The breeze was uncharacteristically nippy in the little town of Godric's Hollow when Harry popped into being behind a plump evergreen tree. He shivered and pulled his black cloak more tightly around himself against the wind. Luckily, the walk to the little house that had once belonged to his mother and father was fairly short, as all walks were in Godric's Hollow, and he did not expect to be out in the elements for long. The streets were deserted as he walked, for which he was grateful, since he had received more than a few confused and slightly worried looks from the residents on his last few visits. He assumed that the cloak was what did it, since none of the people in the little town knew who he was, at least to his knowledge. It was one of the many reasons for which he loved the place.
As he rounded the last bend on the way to the house, he frowned in confusion. He knew the sight of the front of the building that was soon to be his new home very well at this point, and he was quite sure that there was not usually anything on the doorstep. As he approached, befuddled and a little worried—who was leaving things on his doorstep when no one in the magical world besides a few close friends knew about his plans to move?—he realized the thing on the doorstep was not a thing at all, but a person, and a familiar one at that.
"Harry!" Hermione cried upon seeing him, bounding off the front steps. Before Harry could comprehend what was going on, she had her arms wrapped around his neck and her face buried in his shoulder. It took him a few seconds to realize that her cheeks were wet with tears.
"Hermione?" he said, bewildered and more than a little worried now. "What's the matter?"
"I'm so stupid!" she declared into his shoulder. She was trembling, he noticed, and he quickly wrapped his arms around her and gave her a reassuring squeeze to steady her. "I've been so stupid, Harry," she added more quietly.
"What happened?" he asked. She sniffled softly and cleared her throat, clearly trying to calm herself.
"I quit," she said. Her voice trembled a little on the second word, as though she was afraid to say it aloud. "Godric, Harry, I quit. I've never quit anything in my life, I-"
"Wait, what did you quit?" he asked. She lifted her head from his shoulder. She was very pale, he noticed, and her eyes were red. He understood that she had been crying for much longer than the few moments since he had arrived.
"Training," she said. "Auror training." Her lower lip trembled a little and she bit it to steady it. "I'm so stupid," she muttered, looking up at the inky sky as though she believed that she would find a solution there.
Harry blinked in shock and tried very hard to make sense of what she was telling him. He had never heard the words "I quit" come from Hermione's mouth in more than seven years, not even during the long months they had spent starving half to death and freezing in the tent on their Horcrux hunt, and now she had turned up on his doorstep, telling him that she had quit her job. He took a slow breath.
"Okay," he said, running a hand through his hair. "Okay, why did you quit? What happened?"
She sighed and put her head back on his shoulder, seeming unable to hold it up on her own.
"Nothing monumental, really," she murmured. "My trainer gave me a tongue-lashing for taking an unauthorized break from running laps, which is hardly abnormal, but I just… I was exhausted, and everything hurt so badly, and I snapped." She took a shaky breath before she went on. "I don't even remember what I said anymore, but I know that none of it was good, and I'm almost certain that I started swearing a blue streak at some point in my tirade, which I'm sure must have been very amusing for everyone watching. I really let him have it, which felt wonderful at the time, until I realized that there was no way I was coming back after all that I had said. It was at that point that I decided to scrape up whatever dignity I had left in everyone else's eyes by quitting on my own instead of being fired." She sighed softly and released him before returning to her seat on the front steps, drawing her knees up to her chest, and resting her head on them. "It was such a ridiculous thing to do," she muttered, "but I couldn't help it once I got started. I'm just so bloody tired all the time, and I couldn't take the criticism anymore. I couldn't." A single tear rolled down her cheek as he sat next to her on the cold cement. "How could I be so weak, Harry?" she asked quietly. "All my life, I've never given up on anything, and now I turn around and walk out on my job because it's too hard." She spat the words in a self-deprecating voice that Harry had never heard, and he reached for her again, desperate to offer her comfort in some way, and placed one hand on her back, hoping she would understand that he was trying hard to be supportive.
"'Mione…" he began before he realized that he had no idea of what he was going to say. He fell silent for a few moments before he finally managed, "Look, Hermione, everybody has a breaking point. Maybe…" He rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. "Maybe you aren't meant to do everything, you know? Maybe you've just found out that being an Auror isn't the best choice for you."
She sniffled and wiped her eyes on the back of one hand before returning her head to her knees.
"Maybe," she murmured. "But… I just wanted it so badly."
"I know you did," he assured her, lightly patting her back. "Everyone knows you did, and we all watched you working yourself half to death trying to make it happen. Nobody's going to think that you quit because you're lazy and just don't want to make an effort," he added, knowing that she would worry. "We all know that these past few months have been really hard on you—it shows, you know—and… Well, some of us have actually been starting to wonder if you might be better off somewhere else," he admitted.
She looked at him for a long moment before she spoke.
"Have you, now?" she said. He rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. Her tone was not accusing, but it clearly indicated that she knew that "some of us" meant him, and he felt suddenly guilty, as though he was the only one in their little group of friends who had not had complete faith in Hermione's ability to see her goal through to the end.
"Well, yes, I mean…" he began awkwardly."It just… bothers me a bit to see you looking so run down," he explained, deciding to abandon the ghostly figures he had aligned with himself and simply own his own thoughts. He hated lying to Hermione, and there was no point doing it when she already knew that he was. "I know that Auror training is really hard work, but… Well, maybe it's just a Healer thing," he said, trying to make light of his worries, "but you've lost a lot of weight, and you weren't heavy to begin with, and you always look tired, and…" Not knowing what else to do, he shrugged and studied his shoes. "It just isn't healthy, and I've been worried about you, is all," he finished lamely.
She nodded and was quiet for a few minutes. The wind blew picked up, swirling around them on the cold cement doorstep, and Harry wordlessly took off his cloak and wrapped it around Hermione's shoulders. He has his Healer's robes on, after all, while she only wore the white tee shirt and deep purple jogging pants that constituted her training uniform. His cloak turned out to be more than large enough to wrap around her small body, proving his point about how much weight she had lost. They had both been very underweight at the end of the Final Battle at Hogwarts, months of stress and minimal food having taken their toll, and she had only just reached a healthy weight for someone her age when she started training and proceeded to lose half of what she had regained, this time to a combination of intense stress, long nights of studying, and long days of continuous duelling and countless laps.
"Thanks," she murmured, pulling the cloak a little tighter around herself.
"Anytime," he replied just as quietly. After a moment, he could not stand the silence any longer. "'Mione?"
"I'm sorry, you know," he said, "if I've said something stupid. I didn't really know what to say."
She shook her head.
"You haven't said anything wrong, Harry," she assured him. "You've made a good point, actually."
"Have I?" he asked, relieved.
"Yes," she said. "I… Well, I'm not suddenly going to feel like what I did was right, because I'm still very disappointed in myself, and it's going to take me awhile to get past that, but maybe… maybe you're right," she conceded. "Maybe I'm better off this way. I certainly haven't been feeling my best lately," she admitted. "Physically or emotionally, not that you want to talk about my feelings," she said with a very small, knowing grin.
"I would if it would help you feel better," he offered, a little desperately.
"It's all right," she assured him. She reached out and twined her fingers with his. "I won't put you through that, at least not right now. I just… I just need to think," she said. She shivered and readjusted the cloak around her shoulders. "I need to figure out what I'm going to do now. I've got a little money saved up from training, but it won't be enough to keep my room at the Cauldron for much longer." She sighed and tucked her hair behind her ears. "I suppose I'm going to have to move back in with my mum and dad, and won't that be fun? Every day, I'll get to be reminded that they would have sent me to university so that I could get a proper education if I hadn't been so pigheaded and insisted on getting a job in my world. What a treat."
Harry frowned. The last thing that Hermione needed right now was someone rubbing her face in what she had done. She was beating herself up enough as it was without her parents lending a hand.
"Stay with me," he blurted as the idea struck him. She looked at him.
"Stay with me," he repeated as he worked it out in his head. "The house isn't huge, but it's more than big enough for two, and I could really use your help getting it set up," he said, inclining his head towards the front door behind him. "You're better at magic than I am—you are," he added when she opened her mouth to protest by force of habit. "Things would go a lot faster with you around, and you would have somewhere to stay until you get back on your feet. It would be good for both of us, wouldn't it?"
She considered that for a moment.
"It wouldn't make you uncomfortable," she asked at last, "living with a girl?"
"We've lived together before," he pointed out. His lips quirked. "You've already seen me in my pyjamas. I don't expect there's much else that I can still be uncomfortable about. What about you?" he added. "Would it bother you to live with a boy?"
She shook her head.
"You've already seen me in my pyjamas, too, if you recall," she said, grinning slightly as well. "I suppose you're right: if we managed to share a tent for several weeks without killing each other, I'm sure we could manage to get along in a house."
"So, that's settled, then?" he asked. She nodded.
"Thanks, Harry," she murmured. "Really. I swear I'll make it up to you someday," she added solemnly, squeezing his hand. He squeezed back.
"'Mione, I owe you my life several times over," he pointed out softly. "The least I can do is keep a roof over your head and make sure you have enough to eat. Speaking of which," he added before she could say anything else, "you're cold, and it's well past suppertime now. Let's get you home and see if Tom can find you some of his marvellous pea soup, hm?" When he watched her lips quirk into a tentative grin, he felt heartened and gave her a hand another squeeze. "Hm?"
Finally, she chuckled softly. It was a beautiful sound.
"All right," she agreed. "Okay, let's go. But I'm not eating that soup unless you do, too."
He smiled as he stood and helped her up from the steps.
"Fine, if it doesn't eat me first."
She laughed as they set off, arm in arm, for the plump evergreen in the distance.