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" Alice the world is full of ugly things that you can’t change. Pretend it’s not that way. It’s my idea of faith…" --Ben Folds Five

 

Baby, Things Change

 

 

Harry Potter was trying not to think about the last time he’d been on a train. Shit, was that the day he left Hogwarts? He shook his head. He must have been on one after that. He couldn’t remember.

When he was on the Commodores they’d given him his only fancy flying saucer. Of course it wasn’t really a flying saucer—but that was what they called them, back then, when everything made sense. Arman used to say that they should paint a pretty girl on the aluminum siding, like the world war II pilots had done with their planes. Harry thought of Hermione again and shoved his hands into his pockets.

The little boy who was sitting across from him was staring at him. He was beginning to wish he’d taken a Muggle train.

" Mum, that’s Harry Potter!" he shouted, pointing. The kid’s mother looked up from her trashy novel and frowned.

" That ain’t Harry Potter," she scolded with a heavy accent, " He dunn’t even look like im’!"

" Sure he does, ma," the child insisted. Harry shifted uncomfortably, and shook his head.

" Nope, not me," he said, " I get that all the time…" He thanked the sages that he’d had that stupid scar removed last year. The little boy just shrugged.

" I heard his Quidditch card is worth 500 pounds," the boy said, tugging on his mother’s sleeve.

" Rubbish," she muttered, " No one wants a Harry Potter card anymore."

" Well, yeah…" the little boy said, staring at Harry, who was expressionless. " Mavis Lawhorn says he has a Bennet Weasley card. Now THAT’S worth something, I bet!"

" Shut up!" his mother said, whacking him over the head, " I’m trying to read!"

Harry got up and left. If he heard the name Bennet Weasley one more time… He walked to the dinner car and sat down at the bar. The bar. A safe haven. He ordered a drink. Figured he’d need one.

<><><><><><><><><>

 

" Now, open up very wide, please," Hermione Granger said, taking the plague scraper into her hand, and pulling on a pair of shiny white gloves. The little girl in the dentist’s chair stared up at her and tentatively opened her mouth.

Hermione’s hand was shaking. She had to go today—of course it was raining, of course she would see him. She told herself that it didn’t matter—that everything was changed now, and it just didn’t matter. More important things had happened—God, poor Ron—she should be thinking about him.

Finished with the initial checkup, she called for Brian. The REAL dentist Brian, when she was just an assistant because she had started school too late. Because before then she’d been…something else, something that hadn’t exactly earned her any college credits in the real world. The real world. Brian came around the corner, grinning.

He clamped a friendly hand on her shoulder as she stood up.

" How does she look today?" he asked with a grin in the little girls’ direction.

" Looks fine," Hermione said, smiling at Brian. He was so beautiful, and sweet, and young for a man of his profession—only two years older than she was.

" Good, good," he said, looking at the little girl, " You’ll excuse for a moment, Brittany?" She nodded. Brian took Hermione’s arm and led her away from the chair near the window. " You okay?" he whispered.

Hermione raised a shaking hand. " I should be," she said quietly, " I’m not," she admitted. Brian squeezed her shoulder and she felt her cheeks flush.

" You want to knock off early?" he asked, " I can take care of things for the rest of the day."

God, he was so thoughtful. She wasn’t used it—sometimes she just thought he was kidding her, with all his niceness, all his charm. But today she took him seriously, and accepted his offer.

Hermione changed in the tiny bathroom in the hall, said goodbye to the secretary, Bridgette, and left the office. She climbed into her little white Muggle car, parked in it’s usual space in the parking lot. What a horrible thing I have to do, she thought. She turned into Dunkin Dounuts and bought a coffee before she headed for home, where she’d change into all black clothing and cry a little in front of the mirror before she left.

<><><><><><><><><>

Harry was one of the first people there—a quiet little cemetery on a hill, it was a place for wizards and witches to bury their dead. The evening sky was just beginning to approach dusk as he climbed the grassy knoll.

He started to see people he recognized as he got closer. Oh, bugger, he thought, I can’t go through with this. Harry thought about hiding behind a nearby elm tree and watching the service from there, but it was too late for that, as one of Ron’s brothers had spotted him.

The somber-looking red-headed lad raised a hand and waved to him. Harry could hardly tell any of the remaining three apart, now that they were older. It had been the with Ron, when he was alive. Harry swallowed a lump in his throat.

" Harry, old boy," as he got closer he could see it was one of the twins. " It’s me, George," he cleared this up early, obviously expecting people to get confused. Fred was nearby, standing with a small brown-haired woman and two boys, both with red hair, one with glasses. Harry could see Percy and Penelope with their daughter, and little Ginny, standing alone with her hands folded, looking stoic and removed. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley were talking with the minister of ceremonies. They both looked grief-stricken and remorseful. Meanwhile, Bennet was no where to be found.

George sighed heavily. " I’m sorry we couldn’t have seen each other before now," he said, " It’s a damn shame how we all drifted apart."

Harry nodded, " I feel like it’s my fault," he said quietly. Fred shook his head.

" Naw, it wasn’t you," he said, " It was everything, you know? Anyway, we understand that Quidditch is…demanding."

" Bullocks," Harry muttered, " I haven’t played Quidditch in years."

" What’ve you been up to, anyway?" George asked, and Harry knew he meant it to sound friendly; that he didn’t understand that this was the last subject Harry wanted to delve into.

" Oh, you know," Harry said, shrugging his shoulders, " This and that." Mostly avoiding everyone who once loved me like the plague, he thought. Mostly hanging around Muggle bars where no one will point and say, ‘Lookie there—that used to be Harry Potter!’. The great Harry Potter—some hero he’d turned out to be. He’d sold his soul to Quidditch, only to have it thrown back to him years later, torn, sordid, and worn away in spots.

" We’ve been working for the ministry—doing reconnaissance stuff for their program to attack the Dark Arts from the inside," Fred explained.

" It’s very dangerous work," Fred’s wife said, looking at him warily. Harry half-grinned.

" How’s she holding up?" he asked, flicking his head toward Ginny.

" Ohhh…." George said sadly, "Now’s not the best time to ask."

" She was pretty close to Ron, eh?" Harry asked—he had no idea. He hadn’t seen any of the Weasleys since Hermione had moved out, almost three years ago.

" Not really," Fred said, " It was more that she wasn’t—you know? I think we’re all regretting it, now… We sort of ran off to the four corners of the world and left Ron here… I didn’t think he needed us, maybe he did."

Harry hated to see someone like Fred Weasley with such a dismal look on his face. It should be illegal, Harry thought, for a guy like him to frown and look down at his shoes. He remembered all the mayhem they’d caused together at Hogwarts as kids. That seemed like a lifetime ago.

<><><><><><><><><>

Hermione pulled into the parking lot, still trying to fix her mascara. She’d been sitting in her bathroom since she’d gotten home from work, rollers in her hair, crying and feeling sorry for herself. She kept re-living the day when she’d realized the only way she could be brave, and stand up for herself, was to ruin everything in her life that was good.

She sat in her car, hearing his words again in her head. Hearing the screaming fights, the distant conversations, the whispered sweet-nothings at 4 o’clock in the morning, when it was dark, and they were alone. It had been the only time she could connect with Harry since he’d become MVP on the Commodores. When you took everything else out of the picture: Quidditch, late nights at the bar with the team, Hermione’s fading powers, her loneliness as she waited for him to get home each night… if you ignored EVERYTHING, then you were left with something small and beautiful. It was the fact that neither of them could, or would, love anyone else.

It took some courage to get out of the car. Courage was something Hermione had, though—she’d been brave enough to walk out of Harry’s life when things had gotten so bad… So bad that she called her mother crying at least twice a day, and that even the word ‘Quidditch’ gave her stress headaches.

Hermione walked up the hill toward the other people wearing black. She didn’t see HIM—only a bunch of red-haired boys and Ginny. Oh, poor Ginny—she looked like she’d been completely hollowed out. She just stood like a stone and stared straight ahead.

Ron had died in a freak accident with an enchanted Muggle car. They weren’t sure how… Hermione almost thought it was deliberate, though she hated to even imagine her old friend becoming that desperate. And she hated to think about how she’d left him, too, when she’d left Harry. Ron, who had done nothing. Mrs. Weasley gave her a friendly, wearied wave when she saw her coming, and Hermione felt her guilt burn into red patches on her cheeks.

Hermione immediately noticed Bennet’s absence—that hideous boy. How could he not show up for his father’s funeral? Thinking about everything Bennet had put Ron through since his mother had taken off, and how ungrateful he was, made Hermione sick to her stomach. And to top it all off, Bennet had everything—a huge following for his Quidditch talent, every witch in the cradle of humanity throwing herself at him, and a father that loved him despite everything. Hermione felt her eyes beginning to water again.

" I wasn’t sure you’d come," someone muttered in her ear, and, knowing of course who it was, Hermione backed away. Don’t lose your head, she quickly thought before looking at him, you’ll only wake up alone, and you know it. She turned to face him.

<><><><><><><><><>

Harry had never really known what it felt like to want to succumb to someone completely. But now he did. He wanted to get down on his knees in front of Hermione and cry and beg her forgiveness, wrap his arms around her legs and grovel at her feet—ANYTHING that would get her to take him into those arms he’d missed for three years.

" You look good," he mumbled, barely audible. She was looking at him like she thought he might pull a knife on her or something. Those big, cinnamon eyes, watery from crying for Ron—it was like staring at a ghost. This was the girl he loved—she had seemed dead and gone to him, but here she was.

" Wish I could say the same," she said curtly, looking away. What? Oh, I look horrible, right, Harry thought, What does she expect? He’d gotten pretty wild in the years after she’d left—back then he could have taken a different girl home with him every night after a game, and for the most part he had—trying to fill an unquenchable thirst for the love she couldn’t give him anymore. Because I wore her out, Harry thought, used her up and then some. When she looked back at him all he saw was a sad anxiety, tracks of tears that were shed half because she’d been dreading seeing him again.

" I couldn’t not come," she choked out. " I… we left him alone in life, but at least we can be here for him, now…" she trailed off, her voice shaking.

" Hey, that’s not your fault," Harry said quickly. God, she was so self-sacrificing. Hermione would blame herself all of his mistakes—it was one thing that had driven her crazy, driven her away. " I’m the one who—"

" Harry," she quickly cut him off, shutting her eyes. " Don’t bother. Its not worth it."

Harry was quiet for a moment. He enjoyed standing next to her; it was the closest he’d gotten to a beautiful woman in awhile—former Quidditch players with bad knees and drinking problems were not in as high demand as one might have guessed.

" I just don’t want you going around thinking that you left Ron high and dry," Harry said quietly,

" It was me who drove you away from him—and everyone."

<><><><><><><><><>

Hermione certainly couldn’t argue with that, thought it was partly untrue. If she’d really wanted to, she could have stayed in the magical community, and kept close to her friends, without being with Harry. But oh, how the press would have hounded her. Harry Potter’s quiet, un-photogenic little girlfriend had been thrown out onto the street. People would have always asked her what happened. She never wanted to talk about it, maybe because it was always on her mind.

God, she thought—why does he have to smell so good? Standing next to him was like the aroma of baking bread wafting into the dining room—an enticing reminder of something soft, warm and good. How she’d loved to be near to him when they’d first fallen in love! It was after they’d graduated, of course, and before Harry was playing Quidditch for money. They were doing some post-graduate research in Atlantis, working with Mermaids, trying to decipher the dolphin-like language they communicated with. It had been so beautiful there, and she was beautiful, and Harry was god-like back then, so handsome he made her stomach hurt in that sharp, good-natured way when he smiled at her.

They were just kids, and it was crazy—they were so in love that recordings of lonely, underwater mermaid calls became slow, sweet love songs, and they’d sit in their chairs with the other graduate students, legs touching slightly, itching to get out of the lab, watching the clock while the second hand seemed to move backwards.

Hermione remembered their first kiss like a dream; like something that hadn’t really happened to her, but to some other lovelier, bewitching girl—the only witch in Atlantis who could capture the eye of the much-coveted Harry Potter. But she had been there, because she remembered the way his lips trembled the first time, the way he kept his eyes shut for a few moments afterward, and sighed heavily, as if her kiss was the most profound thing he had ever experienced.

Hermione almost giggled, standing there at Ron’s funeral, remembering. She hated Harry for that! This was Ron’s day to be remembered, not his.

<><><><><><><><><>

 

The master of ceremonies began Ron’s eulogy, and Harry already felt like breaking down. He remembered everything horrible that he’d ever done to Ron in a montage as he listened to the service. The way he’d quietly shunned him after he hadn’t been accepted to study in Atlantis with he and Hermione. The way he’d become so wrapped up in her, he hadn’t had time for his best friend.

Hermione had been his obsession, at first. She was the reason he gave up on doing his research, and eventually had to play Quidditch for a living, something he’d never planned on. He scoffed to himself—now that was irony. She’d indirectly caused him to do the thing that had ruined them.

Harry looked over at her, standing so still beside him. Beside me… Harry let the thought slip through his mind, it was soothing. Some people here probably thought they were still together. Harry pretended for a moment that he was one of those people.

What would it be like if they were still together? He’d drive her home to some little apartment—maybe a Muggle joint, it didn’t matter. They’d order take out, eat it in bed, hold each other and cry because they’d lost their friend. Then Hermione would rub his back the way she had when he’d had a rough Quidditch match.

But they weren’t together, and that was painfully obvious, given the way Hermione had her hands clamped tightly in front of her, making no move to comfort him. She looked high-strung, pulled too tight, and he knew it was his fault.

Harry felt like he was back in the closet under the Dursley’s staircase on 4 Privet Drive. He was alone, and it was so dark…all the still, unhappy people that stood around him wearing black were like the dark walls of his lonely space. Even Hermione, who had nothing for him now.

There were times when Harry thought of sending an owl to Ron. But he was too proud—too afraid that Bennet would find it, find out how taking his place as Seeker for the Commodores had ruined his life. Too fond of the way Ron had looked up to him to let his old pal see what he had become.

Harry thought of their second year at Hogwarts, the night he and Ron had snuck into the Forbidden Forest and come upon the pack of giant spiders. He remembered how scared Ron was, and how he’d thrown up in Hagrid’s garden afterward. But he had been there, because Harry needed him.

He choked out a sob, and pinched his eyes shut, not wanting to see Mrs. Weasley’s tear-stained face as she threw a handful of dirt into Ron’s grave.

<><><><><><><><><>

Hermione couldn’t believe Harry was letting himself cry in front of these people, even for Ron. God, maybe he does still have a human heart, somewhere, she thought. Or maybe he earned it back after the Commodores dumped him.

She had an involuntary reflex to comfort someone when they were crying low and anguished like that. Or, that was what she told herself as she carefully brought her hand to Harry’s back. Her fingers curled around his shoulder, which was shaking with his sobs. It felt good to touch him—there was an energy between them that pulled her to reach out for him.

The service was over now, and no one spoke. Most of them were looking at Harry—big, brave Harry, the boy who had stripped Voldemort of all his powers when he was only eighteen. The boy who had reduced the most powerful dark wizard in the world to nothing but the owner of a used car lot in Houston—Tom Riddle’s Chevy Dealership. Hermione wanted to laugh out loud just thinking about it. She wanted to laugh, to crack a smile despite everything, because she was holding Harry again. And goddammit, she knew it was wrong, but it sure didn’t feel that way.

How many times have I said that I’ll never forgive him? Hermione wondered to herself. Harry turned and curled his arm around her shoulder, falling into her arms. Hermione squeezed him desperately to her as the last of the funeral party dispersed—headed for coffee at the Weasley’s burrow. She felt Harry’s hot tears on her neck, and her own eyes watered up again.

" I-it’s okay," she stuttered softly, stroking his hair, " I’m here."

" I know," he muttered against her shoulder, " Where have you been all my life?" he joked, lifting his head. His hand went up to wipe away his tears, but Hermione beat him to it. Oh, here you go, she thought disapprovingly to herself, wanting to take care of him when he doesn’t deserve it.

They were looking at each other for a moment, but Hermione’s eyes quickly jerked away from his. She let her hands slide off his shoulders, but he still hung onto her waist.

" It’s getting dark," she said, not knowing what else to say.

" Yeah," Harry said, " I should get a hotel."

If you expect me to invite you to stay with me, Hermione thought angrily, You’ve got another thing coming, pal. She gently pushed his hands off her waist, but he grabbed her hands with his before she could let go.

" Don’t" she said, watching the sun fall over his shoulder. The last of the light from the day was fading into a faint orange blur beneath the darkening skyline.

" Really?" Harry whispered, " You want to walk away from this alone?" Hermione frowned at him.

" Of course I do," she snapped, and he dropped her hands.

" You didn’t even think about the possibility of you and I—"

" I thought about how I was going to avoid it," she said quickly, " Because I knew you’d try this."

Harry rolled his eyes.

" Now that your star has fallen, you can’t just come crawling back," she said. She knew she sounded harsh, but, boy, had he asked for this. " Dammit, Harry!" she turned and started walking back down the hill toward her car, " I KNEW you’d do this."

" Yeah," Harry muttered, following her, " So did I."

<><><><><><><><><>

Harry leaned back against the seat of Hermione’s Muggle car. He thought of Ron, going down in flames in the one he’d enchanted. He thought of Bennet, somewhere in a penthouse with a girl on each arm. Wasn’t I supposed to do something today?, he’d think. But, naw, he’d decide, and light another cigar, slide into a jacuzzi and watch the sunset from his wrap-around, top-floor view.

He thought about Hermione, sitting next to her. She drove quietly, gripped the steering wheel hard, staring straight ahead. What would she do when she got home? Eat something from the freezer, watch some Muggle television and go to bed alone? Or did she have some other reason for her cool reserve? Was there some handsome, accomplished Muggle man waiting for her little white car to pull into his driveway? Would she fall into his arms, and tell him how hard it was, how much she’d hated seeing her childhood love?

" Where do you want me to drop you off?" Hermione asked. She rolled down a window and leaned her on her elbow, sleepily watching the road, not looking at him.

" Okay," he said, sitting up, " I know I hurt you…"

" HARRY,"

" But listen to me! If you’ve already… given up…would it really hurt that much more to try one more time?" he asked, desperate. If he got out of this car, if he walked away from her—he might as well join Ron in the afterlife. Everything in this life that was important to him—everything that meant ANYTHING at ALL, was sitting in this car. And it was her. God, it was her.

" Yes, it would hurt," Hermione said, her voice shaking a bit, " It would hurt to give you another chance and have you destroy me again." She was crying now. " You can only have your heart broken so many times," she said, " Before it just becomes indifferent."

" Look, I’m not saying we should just crawl back in bed together and pick up where we left off," Harry said, as she wiped her eyes, " But what if I…hung around town for awhile?" he asked. " Just to see…what happens?"

Hermione shook her head, " Oh, please," she scoffed, " That would last all of an hour. It’s always been all or nothing with us, Harry—you know that."

" You want me to walk out of your life forever?" Harry asked, trying not to choke up, " Like you walked out of mine?"

" I’m sure you were fine without me," Hermione said tearfully, " From what I heard, you were. Now that things are tough you think you want me back…" she trailed off.

" This has nothing to do with whether or not I’m playing Quidditch anymore," Harry said, " Not a day went by that I didn’t wish to God that you’d come home. I was a mess without you, that’s why I turned out like I did! All the drinking, and the partying—it was all to try and forget how much I’d screwed up, letting you go."

Hermione was shaking her head. " Stop it," she said, " Just stop it. I’m sure we’ve both been over this a million times in our heads. It’s overkill, Harry. But, mostly—it’s over."

They drove in silence after that, Harry dying inside and Hermione trying not to cry. She asked him where he wanted to be dropped off, and he told her the train station would be fine. When they arrived, he climbed out of the car, and leaned down to get one last look at the only girl he’d ever loved.

" Don’t try to make me feel guilty," Hermione whispered. " This is hard for me, to."

" I just wanted you to know," Harry said, " That just sitting next to you here made me feel better than I have in years. In three years, to be precise. And before—when you were holding me…" he trailed off, and sighed. " Well maybe I can live off of that for awhile."

Hermione nodded, " Me too," she whispered, " I’ll be living off it too, Harry."

" Hermione!"

" Goodbye, Harry."

" Hermione, this doesn’t make sense!" he cried, " Tell me you’ll at least see me again."

" Please shut the door," she said, quietly, and on the verge of tears. Harry watched her for a moment. She just stared straight ahead, not moving.

" As you wish," he said, finally. He closed her door and stood. The little white car sped away, away from the train station, away from him.

Harry went inside and bought a ticket back to Abbott, the little fishing village on the west coast, where the seafood taverns were open until dawn, and where he could sleep until noon the next day when he finally dragged home.

Things should have turned out differently, Harry thought, sitting heavily on a bench near the platform. I sure as hell didn’t expect to end up here.

<><><><><><><><><>

Hermione had to pull over to the side of the road—she couldn’t see through her tears. It was late now, and she was shaking with sobs in her car, the seatbelt chaffing at her neck, and Harry’s scent still beside her in the car. She’d been driving for almost an hour with the windows open, but she couldn’t make it go away.

Suddenly the overhead light in her car went out, and Hermione gasped. She looked up at the burnt out bulb, irritated.

" LUMOS," She screamed at it, and suddenly it was glowing with a supernatural flame. Hermione gasped again. The soft light lit her car, and warmed the air.

I haven’t done magic in years, Hermione thought, shocked. Is it possible that I still have some of my powers? She pointed at the window across from her, on the passenger side. Concentrating, she was able to make it lower itself.

Hermione laughed out loud. She wished Harry had seen that. She wondered how much magic he could still do…he’d been so powerful, but surely Quidditch had gotten him out of practice.

Hermione thought of the year they’d spent in Atlantis, slowly falling in love, their powers like never before. Something about being together there in the beautiful underwater city had brought out things in them that they hadn’t known were there. Hermione knew she’d never feel that alive again. She wondered if they still needed an assistant in their research lab.

She wondered if they needed two.

Hermione pulled off the shoulder and wheeled the car around, taking a U-turn back toward the train station. She could almost hear the songs of mermaids in her head, along with the soft cascade of waterfalls. Of course, if he was still there, and if they did this, it wouldn’t be as easy as last time…

…But what the hell, it was still worth a try. Hermione had a smile on her face as she drove back to Harry.

THE END