For a moment, he did not know where he was. The quality of light splashed across the ceiling and the sounds coming in through the open window were unfamiliar nighttime sensations, but as he absently reached out across the bed, the warm spot made him remember.
He rolled that way to find the other side of the bed empty, and the clock glowing green above that side told the lonely tale of 4:32 in the morning. He could hear autos passing in the distance, and every so often the headlights of one would flash across the far wall of the room. He rolled onto his back again and breathed deeply, feeling the sheet caress his naked torso.
He listened intently for sounds from within the small house, but the only noises were external. Wherever she had gone, she was silent. Perhaps she was feeling regret, even though they had stopped themselves? He certainly wasn't, but he was only one piece of the puzzle. The other piece, the one that had extraordinarily—only because it had been so many years—fit perfectly with him, was no longer in the warmth of her own bed. He threw off the sheet and rose to find out why.
Wearing only light sleeping pants he had borrowed from her, he padded on bare feet from her bedroom down the hall into the kitchen. All was silent and dark there, too, so he continued through a doorway into the living area. He drew up short at the sight before him.
The moon, low on the western horizon at this early hour, threw its soft white light through the west-facing window in the room, illuminating Hermione in an ethereal glow that caught his breath. She did not know he was there in the doorway, so he just watched her for a minute. She was curled up in an armchair, staring out of the window into the night. In the light of the moon, her hair shone brilliantly and her eyes twinkled, reminding him very strongly of his long-dead mentor.
He watched as she reached out and took a mug from the end table, sipping the steaming liquid and then replacing it. She shifted in the chair, bringing her legs under her a little more, and then sat motionless again. Though there was nothing to indicate it, he thought it was somehow a forlorn sight. How often had she sat up all alone in this house of hers?
He moved into the moonlight, hoping not to startle her. She just turned her head toward him, so that he saw her profile in silhouette against the bright light, and the ghost of a smile hit the corners of her lips. He moved to the chair across from her and eased himself into its soft acceptance.
"Hi," she whispered. Her voice was still throaty from sleep.
"Hey," he responded. "What are you doing up?"
She shrugged; one side of her face was veiled in shadow now that they were half-turned from the window. "Couldn't sleep, I guess." He watched the steam rise from the mug for a moment.
At this she chuckled, though it sounded half-hearted to him. "Well, you know me…" she said, still very quiet.
He did, but he didn't. He wasn't going to say that to her, though. "Yeah, and?"
"I can always count on you to be thinking."
"Sometimes over thinking…" she continued, not hearing him.
He did not say anything for several seconds, and during his silence he saw her look up slightly and make eye contact with him. There was a look on her face that plainly told him she doubted herself. And by the way she was staring at him…he knew it was about him.
"We didn't do anything to regret," he said. "I can leave if you want and we can forget this ever happened." Three or four painfulclunks of his heart followed that statement.
She shook her head, looking once more at something over his shoulder, or more probably nothing at all. "Even if we had, I wouldn't have regretted it."
"And I don't want you to leave," she cut him off. He nodded his head, conceding the point. Something that had been gnawing at him for a long time, something just above his diaphragm, eased up for the first time in many years. Warmth began to seep into that spot.
"Well then, I'm not going anywhere."
"Good," she affirmed, and sipped from the mug again. The clink of the porcelain on the table was the only sound for several moments.
"But what's the problem?"
She appeared to consider her words carefully, and then: "Do you think it has been too long?"
"For us, you mean?"
She nodded slowly. "Are we just deluding ourselves?"
"I'd like to think not."
Apparently, that wasn't the answer she was looking for. "Come on, Harry. Look how Ron and I turned out, and you and Ginny. Who's to say the same thing won't happen to us, if we go down this road?"
"Our other relationships were so many years ago, Hermione…we're different people now."
"Exactly," she pointed out.
"Well, I don't know then," he continued. "It's been years since I've seen you, and here I am at 4:40 in the morning in your living room. How did that happen? I don't know, but I do know that it's better than sitting in my living room at 4:40, alone."
He refocused on her face and was somewhat surprised to see tear tracks glistening in the moonlight. She made no move to wipe them away. As he waited for her to say something, he watched another tear well up and then fall over her lid, speeding down her cheek and off her face.
"If you could go back, what would you do differently?" she asked, no trace of the crying in her voice. He knew she was stronger than that.
He almost gave her a quick response, something to the effect of never losing track of her, but that would have been meaningless. They had not wanted to lose track of each other originally, but time and circumstance had intervened anyway. He dug through his memories of their school years, and suddenly he knew. He smiled slightly.
"I guess I would have asked you to the Yule Ball." Her head twitched toward him, and he saw disbelief on her face.
"What?" she asked.
"I said, if I could change something, it would have been the Yule Ball. Instead of being a coward, I would have asked you to go to the Ball with me."
"Youwanted to ask me?" The disbelief was clearly manifest in her voice.
"Of course, Hermione," he said, enjoying this.
"Then why didn't you?" came her voice again, with frustration, laughter, and a tiny bit of sadness.
He shrugged. "I thought Ron was going to ask you, and I'd known he liked you for about a year, so I didn't want to cause problems." She raised both her eyebrows at him, and then looked around the room pointedly. She seemed to be hinting at all of the problems it had caused instead; but he couldn't be angry with her and she couldn't with him. All of that was water under the bridge, and in some ways it was futile talking like this. But he had to ask her anyway.
"What about you? What would you have changed?"
Her eyes unfocused for a moment—he knew she was rifling through her Hogwarts memories just as he had. Finally, she shifted in her seat and smiled good-naturedly at something. He waited for her response.
"Instead of hugging you at Grimmauld, I would have snogged you senseless."
Harry considered this for a minute; he remembered the hug very well, almost bone-crushing in its strength and warm in its love. But then he remembered there had been a third person in the room.
"You would have done that in front of Ron?"
She shrugged. "Why not? Ron and I fought all that summer before you arrived—I guess I should have taken as a hint then what would eventually become our future failure."
"And besides," she continued, "it would have stopped you from shouting your head off at us. Remember that?"
He nodded. Though the specific words were long lost, he remembered genuinely yelling at Ron and Hermione for the first time, though not the last.
He chuckled at a random thought. "If I had asked you to the Yule Ball the year before, I probably would have just snogged you on sight," he said.
She smiled, and her face lit up with a kind of happy reminiscence that, although genuine, was not from real events. To him, this conversation was more bittersweet than seeing her after so long. He was finally realizing just how many missed opportunities there had been in the past.
And eventually she might have realized the same thing, because the smile slowly faded, to be replaced by a sadder, more introspective look. They said nothing and merely stared at each other as the light changed in the room, from the deepest night to the earliest dawn.
"How did we never realize in school what I'm starting to see right now?" she asked.
"I don't know," he replied, wearily. "Voldemort? Ron? We were too young?" He shrugged.
"Is it too late, Harry?" So they were back her original question.
"No—" he started, but cut himself off. He wanted to avoid a rote answer. "It probably is too late for the kind of thing we might have had," he said, carefully. "We may never know each other as well as we did just after the war. But I think we're still the same people, no matter how long it's been, and it might take a little work, but you're still Hermione Granger and I'm still Harry Potter."
"And that's all that matters, isn't it?" she asked, a new quietness in her voice. She slid her legs out from under her, placing her feet on the floor, and leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees.
He remembered what the simple sound of her voice had done to him at Hogwarts the previous day, and nodded. "I think so."
Something crackled in the air between them, at the same time intangible and also real, and she pushed out of her chair into a standing position. He started to get up, but she held out her hand to stop him. She walked to him and carefully sat on his lap, so that she was sideways across the chair with her legs thrown over one arm and her neck resting on the other. Her soft weight was exquisite.
Absently, he began to trace circles around her navel, bared because her tee shirt had ridden up slightly. Goosebumps promptly greeted his fingertip.
"Hey," she protested, lightly. "That tickles." So he stopped and instead flattened his palm across the smooth, warm skin. He stared at the sight for a moment.
"Harry," she whispered. "Look at me."
He drew his eyes away from her stomach and gazed down at her face. For an instant, he saw that same half-enticing quality in her eyes, which he had seen in the French bistro, but then she blinked and it was gone.
Moonlight was fading to morning light, but she was still beautiful; she reached up and touched the back of his neck with a hand, rubbing lightly over the top of his spine. She then cupped her hand and pulled him down to her, sitting up slightly as she did so. He couldn't keep his eyes off her lips as they drew near his…
It was sweet, slow, and not very deep, but Hermione's lips were something he had never properly indulged, so he enjoyed every instant of it. That hollow spot that had begun filling with warmth earlier was now full. Their lips left each other after several minutes and they leaned back again. She was smiling wonderfully and her hand had tangled in his hair. He didn't mind, though. He could stare down at her all day.
He raised his eyebrows at her, too content for words.
"Take me to bed." He squeezed her more tightly to him and then the room was empty, except for the still steaming mug on the end table.
A new day began as the sun rose in the east.