Title: More Important Things
Disclaimer: Not mine, no-profit, just borrowing, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Spoilers: All five books.
Snow swirled lazily to the ground on a bright, snowy December morning, two days before Christmas. Hermione absentmindedly swiped snowflakes off her cheeks as she hurried along through the streets of Hogsmeade, a heavy bag slung over her shoulder.
"Out of time, running out of time," she muttered to herself, picking up her pace.
Hermione Granger was doing her Christmas shopping. Her very last minute Christmas shopping.
Hermione Granger, the girl who prepared for exams two months in advance, the girl who colour-coordinated her sock's drawer, the girl who fastidiously made her bed every morning when she woke up, was a last-minute shopper. It just couldn't be helped, she decided. She'd always been that way. Organized and fussy in every aspect of life—except when it came to shopping.
That, she tended to leave to the last minute. It was most certainly because there were so many other things one could do instead of shop. There were exams to study for, papers to write, sock drawers to organize. Spending countless hours shopping seemed like such a frivolous expenditure.
Honestly, she thought to herself, I have much more important things to do than Christmas shop!
Yet, it was her secret. She knew her reputation would take a hit, should anyone discover that she was not as organized when it came to gift-giving as she was in all else. In particular, she could not bear the thought of her best friends knowing.
She'd never hear the end of it from Ron. Ron, whom she'd criticized just that morning for not having bought a present for Ginny when she had yet to buy a present for anyone. Ronald Weasley would tease her mercilessly—and bring it up again when it would be most likely to irritate her.
Harry, though… she had a hard time picturing him lording it over her. Not doubt he would flash her one of his patented half-smiles and laugh good-naturedly at Ron's teasing.
Hermione sighed. Harry. She looked despairingly at her bag. Naturally, she'd written out a specific list before beginning her shopping trip, making certain to stick to a reasonable budget. Her shopping had taken her no more than two hours. She had gone in one store, purchased what she had gone in for, and left before she could be ambushed by salespeople attempting to woo her over to the latest deal. The only problem was, she had no idea what to buy for Harry.
Ron was easy. Anything containing sugar would be more than enough for Ron. She had vaguely thought about buying the same thing for Harry, but found herself unable to do so. She had always bought her two best friends the same thing in the past, but there was something different this year.
She found that she couldn't just give Harry a homework planner. Or a chocolate frog. Or a bag of Bertie Bott's Every Flavoured Jelly Beans.
And therein lay the dilemma. All her planning and her lists were for nothing. She had nothing to give Harry—and it was he to whom she was most desperate to give the right gift to.
There was something different this year with them. She had always felt closer to Harry than she did with Ron, but there was something more in their time together this year. She knew it wasn't her—she had been harboring "those" feelings for Harry for as long as she could remember. Which meant that… perhaps… there was something different in the way Harry was looking at her.
Despite the cool air circulating around her, Hermione felt her face heat up with embarrassment. Merlin, she couldn't even bear thinking about it. There was hope, yes, but there was uncertainty—was it her imagination? And there was the fear. What did it mean? What could they mean? How would it affect Ron?
Ron. A small smile tugged at Hermione's lips as her thoughts strayed to her red-headed best friend. As much as he infuriated her, she cared about him deeply. Ron would be… difficult. There was no denying that.
With a small sigh, Hermione shifted her bag to her other shoulder. Christmas shopping seemed entirely too complicated all of a sudden. It was full of rules and hints that Hermione had never spent any time thinking about. These were her two best friends—she'd known them since she was eleven. The fact that they were both males had never mattered before.
Far too complicated, Hermione reflected again, a headache beginning to brew behind her eyes. She had no idea how to go about these things. Gift giving was supposed to be simple, especially when it came to her two closest friends. Besides, she certainly was not some silly frivolous girl that went over every single little detail in the search for hidden meaning. Such things were a waste of time. And Hermione hated wasting time.
"But these things are important, you know," Lavender Brown had told her
with some distain that morning. "Christmas gifts aren't just
Christmas gifts." "Oh, do grow up, Lavender," Hermione had replied tersely. "Christmas gifts are
just Christmas gifts." "Oh, yeah?" Lavender had replied smugly. "What did you get for Harry?" Hermione had merely glared. "That's none of your business." "Still none of your business." "Oh, but we are dying to know, Hermione," Pavarti
had jumped in. "Which one is it? We know you must like one
of them. The question is…"
"Who," Lavender finished.
"Oh, do grow up, Lavender," Hermione had replied tersely. "Christmas gifts are just Christmas gifts."
"Oh, yeah?" Lavender had replied smugly. "What did you get for Harry?"
Hermione had merely glared. "That's none of your business."
"Still none of your business."
"Oh, but we are dying to know, Hermione," Pavarti
had jumped in. "Which one is it? We know you must like one
of them. The question is…"
Nosy girls, Hermione thought to herself, pausing to stare into a window. Perhaps she could get him some kind of Quidditch accessory?
No, she decided. Heaven knows, she'd never really understood the game… not to mention, Harry already owned more than enough Quidditch memorabilia as it was…
Besides, she thought to herself, rather angrily. It wasn't like she really understood her relationship with Harry, either. If she didn't even understand what they had, how could she possibly explain that to Lavender and Parvarti? They could never even hope to understand what her feelings were for Harry.
And she could not, for the life of her, find him an appropriate Christmas gift.
The air darkened around her and her shoulders began to ache with the strain of carrying her bag. Quickly she placed a shrinking charm on it so it would appear much smaller than it actually was.
She set off towards the Three Broomsticks, where she had promised to meet Ron and Harry. She had told them she would be spending her entire afternoon in the bookshop and they had readily agreed to taking off without her.
She bell jangled behind her as she opened the door to the Three Broomsticks. Shaking snow out of her hair, she peered up and down the tables, seeing many familiar faces. In the back, she spied Harry and Ron sitting at a table with Dean and Seamus. The four seemed lost in conversation and barely registered her arrival.
She felt a large surge of disappointment, wishing for a moment that it could have only been the three of them. Silly, she thought to herself. Why would they have wanted to wait for her when they could talk to Seamus and Dean?
It was times like this that Hermione wished that she had made close friends with some girls. She loved Harry and Ron dearly, but she loathed being the extra person in on "guy talk." Sighing to herself, she dragged an extra chair over to the table between Ron and Harry and set her stuff on the floor by her feet.
Ron absentmindedly waved an arm in her direction, Dean winked, Seamus didn't so much as turn his head towards her, and Harry smiled slightly in greeting. Without so much as pausing for breath, the four continued on in their conversation… which Hermione quickly picked up to be about Quidditch.
Slouching down somewhat in her chair, Hermione drummed her fingers on the table, her mind going back to her missing gift for Harry. She turned her head slightly to the side to study his profile.
He was nodding along with what Ron, Dean, and Seamus were saying, but wasn't interjecting much into the conversation. Hermione felt her heart go out for him. He hadn't said anything, of course, but she knew that Christmas couldn't be easy for him.
Not that anything was easy for him these days. Harry had become quieter since the events in the Department of Mysteries. He still retained the flashes of temper he'd exhibited last year, but mostly he was… quiet. Not in a sullen way. He was pensive—Hermione often caught him staring off into space when he thought no one was watching.
How could she even go about making things easier for him? A Christmas gift seemed like such a silly thing all of a sudden. There was nothing that could ease his pain. The closer they got to Christmas, the quieter Harry became.
"Bloody hell, Hermione!" Ron said loudly, causing several heads to turn in their direction. "Quit pounding on the table, will you?"
Hermione glanced down at her hand, realizing that she had been drumming the table more loudly with her fingers the more entranced in her thoughts she'd become. Blushing a little, she folded her hands in her lap. "So sorry, Ron," she said icily.
Ron rolled his eyes. "Girls," he said to Seamus and Dean. "Just don't understand the important things in life…"
Prat, Hermione thought to herself, narrowing her eyes in Ron's direction.
"Fine," she snapped. "Since I'm clearly not wanted here, I'll go on back to the castle. I don't know why you two even bothered to ask me to meet you here in the first place."
Ron merely waved a hand in her direction, dismissing her. Hermione scowled. Hefting her bag, she was surprised when Harry rose with her.
"I'll go with you," he said quietly.
It was the first words that he'd actually spoken to her. Hermione shrugged, still feeling annoyed with both of her friends.
Ron, Dean, and Seamus looked betrayed. "She'll get you doing homework or something, mate!" Ron said warningly.
"I'm tired, alright?" Harry said tersely.
At his tone, Ron, Seamus, and Dean hurriedly went back to conversing amongst themselves. Hermione couldn't quite contain her small smile. Though Harry probably didn't realize it, he was more than a little intimidating when he set his mind to it.
Together, she and Harry slowly walked back towards the castle. It was snowing more heavily by this time, and Hermione's shoes were beginning to get soaked through. She gave a small shiver.
Harry glanced sideways at her. "You look cold," he said quietly.
Brilliant observation, Mr. Potter, Hermione thought to herself, smiling wryly. "I've been walking outside a lot today," she explained, trying not to feel impatient.
Harry blinked. "Hermione, you were in the bookshop all day long—that's why you wouldn't come with Ron and me to—"
"Honestly, Harry," Hermione cut in impatiently, shifting her bag a little. "It hardly matters where I was all day. I'm cold, alright? It's winter."
"Sorry," he mumbled, clearly abashed. He thought for a moment. "D'you want my cloak or something?"
Hermione felt her knees go a little weak. "No, it's alright," she said gently. "I'm fine."
"Well—okay," he said, clearly unconvinced.
"We're almost there, anyway."
Harry nodded, focusing back ahead of him and lapsing into silence.
"Harry…" she said softly. "Is… are you alright?"
Harry jerked a shoulder. "Yeah."
Hermione clamped down on a strong urge to pester him until he told her what was bothering him. She knew that if she did that, he'd never open up to her.
"Well… if it isn't Potter and Granger… out for a romantic stroll I see…"
Out of the corner of her eye, Hermione could see Harry stiffen. Simultaneously, they both stopped, hands going for their wands.
Malfoy. With one arm thrown casually over Pansy Parkinson's shoulder, he was swaggering cockily behind them, looking as though he owned everything and everyone around him. Crabbe and Goyle followed behind him, punching one fist in the other. Pansy merely snickered as she leaned against Malfoy, clearly enjoying herself.
Hermione narrowed her eyes at the Slytherins. Next to her, Harry was practically shaking with unrestrained fury.
"What do you want, Malfoy?" he bit out angrily.
Malfoy pretended to look hurt. "Such a biting tone, Potter!" Crabbe and Goyle laughed.
"Harry…" Hermione whispered. "Let's just go…"
"Listen to your girlfriend, Potter," Pansy said, smirking. "You could hardly take Draco on, anyway."
Harry took a step towards them, his jaw clenched. "You picked the wrong day to irritate me, Malfoy."
Hermione watched in rising fear as Harry continued to advance on Malfoy, his eyes flat and determined. She knew Harry was close to snapping, if Malfoy pushed the right button…
"You're awfully touchy, Potter," Malfoy said, beginning to examine his fingernails in faked nonchalance. "This time of year must be difficult for you."
"Yeah?" Harry snapped. "And what would you know about it?"
"More than you'd think," Malfoy said, dropping his arm from Pansy's shoulder and taking a step towards Harry. "Christmas is such a lovely time of year, wouldn't you say? I spend it with family. Of course, you wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Potter?"
Harry was seething. Beginning to feel more than a little worried, Hermione came to stand beside him. "Harry," she said, putting a restraining hand on his arm. She was surprised at how tense his muscles were under her fingertips. "Harry," she said again, a little more frantically. "He's just trying to get you in trouble… don't let him get to you…"
"You stay out of it, you dirty mud—"
"Don't you dare finish that sentence, Malfoy," Harry spat, tightening his grip on his wand.
Malfoy's eyes ticked to Hermione's face before settling back on Harry. "Careful, Potter…" he said silkily. "You wouldn't want her to end up the same way as your dear old godfather…"
Harry lunged forward. Hermione, who had been expecting that reaction, seized a handful of his robes. Harry fell backwards onto her and they both went crashing to the ground. Hermione felt her elbow crack against the asphalt and she winced in pain, letting out a small "oomph" as Harry landed on top of her.
Malfoy, Pansy, Crabbe, and Goyle dissolved in a fit of laugher.
Harry was up again in a matter of moments, shaking off his fall as he trained his wand on the laughing Slytherins. Despite the ache that was reverberating through her arm, Hermione struggled up and planted herself in Harry's path to Draco.
"Harry, no, you mustn't do this!" She said sharply, holding her elbow as she tried to look stern. "You'll just get in trouble. Don't you see? He's doing this on purpose!"
"I don't care, Hermione!" he shouted, taking a few steps towards her. "He—he said—I don't care."
"Well, I do," she snapped, pushing insistently at his chest. "Please, let's just go back to the castle!"
Harry looked at her incredulously. "You're actually sticking up for him?"
"No!" Hermione yelled. "I'm trying to keep you out of trouble!"
"Look—whatever," Harry said, beginning to lose his temper. "Move out of the way, Hermione. You can't stop me."
"Yes, I can," she said, continuing to push him backwards. He wasn't budging an inch, and Hermione was faced with the crushing reality that Harry was much stronger than she was. He could easily push her aside if he wanted to.
"Move out of the way, Hermione," he said, from between clenched teeth.
"No," she said, trying to keep herself from trembling. "You can't—I won't let you do this."
"Hermione, I'm warning you—"
"Or you'll what?" she said wildly, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. "Force me out of the way? Use your wand on me?" she lowered her voice. "We both know you won't."
Harry stared at her for a very long time, looking caught. Hermione's breathing was coming out in short, harsh gasps. Finally, he whirled around and angrily began stalking back towards the castle.
Hermione felt weak with relief. Vaguely, she heard the stinging laughter of Malfoy, Pansy, Crabbe, and Goyle behind her.
Without caring, she slowly began following Harry's lone figure. She could feel his anger with her like it was a tangible force and she struggled against the lump that rose in her throat.
She had been right, she knew. Malfoy was only trying to gall him into getting in trouble. But it bothered Hermione to know that Harry's pain was so deep that he couldn't even ignore Malfoy's taunting.
Harry remained angry with her all evening. Hermione tried to shrug it off, but she felt stung. She hated it when Harry was angry with her. It was so much worse than when she fought with Ron because she knew that, however much she and Ron fought, things would always end up fine a few hours later.
Harry was different.
He tended to retreat back into himself when he was angry, oftentimes becoming more furious before calming down. Hermione knew it was part of who he was, but it still frustrated her.
He went to bed early that night, sending her a scathing look before sweeping out of the common room. Hermione struggled against tears of frustration as she concentrated on her homework. Her elbow stung so badly that she was having difficulty holding her quill. As a result, everything she wrote took twice as long, and she struggled against panic as the night grew darker.
Her writing was loopy and bunched together, so unlike her usual neat style. She winced as her eyes traveled over it. Her arm screamed with every stroke of her quill, but she grit her teeth and concentrated. Harry would certainly not cause her to fall behind.
Slowly, the common room began to empty out. Ron, seeming to pick up on Harry's hostility, had been uncharacteristically kind to her that evening. She felt a rush of gratitude towards him, realizing that she was unable to handle fighting with both her friends.
"Hermione," he said gently, before going to bed. "Maybe you should turn in, it's getting awfully late, don't you think?"
"Can't," she mumbled. "Have to finish."
"You'll make yourself sick."
"Don't be silly, Ron," she said dismissively. "I just need to get this finished. I'll be fine."
Ron looked far from being convinced. "Alright," he said. "Your choice."
He disappeared up to the boys' dormitories and Hermione sighed, finding herself all alone in the common room. She shifted closer to the fire, her arm throbbing as she continued to methodically take notes from her History of Magic textbook.
She felt her eyelids grow heavy and she watched with hooded fascination as the shadows from the flames danced over the floor in front of her. She glanced down at her papers and stifled a yawn. She was so tired… and she still had so much more to do…
Hermione jumped, banging her knee on the table. She glanced up, surprised to see Harry standing at the bottom of the stairs, watching her in intense concentration.
Hermione felt her mouth bob open in surprise. "Harry… what… what are you doing here?"
He shrugged, coming forward. He was wearing boxers and what looked to be an old t-shirt of Dudley's. Hermione could immediately see that he hadn't slept a wink.
"I was worried about you," he said, crouching down in front of her and glancing at her notes. "Ron said you were still up."
"I'm trying to finish my homework," she said tightly, hissing in slight pain as her elbow gave a furious little scream.
Harry's eyes traveled to her arm, where her skin was beginning to bruise and swell. "That must be going well," he said, eyes still on her elbow.
Hermione pulled her arm protectively against her side. "It is," she said shortly.
Harry sighed. "Give it up, Hermione. It's not worth it."
"Not worth it?" Hermione repeated shrilly.
Harry smiled at her fondly. Despite her efforts to appear stern, Hermione felt her heart give a furious little lurch. Still smiling, Harry shut her History of Magic Textbook and piled her notes off to one side.
Hermione was valiantly trying to figure out why she was letting him get away with it.
"Harry," she said weakly. "I have stuff… I have to…"
"No, you don't," he said firmly, settling himself next to her on the couch. "Now let me see that arm."
"No," she said, pulling it closer to herself.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Hermione, just let me see—"
"Oh, fine!" she snapped, holding out her wounded arm. "You don't have any idea what you're looking at anyway. I can assure you, I've looked up exactly what one needs to do when they—"
Hermione stopped suddenly. Harry's fingers were trailing along the skin of her elbow and she found herself repressing a shiver. He was so very gentle, being careful not to put any unnecessary pressure on her skin. Hermione couldn't help but shift closer to him.
"Because doing your homework was a brilliant way to rest yourself," Harry said darkly, releasing her arm. "You're right. I have no idea what I'm looking at. You should be talking to Madam Pomfrey."
Hermione blushed, finding herself wishing that Harry was still examining her arm. They were so close together now on the couch that their legs were brushing.
"Harry?" she whispered.
He turned to look at her, the firelight reflecting off his glasses. "Yeah?"
"Why did you… why did you come down here?"
Harry glanced away. "I was worried."
"I thought… I thought you were angry with me."
Harry waited a moment before answering. "I am—I mean, I was."
"Then…" Hermione swallowed. "Why would you… I don't really understand…"
"So, just because I'm angry with you, I can't be worried?"
Hermione turned around so she could see his profile. He was staring intently at the fire, seeming as though he was trying to look anywhere but at her. "Are you still angry with me?"
Harry shook his head.
Hermione let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. "Well—good," she finally mumbled.
"I was only angry because I knew you were right," he said quietly. "Sorry."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "No, you're not. But… thanks. For coming down. It means a lot."
Harry stood up suddenly, looking uncomfortable. "Yeah… right," he said vaguely. "I better go back up to bed. I'll see you in the morning, alright?"
"I—alright… good…" Hermione trailed off—Harry was already gone. "Night," she finished lamely.
She was met with nothing but the stillness of the room.
She shook her head, spreading her notes back out in front of her. Her arm gave a furious little twinge in protest but she grit her teeth and ignored it.
She'd known Harry since she was eleven and she still couldn't figure him out.
She knew he was confused—that much was radiating off him. He seemed to be in a constant struggle when he was around her, as if fighting some invisible force.
Classes had ended for the term and most students were on their way home. She'd stayed—if only because she wanted to be closer to Harry.
She hated to indulge in dark thoughts, but she sometimes feared that with the war coming up… her time with him could be limited. Her time could be limited. She knew she could never tell him, but he was her choice. No matter how things ended up with Voldemort, she was determined to spend as much time as possible with Harry.
Her parents didn't understand. Of course, they understood very little about her these days. Not the least of which was her relationship with her green-eyed best friend.
For whom she still did not have a gift.
"You kept writing yesterday, didn't you?"
Hermione jumped, feeling a slight touch on her elbow. It was Harry. She couldn't figure out how long he'd been behind her.
He brushed up closer to her until his chest brushed her back. "Do you still hurt?"
Hermione felt a slight flush rise on her cheeks, acutely aware of how close to her he was. "I… what?"
"Your elbow," he said, sounding amused. "Does it still hurt?"
"No," she lied irritably.
"You should go see Madam Pomfrey," he said, as if she hadn't spoken.
Instead of answering him, she turned around so she could face him. Perusing his face curiously, she resisted the rather strong urge she felt to get even closer to him. "How are you doing?"
Harry frowned and Hermione could see him struggling with himself. She could see that he was suddenly desperate to flee, because he couldn't grasp what was happening between them. "What d'you mean?"
Hermione sighed and led him to the couch. She sat him down, keeping her hand on his arm. "You, Harry. I saw how you reacted to Malfoy the other day. How are you doing?"
His eyes darkened at the mention of Malfoy. "Fine," he said coldly. "Everything is fine."
She was losing him, she knew. In desperation, she tightened her hold on his arm and moved closer. "Please, Harry… you know I'm not here to judge you… I just want to help you." She paused for a moment. "I would do anything to make you feel better."
Hermione began to hope she'd gotten through to him. His eyes softened and he moved closer to her still, until their faces were just inches away. Her heart sped up and she could hear it pounding away, echoing in her ears.
Oh, my god. He's going to kiss me. He's going to kiss me. And I don't know
if this is the right time and he's—
Harry jumped, recoiling away from her like a snapped elastic. Hermione felt disappointment rock through her as she tried to calm the beating of her heart.
"Ron," Harry said, swallowing hard, and moving as far away from her on the couch as he possibly could. "What are you… what are you doing here?"
Ron glanced back and forth between them, looking confused. "Err… it's the Gryffindor common room?"
"So?" Hermione snapped, feeling irrationally angry with him for interrupting them when they had been so close. So very close.
"So…" Ron repeated, dumbfounded. "I… err… often spend time here? With my two best friends?"
"Right," Harry said, jumping up. "I'm off to bed. Good-night."
Hermione felt a slight sinking of her heart when he all but took off running towards the boys' dormitories. Ron stared after him, still looking befuddled. Shaking his head, Ron took Harry's empty seat next to Hermione.
Hermione tried to concentrate on him, but she found herself too distracted by thoughts of Harry's odd behaviour. Every time she thought she was beginning to figure him out…
"Hey, Ron…" she said slowly. "What did you get Harry for Christmas?"
Ron blinked at her. "A Chudley—"
"Never mind," Hermione interrupted. She sighed. "Never mind."
Leaving a hurt looking Ron behind her, Hermione slowly climbed the stairs to her own dorm room.
It was Christmas Eve.
And she still didn't have anything to give to Harry.
When Hermione awoke the next morning, it was to a sinking stomach. With a muffled groan she rolled over, pressing her pillow to her ear.
It was Christmas morning.
Maybe she could just remain where she was. She could just hide in her dorm room all day. Harry and Ron wouldn't be able to confront her—they weren't allowed in the girl's dormitories.
Hermione ripped her pillow off her face. She knew that would never work. If she didn't appear it would only make them worry.
She looked around her empty dorm room, suddenly intensely thankful that the rest of the girls had gone home for Christmas. No one would be around to notice her odd, un-Hermione like behaviour.
Kicking off her blankets, Hermione's eyes reluctantly strayed to the pile of presents that had magically appeared at the foot of her bed overnight. She was filled with an inexplicable urge to completely ignore them. Perhaps if she didn't see what Harry had gotten her, she could stop the unpleasant feeling of guilt rising in her stomach.
Her internal battle did not last long. Hermione was, by nature, inherently curious. She could no more stare at unwrapped presents then she could ignore a piece of assigned homework. She had to know what was in them.
Dropping to her knees beside them, she methodically began unwrapping them. Books she'd asked for from her parents, money from relatives, and a quill from Ginny. She stared pensively at Harry and Ron's gifts before opening Ron's.
He'd given her a bracelet. A bracelet of what, she wasn't sure. She smiled to herself, looking at it. She couldn't possibly imagine herself ever wearing it, but she knew that it was Ron's way of showing that he cared. With a sigh, she put it off to the side, planning on stashing it with the horrid perfume he'd given her the year before.
She picked up Harry's present slowly, tracing her finger over the loopy scrawl of his handwriting.
I thought you might find this interesting.
Interested, Hermione carefully unwrapped Harry's present, careful not to tear any of the wrapping paper. It was a book. She couldn't help but give a small gasp of interest upon reading the title: House-Elves: A Struggle for Slavery and Freedom
With dismay she set the present down. It was a good gift. A very good gift. At least if he had gotten her something truly rotten she could feel slightly more justified.
Hermione knew she was dawdling. She'd spent far longer than was necessary getting dressed and showered. She was avoiding the inevitable confrontation with Harry.
Eventually, with her stomach rumbling, she descended the steps to the common room and began her way to the Great Hall. It was nearly deserted. The few Hogwarts students that had remained for the holidays tended to come in and out at meal times in small groups.
She spotted Professor McGonagall, Professor Snape, and Professor Dumbledore deep in conversation at the teacher's table. Ernie Macmillan was sitting at the end of the Ravenclaw table, a book out, and muttering under his breath. Malfoy was busy snogging Pansy's brains out at the Slytherin table. And sitting together at the Gryffindor table were Harry and Ron, staring at her accusingly.
Hermione gulped and approached them with trepidation. She sat down in front of them. "Hi…" she said nervously.
Ron's eyes went straight for her wrist, which Hermione surreptitiously tried to cover with her sleeve. "Morning, Hermione," he said, yawning a little.
Harry set down his cutlery and gave her a piercing look.
Oh, god, Hermione thought nervously. He's going to ask me about
his gift and I'll have no idea what to tell him and—
"Where have you been?"
Hermione blinked. "I… excuse me?"
"It's nearly nine o'clock!" Harry said angrily, gesturing around him. "What took you so long to get down here? Ron and I were waiting in the common room for ages!"
Hermione's mouth opened slowly in confusion. "What—Harry—what are you…?"
"You're sleeping in a dormitory all alone!" Harry said, voice rising. "Anything could have happened to you and we wouldn't have any way of knowing about it!"
"Harry," she said faintly, sinking down in her seat. "Nothing can—"
"We're in a war, Hermione!" he snapped, standing up. The few people left in the Great Hall were watching them in great interest. Hermione could hear Malfoy and Pansy snickering.
"Harry, honestly, what's gotten into you?" Hermione said, voice firm, standing as well. "You're overreacting. It's barely even nine… I just slept in…"
If anything, Hermione's comments seemed to make him more distraught. "Oh, you slept in!" Harry roared furiously. "So I've been spending all this time worrying about you when you only slept in?"
"Harry…" she pleaded, trying to remain calm. "I'm fine, I don't see why you're…."
Hermione trailed off with a sigh, Harry had gathered up his stuff and was retreating angrily from the Great Hall. Feeling miserable, she plunked back down into her seat, only to be met with Ron's wide eyes.
"He's been like this all day," Ron explained heavily. "Don't know what's going on with him. Nearly bit my head off this morning when I stubbed my toe. He tried taking me down to the hospital wing—said I shouldn't be walking on it."
"Hmm," Hermione answered vaguely, eyes traveling to where Harry had just stormed off. "Well, you know why, don't you?"
Ron shrugged. "Sirius?"
"Sirius," Hermione confirmed, picking at her food, though she wasn't feeling the least bit hungry. "Maybe I should go talk to him."
"I'd stay clear, if I were you," Ron said with his mouth full. "Just needs to cool off some."
Hermione stared miserably down at her food. "Maybe."
"You know," Ron said, swallowing. "Your gift for Harry must've gotten lost or something. Wasn't there this morning when we—"
"Interesting!" Hermione interrupted brightly, standing up. "I should go look into that!" Quickly, Hermione fled, leaving a bewildered looking Ron staring after her.
With a heavy heart, she made her way to the Gryffindor common room. She paused in slight surprise—Harry was sitting on the floor by the fire, staring pensively at it.
Hermione considered, Ron's warning to allow Harry time to cool off echoing in her brain. She ignored it. Approaching Harry slowly, she silently sat down next to him.
For a long time, neither of them said anything. Hermione struggled against her need to ask him what was wrong and comfort him as best she could. She knew him well enough to know that Harry hated pity.
"He gave me a two way mirror last year, you know," Harry finally said softly, startling her from her thoughts. "I never even thought of using it last year when he…" Harry stopped, voice catching.
Hermione held her breath, hardly daring to move. She was afraid that if she said something, he'd storm off on her again.
"Last year was the last Christmas I'd ever get to spend with him… if I had known at the time…"
Hermione couldn't take it any longer. "Harry—"
"First and last," Harry mumbled, cutting her off and still staring into the fire. "First and last."
Hermione blinked back tears, his obvious pain washing over her. "What can I do to help you?" she whispered.
Harry finally turned to look at her, eyes serious. "I'm sorry, Hermione," he said quietly. "I hate this—the last thing I want to do is to ruin this day for you."
"You're not," Hermione said automatically, reaching for his hand.
Harry stared down at their joined hands for a moment, as if bewildered to find them like that. "Hermione…" he began hesitantly.
Hermione moved closer to him. Her cheeks felt slightly flushed and she wondered if it was from the warmth of the fire.
"Why didn't you, err… get me anything for Christmas?"
When Hermione looked into his eyes, she could already see that he was beginning to pull away from her. There was so much pain there and she suddenly realized that part of it was because of her. She mentally cursed herself, realizing that she should have gotten him something—anything, rather than nothing at all.
She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Opening them, she focused on Harry's face. His body had stiffened up and she knew he was so close to running from her.
"I wanted to get you something special," she said quietly. "Something that would help. But the more I looked, the more there didn't seem to be anything that could ever help take away your pain." Hermione made sure her voice was firm. "But I will find you something, Harry. I promise."
Harry stared at her for a very long time. "You got something for Ron."
"Yes, I did," Hermione whispered.
"Because Ron isn't…" Hermione trailed off and tried to start again. "Because Ron's gift wasn't as important to me…"
Harry shifted, leaning closer to her. Hermione's breath caught in her throat and her heart started pounding. She tried so hard to focus, but the warmth from the fire was stifling and he was so close to her, so very, very close.
"Ron isn't as important to you as I am?" Harry whispered.
His voice sounded far away, like she was underwater. "No," Hermione protested sluggishly. "No, I didn't say that…"
"So he's more important than I am?"
"I didn't say that either."
He was still coming closer and Hermione was frozen. His finger lightly skimmed along her cheek and Hermione felt her heart speed up. His face was so near hers now that she could feel his breath tickling her nose.
"Hermione," he said, voice so very quiet. "I can't bear the thought that… if this was the last Christmas that I ever spend with—"
"Don't finish that," she whispered. "Please, don't finish that."
"I can't help it," Harry continued, his fingers continuing to caress her cheek. "I don't think you understand how scared I am."
"Me, too," Hermione said. "But we mustn't get caught up in the fear, Harry. If we can't live our lives… that's when he wins."
Harry didn't have to ask who "he" was. Instead of answering her, he leaned forward and captured her mouth in a kiss that was almost painful in its gentleness. He kissed her with a tenderness that sent Hermione's heart aching, like he was afraid of hurting her, or as if she were merely a dream that could disappear at any moment.
It was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once and when he pulled away from her, he watched her as if he was afraid that she wasn't real. But she was real and Harry had just kissed her. She could still feel the slight tingle on her lips where they'd been meeting his only moments before.
Harry traced her face wonderingly with his fingertips and Hermione closed her eyes, feeling warm and needed and so very full of desperate feelings for the boy in front of her that she thought she might burst. She could never explain properly the effect that Harry had on her. She couldn't explain how desperately she wanted to make his pain go away, how she'd follow him to hell and back—all he had to do was ask.
"Hermione…" his voice was raw and desperate and she opened her eyes, to find him staring at her intently. "I think that… I think that I might be in love with you."
Hermione felt herself smile, even as her heart thudded against her ribs in joy. "I think you might be, too," she whispered.
Harry gave a faint smile. "What about you?" he asked softly.
"I sometimes think I've always loved you," she said simply, not in the least bit embarrassed by the omission. It couldn't be true, of course. Hermione didn't believe in love at first sight—and, besides, how could she possibly have had an inkling of understand of what love was at the age of eleven? But she honestly couldn't remember what it felt like to not love him—and that was more than enough for her.
They were kissing again—though Hermione could not have said who had made the first move. It was real kiss this time, she could feel Harry's belief in her, in them, in a way that she hadn't been able to before.
It was then that it hit her—what she should have given Harry for Christmas. Completely surprised, Hermione pulled away with a large gasp. "Oh, my," she said, standing up and trying to catch her breath.
It was only then that she noticed that Harry was staring with his mouth hanging open, looking completely lost and bewildered. Suddenly fearing that his puzzlement would lead to hurt, she rushed to explain.
"I've just realize!" she said loudly. "What I should have—Oh, do you mind terribly waiting here for five minutes, Harry?"
"Err… five minutes?" he repeated, looking at her worriedly. "Is… Hermione… I didn't do anything wrong, did I?"
"Oh, no!" Hermione said quickly, shaking her head. "Of course you didn't! You were… you were wonderful, Harry. And that kiss was wonderful… I just… I'll be right back, I promise…"
Without waiting for him to give an answer, Hermione rushed up to the girls' dormitories. Inside her room, she immediately ransacked her drawers, trying to remember where she'd put it. Clothes flew in every direction (perfectly neat, folded clothes) in her haste. Brushing aside an old sweatshirt, she found what she was looking for.
It was a photograph. Colin Creevey had taken it earlier that year. It was just her and Harry—they were sitting in the Great Hall. Hermione couldn't remember when the picture had been taken, but she'd always been surprised by how much they looked like a unit. Their shoulders were brushing, and they leaned towards each other in a way that suggested intimacy. She'd had the picture framed, but had hidden it from public view. The last thing she had wanted was for her relationship with Harry to become a popular subject of discussion. She didn't need others to see what they were—her belief in them was strong enough on its own.
Cradling the picture gently, she carried it back downstairs. She found Harry pacing back and forth in front of the fire. He smiled in obvious relief when he saw her. Hermione clutched the picture frame closer to her chest.
"Hey," he greeted softly. "You came back."
"Of course I came back," she said. "Why wouldn't I?"
Harry shrugged. "I was afraid you were having second thoughts."
"Why would I be having second thoughts?" she asked, stepping closer to him. "Didn't you hear me, Harry? I just told you, I can't imagine a time when I didn't love you."
"I heard you," Harry said with difficulty. "But I'm sure you must have noticed what happens to people that I love."
"I brought you something," Hermione said, effectively changing the subject. She held out the photograph. "I know it's not wrapped or anything but—"
"Thank you," Harry said, accepting it. He peered down at the picture and Hermione watched his eyes for his reaction. They softened immediately, and she watched as he lightly traced a finger over her face in the picture.
"You're beautiful," he said softly.
Hermione's head snapped up. "What?"
"Err…" Harry said, looking caught. "It's beautiful… the photograph… it's, uh… it's beautiful, Hermione. Thank you."
"Really?" Hermione said, smiling. "So you don't think I'm beautiful, then?"
Harry flushed. "Err… I, uh… of course I do…"
Hermione laughed to herself, feeling wonderfully delighted by him—by them.
Harry's flush became more pronounced at her laughter. He swallowed with difficulty. "Sorry. This is rather… difficult for me. Hermione, you're my best friend."
"And I always will be," she said firmly. "But you do know that we're so much more than that, don't you? Harry?"
Harry glanced back down at the picture in his hands. Slowly, he nodded. "I can't imagine… I don't think you can understand how badly I need you."
"I think I probably can," Hermione said evenly.
Harry's eyes were stormy behind his glasses as they met her, and Hermione felt her heart began to pound erratically in her chest again. How was it possible that he held such power over her? How was it possible that he could leave her breathless with merely a look?
"No, I don't think you can," Harry said, but his voice was more teasing. He approached her slowly, his gaze a mixture of things. She could see him still struggling to understand what was happening between them, his inability to believe that she was truly real, and his love… so much love reflected in his eyes.
And she knew what it meant to be loved by Harry. He had so few people in his life—those that he loved, he loved with everything that he had. It put them in danger, yes, but she wouldn't have it any other way. And she could tell that he loved her in a way that he had never let himself love anyone before.
That scared him. It scared her, too, but he was allowing it to happen—he was allowing himself to fall in love with her with everything he had.
"I won't let him win, Hermione," Harry said aloud, as if reading her thoughts. "I won't let him win," he repeated again.
"We won't let him win," Hermione whispered.
Harry stopped in front of her. He kissed her forehead and her cheeks and her nose and her eyelids before pressing his lips to hers in a chaste kiss.
"We won't let him win," Harry vowed.
And she believed him.