It was getting late and almost all the students had already retired to bed. Harry fought to keep his eyes open as he flipped through the pages of yet another book on magical contracts. Underneath all his anger and frustration at being thrust into the Tournament, he felt a weary resignation that came from the knowledge that nothing would change. Nothing ever did. It wasn't like anyone had believed him anyway when he said he didn't put his name in—well, besides Hermione, of course. Somehow that was never in doubt.
He was suddenly filled with a warmth that had nothing to do with the fire in the common room setting a pale glow on his face. That's right. Hermione was the one who believed in him even when Ron had cast his words aside. She was the one who dragged him by the ear to the library and forced him to try to find a way out of this nightmare; the one who, for the past few days, had dealt with all his moping with a firm shove forward. She was also the one currently sitting by his side when she could be upstairs in bed and far, far away from the headache Harry called his life. But she was here. By his side. Just like—
Plop. Her head landed on his shoulder and he could feel her breath on his neck. "Hermione?" No response. Harry smiled warmly but his smile disappeared once he considered just how tired she must have been to fall asleep without warning. Have I ever thanked her? Have I ever told her what she means to me? He racked his brain but couldn't find a satisfactory moment where he had expressed to her just how important she was to him. I'll tell her when she wakes up, he promised himself. In…in the morning. I'll tell her: thank you.
He closed his eyes and allowed himself to relax. They were side by side, in that moment. Together. Just like always.
Harry didn't want to wake up. His dreams were full of bright colours of orange and yellow passing by like a mirage as little snippets of memories ran in front of him: Hermione's worried face as she watched him leave with his aunt and uncle for the summer. Snip. Hermione's overly enthusiastic, bone crushing hugs whenever they first saw each other in September that had almost become a ritual at this point. Snip. Hermione glaring at him to focus on schoolwork, but easily becoming distracted with one of those pesky, life threatening mysteries that came for him every year—the bright gleam in her eye when she made a revelation. Snip. Hermione holding back the tears in her eyes and stubbornly insisting that turning in the firebolt had been for his own good even as he angrily turned away from her.
Snip. Hermione meeting him with toast and taking a walk with him outside, saying "Well, of course I knew you hadn't entered yourself. The look on your face when Dumbledore read out your name!" Snip. Hermione embracing him fiercely for what felt like the first time he had ever been held so closely and telling him what a great wizard he was: "Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and —"
And? And what? Her voice drifted and try as he might he couldn't hear what the last word was. All he could hear were mumbles. Harry. Harry. Harry. Someone was calling out to him but he didn't want to leave just yet. Here, there was nothing to fear. Here, it was warm. Here, he was comforted. Here, he felt loved.
"Harry! For goodness sake!"
The pleasant warmth in his dreams vanished as he opened his eyes only to be greeted by a frustrated Hermione, leaning close to his face and shrilly informing him that it was already morning and "If you don't hurry up, we're going to miss breakfast!"
Harry wisely chose to obey her orders with haste and freshen up in time to meet her in the Great Hall, but perhaps because of the strange dream the night before, he subconsciously avoided meeting her eyes. Hermione said nothing until one instance where he looked up from his goblet of pumpkin juice and caught her staring at him with a look of such concentration that he nearly choked and spurted the liquid out of his nose.
"Harry," she asked slowly in that careful, caring voice she reserved solely for him when he was in one of his so-called moods. "Is everything all right? You've been acting rather off this morning ever since we woke up."
Something about the way she said we had him freezing in his spot on the bench.
"Well, it's—it's nothing—not a big deal—really!" He managed to stutter out and mentally kicked himself for acting like a nervous buffoon. Hermione, for once my dreams weren't empty, showing me dying during the Tournament, or tainted with visions of Voldemort and I think I have you to thank for that. Oh, and speaking of thanks, I realized just yesterday what a giant prat I've been to take everything you do for me for granted and worse yet, never tell you how much you mean to me. For caring about me and not just the Boy Who Lived—
No, that was better suited to stay in his head. He couldn't have Hermione abandoning him too once she realized what an emotional wreck he was. As soon as he had that thought, he felt guilty for even considering it, but the fear from years of stifling his emotions with the Dursleys had him swallowing back the words of confession.
"It's just I feel guilty, that's all," he mumbled, deciding to go with the truth—just not the whole truth. "Here I am wallowing in my own despair and barely going through the motions to get through this Tournament while you spend day and night trying to solve my problems. Merlin, Hermione, look at those dark circles under your eyes! I can't believe I didn't notice earlier how much of a burden you were taking on because of me. Especially when no one else has even bothered to consider whether I'll survive past the first test. "
"Oh, Harry, that's not—"
"But it is!" He was speaking louder now, anger driving him forwards to finally let out the words in his heart. Anger at everyone who had formed their own opinions of him without ever giving him a chance, anger at everyone who stared at him with those cold, judgemental eyes, anger at himself for barely acknowledging the one person who hadn't.
He stood up from the bench, no longer feeling hungry. People from different tables were glancing over at him and whispering and out of the corner of his eye he saw Ron's sullen face with a frown directed his way. Harry let out a bitter laugh.
"None of you even consider that I never wanted to be the Boy Who Lived, you act like it's a badge I'm proud to wear and you use it to condemn me as a liar and an attention seeker. I never wanted to enter this bloody tournament either, but you're all so far up your delusions, you'll never believe that. I could die tomorrow, and you would simper and say that I brought it upon myself. And some of you…some of you I was stupid enough to call my friends."
He looked at Hermione who had also stood up and was staring at him anxiously. "Too bad, I only realized recently: I only have one of those."
Without waiting for a response, he gathered his bag and made to stride out of the Great Hall. On his way past the high table, he caught sight of the professors murmuring amongst themselves and sending disapproving looks his way. McGonagall's face was stern and her mouth set in a straight line, Sprout stared down at her plate as if unsure of what to do, Snape's mouth curled up in a sneer, and the other professors either averted their eyes or stayed silent when he looked at them.
What was he expecting? That they would jump out in his defense? Make a quick little announcement: "Harry didn't put his name in the Goblet, children! Stop harassing him now!" and what, actually, help him? Why in the world would they do that when they could sit back and watch him face ridicule and pressure from every side? Second year and the parselmouth debacle had been much the same after all.
And then, at the centre of them all, was the headmaster. Dumbledore who had admitted that he suspected someone had a reason for putting his name in, that someone might very well be using the tournament as a chance to attack him. Dumbledore who—as the most powerful wizard alive—could probably find a loophole in the wizarding laws and 'binding' magical contract easily or at least find a way where he could participate without the fear of death hanging over him at every step. Dumbledore who had decided to let events play out without interference and was now looking at him with somber eyes.
Harry couldn't bring himself to say anything; the disappointment felt like a bitter medicine shoved down his throat, threatening to choke him. He forced himself to look into the headmaster's eyes and thought, I don't need your pity.
Not, he thought as he finally exited the hall, when every authority figure in his life was ready to stand by and do nothing.
It felt good to let out his grievances and to erase any expectations of acceptance. After all, if there were no expectations, there would be no disappointment—he was free. Once he reached outside and his anger had simmered down, however, he began berating himself again from steering so off course from his original intention. How had he gone from wanting to thank Hermione to ranting at the entire Hogwarts population?
"Harry!" He heard footsteps behind him and turned around to find an indignant Hermione, panting and out of breath.
"You could have waited for me!" She scolded.
"Sorry," Harry rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "I just couldn't stand to be there a second longer. "
"Mhm." Hermione hummed noncommittally.
They continued to walk in companionable silence and again Harry was struck with how despite her naturally curious tendencies, Hermione always seemed to know when to draw the line with him and give him the quiet comfort he needed.
He didn't know how much time had passed before she finally spoke up. "Feel better now? We should see about squeezing some time in before our first class and head to the library."
He laughed. "Aren't you going to ask me what happened back there?"
"Is there really a need to, Harry? You're a fourteen-year-old minor being forced to participate in a potentially fatal competition against your will and not only do none of the authorities try fix this idiocy, the general population decides to brand you as an attention seeking prat instead. You're only human. To be honest, I would have broken down long before you."
Harry scoffed. "Hermione, you've come a long way from the girl who ran to the bathroom because of Ron's taunts. I think you're stronger than you give yourself credit for."
"Well," she sniffed. "I should hope so! All these years learning spells and gaining confidence so I could wipe the floor with anybody, least of all Ronald Weasley, had better not have been spent in vain."
Hermione didn't bring up the elephant in the room: Ron wasn't exactly on talking terms with either of them now and Harry had no idea when he would come around to see the truth. In fact, Harry was coming to doubt if he even wanted him to.
"Speaking of Ron," Harry stopped and spoke seriously. "I wasn't just being overdramatic back there. I don't think I can really consider anyone in that hall a real friend."
"Oh, Harry, no, don't say that—"
He held up a hand. "This isn't just me being bitter and taking it out on others unreasonably. You know, I haven't had the best of childhoods and I didn't exactly have a lot of friends at school. I could see early on who cared or was just pretending to care. Maybe I was so desperate for a new start at Hogwarts that I ignored the same signs here." The words just seemed to tumble out of his mouth. Why am I telling her this? He asked himself. Why ever should you not? A voice in his head responded.
She'll think I'm pathetic. Everyone would.
The voice denied him: Not Hermione. Never her.
Harry decided to trust it.
"I was willing to ignore it, I was willing to hold on to the hope that I'd do so well in the first task that everyone would welcome me back with open arms. But then I realized something last night: I don't need them by my side to be happy. Why should I care so much about people who care so little for me? I just need my real friends by my side."
He had barely begun his last sentence ("I just need you.") when he was confronted with an armful of Hermione and his mouth was muffled by her bushy hair. "Mhmph! Hermione!"
She didn't let go of him and squeezed him even tighter. "Be quiet! I am hugging my best friend in the world, and there is nothing you can do about it, Harry James Potter!"
Well, who was he to argue with that? For the second time in less than a day, Harry allowed himself to relax and surround himself with Hermione's warmth. He allowed himself to pretend everything was fine and he was safe.
It wasn't until they had reached the library and his eyelids were drooping from finishing another dry old tome about ancient loopholes in wizarding laws, that he realized he had forgotten to tell her "thank you."
After chickening out four times in a row and finding that it was just too damn awkward to randomly give a sincere thank you to your best friend after three years of taking her for granted, Harry decided he needed a different plan.
Actions spoke louder than words anyway, didn't they?
He started with little things: replacing a quill with a better quality one when she wasn't looking, taking up Hermione's usual role and bringing her toast while they walked outside in the mornings, not rolling his eyes at her obsessive lists ("How to Get Harry to Survive: Part 6," "Top 30 Methods and Spells Used by Previous Champions," "Best Ways to Treat an Injury During Life Threatening Moments," "Potential Offensive Spells to Use: Legal Version," "Potential Offensive Spells to Learn, but Hopefully NOT Use: Restricted Version") and instead rolling up his sleeves and putting his head together with hers to go over them seriously.
"—and if we manage to squeeze in one extra hour or two of practice every day, we could cross out more than half of the defensive spells on the "Fundamental Defense" list."
"Actually, Hermione… I think it's better to divide that time for sixty percent offense and forty percent defense. I know that you're focusing on keeping me alive here rather than aggressively winning, but sometimes the best defense is a good offensive front." He frowned. "And since we're on the subject, what category would evasion tactics and illusionary charms fall under?"
For a few seconds, she simply blinked at him with owlish eyes. He cleared his throat.
"Oh!" Hermione blushed awkwardly. "I was just surprised you were actually listening to me."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "I listen to you all the time."
"Yes— but—I mean…" She wrung her hands a little anxiously. "You don't really. You and Ron would always just sit there and nod to my plans, but eventually space out and make an excuse to leave. I don't really mind! I know you trust me and I'm happy about that. Just, I suppose I'm used to doing all the talking when it comes to these things. It threw me a little off guard, that's all."
"So what?" Harry squared his shoulders defensively. "You'd rather I keep my trap shut?"
"What? Oh! Of course not!" She looked scandalized. "Do you know how tiring it gets talking to yourself? Two heads are always better than one and Harry—you have some really good ideas!"
"Not pulling my leg, are you?" Harry's shoulders relaxed, but he maintained a neutral expression. "I know you think I'm not as smart as you are."
"Well!" Hermione spluttered. "I certainly don't recall ever saying anything like that. I may read a lot and I may know more facts than you, but you have a sharpness of mind, Harry, that I think is truly unique. I think that if you applied yourself a little harder, you could see some amazing res—oh, very funny!"
She broke off and crossed her arms as Harry burst into laughter. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Hermione."
"I was being serious!"
"And so am I," Harry sobered. "I'm sorry for leaving you alone so often and making you feel like you had to do all this work by yourself. Especially now, when all that effort is for me. My own life is at stake; if I don't take things seriously now, when would I ever?"
His bushy haired friend signed in relief. "Thank goodness you've realized that. There really is only so much I can do for you, Harry. I try my best, but I'm worried it won't be enough!"
"Hey, what was that you said about two heads being better than one?" Harry pulled out a book from his bag and handed it to her. "We're a team now, you and me."
Hermione stared slack jawed at the cover of the book. "Where did you get this? Even Flitwick only has one limited edition copy and he won't even let students peek at it!"
He shrugged, not wanting to tell her the truth: that she had mentioned wanting this Charms Guide before the OWLs next year so many times that Harry had memorized the name and— in his quest of 'Properly Thanking Hermione'— decided to test if sending a letter to the author with the Harry Potter name would have any effect. (The owl carrying a lumpy package two days later made it clear that it did.)
"You mentioned a few days ago, didn't you?" He coughed. "That it was 'essential to expand my arsenal of simple, but powerful charms.' If I'm going to commit myself to learning, I might as well learn from the best."
Hermione squealed and was promptly glared at by Madam Pince. "Oh, Harry." She leaned in and whispered to him excitedly. "I know I shouldn't be saying this considering the situation, but this will be so much fun."
"Yeah." Harry watched her smile widen and felt a burst of happiness. I caused that.
"It will be."