She could feel him trembling through the arm that was around her waist … and felt fear coursing through her. Why should he be afraid? she wondered. He was Harry Potter, for heaven’s sake! He was the only wizard to have defeated You-Know-Who three times … he’d fought a basilisk and that infernal Tom Riddle when he was twelve … fought back Dementors at thirteen (she could still remember herself shaking when one Dementor entered their compartment at the start of her second year) … won the Tri-Wizard Tournament when he was fourteen …
But she could feel him shaking … and she didn’t know what to do.
So she kept walking, placing one foot carefully in front of the other … looking down at her feet – and quietly berating herself for her actions, or rather, inaction during the fight that erupted around her. She’d frozen the moment she turned around and saw Malfoy with his wand out … stared in shock from where Harry had pulled her down, and couldn’t move as she watched Hermione scramble and grab Malfoy’s wand … she couldn’t even shout a warning as she saw the two Slytherins hexing Hermione …
She finally engaged her brain and moved when Harry Disarmed the two … scrambling for their wands, and pulling out her own (knowing at the same time that there was nothing she could do but wave it around …) and finally, standing side-by-side with Hermione, trusting that the older girl would know what to do … and following her movements until they were back-to-back with Harry …
And here she was … pale as a ghost, forcing her legs to move and doing her best to force her fear and shaking down … and felt herself shivering again as the events of only minutes ago played and replayed in her fevered brain … and then a tiny, taunting voice in her mind broke through: “Do something, Virginia Weasley! Don’t act like a ninny! Do something!”
Instinctively, her arm went up to wrap itself around Harry’s waist. Dimly, she thought she had to help him walk … to hold him up … knowing that he would have to show the world a brave face …
And froze as her hand encountered another arm already around Harry’s waist … and her mind registered the fact that Harry was no longer shaking … heard him taking in a deep, calming breath that he let out in a whoosh … realized that his arm was no longer around her … and her pace faltered, falling behind unnoticed, as that mocking voice resounded in her head, “Too late, Virginia Weasley, too late. As always, too late.”
* * * *
He was hurting … it was so difficult to walk normally when his knees were knocking, his whole body was trembling, and his hands shook so much that he could barely hold his wand. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to fall on his knees and allow his body to relax … to shake, tremble and quiver all it wished … to simply let go for a moment, until the adrenaline surge wore off and he could face the world again.
But he could not.
He was Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived, and he would not show any weakness to the world.
And so he walked … goose-stepping like a soldier in those old films so that he could keep his legs straight, even as they shook … arms around his companions, stiffened as he tried to keep them from quivering … chest hurting as he controlled his breathing, trying to force a calmness that he didn’t feel … while his brain yammered in an unconscious echo of Neville Longbottom’s oft-repeated lament:
“Why does it always have to be me?”
He’d never wanted to be anything except a normal boy with a loving family, but Voldemort had taken that away and he landed with the Dursleys … his treatment at their hands was anything but normal, such that anything was better than his life with the Dursleys — which was why he never gave a second thought when Hagrid fetched him from the Hut-on-the-Rock four years ago …
And even then, all that he ever wanted was to be just an ordinary, “normal” wizard – or as normal as one can be in the magical community. He had never bargained for this … he had never even asked for or wanted the fame that he found when he entered the wizarding world …
Would he have climbed aboard the Hogwarts Express four years ago if he had known that, before that year ended, he’d be sticking his wand up a troll’s nose … that he’d be almost thrown off a hexed broomstick, or he’d be wandering the Enchanted Forest … that he’d be leading his two best friends into danger … that he would have to face Voldemort alone deep within the bowels of the castle?
Would he have willingly climbed aboard the Weasley’s Ford Anglia three years ago if he had known that Hermione would end up Petrified for a month … or that Ginny would end up unconscious in the Chamber of Secrets while he battled a basilisk with only Fawkes and the Sorting Hat as his companions?
And the thought struck … would he have been that excited to leave the Dursleys had he known all that he knew now … all that he had gone through for the past four years – but especially, what happened only this year? Was leaving the Dursleys worth the price he’d paid almost every night since he’d parted company with Hermione on Platform 9 and ¾ — seeing Cedric Diggory lying spread-eagled beside him in the graveyard, gray eyes blank and devoid of all expression, mouth half-opened as if surprised … the horrific ritual he had been forced to witness and unwillingly participate in … that unholy sacrament that had ended with the revival of Voldemort …
Would he have thought life with the Dursleys to be so totally loathsome if he had known that he would cause the death of Cedric … that his blood would resurrect Voldemort to full flesh and blood life … and that his high and mighty nobility would allow Peter Pettigrew to escape – and eventually, become an instrument in both the death of Cedric and the revival of Voldemort?
He’d escaped a cursed life with the Dursleys … but at what price? What price?
As the doubts, recriminations, and memories breached the barriers that he had spent so much time building over the summer months, he again felt the pain, like a physical force, coursing through his body — and he closed his eyes to ward off the howl of despair that was building in his lungs …
* * * *
Her mind was spinning, confusing thoughts of what had just happened running rampant, her fear and trembling battling with her logical mind … and through it all, a single thought kept taunting her: “Of all the stupid, inane, mindless, ridiculous things to say … why did I have to say that? Why? Why, oh why did I have to sound off like a second-rate actor in a B movie … It’s lucky no one heard me … I’ll be a laughingstock! They’ll be laughing at me, Hermione Granger, till the day I die …”
She berated herself again as her mind replayed the scene … grabbing Malfoy’s wand … pointing her wand at Crabbe and Goyle … those stupid, stupid, stupid words coming out of her mouth … and through the chaos of thoughts in her raging mind, felt her friend’s arm around her waist … and she felt the shivers coursing through his body as reaction set in … and somehow sensed the pain he was going through …
Without a thought, without a moment’s hesitation, she wrapped an arm around her friend and held him, tight. There was no need to look at him to see the anguish in his eyes brought about by his doubts, uncertainties and insecurities – and the memory of the horrific events of the past months … she held him tighter, and felt him calming down …
She’d felt this with him once before … riding on Buckbeak as they flew to rescue Sirius … she could remember her fear as she sat behind Harry, grabbing him tightly around the waist … leaning her head against his back, eyes tightly closed, her voice, muttering, “Oh no … I don’t like this oh I really don’t like this” … feeling his body trembling also … and then, that indefinable moment when she felt a calmness descending over him. In the next moment, she could feel that calmness and – yes, a sense of security — washing over her … soothing her own fears … enabling her to do what she had to do to help him free Sirius from the tower …
A wave of affection for her friend ran through her … mentally she shook her head at the innate innocence of the boy. She knew he would blame himself for what had happened … ignoring or overlooking the fact that Malfoy started the fight, doubtless wanting a return match after the hexing he and his cronies got on the train at the end of the school year … or that Skeeter wanted to get back at her for imprisoning her Animagus form for a month – and then exposing her to the Ministry!
But that was the way he was.
The magical community saw him as Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, Vanquisher of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, perhaps their best hope to defeat the horror that will soon be upon them.
But for Hermione Granger, he was just Harry Potter – classmate, housemate, close friend and companion for the past four years. She’d been with him through good times and bad – beaming with pride as Harry was carried by the Gryffindors when they won the Quidditch Cup in third year … the panic on his face as he asked her to help him perfect the Summoning Charm, and his shock when he did succeed at one o’clock in the morning …
To the majority of the wizarding world, he was Harry Potter, Hero – with everything that that implied.
To Hermione Granger, he was Harry Potter, friend. She’d seen him masked and unmasked: from gloriously happy to low and sad, from utterly focused and confident to shaken and unsure … and, all too often, she’d tried to console him whenever he felt that he was to blame for some misfortune or other that befell the community he had grown to love.
She felt his arms wrapping around her, holding her tight … she leaned her head against his chest … felt his chin resting on her head … and she held him tight … a sense of comfort and security in their closeness flowing from one to the other … heard a familiar voice breaking through her rampaging thoughts, sounding as if it were coming from a distance, calling out, “Harry! Harry!” … felt him trying to break away from her, gently pushing her away … and for a single, convulsive moment, she held him tighter before letting go …not noticing that tears had spilled from her eyes and had wet the front of his shirt … and she looked up into his eyes …
And she whispered with fierce intensity, as she slowly hit him on the chest, “It isn’t always about you, Harry … do you hear me? It … is … not … always … about … you!”
* * * *
He knew that it was Hermione … and he engulfed her in a tight embrace … felt his body sagging for a moment while she held him … resting his chin on top of her head (and thinking, irrelevantly, that her height was just right for him to do that) … and felt the tension and despair draining away from him as he held her close.
He took a deep breath to compose himself, and let it out in a whoosh … feeling the tension and fear finally leaving him, although his mind still gyrated with his jumbled, pained thoughts … and he thanked whatever Divinity there existed in his world for giving him a friend like Hermione.
It was then that he heard Molly Weasley’s voice breaking through his fogged mind, calling him … with a deep breath and a final sigh, he tried to disengage himself from Hermione’s embrace … only to feel her hugging him tightly for a brief moment more before letting go – but in the next second, he could feel her hitting him as she said, “It isn’t always about you, Harry … do you hear me? It … is … not … always … about … you!”
He looked into her eyes and saw the concern and worry for him there … he was about to ask, to clarify that statement, when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see the worried face of Ron … saw Ginny leaping into the arms of Bill Weasley (‘where had he come from?’ he thought vaguely) … noticed that Arthur was standing beside Molly, talking to a vaguely familiar wizard … and the Twins to one side …
* * * *
Ron was cursing himself for having agreed to the Twins’ mad scheme to have him front Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes to Zonko’s. He had to admit, however, that the logic was sound – the owners of Zonko’s knew the Weasley Twins as customers and inveterate jokers … it would have taken a major leap of faith for them to think of Gred and Forge as suppliers and manufacturers in their own right.
Admittedly, however, the prospect of a commission from the Twins on the sale (if consummated) was the final icing on the cake. For once, he’d have his own money to spend, rather than trying to make do with whatever allowance his parents can provide (after spending on their school supplies and clothes) … he could go to Hogsmeade and buy out Honeydukes … buy drinks for his friends without thinking of what he would have to forego … and, like Harry, never have to worry about money … maybe work up the courage to ask Hermione out on a date, just him and her …
‘Concentrate!’ his brain said (in a voice strangely like Ginny’s), and he mentally thwapped himself up the head. The presentation of the Twin’s products had gone surprisingly well … the fake wands and Ton-Tongue Toffee had gone over like a beer and a shot with the owners … he had just started on a presentation of the Canary Creams (complete with photographs from Colin Creevey of Neville’s “test”) when they heard the commotion in the Alley …
They’d rushed outside the store with the owners in time to see Ginny grabbing the Slytherins’ wands and walking with Hermione to stand back-to-back with Harry … but even from that distance, they could feel the raw energy emanating from the three …
Ron took off, forgetting the deal he was about to close … ignoring the shouts of the Twins as he fought through the crowd … thinking only that, again, he was being left out of things through no fault of his own. He wasn’t with Harry and Hermione when the freed Norbert in first year … had to sacrifice himself in that gigantic chess game … wsa stillunconscious when they rescued Sirius from the North Tower … wasn’t with them when they practiced Summoning Charms for the first task … and, irrelevantly, his mind locked on something he’d heard Seamus Finnegan say one time: “The Dynamic Duo.”
But the crowd wasn’t cooperating … although the filling meals of Hogswart had added inches to his height, it hadn’t built up his bulk – and he could feel people shoving back as he tried to move forward. There was a temptation – quickly suppressed – to draw his wand to blast a way through … he found the crowd starting to disperse as Harry, Ginny and Hermione were walking away and he moved faster to catch up …
Only to feel himself grabbed by the arm – he fought to free himself, only to hear a low, quiet voice hissing, “Leave them, Ron! They need a moment to themselves!” He turned, face contorting with a snarl – only to come face to face with his eldest brother … he realized that it was Bill who had grabbed him, and was holding tight to him.
His mouth dropped but before he could say anything, Bill repeated his words, forcefully: “Give them a moment, Ron. They need it … Harry needs it.”
He looked from Bill to the others – realized that Ginny had fallen back from the other two … saw that Harry was embracing Hermione tightly with his chin on her head … Hermione’s face hidden in Harry’s chest … Ron swallowed a lump in his throat, and looked at his eldest brother for a moment, as if he were about to break free from his hold, wishing to break away … but Bill’s eyes held him rooted to his spot.
He turned back to his friends … feeling abandoned, alone … left out of events.
* * * *
Harry turned to Ron and felt a brief flicker of some unknown emotion in his chest when he saw that, while Ron was asking about him, his focus was on Hermione … and then he realized he was still holding Hermione’s hand. He tried to let go (hoping that Ron hadn’t noticed) — and felt a last, encouraging squeeze before Hermione finally released him … and he moved aside to allow Ron to take his accustomed place between them.
He vaguely heard Bill explaining to Ginny, “There’s an emergency meeting of the Gringott’s curse breakers. I’d just apparated in when Hermione was making like Clint Eastwood (‘Clint who?’ Harry thought) … you were magnificent, Gin.”
Harry gave a guilty start – he’d forgotten all about Ginny! He took a step towards her, and placed a hand on her shoulder, asking, “Are you OK, Ginny?”
There was a flicker of … sadness? regret? anger? in her brown eyes as she replied, “I’m fine, Harry … thanks,” before she turned away. He looked at her curiously … there was something different about her … something he knew should have been obvious but was not … but he was distracted by Bill suddenly grabbing his hand, saying, “That was brilliant, Harry. I’ve never seen anything like it since the Dueling Club at Hogwarts …”
As Bill talked on, Harry kept looking at Ginny uncertainly. She said she was fine … but she was acting strangely, as if a mere “Boo!” would make her jump right out of her fair skin … but he didn’t know what to do. He looked around for help and saw Hermione and Ron …
* * * *
“Are you all right, Hermione?”
He was looking at her intently, as if it was the first time he had seen her … and not as if she hadn’t been a constant companion for the past four years.
She didn’t respond at once … she wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes, apparently defocused, seemingly glazed, were looking elsewhere – and he knew, without asking, that she was looking towards where Harry was.
And the memories started falling into place …
“Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one.” With those words, Hermione Granger had stepped into his life … or rather, had walked into their lives …
Or perhaps, more correctly, into Harry’s life.
It had been that way from the very beginning, he knew. He’d caught Harry’s eyes following her when she’d been Sorted into Gryffindor … it was Harry that she’d run to, screaming “You solved it, you solved it!” in second year … Harry that she’d been trying to protect when she turned in his Firebolt to McGonagall in third year … Harry that she’d stuck with in the months immediately after he was named Hogwarts Champion last year.
They’d had their moments too, he knew … after all, he’d cast the charm which knocked out the troll on Halloween … he’d hidden out with Hermione in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom while they brewed the Polyjuice Potion … he was with Hermione for her first excursion to Honeydukes in third year, returning pink-faced from the cold and looking as if they’d had the time of their lives …
But the truth was, no matter the moments they’d shared … they could never really compare to the “quality time” she’d spent with Harry: saving his life during his first-ever Quidditch match, while he stood frozen in the stands, urging her on … finishing each other’s thoughts as they pondered Tom Riddle’s diary while he belittled their efforts … rescuing Sirius in third year while he lay unconscious in the hospital wing … perfecting the Summoning Charm last year while he sulked like a rat, wishing to join but too proud (and admittedly, ashamed) to do so …
. How could his moments with her compare … he’d resented her at the start, culminating in that spiteful statement to Harry, “It’s no wonder no one can stand her … she’s a nightmare, honestly“ – which triggered the whole troll incident … constantly bickering with her in second year, first over their homework and then about Lockhart …. their awful fight in third year, first over Harry’s Firebolt and then with the traitorous Scabbers … and (he sighed to himself), finally, the one that we’ve all been waiting for: the Yule Brawl.
He was so engrossed in his thoughts (while continuing to stare at her) that he almost jumped out of his skin when she near-shouted in his face, “Ron! Have I got dirt on my nose or something?”
“Huh – urk,” he shook his head, caught his senses, and repeated his question, “Are you all right, Hermione?”
Her eyes softened as she recognized the care and concern in his voice and eyes … and he thought again how adorable she looked, biting her lower lip with her now perfect teeth (which, he remembered sourly, was a result of a ricocheting curse from Harry) … and felt a surge of warmth as she gave him a swift hug, saying, “I’m all right. Thanks, Ron.”
He finally smiled – and felt another wave of warmth enfold him as she continued in a low, confiding voice, “I hope Ginny’s all right, however.”
“Ginny?” he responded, surprised and a bit ashamed that he’d thought of her first rather than his sister. “She’s all right, she’s with Bill …”
And he felt a chill chase away the warmth in his chest when he realized that, although Hermione was asking about Ginny, her eyes were on Harry.
He was about to comment … to say something, anything to draw her attention back to him … when he saw Harry glance at her … saw her shrug her shoulders at him … saw Harry nodding in acceptance before turning back to Bill and Ginny … and he knew that a conversation had taken place.
A conversation that he could not, for the life of him, have listened in on.
A silent conversation that was happening more frequently between the two – and something that many others, including himself, had noticed.
A conversation that, again, he was not part of.
He wanted to ask what they’d discussed … just so he could be part of it all again, but saw his parents approaching them with another wizard in tow.
* * * *
Hermione watched as the older wizards approached Harry. She knew that he was worried about Ginny, but the latter was in good hands already … which was why she’d shrugged at his silent question to her. She knew he understood – his nod showed that much – and she found herself hoping that this day would end … that they could be back in the Burrow before a warming fire, reading their school books for the coming year.
She was as surprised as Ron, however, when Harry apparently recognized the older wizard wearing a top hat who had joined the Weasleys, “Mr. Diggle! I remember you!,” Harry said as Arthur and Molly approached him with the other wizard. “You were at the Leaky Cauldron the first time I went there with Hagrid …”
Mr. Diggle shook his hand enthusiastically, but they all noticed tears shining in his eyes. “Bless the boy, he remembers! I am impressed … most impressed! All the stories about the Tri-Wizard Tournament … I could see why you won! Most wizards wouldn’t even have thought of ducking a curse … but you did …“
Harry flushed at his onslaught of admiration. He didn’t think that that had been any great achievement … it was survival at that moment. He glanced at Hermione and shrugged, knowing that she was smirking at his discomfort at the admiration from the older wizard. He vaguely heard Mr. Diggle prattle on while still shaking his hand, “And your young lady! That was most admirable … the way she caught Mr. Malfoy’s wand, and pointing her wand at them! They’d have tried something, I daresay, if she hadn’t stopped them!”
“Oh!” Harry pulled his hand away from Mr. Diggle’s and turned to introduce them. “Hermione Granger, this is Mr. Dedalus Diggle … we met at the Leaky Cauldron years ago. Mr. Diggle, Miss Hermione Granger … she’s been my best friend, along with Ron, ever since I started at Hogwarts …”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Granger,” said Mr. Diggle, but now looking at Hermione with keen interest. “Granger? Uhmm … aren’t you … ummm …”
Hermione flushed, unsure of how to respond to this but Mr. Diggle, noting this, continued, “Ah, well … one must not believe all that one reads, of course. Especially if it comes from the poisonous pen of Rita Skeeter! She’s got nothing good to say about anyone …”
Hermione smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Diggle. It’s nice meeting you.”
“Might I ask something, young lady?” Hermione frowned. “What you said to those two buffoons … was that a curse or something?”
“I … I did?” she said, apparently confused but internally appalled that someone had picked up on that. “I … I don’t remember saying anything …”
“Of course you did, Hermione,” Ginny broke in. “You were saying something like, ‘Make my day!’ Crabbe and Goyle simply froze …”
“Ah … errr …” Hermione flushed again, her face now an interesting shade of red which would have done justice to the Weasley family’s hair, while stealing nervous glances at Harry’s clueless face. No one noticed Bill Weasley’s wide, wide grin as he watched her expression. She was saved from replying, however, when Mr. Diggle finally took his leave.
“Well!” Mr. Weasley said. “At least that’s over … although I would have given up a lot to see Lucius Malfoy’s face! He’ll take a long time to live that down!”
“Arthur!” Molly said warningly. “We haven’t even started our errands and …”
“Quite right, quite right!” he said, embarrassed. “We can discuss this later at lunch. So, where are you all headed now?”
The twins said that they had to get back to Zonko’s with Ron. Ron looked hesitant about leaving Hermione, but she nudged him away, saying that she still had to have her Muggle money changed. Harry, Mrs. Weasley, and Ginny still had to go to the bank to get some money – and Bill, of course, still had his meeting with the goblins and other curse-breakers.
They decided to split up again, with the Weasley’s pere et fil joining Mrs. Weasley and Ginny, with Harry and Hermione, while Ron was to join the twins back at Zonko’s. They agreed to meet at Florean’s ice cream parlor in thirty minutes or so, and then would lunch at the Leaky Cauldron before proceeding with their shopping.
As they were about to split up, however, Harry turned to Hermione, “What did you shout at Crabbe and Goyle, Mione?”
To everyone’s surprise (except Bill, who stifled a snicker), Hermione blushed again, and started stammering, “Nothing … nothing … it’s just a slip of the tongue …”
A full-bodied belly laugh suddenly erupted from Bill Weasley, who replied, “I’ll say … it is sooo appropriate, Hermione!” The others looked at him in shock, unsure of why … except for Hermione who looked as if she were wishing she could just disappear into the ground …
“Did you really say, ‘Go Ahead! Make My Day?” Bill asked. “I saw that movie in Cairo … they were doing a Clint Eastwood festival …”
The others, including Harry, were puzzled – Clint WHO? Hermione, however, turned away, not wanting to look at Harry or the others. She turned back, however, when Bill addressed her directly, “Hermione? Care to tell them what that movie was?”
“The movie was …” Hermione’s voice dropped, and shook her head.
“Dirty Harry.” Bill completed, to be followed by another laugh.
“Dirty Harry?” Ron said, incredulously. He took in Hermione’s blushing, Bill’s laughter, Harry’s open-mouthed cluelessness about the title and gave his opinion: “That’s bloody … brilliant!”
Silence descended. And then … Ginny giggled, followed by snickers from the Twins … and then Arthur Weasley let loose with a belly laugh … and they were soon laughing their heads off, except for Hermione and Harry, who were looking at each other with bemused expressions.