He finds that both of their sweaters are covered in red hair, his longer than hers. But the same shade, the same texture, tangling the same way over zippers, knotting over buttons.
They have met here, in the small of his living room, for "drinks, catching up, general mayham," as she calls it when she calls in on the muggle telephone. In the background, he hears Ron belch loudly and they both laugh loudly until their laughter peters out in the end with a sigh.
The fact is that after the war this is what they are left with – the distance that separates them is strange and uninteresting and full of things that before never seemed large and important, but now they are. Like taxes, and politics, and red hair.
She pulls a rather long strand out of the knit of his sweater and says, with a sardonic smile, "So, you know of the Weasleys as well?" Holding the hair out far away from her, she releases it like it has rather offended her.
He watches her do this, and in the middle of him, he feels a sort of despair so deep it aches like a bruise. Not because she wipes her hands on the leg of her jeans and then frowns up at him before asking, "When did you say that Ginny is coming home, Harry?" but rather because he sees in her face something he can't erase: this war he dragged her into, the war in every freckle in her face, in the tiny lines around her mouths when she frowns at him, the way her eyes squint at him as if she is studying him. The way she studies everything, it's the way she has to be because she is a child of the Great War, the war over the boy who lived, the war over Harry James Potter, the war over him.
And the fact is, although everyone paid a price, Hermione Granger paid the highest, because this world was not her own. The thought that she could have walked away at any given moment, could have wiped her hands and gone back to a life of private muggle schools, a life where she had her own bedroom and a computer and normal boyfriend, a world that didn't involve death or magic or Harry Potter, that thought keeps him awake at night more than any other.
He asks her once is she ever finds her parents, and she says, "Hm. What good would that do? Charms don't work like that, Harry. I reversed their memory. You can't be playing with people's minds like that. They never had a daughter and that's how it always will be." She had been braiding her still unruly hair and she was doing it with such mathematical accuracy, he swore that she was doing another homework assignment, trying to figure out another Potions or Charms assignment. "I'm no one's daughter now." And when she had looked up at him after saying that, he saw that she was putting on her brave face, the one where she turned the edges of her mouth and lifted her left eyebrow like she was being sarcastic, like she was bulletproof. But right before that, right before the moment she put on that face, he saw in her face the moment of breaking. Hermione Granger, he knew, had this part inside of her that was wounded, that part of her he can never heal he is sure, and this fact, that fact that he had something to do with the breaking of the strong, the ineffable, the Hermione Granger who never once faltered when asked, "Will you go?" that Hermione Granger he has wounded and hurt and he can't heal her – it was all in that one brief millisecond in her face, in her eyes.
And that millisecond, that keeps him awake more at night than the blood that he finds himself drowning in. Keeps him awake longer than: the look of Sirius's face right before the veil closed behind him, the rumbly bass voice of Albus Dumbledore, the long sweet smile of Dobby. The fact that he broke something in the person who meant the most to him, O God.
He will sit up in the night, tip-toeing to the kitchen quietly so that Ginny cannot hear him and stare out the window into the moon and say to it, "I have made an orphan of you, Hermione Granger." He had done the very thing that his greatest enemy did. He has made an orphan of the innocent.
But now she is standing there, in his house, and she is holding her coat that is covered in red hair. When she looks at him, she raises an eyebrow, and says, "Do I have something on my face?"
He shakes his head, stares at her long and hard, squinting his eyes. Right now, he wants to say something. Because after the war, this is the thing that keeps him awake: the living things that must carry on rather than the ones that died and now live in a different way than the living have to now. In ways, the dead are luckier. In many ways, he envies them.
And it's like she can read him, can read every thought in his brain. She has that ability, has always had that ability, even since she strode into his train compartment with her school robes and frizzy head of hair and asked about a frog and repaired his glasses with a snotty swish of her wand. Already, even from that moment, he had that deep feeling inside of him that this girl, this awkward girl with large teeth, knew him. There was no hiding. There's no hiding right now either, and she reads him and immediately she's got that other face on, that Hermione face that means serious things, means determination, and no surrender.
"Harry," she says, holding her head up a little higher. "Are you okay? Are you having those nightmares again?" She moves towards him effortlessly, like they are opposite ends of a magnet and she moves towards him almost instinctively, subconsciously. They have moved towards each other like this for much of their lives though, he thinks, and so he doesn't even blink as her hands reach his forearms and hold him firmly in place as if she could ground him.
Ground him like she always has. When his world was moving too fast, when he felt like the ground was liquid and his feet would be enveloped in it all, she would reach out and hold him steady. And it hits him all of a sudden that this is it, that without her, all might have been lost. That the boy who lived wouldn't have lived without the girl who lived. The bravest girl of the war. The girl who orphaned herself for the orphan Harry Potter.
Both of them, orphaned by and for the world they weren't raised into.
It dawns on him there, as he sees her holding him with that look on her face that says, "I am here, Harry James Potter. I am here. Again," that family is something you choose and this is his family. Right here, right now, holding her smooth dry palms against the pale skin of his arms, she didn't have to choose him, that she could have walked away with clean hands at any given moment.
So he can't help but ask lowly, so quiet that he's not sure if he said it. Maybe he just thought it, he doesn't know. So he says it again, "Hermione, why did you..."
"I heard you the first time," she says snappily, as if she was thoroughly irritated. "I heard you. And I don't want to hear that ever again, Harry Potter. Not ever. Because the point isn't why or how but the point is that I came into this with my full mind. And I, I am smart. I am a smart girl, and I knew the second I saw the broken glasses on your face and the lightening scar on your forehead, I knew instantly that there was no turning back." She shakes her head and part of him shakes too, and he feels it all down to his bones. But he doesn't know if he can believe her, not really, because Harry Potter has been lied to for most his life and even though he knows that of anyone, he should trust her, there's a part of him that's guarded still.
And then she does something that shocks him, but at the same time is like someone has awoke him. She slaps him, right in the face, and when he looks at her in shock, she snaps, "I don't care if that hurt. Because you, Harry Potter, you hurt me when you doubt." She moves her hand from her chest to his, "Especially when you doubt this. Because sometimes a person just knows. And I knew every second of my life what I was doing. Even before you came into it. I knew that I would have to choose. I choose to go to Hogwarts. I choose to make friends with you Harry Potter. I choose to stand my stand in the war. And I choose..." she stops, looks him dead in the eye. Her throat is clenched and he knows that she holding his breath, that her lungs are tight in her chest.
For a second, he's afraid she might finish with, I choose to get away from you, from the nightmares, from the unruly hair of you, Harry Potter.
But then she moves closer to him and her face is next to his and she says, "I choose to stay right here. Next to you. No matter what. I choose you Harry. I choose you."
And suddenly her slightly parted lips and the bridge of freckles on her nose and her smell of soap and shampoo are all he can see.
So he chooses to press him lips to hers, and for a second he forgets about the red hair tangling through his collar, and he forgets about the blood covering his hands from the war, and he forgets that after this moment they will laugh and joke about all of this, but for this second, it's him and his best choice, his Hermione Granger, who chose him, who chose her.