Harry Potter had made substantial inroads on his admittedly overloaded plate by the time Hermione Granger joined the Gryffindors for the morning meal. As usual, she had lugged a heavy satchel of books down with her, and it made a loud thud as she dropped it on the flagstones of the Great Hall. Ginny Weasley slid over and made room for the older girl as she clambered over the bench seat. Harry looked up just as the edge of her black Hogwarts' student robe flipped up, revealing a flash of white knee sock.
"Dead sexy," he told her with a cheeky grin, nodding at her outfit. Since it was identical to the shapeless robes worn by nearly every other student in the room, Hermione ignored him, other than giving him a half-hearted glare while forking some sausages onto her plate.
"Harry has no idea what sexy is," Ginny told Hermione in a carrying voice. "Not that he's had the opportunity to find out, mind you."
Beside Harry, Ron Weasley let out a snort of agreement.
"What are you sniggering at?" Harry asked him. "It's not like you've had a girlfriend all year."
Ron ducked his head down between his shoulders, but did not deny the accusation. Neither one of them had had a real date since their fourth year, and now with their seventh year nearly completed, they looked to be graduating with a nearly perfect score. Zip-all.
"He's got one more chance," his sister announced as she refilled her pumpkin juice. "I was just telling them there's a new notice stuck on the bulletin board this morning. Valentine's Day is in two weeks, and Dumbledore's giving us a dance."
"Ruddy hell," Harry muttered with feeling. "Another chance to humiliate myself, more like."
"Get over yourself," Ginny told him without sympathy. "You're Harry bloody Potter. You can walk up to any girl in the school and ask her out."
"Thanks, but no," he replied. "I'd rather be a geek without a date than have the papers all talking about my love life."
"You don't have a love life," Hermione pointed out.
"Since when has that ever stopped the Prophet from publishing rubbish? I so much as talk to a girl and the papers are talking about me either marrying her or I've broken her heart. The last time I was in Hogsmeade I accidentally stepped on Marietta Edgecombe's foot. By the time I apologized, the papers were saying she was pregnant."
"Good thing stepping on a girl's feet can't get them pregnant," Ginny said with a grin, "or Neville'd be up to his eyeballs in nappies!"
"I heard that," came a voice down the table. "And I haven't stepped on your foot in ages, Ginny Weasley."
"That's because I won't dance with him any more," she whispered to her friends. "So what about you, Ron? Got any sure-fire reasons to get out of asking a girl to the dance?"
Her voice had a challenging note in it, and Harry could not help but glance at both of his best friends. Ron and Hermione had been skirting the issue of their mutual attraction since that same Yule Ball during their fourth year, and as far as he knew Ron had yet to make a declaration of any sort.
"Maybe," Ron answered after a beat. He stabbed his sausage and ate it rather than elaborate.
"Come on, Ron," Harry called, giving his friend a solid nudge with his elbow. "Surely there's at least one girl out there you'd like to take to the dance."
"I said maybe!" Ron replied loudly. His sister let out an infectious giggle, and Harry could not help but laugh as his friend's face turned red.
Ginny's giggle died abruptly, however, when Ron abruptly stood up and left the table. Silence fell between the three of them remaining. Harry raised questioning eyebrows at Ginny, but the younger red-head shrugged minutely. As he watched, the girl glanced at her table mate.
Harry, when he got the nerve to look at Hermione, was bewildered to see the other girl's eyes were wide and slightly unfocused. She was staring after their departed friend, and for a moment Harry was sure she was going to cry. Hermione didn't blink, nor did tears form. For some reason, it simply made her appear even more sad and desolate than if she'd been sobbing.
"Ron's a prat, Hermione," Ginny whispered in a reassuring tone. "You know that."
"I have actually figured that out," she replied softly.
Feeling somewhat excluded, Harry for once kept his mouth shut and did not intrude. The feeling he was eavesdropping intensified as the girls continued to talk.
"Have you? Really?" Ginny questioned.
Hermione nodded once, almost reluctantly. "Yes, I think so."
She turned away from the empty doorway and focused her attention on her breakfast, shifting the food around without eating any. After a moment she gave Ginny a nudge. "I should have taken a leaf out of your notes a long time ago."
Harry tried not to frown, but his confusion was only growing, especially when Ginny put her arm around her older friend and gave her a squeeze.
"Good girl," Ginny told her stoutly. Hermione smiled wanly, then took a deep breath and put her fork down.
"I'm going to the library. I've got a free period before Potions, and I wanted to go over the essay Professor Snape set us."
"Okay," Ginny responded. "See you later."
"Aren't you going to eat?" Harry asked. Hermione seemed to remember his presence and gave him a look, but shook her head.
"I'm not hungry any more," she replied as she retrieved her bag. With a vague wave she headed off.
"All right," Harry announced before sliding over so he was directly across from Ginny. "What was that all about?"
"What?" she asked blithely. Harry pinned her with a stern look, and Ginny's expression turned from innocent to exasperated. "What did you think it was about, Harry? My brother is a complete idiot, and he's reaping the rewards of it."
"No, I meant - what did Hermione mean, about taking your notes?"
"Honestly. All boys are prats," Ginny announced, barely restraining herself from rolling her eyes. "Tell me something, Harry. How long has Hermione been waiting on Ron? She's all but put a pinned a note on her chest that says 'yours for the taking' but he's too bloody thick to figure it out. Does that sound vaguely familiar to you?"
It took a moment, but Harry remembered the horrid crush Ginny had had on him for nearly four years before she'd abandoned all hope and taken up with a succession of boys. Since then, she'd taken to treating Harry with the same exasperated indifference she used on her brothers. Ginny's popularity with the male students of Hogwarts was exceeded only by her brother's blatant displeasure, and she'd more than once told him to mind his own life and stop mucking up hers.
"Wait a minute," he told her, a frown forming on his face. "You gave up on me because you finally figured out I wasn't really what you wanted."
"I never said that, Harry. I gave up on you because you're a blockhead and you can't appreciate what's right in front of your face," Ginny explained with saccharine patience. "And when I realized that you were never going to ask me out, I decided to go out with someone who did see me, and appreciate me.
"What can I say," she asked with a tight smile. "Hermione's just taken a little longer to come to the same realization."
The girl gathered her books and rose from the table, leaving Harry sputtering and trying to put the clues together. "Ginny – wait. You can't mean… Hermione would never…" He was speaking to thin air, however, as he was left alone at the table.
"Bloody hell," he muttered to himself, before gathering his own books. "I've got to talk to Ron."
He missed Ron at lunchtime, having run late and barely finding time to sit and grab a sandwich before classes started again. The had several classes in common, but that afternoon was not one of them and it was late in the evening before Harry found both the privacy and the nerve to bring the subject up with Ron.
"Look, Ron. About the Valentine's Day dance. Are you going to ask someone to go with you?"
Ron's lanky shoulders shrugged, but the tall boy was focused on the clean laundry he was currently stowing away. "Maybe. Haven't really thought about it - it's not for two more weeks."
"Well, you don't want to wait until the last minute. That never works; we always end up standing by the wall by ourselves like idiots."
"So why don't you ask Ginny?" Ron responded absently.
"Not on your life, mate."
"Look, Ginny is very pretty, but she still hasn't quite forgiven me for not realizing she had a crush on me. The last thing I need to do is give her an excuse to hex me."
"She wouldn't do that," Ron protested.
"You haven't been paying attention in the D.A. meetings, mate. Since she started working for Fred and George, she's learned a lot. And she's got a nasty imagination."
Ron snorted in agreement and seemed content to let the subject drop.
Harry tried to think of a way to keep that from happening, and cast about for ideas. "It would be nice to have a girlfriend, though. Someone to talk to."
"The snogging would be nice, too," Ron added with a grin.
"Well, yeah," Harry admitted.
"I dunno, Harry. Seems like a lot of work, having a girlfriend. I mean, look at Bill. He dated Fleur for more than a year, and he nearly went spare. Always hanging on his arm, nagging him about working too many hours, not taking her out places. Not me, mate."
Defeated, Harry addressed his own pile of elf-cleaned laundry and let the subject lie. For now.
For the next few days, Harry kept a surreptitious eye on Hermione. Since Ron remained absolutely ambivalent about the upcoming dance, perhaps the female member of their friendship would prove to be more open to manipulation. Not that he had a clue what he was doing when it came to manipulating his friends – their relationship usually involved his being manipulated out of doing something foolish. It occurred to him that Hermione was usually the one who kept both he and Ron out of trouble.
The girl was subdued during their Advanced Transfigurations and Potions class, but her hallmark determination kept her functioning through the next few days despite her general air of quiet withdrawal. Professor Snape's usual persecution of Gryffindor's brightest star was received without any effect.
In fact, the only time she did show any response was when Draco Malfoy made one of his small, petty insults. Harry was sure she would ignore him, as she had ignored most of his smart remarks. Instead she smoothly returned the blond Slytherin's sallies, getting in a few barbs of her own.
To Harry's additional surprise, Draco's smirk as he took those hits was almost admiring, and more than once Harry caught Draco watching Hermione just as closely as he himself did. The truly disturbing part was that he could not place when, exactly, Draco had stopped treating Hermione like she was beneath him.
No matter how hard he cudgeled his brain, Harry could not recall the last time their sworn enemy had actually indicated, through word or action, that he hated the female member of their trio. And the more he watched Draco watch Hermione, the more he realized that the other boy looked at her as though he LIKED looking at her. White knee socks and all.
Even more disturbing were the times when Draco did not stop with looking, but actually talked to Hermione. One day it was over the subtle details of a charm he was having trouble with. Harry himself had no issues with it, and was highly suspicious of the convenience of that question. Hermione in turn had actually asked Draco to approach his head of house for more information on an extra credit project in Potions. Professor Snape still loathed Gryffindors, but had freely given the hints to Draco, who had willingly shared them with Hermione.
"Thank you, Draco," Harry overheard Hermione as they were leaving class. "You don't know how much I appreciate this."
"Well, Granger, you still owe me for this," he retorted, flinging his blond hair out of his eyes with a toss of his head. Harry was sure Draco practiced the move in the mirror; it was an arresting gesture and made the most of the berk's aristocratic features under the fall of his stylishly overlong fringe.
Hermione ducked her head shyly at Draco's smug grin, but Harry could see the slight upturn at the corner of her mouth.
"What, exactly, do I owe you?" she answered back in a flippant tone.
"I'll let you know," the older boy told her, smiling down at her. It was all Harry could do to simply grit his teeth and wait as he watched Draco's ice gray eyes connect with Hermione's, until a faint blush rose on her cheeks.
Even when she thanked him again and walked away, Draco watched after her. When she at last disappeared around the corner, he punched the wall lightly with his fist as though frustrated, or making some sort of internal decision.
Harry was nearly in a panic when he joined his friends for dinner, noticing the sparkle in Hermione's eye as she glanced around the room. It was her duty as Head Girl to keep an eye on her fellow classmates, but her eyes strayed towards the Slytherin table far too often for his comfort.
She also smiled at him, and at Ron, and Harry was sorely tempted to hit his best friend when the prat ducked his head and acted as though he were being hunted. When Hermione finished her dinner and set off for the common room, Ron watched after her as she walked away, looking for all the world as though he were hungry and she were a feast. When Ron finally returned his attention to his meal, Harry could resist no longer and promptly cuffed him on the back o f the head.
Harry couldn't quite explain the slightly desperate feeling that rose in his chest as he watched one of his friends continue to deny his feelings, while the other seemed to blossom. He'd always hated that expression – Aunt Marge had made a comment about Dudley blossoming into such a handsome young man, and it had been all Harry could do to hang on to his lunch. But watching Hermione, it was the only word he could think of. She still treated Ron with the combination of affection and fondness she had always given both him and Harry, but something had changed. Some note of expectation was gone, and it was appalling that Harry could see it while Ron could not.
That night, after dinner, Harry decided this simply could not go on any longer. The Valentine's day dance was in a week, and Harry had a better chance of getting Ginny to go with him than Ron finally getting around to asking Hermione.
Finishing his homework took longer than he had expected. When he entered the bedroom Ron was sprawled on his bed, his second-hand broom maintenance kit spread out over the blankets as he tuned up his broomstick. The twigs on the tail had taken a beating during their last practice, and a stray bludger had put a nasty gouge on the handle.
"Need some more polish?" Harry asked in an attempt to seem casual.
Ron didn't seem to notice. "I've got enough polish, but I wouldn't mind some scratch putty."
Harry grunted and pulled his trunk open, fishing under his Quidditch gear for his service kit. Inside, he rummaged through until he found the tube of Spinner's Spectacular Spackle, Guaranteed to Zoom your Broom! Harry had never found it to be any better than any other brand, but it was at least wood-colored rather than the cheaper but bright red Broom Bondo.
Tossing the tube across to the next bed, Harry fiddled with the buckles on his pads and tried to think of a subtle way to bring up the subject of Hermione. The problem was, he'd never mastered subtle.
"Ron," he began.
"Yeah?" came the preoccupied answer.
"Are you going to ask Hermione to go with you or not?" So much for subtle.
Ron looked up from his broom, miniature scissors still in hand. "What are you on about?"
"Hermione. Are you or are you not going to ask her out?"
"Yes, Hermione! The same girl you've been mooning over since we were in Second Year!"
"I don't know," Ron protested in a bewildered tone. "I haven't really thought about it."
"You're a lousy liar, Ron."
The tips of Ron's ears went red. 'What's it to you?"
"Oh, nothing much. I want to know if my best friend is going to break my other best friend's heart!"
The other boy let out a derisive snort. "What makes you think Hermione's going to break my heart?"
Incensed, Harry threw his bundled Quidditch robes at him. Since his guards were wadded up in them, they made quite an impact.
"You're such an idiot! You know what? I was actually worried about you breaking her heart. But you're right, because it probably is going to be the other way 'round. She's going to move on, and you're going to be the one sitting around whinging about your broken heart because you never had the bollocks to ask her out in the first place!"
"Why are you so worried about me and Hermione?" Ron demanded.
"Because! Because you never said anything to her! Because she's my best friend, and I don't want to see her get hurt!"
"Well - if you're so worried about her, then why don't you ask her out?" Ron shouted.
"Maybe I will!" Harry shot back. "Maybe, just maybe, she'd actually like a guy who'll see her as a girl – and do it sometime before he realizes she's his last chance to get a date for the dance!"
Ron's face was turning red, nearly purple. He threw the Quidditch robes back at Harry, hitting him hard enough in the chest to make him grunt, and stormed out of the room.
The next morning, breakfast was a strained affair. Hermione had greeted Ron and Harry cheerfully, but Ron had grunted a monosyllable answer. Harry, having fully processed the exchange of words from the night before, had been too tongue-tied to respond coherently. Ginny and Hermione had exchanged mystified but amused glances, and proceeded to ignore the boys while they chatted about various subjects.
Across the table, Harry was having a hard time concentrating on his breakfast. He'd never really considered Hermione as a romantic possibility, but with Ron's glowering presence at his side and his words still echoing in his head, Harry couldn't seem to think of anything else.
He knew she was smart – 'brilliant, but a little bit scary' as Ron had put it. She was one of the best in the D.A., fully capable of casting hexes and curses with the best of them. She tended to freeze momentarily in a crisis, but could be counted to formulate surprisingly complex solutions in a very short time frame.
What he hadn't really processed was the fact that Hermione Granger was actually quite pretty. She had loads of curly hair, only marginally under control with a clip that pulled it from her temples and streamed down her back. The winter sunlight filtering down from the enchanted ceiling was sufficiently bright that he could make out the green and gold flecks in her eyes, and he'd never really noticed how they tilted slightly at the corners.
Her face was heart-shaped, and her smile enchanting, he realized. For some reason his palms were getting sweaty. He didn't even realize she'd finished until she stood up, still talking to Ginny. He pushed away his half eaten breakfast and called after her to wait up.
"What's up Harry?" she asked absently, going through her satchel of books.
"I wanted to ask you… something," he blurted out.
"Umm?" she responded, still digging. "What about?"
"Are you going to the Valentine's Day dance?"
"Planning on it," she responded absently. "Aha!" she exclaimed, pulling out the tiny pearl pocketknife, only an inch long, that she used to sharpen her quills.
"Willyougowithme?" he blurted out.
"What was that?"
Harry stopped, and took a deep breath. "Will you go – with me. Please?"
Hermione's dumbfounded expression turned to a frown. "Did Ron put you up to this?"
"No – yes…sort of. We had an argument. And I realized that I can finally see what was right in front of my face."
"Oh," Hermione's mouth was a perfect circle, but seemed to have come disconnected from her brain. "Oh, Harry."
A nervous grin came and went on Harry's face. "Is that a good 'oh' or a bad 'oh?'"
"It's, uhmm - it's just that, well…"
Harry's heart plummeted. He should have known that Hermione would still be carrying a torch for Ron. He should have known she wouldn't be over her long time love so quickly. And even then, there was really no chance that she would see him as anything else than a friend.
"It's okay, Hermione," he tried to sound positive, but his voice cracked unexpectedly. "I understand."
Her head shook slightly, sending her hair dancing over her shoulders. "No, it's not you, Harry. It's just that I've already accepted someone else."
Harry blinked. "You did?"
She nodded, still looking at him with her lovely brown eyes wide with surprise. "I didn't think - you're not just asking me because you feel sorry for me or anything, are you?"
"No," he answered firmly. "I just finally realized that you're more than my best friend, Hermione. And I wanted to see if you thought of me as more than your best friend."
"Harry…I don't know. I haven't really thought about it, truly. It's always been Ron, and now, that's no longer the case… I just don't know."
An awkward silence filled the corridor despite the students straggling through the hall. Acting on instinct or impulse, he wasn't sure, Harry put his arms around her and pulled her into a gentle, reassuring hug.
"It's okay, Hermione. I understand, really. I just hope we'll always be good friends."
Hermione nodded against his chest, putting her arms around his waist in a reciprocal action. Harry had to close his eyes at that; it was amazing how good it felt to have his arms around her.
"Save me a dance, will you?" he asked after several long moments.
"I will," she promised. Up close, it was apparent how much taller he was that she, but her smile, when she looked up at him, was absolutely captivating.
"So. Who are you going with?"
"Oh, someone you know," she answered, hedging. "But I'm not telling you, because you'll tell Ron, and then I'd never hear the end of it."
"I wouldn't tell Ron," he protested.
Hermione's smile became mischievous. "Oh, yes, you would. You wouldn't be able to resist, just to watch his head explode."
A combination of dread and glee came over Harry. "Oh, no. Hermione - please don't tell me…"
"I just said I wouldn't, so stop asking," she reminded him. "Look, we're going to be late. Walk me to class?"
"Any time," he told her, trying to turn his usual response into something that oozed charm. She didn't really notice, but she still took his arm and let him escort her to class.
Despite the fact he'd been turned down, Harry found himself smiling for the remainder of the day. He didn't actually hear or see anything that would implicate who was going to take Hermione to the dance, but he had his own suspicions. Ron also appeared to have some suspicions, and kept scowling at Harry whenever he spoke to Hermione. Every time Ron caught his eye across the Gryffindor common room, Harry was hard pressed not to laugh out loud.
The night of the dance, he put on his dress robes and waited at the foot of the girls' stairs for Hermione to appear. Ron glowered even more as Hermione came down, looking sleek and beautiful in a gown that fit her in all the right places.
"Can I at least walk you down to the main floor?" he asked. "Unless your date is coming all the way up here to get you," he added.
"I was going to meet him," Hermione admitted, smiling. Several other of the Gryffindors made comments as Hermione took Harry's hand, and Ron was watching them both closely as Harry helped her out over the portrait hole.
At the foot of the main staircase, the expected blond head turned their way as they came down the stairs. Draco's expression was guarded as Harry escorted Hermione over to the other young man.
"I'm trusting you, Malfoy," Harry told him in a pleasant voice. "Don't do anything that would force me to hex you."
Malfoy gave back a trademark smirk, but a moment later his expression turned almost soppy as Hermione smiled up at him and took his arm.
"Keep an eye on Ron, will you?" she called over her shoulder.
Sure," Harry replied.
An hour later he found Ron leaning against the wall, watching Hermione and Draco dance yet again. Seamus Finnegan had smuggled in some Muggle whiskey, and had generously added it to the cause of cheering Ron up. Harry pressed the fortified punch into Ron's hand and told him to drink it.
Ron obediently threw back his head and drained the cup, manfully suppressing the coughs the whiskey invoked.
"What have I done, Harry?" Ron asked morosely. It was the first time Ron had spoken to him since throwing the Quidditch gear at him a week ago.
"You didn't do anything, Ron. That's the problem."
"I didn't want to mess up what we had," he admitted. "I wanted to keep her as my friend."
"She is your friend. But that's all she is."
"I'm in love with her," Ron whispered.
Harry gave him a bracing clout on the shoulder. "No, you're not. You think you are, but it's not really love. If it were, you would have done something about long before now.''
"How do you know?"
"Because. I feel the same way. I love her, but I'm not in love with her."
"You do? I mean, you don't?"
"No," he acknowledged. "But I fully intend on asking her out, and seeing what happens."
"Aren't you worried about rumors starting?" Ron asked acidly.
"What about Draco?"
Harry smiled, and it was the same feral, anticipatory grin that he wore before a Quidditch match. "Draco has his chance. We'll see what he does with it."
"Harry. Hermione is NOT a snitch, mate."
"True. But she's certainly worth pursuing."
"Yeah," Ron admitted glumly.
The music drew to a close, and Harry pushed away from the wall.
"Where are you going?"
Harry turned to glance back at his friend. He shrugged, but continued to walk into the crowd of students. "I'm going to ask a lady to dance."