All through his sixth year, Harry thought it was a crush. The irrational jealousy toward Dean Thomas, the little fantasies he had about her during the day, and the not-so-innocent way she cropped up in his dreams at night. But she was Ron's little sister. And, beyond that, that was the year he'd learned about the Horcruxes. And she didn't break up with Dean until the end of the year; before Harry could work up the courage to ask her out, Dumbledore died, and the world crashed down around their ears.
During the seemingly endless Horcrux hunt, she was – well, she represented why the endless camping and the fruitless searching was worth it. It embarrassed Harry a little when he actually thought about it. The idea of her finding out that he watched her on the Marauder's Map, and that he'd felt a physical pull toward the Burrow when they'd visited Luna's dad.
His feeble reasoning fell apart the day after the final battle, when he had a chance to process his feelings without a haze of exhaustion. It was as though he watched himself, and everything was in stark relief. He'd seen her on his way to die; he'd wanted to stop, but he'd known that he might not have had the strength to continue. His last thought had been of her. And at the end, when Bellatrix's curse had almost hit her, had Molly Weasley not shoved him aside, Harry would have dueled Bellatrix instead of going after Voldemort.
He was in love with her.
For the first few months, he didn't tell her because Fred's death had torn a huge hole in all of them. It seemed inappropriate to mention it. And how the hell was he supposed to anyway? He was afraid that once he mentioned that he wanted to take her to Diagon Alley for ice cream – all by themselves, a real date – he would tell her how he stalked her dot and how the image of her face had filled his last moments.
But Harry wasn't a total coward (he had his Order of Merlin, First Class, to prove it,damn it). In early December he decided that he would tell her over Christmas. This surge of bravery had come from the fact that she'd written him several times during her first term. He'd replied to her first note, but it was like he'd been writing with Dolores Umbridge's blood quill, and he hadn't written her back after that.
He just wanted to tell her he loved her to her face.
Waiting in the kitchen with the rest of the Weasleys had set his nerves on edge. She came in through the floo, already smiling, lugging her trunk. Harry stepped forward and grabbed it, and their eyes had met, and Harry's mouth had dropped open. He was just about to ask her if he could speak to her privately, but then she did it.
She reached out her hand and patted him three times on the arm. The action that would, in the years to come, set his teeth on edge. Every time she did it, it just seemed like she was throwing it in his face that they were just friends. We're just friends. Pat. Pat. Pat.
Even then, Harry might have rallied, but he never got a moment alone with her. And then he heard through George's half-hearted teasing that she was dating someone. His obviously unrealistic fantasy of being with her for Christmas imploded behind his eyes.
Ginny dated a lot. He mostly developed a fatalistic attitude about it. She had every right not to feel for him the way he felt for her. And it made it a little better that she wasn't serious about any of the blokes. He heard from Hermione that she went to Hogsmeade with a Ravenclaw boy, and then attended the Slytherin versus Hufflepuff Quidditch match with someone else.
At least no one knows, Harry thought, the day of her graduation from Hogwarts. While Mrs. Weasley wept proudly ("My first child since Percy to graduate from school!"), Harry did his best to remain completely casual. Being in love with someone when they didn't feel the same way was one thing. Having everyone around, giving him pitying looks, was quite another.
Harry turned nineteen. And then he turned twenty. And he was almost twenty-one years old when things began to shift between him and Ginny, almost imperceptibly.
This is quite a departure from my usual work, so be warned. I think that this year I've been (unintentionally) exploring a bunch of different genres of story-writing. It's fun. :D