Disclaimer – Of course all of the characters belong to the great J. K. Rowling. I’ve just borrowed them for a bit and promise to return them as good as new.
For a Weasley dinner the kitchen was remarkably quiet. Harry noticed that Mrs. Weasley seemed more tired than usual and attributed it to the quickly approaching wedding. He also couldn’t help but notice the sidelong glances Ron and Hermione were sharing, apparently believing no one else was watching them.
As for he and Ginny, after their eyes met the first time, they hardly looked at each other. Harry fervently hoped nobody was paying attention; he didn’t want to deal with their questions. In the end he needn’t have worried. Ron and Hermione were too occupied with each other to notice and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were both too tired to even speak to each other.
When they finished eating, which must have been in record time for a Weasley dinner, Harry was about to step outside again when Hermione caught his eye with a significant look. He waited while she made her way around the table, crossing Ron’s path as she went. She gave Ron a sweet smile as she passed and Harry could only roll his eyes.
As the door closed behind them, Harry watched Ginny’s eyes follow him with a palpable pain. It made his heart ache and a sad voice inside him said it was too late now. He had blown it.
Tearing his eyes away from the door and thoughts of the occupants inside, he turned to face Hermione. She was waiting patiently at the steps and when he turned, she gave him a swift hug.
“I missed you, Harry,” she said into his shoulder.
For some reason he found it hard to answer because his throat was all hot and tight. “I missed you, too,” he finally managed.
“Go for a walk with me?” she asked.
He nodded and they headed for the garden. Night was coming and the chirp of frogs was growing in volume from the pond. The grass was soft and deadened their footfalls as they walked. A star or two blinked in the sky, but other than that it was quite dark.
Hermione stopped in the dim light by the overgrown entrance and looked around. “They’re not having the wedding here, are they?” she asked.
“No,” Harry said dully. “I guess there’s a magical garden near the town. It’s going to be there. They haven’t had time to work out here anymore since… I don’t see what’s so great about them getting married anyway.”
Harry cast his eyes to the ground as Hermione reached out and took his hand, leading them into the garden. Neither really knew their way around and after a couple of dead-ends they finally sat down on an old bench. By the sound of trickling water, Harry knew they were somewhere near the small waterfall. He looked around at the plants and trees and felt some peace in their shielding.
“So, how are you?” Hermione began rather awkwardly.
“All right,” he answered. “How’re you?”
She looked away for a moment. “All right.”
“It’s Ron, isn’t it?” Harry asked, narrowing his eyes at her in the falling darkness. “Hermione,” he continued, “I don’t know much about this relationship stuff,” (she coughed loudly), “but I know he likes you. I also know you like him. How long’s it been?”
His question was laced with gentleness, hoping that she would really answer. “I don’t really know… since Viktor maybe? I guess that’s when I started to realize it, but I just held back. A lot of good that did. I think it just made things worse. This year was so bad, I… I wish I could just forget everything that happened. Seeing him with her, it made me so angry. That’s when I knew for sure really.”
Harry stared at her intensely until finally turning his head away.
“I used to fancy you, you know.”
“What?” she exclaimed.
“Well, when a bloke’s got close girlfriends these thoughts just happen sometimes.” He squirmed next to her. “Besides, it’s not like I feel that way now. You’re… you’re like a sister to me now. And I swear, if Ron hurts you I’m going to let him have it. I don’t care if he is bigger than me.”
Hermione reached out to grab his outstretched fist, pulling him toward her. She put a hand on the side of his face. “Thanks, Harry,” she said softly. She then moved closer and kissed him on the cheek. “I feel the same way – like you’re a brother to me.”
Harry reached out beside him and picked a large leaf from a plant, tearing it into pieces and letting them float down to his feet. Hermione just looked on, apparently waiting for him to say something as he gathered his courage.
“The Dursleys never touched me,” he finally began, not quite knowing what he was saying. “I don’t know, but I’d guess that Mrs. Weasley was the first adult, other than my parents, who ever hugged me. She’s like a mother to me, even when I don’t deserve it.” He ducked his head, but continued on under Hermione’s reassuring look.
“Uncle Vernon hardly even acknowledged my presence. I used to go and sit in the park all by myself. I think I was too young to notice if there were ever any girls there. Then when I started Hogwarts it was all so different it took me a couple of years to notice the girls there.” He gave her an apologetic glance and she just smiled.
“My first real kiss was in fifth year with Cho – well, besides when you kissed me in fourth year.”
“When I what?” she squeaked.
“At the end of fourth year you kissed me on the cheek. Don’t you remember?” He touched his hand gently to his cheek.
He could tell she was blushing, even in the dark. “I… I forgot about that. You might not have been the only who noticed a friend.”
“You mean… you… me?”
“Oh come on, Harry. You were pretty much my best friend. I couldn’t help it. Not to mention you were so handsome.” She giggled. “But I was happy to give over that job to Ginny years ago.”
“Hey, what do you mean I was so handsome?” he asked in mock offense.
“Like I said, I’ll leave that to Ginny to decide.”
Harry was silent for a few moments. “Yeah, well, I think that’s pretty much over with.” He sighed, but before Hermione could say anything, he started talking again.
“This summer,” he said in a whisper, struggling to get out the words. “This summer has been so hard. I miss her so much and I’m terrified that I might have buggered things up so bad I can’t fix them. Merlin, Hermione, I… I think I love her and I’m so scared of losing her. Even if I could get her back I’d be just as scared she’d get hurt. There’s no way I’m worth that. If I can just keep her away then she’ll be safe. And if I don’t… if I don’t make it back she’ll still be able to have a normal life.
“But then sometimes I think I should just let things go and try and make it work with her. We had so much fun together. She’s amazing and funny and… well, she’s really rather pretty. But I always end up back at the same spot. It might be good for me for a while, but then if she got hurt I’d never be able to forgive myself. I’d feel like I was just using her for a while, just for some fun.”
He scrubbed his face with his hands and tried to flatten some hairs that had been stirred up in the breeze. The trickle of water and the brush of leaves did little to comfort him now. He wished the darkness would just come and swallow him up. There was so little point in his trying to fight anymore; it was just too hard.
Beside him, Hermione sniffed. “What did those horrible people do to you, Harry, to make you think you’re not worth anything?”
He jerked around. At first he thought it was just a rhetorical question, but then he realized she actually wanted an answer.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he said quietly.
“I can’t imagine what they must have done,” she said. “I can see why you’d be unhappy about Bill and Fleur, but to think that you don’t deserve the same… Harry, for whatever happened to you, I’m sorry and I wish I could have helped. I should have done more.” She reached out and squeezed his hand.
“You have, Hermione.” He paused again, trying to piece his thoughts together, but everything seemed so elusive now.
“I’ve always kept everything inside,” he started saying again without knowing where he was going. “I’m sure you’re well aware of that. I know I haven’t been the easiest to get along with. I know I’m a grumpy bugger sometimes and I should try to let people in so they can help. It’s just so hard. I always feel like it’s my burden to carry and I forget that there are people out there willing to help me carry it. I guess I don’t let you help because of what could happen. Look at what Voldemort’s done to everyone close to me, starting with my parents when I was a year old.
“Then in first year I almost died trying to keep the stone away from him. In second year he almost killed you, Ginny and me. Last year he almost killed Ron. Sirius died trying to save my stupid arse when I really ought to have known better. Dumbledore probably knew all along how much danger he was in, but it’s weird, he’s the only one I don’t feel guilty about. And that bothers me. I feel like I should feel guilty about it. I mean, he was trying to help me figure out how to sort out Voldemort, but now looking back I think he knew what was going to happen. I think he tried to prepare me as much as he could.
“Sometimes I just don’t see how I have a hope of winning this. It seems like everything has always worked out by luck, but at the same time, someone’s always gotten hurt. I don’t know how much more I can deal with. And if Ginny got hurt…” He made a strange choking sound and dropped his face into his hands.
Hermione put her hand on his back and rubbed it up and down trying to offer him some small bit of relief. He was struggling so hard to keep his emotions in check. In his mind he cursed the Dursleys for their part in making him this way. After all, if his friends could accept him, why couldn’t he accept himself?
After a while he sat up and looked around at the wild green of the plants taking over the garden. “It’s kind of pretty here, really,” he said.
“It is,” she answered.
They continued to sit in silence for some time, feeling the cool night breeze blow around them. The clouds that had come in earlier were starting to break up and now and then stars shown between them.
Hermione sighed loudly next to him and he knew she was dying to get something off her mind.
“Go ahead, you can say it. I’m sorry I’ve always made you feel like you have to be careful around me. I promise I’ll start working on that.” He tried to smile, but wasn’t sure he succeeded.
“I think we’ve all got a lot of work to do,” she said, letting her words slip away on the breeze before continuing.
“It’s just that, I was hoping you would talk to Ginny. She’s so upset. I know she tries to cover it up – you two are a lot alike in that – but we talked and she told me everything you said about keeping her safe. I’m not disagreeing with you, Harry, but please just take some time to think it over. She needs you as much as you need her. You two just aren’t the same without each other.”
“I’ve been thinking it over all summer, Hermione,” he said. “I’ve been second-guessing myself so much that I’m starting to have conversations with myself. Sometimes I think I’m losing my mind!”
“Well,” she continued, “I’m glad you’ve been thinking about it, but you should look at it from Ginny’s point of view sometime. She’s liked you since, well, since forever. She’s had to endure you ignoring her for so many years. And then when you finally do notice her, you end it as soon as it starts. She has no idea what to feel right now. She’s been totally abandoned by you and believe me she’s feeling it. You’re what matters most to her and you won’t even speak to her. Imagine how betrayed she feels.
“I’m not trying to hurt you more I just want you to know how she feels. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but she at least deserves to have you talk to her. At least be her friend again.”
Harry was silent, thinking deeply. Eventually he reached over and squeezed her hand in his, holding it tight.
“Hermione, I don’t know what I’d do without you. Well… I know I would have gotten an awful lot of T’s on my O.W.L.s, but they aren’t important.” She gave him a scathing look. “For what’s really important you’ve always known what’s best. I should give you more credit for everything you’ve done for me. You’re… you’re great, Hermione. Thanks.”
Surprising even himself, especially after his exertion to tell her the truth, he leaned over and hugged her.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he said.
“I love you, too,” she whispered.
They sat holding each other for a while, enjoying the comfort of true friendship and the soothing sounds of the night. When Hermione shivered, Harry pulled away and smiled at her.
“Can you imagine if Ron had been here to see that?” he asked while she stood.
“No,” she said softly. “But I need to talk to him. Are you coming up to the house?” She tucked a few stray hairs behind her ear and looked down at him.
“No, but… would you mind, I mean, if you happen to run into her, would you ask her if she might want to talk to me?”
Hermione smiled at his awkward behavior and nodded, turning to go back up to the house.
As she walked away, she couldn’t have seen the darkness that crept slowly across Harry’s features. The weight of the world settled slowly back into its old, familiar place.