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Hermione awoke hours later to the sound hushed voices, and six eyes fixated on her.

“Hey, you all right? Are you sick?” Harry asked looking concerned.

“Yeah, we were worried about you.” Ron…beautiful Ron.

“Thank you, but I’m fine. I was just a bit sleepy.” She sat up in bed, then realized how revealing her nightclothes were and hastily brought her covers up over her chest.

“No need to be embarrassed, ‘Mione. We’re all family here!” Harry thought he was being helpful by lightening the mood, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ginny scolded Harry for his rude remark, and his posture instantly drooped. He was in trouble now. Then the Weasley girl shooed her brother and her boyfriend out of the room quite easily, for they didn’t dare test her temper. She sat down on the edge of Hermione’s bed, and sympathetically stroked her friend’s bushy brown hair.

“So, you going to tell me what’s wrong?” Ginny’s voice was soft and soothing. Hermione sighed.

“You know what’s wrong. It’s the same thing, over and over again. Boys—the one thing I need to know most about, and the one thing I can’t learn in a textbook.”

“You mean boy.” Ginny gave a sad, sideways grin.

“Oh, Ginny, please don’t make this harder than it already is.”

“Sorry. But I don’t understand something, why did you sleep so late? Usually this stuff keeps you awake.” Ginny was Hermione’s best girl friend, so she usually got the inside scoop on everything that was going on.

“It did keep me awake. I was downstairs in the kitchen for quite a while. I talked to your dad a little this morning, then your mum and Bill questioned me to death when they found me still awake. Only Charlie had the decency to leave me be. They all had good intentions, I guess… but God, I thank Charlie for not saying anything.”

“And then you just came back to bed and went to sleep?”

“Yeah. I guess the lack of sleep is finally catching up to my body. I barely even had time to think about anything before I was out. First time in months I’ve been able to do that, and it felt wonderful.”

Hermione thought of Charlie again, and how much it meant to her that he had not added to her miseries. Certainly he must have wondered what was wrong as much as Bill and Mrs. Weasley, but he still kept out of it. I should probably thank him for that.

The rest of the afternoon passed with ease, as Hermione’s made-up hours of sleep left her refreshed and in a better mood. The four friends mostly just goofed off all day, playing wizard chess and searching the house for Christmas gifts. Hermione noticed Harry and Ginny holding hands as they snuck up to the attic, and her heart sank.

Dinner that night wasn’t too pleasant to start. She saw how close Harry sat to Ginny, and how they looked so deeply into each other’s eyes as they talked. Hermione didn’t eat enough to satisfy Mrs. Weasley, but she earnestly insisted she was full.

The only thing different was that Charlie sat on her right; he usually never sat by her before. Hermione didn’t mind though, and it actually made her feel better. It was as if he was saying he was literally “by her side,” almost as if he understood what she was going through.

Harry and Ginny excused themselves from the table, and snaked off by themselves—undoubtedly for a make-out session.

Ron was utterly miserable as well, but Hermione didn’t notice because she could barely look at him. Ron tried his best to sound cheerful and asked, “Hey, ‘Mione, want to go play some chess?”

Hermione was startled as his request. She thought to herself, It’s fine. I can play chess with my friend. No problem. She turned to look at Charlie briefly before answering Ron with, “Sure.”

”I'm really glad you feel better,” Ron said genuinely.

”Oh yeah I’m fine, thanks.” She looked at Ron and noticed how much he and Charlie looked alike. Of course they were brothers so naturally they resembled each other, but for some reason today they looked even more alike than usual today.

“Wonder where Harry and Ginny are? Maybe they’d like to play with us…” Ron smiled though he felt uneasy being alone with Hermione. As much as he wanted to be alone with her, he was scared of what would happen if he got his wish. Ron didn’t trust himself at all.

“They’re around here somewhere, but I think they’d rather keep to themselves for awhile. After all, they are dating now. They need their space.” She waited to catch his reaction. “Is it so hard for you to be with me, Ron?”

The look of hurt on Hermione’s face caught Ron off guard. He was instantly filled with ten different emotions at once, and didn’t know what to say first. Yes, it was that hard for him to be with her—but he couldn’t say that. He couldn’t let his love for her mess with their friendship. So instead, he said nothing.

Hermione slowly pushed out her chair and walked towards the door. Ron made to follow her and said, “Wait, you don’t have to go.” She turned around and replied, “It’s ok, Ron,” then close closed the door behind her.

She decided to take a walk outside to clear her thoughts, but found that task nearly impossible. The night sky seemed brighter than usual due to the heavy clouds that lingered over. It was below freezing and the snow on the ground gathered on her shoes as she tramped through it. Her hands were numb and red, but she didn’t care. All her energy was focused her situation with Ron. She wondered why Ron didn’t follow her, secretly hoping he would tap her on the shoulder at any moment. Then she countered if Ron did appear, it would make everything more difficult to bear. Why is this so hard?

Hermione continued to walk through the long, circular path she’d made in the snow, wondering if anyone else even knew she was out in the cold.

“Hermione?” She heard a familiar voice behind her, and turned to meet Charlie.

“Mind if I join you?”

Hermione was shocked to see him, but not at all disappointed. She smiled at him and said, “Of course not. It’d be nice to have some company.”

“Great! So, what are you doing out here all alone in the cold anyways? Aren’t you freezing?” Hermione told him she was used to it because of all the ski trips she’d taken with her parents. Charlie, however, was a complete gentleman and removed his dragon-hide cloak to wrap around her shoulders.

“Thanks, Charlie.”

“So why aren’t you with Harry and Ron? You three are usually attached at the hip.”

“Well actually it’s Harry and Ginny who are attached at the hip now. He hasn’t been spending as much time with us since they started dating. And Ron… He’s around here somewhere, I guess.”

Charlie noticed her tone lowered a bit at the last part, so he decided not to push her any further. Instead, he changed the subject to something that would be a little bit more comfortable for her.

“Have you thought about what you’re going to do after you graduate in a few months?”

“Oh, I’ve thought about doing LOTS of things. It’s picking one that’s the problem,” Hermione laughed. “How did you end up deciding to work with dragons? I mean, how did you know that’s what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?”

“I don’t know exactly. I’ve always loved being around animals, not to mention a certain affinity for danger.” Charlie struck an impressive super-hero pose, and adorned a look of pride that could have rivaled Gilderoy Lockhart’s. Hermione couldn’t help but laugh, and Charlie joined her. “It was actually a bit of unexpected luck. The day after graduation I received a letter for my first job offer in Romania. I figured it would be a good opportunity to have fun and see the world while simultaneously getting to do what I loved. Worked out perfectly, in fact.”

“So you really like it in Romania, even though you’re so far from your family?”

“Yes, I’d have to say that’s the only drawback. It’s hard to be away from everybody and only get to see them twice a year. I get a little lonely sometimes, but it’s worth it to have a job that makes me happy.”

“That’s kind of how I feel about school. I love being there, but now I miss my parents more than I used to. Usually I was with Harry and Ron so much that I didn’t have time to be sad or lonely, but now… Well, at least there’s only one term left until graduation. Then I can move on, get a job, do something important with my life.”

Charlie put his arm around her shoulders and said reassuringly, “Don’t you worry about those two gits. They’ll wise up eventually. But just in case they don’t, you can always send me an owl in Romania if you feel lonely.”

Hermione smiled at him appreciatively and answered, “You know, I might just do that.”

Feeling a lot better, Hermione decided it was a good time to go inside and warm up. They walked in and joined the rest of the Weasleys and Harry by the fire. She sat by Ginny, so immersed in conversation that she didn’t notice Charlie smiling at her from across the room.

Ron looked glum as he talked to Harry and the twins about the latest products from Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, a subject that normally would have had all the boys laughing excitedly. His gaze drifted lazily to the Christmas tree that sheltered numerous presents wrapped in cheerful paper and fancy bows. He fixed his eyes on the shiny red package he had wrapped for Hermione, but was snapped back to reality when George playfully thumped him on the head.

“Wake up, ickle Ronnie!” George said in a baby voice.

“Aw, is the poor, lovesick puppy daydreaming again?” Fred’s joke highly amused his twin brother, but got quite the opposite reaction from Ron.

“Go ahead and laugh. I wouldn’t expect you two prats to know anything about love,” Ron said sternly as he exited the room.

Hermione caught bits of the derisive exchange between the youngest Weasley boys and let her eyes watch Ron as he left. The door slammed harshly and broke her gaze from the door. She looked across the room and met Charlie’s eyes, silently motioning and wishing he would go talk to Ron.

Harry joined Hermione and Ginny just before Charlie excused himself and followed Ron to his room.

“Go away! I don’t want to talk to anyone!”

“Hey, little brother, it’s me, Charlie,” he said as he inched the door open. Ron collapsed onto his bed and looked at his brother, trying to show as little emotion as possible.

“Ok, I guess you can come in…” Ron said with indifference. Charlie sat down beside his distraught brother, but Ron made no eye contact as he stared out the window.

“You want to tell me what’s wrong?” But Ron kept silent.

“Love is a tough thing to understand. It can be the greatest of joys, but also the darkest of hells. I know you’re in love with—“

“I’M NOT IN LOVE WITH HERMIONE!!!” Ron shouted so loud that Charlie jumped back, his heart racing. Tears started to well up in Ron’s eyes as Charlie regained his composure and moved closer. Ron broke into tears as Charlie patted his back.

“Y-y-yes, I a-am…” Ron sobbed.

“Hey, it’s alright. Shhh, don’t worry, everything will be ok,” Charlie consoled. “You know, maybe you should tell her.”

“N-no w-w-way! Are you m-mad!?” Ron’s flow of tears increased as he broke into near hysterics. He cried so frantically he could hardly breathe. Charlie did most of the talking for a while until Ron could calm down.

“This is what happens when you keep love bottled up like this; eventually you explode. If you love Hermione, you should tell her. It’s not fair to either one of you to go on living like this. I can see it’s killing you inside to not be with her. You owe it to yourself, and to her.”

“No. I c-can never tell her. That’s j-just n-not an option,” Ron stated firmly, though this voice still quavered.

“And why not?”

“She’s my b-best friend besides Harry. I can’t take that risk. Besides, she’s not in love with me…”

“Well, how would you know? You’ve never asked her!”

“No, she’s not. Maybe she did once, but she can’t now. I’ve waited too long, hurt her too much. No, what she needs to do is find another bloke and move on. That would make everything easier for both of us, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about her feeling lonely, and then torturing myself knowing I was the source of her pain.”

“Are you sure that’s what you really want? To see the girl you love with some other guy? You might regret that decision someday.”

“Seems I’ve already made that decision. I made it years ago when I took so long to ask her to the Yule Ball. Can’t take it back now. And as for regrets, what’s done is done and I can’t change it. I’d rather let her move on and be happy than continue to cause her sorrow.”

“That makes sense, I guess, but you realize it’s going to be a rough road ahead, right? I want you to think about this before making any rash decisions like telling her you can’t be with her.”

“I told you, I’ve made my decision. And trust me, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I know what I’m doing.”

“Ok, now all you’ve got to do is tell her.”

“What? Why? Why can’t we just go on like nothing happened? It’ll sort itself out eventually…”

“No, Ron, it won’t. Something has happened, and you can’t just sit back and let Hermione wait for you forever, especially since you have no intention of giving her what she needs. You need to talk to her.”

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