It could never happen.
As surely as she knew he would think she had gone mad if she suggested it, Hermione Granger knew there was no chance she'd have anything more than friendship with Harry Potter. She was, in a word, the closest thing he had to a sister. And it was killing her. Worse, she didn't feel there was anything she could do about it. After the year he'd had—being vilified by the Ministry, losing his godfather, learning of the prophecy—what Harry needed more than anything was an understanding and supportive friend. Even if he wasn't always receptive, he knew he could always come to her for advice, to vent, or just to escape from the madness of the rest of the school. And he would always need that from Hermione. More than he'd ever need her for anything else.
Besides all that, she wasn't his type. Harry was drawn to girls more outgoing than she, athletic natural beauties who needed to beat admirers off with a stick. Really, there was just Cho Hermione had to confirm these ideas. Of course, he had been looking at Ginny strangely recently and she too fit the description. Harry probably didn't think anyone had noticed, he might not even be sure why himself, but when Ron's sister was around Hermione watched his attention shift as if drawn to the redhead like a magnet. He changed when he was around Ginny, laughing at jokes he normally didn't think were funny and showing interest in conversations he would've tuned out of months before. Harry had even laughed at something Ginny had said about her, a gesture that had made Hermione's breath catch and her heart give a painful lurch.
That was when she knew. Hermione knew she couldn't ignore these new feelings. She knew there was no way Harry could return them. She knew watching him try to get closer to Ginny, if that's where it was headed, would slowly drive her around the bend. And there was nothing she could do about any of it.
A pair of pale fingers snapped in front of her face and Hermione jumped, nearly knocking her stack of library books from the table. She scrambled to steady them. "Harry! What is wrong with you?" She glanced around the corner of the library she'd been hiding in. No one was around to see her fumbling.
"With me?" He pulled out the seat next to hers and planted himself in the chair. "I've been calling you for a couple of minutes. I thought someone had hexed you, the way you were staring off."
Hermione frowned, inwardly cursing the warmth she could feel flooding her face. "I was just thinking about something." She glanced at the book in front of her. "I have an Arithmancy essay due tomorrow and I really should go over it again."
Harry glanced from the stack of books in front of her to the long sheet of parchment protruding from Hermione's bag on the other side of the table. Even by her standards, the four feet of parchment covered in her tiny handwriting was a bit excessive, but she knew Professor Vector had come to expect a certain standard from her favorite student. Whatever was or wasn't going on between her and Harry, Hermione was not about to let her marks suffer.
"Hermione? You're doing it again." She turned back to Harry. There was a crease in the center of his forehead, bending the lightning bolt scar, and small wrinkles around his mouth as he frowned. Bright green eyes stared into hers. "I want to talk to you about what's going on with Malfoy."
Hermione blinked hard and sighed. She looked away from Harry's face and down at her hands on the table. "I still don't think there's much to be suspicious of, Harry."
"So you think what happened in Diagon Alley wasn't a big deal. Or the way he's been sneaking around the school." His voice was impatient, verging on the hysterics that she knew would precede an outburst of temper.
"I think…we don't know enough to say for sure either way," Hermione said slowly. She listened to the way Harry sucked air through his teeth before continuing. "I know you're worried that Malfoy's going to try something—"
"You said yourself that Voldemort could use anyone to try to get to me," Harry said. "It would be easy to get someone who hates me to go along with his plans."
Hermione looked up. Though he sounded almost angry, she read Harry's expression as frustration with her and Ron and perhaps a small amount of fear. All of which was understandable. That still did not give any of them license to go off accusing Malfoy without a solid reason. The last time she'd gone along with Harry when he'd had nothing to follow but his instincts, they'd all gotten hurt and his godfather had ended up dead. Hermione knew Harry hadn't forgiven himself for any of the events of that night, but someone had to stop him before he got himself into a similar situation. If this was another trap, or nothing at all, there was no harm in proceeding cautiously.
"You don't have to look at me like that," Harry said, interrupting her thoughts. "I'm not going to get anyone else hurt."
Hermione put her hand over his on the table. "What happened wasn't your fault, you know that. But I don't want you to get hurt. If Malfoy really is up to something and you confront him about it, he could come after you. And what are you going to say to Dumbledore? Even he won't do anything without proof."
"Which is why I have to find out where Malfoy is sneaking off to, so I can get proof. I need you to believe me."
"I do," Hermione assured him quickly. She believed in him more than she was comfortable saying. She squeezed his hand. "I believe that you're worried and you feel the reason is real. And I want to help. Just—"
"Be careful," he finished for her, nodding. "I know." Of course he did. Her warnings hadn't changed over the years. Harry stared into her eyes for a long moment and Hermione felt herself growing nervous. She pulled her hand away from him and into her lap. "Can I count on you to help me?"
"I'll do whatever you need," Hermione said. She began to chastise herself for how that must have sounded before Harry nodded again and stood. Before Hermione could say anything else, Harry had turned and left the library as abruptly as he'd come. She would give him whatever he needed from her, whatever the cost to her personally. Harry was important to the entire Wizarding World, and his well-being was more important than any one girl's crush. She just had to convince her heart of that.
It wasn't a crush, not in the normal sense. More like misplaced feelings. Hermione had become so used to worrying over Harry that her mind fooled itself into feeling like the intensity of her emotions meant more than it did. That had to be the case. Otherwise she had no way to explain the way her heart skipped a beat every time he told her he'd had a near run-in with Malfoy or the brief, sharp pain in her chest when he smiled at Ginny in the Great Hall.
Truthfully, she had no idea what she felt. It was either very wrong feelings for her best friend or the warning signs of a heart attack. It didn't help matters when Ron asked about the change in her mood. Harry had just flashed a smile down the table at some joke Ginny had made; Hermione responded by staring down at her plate, hoping to forget the sudden sharp pang of jealousy in the kippers and eggs growing cold in front of her. She swirled her fork through the food, frowning when Ron repeated his question.
"I'm fine," she whispered. "Leave it alone."
Ron looked as if he might add something when Harry turned his attention back to the two of them. "What was that?"
"Nothing," she interrupted. She glanced down the table. Ginny was leaning on Dean's arm and laughing. "Tell me what happened after Quidditch practice last night." Hermione lowered her voice. She dropped her fork and leaned over the table. "You went sneaking off and skipped dinner. And now you've got that bruise," she said, pointing to the small purple mark on Harry's collarbone.
"I followed him again," Harry whispered. "I wasn't fast enough. I lost him somewhere between the fourth and fifth floors. I started searching and by the time I got to the seventh floor, I ran into Crabbe. That's how I got this," he said, rubbing at the spot on his neck. "You know what this means, right?"
"That you shouldn't be following Malfoy at night by yourself?" Hermione asked.
"That he's definitely hiding something and his friends are helping him," Harry said.
"I still think you should be careful, Harry," Hermione said. She placed her hand over his wrist on the table, holding on until he looked at her. "At least tell Dumbledore you suspect him so you won't have to follow him yourself."
"Didn't you say Dumbledore won't believe me without proof?"
She nodded. "But he'll at least be able to find out things you won't, and you won't be in danger."
"How could I be in danger from Malfoy if he's got nothing to hide?"
Harry had her there. She just couldn't stand the thought of Draco Malfoy catching Harry sneaking around a dark hallway one night. It was bad enough he'd broken Harry's nose on the Hogwarts Express, she didn't want to imagine what he might do if he really was up to something and he thought Harry was on to him. Of course, Harry could defend himself. Hermione didn't want him to be put in the position where he had to. This was another situation that could end with the lot of them in the hospital or worse.
"I just think—"
"I should think about what I'm doing before I do it and be careful," he said, echoing her earlier warnings. Sometimes Hermione wondered if he got as sick of hearing her repeat them as she did of saying it. Still, she would never forget herself if she didn't try to help and something happened.
"Please," Hermione added. "I worry about you."
"You don't have to," Harry said. The bell for first class rang. He smiled at his friends. "I'll see you at morning break."
She had to stop obsessing over him. Well, maybe not so much Harry as the idea that she could have fallen for him. That was the problem with these things. Once Hermione got an idea into her head, she couldn't stop thinking about it until she'd reached a satisfactory resolution. As if this could ever come to that. Thankfully, her friendship with Harry had long since taught her the ability to keep secrets—especially the kind that threatened to expose vulnerability. This particular weakness was something she had to keep to herself at all costs.
Now, rarely a day passed when she didn't find herself constantly distracted by thoughts of him: there was worry, longing and a sudden warmth she was finding it increasingly difficult to hide when he was around. And now he wanted her to help him follow Draco. Harry had said it was because she was concerned and he knew reinforcements could be useful. Hermione suspected he invited her along because he wanted to prove to her—in a way she couldn't refute—that he was right to be suspicious all along. Hermione didn't know what was worse, wanting Harry to be wrong in order to keep him safe or wanting him to be right so she could help him root out any possible threat. Because that's who she was at her best: the voice of reason who would always work to keep him safe. Nothing more than a friend.
"This is stupid," she said. Hermione frowned at her reflection. Her skin was sallow in the dim bathroom light. "I can't think about him like this. I can't let this distract me anymore." She thought of the E she'd gotten on her last exam. Just short of what she needed to be, exactly how Harry would see her if she told him about her crazy feelings. "I have to stop this. Now."
Hermione turned swiftly. She felt the sudden tension in her shoulders ease as Luna entered the bathroom, a distant expression in her clear blue eyes. "Nothing," Hermione answered. "I don't feel well."
"Maybe there's something going around then," the blonde said. She stepped up to the bank of sinks.
"What do you mean?"
"The way Harry was carrying on earlier, I thought something was terribly wrong." Luna leaned forward and began stroking her long hair as she stared at her reflection. Butterfly barrettes in her hair began fluttering as she disturbed them.
Hermione grabbed her arm and turned the other girl to face her. "Something happened to Harry and you just left him?"
Luna shook off her arm absently. "I called into the Prefects' bathroom and he shouted back that he had it under control." She shrugged. "If you're worried, I suppose you could check on—"
The rest of what Luna said was lost to Hermione as she tore out of the bathroom at top speed. She raced up the stairs two at a time, finally jumping to the next landing when she grew impatient waiting for the stairs to move into place. As she neared the bathroom on the fifth floor, the sound of laughter carrying down the hall sent a chill down her back. She slowed to a brisk walk, wary now of a sharp cramp burning hot into her right side.
"You're so pathetic when you're like this," a voice said.
Draco. Hermione placed a hand to her ribcage and limped forward, struggling to catch her breath. She paused outside the door. Harry wasn't answering. Shouting the password, Hermione pushed the door open and ran forward. Draco stood in front of the large tub, his back to the door. Just past him, she could see Harry half floating on the water. Dark ribbons of red swirled through the water around his head.
Without thinking, she raised her wand. "Confrigo!" The spell glanced off of the back of Draco's head. Blood burst out of a wound just above his neck. He began to fall forward. Hermione caught him with a Levitation Charm and threw him out of her way. Running to the side of the tub, she grabbed Harry's legs and pulled him from the water. She turned him onto his back.
"Harry!" He stared up; his expression was blank, as if he was staring straight through her. "Shit. What—?" Hermione turned and snatched Draco's wand from his hand. "Rennervate!" Harry immediately coughed and shook as the spell wore off. When he began breathing steadily, Hermione dropped the other wand and put her arms around him. His wet clothes soaked the front of her robes, but Hermione didn't notice. She ran one hand frantically over Harry's face and neck, searching for the source of the blood in the water. "Are you all right? Where did he get you?"
"Just a cut," he said, lifting his left arm. The sleeve of his robes were torn in several places. He pushed his glasses into place. "I'm fine." Harry coughed then cleared his throat. "Glad you got that bastard before he killed me."
Hermione's eyes narrowed and she turned to glance at the boy behind her. "He's lucky my aim was off or I would've done him in myself." She turned back to Harry. "I can't believe I've been so bloody stupid about this. After all the things he's done over the years, I should've known you were right that he might come after you again."
"I should've listened to you," she continued. "I didn't want to. I couldn't believe Voldemort would actually recruit someone our age to do his dirty work for him. Though, after what Umbridge put us through last year and all those Death Eaters being captured, I should've known not to expect anything as unbelievable as a quiet school year. I mean, when have we ever had one of those?"
The girl put one hand to her face as tears began to fall. "Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry I didn't try to help you all this time. I just wanted to keep you safe. I couldn't stand the idea that you'd get hurt again. And to think that Draco nearly killed you—" At that thought, Hermione took Harry in her arms again and planted a sloppy kiss on his lips. Just as abruptly, she pulled away, wiping at the tears streaming down her face with one sleeve of her robes. She blushed bright scarlet. "I'm sorry. I never should have...I didn't meant to do that," she whispered.
"I get the feeling that's not true," Harry said after a moment. He pushed himself into a sitting position. "For weeks you've been acting...strange."
Strange? Right. That was the nice way of saying my best friend has turned into an emotional mess and now she's kissed me. If I thought it wasn't possible for an awkward situation to become even more difficult, I was wrong. Again. In the worse way.
"I know and...it's nothing. I've just been feeling out of sorts." Hermione stared down at her hands. "It's just stress. Now that we've got the whole situation with him sorted," she said, waving at the unconscious boy behind her, "I'm sure I can return to normal."
"It started before we saw him in Diagon Alley," Harry said. "All summer you've been different." He grabbed one of her Hermione's hands. "Every time you look at me, it's like you're seeing another person. If what happened at the Ministry bothered you that much—"
"It's not that," Hermione said. She looked up. When she looked into Harry's eyes, her breath caught. "Maybe it did start at the end of term. Or before then. Or...I don't know! I've just been so worried about you and I've been driving myself crazy thinking about you."
"Thinking about me what?"
Hermione's eyes dropped again. To their clasped hands. "That's it. Just about you. In a way that is decidedly more than friendly. And you don't have to say anything. I know you don't want anything like that with me. You've never looked at me that way and why would I expect you to? I'm just your brainy friend with the big mouth and bigger hair and I have no idea why my emotions have gotten so out of control around you these past weeks, but I know it has to stop. Maybe telling you will finally end it," she added quietly.
"You've been feeling this way for a while and you never said anything to me? Hermione, we could have talked about it."
The gentle tone in his voice was nearly her undoing. Fantastic. He's going to tell me what a "nice girl" I am just before I die of embarrassment. As if I don't have reason enough to wish for a hole to open up in the floor and swallow me.
"The last thing we needed to do was talk about this. I've gone completely mental and I don't think it would help the situation to describe how I've lost my mind in detail." She tried to pull her hand from Harry's; he held hers tighter. "You're my best friend and I've always thought I could tell you just about anything. Except this. I didn't want your pity, knowing I'm just one of the many girls who sees you this way. You know me better than that. You know I'm not shallow like some of them. So I didn't say anything. I didn't tell Ginny or anyone because I didn't know how they'd react. Living with this secret has been a nightmare. I'm losing sleep. I can't study. I can barely get through a couple of classes without wishing I could just turn this feeling off and get back to normal." Hermione sighed.
"I feel like I've been lying to you, to all of you. The whole thing's been making me terribly anxious. It's been nearly unbearable," Hermione finished in a rush. There was a long pause. "Say something."
"So...the thought of having feelings for me has been causing you nearly unbearable agony?"
"Yes, that's why...no." Hermione looked up at Harry; he was grinning. "Shut up. That's not what I meant and you know it."
"I don't know, Hermione." Harry shrugged. "The way you say it, we'd be better off staying away from each other altogether. You know, in the interest of easing your suffering."
She sighed and a small smile tilted her lips. "I'm sure there are other methods of dealing with these kinds of things. For instance, we could try—"
"Not thinking about it so much," Harry put in. "You know, even if your feelings about me have changed, I'd never think of you as just like those other girls. All they see is the scar, the fame, the money...and now they see the hero from the Department of Mysteries. They don't see me. Most of them never will. You've always seen more to me than that. Just as I see more in you than a witch with big hair and her nose stuck in a book."
"Well, thanks," Hermione whispered. "That's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me."
"You know what I mean. The reason we became such good friends is because there's more to both of us than the average person sees on the surface. And we get that about each other. We understand a lot that other people will never know." Harry paused. "I wish you'd trusted me enough to say something sooner, even if you were unsure of your feelings," he said, cutting Hermione off before she could interrupt. "I would never want to say something to hurt you, not on purpose."
"I know you'd never hurt me on purpose, but that doesn't mean it won't still hurt, hearing no from you," Hermione said. "I remember how everyone reacted to those stupid Rita Skeeter articles fourth year. You never wanted anyone to believe there was anything between us then. I can't imagine much has changed since."
"Hermione, you have to stop selling yourself short before I can even tell you what I think." He squeezed her hand. "I'm sure you've thought about this from every angle, but I can tell you something you probably never considered. You're one of the closest people in my life. Yes, you're like family, but a lot of the time it's more than that. You get me, sometimes more than I like to admit. I can't find that with just any girl. And yes, the idea of us becoming a couple is strange, but that doesn't mean it could never happen. Stranger things have happened."
One of those strange things was definitely the way he was looking at her now.
"I think the idea of us could grow on me," Harry whispered. "It's like a natural next step, from best friends to something better."
Hermione scrambled for something to say, lost for words for the first time she could remember. Finally, she was able to gather her thoughts. "I don't...but what if something goes wrong? What if—?"
"Shh. Don't worry about the what ifs." Harry leaned closer to her until their faces were inches apart. "If we go in without a plan, we'll have to rely on our instincts." His hand was tight on hers again; his fingers burned an imprint deep into her skin. "If I remember accurately, you have fantastic instincts."
Instinct. That was what kept her from freezing when Harry closed the distance between them. It made her react when his lips touched hers tentatively, feeling for the moment when this thing between them would become more than just a hazy idea and begin to grow into something beautiful. And instincts would serve her well when the time came to make a choice between doing what was safe and easy and taking a chance. Safe had never gotten Hermione too far from the library. Taking this chance would change her world.