, taking his face in her hands and forcing him to look straight at her.
"You. Do not. Owe. Anyone. Anything. Can you hear me? Can you understand that? You do not owe the world because your mother did what almost any mother would do and try to save her child."
"But the prophecy—" Harry tried to interrupt but Hermione steamrolled right over his protest.
"You were not obligated to fulfil that bloody stupid prophecy! You chose to do so because you are a very good person with a hugely overdeveloped sense of responsibility. And you were the one being attacked! Voldemort is the one who arranged to kidnap you and resurrect himself, Voldemort is the one who invaded your mind. Voldemort is the egomaniac who tried to remake the wizarding world into a force to destroy everything else."
"No, no 'buts', Harry. It's survivors' guilt and you've been living with it far, far too long."
Harry pulled away from her, protesting instantly. "Of course it's guilt! People are dead because of me! My parents, Sirius, Professor Dumbledore, Hagrid, so many others, and now maybe Ron! If I had any sense I'd leave England, draw the last of the Death Eaters away from here, stop providing them with targets for their revenge! But I can't! I can't leave you and Ron and his family and all these people without trying to fight them!" His voice rose until he was nearly shouting at her.
Hermione looked away, focusing on something in the distance. In a carefully neutral tone, she asked, "Did I tell you exactly why Ron and I broke up?"
Harry looked at her profile, silhouetted by the distant streetlamps. He watched as the mist in her hair caught the light, giving the impression that she was dusted with tiny diamonds. He swallowed and answered, not knowing why she'd suddenly changed the subject. "No, you didn't. You just said it was the last fight. I figured it was something huge."
"But it wasn't, actually. Except that it was, after all." She glanced at Harry, seeing the confusion on his face, and her eyes crinkled a little at the corners. He knew she was hiding a smile, though her lips didn't give a hint of her amusement. He waited for her to go on, noticing that the rain had picked up and was drumming harder on the umbrella above them.
When she didn't speak, he asked, "Well, how is that possible?"
"I set up new wards around the flat. Inside and out. I got a lot of spells from Remus and worked to make my home as impenetrable as possible. I set them up so that you not only had to be recognized as permitted, but also say the right words. That way, ideally, no one could get in just because they'd Polyjuiced themselves or were carrying an unconscious body."
"You didn't give me any code words."
"No, I didn't. You were off on that fortnight's training with the Aurors at the time. And it's not like you ever come to my flat anyway."
Harry flushed slightly. It was true that he'd avoided going to Hermione's when Ron was living with her. He'd felt like he would be intruding, a third wheel. It had been more comfortable to meet on neutral ground, or see them separately.
"But, now that you know, your code phrase is 'Frumious Bandersnatch'."
"Frumious Bandersnatch?" But even as he chuckled over the ridiculous-sounding words, they rang a bell. Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!
"Lewis Carroll!" he exclaimed in surprise. "That's from 'Jabberwocky'!"
And now Hermione did smile, her face lighting up with pride in Harry for placing it. "Exactly! Not something known in wizarding circles and not easily mistaken for a more common phrase."
"What was Ron's?"
The light in her eyes dimmed. "His was "Tweedledum and Tweedledee". I hoped that with the twins as his brothers, it would be easy to remember. And the problem wasn't remembering the phrase itself. He wouldn't remember to say it as he was coming in and kept tripping the wards."
"Uh-oh." Harry took her hand and squeezed it. "What happened?"
"The wards were designed to capture the intruder with a variation of the Tangle-Web Jinx. The threads of the web were invisible and very strong, wrapping around the target tightly and suspending them upside-down."
Harry envisioned Ron stumbling into the flat, still half-drunk from a pub crawl, and being yanked off his feet and upended before he realized it. Without meaning to, he chuckled again. He tried to stifle it, seeing the hurt in Hermione's eyes.
"I could understand it if it had happened once. But after the fifth time—" Harry exploded into howls of laughter, cutting her off, and she simply stared at him as he doubled over, splashing droplets of rain as he pounded the bench beside him. She waited while he began to pull himself together, and he felt the tension in his body begin to lift with his mood, even as he still worried about Ron in the back of his thoughts.
He sat up, still chortling, and shoved his glasses up to wipe his eyes. "Sorry. So, Ron kept forgetting the extra precautions."
"Yes. And after the fifth time he'd stumbled in and got caught after an evening at the Leaky Cauldron or wherever it was he liked to go drinking, his solution was to dismantle the wards." Her eyes turned cold and steely. "I could have altered the spell into a simple trap-spell until the code was spoken. We could have cast a charm to help him remember his code phrase or gotten him a Rememberall. But the only thing Ron wanted to do was to take down all the extra wards because, and I quote, they were 'too much bother'. He knew there are still people out there who stay loyal to Voldemort's vision. He knew that he was inviting hatred from certain wizarding factions for being involved with a Muggleborn. But his safety and mine were secondary to the inconvenience of having to remember to speak a simple phrase when he entered."
Harry was completely sober now, tentatively stroking her arm. As he watched, she drew a long breath and forced her body to relax a bit. He slid his hand down to her wrist with a surer touch. She inhaled deeply again and continued.
"It made me realize that Ron will never change. He's lived through the years of danger. He's been injured before. He's seen people killed, people he cared about. He was right there, by your side, fighting Voldemort. And yet, it's never really sunk in with him that precautions are a good thing. I started thinking about what would happen if Ron and I married and had a baby, and a new dark wizard rose to threaten us. If he couldn't be bothered to change his ways for me, there was no guarantee that he'd do so for our child.
"Ron has always looked for the easy way, the shortcut. He did it in school. He did it with his family. He did it with finding a job. And I finally admitted to myself that I could neither change him, nor let myself be changed. And I broke up with him."
She stopped, and Harry waited a moment for her to continue. Finally he broke the silence. "But, Hermione, I don't understand."
She turned to face him, her brown eyes dark and serious. "My point is that it's not your fault that Ron was careless about the drink someone shoved into his hand or that he chose to walk alone to a desolate location to Apparate. It may not even be your fault that he was attacked in the first place; the entire Weasley family has been well-known for its 'liberal' attitude toward Muggles and Muggleborns for decades." She cupped his face with her free hand. "While you are The Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One, and the Saviour of Us All—" Her voice lilted with sarcasm and Harry felt an urge to grin. No one else could deflate his occasional ego so quickly and neatly. "—not everything is about you. I don't blame you for this. The Weasleys don't blame you. Ron won't blame you." She drew Harry forward. "You shouldn't blame yourself."
As Hermione tried to hug Harry around the umbrella shaft, it tilted. She squealed as the rain hit them and Harry quickly righted the umbrella and drew Hermione to him. He could smell the slightly musky dampness of their wool jumpers, feel her wet hair against his cheek. He turned, pressing his lips into it. And somehow, that knot of guilt in his stomach was loosening, just a little.
"Thank you," he murmured into her hair. "Thank you for being the one person who has always said it to me straight. Thank you for always understanding."
She didn't answer, but slid her arms around his neck and pulled him closer. He buried his face deeper into her hair, inhaling her scent. For one brief moment he stayed, embracing the perfect peace and comfort of Hermione holding him in their little round cocoon of protection. The rain beat down above and around them, cutting them off from all the pain and problems in the world outside.
If only I could have this once in a while, I could deal with the rest… Harry shuddered at the strength of that need, surprised and dismayed to realize that he was close to tears. That would never do. He might yell his rage to his best friend, but she didn't deserve to deal with his being despondent over the tasks that would never be completely done.
He swallowed and started to pull away. But she clung to him, refusing to budge. "Oh, no you don't. You've been holding everything inside for far too long." She rubbed one hand over his back in small circles and put her lips to his ear. She whispered, "Let it out, Harry. I'm here for you. I'll always be here for you."
His shoulders shook as the first sob broke through, and then he was crying into her shoulder. He could feel her hands, running up his back, on his neck, in his hair. Her voice was in his ear, repeating softly, "I'm here, Harry. I'm here." One hand slid up, removing his glasses. He tightened his arms around her, pressing his face into the warm smooth curve of her neck. He cried without shame, releasing the worry over Ron, the frustrations with the job that was both a calling and a confinement, and the lurking fear that if the Death Eaters weren't stamped out now, there would be a new Dark Lord to deal with down the line.
And the next time he might lose.
After a few moments, he was no longer shaking or gulping in air, and he felt Hermione's lips on his cheek.
He pulled back slightly in surprise, searching her face. The streetlamps washed out and whitened her skin, making the light spray of freckles across her nose stand out and her normally brown lashes black. Her eyes looked into his, full of concern and caring and a hint of something else that he couldn't pin down.
She ran her thumbs under his eyes, wiping away the last of his tears, and lifted his glasses from her lap. He put a hand up to stop her, not wanting to put any barrier between them. She tilted her head slightly, studying him with that grave, thoughtful expression he remembered so well from their Hogwarts days.
She had always been there for him, no matter what. Even when the rest of the school had been against him, even when Ron had been against him, she had always believed in him and tried to steer him in the right direction. Having her by his side was so natural, so right. It was the best thing in his life these days. He didn't want it to end.
Harry leaned forward tentatively, giving her every chance to pull away before he touched his lips to hers.
And he nearly fell off the bench in shock when she responded by flinging her arms around him again and kissing him back.
Hermione was kissing him. Actually kissing him. And doing a hell of a job, too; she ran her tongue across his lips and when he opened his mouth in a moan she took advantage to pull his bottom lip between her teeth and nip ever so gently. But as badly as he wanted this, as badly as he needed it, things were getting out of hand. If there was one thing he couldn't risk, ever, it was his friendship with Hermione. It had taken a long time for her and Ron to achieve something approaching their old camaraderie, and even now it was an effort between them. He pulled back slightly, turning his head a little as she followed him.
She slid her hands to rest behind his ears, guiding him back to her. "Stop overthinking this, Harry."
"That's my line."
Her lips, dark pink from their exertions, curved into a smile that was half smirk. "So it is. Doesn't make it any less true."
"No, but we should, we should stop."
"Why? Don't you want this? Because I've wanted it for years."
He blinked, snatching his glasses from his lap and putting them back on to cover his surprise. He filed that little revelation away to think about later. "I do, I do want this. But…what if…what if we break up?"
"Then we break up. But I swear that I will do everything it takes to stay friends with you no matter what happens. If we fall down, we fall down. At least we'll have tried to fly. But honestly, Harry…I know you. I've known you almost half my life. I've been your best friend almost that entire time. And I was willing to settle for that if that was all I could have…I even tried to make a go of it with Ron, knowing him just as well and knowing we'd never be truly happy with one another, because I thought you'd never love me like I did you."
She took a deep breath. "I know what kind of person you are, Harry. I know you'll never deliberately hurt me and that if you accidentally hurt me you'll say so and make amends." She reached up and stroked his cheek. He almost gasped at the tenderness in her touch. "I trust you, Harry. Trust yourself." She drew him forward and kissed him again, more gently than before.
I trust you, Harry. I love you. I will always be here for you. Hermione's voice echoed in his mind, reinforcing what her kisses were telling him and letting loose a torrent of emotions within him. He wanted to cry again, to laugh, to shout in triumph. That wall in his thoughts that had always kept him from thinking too closely about his feelings for her—she was Ron's, he couldn't risk her friendship, he was too dangerous for her to be any closer to him—was rapidly being washed away by the flood.
He sighed, the last of his resistance gone, and opened his mouth to hers, his hands slipping up to cradle her head. He let himself be pulled into the sensations of her tongue dancing along his teeth, of the rising heat in his body, and the heady, unusual feeling of utter safety in her arms. He'd been wrong. This was the best thing he could have imagined…
The silvery light flared suddenly in front of them. Harry's wand was out in half a second and Hermione's almost immediately after. The light coalesced into a familiar feline shape. Kingsley's lynx Patronus padded to them.
Arthur asked me to contact you. The Healers say that Ron should wake up in a few hours and that he's out of danger. Arthur wants you two to go home and sleep and they'll expect you in the morning.
Harry let out a breath, only then aware that he'd been holding it. He glanced at Hermione, whose smile was trembling with relief. She turned to him and kissed him soundly. "Let's go," she said. "We should try to eat something and get dry and warm before we catch cold."
They rose, stowing their wands, and began making their way out of the garden. Now, as they shared the umbrella, Harry kept one arm around Hermione's shoulders and she snuggled into him with her arms around his waist. It was fully dark and they moved slowly across the churchyard.
They were out from under the trees and close to the street entrance when Harry stepped on something and it rolled under his foot. Hermione tried to steady him, but his weight was too much for her. He went sprawling on the grass with a startled cry and the umbrella tumbled away from them.
"I'm fine," he replied, kicking at the tree branch that had surprised him. He stood and tested his ankle carefully. "I'm fine, no harm done."
"We're getting wet!" Hermione pushed her hair away from her face as it was rapidly becoming drenched.
"So we are." Harry held his arms up and flung his head back, letting the rain pound on his skin. It was ridiculous, it was glorious. He felt as if the water washing over him was taking away the last of his fears for Ron, his worries over beginning a relationship with Hermione, the stress of his work. He shoved up the sleeves of his jumper and pulled off his glasses, baring his face and arms to the feeling. He wanted to strip off his clothes and let the amazing warmth left by the splashing drops cover him completely, cleanse him.
Instead he laughed aloud at Hermione's probable reaction to that. And when he looked back at her, squinting to see her, she was smiling at him, her hair now in thick, waterlogged ringlets around her face and neck. She stepped forward, burying her fingers in his hair, and pulled his head down so she could kiss him again. He returned it joyfully, feeling the rain cascade down their faces, drip from their fingers, as if nature itself was baptizing them, blessing their union of bodies, their melding of emotions.
He embraced the feeling, the knowledge that here and now he and Hermione were together, that the best thing was in his grasp. He would treasure this perfect moment and let himself trust in the future.