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Chapter Twenty-Five

If he didn't already know for a fact it wasn't true, Harry would have said this was what dying might feel like. His body thrummed with a sense of grief so powerful it eclipsed all else. He felt like he could hardly breathe, and he took in great, gasping lungfuls of air in a futile attempt.

He rested his forehead against his knees and threaded his fingers through his hair, digging his nails harshly into his scalp, fixating on the pain. He felt lost, broken, and utterly helpless. The fact that he'd saved the world last May meant nothing, because he'd managed, in the course of a few days, to hurt every single person he loved. Anthony, Draco, Ginny, Pansy. Ron and Hermione. No doubt Mr. and Mrs. Weasley would know. The thought of Mrs. Weasley's wounded expression, the look of betrayal with which she would surely fix him, caused his stomach to churn angrily.

He startled when the door to the room opened and he jumped to his feet reflexively. The sight of Hermione walking in and shutting the door behind her felt like some kind of trigger; the tears that had momentarily ceased turned into heavy sobs that wracked his body and forced him back to the ground.

"Oh, Harry . . ."

He heard her run over and a moment later her arms were wrapped around his shoulders, pressing his head into her chest and rocking him gently.

"Harry," she whispered. Her hand smoothed through his hair. He thought he could hear tears in her voice. "Shh." He continued to cry into her shoulder, one hand clutching tightly at her robe, as she petted his hair and whispered soothing words. For many minutes this went on, until finally his heavy sobbing eased into sporadic hiccups and sniffling, and she leaned up against the wall, taking him with her.

"You've done a really fine job of making a mess this time, haven't you?" Hermione said with a sigh. Harry clutched her robe more tightly.

"I . . . I didn't . . . Hermione, I would never ā€“"

"I know you didn't do it on purpose." Reaching down to grab his hand, she gently persuaded him into sitting up straight next to her. His eyes felt puffy, and he was sure they were all red. As though she'd sensed his thoughts were beginning to drift, Hermione placed a hand on Harry's cheek, forcing him to look at her. "But, Harry, that doesn't make it okay. You reallyhurt a lot of people, myself included."

Another tear trailed down his cheek. Harry reached out for Hermione's hand again and wrapped it in both of his. Her eyes were wet with impending tears of her own. Harry laughed mirthlessly, shook his head, and looked back up.

"'Mione, I'm so sorry. You and Ron ā€“ you're my best friends, and I shouldn't have pushed you away. It's been miserable without you."

"Then why did you do it, Harry?" she whispered.

Harry gripped her hand more tightly. "I didn't know what to do," he admitted. "No one wanted me to even speakto Draco. . . . I knew what would happen if anybody found out we were . . . er . . ."

"Being intimate?" she supplied. Harry nodded, eyes downcast. "Were you two already that far on Ron's birthday? When you said you'd stopped talking to him?"

"We'd kissed," he said softly. "That was it."

"And had you really stopped talking to him?"

Harry looked up at this. "Yeah, we had. We'd had a fight."

"So, why did you leave, then? During the party?"

Harry sighed. Dropped her hand and ran it through his hair. He leaned back against the wall and stared up at the ceiling.

"He had a student deliver a letter to me. Said he needed me to meet him as soon as possible." He continued staring at the same spot, but he could feel Hermione shift uncomfortably next to him, waiting for the rest of the story. "He was a mess. He'd had a panic attack. I stayed there with him for most of the night."

"And then you came back at four in the morning," she added quietly. Harry nodded.

"Yeah. Then that."

"And . . . things progressed from there . . . ?"

Harry sighed and finally looked at her. "It wasn't that easy."

He explained everything to her. Learning more about Draco's family, his early life, and the way his dad had treated him. About the self-image issues he'd harbored since he was at least thirteen. Probably younger. She gasped when he told her about Draco's attempts at gagging himself, and he saw her tear up when he made it to the part where he'd sat there while Draco threw up in the prefects' bathroom. But he also explained the good parts. How Draco had another side to him that she wouldn't believe; that he could be sweet, and shy, and harmless, and he could be funny, and laugh. He could be compassionate, even, when he was in the mood.

When he ended with the story of how he'd broken it off with Draco the previous week, Hermione placed a hand on his arm.

"What I don't understand," she said softly, "is . . . why you ended things with him."

Harry looked at her blankly.


"I mean . . . it was horrible of you to cheat on Anthony like that, but it's clear you had . . . have. . . feelings for Malfoy. I just don't understand why you broke up with him. After all this, what made you do it?"

"I couldn't do it anymore," he said. Her hand tightened around his arm. "I couldn't do it anymore, Hermione. When Anthony broke up with me, I realized what a mess I'd made. And I . . . I felt guilty. For hurting him. And you guys. And Draco. I was a wreck, and I thought it was for the best."

Hermione was quiet for a moment, apparently lost in thought.

"You messed up a whole lot, Harry," she said finally, and it was like a knife to his heart. "But that doesn't mean you can't fix it."

It was miniscule, but a sudden spark of hope flared in his chest. And a thought occurred to him: How did I go two months without her?

"What d'you mean?"

"Harry." She looked stoically into his eyes. "What do you want? In an ideal world, what would happen now? Forget what you think you should do, or what shouldhappen. What would you have?"

What would he have? Well, that was easy. He'd have his life back. Back to normal. With Ron and Hermione there. He'd have Ginny not resent him for being gay. And on top of that, he'd have Draco. Be able to bring him round the Weasleys' for Christmas and Thanksgiving and every other conceivable holiday that they could spend with their familytogether.

When he began silently crying again, Hermione touched his hand.

"What is it, Harry?"

He shook his head. "My life," he said. "I'd have my life back." Hermione bit her lip.

"You know that's not what I meant . . ."

This, more than anything else, sent him into a fit of anger. He knew, not so deep down, that he wasn't mad at Hermione. But that was so much easier than admitting to being scared by his true desires. Easier than acknowledging the fact that she knewwhat he was trying to avoid saying.

He pulled away from her and stood up, crossing his arms over his chest in an effort to feel smaller.

"You don't know what you're talking about."

He wasn't surprised when he heard Hermione stand up, but he refused to make eye contact when she stepped in front of him.

"You're right," she said. Her words shocked him and Harry raised his head to meet her quiet gaze. "I don't. So can you please tell me?"

There was a long, drawn-out moment where they stared at each other. Harry's brain flitted through memories, ones of himself and Hermione on the run, alone, without Ron. Could he trust Hermione with his life? Absolutely. There wasn't a single doubt in his mind. Could he trust her with something like this?

He took a deep breath. Maybe it was that lack of trust precisely that had gotten him into this mess in the first place.

"Sit down," he said quietly. Hermione nodded, and moved over to a small table on the other side of the room, sliding into an old wooden chair that probably wouldn't hold much more weight without collapsing. Harry took the one across from her. He folded his hands on the surface of the table and only took a second to gather his thoughts.

When he looked up at her, her eyes were soft and bright and open, and Harry's shoulders relaxed. Just a little. Hermione was safe. She was the safest place he would ever have in this whole, cruel world, and if he wanted to straighten anything out, if he wanted even a small chance of fixing anything . . . well, here was his answer.

"A few weeks again," he began, "in the middle of the night, Draco took me to the Great Hall." Hermione's eyebrows threaded but she didn't interrupt. "He had me lie down on the floor and look up at the stars. He showed me some of the constellations. The one he was named after. And then he told me to find the brightest star." He knew then that Hermione had guessed what he was going to say, because her eyes turned sad. He plowed on. "I guess you know what its name is, then." She nodded. He took another breath. "It was so . . . sweet. He said Sirius is the brightest star in the sky."

"It is," Hermione breathed, and he saw a tear finally run down her cheek. She was smiling sadly. "Twenty-two times the luminosity of the sun."

"I think I'm in love with him," he said bluntly. Hermione looked stunned, but only briefly; as though it wasn't the admission that had shocked her, but rather the suddenness of it. The next words out of her mouth nearly startled him out of his wobbly chair.

"I know."

He opened and closed his mouth a few times, feeling absurdly like a fish on land. He swallowed. Try to make his mouth feel less dry. Nothing seemed to work.

"You . . . what?" he choked. She shrugged.

"I know," she repeated. "Harry, I've known you for seven years. If there's one thing about you that's predictable, it's that when you care about someone, you tend to act rather irrationally. And, well, what you've been doing for the past few months? That's pretty irrational."

"When did you figure it out?"

At this, her cheeks turned red. "I wish I could say it occurred to me right away, but it didn't. It only pieced itself together when you ran out of the entrance hall, after McGonagall broke up the fight between Pansy and Ginny."

He resisted the urge to bash his head against the table. "You were there?"

"Yeah," she said with a small nod. "I went to find the Map once you'd disappeared under the Cloak."

"I can't imagine why you're here with me after witnessing that. They both made it pretty clear that I'm a horrible person."

Hermione reached across the table and took his hand. "You're not a horrible person, Harry. You're just really passionate, and sometimes it clouds your judgment. So you made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes."

"Yeah, but not everyone is held on a pedestal and expected to be a role-model for the whole bloody world," he grumbled. Hermione squeezed his hand, a sympathetic look on her face, and took her hand back.

"It's true," she agreed. "And it's not entirely fair. But that's the way it is, so dwelling on it and feeling sorry for yourself won't do any good." He glared at her but she ignored it. "We're nearly done with Hogwarts, Harry. No one's going to care about this whole mess after we graduate. I think what needs to happen now is you need to make a decision."

Harry groaned. "I don't like making decisions. Haven't I proven my worthlessness at making decisions, Hermione?"

"What you need to decide," she continued, ignoring his outburst, "is whether it's worth it to you to try and repair things with Malfoy."

He gaped at her.

"I'm serious, Harry," she said. "You clearly have some really strong feelings for him, and I'm not afraid to admit that my . . . resistanceto the relationship before did nothing to help you out. Of course, it was born from concern for your other relationship, but I should have listened to you instead of getting angry."

"Hermione," he croaked. "Iā€”"

"Now, wait, Harry." She held a hand up to silence him. "You have to think about a few things. First of all, Ron may not see it like I do. He may take a lot of convincing. That has to be taken into account. And the other thing is, well, Malfoy himself. He's got some really serious issues, Harry, which you obviously understand. But if you start a relationship with him, you have to be aware of the fact that, once we're out of Hogwarts, those issues are still going to be around, and if you're his boyfriend, it's something you're going to have to continue to deal with. He's a fragile person, and while I may not be fond of him myself at this point, I certainly don't think anyone deserves what you did to him, or to suffer through a disorder like his."

Harry's cheeks were on fire. He dropped his head, ashamed of himself. It was one thing to know how horrible he was for doing what he did to Draco. It was another to hear it out of Hermione wise mouth.

"Having said that," she continued, "I don't think you'd do anything like that again. I know you're a good person, Harry. You're one of the kindest, bravest people I've ever met in my life, and I know you didn't hurt anyone intentionally. Now that you see what happened, I can confidently say I think you'd do anything in your power to prevent it from happening again.

"Now." Once again she reached across the table and took Harry's hand in both of hers, tugging a bit to get him to look up at her. "Am I correct in assuming you dowant to get back together with Malfoy?"

Harry couldn't seem to find his voice, so he merely nodded.

"I don't know him very well at all, so I don't know what he'll respond to, but I think the first thing that should happen is you need to get him alone after classes tomorrow, or during a break, or lunch, or something, and you need to try to talk to him. Lay your feelings on the table, you know? Tell him you care about him, and that you made a mistake. Try to explain why you did what you did."

"And you don't think it's . . . terrible of me to get back together with him after what I did to Anthony?"

Hermione shrugged, looking hesitant. It made Harry's stomach churn.

"It's not exactly admirable, but then again, sometimes that's the way the world works. You can't please everybody. And at this point, I would say Anthony is a lot better equipped to handle the situation than Malfoy is." She looked away then and Harry saw her start picking at her fingernails. "I've noticed, you know. Malfoy. When you two were . . . were together all the time, he showed up at meals more often. He hasn't been to one in a while."

"I know," Harry whispered. "It makes me sick. And it's my fault."

"It's not your fault, Harry," Hermione said softly. He looked at her skeptically. "I mean, yes, you may have contributed, but it's not your fault. Besides, is he worse than he was beforeyou started talking to him?"

Harry shrugged. "I don't really know, I never paid too much attention to him before. But I think . . ." He sighed, ran a hand through his sweaty hair and pressed his palm against the scar on his forehead. "I think it's worse now, yeah. He's got heartbreak on top of everything this time, you know?"

Hermione nodded sadly. "Yeah," she said. "Well, that's even more reason for you to give this a shot, right? You were clearly helping him, and he needs help. It's really horrible to watch."

"Tell me about it," he grumbled. He squeezed Hermione's hands, still encasing one of his own, and met her eyes. "It's strange, though, because I knowhow bad it looks, but I still think he's so . . . beautiful." Harry's cheeks bloomed red in the face of admitting this to Hermione, but she smiled, and it caused one of his own to lift the corners of his mouth. "If he could just get over this eating disorder, he would be incredible. And he was starting to, he was making such good progress, and I've ruined it all."

"It's gonna take a lot of time and effort," Hermione told him gently. "Assuming he'll give forgiving you a chance, everyone's going to have to work really hard to help him, and he's going to have to work hard to help himself."

"Everyone . . . ?"

Hermione smiled shyly. "Harry," she said, eyes dancing with affection, "you know I'll help if he means that much to you."

Very suddenly, all the tears from before came back, gushing down his cheeks and dripping from his chin. Harry stood up and went to the other side of the table, scooping Hermione up in a giant hug and burying his face in her familiar, bushy brown hair. He heard her squeak in surprise before she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him more tightly against her.

"Have I ever told you how much I love you?" he whispered. Hermione's fingers dig into his back.

"It's always nice to hear," she said. " And I love you too, Harry. I'm sorry this happened. I promise I'll help you fix it."

Harry's heart clenched in his chest. He held onto Hermione for dear life, thanking Merlin he'd found this wonderful girl. He knew this conversation was far from over, but the knot in his stomach had loosened the teeniest, tiniest bit, and he felt hopeful. Telling Ron was going to be a project, and the thought of talking to Draco felt like the scariest thing in the world, but he was determined now. He had Hermione on his side, helping him along, and really, what more could someone ask for?