"Come on, Hermione. Please?"
"Harry, stop asking. The answer is no. That's not going to change even if you do give me the puppy dog eyes."
"Because I hate fancy parties and have very little respect for the Ministry. Would you like me to continue?"
"But you like me and you don't want me to be forced to attend this silly ball alone because the Prophet and Witch Weekly would have a field day at my attending alone. You have to save me from a fate worse than death: gossip columns."
"My going as your escort would do nothing more than add fuel to the fire of speculation regarding the exact nature of our relationship, as you well know. I don't mind you using me to keep people guessing about your nonexistent love life but it gets tiresome after awhile."
"I know," Harry said with a sigh. "Those women are cruel and ruthless but it's just because they're jealous. Besides, none of them have any interest in me. They just want to be able to say they've been with The Harry Potter."
"Pity won't work any better than puppy dog eyes," Hermione informed him without looking up from her file. "I loathe all these foolish balls that are simply an excuse for schmoozing and kissing arse. Why don't you just skip it and we can watch a movie or something? I'll even let you choose, though I know that will mean some romantic drivel that should come with a sugar warning."
"Just because I happen to enjoy films with happy endings doesn't mean they're sugary sweet," Harry defended . He sat back in his chair and put his feet on Hermione's desk. It wasn't five seconds before she glanced up and frowned at his feet. He smiled sweetly and wondered how he could convince her to attend this latest ball with him. He normally didn't bother to go to most of them but, when he did, he always managed to persuade her to be his escort. It was more enjoyable going with a friend, especially one that kept women away from him. If it also happened to mean that no one else could ask her, well, that was just an added benefit.
"Feet off my desk, Potter," she finally grumbled. She arched a brow and gave him a warning look. "And happy endings are one thing. Sickeningly sweet 'I love you' 'I love you more' with corny music playing and dramatic kisses are not only too sugary but completely unrealistic."
"Well, they're more enjoyable than those boring documentaries you're always forcing me to watch. I mean, I keep expecting one about watching Muggle paint dry or something," he said with a grin as he moved his feet to the edge of her desk. "And need I mention all those mystery films? You just like those because you figure them out so easily and like to gloat over the fact that you're smarter than I am."
"The documentaries are educational and fascinating. Besides, they give us an understanding of our Muggle heritage, which is always important," she reminded him. "As for the mysteries, I am smarter than you are and it doesn't require a film to prove that."
"Ouch," Harry said. He put his hand over his heart and groaned dramatically. "That really hurt, Hermione. In fact, it hurt so bad that I think you need to make it up to me."
She looked up and pushed her hair away from her face, accidentally brushing her ink covered fingers over her cheek. "I suppose that attending this ridiculous ball as your date would be perfect for making amends?" she asked as she arched her brow and pursed her lips.
He grinned, struck for a moment by how cute she looked with ink on her face, before he blinked and stopped those thoughts. Best friend. Best friend. Best friend. The mantra repeated in his mind as it had begun to do a lot in the last eight months or so. "Actually, I think that's a wonderful suggestion," he said. "I'd love to go to the ball with you."
"I don't remember asking," she said dryly.
"You were thinking it," he told her. "I could tell so I just saved you the trouble of asking. It's formal, of course, either Muggle clothes or robes, and did I mention that it's tomorrow night? I'll pick you up at eight so we can make an appearance and then maybe get dinner after like usual."
"Tomorrow night?" She groaned. "Way to wait for the last minute."
"If I'd asked earlier, you'd have just figured out some way to get out of it beforehand," he said matter-of-factly.
"I would not," she denied as she frowned at him. "If I promised to go, I'd go. I have every other bloody time, after all."
"I was teasing," he said uncertainly. It was difficult to know when Hermione was actually teasing, too, or when she was really offended. "It was rude and I'm an ungrateful prat. To make it up to you, why don't I come over tonight and bring takeaway? I'll even buy you pizza from that Italian café on the corner by my flat."
"And bread," she added firmly. She didn't deny his claim that he was a prat but looked rather pleased at his bribe. "If I have to get dressed up and go to this stupid ball, I want pizza with the works and garlic cheese bread and a non-sugary film to watch after."
"Non-sugary?" he repeated before he sighed dramatically. "Fine. For you, I'll find something violent with a mystery you can solve in ten minutes."
"Good," she said with a grin. "I'll see you at seven and I expect a lot of ingratiating behavior as well as delicious Italian food. Now go away so I can finish reviewing this file without you distracting me."
"But I like to distract you," he said. He moved his feet off her desk, careful not to disturb her paperwork, and stood up. He leaned over the desk and kissed her cheek, lingering with his lips pressed against her soft skin for a moment longer than appropriate. He blinked and straightened up, giving her a casual 'why, no, I don't want to kiss you until you forget your name' smile. "You need to be distracted or you'd live in this office."
"Harry," she said in a warning tone even as her gaze dropped to his lips and her cheeks flushed. She finally looked back at the stack of parchment, effectively dismissing him.
"Okay, okay. I'm going," he told her with a smile as he went to the door, trying to forget the awkward moment that was becoming far more common recently. "See you tonight."
Like Hermione, Harry hated fancy parties. He didn't attend them unless they were being held by a close friend, not that many of his close friends actually had fancy parties, except this one. A night at the pub with firewhisky and possibly some dancing was about as fancy as any of them got. Therefore, though the Ministry held four parties a year (a Victory Ball, a Yule Ball, an Autumn Masquerade, and a Spring Formal), he usually avoided all but one. He had no interest in dressing up in costumes; at least, not for some Ministry function. He also preferred to spend his holidays with those he loved and not a room full of strangers. As for the spring function, he had managed to 'be busy' whenever the invitation arrived for that each time.
That left the Victory Ball as the only one he attended. He rarely stayed long, always made Hermione go with him, and just showed up long enough to feel that he'd done his part to represent and remember those who hadn't survived the war. He knew that Voldemort's defeat was something important to celebrate, if only because it kept it fresh in people's mind and possibly prevented someone else from trying to take over where Voldemort left off. However, he had problems being festive and getting drunk on wine when he'd lost so many people close to him before there was a reason for a celebration.
Hermione said that living a full and happy life was the best tribute to those who had given their own for the cause. It had taken him a couple of years before he could remember them all and honestly focus on the good memories instead of the bad. It still wasn't easy to think about their sacrifices without getting melancholy and whiny, as Hermione so politely put it, but he tried to make sure their loss wasn't in vain. The Victory Ball stood for more than just a party to him and many others who had fought on the front lines and, for that, it was worth going through the hassle of getting dressed up and bribing Hermione to attend.
Fortunately, the repayment for gaining her acceptance was usually takeaway and a movie, which he didn't mind at all. After he'd left her office this afternoon, he'd stopped by the rental store near his flat. He'd chosen some film about suspects that the rental clerk had assured him was one of the best mysteries of the last decade, and he hoped Hermione hadn't seen it.
He also rather hoped that it was such a good mystery that she'd not be able to figure it out within ten minutes. She always got so smug when she knew who was guilty and he was still trying to find out. True, she was adorable when she got smug but that brought to mind things that he needed to avoid thinking about so it was best not to see how adorable she could be.
It was becoming more difficult for him to stop those thoughts over the last few months. He couldn't really pinpoint when things had started to change for him, but he knew that one day he'd just looked at Hermione and hadn't thought anything at all about her being his best friend. Instead, he'd been surprised to find himself looking at her lips and the curve of her jaw and the way her eyes lit up when she was excited and many other things that he just wasn't supposed to be thinking about.
It wasn't the first time he'd thought about her, though. In fact, he'd realized she was a girl long before Ron, who had eventually dated her for nearly a year. He didn't even feel particularly guilty about being relieved that Ron and Hermione had broken up because he'd known they weren't exactly right for each other, not the way they should have been, and he'd felt left out when they were dating even though they did their best to include him. Considering that Ron was now dating Seamus, of all people, Harry felt rather pleased with himself for realizing how poorly suited Ron and Hermione were from the start.
He'd thought this time was just another momentary lapse. After all, there had been many times over their fourteen years of friendship that he'd acknowledged that she was very pretty as well as brilliant. The lapses had become more frequent as he got older but they rarely lasted long, until now. This time, it hadn't gone away, and just seemed to be getting worse, so while he didn't really know what was different now, it was confusing and also kind of nice.
He shook his head and pushed those thoughts from his mind for the time being. He didn't know how he felt about Hermione anymore, though he had his suspicions, but he knew he needed to stop thinking about it right now. Thinking usually just got him into trouble anyway so it was better to avoid it as much as possible. He got out the menu for the restaurant and placed an order, knowing exactly what she liked and preferred, and made sure they knew to have it ready for pick-up by fifteen till seven. He didn't want to be late because she was always annoyingly prompt and would be waiting for him. Besides, he was really in the mood to relax with good food, an enjoyable film and excellent company.
"I think I have a new favorite film."
Harry grinned at her sulky tone and nudged her with his arm. "You didn't like it?" he asked innocently.
"It was ridiculous," she said. She was glaring at the telly and actually pouting, which made Harry wish he had a camera at the same time it made him focus far too much on her lips.
"I liked it."
"You would," she muttered crossly before she turned to face him. "It was bloody unfair. How could you enjoy that?"
"Easy," he said with a wide smile as he, too, adjusted his position on the sofa so that he was facing her. "Because you didn't figure it out at all. That, alone, makes it my favorite film."
"It's completely unreasonable to expect anyone to figure out that film when they didn't give us all of the information," she said in the bossy tone that made him think back to Hogwarts and hunting for horcruxes. "You certainly wouldn't have been able to face Voldemort if you'd not done research and had the opportunity to review the majority of facts, after all."
"You're comparing my battle with Voldemort to a film that you weren't able to solve?" He shook his head. "Hermione, you need to just admit that you failed to guess correctly and get over it."
"I don't like failure, especially not when it's something as silly as a film," she said with a frown.
"It's just a movie," he said softly. He reached over and tugged on a few strands of hair that had fallen loose from her braid and smiled gently. "I rarely ever figure out these mysteries and I'm certainly not a failure, am I?"
"No, of course not," she told him firmly. "I just dislike being wrong."
"I know. You're cute when you're sulking but you're even cuter when you're smug," he said before he could stop the words. Her eyes widened and he felt heat rise in his cheeks.
"You just like when I'm wrong," she murmured. She looked from him to the hand that was now resting against her cheek and back again. Her brow furrowed like it always did when she was trying to figure out the answer to something that was confusing her, which made his breath catch. He wasn't sure he wanted her to figure it out yet, if at all.
"I do not," he defended. He brushed his knuckles along her jaw just once before he dropped his hand. His mouth was suddenly dry and his heart was beating far too fast. He managed a cheeky smile as he ran his fingers through his hair, needing something to do with his hands so he'd not give in to the impulse to touch her. "Besides, even if I did, it happens so rarely that I'd deserve the chance to enjoy it when it does, wouldn't I?"
"Harry, is everything okay?" she asked, ignoring his attempt at a joke. "You're acting oddly."
"Am I?" He shrugged. "Everything's the same as always."
She shook her head and frowned. "You're lying to me," she said with concern. "You've been different recently but I assumed I was just working too much and imagining things. However, it seems to be getting worse. You don't lie to me and we certainly don't keep secrets from each other. We're best friends, Harry, which means you can talk to me about anything. You know that, don't you?"
"Not everything," he muttered. He sat there quietly and tried to figure out how teasing her about the film had become some sort of serious conversation with him as the focus. He felt pretty stupid for assuming he was all smooth and normal despite his changing feelings; he should have known that she'd noticed and probably developed who knew how many possible explanations for his behavior, none of them likely to be the right one. Her next question made him concentrate on the matter at hand.
"What do you mean?"
"It's nothing, Hermione. Honestly."
"Of course it's something or I'd not have noticed."
"Stop pushing it," he said quietly. "I don't want things to change in a bad way and they might so just forget about it. I'm fine and I promise that I'll talk to you about anything else."
"This cryptic broodiness was unattractive when you were a teenager and it's certainly not any different now that you're older," she said in an exasperated tone that she normally only used for Ron. "You're my best friend, Harry, and that means I can't simply continue to sit by and do nothing when you're having problems with something."
"Maybe I don't want to be your best friend," he said more sharply than he'd intended. He saw her flinch and felt like someone had kicked him in the gut. "Oh god, I didn't mean…"
"I see," she interrupted before he could stammer out an apology. He hated himself for being the one to cause that look of hurt. "I think it would be best if you leave now."
"No," he said, feeling more scared than he had in many years. "You're twisting everything and you just don't understand!"
"I was trying to help!"
"But you don't listen!"
"Forgive me for caring."
"Stop it, Hermione. Quit being so defensive and stubborn," he pleaded. "I asked you to drop it but you kept on and kept on and now it's all a mess."
"So it's my fault that you're acting all weird and I was worried and finally just asked about it after weeks of feeling like you were changing?" she asked.
"Yes. I mean, no. I mean, fuck," he cursed and rubbed his hand over his face.
"Language," she scolded and glared at him. "It's obvious how you feel, Harry, so you should just leave."
"God, I hope it's not obvious since I've tried to hide it for months," he said with a sigh. "You never listen. You get these ideas in your head of how things are and you hate to deviate from those expectations."
"And you use a hundred words to say nothing at all and prefer to keep everything inside instead of sharing it and dealing with how you feel," she pointed out. "Poor Harry, the martyr."
He looked at her and stared at her flushed face and angry eyes and frowning lips. "I'm not a martyr," he said quietly. "You want to know what's wrong? Do you really because there's no taking it back or changing it?"
"Talk to me, Harry," she said.
Before he could stop himself, he leaned forward and kissed her. He pressed his lips firmly against hers as he moved his hand behind her back to pull her closer. "I don't want to be just friends anymore, Hermione," he murmured against her mouth. "That's what I was trying to keep secret, to keep you from knowing."
She didn't say anything when he pulled back to look at her. She just stared at him as if she'd never seen him before. He didn't really know what he'd expected if he finally got the courage to admit how he felt, but it certainly wasn't stunned-into-silence Hermione looking at him as if he were a stranger.
"I just…I'm sorry," he stammered as he stood and picked up the film he'd brought. "I shouldn't have…I didn't mean to…I tried not to…I'll go now. I'm sorry."
He hoped she'd speak up and stop him, even if it was to laugh and act as if he'd just been playing a joke. Instead, she bit her lip and sat there looking confused and lost. He took the Floo home, kicking himself for not expecting her to notice and worry and call him on it in her typical helpful way. When he stepped into his flat, he went to his bedroom and crawled into bed. He felt miserable and hoped he hadn't ruined their friendship because he couldn't imagine a life without Hermione. She'd been right, though. This definitely wasn't like it was in the movies.
Some time during his pity party, Harry must have drifted off to sleep because he woke up after midnight with drool on his cheek and his glasses askew. He smacked his lips and fixed his glasses before he rolled onto his back and stared at the dark ceiling. Finally, he got out of bed and went to the toilet. After he washed his hands and made faces at himself in the mirror, something that didn't help improve his melancholy no matter how silly the face, he walked through the dark flat to the kitchen.
He opened the refrigerator and got the carton of milk out. A quick sniff confirmed that it wasn't bad yet. Without bothering to get a glass, he took a drink while leaning against the counter. A sudden flash of light startled him and he dropped the carton on the floor. "Fucking hell," he muttered when he felt milk splash onto his bare feet. He bent over to pick it up.
"Language, Harry," a voice said softly.
His eyes widened as he looked towards the sitting room and the light that had surprised him. Hermione was sitting on the sofa with her legs up, her chin resting on her knees, and her hair was all loose and wild around her face. He flinched when he noticed the wet streaks on her face and realized she'd been crying. He was pretty sure it was his fault she'd been crying, which made him feel even worse for blurting out how he felt earlier.
"Sorry," he said, not sure exactly what all he was apologizing for this time. He shifted nervously and stared at her, wondering what she was doing there but not sure he should ask for risk of putting his foot in his mouth again.
"Why did you leave?"
Of all the things she might have said, that wasn't one he'd expected. He frowned and ran his fingers through his hair before he shut the door of the refrigerator. After he wiped his wet foot on the tile, which didn't really do anything except smear the milk, he walked towards the sitting room. "I thought it was for the best."
"For the best?" she repeated slowly. She studied him in a way that made him feel awkward and uncertain. "You tell me something that serious and then run away because you felt it was for the best?"
"Uh, yeah," he said, not sure why he felt stupid when she put it that way.
"You're an idiot," she said in a tone that he usually only heard when she was frustrated by a project at work. "Why didn't you give me a chance to process everything?"
"Process what?" he asked. "I told you and you just sat there. I thought you wanted me to leave."
"Process the fact that my best friend had just told me that he wanted to be more than friends, maybe?" She shook her head. "How could you just make that sort of announcement and leave, Harry? I didn't even have time to analyze what you said before you were suddenly gone."
"Analyze it? Fuck, Hermione, it's emotion and feelings, not some sort of research assignment from work," he pointed out. Before she could say anything, he frowned. "I know, language."
"It's someone that has been in my life since I was twelve years old telling me out of the blue that he wants to be more than friends," she said. "Regardless of emotions and feelings, that changes things. I had to figure out how I feel because I had no idea you felt that way about me or considered me anything more than simply best friend Hermione and I had to determine my own feelings because it isn't fair to you to just react without giving them proper analysis."
"More of the bloody analysis," he muttered while trying to understand what she'd just rambled about. Whenever she started using all the logical thinking, he usually got lost. She looked so determined and he knew she didn't want to hurt him but, really, if she felt the same way, she'd have known, wouldn't she? He'd had months to think about things, though, so maybe he was being demanding and unrealistic.
"Maybe this was a bad idea," she said finally. "I couldn't sleep, though, and needed to talk to you tonight because I can't stand when things aren't right between us. I should just go home."
"No, don't go," he said in a slightly panicked voice. "It wasn't a bad idea. I just woke up and it's been a rough night so I'm being difficult."
She looked at him and asked, "Did you really mean it?"
He was about to ask what she meant but realization dawned before he said anything. Instead, he looked into her eyes so she'd know he was serious and said, "Every word."
"I've never allowed myself to think about you in that way," she said softly. He walked closer and sat down at the end of the sofa. He kept his hands to himself despite the urge to touch her. She kept eye contact as she spoke. "I've been attracted to you for years, but I didn't think beyond that because we're best friends and I didn't want to lose that friendship. This could ruin our friendship, but I realized tonight that it could also make things even better."
"You're attracted to me?" he asked. He smiled slightly, pleased that she was at least attracted to him because, really, it wasn't a lot of fun to want someone who didn't want you.
"Don't look so smug," she mumbled as her cheeks flushed. She lowered her legs and leaned over to brush a kiss against his mouth before he realized what she had planned. She smiled shyly when she pulled back, and he reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear, brushing his knuckles against her cheek as he stared at her. "I think I've done enough thinking."
"You have?" he asked hopefully. He smiled suddenly. "I wish I could record that because Ron would never believe you actually said you'd thought enough."
"Harry!" She raised her hand to hit his shoulder but he caught it and pulled her against him. He brushed his nose against hers and sighed softly. Her fingers were soft against his jaw and he felt her warm breath against his lips. "Do you think this will work?"
"I don't know," he said honestly, not wanting to lie to her.
"That makes me feel very confident," she murmured and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
"Well, someone wise once told me that real life isn't like the movies so I'm a bit clueless," he pointed out while he ran his fingers through her hair. "There isn't any sappy music to give me a hint." He kissed her again and pulled her against him. Looking down at her, he grinned and she slowly smiled. "But I think that this is a good start."