Harry had taken to watching the Weasley boys play their game. It wasn't as straight forward as the games he was used to playing and he found it was easier to keep track of what was happening as an observer.
It was a complicated role playing game where each of the boys controlled miniature heroes from wizarding history and battled together against things like werewolves, dragons, merfolk and such. There were complicated rules and mechanics about the different heroes and monsters that mostly went over Harry's head. While it was entertaining to watch the magical pieces duke it out based upon the boys' decisions, Harry thought that he preferred thinking about fights from ground level where it was much more straightforward.
Ron's miniature King Arthur was using his shield to ward off a dragon's flames when a silver light behind him drew his attention away from the game.
It was a bright silver patronus in the form of a doe.
Harry's mind went into a log jam. The last time he had seen a patronus like this, it was Severus Snape trying to lead him to Gryffindor's sword.
But I watched Severus Snape die.
The doe bowed its head to Harry and then spoke in a female voice that took Harry by surprise.
"Harry, could you meet me in the park on the other side of town? I have something I want to talk about." Hermione's disembodied voice spoke from the doe which then slowly disappeared.
Harry stood rooted to the spot. He had the absurd mental image of Snape using Hermione's voice in a patronus to lure him somewhere, but Harry knew that couldn't be. Snape was dead and in any case wouldn't bring him to harm. That could only mean one thing:
Hermione's patronus has changed.
"Wait, I thought Hermione's patronus was an otter?" George appeared next to Harry. The boys had abandoned their game and all of them wore puzzled expressions. All except for Ron who, Harry noticed, sported a grin.
"It was. It's different now." Harry stated simply.
"It could be some kind of trap Harry." Bill put his hand on Harry's shoulder. "I would be careful."
"Who could possibly want to off Harry? Voldemort is dead and all his pals are locked up in Azkaban." Charlie intervened.
"Plenty of people. There were plenty of folks who made off quite well under the false Ministry. They very well might want revenge for Harry ruining their livelihood."
"It's Hermione." Harry brushed off Bill's hand, "There's nothing to worry about." He couldn't stand hearing them talk like that. That part of his life was over.
"If you say so." Bill sounded unconvinced.
"Just let him go. He'll be fine." Ron was still grinning.
"What are you smiling about?" George asked.
"Nothing. Nothing at all." Ron chuckled.
"I'll be back before long." Harry turned and grabbing a coat from Ron's room made his way outside passed the apparition wards. He took a moment to refresh his memory on the park Hermione was referring to and when he had a strong image in his mind he turned his heel and appeared in front of a rusty black gate. A massive oak tree sat in the middle of a wide and open park, a single porch swing hanging from one of its lower branches. Harry could make out Hermione seated in the swing.
He took measured steps through the shallow snow as a light snowfall continued to pepper his shoulders and hair. Hermione heard his footsteps through the snow and stood up when he came within a few yards. When she turned to face him, her cheeks were rosy and there were tear streaks running down her face.
Before he could say more she closed the gap between them and flung her arms around him, placing her head into his chest and sobbing. Harry put his arms around her and held her until her body stopped jerking and the last of her sniffles died away.
"I've been so foolish Harry." Hermione sniffed.
"What happened?" He used his thumb to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
"Luke is….he's not really interested in me. It's over." Hermione looked down at her shoes. Harry felt anger begin to lick at his insides.
"What? That doesn't make sense. He said loads about how great you were. What about all that?"
"I don't know Harry, but trust me when I say that he doesn't want to be with me."
Harry frowned, "But you guys seemed so happy…"
"Harry, if I tell you the truth, do you swear not to tell anyone else?" Hermione looked up into his face.
"Harry, Luke is…..Luke is gay."
"He's gay. He went out with me to make his parents happy because they were going to pull him out of Hogwarts."
Harry's mind struggled to put the pieces together. "Why were they going to pull him out of Hogwarts?"
"Because they know about him being gay, but they want him to be a "normal" wizard. If he didn't change, they were going to pull him out."
"Why? I don't understand what the big deal is."
"It's a long story Harry. Maybe we can talk about it some other time, for now that's what you need to know."
"So that was the only reason he went out with you in the first place?" Harry's frown deepened.
"Yeah, I guess." Hermione's eyes watered. "After all, it's not like guys are lining up to be with me. I was available and kind of famous and that's all Luke needed."
"Hey now, you are so much more than that." Harry put his hands on her shoulders. "You are the most brilliant witch I know."
She looked down at her shoes again and sniffed. "Yeah, well I don't feel all that brilliant right now. I feel pretty stupid for believing he was really interested in me."
"Hermione." Harry's voice was firm and he reached down and brought her chin up to face him, "You are not stupid."
A fresh tear escaped her eyes. "No Harry, I am stupid." She heaved a deep sigh, "I had my own reasons for going out with Luke."
Harry hesitated. "He's a good guy, that doesn't make you stupid for wanting to be with him."
Hermione laughed bitterly. "Harry, don't play dumb. You saw my patronus."
Harry's heart began to race. He knew in the back of his mind what the change in her patronus meant. He knew it the instant he saw it. He just couldn't quite believe it was true.
"Harry, please say something."
"Tell me why you went out with him." Harry blurted out.
Hermione heaved a deep sigh. "To get over you Harry. I just got so tired of seeing you with Ginny and being jealous. I got so tired of wishing for something that wasn't mine to have. I thought….I thought maybe if I spent time with someone else, that I wouldn't feel that way about you anymore."
She reached into her winter coat and drew her wand. "Expecto Patronum!" The silver doe appeared next to the two of them, standing serenely in the snow. Its presence seemed to gently warm the air.
"But there it is Harry; there is all the proof you will ever need that I will never stop feeling this way about you."
Like a dam bursting in his mind, memories flooded into Harry's vision: Hermione's lips crashing into his, the smell of coconut, a gentle ruffling of his hair as he lay on the couch, a starry sky above an Australian beach with Hermione leaning against him, the first time she said "I love you", the feel of her crushing his bones in one of her hugs, a little eleven year old girl saying there were more important things than books or cleverness…..
A seventeen year old girl on a staircase.
"Harry, now would be a really good time to say something." Hermione smiled tremulously.
"I…I never thought you could love me." Harry whispered.
A fresh wave of tears appeared behind her eyes. "I've always loved you." Her voice trembled.
"I loved Ron because I was so afraid of loving you." Hermione's voice grew stronger. "By the time we left Hogwarts after the Department of Mysteries, I knew without a doubt that I loved you more than anyone else in the world and that scared me Harry."
"All this time?" Harry's voice rose in pitch.
"Yes Harry. I locked it away and tried to hide it. I tried so hard to replace it with something else, but I couldn't do it. I've been in love with you from the start."
Snow began to fall thicker around them. There was a light layer of snow on Hermione's hat and in her hair. The patronus had disappeared.
Harry had spent his whole life until now relying on his gut to tell him what to do when words or thoughts failed him.
So he did exactly what his gut told him to do.
He put an arm around her waist and with his other hand brought her face to his and put his lips on hers. He felt her flinch and tense for the briefest of moments before her entire body relaxed and melted in his arms. The chill of the winter air was gone and replaced with warmth that started in his chest and worked its way to his toes. His hand went into her hair and his finger wrapped the curls around it. Hermione placed one hand on his chest and the other sent snow falling to the ground as it made its way through his wild mane. Whenever their lips parted for even the briefest of moments, he could hear her breathe his name.
He didn't know how long they stood like that before he finally opened his eyes and they parted just far enough to look into each other's eyes.
"I love you Hermione." He interrupted her.
"Oh, Harry." She brought her lips against his for a long, slow kiss.
When they pulled apart again he gently moved his hand into hers and intertwined their fingers. They walked hand in hand towards the rusty entrance gate. Neither of them said anything. Harry knew there was plenty to discuss and things that still needed to be said, but for right now it was enough to simply feel her warm hand and to look over and see her radiant smiling face.
There would always be time to talk later.