Chapter 2: Choking on Ashes
This is a love story.
It is after the aftermath and no one is lying dazed in the dust anymore. The survivors have come to understand that there is a little bit of a sob in every laugh and a little laugh in every sob (because they have seen what all who participate in war see, and no one will lie and say that it hasn't broken something in them to varying degrees. No one lies and no one speaks of it, and, really, it's remarkably easy to pretend that everybodies joy and tears don't sound jarringly wrong.) This is Hermione, and there is an ugly, puckered scar embracing the right side of her abdomen lovingly, curving from her lower back to three kisses below her breast.
She is alive, miraculously, and it was a near thing but magic ruined her life before magnaminously saving it. She is alive - alive, and she really likes that word - and rolling gingerly (her scar aches still - she will get used to the pain) out of Harry's Floo and into his slightly messy flat. It is seven o'clock in the morning, nine months to the day after the last battle, and she is meeting Harry so they can ambush Ron and drag him out to a Quidditch match in Germany for his birthday. She grins in an uncharacteristically mischievous way as she thinks of the look on Ron's face when he wakes up starkers and covered in scrawled birthday wishes. Hermione's grin grows wider as she fingers the Permamagic Marker in her robe pocket. She has a right to juvenile pranks, no matter that she's almost twenty-two. They need something to laugh about, anyway.
She picks her path through Harry's living room absentmindedly, the imagined look on her hot-tempered best friend's face growing funnier every time she thinks of it. She is nearly giggling by the time she reaches Harry's bedroom, and her cheeks almost hurt. It is a good hurt, though - she is almost back into the habit. She gives Harry's door a perfunctory knock and opens it without waiting for a response, sweeping into the room with brisk, excited words.
"Harry, why on earth are you still asleep? We need to get there - "
The smile slides off of her face as she registers the bed. More to the point, she registers who is in the bed. Harry sits up with a start, but Ginny, every inch Ron's sister, sleeps on. Her short red hair is tousled and fanned out on the pillow, and the sheets only come up to her belly-button. Her perky, pale breasts are soft and - Hermione looks away.
"Hermione!" Harry is embarrassed, but he keeps his voice down. She hears him pulling on his boxers as she walks out of the room. Her smile is gone. She heads to the kitchen and begins making tea with a deep breath and blank eyes. He joins her a minute later, fully dressed and blushing slightly despite being more of an adult than most people ever are.
Hermione turns from the boiling tea and looks him in the eye with a smile. "Harry, you naughty boy. When did this happen? And why didn't either of you tell me?" She is teasing him. If she was anyone else, she would be doing something drastic. Or screaming. Screaming sounds like an excellent thing to do. How did she miss this?
He scratches the back of his head awkwardly, not that it makes a difference to his permanent case of bed-head. He is smiling goofily. He looks so happy - Harry Potter, happy. "Er, last month. The night we went to The Bludger for drinks."
Hermione remembers that night. She remembers wanting to kiss Ginny into dizziness, wanting to brush her fingers along the girl's flushed, freckled cheek - wanting to strip Ginny down and play connect-the-dots with her tongue. She supposes a little bitterly that she wasn't the only one with those thoughts.
But she didn't act on them and Harry did. She never again got up the nerve to tell Ginny how she felt and Harry did.
She is still smiling. "Tsk tsk. And I don't suppose you've told Ron that you're playing Hide-the-Wand with his sister?" She can't stop herself from being a little bit crude, even though she is certain she is cheapening what they have. She feels like her face is bleeding, like maybe her smile has cracked and taken her heart with it.
Harry pales and coughs. "Um. No."
She briskly pours him a cup of piping-hot tea, handing it to him with a Look. "Harry..."
He winces. "I know! And I feel bad about it! But he'll KILL me." He gets a comically sly look on his face. "You, on the other hand..."
"Absolutely not." She'd like to kill Harry a bit herself. She would never do it, of course, but so little of Hermione Granger made it through the war, and it feels like every smile and every word is quietly tearing another piece of her away. "You schtupped your way into this and you can handle the dirty work."
"Hermione!" Harry nearly chokes on his tea, but he can't help a smile at the thought of the naked woman entangled in his sheets. Hermione can't help the thought either, and she feels like she is going to be sick. She sips her tea instead. Harry is shaking his head. "He really will kill me, best mate or not. He probably wishes Ginny was a lesbian." Yes, Hermione would admit that that makes her feel...something. Something regretful and reminiscent of the agony her torn-open side created. Harry sighs at her silence, mistaking heartbreak - the word sounds so trivial, neatly wrapping up things that can't be put into words in ten easy letters - for insistence. (Harry never could read her well.) "Fine, I'll tell him. But not today. I have to tell him eventually - sometime before I propose, of course, or he'll torture me before he - "
She nods agreeably and Harry stops babbling with a relieved look on his face. Hermione is even more relieved. "Of course not. It's his birthday, after all. Speaking of, we need to head out." How is she still talking?
He sets down his tea cup. "Yeah. Let me say good-bye to Ginny before we go."
"Right. While you're doing that, I'm going to pop back to my flat and grab the Permamagic Marker - I just remembered that I left it. I'll be back in five."
He looks at her oddly - Hermione Granger doesn't forget things - but agrees.
She Floos back to her flat and lets her smile drop. She rolls out of the fireplace and doesn't bother landing on her feet - she stays curled up on her hearth rug and focuses on the now fierce twinges in her side, the new skin being pulled and twisted. She can deal with this kind of pain.
She can't deal with them together. She can't. But she can't stop her quick, clever mind (that her teachers and parents and superiors in the war so praised her for) from bringing up scenarios of how life will be now that they're finally together. They will never part. She knows this like she knows a lot of things, like she knows Golpalott's Third Law and the twelve uses of dragon blood. The scenarios are blunt and harsh and make her want to retch - the wedding, full of beaming grins and flushed, freckled cheeks and glowing faces. Their house, large enough for the family Harry never had. Harry holding Ginny holding an infant with a tuft of black hair, asking her to be the godmother.
There is a strange sound that Hermione realizes distantly is coming from her.
She shudders and lets out another dry sob - with a hint of laughter, the dead, jarring kind - as the last piece of Hermione is tugged firmly out of her grasping hands. It's all okay now - the old Hermione Granger loved Ginny, but the new one is nothing but war scars and realism. The new one wants to prank Ron just to have something to smile about because the new one doesn't find herself grinning whenever she looks at Ginny Weasley. The new one isn't in love, and she wouldn't die for Ginny or live for Ginny. The new one is nothing but a tired war hero, and she is surprised that the old Hermione lasted until now.
Hermione uncurls and sits up. Her eyes sting, but her cheeks are dry and she needs to hurry up if she wants to get Ron's most amusing face of outrage.
She can't help laughing as she steps into the fireplace.
Ten seconds later, she lands in Harry's flat and finds herself face to face with a relaxed redhead.
"Oh. Morning, Hermione."
She smiles politely, and it isn't forced. She is not the Hermione who loves the girl clad in nothing but a dressing gown in front of her. That Hermione is gone - as dead as Voldemort.
Harry pops his head in and shares a love-filled look with Ginny before tearing his eyes away and focusing on Hermione.
"Took you long enough. Ready to go?"
This is a love story, and it ends with a harsh laugh filled with ashes.
A/N: I never said I'd give it a happy ending, did I? I said possibly. And I did think about it, but my own love-life is full of closeted crapness at the moment and I don't want to do my first stab at a realistic happy ending while I resent the romantic. Besides, someone said that the first chapter is a somewhat cliche situation, which I didn't even realize. I gave absolutely no hint of Ginny returning Hermione's feelings beyond worry for a friend. You people assumed. And there's no way I'm writing two cliche chapters. Harry/Ginny is cliche, but it's also canon. I also hate it, so it soothes my pissy mood. I don't know how well I wrote this - I'm worn to the nub with classes and work right now (someone needs to tell the craptastic people at my school paper to stop shoving all the articles on me. And the grunt work) so tell me what emotions it gives off. Detailed is good. Ta.