The End of the Beginning

Chapter 12

Harry was doing the same thing he had always done for the past few weeks when he had a problem he couldn't figure out: he was sitting on his bed and looking through the photo album that contained the only pictures he owned of his family.

He counted himself lucky that he had heard their voices speak to him on two different occasions, because it allowed him let the ideas in his mind take on their voices. It was the closest he would get to getting life advice from his parents.

Almost every parental figure he had ever had was dead: His actual parents, Sirius, Dumbledore, and Remus. He still had Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and he was supremely grateful, but he had a hunch that for this particular issue that they had a stake in the outcome.

That was because the issue that was rolling through his mind involved both their only daughter and the ex-girlfriend of their youngest son.

Hermione had been acting very strangely tonight. Well, maybe not acting strangely so much as reacting strangely. There was nothing new to Harry and Hermione walking and talking. There wasn't anything new to them holding hands or sitting together. What was new was the subtle changes in Hermione's reactions. Her blushing, the way she jumped to her feet when he mentioned Ron and Ginny, and her mentioning feeling "safe".

The one strange action was her choice to sit between his legs. It had caught Harry off guard, but he had chosen at first to simply go with it rather than spoil the moment. Only once he had pictured Ginny walking up did he decide it was time to move. After all, it had been quite pleasant to be in such close company. It reminded him very much of the way he and Ginny would sit by the lake on warm afternoons at Hogwarts.

That was just it wasn't it? He was missing Ginny and Hermione probably missed Ron. That was what had brought it about, right? It wasn't as if either of them seriously considered the other as a romantic possibility. At least, he had thought that until Ron had told him that Hermione at least had thought otherwise.

With her relationship with Ron over, was Hermione starting to look at him that way?

It would explain some of the subtle differences in her actions the past couple of days, but so would their heart to heart the previous night. Maybe they were just basking in the glow of a friendship that had reached an all-time high?

Besides, he still had never considered her as a romantic possibility before. Even now something about it didn't seem quite right. His relationship with Hermione had never been any different, even if it was deeper, than the one he had with Ron, it just so happened that Hermione was a girl instead of a boy.

Granted, he knew she was a girl. A beautiful one in fact. The Yule Ball had been enough to show him that his best friend was a very pretty girl indeed. He hadn't been lying to her fifth year when he told her she wasn't ugly.

Still, he had never thought about her like that. He had always known Ron fancied her, probably before Ron knew himself, and he would never think of betraying his friend's trust. So he unconsciously had put up a wall in his mind to keep it from going there.

But she had broken it off with Ron. Where did that leave them? Even if Ginny wasn't in the picture, did this mean he could bring that wall down? Ron surely wouldn't like it and anything that could possibly injure both of his closest friendships was still a no go.

She had said she loved him. She had never said that to him before. She had called him his best friend and that he knew. Maybe she just meant that she loved him as her best friend.

But there had been something different in her voice, something he had never heard before. Come to think of it, it was the same thing he had heard in her voice that night in Rome when she had comforted him on the balcony.

There were just so many "but's" to go along with that.

She had been with Ron still back in Rome.

She had never seemed to care for him as anything more than a friend before.

She just broke up with his best friend.

Repeat: she had never seemed to care about him that way before.

Harry wished he knew exactly how she felt, but he didn't want to do anything that might make the rest of the trip awkward. Their friendship was the best thing he had going for him at the moment, so doing anything to jeopardize that seemed selfish.

Besides, Ginny was still in the picture, even if he wasn't sure what exactly how he felt about her anymore. Ginny deserved her fair shot didn't she?

He really did want to be with her. At least….he was pretty sure he did. It would all make sense when he got back and saw her again.

Maybe he was just blowing this all out of proportion.

Hermione was transfiguring every object in her room that wasn't nailed down, to the effect that her room was now filled with seemingly random objects like beach balls or umbrellas instead of pillows or drawers. Spellwork had always been a way for her to vent whenever she had things pent up inside of her and now was no different.

"What's wrong with me?" She huffed to herself as the transfigured her television into a watch.

She had broken up with the love of her life just a few days ago and here she was coming onto the boyfriend of her best girlfriend. At least, they would be boyfriend and girlfriend when they returned. Or something. She wasn't really sure where they "officially" were, just that they wanted to be together.

Why had she made such a fool of herself tonight? Blushing like they had just been caught in a broom closet together. She was surprised that Harry hadn't told her off. She certainly felt like she deserved it.

She tried to explain it away. She was just missing Ron. She was in a vulnerable state because of their breakup and so this was just her way of rebounding.

But she knew that Harry meant more to her than some "rebound guy". She couldn't lie to herself about the depth of feelings she had for the boy anymore. She had already told him about it anyways. Her messy haired neighbor meant more to her than anyone else in the world.

But was it really like that? Maybe she had just been swept up in the emotion of this new level of friendship that her and Harry seemed to reach.

Maybe she was already panicking about retrieving her parents in a few days' time (okay that for sure was true).

Maybe she was just overreacting to everything that had happened tonight.

She analyzed every movement she had made tonight. Went through it in her mind to see if she had given him any sort of signal that she felt for him as anything more than a friend. Other than the blushing, she thought that by and large she hadn't.

Even sitting between his legs like that was something that she imagined a brother and sister would do. She could certainly picture Ginny sitting like that with any one of her brothers (well, maybe not Percy). At least she did a good job of convincing herself of this.

Logically, it made sense that she was simply emotionally vulnerable right now and had sought some comfort with her best friend. There wasn't anything else to be gleaned from it. Her blushing simply came down to her picturing Ron's face if he saw them that way, but he had always been jealous of practically everything her and Harry did together so that wasn't news. She was just overreacting.

Convinced at least for the moment, that she wasn't experiencing new feelings of any sort with Harry, her mind turned to her other dilemma.

Ron. She felt a wave of sadness wash over her. She really did miss him. He had always been very adept at either making her feel better with laughter or else distracting her from her troubles with something to argue about. Heaven knows that boy liked to argue. He would argue over the color of the sky with a fencepost. Still, she missed it.

Wishing for some kind of comfort and reminder of him, she did the only thing that came to mind.

"Expecto Patronum!"

Out of her wand came bounding the playful otter that had been her patronus since she learned to cast it in fifth year. She would never tell a soul, but she had struggled so mightily to cast it properly because her happiest memories involved Ron. Given that her feelings for him at the moment were always in flux, it had interfered with her ability to cast the spell. Once she had gone through different memories, she had finally found one that had worked for her.

It was at the Burrow during one of her visits there. She and Ron had gone on an adventure through the woods behind the house together. They had found the little river that wound through the trees and had chased each other up and down the banks as the otters played in the water. It was the first time she had realized that she loved Ron. That was why her patronus had taken the shape of an otter. It symbolized her love for him.

Hermione wondered if her patronus would stay an otter now that she and Ron were over. Tonks' patronus had changed when she fell in love with Remus, so maybe when she found someone else hers would change too. How long would that take? How long would she have to live with this broken heart that he had left her with?

Not that she blamed him. Not anymore. She had spent too much time going over everything that had happened between them to think herself entirely without responsibility in how their relationship had turned out.

She often wondered what she could have done differently. How she could have changed things to keep them together. She poured over every scenario, dissecting them to find where she could have said or done something differently.

Not that it would do any good. There was no changing the past, at least, not since the Ministry's stock of Time Turners was destroyed. Besides, she doubted that they would let her go back just to change her love life. They had been supremely reluctant to let her use it to take extra classes.

There were tiny moments when she regretted her decision to break up with him. Moments when she strongly considering going after him one more time to beg him to come back.

Again.

That was usually the one word that kept her from doing it. The knowledge that it wouldn't be the first time and probably wouldn't be the last time she would go hunting after him. She remembered something Dumbledore had said at the end of fourth year.

"….Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy,…"

Of course, at the time it had nothing to do with making decisions in her love life, but it still rang true to her now. Breaking up with him had not been the easy choice, but it had been the right one.

Hermione's patronus bounded around the room playfully for a few moments while she followed it with her eyes. A small and sad smile crept onto her face. She would allow herself to feel, just one more time, the bittersweet feeling of all those moments she had cherished with him: all their adventures with Harry, the trips to Diagon Alley, and the rides on the Hogwarts Express, their prefect patrols together, their holidays together, and their kiss in the Chamber of Secrets.

She blinked away the tears. One day, she would regard them with nothing but joy and nostalgia. But she would have to put them away for a while after tonight. They were just too painful right now.

Her patronus kept its playful circles going for about ten minutes before it bounded its way out the window and out of sight. It would be the last time she would ever see the playful otter patronus again.

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