"She's fit," says Cormac McClaggen, sliding in next to Harry one morning in the Great Hall. Harry stares at him in mute disbelief as Cormac helps himself to some bacon, as if they chat like this all the time and this isn't the first conversation they've had since third year. "Your friend Hermione."
"You'd know better than anyone," Cormac says, as if Harry hadn't even spoken. "You went to her house for the autumn break, right? Everyone heard about it."
Harry swallows, thinking dimly of Hermione's parents' house in Oxford, which he had indeed visited for a too-short week in October. Her mother had made breakfast every morning before she left for work, and they'd eaten it in the small garden, a little patch of brick enclosed by a high wall which only barely kept out the city. Tucked into the corner of a busy street as the house was, they were always surrounded by city sounds - people talking and laughing, dogs barking, cars zooming past. It was so radically different from Hogwarts - or the Burrow, or the Dursley's dismal little suburb - that Harry remembers it fondly, as if it were a vacation to another life. One where they were Muggles on holiday from a regular boarding school, and his biggest problem was that the girl eating whole wheat toast across from him thought his attentions were platonic.
"Shared a bathroom, eh?" Cormac nudges him. Harry scowls at him. "Hey, would you do me a favor mate? Could you ask her if - "
"Oh, shut the fuck up," Harry says, surprising himself with his own vulgarity. Cormac drops the strip of bacon straight onto the table. "No, she's not single."
"Don't need to get your knickers in a twist," Cormac says. "I was only asking."
Harry grabs his bag and swings it dangerously close to Cormac's head, causing the older boy to duck quickly to avoid getting clocked. People are watching, but Harry finds that he doesn't care. "Well quit asking," he says shortly, and strides away. The gossip is already jumping from table to table, mirroring his progress down the Hall, but for once Harry finds he doesn't care. For once, Harry's thinking of other things. Scrambled eggs in a garden, to be specific.
"It's not that I mind the assumption," Hermione says, fretting so hard her hair has started to frizz up, "I just don't want you to think that I'm encouraging it, because you know that I know your situation with Ginny, and I'm so proud of you for handling that maturely Harry, and I wouldn't want you think that I'm trying to get in your way of moving on - "
"Hermione," Harry says helplessly, "I was the one who told Cormac we were dating."
This shuts her right up. "Oh," she says, a blush warming her cheeks. Or what Harry can see of them, anyway, through her hair.
"Not in so many words," he says quickly, a wiggle of nervousness making itself known in the pits of his stomach, "but he was asking about you, and - well, you know what he's like, and I just - blurted something out, and, well." He shrugs. "I'm sorry."
"Oh don't apologize! You did me a favor, I'm sure," Hermione says. "He's rather...crude, isn't he? I've only spoken to him a few times, but I have heard things…"
"Yes," Harry says. He clears his throat. "That's putting it lightly."
"So I should be the one thanking you."
"Please don't," Harry asks thinly. A thought occurs to him suddenly. "Do you think I'm that hung up on Ginny? Do I act like I'm that hung up on Ginny?"
"Well, no, but I just thought - you liked her a lot," Hermione confesses. "She and Luna have been rather discreet, and I assumed it was because they were trying not to rub it in your face."
"I did like her," Harry says. He'd liked talking to her, and playing Quidditch with her, and for a moment had talked himself into a rather more serious set of feelings for her, right up until Ginny pulled him aside and gently broke up with him ("Turns out," she'd said wryly, "my preferences lean in the other direction. My mum's gonna be heartbroken.") and Harry realized that he was, once again, avoiding something big by focusing on something small. Bad habit of his. "But I'm fine now. I'm glad they're happy, really."
"That's good," Hermione says earnestly, reaching out to squeeze one of Harry's wrists. His stomach swooped. "But you should try and move on. For real, Harry! Take out Lisa Turpin - she's very nice, isn't she? You really enjoyed talking with her last month at the Deathday Party, didn't you?"
"Lisa Turpin?" Harry asks dumbly. Well, yes, he'd spoken to Lisa Turpin for a long time at the party, but that was mostly because she was telling him a story about her boyfriend's amateur Quidditch team that had been quite funny. "Hermione, she's dating someone already."
"Oh," Hermione says. "Well what about that girl on your team, the alternate? Belinda something. Or is it Beatrice?"
"Her name is Victoria," Harry says, grinning at her.
"Yes, well," Hermione flaps one of her hands, "she's very pretty, and I've seen you talking to her a lot too. Or perhaps that seventh year who waits tables at the Three Broomsticks? Imogen, was it?"
"Her name is Beatrice," Harry corrects, grabbing her waving hand before it makes contact with the wall in its earnestness, "I don't even know anyone named Imogen. Are you alright, Hermione?"
"Yes," Hermione says quickly.
"It's just that you seem a little flustered."
"I'm not!" She tugs her hand away, not meeting his eyes. "It's just - well, if you're seen out and about with another girl, then everyone will assume that you and I are just friends again, and it'll be much easier for you."
"Easier for me to do what?"
"You know what!"
"No," Harry says, stepping in closer. "I don't."
Hermione seems taken aback for a moment, before her eyes sharpen, and her hands fall back into Harry's open palms. "Oh. Well."
"There's loads of people around," Harry tells her, with a giddy sort of delight welling up in his throat. "We're standing in the middle of the corridor. If we keep talking like this much longer it'll make the rumors worse."
"Well, that would definitely make it much harder for you," Hermione says crisply.
"For me to suddenly become a lothario, you mean?" Harry asks. "Taking out every eligible young maiden within grabbing distance?"
"There's plenty of them to choose from," Hermione says, a small smile lurking at the corner of her mouth. "Some Slytherins, even - you could step up and do your part for House Unity - "
"You're whacked," Harry says, grinning.
"I'm just saying," Hermione says, grinning back. Harry squeezes her hands, his heart jumping merrily against his rib cage, and lets the moment stretch. They've plenty of time, he's just discovered.
"Well," Ron says, "come on then. Let's get it over with."
"Get what over with?" Harry asks, distracted. "Come on mate, sit back down. I wrenched my neck in practice this morning, I can't tilt my head back for too long."
Ron shakes his head stubbornly. "No, you stand up."
"Because I have to threaten you, and it's easier when we're standing because then I'm taller than you," Ron explains. Harry turns to look at him, one eyebrow raised. "Come on, Harry."
Harry throws his quill aside, heaves an annoyed sigh, and rises to his feet. "Alright then."
"Thanks." Ron looks relieved, and then affects a dramatic scowl that Harry's only seen emerge during arguments with the twins. Like he's trying really hard to look angry so that his mum won't catch on that he thinks it's funny. "Now see here, mate. Hermione's our best friend, and - "
"Wait, hold on," Harry interrupts, "don't you want to grab my tie or something? Shove me against the wall?"
"Oh, good point," Ron says, and grips Harry's robes in his fists. Harry bites back a laugh when Ron fumbles a little, readjusts, and then clears his throat. "Now see here, she's a serious girl. Hermione is, I mean. You know?"
"Oh yeah," Harry says with a snort.
"So you're serious about her, then? This isn't just some - some passing fancy?"
"You sounded like your mum just there," Harry teases, grinning.
"Shut it." Ron struggles to bite back his own smile. "I'm threatening you. You could at least try to look intimidated. For my sake."
"I won't stand for it if you're just going to break her heart," Ron says, and suddenly Harry can hear the seriousness in it. "She's way out of your league, mate. Mine too. She's like...in some other league, one with...ministers and genius inventors and stuff. We're lucky she's even wasting her time on us, honestly."
"I know," Harry says, reaching up to pat Ron's wrist. "I know that, Ron."
"So you better do right by her," Ron finishes, and releases Harry's robes with a satisfied nod. "Or I'll...make sure you're sorry. I'll sic the twins on you!"
"Bloody hell, no need to go overboard," Harry complains. He nods, readjusting his robes. "Message received. Do you feel better?"
"Yeah." Ron blows out a long, relieved breath. "When you tell Ginny this story, would you tell her I punched you?"
"Sure, mate," Harry says, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. "Hey - good job! That was way scarier than when you threatened me over Ginny. Did you give Luna the same speech?"
Ron shudders. "I tried. But she just stared at me until I forgot what I was saying."
"Sounds like Luna."
"She didn't even blink," Ron says.
Harry's always defended Hermione, especially to the other girls. He doesn't know why Lavender and the others are always so mean to her - Hermione can be a bit uppity sometimes, sure, but she means well and he's never understood how other people can't see it. But now, people just don't bring her up to him at all. Harry suspects this is because he's part of whatever stories people are telling to each other over the dinner table, but since the practical result is that he doesn't have to deal with it anymore, he stops caring as much.
"Oh, here he comes again," Hermione says idly, her Butterbeer practically untouched between her hands. "Doesn't he have anything better to do?"
Harry leans in and tucks his face into the cloud of her hair, mumbling his answer directly into her ear. She shudders a little, laughing softly at the contact. "Probably not."
When he pulls back, he glimpses Cormac scowling at them, turning on his heel to exit the pub as quickly as he'd entered it. Hermione's grinning at him, her cheeks flushed. "Very effective tactic, Harry. Subtle but gets your point across efficiently."
"Thank you," Harry says, tapping her glass with the rim of his own. "It's your turn next."
"Alright then." She scans the pub, looking for a convenient target. "Oh, there's Grace Hawthorne! She's friends with Romilda. I think."
"Romilda Vane! Now there's a viable threat. Wouldn't want her to think I'm single."
"We'd best make sure she sees this then," Hermione says, and leans over on her elbows to brush a cool kiss against his cheekbone. Harry turns his face at the last second, right before she pulls away, and presses his forehead against hers for a brief moment affectionately, his heart as warm and full as it's ever been. "Hm," she says, as she draws back - not so far this time, she's been inching closer ever since they sat down, "not sure she saw it. Perhaps we'd better try again."
"Cormac's probably still at the windows," Harry says. "Peeking inside, trying to catch a glimpse of you."
"Lots of reasons to be showy then," Hermione says, and then kisses him again, gently like she's afraid he might pull away.
Harry doesn't, and won't ever. He can be patient until she gets the message. "You know what else might get the point across?" he asks, brushing some of her hair away from her face. He's fascinated by how it seems to have a life of its own, lately - springing out of her buns in class, frizzing out as they sit together in the common room. It never seems to be as uncontrollable during the summers, when they're at the Burrow, or out and about in the Muggle world - it's the magic that makes it so wild, he's sure of it. "If you came to my Quidditch game next weekend."
"Of course I'll be there Harry, but please don't make me sit in front," Hermione pleads. Their legs tangle together beneath the table. "You know it makes me so anxious to watch, so I always bring a book to distract myself, and it'll give off the worst impression if everyone sees me reading during the match."
"So come sit on the ground," Harry says. "With Victoria and Nick. I'll sneak you in, and you can read as much as you like."
"But that's only for the players! I couldn't - "
"Luna sits down there," Harry interrupts her with a smile. "Lavender's come a few times too, although she hasn't been since she and Ron had that big fight."
"Oh," Hermione says, biting her lip.
"It's sort of a tradition," Harry explains, his hand still in her hair. He likes the way it curls around his wrist, and the little shudders she makes when he brushes her scalp. "For girlfriends, and boyfriends, and et cetera. If people see you down there, there'll be no going back."
"No more excuses?" Hermione asks, with a soft smile. "Alright. If that's okay with you."
"You're the one at risk," Harry says with a grin. "I'm hell on a girl's reputation. Or so I hear."
"Depends on how you look at it," Hermione says.
Over the last few months, Harry's been receiving quite a lot of correspondence, mostly from Order members (old and new) who feel some sort of way about Sirius' death. Many of them simply send him photographs - dusty, old pictures clearly dug up out of their attics - and Harry usually tries not to linger over them for the sake of his own state of mind. The quiet question in the back of his mind - why hadn't they sent these to him before? Why does it take a death for people to talk to him? - stops him from writing back.
There's one in particular of his parents that he keeps close, flattening it out in his Charms textbook for a few days and then plastering it to the inside of his trunk. Lily and James at the Three Broomsticks - clearly still in school, Gryffindor scarves around their necks and school bags piled next to them on the bench - although Lily has her engagement ring on her finger, which is a revelation that Harry ponders for several days. From the way Remus had talked about it, it seemed as if they'd only gotten married after Lily found out she was pregnant - but maybe that wasn't true? Maybe they'd been planning all along, and Harry's sudden appearance in the world had only sped up their timetable.
At any rate, he likes that photo - even moreso than the one he'd had in his bedroom for years, of them smiling at each other beneath an oak tree. This one seems more real - Lily sips her tea, continually adding sugar to it as James watches her goofily, and while the picture is so old that they've stopped waving - they tend to get sluggish, the older a photo is - every once in awhile they'll look up and smile, as if they know that Harry's looking.
Were they scared? Harry does write to Remus. He's the only one he wants to hear from, nowadays. I know they were falling in love during a war, and that must've affected how they felt about each other. I think I'd be okay with it if they were just taking comfort in each other, or if they were desperate. It doesn't make it any less real, does it? They were so young when they died, who knows what would've happened if they'd been given a real chance. But I'd rather know the truth of it, even if it's not as romantic as the stories. You can tell me.
Remus writes him back, on a scroll of parchment charmed to look blank until Harry himself touches it: They were scared, Harry. We were all very scared, and very young. You're right that it must've affected the strength of their feelings, although you must remember that if they doubted each other, they certainly wouldn't have shown that to anybody, even to their friends - some things in a marriage are private. But I think if you're looking to know the whole truth of their feelings for each other, that answer might be beyond our grasp. All I can tell you is what I saw: that they loved each other, that they always wanted to be around each other. They made each other laugh, and they were always in on each other's secrets - even when Lily claimed to dislike him. I hope that brings you comfort, and even if it's not as complete of an answer as you want - please remember that you came into this world with love, Harry. As messy and complicated as it might've been - it was still love.
Harry reads this letter several times, over the course of several days, and still can't come to a conclusion as to how he feels about it. This is often the case with letters from Remus.
"I am happy, Harry," Dumbledore says, during their next meeting, "that you seem to have found companionship. It brings me joy to see you enjoying your time in school, despite these heavy responsibilities that we discuss in this office."
Harry has an absurd, somewhat hysterical vision of Dumbledore creeping through the corridors at night to spy on the couples in the broom closets - his ear pressed to the door of the common rooms, crouching beneath the tables in the Great Hall to listen to the gossip. Not that Harry doubts the Headmaster's ability to be well informed on everything, but he's sure there's a classier way he goes about it. Or - a more nefarious way, perhaps. "Thanks."
"I do wonder whether it would interfere with your studies," Dumbledore continues, and Harry tenses a little, "or with your other commitments, but if anything I've seen great improvement in your performance as of late. I've been considering sending Miss Granger a thank you note, although I realize that would come off a bit strange."
"I'll thank her for you," Harry assures him. "I can make it as weird as you'd like."
Dumbledore smiles sadly, his spectacles reflecting the light from the fireplace eerily. "You do so remind me of your father. Especially when you are relaxed enough to release your wit."
"My wit," Harry repeats bemusedly, "often gets free on its own. It's rather annoying actually - always causing messes and such. Like a pet I didn't ask for."
"Wits do have a tendency of doing so," Dumbledore agrees.
It occurs to Harry, not for the first time, that Dumbledore would be a good person to ask about his parents. He knows by now that James and Lily had been quite close to the Dumbledore family, if not close enough to let the Headmaster in on their scheme to catch the traitor in the act - but still, something stops him from asking. The questions he really has - am I a coward? Is it selfish to keep her to myself? Do I deserve her time and attention when all mine seems to do is put her in danger? - Dumbledore wouldn't be able to answer anyway. "Hermione would never let me get away with slacking off. I think Professor McGonagall's been a bit easier on me lately anyway, just because she approves of us. It's driving Hermione a bit batty, to be honest."
"Our dear Professor McGonagall does get sentimental from time to time," Dumbledore says. "Best not to call her on it. She'll only get worse if we do."
Harry smiles and says nothing.
Raising his wand, Dumbledore gestures gently to the Pensieve. "Shall we begin? I do hope to release you with some time left in the evening. Saturday nights are much lovelier when you have company awaiting you."
"Sure, Professor," Harry says.
Hermione often falls asleep while waiting for him to return, her books splayed out around her on the common room couch, the fire reduced to glowing ashes in the grate. Harry gingerly steps over a gigantic tome that gives an ominous growl as he brushes past, and shoves a few half-written scrolls of parchment aside so he can sit next to her.
"Bwuh?" Hermione says, startling a little when he slides his hand down her arm to wake her up. "Harry?"
"Just me," Harry says. The common room is empty, although he takes an extra look around, just to be sure. For once, he doesn't want anyone watching. "You fell asleep again."
"Oh my," Hermione says softly. She sits up gingerly, stretching her neck with a cute little grimace. "I didn't mean to."
"You say that every time."
"And I mean it every time," Hermione replies petulantly. She blinks at him. "How did it go tonight?"
Harry shrugs. He doesn't really want to talk about that, at the present moment. "Fine. Did you finish the Runes essay?"
"Yes, although there's one or two things I need to check in the morning, when the library opens," Hermione says. "I was going to pop down before breakfast, unless you wanted me to quiz you for the History of Magic test again - "
"I'll be fine. I have a free period before History tomorrow, I'll brush up on the dates then."
"Then yes, I'm done. Or close to it, anyway." She smiles at him sleepily, a tinge of worry in it as always. "He always keeps you so late."
"He didn't mean to this time. It...took longer than we expected tonight." Harry shakes his head. "Never mind. I'll tell you about it tomorrow."
"Not right now?"
"No, not right now," Harry says, touching her cheek. "Hermione."
She waits for him to continue, and when he doesn't, she tilts her head like a bird, eyes wide and dark brown in the dimness of the room. "What is it?"
Harry trails his knuckles down her cheek to her chin, thinking of all the things he would say, in an alternate universe where their problems were smaller, and he could be braver in the everyday things instead of just when he had to, when it was life or death. In that other, nicer world, where they spent summers in that noisy garden, where his parents eloped because they were in love and not because they were afraid to die, maybe he would've said something sooner, maybe they never would've needed an excuse in the first place. Not that it was ever really an excuse. But somehow Harry thinks he still should've done better by her, because if there's anyone who deserves his best, it's Hermione.
"Kiss me," he says, and she does. She doesn't even hesitate.
"Hm," Hermione says, dreamy and quiet as she pulls away. "Are you alright?"
"Yes," Harry murmurs, catching her before she can pull away completely. They kiss again, slow and soft in the darkness, and Harry wonders how he could've ever thought he could keep quiet. When this was a possibility? Even the barest chance? He must've been delusional. "Yes, I am. Now I am."
"If you say so," Hermione says, with a knowing air, as if she can already hear all the words welling up in Harry's throat. He breaks off with a huff of laughter, captures her hand and kisses her knuckles. There are papercuts all over her fingers, and her skin is dry from the cold, winter air, but Harry doesn't mind. His are much worse. "Smart of you to corner me like this, in the common room," she says in a mock-whisper, grinning a little when he looks back up to catch her eye. "Romilda and Cormac will surely hear about it - "
"Hermione," Harry interrupts, laughing, "give it a rest, would you?"
"Oh, fine." Her grin widens. "We had a rather long run with that joke. I was having fun with it."
"I don't think it was ever that funny," Harry confesses.
"Well, that's your opinion," Hermione replies, squeezing his hand, and it occurs to Harry that Ron won't even need to beat him up if he breaks her heart, because Harry would do it himself. He'd throw himself off the Astronomy Tower, or something. "Are you sure you're alright? You seem like you're in a strange mood."
"Strange? No. Just tired, I guess." Harry shrugs. "Thanks for waiting for me."
"Shall I walk you to your room?" He grins. "Here's one thing Cormac's good for - he figured a way around the enchantment on the stairs. He wrote the counterspell on the mirror in the boy's lavatory - we all memorized it."
Hermione's eyes spark playfully. "That's against the rules," she says, "as a Prefect, you know I'm obligated to report such breaches of - "
"Oh come on."
" - conduct to our Head of House - oh stop it, of course you can walk me up," Hermione says, pushing him away from her neck with a laugh. "Don't think you're getting farther than the doorway though. I know your reputation, Mister Potter."
"Yeah," Harry says ruefully, as Hermione continues to laugh merrily at him, "I'm a real player."