The following morning, Hermione felt as if she hadn't slept at all, although she was sure she'd slipped into a few intermissions of unpleasant dreams over the course of the night; forced into them by pure exhaustion and driven out of them again by surreal, yet nonetheless tormenting images. With the very first sign of daylight she had given up on sleep and gotten up from her bed, watching the autumn sun rise on a remarkably clear sky, before finally deciding to go down to the Great Hall as early as possible, hoping to be able to finish her breakfast before certain other people might arrive – at the same time feeling quite silly for behaving like that.
Sitting there now she was yet once again proud of the house elves' work, delivering food from the moment someone took a seat at one of the house tables within a certain timeframe, although she hoped the elves weren't bereft of their much deserved sleep because of her. With over twenty minutes left before the students usually began to gather in the hall and only three other people there right now, she was confident her plan would actually work out quite nicely.
That was until she felt her heart sinking all of a sudden when she involuntarily took notice of who it was that entered through the great doorway just now, as the second Gryffindor to come to breakfast today. He stopped short when he saw her likewise, then immediately thought better of it and slowly walked towards her, his eyes fixed on the ground all the while. He took his usual place directly opposite from her.
"Good morning," he greeted her in an effort to give a casual impression.
Hermione nodded at him in response, giving what she felt must have been the most obviously artificial smile ever to be put on a face. However, desperately hoping to avoid an uncomfortable silence, she felt the urge to say something in return.
"How are you feeling today?" she chose to ask, her voice shaking nearly unnoticeably.
"Good," Harry replied, maybe just a bit too upbeat. "I'm good."
"Well, that's… good to hear," Hermione said and tried to focus on her food, although so much as looking at it right now only added to the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"I'm sorry, by the way – yet again," Harry said. "Since you were right and all."
"Yeah, me too," Hermione answered as if to herself, and she was desperately trying to ignore the turmoil that was raging inside her; knowing that she had to get out of there as fast as possible if she were to be successful. "I'm sorry, but I really have to get going. See you later."
And with that, she left the hall in a hurry, leaving Harry to sit alone at Gryffindor table in a crestfallen stupor.
Those were the only words they spoke all day long, which in itself was not surprising, in so far as they spent the whole day apart from each other, which in turn was something neither of them was used to. Harry had to pay a visit to the infirmary again, to be checked by Madame Pomfrey to confirm the successful removal of the spell's effect, which was indeed the case. His headaches had subsided and he was able to feel and think clearly again; a condition that might just have qualified as a curse all by itself. There are indeed some remedies worse than the disease, he thought bitterly.
Hermione, quite instinctively, sought refuge in her usual corner of the library, but to her dismay there surprisingly was an increasing number of students there as well, maybe responsibly learning for upcoming tests. Thus, after a while, she felt the need to retreat yet again. She didn't want to have anyone around her, didn't want to see anyone – and even more so, not be seen herself. Yet there was no way she could go back to Gryffindor tower; not even to her dormitory. She didn't know who else was there and, even worse, where Harry was. Even the slightest risk of running into him or so much as seeing him from across a room was too much for her. She just couldn't take it.
She knew full well she was probably being silly and that in turn felt rather unfamiliar to her, but she simply couldn't help it. She also knew there was no way she would be able to keep this up, but she needed at least as much time as the weekend could give her before getting back into any kind of routine with Harry. Right now in this moment, however, she didn't see how she ever could.
So absorbed in thought she stood there in front of the entrance to the library, that she didn't notice the person standing right in front of her at all.
"Here you are," Ron's voice took her out of her reverie. "I had a hunch."
"Yeah," she just said very weakly, without looking at him.
Ron mustered her for a moment with growing concern.
"I just wanted to check on you," he explained. "See if you're alright and all, 'cause… I don't really know how you are."
With Hermione remaining silent, Ron proceeded: "With the whole situation, I mean. I wasn't sure… how you would react. Frankly, I'm not sure if I fully understand how anyone's feeling these days… at all. With Harry, there was an explanation, but… to be honest, you've been acting a bit weird yourself, if I might say so. I'm just worried is all."
Hermione sighed heavily, staring down the hallway with her eyes fixed on no point in particular.
"You know… how I have a tendency to be right more often than not?" she asked, rather rhetorically. "And how I like to be right? I usually do. Sometimes, I think, even if the respective outcome of me being right is bad for me or bad in general even. I might go down, you know, but at least I'll still have the satisfaction of having predicted it."
She paused for a moment, and Ron thought he saw the saddest, weakest smile he had ever seen on her face.
"I truly think I have never, ever hated it so much," she said most bitterly, her lips trembling under the effort not to weep yet again. "For once, I… or that pathetic, irrational part of me so desperately hoped I would be wrong. I foolishly wished so hard I would be wrong this time that it actually hurt not to be. I tried to stop it; to keep myself from falling into it. But I couldn't. And it hurts so damn much."
At that, she turned to face Ron for the first time and he was instantly aware that he had never seen her like that before; and very much taken aback by that realization.
"So here I am, right again," she concluded, the tears she was only reluctantly accepting flowing from her bloodshot eyes. "I would much rather have been merry than wise."
She turned and walked away as soon as she had said the last word, making it clear to Ron that she did not want to be held back. With a sad sigh, he let her go. Somehow, he had been foolish enough to believe that things would be back to normal today, while in fact, as he had realized just now, normal had never seemed so far away.
Somehow, Hermione's feet had carried her directly to the place where she now stood without her consciously controlling them. Only now, coming to a halt at her favorite spot at the lakeshore, she began to realize just how far she had walked without having the state of mind to be aware of either the distance she was going or the time that was passing. Even as hurriedly as she had walked in an effort to get away from everything behind her as fast as possible – without raising too much of a suspicion – it had at least taken her twenty minutes to get there. Only now as well she took notice of her rapid breathing and the strained muscles in her legs.
Slowly she walked over to the large tree she had so often sat beneath whenever the weather was nice enough to allow it, with nothing but a – preferably good – book to keep her company. For the first time in many weeks, she leaned against its unusually comfortable bark and began to relax a bit, eyes closed; trying to banish every painful thought from her mind and instead to focus on the feeling of her breathing and the sound of the gentle waves of the lake and the leaves above her, lightly swaying in a soft breeze.
She opened her eyes and took in the serene scenery of the calm lake, glistening in the sunlight and reflecting the clear sky above; framed by the slopes of the surrounding hills and trees in every autumn color, from brightest yellow to deepest red. The air was invigoratingly fresh and clear, far enough from being too cold. This was doubtlessly by far the most beautiful day of recent weeks and the irony of it all did not go unnoticed by Hermione.
After a while of letting herself be calmed by nature's bliss, she put her book in her lap, opened it to the site where she had left off earlier and began reading. With slightly less than eighty pages remaining, she was taking comfort in the intention of simply staying here until she had finished Emma. Then, at least, she would have a convincing reason to return to the castle.
It is a curious thing how one can be so absorbed by something that one seemingly loses touch with one's surroundings, yet still retain that inexplicable awareness that might just start off as a subtle and rather irrational feeling of something being not quite right, until the doubts are finally proven wrong. Thus, Hermione did eventually give in to the distracting sensation and involuntarily looked up from her book, entirely unsure if it was because she had heard something move in the leaves on the ground, or if she had maybe seen something from the corner of her eye. Be that as it may, her heart seemed to stop short in her suddenly tightening chest.
"Sorry," he immediately said. "I didn't mean to startle you. I just stood here for a moment and… didn't know what to say, I guess."
Hermione was desperately trying to get any kind of order into her thoughts, while at the same time trying to compose herself in general, making sure at least her most essential body functions were still intact. Within a fraction of a second, her serenity had turned into chaos; a phenomenon Harry had probably never before been the cause of prior to these strangest of days. It seemed impossible to concentrate on the situation at hand when she didn't seem to understand anything anymore, all the while growing increasingly annoyed and frustrated with herself. With her searching for words over the course of seconds that felt like minutes to her, it was instead Harry who spoke again, although he did not make that much of a better job at it.
"Maybe I should just leave, if you… if it's not a good time… although, no – I mean, of course I will go if you want me to, but… I can't really… go, just now, you see, since…"
"What are you doing here?" Hermione suddenly blurted out, as if in a reflex that missed its right moment.
Harry seemed abashed and cast his eyes down on the ground.
"I, uh…" he started mumbling, then all of a sudden seemed to think better of it and looked up again, directly at Hermione. In a much more serious and fully determined voice he said: "I need to talk to you."
"Oh," Hermione breathed in response, desperately searching for the slightest clue where this was going. "Okay, sure."
"Right," Harry said, nodding – apparently more to himself.
He made a few tentative steps towards her, reducing the distance between them to no more than a few feet, with Hermione nervously watching him. For all his determination, he still seemed to be quite unsure of himself.
"How did you find me, anyway?" Hermione asked in an attempt to make this whole situation less uncomfortable for both of them, while simultaneously genuinely wondering about that, for she knew this place was not within the range of the marauder's map.
"I… do kind of know you, you know?" Harry stated quite matter-of-factly. "Ron told me you had left the library and Neville saw you leave the castle and Hagrid said you had been heading towards the lake and… that's really all the information I needed. This is your spot."
Hermione looked at him incredulously.
"Well deduced, Potter," she said, making him smile in response – even if a bit unsteadily.
He then took a very deep breath and nervously threw her a quick glance.
"I need you to know something," he said decisively. "It might be selfish, it might be wrong, but I just… I can't keep it for myself. Not after everything that has happened in the last few days. I need you to know, and I'm sure you'll understand why… once I get to the point."
Hermione watched him stride from left to right and back again in front of her, equally intently and anxiously. He was alright, wasn't he? The spell and all its effects on Harry had successfully been removed completely, hadn't they? He couldn't be in any danger anymore. She didn't want to disrupt him, but quite suddenly she was just too worried to remain silent.
"You are okay, aren't you?" she asked hastily. "The spell doesn't have any harmful aftereffects?"
Harry chuckled in spite of the situation and looked at her with what for Hermione was a rather puzzling expression. She in turn looked at him perplexedly.
"I'm sorry," he said, still – to Hermione's chagrin – with a certain amusement on his features. "No, it's all good with my health. I'll live to see another day of having to die to save the world."
Hermione gave him a most deploring look at that and was about to reply something, but Harry made her hold her breath with an apologetic motion of his hand.
"Just kidding," he assured her. "I'll be around."
He turned his head sideways to look over the lake for a moment, his silhouette contrasting against the glistening reflections of the bright sunlight on the waves in Hermione's view. She heard him sigh before he turned around to face her again.
"So, what I need you to know is this," he said. "And please note that I'm sorry – but you were wrong."
Hermione merely blinked in response, confused by this supposed revelation.
"About what?" she asked apprehensively.
"Your very own deduction," Harry rather calculatedly revealed. "What was it again that made you believe I had to be under the influence of some kind of magic in the first place?"
"Well," Hermione carefully answered. "Your… general mode of behavior, I would say."
"My rather bluntly displayed affection for you," Harry complemented outspokenly.
Hermione averted her eyes and gulped ever so slightly.
"You didn't even consider any alternatives," Harry claimed without any hint of doubt. "That was all the proof you needed."
"Harry," Hermione said in a near whisper, still avoiding his eyes. "What is this about?"
He hesitated for a moment, knowing that he was in too deep to retreat by now. He sat down in front of her, their knees almost toughing. There was no way around it and no way back. There were no more games to be played and no more jokes to be made. There was simply truth; truth that needed to be revealed, come what may come. Looking at her now, seeing her so ashamed, so insecure and so vulnerable, there was simply no alternative. It was not a matter of choice, for in this very moment it came as naturally to him as breathing; feeling it as a burning sensation deep within that took hold of his whole being.
"I'm in love with you, Hermione Granger."
Her head jolted up in an instant and she looked at him as if in shock.
"What?" she exclaimed despite herself, then went on stammering. "But I… I thought… I thought you were healed?"
Harry couldn't keep himself from chuckling at that, even if it was short-lived and ended in a long sigh.
"You know what that spell did to me?" he asked her. "To my emotions?"
She just looked at him in confusion, her eyes switching back and forth between his, as if in desperate search for answers.
"Nothing," he said quietly, yet intensely.
She furrowed her eyebrows and opened her mouth in an attempt to say something, yet no sound escaped her slightly shaking lips. Her breathing had quickened considerably again.
"Nothing at all," Harry emphasized. "It didn't change my feelings; it didn't evoke anything that wasn't there before. It just made me act on them, forcing me not to conceal them. It was a revealing charm, not an alteration charm. It was, as I might add, not cast perfectly well, which is why I got a bit messed up in between it all and had those headaches, too. It was hard remembering things and I got confused all the time, until I started to have the very same doubts that all of you seemed to have. I was so sure that these feelings had not come out of nowhere, but at the same time it was hard to be certain… and that made everything even worse. Ah, it was a mess. But, just to be clear, McGonagall did have a great timing with that desiderium charm, because that one would have turned out no different, even if I hadn't been under the influence of that spell. At least that's what I think. Maybe it wouldn't have worked that well, because I was so used to… suppressing my feelings. I don't know. It doesn't really matter, I guess."
Hermione stared at him with a blank expression, making Harry realize how he had just babbled away. He cleared his throat and scratched the back of his head, before his face turned much more serious again in a rather abrupt change.
"I just needed you to know, that's all," he said quietly. "Because I cannot accept that you would think someone couldn't love you, be it me or whoever else. I needed you to know that everything I have said and done during the past few days was true and honest. I meant every word I said to you. I realize this might be selfish… or maybe even a risk not worth taking, since I do not know what impact this will have on our friendship – which I could not live without, frankly – and even if you don't feel the same, I… I still had to do it. Because… I think you deserve to know – and that… you're worth every risk."
Hermione, if one would have asked her, would not have been able to tell if at that moment her mind was working chaotically fast or painfully slow, but not the smallest part of her certainly wanted time to stop for at least a minute either way, for both variants lead to an astounding lack of any productive thought.
"But I... I'm in love with you, too," she said in a manner as if the entire world had seized to make sense, since both of them surely could not feel the same for one another.
"What?" Harry exclaimed in response, not less bewildered than Hermione seemed to be. "But… that night in the common room – you left. I thought you simply didn't…"
"I left because I thought you were only behaving the way you were under the effects of that charm. I just couldn't believe otherwise."
"Really?" Harry seemed to have honest trouble believing what he heard.
"Harry… I've been in love with you for years. I care for nothing in the world more than for you," she said assertively. "And here I was, fearing that could be too obvious…"
Harry shook his head mechanically. "I never thought… I mean, that's actually part of the reason why I never… besides all those other reasons, like people trying to kill me and everyone dear to me, but… I never…"
"Could we stop talking for maybe a second?"
Harry gulped and looked rather embarrassed, not quite getting her meaning yet.
"Of course," he said, clearing his throat. "I'm sorry. I'll just shut up and let you…"
And before he could say another syllable, he was cut off in the most disarming, most engaging fashion he could remember ever being cut off in, when all of a sudden his mouth was fiercely shut close by another pair of lips, while it took his very own pair a mere second to recover from the surprise before they set off to eagerly welcome this softest of blessings. Their lips remained shut only for so long, though.
They breathlessly broke their increasingly passionate kiss after what to the both of them surely felt like far too short a time, yet their lungs importunately demanded air. They leaned with their foreheads against one another; their hands gently resting around each other's necks.
"Wow," Harry breathed between his gasps for air.
Hermione smiled sheepishly at him, equally panting.
"There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart," she whispered, her smile not even leaving her face while speaking.
"That's another way to put it," Harry replied jokingly. "That was Jane Austen, though."
Hermione raised an eyebrow at him. "How do you know that, seriously?"
"I began reading it when I saw you were reading it."
Hermione pulled back a bit and looked at him incredulously.
"You're crazy," she said, her unrestrainable smile betraying her attempt at a serious expression.
Harry grinned at her, practically beaming.
"About you," he said.
And at that, Hermione closed the small gap between them with such irresistible force that she threw Harry over to land sprawled on his back in the midst of autumn's leaves, Hermione laying right on top of him and fervently continuing their previous encounter of this most interesting, potentially addicting kind.
~ The End ~
A crazy person's afterword & optional commentary
Well, that's it. See what I meant? No one died, no one cried. All's well that ends well – so comedy it is. Just kidding. But it wasn't too dramatic now, was it?
Anyway, about Hermione: there were some intriguing comments regarding her actions. Let me try to explain how I imagined Hermione to be here.
Hermione might just be the strongest character of the classic trio, but she is also very vulnerable beneath the surface. Her defense mechanisms have become so resilient over time, though, that it really takes quite something to reach that vulnerable core of her. Hermione is intelligent and prefers to approach things rationally over giving in to emotions, which really does not come lightly to her. She might even go so far as to deny her emotions altogether, while at the same time feeling rather silly for it. While her behavior is not faked or artificial and she really is authentically rational, there still roams something different under that surface, which only few – maybe even no one yet – really knows about. For all her intelligence and distance, there is still the heart of a young woman inside her. She is capable of very intense and profound emotions; she simply has gotten used to burying them deep within in order to protect herself from being exposed, hurt and disappointed.
I pretty much despised the way she was portrayed in "Half-Blood Prince". I do not see her falling into such typical patterns of teenage behavior. Yes, there is a girl inside her – she is a girl, for Merlin's sake. But she's not like that. I really imagine her to be far too proud to go after a boy like that or, for that matter, to even give in to her hormones in the first place. She doesn't swoon whenever Robert Pattinson comes along and she wouldn't attempt to kill him with a bunch of birds when he dares to go out with another girl. "My" Hermione deals with these things differently; inwardly and all by herself.
In the setting of my story she has harbored feelings beyond friendship for Harry for quite a while. For her part, her insecurities, her pride and her fear made it impossible for her to ever openly show these feelings. Harry himself added to this by putting on the same act, for his own reasons. I really imagined them here to be two people who so desperately need each other and feel so deeply about each other, yet are kept back from ever giving in to these emotions by all their doubts and fears. The way Harry grew up, I believe it is more than plausible that he would have difficulties in dealing with his emotions as well. Where Hermione presumably experienced at least the love of her parents, Harry has all the reasons to feel utterly unlovable. Add to that his hopelessness regarding his outlook on life in face of his looming destiny and everything else the boy has to deal with; I could never blame him for feeling unworthy of Hermione. Furthermore, he simply wants to protect his friends and keep them as far away from any potential harm as possible. And, last but not least, he just can't imagine Hermione could ever feel about him in that particular way.
Regarding the spell Harry was under; his openly displayed affection for Hermione was really only her final (if ultimately incorrect) clue, not the initial one. His behavior alone gave reason enough for her to suspect that something was wrong. She has known Harry for many years and – as I imagine – knows him better than anyone else, even if the two them kept arguably the most important thing from each other. If something is indeed wrong with Harry, Hermione will be the first to note. And that is exactly what happened here. The way he behaved particularly towards her was really just the final piece of evidence that lead to her conviction.
From there on, she simply couldn't shrug off her theory. When Hermione's mind is set on something, there really isn't much room for change; her plain concern for Harry's wellbeing only adding to that determination.
Frankly, when I wrote this story I really began thinking about this whole theme on a much bigger scale. I believe it's very likely that there would indeed be many, many kinds of magic revolving around altering, influencing, creating and changing people's emotions and that got me thinking: "How could you ever be sure that someone is completely free of such influences? How could you know that your emotions are really your own at all times? How could you not go totally paranoid over this?"
The wizarding world can indeed be a very daunting place, if you choose to give it this more serious twist (which I personally like very much). Us muggles will be facing such problems in the not too distant future ourselves, the more we understand the human brain. We can look forward to a multitude of different ways of directly manipulating what people feel and think – even more so than we presently already have. The concept of trust becomes that much more complex in such a world. It's one thing to have a hard time trusting someone else, but what if trusting yourself becomes difficult as well?
And that's pretty much the side of the whole theme that Harry represents, because even though his feelings were his own all throughout, he began to doubt them – because there was actual reason to do so. Because he could be wrong; they could be artificial. There was no way of being certain until he got tested. And why did he ultimately do it (besides the important reason that is described in the story)? Because he trusted Hermione more than himself.
That is, by the way, really what I like about this whole mess. Even while they are both in denial, they still show so plainly the very thing they deny: their love for each other. Hermione's primary motivation to act the way she does is her concern for his wellbeing and Harry really complies because he just can't ignore her. He knows her just as good as she knows him and when Hermione has a theory – whatever it may be – there is a good chance there is something to it.
The final theme is, of course, the value of truth. That's what it's all about. Amor Veritatis – a very important principle for me personally, by the way. Once the first sting of doubt hits your thoughts, it's like poison in your veins and it won't let you go and the pursuit of truth will be the only way to get rid of it again. I probably understand true love, as corny as it may sound, as love that has truth in its very core and thus, is above doubt. Not in so far as there will never be any doubts, mind you, but rather in so far as it will prevail over them all.
Anyway, I didn't plan on making the afterword longer than the actual chapter, so I guess I'll leave it at that. I just wanted to try to clear things up a bit, for I do not know how well defined they truly are within the story itself for a reader who has no way of knowing what kind of background I imagined for this setting. The funny thing is that I imagined Harry und Hermione to have been pretty much like at the beginning of McGonagall's class in my story for all those years, very natural and intimate – just held back by that one last barrier –, but my story revolves around these few days in their lives where the circumstances make it impossible for them to keep that up. That's why they might seem more distant than they actually are, for neither of them really knows how to handle the situation.
Oh, I nearly forgot! The whole underlying plot that's pretty much my story's MacGuffin: the ominous spell. While I certainly didn't pull a Hitchcock here and decided to keep the whole thing in the background for various reasons, I still believe the hints are all in there. Some of you already had the right ideas. But since this story was not supposed to be about crime and punishment, I didn't want it to overtake the plot. The story is, quite simply, one of the many fanfictional ways of Harry and Hermione realizing what they have in each other and I really wanted to emphasize that in the final scene, for they couldn't care less about "Whodunit". No dark magic was involved; no prosecution will necessarily have to take place. There will only be one disillusioned fangirl more in Hogwarts…
Okay, that's it. I'll shut up now. How much can a guy analyze his own story? Feel free to discuss my narcissistic tendencies in the comments and if you have any questions left, just ask.
So, one last time: hope you enjoyed it for what it is. Thank you very much for reading and every single review. I am officially out of finished or even presentable fanfiction now.