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August 2007

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justholdstill in hp_left_field

Fic: Birds Fly South

This fic is less remarkable for the content than for the fact that I have been working on it and trying to finish it for two years now. I finally managed that last night, and I am so proud that I challenged myself to do it, and surpassed my own expectations.

Title: Birds Fly South
Author: justholdstill
Pairing(s): Harry/Ron/Hermione, Harry/Ron
Rating: R
Words: 4,737
Summary: Nothing, now, she has learned, is entirely platonic. It began, as far as she can remember, with a night out at the pub. A party, just like in the old days (except the holes between them where other men and women should stand, holes in the world); school chums, drunken wizards sending sparks out of the end of their wands and accidentally setting fire to one of the tables, swaying where they stand with glasses raised high in memory. Three months from the end of the war they’re already forgetting names, but they sing loud and strong and with tears in their eyes, and if this is the best they can do for their fallen comrades then Hermione thinks she understands.



Birds Fly South

Landscape changed nothing, but it brought rest, altered character as gradually as water on stone.
- Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion


Down in the village, the bells of the church are ringing, selfish little peals of laughter that trill and croon to themselves across a white morning. They wake her, not enough that she swims up out of sleep entirely, but still the clamour and light of the world stirring come to her muted and facetious as if half-dreamed.
She can hear footsteps that, from her blue-ish cocoon of flannel bedding, sound as if they begin far away; she knows they are really only as distant as the staircase, perilously steep and ludicrously narrow, at the end of the corridor.
After a moment the footsteps cease, and then (much nearer, now) there are hushed voices conferring outside her door.

- S’pose we should?
- C’mon, why not?
- I dunno, what if she’s…
- She’s sleeping, you git.
- Fine then, let’s.


A hinge squeaks and a floorboard groans, and the boys crowd onto the bed, jostling each other, rousing her with their freezing fingers pressed to her throat, her eyelids.

“Oi, wake up! Wake up, Hermione!” Squirming, grinning, she attempts to burrow deeper into the blankets, but they poke her and tickle and shout until she opens her eyes and gives a halfhearted glare. She mumbles something rude, but turns over onto her side and smiles to see their faces so close to her own, ruddy-cheeked, wet, rapidly melting bits of snow clinging to Ron’s standing-up fringe.

“This is no time for a lie-in, Granger! Look outside. Snow, loads of it!”

“Like I’ve never seen snow before, Ron.”

“Yeah, but this is the first of the season,” Harry puts in, tying a pink scarf around her neck and half her face and nearly suffocating her in the process, and you are going to frolic with us.”

“Frolic, my arse.” But a glance out the window tells her that the countryside is indeed frosted and virginal, and perhaps a walk wouldn’t be so had. The last time she saw snow was during the war (a lifetime ago, that, or months, it’s hard to tell), and then it had simply been cold, swirling white as they waited and schemed, for death or victory, one or the other.

Her hand slips through her own hair (wild, snarled) and she says, “Fine. Hand me my jeans, will you?”

*

Her muscles seem to have forgotten the things they once knew so effortlessly; a snowball is clumsy – she has to try to shape and guide it (though one does sail rather superbly into the side of Ron’s head) – whereas the lightning-quick twitch of her wand from its holster, the words for the spell that burns green and tingles in her arm for hours after she’s cast it, are little more than reflex, as easy as running, or scratching her nose. Hermione tries hard not to think of it as they navigate along the frozen creek behind the house, instead counting the tracks that some small animal has left in the bank,

At length they emerge from the woods and come out on top of a modest rise that overlooks another wood, and a field, and the smoking-chimney rooftops of the village at the end of a brown-ribbon road. Everything is bright, clean. It’s a kind of peace all its own simply to stand and be there (not blown away, not yet), with her best mates on a Sunday morning.

Above her, above them, the timid sky behind the clouds is pale and purple-grey; a flock of starlings lifts above a thicket of alder trees to the west, rising and bending and unfurling against the slight wind as one independent beating wing.
There is a stillness, suddenly, odd and trembling and brief, and she is aware of it, reaching to grasp Harry’s mittened hand inside her own.

Down in the village the church bells are ringing.

*

The blue house was Harry’s idea – his, after all, were the pockets lined with gold. They’d walked away from Grimmauld Place when all had been said and done, knowing that Harry would never set foot inside again, knowing that he’d ward the heavy door and raze the building to the ground, in memory if not in life.
And then it had seemed strange to return to their respective homes, as if there was any home to speak of.

Somehow the Burrow still stood, but to the discerning eye it appeared diminished, a little smaller, a little sadder than before. It was as if the lives of its inhabitants, and not the structure itself, had kept it tall, and now that most of them were gone it had become pitched and stooped under the weight of all that grief. Ron had refused even to go in, preferring to stand in the back garden, throwing stones at the gnomes that ran riot through the vegetable patch until Harry came down with a box of Ron’s belongings in his arms.

“So…so you’re just going to leave it as is, then?” Hermione had said softly, her voice wavering. Her fingers touching the sleeve of his shirt.

“Yes,” said Ron, unable to say anything else, and then he had stumbled away from her and been sick into a clump of wild bergamot.

Her own parents are still keeping a tidy house in Manchester, looking into people’s mouths, watching old black-and-white films in the evenings, and reminding her to brush her teeth at the end of their weekly phone calls. They ask worriedly after Harry and still tease her about Ron; they really ought to know better by now, Hermione thinks, having seen they way the three of them curled together to sleep on the wide, creaking bed in the guest room the night after they’d torn the world open and Voldemort was gone for good.

In the middle of that August, which was slow and thick like treacle, she’d kissed her mother on the cheek and gone to sit with Harry in the back seat of the battered station wagon, everything they owned in the world strapped to the roof or in boxes at their feet.
When they’d arrived at the house (“I’ve bought it,” Harry said, “it’s mine. Ours.”) and unloaded the car, her dad caught Hermione in a hug so tight she thought it might break bones, and slipped fifty pounds into her pocket, “for emergencies.”

They had argued at first, Hermione insisting on paying some sort of rent, Ron that they would never need so much space for only three people, but Harry said placidly that he had finally found something worth spending his inheritance on, and would not be persuaded otherwise. They’ve somehow managed since then, using magic and electricity alike, spending days at a time doing nothing but painting walls and nailing down loose floorboards, pulling up weeds in the badly overgrown garden, mending the holes in the roof. Ron, his mother’s son through and through, and also his father’s, has proved to be a willing and able cook, and chooses his ingredients in the muggle supermarket with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession. Hermione, for her part, cleans until her hands are chapped and sore (too many years spent with house-elves to do the washing-up, she thinks wryly), and Harry goes about doing odd puttering things that seem to make no sense until there’s suddenly a birdhouse hanging from a branch of the burly oak on the front lawn, or a rudimentary Quidditch pitch down by the pond.

They’ve become appallingly domestic, and it’s strange at first, the quiet, the freedom to choose what they want to do in the morning, but soon it’s comfortable and routine, and Hermione gets used to hearing Ron’s snores from the bedroom below hers.

They let her choose first, and she took the attic room, a queer-smelling space with low, sloped ceilings and windows and either end, accessible only by a set of pull-down steps. It wasn’t at all like her room at home, a girlish affair done up in pale blues and white lace, the walls papered with her various diplomas and certificates, or even like the dated elegance of the Hogwarts dormitories; there was a worn patterned rug on the wooden floor, which looked incongruous but somehow charming against the wrought iron bed frame, and Harry and Ron had tacked up her posters and pictures all over the wall above her bed, so that looking at them Hermione saw everything she’d ever been, at eight, at thirteen, at seventeen – a dinosaur fanatic at five, an aspiring watercolour artist at six; unbearably awkward, Hermione thought, squinting at a photograph of herself in her school robes, at eleven, and not much better since.

And, of course, there were her books, piled on the windowsills, stacked on shelves, overflowing from drawers meant to hold jumpers or underwear; so many, in fact, that they’d converted one of the second-floor bedrooms into a makeshift library filled with naught else but a squashy armchair.

Home,” Hermione says to herself as she falls asleep that first night, recalling the peaceful expression that Harry’s begun wearing and which she’s never seen before. “Home.”

*

Nothing, now, she has learned, is entirely platonic. It began, as far as she can remember, with a night out at the pub. A party, just like in the old days (except the holes between them where other men and women should stand, holes in the world); school chums, drunken wizards sending sparks out of the end of their wands and accidentally setting fire to one of the tables, swaying where they stand with glasses raised high in memory. Three months from the end of the war they’re already forgetting names, but they sing loud and strong and with tears in their eyes, and if this is the best they can do for their fallen comrades then Hermione thinks she understands.

“Lest we forget,” says Neville Longbottom, his hand gentle and warm on her shoulder.

Across the room Hermione sees Harry and Ron shrugging into their woolen coats, speaking to each other, laughing, their conversation lost to her in the lively music that slips through the gathering. She sees Harry lift his hand, his fingertips barely brushing Ron’s jaw. He adjusts the crooked line of Ron’s collar.
Her stomach twisting in anxiety, Hermione feels as if she is watching a strange and tender pantomime.

She’ll remember all her life the lightness of it, the sureness of Ron’s hand on Harry’s wrist. She will be walking alone, unhurried, on a sloping street in San Francisco, and she will see a man kissing his wife goodbye on the front step of their house, her face turned toward him, shining like an ordinary sun; she will remember it then.

All that night Hermione lay awake, listening for sounds she might have missed before, and heard nothing but the humming of the ancient radiators. Even so, she imagined that the sound of the rain on the windows was the wet sound of lips parting, of kisses, and tossed in her bed until dawn.

*

(She remembers the time with Firewhisky in the back garden at the Burrow, the night before Fleur and Bill’s wedding, charmed strands of light strung between the trees; lolling in the grass with Ron and Ginny and Harry and the twins, flushed and daring, tipsy, happy and afraid, Waltzing with Harry – before he’d tumbled them into the flowerbed -, watching it all go gold and fluid in the corners of her eyes.
Where have they been since then?)

*

A bottle of wine and the kitchen floor. Her fingers tap out the beat to whatever is on the old turntable (Hendrix, possibly, something sinuous and stirring and demanding, enough to make her squirm) on Harry’s arm, a code of familiarity. Their limbs are loose, their movements just shy of ridiculous, so perhaps it is good that they sit propped against the cabinets, talking just a little.

“Remember,” says Harry, lingering over the word for a moment as if he himself is not quite sure what he was going to say, “remember when we saved the world?” And he hoists the bottle in a salute, half-grinning, half-frowning (which, for no particular reason, reminds her of the way he looked covered in blood, his arm twisted at an unlikely angle, broken, during a battle in a valley), mocking himself, mocking their maudlin drunkenness.

Ron takes the bottle out of Harry’s hand and lifts it to his mouth. He swills from it, then leans across to open his mouth against Hermione’s, the dark liquid spilling from his tongue to hers, trickling from the corners of their lips, down their chins. She smiles, and then laughs into his kiss, and only manages to dribble more of the wine down her front. His lips wander, ending up close to her ear, his long nose in her hair.

“Gonna have to get you out of this,” he tells her softly, rasping a little, his expression keen. That voice – she’s heard it from him before, crouched beside him in a cave up north, muttering funny things, I’d-die-for-you things. It’s strange to hear it now, his slender fingers ghosting over the stains on her shirt, all his attention focused on her. She giggles (even though she’s not a giggling sort, not a pretty girl) as he works ineffectually at her buttons, kindly helping him along though she is little better. Hermione starts when Harry’s face appears next to Ron’s; he presses a feather-light kiss to Ron’s brow (who knew the boy could blush under all those freckles?), and the corner of his mouth turns up and the sight of her black bra. His glasses are forgotten, folded on the countertop, as he moves forward to kiss her, too.

She lifts her hand, reaches up in the semi-darkness to slide her thumb across his scar, down along his nose. He shudders under the touch, as if in pain, or in ecstasy, and the disquiet in his eyes (green bottle glass at the edge of a wide, wide sea) makes her think of drowning.

Drowning was never like this.

*

All her life she has lived beside, and within, fictional characters and their romances. Between the closed covers of her dog-eared volumes they fall into loves masquerading as desire, fall out of desires playing at love. She feels she ought to know this terrain, then, but she doesn’t, and it is something new and exquisite, perplexing despite all she’s read.

Nothing prepares her for the slow-subtle shift of her heart (yes, that, the one they’ve told her she has, that beats and beats away in her chest but never makes anything easier, not living, not this), when, after she’s had her nipples pinched, been bitten and sucked and pulled between them, she lies down full of the knowledge of them.

Sometime during the night Hermione wakes and pulls herself from Harry’s bed. Wearing Ron’s t-shirt, her legs bare, she creeps downstairs and out into the chill November evening. The grass is wet, silver-looking under the too-bright moonlight, so she settles herself in a wicker chair on the patio, ignoring the gooseflesh rising all over her body. Crookshanks appears from nowhere, back from his nightly prowl, and crawls into her lap, nudging his orange head against her hands in search of a good scratch behind the ears. He purrs as Hermione absentmindedly rubs his belly, but she can’t quite shake the bizarre feeling she has that everyone she knows has gone away in the dark, and this is the lonely, quiet world she’ll have to inhabit from now on.

*

There is a softness in what they do with each other that extends beyond what they’ve let her see of their darkened mouths, their skittering hands, that is clearer when they’re both of them asleep beside her, and smell like the warmth of their sex, the tang of their youth.
The way they peruse one another, Harry looking up through the hair falling in his eyes, waiting for the rough, quick kiss Ron is sure to leave on his lips, taking stock and assessing position; this is how much I have of you – this is how beautiful you are.

Does that make her a voyeur?

Once, she’d walked to the village to buy bread and milk, and when she returned, pushing the door open with her hop because her arms were laden with brown paper grocery bags, she caught Ron bending Harry over the scrubbed pine table in the kitchen. Their backs were to her, but she could see enough to know what was happening – Harry’s fingers shaking, and groping for purchase on the smooth surface of the table, moaning out Ron’s name; Ron leaning down to murmur something against his temple, his long fingers reaching around to curl about Harry’s cock, moving in him until Hermione thinks she might break from looking at them too long.
She’d set the bags down, careful not to make too much noise, and gone out the way she came in. Sat down on the swing and pushed herself back and forth until long after she’d seen them leave the kitchen for the bedroom.

Later, Ron joined her, the languor of sex still saturating his speech. He’d have left Harry behind in the bed, lost in a shallow slumber, the point that he and Hermione would return to and curl against, the smooth parentheses of their bodies closed and complete.

She is familiar with their bodies as she is with her own, knows without looking the dusky colour of Harry’s penis against his thigh, the constellation of freckles on Ron’s ribs, the rusty swoop of hair across his forehead. There is the sun-brownness of Harry’s skin from the back of his hand to his wrist, from his wrist to the bend of his elbow, lighter from the elbow up to the shoulder. The curve of his lower back that she has seen Ron lap sweat from, press the heel of his hand in when he’s holding Harry against him.

In her room Hermione takes down her hair from its plait, shaking the frizzing curls out so they slide against her neck, touching her arms flirtatiously, softly, as a lover might. She undresses and stands in front of the mirror in only her knickers, gauging the weight of her breasts and the slope of her stomach, the roundness of her things. It’s been a long time since she’s thought of anything to do with other men, the feel of their hands on her.
This is how she looks to them in their beds, pale and solid, not undesirable, but undesired.

*

An evening at the pub, alone. The boys at home with hacking coughs and running noses, not hearing her leave over the explosions in the action movie they’re watching.

It doesn’t take long – ten minutes after she’s paid for her pint and sat in a corner booth sipping it uneasily, a man who reminds her not unfavourably of Remus Lupin approaches her and offers to buy her another. He’s older, about her father’s age, with longish brown hair and wide, kind eyes, and after they’ve talked for half an hour about his thesis on Shakespearean sonnets, Hermione finds herself following him out onto the street, suddenly shy under the streetlamps, knowing the snow must be catching in her hair.
He leads her around the corner and begins kissing her before she realizes what she’s doing; by then, he’s leaning her up against the side of the building and breathlessly asking her permission.
She nods, and bites her lip, and arches her back, the cold from the stone wall seeping through her clothes; his hand worrying the hem of her skirt, cupping her bare knee, sliding under and then higher. Her face pressed against his lapel, her own hands filled with the cloth of his coat, her ears with her moan. Then the trembling, and the legs that would buckle beneath her but for his arm about her waist, and the harsh gasp she barely recognizes as belonging to her. Her open mouth hot against the fine stubble on his chin. A portrait. Woman, undone.

She expects him to ask her back to his flat afterward, but instead he puts her skirt right and smoothes the tangle of her hair. It’s only after he’s kissed her once more and gone back inside that she realizes she never asked him his name.
The last thing she wanted was tenderness from a stranger.

*

Muggle home pregnancy tests (because wizard or muggle, humans are humans, and human physiology is basically the same) cost £6.99 if you buy them from the same place you get your groceries instead of the £7.99 they cost at the chemist’s. They take ten minutes to give you a clear result, and have, according the box, only a 3% margin of error.

Hermione has always liked math because she finds numbers reassuring.

She’s doing her times table the way she did in primary school (one times one is one, one times two is two) when the alarm goes off, and she can look. Pass or fail, for the first time in her life, this isn’t a test she’s prepared for.

Only one blue line. Hermione isn’t sure whether the fluttering in her stomach is disappointment or relief. Probably it’s just her period starting, her body clenching around nothing,
She leans back against the bathroom wall with her eyes closed, thinking about names for a baby, if she had a baby.

(two times two is four, four times two is eight, eight and eight are sixteen…)

*

“You look tired, little girl,” her mum said that Christmas, combing her fingers through unruly curls.

“I am tired, Mum.” Hermione leaned into the caress, exhausted despite herself.

“From the trip?”

“Yeah, Mum, from the trip.” Never mind that she drove herself down, a matter of hours and shades of her school days, hail beating at the windows of their shared falling-apart car. She doesn’t feel like herself, and all she wants is to spend the holiday with her head in her mum’s lap, being coddled and kissed like a little girl again.

“How are those boys treating you? Do they make you cook for them? Wash their socks?” It’s a joke, but Hermione doesn’t know if she can laugh.

“If their socks got anywhere near me,” she says finally, forcing a crooked grin, “they’d wake up to find them dancing a foxtrot on their faces.”

*

“Are you seeing anyone?” Her mum asks her later, passing a steaming cup of tea into her daughter’s hands. Hermione sometimes wonders just what her mother knows, and worries that there’s a love-bite on her throat she hadn’t noticed.

“I…” she struggles with the words for a while, suddenly understanding that the English language has no word she’s ever heard of that can describe what she and Harry and Ron have. There’s nothing she can say that doesn’t sound sordid, so she remains silent until her mother reaches over to pat her hand.

“It’s alright, dear. Drink your tea.”

*

By the time she pulls up their drive, she’s feeling more combative than she has since she was sixteen and attacked Ron with canaries. So it’s unlucky for the two of them, even if it isn’t really intended to hurt her, that they’re lying naked in front of the fire and looking pleased with themselves when she storms in, takes one look, and starts to cry.

The bruises will heal, they tell her later, with only a dab of Hex-B-Gone ointment, and besides, charming the couch cushions to beat them over the head is one of the most interesting things she’s done, magic-wise, since she figured out Polyjuice potion years ahead of her time. That part of it is total bollocks, of course, but as they pull her down between them and lick the tears off her face, lighting a different sort of fire in the places where before her fury had blazed, she can’t find it in herself not to forgive them.

*

In the darkness of the house she approaches their bed, She is wearing a coat, and her curls are tucked up inside a knit cap. She carries nothing, although she feels she ought to have something to bend down and press into their palms; a handkerchief, perhaps, a flower, a length of shorn hair. Some intimate gesture, a token meant to convey love in all its depths, despite the giver having fled in the night.

Bookworm she may be, but she has no real talent for poetry, nor sentimentality.

What would they think were they to waken now and see her, a winter-dressed shadow standing over their sleep? Would they raise their arms together and tug her down to lie between them, covering her face with their warm drowsy breaths? Or would they ask questions, cause a scene, keep her from leaving though the car is idling outside?

Neither of them is the reading sort, beyond the morning paper and Quidditch Through the Ages; neither of them will ever go into the library and take down a book as if selecting a choice piece of fruit from the bough of a tree. That is how she knows the letter will be safe there, tucked between pages 794 and 795 of Hogwarts: A History.

“I was,” she says at last, looking at Harry in the mottled half-light of dawn, the lower part of his body concealed by a sheet tucked across his hip, his leg, like a winding cloth, “always afraid that you would love each other more than me.

Neither of them wakes or stirs. They don’t hear her go.

*
Dear Harry. Dear Ron.

I said I would live with you when the war was over because of the way you looked at me after the last battle; I saw something like hope burning in your eyes, and I knew mine must have looked the same.
For the most part I fancied myself in love with the both of you, and I had for years. It seemed only natural that we live together. I couldn’t fathom a life where we were separated after being so close during the last seven years.

So don’t ask me why I’m going now. I’m not sure I could tell you myself, but believe me when I say I need to.
I do know one thing, though. I did love you and do love you, and I always will. Be happy together.
I’ll see you when I can.

Hermione

p.s. – I know you don’t like Crookshanks, but please feed him now and then.


*

Half a dozen offers for positions at the Ministry, good ones that mean decent coffee and a windowed office, and each day Hermione Granger finds herself in the cramped bookshop just round the corner from her flat, selling used copies of Lolita and Joyce’s Dubliners to Wizards and Muggles alike.

Even though she keeps around her the things that remind her of a normal life – a gas stove, a tape player, an electric kettle – there is still enough of a tang of magic in the place that it seems strange that a phone should being abruptly to ring and ring in the middle of the day. It was something she never got used to, and still hasn’t coming home from school and hearing the persistent thin whine of electricity underneath the other sounds that life makes.

It’s far from perfect, but good all the same when, once a week on Fridays, Harry calls and asks carefully how she is.

“Are – are you happy, Hermione?”

It is not an easy question to answer, and for a moment it overwhelms her, seeming to encompass the whole of her life up to this point, this moment. She looks down at the landscape at the landscape of herself half-dressed, a woman-continent, circumscribed by the steady looping movement of a clever tongue, which, in the bruised-seeming glow just before twilight descends, could almost be the colour of rose petals, and is just as soft where it brushes the skin of her belly.

A sea through which no man sails.

“Yes. I think so. I mean, I’m trying to be.”

*

Some lies are the necessary ones.

Fin

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