Disclaimer: I don't own what J.K. Rowling owns. Except maybe her car. I'll have to get back to her on that one.
Author's note, 2015: I really need to check up on this story some time and see how it holds up. I've always had the vague idea of eventually writing something of a sequel or continuation for it, but first I'll have to find out what I think of it myself nowadays. One reviewer called Hermione a condescending bitch once, I believe, which seemed funny to me for a couple of reasons. She's definitely not at her best here, but that's part of the point. It's not a pretty story, but it is what it is. Whatever exactly that is.
The Road Thus Taken
It so happened that it was the very first truly freezing night since the end of summer on that day in early December, when Harry set out from his secluded cottage on the Isle of Skye to pay a visit to his favorite, albeit chronically troubled, family of three. Enjoying a good walk in pretty much any weather and wrapped in a thick, black coat to shield him against the harsh winds, he wandered the one and a half miles to Clach Ard at the amiably small crofting township of Tote. The tall stone was not only a cultural rarity as one of only three known Pictish stones on the island, but also an ancient magical Portal connecting Skye to a multitude of locations all over Great Britain, nowadays being used most frequently by the magical community from the town of Portree, just about five miles to the south east, as well as the Quidditch teams coming here to compete against the local Pride of Portree.
The stone carried a set of carvings on its south west facing side of which some had, to the inept eye, become rather difficult to discern due to erosion and lichen. For Harry, however, the magically imbued lines, once touched by his bare hand, were constantly pulsating in a faintly glowing light, with each symbol illuminated in a different color; blue, green, yellow and red. The destination the Portal would activate for the traveler depended on the number of symbols one touched, the order in which one did so, as well as the direction in which one chose to follow the lines with either wand or one of five fingers – or any specified combination thereof. As such, more destinations were actually possible to be defined than were currently connected to the stone – or at least known of.
Harry conducted his usual routine of following the correct lines in the correct direction and order to be transported to his desired, all too familiar destination: Diagon Alley, London. From there, he was a simple short-distance apparition away from the house that George Weasley affectionately had come to call Bickering Palace.
Finally arriving at the home of his two best friends after another short walk from the small park he had safely apparated to, he took the steps leading up to the front door with a few long strides and, since they were expecting him anyway, chose to enter without ringing the bell first. He was late as it was, after all, and the magically modified door recognized his hand as usual and swung open without any resistance. Hastily stepping inside and immediately shutting the heavy door behind him to keep winter's cold where it belonged, he welcomed the warm air that embraced him in its stead. Eagerly rubbing his hands to get the chill out of his body faster, he was about to yell out a greeting, but just as he opened his mouth he heard a yell of a very different kind and caught his breath, instantly coming to a halt on his way through the sparsely lit corridor.
The voice was too muffled to be made out clearly, yet Harry was still sure that its source had to be above him on the second floor, and that said source had to be Hermione. The way it sounded, he didn't even need to hear the equally angrily shouted answer from another most familiar voice to know what was obviously transpiring in the Weasley and Granger home – once again.
Harry let out a heavy breath, woeful as it could possibly be in the face of something he had grown so accustomed to over the years. He was about to turn to his right in front of the staircase to make his way into the kitchen, considering making himself a cup of tea – for there was no way of telling how far the loving couple was already into this exchange of marital conventions, and consequently how much longer it would likely take them –, but something above him at the upper end of the stairs caught his attention. A small figure, barely visible against the faint, bluish light coming from the backdrop, cowered there in disheartened silence.
He hesitated for only a fraction of a second before he slowly made his way up the steps to quietly sit down next to the young boy, who was the closest thing to a son Harry had ever gotten. The voices coming from the bedroom at the far end of the corridor behind them were now audible quite clearly, and at first it seemed to Harry there was not much to do but to join the cheerless audience in silent participation.
"When I work, I work too much. When I read, I read too much. When I write, I write too much," they heard Hermione recite exasperatedly. "Whatever I do, it's never right with you."
"Yeah, well, that's because I'm not part of any of it. That's all just you," Ron retorted defensively. "Your stuff, your world. No place for me in there."
"So it's actually my fault that you're not participating in any of it? Am I getting this right?" Hermione asked incredulously.
"Maybe you could make more of an effort to involve me somewhat…" Harry and Hugo could hardly hear Ron say, his voice dropping to a feeble mumbling.
"You're kidding, right? Please tell me you are," they heard Hermione reply sharply. "Oh, the things I've tried. I think by now you ought to know the right way to hold a book, but I cannot in good conscience force you to pick one up once in a while, no more than I can force you to be interested in anything I do, which you can hardly be if it requires an effort on my side to get so much as your attention in the first place."
"So… we're, like…" Ron could be heard stammering, clearly at a loss. "What? Fighting because we have different hobbies now? So we like different things. What's the big deal? We always have."
"That's great, Ron, just great," Hermione spat venomously, and Harry was always disturbed to hear her normally soft and gentle voice so utterly spiteful. "Keep looking at things as completely isolated phenomena with no correlation at all. You're like the personified antithesis to Chaos theory."
"What's that even supposed to mean?" Ron asked, his voice growing louder again in reawakened anger. "Don't matter, I guess. We wouldn't want to rob you of the satisfaction you get from demonstrating your superiority over me, would we? It's been the only kind of satisfaction going around in this house for a long time."
Harry abruptly awoke with a start from his uneasy and originally unintended eavesdropping, instinctively putting an arm around the boy's shoulder in a protective gesture.
"Okay, that's our cue. Come, let's get you some nice hot chocolate," Harry quietly told Hugo, pulling him up from the stairs gently, yet firmly.
The boy gave in to Harry's lead without complaining, and together they descended the stairs and went into the kitchen where Hugo slumped down on a wooden chair at the large dinner table, while Harry immediately got to work on that hot chocolate he had held out the prospect of. He knew his way around this kitchen as well as he did around his own.
"Why does it have to be this way?" asked Hugo with a quivering voice, angrily wiping the tears out of his reddened eyes. "Why do they always have to fight?"
Harry thought hard about what he could possibly tell the young boy while he was preparing the hot beverage – Muggle style, as he so often happened to do things whenever he didn't consciously remind himself of his magical talents. Old habits die hard. Especially after growing up with the Dursleys.
"I don't know," he chose to say, if for nothing else but the sake of honesty. "I really don't know."
Harry didn't expect Hugo to be satisfied with that by any stretch. He himself wasn't, so he anticipated nothing else but for the tough questions to continue.
"Have they always been like that?" the eight year old asked accordingly just seconds later. "Because I can't remember them any different."
Harry again took his time to answer, searching his memory and inevitably coming to the only conclusion there was.
"I'm afraid they have," he told him while stirring the cocoa powder and the milk, leaning against the kitchen counter with the porcelain cup in his hand. "But I guess that's just always been their thing, you know? That's how they work."
Hugo quietly contemplated that for a moment, his brows furrowed in concentration.
"They don't seem to be working very well to me," he finally assessed sternly.
Harry smiled sadly in spite of himself, knowingly looking at the son of Hermione Granger. He put down the finished hot chocolate in front of Hugo and went on to shake the bottle of cream he had just taken from the fridge.
"Here you go," he gently said, putting a generous layer of white cream on top of the dark liquid.
When Hugo eagerly reached out to the cup, though, Harry suddenly made him halt with his index finger raised into the air. Puzzled, the boy watched his godfather turn around, hastily search a few drawers and finally come back to him, scattering a few chocolate flakes over the slowly melting cream.
"Now that's what I'm talking about," Harry stated with a satisfied smile on his face, apparently quite pleased with his creation.
The little sparkle in the boy's eyes and the way his face mirrored Harry's own moment of happiness was all the reward the older man needed for his handicraft. Harry sat down at the other side of the table corner and contently watched Hugo take a deep, enthusiastic gulp, holding the huge cup with both his small hands. When he set down the half emptied cup again, Harry had to laugh at the way the boy looked with what surely had to be the bigger half of all the cream from the cup around his mouth. When Hugo raised an eyebrow in confusion over his godfather's reaction, the man in question had to laugh even harder.
"I'm sorry," he said between chuckles, trying hard to calm himself down. "You're doing a little Dumbledore routine right there. The aura of wisdom suits you very well, I dare say. Might just be a sign of days to come, little one."
Harry leaned back on his chair and reached for a towel on the counter behind him.
"Care for a shave, good sir?" he said and went on to wipe away the cream while Hugo had raised his chin, commendably playing the part of the willing customer. "There. Got it. Makes you look a little younger, though."
The mood quickly grew sober again after that, the muffled pleasantries exchanged between Ron and Hermione still reaching them from above. Harry watched Hugo closely, and when the boy finally looked up at him, he innerly prepared himself for another question.
"Do they even like each other?" the boy feebly asked, the smile that had lit up his face just seconds earlier already vanished.
Harry sighed deeply, his eyes wandering towards the window and the nightly scenery beyond; gently falling flakes of snow, illuminated within the warm cone of light coming from a street lamp, seemingly both falling out of and fading right back into nothingness.
"They do," he answered and turned his eyes back to meet Hugo's expectant gaze. "I'm sure they do, but such things are complicated, you know? Staying together, living together and keeping a family going. I'm not sure there's much in the world that qualifies as a task more difficult, more demanding than that. Sometimes… it just gets rough."
"But you don't fight," said Hugo. "You and mum, I mean."
"Well, no," Harry had to admit reluctantly. "Maybe not that much or in that particular fashion, but… it's different. Our relationship is different."
"Why?" the boy asked him with the genuine curiosity of a mind not yet bereft of all innocence.
"We're not married," Harry half evaded the question.
"Because we're friends."
"Can't friends marry?"
Harry noisily puffed out some air. Little Granger, indeed…
However, before he could get himself into more trouble than he could possibly get himself out of again, he ironically enough got his reprieve from those two who had virtually gotten him into this situation in the first place, when he heard a door open on the upper floor, followed by the sound of muffled footsteps on carpeted floor.
"Sit tight, buddy," he told Hugo and fleetingly put a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder on his way through the kitchen.
He came to a halt under the doorframe and watched Ron descend the stairs towards him. His friend looked utterly worn out and defeated.
"I'm sorry," Harry told him genuinely. "My timing is impeccable as always."
Ron shook his head dismissively.
"Timing isn't a factor these days. It's hard to miss the bliss that is our family life," he replied, seemingly grinding his teeth while speaking.
Harry dropped his eyes, a feeling of helplessness taking hold of him.
"Anyway, I need to get out of here," Ron went on to say, slipping into a coat of his. "You coming?"
Harry raised his head abruptly and just when he was about to say something that couldn't possibly do justice to the ambivalence he was trapped in, he noticed Hermione standing high up on the stairs and with his eyes briefly meeting hers, he found the answer he inevitably had to give, even if it might not have been intended that way by her.
"I can't," he thusly spoke, his heart strained by the dilemma he was facing.
Ron mustered him for a brief moment before he said without much of a hint of any distinct emotion in his voice, "Suit yourself."
He turned around and opened the front door, a biting gush of winter's icy winds instantly forcing its way into the house, blowing with it a few flakes of snow that quickly melted on whichever surface they fell down upon.
"I'm sorry!" Harry said again, no less honest and with greater emphasis than before.
Ron stopped short with one foot on the threshold, not turning around to face Harry.
"Yeah," he said most bitterly. "We all are these days."
And with that, he was gone; leaving behind a deafening silence when the door fell shut behind him.
Harry remained unmoving, only registering Hermione after she had quietly descended the stairs and now stood before him. He took a closer look at her and was startled to see her that exhausted. With her pale skin and bloodshot eyes and the half dried trails of tears on her cheeks still shimmering in the light, she looked as miserable and downright stricken as he had ever seen her.
"I don't know what to say," she said through trembling lips, abashedly averting her eyes from him.
"It's okay," he immediately and instinctively tried to soothe her, yet still felt somewhat silly for stating what surely had to be the exact opposite of everything that currently constituted their reality.
Hugo had quietly appeared behind Harry by now and was sheepishly peeking around him up at his mother, who in turn widened her eyes in something between simple surprise and blank horror.
"Oh, Hugo!" she exclaimed, instantly engulfing her son in a fierce hug. "Aren't you supposed to be sleeping by now?"
"Well, I tried..." he answered, his voice muffled by his mother's hair he was now looking rather lost in.
Hermione looked up at Harry. "Did he… ?"
He nodded silently in response, clearly anguished. Hermione sighed heavily.
"I'm sorry," she told her son, fresh tears already forming in her eyes again. "I am so, so sorry."
Honest in intention, yet rather clumsily still, Hugo patted his mother on her back, for once being the striking image of his father. "It's alright, mum."
Hermione's bitter sobs tugged at Harry's struggling heart while he had lowered his head so as not to intrude in this intimate moment between mother and son.
"Uncle Harry made me a hot chocolate," the boy told her. "With lots of cream and chocolate flakes!"
"Did he now?" Hermione asked quite rhetorically, seeking Harry's eyes to silently communicate her gratitude. "That sounds wonderful, darling."
"Yeah," Hugo enthusiastically agreed. "And when I took a really large gulp I had cream all over my face and Uncle Harry said I looked like Dumbledore. Did he drink a lot of hot chocolate, too?"
Harry couldn't help but chuckle and he was even happier to see his smile mirrored on Hermione's wetly glistening face as well.
"I don't think so," she explained to her son. "But he had a rather enormous beard."
"Oh," Hugo said, unsure of what to make of that information. Eventually though, his inner Granger stood triumphant.
"What do you say?" Hermione asked, gently holding him at arm's length. "Shall we get you into bed?"
Her son nodded in agreement, while Hermione was trying hard to keep her composure just a little longer.
"I got it, if you don't mind," Harry volunteered, and Hermione looked at him with a thankful expression permeating her tired face.
"So what say you, little man?" Harry asked his godson with a playfully deepened voice. "Resistance is futile. So… go brush your teeth."
"But I already brushed them earlier!" Hugo objected defiantly.
"Yes, and then you had a hot chocolate."
The boy harrumphed in disgruntled acceptance of his defeat. He gave his mother a last hug, receiving a kiss on the forehead in return, and with goodnight wishes exchanged, bolted up the stairs – his mother's observant eyes following his every step.
Harry turned to Hermione, his expression full of care. "You just go on ahead and try to relax. Lie down, maybe. Breathe. I'll be back with two cups of tea in no time, okay?"
Hermione nodded weakly. "Okay. I'll be in the living room, then. Thank you, Harry."
He simply smiled softly at her in response, watched her walk straight into the room opposite of the kitchen and then followed young Hugo up the stairs. He made his way straight to the boy's room, passing by the bathroom from where sounds of the most diligent brushing of teeth were to be heard. Harry busied himself with bringing some order into the boy's ruffled bed sheets; fluffing up the pillows and flattening the blanket.
He paused involuntarily when he became aware of what exactly he was looking at: an image of his younger self drawn across the blanket in vibrant colors. His green eyes, if somewhat exaggerated in their hue and intensity, were angled sideways along with his head, watchfully gazing into the far off distance; his features hard and his brows puckered in valiant resoluteness. On the pillow above was written his name in golden letters, over the backdrop of a lightning dramatically bursting through dark clouds and continuing onto the blanket, where it illuminated the night sky behind his likeness. The scar on stylized Harry's forehead was faintly glowing in a bluish light, and real Harry was quite sure it had never done any such thing. Finally, written at the bottom of the blanket, there stood the words: The Boy Who Lived – Ever Vigilant.
For once, he couldn't help but smile at this disturbingly glorified display of himself, remembering the day Ron, Hermione and Ginny had outright pestered him when the four of them discovered it in a shop in Diagon Alley. Ever Vigilant had quickly become the running gag of the month and the three of them had teased him about it at any given chance. Hermione would say it whenever she found him absentmindedly gazing into the distance; Ron, whenever Harry so much as tripped over something and once when he bumped his head in the attic of the Burrow; and Ginny, well, Ginny, mostly as the first thing to say to him when he woke up in the morning to find her looking at him with a smile lighting up her face.
And then, of course, had come the fateful day when Ron and Hermione had actually bought the damn thing and made a birthday present for little Hugo out of it, which he had eagerly unraveled with Harry watching the whole scene unfold in front of his eyes with sheer horror written all over his face, until they had ultimately all just broken into gales of laughter, with an utterly confused Hugo sitting amidst the adults that seemingly had gone crazy for no apparent reason.
Harry's smile had faded over the course of this vivid reminiscence and given way to an expression of a sadness that so often ended up being the only thing memories left him with. But was it merely nostalgic sentiment that made him look at those days of yore with sorrow and regret, and think of them as times he couldn't help but feel had been better than what the present had to offer?
He was brought back to that very present when Hugo entered the room, rubbing his eyes and yawning heartily at the same time. Harry gestured for him to jump into bed. Finally, with the blanket pulled up to his neck and his green plush dragon – which somehow had come to bear the name Hagrid – right beside him, Hugo looked at his godfather thoughtfully.
"Should I stay up a little longer and watch over mum?" he asked with deep concern in his voice. "She seemed to be really sad."
"Maybe," Harry answered. "But I could do it in your stead, if you wanted me to. Your mum would be relieved enough to know that you are sleeping and dreaming up here, I reckon, and while you do that, I'll be watching over your mum for you and make sure she's alright. If I can't do it alone, I'll just wake you up to help me."
"Cross my heart."
Hugo nodded his head in agreement, his tired eyes falling shut more frequently and opening far more reluctantly by now. He kept them open a little while longer with perceivable effort.
"What about dad?" he asked in a sudden flash of panic. "Where is he? Is he alright?"
"He will be," Harry reassured his godson. "He's just taking a walk to get some fresh air and to get the tension out of his limbs. Grownups do that sometimes. We're crazy like that."
"But is anyone looking out for him as well?"
Harry was startled for a moment, the air he'd taken in for an answer ending in a long, wordless breath.
"I will, as good as I can," he declared decidedly. "It's just hard to be there for two people at once, when they are in different places."
With Harry patiently sitting at the edge of the bed, Hugo followed his thoughts in silence for a few seconds before he spoke again.
"Do you like my mum more than my dad?"
Finding himself sighing yet again, Harry wondered if he was doing much besides sighing and taking heavy breaths these days, but this boy sure had a way of swinging the blunt hammer of inquiry with the sweetest innocence imaginable. Yet before he could find the right words to respond, Hugo spoke again, apparently taking notice of his Uncle Harry's troubled state.
"Mum recently explained to me how there's a right time and a right place for some things to be said, and other times when they are better left unspoken," he said. "I don't think I have fully grasped that concept yet."
Harry had to laugh in spite of himself. "Indeed, I don't think you have. But that's okay. And while your mum was certainly right in what she said, it's still a funny thing how, in a certain way, children tend to play far less games than grownups."
When Harry noticed the confused look on the young boy's face, he cleared his throat and came back from his distant trail of thought. "Anyway. They are both my friends, your mum and your dad. My very best friends."
"And what about me?" asked Hugo, the slightest hint of apprehension in his voice. "Am I your friend, too?"
"Of course you are," Harry said, smiling affectionately. "The three of you are the light of my life."
Hugo considered that for a moment, before he asked, "Does that mean it would be dark in your life without us?"
"I believe it does," Harry answered pensively. "But the only light that's about to go out for now is the one coming from your bedside lamp. I believe you have a dream to catch, little one."
He leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on the same spot on Hugo's forehead where Hermione had done the same a few minutes earlier. Leaning back again, Harry noticed how the boy was biting his lower lip, not unlike his mother whenever she was either pondering something or trying to keep herself from articulating a particular thought out loud.
"Okay, one more question," Harry allowed, instantly defeated. "But just the one."
Hugo's face lit up with a beaming smile, but when it came to the actual question, it quickly faded again.
"Are my parents going to stay together?" he anxiously asked. "Because I know of some of my classmates that they have parents who don't even live in the same house anymore. Timmy even has a new dad, or something like that. I don't want a new dad."
"I…" Harry began, uncertain what exactly he should tell the boy. "I really don't know. I would be lying if I told you any different. What I do know, however, is that whatever may or may not happen, you will lose neither your mum nor your dad. They both love you profoundly and they will each be there for you, no matter what happens."
Hugo sighed weakly, unconsciously hugging his plush dragon a bit tighter. Little green Hagrid didn't seem to mind.
"I guess there's just no knowing in these matters," he concluded rather soberly. "Because they're too complicated, right?"
"In a way, yes," Harry said. "Human relationships are a little like Schrödinger's cat; simultaneously dead and alive – until we finally open the box and they are either the one or the other. Or… still both, depending on the interpretation."
Hugo raised an eyebrow at his godfather's musings. "That sounds like a strange cat," he said incredulously.
"Indeed," Harry agreed. "But be that as it may, it's really time for you to go to sleep now. You can hardly keep your eyes open anymore."
"I could stay up the whole night if I wanted to," Hugo objected defiantly, with half the sentence spoken in a drawn out yawn.
"Certainly," Harry concurred, smiling warmly at the child.
He stood up from the bed, switched off the bedside lamp and walked towards the door.
"Dream something nice for the both of us, will you?"
"I'll try," Hugo promised sincerely. "Good night, Uncle Harry."
"Good night, little one."
Harry silently left the room, gently closing the door behind him.
Back downstairs, he didn't waste any time in the kitchen as he quickly made two cups of tea with a few wandless motions of his hand, thinking only about getting to Hermione as fast as possible. When he finally entered the living room merely seconds later and walked over to the sitting area around the stone fireplace, he found her lying on the couch directly opposite of the crackling fire; with one arm under her pillow, the other hand resting softly on top of it in front of her warmly illuminated face. Her eyes were closed, her legs drawn up to her chest. Her ever gentle features wore a peaceful countenance, yet Harry could feel the effort it would have taken her to retain that shallow calm as if it were his own. Below her eyelids, the traces of tears that had only dried reluctantly were still shimmering faintly in the flickering light of the fire, betraying any illusions one might have had about her superficial tranquility.
Harry set the two hotly steaming cups down on the low mahogany table as carefully and soundlessly as he could, yet when he turned his eyes back towards Hermione, he found hers wide open and directly looking up at him.
"Took you a while," she said softly, a weak smile playing around the corners of her lips. "Was it merely the sheer quantity of his questions, or their difficulty as well?"
"Both," Harry replied good-naturedly. "Definitely both."
Hermione gave off a deep sigh and shifted herself to a sitting position, while Harry sat down near the other end of the couch a few feet away from her.
"Is he alright, though?" she asked him, her voice thick with concern.
"I believe he will be, one way or the other," Harry answered truthfully. "He's your son, after all. That's why I saw even less of a reason to tell him anything too sugarcoated than I generally do already."
"Solace, at the expense of truth, is no solace at all," Hermione stated in consent, knowingly repeating something Harry had once told her himself, even though the memory of that moment was not of the most pleasant kind.
"That's right," he agreed with playfully exaggerated importance. "Only quote from the best."
Hermione rolled her eyes and threw one of the smaller pillows from her corner of the couch at him. He caught it in midair with ease and stretched out his tongue at her as childishly as he possibly could. They shared a short-lived, yet nonetheless cordial laugh.
A minute of mutually appreciated silence passed, with each of them dwelling on their own thoughts. Harry turned his gaze away from the ever dancing flames after a while and instead directed his eyes at Hermione. She was looking down into the cup she held nestled between her hands in her lap, entirely lost in thought.
"How are you feeling?" Harry finally broke the quiet, his voice soft and caring.
Hermione gave off the weakest of sighs, barely noticeable. Yet it was enough for Harry to know she had heard him, and so he waited for her answer with natural patience.
"Frankly, I don't know," she finally revealed. "Or perhaps I do, in fact, and just don't want to. I… I don't know."
"You don't think it was just another fight?"
"No," she emphatically replied, shaking her head vigorously. "Granted, I probably have stopped thinking that a great many fights ago, but... something has changed. Or maybe not, and that's the real root of the problem. Perhaps, though, the only change has simply occurred within me. I feel different."
"And… how is that?" Harry asked, inevitably paraphrasing his first question.
Hermione took a moment to think about that more thoroughly before she answered, "Maybe just tired? Like really, really tired. Tired of the same patterns repeating over and over again. Tired of running in endless circles. Without change, without progress – without growth in either character or understanding. My marriage is, effectively, an infinite regress."
"I assume I shouldn't even ask what exactly today's fight was about?"
"About nothing," Hermione said with strangely detached bitterness. "You might as well witness a positron hitting an electron, resulting in the annihilation of both, and ask what that was all about."
"And then you keep repeating the process, hoping that someday matter and antimatter might meet and choose to live happily ever after instead," Harry added to the metaphor.
"Yeah," Hermione sadly breathed. "The joke's on me."
"I didn't mean to…" Harry started apologetically, horrified at the way his words might have come across, yet Hermione instantly reached out for his hand to give it a gentle squeeze.
"I know," she assured him, and it was enough to make them understand one another.
They remained quiet for a moment longer, sipping their tea and simply enjoying each other's company and the warmth of the fire.
"So," Hermione suddenly began as pleasantly as if they had just met out on the open street on a sunny afternoon. "What about you?"
Harry snorted in response, rather blatantly negating that jolly picture the shortest way possible. "As much as I would like to put my own interpersonal drama on display to draw the attention away from yours, the only thing we might talk about is the utter lack of anything interpersonal whatsoever. I'm entirely drama-free these days."
"The hell you are!" Hermione protested, not buying any of it. "What about Ginny?"
Harry threw her a telling glance with both eyebrows raised. "Don't even go there," he advised her. "Nothing there to put your nose into."
"Come on," Hermione practically pleaded. "Ron told me you guys recently met per chance."
"Surely there has to be some drama there…"
"That was months ago and it was nothing more than the final proof that there's nothing to go back to," Harry explained with a firm voice, leaving no room for doubt about the finality of his words. "We're done. For good, this time."
Hermione mumbled something unintelligible, making no pretence of her apparent disappointment.
"Wanna throw another pillow at me?" Harry offered, the mischievous hint of a smirk undermining his sincerity only slightly.
Hermione raised her chin in overstated indignation, yet hearing Harry chuckle in response made her unable to keep her posture more than a second.
"You should get married, though," she said with a straightened face. "It's awesome."
Harry couldn't help but laugh out loud at that; a short burst of joy ultimately waning all too quickly.
"Yeah, I don't know about that," he said.
Hermione looked at him intently for a brief moment's silence.
"You don't see it happening for you?" she asked him, all humor gone from her voice. "Not even as a distant prospect?"
"Just how distant are we speaking here?" Harry quipped with a lopsided grin.
His grin quickly faded while he mulled over her question a little longer, absentmindedly tracing the fine lines of the scar on his forehead with his index finger. Hermione watched him closely, patiently waiting for him to sort through his thoughts. The first sign of an answer he gave was of an unspoken kind, when he unwittingly shook his head.
"Nah," he then said, as if coming back from some great distance. "Not really."
Harry raised an eyebrow at her in puzzlement. "Last time I checked, it still took two to marry. Then again, I think I remember reading about someone marrying him- or herself in the United States once, probably Vegas. Don't think I would accept my proposal, though. I just can't picture myself spending the rest of my life with myself."
Hermione laughed. "You're such a berk sometimes," she told him gleefully, seriously tempted to throw another pillow at him. "Honestly now. What about Ginny?"
"Oh, wouldn't that be nice?" Harry scoffed. She just wouldn't let it go, would she? "I'm telling you, that ship sailed a long time ago. Granted, she was my only real relationship – twice. Not counting that third run. And that one time, after she needed whatever it was she needed after that thing she had with that especially awful guy – what's his face? Anyway, I don't dismiss what we might have had once, but the fact of the matter is that nothing is left of it. I believe it's more likely I'll end up marrying Madame Pomfrey."
"Fine," Hermione relented, pouting. "Then what about one of those countless wanton women piling up on your front porch in frantic anticipation of some long yearned for Potter-lovin'?"
Harry snorted heavily at that, spilling a considerable sip of his tea right onto his pants in the most unfavorable of places.
"Damn it, Hermione!" he cursed, smiling involuntarily at the way she tried to hide her violent giggle behind her hands. "It's unbelievable how much deviousness can hide behind such innocence."
"Where else would it be?" she teased, not even trying to hide her smugness.
Harry rubbed his sleeves over the wet spots on his trousers in a rather futile attempt to dry them, shaking his head in sheer disbelief the whole while.
"What were you even talking about?" he asked, utterly confused.
"Well, I'm just saying," she explained with regained composure. "You are still Britain's most eligible bachelor according to Witch Weekly, and for once I tend to agree with them, even if I do so for entirely divergent reasons."
"Yeah, well, maybe your wanton women are part of the problem," Harry opined, scowling. "Not that I've met any on my front porch."
"What do you mean?"
Harry let out a deep breath, surrendering to his delicate tea-on-trousers-situation.
"Maybe I'm tired too, you know?" he mused. "Tired of trying and failing. Tired of getting to know somebody new, only to realize that you've wasted each other's time. I mean, when you consider what factors our decisions to either pursue an interpersonal endeavor or not depend on, it's kinda pathetic. Basically, it comes down to pure biochemistry. Looks, if you will. Signals and instincts. It's a subconscious measurement of compatibility on the most superficial level. Sexual attraction. That's it. Doesn't tell you anything about who that other person really is, and if you could actually share more than free access to each other's reproductive organs.
"In a way, our cerebral cortex is a self-defeating thing. It brings forth longings, dreams and wishes that nature simply has no answer for. It awkwardly gives us a perceptual fertility check where we might want a peek into another's metaphorical heart and soul. Consequently, most people know the taste of each other's genitals before they know anything true, anything valuable about each other. Our own fragile dreams are deceiving us. We perpetual seekers of truth and Neverland, of everything and ever more, are constantly deluding ourselves, projecting our elusive wishes on a reality that is too bleak to accept for the wistful heart."
Harry's unexpected stream of words came to a sudden halt, leaving behind an echo inaudible to ordinary ears. The words had come to him without deliberation and he had spoken them unflinchingly. A long silence ensued, yet Harry knew Hermione too well to take this as a sign of an inability to say anything in return or even a lack of understanding on her part. It was not a silence of abashment, but of contemplation; of letting the words sink in. Finally, it was Hermione who spoke.
"When did we grow so embittered?" she asked no one in particular, her anguish nearly palpable. "And young as we are?"
"Yeah, well… we're just awesome like that," Harry attempted to joke, barely succeeding with even half his heart. "Doing what most others need fifty or sixty years for within half the time."
He sighed heavily, shaking his head apparently at no one but himself. "I'm sorry," he said earnestly. "This is not how I wanted this to go. Instead of wallowing in self-pity I should be comforting you…"
"Those who offer false consolation are false friends," Hermione stated, gently dismissing his apology as unnecessary. "Besides, I was the one to push you into this, remember? I practically pleaded for some drama that didn't involve my own little stage of Shakespearean tragedy."
When she saw how utterly crestfallen he looked, sunken into his corner of the couch and blankly staring off into an indeterminable distance, she immediately felt the need to see him smile again.
"Well, who could've possibly expected that you would blow the wanton women on your front porch so exuberantly out of proportion?" she offered in the first attempt to lighten his mood that came to her.
His reaction was testament to her success, for the smile he gave her indeed brought some warmth back into his weary features. Yet no more than a short delay could it be, before both of them were drawn back into the unrelenting currents of their thoughts so imbued with sorrow.
"Harry, have you ever thought about… the roads not taken?" Hermione asked after a while in a very quiet voice, just loud enough to rise above the crackling of the burning wood. "About the choices we let pass in favor of those we made, and the paths we didn't tread and left behind instead, forever to remain uncharted?"
Harry's gaze stayed fixed upon the flames, their flickering reflections a distant glint in his emerald eyes.
"Sure I have," he asserted with a calmness that might have revealed a mere hint of latent anxiety. "More often than one should, I dare say."
"And did…" Hermione began only to abruptly break off again, nervously fidgeting with her hands in her lap; clearly unsure of herself. Harry threw her a quick glance that went unnoticed by her, but remained silent. When she had finally made up her mind, she hastily blurted out in one breath, "Did I ever play a role in those thoughts?"
Harry again looked at her, yet quickly averted his eyes when he found her looking right back.
"I don't know if I fully take your meaning," he carefully answered. "Is there a specific kind of role you are referring to?"
"You tell me."
A short pause, heavy with uncertainty.
"I'm not sure this is the right direction to go here…" Harry replied evasively, and there might have been a well-meant warning – or pleading – in his words as well, yet Hermione was in no condition to heed it.
"Please, will you just tell me?" she asked of him, unintentionally in a manner that was hardest for Harry to refuse.
He hesitated nonetheless, took an unsteady breath and straightened his back. Hermione didn't take her eyes off of him, anticipating any answer he might give her.
"Yes," he then said most curtly, without meeting her unwavering gaze.
"Yes?" she asked.
"My answer to both your questions."
Hermione considered that revelation for a moment, fighting every inner voice of hers that kept telling her to not pursue this any further. The nagging voices lost, their echoes quickly fading into nothingness.
"So… have your thoughts ever gone back to, say, that time when we were searching for the horcruxes? When the two of us were alone for days?" she asked. "That night, maybe, after Ron had left us and we ended up dancing that wonderfully silly dance…"
"It was a long time ago," Harry interrupted her, his calm demeanor masking an underlying tension that expressed itself mainly in his stiffened posture. "Why ask about it now?"
"I'm wallowing in memories, I guess," she answered, for once either unwilling or unable to take his true meaning. "Like that one morning, when we were sitting in the snow with our backs to leafless trees, surrounded by chilling cold air, feeling so utterly lost and helpless. Do you remember what I told you back then?"
"I believe I do," he said with a noticeable edge to his voice, openly bewildered by now. "Although I'm honestly uncertain as to what exactly you are expecting me to say, here."
"Well, I was just curious if you… or how exactly you thought about some of those mom-"
"What are you doing, Hermione?" Harry cut her off much more brusquely now, startling her with an unusually sharp voice.
"I… I'm merely… reminiscing."
"But what implications arise from the manner of your reminiscence?" he demanded irritably. "Are you seriously asking me to tell you that I have wondered what things might have come to be if we had not stepped away from each other that night?"
"I was just wondering…"
"What? Wondering what, Hermione?" he challenged her hotly, involuntarily rising from the couch. "Wondering if I wanted to hold you longer than I ultimately did? Wondering if I wanted to kiss you? Wondering if I had ever thought that maybe I missed my shot at a lasting good in my life? If I ever regretted letting you go so easily, not trying any harder? If I maybe, just maybe, ever cursed having lost you to my best friend? If I ever begrudge him for having the one thing the-boy-who-fucking-lived truly held dear, yet was too blind to realize his need for when he might still have had the chance to make it real?
"Wondering if I ever got so lost in my very own reminiscence that I couldn't help but wonder if everything and everyone I tried to find happiness in was nothing more than a desultory substitute for the one thing I truly wanted, yet couldn't have? Are you wondering if I ever thought of you when I was with Ginny or whom-the-fuck-so-ever? Is that what you are just wondering?"
Only when his sudden outburst stopped dead did Harry fully realize what words he'd spoken and the devastating effect they'd had on Hermione, and his rage quickly subsided when he saw her sitting there so petrified by hurt, confusion and regret. The sound of his voice risen in anger had given way to a dead silence that had a suffocating quality about it, and that very anger found shame taking its place.
His hand went to his forehead in a gesture of consternation, then into his hair where it remained even longer. He found himself unable to speak, to say anything to Hermione or even so much as look at her. In a moment that couldn't possibly have felt any more ridiculous, the image of a Time-Turner flashed through his mind. Ironically, he probably would have had to ask Hermione for instructions on how exactly to use it. What finally snatched him back into reality was the weak sound of her saying his name in a voice thick with emotion.
He dropped his hand back to his side and raised his head, waiting to the last moment of the motion before he let his eyes meet hers. He swallowed hard and his breath wavered in his chest when he felt the intensity of her gaze. Her eyes were glistening wetly in the warmly glowing light, the reflections of the flickering flames seemingly setting her chocolate pupils afire; every emotion that went through her at that moment amplified tenfold in every twinkling spot of light and the tears that would not fall.
"It can't be," she breathed in a near-whisper. "It couldn't possibly be."
"And it isn't," he said emphatically, his voice strained.
"But those things you just said-"
"Are things to forget," he ended her thought before she would.
Her eyes switched back and forth between his, desperately trying to find whatever lay hidden beneath his stern features.
"What if I don't-"
"No," he firmly cut her off, pained by his own harshness that felt like the opposite of what should be. "No, Hermione. That is not an option. This is… this is so wrong. I don't even know how we got to this point, or why – why now? I shouldn't have let myself go like that."
She bit her lower lip, if only to keep it from trembling too violently. She closed her eyes, then went forth to ask,
"What about truth, now?"
Harry looked back up at her, the deepest anguish she had seen in him since the times when he had struggled to take the weight of the world upon his shoulders cutting through every fiber of his being, piercing through his eyes right into hers – cutting deep.
He slowly shook his head, breaking apart a little more with every pivot. One single tear left Hermione's eyes and wound its way down her grief-stricken face.
"I need to go," Harry said, his voice nearly failing him. "I want to be here for you; be the friend you can always rely upon. But right now, that I cannot be. I don't want to leave. I hate it. But I have to."
Begging for any kind of absolution with a last, painful look at her, he turned around and headed for the door. Hermione immediately jumped to her feet, blank despair taking hold of her.
"Wait, please," she called out after him, and was immeasurably thankful to see him halt in his haste, even though he did not turn around. "Don't leave… like this. Not like this."
"How would you have me leave?" he asked.
Did he really want to hear the most honest answer she could give him in that moment, she wondered. She silenced her burning need to tell him with all her strength of will, and gathering every bit of courage she could muster, for she feared to be rejected by him for what seemed to be the first time in her life, asked of him instead, "Will you come to me?"
For a heart-wrenching stretch of seconds that felt like hours, she saw her fears come true, for at first, he didn't seem to react at all, and then only dropped his head with a heavy sigh. He turned around, however, and met her gaze once more. In his eyes she had never looked more forlorn, and thus without a choice he slowly closed the distance between them, his steps less hesitating than cautious.
She dared not look at him in that moment, and therefore dropped her eyes to look at her hands she held folded before her. She felt herself tremble slightly when he stepped right in front of her, a mere echo of the quake that was ripping apart her inner foundations. When she felt his arms closing around her, she gave in to the pressure behind her eyes and let her tears flow freely at last. He, in immediate reaction, instinctively drew her closer. She let herself lean into him, resting her cheek on his shoulder so her nose was touching his neck.
He held her with the sureness that made her understand he would safely have her even if she should fall, and with the tenderness that made her feel he would rather fall with her than stand alone. He held his head leaned against hers, taking in the fragrance of her hair in which his nose was gently nestled. In his chest there raged his wildly beating heart, met in equal by the one it was beating against. They both held their eyes closed, shutting out the world around them and taking in nothing but each other.
Thus they stood there for a few moments, blessed and cursed, in front of the waning tongues of fire, lost somewhere in the currents between the shores of despair and serenity.
Finally, with reality ruthlessly laying its cold claws down upon his heavy shoulders, Harry hesitatingly made half a step back, bringing a few inches between them. He took a long, hard look at the fragile figure standing there before him, surrounded by the weakening light of the fire to their side. Her eyes were downcast, her features warmly illuminated on the one side, shadowed on the other. For a brief moment, he was deeply tempted to do something he might have either regretted doing, or regretted not doing for the rest of his life, but there was a law within him that he could not break; not only without betraying those he loved most, but neither without betraying who he was – who he wanted to be.
Thus he chose one regret over the other and leaned forward to kiss her just above her forehead, with his hands resting gently against both sides of her neck.
"I need to go," he said once more, speaking as much to himself as to her.
Hermione, eyes still closed and head still bowed between his hands, responded with a hiccoughing sob and her own hands went up to lightly grab his arms, as if to hold him in place for just a little while longer.
"I'm sorry," she whispered softly, and never could these words have been spoken with more sincerity, a deeper meaning or a truth more sublime, than in that moment when Hermione Granger spoke them to Harry Potter.
Yet Harry equaled them in quality when he likewise said,
"So am I."
And with that, he was gone from their embrace, leaving Hermione to surrender to her fate; to break apart and in vain hold on to the empty space he had left behind, where there now was nothing. Nothing at all.
Outside, Harry heard the door fall shut behind him while he stood there in stillness in front of the cold stone steps, gazing up at a patch of clear, star-covered night sky between the silvery illuminated clouds under a full moon. He took in the chilling air with deep, steady breaths and he felt the snowflakes melt on his skin, trying to reduce himself to his most basic senses; to be fully aware of himself, and naught but himself. Something eluded him, however, and giving up with a sigh, he stepped down onto the snow-covered street and started walking without any cognizant thought as to where his steps may take him, for putting one foot in front of the other was all he found himself able to do.
Inwardly, he was fighting a desperate battle against all the thoughts, the memories, the images that were constantly assaulting him in a relentless onslaught; the paths, the choices, the mistakes – branches and crossroads. Hermione, Ron, Hugo, Ginny and himself. And then Hermione, Hermione, Hermione. Over and over again. Endlessly. Hopelessly.
If it hadn't been for that last spark of rationality somewhere within the turmoil that reminded him how utterly melodramatic it would surely have made him feel, he would have sunken down onto his knees right there in the middle of the street, amidst the falling snow. It seemed too much; it seemed too heavy to carry. And then, suddenly and as if coming from the other side of a thick curtain, he heard his name being spoken out loud and he raised his head to look for the source of the sound; found it sitting on a bench between a shadowy tree and a streetlamp. And like that, he was back in the world of the living. At least for now.
"You haven't gotten very far," he remarked – once he had found his voice – as casually as he could, raising an eyebrow at his red-haired friend.
"Yeah, well," Ron said, shrugging his shoulders. "Thought about going to the next best pub, not gonna lie. But then I imagined myself coming home as the walking cliché of the lousy husband who comes back after yet another row reeking of booze like there's no tomorrow, forcing his wife to sleep on the couch and disappointing his son once more."
"Hermione could've simply isolated your stench with some spell I couldn't even name right now, though," Harry told him in an attempted joke, tripping over the unfamiliar feeling that spread through him when he said her name out loud.
"No doubt," Ron concurred soberly. "But she couldn't have isolated the disappointment."
Harry nodded in silent consent, unable to say anything in return.
"So," Ron spoke up after a brief moment. "You took good care of her?"
Harry considered his answer carefully, images of the evening's events crawling back into his consciousness.
"To the best of my ability, I hope."
"And Hugo?" Ron asked, clearly concerned. "He was awake, wasn't he? I think I saw his door standing ajar when I headed downstairs."
"Yeah, he overheard some of your argument… and so did I, for that matter," Harry openly revealed. "But he seemed to be alright, all things considered. He was worried about you."
Ron nodded glumly. "You're always there, aren't you? To pick up the pieces I leave behind."
"I… don't know if I'd put it exactly that way," Harry said, and a little warily so. "Would you prefer my absence in these matters?"
"No, that's not how I meant it," Ron was fast to explain. "I would never ask you to not be there for Hermione. I'm thankful, really, but I can't help feeling like an idiot."
"You don't have to. It's just what friends do, isn't it?"
"Really? Friends make the card tower of your failing marriage hold together for just a little longer? And they are the compensation for all your wife's needs and wishes you miserably fail to live up to yourself?"
"I'm not sure that's how things really are…"
"Oh, please. Grant me this much, will ya? I'm not that stupid," said Ron, slightly disgruntled. "That's exactly how things are."
He shook his head and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice calm again. "I don't want to put this out on you, and I don't want to be angry at you. It's not your fault. I know why you stayed with her – I get it. But it still doesn't exactly make me feel great, you know?"
"Yeah, I do. I feel awful about it," Harry replied in dead earnest. He paused for a moment, then went forth to say, "This – everything… all of this… is just so… so…"
"Messed up," Ron concluded his friend's trail of thought, who nodded pensively in response.
For one quiet minute, they both remained silent with night and winter surrounding them. Ron just sat there, weighed down and weary; looking at the ground, his folded hands or nothing in particular. Harry's eyes were once more directed at the glinting stars above that enclosed them from unimaginable distances like an infinite blanket, billions upon billions of suns burning brightly in their own flames of aeons with humbling indifference to whatever fates of man were transpiring on the little blue planet.
"Go home," Harry suddenly said to end the silence, still looking straight up at the night sky; then slowly lowered his head to look at Ron. "Make things right."
"Harry, mate, I really don't know if there's much left to be done about this."
"It doesn't have to be much," Harry replied. "It just has to be right."
Ron gave off a heavy sigh, his breath condensing wildly before him.
"Just do it," Harry said. "Go home, and make things right."
They looked at each other for a few slowly passing seconds, before Ron finally began to nod.
"Okay," he acceded. "I'll try. I'll make things right."
Harry answered with a single, curt inclination of his head, and a silently communicated understanding passed between the two friends of many years. He then turned to face the long, straight road ahead of him and started walking.
At first, he merely put one foot in front of the other again, just to get forward at all. Then, however, each step grew a little faster than the one before, until walking wasn't enough anymore and each step began to cover a greater distance as well. And step by step he went faster and faster still, until finally he was outright running through the streets of dark and light; rushing through the snow that melted in his face and mingled with the tears that had begun to flow from his eyes, hurting in the cold harsh wind. He ran until the biting cold was a stinging pain in his heaving lungs, and far beyond. He ran until the muscles in his limbs were burning hotly in a searing pain, and still beyond.
And he simply ran.
And he ran.
~ End of the Road ~