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Ten Thousand

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Author's Note: This story was begun in response to a challenge for Hermione's 19th birthday on the HPHarmony subreddit back in 2017. While it began as an attempt at fluff, the difficulty of creating a romance at this particular moment in the canon characters' lives made for a much more complicated tale, and I'm finally trying to get back to it. In the end, this is still a straight-ahead romance with Harry and Hermione, mostly centered in Hermione's POV. And there will be a significant helping of fluff. There is a bit of hurt/comfort here too, as both characters deal with the aftermath of the war. And just a bit of angst as they work through things together, but no artificial roadblocks to romance.

Canonical events are assumed through the end of the series, but without the DH Epilogue. In a few places, I've attempted to blend together elements from both book canon and movie canon (which of course are not entirely consistent with each other).


Saturday, September 5, 1998

Hermione watched as her reflection let out a sigh.

“Why do you do that?”

Harry’s voice startled her, and she nearly dropped the makeup stick in her hand. “It’s just a bit of concealer,” she said. “You know I’m hardly one to obsess over such things, but sometimes I smooth over a couple blemishes, especially if I’m going out.”

“It’s just me and Ron,” he said. “And you don’t need it. You’re covering up your freckles.”

She half-rolled her eyes at his reflection. “Since when are you an expert on my face?” As her gaze shifted, she began to examine herself more closely. “Most days they’re barely even noticeable.” Her eyes drifted back to his image; he now seemed to be staring rather intently at her. “What? Are you counting them to be sure it’s me and not some impostor?”

“Maybe...”

Hermione spun about to look at him directly. “You’re serious, Harry, aren’t you?”

“You just have that prominent one here.” He pointed beside her nose. “And one on your cheek there. And that cute pair above your lip...” She felt her cheeks grow slightly warm as Harry’s eyes dropped down toward the floor. “I’m sorry, I must sound a bit mad. I just… well, I missed seeing you.”

She scrunched her eyebrows down and stared at him, bemused. “We just saw each other a few days ago when I left for Hogwarts.” She turned back to the mirror. “And while there’s part of me that’s flattered, I really had no idea you’d even notice such things.”

Harry put his hands in his pockets and turned to walk out the door of the Head Girl’s bathroom. “Nevermind,” he said from the hall. “I just meant that you don’t need all that stuff to look beautiful.”

The final word echoed in her mind. Beautiful? When did Harry start casually calling her beautiful? Actually, when had he ever said anything like that? When did he map out her face with so much detail? She hastily applied a thin coat of clear lip gloss and followed him out to the main area of the Head Girl suite, where he had settled on the sofa, staring off. “Harry?”

“Just forget I said it. Or, no...” He turned and met her eyes. “Don’t forget I said it. I just don’t want you to think there’s anything wrong with you, just because of that immature git.”

She sat down beside him and put her hand on his. “It wasn’t Ron’s fault. We both realized it wouldn’t work.”

His gaze fell to his lap. “I’m just saying—you’re perfect the way you are.”

“Don’t exaggerate. I don’t need a friend to pity me with compliments. I know I’m not ugly, but I’m not—”

The tenor of his voice raised by a notch, as he looked up at her again, this time with an air of determination. “Please, stop. I’m not being nice, Hermione.” She stared back into his eyes in bewilderment. “You don’t realize it, do you? Most people are just intimidated by you, and the few blokes who are too stupid not to be are just the sort who’d fall for a mask of bloody makeup. Maybe someday I’ll figure out a way to convince you...”

His voice had drifted off as his eyes fell again, and Hermione waited for a moment for him to continue. But with nothing more forthcoming, she finally asked, “Convince me of what, Harry?”

He hesitated for several seconds—obviously in a sort of strained agitation—before looking straight at her and blurting out, “Of how wonderful and brilliant and… well, absolutely stunning my best friend will be to any man who truly appreciates her.”

For a moment, her breath caught, and she was truly speechless. The tiny voice inside her head told her that he couldn’t have said that, couldn’t really mean it. But Harry wouldn’t be joking about something like this; he would never be so cruel. And she caught that resolute and sincere look in his green eyes before they dropped again as he cleared his throat. She finally leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, before saying quietly, “That’s probably the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“Well, anyway...” Harry said as he pulled his hand away from hers, appearing decidedly uncomfortable, before standing up. “We should get going if we’re going to meet up with him at Hogsmeade.”

She ignored his tacit protest against physical contact and took his arm as they walked in silence from Gryffindor tower, listening to the distant echoing of the chimes from the clock tower announcing the hour as they navigated the deserted halls. All the other students were at dinner, the place Hermione would typically have been supervising.

When they reached the main entrance of Hogwarts, she spoke up again. “I still feel like I’m abusing this privilege.”

Harry shook his head. “You’re Head Girl, and without you we wouldn’t have won the war. As far as I’m concerned, McGonagall should let you go out whenever you want.” He paused for a moment before adding, “And if she doesn’t, then I guess… I’ll have a word with her.”

Her face grew tight as she halted their walk. “No, you will not, Harry Potter,” she said, giving him her sternest look. “I’m a student here again, and rules exist for a reason. I need to set an example. I will not have you throwing your Boy Who Lived And Lived Again reputation around like that.”

A moment after she finished, Harry’s expression broke into a grin, and he began chuckling. “I was kidding, but it’s hilarious to see your face when you get angry. Don’t ever change.” He turned to her with those mirthful eyes, and she couldn’t help breaking her scowl to smile in return.


“It’s great to see you three together again!” Madam Rosmerta exclaimed as she delivered their drinks. “It seems only yesterday that there were three young kids here drinking butterbeer. And Hermione is Head Girl now, I hear. Come, tell me—I’ve never met another woman named Hermione. You know, I’ve always wondered where that comes from.”

Hermione started to open her mouth, but Ron chimed in, “Her parents are fans of Shakespeare, so she’s named after one of his characters. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, right?”

Hermione rolled her eyes. “No, Ronald. Hermione is from The Winter’s Tale.” Looking back to Madam Rosmerta, she continued, “Though she and I have basically nothing in common, other than having lived pretty messed up lives in very different ways. I’ve sometimes wondered if there’s a connection to her tragic story, but I think my parents just liked the sound of the name.”

“I’ve always liked it too,” Harry said as he set down his drink. “The sound of your name, that is.”

Hermione again felt her cheeks redden slightly. “Harry, what’s gotten into you tonight? I’m not fishing for compliments.”

“I didn’t mean...” He paused and swallowed. “Well, I still remember how you told us your name when we first met. You just walked in on the train and announced it to the two of us. I immediately knew you were different, so the unique name suited you.”

“Yeah, she’s different all right...” Ron muttered. Hermione shot a glare at him.

Madam Rosmerta laughed. “Well, Hermione, I’d say to always be grateful for compliments, whatever their source. But I need to get back to the bar...”

A silence fell among the trio for a few moments. Hermione glanced around the room, spying a young couple sitting close at a nearby table and obviously becoming better acquainted. It just served to make her feel depressed again about how she had completely failed to get along in her first attempt at a somewhat serious relationship. As much as she told Harry—and even herself—that the breakup had been mutual, she knew deep down that she was the catalyst. Beyond the initial spark and thrill for a brief time after the war was finally over, she and Ron seemed to return to their continual sparring. Hermione knew it was partly because her feelings just never developed more, but she couldn’t ever admit that and hurt Ron directly. Instead, he gradually just came to resent her reluctance enough that he ended it. Still, she wasn’t quite ready to forgive some of the hurtful things he had said.

Ron finally spoke up, drawing Hermione out of her thoughts. “It’s strange to be back here near Hogwarts. To think—a year ago, we were supposed to be starting school, but instead we were hiding away at Grimmauld Place. Of course, that was all before we embarked on that camping trip from hell.” He took a large swig of mead.

Hermione was still scowling at him. “Ron, I know there was a lot of stress for all of us there, but the conditions were hardly that bad, except for our trouble with provisions. I went camping several summers with my parents in the Forest of Dean as a girl, and we’d survive for a week without any magic whatsoever. We had to pitch our tent, light fires, cook, clean—I’d like to see either of the two of you put up with that in the wilderness for even a day.”

Ron shook his head slowly, obviously contemplating what their trip would have been like. “Blimey, Hermione, you don’t need to convince me. No way I’d want to do that again, even with magic.”

But Harry was staring off, looking a bit wistful. “It’s hard for me to think about it without all the tension of the war, but there were a few moments when it was actually peaceful there... so quiet.”

Hermione turned to him as she silently reminisced, recalling the occasional tranquility of sitting beside him alone in the wilderness some days and nights. “For me too, Harry.”

“Well, if you two liked it so bloody much, why didn’t you just stay there together?” Ron added roughly, before quickly gulping down more of his drink. When he lowered his mug, he was met with the open-mouthed expressions on his friends’ faces. He immediately dropped his gaze and stared down at his hands. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean that.”

Hermione stifled her urge to retort that he did, in fact, mean that. Her mind flashed back to part of their argument when he had finally announced their breakup. Go back to Harry, he had yelled. You’d rather have died with him than stay and live with me.

But Ron was talking again in the present. “You two have always been great friends to me, and I’ll never forgive myself for leaving you there. I... I just thought that after the war was over, we’d all work stuff out together. But I had to screw it up again.”

Despite Hermione’s lingering hurt, she knew he wasn’t entirely to blame. She reached out to take Ron’s hand, but he pulled it down to his lap. Closing her eyes for a moment, she took a deep breath. “It wasn’t you, Ron,” she said quietly. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

“I think I need another drink,” said Ron as he left Harry and Hermione seated side-by-side at their table.

Hermione sighed again, exhaling more deeply. “He just started a fresh drink a minute ago.” She glanced back to the bar to see Ron leaning over it, with a rather goofy grin targeted at Madam Rosmerta. “What is he thinking? She’s old enough to be his mother.”

“Maybe that’s what he needs: a mother to cook and clean and pick up his dirty laundry, just like Molly,” Harry said dryly.

Hermione gave Harry a gentle shove on the shoulder. “Please don’t be mean. I know you’re angry with him because you think he hurt me, but I probably hurt him more.” In fact, she had to admit, she had once uttered almost the exact words Harry had just said to Ron in a fit of anger, though she had immediately regretted it. “I just want us all to be friends again.” She paused, looking back at Ron and then to Harry again. “It’s going to take some time. I’m still glad I have you, though.” She put her hand on top of his and squeezed it gently. The corners of his mouth turned up in a closed-mouth smile as he disengaged their hands to put his arm around her shoulder.

They drank for a few minutes in silence, observing the other patrons at the Three Broomsticks. Hermione noticed the occasional glances in their direction that had always accompanied Harry when they were in public. No doubt there would be some gossip, as there always was, about how the two of them were now seated so close together. Hermione had grown used to ignoring it over the years; no one else really understood the connection she had with Harry.

But privately she felt a bit of a thrill that Harry had taken the initiative to reach out to her like this, in public no less. What the bar patrons couldn’t possibly know is how difficult it was for him simply to show any affection. Though there had been many clues over the years, even Hermione hadn’t realized the extent of Harry’s past until recent weeks.

Their friendship had shifted a bit after her final argument with Ron nearly a month before. Ron had left her sobbing when he suddenly disapparated from Grimmauld Place, where the three of them had been staying for most of the summer. Harry had tentatively entered her room a few minutes after hearing the shouting stop, and she couldn’t help but throw herself into his arms as she cried. All their lives had been so disrupted in the past year, and she felt like she had nowhere else to turn. But Harry had been there for her, immediately insisting that she continue to stay at Grimmauld Place with him.

Although Harry was already involved in Auror training, he subsequently made it a point to come home early and check on her, occasionally convincing Kreacher to let him prepare a nice dinner for the two of them. Hermione had busied herself with organizing and cataloging the old Black library, but Harry unintentionally gave her a new project when he mentioned one evening that he missed seeing the few Muggle films and television programs he’d occasionally catch glimpses of while growing up. Electricity was always a problem in magical houses, but after a week of research on proper containment spells to isolate Muggle technology, she surprised Harry one evening with a television and VCR set up in one of the rarely used rooms in Grimmauld Place.

They had spent many evenings in the last couple weeks before Hermione’s return to Hogwarts watching films together, a strangely comforting visit to their joint Muggle roots after years of being caught up in the tumultuous events of the Wizarding world. It also felt like a kind of private sanctuary for the two of them, as Kreacher refused to enter the room once he understood the kind of technology Hermione had introduced to “defile and pollute” Grimmauld Place. The house-elf’s tantrum had only amused Harry to the extent that he threatened to turn the room into a complete home cinema with a projector and electric popcorn machine if Kreacher wouldn’t drop the matter. Kreacher relented, and literally left them to their own devices.

One night when Hermione made the mistake of choosing one of her favorite films, Dead Poets Society, she found Harry closing his eyes and appearing distressed at a paddling scene. She paused the film and asked if he wanted to talk. Aside from one offhand joke about “ducking” from Uncle Vernon that Harry had cracked a couple years before with Hermione, he had never talked about what happened with the Dursleys with anyone. She and Ron had both had suspicions, but they never asked, sensing that it wasn’t something Harry wanted to discuss.

But Harry opened up that night to her, staring stonily ahead as he recounted years of verbal and physical abuse. He spoke quietly and seemingly without emotion for nearly thirty minutes, describing the events almost as if he were some objective third-party observer to the nightmare he had grown up in. Hermione didn’t know what to say and merely sat there holding his hand as he went on; she had no idea it had been this bad. So many things about Harry’s volatile personality and frequent reticence suddenly made sense to her. He had apparently been rather isolated from physical contact and affection for years. She suppressed her initial impulse to apparate to the Dursleys immediately and hex them with some horrific spell—instead, when he seemed finished, she merely curled up into Harry’s side on the sofa and pulled his arm around her shoulders. They sat there in silence for a long time before retiring to bed; they never did finish the film (which Hermione felt would be unwise).

Hermione had always felt a need to give Harry physical affection, but now she truly understood how difficult it all was for him. Had she been the first person to actually hug him since his parents died? He hadn’t spoken again about the Dursleys since that night, and she didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. But she did reach out to him physically more often, even finding herself unintentionally sitting closer to him while they had their remaining evenings together. She instinctively wanted him to feel loved. The fact that he reciprocated tonight by putting his arm around her made her feel like they had broken through and crossed some emotional chasm together. They had been through so much: no matter what, they both still had each other.

Abruptly, Harry rose up from the bench they were sitting on, pulling Hermione’s thoughts back to the present. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, gesturing toward the door. “The two of you aren’t going to fix this in one night. I’ll walk you back.”

They said goodbye to some acquaintances, and Hermione gave Ron a very awkward and forced half-hug, before she and Harry found themselves strolling in the light of the nearly full moon.

“You really don’t need to walk me back, Harry. It’s a bright night, and I know the way.” But she saw him subtly hunch over and slow his pace slightly. Wrapping an arm around his waist, she pulled him closer. “Hey... I missed you too.” Aside from those few days when she went with Ron to find her parents in Australia after the final battle—where she insisted Harry stay under observation in St. Mungo’s to recover after… well, basically coming back from the dead—until the past week they hadn’t been apart for more than a day in a very long time. “You know, you could still come back to Hogwarts,” she continued. “I’m sure McGonagall would allow a late start for you.”

“I can’t.” He swallowed, as the rhythm of their footsteps became the only sound on their lonely path to Hogwarts. She already knew what was on his mind, but he continued anyway, speaking so quietly she wondered if he even meant to voice his thoughts aloud. “I failed them. So many people, so many friends, students... some of them were just kids. If we had figured things out earlier, maybe we could have...” His voice trailed off.

She stopped walking and turned to look directly at him, brushing some of the hair out of his eyes, which displayed the depth of his anguish. “Harry, you need to stop this. You can’t blame yourself for—”

He held up his hand. “Yeah, I know what you’re going to say. I’ve heard it all before. Still, I can’t spend time in school with those memories haunting me every day when I can be training to ensure it never happens again.”

A moment passed as she contemplated how much to push him. “Are they back again?” she finally queried.

He stared up at the moon, avoiding her look of concern. “Twice this week,” he mumbled. “It’s nothing.”

Harry had always had occasional nightmares, but they were rather frequent after the final battle. Early in the summer, Ron and Hermione had ended up running to him several times in the middle of the night when Harry had woken up shrieking and drenched in sweat. When Ron went back to the Burrow after their breakup, Hermione moved into the bedroom next to Harry at Grimmauld Place to be closer to him during the night, and somehow knowing she was next door seemed to soothe him. At least, that’s what Hermione told herself. She had feared this would happen again when she left him alone.

“These aren’t caused by Voldemort anymore,” she said. “I told you about Healer Adams. She’s well-respected, and… discreet. You could—”

“That’s all I need,” Harry grumbled. “Headlines about how The Boy Who Lived has cracked up.”

“We all need help sometimes,” she replied, trying to ignore the fact that her statement could likely apply as much to herself as to Harry. “We kept all of this to ourselves for so many years. But no one can get by alone, even some stubborn bull-headed impulsive war hero who thinks he can just go off by himself.” She said it in a light-hearted tone, hoping to get a rise out of him, or at least a chuckle. Instead, he merely took a breath and started forward again.

They walked again in silence for a few minutes. All of a sudden, his face brightened a bit. “But listen, your birthday’s coming up in just a couple weeks. What would you like? A surprise party?”

She rolled her eyes. “I think you just ruined the surprise, Harry.”

He flashed a broad smile at her, the kind that would have any of the younger Hogwarts girls in a puddle at his feet. She laughed, continuing, “Oh, I should have known you weren’t serious. You, of all people, would know I’d have hated that. Showing up unprepared, not knowing what to expect—my idea of a nightmare.”

“Still, we could plan a party for you…”

She put her arm back around his waist. “You’re sweet, Harry. But you know I was never very comfortable at big parties in the first place, and I really don’t think I could deal with one right now. It will still be awkward with Ron and the Weasleys, and just about everyone else I was close to either left Hogwarts or...” Silence fell once more. Neither of them needed to complete the final thought in that sentence.

Harry pondered for a few moments, before announcing, “So, I’ll come get you, and we’ll spend the day together, somewhere away from bad memories.” Her mouth began to open in protest, but he held up his hand. “No. Either you ask McGonagall, or this time I will do it for you. She will give you the weekend off of your Head Girl duties for your birthday. After all we’ve both been through, I’m sure she’ll even encourage it. And I’ll sort out a surprise that we’ll both enjoy. Okay?”

He looked warmly at her, as his arm joined hers to pull them into a closer embrace as they walked. She felt her heart beat a little faster, gladdened by the shift in his mood. “Okay,” she replied. “Just nothing too crazy. Something simple.”

His smile turned into a playful smirk. “Oh, I already have an idea,” he said, “and it’s positively Spartan in its simplicity.” His bright eyes were reflecting the moonlight a bit as she glanced over at him, feeling uncertain. “No, I’m not telling you. No hints either. At least, not yet….”

Chapter Text

Saturday, September 19, 1998

Hermione awoke before dawn, nearly leaping out of her bed in anticipation. She had to admit that she had never been so excited for her birthday before. They were generally awkward affairs at best: as a little girl, she would patiently wait for the gifts from her family, often consisting of a new stack of books. But after the obligatory cake, she’d wander off by herself to read her new treasures. And at Hogwarts, Harry and Ron almost always remembered to get her something, but she had insisted from her second year that they never try to throw her a party; especially during the first few years, she was always a bit afraid that no one else would be interested in showing up.

But this year, she could use the distraction. Coming back to school had been an awkward transition for all the students after the previous year’s disruptions. Most of the castle had been repaired, and the faculty did their best to put on a cheerful opening to the school year. Yet morale was still low. Even older students were acting out in odd ways, adding to Hermione’s duties. She found herself counting down the days until she would see Harry again.

A week after Harry’s previous visit, she had received a surprise owl, delivering a short note crafted in his somewhat sprawling hand:

 

Dear Hermione,

I accept your challenge. Twenty-four hours, beginning at 9am on your birthday. Expect some preparatory items to arrive in the coming days.

I am, as always, yours,

Harry

 

Hermione didn’t quite know what to make of it at first. What “challenge”? And why twenty-four hours? She also lingered repeatedly over his closing: not a typical “Sincerely” or “Your friend.” With only a couple dozen words to mull over in his terse note, though, her brain was focused on every detail.

On Sunday, an owl had brought a small red box, containing a Muggle wristwatch with a canvas band. It was an old-fashioned wind-up model, which seemed very practical to Hermione, so she began to wear it around Hogwarts. She started to imagine various scenarios for its use, but the gift was generic enough that she couldn’t narrow down the possibilities for Harry’s surprise.

Monday brought another gift box with a complicated Swiss Army style multitool, which she puzzled over for hours. On Tuesday, a compass arrived, which finally suggested to her that they might be going to somewhere remote. The first real clue came Wednesday, though, as she opened her package to find a torch, an electrical device that obviously wouldn’t work at Hogwarts. The mundane gift of a large box of matches on Thursday confirmed her suspicions.

She could hardly wait when an owl showed up Friday with a final parcel, containing an odd metal fork with a telescoping handle, along with another note.

 

Dear Hermione,

As clever as you are, I’m sure you’ve figured out what we’re doing tomorrow. Remember the rules: no magic whatsoever. No enchanted objects. However, we may find the things I’ve sent useful. The challenge was twenty-four hours, so pack an overnight bag. (Non-magical, of course.) I’ll meet you in the morning at 8:45 at the entrance to Gryffindor Tower.

My love to the birthday girl,

Harry

 

It felt like weeks had passed since that last note, but it was finally 8:35—according to her new wristwatch—as she ascended the steps back to her room to grab her plain canvas shoulder bag, with no secret magical compartments, along with a small backpack that contained Harry’s gifts and other essentials. She had barely eaten any breakfast, as she was a bit too anxious for her day; she spent the remaining minutes counting down as she idly fussed with her hair.

Finally, it was time. When she opened the door from Gryffindor tower to see a smiling Harry, she couldn’t help throwing herself at him, nearly knocking the wind out of him with her embrace.

She felt his hands wrap around her back. “Gosh, Hermione, it’s... great to see you too. Are you okay?”

“Now that you’re here, I’m fine,” she said into his shoulder, feeling herself relax and sink more deeply into his arms. “It’s been so stressful here, and I guess I’m feeling what you were a couple weeks ago. It’s strange not to be around you after seeing you almost every day for the past year.” She finally pulled back. “I... I missed you.”

Harry looked into her eyes for a few seconds with an unreadable expression, before blinking and glancing down. “Are you ready to go?”

“Well, just to be clear, we are going camping with no magic, I assume?”

That brought a sly smile back to him. “Obviously.”

“Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise.”

She narrowed her eyes a bit; part of her really hated not being able to plan things out, but she had to admit to herself that she was genuinely excited about all the mystery. “You at least need to give me some idea. I packed a bag, but I won’t need snowshoes or expect to end up in a tropical jungle or monsoon or anything, will I?”

Harry’s eyes drifted back as he looked a bit apologetic. “Oh, I didn’t think... No, the weather should be roughly like here.”

“It’s okay. I should be prepared, despite your cryptic messages.”

“Well, I thought it would be more fun—“

She broke out into a broad smile as she cut him off, “Oh, Harry—your little parcels are all I’ve been thinking about all week!”

At that, he gazed at her intently as he tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Good.” Hermione was surprised when her heart gave a little flutter at this small gesture: why was he being so attentive to her? Seeming to take advantage of her temporary confusion, Harry pulled her larger bag from her shoulder and slung it over his own, before taking her hand and leading them down toward the entrance to the castle, where they encountered the Headmistress returning from a walk.

“Mr. Potter, Miss Granger,” she said as she came up to them.

“Headmistress,” they replied in unison.

“I’m glad to see the two of you together again. I wholeheartedly approve both of your requests for this weekend.” Minerva McGonagall paused to look them over before putting on a typical small, but sincere, close-mouthed smile. “Have a happy birthday, Miss Granger.”

“Thank you, Headmistress,” replied Hermione. If she didn’t know better, Hermione thought she heard something resembling a quiet giggle escape from Professor McGonagall as she turned and walked away.

A few moments after they exited the castle, Hermione elbowed Harry in the ribs. “What was that about a request? Harry, I asked her about leaving for my birthday. I told you not to intervene.”

Harry stopped and said very earnestly, “I didn’t... I mainly wrote her to tell her where we were going.” Glancing over at her, he added, “I wanted her to know in case an emergency came up.”

“Oh.” Her anger was immediately diffused as she now looked contritely at him. “I’m sorry, Harry. You’ve been so sweet, and it’s just been so hard for me, trying to maintain order and to get things back to normal. I seem to be about the only student holding things together around here. I just don’t want you to—”

“Hermione, it’s okay,” he interrupted, as he took her hand in his again, leading her forward. “I get it. But McGonagall had already approved. In fact, she was the one who suggested to me that we spend the whole weekend together.”

“Hmm,” Hermione murmured absently, wondering what to make of that bit of information.

“Anyhow, I’m going to hold to the terms of your challenge,” he continued. “I’ll admit I apparated in with some supplies this morning. But in the spirit of our agreement, it wasn’t much more than we could have carried in if necessary. Well, except for the cool box, but I thought we deserved a few luxuries for meals after our near starvation last year.” He tried to look positive about that, but they both knew how awful that time had been.

“That seems fair.”

“But once we arrive, no magic for an entire day.” He halted and then put out his hand toward her as if they were engaging in a formal business transaction together.

She glanced at him skeptically for an instant, before shaking his hand firmly to confirm their agreement. “Harry, I can’t believe you’re taking this so seriously, but it’s a deal. No magic. Just don’t come crying to me if something unexpected comes up.”

He shook his head. “I lived in a cupboard for years, Hermione. This will be a piece of cake.”

She winced at his casual reference to his abusive childhood—she still was processing all of that new knowledge—but met his eyes with determination. “We’ll see...”


They apparated together into a clearing beside a river, where a small tent was already set up. A short distance away, a ring of stones was arranged for a fire, with a cooking tripod and a couple pots. A tarp was strung between a few trees, covering a cool box, a stack of wood, and a few smaller containers of gear and supplies.

“Harry, this is perfect. How did you know this is exactly where I’d want to come?”

He made a small motion with his hand, as they both surveyed the area. “This is where you brought us after Christmas last year in the Forest of Dean. I thought...” He hesitated for a moment. “I’m just glad you like it.”

Hermione took her bag from him and walked to the tent, which looked even smaller than their magical tent had even appeared last winter, despite its more modern dome shape. She unzipped the flap and peered in to see two sleeping bags, nestled side by side. She set her bag down inside. “Well, Mr. I-Grew-Up-in-a-Cupboard, I’m not complaining, but there’s not a lot of room.”

Harry seemed just a bit flustered. “Yeah, well, it was labeled at the shop as a ‘three-man tent,’ which I thought would be plenty considering we’re just two people. When I set it up this morning, I realized it was much smaller than I’d expected.”

She turned and smiled playfully at him. “Harry, it’s perfect. If it gets cold tonight, it will help keep us warm.”

She closed her eyes and breathed in the fresh, clean scents of the forest before walking over to him and drawing him into a hug again, closing her eyes. It felt so good to be with him, to feel his arms around her. She had always missed him desperately over their summers in the past, but this was different. Just a couple weeks apart seemed like a lifetime. Her chin on his shoulder, she opened her eyes and glanced around their camp again. “You came here and set all of this up this morning? I just can’t believe you went to all this trouble. How did you even know what to bring?”

“Well, there’s a new auror, Chad Jones, who recently moved from New York. He’s Muggleborn and grew up going on wilderness camping trips with his family. So he gave me a few tips. And, well... your mum and dad were a lot of help, too.”

She pulled back, still holding his arms. “You planned this with my parents?”

He chuckled. “I hope that’s okay. To be honest, they seemed quite surprised by the idea.”

“I don’t think they ever really understood that I enjoyed camping.” Hermione’s eyes glanced off a bit as she thought back. “I mean, I often just loved taking a book and sitting outside reading for days on end, and they probably thought I was bored or at least that I could just do the same thing at home. I think they only did it when I was young because it was a cheaper way to have a vacation when they were starting their dentistry practice. As they got older, they started planning ski trips, excursions to France and Italy, and ever more elaborate getaways. But I just missed the quiet here.” Her tone had turned abruptly wistful.

“Well, I asked them about the kinds of things you did as a child, and that got them talking a bit more. I think they enjoyed it more than you think.”

“I’m...” she paused, looking back into his eyes, “I’m just surprised you even talked to them. You’ve only met them a couple times.”

“They clearly remembered me, and not because I’m Harry Potter. It seems, at least according to your mum, that I was all you would talk about in the few weeks you were home each year.” He smirked at her.

Hermione’s cheeks reddened a bit. “I’m sorry, Harry. You and Ron were my only friends for a while. And I suppose I used to prattle on about you a bit.” She gasped all of a sudden. “Oh god—I hope I didn’t tell any embarrassing stories.”

“No,” he said, “or at least they didn’t let on if you did. Honestly, I felt flattered. I really don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of me, but from whatever you said, your parents seem to think I must be a pretty solid bloke.” As an afterthought, he added, “At least one they’re okay with camping out with their daughter.”

She looked at him quizzically, sorting out the meaning behind his words. “Harry... you do know that I had to explain at least a bit about what happened after their memories came back.” Actually, truth be told, Hermione had had a lot of explaining to do. It hadn’t gone over well when she went to find them in Australia. But it was one moment she had been truly thankful for Ron, who was an objective voice to tell her parents just how terrifying things became. After some heated discussion, Ron asked her to leave the room, and he apparently recounted how harrowing her torture had been at Malfoy Manor, which seemed to finally make her parents realize why she had taken such extreme measures in sending them away. When she returned, her mother was crying, and both of her parents hugged her more strongly than she could ever remember.

Her eyes rose to meet Harry’s again, as she continued, “We didn’t tell them everything, of course. But they know the three of us were alone together for months.”

Harry didn’t reply. Instead, he looked away and finally released her arms to retrieve something from his backpack. Hermione hadn’t even realized they had been standing there holding on to each other for so long until she felt the absence of his touch. “Well, anyhow,” he said, returning to her, “I just realized I haven’t officially wished you a happy birthday yet.” He presented her with a small nondescript wooden box.

“You’ve been sending me things all week,” she said, as she took the gift from him and turned it about, wondering what else Harry could have planned for her. “You really didn’t need to.” A moment later, she opened the lid and pulled apart the delicate wrapping paper to find a small silver disk with an elegant antique clock pattern etched in light blue and gold. “It’s lovely. What is...?” She pulled it out and pressed the clasp in front, before letting out a chuckle. “Very funny, Potter.” A tiny slip of paper with a note reading To be sure your freckles are still there... fell out of the compact mirror.

“I just thought it might be helpful,” he replied with a wide grin.

She shook her head at him. “Harry, when you saw me a couple weeks ago—you do realize I’m not vain? I don’t even own one of these, and per your bizarre request, I didn’t pack anything aside from some lip balm.”

“I noticed.” His hand came up and touched her cheek gently with a couple fingertips, as he gazed at her for a few seconds again before glancing away. Hermione chewed a bit on her bottom lip at his odd behavior, which was simultaneously more thoughtful and more standoffish. There was something new emerging from him that she couldn’t quite puzzle out. Clearing his throat, Harry continued, “Well... it’s a practical gift. I mean, we could use the mirror if we needed to signal for some help.” His eyes now glimmered as he smirked mischievously at her.

She half-rolled her eyes. “Well, aren’t you the wilderness expert all of a sudden?”

“I’m just trying to keep up,” he replied, walking to the other side of their camp. “Your dad told me you once declared you wanted to set off on a survivalist hike by yourself. But apparently all you had was a backpack full of books, one tin of beans, and small bag of granola.”

Her cheeks felt a bit warm again. “Just how many stories did you hear from my parents? They usually aren’t that talkative with guests, but now I’m a little mortified to think what you’ve heard.”

The sly grin was back as he turned and said, “I’ll save the best ones for later.” Harry had reached the supplies under the tarp and retrieved two very large water bottles for hiking. He handed one to her. “Well, I have a lot of ideas for today. Are you up for a hike?”

“Absolutely. You lead the way.”

He pulled out some papers from his backpack. “But you have the compass, right? This isn’t a magical map, and I really haven’t done any wilderness orienteering.”

Hermione let out a quiet laugh. “That survivalist knowledge doesn’t go very deep, eh? You can’t read a map, Harry?”

“Of course I can read a map,” he grunted. “I’m just not used to navigating by compass and contour lines. Look...” He pointed to a few locations. “I think we should head here first, so we can have lunch with a nice view. And then we’ll go upriver. I guess there are some trails over here.”

She shook her head and found herself again smiling at him. “You know exactly where you want to go, but you can’t find your way. Okay... we’ll figure it out together.”


They set off on their hike, gradually climbing through the forest in a circuitous route over the next few hours. As the sun rose in the sky, so did Hermione’s mood. She found the darkness and weight of the past weeks—the past year, really—lifting from her shoulders. Only seeming to lose their way twice, they finally arrived in a clearing at a high elevation a bit after noon.

Hermione gaped at the view of the valley and river below, noting that some of the trees were beginning to shift to their autumnal hues. “I don’t think I ever came up here before. It’s beautiful, Harry.”

He looked over—studying her for several seconds—and exhaled before nodding. “Are you ready for lunch?” he asked.

“Starving.”

He pulled a small blanket from his backpack and unfurled it in partial shade below the limbs of a large tree. After the wind caught the blanket a few times, Hermione helped him to smooth it out on the ground. He then turned away from her to pull a few more items from his pack. “Well, here we are,” he announced, with a bit of a ta-da motion from his hands.

She broke out in a fit of laughter. Harry continued, flashing a smile, “Do you want the tin of beans or the granola? Oh! I almost forgot.” He reached inside his backpack once more and produced a copy of Hogwarts: A History, which landed with a thwump beside the food. “You’re the one with the Swiss Army knife, so you’ll have to open the tin.”

She was shaking her head and staring at him in disbelief. “You carried that all the way up here? You do realize I read other books aside from that one, right?”

“It was worth it just to see the look on your face right now,” he chuckled.

“Well, this isn’t exactly the luxurious culinary experience you promised, but I suppose it will work,” she replied, shrugging off her small backpack and moving to sit down.

He turned to his pack again. “Actually...” He gradually spread out their picnic luncheon on the blanket: a bottle of red wine with some small plastic wine goblets, a few hunks of different cheeses, a large selection of savory biscuits and some bread, a container of assorted olives, a bunch of grapes, a couple plums, and some figs.

If she looked on in disbelief before, now Hermione was positively astonished. “Harry, this is amazing. How much do you have in there?”

“That’s about everything.”

She bent down to examine his bag. “Are you sure that isn’t a magical backpack? Not cheating already, are we?”

“I swear, Hermione, I carted all of this up a mountain for you.” He sat down and gestured to indicate for her to sit next to him. “But I will need that multitool thing.”

Hermione retrieved it from her small pack. A few minutes later, he had uncorked the bottle, though not without a bit of awkward vigorous pulling that threatened to spill wine over both of them. They eventually settled down together to eat, as Harry stretched out and reclined on his side while they watched the tall meadow grass wave in the breeze. It only took a couple minutes for Hermione to pick up the book and begin leafing through it. “Wait a second, Harry.” Her eyes went wide. “This is the new edition, isn’t it? The one that incorporates Bathilda Bagshot’s annotations, which Binns helped edit for posthumous publication? Well, I mean...” She chuckled to herself as she flipped back to the title page. “I suppose technically both of them are posthumous.”

“Wow, Hermione Granger humor. Priceless.” He shook his head, grinning. “You’re incredible. No one else but you would have figured that out just by glancing at a few pages in the middle of that book. But yes, I suppose this is the real birthday present, to make up for all the silly ones.”

Her excitement only grew as she was now carefully paging through the tome, mesmerized and scanning for new content like a kid looking for novel treats in a candy store. “But how did you...? This... this isn’t supposed to be published yet.”

He shrugged. “I got an advance copy. I might as well use my name for something.”

Hermione closed the book and just stared at the cover again for a few seconds, before turning to him. “It’s barely noon, and I’m pretty sure this is already the best birthday I’ve ever had. Thank you, Harry.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, and then gave into a strange urge to rub her nose on his cheek ever so slightly, which caused his face to redden. She gave him another quick peck before leaning her head on his shoulder.

He cleared his throat and busied himself by refilling their wine goblets. “Are you trying to get me tipsy?” Hermione asked, smirking.

“Er, no,” he replied, his face now approaching crimson. “I just wanted you to relax, and enjoy the day. You don’t have to...”

She laid her arm casually about his shoulders and pulled him back into her side, rocking him a bit to try to break his odd tension. “I’m joking. Harry, what’s going on with you today? Why so nervous?”

“Nothing. I just wanted you to be happy. For us to have a good day here... together.” His expression was suddenly serious, even a bit solemn. Hermione wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all.

“Well, it looks like you need a drink more than I do,” she said. “Just look around: it’s perfect up here!” She reached for their wine, and she convinced him to toast as they clinked their plastic cups together.

Harry did seem to relax a bit more after that, as Hermione prompted him to tell her more about recent weeks of training. She had spent a good portion of their hike in the morning recounting events in the first weeks of the Hogwarts school year and details of her new classes, so she felt it was Harry’s turn to talk. While he seemed legitimately excited about the possibilities of auror work, Hermione could sense that he still desperately missed Hogwarts and their old life together.

A little while later, they had finished their lunch and fell into a contented silence. Hermione found herself staring up at the billowy clouds drifting across the pristine azure sky, wondering if it was possible for the day to be more perfect. Her gaze drifted over to Harry, who also seemed to be entranced by the sky while the breeze played in his unruly hair. As the sun came back out from behind one of those puffy white clouds, the brightness caused him to glance down, gradually orienting his face to meet Hermione’s stare.

“What?”

“What?” she replied without thinking. But his interjection had startled her back to awareness, as she realized she had been sitting there, grinning at him like an idiot. She shook her head slightly, adding, “Sorry, I was just thinking how the weather doesn’t get better than this.” Actually, what she had been thinking about was how calm Harry looked, almost without a care in the world. It had been years since she could remember seeing him like this.

Harry continued to examine her for a moment before looking back at the sky and saying, “It is a wonderful day.” A minute later, he sat up and began to clean up the leftovers. Hermione tried to help, but Harry insisted that she take the time and enjoy herself. She dragged the blanket farther under the tree and leaned against the trunk, thumbing through her book. He joined her a few minutes later, stifling a yawn as he sat back down.

“Go ahead and take a nap, Harry.”

“But it’s your birthday. I want to—”

She interrupted. “You told me to relax; you need to do the same. I assume you were up well before dawn this morning bringing everything out here and setting up. It’s okay. Remember—I said that I like nothing more than just to sit here with a good book.” She patted her thigh. “Here, just lie down.” His brow furrowed a bit as he glanced over at her, perplexed. “Let me...” She took off his glasses and set them beside her, then gently nudged him down, placing his head on her lap.

It only took a few moments before his breathing slowed and he was fast asleep. Hermione closed her new book and took the opportunity to marvel at his features, taking in his perpetually messy hair, his well-defined jaw, those lips that looked so soft. The last time they had been here, there was always so much stress. And he never seemed to sleep peacefully, often awakening from nightmares. At times, Harry had cared for her and had sometimes been been quite thoughtful, but she felt like she was seeing a whole other side of him now.

Or was she? She glanced down at the book beside her and remembered the New Theory of Numerology Harry had surprised her with at Christmas a few years back. Ron had merely bought her that odd perfume that smelled a bit too much like something his mother would have worn, while Harry apparently remembered that her favorite subject was Arithmancy and somehow selected the perfect book. At the time, she was shocked that he had recollected such a seemingly minor detail about her. But now she wasn’t sure what to think. Was this a new aspect of Harry, or merely one she never allowed herself to notice before?

All she knew was that it felt so good now to be close to him, so carefree. She gradually realized there was a part of her that was tempted to kiss those lips. Surely that was merely the wine’s effects? She sighed, instead contenting herself by leaning her head back against the tree, closing her eyes while she idly stroked his dark, thick hair.

In a short time, she too succumbed to a tranquil slumber.

Chapter Text

Hermione’s eyes flickered open, registering that the sun had descended perceptibly, but it was still mid-afternoon. While her sleep had been dreamless, she almost felt like she awoke in a dream, utterly happy and untroubled. Harry’s calm, regular breathing still felt warm on her thigh, though he had turned further onto his side and curled one of his hands up to grasp her leg. She smiled as she noticed a tiny bit of drool slipping out of the side of his mouth. Several minutes passed as she watched him, but he looked so cute and content that she couldn’t help stroking his cheek, feeling just a hint of stubble.

This caused him to stir and stretch out an arm as his eyes blinked open. He abruptly pulled his hand away from her leg and partially sat up, leaning on his arm. “Uh... Hermione? What’s...?”

“Shh...” She ran her fingers through his hair again, thinking to herself, Why do I keep doing that? It just felt so soft, so calming to touch, and she found she couldn’t stop herself. “I think we both just needed a nap. Early mornings and midday bottles of wine don’t really mix... or, well, maybe they do.” She smiled hazily at him, still not quite fully alert.

But he seemed suddenly agitated, sitting up completely and pulling away from her. “I... I’m sorry.”

“For what, Harry?”

His expression softened as he looked at her, before letting out a deep breath as he shook his head and blinked a few times. “Nevermind. How are you?”

“Absolutely excellent,” she replied dreamily.

A grin then came over his face, as he glanced at the sun’s position. “I think what you are is still a bit tipsy. But the day’s not over. Are you ready for our next activity?”

That finally pulled her from her reverie. “What do you mean? Aren’t we just hiking back?”

“Sort of.” He stood and put out a hand to help her up. “We need to visit a location upriver first.”

“Won’t that take us a bit far from our campsite?” she asked, as he folded up the blanket and took it to his pack.

“Well, what did that teacher in your film say? ‘Seize the day’?”

Carpe diem.”

“Yeah, that,” Harry said while he began scanning their map again, tracing a the line of a trail with his finger as he looked a bit uncertain.

“You know,” Hermione said, as she pulled on her small backpack, “while I love Mr. Keating’s character, carpe diem in Horace’s original Latin poem doesn’t exactly imply the kind of extraordinary action he advocates.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, ‘seize’ isn’t a great translation. The primary meaning of the verb carpere is more about ‘plucking’ fruit or ‘harvesting’ the fruits of the day. So, it means something more like ‘enjoy the day.’ Not ‘go out and do something amazing’ or whatever.”

“Really?” Harry said as he looked up from the map and shook his head. “You’re going to undermine the message of your own inspirational film?” He rolled his eyes a bit and chuckled as he folded the map and put it into his backpack.

“No, it’s still a good message. Carpe diem’s original meaning is just a bit different from the one Keating intended, more like ‘stop and smell the roses.’ Forget your worries about tomorrow, and focus on enjoying the present.”

“We can stop and smell the flowers, too.” Harry bent down away from her a moment and then approached her with one hand behind his back. “Maybe, Miss Granger,” he said with an exaggerated air of formality, as he held out a tiny white flower before reaching up and tucking it behind her left ear, “we can both learn something from Mr. Keating after all.”

Hermione blinked at him a few times. “Did you seriously just put clover in my hair?”

Harry merely shrugged in reply, causing her to shake her head and grin at the silliness of it all. She gave Harry a friendly shove on the shoulder, as they turned and started to make their way across the meadow.


They set out again, hiking on a well-tended trail for a long while before veering off into the woods. After crossing a stream, Hermione stooped to examine an unusual frog, but slipped on a wet rock. Harry’s Seeker senses kicked in and he deftly caught her just above the waterline before she nearly went headfirst into the stream. However, her right arm had been submerged in the cold water, so she removed her pullover, tying it about her waist to dry, mumbling something about not wanting wet clothes to become itchy. Harry offered to give her his, but she said the sun was warm enough. Nevertheless, he started to walk more closely to her, occasionally putting his arm about her shoulder, checking to make sure she was still warm. Every time he did so, Hermione found herself unintentionally leaning into his side for a few minutes as they walked together.

After they climbed over a fallen tree and rejoined a rather wide stretch of the trail, Harry now snaked an arm around her below her small backpack and close to her waist. It was only then that she began to register Harry’s strangely affectionate behavior that day. She had always been physically close to him, beginning with that time during their first year when she had felt that unbridled urge to fling herself at him and hold him tight before he went off after the potions riddle. That feeling would well up inside her periodically, and she found herself giving into it more frequently, just needing to be in physical contact with him. While he almost always seemed to welcome it, he rarely reached out for her in a similar way.

She still recalled the first time he actually embraced her, pulling her close to him on that fateful night in Godric’s Hollow. She took that as permission to put her arm around him more often too, but he almost never took the initiative to respond in like kind.

Still, perhaps she was making too much of this. Today he thought she might be cold, even though she had dried off long ago, and it was a pleasantly moderate day for a hike. But she rather enjoyed this closeness, this intimacy, this…

Suddenly, she pulled in a sharp involuntary breath as his fingertips had grazed the small of her back.

He slowed his walk and looked over at her. “Hermione, are you...”

Harry did it again, and again she found her breath catching as a shiver went up her spine and her cheeks began to burn.

He stopped, and she had no choice to but to halt as well, as she stared down in front of her, not quite sure what was happening. “You’re cold,” he stated, finally pulling his hand away and turning to face her.

Goosepimples had indeed begun to break out on her, and her heart seemed to be skipping blithely forward at an accelerated tempo. But no, she definitely wasn’t cold.

“Why aren’t you looking at me? I’ll give you my pullover,” he said, before reaching out to her, his fingers lazily following the line of her cheekbone in an obvious gesture to get her to look up. However, all that had done was cause her to feel another sharp intake of breath as what was going on finally occurred to her. “Hey,” he said casually, tugging up her chin.

Gazing at his face, Hermione realized he was completely oblivious to what he was doing to her. Lost in those gorgeous green eyes, she had a momentary mad urge to leap up into his arms and wrap her legs around his waist and… No, stop this! She forced the image from her mind, closing her eyes and taking a deep calming breath.

Finally she dared to look at him again, forcing a weak smile. “I’m fine, Harry. Just had a bit of a chill from the breeze. I’m plenty warm.”

He stared at her for a few seconds, obviously not quite believing her, but finally wrapped his arm tightly around her shoulder, resting it atop her backpack and pulling her close as they continued onward. Hermione tried desperately to settle herself as she glanced around the woods, still not certain what was happening. Not that she had much experience, but her body had never responded like this to anyone’s touch. For nearly a year, Ron had tentatively put his arm around her when she was upset, seemingly his only shy way of getting close to her, and she had never felt this sense of deep arousal just from a light touch. She tried to blame it on the wine again, but its effects had worn off completely at least an hour ago.

Part of her wanted to pull away from Harry, to put some distance between them and steady herself further, but that would only make him more suspicious. Finally, as the trail narrowed, he broke off and led the way, only causing her to stare at his hips and thighs powerfully trudging up a small hill. She shook herself, closing her eyes. Harry was her best friend. Harry is my best friend. He was just being sweet to her on her birthday, and this was some bizarre temporary cognitive short-circuit.

Without warning, he halted and held up his hand. “Hermione,” he whispered excitedly, “over there!” Harry gestured off to the left, and she spotted a large stag slowly making its way through the woods, stopping to graze in a clearing. She stealthily closed in on Harry, straining for a better view.

“He’s magnificent!” she breathed quietly, completely taken in by the glorious animal with a full rack in the glade near them. The stag was standing in the sunlight, which also refracted through the trees, creating undulating patterns on the ground around them as the soft breeze whispered among the leaves. Her thoughts were finally soothed—or at least distracted—by all the natural beauty around her. They stood together for a few minutes, until a light cracking in the distance from a falling branch spooked the stag, and he bounded off.

Harry let out of a sigh. “We never had time for this sort of thing last year, did we? Just to stop and look at something like that?” She shook her head, looking up at him as he continued to stare off into the distance toward where the animal had disappeared. After a few moments he said, “Shall we?”

And she felt herself pulled onward, only then realizing that somehow their hands were joined again, fingers closely entwined. They had been standing there, hand in hand, and she didn’t even realize it. When had that happened? Did he do it? Did I do it? Her mind continued to try to sort through this strange puzzle, smiling to herself at the warm, familiar sensation of her hand in his as they made their way forward once more.


A couple hours after leaving their lunch spot, they finally made their way to a location far upriver. Hermione was becoming a bit concerned about the trajectory of their hike, leading them ever farther away from their camp. But Harry reassured her it would all work out.

And part of her mind was still preoccupied with those earlier sensations, as they mostly continued walking hand in hand when the trail allowed it. Her hand just seemed to fit so perfectly within Harry’s; they always curved in with each other at an angle that just felt right. As she reflected back, she realized she had rarely held hands with Ron, even when they were together. It was always awkward. Not that she would have pulled her hand away from Ron’s when he did reach out—and sometimes, particularly early on, she felt like she wanted to reach out to him—but it just didn’t happen, and it had never quite felt so comfortable.

She realized it was sometime in the past year that Harry had just started reaching for her, at first around signs of danger. But then it just happened sometimes, almost instinctively, as their hands found each other seemingly of their own accord. Her mind then drifted back to times particularly right before Ron left them in the wilderness, when Ron had even coughed a couple of times after she and Harry had kept holding hands for several minutes after apparating, not even noticing the constant connection. At the time, she had just dismissed Ron’s looks for the stupid—and frequently irrational—jealousy she knew infected him at times. But now that she thought about it, her physical connection with Harry was a bit weird, wasn’t it? She tried to think of other opposite-sex friends she knew, and none of them walked around holding hands casually. For years she had never hesitated to reach out for Harry, but why had he suddenly started seizing her hand so frequently in the past year, right around the time Ron started to get close to her?

Just for a moment, a thought burst to the surface—was Harry actually jealous? Was his hand-holding a reaction to Ron—a way to maintain the physical connection she and Harry had always shared? A few odd flashes came to her mind of the final battle at Hogwarts after she had shared her first kiss with Ron, which Harry hadn’t seemed too pleased about. And then Harry had grabbed onto her hand so forcefully almost immediately after, several times that day keeping hold of her as if his life depended on it.

No, she thought—pushing those thoughts back down inside her heart as they continued to meander slowly along the river, still hand in hand—Harry didn’t think of her like that. Maybe some part of Harry was merely scared that he might lose the affection Hermione had always shown him as a friend when things started to develop with Ron. That’s surely all this was, she reasoned.

And yet, here they were, fingers entwined, and it felt so perfect to feel his touch. Earlier he had even been pulling her close with his arm around her, making her feel so elated and loved in a way that really no one else ever had. Without thinking, she pulled him to a halt. As Harry turned his head to look at her, she just leaned up and kissed him quickly on the cheek. He didn’t become embarrassed this time; instead he merely furrowed his brow and asked, “What was that for?”

She replied honestly, “I… I don’t know. I just needed to.”

He gazed at her for a moment, tilting his head with an air of confusion, before shrugging his shoulders a bit and leading her forward once more.

They spent about ten minutes wondering up and down the shoreline of the river, as he seemed to be searching for something, before he finally spoke up. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I might have been slightly inaccurate in my assertions this morning about adherence to our rules.”

Hermione became slightly annoyed, as she turned to him. “You haven’t been using magic since we arrived, have you? Something wandless? Silent?”

“No, no—I meant in my preparation this morning. I brought something here that would have required more complicated transport without magic.” He walked behind and tree and began to pull at something heavy in the underbrush.

As the shape emerged, her mouth went wide. “Harry? What did you do?”

“Your dad told me when you were really young, you rented a canoe a few times during your camping trips. So, I might have borrowed one.” He pushed the front of the canoe into the river as she looked on in awe. “Well? Shall we get in?”

She glanced back and forth from him to the boat. “You keep coming up with the surprises. But Harry, have you ever gone canoeing before?”

“No.” He gave her a confident look, seeming not to think there was anything to be concerned about.

Hermione exhaled a bit, just a tiny bit of anxiety emerging at this new and unexpected challenge. “Well, as you said, I was a little girl when I last did this, and I never actually paddled much. But the person in the back has to steer.”

“I know the theory, and the river current should take us downstream regardless. It’s very gentle along this stretch. Why don’t you sit in front, so you can look out on the water?”

“Okay.” He held the canoe steady while she climbed in and set her backpack behind her on the floor of the boat. He placed his in as well. Suddenly, he pushed the canoe out into the water, accelerating much more quickly than she was expecting before taking a flying leap into the back that almost capsized them. “Harry!” she cried, as she grasped the sides of the canoe so tightly that her knuckles whitened, desperately hoping to dampen the violent sideways rocking.

He was laughing. “We made it off. Don’t worry.” They began to make their way downriver, with Harry at first completely mishandling his paddle. Hermione tried to instruct him, but they ended up disagreeing about the correct course of action and working against each other. For a minute, they were actually floating backwards to the current, causing her to erupt in a very un-Hermione-like fit of giggles. But Harry eventually sorted out the steering, and they began to glide more smoothly.

“You know, Harry, when I was a girl, I did love being out in a boat like this. I used to pretend that the canoe was a big ship.”

“Yeah, you thought you were a pirate,” Harry added, nonchalantly.

She turn half around and eyed him carefully. “Just how much time did you spend with my dad?”

He laughed again. “Only a couple hours. But he said you used to bark insane orders at him, ‘Hoist the mainsail’ and such nonsense. It sounded adorable, though he seemed to think it’s when you first started to be a bit bossy.”

“Well, to be honest, I think I had read Tom Sawyer and got excited at the prospect of pretending to be a pirate captain. I’m sure it was all quite silly. But there was a part of me as a child that dreamed of going sailing one day on a schooner or even a large galleon.”

“You’ve lost me on the names of those ships,” he paused. “But why not go sailing someday?”

Hermione glanced back at him again, enjoying the vision of his hair flopping around in the breeze as they both paddled together. “Well aside from the Durmstrang ship, it’s not exactly a common practice among wizards. And even there, the whole thing is enchanted, so they don’t need to handle the rigging in the traditional way.”

Harry just seemed enthralled with the scenery around them. The early evening sun was reflecting off the water, bathing both of them in a warm glow. “Still, I’d go with you...” he said, as he smiled back at her.

“Harry, you nearly capsized our canoe before we even started, and we still aren’t quite steering properly. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, this boat doesn’t even have a sail.”

“Well, there’s something appealing about learning to do something together. This is the first time I’ve ever seen you so interested in an outdoors activity like this.”

She turned once more to look at him over her shoulder, smiling warmly as she envisioned what it might be like to spend several days—maybe even weeks—on a small sailing yacht with Harry on the ocean. It seemed so odd to think about the idea of him relaxing away from everything, perhaps lying back in the sun without any cares, as he had been earlier today. After all they had been through, didn’t they deserve some peaceful time together? “Maybe... someday.”

The river had slowed, and they were now floating in a gentle current. The quiet surrounding them highlighted the calls of birds and the occasional noises of wandering squirrels on the shoreline already beginning to gather food for the winter. The silence made her feel even closer to Harry, with the two of them completely alone again, isolated from the world.

“You know, Harry,” she said, her voice breaking the stillness, “this all reminds me of the strangest dream I once had years ago. I dreamed that you had lived with your parents on some isolated remote island, and my father had taken a boat out there after we heard some odd explosion. He found you, all alone, after your parents… were gone.” She paused, never quite knowing how to talk about them. “Well, anyhow, my dad brought you back, where you lived with us instead of those… those horrible Dursleys.” It wasn’t intentional, but she nearly spat out that last word in contempt.

“Huh.” Harry seemed to be taking in this odd scenario she had conjured. “Well, what happened after that? How did the dream end?”

“Oh, you know how dreams are always mixed up. The timeline was all weird, but we were happy. You and I grew up together, played together. We...” Her breath caught as she finally remembered how that dream had ended: Harry had kissed her. That had been the first of a few dreams over the years when he had done that.

“What?” said Harry.

“What?” she replied, hoping that she wasn’t noticeably blushing.

“It sounded like you were going to say something else. Was it a bad dream?”

Hermione shook her head, “No, you and I… well, I think we were happy together.” She glanced back at him again.

Harry was looking off into the distance. After a few moments, he said, “I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a good dream.”

They fell again into silence, as Hermione continued to try to sort out the novel emotions that had been threatening to overtake her conscious mind that day. Over the years, she had to admit that she entertained a periodic crush on her best friend, like probably most girls at Hogwarts, but she had rarely considered acting on it. She always dismissed these dreams as some bit of her adolescent subconscious bubbling up, the id that she always could completely dominate with her logical superego. Even when she had been alone in the wilderness with him together for months, she struggled to keep her mind from giving into such temptations. There were always more important things to do—riddles to solve, dark wizards to hunt. And besides, as she reminded herself yet again, Harry didn’t think of her like…

Her Freudian self-analysis came to an abrupt end when the canoe snagged on a couple fallen logs. Absently staring back at Harry, she had neglected her duties to look out and guide the front of the boat. “I should have seen those,” she called back to him. “There were signs in the changing current.”

“We’ll manage,” he replied, paddling heavily. Despite his efforts, the canoe drifted sideways in the river, as the now stronger current threatened to push them over. With some effort and coordination, they managed to move around the obstacles before running into a small island in the middle of the river and coming to a halt.

Harry was glancing downriver. “It looks like there’s a lot of fallen trees in the water up ahead. Just wait, I’ll take a look.” He stood up and went to put his foot on the side of the island.

She turned in a fraction of a second and saw the action he was about to take. “Harry! Don’t!”

The next few moments passed in slow motion, as Harry discovered that the edges of the “island” primarily consisted of a loose collection of branches and other tree detritus that had been caught in their path down the river. His foot, therefore, passed straight through, setting him off-balance. His weight now pitched out of the boat, Harry’s eyes opened wide with the clear realization that no Quidditch dexterity could save him at this point. His other leg rocked violently for just a moment in the canoe, then buckled as his arms flew about wildly, in an impossible attempt to find balance. An instant later, he had crashed back-first into the water, silently staring up at the surface, obviously with a look of annoyance at his own stupidity.

Forcing air from his nose to keep water from entering, Harry finally started moving his arms to right himself and pull his head out of the water.

“Are you all right?” Hermione called.

“Fine, just fine,” he spluttered. A quiet chortle escaped Hermione’s throat before she couldn’t keep it in and broke out in laughter. “I’m glad I can provide you with some amusement,” Harry said, as he began to tread water.

“I’m sorry, but Harry, you didn’t see yourself,” she managed to get out after one final giggle. “You clearly knew exactly what was happening but couldn’t do anything to stop it. I’ve never seen such an absurd series of expressions on your face before.” She forced herself to become serious. “But are you really okay?”

“Fine.” He gave a bit of a nod as he swam, but it seemed to be interrupted by a shiver. “What I don’t understand is how you’re still in the canoe. How did the whole thing not roll over?” He started to pull on the side of the canoe to get back in.

No! Harry, stop!” Hermione struggled to keep her weight centered and the canoe upright as he thrashed about.

“But the water’s freezing!”

“You can’t do it that way. At least not without practice. Pull yourself up on shore somewhere, and I’ll come get you.”

He realized that the “island” was probably not a good option, so with a grunt of frustration, he turned and swam to the shore. She paddled up to him as he was attempting to wring his clothes out. After another moment of intense rocking, which caused a few gasps from Hermione, they were both inside the canoe again and continuing downriver.

“I think we’re almost back to the campsite,” she noted. Hermione eyed him anxiously as he shivered in the boat behind her. “You can get into some fresh clothes there.” Several minutes later she ran the canoe aground on a flat spot along the shore near their tent. Stumbling a bit, they climbed up to their site, where Hermione offered to get the fire going while Harry changed.

“Umm... Hermione?” his voice called from inside the tent a few minutes later.

“Hmm?” she replied, monitoring the new flames closely as they were began to lap around the kindling. “What’s wrong?”

“It seems...” He stuck his head out through the flap. “Well, I seem to have forgotten to pack enough spare clothes.”

She rolled her eyes. “So, you remembered to pack a fake lunch just for a laugh with me, but you didn’t bring extra clothes for yourself?”

“I... I had a lot to remember. I only have things to wear to bed tonight. Maybe, just once, I could...”

She immediately sensed the tone in his voice and looked up from the fire. “No magic, Harry,” she said sternly.

“No magic,” he echoed. “I guess I can just wear these until I dry...”

“Don’t be silly,” she said as she tended the fire, slowly adding a few larger branches. “Wet clothes are awful; I told you that earlier. They’ll get itchy and will irritate your skin, and they’ll take longer to dry. Not to mention it will be night soon; the air will be cooler.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he grumbled.

“Did you at least bring a spare blanket? I thought I saw something inside there earlier.” She turned her attention back to the fire, finding it oddly satisfying to get it started without magic. The whole fire ring was now glowing brightly, flames shooting high as they eagerly consumed the last of the small branches and began lapping around the larger pieces of wood she had carefully added.

“Yeah, give me a couple minutes,” Harry replied as his head disappeared back inside the tent. She heard him fumbling around and grunting as he changed in the close quarters of the small tent. Finally, he emerged to join Hermione, who was now sitting on the picnic blanket, firelight dancing on her face as the final rays of the red sun were disappearing in the trees.

She glanced over at him and couldn’t help smiling. He was wearing only a tee shirt and shorts obviously intended to be his pajamas for the night, and he hesitated as he stepped out with his bare feet. A large tartan blanket was loosely wrapped about his shoulders, and he was carrying his wet clothes, still dripping a bit, in his arms.

“What is it now?” he asked in response to her look.

“Harry, you’re adorable. You look like a sad puppy dog that got caught in the rain. Come sit by me and warm up by the fire.”

“But it’s time for dinner,” he muttered as he made his way to the cool box.

“Let me do it.” She stood and walked over to join him. “I hope you didn’t plan anything complicated.”

“No. The new auror, Chad—he mentioned it was always helpful to cook some things ahead of time, so you could just heat them up.” He pulled a few things out from their supplies and set them on top of the cool box. “I have a container of stew, a baguette, and a bag with some mixed salad if you want. And I suppose we have the remainder of our wine from lunch, though we drank almost all of it.” Harry moved some items around in one of his bins before he pulled out another bottle. “We do have more if you want.”

She put her arm around his shoulder. “You really weren’t kidding about the food.”

“Maybe I overdid it, but I just remember all the trouble it caused last year. And we all were so hungry for so long.”

“It’s perfect.” She motioned to the bundle of wet clothes he had tossed on the ground. “But what are you doing with those?” He shrugged. “I guess you didn’t bring extra rope for a clothes line?” She sighed. “We’ll make do. Please Harry, just go sit by the fire until you really dry off. I’ll take care of everything.”

He grudgingly nodded and turned away to head toward the fire. She found herself glancing down him as he walked away, noticing his bare muscular legs poking out underneath the blanket. The wind began to blow again as evening descended, causing him to wrap himself up more tightly and a chill to pass down Hermione’s spine. Shaking her head and closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, struggling to repress her id and not think of the last time they were alone in this place, huddled for warmth together inside their tent for the whole day, as she cared for him while he was still recovering after the incident at Bathilda Bagshot’s house. She had never spent so much time in physical contact with Harry, cuddled up by his side under a blanket just like the one he was wearing now.

That evening, over nine months ago, he had told her to go to bed while he left to keep watch. Part of her hadn’t wanted him to go, had almost insisted that he stay—that they stay together that night. It was so bitterly cold, she could almost justify the excuse to sleep in one bed, just to feel safe, to have him next to her all through the night. Something about his mood that day made her think he might even have agreed.

For so many weeks, they had tacitly lived under the threat of Ron’s final accusation before he had left them: I get it. You choose him. But that day at this very spot so many months ago, she had realized that maybe she truly had chosen Harry. Not just because of her dedication to the Horcrux hunt or her devotion to Harry himself, but maybe she stayed because Ron’s accusation was actually true. And part of her was ready to give in, to give up on the rest of the world, to be with Harry. But her logical brain had won—or perhaps it was merely cowardice—and she had let him walk out into the cold, into the night. A few hours later, he had awoken her, and for a moment her half-slumbering brain thought he had come in to join her, to bring his warm body next to hers again.

But no—Ron had returned, and she nearly went mad temporarily at the repercussions, lashing out at him wildly. If Harry had given her back her wand, she wasn’t sure what she would have done to Ron, other than use some spell that would make him disappear again. Though she had barely admitted it to herself since that day, she was perhaps less angry with Ron about leaving than she was about his return. She and Harry had been awkward alone at first, but they had shared so much—had suddenly become close—and her entire world had begun to revolve around Harry, with just the two of them together.

Then Ron had to come back with that ridiculous blue-light-in-his-heart story. Well, it wasn’t so ridiculous. It was sweet, and her anger gradually faded into guilt over the fact that she hadn’t spoken his name in so long, that she had given into whatever idyllic fantasy she had lived for a few weeks alone with her best friend.

With Ron, the war came back, and she hadn’t allowed herself to think about it since.

“Hermione?” Harry called. “Is everything okay? Do you need help?” She had obviously been standing there silently, lost in thought.

“No, just a minute.” She opened her eyes, amazed that one mere glance at Harry’s bare calves had set off such a barrage of emotions. What the hell was wrong with her today? Taking in a breath, she gathered their provisions for dinner, dumping the stew into a pot, and turned back toward Harry, his face and glasses aglow as he awaited her in the warm circle radiating around the fire.

Chapter Text

An hour or so later, the sun had long set and twilight was descending into night. Harry’s damp clothes had been thrown over some of the lines attached to the tarp.

Hermione was cleaning up after their dinner when she suddenly felt Harry behind her. He stooped down and rummaged through their supplies. “I almost forgot,” he said. “It’s your birthday, so you need a cake. Here you go...” Harry presented her with an orange.

“Harry, that isn’t...” She stared at him, bemused, before a memory caused her to light up in recognition. “Oh! I did this with my mum once.”

He grinned. “It was her suggestion.”

Before long, they had cut tops off of two oranges and spooned out the interiors, which were then filled with a small amount of boxed cake mix. The oranges were then wrapped in foil, and Hermione showed Harry how to bury them in the glowing embers so they wouldn’t be too scorched by the flames. Harry even managed to produce a tiny candle to place in the top of her orange when they removed it from the fire.

“You have to make a wish,” he said, settling next to her again.

She glanced to the flame on the candle, and then to Harry’s iridescent green eyes, flickering in the firelight. Tears started to well up in her own.

His expression immediately shifted to one of concern. “Hermione, what’s wrong? Did I do something...?”

She sniffled a bit and blinked a few times, taking a breath. “No, it’s just... after all that happened over the past year, I think I forgot what it felt like to be truly happy. I still have nightmares sometimes too—about you, about Godric’s Hollow, about that last battle...” She abruptly clasped his hand tightly. “And people at Hogwarts just don’t talk about it. No one wants to talk, so it’s just day after day of pretending like everything’s okay. But here, with you, everything is okay. You don’t know how much it means to me to spend this time here together.” After a few moments, her expression finally brightened a bit. “And this all happened because of some silly off-hand comment I made at the Three Broomsticks.” She took a deep breath in, closed her eyes, and blew out the candle, wishing with all her might that this day would never end.

He wrapped his arm and the blanket about her, as they sat for a few seconds before she eagerly dug into the cake inside her orange. He did the same with his, taking a bite, and they both turned to each other simultaneously with furrowed brows. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said, “but I think the appeal was different when I was a little girl. This tastes... like a burned orange.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit off.”

She took another small bite and thought perhaps they had baked too long, or the embers had burned them. “I don’t want to ruin the moment, Harry, but actually... it’s bloody awful.”

Harry’s face registered a bit of shock at her language for a moment, before he stood and disappeared into the gloom around them. “I agree. Luckily, we have dessert option number two.”

Hermione was shaking her head. “You have to be kidding, Mr. I-Forgot-to-Bring-Another-Pair-of-Trousers. At some point, I think we need to have a discussion about priorities. The fundamental motto for camping is to ‘be prepared.’”

“I tried to be. Last year, you had packed everything in that tiny bag for us, while Ron and I were just clueless. You thought of everything, so I wanted to return the favor.” He returned and sat beside her. “Besides, a proper dessert for the birthday girl should be a priority. Do you have the item I sent to you yesterday?”

She leaned over to pull her backpack to her. “Yes. I was a bit puzzled by it. Is this some sort of roasting fork?”

“I didn’t get it either, but Chad said a telescoping fork was an essential piece of camping equipment.” Harry produced a bag of large puffy white objects and took out a pair of them.

“Marshmallows!” she said excitedly. “I haven’t toasted them in years.”

He looked at her with a perplexed expression. “Of course I’ve never done it, because the Dursleys... well, but I just assumed everyone else...”

“My parents are dentists, Harry. Giant sticky balls of sugar weren’t exactly a common menu item. So I only had them a few times with other kids, which obviously wasn’t very often.” Hermione tried not to dwell too much on the fact that she had even few friends before Hogwarts, so she quickly added, “You know you can just whittle a stick to do that.”

He had placed the two marshmallows on the fork and extended it over the fire. “I guess this is supposed to be more convenient.” He idly pushed on the metal ring above the handle, which caused the fork to swivel.

“Ooh, rotation! That is a nice gadget.” Hermione’s eyes were transfixed as she watched the fork, but Harry seemed distracted by her for a moment. Meanwhile, the marshmallows caught flame, causing him to wave the fork about frantically. “Stop!” Hermione cried, as he threatened to set some of their gear on fire with his wild motions. “It’s a lost cause. Just let them burn off in the fire.”

“Sorry, this is all new to me.” He pulled the fork from the fire, attempting unsuccessfully to tap off the charred remains. Not thinking, he began to brush them off with his fingers. “Ow!” he shrieked, yanking his hand back and staring at the red mark on his index finger.

“Well, Harry, I guess that’s the danger of using a metal fork. Here...” Without thinking, she pulled his hand up and kissed his finger gently. As she met his eyes again, he smiled warmly back at her. “Better?” she asked.

“Better than a healing charm,” he said quietly. Harry seemed to study her as he stared back, with a look that sent a pleasant shiver through her. A few seconds later, he turned away and placed two new marshmallows over the fire.

“Wait,” said Hermione, “you need to use the embers. Don’t get them near the flames.” She moved halfway behind him and placed her smaller hand around his, guiding the fork. They rubbed their thumbs repeatedly together as she rotated the fork to brown the marshmallows evenly. Dropping her chin onto his shoulder, Hermione felt him stiffen for a moment, but he soon relaxed. After several minutes contentedly leaning on him, with great reluctance, she sat up again to pull the fork from the fire. “Here, let me do it this time.”

Pulling a brown and completely gooey marshmallow from the fork, she held it out in front of his face. “Open your mouth, Harry.” He had an uncertain look, but obeyed. Her fingers ever so slightly brushed his lips as she deposited the confection in his mouth.

“Wow...” he murmured, trying not talk with his mouth full. “That’s so much better than the plain marshmallows on those sweets from Honeydukes.” She smiled as she ate the other one, licking off her fingers in a way that weirdly appeared to intrigue Harry. “Speaking of which,” he said, “there’s one last culinary experiment, if you’re up for it.”

“What’s that?”

“Have you ever had a s’more?”

“A what?”

“It sounds ridiculous, but Chad said it’s what Americans do with marshmallows when they go camping. Supposedly they are so good, you always want to have s’m-more.”

“Oh, come on,” she laughed. “You’re making that up.”

“I swear; that’s what he told me. You take a toasted marshmallow and put it between two digestive biscuits—or, well, something called ‘graham crackers,’ but Chad suggested a mildly sweet biscuit—along with a small piece of chocolate. Apparently the goal is to heat the marshmallow to the right temperature to melt the chocolate and create a sort of molten center.” He pulled out a couple more bags from beside him. “I bought some plain Honeydukes chocolate bars.” She scowled at him. “Yes, they were produced using magic, but I verified that the final product is in no way enchanted. You know they make the best chocolate.” Hermione let out a little sigh, but she had to agree with that. “Anyhow,” he continued, “can you toast two more, and I’ll get everything else ready?”

A few minutes passed before Hermione had produced two expertly toasted marshmallows—with the aid of the special fork—which they slid off to create their miniature biscuit sandwiches. After waiting for several seconds for any melting action to occur, they took a bite together.

She closed her eyes and let out an involuntary moan as she tasted it. “Oh my god, Harry. This is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.” She took another large bite, and he gazed at her for a moment, before a smirk came over his face. “What?”

“You, er, have some...” He leaned over and wiped the marshmallow off the corner of her mouth with his thumb, before sucking the tip clean.

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Harry… you do realize you just ate food off of my face?”

“Yeah. Well…” She saw Harry’s cheeks redden very slightly in the firelight. “But, what’s the verdict? Do you think you want s’m-m-more?” His affected pronunciation of the final word with an American twang threatened to cause her to laugh, but his eyes were serious and had grown dark. He wore a new, unfamiliar expression that made her suddenly feel nervous.

“Definitely,” she said, biting her lip. She was now fully aware of how close their faces were, and she began to involuntarily lean in toward him, feeling a magnetic pull as she began to close her eyes. Hermione had fought this urge so many times today, but with that look from him just now—her brain had finally shut down and there was seemingly no choice but to give into what her body sorely craved.

A sound of a snapped twig startled both of them, as a rustle in the darkness about them signaled some small animal finding its way away from their camp. She opened her eyes to see Harry again staring back into the fire, sighing heavily. In a moment, he was instantly composed again, handing her two more marshmallows.

It took several minutes for Hermione’s heart to resume anything resembling a normal pace. They ate their second s’mores in silence, both staring ahead into the fire, a truly awkward tension enveloping both of them for the first time that day.

So much for Mr. Keating and his “carpe diem,” thought Hermione. Did she really just imagine that? Once before, there was that strange night a year ago in the tent when Harry tried to cheer her up by doing some ridiculous dance together, and for a fraction of a second she felt that he might kiss her. Instead, though, they just turned away from each other, falling back into the oppressing gloom of the Horcrux hunt. But tonight was different. He seemed different. Surely that look in his eyes meant something.

The self-doubt returned and overwhelmed her, though. She gradually grew more embarrassed, as she concluded that she had misread him. What did he think of her now, closing her eyes hoping for a kiss on her birthday? Was she really so desperate and pathetic after her breakup with Ron to just fall for the one other person who was showing her kindness, who obviously was merely her friend?


Harry had thrown a few more pieces of wood on the fire, and they sat for a long while in silence while the fire burned down to embers once more. There was now a small distance physically separating them, and for the first time she could remember since their awkwardness last winter, Hermione hesitated to close the gap between them.

Eventually, she began to look about, realizing the moonless night made it difficult to see much beyond the range of the fire. As she glanced up at the heavens, though, her breath caught in awe at the Milky Way, with millions of stars streaking across the dark sky.

A new idea began to formulate in her mind, and she finally took Harry’s hand as she stood up. Whatever had happened, she wasn’t going to let it ruin their perfect day together. So much for carpe diem; there was still time for carpe noctem, enjoying the evening and night as much as they had earlier. “Come with me,” she said. “And bring your blanket.” She pulled up their picnic blanket too, before leading him closer to the river, conscious of the fact he was still walking in bare feet.

She spread out the blanket again on the soft earth and lay down on her back on one side, while Harry merely stood looking about. Several seconds passed before she asked, “Are you going to join me?”

“Join you...? Er...”

“Stargazing, Harry. It’s a clear, moonless night. And the nearest light sources are far away.” Hermione thought back to her nights camping with her parents, when she would sneak out of the tent late at night just to lie here under the sky. “I haven’t seen so many stars since, well... I guess when we were last here.” But there had been little time for stargazing last winter, she thought. The night was a time for vigilance back then, as they had struggled to remain awake and keep watch.

“Oh.” Harry walked slowly onto the blanket beside her, then suddenly plopped down into a seated position.

“You need to lie back for the best view.” She pulled the blanket from his shoulders and nudged him down, before spreading out his blanket to cover both of them. They lay there in silence for several minutes as Hermione contemplated how exactly they had ended up here. A mere few weeks ago, she was still recovering from her failed relationship with one best friend, and now she was lying together with the other one, desperately wanting him to just take her in his arms.

In some ways, she had always loved Harry, and at times over the years—even aside from the occasional flaring up of her annoying libinal id in her dreams—perhaps she had hoped for something more. But her friendship always took priority; she had so much more to lose than with Ron. To be sure, she knew Ron would always be there for her if she truly needed him, but they spent as much time squabbling as they did enjoying each other’s company. After their breakup, there was just a new kind of squabbling. Paradoxically, it was actually laden with less tension for her, because they both now knew they had succumbed to their attraction, yet it wasn’t truly love.

With Harry, though, there was a lot more at stake. She realized after two weeks away from him that she couldn’t imagine her life without him. On some deep subconscious level, she had always known that, perhaps even back to that Halloween night long ago when a boy she barely knew remembered her and came after her to save her from a troll. But over the past year, they had spent so much time together, learning to work together, to complement each other. The final challenge to their friendship of course came when Ron abandoned them, leaving them utterly alone and isolated. Since then Hermione had to come to terms with the fact that she’d always be there for Harry.

Always. There truly were no qualifiers to that word. She had to admit that Ron wasn’t entirely wrong in his assessment—in the battle at Hogwarts, she would have gladly volunteered to die with Harry and take out a few Death Eaters as she did so. It was only Harry’s conviction that day and the certain knowledge that he and Ron would have literally held her down to stop her from going that kept her from following Harry to his doom.

But until today she had never dared to imagine that he might want to be more than her best friend. She treasured those little moments of affection they shared, partly because she knew they weren’t some shallow romantic gesture from a typical teenage boy.

The young man lying next to her now felt so much like that Harry she had grown up with, but amplified somehow. His focus had always been elsewhere, constantly worrying about Voldemort and the war. But today, for some reason that focus had drifted to her, and it had been overwhelming. Perhaps too overwhelming.

“It is amazing,” Harry said, drawing Hermione from her thoughts. “Did you see that?”

“What?”

“The falling star.”

“You mean a meteor?”

“Yes, Miss Pedantry, a meteor.” His tone took on an academic ring as though he were reading from a dictionary. “You know, a flaming ball of rock hurtling through the heavens.”

A few moments passed. “No,” she finally replied to his question.

He chuckled loudly as his head rolled toward her. “You just wanted to argue about the name of something you didn’t even see?”

“I’m sorry, I was distracted before.”

He was still laughing. “By what? I thought we were stargazing.”

A light in the sky caught her eye. “There, Harry! Another one!” She pointed up, but by the time his gaze followed her arm, it too was gone. “It was below Cassiopeia, coming down next to Capella. Where was yours?”

“You’ve lost me. Where’s Capella? Is that a constellation?”

“No, the bright star near the horizon.” She rolled her head toward him. “You took classes in Astronomy and had some astrology in Divination: don’t you remember anything about the stars?”

“Aside from tea leaves and various predictions of my impending doom, I didn’t get much out of it, no.”

“Not that sort of divination, Harry. Professor Sinestra showed us several times. Over there.” She tried to point in the general direction of the star, but realized the angle wouldn’t be perceptible to him. “How on earth did you get through your O.W.L. exam?”

“I think I barely passed. Back then, I was always distracted by everything else going on. I mean, I was an idiot at times, but I sometimes regret that I couldn’t seem to focus on my studies like you did. Being here, with you, I wish I could see what you’re seeing up there.” He paused. “The only thing I remember from that night about the Astronomy exam was labeling Orion on my chart. At least that was clear. I think I might have mixed up some planets.”

“Orion?” she laughed. “Seriously, Harry? Orion is behind the sun at the time of the year we took the exam. It wasn’t even visible in the sky that night.”

“Oh...”

“Here, move your arm like this,” she said, grasping his wrist and guiding him. “That star, there. Capella is in the constellation Auriga. The name refers to the goat Amalthea, who suckled the infant god Zeus in Greek myth.”

Harry dropped his arm back down. “The goat that what?” he said, incredulous. “Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning? He was breast-fed by a goat?”

“Well, his mother Rhea hid him as an infant so his father wouldn’t eat him, as he had done with his previous children,” Hermione said matter-of-factly.

“Eat his children?” he cried. “What sort of stories do you read, Hermione?”

“Greek myths can be a bit crazy, I know. Before I understood a lot about magic, my dad used to read me bedtime stories about mythology. At first, he had some children’s book, but I found a book by Robert Graves called The Greek Myths on his bookshelf and made him read those to me, which were much more detailed and fascinating, though a bit dry at times.”

“For you to call a book dry...”

“Well, I found it all exciting. Until a few years later when I realized Graves just made a lot of stuff up, along with his whole White Goddess mythology. Nowadays, I’d go read a real scholar on Greek myths, like Burkert. Half of the stuff Graves wrote was full of jiggery-pokery and inane balderdash.”

“Wow, Hermione,” Harry laughed. “Jiggery-pokery and inane balderdash? Those are strong words, from you. That is, even if no one actually has spoken that particular phrase in the past fifty years.”

“What do you want me to say? Humbug and codswallop?”

“Now you sound more like Hagrid.”

Her head turned toward him as she pursed her lips for a moment. “What about bunkum and tommyrot?” She was needling him now.

He chuckled. “Now you sound like Hagrid’s grandfather.”

“What would you call it? The guy just made up stories and filled in his own details, claiming some sort of narrative poetic license or something.”

“In other words, what he wrote was bollocks.”

“Harry!”

“It’s a normal word that actual people say. Just try saying it, Hermione.”

“Okay…” she paused. Hermione was hardly a prude, and but she had an aversion to swearing that went back to her childhood. In the past, she had to stifle her impulse to rein in Ron’s continuous utterances of “bloody.” Still, words were just words, and Harry had rolled his head toward her and seemed to be looking at her expectantly. “Bollocks,” she pronounced, as Harry snickered. “Anyway,” she rolled her eyes, “you’re right. And he wasn’t the greatest person, either. Apparently Graves could be quite insufferable, even when among other writers. He seemed to waver somewhere between being a eccentric moody boor and an overly loquacious pretentious arse.”

“…Overly loqua-what now?”

She sighed, before following up, “He was a bit of a wanker, Harry.”

A second passed before a howl of laughter erupted from Harry. “I’m shocked, just shocked...” he sputtered.

“What?”

“Say it again.”

“What? Wanker?”

He broke out in a fit of laughter again. “I don’t know. That word just doesn’t sound right coming from your mouth. You just shift into this formal accent, as if you were a BBC announcer.” Harry sat up a bit on his elbows and put on his best attempt at RP, speaking in a slightly nasal tone at a higher pitch than usual. “Today, Her Majesty had tea with the PM and that old wanker Robert Graves...”

She started giggling. “I do not sound like that.”

“When you want to lecture people, you do.” Harry continued in his formal tone. “Later today, that wanker Graves appeared on Question Time to debate Hermione Granger on the topic of Greek mythology.”

“On Question Time,” she laughed as she tried in vain to interrupt, “they don’t talk about—”

Harry was undeterred and droned on, his diction even more exaggerated and precise. “Viewership plummeted as no one knew what the fuck was going on. The discussion concluded with Mr. Graves judged to be a stupid twit, as Ms. Granger accused him of talking rot and writing books full of utter bollocks.”

Hermione had doubled over and rolled on her side toward him laughing, as tears were streaming down her cheeks. She gave his shoulder a shove. “Harry! That’s so absurd.”

“Absurd? This, from the person who jumped from seeing a shooting star to a story about baby Zeus drinking milk from a goat’s tit.”

When Hermione finally caught a breath from their laughter, she shook her head at this wonderful release that seemed to quell whatever earlier tension had arisen between them. This was what she wanted so desperately—just to have fun and laugh with her best friend, a best friend who was no longer cracking jokes about dying all the time like he used to.

They lay in silence for a couple minutes again, staring up at the sky as a cool breeze whisked the few high clouds out of view behind the trees. “Did you ever notice,” Hermione finally said, “how there seem to be weird connections to Greek myths in the magical world?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, take Fluffy, for example. A three-headed dog who is soothed by music? It’s just like Cerberus, the dog who guards the entrance to Hades.”

Harry was silent for a few seconds. “Well, maybe three-headed dogs just are calmed by music.”

“Perhaps. I didn’t start thinking about it until after our first year,” Hermione continued. “But then I began to notice all these other patterns. Like how Filch’s first name is Argus, the same as the Greek giant with a hundred eyes who saw everything. Funny coincidence for the school caretaker who always seems to show up and find people, no? And Trelawney’s name is Sybil, the same as the ancient female Greek seers.”

“That does seem a bit odd.”

“And it keeps going on. Sirius in Greek myth referenced a dog, and Remus in Roman legend was raised by a wolf. It’s almost like magical parents have some weird foresight when they name their children about things they will connect to later in life. Sometimes it seems like half of the adults we know have names like that.”

Harry shook his head before looking toward her again. “You notice the weirdest things.”

But Hermione was undeterred. “Even you, Harry—that is, not your name. But you were able to wield the most powerful magic to win against Voldemort, just like Zeus was the leader of the Greek gods, who wielded thunder and lightning as his weapon. And you just coincidentally have a lightning bolt on your forehead? And you used to ride a Thunderbolt in battle?”

“Firebolt,” Harry corrected.

“Yeah, the word means the same thing.”

Harry pondered this for only a moment, before announcing, “Well, all that may be true, but I was not nursed by a goat.”

At that, Hermione guffawed as she gave him another shove, causing Harry to add, “Though if Uncle Vernon was eating children, that might explain some things…”

Hermione couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed so hard; her side was aching as she rolled over toward Harry, eventually curling up to his left side. They both erupted in periodic giggles again for a minute, until he finally spoke up, “Show me something else.”

She scanned the sky. “Well, you remember the Plough, right?”

“I think so.”

“It’s to the left of Capella.” She raised her left arm and watched Harry turn his head to follow her motion as she shifted from the star toward the new constellation. “That’s part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, but today people call it the Plough. Do you see the four stars that make up the main part of it, with the one on the tip a bit different in color?”

“Yeah.”

“That star is actually a binary star: two stars circling close together. One star is burning bright as a giant, having used up its primary hydrogen fuel, but the other is always there as well.” Hermione always had been intrigued by the vast expanses of time and space as she stared up at the night sky. “It’s fascinating to think about the two of them orbiting each other, cycling through their lives, bound together for millions of years.” It made all of their terrestrial problems feel so small and insignificant. The stars were constant, never wavering in their gravitational pull toward each other, always together… always...

She exhaled and lay still for a moment before making a decision and wriggling up to Harry’s side. Hesitating for only an instant, she raised herself on her right elbow and placed her left hand on his chest. He had been silent, but she could feel his heartbeat quickening. “Harry,” she said quietly, “why did you bring me here?”

He shifted his eyes over to hers, a look of confusion apparent in his eyebrows, the only real feature she could partly make out in the darkness. “It’s your birthday. I wanted to take you somewhere special. Perhaps I wasn’t obvious enough with the candle and gifts and everything.”

She sighed, pulling herself closer and laying her head on his chest. In response, he loosely draped his arm about her shoulder. Now she could literally hear his heart, which seemed to be pumping vigorously despite his apparent nonchalance.

“Is everything okay, Hermione? I thought you enjoyed yourself today.”

She turned her head up and smiled broadly, needing him to know. “It’s so much more than okay, Harry. It’s more than the best birthday I’ve ever had. It’s… I still can’t believe you did all of this just for me.” She reached out to touch his cheek and was pleased when she could literally feel his face muscles tighten into a grin. And then she surprised herself by rolling partly on top of his side and moving up to kiss his cheek, dropping her head to linger there, nuzzling his neck. This time he didn’t freeze up, but he didn’t respond either. She moved one of her legs on top of his and suddenly realized how cool he felt. She lifted her head to look up at him again, but his eyes were unreadable in the darkness. “Are you cold, Harry?”

“Well, the ground is pretty damp without trousers on. But I seem to have a new and very warm blanket...” His tone had taken on a slightly flirtatious air now, but he still didn’t push further.

She reluctantly disengaged herself from him and stood, pulling him up with her. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”

Hand in hand, they navigated their way back to the campsite, following the faint light of the glowing embers of the dying fire. But he halted in front of the tent. “You, er... probably want to put on your pajamas now, right?”

Hermione shrugged. “It’s no big deal. You were in the tent with me last year when I changed a bunch of times.”

“Yeah, but... that tent was huge inside. It had separate rooms or you could duck behind something. This one—you can’t stand up. You should have seen me writhing around trying to change earlier.” Perhaps it was the extended closeness they had shared today, but Hermione’s brain had simply stopped functioning at the words “writhing around” combined with an image of Harry disrobing. “Anyhow, I’ll get my toothbrush, and I’ll just wait by the remnants of the fire while you get your pajamas on.”

She agreed, hiding a slight bit of disappointment to be separated from him. A few minutes later, she exchanged places with him outside to brush her teeth and quickly splash some water on her face. On her way back into the tent, she grabbed Harry’s hanging clothes, which were no longer so damp.

She reentered the tent to find him already curled up inside his sleeping bag, turned away from the tent door. The torch she had retrieved from her bag and left in the tent for him cast deep shadows that somehow made the night feel darker and more confining around them. She really wasn’t sure what she had expected him to do, but she already regretted ending their physical contact outside so quickly. Sighing, she climbed into her own sleeping bag, contenting herself with the knowledge he’d be sleeping next to her. A tiny voice in her head also noted the slight incline he had pitched the tent on: maybe he’d end up rolling over on her accidentally in the night.

He turned back to look at her with drooping eyes. “I didn’t realize until just now how completely knackered I am, even after that nap this afternoon.” Harry always seemed to look a bit tired without his glasses on, but Hermione could tell this was an unusual amount of fatigue and exhaustion for him. “I’m glad you enjoyed our day, even without magic. Happy birthday, Hermione.”

“Thank you again, for everything. I...” she paused, not quite sure what else to say. She couldn’t quite express what was really forming in her heart. “Well, I guess today I realized how much I need my best friend.”

He pulled himself up on one arm and leaned over to cup her cheek, stroking it gently with his thumb. This gesture seemed to grow more intimate with each time he did it. “I really can’t imagine my life without you.” The look in his eyes was so sweet and earnest and adoring, she almost started to tear up. “Good night, Hermione.”

“Good night.” He flopped over and turned away on his other side again, and she switched off the torch. But her mind was wide awake as she realized the meaning of that look and his words. I can’t imagine my life without you. They were familiar: they were the very words she had said to herself so many times as she thought of Harry and what he meant to her. She knew intimately the coded message they must convey. Only a couple minutes passed before she heard his breathing become slow and regular. It was only then she softly whispered, “I love you, too, Harry,” before settling herself and drifting off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Plop!

Hermione took a breath, turned over, pulled her legs up a bit, and—barely conscious—tried to fall back asleep. But the sound began again.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip, drip, drip, drip. Plop!

A bead of very cold water had landed on her cheek, and her eyes rapidly fluttered open. She saw nothing. There was utter blackness around her, but she could hear the roar of rain. Drip. Drip. Drip. She came to the realization her head felt damp, and she reached up to touch her hair, which was definitely quite wet in places.

Finally coming to full consciousness, she remembered where she was. They were camping for her birthday. She was in a tent. She turned to reach out for her torch, but became aware of more dampness and coldness on her legs. Surprised at that, she hastily sat upright, feeling about her. Her sleeping bag was soaked through.

Sighing heavily, she groped about in the darkness, and her hand touched a pool of standing water beside her. Finally grasping the torch she was looking for, her thumb pressed the button, and the tent was illuminated again. Hermione turned and waved it about, surveying the damage. As her breath fogged out in the soft glow of the light, she shook her head in dismay. There was a large dark puddle of water in the corner of their tent. Unfortunately, her canvas bag was sitting right in the middle of it.

Pulling herself out of her sleeping bag, she turned about and began to assess the situation in detail. The bottom of her sleeping bag was halfway into the pool of water, and there was still that dripping water falling periodically on her soggy pillow. Pulling her bag from the water, she moved it to a dry spot on the tent floor. All of the clothes at the bottom of her bag were quite wet, including almost all of her outerwear. She was now regretting the choice of a simple canvas bag, which obviously didn’t have waterproofed seams. She didn’t have any true wilderness gear to bring with her, and she hadn’t thought about the potential need for something more resistant to water. Staring back at the pool of cold water, though, she realized it likely wouldn’t have made a difference.

She closed her eyes and took another deep breath, with one last hope that maybe this was a bad dream, that she could wish the rain away. Instead, a shiver went through her, as she now become conscious of just how cold it had become overnight. Her hair was damp, her pajama bottoms were soaked, and her exposed bare feet were positively freezing. She remembered Harry—how she had joked about him and his wet clothes just a few hours earlier. And now she was in an even worse situation.

Hermione slowly opened her eyes again and turned to look over at him. She could hear his breathing; he was still fast asleep. As he was slightly uphill from her, his side of the tent appeared to be dry. Glancing back at her waterlogged possessions, she briefly contemplated possible ways to deal with the situation without disturbing his sleep after their long day together. But they simply were not prepared for this.

She turned and called out to him quietly. Getting no response, she left the torch atop her sleeping bag and crawled the short distance toward his head. “Harry,” she said in a half-whisper, not wanting to startle him. She placed her hand on his shoulder. “Harry!

Harry stirred, inhaling slowly before his eyes flickered open. He blinked several times at her. “Hermione?” He raised his head, blinking again. “Hermione, what is it?” As he pulled himself up on his elbows, they heard a crack beneath his arm, which caused him to twist and reflexively pull back.

Hermione sighed as she realized Harry hadn’t taken advantage of the little pouches hanging on the side of the tent for fragile materials or things that shouldn’t get wet. Yet another stupid complication, she thought, as she lifted his glasses from the space where his elbow recently was, wanting to chuckle at the absurdity of the new crack that seemed to always return to them. But there would be no magic tonight to fix them.

She handed him his broken glasses, and his eyebrows scrunched together as he reached out and held a wet, floppy strand of her hair. Hermione could only imagine the bedraggled state of her appearance to him.

“What happened to you?” he asked, a moment later staring up toward the tent ceiling and appearing to gain recognition of the pervasive dull roar around them. He looked back to her. “It’s raining.”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head, tamping down her frustration while trying to be sympathetic to the boy with the broken glasses who had been awakened from a sound sleep. “Yes, Harry. It’s raining.”

He blinked again slowly. “Sorry. I’m just… well, I checked the weather report yesterday. They didn’t say...” He stopped short, as his eyes focused on her. He reached out with a hand and stroked her cheek. “You’re shivering. What’s going on? Were you outside?”

“Unfortunately, no,” she said as she turned, retrieving the torch and pointing it at the corner of their tent. “Look.”

Harry now sat fully upright and stared. “There’s water in the tent.”

“Yes, there’s water in the tent!” she cried in exasperation. “And all of my clothes are soaked. Everything’s soaked!” Harry began frantically patting his sleeping bag and his pillow, reaching out until Hermione caught his arm. “Okay, I revise my statement—everything’s soaked except for you.”

“I don’t understand,” Harry said. “The tent was labeled as resistant to water.”

“Did you seal the seams?” Hermione asked.

“Seal the… what?”

“Nevermind,” she muttered to herself, glancing up at the dripping water coming down from the interior of the fly. “It might not have mattered much in this downpour. The ground outside must be flooded for this much water to come in. Even a trench might not have helped.” Thinking back to the previous morning, Hermione remembered seeing the groundcloth and was now thankful Harry had known to do that much. She crawled back to her bag, pulling out a damp towel.

“Uh… I didn’t know… I’ve never camped bef—” He stopped as his head drooped down. “I’m sorry, Hermione.”

Turning back to him, she saw the dejection on his face. Despite her irritation at their situation, she knew how much effort he had put in. “It’s not your fault,” she said, suppressing a desire to crawl over and hug him, as much for the warmth as to quell his anxiety. Turning to look at the pool of water, she stopped and stared for several seconds, contemplating the task before her. Should they attempt to move the tent, perhaps to higher ground? She wasn’t sure there was a better option in the immediate vicinity. A wind gust whipped around the fly as the rain grew louder. She realized they simply couldn’t go outside in this; even if they had spare dry clothes—which they didn’t—it would be difficult to improve matters.

While she was thinking, Harry had unzipped his sleeping bag and reached out, touching her shoulder, then her neck. “You’re shivering, and your skin is cold. It’s freezing in here.” He began to move backward, reaching toward his backpack. “Let me just—”

Hermione turned suddenly. “No magic!” she nearly shouted.

“No magic,” Harry echoed, jerking back his hand in response to her order. He sat still for a moment, before continuing. “But this is definitely not what we planned for. This is my fault. You shouldn’t have to suffer because I—“

“The pact was for 24 hours,” she interrupted, looking sternly back at him. “Are you really going to give up so easily?”

“I’m not giving up,” he replied. “But this was supposed to be a fun birthday surprise, not...” His voice came to a halt as he watched her unzip the tent and spread her towel in the pool of water. “What are you doing?”

“We need to try to get the water out,” she said, picking up the sopping wet towel and wringing it out through the door flap. “A little water comes inside sometimes when you’re camping in heavy rain.” She turned from her crouching position by the tent door. “We dealt with it a few times when I was a kid. It’s no big deal.”

Just as she said that, she turned and pivoted on her foot, but it slipped on the wet tent floor, and she fell sideways into the pool of water, splashing even more onto her sleeping bag. “MERLIN’S PANTS!” she roared, her leg and hip now partly submerged in the frigid water.

Harry was nearly on top of her in an instant, his arms around her as she crawled back onto her sleeping bag. Her teeth were now chattering, and Harry quickly grabbed for the tartan blanket they had used earlier, spreading it about her shoulders while carefully avoiding getting it in the water. He then huddled close to her, pulling her into his side.

“This is ridiculous,” he finally said. “You’re pale, and your lips look a bit blue. You didn’t agree to become hypothermic. I’ll just cast a quick—”

“NO MAGIC!” she growled at him, eyes wide. Hermione realized that Harry must have thought her quite mad by this point, but she was simply not going to give up. Ron had scoffed at the thought of being out in the wilderness without magic, and though she could swear Harry to secrecy, she’d know herself when she faced Ron again that she had given in. The logical part of her brain knew it was irrational, but after everything that had happened, she simply couldn’t allow Ron to be right about this.

“Okay, okay,” Harry said. “What about we just do this another day? We could apparate back, and you could be in a warm bed before—”

“Apparition is magic!” she interrupted again, vehemently rolling her eyes. While her legs were still freezing, she was beginning to feel at least a little warmth under the blanket, and her mind started to clear. For a moment, she considered Harry’s suggestion. There was one time when she was a little girl and their tent had flooded like this one evening, soaking most of their gear. After some frantic attempts by her parents to salvage the situation, they threw their essential items in the car and drove home, with Hermione falling asleep on the back seat.

But her thoughts of leaving were short-lived, as a few more drops of water landed on her head, pulling her back to the present. “Amateurs,” she muttered to herself, now annoyed that her parents had been so quick to give in. She and Harry had spent months living in the wilderness last year, foraging for food, with hundreds of Death Eaters after them. They had ultimately faced them in battle and beaten them all. She would not let a little cold rain ruin her birthday present from Harry.

“What did you say?” Harry queried.

“Nothing,” she grumbled, turning back toward the door. “Let’s get back to it.”

But Harry’s arm around her didn’t budge. “No, I’ll clear the water. You need to find a way to get warm.” She relaxed a bit, giving in, and he shifted around her to resume her task. As he bailed the water from the tent, one soaked towelful at a time, she noticed a small grin form periodically on his lips.

“What’s so funny?”

He shook his head. “Nothing.” Working in silence for a minute, he eventually added, “Well, the fact that you’re taking this so seriously is a bit surprising.”

She stared at him sternly. “If you really want to just give up—”

“No!” Harry halted and looked to her. “No, that’s not what I meant at all. I just was thinking about last winter, and how we had people out here chasing after us—ready to capture us, torture us, even kill us. But if you just take the magic away, it’s ridiculous that a little rain suddenly seems like such an inconvenience. This is turning into an adventure after all.” Then his eyes drifted to her bag and her wet clothes, and then back to her, a look of concern washing over him. “But, in all seriousness, it looks like everything you have here is soaked. You don’t have anywhere to sleep. How are you going to—”

Hermione had already moved back toward her clothes and began spreading them out on the top of the dry part of her sleeping bag as best as she could. “Just get the water out. Let me worry about me.”

“I’ll take the wet sleeping bag,” he replied.

“You most certainly will not! It’s freezing.” For a brief moment she envisioned Harry and her snuggled very tightly in his sleeping bag together but quickly shook the thought from her mind. Her physical closeness from the previous day with him was clouding her judgment. That simply wasn’t a practical solution.

“But—”

“I’ll handle it.” In a moment, Hermione hatched a plan and had already started to unzip Harry’s sleeping bag completely, unfolding it so it was flat. She then unfurled the tartan blanket on the tent floor and sleeping pad, covering it with Harry’s unzipped sleeping bag.

After taking the blanket off herself, she was again conscious of her sopping wet pajama bottoms. She simply couldn’t sleep in these, even if she managed to get warm. Without a second thought, she started to peel them off.

“Uh, Hermione…?”

“Just give me a second,” she said, tugging her shirt down over her hips as best as she could, suddenly shy. Reaching for a small pouch with hooks that seemed to have come with the tent, she started to hang up her pajama bottoms from a loop in the ceiling above her sleeping bag but away from any dripping. She hoped they might start to dry there. Her bare knees felt the cold dampness of her wet sleeping bag, and she began to shiver again. Harry was looking at her with concern, though she thought she caught him peeking down at her shirt hem that was lifting higher as she struggled with the loop on the ceiling.

Dismissing this immediately, she quickly retreated to the other side of the tent again, burying herself in the space between the sleeping bag and the blanket. She moved as far as she could up to the tent wall, making room beside her. She was careful not to touch the tent wall, though, afraid of more water leaking in against their bedding.

As she settled into her new makeshift bed, Hermione noticed the sound of the heavy rain beginning to subside a bit. She hoped there wouldn’t be more flooding tonight.

Harry had now finished and carefully zipped up the entrance. He haltingly crawled closer to her, wearing a perplexed expression. “So, I’ll use your sleeping bag?”

Hermione turned over to face him. “Harry, obviously I made room here.” She flipped down the side of the sleeping bag nearest to him, patting beside her. She noticed his eyes scan downward, where part of her bare leg was just peeking out, causing her to feel warmth in her cheeks despite the cold.

“I… you’re… I mean, you’re only wearing… well…”

“They’re called knickers,” she said with another eyeroll. “My pajamas were soaked, and all of my other clothes are wet. Will you just lie down here so we can both get some rest?”

As he crawled next to her, Hermione realized she had overestimated the size of the bottom blanket, as well as not thinking about the fact that they would now have to share just one dry pillow. Harry slowly moved in beside her, hesitantly pulling the sleeping bag over himself, as she pushed the pillow to center it between them.

Somehow, despite their earlier closeness outside, a slight awkwardness had settled between them. As they both lay side by side on their backs—with some minuscule but nevertheless distinct distance separating them—Hermione could feel the cold air drifting in under the sides of the sleeping bag. Although their bedding was beginning to warm up a bit, she still felt very cold and chilled, and she sensed Harry shivering too, no doubt from clearing all of the cold water from the tent. This wasn’t going to work.

“Can we...” she started to say, not quite sure exactly what to request. “I think we need to get closer.”

Harry closed his eyes and exhaled, before shifting to get up. “I’ll make do. I’ll just use your sleeping bag—”

“Harry, I’m freezing!” Out of exasperation, she abruptly pushed her bare left foot on his right leg, causing him to yelp and recoil.

“Good god!” he exclaimed. “Do you have ice cubes down there?”

“Look,” she said, taking charge. “I’m going to turn over on my side.” She made a decision to face the tent wall, knowing just how close they’d be trying to do this face to face. “And you—first, give me your glasses and turn off the light.” She thought the darkness might make it easier for both of them to relax about what she was about to propose. Harry handed her his glasses, which Hermione safely deposited in a little pouch hanging on the side of the tent wall. He then clicked off the torch and laid it beside their makeshift bed. “Now,” she continued with a slight hesitation, “cuddle up to me.”

“I… well...” was all that Harry could stammer out.

“It will keep us both warm. Harry, you’ve hugged me before.”

“This is different.”

She was going to have to guide him through this. Some deep part of her mind registered that this was perhaps stepping over some line, but she was cold, and Harry had seemed almost eager to snuggle up with her for an entire frigid day last year here, though not to sleep, and certainly not quite like this. “Here… “ she lifted herself on one elbow, pulling his arm beneath her. “Just like that.” She lowered herself back down and reached back to find his other arm, pulling it over her side and resting his hand on her abdomen. “There.”

His arms were very loosely reaching around her, and his chest was barely touching one side of her back as he leaned away awkwardly. Again, he seemed to be keeping a distance, and she could again feel the cool air circulating around her back. She was certain the sleeping bag wasn’t even covering him completely.

“Harry, you’re still shivering. Why don’t you move...” She shifted her legs and hips backward to get closer to him, but stopped in surprise. “Oh.” She could feel him immediately inhale and tense up. Oh god, she thought. That’s why he had been trying to keep a distance between them.

“I’m… I’m so sorry, Hermione. It’s just—”

“A normal reaction,” she interrupted, trying to be calm as she realized that spooning together was necessarily going to be more intimate in some ways, particularly with only that thin layer of her knickers covering her. For a moment, part of her mind threatened to move back to those thoughts of earlier today, of what might happen if she were to… but no, he seemed to be keeping his distance. He obviously wasn’t interested in that way. “You’re… a teenage boy,” she continued, “and… I understand it’s just a physiological response to proximity,” she explained, justifying the whole situation to herself as well as to him.

A memory abruptly flashed in her mind to the time a year before when she had polyjuiced into Harry’s physical form temporarily as one of the “seven Potters” and was a bit shocked at the sensations of what it must be like to be a teenage boy. But now was definitely not the time to bring that up with him.

Harry shifted slightly, putting distance again between them. “But it’s… you have to think it’s weird. I’ll just move—”

But before he could finish his thought, Hermione’s frustration—of what kind, she didn’t want to think too closely about—got the better of her, and she backed into him more forcefully, wiggling her hips slightly.

“HERMIONE! What are—”

“Let’s just get this out in the open,” she said, trying to sound calm and uninterested, suppressing the id again. “Stop worrying. I don’t care, Harry. I’m tired, and I’m cold. I just want us to be comfortable and get some sleep. All right?”

Although she couldn’t see his face, she could sense him weighing the options, before he muttered, “Fine.”

She felt some of the tension leave him, which made her feel relief too. She bit her lip, and then, without entirely thinking of the implications, found herself speaking softly again, “Will you keep me warm?”

A few seconds after that invitation, he finally gave in and moved closer, using his free arm to wrap them up snugly in the blanket before she felt his entire body press against hers, literally from head to toe. The tops of his feet nestled against the soles of hers, his knees locked in behind hers, his warm thighs brushing up against the bottom of her bare ones, and his chest pressed fully against her back as his arms wrapped tightly around her. She felt herself relax completely and almost melt into him. “Is this okay?” he finally said, his hot breath drifting across her ear and sending a shiver down her spine.

Only okay? she thought to herself. She merely had expected him to get a little closer, not wrap up her entire body within his. Still, she wasn’t complaining, even as the contact only seemed to make her want more—to feel even more connected to him. One of her hands seemed to move of its own volition to grab tightly onto his, as she whispered haltingly, “Yeah… this is… nice.” That was nowhere near adequate to describe what she was feeling, but that tiny voice inside her head was still uncertain, still guarded. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he breathed, echoing her, “it is… nice.” He gave her an even tighter squeeze for a second before sighing, warm air escaping his lips again right against her ear.

And despite the desire that had threatened to flare in her earlier—and the questions that her brain desperately wanted to ask—in her fatigue Hermione found herself simply giving in completely to the warmth and intimacy, feeling their breathing begin to synchronize and slow together. This was the better than any birthday gift, she thought to herself, as Harry seemed to settle himself around her, apparently finding a comfortable position for them to remain connected like this while they slept. Her feet were finally warm again, and she found herself idly tracing the ball of her foot along the top of his a few times, reveling in their complete contact. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to mind, as one of his hands interlaced his fingers with hers, his other hand clutching them both when his embrace tightened, adding even more intimacy where Hermione had thought it was impossible to be closer to him at this moment.

The rain had slowed significantly now, falling gently and steadily on their tent, a soothing noise punctuated only by the occasional heavy plunk of a drop from a tree branch far above. All the cold seemed banished, as Hermione was wrapped up not in just warmth but by a profound sense of security unlike anything she had ever felt before. Cocooned in their little nest together, she began to relax and give into sleep, her final thoughts of Harry, who had now given her the greatest gift of all: both physically and emotionally, she felt fully and completely enveloped by her best friend’s love.

Chapter Text

A blow to the back of Hermione’s leg startled her awake. Again the fog of sleep and the pitch blackness around her were disorienting, but another kick and a grunt close to her ear made her realize what was going on. Harry was still snuggled close to her, but he was shaking and kicking in his sleep. Just then a lightning flash lit up the night: her eyes opened wide, and a powerful thunderclap quickly followed.

Reluctantly disentangling herself from his arms, she maneuvered herself around in the cramped space to face him, as he began to moan aloud in distress. Putting a hand on his shoulder to try to wake him, she realized his shirt was damp with sweat. “Harry,” she called. “You’re dreaming. Harry, wake up!” By then he was thrashing about on his back as the groaning became louder.

Another lightning flash lit up the tent, and she saw the pained expressions on his face. Hermione knew Harry’s nightmares well, but she could never get used to them. Thinking that some light might help, she reached across his chest. Fumbling in the darkness, her finger brushed the side of the torch, which promptly rolled downhill away from her. Even with the din from the torrent of rain, she could hear the sound of water inside. Another lightning flash confirmed that the small pool of water had returned to their tent, and the torch was now submerged in the far corner.

There was no way she could reach it from her position, even if it would still function after being in the water. And there was simply no room to maneuver around him in this small tent. She briefly considered climbing over him, but the image of Harry awakening to find her straddling him in only her knickers made her think twice. Things had already become strange enough between them earlier.

Harry was now kicking wildly again as his groans turned into indistinct monosyllables. “Hmm!” he called out. “Hmm!… Herm!” She shook his shoulder again as he suddenly shrieked out, “Hermione! NO! NO! HERMIONE!”

“I’m here, Harry! Wake up!” He jolted awake just as another lightning flash displayed his horrified countenance. But even before the resulting thunder arrived, he had bolted upright and now embraced her desperately, nearly knocking the wind out of her.

“Hermione, Hermione...” he repeated into her shoulder.

She held onto him closely, feeling his heart pulsating rapidly against her chest. “It’s me, Harry. I’m here. You had a nightmare.” She waited for at least half a minute, during which he seemed only to clutch her with more force. Eventually his hold on her relaxed a bit, and she asked quietly, “Do you want to talk about it?”

He sniffled softly, burying his face into her shoulder as if to hide himself.

“It’s okay. Everything’s all right,” she said, stroking his back.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said, pulling back. He seemed to pause for a few seconds in the darkness. Then Hermione felt his hands reach up and seek the lapels of her pajamas. He slowly unbuttoned the top button, before one of his hands gently tugged at the neckline.

She took a breath and closed her eyes at his touch. “Harry?” she whispered, her voice bordering on a moan as she struggled to retain control of it.

Perhaps it was the fact that they had been sleeping so intimately, but her skin felt like it was on fire: he was so close, she could feel his breath on her neck. After a few moments of confused anticipation at what he might do next, she felt his fingers deliberately trace a line along the bottom of her neck. Only then did she realize what he was doing—he was following that thin cut Bellatrix had made to her throat at Malfoy Manor. There was barely a mark there anymore: the clean cut had healed, leaving only a thin white line that Hermione could only find herself with difficulty in the mirror in the right light.

Yet Harry knew exactly where it was even in the complete blackness surrounding them, and she now understood what horrors must have filled his dreams. She involuntarily shuddered at the thought of that day, a remnant of terror coursing through her. Harry must have sensed this, and he took hold of her arms gently. But then, in the darkness, she felt his hands take her left arm and begin pulling back the fabric of her shirt, lifting it up her arm. “Harry,” she whispered, “don’t.”

Another flash of lightning exposed the scene unfolding in front of her. She saw remnants of the word “blood” exposed on her forearm and pulled away, yanking her shirt sleeve down again.

But Harry put his arms around her again and pulled her close, holding her until her breathing slowed. He spoke softly across her shoulder, his voice soothing amidst the torrent of the storm still raging around them. “All this summer you’ve worn long-sleeved shirts and blouses, even on the hottest of days. I’m… I’m so sorry I wasn’t quicker that day, wasn’t able to...”

“Shh,” she whispered into his ear. “It’s not your fault, there was nothing—”

But he cut her off as he pulled back. “I can’t hide mine,” he said quietly. “When I was young, sometimes I was proud of it, one thing that was distinctly my own. But other times I wished for nothing more than that I could hide it. But it’s always on my face; it will always be a part of me. I wish there was—” his voice wavered. She felt his hands gently move to her arm again. “Please, just...”

There was something about the calmness in his voice, causing her to remain very still as he cautiously rolled up her sleeve. She was thankful now for the darkness, as he lifted her arm, and she felt a finger begin to trace over her scar. A moment later, she was shocked to feel his lips on her arm, kissing that horrid word three times very slowly in almost ritualistic fashion. His mouth lingered on her skin briefly before pulling away.

Harry had never kissed her before, not in any way. Never on the cheek or the forehead. Never. Before the previous day, he had rarely even done more than reach out to hold her hand. She had gradually started to become used to this more affectionate version of Harry.

This, however, was something completely different. Despite the fact that they had only recently been spooned up together with his arms around her, she wasn’t sure how to process the new level of intimacy in this moment. Her scar had been deliberately hidden from everyone since the day it was made. She had tried nearly a dozen spells to remove it, but something about the combination of magic and hate seemed to have etched it permanently into her skin. Even Ron had only glimpsed it one morning while she was changing her clothes. She simply couldn’t stand the silent pity on his face and vowed never to let him see it again.

Yet Hermione wasn’t embarrassed now. Another lightning strike lit up his face, where she saw the most gentle look of concern. She closed her eyes and felt them grow wet as Harry carefully pulled down her sleeve again and wrapped her again in his arms. And then, without warning, it just came streaming out of her, like a tidal wave of emotion—all the tensions leftover from the war that no one ever wanted to talk about or acknowledge: all the months of pretending that everything would be back to normal again, all the people lost, and everything else that could never be restored. Her chest was now heaving as she sobbed into Harry’s shoulder, pulling him tight.

He held onto her as she caught her breath, only for a few more waves to return as she gasped for air before finally letting out a heavy sigh. She continued to shake involuntarily in his arms for a minute, but forced herself to pull back—taking his left hand hand in her right, and lifting it to slowly kiss the scarred back of it. Putting a hand on his cheek, she sat up to kiss his forehead, not needing any light to know precisely where that tiny patch of taut skin was. There were other scars he carried, of course. She knew them all—the bitemarks from Nagini, the place on his chest where she had to magically cut the Horcrux off of him that night after Godric’s Hollow, and so many other minor ones over the years. Part of her wished to kiss them all, if it would only keep those memories and nightmares away from him.

A deafening thunderclap sent a jolt through both of them as a gust of wind whipped through their tiny shelter. The cold air caused a shiver to pass through Hermione, and Harry began to pull up the sleeping bag around her.

She halted him and instead gently nudged Harry to make him lie down, making sure his head was on the pillow. Pulling the sleeping back tightly around both of them, she lay against his side and rested her head on his chest. As she wrapped her leg on top of his, she felt him become tense, as he had when they had been like this outside under the stars. In response, she placed her right hand on his chest, feeling his heartbeat, wordlessly willing him to relax.

It was only then that she even noticed the bareness of their intertwined legs, realizing again that their position was far more intimate than it seemed. Indeed, it all seemed natural to her. It just felt so unquestionably right to be in wrapped up close to Harry like this, an almost seamless extension of the natural physical affection she had shared with him for years.

Her mind flitted back to her few awkward encounters with Ron, which never rose to this level of intimacy, neither physically nor emotionally. Not that she wasn’t interested or attracted to him—she certainly had been—but after a few intense snogging sessions, she just wasn’t certain where to go from there. Ron never pressured her, and she knew that he cared about her, but with him it always felt like they were just getting something out of their system, some pent-up tension, rather than a real emotional connection. At least two or three times, she thought he was on the verge of ending it during an argument, but they’d somehow end up snogging again. The cycle would repeat, an absurd parody of true romance.

And then at the end, he had accused her of being in love with Harry. More of his words came back to her: You were completely alone with him for nearly two months, and for all that time neither of you even said my name. Ron wasn’t wrong. She had tried to blame it on Harry, on not wanting to upset him by bringing Ron up, but the reality was that she wasn’t quite sure why they had completely stopped talking about him last year. Ron had planted the seed in her mind, and only now was she allowing it to grow.

Another flash and a quiet burst of thunder interrupted her thoughts. The storm finally seemed to be passing. She was so comfortable and warm now; they could just go to sleep like this, couldn’t they? Her right leg moved almost of its own accord now, generating the softest friction against his as she turned slightly and nestled even closer into his side. Could best friends sleep like this? Is that what we still are? She didn’t know. Most of her didn’t care.

No one understood her connection to Harry. Ron certainly didn’t. And though Harry never really discussed it, Hermione was certain it played a role in the Harry’s failure to rekindle his relationship with Ginny. Perhaps it was this physical closeness she had felt before with Harry or the trauma tonight, but her mind drifted back to that horrible day at Hogwarts, the day so many had been injured and died, when Voldemort had finally been defeated…


After the battle, Harry had led Ron and her away from the crowd of survivors, to the study that used to belong to Dumbledore. There, Harry recounted everything that had happened and repaired his wand with the Elder Wand.

But Hermione was worried about what Harry had been through and thought that he looked like he might collapse due to sheer fatigue by that point. Harry, however, didn’t want to go back to the crowds where Madam Pomfrey could evaluate him. Hermione therefore insisted on checking Harry over with some basic diagnostic spells. While she did so, Ron mentioned that his mum and family were still quite upset when they had all left the group. Harry apologized for taking Ron away while they were mourning for Fred, and Hermione suggested he go back and explain that Harry simply needed rest.

Less than a minute passed after Ron left before Harry mumbled, “I’m fine,” and took Hermione’s hand to lead her up to Gryffindor Tower, stopping only briefly to summon Kreacher and request some food. Harry continued in silence and surprised Hermione by walking straight through the Common Room and up the stairs, only dropping her hand when they arrived at the side of his old four-poster bed. Hermione could only conclude that he was much more exhausted than even she thought.

Kreacher arrived a moment later with an enormous platter piled high with sandwiches. Harry thanked him and noted that after Kreacher’s heroism leading the house-elves in battle, he deserved freedom. Before Kreacher could object, Harry went on to say he knew it would insult Kreacher, so he wanted him to remain at Grimmauld Place, as long as the house-elf agreed to take some sort of salary and an occasional day off.

Kreacher began to throw a fit, so Harry threatened him with clothes and told him they’d finish discussing the matter later. Sensing Harry’s exhaustion and mood, Kreacher grumbled but expressed gratitude for what Harry had done that day and finally agreed to talk later, before leaving Harry and Hermione alone. It was only then that Harry finally spoke to Hermione again, asking if she thought Dobby would approve, to which she nodded.

The two of them settled on Harry’s bed and began to eat, over Hermione’s half-hearted objection about the crumbs that would end up in his bedding. Harry merely muttered something about magical cleanup as he stuffed his face with a second sandwich. Hermione soon realized just how ravenous she was too—neither of them had eaten for at least a day—and before long the two of them had managed to consume over half the tray of sandwiches together.

While they ate, they reminisced a bit about feeling hungry out in the wilderness, and he joked that it would have been much more convenient to be able to summon a tray of sandwiches. Harry had seemed almost normal, though extremely tired, until that point. But after he finished a final bite, he became very quiet again. Hermione took the tray from between them and sat next to him, taking his hand in hers.

She didn’t quite know what to say. Part of her considered just putting him to bed and letting him rest, but he seemed unusually pensive. She always had this intuitive sense about Harry’s moods, and something was very, very wrong. Eventually, she asked, “Do you want to talk more about… what happened?”

No,” he replied laconically.

They sat there for at least a minute in silence, before he closed his eyes and squeezed Hermione’s hand more tightly. “They set me up to die,” he finally said. “I was supposed to die. That was the plan. And I was ready. But they shouldn’t have had to… no one else...”

Hermione had been shocked at Godric’s Hollow when she saw a few tears slip down Harry’s cheeks for the first time. But nothing could prepare her for the aftermath of the battle as tears streamed freely down his face while he heaved breaths of air in and out trying to calm himself. Then he completely lost control as the whispered names of the dead came between gasps of air, “Fred… Lupin… Tonks… so many… ”

Hermione let go of his hand and wrapped her arms around him, drawing him into a close embrace as his body convulsed and shuddered. He began just murmuring into her shoulder, rocking and repeating, “I was supposed to die… I was supposed to die… I was supposed to die...”

She didn’t know what to do. She thought of trying to get help, but concluded that it might only agitate him more. And who could help? Who could possibly understand? It had been too much for him, Hermione thought. Too much for anyone. This wasn’t mere survivor’s guilt. He had literally been tasked to execute a suicide pact by the person he had once most trusted. And Harry had conditioned himself to make this offering—to die willingly—except now he was still alive.

You came back to me, Harry,” she whispered. “You’re supposed to be here.” At her words, the sobbing came again into her shoulder, as he held onto her as if his very life and sanity depended on it.

She managed to pull out her wand and use it to close Harry’s bed curtains, as well as to cast a silencing spell for his privacy. Anyone else showing up at this moment would undoubtedly make things worse. After that, she moved farther onto his bed and lay back on his pillow, pulling him down with her. He didn’t fight her, and curled up into a fetal position with his head on her stomach and his legs pressed up against hers.

Hermione fought back tears herself, seeing him in such a state. “I’m here,” she said quietly, as she stroked his hair. It’s about all she could do, and he did respond by clutching her a bit more tightly with his arm around her near her waist.

They lay together for a long time and both fell asleep, though Hermione soon awoke with a start. The light peeking through Harry’s curtains told her that not much time had passed, and she realized she should go check on Ron and everyone else. Although she didn’t want to leave Harry alone, everyone might be worried about why they both disappeared.

She carefully disengaged herself from Harry and succeeded in putting a pillow under his head while only causing him to stir slightly. She then pulled an extra blanket from the foot of the bed over him. But as she emerged from the bedcurtains, she was surprised to see a redhead sitting on Ron’s bed.

It was not the one she might have expected.

So... are you two together now?” Ginny asked, with a distinctly unfriendly tone.

What? No, of course not,” Hermione replied, confused and still a little muddled after her brief slumber. It took her a moment to even process the meaning behind her words. “Why would you—”

Don’t play dumb. It doesn’t suit you, Hermione.” Ginny stood and began to pace about. “You were in his bed. And if I’m not mistaken, there’s a silencing charm around it.”

He’s asleep.” Hermione merely shook her head, trying not to roll her eyes at what she considered to be a very odd discussion to be having at this point in time, considering the state Harry was in. “I think you and Harry should talk about things later.”

Ginny stopped pacing and looked straight at her. “I think you and I need to have this conversation now.”

Hermione sighed. “I gave him privacy, because, well… he was quite upset.” She paused before adding, “Crying, actually.”

Harry doesn’t cry,” Ginny said immediately, almost reflexively. “No one’s ever seen him cry. He never… that is...” Her voice trailed off, as she seemed to ponder this new fact.

Hermione looked down at her feet, not sure if Harry would want to share their private moments. But this was Ginny; she deserved to know. “He’s been through a lot in the past year,” Hermione said. “Sometimes, he—”

Ginny walked toward her now, cutting her off. “This isn’t the first time?” Hermione shook her head. “But Harry hates crying. He couldn’t stand when Cho did it. I know that; you told me that.” She paused, before adding quietly, “I tried never to...”

Hermione reached out for Ginny’s arm, but she took a step back. “I don’t understand,” Ginny said, as her eyes narrowed again. “Why you? Why were you in bed with him?”

I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “Harry brought me here, and Kreacher brought some food.” She gestured toward the half-full platter beside the bed. “He was tired; we both were tired. And, he just… broke down.” Ginny was still staring at her expectantly, seeming to want a better explanation. “Look,” Hermione continued, “Harry and I have been through a lot. Things were pretty intense for the past several months, and we learned to depend on each other, trust each other.” She didn’t try to explain further; she didn’t know if she could. “I’m sure you can talk with him when he wakes up, and—”

He wanted you,” Ginny said simply, glancing away. “It’s always you…” She shook her head, taking a deep breath. “He didn’t even stop to see me today—he just went away with you… and Ron.”

It had been chaos after the battle. Harry didn’t deal well with emotions, and everyone there was emotional. Hermione knew precisely why he had fled, but couldn’t quite explain that now. “I’m sure he wanted to. I’m certain he’d have found you later.” Hermione hesitantly approached her and put her hand on Ginny’s shoulder. This time Ginny didn’t pull away, but merely swallowed slowly. “He’s not himself now. But he loves you,” Hermione said quietly. “I know he does. I know he missed you.”

Ginny’s head shook as she dismissively replied, “He never loved me.”

He might not have said the words—”

He didn’t love me… not like...” The words seem to catch in her throat as she hesitated. “Maybe you should just stay here with him.”

Hermione dropped her hand and looked to make her way down the stairs from the boys’ dormitory. “I would, and I will, but… well, I need to find Ron. Check on him.”

Ron’s fine,” Ginny said simply, adding, “as much as any of us are.”

Hermione turned back to Ginny with a bit of surprise at her reaction. “Oh, you don’t know. I thought he would have said… but maybe with everything that’s happened...” She paused and took a breath. “Anyhow, Ron and I… well, yesterday, we kissed for the first time.”

WHAT!?” Ginny suddenly stared back at Hermione with a look of utter bafflement. “Wait—you and Ron are finally together?” Understanding appeared to dawn on her face. “That’s why he had that odd grin a little while ago. It seemed so out of place today. When? How?”

Well… he showed some maturity at last—he made some comment about saving house-elves, and, I don’t know… everything was a bit crazy at that point, and I kissed him.”

You did—that is, you kissed him… in the middle of a battle, because he cared about… house-elves?”

Hermione all of a sudden felt oddly defensive. “I don’t know, Ginny. It just happened. We’ve been dancing around it for what seems like years now.”

“… And you celebrated after this first kiss by… disappearing with Harry… and taking a nap in bed with him.” Ginny now bore a look of disbelief.

This time Hermione did roll her eyes. “Harry needed me. I told you that. And he doesn’t have a family to turn to, so yes, I was here for him.”

And it didn’t occur to you to—I don’t know—come get me, or Ron, or anyone else to help take care of him?” Ginny asked this while nodding slowly. She blinked a couple times, as something new seemed to occur to her. “Hermione, I am sorry if I was mean earlier. I get why you’re here, and I am truly glad Harry has you. But,” she paused, “I’m not sure you realize why you’re here.” Hermione looked at her quizzically for a few moments, as Ginny sighed and looked away. “You should go find Ron. I won’t tell him about this.”

What do you mean you won’t tell him? Why? What do you—”

You shouldn’t tell him, either,” Ginny said quickly. “Just tell him you helped Harry get to bed so he could rest, and you lost track of time… which is true.”

Hermione puzzled over her words a bit, while she glanced back to Harry’s bed. “You’ll stay here with him?”

A small smile broke out on Ginny’s face for the first time that day. “Yes, of course I will. Don’t worry—I’ll be here for him. You’re not the only one who can play nurse to an ailing war hero.”

He was pretty shaken up before, Ginny. This isn’t normal—he experienced a pretty severe trauma, and… things aren’t right. He shouldn’t be left alone. And I think he should be checked out by Madam Pomfrey when he wakes up.” Ginny nodded, and Hermione turned to leave.

Hermione,” Ginny called just as Hermione exited to descend the stairs; she halted and turned back. “It’s just… you once told me that I needed to be myself, to go out with other people, and to figure out what I truly wanted.” Hermione simply looked at her, nodding slightly. “It was very good advice, but I think you should remember it yourself.”

I don’t understand...” Hermione's brain was still slow due to her fatigue, but she felt like Ginny was speaking in riddles now.

I’m glad for you and Ron,” Ginny said. “Truly. And part of him has been infatuated with you for years. Just... don’t hurt him.”

I would never—”

No, of course not.” Ginny shook her head. “Nevermind. I’m sure you’ll sort it out sooner or later.” As Hermione left the room, she thought she heard Ginny whisper to herself, “He will too.”


Back in the present, Harry stirred and wrapped his arm more closely around Hermione, drawing her from her memories.

Now, a few months later, she understood Harry so much more deeply. She knew many of his fears and nightmares. She recognized that he never cried because he had been threatened and occasionally beaten as a small child when he made too much noise. He had also been told crying was a sign of weakness, something to be ashamed of. And she saw the toll that the trauma from war continued to have on him. It all made so much more sense, and she was grateful that he had finally found the strength to open up to her.

When Hermione had returned from Australia, she discovered that Ginny and Harry had not reunited as she expected. Harry never spoke more of it. Ginny had watched over Harry in her absence, and they continued to be on friendly terms. But Hermione always assumed her encounter Ginny that day had some impact on what happened, even if she thought Ginny’s suspicions had been baseless, if not outright preposterous.

Yet it was only now that Ginny’s parting words lingered with her. At the time, she assumed Ginny was talking about her and Ron working things out together. But what had she actually been trying to say? That Hermione was in love with Harry and needed to figure that out? Maybe even that Harry chose her? Was Ginny as insecure as Ron? And why did everyone make these assumptions? Over the years, dozens of people at Hogwarts had treated Harry and Hermione as if they were a couple. They had both always shrugged these rumors off as ridiculous.

And now, she was lying here, cuddled up to Harry, and even she herself didn’t know if they weren’t, well… “dating.” Was that what this weekend was: some sort of awkward overture from Harry? He had worked so hard, though his aim was unclear to her. She certainly could testify to how clueless he had previously been when it came to women.

Hermione didn’t want to threaten this moment, but his behavior the previous day had raised questions. She needed to know more. Gathering courage, she broke the silence and asked, “Harry, why did you really bring me out here?”

He heaved out a long breath, and she could again feel his heartbeat quicken under her touch. Finally, he said in a low voice, “I brought you here to tell you that I was sorry.”

That wasn’t at all what she expected to hear. But she thought back to his kisses on her arm and his earlier apology. She knew from the moment she saw him after Malfoy Manor that he would never forgive himself. When she had heard he was out there for hours digging Dobby’s grave, she knew he couldn’t face her yet, and that first look in his eye before he glanced away had said it all. But there was nothing she could say then or now; she knew how she had felt when she had accidentally broken his wand at Bathilda Bagshot’s house, how he too had tried so hard to absolve her. His wand had finally been healed; there were things inside of her that might never heal, though.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t—”

“No, not that,” he interrupted. “I mean, I’m so sorry for that, too. I wish I could have done so many things differently. But… when we were alone in the wilderness last year, out here… I behaved abominably.”

Now Hermione was completely confused. “What do you mean? You—“

He stroked her arm gently, distracting her as she involuntarily inhaled sharply again. How can a simple touch from him keep doing this to me?

“When Ron left last year,” he continued, again oblivious to the effect his caresses were having, “I just sort of shut down. Everything seemed to be going wrong, and it felt like it was just the two of us left to defend the entire world. I knew how upset you were that day, and I’m truly sorry I couldn’t find a way out of my own head.”

“I couldn’t, either, Harry.” After a moment, she chuckled. “As I recall, you did toss me a blanket.”

He merely kept stroking her arm, causing her to squirm a bit as pleasant sensations rippled throughout her body. “More like threw it at you. You didn’t deserve that. You… well, it’s hard to explain. There was part of me who knew that you wouldn’t leave me, but then when you let Ron go out by himself, where he could have...” Harry swallowed. Hermione knew full well what he meant. Ron had gone off with no supplies, no protections. She had accepted the moment Ron disapparated that she would likely never see him alive again, and she knew Harry likely felt the same way.

“I just realized it might be only the two of us,” he continued. “And after that first night, as I thought about it more, I couldn’t quite believe that you had stayed. I know how you and Ron felt about each other, but you chose to stay with me. I started thinking back to the few people in my life who had taken risks for me, but none like you have. You abandoned everything—your friends, your parents, your other best friend and boyfriend. Just for me.”

He paused for a long time, and Hermione began to say, “Of course, I had to. You needed—”

He interrupted, resuming his previous thought. “I didn’t know how respond to that. Friends don’t do that for each other. Even best friends don’t rewrite their parents’ memories and abandon their entire world for each other.”

“Harry—”

She felt his hand grasp her arm tightly, as he continued. “I need to say this. You wanted to know.” She nodded into his shoulder, stilling herself. “Well, you know now that I grew up without lo—” the word caught in his throat. “...without anyone caring about me. And for you to make that sort of sacrifice—I just didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t comprehend what it could mean. All of those thoughts threatened to bubble up, and I just stuffed them back down again so we could be miserable together.” He paused, and this time Hermione knew to stay quiet. She did want to know, and she realized how hard it was for him to say all of this. “Almost every night, I thought of coming to you. I heard you crying, and I did nothing, because… I was angry… and confused. Afraid of what this all meant, of what might happen, of betraying Ron, of betraying Ginny… I kept seeing Ron’s face, so angry, accusing us of shutting him out.”

She listened in silence, realizing how much the two of them had shared in their feelings back then, even though they never spoke of it. It had been a tacit understanding at the time, and she had tried to hide her crying, knowing how much it pained him to hear. Yet of course he did hear it, and she tried to tamp down the resentment that started to rise in her as she realized they both had suffered alone because of Ron, because of his immature jealousy.

Harry was still talking, though. “I just found it easier to think of other things. I spent some nights poring over the Marauders’ Map looking for Ginny’s name, just for a sign that someone else I cared about was still alive in this world. Instead, I should have been caring for someone who was sitting right beside me...”

His voice trailed off, as he began to gently stroke her arm again. She wasn’t sure now what he was leaving unsaid. What was he saying? In her nervousness, she needed to fill the silence. With trepidation, she said softly, “Harry, we both felt that way. We both wanted to be there for each other, but—”

As if he hadn’t even stopped talking before, he picked up again, obviously wanting to get all of this out. “Then we started to work together again. We went to Godric’s Hollow, and we found my par—“ his voice cracked again. “That night, I realized I couldn’t hold it in anymore. And you were there for me, as you have always been, ever since I met you. And after all of those horrible weeks we spent like that, I wanted to bring you out here to show you what I couldn’t bring myself to do back then, to let you know how much it meant that you always stayed with me.”

As he finished the last sentence, he pulled his arms together around her and held her tightly for several seconds. Then, just as quickly, he let her go—his one hand falling away and the other remaining only loosely under her and around her back.

“I would never have left you,” she said softly. “I couldn’t.”

“I know,” he replied, his voice barely a whisper.

Hermione’s mind began to drift as she fantasized about what it could have been like. All those weeks alone together—could they have held each other like this every night? She had never felt so safe and warm and loved in her life as she did right now.

He was quiet for a long time. She started to wonder why, of all the places they had hidden in the wilderness, he had chosen this location. This was the spot where she had brought him as a refuge, after he had become despondent over his wand and the revelations of Dumbledore, as everything began to fall apart after that tender moment they had shared on Christmas Eve. When they had arrived here, it was perhaps the lowest point for her during their time alone together, when things seemed so desperate.

As if he had read her mind, Harry began to speak again. “That’s why I brought you to this place, in the Forest of Dean. Do you remember that morning, when I woke up, and we sat outside by the river? And you suggested that we should just stay here together.” He swallowed. “Grow old together.”

Hermione had forgotten that moment, but she now recalled that feeling of utter despair, as if the war were truly hopeless. Harry was all that was left in her world, and she had wished that they could just escape together and never have worries again. For weeks, she had felt like he had—that it was and would only be the two of them, and there was part of her that had idle fantasies about living her life together with Harry. That was the one time when she had let it slip out.

His arm wrapped up around her closely once more, as his hand idly began to trace along her arm again. “I never thought of growing old, Hermione. It’s funny to say that, but I never expected to. There was some part of me that might fantasize about a career, and then I’d think of Voldemort and just assume I’d be dead before I ever had a chance. But I remember sitting outside here in the snow, and for the first time thinking what it might be like. I’d never thought about living a full life, growing old.”

She sighed and pulled herself closer to his side again, saddened to think that he felt this way for years. He went on, “I never got close to anyone, partly because I didn’t want them to get hurt, too. If I died… well, I just couldn’t let anyone else suffer. But that day, with you, I allowed myself to consider it just for a few moments. I thought of leaving the war and—I don’t know—building a cabin here in the woods, making our tent into a permanent place to live. The two of us would just spend our days fishing and exploring, and our nights sitting together by the fire, you curled up with some book.”

For Hermione, the fantasies never quite went that far. As Harry’s image came to life in her mind, she pictured a film she once saw as a small child with her mum. She couldn’t remember the title, but it had been about an English professor and his wife played by Katharine Hepburn coming out to a cabin in the wilderness every summer for decades. Though she couldn’t remember much about the film or the plot, the beauty of nature in there had inspired her, and the idea of a magical home out in the wilderness seemed wonderful.

And it was at that moment that Hermione realized something profound about herself and about why she needed Harry so desperately. Being with Harry felt like home. She hadn’t felt at home with her parents since perhaps her second year at Hogwarts, and while she loved her time at the Weasleys, their boisterous household just never felt like it suited her either. But when Hermione would see Harry after a long summer and run into his arms, to hold him close, it felt… like where she needed to be, like her world suddenly was at peace again. She almost laughed to herself at how ridiculous and overly romantic it sounded even in her mind. But taking care of Harry and being at his side was more than some mission—it was where she belonged.

Of course she wanted to grow old with him; it was simply absurd to imagine her life without him.

But Harry’s voice pulled her back from her reverie: “There was no one else left for me in the world, except you. All the other people who had cared for me—my parents, Sirius, Dumbledore—were dead. And the fact that you’d want to stay with me, even grow old with…”

Hermione pulled her arm tighter around his chest, as silence fell between them. Suddenly it all made sense, why Harry had come inside that day last winter with her, abandoning his watch, and held her for hours as they sat around her bluebell flames while she tended his wounds. It explained why they had finally given into the closeness both of them so desperately wanted, no… needed.

“And then Ron showed up,” Harry said briskly, as if breaking some spell and watching a beautiful vision dissipate into the mist. “And everything went back to the way it was. Those momentary thoughts just made me more determined to fight, to live, to… see you live everyday. And even if I died, you couldn’t. Ron and you—I vowed you’d have a peaceful life and grow old with...” His voice drifted off, and the two of them lay in perfect stillness for a long time, listening to the now gentle trickling of rain down outside, interrupted by the occasional whistle of the wind as it shook the fly of their tent.

Hermione had always known Harry cared for her, but he had never vocalized anything like this aloud. She was sure the darkness gave him a place to hide; she could never imagine him speaking like this to her face. And she needed to show him how much she cared as well, but struggled to find a way: they were already huddled so close. Still, she leaned her head up and moved to kiss his cheek, but at that moment—perhaps to say something else to her in the utter gloom and blackness that surrounded them—he had chanced to tilt his own head toward hers.

Her lips landed half on his cheek and half on his mouth. The unexpected softness registered in an instant, and she felt him immediately stop breathing and tense up. Hermione pulled back from him, moving her leg off of his. Oh god, she thought. She hadn’t meant to, and he obviously didn’t respond. Had she read everything he had done wrong? Thinking back, she realized he seemed to hesitate at almost every step that brought them closer during the past day.

The physical contact with him for hours that night had made her feel almost drugged. Her mind started spinning about her scant knowledge of neurochemistry—endorphins and oxytocin, which were released by bonding and cuddling together. Had she had allowed them to cloud her judgment, to push Harry into this? Was he just holding her like this because it was her birthday, because he felt guilty about those weeks of neglect last year, because he simply wanted her to know he cared? He was, as always, the dutiful best friend. The one she could never live without.

And now, she had accidentally half-kissed him?

“Harry,” she stammered, “I didn’t mean to… I’m sor—“

“Let’s… let’s just go back to sleep.” He turned slightly, not pulling away from her completely, but clearly disengaging from their earlier physical connection.

Oh god, oh god, oh god. If she could just see his face, to know what he was thinking in the darkness. She could ask him… But what else was there to say? She had misread him, mistaken their closeness tonight for something else. It was as simple as that. Harry cared about—even loved—her deeply. She understood that now. Just not that kind of love.

She turned again on her side away from him, profoundly embarrassed, and tried desperately not to make any noise and to lie still, even as her eyes grew watery and her insides began to heave. She managed to keep it under control for a couple minutes as her mind raced. It would be enough, she tried to say to herself. Of course it would be enough. Harry held her earlier that night like he did because he loved her, because they were best friends. Maybe they could keep being—what? Best friends who cuddle in bed together sometimes? Was that something people could do? They had been there for each other in every other way, so why not this? Her mind drifted back to what it had felt like to be wrapped up in his arms, his whole body around her. He didn’t take much prodding… she was sure he liked the intimacy and this new physical closeness too.

But her fantasy was cut short as she realized it would eventually have to end. Half of the witches in Britain were happy to throw themselves at Harry. Sooner or later, he’d find someone—someone undoubtedly much more beautiful than she was, more athletic and suited to his interests. And, like Ginny, that person would not understand Hermione’s connection with Harry. The cuddling would cease.

As that thought passed through her mind, the tears threatened to come again, and she couldn’t help making a quiet sniffle, causing Harry to turn a bit toward her again and put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m here,” he said simply.

Those were the same words she said to him months ago, on the day he had unexpectedly come back to life. Maybe he thought she was upset again about Malfoy Manor. Maybe he actually understood what she was really thinking about right now. She didn’t know, and as much as she wanted to shriek aloud from her emotional torment—or yell out her love for him and demand answers from him—she held it all inside, afraid of what his response would be. She even briefly thought about breaking their no-magic pact, casting a Lumos to see his face, or even apparating them somewhere where they could talk about this more clearly. But it would be so, so much worse to hear him outright reject her, and she couldn’t handle that right now. What more was there to say, really?

Another sniffle escaped, as she took a deep breath. Harry’s hand, which hadn’t left her shoulder, rubbed gently as he said, “Hey… I’m here. Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” she managed to get out, trying to breath normally again. She desperately wanted to say more to him, but now wasn’t the time.

And then Harry turned toward her again, wrapping his arm over her while keeping his hand on her shoulder. He didn’t come as close as he had been earlier, but he did settle in behind her again, his chest partly against her back, keeping his arm around her.

It would be enough, Hermione thought to herself again. A mere day or two ago, she would have leapt for joy to have this sort of affection from Harry, to know how much he cared. A few more breaths came in ragged bursts until she forced herself to calm again. She realized many people looked their entire lives for a friendship like she had with Harry. It was more than enough.

She reached up with her right hand and clasped Harry’s hand on her shoulder. He surprised her by threading his fingers through hers again. With that little gesture—a gesture that the two of them often had repeated in so many forms over the years—she realized that they would probably be fine. They had fought Voldemort together; surely their friendship could survive one accidental kiss. And maybe someday they wouldn’t be able to snuggle together like this—she pondered, as she held his hand close, while feeling fatigue settle in again—but that day wasn’t tonight. Tonight, he had chosen to be with her, and she was still held in his arms. And surely, right now, that was all that mattered.

 

Chapter Text

Hermione stirred as a thin ray of sun struck her face. She attempted to ignore the brightness permeating through her eyelids, but the morning light forced them open. Glancing about the tent, memories of the previous night slowly surfaced, and she jerked around to see that Harry was no longer next to her. Scrunching her eyes closed again, she let out a long sigh. She had no idea what Harry’s reaction would be this morning, and she was dreading the fallout. At the best of times, he could barely voice anything about feelings. And when he was finally opening up to her last night, she messed everything up. Their friendship had weathered many things, but she felt like she had crossed a line, even if accidental. She guessed he—in typical Harry Potter avoidance style—would probably just ignore it and pretend as though nothing had happened. And after all the wonderful things that happened yesterday, she didn’t know if she wanted to risk ruining anything further.

She heard some clunking noises outside, metal banging against metal. And then her eyes opened wide again as a breeze wafted a glorious scent through the tent. It was the smell of frying bacon. Harry had clearly been awake for a while. A couple of the tent windows had been unzipped a bit to let in some fresh, dry air, along with the sunbeam that had roused her. The water was gone. And he somehow had managed to reorganize a few of their wet items in the tent without disturbing her. Most of her clothes had been emptied from her bag, presumably so Harry could take them outside to dry out in the morning sun. Looking closer, she saw some of her spare underthings peeking out. After the way she and Harry spent last night, she didn’t know why this embarrassed her, but he clearly had tried not to rummage through her clothes, just focusing on those elements that had been caught up in the rain during their tent flood last night.

Raising her arms above her head, she gave into the joys of a morning stretch, finally coming to full consciousness. She turned over and spent a couple minutes snuggling up in the space she knew Harry had recently occupied. It no longer carried his warmth, but his familiar scent lingered on the pillow. Part of her wished he was still there, so they could wake up together and talk. Or not. Maybe he wouldn’t want to talk about it, but she felt like it would be somehow easier to deal with this if she could just put her arms around him. She knew he’d never deny her that.

As she lay there, her eyes chanced on the wristwatch hanging in a pouch on the tent wall, where she had placed it while putting on her pajamas last night. Thankfully it must have stayed dry from the rain. She crawled over to retrieve it and quickly returned to the warmth of her bedding before hooking the clasp on her wrist. It was just after eight o’clock, later than she’d usually sleep. Then again, she had spent half of the night awake and still felt a bit exhausted. Her mind was apparently seeking distraction, and she found herself entranced with the many gears inside the skeleton clock design as they continued in their rhythmic patterns.

For a time as a small girl, Hermione had been fascinated by clocks. She had happened upon her grandfather’s pocketwatch one day among her dad’s cabinets, and her father taught her how to use it: how to wind the crown just enough, not too tightly. For several months she carried it everywhere, carefully maintaining and caring for it each day. At the beginning, it kept passable time for a few hours, but it needed to be serviced and finally appeared to stop altogether. Her father never got around to taking it to a repair shop, and Hermione’s interests gradually moved on to other things.

It was the memories from this temporary time obsession that once drew Hermione’s attention to the notion of Time-Turners when she happened upon a passing reference in a rare library tome, which led her to ask Professor McGonagall about the possibility of using one during her third year. She had been so excited to have one. But looking back, it seemed absurd to Hermione that the Ministry would give such a powerful item to a mere student, no matter how trustworthy. She could think of so many better purposes for them today, had they not been all rendered useless a couple years back. How many times could they have made use of such a device in the past year—to save people, to save themselves? But right now, she merely wished she could turn back time for a few hours.

Still, as Hermione contemplated the mesmerizing ticking of the escapement, she considered what a lovely gift Harry had found for her. She realized after her initial winding that it was an automatic mechanical watch which would keep going merely from the motion of her wrist. Although it was rather plain in some ways—with a simple leather strap that seemed appropriate for the outdoors—inside was an amazing piece of technology, one that had caused her to think of Harry every time she looked at it over the past week. She knew most girls would have preferred a bracelet or necklace or some other item of jewelry, but to her, the watch was a thing of true beauty. It was again proof that he must have cared enough to remember some horological sermonizing she probably had engaged in over the years.

She hadn’t paid any attention to the time at all yesterday, lost in the meandering blissful adventure they had had. As the seconds relentlessly moved forward, though, she realized that their non-magical day would be over in a mere hour. Yes, the deadline was mostly symbolic. But part of her felt like she was in a bizarre reversal of a Cinderella tale, dearly wishing to remain in this artificial non-magical world with Harry for just a little while longer before the pumpkin turned back into a magical carriage that would force her return to Hogwarts, along with the loneliness she had been feeling for weeks.

She buried her face in the pillow, breathing in the memories of last night again—being held in Harry’s arms. Why wasn’t he still here with her? Why had he robbed her of the joy of waking up next to him? If he were just here, she knew they could lie here together for a while and hold each other until her anxieties were back under control.

Another nagging part of her brain argued that perhaps that’s why he left the tent. Maybe that line they crossed was really too much for him. A wave of panic suddenly went through her as she sat up—had she ruined everything? Her remaining friendship with Ron had certainly become quite strained lately, but she simply couldn’t contemplate that happening with Harry. She could not deal with things right now without him. He was about the only bit of happiness for her in this post-war malaise. Whatever had been going on between them recently, she still desperately needed her best friend.

Her stomach—perhaps reflecting her disquiet—let out a growl, and Hermione was again distracted by the wonderful smells and sounds of cooking coming from outside. No, she reasoned, if Harry were truly upset with her, he’d have gone off for a walk or done some other silly thing by himself. That was his way. Whatever the fallout from last night would be, he was still here, cooking breakfast. And she was now quite eager to see what lovely food he had likely brought along.

She reached over to pull her bag and backpack closer to retrieve a bra. As she clasped it on, her eye caught upon that beautiful little compact mirror Harry had given her the previous day. Pulling it out and examining herself in it, she suddenly felt anxious in a way that she had never felt around Harry before. She took out her brush and tried to make some sense out of her unruly hair, wanting to at least look presentable as she gathered it into a loose ponytail. Closing the mirror, she stared at it for a moment, wondering if there was a meaning behind the design, which also seemed to resemble an antique clock, not unlike the gears that were ticking in the new wristwatch she wore.

But another breeze brought the odor of bacon again, and she thought she heard some eggs crack. Flipping the sleeping bag off her, she grabbed the pajama bottoms that were still hanging from the tent roof. They were slightly damp, but dry enough to wear. She started to pull them on, but found that the dampness was enough to get them stuck around her thighs, and there wasn’t enough room to stand up in the tent. She finally ended up rolling onto her front in a crouched position to try to get them up all the way. Distracted by her efforts, she failed to hear Harry’s footsteps as he approached the tent and started to unzip the door.

“OH!” he cried. “Oh god... I’m sorry. Sorry.”

She heard the zipper go quickly back down as she called out in reply, “It’s okay, Harry. I was just getting dressed.” Hearing nothing in response other than the shuffling of his feet, she added quickly, “As you know, it’s a bit difficult in this small space.”

“Sorry. Sorry.” He just kept muttering the same word. “I... well, breakfast is almost ready, so I was coming to get you up. I’m... sorry.”

“Be right there. Thanks!” said Hermione as she collapsed forward onto her stomach, now realizing exactly what Harry must have just witnessed. Last night she had been brazen enough to push her bum back toward him as they snuggled together, and now he would have just seen most of her bare backside with her on all-fours, swaying back and forth as she was struggling with her pajamas. The knickers she was wearing weren’t incredibly revealing, but they weren’t overly conservative either. She could only imagine the view Harry got. It was no part of her body Harry hadn’t seen before in at least some other context—they had lived in a tent together for months—but this was just the newest highlight within the comedy of errors their camping trip had become.

Despite her embarrassment, she found herself laughing into the blankets on the tent floor. The only comparison that kept coming to her was some nature documentary she had watched as a child, where some female primates displayed “sexual swelling” and went around pointing their bums at males when they were fertile. It was absurd, of course, and while she had been giving in to her attraction to Harry more in the past day, none of this was deliberate. But the ridiculous image lingered in her mind while she finally finished dressing with the only dry clothes she had. In a couple minutes, she pulled on a pair of mercifully dry slippers and emerged from the tent, the tartan blanket draped over her pajamas to keep away the morning chill.

Harry was stooped on one knee in front of the fire, vigorously stirring and flipping things in an enormous skillet. She noticed that his clothes must have stayed dry on the other side of the tent during the night, so he was dressed as he had been when they set out yesterday. Though she was thankful that he was obviously warm and comfortable, part of her missed seeing the cute image of him with his bare legs mulling about the previous evening in the firelight.

As she approached the fire, Hermione gasped. “Sorry again,” Harry murmured. “Just a bit busy at the moment.” He was just beginning to load up some plates, which already had grilled toast waiting on them. He added bacon and sausage, then used a spatula to retrieve the eggs and fried tomatoes from the cast-iron pan.

Hermione was in awe. “Harry! What have you done? How many people are we expecting to join us for breakfast?”

He started to hand her a plate that was weighed down by the sheer quantity of food. “Full breakfast, at your service,” he said with a chipper tone. “Oh!” he exclaimed, turning back around, “Can’t forget...” He opened a small pot hanging from the tripod and spooned out some baked beans in the center of the plate before finally handing it to Hermione. “Sit down and eat while it’s hot.” He was still bustling about, preparing his own plate.

She was a bit stunned, but responded to his frantic energy by obeying and settling in front of the fire, taking the utensils he handed her before he ran off to their supplies. She stared down at the enormous mound of food in front of her and just shook her head. Hermione now knew the stories of Harry’s childhood, when his family had forced him to be their own short-order breakfast cook. And while they were on the run last year, he had taken many turns cooking the often meager provisions they had. But she had never seen his skill in action like this, and over an open fire, no less. All of that anxiety she had gone through upon waking up began to dissipate: this was still her Harry, or at least the strangely overly attentive one who had given her the most wonderful day just yesterday.

Harry startled her from her brief musings as he came dashing from behind her again, grabbing the moka pot that was sitting on a small grate resting on stones near the edge of the fire. Her poured a cup of steaming liquid before turning and holding it out to her. “Coffee?” he asked, his eyes dancing about with a bit of nervous energy, seemingly contemplating if there was anything else he needed to do, or anything he might have forgotten.

“Umm... just... er... wow,” Hermione stammered. Realizing he was still holding the mug, she put her plate down next to her on the picnic blanket, juggled her utentils into her other hand, and took the coffee, finally answering, “Sure, thank you.”

“You’re not eating,” Harry said with an air of concern. “Is there something wrong with it?”

“No, of course not,” she quickly replied, glancing back at her plate and still shaking her head in awe. “It’s impolite to start eating before others, particularly when someone has gone to this amount of effort.”

“I guess that’s something the Dursleys never taught me,” he sighed.

She looked back up at him. “Please, Harry, sit down with me. This looks and smells wonderful. But I don’t want you to act like my servant.”

“It’s your birth—”

She interrupted him, “That was yesterday. Sit down!” The last two words came out unintentionally as a rather stern command.

He immediately seemed to lose his agitated energy. Pouring himself some coffee, he grabbed his plate and settled beside her, notably a bit farther away than usual.

Hermione finally took her fork and began to cut into her eggs with it, dipping her fried bread in the yolk and taking a bite. She closed her eyes. “Mmm. You’ve really outdone yourself here. Everything’s perfect and infused with that campfire smokiness.” She paused, watching the smoke rise and waft out into the trees toward the river, playing in the warm morning sun that was poking through the leaves. “You know, one of my happiest memories as a kid was coming out to a fire in the morning when my dad would be making a fry-up in a heavy skillet. He’d rarely cook at home, but I loved to sit and watch him.”

Harry was poking at his food, checking it over. “Yeah, he told me about that too.” He seemingly gave up and shoveled a forkful of beans into his mouth. “Well, I tried. I didn’t bring the puddings as I thought it might be a bit much, and I left out the mushrooms as I think we all ate a bit too many of those last year.” He took a bite of egg. “Cooking over a fire is incredibly difficult. I burned some of the bread while frying it. The eggs are unevenly cooked. There are charred blotches on the bacon, and the tomatoes... well, I just hope it’s something like your memories.”

Hermione had given into her hunger and had been eagerly trying everything on her plate, barely paying attention to his self-critique. But she stopped short at Harry’s last sentence, glancing over at him. “No, this is nothing like my memories,” she said in a deadpan tone with her mouth slightly full.

His face dropped as he let out a breath.

Hermione reached out and grabbed his arm, pushing him slightly in jest. “Don’t be silly. Harry, this is amazing! I think this may be literally the best breakfast anyone has ever cooked for me. I have no idea what my father told you about what he did...”

“Well... he said he made a traditional fry-up over the fire, with all the trimmings.” Harry paused to take a sip of coffee before continuing. “He said you liked it so much that you always came back begging for more tomatoes, which I personally always thought of as an afterthought to breakfast. But I made sure to have them.” He eyed the used pots and skillet. “I bent the rules a bit to bring in a heavy skillet and even a coffee pot, which seemed an odd choice of gear for a light camping trip. I just wanted to get this right. He sounded like he was so meticulous and did it with so much care.”

All the while Harry was talking, Hermione had been ravenously consuming the breakfast, occasionally letting out unintentional moans of delight. She paused her chewing to look at him through the corner of her eyes. “Is that what he told you?” Putting down her fork, she grabbed her mug of coffee while shaking her head. Then she started chuckling, before laughing outright.

“What? What’s funny?”

“I love my dad, but you don’t know him. He sometimes has, well...” she paused, chuckling again. “He can have a somewhat grandiose image of himself. I mean, he’s a great dentist. But anything he does outside the office is generally a disaster. One summer a few years back, he took it upon himself to ‘build a deck’ for the garden next to our side door. In the end, my mum ended up paying almost double the normal cost to get carpenters to remove what he did and repair all the damage before being able to start the new construction.”

Harry was staring at her in confusion. “When I saw him, he implied he built that deck himself. He showed me this big corner post and described all his work to put it in...”

Hermione guffawed. “The one on the left side? Yes, that’s the only piece the carpenters left. My dad apparently dug a hole so incredibly deep and poured so much cement around that post that the professionals said it was easier just to leave it where it was and build around it.”

Her laughter seemed to be infectious, as Harry joined in, apparently realizing he had completely misread Hermione’s father. “I can’t believe I was taken in. In retrospect, now I understand those strange looks your mum was giving me.” They continued eating for a while, before he threw a few more logs on the fire and finally asked, “So tell me, what was your dad’s camp breakfast actually like?”

She set down her utensils and shook her head. “About eighty percent of it was burned. He’d throw a few rashers in, burn them to a crisp, then fry a couple eggs until they were so hard and crispy you could stand them on end. Last, he’d toss in a couple slices of bread, which ended up black in the center and soggy with grease everywhere else. That was pretty much it. I have no idea where he got the notion that it was a full breakfast ‘with all the trimmings.’ Oh, and at some point he made tomatoes, which are next-to-impossible to burn. So yes, he was accurate in saying I requested more of them when he’d cook. It was about the only thing that was edible.”

She looked down at her plate, now nearly empty, except for a piece of toast that she now used to sop up every last bit of egg and grease and sauce on her plate. She couldn’t believe she ate all of that. All the hiking yesterday followed by her shivering during the night had left her more famished than she thought. Realizing Harry was staring at her as she was devouring the last delicious bits of food, she became self-conscious and felt the need to break the silence. “I mean, I ate it as a kid,” she added. “But honestly, looking back on it, it was pretty awful. I just liked the novelty of seeing my dad cook, and I loved sitting by the fire on a cool morning like this.”

Harry had obviously been as hungry as she, as his empty plate was already sitting on the blanket beside him. He now was absently nodding his head as he contemplated the fire, sipping his coffee. “I guess this turned out okay, then.”

She set down her plate, grabbed her coffee too, and moved closer, pulling the blanket around herself again as she tentatively leaned against him. “I already told you it was much more than okay,” she said. “I feel like I’m becoming a broken record of superlatives, but... I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done this weekend.” He remained somewhat stiff and stoic, not responding or putting his arm around her as she hoped. She chewed on her bottom lip a bit as they both stared into the fire for a few minutes. Hermione knew something wasn’t right, but she didn’t want to ruin this moment after he had done so much work to please her this morning. Nearly a minute passed before she sighed a bit and looked over at him again. “Are we okay, Harry?”

He took in a long breath and said, “Yes, of course we are.” He still didn’t look at her, but instead started to get up, grabbing his plate. “Would you like more coffee?”

“I really don’t want to put you to more trouble...”

“I’m going to make more for myself anyway. And I’ll start cleaning up the rest.” He bent down to grab her empty plate.

Hermione stood up too, following after him. “Please, Harry, let me help.” He halted for a moment and at first seemed like he might object, but seemed to realize it was pointless. Together, they gathered the remnants from their breakfast as Harry refilled the moka pot and set it near the side of the fire again. After helping for a bit, Hermione busied herself checking on some of the wet items Harry had hung up around camp while he finished cleaning the dishes. Neither spoke, and they eventually found themselves again seated by the fire, sipping fresh coffee.

In the silence, Hermione focused on nature around them: the chirping of birds, the gentle rush of water in the river that appeared a bit higher and more brown from the rain, the occasional stirring of a scampering creature in the underbrush. But as time went on, her doubts grew. Yesterday—was it really only yesterday?—she had felt such a novel sensation from Harry, as if their relationship was starting to shift. This morning, she didn’t know what to think. Harry had worked so diligently to make her the perfect situation to wake up to, but the only thing that was absent was him. His touch, his smile, his... anything.

The only possible explanation seemed to be that she had read him wrong. How foolish could she have been to think that Harry Potter, of all people, could fall for her? Glancing over at his face—the angles of his cheeks and jaw, darkened a bit by whiskers that reminded her of his rugged look last year while they were on the run and not always on a regular sleeping schedule—she realized the boy had become a man, a very attractive man, even with the crazed windswept hair and the cracked glasses. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply; she needed to stop looking at him like that.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” she finally said, with a note of resignation, slowly opening her eyes, afraid of his reaction.

Despite his taciturn attitude, his eyebrows sprung to life at that, scrunching down as his head turned toward her. “What on earth could you be sorry about?”

“Well...” Hermione stopped short. Is he really going to make me say all of this? “Last night, to be clear, I didn’t mean to... well... kiss you like that. I was trying to give you a peck on the cheek, as I always do. But...” She really didn’t know how to continue. The fire was starting to die in front of them, and she had this sudden irrational urge to throw herself into it, into the hot embers, and then to run down to the river and drown herself like a madwoman. Literally anything at that moment seemed preferable to this silence, and stony-faced Harry, who was still staring at her expectantly.

“Look,” she finally went on, “I think I misunderstood you. Everything was just so perfect yesterday, and I never thought I’d see this side of you, so... devoted to me.” She chewed her lip, knowing it had to be said. “But I’ve always known I’m not what you want, beyond our friendship. I’ve never been the popular girl, certainly not for my looks. I know you don’t see me... like that.”

Her last words seemed to cause him great agitation, as he looked away from her, heavily exhaling a few times, before his face fell and he covered it with his hands. Eventually, he spoke with his face still hidden in his fingers, “For as clever and logical as you are, I don’t know how you came to that conclusion. I think you’re beautiful… stunningly so.”

An involuntary cry escaped her throat. “Wha...?” She must have heard wrong. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Don’t joke with me now, Harry, I can’t take—”

Suddenly, the dam broke in Harry’s emotions and he jerked his body toward her. “I would never joke about that! I told you weeks ago!” he nearly shouted. He must have sensed her fear at his sudden reaction and immediately calmed, his features softening. For the first time that morning, he tenderly reached out to her, stroking a few fingers across her cheek. “I’d never joke about that or lie or do anything that would hurt you, Hermione. That’s why this is so hard.” He glanced down at the ground, dropping his hand and seeming to steel himself, before he looked into her eyes again with an odd uncomfortable expression, almost like he had been defeated. “Do you have any idea how difficult it was for me last night? To finally have the girl I’ve always wanted in my arms, to hold you so close, with those sweet soft noises you make in your sleep, and just to pretend it was no big deal?”

Hermione’s brain began to spin out of control. Those shining green eyes were still staring at her, and this was the last thing she was expecting, the last thing she could imagine. She was blinking frantically as she tried to process his words, but finally managed to repeat, her voice breaking, “The girl... you’ve always wanted?”

He turned away and looked back toward the fire. A wave of tension seemed to finally pass off of Harry as his shoulders sagged forward. “Well, I didn’t always know. We’ve been friends forever, and I’ve always wanted that. But I figured it out quite some time ago. It’s just... you and Ron, well, there was that thing between you. He was my best friend, and… you’re my best friend. I wanted the two of you to be happy together. I never wanted to get in the way.” His voice drifted off, as his head fell back into his hands.

Hermione was still in shock. Nothing made sense. “But last night,” she said hesitantly, “you… you pulled away.”

At that, he turned his head toward her briefly, utter confusion appearing to overtake him before he looked back to the fire while shaking his head. It seemed like he couldn’t look at her right now. “I… I don’t understand,” he muttered, almost to himself. “I mean, when I brought you here, after how our day went yesterday, there was part of me that thought maybe…” He paused. “But you said you didn’t want to—”

“I said I didn’t mean to,” she interrupted. She started to reach her hand out to touch his shoulder, but found herself stopping short. Her hand dropped back down, as she still couldn’t process what was going on. Did Harry really say that a minute ago? “It was an accident, but…” she paused, trying to find confidence to finally say what was in her heart. His head had fallen into his hands again, but he deserved the truth. “I wanted to,” she said. Her voice dropped to a low whisper as she looked back into the fire. “Merlin, how I wanted to...”

Neither of them moved for over a minute. Of all the scenarios that had played out in her mind, Hermione had never quite imagined this. What was supposed to happen now? Harry was silent and not looking at her; she found it disquieting that she had no idea what he was thinking. They had both admitted truths that they had both been hiding deep inside, but it all felt strange. Surreal, even.

A smoldering log broke apart and fell in the fire, creating an opening and bringing new breath to the flames. Hermione poked the fire with a stick to reorient the log and allow it to burn more efficiently. As another piece of wood was suddenly enveloped in heat, a loud crack sounded, startling them both. “Harry,” she said, “you still haven’t answered me. Several times in the past day, it almost seemed like you panicked when we were close. Did I do something… wrong?”

Harry was still hiding his face in his hands, shoulders hunched. Her question caused him to raise his head slightly for a moment to utter, “No. God no.” He spent several moments staring down, until eventually he added, “It’s just… well, I don’t want you to think I’m mental.”

After his wonderful mood yesterday, Hermione was worried about this level of anxiety that reappeared in him. “Please tell me…” she said, raising her hand to reach out toward him again.

In reply, Harry spoke very softly and with great hesitation, “Sometimes... he’s still inside my head.”

Her hand involuntarily pulled back, as a wave of panic swept through her. “Do you mean—Voldemort?” For the first time in many months, Hermione actually shuddered slightly saying his name. Over the years, she had drawn on Harry’s strength and defiance in saying it freely. But after the taboo had turned out to be real last year, after they had been captured—now her mind started running in circles immediately.

“It’s not really him,” he said, shaking his head a bit, as Hermione let out her breath again. “No, I’m sure he’s gone. But he was in my mind, and the Horcrux piece of him also messed with my mind while we were wearing the locket. It’s like some sort of weird echo from that sometimes bubbles up. It usually stops when I’m with you for some reason, but when I’m by myself...” He stopped for moment before adding, “Last winter, it made me feel alone, like no one cared for me. Like I was a terrible leader, like you were all going to abandon me.”

Hermione knew the effects of the Horcrux well; it had affected all of them. But why was he talking about this now? “I don’t understand,” she said. “You and I—”

He cut her off. “It saw into me, Hermione. That night, when you had to cut it off of me, it—it seems like it burrowed into my heart… and then it knew the one thing I had been hiding, the one thing he—Voldemort—couldn’t ever know…” His voice dropped to barely a whisper. “… How I felt about you. What I really wanted. But I had to protect you from him, so he couldn’t know. That’s why I kept trying to force those feelings away from my conscious mind, to maintain control.” Harry shut his eyes, appearing to try to ward off some horrible memory. “I never wanted him to go after you, to try to hurt me through you. But the Horcrux had been trying to drive us apart for months. And then… didn’t Ron ever tell you what we saw?”

“What you saw? What do you mean?”

Harry finally looked up at her. “When he destroyed it? What it said?”

She furrowed her brow and shook her head.

He turned back to the fire. “It showed a vision of the two of us rejecting him. Mostly you, or a vision of you, saying horrid things to Ron. I mean, it was like you, but also distorted and grotesque—red eyes, flaming hair.” Harry took a long pause, appearing to take time to choose his words carefully. “And it showed you and me embracing… kissing passionately, as you turned into… a sort of snake.”

Hermione’s mouth dropped open as her eyes dropped. This explained so much about Ron, so much about his insecurities and… but her brain quickly regrouped and wondered what long-lasting effect this had on the boy sitting next to her at this moment.

Harry continued, “I know none of that was real. But after Nagini’s attack, it made me think what I started to feel—what I had wanted with you—was wrong. That vision of us was perverse, mocking us… it wasn’t what I wanted… not like that. It took what I felt and corrupted it… turned it into evil.” Hermione’s heart began to sink. Seeming to sense that his words might hurt her, he quickly added, “I know it wasn’t real. I know that, and I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but last night, in the darkness… I couldn’t see you, only feel you wrapped around me, and… the only image I had to connect to that—well, that strange echo came back to my mind.”

He turned his head to look at her for a moment, his mouth open and seemingly looking for more words. But none came. His gaze drifted back to the red, smoldering embers, now threatening to go out. “The Horcrux knew we were getting so close,” he finally added. “And it wanted to drive me away from you. I’m sorry—”

“Harry, it affected me too,” she interrupted, letting out a deep sigh. As if their relationship hadn’t become confusing enough already, now she had to deal with the remnants of Voldemort knocking around inside Harry’s mind? “I mean, I didn’t see a vision, but wearing the locket made me feel alone too, like I was useless for not being able to help you.” She cleared her throat, forcing herself to go on. “Like I was a failure… and that I was stupid for not being able to sort out the clues. Like I should leave, because I was…” she paused, allowing herself to feel the memory again, as her eyes grew watery, “…insignificant to you.”

Those words caused him to turn quickly. “Hermione, you are not—”

She waved off his words, as she wiped her eyes, trying to make it appear like it upset her less. “You don’t need to say it; I know. I knew back then when I would take the locket off. But it preyed on all of us, tried to drive us apart.” Hearing Harry’s confession now, Hermione began to realize how much that tiny voice of the locket was perhaps still with her too. Perhaps returning to this place had even exaggerated it in her mind, made her feel an echo of all of those insecurities from last year as well. It had played on all of their natural feelings—Ron’s jealousy, Harry’s anxiety and feelings of isolation—and the thing had certainly seen deep into her heart too. It knew precisely how to manipulate each of them.

But they couldn’t let a stupid dead thing that was already a dead echo of another dead thing continue to affect their lives. As they fell into silence yet again, she glanced over to Harry, contemplating once again how the war had scarred them both. He was a cipher to her now, despite all their revelations. Last night, everything had been so natural in some ways. It all felt so intimate and wonderful. Now, she didn’t even know if he wanted her to touch him or lean into him as she always did. She never would have thought about such actions consciously before—she just did them. Sometimes in the past she almost felt like her heart would burst if she didn’t throw her arms around him. But now they were on new ground; she desperately didn’t want to mess things up.

Hermione wanted to ask a hundred questions, but she was afraid it would irritate him and cause him to shut down again. Instead, she cautiously shifted toward him, taking his hand, threading her fingers with his. “Where do we go from here?” she said softly.

He looked down at their enjoined hands, appearing to scrutinize them for quite some time. “I don’t know,” he said, dropping his gaze and briefly closing his eyes. “It’s just… I see what happened with Ron. The two of you barely talk to each other. He’s clearly unhappy, though he drinks and tries to chat up women most nights. He isn’t really like the friend I used to have, either. Since he left us alone last year, I think he feels like he can never quite make things right again with us. He always had some insecurities, but now it’s overwhelming. Between that and what happened with you, I don’t think the three of us will ever quite be the same. And as for you, how much persuasion did it take to pull you out of your funk the other week?” His eyes had risen to meet hers again.

“What does any of this have to do with—?”

He glanced away again, apparently not quite able to face her as his voice dropped lower. “Everything. Yesterday, for the first time, I actually allowed myself to think about us. I thought something might happen. Part of me even wanted it… but what happened with you and Ron can’t happen. I can’t let that happen between us.”

She squeezed his hand more tightly, causing him to take a breath and shut his eyes for a moment before he went on. “I’m not sure what I expected to happen when we came here together. I wanted to tell you everything, to say the things I started to say last night. I thought I wanted more, but I realized last night that I simply can’t screw this up.” He finally turned to her again. “I want us to have hundreds of days and months and years together like yesterday. I want to have my best friend. I can’t ever take a chance...” he paused, his eyes shining slightly, “... of losing you.”

At that, Hermione felt determination well up inside of her, as she looked straight at him. “Let’s get one thing clear: Harry James Potter, you’re stuck with me. I will never abandon you. No matter what happens. After everything we’ve been through, I’d have thought—”

Suddenly, he blinked and started chuckling, then laughing while shaking his head.

This was not the reaction she was expecting from him. “What?” she said.

He looked back at her with a legitimate grin, still shaking his head. “You’re amazing. And you’re right of course. You’re always right.”

The unexpected smile on his face with his laughter eventually broke through her confusion, and she couldn’t help as the corners of her mouth rose too. “What did I say? Why are you laughing?”

“You. You look so adorable when you start one of your determined speeches.” He let go of her hand as his fingers came up to touch her cheek ever so lightly. “For years, I’ve watched you stand up and defend me, break rules for me, lie for me, fight with me.” As he gently stroked the side of her face, she closed her eyes for a moment, unable to take the sudden intensity of his stare. “But do you have any clue how beautiful you are, how lovely your face looks in the morning light?”

Her eyelids slowly slipped open, but she kept looking down. “Harry,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “You don’t have to—”

Beautiful,” he repeated. “Pulchritudinous, even.” As her eyes flew back up to meet his, she narrowed her gaze at his utterance. “What?” he chuckled. “Are you the only one allowed to look up fancy words?” His fingers continued to trace a line along her jaw, causing her heartbeat to quicken and her breath to become ragged. “When I learned it, I thought of you… only you.”

His face seemed to be closer now. That look from last night was suddenly in his eyes again, and she couldn’t quite puzzle out how this could be real. Harry must have sensed something when her eyes dropped again, as he muttered, “You don’t believe me.”

Hermione simply remained quiet, waiting for him to take the next step. No, honestly, she couldn’t quite believe this was happening. After the roller coaster of emotions she had been through in the past day, this was beyond surreal. He brushed his fingertips on her face once more before lowering his hand and turning his head to look at the sun, seeming to ponder something for several moments.

When Harry looked back at her, he sighed and appeared quite confused. “Well, actually,” he said, making a slight cringing face. “I wasn’t going to say anything… but you may want to... well...” He brushed a finger beside his nose.

That was absolutely the last thing she expected to happen at this moment, and it immediately broke the spell. She took his motion as a hint and did the same. He shook his head and rubbed his finger on his face again. Oh god, she thought. At this moment? Did she have a piece of food stuck there from breakfast, like the marshmallow last night? A piece of dried egg, or even dried mucus? Was it some sort of skin condition? “Maybe you should have a look yourself,” Harry suggested calmly.

Utterly bewildered and with embarrassment growing by the second, Hermione threw the blanket from her shoulders and made her way to the tent entrance. “I don’t know why you won’t just tell me,” she said abruptly, as she unzipped the door and retrieved the compact mirror Harry had gifted her. She carried it out with her into the sunlight, where she angled it in various directions. “I don’t see anything. What was it?”

“Look closer. I’m sure something will become clear—”

Just then, as she held the mirror inches from her face, hundreds and hundreds of tiny sparkling multicolored lights emerged from the surface and began to circle around her, enveloping her in their bright glow…

Chapter Text

Hermione let out a shriek as she dropped the mirror to the ground. The hundreds and hundreds of tiny lights circling her gradually grew in size, creating a dazzling display that refracted the sunlight all around her, not unlike light streaming through a stained glass window. Moments later, the larger ones began to break off, assuming the shape of various tiny boats and ships, each displaying some unique colorful sails buoyed by the wind toward the river. The group made an arc through the the air and started to splash down in the water, forming a miniature armada, the magical streaks of color around them contrasting with the dull brown of the risen river.

Hermione’s initial surprise and fear had turned into awe and confusion at the glimmering lights now sailing downstream. She simply stood with her mouth agape while Harry rose and chuckled as he walked over toward her.

“You should have seen the look on your face,” he said, sporting a grin.

She could only stammer short incomplete sentences in confusion. “What was…? Where did…? It’s beautiful, Harry. How did you...? Wait!” She turned toward him with a stern expression. “No magic!”

He chuckled again, shaking his head. “The challenge was for twenty-four hours, beginning at nine o’clock on your birthday, as you’ll recall. Take a look at your watch.” Hermione glanced down; it read 9:25. “The mirror was previously charmed, it’s true—some of George’s best work. It took him days to sort out the details of the effect, but no magic occurred during the designated period.” Harry bore a mischievous look; he seemed mighty pleased with himself, though Hermione was eyeing him carefully. “I adhered to all the rules,” he added, clearing his throat. “The enchantment was inactive for all the time we were here. Even a skilled Auror wouldn’t have been able to detect any magic.”

“Sounds like you bent the rules a bit to me,” Hermione replied, though curiosity began to overtake her as she watched the tiny sailing vessels continue to dissipate. “I love this magical armada, Harry. But why? I know we were talking a little bit about sailing yesterday, but I don’t understand why you did this. There must have been thousands.”

Harry glanced again to her before he put his hand on her back, joining her as they both looked downriver. “Well,” he said nonchalantly, “if Helen’s face could launch a thousand ships, surely her daughter’s namesake is worth at least ten thousand.”

Hermione’s breath caught in her throat. Just for a moment, she was rendered speechless as her eyes began to grow watery. But suspicion raised its head and forced all other emotions out of the way. “That’s very clever, Harry. Far too clever, in fact.” Her eyes narrowed. “And you’ve just been waiting to spring that line on me?”

“Well, I thought I’d try it out at a pub first,” he laughed again, “but you can only use it to pick up beautiful, brilliant women named Hermione. That unfortunately narrowed its utility—”

“This isn’t a joke,” she interrupted abruptly. Hermione shoved him hard in the chest, irrational anger and hurt growing inside her as she turned and walked briskly away toward the river.

“Wait—what?” he cried. “Wait! Hermione?” He called after her. “I don’t get why you’re upset. I mean, you’re the one who told a lie to us, to everyone. For years! Your parents said they’ve only once or twice been to see a Shakespeare play since they were at university.”

Hermione sat down on a fallen log overlooking the river, sensing the cold dampness of the wet wood soaking into her pajamas. But at the moment, she didn’t care. She took deep breaths, trying desperately to settle herself and find control.

Harry approached her cautiously, taking a seat next to her on the log. Her eyes were a bit wet when she closed them, steadying herself with her breathing. Harry didn’t say anything further. As her eyelids gradually rose, she chewed her lip, preparing herself for what she had to say. She owed Harry an explanation; he was obviously confused—and rightly so. She had never revealed to Harry what had truly made her cry that day a month before when Ron had left suddenly.

“It’s hard to say this,” she began, “but… Ron never once told me I was beautiful. Or even pretty. That is, he said I looked nice a few times, like at Bill’s wedding, but always as though it was a surprise that I might actually appear attractive. I mean, I know he liked me, but I certainly don’t look like Fleur... or even Lavender.”

“Hermione, don’t—”

She ignored his interruption. “It’s just—I thought I was okay with it. I mean, obviously he was attracted to me in some ways. I thought that he really knew me and liked me for who I was, so those superficial things didn’t matter. But when Ron and I had our last fight, he... well, he said I’d have a hard time finding someone else to put up with me.” She took a breath. “He said he had grown used to me, but that I was mental.”

“I’m going to kill him.” Harry gritted his teeth, starting to stand up. “No, I’ll turn him into a—”

She grabbed his wrist. “Stop! Harry, sit down. Please listen.” He took a few breaths, nodded, and settled beside her again. “He was immediately sorry he said it. I said some really nasty things to him that I regret, too. We were both hurting.” Harry placed his hand on her back, gently rubbing it, waiting for her to go on.

“But that’s not it,” she continued. “What you said before—I’m sorry. After all your sincerity this morning, it’s hard to explain.” Hermione took a pause, uncertain how to begin. She felt embarrassed by her overreaction. “You see, I grew up having this name that no one knew and even fewer knew how to pronounce. But when I was a little girl, my dad taught me that it was Greek, that there was this queen named Helen of Troy, who was so lovely and beautiful that the ancient world went to war over her. And I was named after her daughter. All parents want to tell their kids how lovely they are, and my dad had his hyperbolic way of talking about everything.”

Harry nodded, listening intently.

“Anyhow,” she said, wiping her eyes, “The kids in my school mostly knew who I was, so my name wasn’t unusual to them. But one summer when I was about eight, my parents took me on their first extended holiday in France. They had found some sort of daycare camp for me to go to for a week or two, which also gave them some time to go on adult excursions. One day at camp there was some kids’ tour to go to a nearby museum. You can imagine that I was excited. The tour leader was normally a teacher during the school year, I think. She was calling out names as we gathered, and she said my name wrong, as most people did. ‘Hermy-own’ or something. I’ve heard at least a dozen different mispronunciations. And I said I was ‘Hermione.’ She gave me this sweet look and said, ‘That’s such a lovely name. Where does it come from?’ And you know how I was when I was younger—I loved to answer things. So I told her the whole story about Helen of Troy and how she was the most beautiful woman in the world. And I was named after her daughter Hermione, whom Homer described as having the beauty of Aphrodite the Golden.”

She sighed, taking another deep breath. The Horcrux had exploited that memory last year inside her; Harry deserved to know. “I’m sure I came across as some pretentious kid showing off my knowledge. But one boy yelled over at me and said, ‘And that’s supposed to be you? The most beautiful in the world? Look at her teeth! I mean, just look at her face!’ And half of the kids started laughing.” She blinked several times, trying to hold the tears at bay. “I ran from the room as fast as I could and hid in the bathroom. I just wanted to hide my face from everyone forever.” She halted, now closing her eyes, willing that decade-old scar of shame to pass.

Harry pulled her closer into his side. “I... I didn’t know. Your dad said—”

“How could you know?” she interrupted. “I’ve never told a single soul about it. The tour leader finally found me and explained to me that kids say cruel things, which I knew already. To most people, I was the weird kid who went off to read books by herself. But I begged her not to tell my parents. To me at that time, it was the special thing that my dad said about me, and I couldn’t bear for him to hear what happened. I never did get to the museum that day; the leader made up some excuse about how I was feeling sick when my parents picked me up.”

They sat in silence for a moment, listening to the rush of the river, before she continued. “So, after that I vowed never to tell anyone the real story about my name again. A year later or so I happened upon a reference to A Winter’s Tale and decided if anyone ever asked, I’d talk about Shakespeare. You’d be amazed how that immediately shuts people up: everyone seems to think they should know about Shakespeare. So if they haven’t heard of that play or that character, they don’t ask a lot of questions to avoid looking stupid.”

She had calmed down again, a weight seemingly gone from her. Now Harry really did know everything about her. Hermione glanced over at him, as he was apparently contemplating what to do or say. Turning her gaze back toward her lap, she closed her eyes, sad that she had ruined a beautiful moment. “I’m sorry I lied about it, Harry,” she went on. “I mean, I never directly lied to you, even about that. It’s just—by the time we became friends, I had hinted to a couple people at Hogwarts about Shakespeare, and I felt like it was such a minor thing that I never explained it to you.”

“You shouldn’t be sorry,” he replied laconically. Only a few seconds passed before he took her hand in his, and stood up, pulling her with him. He started leading her back toward their camp.

“Where are we going?” she asked, wondering what he was planning next. She wasn’t sure whether she was more embarrassed by the actual story she told or the fact that it still caused her to get upset so many years later. Regardless, she couldn’t take it if he pitied her. But she soon realized he was leading them to their tent door. “What are we doing, Harry?”

But he didn’t say anything. He dropped her hand to unzip the door, then stepped in, again pulling her to come with him. As she stepped forward, a breeze picked up and a chill passed through her, causing her to shiver. Harry motioned for her to go inside as he quickly exited to retrieve the blanket she had dropped earlier.

Not sure what to expect, Hermione had seated herself cross-legged on their unfolded sleeping bag, which she was smoothing out as Harry entered. By now, she figured that he wasn’t going to say anything until he wanted to, so she just waited as he crawled in, zipped up the door, and zipped the windows shut as well to keep the cool breeze out. Finally, he sat down himself, sitting crossed-legged directly in front of Hermione, mirroring her.

She had dropped her gaze to her lap, still stewing about her recollections and how ridiculous she must have sounded, getting upset about something that happened over a decade ago. She couldn’t look at him. Part of her thought that perhaps Ron was right about her being mental.

Harry reached out and lifted her chin, forcing her to look at him, before he took both of her hands into his own, holding them between their laps. Hermione wasn’t sure she could take much more of his silence and staring. But finally he spoke. “Do you remember Cho Chang?”

“Of course,” she replied in confusion. That was certainly not what she had expected him to say. “I mean, remember her? We were in school together for years. We ran into her this summer, just a couple months ago.”

“Sorry,” he muttered, blinking slowly for a moment. “What I mean is, you remember her... and me?”

She rolled her eyes. “Harry, the whole school knew about you two. What’s your point?” Hermione wasn’t sure how talking about his liaison with the obviously beautiful Cho Chang was supposed to make her feel better.

He cleared his throat. “Well, she gave me my first real kiss. I mean, the first one like...” His voice trailed off, and Hermione struggled to understand what he meant by that. She wondered if all the times she had kissed him on the cheek or on the forehead were also “real kisses” to him.

“Anyhow,” Harry continued, “the strangest thought passed through my mind right before she started to kiss me. I started counting the freckles on her nose.” He paused for a moment, breaking eye contact with her and looking down at their joined hands. “Afterward, I couldn’t figure out why I’d focus on such an odd thing at that time. I mean, I was nervous and attracted to her and wanted to kiss her, so why pay most attention to her freckles?” His right thumb was now making slow circles on her left hand, as he continued. “It took me a few months to sort it out, but one day it finally came to me.” His eyes rose to meet hers again. “The one person I spent the most time with in the world, the only one I had ever really been so close with before, was you. And I was so used to your face, with those few freckles just in those places...”

She had to glance away. Harry’s gaze was embarrassing her now. “Lots of witches have freckles, Harry,” she said quietly. “Ginny has loads of them.”

He let out his breath. “Ginny is a Weasley. All of them look like that. They have freckles everywhere, hundreds of them. But please look at me,” he pleaded. She slowly turned her eyes back to his. “I spent a lot of time with her, but I really don’t know the details of Ginny’s face. I couldn’t tell you how many freckles Cho has.” His voice dropped lower as he went on. “But I know every one of yours. I know where every single scar is, even the ones you hide. I know that you hunch your shoulders down and lean just a tiny bit to your left when you walk, even when you’re not carrying a bag with a dozen books in it. I know that you lost a little too much weight last year during the Horcrux hunt—I see it in your face and your arms and in your legs—and you still haven’t gained it all back because you are putting too much stress on yourself.”

He closed his eyes for a second and pressed his lips together. When he opened them again, his look was one of pure adoration. “Hermione,” he went on, “I know every part of you from your head to your toes to the exact position of the callouses on your hand from writing too much with your quill.” Keeping his gaze steadily on her, she felt his thumb move on her right hand to touch the side of her finger and rub the coarse skin gently. As he did so, he released her other hand and cupped her cheek, rubbing his thumb near her nose. “That freckle, there, is darker after all the sun we had yesterday.”

“Harry...” she breathed, as she closed her eyes, reveling in the caress from his hand. She struggled to believe what he said, to try to comprehend. All of those years they had spent together, working closely, and he was always just there, usually paying attention to her, sometimes rather intently focused. She always assumed his frequent looks to her were for her assistance, because she was always the first to help him when he needed it—but had he really been studying her?

His hand moved back to smooth her hair, a bit wild from the earlier breeze. Hermione’s eyelids gradually rose again to see that his green eyes had become darker. As he tucked a strand behind her ear, he continued, “I didn’t know what all this meant at first, other than that you were so familiar that you were always with me, always on my mind. But in the past year, spending so much time with you, I finally started to figure it out.”

He began to shift his weight onto one leg as he moved closer, kneeling before her. Threading his hand through her hair, he gazed deeply at her, before he gently tilted her head and leaned in. Hermione’s eyes slipped shut as she moistened her lips and realized what was about to happen. She could feel his hot breath close to her as he hesitated a moment. The boy she met on the train, the boy she grew up with, the strong powerful man he had become, the most famous wizard in the world, was about to...

And then his lips were on hers, pressing ever so gently as she felt like she was melting into him, joining with the softness and warmth and taste of him. Her hands ascended to wrap around the back of his neck and pull him closer. His lips continued to move slowly and languidly against hers for several seconds in a rather chaste kiss, like a caress from the softest velvet, before he pulled back. A sigh escaped her mouth as she lamented the loss of contact, savoring the fresh new memory for a couple seconds before she finally opened her eyes to see his look of concern through his broken glasses.

“Is this... okay?” he finally said.

“Okay?! Merlin, Harry!” She could barely breathe, her heart was pumping so fast.

“I mean... if we...” he stammered, “I’m afraid once this starts—”

But she was having none of that now. Hermione pulled him toward her with force, crashing their mouths back together. Kicking her legs out and leaning back, she dragged him with her, joined at the lips, as they landed with a thud on the tent floor. She merely pulled back for just a fraction of a second to yank his glasses off and toss them aside, mumbling, “I’ll fix them later,” as her lips were already on his again.

Nothing could have prepared her for what she was feeling now. Within seconds, they were kissing much more deeply, with her arms flailing about, moving with their own volition, grasping at him everywhere. She wasn’t sure if there was any magic involved, but it was like sparks of electricity were flowing between them, urging them in desperation to find ways to be even closer.

A minute later, he pulled back again, now breathing fast. “Hermione,” he panted, trying to catch some air, “What’s gotten into us? I’ve dreamed about this happening, but—”

Harry’s trademark taciturn nature was choosing this moment to let up. As she looked up at him, this gorgeous man with the wild hair, the only semi-rational thought she had was that there were already far too many seconds passing by without his lips on hers. “We’ve been talking for hours. Just shut up and kiss me, Harry.” She pulled him down again, needing to feel as much of him as possible.

He needed no further invitation and finally joined her frenzied energy as both of his hands struggled to find ways to pull her closer, moving from her hair and face down her body. Soon, she nudged him off of her, and he rolled them both into a more comfortable position on the hard ground that lay under their the tent. Hermione wrapped a leg around his while they continued, trading kisses, side-by-side. As the minutes passed, the frantic element of their initial embraces gradually slowed. Hands were now leisurely exploring each other’s bodies, while they periodically stopped to stare in amazement at each other, to verify that this was really happening, before their lips demanded to be joined once again. This cycle went on for a very long while as they began to relax together, their mouths locked so long at times Hermione could feel her jaw begin to tire—but she couldn’t stand one instant apart. Any moment of pulling back just caused them to begin again, savoring every second of contact, both murmuring blissful noises as they relaxed in each other’s arms.

After a long time, Hermione rolled onto her back, a feeling of fatigue setting in after their long night and all the earlier tension. Harry pulled himself up against her, resting on his side, his head propped up on his hand as he gazed down at her. Only a few seconds passed before he was cupping her face again with his other hand, then tracing a line down her neck and shoulder, making a chill pass through her. He then reached for the blanket, spreading it out over both of them as he settled back into his previous position.

Hermione simply couldn’t take her eyes off of him, occasionally grinning widely as she contemplated what had happened. Then her smile would infect him too, and he’d look back at her with an expression she’d rarely seen: he looked truly and undeniably happy. They both seemed to exude silent laughter. She could only wonder at how it had taken them so long to do this, to discover the most incredible thing she had ever felt.

But she eventually broke the silence and series of idiotic grins they were sharing, as she grew serious. “Harry, I really don’t mean to sound insecure, but after what happened with Ron, I just—I can’t lose you. I’ve never had a lot of friends, but I don’t think I could survive without you. And while this…” She paused to run her hand from his cheek down to his neck, marveling at her beautiful boy, “… is more amazing than I could have possibly imagined, I don’t want it to ruin what we have. If you still want to stop and pretend this—”

He put a finger over her lips. “I will never hurt you, Hermione. You’ve never left me, and I will never leave you.” He touched her head ever so gently, fervently stroking her hair with that adoring look again that made her heart ache to feel him close again. “Do you want to pretend this didn’t happen?”

“No.” She had to close her eyes again as she shook her head, silently wishing that she could just keep experiencing this moment for eternity. She never wanted to forget it. But when her eyelids rose again, she still needed to ask. “Harry—were you really serious about all that talk before? About freckles and...”

His hand moved to cup her cheek, interrupting her, as those gorgeous green eyes displayed his sincerity. “I meant every word. Do you finally believe me?”

She simply couldn’t deny that they’d just spent nearly an hour lost with each other, the world utterly forgotten. Hermione had heard other girls talk about “snogging sessions,” but this seemed—simply beyond that. The word didn’t seem to apply: it didn’t seem enough to describe the beautiful sensations she felt. After that initial frantic burst of desire, Harry’s caresses and gazes and kisses had turned into their own language, a kind of physical discourse silently expounding on his affection for her.

Hermione nodded up at him and was rewarded when he bent down and gave her a gentle kiss, setting her heart aflutter once more.

“Good,” he said, relaxing and lying down next to her, their faces almost touching on their shared pillow. “Just this morning, I must have spent fifteen minutes like this looking at your face as you slept. You were so beautiful with the early morning sun streaming in.”

She rolled her eyes. “Harry, you don’t have to keep saying these things. I do believe you, but you don’t have to overdo it. ”

In response, he turned onto his back beside her, letting out a sigh. “I’m absolutely serious. You don’t realize what I meant before. Once I figured out how much I needed you in my life, I just couldn’t stop looking at you sometimes.” She reached out and took his hand again, entwining their fingers together while he kept staring up at the tent ceiling. “And it’s really funny what you said the other week about checking your freckles,” he continued. “After Ron left us last year, some days I’d just sit for a few minutes and watch you sleep. At first, I was checking to see you were okay when I’d come in from a watch or something. You had been crying so much at first, I wanted to see whether you had been upset again.” She squeezed his hand a bit at that. “But then I found I couldn’t stop. I think you only caught me once when you woke up unexpectedly, and I made some excuse. When it got out of hand, I thought up an absurd story if you didn’t believe the other ones, about counting your freckles to be sure you weren’t some polyjuiced impostor.”

Hermione started to giggle, shaking her head. “You thought I’d buy that? Polyjuice doesn’t change the number of freckles people have, Harry!” But she was already missing the contact from his body, so she turned on her side and snuggled up to him, wrapping her leg over him and resting her head on his chest.

“Well, I know that,” he replied, “and obviously you know that, but it’s the kind of stupid misconception someone could have. I expected you to say that precise thing to me, just like you did now. Well, maybe without the giggles.” He chuckled, looking down at her. “You know how you love correcting people. I was sure that would be enough to distract you from the fact that I had been staring at you.”

She now stared back at those mirthful green eyes, another silly grin growing on her face. She felt so exuberantly happy, she didn’t even know how to express it anymore. “I guess you do know me well,” she said as her hand began to leisurely trace circles around his chest. “In any case, you now have my permission to gaze longingly at me whenever you want, as long as you don’t mind if I do the same with you.”

His hand caught hers, and she looked back up at him. He smiled broadly, replying, “I think that deal is only fair,” before raising his head to encourage their lips to meet once more.

They fell into a contented silence for several minutes. Hermione stifled a yawn, and Harry mimicked her. After a few moments, she started to pull away from him, explaining, “I don’t know if it was that fact that we were up for half of the night or the, um… excitement of this morning…” She playfully raised her eyebrows at him as another grin crossed her mouth. “Or maybe it was that enormous breakfast you served, but I think I might like to have another nap.” And to be honest, part of her just wanted to get him to snuggle around her again, like he did last night.

Harry turned on his side toward her. “Where are you going?”

She had barely moved two inches away from him, but that distance was clearly too much for them at this point. “I was just going to get comfortable. I like to sleep on my side.”

Harry gave her a mischievous smirk. “Okay, then. Let’s get comfortable and do it properly this time.” He sat up a bit and began to pull his shirt over his head. Hermione stared at his bare chest, contemplating his scars before she was distracted by the muscles that came into view. She had felt them before as she was cuddled up to him, but Auror training the past couple months was clearly doing very nice things to his body.

Harry caught her leering at him, and his smirk turned devilish. “Now who is staring?” he chuckled.

Her cheeks felt warm, but she couldn’t resist reaching a hand out to run gingerly over his chest, accepting his lighthearted smile as permission to touch the newly exposed skin. “Harry, what are you doing? I did say I needed a nap.”

“And you said we needed to get comfortable. I’m just following through with the pattern you set last night. That was comfortable, wasn’t it?” He began to unbuckle his trousers.

She smirked back at him, then chewed her bottom lip as she contemplated how far this would go. “Yes, I agree,” she said after making a decision. She slipped off her pajama bottoms again, a lot more nimbly than she had put them on this morning. He was now staring at her bare legs, her hips and knickers still mostly covered by her long pajama shirt. While the sun had warmed their tent, the air was still a bit cool, and she shook off a slight chill as she watched Harry rather eagerly disrobe next to her.

After Harry was stripped down to his boxers, he climbed back under the blanket, patting beside him as she had done last night to encourage her to join him. But his eyes grew wider as she slipped her hand under her shirt. “I really did mean to take a nap,” he said, not looking away from her for an instant.

“You said comfortable. This is how I get comfortable.” She maneuvered her arms around inside her shirt and managed to get her bra off, slipping it out and putting her arms back through her sleeves. She was sure she now had Harry’s full attention, as she lay down beside him, facing him. “Well, now. Ready for that nap?” She gave him a quick peck on the lips.

He stifled a yawn, looking a bit like a tired little boy with his disheveled hair. He was utterly adorable. “Yes.”

She turned over to face away and backed up to snuggle against him, encountering a familiar feeling on her bottom.

“Erm, sorry,” said Harry. She wiggled her bum at him again, now a bit thrilled to know this wasn’t just some random reaction. “Hermione!”

“Boys are funny,” she giggled. She turned her head back a little toward him, speaking over her shoulder. “But are you okay? You don’t need to apologize. But I... I understand this can be a bit... uncomfortable. If you need to, well, do something... that is, I mean, I’m not sure I’m ready to—”

“I’m fine,” he muttered. “I want to take this slow, too. Just don’t do that again, if you want me to get any rest.” He began to wrap his arms around her. “Comfortable, now?” he queried.

She sighed contentedly, loving the feeling of his warm body wrapped around hers. But she needed more. Hermione couldn’t believe it, but she still needed to feel closer: now that the door had been opened with him, and now that she knew what she could have, it would never be enough. She wriggled out of his arms just a bit. “Almost. Just... since you got comfortable, I...” She couldn’t believe her own boldness, but they were under a blanket already—it would be easy enough and not too revealing. In a couple seconds she had rapidly pulled her shirt over her head and maneuvered back against Harry, her bare back finally up against his chest in complete contact. “There. Much better.” She could only imagine the look of shock he probably had on his face now.

Harry’s hands didn’t seem to know what to do. “Umm, Hermione?” he cleared his throat. “I thought we were taking this slow.”

“Guys get to have their shirts off all the time. You said you wanted me to be comfortable, right?” He still seemed hesitant to touch her. She reached back and grabbed his arm, wrapping it around her waist. “It’s okay. I’m still the same person. Just put the other arm under me,” she said, as she raised her head and shoulders up a bit.

“Are you sure about this? I thought you might be more... uh... shy?”

“Just don’t think about it, Harry.” She pulled his arms together around her. This complete skin-to-skin contact with him was overwhelming, so warm, so comforting. It just felt so right. “Actually,” she added, “I have a confession to make.”

“Mmm?” Harry was nuzzling into the back of her neck, sending tingles throughout her body.

“I… well, to be honest, I actually prefer to sleep naked,” she said.

Harry’s head pulled back and raised up a couple inches. “You... that is… what?” he stammered.

She had to laugh at his absurd tone: he probably wouldn’t have sounded more surprised if she suddenly revealed she was actually Hagrid polyjuiced to look like a nearly nude girl in bed with him. “It all started one summer when I was pretty young. We had several really hot, humid nights when I couldn’t sleep. I complained to my mum, and she just told me to use the fan. So one night I was so uncomfortable that I just stripped everything off. And… I found I that I really liked it. The feeling of the sheets against my skin—completely free to move around without constricting clothing. For a couple years after that, I rarely slept in more than a pair of knickers. Even in winter, I’d prefer to snuggle up under a pile of blankets. It felt so comfortable.”

Harry kissed her shoulder again while shaking his head. “I had no idea. Surely at Hogwarts—“

“Oh, of course I didn’t get to do it much for years. My parents would let me alone in my room, but in the dormitories I just got used to pajamas again. Until this year, when I have my own room.” She smiled to herself as she pulled Harry’s arm tighter around her, a feeling of joy overwhelming her to share this sensation and closeness with the boy she had always loved. “Still, sometimes in the summers when I was back at my parents’ house… or, at Grimmauld Place when it was so hot this August...”

Harry pulled back slightly again, lifting his head behind her. “Wait—you were naked… in our house?”

Hermione’s heart admittedly skipped a beat at the wording—he apparently thought of it as “our house.” But she tried not to make too much of it; they were roommates of a sort. “Harry,” she said with a half-eyeroll, “I took showers all summer.”

“Yeah, but this is different.”

“How?” She turned her head and body just a bit to glance at his eyes, which seemed to have a mix of confusion and… something darker. Desire? Was that the look he had been giving her the past day? Just a bit frightened at the intensity of his gaze, she began to babble. “I don’t know. I certainly didn’t do it while Ron was there. But in the last weeks of August, it was so humid, and—”

“You were in the room next to me… in bed, without…” The fingers of his right hand were now absently tracing a pattern around her abdomen, raking back and forth while setting her skin on fire. “Wait, that morning when I came in unannounced and started asking you about your plans after you came back to Hogwarts—and you pulled the blankets up around you? You mean you were...”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice a bit shaky, almost turning into a moan. She needed to put a stop to his apparently inadvertent teasing. How could he still have no idea of the effect he had on her? She turned back on her side away from him, settling his errant hand by clasping it and holding it still with her own.

“I sat on the bed and talked to you for at least ten minutes,” he muttered.

“Harry, it’s not a big deal...” Hermione had to admit to herself that she hadn’t felt any anxiety whatsoever. With Ron around, she always felt a bit self-conscious. But she never felt like she needed to keep secrets from Harry; in fact, looking back, she had felt a little bit of a thrill when he had spent time in her room that morning. Had part of her subconsciously wanted Harry to find her like that?

Harry’s tone still bore his confusion. “What if I had a nightmare and came over and crawled in bed with you?”

She laughed at his obsession with this idea. “Then I guess this would have happened a few weeks ago.”

“What if Kreacher had come in?”

“Just stop talking, Harry.” She reached down, took one of his hands, and placed it on her bare thigh. “Focus.”

“Sorry, I just… I mean...” His brain finally seemed to register as his hand traced a little circle on her hip. “Wow… you feel so… soft.”

Those nimble fingers of his began to caress her leg, causing her to squirm again. “Okay, maybe a little too much focus,” she said, taking his hand in hers again. Part of her wanted to explore more, to feel him, to… but she was inexperienced and frankly a little scared. Not of Harry—but of how utterly out-of-control he made her feel. Just a few touches from his hands, and she was ready to do anything to keep that sensation alive. And she was admittedly a little embarrassed by her lack of experience: was she ready to have that conversation with him already? Hermione of course knew the mechanics of how things worked physically, but this was all so fast…

She forced her mind to settle. There would be time for all of that later. Right now, she wanted more of this. Biting her lip, she hesitantly asked, “Harry, would you just hold me—like last night?”

Harry finally pulled his arms close together around her, spooning up against her as tightly as they could be. He was just tall enough that his hips and legs could stretch beneath hers and make her feel like she was completely surrounded by him, every part of him pressed against her. Every part.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” she said, a bit timidly.

At that, his lips caressed her shoulder repeatedly, causing waves of butterflies to course through her. “This is much more than all right,” he said between kisses, wrapping her up in those strong arms, the ones she always had felt safe in. She could feel his chin then settle on her shoulder and his warm breath as he whispered in her ear. “This is... perfect.”

They lay there for several minutes in silence, savoring the new closeness, the warmth and sensations of skin against skin. Hermione didn’t want to fall asleep anymore: she wanted to remember every moment, every time that Harry squeezed her a little more tightly, every time he stirred and gave another soft kiss to her bare shoulder. After a few more minutes, he went quiet, and she felt a slight jerk of his body as he passed into slumber, his body relaxing around her.

Harry was absolutely correct, Hermione thought. “Right” wasn’t anywhere close to describing this feeling: their bodies, finally cuddled together like they had always meant to be this way. It wasn’t just right; the fit was perfect.