Hermione took a deep breath in before exhaling.
She raised her hand to the worn hardwood door and let her fist fall softly against the rough surface.
A fortnight had passed since she'd last stood in this spot. Distance had planted the seed of apprehension; time had allowed it to bloom until she could practically feel it like a weight resting heavily on her gut. The words she had rehearsed tirelessly before the mirror ran on a loop in her mind, the loudest ones drowning the others out in the ever-present cacophony:
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
She shut her eyes tightly to shield herself from whatever might lie beyond and shook her head just as the dry hinges of the Burrow's back door creaked open, revealing the familiar face of Ginny.
Beyond her was the rustic and artless morning routine of the Weasley family. The heady, savoury smell of breakfast wafted strongly out the door, assaulting Hermione's nose as the clangorous percussion of pots and pans did their utmost to make themselves known from inside the kitchen.
"Hey," Ginny said, offering her a small smile and gesturing for her to come inside.
"Are you sure I should…" Hermione said, letting her words trail off.
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous," she said, grabbing her hand and all but pulling her inside. "He's in his room, did you want to…?"
Without a chance to steel herself, Hermione was dragged unceremoniously through the threshold and into the Burrow proper. Any opportunity to abandon the path ahead fell to the wayside at the urging of a petite, eager hand.
Hermione cleared her throat. "No, erm...not-not yet," she said, feeling the weight in her gut grow heavier. "Maybe you and I could just…"
"Of course," Ginny said with a smile. "Mum's in the kitchen preparing breakfast. We can go help out?"
Hermione nodded, grateful for the possible distraction. She hadn't spoken to Ginny since their last letter about a week ago, and while the time had once seemed short, it had never felt longer now that she was forced to confront the weight of past events.
They'd shared the usual updates of life and what the world might hold for them, of their friends and their health. Though they always carefully toed around the obvious subject for fear of misstepping.
While they were yet to speak openly to one another about what had taken place all those nights ago, Hermione knew that Ginny was well aware of Ron's feelings—she had to be. Which meant she was also aware of Hermione's rejection.
The fresh reminder caused Hermions's thoughts to whir once more, but she took another deep breath in, focusing on her purpose here today. She'd come to the Burrow to set things right with Ron as best she could. Whether that was a futile hope or not was yet to be seen, but she was determined to try.
"Hello, dear," Mrs Weasley said with a tired smile as they entered the kitchen. "Seems forever since we've last seen you, hasn't it?"
"Yes, I've...been busy," Hermione said with an apologetic look. "Getting my mum and dad settled and everything."
Mrs Weasley nodded, a scrutinising gaze quickly flickering behind her eyes. The swift and irregular appraisal suggested Hermione's facade did not hold up against the intuition of the Weasley matriarch in the slightest.
Ginny gave an innocent shrug when Hermione glanced over at her.
"Ginny, grab some more eggs from the coop, will you?" Mrs Weasley said. "Hermione, peel the potatoes, please?"
They both nodded and did as they were asked, Hermione more than aware that she was now alone with Mrs Weasley. She was willing to bet that was precisely what the older woman wanted.
With a deft flick of her vine wood wand, any remaining remnants of soil from the outside vanished from the potatoes. She took a moment to search aimlessly through kitchen drawers for the worn peeler before setting to work.
"How are you?" Mrs Weasley said, moving to stand opposite her.
Hermione licked her lips. "Er...I'm doing well," she said with a quick smile. "How has everyone been here? Is George doing better?"
Mrs Weasley nodded slowly, but there was a tenseness to her now slightly slumped shoulders as if the question itself was all it took for gravity to claim her mood.
"And…" Hermione said, feeling the back of her neck heat up. "Ron?"
The peeler began to hack at the potato in her hand in inelegant, broad strokes as she tried to hide her embarrassment amidst the monotony of housework.
"Surely you two keep in contact?" Mrs Weasley said, raising an eyebrow.
Hermione swallowed hard. "We do," she said. "Just...not so much lately."
"And why's that?"
She had nothing to respond with, knowing she'd walked herself straight into a corner. Something about Mrs Weasley's assessing looks always made Hermione feel like a small child.
"Can I ask you something, dear?" Mrs Weasley said after a moment.
"Of course," Hermione said, her voice coming out scratchy. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Of course."
Mrs Weasley glanced at her out of the corner of her eye before pulling her attention back to the sausages sizzling in the pan. "Why are you here today?" she said.
The question threw Hermione a bit off guard in its bluntness. "Er…"
"I know I have a...tendency to be a bit overbearing," Mrs Weasley said, setting her wand down and taking the pan into her hand. "A bit overprotective...over-involved. Trust me; I've heard it all enough times from my children."
Hermione remained silent, unsure of how to respond.
"And while I'm not your mother, you must know that I see you as one of my own, Hermione," she continued, glancing up at her with a familiar, maternal gaze that she'd seen in her own mother's eyes often enough. "Which is why I'm asking you now...what is it that you're doing here exactly? What is it that you want?"
"I…" Hermione said, opening her mouth and shutting it again.
"I know about Ron," Mrs Wealsey said softly, her posture dragging further under the weight of the admission. "He hasn't told me directly, mind. But...I can read him better than he thinks I can."
At this, Hermione felt heat radiate through her cheeks, assured they turned a bright red. "You're angry at me, then?" she said in a small voice. "For not...for feeling…"
Mrs Weasley tutted loudly and took Hermione's hand into her own. "I'm disappointed you would even think that," she said, her eyebrows furrowed. "Hermione...I would tear down the world to give my children what they wanted. But there are some things I simply can't give them. Things I wouldn't want to give them."
Hermione parted her lips in surprise. "Are you saying...if you had the choice…" she said. "You wouldn't want Ron and me together?"
The woman let out a tired sigh as she took a seat at the kitchen table, and for a moment, Hermione felt guilty for burdening her with yet another problem. As if she wasn't already suffering enough.
There was a small voice in Hermione's head, a distant echo in the peripheral that sounded suspiciously like Harry. It urged her onwards, told her it wasn't her fault and that no other course would've saved a heartbreak. But confronted with the problems in the form of Mrs Weasley, she found it hard to trust the voice at this moment.
She put the peeler on the bench and abandoned the potatoes, a remnant of a time where she had a chance to avoid the problem at hand — an option that was clearly no longer available.
"There's no point even thinking about it, you see?" Mrs Weasley said, looking up at her. "You don't return Ron's feelings, and that's the end of it. Nothing to discuss, nothing to contemplate. Ron has to learn to deal with the reality that he's been given, and you'll have to learn to forgive yourself."
"Forgive myself?" Hermione breathed. "I mean-that's...how did you…"
The older woman gestured gently with an open hand to the seat beside her. Taking the seat would cement the conversation as happening in full — there would be no avoidance of the issue any longer. Hermione's back was against the edge of the countertop as she mustered the courage to step towards her.
She pushed herself gently from the relative safety of her side of the kitchen and walked towards the proffered chair, sitting tall in an effort to make her seem more confident than she felt.
Mrs Weasley gave her a sad smile. "Don't think I don't see what's going on here," she said, taking Hermione's hand and brushing her thumb over the back of it. "You've been away for weeks now. That's not like you. Since the war ended, you've been at everyone's side, doing your best to make things better. Listening, comforting. Even at your own expense. To be away from us all for that long and after what happened? I don't think it's a far stretch to assume you haven't been happy about it."
The words dragged a sigh from Hermione's mouth, breath coarse and hot as it escaped her barely parted lips. It was as if the thought had been pulled from her very mind, an errant thread captured by the older woman.
Hermione swallowed a lump in the back of her throat and shook her head. "No," she said, plastering a quick smile on her face. "No, not in the slightest. It's just...I hate feeling like...like I'm even remotely causing him any more pain than he's already feeling. And I know. I know what he's feeling. I…"
She stopped speaking at once, her breath catching in her throat.
The words had been ready to spill forth, an admission that had only scarcely passed from her lips in the past. But one look at Mrs Weasley confirmed that she'd at least partially understood what Hermione had refused to speak aloud.
"You know what it feels like?" Mrs Weasley finished, phrased like a question but carrying the full weight of a statement — the same scrutiny flicked behind her hazel eyes.
Hermione had no choice but to nod. "Well...I'm fairly certain I do," she said, staring down at the kitchen table, searching for momentary solace from the questioning in the wood grain.
She shrugged. "I've never actually got as far as Ron did," she said. "I've never shared my feelings. And I wish-well...I admire him for it. I wish I could've done the same."
"Couldn't you?" Mrs Weasley said, causing Hermione to snap her gaze up. "Assuming of course...this person is still in your life."
Hermione cleared her throat. "He is," she said. "But no...I...after I saw what happened with Ron. I mean...we haven't spoken in weeks since he told me. It's not the same between us, and I don't know if it ever will be. And I can't-I can't have that happen with…"
Mrs Weasley placed a hand on Hermione's arm. "Breathe for a moment, dear," she said. "I can practically hear your thoughts rushing around in that head of yours."
With a long breath, Hermione slumped back against her chair. "I do tend to overthink a bit," she said with a small chuckle. "I suppose...in answer to your question from earlier...I'm here to try to make things normal again between Ron and me."
"And you think that's possible?"
Hermione squeezed her eyes tight for a moment before looking back at the woman before her. "I don't know what I'll do if it's not," she said, her voice barely above a whisper carried away by the cacophony of noise in the kitchen.
Mrs Weasley flicked her eyes down and nodded. "I wish I could tell you that everything was going to be alright," she said with a small shrug. "I wish I could give you some sort of certainty. But I can't. I can only tell you that the bond you share with those two boys is not something that can be easily broken."
Feeling her heart skip a beat, Hermione met Mrs Weasley's eyes before quickly glancing away again. She wasn't sure if there was a reason Harry was also included in that statement or not, but she was definitely not going to ask about it.
"Not after everything you've been through," Mrs Weasley finished softly. "So, go...talk to Ron. Sort this thing out between the two of you. He's not going anywhere, Hermione. If I know one thing about my son, I know that."
Hermione swallowed hard and nodded, willing herself to believe it. The look of hurt on Ron's face flashed before her mind's eye, but she pushed it aside as she stood up from the kitchen table.
"I'm sorry, I didn't finish…" Hermione said, gesturing to the potatoes.
Mrs Weasley's face broke out in a genuine smile for the first time since Hermione had arrived. "Never you mind, dear. Just go. Go on," she said, shooing her away.
Hermione shot her a warm smile in return, hesitating for a moment before leaning over to give the woman a hug. Mrs Weasley seemed surprised at first but quickly settled into it, rubbing a soothing circle on her back.
"The worst is over, my dear," she said quietly. "We're all just picking up the pieces now."
Hermione blinked several times to keep her tears at bay before straightening up and giving Mrs Weasley a nod.
She rose from the chair and blew a sigh past her lips, remaining straight-backed as to not give her momentary courage any excuse to flee. She then turned on her heel and headed towards the stairs leading to Ron's room, ascending at a sedate pace as to give herself more time to mull over words yet to come.
The door was closed as she had expected, the waning distance between her feet and the frame slowly surmounted in a battle of courageous inches. The last few steps were practically leapt across, and she knocked before her reservations paralysed her any more than they had already over the past few weeks.
"What?" came Ron's muffled voice from the other side.
Hermione cleared her throat. "It's me, Ron," she said. "Can I come in?"
Silence met her words — sudden and suffocating, it stretched for what seemed like an age, forming an uncomfortable, pregnant pause across the door.
She raised her fist, unsure if she should knock again. But before she could ruminate on the decision for much longer, footfalls sounded from beyond the door.
The gap between wherever he was and the door was closed in an instant, the time-tarnished handle turned, and a final, inaudible sigh escaped her lips.
She braced herself as she came face to face with Ron for the first time in weeks.
Little had changed with him and yet to Hermione, it had seemed as if everything had. He still towered tall above her, though his pale blue eyes rose lethargically, gazing into her own with emotions indecipherable. She held his gaze for perhaps a second too long, still hopefully trying to glean whatever she could.
Her eyes drifted elsewhere, taking in the subtle changes in his features. Ron's freckled complexion had become ever so slightly paler, his lips were dragged down into a perpetual frown and his brow furrowed at the sight of her.
Ron was haggard. While his eyes betrayed little to her, the remainder of him was rough-hewn from rejection.
"Hi," she said, her voice coming out weaker than she'd intended.
Ron glanced behind her to check if she was alone, before giving her a quick appraisal as his mother had done before him. "Hi," he said, tone flat.
What he gathered from the appraisal was anyone's guess.
Hermione licked her lips and stared down at the floor. "Can we talk?"
She glanced back up and looked at him in exasperation.
Ron frowned again before opening the door wider. "Just come in," he said, turning his back on her and heading towards his bed. He sat up against the headboard, legs sprawled out in front him.
Harry's camp bed was laden with items, overflowing with what had to be the entirety of his wardrobe, leaving Hermione no room to sit down. Still, she walked towards it anyway, bunching armloads of clothes to deposit on the floor.
"How are you?" she said, taking in his appearance once more as she sat in the newly created spot.
"Peachy," he said, his eyes desperate to look anywhere but her own.
Hermione refrained from rolling her own eyes at his behaviour. She knew he was hurting in more ways than one, he had to be. Yet, she'd still hoped they could at least have a mature conversation.
Perhaps it had all been too early, or maybe she had been too late. Did he need more time or less? Doubts rushed as a sudden silence fell over the room.
It was certainly enough to make her reconsider her approach.
"Ron," she said, almost pleading.
He looked up at that, his eyes finally meeting hers.
Maybe he does need more time, Hermione thought, desperate to give herself reprieve from the situation.
But she squared her back once more and searched for a courage in short supply. It would not do to dwell on the mistakes made and roads not taken — she was there, and this needed to be done.
"Can we talk about this?" she said, clasping her hand tight in her lap. "Please…I…"
"What more is there to talk about, Hermione?" he said, throwing his hands up in the air. "I told you how I feel. And you don't feel the same. That's it. There's nothing more to it."
Hermione stared down at her lap, her fingers twisting together, a desperate attempt to sap the nervousness from her. "How are you feeling?" she said.
She had spent long hours before the mirror, rehearsing every possible opening to the conversation, a rebuttal to every point and a comfort for every hurt. Then, faced with the crux of their shared problems, it was as if it had all been erased from her mind.
Words lived and died before air was breathed into them, stilling at her tongue until:
How are you feeling?
That's what she'd gone with.
For goodness sake…
"How am I feeling?" Ron repeated, one eyebrow raised. "You've suddenly remembered to care?"
She felt something in her gut clench at his words and shut her eyes tight. Several seconds of strained silence stretched on, reigning supreme between them as the air grew thick with tension that could almost be tasted.
And it did taste of something. It was the bitter taste of failure, of a love not shared and a friendship possibly lost. It was the bile that rose dense in the back of her throat, and the fleeting hope that the damage between them was not irreparable.
Whatever courage she had rallied flew away at his words.
Look at him. Say something.
She willed herself to open her eyes, to set the world to right with a quick fix, to assemble words she did not yet have.
But she couldn't. The ghoul in the attic high above seemed to sense her conflict and howled mournfully, beating his sad percussion on the water pipes.
Look at him. She decided, Or leave.
If she lingered without saying anything, she'd hurt them both. Truth be told, she'd probably hurt them both anyways. But a chance, however slim, to mend was better than the certainty of the unrecoverable.
Look at him, Hermione urged herself once more.
Eventually, she forced herself to look back up and meet his eyes once more, the corner of her own stinging with the slow, daunting approach of tears. And when she took stock of his features, she was surprised to find an almost pitying look on his face.
Ron's mouth opened and closed, struggling to grapple with words he clearly meant but did not intend to have heard.
"I didn't mean to say that," he said, his voice softer as he turned his gaze away from her. "It was stupid."
"No, it…" she said, licking her lips. "It's true, I've been selfish. I should have contacted you sooner...come to see you...apologise."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said, his voice sharp. "You can't bloody fix everything, Hermione. This is my shit that I've got to deal with now, and there's nothing you can do to help."
A small exhale escaped her parted lips. Once again, her resolve came into conflict with his words. Air escaped her lungs and left her breathless, deflated — she did not know how to approach the situation ahead, how to grapple with feelings shared and unrequited.
It was not the first time love had left Hermione Granger lost and confused.
"You're angry at me," she said.
"Well, of course I'm angry at you!" he said, smacking his hand down on his mattress, worn springs screeching in protest. "I'm angry at me! I'm angry at Harry. I'm angry at every single part of this, but there's nothing anyone can do to fix it. So just--just let me be angry!"
He turned his head away, but not quick enough for her to miss him furiously wipe at his eyes.
"Oh, Ron," she whispered, feeling her heart break at the sight.
Before her brain could catch up with her limbs, she found herself at his side, wrapping her arms around him and feeling the weight of him fall into her.
"This isn't your fault," he said after a moment, his voice muffled by her hair.
"Well, it's not yours either," she said, leaning back to look him in the eyes. "You can't control the way you feel, Ron. I know that. I know it."
She paused for a moment, feeling her heart jump to her throat. "And you know that I do," she said, her voice growing small. "Don't you?"
A small frown crossed his features. "How do you figure that?"
Hermione shrugged and glanced down at his bedspread, playing absent-mindedly with a loose thread poking out beneath her fingers. "You said you were angry at Harry," she said finally. "I can only assume that means…"
The rest of her sentence died on her lips, causing the air to grow heavy between them. She prayed that she hadn't been wrong in her assumption, even as another part of her revelled in the small risk she'd finally taken in speaking it aloud. However indirectly.
"So, it's true," Ron said after a moment, his tone betraying nothing. "How long, then?"
She let out a long exhale and stared at a spot on the wall above Ron's head. "Years," she said. "5th year to be exact."
The words tore from her throat, momentary tranquillity struck asunder by the sudden weight of the revelation.
Ron looked momentarily shocked before quickly rearranging his features. "So...you've fancied Harry for three years, and you've never told anyone?"
"Basically," she said.
All the practice and rehearsal, late nights pondering and days spent wondering hadn't prepared her for this. Hermione could scarcely believe they were even having this conversation — the conversation.
That had been the goal, she had never once entertained the possibility of bringing her feelings for Harry into the mix. Yet, here she was. Keeping the truth within had been paramount, hidden behind lock and key, bolted shut to ensure there would be no escape.
There, she could feign ignorance, craft excuses, and cling to every justification as to why she should stay quiet.
First, Harry had needed a friend, and she could fill that role, support him in his mission to defeat Voldemort. She'd needed to let him pursue happiness with Ginny because he deserved it. She needed to not cause Ron more pain, for fear of what such would do their already tentative relationship.
Most recently and above all, she needed to never risk the possibility of rejection.
Because she had seen the effects of such a rejection intimately, witnessed the havoc unrequited feelings could wreak in a friendship. How stoked flames suddenly doused could still burn it all down.
And she couldn't...couldn't...let that happen to her and Harry.
"Why have you never told him?" Ron said, staring at her with a calculating look that seemed foreign on his features.
Hermione gave a humourless chuckle. "That's the question, isn't it?" she said.
The answer was unknown to her, so far. But the truth had left her lips once more and with it, the liberating feeling was warm beneath her breast. Even if only for a moment, the bubbling anxiety was beaten back.
Her feelings had been shared once more, her back straightened and her shoulders felt lighter, now that the brunt of her secret was bore by another pair of shoulders.
The world itself seemed lighter as she did, there was only a desperate hope it would remain that way.
"How did you know?" Hermione said, glancing down at her hands in her lap.
"That you fancy Harry?" Ron said with a dry laugh. "I've always had a feeling, Hermione, you know that. Did you forget how much of a jealous twat I've been for the past however many years?"
At this, Hermione gave him a sad smile. She wanted to tell him that he wasn't alone in that. She'd only done a much better job of hiding it to the point where she could almost pretend it hadn't existed.
But it had. And without the backdrop of Voldemort and the war, every feeling that she'd ever repressed was now forcing its way back up to the surface with a frightening intensity. And though there was no hint of Harry and Ginny getting back together as far as she knew, the very thought made her gut twist in agony.
Hermione brushed the thought aside, for now, focusing back on the conversation that had already veered off-topic. One thing still bothered her though, something that she couldn't comprehend, but desperately needed to.
"You still told me though," she said, meeting Ron's eyes. "You knew I had feelings for Harry, but you still told me you fancied me. Why?"
Ron looked a bit taken aback by this question. "I mean…" he said. "Besides the fact that you kissed me?"
Hermione closed her eyes for a moment, feeling utterly stupid before opening them again. "Yes, besides that," she said, giving him an apologetic look.
With a small shrug, Ron leant back against his headboard and folded his arms. "What exactly did I have to lose?" he said. "A part of me always knew it was Harry, but...I dunno...I guess I thought, 'why the hell not?'."
She took a moment to mull his words over, trying to crack the foreign code she hoped to lay beneath the surface. The way he spoke made it all sound so simple, so logical, so easy. She wondered if it was a different kind of bravery, a new breed she'd never entirely understood before. Something Ron had that she clearly didn't, something she could only admire from afar.
To be so completely and utterly vulnerable with another person… She couldn't imagine the amount of courage that would take.
"If you could go back," Hermione said, a slight waver in her voice that she couldn't control. "Knowing what my response would be...would you still tell me?"
A small wrinkle appeared on Ron's forehead as he seemed to consider this. "I mean...what's the alternative exactly? Hiding it forever? What's the bloody point in that?"
Hermione glanced around the room as if the answer already surrounded them.
"Do you really have to ask that?" she said, the waver becoming persistent. "Rejection almost ruined us."
"But it didn't."
The words were succinct, flying quickly from Ron's mouth.
She looked up into his face, her eyes travelling over the determined set to his jaw. She'd seen this exact expression so many times before that it was calming in its familiarity. It was the same look he'd worn at eleven, sacrificing himself in the chess game. At twelve, defending her against Malfoy when he'd called her Mudblood. At thirteen, standing on a broken leg to protect Harry from Sirius in the Shrieking Shack. Over and over again, the memories played like a reel in Hermione's mind.
No matter the circumstance, even when she was the cause of his pain, Ron Weasley rose once more to try and protect her where he could.
He hadn't even finished dealing with his own tragedies, and yet, he attempted to tackle hers. He would never possess the eloquence of others in conversation, but Ron Weasley was not a man defined by words. He was defined by actions.
In truth, it wasn't much, but it was what she needed to hear most. Words spoken that, despite it all, reminded her that the world was not yet at its end and that there was a chance yet.
Hermione blew a breath of hot air past her lips "I… I wouldn't be too eager to tempt fate twice," she said. "We might be able to fix our friendship, sure, but...that doesn't mean I should try and break another one."
Ron weighed her words in his head for a time, but she was unsure he would find an answer. She certainly still hadn't.
"It wouldn't be like us, though," Ron said, his voice quiet. "You and I… we're different."
"How do you mean?" she said.
He shrugged. "I…" he began with a shake of his head. "We weren't — I wasn't right for you. I tried, but it didn't work out."
"Ron," Hermione said with an exasperated look. "You were fine. It's not a problem with you, I just—"
"I forgot that you were a girl, Hermione," he said. "Fourth year? The ball?"
Her lips lifted in response. "Well...yes, you did do that."
"Not to mention all those times I was an arse to you in the tent."
"Or those, yes," she echoed.
"Can't forget the whole teaspoon thing," Ron said
Hermione let out a laugh and nodded. "Emotional range of a teaspoon, yes," she said.
Ron chuckled as well. "The point I'm trying to make is..." he said, seriousness taking over once more. "Well, I don't really know what the point I'm trying to make is, but...Maybe it'll go alright, Hermione. Maybe it won't. Just...don't do it like me."
"Like you?" Hermione asked, peering across at him.
"Don't…" Ron said, considering his words for a moment. "I sat on it, I guess. I worried for ages, even thought about reading Twelve Fail-Safe Ways To Charm Witches again."
It wasn't the most elegant solution or way of phrasing their shared problem but, despite that, Hermione felt laughter slowly bubble within her, forcing its way to the forefront in a series of small giggles. Where the laughter might have once seemed mocking, enough to dishearten him from speaking any further, now? It had the opposite effect.
Ron's chest seemed to puff out, emboldened by her response. Maybe, he really had grown up somewhere along the way.
"You'll get nothing by pretending like your feelings don't exist," Ron said, looking her in the eye. "I want you to be happy, Hermione. For the rest of your life if you could, but I don't reckon I can do that. I… sometimes we've got to settle for the now. You're not happy, even I can see that. Maybe...well, maybe this will make you happy."
Hermione let out a soft breath as she processed his words. "And if it doesn't make me happy?" she said, her voice small.
Ron shrugged. "Then you'll get over it," he said, offering a small smile. "Like I will."
"Like you will?" Hermione asked.
He nodded slowly. "I'll get over it eventually, just…just not now." he said, glancing away for a moment and visibly swallowing. "Promise me something though?"
Hermione neglected to respond, instead choosing to meet his eyes as he looked back at her.
"If it all goes wrong, just...please don't go date Viktor Krum."
And with those words, the dam burst.
Was the right feeling laughter or tears? Was there a right feeling? She didn't know but opted for the former, the same bubbling laughter became far more than giggles. Soon her stomach was sore, even their largest problems seeming inconsequential against the struggle to breathe.
But then as quickly as it came, it subsided, and silence befell them once more.
"I…" Hermione began, shaking her head, struggling to voice everything she was feeling in that moment. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Was his simple reply.
Maybe more words would have given her more clarity against the ache of her chest, the pounding of her heart and the twisting of the gut, but for now, it was enough.
Hermione spoke up again, more to break the silent deadlock. "When did you get all the answers, then?" she asked with a weak chuckle.
"It's been a long two weeks," Ron said, the wisps of a smile gracing his features. "Do you think you'll do it, then? Tell him?"
There was the crux of the problem once again.
"I don't know," Hermione murmured.
"Well...do or don't," Ron said, "I'll still be here."
She nodded, taking his hand. "And we're okay?"
"We're okay," Ron confirmed.
Hermione scooted closer to his position at the headboard with arms outstretched, and Ron met her in the middle. An embrace that signified at least, for the moment, there were hopes wounds could mend, and they could return to what once was.
"Don't do it like me," Ron said, an absentminded mutter that almost went unnoticed by her.
The advice found her ears once more, tearing apart the cacophony of worries and doubts already echoing in her head.
Don't do it like me, the advice repeated itself in her mind.
Don't do it like me.
She heard the sound of his voice first.
Amidst all the others, she could pick out his timbre like her ears were attuned to his specific frequency. And the effect it had on her was instantaneous. It was almost silly how her heart leapt in excitement at his voice alone.
But with the excitement came a shot of nerves that she couldn't remember ever experiencing when it came to Harry. Gut twisting, nausea-inducing nerves that froze her limbs in place while her mind screamed at her to go to him.
After her conversation with Ron earlier that morning, Hermione had ruminated endlessly over the decision to tell Harry the truth. She knew that if it was going to happen, it had to happen tonight. If she waited any longer, her mind would find a way to convince her against it.
She couldn't let that happen. She didn't want to. After years of holding in her feelings, the exhaustion was finally starting to set in. And it was only after speaking to Ron that she realised just how exhausted she truly was.
Life had pulled and pushed and twisted Ron until somewhere along the way, he'd come out of it for the better. He'd changed, he'd grown up, he'd matured. It seemed about time for Hermione to do the same.
Feeling a fresh wave of resolve, Hermione took a deep breath in and made her way into the sitting room where she'd heard Harry floo in.
If the sound of his voice was enough to set off excitement and nerves in her, the sight of him was her undoing.
Being away from the Burrow for two weeks meant that she'd scarcely seen Harry as well. He'd visited her at her parent's house a couple of times, keeping very tight-lipped about the Ron situation. Hermione wasn't even certain if he knew anything about it all, but she hadn't exactly wanted to ask.
After spending a year in such close contact, she wasn't ashamed to admit she missed him, lamenting the separation. He'd become a part of her, an extension of herself like anything. His presence was all but assured, and when his absence came, it ached with the phantom pain of a lost limb.
But here he was now, glancing up at her from his spot on the couch next to Ron, his face unreadable.
"Hey," he said, giving her a smile.
Ron looked between the two of them before stretching his arms and giving an exaggerated yawn that would have made Hermione laugh any other day in its ridiculousness.
"Well, that's me knackered," Ron said, standing up and clapping Harry on the shoulder. "Think I might take a short kip before dinner."
Harry nodded and smiled, looking somewhat bewildered at the sudden change in events.
If there was one constant Hermione could depend on, it was Ron lacking subtlety.
"How have you been-"
"Can we talk outside-"
They both stared at each other and laughed, mumbling 'sorry' at the same time.
Harry stood up and gestured for her to lead the way. "Outside?"
She nodded, giving him a small smile before walking towards the back door in the kitchen and out into the garden.
The evening air was steeped in the gentle, pleasant breeze of the waning summer's day heat. The last remnants of an orange-hued sunset waged a losing war against the encroaching twilight, the noble starry-black slowly coming into view.
Languid steps led her out into the garden proper, the air was thick, but unlike the last, it was not the same fear of friendships unrepaired and love unrequited.
Now, the air tasted of fleeing gallantry, of the final gambit to let her feelings reign and set the heart that thumped painfully against her chest free into the night air and beyond.
A crucible had been lit beneath her, each step onto the cool grass reminded her of the heat at her heels and the importance of words yet to be born.
Eventually, that same sedate pace found them deposited in the old, wooden garden chairs decorating a ground pockmarked with holes from recently evicted gnomes and lined with bushes in bloom.
"So," Harry started again as he took a seat on one of the garden chairs. "How have you been?"
Hermione let out a chuckle as she sat next to him. "Fine, I've been here since morning," she said. "You've...been out?"
Harry nodded, settling back against his chair. "Visited Andromeda and Teddy," he said with a pleased smile. "He's really something, Hermione. His little hair keeps changing, it's adorable. And those big cheeks…"
She grinned at that. "Who knew you'd be such a big softie around babies," she said, bumping shoulders with him.
He let out a bark of laughter at that. "Yeah, well," he said with a good-natured smile. "I'd never even seen one up close before. Certainly never thought about them."
There was a gravity to his words, a weight that shifted her head to look at him. Their eyes didn't meet, not truly, his gaze held by the black tranquillity above, married to the shining stars. A look alight in his eyes, she'd seen it countless times before. He was in deep thought, contemplating in a land beyond their own and not destined to return anytime soon — she wouldn't interrupt.
"I've never really considered it before, you know," Harry said finally, his words soft yet resonant in the quiet garden.
"What?" she said.
He shrugged. "My future," he said. "I know it sounds stupid, but...I never even thought it was a possibility. Growing up, having a life after Hogwarts. After Voldemort."
Hermione shook her head. "That doesn't sound stupid at all."
"But then I look at Teddy, and I think...he's my future, you know?" he said, turning to face her. "The start of it, anyway. And it's a good start. Makes me think I could have other things. Stuff I never even realised I could have before."
His eyes traversed her face intently, scrutiny that made Hermione feel a strong, radiant warmth. She couldn't be sure of what was happening, the heat blooming beneath her breast was foreign yet familiar. She felt a hundred things in that moment, but above all, she felt the resolve she built grow stronger.
It was like she was standing at a precipice, a window of opportunity opening for just the barest of moments. And if she failed to jump, she'd be stuck on the cliff forever, lamenting the decisions she's refused to make.
How many days had she spent yearning for the right time, the right place. Setting aside her emotions again and again as she waited for that fickle illusion of serendipity.
It wasn't coming. It would never come. The moment would never be perfect. Perhaps this was the closest she could ever get to it, maybe it wasn't. Either way, she refused to waste even one more second in this state of indecision.
"I have to tell you something," Hermione said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Harry's lips parted in response, a small frown etched on his forehead. "Okay," he said.
There was a gravity to the moment that she knew Harry could feel as well. The way he leant in just the barest of a fraction, waited for her to gather her thoughts, never prodding her or pushing her or huffing in impatience.
She appreciated it just as she'd always done. The fact that Harry listened to her. Cared what she had to say. Trusted her enough to find the words on her own even when she sat there stumbling over her own thoughts.
"Harry…" she began, before trailing off.
"You're upset with me," he said, his brow marred with confusion. "What have I done?"
No, no, no, Hermione practically screamed internally. It had scarcely even begun, and already her first step had been with the wrong foot.
"No… It's-it's nothing wrong with you."
Harry frowned, "But there's something wrong?" he said.
"Yeah," Hermione said, her voice came out clipped and hoarse, an attempt to clear her throat followed but could not erase what had already been said.
"Well...I come out here a fair bit, you know?" Harry said. "To clear my head after...well, everything."
The words could remain unspoken, but she'd forever know he meant the war. It was a subtle act, one that took Hermione far too long to decipher. He'd talk of himself in the hopes she could gain the courage, that she would find the words she was searching for within casual conversation and sidelong glances.
It was the little things that made Harry Potter stand a head above the rest.
"Sometimes I'll just look at Sirius, see if he has any advice or...anything, really," Harry continued.
It took a brief moment for Hermione to realise what he meant. Her eyes dragged upwards to lock onto a faded purple star against the waning orange sky.
Hermione's lips parted, trying to phrase her words eloquently, "And does he?" she said.
"No," Harry said, shaking his head. "Never. But...there's no harm in trying, I suppose."
She made to speak, but Harry continued, "What I'm trying to say, I guess, is...that you don't have to talk about it. Not if you don't want to. We can just...sit here."
"What if I never want to?" Hermione dared herself to ask.
And what if I can't, she had wanted to say, to confront her own fears aloud.
"Well, It's a comfy enough chair," Harry said offhandedly, leaning back into it.
"And that means...?"
"That I'll be fine waiting here for when you do want to talk about it," Harry said, his hand reaching across the small gap between the chairs to find her own, gently rubbing his thumb across soft skin.
And just like that, she was launched into her thoughts once more, trying to discern love from words and touch alone. To see if she could detect anything beyond platonic, an effort to understand a simple fact; If she leapt, would she fall, or be caught?
"I want to…" Hermione said, "I really do… But I'm…"
"Scared?" Harry said with a knowing look.
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, that sounds about right."
"You don't have to be," he said, his voice almost inaudible against the soft breeze.
Telling her not to be afraid seldom worked, if at all. His words, however, did have an effect greater than she'd care to admit.
"But I am," Hermione said simply.
"It's not Ron, is it?"
She shook her head and allowed a small smile, "No, definitely not Ron."
"Is it something bad?" Harry said.
Her eyes flicked up to meet his, and she willed herself to keep them there. He squeezed her hand as if to instil courage through it.
It terrified her, set her heart racing, lips dry and stomach plummeting, and yet, the pleasurable ache in her heart and the yearning for more pushed her ever onwards.
No, bad wasn't the word she'd use, far from it.
"No," she agreed with herself. "It's all very silly, to be honest."
Harry shook his head. "It's not silly, not if it matters to you."
"Maybe I should forget about it."
Harry's voice echoed in the near night once more. "Not if it matters to you."
"It's nothing, truly," Hermione said, unable to keep the sullen tone from her voice.
"Well...now you're just being moody," Harry laughed, a deep, infectious melody that inspired the same in her. They laughed at nothing really, merely filling the silence.
"I'm not," she disagreed succinctly, shaking her head to emphasise her point.
"You are," Harry said, more force behind his words.
It made her feel like they were children again, a back-and-forth that reminded her of a time where it had all been far easier.
Harry released her hand, "Don't make me get it out of you," he said, voice alight with the playful threat.
Despite the situation, she couldn't help the scoff that escaped her lips that sounded precariously like a challenge.
Perhaps he had been playing with Teddy for too long as indicated by his next action. The hand that had held her own had squirmed beneath and onto her side, resting gently above her hip before it struck.
A small shriek and an attempt to manoeuvre away followed.
"You tickled me," Hermione said, her breathless voice laden with incredulity.
"Stop being moody," Harry said, the corner of his lips tugged upwards into a large smile.
"I'm not being —"
The hand struck again, another yelp, and she leapt from the chair. Harry followed behind.
It was childish, a charlatan's trick to escape the realities of the world around them.
But it worked.
Eventually, her back met the grass in a soft embrace, stomach still sore, eyes tear-laden with laughter, and his hands still mercilessly attacking her sides. It was a short tussle with few graceful moves, but with enough effort and an eternity passing of the struggle to breathe, they met one another's gaze laying on their sides.
A victorious smirk lit up his eyes, "Give up?" Harry asked.
"You win…" Hermione trailed off, her lungs seemed to want for an air they couldn't seem to get.
"So," Harry said, "What's your problem?"
She could feel the window of opportunity steadily drawing to a close as if it were a tangible thing. Controlling her pulse like a dial until she could hear her own heart at maximum volume, pounding loud in her ears.
His lips were parted slightly, hot breath from exertion caressing her cheek gently. If she were gallant enough, she could spring across the gap and capture them with her own. A kiss would be the easiest way and yet, it took more courage then she had.
It all seemed surreal, unachievable — a burnt orange-hued dream that remained forever out of reach. Every piece of advice she'd ever heard was swirling in her mind, her mother, Mrs Weasley, even Ron was a contribution to the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions.
And though it seemed out of reach, she reached all the same.
"You're the problem." Her voice was hoarse. "I'm the problem… we're…"
His head shifted ever so slightly backwards, "I'm the problem?" he asked, concern soon replacing confusion.
"It's you. It's always been you."
The next words she wished had been different. She wished she had prepared an impressive speech, anything to make it seem like she was in greater control of herself.
Though she didn't have anything better, there were no thoughts that hadn't been thought or words that hadn't been rehearsed and yet, she came up blank.
"I love you."
Words tore from her lips and set the air between them alight with the tender touch of a heart laid bare. She'd imagined saying those exact words a hundred times, simple words that had an impact anything but.
It felt terrifying and exhilarating, crushing and intoxicating. She'd say the words a hundred times just to feel the liberation of the warmth in her chest and the weight off her shoulders.
Harry looked taken aback as if her words had struck him across the face.
The heart that had leapt at the chance sank back into her chest, every passing second merely another step towards the inevitable being confirmed.
He doesn't feel the same.
Courage hadn't rewarded her for her leap. Instead, it let her plummet.
"I love you." She announced again as if he didn't hear the first time. "For years too, I… just don't ask me not to, because I don't think I can."
She closed her eyes to shield herself from her shame, every errant glance towards his eyes was another reminder of her weighted words meeting sudden silence.
Her eyes remained closed, his voice wavered with unspoken emotion. The remainder of her courage was spent daring to open her eyes once more.
Then, Harry struck, the distance between them surmounted with a swift ease.
His lips landed on her own.
Her face erupted with the sudden heat of passion, inexperienced lips falling into sync with the fervour of love. There was nothing foreign about it, no taste of fruit and all things exotic like the novels had spoken of.
He tasted of Harry Potter, it was unique — there would never be anyone like him.
They pushed and pulled, tongues peeking and darting in an attempt to find their depth. It was addictive, the battle to try and nurse the soft flame of love between their lips.
Soon, they broke for air, leaning their foreheads against one another; heavy breaths making her heart beat all the faster.
Silence befell them again, but this time, it was not the same jarring affair that made even the summer night seem cold, but a promise. A promise that words would come, discussions would be had, and love was to be shared.
But words were for another time, in the Garden of the Burrow they merely remained together on the cold grass, enraptured in one another.
At this moment, he was not Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived and she was not Hermione Granger, the smartest witch of her age.
Instead, they were something else, something less, something more.
She was his.
He was hers.
Even if only for tonight.
Stroke by stroke, the night grew darker as they met in a lover's embrace, lit only by the visible splendours of the constellations above, matched only by the invisible splendours of the heart.
Hermione watched the crack form in his lips, pulling upwards into a small smile and a sudden laugh.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Harry asked, the first words spoken in an age filled with a distant wonder.
"I've wanted to tell you for so long, but it was never the right time...the right place," she said, shaking her head. "It was just never the right moment. It wasn't…it wasn't..."
"Why was it never the right time?" he said, his voice faint.
Hermione shrugged helplessly. "I knew you didn't feel the same way," she said, not meeting his eyes. "There was Ginny...and then the war...Voldemort. You needed me there as a friend, and I didn't want to complicate things."
Harry shook his head ever so slightly, "You wouldn't have."
"I would have," Hermione said, her voice regaining its strength, "Love is…"
"Yeah," she said, "So very, very complicated."
"Maybe we should stop thinking about it, then," Harry suggested, "If it's so complicated, that is."
"No," Hermione said, shaking her head, "Never stop thinking about it."
A brief moment passed, and her lips found their counterpart, the clash of soft skin forced to separate too soon for comfort.
A soft groan slipped from Harry's lips, "How do we tell them?" he said.
"Them," he said again, enunciated by his head jerking the short distance towards the Burrow.
She cast an errant glance to the tall building, bright, homely lights cast from the windows.
"I think they'll know soon enough," Hermione said, not breaking her eyes from the Burrow.
Harry untangled himself from the embrace of limbs, rising to his feet and brushing the remnants of soil and grass off his robes with a quick wave of his wand. Wordlessly she rose to join him, her hand seeking out his own to snake within its grasp.
There would be a time to discuss the minutiae of it all, but it was not now. Now, they could bask in the afterglow of a long love shared.
Sedate steps led them to the door, eager to keep within the garden for as long as they could. Eventually, they were forced to leave and return inside, Harry's free hand gripped and turned the handle, and soon they found themselves stepping carefully through the Weasley's lounge room. The taste of dinner was already thick on her tongue, the strong scent saturating the air.
Ginny was sitting on the stairs and Ron, talking to her through the bannister. A quick nod of Ginny's head alerted Ron to the fact they had returned.
Ron smiled gently, having already had foreknowledge of what was to be said. His eyes tracing down to the union of hands between them.
Ginny was a different story. It took a moment longer for realisation to reach her face, she too took the time to notice joined hands and undoubtedly flushed complexions. She stilled for a moment before nodding, attempting a weak smile.
Perhaps there were feelings unresolved all round, but that was a challenge for another day.
At the moment, Hermione wanted to bask in this feeling of rightness. To not concern herself with worries of the future or regrets of the past. How many days had she wasted away with her attention set everywhere but the one place she needed it most.
Right here. Right now.
With Harry's hand still in hers, Hermione led the way into the kitchen for dinner, Ron and Ginny following behind.
Right here. Right now, her mind whispered as she looked around at the familiar faces sitting at the table before settling her gaze on Harry. His green eyes were already staring back at her, and in that moment, it felt as though everything around her had finally, finally fallen into place.
Hermione ascended the old stairs, the distinctive creak of worn hardwood echoing through the house as the thin, narrow steps were surmounted.
Stale air stank of disuse and old memories as the final step was conquered and the attic proper came into view. Errant beams of the fading summer's light shone through grime obfuscated windows, painting the room with constellations of fine dust.
Here, she was surrounded by distant remnants of a time that had seemed so very long ago.
She wandered aimlessly through the small space, each soft footfall shaking loose further debris and echoing with a distant whine. She passed assorted junk and irreparable furniture, broken ornaments and brimful boxes.
The slow walk through her old life continued, it was as if she was engrossed in a time beyond her own, reading a story that did not quite feel like theirs.
Until she stumbled upon a distantly familiar box.
Gentle hands lifted the lid off, greeting her nose with the acrid smell of faded magic and her mouth with the bitter taste of memories.
Fingers procured a leather-bound book from the depths of the box, knocking other items aside as it came free from its confines. The palm of her hand skated lightly across the surface, displacing dust in soft arcs as she gazed upon the unmarked cover.
Prying it open, her fingers traced deftly over the idents a quill had left behind years ago. Her hand had been steady and precise as ink had dried and cemented the title.
Hermione Jean Granger
Turning over a single page led her to where it had all begun, all those years ago.
Love can be beautiful. Love can lift you up and bring you joy. Love can make you smile and make you laugh. Love can be good. But sometimes love brings tears. It brings pain. It makes you hurt.
Perhaps it had been a bit dramatic for the time, truth be told. She had been only a child. Yet, the words held a significance of their own beyond mere ink marred paper.
They were hers.
She reached back into the box, her hand groping around without her eyes' assistance, purposeful fingers searching for the thin stem of her old quill and the pot of ink. The feather had been all but lost to time, but it was the tool that had breathed tangible life into her thoughts, inkpot too, though it took a spell to turn it back to liquid, hardened over the years.
The tip was wet with ink, and her hands found their way back to the old page, pressing gently against the paper.
A quick stroke crossed out the first line, replacing the words with a message she hoped might fill another version of herself in another time, another life, with the confidence she had once so desperately wished for.
Love is beautiful.
I never really expected to come back to this story. I initially had some different plans for it that would have led to more chapters, but in the end, it all seemed too angsty and pointless, but with the encouragement and help of my good friend and fellow author Ajax (Ajjaxx on ffn), we were able to come up with an outline to tie up the story in one final chapter.
I'd like to take a moment to thank Ajax for his indispensable help in writing this chapter. He contributed greatly in the writing process, and I highly, highly encourage that you check out his stories over on his profile.
This chapter was largely written to serve as an incentive to Ajax's Extra Life charity fundraising event for sick and injured children which has now raised nearly $2000. If you'd like to donate, you can use the following link: /team/55622
Thank you to anyone who has followed this story in the past, and to anyone who's recently found it. I started it when I was much younger than I am right now. And it definitely shows. But I've kept it up over the years because I think it's important to see progress. I'm happy to finally be able to close this chapter of my life now, and continue to work on my current projects. Grow Young with Me is still very much in progress, but nearing the end as well. And I also have another profile with my cowriter Saliient91 over on our SalTalStudios page.
And I'm sure there will be more stories to tell always. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed :)