Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. Or much else, actually.
He watched her sometimes, when she wasn't paying attention.
He had thought that he knew everything there was to know about her, back when they were in school together. Years of friendship had made him careless with her sometimes, careless with her feelings and with her time, because he thought that she would always be there for him. He realized later that he hadn't appreciated her enough, but at the time all he could focus on was Voldemort and what he had to do to end the war. Hermione was always just there, exactly when he needed her to be and always with the right answer to get him out of whatever mess he had gotten himself into. He took her for granted, like he took for granted that the Dursleys would always hate him and that Ron would never, ever turn down a meal. Hermione was unchanging.
Until she changed, that is. Until the war ended, and everyone who lived was left to put the pieces back together, and she couldn't, somehow. Harry had immediately done what had been expected of him; he returned to Ginny as if nothing had ever happened, and took his place in the Weasley family to help them in their grief over losing Fred. His guilt, the feeling that he had somehow shattered this family who had been so kind to him over the years, was overwhelming. He had to stay, to try and help them in any way that he could. So Hermione went to Australia, by herself, to try to restore her parents' memories, and Harry assured himself that it was fine. She would be fine. She always was.
Weeks later, when she finally returned, Harry never mentioned to her how he had counted the days that she had been gone. Things had not gone the way that she had hoped with her parents, and he hadn't wanted to make her feel guilty that he didn't seem to be able to make sense of anything without her there. Ginny tried, she really did, but she just didn't understand what they had been through; no one did, really, except Hermione. Not even Ron, not that Harry would have been able to talk to him about it anyway. Forgiveness was one thing, but forgetting that Ron had left them at such a critical time in the horcrux hunt – that was something else entirely. Only Hermione had endured all of it with him, and Harry had come to accept that she was the only one that he could talk to about anything.
She never gave him any details about her parents, though. Yes, she had restored their memories. No, they hadn't wanted to return. They liked living in Australia, had started a new life there, and they were happy. No, she wasn't sure when she would talk to them again, but she was sure that everything would work out. And she left it at that. But there was a brokenness about her that Harry had never seen before, and Harry knew that, for once, Hermione wasn't fine. He didn't know what to do about it, though. In the past, he would have asked Hermione, but he couldn't exactly do that this time. So he watched her.
He watched her at meals, where she pushed the food around on her plate but barely ate anything. He noticed the shadows under her eyes, and the way that she couldn't even bring herself to argue with Ron. Ron, of course, took this as a good sign – surely this meant that their relationship was on better footing now, if she were not finding fault with his manners or his eating habits? But Harry could tell that Hermione wasn't arguing, not because she was suddenly enamored with Ron's ability to talk with his mouth full, but because she suddenly couldn't bring herself to be bothered. She was going through the motions of the dutiful girlfriend – if that's what she was, because Harry knew that she and Ron had never officially announced any change to their relationship – but there was a dullness to her eyes that Harry knew he had never seen before. He was willing to bet that Ron saw it too. He just didn't want to admit it, because he wanted to cling to what was supposed to be, just as much as Harry did.
Then there was the day that he couldn't find her after breakfast, and the panic that he felt was eerily reminiscent of the final battle. There were still Death Eaters out there. What if someone had breached the wards? What if she had gotten distracted, wandered past the wards, or even done it deliberately just to get away from them all for a while? By the time that he found her, sitting listlessly beside the lake with Crookshanks curled up in her lap, he realized that he was shaking and his heart was beating so loudly that he couldn't imagine how the entire world couldn't hear it. He wanted to scream at her, "Don't do that to me! I need to know where you are!" but he realized immediately that it would be ridiculous to do so, and that Hermione (at least, the old Hermione anyway) would not take kindly to his assumption that she needed his protection. He took several deep breaths to calm himself, before walking quietly to her side and lowering himself down beside her.
She didn't even look at him as he sat down, and he was just about to say something when she simply leaned over and put her head on his shoulder. He sighed and put an arm around her, leaning back against a tree and trying to relax. The peaceful setting, coupled with the warm July weather, had him about to nod off when Hermione's voice startled him into awareness.
"Harry, do you ever feel like you don't know what you're doing?" Her voice was so soft that he had to strain his ears to hear it, "As if everything for so long was a build-up to that one thing, the moment that Voldemort was defeated and then everything was supposed to be wonderful...but it's not, and now what? What do we do with ourselves? People are dead and mistakes were made and lives have been changed...and nothing is the way that I thought it would be. Am I making any sense?" She turned her face so that she was looking up into his, and for just a moment Harry forgot how to speak. When he remembered again, she had looked down, apparently embarrassed that he hadn't understood.
He shook his head, annoyed with himself for getting distracted. It wasn't like Hermione hadn't looked at him thousands of times, and it had never before rendered him incapable of rational thought. Clearly, he was more tired than he had realized.
"No...I mean, yes, you're making perfect sense, Hermione. I've been thinking the same thing, but I'm pretty sure that my problem is that I didn't expect to be alive after the battle, so I didn't know what to expect. Now that it's over, and I managed to live through it, everything that I thought I wanted before just seems kind of…hollow. I wanted to be an auror, and sometimes I think I still do, but...I just don't know. Maybe I don't want to fight Death Eaters anymore. Maybe I want to let someone else save the world for a while. And then there's Ginny, wanting to pick up right where we left off, and I'm not even sure that I'm the same person who dated her in the first place. I don't even really know what to say to her."
"Exactly!" Hermione said, and Harry thought that there was more light in her eyes in that moment than he had seen in weeks. "I feel the same way! All these years, I just wanted to do well in school, to make my parents proud of me, and now that they don't even want to speak to me I can't even get excited about going back to school in September. I wanted to help you defeat Voldemort, and we did, but so many things still need to change. And as for Ron...I thought for years that if we could just get together it would be wonderful, but now that we have I just...I just don't feel the way that I expected to feel. We don't have anything in common except magic and you, and as fascinating as you are, Harry, we can't talk about you forever."
"I don't know," Harry smiled down at her, "There is so much to say. I am "The Chosen One", after all. "The Boy Who Lived" or "The Man Who Conquered", or whatever rubbish they're calling me now. Surely you could talk for a few years and still not have gone through everything that there is to say about me?"
"Well, that's true." Hermione was trying to keep a straight face, and Harry thought that it was now his sworn duty to see her smile, if only once. "It might take a few years, but then what? When we have finally said everything there is to say about Harry Potter, Defeater of Voldemort, then what are we supposed to talk about? I mean, Ron and I have been friends for years, but we've only been friends for years because you were there too. I suppose that you could just stay with us forever. That would be loads of fun, wouldn't it? Ron and I could get married, and you could just live in our attic, so that you could come down and converse with us whenever we can't think of anything else to say."
Thinking to himself that that particular idea was a little too reminiscent of the cupboard under the stairs, Harry shook his head, "I have an even better idea! Ginny and I'll get married and you can marry Ron. Then we'll all move in together and be one big happy Weasley family!"
They looked at each other for a moment, neither one of them sure whether they wanted to shudder in horror or laugh hysterically. They finally settled on laughter, and once they started neither one of them could bring themselves to stop. They sat there, huddled together under the tree, and laughed until neither of them could breathe. It felt wonderful, very much the catharsis that they had both been needing, and when they finally settled down they didn't say anything for a long time.
Finally, Hermione broke the silence. "I think I might need to go away for a while, Harry."
Harry jerked as if she had slapped him, and pulled away from her a bit so that he could again look into her eyes.
"Away? What do you mean go away? I thought that you were going to finish Hogwarts, at least. I know that things aren't right with your parents right now, but I know you well enough to know that you'll regret not finishing your education."
Hermione just shook her head, the light-heartedness from before gone as if it had never been. "I can get my NEWTs without finishing that last year. I'm fairly certain that I could pass them now, and it would only take a bit of study for me to get the scores that I want. That's just it, though, Harry...I don't really even care anymore about any of that. I still love to learn, but I don't have anything to prove anymore. I don't even know if I want to stay in the wizarding world. My parents feel as if I betrayed them by using my magic against them, and they were all the family that I had. There's nothing to keep me here. You will go on with your life, whether it's with Ginny or not, or whether you become an auror or something else entirely, and do wonderful, brilliant things because that's just who you are. I can't stay with Ron, I know that now. He deserves someone who will be a better fit for him, and we'll only start resenting each other. I just can't do this. I feel like I'm pretending, and don't want to do it anymore!"
"But...what about me?" The words came out of Harry's mouth before he could even think about them, "What about us? I need you, Hermione! When you went to Australia, I didn't even know what to do with myself. It's been the two of us against the world for so long that I don't even know what to do without you there anymore! You're the only one that knows what we went through, and you're the only one that..." he stopped, not able to think of the words to make her understand, and instead just said what his heart was crying out to him, "You're the only one that feels like home to me. When you're there, I feel like everything might just turn out all right. Even if I did become an auror, I could handle it knowing that you would be there at the end of the day for me to come back to. If you aren't there, then I can't think of anything that I could do that would ever feel right again!"
Hermione reached out and put her hand on his face, and he couldn't help the shiver that went through his body at her touch. She had tears in her eyes, and he wanted nothing more than to make them go away. But he couldn't let her leave! He could do anything but that.
"Harry..." she started, and then seemed to collect herself before continuing, "Harry, you're dating Ginny. I can't be those things for you if you are dating someone else. I love you, Harry. I've known for years that it wouldn't take very much at all for me to fall in love with you, but I know that if I allow myself to feel those feelings I will never be able to stop them. If you are going to make a life with Ginny, then you need to let go of me. You need to let her be "home" for you, you need to confide in her, and let her have that place in your heart. I can't be the girl that is the closest to you, if you are going to be with someone else. It isn't fair to her, and it isn't fair to me."
With that, she stood up slowly, and Harry couldn't even bring himself to look at her. He couldn't even digest what she had said, and he had a sinking feeling that he had not talked her out of leaving. How had this gone so horribly wrong so quickly?
"Harry?" He looked up at her, wondering what else she could possibly say after that. He felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. "I'll let you know where I am, I promise. And I will always, always be your friend. I meant what I said, though. I do love you, Harry. I love you and I want more than anything else in the world for you to be happy, but I can't sacrifice my heart for you. I would love to be everything that you need me to be, but only if you wanted to be with me completely in return. Otherwise, you need to let me go."
And with that, she walked away, leaving Harry quite sure that his life would never be the same again.
AN~ This is only going to be two or three chapters...unless something really weird happens and I get a brilliant idea. Never fear, though! It will have a happy ending.