Disclaimer: I own nothing of the Harry Potter series. Anything that you do not recognise does belong to me though.

A.N. I just want to apologize about the delay of this chapter. I know alot of you guys have reviewed and were concerned about this story. And I was very touched by your reviews. Alot of you guys were talking about how Harry was cruel and shallow on how he handled the whole situation with Hermione and how she shoudl grovel and beg his forgiveness to her. And I feel as if I should be doing the same with all of you because you guys are still sticking with me and I truly appreciate it. Her's the next chapter. Please enjoy!

A.A.N- And another thing, too...I was trying to rush to bring this chapter out, so if there are alot of errors I apologize.


Chapter 20:

Ron Weasley stormed into his best friend's corner office slightly more than two weeks later, on the second day of January.

"All right," he said without preamble, slamming the office door and marching over to Harry's paper-strewn desk. "I kept my mouth shut during the holidays because I figured you were getting all the hassle about your private life you could handle from other people. But it's a brand new year and I'm through being considerate. So answer me this and answer it now. What the hell is going on between you and Hermione?"

Harry finished jotting down some information before he glanced up from his paperwork. "Nothing," he said quietly.

"Oh, right." The retort was scathingly sarcastic. "That's why she ran off to Canterbury to visit my sister and why you've been moping around London like somebody shot your favorite dog!"

Harry took a deep breath, held it for a few steadying seconds, then released it in a long, hissing sigh. "I didn't say there's never been anything between us," he acknowledged in a carefully controlled voice. "You asked about the present."

"I saw you together at the dinner at my parents house, Harry," Ron countered, his tone intense, his features taut. "We could have incinerated the whole dinner with the heat you two were giving off!"

"Temperatures cool. Things change."

His best friend dismissed these assertions with a barnyard doscenity.

Harry averted his gaze. He'd seen this confrontation coming, of course. And although part of him had dreaded it, another part had recognized that he desperately needed to talk to someone. Unfortunately, the maco code of suffering in silence was damned hard to break.

Except with Hermione. He'd spilled his guts to her more times than he could count during the past two decades. But she was off limits as a confidante now, in every possible sense.

"What does your wife have to say?" he asked after a few moments, forcing himself to meet his friend's questioning eyes once again.

"Lavender?" Ron pulled a face. "Not much."

Harry lifted his brows, a sense of alarm prickling up his spine. The last thing he wanted to hear was that his best friend and his wife were having marital problems. "The two of you aren't talking?"

"Not about you and Hermione." Ron grimaced a second time and raked a hand through his hair. "I don't know whether it's because I'm your friend and she doesn't want me to get caught in the emotional cross fire or whether she's locked into some kind of all-men-are-slime mode and doesn't want to discuss the situation with me on principle. Whatever the case, my wife and I are experiencing a temporary failure to communicate."

There was a pause.

"I'm...sorry," Harry finally said.

Ron gestured the expression of sympathy aside with a brusque wave as he stepped back and sat down in the chair in front of Harry's desk.

"Forget it," he replied. "Just fill me in on your version of what's wrong. I figure Lavender's already had an earful directly from Hermione--or secondhand from Ginny. When she finally decides to open up, which she eventually will, I want to be ready to defend you."

Harry had to smile. "I appreciate the loyalty, Ron."

"And I appreciate being appreciated. Now tell me what happened."

Another pause. Then, "Did you and Hermione develop some kind of trouble in bed?" Ron asked with sledghammer directness.

"Wh-what?" Harry could barely get the question out. Of all the explanations his friend could have picked--trouble in bed?

"Look, I know sexual problems can be tough to talk about," Ron forged on, seemingly oblivious to the shocked reaction his inquiry had provoked. "But I promise you, Harry, opening up helps. Remember a couple of years back when the fertility specialists were putting me through all those tests because Lavender wasn't getting pregnant? Do you think it was easy for me to tell you my sperm count came back way below average? Or that what few sperm I have apparently won't move unless you poke 'em with a cattle prod? Hell no! The truth stuck in my craw. I was afraid you'd start thinking of me as less than a man if you knew. But once I finally found the guts to share--"

"Dammit, Ron!" Harry exploded. "Sex isn't what split Hermione and me up!"

The silence that followed this outburst wasn't so much another pause in the conversation as a full-scale break.

"Uh, it wasn't?" Ron eventually responded, easing back in his chair.

"No," Harry said, his tone considerably more moderate than it had been. He swalloed hard, recalling his last encounter with Hermione. The accusation of sexual blackmail he'd made echoed through his mind with cruel clarity. "At least, not the way you mean."

"I don't understand."

Harry shifted uncomfortably, relunctant to reveal the ugliness that had prompted his caveat. "Let's just say our love life was terrific as long as it lasted," he declared, then shifted a second time as his memory skipped further back along the time line of his relationship with Hermione. Again memory goaded him into offering a qualification. "And...once I got over a few hangups."

Hangups?" Ron went after the word like a bird dog on point.

"I had some...difficulty dealing with Hermione's, uh, experience."

"You brought up her past?"

Harry stiffened, stung by his friend's righteously outraged tone. Instinct told him to attack and he did. "Tell me you never had problems knowing there were men in Lavender's life before she got together with you," he challenged. "Come on. Tell me!"

Ron remained silent for several seconds then exhaled on a heavy sigh. "I can't," he admitted ruefully.

"Then where the hell do you get off judging me?"

"Hey, just because I've occasionally acted like a jealous jerk doesn't mean I'm not entitled to hope my friend will avoid the same behavior."

Harry took a moment or two to digest this. 'Oh," he finally replied, wishing he'd tempured his previous reaction just a tad. He gestured. "Well,...I'm sorry to disappoint you."

"I'll survive." Ron thrust his fingers back through his hair again. "I gather you got over it."

"Huh?"

"The jealous jerkiness."

"Oh, yeah." Harry nodded, remembering the morning-after episode in Hermione's kitchen. Including the interlude involving the front of her refrigerator. "We...talked it through."

"So what about now? I mean, why can't you two talk through whatever it is that's got you going in opposite directions? If you can handle that old green-eyed monster--"

"Now's different, Ron."

"How?"

Harry hesitated, then opted for the truth. He figured he was going to end up telling it sooner or later. He might as well spare himself the pain and strain of trying to avoid the inevitable. "She wants to get married."

"Hermione?"

Until that instant Harry had harbored a sneaking suspicion that his friend might be less ignorant about his breakup than he claimed. No more. The shock in Ron's voice couldn't have been feigned.

"Yes," he flatly confirmed.

"Hermione Granger--Ms. Single and Satisfied--wants to get married?"

"Yes," he repeated.

"To...you?"

Harry went rigid. He glared, not trusting himself to respond.

"Sorry," Ron apologized after several awkward seconds. He squirmed around his chair, his eyes narrowing assessingly. "I, uh, take it you, uh, don't? Want to get married to Hermione, that is."

"It wouldn't work," Harry stated, sidestepping the question.

"Why not?"

"It just wouldn't."

His friend regarded him in frowning silence for what seemed like a very long time. A split second before Harry opened his mouth to demand to know exactly what it was he thought he was looking at, Ron spoke.

"Hermione's not Cho, Harry," he said quietly.

Something inside Harry snapped. "Don't you think I realize that?" he countered harshly, slamming his suddenly fisted right hand down on his desk. "God Almighty! I could spend days--weeks!--listing the differences between them! But why should I? I don't want Hermione to be Cho. I've never wanted her to be Cho! Cho is gone!"

"And you're looking to replace her?"

"Yes!" Harry exclaimed furiously, then shook his head as he realized what he'd said. "I mean, no!" he contradicted, then shook his head again. "I mean--oh dammit to hell! I don't know what I mean anymore!"

He slumped in his chair, his chin against his chest, his eyes half closed. At least thirty seconds ticked by.

"Look, Harry--"

He straightened at the sound of his name, lifting his gaze to meet Ron's once again.

"No, you look," he said determinedly, overriding his friend's attempt to speak. "It's no secret that I came pretty close to going over the edge after Cho died. I...idealized...her. And our marriage. But lately--well, I've had to face up to the fact that things weren't as perfect as I thought. That there was aspects to Cho's character I'd never considered. Didn't even know about! Which isn't to say she wasn't a wonderful wife. Or that the years we had together weren't damned good. It's just that...that..."

"You've finally wised up to the reality that Cho played you like a fiddle from day one."

Harry stared, temporarily unable to speak. While he couldn't dispute the fundamental accuracy of his friend's summation, he shied instinctively from the bluntness of its phrasing.

"I'm not trying to smear her memory," Ron added quickly. "Cho was a terrific girl. And I know she made you happy. Even so...she did have an uncanny knack for getting her own way."

It took Harry nearly a minute to come to terms with the implications of his friend's last statement. "Am I the only one who didn't realize that?" he asked once he had.

"Does it matter?"

Harry considered. "No," he replied slowly. "Not...really. But if everybody knew, why didn't anyone say anything? Why didn't you?"

"Because it was obvious you were happy with Cho and she was happy with you." The answer was quick and unequivocal. "If you knew how she operated and didn't mind, who was I to stir things up? And if you didn't know...well, why mess with emotional success?"

"Ignorance is bliss?"

"On occassion, yeah." Ron's mouth twisted into a cracked smile. "And a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when it comes to affairs of the heart. Which brings me back to my initial question. What the hell is going on between you and Hermione?"

"I've told you."

"She wants to get married and you don't."

"It wouldn't work."

"How can you be so sure?"

Harry hesitated, searching for a way to articulate his reservations. "You knew Lavender was the one for you from the very beginning, didn't you?" he asked after a few moments.

"Yeah." Ron nodded. "Pretty much."

"And Hermione's dad knew about her mum right away, too. I mean, he proposed to her on their first date--right?"

Another nod, accompanied by a slight furrowing of the forehead. "According to Hermione, yeah."

"Well, I fell for Cho as soon as I laid eyes on her. I mean, I didn't even know her name. But it was like...like..."

"Getting struck by a bolt of lightening." There was an odd edge to Ron's voice.

"Exactly."

"So?"

"So--" Harry spread is hands, palms up "--Hermione Granger was a part of my life for more than twenty years before I even registered she was a female!"

Ron's brows veed together in a sudden frown. "Wait a minute," he said. "Wait just a minute! Are you--jeez, Harry! Are you trying to tell me you decided you and Hermione didn't have what it takes for marriage because your feelings about her snuck up on you over time instead of smacking you between the eyeballs at the getgo?"

Harry opened his mouth to answer, then closed it without uttering a word as his mind replayed his friend's question. How could a line of reasoning that had seemed indisputable be summarized to sound so...so stupid? he wondered.

"You don't understand," he finally declared. Even to his own ears, the assertion sounded defensive.

"Then explain it to me." The response was as swift as a ricochet.

"Ron--"

"Let's forget the fact that you apparently were real slow on the uptake about Hermione's gender," his friend cut in. "You think she's a pretty special lady, don't you?"

"She's...one of a kind."

"Unique."

Harry's throat knotted. He swallowed, hard, several times. "Yes."

"Okay." Ron leaned forward, his expression intent. "Answer me this, Harry. Why do you expect the feelings she inspires in you to be anything less."

"Wh-what?"

"You said a while back you know Hermione's not another Cho. That you don't want her to be."

"I don't!" The words were from the heart. "I never did!"

"Fine. Then why are you stuck on the notion that unless the patterns of your relationship with her matches the pattern of the relationship you had with Cho, its doomed to failure?"

Harry stared at his friend, stunned. He couldn't speak. He couldn't move. He very nearly couldn't think.

Then something deep within him seemed to shift. He felt it to the marrow of his bones--to the chromosomal strands of his DNA. It was as though he was being remade in the profoundest of ways at the most basic of levels.

"Oh, my God," he whispered. "Oh...my God."

"Love is a crapshoot, Harry," Ron went on evenly. "Even within lightening bolts, there are no guarantees you're going to get a happily ever after. Now, maybe you and Hermione don't have what it takes for two people to make it together, long term. Although based on what I saw at my parents dinner, I'd bet everything you do. Still, if you don't give it a try, you're never going to know. You didn't have any control over losing Cho. But when it comes to Hermione--well, it's your call."

There was a long pause. The difference between if and the ones that had came before was indescribable.

"Do you know when she's coming back from Canterbury?" Harry asked at last, his voice not entirely steady.

Ron smiled and winked. "No. But I'm acquainted with a relative who can definitely find out."