Chapter 1 : Truth, Reborn
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Hermione's voice cut through the internal battle he was waging with himself. He'd gone off to... well, to hide on the grounds, no sense in lying to himself--and when solitude didn't ease the anger and frustration, he'd graduated to throwing things. He supposed that, on reflection, the desire to be alone didn't track well with the need to break things, as the latter tended to be rather loud.
Harry lifted his head, waiting. Hermione hadn't spoken another word, but somehow he knew that she wouldn't simply move on, as Ron might have done. He wondered why it wasn't surprising to him that she could be so keen to answer questions in class--so anxious to offer up solutions in dangerous situations--yet so patient when it came to their friendship. She would wait... and his guilt mounted as he waited as well, until he couldn't take it anymore.
"I'm here," he said, curtly. Patient or not, sometimes he felt she was relentless when it came to trying to help him, and today he was very much against the notion of being helped. Harry focused on standing as still as possible as she drew near to him, her face blanching slightly at the wreckage of splintered wood and damaged plant life at his feet.
"I suppose it's a good thing you were raised as a Muggle," she said dryly, and Harry blushed. She was right--it hadn't even occurred to him that he could have used his wand to create this sort of destruction, though he didn't think it could possibly have been as satisfying.
"Though, I suppose it wouldn't have been as effective," she added after a pause, mirroring his own conclusions.
"You shouldn't be here," Harry said, almost cruelly. "We might be accused of having an illegal meeting."
"Oh, Harry," Hermione said in a sad voice. "Those sorts of things are what Prof--that Umbridge woman would want us to think--to question things that in any other situation would be quite natural!" She moved to stand in front of him, stepping gingerly over the crushed tree branch he'd been pelting with rocks. Harry found that he couldn't look away from her, though there was nothing demanding in her demeanor, just more calm, implacable patience. Harry wanted to be angry about this, felt that he ought to find her behavior infuriating, and he tried to express these expected, missing emotions.
"I want to blame--ugh, I'm just so furious with--"
"Professor Dumbledore did everything he could to protect us!" Hermione broke in, defending his mentor passionately, but Harry dropped his head, shaking it in defeat.
"It's not him I'm angry with--she might have known this would happen!" he said, clenching his fists tightly and realizing to his surprise that he was still holding one of the stones he'd been throwing earlier.
"You mean Mariet--ohh... Cho," Hermione said softly, and he could see her take a tiny step toward him, reaching out as if in comfort, but she stopped short of touching his shoulder. As he watched her, his head still bowed, he could see her opening her mouth and closing it again a few times, as though trying to find the right way to phrase something. He would have to lift his head to see the expression on her face, however, and Harry wasn't inclined to observe her pity just then. He shifted his glance, staring intently at his feet, instead.
"Harry," Hermione finally managed to say, "were you--I mean, did she..." she stopped, sighed, and without looking he could almost see the expression on her face--determination, sadness, a little insecurity. "Did she break your heart?" she finally asked, in a very small voice.
Harry started--this wasn't at all what he'd been expecting her to ask, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to answer her, not so suddenly, not here in the midst of a school crisis, not without a backup plan of how to react if he said the wrong thing. He squeezed the rock in his hand, thinking, and he'd stared at it for nearly a full minute before comprehending the message his clenched fist was relaying in the stretched, agitated skin.
'I Must Not Tell Lies.'
Harry laughed, not loudly, but it was enough to startle his companion into the beginnings of a hasty and red-faced apology. He lifted his head, as well as the hand with the rock, dropping it quickly when he saw Hermione's eyes widen.
"I'm sorry," he said, reaching out his injured hand in the same gesture she'd made earlier, this time making contact with her shoulder and squeezing it gently. She was trembling.
"No, I'm sorry--really, I-I shouldn't have asked--"
"Not really," he said, trying to soothe her and failing miserably, as at these words, she froze up completely. Harry saw his mistake instantly, and instinctively reached out his other arm to steady her, keep her from running away before he managed to patch up his stupidity.
"I meant that as an answer," he said, awkwardly. "Please don't leave."
"Harry..." She sounded uncertain, and it occurred to him that she hardly ever sounded uncertain--and he didn't want to be the one to do that to her, no matter what it cost him personally. He hadn't planned on telling her what had made him chuckle at seeing the words on his hand, but right now he thought he'd probably do just about anything to stop her from looking at him like that.
"There's really only one person that could do that, break... well, you know," he said, blushing a bit as he realized his hands were actually on her shoulders--that he was almost holding her, albeit loosely. "I'd figured it wasn't that sort of caring, before Cho, but when I saw that she--Cho, I mean--wasn't going to stop being friends with..." he paused to catch his breath, noting with relief that she wasn't staring at him as though he'd grown additional limbs, or anything. "What she did--it didn't hurt like I'd thought it would," he admitted finally. "Not like if it had been... the other person, I mean." Harry realized that he'd been barely breathing through that little speech, and he looked up at the trees above them to take a deep breath.
"Oh," Hermione said. Her voice sounded hollow, and he was startled when she twisted out of his grip and backed away from him a few steps. "You mean Ginny then, of course," she said with more certainty, the color rushing to her cheeks as she lifted her chin and looked him in the eye.
Harry knew he wasn't good at this sort of thing, but he suspected that her bravery had less to do with her embarrassment than she was letting on. This was the Hermione he was used to--the one who said what she thought and did so with confidence--false confidence, if need be.
"Not Ginny, actually," he said, almost cheerfully.
Now she looked a bit angry; she narrowed her eyes at him and shook her head. "Harry... now you're just--"
"It's you," he blurted out before he could stop himself. Her reaction was immediate, if confusing.
"I--ohh..." Hermione said, stomping her foot in renewed fury. "If you'd wanted me to leave you alone, all you needed to do--"
"You think I'm lying?" Harry said, his temper rising again at her unexpected reaction. He'd kept his feelings to himself, sure that he just admired her intelligence, that all it had been was a childhood crush on his best friend that would be swept away by someone like Cho, who hadn't known him since he was eleven--pushed aside by someone who'd known him only as a young man, someone fanciable. Now he'd gone and told her and she didn't believe him!
Harry took three very determined steps toward Hermione--and promptly tripped over the twisted pieces of tree branch that lay between them. Without so much as an instant's pause, Hermione darted forward, managing to wrap her arms around his torso in a vain attempt to keep him standing, but his momentum was too great. Harry had just enough presence of mind to twist around, slightly, so that he would land first, cushioning her fall. The dry ground was barren of snow, but their sudden collapse had caused quite a few dead leaves and other detritus to kick up in a cloud around them, giving the embarrassing fall a kind of otherworldly quality. As the landscape settled around them, Harry looked at Hermione, whose hair was peppered with twigs and moss, whose face was suffused with the same blush he could feel on his own cheeks--and who had landed directly on top of him, with her arms tangled up in his.
"Now who's thinking like a Muggle?" he teased gently. Just as he had, Hermione had reacted physically, not magically. Instead of scrambling off of him like he'd expected, however, Hermione let out a little groan and laid her forehead down on his chest to laugh ruefully. "Hermione?" Harry said, trying not to think about how enjoyable it was to be this close to her, to feel her laughter rather than simply hearing it. She didn't answer, and he repeated her name.
"Oh," she said, popping her head back up and looking at him in concern, the redness of her cheeks flaring up intensely. "You're not lying on a branch, or--"
"No, nothing like that," he said, smiling. "I just wanted you to look at my hand."
Hermione looked at him, her brow furrowed in confusion, and he twitched the hand in question, as it was resting beneath her forearm in the same position they had fallen in. She shot him another look, of the sort that he figured he and Ron had sent each other quite often on the days she had been particularly enthusiastic about S.P.E.W., but she shifted positions, lifting his right hand to look at it as he'd directed.
"'I Must Not Tell Lies,'" she said softly, undercurrents of anger as well as confusion in her voice, the former of which he knew to be directed at Professor Umbridge, not at him. "Harry," she began, but he cut her off, moving his scarred hand swiftly to grasp hers.
"I'm not about to start, either," he said, nodding at the words.
"Harry," she said again, doubt and censure evident in her tone.
"Honestly, Hermione--this can't be harder than Ancient Runes," he said in frustration.
"You'd be surprised," Hermione retorted quickly, with a hint of a smile that was ruthlessly suppressed when she saw him noticing it.
"Well," Harry said heatedly, "if you don't feel the same way, let me up and we'll go back to the castle and--"
"Hang on a moment," she said, pulling her hand from his and propping herself up so as to look at him on eye level. "I don't recall there being any sort of a declaration of feelings."
It was Harry's turn to blush furiously.
"Yes there was!" he protested, lifting his tortured hand. "There were props, and everything..." His voice trailed off as she raised an eyebrow. Suddenly extremely embarrassed, Harry attempted to struggle to his feet, but Hermione's body atop his rendered him effectively immobile.
"You were saying?"
"I like you," Harry mumbled, wondering just how an angry walk in the woods had led to his admitting this particular revelation.
"Really?" she asked, almost shyly. "You aren't just--"
Harry decided that, as carried away as he was in the moment, he had to be realistic.
She was never going to stop talking.
Harry buried his free hand in Hermione's hair and, before she could finish her denials, he pulled her close to him and kissed her, tasting the shock on her lips as he felt the softness of her hair against his face. The rough bits of leaves and twigs left trails of sharp sensation along his neck and arm as she leaned into the kiss; this was nothing like Cho--no guilt, no tears, just happiness and relief and 'ohpleaseletthisnotbeadream.' Her small hand came up to thread through the hair at his neck, and just at that moment, an owl hooted above them and the shock of the sound pulled them apart.
He thought to himself, 'This is it--this is when she'll realize what I've just done and shut off, turn away, and I'll have ruined everything.' Hermione did not turn away, however. She had lifted her head to search for the source of the bird call, but soon looked back at him with a soft smile. She then surprised him by reaching down to kiss him gently on his lightning-bolt scar before getting slowly to her feet, reaching out her hand to help him up with that determined look on her face that he loved so much. Once he'd risen to his feet, Harry opened his mouth to speak, unsure of what exactly he could say that would preserve the moment.
"Don't be daft, Harry," Hermione said before he could come up with anything; her tone was exactly the same as she generally used when explaining some obvious-to-her-but-not-to-him school assignment. "Of course I feel the same way!" She stepped close to him, leaning in as though testing the waters for a possible second kiss before gasping something nearly incoherent about the time and starting back toward the castle, fairly dragging Harry along with her by their still-joined hands.
Harry's only regret was that he was unable to retrieve the rock he'd been holding when he'd decided to tell her how he felt, but he decided that night, as he tried to calm down enough to sleep, that the best reminder he had was etched onto his hand for all to see.
He doubted Umbridge would appreciate the irony of such a terrible punishment being reborn into a token of love, but that simply made the day all the more enjoyable. Harry drifted off to sleep for the first time in months with his scarred hand resting on the outside of the blanket, at last, unashamed.