Just A Smile

Hermione Granger VII

Disclaimer: I do not own the Harry Potter series.

Prepare yourselves. ~ NR xx

Chapter Sixty-One

Hermione Granger VII

"Lily and I... Something happened... I'm so sorry..."

Hermione stared intently at the ceiling as though she was expecting that the words would carve itself on the marble stone. The ever present pain in her chest caused a single tear to slide down from her eyes to the pillow. She closed her eyes and shuddered as she shifted and laid on her side, her hand tucked under her pillow. She never thought that she would fear words and letters when she loved reading so much until James uttered the statement that plagued her mind. It had been more than a month and a week, and the pain was still as agonising as the first day. She wondered if she would ever got over it, got over him, and she feared that she would live the rest of her life with a pain that nearly crippled her.

She rubbed her chest, trying to soothe the ache although her efforts were futile. Her palm grazed the locket under her nightdress and she couldn't help but pull it out and open it. The piano music and the ice skating couple only served to make her chest tighten and she closed it with a sigh off her lips. She debated for a long time if she should give it back to him or not, but that involved actually seeing him and talking to him, and she hadn't found the right amount of strength to endure looking at him without the images to corrupt her mind — images of James and Lily kissing.

"I didn't realise until it was too late. I didn't want it. I still don't. I just froze when she... Lily... She kissed me. And I... I didn't push her away."

Oh, Merlin. She grabbed a pillow and hugged it tight to her chest, taking a sharp inhale of breath through her mouth and preventing the tears from making an appearance by closing her eyes. How could a relationship that didn't last two months cause her so much unbearable pain? She hid her eyes on the pillow. Then again, it wasn't the relationship or the time they spent that had made her feel this way — it was James. Always James. No matter how much time they spent, whether it was days, weeks or months, James made her feel like it was forever.

At the back of her mind, she believed that it was forever and she immediately berated herself for that foolish thought. Not everything lasts forever. Some people leave and a few stay. The pain in her chest intensified and she nearly cried out again. She wished that James was one of the people who stayed. But then again, he was waiting for her decision, hadn't he? Waiting for the ultimatum and Hermione couldn't find it within herself to decide, afraid that her choice would lead to consequences she didn't want.

"Please say something, please. Hermione, I don't want her, I want you. It's you that I want. If I had known that Lily would do that, I wouldn't have spoken to her at all. Please, look at me."

It didn't matter. Lily would gloat once she had gotten what she wanted: them, broken apart, because of her. She would relish in it, smile in triumpth, at the success that she had managed to break them. On the other hand, if Hermione chose to stay with James, would Lily still lurk then to do more damage? To inflict pain upon them until they couldn't take it anymore? The uncertainty haunted her. She was still thinking about it; the right choice. Honestly, she didn't think there was one.

Distantly, she heard murmurs and shuffling outside the curtains that surrounded her bed. She knew that her roommates were likely talking about her again. They were very displeased by the cause of her behaviour, Alice especially. They had all sided together, saying that they would show Lily her place. Hermione hadn't found it in herself to care, not when she could feel the pain erupting out of her very core whenever she saw the beautiful redhead humming with triumph.

Suddenly, the curtains around her bed drew open and Alice revealed herself, looking sternly down at her. Hermione sluggishly pulled herself up to sit on the bed.

"Come with me to the common room," Alice ordered briskly, not even waiting for her reply as she turned on her heel and left the room.

Hermione blinked and followed what she had said, welcoming any disruptions that could serve as her new distraction from the pain. Putting a robe on to cover her nightdress, she went down to the common room and was surprised when she saw Mary with Alice. Unlike Hermione and Alice who were dressed for bed, Mary was still wearing her school robes.

"Mary? What are you doing here?" Hermione asked, eyebrows furrowed.

Mary worried her lip. "Hermione, come with me."

Hermione's eyebrows rose and her questions died before she could voice them out as Mary grabbed her wrist and dragged her out of the common room and the Ravenclaw tower. Hermione felt extremely uncomfortable walking around the dim corridor, being pulled by Mary, wearing only her nightdress under her robes that didn't reach her knees.

"Mary, where are we going?" She couldn't count the times she asked that question, only to be met with silence. Wherever Mary was taking her, she was tight lipped about it.

She didn't know what she was feeling by the time she recognised the painting of the pear that led to the Kitchens of Hogwarts. A flash of memory — a first date, a hand holding hers, house elves, the smell of pumpkin juice, and a first kiss that she still felt resonating within her soul. She shook her head, her chest hitching, and the memory faded away like an old photograph. She wanted to tell Mary to stop but her voice was lost as she tickled the pear. The pear let out a childlike giggle, much like the one she remembered long before, and the large painting opened to reveal a doorway. Her heart pounded, a foreboding feeling settling inside of her, and the protests escaped from her lips as Mary continued dragging her towards the doorway.

"Mary, I really don't think it's allowed for us to come—"

Her legs stayed rooted to the spot. Her heart died and restarted. She was aware of the others in the same room as her, the house elves, Sirius, Remus, Regulus, and Peter, but like always, she could only see him. The unruly hair, the hazel eyes, and the crooked eyeglasses. Although his hazel eyes were red and swollen and he looked as though he hadn't bathed in days. Countless empty bottles surrounded him and the smell of Firewhiskey and vomit permeated in the air.

James, her heart whispered with so much longing and pain.

"I shouldn't be here," she breathed out harshly, trying to pull away but Mary gripped tighter. She looked at her accusingly. "What is this? What's going on?"

It was Regulus who answered her. "Hermione, it's time."

She looked at him and understood. "No," she said quietly. She turned to them. "I'm... I'm not ready, yet. Don't ask me of this."

"Hermione, look at him." Remus pointed at James, his amber eyes hard. "Look at yourself. I know that it hurts but you two are a wreck and you have the power to fix this."

She looked at James and saw so much of her pain that mirrored his. They were both miserable, inside and out. She could see it in his hazel eyes even though it was unfocused. As much as she loathed it, she yielded with a sharp nod that sagged Remus' shoulders in relief, his hard eyes softening. Her eyes remained on James whilst his own was directed to the bottles, trying to find one that wasn't empty. She didn't know that Remus moved to her until she felt his gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Thank you," Remus whispered, squeezing her shoulder, likely for comfort. "Hey, whatever you decide, we won't judge."

Hermione's eyes snapped up to his. "What?"

He smiled at her, understanding shining in his amber eyes. "Whether you break up with him or not, we won't judge you. You don't have to be afraid. James is our best friend but it doesn't mean that we will stop being your friend, Hermione, regardless of your choices. We'll be here for you." He squeezed her shoulder again. "Here's a Sober Up Potion. We'll give you both some privacy."

She wordlessly accepted the bottle and heard them walking, the door closing behind them. Around her, the house elves moved and worked nonstop. Some had casted a wary glance at her but they soon disregarded her when she hadn't spouted about equality and freedom rights again, just like the last time. The bottle was cold in her palms as she gripped it. A part of her shrieked at her to stay away, to leave him, but another part of her, admittedly the bigger one, forced her feet to remain on the spot. She had to face this, despite her fears and the pain that sliced through her.

Sighing, she pushed herself past the scattered bottles on the floor until she was kneeling in front of him. He was bleary-eyed, blinking constantly and wiping his eyes with his arm. Her nose wrinkled when the odorous smell from his clothes grew strong by their close proximity.

"Arrrrreee you an angeeeel?" He slurred, his head tilted to the right then to the left.

"Drink this." She thrusted the bottle into his outstretched hands.

He sniggered. "Maybeeehhh you're the deviiiiil. You c-came to poison meeeh? Aren't yaaah?"

Her lips tightened. She couldn't poison him even if she tried or wanted to. "Just drink it, James, please."

He suddenly frowned, looking intently at the bottle. "You s-ssssound like 'errr." He sighed and smiled sleepily. "Like my 'Ermioneeeh."

She stiffened and slowly looked at him as he laid on the floor on his back, his arm thrown over his eyes as he rolled the bottle in his palms. She held her breath as she waited for him to speak.

"I miiiisssh myyy 'Mione," he muttered underneath his breath. "She'sh shooo beau— beau— beautiiiful. I missssh her shooo musssh."

She cradled her hands to her chest as she felt it tightening. "Do you want to see her again?"

An eye peeked out from under the arm. "She..." His throat moved. "Yeessh."

"Then drink the bottle and you will see her again."

James didn't much as blink as he opened the bottle and drank the liquid inside. He sputtered and groaned, cringing at the foul taste.

"My head hurts," he muttered raspily, wincing as he messaged his forehead. "Ugh... Merlin, it bloody hurts."

"I would appreciate it if you don't curse in front of me," she stated coolly and watched as James immediately sat up, eyes wide.

He blinked his eyes and looked at her in disbelief, as though he thought she was a dream. "Her... Hermione?"

She wrapped her arms around her torso. "Hello, James."

The blood drained from his face and he gulped. "I— You—" He looked afraid. "What are you doing here?"

Her eyes narrowed into an icy glare. "Mary told me to come. She dragged me even. If I had known you were here, I wouldn't have come."

She hadn't expected such callous words from her mouth. The lie left a bitter taste in her tongue. If she knew that James was drinking himself to death, she would come running regardless of the distance between them or the pain still present in her chest. Mary and the others didn't even need to lie or hide something from her. James was her weakness through and through.

Sorrow filled his hazel eyes. "Have you— Have you made a decision then?"

She looked away, the building emotions inside of her making her shake. The pain, oh the pain. It howled at her and screamed at her. Feel me, they said. Pushing and pushing until it burned her chest. It had been there the moment she found out the truth. She didn't know why she was surprised that Lily would do such a thing, would cross a line that she wasn't allowed to cross. Her fears came alive that night, her once brilliant mind reduced into a muddled mess of Lily and James and kisses. Seeing him again didn't just bring the bad memories of their parting but also the good ones. The ones where she was happy with him and those, in her opinion, were the worse memories to remember. It just reminded her of what she had lost.

Some days, she blamed herself. Other days, she didn't know who to blame. Was she in the wrong? Was James? Was Lily? Her heart that had seldom knew hatred or resentment was confused. She wasn't used to this. She wanted to go back to her small cottage, where her father should've been waiting, reading a book in front of the fireplace. But she was here now, in a huge castle full of wondrous things that taught her so much. She had learned a lot in the past months she resided in the castle.

Was James one of the lessons that life was about to teach her? Would she be ready to walk away from him once the lesson was over?

"Why do I have to make a choice?" Hermione demanded. She was hurting and angry. She wanted nothing more than to turn away. "Why does it have to be me? Why doesn't it have to be you?"

"Because..." There was silver lining in his eyes. "Because if I was to decide, I would do the selfish thing and not let you go. That's why I'm doing a selfless thing in making you choose."

"What do you want from me?" Hermione asked, a desperate note in her voice. To stall the moment to decide what to do: to let go or hold on. "Why me, James? Why me? Why did you chose me?"

He peered into her eyes and said with such honesty in his voice, it stunned her into silence. "Why not you?" He smiled drily. "I just saw you that night, thinking that you were ordinary, and then your smile appeared and then I scolded myself for thinking that you were plain and boring. Because, when you smiled, it left me breathless. I never believed in love at first sight before but there was something about you that night I first saw your smile and heard your laugh. I... I still liked Lily then and I was confused because seeing you felt like seeing something more than what Lily had to offer. You were innocent, in a way. Almost untouched by all the evil in the world, which made you even more precious. For a short few days, I convinced myself that I liked Lily even though I always found myself watching you, always wondering how to make you laugh or smile. One day, I woke up and I realised that it wasn't Lily anymore. It was you. As though it had always been. I gave up on Lily, not because she kept on rejecting me or because she hated me, but because I couldn't let you go and it wouldn't be fair to me and to you if I continued to court Lily when I didn't have feelings for her anymore."

"Falling in love with you wasn't something I expected, Hermione," he said, his voice pleading to make her understand. "But I'm glad that it happened. I don't regret it, any of it. I never thought that I would want someone as much as I want you until you smiled."

She tried not to ask but the question came out of her mouth before she could stop it. "And are you confused now?"

"What do you mean?" He didn't understand.

She drew in a deep breath, steadied her heart, kept the fear at bay. "Are you confused of your feelings now that you have gotten to experience what it felt like to kiss her?"

His jaw dropped, his eyes almost popping out of his sockets. "What? No! I didn't kiss Lily, Hermione. She kissed me. I know that sounds like it doesn't make a difference but— but it does! She was the one who threw herself at me. I would never do that to you. I would never try to betray you. Lily... I didn't expect that she would do things like that. I didn't suspect that she wanted to break us. If I knew..." He trailed off.

Regrets. So, many regrets.

"But you didn't push her away, James. What am I supposed to think about that?"

He looked ashamed. "I have no excuses aside from the fact that I— I was unable to think and move. If it weren't for Remus, I don't think that I would've pushed her away that night because I was too stunned to move."

His admission nearly killed her.

"Do you know what it's like to look at you, James?" Her voice was hollow and small. "Hit me or hex me. I don't care which. Just... There has to be a feeling worse than this," she pointed at the spot where her heart beat, "in my chest."

"I'm sorry." His voice broke, his hands on his lap clenching into fists. "I'm sorry. This is all my fault. I hurt you. This is all my fault. This is all my fault."

She almost jumped when one of his fists pounded on the floor, the violence startling her. She quickly grabbed James' arm as he was about to punch the floor again, tightening her grip when he was about to pull away. Slowly, his arm slackened and his fist opened to clasp his fingers around her wrist. Hermione stared at his long fingers and the gentle hold it had on her arm.

"I wouldn't blame you," he said, lifting his head to stare at her face, memorising the freckles on her nose, the curve of her lips and the shape of her eyes. "I wouldn't blame you if you left me, if you break up with me. I fucked up, Hermione. I fucked up big time. If you want to leave me, I won't stop you. Not because I don't love you, but because I do. I love you so much, Hermione, but if staying with me means hurting you, then I would let go for you to be happy." He laughed but there was no joy in it. He brought his other hand up, the one that wasn't holding her arm, and rubbed his face.

"My mother," he continued, "once told me that my father was willing to let her go for her happiness as well. I want nothing more than to beg you to stay with me but— but I have already hurt you enough, haven't I? It would be selfish of me if I take away the chance for you to decide. I don't want to be selfish. Even if I wanted to keep you with me forever, it would break me if you're not happy with me. I only want you to be happy, Hermione." A shuddered breath escaped his lips and his smile was strained. "I just want you to smile, even though I'm not the one who's making you smile. If you want to leave, you can leave now, you know? I won't — I won't stop you. I can't stop you."

But even as he said those words, Hermione could see how much it killed him inside to say it; how much force he had to exert to admit such a lie. Because in his eyes, she saw how much he wanted her to be happy with him; how much he wished that she could be happy with him. Her chest tightened and she struggled to breathe and to say a word to stop him. It dawned on her that he was trying to give her the easy way out, not for her, not for him, but for the both of them.

"I love you, you know?" His throat moved and there was a heavy exhale that came out of his lips. "My mother said to me in a letter once that this love between us is a great thing worth fighting for but how can I fight, knowing that you're ready to give up? How can I fight knowing that you're uncertain about our fate together? How can I fight when you look at me like you're already defeated? How can I fight when you're obviously not happy with me anymore? I want nothing more than to fight for us, Hermione, but how can I when all I could see is your sadness? Whenever I see you looking so sad, I'm thinking that there are so many wizards out there who deserves you more than I do and who doesn't hurt you like I do. But then again, they can't love you more than I do." He laughed again and it was such a painful and broken sound that had her wishing she hadn't heard it from his lips.

"You don't have to worry about me, Hermione," he insisted. "I would prefer you staying with me because you love me and not because you pity me. I would rather have you stay with me because you're happy with me, not because you are forced to stay. I would rather fight my love with you than against you because I would rather start a war than go to a battle with you as my enemy. But, it doesnt really matter in the end, right? I could see it in your eyes. I could see the pain and the sorrow and if leaving me would stop making you feel pain, then I won't stop you. And I won't think less of you if you turn your back to me and walk away right now. I won't think badly of you if you leave me. It would be difficult. It would be painful. I'm not hiding that fact because I love you. But you don't love me. So, it's going to be easy for one of us. It's going to be alright."

But his eyes were dead and he was crying out, like his own words had brought a knife to his chest. Those words had plunged the knife deeper and deeper until he could no longer spot where it began and where it ended. She realised that he believed his own words and was lost in the sea of pain. But he was still talking, still giving her the option of walking away, despite how much it was hurting him. James had the power to destroy her but she also had the power to shatter him.

You don't love me, right?

It had struck her then, as she stared at his swollen eyes, his red runny nose, his disheveled appearance, his ghastly pale skin, and smelled the foul alcohol and vomit on his breath and clothes; she realised that he was still the most handsome, most wonderful wizard she had ever seen. And her heart pounded hard inside her chest, the continuous sound telling her to listen and to know. The answer to the question she sought the moment James first called her beautiful; the first moment he had said hi in the middle of the corridor. It was there within her all along, and it was staring right in front of her face right now with his most expressive hazel eyes, who looked at her like she was light and warmth and home. The answer was always there, waiting patiently for her to uncover.

The tears sprung from her eyes and it wasn't until she felt the cold trail of it down her cheeks that she realised she was crying. Crying for him, for her, and for them. She leaned her forehead against his, eyes closing and breath stuttering. She felt him stiffening and holding his breath as he waited. The emotions that was building inside of her, towering until it reached its peak, threatened to consumed her and devoured her because she knew. She knew. As she cupped his face and wiped his own tears from his cheeks with her thumbs, she finally spoke the words, the answer that had eluded her, the truth, and the explanation.

It was there all along. After all this time.

"I love you," she said and her heart sang and rejoiced.

Hazel orbs widened and Hermione laughed breathlessly at his surprise. He stared at her, searched something that only he could spot on her face, and then his face contorted as he cried with her, for him, and for them. He held her neck and pulled her closer and kissed her with a desperation fit for a starving man.

She tasted the bitter alcohol and the acid of the vomit in his mouth and she found herself not caring as she kissed him back and grasped him tightly, her knuckles hurting with such force. He anchored her to the reality and made her fly to her dreams. He was the gravity and the moon and the soil and the sky and the sea — a world of her own to explore and to keep safe and to love. Her world. Her home.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he kept on murmuring in frantic worry as he peppered her with kisses that she never thought she would share with him again. "I love you, Hermione. I love you so much. Oh, Godric, I'm so sorry. Forgive me. Please, forgive me."

Over and over. The same repetitive sentences. A rolling wheel. A cycle.

She believed those words, because she loved him. She was in love with this wonderful wizard who gave her a piece of his heart, trusting her to take care of it and protect it even though she couldn't guarantee it. They were going to be okay because they were Hermione Granger and James Potter. The pain would no longer continue to haunt her and demand things from her. If it would, she would welcome it instead of trying to run away from it. She would not be afraid of the pain; she would come out of it as a better and stronger person. James was here. With her. She wasn't alone. Severus Snape, Lily Evans, or any other person wanting to break them apart could go to hell for all she cared.

She didn't want him to let her go. She didn't want to leave him. She didn't need the easy way out, to avoid the pain and misery and every bad thing in between. Because even though James caused her so much unbearable pain, she was also at her absolute happiest whenever she was with him. The good and the bad; the sorrow and the joy. She wanted that with him. Staying away from him would not only kill her inside but it would destroy her.

And she murmured back, "It's okay. We're okay. I love you, too. I love you. I forgive you. Oh, James. We're going to be okay."

It would not be easy and it would take a long whilst for her to be okay but there was no doubt that she was going to be okay. She will be okay.

"Stay," he begged. "Stay with me. Please stay. Please."

"I will," and she promised him. "I will. As long as time. As long as the world. I will stay with you as long as eternity."

The knowledge that they hadn't been broken had brought another wave of tears from her eyes.

Once, she had been afraid of the pain, of the hurt that they might cause each other once they embark on to a romance they hadn't expected. She said as much to James the day they were together that she didn't want to hurt her. She didn't want to cause the same pain she felt the day her father died, the same pain that she had felt moments before. But wasn't that what love was? Being hurt and getting hurt and then making it out of the pain with the person you love by your side?

The world and the gods themselves could break them apart but she swore in her entire being, to her very soul, to the magic that flowed inside of her, bestowed by her great grandfathers and grandmothers before her: she would not let him go.

A/N: I'm sorry but I just can't let them go on with the drama any longer. I just want my babies back together. If you don't like it, you'll just have to get in line. Don't get me wrong, there was one idea in my mind that wanted them to separate much longer because I wanted them to grow as a person individually. I had an idea where they had a truce and became friends for a while but then fall in love again with a deeper sense of who they are as a person and etc. As you can see, I discarded that idea because 1) it would make the story unnecessarily longer; 2) it would just repeat the performance of shy glances and smiles and 'would they get together or not' questions (I have Peter and Mary for the smiles and glances); 3) James is very clearly in love with Hermione and putting him in the friendzone would just prolong the pain, people; 4) I want them to grow as a person together, not separately.

This chapter is inspired or based loosely by the story of my once-friend, who loved and still loves her boyfriend and who had cried for him even though their relationship hadn't lasted for more than two months (they got back together, in case you wanted to know). Some people might think it silly to cry for a person when their relationship hadn't even lasted for a year but I realised, as I began writing this chapter, that the amount of time spent in the relationship didn't really matter. If you loved the person, like really loved him/her and not just infatuated with him/her, you would be heartbroken regardless of the time that your relationship has. I had an aunt who once had a relationship with a guy for 11 years but she broke up with him and then she met another guy, dated him for, like 7 months, I think, and then married him. See? It's not silly to cry for a lost love.

Also, thank you so much for the support, people! I really, really appreciate all your reviews. You have laughed and cried and screamed and all of the above with me the deeper we get into the story. Please don't think that I ignored you because I haven't replied to your reviews and questions. I read them, don't worry, but you have to understand that I can't answer the questions that are revealing (the questions that prompts me to give out spoilers and I try not to do that because I have a bad habit of giving out spoilers sometimes).

This feels like a goodbye speech but, never fear, this is far from the end although we are, like, a tiny bit closer to the end.

Howdy: Usually, I update every day but as the story is about to come to an end, I might be having a delay a little.

Reviews are welcomed!

~ NR xx