Hermione Granger stared dismally out a window in Grimmauld Place, pretending that everything was wonderful. Even here, in the attic, she had to pretend. If she let the mask slip, even a little, even when she was alone, she knew she might never get it back in place. So Hermione pretended she was happy. She cheered when everyone else cheered, smiled when everyone else smiled, laughed when everyone else laughed. She pretended all was well, and no one, not even her friends, thought otherwise.
The war had taken its toll on her friends, and everything was different. Neville was just as quiet as he ever was, but there was a sort of confidence about him now, as though he was at peace. Ginny was just as confident as ever, but seemed more smug now, willing to tell everyone of her contributions, to tell them how she fought back. Ron walked taller now, head held high with pride while everyone acknowledged his courage.
The war changed her as well, and not entirely for the better, she knew. Oh, she'd heard that trite little saying that war changes everyone a thousand times, but no one seemed to understand what that really meant. Hermione understood. She had spent too much time on the run. Now she was… feral, almost. Jittery. Paranoid. She wasn't quite on par with Moody, but she was far from being the (comparatively) relaxed girl she had been back in her earlier years at Hogwarts.
Mushrooms, even the thought of eating them, made her queasy. It was the same with blood; she had seen so much…so much…that even thinking about it made her feel faint. The idea of going for a walk in the woods left her running for a cozy corner in a windowless room.
Diagon Alley frightened her—any open space frightened her. Was a Death Eater walking among the patrons? Would this would-be villain seek revenge? Were they watching her, looking at her the way Fenrir Greyback had at Malfoy Manor? Perhaps they were waiting for her just around the next corner…
It was all too much for her. So here she was, sitting in the attic of Grimmauld Place, avoiding the outside world, pretending she was fine, fantastic, never better. She was as good at pretending as she was at hiding.
There was a knock at the door. She didn't want to see anyone. She wanted to be alone. "Come in," she said, carefully keeping her voice level. "The door isn't locked."
It slowly creaked open. She suppressed a shiver—it sounded like a coffin lid opening. "There you are," Harry's voice came. "Kreacher told me you were here, but I could have guessed on my own. You've been up here a lot lately."
Hermione shrugged casually. "I like the view," she said.
"Of what? The straw? The rats Buckbeak never got around to eating?" He stood beside her, looking out of the window. "The smog?"
Hermione's lips twitched. "Something like that." She liked that she could not see any trees, only buildings. And people, of course; she could seen anyone approaching from the attic, could see any Death Eaters long before they reached the door, especially with the wards she had set up when she moved in.
Harry sighed heavily beside her. "What's wrong?"
Hermione looked at him with polite confusion. "What do you mean? There is nothing wrong. The war is over, Harry, and everyone is free now."
Harry waved his hand dismissively. "I know that. I mean what's wrong with you? I mean, not what's wrong with you, because there is nothing wrong with you. I mean, you have a problem. Not like a—oh, bloody hell!" He made a frustrated noise and mussed his hair before smoothing it back down. He stayed quiet for a long moment.
"Something is bothering you," he said at last. "You're talking less, you don't eat, you don't go out with me and Ron for drinks, you don't meet up with our friends, you don't do anything. Remember the awards ceremony? I had to spend three hours convincing you to go—when normally it's you convincing me to do something—and then you just sat there, the whole time, with your back to the wall, looking at everyone like you thought they were going to ambush you!"
In her defense, Hermione had thought they were going to ambush her.
He grabbed her by the arm, making her look at him. "Something is wrong, Hermione, and it's not just affecting you anymore. Me, Ron, Ginny, Neville, Luna, the rest of the Weasleys—we've all noticed, and we're all worried."
Harry looked at her, not saying another word, but Hermione understood well enough that she would not be allowed to leave until he was satisfied. She didn't know what to say, or even if she would say anything at all. She looked into his eyes and felt her mask—so painstakingly held in place—crack. Hermione turned away and looked out the window, maintaining her vigilant watch.
She wondered if Harry would understand. To a degree, she knew he would. After everything, she knew him better than anyone else did. She recognized that their shared experiences connected them in a way no one—not even Ron—could ever hope to understand. Yes, Harry would understand more than anyone else would. He understood the burn of the Cruciatus. He understood what it meant to be a prisoner with almost no hope of escape.
At the same time, the war had freed him—Hermione had been a prisoner of the war since that night in Malfoy Manor.
She stood silently, contemplating what she should say, how much she should say. Hermione glanced at Harry; he was still standing beside her. He was being unusually patient, she noted. And his eyes were bothering her. She stared into the emerald depths, trying to understand why she was so uncomfortable. He just seemed so…sad. She had not seen him that sad since Sirius had died, since Bellatrix had…
The mad witch's cackle echoed in her ears.
Shuddering, Hermione turned away with a jerk. She resumed her watch. There was no one outside. She felt a pressure on her shoulder, and knew it to be Harry's hand. She swallowed and looked back at him. Her mask fell away.
"I was robbed, Harry," she said at last. Her voice was soft, hoarse, foreign.
Harry frowned. "Someone stole something from you?"
Hermione laughed; it was a cold, mirthless sound. Harry flinched when he heard it. "Something like that," she murmured. "We were fighting her, you know. Me, Luna, Ginny. Mrs. Weasley, she made us stop. She fought Bellatrix." Hermione looked up at the ceiling, eyes watering with shameful tears. "I was so afraid, fighting her, that…" Her head dropped as she heaved a sigh.
"I just kept remembering, and I didn't fight like I should have fought. My aim was off because my hands were shaking. My spells were weak because I wanted nothing more than to turn tail and run. I just couldn't fight her. I robbed myself of the chance to reclaim who I used to be. I'm a worthless coward, Harry. Worthless," she whispered the last word bitterly to herself, but Harry heard it nonetheless.
"That's not true, Hermione," he mumbled, unsure of what to say. Being Harry, he hesitated then tried to change tracks. "Hey, why don't you come out with me and Ron? We're going to meet Neville, Gin and Luna down at the Leaky Cauldron tonight. Come on," he said with a coaxing smile. "It'll be fun."
She wasn't really surprised that he had tried to change the subject. Harry had never been very good at dealing with emotional situations. That did not stop the frustration she felt from creeping into her voice. "No it won't. I won't let it be."
"Hermione," there was a note of agitation in his voice. He had apparently noticed her frustration and was responding in kind.
"Just stop it, Harry!" She demanded. "I can't, alright? I can't do any of those things, not anymore. You, and Ron, and Ginny, and Neville, and Luna, you can all sit there, drinking your drinks, having a merry time, maybe even getting completely sloshed, but I'll just sit there with my back to a wall and watch the door, sipping my pumpkin juice, while I wait for an ambush!"
Silence, then: "Hermione?"
She sniffled a little and choked out a short, mirthless laugh. "You're just like Ron," she huffed. "You don't read. You don't know the effects of prolonged exposure to the Cruciatus Curse, do you?"
Harry frowned. "You mean like Nev's parents?"
"That's the eventuality, Harry, but there are intermediate stages, depending on various factors—length of exposure, the power of the spell, individual factors in the witch or wizard cursing and the one being cursed, that sort of thing." Hermione was a little frightened by how clinical she sounded about it all.
"I tested it, you know. Of course I tested it. The first night we celebrated." Her voice was distant. She turned to look at him again. "Prolonged, repeated exposure to the Cruciatus Curse has effects; it damages the body—you might say it leaves behind a magical residue. Normally, this damage has no effect on a person unless it is triggered." Hermione rubbed her eyes and swallowed.
"Alcohol is one such trigger." Harry's eyes widened. "It is well known that alcohol can exacerbate a problem, and it is the same with the Cruciatus. The curse, you see, affects the nervous system. This is common knowledge. What most do not know is that it affects the circulatory system as well—the arteries and veins. It causes them to stiffen up, reducing blood flow, which can eventually lead to damage in the brain. When alcohol is introduced into the bloodstream, it results in a relapse.
"The night Voldemort was destroyed, I had a mug of butterbeer. I figured it was the safest, since the amount of alcohol barely registers for humans. At first, I was fine, but then I felt this sort of dull throb all throughout my body, and I knew that I had been exposed long enough to do permanent damage. Any amount of alcohol will cause a flare-up. The most potent thing that can pass my lips now is pumpkin juice."
"That doesn't make sense, Hermione," Harry argued. "I've been hit with it, and butterbeer never bothered me. And besides, a 'dull throb' is annoying, yeah, but not life-threatening."
Hermione rolled her eyes, and felt a bit of comfort in that action; it was a piece of her past. "First of all, Harry, you were hit twice by Voldemort. From your account, both times were brief, probably because he wanted to defeat you in a true duel. There would have been no 'fun' in his victory otherwise. You weren't exposed long enough for there to be any real damage.
"As for me, the amount of pain is directly proportional to the amount of alcohol consumed. So if I had, say, Firewhiskey, I would have been curled up on the floor, begging someone to kill me. And prolonged exposure to that, like if I had a drinking problem, would result in me sharing living quarters with Neville's parents."
Harry laughed bitterly. "And all this time, everyone thought you were just being uptight. I knew there was more to it than that, but this…I never expected this." He should his head. "You should have told us, told me. I never would have convinced you to go out with me and Ron all those times before you stopped leaving this house altogether."
Hermione waved away his concern. "It didn't matter, Harry. You deserve to be happy, and you wanted me to go, so I went. Only now, I think you'll be happier without me there, acting like a Mini-Moody, mumbling about Death Eaters and Constant Vigilance. You deserve peace, not paranoia. You and Ron were planning to go out tonight, yes? You should go and have fun. I will stay here and guard the house from imaginary foes. Say, now that is an idea. Think I should get a Foe-Glass?" There was no humor in her voice.
Harry was quiet for a long moment. "Kreacher," he called out.
The aged elf appeared before him, giving Hermione a respectful twitch and Harry a deep bow. "Master Harry Potter called?"
"Kreacher, can you tell Ron that Hermione and I are feeling a little off and will be staying in tonight?" He glanced at Hermione. "Please," he added.
"As Master Harry Potter wishes." With another twitch and another bow, he was gone.
"Harry," Hermione protested, "you—"
"No, Hermione," he interrupted, raising his hand. "I heard you out, now you hear me." He leaned forward. "I've done lot of thinking since I killed Voldemort, and I…I've done a lot of things wrong. I can't tell you all the things I've done that I've fouled up in some way." He set his hand on hers, squeezing gently. "And I know that one of those things I made a royal mess of was my friendship with you. I didn't have the nerve to say it before, but now…hearing all this…
"Hermione, you've stood by me when no one else has. Everyone can see that I'm not as close to Ron anymore. When he left us in the woods, something between us broke. We will never be like we were, Ron and I. I can't trust him like I used to. But you, you've never failed me—not like I've failed you."
"No!" Harry said firmly. "It's my turn. You've always stood by me. Second year, with the Chamber of Secrets, third year, with my Firebolt, trying to save me, even though you knew I'd be angry, fourth year, with Triwizard Tournament, Fifth year, about Voldemort, then when I was Undesirable Number One, and when Ron left. Always. And when have I stood by you?" He shook his head. "I haven't. I stood by Ron. The same bloke that I love as a brother, and who betrayed me twice, when I needed him most. I always chose him over you. Always. Even when you stopped coming out with us, and the others said you were being a stick in the mud, or a snooty witch, or any of those other things, I just sipped my drink and said nothing.
"I can't change any of that. What I can do, is I can be a better friend to you now. I can be the friend I should have been from the start of things, the friend you've been to me."
"You don't have to do this, Harry. I know I've never been much fun, and I know I'll be even less fun now with…everything."
Harry sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "Alright Hermione, you listen to me. This has to stop. You—you—you keep undervaluing who you are and what you've done! You and everyone else!" He shook his head in amazement. "I think the Malfoys think better of you than you do. Merlin, Hermione. When we were prisoners, I counted your screams. Five. Five bouts of the Cruciatus, and you still had what it took to lie to Bellatrix Lestrange, right to her face!
"Then, when we went into Gringotts not a month later, there you were, polyjuiced to look like her and carrying her wand—the wand that, as you pointed out, tortured Neville's parents and killed Sirius and—what you forgot to add—tortured you! Then after that, it was the dragon, and after the dragon, Hogsmeade, then Hogwarts. You fought, you destroyed a Horcrux, you fought again, and with that same damn wand that torments you still!
"You know what that means? It means that you were frightened, and tired, and fighting Bellatrix Lestrange with her own wand. You didn't rob yourself of anything. The deck was stacked against you. You never stood a chance, not in the shape you were in." His voice softened as he grabbed her shoulder. "Voldemort cast the killing curse at me with the Elder wand before he knew it was mine, and it failed. Why wouldn't it be the same for hers? You've been punishing yourself for losing a fight you couldn't have won in the first place."
Hermione sat quietly for a long moment, deep in thought. Yes. He was right. Logically, she could see that she could not have won. "But I still should not have quit like I did. It was a coward—"
"I told you to stop that, Hermione. It was not cowardly, it was the right thing. And don't call yourself a coward, Hermione, because you're not. You were there, fighting Death Eaters, fighting Lestrange. That's more than most of the wizarding world, and they never had to face her like you did."
Hermione sighed and looked away. "You're right. I know you're right but…" she trailed off, unsure.
"You need time. I know. It was the same with me after, well, a lot of things." He smiled wryly. "So are you better then?"
She smiled, a little surprised that it was genuine. "I am, yes." And she was better. She would not go so far as to say that she was completely healed and ready to face to world, but she was better. It helped, hearing Harry—whose opinion she valued more than anyone else—refute her fears. She looked down. "Ron is leaving, you know. He's outside right now."
Harry peeked out the window. Ron's red hair was easily visible. Harry spotted him walked out towards the edge of the wards and looking up at the windows. A moment later, he spotted them. Harry waved, and Ron lifted his hand in return. The redhead stood for several long moments before turning away sharply and Disapparating.
"You can still catch up with him. You won't miss much if you leave now."
Harry shook his head and smiled at her. "Trying to get rid of me? I told you, Hermione, that I want to be the friend you deserve. I want to work on our friendship. Besides," he leaned in, a mischievous glint in his eye. "I could use a break. Every time I go out, people try and steal my clothes."
Hermione winced in sympathy. "I admit that clothing-theft is another reason I've taken up reclusive habits."
Her friend frowned. "Who's been nicking your clothes?"
"Well, my hats and cloaks vanish whenever I go out, but I usually get away before anything else disappears. Thankfully. After I realized it wasn't a fluke, I took to charming my robes—you know, when I still went out. I can charm yours if you like."
Harry smiled. "Yeah. I think I would like that. Hey, maybe in a few days, we can go out to a pub and sit with our backs to the wall while we watch the door and sip some pumpkin juice. Just us, together."
"You'd do that?"
"Of course. Besides, if you're there, you might scare off some of the more amorous witches. I'll return the favor, of course, and scowl at any would-be Casanovas looking your way. What are friends for, if not that?"
A tension in her heart lessened and she felt her eyes tear up. "I think I'd like that, Harry."
He nodded, still smiling, and sat on the window seat, his back against the wall from where she stood. "Did I ever tell you the time I jumped up on the school roof when I was back with the Dursleys?"
"Did you really?" Hermione asked, still blinking back tears.
"Yeah. Dudders and his gang were chasing me all over the place, and I was trying to get away. I just jumped and the next thing I knew, I was on the roof. I told everyone that the wind must have caught me and carried me up there!"
Hermione laughed, understanding. She took the seat opposite him. "There was this girl in my primary school. Danica Williams. Awful girl. She was always causing me problems. Well, this one time, I was playing in the sandbox, and she came up to me, demanding that I leave, because the sandbox was hers. It was all rubbish of course, but I was tired of being picked on, so I left. She laughed, but when she tried to leave, she couldn't. The sand had turned into a sort of cement and came up around her feet. The teachers had to dig her out of the pit."
Harry snickered. "Aunt Petunia once tried to put this hideous shirt on me. It was brown, with these ghastly, bright orange puffball things on it. Every time she tried to pull it over my head, it got a little bit smaller, until it was so small there was no way I could wear it. She gave up after that."
"My dad used to think—well he probably still does—that I look absolutely fantastic in yellow. I think it makes me look like I'm going to be sick, but he thinks I'm absolutely adorable. Half of my clothes, when I was little, were yellow. I was so tired of the color that I changed them all so that they were multi-colored instead—and not a single shirt had even a trace yellow on it."
Grinning, Harry began his next story, and Hermione told him another in return. The sun set, the moon rose, Ron eventually returned home (staggering a little), but neither noticed. Back and forth, they told each other more about themselves, paying no heed to the time.
They both knew it would be a long while before Hermione would leave the house, and even longer before she would be willing to venture out by herself. It would be longer still before she would walk through Diagon Alley without fear. They were not sure if she would ever be able to walk through a forest again, but both were certain she would never attend a soiree at Malfoy Manor.
However, none of that mattered. Bit by bit, story after story, Harry and Hermione began to heal both themselves and their friendship. Was everything wonderful? Hardly.
But it was getting there.
A/N: I don't think this is very good, but I posted it anyways. This is definitely not one of my better words (I have to say, Many Thanks is my favorite story that I've ever written). By no means have I ever thought of Hermione as being a weak character. Please, allow my to explain my two reasons for writing this story.
First, I've read a few fics where people expressed anger that Hermione didn't take down Bellatrix, and I thought that it was a little strange myself. I reread parts of the book, mostly from Malfoy Manor onwards, and this is what I came up with. A serious of events caused Hermione to be weakened enough that she was physically and emotionally unable to defeat Lestrange.
Secondly, I was angry with the epilogue. I didn't care about my ship not sailing—it was something I had already accepted, and actually, Harry had become someone I didn't like in HBP, so I wasn't that disappointed. No, what angered me was that we never saw the aftermath of war. We just saw a bunch of kids mingling and throwing food to Grawp. We never saw the damage done to people—especially to children—who fight a war. We never saw the healing. This is my attempt to rectify that.
I have to admit, it's a little depressing, but Harry and Hermione are now off to a new beginning, and I think that is a good way to bring in the New Year. That said, I hope to be able to post more in the upcoming year.
Well, thank you for reading, and please review!