Neither one of them had moved since Hermione had walked out. Harry was unsure what to say. He was never very good in these situations. It was Ron who finally broke the silence.
Harry was taken aback. "Sorry for what exactly?"
"I'm sorry that I was the one who broke the trio up. Just when I thought we were inseparable…" Ron sniffed.
"What makes you think we're done now?" Harry was looking at Ron, who was refusing to meet his gaze.
"Because of me and Hermione. I used to think about what would happen….you know…if we got involved and something went wrong. I mean stuff has happened before, but not like this. I was afraid it would be the end of the three of us. Now it's going to happen."
"Why? Did she say she didn't want to be friends anymore?" Harry asked gently.
"Well….no…." Ron mumbled.
"What did she say?"
"She said she….would always be my friend." He finally turned to meet Harry's look, "But she can't mean that can she? How am I even supposed to look at her now? And surely she hates me for treating her so badly."
He sounded on the verge of breaking. Harry knew he had to choose his next words carefully.
"Ron, you have been her friend for years. You have watched after her, made her laugh…..if she said she will always be your friend, then she means it. You and I both know her well enough to know how stubborn and loyal she can be. Whether or not she loves you in that way, she will always love you. Surely you know that by now."
Ron didn't answer at first. The silence was thick. He could see the wheels turning in his friend's mind.
"That still doesn't cover how in the world I'm supposed to be around her. Maybe I should just go home."
He actually stood up as if to go, but Harry stood up in front of him.
"You're not going anywhere. You know you don't really want to and that she doesn't want you to either."
"Then what am I supposed to do?" Harry winced at the obvious pain in his best mate's voice.
"I think…" He wracked his brain for something useful to say. Hogwarts really needed to add classes about how to handle girls and people who were upset. "I think you need to decide what is important to you and stick with it. If you truly want Hermione as your friend, then make that your focus. I think that's what you both want."
Harry hoped he had said the right thing. He hoped that his own fears of the three becoming two weren't about to be realized. He knew now that nothing was as important to him as having Ron and Hermione by his side, he couldn't bear the thought of losing that now.
After what seemed like ages, Ron finally nodded his head.
"You're right Harry. I want….more than anything….for us three to be together."
Harry was glad to see the determination lurking behind the pain in Ron's eyes. He knew it wouldn't be easy for Ron, but luckily Ron didn't have to do it alone.
"I'm here for you mate." Harry closed the gap and gave Ron a hearty embrace. "Whatever I can do, let me know."
"Thanks mate. You're the best." Ron sniffed again. "As for what you can do, let's go find somewhere to do some blasting curses until a decent hour to drink comes around."
Harry smiled. If Ron was keeping it as tame as blasting curses and drinking, then he was going to alright after all.
While the next few days seemed normal on the surface, Harry knew it was because Ron and Hermione were doing their best to keep it that way. They had visited a number of different tourist attractions around the city, both magical and muggle, and while they were genuinely having a good time Harry couldn't help but wonder when everything could be back to normal.
At least they were keeping it subtle. Ron and Hermione both were rather courteous to one another, perhaps more so than usual, but there was a slight tension in the air whenever they were around one another. Harry could see it in how they positioned themselves with Harry in between them at all times, or in how they never seemed to want to make eye contact with one another. Whenever Harry would try to go somewhere on his own, Ron or Hermione would typically volunteer themselves to go with him, leaving the other one alone.
Despite all of this it seemed like they were all headed to a new sort of equilibrium. The first hint Harry had that things were slowly getting back to normal was when they attended a local quidditch match (at Ron's insistence) and Ron got into an argument with Hermione over who got the aisle seat. The sight of them bickering over something trivial without it boiling over told Harry that they both were moving past their hurt.
There was just one more stop on their tour of Europe before heading to Australia: Greece. There had been a large disagreement over it when they had planned the trip. Ron had wanted to stop in Romania to see his brother Charlie while Hermione had wanted the extra time to visit the two wizarding schools in Europe: Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. Harry had been the one to offer the compromise: they would visit Greece, whose historic venues interested Hermione, and would be close enough to Romania that if Ron wanted to take a day to visit Charlie he could.
At the time, Harry didn't want or foresee any need to split up, but had to admit it was probably for the best when Ron told them the next morning that he would be going to Romania the next day.
"I just want to see him, I miss my family you know, and we haven't had much time together in a while." Ron had explained to Harry years before how Charlie had always been the brother he related to most. Harry could see why. Bill was too much to look up to, Percy was too haughty, and the twins….Harry felt a stabbing pain in his gut…..had always been too busy pushing his buttons. Charlie was more laid back and shared Ron's obsession with quidditch.
"That's fine mate, take as much time as you want. We'll meet back up with you before we leave." Ron clapped Harry on the back before awkwardly embracing Hermione. "Take care you two, I won't be too long. I'll see you in Greece." And so Ron left for the local owl post to let Charlie know he was coming. He would catch a flight to Bucharest later that afternoon.
Harry and Hermione passed through security without any problems and were sitting at the terminal awaiting their flight before either of them said anything.
"Do you think he'll be okay Harry?" Hermione had her patented worry face on.
"Dying in a plane crash would be pretty embarrassing for someone who can do magic."
Hermione gave him a sour look. "That's not funny Harry and you know what I mean."
"He'll be fine Hermione." Harry gave her reassuring smile. "You two were bickering just like old times yesterday. Everything will be alright. Just give him some time."
She seemed to relax and Harry had to marvel at himself for a moment. "Since when am I the one giving you advice?"
Hermione chuckled. "I have to admit it's not our usual roles, especially when it comes to dealing with people who are upset." Harry thought back to Cho and the Room of Requirement and how hopelessly lost he had felt.
"I've never have been too good with that."
Hermione gave him a warm smile. "Well I guess Ron isn't alone in maturing. There might be some hope for you after all."
They sat in amicable silence until they boarded. Hermione brought out a book and promptly began reading while Harry looked out the window. While it was nothing like flying a broomstick, he still liked watching the countryside pass him by.
Upon their arrival in Athens, they discussed their plans for the next couple of days on their way to their hotel. They made alternate plans in the event that Ron joined them and once they had reached their room, decided to find a nice place for dinner. Hermione liked the sound of a small family owned spot a few blocks away. Dressed casually, they walked to their destination while Hermione gushed about the book she had been reading on the flight. Harry had long thought her diatribes were annoying, but recent events made him more than grateful to nod along and smile at her enthusiasm. He wondered why it took such tragedy and loss for him to be thankful for what he had instead of nitpicking what he didn't like in his friends.
Harry had to rely on Hermione's research when it came time to order and though the dish wasn't anything like traditional English ware, he found that it was quite pleasant. They speculated for a while how the restoration work at Hogwarts was progressing before the topic of their upcoming year came up.
"Do you think we should owl them and tell them we plan on coming back?" Hermione was back in her element: talking about academics. "Will they even take us back? We did miss our entire year after all."
Harry hadn't even thought about it. Fred and George had left before their N.E.W.T.'s, but they had never planned on finishing anyways. He wondered if there had been other students who took a year off and if Hogwarts had some kind of policy about students who wished to return. He had never seen any students older than their supposed year, so there was no real evidence that Hogwarts allowed it.
"Maybe with all that happened, they'll be a little more understanding. Everyone who was there last year got a real quality education after all." Harry's comment set off a round of bashing on the part of the Death Eater "professors". It was when they got to Snape that Hermione paused.
"How do you feel about Snape Harry?"
He wasn't quite sure how to respond. Finding out Snape's true loyalties had been a shock. That he had loved Lily Evans for his entire life and devoted it to protecting her son, Harry, put all of Harry's years at Hogwarts into a new perspective. It also explained Snape's feelings toward him. He may have had Lily's eyes, but they were looking out of a boy who looked just like James Potter, the man Lily ultimately chose over Snape. While Harry admired Snape for his courage to live a double life in the face of mortal danger and was grateful for all that he had done to help him complete his quest; it was hard to forget seven years' worth of taunts, jabs, and unfair treatment.
"He was a brave man, but a man who could never move past who I looked like." Harry put simply. "He has my gratitude, but I can't exactly like the man." Harry instantly was reminded of Snape's last breaths and felt guilty for speaking ill of the dead. Hermione's searching look seemed to pick it up.
"Harry, don't feel guilty for being honest. There was never any love lost between you. Someone being gone doesn't mean we suddenly have to view them with rose colored glasses."
Grateful for her understanding, Harry turned the conversation to more trivial matters and they talked long into the evening until they picked up the staff's signals that it was time for them to leave.
They walked back together underneath a full moon that bathed the city in a soft glow. The marble of the old city in particular benefited from the reflected moonlight. It was a gorgeous evening and so the pair took a long detour through side streets before returning to their hotel, occasionally making small talk about their surroundings but in general just enjoying each other's company.
Free from the pressures that usually led to Hermione nagging or lecturing him, Harry found her company quite enjoyable. Her inquisitiveness and tendency to ramble was a lot more endearing when it had nothing to do with schoolwork and even her attempts at humor (which Harry politely chuckled at) while far from his own brand of humor, he found charming in a cheesy sort of way. For his part, Harry was content to simply let her ramble and to listen.
After a particularly long rant about some famous wizard named Demosthenes, Hermione stopped talking and gave Harry an inquiring look.
"What are you grinning about?"
Harry, who hadn't even realized he was doing it, simply shrugged. "I don't know. You I guess."
"Me? What about me?" She sounded uncharacteristically shy and her cheeks were tinged with pink.
"I guess we've just never really been together, just the two of us, without either school or some deadly adventure in the mix. I'm just learning a bit more about what it's really like, you know, being with you."
Hermione's cheeks turned a darker shade of pink. "I guess you're right, I've never really thought about it before. I bet I've been insufferable." She looked down to gaze at her shoes as they kept walking.
"You had your moments, but…er…" Harry hesitated at the dejected look on her face. "I have too. Remember fifth year? When I kept blowing up at everyone?"
"Believe me, that year is pretty hard to forget."
Harry still didn't quite like the look on her face.
"Listen Hermione, I meant what I said in a good way. I'm not always…well…good at saying the right thing. I enjoy being with you. That's all I meant."
Hermione gave him a skeptical look. "So you don't think I'm an insufferable know-it-all?"
"No Hermione I don't." Harry gave her a genuine smile. "In fact, if you didn't know so much, I wouldn't be around to complain about it would I?"
"But Harry don't you get it? I don't want to be just the girl who keeps you alive." He could see that her temper was quickly mounting.
"Hermione it's more than that. Its…."
"What is it then? Huh? What is it Harry? I'm dying to know!" Hermione's voice got shriller with every syllable.
Harry could see in her eyes just how hurt she was. It hit him all at once that this was how she really felt: like a tool he had used all these years. He realized that never once had he taken a moment to ask her what she needed from him. It had been all giving and no receiving for her. He knew that he had hurt her and had been hurting her for a very long time. His heart went cold and he felt ill knowing just how neglectful he had been. He more than anything to let her know those days were over.
"You are the brightest, bravest, most steadfast, compassionate, and loyal person I know."
Hermione's eyes went wide and she stopped walking. Harry stopped in front of her and took her hand in his. "And I know that I have been so, so ungrateful for your friendship. You have given me so much and I have given so little; but if you're willing to give me the chance, I want to spend whatever time I have left to give back to you."
Holding her gaze, he saw that her eyes went from stunned to tender as his words sunk in. "Harry I…I don't know what to say."
"I meant every word."
"I know." the words dripped with meaning beyond what they said. He knew that she trusted him completely to be true to his word.
"I'm just so sorry it took me so long to want to pay you back." Harry felt his stomach tie in knots of guilt. He really had taken her for granted for so long. He was surprised she was even still here. Hermione gave his hands a squeeze.
"I forgive you Harry. I know that you have lived a life full of burdens that should have never been yours to carry. I just did my best to help you see them through."
They stood there for a moment just drinking in the moment. Hermione's eyes began to swim with tears. She took a tentative step forward and Harry knew she was about to launch into one of her patented hugs. He opened up his arms in invitation.
"Come here." And before he had even finished she did indeed nearly knock the wind out of him, so hard did she fling herself at him. "I know I wasn't there for you like you needed me before, but I'll always be there starting today. You deserve the best."
Hermione hiccupped into his chest. "Oh Harry."
They stood that way for what seemed ages before she released him. Harry took her hand in his and with interlaced fingers they walked side by side into the night.