Hermione stumbled yet again as she ran up the unfamiliar path towards the paddock where the boys had often played Quidditch in the summer just past. She’d gone up there with them before but always in daytime … but the changing light, as the night surrendered reluctantly to the coming dawn, made it difficult to see the way. She felt brambles snag at her but she ran on, heedless that she had torn Harry’s old Quidditch robes in several places, thinking that she could easily repair them when she returned to her room, anxious only that she get to Harry.
She kept berating herself for not being there when Harry had his nightmare … scolding herself for not realizing that whatever it was that had woken her up earlier was somehow related to Harry … reproaching herself for going out of the house rather than going to Harry’s room to check on him …
‘But what could I do?’ she asked herself. ‘I couldn’t just burst into his room because I had a bad dream … not when Ron is sharing the same room …’
‘But he wasn’t,’ another part of her brain replied. ‘He said he fell asleep in the living room while reading Bill’s journal …’
‘How was I to know,’ she snarled back. ‘It’s not as if I was looking for Ron when I went down the stairs …’
‘You still should have gone to Harry,’ the voice in her mind said. ‘Then you wouldn’t be in this mess …’
‘What mess?’ she shrieked back in her mind. ‘I just had a talk with Ron …’
‘And ended up hugging him, and kissing him, and hugging him again. What do you think Harry will be thinking if he saw that … no, erase that. Not if … when he saw that.’
She tripped over an exposed root that her tear-filled eyes had missed, and felt her hands getting scratched as she caught herself. Unheeding, she scrambled on, not even realizing that a thorny branch had caught in her hair and drew a long, thin scratch down her face, drawing blood that beaded along the cut skin …
She pressed on, one thing on her mind: she wasn’t there when Harry needed her.
She abruptly paused … and mentally threw her traitorous thoughts (now asking why and how she knew that Harry needed her) behind her. She didn’t need those thoughts now … all that she knew, all she wanted to know, was that Harry was safe.
She would deal with it as she had dealt with everything else in her life: with cool logic, even in the face of fire.
But her pace faltered.
Cool logic came from knowledge; but her store of knowledge came from books, not hard-won experience.
Books were her solace … books were her refuge … books were the perfect means to hide behind when one’s mind was in confusion, although at those times, they seldom had the answers to the questions that boiled in her mind …
At least, not the books she was most comfortable with.
Would Hogwarts: A History have an answer for her current predicament? Does Most Potente Potions have a Time-Turner potion so that she can live the past ten minutes over again – and prevent herself from letting her emotions go? Would Gadding with Ghouls have given her any advice how to approach Harry now?
And, for a brief moment, she wondered whether Unfogging the Future would have helped predict this: establishing peace with one friend but setting up a situation that would make the other question her feelings for him?
She burst into the clearing and frantically looked around for Harry. She felt a wave of panic and nausea engulf her when she didn’t see him … and realized in the next moment that he was standing near a tree, his back to her … leaning on it and shaking his head …
Hermione walked forward slowly, feeling pain lance through her. He’d been sick, she knew … she didn’t need to see the puddle by his feet to know that he’d thrown up … but was it because of his nightmare, or his mad rush to get here, or …
Had he seen them, she wondered? Had he seen them on the bench as they’d hugged in that shared moment of understanding … seen them and jumped to the wrong conclusion, as boys so often do?
She felt a twig snap beneath a bare foot and became aware that she’d lost a slipper in her mad dash to find him. But she didn’t pay heed as a stone dug into her foot … Harry had straightened up at the sound of the snapping twig and said, in a cold and distant voice, “Don’t.”
Hermione stopped, the stone she’d stepped on digging uncomfortably into her heel. She shifted from one foot to another … waiting for Harry to make the next move.
“What do you want, Hermione?”
She nearly stepped backward at the venomously cold tone of his voice, but forced herself to speak, knowing that she wasn’t answering the question he was really asking, but telling herself that she had to set a priority: “It’s Mr. Weasley. He needs you back at The Burrow.”
He didn’t respond; neither did he turn around to face her. After a moment, she continued, nearly stumbling over her words: “It’s Mr. Diggle, Harry … Dedalus Diggle? He’s been attacked by Death Eaters …”
She watched as his shoulders slumped and nearly stepped forward, but his response stopped her cold: “They killed him, didn’t they?”
“Yes, they did,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, Harry.”
Her head snapped up at this, and she felt the beginning of a smile break out on her face … only to lose it as he turned around to face her: pale-faced, messy hair, looking slightly green, one lens of his glasses shattered from an apparent stumble. She gave a small cry and stepped forward … only to step back again as she saw the thunderous look on his face as he threw a soiled handkerchief away from him.
“Your glasses …”
She couldn’t approach him … his very stance told her that. She could only watch helplessly as he removed his glasses and pulled out his wand. With a murmured “Occulus Reparo!” he fixed it himself and put them on … and she had to step back as her eyes finally met his blazing greens, seemingly magnified to enormous, fiery orbs.
She flinched as he locked eyes with her … and she felt something within her curling up into a fetal position, beaten into fear and submission by the aching pain that she saw in his eyes. She could sense his feeling of betrayal as his eyes flickered with the memories of what he had seen only minutes before, contrasting with the moments they’d shared the day before … and she knew he would be feeling a wrenching loss at all that had happened …
Because she could feel the same wrenching loss, knowing that there was nothing she could do or say right now … there was no answer that he would listen to at this point. Behind his anger, she could see the shadows of that little boy who’d been abandoned to a family with no understanding or sympathy for his uniqueness, the shades of the boy who’d grown up like a mushroom in the dankness of a cupboard, unable to use powers he didn’t know he had to release him from his prison. She knew he would not accept her, and she felt the tears spilling from her eyes at how coincidence and unforeseen circumstances could so easily change moments of happiness into slashing pain and longing.
She felt the sting of the salty liquid as they seeped into the scratches on her face, tasted the tears as they trickled on her lips … she wanted to turn away from him, unable to look much longer at his wounded, hurting face.
Hermione turned away as a ray of sunlight from the rising sun broke through the trees surrounding the paddock, blasting like a laser beam into her tear-sparkled eyes.
She didn’t see Harry’s eyes blink … didn’t see his eyes – the eyes of the youngest Seeker in a century – suddenly focused on a solitary tear which had mixed with a bloody drop that had welled up from an angry scratch down her cheek.
His eyes raked over her face and body – noting the scratches on her face and hands, saw the torn robe she wore and the thorny twigs that had caused them … realized that she had lost one slipper, and understood the reason why … his mind instantly calling up all the times he’d seen her frantic and worried, rushing to his side every time she felt he was in danger or when he was victorious: all those moments from his first Quidditch match to the end of the First Task when she’d shown up at the Champion’s tent with fingernail marks on her face …
But his mind intruded with the pictures that he’d seen only minutes before and he froze … the film in his mind moving along one frame at a time … and he closed his eyes to the obvious hurts that he saw on her … and tried to force the infuriating idea of his best friend tending to her hurts from his mind …
However, his fickle mind suddenly shifted to a singular moment months before in Dumbledore’s office, when he’d asked about something that he’d seen in the Pensieve … where he learned to his horror, the real story of Neville Longbottom’s parents – a story that he had never bothered to find out through four years of being Neville’s dorm-mate, classmate and fellow Gryffindor. He remembered climbing into his bed later that night and listening to Neville’s snores – ashamed that he’d immediately jumped to the conclusion that Neville was a natural klutz, without even bothering to find out if there was a reason behind his seeming ineptness.
They deserved more than that, he realized … they deserved more than his anger at seeing them together for a few moments that could have a hundred different explanations than the one he’d immediately leaped to. They were his friends, who had been with him through joy and pain, who’d stood up to defend him against everything life had thrown his way …
And, more importantly, this was Hermione … she deserved more than his dirty mind leaping to conclusions – not after all that they had been through in the past four years and … and (he shivered at the thought) what they will have to go through for the next how many months and years, until he – or someone — could bring this feud with Voldemort to a successful conclusion.
She felt something blocking the sunlight on her face, casting it in shadow – she turned back to Harry and almost fainted in shock. She had turned away when he was a few feet away … she turned back to see him standing right in front of her, looking down with his blazing green eyes, and she could only stare back like a deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing car …
His eyes bored into her doe-like brown eyes, and he felt something shifting within him … a boulder or some such thing that had fallen on his chest being nudged away by the tears that were falling from his best friend’s face, and he couldn’t help himself any longer …
He reached out with a trembling finger and softly, as gently as he could, wiped away the tears from her cheek … watched, with a growing sense of panic that he quickly rammed down, as tiny droplets of blood continued to well up from the scratches … felt his throat working, swallowing repeatedly as he tried to wipe the blood away with still gentle, but increasingly frantic motions …
“I don’t want you hurt, Hermione … I don’t want to see you hurt … you shouldn’t have come after me like that in the dark … when I woke up and found that you and Ron were not there, it scared me … it scared me, Hermione … I don’t want to see you hurt …” She had closed her eyes to prevent herself being blinded by the blazing green orbs of Harry’s eyes, and she shivered as she felt his gentle fingers wiping her face, felt the blood pounding in her ears, such that she could barely make out Harry’s hoarse, croaking voice as his fingers touched her flushed skin.
She felt a sudden warmth on her face and her eyes blinked open … only to turn her face away as the light from the ever-rising sun washed into her eyes … realizing in the same instant that Harry was down on his knees, embracing her … his face in her tummy and his glasses pushing against her clothes. Hermione could feel his body shaking, and knew that he was crying … finally letting go of his fears and inner turmoil, starting from that night in the Hospital Wing when his need to cry and let go had been rudely interrupted by her capture of Rita Skeeter in her Animagus form …
Instinctively, her arms wrapped around his head and she held him tightly, feeling his arms around her waist, and she felt herself rocking him gently as her hands ran lightly and gently through his messy hair … knowing that he could feel her tears on his head, but caring not one bit.
There was only comfort in that embrace … and for the moment, there was no one else in the world except each other … and no one – not Death Eaters, not friends, relatives or teachers, not even Lord Voldemort – would have been able to catch the attention of either one.
Which was how the others found them a few moments later.
* * * *
With quick glances and silent nods, the Twins, Ron, Ginny and their father drew back … each of them agreeing to a silent pact: none of this would be shared with anyone else, except for Molly.
And not even her, if they could help it.
Quietly, they withdrew from the paddock … each with their own thoughts: scared at the prospects of the gathering storm, happy at the same time that, even in the midst of darkness, light still found its way in.
With another exchange of looks, they silently agreed to head back home and wait for the two to come in. Arthur led the way, his mind in turmoil at the morning’s dreadful news, wondering how Cornelius Fudge would try to cover-up this latest incident – and wondering what they could do to prepare the wizarding world for the inevitable storm.
Ron and Ginny followed, both silent and sunk in their own thoughts. They would have been surprised to find out, if they had only spoken to each other, that they were – for once – operating on the same wavelength, with the same thought running through their minds: “So that is what true love looks like,”and wondering whether they would be lucky enough to find someone to love – and someone to love them back.
Fred and George were last … but no one could have said what they were thinking about – their minds were too nimble, too quick, to remain focused for long on a single topic, unless they were planning a joke – or watching for Bludgers. They were walking together … until Fred realized that he was suddenly walking alone.
He stopped and spun around, eyes automatically scanning the surrounding terrain for any threat, hand clutched around his wand ready to draw and curse if need be … and he spotted his twin a few meters away, holding a fuzzy bedroom slipper, a bemused expression on his face.
Puzzled, Fred walked over to his brother as his mind ran over the possible significance of a slipper in his brother’s hand. He didn’t recognize it – while it seemed to be a comfortable, lived-in slipper, it was in far better condition than anything his family owned … from the style, he deduced that it was a girl’s slipper – slim and feminine as it was … it could only belong to someone from The Burrow, since no one from the village ever went up here … and he realized that Hermione must have lost it in her mad dash up here in search of Harry.
His jaw dropped as he saw George, with an cheeky grin and an impish look in his eye, draw out his wand and transfigure the slipper into a small bunny which he gently placed on the ground. The bunny, after an inquiring look at the brothers, quickly turned and ran off into the bushes … either looking for something to eat, or another bunny on which to vent its hormonal urges on.
And then, Fred smiled as his brain processed the information – and the brothers gave each other high fives as they proceeded back to their home and breakfast, both of them wishing that they had the guts to remain there and watch … but both too scared of living out life as a pair of pumpkins in the grass to do so.
While they knew that Harry wouldn’t be able to handle such a Transfiguration, they wouldn’t put it past Hermione … and at the same time, neither one wanted to face an enraged Harry Potter – or an even angrier Hermione Granger.
Some things were simply not worth the risk.
* * * *
The emotional storms had passed, and the rising sun could now smile as it witnessed the sight of two friends sitting side by side on the grass of the empty paddock beneath its warming rays – both leaning on each other, Harry’s face resting on Hermione’s head, the latter snuggled warmly on Harry’s shoulder, arms around each other … and Harry rubbing Hermione’s hand, trying to remove the dried droplets of blood there.
They’d been talking for some time … both studiously avoiding Harry’s emotional outburst, although the memory of that shared moment continued to envelop them in its glow. They quietly shared their experiences of the night: Harry, calmly and quietly telling Hermione of his nightmare while the latter listened in silence, shivering only as Harry described the voice that he assumed was Voldemort, casting the Death Mark into the sky … and Hermione telling Harry of her conversation with Ron, with Harry listening attentively and looking spectacularly shocked at the apparent change in their red-haired, hair-triggered friend.
They had calmly discussed their fears of the night – of Harry waking up to realize that Ron was not in his room, and learning from Ginny that Hermione had gone out of their shared quarters … of Hermione so afraid that Harry had jumped to the wrong conclusions and would turn away from her or worse, neither one realizing that they had held each other just that tiny bit more closely as the words came tumbling out …
Harry finally broke the silence that had fallen, as he continued rubbing her scratched hand: “Hermione … I meant what I said earlier … I don’t want you to get hurt …”
“Don’t, Harry,” she said, turning her face to look at him. “I know what you’re going to say … don’t.”
“But Hermione …”
“Don’t be getting all noble and protective of me, Harry Potter! Ginny’s right – I’m involved, we are all involved … nothing’s going to erase the past four years.”
“Harry. You can’t stop me, or Ron, or Ginny, or anyone else from helping you if that is what we want, do you hear me?”
“Stop it, Harry. You cannot stop me from helping you without killing me, and that is a strange way to protect my life.”
He stared at her, and she met his gaze head on – but he refused to bow to the inevitable, making one last desperate stab at logic to dissuade her: “But Voldemort doesn’t know anything about you …”
“You’ve forgotten Scabbers, Harry.” She suddenly giggled, breaking the tension between them. “Remember the first time I met you on the train, and Ron was trying to cast that spell?”
Harry grinned, and solemnly recited, “Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow, Turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.”
Hermione laughed out loud. “Poor Ron … he must have felt like a complete fool with that spell …” She suddenly became quiet, as she remembered again what she must have looked like to Harry and Ron that day, but her thoughts were interrupted by Harry.
“Maybe not as much as Ginny with that stupid dwarf singing …”
Hermione smiled as she supplied the memory:
“His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad, His hair is as dark as a blackboard. I wish he was mine, he’s really divine, The hero who conquered the Dark Lord!”
The paddock suddenly rang out with their laughter, and Hermione – in between gulps of air and laughter – sputtered, “You know, I’ve always believed that it was Fred or George who set that thing up … I just couldn’t believe that Ginny would do something like that.”
“Yeah, I know,” Harry said as he wiped the tears from his eyes. “I’ve never believed it was Ginny either. I always thought that it was you who – Ow!”
“Shut it, Harry! You weren’t even on my radar screen that time …”
“Well, who was?” Harry replied in a feigned, hurt tone. “Lockhart?”
He blinked at her in surprise. “Hermione! Don’t tell me that you were one of the forty-six who sent Lockhart a Valentine’s card?”
She turned away with a forceful shake of her head, which sent her hair flying in all directions but which successfully screened her reddened face as she whispered, “Actually, I sent him six …”
Harry didn’t know if he would find the strength to pull his jaw up off the grass. He stared blankly at Hermione, who steadfastly refused to look at him. “Hermione … six cards?”
“Well, I wasn’t the only one, Harry. Lavender sent ten, I think … Parvati and Padma sent five each … I heard someone say that Susan Bones and Mandy sent two … even Cho Chang supposedly sent a few herself …”
She finally found the courage to look at him, and saw Harry with his brow furrowed in thought. Before she could ask what he was thinking, he looked at her with a cheeky grin. “Hermione … six cards?” She nodded. “And Lavender, Parvati, Padma … all of you sent a few cards each?”
She nodded, wondering where this was going. “So, how many girls actually sent cards to Lockhart?”
Hermione suddenly giggled. “I think … less than ten, Harry.”
He couldn’t help himself, and broke out laughing, “So, rather than forty-six, less than ten sent him cards?”
“I said less than ten girls, Harry,” she replied in her officious voice. That stopped him, and she gave him a saucy grin: “How do I know you didn’t send him something?”
Hermione gave in to laughter as he tried to sputter a response – but stopped when he replied, “Well, for one thing … I know you’re a girl, Hermione.”
She responded to that statement with a smirk, “Took you long enough, Potter.”
Hermione looked at him in surprise, and felt herself wading into the deep, green pool of his eyes, as her ears began picking up random sounds from around them. She felt her breath hitching as she saw Harry leaning towards her, drawing ever closer, and felt the blood beating as her lips felt flushed. She unconsciously licked her lips as she watched Harry’s come closer to her … and she closed her eyes and leaned closer to him …
And felt him suddenly pausing and drawing away … she could have sworn that her hyper-sensitized ears pick up his mumbled, “I can’t … I can’t … I’ve got morning breath …”
If there were a rock or stone handy, she would have brained the stupid git and brought his body to Lord Voldemort herself. Her eyes flew open to see him still staring at her, and she heard his whispered, “I don’t want to hurt you, Hermione.”
Her first thought was to tell him that a kiss wouldn’t make her pregnant, but she stopped on seeing – and understanding – the naked fear and longing in his eyes. She knew that he was not looking at her, but seeing once again the parade of ghosts that had fallen out of Voldemort’s wand: Cedric, the old caretaker, Bertha Jorkins, James and Lily and now, Mr. Diggle … and imagining that she, or Ron, or Ginny would be joining them.
“Oh, Harry,” she whispered, and buried her face in his shoulder once again, feeling his arms wrapping around her tightly, and his lips on her hair. She could feel the tears again welling up, and wondered, irrelevantly, how much in tears can the human body hold?
“I don’t want anything to happen to you, Hermione. I need you too much to risk losing you … not now, not ever.”
She didn’t answer immediately, simply snuggled closer to him. She could feel his arms around her, felt his heart beating next to hers, and knew that nothing she would say now would make him change his mind, and she held him tight, knowing that this would be as far as he would be willing to go with her … until Lord Bloody Voldemort was back in his special chamber of hell’s half-acre.
She looked at him and saw his wounded, aching eyes on her … and she heard Ron’ voice as he repeated something he’d learned from Bill’s diary: “Follow your heart, Hermione …” and with a strength that surprised her, she grabbed him by his messy, silky hair and pressed her lips on his.
She could feel him pulling back, but she wouldn’t let go and followed … Harry threw out an arm to stop himself from landing on his back, and pushed back, but Hermione kept up with him, pressing their lips together … and for the next few moments, there was no one in the world except themselves … toothbrush, flossing, or morning breath be dammed.
That first real kiss was awkward, laced as it was with too much passion and emotion, but it was the sharing that mattered, it was the affirmation of their mutual feelings that counted. In the years to come, the memory of that kiss would follow, but imbued with a singular character and beauty all its own.
The clumsy, uncoordinated first pressing of their lips together soon gave way to an intimate exploration of each other’s mouths; lips and tongues gently traveling the ridges and planes of the other. Tongues gently reached out and met, tasted each other and explored … and Harry would forever be thankful that Hermione was not a telepath, for the image of the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, tongue flicking out to sense his prey, came to his mind – unaware that Hermione had the same mental image from a documentary film passing through her mind.
The thought made them both draw back for a bit, their lips the only ones doing the exploration … but the brief memory of their gliding tongues made them want more, and their explorations continued, both of them unconsciously blocking air passages as their kiss deepened.
Too soon, however, the need for air became overwhelming and they broke apart, drawing deep breaths of each other’s bodies into their lungs … hands entwined in the other’s hair, eyes locked on each other in wonder at what had just happened.
They leaned in again to each other but their higher brain functions took over and instead of the scorching kiss they exchanged earlier, this was softer, more intimate … a gentler exploration of each other’s lips.
By mutual consent, they broke off and leaned against each other, Hermione’s head snuggled in Harry’s chest, Harry’s face buried in her hair, arms around each other in an embrace that was both intimate and reserved …
* * * *
After a while, she felt Harry kiss her forehead and she looked up to see his eyes on her.
“We’ve got to go, Hermione,” Harry said softly. “They’ll be worrying … they’ll probably be calling the Ministry to send out search parties by now …”
She gave a sigh, and nodded, standing up with him – and nearly stumbling as she remembered that she was lacking a slipper. Harry caught her arm and steadied her, and they both began looking around the clearing but couldn’t see it.
She felt Harry slapping his head and saw him raise his wand, saying “Accio, Hermione’s slipper!”
They waited … and waited … and finally, Harry put down his wand, as puzzled as she was – neither aware that the slipper was already enjoying life as a full-fledged bunny, and having the first real meal of its life. He looked at her, unsure of what to do … and suddenly smiled, extending his wand to her.
She took it from him, confused.
“You can always transfigure something into a slipper, Hermione.”
Her confusion cleared, and she opened her mouth … and shut it. “One problem with that, Mr. Potter … I don’t know how to do that particular charm.”
“What? I thought you knew everything!”
“Apparently not, Harry.”
She saw him staring intently at her, but decided to hold her ground and the white lie, adding for good measure, “I know it’s on the schedule for this year … but I haven’t got around to studying it yet.”
He continued staring at her, and she grew distinctly uncomfortable under his gaze. She was about to ask him what was wrong when he suddenly answered her: “I just want to fix this moment in my memory … for once, Hermione Granger does not have an answer to a question from Harry Potter.”
She was about to swat him when she realized what she had in hand, and gave him an evil smirk, “Who’s holding the wand, Mr. Potter?”
“Well, I still have another wand, Miss Granger.”
“What … Oh,” she replied, suddenly blushing at his insinuation, but determined not to let him have the final word, and answered in her best earnest-Hermione-the-teacher’s-pet tone: “But is it any good, Mr. Potter? Are you sure it will fit me? Didn’t you say that the wand chooses the witch? Can you use it to levitate me?”
They stared at each other, and burst out laughing, which ended with both of them down on the ground, rolling around and laughing like banshees. Soon enough, they were wiping their eyes of the tears they’d shed, and stood, with Hermione handing Harry’s wand to him.
To her surprise, he ignored it … and before she could say a word, he had swept her into his arms to carry her. Automatically, she placed her arms around his neck and snuggled into the comfort of his shoulder, murmuring at the same time, “My hero!”
He smiled and kissed her forehead; she tightened her arms around him as a shiver passed through her. She knew that there were a dozen levitating charms that he could have used, but she appreciated what he was trying to do (which was in fact, what she wanted him to do), and kissed him on the cheek.
He gave her another warm, patented Harry smile and started walking towards the Burrow.
Neither one noticed a small brown bunny by the side of the path, busily chewing on some greens that it found, staring in curiosity at the sight of the boy carrying the girl in his arms. If it were human, it would have given a shrug … as it was a mere bunny, it continued chewing on the greens with a happy, contented expression on its face.
* * * *
Molly Weasley glanced up from the teapot she had prepared for her guests and saw Harry and Hermione returning to The Burrow. She smiled at the sight of a struggling Harry Potter doing his best not to drop the Hermione he carried in his arms, while the latter kept her arms around his neck although, even at this distance, Molly could see her hands were playing with his hair.
Her smile grew broader as she remembered the near-kiss that she’d seen yesterday in Diagon Alley, and wondered whether they had finally consummated the moment that had been building up for some time. She glanced at the rising sun and was startled … it had been a little more than twenty-four hours since she’d sat at her window and seen the two of them on the bench outside the Burrow … and her happy mood turned somber as she remembered her thoughts of the night before – and what she knew would happen today.
“They’re coming,” she said to Arthur and her guests, as she started to prepare breakfast for the two teenagers.
“Took them long enough,” Arthur said in a voice where Molly detected just the slightest hint of a false joviality. “I do hope they haven’t done anything … inappropriate.”
“Arthur!” Molly exclaimed in a reproachful voice, at which he blushed and stammered apologetically, “I’m sorry … just trying to lighten the mood.”
“They’re children, for crying out loud!” Molly continued, using the faux pas to release the tension she felt — and grateful to Arthur for the opportunity, badly chosen as it was.
“Who have been through so much more than most wizards or witches their age have any right to expect,” responded Albus Dumbledore from his chair. He looked down at his teacup beside which rested two shiny, although slightly dented Prefect’s badges. “Not even James and Lily had to go through what they have done in the past five years.”
“I’m sure we can trust Miss Granger’s sense of decorum,” Professor McGonagall said in her usual, severe tone. “She has far more of that than Mr. Potter – father or son – ever had. Or even Lily Evans,” she added, after a pause.
“Indeed, Minerva,” the Headmaster said, eyes twinkling. “Which is why they work so well together.”
Professor McGonagall didn’t reply to that; merely stood up and brought her teacup and saucer to the sink … and looked out the window at the approaching pair. The sight that met her eyes caused her to blink as she remembered one of her earliest memories of Harry and Hermione together: the night that Filch had caught the two sneaking down from the Astronomy Tower at one o’clock in the morning.
“I think I’ve got a good idea of what’s been going on,” she’d said at the time – and had immediately stopped herself when she realized that she was talking to an eleven-year old boy and girl. She had immediately leaped on Neville Longbottom’s story to connect the midnight excursion of the two to an effort to get Draco Malfoy in trouble … simply because she did not want to think of the other thing they could have been doing there at that time.
Albus Dumbledore’s voice broke into her consciousness: “What are you thinking about, Minerva?” and she could feel a faint blush rising in her face at the question. She turned back to the Headmaster and met his twinkling eyes – and again wondered whether her old friend was telepathic.
There was no need to respond as, with a clatter, the door opened and she turned around to see Harry with Hermione still in his arms, entering the kitchen as if he were a bridegroom bringing in his bride. She stopped herself from collapsing in laughter at the shocked looks of the two, mentally giving Harry twenty points for not dropping Hermione in his surprise … and made a promise to herself to use her Pensieve at the earliest possible opportunity: the looks on the faces of her favorite students were just too precious to leave to the vagaries of memory.
The heat emanating from the faces of the two teenagers as they faced the four adults would have been enough to heat the Burrow in the dead of winter, with one mind, both thought that it was extremely lucky that the younger Weasleys had not seen them – unaware that the Twins were still rolling around on the floor of their room, laughing at the success of their latest ploy … Ron was in the living room with his nose buried once again in Bill’s diary … and Ginny was in her room, furiously brushing her long, flowing hair as tears of mingled sadness and happiness streamed down her face.
All four of the younger Weasleys had been at various windows of the house, and the sights they had seen that day would be something that would remain in their memories for a long time.
In the kitchen, Harry slowly put Hermione down (the four adults noting with mingled amusement and nostalgia the gentle, almost reverent manner with which Harry did so) and asked, “Professor Dumbledore! Professor McGonagall! What are you doing here? Is this because …”
He stopped at the Headmaster’s upraised hand and soothing voice: “All in good time, my dear boy! All in good time …”
Molly Weasley bustled up then, asking the two whether they would like to have their breakfast now or if they would prefer that she made them tea for the moment. They glanced at each other, both unaware that they had suddenly bitten their lower lips (a fact noticed with keen interest by their teachers), as they slowly shook their heads. None of the adults knew that the quick glance was of a shared memory of Ron in Hagrid’s cabin, saying, “Er — shall I make a cup of tea?” in response to Hagrid’s blubbering about Buckbeak, and his muttered explanation of his offer: “It’s what my mum does whenever someone’s upset,”.
The quick glance had also exchanged the same thought in their minds: who’s upset? And about what?
They quickly turned back as Professor Dumbledore gave a small cough.
“Let’s settle school affairs first, shall we?” He pulled out a Hogwarts letter from his robe and proffered it to Harry, who accepted it with a blank expression on his face. “The school governors decided last night, after some prompting from Mrs. Longbottom, to name you as Gryffindor Prefect. Congratulations, Harry.”
Harry’s response was drowned out Hermione’s whispered, “Good for you, Harry!”, followed by a rib-breaking hug from Molly and a bone-crushing handshake from Arthur. He adjusted his disheveled glasses in time to see Professor Dumbledore reaching for something glinting on the table.
“These were your parents’ Prefect badges, Harry. I think it’s time that I gave them back to you.” He handed them over to Harry, who accepted them without a word, and held them for a moment in his palm before looking at them through suddenly teary eyes. He held them up; noticing some engraving on the back, he peered at them closely and saw “James Potter” written on one, and “Lily Evans” on the other.
“Oh, Harry …” he heard Hermione’s voice beside him and he knew that she had seen the same thing that he had. Silently, he handed his mother’s badge to her and they locked eyes for a long moment before she reached out and accepted it, whispering “Thank you” at the same time. It was a gesture not lost on the four adults in the room, and they all turned away simultaneously to wipe their eyes and, in the case of Molly Weasley, surreptitiously blow her nose on her handkerchief.
“I understand you wanted to take up additional subjects this year, Harry? May I ask if you have reached a decision yet?”
“Yes, Professor. I … uh, have decided to take Ancient Runes this coming year.” He heard a gasp of surprise and realized that he hadn’t told Hermione of his decision yet, and wondered how Ginny would react to this. “Uh … Arithmancy is too close to Divination for me (he made a placating gesture at the suddenly bristling Hermione who visibly calmed down – a gesture not lost on Professor McGonagall, who hid her smile behind a handkerchief she conjured) and I don’t think I have a head for numbers that the course will require, so …”
“All right,” Dumbledore replied. His eyes twinkled as he continued, “I assume that Miss Granger has given you the references and study materials that you will need, including her notes?”
“Of course, Professor,” Hermione replied. With a glance at Harry, she continued, “Can I borrow Hedwig later, Harry? I can ask my Mum to pack up my notes and send them to us.”
“Can Hedwig carry four volumes of notes, Hermione – ow!” as Hermione gave him an elbow in the ribs. Before he could say anything, Arthur Weasley stepped in.
“We can always pass by your house tomorrow, Hermione,” he said. “You still have a few days before September 1st, I can drive you two over there tomorrow.”
The two teenagers looked at him with gratitude, but turned back as Dumbledore gave a small cough.
“You may wish to borrow one of the Ministry’s cars, Arthur. I am sure that Cornelius will be more than happy to lend you one.” For a split second, Harry caught a look being exchanged between the two men – and felt a shiver down his spine at the thought that certain arrangements were being made, and that his visit to Hermione’s house would be covered by teams of Aurors and hit-wizards … and he wondered if there were plans being made for the Grangers at the same time.
“If there is nothing else …” Professor Dumbledore began, but Harry interrupted him.
“Professor … I have to ask, but what is this all about? I mean … why did they have to attack Mr. Diggle? He was a harmless old wizard … surely he meant nothing to Voldemort.”
To his surprise, the Headmaster didn’t reply at once … and Harry watched as Dumbledore’s long, thin fingers covered his face and gently began massaging his eyes, as if he had been hit by a sudden, blinding headache.
He could feel the tension ramping up in the small room, felt the anxiety and strain emanating from Arthur, Molly and Professor McGonagall in waves thick enough to be cut with a knife, and began to feel the same oppressive weight on his shoulders. He felt a cool hand on his suddenly sweaty palms, and he entwined his fingers with Hermione’s – a move that was not lost on three of the four adults present.
Dumbledore lowered his hands and surveyed Harry through his half-moon glasses.
“It is time,” he said, “for me to tell you what I should have told you five years ago, Harry.
“Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything.”