Harry stood, his hands hanging limply at his sides; emptiness as he had never known seized him, taunting him with vicious stabs at his heart.
She was leaving, walking out of the common room and out of the most important part of his life, his heart on the floor below her feet, where she might step on it, though whether or not she could have caused it anymore damage than it had already sustained was doubtful; shattered to pieces and bleeding weakly, maybe her own heart lay with his.
Her chocolate brown curls disappeared through the portrait hole; the Fat Lady shut behind her with a disapproving click. Harry closed his eyes, sinking in an armchair and pushing his glasses back up his sweaty nose.
His heart beat dully, as though it were made of lead, and resigned to keeping Harry alive – it seemed no more ready for ongoing life any longer than Harry himself. His insides had deserted him altogether, in frustration with him, perhaps. He stared at the fire, blankly.
He wanted more than anything to run after her, to hold her and kiss her, make her forgive him, make her see that he'd been stupid, that he needed her to live, to breathe – he wanted to see her smile, if only for one last time.
He couldn't. He couldn't risk putting her in the kind of danger, that sort of position. He loved her too much and if Voldemort ever discovered how much she meant to him … she could end up like Sirius …
He shivered, his eyes slipping shut. It was better this way, her out of his life completely; he decided he firmly believed that. She deserved to life her life to its fullest, free of fear and worry, regret and sorrow, not the life he could give. He could only give her pain and darkness, hurt and unhappiness and eventually death. She never needed to know those things.
"Just saw Hermione."
Ron's voice came from directly in front of him; Harry's eyes flew open as he jumped, startled to find his freckled friend kneeling in front of Harry's chair. Even kneeling, Ron was taller. Blue eyes full of concern and a hint of understanding, he asked, "What the hell'd you do to her, mate?"
Harry slowly raised his shame-filled eyes to Ron's, knowing his friend could see the entire story reflected in Harry's deep green pools; he felt it necessary to recount the events. Maybe for his own sake—or sanity.
"She told me she loved me." Harry's voice was flat, numbed by a thousand emotions all trying to affect him the worst.
"About time," Ron muttered, sitting down on the floor and crossing his impossibly long legs. His intense blue gaze never left Harry's blank face. "And you … oh, hell, Harry!"
Anguish tore at Harry's already battered heart; he pinched his nose as a bitter stinging came into his eyes.
The common room finally cleared out around midnight, early for the night owl Gryffindors; with no Fred and George around this year, however, rowdily displaying the more … energetic aspects of their personalities, Gryffindor Tower was both quieter and keener on sleep.
Only Harry and Hermione remained, discussing History of Magic.
Actually, Hermione was reciting Binns's lecture – word for word, no less – to Harry as punishment for falling asleep in class again; but the effect was still the same no matter who lectured; Harry felt his brain shutting down and his eyes closing. Maybe it was the professor's word choice that made him feel so dull-witted.
Ron, having also committed the crime – the same one he, Harry, and the rest of Hogwarts, save Hermione, were guilty of during all their hours spent locked in that dreaded classroom – that so offended diligent Hermione, had somehow escaped this torture; he'd slipped off during dinner and no one had seen him since; Harry was intensely interested in what could be keeping his friend away until well past midnight, though the keen curiosity might only be due to his severe boredom.
Hermione stopped speaking rather abruptly. Harry looked up, wondering if she'd finally noticed his not-so-subtle-lack of attention and expecting her to launch into another lecture – this one concerning the importance of their exams in a couple of months, and the effect it would have on their futures … and so on.
Instead, she stared at Harry with an expression he had never seen before; he shifted a little awkwardly.
"Harry?" she asked; a shiver went through him at the slight tremble in her voice.
They were sitting side by side on the couch nearest the fire; Hermione's ankles were crossed, her hands in her lap. Harry noticed her hands were clasped tightly together.
"Yeah?" He leaned toward her, anxious, hoping nothing was wrong with her. Hermione bit her lip, her expression extremely apprehensive. Oh, God, it was something serious …
"I … well, oh …"
Harry frowned and reached out for her, maybe to take her hand, to stroke her hair … he wasn't quite sure of his intentions.
"Hermione, are you alright?" he asked, feeling an increase in his anxiety.
"I … no!" she burst out; her eyes, having moved from his face long ago, were fixed on the carpet and now filled with glittering tears. "How can't I be alright when … Harry … Harry, I love you!"
"I know, Hermione. You've told me that before," he said carefully, pretending his heart wasn't suddenly beating way too fast, pretending he didn't feel as though his entire body was on fire; his insides gave a nervous jolt; he didn't dare hope. He paused and then added, "I love you, too."
He wouldn't, couldn't, allow himself to believe her love was any different from Ginny's, Ron's, Sirius's, or Mrs. Weasley's – that of his dearest friends.
"No, Harry, not just like that. Not anymore." She shook her head, a faint smile playing on her lips.
His brain couldn't seem to get around what she'd just said, declared as though it were a fact for everyone's listening pleasure – if there'd be anyone around to listen.
It didn't matter whether it mattered or not; everything clicked home when she kissed him. Quickly, before he could even finish his question; he hardly had a chance to take in her light, flowery perfume surrounding her, the feel of her soft lips meeting his … and she pulled away, her kiss as sweet and simple, as innocent and thoroughly arousing as she herself was – everything he loved most about her.
She looked at the floor, colour painting her beautiful face a light pink. Harry took her hands into his own; her skin burned against his own, his fingers running little circles over hers. His heart and body begged for more, his soul demanded it, to accept her love, her innocent, sweet love. His heart hammered away, as though fighting to control him.
His rational mind fought, of course, but it was weakened by Hermione's kiss and the rest of him that was determined to have her; for these pleasant minutes, it was silenced.
She looked into his eyes, her wide, cinnamon brown eyes meeting his warily, as though trying to measure his reaction, as though she thought he should be upset with her.
Her eyes, already as wide as possible, opened a little more in the split second before he returned her kiss, his lips melting against hers feverishly.
All he wanted – all he'd ever want, he'd recently discovered – was Hermione, and now more than ever. He kissed her fiercely and tenderly, passionately and simply. He held her precious, beautiful face in his hands; her slender arms locked around his neck, holding him to her and each trying get closer than was humanly possible to the other. His brain spun madly and the flames already in him spread like wildfire.
He broke away suddenly, feeling pleasantly dizzy.
"I love you." Those words, those painful words, whispered against his lips. Harry released her, leaning away. He took her hand again, lacing his fingers through hers.
"I …" He wanted so badly to just give in, to take what was hurting him so badly in order to heal himself; but his mind had woken with a violent jerk from its stupor and screamed in desperation all the consequences of admission, of acceptance, of love.
Her death. Her torture first, maybe. There might not even ever be a death, but a life of pain, of terrible, nameless things.
And it would be his entire fault. Just like Sirius.
"I can't," he murmured and his heart hated him. "I don't love you like that, Hermione."
His body threw a terrible ache at him; his heart was going to make him pay dearly for this terrible lie.
Well, screw the consequences; Hermione's safety was all that mattered.
"But – but you just –'' She gestured weakly at herself, at him.
"Didn't mean anything." He continued to stare down the carpet, hating himself for the flatness in his voice, for the pain he was causing her, wishing he hated her so that none of this would be a problem.
Maybe if he made her hate him …
"How can that," she helplessly touched her lips, "not mean anything?" Her voice was cracked; if he looked at her, he would see tears pouring down her flushed, gorgeous face.Make her hate you …
"Shouldn't have happened," he said, pleased and sickened by the hateful coldness in his voice. "I'm sorry it did."
He stood, feeling a stab of misery, determinedly avoiding her miserable gaze if he looked at her, it would all be over.
He had never been more disgusted with himself.
He was lying, Hermione knew it, he just had to be. Everything Harry felt was reflected in his bottomless green eyes. It was impossible for him to look at you while lying and pull it off.
But he'd never lied to her – not about anything important, anyway – and he would never joke about something like this. Harry could in no way be that cruel, not to anyone, no matter how evil they were, no matter what they'd done to him. That was why he hadn't been able to performing the Killing Curse on Bellatrix; there was too much goodness in him, too much innocence, purity and love in his heart to perform the curse.
But he was lying now, for whatever stupid reason – or so she hoped – and that hurt her more than the worst forms of torture ever could, more than his unjustified rejection of her.
So, she stood too and walked past him, tears streaming down her cheeks faster than she could produce them, tears of sorrow, bitterness, anger, hurt.
She paused at the Fat Lady.
"Tell me the truth, Harry Potter, or I'll walk out this door right now."
Harry's hands curled into fists, bracing himself, wishing he were dead, wishing she hated him so she would stay away.
"I don't love you."
His voice was hard and determined, coolly distant.
Harry was usually a terrible actor.
Hermione winced, unable to hold in a soft sob. He couldn't hear her, her soft voice torn, raw with deep pain, a single word ripped from her grieving heart.
And she was gone. Forever, most likely. She didn't know what she was going to do. She felt she should hate him, just a little.
But she couldn't.
Ron didn't say anything for a long time, but he let out a low whistle, rocking slightly. Harry looked mournfully to his friend.
"Oh, hell," he muttered. "I screwed up, didn't I?"
Ron smirked apologetically.
"Harry, you're my best friend and everything … but you've got a bad habit of doing some stupid things," he said slowly, as though carefully measuring every word.
Harry swore bitterly, getting to his feet, his heart pounding dutifully; he had a feeling it was still rather annoyed with him. Hell, he was annoyed with him.
Hermione could be anywhere by this time.
Ron grinned, rolling his eyes and taking Harry's chair as Harry sprinted from the common room. He shoved open the portrait hole, rudely but hurriedly. He shouted an apology over his shoulder, but wasn't quite sure if the Fat Lady heard him; she was muttering irritably to herself.
He was going to be in loads of trouble if he was caught; sixth years were due in their dorms at ten o'clock; it was well past that now.
He didn't care. The rest of his year could be packed full of detentions with Snape and he wouldn't care; it didn't matter, nothing ever would if he didn't find Hermione.
He rounded a corner; there stood the great double doors leading to the grounds. She was out there, he knew it, just knew it. He started forward, his mind whirling, his heart leading him more than anything.
But, shit, there was Mrs. Norris, staring at him with her evil yellow eyes. She opened her mouth.
"Don't you dare, you stupid cat," Harry hissed at her. "Don't you dare call Filch; if you keep me from Hermione, I swear I'll hex you into a thousand pieces and feed them to your master."
She stared at him, considering, her mouth still open. For one, aching moment, Harry believed she would do it, she was going to yowl for Filch; and that was the end of it. He'd lost her; it was for the best, but it hurt so badly.
But Mrs. Norris closed her little mouth and padded softly away.
"T-Thanks!" Harry breathed after her, relief pouring through his overstrained body. He stared after her in shock for a moment; he shook his head after a long minute, returning to himself and reminding himself of what had to be done.
He reached the large doors without further incident. He shoved them open; lightening shot through the black sky and thunder immediately followed. Clouds, full to bursting with heavy, thick rain, kept the stars from view. He couldn't see her.
Stepping outside the castle, Harry was hit by a cold, midnight breeze and the abrupt falling of large raindrops.
Splatters of water hit him in torrents; he was soaked in seconds. His glasses were covered in the huge pelts; he couldn't see anything. He was never going to find her in this.
In desperation, he yanked the useless frames off his nose, whipped out his wand and muttered, "Impervious!"
It helped, but not by much; the rain was coming down in solid sheets.
"Hermione!" he yelled, hoping she would hear him above the pounding rain. He ran forward; his jeans clung to his legs in an uncomfortable way and his T-shirt followed this annoying suit. He pushed his dripping bangs out of his eyes. Panic clawed, tore at him.
There, by the lake. A dark figure, huddled, oblivious of the torrential rain.
"Hermione," he said breathlessly and ran for her.
Hermione looked up, although there was no possible way she could have heard him. He saw her lips form his name in surprise as she got to her feet. She stared at him, torn between running to him and running from him.
In the end, he stopped a few feet away and held open arms out to her; she flew into them.
He held her tightly, clutching at her in a frightened, desperate sort of way. She could feel his heartbeat, pounding madly against his thin chest, with no particular rhythm about it; and her own matched.
"Hermione," he whispered into her sopping curls, "I'm sorry I'm so sorry I'm stupid stupid stupid prat I love you I love you I love you I love –''
She pulled away just slightly, enough to touch a finger to his lips. The rain bounced off everything but them, it seemed; they themselves were the magic, their love shielding them from whatever life through at – or poured on – them.
"I know," she said, her soft voice somehow not lost to the pounding rain; was that rain streaming down his cheeks? Or tears? Impossible to say; but for her part it was tears.
His hands gripped her slender body, never wanting to let her go. His bright eyes searched hers for a brief moment. She didn't know how much he loved her, couldn't know. There were no words for it.
He kissed her instead, in desperation, in love, in elation, in hope for forgiveness; all he could do was show her what he felt, burn into onto her lips while she kissed him in return, fiercely, her mind nothing more than a hopeless whirl, an indescribable blur of thought and colour; his heart screamed with pleasure instead of insults; the rain poured harder than ever around a rare miracle, two people along the shores of a lake, holding on another in the darkness of the night, bringing pure light to a black world.