Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and fictional places do not belong to me; I am merely borrowing them for playtime before I (respectfully) put them back. Thank you JKR, for allowing such things to happen.
Thank You: To my awesome cheerleaders and betas: ThornedHuntress, BSC_AG and Nathaniel Cardeu
Story Summary: Every year, Harry and Ron compete to see who can give Hermione the best Christmas present. One of them knows what she wants more than anything else...
Story Dedication: This story was written for StrongHermione for The Maple Bookshelf's Secret Santa Gift Exchange 2012! The prompt was: "A thoughtful gift from an unexpected person."
HERMIONE'S FAVOURITE GIFT
"It was a lot of pressure to have on my shoulders. Of course, it wasn't all just on me, but I was young, dramatic and desperate to both fit in and to prove myself. With so many people explaining that I—who had never been thought of as special in the least—was the hope of their world, it was difficult to not feel pressured. I didn't realise at the time how carefully I was being guided.
"The last year of the war was a trial by fire. It cauterised in the hardest, most painful way that is possible. It burned away a lot of bravado to expose a lot of faults, like an ugly crucible. I was lucky that I had Ron and Hermione with me through it. Especially Hermione, who was most certainly the glue keeping the three of us, and me, together that year."
–Excerpt from Still Alive, Harry Potter's unpublished autobiography.
"So the next morning Flint's just standing there, naked," Harry choked on his laughter, nearly unable to continue the sentence, "except for that stupid hat, and goes, 'Harry, I don't suppose you have some callipers, eh? I've tried everything and the bloody map keeps changing.'" He shook with laughter again, nearly falling out of his chair. "Like it's no issue at all that he's wearing the minister's hat naked in front of the entire department!"
"And the best part is," Ron interjected, "Cassandra Rain comes out—do you remember her, Hermione, the old biddy from the School Board?—anyway, she comes out, takes one look, and says 'Oh, bloody hell, Marcus! Not again!'"
The three friends doubled over their drinks, howling in laughter. Ron glanced up again at his two best friends and watched with amusement as a nearly calmed Hermione took a sip of her butterbeer and then proceed to cough and snort it out her nose, as a fit of laughter took her again.
"Cassie Rain actually swore?" Hermione was nearly crying she was laughing so hard. Harry handed her a napkin, which she accepted with a grimace and started dabbing at her chin and the table. "Gods, that was incredibly graceful of me, wasn't it?"
Harry waved off the awkward moment and continued, "He'd done it three times already! Not the hat bit, that was new, but being found in the evidence locker, starkers."
"Oh, Merlin, Hermione, you really should have been there. Why in the world did you leave the Ministry again?"
"I like teaching. And I made a terrible Auror. Even Wentworth said so."
"Bet you he'd let you have Marcus' spot," Ron put in slyly.
The three of them dissolved into laughter again.
Hermione wiped her eyes with a small sigh. "Honestly, though. I like what I'm doing, truly. The kids are amazing. Irritating, idiotic and amazingly wonderful. I had one actually create a temporal fold by accident in class last week." She checked her watch and grimaced. "Speaking of which, that's me done. It's nearly ten-thirty and I have a test to administer tomorrow."
"Ugh. Tests. You've joined the dark side. And honestly, ten-thirty? You're getting old. I remember a time when you literally stayed up all night studying," Ron teased her.
"Thirty-seven is not old, and I'm not the one who forgot his wand in his Gringotts vault and had to ask the nice goblins to take me back down," she responded dryly, and stood. "Christmas Hols in just another week—I'll see you both then?"
"Of course." Both men stood to hug her goodbye.
Ron tugged on an errant lock affectionately. "Don't let the little buggers eat you before Christmas."
"Ronald, honestly, two of the 'little buggers' are your children."
"Right, so who would know better than me, yeah?" He lowered his voice. "I heard that they're planning on bringing back some diversion products from their Uncle George. You may want to be on the lookout."
"You're their father, don't let them!" Hermione gave her friend a stern look.
"What sort of dad would that make me? I'd be spoiling everything. Better if Mean Auntie 'Mione took them away."
"You're terrible." Hermione shook her head and turned toward Harry, arms outstretched.
Harry chuckled as he leaned in for his own hug. "Left something for you, at your place. Sort of a pre-Christmas Christmas gift."
Hermione smiled broadly into his shoulder. "Didn't have to do that."
His eyes sharp, Ron couldn't help but notice how their hug lasted just a fraction of a moment longer than it normally should have between two friends, or how Hermione seemed to take an inconspicuous sniff of his coat. He rolled his eyes behind their backs, feeling slightly satisfied with himself.
"Shut it, I don't have kids, I'm allowed to spoil everyone else," Harry continued, releasing her.
"Happy Christmas, Harry. Bye!" she answered, and gave a little wave before quickly heading for the door.
Both men watched her wrap her cloak tightly around herself as she slowly made her way back to Hogwarts for the evening. Ron glanced over at Harry, about to ask what he had left for Hermione, only to find his friend still staring out after the brunette.
Ron sighed and rolled his eyes again. "Are you ever going to tell her?"
"Hmmm." Harry answered, not really listening, then whipped his head around when he realised a question had been asked. "What?"
Ron rolled his eyes. "Are you ever going to tell her you're madly in love with her and will spend the rest of your life composing awful poetry to her, unless she agrees to marry you and have your babies?"
Harry looked horrified. "I do not!"
Ron raised his eyebrows disbelievingly. "I've read your book, remember? You've been in love with her since we were teenagers. You really should've said something then, by the way. We might have avoided the whole mess after."
Harry's ears tinged pink. "I don't…I don't know what you're talking about, mate. I didn't say anything about being in love with her. And I don't write poetry."
"Come off it, I'm not stupid. Or blind."
"Shut up. And no."
"No poetry?" Ron stifled a grin as Harry's teeth audibly ground.
"No, of course not," his friend bit out, "and no, I'm not going to tell her." Harry's face had carefully gone blank. "You two have been my best mates since we were kids; my family. I'm not going to tear us all apart and spoil it by bringing that bit of awkwardness to light. It nearly already happened once. Who's to say it wouldn't have happened the same way if it had been me? Just leave it, Ron."
"But Harry, she—"
"I said, just leave it. Things are fine as they are."
"And people say I'm the thick one. You do realise that you don't necessarily have to be miserable to be alive, don't you?"
"Ron…" The warning came out through clenched teeth.
"Alright, alright. I'd best be getting back anyway. I read to Annabelle before bed."
A smile cracked, reluctantly. "That's so domestic of you."
"I'm the luckiest bastard in the world. Leanne and the kids are more than I deserve." Ron pondered a moment, remembering a snafu earlier in the day. "Or sometimes exactly what I deserve, the little monsters. And in just one more year, I ship Annabelle off to Hermione for the majority of the next seven years, and I get to have my wife all to myself again. You're just jealous. Hah."
"Yeah. Yeah you are, and I am. Right." Harry scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Later mate."
"Later. I'll see you at the office Monday." Ron stood to go a little uncertainly, watching Harry gather up his things from his chair. As he stepped out into the night he murmured to himself, "Left a pre-Christmas Christmas gift, did he? Isn't that interesting…" As far as Ronald Weasley was concerned, his two friends were entirely too concerned with the past. It was time that changed.
"Ron and Hermione's divorce, in September the following year, was one of the hardest times in our lives; including the war. It was amicable enough—both of them knew almost from the beginning of their marriage that it had been a mistake—but it was still very difficult. The family that we had built together came very close to crumbling. I think everyone kept trying to figure out whose fault it was, and there wasn't a clear answer.
The truth is it was neither of their faults. Nobody cheated, nobody lied. Neither stopped loving the other. It was just a bad match, for both of them. We were all so worried that it would tear us all apart, which is the only reason they tried as long as they did. I think they were both relieved when they were finally allowed to be just friends again. I was just grateful to still have them both."
–Excerpt from Still Alive, Harry Potter's unpublished autobiography.
Hermione closed the door of her suite's sitting room with a sigh, unwinding her scarf to drape it neatly over a peg next to her cloak. The room was still a bit of a mess from the supper she'd taken with Ron and Harry, before they'd gone out to Hogsmeade for drinks. However…
Hermione's eyes narrowed. Not so much of a mess as it should have been. It hadn't been tidied much…but it had been tidied. No doubt Torri had been trying to be sneaky and was hoping she wouldn't notice. It seemed no matter how many times she had told the little house elf that had been assigned to her to not clean her rooms, Torri always tried anyway, when she thought Hermione wouldn't realise.
Five years and they still hadn't come to an understanding on the matter. Although, Hermione thought ruefully, she rather believed Torri was training her rather than the other way around. The tidying was getting more and more obvious and frequent as time went on, and Hermione found herself protesting less and finding the whole thing amusing. Little thing was stubborn.
She really should grade papers tonight. For some inexplicable reason, she had assigned her fifth years essay term papers rather than standard tests. Of course, there was no better way to check her student's learning retention—one couldn't guess on an essay after all—but it did make grading them a lot more time consuming. Quite frankly, most of them had terrible grammar, too.
She glanced at her desk with a small sigh of dread, and stopped abruptly, surprised. There, next to her haphazard pile of essays, sat a fairly thick sheaf of papers, neatly bound with a bit of twine. Brow furrowed, Hermione made her way to the desk to see what they could possibly be. She hadn't recalled leaving any other pages on her desk, and this looked like a veritable novel's worth.
Still Alive: The Autobiography of Harry James Potter. A small, printed note rested on top of the manuscript, saying only, To Hermione, from your Best Mate. Hermione gasped in surprise. It was a book. Harry had written a book. Heart in her throat, Hermione traced the top title page. This is what he had left for her? Hermione sank into her chair, and stared at the manuscript.
How had she had not known that Harry was writing a book? He had never mentioned a single word about it to her. Why had he not mentioned it to her? Reading was one of her biggest passions! She knew she probably shouldn't feel hurt over it, but she couldn't deny the little twinge. Ever since Ron had gotten married again and started a family, she and Harry had been closer than ever, finding less and less in common with their other friend. Besides their threesome weekly supper, she and Harry had also been taking Thursday lunches together. She had rather thought they shared everything with each other.
Too deep. Hermione sighed a little. She could feel herself sliding too deep again. She'd known him for so long, the troubled but still optimistic boy, the self-sacrificing and dramatic teenager, and now the thoughtful, meticulous man. He wasn't as dashing as he had been in his twenties, she mused, thinking back. His hair had started to thin and gray a bit at the temples, and small lines had started to crease his eyes and between his brows. It was an unfailingly kind face, however, and so very dear to her. The years had mellowed his temper, and honed his self-control. He was always genuinely concerned with the people around him, and his beautiful green eyes were as bright and sharp as when they were children.
She sighed a little again, feeling rather silly. She was letting herself dream about her best friend, again. She needed to curb it, reign herself in again before she did something stupid. He was always so very careful to call her his best mate, to emphasize their friendship. He was not interested in taking it any further, and she needed to just get over that.
She eyed the manuscript again. It would be interesting to read his perspective on everything, and to see what he had changed. There were secrets they all held that would damage their friendship permanently if they were brought to light. Harry would never do that, purposefully. Ron's momentary abandonment in the war, the kiss they had shared while he was gone, and the ill-fated and idiotic follow up after the war. Merlin only knew what sort of secrets the boys kept from her.
Even painted over a bit, no doubt the beginning of Harry Potter's autobiography would be anything but pleasant to read. Certainly it would not be something to end a rather enjoyable night with. Hermione sighed, and reached for the stack of essays.
Three papers in, and she could feel a headache starting to pulse on the insides of her skull. Honestly, her fifth years had clearly not been paying attention through the entire last month of lectures. Daniel Mallory had finally started spelling transfiguration correctly this year, at least. It pleased her more than it should have, and that depressed her further. She set the essay she was currently trying to slog through down again, her eyes closing.
She was out of headache potion. She hadn't had any time to brew a quick batch as she usually did this month. She could go request one from Arys, the current school mediwitch, but that was two floors down, and she didn't think her headache was really worth the effort of leaving the cosiness of her rooms. The Potions master's rooms were even further. No doubt she just needed a few moments of recreational reading for it to settle, and some sleep. She could always finish grading during her open period the next day.
She glanced over at Still Alive, sitting temptingly next to her. Possibly depressing or not, she was insanely curious as to what Harry had to say. Particularly about the last twenty years. A second of hesitation longer and she found herself reaching for the manuscript and relocating herself to her couch. Twenty minutes. She would read for twenty minutes, and then go to sleep. She undid the twine and started, her lips lifting a little at the first line. Friends are the family you choose, and there is nothing more precious in the world than family. My name is Harry Potter and if you pay attention to nothing else I have to say, pay attention to that.
"Right around the same Christmas that Ginny married and moved to Ireland, Ron and I realised just how much time and effort Hermione had been putting into her Christmas presents. We were forced to tag along on one such excursion and saw for ourselves just how even the minutest detail of her knowledge of each person was taken into account. For years, we had both been giving her books off of a list she provided.
We decided, then and there, to stage a bit of a wager: who could give Hermione the best Christmas gift—loser volunteers to do the Christmas dishes. I won that year and it's become an annual competition since then. We've long since stopped calling it that, but the urge to one-up the other for 'Hermione's favourite gift' has never gone away."
–Excerpt from Still Alive, Harry Potter's unpublished autobiography.
Forty minutes later found her in a state of shock, tears of anger pricking her eyes on Harry's behalf. She had known that the Dursleys had not been kind to him, even going so far as locking him up like a criminal in his own home, but she hadn't quite realised it had been so bad! He had actually been forced to sleep in a cupboard for nearly seven years while his cousin had not one, but two bedrooms; he had been cuffed and half-starved by his surrogate parents, beaten by his cousin and lied to about his family. It was a clear case of abuse and neglect.
Half an hour after that found her rolling her eyes and shaking with laughter as she read Harry's accounts of their antics through their school years. She had honestly forgotten half of the silly, stupid stunts they had pulled. They had been children and so certain that what they did was so serious, completely unaware of how carefully they had been guided and monitored. Looking back now, it was obvious that the professors had probably spent half their time chortling in the staff room. Harry's dry witted, self-deprecating humour leant a much needed comic relief to the darkening events.
He was a talented writer, she realised. More than she had ever given him credit for. He needed a good editing, to be sure, but his tone and pacing were excellent, the story compelling even though she had lived through it right next to him. The story was inevitably grimmer as time went on, the pain behind the mentioned deaths as clear in the writing as it had been on his face twenty years previously.
About two hours later, and a third of the way through the book, she noticed something rather…peculiar. He always referred to her as his friend; that was nothing new. The tone behind it, however, the way he laced her into his story and the way he wrote about her…something was off. A different flavour of fond than one would expect to read about a friend, even one that had been a best friend for twenty-five odd years. It was an altogether different way than how he wrote about Ron, who had been his friend for just as long.
Half an hour further into the book, her heart was in her throat. She had read about her marriage and subsequent divorce through Harry's eyes, how the three of them had picked up the pieces and had managed to rebuild their friendship. She read about Harry's own lack-lustre relationships that never seemed real or serious to him, despite how long some of them had lasted. Always his story circled back to centre on her and Ron. Hermione and her influence, in particular.
It was actually rather obvious, reading the book. Harry had feelings for her. Strong ones. The sort that didn't blow over, or fade away. He had felt like this for years, even longer than she had acknowledged her own feelings about him. Hermione stared blankly at the pages in her lap, her mouth slightly ajar. Years… and he had never said a word, or given the slightest indication to her.
Reading what she had so far, it wasn't hard to puzzle out his reasons. He was so convinced it would make things awkward between them, so certain that she wasn't interested in him that way, and that even if she were, it would make their dynamic with Ron strained. She couldn't really remember when she had realised that she was in love with Harry—she had rather slid in love rather then fell. For what she had read between the lines, he had been in love with her since they were barely eighteen.
Provided, of course, that his feelings hadn't changed since the point she was at in the book. She rather doubted it—one of his editing problems was that he kept changing tenses, and more than one reference to her was in present tense. Surely that was a subconscious sign that he still felt that way? Filled with a sudden single minded purpose, Hermione continued reading, determined to be sure.
She finally finished his manuscript at near three in the morning; no doubt her class tomorrow was going to be a hellish experience. She wouldn't have traded it for the knowledge she had gained, however. Through laughter, mishaps, deaths and triumphs she had finished reading the twenty years of Harry's life since the war. She remained a central influence on him throughout. While always very circumspect about his exact wordage, Harry's emotion between-the-lines never wavered.
Some part of him must subconsciously have wanted her to know—why else would he have let it leak all over his writing like this, and then leave it for her as a Christmas gift? No matter how much of a martyr he had decided to be…again...clearly he didn't really want to. As far as she was concerned, it was an invitation. They had both unwittingly waited for far too long already for each other. Despite being only thirty-seven, Hermione had begun to resign herself to never having the sort of love that one read about in books. Well, she would be darned if she let that happen now that she knew.
Briefly she closed her eyes and remembered the parting hug she had gotten from him only a few hours earlier. The combination of his masculine scent and his still-firm chest was utterly attractive to her—he made her feel safe and oddly feminine. She had wondered about it before; he wasn't the hulking man's man sort that she figured women were supposed to find attractive. And yet…yet something about him made her stomach tighten and her heart turn over.
In eight days—make that seven, she thought ruefully, glancing at the clock—the annual Weasley Christmas party would be held at the Burrow. It was practically a reunion for the Order of the Phoenix, and with a house that full there really would be no place for Harry to hide from her or the conversation she was going to have with him.
Speaking of which…she had seven days to come up with the best way to say to Harry that she was as interested in him as he was in her, and that she wasn't going to let this just pass by, unremarked upon. Her fingers drummed on the edge of her couch for a moment. The nice, but rather boring dress she had been planning to wear for the second year in a row would not do, she decided. Her lips spread into the smallest of grins. No, it would not do at all. Lucky for her, she happened to be a transfiguration professor.
I consider myself blessed; I lead a rather charmed existence, despite my rather rough formative years. I have a huge extended family that has adopted me, an incredibly rewarding job and a best friend who is both my brother and my work partner. My other best friend never ceases to make me laugh or keep my idiocies in check; she is a light that has never dimmed. A man would have to be a bigger fool than I not to realise how lucky I am. I am Harry Potter, and I'm still alive.
– Final paragraph of Still Alive, Harry Potter's unpublished autobiography.
Harry went to the Weasley annual Christmas party by broomstick. Even in winter, with the wind and snow making it almost unbearably cold, it was still was his favourite method of travel. There was something about being airborne that was so freeing. It was the first thing in his life he had ever discovered that he was good at; the first step he had ever taken towards feeling like he had some sort of self-worth.
Everyone had bombarded him with how he was so incredible; the alleged hope of the world. He hadn't felt like he was able to accomplish anything significant, however, until that first broom ride. Besides, a quick warming charm to the inside of his robes was generally sufficient enough to ward off even the most biting of cold evenings.
It was snowing when he left; flying through the flurries made them seem almost like they were flying at him instead, attacking his face. Feeling whimsical, Harry pointed his wand at the nose of his broom and watched the falling snow billow for a moment in front of him. It was like a magical fairyland just for him. It really was a pity that even after all these years he couldn't talk Hermione up on a broom with him. It's not like he would let her fall.
Of course, he thought ruefully, he would probably be using the opportunity to hold her as tightly as he generally clutched his broom. It was a little silly how often he found random excuses to be near and touch Hermione—even if only in a friendly way. It was just that she was so…so Hermione. And he loved that.
She was absolutely lovely and she seemed to have no idea at all. It was astonishing to him. He wanted to tangle his hands in those wild corkscrews she had and wrap the curls around his fingers. He loved her wide brown eyes and the way she would sometimes natter on about this paper or that theory. Half the time he had no idea what on earth she was talking about, but the way her face was lit up and animated made his heart stutter every time. She was horribly sexy when she spoke intelligently—which was nearly every time she opened her mouth.
Day-dreaming a bit, he made good time to the Burrow, landing just a few metres away from the front door. It became readily apparent that trying to brush the snow from his robes was a lost cause; it was still snowing heavily enough that it would only accumulate again by the time he got to the door. Giving up, and deciding he'd just have to shake it all off on the stoop, he started crunching through the snow towards the warmly lit house.
A sharp crack had Hermione Apparating right in front of the door step, still a couple metres away. She knocked politely. Harry felt himself grin. "Hey, Hermione!" She turned, and greeted him with her usual wide smile. Harry's breath caught, and he had to remind himself not to choke on it. Through the part in her cloak, he could see that for some reason, she had chosen to wear a dress of deep green velvet that dipped far lower than he had ever seen her wear before. Fate was trying to torture him. There was just no other explaining it.
"Harry!" She stepped forward and into his arms, squeezing tightly. "I'm so glad to see you! I got your present, and it was amazing! I definitely want to talk to you about it sometime tonight."
Harry laughed, and lifted his brows at her. "I wouldn't have expected anything less of you." She laughed in response, her cheeks flushing becomingly in the cold.
The door chose that moment to open, letting out some of the noise from the party within and revealing George Weasley in the door. "Come in, come in, Hermione! Harry!"
Hermione stepped into the doorway and froze involuntarily. George chortled in laughter and pointed up at the doorframe. "Mistletoe." He laughed at her expression. "Don't worry, it's a light version. A peck on the cheek will do. It's just for a bit of fun." He leaned over and suited actions to words, and brushed a quick, impersonal kiss on Hermione's cheek, freeing her.
Rolling his eyes, Harry stepped in next, and shot a sour look at the mistletoe. "You kiss me in any way anywhere, George, and I will hex you. Hermione, if you would do the honours, please?" He gave her a long-suffering glance and rolled his eyes at the absurdity of it all. To his surprise, Hermione gave him a small—almost seductive?—smile…
…and proceeded to snog the daylights out of him.
Her body pressed against his, her tongue was in his mouth and she smelled like heaven. For a split second, Harry remained frozen in shock. Then, not about to pass up what appeared to be a moment of temporary insanity, he gave everything he had to that kiss.
His fingers wound in her hair like he had just been dreaming about on the flight over, his palms cupped her jaw and he kissed her as thoroughly as he possibly could, trying to somehow convince her in one kiss that he could keep her happy for the next hundred years if she'd let him.
She did not appear to have a problem with the unspoken offer at all. They were oblivious to the cold behind them, oblivious to the whistles and cat calls in front of them, oblivious to anything and everything in the world in general except the phenomenal kiss they were creating between them.
The pulled back several seconds later, breathing a little heavily from excitement and slowly letting the world filter back into their senses. Harry opened his mouth and, finding nothing to say that he was sure wouldn't ruin anything, closed his mouth again. A moment later he tried again. "You…"
"I told you, Harry. I got your present. I read your book, and if you think I'm going to let you go now, you are sorely mistaken. That was the best present I could ever have possibly gotten."
Harry felt his face drain, and he stared at her in shock. "My…my book?"
"Ah, Hermione, love? That was actually my present to you." Ron piped up from the living room door way, staring at them still standing in the entrance. His grin was so wide Harry thought it might split his face in two. "Dishes are on you, Harry!"
Hermione's face was puzzled as she turned back to Harry. "But you…you said you had left me something."
Harry nodded, his heart feeling lighter than it ever had before in his entire life. "I did, pinned to your bulletin board. It's a letter, well, an invitation to witness a Centaur bonding ceremony in the Forbidden Forest. You would be the first human allowed to witness such an event in over two hundred years."
Hermione gaped at him. "You…you got me what?"
Harry shrugged, feeling a little nervous that perhaps she didn't approve. "I approached the herd and explained how you had worked for Centaur rights for three years, and that you were the reason the laws concerning where they were allowed to live and their rights to vote were reconsidered and re-written. I mentioned that you had also made sure that their heroics in the war were added to the Hogwarts curricula.
"I asked, in light of this, would they consider allowing you safe passage to speak with them; to ask questions about their culture for a night, and possibly write an article or something about it. They responded by inviting you to a marriage bonding ceremony, with the understanding that you might ask any questions you like so long as you are respectful of them and the situation." Harry shuffled his feet. "It seemed like something you'd like to do."
Hermione responded by throwing herself into his arms and kissing him soundly again.
Harry pulled away just long enough to say over his shoulder, "Rain check, Ron? I'll do them next year." With that, he wrapped his arms around the love of his life, and Apparated back home to make love to her properly.
A/N: My first attempt at a Harmony fic. :-) Please review!