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“How dare he? How fucking DARE he!” Hermione muttered to herself with increasing fury, stomping through the tall grass of the Burrow's front lawn. Her sensible kitten heels sunk into the soft earth with each step, her wrath only growing as she had to practically yank each foot out of the ground to get away from that - that - neanderthal !

Who did he think he was, telling her who she could and couldn't have lunch with - and a business lunch at that! To think she had dressed up for him today! She knew she had been busy at work these past few weeks trying to tie up all the loose ends of the new house elf legislation she was trying to get the Wizengamot to pass. She had wanted it done before the holidays so that she could relax and focus on her friends and family and him . She was finally finished with her first real piece of meaningful work, and so, for the big Christmas Eve party tonight, she had put on the sexy black cashmere dress he liked her in so much, and the cute little heels, and, damnit, she had even tamed her hair into the mature twist that was now coming undone, frizzing and curling as her magic crackled through the strands with her rage. All in an effort to show him that she was trying. That she loved him. That she was happy they were together. Only for it to all have been for nothing because he had been so ... so ... so RON today she could hardly stand it.

With one last tug at her now ruined shoes, Hermione came to a stop. Merlin's beard was she a bloody witch or not?! And with that thought she burst into tears and spun on the spot, apparating away to the one place she knew she would be safe and alone.

….

Harry sat at the long wooden kitchen table at Twelve Grimmauld Place, staring unseeingly out the magically charmed window. His hands were wrapped around a long-forgotten mug of tea that Kreacher had made for him some time ago. He wondered vaguely what everyone else was doing at that moment. The party had started mid-afternoon and it was just now getting to be dark, so they were all probably just settling down to the meal that Molly would have lovingly prepared. The weather was mild enough that a few strategically placed warming charms would have made it possible to sit at the large outdoor table with the white tablecloth and fairy lights twinkling above festively in the trees. They would all be laughing, Bill and Charlie teasing Ginny about her boyfriend while George tried to slip some new joke prototype into Percy's drink. Hermione would be tutting disapprovingly at George, but the side of her mouth would be curled up in good humour as she shared a private smile with Ron…

Harry wrenched his thoughts away from the Burrow and the Weasley family, blinking his eyes slowly as he looked at the deepening shadows across the kitchen. He didn't realize he had been sitting here for so long. It wasn't that he was regretting his decision to spend the Christmas holidays by himself, it was just that he hadn't expected it to be so boring . He had to think for a moment. Was this the first holiday he had ever spent by himself? When he lived with the Dursleys he often felt alone, but his aunt and uncle and cousin were always around demanding something of him. And once he started at Hogwarts he had spent the holidays with Ron either at school or at the Burrow. Even that awful Christmas during the Horcrux hunt was spent with Hermione. It was no wonder he was feeling somewhat maudlin.

When he had turned down Molly's invitation to spend Christmas at the Burrow, she hadn't taken it well. He had finally had to make up an auror assignment in Bulgaria that just could not possibly be postponed. And with that excuse firmly in hand, Molly had finally relented and the weight of another Weasley Christmas was cast off of his shoulders.

He had promptly gone to his boss and submitted his request for a two week holiday beginning the week before Christmas and ending after the New Year. He planned on a quiet few weeks at home, finally devoting time to the remodeling of Grimmauld Place that he had been meaning to tackle for the past two years. The house was looking much cleaner than it had before, what with Kreacher feeling happy to be needed and appreciated once again, but it was still in dire need of modernization and an overall brightening up.

It was amazing what a little magic could help you accomplish, as, over the past five or so days, Harry had completely remodeled the main floor bathroom, extending it out and adding a full-size shower and tub. He had also tackled the sitting room, tearing down the heavy old brocade window coverings, replacing them with sheer panels meant to allow light in while still maintaining his privacy. He had painted the walls a calming shade of taupe and covered the scarred hardwood floors with a beautiful plush handwoven rug he had found in his vault at Gringott’s. Along one wall was a modern TV hung above the huge brick fireplace. Hermione had helped him set up the electronics when he had first moved into Grimmauld Place permanently.

He was pleased with the overall feel of the room, but he still needed to buy a new sofa and chairs to complete the remodel. But that would have to wait since he couldn't risk being seen out in Diagon Alley as he was supposed to be in Bulgaria. He didn't want to run into anyone he knew and have them casually mention the encounter to Ron or Hermione… that would be a definite way to get his white lie discovered. So he would have to stay home for the time being. Which led to his problem with boredom. He hadn't left the house in almost a week, and while at first he had been busy with the remodel, he was now itching to do something else. Go out to eat. Play some quidditch. Wander around Diagon Alley looking at Christmas lights. Anything besides staring at the same walls of this house talking only to himself and Kreacher.

With that thought, Harry stood and brought his still full mug to the kitchen sink, dumping the contents down the drain and slowly washing it by hand. With that small task done, he could think of nothing else to do besides start working on another part of the house. The library next , he thought, it's the room used most frequently after the sitting room .

The library was yet another room that would need the old fabric wall coverings removed and replaced with a fresh coat of paint. He would change the color of the bookshelves as well, changing them from the dark, heavy espresso they were now to something a lighter shade of brown with some warmth to it. And windows. He couldn't forget to add in some windows. Hermione was constantly complaining about the lack of natural light giving her eyes strain as she tried to decipher the old texts.

Hermione. Thinking of her, Harry suddenly felt the slight blush of guilt up the back of his neck. While he didn't regret spending the holidays by himself and away from the Weasleys, he did regret spending the time away from Hermione. When he had told her about missing Christmas she had looked crestfallen and had thrown her arms around in him a big hug, demanding that he take care of himself and asking if he was really sure he had to go and shouldn't she come with to keep him company and out of trouble. He had been touched by the offer, and had told her so, but she should spend the holidays with her boyfriend and his family.

Wiping the last of the water on his hand onto the dish towel, Harry spun around and began to head up the to the library. His slow pace was immediately quickened however, when he heard the shrill cry of Walburga Black's portrait. Not very many people used the front door anymore since the house was no longer Headquarters for the Order, so Harry had put the idea of removing Walburga out of mind. But maybe it was time to bump that particular remodel project up to the top of the list.

“Filth! Filth in the Great and Honorable House of Black!”

Harry bounded up the last half of the stairs, wand suddenly in his right hand, ready to confront whoever it was who had dared enter his house uninvited and set off the portrait of Sirius’ mum. He rounded the corner into the entrance hall quickly, but came to a sudden stop, surprised at the sight and sound of a witch arguing with the portrait.

“Hermione?”

…..

Hermione apparated onto the front step of Twelve Grimmauld Place. She was sure none of the Weasleys would look for her here, not with Harry away in Bulgaria. If any of them even decided to check up on her, they would floo to her apartment, and when she wasn't there, they would assume she had gone off to her parents’ and leave it at that. Perfect. She just wanted to be alone, and Harry's place was the next best thing to home. She ineffectively wiped at the tears that sprang from her eyes, but they just continued to stream down her face. She brought her wand up to the doorknob and tapped it twice, disarming the wards Harry had keyed to her wand.

The entry hall was dark, as was to be expected with no one home, and Hermione stumbled a few steps before casting a quiet Lumos. The moment her wand illuminated the space, she knew the light had been a mistake. The portrait of Sirius’ mother began to shriek, her slumber disturbed by the sudden brightness.

“Filth! Filth in the Great and Honorable House of Black!”

Hermione normally would have moved to quickly shut the drapes surrounding the portrait so Walburga wouldn't disturb the entire household, but today she was emotionally drained, tired of being yelled at, and hungry since she had missed Molly's Christmas Eve dinner. And she did NOT want to put up with anyone else yelling at her for just existing today.

“SHUT UP YOU OLD MISERABLE HAG!” Hermione yelled back at the portrait, holding her wand as though she were going to cast a hex. “I am tired and cold and upset and I WILL NOT put up with you disrespecting me anymore. ENOUGH. You drove away your eldest son, and your brainwashing got your youngest son killed. This isn't your house anymore. The Black line is dead and this is now the House of Potter so ----”

Clap. Clap. Clap.

At the noise, Hermione abruptly stopped her diatribe and spun around, wand raised to whoever, or whatever, it was that interrupted her.

“Harry!” She cried, seeing him leaning casually against the wall as he clapped his hands together. “You scared me! What are you doing here?!”

“Well, at the moment, I'm enjoying watching you tell off Sirius’ mum. I'm sorry I startled you. I tried calling your name a few times but you couldn't hear me over all your yelling,” Harry teased, standing up straighter and taking a few steps towards Hermione. This close, he could see the tear tracks on her face that she was desperately swiping at, trying to hide them. “Are you - have you been crying? Hermione, what's wrong?”

Hearing the concern in Harry's voice, all semblance of control over her tears vanished, and Hermione began to sob again in earnest.

“Oh Merlin, Harry. I just can't do it anymore. I can't. I'm done. I - I -”  her words were lost in her hiccuping breath, her hands shaking and her legs beginning to lose their strength under the weight of such heavy heartbreak. Harry was quickly at her side, his right arm wrapped around her shoulders as he slowly lowered the both of them to the floor.

“What can't you do anymore, Hermione? What happened? Please, talk to me. You're scaring me.”

“R-Ron. I just c-can't be with him anymore. We got in a huge fight right in front of his whole family. I bet they all h-hate me now!”

“Hermione, they've known you for almost ten years. You're as good as family. And you and Ron argue all the time. I'm sure everything will be fine in a few days.” Harry tried to console the crying witch at his side, rubbing her arm and conjuring a handkerchief for her to use to wipe her face.

After taking a moment to breathe deeply and stop her tears, Hermione replied to Harry, “No. It was different this time. It felt more vicious. More final. I just can't deal with his insane jealousy and his expectations about what his girlfriend should and should not be doing. Harry, he was upset that I had taken lunch with Neville. NEVILLE. He told me it wasn't proper for a witch in a relationship to have lunch with a single man! Can you imagine?! We were at the bloody Leaky for goodness sake. Neville wanted to meet there -rather than at the castle- to discuss how the new legislation will affect the Hogwarts elves, because he's been trying to work up the courage to ask Hannah Abbott out for a drink for weeks . But instead he just makes eyes at her while she helps all of the other customers. And Ron thought it was improper !”

By the end of her rant, Hermione's tears had dried and her chest was rising and falling rapidly with her increasing anger. “I told Ron that I should have snogged Neville because I wouldn't be snogging him ever again. I told him even Filch would make a better boyfriend than him.”

“You didn't!” Harry chuckled, torn between amusement and alarm, “what did Ron say?”

“He told me I could go ahead and date Neville or Filch because he had just spoken to Lavender last week at the joke shop, and apparently she implied she was more than interested in rekindling their romance.” She sniffed, “but that's just fine. Lavender can have him. Because Harry, I really am done this time. I don't want to keep fighting and then make up in some never ending loop. I Iove him, and he's one of my best friends. But... I haven't liked him very much lately. And I just want to like my friend again. I don't think I can if we're dating.”

“So it's really over?”

“Yeah,” she sighed, shifting her weight to get more comfortable on the cold hardwood floor and leaned her shoulder into Harry's side, “it's really over.”

…..

Sometime later found the two friends sitting at the large table in the basement kitchen, dunking warm crusty bread into a delicious homemade beef stew. Kreacher had come to fetch them both from the dark entry hall, demanding that they eat the dinner he had made before it went cold. And with food finally filling her empty stomach, Hermione was able to start thinking clearly again.

“Harry!” She gasped, startling him into dropping his spoon back into his bowl of stew as he looked up at her, “What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in Bulgaria!”

Harry sighed and pushed away his mostly empty bowl. He sat back in his chair, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. He knew she was going to ask about his deception eventually.

“Well, I, uh… there never was a work assignment in Bulgaria.”

“What? But you said -”

Harry held up his hand, interrupting her. “I know. I know I told all of you that it was so important I couldn't change anything. But the truth is, I just didn't want to go to the Burrow for Christmas. And I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, so I thought it best to just blame it on some Auror business.”

“But why ?! I don't understand. Harry, you could have told me . I'm your best friend! We can tell each other everything!”

Harry raised his brow at that, wondering what Hermione would do if he really did tell her everything… if he just blurted out how he had been feeling about her all this time. Would she be shocked? Disgusted? Would she reciprocate those feelings? Maybe one day, if the fates allowed, he would find out. But for today, he only gave her the answer to the question she had asked. “Truthfully? I just didn't want to spend another holiday with Molly hovering over me, constantly reminding me that she would love it if Ginny and I got back together. It's been two years since we've split. And she and Dean are so happy. They moved in together six months ago for Merlin's sake! And it's not fair to them to have Molly disapproving of their relationship because she wants me to marry her daughter!” Harry's green eyes flashed in anger and frustration. “As much as I love the Weasleys, it's...suffocating. I just wanted to relax and unwind and enjoy myself,” and not see you and Ron together, knowing you could do better and be happier, he added internally. “And I can't do any of that at the Burrow.”

“So you decided to stay here? Alone?”

“Pretty much..... But I've got loads of the remodeling done! Want to see?”

Hermione agreed, reluctantly conceding to drop the discussion of Harry's lie for now.

Harry took her on the grand remodeling tour, showing her the work he had already done on the bathroom and sitting room. They also discussed all he wanted to buy and get done in the library.

After sufficiently oohing and ahhing over the changes, and after adding her input into what she felt the library needed, Hermione began to yawn, her body reminding her that it had been a very long day and that she needed to rest.

“You don't mind if I stay here for the night, do you Harry?” She asked suddenly, biting the corner of her lower lip, aware that she had intruded on his quiet holiday.

“Of course not, Hermione, you know you're always welcome here,” Harry replied, rolling his eyes at the absurdity of her asking permission to stay over. “You can use the same guestroom you were in last time. I think I have some old shirts in there you can wear to sleep or to transfigure into something else if you'd rather.”

“Thanks, Harry.” Hermione yawned again, standing on her tiptoes to reach his cheek and give it a quick kiss. When had Harry gotten so tall? And muscular? She blushed suddenly at the thought and with a quick goodnight headed upstairs.

…..

“Happy Christmas Harry!” Hermione called cheerfully, knocking on his bedroom door and letting herself in without waiting for a response.

“Wha- what are you doing Hermione?” A confused Harry questioned, sitting up in bed and reaching for his glasses on the side table, the sheets falling to his waist and showing off his bare chest. “It's not even 6 AM!”

Hermione didn't answer right away, distracted as she was by the sight of a shirtless Harry. It had been a long time since she had seen him without a shirt on, and that Auror training was doing him all sorts of favors.

“Hermione?” Harry questioned again.

“Oh! Yes!” Hermione exclaimed, snapping herself out of her momentary stupor. “Happy Christmas! I was thinking before bed last night, that I know you wanted a relaxing Christmas. But Harry, you don't have any decorations. You don't even have a Christmas tree! It's one thing to want some time alone, but to be in this dreary old house by yourself without anything marking it as a special time of year is just depressing. So hurry up and put some clothes on. Kreacher's made tea and we'll grab some breakfast when we get there!”

“Get where? I can't leave without everyone knowing I lied! Hermione!” Harry rubbed his tired eyes under his glasses, hoping for more of an answer, but Hermione had already flounced out of the room fully dressed and ready to leave, her scarf tails trailing behind her. He flopped back onto his pillows with a sigh. This was not how he expected to start his Christmas day.

…..

“I dunno, Hermione, don't you think that tree looks a bit...sparse?”

An hour or so after leaving Grimmauld Place, Harry and Hermione were standing in the Pines and Needles Christmas tree lot in Muggle London, examining the few trees that remained. The lot attendant, Sven, stood a few metres away stamping his feet in the cold and blowing into his hands, while silently staring at them in hopes they would hurry and pick one so that he could close up and get home to his waiting family. Harry had been relieved that Hermione had taken him to the Muggle side of the Leaky Cauldron and was almost apologetic that he had not thought about venturing there on his own when he had gotten bored the last few days.

“Well, it is Christmas morning, there's not much left to choose from. We're lucky we actually found a place open today. But it's either this tree, small and sparse as it is, or that gigantic one over there.” Hermione said, waving her arm haphazardly off to the right in the direction of a tree that had to have been bigger than Hagrid.

“And seeing as how we're in Muggle London,” she continued, eyeing Harry who looked as though he were contemplating the big tree, “I don't particularly fancy the idea of dragging that one all the way back to number twelve. Besides, this one has character. It's a Charlie Brown tree!”

“A Charlie Brown tree?” Harry asked, turning away from the perfectly shaped tree behemoth and back to Hermione, resigned to that fact that she wanted this little runt of a tree that was missing so many limbs and needles you could see right through it. Harry wasn't a Christmas decoration expert by any means, but he was pretty sure a tree was normally more robust than this. Leave it to Hermione to pick even the underdog of Christmas trees.

“Yes, you know the sad little tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas? It's an American film my dad fell in love with years ago when he was visiting family during the holidays. It's become something of a cult classic.”

Harry grabbed the trunk of Hermione's pick and hefted it over his shoulder, Hermione surreptitiously casting a featherweight charm on it while Sven wasn't paying attention. “No, sorry. I didn't get to participate in a whole lot of Christmas traditions with the Dursleys, let alone watch obscure American films. I mostly just stayed under the stairs until it was time to prepare the Christmas breakfast and then I was meant to watch Dudders open his gifts so that he could show off,” he said with a casual shrug. His childhood was what it was. There was no going back to change it, so he just tried to think about it as infrequently as he could. “And then once we were at Hogwarts, it was all wizarding holiday traditions. No films in sight.”

“Oh, Harry!” Hermione cried, throwing herself into him and wrapping her arms around his torso. “I'm so sorry! I'm so stupid, I didn't even think!” She sniffled.

Harry was temporarily thrown off balance as Hermione knocked into him and he quickly lost hold of the tree trunk, dropping it onto the ground behind him. The poor thing lost more of its pine needles onto the snow.

His arms free of their pine burden, he wrapped them around Hermione, pulling her closer to him as he nuzzled his face into the crook of her shoulder. The warmth from her body and the scent of her hair overwhelmed him. It was slightly citrusy, with a hint of peppermint toothpaste and the pine needles from a tree she had brushed against. She smelled like Christmas…like home. If she weren't crying, he thought, he could stay like this all day. This is what he wanted. Not Hermione sad and feeling sorry for him of course, but rather Hermione in his arms and by his side. Talking about life and completing all of life's little errands together. Giving each other strength when needed. Being there for each other as best friends and as...more.

“Shh, it's alright, Hermione, it doesn't upset me anymore.”

“But it should!” She said wetly, pulling away from him slightly so that she could look up into his eyes, “They were horrible to you, and I'll never forgive Professor Dumbledore for -”

Harry pulled one arm from around Hermione, placing a gloved finger over her lips to stop her rant before she gained even more momentum. “I promise you, Hermione, I'm fine. There's no need to feel sorry for me. I have you and the Weasleys and I'm happy, okay?” He moved his finger from her lips, wiping the tears off of her cheek with his thumb as his fingers moved to caress the side of her neck.

Blushing slightly, Hermione stepped back out of the warmth of Harry's hug. Taking a deep breath and dashing the last few years from her eyelashes, Hermione embarrassedly apologized, “I'm sorry. I don't mean to be so emotional. It's meant to be a happy day. I suppose I'm just still a little upset about everything from yesterday. But I'll get over it, and I won't make you take the brunt of my emotions over Ronald!”

“Are you sure you're okay?” Harry asked her, studying her face to look for any little tells. Hermione was a shite liar.

“I'll be fine,” she stated determinedly, as she quickly changed the subject. “I just wish you had seen A Charlie Brown Christmas. You would love this little tree as much as I do! But that's what we'll do today. We'll stop by my parents’ house while they're away on their ski vacation, and grab my dad's copy of that film. And then we can get some other supplies to give you a taste of a traditional Granger Christmas!”

Harry grinned as he picked up the scraggly Charlie Brown tree and followed Hermione to pay Sven. This is why he loved Hermione. Sure she was too smart sometimes, and could be intimidating with all of her knowledge, but she was also the best and most loyal and caring friend. And she could utilize that massive brain power of hers to turn a bad memory into an exciting activity. Life with her was never boring.

….

“Magic is going to make this so much easier!” Hermione thrilled, grabbing the microwave bag of popcorn from Harry's hand and unwrapping the plastic cover. She set it on the floor in front of her and pointing her wand, cast a strong warming charm on it, giggling merrily as she watched the kernels pop in half the time a muggle microwave would have taken. She handed Harry a threaded needle and grabbed her own after she carefully opened the steaming bag of fresh popcorn.

It had taken them the better part of the morning, but Harry and Hermione had finally found all the items that she deemed necessary for celebrating Christmas properly. Procuring the film had taken longer than Hermione expected. When they had reached her childhood home, Harry commented on the fact that her parents had once again left for the holidays. “Yes,” she replied absentmindedly as she searched the movie collection for the specific title, “I think they find it easier to go away for Christmas than to try to put on a cheerful facade and celebrate with me. They're still quite cross with me for altering their memories.” The words were spoken with such finality that Harry had dropped the subject, focusing on searching for the Charlie Brown movie. After exhausting all the shelves of Mr. Granger's film collection, they had finally located the tape in the VCR. “He must have watched it right before they left,” Hermione said wistfully, tucking the VHS away in her bag securely.

After their slight trouble with the film, they had found the supplies for the popcorn garland and peppermint hot cocoa easily enough, at a small convenience store around the corner from Grimmauld Place. While making their purchase, Hermione had laughed over some ridiculous Christmas socks, and, after seeing how amused she was by them, Harry put down a few extra pounds to pay for two matching pairs. Harry would have done anything possible to chase the sadness out of Hermione's eyes, even if it was buying two pairs of ridiculous holiday footwear.

“Now Harry, pay attention! Just take the bigger pieces and run the needle through the center, being careful not to break it.” Hermione taught him, bringing his attention back to the project at hand as she showed off her thread of six perfectly stranded popcorn kernels. “You try!”

Harry eyed his supplies warily. He had steady quidditch seeker hands, but they seemed so big next to the small needle and delicate popped corn. He just knew this would be another area where Hermione excelled and he struggled to not look totally inept. He pushed the needle through the first piece with more force than was necessary, cracking it in half almost immediately. He gave a sheepish grin and Hermione patted his thigh sympathetically.

“Keep trying. You'll get the hang of it.”

On the fourth try he finally did, holding it up to Hermione for inspection.

“Oh, well done Mr. Potter!” She exclaimed with a clap and a small laugh, her imitation of Professor Flitwick dead on. “Five points to Gryffindor!”

Harry smirked at her and put his head back down, concentrating on the garland in his hands. He had expected to be slightly bored by this activity that Hermione had admitted she hadn't done since grade school, well before her Hogwarts letter came, but he surprisingly found himself enjoying it. His hands were being kept busy but his mind was able to wander, thinking about everything and nothing all at once. Thinking about how sitting here with Hermione was one of the best Christmases he could remember. They were in front of the crackling fire, sitting knee to knee on the plush rug in companionable silence. Two Christmas stockings were hung on the mantle (empty since they were acquired so late in the season, but Hermione had said it didn't matter. Muggles had stockings), and a pile of as yet unopened gifts sat under their tree, which was so far decorated only with tiny jars of Hermione's blue fire that she had conjured in place of the traditional strand of twinkling lights.

Glancing at Hermione out of the corner of his eye, Harry let his thoughts turn to his best friend of almost 10 years. He was glad she was here with him. When Harry had made up the Bulgaria assignment, he had really only felt guilty when he thought of not spending the holidays with Hermione. Seeing her disappointment when he had told her he wouldn't be at the Burrow was hard. He hated letting her down, and he almost…. almost… told her he would cancel the trip if it would make her happy. But he hadn't, because he knew she would enjoy the celebration with Ron and the rest of the Weasley family.

Ron , he sighed. His other best friend. He loved them both, and although he assumed they were both heartbroken, he was glad that they had broken up. He was tired of their bickering and constant arguments. They had really done a great job of not forcing him to choose sides when they inevitably got into another of their spats, but he always felt torn between them anyway. Ron was his best mate and he had a good heart, but Hermione was...well, she was Hermione. She stood by his side through everything - and she was the only one. And she deserved the same from him. And he just wanted her to be happy. And if she wasn't happy with Ron, then he was glad they had broken up. She deserved so much more. And maybe, if the fates were listening...he was nervous to even dare think it...maybe he could give it to her.

“Harry?” Hermione asked quietly, biting at her bottom lip nervously. “Were you really planning on staying here by yourself? On - on spending the hols alone?”

Harry jumped slightly when she broke the silence, the needle in his hand missing the popcorn puff and poking into his finger instead. He stuck the bleeding digit into his mouth, glancing at Hermione guiltily as though she had heard his thoughts about his happiness over her breakup. “Hmm?”

“Were you really going to stay here all alone over the holidays?”

“Oh, yeah,” Harry replied, taking his injured finger out of his mouth and using his hand to rub the back of his neck. “I was. I was just going to hunker down here and send off everyone's gifts as though I was off in a foreign country on assignment. The plan was that no one would find out and no one would have their feelings hurt.”

“I know you told me you just didn't want to deal with Molly trying to coerce you into getting back together with Ginny, but why didn't you tell me ? Harry, we don't keep secrets from each other. I tell you practically everything! Did you think I would be upset, or that I wouldn't understand? I do understand, Harry. Because as much as I love the Weasleys, I'm not technically family either. And I get wanting a quiet holiday. Growing up, it was just me and Mum and Dad. And it was wonderful…” Hermione broke off her train of thought, staring down at the popcorn string in her hands, embarrassed to have gone on for so long about it. “Sorry. I just - I feel - well, truthfully, I guess I'm just hurt that you didn't feel you could trust me enough to understand and support you and to not tell anyone else.”

“Hermione, no!” Harry exclaimed, shocked that she would have come to that conclusion. He shifted his weight so that he was closer, reaching out his right hand to cup her left cheek and pull her face so that she was looking at him. “I will always trust you. Always . It wasn't that I didn't think you'd understand or that you would try to talk me out of it. Entirely the opposite actually. I didn't want you to feel like you needed to stay behind with me. I wanted you to go and enjoy your holiday with your boyfriend and his family and not put you in a situation of having to choose between me and Ron again,” he pulled his hand away and shrugged. “I just didn't want to put you in an awkward position. And I'm sorry for the circumstances around it, but I'm really glad to be spending this Christmas muggle style with you.”

Hermione smiled at him then, throwing her arms around him for the second time that day. “Thank you, Harry. That was very sweet. I'm sorry I didn't give you the benefit of the doubt. And I'm glad I'm here with you too.”

Harry held onto her for a few more seconds before pulling away reluctantly. It wouldn't do to get used to the feel of her in his arms.. Her breakup was only one day old - if it was even permanent. Ron and Hermione's relationship had a tendency to be on and off again, but on the off chance they did stay split up, she was most certainly off limits. She wasn't only his best friend, but also his best mate's ex-girlfriend. And he would rather have her in his life as only a friend than lose her because of some stupid crush.

He cleared his throat nervously, anxious to take his mind away from thinking of Hermione as anything other than a good friend. He held up the popcorn garland in his hands, showing it to Hermione for her approval.

“Do you think we have enough for our little runt of a tree?” He asked.

“Sure,” she responded, eyeing him warily, confused by his sudden awkward aloofness. “We can finish trimming the tree, then make our cocoa and watch the telly. Maybe the film will make you feel bad for referring to our lovely tree as a runt!”

Standing up and brushing the popcorn crumbs off of her leggings, Hermione held her hands out to Harry's helping to pull him up.

“Popcorn, a few ornament bobbles transfigured from buttons, and a star on top to finish it off!” She exclaimed, releasing Harry's hands and beginning to walk around and around the tree, stringing her garland through the boughs. “The star will be easy to place this year since the tree is no taller than I am. When I was little, my dad used to hold me up and lift me above his head to get the topper just right on the top of the tree. It was one of my favourite moments of the season; even though I was being held above his head I felt so safe. And only once the star was placed perfectly, he would lower me back to the floor and we would take a step back and just stand together admiring all the work we had done to turn this tree into a shimmering masterpiece…”

Hermione trailed off, placing the last shining red ornament onto the tree, stepping to the side to pick up the glittering topper. “But this year, it's not necessary. I'll just reach over and…..”

“Oh no you don't!” Harry interrupted, grabbing Hermione's arm and stopping her from placing the star. “You wanted to follow Granger tradition,” he teased with a playful chuckle, “And I know it's not the same without your parents here this year, but you can’t finish until you’re lifted up… it’s tradition!!”

He placed his hands at Hermione's waist, bunching some of the soft wool of her sweater under his hands, his fingers touching her soft skin where the fabric of her top and black leggings no longer met. He let them linger for a moment, reveling in the feel of her skin against his fingertips, imagining touching her in a different moment. Wishing for a moment with her reaching out and touching him in return, a moment where the timing was right and where he was brave enough to tell her how he was feeling … how he had felt for the past year. How she chose the wrong wizard the first time around, and how he could make her happy. Shaking his head to clear the daydreams clouding his mind and making it hard to focus on the moment, Harry gripped Hermione securely and carefully lifted her two inches off the ground, allowing her to place the star topper carefully atop the highest branch in a sweet parody of her childhood tradition.

“There. Perfect,” Harry smiled at the shimmering tree as he lowered the witch back to the floor. “Just like when you were a little girl!” He teased. His left hand stayed on her hip, gripping her more tightly as she began to stumble back into his front. Harry swung his left arm around her waist, hoping to prevent a tumble to the floor - and maybe also to have the feeling of her in his arms once more.

“Sorry!” She cried, angling her head to the side and tilting it back against his chest so that she could see his face. “I'm still just as graceful as when I was a little girl too,” Hermione laughed and pulled away, kneeling down to inspect the brightly wrapped gifts at the base of the tree, unaware of the tumult Harry's body was experiencing at her close proximity. “Presents?”

Harry took the gold wrapped box Hermione held up to him and glanced at the tag. “It's from Molly.”

“Well? Open it!”

He passed the box from hand to hand, hesitant to open another gift from the Weasley matriarch. For his birthday last July she had bought him a book about winning back your ex in five easy steps. Needless to say, he was afraid to find out if she had upped the ante when that had miraculously failed to get him and Ginny back together.

“Well, if we're opening gifts from the Weasleys we should have reinforcements. Be right back,” Harry announced, setting the gold box back down and heading toward the kitchen.

He returned a few minutes later, each hand holding a mug of peppermint hot cocoa that they had purchased that morning, a small plate of cookies balancing on the top of each. A bottle of firewhiskey trailed behind him at shoulder level.

“Wandless hovering charm, Harry?” Hermione asked, eyebrows raised in surprise.

Harry shrugged sheepishly, handing her one of the mugs as he sat down on the floor beside her and grabbed the bottle of alcohol out of the air. “They teach it to us at the aurory. In case our hands are full with a detainee and we need to collect evidence in a hurry. It's not my strong suit, but I can handle one or two small items.”

“Yeah, you're more of an Expelliarmus kind of guy,” Hermione teased.

“Oi! It works doesn't it?” He quipped back, miming pouring the firewhiskey in her mug in a silent question about whether or not she would like some. At her slight nod, he tipped a good finger's worth into her hot chocolate and repeated the action to his own mug. “Now, stop hogging all the presents and toss me one.”

With Hermione’s gifts from the Weasley’s showing up sometime during the night, the two decided to open their gifts from Molly at the same time. Both were unsurprised to see Weasley Christmas sweaters. Maroon for Hermione (“To match Ron's, I suppose,” Hermione said glumly) and an unsubtle dark green and gold for Harry (the colours of the Hollyhead Harpies). There was also a pile of books and sweets for Hermione from other friends and family, while Harry received quite a few quidditch supplies.

Eventually, all that was left were their presents for each other and a present from Ron for Hermione. She held that box in her lap, fiddling with the bow nervously. “I almost feel as though I should send this back to him...what with everything that happened yesterday.”

“Has he owled you?”

Hermione shook her head. “No, but you know Ron. If I want to make up with him it will be up to me to make the first move, otherwise he'll wait for ages and then start showing back up in my life thinking we can take up where we left off. There may be a small apology thrown in for appearance's sake, but…” she broke off with a shrug and a roll of her eyes.

“And you’re not going to try to talk to him?” Harry prodded. He wasn't trying to make Hermione upset today of all days, but wanted to understand the new dynamic between his two best friends. Although he doubted if Hermione even knew what that new dynamic was. From the sounds of it, everything had happened so fast and then she was here, in his home seeking solitude.

“No,” Hermione said firmly. “Not this time. We'll have to sit down together and get some closure, but that can wait a few days. I’m not ready for that yet.”

“You've been friends for years, so dating or not, I don't think Ron would want or expect you to send back the gift. You should open it.” Harry encouraged.

With a small smile at Harry, Hermione slowly tugged one end of the ribbon loose from its bow, and carefully slid her finger under the wrapping paper seam. She was afraid of what she would find. She didn't want it to be some horribly romantic or thoughtful gift that would make her feel guilty for having ended things with Ron the day before Christmas, for Merlin's sake. With the box finally fully unwrapped, she pulled up the lid to see the contents. Inside lay a sheaf of parchment and a bottle of new ink. She let out a soft chuckle, mocking herself for thinking even momentarily that Ron would have bought something for her that required some thought or effort. Not only was it a completely generic gift for a woman who apparently is nothing more than a bookworm, but neither the paper nor the ink were brands that she particularly cared for.

“Something funny?” Harry asked.

“Depends on your sense of humour,” Hermione replied darkly, tears beginning to form in her eyes. She handed the box to Harry, standing up quickly and swiping at her eyes with the end of her sweater sleeve that covered most of her hand.

“I'm going to get a refill,” she announced, grabbing her mug from the floor. “Would you like more?”

Harry handed her his mug in silent acceptance. When she was halfway to the kitchen, he called out to her, “Hurry back, you've still got my gift to open!” She turned around and gave him a watery smile in acknowledgement, her brown curls slipping out of her haphazard bun.

Merlin, she was beautiful.

Harry didn't know when it had happened...when he started to see Hermione as more than just a best friend. But it was after the final battle, after she and Ron had finally worked out whatever it was that had been happening between them since sixth year, that he began to realize that he maybe wasn't viewing her with a strictly platonic mindset. At first, he started to get jealous when she and Ron would spend time together without him. Of course they would, they were dating, but he still felt the bite of jealousy every time he heard about their plans together where he was excluded. He chalked it up to being lonely. He and Ginny had decided that though they loved each other, it was more familial than anything, and so they had parted ways on happy terms. He had shut himself off socially after the war; with everyone wanting something from the Boy Who Lived Twice, it was easier just to isolate himself than it was to sort through who was a friend and who just wanted him because of what he'd accomplished. So, thinking his jealousy was really disguised loneliness, Harry began to spend more time with friends from Hogwarts like Luna and Neville, or go out drinking with some of his co-workers after a long day.

But it didn't help. His nights and days off were full of pick up quidditch games and casual dinners, but still, he could not shake his jealousy every time Ron mentioned he was taking Hermione out. And he began to notice little details about Hermione he had never paid much attention to before. The way her laughter brightened his spirits, how her hair would escape its bun after a long day and tickle the back of her slim neck, the way she bit at her bottom lip that just begged him to come over and release it from its toothy captor. Merlin, how could he have not realized that it was always Hermione there with him and that he always wanted it to be?

His thoughts were interrupted when Hermione came back into the room, her eyes now dry, but her nose red and her jaw set stubbornly, a sure sign of a previous crying jag. After handing Harry his refreshed cocoa, she swiped the bottle of firewhiskey off of the floor beside him and glugged some of the contents into her cup before flopping unceremoniously into the sofa and kicking her feet up onto the ottoman.

Harry raised his eyebrows at her alcohol consumption but didn't say a word. Hermione was usually more of a savor one drink most of the night type of girl, but who was he to begrudge her some inebriation after a breakup. Instead, he plucked the last two gifts, their gifts to each other, out from under the tree and stood to join her on the more comfortable sofa.

“Here.” He said, shoving the small box he had tried to wrap so well into her hands. “This one's from me. Obviously. I mean, I hope you like it. It's a bit different than I normally give you…”

Hermione took the package from him and nodded her chin in the direction of the other box in his hand. “And that one's yours, from me. Shall we open together?”

At his agreement, Hermione tore into the wrapping paper, intrigued as to what Harry could have possibly gotten her that he was so nervous about. Usually he bought her a book or a certificate to Flourish and Blotts. Nothing to be anxious about. Lid and tissue paper moved aside, she gasped at what lay within.

“Oh, Harry! It's beautiful!” She breathed, reaching out her finger to gently touch the delicately woven rose gold chain of the bracelet Harry had gifted her. She carefully lifted the bracelet out of its tissue paper nest, holding it up to her face to get a closer look at the three charms dangling from the circle of gold. A small lion's head, it's mane made of small diamonds, roared silently at her as she ran her fingers over the intricate detailing. Light sparkled from the tip of the wand charm, and pages of the book charm fluttered open as she continued her inspection.

“It's definitely too much, but I love it. And I don't know if I can give it back now,” she joked.

“The bracelet and two of the charms were my mum's,” Harry told her, smiling in relief at her reaction to his gift, “I only added the book charm, so it didn't cost me much. And before you say anything about not accepting, just know I want you to have it. I stumbled across the bracelet and charms a few months ago when I was sorting through all of the items in my vault looking for pieces to use here in the house. The bracelet  was in a jewelry box along with some other trinkets.”

“Harry, I -”

“Stop. I told you I want you to have it. As soon as I saw it I felt like it should be yours. I found it resting on a note that my dad originally gave to my mom when he gave it to her for Christmas in sixth year. I think he was trying to score a date,” Harry grinned at the idea of his dad having just as bad of luck at love as he did as a teenager. “Dad said he wanted my mom to have it because the rose gold reminded him of the sun glinting off of her hair and he couldn't think of a fiercer Gryffindor witch that lion would suit. And now, you're the fiercest Gryffindor witch I know. It's only fitting that it's passed down to you.”

Hermione, her hands held up to her heart in a wordless gesture of overwhelming emotion, looked at him for a long moment, as though judging whether or not he really meant to give her something so sentimental and personal, before suddenly leaning into him and wrapping her arms around his back in a fierce hug. “I absolutely love it, and I'll treasure it always. But if one day you have a little girl of your own, you can - of course - have it back to pass on to her.”

Harry's vision was suddenly clouded over with the image of a little girl sitting on his lap, curls haloing her head as she gazed at him with bright green eyes. Before he could react to the image, Hermione settled back onto the couch, quickly clasping the bracelet around her left wrist with a quick twist of her fingers that all women just seemed to instinctively know.

Hermione gesticulated toward the gift sitting forgotten on the sofa beside Harry's knee, enjoying the tinkling of the charms at her arm's motion. “So? What about yours? Is it alright? Is it too soon?--It's too soon, isn't it?”

Harry laughed, almost euphoric at Hermione's reaction to his mother's bracelet. “I haven't even had the chance to open it all the way yet.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? Go on!”

Harry resumed the opening of his last gift. It was very lightweight, and didn't make any sound when he shook it. Definitely not a broom servicing kit then.

“A photograph?” He asked, pulling out a small bit of paper.

“Of an owl, yes. Your owl. Well...the one I bought for you.” Harry just stared at the photo, the little owl's body covered in fluffy white and grey feathers, bright orange eyes staring back at him.

Hermione clasped her hands, ringing her fingers at Harry's inscrutable expression. “I know how much you loved Hedwig, and I know this little owl can't replace her. She won't be able to deliver any mail for you for a while still, but as soon as I saw her, I thought the two of you needed each other. As you can see, she's still a baby… a long-eared owl baby. The man at the Magical Menagerie told me someone had poached her mother for quill feathers, so she and some other owlettes were brought into the store to be taken care of. And you've always been so good at looking out for others, I thought you would do well with her as a familiar. If you're not ready...if you don't like her, I can --”

“No, Hermione, she's perfect,” Harry finally said, looking up from the photo in his hands. “Where is she now? Does she have a name?”

“No name yet, I thought you'd want to meet her and do the honours yourself. She's actually at my flat, seeing as how you were supposed to be in Bulgaria …” Hermione glared at him in pretend reprimand, “I decided to keep her with me until you returned. I didn't want her to have to stay at the store any longer. We can retrieve her tomorrow if you'd like.”

Harry grinned at Hermione. “She's brilliant, really. Thank you.”

…..

“Harry,” Hermione declared, untangling the fingers of her right hand from his left, sitting up to place her empty mug onto the wood table beside the couch with exaggerated caution, “I think I may be a tiny bit pissed.”

“You don't say?” Harry feigned surprise as he stifled a laugh. After opening their gifts and eating a small dinner of hastily put together sandwiches (Hermione refused to have Kreacher make a big Christmas dinner just for the two of them, insisting that he take the holiday off) Hermione declared it time to educate Harry in the cult classic that was A Charlie Brown Christmas. She had also declared it time for more firewhiskey, this time skipping the hot cocoa so as not to “rot her teeth from an excess of sugar”. She had been putting on a good show of being completely carefree this holiday, but Harry could see the tightening of her mouth and the wistfulness in her eyes every so often when he unexpectedly glanced her way.

They were halfway through the short film, an animated commentary on consumerism during the holiday season that Harry was, quite truthfully, finding slightly depressing. Before Hermione had made her drunken declaration, she had been slumped against the back of the couch, sinking into the cushions while leaning her right shoulder against Harry's left. Her fingers had found his and she had wound them together only a few minutes into the movie. If he hadn't already been aware of her inebriated state from watching how much alcohol she had consumed, Hermione's constant physical touch would have given her away. While she was always one to give hugs to her close friends and family, she was otherwise not especially demonstrative in her feelings. On the rare occasion Harry had seen her drunk (which he could count on the fingers of one hand, even after a decade of friendship) Hermione had shown her affection for her friends through unexpected touches and caresses. And while he was well aware of this peculiarity of her drinking, it did nothing to stop his heartbeat accelerating and the palms of his hands sweating as she snuggled closer into his body heat.

But now Hermione was sitting up, her head buried in her hands and her elbows resting on her knees in a sure sign of distress.

“Hey,” Harry called to her, abandoning his relaxed pose as he flicked his wand at the VCR to pause the film. He reached out to rub her back in what he hoped was a comforting gesture, “What's wrong? Do you need a hangover potion? I have one in the loo if you need it.”

“No, I'm fine. Just pissed enough to become maudlin, not sick.”

“Want to talk about it?”

Hermione peeked out at Harry from in-between her fingers. “Merlin, Harry. I'm a mess. I know logically that I shouldn't be feeling this way, but I can't seem to help it, and I feel so bloody stupid …. It's embarrassing. I hate feeling stupid. It's why I research and study and always have a plan -”

“Hermione, this is your heart,” Harry interrupted. “You can't research and study how it should feel. It's okay to be confused and to not know how or what to feel. You don't need to be embarrassed.”

“But that's just it Harry! I do know how I feel -- Circe, how I felt months ago -- but I didn't do anything about it! Brightest witch of my age…” she scoffed trailing off as she flopped back onto the couch, throwing her right arm over her eyes so she wouldn't have to make eye contact with Harry. She didn't want to see his expression when she told him what a horrible person she was. She didn't want to see his face close off from her, that expression that he got when dealing with strangers wanting something from the Boy Who Lived Twice. She didn't want to see his eyes sharpen, or his jaw harden in disgust and anger when he found out that practically the last year she had been living a lie.

“What in the bloody hell are you talking about Hermione?” Harry questioned, tugging on her elbow trying to see her face. “Look at me. Hermione! Look at me.” As he finally pulled her arm down, he could see the tears clinging to her naturally dark, full eyelashes, before they silently made their way down her cheek. He reached for her with both hands, cradling her face between them, turning her face to meet his, hoping that the touch of his skin on hers would help her feel secure and loved enough to tell him what exactly the matter was.

“You've been doing a lot of this today,” Harry whispered, wiping away the wetness from her tears. “It's just me Hermione. It's just Harry. Your best friend of ten years. You can tell me anything, you know that right?”

She gave a slow nod, not wanting to knock Harry's hands from her face. The quiet stroking of his thumbs was helping to calm her alcohol frazzled emotions. “I don't want you to think less of me…” she trailed off, licking her lips nervously before trying again. “I - I…. Dammit, am I a Gryffindor or not?! Harry, I haven't loved Ron for almost a year. Not in the way that he deserves to be loved. I care about him - of course I do - but I haven't been in love with him…. I'm not sure if I ever was,” she finished on a whisper, staring into the bright green of Harry's eyes, looking for any sign that he found her repugnant.

“But…. what? You guys have been dating for almost three years! Why would you stay with him if you don't love him?!” Harry pulled his hands back in shock, dumbfounded that his two best friends who he thought had been so in love with each other despite their frequent fights, hadn't had as secure of a relationship as he had imagined.

“I thought I did at first,” she replied, tears falling down her face much more rapidly, her breath coming in little hiccups from suppressed sobs, “and I wanted so badly to love him that I just let myself go along with the relationship. But I've known for a long time now that Ron isn't the one for me. He doesn't make my heart beat erratically and my breath quicken. I love him as a brother, not a lover. But I stayed because I'm me. Hermione Granger. Bookworm. Know-it-all. The brains to everyone else's beauty. I know I'm not traditionally what men desire, so I just wanted this chance to feel loved. Because I know Ron does love me...I just don't think he realizes that it's a brotherly love yet. I wanted to have someone to come home to at the end of a long day. Someone to cuddle with and read with and stay in bed with all day. And I know that makes me a horrible p-person…” her voice cracked as she stumbled over the words that came tumbling out of her mouth, thoughts and feelings that she had suppressed for so long thinking that no one could possibly understand. “And now he'll hate me for letting one of our arguments turn into a breakup. And you'll hate me too -”

“No! Hermione, never! I could never hate you. Come here.” Harry conjured a handkerchief and handed it to Hermione, letting her wipe her face and blow her nose before he pulled her into his embrace. He sat back on the couch, attempting to find a more comfortable sitting position, until he gave it up as a bad job and reclined fully on his left side, stretching his legs the entire length of the cushions. He rested his head on the pillowed arm, facing the back of the sofa as he tucked Hermione in next to him. Her head was cradled in the hollow of his shoulder, his left arm under her neck while her legs tangled with his. Her eyes refused to meet Harry's, instead staying fixed firmly on her hands that rested on his chest. Harry wouldn't force her to talk, but he rested his chin on the top of her head, hoping that she would eventually start telling him more on her own. Her hair was slightly tickling his nose as his right hand stroked her back and his fingers tangled in a few of the curls that had escaped her sloppy bun.

Harry's patience paid off after a few minutes of relaxed silence when Hermione began to whisper. Harry had to scoot closer and dip his head until his ear was almost level with her mouth.

“I know I'm not the type of woman men usually date. I'm difficult and not particularly pretty, and I'd rather stay in and read than go out and socialize...and I get that a lot of people don't want a partner like that. But I thought because we were friends first, Ron would really accept me as I am since he already knew about all my faults. But he didn't. He wanted me to stop reading so much and pay more attention to him, and to go out to parties, and step into the spotlight. I knew the relationship wasn't going to work when he wanted me to be something that I'm not, but I stayed so long because I thought it was my one chance at a relationship.”

“Hermione, what …?!” Harry started, shocked at the way Hermione thought about herself. His hands stilled on her back and he pulled away a bit so he could see her face. When she steadily refused to meet his gaze, instead focusing her attention on the middle of his chest, he sighed and reached his right hand back around to tilt her chin up. “Hermione. You are so smart, but you are so dumb sometimes when it comes to yourself. You are worth so much more than you give yourself credit for.”

“Harry, I --”

“No. Stop talking and just listen.” He let go of her chin and settled himself closer to her, encouraging her to lay her head against his chest. “So many people over the years have told you how smart you are Hermione. Everyone, including yourself, knows that you're brilliant. But anyone who has only ever praised you for your intelligence has done you a disservice. You are so, so much more. Merlin's balls, Hermione! You're the best person I know! You care so much about people - shite, everything, not just people. You pour your heart into helping others, whether it be securing them equal rights, helping them move flats or fighting off a fucking magical Horcrux snake with a Dark Lord on the way. You may not be the nicest person I've ever known,” Harry grinned to himself, knowing Hermione couldn't see his expression and reprimand him, “but you're the most honest. You tell us what we need to hear whether we want to or not. Do you know how many times that saved me, Hermione? Do you? You've always been the voice in the back of my head, asking me if what I'm about to do is smart, or dangerous, or worth the risks. I haven't always listened, but I like to think I have when it really mattered. You are kind and compassionate. You remember everyone's birthday and send a gift. You adore Teddy and he adores you. You have lunch with Neville at the Leaky Cauldron week after week so that he doesn't have to sit alone while he works up the courage to ask out Hannah.”

Harry paused and took a deep breath, listening to the sounds of Hermione's steady breathing. Her tears had finally subsided and he could only hope his words were getting through to her. “And Hermione….. Ron isn't, nor has he ever been, your only chance at love. What about Viktor? Neville fancied you in 5th year. And didn't you always say Theo Nott flirted with you when you would study together for Ancient Runes? Dammit, Hermione, and those are only the guys from Hogwarts who wanted to date you! You're so damn beautiful, you have half of the single male ministry workers, including myself, hoping for any sign that they have a fucking chance with you!”

Harry stilled as he realized the words that had just slipped from his damn rambling traitor mouth. He had promised himself he wouldn't burden her so soon with his feelings for her. “Oh gods, Hermione. I'm sorry. I didn't mean - I know it's too soon - you and Ron just…. FUCK.” He pulled his hand from Hermione's back where it had been absentmindedly stroking her curls and ran it slowly down his face. He sighed, hoping he hadn't fucked things up between them.

Taking a deep breath, he made his decision...there was nothing to do but go forward from here. “I'm sorry, I know I've probably shocked you into silence. I'm sure knowing that your best friend of a decade fancies you is surprising, to say the least. And I don't want you to feel like you have to say anything to me right now. But since it's out there, I want you to know all of it. I love you, Hermione Granger. I think I have for a long time now. You're the reason I could never let myself get comfortable enough to settle down with Ginny, and you're the reason I haven't been on more than a handful of dates since our breakup. It took me years to figure it out, but I know you're the witch I'm supposed to be with. It's always been you and me. Wrestling trolls in bathrooms, running from werewolves, deciphering clues, riding dragons, hunting Horcruxes… you're the only one who's always looked out for me and stood by my side through it all. I know it's bad timing. You and Ron just broke up. It doesn't have to be anytime soon and we can take it as slow as you want, but I want it to be you and me together, just the two of us, for the rest of our lives.”

When she didn't move, remaining, instead, stubbornly silent, Harry was sure he had ruined their friendship. Hermione was not the type to spare your feelings, so the fact that she wasn't saying anything was tremendously worrying. He disentangled his limbs from around her and pulled back to gauge her reaction. Harry didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. He let out as gasping choking sound that was half laugh, half sob. Merlin, she hadn't heard a word he said. All of that angst just pouring out of him and she had missed it all, helped along into a deep sleep by the warmth of his body and the firewhiskey in her belly. Caught up in all of his swirling emotions, Harry was tempted to nudge Hermione awake and again find the relief he had felt upon spilling his secrets. But she looked too peaceful to disturb, the dark smudges under her eyes tantamount to the upheaval of the past two days. She had her own feelings to sort through right now. She didn't need to juggle his as well.

With that, Harry determinedly remained silent, settling back down to rest his head more comfortably against the arm of the sofa. He could feel the chill of Hermione's skin as she shifted, trying to burrow into the heat from his body. He cast a near silent Accio , summoning the soft blue afghan Molly had gifted him upon making Grimmauld Place his permanent home, and draped it over both of their bodies, doing his best to tuck it in around her back with one hand.

He closed his eyes, determined to sleep, determined to be the best friend that Hermione needed. Maybe one day the timing would be right. Maybe one day the fates would see to it that they got their shot.