A/N: Final flashback chapter. My intent for this story is about 60,000 words, so the plot will start to move rapidly forward after this chapter.

Chapter 9: Post-Partum

January 1999


Hermione,

I've been back in Britain for about a month now, and I have yet to see you or Ron. Grimmauld was deserted when I came back. Where are you? I know I didn't stay in touch when I was abroad, but I needed to clear my head a bit and set my priorities straight. I think I've done that now, so I'd really love to see you. Please let me know how you are and where I can meet up with you.

Harry


Ron,

I've been back in Britain for about a month now, and I have yet to see you or Hermione. Grimmauld was deserted when I came back. Where are you? I know I didn't stay in touch when I was abroad, but I needed to clear my head a bit. I think I've done that now. Please let me know where I can meet up with you.

Harry


Harry was sitting at the kitchen table in Grimmauld. He was pouring over notes, charts, spreadsheets, and inventories Gringotts had supplied about his various accounts. He had a Muggle ballpoint pen in one hand and was making notes on some parchment as he read.

He was so focused on the task at hand—this was probably more focused than he'd ever been with his schoolwork—that he did not hear the front door quietly open and close or the soft footsteps during their progress through the hallway toward the kitchen.

A flutter of movement to his left caught his eye. Before he could even think about his wand or casting any spells, his peripheral awareness turned into recognition and he was out of his seat.

"Hermione!"

He nearly leapt across the space the between the table and the doorway and engulfed his best friend in a crushing hug. Her arms came around him a moment later, holding him firmly. She smelled like vanilla and strawberries and a whole host of other nameless things that always swirled around her hair and her clothes.

"Merlin, I missed you," he breathed into her hair.

"Missed you too, Harry," she said.

Finally he backed out of the embrace.

His eyes opened wide with surprise of their own accord. January in London could be brutal, but Hermione stood before him in a light jacket, tank top, and skirt. Casual flats completed the look.

Her hair was wavy and full, like it had always been, though it was a blonder brown than he remembered, streaked with even lighter highlights. She was tan and glowing and beautiful.

She smiled at his shock, a smile that was so familiar to Harry it felt like coming home.

"Warming charm," she explained. Her attention turned to the pile of papers on the table.

"What's all this?" she wondered, moving toward the table to look.

Harry flicked his wand and banished it all to his room without a thought. All of that stuff could wait.

She turned startled eyes to Harry upon watching everything disappear. He could almost hear her thoughts—but he never keeps secrets from me.

He just smiled at her. "It's about my accounts at Gringotts. I'm going over everything and easing into the role of managing my own assets. It's not important right now."

Hermione seemed to accept his word and nodded. He motioned toward the table and they both sat down, directly across from each other.

"So when did you get back, Harry?" she asked.

"Just before Christmas," he said.

"And how was the trip? Where did you go?"

"It was incredible, Hermione," he said, genuinely smiling as he recalled the magnificent trip around the world. "And I think a better question would be where didn't we go?"

She reached across the table and gripped his hands for a moment. "I'm glad it did so much good for you, Harry. You seem really happy and put together now." She was smiling too.

"Thanks," he told her. "I know I was a bit of a prat before I left, but I honestly did not know what to do with myself…"

"You don't have to explain," she told him, waving it off. "I really do understand. I think I was feeling the same way."

He cocked his head. "Oh? Well, I do want to apologize for what I said to you and Ron—"

"Harry," Hermione cut him off, looking terribly serious now. "You don't need to apologize for that. And actually, it's one of the things I wanted to speak with you about."

Her sudden change in demeanor threw him off for a moment. What had happened while he was gone? And where was Ron?

"Ok…" he said. They were still gripping each other's hands in the middle of the table. She looked down at this, squeezed once, and let go. She put her hands in her lap.

She sighed and seemed to deflate.

"Everything you said that day was true, Harry," she started. "Every last word. I don't know how I could have fooled myself for so long, or let Ron fool me for so long, but you were right. The two of us would have never worked out. It's something I've since accepted."

Something in her tone was worrying Harry. "What happened after I left?"

A pained look flashed across her face. "We had another row, worse than anything we've ever had before. I was getting ready to leave for Australia and he gave me an ultimatum—essentially the same one you heard that day—and I blew my top. I'm not proud of it, but who was he to tell me what I could and could not do? The whole thing nearly came to blows, or wands, as it were."

He wanted to crawl across the table and hug her. She looked so forlorn and miserable.

"I'm sorry, Hermione." She met his eyes. "I'm sorry for not being here," he continued. "I'm sorry you both had to experience that."

"It's not your fault, Harry," she said, shaking her head. "It never was. The friendship between the three of us has never been perfect, but you were always there for me. You trusted me. You never fought with me and you only argued and held your ground when you had a legitimate point—you were, and are, practically the only person capable of getting through my stubbornness…" she trailed off.

"I think you're selling yourself short," he told her. "The same is true of you, and you know it. You stuck by my side back in fourth year when Ron got so bloody jealous over the Tournament. You didn't leave me alone in that tent when we were hunting Horcruxes… You've been the best of friends, Hermione. I really, truly mean that."

This girl—no, this beautiful woman that had once been a plucky, bucktoothed child—had tears shimmering in her eyes at his words. He suddenly felt like the world's worst git. Had he ever told Hermione before this moment just how much she meant to him? A quick survey of their years together told him the answer: no, he hadn't.

"Oh, Harry…" she sobbed, as she broke down. He was around the table in a flash, pulling her up from her chair and wrapping her in another hug. He had rarely initiated these types of embraces with her in the past, though this was the second time today. She clung to him and cried into his shoulder, shaking with the force of her misery.

He could only stand there, holding her and wondering what the hell had happened to them. Voldemort's defeat was supposed to lead to bigger and better things, not this tragedy.

He rested his chin on the top of her head. "You know, I firmly believe that if Hermione Granger did not exist—if we had never become friends—Voldemort would have won and gone on to conquer Britain. And then what? Perhaps the world, too."

She was shaking her head against his shoulder. "No," he said, "I know I'm right. You've always been the best of us, Hermione."

She eventually calmed down and they sat again, though this time Harry planted himself right next to her. She wiped at her face, suddenly self-conscious about her emotion.

"Sorry—"

"As you told me earlier, you don't need to apologize."

"We seem to be doing a lot of that today," she said. "Apologizing."

He sighed. "About time, I suppose? Even if it's not really needed." She nodded and silence settled between them for a few moments. They regarded each other openly.

"So you found your parents?" he asked, eventually, breaking the increasingly loaded silence.

"Yes," she replied. "Fairly quickly."

"And you've been in Australia all this time?"

"Yes. They weren't happy at first, but they cooled down eventually."

"How come you haven't been back at all?" Harry wondered, finally asking what had been on his mind since she'd appeared in his kitchen.

"They have a decent thing going on there, Harry," she explained. "It doesn't make sense at this point for them to uproot again and come back here. They have a life in Sydney now." Her eyes had clouded over somewhat. Harry felt like he was missing some key piece of information.

"Ok…but what about you?" he asked.

"I…" Hermione started, but she unable to say anything more. She looked distinctly uncomfortable, sad even, and was frowning violently as she stared off into space.

"You what?"

"I'm studying to go to uni, Harry," she said, all in a rush, as if the words hurt to say. "My plan is to enroll in August of next year. I'm far behind the normal curriculum, so it's going to take some time to catch up and take all the proper tests."

Realization smacked Harry in the face. Several different emotions coursed through his system, the foremost of which was an indescribable sense of loss that was as wrenching as it was unexpected.

"In Australia, you mean?"

She looked down at her hands, which she was twisting together in her lap. She nodded.

He sat back. She looked up slowly, meeting his eyes again.

"How come you didn't write me when you decided all of this?" he queried.

"I didn't know where you were," she said. "I couldn't risk sending an owl into the heart of a major city. And you never wrote either, you know."

He held up his hands. "No need to get defensive, Hermione. That's not why I asked." He was tired now. This brief conversation with Hermione had taken a lot out of him. His world was rapidly shifting.

She acquiesced with an understanding look.

"I guess I always expected you to continue with school," Harry told her. "But at Hogwarts, not at university."

"Could you go back to Hogwarts now, Harry?" she asked, penetratingly.

He had to consider her question for only one second. "Absolutely not."

"Exactly," she nodded. "There is a small part of me that wants to do a seventh year and sit for my NEWTs, but I would hate it there, after everything that's happened. And if you and Ron weren't there…well, there's nothing for it."

"There are other magical schools in Britain. You know that, right?"

She nodded again, but now she was looking at him a bit oddly.

"Are you trying to convince me to stay?" she wondered.

"Why shouldn't I?" he said. "You're my best friend, Hermione. It hurts to think of you halfway around the world while I'm here."

"I guess I thought you would support me—"

"Of course I support you," he cut her off. "I trust you enough to know that if you want to study at uni and that Australia is the place to do that, then you're making the right decision. But I can't help being a little selfish when it comes to you."

She leaned forward, placing her elbows on her knees and staring at him intently. He was immediately and acutely aware of the fact that she was wearing a tank top underneath her open jacket.

He had been faced with similar sights—and more—countless times during their extended period of living together in that horrid tent, but he'd always been able to rationalize away any baser reaction to Hermione's fine assets by assuming (and reminding himself) she and Ron would eventually be together. Now, however, it wasn't so easy.

"What do you mean?" she asked. There was a new intensity to her voice. He dragged his eyes away from her exposed flesh and looked her in the face. If she noticed, she didn't react.

"I mean that I didn't want this," he said. "When I yelled at you and Ron I might have said some things we've all been thinking, but I didn't want it to drive us apart like this. I didn't want it to split us up. And where is Ron? Do you know?"

She sat straight again, albeit slowly. A disappointed frown flashed through her eyes before vanishing.

"Yes," she told him. "He's in Romania working with Charlie."

"So Ron's gone too?" He could hardly keep the petulance out of his voice.

"Harry, I'm not gone," Hermione told him, leaning forward again. Her damned bloody tits were the most distracting things on the planet. "Just because I will be in Australia does not mean we can't keep in touch, and visit each other, and continue being best friends."

Harry just looked at her, quite nonplussed. He couldn't even think about how much he would miss Hermione—and Ron too—in his life, even if they did stay in touch and visit and all that.

"Is that how the world really works, Hermione?" he asked, quietly. "We took classes together, we ate all our meals together, we fought and just about sodding died together… take all of that away, and add thousands of miles, and will it really be the same?"

He hadn't been able to say what he meant too eloquently, but he could tell by the look in her eyes that she knew what he meant; and that she had possibly been thinking the same thing all along. Maybe that's why she had shown up and Ron was still off in Romania, with nary a word to Harry.

"Why don't you move to Sydney with me?" The question was phrased, articulated, and inflected very carefully, as if she feared—or hoped—what he might say.

Her suggestion was suddenly a very attractive one. It wouldn't be Britain, he wouldn't be instantly recognizable, he had enough money to effectively do whatever he wanted, he would be with Hermione, he would be with Hermione…

But—and there were several large buts. Teddy for one. He couldn't take him away from Andromeda like that, nor could he thrust his godson on her. Andy and Teddy had bonded during their long vacation, but it had become clear who would have to bear the brunt of the responsibility for Ted Remus Lupin. Andromeda was too scattered after the death of her husband and daughter to properly care for her grandson.

The other issue involved the plans he had already started making with Gringotts, which would be difficult if not impossible from Australia. Harry had quietly become passionate about the future of Wizarding Britain since the end of the war, and with his assets, financial and otherwise, he had the power to effect lasting change. It would take an incredible amount of time, effort, and money, but he hoped someday to be able to say that he had made a difference.

Harry explained some of this to Hermione; she listened without saying a word, her face falling a bit when he finally concluded that moving to Sydney with her just would not work. He hated to do that to her and to see that look on her face, but there was nothing for it. His life, his family, his legacy was here in Britain, at least for now.

"You look disappointed," he eventually stated.

"Naturally," she said, dryly. "I think I'd be worried if I wasn't. But I understand what you've been saying."

"Thank you."

"Of course, Harry," she said. A long-drawn sigh flowed out of her body. He watched as she cocked her at him, studying him with her chocolate eyes. Her gaze was intense.

"What is it?" he asked.

She swallowed. "Would you humor me, Harry?"

"Huh?"

"If I asked you to do something, would you do it, no questions asked?"

"Uh, sure," he replied, confused.

"Are you sure? Because I need to be sure before I ask you."

"Yes," he said, exasperated. "As long as it's not me running around London starkers." They both laughed at this, though for many reasons the laughter was flat and strained. It quickly faded away.

He leaned forward, mimicking her earlier pose. "What is it, Hermione? You know you can ask me anything."

She leaned forward, bringing their faces much closer than he ever remembered them being. He could see each tiny freckle splashed across her nose and the golden spackles in her brown irises and the intricate curve of her lips, the soft pink tip of her tongue as it darted out to wet said lips…

"Kiss me, Harry? Just this once?" she breathed.

He didn't react except to cross the infinitesimal space between their poised lips, pressing his against hers with an abandon that would have shocked him had been thinking coherently. He barely even registered her eyes widen in surprise before they closed, and his closed, and they were just kissing, not as best friends, but as something much more. It was everything and more than it could have been, something he had been thinking about for at least four years, though he never would have told anyone; it was buried so deep that even Snape had been unable to drag it out of him during those blasted Occlumency lessons.

She panted her hot breath into his lips and he opened his mouth to receive the warm, slithering presence of her tongue, Hermione's tongue, as it caressed his and dueled with it in fierce passionate combat. They had fallen into each other and were now half-standing, half-sitting, clinging to the other to keep upright, all thought and all focus on the kiss, the kiss that had been simmering between them since that night on Buckbeak back in third year, the kiss that could have changed the entire course of the war and the recent history of the Wizarding world…

But now it was just a kiss, a first and what felt like last kiss between best friends that shared one moment of passion before time and the world and misplaced priorities came between them. Their thoughts turned in this direction at the same time, and suddenly the kiss was lessening, loosening, slowing down. With one last soul-quivering caress of Harry's tingling tongue, Hermione pulled hers from his mouth and then her lips from his. They let go of each other, collapsing into their chairs and gasping for breath, opening their eyes to stare at each other at the same time; their rosy cheeks and glowing eyes spoke volumes, loudly and clearly, about what the kiss had done to both of them.

"Hermione, why didn't we do that—"

Without warning, Hermione was standing and crying and screaming.

"Don't you say it, Harry Potter! Don't you dare ask why we didn't do that ages ago! You bloody well know I'm thinking the same thing!"

"Whoa, calm down!" he exclaimed, standing and embracing her for the third time. She resisted his embrace briefly before melting into his arms, shaking in sadness or rage or frustration.

"It's. Just. So. Unfair." Each word was punctuated with a small fist to his chest.

"Yes, it really is," he agreed, quietly.

Hermione calmed down but did not back out of the hug. She turned her face up toward his.

"What now, Harry?"

"You're still going to university in Australia."

"And you're still going to be noble and heroic."

They stared into each other's eyes, a thousand missed opportunities flashing through their heads. Finally, Hermione sighed and relaxed in his arms. All the fight had gone out of her. She backed up and partially turned away from him.

"We'll still write? And see each other? And be the best of friends?"

Harry nodded. "Of course, Hermione."

She favored him with a long look then, one that he would never forget, as long as he lived. Too many emotions to name were wrapped up in that brief, burning gaze.

She turned toward the door that would take her back into the main hallway.

"You're leaving already?" he asked, taking a step toward her. She looked over her shoulder.

"Return Portkey," she told him. "There are only a few times each day for those."

"You could stay until tomorrow."

Then came that look again, though this time it flit across her face for only two seconds.

"I don't think that's a good idea, Harry."

"Hermione…" He took another step toward her.

"Goodbye," she said, ever so softly. "Do stay in touch."

"I will. I promise," he said. "I'll come visit you whenever you want. Write me lots of letters too."

"I will," she said.

"Farewell, for now, Hermione."

She nodded; their eyes met one more time; then she was out of the kitchen and he was listening to her fading footsteps. The front door opened and closed and he heard the crack of her Disapparation as she vanished.

Grimmauld Place creaked ominously as Harry stood immobile in the kitchen, alone.