They're lying on a beach, because it's Ron's turn to pick, and he said he wanted to go somewhere warm. Hermione isn't sure whether that was for his own sake or because of Harry, who is lying sprawled on the sand, his head back, pressed into a hollow in the sand as if baking in its warmth. Ron is lying in a beach chair, a drink at his hand, his bare legs crossed and his feet crusted with sand. There are freckles coming out across the bridge of his nose and tracing out constellations across his chest; she thinks that's her detail, not the sort of thing Harry would notice.
"The next time we go on holiday, we should come here," Ron says, leaning back to watch the clouds drifting slowly overhead.
"I don't think this is a real place," Hermione says. There can't be a beach like this that isn't overrun by tourists. Certainly not one with convenient weathered teak beach chairs and cold drinks appearing in the sand when you want them. Seagulls swirl above the sea, the sun glinting off their wings.
"I thought it was someplace you'd been," Ron says. "Some Muggle place."
"Not really," Hermione says. She remembers going to the beach as a child, walking up and down the crowded pier and buying Blackpool rock and eating it despite already being stuffed with fish and chips and sunburning in a strip across her nose. Some part of her wants to take Ron and Harry there, to sit in a real café and watch the tourists go by, but she resists letting that influence the beach around them. "This is your holiday."
"Mum and Dad hardly ever took us to the seaside," Ron says.
"I can't imagine why," Harry says without opening his eyes.
"I expect we were a bit of a handful."
"Just a bit," Hermione says, smiling a little. "So where's this, then?"
Ron shrugs. "It looks like Mexico to me. Isn't this what Mexico ought to look like?"
"You've got me," Harry says. He does open his eyes, then, looking up at Hermione rather than Ron. "I've never even been to Blackpool."
"We should go," she says. It doesn't matter that it's winter. They can buy tea in paper cups and walk out on the pier and watch the water lap gray against the pilings. Or, no, better, sit in the window of a tea shop and watch people bustling up and down the street in their scarves and coats. The table will be stained with coffee, and it will smell of chips, and it will be more real than anything in the wizarding world sometimes seems to her.
"Why does this beach smell like chips?" Ron asks.
"Sorry," Hermione says hurriedly. She concentrates on the smell of salt and suntan lotion and wet teak and Harry's wet hair. She is sitting cross-legged on the sand herself, and she can feel its warmth soaking into her bones. She hopes that lasts when they get home.
The tide is coming in, she thinks, the water lapping further and further up the beach as the shadows lengthen. That's probably Ron, who has a sense of how the world ought to work that usually cuts through Harry's desire for time to stand still. The last time they were in Harry's fantasy, they tramped through the snowy fields near Hogwarts for hours without getting cold or tired, the same heavy snow falling without piling up any higher under their feet. She thinks Ron found it a bit disturbing, especially when they kept coming upon the tracks of unseen deer or pawprints that might have been left by enormous dogs padding through the snow.
This is better, she thinks, a place where time passes but it doesn't matter much. She toys with Harry's hair, and he bats her hand away with sandy fingers.
"You'll get sand in my hair," he says.
"Like there's not already, mate," Ron says, and tips his drink so that ice spills onto Harry's outstretched wrist. Harry yells in outrage and swarms up onto the chair, wrestling Ron off of it into the sand on the other side. Hermione scrambles back, laughing and trying to avoid putting her feet in the remains of Ron's drink.
Ron and Harry are wrestling, and when Ron rolls Harry over onto his back he leans down and kisses him, only a little awkwardly. Hermione thinks about joining them, but they don't always need her in the middle, and it's too easy for them to put her there. Instead she rights the chair and stretches out on it, trailing down one hand.
Someone bites her fingers. She swats at Ron — she's sure it's Ron even before she turns over — and he leans back on the sand, grinning. Harry has sat up, and is gazing out to sea, along the long gold trail that the setting sun makes on the water.
The wind ruffles his hair, and Hermione wants to put her hands on his shoulders and draw him back to them. She resists, knowing how easy it is for them to smother him. She wonders sometimes if that was the problem with Ginny, that she gave him all the concentrated attention that Harry always thought he wanted but didn't actually know how to stand, but she can't talk about that with either Harry or Ron. There are a few places they can't go.
"We should go somewhere like this," Harry says. "Or anywhere. We could go to China."
"We don't speak Chinese," Ron points out practically.
Harry puts his chin on his knees instead of pointing out that there are translation charms. "I want to go somewhere."
"We will," Hermione says. "I'll take a holiday in just a few months, when things calm down at work. And we'll go somewhere …." She doesn't say, somewhere where no one knows you, although she knows that's what Harry wants. Or maybe it's somewhere that won't remind him of the war.
"Assuming we can get time off at the same time," Ron says. "Or we could Apparate, for the weekend."
"We could," Harry says, although they all know that weekends aren't sacred for Aurors any more than they are for Ministry officials. They all spend too many Saturdays and Sundays at work and eat too many dinners out of boxes at their desks. It's rare enough for them to be able to snatch a few hours to spend like this in a charmed daydream where they can be together at the seaside instead of gathered around her office desk over a takeaway lunch.
Harry stands up, still looking out to sea. The sun is setting, staining the water bronze instead of gold, and Hermione can't resist standing up too and putting her arms around Harry from behind. He lets her, leaning back into her embrace, the warmth of his sun-warmed skin soaking into her hands.
"You could make the sun stop setting," she points out.
Harry looks back at Ron. Ron shrugs one shoulder. "Wouldn't ever rise then, would it?" he says.
"We're not going to be here long enough to see it rise," Hermione says.
"It's the principle of the thing," Ron says. He gets up and comes to stand behind her, reaching around her easily to wrap his arms around Harry too for a moment, and then lets go and comes around him, a gleam in his eye. "Race you to the rock down there."
"It's however far away you want it to be," Hermione says skeptically. "I don't see how …."
"I think I'll win," Harry says.
Ron grins. "I think you're wrong."
"I think you're both mad," Hermione says, but she laughs as they sprint down the beach, sand flying under their feet, Ron's hair blazing in the light of the setting sun. As she stands watching, the water swirls round her ankles, and she can feel the sand under her feet crumbling the way this daydream will when the charm fails, returning them to her office where she has bolted the door against intruders on their lunch-hour fantasy.
It hasn't yet, though, and so she runs after them, watching them draw even with the rock, Harry a few feet ahead despite Ron's longer stride. He doesn't stop, and for a moment she is afraid he will go on running, outdistancing them both and vanishing into the distance where the beach fades from sight; she can see Ron's stride falter, as if he's thinking the same thing.
Then Harry turns and catches Ron around the waist, Ron's weight spinning him round a few stumbling steps until they're holding onto each other and laughing. When she catches up to them, Ron reaches to draw her in, and for a moment it's hard to believe this isn't a real place; nothing in all her life has felt more real. She stands hanging onto both of them, soaking up their warmth.
"We should do this again," Harry says, and she hopes that next time it's his turn to pick, it'll be a place where they can all be warm.