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Ten Thousand

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A blow to the back of Hermione’s leg startled her awake. Again the fog of sleep and the pitch blackness around her were disorienting, but another kick and a grunt close to her ear made her realize what was going on. Harry was still snuggled close to her, but he was shaking and kicking in his sleep. Just then a lightning flash lit up the night: her eyes opened wide, and a powerful thunderclap quickly followed.

Reluctantly disentangling herself from his arms, she maneuvered herself around in the cramped space to face him, as he began to moan aloud in distress. Putting a hand on his shoulder to try to wake him, she realized his shirt was damp with sweat. “Harry,” she called. “You’re dreaming. Harry, wake up!” By then he was thrashing about on his back as the groaning became louder.

Another lightning flash lit up the tent, and she saw the pained expressions on his face. Hermione knew Harry’s nightmares well, but she could never get used to them. Thinking that some light might help, she reached across his chest. Fumbling in the darkness, her finger brushed the side of the torch, which promptly rolled downhill away from her. Even with the din from the torrent of rain, she could hear the sound of water inside. Another lightning flash confirmed that the small pool of water had returned to their tent, and the torch was now submerged in the far corner.

There was no way she could reach it from her position, even if it would still function after being in the water. And there was simply no room to maneuver around him in this small tent. She briefly considered climbing over him, but the image of Harry awakening to find her straddling him in only her knickers made her think twice. Things had already become strange enough between them earlier.

Harry was now kicking wildly again as his groans turned into indistinct monosyllables. “Hmm!” he called out. “Hmm!… Herm!” She shook his shoulder again as he suddenly shrieked out, “Hermione! NO! NO! HERMIONE!”

“I’m here, Harry! Wake up!” He jolted awake just as another lightning flash displayed his horrified countenance. But even before the resulting thunder arrived, he had bolted upright and now embraced her desperately, nearly knocking the wind out of her.

“Hermione, Hermione...” he repeated into her shoulder.

She held onto him closely, feeling his heart pulsating rapidly against her chest. “It’s me, Harry. I’m here. You had a nightmare.” She waited for at least half a minute, during which he seemed only to clutch her with more force. Eventually his hold on her relaxed a bit, and she asked quietly, “Do you want to talk about it?”

He sniffled softly, burying his face into her shoulder as if to hide himself.

“It’s okay. Everything’s all right,” she said, stroking his back.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said, pulling back. He seemed to pause for a few seconds in the darkness. Then Hermione felt his hands reach up and seek the lapels of her pajamas. He slowly unbuttoned the top button, before one of his hands gently tugged at the neckline.

She took a breath and closed her eyes at his touch. “Harry?” she whispered, her voice bordering on a moan as she struggled to retain control of it.

Perhaps it was the fact that they had been sleeping so intimately, but her skin felt like it was on fire: he was so close, she could feel his breath on her neck. After a few moments of confused anticipation at what he might do next, she felt his fingers deliberately trace a line along the bottom of her neck. Only then did she realize what he was doing—he was following that thin cut Bellatrix had made to her throat at Malfoy Manor. There was barely a mark there anymore: the clean cut had healed, leaving only a thin white line that Hermione could only find herself with difficulty in the mirror in the right light.

Yet Harry knew exactly where it was even in the complete blackness surrounding them, and she now understood what horrors must have filled his dreams. She involuntarily shuddered at the thought of that day, a remnant of terror coursing through her. Harry must have sensed this, and he took hold of her arms gently. But then, in the darkness, she felt his hands take her left arm and begin pulling back the fabric of her shirt, lifting it up her arm. “Harry,” she whispered, “don’t.”

Another flash of lightning exposed the scene unfolding in front of her. She saw remnants of the word “blood” exposed on her forearm and pulled away, yanking her shirt sleeve down again.

But Harry put his arms around her again and pulled her close, holding her until her breathing slowed. He spoke softly across her shoulder, his voice soothing amidst the torrent of the storm still raging around them. “All this summer you’ve worn long-sleeved shirts and blouses, even on the hottest of days. I’m… I’m so sorry I wasn’t quicker that day, wasn’t able to...”

“Shh,” she whispered into his ear. “It’s not your fault, there was nothing—”

But he cut her off as he pulled back. “I can’t hide mine,” he said quietly. “When I was young, sometimes I was proud of it, one thing that was distinctly my own. But other times I wished for nothing more than that I could hide it. But it’s always on my face; it will always be a part of me. I wish there was—” his voice wavered. She felt his hands gently move to her arm again. “Please, just...”

There was something about the calmness in his voice, causing her to remain very still as he cautiously rolled up her sleeve. She was thankful now for the darkness, as he lifted her arm, and she felt a finger begin to trace over her scar. A moment later, she was shocked to feel his lips on her arm, kissing that horrid word three times very slowly in almost ritualistic fashion. His mouth lingered on her skin briefly before pulling away.

Harry had never kissed her before, not in any way. Never on the cheek or the forehead. Never. Before the previous day, he had rarely even done more than reach out to hold her hand. She had gradually started to become used to this more affectionate version of Harry.

This, however, was something completely different. Despite the fact that they had only recently been spooned up together with his arms around her, she wasn’t sure how to process the new level of intimacy in this moment. Her scar had been deliberately hidden from everyone since the day it was made. She had tried nearly a dozen spells to remove it, but something about the combination of magic and hate seemed to have etched it permanently into her skin. Even Ron had only glimpsed it one morning while she was changing her clothes. She simply couldn’t stand the silent pity on his face and vowed never to let him see it again.

Yet Hermione wasn’t embarrassed now. Another lightning strike lit up his face, where she saw the most gentle look of concern. She closed her eyes and felt them grow wet as Harry carefully pulled down her sleeve again and wrapped her again in his arms. And then, without warning, it just came streaming out of her, like a tidal wave of emotion—all the tensions leftover from the war that no one ever wanted to talk about or acknowledge: all the months of pretending that everything would be back to normal again, all the people lost, and everything else that could never be restored. Her chest was now heaving as she sobbed into Harry’s shoulder, pulling him tight.

He held onto her as she caught her breath, only for a few more waves to return as she gasped for air before finally letting out a heavy sigh. She continued to shake involuntarily in his arms for a minute, but forced herself to pull back—taking his left hand hand in her right, and lifting it to slowly kiss the scarred back of it. Putting a hand on his cheek, she sat up to kiss his forehead, not needing any light to know precisely where that tiny patch of taut skin was. There were other scars he carried, of course. She knew them all—the bitemarks from Nagini, the place on his chest where she had to magically cut the Horcrux off of him that night after Godric’s Hollow, and so many other minor ones over the years. Part of her wished to kiss them all, if it would only keep those memories and nightmares away from him.

A deafening thunderclap sent a jolt through both of them as a gust of wind whipped through their tiny shelter. The cold air caused a shiver to pass through Hermione, and Harry began to pull up the sleeping bag around her.

She halted him and instead gently nudged Harry to make him lie down, making sure his head was on the pillow. Pulling the sleeping back tightly around both of them, she lay against his side and rested her head on his chest. As she wrapped her leg on top of his, she felt him become tense, as he had when they had been like this outside under the stars. In response, she placed her right hand on his chest, feeling his heartbeat, wordlessly willing him to relax.

It was only then that she even noticed the bareness of their intertwined legs, realizing again that their position was far more intimate than it seemed. Indeed, it all seemed natural to her. It just felt so unquestionably right to be in wrapped up close to Harry like this, an almost seamless extension of the natural physical affection she had shared with him for years.

Her mind flitted back to her few awkward encounters with Ron, which never rose to this level of intimacy, neither physically nor emotionally. Not that she wasn’t interested or attracted to him—she certainly had been—but after a few intense snogging sessions, she just wasn’t certain where to go from there. Ron never pressured her, and she knew that he cared about her, but with him it always felt like they were just getting something out of their system, some pent-up tension, rather than a real emotional connection. At least two or three times, she thought he was on the verge of ending it during an argument, but they’d somehow end up snogging again. The cycle would repeat, an absurd parody of true romance.

And then at the end, he had accused her of being in love with Harry. More of his words came back to her: You were completely alone with him for nearly two months, and for all that time neither of you even said my name. Ron wasn’t wrong. She had tried to blame it on Harry, on not wanting to upset him by bringing Ron up, but the reality was that she wasn’t quite sure why they had completely stopped talking about him last year. Ron had planted the seed in her mind, and only now was she allowing it to grow.

Another flash and a quiet burst of thunder interrupted her thoughts. The storm finally seemed to be passing. She was so comfortable and warm now; they could just go to sleep like this, couldn’t they? Her right leg moved almost of its own accord now, generating the softest friction against his as she turned slightly and nestled even closer into his side. Could best friends sleep like this? Is that what we still are? She didn’t know. Most of her didn’t care.

No one understood her connection to Harry. Ron certainly didn’t. And though Harry never really discussed it, Hermione was certain it played a role in the Harry’s failure to rekindle his relationship with Ginny. Perhaps it was this physical closeness she had felt before with Harry or the trauma tonight, but her mind drifted back to that horrible day at Hogwarts, the day so many had been injured and died, when Voldemort had finally been defeated…

After the battle, Harry had led Ron and her away from the crowd of survivors, to the study that used to belong to Dumbledore. There, Harry recounted everything that had happened and repaired his wand with the Elder Wand.

But Hermione was worried about what Harry had been through and thought that he looked like he might collapse due to sheer fatigue by that point. Harry, however, didn’t want to go back to the crowds where Madam Pomfrey could evaluate him. Hermione therefore insisted on checking Harry over with some basic diagnostic spells. While she did so, Ron mentioned that his mum and family were still quite upset when they had all left the group. Harry apologized for taking Ron away while they were mourning for Fred, and Hermione suggested he go back and explain that Harry simply needed rest.

Less than a minute passed after Ron left before Harry mumbled, “I’m fine,” and took Hermione’s hand to lead her up to Gryffindor Tower, stopping only briefly to summon Kreacher and request some food. Harry continued in silence and surprised Hermione by walking straight through the Common Room and up the stairs, only dropping her hand when they arrived at the side of his old four-poster bed. Hermione could only conclude that he was much more exhausted than even she thought.

Kreacher arrived a moment later with an enormous platter piled high with sandwiches. Harry thanked him and noted that after Kreacher’s heroism leading the house-elves in battle, he deserved freedom. Before Kreacher could object, Harry went on to say he knew it would insult Kreacher, so he wanted him to remain at Grimmauld Place, as long as the house-elf agreed to take some sort of salary and an occasional day off.

Kreacher began to throw a fit, so Harry threatened him with clothes and told him they’d finish discussing the matter later. Sensing Harry’s exhaustion and mood, Kreacher grumbled but expressed gratitude for what Harry had done that day and finally agreed to talk later, before leaving Harry and Hermione alone. It was only then that Harry finally spoke to Hermione again, asking if she thought Dobby would approve, to which she nodded.

The two of them settled on Harry’s bed and began to eat, over Hermione’s half-hearted objection about the crumbs that would end up in his bedding. Harry merely muttered something about magical cleanup as he stuffed his face with a second sandwich. Hermione soon realized just how ravenous she was too—neither of them had eaten for at least a day—and before long the two of them had managed to consume over half the tray of sandwiches together.

While they ate, they reminisced a bit about feeling hungry out in the wilderness, and he joked that it would have been much more convenient to be able to summon a tray of sandwiches. Harry had seemed almost normal, though extremely tired, until that point. But after he finished a final bite, he became very quiet again. Hermione took the tray from between them and sat next to him, taking his hand in hers.

She didn’t quite know what to say. Part of her considered just putting him to bed and letting him rest, but he seemed unusually pensive. She always had this intuitive sense about Harry’s moods, and something was very, very wrong. Eventually, she asked, “Do you want to talk more about… what happened?”

No,” he replied laconically.

They sat there for at least a minute in silence, before he closed his eyes and squeezed Hermione’s hand more tightly. “They set me up to die,” he finally said. “I was supposed to die. That was the plan. And I was ready. But they shouldn’t have had to… no one else...”

Hermione had been shocked at Godric’s Hollow when she saw a few tears slip down Harry’s cheeks for the first time. But nothing could prepare her for the aftermath of the battle as tears streamed freely down his face while he heaved breaths of air in and out trying to calm himself. Then he completely lost control as the whispered names of the dead came between gasps of air, “Fred… Lupin… Tonks… so many… ”

Hermione let go of his hand and wrapped her arms around him, drawing him into a close embrace as his body convulsed and shuddered. He began just murmuring into her shoulder, rocking and repeating, “I was supposed to die… I was supposed to die… I was supposed to die...”

She didn’t know what to do. She thought of trying to get help, but concluded that it might only agitate him more. And who could help? Who could possibly understand? It had been too much for him, Hermione thought. Too much for anyone. This wasn’t mere survivor’s guilt. He had literally been tasked to execute a suicide pact by the person he had once most trusted. And Harry had conditioned himself to make this offering—to die willingly—except now he was still alive.

You came back to me, Harry,” she whispered. “You’re supposed to be here.” At her words, the sobbing came again into her shoulder, as he held onto her as if his very life and sanity depended on it.

She managed to pull out her wand and use it to close Harry’s bed curtains, as well as to cast a silencing spell for his privacy. Anyone else showing up at this moment would undoubtedly make things worse. After that, she moved farther onto his bed and lay back on his pillow, pulling him down with her. He didn’t fight her, and curled up into a fetal position with his head on her stomach and his legs pressed up against hers.

Hermione fought back tears herself, seeing him in such a state. “I’m here,” she said quietly, as she stroked his hair. It’s about all she could do, and he did respond by clutching her a bit more tightly with his arm around her near her waist.

They lay together for a long time and both fell asleep, though Hermione soon awoke with a start. The light peeking through Harry’s curtains told her that not much time had passed, and she realized she should go check on Ron and everyone else. Although she didn’t want to leave Harry alone, everyone might be worried about why they both disappeared.

She carefully disengaged herself from Harry and succeeded in putting a pillow under his head while only causing him to stir slightly. She then pulled an extra blanket from the foot of the bed over him. But as she emerged from the bedcurtains, she was surprised to see a redhead sitting on Ron’s bed.

It was not the one she might have expected.

So... are you two together now?” Ginny asked, with a distinctly unfriendly tone.

What? No, of course not,” Hermione replied, confused and still a little muddled after her brief slumber. It took her a moment to even process the meaning behind her words. “Why would you—”

Don’t play dumb. It doesn’t suit you, Hermione.” Ginny stood and began to pace about. “You were in his bed. And if I’m not mistaken, there’s a silencing charm around it.”

He’s asleep.” Hermione merely shook her head, trying not to roll her eyes at what she considered to be a very odd discussion to be having at this point in time, considering the state Harry was in. “I think you and Harry should talk about things later.”

Ginny stopped pacing and looked straight at her. “I think you and I need to have this conversation now.”

Hermione sighed. “I gave him privacy, because, well… he was quite upset.” She paused before adding, “Crying, actually.”

Harry doesn’t cry,” Ginny said immediately, almost reflexively. “No one’s ever seen him cry. He never… that is...” Her voice trailed off, as she seemed to ponder this new fact.

Hermione looked down at her feet, not sure if Harry would want to share their private moments. But this was Ginny; she deserved to know. “He’s been through a lot in the past year,” Hermione said. “Sometimes, he—”

Ginny walked toward her now, cutting her off. “This isn’t the first time?” Hermione shook her head. “But Harry hates crying. He couldn’t stand when Cho did it. I know that; you told me that.” She paused, before adding quietly, “I tried never to...”

Hermione reached out for Ginny’s arm, but she took a step back. “I don’t understand,” Ginny said, as her eyes narrowed again. “Why you? Why were you in bed with him?”

I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “Harry brought me here, and Kreacher brought some food.” She gestured toward the half-full platter beside the bed. “He was tired; we both were tired. And, he just… broke down.” Ginny was still staring at her expectantly, seeming to want a better explanation. “Look,” Hermione continued, “Harry and I have been through a lot. Things were pretty intense for the past several months, and we learned to depend on each other, trust each other.” She didn’t try to explain further; she didn’t know if she could. “I’m sure you can talk with him when he wakes up, and—”

He wanted you,” Ginny said simply, glancing away. “It’s always you…” She shook her head, taking a deep breath. “He didn’t even stop to see me today—he just went away with you… and Ron.”

It had been chaos after the battle. Harry didn’t deal well with emotions, and everyone there was emotional. Hermione knew precisely why he had fled, but couldn’t quite explain that now. “I’m sure he wanted to. I’m certain he’d have found you later.” Hermione hesitantly approached her and put her hand on Ginny’s shoulder. This time Ginny didn’t pull away, but merely swallowed slowly. “He’s not himself now. But he loves you,” Hermione said quietly. “I know he does. I know he missed you.”

Ginny’s head shook as she dismissively replied, “He never loved me.”

He might not have said the words—”

He didn’t love me… not like...” The words seem to catch in her throat as she hesitated. “Maybe you should just stay here with him.”

Hermione dropped her hand and looked to make her way down the stairs from the boys’ dormitory. “I would, and I will, but… well, I need to find Ron. Check on him.”

Ron’s fine,” Ginny said simply, adding, “as much as any of us are.”

Hermione turned back to Ginny with a bit of surprise at her reaction. “Oh, you don’t know. I thought he would have said… but maybe with everything that’s happened...” She paused and took a breath. “Anyhow, Ron and I… well, yesterday, we kissed for the first time.”

WHAT!?” Ginny suddenly stared back at Hermione with a look of utter bafflement. “Wait—you and Ron are finally together?” Understanding appeared to dawn on her face. “That’s why he had that odd grin a little while ago. It seemed so out of place today. When? How?”

Well… he showed some maturity at last—he made some comment about saving house-elves, and, I don’t know… everything was a bit crazy at that point, and I kissed him.”

You did—that is, you kissed him… in the middle of a battle, because he cared about… house-elves?”

Hermione all of a sudden felt oddly defensive. “I don’t know, Ginny. It just happened. We’ve been dancing around it for what seems like years now.”

“… And you celebrated after this first kiss by… disappearing with Harry… and taking a nap in bed with him.” Ginny now bore a look of disbelief.

This time Hermione did roll her eyes. “Harry needed me. I told you that. And he doesn’t have a family to turn to, so yes, I was here for him.”

And it didn’t occur to you to—I don’t know—come get me, or Ron, or anyone else to help take care of him?” Ginny asked this while nodding slowly. She blinked a couple times, as something new seemed to occur to her. “Hermione, I am sorry if I was mean earlier. I get why you’re here, and I am truly glad Harry has you. But,” she paused, “I’m not sure you realize why you’re here.” Hermione looked at her quizzically for a few moments, as Ginny sighed and looked away. “You should go find Ron. I won’t tell him about this.”

What do you mean you won’t tell him? Why? What do you—”

You shouldn’t tell him, either,” Ginny said quickly. “Just tell him you helped Harry get to bed so he could rest, and you lost track of time… which is true.”

Hermione puzzled over her words a bit, while she glanced back to Harry’s bed. “You’ll stay here with him?”

A small smile broke out on Ginny’s face for the first time that day. “Yes, of course I will. Don’t worry—I’ll be here for him. You’re not the only one who can play nurse to an ailing war hero.”

He was pretty shaken up before, Ginny. This isn’t normal—he experienced a pretty severe trauma, and… things aren’t right. He shouldn’t be left alone. And I think he should be checked out by Madam Pomfrey when he wakes up.” Ginny nodded, and Hermione turned to leave.

Hermione,” Ginny called just as Hermione exited to descend the stairs; she halted and turned back. “It’s just… you once told me that I needed to be myself, to go out with other people, and to figure out what I truly wanted.” Hermione simply looked at her, nodding slightly. “It was very good advice, but I think you should remember it yourself.”

I don’t understand...” Hermione's brain was still slow due to her fatigue, but she felt like Ginny was speaking in riddles now.

I’m glad for you and Ron,” Ginny said. “Truly. And part of him has been infatuated with you for years. Just... don’t hurt him.”

I would never—”

No, of course not.” Ginny shook her head. “Nevermind. I’m sure you’ll sort it out sooner or later.” As Hermione left the room, she thought she heard Ginny whisper to herself, “He will too.”

Back in the present, Harry stirred and wrapped his arm more closely around Hermione, drawing her from her memories.

Now, a few months later, she understood Harry so much more deeply. She knew many of his fears and nightmares. She recognized that he never cried because he had been threatened and occasionally beaten as a small child when he made too much noise. He had also been told crying was a sign of weakness, something to be ashamed of. And she saw the toll that the trauma from war continued to have on him. It all made so much more sense, and she was grateful that he had finally found the strength to open up to her.

When Hermione had returned from Australia, she discovered that Ginny and Harry had not reunited as she expected. Harry never spoke more of it. Ginny had watched over Harry in her absence, and they continued to be on friendly terms. But Hermione always assumed her encounter Ginny that day had some impact on what happened, even if she thought Ginny’s suspicions had been baseless, if not outright preposterous.

Yet it was only now that Ginny’s parting words lingered with her. At the time, she assumed Ginny was talking about her and Ron working things out together. But what had she actually been trying to say? That Hermione was in love with Harry and needed to figure that out? Maybe even that Harry chose her? Was Ginny as insecure as Ron? And why did everyone make these assumptions? Over the years, dozens of people at Hogwarts had treated Harry and Hermione as if they were a couple. They had both always shrugged these rumors off as ridiculous.

And now, she was lying here, cuddled up to Harry, and even she herself didn’t know if they weren’t, well… “dating.” Was that what this weekend was: some sort of awkward overture from Harry? He had worked so hard, though his aim was unclear to her. She certainly could testify to how clueless he had previously been when it came to women.

Hermione didn’t want to threaten this moment, but his behavior the previous day had raised questions. She needed to know more. Gathering courage, she broke the silence and asked, “Harry, why did you really bring me out here?”

He heaved out a long breath, and she could again feel his heartbeat quicken under her touch. Finally, he said in a low voice, “I brought you here to tell you that I was sorry.”

That wasn’t at all what she expected to hear. But she thought back to his kisses on her arm and his earlier apology. She knew from the moment she saw him after Malfoy Manor that he would never forgive himself. When she had heard he was out there for hours digging Dobby’s grave, she knew he couldn’t face her yet, and that first look in his eye before he glanced away had said it all. But there was nothing she could say then or now; she knew how she had felt when she had accidentally broken his wand at Bathilda Bagshot’s house, how he too had tried so hard to absolve her. His wand had finally been healed; there were things inside of her that might never heal, though.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t—”

“No, not that,” he interrupted. “I mean, I’m so sorry for that, too. I wish I could have done so many things differently. But… when we were alone in the wilderness last year, out here… I behaved abominably.”

Now Hermione was completely confused. “What do you mean? You—“

He stroked her arm gently, distracting her as she involuntarily inhaled sharply again. How can a simple touch from him keep doing this to me?

“When Ron left last year,” he continued, again oblivious to the effect his caresses were having, “I just sort of shut down. Everything seemed to be going wrong, and it felt like it was just the two of us left to defend the entire world. I knew how upset you were that day, and I’m truly sorry I couldn’t find a way out of my own head.”

“I couldn’t, either, Harry.” After a moment, she chuckled. “As I recall, you did toss me a blanket.”

He merely kept stroking her arm, causing her to squirm a bit as pleasant sensations rippled throughout her body. “More like threw it at you. You didn’t deserve that. You… well, it’s hard to explain. There was part of me who knew that you wouldn’t leave me, but then when you let Ron go out by himself, where he could have...” Harry swallowed. Hermione knew full well what he meant. Ron had gone off with no supplies, no protections. She had accepted the moment Ron disapparated that she would likely never see him alive again, and she knew Harry likely felt the same way.

“I just realized it might be only the two of us,” he continued. “And after that first night, as I thought about it more, I couldn’t quite believe that you had stayed. I know how you and Ron felt about each other, but you chose to stay with me. I started thinking back to the few people in my life who had taken risks for me, but none like you have. You abandoned everything—your friends, your parents, your other best friend and boyfriend. Just for me.”

He paused for a long time, and Hermione began to say, “Of course, I had to. You needed—”

He interrupted, resuming his previous thought. “I didn’t know how respond to that. Friends don’t do that for each other. Even best friends don’t rewrite their parents’ memories and abandon their entire world for each other.”


She felt his hand grasp her arm tightly, as he continued. “I need to say this. You wanted to know.” She nodded into his shoulder, stilling herself. “Well, you know now that I grew up without lo—” the word caught in his throat. “...without anyone caring about me. And for you to make that sort of sacrifice—I just didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t comprehend what it could mean. All of those thoughts threatened to bubble up, and I just stuffed them back down again so we could be miserable together.” He paused, and this time Hermione knew to stay quiet. She did want to know, and she realized how hard it was for him to say all of this. “Almost every night, I thought of coming to you. I heard you crying, and I did nothing, because… I was angry… and confused. Afraid of what this all meant, of what might happen, of betraying Ron, of betraying Ginny… I kept seeing Ron’s face, so angry, accusing us of shutting him out.”

She listened in silence, realizing how much the two of them had shared in their feelings back then, even though they never spoke of it. It had been a tacit understanding at the time, and she had tried to hide her crying, knowing how much it pained him to hear. Yet of course he did hear it, and she tried to tamp down the resentment that started to rise in her as she realized they both had suffered alone because of Ron, because of his immature jealousy.

Harry was still talking, though. “I just found it easier to think of other things. I spent some nights poring over the Marauders’ Map looking for Ginny’s name, just for a sign that someone else I cared about was still alive in this world. Instead, I should have been caring for someone who was sitting right beside me...”

His voice trailed off, as he began to gently stroke her arm again. She wasn’t sure now what he was leaving unsaid. What was he saying? In her nervousness, she needed to fill the silence. With trepidation, she said softly, “Harry, we both felt that way. We both wanted to be there for each other, but—”

As if he hadn’t even stopped talking before, he picked up again, obviously wanting to get all of this out. “Then we started to work together again. We went to Godric’s Hollow, and we found my par—“ his voice cracked again. “That night, I realized I couldn’t hold it in anymore. And you were there for me, as you have always been, ever since I met you. And after all of those horrible weeks we spent like that, I wanted to bring you out here to show you what I couldn’t bring myself to do back then, to let you know how much it meant that you always stayed with me.”

As he finished the last sentence, he pulled his arms together around her and held her tightly for several seconds. Then, just as quickly, he let her go—his one hand falling away and the other remaining only loosely under her and around her back.

“I would never have left you,” she said softly. “I couldn’t.”

“I know,” he replied, his voice barely a whisper.

Hermione’s mind began to drift as she fantasized about what it could have been like. All those weeks alone together—could they have held each other like this every night? She had never felt so safe and warm and loved in her life as she did right now.

He was quiet for a long time. She started to wonder why, of all the places they had hidden in the wilderness, he had chosen this location. This was the spot where she had brought him as a refuge, after he had become despondent over his wand and the revelations of Dumbledore, as everything began to fall apart after that tender moment they had shared on Christmas Eve. When they had arrived here, it was perhaps the lowest point for her during their time alone together, when things seemed so desperate.

As if he had read her mind, Harry began to speak again. “That’s why I brought you to this place, in the Forest of Dean. Do you remember that morning, when I woke up, and we sat outside by the river? And you suggested that we should just stay here together.” He swallowed. “Grow old together.”

Hermione had forgotten that moment, but she now recalled that feeling of utter despair, as if the war were truly hopeless. Harry was all that was left in her world, and she had wished that they could just escape together and never have worries again. For weeks, she had felt like he had—that it was and would only be the two of them, and there was part of her that had idle fantasies about living her life together with Harry. That was the one time when she had let it slip out.

His arm wrapped up around her closely once more, as his hand idly began to trace along her arm again. “I never thought of growing old, Hermione. It’s funny to say that, but I never expected to. There was some part of me that might fantasize about a career, and then I’d think of Voldemort and just assume I’d be dead before I ever had a chance. But I remember sitting outside here in the snow, and for the first time thinking what it might be like. I’d never thought about living a full life, growing old.”

She sighed and pulled herself closer to his side again, saddened to think that he felt this way for years. He went on, “I never got close to anyone, partly because I didn’t want them to get hurt, too. If I died… well, I just couldn’t let anyone else suffer. But that day, with you, I allowed myself to consider it just for a few moments. I thought of leaving the war and—I don’t know—building a cabin here in the woods, making our tent into a permanent place to live. The two of us would just spend our days fishing and exploring, and our nights sitting together by the fire, you curled up with some book.”

For Hermione, the fantasies never quite went that far. As Harry’s image came to life in her mind, she pictured a film she once saw as a small child with her mum. She couldn’t remember the title, but it had been about an English professor and his wife played by Katharine Hepburn coming out to a cabin in the wilderness every summer for decades. Though she couldn’t remember much about the film or the plot, the beauty of nature in there had inspired her, and the idea of a magical home out in the wilderness seemed wonderful.

And it was at that moment that Hermione realized something profound about herself and about why she needed Harry so desperately. Being with Harry felt like home. She hadn’t felt at home with her parents since perhaps her second year at Hogwarts, and while she loved her time at the Weasleys, their boisterous household just never felt like it suited her either. But when Hermione would see Harry after a long summer and run into his arms, to hold him close, it felt… like where she needed to be, like her world suddenly was at peace again. She almost laughed to herself at how ridiculous and overly romantic it sounded even in her mind. But taking care of Harry and being at his side was more than some mission—it was where she belonged.

Of course she wanted to grow old with him; it was simply absurd to imagine her life without him.

But Harry’s voice pulled her back from her reverie: “There was no one else left for me in the world, except you. All the other people who had cared for me—my parents, Sirius, Dumbledore—were dead. And the fact that you’d want to stay with me, even grow old with…”

Hermione pulled her arm tighter around his chest, as silence fell between them. Suddenly it all made sense, why Harry had come inside that day last winter with her, abandoning his watch, and held her for hours as they sat around her bluebell flames while she tended his wounds. It explained why they had finally given into the closeness both of them so desperately wanted, no… needed.

“And then Ron showed up,” Harry said briskly, as if breaking some spell and watching a beautiful vision dissipate into the mist. “And everything went back to the way it was. Those momentary thoughts just made me more determined to fight, to live, to… see you live everyday. And even if I died, you couldn’t. Ron and you—I vowed you’d have a peaceful life and grow old with...” His voice drifted off, and the two of them lay in perfect stillness for a long time, listening to the now gentle trickling of rain down outside, interrupted by the occasional whistle of the wind as it shook the fly of their tent.

Hermione had always known Harry cared for her, but he had never vocalized anything like this aloud. She was sure the darkness gave him a place to hide; she could never imagine him speaking like this to her face. And she needed to show him how much she cared as well, but struggled to find a way: they were already huddled so close. Still, she leaned her head up and moved to kiss his cheek, but at that moment—perhaps to say something else to her in the utter gloom and blackness that surrounded them—he had chanced to tilt his own head toward hers.

Her lips landed half on his cheek and half on his mouth. The unexpected softness registered in an instant, and she felt him immediately stop breathing and tense up. Hermione pulled back from him, moving her leg off of his. Oh god, she thought. She hadn’t meant to, and he obviously didn’t respond. Had she read everything he had done wrong? Thinking back, she realized he seemed to hesitate at almost every step that brought them closer during the past day.

The physical contact with him for hours that night had made her feel almost drugged. Her mind started spinning about her scant knowledge of neurochemistry—endorphins and oxytocin, which were released by bonding and cuddling together. Had she had allowed them to cloud her judgment, to push Harry into this? Was he just holding her like this because it was her birthday, because he felt guilty about those weeks of neglect last year, because he simply wanted her to know he cared? He was, as always, the dutiful best friend. The one she could never live without.

And now, she had accidentally half-kissed him?

“Harry,” she stammered, “I didn’t mean to… I’m sor—“

“Let’s… let’s just go back to sleep.” He turned slightly, not pulling away from her completely, but clearly disengaging from their earlier physical connection.

Oh god, oh god, oh god. If she could just see his face, to know what he was thinking in the darkness. She could ask him… But what else was there to say? She had misread him, mistaken their closeness tonight for something else. It was as simple as that. Harry cared about—even loved—her deeply. She understood that now. Just not that kind of love.

She turned again on her side away from him, profoundly embarrassed, and tried desperately not to make any noise and to lie still, even as her eyes grew watery and her insides began to heave. She managed to keep it under control for a couple minutes as her mind raced. It would be enough, she tried to say to herself. Of course it would be enough. Harry held her earlier that night like he did because he loved her, because they were best friends. Maybe they could keep being—what? Best friends who cuddle in bed together sometimes? Was that something people could do? They had been there for each other in every other way, so why not this? Her mind drifted back to what it had felt like to be wrapped up in his arms, his whole body around her. He didn’t take much prodding… she was sure he liked the intimacy and this new physical closeness too.

But her fantasy was cut short as she realized it would eventually have to end. Half of the witches in Britain were happy to throw themselves at Harry. Sooner or later, he’d find someone—someone undoubtedly much more beautiful than she was, more athletic and suited to his interests. And, like Ginny, that person would not understand Hermione’s connection with Harry. The cuddling would cease.

As that thought passed through her mind, the tears threatened to come again, and she couldn’t help making a quiet sniffle, causing Harry to turn a bit toward her again and put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m here,” he said simply.

Those were the same words she said to him months ago, on the day he had unexpectedly come back to life. Maybe he thought she was upset again about Malfoy Manor. Maybe he actually understood what she was really thinking about right now. She didn’t know, and as much as she wanted to shriek aloud from her emotional torment—or yell out her love for him and demand answers from him—she held it all inside, afraid of what his response would be. She even briefly thought about breaking their no-magic pact, casting a Lumos to see his face, or even apparating them somewhere where they could talk about this more clearly. But it would be so, so much worse to hear him outright reject her, and she couldn’t handle that right now. What more was there to say, really?

Another sniffle escaped, as she took a deep breath. Harry’s hand, which hadn’t left her shoulder, rubbed gently as he said, “Hey… I’m here. Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” she managed to get out, trying to breath normally again. She desperately wanted to say more to him, but now wasn’t the time.

And then Harry turned toward her again, wrapping his arm over her while keeping his hand on her shoulder. He didn’t come as close as he had been earlier, but he did settle in behind her again, his chest partly against her back, keeping his arm around her.

It would be enough, Hermione thought to herself again. A mere day or two ago, she would have leapt for joy to have this sort of affection from Harry, to know how much he cared. A few more breaths came in ragged bursts until she forced herself to calm again. She realized many people looked their entire lives for a friendship like she had with Harry. It was more than enough.

She reached up with her right hand and clasped Harry’s hand on her shoulder. He surprised her by threading his fingers through hers again. With that little gesture—a gesture that the two of them often had repeated in so many forms over the years—she realized that they would probably be fine. They had fought Voldemort together; surely their friendship could survive one accidental kiss. And maybe someday they wouldn’t be able to snuggle together like this—she pondered, as she held his hand close, while feeling fatigue settle in again—but that day wasn’t tonight. Tonight, he had chosen to be with her, and she was still held in his arms. And surely, right now, that was all that mattered.