A/N: This chapter picks up directly where chapter 7 left off, don't worry—mid-May, if you don't recall. Also, I'm going to be switching perspectives at a couple of points during the chapter: just flipping back and forth between Harry's POV and Hermione's POV. Just a heads up so no one gets too confused.
As this is going to be the final installment, I sincerely hope that all the readers have enjoyed the ride; thank you to everyone who's stuck with the story all the way to the end; and finally, a huge thank-you to everyone who's left even the shortest review—they've all been glowing and positive, and each one means a big deal to me. Happy trails, and enjoy!
And, exemplifying the worst timing in the world, my three children are standing there, watching. Everything.
"Oh, hell," says Hermione with such a resigned sigh that I swear I see Al barely suppress a snicker. Well, my numbed mind rationalizes, at least that's a good sign. I can barely feel my limbs. I'm still reeling from the revelation that Hermione has just kissed me right full on the mouth with such a passion that I know she's been hiding her feelings the past fourteen-odd years just as I have—and if that wasn't enough of a shock, already on top of Ginny bloody coming back, now all three of my teenage children have just walked in on us. My body can't handle this. My legs finally give out and I collapse into my chair as Hermione turns to face the open doorway. She sighs again. "Well, come in. You lot are a sneaky bunch, being so quiet like that. How long were you standing there?"
How can she be so calm? God, I can barely focus on not breaking down into a gibbering mess.
"Quite long enough!" exclaims Lily. I watch her in a daze as she leads the trio into my office—James nudges the door shut behind him—and she marches right up to Hermione. "What on earth is going on?"
"They were just sucking face, that's bloody what," says Al, looking at me almost in awe. He's probably never thought of his old dad as being a person with feelings for other people before. Can't really blame him. I'm still in a sort of mild shock, partially detached from the world. Probably should say something. Explain myself, and all that. Hmm.
"But—but—how long have—what the hell, Dad!" Lily sputters. I don't think I've ever heard her curse before. Damn. Should tell her off or something. My vocal chords don't seem to be working, though. Interesting.
"I realize this looks bad, yes," Hermione admits, sounding worried and guilty. Really, if I just stand back from the situation, it's rather funny. Who'd have thought they'd all walk in just then? Incredible comedic timing, if this were a comedy. Unfortunately I think it's more of a drama. Terrible timing, in that case. Bloody awful in fact. Wow, yeah; what bollocks.
...Oh. Dear. God.
The full impact of what's happened has just hit me. JAMES AND LILY AND ALBUS JUST WALKED IN ON HERMIONE KISSING ME. CRAP. CRAP CRAP CRAP. Devil hang himself and me as well—what in Merlin's name am I going to do now? Oh, hell and biscuits, this is bad, this is downright dreadful, I don't know what to do, I can't handle this much shock to my system in such short succession—
James is staring very hard at Hermione. Right, he knows. Oh, he knows! How must he—did he know Hermione felt that way about me, too? Or did he just assume it was one-sided? Sweet baby Hippogriffs, what the hell, what the hell do I do here...
"So, er. What the good god damn was all that, then?" asks Al. "What with the face sucking and the declarations of whatever?"
"You heard that, did you?" I ask wearily, having finally found my voice, and everyone looks at me.
"Yeah, too right we did!" Lily snaps accusingly. She points a dramatic finger at me. "You better explain yourself!" Who does she think she is, my mother? She's my daughter, for heaven's sake. She's not even fourteen yet. What does she know of heartache and longing and years of denying to yourself that you want something, need it, and then finally getting it and having it wrenched away a split second later? What does she know about me? How can she possibly accuse me, when she has no idea how much agony I've gone through for the span of longer than her lifetime? Since before that night in Hermione's kitchen? God, always that night—
"I think perhaps it would be best if I explained, actually," says Hermione. She's still so calm and rational. Damn her for being able to even speak right now.
"It would be about bloody time," says James quietly, neutral-toned. It's the first time he's spoken. Oh, no.
Now, finally, Hermione's face falls, and a bit of the anxiety that she's been hiding shows through. "Yes, well, I'm dreadfully sorry you all had to find out this way. The circumstances aren't exactly ideal, I know. Can you agree to hear me out before getting angrier?"
"Yes," says Al instantly. For the first time a flare of hope rises in my chest. We might have an ally. His expression is still one of shock and surprise, but he doesn't look cross at all. Is it possible that he'll approve? If there's even the slightest chance, I'll take it.
Lily, standing in front of Hermione beside the desk, looks back and forth between us for a few moments, her chest heaving, before she grudgingly nods. She crosses her arms tightly and stomps around to the guest chair in front of my desk and plops down onto it, giving me a glare that—I notice with dismay—is on the borderline of becoming a sob. I seriously hope Hermione knows what she's doing.
"Well—first of all, I just want you to know that your father and I haven't...this is...er, this is the first time that's happened," she begins, looking slightly embarrassed. Hell, I would be too. 'Would be'? Who am I kidding? I very much am, thank you. Hermione pauses, presumably to see if any of them are going to interrupt, but they don't. James looks skeptical. He's back to his position of leaning against the closed door. Hermione shoots an unsure glance at me before asking them, "How...much did you hear?"
"When we walked into the classroom, we heard dad saying something loud, and then you said you were sorry and something about asking someone else, and dad started freaking out about us knowing something and then freaking out louder and then, er, it got quiet and we came up to see what was going on and, er, there you were." Al turns a shade darker as he finishes.
"Nothing too clearly, then?"
"Not really." Al seems to be the spokesperson for the group. James is glaring sullenly, and Lily's quietly fuming, looking distressed.
"Hmm. Well, I don't know if that makes it easier or more difficult."
"What's there to explain?" Lily says, her voice betraying the slightest shake. "Why should we believe you that this is the first time? Who knows how long you've been sneaking round behind our backs? Dad, what about Mum?" Lily turns her eyes—really watering now—to me. "She's back! I know none of us were too pleased, but I thought...couldn't you be friends, or something? She won't ever let you near her if she knows you're with somebody else!"
"So, what, he's supposed to just never get in a relationship again?" Al asks. I look at him, and he looks at me, something fierce and defiant in his gaze. "Lils, you've got to accept they're not getting back together. It won't happen! Weren't you there for their fights?"
I feel like I should say something. Her eyes flit between Al and me as she flushes, embarrassed, and her expression grows more desperate. "I wasn't saying that...I just think it's selfish to get into something so soon after splitting without even telling your kids—"
"Soon? Lily, it's been three years!" exclaims Al. "Maybe he should've told us, but people do stupid things all the time!"
"Oh, so you think I'm stupid too?" she bursts out, the tears finally spilling over. Oh, god. "Going to call me an underachiever while you're at it, you miserable—"
"How can you defend her when you're obviously still upset about her being awful to you? You want her for a mother? You want her to be with Dad? She never gave a crap about any of us!" Al shouts. Lily stands up, shaking arms locked at her sides, her hands balled into fists. Tears are sliding down her cheeks but Al won't back down. "Finally something good happens to him—first time in a while—and you're going to ruin it for him by defending Mum? You've got to stop living in your own head, in your bloody dreamland, for Merlin's sake!"
"Albus, please—" Hermione begs, but Lily waves an arm at her.
"No, let him go on! You're just like Mum—nobody can be right but you! And maybe she wasn't a very good parent but she's still our mother, Albus Potter, and you can't just replace your mother, you can't!"
Alright. This has gone far enough. I stand up. "Enough." My voice is calm—thank Merlin—and it shuts everyone up good and proper. I look pointedly at both Lily and Al for a few seconds before continuing. "I think it's time for a sit-down. Hermione," I add in a murmur, "would you mind giving us a few minutes?"
As she meets my gaze, I see mirrored in her eyes all of my pain and regret, and the unwavering love that's got us this far. We'll get through this. It's Hermione. I can do anything when I'm around her. "We'll talk later?" she asks quietly, and I have to consciously restrain myself from touching her cheek. I nod. She goes to the door, and as James moves out of the way to let her pass, she looks back at me. I don't need to hear her say it. And she knows, now, that I love her too.
"This is mad," mutters Al as he crosses the room to lean against the windowsill again. I heartily agree.
With a heavy sigh—it's not the first and it won't be the last—I drag my fingers through my hair and scratch the back of my neck. "Well, I'm a mite uncomfortable. How about you lot?"
"Uncomfortable?" Lily exclaims. Could she give me a break for two moments? "You've just ruined everything and you're going to drive Mum away and you've just been caught having a bloody affair with another teacher—"
"It's Aunt Hermione!" Al exclaims. "Not bleeding Voldemort!"
"She's our aunt, exactly! You don't think that's wrong?" She turns back to me. "Who do you think you are that you've got the right to just—"
"Lily, shut up," groans Al. "You sound like a broken record. He's not evil; he's not trying to hurt us—"
"Well maybe you don't feel we need a proper mother figure—"
"Did I say anything about that? Did I?" Al asks the room, spreading his arms wide. "You're the mad one; there's nothing to be done with you, is there? You just want everything to be about you, all the time, want it to be your great bloody drama and your tragedy and your bloody story when maybe it's somebody else's turn. Life isn't gonna be perfect, ever, you might as well accept that and stop being a drama queen and a brat!"
Lily bursts into fresh tears. "I hate you, Albus Potter!"
"Great, now I'm the bad guy?"
"I hate all of you! You've ruined my life!"
"Right, well, this is just stupid," says James, finally interrupting. I'm quite shaken. I don't know how to deal with Lily and Al fighting. They've never fought before, not like this at any rate, and I have no experience handling it. Hermione would know how to stop them. Lily's still only thirteen—her birthday is in October—and just in the middle of that horrible preteen age where everything is, as Al so accurately (if rather rudely) put it, a great bloody drama. How am I supposed to deal with this?
"Oh, perfect!" Lily sobs, rounding on James. "Now everyone thinks I'm stupid!"
"You're not stupid, you're acting stupid," he says calmly. "Keep up the waterworks and the screaming and soon they won't have you on the Quidditch team next year, they'll say you're too volatile. No, I'm not done," he continues, talking over her as she begins sputtering indignantly. "You just need to really chill out right now. I've got stuff to do, Dad, so if everyone could shut up a minute, I want to hear your side of this." His relaxed stance leaning against the door doesn't change, but the look in my eldest son's eyes cuts to my core. He wants to hear my side. He's offering me a chance. By thunder, I'll take it.
I take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out slowly. Lily looks at me. So does Al, his face expectant. Meeting each of my children's gazes individually, I start with the war.
I don't know how long I talk for. I explain how Hermione, Ron and I set out to find a way to destroy Voldemort together, that fated year when we were seventeen. James is almost the same age now; as I tell them about the instability of the situations we got into, and how everything was affected by how young we were, I can see how troubled James is by it. We were only a few months older than he is now, and we were traipsing all over the country, on the run from the most powerful and evil warlock in history, already having fought him off several times in my case, the weight of both the wizarding and Muggle world on our shoulders—on my shoulders—the fates of endless lives come down to a boy and his friends. I don't like talking about it, even now. It was over twenty years ago and I still don't like to. But I have to make them understand. Somehow I have to get through to them that the bond the three of us formed—especially Hermione and I, during the time that Ron left—is too strong to break. I don't know if I can even begin to make it clear to my kids.
The ball. A year before the night in Hermione's kitchen, the four of us, both couples, went to an eight-year anniversary ball that some old witches threw to honour my victory over Voldemort. That night I danced with Hermione, and something that had been growing unnoticed in my mind clicked, and I realized to myself then that I felt more for her than I should. I make sure in the telling now that I'm very clear: nothing happened. I never wanted to be unfaithful to Ginny. (Well, that's sort of a lie; I should say, rather, that I never was unfaithful to Ginny.)
"Dad, can I interrupt for a minute?"
I stop in the middle of my sentence and look at Lily.
She hugs herself. "Why are you telling us this stuff?" There is a long pause where I'm lost. I...I thought they wanted to know. No, they need to know. They do. Don't they? I second-guess myself so much I don't know how I make decisions anymore. Lily bites her lip. "I mean...this...this is all really...I don't want to hear how you never loved Mum. I don't want to hear that."
"Oh, Lily, honey, no. I did love your mother, very much. That's why we were together! That's why we stayed together, for so long—and for your sakes, of course, later, but we did love each other. That was never in question."
"You can't—you can't love two people, Dad!"
I sigh and take off my glasses to rub my eyes. Ugh. How to explain this... "That's what I'm trying to tell you, Lils. I...I did. You can, evidently, be in love with two people at once. And I'm sorry, for everyone's sakes, that it took all this mess to pile up before I could sort myself out. It's my fault, and I'm sorry."
"Doesn't sound a whole lot like your fault," says James casually from the door.
"I dunno," says Al, and scowls. "'S all very convoluted, if you ask me."
"You don't even know what that word means," Lily snaps.
"Oh, shut up," Al snaps back. "Why are you interrupting, anyway? Do you ever shut up? He's telling us what happened!"
"Alright," says James loudly, pushing himself upright. The other two round on him, glowering, but he just looks right at me and keeps talking. "Dad, we're not done talking, yeah? I just...can we talk later?" he asks, and I nod. "Thank you." He turns around and opens the door without another word.
"Where are you going?" Al calls.
But James has already left, slamming the door shut behind him.
I can't believe I did it.
I kissed Harry. Half my mind is shouting 'Go Hermione go!' and the other half is me wanting to smack myself for being so stupid. I knew James and Lily and Albus were coming back to his office! I should have thought about it before I went ahead and did something so spontaneous and—and irrational, and—
I can't help it. I am on top of the world right now. There's a stupid little smile on my face and I can't wipe it off. I don't even know where my feet are taking me. Ha! Oh, look at that, I'm outside. What a gorgeous day. There are students lounging under trees and grass growing long on the lawns and is that a bluebird singing? I would sing, too, if I had any kind of voice. How long has it been since I left his office? Half an hour? I don't know, I've sort of been wandering around in a daze, to be honest, and now I'm outside and it's so lovely I just can't believe it.
For a moment I am transported back in time as I turn and see a young version of Harry jogging towards me across the long grass. He looks so much like his father from this distance. It's only from close up that Ginny's eyes mark the difference. When James catches up with me, he doesn't immediately say anything. I feel very aware of the fact that my nephew hasn't spoken to me alone in almost two years, and we used to be so close—not since the night I decided I had to end my marriage. He fidgets, doesn't meet my eyes. Scratches the back of his neck. I wait patiently, knowing I fully deserve every bit of anger he's about to throw in my face. I betrayed the spirit of my promise to him while obeying the letter of it—I knew this would be a problem—I should never have said anything, should never have come to see Harry so soon after Ginny left, he was emotional, confused, he probably hadn't meant what he said the way I thought or wanted him to—
"Listen, er, I just wanted to, are you busy?"
I blink. "Not at all."
"Um...are you and my dad...how, uh, what is this?"
"What do you mean?"
James gives me a level stare and a sigh. "He's mad about you. Obviously."
Heart rising into my throat, I nod. I can't believe it but somehow it's true.
James sighs again. He runs his fingers through his hair—like Harry has done millions of times, and is a habit I have picked up too, isn't that odd; is it a contagious thing that people who love him are susceptible to?—and he meets my gaze. "Well..." he swallows, and forces the words out. "I'm...sorry."
Again, I blink.
"For...the things I said. Then."
My heart swells, filling my chest with emotion—the lump in my throat grows and all of a sudden I don't trust myself to speak.
"I was...out of line." He pulls his mouth to one side, looking uncomfortable. "And...I shouldn't have...yelled. Or accused you of—or said..." he trails off, and looks at me, rawness in his face. "I'm sorry. I know it's not really my fault that you and Uncle Ron split up, but I know I was the...trigger, I guess, and I'm so sorry for that too. I never—"
"Oh, James, no," I begin.
"No, I know I at least had—some factor in it, even if you would've anyway, because I made you promise...which I had no right to, I dunno what I was thinking, and I'm—just—sorry." He looks as though there's something bitter in his mouth. I know how much it costs teenage boys to admit they are wrong, and am finding myself fighting my muscles to keep them still. The urge to hug the boy is overwhelming—but the fear of rejection is no less sharp. A breeze ruffles my sleeves and makes the back of James's hair stand up. What does he want me to do, or to say? Is he looking for forgiveness, because that's ridiculous, I'd never thought of blaming him in the first place—I thought James hated me these past two years, why else would he not have spoken to me since?
He looks at me. His face is young and open—and so raw. Something is tearing him up inside.
"And I don't hate you."
I hold out my arms and my nephew walks into them and damn me but I'm crying, because it is just too much, with Harry—Harry, god, Harry loves me—and Ginny reappearing and overturning everyone's lives and now James is here and telling me that I haven't destroyed our relationship—it is just too much, no one could be expected not to cry. The sky—blue, bright, beautiful—is blurry with my tears, and I laugh. God. What a beautiful day.
James pulls back and puts his hands on my shoulders. "I—are you—"
I have to reach up to pat his cheek. "When did you get taller than me?" I ask, wiping my eyes. He laughs. "I'm so happy you're talking to me again—are you okay, hon? With...I mean, you must think—"
"My dad told us everything," says James. Oh, lord. "Well, almost everything. Lily interrupted and I left. He said you never did anything. I mean, I knew you never did anything, you said so and I believe you and I know I should have talked to my dad back then instead of you except I couldn't, he was so obviously torn up about—about just everything, y'know, and man, the way you acted around each other I just thought—I'm sorry, I was just a big ass, Aunt Hermione."
I smile. "It's alright, James. I was never angry with you, I hope you know that. I've missed you, you big lug," I say, hooking my arm through his and starting to walk, no real direction in mind.
"I missed you too."
We walk for a bit without saying anything. I can't keep the smile off my face. How can life possibly get better? In one day, the love of my life tells me he loves me too, and my favourite nephew (I shouldn't have favourites but I can't help it) has started talking to me again—he doesn't hate me, he's missed our closeness too—and I can't believe how...mature he's being about this. Well, I suppose, for every hundred wild-eyed hooligan teenage boys there must be one with some sense in his head and a bit of decency. God, Harry sure lucked out with this one. It's every parent's dream to land a well-behaved son. All the better that he's the oldest, to set such an example for his brother and sister. What a kid. Hell, I know adults that could learn something from him. My ex-husband, for one. Oh, that was uncharitable. And there's the pang of regret. I never wanted to hurt Ron. It was just a bad decision on my part—a number of bad decisions, cumulative ones, if I'm being honest with myself—that had led to...god, everything.
"So...what are you going to do now?"
"You mean about your father?"
I sigh and let my head fall back so the cloudless sky fills my vision. "Well," I say with a slight grin, "I got kicked out of the room before we could say a word, actually."
James pauses, surprised. "You're right. I didn't even think of it. So—that was really the first, uh...?"
"Mm-hmm. You know, James, it's really odd talking to you about my relationship with your father, now. I'm—I'm your aunt. You're his son. You don't find that—strange? Awkward? I would have, at your age."
"I dunno. I guess. Listen," he says, stopping so I have to turn and face him. We've reached the lake now. "You won't...I mean, it's been years for him, which I'm not too pleased about considering he was married to my mum for it but when you think what a nightmare she turned out to be—"
"Oh, come on, why does everyone defend her so much? Sure, she was provoked I guess—like I was saying—but you two never even did anything! Did you even know my dad—y'know—wanted, er, to?"
I blush. Ridiculous. I haven't been so silly in ages. "Well, I mean, I don't know, James, I—I was married, we both were, and into the same family, for Merlin's sake. You don't go around blurting out things like that." This is so bizarre. Do aunts normally have discussions like this with their nieces and nephews? Unbelievable. But then, who on earth else am I going to talk to about it?
"Look, just—he's...he's so in love with you, and it's so obvious it hurts the eye. All I want to know is if this is just something that happened, or if you...y'know. Where you stand. What're you going to do?"
Oh, boy. "James, I really shouldn't tell you this, and I would appreciate some discretion here—"
"—but I've been in love with Harry since we were your age."
It is James's turn to blink.
"Oh. Well shit."
The dumbfounded look on his face makes me burst out laughing. "I know. It's pathetic, isn't it? And I was so wrong to get involved with Ron after the war, but I thought this would pass. I was young, after all."
James frowns. He looks away at the trees, then out over the water. "But...you had Rosie and Hugo, right? It can't have been all bad."
Yes. Sigh. Rose, my wonderful, brilliant daughter who's only barely speaking to me because it is 'so not cool' for her mother to say hello to her daughter in the corridors. And Hugo is too busy concocting new pranks to impress his cousins to bother with visiting his mother. But I couldn't love them more. "No, you're right, I shouldn't have said that. I just can't help wondering, sometimes, if we all wouldn't have been happier if I had simply spoken up about how I felt before anything got started."
"I've no idea how I'd feel, considering I would never have been born, Aunt Hermione, and I like me."
I hug him and am rewarded with a squeeze back. "Thank you. I don't know what to do now, though. Lily seemed upset," I say, heart sinking as I remember, "and I couldn't bear it if—"
"She'll come around. She just doesn't know how to deal with Mum being back, and then this on top of it set her off. She's very like Mum, you know, only not really. I mean, they both have drop-of-a-hat tempers, anything'll set them off."
"I suppose so, yes."
"Anyway, er, I guess...what was I saying? I just want..." James clears his throat. "I think you're good for him. I think he needs you and I guess you need him, obviously, what you just said, so, I just think—I think it's good. Generally. This. Yes."
My eyes fill with tears again. "You don't know how much that means to me. Thank you."
He is suddenly gruff, kicking a clod of dirt into the lake. "Yeah, well, okay. Don't cry or anything, Aunt Hermione, yeesh."
We're laughing as we keep walking.
Hell, biscuits, dandelions, frogs, turkeys, dodgeballs, Merlin's whole wardrobe and all the gnomes in Europe, I am in trouble.
I've been pacing round in circles in my office for ages. After James left—on a very strange note, might I add—I tried to keep Albus and Lily under control but she just got so worked up I don't know what to do with her. Al assured me she was just 'being an idiot' and went to go 'knock some sense into her fat head'. Teenagers! Oh, if there's one bane of my existence it would be them. What I would have given to understand them better in my school years. Maybe I would have caught on to the fact that one of my best friends was goddamned in love with me since we were seventeen years old, and by the way where is that woman? I can't stop thinking about her, big surprise that; god, her hands in my hair and kissing me like that, makes me want to pick her up and carry her right to my room and—and there goes my brain. Okay, dead puppies, dead puppies, grandma—I don't have a grandma—what if James walks back in right now? Lord, the indecency.
Okay. Can't think about Hermione. No, I've got to think about Hermione, I'm madly in love with Hermione, I can't live without Hermione, AHA she loves me! She loves me she loves me she STILL loves me jumping gnomes I feel like sticking my head out my window and WHOOPING—
Got to focus, Harry. Business to take care of here. Holy trolls, GINNY'S back. Could this day be any longer? I thought if Hermione and I ever got it on then we would have all sorts of time to be together on the down-low before we told anyone. Wouldn't that be best? But no—on the same day my ex-wife arrives back in town, right at my doorstep no less, I get Hermione to finally come out and—
She never actually said it, did she? Not that it really matters. I mean, in the grand scheme of things. Though. Hmm. No, it's nothing. She just didn't have the chance, that's all—we were interrupted, right? By all of my children, too. That was fantastic.
But I was the one putting myself out there this time. I remember...her kitchen...
I guess that's what it all comes down to. Fourteen years ago (good heavens, has it really been that long?) she admitted to me that she had feelings for me, had since the bloody war. I don't...know if I ever really expressed...how I felt, what she did to me. Does to me. You know I remember the moment I realized I was in love with her. It was at this ball, this silly fancy Anniversary Ball to commemorate my defeating Voldemort...it was a year, I think, before her kitchen. I couldn't believe how stunning she was that night in those dress robes...but, then, I can't decide when I thought she was more beautiful: the night of that ball or panicked and fray-haired in her housewifely apron the night this whole thing started. I just can't believe she still loves me. Me. I'm just a barmy old professor now. I saved the world as a boy, perhaps, but now I'm just another middle-aged man with a long memory and a few stories. What in the name of magic does a brilliant woman like her see in me, I ask you? Who am I asking? I'm talking to my own mind, here.
It was a waltz. I remember now, a fast one. I'd been taking lessons with Ginny for two months beforehand, so I was ready. I don't know what made me ask Hermione for that dance. Gin wanted to sit down and have some more wine, rest up her feet for a minute, and that was fine, I remember my feet had hurt too. Something...something just made me want to keep going. And she was sitting there, and I went up to her as Ginny sat down and I felt this, this heat, this warmth, just fill me and I could swear her—her smile changed, if that makes any sense. When she saw me standing there holding my hand out, she—her face went from laughing-happy to something...I don't know, a deeper, more real happiness. A kind of contained excitement.
What a dance that was, too. I'd been taking lessons, like I said, and I was pretty good. And somehow all girls just know how to dance. So we were off and away. I can't remember if we said anything to each other the whole song long—I just remember this one moment...I dipped her, and her arms went around my neck, right, and right at the bottom if I'd leaned the slightest bit down I could have kissed her. Wanted to. Thought about it. Forgot I was even married for that minute. All I knew was her. It blew my mind, after. Seemed to go on forever. But then I heard a high trumpet note in the music, and I don't know what would've happened if I hadn't—probably nothing, I don't know—but it sort of jerked me back to my senses, and I picked her back up and we were off again and the music played and I went into this...almost a trance sort of thing. I didn't think about what my feet were doing, I just let them go and literally did not take my eyes away from hers for the whole rest of the song.
And then when it stopped we stood there for a second, still looking right at each other, she was still in my arms and we were just standing there staring and I wanted to kiss her again—but she broke the gaze and stepped back, and went back to the table. I remember I just stood there like an idiot and watched her go. She looked back, too, and saw me, and I was just so damn confused I didn't know which way was up, and finally I blinked, and glanced at Ginny (who was sitting across from Hermione at the table) and boy, she was pissed. It wasn't a very good night after that. Lots of cold shoulder and door-slamming and frosty silences from my wife after that. I should've known then. I should have known.
A thought has just occurred to me. I will probably never see the Burrow again.
The realization stuns me into motionlessness. It's been my second home since I was twelve years old. Hell, it was my home for the eight months between the end of the war and when I got my own place in Godric's Hollow. Oh, Merlin...no more Weasley clock...will they take me off of it? Ginny will probably insist on it. Ron already took Hermione off of it last year. I've still been attending Weasley gatherings since Ginny left; she wasn't there to protest, and because of her...irrational actions, I don't think any of them resented me too much for the split, so in her absence I remained a part of the family. It hadn't even occurred to me until just now that I'll never attend a Weasley function again. By my ex-wife returning to England, I...I've lost my family.
I know I've only stayed close to them on borrowed time. She wouldn't have stayed away forever, and if she hadn't left, I would have been ostracized three years ago, but...I never even worried about it. Oh, god. Molly. I've lost the only mother I've ever known. Arthur, George, Angelina, Bill and Fleur and Charlie, even Percy and Audrey...what am I going to do without the Weasleys? I only hope Ron will still see me. But how am I going to tell him I'm with Hermione?
I love her. That's all that matters.
...That's all that matters. What am I doing? What's pacing my office going to accomplish? I have to go find her, I have to talk to her, need to—what's stopping me now? Nothing. I'm a bit of an idiot. Huh.
I whip open the door and stride through my classroom to the corridor. A few students walking by give me strange looks as I hurry past them. Maybe it's the excited light in my eyes. It's like there's an ember inside my chest that I've been trying to keep alive for years and it's finally caught fire. The halls whiz by—and I stumble to a stop in the middle of the Entrance Hall. Where am I going? I feel sheepish as I realize I have no idea where she is. I assumed she would be...in the library, I suppose, but that's hardly where she would go at a time like this, if I know her. It's funny; once, the library would have been the only reliable place to find her, but now that she works there (and is still being completely wasted, she should be teaching subjects, not just shelving books; she's the most overqualified librarian-slash-nurse that the world has ever seen) she's less likely to be found there. I suppose I don't exactly go to my office when I need time to think alone. So where would I go?
A smile comes to my face as it hits me, and I turn toward the open front doors, letting the afternoon sunshine wash over me.
"Harry, there you are!"
"Hullo, Neville," I say, turning again toward the grand marble staircase at the other end of the Hall. He waves and hurries over to me, balancing a stack of books in one arm and trying to keep a huge satchel of herbs on the other shoulder. The bag is writhing a bit. Interesting.
"Hi, just wanted to catch you up on the staff meeting notes. Do you have a minute?"
Oh, for the love of—in all the turmoil, I completely forgot there was a staff meeting today. Bother! I sigh and smack my forehead lightly. "Yes, thanks, Neville, I don't know what came over me to miss the meeting, so sorry—"
"Oh, not at all, not at all. I mean," he says, lowering his voice and leaning in a little, "it's perfectly understandable. And listen, if you want to take a day or two off classes, I'd be happy to cover for you, if you want. And we talked about it at the meeting—if James and Albus and Lily need a few days that's alright too."
"Does everyone know she's back, then?" I sputter.
"Well, pretty much, yeah," he shrugs. "Everyone knows who she is, and she didn't exactly make it a secret when she got here. Burst through the front doors and marched right into the staff room asking where you were, you know. It was my spare, you see, I was just talking to the Headmistress about getting some new plants for Greenhouse Seven, I think the Stinging Puffpods are dying, dunno why, I tried giving them some steamed goat's milk but it didn't seem to work...oh, I'm sorry, the staff meeting, right."
"Yes," I say, amused despite everything else.
"I was secretary this time, here, I'll make you a copy—" Neville twitches his wand and pokes it at something in his pocket. A puff of purple smoke comes out. "No, that's not right," he mutters, and wiggles the wand so it's aiming slightly to the left; this time, a foot long piece of parchment appears in midair, and I reach out to catch it as he's got his hands rather full. He beams at me. "There you go, those are the minutes. So how are you holding up? Bit odd, eh, having your ex-wife back in town?"
"Yes," I say again, not really knowing how else to answer.
"I'd be in a right state if I were you," he goes on. "Good thing Hannah and I are on solid ground. She doesn't mind me being away for most of the year, she visits whenever she can and the kids do help. Say, have you seen Briony around anywhere, by the way? I just wanted to give her a heads-up so she won't be too surprised if James is sulking today, you know how inseparable they are, like you and Hermione were at that age. Speaking of, how's she doing? Haven't had a chance to chat for almost two weeks now, funny, really, we work in the same school but I suppose it's just that big, isn't it?"
"Oh, there she is!" he says, cutting me off and waving to someone over my shoulder. My stomach does a back flip and lands on its rear end as I turn. How can I face her? I'm not ready, I have to think of something to say, holy trolls my insides are squirming with anticipation—
"Hi, Dad," a young girl's voice calls from the doors. I blow out a sigh of relief and disappointment. Briony Longbottom bounces over to us, long thick braids swinging. "Hi, Professor," she says to me, and I nod and smile.
"Briony, I just wanted to warn you, James might not be in the greatest of moods today," Neville starts off. Good lord, is he going to tell her right in front of me? Apparently so, because he rolls right along in the next breath. "You remember Professor Potter's ex-wife, Ginny Weasley? Well, she's back from France, and did a number showing up to his class today. Apparently burst in and caused some ruckus. The Potters will probably be a little out of sorts for a bit, just so you know."
Unbelievable. Briony glances uncomfortably at me, equally aware of her father's good intentions and total lack of tact. I shake my head and shrug helplessly; she shoots me a look of sympathy. "Er, sorry to hear that, Professor."
"It's alright," I reply, feeling awkward.
"Well, anyway," says Neville, clapping me on the shoulder and hefting his squirming bag of Stinging Puffpods, "if you ever need anything, Harry, you know I'm your man. Now Briony, I actually have been meaning to talk to you about your last Herbology assignment. The sketch of the Necromantis Habitua was superb, but there were a few slight errors in the labeling of its component parts that I wanted to clear up."
"Oh, shoot. I mixed it up with the Venomous Mantis-Trap, didn't I? I always confuse those two—was it the drooping mandibles or the pollination...?"
Father and daughter walk into the Great Hall, already deep in an animated discussion about plants. Briony—one of James's closer friends, they're in the same year and in a lot of the same classes—inherited her father's passion for Herbology. Her younger brother Basil is in the same year as Lily and Hugo. Good girl; gets decent grades, and generally well-behaved—she's the comedian in their group of friends, not in a Fred-and-George pranking kind of way (ouch, still tough to think about), but more just a funny person, I suppose. James thinks she's hilarious. I would try and matchmake, but he's been head-over-heels for the Gryffindor Quidditch Captain, Rory Cleaver, for the past year, even if he doesn't know it. Poor boy.
How do I get sidetracked so easily? The goal, Harry, the goal! Find Hermione!
Right. I was going outside. The afternoon sun is bright and warm and I breathe in deeply as I walk down the front steps. Merlin, it's gorgeous out today. Just a couple of hours ago I was protesting the cloudlessness, thinking that if Ginny was storming back into my life, it should be storming outside, too. Little did I know, eh? What a day.
My happy daydream is rather rudely interrupted by yells from a spot across the lawns to my right. There's a crowd gathering over there. Damn it, aren't I off duty or something? I'm tempted, so tempted, to just keep walking, and I almost start to—but now a couple of second-years have spotted me and are running pell-mell in my direction. Sigh.
The two boys—Merlin, identical twins—skid to a stop in front of me, winded, and both start speaking at once.
"Professor, Freddie Ferguson and—"
"Ollie Dortmunder are fighting—"
"They're dueling, Professor—"
"Tried to stop them but—"
Oh, for the love of all that is good and holy.
I stride across the lawn towards the gathering crowd and put my stern-Professor-face on, making sure my wand is handy and loose in my pocket. Why now, honestly? Really, is this fully necessary? Can't students sort things out these days without resorting to violence and magic? The most they'll be able to do to each other is knock each other over, maybe give out a nosebleed if they're lucky. Er, unlucky. I am a bad influence.
I march up to the crowd and it parts for me, revealing two fourth-year boys with their wands out, slowly circling each other. One has a cut on his eyebrow and the other seems unscathed. Both snap to attention and look incredibly guilty as soon as they see me, which affords me much private amusement; I don't think I'll ever get over how funny that 'oh-no, the-teacher's-coming!' guiltiness is when I'm the one inspiring intimidation. Excellent.
It doesn't take too long to sort things out. The pretty girl edging into the crowd was being fought over; the boys were dueling to impress her. Unbelievable, really. She had better be worth the week's worth of detentions both boys are getting. No real harm was done; I'll just have them write lines or clean something. We do like to discourage duels, though. No good comes of them.
Once the disappointed crowd disperses, I'm left feeling lost and anticipatory again. I still don't know where she is. I'm banking on her having the same thought as me here. I quickly cross the grounds, making my way through the long grass (I should really make a note to tell Hagrid it's getting tall; I'll do that later) and stepping lightly all the way down to the edge of the lake, passing clumps of students lounging in the shade of young trees dotting the grounds down to and along the waterline. I walk along the water's edge for a while, far enough along that I've left all but the most wander-some students behind, until the old birch rises up in front of me. It's been there for as long as I can remember. About two and a half years ago, when I first started working at Hogwarts, I carved something into the bark of this tree that I really shouldn't have, but I did anyway, and it's not as though it was obviously me or anything. It's just a little pair of overlapping H's.
I plop myself down facing the lake and lean against the base of the tree, the carved letters above my head. Such a teenage thing to do. But I like it. It's nothing fancy, just two letters. The lower one has a little flourish—that's the Hermione one. I felt incredibly guilty about it afterward—she hadn't separated from Ron yet at that point, it was just my own little...I dunno, wishful thinking, I guess. Now it's a promise.
I brought her here when she started working at Hogwarts too. Didn't show her the carving of course, just wanted to have a place to sit and talk and not be interrupted. We come here every once in a while now, usually when one of us is upset or needs to talk about something or if we're stressed and need to relax. It's a good spot for that.
Funny. I was just reminded of the time she visited me, two Octobers ago, and we spent the day in Hogsmeade and she told me she was going to apply at Hogwarts—and at the end of the evening I slipped and caught myself on her shoulder and touched her for the first time in twelve years. Powerful stuff. I came here early the next morning to think. She came up to the castle later to see the five kids, around noon, and we sat on opposite sides of the room for the entire time. I don't think we even looked at each other more than a couple of times. Just focused on the kids as much as we could. I was painfully aware of her the whole while, though.
Lily shut the door behind her and Harry was suddenly alone with Hermione. He waved his wand and the chairs righted themselves, then walked over to the window and raked his hair out of his eyes. When he glanced back at her, she was looking steadily at him.
"Listen," she said, and took a deep breath. "About—about last night—"
"I'm so sorry about that," he interrupted her, his eyes moving down and away. He rubbed his face with one hand. "It was an accident, and then...I don't know what came over me. I'm sorry."
"Oh, it's...it's alright, I just—wanted to say—"
He couldn't take it. "Can we please just leave it at that?" he asked, his voice sounding strangled and choked. He looked at her again. Her eyes filled with tears. He leaned against the windowpane and pressed his temple to the cold glass. "I'm sorry. I can't...I can't."
"I understand," she whispered.
Everything that went unsaid was like a blow to each of them. She left after that, with a quiet goodbye and thanking him for spending the previous day with her. Harry couldn't even respond. He just nodded and stared out the window until he heard the door close and she was gone.
I haven't done everything right. I've probably hurt her more than I've helped her with all of this. The sun is sinking slowly into the mountains, bathing the world in orange gold. How long have I been sitting here now? A while. It's peaceful. I hope she comes. I don't want to have to look for her all through the castle and find her in some hallway and have students all around everywhere. I...I want this to be special. I want her here. I don't care how silly it sounds, even to me.
I love her.
I can't stop thinking it, can't stop saying it to myself. A fire has been lit. Every second is fuel to feed it. My stomach has been reduced to a roiling mass of nerves. My thoughts just keep going in circles: where is she, what's keeping her, she doesn't know where I am, I should go find her, no I should stay here, but where is she. I can't concentrate on anything else, can't think of anything else. My whole world has narrowed to the gently lapping water, glazed from the blazing orange sun; the birch leaves hanging down around me, the double H's above my head, and Hermione.
A twig snaps.
I look up.
Her quiet voice and secret half-smile tugs the corners of my mouth up involuntarily. How was there ever a time when I was blind to this? How was there ever a point in my life when I could love anyone but her?
She walks over, lush grass rustling beneath her feet. "Whatcha doing way out here all by yourself?" A breeze picks up and she stops a few feet away, curls blowing gently, and hugs herself.
"Watching the sun set."
There's that little half-smile again. I want to kiss it into full bloom. "It's May, Harry." Hearing her say my name sends a shiver down my spine, right from my neck to the base of my back. "The sun won't set for another hour." I shrug. She stares out over the open water for a few moments. "It is pretty, though," she says softly. I nod. Play it cool, Harry, play it cool. She glances back down at me. "Do you mind if I sit?"
...Do I mind?
I look up at her incredulously. "Is that a real question?"
She laughs and takes a seat beside me on the grass, tucking her legs to the side and underneath her. Unbelievably, we sit in silence for a good few minutes, just watching the sun sink further towards the mountains and the water glow gold, listening to the breeze make ripples on the lake and hearing the hush of leaves all around. I've missed this. Just being with her. We haven't done this in a long time—months at least.
Hermione scoots closer to me, hesitates for a moment, and then leans her head on my shoulder.
For another few seconds we are still, and then I shift a bit so I can put my arm around her, and having her here tucked up against my side feels so unquestionably right that I'm almost stunned. Am I shaking? A little bit. She turns her face up to mine. We're inches apart. "You meant what you said." It's not a question.
Her smile grows slowly, spreading across her face like dawn breaking, and she brushes a bit of hair away from my eyes. The touch makes me tremble inside. "Good." Hesitantly, almost timidly, she reaches up and kisses me. I'm in heaven. When she pulls away too soon, she takes my face in both her hands. "Harry, I...is this going to work? Really work? You and me?"
I rest my forehead against hers. "I love you." It feels so good just to say it.
"I love you, too."
"Then we don't have much choice but to make it work, do we?"
She laughs again, kisses me again. This time when she tries to pull back I don't let her, bringing a hand up and burying it in her hair, keeping her close. Her arms slip around my neck. She laughs breathlessly against my mouth, the sound making me want her even more. "Harry, I need oxygen." I keep my forehead against hers, holding her close. "What about...what about the kids?"
"They'll understand. Albus is on board, I think, and Lily will come around."
"James found me earlier; we've been talking this whole while."
"So that's where he went."
"Yes. He approves," she says, eyes dancing with happiness. "He likes the idea, even."
"I like the idea too."
I won't ever get tired of making her laugh. "Oh, really?" She grins, and I display my enthusiasm by pressing my mouth to hers again, my arm snaking around her back and pulling her in so we're pressed together. A full minute later, once I have deemed her thoroughly kissed, I allow us both to breathe. There are spots of colour high on her cheeks and her eyes are hot and slightly glazed. Hoo boy, did I ever just get man-thoughts about her. "And what about my kids?" she asks, but the sterility of the question is marred by the fact that she's looking at my mouth as she says it.
I kiss her again and again between words. "They," I kiss her, "will," I kiss her, "under," I kiss her, "stand..." I kiss her long and slow this time before finishing with "...Hermione."
She squeezes her arms around me and rests her head in the crook between my neck and shoulder. When she breathes it sends tingles down my whole left side. "I love you."
The date is June the twenty-seventh. It is a Friday. Harry and I have been together for just over a month.
We're snuggled under a blanket on a wide-seated plush armchair in front of the small fireplace in his room. My cool bluebell flames are burning merrily in the grate so we don't overheat; it's quite warm in the castle during the summer, after all. It's late—sometime past midnight, I think. Exams are done. Classes are over. There are two days left until all the students go home for the summer holidays. Harry and I spent the day together, roaming the grounds holding hands, nearly delirious with love (at least in my case).
Our relationship has become the worst-kept secret since the last Ministry cover-up. The five kids know of course, though my two don't know the whole story, and Harry told Ron. He's...I wouldn't say he's taking it exactly well, but while he's upset with me, I don't think he's going to let it interfere with his friendship with Harry, which is the most important thing. I haven't seen him since before he was told, so I don't know how it's going to be between us considering I left him for his best mate; he didn't believe for a second that Harry and I had only just recently become involved, Harry tells me. He's completely convinced that we've been having an affair for years, since before Ginny left, even. I suspect that she might have talked to her brother about her reasons for leaving Harry. She always was sharp. Not that there was...I mean of course there wasn't anything going on actually, but, well, you can generally tell when a person has feelings for another, and I did love him and I suppose he's loved me this whole time too, so it was really a big waste of everyone's time, staying apart, but there you go. We aren't perfect. Big news.
Lily started off being very cool towards me. I think I'm slowly succeeding in winning her over, though. I was sitting outside with Rose at lunchtime last week and Lily actually joined us; marched over with a sandwich and a bottle of pumpkin juice and plunked herself down on the grass, saying very firmly, "I have had enough of the Quidditch boys. What do girls talk about, Rosie? It's got to be better than making wagers about who's going to get laid first, Stephan or Edward." I was so shocked both at Lily joining us and her frankness at such a young age that my jaw fell open, giving cause for daughter and niece to laugh at me, and the three of us had a lovely half hour of chatting. I was very pleased. I'm optimistic, anyway.
Rose says she saw it coming—Harry and my relationship. Just since I started working here at Hogwarts. Her theory is that I needed him to comfort me when I left Ron, and the best way to be around Harry was to be at Hogwarts, so I came here and, being close friends already, the inevitable happened and we fell for each other. She's got a lot of points right, actually, though we did the falling years ago. She thinks it's sweet. Both she and Hugo had accepted Ron's and my separation a while back, and neither minds much that I'm with their uncle now. The Potter kids all have had much stronger reactions to the relationship, I find.
Albus has cheered us on since day one. He even told McGonagall that if she tried to pull some 'I'm the Headmistress and relationships between professors are frowned upon' on us, he would personally ensure that she found toads in her bed every night for the rest of her life. Such a charming boy.
James, amazingly, has been our strongest supporter. He's been doing everything he can to make me feel accepted and welcomed, well, back into the family, so to speak. Harry and I have decided to take it slow at first. I won't be moving in with him until next summer. I've still got that little flat in London and I'll live there officially for another year, or for this summer, rather; until I come back to Hogwarts at least. I'll probably sell it in September. But I'll probably spend a lot of time in Godric's Hollow over the next two months anyway. Maybe I'll have Harry over to the flat a few times when the kids are staying with Ginny.
She's looking for a place in London too. Hey, maybe I'll sell her my flat. Or, alternatively, I could not do that in a million years. Gracious, can you imagine how insulting that would be? To have a former good friend of hers offer her the flat she was living in after separating from her brother and now is moving in with her ex-husband? Oh, no, she's a former good friend...that's oddly the first time I've really thought of her that way. I mean when she left for France I didn't think of her as my friend at all—she stopped being Ginny Weasley, if you know what I mean, and became this some sort of almost mythical evil woman, who just abandoned her family, and had no real connection to the girl I grew up with and who was my sister-in-law. But now that she's back, and we are certainly not going to be friends—I don't see how it could ever be realistically possible—she's...not my friend anymore. And that makes me sad.
But I am happy.
I remember telling myself countless times that I was happy, all the years I spent with Ron, wanting to believe it, struggling to be content with what I had. But now...I don't have to struggle. I can finally relax. A smile spreads over my face for no reason. Just because.
Life is going to be good.
Harry shifts and presses his lips to the top of my head. I thought he was asleep this whole time. I feel him bury his face in my shoulder, my hair falling all around, and he lets out a long sigh. "I'm...happy." His voice is muffled. I can feel him smiling against my skin. I don't know if my heart is big enough to contain the happiness that just welled up inside me; my chest swells, rising. All I want to do is keep him here, this way, forever. Happy.
"I'm happy too."
"Nuh-uh," I say with a silly grin. "I waited longer; therefore I've got dibs on being the happiest."
He kisses my neck. "Too bad I said it first, then."
"You're such a child."
"I love you."
I laugh, twisting in my seat so that I'm sitting across his lap, and take his face in my hands to kiss him thoroughly. He's so warm. And enthusiastic. I smile against his mouth and he pulls away a little to look at me. His glasses have steamed up a tiny bit. Combined with his lopsided grin, it is possibly the most adorable thing I have ever seen. I kiss him again.
Things start to heat up. The blanket slips onto the floor. A minute later, so does my shirt. I wonder if I should be more shocked than I am. I hope I remembered to put on nice underwear. Oh, there goes his shirt too. Oh, my. Oh, my, that is a lovely sight for sore eyes. I let out a yelp that turns into a giggle—how old am I, sixteen?—when he scoops me up in his arms, walks over to the bed, and dumps me onto it. There is a delicious light in his eyes that I haven't seen before tonight. I'm lying sprawled here, limbs every which way, hair a-tangle and falling into my face...and as he crawls onto the bed and kisses me, his hands starting to roam, I can't remember ever feeling more alive.
Two months later, I start feeling sick in the mornings.
* THE END *
Thank you all for being so supportive the whole way through. I'm not sure I'm finished with this storyline—'Stupid' is over, but for a while now I've been considering a sequel of sorts from another perspective, possibly James (I've grown really attached to him), not necessarily about Harry and Hermione, but following the events in this universe; the 'Stupidverse', lol. I might do a few vignettes using the 'Stupidverse' too, little one-shots from different characters showing things that we don't get to see in the main storyline. :) I hope you'll look for those by putting me on 'Author Alert'.
Love you all, and thank you again, so much. Cheers!