Hermione Granger was breathing heavily atop a breathless and sprawled Harry Potter, her chocolate-brown eyes locked on the green eyes looking at her through his trademark glasses. She could feel his arms holding her waist, where they had placed themselves in an automatic gesture of protection.
As Hermione tried to scramble up and out of the way, she was slammed back into Harry, foreheads touching, lips suddenly meeting for a single, electrifying instant before an embarrassed Ginny Weasley could climb off Hermione’s back.
‘Next time, I’ll try the Knight Bus!’ Hermione swore to herself. Floo powder, no matter how convenient, was definitely not her cup of tea. The others had tried to warn her about this form of wizard travel but, as with all things, experience was the best teacher … she’d had no problems with leaving the Burrow … she’d enunciated properly to make sure that she came out of the Leaky Cauldron’s fireplace … she’d braced herself when she felt the slowing down the others talked about as she neared her destination …
And had been unable to control her feet as she burst out of the fireplace.
She’d tripped – and fell right into the waiting arms of Harry Potter. The momentum of her entrance caused him to sprawl backwards, and she had fallen on top of him, his strong arms closing around her in that instinctive protectiveness that was so much a part of his personality … only to fall back down as Ginny had tripped over the bag that Ron had dropped near the fireplace portal.
Hermione had been about to scramble out of the way the second time when Harry suddenly rolled her over, and placed his warm body above hers – mere seconds before Molly Weasley stepped out of the fireplace – and walked all over the place they had been lying down on.
Before either of them could move, Ron’s plaintive voice rose above the suddenly –silenced Leaky Cauldron: “Are you two going to make that a habit?”
And that, Hermione thought, had been the perfect dramatic entrance for this day of shopping at Diagon Alley. She’d tried to hide her embarrassment as she dusted herself off, avoiding the stares and looks of the Leaky Cauldron’s patrons … while at the same time, trying to avoid the eyes of her companions.
As such, she had only given herself a cursory look in the Leaky Cauldron’s mirror, insisting that she was all right and didn’t need anything … and now, she had to endure the stares and avid looks of various witches of all ages … all of them, no doubt, wondering where she had gotten the bruised lips from.
She wondered what they would say if she told them that it came from snogging Harry Potter on the floor of the Leaky Cauldron.
She shook her head impatiently. Now why should she be thinking about snogging her best friend? ‘In fact,’she thought, ‘why should I be thinking about snogging at all? I’m too young for that … I’m only fourteen, for crying out loud … well, fifteen in a few months, anyway …but I’m too young for that!’
Or was she?
She stopped so abruptly as the thought seized her that Harry, who was walking beside her, also stopped and looked at her, a question in his eyes. She smiled at him, shook her head slightly, and proceeded to walk on. Harry raised an eyebrow at her, and continued talking with Ginny as if nothing had happened.
Young? Of course, in both the wizarding and Muggle world, fifteen was still young (she smiled as she started humming to herself, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman …”). She glanced at her friend, and caught his smiling profile as he listened to something Ginny was saying and was struck with a sudden thought.
‘My best friend has never been young … at least, not since he stepped into Hogwarts and the wizarding world.’
Or at least, not ‘young’ in the same way that other teenage wizards or Muggles were … young. She knew his story well enough: living alone, abused and without any knowledge of magic for most of his childhood, “escaping” into Hogwarts at eleven only to confront the Dark Lord who had killed his parents when he was a baby … confronting a basilisk at twelve … fighting Dementors at thirteen … and again, confronting his deadliest enemy, an enemy who had vowed to kill him at fourteen …
It’s a wonder, she thought, that Harry doesn’t have any grey hairs … going through all that in the space of four years would be enough to make one’s hairs turn white … maybe that’s why the Goblet of Fire didn’t reject Harry last year … the Goblet must have thought that Harry was older because of what he’d been through …
But what does that make of me, she thought. She’d been nearly killed by a troll at eleven … been Petrified by a Basilisk at twelve … helped Harry in the escape of a dangerous convict at thirteen … had worried, fussed, and fretted over Harry through all those years, especially last year when he was the Hogwarts champion … or one of them, she corrected herself, remembering what had happened to Cedric Diggory.
She suppressed a shiver at the thought … remembering the moment when they learned that Harry and Cedric had disappeared from the maze … that was worse than Harry fighting the Horntail! At least she could see him as he flew the Firebolt … she didn’t know what had happened to him in the maze … and she remembered the way he looked when Professor Dumbledore brought him into the Hospital Wing that night.
She forced her mind from that night, and reflected on the other events of that eventful year … and wondered if the maturity forced on her by her years of friendship with Harry Potter was what drew Viktor to her. She frowned at that thought … Viktor Krum had been her first real date, and the first person who had seen her as more than a bushy-haired, know-it-all, witch!
She’d been flattered by his attention, no doubt about that. But now … she recalled the shock on his face when she told him that she was only fourteen (somehow, it had never come up before the Yule Ball) … he had gallantly told her that she didn’t look it (‘how flattering!’ she’d thought at the time) … but now, now, she wondered about it …
And forced her mind from thoughts of Viktor and the summer just past. She glanced at Harry, who was listening to something that Ginny was saying, and heaved a sigh of relief. Harry’s a real friend, she reflected. Thank God that Harry had never asked about her summer in Bulgaria! He’d taken the attitude, when she showed up at The Burrow a week ago, that it was her story to tell … if she chose not to share anything with her best friend (and he had winked at her), he’d understand.
She smiled at the thought. He’d been as good as his word … and Ginny told her that he’d threatened Ron with emasculation if he even opened his trap about Viktor and her Bulgarian summer … she was thankful for that. Not that her summer vacation was something to remember … it was, as far as she was concerned, a summer best forgotten.
Hermione tensed, her thoughts distracted, as she saw a small, very pretty witch with long black hair coming towards them.
* * * *
Harry Potter had been enjoying the trip to Diagon Alley so far (aside from being flattened by his best friend twice in less than a minute!), especially as it gave him a chance to enjoy the bustle of the crowded wizard’s marketplace. He still felt uncomfortable about it all – knowing that he was a wizard, after eleven years of “There is no such thing as magic!” being drummed into his head, in spite of the fact that he can – and did – do magical things … there were times when he was sure that he’d been living in a dream world … that he’d fallen into a coma for the past four years, and will soon wake up and find himself trapped in the real non-magical world.
He’d been enjoying Ginny’s chatter about her Arithmancy classes, while leaving Hermione alone (he didn’t think teasing her about her awkward arrival at the Leaky Cauldron earlier was a good move!) when he felt her tense up – and immediately scanned the area around them.
And saw Cho Chang approaching.
A flurry of confused memories boiled up within his mind at the sight of her diminutive form: seeing her for the first time at the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch in third year; the lurch in his stomach when he saw her again during the Quidditch World Cup last summer; apologizing to her for being rude soon after he’d been named as a Hogwarts champion last year … screwing up the courage to ask her to go with him to the Yule Ball – and learning that Cedric Diggory had already asked her …
And, the most painful memory of all: seeing Cho with tears pouring silently down her face as Dumbledore honored the memory of Cedric Diggory during the Leaving Feast last school year.
He’d sent Hedwig with a long letter to Cho a week after his return to Privet Drive; Dumbledore’s words at the Leaving Feast had unlocked something within him – he’d been able to tell his friends everything that had happened during the Third Task on the way home on the Hogwarts Express. It had also enabled him to open up in that letter – to explain to Cho in a clear, precise manner what had happened to Cedric … and to express, as clearly as he could, the pain and guilt that still rode his shoulders and his mind.
And now, as he saw Cho approaching, the horror of that night – and all the attendant pain and guilt – came crashing through his mind – forming a pit of utter coldness in his stomach. He didn’t know whether to turn away and run, but the courage that marked the heart of a Gryffindor made him pause, prepared to confront this development.
As he braced himself for the encounter, he felt a warm, soft hand grab his own – without looking down, he knew that Hermione was holding him … and he felt a calmness that was absent only seconds before flow over him, washing away the coldness that he felt.
“Hello, Harry,” Cho Chang said. She’d glanced at Hermione and Ginny briefly (raising an eyebrow at Hermione’s bruised lips), but her eyes, drifting down, caught sight of their held hands – and she looked at Harry with a wistful smile.
“Cho … I … I …” Harry stammered.
“I wanted to thank you for your owl, Harry,” Cho said, stopping him. “You’ve answered a lot of questions about what happened …”
“Are you all right now?” he asked, finally getting the words out of his suddenly tight throat.
Cho smiled. “Yes, I am. Thank you for asking … It was quite hard for a while, because no one could tell me what had happened,” she paused as she held up a hand to Harry, “I understand, Harry … it must have been difficult for you to talk about, so soon after what happened. Cedric’s parents told me some of it, but they were still in shock … when your letter arrived during the summer, it helped settle some of the questions I had.”
She took a deep breath. “I … uhm … thank you for bringing his body back, Harry. It meant a lot to his parents … it meant a lot to me … I was at least able to say ‘good-bye’ to him.”
Hermione turned away, not willing to let the other girl see tears sparkling in her eyes. She saw Ginny turning away at the same time, and felt Harry giving her hand a reflexive squeeze. She squeezed back, trying to communicate her support for her friend, as a silence fell – all of them, no doubt haunted once again by the memories of that night, a bare four months in their past.
Cho Chang broke the silence, extending her hand to Harry. He held it for a moment, and Cho suddenly stood on tiptoes to kiss his cheek, saying, “Thank you, again, Harry Potter. For everything.”
She glanced at Hermione and, with a wistful smile and a meaningful look, said, “Take care of him, Hermione. Oh! And, congratulations for being named a Prefect.”
Hermione’s mouth dropped open at that, and Harry asked the question she was unable to ask, “Uhm … how did you learn of that, Cho? Mion … I mean, Hermione, learned of the appointment only this morning.”
Cho looked puzzled for a moment, brows coming together in thought. “I … someone mentioned it … I don’t remember who …” She shook her head again, “But still … congratulations, again. I’ll probably see you at the Hogwarts Express.”
With a final wave good-bye, she said, “And next time – the Snitch is mine, you hear me, Harry Potter?”
Harry smiled and waved good-bye. They watched the smaller girl fade into the crowd, and they stood silently for a few seconds, both deep in thought, neither aware that they were still holding hands. Suddenly, Harry took a deep breath and said, as he exhaled slowly, “I’m glad that that’s over.”
“So am I,” Hermione said. She had noticed that Harry hadn’t blushed this time – she’d felt the tension drain from him as she held his hand. They were smiling at each other in mutual understanding when Ginny, with a small cough, brought them both back to the bustling sounds of Diagon Alley. They looked at her, and said the same thought that was in their minds, “I wonder how she learned …”
A barely suppressed giggle came from Ginny, who told them, “I think the answer’s approaching … you’d better …” But whatever it was that she was going to say was drowned out as Hermione’s dorm-mates, Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil descended on the three, chattering away like maddened budgies.
“My dear! We were so thrilled … we knew you’d make it … when the letter came … what happened to your lips?” the two girls said, while giving Hermione cheek-kisses and looking meaningfully at the still-held hands of the two friends.
“Letter?” Hermione asked, confused, but was interrupted by Lavender’s “Oh, how sweet! But after what I heard happen at the Leaky Cauldron …”
Confused, Hermione glanced at Harry – and caught the meaningful glance that Parvati and Lavender threw at their hands – still clasped together, even though Cho had long gone, and the need for any emotional or physical support had passed. They freed their hands from each other, with a quietly whispered, “Tut-tut! I tried to warn you …” coming from Ginny. Hermione tried to center the discussion on her other concerns: “What letter, Parvati?”
Parvati waved her hand airily, “Oh, really now, Hermione! Didn’t you read that letter … Padma’s the Ravenclaw prefect along with Terry … so, of course, when I saw your name there … I was so thrilled … I just had to tell someone … when I got to the Leaky Cauldron, Lavender was already there so I just had to share the news …”
Lavender was nodding her head eagerly, “Yes, yes … and what a wonderful entrance you made, Hermione! Falling into Harry’s arms like that … it was sooo romantic! I must try that technique some time …”
“Yes!”, Parvati squealed. “D’you think I can get Terry to do that for me, Hermione? Although he’s not as good-looking as Harry … (she batted her eyes at him) will you try to catch me if I fall out of the fireplace, Harry?”
“I’d rather try catching Hagrid,” Harry muttered under his breath, which led to a sudden coughing attack on the part of Ginny. The others, however, did not seem to notice, especially as the two other girls found a new topic to discuss with their dorm-mate. “What I don’t understand,” Lavender butted in, “is why no one was named as your counterpart, Hermione … although we were all expecting Harry to be the one, right Parvati?”
“What?” Hermione cried, surprised. She and Ginny glanced at Harry, who looked stupefied at the news.
“Oh, come on, Hermione,” Parvati twittered, “don’t tell me you were not hoping that Harry wouldn’t be your counterpart for Gryffindor!”
“Uhmm, no … not really … no,” Hermione mumbled.
“Really now, Mione,” Lavender intoned. Harry gave her a sharp look, surprised that Hermione hadn’t reacted to that hated nickname … but then, they were her dorm-mates, weren’t they? He was shocked, however, with Lavender’s next comment, “Harry’s grades are the best among the Gryffindor boys … he’s gotten top marks in DADA, Charms, and Transfiguration … well, among the boys that is … no one can beat you, Mione … even those snooty Ravenclaws … and Divination, of course …”
“I’m not so hot at Potions, Lavender,” Harry protested, butting in on the twittering witches, only to be met by an airy, “Oh, who cares about Professor Snape, Harry? Besides, since you were the Hogwarts champion, mean ol’ Snape had to pass you … all things considered, you should be Hermione’s counterpart!”
“Oh.” Harry said. “But I didn’t get it, did I?”
Lavender and Parvati twittered at that, eager to share their gossip. “Well … the school governors have to agree to the appointment, don’t they? We heard that Lucius Malfoy has been doing everything he can to block that appointment … Draco didn’t make it, did he?” Hermione shook her head, no. “So I heard that Mr. Malfoy was blocking you, Harry … if Draco can’t get it, neither should you.”
Parvati’s voice dropped to a whisper, “My father said that Mr. Malfoy tried to block your appointment too, Hermione. Something about lowering the standards of the school by making you a Prefect … although everyone laughed him off … you were too obviously the only choice.”
“Oh,” was the only response the two could say. Parvati saw someone behind Hermione and, waving furiously, called out, “Terry! Terry!” Turning to them, she said, “I’ve got to go … I have to congratulate Terry … coming, Lavender? Congratulations again, Hermione … and Harry, we’ll be waiting for the announcement!”
The two left, leaving the three standing there, gaping at each other. They looked around for Mrs. Weasley, who was in conversation with another witch some distance away, obviously not hearing what the school mates had discussed. As they started walking her way, a snide, all too familiar voice in a faux-falsetto voice said, “Oh, how romantic!… Harry Potter’s girlfriend is a Prefect, is she? But the real question is … why isn’t she in Bulgaria with Veek-tor?”
The three spun around to see Draco Malfoy, with Rita Skeeter beside him and his cronies Crabbe and Goyle to one side. Harry tensed; he suspected that Draco, Crabbe and Goyle were looking for a return bout after being hexed on the return trip from Hogwarts the previous school year. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Hermione had paled and was shaking with fury.
Rita Skeeter spoke up, “Care to give me a quote, Miss Granger? A little bird told me that the reason you had been sent home to England early because …” and she gave Hermione a vicious smile, “and I quote, ‘Victor Krum’s parents do not like their little prince consorting with a Muggle.’ How do you react to that, Miss Granger?”
She had raised her voice as she spoke, making sure that people within hearing distance heard her. Hermione flushed, red spots on her cheeks burning, as she said through gritted teeth, “No comment.”
“Is that all you can say, Miss Granger? How about you, Mr. Potter? Is she really your girlfriend (Rita Skeeter added an inflection to her voice that made the word sound like an insult) … or is she using you as a substitute because she’s been rejected by her Bulgarian boyfriend’s family?”
Through gritted teeth, Harry said, “Lay off her, Rita! As for my comment, you can have it in three words: take a hike!”
Harry heard the noise in Diagon Alley dropping … glancing around, he could see that people were whispering to each other … many pointing to him and Hermione as they stood frozen in their tracks. He grabbed Hermione’s arm and started to walk away, Ginny beside him. He was stopped by Malfoy’s sneering voice, raising itself above the whispering crowd: “Oh, poor, unfortunate Harry Potter … coming second to a really famous Quidditch player!”
Harry tried to turn around, but Hermione and Ginny held tightly to him, keeping him walking away, when Draco called out, “What’s the matter, Potter? Hiding behind your Mudblood girlfriend?”
That did it. Harry whirled around, hand reaching for his wand … and his eyes widened as he saw that Malfoy had his wand out and pointed at him … in that split-second, he realized that Malfoy had engineered the situation in order to hex him …
As Draco shouted “Stupefy!”, Harry pitched his body backwards, dragging Hermione and Ginny (who were still holding on to him) down with him. The curse shot above them, missing the three by a good two feet … Harry grabbed for his wand and pointed it at Draco, who was standing still, shocked that his spell had missed …
Harry’s first instinct was to shout “Stupefy!” but changed his mind and shouted, “Expelliarmus!” Draco was blasted backwards as his wand shot up into the air. As if it was a well-rehearsed move, Hermione scrambled up and grabbed the wand, at the same time pointing her wand at Crabbe and Goyle, shouting in a shrill voice, ““Go ahead! MAKE MY DAY!”
Hermione’s wand was pointed at the two when she heard, “Stupefy!” behind her. Acting on pure instinct, she dropped to the ground just as the beam of red light flew over her and squarely hit Goyle in the chest, blasting him back. Twisting around, she saw Millicent Bullstrode and Pansy Parkinson, wands out and aiming at her … without thought, she twisted and pointed her wand at them, shouting “Expelliarmus!” – hearing Harry shouting the same spell … watching the two Slytherins being thrown back, wands flying, to be caught by Ginny, who now had her wand out … and then, Harry whirled and pointed his wand at Crabbe and another Slytherin …
The latter two froze, unwilling to test the mettle behind those blazing green eyes. A palpable sheen of magical energy seemed to pulsate around Harry Potter; many of those within a ten-foot radius of the conflict stepped back at the raw power emanating from him … Hermione slowly got to her feet, eyes sweeping around for any threats … she felt Ginny standing beside her, and the two girls slowly stepped backward to stand back-to-back with Harry … as they approached him, it seemed that the radius of energy had doubled …
The silence that descended over Diagon Alley felt like a physical force , weighing down the mood of the always-festive street. The fight that erupted had been so sudden … so unexpected … that none could react … Hermione could vaguely see three red-heads fighting their way through the crowd … Molly Weasley standing at some distance, gaping …
She felt her back touch Harry … the physical contact with her seemed to communicate an aura of protection and safety to Harry … eyes and bodies still alert, the three (including Ginny this time) slowly lowered their wands – and the oppressive silence that weighed down the street seemed to lift.
People began breathing, slowly … movement started as people shook off their momentary trances … Hermione’s mind vaguely registered various Gryffindors in different places (including Neville, Seamus and Dean Thomas) also lowering their wands, and was distantly thankful that they hadn’t tried to intervene … she knew that they would have been in bigger trouble if their friends had tried something …
The silence was finally broken as a tall, elegantly-dressed witch with blonde hair started screaming, “Arrest them … arrest them! They attacked my husband and son! Get them!”
Surprised, Hermione spun around to look at whoever was screaming for Harry to be arrested, and saw Narcissa Malfoy, Draco’s mother, on her knees beside her stunned husband. Hermione, Harry and Ginny heard distant ‘pops’ as wizards from the Ministry’s Law Enforcement Squad started apparating in, while Mrs. Malfoy continued to sob.
An older witch with a most regal bearing, wearing a tall hat with a stuffed vulture on top stepped forward, saying in a voice straight out of the Arctic Circle, “I don’t think so, Narcissa … too many witnesses saw what happened … if there’s anyone to be arrested here, it should be your son. Mr. Potter and his friends were clearly acting in self-defense.”
Mrs. Malfoy stared at the elder witch in disbelief, and the latter (Hermione recognized her as Neville Longbottom’s grandmother) stared her down. A Ministry wizard kneeled down beside her, examining her husband. After a brief look, the wizard pulled out his wand, pointed it at Mr. Malfoy and said, “Ennervate!”
The elder Malfoy woke up and tried to stand up, grabbing for his wand at the same time. The Ministry wizard, however, immediately grabbed his arm and held him down. The elder Longbottom, her eyes glinting like diamonds, said in the same steely, icy voice: “There will be no more of that, Mr. Malfoy! Your son tried hexing another wizard while his back was turned … something I expected from someone like you.”
She looked around, spotting the now-revived Slytherins. Turning to Lucius Malfoy, she continued, “Apparently, they have forgotten the Hogwarts motto – ‘never tickle a sleeping dragon’! Now, I suggest you get your poor excuse for a wizard and his friends and get out of here! They can do their shopping tomorrow, when these children (and she pointed to the three) are not around.”
Mr. Malfoy glared at her, but did not respond. With a shrug of the shoulders, and a short, courtly bow, he turned away after shooting a venomous look at Harry and Hermione that would have Petrified a basilisk, and stalked out through a path that the crowd cleared for him.
Draco looked at Harry with an equally vicious look and turned to Hermione: “Give me back my wand, Mudblood.” Before Harry or Hermione could react to this, Mrs. Longbottom’s wand was out and, with a muttered spell, shot out yards of tape which wrapped themselves tightly around Draco Malfoy’s head. “That will keep your evil tongue in your mouth until you learn to keep it civil! Now, go!”
Draco slunk away through the crowd, with Millicent Bulstrode and Pansy Parkinson on either side of him, and Crabbe and Goyle behind him — people parting to let them pass. The elegantly dressed Narcissa Malfoy shot all of them a venomous look, and also turned away to leave.
“Harry! Harry!” Mrs. Weasley’s voice came through the crowd which still surrounded them. Harry looked in that direction and started walking towards her, ushering his two companions in front of him, when a sarcastic voice was heard above the murmuring crowd: “Well, well, well … if I were you, Miss Granger, I would keep my eyes constantly on my boyfriend. Apparently, someone is marking some territory of her own.”
Surprised, Hermione looked at Harry – and saw Ginny Weasley suddenly letting go of his arm, blushing deeply at the same time. Ginny gave Rita Skeeter a look filled with scorn and hatred, when Hermione placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Miss Skeeter,” Hermione said in a soft, sweet voice, “maybe you should keep your eyes on your job rather than on my friends …” Surprised, Rita Skeeter looked at Hermione, and looked around to see reporters rushing for the Daily Prophet’s offices … apparently, they were headed in to file a scoop before she could.
She started shoving her way through the crowd but was stopped by Hermione’s voice, “Why? Can’t fly to your desk, Miss Skeeter?” She glared at Hermione, and turned to go.
Hermione turned to Harry and Ginny. “Shall we?”
Harry, however, was thanking Mrs. Longbottom, who accepted his gratitude with a haughty, but warm, nod of her head. With a small bow, he turned away with his two friends and started walking away. Mrs. Longbottom’s voice was heard, still steely-cold but oddly with a tinge of warmth underneath it: “Mr. Potter!”
Harry and his two friends stopped to look at her.
“Mr. Potter, it is obvious why my grandson admires you – and why you are a Hogwarts Champion. You would do well as a Prefect for your House … the younger students will be needing someone to look up to and emulate.” She looked into his green eyes, and continued, “You are a true Gryffindor.”
Turning to Ginny and Hermione, she said, “As are you two ladies. Miss Granger and Miss Weasley, am I right?” The two girls nodded. “I am very pleased to meet you three at last … my grandson has often spoken highly of you … Thank you.”
The three looked around uncomfortably, unsure of what to do. In a burst of inspiration, Harry placed his arms around his two companions and, as he bowed his head to the grand lady, his two companions curtsied to her.
As they walked away, someone (was it Seamus? Neville? Cho?) started clapping … within seconds, there was an roar as the crowd applauded the young wizard and his two witches.