A small popping noise broke the silence of the night. Had anyone been walking down the street, they would have been startled by the sudden appearance of a young man with messy black hair and vivid eyes scanning the street from behind his glasses. However no one wandered the street at this hour, and his careful scanning found nothing out of place. Less than a week to go before Christmas, and winter had hit London with a vengeance. Snow drifts and icy patches of road kept most people stuck indoors. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of people wandering the streets, the number of crimes had risen sharply. Harry's fellow Aurors joked about cabin fever and discussed hitting the Leaky Cauldron for some firewhiskey while he worked to finish his paperwork so he could just go home.
Despite the late hour he could see the glow of a fire in the living room windows, so he knew Hermione would still be awake and waiting for him. In the five years since the end of the war, Hermione never went to sleep until he returned home. More than anything, she hated sleeping in an empty house. Some scars might never fade. Harry brushed snow off his shoulders as he stepped on to the porch. Making his way into the house, he removed his jacket and shoes, storing them in the coat closet. As a sweet scent wafted in from the kitchen, he made a detour in that direction. "Sorry I'm late," he called out towards the living room. "I'll be right there, just let me get some chocolate."
He poured himself a cup of the hot chocolate, rewarming it with a flick of his wand and a muttered word. As he left the kitchen, he grabbed a plate of cookies and strolled into the living room. He smiled. Hermione sat on the floor in front of the fire, her back to the door, and looked at something in her hands.
"Three calls tonight; three! In this weather!" he exclaimed as he placed the plate on the coffee table. "I swear everyone's getting some kind of winter sickness and it's only been two days!"
There was no response.
He frowned. "Hermione?" Putting his mug down on a side table, he knelt beside her. With her head bent, her long brown hair hung like a veil and shielded her face. When she still remained silent, he glanced down at the object in her hand.
She held a dark cherry wood frame. The picture consisted of six Hogwarts sixth year students who waved up at them with small but affectionate smiles. Their eyes held sorrow and fear, but hope lurked around the edges. Reaching out, Harry ran a finger across the top of the frame. Taking a deep breath to force down a sudden rush of sadness, he lifted his hand to her face. With gentle, but relentless, pressure, he turned her to face him.
Tears streamed silently down her cheeks.
"Hey, hey, what's this?" he asked. He sat down beside her and pulled her into his lap. Leaning against the couch, he swayed slightly trying to offer what comfort he could. She buried her face into his shoulder, clutching the picture frame to her chest. The two of them sat for many long minutes with only the sound of her quiet sobs breaking the heavy silence.
When her crying had subsided, she lay her head on his chest and closed her eyes, still trying to absorb some comfort from the feel of his arms around her and his heart pounding steadily beneath her ear. He rested his chin on the top of her head and ran a hand up and down her arm. Still, the silence stretched between them, but now it had a sense of expectation, of Harry waiting for an explanation. With one last sniff, she lifted her head and looked into the worried green eyes.
"I'm forgetting," she whispered.
He frowned, confusion darkening his gaze. "Forgetting what?" he asked quietly.
Her chin trembled, but she pulled herself under control. "I was in here reading, waiting on you to get home. Susan sent me an early Christmas gift, remember? Hidden Witches of History? Anyway, I had just finished the chapter on Lady Godiva. It talked about her using a disillusionment spell to help maintain some modesty as she rode through the town, and I thought, Ginny would say something sarcastic here and Ron would laugh."
She stopped and bit her lip, closing her eyes as her body shook with a repressed sob. Harry lifted his hand and began caressing her hair. It had a calming effect on her. As her shivers stopped, she put her head back down on his chest. He never stopped his movement.
She took a deep breath. "I suddenly realized that I couldn't quite remember what Ginny sounded like or exactly how loud Ron's laugh could be. I swore…I swore I would never forget, but I can't hear them anymore!"
Silence returned, but she no longer allowed herself to pour out her emotions. Instead she had silent tears pooling in her eyes, but none escaped. Harry closed his eyes and buried his face in her hair. After several long moments, he confessed, "I can't hear Luna anymore either. I used to hear her all the time, reminding me to look beyond the surface, to see why people do things, not just what they do."
"I don't want to forget."
Harry thought back over the past few years. In the final battle at Hogwarts, he had seen his closest friends killed or wounded, all for the megalomania of one man. Voldemort's desire to cheat death, his fear of the next life, had caused untold harm across two generations. The Weasley family lost half of its members at the final battle, including Fred, Ron and Ginny. Luna Lovegood had also been killed there. Fred had died in an explosion caused by Augustus Rookwood, while Ron had stepped between Neville and Fenrir Greyback. Ginny and Luna had almost beaten Bellatrix LeStrange, but she managed two final Killing Curses before succumbing to the wounds inflicted by the girls.
Harry and Hermione survived the war…physically at least. The emotional and psychological wounds had almost crippled both of them in the first couple of years after their 'victory'. After several months of screaming nightmares and frightening panic attacks, they found it impossible to return Hermione to her parents, and Harry had a frightening need to know where she was at all times. Both of them had been watched carefully by various Order members, but particularly Molly and Arthur Weasley. Having lost three of their children, they determined not to lose these two as well.
Various medi-witches and wizards had gently recommended hospitalization for Hermione, but had quickly changed their minds after being subjected to a vocal diatribe from Molly. "Honestly, the girl needs to be surrounded by people who love her, not a bunch of 'objective' outsiders. What could you possibly do other than keeping her drugged into insensibility with potions?" If that had not been enough, Harry stood at Molly's side giving them a burning look of distaste.
They had shared a bed from the start. Not for sex as some accused, but for comfort, for the knowledge that they were both alive and there. For the first few years, they had stayed with the Weasleys, not wanting to face society without their family around them. Two years ago, however, Harry had passed all of the exams to become an Auror. They had placed two restrictions on his employment: first, that he live in London; second, that he see a medi-witch or wizard versed in mental illness. He had balked, but they had made some very good points. If he did not deal with the nightmares and demons in his mind, he might one day hurt an innocent. He had agreed.
He focused on the woman in his arms once more as she sniffled again. "I don't want to forget either, but…"
"I know!" she exclaimed sharply, trying to pull away. "I know we will. I just didn't think it would be this soon!"
He kept his arms locked, not letting her move. "Hermione! I don't want to forget, and we won't. We won't forget Ron's humor, Ginny's wit, or Luna's wisdom. A day's going to come when we no longer remember the sound of their voices, or what they wore, but we will never forget them! We won't forget the important things…the things that really made them who they were."
She turned her face towards him and their gazes locked. Fear and comfort, despair and hope passed between them; an entire conversation taking place with just a shared look. Finally, finally a small smile graced her lips.
Giving a sigh, she laid her head on his shoulder once more. Holding up the photo so he could see it, she said, "I remember that day. We were caught between hope and despair then too."
"Yeah," he replied, "but we were closer to despair then. Not anymore Hermione. It's over, long over, and its time to let them go."
She took a deep shuddering breath. "Harry, promise me…promise me something?"
"Don't let me forget."