The summer was winding its way into the last days of August, but for the first time in his life Harry Potter didn’t want it to end.
It was the first summer Harry had ever really enjoyed. His days at Privet Drive had been blissfully short; Dudley had been away at a summer camp for “healthy eaters,” as his Aunt Petunia had put it so tactfully, for most of the holiday. Though, Harry thought, Aunt Petunia must have certainly hindered Dudley’s progress with all of the care packages she had been sending to camp, packed full of her Diddums’ favorite treats. Without Dudley in the house to whine about Harry’s every move, Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia were more than happy to completely ignore Harry, and he had been able to spend the days reading “Quidditch Through the Ages” and sending owls to Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, and Sirius.
But Harry barely remembered the beginning of the summer, because every fiber of his being had been focused on one thing: Quidditch Camp. Harry had received a letter last spring informing him that he was eligible for a month at Ludo Bagman’s training camp for talented young Quidditch players, and once Sirius had deemed it a safe enough activity, he had been overjoyed to accept. An entire month spent playing Quidditch, during a normally Quidditch-free summer, was a blessing Harry had never dreamed possible. He was to spend July in the company of some of the best Quidditch players in the country, rooming in an old estate somewhere in Yorkshire. Harry wasn’t sure exactly where the estate had been; the Knight Bus had picked up all the campers and whisked them off to camp at two in the morning. This had provided Uncle Vernon with ample opportunity to harp on the wizard community — “Blasted lunatics, waking up the whole neighborhood at all hours, can’t they just use a bus like normal people?” — but he had shut up quickly when Harry reminded him of some of the other methods wizards used for travel. Uncle Vernon had glanced nervously at his fireplace and turned a deep shade of scarlet.
Quidditch Camp had easily been one of the best times of Harry’s life. He had badly missed Ron and Hermione, but he became fast friends with some of the other boys in his residence hall, and Oliver Wood, ex-captain of the Gryffindor team, had been their hall counselor. Oliver was now playing professional Quidditch for the Puddlemere United Reserve Team, and he told Harry fantastic stories about reaching the semifinals of last year’s regional championships. He also told Harry about some of the parties they’d had after the championships, and based on Oliver’s stories Harry was now gunning to play professional Quidditch himself. Or at least, get his name on the guest list for the Puddlemere post-game parties.
Camp had also been exhausting. They rose every morning at six to start their training, which consisted of running several miles around the estate before they even touched their broomsticks. Then they had morning drills, followed by a hearty breakfast, more drills, lunch, an hour lecture on Quidditch Strategy from Bagman, an hour of training in the weight room, and an afternoon scrimmage match which often lasted until supper. After supper, there was more running, stretching exercises, and another lecture, often a guest speaker from a local team.
Harry was often amazed that he didn’t pass out the moment his head hit the pillow at night, but the late-night dormitory antics in his room were too fun to miss. They often stayed up until the wee hours pulling pranks and playing “Veritas Periculo,” the Wizarding version of an old Muggle game Harry had known as “Truth or Dare.” In the Wizard version, however, the choice fell between submitting to a very mild version of a Truth spell, or completing an often silly and risky task. Harry, afraid of what dangerous secrets a truth spell might reveal if cast upon him, was usually quite happy to accept a dare in its place.
However, Veritas Periculo did reveal rather a lot about some of the other boys Harry was rooming with. Harry was a bit abashed to discover that, at fifteen — he had celebrated his birthday with a rowdy dormitory party this year — he was one of the only ones who had never kissed a girl. Many of his roommates had in fact done quite a bit more than kissing girls, and Harry drank in their stories of opposite-sex encounters with a mixture of rapt interest and anxiety. Of course, he had once duelled the Dark Lord, but that seemed rather feeble in his mind when compared to Lucas Hamilton’s tales of sneaking out to an empty Quidditch pitch with Sarah Grady.
Even Ron had managed to trump Harry in this regard. His letters this summer were full of news about a girl named Emma Bunting, a smart, funny Ravenclaw just one year below them at Hogwarts. Ron had run into her by chance during the Weasley’s holiday in Morocco, where Emma had also been travelling with her family, and from the sound of Ron’s letters the two of them had hit it off rather quickly. Harry always looked forward to hearing from Ron, but couldn’t help feeling nasty pangs of jealousy whenever Ron wrote with a particularly juicy story about roaming famous Moroccan wizard castles at night with Emma.
But Quidditch Camp was too tiring to keep Harry worrying about anything for any length of time. As camp drew to a close, Harry marvelled that he could actually complete the morning run without feeling dizzy and breathless. He had even shown marked improvement in his Quidditch skills, which Harry guessed was a result of feeling so much stronger and quicker than he had ever felt before. As Harry was preparing to leave Ludo’s camp, Oliver had approached him and thumped him on the back, beaming, declaring that this year Harry would certainly be the finest Seeker Gryffindor house had ever seen.
Harry had been dreading the end of camp, and when Hedwig had delivered the letter from Hogwarts containing the list of his fifth-year supplies, he felt a deep pit of fear lodge in his stomach. He was looking forward to the Quidditch season this year, to be sure, but his letter reminded him that he also had to take a round of O.W.L.’s at the end of this term. Exams had never been his specialty. Harry was almost more comfortable confronting large fire-breathing creatures in a dungeon than sitting in a classroom with parchment and a quill. It just wasn’t his true element.
It was more Hermione’s cup of tea. The thought of seeing Hermione again was one of the bright spots in Harry’s anxious muddle of feelings about his fifth year at Hogwarts. They had sent each other plenty of owls during the summer; Hermione had been attending a summer program at Buonmagio, an Italian wizarding academy, and had been thoroughly enraptured with her studies of advanced forms of arithmancy and transfiguration. Harry somehow knew that once he got to Hogwarts and was settled cozily in the library with Hermione by his side, he wouldn’t feel so nervous about O.W.L.’s, or anything else for that matter. He’d feel at home again.
As was now his tradition, Harry ended the summer with a trip to the Burrow to visit the Weasleys, which raised his spirits considerably. There was a lot of exclaiming over Harry’s apparent spurt in size over the summer, though Harry couldn’t see what all the fuss was about — he still saw the same thin frame and unkempt hair whenever he glanced in the mirror. Moreover, Harry didn’t see how anyone could exclaim about his growth when Ron seemed to have rocketed nearly a foot upwards during the summer. He was now easily a head taller than Harry, challenging his brother Bill’s height and coming up fast on Mr.Weasley. All of the Weasleys were brown and freckled from their stay in Morocco, though Ginny still turned a faint shade of pink whenever she saw Harry. Harry couldn’t help noticing that Ginny was much prettier than he’d remembered; her shiny red hair now hung most of the way down her back, and she had a very winning smile. Ron shook his head as he described all the boys that had followed Ginny around all summer.
“Honestly, it was mad,” he told Harry with amazement. “Five or six blokes a day approaching my sister like — like she was some kind of girl, or something. Couldn’t believe it.”
“Very odd,” Harry mused, concealing a smile.
Mrs.Weasley took them to Diagon Alley to pick up their supplies, and herded both of them into Wimpole’s Wizard Wear to buy new robes and a few other clothes as well. “Honestly, you two,” she chided. “Did you really think you were going to go off to school with your pant legs six inches too short? Oblivious, that’s what you are. And Ronald Weasley, I can’t keep you in robes if you keep sprouting up like this. We’ll have to buy you new ones.” At this Harry and Ron grinned at each other while Mrs.Weasley busied herself hunting through a stack of navy blue shirts. Ron had never been very fond of his shabby hand-me-downs, and many of them had been repurposed as covers for Pigwidgeon’s cage without Mrs.Weasley’s knowledge.
Harry’s last days at the Burrow whizzed by like a Seeker on the trail of a Snitch. Before he knew it he was wheeling his trunk and Hedwig’s cage back to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station once more; his fifth year was upon him, O.W.L.’s and all. He had just finished loading his trunk onto the Hogwarts Express when he heard a voice behind him.
It was Hermione. Harry turned, expecting to see the familiar face of his old friend. But the sight of the girl before him broadsided him with the force of a Ford Anglia hitting a Whomping Willow.
Hermione’s skin was tanned from her summer in Italy, and her usually mouse-brown hair was streaked with gold and not at all the bushy mass that Harry knew so well. It was somehow tamed, and in long, wavy curls that swirled down her back. Her face looked older somehow, less rounded, more refined; her large brown eyes, framed by a heavy fringe of lashes, drew Harry’s attention in a way he’d never remembered. Hermione was a bit taller as well, and wearing a tank top and a pair of jeans that revealed a delicate, softly curved figure, which also did not escape his attention in the least.
Harry blinked. He felt as though he had just eaten an entire box of Fizzing Whizbees. This was Hermione, for Merlin’s sake. Was he looking at his best friend in — that way? He had to get a grip on himself. It had been all that talk of girls at Quidditch Camp; that had surely done it. He suddenly realized he’d been forgetting to breathe. He flushed a deep red and felt his brain slip out of one ear and twirl up into the clouds of steam puffing out of the Hogwarts Express.
>From the look on Hermione’s face, she was startled as well. She was looking him up and down, and then blushed when their eyes finally met and she saw that Harry was blushing too.
Harry, still reeling, managed to remember where he was; he gasped out the only word he could think to say at the moment, then stepped forward and hugged Hermione. This seemed to restore some feeling of normalcy, and Hermione squeezed him back and was smiling when they stepped apart again.
“I wasn’t sure it was you, from the back,” Hermione said excitedly, her brown eyes sparkling. “You’re so tall! And you look — different! I saw your hair, though, and then I knew.”
It was getting easier to speak now. Harry ran a hand through his tousled hair and grinned.
“Yeah. Dead giveaway, this. But you — what happened to your hair, Hermione? Is this more of that hair potion or something?”
“Oh! Sleekeasy’s? No, I found something else in Italy! A friend of mine mixed it up for me in Advanced Conjuration. You just drink it once a month, and it tames all sorts of hair tangles. De-Frizzing Frappe, it’s called. Ooh, they know all sorts of things like that at Buonmagio.”
Harry couldn’t help staring at Hermione again while she was talking. He was barely paying attention to the list of ingredients she had started to rattle off, when a yell snapped him swiftly out of his daze.
“Oi! Harry! Over here!”
Ron was hanging out of a window near the rear of the Hogwarts Express, beckoning him over. A blonde head popped out of the window next to Ron’s, and this figure waved too. Must be Emma, thought Harry.
“It’s Ron!” Hermione exclaimed happily, and Harry followed as she dashed through an open door on the train and made her way towards the compartment where Ron had been waving.
Ron was sitting in an empty compartment with a pretty blonde girl at his side, who beamed at them unreservedly when Harry and Hermione reached the doorway. She had thick, straight yellow-gold hair which was cut in a bob, and freckles just like Ron’s all over her face. She had very blue eyes and rosy cheeks, and Harry noticed that she was wearing Ron’s favorite Chudley Cannons t-shirt with her jeans and sandals.
“Hi Harry! Hi Hermione,” she said, as Ron jumped up and gave Hermione a quick hug in greeting.
Ron looked back at Emma and smiled, flushing faintly. “You both know Emma, right?” he said, a bit abashed. “She’s in Ravenclaw, fifth year?”
“Oh yes,” said Hermione. “I think I’ve seen you in Arithmancy?”
Emma nodded. “Yes, I take that instead of Herbology.”
“Hullo Emma,” Harry said, sitting down across from Ron. He noticed Emma’s eyes stray up to the scar on his forehead as he sat down. She looked away shyly when she saw him looking back. This was decidedly weird. Ron, with a girlfriend?
It was not at all bad weird, Harry decided, as the train chugged swiftly on towards Hogwarts while the sun dipped lower in the sky. True, it was very strange to have another person sitting in on what had been his tight trio of friends, but Emma was trying her best not to appear nervous and Harry felt a pang of sympathy for her. He imagined it must feel very awkward to be the new person stuck together with three old friends. Harry certainly knew what it was like to feel out of place somewhere, so he included Emma whenever he could in the conversation, asking her questions about her family and her friends in Ravenclaw. Emma looked grateful and even worked up the courage to ask Harry about his battle with the Hungarian Horntail during the Tri-Wizard Tournament, which Harry, Ron and Hermione recounted with great enthusiasm. When the lunch trolley arrived and Emma surprised Ron with a six-pack of chocolate frogs, it was sealed. Harry definitely liked Emma, and he could tell Hermione approved as well.
“Hallo, you lot!” A round-faced boy slid open their compartment door soon after lunch and beamed at them. It was Neville Longbottom. He took a few seconds to notice the other person sitting in the compartment with them, but apparently he recognized Emma, because he blinked and stuttered, “Oh, hi — Emma, right?” while Ron again looked slightly flustered.
“Hi, Neville. How’s your grandmother?” said Harry.
“Oh, she’s fine, thanks,” said Neville quickly, apparently in a great rush to tell them something. He flopped onto the seat next to Hermione and leaned forward. “Have any of you seen Malfoy yet?”
“No, we haven’t,” said Harry.
“Well wait until you do,” grinned Neville. “He’s hit a new low. Thinks he’s some kind of rock star, but he looks a right mess. He’s buzzed his hair and bleached it! And he’s pierced one eyebrow and gotten a TATTOO.”
“A tattoo?” sputtered Ron.
“Yeah,” said Neville. “Only — it’s not finished! He tried to get an — an imitation of the Dark Mark, but they wouldn’t finish it when they realized what his design was s’posed to be.”
“So what does it look like?” Harry interrupted.
“It’s — half a snake!” crowed Neville. “The TAIL end!”
The compartment roared with laughter. “Draco doesn’t know that I saw,” Neville broke in. “I spotted him showing it off to Pansy Parkinson. It’s on his left arm. She thought it was all right, but it sure looks like a flobberworm to me!”
Just then the compartment door slid open and a cool, drawling voice interrupted their laughter.
“What’s that you were saying, Longbottom?”
It was Malfoy, flanked as usual by Crabbe and Goyle, who seemed to have gotten even more enormous over the summer. True to Neville’s word, Draco’s hair was cropped close to his head and bleached even whiter than his usual blonde. He raised one eyebrow as if to call attention to the small hoop now threaded through it. He was wearing a black t-shirt with one sleeve pushed up rather deliberately. Harry bit his lip to keep from laughing harder. The tattoo on Draco’s arm, still slightly red around the edges, did bear a striking resemblance to a flobberworm.
Neville looked up. His round face turned red, but he was still smiling. “Shove off, Malfoy,” said Ron cordially.
“Seen my tattoo then?” Malfoy drawled. “You’re just jealous, Longbottom. It’s not like you pansies would ever have the nerve to get one of these. Teaches you the real meaning of pain.” He drew out the last word with a thin-lipped smile.
“Oh really?” said Emma. Ron suddenly grinned. The rest of them looked around, surprised; she’d been quiet so far, and Draco hadn’t even noticed her. She stood up and turned around, lifting Ron’s t-shirt to reveal the stunning outline of a raven, wings spread, etched with artful detail on the small of her back.
“No nerve then?” she said, turning around, eyes flashing. “Why don’t you tell us the real reason that one’s not finished? Couldn’t handle the needle and made them stop?”
Ron looked as if he was about to burst with joy. Harry glanced at Hermione and Neville; the two of them were gaping at Emma, dumbfounded and impressed.
“Right then, Malfoy,” said Ron, with barely suppressed glee. “Why don’t you crawl back to the rest of the flobberworms. I mean — Slytherins.”
Malfoy closed his mouth. He had also been gaping at Emma. Sneering at all of them with a look of pure bile, he stepped back into the hall and slammed the compartment door.
Neville got up, still laughing. “I’ll be seeing you all later then,” he said triumphantly. “Got more, er, folks to greet around here.” He slid the door open again and practically bounced into the hallway.
Ron slid an arm around Emma and gave her a squeeze. She blinked at him innocently. “Well really,” she said. “Malfoy is SO obnoxious!”
“Knew there was a reason I liked you,” Ron said. He pulled her closer and kissed her quickly on the forehead.
Harry was instantly aware of the sensation that he and Hermione were looking at Ron and Emma through an invisible wall. Ron and Emma seemed no longer aware that there were two other people sitting across from them in the compartment. And was this Ron Weasley? The same Ron Weasley who usually turned seven shades of purple and started stuttering when Fleur Delacour walked down the hall? Ron had seemed just like his old self at the Burrow. Harry’s head was turning cartwheels. He glanced sideways at Hermione, who was clearly thinking along the same lines. She looked back at him with a smile on her face that was vaguely amused and embarrassed at the same time.
Hermione’s smile was fairly spectacular now that her teeth were fixed, thought Harry. And her hair — her eyes — how had he never noticed —
Harry blinked and flushed red again. He averted his gaze to the window and watched the countryside slip swiftly past. The way this year is shaping up, he thought, I may as well paint my face scarlet and be done with it.