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In Vino Veritas

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Disclaimer: If you recognize the character, it isn't mine. Just playing in Rowling's sandbox.

Apology: For those who were hoping this was a notification for a new “Perils” chapter, I can say that I’m almost there. Hang in there.

Reminder: I'm on Twitter under "avidbeader" if you are reading this on a guest account and would prefer to get your notifications of a new chapter or story that way. I promise I won't be spamming. I’m also on Tumblr under the same name.

Plug: This story was begun several years ago. When I was invited to take part in the annual Fandom for LLS fanworks charity drive, I debated for a while and finally brought this story to a close. If you donated to the charity drive back in August, you already have this story in the compilation. For everyone else, new story! And for everyone else, here’s a new H/Hr story!

 

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Harry Potter hated crowds at the best of times. He had spent too much of his childhood shunned and alone to be completely at ease in a crush of people.

And “crush” was a perfect word to describe his current situation.

He looked around for any glimpse of Hermione or Ron, not caring that he was being quite rude to the two simpering witches in front of him. They had him effectively cornered, ignoring his every effort to turn them away politely. Not that they could have gotten far given just how many people were crammed into the Leaky Cauldron tonight.

He saw Ron first, worming back up to the bar to trade two empty glasses for full ones. If he’d counted correctly, Ron was on his fifth drink and Hermione her second. And Hermione was drinking a light wine compared to Ron’s Firewhisky. Harry relaxed a little and tried to focus on the women before him, but his mind kept returning to that afternoon. He had just arrived at Ron’s flat by Floo after leaving work and was dusting himself off when he heard Ron and Bill’s voices.

“Here’s that Stay-Sober potion you asked for. Why did you need me to get it from Fred and George when you see them every day?”

The clink of a bottle being set on a table.

“They aren’t going to ask you why you want it. They would’ve asked me all kinds of questions and I probably would’ve lost my nerve.”

“Lost your nerve to do what?”

“I’m going to make my move with Hermione tonight. We’re supposed to be dating, but she keeps putting off any...you know...all she ever does is kiss me! If I can get her a little drunk, get her to loosen up, maybe we can finally...you know.”

“Ron, if this is an issue you should talk to Hermione about it. This way you’re trying to sneak past some boundary that she’s clearly set. I’m not going to help—”

“Hey, give it back!”

Sounds of a brief scuffle.

“No, Ron. I’m doing this because I care about and respect Hermione as a colleague—she’s done wonders as Liaison to Non-Human Populations for the Ministry. The goblins have never been happier with wizards. And I’m doing it for you—you’re treading a very dangerous line and if you really want a future with her you’ve got to tackle this head-on instead of trying to find a shortcut around it.”

Only the fact that Bill had taken the potion kept Harry from storming into the kitchen and putting a fist in Ron’s face. He was mostly fine with Ron and Hermione dating, or so he kept telling himself. He had done his best to be supportive of Ron, to let Ron finally be first with something in his life. But here Ron was, planning to trick Hermione over something so important and so personal, and Harry’s reaction was instantaneous and furious.

The overheard conversation made him start thinking of the situation from Hermione’s point of view. Hermione rarely did anything without thinking it through six ways. Harry knew, thanks to one of many long conversations when it was just the two of them during the Horcrux hunt, that she had no issues with pre-marital sex, provided it came with contraception. So if she was keeping Ron at arm’s length, she had another reason. And Ron ought to respect that reason until Hermione was ready to talk about it.

The two witches had finally given up in the face of Harry’s complete lack of attention, and for the moment no one had stepped up to take their place. He watched as Ron wobbled toward Hermione, who was fanning herself with her wand and looking tired. Ron handed her the drink and she smiled briefly and thanked him, setting the glass on the table next to her. He moved to sit across from her, but spotted someone in the throng and dove back in with a happy “Oi, you!”

As Harry’s gaze wandered around the room, he noticed two men with their heads together in an intense conversation. At first glance there was nothing remarkable about either of them: one dark and one blond, both with bland, forgettable good looks. Then he realized why they’d drawn his notice: one of them was studying Hermione carefully, like a predator that had marked its prey. The growl that threatened to leap from Harry’s throat surprised him, and he took a hefty swallow of butterbeer to calm himself.

When he looked back, the dark man had approached Hermione and was trying to engage her in conversation. The blond man was moving away, out of Hermione’s line of sight. Harry shifted to be more hidden behind one of the pub’s many timbers, looking frantically for Ron as he did.

He looked back just in time to see the blond man cast the spell on Hermione’s drink. The dark man withdrew, apparently taking Hermione’s hints that she wasn’t interested in talking to him.

Harry began shoving his way through the crowd. He saw Hermione fan herself once more and pick up her glass. He shouted, trying to be heard above the din, “Hermione! Put it down!”

She took a hefty swallow from the glass.

Harry felt as if he were moving through treacle, trying to reach her. She swayed in her chair and dropped the glass, which shattered on the stone floor. A few people looked toward her in concern, but the blond stranger was quickest. He darted forward and began lifting Hermione to her feet—

”EVERTE STATUM!!”

Harry’s curse caught the man squarely in the chest and flung him up and back into the plaster wall. Hermione fell and cried out dazedly, to all appearances fully drunk. Harry raced forward, now that the mass of people had parted in the wake of the spell, and dropped to Hermione’s side, lifting her in one arm. He levelled his wand at the man.

“What did you do to her glass? What were you going to do?”

The man’s eyes widened as he recognized Harry, and instantly Apparated away.

Harry swore furiously enough to blister paint, then looked down as Hermione moaned. Her eyes were wide and unfocused and he could see the panic in them, fighting to come out. “I’m here, Hermione. I’ve got you.”

“Ha...Harry?” She squeezed her eyes closed. “Can’t...can’t move...” She slumped forward into his shoulder.

People were starting to crowd in again and Harry looked around again for Ron. Someone knelt beside him and Harry’s wand was in her face before he registered that it was Susan Bones.

“Can I help, Harry? I’m almost done with my training at St. Mungo’s.”

He thought fast, then nodded. “Catch!” He waved his wand at the broken glass and it reassembled itself, the remaining liquid regathering in it. Susan took it. “Can you get that identified as soon as possible and let me know if there’s an antidote? I’m taking Hermione back to my flat.”

Susan nodded. “I’ll call you by Floo as soon as I have something. Anything else?”

Harry looked around once more in vain. “Yeah, if you see Ron, tell him what happened.”

He pulled Hermione close to him, concentrating fiercely, and Apparated them away.

**********

Harry got Hermione settled on his bed and did a basic medical scan with his wand. She was breathing normally, but her mental functions were horribly out of balance. He cast a couple of simple system-cleansing charms from the Aurors’ repertoire and sighed in relief when a second scan showed her stabilizing and moving to normal sleep. He spared one second to stroke her cheek, grateful that she was safe.

He leapt into action, summoning the miniature Pensieve that was part of every Auror’s kit. He extracted the memories with the clearest views of both men and the one of Hermione’s drink being spiked, then went to his fireplace in the sitting room. After starting the green flames and sticking his head through, he shouted, “Auror on duty!”

Shacklebolt came into the room. “Potter? What is it? You’re supposed to be out with your friends.”

“Need you to put out a search for these two men in the memory.” Harry passed the Pensieve through. “The charges would be attempted poisoning and attempted kidnapping. Susan Bones is at St. Mungo’s with the remaining liquid, working to identify it.”

Shacklebolt scribbled on a purple scroll and sent the memo flying away. “Who was the victim?”

“Hermione. I have her here at my place, safe. She’s stable and resting right now.”

Shacklebolt waved at two more Aurors as they entered and began looking in the Pensieve. “All right, I’ll contact Miss Bones and start on identifying the men. Call me when Miss Granger wakes and is ready to give a statement.”

Harry broke the connection and sat back on his heels for a moment. Now that he’d done everything he could, his mind was free to imagine the purpose of the two men. If they knew who she was, it could have been a shot at kidnapping her for ransom. The Daily Prophet and Witch Weekly worked very hard to remind their readers of just how rich the famous Harry Potter was.

If they hadn’t known who she was...again Harry felt that rage surge up as he thought about the possibilities.

He made himself get up and go into the loo, where he pulled off his glasses and splashed cold water on his face. When he was calm again, he went back into the bedroom.

Hermione was deeply asleep, her hair spread out across his pillows. She was still in the Muggle skirt and blouse she usually wore under her robes when at work. Harry slid her shoes off and pulled a rug from his wardrobe to cover her. He had just pulled it up to her waist when he heard a massive crack of Apparition in the sitting room.

“Harry? Where’re ya, mate?”

Harry stalked out of the bedroom, closing the door behind him, and walked up to Ron. He put both hands to Ron’s chest and shoved him, hard. Ron stumbled and fell, looking up at Harry in alcohol-enhanced befuddlement.

“Where the hell were you? Do you have any idea at all how much danger Hermione was in?”

Ron pushed himself to sitting, still looking completely at sea. “Blimey, Harry! Whachoo on about? Someone said you an’ Hermione’d gone home and I oughter go, too. Wha’ happened?”

Harry began pacing, digging his hands in his hair to keep from seizing something and throwing it at Ron. “What happened? What happened was while you were plying Hermione with alcohol, hoping to get a shag out of her, two men beat you to the punch and Transfigured or Switched her drink! If I hadn’t seen them, she’d be long gone by now and in the hands of bastards who were going to do who knows what to her!”

Ron protested, “How’d you know dat?” That he would concentrate on the first revelation over the second only stoked Harry’s anger more.

“I overheard you and Bill! And it’s very lucky for you that he took that Stay-Sober potion with him or I would have shoved the bottle up your arse! What made you think you had the right to do something like that to Hermione?”

“Oh, c’mon, Harry! I jus’ wanted her to loosen up—”

“To not be clear in her thinking, to be in a state where you could talk her into something that was against her wishes, to not be able to tell you ‘no’! Ron, that was wrong on so many levels I can’t even begin! You don’t do that to someone!”

“But she keeps pushing me away!”

“And did it even cross your mind to talk to her about it? To ask? Instead of trying to manipulate her? It’s like I don’t even know you at all, Ron!”

Realization began creeping into Ron’s expression, and his face crumpled, as if the implications of what he had been thinking were finally sinking in. And clearly he did not like what he was seeing.

“Hell, Harry...I didn’t mean...I’d never hurt her, y’know that!”

“I know you’d never hurt her deliberately, Ron, but you were selfish enough and careless enough tonight that you came damn near close to getting her badly hurt or maybe even killed.” Watching as Ron put his face in his hands, Harry relented a little. “Look, go to Bill and Fleur’s. You need some space to sober up and think, but I don’t think you should be alone. And any minute I’m going to be dealing with St. Mungo’s and Aurors as they try and catch those scums. I’ll Floo as soon as there’s anything to tell you.”

He reached down and pulled Ron to his feet. “I’m sorry I pushed you. I was furious imagining what could’ve happened to Hermione.”

Ron patted Harry vaguely on the back, his thoughts still turned inward. “Yeah, I’ll go there. Can I Floo? Not sure about Apparatin’ again...”

Harry gestured to the fireplace and Ron took a pinch of Floo powder, vanishing in the flames.

Harry went back into his bedroom to find Hermione still sleeping peacefully. He conjured a chair and sat down, taking her hand.

**********

The steps that registered with Harry’s subconscious were open, confident. Whoever it was, they were not at all stealthy. Even so, he came awake with his wand in his free hand, the other still clutching Hermione’s. Then he heard the voice. “Harry? You in here?”

Harry disengaged his hand and went into the sitting room, blinking at the bright green hair that greeted him. “Tonks! What’s the news?”

“We’ve identified the wizards. One is from the States and the other from Singapore. Nothing in their backgrounds to suggest that they were abducting Hermione for ransom..." Tonks stopped, seeing the blood drain from Harry’s face. “I...thought that would have been good news?”

“No. I’d’ve much rather have dealt with a ransom than the other probable reasons they attacked Hermione like that.”

Tonks pressed her lips together, her expression turning grim. “I take your point. On the bright side, we’ve got their names and descriptions being fed through the international channels now. And Susan Bones sent this. She says to get Hermione to drink it as soon as possible and it should put her right. But let her sleep again if she wants to.”

Harry took the vial into his bedroom. Tonks followed and watched as Harry very gently lifted Hermione into a sitting position and uncorked the potion.

“Hermione, love, wake up a little. You need to drink this.”

She stirred, slapping vaguely at him without seeing him. “No drink, no...”

“Hermione, it’s Harry. This will help, trust me. I’m here, you’re safe. Please?”

She stopped trying to fight him and drank the potion when he lifted it to her lips. Still not fully conscious, she leaned into him. “Harry...”

He let her back down onto the pillows. “Yes, I’m here.” He tucked the rug around her again and jerked his head at Tonks to direct her back to the sitting room.

“Were you able to get a magical signature from the glass?”

“Yes, under yours and Susan’s. We’ll have every major Apparition point alerted soon and Portkeys are already being watched. We’ll find them, don’t worry.” Harry nodded and she put a hand to his shoulder. “Kingsley is changing rotations and you have tomorrow off as well as today. He already sent a message to Hermione’s boss that she’s ill. Now eat something and get a proper sleep. You look knackered.”

Harry smiled vaguely as Tonks just missed cracking her head on his mantle as she entered the Floo. He charmed it to admit no one, made sure that one window was open enough for Hedwig when she decided to return, and went back to Hermione.

He sat on the edge of the bed and pushed back her hair where a lock had fallen across her face. She made an “mm-hm” sound and shifted, cupping his hand to her face with her own. Her voice slurred with sleep as she murmured, “Lov’ you, Harry.”

Feeling like his eyes would burst their sockets from bulging, Harry carefully slid his hand free and retreated to the sitting room. He stretched out on the sofa, kicking his shoes off automatically.

Had Hermione really just said that? Of course, she could have meant that she loved her best friend. That made perfect sense.

But if she hadn’t meant it like that? Did that explain her not fully committing to Ron? He knew that he loved Hermione, his best friend. But that didn’t seem to explain his anger at Ron, his rage at the two men who had tried to hurt her, and the driving need to make sure Hermione was safe and whole.

His thoughts in a whirl as he reassessed assumptions he’d been making for half his life, Harry finally fell asleep as dawn was breaking.

**********

Hermione woke, a little at a time, relishing the clarity of her thoughts. That reaction made her pause—why on earth should she be so grateful for a clear head?—and then she opened her eyes and realized where she was.

She was in Harry’s bed.

She immediately dismissed the thought that she and Harry had slept together. Not only would Harry never, ever take advantage of someone like that, she was fully and neatly dressed. All the evidence pointed to her being taken ill or passing out at the pub and Harry bringing her home to recover.

She tried to remember exactly what had happened, and began feeling uneasy when some memories wouldn’t come. She remembered being at the Leaky Cauldron, remembered her impatience with Ron, who was encouraging her to drink something stronger. And then she remembered a feeling of complete disorientation, of being unable to stand or speak or even see clearly. Even now she was breathing faster, remembering the fear that had surged through her.

She was interrupted by a loud and insistent growl from her stomach. All right, breakfast first. But I’m still going to get some answers.

She entered the sitting room on her way to the kitchen and saw Harry, fast asleep on the sofa. Unsettled by the rush of gratitude she felt at the sight of him, Hermione retreated into the kitchen for toast and tea. She charmed the kettle to flash light rather than whistle, and dug out the tea and sugar. She prepared a tray for two, just in case, and brought it to Harry’s little table in the sitting room where he usually took his meals.

She had demolished several slices of toast and two cups of tea when the aromas seemed to penetrate Harry’s awareness. He inhaled deeply and stretched. Hermione moved to perch next to him on the sofa and she touched his face gently to wake him.

His eyes flew open in surprise and he squinted at her. “Hermione?”

“Good morning, Ha—” He sat up and cut her off with an enveloping hug, pulling her tight against him. She returned it willingly, smiling a little at this unusual display, then froze when Harry’s lips pressed against her cheek.

He pulled back, sensing her stillness, and his own smile faded a little. They stared at one another for a moment, reading the uncertainty in her eyes and the concern in his own. Then Harry groped for his glasses on the side table, breaking the spell. “So, how are you feeling? Any headache, stomach issues? Susan just said that her antidote would put you right—”

“Harry!” She cut across his babbling with one stern word.

He drew back and turned to move his feet to the floor. “Yes?”

“What happened?”

He hesitated. “How much do you remember of last night?”

“Going to the Leaky Cauldron with you and Ron. Being quite bored. It was too full to talk properly even when I found someone I knew. Ron trying to get me to drink too much even though I—oh! I’m late!” She jumped to her feet, looking frantically for her bag.

Harry seized her hands and pulled her back down. “We already let Bassington know you wouldn’t be in today for illness. It’s okay.”

She frowned, feeling conflicted over relief that she wasn’t expected at work and irritation that she still didn’t know why she wasn’t expected.

“Do you remember a chap coming up to talk to you? Out of the blue?”

“The one from America? He was a right tosser, thinking he was God’s gift to women.”

Harry squeezed her hands. “Well, what he did was distract you, so his partner could spell your drink. They tried to drug you so they could take you away. Whatever it was made you appear extremely drunk.”

Hermione drew in a breath as she began to remember. “I couldn’t control my legs...I couldn’t say anything...everything went out of focus and the noise got so loud...”

Harry pulled her close as she began trembling. “It’s all right, that’s all that happened. I got him away from you and he ran. The Aurors are after both of them now.”

She shut her eyes tight for a moment, the memory of complete helplessness washing over her once more. One of Harry’s hands was stroking her back and she could feel his cheek pressing down on her head. Safe...I’m safe...Harry took care of me.

Reluctantly, she drew back. “Where’s Ron?”

If she hadn’t known Harry so well, she would have missed the briefest of stutters as he replied. “R-ron? He was pretty well sloshed. I sent him to Bill’s to sleep it off.”

Hermione was a hundred per cent certain that, while probably true, it wasn’t the entire truth. But Harry moved to stand and she let it go for a moment.

“If you’re up to it, we should give Kingsley your statement. Then you won’t be bothered again until they’ve captured those bastards.”

She glanced down at the clothes she’d slept in. Reading her thoughts easily, Harry said, “Yes, there’s time to stop by your place for a quick shower and change.”

“Then let’s get this over with.”

**********

As soon as the Aurors had her testimony, Hermione returned to her flat. Harry had wanted to come with her, but he’d been caught leaving the Ministry by one of the Wizengamot Wives, who was creating a charity for supporting research into a cure for werewolves. Naturally, she had gotten Harry’s attention but had insisted on having his input into her plans then and there.

She changed out of her robes and into a comfortable jumper and track pants. She had no intention of leaving the flat before morning and didn’t expect to see anyone. She fished some files out of her bag and sat down, ready to tackle some work.

She hadn’t gotten very far when there was a knock at her door. Frowning, Hermione went to answer it and discovered Susan Bones on the other side.

“Sorry not to Floo, but they used the last grain of powder at my office earlier today. I wanted to see how you were?”

Hermione stepped back to let Susan in. “I’m mostly fine, I think. No physical aftereffects that I can tell.”

Susan pulled out her wand. “May I?” At Hermione’s nod, she swept her wand up and down. “Yes, you seem to be fine physically.” Susan stowed her wand, and looked Hermione in the eye. “How about mentally?”

Hermione sighed and sat in one of the pair of squashy chairs in front of her fireplace, a deliberate echo of the Gryffindor common room. “It’s driving me mad that I can’t remember everything. I remember up to a certain point and then it all goes hazy or dark until I wake up in Harry’s flat.”

Susan sat in the other chair. “That’s a fairly normal reaction, from what I’ve been able to research. One paper suggested that a strong Clarifying Charm might sharpen those memories.” When Hermione leaned forward eagerly, Susan laughed. “That’s a yes, I take it?”

Hermione nodded. “Yes, please do it!”

Susan pulled out her wand. “Lean back and relax as much as you can. Acclaro!

Hermione’s awareness was caught up in a tide of memory, unable to direct it, stop it, or do anything other than re-experience the previous evening on fast-forward. She flew through leaving work barely on time, meeting Harry and Ron at the pub, and sitting and nursing her first drink just to spite Ron.

Then some unknown trigger slowed things down: she was speaking to the American prat who finally got her hints and left. She was uncomfortably warm and her throat was dry. She picked up her glass to drink. This time she caught Harry’s voice, barely audible above the babble of the crowd: “Hermione! Put it down!” as she drank.

And then she was caught once more, unable to hold onto the glass with fingers that had no feeling or response in them. Her very bones seemed to have turned to rubber. Her tongue felt too large in her mouth, rendering her speechless. Her vision reeled as the people in her line of sight stretched thin or swelled like images in a funhouse mirror. Their voices shifted to dreadful combinations of high-speed cackling and low booming notes.

And then the stranger was there, moving to pull her up. And she was terrified because the expression on his face was triumphant. Because she could do nothing to stop whatever he was about to do.

The bright flash of a curse nearly blinded her and she fell. The relief that the man was no longer in front of her trebled when she was lifted into the crook of a very familiar arm. “What did you do to her glass? What were you going to do?” The voice buzzed and wavered, the image swayed and twisted, but it was Harry. He swore viciously about something, then looked at her. “I’m here, Hermione. I’ve got you.”

The spell kicked into high gear once more, rushing her through until Harry was there, lifting her up, helping her drink the potion, which immediately soothed her reeling senses, as if broken mental connections were snapping back into place. “Harry...”

“Yes, I’m here.” The feeling of safety as he covered her. Voices in the other room. And then Harry was back, sitting next to her, pushing her hair back from her face. She clutched his hand, not wanting to lose the contact, and thought, I love you, Harry.

Except she’d said it out loud. And Harry had left the room when he heard it.

Hermione felt her stomach heave as if she’d been dropped from a height. Her eyes flew open and Susan was kneeling in front of her, clutching her hands.

“Hermione? Are you all right?”

She drew several shuddering breaths. “Yes...how long did that take?”

“About five minutes. I was really starting to worry; you were showing signs of massive stress there for a while.”

“That charm...is very potent. But I remember it all, now. I should be able to identify both those men if they’re caught.”

Hermione let Susan check her over once more, then sent the other witch on her way. She had a great deal to think about.

**********

That evening, Hermione was set with a book and a dish of ice cream. The ice cream was purely therapeutic and was helping a little. The book, an early history of house elves written with a rare sympathy toward its subject, ought to have her full attention.

After trying to read the same paragraph for a third time, she shut the book in frustration. She leaned back in her chair, taking another mouthful of mint chocolate chip, and tried to pinpoint where her concentration had gone.

A bell on her mantle rang, letting her know that someone was coming through the Floo. Since she’d spent part of the afternoon reinforcing the wards against all but a certain select group of people, she remained where she was and tried to bring her heartbeat back down from its instinctive fearful racing.

When she saw Ron come tumbling out of the flames, her disappointment was so sharp that she had to fight to keep a neutral expression. But her reaction only confirmed what she’d suspected; it was time for her and Ron to go back to being best friends.

If they could.

“Feeling better, Ron?”

“Er, yeah?” Ron looked wary.

“Harry said you’d had too much last night.”

His face cleared, confirming to Hermione that both her best friends were keeping something from her. Then he burst out, “Look, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have been pushing you to drink like that! I should have listened to you...anyway, I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted. But you do realize that how much I had wasn’t a factor? The spell that man cast would have done the same even if I’d been drinking water all night.”

Ron took a deep breath. “That’s not what I mean.”

Hermione sat up, setting the dish aside as she caught the serious tone in his voice. “All right, I’m listening.”

“I was trying to get you a bit drunk so you’d be more open to sleeping with me.” He stopped, and visibly steeled himself for the verbal onslaught.

“You...what?” For a moment, Hermione was too stunned to think. Anger and indignation rose and she drew a breath to scream at him...and then his posture registered with her. He had already come to the realization that this was huge and wrong. Much of the anger drained away, and she made her voice gentle as she asked, “Why?”

Ron’s eyebrows nearly reached his hairline at her reaction, but he pulled himself together. “Because it seemed that no matter what I did, you were never going to let me get any closer than we already were. We’re supposed to be a couple, we’re supposed to be getting closer. And...Bill said I should talk to you about it, but I didn’t know how.”

Hermione began nodding as he spoke. “You’re right, Ron. I have been setting limits, and I haven’t been explaining. I kept telling myself that I was sorting it out first, but I think I didn’t want to face it, either.” She looked up at him. “I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry I didn’t try to talk to you sooner.”

“D’you...want to talk now? I mean, after last night, you’re completely justified in telling me to fly off a cliff without a broom. First I had my stupid plan and then I got too drunk to realize when you were in danger—”

Hermione rose and stepped forward, holding up a hand. “No, it’s okay. It won’t be any easier to talk this through tomorrow or the next day.” She led him over to the squashy chairs, sitting across from him.

“Ron, the truth is that I love you dearly, as I have since you became one of my best friends. But even though I’ve tried, I’m just not in love with you. No matter how hard we try, there are just some things that neither of us will give an inch on. All we can achieve is a compromise not to talk about them, and that’s created a minefield that we have to navigate constantly when trying to build a relationship.” She felt tears welling in her eyes. “I miss being able to get mad at you when you make fun of my reading, or being able to just tell you when you’ve gone on about Quidditch too long. And the fact that you felt you couldn’t just ask me about intimacy…that I held you at arm’s length without explaining myself…those are big clues that we’re not suited.”

Ron nodded, his own eyes glistening a little. “I can understand that.” He swiped at his eyes. “I talked to Bill some today, and then Fleur took over. After she’d cross-examined me and thrashed it all out, she said I was in love with the idea of being with you, rather than really being in love with you...if that makes sense?”

Hermione snickered. “Yes, it makes perfect sense, you ginger git!” She seized his hand and held it as he joined in. They laughed together for a moment before Ron pulled away.

“Are we...are we good, then?”

“Yes, Ron. Back to friends, but we’ll probably need time to get used to that again.”

Ron scrubbed his hands on his thighs, then stood with a deep sigh. “I better go. I need to talk to Harry before I go home. You still coming to dinner at the Burrow Sunday?”

“I ...maybe not this week.”

He lowered his gaze. “Okay, then. Just…don’t stay away forever?”

She gave him a quick hug and backed up before he could return it. “Be seeing you.”

He nodded as he disappeared into green flames, and Hermione collapsed in a chair. She ran her hands through her hair, trying to push away the last of the unease she had felt while Ron was there. The conversation had gone more smoothly than she had any right to expect, and the notion that she was suddenly free to act on what she had discovered was too good to believe right away.

I should give it some time, though.

**********

Harry was on his knees, scrubbing the floor of the loo. He had already brought the kitchen to a state of perfection and laundered every last scrap of clothing in the flat since taking Hermione to headquarters to give her statement.

And even after hours of cleaning, his mind continued to revolve around her and what she had said last night.

Every time he thought he’d convinced himself that she was nearly asleep and therefore unaware of what she’d said, he would remember a look she had given him or something she had done that said otherwise. Whenever he was sure that she had meant the sentiment as “just friends”, he would remember Ron’s complaints of Hermione not letting their relationship get past a certain point.

In short, he still didn’t know what to do about the situation.

He heard the crack of an arriving wizard or witch, much quieter than the evening before. The difference was clear as soon as Harry heard Ron’s voice, sober and subdued in stark contrast to last night. He got to his feet and went into the sitting room.

“You’re a right mess. What have you been doing all day?” Ron looked Harry up and down.

Harry glanced down at his filthy T-shirt and grimy, sweat-streaked arms. “I’ve been cleaning.”

“What, like a Muggle?”

“Sometimes it helps me think, all right?” Harry snapped and pulled out his wand. He began cleaning himself up and looked expectantly at Ron. “So, why’d you come?”

Ron hesitated before speaking. “I, er...Hermione and I broke up.”

Harry’s head jerked back up at that, staring at Ron.

“You what?”

“I went to apologize to her about, you know, about trying to get her drunk. And thanks for not telling her, by the way. It made it a lot easier.” Ron sat on one end of the sofa and leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “Anyway, we started talking and realized that we’re not really in love with each other, probably never were. So we’re not dating anymore and we’re going to find our way back to being friends again.”

Slowly, Harry sat down on the other end of the sofa. That’s brilliant were the words that leapt to mind, but instead he managed, “Are you all right?”

Ron nodded. “I think so. It doesn’t hurt as much as I expected. Makes me thing we’re doing the right thing. But, if you don’t mind, I think we’re going to sort of avoid each other for a bit first. I told her to come to Sunday dinner anyway, and she said she not yet, so maybe no outings for the three of us for a while? I think she needs space from me.”

Harry reached over and gripped Ron’s shoulder. “Sure, mate. However you want.”

“Thanks.” Ron rose. “And thanks for sending me to Bill’s last night. Talking to them really helped.”

Harry stood as well. “I’m glad.”

“I’m gonna go now. I just thought you should know about Hermione and me, before word got around.” He grinned suddenly. “You go back to your Muggle cleaning. And you can come do my flat later if you still need to think.” He Apparated out.

An hour later, Harry’s bathroom was sparkling clean. But his thoughts were no less murky than before.

**********

Hermione tried to avoid cynicism. She found it an unproductive attitude to take. But she couldn’t hide the sourness she felt when Harry told her the news.

He was not bothering to hide his disgust at all. He’d suggested putting the names of the two men out through Interpol, just in case they thought to try and escape by traveling exclusively as Muggles. When Shacklebolt had taken the suggestion to the Head of Magical Law Enforcement, he’d been turned away.

And once Harry had gone over that worthy’s head by passing his suggestion to Minister Bones through Susan, the Muggle dragnet had located the men within a day.

Harry kept one arm around Hermione as they entered the Ministry and brushed past the small group of reporters who were chasing the story. They didn’t speak at all as questions were shouted at them.

Tonks was waiting for them at the entrance to the Aurors’ section and fell into step beside them. “We’ve matched the images to Harry’s Pensieve records, and the magical signature for Mr Neal is identical to the one on the glass. We just need you two to verify it and we’ll be ready to start proceedings for a trial.”

Harry nodded and noticed that Hermione was growing paler as they approached the elevators. He tightened his arm around her and she gave him a faint smile.

They were shown into the spectator side of the identification tank. Taking the idea from Muggle police procedures, the “tank” was separated from their side by a mirror charmed to be a one-way glass. As they were led in, they watched as Neal, the man who had tainted Hermione’s drink, got up and began pacing. The other man, Palmer, was trying to look relaxed, but his jaw was a little too clenched and his fingers a shade too nervous as they drummed the table.

Hermione swallowed hard and cleared her throat. “I recognize them. That one tried to talk to me for a few minutes and the one standing is the one who tried to carry me out when I was drugged.”

Harry nodded. “I recognize them, too. I don’t suppose Neal had any leftover injuries or spell damage?”

Tonks nodded in reply. “The medical scan showed the leftover bruising from where you pitched him into a wall. He claimed he’d been knocked off a broom in a Quidditch pickup game. He couldn’t explain why your magical signature was lingering on that fancy leather jacket of his.” She flipped through her armload of scrolls and pulled one out. “If you two will just touch your wands there and repeat the identifications, it will all be nice and official.” They obeyed and Tonks returned the scroll to her pile. “Back in a minute to walk you guys out!” She let the door slam behind her.

And while the glass was vision-proof, it was not entirely soundproof. Both men jerked up at the vibrations of the door and turned toward the glass. Hermione gasped involuntarily and stepped back when Neal’s gaze caught hers, even though he was not seeing her.

Harry was behind her in an instant, wrapping her in his arms. He buried his nose into her hair and leaned in to whisper, “I’ve got you. As long as I’m here, I won’t let anything happen to you.”

She began trembling and Harry tightened his hold. But Hermione was trembling for a completely different reason: being in Harry’s arms, feeling his breath as he whispered so intimately into her ear, sent a tidal wave of desire though her. She covered his hands with her own and leaned into him.

I love you, Harry.

“I know, Harry. I know.”

**********

 

For the first time, Hermione truly understood Harry’s occasional worship of magic. She had been a bit sceptical of his reaction at the World Cup long ago upon entering Mr Weasley’s borrowed tent and discovering the large space inside. (To be fair, she had seen quite a bit of the old Doctor Who show thanks to her father’s passion for it. Bigger-on-the-inside was not new to her.)

But to be a victim of assault and not have to testify thanks to Pensieve memories, to not be doubted thanks to the use of Veritaserum on the defendants…these things were truly magical to Hermione. She knew full well how such cases, especially involving the possibility of sexual assault, often went. Without magic, she would have been blamed for drinking too much in a public place, for talking to a stranger and not watching her glass, for how she was dressed. The man Harry had blasted away from her would have claimed to only be helping some poor girl too drunk to walk. Even Harry’s status as the Vanquisher of Voldemort would have only done so much to prevent the defence from trying to tear her reputation down.

It helped that Ron was there, standing in solidarity with the other two of the Golden Trio. Hermione still felt uncomfortable in his presence, but was profoundly grateful. His open support of her made mincemeat of the rumours spread by Rita Skeeter’s successor that the Cannons keeper had dumped her when she showed interest in her attacker.

The two men were sent to Azkaban to await any possibility of extradition and serving out their sentences in their native countries. The impromptu press conference in the Atrium was over, with reporters scurrying back to write their stories. Ron had shaken hands and departed in order to meet with the team in Wigtown for the next day’s match.

Harry turned to Hermione. “Shall I see you home?”

She was very tempted. Harry had been her rock the last few weeks, eating lunch with her in Diagon Alley or bringing takeaway to her flat after work if he couldn’t meet her during the day. His constant presence had been exactly what she needed to get over her nerves.

“I can still get a half-day in if I go directly back to my office. I’m expecting a report from the centaurs any day now and I want to be able to respond right away—”

Harry put a finger to her lips. “You know that it’s not going to arrive today. They said they would communicate with the blessings of Venus and Libra to foster peace, and Venus won’t be hanging around Libra for another week. Come on, we deserve a trip to Fortescue’s. Madam Caulfield probably has new flavours out.”

Hermione shook her head, grinning. Ever since Madam Caulfield had reopened the old ice cream shop, keeping the name, Harry was a regular. “All right, I suppose tomorrow will be soon enough.”

**********

With the chilly weather, they chose to sit inside and Madam Caulfield greeted them cheerfully. After much debate, Hermione settled on a dulce de leche sundae with cinnamon sauce. Harry scoffed at her conservative choice and went with a new Thai combo that the shop keeper said was an idea from her muggle brother-in-law. The result was a lime ginger ice cream with a spicy peanut-butter sauce garnished with basil leaves and Harry professed to love it.

He scooped another large mouthful and shoved it in his mouth enthusiastically, making Hermione think of Ron and his early years at Hogwarts. Despite that, Hermione was entranced for a moment, thinking of just how much she had come to rely on Harry in the past few weeks. She didn’t want their closeness to fall back into the old habits of “just good friends”.

Harry noticed her staring, a dab of ice cream on the corner of his lips, and paused. “Do you want a bite?”

Before she could dissuade herself, Hermione leaned over, past his proffered spoon, and licked the ice cream from his face.

They both flinched: Harry from the touch of her tongue and Hermione from the noise of his spoon clattering on the table. They stared at one another, each afraid to speak first.

Finally, Hermione broke the silence. “Harry? Are you all right?”

Harry swallowed, trying to get both his throat clear and his sudden surge of hormones under control. “I…yeah. Yeah. Never better.” He managed a smile and when Hermione relaxed slightly he was able to calm down a little more.

“Good. How about we go somewhere nice for dinner this weekend? My treat. I owe you for all the takeaways you’ve been bringing lately.”

Since he had been trying to figure a way to get Hermione to go out with him without coming on too strong like Ron, he nodded. “That sounds great. Magical or muggle side?”

“Muggle side. There’s a restaurant in Picadilly that I’d love to visit again. My dad used to take my mum there on very special occasions, and they took me for my tenth birthday.”

“Sounds posh.”

“It is. You’ll need a suit and tie to feel comfortable and I’ll need a bit of luck to get a table at short notice.”

“And you’re buying?”

“I most certainly am. You deserve it after everything you did for me.” She sat back and attacked her melting ice cream with satisfaction.

**********

As six o’clock approached, Hermione was staring at herself in the mirror and biting her lip. She was in a new dress, the one that fit perfectly and was just the right length and cut just low enough to be interesting without being flashy. But the colour was all wrong: what had been advertised as “dusty rose” in the shop looked like a muddy pink in her flat and would probably be even worse in the dim lighting of the restaurant.

Rather than dig through her closet, she picked up her wand and began casting charms on the dress, cycling through colours. She was wavering between two shades of blue when the buzzer to her door sounded. Quickly going for the lighter periwinkle blue that echoed her Yule Ball gown, she dropped her wand in her magically-enlarged evening bag.

She checked the spyhole and opened the door for Harry. “Hi, Harry.” She looked him over in appreciation. “No Apparition? I can see why you’d avoid the floo, given that dashing suit.”

“I got us a taxi, since you said the restaurant was in Muggle London and it looks like rain. Easier to be dropped at the door instead of trying to Apparate into an unfamiliar alley.”

As Hermione moved to get her wrap, Harry beat her to it and settled it around her shoulders. He moved to her ear, his voice dropping as he spoke. “And it would be very bad form to get such a lovely dress wet.”

They were in the taxi and on the way before Hermione got her throat working again.

**********

Harry was impressed by Hermione’s father’s taste. The restaurant was over a century old, steeped in tradition and history, and yet presented a vibrant menu to its clientele. Harry was about to ask for water when Hermione chose a bottle of wine from the list.

“Are you sure, Hermione? I don’t think I’ve seen you drink since…”

She looked up at him with an expression of gratitude but steel in her eyes. “Yes, thank you. I have three reasons. First, I do need to work off the last of my hesitations caused by that night. Second, we’ll be taking a taxi back. And third…” she trailed off and licked her lips nervously, making Harry focus on them for a moment.

“Third?”

“I’m with someone I trust to the ends of the earth.”

Harry ducked to hide the sudden flush in his face and tried to distract himself with the starters on the menu.

After an excellent meal filled with chat about work and friends, they debated desserts. Harry chose a chocolate torte while Hermione surprised him with her selection of a gooseberry parfait. She shrugged. “My mother blames my grandmother, who always brought us gooseberries from the bushes on her farm. I love them.”

As they began on the resulting confections, Harry broached the one subject that had not come up. “Have you heard from Ron?”

She shook her head. “Not a thing, but it doesn’t surprise me. If I have a hard time thinking what to say to him, it must be a hundred times worse for him.”

“If…you know, it hadn’t happened, would you still be together, do you think?”

Hermione swallowed and shook her head. “No, I think we would have broken up fairly soon anyway. The fact that he even considered trying to get me into bed with alcohol is a glaring pointer. I was keeping him away but not explaining and he couldn’t find a way to just ask me what was wrong.”

“So, what happens next? George sent a letter saying that Su Li had dropped by twice in the last week to buy gifts for nephews and ask after Ron. What about you? What do you want to do?”

“Well, that’s the beauty of it. I don’t have to do anything. I have my friends, my family, my job and my cat. Unlike some women, I don’t feel I have to be dating to make my life interesting.”

“Fair enough. But if you were looking, what would you look for?” Harry took a large bite of cake, trying to calm his sudden nerves over her answer.

She took her wineglass and sat back, giving the question serious thought. “Well, I don’t think I could date someone who wouldn’t be comfortable in the Muggle world. Even after knowing us almost ten years and growing up with his father, Ron was still next to useless when we visited my parents.”

Harry nodded. “I can understand that. It was annoying to have to explain every little reference to Ginny.”

Hermione nodded. “And of course it has to be someone I can actually talk to without second-guessing what I say or how I say it. Someone who isn’t judging my choices. I know that was something that bothered Ron…or Mrs Weasley. I wanted to be firmly placed in my career before marrying or even considering children, and you know how traditional some of the old wizarding families are about such things.”

Harry nodded again. “Absolutely. Leaving your brilliance to do nothing but cook and clean and change nappies would be a waste.”

She blushed slightly at the compliment and turned the subject around. “What about you? You can’t fool me by pleading work the way you do with most of the women around. What is it you’re looking for?”

Harry looked down at his plate for a moment, drawing circles in the praline mousse that had come with his dessert. Finally he met Hermione’s eyes again. “I just want someone who can see past Harry Potter. I’m tired of being the Boy-Who-Lived, the Vanquisher of Voldemort. I’ve been just an Auror for three years now, and the only woman there who isn’t blinded by my fame is Tonks. And she bats for the other side.”

Hermione reached over and laid a hand on his, not needing words to convey her sympathy and caring.

He seized his chance to hint at the truth that had come to him in the last several weeks. “I think you’re the only woman who has ever managed to see me for just me.”

She squeezed his hand, giving him the first stirrings of courage to act on what he felt.

**********

Back at Hermione’s flat, he paid the taxi and escorted her inside. She led him up to her door, where he gently took the key and opened it for her, leaning into her a little in the shadowy hall. She swallowed before speaking. “Why didn’t you ask the taxi to wait for you?”

“I can Apparate or Floo back easily enough.”

She nodded. “Would you like to come in? Have some tea?”

They entered and Harry put his hands to her shoulders, sliding her wrap off them and laying it across the back of a chair. She moved to the tiny kitchen and put the kettle on. He watched her, smiling, as she prepared the tea without once thinking about using magic.

As she stretched for a little-used tea tray on a high shelf, Harry stepped up behind her and plucked it down. She took it with shy thanks, set it on the counter, and realized Harry had not moved away from her.

“Harry?” She turned to face him.

“Like I said in the restaurant, Hermione. You’re the only woman who’s ever seen me for just me.” He leaned down slowly, giving her plenty of time to stop him.

Instead of stopping him, she reached up and pulled him to her, pressing her lips firmly against his. Thus encouraged, Harry wrapped his arms around her and deepened the kiss. When they broke off for air, Harry touched his forehead to hers, stroking her cheek, hardly daring to believe this was real.

“I meant it, Harry.”

“What?”

“When I told you I loved you, that night. I meant it.”

“Well, then, I mean it, too.”

 

*******************

Author’s Note: As always, thank you for reading!