Ron surprised himself by being the first one awake the next morning. Harry was dead asleep on the bed next to him, and when he walked into the kitchen he saw Hermione's door still closed. Opening it was usually the first thing she did every morning after getting dressed.
He was eating breakfast on the couch when he first heard a muffled groan from Hermione's room. At first he waved it off as Hermione waking up, but it grew louder and more insistent. He then heard muffled words, followed by a piercing scream.
All the blood leaving his face, Ron pelted to Hermione's room and flew open the door. She was lying on top of her sheets where she had apparently fallen asleep reading a book. She was thrashing about with her eyes firmly shut. She unleashed another scream as her whole body seemed to convulse.
Ron dashed to her side and put a hand on each of her cheeks. "Hermione! Wake up!"
Hermione continued to thrash about and screamed yet again.
"Wake up! It's me Ron! Everything is okay, please wake up! Damn it!"
"Ron, what's wrong?" Harry had appeared in the doorway.
"She's having a nightmare, she won't wake up. Wake up Hermione, please!"
Harry joined Ron and grabbed one of her hands, rubbing it gently in between his own hands. "Hermione, we're here. It's alright." His voice was much calmer than Ron's.
"Please Hermione." Ron choked, "We're here and you're safe. Wake up."
Hermione's eyes finally flew open and she bolted upright. "I was….she was….Harry! Ron!" She was wildly looking around the room before her eyes settled on first Harry, then Ron. Realizing now where she was, she collapsed into Ron's arms sobbing uncontrollably.
"There, there Hermione. You're safe. She can't hurt you anymore. We won't let anyone hurt you anymore." Ron spoke soothingly. Harry placed a hand on her leg. "That's right. You're here with me and Ron. You're okay."
Hermione slowly gained her composure. When she sat up in the bed, Harry cast a Cheering Charm on her. "All better now?"
"Yes Harry, thank you." Turning to Ron she spoke softly, "Thank you both."
Ron felt his stomach loosen. She was alright. Harry got up to make some hot chocolate and breakfast for her. Hermione stayed in Ron's arms, sniffling and hiccupping. After placing a tray with her breakfast on her bedside table, Harry excused himself for a shower. Ron sat cross legged on the end of her bed while she slowly ate.
"I'm glad you were both here." Hermione spoke softly.
"This is exactly why we're here. We need each other." They both shared a meaningful look with one another. Ron lost himself in his own thoughts. He knew he needed to talk to her about last night, he just wasn't sure if he was ready or if now was the time. Hermione gave him a knowing look.
"Wanna talk about what's on your mind?" Ron tried to act surprised but he knew that she saw right through him.
"We don't have to do this now."
Ron really didn't think she would be up for talking about much considering how she woke up, but she dismissed his concern with a shaking head. "I'm fine Ron, and honestly I wanted to talk about last night too."
Resigned that he wasn't getting out of it, Ron tried to gather his thoughts together. He had never really mastered the art of talking about how he felt about things. That he had done so twice so far on this trip had to be some kind of miracle, or maybe he was finally doing some growing after all.
"Hermione, while I know last night was technically our first real date, it never really felt like I was on a date. It felt like a night out with my best friend. I think you wanted it to feel that way. I genuinely do love you, I've wanted to be with you for years now, but something about last night told me that maybe you don't feel the same way I do about this relationship. I want to know if that's true."
Ron looked hard at Hermione. He may not have had the telepathy thing going for him that Harry and her sometimes displayed, but he still knew how to read her expressions. She had never been very good at hiding her feelings about anything. The look of guilt in her eyes told him all he really needed to know.
"Ron, I.." Hermione began with her eyes watery, "I do love you. I've spent years trying to get you to notice me. Trying to have something special with you, and for awhile we did. But Ron, I have to be honest with you because you deserve it. I can't think of you as my boyfriend anymore."
The silence was deafening. Ron could feel the prickling behind his eyes. Hermione looked at him and he had never seen her eyes look so sad.
"Ron, I am so very sorry. You truly are a wonderful man. You made me happier than I have ever been. But.." and her voice broke, "you broke my heart so many times. Every time I told myself that you would change. That next time would be different. That we would get past the point where we would blow up at each other and not speak for weeks. After Dumbledore died, when we were at Bill's wedding, I thought we had finally gotten there."
Knowing full well where this was going and dreading every second, Ron could feel himself turning green. He felt sicker than he had ever had in his life.
"Don't ever doubt that I loved you with all my heart. But you shattered me when you left. I know we've been over this a dozen times, but it's true. I've been trying ever since then to let you back into my heart, but Ron, I…I can't."
Her voice broke. Tears were flowing thick and fast from both their eyes.
"You will always, always, be my friend. In a way, even calling you my friend seems to cheapen how I feel about you. But I can't trust you with that part of me anymore."
Hermione was crying softly across the bed from him. Ron could feel his own tears moving down his cheeks. His worst fear about that night had been realized. He had gone too far, had let her down too many times. He knew he hadn't always treated her fairly, but had always hoped she could find it in her to forgive him. He knew now that it had been unreasonable to think she could do it forever. It seemed a cruel fate that just when he was getting his head out of his arse, it was already too late. Yet he had no one to blame but himself.
She moved closer to him and brushed some of his tears away with her thumbs. She looked him deep in his eyes and Ron felt a knot form in his chest as he gazed into those deep brown wells.
"Ron, you have become a wonderful, wonderful man. You deserve someone who can trust you with every fiber of their being. You deserve to be happy, to have someone love you with their whole heart. I wish so badly that I could give that to you, but I just…..I just can't."
She gave him a very chaste kiss on his lips. He stored away the memory in his mind, to always remember the way her soft lips felt on his.
"I…I'm going to go for a walk. Stay here and talk to Harry. He will want to help." And so Hermione got up to walk away. Ron watched her go out of her door, heard a brief conversation between her and Harry, then heard the outer door open and close.
Ron's eyes were shut tight, trying to hold it back. Trying not to completely lose control. He heard Harry walk into the room and could feel his presence. Unfortunately, controlling his emotions had never been his strength and so he started to cry. He vaguely felt the bed move next to him and Harry's hand on his shoulder, but Harry remained silent. There was nothing that he could say anyways.
Harry was standing in the kitchen washing some dishes when Hermione found him.
"Harry, I just broke up with Ron. I'm going for a walk, he's going to need you." She was grateful when one look at her face told him to not ask any questions.
His eyes were full of concern. "Are you sure it'll be safe with you out there alone?"
Leave it to Harry to think about that. Hermione silently prayed for a day when he could get over worrying about his friends getting cursed in the street.
"I'll be fine Harry; I'll come straight back here if there's a problem." When Harry didn't look convinced she added, "I promise."
"Okay, I'll see you in a while." He looked resigned to the facts, though his tone communicated that he expected to talk about this later. Grateful for his understanding, Hermione walked to the elevators and out the front doors.
She had been walking for half an hour before she found a stopping place at a bench in a small square a few blocks from the hotel. She had barely sat down when the tears she had been fighting back finally broke free. She knew it wasn't a flattering sight, to be crying her eyes out on a public bench, but she didn't particularly care in that moment.
When she finally collected herself enough to look around, she saw that the square was a small park surrounded by shops. She could smell the bread baking at a bakery to her left while the sound of laughter and chit-chat came regularly from the restaurant in front of her.
She wondered if Ron had really stayed and what he and Harry were doing right now. Though she knew it was the right thing to do, breaking up with Ron still gutted her. The hurt in his eyes had been almost unbearable. She hoped to never see his sky blue eyes that way again.
She tried to clear her mind, but if the uncertainty of their relationship was gone it was replaced with the uncertainty of their friendship. Would the trio ever be the same again? She desperately hoped that Ron could find it in him to forgive her and to remain her friend. The last thing she needed was to lose one of the two closest friends she had. She knew she would need him as much in the days ahead as she always had. They all would. Ron had said that himself.
Turning her gaze to the stores around her, a small bookstore on the upper level of a café caught her attention. Deciding it wouldn't hurt to have a look around, she first dipped into a public loo to freshen herself up with a bit of magic before strolling resolutely up the side staircase and through the front door.
A small bell jingled above her and a kind looking woman turned and smiled. She was a wiry older woman who could pass for the grandmothers that Hermione remembered from her fairy tales growing up. She even had the kind eyes and smile to boot.
"Good morning." Hermione offered, momentarily forgetting that she was not in England. Mortified by her mistake, Hermione wasn't sure what to say. Her face must have given her away because the woman simply smiled and answered "Good morning my dear." Relieved that the woman spoke English, Hermione assured her that she was just browsing and began to pace up and down the aisles.
She scanned the titles on the shelves, picking up and flipping through those that she found interesting. Books had always had a way of distracting her from her troubles. She had become so intent on the first chapter of a volume about Prince Eugene of Savoy that she hadn't noticed the older woman approach her.
"A great patron of the arts as well as an inspiring commander. His life is quite the read." While Hermione was at first taken aback by the woman's interest in her, the kind smile and relaxed demeanor put her at ease. "It does make for good reading. I never caught your name, my name is Hermione."
"My name is Catherine, pleased to meet you." Catherine gave Hermione a gentle handshake. "What brings an English girl like you to Vienna?"
"I'm on a holiday with my two best friends." Hermione explained, avoiding the reason behind the holiday. In the back of her mind, Hermione wondered if Ron really was still her best friend.
Catherine seemed to notice her misgivings. "If you don't mind me saying so, you look troubled."
Hermione wasn't sure how to answer. The woman was a complete stranger and so her first instinct was to not be terribly trusting. She hadn't just survived a war for nothing, but something about Catherine made her think that perhaps it wouldn't be so bad to have a fellow woman to talk to. It's not like she was likely to ever come across this woman again and an outside opinion could give her perspective.
"Well, you see, one of the boys I'm here with….we were together, but I broke up with him this morning." Hermione felt the tears prickling at the back of her eyes. Catherine gave her a knowing smile. "My, my. Well, if you're comfortable talking about it, we can grab some tea from downstairs and you can tell me all about it. How does that sound?"
Comforted by the thought, Hermione consented and after ordering some tea they returned to the bookstore to sit at a small table in the back. Catherine had asked a young boy, her only employee she explained, to watch the store while they chatted.
Hermione explained to her everything. Starting from when she first met Ron and Harry on the Hogwarts express. Of course, she changed the story quite a bit, removing all the magical parts and sugar coating the events of the war. Catherine nodded, asked questions, and gave her opinion when relevant. By the time Hermione had finished, Catherine had her feeling much better about the situation.
"Well, if you really feel that way about Ronald, then I believe that you made the right decision. If you two really have been through so much, I have to believe that he will remain your friend. He is hurt I'm sure, but a friendship such as yours is not something to be thrown away lightly."
Hermione smiled at Catherine. Perhaps she was right and the trio could remain together after all. Hope now buoyed her flagging spirits.
"What about this other young man, Harry was it? He seems rather important to you." Hermione opened her mouth and closed it again. She wasn't sure she wanted to talk about Harry. Not to mention that she was unsure herself how she felt about him. "He…we're just friends."
Catherine gave her a knowing look. "The very best I assume. You have spoken very highly of him. He seems a very fine young man." Hermione nodded. It wasn't as if it wasn't true. "You seem very fond of him. After all, most of the adventures you and Ronald went on together seemed to involve Harry in some way."
Hermione was perturbed by Catherine's perceptiveness. "Yeah, he's…." but Hermione couldn't bring herself to say what Harry really was. Not only was she unsure, she didn't want Catherine to think that Harry had been in any way involved with her breakup with Ron, or that she was already on the rebound.
"I understand Hermione, matters of the heart are rarely as simple as we would like them to be." Catherine had a faraway look her in eyes, like she was lost in her own memories. Hermione was again taken aback by how applicable Catherine's wisdom was.
"How….how do you know all of this?" Hermione finally asked. She was aware of how childish the question seemed, but her curiosity got the best of her.
"I daresay I've lived quite a bit of life myself dear." Catherine chuckled, "It's a simple reality of life. Relationships are never as clear cut as the fairy tales and movies make them out to be." Hermione bit her lip as she turned these things over in her mind. Catherine had been so helpful with Ron, would it really hurt to see what she thought about Harry?
"Well…." Hermione had one more disagreement with herself in her mind before beginning again, "Harry does mean a lot to me. He truly is my best friend. I love him; I just don't think that I'm in love with him."
Catherine sat in silence for a moment before speaking. "Well, only you can know the answer to that. I would certainly let things settle with Ron before thinking about any kind of other relationship, but…" Catherine's eyes looked strangely sad, "don't make the mistake of never giving someone like Harry a second thought." At that moment the boy from the front of the store appeared and questioned Catherine regarding a customer at the desk.
"Well it looks like I have to be getting back to work. Perhaps you should return to your friends. I'm pleasured to have made your acquaintance Hermione. Good luck with Ronald and Harry." She gave Hermione a hug as Hermione profusely thanked her for her help. "Don't mention it my dear, you're always welcome to come back anytime." And Catherine turned and walked to the front desk.
Hermione walked out the door and back into the street. It was past three now, so she thought it best to return to the hotel and meet back up with the boys. Though she had a queasy feeling in her stomach at the thought of seeing Ron, she couldn't put it off forever. Besides, Catherine's counsel had made her think that it wasn't as hopeless as she had feared.
She had always liked to believe the best in people. Ron had truly grown over the past year. She chose to believe that he wouldn't let this change anything about their friendship anymore than she was going to.
She hoped she was right.