Edited 25/3/13 - Grammar fixes, etc.

One-shot | Harry, Hermione. | 4410 words
Post-movie story. Diverts from canon at some point during Deathly Hallows. Unbeta-ed.
Theme song: AA Bondy – There's a reason.

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Vestige

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It starts like this.

"No, no – Ron – Ron! Oh please god – no –" Hermione gasps.

He stares in disbelief, frozen where he stands.

Blood is seeping into the saltwater of the sea.

"Dobby is so sorry, Harry Potter sir...so, so sorry..."

He swallows convulsively, recognizing Dobby's whispered words that are next to him, full of regret.

He can't speak.

He spies the word Mudblood on Hermione's forearm and he can't breathe.

And his knees go weak when he sees Ron slumping down to the shore in slow motion with a knife in the chest, his other best friend too weak to hold him steady.

He staggers; stumbling towards them, almost slips as he half wades and half runs through the shallow water, and some part of him knows – knows – that the trio will be irreversibly broken very soon.

"Ron," he whispers, and he doesn't know how broken he sounds. "Ron."

So very soon.

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Do you hear that?

It's the sound of something cracking.

Something so very precious.

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"Have you ever thought about what would have happened if we never met?"

He pauses in his motions of throwing a pebble into the calm sea, and glances at her briefly.

He's not sure what caused her to ask that.

But he has some inkling, and it makes his thoughts turn darker.

Her hands (sleeved) are curled around her legs where she sits on the sand, and she's resting her chin on her knee.

Her gaze is at the sky beyond the sea, distant and thoughtful and almost unreadable.

He turns back to the dark, still water.

And he throws.

"I'd be dead by now, I reckon."

The sea ripples.

He hears her inhale deeply.

"That's not funny, Harry." A hint of reproach.

"But it's true," he says plainly.

She doesn't respond.

He moves to create another ripple again.

The soft, cool wind is the only thing that breaks the silence in the air.

She stands, and the sand crunches when she makes her way to him quietly.

He throws another pebble.

She pulls him into a brief one-armed tight hug, and presses a kiss against his cheek.

It's warm against his chilled skin.

"I'm going to check on Ron's injury," she whispers, then pauses, then continues. "Don't stay out too long, Harry."

Then she steps back and goes into the wood shack house that Bill and Fleur stay in now, book tucked under her long-sleeved arm.

He watches her go.

She felt tense.

Too tense.

He doesn't blame her.

Ron's condition is making both of them anxious.

And she had been crucio-ed god knows how many times just two days before.

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His shirt is fisted tightly by a sweaty, trembling hand.

"You'll protect her, won't you?" It's hoarse and pained, that voice.

"With my life," he whispers, even when he's shaken weakly with that arm.

The other half growls and half snorts. "You better."

"I will," he promises. "Forever."

"You do know what that means, right?"

He's almost confused and actually a little bit caught off guard. "What?"

"Means you can't die, Harry James Potter."

His mouth closes shut.

Ron gives him a half-hearted grin, forehead damp and red hair sticking to his face and eyes ringed black but still looking irritatingly triumphant.

"Can't back out now, mate," his dying best friend says.

"No," he chokes out, "I guess not."

"Good." There's a pause, before Ron goes on at length. "Have to admit though – this is a damned shitty way to die."

He strangles out a laughter. "Yeah. It is."

"Yeah?" his friend cocks an eyebrow at him. "Least I took that bitch with me. Serves her right for hurting Hermione."

He finds himself grinning involuntarily. "Yeah. That was brilliant."

"I'm a knight on the chessboard, Harry," Ron says suddenly, all whispery hoarse and rough. "A knight protects."

He doesn't really know what his friend is trying to say this time.

The grip on his shirt tightens. "Hermione is the queen. And you are the pawn. The pawn, Harry."

He's certain that his confusion shows. "O...kay...?"

Ron chuckles and coughs all at the same time and it alarms and scares him. "Blimey. You are an idiot. You don't see it, do you? The amount of potential that a pawn has."

"What?" he demands. He doesn't know why he feels like he's going to cry.

A snort. "You'll figure it out. Think chess, Harry. Chess and what it means to checkmate."

"What are you on about?" he demands again.

But all Ron does is shake his head.

"Harry."

He stops at the serious tone in his voice.

"If you don't take care of her, I'll kick your ass from the grave."

His throat clogs. "I know."

Ron breathes in, and grins. "Good."

The grip on his shirt loosens.

He can't breathe.

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His lips crash down onto hers.

She's trembling but not resisting and she's giving just as violently as he is and this is all so wrong wrong wrong but he can't stop

"Harry," she gasps into his mouth, and he can taste her regret, her pain, her sadness, her everything.

There's only the dim light from the little lamp on the wooden table that soaks into the cloth of the tent, and it is reflected on her when his lips presses against her jaw, neck, pulse line; hands fumbling and reaching around to feel her warmth because he needs to know she's alive

When his thumb rubs against the stilted rough lines he can feel on her forearm, she stills. He stills.

His gaze locks onto her haunted one. The flickering lamp seems to be making her dark eyes glimmer a golden hue, and it makes his breath catch to see the plays of shadows and the soft light soaking into her skin.

When his hand encircles her hand - lord, he never realized she's so small - and he lifts it to brush his lips against the word engraved onto her skin, she flinches.

"Don't," she whispers raggedly, and he can feel the shudder going through her.

She frees her hand from his loose grasp, tugs sharply at his shirt, and pulls him up to rest over her fully again.

His head surges to meet her lips, and he muffles her pain.

She lets him.

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They are like this puzzle trying and failing to fit together, because there are pieces already missing.

Pieces that can no longer be recovered.

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He's feigning being asleep.

And he's wishing he didn't have a terrible vision as he watches the blur in front of him dress.

All he can really discern is the dark reddish-yellow light from the lamp that touches the white tent, the rough outline of her figure and the curve of her back in the dim darkness as she pulls a sweater over herself.

When she's done, she seems to just stand there, for a moment, arms curled around herself; like she's lost in thought.

He feels like it's the longest moment ever.

Then she takes in a deep breath, and turns to face him.

His eyes close completely.

A hand brushes against his hair and touches his cheek gently.

She presses a kiss to his temple.

There's a faint scent of something familiar and something he tasted just hours earlier – and can still taste.

"Everything's different now, isn't it, Harry?" she whispers, and there's a myriad of emotions in those soft words ranging from sadness to loss to regret to fondness.

He holds back the urge to grab her. He knows she's not really expecting an answer from him since he's supposed to be asleep.

She's silent, the tent is silent, and she's playing with a strand of his hair.

And somehow he gets the feeling that this says so much more than her whispered words moments ago.

Then she takes in another deep breath, and her comforting presence leaves his side.

His eyes opens and he sees her picking up a book before settling on the bench next to the lamp.

He watches her turn page after page, studiously scanning the words written in them.

Sleep overtakes him before long.

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This is what the chessboard looks like.

The pawn travels to the enemy's fort, slowly, taking one step after another as his comrades and enemies battle each other – he sees his friends sacrificed one after another –

And he, the last White Pawn on the board, reaches the last checkered row of the board at long last, for all the grit and dirt and blood he is covered in.

"Blimey. You are an idiot. You don't see it, do you? The amount of potential that a pawn has."

He dies.

"Dead," Narcissa says calmly, staring at her Dark Lord with expressionless eyes.

He rises.

The Black King stares at him in shock.

The Black Rook tries to replace the Black King, but is intercepted by the White Queen.

The Black Rook changes track and goes after the Queen instead.

Hermione stumbles and gasps. She's slammed against the broken wall and there's blood dribbling down her temple as she slides down to the floor weakly.

Nagini hisses.

The last White Knight on the chess board attacks.

Neville roars.

And the Rook crumbles.

He stares at the Black King, looking just as stunned as the King is. He feels it. The King feels it. And they know.

It is his turn to move.

His wand lifts.

Checkmate.

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It's finally over.

Yet he feels like he has won the battle but lost the war.

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The first thing he sees when he wakes up is her chocolate-brown eyes.

The second thing he notices is the exhaustion that he still feels, and the third, her sitting on the empty space of the couch he had fallen asleep on.

He gives her a groggy look. "Hermione?"

She offers him a small smile. "Good afternoon."

Afternoon?

He tries to shake off the remnants of sleep clouding his mind. "How long was I asleep?"

There's a bit of amusement in her voice this time. "Long enough. You drool in your sleep, do you know that?"

He wipes at the corner of his lips hastily. "Do not."

She rolls her eyes, but the mirth is practically radiating off her. "If you say so, Harry."

It almost makes him want to degenerate into a sullen sulk.

Then her amusement fades. "They are going to start the burials today."

Something in him clenches.

"Oh," he says.

She eyes him like she knows what he's trying to do, and not approving of it.

Her gaze is a mix of something sad and haunted and worn.

She breathes in, slowly, and her eyes close briefly.

He gets the feeling something is bothering her. Not that this whole burial thing isn't, but there's something else.

"Hermione?"

A small, wan smile forms on her lips.

"You are not going to die on me too, are you, Harry?"

Her words are too soft and pained and knowing.

It makes something in him clench more tightly and the guilt rolls down his bloodstream in waves.

"I'm sorry," he whispers.

"I thought you died," she says hollowly. "When I saw you – Hagrid – when you – you – " she cuts herself off, breathes in sharply.

Her eyes close shut.

He sits up and pulls her into his arms.

"I'm sorry," he repeats.

"I can't lose you too." Her words are muffled into his shoulder and broken.

"I'm sorry," he says again, like a broken recorder.

He doesn't know if he's dreaming when, for the briefest of a moment, he sees a flash of a ghostlike image with reddish hair and blue eyes put his arms over both of them protectively.

His eyes burn.

It should have been him.

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"We are over now, aren't we?" Ginny asks, and there's finality in her tone that he's never heard but knows what it means anyway. Too much has happened. He has changed. She has changed. All of them have changed.

One year is too long a time.

He doesn't answer her, gaze flitting over to Hermione briefly, who's conversing quietly with Professor McGonagall about some reconstruction at the end of the hall. He seems to always scan for her presence, now, and he knows it's from half paranoia and half – half something else.

Ginny gives him a fierce hug that lasts only for the briefest of a moment. It mirrors the one Molly gave him some days ago.

"I have to go back to my family," she says softly. "We aren't – there's not too many of us left."

"I'm sorry," he whispers. The guilt stings him.

She's smiling through her tears. "Don't be. You saved all of us, you know that?"

He doesn't.

"Be happy, Harry," she whispers.

Then she leaves.

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She is his only anchor now.

He blinks when she whips her wand out of nowhere and taps it against his glasses gently.

"Reparo."

He feels the glasses move and straighten and actually sit properly on his nose this time.

"Oh...thanks. I didn't notice."

She sighs in exasperation and something both fond and affectionate and a bit more than that.

Her smile is slightly crooked as she tilts her head at him. "Am I always going to have to repair your glasses for you, Harry?"

He mulls over it for a moment. "Maybe?"

"I'm not going to be around all the time, you know," she points out, mildly amused.

He knows she didn't mean for her words to mean anything significant, but he feels something in his chest clench at the thought all the same.

The humor vanishes from her gaze. She seems to have realized her mistake. Or maybe he didn't hide it well enough, and it's written all over his face.

It's suddenly so hard to breathe. It's like everything is crashing down on him again

She touches his arm, brow furrowed. "Harry."

Her touch burns.

She's watching him carefully. "Harry," she repeats, "you know that's not what I –"

He doesn't want to hear it.

He pulls her to him and drags her into a kiss that startles her and muffles the rest of her sentence.

And throughout it all, he feels like he's still drowning.

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He watches the proceedings stonily.

He watches as caskets are lowered.

He watches as words are carved into the black memorial stone.

And he feels something in him die each time.

He's drowning.

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And then, everything just feels so

bleak.

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But he should have known that there is someone who will not be content to see him this way.

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She rubs at her face.

"Harry – Harry. You can't keep doing this. You can't keep pushing me out. I don't – " she cuts herself off, closes her eyes briefly, and when they open, they look so, so sad and tired.

Her voice drops to a whisper.

"Do you really think Ron would have wanted this?"

He feels his teeth grind together and looks away.

That stung.

"I know you feel guilty," she says quietly. "But Harry – don't you think I do, too?"

The response is almost so automatic when his head whips back to stare at her, and he can tell that she seems to have expected that. "It's not your fault," he blurts out.

She gives him a disbelieving look that says, really?

Something hardens. "It's not your fault, Hermione." And he means it.

An odd-sort of look that he can't read falls over her expression. "So you think it's your entire fault."

Her words are far too calm and nearly too cold for his comfort.

His gaze drops down to her sleeved forearm for the briefest of the moment before he turns and glares at the wooden bench again.

He hears her take in a deep breath.

"Do you even realize how stupid you sound?"

He blinks and stares at her. "Wha –"

"No. Shut up. You are going to listen to what I'm going to say in silence," she interrupts, cinnamon eyes darkening and furious.

Then she's literally marching towards him and he takes unconscious steps back.

"You are the most insufferable git I had the pleasure of meeting, Harry Potter. I swear to all that's holy, I've never met someone as exasperating as you."

He takes another step back as she closes in, up until he feels the back of his knee hit the bench and he can no longer escape.

"Ron is dead. Dead. Like so many other people since the damned war ended." She says sharply, in a hard, steely tone he's never heard before – "and you have the gall to disrespect them by throwing yourself a self-pity party, pushing everyone else away because you think you need to punish yourself for his death – for their deaths – " she's literally a breath away from his face now, all fire and furious and blazing, "and god damn you, Harry, don't you see what you are doing to us?"

And Merlin, she's beautiful like this, with that sharp glitter in her dark eyes, hair wild and falling past her shoulders and so close to him.

"Harry James Potter! Are you listening to me?!" she shouts in his face, already fisting his shirt and shaking it roughly.

"I am!" he's almost yelping, despite the situation. Merlin, she sounds madder than that time when Ron and he came back with the Gryfindor Sword and a destroyed horcrux, and he never thought her ire would be directed at him like this, ever.

Her eyes blazed at him. "Are you? Really?" she grounds out. "Then tell me why you are doing this, Harry. Why are you punishing both of us?"

He blinks. She's lost him somewhere in that sentence. "What are you –"

"Don't you realize that by punishing yourself like this, pulling yourself away from me, you are punishing me by extension, Harry?"

His world comes to a halt at that sentence.

He stares at her.

She breathes in shakily, releases his shirt, steps back, and turns away – but not before he sees tears pooling together in her eyes.

"Hermione –"

"Shut up. Just shut up, Harry."

Her sharp words sting him.

There's something stuck in his throat. His mouth opens and closes.

She's shaking, he can tell, even when it's her back facing him. Her hands are clenched tightly and her shoulders are trembling.

Guilt comes down on him in waves. Brilliant, Harry. You and your stupidity again.

"Hermione – " he reaches out, touching her arm. She tenses.

His hand drops back to his side.

"I'm sorry," he whispers.

"Are you really?" she bit back, still angry.

That question hurts him more than he cares to admit.

And just like that, her anger seems to deflate completely as her shoulders sag.

"That was uncalled for," she murmurs, almost too soft. "I'm sorry."

He shoves the hurt away. "You've nothing to be sorry for. I should be the one saying sorry."

"No, Harry, I –" she cuts herself off again. "I just –" she breathes in deeply, shakes her head, then turns around to face him again.

She locks her gaze with his.

Her eyes are dark and piercing with too many things for him to discern.

"You can't keep doing this to us, Harry," she says quietly. "I don't – I can't take it." Something in her tone hardens. "I won't stand for it. I won't deny that they sacrificed themselves for you, but I also know that they didn't die for you to go on a crusade of self-destruction. And if you tell me you don't know that, I swear, Harry, I will hit you."

She's never been this brutally harsh to him before, and it stabs at him because he's finally seeing how much this is hurting her too.

It's his turn to breathe in slowly.

The tips of her fingers touch his left cheek gently. "Do you understand what I'm saying, Harry James Potter?" she whispers.

He grasps them within his own hand, feeling the softness and warmth, and presses them closer to his face.

"Okay," he breathes out. "Okay."

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He tries.

This time, he's really trying.

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The first step is always the hardest.

He's breaking.

He's not quite sure how he held it in for so long, to be honest.

His hand is clenched around the deluminator as he stares at it from where he kneels in front of the grave. She's next to him, silent and watchful.

"I want to bury this with him," his voice is hoarse.

"Okay," she says softly.

"It will be his light," he croaks out. "His – in the afterlife. His light. Right?"

"I'm sure it will," she whispers, and she's curling her arms around him tightly.

His eyes blur and burns.

Here lies Ronald Bilius Weasley, the most courageous son and best friend one could ever have.

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The second step is to let ghosts lie where they belong.

"Potter."

He looks up.

Silence reigns.

Then he nods, once, almost too imperceptible to notice.

"Malfoy."

The blond man eyes him, expression unreadable. There's no malice in his gaze.

Draco's gaze slants to Hermione's briefly, something like acknowledgment flashing in them, and he sees Hermione nodding to him as well.

Then the brown-haired girl – woman? – leaves them to join the crew of Weasley for quiet conversation, but not before squeezing his elbow gently.

He turns his attention back to the man before him.

And it surprises him when Draco Malfoy is the one to extend a hand to him wordlessly outside the trial room they just exited.

He says nothing. His once-hated schoolmate says nothing.

Then Draco quirks a challenging brow.

It almost makes him roll his eyes.

He grasps his hand and shakes it firmly, before letting go.

They aren't friends, and he doesn't believe they will ever be.

But this – this, he can do.

Draco nods again. "Potter."

He does too. "Malfoy."

The blond man leaves.

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Her hand is gripping his tightly.

He watches her carefully.

"You don't have to do this now," he says.

"I..." her eyes are fixed on an aged couple walking side by side by the beach, carefree and in peace, and he can feel the uncertainty and fear emanating from her tense grip. "They seem happy here."

The blue sea glitters and reflects the bright sunlight.

"And you are their only daughter," his words are soft.

She breathes in deeply.

"I know," she whispers.

"They would have been proud of you, you know," he tries to be helpful, despite not being sure if he really is helping. "If it wasn't for you, there's no way I would have been able to, as the Daily Prophet says, be The-Boy-Who-Won." He doesn't bother hiding the disdain he feels for that newspaper.

Hermione snorts. "I beg to differ."

He almost frowns, and tugs at her hand persistently until her eyes slant back to him reluctantly.

"Hermione," he says firmly, "I would not have lived to see this day if it wasn't for you."

At the back of his mind, there's a vague memory of him telling her the same thing on a different beach, when things were tense and too painful to think of.

"You're just saying that," she deflects, turning to look at her parents again, "you're stronger than you think, you know, Harry. And you've had help from other people, as well, not just me."

This time he does frown. Haven't they argued about this before?

"Don't do that," he rebukes quietly, and there are so many things he's not saying but knows she hears them anyway.

Her shoulders sag. "I'm sorry."

His grip on her hand tightens, and she looks at him again.

"You have sacrificed so much to help me," he says quietly. She almost protests, but he cuts her off. "Don't think I don't know how much you've done to help me." A pause. "And how much you have given."

His words are laden with memories that he knows she hasn't forgotten and is not likely to ever forget.

She flushes, but doesn't look away.

Instead, she's staring up at him curiously.

There's something like amazement and puzzled amusement in her soft voice. "Who are you and what have you done to Harry Potter?"

"I happen to be a better version of him," he says seriously with no small amount of humor. "And it isn't what I did to replace him," he goes on to say. "It's what a certain Miss Granger gave, which, I have to say, was the scolding of his life."

Her lips twitch.

"She did give him that, didn't she?" there's something almost cocky and patronizing in her amused tone that reminds him of a time when they had been young and innocent and carefree.

He plays along. "That she did," he says gravely.

She chuckles. "Oh, Harry."

And then she's looking at him. Really looking at him.

He remains silent as she inspects him.

Then her head tilts slightly, and the smile curving on her lips is soft and affectionate and pleased.

"You are better now," she muses.

She doesn't phrase it as a question. It feels more like a confirmation, the way she says it, though if it's for him or for her or for both of them is anyone's guess.

Maybe it's all three.

Her words make him feel lighter.

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Step by step, he learns to live again.

He mourns, he cries, he rages, but his feet are grounded.

And nowadays, he thinks he can do this.

He can do this.

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He hears her inhale deeply.

She's watching the couple walking leisurely by the beach like she's trying to ingrain them into her memory.

Her shoulders square, but she doesn't move yet.

Her gaze moves back to him.

"Will you come with me to see them?" she asks quietly, an unreadable, intense glimmer in her dark cinnamon eyes.

He grasps her hand. "Of course I will."

She squeezes back gently.

"Thank you."

His feet sink into the soft sand.

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The pawn is the weakest piece on the chessboard.

But it's also the soul of the game.

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A/N: I'll applaud you if you know where the last sentence came from. Heh. That said, I hope this wasn't confusing. Readers who don't fancy chess may not appreciate the references I made, I think. And I'm quite liable to go on a tangent if asked to explain my thoughts on who is which chess piece and why, so I won't start. But, if you know chess, it's not hard.

Story decided it wanted to get written after I picked up the movies on a whim recently to watch. That's my excuse. I'm also usually very particular about characterizations, but, as I stopped at book 3/4 and never got to reading the rest, well. My ideas of certain characters may be different from commonly thought to a good degree, and influenced by fanfics I've read. But, we will see.

Hope this was a good read.

Cheers.