A/N: Here's the 'other chapter'. It's just a bit darker--more just different than dark maybe. Anyway, hope you enjoy! Thanks so much for reading and double thanks for reviewing!
Alternate Chapter Sixteen
That night, as Hermione lay stretched out on the couch, she watched the night sky on the ceiling above her. She had extinguished all the lights but the fire so she could see the stars better and her books had fallen to her side. A shooting star raced overhead and, closing her eyes, she made a wish. As she opened her eyes, Hermione heard a muted clock somewhere in the house strike twelve times. She looked from the stars to Harry who had fallen asleep stretched out diagonally on the ottoman in front of the warm fire with Crookshanks curled up on the corner on the far side of him. Hermione smiled when she saw that he had used his open book for a pillow; his glasses rested loosely in his hand.
Hermione got up quietly and sat beside him. She smiled to herself again as she remembered his joyful welcome that morning when she had arrived a day earlier than planned.
Hermione ran her hand softly in circles on Harry's back. "Wake up, birthday boy," she whispered. Harry stirred, his eyes still closed.
"Harry, wake up..."
Harry opened his eyes sleepily and slurred, "Don' wan'to...hmmm, that feels good."
"Happy Birthday, Harry," Hermione said softly as she smiled down at him.
Harry slowly lifted his head and blinked. "Is it midnight?" He pulled his glasses on a bit clumsily then checked his watch.
Hermione nodded. "You're sixteen now. I guess we can't say 'Sweet Sixteen and never been kissed', though, can we?" She teased him, ruffling his hair.
Harry felt his face warm a little as he shifted slowly to his side and propped his head on his hand. "Guess not..." He said smiling, returning her gaze. The firelight was sparkling in Hermione's warm brown eyes. "What about you?" Harry said. "You and Viktor ever..."
"Is that any of your business?" Hermione laughed.
"Well that's not fair," Harry protested. "You know all about what happened with Cho. How come you're being so closed-mouthed about Viktor?"
"Well Ron never makes talking about him easy."
Harry lifted his eyebrows at her. "I don't see Ron here."
Hermione's eyes darted to her knees and then back. "All right, yes, we did kiss, but...well, I just didn't feel very much for him that way—you know—no fireworks."
"At least Viktor didn't cry...everything was too damp for any fireworks to happen with Cho." Harry rolled his eyes.
Hermione grinned. "We haven't had very good luck with first kisses, have we?"
"No...but I did have much better luck with my first hug." Harry grinned back.
"Really? What do you mean?" Hermione said, puzzled.
"D'you remember back in our first year when we were trying to save the Philosopher's Stone?"
"After you solved Snape's riddle, when you were about to go back through the fire and help Ron, you threw your arms around me. You told me I was a 'great wizard'."
"I remember that," Hermione mused with a thoughtful smile. "As I recall, you very nearly came out of your skin."
"I don't remember ever being hugged before that..." Harry said then added quietly. "I'm glad it was you."
Hermione rubbed her hand softly on his arm. "I'm glad it was me, too." She stood up, and turned to pick up her books from the couch. "Well, I guess I better be getting to bed and you, too—big day tomorrow."
"Hermione," Harry said impulsively as he stood up behind her. She turned back questioningly and he grinned lopsidedly. "Maybe you could be my first sixteen-year-old kiss?"
Hermione hesitated but then smiled back, nodded and shifted her books to her side. She took a step forward and leaned slowly toward him. As Harry watched her cinnamon eyes come nearer his and then flutter closed, his grin fell sharply away and his heart sprang fearfully into his throat as he realized what he had so casually set in motion. He reached out his hands to stop her. But then, Hermione pressed her lips gently to Harry's and his hands stilled in midair. Harry felt something in his center begin to melt and spread until it sparkled to the very edges of his body. He lifted one hand hesitantly to let his fingertips skim along her face. Hermione let her soft lips linger on his for a long moment. As the kiss ended, a small sigh escaped from Harry's mouth to whisper against Hermione's.
Stunned, Harry looked into Hermione's eyes, which, after a moment, flickered and became anxious.
Unable to form any coherent reply, he took a small step forward, lifted his other hand to Hermione's face, and touched his lips hesitantly back to hers. Harry's hands crept from her face sliding into her hair and he heard Hermione's books thud loudly on the floor. He felt her hands glide gently around him and then as they pressed against his back drawing him closer to her. Hermione's lips were intoxicating as they returned his caresses and he felt her hands slid up his back to fuse into his hair.
When their kisses had ended Harry was left in a haze, staring down at Hermione and drawing ragged breaths. He was almost dizzy and his mind was blissfully blank but then the realization of what had just happened seeped in from the edges of his brain and washed over him. Harry's eyes widened with the sudden awareness of what he had just done. With Hermione. His best friend.
"Hermione...oh, no..." he whispered, horrified at the thought that he'd probably ruined them. "I didn't mean...I'm sor—"
"Don't," Hermione's eyes filled with tears as her face crumpled. "Don't you dare say you're sorry." She turned and hurried out of the drawing room.
"Hermione?" Harry called to her retreating back, totally at a loss to know what was going on. She didn't respond and Harry heard her bedroom door snap closed across the hall and the lock click into place.
Harry sank into one of the armchairs and dropped his face into his hands but then started as a voice asked, "Everything all right?"
Harry stood quickly and turned to see Remus standing in the doorway in his robe.
Remus walked slowly toward Harry. "I came down because I thought I heard a crash."
Harry glanced down at the books on the floor. "We dropped those a little bit ago."
Remus nodded then gazed at Harry. "You don't look so well."
Harry sighed dragging a hand through his hair and sat back down.
"Do you mind?" Remus gestured at the couch.
Harry shook his head not meeting Remus' eyes as Remus sat down across from him.
"Want to talk?"
Harry lifted his head but didn't reply.
Remus regarded him for a moment then pressed on, "Does this have anything to do with Hermione rushing to her room crying and locking the door?"
"You saw that?"
"Didn't mean too...but since I did, what's happened?"
Harry cast his eyes toward the floor. "I may have just ruined my friendship with her."
"What d'you mean?" Remus said disconcertedly and leaned forward.
Harry was silent for a long moment his hands twisting together nervously in his lap. "I kissed her."
"I see...and that's what upset her?"
"Ye—well, not exactly," Harry's eyebrows furrowed in thought. "I think she got upset when I tried to apologize."
"You apologized?" Remus looked at Harry incredulously. "Why?"
"Well, I just...I don't want to lose her friendship and I thought I had...that I had done something that would cause that."
"Harry...do you remember a few weeks ago when I asked you how you felt about Hermione?"
Harry swallowed and nodded.
"Well, have ever thought about how she might feel about you?" Remus asked quietly.
Harry's eyes widened. "She doesn't...I mean...she can't..."
Remus held up a hand with a small smile. "Hang on...let's not go through that again. Look Harry, you're a really smart guy but when it comes to girls, it's like you're wandering through with your eyes closed and your brain turned off."
"I am not!" Harry began to refute Remus but then stopped as he remembered the fiasco with Cho and sat quietly.
Remus sighed. "I don't mean to insult you but you're missing something that's been right in front of you for several years now."
Harry looked at Remus in bewilderment .
"I'm talking about Hermione." Remus looked Harry straight in the eye. "I think she has strong feelings for you and you probably do for her too."
Harry gaped at Remus.
"Harry, have you never realized everything Hermione's done for you? All the times she's placed herself in danger, gone way above and beyond to help you when you needed it, been scared to death for you when you were injured?"
"But we're friends and that's what friends do—"
Remus almost growled in frustration. "Yes and no. Friends do all those things, you're right, but not usually to the extent what that Hermione has done for you. Think, Harry. Has she treated Ron the same way she treats you? Does she do the things for Ron that she does for you?"
Harry regarded Remus then lowered his eyes as memories began to flood into his head. As the images flowed through his mind, images of Hermione's constancy and stubborn prodding to accomplish things that needed to be done. She had been trustworthy and trusting, loyal. She had been honest with him as no one else had been even risking his anger when necessary for his own good. She had put herself and her studies second to his needs and had helped him in ways no other person had or could. Harry let out a long breath and dropped his face in his hands.
"I've been an idiot," he said quietly.
Remus laughed humorlessly. "You're in good company, Harry. But let's get past that thought—what're you going to do now?"
Harry raised his head to look at Remus. "I've got to talk with her...if she'll let me."
Remus met his gaze. "Don't let her get away, Harry. You'll regret it for the rest of your life if you do." He reached over and clasped a hand to Harry's shoulder. "It'll work out. I'm sure of it."
Harry nodded, wishing he felt as confident.
"Well, I'm heading back up to bed. See you in the morning."
"'Night...and thanks, Remus."
Remus gave a quick smile as he went through the drawing room door and Harry heard his footsteps making their way up the stairs.
Harry sat gazing into the fire for a bit then stood and gathered his courage. He walked hesitantly across the landing to Hermione's door and cursed himself as he heard the sound of muffled crying. Taking a breath, Harry knocked softly. The crying stopped at once but Hermione didn't answer. After a few seconds, Harry knocked again a little louder but this got no response.
Harry sighed. "Hermione, I know you're in there. Please...I need to talk with you." Harry put his ear to the door and heard nothing but silence. He leaned his forehead against the door, his heart sinking in his chest.
"Hermione, I've been an idiot," Harry began hesitantly. "First off, I want to tell you that I'm not sorry for kissing you—that's one of the best things I've ever done. But I've been an idiot where you're concerned. Hermione, you've done so much for me—meant so much to me and I've never told you or even said 'thank you'." Harry put a hand softly on the door. "You've stuck by me when no one else would—when I was wrong and too stubborn to see it. You've helped me so much; you've put my needs before yours and you've even saved my life. I couldn't have done near as much as I have and I wouldn't have reached this birthday without you." Harry felt tears prickling in his eyes and his voice began to tremble with the knowledge of what he was about to say. "I need you, Hermione. And I care about you more than I ever knew. I only hope I haven't messed things up for us too badly."
Harry felt the door move as it opened slowly and saw Hermione's tear stained face looking at him with watery eyes. "You haven't, Harry," she said softly.
Harry let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding and stepped tentatively forward to gather Hermione in his arms. To be with her like this...Harry hadn't experienced feelings like this before. He was so overcome that he began to worry that his legs would give out.
"Why don't we go sit down?" Harry guided Hermione back to the drawing room.
They sat on the couch turning their bodies to face each other. Harry didn't quite know what to say after that and he was glad when Hermione broke the silence. She smiled at him shyly, her eyes bright.
"What now, Harry?" she asked softly.
"I don't know," Harry said quietly. "I wasn't expecting this—these feelings. I mean," he whispered, "you're my best friend." He saw Hermione's gaze drop. Taking her hand back in his, Harry went on, his voice a little stronger, "But that...what happened with the kiss was...amazing...and to be honest...I want more." Harry slowly reached out his other hand and lifted Hermione's face gently so that he could see her eyes. "I'm not talking about more kissing—although," his lips curved into a shy smile, "I definitely want more of that—I'm talking about more of...you." Harry stilled and gazed almost wonderingly on Hermione's face as though seeing her for the first time. "I want...more." He was at a loss to understand, much less explain, what was stirring inside him. "But I want to be careful of our friendship...I couldn't stand to loose that."
Hermione nodded and let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "I feel the same way." She caressed Harry's hand softly with her fingers.
"So are we...together, then?" Harry asked as he searched her eyes, gripping her hand a little more firmly in his nervousness than he realized.
"I think so..." Hermione smiled softly.
Harry pulled Hermione towards him and shifted them till she lay cradled in his arms. Fear and joy collided in his heart. For a long moment, he studied her face—her lovely familiar face. The face he sought when he entered a crowded room. Something was quite different about it now. The lovely brown eyes that had looked into his with pride, pain, laughter, and reproach were now looking at him in a way he had never seen before.
"Hermione." Harry said softly.
"Yes?" she whispered.
"I just wanted to say your name...seems different now, somehow..." He bent his head and touched his lips to hers tenderly. When Harry drew back, his lips curved into a soft smile. "This is the best birthday I've ever had," he whispered.
Hermione smiled back. "And it's only the first hour of the day. Speaking of the time, we'd better get some sleep." She moved to get up but Harry held on to her.
"Stay with me, Hermione."
"This may be the last time we can spend by ourselves for a while—everyone's coming tomorrow...please, stay here with me tonight."
Hermione nodded and relaxed back into Harry's arms snuggling her face against his chest. He slid them down to one end of the couch so that she could stretch her legs out on the cushions and he could lean against the pillows. Harry hooked his foot under the ottoman and tugged it closer so he could put his legs and feet up on it. Then he pulled the throw blanket from the back of the couch and put it over her.
They were silent for a few moments then Harry said hesitantly, "Are you feeling as scared about this as I am?"
Hermione lifted her eyes to his. "A little...but I've probably had a bit more time to get used to the idea than you have."
Harry stilled as the implication of her words set in. "Are you saying..."
She nodded, her eyes intently watching his.
"Harry," Hermione began quietly, her eyes swimming with tears. "These past two weeks, I haven't been able to get the prophecy out of my head. I've cried myself to sleep most nights knowing I could lose you...I had planned to talk with you about my feelings—that's why I wanted to come back here early before the others got here. I just hadn't got my courage up to say anything yet." Hermione paused and her voice trembling but then went on. "I know how things might end...I don't want to waste what time we have together whether it's days, months or...longer." She looked at him, tears now coursing down her cheeks.
Harry pulled Hermione closer and they were silent for a long moment. Then, "Do you remember the morning that we stood together looking out that window?" He asked quietly, his eyes bright.
"Do you remember what we talked about?"
Hermione nodded. "I-I think it was choices and destiny."
"Do you realize what choice you're making tonight?"
"I made that choice a long time ago..."
"I meant by choosing to be with me this way..."
"Harry, I've always been with you—and I'll always choose that."
"Hermione..." Harry's voice nearly broke. "Are you sure? Are you willing to take that risk with me? You know you could be..."
Hermione broke in. "A lot of things could happen to me with or without you. In the past five years, I've been attacked by a troll, petrified, turned into a cat, time traveled, tied at the bottom of a lake for an hour, attacked by a giant, attacked by centaurs, fought a pack of Death Eaters, and survived a pretty powerful curse. At this point, I'm willing to meet whatever comes. And if something horrible does happen...I want to have spent this time with you this way—no matter what."
Harry looked at Hermione almost in wonder. He saw the love on her face. Felt their arms around each other. She had changed so much from the young girl he had met on the train almost six years ago. And now Hermione was offering more than he thought anyone would ever offer him—had really been offering it the whole time. All he had to do was accept...and he found that he wanted to very badly.
"But I still wouldn't trade what I have now even if I lose it all in the end..." Harry quoted her quietly.
"Yes...nice to know you were listening," she looked up at him.
"I always am even if it doesn't seem that way...sometimes I even hear your voice in my head when you're not around."
"That's a little scary..."
"Tell me about it." Harry shook his head. "Anyway, I get your point—I don't want to let Voldemort paralyze my life." He looked at her steadily, "but that doesn't mean I'm not going to be terribly afraid for you and make some decisions based on that fear.
"I'm horribly frightened for you too, but I refuse to let the knowledge that one day we'll fight Voldemort interfere with how I choose to live my life moment to moment. I'm going for all the happiness I can get my hands on."
Harry regarded Hermione silently for a long moment then he pulled her closer and lowered his lips to hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he felt her lips part gently in invitation. They tasted each other for the first time and Harry reveled in the sweetness that was Hermione. His hands dove into her hair, gently tilting her head back to deepen the angle of the kiss. He kissed her hungrily and she responded by pulling him closer and pressing herself to him. Harry wrapped his arms around her and her fingers ran deliciously though his hair as his mouth explored hers and his hands clutched the back of her shirt.
Harry ended the kiss and said breathlessly. "We'd better stop before we can't." Hermione nodded with a knowing smile on her face. He removed his glasses and tossed them to the ottoman then he lifted an eyebrow and his lips quirked into a smile. "Wonder what it is about this couch?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well...you were right about Remus and Tonks..."
"Of course I was..." Hermione smirked. "But what convinced you?"
Harry told her about seeing them together and his subsequent talk with Remus. "They're keeping their relationship a secret, though, so don't say anything to anyone else."
Hermione nodded. "My lips are sealed...but what about us, then? Are we going to tell people right away or not?" she smiled. "I mean besides Remus, of course."
Harry smiled remembering the look on Remus' face about a half hour ago. "I hadn't thought about that...what about Ron?"
"I don't know..." Hermione looked and sounded anxious.
"What...did something happen between you two?"
"Well...in the hospital wing after the Ministry battle we had quite a bit of time to talk and some things sort of came out then."
"What do you mean?"
Hermione looked uncomfortable. "Ron told me that he had feelings for me—not just friendship, but deeper. I think it really hurt him when I told him I didn't feel that way about him, but he tried to act like it didn't."
"Hermione, just before he left two weeks ago, he asked me if I fancied you and I told him 'no'. I thought you and he fancied each other but when I asked him about that, he said that he didn't think it would work out. It seemed to me that night that he was holding something back but I didn't press the issue with him."
"Ron asked me if there was someone else...I was honest with him and told him of my feelings for you. I kind of wished I hadn't afterwards...I'm afraid telling him about us will hurt him all over again."
"I don't want to keep secrets from him, though—he's our best friend." Harry took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'll talk to him about it and try to explain...I hope he'll understand."
Hermione nodded and shifted a bit to get more comfortable. It was a good thing the couch was so big.
"Can you sleep like this?" Harry asked.
"I'd like to try..." Hermione closed her eyes and turned her face into his chest. "I can't think of anything better."
Though now he wasn't sleepy at all, Harry couldn't either.
After a while, Harry could feel Hermione's breathing slow and become rhythmic. She had curled her legs up slightly and one of her hands had ended up by her face on his chest. He smoothed her hair from her cheek and was entranced by the softness. Hermione stirred a bit but instead of waking, snuggled more deeply into Harry with a small sigh. He moved his hand to hers and traced the delicate lines of her hand with his fingers. He noticed her long eyelashes as they feathered on her creamy cheeks. Harry had to stop himself from lifting her head up to touch his lips to her soft mouth—he didn't want to wake her when she looked so peacefully asleep.
Harry slowly shook his head and a small smile played about his lips. He couldn't help but be amazed that he was holding Hermione in this way. Hermione. That he had touched his lips to hers. That he had heard her speak of her love for him—and his realization of his love for her. They had always belonged to each other but now in a way they hadn't before. As Harry thought on these things, he felt as though a warmth was spreading through him. He leaned his head back against the pillows with a peaceful smile curving his lips.