The first time he noticed it was after their escape from the Lovegoods’.
Ron had stepped up as leader. Perhaps this was due to Harry’s insistence on the importance of the Hallows, perhaps it was out of some sense of penance for his having left. Harry often took time to puzzle out how to get him and Hermione to see his side, but it was proving less and less likely that this would happen. He did briefly consider asking Hermione for her copy of Beedle the Bard and her rune translations, but Harry knew this would lead to another argument about his priorities, and frankly he couldn’t face it –especially not since Ron and Hermione’s collective focus on the Horcrux Hunt meant that they bickered even more than usual.
Hermione had begun spending much of her time with her nose buried in the book about Horcruxes, the one she rescued from Dumbledore’s office. Days had passed with her flicking through the pages with increasing fervour…or was it frustration? At times Harry thought she was trying to make a point. But ruminating on that wasn’t helpful, nor was ruminating on how Ron seemed to read over her shoulder so often –though, admittedly, he was getting better at not startling her as he did so.
Ron was trying to keep a cheery mood. Perhaps he sensed the tension that could form and was trying to distract from that by focusing on a common goal. It was almost jarring. Harry supposed he’d grown used to spending a lot of time with Hermione. They had, after all, practically driven the entire hunt themselves up until this point. To have a third person contributing as they had was wonderful, and Harry could tell that Hermione, too was surprised by this change of dynamic, even if she didn’t say so to him. Harry did play along with Ron and Hermione’s plans, if only to keep his friends happy, if only to keep them from pestering him, but in the spaces between visiting and re-visiting every place they could think of, their conversations had changed. It seemed as though, all of a sudden, there was less to say to one another –less of substance, at any rate. Harry wished it wasn’t the case, but something was fundamentally different, and it ran deeper than this emerging divide between his tactics and theirs.
But he couldn’t quite place it.
The first time he placed it was after their journey to Upper Flagley.
While Hermione sat outside the mouth of the tent, keeping watch and scribbling notes as she read, Ron turned to Harry and started asking him questions about how to cook different meals.
“Ron, if you want me to cook something specific, you can just tell me,” said Harry, who had been half-listening, lying on the floor playing catch with a wadded-up piece of paper.
“No, no Harry, I want to do the cooking,” Ron insisted.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“If you give me some hints, I might be able to figure it out. Don’t worry, I’ll save enough for you.”
“Gee, thanks. Where am I going to be, then? You sending me off on a solo mission?”
“Harry, have you been listening to a word I said?” said Ron, throwing another wadded scrap of paper in Harry’s direction.
“It’s Valentine’s Day coming up,” Ron whispered, so Hermione wouldn’t hear.
“Oh…” said Harry.
And he thought back to their visit to the small wizarding village earlier in the day. He could vaguely recall glimpses of pink and red and white in some of the shop windows, and how Hermione tripped over a tree root, distracted by Ron putting an arm around her.
Harry often thought it strange how often Ron’s advances towards Hermione were interrupted. Like when she accidentally dropped the Monster Book of Monsters on Ron’s foot as he attempted to cuddle her while she sorted books to pack at the Burrow. He really didn’t know his moments, did he, Harry thought. It had occurred to him that several times, when Ron and Hermione were bickering, it had started because Ron had been trying to flirt and Hermione, in her seriousness and focus, had not realised. Harry often found himself making an excuse to go fishing or foraging at these times, feeling he was intruding and not feeling it was his place to step in, and feeling the wall between him and his friends grow higher and higher.
And when he’d walked behind them in the Invisibility Cloak, and Ron touched the small of Hermione’s back and nothing went wrong, Harry recalled feeling that same strange loneliness that he’d felt at the beginning of their time on the run. That one early morning at Grimmauld Place, when Ron and Hermione seemed to reach for each other in their sleep. Only this time, Ron and Hermione were walking with their arms wrapped around each other as she and Harry had in Godric’s Hollow. Harry was glad Ron couldn’t fully see his face when the twin realisations hit: that he really missed the time he’d had alone with Hermione, and all that implied; a tacit resentment of Ron’s presence, the question of what that meant for how he felt about Hermione, the possibility that this would mean everything Ron saw in the Horcrux was true.
But he said nothing about any of that. Instead, he turned to Ron, mustered the most unaffected smile he could and teased,
“Is now really the time?”
“Could be,” Ron said with a grin. “It would certainly lighten things up a bit anyway.”
Harry finally said something the night of the dinner.
He’d found the time he’d usually spend meditating on the Hallows had slowly been consumed with his realisation about Hermione.
He’d told Ron she was like a sister to him. Like a sister. Harry wasn’t sure he believed it then, only believed it to be the one thing that would calm Ron’s fears for certain. Harry knew only that Ron felt like a brother to him, and the affinity he shared with Hermione was at least on par with that…but it was different. There was a physical ease she had with him that he could not bring himself to create with anyone else. She felt as though she was of his soul, but not in the same way as Ron did. Kindred spirits, for sure, but there was something more invigorating and comforting about how he felt with Hermione.
And she was drifting further and further away from him. Did she know? Did she know the extent of how Ron felt? Had any of their time without him meant more to her than he’d realised? Harry thought of the day they’d spent huddled by the fire, just him and Hermione and their quiet and easy companionship, how earlier he’d closed his eyes when she’d brushed her hand over his hair. How all of that meant more to him than he could dare to understand, and he didn’t appreciate it as he should have at the time.
Harry sat outside the tent, far away from the opening for discretion’s sake. The dinner was tonight. Ron had made sure it looked casual enough –he wasn’t a total fool. At least, that’s how he’d intended it. Once again, there were raised voices coming from inside, and Harry tried to concentrate on the Hallows. The only way he was getting out of this was alone, Harry prevented himself from thinking but thought anyway. And if he wasn’t…is this what life would look like without him? If he could find a compelling argument for the Hallows, he thought, then maybe they could all at least work together again. Maybe then he wouldn’t feel this loneliness.
And then Hermione came stomping out of the tent and threw herself down next to Harry, opening her book.
“Don’t ask,” she said.
“Wasn’t going to,” said Harry. He eyed her book. It was the copy of Secrets of the Darkest Art. She flicked through the pages with some force before settling on a good section to read.
“Are you trying to make some kind of point with that book?” Harry asked, half teasing, half genuinely concerned it was true.
“Harry, don’t,” Hermione said. “I don’t need you on my case as well.”
“I’m not I was just…making a bad joke,” he finished lamely. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No thank you,” she said flatly, and tried to go back to reading.
Harry stared out into the silent countryside. She hadn’t sat quietly with him at all in weeks. He felt the absence of that. He hadn’t, however, imagined this tension.
She shut her book.
“It’s just –” Hermione started.
“What?” Harry asked, almost too quickly. She looked vexed.
“I don’t understand why Ron wants to cook tonight and why he’s been asking me so many questions about food. Like he’s expecting me to know everything! And I keep telling him that you’re the better cook and he should ask you, but he keeps insisting he needs MY opinion, what do I want him to cook, how he should do it and I –I just don’t bloody CARE anymore! I’ve told him as much, but it’s like he can’t even conceive that anyone other than the GIRL will know anything about this stuff. I just –”
“Hermione…” Harry interrupted.
“He’s trying to cook you a Valentine’s Day meal.”
Hermione gawped at Harry for a moment before she remembered herself, looking away, her cheeks blushing quite pink.
“Of…of course,” she whispered. Her expression became inscrutable. Then it softened, and Harry tried not to feel his stomach fall.
Then she laughed. A sudden burst, in spite of herself, which dissolved into silent fits of giggles.
“Are…you alright, Hermione?” Harry ventured.
All she could muster was “He’s trying to cook me dinner!”
“Yes, he is,” said Harry, starting to laugh with her.
“For Valentine’s Day!”
Hermione wiped tears from her eyes.
“It’s all so ridiculous,” she said. “I’m…so…ridiculous.”
Harry stopped laughing.
“How could I not know that’s what he was doing?”
“I mean, to be fair, we are sort of on the run from the guy who killed my parents so I think you can be forgiven.”
“Still.” Hermione looked at the ground. “I’ve made such a prat of myself.”
“No, you haven’t,” Harry said. “I can go in and be third wheel…if you need?” he offered.
“Seriously, I can,” he said.
She turned back toward him.
“I think I just need to sit out here for a bit.”
“Suit yourself,” said Harry.
“I’ll let you know, though.”
Harry let this hang in the air. She returned to her book. Harry stared ahead at the fields below, blue with the waning twilight, and thought again of how something seemed to interrupt Ron and Hermione almost every time they got close to each other. And here he was, next to her, their knees bumped up against each other, and it was like breathing.
“I couldn’t help but notice you don’t…” Harry considered his words, “you don’t seem as comfortable with him as I thought you would be.”
“What?” Hermione breathed.
“You always seem surprised he’s paying you any attention.”
“Well, wouldn’t you be?”
“I suspect I would, yes! Very much so!”
“But why aren’t you? Comfortable, I mean,” Harry pressed.
“I don’t know… it’s been different since he’s been back. He’s more…positive? Attentive? I keep asking myself why I’m questioning it. It’s all a bit much.”
“Of course,” Harry agreed.
“It’s horrible to say,” Hermione muttered, “but in some ways, things were so much simpler before he came back.” She took a deep breath. Harry listened. “Sometimes I miss when it was just you and me. Does that make me awful?”
“No. Hermione, it doesn’t. Of course not.”
“But he’s being so lovely to me.”
“When you’re not biting each other’s heads off, sure!”
“Oh, Harry. You know what I mean!”
“He’s been wanting to make something happen between you two for ages.”
“Good!” Harry laughed. “I’m sure he’d be relieved to hear that!”
Hermione laughed too.
“I miss when it was just us, too,” Harry said, after their laughter had died down. “Especially now. I know we have our differences about what we should be looking for but it’s…it’s not been easy. And with you two getting closer…” Harry felt tears starting to prick at his eyes, and tried to hide it. Hermione’s face told him that he wasn’t succeeding. “Sometimes I feel like it’s just a matter of time before you both leave me alone entirely.”
Almost before he’d finished, Hermione threw her arms around him and squeezed tight. Harry’s eyes popped in surprise, looking at the tent for fear that Ron might see. It was the last thing he needed. But this was also something he’d missed. The casual touches between him and Hermione had dwindled to nothing ever since Ron’s return. He hadn’t realised how much he’d needed this.
“We would never do that, Harry. I…” her voice caught, “I…could never do that to you. Understand?”
Harry nodded against her shoulder. She kissed his cheek to make her final point.
“You’re stuck with us. Okay?”
“Okay,” Harry said, his heart beginning to unclench.
Hermione let him go. Harry took hold of her hands and kissed them in gratitude, not daring to do anything more.
A long time passed as they looked at each other. Even after Harry let her hands go, still they looked, both on the brink of saying something that would bring them back to those first days on the run, those days when the Horcrux locket whispered to Ron and drove him to jealousy. Neither of them was going to say it first. Not Harry, for sure, because although he understood Hermione felt something like what he was feeling, he could still see that she was torn. Did she, too, think about what life might look like without him in it? And if so, Harry thought, with the danger of that so high, who was he to blatantly confess his feelings and take the choice away from her? Especially when she didn’t know the full picture. But that was not his story to tell.
“Talk to Ron,” Harry said. “Ask him about the Horcrux, and what he saw.”
Hermione nodded, squinted, smiled.
“Maybe not tonight,” she said.
“Oh of course not tonight!” Harry laughed.
Hermione patted his knee as she got up to return.
“But eventually,” she said. “I’d better get back. It will be fine. Like normal.”
“Whatever that is,” Harry said. Hermione laughed in a world-weary way.
“Thanks Harry,” she said, and walked away. But not before, to Harry’s surprise, Hermione caught his eye and, with what he was only half sure was a wink, said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”