“Hermione,” Harry hissed through his teeth, trying to stay quiet. “You’ve got to stop fidgeting.”
Their current location was a heavy-laden fir tree, where they were perched rather precariously near the top. The tree provided them with cover and gave them a bird's-eye view of a small cabin fifteen yards away. It would have been perfect but for Hermione’s constant wiggling, disrupting the tree branches and making snow plop to the ground. When Harry turned his head to look at her, ready to tear into her for moving so much, what he saw made his heart clench.
She was scared—of course she was. Hermione hated heights with a fiery passion. That small but important fact had completely slipped Harry’s mind when he’d positioned them.
Hermione wasn’t fidgeting. She was shaking.
“Oh bloody hell,” he whispered. “I’m sorry ‘Mione, I wasn’t thinking.”
With her back pressed to the tree trunk and arms wrapped around a branch that jutted out just to her left, she was hanging on for dear life. Despite Hermione’s obvious distress, she quietly said, “It’s all right, Harry. I—I’m sorry. I feel like a ninny.”
The wizard they were surveilling hadn’t returned to the cabin, and the area looked clear for now, allowing Harry to focus on the trembling witch next to him.
The branch beneath them was sturdy, and Hermione sat closest to the trunk, while Harry was just a tad farther down the branch at a spot wide enough to sit securely with his legs dangling.
As he shifted a bit to bring his upper body closer to where Hermione clung to the other branch with her head buried in her arms, he settled his hand firmly on her knee in an attempt to comfort her.
“Hey. It’s okay, Hermione. You’re not stupid. A phobia is inherently irrational, didn’t you tell me that?”
She lifted her head just enough to pop one eye open in his direction.
“Yes.” Her voice was small, timid.
This was Hermione, the bravest, strongest person he knew. Seeing her reduced to trembling made him angry, wishing her fear was something tangible he could take his fists to, something he could protect her from.
“You know what, I’m not sure he’s coming back anytime soon. Why don’t we call it a night and head back to the B&B? We can have some cocoa and you can tell me more about your theory.”
“No, Harry. I couldn’t ask—”
“You’re not asking. I’m telling. Now, listen to me, Miss Granger, or suffer the consequences.” He squared his shoulders and pulled his brows together to look menacing.
As intended, it made her giggle, and she agreed.
Originally, they refrained from using magic as Harry was concerned their target might have drawn detection wards around the area. But now, looking at Hermione’s pale face and terrified eyes, he decided it would be worth the risk to levitate her down rather than asking her to climb.
“Stay there, okay? I’ll help you down but you need to stay put for a minute.”
His words were rather silly—she wasn’t going anywhere. With one last pat to her leg, Harry scrambled down to the ground. The minute his feet reached the earth, he pointed his wand to the spot Hermione was sitting, and quietly spoke an incantation.
He realized his mistake in not telling her what he was doing when she released a choked scream at the sudden movement of her body.
“Shite! I’m sorry. I’m just floating you down. You’ll be safe on the ground in a wink.”
He carefully manoeuvred her down and around the branches. The relief she radiated when she reached him was plain as day. The tension drained from her body and the tightness eased some around her eyes.
She was still shaking, so Harry pulled her into his arms and held her tight, willing her body to calm. After a minute, she pulled back, a tiny smile on her face. “Thank you. You make me feel safe. I don’t know why since you’re the most reckless person I know, but somehow you manage it.”
Standing on her tiptoes, Hermione pecked his cheek, pulling him towards the path back into town and using her wand to make their footprints disappear. Even in the throes of unexplainable terror, she thought of everything. If she had become an Auror, dark wizards wouldn’t have stood a chance.
It was nice to have a partner again. Ron was off somewhere in Africa on a top-secret, extended assignment and had been gone for months. Harry was happy for him. He was getting right into the action, something he loved, but Harry missed having his best mate around, especially on missions.
The Aurors had been watching this particular suspect for a while now. He was a former Death Eater that was systematically killing werewolves living in Kielder Forest. Many had scattered after the war, taking shelter in the deep woods. Though regulations surrounding werewolves were slowly starting to change, there were still people that believed they were animals to be put down, not humans that deserved compassion and aid.
Or at least, that’s what Hermione had told him.
When she spoke about her work, her eyes lit up.
She had gone straight to the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures after finishing her schooling, landing a job in a subdivision that handled wizard-creature relations. There were several groups that were sentient and of sufficient intelligence, but still chose the designation of beast, like the centaurs and merpeople. Hermione was the Ministry’s representative, their first point of contact.
It was something Harry could never do. He wasn’t fond of mincing words or sidestepping around politics.
Every once in a while, the DMLE partnered Aurors with staff from other departments when particular skills were needed that were beyond the scope of a typical Auror. Hermione’s expertise in the muddy waters of interspecies politics was the reason for her presence on this mission.
He’d been friends with Hermione so long that being in her company felt like home to him. She hurried in front of him, curls bouncing, chattering on about a new development in the production of wolfsbane.
He was trying to listen—really, he was—but they’d reached the B&B and all the snow gathered on the lawn was just sitting there calling to him, and he couldn’t resist.
Hermione was still facing away from him, so Harry discretely grabbed a handful of snow, dropping it into the back of her jumper.
She squealed, jumping back and whipping around to face him whilst tugging at her jumper to shake out the snow. Quicker than a wink, she balled up a mound of snow and sent it flying straight at his head.
Smacking his forehead, it slid down onto his glasses with a splat.
Hermione laughed then, free and clear. She looked so happy like that, cheeks red and eyes wide with delight. Beautiful, that’s what she was, and he wondered if she knew the effect she had on him.
It was like all was right in the world when Hermione was beside him, safe and smiling.
Over the years, they’d tiptoed around the topic of feelings. Harry had asked her out—once—a few years ago after she and Ron had parted ways.
Hermione tactfully turned him down, telling him it was too soon for her and she needed her best friend in that moment, someone to be there for her.
It had been the single most embarrassing interaction of his life. He’d obviously utterly stuffed up his interpretation of the “signs” she’d been giving off.
He’d stammered a response, something like, “Right! Yes, of course. You’re right. I, uh I’ll just—” before he practically ran from the room in mortification.
If Harry were being honest with himself, he’d fancied Hermione for a long time, all the way back to their days alone on the run after Ron had left. When he’d held her in his arms and danced around that dusty tent, he’d felt a deep sense of rightness. Content. Happy.
That rightness had warred with an inkling of disloyalty because he should not have been cultivating feelings for his best mate’s girl. Or best mate’s almost girl, rather.
So, Harry had bottled up those affections, forged ahead, and continued to love Hermione as a friend long after the war had ended, never allowing himself to think it could be more.
His effort had been successful until she’d broken up with Ron. Thinking back on it now, he’d been bloody mad for approaching her so quickly. He had barely waited a month. His excitement over the possibility of finally coming clean to Hermione had gotten the best of him, and he’d moved too soon, too quickly.
It had been years since ‘The Incident,’ and he’d been doing pretty well with keeping his feelings to a low simmer.
In moments like this, though, when she was so beautiful—every part of her inside and out—it was hard to look at her.
She shone so brightly it was like peering into the sun.
While he’d been standing there, lost in the past and letting snow drip off the tip of his nose, Hermione had amassed a small arsenal of snowballs, neatly stacked in a pile at her feet.
Before he could even put his hands up, she began launching the snowy missiles at him, one right after the other.
It had been foolish to underestimate her.
Bringing his arms up to shield his face, he walked deliberately straight towards her, still in the line of fire, but paying the explosions of snow no mind. When he reached her, she took a few steps back and screamed, but she wasn’t quick enough.
He’d already snagged her by the waist, twisting and taking her with him as he fell to the ground, cushioning her fall with his body. Flipping them, he looked down at her, hair fanned out in the snow.
Fuck, she was perfect.
Before he could catch himself, his head was suddenly dipping closer to hers, stopping just in time as he came to his senses, her eyes wide below him.
He got off of her and stood, helping her up and dusting snow off her shoulders.
“You are incorrigible, Harry Potter.”
“Ah-ah. You declared war, love. I just responded.”
With a grin and a final shake of her head, she walked up the garden path to the door. He watched her go, standing there trying to calm his racing heart while she seemed entirely unaffected.
Hermione waited beside Harry while he got their room keys.
“Here you are.” The elderly woman behind the front desk handed Harry one key.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we reserved two rooms.”
The woman’s brows knitted together as she scanned her check-in book, finger running over the well-worn pages. “Well dear, I have you down for one.”
She wrung her hands together, looking distressed.
“I’m afraid the others are booked. I’m terribly busy this week with people seeking shelter from the storm.”
Harry started to speak, but Hermione stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Harry. We can share.”
He looked hesitant, and she was sure that was because he knew how much she valued her space. It had become sacred to her after everything, after the war had robbed her of basic things like privacy and personal space.
But this was Harry. She didn’t mind sharing a bed with her best friend. “It’s okay. We’ll take it, ma’am. Thank you,” she said with a smile, and it seemed to put the woman at ease because her tense expression faded.
“Right this way, dears.” She led them down a narrow hallway, stopping at the door at the very end.
Inside was a bed big enough for two people, covered by a beautiful homey quilt. It reminded Hermione of the blankets her Nan had made over the years.
“Thank you very much, ma’am.” Harry stood at the door. The woman smiled and told him to let her know if they needed anything at all, before slowly making her way back down the hallway.
“It’s cosy,” Hermione said as she set her bag on a chair in the corner of the room. There was a little desk against the wall that Harry planted himself at, pulling out paperwork he needed to work on.
“Do you mind if I…” She gestured towards the loo.
He waved her on. “Not at all. I have to finish this. Go wash the bits of tree out of your mane.”
She playfully stuck her tongue out at him before disappearing into the bathroom.
Turning on the tap, she waited for it to heat. Steam filled the room, warming Hermione’s skin as she stripped off her clothes. She’d been cold down to the bone and stepping into the hot shower was like heaven.
As she thoroughly washed her hair—not a simple task, mind you—her thoughts wandered to the events of the day.
She really had been mortified when she’d nearly ruined their reconnaissance mission with her stupid shaking. She despised having a fear that was largely out of her control. It made her feel silly, weak.
But then Harry, as always, had made her feel better, not only removing her from the situation, but bringing her spirits up with a romp in the snow and a snowball fight.
As she stood under the steady stream of water, she thought about that look she’d seen on Harry’s face when they were play-fighting.
It had been interesting there at the end when some kind of… something passed over his face. She couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was. Affection, certainly. But there was also something deeper than that, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. It was something that Hermione had noticed more recently.
Years had passed since Harry’s hurried declaration of love, or whatever it was, and she hadn’t really thought about it much in the time that followed.
In the last six months, however, she found the topic on her mind more often than not. Her friendship with Ron and Harry was stronger than ever. They had movie nights at her flat and evenings out with the whole gang at The Three Broomsticks or The Leaky.
The three of them were as close as they’d ever been. The difference now was that Hermione felt warmth stir in her chest when Harry laughed and her heart skipped a beat when he pressed a guiding hand to her lower back.
She applied deep conditioning oil to her hair, a recipe she’d concocted and perfected when she’d been unable to find anything on the market to suit her hair needs.
While the oil had time to soak in, she soaped up, wincing at the tenderness in her bum from sitting on a branch for an extended period. Her mind drifted to the why as she stood there in the shower. Why was she only now having these feelings when just years prior she had rejected their existence?
When she finished, she turned off the water, mourning the loss of its soothing heat, and she twisted her hair up in a towel, using another to wrap around her body. Her hand reached towards the counter for clothes, but they weren’t there because she’d left them in her bag.
Blast it all.
To get to them, she’d have to exit the toilet and rummage through her luggage, all while parading around in front of her best friend in a towel.
Ah, well. He’d seen her at her worst, and anyway, what was a little towel wearing among friends? Besides, she was interested to see what his reaction would be.
His back was to her as he sat at the little desk, hunched over paperwork.
Hermione tiptoed as quickly and quietly as she could to the corner of the room where her bag rested. She knew Harry had heard her come out—the hinges of the door needed oil—but she figured he was too focused on what he was doing to notice her.
Just as she unzipped her duffle, however, Harry’s head lifted and he turned towards her. “Hey, ‘Mione. Did you know that—oh. Fuck, I’m sorry!” Heat flashed in his eyes as his gaze skimmed the length of her body, before catching himself and squeezing his eyes shut so tight it looked painful. “I’ll—I’ll just turn around. And close my eyes! Yeah, definitely closing my eyes.” He planted his elbows on the desk and covered his eyes with his hands.
A chuckle escaped her before she could cut it off. “It’s okay, Harry. You’re fine. I’m just grabbing some clothes I forgot to bring to the shower with me.”
At her words, he slowly straightened. With his back still facing her, he removed his hands from his face and shrugged before returning to his work.
That was how Harry was, though—horrified by the idea that something he did might cause her any kind of discomfort.
When they’d been living out of a tent, just the two of them with Ron gone, he’d made sure that Hermione had a separate space just for her. It was a flimsy canvas wall dividing their sleeping areas, but sufficient enough to provide them—and her, especially—with a little privacy.
Despite the divider, there had been nights when being alone in the dark had proven to be too much for them. One of them would slip off their own cot, padding across the tent to where the other lay, not even needing words to communicate. No, they’d both just scooted over and lifted the blankets for the other to slide in next to them.
The comfort was something they’d been desperate for during that time, scared kids alone in the world with massive responsibility on their shoulders.
It had simply been two friends seeking solace in the other. They cuddled, sometimes talking late into the night when they couldn’t sleep.
Nothing else ever happened, but Hermione treasured the memories of those moments nonetheless.
Leaning down to grab her clothes and a fresh pair of knickers, Hermione hurried back into the bathroom, calling out, “All clear!” as she shut the door.
The Hermione that was reflected back at her in the mirror was grinning like a loon.
Despite his polite and appropriate reaction to her half-dressed state, she had seen a flash in Harry’s eyes as he’d looked at her body.
Hermione’s breakup with Ron had been hard. There had been a tangled mess of feelings strung between them, twisted and knotted tight.
He had been her first everything: first kiss, first boyfriend, her first love.
They’d forged a bond through adrenaline and the thrill of young love. Though it was sweet while it lasted, theirs had not been a relationship meant to be. And so, it hurt. It was like tearing off pieces of their skin when they broke up, painful and difficult.
But at some point, they’d gotten through it, because they’d known deep in their hearts it was best.
Hermione was relieved they had stayed friends. Since effectively making herself an orphan, she’d clung to any semblance of family—of belonging—that she could.
Holidays at the Weasley’s home were a tradition she loved, and she had worried that Ron would throw a fit about the breakup and she’d never be invited back.
She was happy to be wrong in this case.
They’d had years to process and learn how to be separate from each other. Hermione had grown to cherish her independence and alone time, no one to answer to but herself—and Crookshanks on the rare occasion that she was late with his food.
Lately, she’d found herself staring at Harry when he wasn’t paying attention, focused on the little things like when he’d mucked up his glasses and rub at them with the hem of his shirt.
Thinking about the electric sensation when their hands brushed, she wondered if these feelings were happening because she was lonely, or if they were, in fact, legitimate feelings for Harry.
They had a near unbreakable connection, that much was certain. But did Harry even have any feelings left for her after she’d so staunchly stopped that train?
Could they ever transition from friends to lovers?
It was not something Hermione would ever admit out loud, but there were nights that she had dreams of someone coming to her in the dark and lavishing her body with touch and attention. The figure was always shadowy, but she would swear she’d seen bright green eyes catching the light more than once.
She questioned her relationship with Harry, running through all the possibilities that could occur.
He could tell her that no, he wasn’t interested anymore. He could say he didn’t want to think about that stuff right now. He could even respond with anger, frustration, or, perhaps more accurately, tell her she should have said something years ago instead of turning him down.
What she hoped, though, was that he somehow still held affection for her in his heart. She hoped he’d kiss her and sweep her off her feet, showing her just how much he cared.
Hermione considered the opportunities to explore some of this while they were away. It was just the two of them, and in between work, they had time to themselves. Perhaps she could put herself out there, see how it went. The wizard in question was only door away, after all.
When she’d dressed, she left the still steamy room and flopped down on the bed, bringing Harry’s attention away from his paperwork.
“I’m hungry.” She drew out the last vowel like a whiny child, laughing when Harry rolled his eyes and set his quill down. “I saw a diner on our trip in.”
“All right, fine. Can’t have my best partner starving to death. Come on, you.” He stood and gestured for her to take his arm.
She leapt from the bed and clapped her hands, grabbing her purse and tucking her hand around Harry’s elbow as he led them out on their mission to find food.
The next morning found them once again staking out the little cabin in the woods at dawn. There was, however, one clear difference: they were no longer in a tree.
That was a fact for which, Harry knew, Hermione was immensely grateful, and it showed in her ability to concentrate now without the fear that had her in its claws yesterday.
From their spot deep in the trees but close enough to the cabin to have it within eyesight, Harry and Hermione sat on the ground, disillusioned and hidden under low hanging branches as an extra precaution.
On her lap, Hermione had a field notebook spread open, and she scribbled in it from time to time.
They were still trying to figure out how, exactly, this wizard was luring werewolves in and getting close enough to take them out without issue. Hermione’s working theory was that the man would leave slaughtered cows and other animals in strategic places that gave him the advantage if it came to a fight, clear open areas with no trees to hide behind. The dead animals lured the creatures in with the smell of fresh meat. What they couldn’t figure out, though, was how the man was overpowering the werewolves so quickly.
Each time a body was recovered, it had no signs of a struggle and no injuries beyond one deadly blow that killed them instantly. Harry had asked contacts within the underground magical market to alert him if werewolf parts started showing up, but there hadn’t been anything in weeks.
Movement at the north side of the cabin caught his eye. He lifted his omnioculars, catching sight of their target.
“Is that him, Harry?” Hermione’s warm breath brushed against his ear as she spoke lower than a whisper. He nodded. They both watched as the man circled the house, a crate in his arms.
Hermione’s shoulder knocked into his when she leaned forward abruptly. “What’s that in the crate? Can I see those for a second?” She held her hand out to grab the omnioculars Harry passed to her.
“I think—those are plants.”
When he raised the omnioculars to his face, he confirmed what she was telling him. Though the invention could replay the moment they'd just seen, the lenses weren’t accurate enough for him to identify the plants, and soon the man slipped inside the structure.
“Well, he doesn’t strike me as the gardening type.” Harry glanced at Hermione as she shook her head.
“No. He certainly does not.”
He sat back on his haunches, thinking.
“Is there a way we could get in there, Harry? When he’s gone, I mean. If we find out what those plants are, it might lead us in the right direction.”
“You’re not wrong. My concern is that he’s put protections in place to keep out trespassers. It could take me a minute to get through them.”
“Well, he always leaves in the morning, right? Maybe this was just a quick stop to drop off supplies. We could start working on it as soon as he leaves? Surely we could be through the wards before he comes back in the evening.”
He wasn’t sure if this would be a dead-end or not, but he trusted Hermione’s intuition, and they were pretty well stuck on this case anyway, needing hard evidence before they could move forward.
“I think that’s our only option at this point.”
Hermione looked excited at the prospect of being involved, and while Harry appreciated her knowledge, the idea of her being hurt because he let her walk into a dangerous situation made him feel ill. Not only would Robards tear him a new one for letting a civilian get hurt, but Harry would never forgive himself.
Her focus was on her notebook as she wrote something down. He had to catch her chin and lift her face to look at him.
“You’ve got to promise to follow my instructions to the letter, all right? No rushing off and doing your own thing.”
“Harry James Potter, I am perfectly capable—“
“No one’s doubting your capabilities. But this is my job, and you’re a consultant. I know you can take care of yourself, love, but imagine what my boss would do if he found out I let you get hurt on a mission?”
Her mulish expression softened though her chin was still stuck in the air in defiance. “Okay, I promise.”
“That a girl.” He tucked a wayward curl behind her ear, almost letting himself get lost in the little flicker of sweetness that flashed in her eyes. But he couldn’t. They were on a mission, and besides that, she’d made it perfectly clear years ago where they stood romantically. He was just seeing what he wanted to see, mind making up things that weren’t really there.
“Right, this is how we're going to do it.” He used the tip of his wand to scratch a loose battleplan in the snow, explaining how they’d move forward when their target left again, pleased with Hermione’s focus on what he was saying. She nodded at the appropriate times and pointed out an easier way to do one of the steps.
“You’re brilliant, witch. Can I bring you with me on all my cases?”
“If you keep me stocked in chips and cherry cola, I’ll go anywhere with you.” Harry laughed, silently so as not to alert the target of their presence, but heartily just the same. She was addicted to cherry cola.
Five minutes passed before the wizard walked out of the cabin, eyes scanning the perimeter.
They waited for him to leave and stayed put for a few minutes as a cushion before Harry led them to the cabin, Hermione a few paces back while he tested the possible wards on the property.
The process of running diagnostics on wards was one Harry was well acquainted with. He often encountered defensive wards and protective hexes in his line of work.
The wizard must have thought highly of himself and his choice of headquarters because the wards were laughably easy to deconstruct, especially with Hermione throwing her wand in the mix and helping.
When they’d taken them down, Harry said, “I’m going to go in and grab the crate and bring it out to you. Please stay here.”
“I will! Good grief, I do know how to follow instructions, you know.”
“Sorry. I just want you to be safe.”
One corner of her mouth turned up. “I know. Go on, now!” She shooed him into the cabin.
The crate they’d seen their target bring in wasn’t in sight in the one-room cabin, so Harry searched, finding it tucked under a table and hidden behind a tablecloth.
With a quick glance at the plants, he brought them out to Hermione. He hoped they meant something to her because he didn't recognize them. Then again, he’d never been much for Herbology.
When he set the crate at Hermione’s feet, she dropped to her knees to inspect the plants closely, muttering things to herself as she touched them, running leaves between her thumb and index finger.
“Harry!” His name was said in a whisper shout.
He crouched down beside her quickly and gestured for her to continue.
“This is rilsweed. It’s a key ingredient in sedative potions. When consumed orally, it can take effect almost immediately.”
“He’s lacing the carcasses with it.”
Hermione looked up at him. “Bingo. The wolves knock out and he kills them with a blow to the back of the head.”
“Hot damn, Hermione. This is good. If we have his method, we’ve got him. It’s just a matter of catching him in the act.”
“Tonight is our full moon, so I’d say it’s likely he’ll be hunting.”
“You’re fucking fantastic, woman.” He helped her up, wrapping an arm around her waist and spinning her about.
She threw her head back and laughed, the sound full of mirth. It was like music to Harry and he never wanted it to stop.
When he slowed to a stop, she was still in his arms, her face just a few inches above him as he held her. They were both breathing hard, trying to catch their breath. As he let her slide down his body, she never broke eye contact. When her feet hit the dirt, she didn’t step back like he thought she would. Instead, she pressed closer, hands smoothing across his jumper to rest on his chest.
She interrupted him by surging up on her toes and pressing her mouth to his.
It only took a second for his brain to catch up with his body before he responded, one arm snaking behind her back. He pulled her as close as she could be, his other hand tangling in her hair as he cupped the back of her head, angling her face so he could kiss her even more thoroughly.
It was the kind of kiss a wizard could get lost in, but Harry didn’t have that luxury because he was on duty in the middle of an investigation and the only thing he could do was stop.
It pained him—physically hurt him—to tear himself away from her perfect mouth. When he pulled back, she just followed him, hands twisting in the fabric of his coat, chasing his mouth. He had to cup her face and gently pull her away.
Big brown eyes blinked up at him, confusion knitting her brows together. “Was I not—”
With an emphatic shake of his head, he interrupted her. “No. You were—are—perfect. Just poor timing.”
A pink flush of embarrassment spread out on her cheeks as she remembered where they were and why they were there.
“Oh, yeah. Of course. I’m sorry. I— “
“No apologies necessary. We just have rotten timing. Raincheck?”
The hint of a smile quirked up her mouth. “Yeah, okay.”
“Now,” Hermione started as she straightened out her clothes and planted her hands on her hips, “let’s go catch us a bad guy.”
“Hell yeah.” With a grin, Hermione raised her hand in the air for a high five. When their hands made contact, a little smack echoed through the trees, punctuated by their laughter.
It was past four in the morning when their quarry finally stepped into the moonlight in the small clearing they’d staked out.
They needed proof of what the man was doing, and while Harry had wanted Hermione to stay back at their lodgings, she made a case for him bringing her along, because a third-party witness could be especially helpful during prosecuting.
Harry had begrudgingly agreed, but not before going over the protocol with her and what to do if things went south for the fortieth time, in addition to extracting promises from her that she would not, under any circumstances, jump in.
Hermione watched from a safe distance as Harry crept through the trees, circling around to a spot across from the man, ready to throw up a shield and overtake him when the time was right.
The man had deposited the carcass of a dairy cow in the clearing just minutes before. As Hermione had suspected, he uncapped a small bottle and poured what was likely liquified rilsweed over the body. That done, the man stepped back into the shadows just enough to be out of sight and waited.
Ten minutes passed, maybe more, before a howl echoed through the forest, bringing chill bumps to Hermione’s skin.
From where she stood, she could see their dark wizard ready his wand.
The howling stopped abruptly and there was silence, not even the sound of footsteps. Then suddenly, a beast came crashing through the trees into the clearing. The creature loped over to the meat, sniffing it first before taking an experimental bite.
The wolf took only a bite or two but started to sway on his feet almost immediately, going down to his knees before passing out and falling sideways.
The dark wizard stepped forward, his identity clear in the moonlight. This was their man.
Hermione held her breath as she waited for the man to strike. They needed him to fire off a spell first in order to prove that he was intending to cast the killing curse through an inspection of his wand.
Harry was in the line of fire.
What if he didn’t get the shield up in time? What if the man did something else that caught him off guard and then used that advantage against Harry?
Anxious thought after anxious thought flew through her mind, making her dizzy. Breathing deeply, she tried to calm down and slow the beating of her heart.
This was what Harry did every day. He knew what he was doing.
The thoughts comforted her, and she watched with bated breath as the dark wizard stepped closer to the wolf, raising his wand to strike. He fired off the spell, but it was intercepted by Harry’s quick use of Protego Maxima, making the flash of spellfire dissolve mid-air.
Immediately, the dark wizard looked around, searching frantically for the source of the interruption. Harry charged forward, needing to get closer to subdue him. A duel broke out, both of them firing off spell after spell, inching closer to each other with each one. Spells crashed against the trees, knocking off chunks of bark.
A shot of green fire barely missed Harry’s head, and Hermione’s hand flew up to cover her mouth and mask her gasp of fear.
With a twist, Harry avoided the next thing thrown at him and managed to hit his opponent with a well-placed stunner that knocked him back.
Quick as a wink, Harry was on the man, subduing him and confiscating his wand before securing his hands behind his back.
Relief coursed through Hermione.
Harry was all right.
Everything was all right.
No sooner had she sighed in relief, than the fallen werewolf began to stir, shaking off sleep and standing on unsteady legs. The wolf looked around, spotting Harry with his back turned, and started to sprint towards him. The creature moved silently, so quiet that Harry couldn’t hear him coming.
Brain going into crisis mode, Hermione rapidly flipped through the options she had. She could yell and alert Harry to the danger about to befall him, but there was the risk that if she did, it could mess up Harry’s concentration as he worried for her, and give the werewolf time to strike. Or, she could get a bit closer but stay in the trees and hope her spell would reach far enough to hit the wolf before it decided to target her.
With no viable options that kept her at the sidelines, she determined she would have to break her promise to Harry, and she had to do it quickly because the wolf was nearly there.
Dashing out of the trees, she got as close as she could before raising her wand and shouting, “Incarcerous!”
Thick ropes snaked around the werewolf’s legs, tightening and tripping him before he could get any closer to Harry. He fell to the ground with a whine, like a naughty puppy bopped on the nose with a newspaper.
Harry’s head whipped to the side, eyes searching to confirm Hermione’s safety, before spinning towards the wolf and knocking him out.
When the creature was secured, Harry turned to her, looking like he was about to lecture her before his shoulders dropped and he said, “Fuck,” as he pulled her into the circle of his arms.
Seeing him threatened had shoved her mindset to a dark place, back during the war when there were threats at every turn.
She just wanted him to be safe. They were supposed to be safe, now, with the fighting over.
But Harry had chosen a line of work that brought him right into the crosshairs nearly every day. As much as she worried, she knew it was important to him, and so she dealt with the uncertainty of not knowing if he’d come home in one piece.
Her cheek resting against his chest felt good, right, somehow. “You’re not mad?” The words were a little garbled, but he must have understood her because he pulled back just a little, hands on either of her shoulders.
“I just about had a heart attack when I heard you shout, but no, ‘Mione, I’m not mad. How could I be? You saved my arse.”
“I was just—” To her shame, her voice broke, and the rest of her words were spoken in a whisper. “—really scared, Harry. I— “
“Hey, it’s all right. Come here.” He wrapped his arms around her once more, tucking the crown of her head under his chin and holding her tightly. One hand ran soothingly up and down her back, calming her. “It’s okay.”
“I can’t lose you.” She said it so quietly she wasn’t sure he heard until he shifted to cup her face, fingers sliding into her messy hair.
The look in his eyes was intense and focused on her as if he were preparing to speak to her very soul.
“I love you, Hermione. I have for a long time. Forever, maybe.”
Her heart twisted, not with pain but with an aching sweetness spurred on by his words.
“If today was a fluke, and we were just caught up in the moment, that’s okay, truly it is because I need you in my life, in whatever capacity you’ll allow. But just—just know that I am always going to be here for you. Come what may.”
Tears started to sting her eyes. If this wasn't a sign, she didn't know what was. Here was Harry, standing before her, telling her he still cared for her despite everything.
"I—" She couldn't seem to force the words out past the lump in her throat. All the things she wanted to say melted from her mind until she just stood there, gaping like a goldfish. “Me too, Harry. Me too."
Her words had their intended effect as she watched relief paint his features.
“Listen, let me get in contact with Robards. Maybe he can send a cleanup crew to deal with this and we can go home. Would you like that?”
The ups and downs of the last few days had taken their toll, and the thought of rest was alluring and heavenly. “Very much.”
“Okay, sit tight, love. I’ll let you know the plan as soon as I hear back from them.”
She nodded and watched as he strolled a few yards away to send his Patronus to his boss with a message.
The first light of dawn was slowly easing its way across the sky as Hermione sat on a rock with a flat top, legs crossed in front of her. It was that hazy part of the day, where time felt slower somehow, sluggish, and everything was soft around the edges.
She must have faded in and out of sleep because by the time Harry walked back to her, she had no memory of the time passing.
“A team is on its way to deal with the wolf and our criminal.”
His words sharpened her focus. “Deal with the wolf? Surely they wouldn’t—”
“No, they will not kill the werewolf. Bloody hell, Hermione. We have to follow the regulations just the same as everyone else. Regulations you should be proud of since you’re the reason they ever passed in the first place.”
Taking a deep breath, she smiled, relieved. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that anyone on your team would act so cruelly. It’s just that werewolves have been hated and hunted for so long, I worry about the effectiveness of the new guidelines. It’s just my first instinct to assume the worst. I’ll work on that,” she said with a crooked grin.
“See that you do, young lady.” Harry threw a wink in her direction before checking the restraints of both the wizard and the wolf. The wizard was just barely starting to stir, so Harry petrified him, keeping him still and quiet as a stone until the cavalry arrived.
It didn’t take their reinforcements long to get there, and soon the clearing was abuzz with activity as witches and wizards from several different departments scurried around, filling out paperwork and preparing for transport.
When she felt a hand on her shoulder, she flinched, ready to grab her wand before seeing messy hair and light glinting off glasses in the corner of her eye.
She breathed deep, willing the tension out of her body as she patted her pocket to reassure herself that her wand was still there and she was all right.
Harry took one look at her probably bedraggled and exhausted appearance and wrapped an arm around her shoulders before they disappeared with a crack and Apparated away.
All of their things were still in the room at the bed and breakfast, so that was their first stop. Harry intended to take Hermione home, but the very minute they’d gotten back to their room, she curled up on top of the quilt like a cat napping in the sun. She was so tired. Hell, he was so tired. He supposed it wouldn’t hurt to stay just a little bit longer.
The sun was now fully in the sky and Harry drew the curtains closed to darken the room.
Walking to the foot of the bed, he nudged Hermione’s still form, warmth filling his chest when her sleepy brown eyes opened and landed on his face. “Hey, love. Let’s get you under the covers.”
She mumbled something unintelligible and allowed him to pull off her shoes, her body soft and compliant as he situated her under the blankets.
“Wait,” her sleepy voice said. Flipping the covers back, she unbuttoned her jeans and wiggled them down over her hips, legs flailing erratically in an attempt to free her ankles from their denim prison.
He grabbed an ankle, stilling her movement to pull the jeans over and off of her feet.
Comfortable now, she tucked herself back under the covers, eyes closing as soon as her head hit the pillow.
Affection warmed his chest as he watched her sleep, stripping off his own shoes and trousers. Climbing in next to her, he silently thanked the old woman that booked them one room instead of two.
He wasn’t exactly sure where they stood, didn't know if she would be amenable to letting him hold her while she slept, so he didn’t pull her into his arms. Instead, he just laid down beside her under the blankets, shoulder to shoulder, lulled to sleep by the steady sound of her breathing.
They slept most of the day. Harry awoke to Hermione shimmying out of bed and hurrying to the loo.
The late afternoon sunshine peeked through the curtains, streaming into the room and filling it with light when Harry threw the curtains open.
The squeaky bathroom door was loud in the silence, and Harry turned to see Hermione walking toward him in just her shirt and knickers. The light coming in through the little window in the bathroom backlit her as she drew closer, like an angel. She looked bloody perfect, and it took great restraint to keep from rushing to her and kissing her breathless. She had kissed him—even said she loved him—but the whole thing seemed too good to be true. Deciding to let her make the first move, he stood still, waiting.
She stopped when she reached him, so close their chests nearly brushed with each breath they took.
“Good morning.” Harry could feel the warmth of her breath against the hollow of his throat. She smelled of spearmint, making him smile at her dedication to oral hygiene.
“Good morning,” he whispered back. She leaned closer, one hand pressed above his heart, emboldening him to rest his hands on her hips.
She bridged the narrow gap between them, first nipping at his chin with her sharp little teeth, then kissing each corner of his mouth, teasing him.
He loved her touch but needed more of her mouth because he felt as if he might die without the feel of her lips against his own. Moving one arm to wrap around her back, he pulled her close, nearly sighing in relief when he was able to kiss her in the way he wanted—deep and steady and perfect.
He felt her wiggle in his arms, and he released her immediately, concerned he'd gone too far, pushed her too quickly.
But when she pulled back, it was not discomfort on her face.
No, it was mischief underscored by desire.
She stepped a few paces back, eyes twinkling, bottom lip caught between her teeth as she so very slowly reached for the hem of her shirt, tugging it up and over her head.
Harry could admit now, as an adult, that he’d had a few teenage fantasies where he’d imagined what his best friend might look like with her shirt off.
Reality, though, was far better than any daydream he could have concocted.
Everything about her was soft: the dip in her waist, the gentle flare of her hips, the smooth, impossibly soft-looking breasts topped with pink nipples like a cherry on top of a cupcake.
He wanted to lick her up one side and down the other. He wanted to taste her, feast on her, devour her.
But he had to be careful, slow, because he could overwhelm her, scare her, and that was the last thing he wanted. So, he took a minute to collect himself, eyes lazily trailing up and down her body as she stood there looking simultaneously like heaven and sin incarnate.
She stood still, waiting for him to make a move.
He could stay like this forever, revelling in this fantasy, drinking in the sight of her like a man dying of thirst.
But this wasn’t a fantasy. She was real, made of blood and bone and standing there, so close to him that he could reach out and touch her.
So he did, one hand on her hip and the other cupping the back of her neck, angling her just right so he could kiss her deeper, better, stronger.
Her hands were everywhere: clutching at his shoulders, running over his chest, up and down his arms, in the hair at his nape.
Moving both hands under her bum, he lifted, boosting her up to wrap her legs around his hips.
And then she was against him, and it felt so good, but it could be better, would be better if they were skin to skin, nothing between them.
Walking forward, he deposited her on the bed. As quickly as he could, he stripped his shirt off, leaving him in his boxers as he caught her behind the knees and jerked her forward, falling to his knees before her.
In this position, he could see everything. Her hips were at just the right angle at the edge of the bed, putting him eye level with the heat between her legs, covered by her knickers.
He experimentally cupped her in his palm, rolling it against her and revelling in the little sounds she made. His thumb found her clit, and it was just a little swollen, poking out against her knickers. Her hips bucked at the touch, so he did it again, rubbing in circles.
Deciding the time for teasing was over, he hooked his index fingers in the elastic waistband of her cute pink knickers and tugged. She lifted her hips to help him take the garment off of her, and he slid it down her legs, leaving it to fall on the floor beside the bed.
Suddenly he was presented with the prettiest sight he’d ever seen.
She was perfect, and he told her so, punctuating his words with the slide of his finger through her folds, the tip pushing in just enough to circle her opening and make her squirm in frustration.
There were so many things he wanted to do with her, so many things he wanted to do to her, and he was nearly overwhelmed with choice. She made the decision for him when her hips jerked towards him, pressing his finger in a little deeper.
He stroked her with his fingers, first one then two, sliding in and out of her with ease. She was positively soaked, so bloody wet for him—because of him—and he could hardly believe it. Watching her body for signs, he adjusted his movements as he went, going on when something made her feel good, and trying something new when it didn't.
The desire he had to taste her could no longer be put at bay, so he sat up on his knees, fingers sliding out of her momentarily to drape her legs over each of his shoulders. Her head lifted with the change in position, and he smiled up at her from between her legs, checking in to make sure she was still with him. “This okay?”
An enthusiastic nod and, “Yes, please,” was her response.
Now that he was settled between her legs, he leaned in to press a teasing kiss on her glistening skin. Using his thumbs, he gently parted her folds, displaying her before him and allowing his tongue to circle her clit before he dragged it down, down. His tongue danced around her entrance, pushing in slightly only to be replaced by his fingers as he focused his mouth on the little bundle of nerves that made her gasp with every touch.
Hands and mouth moving in tandem, he kept his movements steady, letting the pleasure build in her belly. He was still partially in shock that this was actually happening, that he was making love to Hermione Granger on a quilted bed in a small-town bed and breakfast.
His senses were on overload; sight, sound, scent, and touch completely focused on her and her alone, washing him in sensation.
Her breath started to stutter just a bit, and the muscles in her lower abdomen tightened. He thrust his fingers in and out of her at a faster pace, tongue flicking firmly back and forth over her clit. She made a sound—half strangled scream and half whimper—and then she was clenching around him, calling out his name as her pleasure crested, pleasure he had brought to her.
Hermione collapsed back on the bed, limbs like limp noodles, completely wrung out. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he stood and pushed her farther back on the bed until he could crawl over her, knees parting her delectable thighs and opening her to him.
Running a hand from her neck down to her hip and back again, Harry said, “You’re fucking beautiful, Hermione.”
Her hair was a frizzy cloud around her head, and her colour was bright, pink dusting over her cheeks, the bridge of her nose, and even her chest.
“Come here. I want to touch you,” she said firmly, and he couldn’t resist her command, moving up her body to lick and bite at her neck. Heart thumping, he felt her small hands trailing over his skin, flicking at his nipple with her thumbnail, before gently scratching down his chest.
Her fingers dug into his hair and he lifted his head away from her neck at her urging, delighted when she used her grip on him to press her mouth to his.
It was not gentle and soft this time. It was rough, full of fire that washed over their skin and set them ablaze. Perfect and intense and everything he wanted.
He was hard as a rock, groaning when she ground her naked core against his cloth-covered erection.
Putting all his weight on one elbow, he freed himself, shoving his boxers out of the way so he could brush the head of his cock against her, eyes rolling back in his head at the contact. He lined himself up, still propped up on one arm as his face hovered above her own.
“Still good, love?”
She stroked her hands over his biceps, smiling. “Never better.”
He moved slowly, pushing inside of her and kissing her, tasting the little gasp she breathed into his mouth and giving her time to adjust.
Finally, finally, he was on her, in her, fully surrounded by her. Her nails dug little half-moons into the skin of his shoulders as she rolled her hips experimentally against his, finding a rhythm.
She felt fucking incredible, and his daydreams could never, ever live up to the real thing. He made shallow thrusts, barely moving inside her, just delighting in the feel of her clenching around his cock. She had apparently run out of patience because she tightened her legs around his hips, pulling him closer.
“Harry,” she said against his neck, teeth nipping at his earlobe. “Move.”
She didn’t have to tell him twice.
He pulled his hips back and snapped them forward, loving the sounds she was making, loving the tug of her fingers tangled in his hair as he kissed his way down her chest, her hand pressing his mouth even closer to her skin. She cried out when his teeth grazed her nipple at the same time he thrust into her.
Seeing her face was perfect, wonderful and exactly what he wanted, but he was ramping up his own pleasure while hers simmered. He wasn't hitting the right spots.
So he pulled back, pulled out, dropping one last kiss onto her soft skin before saying, “Turn over.”
With his hands on her hips, he helped her flip over, pulling her up to her hands and knees and steadying her while he moved back onto the bed behind her.
Her arse was perfect, of course it was, and he couldn’t help but give it a little squeeze. She felt so right under his hands, as if she had been meant to be there all along.
He pushed back inside her, everything different at this angle, tighter. Once she figured out the rhythm, she pushed back in time with his thrusts, pulling him as deep as she could.
Grabbing her mass of hair in one hand, he pulled it to the side, exposing her neck. He bit at the tender skin at her nape, pleased when she let out a little, “Oh.”
In this position, he could reach around the front of her hips and touch her where she needed it. He rubbed circles over her clit, fingers slipping down to feel the point where they were joined. Harry felt like he was having an out of body experience because the feeling, the sensation was so intense it didn’t seem real.
Gripping the flesh of her hips again, they moved faster together, harder. The sound of his hips smacking against her arse was loud in the little room, and he hoped the proprietor was far out of earshot. They probably should have thrown up some privacy charms, but they’d been too caught up, too in the moment.
Hermione's moans were coming faster, stuttering with every forceful thrust of his hips. Her arms gave out, elbows falling to the bed. She rested her head against them, letting Harry take over. His fingers dug into her hips, and he worried about leaving bruises until he didn’t have the mental capacity to worry anymore at all.
Nearly mindless, he snaked a hand below her to press on her clit right as he pushed into her one last time.
He saw stars behind his eyelids as he came, the rhythmic squeezing of her muscles around him dragging out the pleasure as she hit her own peak.
In the aftermath, he gently pulled out of her and helped her move onto her back. Padding to the bathroom, he grabbed a flannel and wet it with warm water. Kneeling between her still spread thighs, he wiped their combined fluids from her skin. When he was through, and she looked up at him with love, motherfucking love in her eyes, he decided all he wanted to see from now until eternity was her pretty face smiling up at him, eyes soft and body satisfied.
When they were both clean, he dropped the flannel in the sink and got back into bed. Hermione had already crawled under the covers, and she scooted back against him when he wrapped an arm around her, her back pressed against his chest. Delicate fingers stroked softly up and down the arm he had around her middle.
“I’m really glad we did that.”
He was already falling asleep, but he mumbled, “Me too.”
“Do you think we’ll do it again?”
There was a vulnerability in her voice that Harry wanted to banish. He shifted her a bit so he could see her face as he spoke to her.
“Good luck getting rid of me now.”
A tiny smile turned up the corners of her mouth. “I mean, is this going to go somewhere? It felt so—so right. I don’t even know how to explain it, but I've never ever felt a connection with someone like that before. It makes me wish…”
He was quiet, waiting until she was ready to speak.
“Makes me wish that we had figured this out years ago. All that lost time, Harry—"
He shushed her with a gentle press of his fingers against her lips. “The past doesn’t matter. Why should we mourn for what we didn’t have when we can revel in what we do?”
She kissed the tips of his fingers. “How did you get so wise?”
“Age. I’m a fine wine, better every year.”
She giggled and the sound went straight to his heart.
“Now, do you have more going on in that big brain of yours or can we finally sleep?”
With a pat to his hand and a wiggle, she said, “Sleep. Goodnight, Harry.”