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In The Forest Of Dean

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‘So why are you still here?’ Harry asked Ron.

‘Search me,’ said Ron.

‘Go home then,’ said Harry.

‘Yeah, maybe I will!’ shouted Ron, and he took several steps towards Harry, who did not back away.

 Hermione tensed as the scene started to unfold in front of her. What was happening? For being “the brightest witch of her age” it was as if her brain suddenly short circuited and stopped functioning. After everything they had been through, the fights they had endured previously – Ron and Harry’s pissing fit in fourth year for fucks sake – she could feel the tension. Visibly see the flames enlarging towards an inevitable explosion. The pressure building was familiar, like their fights before – but she knew, this time it was different.

They were arguing about whether or not Harry cared about Ginny and the rest of the Weasleys – or that Ron was upset that the mission thus far had been long? Exhausting? Difficult? Utterly defeating? It was ludicrous. They were arguing about everything and nothing at the same time – but none of it was tangible.

Hermione tried to step in to calm things down, to bring Ron to the rational conclusion that Harry didn’t mean what Ron seemed to think he did - but Ron seemed determined to mimic the ever-growing storm outside as his face grew redder with rage. Ron exploded again - lashing out at her too this time, her and the fact that her “parents were safely out of the way”. As if the fact that she had obliviated her own parents that past summer made things easier on her or made the ongoing situation less intense - that it somehow excused her from feeling the same worry and anguish that he was clearly feeling, because she now had less to lose in the war. Her chest tightened, jaw clenched slightly as she felt the prickle of tears at the corner of her eyes. She didn’t know how to respond. But it didn’t matter because Harry bellowed back raising the octave of the tent another level and Ron immediately screamed back.

‘Then GO!’ roared Harry. ‘Go back to them, pretend you’ve got your spattergroit and Mummy’ll be able to feed you up and – ‘

Ron made a sudden movement: Harry reacted, but before either wand was clear of its owner’s pocket, Hermione had raised her own.

‘Protgego!’ she cried, and an invisible shield expanded between her and Harry on the one side and Ron on the other, all of them were forced backwards a few steps by the strength of the spell and Harry and Ron glared from either side of the transparent barrier as though they were seeing each other clearly for the first time.

It was suddenly quiet, despite the noisy raindrops which hit the tent heavily. It felt as though the tent had frozen, time stood still. Hermione could taste the acid in the air, see the hatred in Ron’s eyes and the raging anger in Harry’s. The familiar building tension had finally snapped – but it snapped in an unfamiliar way as Hermione had dreaded. Lingering under the raw and turbulent emotions was something new, something different – something broken. Like a thousand shards of glass on the floor this felt irreparable. She heard Harry speak, but this time his voice was calm, cold, and flat.

‘Leave the Horcrux,’ Harry said.

Ron wrenched the chain from over his head and cast the locket into a nearby chair. He turned to Hermione.

Hermione’s eyes opened a fraction wider and it was at that moment she realized that silent tears had been streaming down her cheeks. She was crying. Crying because subconsciously she knew what they had just lost even if her mind was still racing trying to figure out what to say - how to repair the situation. Crying because she knew what Ron was about to ask her and she already knew her response. Ron spoke.

‘What are you doing?’

 Staring at him still wide eyed, the tears still rolling, the words slipped through her lips quietly. She didn’t want to do this.

  ‘What do you mean?’

 Ron’s face twisted in frustration, he knew that Hermione knew what he meant. Angrily he clarified for her, a hint of desperation in his eyes.

  ‘Are you staying, or what?’

‘I…’

 Hermione looked anguished. A loud roll of thunder outside of the tent sent a shiver down her spine. It felt like she was burning from the inside out, her stomach twisting, the feeling of sick at the back of her throat. She took a breath, blinking her eyes once before she responded in the calmest voice she could manage.

 ‘Yes – yes, I’m staying. Ron, we said we’d go with Harry, we said we’d help – ‘

 Ron didn’t wait though. He didn’t wait for her to explain her reasons, for her to remind him that the two of them, together, had promised to follow Harry and support him on his mission to hunt and destroy Horcruxes. The mission that Albus Dumbledore had assigned them. All of them. The mission that literally the entire wizarding world was depending on them completing – even though no one knew about it. He never listened. He never thought. Why did she ever believe that this would be different?

  ‘I get it. You choose him.’

 His face was ugly. Angry. Filled with a betrayal that was unjustified and selfish. She saw the turn of his shoulders as he started to pull away, as he started toward the door of the tent. She tensed and raised a hand as if to grab and stop him. They had to fix this! A wave of nausea and desperation flew over her - but she was impeded by her own Shield Charm. Waving her wand to remove it she hurried after him through the tent door and into the rain storm leaving Harry standing motionless inside. She screamed his name, calling him to come back.

 ‘Ron, no – please – come back, come back!’

 Running farther from the tent she caught the faintest sound of an apparation *pop* and her hand, which had still been slightly outstretched, fell to her side. She stopped. Her knees quivered as her lip trembled and the rain soaked through her hair. This was different.

 Turning solemnly on her heel she walked slowly back to the tent, her eyes clouded and stuck to the ground. Stepping in under the flap she saw that Harry had not moved an inch. He stared at her, his expression a strange mix that she did not have the capacity to process. Every bone in her body felt like lead. Her hair was plastered to her face, the wind howled and pulled aggressively outside as she stared back at Harry.

   ‘He’s g-g-gone! Disapparated!’

 She felt like she was screaming her words but she knew her voice was soft. Weak. Worn. Her face scrunched as the dam holding her emotions back broke and heaving sobs wracked through her chest. She crumbled into the armchair in the corner of the tent as she let what felt like decades of stress, anguish, pain and loss flow through her – not caring when she felt Harry hesitate near her and then the presence of a soft blanket being placed gently on her shoulders. She heard him leave. She knew he was headed to his own bunk. She knew that she should get herself together, get organized, adjust their plan, figure out their next move – do anything other than sit as the pathetic curled up ball that she currently was. But she didn’t care. Right now, it felt like a piece of her had died.

 

-x-x-

 

Hermione woke painfully the next morning. Her hair had dried terribly, caked on her face with a few small leaves that had gotten tangled up in the storm. Her chest hurt like she’d ran a mile, her eyes were undoubtably pink and swollen and her body screamed at her for having sat curled up in a chair all night. Dried tear tracks and snot covered her face, arms and the blanket that Harry had placed on her the night before.

 Normally she would be embarrassed by her current state. Not because she cared about appearances – no, Hermione Granger did not care about that - but because she, Hermione Granger, always kept a cool head. She never broke down like she did last night. She never succumbed to the dread that secretly filled her heart. She never gave in or gave up – but last night she had, and it was one of her lowest moments.

 Stiffly she shifted into a fully upright position and blinked around the room. It was quiet and the tent was lit with bright sunlight with the faint sound of birds chirping in the background. It gave no hint to the disturbance that had unfolded in this very space the evening before. She glanced toward Harry’s bunk and saw that his back was to her and his shoulders moved slowly with each deep breath he took – still asleep and almost peaceful looking to anyone who didn’t know him. Hermione knew him, though, and the slight tension in his shoulders and the blanket twisted around his ankles gave way to the truth that he had slept terribly – probably as badly as she did.

 Stifling a groan, she pulled herself from the chair, staying as quiet as possible and set the blanket back down. She did not want to wake Harry, he needed his rest more than he would ever let on – but in truth, she also did not have the heart or the courage she needed to face him just yet. Last night it had felt like a piece of her heart had died and she knew that Harry would be nursing his own wounds in his own way and that she needed to be there for him. But right now – she looked down at her dirty and still damp clothes feeling a bit disgusted with herself - she needed a shower. And tea. And just a minute or two alone. Frowning at the blanket before her, still covered in her dried snot and tears, she pulled her wand gently from her sweater pocket and muttered a quick cleaning charm. Then, quiet as a church mouse she crept toward Harry’s bunk.

 Staring down at him she could see that his brow was furrowed and as she suspected the Horcrux locket was draped loosely over his neck and rested on the mattress next to his chest. Gently, she reached down and undid the clasp behind his neck and pulled the locket away from his chest. Almost instantly the crease in his brow lessened and he breathed deeper. With a small but sad smile on her face Hermione snuck to the tent bathroom, grabbed fresh clothes on the way, closed the door and placed the locket around her neck. Taking a deep breath, she stripped off her dirty clothes and turned on the water with her wand, adding a heating spell until steam started to rise. The shower in the tent was actually very cleverly designed, the nozzle at the top was enchanted so that tapping it with your wand activated an aqua eructo charm until the nozzle was tapped again to turn off. The bathroom was fairly small so it did not take long until steam filled the entire room, then she stepped into the small shower stall and closed the curtain behind her.

 She showered longer than what she would ever typically allow herself. Usually her bathing, all of their bathing actually, was utilitarian – to the point and effective. Though, that was probably due to her influence of wanting them to be efficient, and the general desire they all had for not wanting to get caught by snatchers with one of them stark naked in the shower while they needed to escape and apparate quickly. Today though, she allowed herself time to scrub every inch of her body - which she knew was her attempt to scrub away the remorse, sadness and overall feelings from the night before.

 The locket swung loosely on her chest as she bathed, it was a nuisance and she could have left it with Harry – but Hermione had always known that she handled the Horcruxes better than the two boys combined. Harry needed to rest and sleeping an entire night with the locket on would only make the day ahead of them more difficult than it was already going to be.  Besides, she smirked grimly to herself, the locket was dirtied with dark magic – it could use a bath.

 She cringed inwardly at that, then pondered if the reason why the locket did not impact her so strongly could be related to the meditation her parents had taught her as a child. The same meditation techniques that she had religiously continued to use since she was first taught them at 8 years old. She’d never mentioned it to anyone, not even to the boys, but as a child she used to struggle with anxiety related to her insatiable desire to be the best in everything. “Classic perfectionist” they’d said. Being “brilliant” had come with its tolls and wanting to always be the best in school would leave her anxious as a child. So as a young child her parents had taught her how to meditate, to breathe, to relax, to organize her thoughts and work through problems logically and calmly. Ironically, this skill had helped her in almost every single facet of her life thus far and very well might be the best skill she had – and yet not one person knew she had that skill. It was very likely the only reason why she, Harry and Ron were still alive now. If she ever saw her parents again, if they ever remembered her again, she would thank them.

 With that thought, Hermione ran her fingers through her dark curly hair one last time and rested her palms and forehead against the cool wall of the shower stall. She allowed herself 2 minutes of deep calm breathing as the hot water pounded between her shoulder blades loosening her stiff muscles while the locket hung lightly from her neck – then she opened her eyes. Pulling back the curtain she stepped out of the shower stall, grabbed her wand from the sink counter and tapped the overhead nozzle to shut off the water. Using a quick drying spell she then grabbed her fresh clothes, but paused when she caught her reflection in the mirror. She looked tired. Freshly scrubbed with tinges of pink in her cheeks from the heat, hair still damp and hanging in curls around her shoulder – but the tired she saw seemed to be emanating from her bones.

 Her face was skinnier, not gaunt, but thinner. The whole of her was. Being on the run was not luxurious – as Ron had clearly recently concluded – and she frowned at her reflection. If they were truly to fight and win this war, they needed to spend at least a little more time trying to eat well balanced meals. She would need to look through their supplies today and their schedule to allow more time for food collection and management.

 Pulling on her clothes, an old washed out pair of muggle jeans that showed wear marks at the knees and a long sleeve but thin and loose fitting charcoal v-neck sweater, she sighed before brushing her teeth and then turned to her hair. It was the usual bushy mess that she had come to accept. She arched an eyebrow cautiously at it – as if trying not to spook or upset it and thus make it worse. She cast an additional drying spell to remove the lingering dampness, then she opted to pull it into a messy pony on the top of her head. It flopped lamely to the side – her hair was simply too heavy and thick to look cute in a high pony. So, she twisted it into a large knot and left it there piled atop her head.

 Leaning back against the sink she slowly pulled on her socks. They were purple, knitted, oversized and warm – perfect since the weather was getting cooler by each passing day. Standing straight with determination, she grabbed her wand and turned to face the mirror once more.

 Well, this is as good as it is going to get today, she thought.

 Leaving the small bathroom, she heard a gentle clinking noise in the kitchen area and turned to the left walking down the very small, and very short ‘hallway’ that lead back to the common area of the tent. She paused at the end, looking at Harry who had two chipped tea mugs sitting on the kitchen table with some small scones on a plate in the middle – they were the last of the scones that they had, she cataloged mentally as a reminder that they would need to grab some more.

 He had heard her approaching and looked up about a moment after she had stopped moving. The air felt tense with lingering unsaid words and unsure feelings. Her left hand fiddled nervously with the bottom hem of her shirt. She did not remember ever feeling awkward with Harry in the past, but she did not know what to say – neither of them did.

 Harry, bless his heart though, spoke first and spoke softly.

 “Hey,” he said, his hand nervously fidgeting with the spoon he’d likely been using to stir the tea. He was looking directly at her; his eyes were worn and unsure, she could see the stress he carried in his shoulders.

 “Hey,” she said softly as her left hand fell from the hem of her shirt to clasp with her wand in front of her. She saw him relax slightly, the worry in his eyes becoming slightly more hopeful. She could not imagine what he must be thinking.

 “I made tea,” he said somewhat abruptly. But his voice was still gentle like she was a small injured animal that he was worried he might frighten away if he moved too quickly or spoke too loud. “It got cold though. S-so I just used a warming charm – to reheat it. It’s one milk and two sugars? I’m sorry – I hope it’s okay?”

 The last part came out in a bit of a jumble and Hermione could see the hopeful yet slightly desperate look in his eyes. His genuine concern that his gone-cold-then-reheated-tea might not be ‘okay’ was adorable, and his attempt at ensuring they were okay was clear. Harry was hopelessly helpful and caring – and he had remembered how she took her tea.

 Hermione smiled, it was tired but genuine and her appreciation for his efforts shone through. It was ridiculous for them to feel this uneasy around each other.

 “It’s perfect Harry, thank you” she said as she walked toward the table to take a seat opposite to the side he was standing on and set her wand down beside her.

 He grinned in relief and slowly lowered himself down to the table – patiently waiting while she took a sip of her tea first before grabbing his own gently to hold it near his mouth. Holding hers in a similar fashion, both hands on the warm mug, elbows propped on the table and the mug hovering just below her chin she could see the way her studied her face – trying to figure out what to say.

 “It’s okay Harry,” she said softly, removing one hand and reaching it out gently toward his. He dropped a hand from his mug and allowed her to grasp his fingers gently before she placed their intertwined hands between them in the center of the table. She gave a firm squeeze, his eyes still searching her face and desperate for something. “We - are okay” she said with surety.

 Harry let out a breath he had been holding, his head dropped slightly, shoulders sagging, and he put his tea mug down to place his free hand over his face. He sat for a moment, head held in his hand, before he quickly propped himself back up with a deep breath running his hand through his wild black locks. He looked briefly up at the ceiling before his eyes fell back to her face – his eyes were slightly red now and she could almost feel the prickle of his tears that had formed in the corner of his eyes. She felt her own sting as she stared intently back at him, both of them trying to push their tears back down.

 “Thank god,” he said weakly, with a look of sad relief flooding his face. “I’m so sorry Hermione.” His eyes were genuine, and he gripped her hand back.

 “I know,” she said with earnest. She set her cup down as well and they instinctively grabbed each other’s hands – now sitting across from each one another tightly gripping each other as if they might loose each other if they let go. “I-I know. I am too. I am so, so sorry Harry.”

 “You shouldn’t be,” he said weakly “you have nothing to be sorry for. You stayed.” He paused starring at her with an adoration she wasn’t sure she’d seen before. “Thank you, for staying.”

 “Of course,” she replied. Her eyes flicking across his face. “Of course I would stay Harry. I said that I would. I told you I would be here until the end – always.”

 Harry smiled at her again, some of the tension having now left his body he rolled his shoulders back to a more comfortable position.

 “I know,” he said quietly “but still. I know it hasn’t been easy – and I’m sorry that I don’t seem to know what I’m doing half the time. It’s because I don’t. I wish I did! But I don’t. And I’m sorry for that” he rambled before pausing. He looked at her carefully, sincerely, and spoke the next words slowly and with meaning “I want you to know how much I need you here. How much I rely on you. And how grateful I am that you stayed. I know that last night wasn’t easy for you – but I’m so, so thankful that you stayed.”

 Hermione stared at him, their hands had risen slightly between the two of them with Harry clutching them almost desperately at his chest. One single tear fell from the corner of her eye and she smiled with a great sadness, her heart feeling heavy, but feeling confident.

 “You’re right,” she spoke softly. “It was hard. But doing the right thing often is – it’s not about making the easy choices or doing what we want to do. It’s about doing the right thing and doing what we need to do. Harry, I don’t regret staying. The decision was easy, so don’t you dare ever think anything different -”

 Harry had opened his mouth slightly, perhaps to protest, perhaps to thank her again, perhaps to say she shouldn’t be so absolute in her stance – she didn’t know what he was going to say, but she didn’t care. She cut him off and continued. She wanted to get all of this out and on the table now because she didn’t want to keep skirting around on eggshells in a small tent while they had Horcruxes to find and destroy.

 “The decision was easy,” she said more firmly fixing him with a stare. “Seeing Ron leave. That-that was hard. It was hard because it hurt. I’m sad Harry - I’m sad, I’m disappointed, I’m upset. I’m flabbergasted that he even thought to ask me to go with him! I expected more – I expected him to stay true to his word and to see this through. I expected him to be reliable and – and I expected him to, for once, see the bigger picture and understand that this – all of this! What we are doing here – is so much bigger than any of us as individuals. That we have to continue, that we have to do whatever we must to complete this mission.”

 Hermione fixed Harry with a stern look of resolve before she continued. Harry himself was quiet now, sitting in a slight lean toward her and she could see a small glint of determination reforming in his eyes.

 “I am upset about Ron, Harry,” she said to make herself perfectly clear before taking a breath and squeezing his hands once firmly. “But I will get over it. Hard times show us who we really are – they show you someone’s true character. I always knew Ron was a little bit unreliable and a bit lazy” she said with a small smile and Harry smiled gently too.

 “I guess,” she paused “-I guess I just thought that when things got really bad, that when it really came down to it, that I would be able to count on him. I guess I just hoped – that he was a little different.”

 Harry’s smile was grim when he spoke.

 “I know,” his voice rough. “So did I.”

 They sat in silence for a moment each starring at the hands still interlaced between them. Harry absently rubbing his right thumb over her knuckles in a soothing motion.

 “He may still come back,” Harry said with a small smile and a tiny glint of optimism. She could feel his gaze land upon her, waiting for her to respond.

 Hermione’s brow creased as she mulled this over, it was a possibility. Her eyes entranced by the small circles Harry’s thumb was still making over her knuckles.

 “Maybe,” she said slowly and raised her eyes to look at Harry again. “Maybe. But – that won’t change how I feel.”

 Harry quirked an eyebrow at her as if he was looking for her to confirm what she meant by this statement and in return she gave him her most direct stare.

 “It won’t change how I feel now,” she stated firmly. “What happened here – if he comes back. Maybe – maybe I can forgive him. Maybe we can be friends. But – I can’t look past this. I-I won’t go back to how I felt before.”

 Harry looked at her carefully, thought present in the sight furrow of his brows and he nodded slowly to show his understanding. Harry was aware of the feelings that Hermione had started to develop toward Ron – not just because he was a keen and observant person, but also because the two of them had briefly touched upon it in conversation. Hermione had been jealous when Ron had started snogging Lavender Brown in sixth year and Harry had helped her deal with it – telling Hermione that Ron truly was interested in her but was an idiot and didn’t recognize his own feelings. It may have been harsh and earned him a small half-hearted smack from Hermione at the time – but it was true and Harry knew it. Ron, for all his worth, was not always the brightest. It was very likely that he only ‘liked’ Hermione because they spent so much time together – but in reality, they had absolutely nothing in common and argued often. Harry had always been the bridge between the two of them. Given some space Ron would probably take interest in other girls quickly and forget his feelings for Hermione all together.

 Hermione nodded in return and Harry squeezed her hands once more. Dropping them both back on the table and putting on his best smile.

 “So how about breakfast,” he said with slightly over exaggerated cheer. “I was up all night baking these things.”

 Hermione laughed, always thankful for Harry’s ability to move on and force one foot in front of the other. She reached for a scone taking a bite and complimented him on his cooking skills before taking another sip of the gone-cold-then-reheated-tea-that’s-gone-cold-again-tea that Harry had made her.