A/N: Repost. Slight AU. Hermione, reflecting on her decisions and mistakes one night, sitting outside the trio's tent while on the run during DH.
It all started during third year. Or so she gathered.
She didn't notice it happening, only looking back after the fact. After others pointed it out for her. People like Rita Skeeter. That cow. She hadn't put any sort of thought to it in fourth year, when all the tabloids were calling her a minx for two-timing Harry Potter and Viktor Krum. She was too busy trying to help Harry prepare for the next task to pay attention to silly articles. Anyone would have been. Then in fifth year, when Cho Chang became jealously obsessed with any other girl in Harry's life—most prominently, Hermione—she tried her hardest to keep Harry and Cho together, if only because Harry seemed so utterly hopeless when it came to dealing with girls.
Not that Ron wasn't; he was even worse than Harry. But for some reason, despite all their squabbling and how much he annoyed her, she found herself liking the attention he gave her. She knew he'd fancied her for a long time, perhaps even since they met (if subconsciously). It was only recently that she'd begun to give in to the rumors circulating the school, her peers like fans of a Muggle reality TV show. She supposed her life—or Harry's, at least—was rather like a soap opera, the kind that her mother used to watch while making lunch as a young Hermione sat at the kitchen table and frowned at her fork, trying to make it move without touching it like she had the night before.
Just recently, Hermione had been looking over old journals when she found it. An entry from her third year at Hogwarts, just worrying about Harry's behaviour at sneaking off to Hogsmeade to be with her and Ron. Looking at it now...it was an odd feeling to delve backwards in time and relive what had happened years ago. Hermione hated the thought of forgetting anything; always had. She'd been given her first journal on her seventh birthday. It was a present from her father. The note along with it had said, "To my darling daughter. May you fill these pages with all the wonderful thoughts and feelings that you experience, that you will never forget them. Your loving father." She had asked what the word 'experience' meant, though she'd read it perfectly fine. Even at that age, she'd shown signs of having an academic heart.
Now...it was her heart that was giving her problems.
For a good two and a half months, she'd been dating Ron. But over the last month of it, Ron had begun to annoy her like he used to. More than she wanted to put up with. The good things from the relationship began to be not worth all the fighting. She didn't want to tell him this, of course, because she didn't want to hurt him, ever; the only problem was that in not telling him, she herself was getting hurt. And she wasn't willing to let that go on for much longer.
A month and a half ago, she'd confronted Ron about it. He apologized profusely—something she hadn't expected him to do—and promised he'd try to fix things as best he could. That gesture was a huge step in the right direction, but he couldn't follow through on it. He'd tried to change. He really had. She'd seen it. But it wasn't enough. Hermione felt terrible—she could barely bring herself to admit, in fact, that it wasn't enough. But she had. And no matter how much she, in her way, did love Ron...she couldn't let their rocky relationship distract her from helping Harry find the Horcruxes.
So with a reluctant and heavy heart, three weeks ago she had sat Ron down and explained that while she didn't want to erase the possibility of getting back together, she needed time and space to think things through. To figure out what exactly it was that she wanted. To see if she missed him like she hoped she would. And, she added privately to herself, to decide if it was really Ron that she loved, or the feeling of safety that he provided her with.
And...the last reason...it was happening again.
Lately, over the past while, Hermione had been thinking more and more about someone who wasn't Ron. Old feelings, pushed down and ignored for so long, were resurfacing. Again. Every time this happened, she put all efforts into squashing them down to the bottom of her mind and forgetting about them. It wasn't as though they were welcome. He had Ginny. He was perfectly happy with Ginny. Well...that wasn't true; their relationship had always been rocky, too. But they'd been together for a long time now. A long time. And Hermione didn't think they would be breaking up anytime soon. Even if they did, it was laughable to think that he might even be aware of Hermione's feelings, much less return them.
It wasn't guilt about Ginny that restrained Hermione from telling him how she felt. It wasn't even guilt about Ron; they'd only dated for two and a half months. It was embarrassment. That, and the fact that she didn't want to ruin their friendship. Or his and Ron's friendship. Or her and Ron's friendship. Or her and Ginny's friendship. Or Harry's and Ginny's relationship. In fact, she suspected that the only ship that wouldn't be ruined would be Ron and Ginny's. But she couldn't be sure of even that one. All in all, telling him—or anyone—was out of the question. So she never told anyone. And keeping it a secret always made her miserable. Whenever the feelings surfaced, everything went bollocks.
Sometimes she wished. When they were still at Hogwarts, she would just sit down in a windowsill or curl up in a chair before the common room fire and daydream. If things had been different...if she had been able to speak up about how she felt...if they hadn't had to go find the Horcruxes...sometimes she even went as far as to wish that Voldemort had never existed, and the three—four—of them could have gone through Hogwarts without having to worry about saving the world, and could just be normal teenage witches and wizards. She found herself wishing more and more often lately. While Harry and Ron were sleeping in their tent one night out in the wilderness, she sat on the hard, uncomfortable ground, up against a tree with her knees curled up to her chest, staring at the stars and dreaming that things were different. A slight breeze picked up, brushing her unkempt hair across her shoulders and making her shiver. It was cold out. There was nothing unfriendly about the environment; it was peaceful, even. Just cold.
One star for every time she'd wished that things were different. One star for every time she'd kept her mouth shut when Ron had made a comment. One star for every time she'd smiled and shook her head when he asked what was wrong. For every time she'd squashed her feelings down, bitten her lip, put on a brave face, smiled for him. For them. One star for every time she'd cursed herself for not having the balls to tell anyone. For every time she'd laughed at herself for pitying herself. There are a lot of stars in the sky. She sighed, watching her breath mist in the air and then disappear.
"You're awake again."
Unsurprised, she didn't look down at him. "Yeah. Cou—"
"Couldn't sleep. I know. It's getting to be every night, Hermione."
She said nothing. It was still cold. Nothing had changed in the past month they'd been on the hunt for the Horcruxes, and nothing would change now. She would continue to get little sleep until the moment came that she could speak plainly, and that moment wouldn't come. Things were getting awkward. Between her and Ron, between her and Harry...not yet between Harry and Ron, but the time would come. She was sure of it. Either that, or she'd just be ostracized from the trio entirely. It would be Harry and Ron from then on, finding the Horcruxes, defeating Voldemort, saving the world. Hermione Granger would be a thing of the past. The 'golden trio' would be a thing of the past. They could read books on their own, work out spells on their own; what did they really need her for, anyway? She could just slip away now, Disapparate into the vast night, go back to civilization, maybe live as a Muggle, forget this whole thing...forget them...no. She could never forget them. Especially not him. Besides, he was awake now. He'd catch her in an instant.
"What are you thinking about?"
She shrugged. "Nothing."
"Obviously something. You're awake, you're always thinking of something."
"Nothing important, then."
Harry sighed and raked his fingers through his ever-messy hair. It was a habit of his. She liked it. It made him seem younger somehow, not so heavily burdened with troubles and responsibilities and deaths, and the other things that normal teenage witches and wizards don't have to bother with. Shouldn't have to bother with. With a frown, she tried to laugh at herself. Even in her mind she sounded heavy and serious. It wasn't healthy for a young, seventeen-year-old girl to feel like this, to have this much responsibility, to be so far from everything she knew. Seventeen-year-old girls should be finishing school, experimenting with boys, with sex, with alcohol. What Hermione wouldn't give right now for a good swallow of Firewhiskey. Ron had no tolerance for it. He'd have sea-legs after one bottle, and be gone after two. They'd found that out two weeks ago in a wizard tavern somewhere in Surrey, when the three of them had needed some cheering up after failing to find a single Horcrux, despite all their efforts. She and Harry had attempted to drink each other under the table once Ron had wandered off to the bathroom, and all they succeeded in doing was getting more and more drunk until their foreheads felt like they were about to sprout horns.
"Please tell me. You've been like this for ages. I can't talk to you anymore; you'll just shrug and look away. See, you're doing it now."
Hermione sighed heavily, still avoiding his gaze. "It's nothing, Harry. Go back to sleep."
It took all her efforts not to look at him, but she maintained her eye contact with the icy white pinpricks that covered the sky. Like miniscule grains of sugar sprinkled across a black-forest cake. Or souls of the departed, looking down on the world in silent, cold disapproval. When she deemed it safe to look down, she found herself mistaken. The stars were reflected in his dark green eyes like the innumerable sparkling facets of two polished but uncut emeralds. Where was all this poetic description coming from, she wondered? She had read too many books. If they didn't find the Horcruxes, maybe she would never read another book again. There was too much distraction, too much angst among the three of them. Too many unspoken words.
"You always say that. What does nothing mean to you?"
Very philosophical of him, in her opinion. Perhaps he'd read more books than she'd thought. But then again, it was more likely that he was just making a sarcastic, rhetorical comment that made more sense in his head than out loud. Did he expect an actual answer to his question? Did he expect her to open up to him? The latter wasn't going to happen. She'd been keeping it to herself for years; that wasn't going to change now. Nothing was going to change now. It couldn't. She wouldn't let it.
Oh. He had expected an actual answer. Well, then.
"The absence of something."
"The absence of something, or the absence of something you'll talk about?"
He was smarter than he looked, smarter than she was used to him being. Perhaps Ron's influence had dulled him over the years, and he was now breaking free...still. "Nevermind, Harry."
He sat up from leaning on his elbow, his eyes never leaving hers. "No. Can't you tell me? We're best friends, aren't we?"
Now there was a dilemma. He'd pulled the best friend card. She had been counting on him not using it. Oh, well; it didn't matter. Nothing he could say would make her tell anyway. She would just have to shrug him off again, no matter how much it hurt both of them. Telling him would hurt them more.
Oh, no. The p-word. She bit her lip. She was wavering. First the best friend card, then the serious-toned please...and those eyes...he just looked so disappointed, and sad, it was making her ribs hurt. It wasn't her heart, it was her ribs. She firmly believed that. She felt like cracking. Pouring out all her feelings and all her unspoken moments in one great torrent of words, followed by a rush of relief—and then a flood of dread. At that last thought she sealed up like a clam shell. And good thing, too; she had come very, very close just then to telling him everything. And those moments, usually few and far between, were occurring more and more often.
"What's goin' on?"
An audible sigh of relief escaped her lips and she shut her eyes, sending up a prayer of thanks. Ron's sleepy, only half-awake face squinted through the tent flap at her and then at Harry. He had never had quite as good night vision as they did. He looked from one to the other, frowning the questions, and rubbed his eyes. "Do we need to keep moving?"
"No, Ron. Go back to sleep," she said. After a moment, he shrugged, nodded, and collapsed back down into his sleeping bag, snoring within seconds. Typical Ron.
"Typical Ron," Harry muttered, half to himself. Hermione smiled inwardly. They thought so alike, the two of them. They were really quite suited for each other. All she would have to do was open her mouth and say the words, and this huge weight that was constantly pressing down on her shoulders, ever so slowly getting heavier, would lift. All she had to do...but she turned away from him again. Every time. She heard him sigh behind her, and imagined him raking his fingers through his hair. She snuck a stealthy glance at him; he was. "Well...I know there's something bothering you. If you ever need to talk about it, I'm sleeping two feet away."
After a few more silent moments, she heard him get up and go inside, the flap swaying closed behind him, and settle himself back into sleep. Her eyes stung. She felt like crying. Why? It was irresolvable, there was no use shedding tears about it. That wouldn't fix the problem. Nothing could fix the problem. It would pass in time. It would fade. It always did. This particular time, however, it had been persistent for over two months. Usually it would only last a few weeks at a time. Not very long. And then it would fade, through her efforts of pushing it down. Why hadn't it faded? It should have gone by now. Long before now, actually. Now that she thought about it, it had lasted a month and a half the last time, and the time before. It was getting harder to push away. That was not a good thing. She had to get rid of it. Go inside herself, now, and find the root of it, and scrunch it in her fists and fling it out into the night like any unwanted thing. She didn't want it. It was tearing her apart. Tearing her loyalties apart. Asunder. She loved that word. Tearing her asunder. She didn't want to be torn like this forever.
She wouldn't be. She was only seventeen. A teenager. Things like love happened during teenagehood, and then they went away. Nobody stayed with their high school sweethearts anymore. Well, except her aunt and uncle. And her childhood friend's parents, who had broken up after high school and then got back together years later, saying they should never have left each other. And her second-grade teacher, who had gone through the same thing as her friend's parents. In fact, Hermione knew a lot of people who were meant to be with the people they knew at her age. What should make her think, automatically assume, that she would eventually get over Harry at all? Perhaps she never would. Anything was possible at this point. Perhaps she would be old, and married to someone else, and every once in a while would think about the black-haired boy with the green eyes that she could never have.
Shivering again, she looked up at the sky and began to count the stars. Lying down and trying to sleep was folly. She wouldn't be able to. There was too much on her mind. There was always too much on her mind lately. She wrapped her arms around her legs and hugged them to her chest again, resting her chin on her knees. It hurt her eyes to look up at the stars from this angle, so she settled her gaze on the tall tree trunks around her. The breeze returned. Goosebumps rose on her skin and the fine hair on her arms stood up. Just why was she was torturing herself like this? For so long? It wasn't as if—
"It doesn't make any sense!"
Her head spun about, giving her a crick in her neck. Rubbing the spot, she turned her body to face him. He was standing over her outside the tent, frowning down at her. "None of it makes any sense, Hermione. Why can't you just talk to me like you used to? What is wrong with you lately? You haven't been talking at all, unless one of us asks you a question. I don't get it. And it's driving me mad trying to figure out why!"
"Why do you care that I'm quiet?" she found herself saying. No, no, what are you doing? Stop talking to him. You'll let something slip! "Why should I tell you?"
"Why should you tell me? Because I'm you're best friend, that's why! Or are you just slowly cutting me out? Is that it? Am I too much the tragic hero? Enough saving the world for you, is that it? Had enough long days and sleepless nights, Hermione?"
"That's not it at all," she snapped, and her tone shut him up for a second. She paused to breathe and calm her fried nerves. She wasn't going to tell him. It was as simple as that. She would shrug him off again, turn away, like she always did. And he would be surly to her for the next day or two, but then forget about it or forgive her like he always did. It was as simple...as...that.
Suddenly his face was inches from hers. He had dropped down beside her. His cold hands, freezing her skin through her sleeves, clutched at her upper arms. His eyes burned with a frightening new intensity, this blazing frustration bursting forth out of nowhere from inside of him. This was something she had not seen happen before. She didn't know how to react. And then, again suddenly, her body caught up to what was going on and responded to his closeness. Her cheeks flushed, her heart pounded, and her breath quickened. Her hands at her sides tightened into fists, then released, then dug into the ground to stabilize her. What on earth was he doing?
Their breath mingled in the scant space between them, misty tendrils weaving together as they disappeared. And then his mouth was on hers, and no fireworks exploded in the sky above them, but his lips were soft and warm when they should have been cool from the air. Her eyes blinked shut after a few surprised seconds, and she relaxed into the kiss, bringing the fingers of one hand up to tremblingly touch his cheek. He broke away, and their eyes met again. Wariness, tension, frustration, wonder...all hung in the air. She didn't dare to breathe. He kissed her again. This time she pulled back.
"What are you doing?"
"I don't know."
"I'm not Ginny," she said, feeling odd as she spoke the words. He looked at her strangely.
"I know you're not Ginny. You're Hermione."
"Then what are you doing?" she breathed.
She could see in his eyes that he knew just as well as she knew what he was doing—and neither of them knew it at all. She felt drunk again. She knew was being drunk was, now. And this felt like it. He kissed her a third time, and neither one stopped it.
As his mouth moved over her own she contemplated what was happening. It was the mid-war effect on him, that was all. He had temporarily lost his mind. He missed Ginny; his subconscious had somehow superimposed her face onto Hermione's, and this was what had resulted. She was taking advantage of this poor boy, gone stark bonkers over the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, and now look what had happened. She was kissing him. No, actually; he was kissing her. How had this happened? What exactly was going on?
Time did not stop for them. Sleep took them later, settled down in each other's arms, Hermione tucked inside Harry's embrace under the covers on his bed. She dreamed of being chased by a faceless monster out of some child's nightmares, running faster and faster until she came to a cliff and leaped off it, soaring up into the sky...then looking down at the monster left behind, and it was Ron. Problems do not fix themselves; morning would come, and with it, long explanations, tired minds, angry faces. Ginny would not disappear. Neither would Ron. What small solace each Harry and Hermione would gain from that night could blossom into something more, or perhaps it would not. Perhaps she would wake before either of the boys did, and slide out of Harry's bed and slide into her own cold one to pretend that nothing ever happened. Maybe it was a dream. Yes...a wonderful, breathtaking nightmare. She didn't want to wake, if it was a dream. Didn't want to open her eyes to the cold world and its harsh cruelties; to another day of biting her lip and staying quiet about her feelings and smiling bravely and shrugging him off. She would, though, if it was a dream. But it was too real. Problems do not fix themselves, and she didn't want to wake.
Morning came. She opened her eyes to his solid warmth, his steady breathing, his arms wrapped around her and his lips on her hair.