Disclaimer: Harry Potter and all related plot events and characters are the property of JK Rowling.
Summary: PostHogwarts. Harry must deal with the horrors of war, and in doing so he will embrace his heritage and leave a lasting legacy on the world.
A/N: Please review. Enjoy!
Chapter 20: Summer Daze, Part II
Hermione approached the Burrow in the waning light of the evening. The crickets were singing their dusty tune and the shadows were long. She swung her arms idly as she walked down the well-worn path toward the front door of the house. She passed under the shade of a large tree and when she came out again, she stopped and turned toward the sun. She squinted at the mellow orange light, which was just starting to dip below the trees. She sighed to herself as flashes of memories of the past eight years of her life—seven of which were extraordinary—flitted across her consciousness. She knew her lip was trembling, but she didn't have enough energy to cry. The day had been draining, emotionally and physically.
She still couldn't believe that he hadn't come after her. In the back of her mind, she knew she had been expecting it. She would even go so far as to acknowledge that that was the real reason that she had gone to see him; she had wanted to assert whether or not he would have stopped her. Now, though…the answer seemed apparent. He didn't care enough to chase her, and she knew she shouldn't. She turned away from the sun, letting the spots fade away for a moment, and resumed her trek toward the house she had called home for some time now. But…not for much longer…
She had been trying to figure out for quite a while where it had all gone wrong. She had put her mind to the task, and for the first time that she could remember, she had come up with no solid conclusions. She allowed herself some egotism in terms of her intelligence, but that had deflated rapidly, as the situation had gotten worse and worse. It had been washed away by her failure to remedy whatever had happened and by her failure to not be able to step above the petty differences that separated them all. She had made her choice long ago, and as stubborn as she was, she knew she had to stick with it. If she went back on that decision…that decision of the heart…there was no telling how much further it would screw things up.
And that was why she had agonized for so long over that damn letter. It caused her a great many days of anguish, to reduce what she wanted and needed to say to Harry to mere written words, but somehow she had gotten through it. She wanted to leave him something to remember her by, and hoped that by infusing the letter with some of what she was feeling at the moment that he would begin to understand a little bit about exactly what was going on.
The door to the Burrow got closer and closer, and one chapter in her life was coming to an end. Besides the fact that she wanted a final judgment on exactly what Harry was thinking, she had gone to Hogwarts that day to say goodbye to her friend…and she did still consider Harry one of her best friends, even if he didn't have those same feelings anymore. She would never be able to think of him as anything less, because of everything they'd been through and shared together, and she wanted to make sure that he got an idea of that.
She hadn't wanted to break down emotionally, but in the end it couldn't be helped. If she had the tears left, she would probably be crying right now, but as it was, they were all gone. She had rested comfortably in his hug for a moment, drifting away in some alternate reality that only a stressed mind could create, until the clearing of his throat brought her back. She knew that she had to leave the room, to see if he would follow, and to do that she couldn't stay there with him. It was so hard, though, going through that door…
He hadn't come after her. She had been expecting it, but he hadn't. She had almost gone back once or twice, but she steeled her resolve and continued on her journey back to the Burrow. She had made her choice, and she was happy with it, even though it was bittersweet. She was getting someone she loved in Ron, but she was losing the next best thing in Harry. And that was what it boiled down to: was Harry really the next best thing? Was he really second best to Ron where it mattered? She thought she had answered that question long ago, when a young redhead had eaten slugs to defend her honor, but over the years her perception of that moment had become slightly skewed.
It had become slightly skewed with all of the petty and childish things that Ron had done, especially their episode before and during the Yule Ball, and their sixth year. She felt horrible about that…abandoning Harry like that, all because most of her intellect was bent on making Ron jealous. What had that caused? Well, she couldn't pin it down exactly, but she was pretty sure that she could trace all of their current problems back to that year.
She had read somewhere, in some Muggle book, that combat and war could cause what was known as post-traumatic stress syndrome. She had read that such strong stimuli, such as seeing people die, could cause rifts to grow between people; they could develop between friends, family, loved ones, and anyone else. She had at first thought that something like that could possibly be the answer she was looking for. Then though, when she had sat down and really searched her soul, she had come back to her sixth year, and all that had transpired.
When she looked at it objectively like that—or as objectively as she could—she knew that her actions that year had sown the seeds of dissension among the three of them. She had basically ignored Harry; she had abandoned him. She had always been there for him previously during their time at Hogwarts, but she hadn't been during that year. She had been too focused on her stupid adolescent issues to be concerned about the welfare of Harry, and hence the relationship the three of them shared, and it was at that moment that it had all begun.
She rested the flat of her palm on the hard surface of the door. When she stepped over this threshold…that was it. She knew that, at the time at least, their actions hadn't seemed like a big deal, but she could clearly see the route the rotting of their bond had taken, and how it had been jumpstarted by the distance she had put between herself and Harry, and the petty squabbles she had had with Ron. Ron and her had ended up together, that was true, but there was also something about their relationship that seemed a little bitter; she didn't know if it was on her part or his; perhaps it was both. She did not know.
There was no doubt about the fact that she loved Ron, because if there were, she wouldn't be pressing against the door and stepping into the Burrow. She wouldn't be looking around to see if he was in sight, and she wouldn't be calling out his name to see where he was.
"Ron?" Nothing but silence greeted her…that was odd. They were leaving for America later that night, using a Ministry-approved long distance Apparation point, and she would have expected him to be around, packing frantically. She had been packed for several days now, but she knew for a fact that Ron had been procrastinating, as usual. She walked through the kitchen into the living area.
"Ron?" she called up the stairs. Still no answer. She looked around again for a moment, taking account of all the small things she had never really noticed before. In all her time at the Burrow, she had never taken the time to really look around at what was there. In a way, it was kind of morbid, because most of it remained the same as the day Arthur and Molly had been killed, but it was also somewhat of a tribute. Their lives had been snatched without recourse, and Ron felt that it would be an injustice to them to disturb whatever precious possessions they had had. As a result, Ron and Hermione had done very little actual living in the Burrow that summer.
The Burrow had always felt warm and inviting, because of the people and the love that resided there, but now, looking around, she couldn't help but feel a slightly alien presence in it. It was something like…age…or maybe disuse…but it was something that didn't belong in the Burrow. She had a brief image of her swirling out of the Floo network into the Weasley's living room, and looking up and seeing the bright, smiling faces of both Harry and Ron. It must have been from…well, it didn't matter anymore. There would never be anything like that again.
Hermione walked back into the kitchen and moved toward the back door, but paused when she finally did see Ron. He was sitting on the rock wall that ran along the back of the garden, facing away from her. He was slouched a tiny bit, but she couldn't make out anything else because of the sun. He was silhouetted against the dying rays of another day.
She walked into the backyard, letting the door flap noisily back into its frame, but Ron still didn't move. He looked like a dark statue from where she was standing. She really hoped that he had done all of his packing…
"Ron?" she called for a third time, as she approached his back. She climbed over the wall and sat next to him, looking at his face. It was impassive; he seemed to be staring into the sun, much as she had been doing just a few minutes before.
"Babe?" she asked, gently putting a hand on his arm. The barest flicker of movement in his eyes betrayed the fact that he was aware she was there…yet he seemed to be ignoring her. She tightened her grip a tiny bit.
"Where were you today, Hermione?"
"Err…I had to do some shopping," she haltingly said. She hadn't expected him to ask it of her, and she had no answer ready. She knew that he would be absolutely furious if he found out she went to see Harry, but she also knew that she was her own woman. She could do as she pleased, whether Ron approved of it or not, and if he didn't like it, then he could…
He could what? What was she just going to think? It had been on the tip of her thoughts, but whenever she got to that point, of really thinking or saying what was bothering her, it would just slip away. She couldn't put it into words…it was just some…feeling.
"Really? Where?" he asked coolly. His eyes had not moved, and his lips had barely parted to allow the syllables through.
"You know, Diagon Alley," she replied, evasively. She wanted to get off this subject; she was not comfortable talking about Harry with Ron, even indirectly. At the moment, the subject was the huge pink elephant in the room, but she hoped over time, and because of the distance her and Ron were putting between England and them, it would fade. She hoped.
"Hmmm…really? I was there for a while. I'm surprised I didn't see you."
"We must have been in different shops," she replied. There was an odd tone to his voice…
Finally, he turned slightly toward her; his eyes followed his body after a moment and they rested on hers. They were piercing.
He sighed. "Why are you lying to me, Hermione?"
Hermione froze. "What?" she managed.
"You heard me," he said, softly. "You're lying…and I just want to know why."
"You were with Harry today," he cut her off. His gaze seemed to strengthen for a moment, and then he turned back to the sky, from which the sun had finally just slipped.
Hermione had only one thing to say, since she could no longer deny it. "How did you know?" She winced a tiny bit, because it came out sounding a bit more like a demand than a question.
"Because I followed you as far as Hogwarts," he responded, simply.
"You what?" she asked, unable to keep the incredulity out of her voice.
He shrugged lightly, almost carelessly. "I followed you."
Hermione wasn't angry—she couldn't be. As she had noticed before, she was too drained to feel much emotion. She was annoyed, however. "And what would possess you to do that? You don't trust me?"
Ron snorted, as if in irony or mirth. "You lied to me, didn't you?" Well…yes…she had, but there had been a good reason for that. Hadn't there been? That didn't mean Ron couldn't trust her…that just meant there were some things that she and Ron just couldn't see eye to eye on.
"You know why I did that, Ron." The whole conversation had an odd tone about it—one or both of them should have been angry, furious really, but both of them had remained fairly calm.
"No…no I don't, not really, Hermione." He turned toward her once again, and she watched as, visibly, a shadow moved over his face. Night really was falling. "Enlighten me," he added, dryly.
"You can't understand Ron, so I think we should just stop talking about this. We're leaving in a few hours, and I think we should let the past be the past. Remember it, sure, but don't dwell on it."
Ron smirked and clapped his hands lightly twice. He had a very sardonic tone when he spoke. "Bravo, Hermione, surely one of the best speeches you've ever given." He paused. "Too bad it's utter bullshit."
"Excuse me?" Hermione asked. Her annoyance was starting, ever so slightly, to flare a little…
"You heard me. Tell me…if the past is not to be dwelt on, why did you go see Harry today? That seems to be dwelling on it, to me."
Hermione pushed herself off the wall and walked forward a few steps; she wrapped her arms around herself as she felt the first chill of twilight settle onto her skin. The western sky was a deep blue now, and if she turned around, she knew the east would be black.
Was she dwelling on the past? Was that what she was doing? If she had gone to see if Harry would stop her, or say something to her, was that dwelling on what was about to become the past. No…it wasn't dwelling on it. It was trying to save it—it might have been a fine distinction, but it was there nonetheless. She had already accepted that she was leaving for America, but she wanted to see if something could have been rebuilt before she left. But…it couldn't have. She had left, and he had not followed. And here she stood, on the cusp of leaving the country of her birth, with the man she'd convinced herself she loved, being subjected to an interrogation. She did not like it; she felt she had the right to be a little nervous, and a little nostalgic, because she wasn't going to be back. She turned to Ron.
"No, Ron. I'm not dwelling on anything. I'm letting go. That's what I'm doing. There were some loose ends that I had to tie up, and they would have been hanging over me for the rest of my life if I hadn't." Ron was silent. He didn't even seem to be looking at her. She took a few steps closer.
"What about you Ron? You still have time, you know…you still have time to go see him, and say goodbye at least. You know you'll regret it for the rest of—"
"No!" he interrupted, forcefully, and stood. "I refuse to talk to or be seen with Harry Potter ever again," he said, sneering at the name of his once best friend. His face faded for a moment, as night fell totally, and when her eyes adjusted, she saw that he was looking up, toward the stars.
Hermione was about to say something, and she knew that it would probably create huge problems, but she had to do it. "Ron…you can still visit her grave…" she trailed off. She watched as he did not move—he just stood staring up at the clear night sky.
Finally, he just sighed and dropped his head. He turned around and started back toward the Burrow. "Come on, let's finish our packing. We're leaving in about an hour," was all he said. Hermione watched his retreating back for a moment, wishing that he'd suddenly want to talk about the death of his sister, but it was as it had been for six months now—he avoided the topic completely. She knew it was bound to come out sometime, and the longer he went without talking about the worse it would be when it did…that was why she kept trying to get him to talk about it.
The door banging against the Burrow shook her from her thoughts, and she saw that Ron had gone back inside. She looked once at the stars, which seemed to be very bright, and followed him. Once inside, she made sure she had everything she needed, shrunk it all, and stored it in a pocket. It was amazing that she could fit everything she needed to live in a pocket…with the aid of magic, of course. She heard Ron banging around upstairs, and moved to sit by the front door. All that she could do was wait now…wait for Ron to come down so they could leave England.
The soft, straining sound of the crickets came once again to her ears, but it seemed to be subdued somewhat, almost covered by the darkness. She had little time to reflect on that odd observation, however, because Ron came down the stairs just then. He looked back up them, and then waved his wand, saying, "Nox." All the lights on the upper floors must have gone out, because they stairway was now dark. He looked around, surveying the remaining rooms on the first floor.
"Do we have everything?" Hermione nodded. There was nothing to say. If they didn't, they wouldn't be coming back for whatever they had left.
"All right, then…let's go," he said. She gave one last parting glance to the room, and strode through the door. The light from the house cast uneven patterns on the lawn through the windows, and she watched them as Ron's shadow passed through two, finally coming to rest behind her. They disappeared, and she was plunged into darkness. She heard Ron close and lock the doors, cast an Imperturbable Charm on the house, and then move beside her.
"Ready?" he asked. She nodded again. He disappeared, and so did she. They arrived at the Ministry layover point, nodded to one of the security guards, and turned toward each other.
"I'll see you on the other side," intoned Ron, with just a small amount of false cheerfulness, or at least that's what it sounded like to Hermione, and he disappeared. Hermione squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. She was really going to do it.
Hermione Disapparated with a slight pop, leaving her homeland behind with a rush of air, which moved to fill the suddenly empty space.
Hermione was broken from her reverie by the sound of the sliding glass door to the veranda opening and closing. She blinked, clearing her thoughts away, and turned from the view of the Sea. She almost winced when she saw that it was Helen that had entered; she had not seen Hermione yet, though. She was drying her hair with a towel, and it was covering her eyes. Hermione fleetingly wished she looked that good in a bikini.
The inevitable moment came soon thereafter, when Helen dropped the towel and stopped dead in her tracks. For a moment, her face was blank, but her eyes narrowed quickly and she scowled.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. There was some contempt evident in her voice.
"I'm here because I need to speak with Harry," Hermione replied, trying to keep her voice flat and emotionless. She really didn't need to have another row with Helen, and it would certainly benefit her mental health if she could avoid any more stress at the moment.
Helen pursed her lips. "Oh," she said, and turned her back on Hermione. She walked from the room without looking back. Hermione shrugged to herself—annoyed indifference was better than open hostility, even if neither were very good in the long run.
Hermione moved to a couch and sat down. She leaned back and crossed her legs, waiting for Harry. She didn't know how long she'd been staring out the window, thinking about the past, but the water from the shower was no longer running. He would surely be out in a few minutes. She had to think carefully about how she wanted to approach what she needed to talk about, because things were delicate at the moment. As Dumbledore had said, Harry's apathy about her could just as easily be turned into scorn; she wanted to make sure that didn't happen. She hadn't come back to England to be a Professor to be hated by her colleagues, which she knew was what would happen if Harry and her were on bad terms. She was sure they all respected him and his opinions.
She relaxed in the sun as it came through a window for a few moments, and let her mind wander to how nice the Mediterranean climate was compared to Britain's. She couldn't ever remember as bright, hot, or humid a day in England or Scotland. She wasn't opposed to winter and snow, but she was more naturally inclined to the heat. Before Hogwarts, before she had known she was a witch, she and her parents used to go to Australia and New Zealand for a few weeks in the winter, to escape the frigid climate, if only for a little while. She found that, even though she was slightly pale from living in Britain, she warmed up to the sun quickly, and became a nice golden brown after only a few days in it. She never burned.
It was also curious that her normally brown hair would lighten quite a bit, making it appear a dirty or dark blond; that didn't really bother her at all, either. She had quite liked the way she looked after a few weeks on the beach, and she hadn't ever seen a nicer beach than the one that was in Harry's backyard. The Mediterranean was so clear…the beaches were so clean…and the temperature was so right. She could get used to this…
But, she was getting a little ahead of herself. If she was to get used to this type of weather, she had to make sure she didn't get kicked out in the next few hours. Things hadn't exactly gone great when she'd talked to him at Hogwarts—they could have been worse, that was for sure—and she wanted to make sure they did now. If she was completely honest with herself, she knew that if her and Harry didn't at least become acquaintances again, then there was really no point in her staying in Britain. She could just as easily drop from the teaching position as she had accepted it, but she hoped it didn't come to that. She would enjoy teaching her once favorite subject.
As for staying if things didn't work out…why would she? She had more ties to America than Britain at the moment, mostly because her parents still resided across the Atlantic, and if that continued, then she might as well go back. She wouldn't be an Auror though…that was out of the question. She had already explored that career option, and had found that law enforcement wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Everything just seemed petty and insignificant to her, which was something her colleagues couldn't understand. Granted, they hadn't been present for the defeat of the worst dark wizard in history, but that didn't mean they couldn't try to understand.
She sighed to herself. She seemed to have lived her life in two stages thus far; the first was the time before and after her years at Hogwarts while the second was those years. Before and after those seven years…she had always been on the outside. She had always felt like she was missing something—perhaps the punch line of some huge joke, or maybe even the meaning of life. She had always felt like she was an outcast, and her intellect didn't help in that regard. It seemed like her classmates, before, and her colleagues, after, had either been insulted or overwhelmed by her intelligence. She couldn't do anything about that, though. It wasn't like she could just turn off her common sense, or her brain. She couldn't, and she wouldn't…but it cost her. It cost her any real friendship and acceptance.
At Hogwarts, however…she hadn't been shunned. Maybe at first, before she had found her place, but that had changed. She had met the two most wonderful people in the world, and they had saved her from death. But they had saved her from more than that…they had saved her from herself. She had finally known what it was like to be accepted and loved, in the platonic sense at least. Harry and Ron had understood her for who she was, rather than for what she said or how she acted, which she knew was a little overbearing sometimes, and in return she had given them as much of herself as she could. They had thrived off of each other for years, approximately five and a half, to be exact. They had what she had thought was an unbreakable bond.
It was with some clarity, though, that she could see that the events of their sixth year together were where it started. Ten years was a long time, as the Headmaster had told her, and during that time she had been able to figure out exactly when and where things had gone sour. She had also had time to figure out the true shape of her soul, and where it belonged, which was really the main reason why she had ended up back in Britain. She had needed to get that weight off her shoulders, but she had found that it wasn't going to be that simple or that easy.
Those same ten years that she had taken to figure things out had changed Harry in ways she didn't yet fathom, and she didn't know if she ever really would. He seemed so much…wiser…perhaps grounded…but definitely more mature than he had when she'd left. That Harry had been slightly withdrawn, extremely moody, and lacked a total confidence in himself. He had been selfless to a fault. This Harry…this Harry was light-years away from that one. This one was confident, extremely physically fit, was a caring and responsible father, and was an excellent teacher. She had missed the time he had spent changing, now that she could see the whole picture—or at least, what she knew as the whole picture—and she wasn't sure where she fit in anymore.
Her and Harry had quite a few obstacles they had to overcome before they could start to seriously rebuild any kind of friendship, and that all started here, today. She sat up a little bit and squared her shoulders with some resolve to be as open minded as she could be. It wouldn't do to be short or cross with him.
A door opened and closed somewhere within the villa, and she looked around expectantly. She let herself smile a little at the warmth playing across the bare skin of her upper chest, and thanked whatever foresight she had that she'd chosen to wear the white summer dress, rather than the dark one. The heat really did feel good.
Harry moved lightly through the halls of the villa, passing from wooden floor, to carpet, and then to tile on his bare feet. He had thrown on a light t-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts. The shower had felt refreshing and cool, and it had given him time to think about what was going on.
He still couldn't get that image out of his head—it seemed burned into his brain; a cyclone of pollen twirling around the wind-blown figure of Hermione, in a short, white dress. His first impression had been of an angel, and going solely on the impersonal image, he could understand it, but he had been completely surprised when he had seen it was she. It just…it just didn't fit with every preconceived notion—real or otherwise—that he'd had of Hermione, both during his youth and the past ten years.
He had reached the conclusion, as the cool water sprayed over his thirsty body, that it was just a trick of the light, and the fact that he'd had sweat in his eyes. Surely, if he'd been able to see clearly, and if there hadn't been a confounded maelstrom of color swirling around her, he wouldn't have reached that same conclusion. He had convinced himself that it meant nothing; that is, until he walked nonchalantly into the sitting area.
He almost stopped dead, but caught himself, and continued on through as if he hadn't been affected. Hermione was sitting on the couch, in the sun, with her eyes closed. She was reclined slightly, and her long legs were crossed out in front of her. The white dress she was wearing seemed to be radiating the very light it was sitting in, creating a sort of halo effect. He shook his head as he entered the kitchen and went to pour himself a drink. That was twice in about an hour that his eyes had seemed to be playing tricks on him about Hermione…what was wrong with him? He popped open a bottle of Coke and poured two tall glasses, which were soon sweating with the many ice cubes he'd put in them. He carried them back into the sitting area.
He smirked to himself when he saw that Hermione still had her eyes closed; he walked so silently that she hadn't heard him come through the first time and she didn't know he had reentered. He carefully and noiselessly set his own glass on the side table, and crept up to her. Her looked at the exposed flesh of her lower legs, and a devious grin spread over his face. The outside of the glass he was holding was very cold…
He didn't know what possessed him to do it, but he bent over and placed the glass against the skin of the outside of one of her calves. He watched her eyes pop open in complete surprise, which soon turned to confusion. She must not have been able to figure out why her leg was suddenly cold, and why he was leaning over her, grinning like a fool. He brought the glass up and held it out to her.
"Thirsty?" he asked. She hesitated for a moment, as if thinking, and then reached out to take the glass.
"Yeah…I guess I am." She sipped the Coke, watching as Harry retrieved his glass and sat in a recliner opposite her.
"What was that for?" she asked. That curious air was still about her face.
Harry considered his answer for a moment, enjoying the sensation of the fizzing soda as it cascaded down his throat. "To break the ice," he finally said.
"I didn't know it needed breaking," Hermione retorted. Her voice was light.
"Well, we left each other last time with a bit of heavy dialogue," Harry said. It was interesting to him how they were dancing around what they both knew she was here to talk about.
"Yes, I suppose we did…but what good is breaking the ice if one can't get to the point?" she came back. Harry smiled inwardly—she seemed to have the same thoughts he did.
"Then what is the point, Hermione?" He watched as she set her glass down on the side table, shifted slightly, and crossed her legs the other way. When she wasn't immediately forthcoming, he continued. "The journey from Scotland to Sicily isn't an easy one, even by Apparition…so surely there must have been some point in coming down here?"
"Why do you have to make this so hard?" she asked. Whatever lightness that had been in her voice was gone now; she spoke very quietly, almost solemnly.
"How am I making this hard for you?"
"You know exactly why I'm here, Harry." Well…he had some ideas, but to say he knew exactly why she was there was a bit of a stretch. Harry set his glass down on the coffee table between them, and regarded Hermione for a moment. She stared right back.
"Alright…obviously, there is a huge issue that we just keep skirting around. And here it is: why have you come back after all this time? I think you made it pretty clear in that letter you left me that you weren't going to be."
She leaned forward a bit…and Harry had to redirect his attention away from how her dress fell away from her skin. He focused on her chocolate eyes, which seemed to be swimming slightly with some emotion.
"I came back because I had to, Harry."
"Why did you have to?" He wanted to hear it from her mouth.
"Because…because I did, ok? I had to come back because there were some things that I left unfinished." She was speaking very softly, almost in a whisper. She clasped her hands under her chin and leaned her elbows on her thighs. Harry watched the swaying of a few strands of her brown hair as it fell to frame her face.
"Like what? Come on, Hermione…you gotta give me more than that." At her blank look, he elaborated. "You know what? I honestly expected that I would never see you again. Never. I think I had pretty much accepted that. So you'll have to excuse if it's a little hard for me to wrap my brain around you coming back. It just doesn't seem to fit."
Hermione seemed to let out a growl or some noise of frustration, and sat back; Harry briefly mourned the loss of the view, but it was only a passing thought. He focused on her lips as they started to move.
"Why can't it fit? We had something special, Harry, for many years…and just because things went bad there toward the end doesn't mean you or I should forget about that."
"Forget about it? Who said anything about forgetting about it," Harry responded. "You know as well as I do that we could never forget about our friendship, especially with all that we've been through. However…forgetting and moving on…well, they're totally different things." Harry reached for his glass and sipped it as he watched a few emotions play over Hermione's face. They looked like regret, sadness, and something else. He didn't know what it was.
"So you've moved on, and there's no chance of coming back?" she asked. He could hear a slight tremble in her voice, and he almost rolled his eyes. He did not want a crying Hermione at the moment.
"Hermione…that is not what I said," he replied as he watched her lip quaver. "And please don't cry." Her eyes darted to his and she bit her lip. She had a betrayed look in them, as if she couldn't believe he could tell that she was about to tear up.
"I'm sorry, but I can't help it, alright? I guess I expected a little too much in coming back. You've changed, Harry."
Harry shrugged helplessly. "Shouldn't I have? Should I still be that same poor sap that I was?" When Hermione gave no answer, he played his trump card. "Should I go back to being that same kid who almost took his life because his two best friends deserted him after his wife died?" At her shocked look, he implored, "Is that what you want?" He didn't like the slight amount of desperation he heard in his voice, but it couldn't be helped. All of these memories were uncovering long buried feelings.
Hermione leaned forward again, and he could see that same desperation in her eyes that he'd just been feeling. "You did?" she breathed.
Harry just nodded. He couldn't bring himself to say it again. That was the first time that he'd actually vocalized what he'd literally been about to do after she had left. A look of compassion settled on her face, and her eyes warmed up a bit. That wasn't what he wanted—pity. It was something he could do without.
"Hermione…I don't want your sympathy. That's not why I said that. I said that to prove a point. I'm much better off now than I was, and there is absolutely no way I could go back to being that way."
Her lip trembled inexorably once again, and this time she didn't even make the pretense of biting it. "Harry…oh…I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…" she hitched, and he watched as the first wet droplet slid down her cheek. It left a shining trail in the sunlight that was still falling over her.
Harry let a frustrated sigh out. "Hermione…there's nothing to be sorry about. This all happened to so long ago—like you said, I was a different person." He paused, and watched as she wiped one of her cheeks with the back of her hand. "No one is to blame anymore."
"See…that's not entirely true," she said slowly, and thickly. Her voice was wet with her emotions. "I had a lot of time to think about what happened over the past decade…and I came to realize when all of our problems started."
Harry raised his eyebrow, indicating that she should go on. "You remember during our sixth year…when I stopped being myself…?"
Harry nodded slowly. He did remember a time when Hermione had seemed to change a bit; she had become more focused on simple adolescent problems rather than what she normally focused on, which was usually further reaching and not as petty.
"Yeah…I remember…but I think we were all allowed to become lost in growing up, if only for a little while."
Hermione shook her head vehemently. "No, no. I did more than just become lost. I wasn't just wrapped up in my problems. I forgot everything that mattered to me—our friendship, the bond the three of us had…it drove a wedge between us, Harry."
"Yes, Harry," she cut him off, and he noticed there was some iron in her voice. She had obviously been thinking about this for a long time, and nothing would sway her from her opinion. "I lost sight of what was really important to me—my friends, my loved ones; the very people that had accepted me when no others would."
Harry remained silent, so Hermione went on. "You see…you and Ron were the first people, aside from my parents, who were able to see past my 'know-it-all' personality, or whatever you want to call it, and know me for the girl I really was." She took a deep breath, rubbing her eyes for a moment, and then dropped her hands. She was once again looking directly into Harry's eyes.
"I saw Hogwarts and the Wizarding world as a second chance at life. Even at that young age, I knew I had nothing to be satisfied about with my other one. And at first…it seemed like the same things were happening. I was shunned…pushed aside, and basically disliked. I didn't think it was going to be any different. And then you and Ron changed all that.
"I was a scared little girl, and you and him provided the comfort that I needed. You two were my rock…there is no way that I would have gotten through Hogwarts if it hadn't been for the two of you." The only noise audible after her impromptu speech was the light crashing of waves on the beach. Hermione reclined once again in her seat, moving completely back into the sun, and Harry watched her silently regard him.
There was only way he could respond to what she had said. "How did we let things get so fucked up?" Surprisingly, she didn't even flinch at the curse.
"We drifted apart a bit in the sixth year, like I said…and then were so focused on the war and Voldemort that we forgot about it, or maybe we didn't even realize it. After Voldemort was gone, we weren't ready to face it, especially because we had never consciously acknowledged there might have been a problem."
"Is that an excuse, though?" Harry asked. "We didn't know about it, so we couldn't deal with it when it hit us?" It had been a long time since he'd really thought about what had happened, and all of his old justifications just didn't seem to measure up anymore.
"No…because there was something else fueling it." Harry knew what that was, but he waited for Hermione to say it. "Ron."
Harry leaned forward and put his glass back on the coffee table. "You know…I never really did fully understand why he blew up on my wedding night like that."
"It was like he said: he thought you ruined his family, Harry."
Harry pursed his lips. "Even Ron isn't that thick."
Hermione nodded once. "No…you're right, he wasn't. There was something else that was bothering him, and he used the family thing as an excuse. Harry…he felt guilty about not seeing Ginny…"
"He could have seen her at any point," Harry said, and there was very little sympathy in his voice. If Ron had still been alive and was standing before him at that moment, Harry still would not have been able to forgive him for how he'd abandoned Ginny. Then again…Hermione had done essentially the same thing…
"But…he didn't…and eventually that's why he died," she said, in a flat voice. Harry thought he almost heard disdain there. What exactly had happened between her and Ron during the four years they'd been together in America? That was a question for another day, though.
"All this is well and good, but that brings me back to my original question: why exactly are you here?"
He watched her face clench and then unclench. "I came back…I came back because I felt like I owed it to you, and to myself, to clear the air."
"Clear it then," Harry said. He hated to be callous like that, but he was actually pretty tired and his bed was calling his name. They could continue this chat another time…
Her face scrunched, so that her russet eyes just about disappeared, and she suddenly shot to her feet. "WHY DIDN'T YOU COME AFTER ME?" she yelled, and she crumpled back onto the couch. In no time, tears were streaming down her cheeks. Harry felt a pang somewhere deep inside as he watched his one-time best friend lose it, but the picture was all the more poignant with her curled up on the couch in the sun.
He wasn't exactly sure what her outburst had been about, however. "What…?" he asked, slowly.
"That day…why…why di-didn't you come after me?" She hadn't looked up at him.
"What day, Hermione?"
"THE DAY I LEFT," she yelled, again, but her voice was hoarse from the crying.
So that was it. She was talking about the day that she had let him know that she would be leaving his life forever—at least, at the point, it had been forever. She had expected him to do that?
"Tell me please, because I'd love to know, what in that conversation was supposed to clue me in to the fact that I was supposed to go after you?" he asked, and then flinched back slightly when she raised her head. He had obviously said something wrong, because there was a raw heat in her gaze he hadn't ever seen.
"Clue you in? What was supposed to clue you in? How about the years of friendship we shared, or all the trials that we had been through together, or the trust that we had once had in each other? Did all that mean so little?" She snorted in derision. "Apparently so, if those weren't clues enough for you." She angrily wiped her eyes and stood. Harry watched her hesitate for a moment.
"This was a mistake." She shook her head. "I'm sorry to bother you, and I'm sorry to have wasted your time." She turned and walked out of the room. Harry sat absolutely still for only a second, and then rocketed to his feet to follow. He caught up with her and captured one of her bare arms lightly in his hand. Her skin was warm from the sun. She tried to pull her arm from his grip, but he did not let her.
"Let go, Harry," she ground out. Her face was turned away from him, but he did not need to see it to tell that she was still crying.
"Hermione…" he started.
"LET GO, DAMNIT!" she cried, and turned her face toward him. Sure enough, tears were streaming away.
"HARRY," she yelled again, and beat once on his chest with her other hand, which was closed in a fist. He captured that arm in a lightning quick motion and pulled her to him, against her resistance.
The embrace was awkward at first, because she was so rigid and was trying to pull away, but it wasn't very long before she had melted into his arms and was sobbing away against his t-shirt. He felt her chest hitch against him several times as sobs wracked her body, and he brought his hands up to her upper back; he started rubbing lightly and whispered incomprehensible consolations into her hair. This was the last thing he had wanted to do to her—reviewing what he'd said, he could see why she was so upset, even though he hadn't meant it like that.
He rested his cheek against her hair and rocked her slightly in his arms. He definitely felt comfortable, with Hermione in his arms. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed her hugs until now. Slowly, her crying died away. He lifted his head, and so did she; she looked into his eyes with shining ones.
"I'm sorry…thanks…" she said in a whisper, and slowly stepped back from the embrace. She seemed to hesitate, and Harry knew he did, but they were soon standing apart.
"Look, Hermione…I think we've said all we can today." He looked toward the clock on the wall of the entrance foyer, where they were currently standing. "Why don't you stay here—do you have any stuff?" he asked, interrupting himself. She pointed to a charm on her bracelet, which actually, upon closer inspection, was shrunken luggage.
"All right. There's a guest room just down that hall. Make yourself at home, or whatever. There's plenty of food and drink in the kitchen, which is through the sitting area from here…um, we don't keep our doors locked, so come and go when you want."
He looked at her for a moment, and then absently reached up to brush the wetness from her cheek. It was a surprisingly tender gesture, and he had no idea where it came from—from the look on her face, she didn't either. His hand lingered on her cheek for a little longer than was normal for that, and there was a sudden awkward silence in the room.
"Ok…well, I think I'm going to take a nap." Harry turned slowly, noticing how her eyes lingered on the hand that had been on her face. He was almost out of the foyer when he heard Hermione's voice.
"Thanks, Harry," she said. "For everything." He nodded and continued walking. The words struck and odd note of déjà vu in him…he spent the time it took to get to the master suite trying to figure it out.
And then he realized it—Helen had said the exact same thing to him, with the same inflection, the day before by the pool. As he fell onto his bed, he chuckled to himself. The world was going crazy.
Helen had seen and heard everything. It wasn't as if she had wanted to spy on her father, but she had a great deal of antipathy for Hermione. She wanted to hear what the older woman had to say…and was mildly surprised at how civil her and Harry had been toward each other.
It wasn't until the end that things had gotten ugly, when her father had said something really stupid—even Helen could see how cold it had sounded—and Hermione had almost left. Helen had watched the impromptu embrace with mixed feelings. On one side, she wanted her father to be happy and have friends, and someday perhaps a wife and real kids of his own, but on the other hand she knew that Hermione would only bring more hardship before anything got better.
Helen also resented the fact that Hermione had found it so hard to believe that Harry had almost taken his own life…even though Harry had downplayed it and shifted the blame to no one in particular. That was bullshit…Hermione and Ron were chiefly to blame, even if Harry was too forgiving to ever admit that to them.
She would watch her father and Hermione carefully during the next few days or weeks, or however long Hermione was going to stay at the villa. She was interested in seeing how things would develop.