Author's note: Part of the Accidental Magic 'verse.
Disclaimer: All characters and locations are owned by JK Rowling and associated individuals/companies. I am merely playing in the sandbox they left us.
Her hair reminds you of seaweed. You don't remember the mermaids back in your fourth year, but Harry tells you that they have long, stringy hair that floats out around them until you think it will reach out on its own and tie you down. Watching her run, head down and feet so light she seems to never touch the ground at all, you think you wouldn't mind being tied down, not by her. Her eyes look right through you, though you think she knows that you're watching. She doesn't really look at anyone, and you wonder what it would be like to actually make eye-contact with her. You're not sure you could handle having her full attention on you though, so you don't try to catch her eye.
She didn't used to seem human. When you met her, back when you were both still children, you thought she was some kind of fairy creature. A changeling, maybe, or a kelpie disguised as a girl. Your mother told you not to be ridiculous, and your sister all but challenged you to a duel for being mean to her friend. Now, with both of them gone and her still here, you know better. She's as human as you are, with her big colorless eyes and her stringy blonde hair, her laugh that still manages to feel genuine despite everything and her odd way of saying exactly what no one wants to hear in a way that makes everyone stop to listen. She's seen death and walked away with her head still high. She smiles while on the battlefield, dealing death in close quarters without seeming to be part of the melee at all. Her serene smile is the last thing countless enemies have seen, yet it's still so easy to think of her as innocent. Even you, who've seen what she can do, sometimes think she needs to be protected from the harsh realities of a world not nearly good enough for her.
Harsh reality or not, you don't think you'd ever be ready to see her go.
You're not sure when you stopped paying attention to her odd outbursts, stopped focusing on the ways in which she was different from what you thought was right and when you started listening for the truth behind the imaginary creatures, started seeing the differences as uniqueness rather than defect. You're pretty sure it happened gradually - you'd have noticed otherwise, right? You were so used to looking up to Hermione, so focused on not letting on how very pretty you found her and how much you wanted to sit there and listen to her talk about something no one cares about, so wrapped up in what you always expected that you didn't stop to realize how very much more interesting she was than Hermione. Looking back, you can see yourself paying attention to her, listening to her flights of fancy, paying attention even as you laughed it off. It was always there, you think now, but you were just too blind to see. Was it obvious to everyone else, obvious like the fact that Harry had a thing for your sister (and you're never sure if you're relieved that you never had to hear about your best friend shagging your baby sister or sad that she died without ever getting the thing she most wanted) or that Neville didn't spend all his time in the greenhouses tending plants and hadn't since he was fifteen? (You don't know about Hermione - you never know about Hermione. That inscrutability attracted you as much as it drove you away and in the end that's why it could never have worked between you.)
Sometimes you let yourself think about what would have happened if you hadn't had to spend so much time running, if you hadn't been fighting since you were too young to understand what it meant, following Harry into battle because he was your friend and he needed looking after. You imagine sitting next to her in the library, a smudge of ink on her nose from when she got too excited about something small, her hair all in disarray because she had more important things to do than look after her appearance. You imagine hearing her cheer you on during Quidditch matches, wearing that ridiculous lion hat of hers and happily ignoring the odd looks she got from everyone else in the stands. You imagine walking by the lake with her, holding hands, listening as she tells you all about the trip to Sweden she and her father are planning for next summer.
Her father's dead now, and you can barely remember what it's like to fly for any reason other than running.
Neville catches you watching her one day. He doesn't say anything, just raised his eyebrows. Neville's good at saying things without words though, and you know what he means. She deserves better than you. She deserves someone extraordinary, someone as bright and lively as she is, someone who isn't scared of stupid things and who doesn't get bogged down in stupid arguments and lose his temper too easily. She was born to fly, and you're stuck solidly on the ground, Quidditch be damned. You nod at him to tell him that you've understood and he moves on, going to check on something or other. You don't really know what he does; plants are as much a mystery to you as potions and the only one who's any good at those is Hermione, who's good at everything.
You don't have much time to spend watching her, of course. You're running for your life, never staying in the same place more than a few days in a row, hardly daring to contact anyone else in what remains of the Order for fear of attracting unwanted attention. You're always on the lookout for enemies, for spies, for people who just can't make up their damn minds and switch sides whenever the wind changes. There aren't that many of those anymore; most people think the end of the war's a foregone conclusion. You'd be mad at them if you didn't secretly think they might be right. You'll never say it out loud, not when Harry's your best mate and so filled with determination and responsibility you think sometimes he'll burst, but you don't really think there's that much hope left. Hermione agrees with you, you think, but she's not going to admit to it anymore than you will, and it doesn't matter anyway. You owe it to your dead to keep fighting until the very end, and you're not about to give the living the satisfaction of seeing you break. Besides, you doubt you'd know how to stop fighting even if you wanted to.
She's been fighting just as long as you have, and if you look closely you think you could see the scars.
A few days later you find yourselves caught in a skirmish, the five of you against about ten Death Eaters. The two of you always fight together - Harry and Hermione make a good team, with her strategy and his raw power, and Neville learned to fight on his own back during that last year at Hogwarts. She used to fight back to back with your sister, and she told you early on that you fight the same way. You're not sure if you're proud to bursting of your sister (not even sixteen and already capable of holding her own against the people who tried to kill her before she really knew what death meant) or if you're thrilled that she pays enough attention to you to notice how you fight. You doubt either is the appropriate reaction, but you doubt you'd know the appropriate reaction to anything anymore, not if it came wrapped in a twenty page essay in Percy's handwriting about proper behavior. You probably shouldn't be thinking about your brother in a fight for your life, no matter how untrained the kids on the other side might be. Once, you would have felt bad for dueling kids younger than you. Now you just try to give them quick deaths and think of the Creevey brothers when your conscience tries to speak up.
She spins next to you and you automatically duck as she sends a brilliantly purple bolt of magic at the Death Eater behind you. You don't take the time to see what it does, though no doubt it's worth seeing. She always has been the most creative of the five of you. When Tom dies, (she always calls him Tom, as though he were a casual acquaintance instead of the man who held her captive for months and tortured her father; later she'll tell you that it's her personal way of reminding herself that he's as human as anyone) I think I'd like to take a holiday. Would you prefer the Amazon or Patagonia? You don't have time to answer her, because right then the tide starts turning in your favor and you know from experience that now's the time to press the advantage. You surge forward, knowing without having to look that she'll be right behind you, and within minutes it's all over. The survivors have run away, or tried to. Harry's big on not letting anyone escape, and Hermione likes to keep captives to question. You pretend you don't know how she does that questioning and try really hard to remind yourself of Lavender's face when she finally succumbed to her injuries.
She sticks close to you as you deal with the aftermath of the fight, grubby blonde hair tied up out of her way and delicate hands gripped tightly around her wand.
It's not until much later that night that she goes over to you, curling up by your side and leaning her head on your shoulder. Everyone else is asleep, even Hermione, and it's so quiet you could almost pretend everything's going fine. The layers of protective magic surrounding all of you make it hard, but you always have been good at pretending. Daddy and I always wanted to see the world, she says, and you nod. Harry will win, you know, she continues, and you're so used to her non-sequiturs at this point that it doesn't confuse you even for a second.
How? you ask before you can censor yourself. You wince and look away, not wanting to see her reaction to your question. It's one thing to think it, but now you've admitted your lack of faith out loud. There's no going back, and the heavy weight of betrayal threatens to crush you.
He's Harry, she says, and you realize with a start that for her it really is that simple. You wish you had that kind of blind faith, except that it isn't blind at all. She knows the risks, knows how things stand, knows the state of things just as well as you do. This is faith with its eyes wide open and you understand all at once how it is that you've all come to rely on her to keep you grounded. It's weird, relying on the girl who spends the most time in the clouds to keep you all grounded, but this war's turned everything on its head.
Yeah, you agree, still not looking at her. It's Harry.
It wouldn't be the same, seeing the world by myself, she says, and your stomach sinks. You might not be the best at deciphering the way her mind works, but even you can tell that talking about two things at the same time means that there's some connection between them.
He'd like that, you say, because he's your best friend and if she wants to be with him instead of you you're not going to stop her. He deserves as much happiness as he can get, especially if Hermione's theory is right and he's a horcrux in his own right. You don't like to think about that; you can't lose Harry on top of everyone else.
Yes, she agrees. You didn't ever answer my question, you know. I'd like to take your wishes into account but it's hard when I have to guess. You don't seem like a desert person, but you should never assume things. The Infernal Vermouthla prefers New York to London even though you'd think it would prefer The Daily Prophet to the New York Oracle, after all. She nods conspiratorially at you and you nod back, for all that she lost you when she started talking about deserts.
The two of you sit in silence for a while longer. You're supposed to be keeping watch, but Hermione's got this place drenched in so many wards you think not even a fly could find you here. You've got a healthy dose of paranoia, certainly more than you used to, but Harry and Hermione turned it into an art form. You'd tease them about it, if it hadn't saved your lives many times over in the past months. Neville's paranoid too, though not in the same way. He's alert for listeners and for spies, keeping an eye out on the surroundings even when you're safe. Those months at Hogwarts marked him deeply, and you're as unsettled by the changes as you are grateful for them. You never would have guessed that Neville would end up being as much a leader as Harry, but you suppose neither of them really had much of a choice in the matter. You're not sure who to blame for the loss of your friends' innocence - Dumbledore, Trelawney, him - but you know that if you ever figure it out you'll kill them yourself, even if you have to bring them back from the grave to do so.
Her voice is quiet when she speaks again, and you think that if she'd been any farther away you wouldn't have heard at all. Ronald?
Yeah? you answer.
When the Crumple-Horned Snorkack wants to mate it straightens its horns and draws its beloved's portrait in the dirt. The fact that she knows the mating habits of animals that don't exist doesn't surprise you, though you're not sure you want to know why she's bringing it up now. She hesitates, unusual for her, then adds, I'm not a very good artist, you know.
You turn to face her at last, puzzling through her words to find the question she's actually asking. You're a great artist, you say, hoping she'll give you another hint.
Curls are hard, she explains, voice matter-of-fact.
Another pause, then, Ronald?
I would like to kiss you, if that would not be objectionable.
You blink at her, mind suddenly gone blank. Her expression is as serene as ever as she waits for you to answer. Seconds pass and you don't wake up. She doesn't take the words back either, and you start to think that maybe this isn't a dream after all. It doesn't make sense - what would she want with you anyway? - but she isn't bound by the rules of logic. You don't stop to think about how Neville will probably kill you, or how Hermione will lecture about the dangers of getting distracted, or how Harry will get that hard, faraway look in his eyes that says he's thinking of your sister, and you say, Not at all.
She smiles at you then, a real, brilliant smile that has as little to do with her serene expression than the sun does to the reflection of the moon on the lake on a clouded night. The first kiss is light, so light you almost don't feel it, but it happens and she's right there and you can feel her hair brushing your forearm as she leans over and you don't ever want it to stop. She pulls away, tucking her hair behind one ear. I would very much like to do that again, she announces, and your face splits into a grin.
So would I.