The brilliant orb of the rising sun finally broke over the horizon. Harry’s eyes, seemingly staring blankly at the spot, blinked – and he took a deep breath. He felt Hermione, leaning on him, take a deep breath, almost as if they had both breathed in simultaneously.
‘Another day,’ he thought. ‘If I were still with the Dursleys, I would be marking another day off the calendar … another day until I can go home to Hogwarts.’
His breathing suddenly hitched. ‘Going home?’ he thought. ‘Going home to what? The scene of the crime?’ He grimaced – the events of last year running through his mind like an out-of-control movie … Cedric Diggory … Professor Moody an impostor, a Death Eater who had conspired to lead him into a trap … dueling with Voldemort in the graveyard … his parents coming out of his enemy’s wand … the portkey back to Hogwarts, holding on for dear life to Cedric’s body, fulfilling a promise made to his ghost (‘was it his ghost?’ he thought. Until now, Harry couldn’t be sure) … the Leaving Feast, and Dumbledore’s announcement … the train compartment, and the hexes thrown at Draco Malfoy and his cronies … the parting of the friends at Platform 9 and ¾ … and … and …
He started to shake his head, and stopped. He had been resting his cheek on Hermione’s head for the past ten minutes or so, unconsciously breathing in the sweet smell of her shampoo … he was loath to break this moment of comfort and peace by letting his thoughts intrude …
He couldn’t stop himself from stiffening slightly, however, as his body went into instinctive “fight or flight” mode with the surge of adrenaline triggered by his memories – and the fear of what the coming school year will bring. How will his fellow students react, now that they’ve had a few months to assimilate Dumbledore’s announcement that Voldemort was back? Will they look at him in fear as they had in his second year when the Chamber of Secrets was opened – and the rumors spread that he was the Heir of Slytherin? Would they be sympathetic, as had happened in third year, when the whole school learned that Sirius Black, escaped convict, murderer of over a dozen Muggles, right hand man of Voldemort, was after him? Or will they jeer behind his back as had happened only last year, when the Goblet of Fire named him as a champion – most of the school (including Ron, he thought) wondering whether his ambition had driven him to break the rules again – and the Hufflepuffs looking at him with hatred for the sheer audacity of trying to steal the glory of having their candidate as the Hogwart’s champion.
The situation hadn’t been helped at all by the reporting (more like scandal-mongering) of Rita Skeeter, a Daily Prophet reporter who thought nothing of substituting fiction for truth, of transfiguring grains of truth into a pile of lies with all their odious smell, of using her revolting quill to strike back at the people who crossed her. He tried to hold himself still as his mind raged over the way she had struck at two people closest to him: Hagrid, revealed as a half-giant (and almost whipping up all the old prejudices), and Hermione, who Rita Skeeter had first said was his girlfriend, and then insinuated was two-timing him with Viktor Krum.
He forced the rage from his mind, recalling how Mrs. Weasley had reacted to Hermione when she and Bill had visited him to watch the Third and final Task. At least, that was easy to deal with, he thought. But the sheer nerve of that … that …
He felt two slim arms encircling his waist and holding him in a warm hug. Startled, he started to move away but only felt Hermione hugging him tighter still. He couldn’t breathe – not because the arms around him were squeezing him – but because he simply did not know how to react!
As he moved his cheek away from Hermione’s bushy hair, he heard a calm, no-nonsense voice speak from behind the curtain of hair, “Don’t worry about her, Harry. I owled the Ministry and the Daily Prophet about her being an illegal Animagus … and asked Mr. Weasley to make sure that she gets what she has coming to her.”
Harry sat upright, looking at her in shock. Not about what she had done – if there was one thing he could count on about his friend, it was the perfection she put into her planning – but more to the point, the fact that she seemed to be reading his mind.
She looked back at him with a warm, but mischievous smile on her face, an eyebrow raised as she looked at him quizzically. “How …” he croaked, as he tried to work his suddenly parched throat. “How did you do that? How can you be reading my mind?”
She smiled at him fondly. “Elementary, my dear Harry. You always flex your hands as if you wanted to strangle someone whenever you think about Rita Skeeter, although I would admit that that is the same feeling I get whenever I think about her.”
“I do?” he asked, shocked. He looked down at his hands, one in his lap and the other still around her waist, clenching tightly into fists.
“Of course you do!” Hermione replied, shaking her head and sending her hair flying in all directions, strands almost hitting his face if he hadn’t ducked. “Come on, Harry! It isn’t as if we’re strangers … we’ve been friends for years … classes, meals, study sessions and all … not to mention the odd adventure or two.”
“Not to mention the hours spent in the library,” he teased, “reading till my eyes were blurred, breathing in all that dust from books untouched for years, feeling my arms and legs stiffen up because of all the sitting … getting bored, bored, bored because I had to sit there rather than fly … or run around the grounds …”
She gave him a quick smile of condescension. “Well, you gotta admit, Harry, it has been useful … else, you and Ron’ll still be in fourth year now. How would it feel, going to the same classes with Ginny Weasley and Colin Creevey?”
She smirked at his reaction, and continued in a sweet voice. “Or maybe that’s what you really wanted, Harry? You know … walking around the campus with your fans’ club hounding your every step … waiting to hear pearls of wisdom from your lips, because this is the second time you’ve heard those lessons …”
He glared at her fiercely, but then smiled. He couldn’t keep himself angry at her for anything … not since third year and the Firebolt incident. Even then, she had been right … Sirius had sent him the broom, not to kill him but as a gift to make up for fourteen years of birthday presents from his godfather. But they didn’t know that at the time …
“You’re a witch, Mione,” he said, exasperatedly. He tensed, preparing to duck the punch she usually threw at him whenever he used that hated nickname.
To his surprise, her reaction was calm: “I should hope so, Harry. After all, what’s an education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry supposed to make of me?”
Harry gaped at her for a second and then, with a wicked grin, suddenly started tickling her through the Quidditch robes. Surprised at the sudden attack, Hermione fell to the ground, laughing, beating off his hands and trying to roll out of his assault.
“Harry! Get off me! Whatareyoutryingtodo, you, you …” she half-shouted, half-whispered, in between giggles and laughs.
“What did you do to Hermione, you evil witch? Where are you keeping her? Tell me … she doesn’t like that name … she never likes anyone calling her Mione …”
Finally, Hermione was able to roll away to a safer distance (the Quidditch robes now muddied and covered with grass stains), and sat up, laughing. Harry made a move to follow her, but suddenly kneeled down, a few steps from her, gasping from the effort.
Giving her a mock-glare, he gasped out, “Tell me, evil witch! What did you do to my friend? Where have you hidden her? Tell me!”
They looked at each other and suddenly rolled around, laughing at Harry’s melodramatic voice. With a sudden lunge, Hermione grappled Harry and they started tickling each other …
* * * * *
Two pairs of eyes were observing the melee in the grass.
“How cute,” one red-haired older boy said. “They really look good together … “
“Yeah,” his twin brother said, looking bemusedly at the two rolling around on the grass. “Good thing ickle Ronniekins is still asleep …”
“Or there will be three gits rolling around out there?”
The other swiped at his brother’s head, eliciting a painful, “Ow, watch it!” before continuing, “NO, you stupid ninny! Ickle Ronniekins will be jealous …
A light dawned on the other’s face. “He’ll be mad …”
“I said that, you git! Find your own words!”
“Hold it,” the other said. “We’re getting off topic here.”
“We were talking about ickle Ronnie …”
“That’s what we were doing,” the other protested. His brother ignored him.
“Given what those two out there are doing,” he mused, “I think Ron’s gonna have a problem.”
His brother looked out the window, and saw Harry and Hermione standing up, foreheads touching, mirth in their body language as they continued laughing. “Oh, oh … George, they’re gonna start snogging in a second …”
Fred almost fell on the bed in their crowded room, as George pushed him from the window. “Watch it, George! You almost threw me into the cauldron!”
George, however, was not listening. He watched from the windows, and suddenly turned to his twin in surprise and annoyance. “What snogging are you talking about, you stupid git?”
Fred shoved him out of the way, “You blind, Geor –“
Fred stood there, mouth agape as he took in the scene below them. Rather than the passionate snogging scene he anticipated, he watched as Harry swung Hermione around, laughing all the time while Hermione hung on to his neck, also laughing, her bushy hair flying in the air.
Fred looked at George in shocked disbelief. “Are they …”
The two looked down again at the tableau below them. Harry and Hermione were now sitting on the grass, watching the sunrise, leaning against each other, Harry’s arm lightly draped on Hermione’s shoulder, her arm lightly wrapped around his waist.
As one, they looked at each other, and shook their heads.
“They’re either sooo thick …
“Or dense …”
“Blind … ”
They looked again at the two figures on the grass.
“They’re either the best of friends …”
“Or they’re just hiding it …”
“Or they simply …”
“Don’t know it yet!” they cried out simultaneously. Slowly, the twins slid down to the floor, looking at each other in incredulous silence. After a few seconds, George (or was it Fred?) suddenly giggled … to be followed by his brother’s slightly choking sniggers … which George or Fred soon upgraded to chuckles … and then both were on the floor, roaring in helpless hilarity, accompanied by loud bangs and pops as the various experiments around the room appeared to join in their mirth.
“I don’t believe it!” Fred said through his choking laughter.
“Yeah,” George said, pounding the floor softly with his fist. “Harry … was just … one … bloody … inch … from … kissing her … and he just spins her around! He’s dumb … dumb … dumb !”
“Hey, stop that!” Fred said. “That’s our investor you’re talking about!”
“Maybe that’s why he gave us the money?” mused George. He ducked as Fred aimed a punch at him. “So, what do we do, brother mine?”
Fred ducked the pillow thrown at him. “No, you bloody dodo!,” George said. “I mean what do we do about them?” (His thumb was pointing out the window.)
“Just what I said! Let’s join them for a mud fight!”
George raised his eyes to the ceiling, muttering something about bludgers, bats, and his brother’s head. “No! I mean what do we do about our investor … do we help him out?”
“You’re forgetting something, brother mine.” Fred snapped his head around to his twin. “Or rather … some one.”
“Oh.” he replied. After a moment’s thought, he added, “Or some ones.”
George looked at him. “Ginny?”
“I didn’t mean Percy, you know.”
The two fell silent, sitting on the floor of their bedroom. Finally, Fred spoke up, “So what do we do?”
“Well,” George replied. “It’s obvious that those two out there (jerking his thumb to the window) really like each other …”
“But are they lovers or are they friends?”
George ignored that, and continued, “And our little brother has it bad for little Miss Granger …”
“Yeah … he’s been talking about nothing since the summer started. I was starting to wonder whether he will be asking Harry to stay away or come on down with us …”
“But our investor and ickle Miss Granger seem to have some thing going for them …”
“So who do we help? Our ickle brother or our investor?”
“It’s not that simple, Fred. Harry’s practically our adopted brother, too …” George’s voice trailed off. Fred raised an eyebrow questioningly. George, seeing this, elaborated, “He did save little Ginny, didn’t he?”
“Oh, right. We owe him for that … as well as for the money.” Fred looked at George. “So? Well … we can always match him up with Ginny-kins …”
“Except that Ginny doesn’t seem to feel anything for him anymore.” Fred raised an eyebrow. “Come on, brother! Three years ago, you couldn’t hear anything from her except that Harry was coming to visit … heard one peep out of her this year? Or the past two years?”
Fred shook his head.
“I think little Ginny’s growing up, Fred,” George continued. “… she may still feel something for Harry, but I think she knows that nothing can come out of it … not unless Harry gets a bludger to the head …”
Fred frowned at that, and then his eyes suddenly cleared. “Oh … you mean if something can knock Hermione out of his head?” George nodded at that, and Fred continued, “We can’t count on Ginny for that, do we?”
George shook his head, “No.” He thought about this for a moment. “No, we can’t be sure … maybe there’s still something there … but we don’t know, do we?”
Fred didn’t answer. He was again looking out the window of their room, watching Harry and Hermione who were now lying down on the grass, watching the clouds roll across the sky as the sun’s orb was a quarter up the horizon. George stood beside him, silently watching them also.
“You’re right. Those two have got some thing between them …”
George sighed. “The question, dear brother, is what? Are they just friends … or are they in the ‘friends but soon to be lovers’ stage?”
“In other words, do Ron and Ginny still have a chance at those two? Or do they need a little help from you and me? Hmmm?”
George was silent, deep in thought. Fred also looked outside, and then turned to George. “You know … you don’t look like Cupid, George.” His brother looked at him sharply. “You haven’t got the wings for it … you’ve got a face that can stop a clock … and I can’t imagine you flying around with little arrows tipped with love potion …”
“So what you’re saying is …”
“I vote we keep out of this.”
George stared at his brother. Fred continued, “I mean … it’s their life, after all. If Ron really likes Hermione … he better get going. I mean … the way things are going for those two down there, if he doesn’t do something, there will be no stopping them …”
George broke in, “You mean to say, our little brother better grow up. He’s not going to get anywhere if he keeps teasing and fighting with Hermione … “
Fred nodded. “All that crock about love-hate relationships turning into love is simply just that … crock … as you and Katie proved. You had to drop the act to get anywhere with her …”
“Hey, why pick on me? It worked, didn’t it?” George replied. “And besides …”
“Right, we’re going off-topic again,” Fred replied hastily, talking all over George’s rebuttal. “As for Ginny … if she wants to have something with Harry, she better get a move on … There’s nothing we can do … except pick up the pieces.”
“Maybe.” He amended himself.
George stared at him. After a moment, Fred started twitching uncomfortably at the silence emanating from his usually ebullient twin. “What?” he demanded from George. “I got dirt on my nose or something?”
George shook himself, as if from a dream. “No … it’s just that … what you said makes sense.” He thought about it. “In fact, it makes a lot of sense …”
“I know I’m right,” said Fred. “So what’s bothering you?”
George looked Fred straight in the eye. “You just said it, brother. We’ll leave them to deal with it … no interference from us? (Fred nodded.) No teasing from us? (Again, Fred nodded.) Not … a … thing … from … us?” (Fred nodded again, puzzled.)
“Don’t you see it, Fred?” Fred looked frightened as George grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “We’re being responsible, mature people, Fred! Does this mean that we are growing up?”
Fred’s eyes widened in shock. Looking at George, he whispered, “Oh, God! I hope not!”
* * * * *
Harry and Hermione lay quietly on the ground watching white, fluffy clouds roll across the blue sky. They felt at peace, contented within their tiny bubble of space and time, sharing a sense of friendship and companionship that they had never felt during the years they were growing up.
Their ears pricked up, however, when they heard the clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen of the Weasley house – and they knew that Molly would be up, preparing breakfast for her expanded brood. Reluctantly, they sat up and looked around them, as if trying to preserve the memory of this moment forever.
Harry stood up then, brushing the mud and grass from his pants and held out a hand to his friend. For a moment, she looked at him – brown eyes holding onto greens – before she smiled and grasped his hand. Silently, he pulled her up and started beating grass and mud from her robes.
She looked down at her borrowed robes in surprise, and apologized, “Oh, Harry! I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to get your robes all dirty …”
He smiled at her again. “It’s OK, Mione. Besides, it’s not as if you were the one who dirtied it up.”
“OK, but I’ll clean it up when we get to my room … it’ll be as good as new …”
Harry held up a hand, stopping her. “Why don’t you keep it, Mione? I’ve grown too tall for it. Fact is, I keep wondering why I’ve held on to it … well, yeah, there was no Quidditch last year, so no need for new robes. I’ll just order a new set from Madam Malkins when we go to Diagon Alley.”
He had started walking back to the house, and paused when he felt Hermione wasn’t walking beside him. He looked at her, standing still in his robes (they were just right for her, he noted. She looked like she could be a Gryffindor Seeker!), a bemused expression on her face.
“But … but, Harry! They’re your first ever Quidditch robes! Surely they should have some sentimental value for you?”
Harry looked down at his shoes, slowly digging a hole in the grass. He couldn’t explain why he felt the need to give her something of personal, and yes, sentimental, value to him. It just … felt … right … to give it to her … knowing that she would treasure it as much as he did. But he didn’t know why it felt so important to him now … all that he knew was that it was something he wanted to do, but couldn’t explain the reasons for.
He looked at her worried brown eyes, and had a sudden inspiration. “Hell, Hermione … you have just as much right to those robes as I do … call it thanks for all those times you’ve saved me on the Quidditch field.”
“Huh?” Hermione looked at him, puzzled – and then her face cleared as the memories suddenly kicked in … setting fire to Professor Snape’s robes when she thought he was jinxing Harry’s broom in their first year – and Harry’s first game … performing the Impervius charm on Harry’s glasses to repel water during a rainy game in their second year … helping Professor Flitwick gather up the broken pieces of Harry’s faithful Nimbus 2000 from the Whomping Willow in third … cheering like mad at every game, and wondering how she could shout when her heart was in her throat every single time … and an incident in second year that even now caused her to blush …
Harry’s worried voice penetrated her fevered brain, “Mione? What’s wrong?”
She looked into his green eyes and blushed even redder. “Ohhh … I was just remembering third year … and the Firebolt … can you forgive me for that?”
“Oh.” Harry looked at her, his eyes clearing momentarily from the worry that was there. “C’mon, Mione – that was two years ago! I’ve forgiven you.”
“Just wanted to make sure,” she said. She couldn’t tell him that what had caused her to blush was the memory of Ron and Neville fighting with Malfoy and his cronies under the benches of the Quidditch stands, while she was jumping up and down on top of the benches, cheering Harry on. She could never forget the look on Ron’s face when he emerged from the stands with a heavy nosebleed, happy and triumphant at having a piece of Malfoy – and his chagrin when he realized that she had been cheering Harry, not him! She hadn’t even noticed his nose bleeding until they were leaving the stands …
Looking back, she wondered (as she had a hundred or more times over the years) what was it about her friend that made her so ready to break the rules, just to keep him safe? For someone who held teachers in great respect, she had willingly set fire to Professor Snape’s robes – and that was in her first year. She had been just as prepared to use the Leg-Locker curse on Snape when he was refereeing the Gryffindor-Hufflepuff game in that same year … to say nothing of actually hitting Snape (again!) with a Disarming Spell in their third year …
She looked at Harry and nodded, saying, “Thanks, Harry … I’ll treasure this, always.”
He grinned at her and, holding her by the elbow, started leading her towards the house, replying with a, “No … you’re welcome, Mione.”
He felt her stiffen, and turning to her, saw her eyes grow cold and furious. ‘Uh-oh!’ he thought, ‘I’ve gone too far …’
“Harry Potter! You know I hate that name!”
“Ah, well … since you didn’t seem to mind … I … uh …” All the while, he was slowly backing off from her.
“Mind? Oh, no … I don’t mind …” she said, advancing on him. “I don’t mind when you do it once or twice because I know you’re just doing it to tease me … but do you know how many times this morning you’ve been calling me that?”
“Seven, Harry Potter. Seven times in the last five minutes …”
“Well, then, Mione … there’s just one thing for you to do.”
“And that is?” She asked with a deadly gleam in her eyes.
“Catch me if you can, Mione!” And with that, Harry scrambled for the door as fast as his legs could take him, Hermione in hot pursuit. He almost made it to the door, but was stumped to find it locked – without his wand, he couldn’t open it with the Alohomora charm … and that was where Hermione tackled him, pushing him against the door, hitting him mercilessly (if ineffectually) …
And they both fell into the house as the door was wrenched open, and looked up into the bemused eyes of Ronald Weasley. Hermione scrambled up, her reddened face matched only by Harry’s blush … they opened their mouths to speak, to apologize, to say something …
“Mum’s been up for some time,” Ron said in a cold, flat voice to Hermione. His eyes focused on the Quidditch robes she wore before shifting to meet her eyes. For the briefest moment, she caught a glimpse of icy blue eyes that sent an involuntary shiver down her spine, before Ron turned away with the accusatory comment, “You’d better hurry if you’re helping her fix breakfast.”
Hermione’s brown eyes flashed at his tone; dimly, she noticed Harry’s mouth drop and another surge of red flush over his face at Ron’s tone. Before either of them could make a comment, Ron turned away and walked out the open front door, tossing a “Tell Mum I’m going for a walk. See you later” over his shoulder.
Harry stared at his best friend’s back, confusion replacing the angry flush on his face at the tone he had taken with Hermione. If there was one thing guaranteed to rile his friend, it was to hint at irresponsibility or capriciousness, whether in word, tone or manner.
“What’s eating him?” he asked, only to see Hermione running up the stairs, a brief glimpse of slim legs seen as she removed the robe on her way up. “Hermione?”
She ignored his question, leaving him bewildered in the still-open doorway. He heard a soft, shuffling sound from the direction of the dining room and glanced there only to see Mrs. Weasley’s back as she retreated to the kitchen.
“What in hell is going on here?” Harry asked of the suddenly empty house.