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Prologue

Saturday, April 5th, 1997

 

The boy sat in the window.  He sighed, wondering what could have been if he was brave enough.

As he gazed through the panes of glass near the top of a staircase that ascended from the main entrance of Hogwarts, he watched them walking away—the two of them.  She reached up and took his arm.  Had she ever done that before?   The redheaded boy—his best mate—immediately seemed to walk just a little taller, his posture becoming more confident, while his gait altered subtly, almost as if he were strutting.  She looked small next to him: only a few years ago, the three of them were all nearly the same height, but the difference in stature between them was proof of how much had changed over the years.

Harry closed his eyes for a moment and could almost feel her warm hand grasping his own arm, as she had on so many occasions.  Often she held onto him in fear in a desperate situation, but sometimes just out of the friendly affection she had always given him so freely.  

Would she still take his arm like that now?

Did it matter?

He saw her head turn suddenly, that mane of brown hair flying to the side to reveal her gorgeous smile.  She was laughing.  They both bent over a bit in obvious merriment as they shared some private jest.

That smile used to be for me, only me.

Not that she didn’t smile on other occasions, too.  But Harry’s presence often seemed to bring a particular kind of happiness to her.  He never understood why, though Harry knew it had something to do with how very much she had always seemed to care about him, to make certain he was always all right.  

Would she still smile like that for him now?

As the pair slowly disappeared out of sight this beautiful spring day on their way to Apparition practice at Hogsmeade, Harry turned away from the glass.  I’m being ridiculous, he thought.  He had known this was coming for months.  He thought he was over it.  He had even trained his mind to focus on Ginny, who had first been a mere distraction.  But now he had grown to legitimately like Ginny, even desire her.  It bothered Harry, actually—those lustful thoughts always felt wrong somehow.  Yes, she was Ron’s sister.  But he was a teenage boy, and, well, these things were to be expected, he assumed.

With her, however, it was different.  Deeper, stronger, more beautiful.  Like sunrises and angels and feeling like coming home in her arms...

“Idiot,” he muttered to himself.  Lusting after your best friend isn’t “beautiful,” it’s just wrong.  Especially now that she clearly is interested in your other best friend.   If he could try to care for Ginny only with brotherly affection, surely he could love her only like a sister.

At least with Ginny, he still saw some hope, some promise.  Maybe someday the sunrises and angels would come there too.  With her, well… he had his chance, his short window of opportunity, but he had never found the courage.

Or the stupidity, the small voice in his head said in reply.

He felt for the parchment in his pocket, its familiar folds and texture softened over the months.  Why he still carried it, he didn’t know.  It would have been his confession, his “grand gesture” to reveal himself and—in so doing—perhaps win her heart.  

Dozens of times he was only a second from pulling it out and thrusting it into her hands after a class on some random day, then running away before she could read it.  He had fantasized about her coming to him afterward, holding it out with a shocked look on her face, before she took him into her arms in the way only she could.  And then he’d be home… forever.

Not that he had any clue what a “home” really felt like.  But if there was one in his life, it was with her.

He closed his eyes and cleared his throat, swallowing a bit harder than usual.  These feelings would pass.  He still had her in his life—that was what was most important.  He needed her friendship, those caring brown eyes, more than anything.  When his life was falling apart, he knew she’d always still be at his side.

At the opening of the school year, he truly thought things might shift between them.  He saw that radiant look, those bright shining eyes when she had found out that he thought she was the best in their year.  Of course she was!   How absurd that anyone else could even think of another to claim that title!  Still—that whisper she gave him, bursting with happiness at his approval—he had relived that memory many times.  It made him feel even more strongly that he needed to figure out ways to tell her how much she meant to him, to make her that happy again.  And yet the words would never come when he wanted them to.  He’d rather face a dozen dark wizards alone than risk revealing his deepest secret to her.

Which is why he came up with “The Plan” soon after.  He had to admit that it wasn’t much of a grandiose detailed strategic project.  It instead merely consisted of a single gesture: shock and awe, of sorts.  At least thirty times he had started over with his quill, crumpling the previous flawed pages and throwing the evidence into the fire, making certain everything was perfectly written: he thought she would appreciate the neatness.  He couldn’t believe he had even found something so precisely attuned to his situation, so poignant and meaningful…

So why is it still in my pocket?

For an instant, he considered taking it out and tearing it apart then and there, ripping it into tiny pieces and tossing them out the window to let the spring breezes waft the shattered bits of his love across the grounds, into the sun for a few moments, finally emerging from the dark pocket they had dwelt in so many long months, perhaps eventually blowing far away and drowning themselves in the lake.

He chuckled to himself at the image.  Now that would be poetic.

There had been so many little moments in those first weeks of the school year.  Little tepid attempts at flirting—a smirk from him, a blush from her.  Even more than usual.  Followed by suspicious glances from everyone, including Ron.  Did she have any clue how those blushes drove him wild?  She was so adorable, so cute—not perhaps the girl that everyone else would pick out from a crowd, but in the past couple years she had become truly beautiful to him.  He assumed many were put off by the fact that she refused to spend an hour every morning perfecting her appearance, like many girls did.  Her bookishness meant that she had other priorities, more important things to do.  He was surprised that more boys at Hogwarts seemingly couldn’t look past a little frizzy hair, but also grateful that left more of her attention for him.

But Harry had experienced enough time close to her, enough time studying her and even feeling her pressed against him on several occasions that he spent many hours imagining her soft curves underneath those loose robes and bulky jumpers.  How could she ever imagine he’d think she was ugly?  She had even presented him with that opportunity to clarify, and he messed that up too.  Idiot.  He never could find the right way to bring it up again.  Yet she had even called him fanciable, reciting that litany of praise for him.  What had that all meant?

Soon afterwards, unfortunately, things began to go off the rails.  There was the damned potions book, which seemed to cause the stupidest disagreements with her.  It was almost like the two of them had started to bicker like she and Ron always did.  Well, never quite that bad, Harry had to admit.  And he had known that she had at least some interest in Ron for a couple years, despite their petty squabbles.  But when she invited Ron to Slughorn’s party, even as friends, Harry saw the beginning of the end.  He nearly destroyed a table in Herbology, it upset him so much.  

It certainly was no coincidence that that stupid monster in his chest for Ginny began to rear its head almost immediately afterward, calling for him, subconsciously trying to deflect his attention from her.

On the other hand, how could he wish for anything but happiness for his best friends?  If they were to be happy together, he definitely didn’t want to stand in the way.  He’d never infringe on her happiness, no matter how conflicted he felt about it.

All through this time, the piece of heavy parchment had lived in his pocket, ready at a moment’s notice.  And he had to admit, he came so, so close—just once.  She and Ron certainly did not make each other happy together at first: Harry found himself chasing after her when Ron upset her over and over.  There was that one day back in December when she had run from Transfiguration after Ron had taunted her yet again, and Harry ran after her, wanting to stop the crying, wanting to do… anything.

But he didn’t know how.  No one had ever come to him when he had cried as a boy.  It was a stupid thing, he knew, but he just didn’t know how to react, even in the presence of the pained expression of his best friend in the world.  So he had stood there, like an idiot, in silence, fingering the parchment in his pocket, uncomfortable that Luna was also there, knowing that then just wasn’t the right time, though maybe it would have been the perfect time…

There were only a few seconds, and then she was gone—running away, hiding her tears from him.  It pained him that she knew he was uncomfortable around crying, but he had come after her because he wanted to be there.  He wanted to help.  Didn’t she realize that?  She probably did, as she acknowledged in her hurried gratitude before leaving.  But he had missed his chance, and it never seemed to come again.

As the weeks and months dragged on, Ginny grew as a distraction, and he let that distraction into his mind more often.  Even she saw how Ginny affected him, and he caught her staring at him a few times, monitoring his interest in Ginny.  She probably thought she was helping him, making him happy—when really he simply was trying to hide and deflect his obsession with her.  Meanwhile, Harry witnessed the repeated blow-ups and hurtful things his pair of best friends did to each other, even though they apparently were supposed to like each other.  So Harry came to think it was for the best.  He’d much rather have her friendship than act like the two of them.  

And of course, there was also that small voice that continuously told him that she simply didn’t see him like that, that they were only friends.  That voice always spoke up strongly in those moments when he came close to telling her.  What if she laughed at him?  Worse, what if she pitied him?  At a minimum, it would make things awkward between them, committing them both to a sort of bizarre purgatory—a state of discomfort where those little hugs from her would almost certainly cease.

Such thoughts had haunted Harry through much of the year, and he’d be lying to himself if he didn’t acknowledge that they had influenced the testy attitude he occasionally adopted with her.  He wanted that to be over too.

Thus, when Ron had muttered a half-hearted silly “I love you” to her a few weeks ago, Harry knew the end had finally come.  Even though none of them took it seriously, Harry saw that tiny blush: the blush that had almost always been reserved for Harry.  The pink color of her cheeks said much more than three words—or even a thousand—could.  The trio had been divided, and that was that.

Moreover, as he learned more from Dumbledore that year about the possibilities of Voldemort and dark magic, Harry increasingly felt like his very presence could put her in danger.  Even his own thoughts, his own mind, could be penetrated by Voldemort, and Harry would never forgive himself if his feelings brought her into peril.   Last year, he had almost lost her to Dolohov, the event that had catalyzed his entire year of reflection on her role in his life.  And what if he himself died?  He couldn’t bear to think of her mourning for him alone—she needed Ron, and to be frank, Ron probably needed her even more.

The day after Ron’s unexpected utterance in the common room, Harry had stopped carrying the parchment, though he had essentially given up ever using it long before.  He hid it deep in his trunk and initially only pulled it out this very morning to gaze at it.  He had one last hope: one unlikely wish that perhaps she’d have a change in heart and choose to stay behind today—to spend the day with him, to choose him over Ron, as she seemingly had done on so many occasions.  And if she had, he would have told her; he swore that to himself that morning.

Instead, they had nearly had another argument before she left.  Why had he been such an idiot?  Was he driving her away?  Was he allowing his own frustration with himself to bleed over to his interactions with her?

She didn’t deserve that.  She deserved the best he could do, even if he couldn’t always live up to it.  And she did bring out the best in him, when he allowed her to.

They needed to get past this.  Well, if there had ever been anything from her, it seemed she was already past it.  He was the one who needed to make a decision.  A permanent decision.  To protect her, and to protect his own heart.  He needed to do it for his own sanity, if nothing else.  He couldn’t waffle or turn back.

Harry reached into his other pocket and pulled out the map.  As he threw on the Invisibility Cloak and began searching for the Room of Requirement, pointedly defying her suggestion for the day, he reached for the parchment one final time.  He wouldn’t tear it up—no, that would be too cruel, and he’d forget his vow.  Instead, he’d bury it, mourn it, but keep it close, and always remember that her happiness came first.  His love, patterned in fourteen careful lines of ink on that page, would be his enduring testimony to that.  Well, that and that other even more ridiculous thing hidden in his trunk.  He’d never betray his best mate either, not when they both meant so much to him.

She would always come first in his heart.  And because of that, he needed to let her go if he valued her as his best friend.  Still, there would only ever be one she in his life.  It was almost as if the very pronoun itself was reserved for a single person by default in his mind.  She had always devoted so much to him and asked nothing in return.  This would be his silent sacrifice.

Hermione deserved that much… and so much more.

Chapter Text

Six years later…

Friday, February 14th, 2003

 

Hermione was breathing hard and fast.  “Please, Harry, now!”

“I’m trying,” he panted.  “Just—move a little…”

She didn’t know how much longer she could wait.  “Harry, you need to put it in now!”

“One second… almost…”

Hermione grunted in frustration.  “That’s the wrong hole, Harry!  Higher!”  She felt him reorient his hand next to her leg.  “There.  That’s it!  Slide it in—quickly!”  Harry let his breath out as it finally slipped in.  “Come on, Harry,” she pleaded with ragged breaths, “Can’t you go any faster?”

Harry did seem to be putting in his full effort and concentration, his hands rapidly manipulating everything in just the right way.  “YES!” he shouted, finishing more quickly than he had expected, as she collapsed on the desktop.  Harry followed a moment later, landing beside her.

Their breathing gradually slowed, while they started to relax, satisfied now that it was over.

She rolled her head on its side to face him.  “Harry, if we ever try that again together, we’re going to have to do a Reducio charm.  This thing of yours is simply too huge to deal with any other way…”

He turned his face to hers, wearing a devilish smirk.

“What?” she said, unable to help smiling a bit in response.

“Do you realize what you just said?  About my huge… thing?”

She rolled her eyes, as she pulled herself up.  “Yes, Harry.  Ha, ha, ha.  You know I was talking about your enormous desk.”  She held out her hand to help him up.

“Didn’t sound like that to me...” Harry said as he stood, eyeing her steadily.

A cough came from across the room, causing them both to turn suddenly.  “Kreacher heard some rather loud noises,” the house-elf said.  “Are Master Harry and Mistress Hermione all right?”

Hermione rolled her eyes again, as Harry replied, “We’re perfectly fine.  Just assembling some furniture.  Thank you, Kreacher.”

Kreacher’s eyes went back and forth between them for a moment.  “It is good to have Master Harry here again,” he eventually said, bowing before disappearing with a pop.

Hermione was shaking her head.  When Harry had convinced her to take off from work early today so they could spend Valentine’s Day “celebrating being single together,” she hadn’t quite imagined that he had meant she’d be helping him move his belongings out of his ex-girlfriend’s flat and back to 12 Grimmauld Place.  Still, it was better than spending the day alone, as she had expected to be doing.  Not that she really gave a second thought to the fourteenth of February one way or the other.  But if there was someone she was happy to see today, it was her best friend, especially now that he would be moving back in as her housemate.

“Honestly,” she said, sliding a box along the floor and away from their recently reassembled desk, “I’ve worked for years to get Kreacher to stop that annoying habit.  I’m just ‘Hermione,’ not someone’s ‘mistress.’  But now that you’re back here, he’s going to start with those silly old-fashioned titles again.”  

Harry shrugged.  “We got him to accept a salary and even a couple days off each month.  He’s just trying to show you respect.”  He grabbed one corner of the desk.  “Can you help push this against the wall?”  

While they half-lifted and slid it together, Hermione reflected on how they ended up with this monstrosity in the first place.  It was, admittedly, partly her fault.  After the war, Harry began to take his work more seriously, and Hermione convinced him that he should have a place to focus so he wouldn’t get distracted at home.  She suggested that he buy a desk to keep himself organized.

As his first piece of real furniture, Harry became strangely obsessed with getting something built to last and of high quality.  Hermione remembered a Muggle shop in London her parents had used which could create custom hardwood furniture, and the two of them had spent a Saturday morning picking it out for him, with Harry adding a few customizations later.  Despite the fact that he was working out the plans to move into a flat with Ginny at the time, the whole task felt very domestic and adult for Hermione.  She enjoyed imagining him settled somewhere, living more peacefully after the defeat of Voldemort.

Yet, since then, this desk had become a bit of an annoyance in Harry’s subsequent moves.  As a large corner model, it disassembled into three pieces for transport, but the design did not make it easy to put back together at all.  The two sides needed to be tilted and lifted to fit into dovetailed grooves, while bolts were simultaneously pushed through from the other side.  During Harry’s past two moves, Ron had been there to help with the most awkward part, but it had been a struggle today with just the two of them.  And while Harry was willing to reduce the size of the desk for transport, he didn’t want to risk magically enlarging or reducing the desk while assembled, as he thought the connections to the center piece made it a bit fragile, an assessment Hermione had to agree with.  It was a Muggle design, after all, not intended for magical manipulation.

Still, Hermione couldn’t believe how much the thing weighed, particularly the one side she had to lift up a few minutes ago.  And Harry’s insistence that they keep most of the drawers in place while they moved it baffled her.  “What do you keep in this thing?  Gold ingots?” she wondered aloud, gasping again with her effort, as they finally managed to get it against the wall.  “And what do you mean by ‘respect’?  Calling me a mistress?”

“Well,” he said, standing up straight and taking a few breaths, “with all the yelling and grunting and how you were going on a few minutes ago, Kreacher probably figured you had assumed the role,” he smirked.  “You know, with all those comments like, ‘Slide it in quickly, Harry!’”

She felt her cheeks grow warm.  “Oh, shut up,” Hermione said with a laugh, as she gave him a shove and turned away.

But Harry caught her hip and rather forcibly threw her back around, standing close in front of her and pinning her with her back against the desk.  “I could make you scream, you know,” he said, his voice suddenly gravelly.

Hermione’s heartbeat quickened substantially, and for just an instant, she thought… but no, she could see the glint of mischief in his eyes.  She narrowed her own, returning his stare, now quite certain what was going to happen.  “You wouldn’t dare,” she whispered, with more than a hint of warning.

But a fraction of a second later, Harry’s hands drove into her sides, his fingers wiggling and clutching in a way that had her loudly squealing instantly.  She countered as soon as she could, but when he seemed immune to her hands on his sides, she moved up to tickle his armpits.  At that, he jerked back and began laughing uncontrollably, stumbling backward as she pursued him with gusto.  Unfortunately, he backed into one of the boxes on the floor, setting him off-balance and tumbling toward the ground.  With his hands still on her sides, she found herself pulled along and falling with him, landing almost directly on top of him as she felt the breath squeezed out of him.

“Are you all right?” she said in concern, her hand involuntarily coming up to his face, which was now only inches below her own.  

“Fine,” Harry replied, gazing up at her for a couple seconds, breathing hard.  But the lull didn’t last: as she began to move off of him, his hands now inserted themselves deeply under her arms, causing her to erupt in another shriek of laughter as she struggled in vain to fight back.  But Harry seemed more determined than ever, his hands skipping blithely from her neck to her sides to the back of her knee.

When he began to yank at her shoe, she cried out, “Stop!  Not the feet!”  But that request only seemed to urge him on, as he turned his attention back to her sides, pinning her wrists above her head with one hand, his strength overwhelming her while she continued giggling, having lost all control.

“Are we done?” he panted, pausing his tickling for a moment.  His face was lit up with the joy of apparent victory, again mere inches from hers, as she contemplated whether to nod and end it.  But his eyes were dark and wild, igniting new energy inside of her.

Somehow, she managed to wrench one hand loose from his grip and dig her fingers deep into the back of his neck an instant later, causing him to yelp aloud.  Taking the element of surprise to her advantage, she now went at him full force: her right hand flying to all the right spots on his upper body, avoiding his ineffective attempts to bat her away, while her left hand remained clenched tightly, though continuing to wiggle, on his neck.

In his retreat, he rolled onto his back, and soon she straddled him, watching him writhe about as he howled, “Stop!  Stop!”  That only caused her to bombard him more incessantly until he finally yelled, “Okay, enough!  I yield!”

She loosened her grip on his neck as they continued to laugh quietly, smiling and shaking their heads while staring intensely at each other, until Hermione caught her breath.  She then collapsed on top of him, feeling sapped of energy, rolling sideways to cuddle up to his side as she put her head down on his chest, hearing his heart still beating quite vigorously.

They let out a sigh together.  We’re grown adults, getting into a tickle fight, she thought.  And yet, nothing made her happier than this.  Not the actual tickling, which was oddly fun and thrilling but also slightly annoyed her.  However, she knew it would lead to this, an excuse to cuddle up to her best friend, even on the floor with boxes strewn about.  As their breathing slowed, and Harry’s arm came up around her, she closed her eyes and reflected for a moment on how much she had missed this in recent months, how much she had missed him...

Chapter Text

Hermione wasn’t quite certain when their banter had begun to occasionally turn, well… so sexual.  Even back at Hogwarts, they had sometimes shared a laugh about such things, usually when Hermione would make an unintentionally funny comment that could be heard as a double entendre.  But living alone with her handsome best friend for over a year and a half had altered their relationship in a number of ways.

After the war, Hermione and Ron had been together for a couple of years, until the bickering eventually made them realize there was just some fundamental incompatibility between them.  Harry had insisted she stay at Grimmauld Place for a while after her breakup, as it wasn’t being used.  After a few months of renovations and brightening up the dark old house, she found she actually liked the spacious building, with its library, drawing room, and many other varied spaces that she gradually organized to her liking.

Harry was happy to see the place looking more cheerful and encouraged her efforts.  Meanwhile, he and Ginny had seemed happy at first in their own London flat.  But Ginny’s Quidditch schedule and his busy Auror training left them little time together for a couple years.  When they finally started finding the time to devote to each other, they found they had less and less to talk about.  About a year after Hermione had moved to Grimmauld Place, Harry joined her there as well.

That arrangement was supposed to be short-lived, as Hermione was dating someone from the Ministry, and Harry soon found himself with Gwyn, another professional Quidditch player.  Gwyn was much more beautiful than Ginny and frequently graced the front page of wizard celebrity magazines.  But Hermione’s relationship rapidly faltered, and Gwyn was nearly always out of town, leaving Harry and Hermione to themselves in their Islington townhouse.

Hermione had always enjoyed being physically close to Harry, but their many evenings together led to long sessions working next to each other in their joint office space.  Those evenings gradually gave way to more casual time on the sofa, where Hermione couldn’t resist cuddling up next to Harry sometimes as she read.  She had rarely been so bold before, aside from a few evenings back in the Gryffindor common room when they were both so exhausted that they’d end up leaning on each other while they studied.  But ever since their long time alone together on the Horcrux hunt, something had changed between her and Harry.  He seemed to reach out and take her hand every so often, and she felt comfortable putting her arm casually around him too sometimes.  When they ended up alone together for many nights in Grimmauld Place, this casual intimacy grew.

Hermione also came to understand more about Harry’s upbringing and how he hadn’t been given much affection.  In a way, she felt like she gradually figured out how to “unlock” new levels of physical contact from him, sensing that he needed it as much as she craved it.

They thus became the constant in each other’s lives as relationships came and went.  Hermione’s attempts rarely continued beyond one or two dates, as most of the wizards seemed to admire some imagined persona based on exaggerations about the war.  In a couple other cases, they were true boring bookworms that had absolutely no sense of adventure.  Harry, meanwhile, stayed with the itinerant Gwyn for over a year before they too fell apart.  Although Hermione tended to downplay her role, she couldn’t help noticing the somewhat jealous looks Gwyn had begun to give her when she’d find Harry casually breakfasting with her after nights Gwyn would stay over.  Hermione actually had pointed out to Harry that he should be paying more attention to Gwyn, but somehow that silly boy could never quite figure out how to act in his relationships.

With Gwyn gone, an acquaintance from another department at the Ministry swooped in almost immediately to draw Harry’s attention.  Hermione sometimes had to shake her head at Harry’s absurd taste in women.  Anna was obviously infatuated with Harry’s celebrity status more than anything else, and she clearly desired to work her way up to elite social events in wizard society through him—events that, had Anna known Harry as well as Hermione did, she’d realize he absolutely detested attending.  Not to mention that Anna had literally been a model as a child before she became a witch.  In their first extended conversation when Harry had her over for dinner, she told Hermione about how conflicted she was when her Muggle parents received a letter from Beauxbatons, as she had to choose between her burgeoning modeling career and magic.  From what Hermione could tell, Anna didn’t really end up doing much in the magical world as it was, instead getting all of her male admirers in the Ministry around her to do most of her work for her.

Still, Harry seemed to like her enough, and Hermione wouldn’t get in the way of her best friend’s interests.  Oddly enough, upon meeting Anna, Luna had pointed out what she claimed was a striking physical resemblance between Anna and Hermione.  It was true that they were of the same height and build, with similar hair color.  But Hermione thought it was preposterous to compare her to Anna, who was admittedly quite stunning and likely spent several hours each day ensuring that she always looked that way, something Hermione couldn't be bothered with.  Hermione never gave it much more thought until several of the Weasleys echoed the same comment when Harry brought Anna to a family gathering.  She still said it sounded ridiculous—why would Harry date someone that looked like her anyway?  It’s not like he had ever shown any actual interest in her that way.

But through all of their relationship ups and downs at this time, Hermione had grown closer to her best friend.  And she felt like he had opened up to her, with his comfort level increasing as he returned her little gestures of physical affection.  Somehow during this time, their occasional silly jokes and banter escalated as well.  Yes, even including a handful of tickle fights after she accidentally discovered how sensitive Harry’s side was one day while snuggling up to him on the sofa.  Hermione never acted this way with other men, but Harry felt so safe.  She knew she could always depend on her best friend, so it felt a bit fun and even thrilling to push the boundaries sometimes.  However, it also made her a little sad that it was merely a joke, that there was a part of Harry’s heart that was always looking for someone else.

Not that she ever really expected Harry to feel that way toward her.  They had grown up together, after all.  And she definitely didn’t look like Anna or Gwyn, or even Ginny.  Years ago, Hermione had a bit of a crush on Harry when she was younger, as many girls at Hogwarts had.  And there were times over the years that she fantasized about what it might actually be like to live her life with him.  While she had been more than happy with their close friendship, over the many months they were housemates together that desire for closeness to him grew to the point that she felt like she was living that dream with him in a way, even as he went off a few nights each week to spend time with the women he was actually dating.

All of this finally came to a head, however, around the time of Ron’s party to celebrate his bachelorhood.  Anna was out of town, and thus Hermione had helped organize things with Harry, who would soon be best man at Ron and Luna’s wedding.  Although Hermione had had a difficult time with Ron, he seemed to have found happiness, and she wished him the best.  But she never imagined the impact it would have on Harry…

Chapter Text

The night of Ron’s stag party last August, Dean and Seamus had shown up quite late to Grimmauld Place, almost dragging Harry between them to return him home.  Hermione had been in her pajamas for hours, up late reading.  She had also been a bit curious to find out what the party was like from Harry, though that now seemed impossible.  She led them up to Harry’s room and dismissed them once he had collapsed on his bed, telling them she could take it from there.

Hermione had never seen him anywhere near this drunk.  Seamus explained that Harry went off on some diatribe late in the evening about “true love” and how he was happy for Ron if he finally found it.  After that, apparently Harry became rather morose and just kept daring them all to do more shots until he fell off his barstool.  Luckily, at least some of them appeared to realize it was time to get him home.

“What a stupid git,” she muttered, as she sorted out what to do with him.  Harry murmured incoherently as she first took his shoes and socks off, then managed—with a great deal of twisting and turning—to remove his trousers and shirt.  She considered leaving him in his clothes, but they frankly smelled a bit like vomit.  After sponging down his brow where he apparently hit his head during his fall, she cleaned the rest of him up a bit too.  As she did all of this, she thought back to that horrible day during the war, when they had visited Godric’s Hollow, and how she had to care for him that night too.  A little bit of excess drinking was easy to deal with compared to the effects of dark magic.

Realizing what an ordeal it would be to get him into pajamas, she decided just to put him to bed as he was.  When she rolled him over to the edge of the bed in order to pull back the blankets, he finally became a bit lucid as he gazed up at her.  “Hermione?” he said, blinking at her.

“Yes, it’s me, Harry,” she replied, as she grabbed hold of the blankets and maneuvered them around him.

Harry’s head rolled off the side of the bed, bobbing a bit as he stared down at the floor.  “You know, you have really cute toes,” he said, his speech quite slurred.

She had to chuckle a bit.  “Whatever you say, Harry.”

“No, they’re really cute… from the little ones… to the big ones… really, I mean… all of them.”

“Okay, can just just get yourself under the sheet?” she asked, hoping he could do some of the work in moving his body into place now.

He slowly rolled himself back over toward the center of the bed, mumbling, “She doesn’t believe me.”  He opened his eyes to stare again at her.  “You don’t believe me?”

“That I have cute toes?  You’re drunk, Harry.”  She took his glasses off and pulled the covers up to tuck him in.  “Just go to sleep.”

“No, I mean… all of the rest of you is cute too…” he murmured, causing her to roll her eyes.

Goodnight, Harry."  She turned away, but he grabbed her hand, quite forcefully.

“Stay.”

“You need to get some rest,” she said.  “Go to sleep—”

“Sleep here,” he said, his eyes growing slightly watery.  “Don’t leave me.”

Something about his expression and tone worried Hermione.  “Harry, I’m not leaving you.  My bed’s just down the hall—”

“There used to be three of us, just the three,” he said somberly, still firmly holding on to her as he stared at their joined hands.  “It was so simple—always best friends.  But now… it’s just you and me...”

Was that what this was all about?  The drinking, and now this?  Marriage did tend to change friendships, Hermione had to admit.  Things would undoubtedly be different.  Ron was an important part of Harry’s life, and she knew first-hand how it felt when that bit of her life fell apart.  She and Ron got along reasonably well now, but it was never quite like it used to be.  And she remembered that Harry had been there for her at that time, too, holding her while she cried the day they finally ended it.

She sighed, not sure she even had the strength to peel his hand off of her.  “Okay, I’ll stay,” she said, crawling in next to him, hoping Anna never found out about it.  But this was about friendship, she told herself.  Harry was afraid of losing a friend, and she needed to be there for him.

What happened next was quite unexpected though, as Harry wrapped her up in his arms from behind, holding her tightly while he cuddled close.  “Hermione,” he sighed, his hot breath drifting over her ear, wafting a lingering scent of alcohol with it.  Within seconds, he seemed to go limp and succumb to sleep.

As she gradually let herself relax, she gave in to the warmth of Harry’s body wrapped around hers.  She always had felt safe in his arms.  And she had to admit, now that she had cleaned him up a bit, this was… rather wonderful.  It was too bad he needed to get this inebriated just to reach out to her.  The way he just said her name—as if it made him thrilled and almost relieved to hold her like this—could being close to her really give him as much happiness as it gave her?  Despite his occasional joking banter, he rarely seemed to show it.  In vino veritas, she thought, though she had to stifle her laughter as she realized that phrase also would imply that Harry thought she had cute toes.

Whatever the truth was, she didn’t care at the moment.  She closed her eyes and felt her breathing begin to slow in rhythm with his.  She’d take the excuse to feel close to him while she had it…


The next thing she knew, she awoke to an incredible feeling of contentment, tranquility, and happiness.  As the early morning light came to her eyes, she realized she was still wrapped up in Harry’s arms.  Did they really sleep together the whole night like this?  Her sleep had been dreamless and more peaceful than she could ever remember.  Suppressing a yawn, she pulled a blanket up around her neck, snuggling closer to him and recording this feeling in her memory, never wanting to forget it.  She didn’t know how long she continued to revel in it, drifting in and out of sleep a couple more times, before finally feeling the need to reorient her body.

As she turned, now facing him, it caused Harry to stir and pull his arms back.  He stretched out while Hermione observed this handsome man next to her, the muscles of his bare arms and chest flexing.

Harry didn’t open his eyes, though.  Instead, after his stretch, he let out a groan as he brought his hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from the morning light.  “I’m getting too old to drink that much,” he murmured, while reaching out to run his other hand from her shoulder down her arm, his fingers caressing gently as he went.

“You’re only twenty-two, though I don’t think that amount of alcohol is advisable at any age.”

At the sound of her voice, Harry’s eyes opened wide and his hand pulled back abruptly.  Hermione was obviously not the person he imagined to be next to him in his bed.

“Hi,” she said with a smirk.

“Uh… hey,” he said after a moment, blinking a few times as if to verify that his vision was working correctly.  But his look of confusion softened, and a smile crept over his lips.  Rather than some sort of silly banter or joke as she expected, he turned toward her, bringing his hand up to push a few strands of hair out of her eyes before tenderly stroking her cheek.  Suddenly everything felt a lot more intimate to her.  And the look he gave her was one of pure adoration, one that made her heart feel like it was about to leap out of her chest.

It was at that instant, in Harry’s bed, their heads sharing a pillow and their faces nearly touching, that Hermione had the sudden realization that she didn’t just love her best friend like no one else in the world.  She was in love with him, and she wanted nothing more than to see that same face waking up next to her every morning.  It wasn’t like the schoolgirl crush she felt for him, or the desperate sense of longing to stay together with him always that she felt during the war.  This was full-blown adult infatuation with Harry, of all people.  Had part of her always been in love with him?

Why was he still touching her face, gazing at her with those beautiful green eyes?  He couldn’t be thinking clearly—perhaps he still even had some alcohol in his system—and she couldn’t stay there for another moment, not with him nearly naked beside her.  A wave of panic rapidly followed as she became afraid of what she might do, of how she might embarrass them both.  With a hastily uttered, “Well then, ready for breakfast?” she turned away and fled the bed.  Actually, she completely fled the room, taking off downstairs to the kitchen at nearly a run where she ignored Kreacher’s flustered objections and hurriedly began cooking some simple scrambled eggs.  She was trying to get her mind on anything other than Harry’s smile and tousled dark hair next to her in bed.

Harry walked in a few minutes later, grabbing the back of his neck and then running his hand through his hair, just as she pulled the toast out and was about to empty the eggs onto two plates.  Thankfully, he had put on some clothes.  “That was unexpected,” he said, now leaning on the table and standing unusually close beside her.  Admittedly, it probably wasn’t unusual at all—Harry would just wander in some mornings and put a hand on her shoulder or even wrap an arm loosely around her in greeting… but right now, this morning, he was suddenly making her anxious.

“Well, you held on to me last night, and wouldn’t let go… and you said you didn’t want me to leave… so, I didn’t.”  She talked as she repeatedly and meticulously scraped the remaining bits of eggs from the pan with a spatula.  All the while, she was avoiding her best friend, who was still there, so close, staring at her.

He grabbed her wrist to halt her nervous busywork.  “Hey, are we okay?”

She took a breath and then briefly did meet his eyes.  “Of course we are.”  She pushed a plate toward him.  “It’s hot.  We should eat.”

They settled next to each other in silence, not looking at each other.  Hermione mostly poked her eggs with her fork, still a bit on edge.

“We didn’t,” he said haltingly, “that is… you and I...”

She couldn’t help rolling her eyes.  He clearly didn’t remember anything.  But even if she wanted to, and even if he had wanted to (and she knew he didn’t feel that way), she wouldn’t have let anything happen with him in such a state.  Certainly not while he was dating someone else.  “Honestly, don’t be absurd, Harry.”

“Right,” he muttered, now poking at his eggs too.  After a few moments, he added, “I’m sorry if I did… well, I don’t remember—”

Hermione managed to get control of her emotions.  She set down her fork and put her hand on his.  “Harry, you have nothing to be sorry about.  Last night, the guys brought you home.  You just were acting unusually lonely when I put you to bed, and that’s that.  I’m always here for you.  You’re my best friend.  And it was,” she hesitated, trying to choose the right words, “actually a bit nice.”  She squeezed his hand, then let go to grab a piece of toast, eating in nervous agitation to avoid inadvertently giving anything more away.  Nice, she thought to herself.  Interesting choice of synonym for “never feeling safer or more loved in my entire life while wrapped up in your arms all night.”

“Nice,” he echoed quietly.  “Right.”  He set down his fork and stood.  “Well, thank you… for everything.  And the eggs are really good, but after last night… I think I just need to go lie down for a while again.”

“At least take a piece of toa—” she called after him, but he had already exited the room.  Hermione let out a long sigh.  She knew the eggs were merely passable, but he also didn’t leave because of a hangover—he left because he felt like he had crossed a line that they never crossed.  But they hadn’t.  It was something they both needed… except now it made Hermione realize how wonderful things could have been.  

Maybe, years ago, when they were just kids, she could have captured his heart.  Now, the most famous wizard in Britain could have his choice of any beautiful witch he wanted.  She was actually grateful he hadn’t come home last night drunk with some other sexy and perfect woman on his arm, as she knew there surely had been those who tried.  It gave her a little solace that in his loneliness, he had reached for her.  If only she had been brave enough to tell him long ago, when she might have had a chance...

Chapter Text

Less than a week later, Harry had announced he was moving in with Anna.  That had all transpired roughly six months ago.  Harry and Anna had only been dating for a few months at the time, and Hermione worried that something had been broken with Harry.

Yet he gave little indication of that.  After he moved out, Harry simply couldn’t seem to stay away from her office at the Ministry, stopping by at first a couple times per week, but soon on an almost daily basis.  The two of them had grown used to working together and bouncing ideas off of each other.  The banter and physical contact mostly stopped, but she could never stop giving him an occasional hug, particularly when he looked like he needed one.

Over the recent holidays, she sensed Harry and Anna must have had a serious fight, though.  Harry became distant from Hermione for a couple weeks after the New Year, and when Hermione did eventually query him about it, he was oddly circumspect about the whole thing.  But then, for the past month, he had resumed his daily visits with Hermione, often working even longer hours along with her into the evening.

Therefore, when Harry showed up late at night at Grimmauld Place a few days earlier, claiming that Anna had finally kicked him out for not planning a single thing in advance for Valentine’s Day, Hermione was not in the least surprised.  Although he was cautious in his wording, clearly Harry had realized how vapid Anna’s personality really was.  Hermione almost had to laugh at the way it seemed like Harry had sabotaged his own relationship.  After all, he had vaguely brought up the idea of Valentine’s Day with Hermione a couple weeks before, saying he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.  Frankly, he seemed more interested in making sure Hermione would be okay being alone that day than in coming up with a plan for Anna.  Hermione rolled her eyes at Harry’s obliviousness—while she couldn’t give a fig about Valentine’s Day and its ridiculous rituals, someone like Anna, with her obsession with appearances and public events, most certainly would have high expectations.  Couldn’t Harry see that?  Hermione thought it was like the whole stupid Cho Chang debacle all over again.

Harry was nothing if not a creature of habit, even bad habits.

And thus she found herself now lying on the floor with her best friend, surrounded by moving boxes, amused at his avoidable problems in his relationships, though secretly quite happy to be snuggling up together with him again.  Deep inside, she knew this was all a kind of fantasy, that Harry would eventually be tempted by another beautiful girl seeking his attention.  Even though she couldn’t bring herself to attempt to date anyone else since her feelings for her best friend had become clearer to her, she carried little hope that her affection would ever be reciprocated.  Harry clearly had a type demonstrated by his string of gorgeous women, and that definitely wasn’t her.

But she also knew that there was part of him that would always belong to her, the part she was so glad to see come out again today: the safe and secure friendship she had come to depend on, no matter what else they encountered in their lives.  She only wished that this more physical side of their interaction could continue, this closeness, even if she knew it simply wasn’t practical.

Harry stirred beneath her, and Hermione realized they had been lying there on the hard floor for perhaps a couple minutes during her reminiscences, their breathing finally returning to normal.  She expected that he would move to get up, but surprisingly he didn’t.  Putting her arm more tightly around him, she turned her head up and kissed his cheek.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“I’ve missed... this,” she said, burying her head in his chest again.  What she really wanted to say was, I missed us, but there was no us, she had to remind herself.  This was merely another part of their friendship, a part that she had missed far too much in the past few months.

“Me too,” he sighed, closing his eyes, and wrapping his arm around her again.  He needs this, she told herself.  And while he needed her, she’d always be there.

She didn’t want to take advantage of it, though.  And eventually she’d have to draw some boundaries—things had gotten a bit out of control today, and they seemed to teeter dangerously on the edge of something else, something less playful and more than merely friendly.  But she couldn’t let those desires out.  The worst possible scenario she could envision would be for her to let something happen, and for Harry to go along with it out of some warped sense of friendship or obligation, which would make everything awkward between them.

That is, if they even made it that far.  More likely, she’d just end up embarrassing herself when he had to clarify that he really didn’t feel that way, and by extension embarrassing both of them.

Taking a long breath, she pulled herself up, noting, “We’re never going to get your things unpacked while lying on the floor.”  She walked over to the nearest stack of boxes and pointed.  “Where do you want these?”

It took him a surprising amount of time to sit up, and then he merely sat there, gazing at her for a moment.

“Well?” she said.

“Why don’t you tell me where to put everything, and it will be faster,” he finally said.  “You know you’ll end up reorganizing all my things anyway.”

Hermione only then realized how much of that was true.  While they had lived together, just as she had brought some order to Grimmauld Place in general, she had gradually helped him sort out his room, even the supplies in that desk they had just moved.  Was it too much?   “Harry,” she said, “I just wanted to help.  But you should choose how—”

He finally stood, shaking his head and interrupting.  “That wasn’t a criticism.  You think about where things should go more than I do, and there’s generally a logic to it.”  He walked over and stared down at the boxes she had been pointing toward.  “I somehow made it by for most of my life, but I didn’t have a lot of things as a child.  Now… after living without you for the past six months I haven’t been able to find anything most days without using a Summoning Charm.”

The corners of her lips curled up at that.  Harry wasn’t one to give compliments that often, but she felt proud that he valued her, even in these little quotidian things.  She handed him a box, and they walked together to the cupboard while she tried to recall where everything had been before he moved out.

“Just so you know, though,” he said, handing her a few minor mementos from his Hogwarts days for storage, “I don’t think I’ll ever keep my clothes sorted by color like you do…”

She shook her head, chuckling as she worked.  “Well, I don’t think we need to worry about sorting your occasional Gryffindor reds from the rest of your wardrobe, which is what—fifty shades of somber?”

His eyes dropped at her comment.  Years before, Harry had told Hermione the stories of how he inherited Dudley’s ill-fitting clothes, and Petunia would sometimes dye them to some neutral shade of gray, which made them even more horrid.  But when he was able to buy his own, even aside from black wizard robes, he still seemed to gravitate toward grays, black, and other similar colors, as if there was still some shadow on him that lingered after he had escaped both the Dursleys and Voldemort.

Hermione stopped and looked at him.  “Sorry, Harry—I didn’t mean… well, you dress very smartly.”  She looked him over, in his drab tee shirt and well-worn dark gray jeans.  Even in these clothes, she still understood why he could draw the attention of so many witches, though.  He was no longer the somewhat lanky teenager she grew up with: years of training and working as an Auror had left him strong, fit, and… frankly, incredibly sexy.  “That is, aside from moving day of course,” she said, forcing her eyes back to the box and her task.  “I was just thinking you could use some variety is all.”

“I just buy them because I don’t really know how to match things.  You could…” he said, “that is, we could go shopping... together.”

“You want to shop for clothes… with me?”  She shook her head in confusion, as she continued to sort through his box.  “Harry, you’ve spent the past five years dating women who have a significantly better sense of style than I do.”

“Yeah, and I’m not interested in being stylish like them.  Wizards, as you know, are already a bit odd and bold with their choices of attire, compared to Muggles.  I don’t want people looking at me like Anna does.”  She understood: Harry never wanted to stand out.  “I just want to look nice…” he added a moment later, “like you.”

She scrunched down her eyebrows at that and glanced over at him again.

But he was looking off.  “I mean, you always look really good… er, that is, professional,” he stammered.  “When you’re at the Ministry, I mean.” His eyes darted to her briefly, and then away again. “Well, not that you don’t… erm, you look great at other times too.”  Was that a slight pinkness she saw in his cheeks?

“I… well, thanks, Harry.  I never realized…”  She tried to think of the last time Harry had ever commented on her clothes or her appearance, and she was drawing a complete blank.  Not that he ever said or made any negative comment either.

But now that she thought of it, it was like Harry actively avoided the issue.  Sure, she sometimes caught him staring at her when she was particularly dressed up—she knew he didn’t think she was ugly—but they’d share a smile and she never thought much more of it.  In fact, once or twice while they were living together last year, she had asked him how she looked before heading off to a date, and he made some vague positive remark before resuming whatever he was doing.  The idea that he actually noticed what she wore and might even admire how she looked?  The notion was all completely foreign to her.  

Harry was still looking a bit uncomfortable.  “Of course I’ll help you pick out some new things if you’d like,” she said, giving his arm a squeeze, which seemed to settle him a bit.  “But let’s get back to it, shall we?”

They spent the next couple of hours going through the rest of Harry’s belongings, getting rid of some old things, and reorganizing everything.  After Harry’s earlier statement, Hermione couldn’t resist taking a pass through the wardrobe in his room and sorting his clothes.  When he came back into the room after taking a few last things to the office, he walked up beside her and stared at her work.  He shook his head at her, commenting, “You’re really amazing, you know.”

She smiled back, suppressing her urge to put an arm around him or just lean into his side; she was already doing it too much today.  “Careful, Harry—we’re in danger of this turning into an actual Valentine’s Day,” she said.  “First, you say nice things about my clothes, and now one of your rare compliments.  The next thing you’ll be cooking me a romantic candlelit dinner…”

“Well... I suppose I could, but I had an even better idea than that actually.”  He glanced toward her and raised his eyebrows.  “Curry?”

Hermione’s face lit up.  “That's brilliant!  Our place?  I’ve barely eaten there in months!”  A little Indian restaurant a few blocks off of Upper Street had become their refuge in the Muggle world last year.  Whenever they wanted to go out for a meal and avoid the prying eyes of the wizard press, they ended up there.  Before Harry moved out, they had been eating there or getting takeaway at least once each week for nearly a year.  It just wasn’t the same going without him, so it was yet another thing she had missed.  

But her enthusiasm was tempered a moment later.  “That would be perfect, but they’ll surely be mobbed tonight,” she added.  “It’s after six o’clock.  It would probably take hours even to get something to bring home…”

He gave her a sly grin.  “Which is why I rang them and ordered takeaway yesterday.”

“You silly boy.  And here I thought you were incapable of planning anything.”  At that, Hermione had to take his hand, clutching it tightly.  “What are we getting?” she said excitedly.

“You’ll have to wait and see…”  Hermione glared at him, narrowing her eyes a bit.  Of course he knew she preferred to know everything; secrets and attempts to surprise her just made her try to wheedle things out of him.  “No, you’ll wait,” he said with that mischievous grin as he squeezed her hand back.  “I should probably leave in a few minutes to go pick it up anyway.”  

He retrieved his coat, as she followed him around.  “Thank you…” she said, as he turned back toward her with a confused expression.  “For getting dinner,” she clarified.

“You’re thanking me?  Hermione, you gave up today to help me move, and you’ve helped turn this whole house from a dismal decaying reminder of the past into a real home over the last few years, a home I’m happy you’ve agreed to share with me for a while.  The very least I can do is buy you dinner.” 

“Harry, it’s your house.  You own it.”

He shook his head.  “Actually… I was going to wait to tell you, but this is our house now.  Officially.  Or, well, it will be soon.  I decided when you suggested I should move back the other day.  I already had a discussion with a solicitor about it, and the paperwork should be drawn up next week.  Given everything you’ve put into this building, and how much I know you like it now, you deserve to be a co-owner… and I say that only because I know you wouldn’t let me simply give the entire house to you.”  He turned toward the door, muttering, “The only thing I ever did was inherit the place anyway.”

Hermione simply stood there, stunned.  “Are you serious, Harry?”

He glanced back.  “I’ve been thinking about it for months, actually.  And don’t even try to object.”

“But you can’t… that’s too much.”

“It’s my house, and I’ve decided.  You deserve it.  Besides, I think Sirius would have liked the idea.  He liked you, he knew you always were the one to look after me, and I think he’d have found it quite amusing and ironic to see the house end up owned by a Muggleborn.”  He chuckled, “And by next week, Kreacher will have to call you anything you request, even though you’ll now finally be his official mistress.”

Was Harry serious?  “You know I would never order him… I couldn’t stand—”

“I know.  But now you could…”

The idea was still sinking in for Hermione.  He wanted to give her a house?  “Harry, we need to talk about this.”

“No—right now, I need to get dinner.  But the answer will be the same when I get back.”

He exited quickly, leaving her staring after him in amazement.  She frankly had grown quite attached to 12 Grimmauld Place in the past few years, viewing it as less of a temporary arrangement and more of a permanent home.  Once or twice she even had thought that maybe someday she could offer to buy it from Harry, though that seemed like a far-off goal, given real estate prices in this part of London.

He simply couldn’t just give it to her, or half of it, or whatever he was proposing, even if he only was lucky in inheriting it in the first place.  But she was afraid he’d find it insulting if she offered to try to pay for it in some way, like she wouldn’t be appreciating their friendship or something.  She’d have to think about it—next week, when he came up with this paperwork, she’d sort out how to come to a more reasonable compromise.

Even so, her mind couldn’t help drifting to another alternative—she and Harry would own a home together, living together in that home.  Last year, after so many months with him, she just felt like life had become so natural: coming home to see him, waking up to have breakfast with him, sometimes even cuddling up together on the sofa with him.  It seemed boring and domestic, but it was like skipping all of the stupid stressful dating rituals and anxieties of building a relationship and just having a life with someone.  Maybe, eventually, he’d look to her one day instead of all those fangirls chasing after him and...

She shook her head, dismissing this fleeting fantasy while she busied herself with some final organizing tasks. 


Hermione had just settled on the sofa with a book when Harry returned, bearing three large bags and placing them on the floor beside their small coffee table.  “Eat here?” he queried. 

She nodded.  This had been their typical place for casual dinners, when they’d forego the formal dining room and kitchen, a domain they generally left to Kreacher, who always seemed to view Muggle takeaway with suspicion.  “Harry!” she exclaimed as he reached for his wand, expanding their table to nearly double its normal size and beginning to organize the various containers.  “Did you order the entire menu?”

“Only your favorites,” he replied.  “They’ll be enough for leftovers this weekend, which I know you like.”  As he arranged the food on the table, he pointed to each item in turn: “papadums, samosas, minced lamb kebab, saag paneer, aloo chole, rice and raita of course, and rogan josh, mostly for me, but obviously you’re welcome to it.  I splurged on some peshwari naan, as I know you think it’s a special treat, and your favorite gulab jamun for dessert.”  Harry reached down to the bag and placed a final dish directly in front of her.  “Oh, and lastly, for the girl who burned out her tastebuds at least a year ago: laal maas, extra spicy.”  He looked everything over, as if taking a detailed inventory.  “Did I miss anything?”

Her eyes glanced over the table in amazement; he remembered everything she liked.  “I think we’ll be eating leftovers for most of next week, but this is perfect.”

“Well, not yet.  Per your request…”  Harry reached for the third bag, which was different from the first two and which he so far hadn’t touched.  “I stopped for a couple extra items and picked up the necessary accompaniments from the dining room downstairs.”  Within a minute, he had assembled two long candles in their holders and lit them magically.  At the same time he dimmed the primary lights of the room slightly, before pulling out a bottle of red wine, which he proceeded to uncork.  “Romantic enough?”  He smirked at her.

“You’re making fun of me.”

“Not at all,” he said.  “We’re just dining like civilized people—er, civilized people who apparently prefer plastic containers and forks.”  She had to laugh at his silly grin, as he finished pouring two glasses of wine.  “You know, at the restaurant, Neha brought out my order.  Once she saw me, she got this happy, excited expression and asked, ‘So are you two back together?’  I didn’t really know what to say…”

Hermione knew precisely what he meant.  Neha, the owner of the restaurant, had seen them dining alone together so many evenings.  And without gossiping wizards around them, they didn’t need to pretend.  Hermione could reach out and take Harry’s hand when she wanted to, just to feel that friendly closeness, without causing whispers at the next table.  But Neha and the rest of the staff had been kind and attentive to them, even if they didn’t ever talk about their personal lives.  

A few times, she heard Neha make the same comment in Hindi to a couple servers when they had picked up an order.  When she ran into Parvati one day at the Ministry, Hermione thought of it and asked her about it, trying to recall the words accurately.  “You’re sure that’s what she said?” Parvati had asked, laughing loudly.  When Hermione nodded, Parvati explained: “Loosely translated, it means the ‘cute young couple with the wild hair.’” 

Staring at the meal Harry had laid out in front of them, Hermione sighed and shook her head.  “It’s strange how everyone always thinks—”

“... We’re together,” he said, concluding her thought.  “So, I decided maybe we deserve a bit of wine and candles tonight, even if it’s just the two of us.”

Hermione looked into his eyes, which seemed mirthful, but also sincere.  Although she knew this wasn’t real, Harry’s friendship with her and affection for her certainly was.  “Thank you,” she said, taking a glass of wine and raising it.  She waited for him to settle down next to her on the sofa and do the same.  “To Anna,” she added.

Harry’s eyebrows furrowed.  “To Anna?”

Hermione smiled broadly.  “For giving me the opportunity to have a wonderful quiet evening today with a friend, rather than having to stress about some silly, overly romantic nonsense...”  But her voice trailed off as his eyes had dropped down.  That wasn’t what she expected at all.  “Harry, did I say something wrong?  It was just a joke—I thought you were happy about...”

“No,” he said, meeting her eyes again.  But some of the light was gone; Hermione wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.  “There’s really no one I’d rather be with today,” he added, raising his glass again.  “To… friendship,” he said, his voice low, almost a whisper.

Although they clinked glasses and began eating their delicious dinner, their conversation stopped.  Hermione didn’t know what she had done to upset him, except perhaps making light of Harry and Anna’s relationship.  Maybe it was too soon, she thought.  He seemed to be completely ready to be rid of Anna a couple days ago, but maybe it was all an act.  She usually had a very good intuition about what Harry was thinking, but there was something odd about him tonight.  In fact, she thought, he had been acting strangely all day.

She did ultimately get him talking again about some cases they were investigating in the Auror office.  By the end of dinner, things seemed back to normal, as Harry began gathering the leftovers, insisting that she should relax after all of her help that day.  “I’m feeling a bit sore and sweaty after moving today,” he said, returning several containers to a bag.  “So I think I’ll head to the shower, if that’s okay.”

“You don’t need my permission to shower,” she half-rolled her eyes.  “Unless…” she hesitated, not sure how far she was willing to push their silly pretend scenario from earlier.  “Well, if you want to complete our Valentine’s Day experience by cuddling together on the sofa,” she said with a smirk, making an exaggerated couple of sniffs in his direction, “then I might encourage it.”

“Only if you promise to join me in appropriate sighs of contentment,” he said, leaning heavily against her on the sofa before letting out a very exaggerated “ahhhh…”  

“Okay, enough!” she laughed, pushing him off.  “After that outburst, no snuggles for you.”

“My first night back, and she’s already cutting me off from the snuggles,” he said, placing his hand on his chest and pretending to be wounded.  “It’s almost as if we’re married.”

He had finished collecting the leftovers and rose from the sofa.  But he left one container on the table, along with her fork.  She looked up at him with a quizzical expression.

“If I take that away,” he said, “I’d wager ten galleons that it would be gone before midnight.  I know you want more than you had.”  The corners of her mouth turned up as she looked at him; he was staring back at her with the silly glint in his eye.  “Just don’t set your mouth on fire with that stuff,” he laughed as he turned away.

Hermione smiled to herself a moment after he left, as she instantly snapped up the container.  Yes, she apparently could be that predictable sometimes...

Chapter Text

Harry did know her well, though perhaps he didn’t quite realize the main reason she waited to eat her laal maas by herself.  Although Hermione loved the heat and the oddly pleasant sensation of pain that could come with it, which she knew could release endorphins and give a sort of natural “high,” the spice inevitably caused her eyes to water and her nose to run excessively, making her a bit self-conscious when eating in front of others.  Not to mention the occasional bout of unexpected hiccoughs.

She settled back on the sofa, leisurely taking well-paced bites of her food with another glass of wine while she read some more of her book.  After consuming most of the rest of the container, she devoured a few gulps too quickly.  The expected reactions were triggered, but Hermione now found herself without anything to wipe her face.  Harry had taken away all of the trash and left her with no more disposable napkins.  Needing to wipe her eyes and especially her nose, she quickly headed to his desk, searching for a tissue.  The container on the top of his desk was empty, though, not filled again since the move.

But she knew Harry typically kept a couple packets of extra tissues in his desk.  Upon opening the top drawer, she was shocked to find he had actually maintained a lot of the organization she had imposed on his things in the past, but there were no tissues where she expected them.  Becoming increasingly desperate, she continued searching until she eventually found them in one of the lower drawers.

Happy to finally wipe her face, she pushed the drawer closed but was surprised when it didn’t quite shut properly.  She bent down to take a closer look and realized that the bottom drawer below it was a bit crooked, off of its track slightly.  Harry must have jostled it while moving the desk into its final position, she thought.  She couldn’t leave the drawer like that: her somewhat obsessive personality kicked in and she needed everything to line up properly.

With a bit of force, she managed to get the bottom drawer open and back in its track.  But as she did so, she noticed something odd.  The drawer was quite short, several inches shorter than the others.  Hermione never paid much attention to this before, but it made her curious enough to pull it back out and examine it more closely.

There appeared to be a panel behind it, near the back of the desk, so she removed the drawer and discovered a door on the panel.  When it was opened, it revealed a small safe that had been built into the desk.

No wonder this thing is so bloody heavy, she thought, contemplating the thick steel that presumably encased some hidden treasure of Harry’s.

It was all so odd that he never mentioned this.  She’d have to ask him about it when he came back from his shower.  Shrugging, she began to place the drawer back in, but stopped for a moment.

A puzzle had presented itself, and Hermione found it difficult to resist.  What could Harry be storing in there?  Why wouldn’t he have told her about it?  They were best friends, and to her knowledge, they never had any secrets.

Pulling the drawer back out, she examined the safe more closely.  It had a simple combination lock with a circular dial numbered from 0 to 99.  It would likely have three numbers, and the range would be perfect to encode a date, Hermione thought.  Harry wasn’t the type to obsess too much over security, so he’d probably choose a meaningful date, though not something as obvious as his birthday.  Maybe her birthday?  She smiled—that would be funny, wouldn’t it?  But he didn’t tell her about this safe, so that seemed unlikely.

No, it would have to be an important date to Harry.  The date Voldemort was defeated?  No, that would be too obvious.  Even Harry would know that anyone would guess that date.  It would have to be something more personal.  Maybe the date of his first Quidditch victory?  He certainly had loved Quidditch.  She had to think back to that exact date, and actually tried that combination first, but it didn’t work.

She was increasingly intrigued and wanted to crack the code.  What was Harry’s most personal and memorable day?  She thought back and remembered him saying that the happiest day in his life was when he became a wizard and got away from the Dursleys.  So, perhaps his very first day at Hogwarts?  No, that didn’t work either.  And, reflecting, that would probably be too obvious too.

But that wasn’t quite what Harry said, was it?  It was the first day he found out that he was a wizard that had been the happiest day in his life.  Harry had told her the story of his birthday that year and how Hagrid had shown up and taken him away.  Carefully dialing in the three numbers including the last two digits of the year, she pulled the lever, and the safe door opened.

Hermione now hesitated, though.  She felt a bit of a thrill solving this puzzle and congratulated herself for knowing Harry so well, but now she was about to pry into something private, something he clearly had decided not to tell her about.  She could just wait until he came back and ask him… but curiosity got the better of her again.  Just a little peek couldn’t hurt.

The door of the safe swung open; inside the tiny interior, she saw a few stacks of galleons.  She chuckled to herself at her mundane discovery.  Perhaps this was just a bit of money he stored at home for an emergency, and here she was thinking it was some great mystery.  Except on the one side, there was a stack oddly bulging out a bit on the bottom.

Pulling out the pile of galleons, she found a small fabric-covered box behind them.  There was only one item she knew likely came in a box like that, and temptation got the best of her.  Soon enough, she had opened it and found herself staring at a ring, obviously a type of engagement ring.

Her eyebrows raised a bit in surprise.  Harry had bought a ring?  Presumably it had been for Ginny, as she couldn’t imagine things had ever progressed far enough with Gwyn or Anna.  Why wouldn’t he have told her he was considering such a step, though?  As she contemplated the ring, she found herself smiling again at the style.  It was designed like an antique, but looked brand new, with several small stones around the central one, and some filigree that created a lovely geometric pattern—subtle and not overly ostentatious.  While Hermione loved the appearance of it, this certainly wasn’t the sort of ring Ginny would expect.  All of Harry’s girlfriends would likely desire a much larger, more modern and gaudy central stone to show off to their friends, to demonstrate how they were chosen by the Boy Who Lived.  Harry obviously didn’t know how to pick out a ring to fit Ginny’s personality anymore than he understood how to keep any of his relationships going.

She wondered why he still kept it, but figured he probably didn’t know what to do with it.  Maybe he thought he’d use it one day when the right person came along.  In any case, she thought that Harry would likely be done with his shower in a few minutes, so she put the box into the safe and slid it toward the back.

It was only then that she realized something even more strange.  The back of the small safe appeared bent, just a little.  Feeling back in the dark cabinet, she was surprised to find a tiny tab.  When she pressed it, the interior back of the safe sprung forward slightly.  A false back wall?   Harry had a hidden compartment within the safe?

Now intensely curious, she pulled it open and saw it was a very narrow space, perhaps half an inch deep.  And it contained only one item: a folded slip of parchment.

What on earth could Harry be hiding in a secret compartment within a safe behind a hidden panel behind a drawer in his desk?   One sheet of parchment?

Having gone this far, she couldn’t resist having a look.  But when she unfolded the top of the sheet, her eyebrows scrunched down as she began to read:

My soul its secret has, my life too has its mystery,
A love eternal in a moment’s space conceived;
Hopeless the evil is, I have not told its history,
And she who was the cause nor knew it nor believed.

Hermione looked up with a bit of shock.  Harry... her Harry—with a secret love?  A “love eternal,” even?  She almost had to laugh at the phrase, as she smiled to herself.  While Harry was many things, Hermione had never imagined him as a lovesick romantic.  He was notorious for forgetting about important events in his relationships, even birthdays and Valentine’s Day.  The only person’s birthday he seemed to consistently remember was hers, something she took as a point of pride.  While he could be thoughtful at times, he rarely was overly demonstrative with her or anyone else.  The fact that he made her a priority sometimes made her realize he really did appreciate her as a best friend.

Still, the evidence of Harry’s secret romance was staring her in the face, his careful writing almost calligraphic with its precision and the few little flourishes.  It was clearly his handwriting—she knew it better than anyone’s—but he must have spent hours perfecting this.  From the little details of the script, she’d guess he wrote this maybe late fifth year or sixth year at Hogwarts.  She remembered his sprawling unmannered hand from all those days helping him with his homework in his younger days.  He wouldn’t have been able to attain the control to make this so… well, it was actually kind of beautiful, she thought.

She glanced at the folds in the parchment, with the darkening—perhaps from perspiration?—and curling around the edges.  Had he carried this around with him?  For how long?  Was it… could it really be some silent confession?  The poem said he hadn’t “told its history,” which he certainly hadn’t—if Harry confided in anyone, it would have been Hermione.  And by the look of the paper, the poem had never made it to its target, for surely he would have torn it up if it had been rejected.  He wouldn’t be storing it close, hidden away in his personal desk.

Now intensely curious, Hermione read on:

Alas! I shall have passed close by her unperceived,
Forever at her side, and yet forever lonely,
I shall unto the end have made life’s journey, only
Daring to ask for naught, and having naught received.

Hermione felt her eyes grow slightly moist from the sentiment.  That last line was so poignant, so awful.  Could he really have lived in such misery, silently pining after some girl that Hermione wasn’t even aware of?  And “unto the end” of “life’s journey”—had Harry felt this way perhaps even as he made his way to Voldemort in the forest?  Could he actually have gone off to his expected death having never told this girl how she was apparently first on the list of those he loved?  The very thought of that nearly made her weep.

Given the cadences and word choices, Harry couldn’t have come up with these lines himself.  It must have been a poem he found somewhere, she reasoned, but still—he chose these words.

Who was this girl?  Certainly not Cho—that relationship had been a disaster, and Harry surely never pined for her crying.  Ginny?  Hermione unintentionally laughed aloud at that thought.  Harry definitely was attracted to Ginny, but Hermione could tell his affection at that time was much more oriented, well… toward the physical, as she’d expect from most teenage boys.  And Ginny would probably have scoffed at the sheer degree of beauty and romanticism in this poem.  Ginny couldn’t even watch Bill and Fleur have a single loving exchange back then without poking fun at them.  As stupid as Harry had been around girls, there’s no way he could have intended this poem for her.

But the more Hermione considered it, the more it did make some sense for Harry to have some sort of secret attraction.  Ginny had had a crush on Harry forever, and Harry’s two more recent relationships also seemed to have begun with the women making overtures toward him first.  Not that he didn’t return their affection, but Hermione realized Harry never seemed to be actively seeking out anyone.  Could he really carry a secret torch for some unknown woman?

Who could this girl possibly be?  Even if Harry didn’t write the words himself, there must be clues that matched the situation.  “Passed close by her unperceived”?  Hermione gasped—the line might simply imply that this girl didn’t give him the attention he craved, but had he spied on this girl, from under the Invisibility Cloak?  She found herself shaking her head.  No, Harry wouldn’t do such a thing.  The only people he occasionally seemed to surprise from under the Cloak were her and Ron.  Her mind for just an instant took her back to that crazy moment when they broke into the Ministry while on the Horcrux search, and Harry had crept up behind her and whispered in her ear suddenly at the interrogation of Mrs. Cattermole, causing Hermione to jump out of her skin, nearly exposing both of them.  He could be such a prat sometimes, she thought, though she was certain he did that as a stupid prank.  At the time, she wanted to hex him for it, but now the memory brought a small grin to her face as she shook her head.

The next line of the poem truly had flummoxed her, though: “forever at her side.”  Harry simply wasn’t that close to that many people.  Someone else on the Quidditch team?  No, none of them made sense.  Harry didn’t spend much time together at Hogwarts with anyone else that Hermione could recall.

An inspiration caught her—perhaps someone at the Dursleys?  A neighbor?  She didn’t know anything about the people around him there.  Was Harry really in love with “the girl next door”?  Hermione found herself smiling at the image of little Harry growing up next to a cute girl and never finding the courage to say anything.  From what she knew of Harry’s life with the Dursleys, she sorely wished that he had some bright figure to bring at least some joy into his life back then.

But Harry would have hinted at such a person, she thought.  His attractions toward Cho and Ginny had been completely obvious to Hermione, long before he even seemed to realize it himself.  If nothing else, she felt Harry would have mentioned something he looked forward to at the Dursleys.

All of this passed through her mind in a matter of seconds, until she decided she needed to read on.  Hermione had been pulled in by the mystery of the safe in Harry’s desk, but now her mind was rapidly cycling through the permutations and possibilities, trying to understand how her best friend could have such a deep love for someone that he managed to keep secret from her for so many years...

Chapter Text

But just as her eyes began to scan lower on the page, she heard a noise.  Harry’s footsteps were approaching in the hall, and Hermione suddenly felt like she had been caught with her hand in a cookie jar.  She hadn’t been expecting to find something quite so intimate, and though she had thought that Harry kept absolutely no secrets from her, it was clear that this was a truly personal one.

There was no time to put the whole safe and drawer back together now.  With the few seconds before his arrival, she folded the parchment again, shuffled the loose drawer behind his desk, and made her way toward the door, hoping to distract him until she could figure out a way to bring her discovery up more casually.  Unfortunately, in her haste, Hermione had already taken a couple steps away from the desk before realizing the parchment was still in her hand.  Not wanting to damage what was clearly a precious document by stuffing it inside her clothes, she settled on the only other option and held it behind her back, hoping he wouldn’t notice her bizarre posture.  She had just half a second for a quick breath before Harry emerged in the doorway.

“I feel so much better,” he announced, strolling into the room with a towel still around his shoulders, his glasses in the front breast pocket of his pajamas.  Harry had apparently decided to go ahead and change into pajamas; it was getting later in the evening after all.  “I had forgotten how that bathroom doesn’t have any ventilation; it’s impossible to dry off properly in that sauna.”  

As he reached up with the towel and finished drying his ever messy mop of hair, obscuring his face for a couple seconds, Hermione couldn’t help looking him over, her eyes drifting down over his body: the places where his shirt was a bit damp and clung closely around his pectoral muscles, that trim waist, her gaze finally arriving at his bare feet.  Something about seeing him again, looking so warm, his skin still a bit pink—her mind couldn’t help briefly imagining the scene a few moments before: Harry without those pajamas, in the shower, water streaming down… Stop!  She shook herself and blinked, suppressing that image just as Harry’s eyes came back into view.  Having him living here again is going to be the end of me, she thought, forcing herself back to the more urgent matter at hand.

“I’m sure you’ll have some clever magical idea to fix that,” he added.  Harry put his glasses back on and then pulled his wand from his pocket, blasting a gust of warm air at the towel.  “I’ll have you know that you’re getting back an improved Harry,” he said, with the towel billowing out in all directions.  “Anna was always after me about leaving wet towels around the flat, just as you were, but I’ve finally broken the habit, now that I realized I can just use a drying charm for a few seconds.”  

When he tossed the warm towel toward the back of the sofa, he seemed to realize that Hermione hadn’t moved an inch since he entered the room.  She was chewing her lip as she stared at him, uncertain what to do, now wishing she had made use of those few seconds of distracted time to hide the paper, rather than, well… leering at him.

“What?” he said, a bemused expression now on his face at her odd demeanor, his eyes scanning her.  

He’s going to notice, she thought.  With no other ideas coming to her to get out of this mess, she gave into the one thing she knew she could always do—she ran up and threw her arms about him, holding the parchment behind his back.  “Oh, Harry!” she cried, as she buried her face in his shoulder, the clean scents of soap and shampoo—and was that some sort of aftershave?—overwhelming her senses.  Merlin, he smelled good.  Maybe she could just guide him to the sofa, and they could cuddle for a while, before...

Harry wrapped his arms about her, but when he spoke, something was suspicious in his tone.  “What’s going on?  I haven’t been gone quite long enough to merit that level of enthusiastic embrace.”  He still leaned into her and ran his hands down her back.

“I can’t hug you?” she queried, eventually pulling back a little while clutching the paper behind him.

He smirked at her.  “No, that was more than a thirty-minutes-apart hug.  That was at least a three-days-apart hug from you, especially with the little ‘Oh, Harry!’”  His high-pitched imitation of her voice caused her to give him a little swat on the shoulder.  “Seriously,” he said, his expression becoming more concerned, “is everything okay?”

Hermione bit her lip again, but finally met his eyes.  There was really no option: she was always honest with him.  “Promise you won’t be angry with me.”

Harry now dropped his arms from her completely, his brow furrowed.  “Hermione, there’s nothing you could do that…”

His voice trailed off as Hermione took half a step back and revealed the parchment she still held in her right hand.  Her eyes immediately dropped in shame.  “I’m sorry… I… well, I had no idea,” she began to babble nervously.  “I just was looking for extra tissues in your desk, and then I realized the drawer wasn’t the right size, so I investigated and found that safe… And then, Harry, you know how I can’t resist a puzzle, and I just figured it wouldn’t hurt to try to guess how to open it, and then when I got lucky with the combination, I just meant to take a little peek, because I was so surprised that you had a secret compartment… let alone feelings for some mystery person...”  Hermione finally interrupted her monologue as she realized Harry hadn’t said anything or moved a muscle.  When she looked up, she saw his face had turned white as a sheet—all the blood appeared to have drained from it.

He blinked slowly a couple times, looking off toward his desk, then said very quietly, “Did you read it?”

He didn’t appear angry, which made Hermione feel at least a little better.  “Not all of it,” she said.  “I started to, but then you came back just now.”

“I’ll... well, I’ll just take it back, then,” he said, his voice again strangely emotionless.

For a moment, she was about to hand it over, but his odd demeanor made her curious.  “Who was she?”

Harry closed his eyes and let out a long sigh, which almost sounded like relief.  “Just... give it back.”

Hermione wasn’t quite sure why, but his bizarre reticence to say anything more hurt her a bit.  They were best friends, had seemingly always been best friends.  Yes, she had been in the wrong to pry into a private document, but they had never had secrets like this.  “Harry,” she said, “this isn’t like you.  Would you just tell me who—”

“Give it back!” he said loudly, abruptly thrusting his hand forward, his demand sounding oddly like a five-year-old child whose favorite toy had been taken away.

The sudden reaction caused Hermione to reflexively pull the parchment back and away from him.  Harry’s demeanor was so weird over some poem written long ago, that she found herself laughing a bit and holding the paper aloft.  “What’s got into you?” she said, as Harry now lunged forward, causing Hermione to move back a few steps, where she found herself again up against the desk.  As he countered her move—coming forward and now leaning against her, his arm reaching up—she realized there was no way given his height and longer arms that she could keep it from him.  “I just don’t get it,” she chuckled.  “Keeping a secret from your best friend about some old piece of paper you must have carried around in your pocket most of sixth year?”

As she finished her sentence, Harry immediately stopped reaching for the parchment and took five steps back, stumbling in his haste, a look of abject horror coming over his countenance.  “How the hell did you know that?” he shouted at her.

Hermione was completely taken aback by the volume of Harry’s voice, as well as his accusatory glare.  She couldn’t recall the last time he had taken that tone with her; since the stresses of Voldemort ended years ago, he had never raised his voice with her… ever.  “I… I… I didn’t,” she said hesitantly, a little fearful at what might happen next.  “It was a guess,” she explained with some trepidation, looking down at the paper that was still in her hands.  “The parchment is worn and curled up on the edges, and the color is darkened in places, which I assume is from your sweat.”  She dared to glance back up at him, now with a look of concern over what had upset him.  “Harry, you know how your hands perspire when you’re really nervous…”

He closed his eyes for a moment, appearing to process her words.  “How could you possibly know it was from sixth year?”

Hermione sighed.  “The loop on your capital H… among other little things.”

His eyes flew open again, as he stared at her in disbelief.  “What?”

“There’s a loop in your H,” she said.  “You don’t put an initial loop on your H anymore.  You dropped it maybe two or three years ago, as I assume you favor a more efficient script as an adult.”

“The loop on my H,” he repeated, a mixture of awe and confusion on his face.  “You analyzed my handwriting?”

“I’d hardly call it analysis,” she replied.  “You and I both share the same first initial, so yes, I’ve noticed that you’ve begun to write it differently.”  Hearing nothing more from Harry, who seemed to be taking in her explanation while he paced around and headed toward the sofa, she went on, “Your writing wasn’t nearly so neat until quite late in fifth year or so, when you finally seemed to put a little effort into proper penmanship.  And I assume you wouldn’t have written this poem after you began your relationship with Ginny.  Then, in the years since you broke up with her, you haven’t been looping your H, so that leaves sixth year as the most likely time window.”  By this point, Harry stopped walking.  “It was only a logical deduction,” she added as an afterthought when she followed his path, though still maintaining a bit of distance.

He shook his head.  “I’m sorry, I should have known,” he said very quietly, all energy appearing to leave him as he flopped down on the sofa.  “You really should work for a more investigative part of the Ministry, you know.  Half the time when you work through a puzzle, I feel like I’m in the presence of bloody Sherlock Holmes.”  

A small smile started to form on her lips in response to his compliment, until a few seconds later he turned his face back up to her.  What she saw shocked her even more than Harry’s earlier angry tone: he wore an expression unlike anything she had ever seen on her best friend before.  His eyes were shining with unshed tears—and he appeared utterly terrified.  “I suppose…” he said haltingly, clearing his throat and glancing back down, “I suppose if you won’t return it, you’ve earned the right to read the rest.”

Hermione simply didn’t know what to do.  Harry had rapidly shifted from lack of emotion to anger to horror to exhaustion to terror, and now… she had no idea.  She settled on the sofa beside him, noting that he even appeared to be shaking a bit.  For the first time in a very long while, she was even afraid to reach out to him physically—uncertain what the reaction might be.  All of this over one slip of paper, she thought.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” she said.  “I never even imagined we had secrets between us… but you of course deserve your privacy.  I don’t have any right to read anything—”

“I never keep secrets from you,” he interrupted, still staring down.  “I mean, when I was younger, I occasionally kept some things from you, usually because you cared too much for me, and I was afraid it would either upset you or cause arguments between us.  But now this… well, this... “  He swallowed.  “You can read it, but Hermione, you have to promise me that no matter what happens, our friendship will still stay the same.”

“Our friendship?”  Hermione wondered aloud, now completely bewildered.  “I don’t even know what to say to that.  I can’t imagine why you’d… Harry, you’ll always be my best friend.”  He nodded silently with his eyes closed, still displaying signs of incredible discomfort.  She had no idea what was causing him so much anxiety, but she wanted more than anything for things to be right between them.  She held out the parchment to him, adding,  “Honestly, I don’t want to read it.  I assume it’s just a poem you copied—”

“Yeah, it’s by Longfellow,” he said softly, now staring ahead, still apparently avoiding her.  But he also didn’t reach out to take it back from her.  “Or, actually… I found it in some collection.  It was originally a French poem.  I forget the author, but the translation was by Longfellow.”

“Well, regardless,” she continued, a bit frustrated that he was more interested in talking about who wrote the poem than its intended recipient, “it’s a lovely poem, but is this really an accurate description of how you felt?”

“Every word,” he said, closing his eyes again before taking another deep breath.  “Go on, then.”

Why did he insist that she read it?  One of the very first things Hermione had done with the parchment was to scan both sides of the sheet for some name; the identity obviously wasn’t written there.  “I’m really more interested in the girl that caused such an extreme reaction in you.  Who was she?”  As Harry continued to stare silently ahead, a thought dawned on her.  “Oh… who is she?”  Could Harry really have some secret crush on this woman, even now?   That also made no sense.  Hermione cycled through all the people whom Harry knew back at Hogwarts and were still prominent in his life.  The list was quite small.  Perhaps… could she have died in the war, and he was still mourning her?  No, no one fit that description either.  “If you really don’t want to say,” she concluded, holding it out to him again, “I promise never to bring this up again.  But I just don’t understand why you won’t tell me…”

“I think…” he paused, his head finally turning slightly toward her, though he still didn’t meet her eyes.  “I think you should read it… all of it,” he said, now with an air of resignation.

This whole situation grew more and more mysterious by the minute, but Hermione realized Harry wasn’t going to say anything more until she did as he asked.  Taking in a breath, she began with the first line again, reading quickly aloud.

My soul its secret has, my life too has its mystery,
A love eternal in a moment’s space conceived;
Hopeless the evil is, I have not told its history,
And she who was the cause nor knew it nor believed.

Alas! I shall have passed close by her unperceived,
Forever at her side, and yet forever lonely,
I shall unto the end have made life’s journey, only
Daring to ask for naught, and having naught received.

She paused, looking to Harry, who had now hunched over and covered his face with his hands.  “Did you really feel like this?  Suffer like this?  Who is she, Harry?”

But he said nothing and made no motion, leaving her no choice but to continue. 

For her, though God has made her gentle and endearing,
She will go on her way distraught and without hearing
These murmurings of love that round her steps ascend.

She glanced again at Harry, whose head was still in his hands.  Hermione realized that these lines were past the volta in what was obviously a Petrarchan sonnet, and she expected a revelation or new insight in the final sestet.  Who was this woman, apparently so close to her best friend, so admired by him to cause such anguish even now?

She cleared her throat and had to bend back the bottom fold of the page to expose the final lines.

Piously faithful still unto her austere duty,
Will say, when she shall read these lines full of her beauty...”

But when Hermione’s eyes began to scan the final line, she suddenly felt like someone had punched her hard in the stomach.  Her breath caught, her insides began to heave… and she felt hot tears begin to stream down her cheeks.

Her throat clamped shut for several seconds, but she eventually managed to croak out the final words, barely in a whisper:

“... ‘Who can this woman be?’ and will not comprehend.

Tears were now falling freely from her eyes as she stared at the page in disbelief.  It couldn’t be.  It was impossible.  But there were no further possible explanations.  All her thought processes earlier about the various clues were reevaluated in a fraction of a second, and they all led inexorably toward one conclusion.  Harry had told her to continue reading, clearly expecting that it would reveal the truth.  Given the rhetoric of the poem and Harry’s reaction, there was only one logical explanation remaining, no matter how improbable.

She closed her eyes in a futile attempt to stem the stream of water that continued to flow from them.  Never in her life had she been so overwhelmed by some tidal wave of emotion as at these beautiful but horrifically poignant words.  “This isn’t…” she managed to stammer.  “That is… it can’t possibly be…”  She swallowed and somehow managed to get control of her breath, before daring to look at the man sitting next to her again.  “You simply cannot be implying that this is about…”

Harry raised his head only partially from his hands, just enough to utter a single word and complete her thought: “You.”  His confirmation was so muted and faint that Hermione couldn’t believe she heard it.

And her mind couldn’t comprehend it.  Memories, possibilities, and alternative interpretations flew through her brain at breathtaking speed.  This was some silly teenage infatuation he had once had for her.  That could explain his embarrassment.  And it was during those dark times when Harry had felt so alone.  Besides, it obviously hadn’t lasted…

“But surely that’s in the past,” she began to babble again.  “I mean, I remember the phase you went through, when you—”

“It wasn’t a phase…” he murmured into his hands.

“Well, you moved on with Ginny.  I didn’t even know you had bought her a ring…”

Harry finally sat up a bit, apparently not expecting her to bring that up, though he kept his eyes closed.  He let out a long sigh.  “The ring wasn’t for Ginny,” he eventually said, with a tone of utter defeat.

It certainly couldn’t have been Gwyn or Anna.  “Then who was it…?”  Hermione’s voice trailed off as her mouth now hung open while she stared at him.  No, her mind said, that was utterly absurd.  Completely impossible.  Harry would have to be playing some horrible joke on her.  “You’re not being serious, Harry.  Did someone put you up to this?  I can’t take such—”

“Stop,” he said simply, his voice gentle but firm.  He swallowed before meeting her eyes again for a brief moment.  They darted away again, as he resumed staring down.  “Just… bring it to me.”

The whole situation had become absolutely surreal by this point.  Hermione slowly rose and retrieved the box with the ring in it from Harry’s desk, stopping for a moment to consider what all of this could mean.  She felt like she was in a fog, her body moving almost on its own, as her disembodied consciousness floated untethered to reality.  When she gathered up the courage to return to the sofa, she saw Harry had his wand in his hand.

Revelio,” he muttered, as the ring glowed faintly for a moment.

Hermione held it up and now noticed an inscription inside, obviously etched by magic.  The letters continued to glow for several seconds from the spell:

H.J.G. & H.J.P. — un amour éternel

Hermione gasped, as her hand flew to cover her mouth.  This couldn’t be...

Harry broke the silence after several seconds.  “It was a stupid childish thing, really,” he said quietly.  “Something only a mad teenager would think up.  But after you almost died at the Department of Mysteries at the end of fifth year, I realized that summer I couldn’t live without you.  You were the one person who always believed in me, always stayed with me, and if there was anyone I wanted to spend my life with, it would always be you.”  

He glanced to her briefly, then stared off again as he went on.  “So, I was passing a shop window, and I saw engagement rings.  I was a silly impulsive kid, but all I could think about was my own parents and how they barely had any time together before they had been killed by Voldemort, even though they married young.  And so I bought it, not really thinking about what I’d ever actually do with it... but it proved much harder to figure out how to tell you…”  His voice trailed off, and they sat for a few moments before he added, “Please, can we just forget about—”

“Why didn’t you?” she whispered, barely able to get her voice to work.

“What?”

She cleared her throat as she continued to stare down at the impossible object that lay in her hand.  “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

He seemed taken aback by her words, apparently not the reaction he had anticipated.  “I… well, I tried… many times.  But I didn’t want to ruin our friendship.  The thought of that—and then maybe losing you—I just couldn’t.”  He took a deep breath.   “And then you and Ron happened.  And I realized you clearly didn’t think of me like that... so I put it away, vowed to stop my stupid teenage fantasies and focus on my best friend...”

They sat in complete stillness for over two minutes.  Hermione spent half of that time trying to convince herself that this wasn’t some bizarre, insane dream.  But Harry was sitting there next to her, and what of the ring—an actual ring!  Harry hadn’t merely written the most heartrending poem she had ever read to confess his love for her, a secret he had apparently kept for at least six years, but he had literally bought her a ring!  A ring with an inscription about “eternal love”—the very French phrase from the damned poem—and her own initials was sitting there in her hand.  The evidence was undeniable, incontrovertible.

This all was simply impossible.  It couldn’t be happening.

Finally, Harry grew restless.  “Please, Hermione, let’s just throw this stuff away and go back to an hour ago.  Just forget it ever happened.  I don’t want it to make things weird… I’ll do anything just to…”  He was facing her now, his voice with even greater emotion, a plea: “Hermione, please say something.

As the seconds dragged on, the permutations of possibilities in her mind kept coming back to only one solution.  The tender voice in her heart realized there truly was only one word she could possibly say at this moment in response to this crazy situation—only one word that needed to be said, more than any word had to be uttered in her entire life.

She closed her eyes and felt her cheeks grow wet yet again as the single syllable emerged from her lips: “Yes.”

“What?”  Harry’s eyebrows scrunched down at her.  “Yes, what?”

Hermione sniffed a bit, trying to steady herself, and brought a finger up to wipe her eyes.  This is crazy.  But once the word had come out, she knew she had never been more certain of anything in her life.  She turned to him and met his gaze directly.  “Yes,” she said to those gorgeous emerald eyes, attempting to convey the kind of emotion it deserved.

His mouth then fell open as he blinked a few times.  “Wait… you’re not… that is, you can’t mean…”

Hermione did the only other thing she felt she could do and slipped the ring on her left hand, before reaching out to take his hand in her own.  “Assuming the offer is still valid,” she said, “then yes, Harry, a thousand times, yes.”

His eyes dropped.  “‘Assuming the offer’… no, this is... she’s completely barking mad,” he mumbled.  Then his eyes flew back up to her.  “You’re not thinking clearly.  You’ve gone mental… we haven’t, I mean... we’ve never even kissed!”

Only a fraction of a second passed before Hermione stifled that objection as she leaned in and touched her lips to his.  Harry held still for a mere few moments, before she pressed harder and urged him to reply, which he did.  His head tilted a bit, as his soft lips began to move, very gently, filling her heart with an incredible sensation of pure joy.

It’s a strange thing, she thought.  At times over the years, she had idly fantasized about what it might be like to kiss him.  She had pictured Harry, so nervous, slowly leaning in, giving her a mere quick peck until they tentatively began to kiss more deeply.  On other occasions, she had imagined him sweeping her up, suddenly kissing her passionately in the middle of a tense situation.

But this felt more intimate, more natural, like something she always had meant to do or say but could never quite get it out.  It was a pure, chaste expression of love for her best friend in the world, one that came with the deepest and most heartfelt promise she could ever make.

After a few seconds, their lips parted.  They held in that position, eyes closed, a fraction of an inch away from each other, for quite some time.  It was Harry who finally broke the silence.  “I… I don’t understand,” he stuttered, as they opened their eyes and stared, neither quite believing what had just happened.

She shook her head and had to laugh at the absurdity.  “You don’t understand?  You?!  You’ve apparently been carrying a bloody engagement ring around with our initials in it for years!  If I weren’t so utterly infatuated and completely in love with you, I’d hex you into next week for keeping this from me.”

“Wait… you’re… in love with me?”

Hermione rolled her eyes at the look of disbelief on Harry’s face. “I’d have thought that was a prerequisite for my saying ‘yes’ a few moments ago.”

“I’d have thought kissing someone usually would come first, too…”

“Yes, well, we’re breaking new ground in more ways than one, Harry.”  She gave into that compulsive need she always had felt and pulled herself closer to his side on the sofa.  Except now she didn’t need an excuse to get close to him.  As she contemplated the glittering ring on her hand, she realized she’d never need an excuse again—hopefully Harry wouldn’t get too overwhelmed once he realized how much she constantly wanted to be in physical contact with him.

“How long have you…?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, snuggling even closer into his side and putting her head on his shoulder.  “Forever, perhaps?  Part of me was probably in love with you since our first year at Hogwarts.”

“Our first year…?  Why didn’t you say anything—give me any hints?”

“Why didn’t I?  Why didn’t I? ”  She sat up again, looking straight at him.  “Harry, how many hugs and kisses did I give you over the years, silently hoping deep in my heart that you’d maybe someday think of me differently?”  She sighed, her head shaking back and forth.  “I mean, don’t you remember when we were in the Forest of Dean, alone, just the two of us?  I told you I wanted to grow old with you… and you said nothing—absolutely nothing to me in response.  Do you have any idea what ‘grow old’ with you means?”

“You were with Ron…”

“With Ron?!” she cried in exasperation.  “Ron was gone!  For months!  It was only us, like it’s always been us. If only you gave me my bloody wand when he came back, I’d have likely sent him away for good.  But it almost seemed like the two of you were conspiring to get me back together with him…”  She took a breath; now was not the time to litigate that.  It was in the past.  Hermione looked back to him, adding gently, “If I had any clue that you… well, Ron and I probably never would have been together at all.”  He was staring ahead, appearing to still be processing everything.  She reached out and stroked his cheek, wanting him to realize how much he had always been the center of her life.  “Harry, you should have told me… aside from your banter recently, which you always passed off as a joke, you never even gave me a glance…”

“Now, hold on,” he said, just a bit testily.  “I was always at your side, and it was because of that I couldn’t get you out of my mind.  I spent hours, days, even years with you, working with you, studying with you… and staring at you… frankly, not studying with you, but studying you.”  He glanced to her again, and she could see the implicit “yearning for you” in his eyes.

And then she realized perhaps she had been an idiot too.  She knew that look… it had been there over the years, but she never realized what it meant before.  Harry had always been there—working late in the library at Hogwarts, hanging out in her office at the Ministry, reading together on this very sofa—and she just assumed those glances at her were part of their normal interaction, part of how much he needed her help, her friendship.  But his eyes seemingly were always on her.  Could he really, actually want her as much as she loved him?  She let out her breath and said, “Enough… Harry, just please shut up and kiss me.”

“What?”

“This is pointless,” she went on, “and it isn’t like us.  We haven’t had a serious argument in at least five years.  I’m certainly not going to start now.”  She had had enough of petty bickering in her years with Ron.  

Harry was staring blankly at her.  “I still don’t understand…”

“Oh, honestly!” she exclaimed, exasperated, right before she straddled his lap and planted her lips firmly on his, this time engaging his mouth fully.  Within a second, her tongue brushed his lips, requesting entrance.  The request was immediately granted as they kissed more deeply, her hands now running from the back of his neck to his shoulders, trying desperately to pull him closer.  Merlin, she thought, nothing had ever made her feel like this, desire flaring as she now had the mad urge to rip his clothes off as soon as possible.  Soon, she could feel him responding too, his hands wandering down her body and roughly pressing her against him, finally convincing her that he really did want her in every way.  

That was the signal she had been waiting for.  She instantly pulled back, leaving them both panting.  “Hermione...” he said, his voice deep and husky, his tone desperate.  “Please…

“Are you still confused?”

“No,” he replied breathlessly.

“Do you understand now?”

“Yeah.”  He nodded.  Rather vigorously, she thought.

“Good.  So here’s what’s going to happen,” she said, standing up.  “I’m going to have a shower, because after our day of moving, I think I need one, and you already smell… well, rather amazing.  And then I’m going to meet you in your bedroom.  Assuming you haven’t been overcome with some ridiculous confusion again, we’ll check off another typical prerequisite for that engagement list, okay?”

As she turned away to head to the bath, Harry grabbed her hand firmly.  “No,” he said.

“What do you mean, no?”

He rose and turned Hermione back toward him, wrapping his arms around her.  Reflexively, her arms just naturally went around his neck.  “I have a much better idea,” he said, leaning his face in toward hers and giving her a quick tender kiss.

When he pulled away, she began to say, “Harry, what are…?”  But that was all she managed to get out before her feet flew off the floor and up into his arms, causing her to emit a surprised squeal.

“I’ve been waiting for years,” he said, as he maneuvered through the door, carrying her in his arms.  “And while I’m not confused, I truly think you may have gone mad.  I’m not going to take a chance that you’ll regain your sanity.  If you think I’m going to wait another minute…”

“But seriously, Harry, I was perspiring earlier and must smell like—”

“You really want to debate me on this?” he interrupted, as they began to ascend the stairs.  “Counterargument number one: I’m rather certain you’ll be sweating much more profusely within the next few minutes...”

“Is that a promise?” she laughed, trying to distract herself from the mildly precarious method of transport Harry had chosen for her as she held tightly to his neck.  She wasn’t sure she could remember being carried in anyone’s arms like this since she was a little girl, and while it made her a little anxious, she had to admit there was something quite romantic about it.

“And counterargument number two: I don’t give a toss if you had just rolled around in stinksap and bathed in dragon’s urine, I’d still want you in my bed as soon as humanly possible.  As it is, you smell like Hermione, which is wonderful, and frankly a bit of curry, and I do like my women hot and spicy...”  She laughed again as he babbled on crazily.  “But you smell mostly like Hermione, which is great since… you are Hermione, which is absolutely incredible… which…”

Kreacher must have heard the commotion and popped into the hallway in front of them, his eyes immediately growing wide.  “Oh!  Master Harry, oh my!”

“Out of the way!” Harry called.  “We are not to be disturbed.  In fact, take the entire weekend—no visitors, either!”

Finally...” Kreacher muttered to himself as they passed by.  “Kreacher didn’t know how much more Kreacher could take of all the pining looks and glances,” he added just before popping away.

By this point Harry had sped up considerably, nearly trotting down the hall in the final stretch to his bedroom.  Hermione was growing a bit nervous, though.  “I understand you’re eager, Harry, but you don’t have to run…”

“I would never drop you…” he said, panting a bit.  “Though, perhaps I should have thought about the fact that I was moving furniture and boxes all day before carrying you through half of Grimmauld Place.  But bringing you to bed holding you in my arms has been a fantasy of mine for quite some time.”  He turned sideways to walk her through the bedroom door.  “Something to plan for next time,” he added, grinning widely before he laid her gently down on the bed.  He pulled out his wand, and instantly the room was lit with more than a dozen candles.

Hermione stared up at him, not quite able to believe this was really happening.  “Well, have we satisfied that fantasy of yours?” she asked, pulling herself toward the center of the bed and trying to figure out exactly what the next logistical step should be.

“Just one other thing… Evanesco!” he pronounced, just as he simultaneously tossed his wand aside and took a flying leap into bed right beside her.  He landed gently against her, but the sensation was novel—as it took a second for her brain to register that they were both now completely nude.

“So this is how you seduce all your gorgeous women?” she laughed, instinctively curling her body around his, the skin-against-skin contact instantly overwhelming her and creating a compulsive need to feel closer to him.

“Only one, actually… I’ve always wanted to try this, but you need someone willing, and not mind if you lose the clothes you’re wearing.”  His hands had already started wandering around her body, pulling her closer.  “But it went a lot smoother than I imagined—perhaps I just got lucky.”

Her grin turned devilish as she took his glasses off and tossed them aside, before nudging him on top of her.  “Actually, I’d say you’re just about to, Harry…”

Chapter Text

An hour or so later, Hermione was lying face-down on Harry’s bed, still attempting to comprehend what had happened.  Harry, meanwhile, busied himself exploring, caressing every part of her, following a trail of sensual attentiveness where his hands frequently gave way to his lips.

Somehow, she felt, the stereotypes had been reversed.  Wasn’t the male of the species the one who was supposed to roll over, exhausted, and simply want to fall asleep, while the female had the impulse to continue on, to cuddle, to cement her affection?

And yet, right now, after the stress and then subsequent activities of the past couple hours, she felt a tremendous urge to drift off into slumber.  It was a tendency she was actively fighting, but Harry’s deep massaging of every part of her body just made her feel like she was floating on a cloud somewhere, feeling more relaxed—and simultaneously more aroused—than she had ever been in her life.  And that was after he had already taught her body to respond more quickly and more vigorously than she had ever thought possible.  

Harry, on the other hand, had only spent a few minutes resting after their earlier exertions before beginning his next round of tender ministrations.  She became overwhelmed imagining what the next time would be like, as Harry appeared to be dedicating himself to gauging her every reaction, methodically mapping her body to find every location that might give her pleasure.  And she was positively shocked to realize how many places there were…

But when the trail of kisses began to descend her legs and cross her calves, she gave him a push with her leg.  “Not the feet,” she said.

“I told you I’d kiss every square inch of your body, and I will,” he said, his voice deep and husky, as he pawed her leg once more and drove his tongue deeply into the back of her knee, causing her to moan aloud… again.

She shoved him off more forcefully with her hand as she flipped over on her back.  “All right, but it’s time for me to finally have that shower first.”  She sat up and moved toward the side of the bed, but his arm snaked immediately around her from behind, pulling her back as his lips began to massage that amazing spot right where her neck joined her shoulder.  How had he already found things that I never knew existed on my own body?

God, Harry,” she breathed, struggling to retain control over the tone of her voice.  Her vocalization seemed to cause him to attack her neck with even more vigor as one of his hands explored higher on her chest.  She wasn’t sure if it was the arousal she already had felt from his wide-ranging massage, but if he kept doing that for another few seconds, could he really push her over the edge just from sucking on her neck?  She basked in the sensations… Merlin, that felt incredible … until suddenly that clever tongue was meandering over her earlobe, then thrusting its way in...

After her body had stopped shuddering, she found herself collapsed and fallen backward into his arms—arms that were already running up and down her sides again.  “Shower now,” she said, pushing herself upright.  “Must go.”  Two words were the maximum length of coherent thought her brain could string together, and Harry’s arms fought her again, pulling at her.  She had seen the level of desire before when their bodies were finally joined, when she found those gorgeous green eyes gazing down, locked completely on her, seeming to verify at every moment that it truly was her.  But now, having been awakened to the possibilities, he was like some sort of wild animal, loose from his cage and feasting on her as if she were the first sustenance he had had in months.

“I’ll go with you,” he whispered in her ear, his breath hot and the guttural tone in his voice causing another aftershock to erupt within her.

“That’s…” she managed to get out, pressing him back with more force, separating her body from his, “that’s... not a good idea.”

“Seems like an amazing idea to me,” he said as his mouth descended to the inside of her wrist, desperately seeking to find another spot that would elicit a moan, even as he gave a perverse kind of literal “lip service” to the distance she had introduced between their bodies.

“You are incorrigible!” she exclaimed, yanking her hand away, causing him to finally meet her eyes and halt his sexual blitzkrieg.  Or, from that dark look in his eyes, he was at least granting her a temporary reprieve.  “I just… need some privacy.”

His eyebrows scrunched down.  “Why?”

“It doesn’t matter… just… it doesn’t matter.”  She moved slightly away from him, pulling a blanket up and around her, clutching her arms about her tightly as she now sat on the side of the bed.

Harry slowly and cautiously maneuvered himself to sit upright next to her, tentatively placing a hand on her back.  “Okay, whatever you need, but… something’s wrong.”  His other hand came up and tenderly stroked her cheek.  “Please just tell me.”

“It’s stupid,” she said quietly.  “But… a shower is kind of, well… exposed.  Not soft candlelight and shadows… bright lights with all of my…”  Her voice trailed off.

Harry closed his eyes and shook his head quickly.  “Hermione, your body is positively stunning.  You have no idea how long I’ve—”

“I don’t look like her,” she interrupted, sniffling slightly.  “I don’t look like her, or Gwyn, or Ginny.  I’m not some alluring athlete, much less a beautiful model...”

He seemed to contemplate her words for a moment, apparently perplexed and unable to sort out what she could possibly mean.  “No, you don’t look like them.  You’re the girl I actually wanted, the person they were all distracting me from…”

“Well, I do look like her… a little bit,” she said.  “I noticed, but I tried to deny it.  That’s who you’re imagining, isn’t it?  I know I look a bit like her, just not… so gorgeous.”

He chuckled.  “Wait, are you serious?”  The laugh that then erupted was odd, tinged with a bit of madness, almost a cackle.  “You think… you actually think that I’m fantasizing about Anna?”

“No, not... well…” she paused, having difficulty expressing herself.  “I really do believe you’re in love with me, and our friendship, but you’ve never said anything before, and this… this animalistic sexual frenzy... must be a product of—”

“The fact that I’ve lusted after you for years?” he cried.  “Because that’s the truth, and right now—the past hour—has been the most incredible fantasy come to life.”  He grew increasingly agitated and exasperated.  “You think I want Anna?  You have absolutely no idea…”  He was shaking his head, before turning more directly to her.  “I know you figured out that we had a fight over Christmas.  You pestered me about it weeks ago—do you really want to know what it was about?”  

She closed her eyes.  “Harry, I don’t see what that—”

The tenor of his voice raised a notch.  “It was about the fact that I called out your name, okay?”

At that, her eyes quickly darted to him, as she stared in disbelief.

“Well, not quite as extreme as that sounded, I guess,” he explained.  “The details don’t matter anymore, but Anna’s generally not one for cuddling.  One night after dealing with a difficult case in the Auror office, I drank quite a bit and fell asleep on the sofa, and for once she was actually caring for me.  She snuggled up and kissed me a few times, gently—almost lovingly.”  Hermione shifted a bit, but he pressed his hand more firmly on her back as his gaze came back to her.

“I had a bad day,” he went on after a moment, “and I wanted to see you, but you had gone home already.  And I was so bloody pissed that night I just assumed it had to be you… because I wanted it to be you.  So I said your name, while I was in the midst of snogging her.”  He let out a breath.  “She never completely forgave me, nor should she have...”

Hermione’s anxiety began to lessen again, and she leaned against him as he continued.  “Did you ever think that the reason so many people we dated were jealous of us was because there really has always been us?  Hermione, I never wanted anyone else… not really.  I’m not going to say I imagined Anna was you exactly, because that would be a bit weird.  But I’m also not going to lie about the fact that I think I did find her attractive because of the vague resemblance, even though I didn’t notice it consciously until we were dating for a couple months.”  He turned toward Hermione, hesitating for just a moment, before he gently kissed her forehead.  “She was a very poor substitute, you know.  Aside from the fact that she’s a pretty awful person, I always wanted it to be you.”

He put his arm around her, pulling her close, and they sat there in silence for a few moments.  Eventually, he shook his head and let out a laugh. “You still have no idea what you do to me, do you?  So many days I sat in your office in the Ministry, just imagining the things I might do to you right then and there…”

She felt her cheeks grow warm, as she began to imagine those scenarios herself.  “Harry… that wouldn’t be—”

“And those blushes!”  He pulled his arm away and touched the back of his hand to her cheek.  “I don’t know what it is, but it has always driven me absolutely wild.  Just this afternoon, I swear I almost completely lost control and ravished you right there on the desk.”

Hermione’s face grew even hotter, as she said quietly, “I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me, then.”

“Because the one time I alluded to it,” he explained, “you said the idea of our being together like this was… well, I’m pretty sure the exact phrase was, ‘Don’t be absurd, Harry.’”

Hermione sighed, staring down and shaking her head, realizing what idiots they had both been.  She reached out and took his hand, threading their fingers together.  A smirk emerged on her face, as she said, “You have cute toes too, you know.”

What?”

“Your toes—I was thinking about them when you got out of the shower.”  She couldn’t help it when a little giggle escaped at the ridiculous idea of talking about their toes.  “Harry, you were so drunk that night, you don’t remember it.  That’s why nothing happened—because I would never have let it happen with you in that condition.  In fact, you were so out of it, you told me that I had cute toes.”  She shook her head at him.  “Do you realize that’s literally the only time in the decade since I’ve known you that you ever directly commented on any part of my body?”

“Well, you do,” he smirked back.  “Have cute toes, that is.”

She rolled her eyes, as she went on.  “So I think I should be forgiven for just a little confusion and insecurity, as you’ve never before given me a sincere compliment.”  She rose from the bed, pulling the blanket along with her and attempting to wrap it around her back.  “And I think I deserve at least five minutes alone in the shower.”  She struggled with the blanket, which had been bundled up a bit.  The center now fell down behind her, exposing her back.  She pulled it around and tried to gather it in front of her, feeling oddly self-conscious with him staring at her completely nude back.  “I suppose,” she added, turning back toward him, now covering herself better, “I might consider letting you join me after that.”

“You realize that’s another fantasy of mine?” he said, glancing down her.  “Remember those months we spent alone in the tent?  I sometimes couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that almost every day you were naked in the shower, merely a few feet away… I almost considered just hopping in one day along with you, praying you wouldn't throw me out.”

“That was a really small shower.  It would have been quite a tight fit—”

“That's precisely what I was hoping for...” The smirk had returned, and she had to laugh.

“Anyway...” she said with another eye-roll, “if you decide to join me, you have to promise to behave.”

“I make no such promise.”

She narrowed her eyes in mock annoyance.  “Then you’ll wait until I get back.”

“What if I paid you a more appropriate compliment?”

“I’m listening,” she said, raising an eyebrow.  “But this had better be good…”

He sat in thought for a few seconds.  “You know that miniature sculpture in your parents’ study?”

Where was he going with this?  “The bust of Shakespeare?”

“No, not that… there’s... well, a nude girl.”

“Oh, you mean the Canova.”

“Well, the few times I’ve been in that room, I’ve been fascinated by that sculpture.”

“Yes, I noticed, Harry,” she chuckled.  Twice she had found him, intently staring at the model.  It was an odd thing to have Harry’s attention drawn to, and thankfully her parents never saw him deeply investigating a nude statue in their house.

“Because she sort of has your figure, you know,” he said, as his eyes drifted up and down her body, again making her feel quite exposed.  “I’ve walked behind you for so many years, and I’ve imagined what it would be like to finally see your beautiful nude legs, and, well... your bottom—and that sculpture, with the way you were walking away holding the blanket just now… well, it reminded me…”

She let out a loud laugh.  “You’re actually saying that I look like Canova’s Venus Italica?  A sculpture with a figure considered so perfect that thousands of people pay to marvel at it every day in Florence?”  They were both smiling at each other now, as they laughed together.  “You’ve jumped directly from cute toes to claiming I’m a Greek goddess?  Harry… I’d say don’t put me on a pedestal, but you’ve literally… well...”

“Actually,” he said, grinning widely, “what I’m saying is I fantasized that that statue might be like you, but now that I see it in the flesh, so to speak, your bum is definitely superior.  If you carved a copy out of marble, I bet thousands of people would pay to stare at yours too.”  

“Okay, enough,” she said as she turned away, heading toward the bath, “now you are being absurd.”

He stood and ran up behind her, catching her shoulder with his hand, as he bent down to kiss her neck from behind.  “I'm quite serious... but I’d prefer to keep this one for only private viewings, if you know what I mean...”  His fingers traced a path backward across her thigh, while her cheeks grew warm again. “And I definitely warned you about that…” he breathed into her ear, as she felt him press his body close against her back.

“Already, Harry?  Three times in barely an hour?”

“That wasn’t a joke before—I’m absolutely serious about the blushes… you have no idea over the years how many times I had to excuse myself or duck behind something…”

“I’m going now,” she said, shaking her head at his preposterous stories.  But as she walked toward the bath, she let go of the blanket and let it gradually fall completely, glancing back over her shoulder and watching his eyes grow dark and his mouth drop slightly open.  If he really felt that way, she could have a lot of fun with this.  “But,” she added, “you still need to give me five minutes to freshen up, you lunatic.”

“I’ll be counting every second…”

Chapter Text

The boy lay in his bed.  He sighed, feeling the warmth of the girl’s body now curled up close against him, her head resting on his shoulder, her left hand on his chest, the ring on her fourth finger sparkling in the flickering candlelight.

They were no longer a boy and a girl, he reflected.  The activities of the past few hours had certainly proven that.  Yet when he gazed down at the face of the woman he adored, now finally here with him, the dim light seemed to transform her into the young girl of his memories, the one he silently pledged his love to years ago.

How many nights could they have lain together like this, naked in each other’s arms?  How many months and years had they wasted, all because he hadn’t been brave enough?

But now was not a time for regret.  He closed his eyes and focused on the sensations of her wrapped up in his arms: her breathing, her body pressed against him, her heart beating so, so close to his.  His left hand drifted across her back, luxuriating in the softness of her bare skin.  He swore to himself that he wouldn’t waste one more moment: he’d take any chance, any opportunity, to feel like this again.

The boy who wrote that poem had no idea.   That boy, Harry reflected, had thought that the most amazing feeling in the world was to be enveloped in her arms, to be wrapped up in her loving embrace.  But that was only a prelude to a seemingly impossible level of intimacy Harry now felt.  Even the adult Harry had never actually understood the phrase “making love” until tonight: the way that greater love had seemed to literally be created as their bodies had struggled to try to become one.  It was like an intimate bond was forged in the fires of their passionate embrace and strengthened with each motion of their bodies, both of them having no greater desire than to share the pleasure they were experiencing, to hope that the other could attain the same sensations, to give anything to make the other feel that incredible.  Because of their intense feelings of love already existing for each other, some sort of feedback loop must have been created.  It drove them toward a level of ecstatic release that Harry had never imagined could exist, a universe with only Hermione, an ethereal plane where the only thing he could do is grasp on to her with all of his strength until they floated back down to earth together.

Strangely, even after visiting that hallucinatory realm more than once, there was still one more threshold to cross—one action he needed to take, one secret to be revealed to justify the ring on her finger that had seemed so patently absurd just a few hours before.  He thought she would have said it already; she was always the one who was more bold with her affection toward him.

Over the years Harry had learned to parrot the three words, to echo and respond in kind when prompted.  But there had never quite been truth in those words.  How could there be, when his heart had always deep down belonged to her?  It had led to several fights with others, in fact, because he had never uttered those words unprompted to anyone in his life.  Harry was certain it contributed to the end of all of his prior relationships.  He had grown up without anyone saying them to him, and part of him never quite understood what it meant to say them to another.

But now, he understood.  In the stillness and darkness of the night, with her slumbering on his chest, he could finally reveal his most closely guarded secret of all.

I love you,” he whispered, his eyes growing watery with the sheer overwhelming emotion that threatened to erupt.  However, once it had been said—once the thought had been reified and coalesced into actual sounding vibrations spreading out through the quietness of his bedroom—he felt like his heart would burst if he didn’t utter it again.  “I love you, I love you, I love you,” he repeated, the mantra echoing over and over in his thoughts, and his arm grasped her more strongly, pressing her to him.  Then he halted himself, not wanting to disturb her placid sleep.  No one should ever disturb a face that angelic.

A few moments later, though, he continued his whispered confession, finding the courage to speak aloud the things he had always wanted to say.  Soon, perhaps tomorrow, he could find a way to tell them to her in the garish light of day.  But for now…

“You don’t know how much you mean to me, Hermione,” he began in a barely audible tone.  “How much you’ve always meant to me.  I’ve tried to tell you so many times, and sometimes I’ve managed to let you know how amazing and incredible you are.  But I don’t know how I’d have survived without you.  You’ve saved my life so many times.  You’ve never abandoned me, even when everyone else had.”  He paused, trying to think of the right words, to remember everything she had done.  “You know, even as far back as in our first year, when I had to go on alone to face Quirrell, I don’t know that I could have done it without your little speech… and your....”  He swallowed.  “You don’t know this—no one knows this—but I don’t remember anyone ever showing me any affection growing up.  So when you threw your arms around me that first time…”

Harry had to stop talking for a moment to settle himself and take a couple breaths.  His chest shook—he was afraid he’d wake her up.

“You were always the bravest, you know,” he finally managed to go on.  “Even when you were terrified, you’d rush right into something along with me.  I couldn’t draw on that courage without you at my side.”  He thought back to that young girl, so brilliant even then.  “What was it you said?  ‘Friendship and bravery…’”

“... And love,” she whispered, her voice startling him as her lips moved next to his skin.

“What?” he cried.  “You’re awake?  How much have you…?”

“All of it, Harry,” she said, her eyes still closed while she placed a slow, lingering kiss on the top of his chest, just above his heart.  “I couldn’t possibly fall asleep when I just want to relax here with you and feel like this forever.”  She placed her head back down on his shoulder, as her leg that was already wrapped across him made a few passes up and down, the softness and intimacy quelling the little bit of anxiety that Harry felt when she first spoke.

“I was going to speak up earlier,” she went on, “but I wanted to see how much you’d actually tell me when you thought I couldn’t hear it.  I thought of chastising you for only being able to tell me your secrets when you’re drunk or when I’m asleep… except you just made me realize that I certainly haven’t always lived up to the Gryffindor ideal of bravery either.”

“What do you mean?”

Her hand was now leisurely tracing circles around his bare chest.  “Because that’s what I wanted to say.  Back in our first year, that was the rest of the sentence: ‘friendship and bravery... and love.’  Even back then, when we were just kids, you meant everything to me.”  She turned her head to look deeply into his eyes, her own brown eyes shining with profound emotion.  “I love you, Harry.  You have absolutely no idea how much…”

Hermione then shared a slow, tender kiss with him.  When Harry's eyelids slowly rose again, he saw her head was propped up on her hand, and she was staring at him.  “What?” he asked.

“I don’t want to put conditions on anything, Harry.  I said yes, and I absolutely meant it with every fiber of my being.  But I do have one request, to allow this… well, this new and amazing thing to work between us.”

“Hermione, you know I’d do anything…”

She put a finger to his lips.  “Then no more secrets.  No more silent pining.  No more confessions of love in lost sheets of parchment or hidden magical etchings or monologues late at night when you think I can’t even hear you.  When you feel it, just tell me.”

Harry thought for a moment, before nodding. “Okay, I’ll try.”  She smiled and put her head back down on his shoulder, while he pulled her more tightly against him.  “Well,” he added after a moment, “as long as you promise to do the same.”

She laughed softly.  “Oh, you’re going to get quite bored after a few days of how many times I’ll be telling you I love you, then.”

“But I love you more.”

“That’s not possible.”

“I gave you a poem and a ring to prove it…”

She raised her head up again to look at him directly.  “You didn’t give them to me, Harry!  I had to find them myself, after going through a battery of challenges.  If I hadn’t tried to fix that drawer that was slightly askew, none of this would have happened.”  She looked off, as she began to enumerate all the steps she had taken. “You realize I had to take out the drawer, figure out how to open the safe, then locate the hidden compartment, decipher your mysterious poem, and only then get you to finally open up about it all.  Not to mention moving that bloody desk and all of your other stuff.”

“So, what you’re saying...” Harry said in reply, looking up at the ceiling with a mischievous expression on his face, “is that the past day was like some sort of grand adventure, a kind of strategic quest where you had to solve several riddles to uncover some secret, like you always loved to do back at Hogwarts…”

“Wait…” she pulled back.  “Wait… what?”  Hermione now sat fully upright and glared at him.  “Harry James Potter, you are not seriously implying that you planned all of this?  Some insane elaborate Valentine’s Day adventure where you wanted me to investigate that drawer to reveal—” 

But Harry had been distracted by how Hermione’s new position had exposed more of her creamy skin from beneath the sheets, and his hands and eyes had taken to exploring.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about…”

“No, you’re joking,” she went on, ignoring him.  “Either that or you’re... Harry, I love you, but you’re not that clever, are you?”  She finally grabbed his errant hand, causing him to look into her eyes.  “Are you?”

A smirk broke out on his face.  “I guess you’ll never really know for sure…”  She sighed and began chewing her lip, obviously trying to sort out this new puzzle.  He shook his head and ran his fingers down her cheek, marveling at how adorable she looked while her mind was hard at work.  “All I know is that a few hours ago we were friends,” he added, “and now you’re naked in bed with me with a ring on your finger.  You figure out how that happened…”

“You’re really not going to tell me?”

He shrugged and settled back down, folding his hands on his chest.  “Sometimes you just need to have a little faith that things will work out if they’re meant to be…”

“That’s not an answer,” she said, sighing as she gave him a gentle shove on the shoulder before cuddling back up to him.  “You know, you can be a complete arse sometimes, but now you’re mine.”  Harry felt her leg drift across his and her fingers begin to rake patterns lower and lower across his abdomen, causing his breath to catch as he closed his eyes in anticipation.  When Hermione stopped moving her hand, his eyelids flickered open to see her with a cocked eyebrow and wearing a wicked grin.  “You do realize,” she said, “I have a whole new arsenal of options to use to torture you now, if you won’t tell me the truth…”

Harry pressed his forefinger and thumb together and drew them across his lips like a zipper, indicating that they were sealed.  But his eyes betrayed his playfulness, daring her to follow up on her threat.  The exaggerated silliness of it all caused Hermione to laugh aloud.

“Well, you can try to keep that secret,” she went on, lying back down on him, ”but in accordance with our agreement, I am now obligated to mention what I’m feeling—and I still love you, you insane lovesick git.”

“I love you more.”

“No, I love you more than anything.”

“I think I’ve proven that I lo—”

But he was cut off mid-sentence when Hermione climbed on top of him and began kissing him deeply, interrupting any coherent thought for Harry for at least a full minute.  When they finally separated from the kiss, both gasping for air, he opened his eyes to see those gorgeous brown irises staring back, the ones he now would wake up to every morning and say goodnight to every evening.

“I love you,” they said quickly in unison, both then immediately erupting in a fit of laughter.  And when her lips soon fell on his again, while his hands began again to meander up and down her body, he knew that he’d never want to keep that secret from her ever again.

 

Fin.