Disclaimer: I own nothing related to Harry Potter. It all belongs to J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Books, Warner Brothers, et al. I write these stories purely for entertainment purposes; no copyright infringement is intended.
Author's Note: Happy Christmas everyone! It took a little more work than I anticipated, but my HP muse decided to smile on me for this holiday. I hope everyone enjoys the conclusion of this tale, and has had safe journeys during this Yuletide season. Once again, note that bookverse and filmverse are freely mixed herein.
Confessions of the Heart – Chapter Two
The next morning, Hermione awoke to the quiet tinkling of a cup and saucer, and opened her eyes to find Luna and Madame Pomfrey by her bedside, Luna holding a cup of tea and Poppy holding a tray of breakfast.
"Good morning, Hermione," Luna said cheerfully, if quietly, since the two boys were still fast asleep. "How did you sleep?"
"Wonderfully, actually," Hermione said, stretching. She winced a bit as her healing wounds made themselves felt, but she had seen worse. She reached out and took the cup from Luna's good hand. "Thank you for bringing tea. Poppy, the breakfast looks wonderful."
"You'll feel better if you eat it," the healer said sternly, though there was the hint of a smile on her face. "You'll be glad to know that I've run scans on Mr. Weasley and Mr. Potter this morning, and Mr. Weasley is rapidly on the mend. He should be fully up and about in a day or two."
"And Harry?" Hermione questioned, her eyes anxious.
"His pulse is still a bit slow, and his blood has not entirely replenished itself yet, but he is doing much, much better, Miss Granger," Poppy said reassuringly. "I daresay he will be in bed for a while, but he should be conscious today and fully coherent in the next day or two. I've given him some Dreamless Sleep potion to help the healing process. That boy has more luck and skill than anyone I have ever known, but it's really thanks to you that he is still with us, Hermione. Without your quick work, I doubt I could have saved him." Poppy shook her head in worry at the thought, but she bestowed Hermione with an approving smile. "Eat your breakfast, dear, and I'll look in on all of you later today."
"Thank you, Poppy," Hermione said warmly, and with that Madame Pomfrey took her leave.
Luna sat beside Hermione on the bed, which prompted Hermione to ask, "How is your arm doing?"
"Oh, it's fine," Luna replied brightly. "It will be all right in a jiffy. I don't worry much about such things, you know. There's so much to see and understand beyond our physical selves."
Hermione smiled; she had been friends with Luna for so long now that she actually found her unique perspective endearing, and in this particular case, she was surely right.
"He'll be fine, Hermione," Luna said, glancing over at the sleeping Harry.
"I hope so," Hermione responded.
Luna surprised Hermione by reaching out and lifting her chin, gazing into her eyes. "Have some faith. You two have made it through much worse than this, and love can do wonders."
"She's right," Ron said unexpectedly, and Hermione turned in surprise to his bed; he was lying down but fully awake and alert. Luna smiled and went to sit on the bed next to him, taking his hand.
"Good morning," she greeted him happily, running her fingers through Ron's hair. "When did you wake up?"
"When Poppy came over with breakfast, but I didn't want to interrupt. It felt nice to wake up slowly, anyway," Ron admitted, groaning a little as he struggled to a sitting position. Hermione reached out and adjusted his pillows behind him while Luna helped support him, and he sank back with a grateful sigh. Hermione stood up and hugged him carefully, kissing his hair.
"Thank goodness you are all right," she said softly. She sat back on her own bed and folded her legs, sitting upright with her hands in her lap. "Now, why is Luna correct?"
"Well, I've found she often is," Ron said with a grin, and Luna bowed her head in appreciation, her eyes sparkling, "but in this particular case, she's right about several things. First, she's right that you shouldn't worry so much; Poppy said that Harry would be fine with time, which means he will be. You know she isn't the type to hand out false hope. Second, you should have some faith in what you feel for Harry. You know he cares for you very much as a friend, and you know that even if he wasn't in love with you, he would spare you as much hurt as possible. If nothing else, knowing that he is loved will help him. It helps each of us, heals things we didn't know needed healing."
Hermione stared at Ron in astonishment for a moment before turning to Luna. "Is it you that I have to thank for this new, wise Ronald Weasley? Because honestly, I can't believe what I'm hearing."
Luna shook her head, her eyes knowing. "I just brought out what was already there. You knew it was there too; why do you think you went out with him?"
"That's true," Hermione admitted, smiling at Ron.
Ron reached out and squeezed her hand warmly. "Our problem wasn't that we didn't care tremendously for one another, but I had a lot more growing up to do, and you were already grown up, so much more motivated and directed than I was. You were lacking in patience, maybe, but I was lacking in understanding. I'm grateful we figured that out rather quickly, so that we didn't end up hurting each other beyond repair."
"So am I," Hermione agreed kindly. "And I'm very glad you found each other," she added. "I want to know how that happened, eventually, and how on earth I missed it."
"You'll know," Luna promised. "Not yet, but soon."
"Am I allowed a question?" Ron asked seriously.
"Of course," Hermione said promptly.
"When did you know?"
To Ron's surprise, Hermione looked down in discomfiture, twisting her fingers as she tried to articulate her thoughts. "I – I don't know, exactly. I think I consciously realized that I knew – that is, I actually articulated what I felt to myself – the night we all went to the celebration ball for Kingsley."
Kinglsey Shacklebolt had been appointed Minister of Magic two years after the fall of Voldemort, after the chaos and destruction left in Voldemort's wake had been repaired and the Ministry had been investigated top to bottom for corruption, Dark Magic, traitors, embezzlement, and anything else that could have been considered unethical. The remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix had played a heavy part in those investigations, and Kinglsey had earned a reputation for toughness, hard work, and fair dealing. When the Wizengamot had been reconvened with newly seated members and a much more diverse mix of magical beings, Kingsley had been voted in almost unanimously.
"You and Harry had just finished that huge investigation into the rest of the Carrow family, and you were so happy to have it all concluded, and I was so proud of you – and at the ball for Kingsley, Harry asked me to dance and I – well…" Hermione trailed off, blushing. "But it was so strange, because once I realized what I was feeling it seemed as though I had felt it forever and just hadn't seen it for what it was."
As her last statement caught up with her, she colored even more and put her hand to her mouth, horrified. "I didn't mean it like that – Ron –"
Ron touched her arm reassuringly, his eyes steady. "Hermione. It's all right. I wouldn't have posed the question if I didn't want to know. I know what you meant."
Hermione met his look briefly, then dropped her gaze to her hands again. "I was so…confused. And I've been running from it ever since, I suppose. I just wanted everything to be normal between us all. We'd been through so much. We were new Aurors, and that was exciting but stressful, and Harry and Ginny had broken things off, and the three of us were trying to get our bearings after the war was over. It felt wrong to make things any more complicated than they already were."
"It is complicated, but not wrong," Luna said lightly, tucking a strand of Hermione's hair behind her ear. "Love is never simple."
"But it may not be as complicated as you think, either," Ron said, surprisingly gently. "You and Harry have always had something, Hermione. It's always been there. Used to drive me mad with jealousy, as a matter of fact. You know what happened with Slytherin's bloody locket, when I blew up at the two of you in the tent before I left."
He carefully did not mention the events that occurred when he destroyed the locket; he and Harry were the only ones who knew precisely what had transpired, and Ron meant to keep it that way as long as possible.
"It was a Horcrux, Ron," Hermione reminded him, appalled by the implications of his statement. "Voldemort's Horcrux. It took advantage of what you feared, which is what he always excelled at. You can't possibly think that anything you saw while wearing it was real."
"I know that Riddle – the bits of him that were in Horcruxes, especially - exploited everyone's fears and vulnerabilities, Hermione, and I had a lot of them back then," Ron admitted. "But fears can be based in small bits of truth, even if they twist and distort those truths."
Hermione shook her head in disagreement. "Harry and I have always been wonderful friends, but that's all we've ever been, Ron. We were never attracted to one another that way in school; you know that."
"I think the relationship you've had with Harry up to now says a great deal about the kind of romantic relationship you could have," Ron pointed out. "And I don't think your relationship with Harry then was as simple or as lacking in attraction as you think it was."
"You're giving me a headache, Ron," Hermione complained, putting her fingertips to her temples and massaging. "Didn't you just finish saying that my relationship with Harry wasn't as complicated as I think it is?"
"I said that being with Harry now wouldn't be as complicated as you think it would be, and that your friendship with him then wasn't as simple as you're making it," Ron clarified. "I thought about your friendship a lot while we were in school, trying to figure out how it worked, and I'm sure it began partly because you were both outsiders, to a certain extent. Harry had been raised by Muggles who hated him, and he had no understanding of who he really was or why he was so despised by his own family. Then he came to Hogwarts and was isolated because of his fame. You were a brilliant Muggle-born who had been teased and tortured and made to feel different and isolated in much the same way, although thankfully you had parents that loved you very much. The two of you understand those vulnerabilities in each other."
"I never thought about it like that before," Hermione said slowly.
"The Muggle part of your lives was one of the things that I had so much trouble understanding when we were at Hogwarts," Ron acknowledged. "I felt like a bit of an outsider as well, having so many siblings and not really being excellent at anything, but I was born to two magical parents, had a large family, and knew what it was like to have supportive, loving people around you all the time. I didn't feel strange in the wizarding world because I had been born in it, and I was fortunate enough to have many of the things that you and Harry were lacking. It took me a long time to value them as highly as they deserve to be valued. Our year on the run really began knocking some sense into me," he finished self-deprecatingly.
"You were such a help to us, though, Ron," Hermione said gratefully. "We wouldn't have learned half the things we did about the magical world if it wasn't for you. How would we have gotten along at Hogwarts our first few years without you to explain things for us?"
Ron raised his eyebrows. "With the way you consumed books, Hermione? It might have taken you longer to find out what you needed to know, but you would have been fine."
Hermione shook her head. "There's a lot that books don't tell you, Ronald, as you well know. And you were always were so willing to share what you knew, things that were so basic to the way that magical people live. I never told you how much I appreciated that."
Ron smiled. "I knew anyway. It may have made me feel superior, a little, but I liked feeling valued and being able to help as much as you two did. In any case, that bond over being outsiders, being Muggle-born in your case and living as a Muggle in Harry's case, is a big part of your relationship with Harry. That's not all there is to it, though, and I could never put my finger on the rest. It was as though there was a shimmering light between the two of you that you both were always looking away from – and if you had ever both looked at it together, your relationship would have been completely different."
"He's right," Luna concurred, and Hermione let out a quiet laugh, stifling the noise behind her hand. There were excellent Muffliato charms around the beds at St. Mungo's, but she still worried about waking Harry when Madame Pomfrey had said he needed the rest.
"You two are adorable," she chuckled. "What is he right about, Luna?"
"The light," Luna said dreamily. "It's always been there between you, but neither of you were ever looking for it."
Hermione wasn't sure if Luna was speaking metaphorically or not (and given Luna's talents for seeing the invisible and otherworldly, there was a strong possibility that she was speaking literally), but it comforted her to know that both of these close friends understood the strength of her feelings for Harry. She had been so afraid for the past year, afraid of her own feelings, afraid of losing Harry, afraid of destroying their trio and the two friendships that meant everything to her, that had shaped her life and her character in ways that were beyond expression. Simply talking with someone about how she felt was a relief.
More than anything, she was thankful that Ron had realized what she was feeling and had accepted it. She had worried incessantly over how he would react, not wanting him to feel jealous, rejected, or hurt. The old Ron might have felt all of those things – but he truly had grown up tremendously in the past three years, and clearly Luna was doing him a world of good in building his self-esteem and giving him confidence. He was a kinder person with Luna, perhaps because he felt that he didn't have to be anyone other than himself with her. One of Luna's strengths was caring about others in spite of their flaws, perhaps even loving the imperfections that made every person unique.
Ron must have seen some of what Hermione was thinking on her face, because he reached over to press her hand again. "Hermione," he said solemnly, "if there is anyone in the world who deserves you, it's Harry. We've all been together nine years, through hell and back, and if I was ultimately meant to be with Luna and not you, it only makes sense that you two would find your way to one another. Harry's my best mate and the one person I would trust to take care of you. I'm fairly certain that Luna and I are right about how he feels, and you know how you feel. One of you has to work up the courage to move out of the stasis you've put yourselves in. Don't be afraid to be happy, Hermione. You're a Gryffindor, remember; reach out and grab that happiness with both hands," he finished, the corner of his mouth curling up.
"Keep your heart open, Hermione," Luna said kindly. "You have to open your heart to love and let it in, before it will come to you."
"Thank you," Hermione whispered. "That means more than you will ever know, Ron. And Luna, I'm so grateful for your understanding. I don't know how to thank you enough."
"You're welcome," Luna responded. "We're friends, Hermione; what else are friends for?"
Ron nodded in agreement. "Absolutely. And if you don't talk to him, Hermione, I'll chase you from one end of England to the other until you do. If that doesn't work, I'm sending George after you next."
Hermione grinned. "Duly noted. You concentrate on getting well, or you'll have Luna and I both ready to hex you."
"That seems like a fair trade," Ron conceded good-naturedly.
The three friends spent the next few hours eating, reading, and generally resting their healing bodies, while Harry slept on peacefully.
In the late afternoon, when Ron and Luna had both gone back to sleep and Hermione alone was awake, perusing a book, she finally heard Harry stir next to her. She was out of bed in a moment, moving to Harry's bedside and taking his hand. She held her breath as his eyes opened, unfocused with sleep but completely normal-looking. Hermione felt her eyes blur with tears for the second time in two days; this was the first time she had seen Harry's eyes bright and clear since she had left him and Ron on the battlefield with Dolohov. She mentally scoffed at herself for being such an emotional wreck – but then again, this was Harry, and had she ever not been a wreck when it came to his well-being?
"Hermione?" Harry mumbled, sounding slightly confused.
"Hi there," she managed, giving him a tremulous smile. "Welcome back."
"Where are we?" he questioned, tightening his fingers around her hand.
"We're in St. Mungo's, Harry," she answered, trying not to panic at his lack of memory. He knew who she was, and temporary amnesia was not uncommon after being cursed as badly as he had been. "You were cursed with a Sectumsempra by one of Dolohov's henchmen." Her tone was bitter; she wouldn't rest until those two remaining Death Eaters were in Ministry custody.
"Don't try to move too much."
"You're all right?" Harry asked, his voice cracking a bit. Dryness, Hermione thought, and she reached over to his bedside table and retrieved the water that was waiting there. She shied away from the thought that the waver in his voice might have been fear, though she knew that he always worried about her in a fight.
"I'm fine, Harry," Hermione reassured him. "Slashes and cuts, scrapes, bruises, a few burns. Nothing that Poppy couldn't fix in a trice." She carefully put an arm underneath him as he braced himself, and she raised the glass of water to his lips. He drank slowly, but managed to drain half the glass before lying down again.
"Thank you," he said, his voice a little stronger now.
"You're welcome," Hermione answered, trying to gather her thoughts. Concern for Harry's mental and physical state had been uppermost in her mind, but guilt washed over her as she thought about her own role in the fight the previous day. She had done her job – but she had done it at the expense of her two boys, and she felt utterly ashamed.
Harry touched her hand, his eyes concerned. "What is it?"
"Harry - I'm so sorry that I left you and Ron – I never should have gone. I should have listened to my instincts; they were telling me to stay." Hermione's voice shook, and she pressed her lips together. "You were almost killed – you were both almost killed – and I wasn't there."
"You were," Harry countered. "You and Ron saved me – and we would have lost more people if it wasn't for you."
Hermione smiled slightly, brushing some of Harry's unruly locks out of his eyes. "And how do you know that, since you were unconscious?"
"I know you," Harry sighed. His eyes drifted shut for a moment, and he struggled to pull them open again. "Ron?"
"Ron's all right, too; he has broken ribs, but Luna and I are taking good care of him," Hermione responded.
This confused Harry again, half-conscious as he was. "Luna?" he inquired, his brow wrinkling slightly.
Hermione gave a quiet chuckle. "I'll tell you later. Sleep, Harry."
"Don't go," Harry said, almost inaudibly, his breathing already slowing to the steady rhythm of slumber.
"I'll be here. I promise," she said earnestly. Harry was asleep again in the next moment.
Hermione reported Harry's brief spell of consciousness to Madame Pomfrey, who took it as a good sign. "If he's been awake, and he knew you, those are both very positive developments," she told Hermione. "The fact that he couldn't remember everything shouldn't worry you too much; most of it should come back to him in time."
"I know – but it's nice to hear you say it," Hermione replied with a wan smile.
"You've waited by his bedside every time he was hurt since you two were at Hogwarts," Poppy observed shrewdly. "Mr. Weasley, too, but more often Mr. Potter – although heaven knows he had more reasons to be in the infirmary than any other student I've ever known. Between your work with the Aurors and all your past experience in school, you understand how these recoveries go as well as I do by now, Hermione."
Hermione nodded, but her eyes were dark with remembered fear. "Yes. But I was so scared, Poppy. He – he died in front of me, in front of us, in the cave. I had been healing him as quickly as I could, and then he didn't have a pulse – and if it hadn't been for the CPR, we would have lost him. I was so afraid."
Surprising even herself, the healer reached out and put her arms around Hermione. Poppy had watched Harry, Hermione, and Ron go through school, she had watched them learn and fight and risk their lives when they were just children in order to defeat Voldemort. In the nine years he had spent under her care, she had healed Harry of more injuries than she could count, some of them so severe that they would have permanently damaged or killed many an older witch or wizard. She cared for these three as if they were her own children, and she had known for years that Hermione was in love with Harry. It aroused every motherly instinct she had to see Hermione so pale and worried, and reliving what must have been a terrifying few moments.
"Don't you worry, dear," she said soothingly. "Your Harry will be up and about in no time at all. You get a good sleep tonight, and with luck, he'll be fully with us in the morning."
"I hope so," Hermione sighed. She hugged Madame Pomfrey in return, for she had great affection for this woman who had always been so kind to them all. "Thank you."
"Don't worry so much," Poppy scolded her good-naturedly. "We've both done everything we can do, and Harry will be fine."
"From your lips to Merlin and Morgana's ears," Hermione prayed fervently.
Very late that night, Hermione awoke abruptly and completely from a sound sleep. Her eyes darted to and fro in the darkness as she listened intently. She tried to identify what had roused her, particularly since the silencing spells should have kept out external noise. Tossing and turning from Harry's bed registered in her ears, and Hermione felt a rush of thankfulness. Something had always kept her attuned to Harry's distress, and it was that internal sensor that had aided her now, waking her when he clearly needed help. The Dreamless Sleep that Madame Pomfrey had given him must have worn off, but his body was still struggling to get the rest it so desperately needed.
She threw back the covers in an instant, whispering a single word that sent a warm glow from the tip of her wand. She raised it just enough to see Harry's face twisted in anguish as he relived one of the many horrors in his subconscious. Hermione was abruptly reminded of the morning she had woken him at the Burrow before the Quidditch World Cup. He had been dreaming on that occasion, too, and she had wondered even then how many times his sleep was broken by nightmares. She had gotten him to talk about very few of them over the years, but it wasn't hard to guess which events haunted him the most.
Watching him now, all the restraint and control she had spent the last year building up were swept away in a torrent of tenderness for him and righteous indignation for the evil fragment of a man who had tortured him so cruelly and damaged him so much. She set her wand on the table beside Harry's bed and lowered herself beside him so that their faces were level, using one hand to shake him gently.
"Harry," she whispered softly. "Harry. It's all right. Wake up."
Harry shuddered under her fingers and then woke with a gasp, his eyes wide and dilated in the dim light. It took a moment for him to focus on her face, but when he did his body went slack with relief.
"Hermione," he said hoarsely. To her surprise, he reached out and pulled her to him, holding her tightly and burying his face in her hair. "You're here. Thank Merlin, you're here."
"I'll always be here, Harry," she murmured, surrendering for a moment to the comfort of his embrace. "Which dream was it this time?"
Harry stiffened, holding her more tightly as he did so, and then bit back a groan at the physical pain the movement caused. "Malfoy Manor."
Hermione couldn't see his eyes, pressed against him as she was; they would have told her far more than his tone of voice did. "Were you dreaming about Dobby?" she inquired, her voice breaking a bit. It always hurt to think of the loyal little elf who had given his life for them; his funeral on the beach was a memory that would always haunt her.
Harry shook his head. "It was – you," he confessed haltingly. "I was in the basement with Ron, hearing your screams when Bellatrix was torturing you, and then we ran up the stairs – she was leaning over you laughing – there was that horrible carving in your arm – and I used a Reductor curse to throw her against the wall. We ran over to you – but you weren't breathing – and I couldn't –"
Speech failed Harry altogether as he hid his face in her shoulder, his body shaking. Hermione held him close as she waited for the trembling to stop. She was truly worried now. Harry had been through an incredibly traumatic injury, he was having nightmares, and the fear and guilt that he usually buried as deeply as possible had risen to the surface to torment him.
"It's all right," she said soothingly. "I'm fine, Harry. And thanks to Molly, Bellatrix can't hurt us anymore."
"I'm so sorry for what she did to you," Harry whispered. "You don't deserve to have those scars."
Hermione moved her arm enough so that she could grasp his right hand, where she knew the outline of "I must not tell lies" still shone silvery-white on the back. Those hours of abuse at Umbridge's hands were only the smallest fraction of the emotional burdens that Harry carried, having lost his parents, his godfather, and his mentor as well as being repeatedly tortured by Voldemort and his minions. "You have them too," she reminded him. "No one deserves the kinds of scars we have, Harry. But you have nothing to be sorry for. It was my choice; you needed us, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat."
Harry raised his head to look at her, and his arms loosened their hold enough for Hermione to shift position and look back at him. The regret and uncertainty on his face melted her heart; did he really not understand, after all this time?
"Why?" Harry asked, confirming Hermione's train of thought. "Why, Hermione? I've put you both into so much danger, over and over again. I've refused to listen to you when you were in the right, taken my temper out on you both when you didn't deserve it, gotten you hurt – I almost got you killed. I'm – it's not safe for you to be my friend, Hermione, not safe for you or Ron. Why do you stay?"
Hermione placed one hand on his shoulder, leaving the other clasping his right hand. "Harry. This has to stop. You have to stop torturing yourself this way. You have been doing this since we started at Hogwarts, seeing everything and everyone connected with you as your personal responsibility. It's an admirable trait in many ways, but even with all of your abilities, you cannot make choices for other people. You are not responsible for Ron or me; you do not make our choices for us, any more than you could make Sirius's choices for him, or Dumbledore's choices for him. They fought because they chose to. Like you, they were determined to rid the world of Voldemort and his accomplices, to fight against everything the Death Eaters stand for. You were the key to Voldemort's destruction, but you did not stand alone in the fight. You were never alone, nor should you have been."
Hermione's voice grew even more earnest as she continued. "As for why Ron and I stay, we are your friends, Harry. The rest of the world may see you as the Boy-Who-Lived and the Wizard-Who-Won, but Ron and I know the real Harry, the Harry you are when you are simply enjoying life and don't have an entire world to save. We love you for who you are, not simply for what you do. We would no more let you go into danger alone than we would any of Ron's siblings, or Neville, or Luna. You are our best friend, Harry, and protecting each other is what friends do."
Harry laughed bitterly, but, miraculously, didn't shy away from Hermione's touch. "If protecting you all is a qualification for being your friend, I've done a terrible job of that."
"Fighting for each other, then," Hermione amended. "You have done that, over and over again, and you have given more for all of us than we ever could have asked."
Harry looked down to where Hermione's hand was still curled around his own. "I have moments when I'm still not sure it was enough," he confessed, his voice so low that Hermione had to strain to hear him. "Too many people were lost."
Hermione stared at him incredulously. "Wasn't enough? Harry, you died! For all intents and purposes, you died in that forest when you willingly went to be killed! You died out of love for us, and you still think it wasn't enough? Given the life that you had here, being constantly chased and threatened by Voldemort – not to mention being raised by the Dursleys – I'm amazed that you chose to come back. You have done so much for this world, and it has cost you more than anyone should have to pay." Anger was creeping into Hermione's voice as she talked, and it gained intensity as she went on. "It would serve everyone right if you chose to become a recluse for the rest of your life, and they never were able to ask you for anything else. Yet you came back, in spite of everything. You became an Auror, you continue to fight evil on a daily basis, and you continue to risk your life in ways that others can only imagine."
Hermione lifted her hand from his shoulder to turn Harry's face back toward her own, her eyes blazing. "You asked why I stay, why Ron stays. You need people who love you to be fighting with you, Harry. Ron risked both your lives to get back to me today, and I watched you die for a second time on that cave floor. It was terrible enough the first time, when I thought you were dead and it turned out you weren't! I knew you were dead this time, knew it while my hands pounded the blood through your body!"
The words were pouring out of her now, swift and agonized, and somewhere in her mind she knew that she should stop. She could see the pain washing through Harry's eyes in waves, while his face had shifted into the utterly neutral expression he used to camouflage deep emotion. But for once in her life, she couldn't obey the rational voice that made her the careful, logical person she was. Remembering Ron and Luna's encouragement, she kept speaking, determined to say what she felt.
"I would go anywhere and do anything to keep you safe, Harry, not only because you are the most selfless person I have ever had the fortune of knowing, but also because I can't imagine my life without you in it. I love you, and you died in front of me yesterday, and I will use every skill I have and every breath I possess for as long as I live to keep that from happening again."
Hermione's flow of words was finally checked when Harry closed his eyes, his face flinching almost imperceptibly.
"Don't – don't say that, Hermione," he whispered huskily. Hermione's eyes widened in shock, her heart plummeting, but Harry didn't see the dismay in her eyes; he couldn't look at her. "It's – you shouldn't say that when you don't – when you can't – how could you possibly – it was never me –"
Relief filled Hermione's face, even as she fully realized just how exhausted and distraught Harry was. For him to come even this close to addressing the emotions between them confirmed for her beyond any doubt that his usual defense mechanisms, both magical and otherwise, were shattered, and his choppy speech was one more indication that he was in pain – although it was more likely that mental turmoil was the cause, rather than physical discomfort. Harry had developed the concise, commanding speech of a natural leader in his professional role as an Auror, and it was something that he found highly useful in keeping team order and fending off the press. He was not easily discomposed anymore, but since he had woken he was barely coherent. He needed her, needed her love more than ever, and she was not going to let this moment pass.
"It is you, Harry," she said warmly, eagerly, yet solemnly. She put her forehead to his own, willing him to believe her. "It is you. It took me a very long time to realize it, but that night at Kingsley's inaugural ball, it was suddenly clear to me that you have been the center of my life for a very long time, in all the ways that count. Dancing in your arms that night, I realized how much I love you, and it took my breath away."
Harry still had his eyes closed, and he was shaking his head ever so slightly. "Hermione – tell me this isn't another dream. I don't think I could bear it."
Hermione stroked his cheek. "Harry," she said, pouring all of her love and passion for him into that one word. "Open your eyes. Look at me. It isn't a dream, I promise you."
Harry's eyes slowly opened to Hermione's brown ones, which were full of feelings he had only ever imagined he would see. He made a low, choked noise that was equal parts longing and relief, and then Hermione's lips were on his, soft and sweet and gentle. He wrapped his arms around her to bring her body toward him, but pain shot through his muscles as he did so and he hissed in discomfort.
Hermione pulled away with a worried exclamation, going completely still so that she would not hurt Harry any further. "Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry! I should have thought before I did that; you aren't nearly healed yet, and Poppy and I have been worried sick –"
"No, I'm fine," he reassured her a bit breathlessly, refusing to let go of her. He winced a little as he adjusted his position, but his eyes were sparkling. "Hermione, don't you dare apologize for kissing me when I've spent five years wondering what it would be like. I just didn't plan on being quite so injured."
Hermione blinked in astonishment. "Five years?"
Harry's cheeks went pink, and right then Hermione saw the boy she had grown up with, the one who never knew what to say to girls or how to approach them.
"What?" he asked, discomfited.
"Did you just say five years?" Hermione repeated.
"I – well, yes," he sighed, clearly chagrined that he had let slip that little bit of information.
"Harry –" Hermione began slowly, but then changed her mind about what she was going to say. "When?"
Harry smiled a little ruefully. "You'll never believe me."
"Well, when was it?" Hermione prompted, when Harry seemed disinclined to continue.
"Slughorn's Christmas party," Harry admitted. "Or rather, right before it. When I asked you to go as friends and you couldn't, because you'd already made plans with that idiot McLaggen, I was . . . disturbed was maybe the word for it, since I couldn't put any other name to it. Then you got all indignant when I was teasing you about Romilda Vane and being the 'Chosen One,' and I thought it was adorable. But it was really when I caught up to you at Slughorn's party, and you were running from Cormac. You – Merlin, Hermione, you looked so beautiful that night, and I wanted to hex McLaggen for being such a smarmy git, and Ron for being such an utter prat with Lavender Brown. I wished right then that I could kiss you and make you forget about all of it – dragon tartar notwithstanding," he said, his lips turning upward at the memory.
Hermione kissed him again. "You and your saving people thing," she whispered lovingly. "You didn't kiss me then because you knew I fancied Ron and he fancied me. You didn't want to lose our friendship, you didn't know if you were going to make it through the war, and you didn't want to be any more of a burden to me than you were already. Then when Ron and I broke up you didn't ask me out because you didn't want to cause any kind of a rift in our trio. Then we became Aurors and you got scared that something would happen to either or both of us, so you settled for being one of my best friends and being as protective as possible."
"Ron was right about you all those years ago, when he said you were brilliant but scary," Harry said, looking at her with disbelief on his face. "How did you know all of that?"
"I know you," Hermione said cheekily, echoing his comment from earlier in the day.
More carefully this time, Harry pulled her closer to him, then raised his hands to her face and rested them in her hair. "I love you, Hermione Granger," he declared with a sigh, placing his forehead on hers. "I still feel as though this isn't real; there is no possible way that the most gorgeous, brilliant witch in the world can love me."
Hermione smiled, joyful tears shining in her eyes. "I do. I love you, Harry. And if there is ever another occasion when you make me cry three times in two days, I will cheerfully hex you from here to All Hallows'."
Harry chuckled. "There's my Hermione, appealing to my conscience and backing it up with a threat to ensure good behavior."
Hermione tried to laugh, but her hands were shaking as she touched him, running her hands over his face and down to his shoulders, and she leaned back in to kiss him fiercely. "Don't you dare die on me again until I've had a century or two to love you," she murmured against his lips.
"I promise, 'Mione," Harry whispered back, punctuating his words with kisses. "Never again. I have you now; I will fight Dolohov or Voldemort or Death itself to come home to you."
They kissed for a long time then, exploring each other with lips and hands and getting lost in the feel of one another. Hermione could only tell Luna afterward that it was exquisite; there were no words to describe how she felt in Harry's arms, knowing that he loved her and that she was free to love him. Every touch was careful on both sides, both because of Harry's injuries and because they were both learning about each other, but it only made the experience more tender and beautiful.
"You know," Hermione eventually whispered next to Harry's ear, her voice warm, "I'm going to have to admit to Ron that he was right about us, and he's going to be insufferable."
Harry smiled against her neck. "Guessed about our feelings, did he?"
"I'd say 'deduced' is the better word," Hermione replied. "I'm willing to bet Luna helped as well."
"So I didn't imagine that part of our conversation?" Harry inquired. "Ron and Luna? Really?"
Hermione nodded, smiling herself as she thought of the odd pair. "Really. They're very cute together, actually."
"Brilliant," Harry said. "I'll have to thank them for bringing out the Gryffindor in you."
"So will I," Hermione agreed. "We should sleep, Harry. I'm staying right here. No more nightmares."
"You always were the smart one," Harry said, giving her a final kiss before carefully moving onto his back. Hermione curled up next to him, resting one hand lightly on his chest, and they were both asleep in minutes.
A few hours later, as the morning sun streamed in the windows of St. Mungo's, Ron and Luna stood next to Harry's bed, gazing down at their two friends who were entwined in each other's arms. Luna had her arms around Ron's waist, and Ron had one arm over her shoulder.
"Well, I'm glad they finally got themselves sorted out," Ron said quietly, grinning down at the petite blonde woman who filled his days with sunshine.
"Me, too," Luna said happily. "They're going to have quite the life together."
"I'm sure they will," Ron agreed. "I'd say all four of us are in for a pretty big adventure."