A/N -Written for the Harry Het Big Bang over at LJ. The story is currently complete, but I'll be uploading the chapters once a week after I upload Chapter 2, which will take some time.
Thank you to Heart of Spells who is my beta extraordinaire for really helping me with this.
Harry Potter stood quietly still on the cobblestone steps of Diagon Alley, his eyes studying the couple inside the restaurant he was supposed to enter. He hadn't been late; not really. He had arrived exactly when they had told him he should. But just as he was about to walk in, he had caught a glimpse of them through the window; the image of which invoked something unpleasant in him.
She looks happy, he thought suddenly, almost as if he had never quite realised it before. They looked happy.
Ron and Hermione were laughing about something, their grins wide and their eyes sparkling with humour. It was just one of those moments when he realised once again that he was the odd man out. Ever since the Final Battle a year ago, things had changed considerably for them. Actually, it was ever since Hermione had flung herself at Ron; the thought of which still made his gut clench in knots whenever his mind focused on that one memory. At that time, they had a higher purpose. He didn't really focus on the tangle of feelings deep inside his chest at the image of seeing his best mates snogging right in front of him. Later, when everything was over and he saw Hermione look up at Ron with a secret smile that he had never really seen before... that was when he felt that same feeling again. The rumble within him that was similar to how he had felt when he had seen Ginny snog Dean, though it was different in so many ways. The gnarling animal inside his chest felt possessive of his best friend who had stuck with him through everything, her encouraging smile and brilliant brain being the one thing that had helped keep his sanity through the Horcrux hunt. To see that look in her eyes for someone else...
It had been an epiphany, one that had nearly ruined him. He had worked hard on trying to shake that feeling off while doing everything that was expected of him. He had dated Ginny, joined the Auror programme, and went to the Burrow every Sunday for brunch. But at some point, he couldn't do it anymore. He got tired of his role and, as a result, sloppy with his life. He had become careless, uncommunicative and absent. Truth be told, he hadn't seen the pair of them for nearly two months, the longest period of time without any news since the summer before sixth year. He had to admit that it wasn't their fault. They had tried time and again to draw him out of the secluded position he had placed himself in and he had blatantly refused, blaming it on non-existent excuses. But like any good liar, he needed to know when to quit. Which is how he found himself finally agreeing to dinner with the two people he still considered his best mates, even if the very thought of being in the same room with them felt like a physical blow.
Harry continued to eye the couple through the window, willing his feet to either walk in or walk away. He had always been too indecisive for his own good and this was no exception. He even cursed himself for not having the ability to make up his mind. He kept watching through the window as a waiter approached them. Ron immediately took the menu while Hermione pulled it out of his hands and gave it back to the confused waiter. With a slight bow, he left, leaving Ron scowling and Hermione chastising him for his impatience. But it was the simple movement of her looking at the wrist watch on her arm, her features marring by a worried frown that finally made him leave his spot near the window. The fact that she had been waiting for him to arrive before placing an order, showing the confidence she had in him to show up only served to increase the guilt within him. Stifling the need to leave, to save himself from the pain he knew he was going to experience by seeing them together, Harry entered the restaurant.
His first reaction was that this was not the type of restaurant that he would have chosen. It seemed too...happy for him. The restaurant was one of the popular high end eating joints that seemed to have a waiter lingering about every few feet. The people were immaculately dressed and the food seemed splendidly expensive. Harry couldn't help but feel grossly underdressed.
The moment he was within their eyesight, both Hermione and Ron stood up enthusiastically, their smiles practically lighting up the room. Harry couldn't help but mirror their happy grins as he embraced them in turn, grateful that he hadn't let his fear claim him and cause him to leave. It was good to see them. He hadn't how much he had missed them.
"Blimey, how long has it been?" Ron questioned as he sat down, his hand immediately rising to get the attention of a waiter.
Harry let out a small laugh when he realised that Ron hadn't noticed Hermione's glare, choosing to peruse the menu instead. "Too long."
Hermione turned towards him, her eyes concerned. "How are you, Harry? Everything all right?"
Harry shrugged, dropping his gaze from hers for fear that she would be able to see through his lie. "I'm good. Great, even. Actually I'm-"
"Hungry," Ron piped in with a devious grin.
"Exactly!" Harry said gratefully. "Hungry."
Hermione eyed him carefully in a way that made him think that she knew that something wasn't sitting right with him. She always had a way of reading him the way others couldn't, and he found himself having a mini menu war with Ron just so he could avoid looking at her; or if he was being completely honest, avoid giving her the opportunity to study him.
With one final tug, Harry managed to pull the menu away from Ron, sporting a smug expression, even as Ron was given another menu by a passing waiter.
"Git," Ron mumbled with a low breath as he perused his new menu.
To which, Harry breathed out a simple 'Prat' under his breath just to be even.
They both looked up and grinned at each other as Hermione rolled her eyes at their antics. "Honestly, you two."
"What?" they asked simultaneously, their expressions grossly innocent.
Hermione glared at them in turn before a smile fought its way through and she shook her head in defeat. "Nothing."
As they all shared a small smile, Harry realised how much he had missed this.
It wasn't long before Harry excused himself. He had managed to sit through drinks, then half of their meal before he finally pushed his chair back, stood up quickly, and with a quick mumble under his breath, made his way to the men's loo.
It hadn't been a properly thought out decision at the time. All it had taken was Ron reaching across the table to squeeze her hand with absolute affection in his eyes for Harry to forget the promise he had made to himself. And now, as he stood in front of the long mirror in the washroom, his hands clenching around the cool material of the sink and his head bowed in defeat, he couldn't help but admit that he was tired.
He was tired of pretending that he was strong enough to sit with them for so long. It was a completely insane thought, the fact that one simple moment between his best mates could make him flee the way he did. To make matters worse, he felt horrid when he saw their expressions just as he left; Ron's completely confused and Hermione's surprisingly passive. He hadn't expected that. And he ultimately found himself hiding from them for nearly ten minutes, his mind playing their expressions on a loop, each time focusing longer on Hermione's while his mind tried to come up with reasons as to why she would have looked at him like that.
It was with great focus and determination that Harry finally threw a handful of water onto his face, dried his hands with immense speed and left the loo to join his dinner mates. He had been acting like a selfish wanker when all they wanted was to spend some fun, uncomplicated time with him. The least he could do was look away when they acted like the couple that they were, and respect them enough to not act like a complete tosser to displays of their happiness.
Harry was just about to pass the two large columns that obstructed their table from the view of others when he heard her mention his name. Out of pure habit, he paused, leaning his body closer to the pillar so he could hear them better. He had never been particularly proud of listening in while others spoke about him, but history had shown that the best way to find out exactly what people thought of him was by doing it the Rita Skeeter way. As far as he was concerned, he had learnt a lot by eavesdropping, particularly from Hermione and Ron.
"He's not fine, Ron. You saw him today. He was nervous."
"Well, he has a reason to be nervous, doesn't he? What he ordered doesn't look at all that appetising. I wonder if it's even cooked right."
Harry heard Hermione let out an exasperated sigh. "That's not what I mean and you know it."
"Okay then, he's nervous. What do you want to do about it?"
There was a moment of silence before she replied, "Make him comfortable, for one."
"He should be comfortable with us. We're his best mates!"
"Exactly! But, he's not. He's too jumpy. And there's something in his eyes..."
Harry could imagine the expression on Ron's face when he heard that. "His eyes? You're basing this on his eyes?"
Hermione let out another frustrated sound. "I know it sounds mad-"
"Mental, more like."
"But, I can see it. There's something missing there. He's not happy."
Harry felt his gut clench at how she had trailed off at the end; the slight catch in her voice when she spoke the words, betraying her sadness. He felt ashamed for letting his unhappiness show. He hadn't intended to. It had been extremely difficult to sit there and smile when Ron brought up their fond memories, double dates and future plans. His smile was so wide that he had practically felt his cheeks crack from the pressure. But that one casual gesture had been his limit and he didn't even know it. He never wanted to upset either of them, especially Hermione. And he couldn't help but feel that he was failing miserably in that aspect.
Deciding that he had heard enough, and knowing that he didn't really want to hear anymore, he made his appearance known. Ron smiled at him encouragingly while Hermione seemed to have tears in her eyes. Even if he hadn't spent a good few minutes listening in on their conversation, he would have known that something was up from the moment they looked at him. But, having heard what he did, he chose to smile at them and pick up their conversation from where they had left off, with one noticeable change.
"I have news," Harry said with a sheepish grin as he took his seat.
Ron scrunched up his face in disgust. "I don't think any of us really want to hear what went on in the loo, mate."
"Not that." Harry glared at his best friend for good measure before straightening up and saying in what he hoped was a happy tone. "I was recently promoted."
Ron and Hermione grinned wide as they congratulated him; Ron slapping his back appreciatively and Hermione giving him such a heart-felt hug that he had to consciously pull himself away before he decided not to let go. Ever.
"That's great, Harry, I'm so proud of you," Hermione said fondly, her eyes brimming with tears.
It always astonished him that he could always make her cry, with happiness and with sadness. He was convinced that no one should have such power over how someone felt the way she always seemed to have towards him, and how he was positive she had over him.
"What is it, then?" Ron asked with a teasing grin. "Are you the head Auror now?"
"No," Harry said as he shook his head sheepishly. "There's so much more time before I even have the chance for that. But this is pretty...good, I suppose."
"Just good?" Hermione questioned curiously, immediately picking up on his hesitation. "I would have thought that you'd be excited about it."
"I am." She looked at him meaningfully. "Really." He looked at Ron, who was the only one at the table who didn't seem to notice anything but the good news.
"There must be perks," his mate said excitedly. "Pay raise, less danger..."
Harry smiled sheepishly, aware that what he was promised didn't necessary sound that perfect. "Well, not exactly."
Ron stared at him with mock incredulity. "Don't tell me that they're not paying the Great Harry Potter bucket loads of gold."
"I'm not the 'Great' Harry Potter," Harry said rolling his eyes. "And they're paying me well."
Cocking his head towards a table behind him, Ron grinned. "You sure about that, mate?"
Harry followed the direction Ron was gesturing to, his gaze falling on two women who were pointedly looking at him while they kept their heads close in heated whispers. Gone were the days when he used to blush at the attention, now finding their blatant stares an annoyance more than anything else.
Hermione cleared her throat, effectively bringing Harry's attention back to their table. "What's the problem with this promotion then? And don't tell me there isn't one, because it's obvious there is."
They both looked at him expectantly, causing Harry to admit defeat. "They want me to train new recruits."
"That's brilliant," Ron breathed out.
"You'll be perfect for that," Hermione said, agreeing. "You've always been a great teacher when it comes to teaching defensive spells."
"Yeah." Harry nodded, his gaze falling on Hermione when he said, "Only it's more of an international gig."
Ron looked at him in surprise. "A lot of travelling then?"
Hermione seemed to be in her own thoughts for a moment before she asked him softly, "How long will you be away?"
Harry let out a humourless laugh, unsure of exactly how thrilled they were going to be once he finally said it. "Three years." He definitely hadn't expected their silence as they simply stared at him. After a considerable amount of time had passed, he had to wonder if his best friends had actually heard him.
"Wow," Ron said as he let out a low breath. "So long?"
Harry shrugged. "It's six months in six countries. It's not only me, though. I'm going with a team of recruiters. I guess they see us as the best teachers after Voldemort."
"But, you're allowed to visit, right?" Ron asked.
Harry quickly glanced at Hermione who seemed to be concentrating too hard on the dish in front of her. "Not really. This project is something the Ministries are keeping quiet. I think they're building a joint army; one that is trained to make sure that no one does what Voldemort did ever again."
Ron shook his head in disbelief. "Blimey, Harry, only you could get yourself mixed up with something like this."
"I suppose I'm lucky," Harry mumbled dryly, his eyes landing on Hermione again.
When she finally looked at him, he found that he just couldn't look away. "When are you leaving?"
"A month from now," he said gently, knowing that this was a lot to take in. "They want me to get my affairs in order before I leave."
Hermione smiled then, the widening of her lips looking pained more than anything else. "I'm happy for you. It's good to have a purpose again."
Harry wasn't sure what reaction he had expected from her, but he was positive that that wasn't it. She was the person who talked him out of leaving even if it was for one simple Auror mission. It was unnerving that she practically gave him her seal of approval for something that intended to keep him away for so long. It almost made Harry think that he was doing the wrong thing. Almost.
"All I can say is, we're gonna miss you, mate," Ron said with a sad smile.
Harry smiled back, knowing that he felt the same. "Yeah, me too."
Harry and Ron spent the rest of the dinner discussing Harry's new assignment and the long list of things he had to do before he left, everything from whether he was taking his broom to what was to become of Grimmauld Place. Every now and then, Harry's gaze would fall on Hermione who would nod for one statement or another, her mind obviously someplace else. He had hoped that she would talk to him, but instead found himself a party to her silence throughout the rest of the night.
A/N - To those who are interested, Round 1 of the Harry/Hermione awards are currently underway. We are currently accepting nominations (which you need not have an LJ account to put your two cents in), link to be found on my profile. Please nominate your favourites because we really need your participation :)