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Siriusly Drunk About Girls

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Siriusly Drunk About Girls

 

December 19, 1995, Grimmauld Place

.

Knock knock.

He’d heard the footsteps approaching the other side of the door, not that he could figure out who’d be foolish or stupid enough to approach him. The pause before the knock hadn’t been unexpected. The knock itself had had him jumping slightly.

But only slightly.

It wasn’t enough to have him moving from where he sat in the straw, his back against the wall. His head down, his messy hair long enough to partly shield his side glance through narrowed eyes at the offending sound. A finger twitched slightly even as his arms remained wrapped around his raised knees close to his chest.

Knock knock.

This time one eyebrow rose, the only indicator that he’d heard the intrusion into this bastion of silence and peacefulness and aloneness. Well, as alone as one got when one was sharing an attic space with a hippogriff.

“Harry? I’m coming in!”

Harry sighed. Of course. Sirius. The only one in the house who wasn’t scared of him. At least, he presumed so. Everyone else was petrified of him, scared witless that he was going to attack them or cause something to attack them.

Just like had happened to Mister Weasley. How he’d survived, Harry had no clue. He’d seen it happen. Hell, he’d felt it happen! He’d been the giant snake roaming the corridor, sensing Mister Weasley, tasting him with his tongue, coiling at the man Harry thought of as being like a surrogate Uncle (only a nice, well-meaning uncle, the kind that only his imagination could produce, not the reality that he knew and lived with most of his life) and then, striking out, sinking his fangs deep into Mister Weasley and pumping his venom into him.

How Harry’d travelled to the Ministry and back from his bed in Gryffindor Tower at Hogwarts was a mystery with no answer. Not that it mattered. Harry’d attacked Mister Weasley. The man was now laying in a bed at Saint Mungo’s, the wizarding hospital and, thankfully, expected to fully recover.

Not that it mattered.

Harry’d seen the looks that every single one of the Weasleys had given him when they’d been there that day to visit Mister Weasley: looks that spoke volumes. They were terrified of him. They hated him for what he’d done, what he could still do.

And thus, the instant that they’d come back through the floo to Grimmauld Place, Harry’d raced through the house, up and up and up as far as he could go until the only place left had been the door that Sirius was now standing on the other side of: the attic abode of Buckbeak the Hippogriff.

“Harry?” Sirius asked as the door opened.

A stream of light broke through the darkness of the room and Harry was glad that his knees and hair shielded him from it.

“There you are, kiddo,” Sirius said. “Mind if I join you?”

The fact that Harry didn’t answer didn’t seem to deter his godfather. From the corner of his eye, Harry watched as Sirius shut the door behind him, paused slightly at the sight of Buckbeak, bowed and then, after straightening, seated himself on the floor right beside Harry.

A plate was placed between them, not that Harry made a single move to pick up one of the sandwiches on it.

For a time, there was only silence, punctuated by the occasional snuffling of Buckbeak’s wings as he shifted position.

Finally, Sirius spoke, the unexpected words jolting Harry out of his morose thoughts and the image in his mind of Ron, Fred, George and Ginny looking at him with such loathing in their eyes.

“I promise you that they’re not poisoned or anything. I wouldn’t let Kreacher anywhere near any sort of food, let alone make a meal for anyone in this house. And Molly didn’t make them either.”

Harry’s head turned to look at his godfather suspiciously.

“Then who made them?”

“I did!” Sirius proclaimed proudly.

“I thought you said that they weren’t poisoned or anything?” Harry replied, the slightest of smirks on his face.

“Hey! I’ll have you know that I know my way around a kitchen quite well,” Sirius replied indignantly.

A rumble of his stomach told Harry that, as much as he had no thought of eating and definitely didn’t feel like it, it had been far too many hours since he had eaten. Frowning, he cast his mind back, trying to remember when that had actually been. Not breakfast and definitely not the night before even if food had been made and placed on the table – no one had eaten anything while they’d been waiting for news of Mister Weasley or even that morning before their visit. Dinner at Hogwarts the night before? Yes, that had to be it. Not that Harry knew exactly how many hours ago that’d been. Coming up on twenty-four from what he could tell.

A second stomach grumble had his hand reaching out to pick up a sandwich from the plate. Even if they were made by Sirius, they were better than nothing. And absolutely nothing would entice him down to the kitchen where the rest of the Weasleys were anyway.

In short order, the half sandwich was gone and the second half quickly followed it.

“Feel any better?” Sirius asked quietly.

“I’m not hungry anymore, if that’s what you mean,” Harry replied.

Sirius’ jerky nod told him that, while he’d answered one part of the question, he hadn’t exactly answered the rest of it. Or maybe he had and Sirius got that?

“Right, this hard floor is not doing these old bones much good, even if it is padded with straw,” Sirius said after a time of silence.

“I thought that this would be the height of luxury after …” Harry began before trailing off.

He hadn’t meant it. Honestly. It’d just slipped out and seeing the wince and look of pain on his godfather’s face, the memories that he’d just inadvertently brought up caused a wave of shame to wash over Harry.

“Sorry,” he replied quietly.

“It’s alright,” Sirius replied gruffly before coughing as though to clear his throat. “And you’re not wrong. Straw, someone to talk to, food nearby, this is all luxury after Azkaban.”

“We can go somewhere else if you like,” Harry said. “Just … just can it just be the two of us? Nowhere near anyone else?”

He’d rushed the last bit and knew that his face probably carried a look of complete hopefulness.

“My old room’s right below here,” Sirius replied. “How’s that sound?”

“Okay. Good. Thanks, Sirius,” he replied.

Slowly, carefully, Harry stretched out his legs, wincing at the sharp spikes of pain that blossomed up and down them; it seemed that they’d gone to sleep after being in the one position for so long. Using the wall to brace himself, he stood.

Then, after giving a bow to Buckbeak – who nodded his great head in reply – Harry followed Sirius from the room.

As they descended the stairs, Harry couldn’t help but keep a sharp lookout for any sort of movement. Thankfully, there was none – if one didn’t count the old couple in the painting glaring at them, the man even standing from his chair and stalking towards the edge of the frame.

The door on the next floor down that Sirius stopped at was clearly Sirius’; the sign stating his name, a ‘Keep Out! – This Means You!’ sign directly above it, spelled it out to anyone who even glanced at said door.

And once inside, Harry knew that, even without that sign, everyone would know that this room could only belong to one Sirius Orion Black.

The walls were covered in posters, motorbikes predominantly although there were also a few cars and even big black dogs. But what every single poster had in common was the scantily clad or half-naked girl posing provocatively in them. The fact that not one of the girls moved indicated that they were all muggle items.

The other big indicator that this room belonged to Sirius and not any other Black were the Gryffindor pendants and flags that hung from the corners of the four-poster bed as well as the curtain rail.

As for the rest of the room, it was fairly normal-looking: bed, desk, bookcase and armchair in the corner. The only discrepancy was the fact that it was covered in dust.

“Nice,” Harry remarked, meaning it; after all, it was a hundred, a thousand times better than anything he’d ever be given at Privet Drive.

“Merlin, I haven’t been in here since I was your age,” Sirius said.

Harry watched him as he stood in the centre of the room, turning slowly around as he took it all in.

“And all my posters are still here!” he exclaimed with a laugh. “I was sure that they would have been ripped down and burnt long ago.”

“How were you allowed to put them up in the first place?” Harry asked. “Or the Gryffindor gear?”

“Permanent sticking charms,” Sirius replied. “Plus the fact that I never asked in the first place.”

Harry nodded. That made sense.

“Have a seat,” Sirius stated even as he fell heavily into the armchair, causing a gust of dust to bloom into the air.

Looking around, Harry examined his options. The bed looked even dustier than the armchair and completely uninviting. That just left two options: the floor or the hard-backed chair in front of the desk. Harry chose option ‘B’.

A slight noise outside had him freezing in place, one elbow resting on the desk. His ears strained as he attempted to identify the muffled shuffling sound. Whatever it was, it paused right outside the door. Harry held his breath. He didn’t want to see anyone. And they certainly didn’t want anything to do with him. Another noise, possibly a muttering, the words too low to understand, reached his ears.

And then, finally, thankfully, the muted shuffling started back up again, this time retreating.

“Don’t worry, Kiddo, no one’s going to interrupt us in here; not even Kreacher,” Sirius assured him.

Harry gave a jerky nod. There was a part of him that wasn’t sure if he wanted to be alone or with Sirius at all. The fact that Sirius seemed fine with the idea of the two of them sitting in silence was a definite plus.

Of course, the big problem with sitting in silence was the fact that it gave his mind a chance to cut loose and fill with thoughts and images – thoughts and images of the attack on Mister Weasley, the way Ron and the twins and Ginny had looked at him. And accompanying all of it were the emotions, the feel of his fangs sinking in, the horror at what he’d done, the repulsion of the feeling of being a snake, the disgust at what he’d become, what he was capable of, the abject rejection that he felt from people who he once thought of as some of his closest friends.

An unexpected snap jerked Harry’s head up.

Sirius was sitting forward, his fingers raised from where he’d obviously just clicked them, an eager expression on his face.

“I’ve just remembered,” Sirius explained, seeing him looking at him. “I’ve got a secret stash here. Bet it’s still good too.”

“Secret stash?” Harry asked cautiously, after all, this was Padfoot of the Marauders; a secret stash could be anything!

Sirius, though, simply ignored the question.

Harry watched curiously as Sirius leapt from the chair and scampered across the room. At the far wall, Sirius stopped and stared at the dark wood panelling and Harry had the impression that he was counting planks of wood. Finally, Sirius nodded and, after pulling his wand from his holster, placed its tip against one particular spot.

“Motorbikes are best with a babe riding hanging on tight behind you.”

Harry stared at his godfather, his mouth agape.

What in Merlin’s name was that?

The unexpected click and a section of the wood panelling sliding back and to the side answered the question.

“A password?” Harry breathed, only then realising that he was not only out of his chair but halfway across the room.

“Of course!” Sirius beamed over his shoulder. “Where do you think the Marauders got the idea for the password to the Map?”

“What’s in there?” Harry asked. “And how’s it so big?”

He peered into the cavity in the wall that was easily a foot and a half deep, wide and high. Bottles were the easiest to see, lots and lots of bottles but that wasn’t all. There were also a couple of small sacks, a box or two, a few books and a rolled up sheaf of parchment.

“Space enlargement charms,” Sirius replied, answering the second question.

“When’d you learn to do this?” Harry asked as he took the unexpected pack of six bottles that was thrust into his chest.

“I knew most of it before Hogwarts, even if I couldn’t perform it until third or fourth year. The perks of being a child of the Most Ancient and Most Noble House of Black,” Sirius said, near-spitting the last part.

Harry shook his head. “There’s so much magic that we’re just not taught. And Umbridge isn’t helping in the slightest, not to mention the other less than stellar professors we’ve had over the years.”

Something that he’d said seemed to have Sirius changing his mind, for, just as he’d raised his wand after retrieving a half dozen bottles of his own, he lowered it once more. Then, after sticking his wand between his teeth, he reached back into the hidden cavity and grabbed out one of the books, thrust it under his arm, retook his wand and tapped the panel that caused the cavity door to once again become part of the wall.

“Here you go, Pup, have a read through that sometime. It’s filled with all kinds of useful spells and charms that’ll give you a leg up in life. Just be careful with it,” Sirius continued warningly. “Any spell can be harmful if used in the right or wrong way. Most of that stuff in there helped the Marauders pull off pranks galore and in the wrong hands …”

“It could get people thinking and realise that you guys were responsible for more pranks than anyone realised?” Harry finished with a grin.

“Yeah, something like that,” Sirius replied with a grin of his own.

Placing the pack of bottles on the desk, Harry turned the book around and flicked through it. By the look of it, it’d actually been written by more than one person – Harry saw at least three different sets of handwriting. His eyes widened, though, at some of the spells: space enlargement; gradual shrinkage over a prescribed time; periscope (which he assumed allowed someone to look around a corner); Sword of Damocles (to dangle something above someone’s head for a prescribed time); the list went on.

And then he saw it, right in the middle. His eyes widened even as he sat down hard, thankfully into the chair. Animagus. Four whole pages devoted to the process of becoming an Animagus.

Tearing his gaze away from the book, Harry looked up.

“Animagus?” he breathed. “Like you and dad?”

“As I said, it’s all in there, everything that we used in school and a bit more thrown in,” Sirius nodded. “It’s up to you what you do with it.”

“Thank you, thank you so much!” Harry babbled. “I promise to look after it.”

“I know you will, Pup. Now, how about a drink?” Sirius asked, plucking one of the bottles that he’d placed on the floor beside his armchair up.

Harry watched him eye the bottle critically. A sharp, unexpected blow caused a layer of dust to billow off before Sirius shrugged and, with a sharp twist, took off its cap. Then, in one smooth motion, Sirius upended the bottle and took a big swig.

A gasp accompanied by a small jet of flames from his mouth as the bottle was lowered had Harry’s eyes bulging.

“Fire whiskey,” Sirius sighed. “Nothing quite like it.”

Harry continued to stare. He’d heard of the stuff before; never seen anyone drinking it, though. At least now he understood where it got its name from.

“Go on, drink up,” Sirius encouraged. “You must be parched after those sandwiches and it’s not like you’ve had much to eat or drink since you got here.”

Harry had to admit that he was, in fact, thirsty. But alcohol? That he wasn’t so sure of.

Obediently, though, he turned towards the bottles on his desk. His wary eye blinked at what he saw. Butterbeer. Six bottles of butterbeer. Butterbeer wasn’t alcoholic. With a sigh, he pulled one out of the pack – an easy thing to do as the package looked to have been half-ripped at one stage – twisted off the lid and took a long, long mouthful.

Butterbeer could be drunk either hot or cold, depending on the weather. These were neither, being a temperature somewhere in the middle. And it had a slightly odd taste to it as well. Lowering the bottle, Harry frowned at it. It wasn’t bad, just … strong and slightly burnt as it went down his throat. He took a second mouthful, concentrating more this time on the flavour and had to admit that he liked the added kick that it had. Apparently letting butterbeer age for ten plus years was good for it.

The two sat in silence for a time after that, taking the occasional sip from their respective bottles and Harry felt himself beginning to relax, the first time that he had in longer than he could remember.

“I know you don’t want to talk about what’s been going on the last day or so, Harry and I’m not going to make you,” Sirius said. “I know what it’s like. People thinking they’re helping you by trying to get you to talk about stuff that you’d rather never think about again in your life. Happens to me all the time and I hate it. Well-meaninged good-bodies that they are.”

“Thanks, Sirius,” Harry said before coughing.

What was wrong with his throat?

How about you tell me how that little defence club of yours is going?” Sirius suggested.

“The DA?” Harry replied. “Little is not exactly the word I’d use to describe it.”

“I thought you only had a couple of dozen people that attended?” Sirius asked.

Harry nodded even as he took another sip of his butterbeer. “We started with twenty-eight. Since then, another six have joined and I’ve heard mutterings from people wanting to bring in even more friends.”

“The more people who know, the easier it is to let the secret out,” Sirius warned.

“Don’t I know it,” Harry replied bitterly. “But how can I turn them away? Umbridge is worse than useless! And with Voldemort back, people need to learn how to defend themselves. It could save their lives!”

Leaning back, Harry took a long drink before frowning at finding that his bottle was empty. Not that it mattered, there were another five right there. Quickly he pulled another free and cracked it open.

“Preaching to the choir here, mate,” Sirius said and raised his now half-full bottle towards Harry. “You’re fighting back. I’m proud of you, Pup.”

“Thanks, Sirius,” Harry replied, ducking his head slightly; compliments weren’t common in his life and he still wasn’t sure how to take them.

“Tell me about the lessons you give. Surely there’s been some interesting things happen in them,” Sirius insisted.

Harry shook his head. “I guess, but mostly I’ve been concentrating on the basics this last term. You wouldn’t believe how shocking most people’s wandwork was! A lot had no idea how to aim or even how to cast a decent shield! Their footwork was shoddy and if they had to dodge, then they were certain to be sitting ducks. Think I’ve beaten them into shape enough to move on to bigger and more powerful spells after the break.”

Sirius was nodding even as he was sipping his firewhiskey, the occasional bouts of flame shooting from his mouth.

“I’m impressed, Harry. Sounds to me as though you’ve got a real knack for teaching. Might be something to consider one day,” Sirius said seriously before spoiling it with his next comment. “Mind you, getting to ‘help’ all of those pretty girls must be a real bonus. Wish I’d thought of it.”

Harry furiously shook his head and instantly regretted it as the world seemed to keep spinning for longer than it should.

“It’s not like that!” he protested when he felt himself once more.

“Oh, why not?” Sirius whined. “Aren’t the girls pretty enough for you?”

“The girls are plenty pretty,” Harry replied quickly.

He frowned. Where did that come from? That wasn’t something that he’d normally admit to thinking.

“Oh ho!” Sirius crowed, brandishing his now nearly-empty bottle. “Methinks that you have your eye on a girl in particular! Maybe more than one, even!”

“I didn’t say that!” Harry protested.

“Harry, Harry, Harry,” Sirius replied, shaking his head. “You can’t fool this old dog. You’re the son of Prongs and the godson of Padfoot. Face facts, you’ve got it in your bones to be good with the ladies!”

Harry blanched. “Are you saying that dad had lots of girlfriends before mum?”

“Well, no,” Sirius admitted, taking the last drink from his bottle before frowning at it. “James was always a one-woman kind of guy. He fixated on Lily in First Year and nothing would persuade him to sample any of the other girls that threw themselves at him.”

“Other girls?” Harry asked.

Part of him was horrified. He really really didn’t want to know this stuff about his father! But at the same time, he couldn’t stop himself from asking. Or even from leaning forward slightly in anticipation of the answer.

“Sure! He had dozens over the years try to get with him. And why wouldn’t they? He was James Potter! Quidditch Star, Heir to an Ancient and Noble House. He had the looks and the charm and the devil-may-care attitude that all girls love,” Sirius replied. “The number of girls who managed to trick him into an abandoned classroom or a broom cupboard was truly impressive. Especially after we all had our Maps and he knew where every broom cupboard was.”

“Broom cupboard?” Harry asked. “Isn’t that a little cliché?”

“Cliché? Of course it is!” Sirius laughed. “But it’s the done thing at Hogwarts, isn’t it? Trying to join the BC Club.”

Harry knew that he was going to regret asking but for some reason, he couldn’t stop himself.

“BC Club?”

Sirius took a long pull from his now-opened second bottle and burbed a gout of flame nearly a foot long before answering.

“Surely you’ve heard of the BC Club?”

“Never heard of it,” Harry admitted.

“Harry, you’re letting your godfather down! I’ll have you know that I’m a proud member myself. It’s extremely exclusive. Although,” he continued looking contemplative, “maybe you’re already along the way and you just don’t know it?”

Harry gave his godfather a nonplussed look. “I wouldn’t know. Not unless you tell me what it is.”

He waited, expecting an answer but Sirius seemed to be lost in his thoughts. He was sitting right back in his chair, a smile on his face while he took the occasional sip.

“Sirius?” Harry prompted.

“What?” Sirius asked, shaking himself and blinking rapidly.

“The BC Club? You were going to tell me what it is?”

“Right. Right. Sorry, Pup, got lost in some very pleasant memories there for a moment, if you know what I mean,” he replied, a cocky grin on his face, his eyebrows wiggling.

Harry chose to ignore the suggestion, instead focussing on the conversation.

“The BC Club?” he asked again.

“Right, the BC Club,” Sirius nodded. “BC simply stands for Broom Cupboard.”

“Broom Cupboard?” Harry echoed, confused. For some reason, his brain wasn’t working quite as well as usual and he had no idea why there’d be a Club devoted to the Broom Cupboards. “I’m going to need more.”

“It’s simple, really. To be a member of the Club, you have to have taken a girl – or a guy, I suppose, if you’re inclined that way – into a broom cupboard and, at the very least, make out with them.”

“That’s it? Then there must be thousands of members,” Harry remarked, thinking back on all the couples that he’d seen going into or coming out of the broom cupboards at Hogwarts.

“No no no,” Sirius said, slurring his words slightly. “It’s not just taken a girl into a broom cupboard, it’s having taken girls into all of the broom cupboards at Hogwarts!”

“All of them?” Harry asked, shaking his head, an action that he instantly regretted. “But there has to be hundreds of broom cupboards at Hogwarts!”

“Two hundred and sixteen, to be precise,” Sirius nodded.

Harry sat back, slightly stunned. Two hundred and sixteen? And you had to take a girl into every single one and make out with them. At the very least? That’s … that was … his brain shorted out at the very thought.

“And I’ll have you know that I’m a proud member!” Sirius proclaimed smugly. “As I said, it’s a very exclusive club.”

Harry was still trying to work his mind around the concept. He hadn’t even kissed a girl in one of them and Sirius had been in all of them? It’d take a lot to find them all, let alone get a girl – or a series of girls – to go in them with you. He could understand why it’d be such an exclusive club.

“Kind of like the Mile High Club,” Harry muttered, his mind attempting to latch on to anything like it that he’d ever heard of in his life.

“What’s that?” Sirius asked.

Harry looked up, confused. “What?”

“You said something about a different Club? Mile High or something?” Sirius asked.

Harry felt his face instantly start burning. He hadn’t even realised that he’d said it out loud.

“It’s … it’s a muggle thing,” he hedged.

“If it’s a Club to do with scoring with girls, then it’s your duty to tell your godfather about it,” Sirius stated, giving a solid nod in response.

Harry’s mind debated that even as he heard his mouth start to answer. And worst of all, he couldn’t stop it! What was wrong with him?

“It’s a muggle thing I’ve heard of. If someone has sex on a plane, then they’re said to have joined the Mile High Club.”

“A plane? Isn’t that one of those things that fly through the sky and can take hundreds of people all around the world at once?” Sirius asked.

“Yep,” Harry replied after taking a swig from his newly opened third bottle of butterbeer. “It flies a mile up; thus the name.”

Sirius began to shake his head before abruptly stopping and holding it with his free hand, the other still clutching his bottle of fire whisky.

“Maybe I need to look into flying on one,” he said. “I’m betting it’d be a fair bit more comfortable than a broom. Not that Amy Bones ever complained. Well, complained much. I mean, she only hexed me once. Come to think of it, that might have been because I was bragging about it a little too loudly in the Great Hall, not due to the fun we had flying over the Forbidden Forest. Scared a right few hippogriffs, let me tell you; Amy Bones can be loud when she really gets going!”

Harry didn’t know where to look or what to say. That was way, way, way too much information!

For a few minutes, there was only silence as Sirius reminisced.

“Now, where were we?” Sirius asked, his voice slurred and his eyes blinking hard as if to force them to focus. “Right. The BC Club. I’m a member. Now, where are you up to? How many girls have you taken in a broom cupboard?”

Harry closed his eyes. There was no getting out of this, no matter how much he tried to protest. Sirius was too much like a dog with a bone when he got an idea in his head. It was simpler just to answer and hope it didn’t last too long.

“None.”

Sirius stared at him and Harry shifted in his seat. He took a long pull from his butterbeer, nearly draining it in the process.

“None! What do you mean, ‘none’?” Sirius demanded.

“I mean none,” Harry sighed. “I’ve never taken a girl into a broom cupboard.”

“I guess you take after your mother there; she never let James take her in one either,” Sirius mused. “Abandoned classrooms more your thing?”

Again, Harry had no interest in answering but for some reason, his mouth betrayed him. Again.

“Room of Requirement. And it was only ever the one kiss. My first, actually.”

“Well, Room of Requirement’s a great option, if we’d known about it, I dare say that I never would have become a member of the BC Club either,” Sirius replied. “But what do you mean ‘only one’?”

“I’ve only ever had one kiss,” Harry admitted.

“Really? Who was it with? When? It’s got to be this last term, right? You didn’t know about the Room before that. Tell your old godfather everything! How was it?”

“Yeah, it was this term. Only a couple of nights ago, actually. And it was with Cho Chang,” he admitted.

“Cho Chang? Not a name I’ve heard before,” Sirius said. “Are you and she …”

Harry shook his head and instantly regretted it. He had to stop doing that!

“No. No, we’re … actually, I don’t know what we are,” he admitted. “I’ve had a crush on her for a while, I guess.”

“I see,” Sirius stated and there was something in his tone that Harry couldn’t quite place. “So, how was the kiss?”

“Wet.”

It was the same answer that he’d given when Ron and Hermione had asked him the same thing.

“Wet? Were you in a bath with her or something?” Sirius asked, clearly confused.

“No, it was because she was crying,” he explained.

“That’s … different,” Sirius said carefully. “Not one that I’ve experienced. Exactly why was she crying?”

Harry’d been wondering the same thing at the time. Even having Hermione explain it hadn’t greatly helped.

“Hermione said that she was caught up in too many emotions,” he replied. “Cho used to date Cedric.”

“Ah, Hermione. Yes, she’d know,” Sirius replied with a slight smile and again with something in his voice that Harry didn’t understand. “And this Cho used to date Cedric, I’m guessing up until he … until the end of the Tournament?”

“Yeah,” Harry replied, letting his head droop forward, his forearms flat against his thighs, both hands holding his butterbeer between them.

“Are you sure that she’s over him?” Sirius asked carefully. “If she’s not, then Pup, you really shouldn’t be dating her. Especially since you were the last … since you were there. Believe me, I’ve been in a lot of relationships, getting tangled in a triangle isn’t a lot of fun. Well, usually. And Cedric being, well … you know … would only make things a thousand times worse.”

Harry nodded, not even caring about the dull ache that doing so elicited. He’d had those same thoughts after Hermione had explained it to him but he’d thought that it didn’t matter, that they could get through it and that Cedric wouldn’t matter. But if Sirius was warning against it as well … Sirius and Hermione agreeing on dating advice? The thought made Harry shiver.

“Maybe you’re right,” he conceded. “It’s just that I’ve had a crush on her for so long.”

“I get that, Pup, but I think that you’d be happier in the long run,” Sirius said gently. “And she’s not the only unicorn in the forest. You’re my godson and Prong’s son! Surely you’ve got girls throwing themselves at you all the time!”

Harry looked up through the bangs that hung down over his eyes. “Nope.”

“I don’t believe that!” Sirius retorted. “No girls batting their eyes at you? No girls wanting to touch you or brush their hands on your hand or arm?”

“Not that I’ve seen,” Harry replied.

“What about love letters? Surely you get hundreds of those, especially on Valentine’s Day every year!” Sirius tried.

For a second Harry paused, remembering one, one that he’d tried so very hard to push from his mind.

“Ha! There is one!” Sirius crowed. “Tell your loving godfather all!”

Harry tried to remain silent but once again, his mouth betrayed him! He was seriously beginning to consider hexing himself with a silencio!

“It was back in second year. Lockhart – the ponce that he was – decided to ‘liven up’ Valentine’s Day. He’d decorated the Great Hall and made a speech and everything. And he’d hired a whole bunch of dwarfs to dress up as cupids to sing poems to students!”

“Bwahaha! I can just imagine old McGonagall’s face! Or Snape’s!” Sirius laughed. “How many’d you get?”

“Just the one and believe me, that was more than enough!” Harry replied.

“What was it? Come on, you can tell me,” Sirius cajoled.

Deciding to bite the bullet, Harry closed his eyes and recited the hated poem that had etched itself into his brain.

“His eyes are 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.”

Sirius stared at him for a fraction of a second, obviously making sure that he was done. And then he erupted in laughter. His head was thrown back and he howled even as tears began leaking from his eyes and he slapped his leg. He went on and on and on and Harry was sure that someone was going to burst into the room at any moment to find out what the fuss was all about.

“It’s not that funny!” he groused.

“Oh yes it is!” Sirius counted, still laughing. “It’s hilarious! Honestly, I thought Hermione was better with words than that!”

“Hermione?” a confused Harry asked. “What in the blue blazes does she have to do with it?”

“That poem!” Sirius replied through his laughter. “I thought that Hermione could come up with something better than that!”

“She probably could,” Harry replied indignantly, “in her sleep and without even trying. But Hermione didn’t send me that!”

“She didn’t?” Sirius asked, sobering instantly, well, all laughter stopping instantly. “Then who did?”

Harry looked away even as he answered. “Ginny.”

“Ginny? Little Ginny Weasley? The one sleeping two levels down from us right now?”

“That’s the one,” Harry replied flatly.

Sirius stopped and stared at Harry, absently taking a sip of his fire whiskey.

“When did you say this was?” he asked.

“In second year,” a confused Harry replied.

“Second year. When there was all that business with the Chamber?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Harry replied.

“Let me hear it again,” Sirius demanded.

“Nah uh. Nope. Not going to happen,” Harry replied quickly.

“Harry, it’s important,” Sirius replied sounding serious.

Harry stared at him, taking his own sip of butterbeer in an attempt to stall. Not that it seemed to work as Sirius simply stared back. Finally, he sighed, relenting.

“His eyes are 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.”

Once again, Sirius started laughing, but this time there was something different about it, not that Harry cared.

“Really? If you’re just going to sit there and laugh at me, then I’m going to go back to Buckbeak!”

“Sit down, Pup and let me explain. I’m not laughing at you. Well, maybe I am, a bit at least,” Sirius replied.

Harry stood there, swaying slightly. His balance felt off. Maybe sitting back down would be a good idea.

“Thank you,” Sirius nodded once Harry had sat. “Now, let me tell you why I’m laughing. You say that Ginny wrote that poem? I say, bollocks!”

“What?” a very confused Harry asked. “I know she sent that!”

“Oh, I have no doubt that Ginny sent that to you but I don’t believe that she wrote it,” Sirius stated. “Dark Lord. You heard it, that phrase, ‘Dark Lord’. It’s not a usual one. Only Death Eaters and Voldemort himself ever used that title, not anyone from the Light side and definitely not an eleven-year-old girl.”

“I don’t understand,” Harry replied.

“If I understand right, young Ginny was under the influence of a diary that year, wasn’t she?” Sirius asked.

“Tom Riddle’s diary,” Harry nodded.

“Tom Riddle, also known as Voldemort. If I’m right, I think that young Ginny told her diary about the ‘cupids’ and wanting to send a Valentine’s Day poem to you and her diary helped her come up with the poem.”

Harry stared at his godfather. Was he saying what he thought he was saying? Harry felt the bile rise in his throat and it took every ounce of strength he had to stop himself from throwing up. Lord Voldemort had sent him a Valentine’s Day poem? That was definitely not something to ever tell anyone. Under any circumstances.

He raised his bottle of butterbeer to his mouth before pausing, pulling it back and looking at it. No. He didn’t think he could stomach anything right at that moment.

Casting his mind about, he searched for something, anything that would stop him thinking about that poem and its author.

“Hermione!” he blurted.

“What?” a startled Sirius asked.

“You thought that I’d been sent a Valentine by Hermione. What made you think that?” he asked.

Sirius stared at him even as he took another drink. “Because it’s Hermione and you.”

Harry blinked and frowned, replaying the slightly slurred words back in his head. Yes, they were exactly what he thought they were.

“Hermione and me? What do you mean by that?”

Sirius gestured vaguely towards him with his whiskey bottle.

“It’s you two. It’s how you are together. But especially Hermione with you. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Even from the very first time I saw you two together. And I’m not the only one,” Sirius replied.

Harry shook his head – he had to stop doing that! – at the little sense that his godfather was making.

“You’re not making any sense. She’s my best friend. Exactly how are we when we’re together?”

Once again Sirius stopped and stared at him.

“You’ve got no idea, do you?” Sirius asked incredulously before continuing and seemingly answering his own question. “No, how could you? You grew up with the Dursleys; no love in that household I’m betting. And your first kiss was only a couple of days ago; no girls fawning over you – and I bet I know why, now that I think about it!”

“What are you going on about?” Harry snapped.

“Hermione. She’s why no other girls are trying anything with you! If I can see it and I’ve only seen you two together a few times, then people who live with you nine months of the year would be seeing it every single day.”

“If you don’t start making sense then next time you’re Padfoot, I’m going to shave you bald and dye your skin pink and force you to go for a walk to the park like that!” Harry threatened.

“You wouldn’t!” Sirius replied, horrified.

“Try me!”

“Just remember those threats for if and when you have your own Animagus form,” Sirius stated, gesturing pointedly at book sitting on the desk beside Harry’s elbow.

Harry glared back. He hadn’t decided if he’d even attempt to become an Animagus yet. He’d wait until he’d had a chance to read through what it took first. Not to mention discussing it with Hermione. Hermione. Right. They were talking about Hermione. Him and Hermione. His brain really wasn’t working well and he had absolutely no idea why.

“Now, about Hermione and me?” Harry prompted.

“It’s how you are together,” Sirius replied vaguely. Harry shifting in his seat, his mouth opening seemed to spur Sirius on to a more fuller answer. “You two work so well together. You both have your strengths and know how to rely on them to overcome your weaknesses. Look at that night you saved me at the end of third year. It took the two of you together, Hermione’s smarts and knowledge and your power and instincts to save not only me and Buckbeak but also to get rid of all of those dementors!”

“Well, yeah, we’re best friends, we’ve always worked well together and believe me, there’s been a lot of weird stuff that we keep seeming to run into,” Harry countered.

“Well, then, look at your fourth year,” Sirius continued. “Your name came out of the Goblet and who believed you instantly?”

“Hermione,” Harry replied. “She was the only one.”

“Right. And if I’m remembering right from your letters, then it was just the two of you against pretty much the entire school for most of that year. She helped you train and work out the clues and stood by you every step of the way.”

“True,” Harry said, his mind running through all the trials and tribulations of that year.

“You know you lost me a chunk of gold that year,” Sirius continued.

“I did? How?” Harry asked, confused.

“I bet Moony that you’d ask Hermione to the Yule Ball. He claimed you were too clueless to see what was right in front of you. Bastard took me for twenty-five galleons!”

“Sorry?” Harry said, not sure if he was supposed to apologise or not.

Sirius simply waved it away. “And then, this year, when you first arrived here from the Dursleys, you definitely seemed to forgive Hermione a lot quicker than Ron for not writing to you.”

“I guess I did,” Harry allowed.

“And that was a very good thing, Harry. You should have seen the state that she was in. Not being able to write to you was killing her. She was worrying about you something shocking what with you being stuck at that place. Every other sentence out of her mouth for days was asking when you’d be coming or if she could write you or even if we could send you some food. I’m pretty sure Molly slipped her a calming potion on more than one night with her meal just so that she’d sleep.”

Harry stared, his jaw slack. Hermione had really been like that? Worrying about him that much?

“I had no idea,” he breathed.

His mind was in a whirl and he barely noticed Sirius sitting back in his chair, his eyes narrowed, a slight smile on his face as he sipped at his fire whiskey.

Hermione worrying about him wasn’t a really new concept.

To be honest, she’d been doing it since first year when they’d thought that Snape was after the Philosopher’s Stone and he’d had to go on alone. Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful! For the very first time, he wondered about what it was that Hermione had not said that day.

And then in second year, her worry about him had really begun ramping up, especially with how the whole school had been treating him when they thought that he was the Heir of Slytherin. Mind you, his own worry for her had been out of control when she’d been petrified by that ruddy overgrown snake. He’d spent every waking moment that he could by her side, even most nights hidden under his invisibility cloak. He’d imagined that she’d know that he was there, reading to her, talking to her, keeping her company. She hadn’t. No one knew that he’d even tried giving her a kiss, just like in the fairy tale to wake the Sleeping Beauty. Not that it had worked. Still …

Third year had been weird. He’d known that there was something that she’d been keeping from both him and Ron. He’d watched her get more and more tired and even more irritable and snappish and he’d worried then too.

And last year, well, there was no doubt in his mind that he’d be dead if it wasn’t for her.

As for this year, the image of Hermione sitting up, a bowl of murtlap essence waiting for him to soak his hand in after one of those horrid detentions sprang to mind and he couldn’t help but smile. She was always there for him, no matter what it cost her. Just think of third year with the Firebolt. He’d been a real idiot that year. She’d just been worrying about him, trying to look out for him and she’d been right, but how did he treat her? Harry shook his head, he really needed to apologise to her about that again.

And when she needed him, he was there for her, too. This year was a prime example. He had absolutely no interest in teaching others Defence. He’d be so much happier if it’d just been him and her and maybe a small handful of others. But, for her, he’d gone to that meeting at the Hog’s Head and he’d agreed to teach them all.

He glanced up at his godfather and blinked. Sirius had slumped in his chair, his mouth slightly open, a line of drool dangling from one corner, the bottle of fire whiskey in danger of falling from lax fingers. And, now that he concentrated, Harry could hear the sound of snoring coming from his godfather. He was asleep?

Harry didn’t think that he’d been lost in his thoughts that long! Obviously he’d lost track of time somewhere. Lifting his arm, he peered at his watch.  The numbers swam before his eyes. He reached up with his other hand, only for a bottle to bump his hand. He frowned at it. How’d that get there? Carefully, he swung his hand over to put the near-empty bottle on the desk.

“Shhh!” he told it when it clunked down hard. “Siriususus is sleepinging.”

Harry frowned. That hadn’t sounded right. Not that it mattered. The bottle was quiet now and Sirius was still asleep. Now that he thought about it, Harry didn’t think that was an overly bad idea, sleep. Briefly, he considered getting up and brushing his teeth, there was a weird, fuzziness about his mouth and he knew that Hermione would appreciate him doing that.

But, try as he might, he couldn’t seem to push himself upright. Instead, he let himself flop back in the chair. He’d just rest his eyes for a bit, he decided, and brush his teeth later. Yes, he was sure that Hermione would be happy with that.

And with that last thought, he gave a slight smile and closed his eyes. He was asleep before another minute had passed.

---

December 20, 1995, Grimmauld Place

.

A far away pounding had Harry frowning in his sleep and bringing him partway back to consciousness. When the pounding ceased, he sighed and his mind began to drift back down into unconsciousness again.

Thumpthumpthump! Thumpthumpthump! Thumpthumpthump!

“Harry! Harry! Are you in there?”

Harry startled and jerked in the chair, wincing as he did so. His eyes opened briefly before he winced and slammed them shut.

Thumpthumpthump! Thumpthumpthump! Thumpthumpthump!

“Harry! I hope you’re dressed because I’m coming in!”

The voice was familiar and he frowned, trying to place it. It was usually such a kind voice and he couldn’t work out why it was being so angry and insistent, especially when his head hurt and his brain felt fuzzy.

The door slamming back caused his eyes to open once more and he groaned at the light.

There was a figure there with a distinct bushiness about their head.

“There you are, Harry!”

“Hermione?” he asked with a groan.

“Did you sleep in that chair?” she asked. “Don’t complain to me if your back is sore!”

Once again Harry groaned, this time accompanying it by bringing both hands up to hold his head.

“Why are you yelling?” he asked around a tongue that felt ten times larger than it usually was.

“I’m not yelling. Not yet,” she replied.

Really, if this wasn’t yelling then Harry had no interest in finding out what was! Every word was like a dagger to his head, pounding into it and causing excruciating pain. He groaned, it was all that he could do and he hoped that she understood that it meant for her to Stop Yelling!

“Harry? Are you drunk?” she asked, still in that loud, painful voice.

“Of course not, Hermione,” he managed, peering at her between eyelids that were all but closed.

She was the epitome of Hermioneness when she was annoyed and that was enough to make him groan again. Her hands were on her hips and she had a very disappointed expression on her face. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that she was tapping her foot as well.

“You are! You’re drunk as a skunk!” she accused.

“No I’m not,” Harry counted. “Can’t be. All I’ve had is butterbeer and you know that that’s not alcoholic.”

“This wouldn’t be any of Sirius’ special butterbeer would it?” a voice asked.

Harry frowned. Moony? It sounded like him. Not that Harry could see him. And he had no intention of moving his head to search for the elusive ex-professor.

“It’s just butterbeer,” Harry answered anyway. “From his secret hole-in-the-wall.”

“Oi!” Sirius yelled, even that one word sounding slurred. “No telling your godfather’s secretses!”

“Sorry,” Harry said, wincing slightly.

Why everyone was yelling he had no idea.

“You drank Sirius’ butterbeer?” Moony asked sounding incredulous. “Please tell me you only had the one.”

“There’s four empty bottles here,” Hermione stated.

Four? Harry was certain that he’d only had three. He shrugged, guessing that he’d miscounted somewhere. But still. It was only butterbeer. What was the big deal?

“Padfoot, were these your ‘special’ brew?” Moony asked.

“What? And before you repeat that, I’ll thank you to keep your voice down, thankyouverymuch,” Sirius stated, slurring his words at the end.

A sudden continuous stream of snapping fingers was heard and Harry leant to one side to peer past Hermione at his godfather. It seemed that Remus has clicking his fingers in Sirius’ face to get his attention.

“Padfoot! Was Harry drinking your special brew butterbeers?” Moony asked.

For a minute, Sirius looked confused. “I don’t know, Moony. I hadn’t seen them for year,, since we were still at Hogwarts and before I left here to go live with Prongs.”

“Merlin,” Remus breathed. “They’ve been sitting there that long?”

Harry saw him draw his wand and he cringed back but it seemed that there was no reason to. Moony simply pointed it towards the still open door and gave it a flick before reholstering it.

“Professor Lupin? What’s wrong with the butterbeer that Harry’s been drinking?” Hermione asked.

Moony looked disappointedly at Sirius who seemed to have fallen back asleep again before answering.

“I’m not your Professor anymore, Miss Granger, I believe I’ve mentioned that before,” Remus began. “As to your question, when we were kids, Padfoot never drank butterbeer the way it was originally intended. He always added a chaser to it. Usually vodka or rum, sometimes whisky. Whatever it was didn’t matter, the main point is that that butterbeer wasn’t non-alcoholic, not any longer. And it’s been sitting there for the better part of two decades, aging and getting more potent.”

“And Harry drank four bottles of it!” Hermione exclaimed, making Harry shrink away from her voice. “Oh, Harry!”

“Don’t be too hard on him, he wouldn’t have had any idea what he was drinking. As for Sirius, he should have known better. Which is why …” here he paused to catch the small bottle that flew through the door right at that moment, “… I only summoned one of these. Here, Harry, drink up.”

Harry eyed the tiny bottle cautiously; he didn’t think he could stomach anything right at that moment. “What is it?”

“Hangover potion,” Moony told him. “Drink it up and get some decent food into you and you’ll be as right as rain.”

Hangover potion? He really was drunk, just like Hermione accused him of being? He groaned. She must be so disappointed with him; it certainly explained her annoyed look.

Taking the bottle, he eyed it, noticed that stopper had been pulled, and upended it in one go. It was vile, horrid, tasting of something between dirty socks and overripe chokos. Or was that just his tongue? Either way, it made him shudder with revulsion.

The great thing about magical potions, though, was the way they were extremely fast acting. Within seconds, his headache lessoned to nearly nothing and he was able to open his eyes fully. Even his stomach felt more settled. And his tongue had reduced to a blessedly normal size in his mouth.

“Oh Harry,” Hermione said again. “How are you feeling now?”

“Better,” he nodded, noticing that for the first time in hours, it didn’t hurt to do that. “Sorry, Hermione.”

“It’s not your fault, Harry. It’s Sirius’,” she told him shooting the offending culprit a look that had Harry shivering in fright for his godfather.

“And believe me, he will be regretting it as soon as he wakes up again,” Moony promised.

“What were you doing up here, anyway,” Hermione asked.

“We were just talking,” Harry replied.

Still feeling ashamed with himself for getting drunk, even if it wasn’t his fault, he refused to meet her eyes, instead looking at the offending bottles. As his eyes slid past the four empties and two that were still full, they landed on the book that was still there. A slight grin formed and he grabbed it up, nursing it in his lap.

“What’s that? I don’t recognise it,” Hermione asked and Harry could read the underlying message: that’s a book that I don’t know, let me read it.

“Just something that Sirius gave me. I promise to share it with you; I’d just like to have a look at it first, okay?” he replied.

“Okay, Harry,” she replied and he knew that he was expected to not take overly long with it. “Now, about this hiding yourself away business …”

As Hermione’s rant began, Harry couldn’t help looking deeper, beyond the words that she was saying. She’d been worried about him again. It was just like what Sirius had been saying and what he’d begun to realise earlier, even if all those thoughts were a little fuzzy right then: Hermione worried about him constantly. Why, he still needed to figure out, but it was there, always. But that was for later, when the cottonwool was completely out of his head and he was alone and able to think. Right then, all that mattered was making sure that she understood that he was alright.

“You’re right, Hermione,” he said, stopping her mid-rant, something that he’d never been able to do before.

“I am?” she asked, sounding suspicious. “What about?”

“About all of it,” he replied. “I’ve been over-reacting and acting like a prat. I was at Hogwarts. I was never at the Ministry and I’ve never been a snake so it couldn’t have been me that attacked Mister Weasley. And it shouldn’t matter what the others think, as long as I know the truth. And with you here, supporting me and reminding me, then that’s all that matters, right?”

“Exactly right, Harry!” she beamed. “I’m so proud of you. I knew you’d get there in the end, you just needed a nudge. Now, if only Ron and the others weren’t so thick, they’d understand as well. But they’re frightened, they nearly lost their father.”

Something about that kicked Harry’s brain into gear. Father. Parents.

“Hermione,” he said, interrupting her for the second time, “what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be with your parents. Skiing, wasn’t it? And it’s almost Christmas. You should be with your family at Christmas.”

He watched her carefully and noticed the slightly embarrassed look on her face that had appeared for only a split second.

“Yes. Well. To be perfectly honest, I’m not that keen on skiing and aren’t all that good at it. Besides, as soon as I’d heard what’d happened, I knew that you’d need me and so I apologised to my parents and raced straight here.”

“But Christmas …,” Harry tried again.

“Harry, I’m exactly where I want to be for Christmas,” she told him gently.

He nodded, filing that away. There was something there, something that related to the rest of the thoughts that he’d had. He just had to find the time to think about them properly and connect the dots.

“Now, come on, let’s go downstairs and get you something to eat. Prof … Remus said that that potion works best with some proper food in your stomach and that’s what you’re going to have,” she insisted.

Obediently, Harry stood, his new book tucked up under his arm. Sirius, he saw, was still slouched in his chair, snoring happily away. Harry paused as he saw his godfather’s new addition: a sign in flashing neon colours that hovered above his head, an arrow leading from it pointing straight down: ‘I’m a bad dog’.

Somehow, Harry knew that that was Moony’s work and that there was no way for Padfoot to remove it. Harry winced at the thought of Sirius waking up to that; without the hangover potion, those bright flashing colours that lit up the room were going to hurt.

Hermione, he saw, was waiting patiently on the landing for him; as soon as he’d joined her, she reached in and slammed the door shut, almost certainly waking Sirius in the process. There was no way Harry wanted to be in Sirius’ shoes, he didn’t think he’d enjoy Hermione’s rant at him for getting Harry drunk. Assuming Moony left anything of him in the first place.

---

December 25, 1995, Saint Mungos Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries

.

Harry trudged behind Ron and Hermione as they took the stairs up towards the Tea Room of the Magical Hospital. Unsurprisingly, Hermione kept glancing back, a slight frown on her face. It was an expression that Harry was getting very used to.

Over the past few days, he’d noticed that Hermione was staying close to him, watching him carefully. Any room that he ventured into at Grimmauld Place, be it kitchen, bedroom, sitting room or library, inevitably ensured that she followed. Often, she’d sit nearby with a book and ‘read’, even if there were sometimes long pauses between the time one page was turned and the next.

It made sense to Harry, her watching him like that, even if it did annoy him at times.

Hermione worried about him constantly. He’d figured that out the night he’d unintentionally gotten drunk. Ever since first year, she was there, looking after him and watching over him and worrying about him. Which he needed. Just look at all the times that he’d ended up in the Hospital Wing at Hogwarts due to injury and near-death experiences!

It meant that she cared. That was a thought that had startled him when he’d pieced it together. Hermione cared about him. No one had ever cared about him before. Certainly not the Dursleys and he was coming to believe that Dumbledore didn’t either, not with the way that he was completely ignoring him this year. Oh, Sirius cared but he’d been in Azkaban most of Harry’s life and, even if he was the closest thing to family that Harry had left, he didn’t really know him.

Him, Hermione knew. She knew him as Harry. Not The-Boy-Who-Lived or the Tri-Wizard Champion or the Potter Heir. Just Harry. And still she worried about him and cared!

But the way that she was currently hovering was unusual for her and entirely of his own making. Ever since that night when Sirius’ drunk ramblings had kickstarted his brain into looking at the way Hermione acted towards and around him, he’d been quiet, withdrawn. And that difference worried Hermione. It was so very plain to see.

It was simply a case that Harry knew his own brain hadn’t been working properly that night, not as filled with alcohol as he had been. At first, he’d thought that everything that he’d thought was simply a product of the tainted butterbeer. But the more he thought about it, the more sense that it made. It niggled at him, filled his mind and swirled around and around until it was all that he could think about.

All he wanted was to sort out what these thoughts meant. And if that meant that he was quieter than normal, more withdrawn, then so be it. Unfortunately, the side-effect of that was that Hermione worried even more about him.

Somehow, she’d refrained from corning him about how he was acting and asking him about it. But it’d come. He knew that. Eventually. That was one thing about Hermione, she could be patient. When she wanted to be. In the meantime, she’d simply hover and watch!

“Cor! That’s enough to give a guy heart failure!” Ron exclaimed.

Blinking his focus back to the here and now, Harry looked up to find that Ron was standing on a landing staring at the door in front of him. What made that door so interesting was the tiny window inset in it. And, more particularly, the face in it staring back at Ron.

“Is that … Professor Lockhart?” Hermione asked.

Harry grimaced. Lockhart. It was far too soon to be thinking about that ponce again – it’d only been a couple of nights. The man was a complete charlatan. He’d fooled the entire magical population of Britain into thinking that he was some great wizard at Defence, akin to Merlin-himself if one believed any of the dozen or more books about his exploits that he’d written.

Of course, the truth was as far from the fiction that Lockhart had crafted around himself as the difference that there was in danger between a flobberworm and a dragon. Actually, thinking about it, Harry wasn’t sure if Lockhart could even beat a flobberworm in a fair fight!

The fact that Lockhart wasn’t just partly responsible for that horrid Valentine’s day fiasco (and Harry was determined to never think of the true author of that atrocious poem ever again) but that he’d also tried to completely obliviate both Ron and him of all of their memories while also leaving Ginny to die in the Chamber of Secrets.

“Let’s just walk past,” Harry suggested, a notion that he was happy to see that Ron eagerly nodded at.

Unfortunately, the appearance of a medi-witch unexpectedly opening the door and beaming at them derailed that plan.

“Are you friends of Gilderoy’s?” she asked. “He got so excited to see you through the window there.”

“Well, not friends, exactly,” Hermione replied, “although we do know him.”

Internally, Harry groaned. She’d just given the witch enough leverage to get them in there with Lockhart. Harry knew his luck; he could see exactly what was about to happen.

“Wonderful!” the medi-witch beamed. “Come in, come in!”

True to form, Hermione entered first; she never was one to disobey a direction (although she was slowly starting to break that habit). And there was no way that Harry was going to let her go in there by herself, despite his own misgivings.

“But the tearoom …” Ron protested, looking further up the stairwell, as Harry drew level with him.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Harry replied.

The sound of footsteps behind him told Harry that Ron was following.

Lockhart was prattling away at both Hermione and the medi-witch and for some reason was brandishing a crayon. Exactly why, Harry had no idea; nor did he have any intention of getting close enough to find out.

Instead, he shuffled off to the side. Seeing Ron step past him and inadvertently get drawn into the conversation had Harry smirking. Better Ron than him. Still, to ensure that that didn’t happen to him, Harry kept moving away.

Looking around, he found that he was in some kind of ward.

There were beds all along one side, all separated by curtains that Harry suspected were heavily spelled to ensure that the patients had privacy. But what made it different than any other Hospital that he’d ever seen (mostly through the tiny gap on his cupboard that let him see the television or his frequent stays with Madam Pomfrey at Hogwarts) was that there were decorations surrounding the beds – drawings, cards, knickknacks, a potted plant, knitted rugs and pillows, even a small bookcase filled with books. That wasn’t normal for patients were stayed only a day or two, maybe a week at most. No, that was for patients that were going to be there for longer, a lot longer.

Harry was confused. He’d been under the tender mercies of Madam Pomfrey more times than he could count and every time that he was there, it took her very little time to heal him. Even regrowing all the bones in his arm – a deep glower at the man who’d caused such a need was sent Lockhart’s way – only took a night. What in Merlin’s name would mean that these people were so sick that magic couldn’t heal them?

What confused Harry even more was seeing someone he recognised coming out of one the areas containing one of those long-term beds: Neville Longbottom.

Instinctively, he took a step forward before freezing in place. A second person, this one tall, straight backed and wearing a distinctive hat with a vulture on it emerged from the same location. Instantly, the image of Snape, dressed in such a hat and wearing a dress appeared in his mind. For the first time ever when he thought about that particular lesson in third year, Harry didn’t laugh. The reason for that was because he knew who the real owner of that hat was: Neville’s grandmother. And from the little that Neville had said about her, laughing didn’t seem the type of thing that she condoned.

Harry could tell the instant that Neville spotted him for his fellow dormmate faltered in his steps before his back straightened and he kept walking. Inwardly, Harry smiled; Neville was a true Gryffindor. A lot of things scared him but Neville never let them deter him from facing them.

“Hi Harry,” Neville said quietly.

“Hey, Neville. Merry Christmas,” Harry replied, his mind searching for something to say.

“Neville, aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?” Neville’s Gran demanded.

Neville glanced up at her before gesturing towards Harry.

“Gran, this is Harry Potter, my dormmate at Hogwarts. Harry, this is my Gran, the Lady Dowager Longbottom,” Neville said.

“Ma’am, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Harry said, taking the offered hand and, after a moment’s hesitation where he wondered what he was supposed to do, bending slightly to give the back of it a light kiss.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Mister Potter. Neville speaks very highly of you,” she replied.

Harry gave Neville a surprised look. Neville talked about him?

“Oh, hello, Neville, are you here visiting someone?” Hermione said, joining them and coming to stand beside Harry.

“Hi, Hermione. My parents,” he mumbled.

“Neville, that is no way to talk about your parents. You should be proud. They are true heroes,” the Lady Longbottom admonished.

“Sorry Gran,” Neville replied. He cleared his throat and repeated his statement in a stronger voice. “My parents. They live here, you see. Have since I was a baby.”

“Neville’s parents were tortured into insanity by Bellatrix Lestrange and a band of Death Eaters a few days after you, Mister Potter, defeated their Master,” the Lady Longbottom stated.

Her pointed look at Neville and quirked eyebrow at Hermione and now Ron who had also joined them seemed to prompt Neville into action.

“Gran, this is Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. They’re also fellow Gryffindors,” he introduced.

“Ah, the esteemed Miss Granger. Your prowess in the world of academia goes before you. You have my thanks for the help you have given Neville over the years,” the Lady Longbottom said.

Harry shot Hermione a beaming smile. It wasn’t often that how smart she was was shown in such a good light by someone who wasn’t a teacher. She deserved the recognition. Merlin knew that his own marks would be much poorer without her guidance and checking over his own work.

“It’s nothing, Ma’am,” Hermione stuttered.

“That goes for you as well, Mister Potter,” the Lady Longbottom continued. “Neville has told me about your little Club and I think you are doing your fellow students a wonderful service. Rest assured that no one in authority shall hear about it from me.”

Unsurprisingly, Harry found that Hermione’s words were perfect.

“It’s nothing, Ma’am,” he said.

“Nonsense, the pair of you. Be proud of your achievements,” she asserted.

“Gran, would it be alright if I spent a little time with Harry, Hermione and Ron before we go home?” Neville asked.

“Of course, Neville,” she replied. “Perhaps a light refreshment in the Team Room? I will come collect you in half an hour.”

“Thanks, Gran!” Neville beamed.

Then, after getting one of the medi-witches to let them out of the secure ward, the four of them left and Harry found himself walking next to Neville as they ascended the staircase.

“How’s your Christmas been, Neville?” Harry asked.

“Not too bad, Harry. Got a whole bunch of new plants for my greenhouse,” Neville beamed. “How about yours?”

“Not bad, got a whole set of books from my godfather and Professor Lupin that’ll come in really handy for the DA and a homework planner from Hermione that I might actually use. OWLs, you know?” he replied.

“What about from Cho?” Neville asked with the most mischievous smile that Harry’d ever seen him wear.

Harry stopped dead in his tracks, both his body and mind freezing at the question.

Cho? Cho!

The girl that he’d kissed only a week ago and he hadn’t given her a single thought regarding Christmas. He hadn’t given her anything and, come to that, she hadn’t sent him anything either. What did that mean? Surely someone who he’d had a crush on for so long and who he’d kissed was worth a Christmas present. Wasn’t she?

And yet … he hadn’t given her a single thought.

He’d spent ages on Hermione’s present, considering so many options before deciding on the right one – not that he was still sure that ‘New Theory of Numerology’ was the best choice but she seemed to like it and he was sure that she’d even read it at least twice now. Maybe. It was hard to tell with how much she was keeping an eye on him due to his changed behaviour.

What did that mean? Cho he didn’t think about; Hermione he did. Were all of those thoughts – drunk or not – by firstly Sirius and them himself right?

It definitely bore much thinking about. And, since that was what he was doing anyway, he simply shrugged and forced his mind back to the conversation with Neville.

---

January 11, 1996, Grimmauld Place

.

Walking into the kitchen was like walking into a thick wall of treacle.

Instantly, Harry froze.

The tension he could feel coming off of the only two people in the room could be cut with a knife.

 His eyes switched back and forth between the two – Sirius sitting upright in his chair, his arms folded tight across a chest that was rising and falling rapidly, and Snape who appeared to be relaxing at the other end of the table, even if Harry could see that his eyes were narrowed and fixed on Sirius.

He’d been summoned to the kitchen by a delighted-looking Kreacher. And now he understood why the house elf was so happy – anything that upset Sirius was good news for Kreacher. And Sirius and Snape arguing would certainly qualify. Especially if the outcome was something that upset Sirius.

“What’s going on?” Harry asked cautiously.

“Potter,” Snape drawled, “it is the height of bad manners to make those better than you wait. Especially when they have more important things to do.”

“Snivellous, I’m warning you!” Sirius growled, his hands unfolding and ending up flat on the table as if ready to push him to his feet.

Snape, for his part, didn’t even deign to look Sirius’ way, let alone react to the name that Harry knew that he loathed.

“It seems that I have been reduced to that of an errand-boy tonight,” Snape stated instead. “A letter from the Headmaster for you.”

Harry’s eyes narrowed not only at the mention of Dumbledore but also at the envelope laying in the middle of the kitchen table that Snape had carelessly waved his hand at. With how angry Sirius was – and this was a great deal more than his normal attitude towards Snape – Harry knew that he wasn’t going to like what was written in the letter.

“Sirius?” he asked.

Snape opened his mouth but at Sirius’ glare sat back and looked uninterested, even though Harry knew that he was, in fact, taking a very keen interest in everything.

“Dumbledore’s concerned about the vision you had just before Christmas,” Sirius began.

“When I saw Mister Weasley getting attacked,” Harry gulped.

The man still wasn’t home from the hospital yet, a fact that caused Harry much guilt, despite the fact that Hermione had convinced him that he really had nothing to be guilty about.

“Yeah,” Sirius said.

Unexpectedly, Sirius stood, his chair shooting backwards and rocking so much that it was in danger of falling over.

“And, Pup, he’s right to be concerned,” Sirius continued. “That vision was straight from Voldemort’s snake – and I know that that scares you just as much as it scares me!”

“It wasn’t something that I could control!” Harry exclaimed.

“Actually Potter, you could. If you were trained,” Snape stated.

Again, Sirius shot Snape a glare that promised death if he so much as thought about interrupting again.

“Trained?” Harry asked, looking straight at his godfather.

Sirius nodded. “There’s an obscure branch of magic called occlumency. It’s used to keep other people out of your head.”

Harry stared at him. “Other people can get into your mind and see what’s there?”

That certainly did not sit as a comfortable thought, especially with all the hundreds of thoughts about one particular topic, person, that Harry’d been having of late. The thought that anyone could see those thoughts almost made him vomit.

“It’s called legilimency,” Sirius nodded. “And it’s even more uncommon. The point is that Dumbledore believes – rightly, in this instance – that you’d benefit from learning this branch of magic.”

Harry couldn’t argue the point. It definitely sounded an extremely useful skill to acquire.

A slight shifting from the direction of Snape had Harry’s eyes darting in the potion master’s direction. And then his eyes narrowed as he put two and two together and came up with an answer that he definitely did not like.

“Who would I be learning … was it occlumency? from?” he asked suspiciously.

“That would be me,” Snape stated.

“Over my dead body!” Sirius growled, slamming his fists onto the table as he leant over it.

“I have no problem with that condition,” Snape said lightly.

Instantly, Harry moved, racing forward to catch Sirius before his godfather could do something that he’d later regret.

“The Headmaster is correct, Potter,” Snape said, seemingly ignoring the imminent danger that he was currently in. “You need to learn this skill. And in his wisdom, he has determined that I will be the one to teach you.”

“You know as well as I do that learning occlumency requires a deep trust between the teacher and student. Something that does not exist between you and Harry!” Sirius stated emphatically.

Snape simply waved a hand, as though to dismiss the thought as being of little to no importance.

“Potter, you will be learning occlumency from me,” Snape stated. “You will come to my classroom every Thursday evening at seven. If anyone asks, you will say that you have ‘Remedial Potions’. It’s certainly believable, especially considering your abysmal potion-making skills.”

“Sirius?” Harry asked, staring imploringly at his godfather.

Harry still wasn’t entirely sure what occlumency was but if it meant that Snape would be getting inside his head, then he was positive that he didn’t want any part of it. Especially considering …

At that moment, the kitchen door burst open and a swarm of red heads tumbled into the room before freezing in place at the sight of the tableau before them. Harry half-turned to glare at them for interrupting what he suspected was an extremely important moment.

The sight of Mister Weasley standing amongst the rest of his family eased Harry’s heart somewhat; Saint Mungo’s wouldn’t have let him out if he was still in any danger. But it was the single brunette standing with them that softened his expression while also highlighting why he did not want Snape anywhere near his head.

“Sirius?” Harry repeated.

“You need to learn the skill,” Sirius replied. “But believe me, Harry, I’ll find a better teacher for you.”

“You have your instructions, Potter,” Snape stated.

And with that, he was up out of his chair and striding for the door, making the Red Sea of Weasleys part before him.

“Harry?” Hermione asked but for once Harry didn’t reply immediately, instead only holding up a finger to assure her that he’d heard and would answer later.

“You promise?” Harry asked intently, staring at his godfather.

“You have my word,” Sirius replied solemnly.

---

January 13, 1996, Hogwarts

.

Harry stood in front of the dungeon door for longer than he knew was sensible. For one, anyone could see him down here. For another, Snape would not be in a good mood at all if Harry was late, not that he was ever in a good mood.

Finally, Harry summoned up the courage that he seemed to be famous for and knocked.

“Come.”

Cautiously, Harry opened the door, stepped inside and closed the door behind him.

The potions classroom looked the same as it always did any other time that Harry’d been there for detention: the desks were bare and the stools were pushed in; all the spare cauldrons and ingredients were absent, obviously in their respective cupboards.

The only difference was Snape himself. Ordinarily, the professor was sitting at his desk, a quill in hand, the tip of it blood red, as he marked homework. This time he was standing in front of his desk, a large, familiar, shallow bowl sitting upon it. But it was what Snape was doing with his wand that had Harry stopping dead and staring.

As Harry watched, Snape placed the tip of his wand to his own temple before it glowed silver. Then, as he pulled it away, a long strand of silver light stretched from Snape’s wand to his temple before, with a snap that Harry knew that he only imagined, the strand came free. The wand was then manoeuvred over the bowl before the silver strand was dropped in.

“You were almost late,” Snape accused. “Next time, do not dawdle in front of my classroom.”

Harry ignored the admonishment but did file away the information that Snape monitored the corridor.

“Professor, what are you doing?” he asked.

“This is a penseive,” Snape replied. “I understand that you are familiar with it.”

Harry nodded and Snape continued.

“I am placing certain memories of mine in it for safekeeping. The mind arts are very precise; you, however, are not. I don’t want you accidentally seeing some of my private memories.”

Harry narrowed his eyes at him. He didn’t want Harry to see his memories! But it was okay for it to be the other way around? At least, that is if he understood what was to happen here correctly. That simply did not see fair. Not that Harry’s life had ever been fair.

“Place your bag over there,” Snape instructed, “and then stand in the centre of the room.”

Quickly, Harry complied.

“Did your godfather tell you what to expect here?” Snape asked.

Harry frowned and responded as Sirius had instructed. “Only the basics. That you’d most likely be trying to get inside my mind using legilimency as a way to help me understand what it felt like and to teach me how to stop other people from doing it.”

“A simple but accurate definition,” Snape allowed. “Were you informed what you have to do here?”

In fact, Harry had been. Sirius had managed to give him one single lesson. It was all that they’d been able to manage considering when the concept of these lessons had been dropped on them. The fact that that discussion and lesson had been in the dead of night when both of them were dead tired had meant that very little progress had been made. Still, Harry knew the basics and Sirius had promised to find a book about the subject, even if that meant he had to order it in from overseas – something about the Ministry of Magic banning such knowledge nearly a century ago and driving the practices into becoming mostly family secrets.

Sirius, though, had decided that it would work to Harry’s advantage if he went into this lesson with Snape thinking he knew next to nothing.

“Not really,” Harry replied.

“Damn Mutt,” Snape muttered but not quite quiet enough for Harry not to hear. “It is simple, Potter. Even you can do it. You will empty your mind and then I will cast legilimens on you. With your mind blank, you will stop me seeing any memories that I search for and you will then push me from your mind.”

Harry blinked at him. It was pretty much what Sirius had explained, however with a hell of a lot less information.

Clear your mind’. How in the name of Merlin’s saggy pants was he supposed to do that if he hadn’t already had some clue? Admittedly, he hadn’t found a way yet to achieve it but at least he understood the concept. Worse still, with Snape standing there, pointing a wand at him, there was absolutely no way that Harry’d have any chance of success.

“Ready?” Snape asked, his wand somehow appearing in his hand.

Instantly, Harry flicked his wrist and caught his holly wand as it emerged from the wrist holster that Sirius had found in the bottom of an old trunk in the basement early in the morning of when he returned to Hogwarts.

“Lower your wand, Potter,” Snape drawled.

Harry stared at his professor for a moment longer before complying. His wand, though, wasn’t replaced in its holster, instead remaining in his hand against his thigh.

Legilimens!” Snape intoned.

Harry was caught off-guard. The spell hit him and he was rocked slightly backwards. Not that he noticed.

No, Harry was too caught up inside his own mind to notice anything going on out in the real world.

Memory after memory flashed past his mind, almost too quick for him to grasp.

Hagrid knocking in the door of the hut-on-the-rock.

Hermione grabbing him in a fierce hug, flames to either side of him.

Dudley swinging a cricket bat at Harry’s head, making him duck and race away.

A frozen Hermione laying on the bed in the hospital wing, her form slightly obscured by the invisibility cloak that Harry was wearing.

A forty-tonne flaming dragon advancing on him, a nest of eggs glimpsed between her legs.

Harry peering down from the branches of a tree at Ripper, Aunt Marge’s bulldog who was leaping up at him before circling around and around.

Neville’s determined face that very morning at seeing that the Death Eaters that had tortured his parents had escaped Azkaban.

Hermione walking down the stairs in her periwinkle dress ready for the Yule Ball.

The memory flicking past so quickly when he usually liked to dwell on that image for a while reminded Harry that he wasn’t the one in charge of seeing these memories.

No.

Snape.

Snape was inside his mind.

Snape was inside his mind!

Harry felt dirty, violated and disgusted. These were his memories. They weren’t for some greasy old bat to watch as he pleased. Anger filled him. A white hot, incandescent rage built and he noticed that the images slowed. Again there was an image of Hermione, this one of her at Christmas at Grimmauld Place.

No more!

He’d had enough of Snape rummaging around inside his brain.

And then he was gone and Harry sagged, nearly dropping in his exhaustion. Only by catching the edge of a desk did he remain on his feet.

Snape, it seemed, wasn’t so lucky. Somehow, he’d been sent flying up and over his desk. The penseive, Harry noted was wobbling – which was quite a feat considering how large it was and how flat its bottom was.

Instinctively, Harry brought his wand up the second that he saw the rage-filled face that Snape presented as it rose from behind the desk.

“What was that?” Snape snapped.

“What was what?” Harry asked cautiously.

“The spell you used,” Snape replied, his eyes narrowed to slits. “You were not instructed to use your wand; you could have seriously injured me.”

Harry very carefully didn’t voice his thoughts on that particular prospect.

“The aim of the lesson was for you to use your mind – as tiny and as infantile as it is – to stop me looking at your memories,” Snape snapped, smoothing his robes as he walked back around his desk.

“I don’t know how to do that. You didn’t tell me how,” Harry said, barely managing to keep his emotions in check.

His head was hurting almost as much as the morning that he’d woken up drunk and he was determined not to show Snape that he’d gotten to him.

“Then practice!” Snape snapped. “Every night before sleep, you are to practice clearing your mind. And next week, you’ll leave your wand in your bag. Practice, Potter. I’ll know if you don’t. That will do for tonight.”

Harry didn’t wait for anything further. Grabbing up his bag, he bolted from the room, very carefully not slamming it behind him. But that was more because of how much his head was pounding, not because of any respect for Snape.

He’d known that these lessons would be trouble. And it certainly highlighted one thing: just how much thoughts of Hermione were currently dominating his mind.

---

January 19, 1996, Hogwarts

.

Try as he might, Harry simply couldn’t get comfortable. It wasn’t as if the mattress was any different than it had been for the years that it’d been his. It wasn’t even as if the pillow was flatter or fatter. He wasn’t too hot or even too cold. But still, he couldn’t settle, he couldn’t find that sweet spot. Every limb was twitchy with too much excess energy.

Oh, he knew what the problem was. It was obvious. He simply didn’t know what to do about it.

Tomorrow night he was due to have his second lesson with Snape. And even just the idea of Snape crawling around inside his head, seeing his memories, was enough to have his skin crawl. Harry knew that he had far too many memories that he wanted no one else to ever hear about, let alone see or experience.

Most of his childhood at the Dursleys certainly fit in that category. His years living in the cupboard under the stairs; all those nights and days he’d gone hungry without food; Harry Hunting – a favourite pastime of Dudley’s and his gang; not to mention all of those chores that he’d had to do. Really, it wasn’t until he was at Hogwarts and had listened in on conversations between Neville, Ron, Dean and Seamus that he’d understood that that hadn’t been normal. Oh, sure, Dudders had never had to lift a fat finger to do anything but that was his right and privilege as Uncle Vernon’s son, whereas Harry was only grudgingly granted living space there. Wasn’t it? He’d thought so for so many years. In error as it turned out.

No, he had no intention of letting anyone know about his life there. Not even Hermione. Although, with her, he was sure that she knew more than he realised. It was so very easy to let his guard down with her. And she had this ability to slide in an innocent question or anecdote of her own that had him revealing something that he hadn’t meant to.

Hermione.

There was the other reason he didn’t want Snape rummaging around in his head.

His occlumency lesson the week before proved how much Harry thought about her. Not to mention all of the hundreds of times that they’d been together over the last four and a half years. And not just for the big stuff, either. They’d spent hours in classes together and in the library working on homework and assignments. There’d been countless nights spent in front of the fire in the Gryffindor common room. The two of them and Ron were always laughing and enjoying being together, although Ron didn’t seem to like the way that he and Hermione could just sit quietly without even saying anything and still enjoy their time together.

When Harry thought about it, his friendships with both Ron and Hermione were very different.

Ron was always wanting to do something, to make some excitement. If it wasn’t quidditch related, then it was food related, or playing chess or exploding snap or some other game.

Hermione, though, Hermione loved the quiet. She loved nothing more than reading or learning, doing something to better herself. Merlin, even the way that she taught herself to knit just so that she could help free the house elves (a disaster in the making, even if her heart was in the right place) had the dual purpose of bettering herself and teaching herself a new skill. And really, that’s all she wanted for Harry as well, for him to be the best version of himself that he could be.

She cared about him. That was what it all boiled down to. From the instant that he’d jumped on the back of a troll for her, they’d been friends and she’d been by his side. She always looked over his homework, correcting any mistakes (unlike Ron who wanted Hermione to actually write the thing for him) and he’d taken pleasure in the numerous words of encouragement and praise that she’d given.

Even when it came to the things that he was interested in and she wasn’t, that didn’t stop her from being there. Harry was very aware that she had zero interest in sport of any kind and yet, she’d never missed a quidditch match that he’d played in and rarely even a training run. She braved the weather and her own comfort zone, just for him.

If that wasn’t someone who cared, then Harry didn’t know what was.

Cared. Was that really the right word?

Oh, another came to mind, but Harry instantly dismissed it, it being something that he’d never imagined anyone ever feeling for him.

Yes, cared. He could deal with that. He understood it.

How could he not? There were very few people that Harry cared for – Sirius, Ron and the rest of the Weasleys, Dobby, Hagrid – but the top of that list was definitely Hermione. She understood him better than anyone and he liked to think that he understood her too.

They had so much in common. They were both muggleborns. They understood the non-magical world so much better than this new world that they’d both been thrust into. They were both headstrong but understood the value of listening to the other person’s opinion – something that Harry knew that he still had trouble with, the dreaded Firebolt incident proved that. And they both loved a mystery, even if their approaches were somewhat different – him to jump headfirst into it regardless of danger; her to take a slower, more logical, more researched approach.

Harry was under no delusions, without Hermione he would be a much worse wizard and person. She taught him so much. She understood the best way to explain things to him. But at the same time, he liked to think that he’d helped Hermione become a better version of herself as well. She wasn’t the same stickler for the rules as she was when they’d first met, and she no longer bounced around in her chair eager to answer every question which helped her with everyone else.

Harry sighed and rolled over.

Hermione. His thoughts for the past month had been on her constantly. Sirius’ drunken words had really taken hold on him and he’d been forced to look at his best friend in a different light than he ever had.

Best friend.

He paused, rolling the phrase around in his mind, testing it. Yes. Best friend. It fit.

Once upon a time, Harry would have claimed without even thinking about it that Ron was his best friend; after all, Ron was his first friend. Well, first friend his age; there was still Hagrid to consider there.

But Ron really hadn’t proven to be a very good friend, especially the previous year when he hadn’t believed that Harry had had nothing to do with putting his name into the Goblet. Oh, Ron’d ‘apologised’, but Harry wasn’t stupid, he knew that it wasn’t a real apology – the word ‘sorry’ wasn’t even used! But Harry’d given him a pass just to have another person back talking to him again.

And then there was that Firebolt incident in third year. Yes, Hermione had gone to Professor McGonagall about the mysterious gift and rightly so, but Harry had to wonder if he’d really have stayed mad at Hermione for so long without Ron’s influence and complaining in his ear at every moment about the missing broom.

Hermione, though, Hermione had stayed true through it all. She’d never wavered, never left him. Yes, they argued and squabbled at times but they always made up and it never lasted long. She was always there for him and he liked to think that (apart from that miserable, Ron-influenced month in third year), he’d always been there for her too.

But after everything that he’d been thinking and remembering and realising, it was easy to see that Hermione was truly his best friend. He honestly didn’t know why it’d taken so long for him to realise it!

Rolling back over, Harry swung one leg out of bed before realising what he was doing. It was the middle of the night, for Merlin’s sake!

He let himself flop back down and put his hands behind his head.

Yes, Hermione was his best friend but he didn’t need to go tell her that that very minute! Come to think of it, it probably wasn’t something that he needed to say anyway. Was it? Harry wasn’t completely sure about that, maybe he should tell her! It was something to consider.

Reaching out, he grabbed his watch off of the bedside table and held it so that the sliver of moonlight shining in through the window and his curtains could show the time. The watch face was battered and cracked but it was his and what it was telling him right then was that it was now past midnight and he’d spent another night with his mind on one thing. Or more precisely, on one person.

And not on what he was supposed to be thinking of. Which was nothing.

How did one think of nothing anyway? He wasn’t sure. All he knew was that Snape wasn’t going to be happy. And neither was he if Snape saw any more of his memories. Especially any that contained Hermione.

He just hoped that Sirius hurried up with that book that he’d promised; he needed to learn how to protect his mind!

---

January 22, 1996, Hogwarts

.

Finding a time to talk to Cho was almost as difficult and as mind-rackingly terrifying as every other time that he’d attempted to talk to her before. And that included going all the way back to Fourth Year. It didn’t help that he’d been putting this off either. But really, it needed to happen.

Cho was an infatuation. Yes, that was the best word for it, at least that he could come up with. Maybe Hermione could think of a better word but there was no way that he was going to discuss this with her.

He’d been infatuated with Cho. She was the ‘older woman’. Yes, she was beautiful and exotic and completely out of his reach. And when she’d finally taken some sort of notice of him, it’d been absolutely amazing. But it wasn’t real. The countless hours of soul-searching that he’d done had assured him of that.

Yes, they had quidditch in common, both being Seekers. But beyond that? Nothing that he could think of. And that would be a problem. He could barely talk to her and she didn’t seem to be any different. They’d only ever been alone together twice, once on the train on the way to Hogwarts back in September when all she’d wanted to talk about was Cedric and then just before Christmas when they’d shared that kiss.

No, Harry knew now that he wanted, needed someone who he could talk to, someone he felt comfortable with and someone who treated him as Harry, not The-Boy-Who-Lived or the Tri-Wizard Champion, just Harry.

Finally, he saw her coming. Or, more precisely, he saw Cho, Marietta and three other girls walking down the corridor from their Charms lesson.

“Damn,” he groused.

Was it impossible to get her alone? No. This needed to happen. It was already way overdue.

“Gryffindors forward, Potter,” he ordered himself.

Then, squaring his shoulders, he took a deep breath and stepped out of the doorway of the abandoned classroom that he’d been lurking in.

He knew the instant that they saw him for every single girl around Cho instantly leant towards her and began whispering and giggling.

“Hi, Harry,” she said, her head dipping slightly, a smile on her face.

“Hi, Cho,” he said and instantly cleared his throat to get it working properly. “Can we … do you have a moment?”

Again, there was that infernal twittering laughter from her friends, giggling that he was determined to ignore.

“Sure, Harry,” she replied. “I’ll catch up with you girls later.”

Stepping to the side, Harry held the door open to let her pass. Finally, after nodding to the other girls, he took a deep breath and stepped into the room, closing the door behind him.

The second that he turned around, he saw her move towards him, a coy smile on her face. Instantly, Harry stepped back and to the side.

“Harry?” she asked, clearly confused.

“Cho,” he began, “I like you a lot, really, I do but I’ve been doing some thinking over the Christmas holidays and I don’t think …”

That was as far as he got.

“You’re dumping me!” she all-but screeched.

“What?” Harry asked. He’d practiced in his head what he wanted to say but nothing had prepared him for that.

“You’re honestly going to stand there and dump me? Me? You are dumping me? Who the hell do you think you are?” she growled advancing on him.

Harry quickly moved backwards but not fast enough to not get a finger poked into his chest.

“Cho, please,” he began although what he was going to say after that, he had no idea.

“Oh, and now you’re begging! Well, let me tell you, Mister, you are not dumping me! No! I am dumping you!” she yelled.

Harry’s eyes widened. He had no idea what was happening anymore. His mouth was moving but no sound was coming out.

“You think you can toy with my emotions. And kiss me and use me? Well, let me tell you, you’ve got another thing coming!” she continued.

And then, before he could react, she slapped him. Hard. Harry felt his face rocket to the side, the pain of it sending that whole side of his face instantly numb. He brought his hand up to rub it.

She’d hit him!

Anger infused him, rising from his toes to his chest and to his head. He swung his head around to begin yelling back. And stopped dead with his mouth open.

He’d been just in time to see her robes swish as she stormed out of the room, the door slamming shut behind her.

“Well, that went well,” he deadpanned sarcastically.

---

January 22, 1996, Hogwarts

.

“Harry? What happened to your face?” a very concerned-looking Hermione asked.

Harry’s fingers lightly touched the side of his face even as he took his place at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall beside Hermione. There was a slight heat to the feel of his cheek and he was sure that it was still exceptionally red. And obviously noticeable.

“Yeah, mate, did you get slapped or something?” Ron asked.

“The fact that there is a distinct handprint …” Fred said from where he sat beside his younger brother across from Harry and Hermione.

“On the side of his face  …” George continued.

“Would definitely give one that impression,” Fred finished.

“Harry?” Hermione asked, not only turning in her seat but also reaching up to turn his face so that she could see his cheek better.

“Yeah, I got slapped,” he confirmed. “Honestly, I thought that you lot would already have heard about it, especially considering how fast the Hogwart’s rumour mill travels.”

“Cho?” Hermione guessed. “I’m guessing you broke up with her?”

“You broke up with Cho?” Ron blurted. “But you’ve liked her for ages!”

Harry shrugged. “I tried to; didn’t quite work out that way. I think. Although we’re not together anymore. Not that I’m completely sure that we ever were. And, yes, Ron, I have, but it wasn’t anything real. It was just an infatuation. We didn’t actually have anything in common.”

The surprised look on Hermione’s face was replaced for an instant for something that looked like smugness before it disappeared. Harry frowned. Hermione was never smug, so that couldn’t have been it. Before he could think on it any longer, Ron’s outburst interrupted his train of thought.

“But she’s hot! And a quidditch player, just like you!”

“There’s more to the affairs of the heart than just looks,” George stated, slapping his younger brother across the back of his head, making Ron jerk forward.

“Although they do help,” Fred nodded sagely.

“Indeed, brother,” George replied, “a fact that we have distinctly lucked out on.”

“You’ve got that right,” Fred grinned before both sent longing glances down the table at Angelina and Alicia.

“Harry?” Hermione said, drawing his attention back to her, “what happened?”

Harry sighed before slumping slightly in his seat. “I did try to break up with her but somehow she turned it all around, yelled a bunch of stuff at me, broke up with me and then slapped me before storming from the room.”

“Yes, well, I suspect that that was the only way that she could cope with the breakup. Not that there really was much to breakup in the first place. You only had that one kiss, right?” she asked.

Harry nodded. “Yeah.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I’m proud of you, Harry. As painful as it was, it would have been much worse if you’d let things prolong and become even more awkward and strained before breaking up with her,” Hermione said solemnly.

Before any more could be said, the most hated sound in the entirety of the history of Hogwarts was heard coming from roughly two feet behind them.

Hem hem.”

Harry’s stomach dropped and he briefly closed his eyes. He was not in the mood for this. Still, he did the right thing and turned in his chair.

“Professor Umbridge,” he said carefully.

“Mister Potter. It has come to my attention that you have been acting in an extremely unbecoming and disrespectful way towards a female student, including attempting very inappropriate things on her!” she stated, her high girly voice a stark contrast with both her hard eyes and the slight smile on her lips.

“I’ve never …!” Harry blurted, incensed with the very accusation.

“We shall discuss it in my office tonight. Seven o’clock sharp!” she ordered.

Harry glared at the squat toad-like professor. It was taking everything in him not to retaliate. Either at her or at Cho or whoever it was that had put the idiotic notion in Umbridge’s head.

Umbridge simply gave a satisfied nod and waddled away.

With a groan, Harry turned back in his seat. He’d been doing so well – not a single detention since he’d returned from the Christmas break. And now this!

“That is so unfair and completely untrue!” Hermione stated, glowering at Umbridge’s back. “You’d never do anything like that!”

Seeing his best friend still staring after the Professor, Harry reached out and turned her around.

“Let it go, Hermione, you don’t want to anger her and end up in detention as well,” he said, sliding his right hand under the table and clenching his fist, an action that he knew would make those hated words that he’d carved into his skin stand out for all to see if it wasn’t hidden. “It’s okay. I’ll deal with it. I won’t let her get to me.”

“We could prank Cho for you if you like?” Fred asked, leaning forward across the table.

“This isn’t right,” George added. “We’ve got some new products ready and we do need to test them out.”

Harry shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, guys, but I think it’d be best if we just let it go.”

“Harry’s right,” Hermione said, and he felt the tension in his back ease slightly as she began to run her hand up and down it. “It’d only make things worse.”

“Fair enough,” George nodded.

“But the offer’s always open if you change your mind,” Fred finished.

---

February 2, 1996, Hogwarts

.

The crowd that evening, Harry noted with relief, was lighter by two. Both Cho and Marietta had elected not to come. Of course, that wasn’t completely unexpected, Luna had quite happily informed him that both of them had decided to drop the DA.

When finally the last of the members had arrived, Harry nodded to Fred to close the doors and to seal them.

The room this time was slightly different. Most of the floor was empty and expanded enough to allow everyone to have enough room to swing a broom if need be without hitting anyone else. The other two new additions were a small stage at one end and a big table near the door filled with two large cauldrons filled with Honeyduke’s very best chocolate.

“If everyone is ready, we’ll get started,” Harry called, having taken to the stage.

He waited until the shuffling stopped and every eye was on him before proceeding. Surprisingly, he was getting used to not only being in charge but also teaching. Some more of drunk Sirius’ advice being right – that he’d make a good teacher? Maybe the old dog needed to get wasted more often? Something to think about later.

“Tonight we have something special planned for you, something that I know that you’ve all been waiting for and pestering me about,” Harry stated.

Instantly a susurration swept the gathered thirty-two students in front of him with one word being prevalent: patronus!

“Yep, you guessed it,” Harry smiled, shooting a look at Hermione at the side of the stage. “Tonight, we’re going to start learning how to cast a patronus.”

As predicted, the excitement level rose as everyone’s face beamed with eagerness or turned to their neighbour to talk about it.

“Okay, settle down,” Harry said, holding his hands up. “Before we begin, let’s start with the basics. What is a patronus and what is it used for? Anyone?

From the corner of his eye, Harry saw Hermione’s hand flinch and he knew that she wanted to thrust it into the air to answer. Thankfully, here at least, she’d learnt to let the others have a chance.

“Angelina?” Harry acknowledged.

“A patronus is a positive force of magical energy that can protect you from dementors or lethifolds,” she said. “It usually comes in two forms – a silver misty shield or the more fully formed corporeal guardian.”

“Exactly right,” Harry nodded. “Everyone’s corporeal patronus will be different as it’s a reflection of you. There’s no right or wrong patronus or form; all it shows is an aspect that makes you you. Now, I don’t expect any of you to even get a shield mist tonight, let alone a corporeal patronus. This is extremely advanced magic! Be sure you remember that. It will drain you and make you tired. If you do start to feel that way, then I want you to stop and rest and have a block of chocolate. Believe me, it’ll help.”

Harry paused and looked around the room to ensure that everyone understood. When he’d received a nod from everyone, he continued.

“As you all know, there are three parts to any spell and the patronus charm is no different. The incantation is simply ‘expecto patronum’. As to the wand movement, a simple point is all you need. Now, the third part, drawing your magic to power the spell. This is where it becomes a little different and, while I can give you some ideas and pointers, it comes down to you. I know. It took me ages to figure this out for myself before I could do it.”

He paused, making sure that everyone was paying attention. They were.

“What truly powers your patronus is not just your magic but the emotions that go along with it. You need to truly feel it. Happiness. Love. Joy. Contentedness. Every positive emotion that you can think of will fuel your patronus. And what powers that feeling is a memory. You need to find a memory within yourself, some time when you felt truly and deeply loved and happy or joyful and content. There can’t be any negative emotions in there.

“I can almost guarantee that the first memory you think of won’t be good enough. You need to delve deep within yourself, search yourself and your memories for something that can truly sustain you. Don’t worry if you spend most of tonight just meditating or searching your memories.

“However, when you think you’re ready, give it a go. Expecto Patronum. Try it. If nothing happens, try again or look for a different memory. I’ll come around and help you all as I can.”

“Harry?” Katie asked, her hand raised. When he nodded to her, she continued. “Can you show us yours first, please?”

He’d been expecting that question and so, smiled. Drawing his wand, he focussed his mind as he always did on the feeling of his parents. Oh, it wasn’t a true memory, but it worked.

Expecto patronum!

 A brilliant silver light burst forth from the tip of his wand and swirled about itself before condensing into the familiar form of a deer. Prongs raced around the room, his great antlered head swivelling this way and that as he searched for danger. Finding none, Prongs trotted back to stand at Harry’s side.

Then, after thanking Prongs silently, he let the patronus fade away.

“You must have a very powerful memory, Harry,” Luna remarked.

“I think I do,” Harry replied with a smile. “And no, I’m not going to tell you what it is, just as I don’t expect you to tell anyone else what the memory you are using is.”

“Can we see what happens if you use a different memory?” Hermione asked. “It’d help us see the difference of using the wrong memory.”

Harry considered the idea for a moment. It actually made a lot of sense.

“Okay,” he said, turning back to the rest of the room. “As Hermione as asked, I’m going to cast again, this time using a different memory. Let’s see if there’s any difference.”

Of course, that meant that Harry had to decide upon a memory right then and there. Automatically, he glanced at Hermione, hoping for inspiration. As always, she was there, watching, waiting for him to succeed, to do the impossible, just as she’d always been, all the way back to first year. He still remembered her galumphing on him right before he’d walked through the fire to confront Quirrellmort. That had been the first hug that he could ever remember receiving. And it wasn’t the last. Hermione’s hugs were always amazing.

Unconsciously, he felt his wand raising. It seemed that he’d decided what feeling and memory to use.

Expecto patronum!

This time when Prongs burst forth, Harry had to quickly avert his eyes. The patronus was simply that bright! When he was able to look back, he found that Prongs was already part way through his patrol of the room. What was even more astonishing was the fact that Prongs was even larger than normal! At least by half a dozen inches, possibly more. And, if possible, he looked even more real than he’d ever looked before!

“Woah!”

“Now that’s impressive!”

“He’s so beautiful!”

“And powerful!”

Harry agreed with everything that he was hearing. His gaze stayed fixed on Prongs. This was … this was unbelievable! This new memory, thought, feeling produced that? And then it hit him. Hermione! Thoughts of Hermione hugging him fuelled his patronus unlike anything he’d ever imagined or felt before!

Exactly what that meant he needed to work out.

Later. Right now, he had a class to teach.

Thanking Prongs, he let the patronus fade away.

“Well. I think that answers that question. Different memories and feelings produce different results,” Harry said shakily. “Now it’s your turn. Spread out and find your own space and remember what I said and what you saw.”

“Harry?” Hermione asked, quickly coming up to him as he descended the stage and giving him a hug, a hug that only added to what he’d already been thinking about. “What was that? I’ve never seen Prongs so powerful! Not even when you chased off over a hundred dementors. Obviously you used a different memory and I’m assuming that it was incredibly powerful to have that result. What was it?”

Harry looked at her and shook his head. There was no way that he was telling her that he used the thoughts of her hugging him.

“At the moment, it’s personal, Hermione. Off you go, let’s see how you go connecting with your feeling and memories,” he encouraged.

Thankfully, she did just that. Harry breathed a sigh of relief. He had a lot to think about.

---

February 5, 1996, Hogwarts

.

The first owl of the morning always had heads popping up up and down every table in the Great Hall, including the Head Table for the professors, not unlike a great gaggle of meerkats. In this, Harry was no different. As soon as he noticed the first face turn upwards – in this case, Lavender’s – he, too, looked up.

It was an ingrained response, despite the fact that the number of times that he’d received a letter or package over his Hogwarts years was extremely small. The fact that he was also waiting on a package that seemed destined to never arrive didn’t help.

That morning, though, there was a difference. One particular screech owl caught his attention as it soared through the magical barrier specifically designed for post owls before tipping its wings to bring it directly towards not only the Gryffindor table but more specifically, on a heading that would bring it straight to Harry himself.

His picking up a milk jug while pushing aside a big bowl of porridge at the same time piqued the interest of those around him.

“Harry?” Hermione asked, clearly confused – he never had porridge and rarely ever a glass of milk.

“Just clearing some space for the owl,” he explained, glancing at her.

“Are you expecting a letter?” Ron asked. “From you know who?”

Neville dropping his spoon and nearly fainting had Harry laughing even as he kept his eye on the incoming owl.

“Really, Ron, you could choose your words a little more carefully. You nearly gave poor Neville a heart attack!” Hermione admonished.

The screech owl landing just then took Harry’s attention. He waited for the bird to neatly fold up its wings, eye him up and down and finally extend a leg before he moved. A great grin broke out on his face at the sight of a match-box sized package tied there. Quickly, he untied it and palmed the package before thanking the owl and sending it on its way.

“It’s just something from my godfather,” Harry stated, “who is definitely not His Royal Noselessness.”

“Not You-Know-Who?” Neville asked faintly. “Then why did Ron …”

“Because Ron doesn’t think before he speaks,” Hermione replied, giving a pointed glare a Ron.

Ron, for his part, simply shrugged and stuffed a forkful of eggs into his mouth.

“Is it that book that you’ve been waiting for?” Hermione asked.

Harry looked at the small package in his hand before glancing up and down the table. No one else was paying any attention to them and neither was anyone at the Head Table. Dumbledore was leaning to the side talking to Professor McGonagall and Umbridge was daintily sipping at some tea, her eyes currently on the Slytherin table. Snape was most conspicuous by his absence.

Flicking his wrist produced his wand.

Finite,” he said, tapping the small package sitting on the palm of his hand.

Instantly, it grew from the size of a matchbox to one that was sightly larger than the hated Slinkhard book about ‘defence’. Keeping it below the table, Harry quickly tore off the brown paper that it was wrapped in.

Mind Your Own Business: A guide to the Magical Art of Occlumency

Harry broke out into broad grin. Sirius had come through! Finally, he’d be able to learn how to keep Snape out of his head.

A nudge against his shoulder had him glancing at Hermione. Tipping the book so that she could see had her moving closer on the bench until their entire sides – all the way from shoulder to thigh – were pressed tightly together. Her hand reached out towards the cover before pausing. Her eye met his and her brow quirked; he grinned and gave the slightest of nods. Instantly, her hand dived down, grasped the cover and opened the book to the contents page.

“You know, it really annoys me when you two do that,” Ron mumbled around a piece of half-chewed toast.

Harry looked up at him, blinking. “What?”

“The way you two do that,” Ron repeated, this time adding in a wave of the remainder of the toast to emphasise his point. “Hold an entire conversation without even talking.”

“We do?” Harry asked.

“You do,” Neville confirmed almost sounding embarrassed to be admitting it. “You’ve been doing it since first year.”

Harry glanced at Hermione. The fact that she looked up at him told him that she was taking in the conversation as well as reading the book in their laps. He raised an eyebrow to her and her head tilted slightly to one side in response. His lips quirked and she laughed.

“See! You’re doing it again!” Ron exclaimed.

Harry couldn’t hold it in any longer; he burst out laughing. That just there had been the two of them playing with Ron. At least he thought so, although he did instantly understand that Hermione knew that he was doing that and agreed to play along.

“We don’t hold entire conversations without talking,” Harry laughed.

The fact that neither Ron nor Neville laughed along with him but instead simply sighed and shook their heads told him that they didn’t believe him.

Harry stared at his two mates. Had they been seeing something that he hadn’t even realised all this time?

“Harry?” Hermione asked, capturing his attention once more. “Can I please borrow this? It looks extremely interesting, at least judging by the chapter titles.”

He’d barely opened his mouth to reply when she cut him off.

“Yes, I know,” she said. “I meant after you’re done with it. Besides, I’m still going through that other book you leant me.”

He nodded, glad that she understood how important it was for him to learn everything he could that was in that book, even if she didn’t know why it was so important to him to keep Snape and everyone else out of his head.

As for the other book, the one that the Marauders had written, he was itching to get it back. The section on Animagi, for example, was one that he wanted a second look at it. And there were dozens of useful spells in it that he wanted to learn. Some of them he thought might be useful to teach to the DA – the more benign ones anyway. Some, like the One-Way Mirror spell that turned a piece of wall into one that could be seen through from only one side was definitely not one that he wanted to teach anyone; just imagine what someone like Seamus would do with something like that!

“Any guesses when you’ll be done with that one?” he asked.

She looked thoughtful for a moment, even as she closed the cover of the book that was still spread across their laps.

“A week at most?” she replied. “It’ll depend on how long it takes me to do that essay on Entrancing Enchantments that Professor Flitwick assigned.”

Harry nodded. He, himself, had already made a start on it and it wasn’t easy. Honestly, he wasn’t sure whether that was because of the charm itself or because of how similar they were to love potions and his own misgivings about the subject matter. Girls, women, anyone really, in his opinion ought to be respected and enchanting or potioning someone to feel something that wasn’t real was just plain wrong! Just the thought of someone doing something like that to him or worse, Hermione, was enough to get his blood boiling. Maybe he should add in a paragraph about the moral legalities of the charm into his essay? It was something to think about.

“No worries, Hermione, take your time,” he said.

“What’s that book anyway?” Ron asked.

“Nothing,” Harry replied quickly, sharing a look with Hermione, before spouting the first thing that came to mind. “Just something for defence. All about magical creatures. Diricawls and fwoopers and jack rabbits, that sort of thing.”

The small nod that she gave him assured him that she understood and wouldn’t say anything to anyone. Harry sighed in relief. Sirius had had to order this book in from overseas; just owning it was illegal. Quickly, he stuffed the book in the bottom of his bag.

The fact that Ron seemed to instantly lose interest assured him that he wouldn’t be asked about it again.

Now he just needed to find the time to start learning from it. Snape’s next occlumency lesson was fast approaching and Harry was determined to not let the greasy bat see any more of his memories if he could help it.

---

February 13, 1996, Hogwarts

.

Valentine’s Day. The entire school was buzzing with excitement about it. The fact that it was only a day away plus the fact that it was combined with a Hogsmeade weekend had only heightened everything.

For days, everywhere that Harry looked, it was to see couples forming or nervous boys or girls asking someone to spend that special day with them. There was an air of expectation and excitement permeating the very halls.

And it was catching.

Even Harry, who’d never celebrated Halloween, could feel it and was getting swept along.

Halloween had never been something for him. He’d never felt that he was worthy of a girl wanting to spend time with him. He may be The-Boy-Who-Lived and once a TriWizard Champion, but he was also the boy from the cupboard under the stairs, the Dursley’s house elf and Dudley’s punching bag. He’d never been allowed friends and even now, when he was finally making friends like Hermione, Ron, Neville, Katie and the others on the quidditch team and even Luna and some of the DA, his confidence wasn’t that high.

It certainly didn’t help that he had just one Valentine of his own to look back on and it had been a complete disaster. Really, a dwarf tackling you, sitting on your chest and spouting bad poetry at you was bound to turn you off from celebrating that day ever again.

Except that he wasn’t quite feeling the same way anymore. He wanted a better Valentine’s Day experience to remember. He wanted that feeling of being with someone special, someone who he cared about, someone who he could love and who loved him.

Love. There was that word that he still refused to believe related to him. Or could ever be associated with him.

Care, though, that was a word that he had grown infinitely comfortable with. Yes, he cared about people, one in particular and, after a month and a half of analysing nearly five years of memories and closely watching how that person interacted with him, he was certain that she cared about him too. Probably just as much as he cared for her.

Hermione. He’d bared stopped thinking about her since that night he’d gotten drunk.

And wasn’t that something that he found incredibly ironic? Alcohol was supposed to impair one’s thinking; for him, it seemed to have made him think better, clearer, deeper.

Movement up ahead had Harry shifting his bag to his opposite shoulder while sliding as close to the wall as possible. Doing so helped clear the path for the love-sick pair of ‘Puffs that strolled past, their arms interlocked, fingers interwoven, and their heads bent together. Nothing in the world mattered to them right at that moment except each other.

It was both beautiful and sickening to see.

And, in a way, Harry longed for it. Not that he could ever imagine being like that but being someone’s sole focus like that was extremely appealing.

After turning back from watching the pair, he looked down the corridor and saw a sight that instantly made his heart lighter and a grin break out on his face.

At the very end of the corridor, seated on the window seat, her hair framed by the golden light of the morning sun, was Hermione. Her legs were tucked up under her and a book was open on her lap. As he watched, a stray lock of hair fell forward and she absently reached up and pushed it back behind her ear.

Hermione. His best friend. The one that he was the most comfortable with. The person that he cared about the most in the entire world. She was the one person that he wanted to spend time with. Not that he’d talked to her as much as normal of late, not with all of the thinking that he’d been doing. Oh, he had no doubt that she knew that he’d been preoccupied with something, but she hadn’t asked or pestered him about it.

He grinned to himself. Hermione was patient. Normally. But when it came to him or learning something, particularly if it was something that he was keeping from her, then she wanted to know. Not this time, though. This time, it seemed she was waiting until he was ready to tell her.

Could he tell her though?

All of those thoughts and questions and memories that had occupied his mind for all of these weeks. Could he tell Hermione about them?

It was an interesting question and one that he wasn’t sure of the answer to. On the other hand, though, the question of whether she deserved to know why he’d been holding himself that little bit more distant, that was an easy question to answer.

The answer to the second, of course, influenced the first and Harry sighed momentarily before straightening his back. Maybe it was time.

He took a single step towards her but faltered as a gaggle of Gryff firsties came around the corner.

No. Not here. There were people everywhere; far too many to hold a private conversation in. And it definitely wasn’t something that could be done in a few minutes. Not and explain properly. He knew her; she was bound to have hundreds, thousands of questions that would take time to answer.

Casting his mind around, he sought out a better option. His first thought was, naturally, the Room of Requirement. His second thought was influenced by the sight of another couple passing, a snippet of their conversation about getting some time alone when they could talk and be away from everyone the next day in Hogsmeade catching his ear.

Why not? It was as good an idea as any. And even if it was Valentine’s Day, well, maybe that was all to the better. Didn’t he deserve to have a better Valentine’s memory than that poem? And spending the day with Hermione, the person he cared about the most in the entire world, would definitely qualify.

For the briefest of seconds, his mind wondered whether it could be something more, perhaps even a romantic sort of day, but he instantly squashed that notion.

Decision made, he nodded and started towards her. For some reason, the length of his strides lengthened as he made his way down the corridor until, in short order he was standing right in front of her.

“Hi Hermione,” he said quietly so as not to startle her.

Her head lifted, the smallest of frowns on her face – most likely from the intrusion into her reading – before her face blossomed into a wide smile.

“Harry!” she exclaimed. “Is it time for Transfiguration?”

“Not quite,” he replied. “May I?’

In answer, she shuffled sidewards slightly and he took a seat beside her.

“Here you go,” she said, closing the book in her lap and it was only then that he realised that it was the book that Sirius had given him weeks ago. “Thank you ever so much for lending it to me. I’ve made a few notes, I hope that’s okay?”

“Of course it is,” he replied, taking the book and holding it in his lap.

He looked at her and the confidence that he’d felt only moments before fled. Should he ask? Would she even say yes if he did?

“Harry?” Hermione prompted and he could see by the expression on her face that she knew that he was thinking something and had been about to say something.

She knew him so well, just as he knew her. They could even talk without saying anything – Ron and Neville were right about that. She was safe and he was certain that she’d never laugh at him. Well, at least not for something like this.

“Hermione, do you have any plans for tomorrow?” he asked tentatively.

Her eyes widened slightly but only for a fraction of a second.

“Not at this stage,” she replied. “I’m hoping … but I’m not sure yet.”

Exactly what she was hoping for, Harry had no clue. Could she be hoping for him to ask what he was about to?

He nodded, trying to find the words that should come next. His heart was pounding and he’d begun sweating, despite the fact that it was winter and the castle was always cold.

Summoning his courage, he pushed forward.

“Would you … I mean, only if you want to,” he glanced up at her and found her eyes boring into his, causing him to catch his breath. Swallowing, he tried again. “Would you like to spend the day with me tomorrow in Hogsmeade? There’s some things that I’d like to tell you.”

The last he’d finished in a rush but she’d caught it, he could tell by the way her eyebrow rose. Her curiosity was piqued. It was a mysterious statement and he knew how much she loved a mystery.

“Just the two of us?” she asked.

He nodded, unsure that he could trust his voice.

“In that case, Harry, I’d love to,” she smiled.

Instantly, the beating of his heart lessoned and the sweat that had begun pooling dried. She’d said yes!

“Brilliant! That’s absolutely brilliant, Hermione!” he beamed.

The way that she was looking at him had him thinking that she was looking forward to the day almost as much as he was, albeit most likely without the pit of dread that had just settled in his stomach.

A whole day. Just the two of them together. Exactly what did two people do together in Hogsmeade anyway that could fill a whole day? Harry honestly had no idea and knew that he was going to be in for a sleepless night while he tried to work it out.

He was just glad that it wasn’t a date! Working out what to do on a date for Valentine’s Day would be infinitely harder.

---

February 14, 1996, Hogwarts and Hogsmeade

.

From the moment that Harry awoke, his mind was fixated on one thing: today was the day. Today was the day that he was going to tell Hermione everything that he’d been thinking and feeling for the past two months.

Was it the right thing to do? Would it change things? What would she think of him after hearing it all? He honestly had no answers for any of those questions or any of the myriad others that were racing around in his mind. All he knew was that his gut was telling him that it was time, that it was the right thing to do.

As always, he met Hermione in the common room before they headed down to breakfast.

“Good morning, Harry,” she exclaimed, looking up at him from where she was curled up on a chair in front of the fireplace.

“Morning Hermione,” he replied. “Ready for breakfast?”

“Of course,” she smiled, closing the book that she’d been reading before placing it on the small table beside her chair. “Ron?”

In answer, Harry simply rolled his eyes and jerked his head back towards the stairs that he’d just come down. Her laughter not only told him that she’d understood but it was also another stark indicator that Neville and Ron had been right – they didn’t always need words.

“Ready,” she said moments later.

She was dressed in a simple pair of jeans with a cream-coloured top. A long Gryffindor-red scarf and mittens were currently held in her hand, along with her long black cloak – all of which Harry knew she’d need later when they ventured out of the castle and to Hogsmeade, after all, it’d snowed just the night before.

The walk from the tower to the Great Hall was light and completely normal, allying one fear that Harry had held all night long: that the two of them spending the day together had the potential to be awkward.

But really, what was there to be awkward about? She was his best friend, just as he thought that he filled that spot for her. They knew each other and had spent countless hours talking and being comfortable with each other.

“Are you expecting something?” Harry asked not long after they’d taken their seats, having noticed that Hermione kept glancing up at where the post owls entered in the ceiling.

“I was hoping …” she replied, her eyes still focused upwards.

And then it hit him.

Valentine’s Day.

Today was Valentine’s Day. Hermione was probably hoping to get a card or a flower or a present or something today. His thoughts of who she was hoping to get something from were interrupted by the arrival of Ron.

“Why didn’t you guys wait for me?” Ron all-but-accused.

Harry refrained from answering. Really, it wasn’t as though this was the first time that Ron’d overslept and they’d gone to breakfast without him. And, judging by the way that Ron’s hands were moving, pulling every dish that he could reach to him before spooning some of their contents onto his plate with utmost concentration, Harry wasn’t sure that Ron would have heard an answer anyway.

“Really, Ron?” Hermione frowned a couple of minutes later. “You’ve got enough there for six people!”

“I’m a growing boy,” he mumbled around a forkful of sausage.

Harry turned away from the sight. It still amazed him how much Ron could eat. Not to mention how thin he stayed despite it. Maybe it was a magical thing? Definitely something that old Dudders could benefit from. Actually, when Harry thought about it, there really wasn’t a great deal of difference between the amount of food that both Ron and Dudley could eat. Idly, Harry wondered which of the two would win in a food-eating contest. It was even money at best.

“What time would you like to go to Hogsmeade?” Hermione asked, pulling him from his thoughts.

Harry smiled. Yes, that was a much better thing to be thinking about. His day with Hermione.

“Not ‘til after I’ve finished breakfast,” Ron blurted.

Harry blinked, turned to his red-headed friend and frowned.

“Um, Ron? I’ve asked Hermione to spend the day with me, just the two of us. Sorry,” he said, tacking the last word on the end as an afterthought.

“What?” Ron asked, his eyes flicking backwards and forwards between Harry and Hermione.

“We’ll catch up with you this afternoon when we’re back in the castle,” Harry said.

“I don’t get it,” Ron said slowly. “Why just the two of you? What about me? Why’d you want to spend a whole day with just Hermione anyway?”

Harry more felt than heard Hermione stiffen and begin to splutter. Quickly he reached under the table and placed his hand on her knee. Thankfully, it was enough to settle her; well, at least to get her to allow him to answer Ron.

“Ron, Hermione’s my best friend. Why wouldn’t I want to spend time with her?” Harry stated matter-of-factly before quickly pushing on as he saw Ron’s mouth open and his ears begin to turn red. “The two of us hang out together all the time; it’s only fair that I spend time with Hermione, too.”

Thankfully, the discussion was interrupted just then by the arrival of the post owls. The air all over the Great Hall was filled with wings and soaring birds and then by squealing girls and sighing girls and finally even by couples kissing, a fact that Harry was delighted to notice infuriate Umbridge.

An owl landing on the table right between Ron and Harry had both boys freezing. Hermione, though, was quick to untie the letter that was extended towards her.

Harry blinked. Hermione was getting a letter on Valentine’s Day. His heart froze, feeling like it’d forgotten how to beat. Hermione had gotten a Valentine?

He blinked. Of course. It made perfect sense.

She was an amazing girl. Smart and funny and witty and quite beautiful, really, now that he really thought of it. Her chocolate-brown eyes always seemed to be sparkling with an inner light and joy that caused Harry to smile. Even her hair, always so bushy and frizzy and so very Hermione-like had tamed somewhat over the past year and had a quality about it that had Harry tempted to run his fingers through it for some reason that he couldn’t identify.

Hermione deserved boys seeing her for the truly remarkable young woman that she was becoming. Really, any guy would be lucky to have her.

He just wished he knew who it was so that he could work out if he was worthy of her.

A squeal from her, so very un-Hermione-like, restarted Harry’s heart.

“I’ll be right back and then we can go to the carriages, if you’re ready,” she said, staring intently into his eyes.

“Sure, Hermione,” he said, watching as she stood and quickly rushed across to the Ravenclaw table where she stopped to talk to Luna Lovegood?

Harry blinked. Luna? That didn’t make sense to him. Unless…. Well, if that was the case, then Harry would support her choices, no matter what. She was his best friend, after all.

As much as it felt like he was invading her privacy, he found that he couldn’t tear his eyes away from where the two girls were quietly talking. Hermione seemed extremely excited; Luna, her usual barely-there self (although, there were times when Harry caught something in the younger girl that made him think that she was putting on an act). Then, after barely a minute of talking, Hermione twirled about and headed towards him.

“I’ll see you after we get back,” Harry said to Ron as he stood.

“Yeah, whatever,” a grumpy-sounding Ron replied.

Harry glanced at his friend. He hoped that Ron’s funk was gone by the time they got back.

Right then, though, he had more important things to think about. Spending the day with Hermione.

“Ready?” Hermione asked as he joined her.

Glancing to the side, Harry saw Luna sitting serenely in front of her breakfast where she seemed to be making some kind of fort out of her pancakes.

“Before we go,” he said, hating what he was about to say even if it did feel like the right, honourable thing to do. “We don’t have to, if you don’t want. Spend the day together, that is. You can spend the day with Luna if you prefer.”

Hermione stared at him, her eyes round. Her head was cocked slightly to the side in the exact manner that he knew she held it when there was a puzzle that she was trying to work out. Her slightly furrowed brows told him that she wasn’t sure what he meant so he flicked his eyes down to the letter in her hand and then across to Luna and then at the few decorations to celebrate the day that were spotted about the Hall.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, she burst out laughing.

“Oh, Harry, you are too adorable sometimes!” she exclaimed. “This isn’t a Valentine or a love note or whatever weird notion you have going through that head of yours! This is simply a letter and it’s not even from Luna. Although it does involve her.”

“It isn’t?” Harry asked warily, his heart and chest feeling lighter than it had for the past five minutes.

“No, Harry, it’s not,” she assured him. “I’m spending the day with you, although, if you don’t mind, would it be alright if we met up with Luna around lunchtime? Just for a short time, then we can get back to spending the day together.”

“Of course, Hermione,” Harry beamed.

He was feeling so happy just then, he would have agreed to anything.

She smiled at him in thanks and the two of them quickly left the Great Hall and made their way out to where the carriages awaited the students wanting to go to Hogsmeade.

As always, Filch was there, eyeing everyone suspiciously and occasionally muttering under his breath. But, just like every other Hogwarts student, the two of them ignored him.

With it still being early, they managed to get a carriage to themselves, a fact that left Harry smiling.

“Did you mean what you said before?” Hermione asked once they were seated side by side and the carriage had jerked into motion all by itself.

“Did I mean what?” he asked.

“That I’m your best friend,” Hermione replied before quickly continuing. “I would have thought that that’d be Ron.”

“No, Hermione. It’s not Ron. It’s you, you’re my best friend. It’s always been you. I’ve just been too dense to realise it before now,” he replied earnestly, his eyes staring intensely into hers, willing her to believe him.

Her smile was so big that Harry felt his own smile quickly appearing to join it.

“You’re my best friend, too,” she assured him.

“Thanks, Hermione,” he replied.

“Is that what you’ve been thinking about all this time?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied simply. “But can we talk more about that later, perhaps after we’ve had a look through some of the shops before they get too busy?”

“Of course, Harry,” she replied.

Judging by the contented look on her face, he knew that he’d guessed correctly – Hermione had been extremely curious about how quiet he’d been and had been waiting patiently for him to come clean. Looking closer, he also thought that she looked more relaxed, as though the worry for him that she always feeling was now gone, or at least muted.

Before long, the carriage jerked to a halt and Harry threw open the door. After jumping out, he turned around and offered his hand to Hermione to help her down. He saw her look at it before taking it.

“Thank you, Harry,” she smiled once she was on the ground.

The fact that she hadn’t released his hand was surprising but not unwelcome.

“Where to first?” he asked.

The village, when he turned towards it, was akin to something out of a postcard. Instead of grass, there was a vast blanket of snow. Tree branches were heavy with it as were the rooves of all the buildings. Someone had dusted off the cobblestone pathways – or, more likely, they were enchanted in some way to ensure that snow didn’t accumulate there – making it much easier for everyone to move about.

All of the regular businesses were close by – the Three Broomsticks, Honeydukes, Scrivenshafts, the Post Owl office. Further away, he knew that there were others like the Hogg’s Head, Dervish and Bangs and Zonko’s Joke Shop. Beyond them again was the main village where the residents of Hogsmeade lived and then the hills that surrounded this part of Scotland.

It’d either been very late or perhaps very early in the morning when he’d finally worked out the perfect place for the two of them to have some time alone, away from everyone else. But that was for later.

“Scrivenshafts,” Hermione stated with an emphatic nod.

Harry laughed. It was such a ‘Hermione’ answer and one that he’d predicted.

“Then, to Scrivenshafts we shall go!” he exclaimed, feeling silly as he raised their clasped hands, pointing the way even as he goose-stepped their first step in that direction.

Laughing together, they strolled along the cobblestone pathway. A great many other Hogwarts students were already there, coming and going from the various shops but not as many as there would be as the day progressed.

As they stepped up onto the veranda of Scrivenshafts, Harry noticed that there were other shops just down a small side street. Quickly he looked them over to determine if there would be any that might interest Hermione later.

None stood out, although one left him shuddering. Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Shop. He’d heard about it. And, from what little he could see from where he stood, everything he’d heard had been correct. It was pink, outside and in, at least from what he could see through the window. Small tables with delicate doilies and teacups and plates filled the room. It looked sickening. Harry could never in a million years envision himself ever entering such a place. The corner of his eye caught Hermione as she opened the door to Scrivenshafts; he was so glad that she was like him, she, too, would find Madam Puddifoot’s repulsive.

Scrivenshaft’s was already busy. That, of course, didn’t deter Hermione. It was like she was on a mission as she wound her way through the shelves, pulling Harry along with her.

“Is there anything that you need?” she asked.

Harry looked around at the various quills and at the multitude of different coloured inks.

“I’m good,” he replied easily.

One of her eyebrows rose and he froze, frantically doing an internal catalogue of his ink and parchment supplies. No, he was sure that he didn’t need anything. Yes, their entire year were going through a lot more ink and parchment than they ever had before – a consequence of this being their OWL year – but Harry had taken that into account when he’d done his Christmas shopping, buying up a lot more then.

“Really, Hermione, I’m good,” he insisted.

“If you say so,” she replied sounding as though she didn’t believe him, a fact emphasised by her adding in an extra bottle of black ink to the three already in her hand.

From there, they visited the other side of the store where they’d finally had to let go of each other’s hands as Hermione collected a large stack of parchment.

Oddly, Harry’s hand felt empty without her hand in his; a quite unusual experience. He wasn’t used to holding her hand and wouldn’t have expected to miss it the way he currently was. But, for some reason, he was.

The shrunken bag of her purchases were placed into a pocket as they left the store.

“Zonko’s or Honeydukes?” Hermione asked. “I know that you’ll want to visit both while we’re here.”

Harry shook his head. “Just Honeydukes. I don’t need anything from Zonko’s.”

Hermione tsked playfully at him. “No jokes or pranks? Whatever will Padfoot or Moony say about that?”

“Hermione, you’ve read the book with all of those spells that Sirius gave me at Grimmauld. Do you really think that I need something from Zonko’s?” he asked.

“No, no I don’t suppose you do,” she replied.

The sudden feeling of her hand taking his again caused him to look down at their hands before smiling. He barely repressed the sigh that threatened to escape for some inexplicable reason.

“What did you think of that book, anyway?” Harry asked. “You never said.”

“I’m not sure about some of those spells,” she replied seriously. “I could easily see how they could be abused, and not in a funny way.”

“I agree,” Harry replied quickly. “Don’t worry, I’m keeping most of them to just you and me. What about the … other bit?”

Hermione gave him side-long look that he answered with a raised eyebrow.

“If you’re asking what I think you are,” she replied. “Then yes, it’s definitely possible. And – don’t you ever tell Padfoot that I said this – but those notes in the margins would be extremely useful and make the whole process a lot easier.”

“So, you think I could become …?”

“Yes, we could,” she replied. “We can start it after our OWLs are done, perhaps even over the holidays when we have some time free of homework and studies.”

“Hermione?” he asked.

He’d hoped, of course, but he didn’t expect it, especially as they’d be breaking a hundred school rules alone, let alone probably a dozen Ministry laws as well.

“Polyjuice,” she replied simply, causing Harry to laugh, his mind flashing back to a certain bathroom in second year.

“Very true, Hermione, very true. Thank you so much. I hoped you’d want to do it with me,” he said.

“About time, Harry, Hermione!”

Harry tore his eyes from Hermione to see a giggling Susan Bones and Hannah Abbot walking past, both with massive grins on their faces.

“What?” he asked.

“Don’t mind them,” Hermione said, giving a tug on his arm. “Let’s get inside before the line gets any longer.”

Harry frowned after the two girls but allowed himself to be pulled into Honeydukes. Perhaps Hermione would explain later? Or not, he supposed – girls were notorious for making sure that guys didn’t understand them, at least, that’s what his dormmates asserted.

Hermione, as always, had been right. Honeydukes was packed and the line already weaved its way up and down two aisles. Seeing it, Harry determined that the best thing to do was to simply join the end of the line and make their selections as they waited.

By the time that they left the store, both carried packets of Honeydukes’ finest chocolate as well as a selection of their favourite sweets; Harry’s being a much larger purchase than Hermione’s.

“Is there any other store that you’d like to visit now,” Harry asked as they stood out in the middle of the street, “or would you like to go somewhere where we can sit and talk?”

He waited while Hermione seemed to search his face before settling on his eyes.

“Sitting and talking sounds nice,” she finally replied.

“Brilliant!” Harry replied with a smile.

“I’m guessing that you have somewhere in mind?” she asked as he turned them about and began leading her back towards where the carriages had first dropped them in the village that morning.

“In fact, I do,” he replied.

“Would you like to tell me where we’re going?”

Harry simply grinned at her. “You’re a smart girl, you can work it out for yourself.”

He laughed at the scowl she gave him and ignored the playful slap to his shoulder. Minutes later, only a few steps after he’d turned her towards a side track, he heard her gasp.

“The train station!” she exclaimed.

“See? I told you you’d work it out,” he laughed.

“That’s actually quite smart of you, Harry,” she said, sounding impressed. “No one goes down there, at least from what I’ve heard. And it’ll be sheltered from the wind as well, quite unlike the Shrieking Shack.”

“Exactly,” he replied.

The snow on the side of the path was banked higher here and the sounds around them were muffled. It made for a quiet, peaceful walk, one which they didn’t interrupt even with small talk, instead simply enjoying it for what it was.

As expected, the train station was deserted; not even the Hogwarts Express was there.

Harry led Hermione across to one of the seats that lined the side of the small building but had her wait before sitting. Taking out his wand, he cast both a warming charm and a cushioning charm on the wooden seat.

“Thank you, Harry,” Hermione smiled.

“I’m not just a pretty face,” he teased pompously.

“No, not just a pretty face,” she replied, throwing Harry off with how intently she’d said it. There was an extra meaning there, he was sure of it. Perhaps it bore some thinking about? Later though, not now.

Not knowing exactly how to start, Harry looked out at the scenic view, anywhere, really but at Hermione.

“I like this,” Hermione sighed some minutes later. “I’m glad that I’m getting to enjoy it with my best friend.”

There. There was the opening that he needed. And provided by Hermione herself. Intentionally, if he had to guess.

“You’re my best friend, too,” he said, glancing at her.

“You surprised me saying that this morning,” she said.

“I know,” he replied. “Surprised Ron, too. I don’t think he liked me saying that, to be honest.”

“No, he wouldn’t have,” she said. “Can I ask what made you decide that I’m your best friend and not Ron?”

Harry nodded. This was it. It was time.

“Because you are,” he began simply. “You’ve always been there for me. Through every stupid, harebrained thing that I’ve found myself involved in; you’ve been there. Whether it was something of my own making or something that was done to me, you’ve been there. You’ve always been by my side, supporting me and helping me. Not once have you ever abandoned me or turned on me, not like Ron and the rest of the school. Not in second year or fourth or any of the other times.”

“But in third year,” she began before Harry shushed her by placing a finger against her lips and talking right over the top of her.

“I know what you’re going to say and you’re wrong. That was all my fault. The firebolt came and I was so excited that I forgot to think. You were right, it could have been sent by a deranged, insane criminal escapee – which it was,” he grinned, matching the huge smile that appeared on her face. “You were right to take it to Professor McGonagall to get it checked over. I should have thanked you, not been the complete git that I was and given you the cold shoulder for months.”

“It’s okay, Harry, I understand,” she said.

But Harry shook his head. “No, it’s not okay, Hermione. I’m sorry. You were right and I was wrong. You were only looking out for me, just like you always do.”

“You’re welcome, Harry,” she smiled. “All I wanted was to make sure that you were going to be safe if you rode it.”

“Because you care about me,” Harry stated.

Hermione stared at him, both eyebrows high. “I do, more than you know. I … I didn’t think you realised.”

“I do. I might be thick and it might take a bit to get through my hard head sometimes, but I do see things and realise things.”

“Really? And what else has gotten through your thick head?” she challenged with a smile.

“Would you believe booze?” Harry laughed.

Instead of making her laugh like he intended, Hermione frowned.

“That’s not funny, Harry. Alcohol impairs thinking and can make people do extremely stupid things.”

“Sorry, Hermione,” he replied, “but you did ask and when it boils down to it, alcohol started everything.”

“If I hadn’t been with you all morning I’d ask if you’d been drinking today, but I have, so I know you haven’t,” Hermione frowned. “Would you like to explain your statement?”

Harry sighed and nodded. “Do you remember that morning when you arrived at Grimmauld Place and found me drunk because from that ‘special’ butterbeer of Sirius’?”

“Yes, what about it?”

“Something that Sirius said that night while he was drunk got me thinking and I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since,” Harry replied.

“Something Sirius said?” Hermione repeated sounding incredibly sceptical. “And what exactly Sirius Black have to say?”

Harry closed his eyes. He did not want to remember this again. Not that he had a choice.

“Do you remember that Valentine’s Day back in third year? When Lockhart had those singing dwarfs running around the school all day?” he asked.

Hermione laughed. “If I remember right, you got one that day.”

“Yeah,” Harry grimaced. “Well, it … came up that night with Sirius and … and he said that …”

“What did he say, Harry? I promise I won’t laugh,” she encouraged, placing a hand on his knee.

Harry eyed her speculatively. Laughing at him wasn’t the issue. Still, he knew that he had to say it.

“Sirius said that he thought that you were better with words than that,” he said in a rush.

Hermione stared at him. And then her eyes narrowed.

“‘Better with words’? Are you saying that Sirius thought that I’d sent you that that poem!” she exclaimed.

Harry winced. “I defended you! Told him that you could have come up with something a thousand times better in your sleep in a heartbeat.”

Hermione stared at him, her eyes round.

“Well. Of course, I could have,” she eventually said. “Are you saying that that was what got you thinking? Why you’ve been so quiet since Christmas?”

He nodded, barely meeting her eyes.

“Harry James Potter, exactly what have you been thinking?” she demanded.

It seemed that Hermione’s patience had finally run out.

“That wasn’t all that Sirius said,” he admitted. “When I asked him why he thought that you’d sent that poem, he said a few other things. Things about how you and I interact with each other. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. All those times in every year that you’ve been by my side. All the things that we’ve done together, all the dangers and mysteries and normal things that we’ve done together. All those things that helped me realise that you are my best friend.”

“Okay,” Hermione said slowly.

“But more than that,” Harry continued. Now that he’d started, he wasn’t sure that he could stop. “I’ve been thinking about all the times you’ve helped me and the way I’d do anything to help you. Take the DA for example. I had no intention of going to that meeting that day or of leading and teaching that many people but for you, for you I did and am.

“You, Hermione, were the very first person to ever hug me. You have no idea what that means to me, what all of your hugs mean to me.”

“I was?” she asked, her eyes widening. “Back at the end of first year? When you went to fight Voldemort for the first time?”

Harry nodded and let his head drop slightly. A heartbeat later, he felt Hermione grab him in one of her hugs. Her arms were wrapped tightly around him, her hair in his face. Instantly, his own arms came up and settled around her, too. He loved these hugs and, as always, it took mere moments before he felt himself begin to relax and the tenseness that he was feeling begin to melt away.

“I love hugging you, too,” she whispered into his ear.

They stayed like that for a long time, much longer than any of the hugs that he’d ever had from Hermione before. The few times that he’d imagined hugging his best friend like this, he thought it’d be weird or feel awkward. It didn’t. It was perfect. Wonderful. Exactly as it should be.

Finally, the thoughts running through Harry’s head started up again. He’d only told her a little of what he’d wanted to. He’d had nearly two months of thoughts that he’d wanted to tell her. There was how he felt when she’d been petrified by the basilisk and how much it meant to him that she was always there in the hospital wing when he ended up there. Then there was how much he appreciated her help with learning spells and checking his homework, not to mention the fact that she seemed to be the only one that could break through any funk that he was in.

But did he need to tell her all of that, not to mention everything else?

He wasn’t sure but he not only wanted to but needed to make sure that she understood how much he cared about her as well.

And then the perfect way popped into his head. But it was so intimate. Could he really tell her that?

Gryffindors forward, Potter, he told himself.

Shifting slightly, he separated from her, his emerald eyes meeting her chocolate ones.

“This, Hermione, this is what I used for my patronus,” he said.

“What?” she asked, clearly not understanding his unexpected segue.

“Do you remember when you asked me to use a different memory for my patronus for the DA demonstration?” he asked, receiving a nod followed by a slight widening of her eyes. “Normally I use a thought, a feeling of my parents to power Prongs. For the second patronus I used the memory and feeling of us hugging. That’s what caused Prongs to be different than normal.”

“Harry,” Hermione breathed. “That’s … that’s … you used the way you feel when I hug you?”

There were more words, he could see them behind her eyes but for some reason, Hermione didn’t seem capable of getting them out.

“I care about you, Hermione. More than anyone else in the whole world,” he said, staring into her eyes to ensure that she understood.

“Just care, Harry?” she asked tentatively. “Not something … else?”

Harry shook his head. He knew what she was asking. At least, he thought he did. But he didn’t know enough about that … other emotion to be able to recognise it, let alone voice it.

“It’s all I know,” he replied, frustrated with himself.

“It’s okay, Harry,” Hermione replied, a slight smile on her face even as she reached up and cupped his cheek with one hand. “I understand and it’s okay.”

He sighed and let himself sag. That was the great, wonderful, amazing, brilliant thing about Hermione Jane Granger. She always understood, even when he didn’t understand himself.

Once again Harry found himself engulfed in one of Hermione’s hugs, a hug that he eagerly returned. This one, though, was slightly different, not that he could put his finger on exactly how it was different. All he knew was that it felt gentler and somehow more filled with emotion. Whatever it was, Harry knew that he liked it. A lot.

“I do understand, Harry,” Hermione assured him quietly, her head on his shoulder, her mouth close to his ear.

“Thank you, Hermione,” he smiled, nuzzling into her hair.

She leant back slightly so that they were face to face, their arms remaining around each other.

“As for the rest, we’ll figure it out together,” she said and for some reason her eyes were glistening as though with unshed tears despite the fact that she was smiling.

“I’d like that,” he smiled.

“Just promise me one thing,” she asked. At his quirked eyebrow, she continued. “Next time you’re having deep thoughts and working things out in your head, don’t wait so long to tell me about them. I think that, together, we can make sense of things a lot faster.”

“I promise,” Harry replied and then did something that he’d never done before: he pulled her back in for a hug before she could initiate it.

How long they stayed like that, simply hugging and talking quietly or sometimes just sitting quietly and enjoying being together, Harry had no idea. It was only the slight grumble of his stomach, one loud enough to break the silence, that had him embarrassedly looking at his watch.

“Wow!” he exclaimed. “It’s no wonder that I’m getting hungry. Didn’t you say that you wanted to meet Luna at lunchtime? It’s nearly that now.”

“Oh! So, it is!” Hermione exclaimed.

Harry went to stand up but found that Hermione’s hand on his chest stopped him. He looked at her, for once, not understanding.

“Harry?” she said, staring intensely into his eyes. “Thank you.”

“For what?” he asked, confused.

“For telling me everything that you did,” she said.

He smiled at her but before he could answer, she began leaning forward, her head inching towards his own.

Was she going to kiss him?

Was his best friend going to kiss him?

Just the very idea of it was enough to make him hold his breath and he decided that it wasn’t an unwelcome thought, quite the opposite, actually.

Her eyes stayed fixed on his own the further she leant in. And then, at the very last second, she changed angles slightly.

Her lips were light and feathery and warm where they landed just to the side of his own lips. She didn’t linger long, nor did her eyes leave his.

The nearly-kiss was so very different from his first kiss and easily a hundred, a thousand times better.

“We better go if we’re going to meet Luna on time,” Hermione said once she’d straightened.

Seeing Hermione’s hand held out to him, he eagerly grasped it and stood. Then, together, they began the trek back towards the village, most of his mind still on the tingling sensation where her lips had touched the corner of his own.

For an instant, Harry wondered whether they really had to go right then. He wouldn’t mind another of those nearly-kisses. Maybe, just maybe, even a real one?

It was definitely something to think about.

But not for too long. Not this time.

Their walk to the Three Broomsticks seemed to take no time at all. Not once, though, did they stop holding hands, not even when Harry reached out and pulled the door open for Hermione.

Inside, the room was packed. Every booth was filled with Hogwarts students and the crowd lining the bar was easily three deep.

Harry’s eyes swept the room, looking for a head of blonde hair. But while there were a number of blondes – most of them with their heads bent over a shared glass with a single straw or in deep, intense conversations with their dates – none of them appeared to be Luna.

“I don’t think she’s here yet,” Harry said.

“Yes, she is,” Hermione countered.

Harry followed her pointing finger to see Luna standing at the back near the entrance to the private rooms. Which didn’t make any sense to Harry at all.

“Harry,” Hermione said, turning to look at him with the most serious expression that he’d seen on her all day. “I need you to trust me. I promise to explain everything.”

“Okay,” Harry said slowly.

It wasn’t that he had a problem with trusting Hermione – he did it all the time, after all – it was simply that he was confused.

“Get us some drinks and meet us in the back,” she said. “Oh, and Harry, while we’re here, I think no more of this.”

She emphasised the last part by holding up their clasped hands.

“I promise I’m not opposed to holding your hand and we will do it some more later,” she said.

“Okay,” Harry repeated, deciding that sticking to the one-word answer made more sense than she was at that moment.

“Thank you, Harry. I promise to make it up to you,” she said.

He nodded and took a single step towards the bar before turning back, his head tilted slightly in question.

“A butterbeer, please. Actually, make that four butterbeers,” she answered. “Oh, and Harry? Make sure that they’re just butterbeers.”

Harry laughed. That was one order that he didn’t need made to him. Sirius’ ‘special’ butterbeers were firmly off of his drinking list.

Well, for now, at least, he decided.

It may have taken some time but those ‘special’ butterbeers did have one thing going for them, at least considering where he thought the end result of that night was heading. Hopefully, their meeting with Luna wouldn’t last too long; he was eager to get back to his day alone with Hermione.

Seeing Madam Rosmerta looking expectantly at him, Harry stepped forward to place his order.

 

 

The End.