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Prologue

Saturday, April 5th, 1997

 

The boy sat in the window.  He sighed, wondering what could have been if he was brave enough.

As he gazed through the panes of glass near the top of a staircase that ascended from the main entrance of Hogwarts, he watched them walking away—the two of them.  She reached up and took his arm.  Had she ever done that before?   The redheaded boy—his best mate—immediately seemed to walk just a little taller, his posture becoming more confident, while his gait altered subtly, almost as if he were strutting.  She looked small next to him: only a few years ago, the three of them were all nearly the same height, but the difference in stature between them was proof of how much had changed over the years.

Harry closed his eyes for a moment and could almost feel her warm hand grasping his own arm, as she had on so many occasions.  Often she held onto him in fear in a desperate situation, but sometimes just out of the friendly affection she had always given him so freely.  

Would she still take his arm like that now?

Did it matter?

He saw her head turn suddenly, that mane of brown hair flying to the side to reveal her gorgeous smile.  She was laughing.  They both bent over a bit in obvious merriment as they shared some private jest.

That smile used to be for me, only me.

Not that she didn’t smile on other occasions, too.  But Harry’s presence often seemed to bring a particular kind of happiness to her.  He never understood why, though Harry knew it had something to do with how very much she had always seemed to care about him, to make certain he was always all right.  

Would she still smile like that for him now?

As the pair slowly disappeared out of sight this beautiful spring day on their way to Apparition practice at Hogsmeade, Harry turned away from the glass.  I’m being ridiculous, he thought.  He had known this was coming for months.  He thought he was over it.  He had even trained his mind to focus on Ginny, who had first been a mere distraction.  But now he had grown to legitimately like Ginny, even desire her.  It bothered Harry, actually—those lustful thoughts always felt wrong somehow.  Yes, she was Ron’s sister.  But he was a teenage boy, and, well, these things were to be expected, he assumed.

With her, however, it was different.  Deeper, stronger, more beautiful.  Like sunrises and angels and feeling like coming home in her arms...

“Idiot,” he muttered to himself.  Lusting after your best friend isn’t “beautiful,” it’s just wrong.  Especially now that she clearly is interested in your other best friend.   If he could try to care for Ginny only with brotherly affection, surely he could love her only like a sister.

At least with Ginny, he still saw some hope, some promise.  Maybe someday the sunrises and angels would come there too.  With her, well… he had his chance, his short window of opportunity, but he had never found the courage.

Or the stupidity, the small voice in his head said in reply.

He felt for the parchment in his pocket, its familiar folds and texture softened over the months.  Why he still carried it, he didn’t know.  It would have been his confession, his “grand gesture” to reveal himself and—in so doing—perhaps win her heart.  

Dozens of times he was only a second from pulling it out and thrusting it into her hands after a class on some random day, then running away before she could read it.  He had fantasized about her coming to him afterward, holding it out with a shocked look on her face, before she took him into her arms in the way only she could.  And then he’d be home… forever.

Not that he had any clue what a “home” really felt like.  But if there was one in his life, it was with her.

He closed his eyes and cleared his throat, swallowing a bit harder than usual.  These feelings would pass.  He still had her in his life—that was what was most important.  He needed her friendship, those caring brown eyes, more than anything.  When his life was falling apart, he knew she’d always still be at his side.

At the opening of the school year, he truly thought things might shift between them.  He saw that radiant look, those bright shining eyes when she had found out that he thought she was the best in their year.  Of course she was!   How absurd that anyone else could even think of another to claim that title!  Still—that whisper she gave him, bursting with happiness at his approval—he had relived that memory many times.  It made him feel even more strongly that he needed to figure out ways to tell her how much she meant to him, to make her that happy again.  And yet the words would never come when he wanted them to.  He’d rather face a dozen dark wizards alone than risk revealing his deepest secret to her.

Which is why he came up with “The Plan” soon after.  He had to admit that it wasn’t much of a grandiose detailed strategic project.  It instead merely consisted of a single gesture: shock and awe, of sorts.  At least thirty times he had started over with his quill, crumpling the previous flawed pages and throwing the evidence into the fire, making certain everything was perfectly written: he thought she would appreciate the neatness.  He couldn’t believe he had even found something so precisely attuned to his situation, so poignant and meaningful…

So why is it still in my pocket?

For an instant, he considered taking it out and tearing it apart then and there, ripping it into tiny pieces and tossing them out the window to let the spring breezes waft the shattered bits of his love across the grounds, into the sun for a few moments, finally emerging from the dark pocket they had dwelt in so many long months, perhaps eventually blowing far away and drowning themselves in the lake.

He chuckled to himself at the image.  Now that would be poetic.

There had been so many little moments in those first weeks of the school year.  Little tepid attempts at flirting—a smirk from him, a blush from her.  Even more than usual.  Followed by suspicious glances from everyone, including Ron.  Did she have any clue how those blushes drove him wild?  She was so adorable, so cute—not perhaps the girl that everyone else would pick out from a crowd, but in the past couple years she had become truly beautiful to him.  He assumed many were put off by the fact that she refused to spend an hour every morning perfecting her appearance, like many girls did.  Her bookishness meant that she had other priorities, more important things to do.  He was surprised that more boys at Hogwarts seemingly couldn’t look past a little frizzy hair, but also grateful that left more of her attention for him.

But Harry had experienced enough time close to her, enough time studying her and even feeling her pressed against him on several occasions that he spent many hours imagining her soft curves underneath those loose robes and bulky jumpers.  How could she ever imagine he’d think she was ugly?  She had even presented him with that opportunity to clarify, and he messed that up too.  Idiot.  He never could find the right way to bring it up again.  Yet she had even called him fanciable, reciting that litany of praise for him.  What had that all meant?

Soon afterwards, unfortunately, things began to go off the rails.  There was the damned potions book, which seemed to cause the stupidest disagreements with her.  It was almost like the two of them had started to bicker like she and Ron always did.  Well, never quite that bad, Harry had to admit.  And he had known that she had at least some interest in Ron for a couple years, despite their petty squabbles.  But when she invited Ron to Slughorn’s party, even as friends, Harry saw the beginning of the end.  He nearly destroyed a table in Herbology, it upset him so much.  

It certainly was no coincidence that that stupid monster in his chest for Ginny began to rear its head almost immediately afterward, calling for him, subconsciously trying to deflect his attention from her.

On the other hand, how could he wish for anything but happiness for his best friends?  If they were to be happy together, he definitely didn’t want to stand in the way.  He’d never infringe on her happiness, no matter how conflicted he felt about it.

All through this time, the piece of heavy parchment had lived in his pocket, ready at a moment’s notice.  And he had to admit, he came so, so close—just once.  She and Ron certainly did not make each other happy together at first: Harry found himself chasing after her when Ron upset her over and over.  There was that one day back in December when she had run from Transfiguration after Ron had taunted her yet again, and Harry ran after her, wanting to stop the crying, wanting to do… anything.

But he didn’t know how.  No one had ever come to him when he had cried as a boy.  It was a stupid thing, he knew, but he just didn’t know how to react, even in the presence of the pained expression of his best friend in the world.  So he had stood there, like an idiot, in silence, fingering the parchment in his pocket, uncomfortable that Luna was also there, knowing that then just wasn’t the right time, though maybe it would have been the perfect time…

There were only a few seconds, and then she was gone—running away, hiding her tears from him.  It pained him that she knew he was uncomfortable around crying, but he had come after her because he wanted to be there.  He wanted to help.  Didn’t she realize that?  She probably did, as she acknowledged in her hurried gratitude before leaving.  But he had missed his chance, and it never seemed to come again.

As the weeks and months dragged on, Ginny grew as a distraction, and he let that distraction into his mind more often.  Even she saw how Ginny affected him, and he caught her staring at him a few times, monitoring his interest in Ginny.  She probably thought she was helping him, making him happy—when really he simply was trying to hide and deflect his obsession with her.  Meanwhile, Harry witnessed the repeated blow-ups and hurtful things his pair of best friends did to each other, even though they apparently were supposed to like each other.  So Harry came to think it was for the best.  He’d much rather have her friendship than act like the two of them.  

And of course, there was also that small voice that continuously told him that she simply didn’t see him like that, that they were only friends.  That voice always spoke up strongly in those moments when he came close to telling her.  What if she laughed at him?  Worse, what if she pitied him?  At a minimum, it would make things awkward between them, committing them both to a sort of bizarre purgatory—a state of discomfort where those little hugs from her would almost certainly cease.

Such thoughts had haunted Harry through much of the year, and he’d be lying to himself if he didn’t acknowledge that they had influenced the testy attitude he occasionally adopted with her.  He wanted that to be over too.

Thus, when Ron had muttered a half-hearted silly “I love you” to her a few weeks ago, Harry knew the end had finally come.  Even though none of them took it seriously, Harry saw that tiny blush: the blush that had almost always been reserved for Harry.  The pink color of her cheeks said much more than three words—or even a thousand—could.  The trio had been divided, and that was that.

Moreover, as he learned more from Dumbledore that year about the possibilities of Voldemort and dark magic, Harry increasingly felt like his very presence could put her in danger.  Even his own thoughts, his own mind, could be penetrated by Voldemort, and Harry would never forgive himself if his feelings brought her into peril.   Last year, he had almost lost her to Dolohov, the event that had catalyzed his entire year of reflection on her role in his life.  And what if he himself died?  He couldn’t bear to think of her mourning for him alone—she needed Ron, and to be frank, Ron probably needed her even more.

The day after Ron’s unexpected utterance in the common room, Harry had stopped carrying the parchment, though he had essentially given up ever using it long before.  He hid it deep in his trunk and initially only pulled it out this very morning to gaze at it.  He had one last hope: one unlikely wish that perhaps she’d have a change in heart and choose to stay behind today—to spend the day with him, to choose him over Ron, as she seemingly had done on so many occasions.  And if she had, he would have told her; he swore that to himself that morning.

Instead, they had nearly had another argument before she left.  Why had he been such an idiot?  Was he driving her away?  Was he allowing his own frustration with himself to bleed over to his interactions with her?

She didn’t deserve that.  She deserved the best he could do, even if he couldn’t always live up to it.  And she did bring out the best in him, when he allowed her to.

They needed to get past this.  Well, if there had ever been anything from her, it seemed she was already past it.  He was the one who needed to make a decision.  A permanent decision.  To protect her, and to protect his own heart.  He needed to do it for his own sanity, if nothing else.  He couldn’t waffle or turn back.

Harry reached into his other pocket and pulled out the map.  As he threw on the Invisibility Cloak and began searching for the Room of Requirement, pointedly defying her suggestion for the day, he reached for the parchment one final time.  He wouldn’t tear it up—no, that would be too cruel, and he’d forget his vow.  Instead, he’d bury it, mourn it, but keep it close, and always remember that her happiness came first.  His love, patterned in fourteen careful lines of ink on that page, would be his enduring testimony to that.  Well, that and that other even more ridiculous thing hidden in his trunk.  He’d never betray his best mate either, not when they both meant so much to him.

She would always come first in his heart.  And because of that, he needed to let her go if he valued her as his best friend.  Still, there would only ever be one she in his life.  It was almost as if the very pronoun itself was reserved for a single person by default in his mind.  She had always devoted so much to him and asked nothing in return.  This would be his silent sacrifice.

Hermione deserved that much… and so much more.