The portrait was nearly twenty feet tall. Harry looked up at it and wanted to be physically sick. It was a fairly accurate rendering, except for the one, glaring mistake in the detail that had Harry's insides roiling. He was there, well depicted. Stockier and stronger than in reality, but he wasn't about to correct that. Voldemort was there too, his slit-like red eyes unsettlingly real. It was the moment of his defeat, that momentous point in time that in a few hours witches and wizards from all over the country would arrive at Hogwarts to celebrate, reflected in magical paint and ink.
What Harry couldn't stomach were the actions of his moving facsimile.
It was casting a spell with an acid green tail. Harry didn't want this on display at all.
"That wasn't how it happened," he'd protested when the portrait first arrived. "I didn't -"
"Everyone knows that," said Alexandra Woodhouse, the artist, abruptly cutting him off. "This is just dramatic reinterpretation. Happens all the time. It just looks better. And its only for one night. People wont notice the finer details."
Harry wasn't so sure. As he considered the painting, standing where the teachers' high table normally was, he greatly doubted this assertion. It was the centrepiece of the room, an altar for reverence and celebration. Everyone would be looking at it. Worse still, a small side table had been placed next to it, with a large ledger propped open on a stand and a handsome eagle-feather quill and inkpot for company. A Book of Thanks. For everyone to scribble their words of appreciation. For Harry. A memento of his victory.
As though he wanted to remember it forever.
He shuddered as he thought of it. They'd want him to sit nearby, he was sure of that. As much on display as the huge painting. People would be queueing to shake his hand, maybe ask for an autograph, or worse. He'd already had two marriage proposals from witches he'd never met. And then people would want him to recount the event, relive the battle again and again. Maybe even make a speech. Oh, they would definitely expect a speech. As though he had suddenly become a great orator since he'd committed a murder. They'd look to him for all sorts of things. But they'd have to look a long time.
Because Harry intended to be a long way away by the time any of this happened.
It had taken a few days to get things in order. His few possessions didn't take long to pack. Most of his clothes were still at Privet Drive, stored in his trunk since the end of his sixth year at Hogwarts. He'd mail ordered some new Muggle things, he'd need them where he was going. These were now stashed neatly away in a magically-modified man-bag (they were all the fashion, apparently) along with anything of value Harry had left in his dorm at Hogwarts. His Firebolt was there, too, lying on his bed next to the silvery Invisibility Cloak he'd inherited from his father, and a wad of Muggle money.
Everything was ready. Harry could leave right now.
But he was waiting for something. The moment was fast approaching, Harry knew that. He felt there was another loose end he had to tie up, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was. He hoped the realisation would just come to him when the time was right. So for now he just meandered around the castle, watching the final preparations for the party being put into place.
Party. Harry spat at the notion. It would be more fitting for a memorial. Harry might have stayed for that. A remembrance service for those who had died in this struggle against darkness. Those who had pointlessly given their lives when it was Harry's task in the end. It had always been his task. Written in prophecy, set in destiny. Why had anyone else even bothered? Why had they raised their wands? Why hadn't Harry just been better for them, or Dumbledore more active in his pursuit of the Dark Lord?
And Harry felt sick again.
He closed his eyes, fighting back another surge of bitterness. Against Voldemort, against Dumbledore, against himself and his lot in life. It should have been so much easier, so much more straight forward than this. Harry had analysed it all deeply in the aftermath. Voldemort had been little more than vapour for eleven years. A shadow, a half-ghost, nothing to threaten until he shared a body with Quirrell. Dumbledore should have hunted him, picked him off. It would have been child's play for a wizard like Dumbledore.
But just like with Grindlewald, he showed disinterest bordering on cowardess. And Harry was made to suffer for this passivity.
And it angered him now. Now that reality was settling on him, now that he could see only a bleak, lonely future ahead. Dumbledore had to shoulder much of this blame. He knew about the Horcruxes. For eleven years. Why didn't he go after them, so sure in his assertion that Voldemort would return some day? Why wait, be so reactionary? Was he waiting to see what would happen, in case Voldemort had changed his ways? He had that irksome Defence Against the Dark Arts post to constantly fill, after all. And who would make a more informed Professor than Tom Riddle in such an area?
And speaking of Defence teachers, why the hell didn't he tackle Quirrell himself once he suspected him? Why be all coy, and have Snape keep an eye on him? He should have just unmasked him and dealt with Voldemort personally. Surely that was worthy of his attention. Harry clenched his jaw at the thought. He'd gone after Quirrell as soon as he knew what was afoot, hadn't he. Granted, he thought it was Snape he was after, but he went anyway without a second thought. A boy, taking on a man's fight. And it was a task that nearly killed him and his friends.
Fucking Dumbledore. Passive old coot. Afraid of power because, for one summer when he was seventeen, he thought about subjugating humanity...okay maybe there was something it that. But still, not all responsibility was quite so grandiose. And he had gone into teaching, shaping the lives of hundreds of children who would pass under his care. Harry could think of fewer roles with more responsibility, more chance of shaping the world in one man's image.
But he hadn't bothered to use his immense power for anything useful. He didn't even kill Grindlewald, just took his wand and shut him up in a prison for Voldemort to find him later. At least Harry had the good sense to actually kill Voldemort, get rid of the evil bastard for good. It had been a clean job, no matter how much the moral ambiguity was now wracking at his senses.
But it needn't have been like that, so long and drawn out, so affecting. Harry thought he might eventually be able to acclimatise to the murder part of it. Maybe compartmentalise it. It was necessary, it had to be done. There was no two ways about it. And if fate, destiny and all that crap deemed that he was the one who had to do it, then he really had little choice, no matter how fucked up it was and to hell with the damage it would do his his body and his psyche. And his chance of a peaceful, happy future.
But there was no need for the complexity of it, if competent people had just stepped up to the plate. It needn't to have even been Dumbledore himself. He could have passed the job on, spread the burden around. Got the Aurors to actually do something useful. Because from where Harry was sat they were a pretty fucking amateurish bunch.
Pack of tossers.
Look how easy it had been for Voldemort to take over. It was a piece of piss. He didn't even have to try that hard. He didn't even have to show his ugly face until the end. And look how everyone simply accepted it! Magic Is Might, the Muggleborn Register, Umbridge as Minister, scorning and hunting Harry again for a whole bloody year! The most undesirable man in the country.
And nobody had done a fucking thing.
Anyone who might of just sat on their arses and waited for Harry to show up and save the day. What they expected him to do was beyond him. They knew him, knew his capabilities and his limits. He had only done six years of school, and if it wasn't for Hermione's constant help he might not have managed that. He'd never thanked her properly for it. He should, he would, when he next saw her. It might be the last time, after all...
So he only had six years of schooling, in which time he had only had one half-decent Dark Arts teacher and had attended a Duelling Class just once, and that was in his second flaming year. And he'd done one spell. Oh, and scared the bollocks off everyone by speaking to a snake.
Voldemort must have been shitting himself at facing such an opponent.
But everyone expected him to suddenly be Voldemort's equal after he disappeared into the country. Did they think he'd gone underground? Found some wizarding military school and been tooled up to come out, wand blazing? They all wanted him to be the hero they'd built him up to be, to become the reputation and the legend. So they sat and waited for him while Voldemort, behind a mask of equally dark witches and wizards in Wizard Government that nobody challenged, silently and easily took over. Then, when Harry did re-emerge, he managed to beat Voldemort and brought to fruition everyone's expectations, made flesh their hopes. He was their hero.
But Harry knew better.
It was luck, blind luck that won the day. Harry was sat in the Great Hall looking at the spot where it happened, that giant, inaccurate reminder looming just to the right of it. He'd cast a Disarming Charm, a defensive spell. He hadn't attacked. He didn't know the spells would collide and rebound. It was only now that he thought how fortunate it was that Voldemort's spell had gone right back at him, as his own spell ricocheted off in another direction. Essentially, old Tom had actually killed himself. Just like the first time.
Harry hadn't done anything at all, really.
It didn't make him feel any better about being a murderer. He cast the spell that caused it, it was still his fault. It was his hands that had blood on them, that had caused a death. He looked at them in his lap, as though trying to see the residue itself. Voldemort's life, taken by that skin, those digits. And not just once. Three times. As a baby, when he stabbed the diary, and then the final piece itself. Three times a killer.
And they wanted to revere him for it.
It bothered Harry greatly that they weren't toasting the others, only vaunting him. When other people had contributed just as much. Especially Ron and Hermione. One Horcrux each. Neville doing the snake. Dumbledore was owed a piece, as he took care of the ring. Harry thought bitingly that it was better than nothing, but still he should have done more. Even Crabbe had a share. Or was it Goyle? Harry couldn't remember which one of those retarded morons had cast the fire spell which took out the diadem. None of these people were being put on such a lofty pedestal.
No, it was just Harry, the only one of them who actually took a life. And the act was going to cost him his own. He knew that surely as he did his right from his left. Not in a stop breathing, no pulse sort of way. But in that other, more ephemeral definition. Harry's life wouldn't be worthy of the name. He pondered the nomadic existence he was about to embark upon, vaguely chewing over where he would go and what he would do with himself. The possibilities were endless, the choice so vast it was frightening to face such an uncertain road. But Harry was set on taking it.
And taking it alone.
The lights from the Entrance Hall flickered out into the dwindling light. The long days of Summer were already beginning to draw in. The sun was dipping behind the mountains, the last of its blood orange glow rippling on the surface of the lake. There was a light breeze, tickling the leaves of trees and sweeping across the skin of the people walking through the grounds of Hogwarts.
Hermione was trying to take a head count. Or at least a head guess. There were dozens, maybe a hundred. And that was just on the path towards the school. From the noise coming from inside half the wizarding population seemed to have shown up. She couldn't really blame them. It promised to be a special night. Hermione had bought a lovely new dress just for the occasion.
Ron had been appreciative enough. There was a palpable awkwardness between them. It had been there since they'd met for pre-drinks at the Three Broomsticks. In fact, Hermione considered now that it always seemed to be there. But this was natural, she had convinced herself of that. Her first boyfriend, her first romantic relationship. And with someone she'd been best friends with for years.
It was bound to be a bit weird at first, wasn't it?
Having Ron looking at her in that way, in her new dress, was certainly weird. It made her feel oddly exposed, nude even, to be goggled at in such a manner. She supposed she should be flattered. A boyfriend should ogle the girl on his arm, fantasise over her, shouldn't he? It would be strange if he didn't. But Hermione didn't feel flattered. She felt objectified and not in a positive way. If there was such a thing. More than once she'd surreptitiously tugged her neckline up when Ron wasn't looking.
Not that he'd noticed.
They were making their way along the path towards the school. Hermione was scanning the crowd for familiar faces. The other Weasley's were just ahead of them. Hermione had barely been able to look at them when they'd met up. The memories of the disaster night with her parents were still raw and vivid. She felt this might have added to the awkwardness with Ron. She shifted a bit as she thought that. Added to. As though the awkwardness were a reservoir that could be topped up. Always there, bobbing below her skin. That was an uncomfortable sensation. It settled ill on her mind.
She noticed her grip on Ron's arm loosen reflexively. She had a spiking urge to let go of him altogether, startled by how much she wanted to. But at that moment Ron gripped her tighter, as though to make up the shortfall. Her mind was now focused intently on the contact between them and she felt an odd, darkly disquieting feeling flood through her.
She didn't want him touching her.
Where had that come from? It was the first time she'd ever thought anything like it since they'd started going out. But now it had happened she found she couldn't unthink it. She was deeply upset by it. She felt as though something had broken in her. She tried to imagine him kissing her again, touching her in private ways. She had always thrilled at the ideas before.
But now they made her vomit a little in her mouth.
She pushed hard at the thoughts, to drive them away. But it was no good. They were taking residence in her brain, pulling up chairs for the duration. She desperately wanted to forget the sensation, for things to go back to how they had been. She'd been happy back then. Well, she thought she'd been. Hadn't she been happy, to finally have what she wanted?
She had thought it would have been better, she couldn't deny that. Without any of this pervading awkwardness. She always imagined her anger, her upset, the agony that consumed her so when she endured those months watching Ron fornicating all over Gryffindor Tower with Lavender Brown, would be transformed to elation when she finally got the boy herself.
But it hadn't quite worked out that way. Not yet, anyway. Hermione told herself that it would, reminded herself that she knew the first few months would be like this. She had expected it. She was resolute in the belief that as soon as Ron got over the childish, adolescent approach to the relationship and started taking it seriously that all would be well. That as soon as he stopped giggling every time he poked her boobs, or when he started caressessing her bum - rather than kneading it like a troll making pizza dough - that everything else would just fall into place.
She'd have rathered their first kiss be a bit more romantic. It wasn't a memory she was likely to treasure. The Chamber of Secrets had stunk of dead basilisk. Dead, six-years-in-the-rotting basilisk at that. The stench had stuck in their throats. Hermione could still taste it now. And the schools waste pipes ran through there, and not all of the ancient plumbing was in great nick. Hermione remembered being dripped on when Ron kissed her. It might have been piss. Or worse, it could have been the other.
Hermione tasted more vomit as she remembered the moment.
Luckily they were now entering the school. They had to surrender to a search and bag-check. It allowed Hermione to finally disentangle herself from Ron's vice-like grip. She didn't intend to let him renew it later. Once through the security checks Hermione was able to blend in with the flow of the crowd, Ron right behind her. It wasn't practical to hold onto each other and Hermione was glad of the excuse.
The Hall was packed, so crammed full of people it was already uncomfortably hot. It was difficult to see how they'd all fitted into the space. It didn't help that a dancefoor had been erected off to one side, along with a bandstand at which The Weird Sisters were conducting sound checks. Hermione spotted Neville and waved. His grandmother was with him, looking as fierce as ever.
"We're right at the front," said Ginny coming up behind them. "A table right near the stage. Should be great."
Yeah, we wont be able to hear ourselves think, Hermione considered bitterly. But she allowed Ron to place his hand on the small of her back and guide her across the room. She tried not to recoil from his touch, though every fibre of her being was encouraging her to do so.
Then she saw it.
A giant painting, easily twenty foot high and wide, dominating the far end of the room. They were all looking at it. It showed Harry defeating Voldemort. Hermione frowned. It showed Harry using the Killing Curse on him. That wasn't how it happened. Harry wouldn't like that. She felt angry for him. She wanted to shut up the people looking admiringly at his depiction. What did they know about anything?
"Oh dear, Harry really wont like that," Hermione said to the others.
"Oh I don't know," said Ron, grinning. "They've given him proper muscles. He'd love that."
"He had pretty decent muscles anyway," said Ginny somewhat dreamily. "Quidditch kept him well in trim."
Hermione didn't like hearing Ginny say that. She couldn't say why, she just didn't. It didn't sit well with her. She frowned again.
"Where is the Boy Wonder anyway?" asked George, who had joined them. "Didn't think he'd waste a minute milking this."
Hermione snapped around and scowled at him. She hadn't meant to, but it was reactionary. Something powerful rose in her chest, something protective.
"Harry would not milk this!" she cried passionately. "In fact, I think he would probably hate it."
She knew he would. Without doubt. He had never courted fame, or revelled in it when it found him. She looked around for him now, a desperate urge to shield him from all this. From the stares and the questions and the demands. He wouldn't be able to deal with it on his own. He needed her.
But where was he?
She couldn't see him, and he was hard to miss. His messy hair untameable even by magic. In any case, people would be clumped around him, smothering him, encasing him if they knew where he was. Hermione felt her heart beat anxiously as she imagined the scene. She would help him, if only she knew where he was, suffering on his own.
"Whoa, go easy Hermione," Ron said, cutting into her growing sense of despair. She'd forgotten he was there. "George didn't mean that as a dig."
Hermione couldn't see Harry at the bottom of any mass pile-on in the room, so she breathed a sigh of relief and dragged herself back to the conversation.
"I know, I'm just worried about Harry. Has anyone seen him?"
"Herms, we've only just got here," Ron pointed out fairly.
Hermione wished he wouldn't call her that. It made her sound like an STD.
"Then shouldn't we go and find him?" she implored.
"He'll be along," said Ron. "Probably just putting the finishing touches to his speech!"
A speech? Oh, no, they wouldn't make him do that, would they? Of course they would. Poor Harry! Hermione chided herself. Why hadn't she been up before now? She could have helped him, kept him company at the very least. But she'd ignored him. She felt a terrible friend in that moment. Her heart hammered furiously as a desire to make it up to Harry coursed through her. It was powerful stuff.
"I'll just grab us some drinks, babe," said Ron. He kissed her cheek. "You look great tonight, you know?"
Hermione gave a half-smile and watched Ron leave. As soon as he was swallowed by the crowd Hermione took off in the other direction. She craned her neck over the heads of the throng, looking for the right one. Harry wasn't here, she was certain of that. There wasn't the buzz of excitement around the room that would have accompanied the star turn. She wasn't cheered by that.
But she was only half-looking for Harry. Like Ron said, he would turn up eventually and she would be here for him when he did. But she had other business to attend to as well. After a few minutes of being jostled by the swelling numbers, Hermione spotted her quarry. She pushed her way through the mass of witches and wizards towards her.
Professor McGonagall was sensibly standing outside the Great Hall, ushering people in and looking mildly concerned at the crush within. She and Professor Flitwick flanked the doors like sentries. Hermione made her way to them and took a recovering breath as she left the Hall.
"Quite an ordeal, this crowd," said Professor McGonagall. "It is nice to see you, Miss Granger."
"And you Professor," said Hermione. "Professors"
"Good evening, Miss Granger," Flitwick squeaked. "Glad you could make it."
"Well I didn't want to be the odd witch out," said Hermione sardonically. "Is there any magic person not here?"
McGonagall smiled. "There may be a few stuck in the Outer Hebrides."
Hermione grinned back. "Um...Professor, do you have a minute? I'd like to ask you about something."
"Of course," said McGonagall. "Let's step away from this tide."
She led Hermione away from the Entrance Hall and to the Main Staircase, where both sat down. Hermione looked around. Most of the damage of the battle had been repaired but there was still some sections held up by scaffolding and cordoned off. Professor McGonagall followed Hermione's line of sight.
"Repairing the castle has not been easy. There is magical protection in the fibre of the bricks and mortar. Replacing it and recasting the enchantments is taking longer than any of us would have liked."
"What sorts of enchantments?"
"Anti-cheat spells on the examination rooms," McGonagall explained. "The No Male Access Charms on the staircases to all the girls dormitories, the Anti-Disapparition Jinxes, that sort of thing. We want to try and make them stronger than they were. You never can be too careful. But with the new term so close to starting I wonder if we'll get it all done in time."
"Well there isn't an immediate threat, is there?" said Hermione. "There isn't an imperative rush to make it safe."
McGonagall looked at Hermione, her expression a little disappointed. "I would have thought you a little more clever than to think that, Miss Granger. Now that Voldemort is gone, there is a void to take up, and clearly supporters to garner. There will always be wizards and witches who will succumb to the pull of darkness. Which is why we need to get back to safety for when students return here in a couple of weeks."
"That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about," said Hermione. "With...well, everything that happened, I obviously didn't get to do my seventh year, and I'd really like to. I want to finish, to graduate. I know I'm a bit older, but do you think there's anyway I could return and do my last year?"
Professor McGonagall looked sternly at her, stern but respectful again. "Your commitment to learning is admirable, Miss Granger, but there really is little need. There are plans in place to give you an honorary graduation, with high distinctions of course. To reflect your contribution to the war, and your considerable academic skill. Mister Potter and Mister Weasley are to be granted similar."
"But I'd really like to come back and earn it," said Hermione. "I'd feel such a fake if I had only an honorary diploma. Is there any way I can?"
McGonagall thought a moment. "Its unusual, but I can't see any reason why not. I'd have one condition, however."
"Alright," said Hermione, somewhat cautiously.
"I would have to insist on making you Head Girl," said McGonagall simply. "Dumbledore had you penned in for it anyway since the early days. And I can think of no better candidate, no one I would have setting a better example for the returning students."
Hermione blushed crimson and smiled warmly at the Headmistress.
"I'd be delighted, it would be my honour," said Hermione. She paused a moment. "But who will be Head Boy? Do you know yet? Did Dumbledore have anyone in mind?"
"His choice would have been Mister Potter, naturally," said Professor McGonagall. "He always wanted to pair you two together."
Hermione blushed harder at that. She felt her heart flutter girlishly as the words tiptoed around her head. Her and Harry together...imagine that?
But she couldn't, that was dangerous territory. She wished she could stop smiling at the idea though.
"He would have been my choice, too," Professor McGonagall continued, breaking Hermione from her wild reverie. "But I suppose there is little chance of him following your example and returning."
"I really wouldn't know," said Hermione. "I haven't seen Harry for weeks."
"Perhaps that's why he looks so morose," said Professor McGonagall. Hermione's stomach jolted at the words, the image. "He really has been unhappy. This whole affair has taken a terrible toll on him, not that I need tell you that."
She had to find Harry. Right now. She had to wind up this chat. She had what she wanted from it.
"Do you know where he is? What time he's planning to come down?" she asked.
"That's something I couldn't tell you," said McGonagall. "Mister Potter may have been resident here for the last month but he's kept very much to himself. I couldn't tell you the last time I spoke to him. He wouldn't have said much, whenever it was. Even Hagrid said he hasn't been the most conversational these past weeks. Not that I blame him. What a burden to carry."
"I'm going to see if I can find him," said Hermione jumping up, now a ball of potential energy. "Thanks for letting me come back, Professor. I'll see you later."
And she took off. Her heart was thudding anxiously. She wasn't sure why. It was as if she were running for a train she dared not miss, without knowing if it had left without her already. Then it hit her.
Harry might have left already.
She didn't know how she knew that he was planning to leave, but the idea wouldn't shift now it had occurred to her. He was going to slip away silently. That was his way, it was what he'd do. There'd be no long goodbyes, no cascade of arguments for him to change his mind. He'd take one last look at them, probably from afar, then spirit himself away before any of them had time to protest.
And hot tears came spilling out of Hermione's eyes at the notion.
She had to find him, had to see him, even if it was for one last time. She felt a sob escape her. She wouldn't allow that, wouldn't stand for it. There would not be a last time at all. Why had she even let such a ludicrous idea sweep her mind? Harry would always be there. Smiling and laughing and looking after her. Making her feel safe, as he always did. She'd never fully realised that, until now, when the security blanket that he embodied was about to be pulled from around her shoulders. She couldn't allow it. He couldn't leave her life, not just like that. Not without a fight. He had to still be here. He just had to be.
He wasn't in the owlery, the main hall or the dungeons. Hermione ticked off the locations in her mind like a game of cluedo. There were places he couldn't be, of course, like the other House Common Rooms, and places he would be daft to be, like the Forbidden Forest, the Whomping Willow or the boat house. He had no business there. Hermione hoped to find him at the Quidditch pitch, soaring around doing what he loved the most. Hermione did so love to watch him fly. It was the only time she saw such exhilaration on his face. It made him very handsome when that happened. Hermione had never told him that. Never told anyone it. It was her guilty little secret.
If Ron ever found out...
She tried not to think of Ron. He'd be going spare wondering where she was. After all, she'd been gone ages. But finding Harry was her imperative. But he wasn't playing Quidditch or flying either. Hermione even searched the stands. It would be a perfect place to escape. She went to check the changing rooms in case she'd just missed him. But Harry wasn't there. And he wasn't the only thing absent.
Hermione's heart stopped for a second, her gut lurching to the floor. She began to feel a genuine whir of panic in her mind.
Harry's Firebolt was missing.
His jersey was still there, pegged up next to the others of the Gryffindor Team. Their brooms were clipped onto the wall next to their individual changing space. The same was true of all the other House Teams. But Harry's was missing. Someone had taken it. A horrible realisation came crashing into Hermione's mind.
He's taken it. He's gone.
No! She couldn't take it, couldn't believe it. He must still be here. He wouldn't do this to her. Not to her. He'd easily cast everyone else aside, even Ron. But he wouldn't abandon her to the world without so much as a wave. He had to still be here.
Hermione was vaulting the staircase to the Gryffindor Boys dormitory before she even knew it. She'd never run so fast, so needily in all her life. She barely remembered crossing the distance between the Quidditch pitch and here. But she had done it and she flung open the door to the top dormitory now, desperate to see a mess of black hair sitting inside.
But there wasn't. The room was empty.
In fact, it was worse than that. Harry's wardrobe and beside table were bare. The doors were still open. There was nothing there. The picture of his mum and dad was gone. That was the final death knell to Hermione's hopes. She sat on Harry's bed and gathered up his pillow, crying powerfully into the fabric. She couldn't believe how much she ached. How much she hurt. She didn't think she could ever feel this distraught. It meant something, she wasn't stupid to that fact, but she would attend to that later. For now she just wanted to mourn.
Harry might have died and it would have been easier.
The not knowing was killing her. Why had he gone so abruptly? Just left like that? He must be so torn up inside. The idea simply made Hermione sob that much harder. She ran over all the things she might have done, might have said, now and before. Things that might have made him better, made him stay. She didn't know what to do with herself. Guilt welled up and engulfed her, and a sorrow so deep and profound saturated her that she struggled for a good breath. She coughed and spluttered and thought she might be physically sick.
She needed air. She couldn't return to the Great Hall like this. She left the boys' dorm and headed out of the Common Room, but instead of turning down the stairs she made her way along the deserted corridors and headed for the Astronomy Tower. She had to clear her head. She walked sadly up the spiralling stairway and emerged onto the parapet. And her heart stopped again.
Because Harry was there, waiting for her.
Hermione looked at him for a few seconds, as though seeing a myth come true. Then she ran over and flung herself at him, snatching him into the tightest hug she had ever given. She was too overwhelmed to even cry again. Harry returned her hug warmly. She thought she could feel him smiling into her hair. She knew he hadn't felt anything positive for a while, and was telling her so in this hug. She didn't want to let him go.
But she did. She had to tell him off. "You scared me to death, you know. Where have you been?"
Harry wanted to laugh. Hermione looked borderline hysterical. His heart thawed a bit. He'd missed her.
"I thought you'd left me, you know...left all of us," Hermione went on. Why was she blushing? "Why aren't you downstairs? It wont do at all for the hero of the hour to miss his own party."
Harry's expression darkened. What had she done? Had she made him look like that? So downcast? A curse on her if she had. Harry let go of the remnants of her hug and moved to the low wall of the parapet.
"I'm not going down there," said Harry. His voice was cracked. It was broken. He was broken, maybe beyond repair. Hermione's heart bled at the sound. "They can celebrate without me."
"But you cant stay up here all night," said Hermione, knowing already the futility of what she was saying. She could tell in Harry's posture what he was going to do.
"I don't intend to do that, either," he said quietly. He turned to her. "I have to leave, Hermione. I have to get away from here, from all this. I know you'll understand."
Hermione's lip quivered. "No, Harry you cant. I can't let you. What am I going to do without you to cheer me up?"
Harry crossed to her and took her hands. "You'll be fine. You have Ron. You don't need me anymore."
"Don't be stupid, Harry," said Hermione, more forcefully than she'd meant. She suddenly realised how much she did need him. The realisation floored her. She felt unsteady on her feet.
"It wont be forever," said Harry. "I just have to get myself sorted. I cant do that here. There are just too many reminders. I have to get away for a while."
"But where will you go?"
"I don't honestly know. I'll see where the wind takes me, I suppose."
"I'll come with you," said Hermione.
For a second, Harry was tempted. Far more than he thought he would be. He chuckled to himself. He knew Hermione would offer to go with him, after she'd tried to make him stay. He hadn't wanted company for weeks, certainly hadn't wanted anyone to leave with him once he'd made the decision to go. But now Hermione was here, offering to, he thought it might be nice to take her with him. It would spare him the wrench of leaving her behind.
He knew then this was the final thread he'd been waiting to trim up. Of all the people in his life, Hermione was the only one he wanted to say goodbye to. It would be painfully hard, but he wanted her to see him off as he left, wanted her to be the last friendly face he saw. She gave him courage. She always did that.
But she couldn't come with him.
"No, you have to stay," said Harry. "This is where you should be, its where you belong."
"But what about you?"
"I don't know if I really belong anywhere anymore," said Harry. "Maybe there's somewhere out there that will change my mind. That's what I'm going to find out."
Hermione let a tear escape her this time. Harry was about to leave. She could feel it. And it was killing her, gnawing at her from the inside out. She wished she had the words that would change his mind, prayed for something to occur to her that would make him stay. She had a niggle that there was something that would work, but she couldn't take hold of it. Time was running out.
"How long will you be gone? When will I see you again?"
Harry sighed heavily. "I don't know. A few years maybe."
"Oh, Harry, no," she cried, flinging her arms around his neck again. "Don't say that!"
Harry slipped his arms around Hermione's waist and held her. It would be the last time. And the understanding that it was made his heart beat hard in protest. His brain seemed to refuse to send the signal to his arms to let her go. But the fight was useless. Eventually, Harry stepped back. He found it difficult to look at Hermione, her watery eyes sparkling in the moonlight. There was a lump in his throat as he tried to form his adieu.
Harry cupped Hermione's head in his hands and smiled at her. "You were always my favourite, you know? The best of best friends. My actual best friend. You always stood by me, never flinching once. I've never said how much I appreciated that. Or that I know I never deserved it. Thank you, Hermione."
Hermione was crying freely now. There was no point pretending otherwise. She couldn't speak. Now that Harry was leaving she felt she had a million things she wanted to say to him, but words failed her at the worst moment. Couldn't get past her heart, where it had slammed upwards and into her throat.
Then Harry did something he'd never done before. He stepped in and placed a gentle, lingering kiss on her cheek. Hermione felt it tingle all the way down to her toes.
Harry stepped away again, picked up his Firebolt and a shoulder bag from where he'd set them on the floor and prepared to kick off from the parapet. He turned back to Hermione, smiled at her one last time, then said with warm sincerity,
"You look beautiful tonight."
Then he took off and sped away into the night, leaving Hermione and her tears to watch him go.