Disclaimer: I own none of these characters and am making no money from this work.
She clung to his arm, huddling into him with a gesture so un-Hermione-like that it made his stomach churn with anger and hopelessness.
Of course, the display his best mate had treated them to and the trembling of Hermione's body as she'd watched Ron kiss Lavender had set his stomach twisting already. Seeing her curls vanish through the portrait, knowing why she'd left, had made him gulp and waver. I don't want to watch Hermione cry over Ron.
Over anyone, he corrected himself. I don't want to see her cry over anyone. I don't want to see her cry at all.
But especially not over Ron.
But Hermione was in the hall, alone. Alone and hurting. And no matter what he had to watch, that was something he could never allow. He went to find her. "Hermione?"
"Practicing," she'd said, her voice choked, and he'd known she was crying over Ron.
His stomach had knotted. "Looks good," he'd offered, his voice half-hearted and totally unconvincing. He didn't know why he bothered pretending around Hermione; she always knew down to the last word what was going through his head. Except for that one thing... but if I hadn't kept that from her, we couldn't be friends at all...
Harry remembered the moment in third year when he'd come between her and the werewolf from whom she'd saved him an hour before. Remembered the feel of her shaking in his arms, how his body had tightened around hers without even thinking. Remembered the thing he'd thought after Sirius had reassured him, The ones we love never really leave us.
Harry had thought, Yes. Hermione's still here.
His only experience of being loved had been Hermione, and Hermione had always been there. But it hadn't been till that moment that he'd realized that he loved her back.
Cho was lovely—though not as lovely as Hermione is now— and she was unattainable: Harry was a Seeker for a reason. But Cho's enchantment had broken when Hermione had scoffed at Ron's incredulous question... Are you that bad at kissing?— and Harry's uncertain answer... Dunno. Maybe I am.*
Of course you're not, she'd said, not even looking up, and at that moment Harry'd recognized his love for Hermione for what it was. Because there was nothing brotherly about his mental response: Doesn't mean I couldn't use your help, 'Mione.
So watching her being hexed at the Ministry had been almost as bad as watching Sirius fall through the Veil. There had been a bitter tinge of self-hatred in his grief last summer. Look at what you've done, Potter. Look at what you've cost her.
He'd promised himself her love for him wouldn't cost her again.
Now, watching Ron leave after those canaries had hit the door, he wished fiercely that Hermione hadn't missed. Ron deserved to feel some of the pain she was feeling. The pain she'd go on feeling, because this was something Harry couldn't fix. Couldn't stop or undo or get around or fight.
Couldn't take her into his arms and kiss away the way he'd wanted to do for a hundred other smaller hurts. The only thing he had to offer Hermione for this would break her heart even further.
He felt her tears soak into his shirt as she said, "...You're my best friend..."
You're my best friend.
Who knew that four words could sound like a steel door slamming shut?
And it was nothing Harry hadn't known. Nothing he hadn't known from the very beginning.
And now, because he'd made sure she'd never know, for the very first time since he'd known her, Hermione was talking nonsense. "I see how you look at her..." If he hadn't been so miserable, he'd've wanted to laugh. The one and only time he'd succeeded in lying to the brightest witch of her age, and it'd been about herself.
She came to the end of her question, and realizing what she was asking made his heart clench like a fist.
"How does it feel...?"
And hearing the break in Hermione's voice as she cried over Ron, feeling her tremble against him as she desperately tried to control her longing for his best mate, Harry ignored the rest of the question and told Hermione the absolute truth. Felt her tears on his skin, and her cold fingers around his arm, and didn't look at her, and said four words he knew she'd never understand.
"It feels like this."