Harry crept as quietly as he could manage toward the exit of his dormitory, not wanting to wake any of his roommates. If everything went according to plan, he would be avoiding anyone and everyone for the day. With the Second Task mere days away, working on a solution for the Black Lake instead of attending class made perfect sense. But as valid as a reason as that was, it paled in comparison to the real reason he'd planned on hiding.
The primary motivation had more to do with the fact that sitting in the Great Hall or in class would make him a sitting duck for the dwarves delivering Valentines today. Cornelius Fudge, in his infinite wisdom, thought that once again allowing the messengers of love access to Hogwarts would be the perfect thing to spice up the days before the Second Task. And with Beauxbatons and Durmstrang on the grounds, the potential market for their services was triple what it had been two years ago.
Harry, mostly due to Hermione's insistence, had been fairly disciplined at not taking advantage of being allowed to miss lessons but today he planned on exploiting the option for everything it was worth. He was going to set up shop in the classroom he'd been using to prepare for the tournament and pore over the multitude of books Hermione had provided in search of anything useful for the second task. He'd even managed to think ahead and arrange for Dobby to deliver him meals. Aside from trips to the toilet, he wouldn't be going anywhere.
He had expected Hermione to scold him for skiving off lessons for the day but, to his surprise, she had readily agreed to his plan. Apparently she had overheard multiple discussions amongst the female student population regarding Harry, and knew he was in store for a very embarrassing, dwarf-filled day. She'd even offered to help keep any pesky dwarves off his scent if they asked her of his whereabouts. He'd almost made it to his destination when a familiar voice stopped him in his tracks.
"'Arry Potter," the annoying dwarf from second-year exclaimed in triumph.
Harry looked around the hall, grateful that no other students were within eyeshot. This wasn't so bad; he would get this initial embarrassment over with in private and then make his way to the classroom. The concealment charms Hermione had taught him should do the trick once he arrived at his hidey-hole.
"Go on then," Harry ordered, wanting to get the nonsense over with as soon as possible.
Instead of commencing with his recitation, the dwarf stared at him and folded his arms. It was clear that this messenger was up to something.
"I've got a Valentine for you, several in fact, but you know and I know that you want no part of our sonnets." He'd never seen a dwarf, or anyone for that matter, look so smug.
"Our?" Harry asked, afraid of the implications inherent in the pronoun.
The dwarf laughed. "I have multiple associates in the castle today with Valentine messages for you. We've been scouting you for the last few days and knew exactly where you're headed."
Harry's head began to throb. "You've been following me?"
"You think you're the first person who has tried to hide from our poetic affirmations?" The dwarf looked disgusted and annoyed. "You witches and wizards are all the same, always thinking of yourselves with no regard for any other magical folk, or the magic of love."
"Is there a point to this?" Harry asked, stifling the desire to point out that he'd had a bit of experience with the magic of love, and it had nothing in common with what this dwarf was peddling.
"Right," the dwarf replied as he gathered himself, "I have a business proposition for you."
"Oi! Instead of repeating back my own words, try closing your mouth and opening your heart and mind, yeah?"
Harry wanted to respond but stopped himself. He was sure another student would be walking by at any moment and needed this encounter to be over and done with as soon as possible. He opted for a quick nod of agreement and waited for the dwarf to continue.
"To get paid, we have to prove we delivered our enduring messages of devotion. So we either do it in public in front of multiple witnesses or we have the lucky recipient of affection sign our form, acknowledging that they've been rhapsodized, swept off their feet, etc."
Harry's heart soared at the thought of being able to end this nightmare of a day with a few flourishes of a quill. "So I just need to sign something and you'll leave me alone?"
"I'm afraid it's not that simple," the dwarf complained, "you see, beyond our monetary compensation, we dwarves love nothing more than fulfilling the profound and mysterious desires of the heart for all to see. Having to deliver our messages in private leaves us quite bereft."
"And we're back to repeating words again," the dwarf grumbled. "As I was saying, the emotional trauma of settling for a mere signature is quite profound and unsettling. And when you add on the ridiculous sales targets that management has established for us today, many of us are quite distraught."
"Can you just tell me what you want?" Harry asked through gritted teeth.
"It's simple, you've got Valentines you'd like to avoid hearing and I've got sales quotas I need to achieve. What I'm suggesting is a mutually beneficial arrangement. In exchange for not embarrassing you in front of everyone, you buy a Valentine poem for someone."
He had a full-on headache now. "That's extortion."
The dwarf looked highly offended. "Extortion is a bit strong don't you think? I prefer to think of it as encouraging connections of the heart."
"Forget it," Harry replied as he resumed the trek to his hideaway. "You and your friends can deliver all your poetic affirmations to me in person; I'll be the only one to hear them anyway. That is unless you plan on kidnapping me."
His path was blocked as the dwarf fluttered down in front of him. Apparently the cupid wings weren't just cosmetic. The predatory grin on the dwarf's face sent a chill down Harry's spine.
"Who said anything about dragging you out to your adoring public? I can just bring them to you," he said, holding up his harp. "A few strums on this beauty in between classes and I'll have students sprinting to hear my melodious ministrations."
"Shall we begin?" the dwarf asked, his fingers poised over the instrument. "I'm sure there are a few early risers in the vicinity that would love to hear Miss Vane's thoughts on how you look in your Quidditch pants."
"Fine," Harry replied, pulling his blackmailer into a nearby room.
"I knew you would see things my way," the dwarf exclaimed in triumph as he pulled out several gilded scrolls. "Here are all of your Valentines for you to peruse later."
Harry was quite sure he wouldn't be doing any perusing. These scrolls more than likely had an Incendio in their near future.
"Please sign here, acknowledging receipt," the dwarf continued, handing him another piece of parchment and quill, which Harry quickly signed.
"Smashing," the dwarf said before taking a nearby seat, "now on to our final order of business. Who will you be sending a Valentine to and what would you like it to say?"
Harry felt a knot instantly forming in his stomach. The only person he'd even consider sending a Valentine to, Cho Chang, was in a relationship with someone else. Giving her a Valentine would be awkward and weird, and he truthfully hadn't given Cho a thought since the Yule Ball. Suddenly he was struck with an idea.
"They don't have to be about romantic love, right? They can be more about friendship?"
"Of course! We dwarves support and encourage all forms of love. It wouldn't be economically prudent to discriminate."
"And it's anonymous?"
"Mum's the word," the dwarf enthused.
"Okay, then I'd like to send one to my friend Hermione. Hermione Granger," he ordered.
Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad, Harry thought. Hermione did deserve his thanks and appreciation…getting to brighten her day with some kind words seemed more than worth it. It wasn't the sort of thing he'd ever been able to say to her face, the least he could do was tell her this way.
"Excellent! Now what would you like to say?" the dwarf prompted, his quill poised to transcribe Harry's message.
"I have no idea," Harry admitted honestly. "I'm awful with words."
The dwarf shot him a knowing grin. "No problem at all. For a small fee, I'd be happy to help. Just name a few of her qualities and I'll do the rest."
Harry was certain that the dwarf's effort would run rings around anything he could manage. "Let's do it."
A few minutes later, Harry had given a few tidbits of information on Hermione and the dwarf was poised to leave. "Pleasure doing business with you," the dwarf said, handing him his business card.
"At your service," Reginald replied, "you can call me Reggie. I like to be as informal as possible with all my customers."
Harry thought the word victims was a more appropriate term but kept it to himself. "I don't have any money with me."
"Not a problem," Reggie reassured, "I'll check back later. I know where to find you." The dwarf looked so pleased with himself.
Harry had never wanted to punch anyone, dwarf or otherwise, more than he wanted to punch Reggie. Reggie either didn't notice or didn't care about Harry's feelings toward him as he commenced floating toward the exit. "If you need anything else or have any questions, just give my card a tap with your wand. I live to serve my customers," he declared as he disappeared into the hallway.
An hour had passed and true to Reggie's word, Harry had been mercifully spared any more visitors. He'd enjoyed the breakfast delivered by Dobby in peace and was all set to begin his research when Hermione and Ron entered the room.
"You forgot this one," Hermione informed as she handed over a rather large tome. "There is a section on magical propulsion that seemed like it would work quite well in water."
"Thanks. Any excitement at breakfast?" Harry asked as casually as he could manage, curious if Reggie had made his delivery.
"Malfoy seemed to be devastated that you weren't there," Ron informed. "I'm guessing he had the same thought as you and wanted to see you embarrassed." A grin formed on Ron's face as he gestured toward Hermione. "Looks like you're not the only one with admirers in the castle, though."
Hermione scowled at Ron's words. "I swear, if I find out you sent me that awful Valentine as a joke, you'll never walk the same way again, Ronald."
Ron howled in laughter, causing Hermione's scowl to harden even further. "I swear it wasn't me! I'm not clever enough to come up with something that bad. Even the twins were envious."
Harry's face began to warm. "So you received a Valentine?"
"Words vomited on a page more like it," Hermione offered. This was not good.
"Come on, it couldn't have been that bad?" Harry asked, remembering how awful Ginny's message had been. Nothing could top that as far as awkwardness.
Without a word, Hermione handed over a small scroll similar to the pile Harry had received earlier that day. Harry's stomach sank as he read the words and realized that it indeed was just that bad.
Her teeth are as white as a piece of chalk
Her eyes as brown as a chocolate bar
She's really smart, it sets her apart
My favorite Gryffindor
"I, uhh, think it's sweet," he managed, not believing a word coming out of his mouth.
"They compared me to a piece of chalk, Harry," Hermione replied, "and bar and Gryffindor don't even rhyme! Malfoy and his band of idiots quite enjoyed it though. I suppose Chocolate Bar is a better name than Mudblood."
Great. While he'd managed to avoid embarrassment, he'd transferred the misery onto his best friend. "I'm really sorry, Hermione."
Her face softened at his words as she offered him a small smile. "It isn't your fault, Harry." Hermione's eyes bulged as she looked at her watch. She grabbed Ron's wrist and pulled him toward the door.
"We're going to be late for Potions! We'll be back at lunch!" she declared as they disappeared from sight.
After he was sure that his friends were far enough away, Harry grabbed Reggie's business card and gave it an angry tap. A few minutes later, Reggie floated into the room. "What can I do for my favorite customer?"
He didn't think it was possible, but the desire to punch the dwarf had actually grown. Harry felt his hand unconsciously ball into a fist but pushed back on the urge. "I just heard the Valentine I sent to Hermione and it was awful."
Reggie looked quite offended. "I thought it was quite nice."
"Her eyes are as brown as a chocolate bar?" Harry asked indignantly. "You made me sound like an idiot and embarrassed my friend!"
"Well, what do you expect? You gave me nothing to work with. How am I meant to make white teeth and brown eyes poetic? And calling someone 'smart' is as boring as it gets! Besides, you can't expect bloody Shakespeare when you only spring for the Economy Package."
The head throbbing had returned. "Economy?" he spat out. It was suddenly clear to him that all Ginny had been able to afford was the Economy level of service as well.
As if on cue, Reggie flourished a scroll and handed it over for his review. "We have a full range of services to suit every witch or wizard's needs. Most students can only afford our Economy level, and the last thing I would ever want to do is pressure a customer into spending more than they can afford."
"Really?" Harry asked. "Because it seems to me you made the first one awful on purpose, hoping I'd need to send another one to make up for it."
Reggie looked aghast at the accusation. "Mr. Potter, I'm hurt that you would think so ill of me. Having said that, if you have the galleons to spare, I think our Gold Package would be just the thing to right this ship of love."
"I'm not trying to right any ship! I just want to make my friend feel better."
Reggie gave a casual wave of dismissal. "What do you say? Want to have another go? Since you've facilitated so much business, I'll even give you a 20% discount!"
As much as he wanted to angrily and forcefully tell Reginald L'Amour to bugger off, he needed to make this right. "Fine."
"Splendid!" Reggie exclaimed as he took a seat once again. "Nothing warms my heart more than a repeat customer."
"But I have to warn you," Reggie continued, now looking much more serious, "if you want this to be better received you're going to need to give me a bit more material to work with; something beyond just mentioning her appearance. And calling a girl smart, while a lovely sentiment, won't earn you a dip into her cauldron, if you get my meaning."
"No-ones dipping anything into anyone's cauldron," Harry replied, ignoring how warm the room suddenly had become.
"Right, I forgot. Miss Granger is just your friend," Reggie replied. Based on his tone, Harry could almost feel the dwarf's eye roll of disbelief. "But regardless, I'm going to need more. Something personal."
"What do you admire about her?" Reggie prompted. "What does she mean to you?
"I don't know!" Harry said in frustration, hating how hard it was for him to say these sorts of things. "She's just…the best."
He paused and thought of how omnipresent Hermione had been over the last few years. The realization of how much she truly meant hit him in full force. "I honestly don't know where I'd be without her," he blurted.
Reggie smiled and began scribbling notes. "I've got a good feeling about this!"
It had been hard at first, but the longer Harry talked, the easier it became to verbalize his thoughts on Hermione. Throughout the conversation Reggie kept looking at him oddly…like he knew something Harry didn't. After several minutes, Reggie said he had more than enough to work with and asked him one more time whether Hermione was just a friend. Harry had confirmed his wish for the Valentine to be one based on friendship, but this time it felt…off.
Hermione and Ron arrived at lunchtime and it was clear that something had happened in the interim as their moods had been reversed. Hermione was now wearing a pleasant smile while Ron looked quite put out. "Are you going to eat that?" he muttered as he took a seat and, not waiting for an answer, helped himself. It was perfectly fine with Harry. He'd spent the last few hours thinking about Hermione, and the resultant unsettling of his stomach had effectively ruined his appetite.
"You seem to be in a much better mood," Harry said, causing Hermione's grin to grow wider. She handed him another scroll.
She's brighter than all the Claws combined
A fiercer friend than any Puff
More clever than Merlin, always bests Slytherin
The girl who never gives up
Much better. No mentions of stupid things like chalk or sweets. Puff and up didn't actually rhyme and the Merlin/Slytherin wordplay was a bit dodgy, but that was beside the point. Reggie had delivered exactly what he'd promised. But despite all this, Harry now found the words to be woefully lacking. He looked into Hermione's smiling eyes and his stomach lurched.
"That was nice," he commented.
"Isn't it?" Hermione agreed with a smile as she carefully tucked the scroll into her bag, "Malfoy and Professor Snape were very disappointed at how sweet and sincere it was, and they were positively livid at the Slytherin insult."
"Suppose it was from the same bloke as the other one?" Harry asked. The plan had been for the message to remain anonymous, but seeing how happy it had made her, he found himself wanting her to know that they were his words…sort of.
Hermione hummed in agreement as she took a seat. "Do you mind?" she asked, gesturing toward the other half of his discarded sandwich that Ron hadn't touched. "I'm famished."
"Show him the other one," Ron commented in disgust as he took a bite. "The one from Vicky."
The butterflies that had infected his stomach appeared to have headed north and grabbed hold of his heart. They seemed to be attempting to squeeze it as tightly as possible.
"Oh, that was nothing," Hermione replied. It looked like the sandwich she was eating had become very interesting.
"He asked her to visit him this summer," Ron grumbled between bites. Upon hearing Ron's news, the butterflies continued their trek north and a persistent buzzing began sounding in his brain. It was quite unpleasant.
"Really?" he asked.
"It was nothing," Hermione mumbled. "We've become friends over the last few months. Nothing more."
Ron nearly choked at her words. "Friends don't invite people to visit them in Bulgaria with a poem."
Apparently Hermione had reached her limit as she stopped eating and leveled Ron with her best glare. "I am not arguing with you about Viktor again, Ronald. We're just friends, and even if we were more, it would be none of your business."
Harry had never hated a word more than he hated the word Viktor. It was a stupid, unnecessary, and thoroughly annoying word. As he thought about it further, more was almost as useless and infuriating. The words in his poem were much better.
Between the buzzing, and the pondering of Viktor's dumb words, he had lost track of whatever his friends were saying…but based on their expectant stares, he'd been asked a question and they were awaiting his answer.
"What?" was the best he could manage. He was so bad at words. He hated words so much.
Hermione glared at him, but he thought it was much different than her 'Ron glare'. All the previous fire was gone, replaced with mild exasperation. It was quite endearing. He liked that word…endearing.
"Have you made any progress?" she asked.
Ahh, the tournament; the thing he'd been meant to be working on today instead of worrying about poems and his other dumb competitors. That wasn't quite fair to all his fellow competitors. Fleur and Cedric were fine, but Viktor was a right bastard. He realized he was losing focus again.
"Not much," he replied, doing his best to not think about the multiple ways that his depressing answer applied to the current situation.
"We're running out of time!" she replied, the desperation clear in her voice. "Maybe I should stay and help. You two are always saying how useless History of Magic is and-"
"It's fine," Harry interrupted. "I promise I'll bear down this afternoon."
"Anyway," Ron interrupted as he grabbed a piece of fruit, "we need to go. Not that Binns would have a clue, but we'll be late if we don't leave now."
He watched his friends disappear out of the room and resolved to keep his promise to Hermione. He would bear down and try his best to come up with a solution for the second task. Harry had barely made it fifteen minutes into practicing Hermione's propulsion spell before he, for reasons he couldn't quite identify, found himself tapping on Reggie's business card once again.
When Reggie arrived, his ethereal floating had disappeared, replaced by flapping of wings more akin to a hippogriff. A very annoyed hippogriff.
"I know the rhyming wasn't quite perfect, but that was a gold level worthy poem, and we have a strict "no refund" policy-"
"I don't want a refund, I need your help."
Reggie's annoyance disappeared, replaced by his prior smugness. "You've finally sorted it out, have you?"
"Yeah, I suppose I have," Harry admitted. "But it's got to be good. This other bloke has already got a head start while I was being an idiot the last few months.
"Krum," Reggie muttered in consideration. "His Valentine was quite nice. A bit rough considering it isn't his native language but the rhyming was quite sublime. It had an endearing simplicity that helped emphasize the sincerity of the words and-"
"You aren't helping," Harry grumbled. "I need you to help, not tell me how much better Viktor's poem was."
"I never said better," Reggie corrected, "our offering was brilliant. And for what it's worth, Miss Granger enjoyed your poem very much. It is clear that she definitely values your friendship."
"Again, you aren't helping, and she doesn't even know those other two were from me, but that's beside the point. I need your help. Tell me what to say."
"What do you want to tell her?" Reggie prompted.
"That she's amazing and that I've been an idiot for not figuring it out before now."
It looked to Harry as if Reggie was going through the gamut of emotions. "You know, I was one measly Gold level Valentine away from winning the sales contest, and this one would have put me over the top. I've always wanted to visit Atlantis…" he muttered as he began floating toward the exit.
"Where are you going?" Harry nearly shouted.
Reggie hovered near the door and smiled. "You know what made Viktor's poem stand out? He wrote it himself. As good as I am, the poems are always better when they are written and delivered by the customer. Also Viktor's rhyming. It was lovely. Good luck, Harry." And with those final words of wisdom, he was gone.
At once the butterflies settled back in his stomach, their wings flapping furiously, but he did his best to ignore them. He had a poem to write.
To his utter surprise, Harry had managed to write something not awful in less than thirty minutes. The only problem was he then had several hours of torturous waiting before he would be seeing Hermione once again. He'd done his best to keep his promise and focus on preparing for the Second Task, but his eyes kept being drawn back to the poem he'd managed to come up with. He knew the tournament and the Second Task were important, but this, this was Important with a capital I. If he bungled this, he didn't know what he would do.
The seconds ticked by at a glacial pace as he waited for Hermione's return. He was proud of himself for actually managing to concentrate enough to learn how to cast a reasonably proficient propulsion spell amidst the distractions the butterflies were causing. If he actually managed a way to breathe underwater, he now had a quick and efficient way to quickly get where he needed to go.
But that minor issue of figuring out a way to breathe underwater was a problem for Future Harry. For now, he needed to focus on stifling the desire to summon his broom and fly away from the castle in fear of being rejected after reciting his horrible poem. This was going to go horribly, and he was nearly positive that Hermione didn't feel the same way, and why should she, when she had someone as amazing as that git Krum interested, and the second and fourth lines didn't even properly rhyme, not to mention the fact that-
Hermione and Ron had planned to join him after supper, but supper had barely begun in the Great Hall and Hermione was here. While this was a good thing, in theory, considering he didn't have to come up with a way to get some privacy from Ron, it meant that he had no excuse to put off confessing his recent revelation.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, feeling like a horrible person for hoping something was actually wrong so he could delay sharing his awful, second and fourth lines not quite rhyming, poem.
"There was a dwarf, Reginald I think his name was, that said you needed to see me as soon as possible." The hopefulness in her tone and expression settled his nerves slightly.
"I have something I need to tell you," he managed as he picked up the parchment with his message. Despite knowing the words by heart, his eyes remained glued on the parchment. There was absolutely no way he could manage getting out the words in a coherent way if he chanced a glance at Hermione's amazing, chocolate bar eyes. He took a deep breath and forced himself to speak.
"I was the one who sent those other two Valentines but I wasn't happy with them, so I wrote another one."
The silence was deafening. He assumed that Hermione was waiting for him to continue but he was too afraid to actually look at her to glean her expression. He summoned every bit of his Gryffindor courage and plunged forward.
"You were the prettiest at the Yule Ball
The kindest and wisest, and loveliest of all
I know I'm a bit slow, but I want you to know
You've captured my heart, mind and soul"
To his utter horror, silence reigned once again after his declaration. He could not believe how stupid he had been, thinking that she may have been interested, and now he'd recited that stupid poem. He should have left well enough alone and left it at Reggie's last effort. Viktor, as much as he hated to admit it, was a much better choice anyway.
"Do you mean that?" she finally asked.
Harry wasn't quite sure how he managed it, but he summoned the courage to stop staring at his awful poem and look Hermione in the eyes. "Yes," he replied honestly.
"But it's okay if you don't feel the same way," he lied. Viktor was an awful person with a dumb name and he was positive his poetry was horrifically bad.
But to his utter surprise, Hermione didn't look unhappy…or uncomfortable…and she definitely didn't look like she wanted to flee the room.
"I came up with a Valentine's poem as well, but I wasn't quite brave enough to send it. Would you like to hear it?"
There was a small part of his brain, the insecure, years spent living in a cupboard and being called a freak part, that was screaming at him to say no. That it did no good to get your hopes up that there were people who would say nice things about you. But the rest of his brain was calmly informing him that this was Hermione, and the butterflies had loosened their grip slightly on his heart, and their incessantly fluttering in his stomach had calmed. The fluttering was still there but it felt different…welcome. He nodded for her to continue.
He watched as she pulled a piece of parchment from her bag and carefully unfolded it. But unlike Harry, once the parchment was unfolded, she didn't give it a second glance, opting instead to stare straight into his eyes. She was so much braver than him.
"You're the best person I know
Your smile makes my heart soar
The one I long to kiss, the thing I'd sorely miss
We've shared friendship and bravery, but I yearn for more"
As Hermione dropped the parchment and began walking toward him, he realized, unsurprisingly, that she was much better at writing poetry. She'd even managed a proper rhyming scheme for the second and fourth lines.
Before he could manage a response, she'd closed the gap between them. As their lips touched, he decided two things: he had been much too hasty in criticizing the word more, and Reggie was due a massive gratuity.