"An otter?" Harry looked at Hermione, whose face was slightly pink, though her expression told him that she was trying very hard to stay dignified. They were sitting in the Gryffindor common room, enjoying a rare moment of inactivity. With the Easter holidays coming the next day, the students hadn't much to do other than gossip about the events that had taken place in the previous weeks. He felt as though, with so much on his mind, the best thing he could possibly do would be to distract himself and Hermione—prevent them from thinking about anything too much. He didn't think she would appreciate what he was doing until she was thoroughly distracted, however, so he didn't explain himself.
"Yes. An otter." Her chin came up in the defiant gesture he loved, the one she'd worn when she'd punched Draco in the face—and he wondered if he'd misjudged just how sensitive she was about her Patronus. He thought she might already be fairly distracted, but it hadn't taken very long, so rather than just mumble a quick 'never mind,' he continued to look at her. Hermione frowned at her copy of Defensive Magical Theory for a long while, and finally lifted her head to glare at him with a vexed expression. Harry knew she hated being stared at.
"Was there something?" she asked, the tension in her body very evident by the way she held her quill. Harry knew he shouldn't goad her, but he couldn't help it—it cheered him up.
"Yes, well not all of us have parents who are majestic antlered animagi in their spare time," Hermione said tartly, snapping her book shut with disgust. Harry was pretty sure that had more to do with the book's contents than his teasing, though.
"It's just that it's—" he stopped, realizing too late that he'd pushed too far; she stood up and glared at him, her voice taking on the slightly shrill note it gained when she was genuinely upset.
"Not a swan?" Hermione said in a strangely bitter voice. "So sorry to disappoint." Before he'd had a chance to say anything to make it worse—he always made it worse—she'd gathered up her things and hurried off up the stairs to the girls' dormitories.
Harry was genuinely confused. It was Cho whose Patronus was a swan, but why would Hermione care about that? Hermione had mastered the charm long before the other girl, hadn't she? He didn't dislike the otter, he'd just thought it was…not very 'Hermione.' Suddenly he wondered if the reason she'd been so upset wasn't that she didn't think her otter suited her, it was that no one else did.
He'd always thought that the reason he didn't often understand Hermione was because she was a girl. Now Harry wondered if he'd just been missing key parts of her personality by writing them off as 'a girl thing.' This disturbing thought sent him off to bed, where he knew he'd inevitably lie there deciding whether trying to use Occlumency was worth listening to Snape just so he could stop dreaming of that stupid room.
Hermione lay in bed, still wide awake. She was so disappointed, so furious at herself for blurting out the bit about the swan—not that he even understood what it meant, she thought to herself fiercely. She'd been having a terrible time sleeping lately, mostly due to the inevitable worry about the OWLs, and Harry… She was worried about his dreams, of course. Not because he'd come back from a DA meeting last month with a dreamy look on his face, the one she'd thought had looked so stupid until he'd looked right at her and said something she didn't even remember. What she did remember was the happiness in those green eyes.
All the years she'd helped him, all the battles they'd fought against Voldemort and now Umbridge—the times she'd lent him support and her analytical mind, and he had never looked at her like that. All because he'd kissed Cho. It wasn't fair, she thought, rolling over and viciously pounding her pillow into submission beneath her head. Cho was everything she wasn't—calm, feminine, straight-haired.
She was angry at him for being obtuse, she was angry at Cho for having made her first impression on Harry when she was old enough to be thought of as a girl—and most of all, she was angry at herself for losing sleep over the whole thing. She'd never do well on her OWLs if she spent her time bothering over a girl that could make Harry look as happy as if he'd just made Quidditch Captain.
"That's got to have been the best birthday present ever," Ron said without preamble at breakfast the next morning. Harry shot a quick glance at Hermione and saw that she had the same look on her face, full of exasperated affection for their red-haired friend. She quirked an eyebrow at him and he knew exactly what it meant—'should you ask, or should I?' Harry shook his head at her and turned to Ron, who had a mouthful of porridge.
"Ron," he began, careful not to let the amusement show in his voice, as his friend really hated anything that implied that his behavior was laughable. "Whose birthday?" Ron looked up at him like he was daft, and Harry saw Hermione turn her head quickly to stop herself from losing her composure.
"The twins? Yesterday was the First of April…" Harry shut his eyes for a second, realizing he'd completely forgotten. "Don't you remember what happened last year? Though not having to come back to school is still the best present, no matter how angry mum gets." Ron grinned despite his obvious melancholy about his brothers' departure.
"They were lucky we weren't Prefects that year," Hermione observed darkly, though the corners of her mouth were twitching.
"They were lucky Percy already graduated," Ron added with a broad grin.
As the two of them continued talking about Fred and George's birthday celebration in the Gryffindor common room the previous year, Harry just ate quietly and observed them. Ron seemed to have gotten a good night's sleep, though Harry could tell he was understandably a little jealous that the twins had managed to escape the school relatively unscathed. However, Hermione looked as though she'd had an all-night detention in the Forbidden Forest.
Normally he'd have just chalked it up to typical Hermione, worrying about schoolwork, her duties as a Prefect, or her OWLs—but Harry recalled his reflection of the night before, wondering if he'd been neglecting her somehow.
"Are you all right, Hermione?" he questioned abruptly, interrupting Ron in the middle of a lavish description of one of the twin's new inventions. To his surprise, she flushed bright red. Odd reaction, he thought to himself, stuffing it away in the back of his mind for further reference.
"I'm—excuse me, Ron," she said, tacitly reminding Harry that he'd interrupted their conversation. "I'm fine, why do you ask?" She hadn't stopped blushing, and he recognized the self-conscious flutter of her hands as something she did when she was nervous. Now he didn't know what to do—he'd thought asking if she felt all right would be something a good friend would do to make her feel better, not all flustered and—
Harry turned around to see if perhaps one of their fellow male students was standing behind him. He suddenly realized that he had no idea if Hermione was even interested in anybody…
Harry spent the day working on his homework, something that Ron complained about for about as long as it took for him to walk down the seventh floor corridor, run into Malfoy, and narrowly avoid losing about 100 house points from Gryffindor. Instead of tempting fate again, Harry, Ron, and Hermione stayed in their little niche in the common room finishing the homework they'd intended on putting off for the holidays.
Throughout the day, Harry tried to periodically study Hermione, to see how she was reacting to things he or Ron said. He noticed that her nose wrinkled slightly if he or Ron put their feet up on the cushion beside her, her brows would furrow if she disagreed with whatever it was she was reading—and she'd get a very careful, precise tone in her voice when he asked her specific questions about the assignment. He knew that she disliked it when they tried to see her work, and rather than just accept that she wanted them to do things on their own, he'd just adopted a system of asking her questions in a way that concealed his true purpose, assuming she hadn't caught on.
Now he saw that she had, but answered him anyway.
Harry noticed one more thing about Hermione that he hadn't appreciated before—she got the most delighted expression on her face when she checked his work (which she did often) and found that he'd made some truly inspired observation (which didn't happen very much). This time he watched her face as she picked his parchment from in front of him (without asking, which he found he didn't mind), and for the first time he saw the flush of happiness that she experienced as she read it. Her eyes had a light in them he'd never seen before, and it gave him a flush of pride as well as a warmth in his chest he'd only felt a few times in his life. Suddenly Harry knew that he wanted to see that look again—directed at him, and not his Transfiguration essay.
He resolved to spend the rest of the holidays doing whatever it was that made her happy (finding that when she was happy, he was as well, which couldn't help but be a good thing), and continue his surreptitious observations as well.
By Sunday night, Hermione's emotions were on edge, her mind could barely focus on stoking the fire in the common room, much less on her studies, and she wasn't sure what to think. Harry had spent the whole weekend…she wanted to term it as 'being nice to her,' but he'd always been nice—he was her best friend! It was different, though. It was like he was finally seeing her, instead of just spending time with her.
She didn't want to get used to it, not the least of which because she didn't think she could take much more without saying or doing something incredibly stupid. She finally understood what it must have been like for Viktor, constantly coming into the library but not having the courage to speak up for fear of rejection—and he hadn't spent the past four years being best friends with her, either.
Hermione decided that she much preferred it when she was being chased, instead of the chaser—and then realized her caring for Harry had finally led her down the dangerous path of Quidditch puns. When he turned to smile at her for what must have been the twentieth time that day, Hermione gave up and asked.
"Harry, is there something wrong?" He looked momentarily confused, and she elaborated, knowing that he wasn't always the best at figuring out what she meant. "You seem…extra—" her mind supplied 'attentive,' and she felt her the blush starting to creep up her collar. "I didn't expect you to spend all weekend—" Now she knew she was blushing noticeably, and gave up. Hermione knew that Harry probably wouldn't connect her physical behavior to what she was saying, anyway.
To her surprise, dread, and secret thrill, Harry stood up from his position on the floor in front of the low table and started over to her.
"Hermione—oh, I didn't mean to make you nervous," Harry said with a nervous laugh of his own that sent her hands twisting in her lap in mimicry of what her heart was doing in her chest.
"I'm not nervous," she lied, looking at him as confidently as she could manage. Then she saw it—the doubt. She'd lied, and he knew it…but he never used to pay enough attention to be able to tell, before…Harry looked at her steadily for a long minute, and then he let out a long sigh and sat beside her on couch.
"I haven't really appreciated you, have I?" The blunt question was spoken in such a weary voice that she had to stop herself from reaching out to him. "I've spent a lot of time being ungrateful—to you, to Professor Dumbledore, to—"
"If you say Professor Snape, I'm going to start really worrying about you," she interjected, unable to allow him to continue along the vein of self-derision for any longer, and knowing that if she didn't somehow break the tension, she was going to start thinking things that couldn't possibly be real.
"I won't." Harry started to play with a frayed piece of string on the sleeve of her robe. It was comforting, normal behavior, and yet it felt different, now. He felt different, now.
"I'm still going to worry." Hermione spoke with the quiet determination that he'd come to associate with things she truly cared about. Harry started to wonder when it was she'd begun to act nervous around him—and then realized that he was nervous, too. He looked up at her, impulsively wishing he could say something to her to cause that wild happiness he'd seen the day before.
"You worry too much," he observed, twisting the little thread around his finger over and over, tugging at it absently. Harry glanced up at Hermione, noting that she was staring with fascination at the movement of his fingers. "I've noticed, you know," he said, wishing he could tell her exactly what he'd noticed over the past few days.
"I'm sorr—" she began to say, but he stopped her with word and gesture, pulling her hand to his via the sleeve of her robe and squeezing it for emphasis.
"Don't ever apologize for caring for me," he said firmly. He'd meant primarily that, after all she'd done for him, he should be apologizing to her, but suddenly the practical and strong-willed Hermione seemed to collapse in front of him, wilting into tears so strong that the only thing he could do was collect her to his chest.
"I'm so stupid!" she wailed, completing his confusion. The nervousness he'd felt before seemed to melt away, replaced by a strange desire to tell her exactly how much he appreciated her efforts, how well he thought she had handled the stress of it all—and it occurred to him that he'd always been able to talk to Hermione. He liked the way that made him feel—confident, trusted—much more than standing in front of Cho with his hands sweating and his heart in his throat and—wait. Why was he comparing Hermione to Cho? And how could Hermione of all people say she was stupid?!
"You are not stupid," Harry said angrily into her hair, feeling her clutching at his robes and wishing he could say something more profound to comfort her. "You're the smartest, most brave, and cleverest witch I've ever met," he offered, hoping it would help. Hermione gave a little hiccup of a gasp, and lifted her head.
"Really?" she sniffled, her nose red, the lines of tears drawing the contours of her face with light reflected from the nearby lamp.
"Really," he asserted, impulsively lifting his hand to wipe a smudge of ink from beside her eye. When he touched her, she closed her eyes—but when she opened them, there it was. The look he'd been wanting, wishing for these past few days. But what had he done to deserve it?
"You don't think I'm just bossy and bushy-haired and nothing but a know-it-all?" Hermione asked with a catch in her voice that he didn't quite comprehend because he was too distracted by trying to figure out how to keep her looking at him with that delighted fire in her eyes.
"I think you're brilliant," he murmured, staring at her intently.
"Oh, Harry," she said in an odd tone of voice—and then she kissed him.
It was over so fast that he hardly had enough chance to process the fact that he'd liked it, really liked it, before she stood up and started running for the girls' dormitories.
"Where are you going?" he asked, dumbly. If he'd liked it, and she'd been the one to initiate it, why would she run away?
"To run and hide for about four months!" Hermione gasped out, pausing at the bottom of the stairs to turn and face him. "I'm so sorry Harry, that was—"
"Rather nice, actually," he finished for her, feeling the blood rushing through his body as his heart tripled its speed.
"—unforgivawhat?" Hermione stopped speaking and just stared at him, and finally, finally Harry understood what it was that made her look like that.
It was right in front of him the whole time.
The knowledge made him feel incredibly brave and excited, and he remembered that after kissing Cho he'd been happy—but terrified. This was a lot better.
"Of course, if you didn't like it, you can go back to running away," Harry dangled, wanting her to walk back down to him, and hoping that she would.
Hermione marched down the landing stairs and right up to him, drawing herself up to her full height before looking him straight in the eye.
"Let's get this straight," she said with incredulity in her voice. "You don't think I'm mad? This isn't some sort of a dream or a—"
"Hermione," Harry said in a pained voice, "you just kissed me, and we both liked it—why are we still talking?"
The way her eyes lit up after he spoke was all the answer he needed.