It was … cute.
It was … endearing.
It was … charming.
It brought back memories of other times, other people … and one special witch in particular, which brought a slicing ache to his heart.
The sight brought a wistful smile to the tanned face of Bill Weasley as he watched his youngest brother’s best friends walking in front of him, weighed down with the results of the day’s shopping at Diagon Alley.
Or rather … Harry was the one carrying the burden of the day’s shopping: slightly hunched, both arms drooping from bags full of books (Hermione’s purchases probably making up the bulk of these), while Hermione walked beside him carrying a bag emblazoned with the name of Madam Malkin’s shop. He was telling Hermione something, his face alight with an inner mirth while she was giving him her full attention, although her face was glowing with its own mischief.
It must have been some joke, Bill thought with amusement, as he watched Hermione shift the bag she was carrying to her other hand, and proceeded to swat at Harry’s head. The latter, however, neatly evaded her hand and, moving a few steps away, stuck out his tongue at his friend.
A smile and a shake of her head were Hermione’s only response; in the next moment, she had stepped closer to Harry, linked her arm around his elbow, and leaned her head with its bushy crop of hair on his arm. Harry, on the other hand, had moved his arm around her waist – a move which she copied so effortlessly, so naturally, that a dispassionate observer would have thought they’d done this a hundred or a thousand times before … and the two continued walking down the road without missing a beat.
“Do you believe in platonic love?”
The question was so startling, so unexpected, that Bill almost missed a step; turning sharply, he cast an upraised eyebrow at his youngest brother, who’d been walking quietly beside him all the time.
Ron stared back, unblinking, although a slight blush was making its way up his face … and Bill gaped at him in surprise. He was not expecting this … there was nothing that he could see in the times he’d seen the infamous Trio together to even indicate that Ron was interested in that way towards the female member of the group. He knew about Ginny and her crush on The Boy-Who-Lived … he’d read Rita Skeeter’s story about Hermione being Harry’s girlfriend when the Triwizard champions were announced … and his mother had almost blistered his ear off with her anger and disgust at the girl for playing with the affections of Harry and Viktor Krum in the hours before they went to Hogwarts to watch the Third Task.
He’d been full of admiration for the way Harry had handled his mother in the Great Hall when Hermione approached them … at the straightforward manner with which he’d confronted the uneasy situation (although he did wonder why Hermione blushed when Harry refuted the Skeeter’s reports) … and he could still remember Hermione’s barely-in-control panic when they’d gone to the Hospital Wing after the Third Task to ask about Harry — and learned that he wasn’t there …
The memories of that night flooded back … seeing a bedraggled and befuddled Harry walking in with Dumbledore and a large black dog … his mother giving a muffled cry and nearly bowling over a shocked and shaken Hermione, who’d stood there frozen at the sight of her friend looking like he’d been through seven levels of hell …
And a snapshot from that night flashed into his mind … a picture buried in the avalanche of shocking revelations that the night had brought. He’d caught Harry and Hermione exchanging a glance … a single look that made him avert his eyes, feeling that he’d walked into a room without knocking, make a mental note to himself that it was not polite to listen in on a private conversation … and mentally thwapping himself in the same second as he realized that there had been no conversation between the two friends.
But, he reflected, watching the two ahead of him, they may as well have been talking …
He shook his head at the memory; and was startled when Ron commented in a slightly bitter voice, “I didn’t think so.”
With that, Ron turned away and walked into the crowds that thronged Diagon Alley.
* * * *
This was … nice, Harry thought, an arm loaded with books around Hermione, her head resting on his shoulder and her arm around him, as they walked in step down the familiar path towards Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlor. The tension and fear that enveloped him after the confrontation with Malfoy and his gang had dissipated … he felt at peace with the world, at peace with himself … warm and contented in the comforting embrace of his best friend.
She was like the sister he never had and wanted … no, that he needed, prayed for through all the painful years of growing up, alone and unwanted, with the Dursleys. Someone who understood him … someone who really, truly, cared for him … who would stand beside him in any conflict … who was always looking out for him. Someone that he could share his fears and nightmares with, knowing that she would never laugh at him, never sneer at him … would always understand that, beneath the unruly hair and the famous scar, was a scared, oftentimes frightened little boy who never felt he was good enough … who often felt that he was to blame for everything bad that happened to him and to his friends …
“It isn’t always about you, Harry … do you hear me? It … is … not … always … about … you!”
The words echoed and re-echoed in his mind … the words she muttered as she kept hitting him on the chest earlier that day … and, at some point between the time they’d separated from the others and before he reached his Gringotts’ vault, the realization came: his best friend was right.
He wasn’t to blame for the fight that morning … Malfoy started it, using his well-honed talent for getting under his skin to provoke him. There were those, he knew, who would think that he was to blame … that Malfoy and his cronies were only trying to get back at him after the humiliation they’d suffered on the train back from Hogwarts, but the fact remained: Malfoy started it, insulting Ron and Hermione and then insulting Cedric for good measure …
And for a brief, horrifying moment, Harry was back in the graveyard, Cedric on his back, mouth open, grey eyes staring up at the empty sky … and he felt his neck stiffen as he stopped himself from physically shaking the memory off …
“It … is … not … always … about … you!”
He may have been the ultimate target of Voldemort … he may have provided the ‘blood of the enemy, forcibly taken’ that Voldemort needed to complete the spell … but if he hadn’t touched the Triwizard Cup, Cedric would still be dead – Disarmed and then Avada Kedavra’d by Voldemort without a thought or even the offer of a duel. There was no other way to look at it … Cedric had been the clear winner at the end of the Third Task, but it was the Hufflepuff’s sense of honor and his innate decency and kindness which made him tell Harry to claim the cup and the victory … in the face of such civility and graciousness, what was he to do?
Smile and grab the Cup? Keep on arguing with Cedric about who should take the Cup and claim victory, exchange notes on who did the most for whom from the time Harry told him about the dragons, to Cedric’s advice about the Golden Egg (and the generous offer to make use of the Prefect’s Bathroom), to who saved who when they were lost in the maze …
He was a Gryffindor, Harry thought. In the face of such decency, he couldn’t do anything but return the favor … and opted for the only compromise that made sense to him. All because of Cedric’s innate decency and sense of honor … a presentation which he had to return in full measure.
If he’d grabbed the Cup for himself … chances were that he could have escaped, as he did escape that night.
Or maybe not.
If he hadn’t escaped the trap … if he had died that night, then it would be Cedric mourning his death right now … blaming himself for pushing Harry into the trap – such were the conventions of the virtuous and honorable.
And there’d be no one to console Hermione.
His heart wrenched at the thought … and he could see in his mind’s eye that horrific and painful memory of the Leaving Feast … raising his goblet to the memory of Cedric … and seeing Cho’s tears as she silently cried … and imagining, for a brief instant, Hermione sitting there and crying … perhaps with Viktor Krum beside her, trying to console her …
And probably getting hexed by a maddened, angry Hermione in the bargain.
What was it with Krum, Harry wondered yet again. Why should he even think of Harry as a potential rival for Hermione, when it should have been obvious to even the most blind of bats that Hermione was nothing more than his friend!
His mind suddenly jumped on the revelations made by Rita Skeeter, and he forced himself to hold back his rage at what had happened to his friend … he felt her suddenly tensing beside him, and he held her a bit tighter in reassurance … and felt her relax, imperceptibly, although he knew she would be scanning their surroundings, prepared to hex anyone or anything that presented a threat …
To be fair, he thought … Skeeter was clear on one thing: it wasn’t Viktor who’d had problems with Hermione … it was his family that apparently questioned his best friend’s acceptability. He smiled grimly at that … their loss, he thought. They didn’t know her the same way he knew her … his sister … his friend …
Yeah, right, his friend. Some friend … the one who’d bullied and pushed him into completing his assignments and studying his lessons … who’d wheedled and cajoled him into eating something before his first Quidditch match … the straight arrow who’d broken at least fifty school rules in concocting the Polyjuice potion – including stealing boomslang skin from Snape’s room… who’d gone with him into the tunnel and the Shrieking Shack, without even thinking of running back for a teacher … who’d brought him a stack of toast so that he could have breakfast in peace, the day after the Goblet of Fire announced him as a champion …
Who’d talked about nothing but him whenever she was with Viktor Krum.
He almost tripped as the thought blasted through his body …
What a girl!
And he suddenly wondered if, for some obscure reason, Voldemort had made a fatal mistake … that it wasn’t him, that it wasn’t Harry Potter, The Boy-Who-Lived, who was the real threat to his mad schemes of domination, but the girl who was walking beside him … the one, the only, Hermione Granger.
The thought brought a smile to his lips … a smile that soon made its way to his eyes, and the shadow of gloom lifted a bit more from his shoulders. Wouldn’t it be ironic, he thought … wouldn’t it be supremely hilarious if, after all the effort, all the suffering and pain that he had caused in the past four years in his insane efforts to kill The Boy-Who-Defeated-Him, Voldemort’s real enemy was the slim, petite girl with bushy brown hair walking beside him?
From out of nowhere, an errant memory struck … something in one of the pocketbooks that Dudley never read, thrown into the room he occupied in the summers but which had been Dudley’s storeroom … given as a gift by some unknowing and unknown benefactor … something about the deepest, darkest secret in the universe … what was it? Oh yes … that was it …
“It is something even the Masters don’t reveal about the inner nature of the secret heart of the universe … The deepest darkest secret of all that the Force lets you see …
“The universe has a sense of humor.”
A smile broke out that would have melted the polar ice caps – or melted the heart of Severus Snape, if he ever swung that way. For a tiny instant, a laugh boiled up within him and he felt … liberated. It felt so good to laugh … to find even a tiny shred of humor in the darkness that he could feel gathering around them … and for a wild moment, felt a sudden, insane urge to plant a kiss on the bushy head of hair resting on his shoulder …
Did he just think about kissing her?
Why should the very thought of kissing her make him feel torn … no, it wasn’t that … it was as if his mind had split in two … one side saying that doing so was the most natural thing to do, while the other was screaming at him that it was not natural, that it was incestuous … that one does not think that way about one’s sister …
But she’s not.
My sister, that is.
She’s my friend … she’s my girl friend.
He resisted that mad, mad itch for a moment – and gave in to the impulse.
He leaned forward, lips puckered to plant the kiss … at exactly the same moment that she decided to look up at him … and they froze – noses a hair’s breath from each other … lips a thin ribbon’s width away, so close that they could feel each other’s breathing as they inhaled and exhaled in a rapid, sharp tempo, eyes locked in a question that neither recognized or understood … or were prepared to acknowledge.
And they quickly reverted to their original stance … Harry looking ahead, an arm carrying a bag of books around his best friend, the other arm similarly weighed down with another bag of books at his side … Hermione with her head resting on his shoulder, an arm around her best friend, neither of them missing a beat as they walked side-by-side down the length of Diagon Alley …
Neither one saw an extremely annoyed, not to say chagrined, wizard swearing softly at what had almost happened. A moment later, with a resigned sigh, he tossed a golden Galleon at his smirking twin.
* * * *
This was … comfortable. No, reassuring was a better word … but not quite … not quite …
Hermione Granger, who was precise in everything she did … who had memorized and could recite without a stutter a thousand and one arcane facts, from the twelve uses of dragon’s blood to the names of the first Board of Directors of Gringotts … found that she could not describe exactly what she was feeling at this moment as she walked the streets with her best friend.
Except to say that it was … nice.
It was … wonderful.
It was … natural.
It felt as if her whole life had been a journey, with a few detours here and there, towards this … to be walking the streets of magical London, surrounded by her friends and family (well, the Weasleys may not have been her biological family, but they’d adopted her into their fold so easily, except for that little awkwardness over the stupid Skeeter’s article), an arm around her best friend … his arm around her … and walking along so naturally, not even talking about which direction their steps would go, almost stepping into the gutter as they avoided a large stack of boxes being levitated by some wizard, but avoiding it just the same, without breaking stride …
Just walking along comfortably, quietly, naturally.
Unconsciously, she rubbed her head against his shoulder, and felt the tension of the muscles there as his arm carried a bag of her books. She’d offered to relieve him of the load but he had answered, in a voice with a slight echo of her own bossy, know-it-all manner from her first year, that he didn’t think she could manage it … that the weight of her books may well stunt whatever little growth she’d had over the summer …
She’d swatted at him then, but he’d easily avoided it. She knew that her body language must have communicated her intentions to him (as his body often told her his feelings and emotions without words being said), and he’d stepped away and stuck his tongue out at her.
She could only smile at him, and toss her hair … in the next moment, she’d stepped closer to him and tucked her arm in his so naturally, leaned against his shoulder and whispered, “Behave!” and he did … placing an arm around her without thinking … and she had placed her arm around him so naturally …
As naturally as hugging a brother.
If she had one.
Which she definitely did not.
But then … why did she feel so comfortable, so at ease … so at home with Harry Potter?
She didn’t know.
It just felt so natural (there was that word again) … even when she did not know him from Adam, that first day on the Hogwarts Express when she’d stumbled into the compartment he shared with Ron and saw him for the first time – all hair and glasses, almost swimming in the castoff clothes of an enormous Dudley … and for some reason, started chattering away to them, even before she could give her name.
Or even ask who they were.
She nearly cringed as she remembered her first days at Hogwarts and (this time, she did cringe) the seemingly desperate attempts to get the boy beside her to take notice — and making a total fool of herself — talking about the enchanted ceiling in the Great Hall … chattering away with Percy about Transfiguration … raising her hand during their first Potions lesson, not because she wanted to show off (as many of them undoubtedly thought) but because she wanted to draw attention away from him.
Only for that miserable Professor Snape to take points away from Gryffindor.
She sighed to herself, and snuggled closer to her best friend, and continued pondering that question: Why did she feel so at home with him?
She was no Princess Leia, that was for sure. She’d been a Star Wars aficionado for years … rather, her parents were (which was a rather startling idea for dentists) but Star Wars had been her parents date-movie when they were at Uni … and she’d grown up with the full collection of toys, including an action-figure Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker.
And then they’d brought home the VHS movies to celebrate their new large-screen TV.
She’d been so entranced, especially with Obi-Wan’s explanation of The Force (“It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”); enthralled by Yoda’s training and admonitions to Luke; watched, goggle-eyed, as the diminutive figure lifted Luke’s X-Wing fighter out of the Dagobah swamp … and his final, cutting statement to Luke’s “I don’t believe it”: “That is why you fail.”
It made her determined to be a Jedi Knight.
She focused her mind on the popcorn bowl as her parents continued watching the movie … and kept repeating Yoda’s “Do. Or do not. There is no try” to herself … and watched the bowl give a sudden jerk and float into the air.
Only to crash as her mother’s shriek of surprise broke her concentration. But it proved to her that the Force did exist, no matter that her parents kept insisting for months after that it was only a movie, that there was no such thing as the Force, and tried to explain away the many strange (to her, wonderful) things that kept happening around her.
They refused to believe, until the letter from Hogwarts arrived – and they were forced to admit the fact that, while their daughter may not be a Jedi Knight, she did have something like the Force within her.
Only, it was called magic.
However … if there was one thing she didn’t like about Star Wars, however, it was the way they handled the story of Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker. It was a plain and simple cop-out, she thought irately, making Luke and Leia siblings separated at birth because big, bad Darth Vader was their father, so they could develop the Han-Leia angle … she’d been rooting for Luke and Leia from the beginning, but knew, by the second movie, that her wishes would not be granted … all those icky glances and verbal clashes between Han and Leia … like the constant bickering between her and Ron …
She almost missed a step.
Was that what it was?
Was she living in a Star Wars movie, where Luke was Harry, she was Princess Leia, and Ron was Han Solo?
Of that she was sure.
She felt a quiver of tension from her best friend, and she quickly glanced around for the threat, but he’d hugged her tightly for a moment, and she relaxed …and her mind brought back the question that started it all … and for which she could find no real answer.
It was just … it just is.
She just felt more comfortable, more at ease, more at home with Harry than with anyone else … and no, it was not because he was her long-lost brother or something. She’d made sure of that, when her mother asked her (eyebrows raised) why she was spending so much on Harry, the summer before their third year, when she’d bought him the Broomstick Servicing Kit … and she told her Mum that it was for her best friend.
They’d talked about Harry that night … his adventures and his life, his miserable life with the Dursleys and his parents … and her mother had commented, “Sounds like Luke Skywalker, doesn’t he?”
She’d laughed at that, and told her Mum that no, Harry was no Luke … although he did have the messy hair, Harry’s eyes were green … and while he did pick up magic in much the same way that Luke handled the Force (instinctively), he didn’t even have a light-saber to duel with … although, she said reflectively, he did have Godric Gryffindor’s sword.
And she, Hermione Ann Granger, was certainly no Princess Leia, flying all over the Galaxy fighting the bad guys … but (and she kept the thought to herself, knowing the shock and dismay her mother would feel) what had she been doing since first year? She’d been with Harry until almost the end in the chambers leading to the Sorcerer’s Stone … OK, she was Petrified when he and Ron went after the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, but she had helped even then … she was with him when they rescued Sirius … in any case, she’d said awkwardly to her mother, she was no princess …
“Well, to your father and myself, you always were a princess,” her mother had replied. She’d smiled and hugged her Mum, and broke into a laugh as she continued, “and one thing for sure … you are most definitely my little girl. I carried you with me for nine months, talking to you, singing to you, reading to you …”
She’d hugged her Mum again at that.
She felt a sudden mirth in her best friend, and wondered what he found so funny … and heard Harry murmuring something under his breath, and caught the last part as she listened closely from her position with her head on his shoulder: “…The deepest darkest secret of all that the Force lets you see … The universe has a sense of humor.”
“Children of the Jedi,” she thought. She’d seen the book when she went shopping with her Mum for her summer clothes, and bought it on impulse … and she recognized the line even as she wondered why Harry would be thinking of Star Wars … and what had brought that particular line to his mind … which brought her mind back to Ron Weasley-as-Han Solo …
No, Ron was no Han Solo … he didn’t have that smuggler’s style … she couldn’t imagine Ron piloting the Millennium Falcon telling the others, “Never tell me the odds!” And if the way they bickered was any indicator … he was definitely no Han … and she was no Princess Leia!
If anything, their bickering sounded more like … like … oh, no, she thought in dismay. They often sounded like C3PO and R2D2, with her taking on the protocol droid’s spinsterish, old-maid tone and manner, while Ron’s responses followed the sharp, cutting tones of the astromech droid …
And she stifled her own laugh.
Now that would be the heart of irony and hilarity! If the wizarding world knew of Star Wars, they may fall into the same trap of thinking of the three of them in the same way the world saw the Trio of Luke, Leia and Han … when it may very well be the other Trio of Luke, C3PO and R2D2, with Harry as the heroic Luke Skywalker … and his two sidekicks constantly bickering and sniping at each other, although the roles were often reversed: she could see Ron as C3PO moaning, “we’re doomed, we’re doomed!” while she was R2D2, running in to find a solution on the ship’s computers … slotted behind Harry’s X-Wing fighter trying to hold that bucket of bolts together …
At least their heights matched with the two druids … except when she was in her Hermione-as-C3PO mode, acting like a spinsterish old maid, cautioning them about the rules … bullying them to do their homework … hounding them to help her with S.P.E.W. … holding Harry back from making a fool of himself over the veela …
Her moment of hilarity dimmed as she wondered whether they really did look at her that way … she felt a hint of tears beginning to form, and sneaked a peek at her best friend, wondering what he really thought of her … and catching a smile so unaffected, so artless and spontaneous that she felt herself feeling enveloped by warmth … the kind of warmth he radiated when they were together like this … quietly, sharing a moment of companionship together …
And she realized that that was what seemed to bind her so closely to Harry Potter … It wasn’t the things he did for the wizarding world that made him whatever it was that he was to her … it was everything that he’d done for her from the moment she’d barged into their compartment in a search of a toad. He had never laughed at her … didn’t join in with everyone else who’d thought of her as a bossy, know-it-all witch who wanted to be Head Girl before she was twelve … who’d realized she did not know about the Troll in the castle even though she hadn’t spoken to him in weeks … and who’d waded bravely, if stupidly, into the girl’s bathroom to try and pull her out …
She remembered the moment in the room with the Potions challenge beneath the castle … the moment she’d given in to impulse and hugged him tightly before letting him go to face the final challenge alone.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery and — oh Harry — be careful!”
She’d been about to say “love” but had stopped herself in time … what did she know of love at the tender age of eleven? But it was what she’d wanted to say … it was what she felt at that singular moment in time …
She felt a sudden impulse to stand up on her toes and kiss him on the cheek … it was the same compulsion that made her kiss him on the cheek at Platform 9 and 3/4 : that combination of concern, affection, caring, love for someone who was a brother to her …
If she had a brother.
Which she did not.
She had a friend.
She had a boy friend.
She resisted the mad urge to kiss him for a moment … and gave in, because it expressed for her, everything she felt towards him now …
She turned and tilted her head to kiss his cheek … and froze as she felt his nose almost brushing her own … his lips, warm and full, less than an inch away from hers … and felt his breath mingling with her own … and her eyes locked with his in a question that she was not prepared to acknowledge.
She quickly reverted to her original stance as he did … looking ahead, arms around the others’ best friend … her head resting on his shoulder, his head resting on her hair, neither of them missing a beat as they walked side-by-side down the length of Diagon Alley …
Neither one noticed Molly Weasley, who was walking ahead of them with her husband but constantly glancing back at them, heave a long sigh of frustration … an act which made Arthur look questioningly at his wife. Molly simply reached up and gave him a kiss on the lips …